A kitten romped in the shadow of a table. It was a fluffy orange and cream kitten, as serious and silly as a kitten can be. It stared at the brown shoelaces of a rather fat man who was eating won-ton soup. It stared and prepared to pounce. Then a noise from the kitchen distracted it, made it hop beneath a nearby, unoccupied table.
Sara Chang watched the kitten from a dozen feet away. She watched it bat the corner of a red and gold tablecloth. It certainly was a cute and happy kitten. It also had no business at all in the dining room of her family's restaurant.
Sara looked across the dining room. Customers sipped tea or nibbled egg rolls at six of the room's twelve tables. Her mom was busy at the reception desk. Her dad, she knew, was buying shrimp and crabs at the wharf with her brother. Sam the cook was cooking. Sara judged that dealing with the kitten was her responsibility.
She stepped quickly to the kitten-concealing table, straightened the already perfectly straight napkins and checked to see if anyone was watching. Then she dropped one napkin next to the chair furthest from all the customers.
She knelt to pick up the napkin and, as she did so, she peeked around the edge of the chair. The kitten's pink nose was close, only inches away. Its very blue eyes went wide with surprise. Before Sara could move a finger, it skittered to the next table, the one by the wall.
Sara sighed with understandable frustration and a touch of hunger. It was time for her lunch, too, but she was a very determined girl and she wouldn't leave the kitten uncaught.
All of the customers concentrated on menus or the steaming food her mom was busy serving. She could just see an orange and cream tail twitching in the shadow. She crawled swiftly to the table under which the kitten now sheltered.
It was the new table, a small one for just two customers. Her dad had bought it last Sunday at a secondhand store across town. It was finely made, but he'd paid a low price for it. Her mom hadn't wanted to cover the inlaid squares on its top with a tablecloth. The chessboard design showed that it was intended to be a comfortable place for two friends to play a game. She compromised by putting one of her best cloths, embroidered with gold thread, on this table. It fit nicely in the corner against the wall.
The kitten certainly thought it nice. It peeked out, ducked back, peeked out, ducked back and at last remained hidden. Sara again sighed with irritation. She'd have to crawl under the table. She looked over her shoulder. No one paid the slightest attention to her. She scrambled to the table and slid beneath the edge of its red tablecloth.
She paused and let her eyes become adjusted to the darkness. The kitten, eyes round and innocent, stared at her from the farthest corner. Sara eased toward it. She murmured, "Good kitty. Good kitty, kitty, kitty. That's a good kitty." She extended her hands, touched fluff and gripped quickly. The kitten's body tensed at first and then relaxed. It began to purr.
Sara smiled and rubbed her cheek against the kitten's fur. She held the kitten away and looked into its clear, blue eyes and murmured, "I guess you're not so bad, after all."
Footsteps approached the table. Sara clutched the kitten to her chest and looked between the chair legs. She recognized her mother's small, black pumps. The other two pairs of shoes, large Nikes and bigger Reeboks, she did not recognize. She squeezed back against the wall as far as she could.
Her mother said, "Please be seated. Here are your menus. I'll be back in a moment with ice water and tea." Sara watched her mother's shoes turn and leave the table.
After a moment's silence, a voice, Mr. Nike's, said, "What now, dude?"
Reebok answered, "Just wait. Let her bring the tea."
Nike complained, "Why wait? Let's just do it!"
Reebok, still calm, said, "Cool it. I want to see who's in here before we pull out guns and boost the place. There's no hurry. They've got the weekend receipts in that register. We know they don't go to the bank until after Monday lunch."
Sara saw her mom's shoes approach the table. She heard a light thump as her mom put down the tray of teacups and pot. Her mom spoke as she placed the cups and poured tea, "Would you like a bit more time before you order?"
Reebok answered her, "Yeah, a few minutes . Not long."
"I'll be right back." She turned. Sara saw her shoes disappear behind the next table.
Nike said, "Let's go."
"Keep your shirt on," Reebok answered. "You too wired to do this?"
"No," Nike answered. "I'm fine."
Reebok lowered his voice, "You better be. Don't pull out your gun until I do. Don't shoot unless I do. Got that?"
"Yeah, yeah, that's the plan."
"Make sure you remember it. We'll let those people at the counter pay their bill and leave. Then we'll do it."
Nike shifted his feet and almost touched Sara's arm. She shrank back against the wall. Fear and confusion froze her in place. These men were going to rob her parents and all the customers. They were going to use guns. She wanted to scream, but some inner voice told her that that would make things worse. She looked toward the front counter where the telephone was. It might as well be on the moon. There was no way she could sneak between the robbers' legs, run to it and dial 911.
The kitten wiggled. Sara squeezed it closer to her chest. It wiggled harder. She felt its claws dig into her shoulder. Suddenly, horribly, it let out a loud meeeow. Reebok and Nike shifted in their chairs. Sara had a vision of big guns pointing at her beneath the table, pointing at her nose. She pushed harder against the wall, tried to flatten against its surface. The wall suddenly gave way and her right hand sank into what felt like icy water. She gasped in surprise.
Nike snarled, "What was that?'
Reebok answered, "Something's under the table." He pushed his chair back and leaned down. Small, pale eyes squinted over a too long nose.
Sara recoiled. The wall opened like a mouth and swallowed her. A flash of silver light blinded and engulfed her. The kitten squealed, twisted and leapt away. She fell and cried out, but her cry was cut off as she landed with a thump on a hard, cold floor.
She sat up at last and opened here left eye. The floor beneath her knees was made of bluish stones, not yellow and black linoleum. She opened her right eye. No gun was pointed at her nose. She was no longer beneath the checkered table and the robbers were gone, but she was not alone.
A small, thin man, somewhat stooped, stood beside a window across the room from her. He was peering out of a window with his back partly turned toward her. He wore shabby, red carpet slippers, not Nikes or Reeboks.
She glanced about her. Books, maps and papers littered a table to her right. A brass horn with three bells lay in the far corner. A bass viol and its bow leaned up against the wall to her left. A chair with one cracked leg rested beneath the table. A faded red carpet speckled with breadcrumbs and stained in several places, covered part of the stone floor. Deep red curtains, very dusty, hung to either side of the window.
Sara decided that this place didn’t look too dangerous. She shifted her right knee, prepared to stand. The man across the room said, “Ah!”
The man, still peering out of the window, muttered, “Well, well, well. Come in! Come in!” He turned, looked somewhat vaguely at her and hesitated. “Forgive me! You are in. Well, have a seat.” He indicated a comfortable looking chair with a fat red cushion.
Sara looked at the chair and then more closely at the small man. He wore gray trousers, a darker gray coat and a royal blue shirt. On his head he wore a tall, brimless, pointed, black hat, though its point was crushed and tilted drastically to the right.
Sara nodded politely, stepped to the chair and seated herself on its edge.
The man smiled a kindly smile at her. "Please allow me to introduce myself. I'm Pangloss, the wizard. And you?"
Sara felt a scream coming on, but she knew that wouldn't help. Wizard? Both this man and this room were impossible. She swallowed and decided to find out as much as she could. "I'm Sara Chang. Ah, where am I?"
“Ah! Sara ! Delighted to meet you, Sara! Now," he pointed his right index finger at her, "I must tell you right off that you’ve changed worlds.”
Sara’s eyes grew wide.
“Yes,” the man continued, “ you fell right out of your own world and into this one. It’s very upsetting, I know, so just sit quietly while I get you some tea.” His eyebrows rose. “You do like tea?”
“Good, good!” He turned and walked across the room. He opened a cupboard near a tall, thin window.
Sara looked around the room again. It was a very unusual place. Shelves lined the walls to an improbable height. Scrolls, papers, books and bottles lined the shelves. Skulls of strange animals, eyeholes disturbingly black, served as bookends. Cobwebs decorated all of the corners and filled otherwise empty shadows. Several small machines perched on lower shelves, their brass gears and wheels gleaming like gold.
Pangloss walked to a narrow fireplace, plucked a tea ball and a faded red canister from the mantle and opened both. He poured tea from the canister into the tea ball. Spilled tea floated down to the hearth like brown snowflakes. He closed the tea ball, dropped it in a flowered teapot and placed it on a shelf next to the fireplace. He picked up a tattered hot-pad, bent over and lifted a teapot off its hook above the fire. Pouring hot water into the teapot, he muttered, more to himself than Sara, "Nothing like a cup of jasmine tea on a cool day. There."
He turned toward Sara. "We'll let that steep for a bit. Where was I?"
Sara answered, "You said that I'd changed worlds."
“Ah, yes - my fault, too. I arranged a number of portals between worlds,” he rubbed his chin, “though I can’t remember why.” He shrugged. “No matter. You dropped through one of them, so we may as well make the best of it.”
Sara jumped up. "I can't stay here! I must go back now! My family is in danger!"
Pangloss looked at her. "Danger, you say? What danger?"
"I . . . I followed a kitten beneath a table in our restaurant. Two men sat down. Then I heard them talking, planning to rob my parents. They had guns and I was afraid to move."
Sara snorted with frustration. "Yes, guns, weapons!"
Pangloss scratched his head. "Why would they have weapons in a restaurant?"
Sara shouted, "They were going to rob us, maybe kill us!"
"Ah!" Pangloss raised a conciliatory finger. "My dear child, now I understand your concern."
"Then send me back at once! I have to do something. I have to warn my parents!"
Pangloss looked directly at her, arched both of his eyebrows and said, "I can't send you back."
He shook his head. "I can't."
Sara stamped her right foot. "Why not?"
Pangloss fluttered his fingers in the air. "I'm sorry, dreadfully sorry, but this sort of magic has two parts. The portal you came through will only open for your return once you've completed your mission in this world."
"Yes, I made them that way. It insures your cooperation, you see."
"My mother might be killed! My father and brother, too, if they come back from the market too soon!"
Pangloss shook his hands and his fingers fluttered like leaves in a breeze. "No, no, you don't understand. The portal will return you to the exact same place and moment of your departure. You can still warn your parents of the robbers."
Sara looked suspiciously at the strange, little man. "I can?"
Pangloss nodded. "You will."
Sara considered this for several moments.
Pangloss poured tea into a rather faded, flower-patterned cup and handed it to Sara. He smiled. "After you've completed your mission here."
Sara took the cup. ”What mission?"
Pangloss shrugged. "I don't know."
Sara shouted again, "You don't know?"
"But you brought me here!"
"My memory's not the best, but never fear, we'll start trying to discover why I arranged your visit. Your mission will be revealed when we do. We'll begin as soon as we've finished our tea."
Sara raised her cup and took a gulp of tea. It was hot, sweet and jasmine-flavored. She swallowed, took a smaller sip and asked, "Where's the kitten?"
Pangloss looked away. "Ah, kitten?"
Sara nodded. "Yes, I followed an orange and cream kitten beneath the table. It must have come here too. Where is it?"
Pangloss mumbled, "Um, well, ah, it was part of the magic. Magical creature, you know."
"Yes, but is it here?"
The old man's fingers fluttered again, "Of course, it's here, somewhere."
Something stirred behind a trunk just to Sara's right. She looked toward the sound and her mouth fell open with surprise and sudden fear. A long, lean wolf rose from behind the trunk. Its fur was rough and gray, though patches were missing here and there. Its muzzle was thin and sharp and its right ear was a chewed and tattered remnant. It looked at Sara with cold, yellow eyes.
“Ah! There you are!” Pangloss exclaimed.
Sara watched the wolf warily and asked, "That's the magical creature?"
Pangloss nodded, "Yes. It's able to change its shape and color quite easily. Sometimes it cooperates with me. I asked it to become a kitten, you see. I wanted a young person for some reason and young people are often attracted to kittens. I hoped it might lead you here. It did."
"Does it bite?"
Pangloss nodded again, "Oh, frequently."
The wolf whimpered.
Sara turned toward it.
The wolf whimpered again and took a step toward her. Sara's heart lurched and a lump rose in her throat. The wolf lowered its head, took another step toward her and wagged only the tip of its tail.
Somewhat reassured, Sara asked, "What does it want?"
The wolf lowered its head, raised it, lowered it again and took two steps closer to Sara until it stood next to her knee.
Pangloss peered at the wolf. “Hmm. I believe it wants you to pat its head.”
“Are you sure?”
“No. It’s never wanted a pat before.”
“What else could it want?”
Pangloss rubbed his chin beneath his stringy beard thoughtfully. “It might wish to chomp your hand off and swallow it whole.”
Sara quickly put both of her hands behind her back. The wolf stepped close to her. It rubbed its ragged head against her leg and whimpered again. Then it nuzzled her wrist with its cold, wet nose. Sara slowly brought her right hand from behind her back and stroked the rough fur. The wolf's pink tongue flickered out and licked her wrist. She snatched her hand back.
"It tasted me!"
Pangloss nodded, "Likely so."
The wolf pushed against Sara's thigh with its head. She scratched it between its ears. It settled down by her side. She smiled.
Pangloss shrugged. "The creature is usually not so friendly."
"What's its name?"
Pangloss mumbled, "Ah, let me see. Well, I don't think it actually has a name."
Sara paused in her scratching. The wolf licked her wrist again. "I'll call you Kitten."
Pangloss raised his head. "You intend to call my wolf 'Kitten'?"
"Is it truly your wolf?"
Pangloss paused. "Well, I snatched it up from the wild when I detected its capacity for magical enhancement. I kept it here. I fed it. I used it as a portal lure. Yes, I suppose it's mine."
Sara snorted in disgust, "It needs a name. I'll call it Kitten."
Pangloss shrugged. "So be it. Ah, your tea is getting cold."
Sara sipped her tea again. Kitten licked her elbow.
Pangloss asked, "Are you hungry? Would you like a biscuit?"
Sara nodded and said, "Please."
Pangloss walked to a cupboard, rummaged briefly within its cluttered interior and produced a green tin. He opened it, reached in and plucked up several frosting-covered biscuits. He plopped them on a plate, none too clean, and returned to Sara. He extended the plate and offered her one."
She looked dubiously at the biscuits. She was hungry, however, so she took one and bit into it. She tasted sugar, cinnamon and butter all at the same time. "It's good!" she exclaimed in surprise.
Pangloss said, "Thank you. I make them myself. It's my grandmother's recipe, a very old family tradition."
Sara finished chewing, took another sip of tea and asked, "Have you thought about what we should do first?"
Pangloss looked at her. "Do?"
"Yes, about discovering what my mission here is."
"Yes, that. I want to return home as soon as I can. I must!"
Pangloss, nodded. "Yes, yes, I understand. Well, an obvious first step would be to question Mean Molly."
Sara tried to be patient. "Who's Mean Molly?"
"She's a neighbor of mine."
"Mean Molly would know what my mission is?"
Pangloss nodded. "Quite likely!"
"Then where is she?"
"Oh, she lives quite near here. We can be at her door within an hour."
Sara was relieved. "Let's finish our tea and go speak with her."
Pangloss shook his head. "It's not so easy as that. We can't just walk up and start asking her questions. We have to capture her first."
Pangloss nodded again. "You'll see. She's very dangerous and not at all cooperative, so before we can speak with her we must capture her."
"Is she that unreasonable?"
"Oh, yes, and dangerous, highly dangerous. She's a witch, you know."
Pangloss looked solemn. "A cruel, ruthless, clever witch."
Chapter Two *** Mean Molly
Sara, Pangloss and Kitten walked for several miles down a shaded valley. A stream meandered next to their path and made lovely sounds. They reached a patch of deeper woods and Pangloss held up his hand.
"Stay behind me. Step softly."
They advanced for several more yards. The path curved around a boulder. Pangloss stopped and again held up his hand. He leaned over and whispered in Sara's ear, "She's just around this bend. Look."
Sara peeked around the bend and saw the back of a very short, very wide woman. A purple woolen shawl wrapped her shoulders. Her skirt, sewn of hundreds of bright and many-colored patches, hung to the ground.
Panglossed whispered. "That's Mean Molly."
Molly turned her head. Her nose was the size and shape of a healthy potato. Her eyes were black and so close together that they seemed to cross. Her hair, a wiry mass of gray curls, was loosely gathered into a bun on the back of her head.
Sara drew back, leaned close to Pangloss and whispered, “She doesn’t look dangerous and wicked.”
Pangloss shook his head, “Oh, appearances are deceiving. She is most wicked, wicked and dangerous! I’d rather have a green viper sleeping on my stomach than have Mean Molly sitting next to me at lunch. And dangerous! She’d turn you into a bug quicker than blinking!
Sara looked at him. “A bug? What kind of a bug?”
“Something nasty and red, I should think. Yes, red and big.”
Sara shook her head, “Nonsense!”
"Shhhhh! She’ll hear us.”
Mean Molly cocked her head as if listening to conversations from afar.
Sara breathed, “What should we do?”
Pangloss nodded to himself. “Paralyze her, I should think.”
Panagloss’s right eyebrow shot up. “Easier said than done. We’ll settle for just wrapping her in a charm or two for the moment.”
Sara said nothing, but looked pointedly at Molly’s wide back.
Pangloss motioned with his left hand. “Stand behind me, child.” He raised his wand with a flourish, pointed it at Mean Molly. He muttered, “Intransigent poppies.” A yellow mist gathered at the end of the wand and then floated gently toward Molly. She turned just as the smallish cloud gathered around her shoulders. The cloud flared brilliantly and transformed into a thick, yellow rope. The rope struck faster than a striking cobra and wrapped itself around Molly’s arms.
Molly screamed, “Pangloss, you skulking weasel!”
Sara took a step toward the howling witch. Pangloss restrained her with his left hand. “A moment, child. She kicks.” Pangloss again gestured with his baton and said, "Boisterous bluebells." A stream of tiny blue monkeys erupted from the wand's end. They tumbled and cavorted toward Molly. Still sputtering, she did her best to kick them as they hopped near her. The monkeys easily avoided her thick, brown boots and catapulted themselves onto her skirt at knee level. They joined hands and transformed into a blue, iron chain. Molly teetered like a lightning-struck tree, tilted and fell. She hit the ground with a lusty thump. All the breath shot from her body and her heartfelt screaming stopped.
Pangloss returned his wand to an inside pocket of his robe and rubbed his hands together. “There. Got her.”
Sara looked at him. “Well, what do we do with her now?”
Pangloss smiled. “Take her home, of course.”
"You peanut-brained half-wit! You fuzzy headed imbecile! You dolt! You buffoon! You idiot!" Molly took a breath.
Pangloss looked skyward, shrugged his shoulders and sighed. "My, oh my."
Molly continued, "Any decent earthworm is ten times smarter than you are. You make Dodo birds look like geniuses. Any chicken is a university professor compared to you!"
Kitten slunk behind the worktable and put his nose beneath his paws. Sara stepped forward and looked Molly calmly in the eye. Molly sputtered, snorted and at last fell silent. Her beady black eyes smoldered with indignation, but the burning light of rage faded.
Sara said, "What you said may be true, but your shouting is not helping you or anyone else. Will you hear what I have to say?"
Sara continued, "I'm from another world and I want to go home. I dropped through some portal. Mr. Pangloss says that I must complete a mission in this world before I can use the portal again. He thinks that you can help me discover what my mission is. I need your help."
Molly snarled, "Why didn't you ask?"
Sara said, "Mr. Pangloss said you are a dangerous witch."
Molly nodded. "I am dangerous, very dangerous. As soon as I'm free, you'll see just how dangerous I am."
Pangloss pointed a long, boney finger. "See? See? She's threatening us both! There's just no reasoning with her. I'll have to get out my compulsion spells." He turned toward a bookshelf piled with dust-covered volumes.
Sara said, "No!"
Pangloss turned back.
"She has a right to be angry. We were wrong to take her as we did." Sara raised her hands in frustration. "It was like kidnapping. We should have asked her to come with us."
Pangloss spluttered, "You don't understand! There's no reasoning with a witch, especially Molly! She'd have turned us into stumps as soon as she saw us."
Sara looked at him. "I want you to release her right now."
Pangloss shook his head. "Impossible! She'd kill us in an instant, or worse!"
Sara thought for a moment and then turned to Molly. "Will you promise not to hurt us for as long as my mission here lasts?"
Molly shook her head. "Why should I? The old fool's spells last only for a day or two anyway and he'll forget that he even wants my help by tomorrow."
"You should because I think you really are a reasonable person. Will you promise?"
Molly was silent for several heartbeats. He black eyes glittered. At last, she said, "I promise."
Pangloss whined, "Promise what? Promise what? Make her say it!"
Molly glared scornfully at Pangloss. "I promise not to hurt either of you for as long as this girl's quest lasts, you demented old goat."
Sara looked at Pangloss.
Pangloss turned away. He muttered, "I suppose that is sufficient." He waggled his fingers and said, "Precious periwinkles". Tiny purple raccoons appeared out of nowhere and swarmed over Molly. Their clever fingers plucked the golden rope to pieces. Chattering and hissing, they swarmed into the shadow beneath the worktable and disappeared.
Molly sat up. "What's your name, girl?'
"Sara Chang. And what's yours?"
"Well, Molly McColl, I'm sorry we kidnapped you."
Puzzled, Molly said, "What did you say?"
"Took you against your will."
"Ah, that." She stretched her right arm and then her left. "It's not a great matter. That old goat is always playing some such trick on me."
Pangloss snapped, "I heard that. I heard it."
Molly grumbled, "I hope you did."
Sara ignored them both. "Why does he feel it's necessary to force you to do things?"
Molly leaned forward and spoke more softly, "You may have noticed that he's not playing at the top of his game?" She tapped her right temple twice with her right forefinger.
"I heard that too!"
Sara looked at Pangloss and then at Molly. "Then you really will help me?"
Molly sighed, "Yes, yes. I would have without all the tricks, too. All you needed to do was ask." She nodded at Pangloss. "He's just very unsure of himself these days."
"Can you tell me more?'
Molly shook her head. "He'll have to tell you when he can. I don't know the complete story. Meanwhile, let me try to answer your other questions." She rose and approached Pangloss. He shrank back before her approach. She said, "Don't faint! I just need to see an omen-window. You have one of those, don't you?"
Pangloss struck his forehead with his left hand. "Ah! Yes, yes! You do stimulate the little gray cells, Molly. I'd forgotten about an omen-window. I do have something of the sort. Let me see. I believe it's under here." He went to a drawer beneath some junk-heaped shelves, opened it and began rummaging.
Sara asked, "What's an omen-window?"
"It's a magical device."
Sara thought that this wasn't very helpful, but she didn't say so. "What does it do? Tell the future?"
Molly thought for a moment before she spoke. "Even the most powerful magic will not reveal the actual future. There may be no actual future. Or there may be unnumbered actual futures. Somehow, though, important events cast shadows from the future. The omen-window allows us to glimpse these shadows. Sometimes they make enough sense for us to take action against future disasters."
Pangloss shouted, "Found it! Here it is!"
He walked back to the worktable with the omen-window and placed it on the table's battered and stained surface. It was oval-shaped and made of tarnished brass. It looked something like a mirror, except its glass was limpid blue instead of silver.
"Now, we shall each have a look and then discuss what we have seen." He paused and looked at Molly. "Ah, Molly, I seem to have forgotten the pertinent word. You don't happen to recall it, do you?"
Molly snorted and picked up the window. "Yes. I'll look first." She held the window before her eyes and said, "Titanic."
A blue glow surged out of the window and flooded the room. Molly gasped, staggered back and sat heavily on one of Pangloss's rickety chairs. She breathed deeply and stared at the wall.
Pangloss approached her. "Well, what did you see."
Molly put her hand over her heart and looked up at him.
Pangloss said, "Come on, witch, out with it. What did you see?"
Molly spoke softly. "I won't tell you."
"I won't tell you. What I saw has only to do with me."
Pangloss shook his head. "Balderdash! We're in this together. We need to know what you saw."
Molly looked straight ahead. "I won't tell."
"Fine. Fine. Here," he handed the window to Sara, "you take a look."
Sara took the window reluctantly. She held it before her and found it much heavier than it looked.
Pangloss asked, "Do you remember the word?"
"Then go ahead."
Sara, though nervous at what she might see, gripped the window firmly and said, "Titanic."
The blue glow enfolded her and faded. She saw a grassy slope leading to a hill. Trees stood here and there on the slope. On the top of the hill stood an ancient stone tower. That picture faded. Another image took shape. Threes roses made of jewels lay on a table, a red one, a yellow one and a white one. The roses were separated, but they looked like the pieces of a puzzle. Then the whole scene faded and Sara found herself again looking at the blue window.
Pangloss said, "Well, what did you see?"
Sara looked up. "I saw a tower on a hill and a picture-puzzle, but it had only three pieces."
Pangloss nodded. "Ah! That must mean that you have a puzzle to solve. Pray, what picture did the puzzle form?"
Sara answered, "Each of the puzzle pieces was a rose blossom made of jewels. One was red, one white and one yellow."
Pangloss looked at Molly and then back at Sara. "Suggestive," he said, "very, very suggestive. I should think that you must look for those three roses. We need to find out more before coming to any conclusions, however."
He took the window from Sara and said, "Titanic." The blue glow rose and faded. Pangloss stared at the window for a moment and then he put it down. He turned to them and said, "Blast!"
Sara asked, "What did you see?"
"Our first destination."
"Why did you say 'Blast'?"
Pangloss scowled. "I saw a mountain waterfall. It appears we must visit the Troll-step Mountains. Those mountains are cold, damp, and uncomfortable. I despise going there. Bad for my bones."
Molly looked up. "Also, they're full of trolls."
Pangloss nodded. "That, too."
Molly sighed. "I'm coming with you."
"I'm coming with you." She looked at Sara. "This quest may be important, so I'm coming with you."
Sara smiled and patted Molly's hand. "I'm glad."
Pangloss sighed. "Let's get out a map."
He rummaged in a drawer, muttered and removed a dusty roll of paper. He opened the map and spread it on his worktable. He weighted its corners with four rather ugly chess pieces, jabbed his finger at the map and said, “There. That is where we must go. That's where the great waterfall is. It will be almost impossible to get there.”
Sara stared at the map and traced the line of the river Pangloss had pointed out. She shrugged. “Those mountains shouldn’t stop us. A road leads straight into them and right to the waterfall.”
Molly interrupted, “Those are the Troll-step Mountains. They’re named that for a reason.”
Sara looked at her. “Aren't trolls small, ugly and sneaky? Don't they hide under bridges?”
Pangloss frowned. “Perhaps they're like that where you come from. Not here. They aren't so large as a bull, but they definitely don't hide beneath bridges, my dear.”
“They live in those mountains?”
Pangloss nodded again. “They do.”
Pangloss looked up. "More than a few."
“Especially,” Molly said, “in Skull's Rift.”
Pangloss said, “It’s a steep, narrow, twisted valley, which . . . “
Molly interrupted again, “Which leads to the waterfall and which is an abode of trolls. It’s their stronghold. The largest and most evil of them take possession of the caves that line the valley’s walls. They venture out from there to hunt through forests and fields.”
Sara asked, “What do they hunt?”
Molly folded her hands in her lap. “Humans. Children are their favorite meat, but they’ll eat anything that moves.”
Pangloss cleared his throat. “Fortunately, they tolerate each other even less than we tolerate them. Competent magic should defeat the senses of any we may encounter.”
Molly snorted, “Competent, aye! Competent and difficult! I might get myself through, but I couldn’t shield us all.”
Pangloss lifted his nose. “I should have no problem in creating an impervious shield without your assistance.”
Molly slapped her knee and howled, “Ha! Ho! You’ve always been nine parts talk and one part magic, Pangloss. I would make my funereal arrangements now if I thought that so much as my little finger would escape a troll’s guts.”
“Must we go there?” asked Sara.
Pangloss looked up. “I’m afraid we must. My vision indicated that our goal is a waterfall at the valley’s head. What we'll find there, I can't tell, perhaps one of your roses, but there we must go.”
Molly looked at Sara. "What you saw is important. Three roses, each formed of precious stones,"
"And magical! Don't forget it's a puzzle!" interjected Pangloss.
Molly continued, "and it's a puzzle. When joined, the three roses make a powerful magical object. They wind through many stories and are a source of great good. They have been lost for centuries. I can't imagine that we would find one in a troll cave."
Sara nodded. “Well, I guess we have to look anyway. Is there any way to improve our chances of getting out of this Skulls Rift? It may not be too difficult to sneak in, but if we’re discovered . . . “
Pangloss almost shouted, “She’s right! She’s absolutely right! An extraction! We need a spell for an extraction!”
Molly snarled, “She’s not talking about pulling teeth, Pangloss, though that’s not something I’d trust you to do for me, either.”
"Come, come, Molly, there's no need to be critical. I have preparations to make, backpacks to find, potions, blankets, hard cheese, kindling, water bottles. We'll start at dawn!" He turned toward one of his dusty trunks and opened it. Humming snatches of melody to himself, he began throwing things randomly on the floor.
Molly said, "The kitchen is down the hall, girl. If we're to eat anything decent tonight, you and I will have to fix it. Can you cook?"
Sara nodded slowly, "Some."
Molly patted her shoulder. "Let's see what we can do."
They walked together in silence for several moments. Sara at last said, "Molly?"
"This is all very, very strange to me."
Sara looked up. "There's no magic in my world, no spells, or charms, or trolls."
Molly considered this. "Do people not disappear in your world?"
Molly went on. "Are there no times when it rains frogs or spiders?"
"Well . . . "
"My understanding of these things is very rough, but would you like to hear what I think?"
Sara nodded. "Please."
"Magic is a force across the great circle of all worlds, though it is sometimes spread very thin. People with a gift and training, people like Pangloss and I, can touch magic here and use it. That may not be so easy in your world, but magic is there. Does that make sense?"
Sara nodded again.
Molly looked up. "Ah! Here's the kitchen. Let's see if Pangloss has some noodles and cheese we can turn into supper."
Quite a long time after dawn, Pangloss, Molly, Sara and Kitten set off for the Troll-step Mountains. Pangloss grumbled and mumbled to himself as they walked down from his front door to the bridge over Bluestone Creek. They crossed the narrow bridge. Sara looked back. Pangloss's house loomed high above the hill on which it stood. Made of gray stone, odd corners and spiked towers protruded from unusual places. Sara sniffed. It seemed to badly need a new roof.
Pangloss groaned, "Sore feet already! Fortunately, we have only to walk a few miles before we come to one of my network portals."
Sara looked at Molly, "What's that?"
"He maintains seven or eight portals in places he may wish to visit. They are paired, so each portal can only transport you to one destination."
Pangloss nodded. "It saves these old bones."
“Since you have problems with your feet, why do you put the portals so far from your house?"
"That," Pangloss raised a warning finger, "is in case something unfriendly manages to follow me back through a portal. It's not good to have monsters popping up at your front door."
Sara thought about that and then nodded in agreement.
Molly added, "I've tried to convince him that other measures for discouraging curious monsters should be taken, but he ignores me."
Sara looked at her. "What other measures?'
"Oh," Molly rubbed her right hand against the front of her dress, polishing her nails, "a deep pit with poisonous snakes at its bottom would do nicely."
"Yes, a fine idea, Molly, but you know my memory is faulty. I'd likely find myself at the bottom of the pit conversing with the snakes as often as not."
Molly shrugged. "Might help improve your memory."
No one answered her. Their path wound uphill and they walked in silence for some time. Young pines grew thickly on either side of the trail. The trees thinned as they reached the crest of the hill.
Molly, puffing a bit, stopped, winked at Sara and nodded toward Pangloss. "He complains constantly about being old, but he climbs like a yearling goat."
Sara, grateful for the pause, asked, "Are we near the portal?"
Molly nodded, "It's just down the hill a bit. Come on. We'd best keep him in sight." They began walking again.
Pangloss led them under taller trees into deeper shadow. At last he stopped. "Ah," he exclaimed, "here it is!"
Sara and Molly caught up to him. Sara peered closely at the trees before her, but she saw nothing different.
Molly leaned close, "Watch. You may need to do this yourself sometime."
Pangloss stood with his chin in the palm of his right hand. He looked closely at the trees next to the path. At last, he approached the third tree on the right. Sara saw that a faint "P" was sketched on the tree's bark. Pangloss covered the "P" with his hand and said, "Poppy!"
A glowing silver oval taller than a large man appeared in the air next to the tree. Pangloss turned and smiled. "There, it's activated now. It's been some years since I used this particular portal, so I had to touch the symbol." He turned, stepped into the silver oval and disappeared.
Sara looked at Molly. Molly said, "Just follow him. If you must use a portal by yourself, look for the "P", put your hand on it and say "Poppy". That will insure that it's working. Returning is easier still. You need only step through. Now, go ahead. I'll follow you."
Sara asked, "What about Kitten?"
The lanky wolf's ears went up when he heard his name. He looked hopefully at Sara. Then he looked doubtfully at the portal.
"I think he'll follow you through."
Sara nodded. She turned and stepped toward the portal. Kitten sprang forward and brushed against Sara's side. She patted his head and tangled her fingers in the fur of his ruff. She touched the P with her other hand and said, "Poppy." She held her breath and they stepped into the silver light. It was very like stepping into a cool shower, though the light dazzled her eyes. The sensation of water tingling against her skin stopped after her fourth step. She continued walking and found herself in a sheltered dip of land on the side of a hill. Pangloss stood with his hands on his hips a few yards in front of her. Kitten suddenly shook himself, just as if he'd had a bath.
Pangloss looked over his shoulder. "I'm sure it was a terrible idea to bring that beast along with us."
Sara did not answer, but patted Kitten's head again.
Molly stepped up beside Sara. "Look back," she said.
Sara turned and saw the silver oval fading. Beside it was a waist high boulder with a P scratched into its top.
"That's the return marker. His return word is violet. Say it three times."
Sara obediently said, "Violet, violet, violet."
"What is the word again?"
Sara grinned. "Violet!"
Molly did not smile. "Good. Remember it. You may need it and, if you do, you'll need it badly."
Pangloss spoke without turning. "The troll road is just over this hill. As I remember, we can follow this ridge to the north and spy on it without being seen. When it looks clear, we can drop down and make time toward the waterfall. Follow me."
He set off slightly downhill, paralleling the crest of the hill. Sara, Kitten and Molly trailed after him.
Chapter Three *** Troll Attack
Sara squeezed into a crack between two boulders. A cold wind whistled through the crack and made her eyes water. She slid and wiggled until the crack became wider. Pangloss, lying on his stomach, peered over an edge a few feet in front of her. She lowered herself to the hard ground and crawled up beside him.
He pointed. "Look down there."
She looked and saw three large, four-wheeled carts in the narrow valley below. Each cart had a crude cage attached to its bed. In each cage sat half a dozen sad and bedraggled people. Some wore bloody bandages. Two or three in the last cage lay motionless on its floor.
Pangloss said, "Troll wagons. Troll prisoners."
"I don't see any trolls."
"Of course not." Sunlight turns them to stone. There are tunnels on the far side of the wagons. They're sleeping in them now. This is their last way station before their home caves."
Sara asked, "What shall we do?"
"Let's go back and tell Molly."
They wriggled back through the crack between the boulders to where Molly and Kitten awaited them. Molly raised her right eyebrow.
Sara said, "We saw wagons full of prisoners on the road below. The trolls are sleeping in their caves under the far hill."
Pangloss sucked his front teeth. "This may not be a bad thing. We can avoid this group. Actually, it will provide us a useful distraction. All of the trolls ahead of us will be excited about the arrival of prisoners. They will argue and fight over who gets what. We can follow the wagons and sneak by the cave guards in the excitement."
Sara turned to him. "Shouldn't we try to help those people escape?
Pangloss shook his head. "No, no, it's best not to get involved. Our quest is to reach the waterfall and discover its secret."
Sara looked at Pangloss and Molly. Both of them avoided meeting her gaze. “If we’re not going to help people, why are we going to all of this trouble?”
Pangloss muttered, "Our quest will help many, I'm sure, if we complete it."
"We can't let those people be eaten by trolls just so we can sneak by in safety. That's wrong."
Pangloss didn’t answer her. Molly sighed and said, “The girl’s got a point, you old goat.”
Looking exasperated, Pangloss turned on Molly. "Just what do you suggest we do? We can't pull those wagons? Where would we pull them to if we could?"
Molly polished her nails against her skirt. "The portal's not far. We still have five hours of daylight. We could unlock the cages and sneak the prisoners to the portal."
Pangloss whirled and faced the mountains rising to the northwest. He folded his arms across his chest and said, "Bah! We'll just get ourselves killed if we try to help them."
"Not if we're careful," she paused, "and competent."
Sara smiled. Kitten panted. Pangloss snorted in disgust.
Sara and molly crouched behind the first of the crude wagons. One of its enormous wheels loomed above their heads. Molly nudged her with an elbow, leaned close and whispered, "Let Kitten move around to the far side. He can watch the troll lairs and warn us if they stir. They can't come out until dark, but they may have some wolves with them."
Molly continued, "You understand the plan?"
Again, Sara nodded. "Mr. Pangloss will cast a spell to unlock the locks on the cages. I'll wait to open this cage door until I see you and Mr. Pangloss open yours. Then I'll tell the prisoners to come out and wait beside me."
"Right. Keep them quiet, too. If we can keep the trolls from seeing what happened and which way we go, we'll gain precious time."
Molly turned and crept ponderously to the next wagon. Pangloss already waited behind the third wagon. Molly waved that she was ready. Pangloss raised his baton and muttered a word of power. Three sparks flew out of the end of his baton. They soared above the wagons and exploded with red flames and loud crashes. Three clouds of smoke hovered over the wagons. The locks remained locked.
Prisoners screamed in fear. Trolls howled with surprise. Kitten yelped and scuttled behind Sara's wagon. Pangloss called out, "Sorry! Must have gotten the wrong word there. I'll try again." He muttered a word and gestured with his baton. Three sparks again flew high. This time the explosions produced green flames and even greater crashes.
Prisoners cowered and cried. Trolls growled and roared in their tunnels. Kitten whimpered nervously. Pangloss shouted, "Be patient! I've almost got it!"
Molly snarled, picked up a large rock and leapt to her feet. She smashed the rock against the lock on her wagon's cage. The lock twisted and sprang open. She flung open the cage door and ran to Sara's wagon. She motioned for Sara to get back and again swung her rock. This lock shattered into three pieces. Molly pulled the door open.
A woman's face, round as the moon, peered down at Sara and Molly. Molly shouted, "Get your people out of there. Get them moving toward the top of the hill behind us."
The woman nodded. Molly and Sara, followed by Kitten, ran to the second wagon. Prisoners were already tumbling out of the open door. Molly pointed toward the top of the hill and kept running. Sara and Kitten followed.
They arrived in the shadow of the third wagon and crouched down next to Pangloss. He didn't look up when they arrived, but kept staring at his baton. He shook his head. "It must be out of phase. I couldn't have gotten both words wrong."
Molly snorted, "You haven't gotten two words right since I've known you. Move. I'll smash the lock."
Pangloss looked up. "It's a waste of time. These prisoners can't walk. We'll have to leave them anyway."
A voice spoke from behind Sara. "Leave them, you say?" She turned and found that the moon-faced woman had followed them.
The woman’s face was grim. "We'll take all or none."
Pangloss spread his arms in supplication. "Good woman, we can't carry these wounded. The trolls will capture us all for sure."
The woman repeated, "We'll take all or none. Some of our folks are strong enough to help."
Molly asked, "What's your name?"
"Josephine, but call me Jo. And you?"
"Molly, but you can call me Molly."
Jo grinned. "Well, Molly, I mean it. All or none."
Molly nodded. "We'll try." She looked into the cage and then at the woman. "Go get some helpers. We'll need at least six."
