Chapter 5

Escape from the Red City

         The wood was dark and gloomy. It was terrifying. The fuzzy fat cat sat roundly before them with piercing green eyes, their unlikely protector. Then all at once he turned, stretched, and started off, walking lazily along the path through the wood as though it were nothing. The cat, it should be mentioned, was black and white with a crooked tail that lay like lightning along its back. Following the creature in the dark of the wood was not an easy task for the children, who clung to each other ever tighter the further they got from the cottage. The cat did not seem to think much of their difficulty, or else he didn’t care, for he trotted along with his fat fuzzy belly waddling back and forth beneath him. Luckily he never seemed to get too far ahead. The children watched for the white patches of his fur in the growing darkness beneath the dense and dangerous trees.

Strange sounds came out of the wood, and the trees moved more than normal trees should. At one point Ciardha looked behind them and found an enormous oak suddenly there where the path had just been. The trees moaned and grumbled and Aliviel was constantly getting smacked in the face by waving branches that scratched at her cheek and pulled at her hair. A cold fear took their breath away, as the ground sucked at their feet, pulling them downward into the muddy moss that exuded a malodorous scent.

Most terrifying were the shadows that moved about in the darkness, whispering jibes and crass comments at the children. There were creatures hidden in this wood that would have done unspeakable things were it not for the strange cat that walked before them growling and hissing, clawing at the roots of ambitious trees and disappearing now and then to attack the shadow-hidden monsters.

The further they travelled the more the menace grew. Aliviel could make out the grimaces on ugly faces that leered at them, and at one point, a slimy claw-like hand reached out and grabbed at Ciardha. Gimrell now stayed close beside them, his green eyes flashing as he swiped at shadows and growled and hissed into the darkness showing his tiny but sharp teeth. The wood squeezed in closer and closer, so dense and tight now that it was hard to breathe, and, after a night of adventure and no sleep, Aliviel was sure that she would faint. She could feel the foul and hot breath of goblins against her neck, and was able to just make out the short mangled bodies that circled around them.

They were almost through the wood, glimpses of daylight broke through the trees and the air that had grown so oppressive was now beginning to sweeten. Aliviel could see the walls of red houses and hope flooded over her, warming her muscles and relaxing her mind. Just then the muddy ground sucked at the boot of the young Prince and Ciardha tripped, falling to the forest floor. Immediately dried leaves and twigs flew up to cover him and hold him down, gnarled hands reached out and grabbed his ankles pulling him back into the wood. Aliviel jumped forward to grab his hands trying to pull him with her toward the houses. Gimrell howled and clawed at the gnarled hands holding the boy. Aliviel watched in horror as leathery skin began to bleed from the large gashes the cat made.

Slowly the struggle turned to their favour and the cat’s antics began to loosen the forest’s terrible grip. Grabbing at his cousin, Ciardha kicked off the last of the goblin’s hands and ran with Aliviel out into the daylight of early dawn. The two collapsed exhausted and gasping for clean air.

Behind them Ciardha could hear the continued hissing of the cat, and a strange echo of sweet music that filled him with an eerie dread. Suddenly he knew what the creatures were that had nearly had him. They were the Bendith’y’Mamau, the twisted and ugly offspring of goblins who had stolen fairy wives. He had heard stories of them from the servants in the castle, how they would steal children and hypnotize them with music, raising them as their own. He remembered the sweet fairies that had once danced and sang in the beautiful gardens about the palace, and he shuddered in horror.

The children lay resting for a moment until the memory of the goons that hunted them pulled them to their feet. Gimrell returned to their side, his fuzziness dishevelled in places, a smear of blood on his pink nose. His green eyes looked about quickly and urged the cousins to keep moving. Darting here and there he headed into the city and the children had to run to keep up with him.

The city was waking and the sun lit upon its walls in hot colours. After the dark of the wood and the terror of the Bendith, it seemed impossible that there could be danger in such beautiful and warm surroundings. The frowning suspicion of early rising citizens, however, curbed the children’s enthusiasm, and the increasing speed with which Gimrell made through the red streets, returned them to their purpose.

Aliviel had thought that she knew the city well, but she had never been down these streets and could not even guess where the cat was leading them. Finally she realized that they must have come out behind the palace and would therefore be heading for the Third Gate. The gate most infrequently used due to its size and inconvenience.

The Red City was said to have five gates. The First, Second, and Fourth were most often used by citizens and travellers. But the Third Gate hardly even warranted the name. It was nothing more than a small window in the city wall, not six or seven feet off the ground (depending on the city’s mood that day). Gnomes had made it, or so it was said, and a gnome kept it. Although no one had ever actually seen the gnome as far as Aliviel could tell. But then again, she had never heard of anyone ever having actually used the gate. The mysterious Fifth Gate was a thing of legend, known as the Lost Gate, and it was rarely discussed. Not much was known of it, but Ciardha and Aliviel were both quite certain it was real.

