Everyone agreed that the winged cat most likely belonged to Lady Natasha, an elf woman who lived near the town. "It's in the Borderlands all the same," their father said, "Here, I'll draw you a map."
"I don't think she'll see you," their father said, "She's a recluse, you know."
"She's blind?" Alice said.
Their father raised his head from the map and looked at Alice. "Ah," he said, "I meant she would not want to see you, meaning that she would not invite you into her house. No, she's not blind. She could see you if she wanted to." He continued coloring the map with a green pencil.
"What's a recluse?" Haley said.
"She hardly ever comes out of her compound. There's a high wall around it. She keeps a bunch of animals in there. It's kind of like a zoo." He looked up at Haley. "She's an elf, you know. I saw her once in town. I think she's a thousand years old. She doesn't like visitors. She never throws parties and she never invites people over. Well, she never invites me over, or your mother."
"Oh," Haley said, "Is she bad?"
"I don't think so. I don't think she will welcome you and let you see her cat again. But you can try. It can't hurt to knock on her door. But you have to go during the day, because it's in the Borderlands."
And so it was, on a chilly Saturday morning at the end of winter, a week after they had rescued the flying cat, that Alice and Haley walked into the town, and took the trail to the south-west that crossed into the Borderlands and brought them to the gates of Lady Natasha's home.
The wall around Natasha's home was higher than their house. It was half as high as the taller tress in the forest. There were ivy creepers growing up the sides of the walls, their brown skins exposed to the winter sunshine. But the ivy creepers were cut off at the tops, so that they did not reach all the way up the wall. Anyone using them to climb up would find that they had to use a rope, or look for their own hand-holds between the stones, in order to get to the top. From where Haley and Alice were standing, at the edge of the forest, they could not see the top of the wall, so they did not know how thick it might be. But they could see that the wall curved around off to their left and right, so it must make a circle through the forest, keeping Natasha's home and her zoo safe inside.
"Let's knock on the door," Haley said.
They walked up to the door in the wall. The door was so large and heavy that if Haley had knocked upon it with her fist, she would have made hardly any noise at all. But she did not have to knock upon it with her fist because there was a big, heavy piece of metal hanging on the door, and Haley pulled it out and banged it on the door three times. Bang, bang, bang, it went.
Alice and Haley waited. A minute later, a little hatch in the door opened up, at about the height of Haley and Alice's heads. A small white face with huge blue eyes, bright red lips, and green hair around it looked out at them. Both Alice and Haley were sure the face was the face of a grown woman, but it was not large enough to be the face of a sapien woman. The face was no larger than Alice's face. And the eyes were so large, the woman could not be a sapien. Perhaps this was Natasha the elf woman.
"Yes? What are you knocking for?" the woman said.
"We are here to see Lady Natasha," Haley said.
"We rescued her flying cat, and we wanted to tell her about it, and ask her if the cat flew home to her."
"I see," the woman said, "Well, wait here then." She closed the little hatch and Haley and Alice were left standing in the winter sunshine.
"I hope she lets us in," Haley said.
"I want to see all her animals," Alice said.
"I don't think that was Lady Natasha."
"No, it was her servant," Alice said.
They waited and waited. Haley was just thinking about walking along the wall and finding a place to climb over, when the hatch opened again and the white face with blue eyes looked out. "Lady Natasha thanks you for rescuing her cat. The cat flew home safely. She gives you these gifts." The face disappeared, and out through the hatch came a slender white hand holding two velvet bags.
Haley reached out and took the green bag, and Alice took the blue bag. They looked inside. Each bag contained two gold pieces. "Wow!" Alice said.
"May we come in and meet Lady Natasha?" Haley said.
"No, you may not. Goodbye." The little woman closed the hatch.
Haley frowned. A strange bird call came from the other side of the wall, and then a roar, like the roar of a lion, but not that loud. "Let's go back to the town and buy some stuff to help us get over the wall. I really want to see those animals."
The next morning, Haley and Alice were back in front of the door, this time with a grapnel. For those of you who don't know what a grapnel is, it's three hooks put together, with the points of the hooks facing outwards. You tie a rope to the middle, and throw it up and over the top of a wall. When you pull on it, you are sure that one of the hooks will get stuck on the top edge of the wall, and you can climb up.
Alice tied the rope to the grapnel, and Haley started swinging the grapnel in circles, which is how you get ready to throw it over the top of a wall. Alice stood back and watched with a big smile on her face. Haley was smiling too. In a few moments, they would be climbing over the wall and into Lady Natasha's compound. Who knew what creatures they would see in there!
The little hatch in the door opened. The white face with blue eyes and green hair looked out. "What do you think you are doing?" the woman said in a loud voice. "If you climb in, we have dogs that will attack you. Go away. You are not allowed to come in."
Haley stopped swinging the grapnel and looked at the woman. She frowned. Alice frowned too. How did the woman know they were outside? Had she been looking through a hole in the door? There were no windows in the wall that Alice and Haley could see.
"Okay, sorry," Haley said, and the two sisters walked away down the path towards the town.
"We should have walked around to the back of the wall and climbed over there," Haley said.
"But the dogs would attack us," Alice said.
Haley shifted her back pack. One of the grapnel hooks was sticking into her. "We need to come back at night."