Jo wiped sweat from her broad brow and asked, "How much farther?"
Molly looked across the thin chest of the man they supported. "We're more than halfway."
Jo looked up at the sky. "It won't be dark for two hours yet, but the trolls will be after us as soon as the sun ducks behind the mountains."
Molly glanced at the thin man whose arm was around her left shoulder. "You okay, Tom?"
Tom's thin face was lined with pain. He grunted, "Been better. But this is fine compared to being spitted over a troll's fire. Let's keep going."
Molly nodded to Jo. They began walking uphill again. Behind them shuffled three more walking wounded, each supported by two freed prisoners. Far ahead, almost out of sight, Pangloss and Sara led the other prisoners toward the portal.
Blue shadows wrapped the hills. A cold wind blew down from cliffs above. Sara, pushed by the wind, jogged up to Molly, Tom and Jo. She said, "Mr. Pangloss sent me back. He's reached the portal with the others. They're passing through it now. He says to hurry."
Molly snarled. "Does he?"
Jo said, "Go back to him, child. Tell him we'll be there in half an hour."
Sara turned and began her journey uphill and against the wind. Kitten, who had appointed himself her escort, trailed after her.
Molly took several deep breaths. She glanced around the rocky ridgeline. Suddenly, her eyes went wide. She shouted, "Sara!"
Sara turned and peered back.
Molly shouted again, "Come back for a moment, Sara! I've found something."
Jo and Tom looked at her.
"I've seen something that may give us a chance. Trolls are on their way. They're usually lazy beasts, but rage will drive them up this hill. We won't make it to the portal before they catch us."
Jo shrugged. "What can we do?"
Sara arrived at that moment. Kitten panted beside her.
Molly turned to her. "Thanks for coming back, Sara. I need your help."
"Run as fast as you can to Pangloss. He's left helpful magic here, though I doubt he remembers it. Tell him that I've found his sunburst and to get back here quickly."
Sara repeated, "Sunburst?'
"Right, sunburst. Got it?"
Molly smiled. "Then, run!"
Sara ran. Heart pounding, breath gasping, she ran. Kitten loped beside her, tongue lolling. He was happy to be running, but wasn't sure what the excitement was about.
Sara gained the top of the ridge and saw Pangloss waiting in the distance. She put her head down and labored on. Sooner than she'd thought possible, she stood panting before the magician.
Pangloss nervously tapped his baton against his knee. "Well, where are they? Trolls will be upon us at any moment."
Between gasps, Sara said, "They are . . . a half . . . an hour . . . away."
Pangloss cried out, "That's too long, much too long!"
Sara continued, "Molly . . . said to tell . . . you . . . sunburst."
"Sunburst? Sunburst? It doesn't ring a bell. Hmmm. Sunburst?"
Sara's breathing at last slowed. "She wants you to come down to her. She thinks the sunburst will help."
Pangloss shook his head. "I very much doubt that. There's no use in all of us being eaten by trolls. Come, Sara, let's step through the portal."
Sara stamped her foot. "Mr. Panglosss, you're our wizard! You can't just leave Molly and the others for the trolls."
Pangloss rubbed his chin. "I suppose you're right." He looked up. "This is very dangerous, you know. Trolls are no joke."
"Come on, Mr. Pangloss." Sara took his hand. "I'm sure Molly wouldn't call us into danger without a good reason."
They walked down the rock-strewn ridge and made good time in spite of the fact that Pangloss couldn't run. He let Sara guide him as he muttered and pondered what Molly might want.
They walked around a massive boulder. Molly and the remaining prisoners trudged only a thirty yards below. A hundred yards beyond them were trolls.
Trolls with short legs, pot-bellied trolls, squint-eyed trolls, big-eared trolls - trolls of all sizes, grey and warty, rumbled up the hill toward them. Their heavy feet thudded on the hard ground. Their growls and gibbers rolled ahead of them like surf.
Pangloss, eyes wide, stopped and exclaimed, "Oh, my!"
Sara pulled him on. "Come on! We can make it.'
Pangloss let himself be pulled along. Kitten ran out a few yards and then hurried back, whining to himself.
Molly shouted, "You've planted sunbursts through here, Pangloss. Think of the power word!"
Pangloss stopped. Sara, still holding his hand, stopped too. Pangloss scratched his ear with his baton. He said, "It's anti-troll magic of some sort, I'll wager. Now, what could the word be?"
Sara squeezed his hand. "You've used flowers in the past. Could it be a flower?"
Pangloss smiled. "You're right. Let's try some flowers, shall we?"
Sara swallowed. The trolls were nearly up to the prisoners. Molly and Jo fell to the rear and prepared to fight. Jo had a stout tree branch. Molly hefted a sharp rock. Sara said, "Violet, daisy, petunia, geranium."
Pangloss waved his baton and shouted, "Violet!"
He waved again and shouted, "Daisy!"
Trolls leapt to attack the fugitives. Jo stepped forward and smashed a tall troll in the left knee with her branch. The monster howled and hopped away on one leg. Molly brought her rock down on the skull of a fat, wide troll. The overhand blow would have killed a man, but it only made the troll blink. Molly hit it again, this time from the side, and the creature went down. The other trolls held back, not wishing to approach two such ferocious women.
Molly spit as she shouted, "Step up, you cowards! We're not sleeping children, or old folks!"
Pangloss waved his baton and said, "Petunia!"
The prisoners staggered closer to Sara and Pangloss. The trolls edged closer to Molly and Jo. Jo jumped forward and poked one in the eye with her branch. It squealed and jumped back. The other trolls, perhaps twenty of them, halted.
Pangloss tried again, "Geranium!"
Sara shook her head. "I don't know what is supposed to happen, but that wasn't it. Try sunflower."
Pangloss jabbed his baton at the sky. "Sunflower!"
White light exploded from a rock well down the hill and from a boulder just behind the wizard. Trolls close by screamed, fell to the ground and rolled in pain. Trolls farther away ran shrieking into shadows. Sara squinted her eyes and watched all of the trolls run, stagger and crawl away from the unbearable light. Even as she watched, the light began to fade.
Pangloss said, "That must have been it."
Molly shouted, "About time! Help us with these men! The trolls will be back."
Molly and Pangloss hurried to the prisoners. Kitten prowled the side of the ridge where most of the trolls had disappeared. Head lowered, he watched the deepening darkness.
Jo said, "Take this, girl. I might need it again." She handed Sara her tree branch. The branch pulled Sara's arms down. It was surprisingly heavy.
Molly called to Pangloss, "Are there more sunbursts between here and the portal?"
Pangloss shook his head. "I can't recall."
Molly snorted. "Go ahead, then, and be ready with the word of power. Use it only if the trolls close on us again."
Pangloss stood looking at her.
"Well, hurry!" she snapped.
Pangloss waved and started back up the ridge.
Sara caught up to Molly. "Molly," she asked, "what were those sunbursts?"
Molly draped Tom's arm over her right shoulder. "They're anti-troll magic. A magic user sets them up if he or she thinks trolls might attack. A rock is changed by a spell to soak up all the sunlight that shines upon it over months and years. A trigger word spoken close to such a rock will release all of its light at once. This drives away any nearby trolls. It takes quite a lot of work to create them, so usually they're placed only where trolls are a certain danger."
Sara took several steps before she asked, "Were the trolls killed?'
Molly laughed, "No such luck! They felt like they were bathed in fire. Their eyes and their noses may have turned to stone. Patches of skin froze solid, too, but none of the damage was permanent. They'll recover within hours, if not minutes. Only direct sunlight can finish them off."
"Will they be back."
Molly looked ahead. "Not so boldly. They'll fear more sunbursts. I hope Pangloss made more!"
Sara said, "He's not such a bad wizard, is he?"
Molly looked at her. "Not a bad wizard, but his memory is awful."
They walked in silence for a time. Dusk deepened around them until all was black shadow with purple sky above.
Tom muttered, "How much farther?"
Molly peered ahead. "Close, Tom. Pangloss is ahead. He's helping the others through the portal. We'll be safe on the far side."
Sara looked up and saw the portal's silver glow beckon from a dozen yards ahead. Pangloss held a wounded prisoner's arm. He stepped into the portal and led the hurt man after him. Jo, holding the man's other arm, followed.
They came to the edge of the portal. Molly said, "Give me that branch. You and kitten help Tom through the portal. I'll come last."
Sara handed Molly the branch. Kitten suddenly whirled and growled. A scabby troll face loomed from behind a boulder. Kitten leapt at it just as a gray, knobby hand squeezed Sara's shoulder from behind. She screamed in fear and let go of Tom's hand. He fell in front of the silver light. Molly swung the branch with all of her strength. It crashed into the arm holding Sara and shattered. The troll squealed and let go of Sara.
Another troll grabbed Sara's ankle. Kitten pounced on him. Wolf teeth sank deep into troll flesh, but the creature's skin was only dented, not pierced. It howled in pain anyway and released Sara's ankle.
Another troll reached for her, its mouth wide open, spit flying from its stony teeth, but its foot snagged on an up-thrust root. It grunted and gave a mighty tug, but its foot only wedged tighter beneath the loop of root. Kitten took Tom's hand gently in his jaws and, walking backwards, pulled him into the portal.
Two skinny boys jumped from behind a boulder uphill from the portal. Ragged and dirty haired, they came bounding down the hill like stick-dolls suddenly given life.
Molly paused. "Who are they?"
Sara offered, "They're running for our portal. We must give them a chance."
Molly shouted, "Down!"
Sara ducked. Claws, dull though diamond hard, caught several strands of her hair and yanked them out. The troll with the stuck foot had freed itself. Its mouth gaped as it leaned toward Sara. Its breath, smelling of garbage and long-dead animals, washed over her. She slapped the leering, grey face with her open hand. Her hand stung at the impact as if she'd hit a rock.
Molly's club crashed into the base of its neck. Its eyes fluttered, closed and it sank to the ground. Sara saw the two boys jump through the portal out of the corner of her eye. The second one grinned at her as he hopped through.
Molly yelled, "Go!" She gave Sara a great push in the back. Sara felt silver light wash over her like sea foam.
Chapter Four *** Wizard's Secrets
Sara sat in a comfy chair beneath three yellow candles. Their glow reassured her, as did the mug of sweet tea she held just under her nose. She needed reassuring. Her shoulder hurt where the troll's fingers had squeezed and she seemed no nearer to returning to her own world, to her parents. She sighed.
Molly knelt at her side. "Are you hurt?"
"No," Sara shook her head, "Just bruises on my shoulder. Kitten saved me."
"It was a near thing. We only just made it through."
Sara looked up. "Won't trolls come through the portal, too."
Molly shook her head. "They would be outside our door now if Pangloss had not closed the portal."
"He closed it?"
"Yes, he did and he was unhappy about it, too. Portals are valuable and complicated pieces of magic, not easy to make, but even he could see the need. Trolls are usually cautious and very sneaky. These were extremely angry. They would have stormed right after us had he not dissolved the portal."
"How are the others?"
"Much better than they have any right to expect. Tom has broken bones. They'll need time and care to mend. The other wounded were less hurt. We've cleaned their wounds and bandaged them. Everyone has eaten. Jo made a savory stew and I found enough bread in the pantry, though it was none too fresh. You must be hungry, too, girl. Come with me. I'll get you some stew if . . . " she frowned, "if Goolie and Oolie haven't eaten it all."
Sara looked up. "Goolie and Oolie?"
Molly nodded. "Those two starveling boys you got me to wait for at the portal. They'll eat the carpets if we don't keep them nailed down." She turned and walked into the hallway that led to the kitchen. Sara put down her tea, rose and followed Molly.
The kitchen was an enormous room, perhaps the largest in the wizard's very strange house. Sara stopped in the doorway and blinked. Iron pots and copper pans for serving fifty, some clean and some not, hung from hooks on the walls and from overhead beams. A woodstove surrounded by polished granite counter tops formed an island in the center of the room. Heavy tables and cutting blocks were scattered across much of the rest of the space. Many three-legged stools, most occupied by rescued troll prisoners, lined two of the walls. A gigantic fireplace took up the wall opposite the entrance door. Whole pigs could be roasted in it. Great cauldrons could be boiled in it. At one end, a modestly large pot hung above red coals. Steam and a wonderful smell came from that pot.
Jo, a long chef's knife in hand, looked up from the carrots she was chopping and saw Sara. She put the knife down and nodded at the steaming pot. Sara needed no further invitation. She plucked a bowl off a nearby stack and walked over to the fireplace.
Jo met her with a ladle full of stew. She filled Sara's bowl and said, "You must be starved, child. Eat all of this and come back for more." She looked over Sara's shoulder. "Excuse me. Molly needs to speak with me." Jo hung the ladle on the edge of the pot and left. Sara turned back toward the table where several spoons lay.
Up popped two boys, the same boys who had run through the portal ahead of her. Sara just managed not to drop her stew.
"I'm Oolie," said the one on her left.
"And I'm Goolie," said the other.
Sara stared, too surprised to answer. The boys were identical twins. They shared long noses, sharp chins and smoky grey eyes. Their blonde hair was tangled and not at all clean. They were shorter than she was, but they seemed older.
Oolie said, "Let us . . ."
"help you with that," finished Goolie and he took the bowl from Sara's hands.
Oolie grinned. "See you."
Both turned and took several steps away from Sara. Goolie suddenly squealed and stopped. Molly had a tight grip on his right ear. Oolie squealed and stopped a second later. Jo gripped his left ear.
Molly said, "You'll get seconds when all have eaten. Give that bowl back to Sara."
Goolie, smiling but not looking the least embarrassed, handed the bowl to Sara.
Molly went on. "I'll grow raccoon tails on both of you if you don't behave."
Oolie shrugged. "Tails would be fun."
Jo pinched his ear. He yelped. "Enough of your sass!" she growled.
Molly added, "Fleas then, I'll give you both more fleas than you already have, monstrous, biting fleas with a taste only for you."
The boys looked at each other. Goolie said, "We'll be good . . . "
"Very good, for awhile." finished Oolie.
Molly nodded. "You'd better."
Molly and Jo released them. They skittered away like mice running for a hole. Molly winked at Sara. "Let us know if they bother you."
Sara nodded. "I will."
Jo piled two pieces of bread on top of Sara's bowl. She said, "I think the wizard wants to see you. He's by the fireplace."
Sara looked and saw Pangloss seated at a small table across the room. Carrying her bowl of stew carefully with both hands, the pieces of bread balanced atop the bowl, she walked to join him. She put her bowl down on the table and seated herself on a stool.
"Jo said that you wanted to speak with me, Mr. Pangloss?"
He smiled at her. "I do."
Sara sensed that something was different. The wizard was calm and looked much the same as before, but, for no reason she could put her finger on, she felt that she was sitting across from a different person, someone powerful, not the silly forgetful man she had come to know.
Pangloss continued, "There is a word, a word of magical power, which I can say only one time each year. When I saw you come into the kitchen, I was inspired to say it. I won't be able to say it again until at least a year from now."
Sara was puzzled. "Why is that?"
"The word releases my full wisdom and powers. I can do that of my own will only once each year. Except for this brief time, I can’t choose to use my complete knowledge or initiate my full powers at all. They come to me only when I am called."
Sara took a bite of stew, thought for a moment and swallowed. "Called?"
Pangloss nodded. "Yes, this is my one time this year when I can choose a magical partner. My partner's job is to call me so that I can take up my full powers."
Sara swallowed again. She asked, "When does that happen?"
"Most years, not at all. When I am called, however, it is always shortly before some horrendous crisis is about to smite the world."
Sara paused with spoon partway to her mouth. "That’s frightening."
"And often inconvenient."
"Who is your partner?"
Pangloss grinned, "You are."
Sara dropped her spoon in her bowl. "Me!"
"You. I choose you."
Pangloss suddenly squirmed in his seat. "Ah, my time is short. I must tell you the summoning word. Then we will be allowed a tutorial period"
Sara looked at him. "The summoning word?"
"Yes, the word which calls me to full awareness. The word is Chrysanthemum. You must memorize it."
"Santhemum. Say it."
Sara concentrated. "Chrysanthemum."
Pangloss took a deep breath and at last said, "Good. Now, when I am truly needed, you must stand before me and say ‘Chrysanthemum’. I will come into my full powers and be ready to deal with a crisis. Can you do that?"
"Good. Because you've said the word, we have a little more time. I'll try to answer your questions."
Sara immediately asked, "Why me? I'm only eleven."
Pangloss shrugged. "You are an intelligent and sensible girl."
"How do you know?"
"You came through my portal."
"Yes, but what does that prove?"
Pangloss put his long fingers together. "The portal would not have opened for you if you were not capable of what is needed. I sensed a crisis approaching and designed it to admit only suitable candidates." He smiled. "I trust you unreservedly."
A new thought came to Sara and she asked, "If your powers are so important and you use them to help people, why don't you have them all of the time?
Pangloss said, "I volunteered to have them restricted."
Sara was now thoroughly confused. "Why?"
Pangloss looked at Sara and then at his steepled fingers. He was quiet for a long moment. "I've thought deeply on this. It's not easy to explain, but you are a smart girl. All power, magical or not, should be separated and restrained. Otherwise, it will be abused. That's especially true for wizards, even wizards who intend to do only good with their magic."
Sara thought about the Wizard's words and recalled that her teacher had said something like this, something about separation of powers. It had to do with what she'd just learned about U.S. History in school. She nodded slowly.
Pangloss continued, "My colleagues and I, Molly included, acquired great power over the years, great knowledge. However, we realized that we weren't immune to abusing our magical power. We understood that, however good our intentions, we would finally come to control and even destroy our lesser neighbors. We agreed to lock away the most potent powers, to conceal and use them only when need for them was great. I was judged capable and am the current designated keeper of those powers. When I am called to serve, I face specific problems and have only a few hours in which to deal with them. I haven't time to misuse what I know and temporarily control."
Sara thought about this and then said, "It's like checks and balances."
Pangloss nodded, "Exactly. You will be a check upon my power. You must stay close to me and judge when a threat is great. Only when you make that judgment, call out the magical word."
Sara looked up. "I should judge when your powers are needed? How am I to know? What if I make a mistake?"
Pangloss sighed. "It is true that the time is precious. Each minute is precious, though years often go by without my being called. I fear now, though, that a time of danger opens before us all. That is why I arranged portals in your world. That is why you are here."
Sara asked, "Is this my mission? After I call you, can I go home?"
Pangloss nodded slowly. "I think so. It is certainly part of your mission, though more may be asked of you. We'll just have to see. The three roses . . ." He blinked and covered his mouth with his hand. He yawned and yawned again. He mumbled, "Oh, my! I'm so sleepy!" He put his arms on the table in front of him and rested his head upon them. "So very, very sleepy." His eyes closed. Sara rose and walked quietly away to find Molly.
Though she was as tired as she'd ever been, she joined Molly in the kitchen and worked steadily beside her. They cleaned and peeled potatoes for tomorrow's stew. Molly at last said, "You can go to bed. I'll finish these and quit, too."
Sara shook her head. "I want to speak with Mr. Pangloss again when he wakes up."
Molly shrugged. "He could sleep all night."
"Will he . . ." Sara paused, "Will he be the old Pangloss again?"
Molly looked at her. "He revealed his secret to you, then?"
Molly picked up another potato. "He'll be the old Pangloss until you say the word of power."
Sara thought about that. "Can he still do magic? I mean, without my calling his greater powers?"
Molly chuckled, "Well, you saw him in action."
Sara's shoulders slumped. "Oh, that bad?"
Molly sighed. "I must be fair. He's still a great magician, just scatter-brained. He can work important magic, given time and motivation." She snorted. "And close supervision!"
Sara smiled. "Good. He'll need to do some if we're going to succeed. It sounds like his greater powers are for emergencies only."
Molly nodded. "Right, though we'll likely have plenty of emergencies. I think that one of the roses must be near the troll caves."
"Is it far, I mean without using a portal?"
"Yes, farther than I care to walk, a couple of weeks at least."
"Molly," Sara looked up at her, "what did you see in the omen window?"
Molly was silent for a moment. At last she said, "A great deal of blood. My blood." She poured tea into a cup and handed it to Sara. "He's stirring. Take him this cup of tea."
Sara picked up the warm cup and walked quickly away. She went to the awakening magician. He'd slept for more than an hour with his head resting upon his arms. The fire had burned to embers. Pangloss peered about with a baffled expression on his face. Sara saw that the old, forgetful Pangloss had returned.
She set the cup on the table and said, "Molly made you some tea, Mr. Pangloss."
"Oh," he looked up, "That was thoughtful of her. A cup of tea is exactly what I need. I seem to have been napping." He picked up the cup and slurped tea noisily.
Sara watched him sip tea for several moments before she said, "Mr. Pangloss, we need to talk about how to reach that waterfall."
"Yes," Sara nodded, "the one you saw in the omen-window. We need to get started on my mission again."
"Of course, of course." He rubbed his chin. "But, dear child, it's so far. Perhaps we ought to rest for a week or two first."
"No, Mr. Pangloss, we need to get started soon. We need a new portal."
Pangloss looked down. "That is not an easy task. It will take time."
"How much time?"
Pangloss thought before he replied. "Some hours of magical work and several weeks of magical growth." He looked at Sara.
Sara squirmed with frustration. "Couldn't you finish it faster?"
Pangloss shook his head. "No, impossible. Are you sure a portal is needed?"
Sara took a deep breath. "Molly says the waterfall where we must look for the first rose is more than two weeks of hard walking from here. That's if the trolls let us walk into their valley. You don't have a helicopter, do you?"
The magician's eyebrows shot up. "A what-i-copter?"
Sara nodded. "That's what I thought. A portal is the only way we can get there."
Molly approached their table. The twins trailed behind her. She gripped neither of them by the ear, so they were with her by choice. Molly said, "Before you two make any plans, listen to what these two have to say."
Oolie and Goolie stepped forward. Goolie said, "We're . . ."
"back!" Oolie finished.
Sara said nothing. Pangloss rubbed his whiskered chin and said, "So I observe."
Molly nodded at the left-hand twin. "Go ahead, Oolie."
"Goolie. I'm Goolie."
Molly snorted. "All right, Goolie then."
Goolie grinned, "I heard you have more business with the trolls."
Pangloss corrected him. "We have business in the troll territories, not with them."
Oolie nodded. "Right. Our da' was a wizard."
Goolie jumped in, "He was."
Oolie continued, "Not a great thumping wizard like Pangloss, here."
Goolie finished, "But a man who knew a few useful spells."
"Knew them well," added Oolie.
Goolie just nodded.
Oolie said, "He made a portal."
Goolie went on, "Just one."
"To the top of the troll hills," said Oolie.
"Near the falls," finished Goolie.
Pangloss asked, "Whatever did you do up there?"
Oolie said, "We searched for crystals,"
"And gold," added Goolie.
"And such," Finished Oolie.
"It works safely?" Pangloss asked.
"Course!" answered Oolie.
"And you know the activating word?"
"Sure we do," said Goolie.
Pangloss looked skeptical. "Where's the portal entrance?"
"It's . . ." began Oolie.
"Here." Goolie held out a clear, blue crystal. It was larger than a hen's egg, but smaller than a saucer.
Oolie said, "We can take it with us. . . "
"Wherever we want to go." Finished Goolie.
Pangloss exclaimed, "A portable entrance! That's very difficult magic! I can't do that!"
"Our da' could only do a few things . . . " said Oolie.
"But he did them well," finished Goolie.
Molly raised her eyebrows and shrugged.
Oolie said, "You can use it . . ."
Goolie offered the crystal to Pangloss. "If we can come too," he finished.
Chapter Five *** Cadena's Cave
Sara's backpack was uncomfortable. Something hard and pointy, likely the tin box of sandwiches Molly had insisted that she carry poked her beneath her left shoulder blade. She shifted the straps, but the poker didn't go away.
She complained to Molly’s back. "This pack is heavy."
"You'll want everything in it before we're home again, I'll bet."
"Will we really have to spend the night in the Troll Hills?"
Molly nodded. "Perhaps several."
Sara shifted her packstraps again. "Won't that be extremely dangerous?"
Molly snorted. "This whole venture is dangerous. Nothing can change that."
Kitten chose this moment to lick Sara's hand. She smiled and continued walking up a gentle hill. They followed a barely visible path, just a deer trail.
"Pangloss made a dozen or so starbursts. They should help."
Sara looked up. "Starbursts?'
"They make flashes of light, not so powerful as those sunbursts he left in place up by the old portal we used, but helpful against trolls. You can carry these with you. You simply drop one and say the word of power."
"Will they make the trolls freeze?"
"No, but their eyes will be dazzled for a moment or two."
"When will I get some?'
"As soon as we go through the portal."
"What's the word of power?"
Molly looked at her. "Be careful not to say it out loud while you're carrying the starbursts. They'll burn holes in your pack or your pocket if you do. I'll spell it for you: p - o - p - p - i - e - s."
"Oh, pop . . ."
"Don't say it!" Molly interrupted.
Pangloss and the twins awaited them in an opening among the trees. A huge cedar had fallen years ago and created the open place. Pangloss stood with his right hand upon its trunk.
He said, "This is a good place, far enough from my house to be safe, yet not too far. And the hollow in this trunk will hide the portal crystal. The twins' father placed a matching crystal in the mountains above the troll caves. We shall exit there. Oolie and goolie will go first to see that all is well.
Goolie poked Oolie and stepped up to the crystal. He took one more step and disappeared. Oolie grinned and followed him.
Molly stepped close to the tree. “I’ll go next. You come after me.” She disappeared.
Sara hoppd through the portal into moving air and bright light. Kitten nudged her left hand with his cold nose. She saw the twins standing beside Molly next to a large rock. She walked toward them.
Molly said, " It makes good sense to have a portal here. We're high above the falls. Trolls don't like the heights. They can find no shelter from sunlight here."
Pangloss came through the portal last. He immediately began flapping his arms against his sides and sputtering, "It's freezing here! Why didn't you tell me? I'd have worn my fur vest."
The twins looked at each other and grinned.
Oolie pointed. "This way."
Goolie added, "If you want to get out of the wind."
The boys led them around the large rock and into a shallow gully. The gully dropped steeply toward twisted pine trees several hundred yards away. Oolie and Goolie scuttled down boulders and rock steps like nimble spiders. Kitten followed close behind them. The others followed more slowly, often using their hands to balance a long step. The wind moaned across the top of the gully, but only odd gusts plucked at Sara's jacket.
They reached the pine trees at last. Molly clapped her mittened hands together and asked, "What next?"
Pangloss pulled his chin. "Well, we have more than half a day of sunlight left. It may be enough for us to complete our task. We shall use this small grove of trees as our safe retreat and rendezvous. I shall leave some defensive devices here and provide others to you now."
He bent down and opened his pack. He pulled out a package wrapped in yellow paper. Next to it was a smaller package wrapped in red paper. Pangloss untied the string bound around the yellow package.
Oolie asked, "What's in the red one?"
Pangloss glared at him. "None of your business!"
Oolie shrugged. "Just asking." Goolie grinned but said nothing.
Pangloss continued, "These are starbursts. I shall give you each one." He began passing them out. "It is to be used only when nothing else will save you from the trolls. Understood?"
Everyone nodded. He handed a starburst to Sara. It was about the size of a marble. It had a dingy yellow color and was oddly heavy. It felt like rough sand against her palm.
Pangloss looked up. "You all know the activating word?"
Again, everyone nodded.
"Good!" He took six of the remaining starbursts and placed them in a rough circle around the pine grove. He spoke as he worked, "The starburst should only react to the magic word when it is out of your pack or pocket. Still, accidents happen. It would be wisest not to say the word until you have thrown it into the air or onto the ground. Right?"
Molly answered for them all, "Right!"
Sara, remembering the problems with the locks on the troll cages, nodded in agreement.
Pangloss continued, "We shall look for one of Sara's roses. It may be in the cave nearest the falls. Cadena will be there and he is no fool."
Sara asked, "Who or what is Cadena?"
Molly answered her. "He is the chief of the trolls and is very dangerous."
"Yes," said Pangloss, "He plans troll raids, though he doesn't lead them himself. Their attacks were always a threat before he came to power; now they are vicious and painfully destructive."
Sara rubbed her arm where she still had bruises from the troll's fingers. "He must be a monster."
Molly nodded. "He is, but not in the way you think. Most troll leaders in the past were the largest, strongest and most brutal of their race. Cadena is actually small and quite feeble by troll standards."
"But," Pangloss interrupted, "he's a magic user. That's quite unheard of among trolls. Did you know that it is possible to die from pain?"
Sara swallowed and shook her head.
"It is," he assured her. "Cadena has a spell for burning those who displease him. He burns them slowly, from the inside out. I understand that the biggest, most terrible trolls tremble with fear when he passes by."
"And trolls," added Molly, "fear nothing but sunlight."
Pangloss looked at Sara. "We must enter Cadena's cave and search for the rose. If any troll has it, it will be him. Do you agree, Molly?"
Molly nodded. "Yes, but are we to fight our way in? The main entrance will doubtless have guards posted. Lots of guards."
Pangloss shook his head. "No, no, we stand no chance if we begin fighting." He patted the red paper package. "I've provided us a diversion. But how to use it?"
Oolie piped up, "There's another way in."
"A secret!" Goolie said.
"Only we know it," finished Goolie.
Faster than thought, Molly grabbed Oolie's ear. She gave it a not too gentle tug. "Are you fooling with us, boy?"
"No, no!" squealed Oolie.
"No, no!" echoed Goolie. "We'll take you there."
Oolie couldn't nod, but he added, "Right now, instantly!"
Molly looked at Pangloss. Pangloss said, "It could be true. The limestone near these falls is a maze of tunnels and passages."
Molly shrugged and released Oolie's ear. "It's worth a look. Let's go."
An hour later, they all crouched behind a jumble of boulders. Oolie pointed downhill. "That's it."
Goolie nodded. "The secret way."
Molly eyed a triangular hole at the base of a massive slab of rock. The slab leaned against a boulder and thereby created the opening. "I can't crawl into that."
Pangloss rubbed his left hip, "Nor I."
After a moment, Sara spoke hesitantly, "I can."
Oolie said, "It's our secret."
"We'll go, too," finished Goolie.
Molly snorted. "That's a terrible idea! You three can't go up against Cadena!"
Pangloss raised his right forefinger. "Just a minute!" He paused, thought and finally continued. "They could succeed if Cadena weren't there."
Molly snorted. "Are you going to invite him to tea?"
"Of course, not. You and I shall create a diversion. We'll do something distracting in the far tunnels, something that will bring Cadena to investigate. The youngsters can then find and take the rose with ease. I thought we'd have to do something of the kind, anyway."
Molly's eyebrows rose slightly. "You think Cadena wouldn't ward his cave? You think there will be no traps, no spells of warning?"
"Of course, he will have protected his cave, but," he again raised his finger, "if the children are swift it won't matter. They'll be gone before he is able to return."
Sara patted Molly’s arm. "It's a good chance, Molly, better than trying to fight our way through troll guards."
Molly looked steadily at Sara. At last, she nodded.
Pangloss rubbed his hands together. "Good! You three work your way down to the entrance of the cave and wait. Molly and I will take my surprise," he patted the red package, "to the entrance of the main cave. When you hear it, go in and make your search." He turned away.
Molly took Sara's hand as they walked toward the entrance. "Be swift, girl, and keep your starburst to hand. Here are light wands to show you the way. Just shake them twice when you need light. Shake them once to turn them off. " She handed orange wands to each of the three children
Sara took hers and said, "Thanks, Molly."
Molly squeezed her hand and released it. She then turned and followed Pangloss downhill.
Oolie motioned to Sara, "Follow us . . . "
"Right behind," finished Goolie.
They scrambled into the black gap beneath the slab. Sara activated her light wand and followed Goolie's feet down a narrow tunnel. She noticed that there was a small hole in the sole of his right shoe. After twelve feet or so, the tunnel's ceiling rose and they stood.
Goolie said, "This way."
"Quietly!" added Oolie.
Sara followed them down a smooth, gently sloping passage.
Oolie said, "Dwarves shaped this tunnel long ago."
"Yeah," said Goolie, "no troll would carve a passage like this."
"What were the dwarves mining?" asked Sara.
"Gold," answered Oolie.
"Gold and gems," Goolie added. "Our Da' would have us scratching for nuggets and crystals while we waited for a chance to steal from the trolls."
"Did you find any?"
"Not many," said Oolie.
"Those dwarves didn't leave very much!" finished Goolie.
Sara saw something gleam to her left. She stopped, looked. "What's that?" she asked the twins' backs.
Sara pointed at sparkles in a hollow of rock a few feet off their path.
Goolie said, "Just glass pebbles."
"Not valuable at all, added Oolie.
"The dwarves left them," finished Goolie. They turned and began walking again.
Sara stooped and picked up a handful of the pebbles. They shone red, green, yellow, purple and blue in the light from her wand. She smiled and thought, "They're perfectly round like marbles." She rolled them in her hand for a moment. "I wonder if the twins play marbles?" She tucked them into a pocket, determined to answer her question later, and rose to catch up with the boys.
They walked on in silence for many minutes. The tunnel leveled out and then began to trend upwards. Oolie at last held up his right hand. He whispered, "We're close now. It's around the next bend and up a side tunnel. Wait here for Pangloss."
"And listen!" added Goolie.
They waited and listened.
Something cold and wet nudged Sara's hand. Her heart lurched and she almost screamed. Something warm and wet slurped her wrist. "Kitten!" she breathed. She'd forgotten about Kitten. He licked her hand again.
Oolie turned, saw kitten and frowned. "Send it away!"
Kitten growled low in his throat.
Oolie's face went white. "Nice doggy! Good doggy!"
Sara patted Kitten's head. He stopped growling.
Oolie turned away. Deep silence wrapped around them for more than a minute. Sara spoke at last. She didn't whisper, but she kept her voice low and asked, "Oolie, is your dad still living?"
Oolie shook his head. "No."
Sara thought about that and then asked, "Would you tell me what happened?"
Oolie shrugged, "Trolls got him."
"They had a new trap, something my da' had never seen before."
Goolie leaned close. "We waited for him at our meeting place. He didn't come."
"And he didn't come," continued Oolie. "We waited past sunset."
"Then we heard trolls cursing."
Oolie nodded. "And yelling. We decided to see what it was about."
Goolie smiled. "We can be sneaky."
Oolie smiled, too. "Very sneaky. We slipped through shadows of shadows and came to the place where the trolls were yelling. We found a sticky thing."
"A black rope," added Goolie.
"I poked it with a branch."
"It grabbed the branch and held it."
"Went round and round it."
"And wouldn't let go."
"It was magic."
"Magic we'd never seen before."
"We took the troll path down to their open place."
"It's the place where they kill."
"There's a stone platform with torches all around."
"With iron rings for tying people down."
"Our da' was there."
"Trolls use crystal knives."
"Like a shark's eye."
"The executioner is the biggest troll of all."
"The one with the scar across his face."
"An old ax cut, I think."
"He held the knife in front of him."
"It sparkled in that torchlight."
"Like a black star."
"He held it and walked toward our da'"
"All his teeth were showing."
"And sparkling, too."
"Our da' suddenly looked up at us."
"Right where we were hidden."
"He looked at us and said something."
"We couldn't hear him with all of the trolls hooting"
Oolie looked down, almost whispered, "But he said 'run!'"
Goolie repeated, "Run."
Both boys were silent for a moment. At last Oolie said, "Then they killed him."
Sara looked away. "I'm sorry." She reached out and patted Oolie's hand.
Oolie jerked his hand away and looked at Sara with wide, shocked eyes.
At that moment, the floor of the tunnel jumped and a muffled roar sounded. Dust sifted down from the tunnel roof.
Oolie said, "Pangloss!"
Goolie added, "The distraction."
"I'll look and see if the trolls are gone." Oolie ran lightly up the tunnel and slipped around the next corner. After only a moment, his head and left hand appeared out of the dusty gloom ahead. He motioned for them to join him.
Goolie went around the corner. Sara followed him, Kitten almost at her side. They walked into deeper shadow. Sharply curving walls closed in on them. Oolie, facing a blank wall, motioned for them to stop.
Goolie leaned close to Sara and whispered, "No noise."
Oolie touched something on the wall before him. A spot of light appeared, a hole the size of a baby's fingernail. He leaned forward and peered through the hole. After a long moment, he touched a small knob above his right shoulder. There was a soft click. A slab of rock somewhat bigger than a dinner plate swung open. Oolie motioned for them to follow. He then turned sideways and slithered through the opening. Goolie followed him.
Sara was shorter than the twins, but not so thin. She hunched her shoulders together, stuck her arms straight out before her and squeezed into the hole. Oolie and Goolie gripped a hand each and pulled her through. She popped from the hole like a cork from a bottle.
The twins released her hands and she rolled to her knees. Behind her, Kitten whimpered.
Goolie said, "No, doggy! Stay!"
Kitten lifted his upper lip in a silent snarl. Then, with a scratching of claws, his head and right foreleg came through the hole. He wriggled and twisted. His left leg slid through. His claws dug into rock. His shoulder muscles clenched and he pulled himself out of the hole.
Sara patted his head and received a lick in return. She looked up to find that they stood in a great cavern. It was shaped like a pyramid lying on its side. They were standing at the pyramid's base. Perhaps a hundred feet away, the pyramid's blunt point ended in a well-lit alcove.
Oolie pointed. "Over there."
Goolie added, "Cadena's chamber."
They walked for some yards and then stepped onto a raised path. Several yards down the path Oolie halted suddenly. He whispered and pointed, "Next to the path, there's a black rope."
Goolie said, "I brought a stick." He stepped past Oolie and poked the black rope with his stick. The rope struck like a cobra. One end split and gaped like a mouth. Ebony fangs sank into Goolie's stick. A thorn covered tail lashed at his hand. Oolie produced a burlap bag from within his coat, oopened it wide and held it ready. Goolie thrust the stick and its writhing passenger into the bag. Oolie squeezed the bag shut, twisted it twice with a flip of his wrist and tied it shut with a leather thong.
Goolie grinned. "Safe now."
Sara shivered. She asked, "Is that thing alive?"
Oolie shrugged. "Don't know."
Goolie held the bag closer to Sara. "Want to ask it?"
Sara jerked back and frowned. Goolie grinned.
Oolie grinned too, but he said, "No time for fun now. We must split up. The main entrance is over there." He pointed to his right. "I'll guard it."
Goolie pointed to his left. "The trolls' secret entrance is over there. I'll watch that."
Oolie said, "Ours is the really secret entrance."
"Too small for trolls," added Goolie.
"We'll meet there when you've found the rose," said Oolie.
"Unless there's trouble,"
"Or you don't find it."
Sara nodded. "I'll hurry."
The twins turned and went in separate directions. Sara swallowed hard and walked toward the alcove. Ears pointed forwards, Kitten followed her. Her heart fluttered like a butterfly's wings. She took deep breaths, tried to slow its frantic beating. She could see nothing to fear. Still, she was afraid.
The path was smooth and sloped slightly upwards. The cavern's ceiling slanted down in front of her until it merged with the alcove. The alcove was a room with one side open, the side facing her. Three fat, brown candles burned in a black iron sconce on the alcove's right wall.
A distant shout froze her in place. She looked to her right at the mouth of the entrance tunnel. Oolie was there. Another call, more distant, sounded. Oolie motioned for her to continue. She did.
Only a few more seconds of walking brought her to three steps. The three steps led up into the open-sided alcove. She took a deep breath, climbed them and halted in the Troll-king's room.
