“Seriously,” added Martha.
Rachel, now on the ground, brushed some moss from her coat. Her face was streaked with dirt, and the hem of her jacket was dappled in mud. She held her nose to the air. “Is that smoke?” she asked.
Sure enough, Elsie caught a whiff of it too. It smelled like the tailings of a wood fire, like the smell of a late fall day in a country neighborhood. It seemed to be coming from the direction that the dogs had traveled. Without speaking, the three girls began following the smell; it led them along the wide swath in the vegetation blazed by the pack of dogs. As they came closer to the source of the smoke, they could see evidence of habitation. Trees had been felled and sawed; a stack of freshly chopped wood lay in a pile by a large chopping block. They also began to hear voices: children’s voices. The three girls, silent in their approach, crested a small hillock and found themselves looking down into the trough of a narrow vale, where lay nestled a quaint wooden cottage. A thin stream of white smoke drifted from its chimney.
A group of perhaps fifteen children, of all ages, milled about several large garden plots in front of the cottage. They seemed to range in age from eight to eighteen and were intent on a variety of different activities: some were playing games, while others seemed to be engaged in more domestic chores like hanging clothing on a drying line and chopping wood. Several tended to the garden beds, weeding and pruning the winter greens. There was one thing, however, that Elsie, Martha, and Rachel noticed was the same about all the children: They each had little yellow tags hanging from the lobes of their ears.
Icy Water, Water Everywhere
It would seem that fortune smiled on Prue McKeel and Curtis Mehlberg that day, the day that they both plummeted from the broken rope bridge into the fathomless depths of the Long Gap. Not only smiled, but also moved in to plant a wet, lazy kiss on their respective foreheads.
The cliff wall on the side of the chasm they fell toward when the bridge was rent in two was not entirely vertical; rather, it sloped away from the cliff’s edge at a slight diagonal, which became more pronounced as it descended. This meant that the two children didn’t necessarily plummet or fall but rather slid at a very fast pace down this sloping slab of rock.
Callista, the Kitsune who’d fallen on the same side of the Gap as they had, did not fare so well. In falling nearer the center of the ravine, by the time she made contact with the slope of the cliff wall, it was too late. The evidence of her demise was laid bare to Curtis, who, upon waking from a brief bout of unconsciousness, saw her still body lying lifeless some ten feet from where he’d landed. In the throes of death, she’d shape-shifted back to her original form. It was a dead black fox he saw when he woke.
As for Septimus the rat, it was too soon to tell. For all Curtis knew, he was the only faller to have survived. He gave his cheeks a quick pat to make sure this was the case; his hands felt chalky and badly scraped, but they made a satisfying contact with his face. He felt nothing if not alive.
“Prue?” he rasped. The darkness of the ravine was all-consuming. The smallest sliver of light could be seen above, like a plane’s vapor trail, but the distance to the surface seemed unimaginable. The ride to where he lay, while not being deadly, had not been smooth in the slightest. The slope of the rock had acted like a very fast slide, one that went perfectly vertical at certain stages, making for several moments during the fall where Curtis was certain that he would die a very painful, bone-crushing death. The last of these drops had deposited him, bones intact (as far as he knew), on this little shelf of dirt and rock, some ways down the shaft of the ravine.
“Prue! Septimus!” he called, louder. He heard a pained grunting coming from some distance away. Not bothering to lift himself to his feet (he still wasn’t sure if he hadn’t somehow broken every bone in his body), he crawled along the narrow floor of the shelf, away from the fox’s bent frame, toward the noise. He arrived at the edge and said again, “Prue! Is that you?”
“Yeah,” replied his friend. “It’s me.”
It was too dark to see where she was. “Are you okay?”
“I think I messed up my ankle. Again. Same one from last time.” By last time, she meant the fall she’d taken, some months ago, when the coyote soldiers had shot down the eagle she’d been riding. Curtis grimaced.
“How bad?” he asked.
There came a pause as Curtis imagined Prue applying weight to the sore spot. “I think it’s okay,” she said. “Is Septimus with you?”
He looked about him; the darkness was pervasive. “No,” he said, before shouting, “SEPTIMUS!” No answer. Curtis cursed under his breath. The rat was small and lithe, he told himself. Maybe he was still clinging to the rope above them. Maybe he’d made it to safety.
“Are you all right?” called Prue.
“I think so. That other fox is dead. She didn’t survive the fall.”
“What about Darla?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t really see what happened.” He paused. “No Septimus, though.”
“But you’re okay?”
Curtis, girding himself, began testing his individual muscles and joints, surveying the damage wrought by the fall. Miraculously, aside from a few bruises, he seemed to have avoided any major injury. “I think I’m all right,” he said.
A scraping noise, inscrutable in the deep dark, sounded. Cloth against cloth. Another grunt. A buckle undone. Then the distinct sound of a match head scraping against the striking surface; a small yellow light sparked. Curtis looked over the edge of the rock shelf and saw Prue, kneeling, hold the match to a camping lantern—she must’ve packed a small one in her knapsack. She waited for it to take; she waved the flame of the match out and flicked it away. A globe of light extended from the source, illuminating their surroundings.
“Where are we?” said Curtis. The lantern light barely made a scratch on the surrounding blackness, but it was enough for them to see that a pair of boulders, the size of small houses, had created the rock shelves that had saved their lives. He saw that he was separated from Prue by only a drop of ten feet or so. The chasm narrowed substantially here, and the twin walls of the ravine were barely five feet apart. It occurred to Curtis that they’d slid into some remote crevice of the gap; there was no telling how far down they were. One thing was clear: There was no going up. He cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled again, “SEPTIMUS!”
Prue was silent as she stood and, gingerly putting weight on her bad ankle, began to hobble around her small perch and take in their surroundings. It didn’t take long; she’d barely the space of a department-store changing room to explore. “Curtis,” she said, craning her neck to look upward at the faraway glint of daylight, a thin string of white in their dark heaven, “I don’t know about this.”
“Hold on,” said Curtis. He eased himself over the lip of the shelf and dropped the several feet to where Prue stood. He smacked some white dust off her jacket’s shoulder. “Let me see your ankle,” he said.
Together, they eased her boot from her foot. It was red and swollen, though Prue said it didn’t hurt enough to be sprained. “You can walk on it okay?” he asked.
Prue nodded. There was a look of resigned quiet on her face. A mounting sadn