Chapter 9: The Long Reach of the Enemy
Annabelle swallowed at the mention of the Enemy. Already this mysterious figure was taking on a life of its own within her very active imagination.
Charlie’s mischievous smile was almost instantly gone, while Percy looked ready to pounce and eager for a fight.
“Even here this close to the Door?” he said.
“Yes,” Seppo replied.
“Where?” said Charlie.
The boy pointed behind him. “Almost a thousand paces.”
“How many are they?” said Percy.
Seppo gave a half-shrug. “I couldn’t see all of them, but at least ten, I think.”
“Could it be a coincidence?” Annabelle shocked herself by speaking aloud. The others looked at her, and she struggled for the words to say. It was too much to think that these soldiers would be at this particular part of the wild on this particular day. “I mean, do you think they’re looking for us?”
Had the man in the dapper coat sent these soldiers? Did that mean he had managed to cut them off on their escape? All these questions and more raced through Annabelle’s mind.
Seppo reached out a hand and said, “Be calm. These soldiers are not seeking us because of our rescue of Cid. We’ve met these ones before.”
Charlie groaned. “Not the Black Band!”
Seppo nodded grimly.
“But who are they? The Black Band?” Annabelle asked.
She looked from person to person, searching for answers in their faces. Charlie suddenly looked more tired than ever, while Percy had a sort of unbridled anger growing within him. Seppo seemed difficult to read as ever, but he seemed like a tense, coiled spring, ready to burst.
“Mercenary soldiers,” said Percy with more venom in his voice than Annabelle had ever seen before. “Willing to sell us to the Enemy, for a price that is.”
Annabelle briefly wondered what passed for money when one could cross over to different worlds by stepping through a portal. Realizing her mind had strayed from the conversation at hand, she brought it back into focus.
“But they must be here for us,” she said.
Percy shook his head. “The left hand does not speak to the right.”
Annabelle did not quite understand what Percy meant, until Charlie said, “Cid’s captor could not have gotten a message to the Band in such a short time. Which means—”
“They’ve been looking for us for some time now,” said Seppo.
But what else could they want, if they weren’t here to recapture them and take them back to that awful house?
“Does that mean they’re here for the Door?” said Annabelle.
“Perhaps,” said Percy. He crossed his arms, frowning at the question, as if he would have liked it to go away.
“It is an awful big coincidence otherwise,” said Charlie.
“They can’t use the Doors, can they?” said Annabelle with a nervous laugh.
“Not without these,” said Seppo, patting the pouch where he kept the ring of keys.
“What do we do?” said Annabelle.
The others looked round at each other, this question having made them pause to consider.
Seppo shook his head. “I don’t like it. We have to carry Cid back to the Tower. And there are too many of them. We should go back to the Door we came and take the long route back.”
“But we could lose days that way!” Percy looked angry, and he rounded on Seppo. “We might lose Cid before then. Not to mention A—”
Percy stopped what he was about to say, but Annabelle knew he was about to say her name. The same miasma that was affecting Cid was also affecting her, though at a slower and lesser rate.
“Maybe we should split up,” said Charlie.
“What?” said Annabelle. “That doesn’t sound like a good idea.” Again she shocked herself by speaking her opinion so freely. These three were seasoned veterans at this, having walked so boldly into a stronghold of the Enemy and rescued Cid.
And yet, she couldn’t help but say what she thought. Splitting themselves sounded too much like a recipe for defeat in detail.
But she didn’t know quite how to say what she was thinking.
“No, I think it makes sense,” said Percy. “I’ll lead them away from the Door, while the rest of you slip through. Then I can make my way back to the White Tower through the longer route.”
“What about the keys?” said Seppo quietly. “And I know these routes best. You’ve only been here once and never the longer way.”
Percy turned to Seppo and gave him a long hard look. “You know the routes best, which is why you must go through the Door with Cid and the others, and lead them as fast as possible to the Tower. If I can’t find my way, I at least know the way to Haven. We can rendezvous there.”