"We are not allowed to go around alone at night," Alice said, and then she smiled, "We need Legolas!"
It was their mother and father's rule that Alice and Haley were not allowed to wander around in the borderlands at night unless they were with Legolas. "You're right. Let's go find him."
Early the next morning, Alice and Haley found Legolas standing on the other side of the stream, trying to shoot a trout for his breakfast. Haley and Alice crossed the stream by jumping from one stone to another, and waited while Legolas looked into the water with his bow strung. After a couple of minutes, he lowered his bow and turned to face them. "Good morning, girls."
"Good morning, Legolas," Haley said.
"Have you heard the news about Vik?" Legolas said.
"No, we haven't seen Vik in two weeks."
"That's because he's being held prisoner by Lady Natasha over at her house. Do you know about Lady Natasha?"
"Yes we do," Alice said, "We rescued her flying cat."
Legolas stepped from the big round rock he had been standing on, and onto the snowy bank beside the girls. "I know."
"How did you know?" Alice said.
"You told me last week, when I was having supper with you at your father's house."
"Oh yes, I remember."
"Three days ago I found one of Ugluk's orcs snooping around my tree. I jumped on him and tied him up, because I thought it would be fun to ask him some questions. Maybe I could find out were the secret entrances to Ugluk's tunnels are. But he wouldn't tell me any of that, even when I said I'd shave all his hair off."
Haley and Alice looked at one another. Shaving someone's hair off didn't seem like such a frightening torture to them.
"I was just sharpening my scissors to cut off his pony-tail when he said, I have something better for you, so I said, It had better be good, and he said, Ugluk's son, Vik, is being held by Lady Natasha. She caught him snooping around in her zoo, and locked him up. She sent a message to Ugluk with her flying cat, saying Ugluk should do something for her, Ugluk didn't tell us what it was she wanted him to do, or else she would keep Vik locked up forever in her zoo for people to look at. So the boss was really angry, and he grabbed the cat, and went to her house, and waited in the forest, and grabbed one of her servants, and dragged him back home, and locked them both up in the downbelow, saying he'll not give them back until she gives back his son, and that'll learn her to try to blackmail Ugluk." Legolas smiled at the girls. "Which I thought was interesting, so I untied him and let him go."
Haley frowned. "Oh."
"It appears that you rescued the cat that Ugluk wanted to trade for Vik, and since then Vik has been locked up in the zoo."
Alice started crossing back over the stream, "We have to say sorry!"
"No, Alice," Legolas said. "You would not want to get close to Ugluk right now. He is very angry about the business, and angry at you, of course."
Haley folded her arms and looked at Legolas. "Will you help us rescue Vik?"
Legolas laughed. "Help you rescue the son of my worste enemy? If I rescue him, he's going to grow up and pester me all his life, long after his father is dead. Why would I do that?"
"But we can't go there at night without you."
Alice came back from the stream and stood beside Haley. "Please, Legolas."
Legolas shook his head and put his arrow back in the quiver on his back. He stretched his arms. "Do you have a plan?"
Haley and Alice looked at one another, and shook their heads.
"Make a plan, and if it's a good plan, I'll go with you. You should go and watch the place during the day, so you can see what it's like inside."
"Okay," Haley said, "Do you know Lady Natasha?"
Legolas nodded. "I do."
"Have you ever kissed her on the lips?" Alice said.
Legolas put his bow over his shoulder, and buttoned his coat. "Yes," he said, and he looked at the rippling water of the stream, "But that was a long time ago."
Alice and Haley walked to their father's house. Haley was talking all the way about how they could spy on Lady Natasha's house, and make a plan. They should get their father's binoculars, the ones he always lets them play with, not the expensive ones he kept in a special bag. Alice was not saying anything. As they walked up the back steps, Haley said, "What's the matter, Alice?"
"Nothing," Alice said.
Haley borrowed her father's binoculars. She and Alice decided they would climb separate trees and watch over the wall of Lady Natasha's house. They rolled a die to see who would get to take the binoculars, and Haley won. Alice was upset that she lost, and wanted Haley to promise to share the binoculars, but Haley said no, she was going to take them up her tree the whole afternoon. Alice folded her arms and walked away to her mother's house. That left Haley standing on her own with the binoculars, the rope, the grapnel, a packet of beef jerky and a bottle of water. "Vik needs us. I will go on my own."
Haley walked into town, and then along the track leading to Lady Natasha's house. She heard a horse galloping behind her, and jumped into the forest as fast as she could, but she was not fast enough to get hidden before the horse and rider came around the corner. For a moment, Haley's eyes met those of a gray-haired man riding with his back straight, and a shiny copper helmet on his head, and chain mail on his body and legs. In one hand he held the reins of his huge gray horse, and in the other he held a bird cage covered by a brown cloth. He looked at Haley, and then he was gone, the thundering hooves of his warhorse throwing dirt and gravel into the air behind him.
Haley stood with her rope held in both hands, her fists clenched. "Dammit," she said, twisting the rope.
But she was already here. Why would the knight think anything of a girl hiding by the road? Did he notice the rope in her hands? Either way, she would try to do what she came to do.
Haley walked through the tangled floor of the forest, getting caught in thorn bushes, and banging her foot on tree roots, all the way around the wall of Natasha's zoo. Once she thought she heard the roar of a lion, and then the calls of dozens of strange birds, but she kept pushing through the forest until she found a huge willow tree on the other side of the zoo. This was the tree she should climb.
