Wendell and the Dragon's Heart

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Chapter 17

The next morning there was a rap on the door. After a moment he remembered where he was, and everything that was going on. He was going to go searching for the labyrinth! Wendell sat up and looked all around the room. Everything still looked exactly the same as the day before, as if nothing important was about to happen.

There was a servant at the door with some clothes. Wendell took them and went back into the room, and laid them on the bed. There were expensive riding boots, and a fine cloak and a skillfully woven shirt and lots of other useful things.

It would be time to leave very soon.

After getting into the new traveling clothes, he was led quickly from the room. It was so early in the morning.

Several tired soldiers came out and mounted up onto the horses, as well as Hangs, who looked around fiercely now, with no laughing humor left. Lastly, the storyteller came out as well and got on a plain brown horse.

Wendell shook the sleep from his head, and awkwardly got onto his own horse the way Hangs had taught him, after a few tries. His horse didn’t seem to care about anything and put up with his efforts.

Without a word Hangs pulled on the reins, and his warhorse stepped into a ponderous walk. The other soldiers and Garim followed, and Wendell last of all.

Hangs spoke roughly, his face serious.

“Well, this is all your plan, so tell us which way to go.”

Wendell didn’t really have much of a plan before. Before he had dreamed so much of going before the king and finding help. But now he looked into the endless trees and felt a bit of sad anger that he still seemed as lost as when he was all alone.

“We’ll go to the north, through the woods that way,” he said, pointing with one hand and holding onto the reins tightly. He remembered that there was a woods path there, and would lead them a long ways into the forest before it ended.

The long line of horses went South across the castle moat. They kept walking at a steady pace, while the misty edge of the forest grew closer and closer.

Wendell looked closely at Garim for the first time. The face was older but he still recognized it.

“You remember me, don’t you?”

The storyteller looked over quickly and a wry smile went up on his face. Then he spoke, as if he had known Wendell all his life.

“Somehow I knew it was you as soon as they told me about you. Yes, of course I remember you.”

Then he looked a bit puzzled for a moment.

“What is your name again, lad? I never bothered to ask.”

“Wendell, sir.”

The storyteller nodded.

“Wendell... wanderer... searcher... seeker... a fitting name.”

“So what’s the answer to the riddle?” Wendell asked eagerly.

“The answer? What are you wanting me to tell you, a word? A name?”

“I don’t know.” Wendell hadn’t really thought about it.

“I don’t know completely what the answer is,” the storyteller confided.

Wendell looked at him uncertainly. The storyteller continued.

“Knowing who someone is, is more important sometimes than knowing a name for them. Just like I forgot your name, but still knew who you are. The riddle is its own answer. It’s what you do with the answer that matters.”

Even though he still felt cheated, the storyteller’s commonsense answer put Wendell’s mind at rest somewhat. It made some sense, he did know all about whatever it was, just from hearing the riddle. He tried and tried to picture something... adding one part of the riddle after another. But the picture always fell apart long before the end. “To those who listen, I listen.” Listen to what?? The riddle?

No, everyone could listen to the riddle, but not everyone would believe that such a strange, fantastic thing could exist! What you do with the answer... what are you supposed to do with it?! It didn’t make any sense, but the more he thought, the more familiar it all was somehow like hints of a forgotten dream.

“Are there any more riddles about the... answer?” Wendell ventured.

Garim smiled.

“Your question shows that you know more already than you think you do. Yes, I believe all good riddles and stories are about it.”

His answer made no sense, but Wendell realized that he expected such an answer, and he knew it was the right answer. All stories! He had heard many stories, but they were all about different people, different things. But they were all good, faithful stories, and it brought him much comfort to think about them now.

Soon the woods lay directly ahead. They made their way among the shadows of the trees. Soon they reached the forest path and were going much faster than before.

“Which way should we go now?” Wendell whispered hopefully to Garim.

