The endless week came to an end at last. Johanna was more than relieved that there had been no word from Watch Eye or Satara.She wasn’t entirely sure which she feared more.
She had discovered the door in their trees the night before. A hundred yards or so north of their house, it was hidden from any casual observer, and anyone who saw it would have assumed it was of no consequence.The wood was a pale yellow, deeply carved and oiled to a glossy sheen.The metal work matched the key exactly.Unsure whether to feel pleased or depressed, Jo went to stand in front of it until she heard the sounds of someone calling for her help in the house.Shrugging off the mood, she walked back to the kitchen.
A short time later, the phone rang. Her mother answered it, listened, and handed it to the girl.
“Who is it?”
“They didn’t say,” Mrs. Hall replied, turning back to her bread.
Jo took the receiver and drummed her fingers on the counter top. Her eyes roved nervously to the tree row.She drummed faster.“Hello?”
“Johanna? Is that you?” The voice sounded strained.
“Satara? Yes, it’s me.”Jo began to feel more uneasy than she already was.What was wrong?What did this woman want?
“I don’t have long, you have to come here.”
“Come where?” Jo felt like a dummy.
“The door, you have to go through the door. When your friends arrive, get them and the things I sent you and come.”Satara’s voice was calm, but urgent.“There will be someone to meet you.”Jo was feeling sick.
“But, what’s going on?”
“They have broken through in certain places. We are driving them back even now, but we cannot guarantee anything on your side.”Her voice turned sharp.
“Bring them with you, and come.We can keep you safe.Now.”
“Now, Johanna Hall!”The harshness seemed to be ripped from the woman’s voice as the line went dead.
Jo dropped the phone and went to her room. She opened a drawer, and pulled out a large denim bag, stuffed the book, packets and key inside, slung it over her shoulder and headed for the trees.When she got there, she tied the bag to the posts, and arranged branches over it to conceal it.
Returning to the yard, she simply waited for her friends to come -- waited as the wind worked deeper into her spirit.
Johanna didn’t move as the plum SUV pulled in. Her arms still crossed over her knees.She didn’t react as the doors slammed, or as footsteps crossed the yard.It wasn’t until one of the Netherland girls shouted her name that she jerked her head up.
Her greetings were automatic, and she watched them, waiting for an opportunity to drag them off. Allan, the boy, had already run off to explore with Jay.
Anne was the oldest, tall with a catlike stride, fitting for her active frame. She radiated a cover-girl style confidence from her blue eyes.That day, she had stuck with her traditional boots, jeans, and t-shirt, her light brown hair pulled back in a bun.Her round face looked vaguely interested, but barely.
Mae, twin to Allan, was a sweet and bouncy personality, her own brown hair pulled back messily, and her green eyes beaming from the beautiful oval face. The freckles on her nose were over- pronounced, courtesy of summer horseback rides. At eleven, she seemed both older and younger than her age.
Beth was the baby of the family, seven years old. She resembled Anne the most, with her round face and easy walk.Yet, there was a serene air about the little girl, her blonde hair perhaps, or the gentle way she’d fix her dark blue eyes on something for minutes at a time.
Jo dreaded dragging them into the affair at hand, but had no real choice – not that she could tell. Satara’s tone had left no doubt that something was wrong.It was all very discouraging.
She waited until the traditional greetings were exchanged, and left a pause before asking, “Can I show you guys something?”
Anne raised a perfectly shaped brow. “Sure, why not?There’s time before our dads start the fire for the wiener roast.”
Jo grunted in response, and led the way. They followed without question.As she dug the key out of her bag, it dawned on her that this was the most ridiculous thing she had ever done.She was unlocking a door that lead to nowhere, and walking through as if it led to somewhere.There was nothing to do but take Satara’s word for it, and go forward.
“When we get through, I have something to tell you. And you have to promise when we get back not to breathe a word to anyone.”
Anne ran a hand over the wood and grey metal. “Sure, why not?”It seemed to be her catchphrase of the day.
Trembling, Jo slid the long, cold column into the key hole, giving it a twist. The sound of a lock turning echoed. She went forward, wanting to run, not daring to go back and forcing herself forward.Somehow she made herself to turn the lock again, and push the heavy door inward.A luminous glow started, but Jo thought that could be dirt blowing by.
She waited until everyone was through, and swung it shut, saying softly, “I want to get farther into the trees, but when we do, I’ll explain to you.”
The deep colors deepened, growing darker, heavier as they walked steadily into the extending forest. It was as if the world stretched, thickened, and added a layer.Something like seeing a picture in a mirror, where everything keeps going much farther than it should.
