“Oops,” said Elsie. She pulled the lever again. A new nut was spit out. Again she destroyed it by bringing the machine’s teeth down on it.
Unthank’s face turned beet red. He stepped away from Martha and Rachel and walked toward Elsie. “That’s two demerits, little girl,” he said.
Elsie’s hand went back to the lever. Rachel looked up through her strands of hair. “Elsie!” she said. “Don’t do this!”
“Sorry, sis,” Elsie said. “I can’t let you go alone.” She pulled the lever, twice. A High-Alloy Rhomboid Oscillated Bolt Nut was created and destroyed in the passing of a few seconds.
“THREE DEMERITS!” shouted Unthank, spittle flying from his mouth. “UNADOPTABLE!” He strode briskly to where Elsie stood and grabbed her, hard, by the shoulder. He then walked her to the stairwell and shoved her in line with Martha and Rachel. He looked back out over the machine shop. “Anyone else? Anyone want to try me?”
The room was silent.
Unthank smoothed the front of his argyle sweater, which had become very rumpled from the activity. He pushed a few strands of hair back from his brow. “Right,” he said, his earlier composure lost. “Back to work.”
he goateed man had been pushed to the end of his patience; he did not instruct Martha, Rachel, and Elsie to go to the dormitory, clean up, and collect their personal effects. Instead, he shoved them rudely up the stairs, away from the shop floor, and marched them directly down the checkerboard hallway to the door of his office.
The Foundering Antelope; A Long Journey
If anything, the woman elicited sympathy from the passing travelers along the Road. She passed easily as a wayward vagabond, her flower-printed dashiki flecked with mud and torn at the shoulder. A gypsy caravan driver even stopped and gave her a knitted shawl, which she accepted with mumbled thanks. Certainly, the few passersby who saw her decided she must have suffered some sort of great misfortune that she should be out traveling the Long Road in this cold, wintry weather in such wretched clothing. One pilgrim sought to give her a few coins as he passed but recoiled when he saw her lacerated, bloodied face. He dropped the silver to the ground and continued on his way. She did not stop to pick them up.
The snow blew wildly at the top of the pass, and the woman held the shawl she’d been given tight at her throat. The terrain was steep and inhospitable here, and the snow collected on the ground in heaping drifts. The visibility grew dim, and the woman gritted her teeth in determination. Finally, she arrived at the faded wooden sign that marked the border between North Wood and Wildwood, at which point she took a small trail that led off the road and into the trees. Before long, she came to a cave in the mountainside. A warm fire crackled within and she entered, greeting the inhabitants curtly.
“It’s done, Darla?” asked one of the fireside-sitters. He was a dark-haired man, dressed in a black three-piece suit.
She nodded as she sat by the fire. She reached her hands out to warm them. Her fingers were blotched with dark red stains.
“Good,” said a woman on the other side of the fire pit. She had her hair cropped close to her skull and wore a sort of terrycloth tracksuit.
Darla exhaled a sigh of relief as the warmth of the cave settled around her. She shook a few errant flakes of snow from her long black hair before she looked at the fourth occupant of the cave: a wolf wearing an eye patch.
“Now, Corporal,” said Darla, “if you would kindly tell us exactly where this bandit enclave is, we can issue you your reward.”
The wolf huffed agreement and took a long draw off a flagon of beer.
“I don’t know if this is such a good idea, Prue,” said Curtis, watching his friend frantically pack a knapsack with a few days’ worth of supplies. They were standing in the bandits’ kitchen; Prue was pulling items from a makeshift larder while the kitchen staff looked on. “I mean, we’re supposed to keep you safe. Hidden.”
“Hold this,” said Prue, putting the half-filled pack in his arms. She stuck an apple in her mouth, clasping it with her teeth, while she searched through a basket of tarnished silver utensils. Finding an oak-handled buck knife, she opened it and tested the blade. Satisfied, she turned and threw it into the knapsack in Curtis’s hands.
She took the apple out of her mouth to speak. “I have to. I have to see her. I have to see what happened. I have to see the tree.”
“The Council Tree,” Prue said as she began rummaging about in the knapsack, taking stock. “After I came to, after the screaming stopped, I felt this weird pull. It felt a little like homesickness. But it wasn’t, ’cause I wasn’t sick for my home. It’s like if I don’t do this, I can’t see the way forward. Besides, maybe I can help.” She grabbed the bag from Curtis and slung it over her back.
“But what about Brendan?” Curtis said, his voice low so as not to attract too much attention. The bandits of the kitchen staff returned to their work, skinning potatoes and dropping bowlfuls of carrots into a steaming pot on a crackling fire. “What about our instructions? To keep you safe? You know, it was Iphigenia herself who gave them to us.”
“Bye,” said Prue.
Curtis chased after as Prue walked out of the cave and onto a swaying rope bridge. “Now hold on here,” he said.
“I can’t explain it, Curtis,” said Prue, moving briskly.
“So you just heard all this screaming....”