Poisonroot - Chapter 21
Wow, this was hard to squeeze out. Like a cat trying to pee out of a sewn-up bum, to borrow from Sir Terry Pratchett. We were busy all afternoon with guests, then it was 'well let's eat some pizza and watch a film' and that turned into 'lets have three Coronas and watch a second film'. We watched The Big Lebowski, which is weird but good fun, and Stardust, which is also weird but good fun, and both weird and good fun in different ways.
I finally got my wordcount updated on the NaNo site at four minutes to midnight. Close run thing. But seriously, it took about five hours to get 1670 words out.
Hopefully there will be other, easier, days.
Trip set the quill down. He blinked and stood up, rubbing his eyes against the lanternlight. The page on the table, the most recent in a stack that was growing daily, was covered in his neat handwriting, but as he picked it up to check the spelling his eyes started to water.
Ahnia came to stand next to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Are you well, young man?"
"Just… tired." Trip shook his head and put the paper back down. "I'll be fine."
"You need to rest. Come; there is food prepared."
Trip allowed himself to be led back to the eating area. He was becoming used to the strangely spiced stews that the Gargorians prepared for him, meat-free as he had asked. In the two weeks since his awkward arrival here in Gargoria his life had settled into a comfortable routine of writing, sleeping, exercising and short rest periods in which he explored the caves.
Initially he had been under the impression that this was a small isolated natural cave; in reality, the tunnels seemed to go on for ever, linking up with other surface entrances and, eventually, the main caverns where the Gargorians had retreated to after the war. Ahnia had been more than helpful, answering all of the young boy's questions, but when Trip lay curled up under his brightly-coloured blankets at night, it was impossible not to think of all the monks who had died at Rootholme.
An uneasy alliance had therefore been struck, at least in Trip's head.
Ahnia thrust an earthenware bowl into his hands and bade him sit on one of the cushions. He took one for himself and sat down next to Trip.
They ate in silence for a few minutes. Then Ahnia cleared his throat and looked directly at Trip over the top of his bowl.
"We have news from Fennica for you, but it can wait until after the meal."
Trip stopped, spoon already in his mouth, then took the spoon out and chewed slowly. It was some sort of vegetable, crunchy, each bite releasing flavoured juice into his mouth. He swallowed and put the bowl down.
"Then I'm finished. What's the news?"
Ahnia sighed and stared pointedly at the bowl, continuing to eat. Trip scowled and grabbed at his bowl, spooning food into his mouth as quickly as possible.
When they had finished, and the bowls lay stacked in front of the brazier, Ahnia folded his hands on his crossed legs. He had loosened the cloth around his neck, and Trip could see the chain of a pendant that he sometimes took out and looked at. As if aware of the boy's gaze, Ahnia moved his collar to hide it.
"Our agents report that the High Father has made his move. The Duke is confined to his bedchamber by illness. Lord Rennin is missing, and Victor has been arrested."
"Victor, arrested? Again?"
Ahnia nodded gravely. "I think that 'arrest' is simply a convenient word they used. The High Father's daughter, she who was chasing you when we left the palace, appears to have captured both Victor and Miss Lauren Mantleson; they are both in the dungeons." He sighed.
"They must be there because they know me," Trip murmured. He hung his head. "It's my fault."
"No," Ahnia said, placing a hand on Trip's shoulder. "You must not allow yourself to take responsibility for the actions of another. Let them live or die by the choices they make."
Trip stood up. "I need to go back there."
"Impossible." Ahnia stood up and began to walk back over to the writing desk. "Your place is here right now; this needs to be finished." His hand came down to rest on the pile of paper, over two hundred pages. "So far it's been unforthcoming but we are sure that in the latter pages there will be-"
"You don't understand. I can't carry on… Victor and Lauren might be…" Trip said, suddenly feeling sick. The curried vegetables sat in his stomach like lead weights. "I don't know what the High Father, or whoever it is that looks like him, is going to do with them. And that thing over there won't tell us anything either."
"I can't say that I am happy with the arrangement, but we cannot allow you to go back." Ahnia's face hardened and, in a tone that brooked no further argument, he pulled the chair out. "You will need to stay here."
Trip stared at him for a moment, suddenly aware that Ahnia was armed. The sword was curved and its jewelled hilt protruded from the sash he wore. Up until now it had been decoration; now his hand was worryingly near a weapon.