She waited in the forest for a while, but saw noone. She walked to the base of the tree. It towered far above her, three times as high as the wall. She swung her grapnel up at the lowest branch, which was as high above her as the top of the wall. She missed, and missed again. But on the third try, she got it. The grapnel stuck firmly into the branch, and Haley climbed up using the rope and the trunk of the tree.
She stood on the big branch and swung her grapnel again, to get the next branch up. This swinging was dangerous, because she was standing on the curving top side of a willow branch. There was a chance she might fall off when she let go of the grapnel. But Haley kept her balance, and on the fourth try, she hooked the branch above. "Yes!" she said to herself, and leaned on the tree trunk for a minute to catch her breath and look around. Her head was at the level of the top of the wall. Beyond the wall, she could see the roof of a large house.
Haley climbed up, swung the grapnel once more to a branch higher still in the tree, and half an hour after beginning her climb, she was sitting on a big branch, high among the willow leaves, with a clear view down into Lady Natasha's zoo, which she started calling Natasha's Compound, because it contained a bunch of things: her house, her barn, her animal cages, her garden, and her patio.
Haley made sure that she was hidden in the shade of the tree before she took out the bincoulars and began to spy upon the compound. She knew that if the sun were to land upon the glass lenses of the binoculars, people in the compound would see a flash of light from the tree, and they would know that someone was watching them.
She had been watching the compound for only a few minutes when the man she had seen galloping on his horse came out of the back door of the house holding his bird cage. The brown cover was gone, and inside the cage was a black bird with an enormous yellow beak. Beside the man walked a woman with pure white skin. She held her head straight up, and as she walked, it seemed to Haley that her head did not go up and down at all, but instead moved forward as if it was floating. This must be Lady Natasha, Haley thought. She wore a long cloak of white fur around her shoulders, covering her arms and her legs. Upon her head was a flat-topped hat of black fur. She was smiling as she walked. Her eyes closed a little with each step that she took, as if she was sleepy. Perhaps she was smiling at whatever the man was saying, or perhaps she was smiling because she liked the bird. Either way, her smile was wide and made Haley feel warm inside.
Lady Natasha (for it was indeed Lady Natasha, as Haley believed), and the man (we don't know who he is, but perhaps we will some day) walked down a path made of slabs of stone set in the grass, until they disappeared beneath some trees, and entered a building Haley could see through the leaves.
"Hmm..." Haley said to herself, and part of her wished that she had brought a notebook with her to make drawings and write down the time at which everything she saw took place, but another part of her was happy that all she had to do was watch, because it would be a bit difficult to watch and write and balance on the branch all at the same time. "What if I need to pee? Well, I could always pee off the edge of the branch. What if I need to poo? That would be a problem. I'll figure that out when the time comes."
Haley looked carefully through the binoculars at the compound. She examined the wall, the buildings, the trees, the house, the windows, the roof, the paths, the drain pipes along the corners of the house, and she looked for dogs. She especially looked for dogs. But she saw none, not even a little pet dog. Surely Lady Natasha would have a cute little pet dog running around her feet? But no, she saw no dogs at all, although she thought she heard some barking a few times. It was difficult to know what animals she was hearing, because there were strange animal noises coming from within the compound every few minutes. The lion roared every ten minutes or so, but it did not sound like a proper lion. Perhaps it was a miniature lion.
And what happened to Lady Natasha? She did not know. Haley must have been looking at one part of the compound while Lady Natasha and the man walked back up the path to the house, and Haley had not noticed them. She looked at the back door and watched it for a long time. It opened and a woman and a man came out carrying meat on big wooden plates. This must be food for the animals, Haley thought. They walked down the path. They were moving their hands in front of one another, as if talking with signs. They met another man who walked out of the trees, and they stood together on the path, amid the white melting snow, and made signs at one another. Haley decided they had no tongues, just like the man in the catacombs, and they had to use signs because they could not speak. Haley wondered why Lady Natasha's servants had no tongues. Had Lady Natasha cut out their tongues herself? The three servants walked away in different directions. They went back inside the house one by one, and in and out carrying things. Once the servant woman came out carrying a green lizard. There was no sign of Lady Natasha.
Haley saw the little green-haired woman a few times as well. She was a strange little woman: not a dwarf or a hobbit, nor a child, but like a miniature woman. She moved quickly on her short legs up and down the paths, and under the trees, carrying things in little cages, and boxes and scissors and other tools that Haley had never seen before.
It was early afternoon when the back door opened and the two male servants came out holding Vik by the shoulders. Haley's heart began to beat faster in her chest. "It worked! I climbed up the tree and look, I saw Vik. I know he's there. It does not matter what Lady Natasha says, or the little woman with green hair says. I know he's there now!" Vik had an iron collar around his neck with a chain. One of the men held the chain. Vik was frowning in his orcish way, which Haley had come to recognise. The two men led him to the edge of the grass and tied the chain around a tree trunk. They locked it with a padlock, and walked away. Vik sat down under the tree. Haley could not see him. "I wonder what he's thinking."
