Wendell and the Dragon's Heart

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Chapter 25

In the morning there was nothing to do but get up and search about. Half the time he was about to turn to Garim and make some sort of suggestion, and then he realized he was alone, of course. The wolf returned, and Wendell paced into the forest again to find some berries.

Soon he could no longer tell which way he had come. Eventually, Wendell was surprised to find himself walking through the dried husks of a once mighty forest.

Through the trees in the far distance, he thought he saw strange-looking rocks now and then, but it was hard to tell whether he was imagining them from so far away.

As the strange rocks grew closer they grew weirder looking, but they were still were somehow familiar! There were shapes almost like creatures, but it was impossible to tell where the head or body was.

There were many large, tilting lumps that looked almost smooth. And there were square, rigid stones, tall and severe. Even though he didn’t know what they were, they seemed to have a horrible meaning to their forms, as if someone put them there to keep people away. Or even anything that was alive.

As he stepped out among the rocks at last, he realized that he was walking through the deserted remains of a graveyard, probably abandoned for hundreds of years. Up ahead the land sloped sharply upwards, and a ledge of crumbled stone blocked his way. At the very top, was a little wooden door.

Wendell stepped cautiously through the stones, and the wolf didn’t notice anything, but kept following him. He reached the base of the ledge, and found that rocks had been weathered into a path, twisting back and forth up the slope. Eagerly Wendell and the wolf meandered up, listening intently to the silence, but there was nothing. Finally, doubled over with tiredness, he limped up the last few steps, and hugged himself against the freezing wind that poured down from above the rocky ledge.

The door was made of a sturdy-looking, hearty wood. It was larger than it had looked, and perfectly round, set into the stone exactly like some kind of jewel. There were weathered decorations on it, patterns of gilded gold that might have been letters or pictures once. They almost swirled around the door, chasing each other in eternal dances of yearning and impossible perfection. For some reason Wendell knew what they meant, although he couldn’t even begin to tell himself what, and they terrified him with delight and sadness to see them, as if they were about to crumble and fly away into the air, gone forever.

It was here! The labyrinth, after all! But of course it is, he told himself, or why would I not have gone on for so long? But he could give no answer to himself. He reached now for the latch, but it wouldn’t open, even as he tried rattling it in different ways, forcefully and then gently. Then he noticed a tiny keyhole under it, and slumped down against the door...

“There must be a key of course,” Wendell thought. “Whoever made this door wanted people to get through it, of course... or they wouldn’t have made a door… that would be pointless!”

There was nothing left but to wearily make his way back down the slope, step after step, and look through the whole graveyard one stone at a time. The wolf followed Wendell around while he looked. It sniffed the ground sometimes but never seemed interested in anything.

He stopped to rest a bit, leaning against the icy surface of the wall, and tried to think of who made the door, and where they might have put the key, and why they would leave it locked it for so many years. It was probably in a safe, safe place, clutched by the bony hands of some long-dead monarch, far beneath the ground. Probably one of the larger monuments would be the first place to look.

There were so many graves, and he didn’t even have a spade to dig with. Any other time it would have been creepy just to be among so many tombs, but now he didn’t really care.

Wendell shut his eyes and tried to block out the fears that were coming. If only there was someone to help me, he thought. The wolf could dig, but he didn’t know how to ask it to, of course. If only there was someone who knew... please please...

He started to get up now and smacked his head on a twiggy branch. He reached up now, and felt something cold brush his hand, and pulled it back sharply. Then he reached up again, and felt it again, hanging from the branch, a thin object with bumps and...

He laughed nervously and started up, hitting his head on the branch again. Now he reached up and felt the key again. It was hanging there all the time, ready to be found by anyone who needed it. But why would it be in such an obvious place? There must be a way to keep any random person from finding it. But who really cared! He had found it!

Wendell’s feet felt cold and unsteady, but he eagerly stepped through the graves again, ignoring how exhausted he already felt. The door was getting closer, and it would soon be wide open, and he would see the labyrinth at last! It was true!

The wolf pricked up its head now, looking off into the distance, but there was no time left to stop. He heard a strange noise.

At first he thought it was the wind. But it was different. It wasn’t grinding, or slithering, or the sound of distant thunder... in all directions, like the wind, but slow, and horrible, and growing louder.

There were some sort of grotesque leaves trembling on the ground before him now. Or were they a stick? Then the sticks wriggled in the dirt, and some more white things pushed up through the crumbling earth. Was this a horrible weed?

