He lead them down a different glowing passageway this time, into a cavern fit for a Fae Lord. Pendulous white crystals jutted up from beneath the ground and traveled in long diagonals until they were lost in shadow. A single opening in the vaulted ceiling sent shafts of sunlight piercing that glassy surface of a subterranean lake. Prehistoric ferns, colorful mosses, and otherworldly flora ringed the pool and completed the alien landscape.
The travelers stood for a moment in awed silence.
The Keeper placed a hand on Jimmy’s shoulder. “You had questions?”
“Yes,” answered the boy, stumbling at the words in embarrassment “I— I see things…”
“What sort of things are we talking about,” answered the Keeper, eyes fixed on the color splashed surface of the lake.
“Creatures. Winged. Like giant bats?” Jimmy’s gut knotted as he waited for the Keeper to answer.
“Hmmm…Not very many people can see them.”
“You mean they’re real!”
“Yes. Not always active, mind. Mostly they form the Mist that separates Riven Valley from the rest of the world. But there have been times…a few important junctions in last century, where they’ve caused a good bit of mischief. The She’dim are tormentors, their only power lies in what we give them, but that doesn’t stop them from instigating a great deal of ill. Have you seen very many?” The Keeper turned toward Jimmy as he spoke.
“They are all over, and great clouds of them flying around the edges of town.”
“It’s too early…, I’m not sure what this means.”
“Too early for what?”
“Quickly, now. Time is short. He took the pocket watch from his brown waistcoat and inspected it’s face. The hands spun quickly forward, stopped, then ran backward. Keeper skirted the childen around the edge of the lake. He reached for a recess in the wall near the dimly lit back of the cavern. His arm disappeared up to the elbow within the crevice.
“There.” Keeper said as something within the crevice clicked.
The room shook. Jimmy steadied himself against the wall as the whole vault rumbled. A massive section of stone slowly swung upward and left them blinking in bright light.
They stepped into a tiled archway. Daylight streamed in high above them, dappling the checkerboad pattern of the tiles. The shaking increased, then faded below them.
“ What was that?” Jimmy asked
“The train. We’re early, though. Days earlier then we ought to be.”
“Uhm…There’s no trains that run in all of Riven Valley. I don’t think there’s ever been one.”
“We are not, per say, in Riven Valley anymore.”
Where are we?
Jimmy looked up at the sculpted arches of the ceiling above him and grazed an unfeeling hand against the wall. He listened as his Shell scratched lihtly against the surface. “Outside?”
A wry smile twisted the Keepers rough face. “In the cavern. Outside Time and Space, at least, as you know it. Crossings get tricky though. Have to keep everything properly lined up. Can’t be early. Can’t be late.”
“It’s easier just to show you.” The Keeper spun the knob atop his watch. The walls and ceiling distorted, wobbled, waved and melted…
Patience Torch, ten year old girl, walked past the churchyard, with its new earth turned up, announcing more graves dug through the night. A cool wind picked up as she came to the Miller’s home place, the first spot she thought to look for Goodwife Croft. She hadn’t had the heart to tell her mother that the Miller family had taken ill, only yesterday. Patience half wished her father and the other men would hurry back from their fishing trip up north. Maybe they tried, but couldn’t make it through the fog. The other half of her wished them away until the mysterious illness passed. The ten year old girl didn’t know how she’d live if she lost both of her parents. It was only a matter of time before her mother fell ill.
Patience arrived at the Miller’s cottage and peeked through the door. The wise woman hunched wearily over a bubbling pot, dipping rags into the oil and herbs. When they cooled sufficiently, but not too much, she laid the hot rags on the chest of a coughing boy. Patience recognized him as one of her younger brother’s playmates, and offered yet another silent prayer heavenward.
Goodwife Croft gave her a knowing look. “We’ll be needing more than prayers, child”.
Patience’s breath caught in her throat. “Is there something I can do to help?”
“Aye child, there is, but it will take every ounce of faith and strength that you have in you. Are ye willing?”
“Yes ma’am. If there is ANYTHING I can do to help, than by God’s strength, I’ll do it.”
“Can ye ride?”