“You don’t know??” he whispered back, amazed.

“The Labyrinth is in the North, of course! It is said - the entrance is along the Aelahna pass, although that is purely a rumor. Of course the labyrinth itself is purely a rumor,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Of course, the only thing we’re sure is not just a rumor is Karen herself, and most girls don’t just disappear into thin air.”

“How can I even find the entrance? What does it look like?” Wendell whispered too sharply, feeling worse.

“How did you do anything so far?” Garim said straightforwardly.

“I don’t know! It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Well if you don’t know how you did it, at least you know why. That’s a lot more than many people figure out.”

“That’s not very helpful!!” Wendell snapped. “I’m being serious here!”

Garim let out a long breath and looked up ahead.

“So am I,” he said grimly.

Wendell looked over at him with confusion, and Garim continued looking up ahead. Now he was left with his own thoughts, which were not much better than talking with the crazy old coot.

The riddle, the stories, the songs, the old man’s answers, they taunted him, burning in his heart without letting go of their secrets. For a moment sometimes he would listen to them, to wish that they were all sensible, and they raised his hopes in a terrible way, and made him feel that anything could be possible.

But he still didn’t know what he was supposed to do at the end of it all, and he wished for once that someone would say something practical and just plain to understand.

It was as if all reasonableness had vanished from the world. But this was no joking story, it was a deadly game, a tricksome nightmare that he couldn’t ignore or escape from. How could all these things help him, he thought? Maybe he should just let go of that nonsense. He let out a deep breath. The storyteller continued watching the forest.

Yes, he needed to craft a reasonable plan. Such as, well... first of all... there was no reasonable plan!! No one had the slightest idea where Karen was, and the possibilities were endless.

He ground his teeth together and wanted to howl with frustration, but he just hunched in his saddle. What kind of monster would create a situation like this?! But he had no one to blame!

So the road continued steadily onward, and Wendell was left with his own thoughts, that marched around like a nonsensical parade of deadly grimness.

Eventually, they came to a break in the woods. They continued along, coming now to a pass going up a long slope. Then the steep pass split in two.

One part was going upwards, and another sloped down gently to a quiet woodsy place. Looking up at the other branch, he could see a dark ugly sky in the distance, with large black things flying in circles beneath the clouds.

“No, we won’t be going there. The lonely wilds is not a place for young lads, even if they are brave as a marsh pig,” Hangs said in an almost fatherly sort of way. He pointed at the lower path and smiled smugly.

“That’s the Aelahna pass, down there.”

They went down the slope carefully. It was a very beautiful path somehow, even though if Wendell looked at any one rock or tree or patch of dirt, they all looked the same as any other he had ever seen, but there was something beautiful about the place anyhow.

Soon the pass flattened out, and went among the trees, curving this way and that way, sometimes going past patches of grass or flowers. One little patch he saw through the trees was a vibrant shade of red, and it reminded him suddenly of something. The flowers seemed to burn inside with a deep redness, and it made him catch his breath at the sight.

He never knew there were flowers like that anywhere! But soon they were gone, and there must be more further along the path, probably closer. Perhaps he could pick some to give to her, when they finally...

But as they went along, all the other flowers were rather ordinary, and he wanted to go back and find the others. But he gritted himself up against the thought. There was no time to pick flowers now, we need to... the thought ached in his heart, panging against his will, and now he wished to go back, just to see the flowers once more and be reminded of her in some way. But they had to find the entrance! It could take all day to find, or many days...

“Okay. Where do we go now, boy?” Hangs asked with no politeness.

“Back that way.”

Hangs looked surprised at his quick answer.

“Why?” he asked sharply.

“Because of the... I saw something.” Wendell felt extremely stupid, and wasn’t sure if he could dodge much longer.

“What?” Hangs stared at him with honest puzzlement.

“Never mind,” he said reluctantly. Garim glanced over at him, but continued looking on ahead as they plodded forward.

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