The weeds were growing up quickly all around, one before of every stone, everywhere. Wendell tried to quicken his steps, stumbling along hurriedly, but almost tripped himself.

Now the wolf stopped and growled brutishly, pulling its ears back, ready to throw its immense weight into a pounce. Wendell stepped into a dazed half run, keeping his eyes on the path ahead. He heard the rattling of something metal now, and as he looked back there were swords emerging from the dead soil, pieces of armor and helms.

Behind him he heard the wolf snapping and growling. It was the dead, clawing themselves out of the ground, with nothing left but their bones and battle armor. Wendell tried to hurry as much as he could.

The long, turning slope that had been so gentle before was impossibly steep now, and Wendell needed to rest, had to rest after reaching the first corner. He collapsed into a heap, panting furiously.

There was a muffled sound rising, of feet marching in unison, and ancient armor jostling in a tinny, hollow echo of military unity. There was nothing left to hide behind, nothing but hundreds and hundreds of little pebbles on the ground.

The footsteps were marching up the slope, steadily, feet that would never grow tired. Wendell stared into empty eye sockets and the bottomless grins and slowly pulled himself to a standing position.

The dagger that once seemed so heavy and dangerous now felt like a child’s plaything in his hand, laughably weak.

He had felt such fury and despair once, when he first heard the king’s proclamation, and Wendell remembered how he imagined again and again and again that he would cut down everything in his way, while fighting with Derrick in the back alleys, and standing before the king, or practicing with Hangs, like he would do if he ever needed to!

Now it was time. He was going to find himself smashing through all their brittle bones any moment now, just like he always had! His hand clenched weakly on the dagger’s hilt at the thought, and a boiling tear of outrage and frustration stung his eye, the others still burning inside.

Everything felt so weak... he just needed to sit for a moment and think...

“I don’t care what your swords aren’t afraid of!” he yelled nonsensically, his voice suddenly echoing out into the mountains. Wendell raised the dagger, his hand almost shaking, and prepared himself for the pain of being cut to pieces. But it was true - he didn’t care anymore.

“I don’t care what your bones aren’t afraid of!” he howled irately. “I don’t care what you think you’re not afraid of!”

He shivered with furious misery, and gave a spiteful snort. Without thinking he stooped over, grabbed a pebble, and hurled it down at them, pointlessly.

It clinked off a shield and went tumbling down the slope. A dastardly grin slowly formed on Wendell’s face. He had held off whole fields of ravens once... all by himself. He had pigeon-holed crows thirty feet away as they flew. He had chased away a horde of ravenous blackbirds with a handful of gravel.

Now he picked up a larger stone and threw it down the slope. It slipped between a skeleton’s shield and armor, and the spine crunched and crackled in half. Wendell gave a hilarious laugh.

He skipped up on one foot, sending another stone whirling down, down, down to the front rank. It smashed open an empty grin, sending the skeleton toppling backwards onto its friends.

Wendell stepped into a kind of dance now, scooping up a rock and leaping to throw it, and all the while the laughing and taunting them. Now he clapped his hands together, threw another, and leaped forward on one foot, defying them to make it the few feet up to him.

He laughed at their rusty swords and their stupid ninny grins and their shaky armor, until he found the words becoming a song, and throwing at the end of every line:

“Sticks and stones will break your bones,

but swords will never hurt me!

“What good to keep those swords so sharp,

while aim does not desert me?”

“Whether skeleton or not, no better than a birdy!

better go to bed and rot, for my name is Curdy!”

And other nonsensical nonsense as he could come up with at the moment. Soon skeletons struggled in vain to ward off the deadly rain. If they covered their faces, he smashed their feet. If they covered their legs, he smashed their arms apart. If they tried to make a way through piles of their broken comrades, all the while Wendell sent missile after missile hurling, swiftly evading their shields and swords. Broken arms and legs twitched across the ground, trying to climb.

Slowly he made his way backwards up the switchback, all the while stopping to send a few more rocks to the chaos down below. Finally, almost crawling up to the door, he was surprised that he had hung the key around his neck without thinking.

Wendell quickly turned the key. The latch opened with a bright click, and he paused for half a moment, trying to see if the wolf was still there... but then he went quickly through and shut the door tightly.

Through the door, the sky was all of a sudden bright and blue. He was standing atop a grassy hill, blowing in a wistful breeze. Looking down, there were neatly arranged hedges and a path between them, something like in the castle gardens.

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