“Pull it together, man!” shouted Sterling. Prue waved him away angrily.
The wolf spoke again. “That demon liquid. That ambrosia, sweet and vile. It’s all I’ve got. It’s all I’ve got. Can you blame me? They came to me, those black foxes, in my hour of deepest need, and it seemed like such a small thing, then. Just to talk, that’s all they wanted. Words. And so I gave ’em their words, the ones they wanted, as it was such a small thing between me and more heavenly bliss. I told ’em: The boy and the girl’s done gone to the camp, the camp what’s snuck away in the Gap, and they’re hidden there, and the King too.”
Prue listened in shocked silence.
“What have you done?” whispered Curtis.
“And that was it!” moaned the wolf; his voice had devolved into a kind of mad singsong. “That was all I needed to do, and it seemed like such a small thing, then. But the dram’s dry and here be I, a wretched, wretched thing. No poppy beer to whet my thirst, but plenty of blood on my paws.” He held them out, his paws, and stared at them ruefully. “Look!” he shouted. “Blood! Reddest blood! The blood of children!” But all that was there was his gray fur, flecked with dirt.
They wasted no time in getting ready for the trip. Sterling managed to arrange for two saddled horses from a nearby farm’s stable, though he let fly an endless string of objections at the two children in the process. “This is crazy,” came one. “You’re going straight into the jaws of the enemy,” came another. “You’re riding a runaway train into a tunnel that leads into a station where there’s a welcome-home party from all your worst nightmares,” came a longer one.
“I agree with you there, that last one,” said Septimus, dutifully adhered to Curtis’s shoulder.
It was Curtis, mostly, who deflected these objections. He was intent on making it back to the bandit camp as quickly as possible. As he said, Brendan and the bandits had to be warned. He had defied his King’s orders and in doing so had not only risked the location of the hard-won camp but also put the entire bandit family in danger. The rat, for his part, agreed, though he’d not been a full-sworn bandit. In truth, there was no telling what these shape-shifting foxes would do to get to their quarry. And no bandit worth their salt would give up the secret of Prue’s location; they would rather die. This was a chief concern as well.
He spoke very little to Prue as they readied themselves for their flight. She could see the percolating resentment in his eyes but knew that he was fighting the urge to lash out at her. It was, after all, her fault that they’d come out of hiding. But it didn’t change the fact that Donalbain would’ve likely revealed their location anyway; and what then? No, she figured, Curtis was angry about his not being there, at the camp, at the hour of its greatest need. It was unbandit-like to abandon your family. And the bandits were his family now.
Above the distant peaks of the Cathedral Mountains, a storm could be seen brewing. Dark clouds hung and obscured the mountains’ tops as they climbed astride the horses and bid a quick farewell to the milling crowds outside the Long Hall. They wore heavy woolen stoles around their shoulders, given them by one of the farmers. It was approaching midnight; a sliver of moon peeked from behind a trough of clouds like a pale white eye. They kicked at the horses’ flanks and galloped off toward the Long Road.
They traveled fleetly over the snow-swept highway, which was all but empty of its daytime traffic. Prue took up the rear, as each time she tried to ride abreast of her friend, he would spur his horse forward and take the lead. They didn’t speak during their travels, stopping once to water the horses and eat the dried rations they’d packed in Prue’s knapsack. They’d stood awkwardly in silence, Curtis with his eyes downcast the whole time.
“Curtis,” Prue had ventured, “it’s okay. We’ll get there in time.”
He didn’t respond but abruptly chucked his half-eaten apple into the surrounding woods and climbed back onto his chestnut mare. “Come on, Septimus,” he said. The rat made brief eye contact with Prue, shrugged, and hopped onto the back of Curtis’s horse. Saddened by her friend’s silence, Prue dumbly followed.
The storm that had settled over the spine of mountains separating North Wood and Wildwood hampered their travel significantly. The visibility had been reduced to nearly zero as the way before them became engulfed in a dense white cloud. They wrapped their stoles around their faces to protect them from the driving snow. A warming hut had been built on the side of the road, where a tall stone cairn stood, and a light poured from the windows. As they passed, a man entreated them
to come inside, out of the cold. However, when Prue called to Curtis and suggested they take up the man’s offer, the look he shot her was enough to let her know what he thought of the idea. She thanked the man, then pressed the wool of the stole to her cheeks, and they continued on their way.
They traveled all night; Prue was dozing off in her saddle when Septimus, scouting ahead, called from the overhanging branches; he’d located one of the bandits’ secondary supply trails. Silently, they broke away from the road and began to follow it through the trees. The dark was dissipating now, giving way to an eerie film of light that saturated the snow-draped world around them. At this early hour, there was a renewed urgency in the way Curtis was traveling, watching the surrounding forest; he drove his horse on, kicking at her flanks, though it was clear that the animal desperately needed a rest.
“What is it?” Prue called, through the fog of her tiredness. Curtis didn’t answer. They followed the game trail for a while before they came to the wall of salal bushes and blackberry vines that concealed the entrance to the bandit encampment. Septimus was standing there, waiting for them.
“Take a look at this,” he said.
Someone—or something—had torn a massive hole in the clutch of green leaves and brown stalks, and Curtis leapt from his horse at the sight. The sharp, ashy smell of smoke was in the air. The understanding was mutual and wordless between the three riders; they’d come too late.
Just past the wall of bushes, where the green, mossy ground gave way to the abrupt cliff face, black, acrid clouds of smoke were issuing from the chasm. They wasted no time in rappelling down to the lower platform, where the rope walkway bridged the wide gap. There was no lamp glowing on the far side.
“What’s happened?” Prue rasped. “Where is everyone?”
They ran across the bridge and found that the lantern that had previously been used to announce visitors was thrown to the ground in a scattering of bent metal and broken glass. Prue ran her fingers along a scratch in the wood of the platform’s guardrail: white splinters scarred the worn surface. Some blood had been spilled. No sound came from the camp, farther along the walkways.
“No, no, no, no,” Curtis was repeating incessantly.
They stepped along the walkway, unsure of who might be awaiting them, but could get no farther than the top of the East Tower before they were stopped by a downed rope bridge; there was no place to cross. The night’s fall of snow had nearly obscured an army of footprints in the white blanket that covered every surface along the ravine. From their vantage, black clouds of smoke could be seen hurtling up from the caves in the rock face. Flames licked at a distant wooden structure; a staircase, collapsed in a black heap, smoldered in the cold air. A snap sounded, and Prue looked in time to see one of the ravine’s many zip lines break and fall with a resounding clatter. A fire gutted the last brace of its anchor and it, too, fell into the void.
“Brendan!” Curtis shouted, his hands cupped to his mouth. There was no answer. “Aisling! Anyone!” Still, silence.
Septimus dashed down a hempen cable to a lower structure on the cliff face; his voice echoed up shortly after: “All gone! Not a soul!” It was the first time that Prue had heard the rat sound genuinely concerned about anything.
“Maybe they got out, before the foxes arrived,” she suggested. Curtis continued to ignore her. “Listen, Curtis,” she said. “You’ve got to think that they’re smarter than those Kitsunes. They must’ve seen them coming. Maybe this is just a decoy.”
“A decoy?” asked Curtis, turning on her. “Are you kidding me? Do you know how long it took to build this camp? Months and months of nonstop work. This is not a decoy. This is the wreckage of a battle. A battle that destroyed a home. My home.” He slumped against the balustrade and folded his arms across his chest, burrowing his chin into his stole as if he was trying to climb into it to hide. Prue instinctively kept her distance.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “So sorry.”
“It’s my fault,” said Curtis. “I should’ve been here. I should’ve been at their side.”