THE SECRET PLACE
“Rohan, how is your arm?” Willow asked.
“I’ve had worse,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
True, Willow thought. Was there a bone in her accident-prone best friend’s body that had not been broken at least once? But even so, she knew him well enough to know he was in more pain than he was letting on. His eyes were tight at the corners, and the smile he attempted was more of a grimace. Was the brave face for her benefit or Devon’s -- not wanting to appear weak in his presence?
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“I’ll survive. Anyway, we have more pressing matters at the moment. What are we supposed to do now?” Rohan asked as he searched futilely for a break in the fog.
“The Secret Place has to be near,” Devon said confidently.
“I can’t see anything beyond us, and only the pit behind us,” Willow said.
“I say we push on. Who knows when this brume will lift? And I for one don’t want to be near the Pit of Despair come nightfall.”
“Willow, can you clear some of this mist away?” Rohan said.
Willow closed her eyes, trying to connect with molecules of air as she breathed them in, imagining a strong wind that blew the gloom away. All she managed to do was stir the air, causing the thick clouds to circle and swirl around them.
“No luck,” Willow said, defeated.
“What about your torch -- the Everflames?” Rohan asked.
Willow held the tiny torch out from her chest and a brilliant glow filled the air, but the only thing to see was more vapor.
“I think Devon’s right. We have to push through. There is no other choice,” Rohan conceded.
Willow agreed. “Alright. But let’s make sure to stay together. We don’t need anyone getting lost, especially with a Griffin on the prowl. But how do we know we are going in the right direction?”
“We keep the Pit of Despair directly behind us. That will keep us heading south,” Devon said.
“But do you think we’ll be able to keep it in sight?” Willow asked.
“I have an insurance policy.” Devon gave a sly smile, pulling a compass from his pocket.
“You think of everything,” Willow said, relieved.
“It’s just a compass, Willow,” Rohan said shortly.
“Yes, but right now it’s exactly what we need.”
Willow stayed between Rohan and Devon, pulling Bellefire’s lead. Devon had Apollo’s, and Rohan walked with his wand at the ready in his good arm.
All their anxieties and precautions proved unwarranted. After the fist few feet of dense mist, the fog began to disperse, and with each step the path ahead materialized with more clarity. A narrow gate made from pure platinum stood before them. The word Devotio was written in topaz gems across its arch. As they walked towards it, the gate swung open of its own accord.
They entered into a grove of ancient olive trees laden with fruit. Their trunks were like knotted corkscrews, and long silvery green leaves grew from their branches. At the very center, they discovered a sheltered hollow --a place of peaceful serenity.
Despite the late hour, the orchard glistened with plump drops of dew. A caressing breeze swayed the cushiony ankle deep grass below the trees. Willow felt safe from every threat -- the Pit of Despair already a fading memory. The clearing spoke of divine protection -- a stronghold as well as a haven.
Willow slowly rotated in a small circle as she drank in the serenity. She felt deep satisfaction in both heart and mind, somehow aware this was the birthplace of miracles. It kindled a sense of unconditional love, and she knew that love was what propelled her forward to risk her life.
Rohan was at ease, her feelings of solace mirrored in his bright blue eyes. But Devon was uncomfortable, acting like an unwelcome trespasser. He fidgeted endlessly, ringing his hands as sweat beaded on his brow. Willow was sure he was still recovering from his fright. After all, it was he that the Griffin was after.
Directly ahead of them lay an elegant white marble throne that somehow managed to look understated in this protected hollow. Moist green moss crept up its smooth sides. In the seat, a large silver object was propped up, the front portion of plate armor -- the piece that provided protection for the vital organs. Across the chest, the word Righteousness was spelled out in gleaming light green peridots, and its hammered iron matched the waist belt's. The outline of muscles had been etched into it, so the wearer would be seen as powerful and robust. Willow picked up the armor and found that it was hardy enough for protection, but light enough to enable fast maneuvering.
“The Breastplate of Righteousness,” Devon said when she met his eye.
“It’s beautiful,” Willow whispered. “Fulfilling our mission is finally feeling possible.”
“Only four more to go!” Rohan said. “Can we camp here tonight?”
“No!” Devon said urgently. His voice was too loud in the secluded hollow.
Willow and Rohan stared at him, taken aback.
“Sorry. I just meant that this place is too pure to taint it by camping,” he said in a calmer voice.
Willow didn't try to hide her disappointment. “I suppose your right.”
After having some trouble securing the breastplate to Apollo's flank, they reluctantly prepared to leave.
“Let's try to go another mile or so before we make camp,” Devon said. “We need to travel sixty-five miles east from here to the marshlands of Lutulentum. The Deep Mire in the marsh stands in the way of the Fountain of Life. To get there, we're going to have to navigate through another forest, I'm afraid, but it will bring us straight to where we need to go.”
They covered the mile quickly and found a small flat space with a brook nearby to camp for the night. Devon took the fishing tackle and followed the brook upstream.
Willow attempted to clean Bellefire's wound made by the Phoenix’s talons. The horse whinnied in pain as the icy water touched the deep swollen cuts. Rohan sat on an adjacent rock, cradling his arm.
“This is not exactly how I saw this year panning out,” he said, stirring the leaves with the toe of his boot.
“No kidding,” Willow said quietly.
“How are you holding up?”
“Really? Willow, it’s me you’re talking to...”
