Chapter Thirty-Seven - The Witch
Terry felt infinitely more relieved once they were back in the woods again, the trees and fallen leaves muffling their voices. They went single file along the twisting, narrow trail, with Stevenus taking the lead and Katya in the middle. So far none of the other creatures seemed to be following them. With a shudder Terry remembered that first day walking up to Archon Castle and the way that black-robed figure had sped through the woods. Why hadn’t any of those caught up to them yet? But then, Stevenus had said the magic was different here. He was about to ask the Chosen One to clarify where Archon Castle’s rule ended and the lands of the elementals began, when he noticed Katya trying to get his attention too.
Seemingly deaf to her, Stevenus kept marching uphill. He was well ahead of both of them and picking up his pace.
He only slowed once he’d reached more level terrain and wheeled around, annoyed. “What?” He reluctantly waited for them to catch up, twitching and tapping his feet the entire time.
“How far is it until we get to that troll?” Katya asked in a tone suggesting she hoped it was several hours away.
“Hard to tell. As I said earlier, this map’s not to scale.” The trail they followed opened abruptly onto a gravel path nearly wide enough to be considered a proper road. Stevenus consulted his map and added, “Not to scale at all. I wasn’t expecting this for at least another mile.”
“I don’t know about you,” Terry said, trying to keep his voice as low as he could, “but I’d rather stay off the beaten path, so to speak.”
Katya had different ideas and began marching ahead. “Come on! I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve twisted my ankle!”
Terry and Stevenus had made no move to follow her, so she turned around and said, “Let’s put it to a vote. All in favour of walking on a level surface for once? Raise your hand and say ‘aye’. Aye.” She raised her hand as if she’d been trying to get the teacher’s attention through half a dozen rambling wrong answers by other kids in her class.
“Aye,” Stevenus said, holding his hand about the level of his head. Not quite so certain as Katya, but Terry wasn’t in the mood to argue even if he could sway the Chosen One to his side.
“If we’re caught or something bad happens, it’s not my fault. That’s all. The pair of you tricked me into coming along.” Terry traipsed after them. The further along they went, the more his skin prickled and his muscles tensed. He kept turning his head to peer through the trees on each side of the path, convinced he could see shadows flitting alongside in his periphery. Granted, the trail was no different than the hundreds of ones he’d been on in various state parks, since his parents’ version of a gruelling hike was where every incline was braced with railway ties and the weeds were kept neatly trimmed. Yet he couldn’t shake this stubborn cloak of menace that weighed on him more heavily with each step. Even the sky seemed darker and the clouds lower, in spite of much taller and sparser trees.
Worse, he was suddenly overwhelmed with the sense they were going in the wrong direction. He tapped Stevenus’s shoulder. “Can I see that map?”
Stevenus withdrew it from his shorts pocket and unfolded it for Terry. “Why, what’s wrong?”
“I don’t know yet.” Terry studied the map and found the spot where they’d emerged from the mining tunnel. He traced his finger along the line where they’d scrambled down the hill, followed the narrow trail into the woods, and stopped at the thick dashed line that represented the path were now walking along. Down, and then straight, and then right. They were heading in a north-easterly direction as they should be, so why did it feel so wrong? He’d long imagined he had a compass in his head and right now, the little needle pointing to magnetic north was spinning wildly. He looked up. The sun was still shrouded behind a ceiling of impenetrable grey cloud.
“Are you okay?” Katya asked, her brow knitted with worry.
“Let’s keep going,” Stevenus said, “According to this map we’re going the right way.” They continued through the woods. According to the map he’d now committed to memory, this was the only trail in the area. Nor did he see any smaller trails branching off anywhere through the thick undergrowth.
The gentle slope turned more sharply left to what looked like a giant staircase. They eased their way down high steps cut into the ground, reinforced by timbers and thick slabs of rock. Though Terry’d seen the usual topographical markings indicating hilly terrain, this decline seemed to be way steeper than what had been drawn on the map. He could also hear water rushing somewhere below. He didn’t remember any sign of a river nearby. All of his inner alarms screamed, sirens flashing red.