An hour later, and the two male servants came out again, unlocked the chain, and took Vik inside. Haley watched the house carefully. She looked at every window she could see from where she was hiding. She was particularly interested in the middle attic window. Unlike the other attic windows, this one had iron bars outside it. The wooden shutters were open on the outside, and the glass windows were open on the inside, and the iron bars were left in the middle. After watching the window for ten minutes, Haley saw Vik's face looking between the bars. He stared at the sky, and held a bar in each hand and pulled, not as if he thought he might shake the bars loose, but because he was angry.
"So," Haley thought, "That's where they keep him." And it was about then that she realized her bottom was sore from sitting on the hard tree branch with no cusion, and she needed to pee badly, but really did not want to pee off the branch. "Okay," she said to the little beatle crawling around on a leaf near her head, "time to go."
While Haley had been sitting in the tree, Alice was making cookies with her mother, and then having a long nap. When she woke up, she felt much more cheerful. She had a cookie with her mother, and thought about going and finding Haley in the forest near Lady Natasha's house. "If you do that," her mother said, "you might show other people where Haley is when you find her, so I think you should wait for her to come back."
So Alice waited, and in the late afternoon, Haley did come back, and told Alice and her mother what she had seen, while they all had another cookie.
"I think they have dogs, and they let them out at night," Haley said.
"I suggest you buy some meat," their mother said, "and throw it over the wall to distract the dogs while you climb over somewhere else, if you are going to climb over."
Late the following night, when most people in the town were asleep, Alice, Haley, and Legolas walked to the back side of the wall of Lady Natasha's compound. Alice and Haley each had five kilograms of meat wrapped in wax paper in their backpacks. Haley swung her grapnel at the top of the wall, but missed. The grapnel bounced off and fell back down among them. It was very dark there beside the wall, with the trees of the forest behind them, and the moon not yet risen. Haley could not see the top of the wall at all, she just had to guess at where it was, and when the grapnel fell down again, it landed at her feet, and she was glad that it had not landed on her head.
Alice swung the grapnel, and it hooked onto the top of the wall firmly. Haley climbed up the rope, and at the top she found bits of broken glass sticking up out of the morter, so that anyone climbing over the top would cut their hands and their tummy upon it. She was not sure what to do about the glass, but she stayed up on the rope and listened for a few minutes. She was glad she did, because she heard two or three dogs go by at the base of the wall, snuffling and growling to one another.
She climbed down again. "Three dogs going around on the other side, and broken glass stuck in the top of the wall."
Alice wrapped her club in her scarf, and stuck it in her belt. She climbed up the rope, held on with one hand, took the club out with the other, and broke the glass on top of the wall as quietly as she could until it was in tiny little pieces, which she pushed off the other side. She pulled herself up and sat on the wall. She unwrapped the meat from her backpack, and dropped it down on the other side. She did not wait for the dogs to find it, but climbed down right away, back to where she started.
Legolas took the rope in one hand and gave it a sharp sideways jerk, which sent a wave right up the rope. When the wave reached the top, it pushed the grapnel up and unhooked it from the wall, so that it fell down. Legolas picked it up, and they followed him around the wall about a hundred of Alice's steps. He swung the grapnel up, and it stuck on the top of the wall first time. Alice climbed up and broke the glass with her club, then pulled on the rope to say she was ready. She sat on the top of the wall while Haley and then Legolas climbed up and joined her.
"Listen," Legolas said.
They sat still and quiet on the wall, and heard the dogs growling and snarling at one another back where Alice had thrown the meat. "They are fighting over the meat. Now is the time for you to go." He pulled up the rope, dropped it down the other side of the wall, and stuck the grapnel into the top. "I'll wait here."
Alice and Haley climbed down the rope one after another, and stood in the shadows beneath the trees. Ahead of them, moonlight was shining upon the grass of Lady Natasha's lawn. They crept towards the lawn, putting their feet down slowly with every step to make sure they did not break any twigs or step in any holes. When they reached the edge of the lawn, they looked all around them, and crept across the grass. Lady Natasha's house bent around at the back, so that when you stood at the back door looking out upon the garden, the house went to the left and right, and then on both sides turned a corner and went forwards across the grass, making two wings for the house. Haley knew that in the space between the two wings, there was a patio, and that in the corners between the wings were big fat drain pipes that she and Alice could use to climb all the way to the roof.
Haley and Alice reached the house, pressed their backs against the wall, and moved sideways through the shadows to the inside corner. For a couple of minutes the two sisters stood in the darkness next to the drainpipe. Haley's heart was beating fast, and her hands were trembling. She took several deep breaths to make herself calm down. Alice moved her club from one hand to another, so she could wipe the sweat from her hands on her trousers. Her hands felt hot, and she could not seem to breath deeply enough to be comfortable. It was as if she had been running for a long time, but really she had walked only a short distance. She heard the dogs still fighting over the meat. On the opposite wing of the house there was a window with light coming out of it. Someone was still awake. The light must be magical, because the light coming through the window was bright and steady. She reached out and touched the drainpipe. It was cold, and felt good on Alice's hot hands. It was a thick, strong pipe, just as Haley had said. Alice pulled on it as hard as she could, and it did not move at all.
"Are you ready?" Haley said. All she could see of Alice was a dark shape in front of the gray stone of the house.