“Good. We sent for help a fortnight ago, and none’s came. ‘Bout run out of ideas here, be doing the best that I can, but it is not much. There’s a foreign physician of some fame, settled in the port town just over the mountain. Sent the Cooper boy, but I’ve not seen hide nor hair of him since. I imagine that between the fog on the mountain, and the snow, they haven’t found the pass. Need you to go up, missy. Know ye where Crow’s Peak is? Light a watch fire there. If ye light the watch fire at Crow’s Peak, them that’s left in the other settlements will light their watch fires. Should be enough to help any rescuers coming our way to find the pass.
“I can try,” the girl said, squaring her shoulders and lifting herself to full height.
Little snowflakes drifted through the fog, lost and alone, as Goodwife Croft prepared Patience for the arduous trip. The girl shivered beneath her cloak and bonnet. The old woman hoisted Patience onto a small pony. Through a loop in the saddle Goodwife Croft stuck a long pole. At the end of the pole, a lantern bravely illuminated the falling snow.
The woman placed a withered hand on the girls arm, bowed her head and raised a gentle brogue skyward.
“As you go on your way,
May the Lord Jesus Christ go with you.
May He be near you to defend you;
May he go before you to show you the way;
beside you ;
above you ;
and within you.
May the blessing of light be on you—
light without and light within.
May the blessed Son shine on you
and warm your heart
till it glows like a great peat fire.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
With that she smacked the pony on the rump and sent Patience on her way.
The sun set. Patience’s shivering grew worse. Tree branches grabbed and clawed at her cloak, putting her in mind of dark phantasms. Tears threatened at the corners on Patience’s eyes. What did she think she was doing? She was only a little girl, lost and alone in the night. A ghostly fog still hung thick in the air, the girl was only hoped he was still headed in the right direction. As the horse trudged along, sad grey thoughts kept cadence in her mind. Someone older should have come. This was a job for a grown person. I’ll probably get lost and freeze to death. What makes me think I am up to the task? Her small body slumped in despair. Even if she did light the watch fire, would it break through the thick gloom? Would the rescuers brave the snow to find them? The path, covered now in new fallen snow, had risen steadily for the past hour. A light breeze picked up and seemed to whisper its doubts into the girls mind She was so cold. So tired. If she could just sleep. Her body slumped further on the horse. Her eyelids grew heavy. The pony stopped as the reigns went slack.
A cardinal, perhaps drawn by the light of her lantern, flitted onto the nags head. “What is a cardinal doing here, in the middle of the night?,” the girl wondered. “Cheer, cheer,” it called, as cardinals have since creation. It was soon joined by a second cardinal, another male with jaunty red feathers, then another. As Patience closed her eyes, they sat on the pony’s head, chirping and calling to each other, the “cheer, cheer” of their birdsong intent on robbing the girl of her sleep. Patience sat up and looked at them crossly. The too bright birds hopped and called and danced about on the pony’s head. Somehow, their cheerful voices drowned out dark wind whispers. The girl sat up again and strained her eyes against the gloom and darkness. The trail leading to Crow’s Nest should be coming soon by her best figuring. Patience grasped the lantern pole and prayed that she wouldn’t miss it.
A piercing howl rose in the distance. It was followed by more hungry calls. The pony whinnied nervously, eyes growing wide. Suddenly, the pony rose up on its back legs. Patience tumbled to the ground, the pole still in her hands, the lantern still burning. The horse bolted out of site. The cardinals flitted around the prone girl. Patience rose lowly. Her entire body hurt, but she reckoned nothing was broken, only bruised. She noticed the lantern lying prone and quickly righted it. A cardinal remained and perched on her shoulder as she stood. Another howl shrieked, a little closer this time.
“Cheer, cheer,” the cardinal answered the gloom of night.
Patience rubbed frightened tears from her eyes with the back of her hand and held the lantern pole a little higher. She shuffled one foot in front of the other. The girl’s cloak stuck in a tangle of bramble, half covered with snow. As she struggled to wretch it free, Patience spied the trailhead leading to Crow’s Nest.
The howling of the wolves grew louder. Patience could almost hear panting and lobbing feet chasing her through the fog…