In Which Feeling Good and Strong Is Not Enough
K it landed with a jolt that rattled his bones from ankle to skull, then crashed headlong onto a path soft with alder leaves and pine needles. Heart racing, blood pounding in his temples, his breath coming in gulps and gasps, he braced himself for the wave of nausea that, when it came, was a mere ripple that passed through his gut and disappeared. Not so bad, he thought. Maybe I’m getting used to this.
He lay for a moment, listening. Bubbling up from somewhere below, he could hear running water-a stream peacefully slipping and sliding over smooth stones-a calm, agreeable sound. Mixed with intermittent birdcalls from the trees round about, it immediately put Kit at ease. There was neither sign nor sound of pursuit. He had succeeded in eluding Burleigh and his mob.
When his vision cleared, Kit lifted his head and looked around. A woodland path lay arrow straight before him, slanting down at a fairly steep angle. Rising in the distance, directly opposite, was a curtain of grey-white rock, mottled green with moss, shrubs, and small trees-the sheer wall of an enormous limestone gorge a few hundred yards away. It was, he decided with considerable relief, the very place Wilhelmina had told him about.
The air was crisp and cool, the sun directly overhead, but pale in a sky of silver haze. It felt like autumn to him-something about the scent of dry leaves and the tang in the breeze put him in mind of October, a month he had always ranked high among his favourites. He climbed to his feet, thinking, Now, to find a comfortable spot to wait for Mina to show up. The way the girl played fast and loose with time, he reckoned he would not have to wait long.
Glancing around, he made a quick survey of the immediate vicinity and spotted a rock ledge jutting out from the sloping wall beside the trail; dry and flat, it seemed as good a place as any. He walked over, brushed off the fallen leaves, and sat down. The ley lamp, still warm in his hand, was dark now, and the animating warmth fading fast. An intriguing device made of burnished brass, with a row of little lights along one gently curved side, it was about the size and shape of the average potato, and it looked more than a little like an ocarina-one of those funny little musical instruments introduced in middle school music class. The smooth metal surface was incised with ornate swirly lines radiating out from a button-sized knob below a slightly larger circular hole covered by a crystal lens. Resisting the urge to twist the knob to see what would happen, he instead stuffed the device back into his pocket and settled himself on the stone bench, where his thoughts soon turned back to the harrowing chase he had just endured: Burleigh on his horse, the horse rearing, the gunshots, Giles suddenly on the ground urging him away, the mad dash through the dark wood along the river, stumbling onto the ley… it had all happened so fast he had reacted on instinct.
Now that he had time to think, what he thought was that he was probably extremely lucky to be alive, and he hoped Giles had survived too, and that the wound was not too bad. He wondered how Wilhelmina would deal with this kink in the plan. No doubt she had a remedy ready at hand and was already employing it.
The day was warm, and after cooling his heels for a while, listening to the drone of bees working the poppies and dog roses growing along the slope, Kit grew drowsy and decided to walk to the top of the path, have a little look around, keep himself awake, and see if he could tell where in the world he might be. Not that it mattered very much; he did not plan on remaining here long. It was more just something to do while he waited.
The path up to the top was steep, and he was sweating by the time he reached the trail’s beginning, where a broad plain of low, gentle hills rising and falling in heavily wooded waves greeted him. There were no roads, no towns, no fields, not a hint of human habitation anywhere-only the fading green and gold of an autumn woodland in every direction as far as the eye could see.
A track through long grass joined the trail leading down into what Kit now realised was a very substantial canyon. He followed the grass path a few dozen yards to a place where it divided into several more trails-one to the left, one to the right, one leading into the wood directly ahead. He took this one and was soon strolling through a very pleasant grove of ash, larch, birch, and alder with a few beech and walnut scattered throughout. The air was heavy with the scent of leaves and moist soil, and a pungent animal smell. But if there were any creatures about, they kept themselves hidden.
