“And what then?”
“We wait them out.”
Curtis jumped in: “Maybe you could get in on some bandit training!”
Brendan grumbled. “It mayn’t be safe for her to venture past the boundary of the camp. In fact, it might not be safe for any of us.”
“Right,” said Curtis. “That was another thing the wolf said: that the Kitsunes might be targeting all the important people in the—what do you call it?—Bicycle Coup.”
“The Bicycle Coup?” asked Prue, nonplussed.
“Yeah, you missed that bit, the naming,” said Curtis. “That’s what they called the overthrow of all the South Wood government when—after the plinth—we freed the birds and got Lars Svik out of the Mansion. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I guess a lot of people are really attached to the whole thing—the bicycle and all. They call you the Bicycle Maiden, supposedly.”
“The Bicycle Maiden,” Prue repeated quietly, trying out the words. The label seemed pretty appealing, actually. Suddenly, a thought occurred to her. “Wait a second. If these shape-shifters are after people who were part of the coup, what about Iphigenia? And Owl? Won’t they be targeted too?”
“Aye, perhaps,” said Brendan. “We don’t know the details of these assassins’—or their masters’—intents. We don’t rightly know if there’s more than just the one. Maybe they’re after everyone. Maybe they’re just after you! In any case, we’ve been tasked to keep you safe, Prue, since there weren’t nothing to guard you in the Outside.”
They walked in single file along a game trail that seemed to Prue indistinguishable from the wild forest floor; Curtis told her everything the wolf, Corporal Donalbain, had reported at the clandestine meeting in North Wood: the patriotism surrounding the Coup, the rise of the Synod, the marginalization of the interim government, the deprivations brought on by the unrest and the harsh winter. It was enough to make Prue’s head spin.
“I can’t believe how much has changed in only a few short months!” exclaimed Prue as they skirted the boundary of a grassy meadow. “I mean, what happened? They’re getting it all wrong!” She abruptly stopped and planted her hands on her hips. “Why don’t we just go down there—I mean, I’m the Bicycle Maiden, after all. Can’t we just go march into South Wood, to the Mansion, and just get things going again?”
“Not safe, Prue,” said Brendan. “Our instructions are to keep you away from the watching eyes of whoever is trying to have you done in. Come on, let’s keep moving. We’re nearly there.”
Within fifteen paces, they arrived at a dense tangle of high salal bushes, which created something of a wall that seemed to extend in either direction endlessly. Brendan paused and studied it. “This is fairly new,” he explained. “Still getting used to … Where … aha!” Tucked inconspicuously within the hedge’s greenery was a weblike piece of fabric that Brendan pulled aside to reveal a passageway. Prue walked in first and ducked low to avoi
d the low-hanging tendrils of leaves that batted at her hair. Clearing the massive hedgerow, she suddenly felt the ground slip away beneath her. She yelped and scrambled backward. The moon had disappeared behind a cloud, and the ground before her was veiled in blackness. Brendan appeared, carrying a lit torch. “Careful there,” he cautioned. “Watch your feet.” The Bandit King swept the torch out before them, and Prue saw that she was standing at the edge of a rocky cliff.
“Where are we?” she exclaimed.
“The Long Gap,” said Brendan. “Our new home.” Handing the torch to Curtis, he reached behind a nearby rock and produced a large spool of rope that had been hidden there. Giving a quick, shrill whistle, he tossed the rope over the edge, where Prue heard it patter against the cliff wall. He then looped an oxbow of the rope through a metal ring attached to his leather belt and tried the strength of the line; it held firm, anchored at the base of a large tree. He gestured to Prue. “Climb on,” he said. Prue threw her arms around Brendan’s neck and felt her stomach plunge as he began descending, backward, down the cliff face. The rope supported them; he fed it from his gloved hands as he easily walked his way downward. Prue nuzzled her face into his shoulder, her eyes shut tight; the bandit smelled of sweat and evergreen needles.
After a time, as the mouth of the giant cleft swallowed the cloudy sky above them, the two rappellers alighted on a wooden platform that was affixed to the cliff wall. A small red lantern provided a dim light. Brendan set Prue down gently and then gave two hard tugs to the rope. Prue looked around her, getting her bearings. The bottom of the rocky fissure was still obscured by impenetrable dark. Leading from the platform was a rope bridge, which crossed into the darkness. A few flickering lights could be seen in the distance, like a swarm of fireflies. Curtis joined them shortly on the platform; he detached the rope from a figure-eight clasp at his belt. Prue looked at him with amazement. “Where’d you learn to do that?”
“Rappelling,” he said, smiling. “Third period.”
A whistle sounded from across the chasm; Prue could see someone on the other side of the rope bridge swinging a lantern. Brendan whistled twice, quickly, and the three travelers began crossing. The wind whipped through the gorge; the bridge bowed and shivered as they reached the midway point. Prue, her hands fixed tightly to the rope that served as the handrail, concentrated all her powers on not looking down. Arriving at a platform on the far side, they were greeted by a bandit.
“Eamon,” said Brendan.
“King,” replied the bandit.
Prue now recognized what had been those elusive, dancing lights she’d seen from the other side of the bridge: All along the steep, jagged wall, lanterns dotted the cliff face, illuminating deep recesses in the rock where crude structures had been built of knobby tree limbs—door frames and vestibules, covered here and there by deer-hide flaps. More rope bridges could now be seen, linking these many cave openings together—several crisscrossed the gap farther along, where other lanterns could be seen shining; wooden steps led down deeper into the chasm, and Prue saw that this dizzying constellation of lantern light continued on downward beyond the range of her vision. Having heard their whistle, faces began appearing from within the fissures in the stone—the hardened faces of the bandits could be seen peering down at the newly arrived travelers.
“You moved,” was all Prue could manage to say.
“Yeah,” replied Brendan. “We change hideouts when the assembly determines that the camp ain’t safe. We’d been compromised by the coyotes; we had no choice but to move.” He stood on the platform and proudly surveyed the entire camp, extending out as it did in all directions along the cliff wall. “It was a doozy to set up, but I think we’ll be able to stay here a while.”
Prue looked over the edge, trying to make out the farthest lights and the cave entrances they illuminated. Beyond was total blackness. “How far does it go down?” she asked.
“No one knows,” said Brendan. “We found some sign of ancient settlers, cliff dwellers, farther below, but the way gets harder beyond that. So don’t be droppin’ anything you might value, ’cause you won’t see it come back.”
A rickety wooden staircase led farther down the face of the wall to what looked to be a launching area of some kind: a long platform that extended out into the chasm, surrounded by a wooden handrail. At one end of the platform, a hole had been routed to allow a gnarled tree that had grown out of the cliff face through the planking; the stout tree anchored a cable that bowed out into the distant dark. Attached to the cable was a wheeled pulley assembly, which in turn supported the weight of a large box, big enough to support four or five people. Brendan waved the way forward, and Prue gingerly climbed in. “Hold on,” instructed Brendan as he and Curtis climbed into the box beside her. Curtis undid a line that was holding the box in place and the vehicle took off, zipping down the cable past a dazzling array of lantern-lit hovels and cave entrances, platforms and walkways.
The box stopped sharply at a lower platform. As another bandit attendant greeted them, Prue could see beyond to a massive opening in the cliff face, where throngs of colorfully clad bandits gathered around a large fire pit; the smell of cooked venison hovered in the air. As soon as Prue arrived on the stone floor of the cave, everyone’s attention immediately swiveled to the new arrival.
“Prue!” one said.
“The Outsider girl!” said another.