The Forbidden Path
The smoke was acrid, and it filled John’s nose, mouth, and lungs. Desperately, he covered his head with his arms and burrowed more deeply into the muddy French soil.
The shelling had been relentless. And just as it seemed the travails could grow no worse, the telltale fog of the Gas came wafting malevolently through the shattered trees.
Screaming, John leaped to his feet and began to run, only to be caught up in the rolls of concertina wire that had been strung along the rear trenches. All around him were bloated bodies of the dead, lying in a landscape blackened, stripped bare of life. Helplessly, he could only watch as the Gas crept closer, accompanied by the increasingly thunderous sound of the artillery: Boom. Boom. Boom…
“John!” said a voice he knew, but it was not that of any soldier in his battalion. “John, for God’s sake, pull yourself together!”
John shook his head, blinking, as he came to his senses and his vision cleared. Charles was grasping him by the shoulders, shaking him and shouting his name. His other companions were making their way to the exit under the sparse cover of the boxfronts of the seats. Incredulous, he looked around at the maelstrom of weapon play, flames, grappling bodies, and furious shouting that had moments before been the Grand Council.
There was no sign of the goblins; and the last of the elves were just departing under the cover of the northern arch. The dwarves had spread across the gallery and had begun hurling explosive bundles at the troll delegates, as more and more trolls flooded through the southern and eastern entrances. The trolls had clambered into the center seats and had smashed the members of the Clockwork Parliament to pieces. In the uppermost part of the gallery, bellowing directions to his arriving reinforcements, was the Troll Prince Arawn.
More than one treachery had been planned for that day, it seemed.
“That’s why there were so many ships in the harbor,” Aven said to Bert. “The Trolls planned a revolt no matter what happened in the Council.”
Bert nodded in agreement, as he and Charles supported the dazed John under his shoulders and moved lower toward the western arch. “The Steward of Paralon just beat them to the punch,” he said. “This may be the Archipelago’s undoing.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Jack said, scowling at John.
“The explosions,” Charles said. “He’s gone into a bit of battle shock.”
“I’ll be all right,” John said, attempting to regain his footing. “Really.”
Aven glared and Jack’s eyes narrowed in disgust as John shook off Charles and Bert’s assistance. “Let’s get out of here,” Aven hissed through gritted teeth, “before the whole place comes down around our ears.”
The companions raced down the corridor toward the avenue where they’d left Tummeler and his vehicle. Around them members of all the races ran about, trying to ascertain what had happened. Behind them, in the Great Hall, there were more explosions, and the smell of smoke.
“The trolls will almost certainly have blockaded the harbor,” said Aven. “Our best bet is to try to get out of the city proper, and then circle back when the tumult’s died down.”
“If it dies down,” said Jack.
“What of the Indigo Dragon?” asked Charles, panting. “Will it be torched?”
“No,” said Aven. “She can take care of herself. She’ll already be out of harm’s way.”
They reached the end of the corridor, bursting through the doors and into the open, where Tummeler already had the Curious Diversity waiting, its engine running.
“Quickly!” Tummeler shouted. “Master scowlers! Get in, get in!”
In a confusion of limbs the companions threw themselves into the seats of the principle. “North!” Aven shouted. “Take us north!”
Tires squealing, Tummeler pulled onto the northern thoroughfare and sped away from the towers.
It took several minutes to actually escape the confines of the walled city, and several minutes more to pass the last of the outposts where they might have been stopped. As luck would have it, all of the guards and sentries that might have held them in their flight had gone toward the heart of the conflict at the Great Hall.
John’s earlier panic had subsided into a feverish slumber, interrupted only by occasional shakes of his limbs.
“Fever dreams, that is,” Tummeler said, looking over his shoulder and clucking his tongue. “What ails master John?”
Talking in turns, Bert and Aven explained to Tummeler what had taken place at the Grand Council. When they got to the part about the Parliament, the small mammal cut in and changed the subject.
“Ah, I knowed there be trouble afoot, once I heard it wuz Arawn come t’ speak fer th’ Trolls,” said Tummeler. “But enough of th’ worries. I be taking you somewheres calmer, somewheres safe.”
