“Certainly. Your present course will bring you there in time.”
Julianna shivered again, this time with happiness. A town of some kind, along the river. And if she understood the wrinkled old monk properly, Oliver would have almost had to stop there.
“Thank you,” she said. “So very much.”
“Not at all,” he replied, fingering the holes upon his flute. “The truth is freely given. But surely you must be hungry, yes?”
Something about the glint in his eyes when he said this gave Julianna pause. But Halliwell’s face lit up.
“Starved,” the detective said. “I don’t suppose you have—”
“Certainly,” the monk said.
With his flute in one hand, he leaped easily down from the rock, faster and more agile than seemed possible for one so ancient. When he stood before them, Julianna was startled by his size. He had looked small there upon his perch, but now she saw he truly was no larger than a child, perhaps four feet tall at most.
Halliwell seemed at ease, a grateful expression on his face. She wondered if the wrinkled little man’s age and size had caught the detective off guard. Certainly, he did not seem to pose any threat. His music had been beautiful, his face beatific, his voice calming. He had been nothing but kind and helpful.
But what had that meant: The truth is freely given?
The sprightly little man slipped behind the rock and emerged with a knapsack of the same gray cloth as his tunic. He set it on the ground, unlaced the ties, and reached inside, withdrawing first a small loaf of bread and then a single banana. Crumbs fell from the bread as he held it out, offering it to Halliwell.
Julianna frowned, staring at the banana. It was perfectly yellow, ripe, with only a hint of green at the stem. There was not a trace of a bruise on it, not a brown blemish on the peel.
The old man was traveling as well. This was just a stop along the way for him. If he was carrying food supplies, unless he had taken the banana off a nearby tree, it seemed incredible to her that it would be so perfect.
Small, wrinkled brown hands held out the bread and the banana. Halliwell wore a neighborly smile as he reached out to take them.
The truth is freely given.
Which meant some things were not given so freely.
Halliwell was about to pluck the food from the old monk’s hands. He glanced sidelong at Julianna, one eyebrow rising in a question.
“Don’t take them,” she said.
The old man’s eyes narrowed and he reached to put the banana in one of Halliwell’s outstretched hands. Julianna lunged forward, slapping at the old man’s wrist and knocking the banana from his grip. It struck the ground, where it instantly changed, transforming first into a flute, and then into a pale yellow serpent with a line of green diamond scales running down its back.
“What the hell?” Halliwell snapped, as the snake hissed and coiled, drawing its head back as though to strike. But it only swayed and watched them.
Halliwell and Julianna both backed away from the monk, staring at him. The detective’s hands bunched into fists.
“It’s in every fairy tale, Ted. Every legend,” she said, heart hammering in her chest. Julianna licked her dry lips and stared at the old man, who only regarded them coolly, still with that benevolent expression that had lulled them. “Meet a stranger on the road, you never take anything from them. Nothing. Especially not food. It costs something in those stories, and the cost is always something terrible.”
As they stared at him, the monk blinked once, and then he laughed softly. His grin widened.
The sides of his face split, mouth spreading so far that the entire top of his head tilted back like it was on a hinge. His mouth stretched from ear to ear, and within were rows of yellow, crooked teeth. The front ones seemed ordinary enough, but the others were jagged fangs, long and thin, some of them broken and pitted.
When he spoke, his voice was like the hiss of the snake.
“How fortunate for you that the woman is with you,” the monk said. “And unfortunate for me. I would have had your right hand in trade, friend. And her body for my pleasure, had she partaken.”
Horror shook Julianna, yet the danger seemed to have passed. The man made no move to attack, nor did the hissing snake upon the ground.
“We’ll be going now,” Halliwell said, and he took a step backward.
The snake hissed.
The monk laughed and bent down to scoop the serpent into his hand, where it became a harmless flute once again.
“If you insist,” he said, the words stretched out by the vastness of his jaws. In his left hand, he still held the small loaf of bread. “But the bread is real. Have it, if you would. Your prize for surviving. Freely given.”