Beth showed the most signs of anxiety as they walked. Jo kept her close, guilt pressing in for deceiving her friends.For pulling them into something even she didn’t understand.Anne and Mae wandered here and there, chatting, and enjoying the side trip.If what Satara had said was true, it was more of a trip than they were expecting.
Jo dropped her bag, and sat against a tree, and Beth dropped next to her, a little breathless. “I don’t like it, is it always this quiet?”
Jo gave a shrug, trying to be as casual as possible for the younger girl’s sake. “I’m not out here at night most of the time.But I think it’s strange too.I think it’s changed.”
Mae and Anne came over, sorting out flowers between them. Anne held up a plant that resembled a rose.“I didn’t know you had wild flowers here.Look at this one; it’s almost like what you get from a professional.”
Jo watched them set the assortment out. “We don’t have wild flowers.We aren’t even at my farm.”
Mae grinned; they had played this game before to help each other with geography homework. “Oh and where are we?”
Anne nodded. “Sure, name a place. I’ll go there.”
“Jo?” Beth asked, seeing her friend’s face.
Jo was so stunned for a moment, she could not reply. The last thing she had wanted to do was ‘Imaginary Travel’ for the sake of amusing study.Her jaw went up and down, before any sound forced itself out. “What are you guys talking about?”
“I thought you said we weren’t on your farm.” Mae said, confused by the harsh tone in Jo’s voice.
“We aren’t. We’re in…” It suddenly dawned on Jo that she didn’t know where they had gone, just that they had.It hadn’t dawned on her that it could be possible until that moment.She looked around for some clue as to where Satara had brought her, and found herself looking at a man, coming towards them.Suddenly, it was too late to say another thing.
Beth had followed her eyes, and let out a scream. The other two whipped around, freezing at the sight.Jo felt a hand settle on her shoulder.Without thinking, she grabbed her bag and swung it around behind the tree, raising a shout from whomever she had hit.
The four girls scattered, racing around trees, into underbrush, even into the pursuers who seemed to double in number all at once. It was unrestrained chaos.
Jo felt herself lifted off the ground, and dangled in midair. She looked down at a tall man, in white and black.Almost immediately, she took in his appearance.He had a broad chest, strong arms, long, large hands.A deformed leg, which doubled over itself, with an abnormally large, three pronged foot, bore most of his weight.Jo peered at the hooded face, trying to catch a glimpse of her captor’s face.He swung around and lowered her.The motion seemed too easy for him to be real.“Portance, I have her, you can give us light.”His voice was cool, unemotional.Yet, it didn’t inspire fear.
A man with a potbelly struck flint to tinder, and began arranging a fire. “Thar ’e be.No ’arm done, eh?”He gave a smile that matched his hearty and friendly voice.
Jo could now see the ring of faces. At first, she thought they were wearing masks, but as her eyes adjusted better to the sudden light, she could tell this wasn’t so.The faces were so weird, so strange, and so close to something she had seen before.Watch Eye.
His words came back: “Mine is only an eye, mild. Do you know what you’re going to see if you hang onto that book?Are you sure you want this in front of you for days, weeks, years?”She pushed the image aside.These men had a different feel.Less probing, less tormented, more withdrawn.Calmer.
There was the bear man holding an unconscious Beth, the blue thing with arms like noodles, doorknob feet and the thin neck with the balloon head stood next to Anne, the gryphon next to Mae, even the friendly man bending over the fire -- all were barely human looking, yet so normal in demeanor.
She turned her gaze up to the man beside her. He was returning the scrutiny.“Which of you were we sent to meet?Satara said there would be a book bearer.”
“You knew we would be here?” Anne sounded on the verge of terror, and Jo was again slapped in the gut with guilt.
“We knew, but I think that you did not. What are your names?”
“I’m Anne; they’re Mae, Beth, and Jo.”
Jo could see the leg better now. The doubled section contained two knees, much like a folding tool, and the foot was that of a lizard.She whipped her eyes to the face again, worried that her staring might bring trouble.
He glanced at them each in turn. “Anne, Mae, Beth, Jo.Welcome to Fher’den.”
Refusing to look at her friends, Jo concentrated on getting the iron hand off of her shoulder. The man had a hold on her that allowed him to grip her shoulder, and dig his nails into her neck at the same time.He was fully aware of her efforts, and lifted her, until her toes were barely touching the ground.“Is something wrong, bothering you perhaps?”
Jo shook her head. Oddly, now that she knew they meant her no harm, she didn’t fear them.The pain in her shoulder was increased by her awkward position.She shook her head faster.“I’m not used to standing with my head sideways, it’s annoying.”
“Oh?” He lowered and released her, having proved that he was in charge, and there was nothing they could do about it.“Forgive me for misunderstanding.”He smiled, almost friendly.“I suppose I would like to have time to accustom myself with new people, but you can stand on your own now if you like.”