As he said this, he steered the Curious Diversity off of the main road and onto an unpaved tributary that sprouted off to the west. It led to the mouth of a canyon that creased the upper part of the plateau line, and was, Bert pointed out, supposed to be off limits to everyone.
“Not t’ th’ animals,” said Tummeler. “This be a road known to us and few others, and since the royal family was kilt, only to us.”
“A forbidden path?” said Charles. “Why is it forbidden?”
“Because,” said Bert, “it leads to the remnants of the old city, the first city, which was built when Artigel sat upon the Silver Throne. The greater city was expanded upon and through the mountain when the first alliance with the Dwarves was made, but the original still exists—in fact, it houses the royal archive and library, unless I’m mistaken.”
“But,” said Charles, “won’t we get into trouble?”
“Heh,” Aven snorted. “More trouble than what we just left? I doubt it. Besides, I don’t think there is anyone left in power who will care, forbidden or not.”
“The advantage of following forbidden paths,” Tummeler said, nodding, “is that no one will follow after.”
“That’s terrible logic,” said Charles.
“No,” said Tummeler. “That’s animal logic.”
John awoke to the sound of something snuffling loudly around his face, and he sat up with a start. The snuffling was Tummeler, who was kneading his small paws and peering closely at him.
“Master John, be ye awake?” the animal said, a note of genuine concern in his voice. “Be ye all right, master scowler?”
“I be, ah, that is, I’m all right,” said John, attempting to lift himself up on his elbows. He was lying across the rear seats of the Curious Diversity. Nearby, Bert and Charles were talking closely, and Aven and Jack were also keeping counsel of their own a little farther on.
They had stopped near a spring, in a clearing that was sparsely wooded with thin, scraggly trees, at the cleft of the canyon. The sun was still high in the sky. The entire fiasco of the Grand Council and their flight from the city had taken scarcely an hour.
Bug sat in the front seat of the principle, face tense with concentration.
“The others,” he said without turning. “They said you were a knight, back in the world you come from? That you saw battle, and that’s what’s making you sick?”
“I’m a soldier,” John said, sitting upright. “That’s like a knight, I suppose. And yes, I became sick during the war. It still troubles me at times.”
Bug turned to look at him. “They said the memory made you ill. How can a memory make you sick?”
John paused, unsure how to answer. “I had friends,” he said finally. “Friends who died, right before my eyes. And I feared for my own life. That kind of fear, once a man has experienced it, never fully goes away. Do you understand?”
Bug didn’t reply, but swallowed hard and turned away. John got the feeling that yes, the boy did understand—perhaps more than any of them could know.
At Tummeler’s direction, the companions began to walk through the canyon, heading west. “This is a continuation of th’ road,” Tummeler explained, “that leads to where we be goin’.”
“We should be continuing north,” argued Aven. “We don’t have time for this.”
“And when we get back to the ship, where then?” Bert admonished. “We have no guide, and the Winter King can only be strengthened by the chaos of the Council. He’ll still be looking for the Geographica—and us. Perhaps here we can find someone to translate the Imaginarium Geographica—and maybe restore some semblance of order to the lands before all is lost.”
The others nodded in agreement, save for John, who hung his head in shame. He had never felt so useless, and would have said so, if it weren’t for the fear that not one of his friends would dispute it.
As they walked, Bert explained that when the Silver Throne was created, alliances had yet to be formed. “There was a loose fealty to Arthur, but his children had a harder row to hoe,” he said. “The Dwarves were first to form a pact with the king, then the Goblins. The Elves were next, in an alliance formed by marriage—and then, much later, the Trolls. During that time, Artigel found it useful to have a seat of power that could be defended and protected. This canyon was the ideal place.
“The consent of the Four Kingdoms, represented by the four major races—the Trolls, the Elves, the Goblins, and the Dwarves—to be ruled by Men was predicated on the continuity of rule,” said Bert. “It’s because of the Parliament that they have allowed an empty throne for so long. And even then, only because the Steward was governing at their behest.”
