Updates:  Chapter 17 of Mystic Seasons Series Mythopoeia Book -8 posted, chapter eight of Lady in the Labyrinth posted high fantasy booksyoung adult fantasy books

William Myrlhigh fantasy books, young adult fantasy books

Chapter Two


The outer ways are brighter than
The inner paths to home
Their werelight tempts the wanderer
And steals him from the combe


Madder spent most of the day pretending his arm did not hurt, though it hung limply at his side. The pain, and the pretending, distracted him from his more significant woes. He didn't have to spare a thought for his missing family while his limb was on fire. Whatever brooding trails Virid had gone down he couldn't guess. She wasn't giving him any clues. He occasionally summoned the will to question her, and it was no use.


"Didn't you see anything?"


"How did you get buried under all those rocks?"


"Did you hear anything, any voices?"


"What's wrong with you? Are you broken or something? "


This last interrogative came out more sharply than Madder had intended. He was afraid, and his fear made him want someone else to be afraid too, to be vulnerable. They passed along the morning and the afternoon in sullen quiet, as the Sky Labyrinth changed colors above them. Madder was trying to track the creatures that had taken his family, and it wasn't going well.


There had been promising signs at the main entrance to the Combe, torn open as the alcoves had been. It ended in old gouges and undisturbed stone dust and little else for his eye to sort. Virid followed him, and knew well enough that he was less leading than making a show of leading. He crouched over stray spore cases, and chipped masonry, humming to himself as he considered them. He reviewed every secret of the forage that his father had divulged to him across the years, and he still had no idea where they were going.


On some level he suspected Virid could sense his incompetence, and that her black demeanor was in whole or in part a judgement cast on him. She disdained to speak. How could such a small girl look down on him? And yet that was what he saw in her blank stare. He ground his teeth and pressed on, refusing to admit defeat until they were thoroughly lost. They had ventured into the outer paths, the wilds, and he had only vague notions of how to return. The Labyrinth was without end, and often repeated itself. Foragers would scrape marks into the rock, and they would disappear with a few cycles of the Sky Labyrinth.


Madder comforted himself with the knowledge that he did not need a way back. There was no home there anymore.


And his arm hurt. It HURT. Why should he have to carry to big packs and she a satchel. It wasn't large enough to hold more than a few meals. What had she brought? She probably expected him to feed them both forever. 
The passage opened in to an oval chamber twenty paces across. It was an oasis, with a floor that sloped down to the water, and a rim of edible sponges and mushrooms. There was whitehat, greenflower, and meathead all for the picking. Madder froze, and put his hand out behind him to stop Virid in her tracks. Places like this were the most deadly. As men came here, so did other prey. And the predators followed, or lay in wait. It was too pristine.


He backed down the passage, dragging Virid with him. His breathing was loud, and every scuff of his feet along the rock seemed to shout, "We are here!" Why was he so clumsy? They turned off at the next corridor, and he scanned for forager sigils that might give him clues to what was ahead.


LEFT STRAIGHT SAFE BAD


There was a warning, and he had been right about the oasis. He led the through two more dead ends before they found the promised SAFE. It was hidden by a nest of harmless vines, a species that grew dull thorns. He would have missed it if Virid had not tugged on his arm. There were loose stones here, no other mark of life.


The entrance was so low they had to crawl on their bellies. Inside was a perfect square, five paces by five, and lit by a bare trace of werelight. Some of the stones were marred by fire. It had been used as a camp many times over.
"We can rest here," Madder said.


Virid did not respond, so he produced a handful of dry sponge out of his pack for them to share. Without a source of water, they would have to be on a constant search for wellsprings as they went on. The wells were safer than any oasis. False fruit, and the bite of thorns, he could feel the Cephala vine's hold on him again. He tore off a piece of sponge and let it dissolve tastelessly in his mouth. Picking through his mother's things, he was sure he could find something that would help his gash. He was mostly sure about which powders to apply, and like anything in the Labyrinth, mostly sure could kill him. The flesh around the wound was red and swelling. If it began to fester it would be too late.


He unwrapped a leaf of ocher powder. Rube grass, maybe. That was supposed to be good for infection. He splashed some water over his hurt and went to dip his wet fingers in the powder to make a paste.
Virid slapped him, and had the powder rewrapped before he had recovered.


"HUSH!" He swore, "What was that for?"


She ignored him, shaking her head as she deftly parsed the medicine leaves his mother had left behind. They were all marked, but the sigils were nothing Madder had been taught to recognize. They were women's things, not for foragers and hunters. 


