Twice before Alice and Haley had entered the catacombs beneath their garden. The first time was when the ground fell out from under them, and they slid down into a cave. That was good luck, because they found their friend Legolas in the caves, and rescued him from Ugluk. But that opening in the catacombs filled itself afterwards when it rained for a week, and mud slid down into the hole. The second time was when they found an opening beneath a stone, and crawled into a passage where they found a ring with a ruby in it. When they went back to the same place, they found that someone had blocked the hole from the inside with rocks.
The girls knew that if they kept looking, they would find an opening sooner or later, and that once they were down in the tunnels, they would be bound to find something cool, or discover some of the secrets of Ugluk and his orcs, because that was where his tribe of orcs lived: in the catacombs. They had made friends with Vik, Ugluk's son, but he never would tell them where he and the other orcs lived in the tunnels. He certainly never invited Alice and Haley over for supper.
According to their father, the tunnels were a thousand years old. They had been dug during the Dark Ages by dwarves and sapiens as a place for them to hide from the orcs. That was back in the days when the great sorcerer black-orc named Gelden was King of Hellspawn, and orcs made slaves of sapiens all over the world. But King Gelden died long ago, and now orcs and sapiens lived in peace for the most part. The orcs live in the Outlands and the sapiens live in the Homelands, although if you ask the orcs, the orcs say that they are the ones living in the Homelands and the sapiens are out there in the Outlands.
The Dark Ages are over, but the catacombs remain. Most of the tunnels are neither in the Outlands nor the Homelands, but in the thin strip of land between the two, called the Borderlands. Alice and Haley's garden is in the Homelands, but the large stones at the end of their garden mark the beginning of the borderlands. Legolas's tree house is in the Borderlands, as is Rocky Hill, where Dreadmanifold lives. (Here is a map.)
The catacombs were dug by dwarves, and dwarves are the best tunnel-diggers in the world. The tunnel walls and ceilings are still strong. Alice and Haley heard from Dreadmanifold that many of the tunnels are cut in solid rock. He himself lives in a cave that was once an entrance hall for the catacombs, and it is cut into the solid rock of Rocky Hill. Even the tunnels that are dug through dirt and loose stones are walled with brick or cut stone, and sometimes iron bars. After hundreds of years, Dreadmanifold says you can still walk all day underground, and never see an end to the catacombs. They are an underground city of passages and rooms. But there are many things hiding down there. Things that don't want to be found by sapiens, or things that were once wounded and ran away to sleep in a safe place and get better. Ugluk's tribe of orcs live in there because it's never cold down there, or hot, and it's a good place to hide from other orcs who come looking for them.
And so it was, on a warm day in February with snow melting on the ground, that Alice and Haley set out once again looking for a passage into the catacombs beneath their garden. Haley carried ten meters of rope with her, and a knife, and a box of matches. Alice carried a club, her flashlight, and six good throwing stones. At the bottom of the garden they looked again along the bases of the large beech trees as they had done several times before. It was winter, and there were fewer leaves. They thought perhaps they might find something this time. And they did.
Beneath the seventh beech tree up from the stream, they looked behind the large, twisted roots of the tree, and pushed dirt and leaves aside to see what might be beneath. Alice pushed into the space with her club, and both Haley and Alice heard a thud. Alice pushed her club again. Thud. The thud was louder than the thud you would hear if you pushed a club against a tree, or the ground. It sounded a bit like a drum. They cleared more leaves away, and they saw a small circular door made of wood, beneath the roots. "A trap-door," Haley said.
They pulled on the door to see if they could get it to come out. They cleared some more dirt away, and pushed their fingers behind the edges. They pulled together and the door came off. They put it to one side, on the ground, and in front of them was a narrow passage leading down into the ground, like a tube slide in a playground, but dug down into the earth beneath the tree. Haley and Alice saw the passage go down steeply, and turn around a bend and out of sight.
"Shall we go down?" Haley said.
"Yes," Alice said. Of course they were going down. They had been waiting for this chance for months, and here it was: a tunnel down into the catacombs. If they did not go down right now, one of the orcs might notice that they had found the door, and block up the passage.
"Who's going first?" Haley said.
Alice held up her flashlight, and took the cover off the end of it. A beam of white light shone out the end, and down the passage. She looked up at Haley and smiled. "Me! I have the flashlight."