The relief was instantaneous. “Thank you.” She earnestly said as she slung the bag over her head, and settled it on her shoulders.He was gazing at each girl alternately.
“Well? Which one of you has the book?”
Anne and Mae were floored. Mae was the one who voiced their thoughts. “We don’t even know what’s going on; how can we know what book you want?”
“That would be me.” Jo guiltily slid the bag back off her shoulders, and handed it to the man.Anne’s eyes were like saucers.
“You knew? You knew they were coming?”
“I knew someone was.” She muttered.
Mae came forward. “Then why didn’t you tell us?”
“I started to, just before they came. But…I didn’t have time.”
The man didn’t even glance in the bag, he just handed it back to Jo. “I need no other proof.Satara didn’t give us your names, and we were not told there would be no explanations given. We have only been here a day.Something must have been discovered after we left, for you to have to leave so quickly.It cannot be good.Come, we will move now. Portance, douse the fire.Bearploltan, take the small one; Apolingo, go with Mae; Bodangalas, with Anne.We must get to Mordgorden with the sun, no later.We are in danger.”
The rain started about midnight. Jo found herself marching next to the hooded man.She struggled to keep up with his massive stride.Abruptly, he slowed, and grabbed her under the arm.“I will be pulling you, don’t fight.”Jo found it easier to move with the man’s help, but was still panting.The mud and her slick soled sneakers didn’t help matters.He pushed back his hood, and looked around, letting the rain wash over his face.
Jo had never seen such a face before. Gray skin, with a network of thin, criss-crossing scars, covered the high broad face bones.His hair was coarse, black streaked with white, falling straight to the shoulders.He glanced down at her, and she could see the set mouth and jaw only made the granite carved countenance more removed.He suddenly smiled, and the features relaxed.
“I suppose you’ve never seen anything like us before.” The black eyes were not angry; they were sad and distant, and so Jo risked conversation.
“Not exactly, but close, once…” A set of mismatched eyes flickered in front of her. She shuddered and brushed rain from her face to conceal her ever-present fears.
He hoisted her over a fallen log, and vaulted over himself with the double knee. “The curse of Mordgorden.It comes to those born within the walls of our home.We are human just as you, but where you would be born with a crooked finger, we have a distorted hand or arm.Often, these disfigurements take on the appearance of an animal trait.You had best brace yourself for it; we all have been touched by it.”
Jo frowned. “So, if my quirks were magnified in my looks, wouldn’t my skills have something to do with it?”
“You are perceptive; yes, they do. Be aware, it does not always look lovely to have your gifts visible.”His voice was pleased, and he studied her closely for a moment.“Your eyes are still adjusting, do you see color differently here?”
She nodded. “They have more shades, more depth?”
“It must seem that way to you. Does it make you ill?”
“No, just a little unsettled. Like I can’t see things right.Why?”
“For some people, the change in vision is almost like sending them on one of your amusement rides, with too many spins and too much time upside down. Your friends haven’t understood the change yet, but they will soon.”
Jo watched the others. When the men would talk among themselves, they would use a different language.She realized it must be their native tongue.They would move in and out of their groups, some going into the forest, then coming back to be replaced by another.Scouts, Jo thought, guessing it wasn’t a good sign.Her companion pointed out the different people and their names.Bearploltan was the one carrying Beth; he was a healer. Bodangalas was the blue thing with noodle arms. Portance, the man with the pot belly, led the way.Apolingo was the gryphon.She wasn’t able to catch any of the rest; the names were too strange, and rolled by too quickly.Her eyes went to her escort.
“What’s your name?”
“I am called Stalker, the Wielder of Swords.”
The first signs of morning were visible as they entered the thinning end of the forest. It had seemed to go forever the night before.Jo was surprised they had come to the end of it so soon.By asking Stalker, Jo found it was called the Forest of Dord’Dal.
The rain still clung to the trees and underbrush, giving it an unreal look in the misty light. Patches of color reflected up into the foliage, making it look like a string of lights had been hung for decoration.An animal peered down from the shadow of a tree, and vanished before Jo could tell what it was.The party reached a small stretch of grassland, and headed directly across it.
Jo looked up and let her jaw go slack.
Above her, as the sun freed itself from the horizon there was a flash and then clean light. In the glow stood a fortress.Shining slabs of white marble formed the castle walls.Rooms jutted out, clutching onto the side of the building as if there had not been enough space inside for them.Yet, they did not seem ugly or out of place.The abnormality defined its beauty, its size and mystery.It was a feat of engineering.
“Stalker, what is that?”
He looked from the glistening fairy sight, and then at Jo, smiling a little. “That? That is Mordgorden.”