When the path divided again, he took the right-hand way and continued through an unvarying landscape of trees interspersed now and again with small clearings or meadows. Although he kept his eyes peeled for the merest hint of human activity, he did not spot anything more substantial than a trail made by animal feet, much less a road. Realising he might trek for hours this way, he abandoned his excursion and turned around, retracing his steps to the track leading down into the gorge.
Kit descended at a steady pace and, upon passing the place where he had landed, pulled out Mina’s ley lamp. The little lights remained dark, the instrument cold in his hand. He shoved the gismo back into his pocket with the thought that, some leys being more time sensitive than others, the ley was obviously dormant for the moment. He would check it again later.
His walk had made him sweaty and thirsty, so he resumed his excursion and followed the old straight track down to the river at the bottom of the gorge. A few dozen yards from the ley, the trail widened, losing the arrow-straight line as it followed the natural undulating curves of the cliffs down and down into the valley. The walls were marked with striated bands of grey-and-white stone-limestone and shale laid down in ribbons and layers over countless millennia. As the surrounding rock walls rose ever higher around him, Kit had a sensation of riding an escalator down through successive ages of time, each layer another eon or so.
Eventually the path ended in a bowl formed by a wide, lazy bend in the small river that picked its way among boulders the size of cars and garden sheds littering the centre floor of the valley. On either side of the river lay a wide grassy verge; along the low banks were reed beds and scrub oak, and small bushes and trees. Here on the valley floor, the air was warmer and more humid.
Hopping from one large stone to the next, he worked his way along the river’s edge until he found a small pool, clear as glass. Kneeling, he scooped up cupped handfuls and drank his fill of sweet, fresh water. He sat down and let the pale sunlight drench him. In a little while, he was dozing…
Kit came awake with the sharp realisation that he had fallen asleep in a place where Wilhelmina would not know to look for him. He rose quickly and made a hasty return to the place he had landed earlier, driven by a sense of exasperated urgency. Jogging along, worried about missing Wilhelmina, he at first failed to notice that the smell he had encountered up in the wooded hills had appeared again. The moment the scent registered, he stopped and looked around, sniffing the air. Stronger now, it was unmistakeable: a rich, earthy pong redolent of fur and sweat, blood and musk-the scent of the bier and kennel, the sty and stable, den and warren. Despite these associations, the odour was not entirely disagreeable. In fact, there was a wildness about it that stirred him strangely; had he been a hound, he imagined his nose would be quivering and his hackles would be raised.
Out of the blue, the thought occurred to him that perhaps whatever he was smelling might be smelling him.
Kit moved on, more quickly this time, casting frequent glances behind him. Although he saw nothing, he grew increasingly certain that there was something behind him.
Calm down. You’re letting your imagination run wild.
He forced himself to pause and take a deep breath.
There, that’s better.
The thought was still winging through his mind when he heard the crackle of dry leaves. He shot a swift glance behind and glimpsed a grey shape fading into the deep-shadowed greenery along the curtain wall of the gorge-a mere flicker of movement, and then it was gone.
So silent, so quick. In a moment, he was not even sure he had seen it. Again he tried to shrug it off; he moved on, forcing himself to proceed more quietly. Even so, he could not easily shake the feeling that he was being followed.
Every few steps, at random intervals, he cast a backwards glance to see if he could catch sight of the shadow again. He saw nothing, but the silence of the gorge had begun to exert an uncanny pressure of its own-as if the entire valley were holding its breath in expectation of something dire.
Okay, that’s just silly. There’s nothing there.
And then, just as he resumed his progress, he heard the unmistakable snap of a dry branch beneath a heavy foot. Whirling towards the sound, he thought that once again he saw a shudder of movement-a shadow fading into shadow. Swift and silent, but… massive. And this time he was certain he had seen it.
Certainty sent a sick dread snaking through his gut: he was being stalked. Into his mind burst an image of himself running, exhausted, chased by a pack of howling wolves until he fell and was ripped to bloody ribbons.
