Read A Quill Ladder Online

Authors: Jennifer Ellis

A Quill Ladder (36 page)

Fearful that the others had left him behind, he turned and began his descent.

The footing was uneven on the way down, and sometimes his feet got ahead of him and he had to do little runs and staggers in order to stay upright. It was altogether frightening, and he nearly lost his balance on more than one occasion. He was in the midst of one such uncontrolled off-kilter run when he crashed directly into the back of HT Two, who was as solid as a rock (even compared to Mark), and didn

t so much as totter when Mark slammed into him from behind.

It seemed that everyone had stopped. Then he saw the reason why.

Dr. Ford stood on the trail in a large, broad-brimmed Tilly hat with a set of binoculars slung around his neck. Sandy peeked out from behind him, and Dr. Ford

s black and white dog, her legs covered in bandages and her lip curled back in a snarl, scuttled about beside them.


Beautiful day for hiking, isn

t it?

Dr. Ford said. A large wind gust caught the edge of his hat and sent it sailing into a bush on the side of the path.


Quite,

murmured Jake, in front of HT Two.


You

re following us,

the clawed woman said.


Not in the slightest,

Dr. Ford said, his cloud of fuzzy hair whipping in the growing wind.

Don

t mind Sanome. She

s been a little bit skittish since a nasty encounter with some other dogs.

The clawed woman ignored him.

Look, we found the Madrona. You can see it clearly from the outcrop. You might as well just come with us. I know that

s what you

re looking for.

There was a nasty edge to her voice that Mark found a little unnerving.

Dr. Ford drew himself up a bit.

Sandy and I were just out for a nice stroll, seeing the sights, but since you have so kindly invited us along, we

d be delighted to join you. I love trees.


All right, let

s keep going then,

Ian said. A weariness had crept into his voice.

Dr. Ford and Sandy did an about face, and the entire group made their way down the mountainside and headed in the direction of the Madrona.

 

 

Mark was again soaked with sweat as they scrambled through humid underbrush, wind increasingly thrashing the crowns of the trees above them, when they spotted the papery-barked trunk twisting up out of the forest floor. The clawed woman almost broke into a run, calling for Jake to hurry. When she reached the tree, she pressed her red enameled fingers against the smooth trunk and leaned her cheek against it for good measure. Jake had obligingly followed, while the rest of the group came to a stop a few meters away from the tree.


Finally,

she said.

I know this tree is special. I can feel it.

Jake had circled the tree and was staring at something on the other side.

It is special,

he said.

But not in the way you were hoping.


What do you mean?

Any sweetness that had been in the woman

s voice evaporated. She marched over to where Jake stood, while everyone else inched closer to the tree, tentatively, to see what Jake was pointing at.

There behind the trees sat two familiar looking wooden platforms with figures carved in the edges. A pair of docks. Even Mark could feel the mild thrumming of energy coming from them.


Impossible,

said the woman. There

s only one set of docks, and they

re over there.

She gestured wildly into the trees, and then, appearing to change her mind, pointed a different way, and then again a third way. Then she shook her head, stomped her foot, and flung her crimson-tipped fingers into the air.

Oh well, wherever they are. These aren

t them. These can

t be docks.


Sure look like docks to me,

Ian said mildly.


I can feel them,

Jake said.

Do you want me to show you?


No! NO!

the woman yelled.


Well, isn

t this lovely?

cut in a new voice.

We

re all out for a walk in the woods together?

Mark swiveled his head to see Mantis (Sylvain, he reminded himself) approach with Abbey and a redheaded man in tow. Sanome circled around and let out a low growl. Mark wondered if now would be an inappropriate time to ask Sylvain about his map.


Of course we are

don

t we always walk in the woods together?

Jake muttered.

Ian clasped his hands together and said,

That

s just what I was saying,

as if finding the docks and everyone being there together was the greatest thing in the world. Mark really wished he had a better understanding of sarcasm and emotion sometimes. (He also decided it was probably an inappropriate time to ask about the map.)