Julianna’s breath caught in her throat. “Freely given,” she said, looking at Halliwell. “I don’t think he can break his word on that. There are rules.”
“To hell with rules,” Halliwell said, still staring at the monster. “No thanks. We’ll pass.”
Julianna agreed. As hungry as she was, she could not have eaten anything this creature touched. They backed away slowly, watching the little man and his sack and his grisly smile. Only when they were fifty yards away and he had made no move to follow did they turn and walk normally again. They went quickly, glancing back every few seconds.
When they had gone so far that they could no longer see the rock, or the old man and his flute, Halliwell let out a breath.
“I owe you,” he said.
“Not a problem. You do the same for me, okay? We’ve got to keep each other alive.”
Julianna put a hand on his back. The detective glanced at her, surprised by the gentle contact.
“We’re going to get home, Ted. We are.”
Halliwell nodded, but his eyes were haunted by the fear that Julianna was wrong.
At the eastern rim, Naga sentries awaited them. Oliver and Kitsune hurried away from the inn across that rickety bridge over the river. At the cliff wall, they climbed rope ladders that hung down from the edge. Kitsune reached the top first, but neither she nor the Naga sentries made any effort to help Oliver up out of the gorge. At the last moment, he was gripped with an urge to simply push off, to spread his arms and let himself freefall back down into the gorge, hundreds of feet, to hit the river, or worse, to crash into the roof of the inn or the balustrade of some better constructed bridge, breaking his fall and his back.
A helpless target. Better to be dead.
The Nagas held bows, just like the ones in the river tunnel, and he could hear the strings sing like harp chords as they were drawn back. The tips of arrows glinted in the sun as they followed the progress of their unwelcome visitors, ready to put an arrow in either of them. Borderkind or human, it did not matter to them. They were just doing their jobs.
The nearest Naga fluttered its wings and slithered closer to Oliver on its thick serpentine trunk. When he glanced worriedly at it, the Naga bowed its head once in farewell. A kind of deference was in its eyes, making Oliver more confused than ever.
Oliver paused to look back down into Twillig’s Gorge, far below. Someday, he hoped to return to this strange place, when there were fewer secrets and fewer people trying to kill him. It had sadly not lived up to its own legend. Twillig’s Gorge was supposed to be a place where fugitives fled, where anyone was safe, so long as they behaved themselves. He had read stories about Butch Cassidy’s Hole-in-the-Wall, and had imagined Twillig’s Gorge to be something like that.
But the world of the legendary had disappointed him. There were just as many lies, just as much betrayal and bullshit, on this side of the Veil as the other.
“Oliver. We must go,” Kitsune whispered.
He looked at the Nagas. Their wings fluttered and their jaws were tight, fingers twitching as though ready to unleash their arrows. Yes, it was most certainly time to get away from here.
Kitsune touched his elbow and he turned slowly. Her face remained partially hidden by her hood, as though she had retreated back into the solitary legend she was. No trace of a smile touched her lips, and that was a good thing. Had she smiled then, Oliver might have shouted at her, angry that she had not helped him fight Wayland Smith. And he did not want that tension between them. Obviously there were relationships here that he did not understand, perhaps a hierarchy of legends, or of Borderkind. Kitsune had treated Smith as though he was some kind of king, and how was Oliver supposed to argue with that?
They left Twillig’s Gorge behind.
Every time Oliver looked back, the sentries were still there, watching. He wondered if their bowstrings were still taut. Eventually he and Kitsune started down a craggy slope. When they could no longer see the Nagas, he finally felt the weight of their scrutiny lifted from him.
For nearly an hour they walked, first down that long craggy slope and then up a smaller, more gradual hill. When they reached its crest, Oliver saw that there was another—steeper, but even shorter—still ahead. Beyond that, however, he could make out the ribbon of a road unfurling across the plains ahead.
On that peak, they paused. Thanks to the mode of their departure, they had no food, no water. No supplies at all. But he was not going to complain. They had escaped with their lives—and in this case, that was enough.