In a recess to her left was a wide, stone platform. The platform was heaped high with furs - bearskins, otter pelts, grey wolf hides. To her right stood a heavy wooden rack. Axes and war-hammers, some dark-stained, hung from it. Before her was a long, crude wooden table. This table was shoved against the wall and was littered with scraps of paper, bottles and dirty pewter dishes. Cabinets and shelves hung above it. The shelves were lined with liquid-filled bottles - blood red, mold blue, slime green, pus yellow, blackest black. A human skull - small, a child's or an old woman's - sat at the shelf's end.
A gleam of reflected candlelight caught Sara's eye. She looked at the tabletop in front of her. On the splintered, stained boards lay an oval of polished jade as green as the sea. A rose was set in its center. The rose's leaves and stem were made of palest silver. Blood-red rubies formed the petals of the blossom. She reached to pick it up.
"It is beautiful, isn't it?" said someone behind her.
Sara's heart leapt into her throat. Her fingers stopped a few inches from the rose.
The voice - deep and harsh, though not loud - continued, "Go ahead. Touch it, if you wish. You may."
Sara turned and looked at the speaker.
"I am Cadena, King of the Trolls."
Sara stared at him. He was wide, but no taller than Pangloss. His face was wrinkled, warty and gray. The tips of tusks protruded slightly below his very full upper lip. His eyes, black and still, bored into hers.
Cadena continued speaking, "I surprised you. You likely wonder why I’m not looking at the fireworks your companions set off. No?"
Sara couldn't say anything, but she managed to nod.
Cadena smiled, revealing more of his tusks. "That was too obvious a diversion to occupy me for long. And I need not use tunnels to move around in my own home when haste is required."
Sara breathed in, began to say something, but Cadena interrupted her. "You are a thief." He chuckled, a soft but terrifying sound. "I am a thief, too. I am King of thieves, rather, so thievery does not anger me. I expect it. I honor it. I don't fault your choice of loot, either. That rose is by far the most valuable thing I possess. Still, I can't allow you to take it." He stopped smiling.
Sara tensed to flee. Solid stone above, below, to both sides and behind blocked her. The Troll King, reading her thoughts, watched her. His smile grew even wider. "Don't fear. I won't hurt you just yet - not at all, if you cooperate with me. I must discover how you came here and who sent you. We have much to discuss, you and I, but later." He pointed three stubby, clawed fingers at Sara.
Sara closed her eyes just as a low growl rumbled behind her. Kitten rose from below the table. He'd gone there on investigations of his own. He snarled again and leapt for Cadena's throat. Cadena flicked his fingers. A blast of green fire slammed into Kitten. He fell to the floor, but the gout of fire bounced back from him and engulfed Cadena. The troll king uttered a hoarse cry and fell out of the alcove onto the cavern's floor.
Kitten shook himself and rose. He looked at Sara and wagged his tail twice. She reached out and patted his nose. He seemed unhurt. She turned toward the troll. Cadena lay to the right of the three steps, stunned or dead. She didn't understand what had just happened, but she knew it was time to leave. She snatched up the scarlet rose, leapt down the steps and stopped. Someone was coming.
Goolie, bag over his shoulder, trotted up. "I saw a light. What happened?"
Sara pointed at Cadena. Goolie's eyes bulged. Then he squealed in alarm and hopped back. Sara said, "It's okay. He might be dead."
Goolie looked up at Sara. Fear, awe and surprise stretched his face out of its usual grin. A shout sounded from shadows to the left. Oolie ran along the cavern's far wall. He shouted again, "Trolls!"
A troll lurched out of the darkness behind Oolie. It was huge, half again bigger than any Sara had yet seen. It ran like boulders falling and swung a terrible, single-bladed axe. The cleaver blade hummed past Oolie's right ear. He ducked and kept running.
Goolie sprang away. "Run for the secret tunnel!" he shouted over his shoulder. Sara sprang after him. Kitten bounded after her. Sara glanced to her left as she ran. Oolie was fast, but so was the huge troll. Their path converged with hers and Kitten's. They would all meet at the tunnel at the same time. Then she saw Goolie dart toward Oolie and the troll. He opened the burlap bag as he ran. Then he flung the bag and the black rope it contained at the troll's legs as Oolie ran past him. He dove past the troll's toes and tucked into a somersault as the deadly axe blade grazed his heels.
Then the troll roared. It roared and tumbled to the floor with a great crash. The black rope wound round and round its knees. The rope's fanged mouth struck again and again. The troll howled in pain and anger. It wrenched the black coils with all of its strength, but they only tightened harder.
Oolie slid through the tunnel's entrance and then turned to help Sara. A loud thump sounded just above her head. She looked back. Goolie was on his feet again and running. Beyond him, at the cavern's entrance, stood two more trolls, both with bows drawn tight. Goolie shouted, "Watch out! They're shooting!"
She heard the twang of bowstrings. Then something hit her in the middle of her forehead. There was a blast of pain and she knew nothing more.
Chapter Six *** Thumped
Orange light, soft and warm, flickered somewhere beyond Sara's eyelids. She turned away from the light and a blade of pain struck into her forehead. She groaned and opened her eyes.
Molly's wide, calm face looked down upon her. She said nothing, but immediately placed a cool, damp cloth on Sara's brow. The pain eased slightly.
Sara croaked, "Water, please!"
Molly held a heavy, green glass mug while Sara drank. After several deep gulps, Sara paused for breath. She looked up at Molly. "Where?" she asked.
“We're in the wizard's house. You were wounded. We carried you here."
Sara would have frowned, but even the passing intention made her head hurt. "Wounded?" she asked.
Molly nodded. "Wounded. Thumped in the head by a birding arrow."
Sara's puzzlement exceeded the discomfort caused to her head by talking. She asked, "What's a birding arrow? And why did the trolls shoot me with one? I'm not a bird."
Molly thought for a moment before she answered. "Well, a birding arrow has a blunt weight on its end instead of a sharp arrowhead. They're used to stun or kill birds without cutting them. I believe Cadena ordered his guards to use them to capture intruders."
"Cadena is clever," Molly nodded to herself, "very clever. He wants anyone smart enough to sneak into his cave taken alive so that he can question them." She looked at Sara. "In any case, you are not permanently hurt, though you should rest."
"What happened after the arrow knocked me out?"
"Oolie and Goolie pulled you through the secret entrance and carried you back to the surface. Kitten helped as he could. You were fairly safe once they got you back into the tunnel. That entrance is far too small to pass any troll."
Sara sighed. "It's not a secret any more."
Molly smiled, "No, it's not, but it served a good purpose. You brought back the red rose."
"What happened to Cadena? And Kitten? Was he hurt?"
Pangloss's bearded face appeared over Molly's right shoulder. "Please allow me to answer that question. You'll remember I told you that Kitten is a magical beast. One of his main powers is that he can reflect magical spells. The stronger the magic, the bigger the bounce."
Sara thought for a moment and then asked, "Was Cadena killed then?"
Pangloss shook his head. "No, no, we're not that fortunate. He used a stunning spell, a strong one, and was therefore stunned himself when it reflected off Kitten and struck him."
"How's Kitten?" she asked.
A cold nose nuzzled her hand. A pink tongue licked her fingers.
Molly chuckled. "He's fine now that you're awake."
Sara smiled and rubbed the fine fur on Kitten's muzzle.
Molly said, "Get out of the way, you silly animal." Kitten's tail drooped and he turned toward the door. Looking sadly over his shoulder, he walked out. Molly continued, "I've got some soup for you. Can you hold the mug, or should I help you."
Sara raised an eyebrow. "Actually, I'm very hungry. I could use something more than soup."
Molly's lips compressed. She shook her head. "You're hurt. You'll have nothing but soup until I'm sure you're better."
Sara felt suddenly tired, too tired to argue. She reached for the mug and took it with both hands. It was warm and steam smelling of pepper and celery rose from it. She drank.
Pangloss said, "I'll be off. We'll speak again when you feel stronger."
Sara nodded and took another sip of soup.
Later, she dozed. Still later, a sharp nose poked around the edge of the bedroom doorway. It was followed by Oolie's even sharper grin. Sara started to speak, but he held his right index finger against his lips. "Shhhhhh," he said. Then he slid into the room. He carried a fragrant, crusty, golden-brown pie. Goolie, looking over a shoulder and also carrying a pie, followed him.
Sara again began to speak, but Goolie whispered, "Here." He held out his pie.
Oolie offered its twin. "One's for you."
Goolie nodded, "Later."
Sara stammered, "But, but . . . "
"Hide them!" Oolie went on.
"Quick!" added Goolie. "The fat lady's coming."
Oolie grinned. "She's mad."
Sara tried to break in, "But . . . "
Goolie said, "Later." He slid his pie under the bed.
Oolie said, "We'll be back later," and he slid his pie under the bed.
Goolie nodded, "For a feast!"
They hopped to the door and were gone in an instant. Sara heard heavy footsteps approaching. A thundercloud of aprons and skirts suddenly blocked the doorway. Jo stood there, hands on her wide hips, glaring. Her eyes darted into all corners of the room. "I'm looking for Oolie and Goolie," she said.
Sara answered, quite truthfully, "They're not here."
Jo snorted, "Obviously." She sniffed the air. "I smell pie."
Sara's mind scrambled for an answer. She said, "Molly was here before. She came from the kitchen. Maybe the smell of baking was on her apron."
Jo said nothing. She stood, eyebrows arched skeptically, and stared at Sara.
Sara felt a blush creep out from behind her ears.
At last, Jo said, "If you see those miserable twins, tell them that they'll be sorry if they come into my kitchen again. I'll tie them to the sink and have them peel onions until they've cried a tub of tears." She turned and the storm of aprons vanished.
Kitten poked his nose through the door, sniffed twice and entered. His tail wagged lazily as he walked toward the bed. Sara smiled and put her hand down to be sniffed and licked. It was.
She said, "You're a good wolf, a very good wolf."
Kitten gazed up at her, his eyes full of happy affection. He then circled three times, lay down on the rug next to the bed and covered his nose with his tail. His eyes closed. So did Sara's.
More than a little while later, Sara heard voices.
"Sleepy, she is."
She opened her eyes. Oolie and Goolie stood grinning near the door but a respectful distance from Kitten. Oolie took a step toward her. Kitten growled far down in his throat. Oolie's foot froze in mid-air.
Sara said, "It's okay, Kitten. They're friends."
Kitten growled again. Sara patted his head and he became quiet. She looked at the twins. "He won't hurt you."
Oolie stepped forward. "If you . . . "
"Say so," finished Goolie.
Kitten rose with grave dignity and walked to the fireplace. He sat down with his tail toward the coals and waited to see what would happen next.
Goolie laughed. He said, "Now, it's time for . . . "
"Pie!" finished Oolie.
Both of them dove beneath the bed.
"Mind your elbows!"
"Get your nose out of the crust!"
Sara heard further grunts, thumps and scufflings, but at last the twins squirmed out from beneath the bed. Each held a pie.
She asked, "What kind of pies are they?"
Oolie grinned, "The best."
"Apple," said Goolie.
"And mince," said Oolie.
Sara asked, "Have you got plates and forks?"
Goolie looked surprised. "Plates and forks?"
Ooile said, "Got hands!"
"And a knife," added Goolie. He quickly sliced both pies into four pieces each. He thrust his right hand into the apple pie. He lifted out a fat piece and offered it to Sara. She sat up straight in bed. He said, "Here." She held out both hands and he dropped the sticky, crusty piece onto her palms. It smelled of cinnamon. Goolie handed a piece to his brother and took one for himself. Tail wagging, Kitten walked toward him.
Goolie shook his head. "No! No pie for doggies."
Kitten's eyes narrowed. The hint of a growl, like distant thunder, rumbled in his chest.
Sara said, "I think he likes pie, too."
The rumbling thunder grew louder.
Sara continued, "After all, he knocked Cadena out. We wouldn't have escaped otherwise."
Goolie looked at Oolie. Oolie shrugged. Goolie sighed and looked at Kitten. Kitten wagged hopefully. Goolie picked up the pie dish with the last piece of apple pie in it and placed it in front of Kitten's nose.
Aside from munchings, lickings of fingers and smackings of lips, the room became silent. After a short time, Goolie said, "Now, mince!"
He divided the mince pie as he had the apple and they all commenced eating again. When she finished, Sara patted her tummy. Tight as a drum, she thought. Like clouds passing over a full moon, discomfort intruded upon her satisfaction. She began to doubt the wisdom of eating that second piece of pie.
To distract herself from her stomach's tightness, she asked the twins a question. "Is there a town close to here?"
Oolie shook his head. "Town not close."
"Too dangerous!" nodded Goolie.
Oolie explained, "Many farms and towns are beyond these hills, away from the mountains."
"And the trolls."
Oolie rubbed his chin. "There is one village that's not too far away."
Sara asked, "Do you live there?"
Oolie smiled. "No, no."
Goolie continued, "We have our own place."
"Deep in the forest," said Oolie.
"In a secret vale," explained Goolie
"Hidden," Oolie nodded.
"Safe!" Goolie finished.
Sara thought about this. Then she asked, "How do you live?"
Oolie looked puzzled, "What do you mean?'
Sara changed her question, "How do you get what you need, food and things?"
Goolie brightened. "Ah, we hunt."
"We buy things," continued Oolie.
"And we steal," grinned Goolie.
Footsteps sounded in the hall outside. Quick as thinking, Goolie snatched up the empty pie plates and dove beneath the bed. Oolie was on his heels. Kitten turned his shoulders sideways and crowded in with them.
Sara lay back and pretended to be resting as Jo and Molly entered the room. They came over next to her bed and looked down at her. She opened her eyes.
Molly said, "I think you might be able handle a little solid food now. Come into the kitchen in a few minutes and you can have some bread and honey."
Jo nodded. "Fresh bread, deary." She patted Sara's hand. "Just the thing for you."
Sara smiled and said, "Thank-you"
Jo smiled and turned. "See you soon."
Molly said, "You'll have to try not to eat too much at first."
Sara nodded. "I'll try."
"Good!" She walked toward the door. "I'll set out a plate for you." She paused at the doorway and sniffed. "It smells like pie in here."
Sara said nothing.
Molly looked at her. "Very strange!"
"Yes," agreed Sara.
"Ah, well." Molly looked over her shoulder. "You've got what looks like a flake of crust on your chin," she said. She glanced down at the foot of the bed. Sara looked down. The very tip of Kitten's tail protruded from beneath the bed frame. Molly's eyes met Sara's. "Also, you'll want to clean under your bed before you come to the kitchen."
Sara blushed as she nodded.
Molly turned and departed.
Sara looked into the smoky glass of a very old mirror. The bruise on her forehead was yellow with purple blotches. It was ugly, but it didn't hurt very much at all now. A week had passed since their escape from the trolls and she felt completely healed.
Molly patted her shoulder. "Don't worry," she said, "the bruise will fade."
Sara nodded. A noise like a giant bumblebee made her turn her head. The bumblebee suddenly acquired a bad case of hiccups. Across the room, Pangloss bowed a battered, black string bass.
Molly’s beady eyes bugged out as much as they could and she jammed both index fingers into her ears. “Stop it, Pangloss! Stop that cursed sawing!”
Pangloss lifted his bow from the strings and sighed. “You know I must practice, Molly. The string bass society’s annual meeting is in six weeks. This year they may allow me to play the last movement of Dittersdorf’s Concerto. I’ve been working on it for more than ten years and I’ve almost got it.”
Molly wrinkled her nose. “No, no, you're wrong. It's almost got me.”
Pangloss sniffed, "You have no appreciation for music, Molly. That is a personality flaw upon which you would do well to work. Listening to Dittersdorf can only improve your mind."
"It's my ears I'm worried about."
Jo entered the wizard's chamber. "Mr. Pangloss?" she asked.
Pangloss kept playing.
She spoke louder, "Mr. Pangloss?"
Pangloss sawed on.
She took a deep breath and brayed, "Mr. Pangloss!"
Pangloss lifted his bow and snarled, "What?"
"I wish to speak with you about supper."
A stricken look passed over Pangloss's face. He raised his eyes in an appeal to heaven and murmured to himself, "Great music must now wait upon beans and broccoli." He leaned his bass against his stool and shuffled to the door.
Sara hid a smile and turned away. Most of the rescued troll prisoners had returned to the lowlands a few days before. Only Jo, Tom, and the twins remained. Still, she'd heard Jo complain that they were running short of important foodstuffs. That was likely what she was telling Pangloss now. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Goolie zip from the old couch to the table. He looked at her and grinned. Then he scuttled over to the string bass and touched it. Sara saw a gleam of light in his hand. He looked at her again, winked and dashed back to the table. He disappeared into shadows beneath the table as Pangloss turned away from Jo.
Pangloss walked back to his bass, plucked up his bow and nestled the smooth neck against his shoulder. He looked at Sara and pronounced, "No more interruptions. It's time for Dittersdorf!"
He drew his bow across the strings. Two of them snapped with loud twangs."
Pangloss howled with dismay. Then he bent over and looked at the dangling strings. A scowl slowly deepened the wrinkles on his face. He looked up slowly. He said, "These strings have been cut part way through!"
Goolie flashed from beneath the table and was out of the door before anyone could move.
Pangloss breathed deeply twice. Through clenched teeth, he said, "Those strings aren't cheap! I shall curse those boys with the red itch. I shall do it now!" He raised his wand.
Molly held his arm. "Oh, let them alone. Punishing every trick of theirs would leave you without magical power when you need it most. Why waste your time? They learn nothing from their misdeeds however hard their punishment."
Pangloss lowered his wand. "Perhaps you're right."
"Besides," Molly continued, "You'd likely give us the itch instead of them."
Pangloss slipped his wand inside his robe. He muttered, "Still, they shouldn't go unpunished for this outrage."
Molly said, "I'll catch them later and make them work for Jo in the kitchen. She'll enjoy that. She's sure they stole her pies last week."
Sara kept her eyes down and tried to look innocent.
Pangloss loosened his bow. "Yes, pies," he said. "Jo just informed me that we are running short of some critical supplies. I usually shop in Tilden only once a month, but our unexpected guests have depleted my larder. " He brightened. "We shall go to the village tomorrow and shop."
Molly nodded. "I'll ask Jo to make a list."
"Groceries and new strings for my bass," added Pangloss.
Molly looked up. "Surely they won't have bass strings in a village the size of Tilden on the Water?"
Pangloss smiled. "My old friend Bert lives there, as you know. He's a musician, too. He has a bass and he'll have a spare set of strings for me. I'll use them until I can get to Star Harbor and buy more."
Molly grimaced. "Oh, joy."
Pangloss rubbed his hands together. "Yes, indeed."
Molly looked at Sara. "Do you feel well enough to go shopping."
Sara jumped up. "Yes, please!"
"Then tell the twins. We'll leave after breakfast tomorrow."
Sara skipped down the long hallway and went into the dining room. She heard a squeal from behind a big chair and knew she'd found the boys. Something clicked in her pocket. She put her hand in and found, "Marbles!"
Oolie and Goolie looked up. Sara said, "I've got something for you both."
Sara knelt, opened her palm and let the marbles - three green, two blue, a yellow and a red - roll onto the floor.
Oolie frowned. "Those are from the troll caves."
Goolie nodded, "Hundreds more like them there."
"Not good for anything!" Oolie looked up.
Sara laughed. "They're good for a game if you've got a good eye."
Goolie sniffed. "Got two good eyes."
"Me, too," added Oolie.
"Then watch." Sara picked up the yellow marble, slid back a few feet, took aim and flicked her thumb. The marble shot across the floor and smacked into the red marble with a loud click.
Goolie's eyebrows went up. "Pretty good."
"I could do that," said Oolie.
Sara picked up the yellow marble and placed it on his palm. "Go ahead."
Oolie took careful aim at a blue marble and flicked the shooter as he'd seen Sara do. The marble shot across the floor and hit Goolie.
Goolie and Sara laughed. Oolie's face turned red. Goolie said, "Let me try."
The clicking of marbles and the twins' squeals could be heard long after Sara returned to her bed for a needed nap.
Sara, Molly, Pangloss and Kitten walked down a narrow path between pines. Morning was cool and quiet around them. The twins were scrubbing floors for Jo and were facing an afternoon of washing windows, rather than shopping in Tilden. Jo broke up their eventual fight over the marble game and decided that working together would help them better understand how to get along. Sara felt just a tiny bit of guilt about that. Marbles had been her idea, after all.
"It’s been six weeks at least since I visted the village," said Pangloss.
Sara looked up. "Is it far?"
"Not at all! Tilden on the Water is close! I go there a dozen times a year, so I made a portal to ease the passage. It's my stream to stream portal. We will be there in half an hour! You'll see."
Pangloss led them into a shallow valley. Sara could see the gleam of water at its bottom where a lovely brook flowed over terraces of golden stone. They came to a wide pool surrounded by ferns. Pangloss approached a round boulder with a P on its side. He touched it and said, "Petunia." Blue light flared and he disappeared. Molly followed him. Sara, holding onto the fur on Kitten's neck, followed her. Silver light dazzled her as she and Kitten passed through the portal.
Sara blinked her eyes and looked through sheltering trees at a river. Deep pools shone like a series of mirrors and were connected by silvery rapids.
Pangloss, standing somewhat in front of her, said, "The Greenflood is low now, but these banks are awash in springtime."
They began walking, following a path along the river's bank. They paced in silence for a time. At last, Sara asked, "Do you spend much time by this river?"
"Oh, yes!" He nodded. "I'm a trout fisherman, you see, and this is a great river for trout."
"Are you good?"
"Well, let me say that 'improving' might be the best word to describe my level of skill."
Molly chuckled. "When the trout see him coming, they swim in a circle around his hook and have a good laugh."
"That's not really fair! There's a great deal to fly-fishing. It's an art that I admit that I'm still learning. I spent a week fishing here in June. Just behind us is the Lumper's pool."
Sara looked up. "The Lumper's pool?"
"Yes, the Lumper is the biggest, oldest, wiliest trout in the river. Just to get him on a hook is a quest worthy of years!"
"Have you done it?"
Pangloss shook his head. "No, but this last time I was close! He inspected my fly! I saw him! At first, I thought he was a log, but no! He rose. The water swelled like a wave above him! His back is broad and brown with black speckles."
"What did you do?"
Pangloss shrugged. "Just sat there on the bank. I was so stunned that I couldn't cast again."
Pangloss glared at her. "That's what you would do, too, if you saw such a magnificent creature!"
Sara decided to change the subject. "Will your friend be surprised by our visit?" Pangloss pursed his lips. "Perhaps, but Bert will be glad to see us."
Sara wasn't so sure. "Is Bert a magician, too?"
Pangloss rubbed his chin. "I should call him a scholar, a wise man. He's a fisherman, too, and a grandfather. He's much more used to children than I am."
The trees thinned and the sky became bright ahead of them. Pangloss raised his right hand. They stopped and stared down into a peaceful valley. The Greenflood entered the valley to their left. Fields of green hay and oats lay almost at their feet. Farther down the stream on either side, houses clustered beneath shady trees. A gracefully arched wooden bridge joined the two parts of the village.
Molly shrugged her mostly empty pack into a more comfortable position. “Well, let’s go down. We’ll have a fine lunch at the inn.”
Pangloss pursed his lips. “Perhaps.”
Molly grunted, “What’s the matter?”
“I caught a whiff of a noisome smell on the breeze. Something's not right. We’ll need a protective charm, I think. Just as a precaution.” He raised his wand and waved. He said, "Rosemary." A puff of silver sparkles spouted from the wand, became a thin cloud and settled over them. “Now,” he said, “we can proceed.”
They walked down a gentle hill. Spring grass bent to a morning breeze. Wildflowers sparkled in the grass like stars in an evening sky. Yet when the breeze paused, an evil smell teased their noses.
They walked under trees and came to the first house in the village. A boy lay halfway out of its doorway. His hair was brown and he was perhaps five years old. He was dead.
Pangloss bent over and gazed at the boy. Then he straightened. "Perhaps we should shop another day." He turned and walked back the way they'd come, away from the dead boy.
Molly looked at Sara and raised her right eyebrow.
Sara whispered, though she didn’t know why, “Molly, what happened here?”
Molly shrugged. “Plague, I'd guess. Some sort of plague struck this town. There’s magic in it, too, which makes it worse.”
Sara looked at her. "Molly, we need to help these people. Should I call Pangloss to full awareness?"
Molly stared at her. At last, she nodded, "You must judge, but I think it would be wise."
Sara nodded. She took a deep breath and called out, "Chrysanthemum!"
Pangloss froze in his tracks. A silver glow, like that from a portal, enfolded him briefly and then faded. He stooped for a moment and then stood taller than he had before. He turned and looked at Sara.
Chapter Seven *** Bert's Hiding Place
Pangloss walked back to them and continued toward the town. As he passed, he murmured, “Follow me. Touch nothing.” They followed him and entered Tilden on the Water. The houses they passed were silent. Windows were dark and no smoke rose from chimneys.
They stopped in a square covered with rich grass just before the arched bridge. At the center of the square grew a mighty oak. At the base of the oak lay several children. One of the children moved.
Pangloss said, “ Kitten, guard us." Kitten looked at Pangloss for a moment. Then he loped swiftly into the woods at the edge of town. Pangloss watched the wolf disappear. Then he turned to Sara and Molly. "Wait here,” he said and walked toward the oak.
As he approached the huddled children, he raised his baton slightly. Again, the silver glow sprang from its tip and surrounded him. He then knelt beside the little girl who had moved. He reached out and touched her forehead. She cried out once and then became still.
Pangloss rose and motioned them forward. Sara and Molly walked slowly toward him. They stepped into the silver glow. It was like passing through a waterfall’s mist. They reached Pangloss and stopped.
Sara looked at him closely. He seemed larger, stronger and younger than he’d been before. His eyes were clear and wide open. He’d taken off his silver-rimmed spectacles.
He said, “Power was entrusted to me to prevent horrors such as this. This time, I am too late. These children will likely die. We can only ease their suffering.”
Molly nodded. “That’s something.”
Pangloss turned. “Yes, it is. Let’s do what we can. Sara, get cool water from the well. There should be a bucket and a dipper. Cut the rope on the well's bucket, if necessary. Give drinks to all who are still conscious.”
Sara asked, “Is it safe to touch them?”
Pangloss nodded. “It is now.”
Sara went to fetch water.
Molly asked, “Might I help?”
Pangloss nodded. “You have a good spell for pain’s ease. Soothe the ones who are still awake. They have a chance."
Molly asked, "And the unconscious ones?"
Pangloss looked down at the children. "Their fevers are far along and will take them soon. I shall try to do something for all of them.”
Molly asked, “What happened here?”
Pangloss gazed across the fields toward tree-covered hills. At last, he said, “Some user of magic found or created a plague and then brought it here to maim and kill. Suffering was intended, too, which makes this act more evil still.”
Molly continued, “Who did this, do you think?”
Pangloss shrugged. “Cadena, surely, but he couldn't have done this alone." He patted Molly's hand. "If you will help those here, I'll check the houses for others.” He rose.
The little girl moaned softly. Molly knelt beside her. Sara returned with a bucket of clear water. She knelt beside Molly, filled the dipper and poured a few drops across the little girl's lips. She licked them away. Sara poured more.
Molly took her wand from a pocket in her skirt. She rested its tip on the girl's forehead and said, "Thyme." Tense muscles in the little girl's neck and shoulders eased. The icy edges pain brings melted from her face. She sighed.
Molly nodded. "That worked. Give her a bit more water." I'll check these others."
Of the eight children clustered around the tree, five still lived. Three were awake, though delirious. Molly eased their pain with her spell and Sara gave them water as she could. They worked together in silence. Pangloss returned unnoticed. They looked up when he spoke.
"These are the last of the living. All the rest have died. I found medicine that may help them in Bert's house. He was a healer. This is his remedy for many fevers. We'll try it." He produced a white cup. "Pour some water in here, Sara." Sara lifted the dipper and filled the cup. "Good." Pangloss dropped some green powder into the cup. He stirred the powder into the water with the tip of his baton. As he finished, he said "Basil." A pulse of yellow light went through the mixture. A fresh smell of herbs and spices, a forest smell, rose from the cup and surrounded them. He handed the cup to Molly and said, "See if you can get each of them to swallow some of this tea." Molly nodded.
Sara asked, "Where are the mothers and fathers? We've seen only children."
Pangloss sighed. "This plague was intended to kill the old and the children. Some older people lie dead in their houses. The rest, the younger adults, were captured and taken away by those who did this. We can only guess why."
Sara hesitated and then asked, "Your friend?"
"Bert is dead."
Sara looked down. "I'm sorry."
Pangloss nodded briefly. "Thank you." He touched Molly's shoulder. "Old friend, can you tend these children while Sara and I walk up the river?"
Pangloss patted her shoulder again. "We won't be long." He looked at Sara. "Please come with me for a short time." He turned and walked toward the forest. Sara rose and followed him.
Pangloss spoke over his shoulder as Sara caught him up. "Bert left me a message only I could understand. He wrote it on the cover of a book he held dear, one he knew I would pick up. He waited until he was sure the attackers were gone and wrote it with the last of his strength."
"What did he write?"
"He wrote two words: Lumper's Pool."
Pangloss nodded. "Let's hope that was enough."
"That's the pool you showed us just after we came through the portal?"
"Yes. Please walk quickly. My time is brief, as you know."
They walked briskly across the meadow, up the hill and into the forest. The Greenflood talked quietly to itself in the deep shade of the trees. They came upon Lumper's Pool before Sara expected it. Pangloss halted and held up his hand. Sara stopped behind him. He said, "Let me look for a moment."
Sara was puzzled. "Look?"
"Yes. When we were here before, we didn't know there was anything to look for. Now, we do."
Pangloss stood absolutely still. Slender ferns bowed above the stream's banks and stretched in beds to either side. The Greenflood's current sent ripples chasing each other down the middle of the pool.
After several moments, Pangloss said, "Ah!" He straightened and stepped quickly along the bank toward a large sycamore. Sara followed him. He stopped a few feet in front of the tree as Sara came up behind him. The tree's branches overhung the pool. Its roots reached deep into green water. Pangloss rolled up the right sleeve of his robe. He knelt at the base of the tree and plunged his hand and arm into the pool. As he felt around in the crevices between the roots, Sara noticed a faint, silvery B inscribed in the bark above his head.
Pangloss suddenly pulled a fish net from the pool. Cold water dripped unheeded onto his robe as he held up the streaming net. Within its mesh was an irregular oval of green jade. From the center of the jade shone a yellow rose, fashioned of many jewels, bright as a ray of captured sunshine.
Sara whispered, "That's two."
Pangloss nodded as he cut the string holding the net closed and attaching it to the tree root. He plucked the yellow rose out and handed it to Sara. "Two indeed. Keep it safe."
Sara held the rose with both hands and nodded. She gazed at it and asked, "What are these jewels?"
"Topaz and yellow sapphires."
"It's as beautiful as the first one, but why are the roses so important?" she looked at him. "Please tell me while you can."
Pangloss rubbed his wet hand on his robe. "When joined, the three roses create a shield of immense power, a shield that can protect us all from dark magic."
"Something like Kitten?"
Pangloss nodded. "Something like Kitten's power only much, much greater." He looked at her. "It is obvious now that a group of magic users, Cadena among them, intend to take control of our world. They cannot succeed if we bring the roses together."
"You mean, if we find the third rose and assemble the puzzle, nothing like what happened back there will happen again?"
"Not for many long years. When they are joined, the roses shatter evil powers and so provide long periods of protection and peace."
"After we do it," she looked down at the jewels, "I can return home?"
Pangloss said, "Certainly."
"What now?" Sara continued gazing at the rose.
"I'm not sure. We'll use the omen-window again when we return to my house. Now, we must take those sick children back with us and care for them."
"Was I right to call you for this?"
Pangloss smiled. "Absolutely right. My job is to give help to those who need it most, but I am something like the roses. My powers cannot remain assembled for very long. I must return to being simple, silly Pangloss now that the emergency has passed. Can you and Molly and Kitten get the children through the portal and to safety without me as I am now?"
Pangloss groaned as he turned from the omen-window. "I hate the ocean."
Sara looked at him. "You do?"
"Well," he hesitated, "I hate being on the ocean. My tummy, you know."
Molly sniffed. "It doesn't matter. We all saw more or less the same thing. The last rose is on an island, an island with a great tower. I'll wager it's in that tower. Unless you provide us all with wings, we'll have to take a boat to get there."
Pangloss snorted. "Oh, bother!"
Sara asked, "Which island is it?"
Molly shrugged. "I'm not sure. We'll have to look at the maps in the library."
"Do you think it's far away?" she persisted.
"Far enough. The eastern ocean is about three hundred miles from here."
"Yes," said Pangloss, "And Star Harbor is farther away than that."
Sara looked at him. "What's Star Harbor?"
"It's a great city and the center of all seaborne commerce in our world."
Molly nodded. "That's a good place to begin our search for the tower island. It's also a great place to buy a boat."
Pangloss snorted, "Bah! Boats!"
Jo peeked into the room. "Supper's ready."
Kitten rose and wagged his tail. Sara's stomach growled. Molly called out, "Thanks, Jo. We'll be there shortly." She looked at Pangloss. "When shall we journey to Star Harbor?"
Pangloss looked down and pulled at his wispy beard. "Oh, bother! In a week or perhaps two."
Molly shook her head. "Speed will make us safer. Cadena and his crowd won't sit around idle while we twiddle our thumbs here. We should go tomorrow."
Pangloss looked up. "Impossible! I have spells to prepare, information to secure! I can't just pick up and leave!"
"You can. You just don't want to ride in a boat."
Pangloss muttered to himself as he walked out of the door and into the main hall. Finally, he looked over his shoulder at Molly. "All right," he said, "I'll rush my preparations and we can leave on the day after tomorrow."
Molly sighed, "If that's the best you can do."
"It is." Pangloss hunched his already bowed shoulders even more and stalked down the long hallway toward the kitchen. Sara and Molly followed him.
Sara said, "An extra day would help the children grow stronger anyway, Molly."
Molly snorted. "Oh, don't make excuses for the old coot."
Sara smiled to herself as they continued in silence. She looked at the doors on either side of the hallway. Most were closed. What could those rooms hold? She'd come to know that this was a very curious house. The ground floor had two very large rooms at either end connected by two hallways, the main hallway in which they now walked and the back hall. The kitchen was a great room. It had space, implements, stoves, counters and tables to cook for hundreds. Sara loved it, not least because it was always warm. The other large room, the room just behind them, was Pangloss's study. The outer rooms along the main hall were used for guests when the upstairs rooms were full. The inner rooms, the rooms between both halls, were used for storage. Storage of what, Sara wondered? She smiled to herself again as the thought came to her that Oolie and Goolie probably knew.
Wonderful smells greeted them at the kitchen door. Jo stood over a giant frying pan filled with sausages, apples and onions. Three loaves of fresh bread sat on a cutting board. A dish of daisy yellow butter sat near the bread.
Jo grinned. "Have a seat, everyone."
Molly asked, "What about the children from Tilden?"
Jo winked. "Asleep. They had soup and bread earlier."
Oolie and Goolie, already seated, were sneaking bites of sausages they'd stolen from the pan and smirking at Sara.
Pangloss led them in and they sat on benches at one end of the longest table. Jo's great supper soon cheered them all. Even Kitten got a sausage. Later, they sang songs in front of the hearth fire. Oolie and Goolie played marbles behind the couch and only punched each other twice. Still later, Molly told stories of ogres, giants and goblins, all of whom liked to consume naughty boys. When only embers remained in the fireplace, they went to bed.
Chapter Eight *** Raid
BOOM, BOOM, CRASH! BOOM, BOOM, CRASH! THUMP, THUMP, DING!
Sara sat up straight in her bed.
BOOM, BOOM, CRASH!
She looked at Kitten. "What in the world is that?" Kitten whimpered and circled the floor nervously. He looked at the door and then at Sara.
Molly's face appeared in the doorway. "Get your shoes on and your coat, hurry!"
Sara asked, "What is it?'
"The alarm. We're under attack."
"What time is it?"
"Almost dawn. Get moving!"
Sara joined Pangloss, Jo, Tom and the twins in the upstairs hall. THUMP, THUMP, DING!
Pangloss waved his baton and the alarm subsided.
Molly said, "We should retreat to your emergency portal."
Pangloss shook his head. "Now, now, Molly. There's no need to panic. My house has stout walls and doors. My defensive charms are strong. We will be safe as we are. Let's see who is bothering us."
He walked to a red string hanging from the ceiling next to the wall. Sara had not noticed this string before. Pangloss pulled on it and a dusty tube unfolded from a bracket high on the wall. Pangloss brought the tube to his right eye, twisted a knob and looked through an eyepiece.
Sara leaned close to Molly. "What's that?"
"It's his multi-scope. He's very proud of it."
Pangloss muttered to himself as he continued twisting the knob, "Garden, stable, pond, ah! Front door, yes!"
Molly asked, "What do you see?"
"Never fear," said Pangloss, "should they try to break in, they'll encounter sunbursts and worse. Still, it would be best to be on the cautious side. Let us go downstairs and gather in my study near the emergency portal."
Jo said, "I'll rouse the Tilden children. They're strong enough to walk to the study. Will you help Tom downstairs, Molly?"
Molly nodded and took Tom's arm.
They trooped down the main stairway with Pangloss in the lead. At its foot, midway between the study and the kitchen, Pangloss reached up to a red string and pulled down another multi-scope tube. He adjusted it and peered though it for a moment. "Strange," he said, "They're hanging back right now. Such caution is not like them at all."
"I can tell you why," said Molly.
"Yes, look." She pointed down the corridor toward the study. A glowing blue globe shivered in the air, shivered and grew. "They've found a different way in."
Pangloss stammered, "It’s a portal! Impossible!"
Cadena stepped from the portal. He saw them and smiled, tusks gleaming. He raised both hands and began chanting. Kitten stepped from behind Molly. He lifted his upper lip, revealed his long curved fangs. His snarl sent a chill down Sara's spine. A look of dismay replaced Cadena's smile. He lowered his hands and disappeared back through the portal.
Almost immediately two trolls materialized in the space just vacated by Cadena.
Oolie said, "It's Big Ugly from Cadena's cavern."
Goolie added, "And if that's Big Ugly, the other one must be Little Ugly."
Oolie squealed, "Here they come!"
Sara felt in her pocket and pulled out a starburst. She yelled, "Close your eyes!" and threw the starburst down the hall. It landed at Big Ugly's feet. She called out, "Daisy!" White light filled the hall. The trolls covered their eyes and howled.
Molly ordered, "You three get down to the end of the hall. Let them see you and get them to chase you through the kitchen. Then double back through the other hall to the study. The storage rooms all have doors opening on both hallways. We'll take Tom and go through this one. We'll get to the study before you." Jo appeared on the landing behind them. Sleepy children shuffled behind her. Molly motioned to her. "Bring the children and follow me!" She turned to Sara. "We'll have more starbursts ready. Go!"
Sara, Oolie and Goolie ran to the kitchen entrance, turned and waited. Molly and the others ducked into a storage room. Just as the door closed, both trolls rubbed their eyes and growled. Another moment passed before they spotted the children and uttered cries of rage.
Goolie said, "Wait for them, wait."
Tears streaming from their eyes, saliva dripping from their tusks, the trolls rumbled through the hall toward the children.
Oolie yelled, "Now!"
They jumped through the kitchen door. Troll feet thundered behind them. Goolie leaned close to Sara. "Run to the right. Knock over everything you can reach. We will too. Meet on the far side."
The crash of troll boots sounded behind them
Go!" he shouted.
Sara dodged behind a table stacked with clean dishes and looked back.
