“Well, that’s shit luck,” he said.
Oliver might have laughed were it not for the utter gravity with which the words had been spoken. He glanced at Kitsune, who paid him no attention at all. She was scenting the air and studying the branches above, searching for any sign that there might be some other spy about.
Oliver turned to Frost, only to find the winter man studying him as though he were a riddle that Frost could not sort out. Oliver didn’t much like the feeling.
“So what now?” he asked.
Frost glanced at Blue Jay. “We’d hoped that Twillig’s Gorge might be a refuge for us, at least for a time. Now, at best, we can rest there briefly before moving on. We’ve no idea who the Jaculus calls master, but the way it lit out of here upon being discovered, we can be sure it means us ill.”
“Time to go, then,” Oliver said.
Blue Jay frowned, glaring at the sky. “If Gong Gong had been here, the thing would have been dead, and its master none the wiser.”
Kitsune lifted her hood, though they were deep in the shade of the woods. She hung her head slightly so that only her perfect mouth was visible beneath the fold of fur.
“Yet Gong Gong is dead. And so shall we be, I think, if we don’t move now. I am putting my trust in you, Blue Jay, that this Gorge truly exists. And trust is hard to come by today.”
“Isn’t it always?” the bird-man said, and then turned toward the river.
Just ahead, the woods ended at a sheer cliff face and the Sorrowful River continued right through it, a stake through the heart, into a natural tunnel, perhaps some ancient cave system. The light of the sun extended only so far into the tunnel and then all was darkness. The idea of wading into that river and letting the current take him into the dark was not at all pleasant, but neither was the thought of remaining here and waiting for the Jaculus to return with more formidable associates.
Still, Oliver stood and watched as Blue Jay went to the riverbank and stepped in without hesitation, water soaking into denim, making the legs of his jeans a darker blue. Oliver smiled wistfully. Trickster he might be, but Blue Jay was all right. He could easily have transformed back into a bird and flown through the tunnel, above the water.
When he had waded in up to his hips, the river flowing around his waist, he paused and looked back, waiting in silence. Oliver glanced at Frost, saw that the winter man was watching Kitsune, and looked at her.
She was still preoccupied with the trees, and he understood that she was faulting herself somehow for not having caught the Jaculus. It was not that she suspected the presence of other spies, but that she wished there were more, so that she might redeem herself.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Oliver said.
Kitsune glanced darkly at him and bared her tiny, sharp teeth. “Go on.”
He was about to argue, but Frost touched his arm with icy fingers that sent a shock of cold through him, making his muscles ache. Oliver pulled away, but nodded and started for the water. At the edge he sat and removed his boots, tied the laces together and hung them around his neck, with his socks tucked inside. He debated the wisdom of this for a moment, knowing that the river bottom would likely be quite rocky, but even if he didn’t mind soaking-wet boots, they would actually make it difficult to walk, weighted down with water. Using the same logic, he untied the jacket from around his waist, wrapped the Sword of Hunyadi in it, and carried them over his shoulder as he stepped into the river.
Oliver hesitated a moment. He slipped his hand into his pocket and felt for the single, large seed that the gods of the Harvest had given him. Konigen had said it might be helpful to him one day, when he needed it most. The last thing he wanted to do was to lose it or, worse, ruin it now. But he chose to leave it where it was. Better a damp seed in his pocket than a lost seed if he risked trying to stash it in his boots or hold it in his hand.
Frost was right beside him. As the winter man put his foot in, the water on the surface of the river just around his calf formed a thin layer of ice, which broke off and floated away, dissolving almost immediately. Then Frost and Oliver were moving toward Blue Jay. The water turned frigid, the current cold where it had flowed past Frost, and Oliver shivered and let him get ahead a few paces.
Back on the bank, Kitsune spared a final regretful glance at the trees and then slipped into the river. He expected the fur cloak to weigh her down, but the water seemed to run off of it. The cloak began to float, spreading across the river as she waded deeper, and then pooling around her as the current quickened.