Before his fevered imagination could throw up another gruesome image, Kit lit out, skittering over the stone field along the river. Although it was rougher going, he decided to remain out in the open where he could see around him rather than take to the tree-lined marge where the thing stalking him had the camouflage advantage of shadows and timber. This decision sat well with him until he glimpsed, on the other side of the river, sloping through the trees, another shadowy shape keeping pace with him.
Kit was running flat out now, little caring that he was easily visible to the creatures stalking him. His feet flew over the uneven bed of water-smoothed stones of all sizes, clumsy in his haste, heedless of all but the driving need to distance himself from the pursuit.
In his flight, he blew past the turning that led up to the ley line trail. But he gradually became aware that he was no longer in territory he had seen before; the valley was the same-only different now. Glancing around desperately, he saw that the curtain walls of the gorge had opened out; the river was wider here, and more shallow, dancing across the rocky bed in ripples a few inches deep.
“Where’s the bloody trail?” he muttered.
Unwilling to backtrack to find it, he felt impelled to move on. He began looking for a place to hide and was heartened to see that the trees were larger here, the surrounding wood thicker. When the river kinked around another sharp bend, Kit decided to abandon the waterway and take to the trees. Almost at once he struck a wide path of bare earth; it snaked through the wood, passing around the boles of the larger oaks and larches. It was easier to run here, and he determined to put some distance between himself and his pursuers. He leaned into his stride and flew like a mad thing for freedom.
His feet pounded a mantra with every step: I feel good. I feel strong. I feel good. I feel strong.
Indeed, he was feeling good and strong right up until the split second he tumbled into the trap.
In the space between one step and the next, the ground gave way beneath him and he plunged through empty air. Time seemed to expand, and everything became almost unbearably clear: the golden motes adrift in shafts of sunlight, the clean-etched tendrils of a fern, a yellow butterfly hovering above a white flower with slow beats of its delicate wings, a blackbird taking flight from a branch overhead… All the world seemed to pause on a long intake of breath.
His first fleeting thought was that he had somehow made a ley leap. And then the walls of the pit closed around him, and he landed in a heap in the half light of a deep, square hole with a mass of broken twigs and leaves showering over him.
The force of his rude landing drove the wind out of him. He lay gagging, trying to draw breath but unable to make his lungs work properly. His vision grew dim and hazy. Then, when it seemed he would implode for lack of oxygen, his breath returned with a whoosh and he lay spent and wheezing like a broken bellows.
On his back, looking up at a perfectly square patch of blue sky framed by the dirt walls of the hole in which he lay, Kit took a quick mental inventory of himself. Aside from the mighty thump of the deadfall jolt that had knocked the breath out of him, there was no pain. A good sign, he thought. He patted himself down; he still had Mina’s ley lamp and Sir Henry’s green book safely tucked away and, so far as he could tell, all his faculties. He raised one hand, then the other, and waved them both around. He shook out his legs. All seemed in working order. No broken bones, then.
The light in the pit dimmed as he was taking stock, and he looked skyward to see that a face had appeared in the square opening above him. At the first glimpse of that face, he froze-not in fear, but stark astonishment. For it was a face at once familiar, yet utterly foreign; Kit recognised it instantly, but knew he had never seen it in the flesh before. The face peering down at him was attached to a swarthy, rugged, square head covered with a heavy pelt of hair so thick and matted it looked like yak fur. And the features were those of a clumsily executed caricature. In fact, if those same features had been carved out of timber with an ax, the result would have been nearly identical-except for the eyes. And it was the eyes in that face that astonished him and held him fast: big dark eyes so quick and intelligent and expressive they could only belong to a creature of at least modest self-awareness.
The fact that the creature seemed to be as surprised to see Kit as Kit was to see it completed the circle of amazement. He lay gazing up at that rough-hewn face, and with a childlike fascination, the sense of wonder was so overpowering it drove out all fear. Kit simply forgot to be afraid.