“And you nearly passed out.”
“And now you have to come out of hiding—even though your life is threatened by a shape-changing assassin—to walk however many miles in a snowstorm to go talk to a tree.”
“I’m coming with you,” said Curtis.
Together, they threaded the various walkways and bridges of the bandit encampment. Soon, they arrived at the bottom of the cliff wall they’d climbed to enter. Two cables hung down from the precipice above, their ends pooled in a coil. Curtis and Prue helped each other lock into the climbing harnesses; arriving at the top, they were greeted by a familiar voice.
“What’s up, kids?” asked Septimus the rat, standing at eye level on a low branch. He was picking his teeth with a twig.
“Did you just now get back from the North?” asked Curtis, a little out of breath from the climb.
The rat nodded. “Flying’s not natural for a guy of my species. Besides, it was a nice walk. Took a little detour on the way, helped out some folks, did some good deeds; I go where I’m most needed.” He puffed up his chest a little. He then eyed Prue’s knapsack. “Where are you guys headed?”
“Back to North Wood,” said Curtis.
“Back?” The rat groaned. “Aren’t you supposed to be in hiding?” He was pointing his twig at Prue.
“I’ll take my chances,” she said.
“Does Brendan know?” asked the rat.
“No,” said Curtis. “And we’d like to keep it that way.”
Septimus stuck the twig in his mouth and chewed on it thoughtfully. “Well,” he said, “I’m no good at keeping secrets. Guess I’ll have to come with you guys. Besides, I don’t want to be in the room when he finds out; the man’s got a temper.” He hopped nimbly from the tree branch and landed squarely on Curtis’s shoulder. “Onward!” he said, pointing the twig northward like a saber.
The trio made their way through the tunnel in the salal bushes. Their feet quietly crunched through the light layer of snow on the groundcover. It was cold enough that they could see their breaths, but once they’d gotten moving, their bodies warmed to the weather. They walked in silence; Prue was busy trying to untangle the strange resonances she’d received at that moment when the trees started screaming and the world seemed to give way beneath her. The pull to return to North Wood had been so great; regardless of the possibility that she was putting her life—and her friends’ lives—in danger by doing this. She could only trust her intuition. Occasionally as she walked she listened in on the noises of the Wood—the chatter of the flora—and was dismayed to hear only, still, the voiceless noise of their seemingly unknowable language.
Finally, a voice she understood broke through. “So why, exactly, are we going to North Wood?” It was Septimus. Frankly, it was amazing he’d been able to keep quiet as long as he had.
“A calling,” said Prue cryptically. In truth, it was the best explanation she could muster.
“Oh,” said Septimus. “Like, a phone calling?”
Prue considered this before replying: “Sort of. But, like, in my soul.”
“Neat,” said the rat. “A soul phone.”
The sky had darkened; as they began climbing up a steep hillside, the snow began to fall. It appeared in Prue’s vision like sparks of pure white, sailing down from the tops of the trees. She could feel the little flakes alight on her cheek and burn away to nothing. She wore a dark-green knitted hat, given her by a bandit on her arrival, and she pulled it low over her brow. Reaching a level area of ground, she paused. “The way I figure it,” she said, “we should keep to the woods. We’re more likely to be detected on the Road, right?” She eyed the terrain warily. “But where to from here?”
“Hold on,” said Curtis. “Let a native handle this.” He proudly strode past Prue and skidded down a steep slope on the other side of the flat area. She followed. Before long, Curtis had peeled away a thick blanket of briar to reveal a game trail leading through the bracken. “I got an ‘exceptional’ in Wildwood Geography last quarter,” he said, smiling.
They followed the trail quietly, the two kids winding the snaking path by foot while Septimus stayed in the canopy of the trees, scouting the way as they traveled. They’d been walking for several hours when Prue and Curtis heard a hissing from the boughs above their heads.
“Guys!” It was Septimus. “Get hidden! Something’s coming!”
Without speaking, Prue and Curtis dove into the brush alongside the winding trail, hiding themselves in the prehistoric stands of sword fern that lined the way. Ahead, the trail gave onto an open, grassy meadow; this was where the two kids trained their eyes. A little bit of snow fell down the back of Prue’s coat when she disrupted the fern fronds, and she winced at the sudden chill.
A crackle could be heard in the underbrush ahead, in the stand of trees that lined the far edge of the meadow. It sounded to Prue like something coming on four feet. She lowered her head farther to the ground; she imagined a black fox emerging, its teeth bared, and her chest sputtered with pinpricks of fright.
But no: It was an antelope. And a very tired-looking one at that. It stopped on the edge of the clearing and sniffed at the frozen ground. As it turned its head, Prue noticed that it was wearing the sackcloth robe of the North Wood Mystics; as if compelled, Prue burst out of hiding, startling the antelope badly.
“Hello!” she called. “It’s me, Prue!”
The antelope spooked; its legs articulated toward the earth, ready to spring away at lightning speed. When it saw Prue, a look of surprise fell over its face.