“The Steward of Paralon,” said John. “He seemed familiar somehow.”
“After all of the assorted characters we’ve seen,” said Jack, “any human would seem familiar.”
“Not like that,” said John. “I’m quite certain I’ve seen him somewhere before. I wish I’d gotten a closer look….”
“Never mind,” said Bert. “He fled before anyone else. It’s all but certain that he had something to do with the deception of the Clockwork Parliament.”
At this, Tummeler clicked his teeth nervously but kept his eyes on the path ahead.
“There,” said Tummeler at last. “There she be.”
He gestured ahead at the steep rock face of the canyon, where an enormous edifice seemed to have been carved into the stone itself, in much the same manner as Paralon. It was rougher, cruder, but bore the same unmistakable craftsman-ship. A great framework of stone and iron was inset into the southern wall of the canyon, and two huge wooden doors within that. Above, wrapped protectively around the upper part of the doors, was a stone bas-relief of a dragon, surrounded by exotic golden lettering.
“Elvish,” Tummeler stated, as Bert nodded in agreement.
“How do we get in?” Jack asked, examining the doors. “There doesn’t seem to be a handle or keyhole.”
“Perhaps the inscription is a magical instruction,” said Charles. “Remember where we are, and how things work in this place.”
“I don’t suppose you can read that,” Jack said to John, who scowled, face reddening.
“Jack,” Charles admonished. “Mr. Tummeler brought us here—I’m sure he can facilitate our entry.”
“Oh, drat and darn,” said Tummeler. “I’ve forgotten the magic word again.”
“What does the writing say?” John asked, not quite daring to touch the inscriptions, which were deeply engraved into the granite, yet were worn smooth with extreme age.
“It’s Elvish,” Tummeler repeated. “It says, basically, ‘Declare allegiance, and be welcomed.’”
“Well, doesn’t it perhaps mean that the magic word that opens the door is ‘allegiance’?” said Jack. “In Elvish?”
“That’s a stupid idea,” said John. “Then anyone who spoke Elvish could get in.”
“Pr’cisely,” said Tummeler. “No, it be an actuated magic word. One of the oldest magic words there be. It was made so by one of th’ great Elven Kings of old, called Eledin, he be.”
“Eledin?” said Charles. “That’s close to ‘Aladdin,’” he said, waving his hand across the doors. “If only it was that easy—to simply say, ‘Alakazam.’”
With a low groaning of wood and metal, the giant oaken doors cracked apart and slowly began to spread open.
“Y’ know the sacred magic word,” said Tummeler, eyes wide with respect. “Y’ be a true scowler, master Charles.”
“Good show, Charles,” said Jack.
“Bravo,” said Bert.
“That shouldn’t have worked,” said John. “It was supposed to be Ali Baba and ‘Open Sesame.’”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” said Charles.
There were several skeletons strewn about the entryway, robed in various styles of clothing. A few of the remains were misshapen, the bones either too short or elongated and overly large. It was Jack who realized that not all of the remains were human.
“Does everyone still think this is a good idea?” Jack said. “It looks as if other adventurers weren’t entirely successful at getting very far.”
“Oh, don’t mind the bones,” said Tummeler. “The Archivist keeps ’em about to give th’ place atmosphere.”
“Scared, Jack?” Aven said with a mischievous grin.
He straightened his posture and stepped forward. “No.”
With Jack leading the way, the companions moved down the corridor, which was as tall as the doors and lit by the supernatural glow of runes engraved in the walls some ten feet above their heads.
“More Elvish,” said Bert.
The corridor opened into a broad cavern that was honey-combed with holes, each of which was filled with books, or artifacts, or in some cases, gold and jewels.
“Hello?” said Tummeler. “Is anyone there?”
“Welcome,” rumbled a deep, smoky voice. “I hope you’ve come by for a cup of tea, because those are the only kind of visitors I permit here anymore.
“Otherwise,” the voice continued, “I’m going to have to kill you all.”
“Will you drink with me? Or do you want to plunder, and die?”