Haley began to climb up the drain pipe. She held onto it with both hands. She put her feet on the metal clasps that held the pipe to the wall, and upon the sills of the windows closest to the corners. It was easy climbing, and Haley was pleased that she had chosen this place to climb up. With the wall right next to her on the left and right sides, she felt safe and hidden. When she reached the top, she had to find the right places to put her feet so that she could get around the eaves of the roof, where the roof stuck out by about an arm's length from the house. The drain pipe disappeared into the wall just below the eaves. She grabbed the eaves, stood on the top of the drain pipe, jumped up and hooked her right leg over the wooden rain gutter at the edge of the roof. The gutter creaked, and it smelled of rotten leaves like a forest floor. Some water spilled out onto Haley's trousers, but she pulled herself around the edge of the gutter with her leg, and then pushed off the wall with her other leg to get herself around and onto the stone tiles of the roof. She lay there on her tummy for a minute, catching her breath, and waited for Alice to catch up with her.
When Alice reached the top, Haley helped her climb around the gutter by taking the hand that Alice reached up with from below. Alice sat down next to Haley. The tree-tops of the forest were dim and shapeless in the light of the moon. Many of the trees rose higher than the roof. The two sisters sat quietly for a few minutes, until they were no longer breathing hard.
"I can't hear the dogs fighting over the meat any more," Haley said.
Alice tried to hear the dogs, but she could not. "Maybe we are too high up to hear them."
Haley nodded. "I'm ready."
Alice stood up. "I'm ready too."
The two girls walked along the roof, past one attic window, and then another, until they came to the middle one in which Haley had seen Vik's face the day before. The shutters were still open, even though it was a winter's night. There were five bars running from top to bottom of the window frame. Behind the bars was a closed glass window. The room inside was dark. Alice wrapped her fingers around one of the bars. It was cold and hard. Haley took off her backpack and took out her brand new metal file. It was as long as her forarm and made of hardened steel. It was thin in one direction, and wide in the other. All around it there were sharp, scratchy lines cut across the surface of the metal. These were for scratching away softer metal, like the metal of the iron bars.
Haley held her file in one hand and grabbed one of the middle bars with the other. "I think we should cut through the top and the bottom of these two middle bars. That will make enough space for him to get out."
Alice took her own metal file out of her backpack. She set her backpack down on the gutter above the attic window, and grabbed hold of another bar and held her file ready. She looked at the bars, and how far apart they were. Maybe Vik could squeeze through if they cut just one bar. Or maybe not. Alice wanted to cut through a bar all by herself. "Okay," Alice said, and she started to scrape her file against the bottom of her bar, just as the blacksmith in the shop in town had taught them to do that afternoon. The file scraped at the metal, and made a loud squeeking noise. Alice stopped moving and Haley held her breath. The noise was so loud, both girls were worried that the dogs would hear it and come looking for them, or someone would wake up in the house and wonder what was going on.
The window behind the bars opened. Haley and Alice could just see Vik's white face looking out at them. "Haley? Alice?"
"Yes," Haley said, "It's us. We have come to rescue you."
"Good! I glad!" he said.
"But please be quiet," Haley said, in a whisper. "We don't want to wake up Lady Natasha."
"Wake up? Lady no sleep, never."
"Really?" Alice said.
"We don't want the dogs to hear us," Haley said, "or the men with no tongues."
"No," Vik said, "I be quiet." He looked at the metal files in their hands. The girls could hardly see at all in the reflected moonlight, but Vik's orc eyes are like the eyes of a cat. He could see the files, and he understood what the girls were trying to do. "Give me, I help."
"We have to go slowly," Haley said, "or the files squeek."
"Oil you have?"
Haley shook her head. Alice said, "No oil."
Vik sniffed the air. "Meat you have?"
"Yes," Haley said, "But it's not time to eat now."
Vik growled and grabbed the bars with his hands. "Rude! I am not stupid. I am not hungry. I have me idea. You stupid."
Dreadmanifold had told Alice and Haley that orcs are not stupid, nor are they cruel or unkind. But they get angry quickly, and they love to fight. For them fighting is not shouting and saying mean things to one another, it's punching and hair-pulling and wrestling until someone says they give up. Luckily for Alice and Haley, Vik was on one side of the iron bars, and they were on the other. All he could do was pull on the bars and growl. But if he was on their side of the bars, he would jump on Haley and twist her arm or something until he hurt her in some way, and then he would calm down. This way, he would have to calm down on his own, which might take a few minutes.
"What is he so angry about, anyway?" Haley said.
"He smelled the meat in my backpack," Alice said.
Haley looked through the iron bars at the white smudge in the darkness that was Vik's face. "You want to use the meat for something?"
Vik growled at her. "I smack anyone who talk to me like I am a stupid."
Alice took down her backpack and brought out her package of meat. "Here's the meat."
"Meat has fat on it," Haley said, "Maybe we can use the fat like oil or grease on the files to stop them from squeeking."
Alice took out a piece of meat. There was a hard white lump of fat on one side of it, and the girls rubbed this on all sides of their files, and on the metal bars, and then started filing again. The files slid back and forth across the metal of the bars with a quiet scraping noise. After a minute, Haley's file squeaked, so she put more grease on, and Alice did the same. Both girls felt their metal bars to see if the files had made any scratch in the surface, and they found that the files had bitten into the metal just enough for them to feel with their fingers.