“If the map’s accurate we shouldn’t be having to cross that for a while yet,” Stevenus said, his breath getting ragged.
The trail forked at the bottom of the hill, with one way going across a narrow wooden bridge and the other heading up along a stony crest. They’d been heading in a downward direction for so long, Terry figured they must be below sea level by now. They all stopped to consult the map again.
“This bridge isn’t on here!” Katya said, eyes wide, her glistening face flushed pink the colour of grapefruit juice. Stevenus took the sack from Terry, knelt, and rifled through it for the other maps he’d taken. While he sorted through the various sheets of paper and parchment, Terry snacked on some bread and cheese. Katya swiped a shrivelled sausage from inside his sack and began gnawing on it.
“I see the same river and trail we came on, but Terry’s right—somehow we wound up heading in the wrong direction. I don’t understand how, though.” Stevenus traced his finger along the blue squiggly line denoting the rapids some fifty feet downhill from them.
“What about those other maps?” Katya asked.
Stevenus handed a few to Terry to sort through, though they turned to be nearly identical. The rest of the maps he’d taken were useless. He scanned each of them anyway. “They’re either of the village we stayed in or other, more far off lands elsewhere.”
“So where are we?” she asked. They were lost.
“Let’s get back uphill,” Terry said, clambering back up the steps. He wished he’d been more adamant about not taking that gravel trail. “I need to find a good lookout.”
For once, neither of them raised any objection. Nor did either of them point out that there were fewer stairs leading up than Terry remembered there being. He could have sworn they’d come down at least thirty of them and now there were only ten or so to climb. A switchback appeared ahead of him, which he reluctantly followed after seeing no other path anywhere through the woods. It was as if the very terrain was changing around them.
“I don’t remember this stone wall before,” Katya said and just as he heard her say it, Terry saw the embankment of rocks cut to the size of cinder blocks and set into the hill on his right.
“Let’s keep going,” Stevenus said. “Once we get to a ridge we should be able to see where we are.”
Higher and higher they climbed. Panic welled in Terry like an over-flowing storm drain. He knew they should’ve never come onto that path—it was too easy!
At last they reached a level area with an outcrop that afforded a wide view of the valley below. “This isn’t the same place,” Terry said, his voice shaking. This wasn’t any valley they’d crossed, nor was such a valley marked on the map Stevenus had taken. No sign of the mountain with the tower and the red light, either. Yet they should be able to see it from here. “How did we lose that trail?”
“I thought you never got lost,” Stevenus said, a sneer lurking beneath, rising slowly to the surface with each word. “Didn’t you say you practically had a GPS system in your head?”
“A compass,” he said in a tone that hopefully conveyed, go hike off a cliff. A river still snaked far below, and they were still somewhere up high, but he had no idea where. If someone were to offer him a million dollars to point in the vague direction of Archon Castle, or the dwarves’ village, he’d be unable to. Terry was totally lost. It was a sensation he’d never felt before in his life. It was like trying to get out of bed and finding your feet no longer worked and your legs refused to support your weight, or the floor had disappeared. It was like opening your eyes and not being able to see a thing, even shadows or vague outlines. He began pacing around in a tight circle, feeling so wired he could probably power a city with all his excess anxious energy.
Katya stopped him and wrapped an arm around his waist, pressing her head into his chest. “I’ve been feeling disoriented too. Almost dizzy the past hour or so. It isn’t just you.”
Stevenus studied the map again, a puzzled frown on his face. “I don’t understand,” he mumbled. “These steps aren’t on here. Nor was that bridge. Which in hindsight, we should have taken.”