The powder she picked was yellow, he didn't recognize it at all. It was a spore, and she mixed it with a dab of spit on a spare leaf. When it was a paste, she rubbed it over his arm none too gently. He pulled away reflexively, but she held on with a surprising grip for one so thin, and finished the application. Now there were two kinds of burning, and they seemed to be wrestling.


"Thank you," he allowed grudgingly as she wrapped a bandage. It was much neater and swifter than he would have done. She was not as young as he had thought, if she was taught these things.


When it was over, Virid took her portion of the meager meal and turned her back on him. The girl was a tunic and a fall of hair the color of waterweed. Her sister's hair had not been so dark.

Stupid kid, thinks she knows so much. She would have been trapped under a cairn if it wasn't for him. Madder ate, and drank sparingly. He took one of the packs to use as a pillow, and lay facing the Sky Labyrinth. More experienced foragers would be able to guess their relative position based on what they saw there. It was different than the sky over the Combe, the colors and the patterns. It was not anything he could make sense of, though he could pick out the constellations here and there. He could make out the arm of the Warrior, and the head of the great bear, Bawn. He was not so far from home, and however far he travelled, these forms would overshadow him.
If he could scale the wall, a sheer cliff many times higher than a man, he would see something else entirely. If he stood along the stone line and gazed up at more than a slice of the higher realm, how many constellations would there be? How many colors? Father Rouge had said that there were hundreds. That was more than all the people he had met in his life. All the wanderers and cousins, all the alcoves and the families hid within. The stories he already knew numbered more than those.


Virid was also readying herself for sleep. She had a blanket, one thing he had forgotten. It annoyed him. Of all things, THAT is what she packed? It wasn't truly cold, the cold times were rare. He didn't want one for himself. He was irked because she had brought a comfort while he gathered necessities. He wanted to take it from her, and the saving his life with a poultice scant minutes before did nothing to lessen this desire.


He shouldn't have needed her, didn't need her. Not for anything. Madder rose and went to Virid, and she watched him come with eyes of glinting jade, exposing nothing of herself.


Madder grabbed the blanket and pulled it away from her, balling it up and hurling it into a corner of their safe cube. Then he returned to his space and dropped easily into sleep. Virid lay awake a long while, unable to understand what had happened, what he had meant it to mean, or if it meant anything. Perhaps the youngest Rouge was simply cruel.


Her hand had gone to the bone knife under her tunic when he approached. The look on his face had been enough for that. Mother Virid had explained enough about the attitudes of men to make that response an automatic one, even if it had been father.


Had he wanted the blanket? Then he shouldn't have thrown it away. Had he wanted her, and simply lost his courage? If this was an isolated incident, she could let it pass. If it grew worse, then the Rouge was not someone she could depend on while traveling, nor one she would want to find a new home beside. She didn't expect to rescue their families, or to even know what happened truly. It would be enough to reach a new Combe, a new community, a new safety.


Her tears blurred the Sky Labyrinth. They were alive, that was what the stories said. The Hollows had come for all of them. She and the Rouge had escaped by chance, for the moment. Their families would be taken to the LADY, and the LADY would eat them, and they would not die. Virid was surprised he didn't know this. It was a story her mother had been telling since Virid was very young. The Hollows didn't give your families back.

Madder was embarrassed. Apologizing would be more embarrassing, so he said nothing. Neither of them touched the blanket when they went back out into the main passage. His arm was tender, but no longer hot with the bloom of infection. It held his weight for the brief distance they had to crawl, sweeping aside the curtain of the vines.
"I think we should go to Mauve Combe," he said, breaking the silence as a way of making peace. "Someone there will know how to find them. My father said they were wise."


Virid shrugged.


Madder supposed it was just as well she didn't talk. Voices, especially female voices, could bring monsters into the passages. Father Rouge had said a Fenryth could smell you from a thousand paces, and hear you laugh or sing from ten times the distance. They could jump so high they hid atop the stone lines, and pounced all the way down when prey was near. Animals preserved themselves with soft steps and careful breath. The predators were quieter still.


Despite what he knew, Madder could not help but sing to himself, if only under his breath. This was his blanket, the safety that he carried with him.


"Track the footprints in the dust, and they will lead you home,
Leave no prints behind you and keep safety in the Combe,
Watch the signs and sigils, promises we made..."


The proverbs of the labyrinth drifted out of him in a mist of old words. A long, curving corridor opened onto a forest of columns. In that forest was the Grumpsh. Its nostrils dilated as it caught their scent, and its hooves clacked on the stone as it turned. Its tongue moved in a mouth full of dull teeth meant for grinding.


It grunted, and rushed forward to kill them.