“Let’s try not to get too deep,” Oliver said. “I’d rather stay on my feet if possible.”
Blue Jay reached the opening in the cliff and braced a hand on the rock. “I’m with you. The Gorge is on the other side of the tunnel, where it opens up again to the sky, but there’s no telling what’s between here and there.”
Oliver grimaced. “Wonderful.”
Then Blue Jay ducked his head and disappeared into the darkness, river and cave both seeming to swallow him. Frost followed suit a moment later without a backward glance. Though Oliver knew that the winter man had a great deal on his mind, still it made him feel more alone.
The water was mid-chest high by the time he reached the opening in the cliff face. The darkness beckoned. Despite his fear, something about it was inviting. The little boy in him, the explorer and believer in all things magical, relished the idea of the place. Sounds of dripping came from within, and echoes of tiny splashes—hopefully made by Blue Jay and Frost and not anything else.
Oliver stepped inside, though still within reach of the daylight.
As he moved out of the sun and into the darkness, the world shook around him, once, twice, a third time. Oliver shouted, his panic echoing back at him. In the diminishing light he could see a shower of dust and small rocks slide down the walls of the cave and into the water.
“Kit, tell me that’s not an earthquake,” he said, reaching his right hand out to touch the rock wall.
Her voice, when she replied, was hushed. “Worse.”
Oliver turned. She had thrown her hood back and her face and body were outlined against the sunlight at the mouth of the cave. Kitsune had turned and was staring upriver.
Perhaps half a mile north stood a creature as tall as the tallest tree—a towering, grotesque, albino giant. Its back was to them and he could see that its spine was a column of jagged spurs that jutted out through the flesh.
“What is it?” he said, only loud enough for her to hear him over the ripple of the river passing around them.
“Kinder-fresser.” Kitsune glanced back at him. “Child-guzzler, they call it. According to legend, of course. I’ve heard the tale, but never seen the thing. The story says that the river is made of the tears of all the mothers whose children it has eaten.”
“The Sorrowful River,” Oliver said, a tight knot in his gut.
“Must have come down from the hills. Just be glad it’s going the other way.”
“Why? If it eats children—”
“A flesh-eating giant might have preferences, Oliver, but hungry is hungry,” she said, and when she glanced at him there was a lean sort of desire in her eyes that was not at all sensual. He wondered, as a fox, what Kitsune had eaten, then wished the question had never occurred to him.
“Shall we go?” she said.
Oliver nodded and turned, moving into the darkness. Whatever lay ahead, it could not be worse than the gargantuan abomination they had only narrowly avoided. He pitied whatever creature it came upon next.
He waded deeper into the tunnel, comforted by the presence of Kitsune behind him. The echoes in the cave were like ghosts flitting about, whispering in his ears. Distance was impossible to gauge, sounds coming from everywhere and nowhere at once. Oliver rapped his elbow twice on the tunnel wall to his right and so moved the other direction.
The bottom sloped steeply, and he dropped a foot with a single step. The current tugged at him, propelling him forward so that he had to struggle just to keep from being swept away. He swore as he realized that his boots and jacket had gotten wet, even as he moved into shallower water.
The tunnel roof was higher here—he could no longer feel it above him—but he kept his head ducked just in case that should change. Soon enough he had a painful crick in his neck, but still did not stand to his full height. Walking slightly bent was better than giving in to the current and being dashed against some enormous rock or down an underground waterfall.
These were his silent fears as they made their way deeper into the tunnel. Indeed, there was a downward grade to the river, but no dramatic drop-off. There was also very little sediment on the bottom as they went deeper into the tunnel. Over the ages, the water had worn it nearly smooth, and the walls as well. Perhaps at certain times of the year the river rose nearly to the ceiling, he thought. That would explain the smoothness of the walls above the waterline. He was grateful this was not one of them.
One of his fears proved true enough, however. Blue Jay called back several times to warn them of large rocks in their path.
“Do you think these are pieces of the tunnel, caved in?” he asked Kitsune.
“Perhaps. I’m even happier that the Kinder-fresser was going the other way, now.”