Big Ugly and Little Ugly appeared in the doorway. Oolie turned and stuck his tongue out at them. Big Ugly reached for him just as he jumped on top of a counter to his left. Blunt fingers grazed Oolie's heel as he danced away along the countertop. A stack of pots, two stacks of plates, and a large jar of oil crashed to the floor behind him.
Big Ugly tripped, slipped, stumbled and finally steadied himself against the counter. A round, black shadow descended on his forehead - CLANG! He dropped to the floor stunned. Oolie tossed an iron frying pan onto Big Ugly's back and said, "Let that be a lesson! Fried foods aren't good for you."
Little Ugly spotted Sara and leaped at her. He squealed and grabbed, but Sara jumped away. She snatched up a bowl full of sliced cucumbers and leeks in a creamy dressing and flung it one-handed behind her. Most of it hit Little Ugly in the face. He spit, sputtered and rubbed his eyes again. Slimy cucumbers sliding off his tunic, he cursed and swung his fist.
Oolie jumped straight up. His fingers closed on a rod suspended from the ceiling by chains. Pans and other utensils hung from the rod. He kicked with his feet, pumped, kicked again. The rod swung like a great trapeze.
Sara looked left. A heavy table stacked with bowls blocked her way. Little Ugly, still dripping cucumbers, stepped across her path to safety. Behind her were the hearth and an enormous pot of stew. Little Ugly showed his yellow teeth in a grin.
At that instant, Oolie swung forward on his trapeze for the last time. His fingers released the rod. Legs straight out before him, he flew across the kitchen like a spear. His feet slammed into Little Ugly's back. Little Ugly staggered a dozen feet sideways, smashed into the heavy table and sat down heavily. Oolie hit the floor in a tumbler's roll and came up running.
Sara spied a bowl of whipped cream on the table. She stepped close, slid it to the table's edge, and tipped it. Waves of whipped cream slopped down over Little Ugly's head. He pawed at the blinding goo.
Oolie nodded. "You're good at this!"
Sara grinned. "You, too!"
Goolie said, "They're getting up."
Oolie shrugged. "Troll heads are thick as rocks."
Goolie shook his head. "Troll heads are rocks."
Sara interrupted, "Let's go!"
They ran to the back hall door. It was next to the second pantry and looked like it might open into a closet or a storeroom.
"More trouble!" Goolie called. Three more trolls rumbled into the kitchen as the children swung the door open
Oolie followed Goolie through the doorway. "Faster!" he hissed over his shoulder to Sara. Sara went through the door and slammed it behind her. Oolie and Goolie were already well down the hallway. She chased their fleeing shadows. Trolls crashed into the door behind her.
A rectangle of yellow light shone at the dark hallway's end. Oolie and Goolie, briefly silhouetted by its glow, ran through it. Closed doors flashed past Sara on either side as she ran. Trolls panted behind her. The memory of their hard fingers drove her pounding feet.
She reached the doorway and dove through it. Molly stood to her left. She threw two starbursts down just behind Sara's heels and shouted, "Daisy!" Two explosions of white light brought howls of pain from beyond the door.
Pangloss stepped forward, pointed his baton into the hallway and said, "Poison Oak!" The trolls' howls redoubled. Pangloss wove a circle in the air with his baton and said, "Marigold!" A thick brass shield dropped from above and sealed the doorway with a crash.
Molly looked at Pangloss. "Poison Oak?"
Pangloss smiled. "The red itch. I had it all ready for Oolie and Goolie, you know. These trolls were even more deserving."
Molly smiled in return. "I agree with you. Now, where's your emergency portal?'
Pangloss looked a little pained. "We are safe here, you know, sealed in, as it were. No magic or force can break through these walls and doors now."
Molly snorted. "Trapped is more like it. We have work to do, outside and soon."
Pangloss sighed. "Oh, well, I suppose you're right. It's through the cupboard to the right of the fireplace. I do so hate using it, though. It goes only one way and can be used only once. Allow me to pack some essentials before we leave."
Sara took a deep breath and looked at him. "Essentials?
Pangloss looked distractedly around his study. "Certain prepared spells will be useful. Spare wands, some potion ingredients, a dozen or so books, extra boots and the roses, of course."
Molly nodded, "Of course. Pack them first."
Sara asked, "How will you carry all of that?"
Pangloss shrugged. "I have two magical pockets within my robe. They'll hold a great deal and whatever is in them weighs nothing!" He looked wistfully at his string bass in the corner. "Just maybe I could stuff that in, too."
"No!" Molly folded her arms across her chest.
Pangloss sighed. "I suppose not." He began shuffling around the room, picking up various articles and stuffing them within his robe.
Sara asked, "Have you got the roses?"
Pangloss nodded. "Yes, yes. They're in the left pocket by themselves."
Something crashed against the brass shield. It rang like a huge gong.
Molly said, "It's time to go." Molly motioned to Jo who was shepherding the children. "Let's see where this takes us. Get the children through first, Jo."
Molly turned to Tom and helped him to his feet. They stepped toward the cupboard just as Jo followed the last child through. "Come after us, twins, Sara, Kitten."
Pangloss walked over to his string bass while the others went through the portal. He patted its slightly dusty flank and murmured, "Dear me, dear me. This means I won't get to play at the competition once again. Rats!"
Chapter Nine *** Star Harbor Market
Sara stepped into a sunny room. Windows surrounded her and the room's southern wall opened to morning breezes. Beyond the room was a wide deck and beyond the deck was the sea.
She took a deep breath, walked out onto the deck and looked over its railing. Immense spaces fell away on all sides. Waves crashed against cliffs far below her toes. On her left, scattered over the slopes of several steep hills, were the houses, streets, parks, towers, amphitheaters, plazas, markets and halls of a great city. Sara lived near North Beach in San Francisco and was very hard to please as far as cities go, but this one charmed her at first glance.
Molly stepped to her side and asked, "Are you unhurt?"
Sara nodded. " Yes. Where are we?"
Sara repeated, "Star harbor. Star Harbor? Why is it called that?"
"Look across the city at the great bay."
Sara looked. "It has five arms."
Molly nodded. "Rivers enter at the points of four of the arms. The fifth leads to the sea. The star shape is more visible from the top of Astronomers' Tower over on Signal Hill. We will visit there soon, I don't doubt."
Jo interrupted, "I could use a hand here." Sara and Molly both turned their heads. Tom, almost fainting, sagged in Jo's arms. Both Sara and Molly stepped to help her. Jo said, "Thanks. Is there a place where he can lie down?"
A voice they didn't recognize said, "There's a couch down these stairs and through the first door to the left."
They all turned and looked at the speaker, a short, round man with a fringe of white hair, like a hedge around a field, circling the crown of his head. He'd just climbed the stairs at the back of the room.
Pangloss exclaimed, "Carlo!" He rushed to Carlo, stretched his arms out and embraced his friend. Carlo grinned and thumped Pangloss on the back rendering him both breathless and speechless.
Carlo ceased his friendly pounding of Pangloss's ribs. "Welcome, all of you! Since you've entered my home through the emergency portal, I surmise that something dire has happened."
Pangloss shook his head. "Just an inconvenience, a minor problem. I'll explain it to you later."
Sara looked at Molly. Molly raised her eyebrows and shrugged. Jo said, "Let's get Tom to that couch. He'll need some water, too. And these children all need a place to rest."
Carlo smiled. "Of course. Let me roust out my assistant,
Favorotti." He raised his
voice. "Favorotti! Favorotti, we have guests!"
Favortotti appeared at the top of the stairway, his face shining like a small moon. Sara blinked as more and more and more of him followed. Favorotti was the widest man she'd ever seen. He was also very tall, though because of his broad chest and belly that did not become obvious until he stood next to you. Then it was like standing next to a hill. He wore a purple robe a large as a small sail. It was belted around his waist with a silver cord. A small, pointed beard and thin mustache looked like distant trees on the mountain of his face.
The giant placed a pitcher of water and a goblet on a small table next to the couch. Molly and Jo continued caring for Tom. Favorotti looked down at the children from Tilden. They looked up in awe at him.
Carlo said, "Please take them to the music room. It has many chairs and couches."
The village children looked at Jo. She smiled, "Go ahead. I'll be down directly."
Favorotti smiled and led the children down the stairs. When he returned, he approached Sara and the twins, sighed, spread his hands and said, "I am ashamed. We have little to offer you for breakfast. It is so early and you are so . . . unexpected."
Oolie and Goolie, unused to such politeness directed at them, remained silent. Sara shrugged and said, "Anything will be fine."
Favorotti rubbed his third chin and continued, "Perhaps you children would accompany me to the market? We could quickly buy fruits, pastries and cheese for a late breakfast."
"I'll go," said Oolie.
"And I," added Goolie.
Sara grinned. "Me, too."
"The wizards," Favorotti nodded toward Pangloss and Carlo, "will be busy conversing until we return. Let's go."
The twins and Sara followed Favorotti's wide back down a steep outer stairway. Mild sunshine washed over them as they descended. The stairway eventually joined a slightly less steep street. Various residents of Star Harbor were up and about. Some sat on porches in the sunshine with cups of tea. Others carrying baskets and parcels set off about the morning's business. Favorotti led the children on a winding walk toward the center of town.
They soon entered a wide, slightly tilted plaza. Sunshades made of brightly colored canvas floated like kites above stalls and tables. A web of lines supported yellow, blue, green, orange, red, violet, and pink half-circular shades.
Favorotti said, "Foods and items for sale are loosely organized by color. Orange is for bakers. Let's investigate them first."
He got no argument from the children. They stopped at a table beneath a glowing orange shade. A small, dark-haired girl not much older than Sara, rose from a stool and asked, "May I help you?"
Favorotti smiled, "You may. Have you any fruit pastries?"
The girl nodded. "We have coolberry and apricot pastries. We also have honey-cinnamon buns."
"We'll take a dozen of each."
Oolie poked Goolie. They both grinned.
The girl smiled at them and lifted a clean, white cloth. Beneath it were sticky, colorful pastries.
Sara asked Favorotti, "Why are they covered?"
Favorotti shrugged. "The market becomes dusty when people move about. The cloth protects them."
Sara looked at the deep purple fruit covering the pastries on the left side of the table. "What are coolberries?" she asked.
"They're a small, tart, blue fruit. They grow on shrubs in marshes near the coast. I prefer them later in the autumn when they're sweetest. These berries are early ones, not the best." Favorotti sniffed. "Those cinnamon buns smell appetizing."
The girl piled pastries on a large square of waxed paper. She deftly folded the corners up and wrapped the parcel with string. She then presented it to Favorotti. He gave her two silver coins and said, "Thank-you."
The girl tucked the coins into a pocket in her skirt and nodded.
Favorotti turned away and surveyed the market. After a moment, he said, "There's a shaded circle of benches around the fountain past the booksellers' stalls. Let's go there and have a pastry."
The children followed as he led a crooked path between tables, benches and stalls. They reached a shaded patio off the main market. At its center a young boy made of bronze poured water from his pitcher into a green-tiled pool. The boy, too, was green except for his nose. That was polished to a shiny red-gold.
Sara asked, "Why is his nose so shiny?"
Favorotti smiled. "If you rub it," he reached out and rubbed the bronze nose, "you'll have good luck." He turned back to them. "Now, I have an errand to run for Carlo. I must visit a certain bookbinder. If I leave you here with a pastry each, will you stay right here and not move for a few minutes?"
The children nodded, Oolie and Goolie so vigorously that their heads seemed in danger of breaking off.
Favorotti grinned. "So what would you like?"
Oolie reached for the pastry parcel, "Honey . . ."
"Cinnamon," finished Goolie, who slapped his brother's hand away.
Favorotti pulled the parcel back and looked at them. "There are enough for both of you, I think."
Sara said, "I'll have honey-apricot." Favorotti offered the pastries to her.
She plucked a sticky, orange pastry out of the parcel. Favorotti carefully handed cinnamon rolls to the twins. He folded the parcel shut and said, "Please stay right here. I shall return shortly and we can visit the fruit stands."
The children nodded. Favorotti turned and left. Sara took a medium-sized bite. Sweet, tart flavor filled her mouth. She sighed and chewed slowly. The twins ate like starved wolves. Their rolls were gone and they were licking their fingers before Favorotti's wide back had disappeared among the stalls.
Goolie said, "I wish we had another!"
"Another two!"Oolie finished.
"You both eat too fast," Sara said primly. She took another bite.
Goolie snarled and sprayed crumbs, "You eat . . . "
"Too slow," finished Oolie.
Goolie scratched his nose. "They have fruits . . . "
"Under the green shades," added Oolie.
They both jumped up. "And we're going to see what's ripe!" They said together.
Sara protested, "Favorotti told us to stay here!"
"Ha-ha!" answered Goolie.
"And HA!" finished Oolie.
"We'll be back before he gets where he's going!" Goolie winked.
Before Sara could say more, they were gone. She snorted in disgust and then took another bite of her roll. It didn't taste quite as wonderful as it had before. Music of flutes and a drum, soft at first but getting louder, floated on the still air.
Sara looked toward the archway and a small band appeared, three flute players and a drummer with a snare drum. They wore yellow shoes with golden tassels; white, knee-length pantaloons; forest green tunics with two rows of silver buttons down the front; and white brimless caps, each crowned with a long, yellow feather. They stopped just inside the entrance, the flute players to the right and the drummer to the left. A hidden signal was given and the players fell silent. As the last note faded, a very tall, very beautiful woman entered the courtyard.
She wore a long, green dress of light cloth. A cape of the same material rested across her shoulders and was held in place by an emerald broach on a gold chain. Her dark hair rose in a high, complex swirl enfolded in a golden net. A gold tiara shone above her brow. Her eyes, black and glittering, swept the courtyard and came to rest on Sara. She smiled.
"You are a stranger here," she said.
"May I join you?'
Sara nodded again.
The woman approached in a swirl of green cloth, turned and sat down on the bench next to Sara, sat just a bit too close. Before Sara could slide farther away the woman took up her left hand and squeezed it in both of hers.
"I am," she paused, "Councilor Rinch. And you?"
"My name is Sara."
"That's a lovely name. Now, Sara, with whom are you staying?"
Sara thought about this. Although she knew that talking to strangers could be dangerous in this world, even more so than in San Francisco, she didn't know enough about this city to disguise her situation, so she told the bare truth.
"I'm traveling with Mr. Pangloss. We're staying at Mr. Carlo's home."
Councilor Rinch exclaimed, "Excellent!" She shot to her feet, but did not release Sara's hand. "You will come with me now. To my home."
Sara shook her head. "I can't. I'm supposed to wait here for Mr. Carlo's man, Favorotti."
Councilor Rinch smiled her dazzling smile. "You are wise to be cautious, dear Sara, but there is no need. I'm on the ruling council of this city, as is Carlo. I'll send him a message and he can send his man for you later. I insist that you see my garden in the morning light. It is at its best now. We can have tea or iced juice and talk about your travels. Come." She pulled Sara's hand lightly but firmly.
Sara glanced at the fountain, looked up at the boy's calm, happy face. She reached back quickly and rubbed his shiny nose. "I hope this works," she whispered to herself.
Chapter Ten *** Unwilling Guest
Guards in polished helmets, their muscles bulging beneath brass arm rings, raised their spears and stood to attention to either side of a tall, wide gate. The gate penetrated a wall of yellow sandstone. Beyond it towered a many-windowed building of the same color. Councilor Rinch led Sara between the guards and through the gate. The musicians followed.
They walked in silence through a cobbled courtyard and up ten steps to a green door. A doorman, also dressed in green, flung open the door with such precision that Councilor Rinch did not break her smooth stride as she entered her palace. The musicians entered behind Sara and turned down a hallway to the right. Councilor Rinch surged straight ahead. Without turning her head, she said, "We will make ourselves easy in the morning garden room. Then we can talk in comfort and get to know each other better."
Sara did not reply.
Molly's black eyes glittered with an angry spark. She leaned close to Oolie and hissed, "Fire ants."
Oolie repeated, "Fire ants?"
Molly nodded, "Fire ants in your underwear. That's what I have a mind for both of you. To begin with."
Pangloss waved his hand, "Now, now, Molly, calm down. How were they to know that danger threatened in the middle of a crowded market?
Favorotti broke in, "It was my fault. I shouldn't have left them alone. My business with the book-binder could have waited."
Carlo rubbed the bald crown of his head. "Councilor Rinch is a powerful and mysterious person. She has her own plans, always." He shrugged. "But Sara may be in no great danger."
Favorotti shook his head. "Whispers among the shopkeepers and service folk tell that she is a dangerous person to cross."
Molly looked up. "How so?"
Favorotti grunted. "You do what she instructs and take the price she offers. If you complain, she leaves. Later you suffer a plague of thieves, a swarm of ravenous rats, or a fire."
Carlo agreed. "She enforces her will, yes. She uses magic, too, some of it dark." He looked up. "Dark as her secrets, I suspect."
Favorotti continued, "Her guests aren't exactly prisoners, but those she invites cannot refuse her hospitality."
Carlo looked at Pangloss. "It is rude of me to ask, but what is your quest, Pangloss? And what does Sara know of it?"
Pangloss looked down. "She possesses the rubric which summons my powers."
Molly straightened. "Show him Pangloss. He needs to know what we're doing."
Pangloss reached into his robes, pulled out the jeweled roses and placed them on the table. Their gems caught morning light and flung it to the corners of the room, the yellow rose especially. He looked up. "I told you about the murdered children we found in Tilden and what Cadena did at my house. He is on the move. He likely has allies here. It is time for the roses to be assembled."
Carlo's brow wrinkled. The corners of his mouth turned down. "Councilor Rinch may have some part in this. I don't know. It is very suspicious that she swooped Sara up so quickly. In any case, she will know all that Sara knows before the noon bell."
Oolie broke in, "Sara won't tell!"
"She'll bite her tongue," added Goolie.
"Or maybe the councilor," finished Oolie.
"She won't be able to help herself," said Carlo. "And Councilor Rinch will not release her if she deems her knowledge valuable."
Molly said, "Her knowledge is valuable, priceless even. If we find the third rose and add it to these two, only Pangloss can assemble them and only Sara can release his power at the proper time for him to do so. How can this Rinch woman keep a little girl against her will?"
"People," Favorotti mused, "disappear in Star Harbor. Walking home from an important person's house, they turn into an alley and are never seen again. The watch is called, but they find nothing."
Molly thrust her chin forward. "We must rescue Sara."
Oolie asked, "How?"
Goolie added, "When?"
Councilor Rinch smiled. "Would you care for an iced drink, Sara?"
Sara nodded. "Please."
Rinch motioned with her left hand. A girl wearing a gold tunic and a long green skirt appeared. She carried a tray with several pitchers and two tall glasses. She placed the tray on a small table next to Councilor Rinch. Rinch said, "Thank-you, Elvia." Elvia turned and left.
Rinch leaned toward Sara. "These juices are from fruits grown in my garden. The cherries are just ripe and the blue limes are especially rare this far north." She raised a spoon from a small urn. Thick drops of dark golden honey oozed down its length. "I like to sweeten drinks with my own honey, too. This is very flavorful. It comes from the most fragrant flowers in my gardens. You'll like it, I'm sure."
She poured blue lime juice into one of the glasses. "This is my own favorite blend.” Staring intently at the glass, she added red juice. The red liquid formed an intriguing layer over the blue. Rinch filled the glass with clear water and the mixture became purple. She added a large spoonful of honey and stirred. "There!" she pronounced at last. "It's perfect now." She offered the glass to Sara.
Sara's fingers closed around the glass. It was cold, surprisingly so. She smelled a pleasant aroma of cherries and citrus. She sipped. Fruit flavors exploded against her tongue. Suddenly thirsty, she drank deeply. It was only after she swallowed several gulps that she felt a strange bitterness at the back of her throat.
Sara drank again, even more deeply. A pleasant coolness spread from her tummy out to the ends of her fingers and toes. The coolness, almost a numbing cold, rose from her lips and made her nose tingle. She felt it surge past her eyebrows. Her thoughts slowed. Her nervousness disappeared. Her mind became calm. She felt powerful, confident. She felt in control of this strange meeting.
A voice deep in her mind cried out a warning. The voice cried out, but it was distant, small and shrill. The coolness wrapped it round and round.
Rinch said, "Now, Sara, tell me about your friends. Who are they?"
Sara smiled. Of course she would answer this reasonable question. Councilor Rinch had quickly become a trusted friend. Friends should share confidences. The voice within her mind called for her to be silent. Sara ignored it. It was a tiny and unimportant irritation. She smiled and said, "My friends are magicians."
Oolie crossed his arms and frowned. "I don't like frogs!"
"Don't like 'em, either!" agreed Goolie.
"Nonsense!" snorted Molly. "Can't you two get it through your thick heads that these aren't real frogs? They're counter-spells. You will be sneaking into the palace of a powerful magician. It won't be unguarded. Each of these frogs can cancel out a strong defensive spell. You'll each carry two. That should be enough to get you through undetected."
Carlo patted Oolie's shoulder. "Your job will then be to open the garden gate and let us in. We can handle other magical defenses after that."
Favorotti stretched his long, thick arms. The big muscles of his shoulders and back bunched. He said, "And any other defenses, for that matter."
Carlo nodded. "Until dark, then."
Councilor Rinch sighed, "The world is a sad, cruel place. The wise, such as you and I, must guide others as best we can. Sometimes this requires difficult choices, unpleasant actions. You understand, don't you, my dear?"
Sara nodded. She was flattered to be treated as the councilor's equal, though she was far too drowsy to feel either wise or powerful. She reached for her almost empty glass, but it eluded her. She tried again with both hands and finally grasped it.
Rinch took the glass from her suddenly clumsy fingers and smiled. "We are agreed then that you will undertake a brief journey for me?"
Sara tried to arrange the councilor's words in some meaningful order. Then she remembered. Rinch wanted her to sail to an island. Something important was on an island. She nodded and though her tongue seemed very thick, she managed to say, "Yes."
"Good!" Rinch motioned to Elvia, the girl in the green skirt, who was waiting near the doorway. "You'll leave after sunset. I'll send word to your friends. I'm sure they'll think this is the best thing to do." Elvia stopped next to Rinch. Rinch patted Sara's shoulder. "You seem tired, Sara. You can rest here until it is time for you to go. Elvia will show you to an afternoon room. It is shaded and cool. There are comfortable chairs and a soft couch."
Oolie turned to Molly. "Is it dark enough . . ."
"Yet?" finished Goolie.
Molly glanced at the purple sky, at the wall of the palace across from them, at the now empty street to either side. Finally, she nodded.
The twins scrambled forward and stopped instantly as Molly gripped Oolie's right ear and Goolie's left. She leaned close and whispered, "Don't stray from your task. Remember the fire ants. Now, go!"
Oolie and Goolie zig-zagged across a cobbled street. They made no more noise than wind ripples on a pond. They paused in the shadows beneath the palace wall. Goolie poked Oolie, "You first!"
"No, you!" Oolie poked him back.
Molly hissed from across the street. "Go! Now!"
Goolie shrugged and scampered up the wall. His thin, quick fingers found tiny cracks to grip. His flexible toes found tiny bumps and knobs to touch in passing. Atop the wall, he glanced back at Oolie. "Easy!" he crowed.
There was a sound like an old man awakening from a deep sleep, something between a snore and a snort. Something gripped Goolie's ankle. He squealed and looked down. Thick, yellow fingers of stone grew out of the wall's top blocks and held him fast. A few feet above the fingers a stone face took shape, the snarling face of a great ape with fangs like a lion's.
Oolie appeared at his brother's side. His left hand gripped the wall. His right hand held one of Molly's frogs. It was fat and as blue as summer sky. He plopped the blue frog down next to the stone fingers squeezing Goolie's ankle.
Goolie gasped, "No!"
Before he could say more, the frog's mouth opened, stretched wider than a hippo's mouth and swallowed him. It grew wider still and engulfed the silent snarl of the stone ape's face. The frog's eyes suddenly glowed yellow. Then with a bursting sound like that of a giant soap bubble, it popped. It popped and disappeared along with the fingers and the ape. Goolie sat wide-eyed.
Oolie grinned. "Magic! It works!'
Goolie snarled, "You weren't swallowed by a frog.
A piercing whistle sounded from across the street. The twins looked up and saw Favorotti remove his right thumb and forefinger from between his lips. His left forefinger jabbed downward three times.
Oolie said, "Time to go."
"Now," Goolie added.
They scrabbled and scraped down the inner wall. On the ground, they turned and looked at the tall bushes and deep shadows of a mature garden. Goolie pointed to his left. "This way."
Oolie raised an eyebrow. "You sure?"
Goolie frowned. "This way!"
Oolie shrugged. They darted along the wall to their left and stopped. They looked. Nothing moved. They darted again and came to a disused garden door. It was made of five planks, extraordinarily thick, bound together with wide iron straps and heavy rivets. A simple, stout iron latch fastened this door to the wall.
"Thick," remarked Oolie.
"Strong," agreed Goolie. He reached out to open it.
The latch twisted when he touched it, twisted, writhed and formed iron lips. The lips parted and a deep baritone voice said, "Touch me again and I'll scream. Say the password first and you can open me."
Goolie nodded, "Frog?"
"Frog," agreed Oolie.
The lips frowned. "Frog is not the password."
Goolie pulled a bright yellow frog from his pocket. He held it in the palms of both hands. He slowly extended it until its nose bumped the latch. The latch-mouth opened wide to scream, but quick as catching a fly, the frog's tongue lashed out and wrapped around the gray metal. The latch squeaked like a mouse and then was silent. Again the frog disappeared with a soft, soapy pop and the lips were gone, too.
Goolie grinned. "Frog works fine," he murmured and opened the door. Huddled close on the other side were all of the others. Wand extended, Molly came through first. Carlo followed her. Pangloss and Favorotti came last. Molly said, "All clear.'
Pangloss sniffed, "So far!"
Molly turned to the twins. "Good work, you two."
Grinning, the two high-fived, just as Sara had taught them to do.
Carlo said, "Now we must find Sara. I advise splitting into two groups. We magicians will go first and disarm any further magical defenses. Favorotti, you take the twins and make sure that we're not surprised from behind. Let us begin."
Sara felt a gentle touch on her left cheek. She opened her eyes. The beautiful girl, Elvia, was bending over her. She smiled and straightened when she saw Sara was awake. Councilor Rinch stood behind her.
Rinch said, "It is time for you to leave, Sara. Please get up now."
Sara sat up and swung her legs off of the couch. Something was wrong. She knew it, but her doubts crawled through her mind like sleepy snails.
At last, she asked, "What about clothes? I have no clothes for a journey.'
Rinch smiled, "I've had some things purchased for you. Likely they'll be more than you'll need. Come now."
Sara was on her feet walking behind Rinch before the next question crawled onto her tongue. "My friends? Do my friends know about this plan?"
"I sent them a message. They sent back their blessings and best wishes. They'll await your return here."
They continued walking down a long hallway and then down a steep stairway. The voice in Sara's mind shouted for her to stop, but she could think of no reason to refuse Councilor Rinch. They came to the stairway's bottom. This was a darker, grimmer part of the palace. The stones smelled of mould and grew long shadows.
Four guards stood to attention as they turned a corner. One of the guards opened a massive door. Two of the guards preceded them into the tunnel revealed by the open door. The other two guards locked the door behind them and followed.
They walked in silence for many minutes. Cool air, heavy with salt and damp, tingled in Sara's nose. The smell of the sea began to clear her mind. Her voice within shouted again.
Suddenly, she stopped. Rinch turned and looked at her. Sara said, "I can't do this! I've got to see my friends first! I've got to talk with Molly and Mr. Pangloss!"
Rinch smiled and said, "Guards, bind her and carry her." She turned away.
Carlo and Pangloss led through the garden and up to the kitchen door.
Molly followed a few paces behind.
A harsh voice snarled, "Halt, or I'll run you through."
They stopped. Molly turned slowly. Two guards, spears leveled, stood on the path. She saw that they'd come from hidden stations within the trees.
The lead guard wearing a corporal's stripes poked at her with his spear. "Explain yourself, woman."
Favorotti loomed behind the two guards. Molly smiled and said, "We very much wish to meet your mistress, but we have other business first."
The corporal, spear pointed at Molly's throat, took a step forward. Favorotti’s hands darted forward and grabbed both guards by the armor at the backs of their necks. He lifted them high and shook them before they could even squawk. He shook them until pieces of armor and their spears rattled down, until their eyes rolled up in their heads. Then he placed them gently on the ground, side by side.
Molly said, "Tie their hands and feet so they won't bother us when they wake up."
Sara, hands and feet bound, lay in the bottom of a longboat. She could see the bare feet and legs of the men who rowed the boat. She heard wavelets slapping the boat's planks next to her ear and she heard Rinch speaking.
"Keep her safe and keep her well until I join you."
A deep, round voice answered her, "And when might that be, Councilor?"
"I can't tell you what day, but it will be soon. I must find answers to some important questions. I must speak with King Cadena and that's never an easy magical task. Smooth sailing, Captain Rumpot."
"Aye, Councilor. And I'll be following your instructions exactly."
Pangloss pulled on his beard. "It's what I expected. Except for specific boxes and trunks, none large enough to hide a girl, the Councilor's magical defenses are confined to the walls and gates."
Carlo nodded. "She wouldn’t want to endanger her house or inconvenience herself."
"Then where's Sara?" asked Molly.
Pangloss shrugged. "The servants know nothing."
Oolie and Goolie bustled up. Oolie said, "Boats are leaving."
"Below the garden," pointed Goolie.
Favorotti said, "Show us!"
Oolie and Goolie whirled and ran down the long sloping garden to a wall facing the harbor. They slowed at steps leading up to a wide place, a kind of observation platform, on the wall. They scampered up the steps to the platform. The others followed at their various speeds.
Finally, they all clustered atop the platform. Goolie pointed. "Two boats are moving."
"Away from here," finished Oolie.
Favorotti nodded. "She has a water-gate. She would. It helps keep many of her doings private."
Carlo said, "One boat, the small one, is headed toward the Councilor's sailing yacht."
Molly asked, "What about the big one?"
Carlo turned his head. "Well, well."
Pangloss snorted, "Well, well what?"
"That longboat's about to tie up to Rumpot's vessel. Rinch has given Sara to Rumpot."
Molly asked, "Who's Rumpot?"
Carlo looked at her. "Rumpot is a bloody pirate."
Chapter Eleven *** Sea Chase
Pangloss looked at his friend. "Pirate? You're sure?"
Carlo nodded, "Certain."
Pangloss looked down. "Who are our enemies in this? Besides Cadena, who are they?"
"Councilor Rinch appears to be one. Come!" Carlo motioned to all of the companions. "We must return to my home. We have much to do if we're to rescue Sara and no time to spare." He turned and went down the platform steps. The others followed him.
"Get up, Missy. The Captain wants to see you. Now."
Sara opened her eyes. An extraordinarily ugly face loomed above her. She shrank back and choked down a scream.
The face split into a gap-toothed grin. "Pretty, ain't I, Missy?"
Sara took a deep breath. The scar of an old wound, a sword slash or ax cut, stretched from the man's left eyebrow, across the bridge of his nose and down to the right angle of his jaw. Many teeth on the right side of his mouth were missing. A scraggly, greasy moustache decorated his upper lip and added nothing to his appearance. His eyes, golden brown and clear, were not unfriendly, however.
The man, still smiling, straightened and said, "I don't bite 'cause I can't. Ha! Me name is Squibby. I'm the bosun's mate. Now, come with me." He turned toward a narrow door. Sara swung her feet off the bunk on which she'd slept. Her hands and feet were free. The restraints were gone.
She followed Squibby as he mounted a short ladder and stepped through a hatch. Early morning light poured over her. She blinked and looked up. Clouds of golden sails bulged silently above her.
"Pretty, ain't it?" He smiled again. "This way, Missy."
Sara followed him up another short ladder and came out on the highest, rearmost deck of the ship. A large, one-legged man stood looking out over the rail. He wore a wide-brimmed black hat, a royal blue jacket with golden buttons and his artificial leg was made of ivory, intricately carved. His beard was long, full and red.
The man turned to her. "I am Captain Rumpot."
Pangloss looked down at the harbor through a brass telescope. He lowered the scope and said, "The pirate ship is definitely gone."
Carlo nodded. "Rumpot left on the midnight tide."
Molly shook her head. "Why would the Council of Star Harbor allow a pirate to moor inside?'
Carlo sniffed. "Because he's their pirate, a privateer."
"A privateer? What's a privateer?" asked Pangloss.
"A privateer has permission from a city or state to raid the ships from other cities and states."
"And what purpose does that serve?"
Carlo leaned forward. "It's cheaper than building a large navy and the Council gets shares of privateer spoils for the licenses they grant. Rumpot is very clever. He preys upon ships from weak cities and lets those from powerful ones and from Star Harbor pass.
Unless . . . “
Pangloss looked him. "Unless?"
"Unless he catches such a ship far from other eyes. Then he loots it, kills all aboard and no one is the wiser."
Molly interrupted. "Well, that's fine. Just how are we to get Sara back? She could be anywhere on the Eastern Ocean by now."
Carlo shook his head. "I know exactly where she'll be by tomorrow morning."
"Where?" asked Pangloss.
"Monkey Tail Island. Rumpot has a base there, a fortress. He sends his several ships forth from there. He is a kidnapper, too. Monkey Tail is where he keeps his victims until they are ransomed."
"Or rescued," said Molly.
Carlo said softly, "That's never happened."
"There's always a first time."
"We'll need a good boat." Favorotti rubbed his chin.
Pangloss looked up. "You said a boat?"
"Yes," Favorotti nodded, "something fast but not too small."
Pangloss threw up his hands. "Gods! A boat! I hate boats! I hate them!"
Captain Rumpot chuckled to himself. "Such a fat bird on such a calm sea."
Sara looked at the wide-beamed ship some miles in front of them. "You intend to attack it?"
"Please," Rumpot held up an admonishing finger. "I'm a businessman. I will stop that ship and levy a toll, no more. If the crew cooperates, very few will die."
Sara looked back at Rumpot. "You'll kill some of them even if they surrender?"
"Oh, yes. That's business, too. I'd have endless troubles if people didn't fear me. I have a reputation to uphold."
Sara shivered. After a moment, she asked, "What will you do with me?"
Rumpot shrugged, "We'll have you stay in the cabin below well out of trouble's way."
"I mean after that. Where are you taking me?"
Rumpot laughed, not a pleasant sound, and patted Sara's hand. "You are business, too. I have specific instructions to take you to my island estate and keep you safe. The great lady will come to see you soon, never fear."
"What does she want with me?"
Rumpot leaned forward. "Our fat bird is attempting to fly. We'll have some sport today."
Sara persisted. "Do you know?"
Rumpot ignored her and motioned for Squibby. "There, there, be a good girl. Go below with Squibby. I have business to transact."
Favorotti rubbed his hands together with satisfaction. "This is a fine boat, the Abigail-Marie. It's well worth your money."
Pangloss stared down glumly at a graceful craft with a green hull and a single mast. The boat had a half deck forward and a shelter just behind the mast. Pangloss muttered, "But it's still a boat."
Molly snarled, "You old billy-goat! How else are we supposed to get to an island? Swim?"
Carlo said, "I wish I could accompany you, but I have urgent matters to attend to in Star Harbor. I shall try to discover who is behind all of this and what we must do about it. Favorotti is an excellent sailor and will help you as he would me."
Molly motioned impatiently. "Let's go."
Kitten stepped carefully down onto the bow of the boat and looked expectantly at the others.
Pangloss said, "Now I'm supposed to share this boat with this wolf?"
Molly shrugged, "Go ahead and throw him out, if you want."
Pangloss looked at Kitten's powerful shoulders. The wolf's black lips parted and his fangs gleamed.
Pangloss threw up his hands. "Bah!" he said and then stepped gingerly into the stern of the boat, well away from Kitten.
"Oolie never swimmed in the ocean before," said Oolie.
"Nor Goolie," added Goolie.
Molly glared at them. "I'll be happy to give you lessons now if don't get into that boat fast!"
Favorotti advised, "Sit near the life preservers, those round yellow things with holes in their centers. Should you fall in and sink, we'll toss you one."
"They float?" asked Oolie.
Favorotti nodded, "They float."
Reassured, the twins hopped in. Molly stepped down after them and Favorotti came last. He quickly unfurled the mainsail and directed the twins to haul on a line. The sail rose. Molly cast the bowline loose. Favorotti, one hand on the wheel, released the stern line with the other. The boat eased away from the dock. Pangloss held his stomach and groaned.
The boat picked up speed. Favorotti directed the twins to a second line. They pulled mightily and the jib sail rose in front of the mast. The green hull now skimmed across the harbor's smooth water, scattering bright fans of spray to left and right. Fear forgotten, the twins leaned over the side, caught cold drops of seawater in their hands and laughed out loud with delight. Kitten licked saltwater from his black lips. Pangloss moaned again.
A fresh breeze now blew over the pirate ship's port rail. Taut sails bulged above Sara's head as Squibby again conducted her to the highest deck, the quarterdeck. Rumpot leaned on the rail with his elbow. His chin rested on the palm of his right hand. A slight smile curved his lips as Sara approached him.
She asked, "I don't see any prisoners. Are they below?"
Rumpot stared out over the sparkling sea. "Ah, no."
"You did make prisoners of that ship's crew, didn't you?"
Sara was silent for a moment before she murmured, "That's awful."
Rumpot turned to her and smiled. "You are too harsh, my dear. Some of the more pliable crewmen are still sailing their ship - for me. The officers and mates? Well, death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of privateering, but everyone does know the rules and, overall, it's quite a civilized business."
Sara said nothing.
Rumpot continued, "We'll reach Monkey Tail Island in a few hours, even though we've shortened sail so our prize can keep up. You'll quite enjoy my fortress, or castle, if you will. It's very comfortable, very secure. Also, you are a fortunate favorite of the great lady. No harm will come to you. She will join us soon, as well."
Sara remained quiet. She thought of her family. Their faces were becoming unclear in her memory. Though Pangloss had assured her that time was standing still for them, she still worried that the gunmen would somehow attack before she had a chance to warn them.
A lookout called to Rumpot and pointed astern. Rumpot and Sara turned. The captured ship sailed a few hundred yards behind them, but it was in trouble. A rope had parted and the spar above it had crashed down to the deck. The ship turned abruptly into the wind and stopped.
Rumpot roared, "Those clod-fisted lubbers! Blast their eyes! Roast their toes! Hang their mothers upside down! Helm, come up into the wind."
Sailors rushed to loosen lines. Their vessel turned and slowed.
"Aye," the bosun answered.
"Take three men in the launch and clean up that mess. Tell those lubbers that they'll swim the rest of the way if we're delayed more than an hour."
"Aye, sir." Squibby leapt to obey.
Rumpot muttered, "Jellyfish for brains. Did all their sailing in a mud puddle, those squid-fingered fools!"
Sara asked, "Did your sailors make a mistake?"
Rumpot nodded, "They set the foresail wrong, undoubtedly. It shouldn't have carried away in such fine weather. Idiots!"
Sara did not answer.
Rumpot shook his head and sighed, "You go to sea with the pirates you have. They're not the pirates you might want or wish to have at a later time. Still, we should arrive at Monkey Tail before dark."
Pangloss groaned and moaned. He was curled in a ball on the bottom of the boat. Molly looked at him and then at Favorotti. "Will he live?" she asked.
Favorotti nodded. "He'll live, but he has the worst case of sea-sickness I've ever seen." He glanced at the sparkling, deep-blue sea around them. "Especially in such fine weather. There's only a long ocean swell, no choppy waves at all. The Abigail-Marie rides easily, too."