His face burning, Trip sat down in the chair again and obediently picked up the quill. He could feel Ahnia's eyes on him as he slowly slipped back into memory.
The entire cave was dark as Trip crept slowly towards the nodal chamber. The guards around Quinary were stood as silent as ever, sentinels who seemed to never sleep, but they stared inwards towards their prisoner. Matron Yohloh was slumped in an easy chair swaddled in blankets; her face was cast in blue shadow. The only sounds were the howling wind outside the cave and a humming from the various machines that ran life in the small Gargorian community.
He stepped quietly over to the nodal equipment. He had been able to see it being used several times, enough that he could set it going. Nervously he took another slow, long look around. Everything was as it had been. Quietly he repeated the pattern he had seen Ahnia using on the dials and buttons, then pressed the large red switch.
Immediately the sound of gathering power crackled through the machinery; the air in the centre of the small niche fractured. Raised voices came from the sleeping men and women; Ahnia's rose above them all, calling for quiet and for light. Trip took a final look around and gathered himself to jump.
Several things happened at once.
The lanterns sprang to light, all at once with a luminance far beyond that possible from oil lamps. Their light illuminated a dozen men grasping at weapons, two woman holding small daggers and stood in fighting crouches; in the middle of the shielded circle, Trip could just see the eyes of Quinary, staring straight at him. He was smiling. Trip leaped towards the fracture.
"Stop him!" shouted Ahnia. From out of the shadows something leapt and landed heavily on Trip's back, sharp claws digging in and taking him off-balance. Already in flight, he passed through the fracture.
An infinite moment later he emerged into a darkened room. He felt carpet against his cheek. He raised his head and just had time to look around before he felt vomit rising in his throat. He closed his eyes.
When it was over, his forehead was bathed with sweat. The humming crackle of the fracture machine had stopped after disgorging him onto the floor. Terrible cramps wracked his stomach as he climbed to his feet and leaned against the post of a bed.
"Who… who's there?" a querulous voice came from the bed.
"Is that…" Trip began, then almost lost control of his bladder when something furry rubbed at his sandaled foot. He cried out before he could help himself.
A light flared in the darkness as Lady Emmeline, revealed in the glow, lit her lantern.
"Trip?" she said, swinging her legs out of the bed.
Still trying not to swallow his own tongue, Trip looked down. A black cat was rubbing against him. It looked up at him and meowed plaintively. It held his gaze as he sorted through his memories.
"Sabir? What are you doing here?" he said. The cat blinked slowly.
"Trip, it's me. The Duke's daughter, remember?" Emmeline came over to him holding the lantern. Trip stopped staring at the cat and turned to stare at the young lady dressed in only a lacy nightdress. He blushed and looked around the room, taking in the four-poster bed, the dresser with its gold and silver.
"Lady Emmeline? Then that means I'm in the palace." He gripped her hand and grinned fiercely. "It worked!"
Then he suddenly remembered why he had come. "The prison. Victor- Lauren- what's happening here?"
Emmeline sat down. "It's terrible. You disappeared two weeks ago; they said you were a Gargorian agent. I didn't believe them, naturally; you're not at all like them." She sighed. "Father was injured in their attack; he's bedridden now. Lord Rennin's vanished. I just… I don't know what to do." Her voice cracked a little and she bit back a sob. "I'm just so scared."
"Don't worry, Lady Emmeline, I've come back to help," Trip said. He went and sat down next to her and put his arm around her shoulder. She burst into fully-fledged tears and hugged him tight.
The cat chose this moment to suddenly rear up and latch its claws deep into Trip's leg. "Ow!" he said, trying frantically to detach it. It meowed at him and trotted to the door, then scratched at it.
"It's all going so horrible wrong," Emmeline sobbed. "I went to see Victor but he was drunk, and simply horrible!" Trip gently disentangled himself and slid off the bed. Emmeline sobbed harder. "I went to see Lauren, but she disappeared the next day! Oh, it's simply… are you listening to me?"
Trip knelt next to Sabir, who was scratching at the door.
"What are you trying to tell me?" he whispered. "Out here?"
Sabir nodded. There was no mistaking it.
"…Right then," Trip said, and opened the door. Quick as a flash, Sabir was out of the room and bounding away down the corridor.
"Wait, what about me?" Emmeline called. She picked up the lantern.
"I'm going to rescue Victor and Lauren! Stay here," Trip said, and followed Sabir out into the darkened corridor before Emmeline could stop him.