The cousins were less than half a mile from their destination when they met the palace goons, who, shocked to have actually found them, gave chase rather clumsily. Their small size and quick minds gave the children an edge as they were chased through the city, and Gimrell at times ran behind them knocking over obstacles into the goon’s path. Still, it was with little breath and even less time that they finally made it to the strange opening in the wall that was the Third Gate. Gimrell circled beneath it mewing while Ciardha looked around frantically for something they could climb up to get through. He had just found some old crates and was pushing them over when Aliviel looked up to find the gnome standing at the gate that was above her head, on a little ledge, peering down at her.

The gnome stood roughly 18 inches high with red hair and an ordinary waistcoat. He looked as though he could be a miniature version of a distant relative, only far more cheerful than Aliviel could imagine any relative of hers ever being. The gnome was pleasant and looked with sparkling eyes as though he had never in all his days known an ill mood. After a long evening of fear and excitement Aliviel was mesmerized and stood with her hands in her pockets staring up at the diminutive gentleman with a light-hearted grin stealing across her face. Ciardha, though also quite taken with the creature, was able to keep his wits about him and pinched Aliviel reminding her of their haste.

“Excuse me sir, but I am Prince Ciardha and this is my cousin Aliviel, we have recently escaped from the . . . um . . . well we are being chased by palace goons and need to use your gate if we may.” Ciardha thought it was best not to get too specific about their recent adventures. Though, he could not imagine the gnome being anything but understanding, supportive, and helpful.

“Ah yes, yes. I have been expecting you two for years now.” The tiny man spoke cheerfully as though reminiscing with an old friend, over a pint of sweet ale, with all the time in the world. “My name is Nabin, and my, but it is such a pleasure to meet you both.” He grinned, rocking back and forth, his hands clasped across his round middle. “Indeed, indeed. Ha Ha, Nabin the gnome, yes, I know–isn’t it just! But then, you’d like to go through the Third Gate. But of course you would! Well, and being chased too! You must be in a hurry. Ha Ha, I have been chased by a goon or two in my day, let me tell you! But then yes . . . Well it is quite simple actually, you just need to, let’s see here. You just need to make the proper gift. A mere token, a toll shall we say, and the gate will open to you.” The gnome’s voice was warm and unexpectedly deep. Hearing it gave one the sensation of sucking on a butterscotch candy.

“A toll! Will this be enough?” Ciardha dug in his pockets proffering a handful of gold coins.

“Pah! No! No, no. Indeed, not gold. Gold will never do, never. I am not a dwarf you know, nor a goblin. What use has a gnome for gold? No, the Third Gate is quite whimsical, Ha Ha yes exactly that is it precisely. The toll must be . . . Ah yes! What the young girl has, exactly. Just what a young girl would think to bring, yes that will do quite nicely. Yes I shall enjoy that indeed very much Ha Ha.” Nabin the gnome held his round belly and smiled with a rosy face turned toward the sun as he gently hummed to himself.

Ciardha was beginning to feel frantic. He could hear the clatter and yell of the goon’s approach, they would be upon them in seconds he was sure. He felt extremely frustrated as he pressed Aliviel.

“Think Ali’ do you know what he is talking about? What do you have? What did you bring Aliviel? Please! Do you know what the toll is?”

But Aliviel just stood there giggling at the gnome her hands in her pockets as she looked up toward the sky feeling the sun on her face. She had no idea what Nabin was talking about, but he seemed not to be worried, and she had been worried for so long, and through so much, and it was so nice to just stand there in the sun with the happy little gnome and laugh for just a moment.

Much to her cousin’s dismay Aliviel took yet a moment longer relaxing in the company of the cheerful little gate keeper, her hands in her pockets, until she suddenly realized what exactly it was that her left hand was holding. All at once it dawned on her, and she agreed with the gnome it would indeed be quite nice to sit in the sun on such a fine sunny morning eating the crisp red apple that she had all but forgotten amidst her nocturnal adventures. Taking it out, she polished it on her cloak and tossed it up to the happy little man.

Laughing heartily and waving gleefully at the goons who were now at the children’s ankles, the gnome took the apple with great relish. He winked merrily at the growling Gimrell and then, incongruously, lifting the children with ease, he pushed them through the small gate, which had suddenly opened with a cheerful whoosh. Ciardha and Aliviel tumbled through the wall falling lightly upon the grass on the other side. For a moment they were both startled, looking around for the next danger to accost them. Finding there to be none, however, they relaxed into joyful laughter and relief, rolling about in the tall green grass.