Molly said, "Abigail-Marie is a mouthful. Let's call her the Abby."
Oolie grinned. "Abby!"
"Abby!" repeated Goolie.
Favorotti went on, "Mr. Pangloss must be very sensitive to motion."
Molly nodded. "Taking a bath makes him queasy. Will he get better?"
"Only when we touch land."
"Will that be long?"
"Not too long." Favorotti looked up at the sails and then down at the compass. "You understand," he continued, "that we can't just sail into Rumpot's harbor?"
Molly nodded. "What's your plan?"
"I think we should sail to Monkey Head Island. It's the island closest to Rumpot's base and has a town where we can pretend to have legitimate business. We can organize our rescue from there."
Molly nodded. "That sounds good. What legitimate business might we have?"
Favorotti rubbed his chin and thought. "Small, uninhabited islands stretch away to the southeast of Monkey Head. The shores of these islands are rich in sea life. Fisher-folk often visit their beaches to collect shells, rare and beautiful shells. The town is a center of the trade. A wizard such as Mr. Pangloss might need to purchase rare shells."
Molly nodded. "Rare shells it is, but we must hurry."
"We will. Rumpot has spies throughout these islands and whatever story we tell won't fool him for long."
Kitten stood, walked to the bow and peered ahead. He looked back at the others and whimpered.
Molly said, "He senses something he doesn't like. Magic?"
Favorotti shook his head. "No, death." He pointed.
Three triangular fins cut the sea's smooth surface some twenty yards ahead and to their right.
Oolie asked, "What are they?"
"Fishies?" added Goolie.
Favorotti said, "Sharks, long-tooths. They're not especially large, about my size, but they're unbelievably fierce."
"Where are they going?" asked Oolie.
"We'll see," answered Favorotti. He turned the Abby a point to starboard. They followed the sharks in silence for several moments. Molly suddenly pointed. "What's that ahead?"
The smooth sea foamed and roiled perhaps a hundred yards dead ahead. Triangular fins converged from all sides on the disturbance. The foam had a pinkish tinge.
Favorotti spoke quietly, "We'd best turn away now."
Oolie and Goolie shouted together, "Look!" and pointed over the side.
A torn and bloody sailor's shirt floated by.
Favorotti said, "Rumpot passed this way."
Chapter Twelve *** A Monkey's Tail
Sara sat in a longboat and looked up at looming cliffs topped by castle walls. The walls, built of gray stone blocks, connected three massive towers. These towers looked like fat toadstool, though wisps of sea fog hundreds of feet above the waves drifted through their battlements.
A wave slapped the stern of the boat and splashed cold water on Sara and Rumpot, mostly on Rumpot. He cursed and yelled at Squibby, "Steer a point to starboard, you fool! The rest of you pull hard for the cave!"
Squibby pushed the rudder bar slightly to his left. Eight strong pirates pulled harder on their oars. Rumpot grunted with satisfaction and turned to Sara. He smiled. "You are welcome to my home, child. You are my guest, after all. I want you to be comfortable while you are here."
Sara said nothing.
Rumpot continued, "I place no restrictions upon your movements. You may go where you wish. You are completely free. Until Councilor Rinch arrives, of course."
Sara still did not reply.
The sun went down on the far side of the island. Shadows gathered where cliffs and castle walls met the sea. Rumpot looked up at the darkening battlements. He spoke again, as if thinking aloud, "There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. Also, there are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know."
He pulled his beard and looked sideways at Sara. "But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know."
Sara felt that he was playing some game with her. She was almost as irritated as she was puzzled, but she nodded. "If you say so."
"I do." He looked directly at her. "Most important of all, there is one thing that you don't know that you don't know." He waited for her to question him.
Truly puzzled now, Sara asked, "What is it?"
Rumpot grinned. "The seas around my island are very, very unsafe to swim in."
Sara swallowed hard. "Sharks?"
Rumpot shook his head. "No, no, no, no, something more than sharks." He laughed. "Something much more."
Pangloss, supported by Molly on one side and by Favorotti on the other, took one step at a time. He made his way slowly up low stairs to the entrance of the Monkey's Head Inn. The twins trailed behind him and last of all came Kitten.
He glanced at Favorotti. "Are you sure this is a clean, inexpensive establishment?" he asked.
Favorotti nodded. It's the best inn in Freeport."
Molly snorted. "It's the only inn in Freeport."
The twins snickered to each other as they entered the low front door. They all stopped at a battered desk to the right of the entrance. A short, very ugly man sat behind the desk. Reading glasses perched on a nose that looked like a baked potato. He peered at them over the slightly bent frame of his glasses. "Yes?"
Pangloss spoke, "My name is Professor Pangloss. I'm a wizard and I'm here to purchase shells."
The man straightened slightly. "My name is Blotter and I keep this inn."
Pangloss said, "Good. I'd like two rooms for me and my servants." He glanced at the twins. "The best one should be for me and should be as far as possible from the other."
"You may have the Captain's Suite," replied Blotter. "It's at the end of the west hall on the second floor. The room at the other end of the hall is vacant, too."
Pangloss nodded. "That sounds very agreeable."
Blotter smiled. "That will be five silver pieces per day, payable in advance." He held out his left hand.
"Five silver pieces! That would rent most hotels in Star Harbor for a week!"
"This isn't Star Harbor," the man replied. "And is that dog with you? Make that six silver pieces per day."
Pangloss turned. "What dog?"
An orange and white kitten rubbed against Oolie's leg.
Blotter took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "Ah, right," he said. "That will be five silver pieces."
"With meals provided, of course."
Blotter nodded. "Breakfast and lunch. Dinner is extra, of course."
Pangloss squawked, but Molly interrupted him before he could argue further. She said, "Of course." She produced a handful of silver coins and placed them on Blotter's outstretched hand. "That's enough for a week. We may stay longer than that, but we'll let know of our plans later."
Small waves sucked at shining black rocks that rose out of the sea like rounded teeth and guarded the entrance of a cave. Sara noticed a change in the sailors who rowed the boat. The pace of their rowing increased with no urging from Rumpot and they seemed nervous. The boat slid between the guardian rocks and into a large cave. Light from two torches burning above a landing at the back of the cave reflected off black, still waters. The sailors pulled harder.
Rumpot laughed and said, "That's right, boys, don't slow down in here. That sends a message, no?" He laughed again.
The boat neared the landing and bumped against a canvas buffer. Squibby leapt to the shore. He tied the boat's bow line to a brass cleat and then did the same for the stern line. The sailors shipped their oars, climbed out of the boat and clumped up wide steps toward an iron bound door. Rumpot followed his crewmen. Sara rose to get out of the boat.
The gap between the boat's side and the landing was not great. Sara stepped across it, but her foot slipped on the greasy rock. She teetered over black water for a moment before Squibby's hand gripped her left shoulder hard.
"Don't fall in here, Missy!"
The grip on her shoulder was painful. She looked up at Squibby. Torchlight shone off the whites of his eyes. She took a deep breath. "What's in there?"
Squibby shook his head. "Just don't fall in."
Sara nodded. "Thanks for catching me."
"Don't mention it."
The inn's common room was a dim, dusty place with many tables. Pangloss, Molly and Favorotti sat at table well away from Blotter and the entrance. Molly leaned across the dented, not too clean tabletop and asked, "Now what?"
Pangloss, looking somewhat restored, said, "Don't ask me. I haven't a clue. And, by the way, what I must do, I'll do from here. No more boat rides!" He sipped from a glass of red wine.
Favorotti nodded. "That may be best. Mr. Pangloss and the twins should remain here. They can distract Rumpot's spies while Molly, Kitten and I take the boat and find Sara. We'll leave after midnight."
Pangloss took another sip of wine. "That sounds reasonable. What should I do to entertain spies?"
"Well," Favorotti tapped his fingers on the tabletop, "you should set about buying seashells, but you should pretend to be hard to please. Argue about prices and quality. Be loud, irritable, obnoxious and obvious."
Molly laughed. "You're not asking him to do much, just to be his usual self."
Pangloss sniffed. "I'm a very cooperative man when others treat me respectfully, which you rarely do."
Favorotti continued, "The twins will provide their own distractions, I'm sure." As if summoned, Oolie and Goolie tumbled down the inn's stairs and into the common room. Involved in some dispute of their own, they shouted, bounced off of two tables and bounded out of the front door.
Molly shook her head. "They're doing their job already.
Sara sat on the edge of a luxurious bed. The bedspread was a rich, yellow satin. Three candles in a wall sconce cast a cheerful glow around the room. A tray laden with fruits, cheeses and hard biscuits sat untouched on a table next to the bed.
Sara sighed. She felt too sad and tired even to cry. When would she see her parents again? Would they be all right? Pangloss and Molly had assured her many times that she would return to her own world in time to save them. What if they were wrong? Would she even see her friends again now that Rumpot and Rince held her captive?
She plucked a fat, red-orange grape off the plate and put it into her mouth. Its burst of cool sweetness made her feel a little better. She looked at the door of her room. It was slightly ajar. Perhaps Rumpot had spoken truly. Perhaps she really could wander where she chose.
Wander where? Where could she go? Where were her friends? Where were Molly and Pangloss and Kitten and the Twins? Were they looking for her? Could she somehow make it easier for them to find her? No answers came out of the castle's vast silence. She lay back on the bed and closed her eyes.
Favorotti eased the Abby's tiller to his right. He lined the prow up with a bright, yellow star in the west and leaned back. The sea was calm. Long swells came out of the northwest. A cold breeze from the same direction allowed him to steer southwesterly toward Monkey Tail Island.
Molly, sitting on a bench just inside the shelter, turned and asked, "I assume we're not going to sail up and knock on Rumpot's door?"
Favorotti grinned. "You assume correctly."
"Then what's our plan?"
"Kitten," Favorotti glanced at the gaunt wolf near Molly's feet. Kitten looked up and his tail thumped twice. "Kitten is the key to our plan. Rumpot's castle will be guarded, both magically and by pirates." He smiled at her. "You are a fine magician."
Molly nodded. "I am."
"But I don't see us battling our way in or out. We will if we must, but stealth would be much safer. Kitten will mask hostile spells. I'll silence any pirate guards we find."
"That's good as far as it goes. How are we to get in?"
Favorotti glanced at the yellow star, adjusted the course slightly. "We'll have to use Rumpot's own entrance. There will be an obvious watergate. We'll find it. Then Kitten will find Sara."
Kitten's tail thumped again. Molly patted his head.
Rumpot patted a huge, ugly dog. "There, there, Growler," he murmured, "I have meat for your supper, a bloody steak, just as you like it. I'll give it to you presently.”
Growler lowered his scarred, red-furred head and growled deep in his massive chest. Rumpot patted him again and shifted in his chair. He looked up from the nearly transparent paper he was reading. "Squibby!"
Squibby appeared from a hallway, "Aye, Captain."
"See that the special guest room is prepared for use. We'll have an important visitor tomorrow."
"Aye, Captain." Squibby turned to go.
Squibby paused and turned. "Aye, Captain."
"Send for the cook and his helpers. We'll need a feast. I wish to instruct them."
The swells were regular and not too large, but Abby, broadside to their approach from the northwest, rolled like a silly puppy. It was too dark for Molly to be sure, but she felt her face must be green. She asked, "See anything yet?"
Favorotti nodded. "Yes. There's a cave, a big one. It must be the watergate. He folded his small brass telescope shut and tucked it away in his jacket. He pulled on a line with his left hand and turned the tiller with his right. Abby's jib sail filled and she turned toward the dark mass of Monkey Tail Island. The violent rolling became a more tolerable rise and fall motion. Molly sighed with relief.
Favorotti said, "Your work is about to begin, Molly. Rumpot would not leave the safety of his fortress to the sea, the cliffs and his pirate guards alone. There will be enchantments."
Molly took another deep breath. "I'm ready," she said. She raised her wand, pointed it at Abby's bow and clearly pronounced, "Bluebell." A bright blue blossom of light sprang from the wand's tip and flew out over the black water.
Favorotti followed the light. They sailed into calmer waters in the shadow of the island.
The blue light suddenly flashed red. Molly said, "Something is coming, something powerful."
Favorotti looked at her. "Can you divert it?"
Molly grunted, "I'll try." She again raised her wand. She said, "Elderberry." Yellow sparks, hundreds of them, very tiny, flowed from the tip of the wand. They flowed down their vessel's sides, into the water and disappeared.
"What did that do," asked Favorotti?
"It's a shield," answered Molly, "and a mask. "Sea creatures can't see us now and magical creatures can't feel us. I just didn't want to use that spell so soon."
"It only lasts for four hours. I was hoping we wouldn't need it until we left."
The sea suddenly bulged to their right. Fur rose along Kitten's spine and he growled deep in his throat. The bulge was higher than Abby's sides and more than a hundred feet long. Nothing broke the surface, but they saw a dim, green glow deep within the bulge. The glow passed and the sea subsided. Kitten whined once and looked at Molly.
Molly gulped. "Do you know what that was?"
Favorotti shook his head. "No, and I hope we never find out."
Chapter Thirteen *** Rumpot's Castle
Sara sat at a long table lit by many candles in silver candlesticks. A bowl of soup, quite good potato soup with cheddar cheese sprinkled on top, cooled on the table before her.
Rumpot came up silently behind her. He rested his heavy right hand on her shoulder. She started and then tried not to cringe.
"Now, now, Sara, don't sulk." He chuckled, "It is easier to get into something than to get out of it. No?"
Sara did not answer.
Rumpot squeezed her shoulder and continued, "You should eat your supper. You have much to do tomorrow." He looked along the dark, shiny table. "Perhaps you want a bit of company? I'll send Squibby in to sit with you. Eat up." He patted her shoulder once again and turned away. He left as quietly as he'd come. Sara breathed again.
A moment later, Squibby bustled into the dining room. His voice was honest and kindly when he spoke, "That's good soup, Missy! Made it meself."
Sara looked down and said nothing.
Squibby asked, "What's the matter, Missy?"
Sara rubbed her eyes and tried not to cry. "Everything! I'm captured! My friends don't know where I am. I'm far from home, very far. I can't even imagine how far. My parents are in trouble and I'm not there to help them. I may never get back there to help them. How can I ever get home?"
Squibby seated himself opposite Sara. He rested his chin on his right hand and his right elbow on the table. He said, "That's a hard pile of nuts, Missy, and no mistake. I never knew me own parents, not that I can remember. I missed them, though. Still do."
Curiosity tugged Sara out of her misery. She looked up. "You don't seem like a blood-thirsty killer, Squibby. How did you get here?"
"To this island?"
Sara nodded. "To this island, being a pirate, doing what you do for Rumpot."
Squibby grinned. "Well, lots of things in life don't give you much choice, Missy."
Sara looked at her soup. "I know." She sniffled. "I know."
Squibby went on, "I was an orphan in Star Harbor. Orphan boys and unwanted boys (much the same, mind) usually go to sea. Sailing's a good life for a boy if he don't get killed."
"Is it dangerous?"
"Dangerous enough. The captains likes boys for topmen. Boys are light and agile. Boys can climb to the highest parts of a ship's rigging and handle the sails."
Sara thought about this. "What if they aren't good at climbing?"
Squibby smiled. "Well, they're soon dead. Even good ones sometimes take a fall and die."
"Were you good?"
"One of the best!" Squibby puffed out his chest proudly. "I would have gone on to mate, and, who knows, maybe captain someday, but me ship was captured by Rumpot."
"Didn't he throw your crew to the sharks?"
"Most of them, but he needed a couple of boys. He spared me since I was the best of the lot. I been with him ever since."
"Do you like being a pirate."
Squibby thought about this. "The sailing is good. I'm a bo'sun now and look to do better." He looked at Sara. "I don't like the killing and robbing, though. Not at all! You're right. I'm no killer, Missy. I'm no killer."
"Does that get you into trouble?"
He shook his head. "Not yet. I was too little and too young for fighting when Rumpot took me. Now, they're just used to me minding the ship's work." He looked down. "I guess I'd leave here if I could."
Sara nodded. She took a spoonful of the almost warm soup.
Torchlight flickered off the cave's dark waters as Abby nudged the landing. Kitten leaped over a strip of water and up ten steps to an iron-bound door. Favorotti helped Molly step onto the stone quay. He then secured Abby behind the pirate longboat.
Molly straightened her skirt and asked, "Do you think anyone will want to use that boat tonight?"
Favorotti shook his head. "I doubt it. We'd likely be safe anyway. Other boats," he motioned with his head toward the darker end of the quay, "all stolen, are moored down there. Nobody will put out tonight, I'll wager, and nobody will be upset if they see Abby tied here."
Kitten whimpered from above. He sniffed the bottom of the door, scratched at its boards and whimpered again.
Molly looked at him. "He's found Sara's scent."
Favorotti nodded. "That door, is it protected?"
Molly produced her wand, pointed it at the door and said, "Petunia."
Pale, pink light flowed from the wand's end and brushed the door above Kitten's head. An orange spark glowed suddenly near its latch.
Molly grunted to herself. "An alarm spell. It won't detect Kitten. We can pass, too, if we go through touching him."
"Is it locked?"
"That will mean guards higher. Shall we?" He held Molly's hand as she began to climb the steps.
Sara lifted her empty soup bowl. "I'll take this into the kitchen before I go to my room."
Squibby shrugged. "Just leave it for the scullery girl. I'll call her when I make my rounds."
Sara shook her head. She was long used to taking care of herself and helping out unasked when she could. "No, don't bother her. I can do it."
"As you wish."
She looked at Squibby. "Are you on duty tonight?"
He nodded. "Until midnight. I'm to walk through the main halls and keep the candles lit. The Captain likes people to be moving about in the rooms at night. It keeps the guards awake, if nothing else."
Sara smiled. "Then goodnight, Squibby. Thanks for talking with me."
Squibby smiled back. "I'll see you in the morning, Missy."
Sara walked around the huge table to a door in the far wall. It was a swinging door and she pushed through it with her right shoulder. A narrow hallway, not too well lit by candles in sconces, led to another swinging door and the kitchen. She slipped through this door and walked across the kitchen to the washing sinks with their long sideboard. A few steps from the sinks, a savage snarl froze her in place.
Sara looked to her right. A second snarl, louder and even more savage sent shivers up her spine. Claws scraped on clay tiles. Growler's massive, scarred head emerged from the shadow beneath a cutting table. His black lips lifted and wrinkled, showing rows of gleaming teeth. His eyes glowed red with rage.
Molly pointed her wand at the heavy door blocking their path. She said, "Asphodel." A dozen tiny, yellow butterflies flowed out from her wand and streamed through the door's keyhole. She looked at Favorotti. "That should do it. You may open the door."
Favorotti lifted the latch and pulled the door toward him. Two guards, one slumped on either side of the door, snored heavily. Favorotti looked at Molly.
"They'll sleep until morning," she said. "Now, where do you suppose Sara is?"
Kitten suddenly growled and leapt through the doorway. He flashed across the room beyond and disappeared down another hallway.
Favorotti said, "Quick! We must follow him!"
Molly held up her wand. "Wait a moment. I'll send a charm after him." She pointed the wand and said, "Aster." A green hummingbird darted out of the end of the wand. It flew straight after Kitten and left a trail of glowing green sparks behind it.
Favorotti glanced at Molly. "Follow as best you can. I'll run." He did.
Molly snorted, lifted her skirts and followed.
Growler, head low and fangs bared, took a step toward Sara. Sara understood dogs and would usually extend her hand, let a strange dog sniff and become comfortable with her. This time, she knew, she would lose her hand if she offered it. Growler took another step.
Like his wolf ancestors, Kitten struck silently. He flew across the kitchen in one great leap. His teeth closed on Growler's left ear. His right shoulder smashed into Growler's neck. Growler staggered sideways. Kitten's momentum swung him past the heavier dog. Growler's ear tore free. Kitten landed just in front of Sara. He spat out Growler's ear and snarled, bloody fangs menacing.
Growler regained his balance. Blood from the torn ear masked his left eye. He shook his head. Drops of blood spattered the floor. Kitten dove to his right. His fangs closed briefly on Growler's left foot. Sara heard bones crunch. Kitten leapt back as Growler yelped in pain. Something like fear flashed in the big dog's eyes.
Favorotti stepped through the kitchen door. Sara cried out with surprise and joy. Growler held his left paw high and whimpered. Favorotti pulled a heavy club from his belt and stepped toward the wounded dog. Molly, puffing heavily, stepped into the doorway. "There's no need for that," she gasped. Let me, " she pointed her wand and said, "asphodel." Yellow butterflies flew toward Growler. He snapped at them as they circled his head. One landed on his nose and he slumped down in a heavy sleep.
Sara ran to Molly. "Molly, oh, Molly! I'm glad to see you!" She hugged as much of Molly's skirts as she could.
Molly patted Sara's head, "And I'm glad to see you, child! We'll celebrate properly later, once we've gotten out of here."
Kitten licked Sara's hand. Sara whirled, knelt and hugged him. She rubbed her nose in the rough fur of his neck. "First the trolls and now this. You saved me from that awful dog, Kitten! Thanks!"
Kitten, looking past her, growled again.
Molly turned. Favorotti raised his club. Sara looked up. Squibby stood staring at them. He held a long knife in his right hand. "Are these friends of yours, Missy?"
Sara nodded. "They are, Squibby. They're my best friends."
Squibby shrugged. "Then they'll get no trouble from me."
Favorotti said, "Your wand, Molly." Molly pointed her wand at Squibby.
"No!" Sara almost shouted. "He's on our side."
Favorotti said nothing but held his club tightly and stared at Squibby.
Squibby grinned. "She's right. I'm coming with you, mate."
Sara put her hand on Favorotti's arm. "You can trust him. He's my friend, too."
Favorotti nodded finally. "Follow me."
A loud growl sounded next to Rumpot's ear. He sat up straight in his bed and blinked. Unknown to everyone in Rumpot's castle and crew, there was a magical link between the Captain and his dog. Growler's senses served as an extra warning system, secret and private, which had never before become active. It was active now. Something serious had alarmed Growler, intruders at the very least. Rumpot listened for a moment and then swung his legs out from under his covers. He reached for his sword belt. Councilor Rinch had forged the link with Growler. He'd have to remember to thank her when she arrived later today. He pulled on his pants and strapped his sword around his waist. "Boots?" he said to himself. "Ah, boots." He pulled his right boot from beneath the bed and stuck his rather crooked toes into it.
Squibby touched Favorotti's arm. "We should go through the dining room. We can bar the door to the guards' quarters. That will slow them down if the alarm is sounded.
Suddenly a deep brass bell clanged from somewhere in front of them. It clanged and kept on clanging.
Favorotti looked at Squibby. "Can we still reach that door?"
Squibby nodded. "They'll be putting their pants on and grabbing weapons."
"Just to the left. I'll show you." Squibby ran toward the dining room.
Favorotti looked at Molly. "Head for the boat. We'll catch you up." He followed Squibby.
Molly said, "Come on. It will take me some time to get down those stairs."
Squibby reached the door and jammed a thick, iron fireplace poker through its latch. He looked up as Favorotti came up beside him. "That should hold them. They'll have to go all the way up to the walls and back down through the kitchen."
Favorotti opened his mouth to speak, but a voice sounded from behind him, Rumpot's voice. "Squibby! Squibby, that's naughty of you. We'll have to send you to the cellar for a time. Yes."
Squibby's mouth dropped open and his face turned white. Favorotti turned. Rumpot was standing at the far end of the room. Two guards, both armed with swords, stood behind him.
Rumpot snarled, "Kill the big one. Leave the little one alive."
The guards, one on either side of the long table, raised their swords and charged. Squibby ran to the right side of the table and waved his knife at the approaching guard. The guard, a man named Patch, grinned and knocked the knife aside with a sweep of his sword. His backstroke caught Squibby on the side of his face with the flat of the blade. Stunned, Squibby dropped to the floor.
Favorotti faced the other guard. The guard slashed at his head. Favorotti knocked the stroke aside with his club, stepped in close and buried his fist in the man's stomach. The guard dropped like a stone as his sword clattered to the floor.
Favorotti leapt onto the table and slid feet first across its polished surface. His boots caught Patch in the chest just as he turned away from Squibby. Patch stumbled back. Favorotti landed like a hunting tiger and sprang. He knocked Patch's sword aside and tapped the side of his head with the club. Patch's eyes rolled up and he fell.
Favorotti turned toward Rumpot. Rumpot scowled. Favorotti took a step toward him. Rumpot yelled, "Idiots! I'm surrounded by fools and idiots!" Favorotti took another step toward him. Rumpot turned, ran through the door at the end of the dining hall and slammed it shut behind him.
Favorotti dropped his club through a loop on his belt. He went to the end of the great table and placed his hands on it. He crouched down, braced his legs for a great push and took a deep breath. His muscles suddenly bulged. The table resisted for a moment and then slid along the polished floor. Its legs squealed like a dozen panicked pigs until it thumped into the door through which Rumpot had fled.
Favorotti straightened and walked to Squibby. Squibby rubbed his jaw and looked up. Favorotti asked, "Can you walk."
"Give me a hand. I'll make it."
Chapter Fourteen *** Monsters Battle
Wavelets rolled inwards to slap against Abby's side and the moldy stone flanks of the quay. Kitten stared at the dark, troubled water and growled. Sara flinched and Molly squeezed her hand. "Don't worry, child. We got in. We'll get out." They both looked at the cave entrance. More small waves sprang up as if a vast hand moved beneath the sea's surface.
Favorotti and Squibby came through the door at the top of the stairs and closed it behind them. Favorotti glanced at Molly. "Molly, can you secure this door?"
Molly smiled. "I can." She raised her wand and said "Clover." Five blue bees leapt from its end. They flew straight to the door and landed in different places around its edge. They buzzed and blue light shone around them. They buzzed louder and became nearly as bright as stars. Suddenly their lights flashed out and the buzzing stopped. A smell of scorched wood and heated metal hung on the air.
Molly nodded. "It's welded shut now."
Favorotti smiled. "Thanks. Let's board Abby and set sail."
Molly shook her head. "My shield is good for some hours yet. It is strong enough to conceal us on the open sea, but I don't think it will get us out of this cave."
Favorotti stopped with his foot in the air. "What is it?"
"Something is waiting for us. We'll need a diversion."
Squibby took a deep breath. "I hopes it's a good one, ma'am!"
Molly looked at him. "You've seen the guardian creature?"
"Aye," Squibby nodded, "and I hopes never to see it again. Can you make it stay away from us?"
Molly pointed her wand toward deep water outside the cave mouth. "That will depend on how bad-tempered it is and who's home." She concentrated for a moment and said, "Anenome." Slender, silver fish darted from the end of wand, soared through the cave and plunged into the waters just outside its shadow.
Favorotti glanced at Molly. "Should we board?"
Molly shook her head. "Wait a few moments more." She looked out past the cavern entrance.
The black, glistening water near Abby's port side bulged. Pebbled hide, lumpy and rough as a stony beach, broke the surface a few yards from her toes.
Squibby whispered, "Something's coming. Look!" He pointed at the cavern's entrance. A second bulge appeared there. This bulge swelled and swelled and finally burst into a forest of tentacles. Where the tentacles converged, a great, round eye with a black center gazed unblinkingly at Sara.
Molly said, "There's our distraction."
Colors - pink, orange, purple - flashed across the giant squid's tentacles and body. Then it blazed red and surged into the cave.
A blunt snout, almost as wide as Abby was long, burst from the water next to the quay. Spray drenched Sara and her friends. She wiped her eyes and gasped. A vast creature she couldn't name rose before her, but it looked most like a worm. A foul smell born of ancient ooze and untold dead creatures staggered them all. The snout rose higher and higher.
Favorotti, wiping salt water off of his face, said, "It has no eyes."
"It needs none," said Molly. "It lives and hunts in absolute darkness. Or it should. Magic binds it to this place and to the shallows."
Sara watched as the giant head swayed silently in the air above her. It swayed and tilted toward the onrushing squid. Its snout suddenly split in half and hundreds of needle teeth reflected torchlight.
Squibby whispered, "It's got a mouth, right enough!"
The squid's two longest tentacles lashed out and slapped against either side of the nameless creature's head, pulled it down. The squid's hooked beak gaped, fastened on the paler hide beneath the worm-creature's jaw and closed with a crunch. Silvery, flabby flesh tore. The squid backed away with a chunk of meat in its beak.
The worm-creature twisted in agony. A hiss like steam from a geyser roared from its still open mouth. The awful smell grew worse. The squid surged forward again, but this time, the worm pounced. Its jaws spread impossibly wide, it engulfed several tentacles. The squid's beak clacked on air. The worm's jaws crashed shut. Fragments of tentacle flew through the air. One landed on Abby's bow.
The great squid, its eye still expressionless, backed away. All or parts of several of its tentacles were missing. Its color suddenly changed to a midnight blue. Ink jetted into the air and splashed the worm. The squid shot backwards out of the cave as ink stained the water behind it.
The worm, tentacle fragments still speared upon its teeth, made an arch of its body and dove. The water bulged as it chased its enemy out of the cave.
A long moment passed before Molly said, "I think we may board now."
"Aye," Squibby answered, "board and leave as fast as we may. I'll take an oar."
"I've got the other," said Favorotti. He glanced toward the sea. "It will be dawn in a few hours. We'll catch that northwest breeze just outside the cave. Come on." He hopped down into Abby's stern. Squibby joined him.
Sara looked at Molly. "Will the squid get away?"
Molly looked at her. "I think so. They're very fast. And its tentacles will grow back in time, too."
Sara nodded. "Good." She hopped into the boat and offered a helping hand to Molly. Kitten jumped down beside her.
Pangloss snorted with disgust as he viewed the entrance of the Freeport market. It consisted of three crooked rows of patched tents and some improvised counters scattered across a dusty, cobbled square. The air was hot already, though morning was still young. Oolie and Goolie, not so picky as the magician, wiggled with excitement.
Oolie said, "We'll scout the market . . ."
"for shells," continued Goolie.
"And other things," finished Oolie.
Goolie agreed, "interesting things!"
Pangloss siged and nodded his head. "Steal nothing big and cause no riots."
Oolie and Goolie were gone before he finished speaking. He watched them round a corner and disappear among stalls and patchwork shadows. He turned to one of the first stalls. It displayed some large, faded and rather ordinary shells. Pangloss rubbed his chin. He really could use some shells. These, however, were quite inferior. He searched on.
At last he stopped before a counter, which was little more than a splintered board. Several nice shells rested on the gray wood. At the end of the counter was a small treasure, a blue periwinkle. Pangloss looked at the vendor. He said, "I'm interested in that one." He pointed at the blue periwinkle.
The vendor, an aged man with very bushy eyebrows, smiled and rubbed his hands together. "Good choice, sir! That's a fine specimen, very useful for both decoration and potions!"
Pangloss nodded. "I'll pay you two silvers for it."
"Two silvers!" The man threw up his hands. "You'll beggar me! For ten it's a steal. I should give you my shoes and my shirt, too?"
Pangloss sniffed. "Three."
The man sighed. "Seven."
Pangloss glared. "Five. That's my last offer."
The man nodded and his eyebrows bristled. "Done. Five silvers."
Pangloss placed the coins on the board and picked up the periwinkle. He tucked it carefully into a fold of his robe and turned away. Somebody tugged at his sleeve.
"Excuse me, sir." Somebody again tugged his sleeve. He looked down. A small and not very clean boy looked up at him.
Pangloss said, "Yes?"
The boy said, "I know where you can get more blue periwinkles, perhaps a dozen, only four silvers apiece, perhaps a special price even lower if you take them all."
Interest sparked in the wizard's eyes. "Where?"
The boy smiled. Several of his teeth were missing. "Just at the back of the market, sir. My uncle is selling them."
Pangloss looked out over the dusty crowd. Oolie and Goolie were nowhere to be seen. "Where are those blasted twins?" he hissed between his teeth.
The boy said, "This way, sir. This way."
Pangloss muttered, "Bah! They'll turn up. Show me the way, boy."
The boy nodded and ducked between two stalls. Pangloss followed him into a narrow alley behind stalls and tents. The boy, now well ahead, smiled and beckoned from the entrance of another alley. Pangloss hurried his steps.
He was puffing and somewhat out of breath when he reached the second alley. This alley was shady and dark. Pangloss squinted, but the boy was no longer in sight. He stepped into deeper shade and, as he did so, strong hands gripped his arms from either side. He glimpsed green tunics and brass arm rings before a smelly sack dropped over his head. His shout of outrage and alarm became a muffled squawk as a huge hand gripped his mouth through the sack.
Rumpot stood on the highest rampart of his castle and looked out over the sea. A speck against the dawn sky may or may not have been a tiny sailboat. In any case, it was gone now. He shut his brass telescope with a sharp click and turned in frustration toward several of his crewmen. They bowed their heads and cowered from his anger.
Rumpot smiled. Fear and cowering among subordinates made him feel somewhat better.
Ring Nose, the second mate, ventured a question. Eyes still down, he asked, "Have you any orders, sir?"
Rumpot just stared at him.
After a long moment, Ring Nose tried again. "Do you know where they've went to, sir?"
Rumpot sighed. "If I know the answer, I'll tell you the answer. If I don't, I'll just respond cleverly."
Ring Nose looked up. "Eh, what's that, sir?"
"Shut up, you idiot, or I'll cut off your ears, your nose and your lips!"
Ring Nose cringed and said nothing more.
Rumpot clasped his hands behind his back and paced back and forth on the rampart. He felt much better now. It was true that the brat had escaped and that his castle defenses had revealed flaws, but things could have gone much worse. As soon as his great worm calmed from its rage, he would send fast ships to search out and capture the girl and her friends. They wouldn't get away.
A gray gull circled and landed on a merlon in front of him. He noted the tightly rolled paper tied to the gull's leg with a green ribbon. The gull allowed him to reach out and untie the ribbon. He unrolled the paper and read. A smile spread across his rather thin lips.
Ring Nose jumped. "Sir?"
Still smiling, Rumpot waved vaguely with the hand holding the paper. "Fetch me writing materials. I must answer this message immediately."
Councilor Rinch crumpled the paper in her hand. Alarmed by the motion, the gray gull half lifted its wings and ruffled its feathers. She turned to her lieutenant of guards. "The girl has escaped Rumpot. She was undoubtedly brought to this island. We cannot wait for him and his pirates to arrive to search for her." She pointed toward Pangloss. "Leave four guards to watch him."
Pangloss was seated in a chair beneath a tree. His hands and feet were tied. The battered bag was still over his head. His muttered complaints still issued from within its stained folds.
Rinch continued, "Bring the rest of your soldiers and follow me." She turned and took the path leading back to Freeport.
Chapter Fifteen *** Molly's Blood
Favorotti looked across sun-sparkled wave tops toward shore. "That looks like a fisherman's dock and there's a good beach behind it. Prepare to come about."
Squibby gripped the headsail sheet.
Molly asked, "Are you sure this is a good idea?"
Favorotti nodded. "Rumpot's spies will get word to him quickly if we tie up in Freeport. When we get ashore, Squibby and I can slip into town, find the others and get back without being noticed. Kitten can help, too."
Kitten's tail thumped when he heard his name. He raised his head.
Sara asked, "Will the pirates try to catch us when we sail back to Star Harbor?"
"Yes," Favorotti looked at her, "they will, but we can avoid them. We'll leave at dusk, sail around the island's northern end and sail northeast for a night and a day. Darkness will hide us at first. Then we should be outside the pirates' circle. We'll touch the coast more than a hundred miles north of Star Harbor. We can follow it down. If we see pirates, we can duck ashore."
Sara looked behind them. "What about the monster?"
Molly looked at her. "Good question, but I think that we're safe. That creature is bound to the seas around Rumpot's island. I don't think it can easily be sent to hunt us."
Favorotti called out, "Ready, Squibby?" Squibby waved. Favorotti eased the helm into the wind as Squibby loosened the sheet. The headsail swung across the bow and Abby turned toward the rickety boards of the fisherman's pier and the shining sands beyond it.
Councilor Rinch tapped her fingers against the dark, polished wood of her laptop writing board. She said, "They've not entered the port and there's no sign of them in town?"
Her lieutenant of guards stood before her at attention. "No, your ladyship."
Rinch set the lapboard aside and rose from her chair. "They must come to this island, however. We will capture them when they do." She thought for a moment. Then she said, "But only the girl is important. Wait right here. Guard our captive and wait." She stared at the lieutenant. "As you value your life, do not follow me."
The lieutenant gulped and swallowed. "Yes, your ladyship."
Rinch held his eyes for a second longer and then turned. She walked out of the temporary camp and into a grove of almond trees. The trees had not been cared for in some time, for weeds and wild shrubs had grown between them. She walked for several minutes, looking from side to side. At last, she found what she was seeking. She stopped, took a deep breath and pointed her wand at the ground. Then she said a word known only to dark wizards, a word that had no human meaning but sizzled in the air like fat in a fire.
A beam of pale light flashed from the wand's tip and struck an earthen mound among leaves. Dozens of ants rose from the mound. Wings sprouted from them and they grew. They grew to the size of gulls with pincers like twin beaks of eagles. Their shiny, black eyes glittered like polished jewels. Rinch motioned upward with her wand. The ants' wings blurred and the hum of their beating became a scream. They soared above the trees and were gone.
The councilor's shoulders slumped with sudden fatigue. She leaned against a tree trunk and breathed deeply.
Favorotti sat in the shade of a shed near the harbor's edge. Kitten lay panting beside him. Squibby stepped around the corner of the shed.
Favorotti looked up. "What did you learn?"
Squibby frowned. "They haven't been back to the inn. The last anybody saw of them was at the market. The twins made off with some pastries. The old man bought a shell from a dealer I know. Since then, they've disappeared."
Favorotti looked down at Kitten. "You can help."
Kitten's tail thumped and he looked up at Favorotti. Favorotti opened a flap on his pack and reached inside. He pulled out a battered brown cap. "This belongs to Oolie. He left it on the boat." He held the cap out to Kitten. Kitten sniffed it and looked at Favorotti again. Favorotti said, "Find him, Kitten. Find Oolie!"
Kitten barked once, turned and ran across a road and into an open field. Favorotti looked at Squibby. "We'd better try to follow him."
Squibby nodded. "Aye."
Councilor Rinch tilted her chin slightly upwards and composed her features into a mask of calm certitude. That last spell had been at the edge of her ability to control. Fear had welled up as her strength had faded. The fearsome ants would have killed her instantly had she faltered. They raged against all living things but hated her most of all because she'd changed them. She'd just managed to send them to find Sara and kill anyone with her.
Councilor Rinch walked slowly into the shade of the tree where her soldiers waited. They watched her and tried not to shift nervously. She motioned to the lieutenant.
He came forward and said, "Yes, your ladyship."
Rinch nodded to him. "We will soon know where the girl is."
"And the others?" he asked.
She looked at the sky above his right shoulder. "The others will be dead."
Kitten stood among oaks next to a root with a large hollow place beneath it. He wagged his tail. Favorotti came up to him. "Here?" he asked. Kitten wagged again.
Oolie's head peeked out of the hollow. He smiled. "You found me."
"And me!" chimed in Goolie.
Favorotti smiled in spite of his worry. "Kitten found you. Where's Mr. Pangloss?"
The twins' eyes became round and large. "Gone," said Oolie.
"Gone and taken," added Goolie.
Oolie nodded. "Soldiers in green popped a bag over his head and took him."
"And then the tall lady came," continued Goolie.
"Councilor Rinch?" asked Favorotti.