Terry felt the air compress all around him. Fear spiked in him similar to stumbling into a blind alleyway only to turn around and see two armed thugs blocking the only way out. He wanted to run, anywhere, just to get away from where he was standing, but his own feet had taken root in the loamy soil. “Stevenus, I—I—”
“I sense it too!” His voice shook like someone was gripping his neck and pressing their thumbs against his vocal cords. His wavering finger landed on a spot near the tunnel they’d emerged from. “So that’s what that mark was for! We’re in an enchanted vortex.”
“Vortex?” Katya snatched the map from him. Terry held one edge of the parchment sheet and shifted it until he could see the tiny black swirl Stevenus was referring to. It resembled a loose spring or a miniature tornado, and was only visible if the map was held at a particular angle.
“I missed it earlier, thinking it referred to something we didn’t need to pay heed to.” Stevenus closed his eyes, inhaled deeply through his nostrils, and held his breath in for several seconds. He exhaled and said, “Some parts of the woods are more enchanted than others. I should have known, once we left the dwarves, and especially after we came out through that tunnel. I say we head back down into the valley—we need to cross that river at some point, anyway.”
Without waiting for them, Terry began leaping and sliding back down the path. Let Stevenus carry that blasted sack for once. The reinforced steps were gone now, replaced by a delta of trails that twisted between the rocks and bushes like tree roots. Branches rustled next to him and Stevenus leapt ahead of him panting, “Something’s coming after us. Run!”
Terry scrambled down as fast as he could. A stone rolled underfoot, sending him skidding sideways into the underbrush. He grabbed onto a sapling, the bark scraping his fingers. Before he’d a chance to get back on his feet, Katya’s scream pierced the air.
“Katya!” He clambered back up and caught sight of a tall, shadowy figure speeding between the trees, carrying a squirming Katya under one of its arms. “Let her go!” Branches whipped his face as he raced uphill after her. She’d been captured by a being roughly five feet in height, but strong, and covered in layers of tattered grey robes. Terry dove, trying to grasp the trailing rags, but they slipped out of his fingers as if they’d been slicked with oil. Stevenus leapt over him and continued the chase.
“Give her back—she’s our friend!” Terry’s voice was hoarse. He scrambled after them, skidding on the fallen leaves covering the path. A stitch pierced his side. He slowed, pressing his fingers into where it hurt most intensely, though it did nothing to ease the pain. His lungs felt raw. The damp air stank of musty, rotting foliage.
He stared up and around, baffled. It was as if time had lurched forward into autumn. The trees blazed orange and yellow. Overhead, black branches formed a skeletal canopy of gnarled fingers. Rustling to his left alerted him and he spotted Stevenus, still in pursuit of Katya and her captor. By the time Terry caught up to Stevenus, the Chosen One was doubled over, panting heavily, his face red and dripping with sweat.
“A witch. Got her. Couldn’t. Run fast enough.”
“Do you know where she took her?”
Stevenus nodded. “Let’s. Catch our breath first.” He and Terry sat on a nearby fallen log to rest. His heart pounded in his chest and his body felt sticky with sweat. He legs ached. He dreaded getting up again but they had to rescue Katya before the witch ... He didn’t dare think about what the old crone had in store for her. He’d read his share of gruesome, unabridged Brothers Grimm tales.
“The witch. Allowed me. To see which way she went,” Stevenus said, still panting. “Presumably to trap us, too. Knowing we’d never. Leave without. Katya.”
“Just as well if we wait a bit, then. Let her get antsy waiting for us to appear.” It was all Terry could do to stop himself from racing up in the direction he’d seen them heading. Trying to convince himself more than Stevenus he added, “If we sit out here long enough, she might grow impatient and begin searching for us.”
He looked up and the grey clouds had thinned somewhat. The sun dangled in the sky like a chandelier crystal. It didn’t even look spherical, but cut from stone in hexagonal facets. He stood again, growing impatient. “I can’t just sit here doing nothing. Let’s go find her. And search for a good weapon on the way.”
“I’m ready.” Stevenus led the way through a dense forest of birch trees with their white, papery trunks. They’d just turned onto a slightly wider trail when the witch emerged from behind a tree, blocking their way.