"Okay," Haley said, and she watched as Alice crawled between the roots, put her feet first into the passage, and slid down, out of sight, into the ground.
Down went Alice, around the bend, shining her light in front of her, until she landed in a crunchy pile of leaves and animal bones. Something sharp poked her in the leg when she landed, and when she stood up, her leg hurt. "Ouch!" she said, and shone the flashlight around her. She was in a very small circular room with a ceiling not much higher than a man's head. The walls were made of brick. The floor was covered with piles of leaves higher than her knees. Over the top of one of these piles she saw a white and black animal about the size of a large cat with four legs and a long tail. It came running straight towards her.
"Ah!" she said, and reached in her bag of stones. But before she could throw one, the animal was at her feet and trying to bite her. She hopped about to get out of the way of it's teeth. "Haley!" she called, and threw her stone at the animal, but missed.
Haley was just wishing that she had tied her rope to a root, so Alice could lower herself down, when she heard her sister call out from below. She slid down the tunnel right away, with her hand on her knife hilt. Moments later, she was standing in the room with Alice, with a bruise on her back where she had hit the floor. Alice was standing there, hopping about, her flashlight in one hand, and her other hand in her bag of stones. There was a badger biting at her feet. Haley had seen pictures of badgers in school books, and she knew they could be angry if you went into their holes. She drew her knife. "Alice, use your club, not the stones."
The badger bit at Alice's trousers. Alice took out her club, and Haley stabbed at the badger with her knife. The badger jumped away from Haley, and Alice banged it on the head with her club. That was too much for the badger. Two girls hitting it at once? What was it supposed to do? It ran away into a big pile of leaves.
"We defeated the black and white monster," Alice said.
"It was a badger. Where did it go?" Haley pushed the pile of leaves aside with her knife. There was another narrow tunnel hidden behind the leaves. Alice shone her flashlight into the tunnel while Haley crawled into it. The tunnel was short, no longer than Haley's body, and ended in another wooden door, but this one had a little flap in the bottom, like a cat-flap. Haley pushed the cat-flap open so she could look through. She saw a larger tunnel, like a corridor, on the other side. She was looking out across the floor of the corridor. At the other end was a large wooden door. On one side the wall of the corridor had fallen down, and there was a big pile of rocks. In front of the rocks a man was crouching down over a small fire, frying something in a frying pan. The badger was in the corridor, running up and down around the feet of the man, and turning in circles. The man spoke to the badger, but his voice was strange and high-pitched like a woman's. Haley thought he must be speaking a language she could not understand. There was a burning torch on the wall, and the smoke from the fire and the torch rose up to the ceiling and seemed to go into some kind of chimney.
Haley came out of the tunnel to speak to Alice. "There is a cat-flap. The badger went through it. On the other side is a corridor with a man cooking something."
"I want to see," Alice said, and she crawled in and looked for herself. She watched the man cooking. After a minute, he poured what was in the frying pan onto a plate, picked up the plate, and walked the other way down the corridor, opened a door in the side of the corridor, went through it, and closed the door behind him. The badger was still running around in circles, up and down.
Alice backed out of the passage. "The man left the corridor. Only the black-and-white monster is there. We can go in!"
"Okay, but we have to pull the little door off so we can get in."
The girls squeezed into the narrow tunnel together, and pulled at the wooden door at the end, then pushed, and then turned around and kicked it both together so it flew forwards and onto the floor of the corridor with a clatter. They pushed themselves feet first into the corridor and stood up in the light of the flaming torch on the wall. They saw the tail of the badger disappearing into the pile of rocks.
"He's hiding from us in there," Alice said.
"Let's go listen at the side door," Haley said, and she walked down the passage, past the small wood fire. The frying pan was sitting next to the fire on the stone floor. She looked up at the ceiling where the smoke from the torch was drifting up through an iron grating. Where did the smoke go to? Perhaps she and Alice should be looking for holes in the ground that smoke came out of, and these would show them new ways for crawling into the catacombs. Alice followed Haley, her club in one hand, and a throwing stone in the other. She put her flashlight in her pocket. Haley reached the smaller door on the side of the passage, which was just beyond the torch on the wall. They both looked at the large wooden doors at the end of the corridor. Haley put her ear to the small door. She heard the voice of the man, high-pitched and strange. She could not understand him, but he was the one doing all the talking, as if he was talking to himself, or another badger.