***

The dawn was past, and morning well underway as the two walked along the wall toward the field where Aliviel had promised to meet the magician, giddy with their newfound freedom. Although it was only a red stonewall that stood between them and their past, the city seemed years away and the future ahead of them sparkled like the sunlight glancing off of the distant sea. Aliviel’s neck ached from exhaustion as she began to relax after a night of excitement and strain. Ciardha looked around with wonder and would occasionally break into loud shouts, sprinting off here and there. He was thrilled to be able to run outdoors after years of captivity. Slowly they walked along the wall around the city, and it was a good two or three hours before they arrived at their destination.

As they approached the field of mushrooms, they were once again gripped with the panic of the hunted. There, where the wind blew over them with a whisper, were the prone figures of two palace goons sleeping soundly. They looked like two rather large mounds of rubble. At first Ciardha thought that they could be dead they lay so still. But as the children drew closer they could hear the soft sound of slow breathing, and detect the rise and fall of a very deep slumber. They approached hesitantly not wanting to wake them. Ciardha stood by, ready to bolt, as Aliviel kneeled down, feeling a little foolish doing so, and whispered into the mushrooms.

“Armillarious.”

Moments passed with nothing happening, nothing moving but the distant wind that blew the taste of salt and the sound of sea birds. Finally, as Aliviel knelt down to whisper again, the magician appeared, rising from the mushrooms beside the two sleepers. He looked irritably down at the children. Ciardha stepped forward, although he did so reluctantly. He remembered what Voluspa had said, and thought that the grumpiness that was now emanating from the magician was wholly unwarranted considering what the children had gone through that morning.

“I am glad to see you Princess, and to meet you Prince Ciardha. I had expected you earlier . . . But I am glad to see that you have made it at long last.” The magician’s voice scratched at the back of Ciardha’s neck in an unpleasant way, and reminded Aliviel how very tired she was. As his cousin let out a large yawn Ciardha asked the magician what had happened to the two goons that slept beside them, and who seemed completely undisturbed by the booming voice.

“They were sent to search the surrounding area in case you breached the wall. I am afraid that the deep slumber you see here is the price most pay for disturbing the Aramanthus.”

“When will they awake?” Aliviel asked, remembering the goons she had left behind her in the tunnel, and noticing the mushrooms that were beginning to grow behind the ears of the sleeping men. The magician looked at her as though she had asked what colour the sky was on a clear day. He seemed somewhat amused.

“Why, my dear, they never will.”

If Armillarious noticed that both children took a step backward, appalled by this cold revelation, he did not show it. Rather, he continued, somewhat impatiently.

“I would of course love to discuss these things with you further. I am afraid, however, that we have quite run out of time. You must begin your journey immediately. There is a ship harboured at the village that sits three miles down from the First Gate and it will sail before sundown. The Captain is a moor who was once a member of the Baragouin. Though few know it, he is named Dakshieth. Give him this as a reminder, and he should take you wherever you want to go, perhaps even help you in your quest.” As he spoke he handed Ciardha an emerald the size of an egg, wrapped in a piece of lavender silk. The gemstone caught the light, dancing in the children’s eyes.

“Will he take us to the Baragouin? Will he help us to rescue my brother and cousins?” Aliviel asked, pushing aside her curiosity about the gem.

“Will he help us to find what we need, to help my father and the Red City?” Asked Ciardha.

“I do not know as to all of that.” The Magician spoke as though he were discussing something altogether un-tasteful and beneath him. “I have no doubt that he will be of some help, though I shouldn’t expect too much. As to finding the rest of your siblings, I would begin with the Queen who lives in the north in a white palace of ice and snow. She always knows where the Baragouin are. If there is any who can help you to find your lost siblings it is she. If she will, that is . . . She is a dangerous witch with a great deal of old magic, but that is where you must begin. The Bees have foretold it. Dakshieth will help you, or he will not. At the very least he may be able to get you to the witch. From there we will just have to see.” At this point the magician reached into the earth and pulled out two medium sized bundles. He handed one to each of the children.

“These packs hold some rations and a change of clothing to help you on your journey.” Armillarious looked at the children as though he wished to be rid of them. But the children were relieved to have the bundles.

“Good luck to you Prince and Princess of Laroombhasa, the people of the city await your return.” With this the haughty magician waved them along and was slowly swallowed up by the earth. Aliviel imagined all of the Aramanthus there underground listening to their footsteps moving away from the city. At the top of the ridge, standing on the road that wound down to the ocean, the two cousins stopped and looked back toward the Red City, its many jewels sparkling in the sunlight. The clay of the houses and rooftops glowed in the mid-day sun, and, far in the distance, they could see the shimmer of the Palace of Gleaming Gold. They stood for a moment in silence, both wondering when it would be that they might look upon those red walls again.