Andrea Novis Episode 9
Copyright © 2015 by Michael Litzky
Andrea Novis held out the silver ball to Cassie.
Cassie took it, scratched her head at the black markings on its side, and passed it on to Ralph.
Each member of the company held it and turned it over. But none of them could read the symbols or tell Andrea Novis anything new.
When she took it back, she saw again that oddly familiar light coming from it.
“Do all of you see this light which shines from it?” she suddenly thought to ask. She was scarcely surprised when they answered no.
So: a charm which her father had been reluctant to surrender and which shone an eldritch light that only she could see. What might it mean? How had her father been able to translate it?
The sun was approaching the noon. It was impossible to see menace in that merry ring of toy mountains with its rim of gleaming sand like a sleeping child. Whatever was inside had not been disturbed enough by Sir Robert to come forth.
In the end, they could think of no better plan than to cross the boundary tied to a rope. Andrea Novis felt strongly that she should be the one to cross since the prophecy referred to her. But Cassie objected. “Your highness. It is our job to keep you safe. Please let us do our job. One of us must take this risk.”
At the slight emphasis on the word “this,” Andrea Novis looked sharply at Cassie. The others all looked at the ground. She realized that they knew about her imprisonment, even though she had spoken of it only to her teacher and to Sandia Belin. In Cassie’s defiant, apologetic eyes she saw the unspoken reproach: you traveled alone to Markul’s Land, none of us could protect you, we must not be allowed to fail you again.
She guessed that Sandia Belin had taken the eight of them aside before the journey began and told them what had happened, probably adding, “Keep her safe. Prevent her from any mad risks.” It would have been done with love and caring and she wanted to smack Sandia Belin across one of her prominent cheekbones, as she had often done when they were girls.
With heat, of which she was instantly ashamed, she snapped at Cassie, “Tie me this rope to that tree and stand aside!” With mute anguish, Cassie leaped to obey. When the rope was secure, Andrea Novis took hold of it. Anger still burned but her discipline had returned. These people deserved better than harsh words for doing their duty.
At the edge where blades of grass bent in toward the mountains, she addressed them. “This task is mine, whether I let one or several or none of you die first to prepare me the way. In the end, I must face whatever is inside that ring of mountains. Every one of you is precious; I will not have you risking your lives to prepare me the way as if your lives were worth nothing.” She smiled at them and attempted mock bravado with a shrug of her shoulders: “My trials have made me best equipped for the task, I am told.”
“And least capable of returning,” muttered Tupela, who normally made them laugh with her cheerfully acid tongue. The others murmured agreement.
Andrea Novis was deeply moved by how much they cared for her. Softly, she pointed out, “Then where I need you most is right here, securing my retreat.”
“Your highness,” spoke up Ralph, his long thin face hopeful under its drooping moustaches. “At least tie the end of the rope securely around your waist and let us feed it out as you move forward.”
“Done,” she said instantly, and did as they asked. Then she stepped carefully across the boundary, dropping her hand when she realized it was shielding her heart again.
The warm sand was firm under her feet, soft as a napping child, and nothing pulled at her. The sky seemed more metallic in its blue, the sun more brightly copper. The mountains gleamed, looking more than ever like a child’s toy. She took five firm steps forward. She was still solidly upright.
Perhaps the force had pulled Sir Robert forward because his feet had not touched the ground? Should she leap up and test this theory out? What would her teacher have her do? No foolish risks, she decided.
For the first time, she also asked herself, what would Sandia Belin do?
She would ask for support and accept what was offered.
“Cassie, Ralph,” she called, not taking her eyes off the ring of hills. “Tie yourselves to ropes and flank me. We’ll climb this madcap mountain range together. When we get to the rim, we shall see what must be done.”
“Yes, Princess!” she heard their grateful voices call. A few moments later they both stood beside her. She felt warmed by their company.
Steadily, expecting to be swept off their feet at any moment, they crunched across the 150 feet of sand which ringed the mountains like a sleeping child. Silence rang in their ears. For the first time, Andrea Novis realized the oddity of the image of a sleeping child which kept returning to her.
They reached the place where the small mountains rose directly from the sand, a wall of unpleasantly metallic grey-blue stone. It would be easily climbed, it seemed. The stone was not smooth and just a few feet above the ground it split in vertical seam. It was up this that Sir Robert had bounced and crashed.
Andrea Novis lifted a hand to indicate that Cassie and Ralph should stop. She then reached out and touched a rounded snake-head of stone. The rock was cool in the mid-day sun and seemed somehow bound too tight, as if compressed from many other rocks and held by a finely-woven net – as indeed it might have been: Elemar had been dozens of miles across and was now a few thousand feet in diameter.
Without warning, Cassie leaped into the air, her arms spread in front of her and her legs coming up to catch herself against the mountainside. But she came back down onto her bottom with a “whuf!” and looked rueful.
“I thought I’d see if Sir Robert flew like he did because he wasn’t touching earth,” she explained as she stood, rubbing her backside and wincing.
She didn’t add what was clear to Andrea Novis: and I did it before you could try. They all did think her life was more precious than theirs. This saddened her, however loved it might make her feel.
“It was not a balanced test in any event,” Andrea Novis said slowly, “because all of us are tied to ropes which link us to the outside and Sir Robert was not.” She saw the fire flare in Cassie’s eyes and added, “But please do not untie yourself to try the experiment.”
“Your highness, we must know!” Cassie begged. “Tis no risk. I will prepare to strike the mountainside and should I bounce upward, I will catch myself neatly upon that roof of rock.” She pointed ten feet up the mountain’s side, where the seam was interrupted by a V like a chancel arch.
Andrea Novis understood that if she said no every time they asked permission to take a risk, she would only encourage them to take risks without warning. So she nodded, wishing she were alone.
Cassie quickly untied the rope from her middle but still held it in her hands. Her red curls gleamed like copper and her brown eyes danced as she faced the mountain, puffed her breath in and out, and dropped the rope.
Nothing happened and she turned to face Andrea Novis and Ralph with a sheepish grin.
The motion of turning became an uncontrolled spin.
Cassie’s face bloomed with excitement, then shock and then nausea. Her spin became so fast that they could barely make out her features. By the time they reacted, she had lifted off the ground. Andrea Novis tried to grab her whirling legs and was pummeled backward into the sand.
Spewing vomit, gagging and screaming, Cassie floated up and out of their sight.
“Stand! All of you!” Andrea Novis commanded. Unbidden, there came to her mind a face, rimmed with grey-white hair, filled with confused helpless innocence. But unlike her vision of the sleeping child, she knew the source of this: it was the face she had imagined for the other prisoners in the dark, the ones she had never seen.
Cassie’s screams cut off abruptly. She was gone. Andrea Novis felt pain in every part of her body.
They would die one by one for a task which should be hers unless –
Without time for thought she untied the rope from her middle and dropped it before anyone could protest. Then, hands above her head like a diver, she leaped nimbly and cleanly into the air.
The ground fell away in a smooth rush. Blue-gray stone flowed before her eyes as she rose in perfect flight, feeling the air tug at her hair and clothes, feeling lines of power guiding her, pulling her. “No, no, your highness,” the voices beneath and behind her called as she “fell” higher. The hillside became jumbled rocks with a dusting of snow.
Then she arced over the saw-tooth rim and saw what awaited her.
She screamed in utter revulsion.
To be continued…