Alice put her ear to the door as well, but kept looking at the other doors, in case something should come through them. She did not want to be surprized by an underground monster opening the other doors qand sneaking up on them both from behind. As she listened at the door, she heard the man talking, and then another sound, like the meowing of a cat. "Haley, did you hear that? It sounded like a cat."
"Yes," Haley whispered, "I thought I heard a cat too."
"He has a pet cat," Alice said, and just then the door they were listening at opened, and the man was standing in front of them, looking at them with his mouth open, and his eyes wide and worried. "Ama! Ama!" he said, in his high-pitched voice, and Haley and Alice both saw that the man had no tongue. He closed his mouth and stared at them. He looked back up the passage, the way they had come, and saw the little door on the floor. "Ama!" he said, and pointed to them both, and then stepped back into the room behind him and pointed at a large cage on the floor.
I would tell you what the room looked like, but Haley and Alice did not really notice the room, other than to see that it had no doors leading out of it, and it was about the size of their bedroom. All they noticed was the large white cat in a cage, and its large feathery wings, which it held above its back and then folded as it looked up at them. "Meeow!" it said.
"A winged cat!" Haley said, and she spoke to the man, "Is it yours?"
The man was pointing at them, and the cat, and in another direction, and saying, "Ama!" in many different ways, but making no sense at all to either of them. He looked frightened. He kept closing his eyes, and twitching one of his eyebrows. "Ga! Ga!" he said, as if this would make more sense to them.
"It's okay," Haley said, "We're not here to hurt you. We won't attack you." She held her knife down low, and Alice lowered her club and put her throwing stone back in her bag.
The man clapped his hands together, and put them on his face and squeezed his cheeks. "Ama!" he said. He picked up a sack from the floor, opened the cage, picked the winged cat up, and stuffed it in the sack before it could wiggle away from him. He held the sack out for Haley, with the cat wiggling around and meowing inside. "Ama!" he said, and pointed up the corridor, back the way they had come. "Ba! Ba!"
Haley took the sack and looked at Alice, "He wants us to take the cat away."
"Okay!" Alice said. She smiled at the man. "We'll do it!"
"Ama! Ama-Ba!" the man said.
"I think he wants us to hurry," Haley said. She stepped out of the room and into the corridor. Alice followed her. The man was right behind them, making his noises. Alice and Haley walked up the corridor to the little tunnel, so they could take the cat out of the catacombs, because that seemed to be what the man with no tongue wanted them to do, and they were both excited to see the winged cat in the light of day, and watch it fly.
One of the two big doors at the other end of the corridow flew open, and a deep, loud, rough voice shouted in the harsh language of the orcs. At the same time, two large dogs barked, and Haley and Alice heard the sound of their paws crunching on the dust and stones scattered across the floor. Alice and Haley ran to the end of the corridor and turned around. There was an orc in front of the large doors, and he was fist-fighting with the man who had no tongue. The two dogs were running towards Haley and Alice, their mouths open and their tongues hanginging out in the excitement of the chase. But out from the pile of rocks came the badger and smashed into one of the dogs, biting at its neck. The two animals fell to the floor, wrestling and biting. The dog was bigger than the badger, and Haley had no doubt how the fight was going to end, but she was glad that there was only one dog left for her and Alice to fight.
"Alice, take the sack, get moving down the tunnel, I'll fight with my knife."
Alice took the sack and jumped into the little tunnel they had come through, pulling the sack behind her. The cat meowed as it was bumped into the walls and floor, and kicked by Alice's fast-moving feet. Haley stood above the tunnel entrance with her knife in her hand. The dog could not jump at her, because it knew that it would bump into the wall if she stepped aside. So it stopped and barked at her twice before it tried to bite her arms and legs with its big, white teeth. Haley slashed at it with her knife, but it was so quick, she could not hit it. If the dog managed to bite her arm, she would never get away. It would not let go, and the orc would capture her. She slashed with her knife again and again. The dog bumped into her, scratched her, and banged her with its hard head.
