Chapter 10: A Restless Interlude
Once more Annabelle found herself in yet another strange new land.
A vaporous mist clung to the air, shrouding her vision, long curling tendrils reaching for her and the Door behind her. Having crossed many Doors in the past few days, the allure of being an explorer had given way to a more workmanlike practicality.
“Another forest,” muttered Annabelle under her breath, though there was no one to hear, except perhaps for the unconscious Cid. “Does Seppo enjoy forests so much that every single Door has led to one?”
There did seem to be some purpose or design to their journey, and Annabelle remembered that Charlie had said that Doors could be moved after a fashion. Perhaps there had been a reason for their particular route and choice of environs? Most of the worlds they traveled to had been devoid of any creature except the odd game animal, and she supposed Seppo and the others had chosen the safest path available to them.
Barring the last one when the Black Band had attacked, of course.
But it made for a journey that despite traveling to new worlds and new frontiers, had little to distinguish them from each other, at least from a curosry glance. And she supposed that the rapid pace they had been making meant there was little time to just sit and watch and study everything around her.
More than once during the journey she’d wished she had pen and paper to record her thoughts or to at least draw what she was seeing, though she hadn’t been much of an artist back home. She’d never kept much of a journal either.
Annabelle looked down at the only person that came along with her through the Door. There was more color to his face than when she’d first seen him, though his fine, embroidered robes were looking worse for wear. She looked at her own clothes, which was getting threadbare in places, and she grimaced.
“Just you and me now, Cid,” she said. “Hopefully, not for very long.” And in the meantime, she might as well get the camp set up so that when the others came back they’d have it ready and waiting for them.
If they came back at all.
Annabelle heard a branch snap and nearly jumped out of her skin. She didn’t so much as scream as let out a guttural grunt as she whipped her head around to the source of the sound. She saw nothing.
“‘Safe,’ he said,” Annabelle continued to grumble, mostly because it helped her to keep her mind off how her heart was thudding in her chest and how much her hands shook. “You’ll be safe here beyond the Door.”
Annabelle sighed. Looking for something to distract herself, she looked back at the Door. It felt very odd how rare it was for two Doors to be matching pairs. In fact, the only one she could recall was the first Door she’d seen, the one made as though out of rough cut wooden logs.
This Door, though made of wood like its sibling, had an artifice to it, carved at angular lines and standing on a stone pedestal. Its sibling had felt more like it had been grown to be a part of its natural surroundings, though Annabelle didn’t much like the idea of going back to check.
Still, she had to admit that she felt, even now a small, very small desire to have a quick peek back across the other side. Perhaps to check the Door, but also to see if her friends were any closer.
Seppo had left his fur coat with Annabelle, and she now reached over for it, beginning to feel a chill air set in. Cid shifted over in his slumber and mumbled under his breath, shivering from the cold. Feeling a little guilty, Annabelle walked over to Cid and placed the coat on him like a blanket.
Cid’s eyes opened, and Annabelle stepped back, crying out in surprise.
“Oh! You’re awake,” she said.
“Water,” Cid said with a hoarse voice. He spoke a few more words in a language that Annabelle didn’t quite comprehend, but she understood the meaning well enough.
“Right!” Annabelle knew that Seppo sometimes got Cid to wake up from time to time, in order to give him a little food and water. She looked around for the canteen that Seppo always carried, then remembered his coat and fumbled around for it there. “Found it!”
She opened the bottle and poured a bit of water into Cid’s mouth. A little bit dribbled down the side of his mouth, but he gulped gratefully.
“Thank you,” he said, his voice a little clearer now, a deep rumbling bass that shook a little from his long illness. His eyes began to focus on his surroundings, and he looked confused. “Where are we?”
“Oh, I have no idea,” Annabelle said. “We passed almost ten or twenty Doors by now, and I stopped asking what each place was called after the fourth one. This has been simultaneously the best thing and the worst thing to happen to me. Though I’m sure we’re much closer to the White Tower.”
This was one of those silences that Annabelle dreaded, and she began to fill it by speaking without pause.
“Where are the others? Seppo, Charlie, and Percy,” said Cid, interrupting.
“Oh.” Annabelle looked down at her twisting fingers. “They’re not here. The Black Band—well, they attacked, and—”
Cid nodded, though the motion seemed to make him nauseated. “I see. And who are you? A friend, I hope?”
Annabelle flushed with embarrassment. “Oh, yes, er, I’m Annabelle. Sorry. I was rescued by Seppo and the others from the man in the dapper coat.”
Cid gave Annabelle a puzzled expression. “Who?”
“Oh—erm, that’s what I’ve been calling the man who had you captured,” she said, fidgeting even more now, speaking to this much older boy. “In my head at least.”
Cid was silent at this. Or rather, not silent, only quiet and thinking, his mind working, though Annabelle thought it must be because he was thinking of his captivity, and she felt awful for bringing up old wounds in such a callous way.
“Erm, and you’re Cid,” said Annabelle, trying yet again to fill in the silence.
“Yes,” he said. He held up a hand to his brow and massaged it tenderly with his forefinger. “Forgive me, I’m not feeling well.”
“No, of course not.” Annabelle wondered what she could say or do to make him feel better, but came at a complete loss.