There was a lightness to her tone. Oliver thought she was trying to alleviate his fear, but it didn’t help. His throat was tight and his pulse raced with every moment in the darkness. His eyes had adjusted, and he had them wide open to take in any trace of available light, but after a while, there was none. In all his life he had never known a darkness so complete—save for one Halloween when Collette had taken him to the windowless back room of their basement to tell him scary stories by candlelight, and then blown out the candle, plunging them into utter darkness.
Oliver had screamed that night. A shriek to wake the dead.
But he would not scream now. You will not, he said to himself, again and again, as he held the jacket-wrapped sword over his shoulder with one hand and searched the darkness in front of him with the other like a blind man.
The sound of the river was not a comfort. Here, across the Veil, it seemed just another predator, ready to swallow him at a moment’s notice.
They came to a place at last where the river did drop significantly, and the bottom was strewn with rocks that had accumulated there from cave-ins past. A fault in the mountain above them, probably.
He held his breath as he descended.
“We’re going to be all right,” Kitsune assured him, and it sounded as though her voice was right at his ear, an acoustic trick the tunnel played upon him.
With a deep breath, he mustered his will and pressed on, working with the power of the river rushing around him and pushing him onward, instead of struggling against it.
For just a moment, he thought he could see again. It looked as though the walls of the tunnel encircled him, and there were windows cut into the walls, high above. Beyond, he could see the night sky. It lasted only an instant, and then he heard another voice in his ear, this one barely a whisper, far more distant.
“Come on, Ollie. Find me.”
The voice was Collette’s. She smelled faintly of her favorite shampoo, coconut-scented stuff from Australia.
Stunned, Oliver stopped walking. In an instant he realized his error. The river knocked him down, plunged him under. The laces of his boots wrapped around his throat and began to strangle him. He rolled along the river bottom, across the rocks that lay there. Desperate, he clutched the sword to him—still wrapped in his soaked jacket—and clawed at his neck to loosen the laces of his boots. But they were filled with water, the weight tightening the cords even more.
Then, Oliver struck an enormous rock that jutted from the river bottom. He expelled the last of his air and began to drown. Still, his mind was working. Twisting around, he used the rock to brace himself, found the bottom with his feet, and forced himself upward. With his free hand, he reached upward and found a grip.
The water turned cold around him. Then a strong hand closed on his wrist and helped to pull him up onto the rock. He coughed up the water he’d swallowed even as other hands slipped the laces of his boots from around his neck.
He wiped at his eyes and saw his friends around him. Frost stood just upstream, gaze set with concern. Blue Jay had helped haul him out of the water, and Kitsune had his boots in her hands. They were at a place where the river had leveled off somewhat, the current slackening.
“Are you all right?” Frost asked.
Oliver blinked. “I can see.”
“That’s a good sign,” Blue Jay told him, a smirk on his trickster’s face.
The light in the tunnel flickered and Oliver looked around to see that there were torches set in sconces high on the walls, the fire burning bright and hungry. Whatever was burning, it was no ordinary flame. He stood, still trying to catch his breath, neck sore from the chafing, and throat raw from choking on the water. But he was all right.
“It might have been simpler if you’d dropped the sword,” Kitsune said, head tilted with the fox’s curiosity.
“True,” Oliver replied, a bit sheepish. “But it’s the king’s sword. I’m counting on it to buy me a few seconds to beg for my life, when the time comes.”
“You might want to think about using it to cut off the head of whoever’s trying to kill you,” Blue Jay said helpfully.
Oliver laughed, then winced at the pain in his throat.
“We have company,” Frost said, his voice low and dark.
The river grew colder as it swept past them. The winter man was summoning his power. Oliver tensed, hoping Frost would not need it.
“Nagas,” Kitsune said.
Oliver looked. In the torchlight that flickered through the tunnel, he saw several people coming toward them, armed with long bows, each with a quiver of arrows slung across their backs. They looked ordinary enough, though they had long, sharp talons that likely made weapons unnecessary.