“This is going to sound really weird, I’m warning you.”
“And you’re the first to hear this, other than my parents.”
“That’s what teachers are for, Prue.”
A deep breath. “I’ve been in there.”
Darla’s eyes widened.
“Into the Impassable Wilderness.”
“Yeah,” said Prue. “And you wouldn’t believe what happened.”
Prue felt an enormous weight lift from her shoulders.
A blast of hot air greeted Curtis as he walked into the enormous hall, and his glasses immediately fogged up. He stumbled forward a few steps, feeling the stone floor beneath his boots, until he stepped on something soft.
“OW!” came a voice from below him. It was Septimus. “Watch where you’re walking!”
“Sorry!” said Curtis, yanking the glasses from his face. He opened his coat and began wiping the lenses clean with the hem of his shirt. His vision was intensely blurred without his glasses on, but even so he could see that a massive conflagration in a central fire pit provided the long hall its warmth and light. It glowed in the center of the room like a sun. He could make
out the misty silhouettes of figures around the fire; they began to move toward him. He fed his cleaned glasses back onto the bridge of his nose. What he saw made him smile.
“Iphigenia!” he said, recognizing the approaching figures. “Mr. Fox!”
“H’lo, Curtis,” said the fox, a toothpick hanging jauntily from his teeth. He stuck out a red paw, and Curtis shook it happily.
Iphigenia watched the exchange, and when Curtis turned to her, she grasped him by the shoulders. Her gray hair hung strawlike to touch the rough weave of her sackcloth robe. Her eyes, mottled green and deep, quickly sized him up. “I’d say you’ve grown a bit since last I saw you, Bandit Curtis,” she said, “but how can that be?”
He felt a hardy slap on his back; Brendan stood behind him, smiling. “That’s what a few months of rigorous bandit training will do to a lad.”
“Welcome to our province, Bandit King,” said Iphigenia, her eyes still searching Curtis’s. When she appeared satisfied, she turned to Brendan and bowed.
“Hrrmph,” said Sterling Fox gruffly. “If my grandfather Chester had lived to see this day; Wildwood Bandits in North Wood.” The slightest wisp of a smile played on his face.
“Indeed!” exclaimed Brendan, his arms akimbo. He made a show of surveying the interior of the long hall. “Hope you made a careful log of all the valuables that you’ve got stashed about,” he said. “I don’t intend to rob ye blind, but I can’t speak for my comrade here.” He nudged Curtis playfully. “An ace on the pickpocketing, this one. Could steal the lip ring from a sultan’s concubine!”
“He’s joking,” explained Curtis, embarrassed. “We won’t take anything.” He paused, then corrected himself. “But yeah, I’ve gotten fairly good at that.”
“Very impressive, my boy,” said Iphigenia. “You’ve taken to the bandit way of life with gusto.”
“Still needs help with his horsemanship, I understand.” This was Owl Rex, folding one massive wing around Curtis’s shoulders.
“How do you know that?” Curtis asked, chastened.
“We have eyes,” said Owl. “We are the creatures of the air, after all.”
Brendan looked down on his recruit proudly. “He’ll get there, I have no doubt.”
“But come!” said Iphigenia, taking Curtis’s hand. “To the fire pit. We have much to talk about and very little time to do so.” There was a new sadness in her eyes, Curtis couldn’t help but notice; she seemed to have grown impossibly old since he’d seen her last. Her fingers felt like fragile twigs in his hand; they felt as if they would dissipate into ash at the slightest pressure.
Iphigenia guessed at his concern. “Rationing, my boy,” she said sadly. “Takes a toll on old bones.” She waved a gaunt hand to the surrounding hall. “’Tis the winter of our discontent. I believe one of your Outsider poets penned the line. Hard times are upon the North Wood. And we are not alone in our misery.”
“That’s what the heron—Maude—said. She also said Prue was in danger. What’s happening?” Curtis ventured, his curiosity getting the better of him.