He had been hungry and thirsty in the past few days. There had been worse moments. At least now they were doing something. They were in motion.
Coming to get you, Collette, he thought. Get you away from that thing. Hang on, sis.
As they started down, making their way carefully amongst loose rocks and scrub brush, he glanced at Kitsune. “You know where it is? The Sandcastle that Smith was talking about?”
The fox-woman nodded. “Across the hills and down to the plains, perhaps another hour’s walk from here, we’ll find the Orient Road. From there, I can find the Winding Way. But…”
“I thought only the legendary could travel the Winding Way. One version of the story says only tricksters can use it.”
Oliver stepped down from an outcropping of rock, loose stones and dirt tumbling down the slope. He paused and looked back up at Kitsune.
“Yeah. So you said. But Smith didn’t think that was as hard and fast a rule as you seem to. Why else would he tell us to go that way?”
Kitsune’s focus was upon the treacherous footing below, and she did not look at him. “I don’t know. But either way, our destination is east.”
Oliver frowned. Too many questions, too many rules—and too many of them seemed to be different for him than they were for others. The conversation Kitsune had overheard between Frost and Smith continued to perplex him. The insinuations contained within their words burrowed into his brain like insects—voracious and maddening.
“All right. The Orient Road, then. First stop. But before we take any shortcuts that we can’t turn back from, we need to talk about finding the Dustman.”
The sun had begun its climb into the sky in earnest. Oliver squinted against the glare as he descended. The Orient Road was not terribly far away, but in this heat, without water, it was going to be an unpleasant trek.
“The diversion will cause a delay.”
Oliver glanced at her. “Do you think we have a chance against the Sandman without help?”
Kitsune grimaced. Her jade eyes peered out from beneath the hood. The orange-red fur of her cloak gleamed in the sun, swaying around her, clinging to her as she walked. He thought about how much easier this descent would be for her in the body of the fox and wondered if she maintained a human form for his benefit.
“Then we have to find him.”
“Agreed,” Kitsune replied, though reluctantly. “But the Dustman is ever in motion, as though with the wind. The only way to encounter him is by chance, or by intruding upon his legend.”
A small stone rolled under Oliver’s weight and he slipped, nearly fell sprawling on his face down the slope. It was pure luck that he was able to arrest his tumble before that happened. His breath came ragged in his throat and he paused a moment to rest, hands on his knees.
“Intruding. Apparently I’m good at that. Of course, I don’t have a clue what you mean.”
At last, Kitsune smiled. It was as though some of the distance between them was dispelled. She threw her hood back and let the sun touch her face, shaking her hair out behind her.
“We must return to England. Once upon the Winding Way, it is a simple diversion. If we cannot travel that way, it will be more difficult. But one way or another, we have to pierce the Veil again.
“As Wayland said, the only way to find the Dustman is to wait for him in the nursery of an English child. His legend was born there, and the old stories keep him in their hearts.”
Oliver stopped and stared at her. “Wait. Of all of the nurseries in England, all of the babies in the whole damn U.K., how are we supposed to find the right one?”
Kitsune moved with a fluid grace, stepping from stone to stone as though weightless. She passed Oliver and continued down the slope, glancing back at him over her shoulder as though taunting him to keep up.
“Not a problem at all,” the fox-woman said, and the wild mischief returned to her eyes. “When the Dustman senses the presence of another Borderkind—even worse, a trickster—in his domain, he will come swiftly.
“The trick will be trying to explain it to him before he kills us both.”
She laughed and spun, dancing from one rock to the next as Oliver struggled to follow.
“Wonderful,” he said. “Can’t anything in this world be simple?”
Kitsune paused and gave him a dark, warning look. “Legends are never simple, my friend. They appear to be, on the surface, but there are too many facets, too many fears, too many demands that human beings have placed upon every ‘Once Upon a Time’ for them to be simple.”
And with that, she was off again.