What was Haven? Annabelle wondered. But she left that thought unvoiced.
“But what will happen to you?” she said instead.
“She’s right,” said Charlie. “Then we’ll be right where we started, and we’ll have to rescue you, too, you dumb ox.”
Percy scowled. “This was your idea! And I can handle a few soldiers.”
“I’m better able to deal with them,” she retorted. “That’s why I suggested the idea.”
“I can’t let you face them while I run away,” he said.
“What? You wouldn’t be running away,” said Charlie. “Remember, we need to think about Cid?”
“Is there a way we could all sneak around them?” Annabelle said, looking back at Seppo.
“I don’t like it.” Seppo shook his head. “But maybe. It would be perilous.”
Percy gave out a short bark of a laugh. “What else is new?”
Annabelle couldn’t share his easy confidence. Already she felt her heart begin to pound, her breath beginning to shorten. How were they going to get out of this?
She took a deep breath. She hated how her voice trembled when she spoke. But if she didn’t say anything now, she knew she’d regret it.
“I think we should try to sneak past them together,” she said. “If something happens, we’ll be together at least and not separated and unable to help each other.”
“That is true,” said Seppo slowly.
“I suppose we should not divide ourselves needlessly,” said Percy.
“That can’t be our only plan, though,” said Charlie.
“No, of course not,” she said. “But if we have to think about what we’re really trying to do, and the best way to bring that about. Right now we need to bring Cid to the White Tower as soon as possible.”
Annabelle looked into each of their eyes, imploring them to see reason. “We can’t do that if half of us are gone, can we?”
Their minds made up, they set off for the Door via a more roundabout path. It was decided that Seppo would carry Cid for the last leg before the Door so that Percy and Charlie could be free to deal with any soldiers they happened upon along the way.
There was to be no talking. This close to the Enemy, they couldn’t risk the sounds of their voices reaching the wrong ears.
Seppo walked with very little noise, even while carrying Cid. The others could also walk quietly through the wild when they wanted. Annabelle tried to match their skill and cringed with each snapped twig or heavy thump of her feet.
They had to march through difficult country, through thick brambles and uneven ground. The danger of the soldiers added to their labors, and already a thick sheen of sweat covered Annabelle and drenched her clothes.
They rested a lot less frequently than they had before. Percy wanted to get to the Door as quickly as possible, while Seppo had argued for a slower, more methodical pace. In the end, Percy had won out, and Annabelle was beginning to feel the bite of it. Still, she said nothing about it for she knew that Charlie was still nursing the pain in her leg.
Previously, Percy tended to range farther ahead when he wasn’t carrying Cid, leaving the group behind. Now he stuck close to the others, for fear of losing sight of them while the Enemy’s soldiers were near. He seemed to chafe at the slower pace.
Quite suddenly, he raised a hand and waved at the others. Annabelle stood for a moment longer and had to be pulled down to the ground by Charlie, who was much stronger than she looked.
Charlie brought a finger to her lips in a shushing motion. Annabelle tried to keep quiet, but her heart was in her ears, and every little breath she took, every little motion seemed to her to cause a great noise that could be heard for miles.
A pair of soldiers came into the clearing just as the children hid from view, wearing coats of mail that shone in the light, each carrying a long thin blade sheathed at their side. Their armor obscured their faces, except around their eyes and nose.
Annabelle had imagined that they would be more like the shadows that the man in the dapper coat had employed, inhuman and otherworldly, but this was not so. She could tell that they were a man and a woman, no more inhuman than she was.
The soldiers walked through the wood, speaking to each other in low voices, using a strange tongue that Annabelle had never heard before. But their manner seemed easy, as if they had nothing to fear. The woman laughed at something her companion had said.
They walked until they came to the low hedge that now seemed to offer only a meager hiding place. Annabelle clamped her mouth shut with her hand and willed herself to hold her breath as long as possible.
After what seemed like an eternity the soldiers finally left the clearing. Percy signaled that all was clear, and Annabelle let out a deep sigh of relief. Charlie gave her a wry smile, and they both laughed nervously.