"I help. I stand here. I am strong," Vik said, and put a hand out through the bars.
Haley gave Vik her file, and Vik started filing. He was good at it. He must have done it before. He went quickly and quietly. Alice and Haley took turns with the other file. They found that their arms became tired quickly, especially because they had to hold on to the bar with on arm to keep themselves from falling off the roof. As time went by, the moon rose up into the sky, and began to shine upon their side of the roof. Haley could see Vik's face clearly, and she could see that he used the file with both hands. One hand was on the handle of the file, and the other on the tip. The moon shone upon the slate tiles of the roof all around them. Haley and Alice made sure they stayed hidden in the shadow of the attic window, which stuck out from the roof enough to make a dark patch in front of the bars.
Vik cut through the bottom of his bar and started working on the top. Haley and Alice cut through the bottom of their bar a few minutes later. They tried to bend the bar outwards by pulling the bottom, but the bar was too strong. They could not bend it at all. Vik did not try to help them. He just kept filing, but when they both pulled on their bar together, Haley saw him shake his head, as if to say, "No way, girls."
Haley and Alice heard the scratching of clawed feet upon stone. They looked around, thinking for a moment that a dog was on the roof, but the dogs were not on the roof, they down below on the patio, between the two wings of the house. They were sniffing around the base of the drain pipe up which Alice and Haley had climbed.
"Oh no," Haley said.
"We can fight the dogs," Alice said, "We have Vik with us."
"But we will come down one at a time. Whoever gets down first will have to fight all the dogs until the next person comes down."
Alice nodded. "You're right." She sat looking down at the garden, listening to the dogs. After a while, she turned back to the bars, and continued filing.
Haley wondered how they were going to get away. After a few minutes, the dogs left. "Good," she thought.
Haley and Alice cut through the top of their bar. It fell into their hands, and they gave it to Vik, who put it on the floor of his room. The ends of the bar were hot. Vik picked up his file again, and continued working on his own bar. A few minutes later he was almost all the way through the metal. He stopped to rest his arm. Haley and Alice grabbed the bar and bent it back and forth. It snapped off, and they gave it to Vik.
"Okay," Haley said, "Can you climb out?"
"Wait you wait," Vik said, and went back into the room. The girls heard a tearing sound, and a shuffling about, and then Vik was back, smiling his orc-smile. He grabbing two of the remaining bars, and pulled himself up through the opening they had made. He crouched between Haley and Alice on the slanting roof, in the shadow of the attic window. "You good friends me."
Below them, the children heard the dogs scratching around on the patio, sniffing and growling. Vik listened. "Dogs," he said.
"Yes," Alice said, "Guard dogs."
"I think we should climb over to the other side of the roof," Haley said, "and go down one of the outside corners of the house. It will be more difficult than the inside corner, but there is a drainpipe to climb down. If we hurry, the dogs will still be sniffing around on the patio while we climb down."
"I follow," Vik said.
"Okay," Alice said.
Haley went first, up and over the moonlit roof. She stepped as carefully as she could. She did not want to wake up anyone who might be sleeping in one of the attic rooms. Alice was quiet too, but Vik was wearing his boots, as always, and he scraped and bumped as he crawled on his hands and knees up the slippery roof, and down the other side. Haley looked back at him, and considered telling him to be quiet, but she decided that it was all Vik could do to crawl on the roof, let alone walk quietly upon it like she and her sister were doing.
They reached the outside corner of the house, and there was a drainpipe below the roof gutter. Haley looked down the height of the corner and sat back on the roof. She felt dizzy. It was going to be a difficult climb. If only they had a long rope, but their rope was waiting for them at the wall, with Legolas. She took slow, deep breaths, and closed her eyes. "Calm down, calm down," she said to herself.
Alice watched her sister. Haley was scared, which made Alice scared too. She looked at Vik. He was sitting with his hands around his knees, humming to himself and rocking back and forth. Vik was not a good climber, it seemed to Alice. He had been crawling on the roof instead of walking. If Haley was frightened to climb down the outside corner, what was Vik going to do? Would he just sit on the roof and say, "I no come with," or something like that?
"I'll go first," Haley said. She turned around on her tummy and let herself slide out over the edge of the roof. She slipped a little, held onto the gutter, and slipped some more. She was hanging by both hands from gutter, her feet dangling in mid-air, ten meters above the ground. But her arms were strong. She knew she could hang there for a full minute before they began to hurt. The gutter was strong, certainly strong enough to hold a child. She looked down at the drainpipe, and swung her self back and forth until she could hook one of her feet behind it, and put another one on one of the metal rods that held the drain to the wall. She reached down with one hand and grabbed the drain, then let go of the gutter. She held on to the drain with both hands and let her weight rest upon her feet. She closed her eyes for a moment and let out a long sigh of relief.
"Haley?" Alice whispered from up above.
"Okay," Haley said. She started climbing down. There were a few difficult parts, but she went carefully, and within two minutes she was standing on the grass alone in the moonlight at the corner of the house. She looked around for the dogs. They were nowhere to be seen, but it would take them only a few seconds to cross the grass from any direction to attack her. She loosened her knife in its sheath and looked up. She saw Vik's legs sticking out over the edge of the roof.