“I know. It’s just that I’m afraid that if I talk about what we're going through... and if I say how I really am feeling about my parents out loud, their deaths will feel more real. As long as I keep my emotions buried, I can pretend all of this is just some horrible dream. And sooner or later I’ll wake up and see my parents returning from their latest mission. None of this Torchbearer business. I wouldn't have to be the final heir, but just plain, simple, boring Willow.”
“Willow, you have never been just plain, and you're certainly not boring. If only you could see yourself the way I see you...” He paused. Willow got the sense that he was debating about continuing. He finally went on. “I understand why you don’t want to talk about it, but it can’t be good for you to bottle up your pain. Your feelings are going to have to surface eventually, and the longer you wait to face them the worse it's going to be.”
“I know...but what am I going to do?” Willow said, her voice strained with pain.
Her desperate eyes pleaded with him, silently beseeching him to provide her with some magic cure to free her.
“I wish I knew what to say. I wish I had the answers you need. But you always have a home with me. You know that, right?”
“You’re sweet. But I can’t really expect your parents to take me in; they have their hands full enough with you and Kelby. Even if it was just you, they’d be plenty busy -- Professor Edgar sends a letter home almost everyday.” Willow forced herself to laugh to lighten the dark mood.
Rohan picked up on her silent cue and laughed along with her.
“Ha-ha, those letters are harmless. He only writes them to humor the teachers. We bring them out on the holidays and have a good laugh about it. Oh, the memories!” His eyes moistened as he reflected. “Besides we only have one more year at Credo left after this, and then we can take off on our own.”
“And do what exactly?”
“Whatever we want. That’s the beauty of it. Free spirits blowing whichever way the wind takes us – not a care in the world. Just me and you.”
“Sounds splendid,” Willow said with sincerity, trying to remember her life before the weight of the world was shoved so cruelly on her shoulders.
With the last ray of light, Devon returned to camp with a string of fish. The fresh fish tasted wonderful, if not up to par with the Gnomes’ feasts. Rohan ate so fast he burned the roof of his mouth, but continued to shovel mouthfuls of fish. They all ate their fill and then laid back in the crumbly leaves.
“Thank you for dinner,” Willow said to Devon.
“My pleasure,” he said with a wink.
The simple gesture took her breath away again. This stunningly handsome young man with such uncanny confidence confounded her. He was a stranger, so why was her heart constantly pulling in his direction? Did good looks and courtly manners send all young women into a spin?
Rohan disrupted her contemplation. “What do we have to look forward to at the Deep Mire?”
Instantly her mind shifted back to the perils that laid ahead of them.
answered, “The impression I gather from Mr. and Mrs. Payton’s notes is that it
is a massive, sticky bog nearly impossible to traverse.”
“Sounds like a walk in the park after the Valley of Death and the Pit of Despair. Looks like your predecessors are finally cutting us some slack, Willow. Bring on the muck!”
“I have a hunch this trial is not going to be as simple as all that,” Devon said.
“What’s a little mud after all we’ve been through?”
“That’s just it. Judging from the first two tasks, I would guess that things aren’t going to get any easier.”
Rohan’s face fell.
“I’m probably wrong,” Devon attempted to reassure him. “I tend to take a pessimistic view of life. Expect the worse, decreasing the risk for disappointment, and accept the happy surprises as they come.”
Willow marveled at Devon’s words; he seemed very far from pessimistic. In fact, out of the three of them, Willow would say that he was the most optimistic, hands down.
“I doubt it. You never seem to be wrong.” Rohan said. Then mumbling to himself, Willow heard him say, “Perfect Devon can do no wrong.”
Apparently Devon didn't hear him, or at least pretended not to. “Tomorrow will bring what it will. There is no use fretting over things we cannot change.”
“How profound,” Rohan murmured.
“Thank you,” Devon said with candor.
Willow caught Rohan roll his eyes. If only they could get along. Rohan was the most amazing person she'd ever known, but Devon brought out the worst in her best friend.
Just as Willow began to dose, Devon stood up and announced, “I’ll take first watch. Rohan, you and I can alternate every couple of hours. The lady need take no part.”
Willow blushed at the chivalry, but said, “I’m just as much a part of this quest as you two are. In fact, I’m the reason we are here. I want to do my part.” Then, not wanting Devon’s consideration to go unacknowledged, she added, “But thank you for your kindness.”
Devon imitated removing a hat and swept into a low bow, “As you wish, fair lady.”
Willow giggled. Rohan gagged. Willow shot Rohan a nasty glare, and he grabbed his throat and coughed. “Sorry, fish bone,” he said before flashing a mischievous smile.
Settling back into the crunchy leaves, Willow tried to focus her thoughts on the silvery moonlight filtering down between the branches. Unfortunately, her earlier conversation with Rohan woke the roaring dragon. She cringed at the suffocating pain, drawing her knees securely to her chest, embracing them to prevent her heart from being torn from her chest.
With his clairvoyance for all things Willow, Rohan sensed something was wrong – he was her eternal source of comfort. He quietly reached his long arms around her and pulled her into his chest. She allowed her tears to flow freely, falling with minute splashes onto his pale freckled arm.
But Devon’s dark silhouette, reclining comfortably against a nearby tree, was the last thing her tired eyes fell upon -- a mysterious safeguard. There was so much Willow did not know about him, and so much she wished she did. She wanted him to talk to her about his parents; if anyone could understand what she was going through it would be him.
Wrapped in the arms of her constant comforter, with the image of her cryptic protector at the forefront of her mind, sleep finally came bringing neither peace nor solace.