"Yes, that one," said Oolie.
"So we hid," finished Goolie.
Squibby, breathing hard, came up next to Favorotti. Favorotti glanced at him and then at the twins. "Twins, I'd like you to meet Squibby. He's a retired pirate and is on our side."
Oolie grinned. "We like pirates!"
"Pirates on our side," agreed Goolie.
Squibby grinned, too. "Happy to meet you boys."
Favorotti said, "We've got to get back to Sara and Molly as fast as we can. We need to tell them what happened and figure out what to do."
A high-pitched whine sounded in the air high above the oaks. It swelled and then faded.
Oolie asked, "What was that?'
Squibby answered before Goolie could open his mouth. "I don't think we want to know." He shivered.
Molly sat heavily on a rounded boulder and sighed.
Sara looked at her. "Do you feel all right?"
Molly shook her head. "No! I'm not used to staying up all night and riding hours on end in an open boat."
Sara pursed her lips and offered, "The ocean was pretty calm last night."
Molly continued, "Neither am I used to sneaking into castles with thousands of stairs nor fighting giant sea monsters."
Sara smiled. "But you did both very well and I thank you for saving me!"
Sara looked down the path where Favorotti, Kitten and Squibby had diasappeared. "How long do you think it will be before the others return?" she asked.
Molly shrugged. "It might take them quite awhile to get Pangloss moving." She thought for a moment and added, "Or to even find those wild twins, for that matter."
Sara nodded. "I hope they don't run into any trouble."
Molly leaned forward. "Ah, trouble. That reminds me that you should be ready for trouble if it finds us. Let me give you some things now."
"I'll show you." Molly reached into a hidden pocket in her skirt. "Things to be used only when you need them most." She produced three, small glass figures. They were delicate animals, a green turtle, a yellow lizard and a blue frog.
Sara asked, "Magic?"
Molly nodded. "Of course. Hold out your hand." Sara did so. Molly placed the turtle on her palm. "This one is for hiding. It will wrap you in a fold of another world for as much as an hour. You'll be invisible to any who pursue you. Just put it in your pocket when you want to be visible again." She placed the yellow lizard next to the turtle. "This one is a tool at need. It will become any tool you want, even a weapon. It may be used three times in a day." She placed the blue frog next to the other two figures. "This one is for talking. Whomever you wish to reach, wherever they are, they will hear you when you speak. It lasts for only ten minutes, but you can use it once each day."
Sara stared at the creatures for a moment and then closed her fingers around them. She looked at Molly. "Thanks."
Molly handed her a paper on which three words were written, one in green ink, one in yellow ink and one in blue ink. "Here are the words which activate each charm. Memorize them or take care that you don't lose this paper!"
Sara smiled. "I'll be careful. I have a good memory, too."
"I don't." Molly shrugged again. "I've got more than fifty pockets in this skirt and I'm not at all sure what's in all of them. Could be some surprises."
Sara looked carefully at the paper before she folded it and put it in her pocket.
A hum, increasingly loud, sounded in the air above them.
"What's that?" Sara asked.
Molly rose from the rock and looked up. "Whatever it is, it's not supposed to be here. Get behind me, child."
Sara pointed. "There! Are they birds?"
Spiky, many-legged creatures with transparent wings formed a swirling circle above them.
"No, but they're interested in us." Both of Molly's hands dove into her pockets. The circle became a swarm. The swarm paused for a moment and then dove.
Sara screamed, "They're ants, Molly, giant ants!"
Molly cast a silver powder into the air and cried out, "Edelweiss!" An umbrella of ice formed high over their heads. The leading ants struck the umbrella shield and bounced back. Others struck it and a web of cracks ran across its surface. More struck it and the shield shattered. The ants again hovered and swarmed.
Molly grunted and raised her left hand.
"What's the matter, Molly?"
"These magical ants may be stronger than my magic. Get out your weapon, child." She tossed green pellets into the air and said, "Prickly Phlox!" The pellets swelled until they were the size of plates and became shining, green beetles. The beetles rose to meet the ants.
Sara pulled out the yellow glass lizard. She remembered the magical word without looking and said, "Suncup!" The lizard writhed in her hand and became a stout, yellow paddle.
Beetles tore into diving ants. Insect wings hummed. Ant pincers snapped. Ant pincers snapped but slid off beetle armor. Each beetle grappled with an ant and hugged it close. Then each entangled pair fell to earth. They crashed and disappeared in explosions of red-green smoke. When no more pairs of fighters remained, six ants still circled above Molly and Sara.
Molly muttered, "Who would have thought that fifty beetles wouldn't be enough?" She pulled a long knife from her skirt and looked at Sara. "Watch yourself, child!"
The six ants dove.
Molly brandished her knife. "Here they come!"
Sara readied herself, but all of the ants attacked Molly. Pincers gaping wide, the leader went for Molly's eyes. Her knife flashed high. The ant's head flew one way and its body crumpled in the other direction. Her return stroke chopped a wing and two legs from a second attacker. It fell to the ground.
The remaining four ants clamped onto her back and sides. Heads twisting, they bit and chewed. Molly cried out in pain, but her knife moved swiftly to skewer the ant on her right side. It convulsed and leapt away, carrying the knife with it. Molly gripped the ant on her left side with both hands. Though it tore her dress and her flesh, she pulled it from her and squeezed.
Sara jumped to help Molly. The ant on Molly's neck bit, bit again and chewed. Sara swung the yellow paddle at the ant. It exploded into yellow smoke. The last ant clung to Molly's lower back. Sara smacked it with the paddle and it disappeared in another puff of smoke.
Molly groaned and sagged to her knees. Her eyes fluttered shut. Blood coursed out of rents in her dress, but most serious was the wound in her neck. Blood poured from it, soaked her sleeve and pooled on the grass at her side. Sara knelt, reached out and gently tried to inspect the wound on Molly's neck.
Molly’s eyes snapped open. “Take your paws off of me!”
Sara pleaded, “Molly, you’re bleeding to death.”
Molly sighed and closed her eyes. “In that case, do something useful. Look in the rock crevices behind us. Gather all the spider webs you can find. Be quick!” She slumped all the way to the ground.
Sara ran to the rocks. Black crevices separated the larger ones. Deep in the shadows, spiders lived. Sara shivered, but plunged her right hand into the deepest of the cracks. Sticky strands of web brushed the back of her hand. She turned her hand in quick circles, gathered as much as she could and ran back to Molly.
She knelt again and said, "Molly, I've brought webs."
Molly's head lay still. Her breathing was faint and fast. Her voice, when she spoke, sounded as if it came from very far away. "Cover the worst wounds. Use wand. Say 'Mimulus'."
Sara placed most of the web upon the neck wound and some on the cuts in Molly's left side. She took the wand from Molly's hand, pointed it at the still pulsing neck wound and said, "Mimulus." A strong tingling surged through her fingers and up her arm.
The bleeding stopped. Sara lowered the wand and sighed. She said, "It worked, Molly."
Still in that tiny voice, Molly answered, "Need rest now." Her eyes closed.
Chapter Sixteen *** Sunset Balloons
A green-clad soldier called from a low rise, "Your ladyship, come quickly!"
Councilor Rinch, again seated in her chair, glanced at him. "What is it?'
"The signal you mentioned, the lieutenant sees it."
"I'll come." Rinch stood up and joined the soldier. They walked together to the top of a gentle hill and partway down its far side.
The lieutenant stood next to boulder. He glanced up as they approached and pointed to the north. "There," he said.
Rinch followed the line of his finger and saw a vertical column of red light. She nodded. "My ants have found them. Assemble your men, lieutenant. We shall march toward that light. Leave four guards with the prisoner. Order them to transport him to the launch site. We'll meet them there shortly."
Sara looked at the spear of red light with dismay. It rose from the body of the last ant and jabbed far into the clear sky. She knew it must be intended to signal enemies. As she watched, the broken ant faded away, but the light grew brighter. She looked down.
Molly lay sleeping in her bloody dress, her face pale as fresh sheets. Sara had covered her friend's chest and shoulders with her own jacket. It wasn't much, but it was all she could think to do. She hoped that Favorotti, Squibby and Kitten had noticed the red light and were rushing to help her. She knelt, took up Molly's cold hand and held it.
Squibby pointed above the trees. "What's that?"
Favorotti looked up. A column of red light, narrow at its base but wider at its top, rose high in the sky. He shook his head. "I don't know, but it looks like it's coming from very near where we left Sara and Molly. We'd better get there quickly. It could be a signal from Molly."
"Or from somebody else," Squibby added.
"Or from somebody else," Favorotti agreed. "Come, let's make all speed back to our friends."
A shout, too distant to be understood, sounded from beyond the hollow where Molly and Sara waited. Sara looked in the direction of the shout, but it didn't sound again. She looked down at Molly's sleeping face and murmured, "I'll check on that, but I won't be away long." She patted Molly's hand and brushed a strand of hair from her forehead. "I hope."
She stood, looked down on her friend for another moment and then turned. She walked to the top of the small rise and stopped. Up an easy slope through scattered trees, men moved toward her, armed men, at least thirty of them. They wore green tunics, brass helmets and brass armbands.
Fear froze her for an instant, but only for an instant. Some cold, calm part of her mind pushed fear away. Those soldiers served Councilor Rinch, so Councilor Rinch couldn't be far away. She glanced back at Molly. Sara knew with certainty what Councilor Rinch would do to Molly. She felt the magical glass figures in her pocket. Calling her friends for help wouldn't work. Fighting was out of the question because they were so badly outnumbered. Hiding would work for an hour, but the red signal light would keep Rinch and her soldiers searching longer than that.
Sara looked back at Molly again and a decision formed in her mind. She tore her eyes away from her friend and looked down at the advancing soldiers. She took a deep breath and then walked toward them.
The soldiers saw her coming. Their lieutenant motioned with his right hand. His men spread out to either side of him and formed a half circle with their spears pointed at Sara. She walked up to the lieutenant and stopped.
Councillor Rinch approached from the rear of the formation. A dazzling smile spread across her face as she held her hands wide and said, "Welcome, Sara! It is so good to see you again. My soldiers will protect you now."
Favorotti held Molly's wrist, felt for her pulse. After some seconds, he put her hand back by her side and looked at the others. "She's lost a great deal of blood, but she'll recover if we give her good care."
Squibby said, "We can't stay here, or," he tilted his eyebrows toward Freeport, "in town. Rumpot will be coming along soon."
Favorotti nodded. "We've got to get her to Abby and set sail. We'll follow our original plan and hope for smooth weather."
Oolie pulled on Favorotti's sleeve. "What about Sara?" he asked.
"And the fuzzy old man," said Goolie.
Oolie nodded eagerly. "Yes, don't forget Mr. Pangloss!"
"I haven't." Favorotti looked back at Molly. "They'll have to wait. We stand no chance against Councilor Rinch and her soldiers without magical help. Molly needs nursing and rest. Once we get her to my master's home and proper care, we can think about rescuing Sara and Pangloss."
Oolie and Goolie spoke together, "We don't like it!"
"Neither do I!" Favorotti looked at them. "We lost this time. We have to make the best of it so we can try again. Besides, I judge that they are in no immediate danger. They'll be held captive, but not harmed." He glanced at Squibby. "Squibby, can you get us a wagon or a cart in town?"
"We'll need one to move Molly to our boat."
Squibby nodded. "I'll be off. Do you boys want to go with me?
Somewhat subdued, Oolie and Goolie both nodded. They rose and walked up the rise. Squibby suddenly stopped, gazed upward in surprise and pointed toward the west. "Look!"
Above the trees, already close to the sea's edge, floated six large, green balloons.
Rinch patted Sara's hand. "You'll come to enjoy this mode of travel, Sara."
Sara said nothing. She leaned on a polished wooden rail and looked down upon silvery wave-tops.
Rinch continued, "My airships are held aloft by balloons, of course. Each balloon is filled with a lighter than air gas called hydrogen by some. Magic is used only to help propel them where I wish them to go. " She paused and considered the wave-tops. "That can be draining. I travel with prevailing winds whenever I can. And I have helpers for long journeys or when I must propel more than six balloons."
Sara glanced at the Councilor. She'd seen no other users of magic on board this or the other balloons.
Rinch noticed her look and smiled. "You are very perceptive. My magic is powering all of these balloons right now, along with the east wind. Our journey is only a bit more than two hundred miles long and will be complete by day's end."
Sara looked toward the western horizon and still said nothing.
"We move at up to fifty miles every hour. If you tire of the view, you may join me in the main cabin." She motioned to a closed shelter of canvas and woven mats at the center of the balloon's gondola. "My crew is well trained. They can handle the details of navigation until we arrive at our destination some hours from now."
Sara held as still as a carving of ice.
Rinch smiled yet again. "Excuse me, then.
Sara stared at blue sky and bluer sea, but her mind focused inward. How was Molly? Could she survive her terrible wounds? Did the others find her? Where were they all? Sea and sky offered her no answers.
Squibby turned. "How is she?"
Favorotti sat down beside him. "Better, I think. Kitten is lying beside her, trying to keep her warm."
Squibby looked out over Abby's bow. The breeze was fresh. Swells rose at its touch and drops of spray flew high as the bow met a wave. Squibby eased the tiller to his left. "She's riding easy, but we're headed only a little east of north. This wind won't allow more."
Favorotti asked, "Will we escape the pirates' circle?"
"Not a problem, mate. Your Abby is much more weatherly than any of the pirate craft."
"Where are the twins?"
Squibby inclined his head. "Aloft."
Favorotti looked at the masthead. Oolie and Goolie each casually gripped a shroud with one hand and tiptoe-balanced on a tiny platform where lines came together. Their noses were in the breeze and big grins split their faces.
Squibby continued, "Those boys might make good sailors."
Favorotti smiled. "They make good trouble." Then he said, "I'll light the spirit stove and make some soup. That would be good for Molly. I'll take a watch after that."
Squibby said, "Don't hurry. I'm doing fine here. It's good to be at sea."
Thirst drove Sara to a water cask just behind the gondola's cabin. She sipped musty water from a tin cup. A crewman offered her a hunk of hard bread and a slice of cheese. After she ate, she sat on a cushion next to the rail. Soon she curled up on the cushion and slept.
When she awoke some hours later, Councilor Rinch stood beside her. The Councilor looked down. "Good," she said, "you are awake. This is my favorite time of day to fly. Stand and look westward."
Sara stood. An island rested in the sea a few miles before her. Clouds hovered over its hilltops and the bottoms of those clouds glowed gold and red with the sun's last light. The sea, smoother now, reflected golden light as well. In spite of her troubles, the beauty cheered her.
Rinch spoke again, her voice pleasant and intimate, "Sunset is a time for serious thought." She looked at Sara. "It's a good time for us to have a talk."
Sara shivered and looked down. She said, "I'm hungry."
Rinch laughed, though her laughter had a hollow sound. "By all means go to the stern. The mate will find you something."
Sara turned and walked around the cabin. She saw the same crewman who had given her the bread and cheese before. She approached him and asked, "Do you have something for supper?"
The mate said, "Aye," and handed her another hunk of bread and another slice of cheese. Sara looked at them.
The mate laughed. "It's bread and cheese again, missy." He reached into a box and pulled out a rather wrinkled apple. "And this." He handed it to her. "This is a treat."
Sara looked at the apple and the mate laughed again. "We're allowed no fire of any sort on these flights, no stove," he pointed up toward the swelling belly of the balloon. "Because of the gas in the bag there, it's dangerous to have a fire up here, very dangerous! One little spark and BOOM!"
Sara nodded. "Thank-you."
"You're most welcome."
She took a bite of dry bread and one of cheese and chewed slowly.
Rinch approached her and asked, "Better?"
Rinch looked again at the view. "Well, I feel I should explain all that has happened. Much of it must puzzle you, no?"
Sara continued chewing and said nothing.
Rinch continued, "Star Harbor and all of the towns and dukedoms of our part of the world face a grave threat of which they are unaware. Rather, our current leaders, Pangloss and your other friends included, choose not to be aware of it. The Brac, a fanatic people from the east, intend to cross the sea and invade us. Their plan is to conquer, occupy and destroy our lands. They intend to end our way of life."
Sara looked at Rinch. "Why would they do that?"
Rinch shrugged. "They are evil. Only I and a few other knowledgeable people know just how evil. They envy our prosperity and our freedoms. My colleagues and I have joined together and made a plan to oppose the Brac. The first part of that plan is unifying Star Harbor and all of the smaller states under one leader. Sadly, this can only be achieved swiftly through war."
The island drifted past on their left. Sara looked ahead at the sunset and saw a purple line of coast approaching.
Sara shook her head and asked, "You want to fight a war against Star Harbor to save it from war?"
Rinch glared at Sara. "It will be an easy war with little destruction and few deaths. Star Harbor's defenses are weak. It will fall like a ripe plum. A few must die so that many may survive later. All of our strength must then be gathered to defeat the Brac. Our people must be taught to hate and fear them. Our survival depends upon it."
Sara looked at her. "Does that include trolls?"
Rinch paused. At last, she said, "It does. It must."
"But they eat people."
Rinch stared ahead. "True. Regrettable, but true, though this unfortunate habit of theirs can be controlled, at least for the most part. Even so, their fighting strength is crucial to our plan."
Sara continued, "And pirates? Pirates can help, too?"
Rinch nodded. "Call them privateers. They form a picket line to warn us of the Brac approach and also will fight on our behalf."
Sara did not comment.
Rinch continued, "Soon you will meet our leader." She looked at Sara. "And soon you will learn how you may help us succeed."
Sara smiled. "I have no choice."
Rinch smiled too. "You're right. You have no choice." She turned. "We're landing now."
The balloon was much lower. Sara looked back and saw the other balloons descending too. Crewmen loosed long ropes from both sides of the gondola. The ropes hung down almost to the water. Several dozen men waited on a flat spit of land thrust into a bay of the mainland, purple in the fading light. One waved a lantern to and fro. Behind him, on a low hill, stood a castle.
Chapter Seventeen *** A New Friend
Councilor Rinch's carriage, pulled by two black horses, led a procession toward a castle on a hill. Thirty soldiers in green marched behind the carriage and Sara walked among them. Various men from the crew walked in groups behind them. At the very end rolled a heavy wagon drawn by six horses. Baggage was piled high upon it. One prisoner lay bound among the boxes.
Something about that prisoner bothered Sara. His head was covered with a bag and he was wrapped round and round with ropes. She'd only glimpsed him for a few seconds when two of the soldiers had tossed him onto the wagon, but he seemed somehow familiar.
The road rose in a long curve before them and led to the castle. Sara looked up. This castle was not so grim as Rumpot's. Yellow light shone in its windows and bright flags flew upon its ramparts. They proceeded up the hill and through the main gate. Sara looked up as she passed beneath the portcullis. Its black spikes reminded her of the sea-worm's teeth.
The procession stopped in a courtyard beyond the gate. Two of her guards ushered Sara through a side door and up a stairway. The stairway passed over three torch-lit landings and changed directions three times. It ended at an ironbound door beneath a fourth torch. Sitting on a stool beside the door was a very fat guard. He wore a red tunic and a round iron helmet. Keys jingled on a ring at his belt when he stood. He produced one, inserted it in a keyhole and opened the door. He said, "In here, you."
Sara went through the door. It slammed shut behind her. The key turned in the lock.
Councilor Rinch knelt upon a thick, ruby-colored carpet with her head slightly bowed. A man dressed in black slacks and a scarlet, gold-crusted tunic approached her. He was handsome, though not tall, and he wore a golden crown. Diamonds in the crown sparkled as he grasped her hands and raised her. "Councilor Rinch," he said, "I'm pleased to see you!"
Rinch smiled. "And I, you, Your Majesty."
"Please," he said, "sit with me before dinner. Share your news." He led her to two chairs covered in blue velvet and conveniently placed. They sat. "Would you like wine? Water?"
A blue-clad servant poured water into a crystal goblet and offered it to Rinch. She took it and sipped. The servant walked away.
Rinch looked up. "Prince Ayak, I came in great haste for I brought important prisoners with me."
Ayak nodded. "Who are they?"
"A little girl and a magician. I've mentioned them to you before. The little girl possesses information which could insure the success of all our enterprises." Councilor Rinch paused and sipped from her goblet.
It was only up close that one could notice that the Prince's eyes were small and a lusterless blue. These eyes regarded Councilor Rinch carefully. "Will this girl cooperate with us?" he asked.
"She will," answered Rinch, "eventually."
The Prince nodded and looked away. "Our business is crucial and we have little time," he paused. "Strong measures are available." He looked at Rinch again. "We can use strong measures on her."
Rinch said, "I agree. I think that won't be necessary, however. Certain emotional pressures can be brought to bear upon her."
The Prince asked, "Does her knowledge affect the magic we must use?"
Rinch nodded. "It does. I know we must work quickly, but I advise letting her sit alone for at least a day. This will make her restless and anxious. When we finally speak with her, she will tell us all that we need to know."
Prince Ayak said, "We can wait a day, or possibly two, but only two."
"Thank-you, Your Majesty. I shall interview the magician during that time and make certain other preparations."
The Prince rose. "Now you must refresh yourself. Please join me for dinner in an hour." He turned and walked to a door at the far end of the room.
Rinch sat for a moment more watching candle light flicker upon polished wood and gold. She smiled.
A key rattled in the lock of Sara's door. The fat guard opened the door a crack and a small, thin girl slipped in. She carried a tray bearing a teapot, cup and saucer. Keeping her eyes down, she said, "I'm to bring you what you need, Ma'am."
Sara chuckled. No one had ever called her 'Ma'am' before.
The girl looked up. Her eyes were very large and deep brown. She smiled in return.
Sara said, "I'm cold, hungry and tired. I need quite a bit!"
The girl, still smiling, offered her tray. "Here's some good hot cider. I'll bring stew and bread for you, Ma'am, and some blankets."
Now Sara laughed in good earnest. "Please, call me Sara. I'm not old enough to be a 'Ma'am'. What's your name?"
The girl smiled again. "I'm Arzu . . . Sara."
"Glad to meet you, Arzu. Can you tell me where I am?"
Arzu looked down. "I'm not really supposed to talk with you."
The door opened again and a different guard, one with a flat nose, looked in. "Hurry it up!" he growled, "and no talking!"
Arzu put the tray down on a small table. She glanced at Sara. Sara put her finger to her lips. Arzu nodded and smiled again. She turned and left.
Councilor Rinch rubbed her hands together. "Wizard Pangloss, I have you at a disadvantage."
Pangloss snorted. He sat helpless on a stone floor with his arms raised and held in place by ropes attached to iron pulleys. Other ropes tied to his ankles forced his legs to spread out wide. His feet were bare
Rinch continued, "As you can see, this is a place where strong measures are applied." She motioned with her hand toward a furnace where long pieces of iron glowed red and to a man with a huge belly. The man was dressed in a leather apron and little else.
Pangloss snorted again and said, "You mean torture."
"I mean strong measures."
"Call it what you like."
Rinch sighed. "None need be applied to you if you'll tell us of your plans and all you know about the great roses."
Pangloss pinched his lips together. "Not bloody likely!"
"As you wish." Rinch motioned to the ugly man. "Bastinado, Marco. One stroke on each foot."
Marco licked his lips, plucked up a long, flexible cane and advanced on Pangloss.
A key rattled in the lock on Sara's door for the fourth time since she'd arrived at the castle. The door opened and Arzu slipped in. She put down the tray she carried, leaned close to Sara and whispered, "Hello, here's your lunch."
Sara murmured, " Thanks! It's good to see you!"
The guard opened the door a crack and said, "The sergeant's called me downstairs. I'll lock you in. Get on with serving her and I'll be back." He shut the door.
Arzu moved covered dishes from the tray to the table. "We can talk now. He won't be back for quite awhile. The sergeant has a bottle of something nasty to drink. They'll take their time drinking it."
Sara nodded and looked appraisingly at Arzu. "You know how things work here. How long have been in the castle?"
Arzu set down the empty tray. "Two years.”
"How did you come to be here?"
"Oh," Arzu shrugged, "I'm just a village girl. There are always too many of us. It was lucky that my cousin worked here already. She got me on the staff."
Sara asked, "Is the work hard?"
Arzu shook her head. "Not once you learn who to stay away from." She looked at Sara. "What about you? You must be younger than I am. Why did the Councilor bring you here?" Sara looked down. Was Arzu just a humble maid? Sara considered the proud Councilor Rinch and decided that she did not seek the help of servant girls. It wasn't likely that Arzu was a spy. She looked up. "I know several things that Councilor Rinch wants me to know."
"I can't imagine what?"
Sara shrugged. "There are three magical roses made of jewels that control magic in this world. I know where two of them are."
Arzu's eyes got wider, but she said nothing.
Sara took a deep breath. "There's more. I don't know if you'll believe me, but I come from another world and I need to get back there. My family is in trouble."
Arzu thought about this. "You need a magician," she said at last.
Sara laughed. "A magician brought me to your world."
"Can't he help you?"
"He says he can, but not before I help him."
"That's usually the way with magicians. What does he want you to do?"
"He told me that there are evil magicians and leaders who want to seize power. I believe him. I've seen some of the things they've done. The three roses I mentioned can be joined to create a great charm, a charm that can prevent misuse of magic. When I help him find the last rose, he can combine all of the pieces so that the charm works."
Arzu rubbed her chin. "Do you know where this rose is?"
Sara shook her head. "We found two of the pieces, the red rose and the yellow rose. They are safe in Star Harbor. But I was kidnapped before we had a chance to look for the third."
Arzu looked up. "Roses? There's a wonderful rose here. I've seen it, white and sparkling with many jewels!"
Sara sat up straight. "Where?"
Arzu's eyes were bright. "Close."
"Where?" Sara demanded.
"I saw it in the map chamber next to the great hall. The Prince and his generals required tea. Several of us carried the trays to them and served. The bright rose was on the table before them. They were talking about it."
"Weren't they worried that you would see it?"
Arzu shook her head. "No. Servant girls aren't important. The great men don't even know that we're alive except when one of us drops something."
Sara began, "Can you . . . "
A key rattling in the lock interrupted her. The guard shouted, "Come out, Girlie! I'm back." The door swung open and the guard's dull, ugly face peered in at them. Arzu nodded to him, picked up the tray and walked toward the door. She glanced at Sara over her shoulder and a silent agreement to speak again about a shining rose passed between them.
Snores rumbled and gurgled on the other side of Sara's door. Finally, after two hours, the guard had fallen asleep and he wouldn't be relieved for two hours more. She went to her bed and pulled off the top blanket. She then sat down on the far side of the bed, draped the blanket over head like a cloak and felt in her pocket for the glass figures Molly had given her. She pulled out the blue frog.
She stared at the tiny figure for a moment. It almost seemed to be smiling. Feeling a little silly, she said, "Peony." The frog immediately became warm on her palm. Still feeling somewhat ridiculous, she said, "Mr. Pangloss? Mr. Pangloss, are you there?"
A dry, familiar voice sounded next to her ear, "What? Is that you, child?"
"Yes! I'm so glad you're all right! Molly was terribly hurt on Monkey Head Island. I don't know what happened to her and the others. Did they find her? Did they come to you?"
"No, sorry to say."
Sara's spirits sagged. She said, "Oh. Where are you then?"
"May I ask first," said Pangloss, "just how you are able to speak to me?"
"I'm using a charm Molly gave me."
"Is there a time limit?"
"Only ten minutes, but it will work again later."
"We must speak swiftly. I was captured by Councilor Rinch and brought to the castle of Prince Ayak."
Sara broke in, " Councillor Rinch captured me too! I'm here too!"
"You don't say!" Pangloss exclaimed.
Sara asked quickly, "Shall I call forth your full powers so we can escape right now?"
Pangloss paused and then said, "No, I think not. I don't recall just what my powers are, but I know that they should be saved for world-shattering emergencies. Our present captivity, unpleasant as it is," Pangloss rubbed his bruised right foot as he spoke, "doesn't qualify as world-shattering. We'll just have to depend upon our wits and my ordinary magical abilities to achieve our freedom."
Sara asked, "But don't they know that you might have greater powers than they think?"
Pangloss again thought for a moment. "No," he answered, "I think that secret is still safe."
"What if they find out?'
"Ha!" Pangloss laughed. "Small chance of that! Councilor Rinch wouldn't believe me if I told her. And I won't. Nor will you mention it, will you?"
Though he couldn't see her, Sara shook her head. "Of course not."
"The Councilor cares only about the roses. Some things I may safely tell her and, besides, I learn a great deal from her questions."
"Mr Pangloss! The white rose is here in this castle!"
"Is it? Do you know where?"
Sara nodded. "Yes. I think I can get it."
"Marvelous! Did Molly provide you with other charms?"
"Leave one, the one you need least, in place of the rose."
"Even without a wand, I can change it into a likeness of the rose. Leave it and then. . . " His voice faded to a whisper and was gone.
Sara put the blue frog back into her pocket. She felt very small and very alone, but she knew what she would do next.
A gray donkey flipped its tail in a circle, stopped and lowered its head. Favorotti and Squibby eased Molly out of the narrow cart to which the donkey was harnessed. Oolie and Goolie added their small strength to Squibby's. Kitten paced nervously between the cart and Carlo's door.
That great, green door suddenly swept open. Carlo stood framed by yellow lamplight from within. He shaded his eyes and peered out.
Favorotti called, "Molly's sorely wounded."
Carlo, already turning when he spoke, said, "Bring her into the parlor on the right. Put her on the big table. I'll get my medicines." Molly groaned as her friends lifted her.
Chapter Eighteen *** Blue Frog
Oolie and Goolie sat as still as sleeping birds, but their eyes were open. They stared at Molly's pale face. She was sleeping easily, her breathing regular and slow. She'd slept so for many hours. Just then, her eyelids fluttered. The twins leaned forward. Her eyes opened, focused and saw them.
Oolie shouted, "She's awake!"
"Finally!" finished Goolie.
"Water," croaked Molly, her voice like the edge of a torn, dry leaf.
Both boys grabbed for the pitcher and glass sitting on the bedside table.
Oolie said, "We gets it . . ."
"Now," added Goolie.
Oolie held the glass and Goolie poured. Water sloshed onto the floor, the table and the bed. Some got into the glass. Oolie held the partly full glass out to Molly. A faint smile, like mist on a meadow, traced her lips. "Are we still at sea?" she asked.
"No, no, no," said Goolie.
"No!" finished Oolie.
Molly's smile grew. "Then why am I all wet?"
Sara could hardly wait until suppertime. Minutes dragged by like sleepy snails. At long last, she heard footsteps on the stairs and the shuffle of the guard's feet as he stood. The key rattled in the lock and the door opened. Arzu slipped in. She walked to the table and put down the tray she was carrying. Then she turned and looked at Sara.
Sara whispered, "I need to ask you about the white rose."
"The shining one I saw in the council room?" Arzu whispered back.
"Yes. I must steal it."
Arzu's face became pale.
Sara continued, "Then I must take it to Star Harbor. I'll need your help."
Arzu shivered. "It would be very dangerous to even go near it."
Sara nodded. "I have ways to make it safer." She took Arzu's hand. "Will you help me?"
Arzu was quiet for a moment and then she squeezed Sara's hand. "If I can."
"Good! We'll go now."
Arzu gasped, "What about the guard?"
Sara smiled. "Don't worry. You leave as usual. I'll follow and I won't be seen." She held out her right hand. A tiny, green, glass turtle lay upon her palm.
Arzu looked frightened but also curious. "What is it?"
Sara said, "My friend Molly gave this to me. It's magical. It will make me invisible. Just walk out with the tray and I will slip out behind you."
Arzu looked doubtfully at the green turtle. "They'll cut off our toes, our fingers and our noses if they catch us."
Sara squeezed Arzu's hand. "Trust me."
Arzu slowly nodded.
The guard banged on the door. "Hurry up in there!" he yelled.
Sara nodded encouragement to Arzu as she closed her fingers over the turtle and said, "Penstemon." She vanished.
The guard shoved the door open and said, "Come on, girl!"
Arzu picked up the tray and walked gingerly through the door. The guard growled at her as she passed him. "Don't take so long next time!"
Arzu nodded. "I won't," she almost whispered. She felt the guard's eyes follow her as she descended the steps. She hoped the little turtle was working hard. She hoped that Sara wouldn't trip.
Carlo rubbed his chin. "Perhaps we have won by losing."
A frown creased Molly's still pale face. "Now what does that mean?"
Carlo smiled. "Simply that all three roses must be joined in order to stop the use of dark magic. We have two of the roses here. The last one, I believe, is at Prince Ayak's castle. Its keeper lived in a forest home to the south of Ayak's realm. She has disappeared and the white rose has disappeared with her."
Molly looked at him. "So how does getting run off of Monkey Head Island and losing two of our people help?"
"Prince Ayak's castle is likely where Pangloss and Sara have been taken."
Favorotti sighed, "But they're prisoners."
Carlo held up his right index finger. "Do not underestimate Sara. She has shown great bravery and clear thinking when under pressure. Anyone who has the wit and resolve to surrender herself to save Molly can escape imprisonment."
Favorotti looked at Carlo. "She's a little girl."
"Exactly!" Carlo lowered his finger. "Prince Ayak's arrogant guards cannot help thinking little of her and she has three useful charms, thanks to Molly."
Molly leaned back against her pillows and her frown deepened. "She's also with Pangloss. He can defeat the bravest plans without half trying."
Arzu stood by the great, black table in the castle's small dining hall. This dining hall, used for private dinners, was still as large as a barn. Red and gold tapestries hung from its walls. She looked carefully around the room. No one was there.
Arzu spoke softly, "Sara, are you here?"
Silence answered her.
She spoke a bit louder, "Sara, it's me."
Something gripped her ankle and squeezed. Arzu squeaked like a terrified mouse. A muffled giggle came from beneath the table.
Arzu leaned down and hissed, "What are you playing at? That was a stupid thing to do!"
Sara said, "Sorry. I couldn't resist. I rather enjoy being invisible and I've been hanging out with the twins too much."
Arzu was puzzled. "The twins?"
"Never mind. You may meet them someday and then you'll understand."
A heavy chair scraped on the shiny floor. It seemed to move by itself. Arzu blinked and then Sara stood before her.
"How did you do that?" she asked.
"I just put the charm back in my pocket." Sara grinned.
Arzu, still not over her fright, shivered and whispered, "What now?"
Sara thought for a moment before she asked, "Is the white rose near?"
Arzu nodded. "That's why I left you here to hide until I finished working. It's through the rear door and down a long hallway in the council room. There are many pretty things there. The rose is in a glass case at the back of the room."
"Are there guards?"
"Always two, sometimes more."
Sara thought about this. She opened her mouth to answer, but other voices sounded in the hallway outside of the dining room. Arzu's eyes went wide with fear. Sara gripped her hand hard. "Under the table," she whispered, "Quick!"
Arzu dove beneath the table. Sara pulled the red cushioned chair partway back beneath the table's edge. Prince Ayak and Councilor Rinch entered the room. They walked to the table and stopped just next to Sara and Arzu.
Prince Ayak made a wide motion with his right hand. "My army is nearly ready."
Councilor Rinch interrupted him, "My Prince, did you hear something as we entered the room?"
Ayak looked at her. "No, nothing."
Councilor Rinch peered around the hall. "I'll cast a small spell to make sure that we are alone."
Ayak laughed, "Don't be ridiculous! The servants are elsewhere and no one is allowed in this room without my permission. My castle is absolutely secure, I assure you."
The Councilor sensed that the Prince would be offended if she insisted. She inclined her head and murmured, "Of course."
Ayak swept on, "The key to conquering Star Harbor and the surrounding princedoms is raising an army of overwhelming strength and fierceness."
Councilor Rinch nodded.
Prince Ayak paused and looked at her before he continued. "King Cadena helped me with that."
Councilor Rinch hesitated, tried to disguise the concern she felt. "King Cadena? The troll master?" she asked casually.
"I thought he came only slightly into our plans."
The Prince smiled. "No, no. Cadena is central to what we must do."
Councilor Rinch said, "I see." She considered what she might say. At last, she spoke carefully, "It is dangerous to accept help such as his."
Ayak shrugged. "There was no other way. We've used one of his weapons already. Plague."
Rinch looked up. "Plague?"
"Yes. He loosed it on a small village in the north, Tilden on the Water, just as a test. It worked very well."
Rinch murmured, "Plague could be effective against Star Harbor."
Ayak shook his head. "No. I discussed this with Cadena. We couldn't control it. It works well to subdue a small and isolated place. It would spread like fire through the people of Star Harbor." He looked at Rinch. "After all, it wouldn't do to kill everyone in the city. We'll need many survivors to put right the damage our attack will cause and take up business again."
Rinch inclined her head. "You are very wise, my prince."
Ayak continued, "He has given me ten regiments of white-fingers instead."
The Councilor's heart skipped a beat, but her voice was even when she answered, "The dead walk for him? He has power to do this?"
"Yes, and he can control them, too. You must understand that I found ordinary soldiers to be of limited use. Some die in battle. These are gone forever. All of the resources I expended upon training them are wasted. Even more are wounded. They lose arms, legs, eyes, ears, noses, hands and every imaginable part. They require expensive care. Their complaints about pain and suffering are an unending annoyance. Worse, they all have wives, sweethearts and families who moan and cry when I send them into battle."
Rinch rubbed her hands together. "But white-fingers? Zombies require the darkest, most powerful magic to bring forth. I thought Cadena would provide trolls at selected times and places, no more."
Ayak shook his head. "We need much more than trolls from him. You must understand that, once charmed, white-fingers never complain. They can't be killed because they're already dead! They make no outcry when they lose limbs. After a fashion, too, they can be repaired. Overall, they're a huge improvement over ordinary soldiers. Best of all, my ordinary soldiers who are killed in battle can be returned to duty quickly."
Councilor Rinch asked cautiously, "Do you think this is fair to them?"
Prince Ayak snorted. "What a silly question! Fairness never enters into it. They signed up to be soldiers. It is my right, my duty, to decide how they may best serve. I decide this. I alone. A prince is a decider. That's the job."
"Of course," Rinch agreed. "I had thought that our alliance with the trolls affected only the northernmost princedom. Does it extend further?"
"Yes. Our final attack on Star Harbor will begin at dusk three days from now. Cadena and his trolls will join in our assault."
"And the white-fingers?"
Prince Ayak nodded. "Of course, the white-fingers!"
After a long moment, Councilor Rinch said, "Success for our efforts depends greatly upon the dark magic, my Prince."
Prince Ayak nodded solemnly. "It does."
"Then the three great roses must not be joined, or our magic will turn to dust. The white rose must remain safe and hidden. You have it here?"
"It is in my council room." He chuckled. "You know that I keep some of my greatest treasures and trophies in that room to impress visiting dignitaries?"
Councilor Rinch nodded.
"The rose is among them. It is a simple piece and I display it between my emerald crown and my collection of gold chains. Their glitter and value hide it in plain view. It is of course secure within a locked case and two guards always stand watch."
Councilor Rinch said, "With your permission, I will add magical wards later tonight."
"Yes, yes, if you feel that is necessary, I don't object."
Suddenly there was a thunk and a clatter as a large emerald nested in a heavy gold setting hit the floor next to the girls. The Prince exclaimed, "Blast!" The emerald wobbled to within a foot of Arzu's hand.
The Prince said, "My coronation brooch, I meant to have that clasp mended months ago. Where did it go?"
"Beneath the chair, I believe, your Highness," said Councilor Rinch.