Up on the roof, Alice had her heels in the gutter, holding her up on the roof, and with her hands she held one of Vik's wrists as he lowered himself over the edge. She could feel him shaking. His skin was hot and sweaty. Alice was sure that Vik was afraid, but Vik had said nothing, and when Alice told him that it was his turn, he turned around and lay on his tummy just as Haley had done. That was when Alice took one of his wrists to help him, and he said. "Good friend," to her.
Vik swung back and forth, and grabbed the drainpipe with his legs. His hand slipped from Alice's grasp. He grabbed the drain just in time, and held on. His feet scraped on the side of the house as he found a place to put his weight. He did not rest, but began to climb down right away, as fast as he could.
Haley looked up and clenched her fists. "Slow down," she thought. She looked around her for the dogs, and back up at Vik. He was already half-way down. As she watched, she saw his foot slip from the ledge he had been standing upon. He grabbed the drainpipe, and pulled himself towards the wall, but he had nothing to stand on, and he was sliding down the pipe. Haley moved under him. She would try to catch him, or break his fall. She might be hurt, but she would save Vik from being killed. Vik gave up trying to hold onto the pipe, and pushed himself away from the wall so he could land on his feet. Haley looked up at him, and their eyes met for a moment before he landed on top of her, crushing her to the ground and forcing the wind out of her.
For a few seconds the two children, one orc and one sapien, lay in a heap on the ground, their legs and arms tangled together. Haley felt a sharp pain in her chest. When she looked around, she felt sick, so she closed her eyes. Her lungs did not want to let her breath. She had to try hard just to draw in one breath. She tasted blood in her mouth, and one of her fingers felt as if someone had put it on a block of wood and hit it with a hammer.
Vik stood up and shook his head. He was bleeding from his mouth and the palms of both of his hands. There was a gash in his shirt, with blood trickling down his arm to his finger-tips. Haley wondered what could have cut him like that. He reached down with one bloody hand and helped her up. "You good friend, you." He was smiling.
Alice started to climb down. She hung from the gutter, grabbed the drainpipe, stood on the fastening rod, and began to descend slowly. She was careful to choose good places for her feet and her hands. She was half-way down when she looked across the lawn to her left, and she saw the dogs in the trees. Haley and Vik were watching her. They had not seen the dogs. Had the dogs seen her? She was not sure. She began to climb down quickly. But when she came to the place were Vik had fallen, she put her foot on a fastening rod, only to find, as Vik had done, that it was broken. It slipped out from under her foot. She breathed in sharply when she realized she might fall. She grabbed the drainpipe, but her hand could not hold her weight. She grabbed again, but she was already falling, down through the night air to the ground. She landed feet-first on Vik and Haley, and crushed them both to the ground, forcing the wind out of all three of them.
The three children lay in a heap on the ground. Alice and Haley moaned, they were in such pain. Vik pushed himself up. He was bleeding from his forehead now as well, but he did not seem to mind. He limped towards the wall and leaned on it. It seemed to Alice that some of her ribs must be broken, because every time she breathed, she felt a stabbing pain in her chest. Haley felt certain that every part of her body was hurt in some way. One of her knees was so badly bruised she could hardly bend it to get up. But she did get up, and so did Alice.
"Where go now?" Vik said.
"This way," Haley said, "Before the dogs find us."
Vik and Alice followed Haley across the grass, towards the shadows of the trees. Haley wanted to run, but her knee was hurting so much, all she could manage was a quick walk. Vik was limping behind her, and Alice was holding her chest with her arm and frowning.
When they reached the shadows, Haley was glad. The dogs would not be able to see them here. "Vik, take us through the trees to the wall, and go to the right. Legolas is waiting on top of the wal."
"Legolas no shoot me," Vik said.
"No shoot you," Haley said.
Vik spat some blood out of his mouth, and went first into the darkness. He led them straight towards the wall. Haley put her hand on his back to follow him, and Alice put her hand on Haley's back. When they reached the wall, all three children put one hand upon its cool surface, and they knew that all they had to do was get to the other side of the wall and they would be free.
There was a cage on their right. Alice and Haley could see the shape of the cage, but not what was in it. When they were next to it, Alice heard a deep snoring noise. Whatever was in the cage was big, and probably had big teeth. They passed the cage, and Vik stopped.
"What is it?" Haley said.
"You see? There, under tree there."
Haley stared into the darkness. "I see nothing, Vik."
"You no see?"
Vik was silent for a moment. Alice stared into the darkness. She smelled something funny, something sharp in the air that she felt sure would sting her nostrils if it were any stronger. She heard something breathing twenty steps away. It breathed out a quick snort every few seconds. It did not sound like a lion or a dog.
"Monster there," Vik said, "Smells bad. Bad breath make you sick. Monster see in dark. Feel ground. No hear good, but hear ground foot."
Haley said, "What shall we do?"
Whatever it was, it moved, and Haley heard a metal chain lifting off the ground and stretching out. The monster's voice was loud and only ten steps away.
"Run!" Vik said, and they ran with him along the wall. The monster coughed, or gasped, and the children heard a rushing of air, as if the monster was blowing its breath upon them. In fact, that was exactly what the monster was doing, and before they could get away, the children felt their eyes and noses stinging with some awful gas. Haley and Alice held their breath, and closed their eyes. But Vik was pulling his blind friends forward and away from the monster, and he forgot to hold his breath. He brought them out of the cloud of gas, and along the wall to a rope he saw hanging down from above. He leaned against the wall. He felt sick. He felt sleepy. The monster's breath was in his body. He had to fight it. He had to climb over the wall. If he did not climb now, he would be unable to climb later. He took the rope and began to climb. Below him, he heard the sound of dogs barking.