Alice was in the little room now, where they had fought the badger when they first came in. She wondered what she should do. Try to climb out? But what about Haley? She put the sack down on the ground, put a rock on the top of it so the cat could not get out, and crawled back along the tunnel to the corridor. She stood up and fought the dog with Haley. She looked up for a moment, and saw that the other dog had the badger by the neck, and was waving it around in the air like it a toy. The badger was still alive. Alice wanted to cry.
"Badger!" she said. Alice wanted to go and rescue the badger, and to give the man with no tongue a club to fight with. "Man!" she said. But she could not leave her sister to fight the big dog alone.
The orc struck the man with no tongue, and the man fell down to the floor. He tried to get up, but the orc kicked him, and the man gave up. He was winded and trying to breath. "Ama!"
The orc started walking towards the girls, a smile on his face. He must have been thinking about how much money he could earn from their father if he could take them both prisoner and ransom them. But he had to stop half way because one of his dogs was still waving the badger around by the neck.
Alice and Haley were hitting the dog with their club and knife. The dog was having trouble staying away from both of their weapons at the same time. But he was scratching and bruising them all the same, as he jumped and pushed and grabbed with his claws.
"You go now!" Alice said, because she could see that Haley was getting tired.
Haley knew she was tired, and in danger of being bitten. She turned, with Alice at her back, and dove into the tunnel. Moments later, Alice did the same, with the dog biting at her heels, and the two girls were in the little room. The dog came right after them, but when it reached the opening of the tunnel in the little room, Alice and Haley attacked it at the same time. Alice hit it on the head, and Haley stabbed it in the chest. It whimpered and went backwards into the tunnel, away from them, bleeding on the tunnel floor.
"Poor dog," Haley said, but she could not worry about the dog for long, because she heard the orc at the other end of the short tunnel, yelling at the dog to get out of the way, and she knew it would be only a matter of seconds before the other dog was in the room attacking them. "You go up and tie a rope to the tree, I'll wait here, and then use the rope to climb up with the cat in the sack."
Alice nodded. She started climbing up the tunnel. She saw daylight above her. The tunnel was smooth and steep, but she pushed her feet and hands hard against the walls, and was soon at the top, where she tied her rope around a tree root and threw the other end down the tunnel. "Okay, Haley! Come on!"
Haley took the rope in one hand, and the sack in the other, and tried to climb up. That did not work. She needed both hands. She put the top lip of the sack in her teeth and grabbed the rope with both hands, and started climbing. She was amazed at how light the cat was. It was not like an ordinary cat. It weighed hardly as much as a kitten. She was a some way up the tunnel when the second dog, burst into the little room and shot up into the tunnel behind her, trying to bit her legs. She knew that she could not look down, or shout out, or use her hands. She heard the dog push off the wall and jump at her. She kicked with her boots and smacked it on the nose. She pulled herself, kicked again, pulled farther up, and she heard the dog sliding back down the tunnel. It could not climb up after her. She went faster, hand over hand, and then out into the daylight among the beech tree roots and the melting snow and the cool drip, drip of water from the branches.
"Haley! Well done!" Alice said. She took the sack, pulled up her rope, untied it, and helped Haley out from between the roots. They ran together, carrying the sack, away from the passage, and closer to their house. When they were far enough away, they stopped and sat down.
They smiled at one another. Both of them felt bruised and scratched all over. Alice had a cut on her arm, and Haley had a dog tooth mark on her leg. It's funny, she thought, but I did not even feel the dog bite me, I was so excited to get away.
"Meow!" the cat said, from inside the sack.
Haley opened the sack and the cat jumped out and looked at them both. They stroked its white fur, and it purred. Around its neck was a collar with what looked like a diamond in it.
"Shall we take the collar?" Haley said.
"No," Alice said.
The cat ran across the snow a few steps, spread its wings, flapped them, and lifted off into the air. It flapped and flapped, and flew in a circle above them. "Meow!" it said, and flew off over their garden, towards the town. It tucked both its legs up under its body when it flew, and laid its ears back, so that when it was a few hundred meters away, it looked like a big white bird, perhaps a white heron. Haley wondered if she had ever seen it before, and mistaken it for a heron, and whether she would ever see it again, flying around in the sky.
"Who's cat is it?" Alice said.
"I don't know," Haley said, "But I'd like to find out."