Ayak bent down and reached for the brooch. The girls froze in horror. To move was to be discovered. The Prince's face loomed close to them, but he was looking back over his shoulder. His fingers closed on the brooch and he said, "Now, I wish you to join me and my generals in the sunset room. We'll discuss the movement of our regiments and take light refreshment." He stood.
The Prince and the Councilor turned away from the table. They continued talking as they walked away. They passed through the door through which they'd entered and their voices faded with their footsteps.
Beneath the table, Sara looked at Arzu, "That was close!"
Arzu, eyes wide, nodded her agreement.
Sara continued, "We've got to move quickly, but I need to speak with Mr. Pangloss again." She removed the blue frog from her pocket. She held it in her left hand. She held her finger to her lips and looked at Arzu. Arzu nodded. Sara said, "Peony." The frog glowed on her palm.
"Eh? What? Who's there?" spoke Pangloss's voice from the air in front of the girls.
"It's Sara, Mr. Pangloss.'
"I do wish you'd warn me before you do that! I was in the middle of a much needed nap!"
Sara smiled. "I apologize."
Pangloss sniffed. "Quite all right. Now, what do you need?"
Sara took a deep breath. "They plan to attack Star Harbor next week. The trolls are going to help and some awful soldiers called white-fingers. We need to get the rose and get out of here, all of us!"
"All of us?" asked Pangloss.
"Oh, I forgot to tell you. I've got a friend, Arzu, who's helping me."
"Well," said Pangloss, "Do you still have Molly's charms?"
"I recall that she often made an especially effective invisibility charm. Did she give you that one?"
"Ah, use it! Take the rose and then come to me. I'm in the lowest dungeon. Once we're together, we may pool our wits to confound the guards and discover a way out. Perhaps your friend . . ."
The frog ceased glowing. Pangloss was gone. Sara looked at Arzu. "Well, what do you think?" she asked.
Arzu shivered. "I think it will hurt when they cut off my ears."
Sara shook her head. "We're not going to get caught, believe me!" She squeezed Arzu's hand. "Believe me!"
Arzu managed a small smile and nodded.
Sara looked out from beneath the table. She said, "Besides, I have an idea. Will anyone bother you if you return to the kitchen now?"
Arzu shook her head. "No."
"Good. Here's what we will do . . . "
Chapter Nineteen *** Arzu's Secret
Arzu, her eyes very wide and her lips pressed together, carried a tray loaded with bread, cheese and mugs of beer. She stepped carefully, for the tray was heavy and walked through the small dining hall where they'd hidden earlier into the long hallway on its far side. At the end of the hallway she paused before an open door.
Sara spoke from thin air right behind her. "What are you waiting for?"
Arzu took a deep breath. "I'm not sure this is a good idea."
"The cook has never done anything nice for anybody in her life. She's as mean as a snake. They'll never believe she sent them refreshments."
Sara poked her. "Do you think these guards are smart enough to ask any questions? They'll eat, drink and fall asleep! Go ahead!"
Arzu's back straightened and she went through the door. Three guards, wearing leather jerkins, round iron helmets and carrying short swords in scabbards, sat at a small table. Their heads turned as one to stare at Arzu.
The biggest one, a corporal, asked, "What's this?"
Arzu trembled and stuttered, "It's - it's from the, the cook. Mid-shift refreshments for you, for you all."
The smallest guard's eyes went round with amazement. "What's got into her? She never sent us anything before!"
The third guard, a quite elderly fellow with a gray beard, poked him. "Don't you know, Charlie? She's sweet on the Corporal here. Ha! You've got a sweetheart now, Jim, a real sweetheart, if you can fit her though the door!" Both the old guard and the small guard roared with laughter.
The Corporal scowled. "Bah. Put it down on the table, girl, and get out!"
Arzu quickly did that and scampered back through the door.
Sara slipped silently past the guards and stepped through the high, rounded doorway they guarded. She looked back. The old guard and the small guard still chuckled over their joke. The corporal slurped beer from his mug.
Sara turned and walked across a polished wooden floor. The light of four candles reflected from its shining surface. The candles in wall sconces, two on either sidewall, also awoke gleams from in front of her. She stepped around a long table and stopped. She looked over her shoulder. The guards were out of sight. Judging by their loud talk, they were still joking and eating. She put the green turtle in her pocket and became visible.
A wide display case, its shelves covered with black velvet, stood before her. Gold gleamed upon the velvet, golden chains, golden rings and boxes of gold. A thousand gem-bound flames darted rainbow beams back into the room, for unnumbered jewels captured candlelight and multiplied it. Sara looked for the white rose among the sparkles. Her eyes passed from left to right over more priceless things than she'd ever imagined. Far on the right, almost hidden behind a nest of golden chains supporting emeralds the size of eggs, she saw the rose.
She stepped close to the case, touched its top and looked at it carefully. It was made of thick glass or crystal. Though perfectly transparent, the crystal panels were inches thick. She walked behind the case and found what she was seeking, a golden keyhole. She realized immediately that magic was involved, for there were no lock mechanisms, only the keyhole.
She felt in her pocket and found the yellow lizard. Thinking to herself, "Molly, I hope this works!" she touched the lizard's nose to the keyhole and said, "Iris." The lizard warmed until it became almost too hot to hold. Then it suddenly flowed into the keyhole like water poured into a glass. Yellow light flared from the case, briefly drowning out the multi-colored jewel gleams. The case's heavy back panel swung down. Sara caught it before it crashed against the floor. She eased it to rest and touched the keyhole. The lizard popped out onto her left palm.
Sara looked over her shoulder as she reached into the case and plucked up the shining rose. She was momentarily tempted to pick up one of the emeralds, too. Their sea green depths caught her eye and fascinated her, but some voice whispered within her mind that great trouble would result if she took even one of them. She looked at the little lizard and thought. Mr. Pangloss wanted her to leave one of Maggie's charms in place of the rose. The green turtle's power to hide her was lifesaving. She couldn't leave it behind. The blue frog's power of communication was important, too. She'd need it again and soon. She looked at the yellow lizard. It was beautiful and useful, but she would have to leave it behind. She felt a pang as she placed it where the rose had lain. Hurrying just a bit, she dropped the rose into her pocket and shut the back of the case. It closed without a sound.
She glanced back at the round doorway. The guards were still out of sight, still eating and talking. It was best to leave while they were busy. She felt for the green turtle and said, "Penstemon!"
Molly walked to the railing of Carlo's rooftop porch. Tail wagging lazily, Kitten rose from his new rug and followed her. Molly rested her elbows on the railing and looked out across Star Harbor. Lights glimmered from windows and street corners. A bonfire near the main wharf lit a wide area with cheerful orange light. Molly took a deep breath of sea air.
Carlo came up beside her. "You're feeling stronger?" he asked.
Molly nodded. "Much!"
He looked out over the twinkling city. "It's beautiful at this time of evening."
"It is," Molly agreed, "but for how much longer?"
Carlo patted her hand. "We may yet join the three roses. That will give our walls and our soldiers a chance to keep our city safe."
Molly looked at him. "What attacks do you expect?"
Carlo rubbed his jaw and thought. "Prince Ayak wants to rule this city and all the lands on this side of the sea. That's no secret now. It's too bad that we didn't know of his intentions sooner. As you know, he carries on about a threat from across the sea, the Brac, but that's just an excuse for him to take control."
Molly nodded. "Can he do it?"
"He commands strong forces of soldiers and some ships, pirates mostly. These forces are not enough to take the city, but they are enough to control it once it is taken. Cadena is with them, so trolls will storm our walls at night." He paused. "But even they may not be enough."
"What magic will he use against us?" asked Molly.
"What indeed?" Carlo looked at her. "If Star Harbor falls, all the lands around will fall too. Ayak and his magic users are risking everything to conquer this city, so they will stop at nothing. I expect explosions, storms and possibly earthquakes, though they won't want to cause great damage to the city. That said, even using the darkest magic will seem reasonable to them."
"What is the darkest magic?"
Carlo hesitated. "The white-fingers come to mind. Cadena may have the knowledge to raise them. If he does, our walls will be torn down by an army of merciless dead."
"Can the joined roses break this magic?"
Carlo sighed. "I hope so. I hope."
Sara sat with her back to a wall before the last turn in the passageway to the dungeon cells. She clutched the green turtle in her right hand and peeked around the corner for the fourth time. A very fat guard sat on a stool in front of an iron pan with three thick legs. A fire blazed in the pan. The guard's shirt was undone and sweat shone on his forehead.
She leaned back and gritted her teeth. That guard was sitting in the middle of the entrance to the cells. Even invisible, she couldn't get by without touching him. When would he move? Ever? She put her right cheek against damp stone and looked again.
The guard stood, stretched, groaned and walked toward a water barrel on the far side of the guardroom. Sara gripped her green turtle and said, "Penstemon". She jumped to her feet and ducked around the corner.
The guard gulped water noisily from a wooden mug. Sara ghosted across the room, tiptoed around the red-hot iron pan and slipped between the stool and the doorway's greasy beam. A short stairway led to a line of iron doors. Invisible though she was, she stepped silently and carefully, for the stairs were somewhat damp. At the bottom of the stairway, she paused. There were six doors. She couldn't go knocking to see who was at home. She tucked the green turtle into her pocket and immediately became visible. She pulled out the blue frog and whispered, "Peony." She took a breath and then whispered again, "Mr. Pangloss, can you hear me?"
"Yes!" sounded a voice next to her ear.
Sara interrupted quickly, "Please, not so loud. I'm in the hallway outside of your cell. Which one is it?"
"Number three. Did you think to bring a key?"
A key! She needed a key and the yellow lizard was back in Prince Ayak's jewel case. She shook her head in disgust, "No."
Pangloss snorted. "Then slip back and get the guard's key ring. It's hanging on a hook to the left of the door."
Sara whispered, "I'll be back." She put the frog in her pocket, pulled out the turtle and said, "Penstemon." Invisible again, she hopped back up the stairs. A quick peek through the door showed her that the guard was still on the other side of the room. The key was on a hook well above the floor and well out of Sara's reach. She shook her invisible head in frustration. Sometimes being short is inconvenient. She'd have to stand on something. The stool.
She pushed the stool with her toe, gently, quietly, until it looked like it was close enough. She stepped up on its polished seat and stretched to reach the key ring. At that moment, the guard, squeezing a thick sandwich in his right hand, walked back toward the stool. Sara froze. Fear screamed silently in her ear that she must do something, but her brain was as empty as a beggar's cup.
The guard halted, looked at his sandwich and said, "Blast! Needs mustard!" He turned and tromped back to the table.
Sara snatched the keys, leapt from the stool and swarmed down the steps heedless of noise. The guard, his sandwich now slathered with mustard, returned to his stool and sat down. Sara breathed deeply and waited for her heart to slow.
Urgency spurred her to move before she was close to being calm. She went to the third door, inserted the key, opened the lock and went in. She put her turtle in her pocket and turned to Pangloss.
Pangloss said, "Clever girl!" and grinned from ear to ear.
Sara ran to him and hugged him. "Mr. Pangloss! I'm so glad to see you!"
"There, there," he said, patting her shoulder, "and I'm glad to see you! You've done excellent work in getting here. I'm most impressed with Molly's charms, too. I never knew she was that competent."
Sara looked up. "Mr. Pangloss, I've got the white rose. Here it is." She pulled the jeweled blossom out of her pocket and its silvery light filled the grimy cell. She handed it to him.
Pangloss took the precious rose somewhat gingerly and stared at it. Sara continued, "We've got to get it back to Star Harbor fast! Councilor Rinch and Prince Ayak are planning dreadful things. They’re going to attack the city with trolls and white-fingers. We've got to stop them. I think we'll need your full powers to get out of here."
Pangloss stared at the rose for a moment more. At last, he nodded. "Yes, you're right. Proceed then."
Sara said, "Chrysanthemum."
Pangloss slumped. He breathed heavily for a moment, his eyes closed, and then he straightened. The rose's clear light now shone on a face alive with intelligence and strong with wisdom. He looked at Sara. "We must first disguise your removal of the rose. Did you leave one of Molly's charms in its place?"
Sara nodded. "Yes, a yellow lizard that becomes any tool you need."
Pangloss tucked the rose away in his robes and said, "Excellent! Might I use your speaking charm?"
Sara took the blue frog out of her pocket and handed it to him.
"The activating word?"
"Peony," said Sara.
Pangloss concentrated for a moment and then said, "Peony." He looked at Sara. "Please speak the lizard's activating word."
Sara said, "Iris."
Pangloss nodded and then whispered several words very close to the blue frog. After a moment, he smiled and handed the frog back to Sara. "That should do it. Only a user of magic will be able to tell that your lizard isn't the real rose. I shall have to compliment Maggie on her very useful charm. Now, we must leave and leave so that our escape will attract no attention for some hours. Follow me."
He walked briskly through the door. Sara trailed after him. Outside, he smiled again and put his finger to his lips.
The wizard then carefully locked the cell door and removed the key from the lock. He turned and walked silently up the corridor. Sara watched with growing anxiety as he mounted the steps. The guard was sitting on his stool, still munching his sandwich. Pangloss halted right behind him, leaned down and whispered something in his ear. His head flopped against the doorframe and the sandwich fell from his sleeping fingers. Pangloss carefully hung the key ring on its hook. He motioned for Sara to hurry.
Sara eased past the snoring guard and joined Pangloss in the middle of the guardroom. He said, "Where do you suggest that we go next? You know this castle better than I do."
"Let's go to my friend Arzu. She knows this castle best of all."
Pangloss nodded. "Where is she?"
"Hiding under a table, I hope! We agreed to meet there."
"It's time to become invisible. Molly's charm should work for both of us if I hold your hand and we walk together."
Sara took out the green turtle and said, "Penstemon." They both disappeared.
Perhaps ten minutes later, they stood invisible next to the table in the minor dining hall. Mindful of Arzu's fright at her sudden appearance before, Sara whispered, "Arzu, are you there? Are you under the table?"
Arzu's pale face suddenly peered out from between two chairs. "Yes.”
"We're about to become visible, so don't squeal!"
Sara and Pangloss appeared next to the table as Sara put the turtle in her pocket. Arzu's eyes went wide, but she made no sound.
Sara said, "Arzu, we need to escape from the castle quickly. Do you know a way out?"
Arzu's wide eyes became wider. She nodded. "I know a secret way.”
Sara stood up straighter. "What is it?"
"A hidden passage." Arzu looked down. "My mother told me about it so that I could get away if I got into trouble here."
Pangloss said, "Where is it?"
Arzu looked at him. "Close. It's in the kitchen pantry. No one is there now. Follow me." She scrambled out from under the table and walked swiftly toward the kitchen doors.
Sara and Pangloss followed her.
Chapter Twenty *** Sailors and Serpents
Sara gripped Pangloss's left hand. Arzu took hold of his right hand. Sara nodded "Pull!" They pulled, straining and puffing.
Pangloss mumbled, grunted and grumbled, “This isn’t working.”
Sara compressed her lips grimly. “Pull harder!” Pangloss slid, muddy and scuffed, from a hole in the side of an earthen embankment. The girls released his hands and dropped to their knees panting.
The wizard rolled onto his back. "Bah! I'm neither a rabbit nor a mole!"
Sara smiled. "You are out of your cell and out of the castle."
The wizard looked at her from beneath his bushy eyebrows. "True. Now what?"
Sara looked at Arzu. Arzu said, "There's an unguarded postern door at the back of this garden. It leads to a sunken lane and the lane leads to the new forest. We'll be safe when we're among the trees. I know a place where we can hide."
Pangloss snorted. "It will require many days and likely hundreds of miles to insure our safety, young lady, but the sunken lane and the forest will do for now."
Sara said, "We've got to make our way to Star Harbor as quickly as we can."
"I know, I know." Pangloss groaned again as he got to his knees. Sara helped him stand. "But, as you may have noticed," he continued, "I'm not a swift cross country traveler. The Prince's army cannot help beating us to the city if I'm forced to walk there."
Sara looked at him. "You certainly are crabby when you don't have your full powers."
Pangloss sniffed. "Can't be helped. I'm only allowed to use them for a small amount of time and I'll likely need them again before this business is through."
A gull, disturbed in its search for garden tidbits, cried raucously and rose into the air a few yards to their left. A thought suddenly rose in Sara's mind. "How long do you think it will be before they discover that we've escaped?" she asked Pangloss.
Pangloss rubbed his chin whiskers. "Not before tomorrow morning, I should think."
"Good." She nodded to herself. "Let's get to the forest and conceal ourselves."
"Then what?" Pangloss complained. "They'll search until they find us, even if it takes a week."
"We will sail away from Prince Ayak and Councilor Rinch."
Pangloss shook his head. "Any boat we can steal would be missed immediately and would be far too slow to escape Rumpot's pirates. Besides, I hate boats!"
"I wasn't thinking of stealing a boat. I was thinking of using our own. The Abby can sail faster than the pirate ships, especially with Favorotti steering her."
Pangloss nodded his head slowly. "Yes, it could work. We'd need to stay hidden for a day and a night. It will take Favorotti that long to sail here." He sighed. "Boats again. I hate to say it, but that is the best plan. Call them now."
Sara held out the blue frog and said, "Peony!"
Molly grunted as a lance of pain shot out from her wound and tore across her chest. Favorotti glanced at her. "Molly, you're not yet healed. You should be in bed."
Molly snarled, "I'm coming and that's that!"
Favorotti didn't reply. He offered her his thick, strong right arm as she stepped into Abby from the dock. The twins readied sails at the bow under Squibby's directions. Kitten watched patiently from beside the mast.
Favorotti helped Molly seat herself in the midship cabin. She looked up at him and smiled. "Thank-you and please forgive my cross temper. I'm not the best patient, I fear."
Favorotti smiled back. "You don't trouble me, Molly. I only worry that you'll set yourself back."
Molly sighed. "I'll have to chance it. Carlo must see to Star Harbor's defenses. " She looked at him. "You'll need magic, my magic, before this voyage is done, I don't doubt."
"Yes," Favorotti agreed, "you're right."
"How long will it take us to reach them?"
Favorotti looked at the sky. "The weather is fine and the winds are fair. Barring opposition, we should reach Ayak's harbor about twenty-four hours from now." He looked forward. "Twins, look to the mooring lines. Squibby, haul up the foresail on my word."
Molly looked out over the dark, peaceful harbor. Stars twinkled above.
Pangloss yelped, "Stubbed my toe again!"
"Shhhhh! Mr. Pangloss, somebody will hear you," whispered Sara.
Blasted dock! Who decided that this was a good place to rendezvous with the others?"
Sara smiled, though her smile was hidden by darkness. "You did."
"Oh, well. It's in ill repair. As rich as he is, you'd think Prince Ayak would take better care of his facilities."
Sara shrugged. "It's an old fishing dock, not used any longer. Best of all it is well north of the main harbor. We're lucky that Arzu knew about it."
Pangloss ignored her comment and went on with his complaints. "I'm starving, too. Why did we escape without bringing any food with us? A whole day without a significant meal! Who planned this adventure?"
Arzu looked down. It is true that she'd forgotten to get them any food from the kitchen, but she had managed to find them half a dozen somewhat wrinkled apples and their hiding place had had a spring of cold water.
Sara ignored the question. She looked instead at a shadow growing in the darkness beyond the cove's mouth. The shadow was a sail. The sail belonged to Abby. She glided into the cove, made a curving turn and slid up close to the rickety dock. As she slowed, a smaller shadow leapt from her deck to splintered boards. Before Sara could take a deep breath, Kitten knocked her flat. Yipping with joy, he bathed her face with his tongue. Sara got her hands up to intercept licks, pushed Kitten's nose to the side and cried, "Stop!" She rubbed his bristly muzzle and laughed. "That's enough! Enough for now!"
Squibby stepped onto the planks holding a line. He snubbed the line around a cleat and pulled Abby close to the dock. He looked at them and grinned, his smile visible in the rising moon's light. "The boat for Star Harbor has arrived."
Pangloss sniffed, "It's about time!"
Councilor Rinch stared out to sea from the castle's highest tower. She was not there by chance. A thread of warning, one of many magical wards she placed when the captives' escape was discovered, had been broken. She looked for movement and found it.
A small, swift boat sailed up a glittering moonlight path upon the outer harbor's waves. She watched it for a long moment before sher turned and walked toward the tower's entrance. As she walked through the doorway, she called, "Rumpot!"
Sara sat within the shelter behind Abby's mast and leaned comfortably against Molly. Pangloss, already asleep, lay behind them. Kitten, nose covered by his tail, lay curled at her feet. Arzu was too excited to rest and sat up forward with the twins. Squibby handed Sara a cup of tea. "Have a bit of this, Missy. It's got a fair squirt of honey in it."
"Thanks, I need it." She sipped and looked up at Molly. "We've got the three roses now. What happens next?"
Molly thought for a moment and then said, "We take this one back to Carlo's house. He and Pangloss will decide how and when to join them."
Sara looked down. "We've gone to so much trouble to find these roses, but I don't know anything about them. Where do they come from? Who made them and why?" She looked up.
Molly folded her hands in her lap. "It’s not a happy tale. I haven’t time to tell you all of it. It would be better if we both rested.”
“Please, Molly, just help me understand what happened.”
Molly sighed. “I’m not sure I understand what happened. It was almost three hundred years ago. There were wars.”
“Terrible wars – magical fires consumed cities; magical storms laid waste to entire countries. The greatest magicians - those who survived - came together in the ruins. They agreed that great magical power must serve even greater laws and they devised rules for how magic should be used.
“I won’t give you the complete list, but they are supposed to prevent the abuse of magic. No wizard or group of magicians may hurt people or use magic to rule them. Once the rules were made, they created the roses to insure that their rules would be followed.”
Sara thought about this. “How will the roses help?”
“I’m not sure what will happen when we put them together. Until now, there has been no need to join them. In fact, most people think of them, when they think of them at all, as a pretty legend."
"You talk as if joining them won't be easy to do. Isn't it like putting the pieces of a puzzle together?"
"Yes," answered Molly, "but only Pangloss knows what the required words are. That secret is entrusted to him alone. When he possesses his full powers and touches the roses, he will know what to do. I hope."
“And I’m the one who must choose when to give him his powers.”
“You are the least of my worries.” Molly patted Sara's hand. "Now, you'd best rest. I need a nap too."
Councilor Rinch knelt before Prince Ayak in the council room just in front of his treasure case. She took the Prince's hand and bowed her head. "My Prince," she said, "despite all of our efforts, they have escaped."
Ayak snarled, "How do you know?"
"I saw them from the tallest tower. They were sailing away"
Rinch looked up. "Sailing in a small boat. I have summoned Rumpot and other aid. I'm sure they won't reach Star Harbor."
Ayak pulled his hand from between hers. He leaned close to her and whispered menacingly in her ear, "They'd better not."
"My prince," she continued, "I urge you to hasten the attack. Summon your soldiers to battle now before any warning can be given."
"Yes," he straightened and looked toward the treasure case. "Yes! The white rose is still within." They both glanced at the seeming rose.
"It is, my lord. Still, we should insure our success by making a speedy attack."
Ayak nodded. "It shall be so."
"Is it Rumpot?" asked Molly. She pointed toward two sails, a red and a green, barely showing above the horizon.
Favorotti nodded. "It is."
"Can they catch us?"
Favorotti looked at the two sails. "They're coming up on the starboard side behind us. They're to windward, too, but we're going to tack soon. Unless we encounter a problem, I'd say we're safe."
Pangloss, squinting in the bright morning sunlight, pointed to the port side. "Might that be a problem?"
Sara, Arzu and the twins all looked in the direction he pointed. A huge, lumpish, square head broke the surface several hundred yards away. Water cascaded down a wide column of neck as the head turned to center Abby in its great right eye.
Arzu whispered, "What is it?'
Sara whispered back, "A sea serpent. It must belong to Rumpot."
Pangloss said, "Nonsense! Rumpot can't control such a creature."
Molly said grimly, "He had a great worm guarding his cave. Why wouldn't he have a sea serpent hunting for us?”
“And it's coming straight toward us," Sara added.
Favorotti altered course away from the sea serpent. "Molly,” he called, “can magic help?"
"Not mine. I know nothing that will interfere with a serpent that size."
Pangloss squared his shoulders. "Fortunately for us, I do."
Sara looked at him. "You do?"
"I do." He assumed a professorial pose and said, "One must understand the nature of magic and its natural limitations. Spells used to control such a vast creature cannot be sustained by a magician's efforts alone. The drain on power is enormous. There must be a device of some kind on that serpent. Remove it and the spell controlling it will dissolve."
Sara asked, "What kind of device might it be?'
Pangloss rubbed his chin, "Something which causes pain, I think. Gray and black magicians often use pain to control humans and animals."
Molly interrupted, "Whatever it is you're going to do, you'd better do it now. Look!"
The serpent was upon them. Its scaly hide was pale green below shading to black above. Barnacles crusted the fins on its back and seaweeds trailed from the corners of its mouth. Its eyes were shining gold and as big as serving plates. It reared above Abby until its head was higher than the mast. It opened its mouth and a black tongue forked out. Row upon row of fangs shone in the sunlight.
Sara shouted, "Mr. Pangloss!"
Pangloss nodded, "I shall freeze it in place until we've gotten away." He hastily pointed his wand and said, "Shooting Star!"
Clear, blue light shot forth from his wand and enveloped the serpent. Its mouth clopped shut in surprise, but instead of freezing in place it rose slowly into the air.
Molly shouted, "Pangloss, what have you done?"
"I seem to have caused it to levitate. Not what I'd planned, but it has stopped."
Molly's asked, "How long will this last?"
Pangloss rubbed his chin. "I'm not sure. At least a few minutes."
"Great!" Molly growled. "How will that help us?"
Sara touched his arm. "What if we find the device, the one that causes pain, and take it out?"
Pangloss looked at her. "That could work."
"Where would it be?"
Pangloss thought. "Probably at the base of the skull, right where the head joins the neck."
"Would it be enough just to take this thing out?"
Pangloss nodded. "Yes, just pull it out. The beast will lose interest in us then. But we must hurry. There's no telling how long my charm will last."
Favorotti called to Squibby, "A rope! Quick!"
Squibby jumped to a locker in the bow and grabbed a coil of rope. He knotted its end to a heavy iron hook and looked up. "Ready. Shall I give it a heave?"
Favorotti waved. "Heave away!"
Squibby let out a few feet of rope with the hook attached to the end. He swung it in big circles, lazily at first but speeding up with each swing, and then on the sixth swing he flung it high and far. The hook-tipped rope sailed up and over the serpent's back. Coils of rope paid out as the hook plunged into the sea on the creature's far side.
Molly snorted. "Fine! So who will go serpent climbing?"
"We likes to climb," Oolie and Goolie shouted together.
Favorotti called. "Get to it! One on each side and climb simultaneously!"
Oolie looked at him. "Simul-what?"
"At the same time!" Favorotti explained.
Goolie nodded. "Why didn't you say so?" He dove into the water and swam to the far end of the rope. Squibby made the other end fast to a cleat and handed the line to Oolie. Oolie took it and watched his brother. Goolie gripped his side of the rope and nodded to Oolie. Oolie swung out into air and began climbing. Goolie weighted his side of the rope and did the same.
The great serpent honked mournfully as it felt the unaccustomed weight on its back. Oolie and Goolie shot up the rope's two sides in seconds. Goolie disappeared behind the serpent's body. Oolie placed his feet against its flank and walked up the slick scales. The brothers met on the broad back and gave each other a high five. Sara smiled in spite of the desperate danger.
Pangloss called, "Now, climb its neck and look for something unusual."
Favorotti interjected, "That pirate ship is closing fast."
Oolie gave Goolie a hand up and, using its rigid fins for handholds, pulled himself up to the serpent's head. He looked back at Pangloss and shouted, "There's a red thorn here, a big one."
"That's it! Pull it out!"
Molly said, "Wait a minute! What will happen then?"
No one had time to answer her question, for Goolie gave the thorn a strong yank and it slid out of the serpent's neck. The serpent's huge eyes rolled and it gave a giant squawk of pain. The squawk became a honk of dismay as Pangloss's spell ended and it fell back into the sea. Water splashed higher than the mast and the serpent disappeared beneath the waves. Two smaller splashes went almost unnoticed as Oolie and Goolie plunged down just behind the monster.
Favorotti shouted, "Where's the serpent?"
"It dove deep to escape," answered Pangloss. "This was an alarming experience for it, I should think."
Goolie's head popped up a few yards ahead of the Abby. He spat salt water and then shouted, "That was fun!"
All eyes scanned the choppy green waters anxiously for any sign of Oolie. There was none. Goolie swam to where his brother had splashed down, took a deep breath and dove. He came up a moment later with worry on his face. "Not there!" he called.
Sara's eyes met Molly's with dawning fear. They both looked at Pangloss. He started to speak, but a call sounded from the other side of the ship. They all rushed to the starboard rail.
Oolie paddled calmly a few yards from Abby's stern. He smiled up at them. "Safer over here!" he called.
Favorotti and Squibby quickly tossed ropes and hauled the twins aboard. Sara helped them and even Molly touched a rope, though her pull was barely felt. Pangloss approached the dripping twins. He patted their shoulders and said, "You twins are useful at last!"
Goolie said, "You keep us around . . . "
"for good?" finished Oolie.
"I wouldn't go so far as to say that," answered Pangloss, but he smiled as he said it.
Favorotti pointed astern. "Look! The serpent rises."
It rose indeed, twice as high as Abby's mast. At least a third of its length hovered, dripping cascades of seawater. Its head turned until Abby was centered in its gaze, but the head kept turning. At last, the great left eye fixed on the lead pirate ship. The serpent then uttered a honk of rage and dove, its back creating a momentary arch above the sea.
Pangloss said, "It remembers the pain."
Molly added, "And it knows where the pain came from."
The serpent's head darted out of the water and across the middle of the pirate craft. It dove down on the far side and its body formed a loop. When the loop was complete, it squeezed. Timbers groaned. Ropes snapped. Pirates jumped for their lives. Rumpot himself was a blaze of purple and gold before he splashed into the waves. The serpent squeezed again. The ship shattered into a tangle of boards and canvas. Satisfied with its work, the monster swam majestically away.
Molly chuckled. "Rumpot is taking a bath this morning. Shall we leave him to enjoy it?"
Chapter Twenty-One *** Old Acquaintances
The sun's last rays glanced off of high windows and rooftops as the Abby's bow bumped against a rope fender along Star Harbor's main quay. Squibby stepped onto the quay and tied the bow rope to a cleat. Oolie tossed him the stern rope.
Sara rose from a bench within the deck shelter. She saw a gleam of scarlet as Goolie tucked something into his backpack. "What was that?" she asked.
Goolie turned, "Uh, uh," he stuttered.
Sara folded her arms across her chest. "Come on. I saw you hide it."
Goolie looked down as he fumbled the backpack open. "Just this." He held up the red thorn he'd removed from the serpent's neck. It appeared to be made of crystal or glass and was over a foot long.
Sara unfolded her arms. "Goolie! You should give that to Molly or Mr. Pangloss!"
"What should he give to Mr. Pangloss?" Pangloss asked from just behind Sara's shoulder.
Sara turned. "He's got the magical thorn he took out of the Serpent."
"Does he?" Pangloss stepped past Sara and held out his hand. "Give it to me."
Goolie meekly handed it over.
Pangloss looked at the thorn closely. "Interesting," he said. "Very interesting, probably dangerous."
Sara asked, "Does it still work?"
Pangloss nodded and his eyebrows shot up. "Oh, yes." He handed it back to Goolie. "Please carry it for me. I shall study it later." Goolie grinned at Sara and tucked it into his pack.
They followed Pangloss over the side and joined the others on the quay. Blue dusk wrapped them close as lights sprang to life across the city. Favorotti looked down the empty quay and asked, "Where is everyone? Even now, there should be hundreds of people working on this quay."
A hollow boom sounded. They looked to the northwest, toward the city walls. A blossom of orange flame curled above a guard tower. Distant cries of pain and anger rode the evening breeze.
Molly whispered, "Ayak's attacking."
Pangloss said, "Quickly, to Carlo's house! We must get the red and yellow roses as soon as possible."
Molly said, "Don't wait for me! Squibby and Arzu can help me."
Arzu nodded. "Perhaps we can find a cart."
Favorotti said, "I'll send one back for you. Come on."
Sara leaned close to Arzu. "Don't worry. We'll be back soon." She took Molly's hand and squeezed it in parting. Molly smiled. Then, with Kitten in the lead, Favorotti, Sara, the twins and Pangloss followed him off the quay and onto Lamp Street. Pangloss brought up the rear. He was wheezing and gasping, but he managed to keep up.
They stopped at the corner of Lamp and Tower streets. Favorotti pointed. "Straight up Tower is the fastest way."
Pangloss gasped and nodded. Shouts and screams echoed from the walls ahead.
Oolie said, "Someone is coming."
"Someone loud," added Goolie.
A stout woman, perhaps a grandmother, stumbled onto Tower from a side street. Gasping, she went to her knees. A wide, hairy figure leapt out behind her and raised a club.
Oolie shouted, "Troll!"
The troll, mouth gaping wide, tusks shining, swung its club and struck the woman across her shoulders with enormous force. She sprawled flat without a sound.
The troll looked toward them, snarled and charged. Favorotti produced a belaying pin from within his cloak. He stepped to his left as the troll rushed close. The beast swung its club at his head. He turned the blow with the belaying pin and his right foot shot out, kicked the troll's right knee. The troll flew past and crashed to the cobbles. Favorotti pounced like a hunting cat. The belaying pin rose and fell, rose and fell.
Favorotti straightened. "Cadena's inside the walls!"
"Obviously," said Pangloss.
Favorotti continued, "And I'll wager he's hunting us."
Pangloss looked up Tower Street where other cries sounded. "We've must get to Carlo's house!"
Favorotti pointed with the belaying pin. "There's a back alley this way. It's not far. Follow me."
Flames sprouted from the windows of two guard towers on Star Harbor’s landward side. The stretch of wall between the towers was nearly bare of defenders. Prince Ayak smiled with satisfaction. "Excellent! Your magical enhancements of our catapult explosives did the trick."
Councillor Rinch stood beside him. She did not answer. Thousands of soldiers stood in straight lines to either side of them, waiting.
Ayak motioned to an officer on his right. "General Dorn," he called, "Send in the ladder teams. Have the white-fingers advance immediately behind them."
General Dorn saluted and turned to obey.
Ayak smiled again. "We don't want widespread destruction in the city from fire. My white-fingers will take the wall and move into the city. They will kill all they meet, at least those in the open. Unfortunately, we can't stop them unless we end the spell and we can't end the spell until Star Harbor is conquered."
Rinch shrugged and murmured, "Some must die that others may live."
Favorotti lifted a loose section of wooden fence and led his friends into a narrow courtyard. He touched a dark patch on the left hand wall. A door appeared where none had been before. He said, "This is our private entrance." He motioned to Kitten. "Kitten, stay here . Guard the door." Kitten found a shadow near the fence and lay down. His tail wagged once.
Favorotti lead them up five flights of stairs. They reached the top of the last flight and passed through a round door. Pangloss came last, put his hands on his knees and gasped for breath.
Sara followed the twins into Carlo's kitchen. She sniffed the air and listened intently. "I wonder if anyone's here? Shall we see?"
"There's no need. Look." Favorotti pointed at the polished floor.
The children followed the line of his finger and saw a large, muddy print.
Oolie nodded. "Trolls . . . “
“were here," finished Goolie.
Arzu and Molly entered the deserted patio of a sidewalk café. Molly gasped, "Must rest!" Arzu helped her to a chair. She sat heavily and sighed.
Squibby leaned through the gate. "I'll be out here if you need me."
Arzu nodded. "I'll call you when she's ready to go on."
Ten pirates led by Rumpot strode around the next corner. Rumpot saw Squibby and stopped. Pirates jumped and dodged to avoid running into him. He smiled broadly, "Ah, Squibby, I'd hoped to meet you in Star Harbor, but I didn't expect to see you so soon. What a pleasant surprise!"
Squibby stood very still. "Hello, Boss."
"Well," Rumpot shrugged, "not any longer, right?
Squibby didn't answer.
Rumpot continued, "You've caused me a great deal of trouble, not to mention an unplanned swim. Fortunately, the serpent lost interest in us after it destroyed my ship. Another ship in my fleet plucked us out of the sea and brought us here." He looked beyond the café entrance at Arzu and Molly. "Are these your even more troublesome friends? The girl looks somehow familiar. Well, we'll resolve all of these mysteries, won't we?" He motioned for his men to advance.
Squibby pulled out his sword and held it high.
Rumpot's smile vanished. "Cut him down," he snarled.
Favorotti spoke over his right shoulder as he led them down yet another alley. "Carlo has an emergency portal. He undoubtedly used it when the trolls broke in and took the roses with him."
Pangloss nodded. "But where is the portal's exit?"
"Back the way we came, just off Lamp Street. His cousin owns a café there. He'll be waiting for us."
"Could Councillor Rinch or Cadena possibly know where it is?"
Favorotti shook his head. "Never."
Sara looked at Pangloss. "What's interesting?"
"That Cadena sent his trolls into Carlo's house. He must know that Carlo would use his emergency portal."
Sara considered this. "He must think he can find the exit."
Pangloss nodded, "Possibly by following us."
Sara glanced back into the shadows behind them. Nothing moved.
Dead soldiers marched, their black eyes dull but not sightless. Their fish-belly white fingers gripped axes, swords and war clubs. They moved stiffly, but with purpose up the ladders and over Star Harbor's walls.
Councillor Rinch turned to Prince Ayak. "They've opened the great gate. We can enter now."
Prince Ayak turned. "Hah! Victory is near! My white-fingers and the trolls will close on this city like a fist. All of their fighters and anyone who is on the streets will be driven to Signal Hill and surrounded. We can finish them there. Let us direct the final triumph."
Favorotti slowed, held up his hand. "Wait," he said, "The café's right here, but there's fighting." Angry shouts echoed between the walls.
Sara saw shadows move in darkness and disappear around a corner. A small figure knelt beside a heap of rags in the street. Something was familiar about that figure. She stepped past Favorotti toward the kneeling person. Arzu's anguished face turned up to her. Sara looked down and froze in horror. The bundle of rags was Squibby.
Tears welled from Arzu's wide eyes and her cheeks shone with dampness. "He was trying to save us. The pirates stabbed him." Squibby moaned.
Sara took Arzu's hand and looked back at Pangloss. "We've got to help him!"
Pangloss came closer. "Let me see."
Arzu looked from Sara to Pangloss. "He's bleeding badly."
Pangloss patted Arzu's shoulder. "We'll help him now. Where's Molly?"
Before she could answer, Carlo stepped out of a shadow. "I drove the pirates away, though not before they hurt your sailor friend. How is he?"
Pangloss looked down. "Still alive. I wish Molly could treat him. She's a better healer than I am."
Arzu offered, "Molly's resting in the cafe."
The twins stood looking round-eyed. Favorotti placed his strong hands on their shoulders and said, "Come with me. We'll cover him and move him inside where Molly can help him. She can stop the bleeding."
They took cloths from the café's tables and wrapped Squibby. He moaned again as they worked. Favorotti lifted him gently and carried him into the building. The twins followed. Sara again squeezed Arzu's hand.
"Carlo," Pangloss asked, "do you have the roses with you?"
A low, rough voice interrupted, "Yes, Carlo, do you have the roses?"
Hair rose on the back of Sara's neck. She'd heard that voice before. Cadena stood in the entrance. Light from distant fires gleamed on his tusks. He raised a clawed finger and cut a vertical line of golden light in the air before him. "An interesting charm, this invisible wall. It repelled the pirates, but it won't stop me. I've always wondered who would prevail in a contest between us, Carlo. I suspect it will be me." He gestured with his right hand. Red sparks burst from Carlo's barrier, turned to white dust and sifted to the ground.