Seppo gave them both a solemn look as he hefted Cid into a more comfortable position on his back, which only seemed more humorous to Annabelle. She was somewhat horrified at herself, but found that she couldn’t help it. Quickly she stifled the last of her laughter and tried to smooth her expression flat.
They turned to leave, when Annabelle heard a branch snap and Percy cried, “Look out!”
Annabelle turned and saw behind her two soldiers towering above her, their swords drawn and their eyes fearsome. Raising her blade, one of the soldiers let out an awful war cry.
Percy, drawing his own sword, blocked the thrust meant for Annabelle and offered a quick counterattack. Annabelle’s heart jumped to her throat upon realizing how close the soldier had been to cutting her open. She didn’t know which way to turn and stumbled backwards into Charlie.
“Watch it!” she said, throwing up sheets of flame between herself and the other soldier.
Annabelle hesitated for a moment or two until Seppo grabbed her wrist and pulled her backwards.
“But what about the others?” she said, pulling against his hand.
Percy seemed evenly matched with the soldier he was fighting, but she was taller and clad from head to toe in armor. Charlie’s bad leg was acting up once more, yet she grit her teeth through it and sent a scorching line of fire at a soldier, who ducked out of the way.
“Get out of here!” cried Charlie, fire limning the edges of her fingers.
“Let them do their work,” whispered Seppo, “without having to worry about you.”
Despite having walked all morning to the brink of exhaustion, Annabelle found a new wellspring of energy and ran as fast and as far as her feet would carry her. She heard Seppo following her step for step, even while carrying Cid upon his back.
As she ran, she struggled for breath, and slowly, a stitch began to creep up her side, like a painful vise. She ran through the pain and the lack of breath, but even this could not pushed aside so easily. After several minutes, she began to slow.
“A little farther,” Seppo said, while pressing a gentle hand upon her back.
Annabelle renewed her efforts, but this also did not last very long. Each time, Seppo would coax her forward just a little bit longer, and somehow she found it within herself to keep running, though her feet began to feel like leaden weights.
Finally, Annabelle could take no more, and she fell to her knees, bent doubled over and struggling for breath. It took her many long minutes before she could catch her breath.
Seppo had slowed to a stop behind her, looking behind him for any pursuit, though he did not try to prod her to her feet either.
“Do you think they’re okay?” Annabelle said once she was able to speak again, hoarse though her voice was.
“Yes,” Seppo said almost immediately. He did not put Cid down, only shifted his position a little bit. “But there may be other soldiers. We must away to the Door.”
“What then?” she said with no small amount of bitterness. She knew it wasn’t fair to Seppo. Mostly, she felt her helplessness and how much of a burden she was.
Seppo did not say anything. Perhaps he knew what Annabelle was feeling and felt the better course was to remain silent. Or perhaps he was trying to conserve his energy. Annabelle didn’t know either way, for he was even now maddeningly difficult to read.
Gritting her teeth, Annabelle pulled herself back onto her feet.
“Okay, let’s go,” she said.
“We are already here,” said Seppo. He brushed past Annabelle and led her to a small grove of tightly knit trees. Within the grove was the Door.
Each Door Annabelle had walked through had been a unique, no two alike, and this was no different. The face of the Door seemed to merge seamlessly into the surrounding grove, with the strange glyphs seeming to be a part of the twisting, encircling branches.
Seppo set down Cid onto the ground and pulled a ring of keys out of his pocket and inserted one of them into a keyhole on the Door. It shuddered open.
“You must go through the Door to the other side,” he said.
“You’re going to leave me here?” Annabelle said desperately.
“I must go back for the others,” he said. His eyes had a determined set to them.
Annabelle nodded, fighting tears in her own eyes.
Seppo raised a hand to Annabelle’s shoulder, paused for a moment, looking unsure of himself. Taking his hand back, he said, “Do not worry. You will be safe beyond the Door.”
Then he turned and ran back the way he came, melting into the leaves with nary a sound.