The dogs had heard the monster breathing, and now they were racing across the lawn towards Alice and Haley. Alice took out her flashlight and her club, and put her back pack on her back. Haley held her knife ready. She was hurting all over. She did not want to fight. But there was nothing else they could do. Vik was climbing up the rope. Alice could go next, but someone was going to have to stay and fight the dogs at once, and then start climbing. It seemed impossible, but Haley saw no other choice.
The three dogs were running through the moonlight. They were almost to the edge of the trees. Their eyes were wide and hungry, their lips were pulled back showing their big white teet. They were barking together, and Haley knew that all three of them were excited to have something to hunt. Most likely, the dogs were trained to hold people by the arm until their masters came to see what they had caught. But it was possible that the dogs had no training at all, but just ran around killing things. That was unlikely, but it was possible. When Haley looked at the dogs running, she saw nothing but the hunger of a hunting animal in their eyes.
The dogs entered the shadows beneath the trees, and Haley could see them only as fast-moving black shapes with the moonlit lawn behind them. Alice turned on her flashlight and shone it straight in the eyes of the dog that was out in front of the rest, and only twenty steps from the girls where they stood against the wall. Haley heard a whoosh in the air above her, and the dog was suddenly tumbling across the ground. It stopped in the darkness a few steps from Haley's feet, absolutely quiet. Alice shone her flashlight on the next dog. The wooshing noise came again, and Haley heard a dull thud. The dog's legs stopped moving, and it slid across the ground. As it passed out of the light of Alice's flashlight, Haley saw a yellow-feathered arrow sticking from its shoulder. The arrow had passed through the dog's shoulder, deep into its body, and pierced its heart.
"Legolas!" Haley said.
Alice shone her flashlight upon the third dog. An arrow flew through the air from the top of the wall, and buried itself, even to the feather, in the dog's body. The dog's front legs tried to take a few more steps, but the back of its body collapsed to the ground. For a moment, the dog looked up into Alice's flashlight. It's eyes were no longer hungry. They darted to the left and right, as if trying to find something, and then the dog's head fell to the ground as well, and its eyes were still.
Haley and Alice looked at the dog for a few seconds. There was no more barking. The dogs were dead. But the animals in the cages all through the garden were making noise, and the back door of the house opened, and someone was coming out.
"Climb up, Alice," Haley said.
Alice climbed up, and Haley after her. Vik was sitting on top of the wall. Legolas was standing upon it, as if he was standing upon solid earth. He had his bow on his back again, and he pulled up the rope behind Haley and let it down the other side. He climbed down first. Vik came next, then Alice and Haley. Legolas flicked the rope at the bottom and the grapnel came loose at the top, and fell right into his hands. He gave the rope and grapnel to Haley, and she put it in her pack.
On the other side of the wall, Haley heard a woman's voice calling. "It's Lady Natasha," Haley thought. The servants might be there too, but they could not speak, so they would say nothing. The moon shone down upon Legolas's face. He was frowning. He turned to Haley, "Let's go."
Alice was kneeling next to Vik, who had sat down on the ground. "Are you okay?" she said. Vik leaned forwards, put his weight on one hand, and threw up on the forest floor. He lay on his side and closed his eyes. "Vik," Alice said, and she shook him, "Wake up, we have to go." But Vik would not wake up.
Legolas kneeled down beside Vik and listened to him breathing. "He's alive. He has been poisoned by the hydra. I'll carry him. He'll wake up in an hour or two. He'll be fine in a couple of days." Legolas picked Vik up and threw him over his shoulder.
"Don't hurt him," Alice said.
Legolas started walking into the forest. Without looking back he said, "He's an orc, Alice, and he's the son of my worst enemy. One day he will be my enemy too, and his son as well, no doubt, so just be thankful that I'm carrying him for you."
Haley and Alice looked at one another, and followed Legolas into the forest. Behind them, Lady Natasha cried out. "My dogs, oh my dogs!"
Legolas led them quickly through the trees. Haley and Alice were hurting all over, and it was all they could do to keep up with Legolas as he strode through the forest with Vik over his shoulder.
"She will know it was me," Legolas said.
"How will she know?" Haley said, "She didn't see you."
Legolas laughed. It was not a happy laugh. "When she finds her three dogs shot through the heart like that, while they were running, at night, who is she going to think did it?"
"Only Legolas can shoot like that," Alice said.
"Who cares is she knows?" Haley said.
Legolas did not answer. Whatever Legolas was worried about, it did not worry the girls. They had rescued their friend, and they were proud.
"I feel bad for the dogs," Haley said.
"Me too," Alice said.
"Nothing ever turns out perfectly for everyone," Legolas said, "At least, no exciting adventure ever turns out perfectly for everyone. That's what makes it an exciting adventure, don't you think? It can end well for you, or for someone else, but you want it to be you."
Haley nodded. That seemed to make sense.
"I can't believe we rescued Vik!" Alice said, and she waved her club over her head.