Caden lowered his hand. "There, that's better."
Carlo did not answer.
Cadena continued to speak mildly, "You do have the roses, I think. I'll take them from you now." He held out his left hand.
Hair bristling, Kitten stepped from behind Sara and growled.
Pangloss laughed. "You'll have to postpone your magical contest, Cadena. Kitten, as you well know, has no use for your spells." Kitten growled again.
Cadena snarled with frustration and stepped back. He motioned with his left hand. Armored trolls carrying spiked maces stomped from the shadows. The troll magician pointed. "Kill them! Kill them all!"
The trolls growled and surged forward. Carlo pointed his wand and said, "Asphodel!" A spray of bright green spiders leapt from the end of his wand. The spiders spun as they flew, each trailing a sticky, green thread. The threads, glowing with light, wove themselves into a net across the café entrance. The two lead trolls plunged into the net. It bulged, swayed and held. Flailing and howling, the trolls tried to fight their way free.
Carlo turned to the others. "My web will hold for a few minutes. We've got to escape out the back way while it does."
Favorotti shook his head. "We can't move Squibby and Molly can't run. We'll have to fight here."
Sara suddenly remembered her charms. She reached into her pocket and felt for the turtle. "No!" she said. "They can stay here." She held out the turtle. "They can be invisible." She handed the turtle to Molly.
Molly nodded. "Good thinking, Sara!"
Pangloss objected,"Cadena might see through your magic."
Molly growled, "It's a chance we'll have to take. They'll kill us all if we stand and fight. Besides, Cadena won't come through here if he thinks Kitten is around. Now, run, you lot!"
Sara patted Molly's hand. "Good luck!"
Molly sniffed. "I'm not helpless, you know." She then squeezed the turtle in her right hand gripped Squibby's with her left. She said,"Penstemon" and both she and Squibby vanished.
Sara and the others ran. Through the kitchen, out the back door and up a smelly alley, they ran.
White-fingers lurched and staggered into Star Harbor's market, crashing through stalls and scattering merchandise before them. A blast suddenly erupted, toppling the leaders backwards and covering them in dense, brown smoke. As the smoke cleared, the fallen soldiers rose and continued advancing.
Prince Ayak turned to Councilor Rinch. "You see? They go through anything. Look at the one on the right."
Councilor Rinch looked. The soldier's left arm was gone, but he marched ahead anyway. "Don't they feel pain?"
Prince Ayak chuckled. "They feel it, but they can neither cry out nor stop. Cadena explained it to me. They are aware enough to suffer, but they can do nothing but what I order them to do."
Councilor Rinch shivered in spite of herself.
Pangloss and Carlo walked side by side. They went as swiftly as they could, but all of the others, excepting Sara, were well ahead. Pangloss gasped, "As I nearly said before, we must reach Morningstar Tower on Signal Hill."
Carlo nodded, "The yellow rose and the red are there already. I took them there when the city came under attack."
Pangloss's eyebrows rose in alarm. "Under guard, I trust?"
"Certainly," Carlo answered. "You have the white rose with you?"
Pangloss patted a hidden pocket in his robe. "Right here."
Sara asked, "Why must we go to this tower? Why don’t we put the roses together immediately?"
Carlo glanced at her. "Signal Hill is where the protective magic was first created and the roses were first brought together. Pangloss must perform the joining there. That is where the greatest power can be generated and where our greatest hopes for success lie.”
Kitten disappeared around a corner. The twins and Arzu followed him with Favorotti trailing them. He called back, "Signal Hill is just ahead. Come on!"
Pirates suddenly boiled out of doorways to either side. Pirate hands gripped Sara from behind. Carlo pointed his wand. The tip of a pirate knife pricked Sara's neck. The pirate holding it said, "Not so fast, wizard. Whatever spell you cast won't act fast enough to save your young friend."
Carlo lowered his wand.
Rumpot strolled out of an inn with his hands on his hips. "Ha!" he laughed, "we meet again! I knew we would." He stepped close to Sara and gripped her neck. The knife and its owner moved back. Sara felt for the blue frog in her pocket. She found it, wrapped her fingers around it. She worked up a sniffle, a whimper and then a strangled sob.
Rumpot hissed, "Shut up, you brat!"
Sara raised her closed hand as if to wipe tears away. When the blue frog was next to her mouth, she shouted, "Rumpot!"
Her magnified shout exploded next to Rumpot's ear and he jumped backwards, pulling Sara with him. His fingers tightened around her throat and squeezed. The world went gray and Sara heard roaring in her ears. Then someone screamed in agony and the fingers were gone.
Sara breathed deeply twice and her vision cleared. Goolie's face appeared before her. He tugged at her sleeve. "Follow me!" He then ducked, rolled and scrambled toward the wizards. She did the same. The screams became even louder. She bumped into Carlo's knees and looked back.
Rumpot was rolling on the pavement stones. A red thorn transfixed his left foot. His howls of pain shook the surrounding windows.
Goolie grinned and poked Sara. "Works good on serpents and works good on pirates, too."
Carlo raised his wand and said, "Maiden's hair!" Strands of silvery light flowed out from his wand's tip and wrapped around the pirates. They roared and cursed, but they could not move.
Carlo nodded. "That should hold them until we're safely away. Come on!"
They ran toward Favorotti. He still stood at the next corner with Kitten, Arzu and Oolie beside him. Pangloss reached them and huffed, "Why are you waiting? Is something the matter?"
Favorotti pointed. Sara followed the line of his finger and saw soldiers approaching, hundreds of soldiers. They held their weapons before them and marched as if their legs were made of wood. Their steel-shod feet crashed against the paving stones like the beating of iron drums.
Pangloss whispered, "White-fingers."
Chapter Twenty-Two *** Three Roses Joined
The line of white-fingers stretched from one side of the street to the other. They marched shoulder to shoulder, the points of their weapons glittering in the light of distant fires. A scattering of townspeople fled stumbling before them. Those who fell were trampled under.
The survivors, eyes wild and breathing hoarsely, ran past Sara and the others. Carlo pointed his wand at the monstrous soldiers and called out, "Foxfire!" Red light blazed from the wand's tip. A line of flames ten feet tall sprang up and blocked the street.
The white-fingers did not change their pace, but marched straight through the flames. Tattered uniforms smoldered. Faces blackened. Dead hair blazed. One man's face was the dark center of a flower of fire. Carlo raised his wand again.
Pangloss yelled, “Stop!”
Carlo, sweat suddenly streaming down his wide cheeks, turned his head. “What?”
“That won't work! Fire won't halt them and we must not wound them further!”
“They’ll kill us else. What should I do?”
Pangloss shook his head. “They cannot die, but they feel every burn. We must stop them, Carlo, but hurt them no more. It's a betrayal of our magic if we make them suffer. They cannot help what they do.”
Favorotti yelled, “Run! Think of something while we flee!”
Ayak shaded his eyes against a sudden glare of red light. "What was that? More city soldiers?"
Councilor Rinch shook her head. "Someone used magic to slow our white-fingers."
"Can you block it?'
"There is no need." The light suddenly faded. She stood in her stirrups and looked ahead. "It's gone already."
Ayak's lips pinched together. "Who opposes us?"
Councilor Rinch smiled. "Probably Carlo or that hedge witch he shelters. They are no cause for worry."
Ayak looked at her. "They'd best not be."
Sara and the others reached the open space at the foot of Signal Hill. They weren't the first there. Women walked hunched over through scattered trees at the base of the hill. Children held onto their parents' hands, or to each other. Old men wobbled forward leaning upon their canes. Some cried and some were silent with shock.
A lake to their left reflected firelight. Grassy fields for playing cane-ball and chase-the-flag stretched to their right. Signal Hill rose gently before them. Its ancient tower stood on the hill's crown.
Carlo raised his wand. "I'll try one more thing to slow the white-fingers. Perhaps I can block them." He shouted, "Cinquefoil!"
A bolt of white light flashed out from Carlo's wand and stabbed into the street they'd just left. The ground jerked and quivered. Buildings to either side of Tower Street trembled. The two corner buildings shook like wet dogs and fell into the street.
Sara said, "I hope those were empty."
Carlo nodded, "I believe they were." Before he could say more, a much greater tremor rippled through the ground. Sara and Pangloss fell to their knees. They looked back at the distant city wall. Yellow flame bloomed at its base and then it swayed, toppled and crumbled into a cloud of brown dust. Surrounding buildings shivered and slid into rubble.
Sara glanced at Carlo. “Did you do that?”
He shook his head, “Heavens, no.”
“Are you sure?”
“Positive. I only initiated a minor temblor right here, a distraction, really.”
Sara inclined her head toward the rumbling cloud of smoke. “That’s distracting.”
Carlo grimaced. "It's Cadena's work, or I'm a frog."
Pangloss sniffed. “Let’s go.”
Favorotti shook his head. "No, we need a rearguard. You'll need time to join the roses. I'll stay behind and get you that time."
Sara looked at him. "You can't stay back alone!"
Oolie said, "We'll help!"
"Throw rocks," added Goolie.
Arzu said, "I'm not a fighter, but I can keep watch."
Sara patted her hand and said, "Kitten and I will stay, too. I still have one of Maggie's charms."
Carlo looked at Pangloss. Pangloss shrugged. Then he turned to Sara. "Well? You are the keeper of the word."
"Will this take more than an hour? That’s all the time you have!"
Pangloss snorted, "We'll be lucky if we get fifteen minutes!"
Sara took a deep breath and looked back at Star Harbor. Tumbling mushrooms of smoke by the ruined walls glowed orange from within. Flames from a hundred other fires forked into the night. She nodded to herself. It was time. She took Pangloss's right hand, looked into his eyes and said, "Chrysanthemum."
Pangloss took a long, shuddering breath and straightened. "Thank-you."
Sara let go of his hand. He smiled at her and turned to Favorotti. "Do what you can to hod them off, but fall back upon the tower before they take you. We'll make a stand there."
Favorotti nodded. The two men clasped hands. Then Pangloss and Carlo turned away and walked through the trees up the hill.
Arzu pointed. "Look! They’re coming!"
Several white-fingers struggled to the top of the still smoking rubble pile.
Favorotti murmured, "They're here."
Armored guards surrounded Prince Ayak and Councillor Rinch. Living men all, they pointed their spears at sudden movement in a side street. Trolls stepped forward. Among them was Cadena. Spears bristled at him. Ayak called out, "Stand down! They are no threat!"
Cadena smiled. "Spears are no danger to me."
Councillor Rinch called, "What news, Cadena?"
Cadena inclined his head slightly. "Magic users act against us, but their efforts fail and they flee before the white-fingers."
"Do you have the roses?"
Cadena frowned. "Not yet. Carlo still has them, or so I presume."
Rinch hesitated, but did not speak.
Ayak asked, "Where is he?"
Cadena pointed toward the top of Signal Hill. "He seeks refuge there."
Ayak nodded. "My white-fingers will advance head on. Can you block further retreat with your trolls?"
Cadena again smiled. "I can. They climb the hill's far side as we speak. I'll join them now and capture Carlo."
"Good!" Ayak rubbed his hands together. "Victory is near."
For no reason she could name, Councilor Rinch made the ancient two-fingered gesture against tempting fate.
Pangloss mounted the spiral stairway within Morningstar Tower. Carlo followed him. Candles in iron sconces lighted magically as they passed. Neither magician spoke until they reached the top of the stairs and stepped into open air.
Carlo said, "The entrance door is strong and I barred it, but it won't stop white-fingers for long."
Pangloss nodded. "Or trolls, either, but we won't need long." He pointed toward a stone pedestal at the center of the tower's flat roof. "There."
Carlo approached the pedestal. It was carved of dark green stone and supported a wide, white marble bowl. He glanced at it and looked back at Pangloss.
"What must be done?"
"First, we need water. The cistern should be full of rain runoff." He walked to a tarnished brass pump connected to a pipe protruding from the floor. He pumped the handle several times. A cold, clear stream gushed from the pump's spout into a stone basin. Pangloss looked up. "Where are the roses?"
"In the room just below."
"Please get them and see if there's a pitcher or jar in one of the cabinets."
A crash shivered the main door and echoed up the tower's stairway.
Carlo's eyes went wide. Pangloss patted his friend’s shoulder. "Hurry!"
Sara ducked and rolled to her left. A notched sword passed through the space her nose had recently occupied. She looked up. The white-fingers stepped forward and raised his sword high for a killing slash. His eyes were all black except for a red spark where the pupils should be. That evil red spark turned her muscles to jelly. She lay helpless and waited for the sword.
A rock thunked into the right side of the white-fingers' helmet. His head rocked sideways and his sword stroke cut earth near Sara's foot.
Oolie yelled, "Jump!"
Sara's muscles leaped at the urgent command. She hopped, rolled and Oolie pulled her behind a tree trunk.
Favorotti's heavy club swatted the sword from the white-fingers' hand. Kitten leaped from behind. He struck the soldier's shoulders and carried him to the ground. Favorotti jumped on his chest. An ordinary man would have been knocked breathless by Favorotti's weight, but white-fingers don't breathe.
Kitten suddenly yelped in pain and rolled away. The white-fingers' mouth was full of dog fur. Favorotti pinned the man's arms to the ground and glared into his dead eyes. Goolie dashed in and wrapped four turns of line around the white-fingers' feet. He pulled the ends tight and knotted them. Favorotti forced the white-fingers' arms together. Goolie tied them tight at wrists and elbows. He and Favorotti rose. The white-fingers flopped like a beached fish.
Goolie looked at Sara and winked. "Sailor knots! Squibby teached us to tie them!"
Sara couldn't help smiling.
Favorotti breathed heavily. Sweat rolled down his wide cheeks. He said, "That's five we've tied up. It's a good thing I always have a bit of rope with me."
Sara looked at the writhing white-fingers and shivered. "Won't the others untie him when they come?'
Favorotti shook his head. "No, they only do what they're ordered to do. They won't help each other unless Ayak commands them to do so. It will never occur to him."
Arzu said, "Someone might think of it." She pointed downhill.
Two riders approached. Armored soldiers preceded them on foot and marched to either side. A loose line of white-fingers advanced first of all.
Favorotti frowned. "Prince Ayak and Councilor Rinch! They'll attack the tower now."
"Follow me!" Sara shouted. "We've got to give Mr. Pangloss more time! We'll make them deal with us first!" She darted away from the shelter of the trees and ran downhill to her left. Kitten, Arzu, Oolie and Goolie followed her. Favorotti brought up the rear. Sara stopped a few dozen yards from the end of the white-fingers line. She held up her hand and gasped for breath. Between gasps, she said, "Make them turn toward us."
Oolie and Goolie needed no urging. "They shouted insults and threw rocks at the white-fingers. The white-fingers kept marching straight toward the tower.
Favorotti patted Goolie's shoulder. "Give me rock, please," he said.
Goolie grinned. "Round or jagged?"
Goolie handed him a large, round stone. Favorotti hefted it once, crouched with his right arm far back and then grunted as he flung it with all of his strength. The rock sailed high and rocketed down far beyond the line of white-fingers. It clanged off the helmet of a soldier standing next to Prince Ayak. The stunned soldier fell without a sound.
Ayak whirled and saw them. Then he pointed toward them and gave orders. The white-fingers shifted rightwards and surged toward them.
Arzu leaned close to Sara. "Your plan might work too well."
Pangloss nodded to Carlo. "Pour the water now."
Carlo tilted the green glass pitcher he held. Water splashed into the white bowl upon the pedestal.
Pangloss murmured, "That's enough. We need only to cover the roses. Get them out, please."
Carlo placed the pitcher by his feet and plucked the red and yellow roses from a pocket in his robe. "Well?"
Pangloss held up the white rose. "Great magic is always simple. We must immerse the roses. Then we must join them as I pronounce words of power."
"You have no wand."
"I need no wand for this."
"No, you don't," said a voice from the top of the stairway.
Pangloss and Carlo froze. Their eyes jerked toward the stairway entrance. Cadena stood on the top step, smiling. The light of distant flames flickered on his cruel fangs.
Sara pulled Arzu around a corner. They leaned against each other and gasped for breath. After a moment, Sara said, "They move faster than I thought."
Arzu nodded. "And they don't stop."
Oolie and Goolie backed into view, then Favorotti, swinging his club, and Kitten, snapping and snarling, retreated with them.
Sara said, "Oh, no! They're on the other side of the street. We'd better cross." Before she could finish her thought, a dozen white-fingers lurched between the girls and their friends.
Arzu pulled Sara's arm. "Up this alley! Hide!"
Cadena stepped onto the tower's flat roof and stopped. Trolls shuffled on the stairs behind him. He said, "I can't let you do that."
Pangloss smiled. "Neither can you stop me."
Cadena scowled. He raised his wand and muttered three harsh words. A bolt of red flame hissed toward Pangloss and Carlo.
Arzu looked at Sara. Fear choked her voice. "It's a dead end."
Sara looked at the blank brick wall before them. It was twelve feet high and spikes lined its top. She said, "Try the doors to either side. Maybe one is unlocked."
The tramp of iron-shod feet echoed from the alley's walls. White-fingers swept around the last corner. They marched shoulder to shoulder and filled the width of the alley. Sara swallowed and wondered if sword cuts would hurt much. She suspected they did. Great sadness flooded through her as she understood that she would never see her family again.
Another figure appeared at the corner. It was Ayak. He looked at them for a moment and then called out. "Capture them alive. There is much they can tell me."
Pangloss raised his right hand palm outwards. Red flame splashed against it, backed up like water behind a dam and then exploded upward in golden sparks. Cadena shrieked another word. Blue flames roared out to join the red, but did not pass Pangloss's palm. Golden sparks gushed upwards from his fingers in a fountain half again as high as the tower. "Will you join me, Carlo?" he asked.
Carlo looked at his friend in wonder.
"Just extend your hand. Hold it out like I have mine."
Carlo shook his head. "I can't."
Pangloss smiled. "Trust me. I've created a shield. You can hold it for a time, long enough for me to join the roses.'
Carlo swallowed and raised his hand until it touched the flames next to Pangloss's hand.
"You feel the energy flow?"
"Good. This will take only a moment." Pangloss lowered his hand and the flames flared. Carlos staggered back for a moment but then slowly stood straighter as the fountain of sparks leapt from his fingers and grew taller.
Pangloss placed the roses in the basin - white on top, yellow to the left and red to the right. He pushed the yellow with his left and and the red with his right. Just as they touched the white rose, he chanted,
Join this night
Set us free
From dark-born might."
The roses joined. Silver light, bright as exploding stars, sprang up. Cadena screamed and dove for the stairs. The trolls still on the tower roof withered, smoked and collapsed into piles of dust. A column of white light soared into the sky.
"By thy light,
By thy song
Restore the right
End the wrong"
Music played by unnumbered violins and cellos - a melody of five rising notes, clear and full of hope – suddenly shivered in the air above the tower.
Sara and Arzu stumbled along within a moving cage of white-fingers. Ayak and Rinch rode behind them, surrounded by their guard of living soldiers. A burst of white light split the sky.
Ayak shaded his eyes. "What's that? Cadena's work?"
"No," Rinch said, "I fear not!" Before she could finish, a terrible, beautiful melody vibrated the air around them. It sounded, once, twice, three times. At the end of the last note, all of the white-fingers fell to the ground. Their weapons clattered and rolled, but they moved no more. The undead were undead no more.
Rinch whispered, "The roses are joined."
Prince Ayak wasted no time. "We'll regroup and try again." He pointed at Sara and Arzu. "These two may be useful. Take them to the balloon staging area and await me there."
Councilor Rinch nodded.
Ayak continued, "I must see that the rest of my army escapes from the city. I'll give General Dorn instructions. I won't be long.
Rinch bowed her head. "The balloon will be ready, my lord."
Ayak pointed at a soldier. "Corporal, take your squad and escort Councilor Rinch to the balloon." Ayak turned and rode away before the corporal could salute. The rest of the guard trotted behind their prince.
Rinch nodded to the corporal. "Take control of the prisoners and follow me." She turned her horse back toward the main gate.
Pangloss took a deep breath. "That should do it."
Carlo nodded in wonder. "It certainly should."
"We still have work to do." He looked out over the burning city. "My great powers will leave me soon. I must do what I can to save lives and restore damage before they do. Come!" He stepped toward the stairway. Carlo followed him.
As they approached the main gate, Arzu leaned close to Sara, "Where are they taking us?"
"To Councilor Rinch's balloon. I should have known that they'd have a way to escape if things went badly."
"What can we do?"
Sara shrugged. "Wait and keep our eyes open."
Suddenly, the leading soldier cried out. He dropped his sword, waved one hand around his head and smacked his chest with the other. The other soldiers screamed, howled and wailed. They dropped their weapons too, and fell writhing to the ground.
Molly stepped from behind a pillar.
"You!" shouted Councilor Rinch.
"Me," Molly agreed quietly. "An enhanced version of my red itch will keep your soldiers busy for some time to come," she continued.
Now Sara could see tiny red hornets, hundreds of them, diving in to sting the soldiers.
Rinch's face twisted with anger. She moved her wand in a complex gesture and pointed it at Molly. Nothing happened.
Molly smiled. "The roses are joined. Nothing hurtful you try will be allowed within the city walls. You'd better leave."
Rinch's lips quivered but she said nothing. She spurred her horse instead and it leapt toward the gate.
"Molly!" the girls squealed. They ran to her and hugged as much of her as they could.
She laughed and said, "Happy to see you, too, but let’s celebrate later. We must follow Rinch, see where she goes and what she does. Now help me, girls. I'm still slow."
Carlo turned to Pangloss. "The fires are out."
Pangloss rubbed his chin. "We've temporarily stabilized damaged buildings and walls. Escape and rescue may proceed safely. Food, water and shelter will be problems for a bit later today."
Carlo said, "What about Ayak's soldiers, the living ones?"
"Good point. I can disarm them." Pangloss made a gesture with his left hand and said, "Snowdrop."
All across Star Harbor steel weapons froze solid and fell from the hands of their startled owners.
Pangloss then said, "Snowbell."
A clear chime sounded from the predawn air. All of the frozen swords, spears, axes and hammers shattered into slivers of ice.
Pangloss smiled. "That should do it."
Sara said, "You see, they're getting onto a big balloon."
Molly nodded. "I see."
Just outside the gate, perhaps fifty yards distant, one of Rinch's great balloons rose into the brightening sky.
"Counselor Rinch can make it go where she wants," continued Sara.
"Yes," said Molly, "they're getting away and we can't stop them."
Sara pointed. "Look! Cadena is with them."
Three steps led up to the balloon's gondola. Cadena mounted the first step awkwardly, turned and saw them. His mouth gaped in a silent snarl. He flung his right hand high above his head and brought it down slowly until four taloned fingers pointed at Molly and the girls. Light glanced from his tusks as he spoke a terrible word.
Molly shouted, "Get behind me, girls! This could be bad! It’s troll magic and the roses won’t stop it! "
Orange fire formed a globe on the ends of Cadena's fingers. Cadena twisted his hand. The globe of flames flickered and accelerated toward them.
Molly raised her wand and said, "fern-root!" A shield of green light sprang up in the flame-globe's path. The globe struck her shield, shattered it and kept coming. Molly turned her broad back to the fireball, bent over the girls and protected them as best she could. Kitten leapt to meet the flaming ball just before it hit Molly and the girls. It struck his chest with a hiss and a roar. He yelped, flew backwards, hit the ground and rolled three times. The flame-globe flew straight up in the air and then curved back toward Cadena.
Sara peeked around Molly. She saw the flame-globe streak toward the balloon. She heard Councilor Rinch scream a warning. Prince Ayak ran to the back of the gondola. Cadena stood motionless, frozen. The flame globe hit him in the center of his chest. He shrieked in agony as flames splashed wide.
The great balloon exploded with a roar like walls falling. A mushroom of livid fire consumed the gondola and all within. The mushroom - whirling streamers of red and yellow – boiled high above Star Harbor's walls and towers.
Chapter Twenty-Three *** Beneath the Checkered Table
Several candles bravely tried to light the wide expanse of Carlo's living room. A fire burning in the fireplace helped too. Molly sat before its warmth on a couch with Arzu on one side and Sara on the other.
Favorotti approached them and grinned. "Kitten and I were not far behind you. We called out, but there was too much other noise for you to hear us. We ran to catch you, but of course Kitten is much faster than I am. A good thing, too! He arrived at the right moment!"
Kitten's tail thumped, but he did not rise. He lay between the couch and the fire and was too comfortable to stir.
Molly nodded. "He did that. Another second and we'd have been roasted. My magic couldn't hold against Cadena's."
Sara said nothing for a moment and then looked up at Molly. "Cadena attacked us after the roses were joined. How could he? I thought the roses stopped bad magic."
Molly shrugged. "There's much that needs more study about the roses, but Cadena's troll magic was outside of the their power. The roses were created to prevent human mischief, not that of trolls."
Sara looked down and sighed. "I can't get that explosion out of my mind, the fire, and the screaming."
Molly snorted. "That was none of our doing!" She looked sideways at Sara and patted her hand. "It was awful, but you'll remember that Kitten is a magical beast. He reflects spells. He can't help it, and the stronger the magic, the bigger the bounce. Cadena's anger destroyed them all, not Kitten'. That fire was intended for us."
Carlo came in from the kitchen carrying a tray of steaming mugs. He set it down on an end table next to the couch and asked, "Tea? Cocoa? "
"Tea, please!" said Sara.
"Me, too," said Arzu.
The twins hopped around the end of the couch.
"Cocoa for me!" called Oolie.
"And me!" added Goolie.
Their hands were full of cookies. Molly glared at them. "Where did you get those cookies?"
Jo poked her head around the corner of the kitchen door. "It's all right, Molly. They're testing the first batch for me."
Molly snorted. "They're eating the first batch, if you ask me."
"Not quite." Squibby sat in a deep armchair near a window in the western wall. He held up two cookies and chuckled. "They left me a few on their way by."
Molly's eyebrows arched. "You can knock me over with a feather! The twins are learning manners, consideration even!"
Oolie nodded. "Squibby teaches us manners!"
"And knots!" finished Goolie.
"Would you like a cookie, Madam Molly?" asked Oolie. He held one out.
Molly took it, swallowed a great laugh and nearly choked on it before she murmured, "Thank-you, Mr. Oolie."
Goolie offered cookies to Sara and Arzu. The girls took them and grinned.
Carlo sipped from a cup and looked at Sara. "I overheard what you and Molly were discussing when I came in." He paused. "You feel horror and regret over all of the deaths?"
Sara looked down. "Yes."
"We all do." Carlo looked out the window and repeated, "We all do."
Sara looked up. "I never meant anyone to die because of what we did."
"Don't you start feeling sorry for Ayak, Rinch and Cadena!" said Molly. "They aren't worthy of your sympathy!'
"Well," said Sara, "not Cadena."
"Not any of them!"
Carlo said, "No, Molly, she's right to feel regret, even for them. Cruelty isn't justice. Suffering does not repay misdeeds."
Molly snorted. "A little suffering among those who made this mess doesn't bother me!"
"Now, now, Molly, we live by fair laws and our laws check abuses by those with wealth and magical power. After all, these are the great truths we've taken so much trouble to defend."
"Yes, it was a lot of trouble, a great magical exertion," said Pangloss as he entered from the patio, "though I must admit I've never been more on top of my game."
Molly, who had taken a bite of cookie, sprayed crumbs into the fire. While she was gasping for breath, Carlo said, "Now, Herbert, you must also admit that none of your magic would have been possible without the efforts of all others here!"
Oolie poked Goolie. "Herbert!"
Goolie poked Oolie. "Herbert!"
Both twins giggled, "Herbert!"
Pangloss glared at the twins and then turned to Carlo. "Well, you're right. I couldn't have found the roses and joined them without everyone's help. I do appreciate it."
Molly, breath and voice now recovered, said, "Do you indeed, you pompous old goat! Let's see if your precious powers can deal with a dose of red itch!"
Carlo put a restraining hand on Molly's shoulder, "Calm yourself, Molly. Be patient."
"I should be patient. Where would we all have been without Sara and Kitten, I ask you?"
Sara blushed and smiled.
Molly went on, "Or Favorotti, or Squibby, or the twins? Or you?"
"Or you!" Carlo added quietly. "We stopped Ayak's white-fingers and Cadena's trolls together."
Sara asked, "What will happen to the roses now?"
"Ah," said Pangloss. "Their great magic is done. We must separate them again and conceal them, protect them. They will be needed again. We can't know just when that will be."
Molly said, "Hopefully we'll do a better job of taking care of them than the last time!"
Carlo nodded. "Yes, we'll need to call a conference of all wizards and witches who practice good magic. The roses do need much better protection and we need to better understand their workings. Some years of study will be needed. Also, our plan for dividing and reserving the greatest powers is more fragile than we'd supposed." He looked at Pangloss. "Though, you did a fine job old friend."
Pangloss smiled. "I did, didn't I?"
"But," Carlo continued, "wider knowledge of the roses and the methods needed to use them would seem a good idea."
Sara sat silently, staring at her toes. Arzu asked, "You look sad. What's the matter? "
Sara looked at her. "My family is about to be robbed back in my world and I have no way to get back to help them. We're miles and miles from the portal at Mr. Pangloss's house."
Pangloss snapped his fingers. "Wait! I may have that portal key with me!" He dug around within his robes and produced a matchbook with a printed cover.
Sara sat up. "Those matches are from our restaurant!"
"Yes, I needed something from your world to use as a gate anchor. I can use it to create an alternate entrance when necessary."
"Can you open the portal from here?"
Pangloss shook his head. "Not without a wand. Councilor Rinch took all of my spares, I'm afraid. My great powers have left me and won't be available for many months. I do have several wands hidden in a cupboard at home. It will be a simple matter to open your portal and send you home once we journey there, but I can't do it here."
"I can," said Carlo. "Give me the matchbook."
"Just a moment!" said Molly. "These robbers are dangerous?” She looked at Sara.
“Then we'll need a plan."
The twins hopped closer. "Oolie . . . "
"And Goolie . . . "
"Can help! "
Pangloss clapped his hands twice. "Very well," he pronounced, "Sara must go first because this portal is specifically tuned to her. She was the first to pass through it and must be the first to go back. Others may follow her. The portal exit is beneath a table in her family's restaurant, however, so space is limited."
"And there are two robbers sitting at the table," Sara added.
Carlo said, "I suggest that Sara, Oolie and Goolie go first. They'll all fit under the table and can launch a simultaneous distraction. Then the rest of us can pour through and capture them."
Pangloss said, "You say these robbers have weapons?"
Sara gulped. "Yes, they both have guns."
Favorotti's eyebrows arched. "Guns?" he asked?
"They shoot bullets," Sara explained.
"Pieces of lead," said Sara. Favorotti and the others still looked puzzled. "They're heavy," she continued, "and they go very fast. They make terrible wounds in people."
Pangloss nodded. "Ah, something like slung stones."
Sara nodded. "Only much, much faster."
Favorotti nodded. "Kitten and I will knock the weapons away. Perhaps you wizards can arrange for restraining spells."
Carlo looked at Molly. "I'll be busy with the portal. You and Pangloss do that work better than I do, anyway. Are you feeling well enough to go capture robbers, Molly?"
Molly grinned as she rose from the couch. "It's just what the doctor ordered."
Pangloss rubbed his chin. "I have a quite excellent spell I can manage without my wand."
"Good!" Carlo looked at Sara. "Shall we open the portal now?"
Sara jumped up. "Yes! Now!" She hopped over to Carlo.
Oolie stepped to Sara's side, poked her and showed her the hammer he held. "Good distraction," he said.
Goolie popped up on her other side. He tossed a crystal ball a few inches into the air and caught it. "More distraction," he added.
Carlo took the matchbook from Pangloss and placed it in the middle of the room on the floor. He pointed his wand at it and said, "Water Lily!" A glowing blue circle appeared above the matchbox. Carlo looked at the others, put his index finger to his lips and nodded.
Sara looked at Oolie and then Goolie. "Wait for my signal," she said. They nodded. She took a deep breath, got down on her knees and crawled through the portal. She hardly noticed the cool tingling as she moved through blue light into the darkness beneath the checkered table. She crawled forward a foot or so. Oolie squeezed in beside her. Goolie was right behind him.
"What the . . . " exclaimed a male voice.
Sara looked up into Reebok robber's pale blue eyes. "Now!" she shouted.
Oolie raised his hammer with both hands and smashed it down hard on Reebok's Reebok.
Reebok's mout opened to say something, but howled in pain and shock instead.
Goolie crashed his crystal ball on Nike robber's Nike. Nike screamed, grabbed his foot and fell over backwards
All three children dove and rolled from beneath the table. Kitten, growling like a werewolf, leapt upon Nike. Nike, a thin man with a shaved head and many tattoos, put his hands in front of his face. His brown eyes were wide with terror.
Sara looked back as the table rose swiftly into the air on Favorotti's back. Reebok, a muscular man, locked eyes with Favorotti. Favorotti smiled. Reebok reached for the pistol inside of his jacket. Favorotti's fingers closed around his wrist and squeezed. Reebok screamed again until Favorotti sat hard on his chest.
Molly came through the portal bent over but standing. She straightened, saw Kitten menacing robber Nike, pointed her wand and said, "Poison Ivy!" Strings of green light flowed from the wand's tip. The strings twisted, grew fatter and became green snakes. The snakes twined around robber Nike's hands.
Pangloss stepped through the portal upright. He saw Favorotti atop robber Reebok. He raised his right hand and said, “Intransigent poppies.” Yellow mist flowed from the ends of Pangloss's fingers and turned into a thick, yellow rope. The rope reared like a cobra and struck, wrapping itself tightly around robber Reebok's arms.
Sara yelled, "It's a robbery, Mom! Call 911!"
Customers jumped to their feet. Some screamed. Chairs fell over and plates crashed to the floor. Many ran for the door. Mrs. Chang picked up the phone, dialed and began talking excitedly. Favorotti, seeing that the robbers were secured, stood, waved to Sara and stepped back through the portal. Kitten walked to the counter and lay down right behind Mrs. Chang.
Sara turned to Pangloss. "My mom just called the police. They're our world's version of the watch. They'll be here in minutes.” She gestured to the robbers and scattered plates. “I don't know if you want to try to explain this to them or not."
Pangloss rubbed his chin. "Hmmm, perhaps not. Molly and I will return when things are less busy."
Sara said, "The portal will stay open then?"
"Of course. You have responsibilities in our world now, not to mention friends!"
Sara grinned. "I was afraid that it would all be over."
"Oh, no!" Pangloss said, "Also when our repair work in Star Harbor is further along, we'll have time for a party."
"Yes, a celebration and a parade! We've won a great victory, you know. You and all of your family are invited. I'll send a twin or two with the invitation when it's time. Be sure to bring Kitten with you, too."
"Of course. He's staying here with you."
"Yes. He's chosen to be with you. I can't make him return." Pangloss again rubbed his chin. "He'd likely bite me if I tried."
Kitten bumped Sara with his head and licked her wrist. She rubbed his left ear and looked up. "If Kitten is staying, might Arzu come for a visit?"
Molly said, "I'll ask her to step through when I go back to Carlo's place."
"Also," Pangloss continued, "the party will be very amusing and the parade uplifting, but I insist that you return to Star Harbor for an even greater treat."
Sara looked at him. "What could that be?'
Pangloss grinned. "At summer's end string bass players gather at the Moon Bowl in Star Harbor for a series of concerts. I may be asked to play Dittersdorf! It will be a once in a lifetime event!"
Molly leaned close. "Yes, if we catch Rumpot, we can tie him up and make him listen. That would be fun."
"Bah!" said Pangloss. "You never did have any culture. At any rate, we must go. I hear sirens. I assume that means that the police are near."
Molly waved and ducked through the portal. Arzu hopped into the room a moment later. She ran to Sara and grabbed her hand. "You want me to visit here?"
Sara nodded. "If you want."
"Yes! This is the most exciting thing that's ever happened to me!" She looked at Pangloss. "Mr. Pangloss, Molly says to hurry."
Goolie, next to the wiggling Nike robber said, "Herbert should hurry!"
Oolie, standing next to Reebok robber, answered solemnly, "Yes, Herbert is slow."
They both giggled.
Pangloss muttered, "Bah!" He turned and stalked through the portal.
Oolie grinned and stuck out his tongue at Sara. Then he ran and leapt into Carlo's front room. Goolie, tongue also extended, was two steps behind his brother.
Sara looked at Arzu. "Help me move that checkered table in front of the portal."
Just as they finished, the police, guns drawn, stormed into the dining room.
Something more than half an hour later, after uniformed officers had taken the robbers away, a middle aged man in a light gray suit approached Sara's mom. "I'm detective Simon, Mrs. Chang. Would you like to tell me what happened here?
"Well, these two men had guns and were going to rob us. Some of our customers jumped them before they could."
"Are any of those folks still here?'
Sara's mom looked around. "Well, no." Her eyes came to rest on Kitten. "Except for that wolf over there." She pointed toward the front counter.
The detective looked. A small orange and white kitten with very blue eyes stared back at him. He shrugged. "Would you like me call animal control?"
Mrs. Chang saw the kitten, blinked, opened her mouth and then closed it again.
Sara said, "No, officer, he's ours."
Mrs. Chang opened her mouth again, but again could think of nothing to say.
The detective nodded. "Well, you were lucky. We think these two are responsible for several other robberies here and in North Beach. They've hurt some people. It's a good thing they didn't get their guns out."
Mrs. Chang nodded. So did Sara.
The detective continued, "If any of your, ah, customers come back, I'd like to speak with them." He rubbed his forehead. "I've never seen a suspect tied up with green snakes before." He looked at them.
They said nothing.
"Right. Well, I'll be going. You'll hear from me soon." Detective Simon turned and walked toward the door.
Mrs. Chang looked at Sara and then at Kitten. "Our kitten?" she asked.
Kitten batted at a bit of lint in the air. Sara nodded. "Ah, yes, sort of."
"Kitten's his name and I think he plans to stay with us."
"We can't have a kitten," she shook her head, "or a wolf in our restaurant!"
Sara smiled to herself. "He's very well trained, mom. Can we talk about Kitten later?"
Sara's mom looked at Arzu, "And who are you, little girl?"
"Arzu, ma'am. I'm Sara's friend."
"And she's an orphan, mom. I asked her to stay with us tonight and maybe a few days longer. She's a good worker.
"Very good," agreed Arzu.
Mrs. Chang shook her head. "Where's that large woman in the colorful dress?"
"She definitely left."
"Is she a friend of yours, too?"
"Does she live in this neighborhood?"
"Oh, you might say that she lives not too far from here," Sara answered. This was true enough, though it didn't explain the situation completely.
"Well," Sara's mother put her hands on her hips, "We should thank her for her help!"
"Oh, we'll see her and the others again soon. I think they'll be here for dinner later this week."
Sara's mom looked at her. "Do you think so?"
Sara nodded. "I'm sure of it. We can thank them all then. Molly and her friend Mr. Pangloss also invited us to a celebration."
"Yes, a great party, in a few weeks, I think."
Suddenly, Sara's mom noticed the over-turned tables, broken plates, shattered glasses and spilled food. "What a mess!" she exclaimed. "We've got dinner to serve! Sara! Get the dustpan."
Sara smiled. "Yes, mom."
"And you, Arzu, the mop!"
Arzu's smile joined Sara's, "Yes, Mrs. Chang!"