Annabelle began to shiver, and she wrapped her arms around herself with only her cardigan for warmth. It had been a sweltering summer when the man in the dapper coat had stolen her sister and her from their home, and all she had that was warm was her old cardigan. How she sorely wished she knew how to start a fire like Seppo or to conjure it to mind like Charlie!
Several hours passed, and Cid would awaken in fits and starts. Annabelle tried her best to comfort him, but she was soon out of her depth. She tried to copy how the others had set up camp, but the small little details that they were quick to notice seemed to elude her.
The ground was hard and rocky, which Seppo would have blunted with a bed of leaves he had gathered. Annabelle’s similar attempts had different twigs and wet grass underfoot, which didn’t help her to feel comfortable.
The campsite she had chosen, close to the Door so she could see when her friends arrived, was much damper and wetter than Percy would have chosen. He always seemed to know which was the driest, most cozy site to rest.
And without a fire, there was little warmth to be had. How she missed Charlie. How she missed all of them.
Annabelle began to wonder if Seppo would ever come back with the others. Perhaps someone had gotten injured or worse? The Black Band, the few who she had seen, all seemed like formidable soldiers and much taller than even Percy.
And how was she supposed to get back home? She had no idea where any of these Doors were. And even if she did, she didn’t have a ring of keys like Seppo.
She supposed that Percy had his sword and Charlie her fire, and whatever training the Wizard had instilled in them, though Annabelle couldn’t know what that was.
Annabelle told herself many times that there was nothing to worry about, that they had things well in hand. But she couldn’t help but feel low at how useless she’d been, how much of a burden she was.
If she looked at the matter with clear eyes, she had been nothing but a dead weight that had to be looked after and cared for. That realization made her feel small, which she didn’t much care for.
“I won’t ever be useless again,” she said to herself more than anyone else. Embarrassed, she looked over at Cid, who seemed to be fast asleep. “Never again,” she repeated.
Annabelle started awake. She must have fallen asleep for a few hours, though she hadn’t remembered doing so. Her knees were curled up under her, and her head was leaning against the hem of Seppo’s coat for some small amount of warmth. She pushed herself up and scrubbed her face clean with the back of her hand.
The Door had begun to open. It was an odd experience to view it from this side. The lock released with an audible click, and the Door inched forward bit by bit, as hands on the other side pushed it open.
Seppo led Charlie and Percy through the archway, their forms casting long shadows from the light behind them. Annabelle released the breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding till that moment.
She flung herself up and wrapped her arms around them.
“You’re back!” she cried.
“Oof, watch it!” said Charlie, wincing from pain.
“Oh, of course!” Annabelle let go and looked at each of them closely for any wounds or hurts. There was a long gash along Percy’s arm, though he shooed Annabelle away when she tried to get a closer look.
“I was a bit careless,” he said, “but it doesn’t hurt too much.”
Charlie seemed to be limping even more on her bad leg. “If you must know, I didn’t get it in the fight. I tripped—”
“She tripped on the way to the Door!” said Percy, jumping in with a hearty laugh and slaping his knee.
Even Seppo had returned with a swollen eye. This he said nothing about, and Annabelle didn’t feel comfortable pointing it out either with gusto.
“Still, I’m glad you’re back,” said Annabelle. She felt her own eyes stinging with tears, though she didn’t allow herself to let them fall. “Goodness, you must all be starving.”
They all decided to have a great big meal, using up all of the fresh mushrooms Seppo had gathered as well as the least stale hunks of bread they had in their packs.
They began to take it in turns to regale Annabelle with the food they could expect at the White Tower.
“There’s always fresh fruit from the gardens,” said Charlie, gesticulating wildly as she spoke. “And some months we go to the Forest and collect sap from the trees.”
“The hunting around the Tower is always good,” said Percy. He had a look of longing upon his face. “And the fishing, of course, is excellent.”
Even Seppo somehow got into it, though before he would speak very little.
“Cid always baked the best bread,” he said.
“Thank you, my friend,” said Cid’s deep bass. “Perhaps I will bake a few more loaves when we return.”
Seppo, Charlie, and Percy spun around to see Cid smiling weakly from his place near the fire.
“You’re awake!” Charlie cried out.
“Are you well?” said Percy.
“Well enough,” Cid said solemnly. “But much the worse for wear, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, that’s alright,” said Charlie. “We’ll mend you back to health once we’re at the White Tower.”
Seppo paused before speaking. “It is good to see you awake.”
Annabelle could tell that this was difficult for Seppo to say, not being one to show much emotion.
Cid only nodded weakly. “And to you all. Thank you for freeing me from that prison.”
“Wait a minute!” Charlie spun around to Annabelle. “That must mean you knew Cid was awake! Why didn’t you say anything?”
Annabelle felt her cheeks blush. “He was asleep at the time, and I was just so happy—”
She had to stop speaking for a moment or two.
“It’s okay,” said Percy. “We’re glad to be here, too!”
And they began to tell more stories, late into the night, with the mist clinging close to their fire. Annabelle was just so happy see them that she simply nodded along with a great big smile on her face.
Soon her eyes became heavy, her head began to nod, and she drifted off into a dreamless sleep.