The woman flew at Sylvain, her fingers extended as if to claw him, but Frank and HT Two stepped in front of Sylvain and she halted, her face distorted in a rather alarming, odd sort of way.

You knew!

she screamed.

All that talk about the prophecy and the lookout. You knew!


I only gave you the information that I knew to be true,

Sylvain said.

That the lookout is a starting point. I didn

t say for what. I didn

t even know for what myself. You can

t say it didn

t lead you to something. It just didn

t lead you to what you were hoping for. Pretty fair exchange, considering that your payment was trying to take my finger.


I need the files,

the woman said.

Where are the files, Sylvain?


That, I don

t know,

Sylvain replied.


Liar,

said the woman.

Where have you been?


Well, considering that you seem keen to liberate me from my finger, I thought I

d make myself a little more scarce than usual.

He turned to the larger group.

I think we

ve seen all we need to see here,

he added.

Time to head home for dinner.

He smiled, but there was something funny in the curve of his lips. If Mark was a guessing person (which he definitely preferred not to be), and could read faces better, he would say that it might be fear.

Sylvain turned and started marching off quickly into the trees, in a different direction from the way he had come. The redheaded man turned and obediently followed.


I

ll get you,

the woman, making as if to run after Sylvain. Frank and HT Two moved to block her way again.

Get out of my way, you hairy louts! Live up to your stupid names. Get him!

The wind had picked up again, and her hair flew around her face in wild black streams.


Now, Selena,

Ian said.

I don

t think that

s a very good idea. I

m not a hundred percent sure who

s on which side among all assembled here
”—
he looked around the circle
—“
but I

d say we

re evenly matched, and even if not, there are far too many witnesses.

Dr. Ford and Sandy, Mark noted, remained silent and wore exceedingly bland expressions (most expressions were, of course, of varying degrees of blandness to Mark

he tried to look for clues in the upturn or downturn of mouths

but these expressions were definitely more bland than usual).

The woman (Selena, Mark reminded himself; he needed to learn names) made her face all squinty and crumpled-looking.

Follow him,

she ordered. The wind shuddered through the Madrona, tossing the upper branches and leaves around. The air was now tinged with the inkiness of an early winter

s eve.

The two very very bad men looked from Mark to Jake, and then to Ian, then to Sandy and Dr. Ford, and at last turned and went after Sylvain.


Don

t say I didn

t tell you that was a bad idea,

Ian called after them.


I gotta get home too,

Jake said. He shoved his hands deeper in his pockets and stared for just a few seconds at Abbey.


You haven

t been dismissed yet,

Selena hissed.

Ian looked at his watch in a slow and precise fashion.

Well, I

m going to head off, and I

m sure that the two louts are ready for dinner too.

Ian winked at the two larger men. He turned to Abbey and Mark.

I suggest you come with us. These woods aren

t the safest at night

all sorts of nasty things around.

He flicked his eyes in the direction of Selena.


You

re going to regret not helping us,

Selena said.


Maybe,

said Ian.

But you

re assuming I actually
can
help you, even if I wanted to. The wormholes, if they ever existed, have probably been destroyed.


What about an Alty? The right person, the right place, the right time. That

s what the old documents say.

Selena crossed her arms over her chest and glared at Ian.


They may say that. But you have three variables to solve for there, and we don

t have the answer to any of them.


You don

t even want to try. If you had convinced Sylvain to hand over the files, we might have some answers. We should have taken off his whole hand, not just the finger.

Ian gave the woman a little smile, and there was an emotion in his eyes that Mark struggled to identify.

I haven

t been convinced of the merits of putting other humans

lives at risk just for the sake of a ridiculous experiment.


It

s not a ridiculous experiment. You

re just afraid. When we find the way, you

ll be the first in line. Remember the meaning of Coventry.


Perhaps.

Ian turned in the direction from which they had come.

But I

m off now. Coming, Mark, Abbey?

Mark wasted no time hustling after Ian, followed by Abbey, Frank, and HT Two.

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