Richard stopped to catch his breath and looked back at the landscape. The hedges had moved again, covering his path. Beyond them, he could see little boats on the sea. The horizon between the grey sky, and the water was barely visible. He bent down to stretch out his back and noticed the ferns growing outside the wall. He caught their scent and, suspicious, knelt down and pulled up one of the plants. It was valerian. Is there nothing in this place that is not a potion ingredient? he silently wondered. He dropped the plant and brushed off his hands.
He carefully checked the opening of the gates, expecting to find guards, but there were none. The wall that bordered the village was decorated with vaguely familiar red feathery items, the size of his head, and had odd pointed parts sticking out. The village was built of grey stones and seemed empty. The huts were small and jammed together, and the cobblestones roads were laid out at odd angles, curbed at seemingly random places with planters full of blooming white and yellow asphodel and green wormwood. He tried to keep his eye on the castle, which was on his left hand side, but found himself caught in the maze of lanes and moving away from his target, toward the faraway low mountains. He could smell burning wood, but he heard nothing but his own footsteps.
“About time you got here,” a high screechy voice said.
Richard swung around and found himself face to beak to a large orange and blue bird. Its huge yellow eyes glared at him. The bird had a long neck, a short round body, tiny legs, and huge feet.
“You’re too late. The Labyrinth is no place for children; you’re too late,” it squawked.
Richard took a step back, and looked around him. “Where are the children?”
“They were over there,” the bird replied. “In the Bog of Eternal Stench. And they were in the orchard, and they were in the dump.” A wall of blue and orange flames shot up in the distance. “And they were up in the air, and they were with the fireys, and look what they did with them,” the bird snapped, pivoting its head around.
Richard looked and saw that the red objects were actually grotesquely grinning heads, mostly eyeless, fixed on spikes on top of the wall. They looked like the doll that the king had given Alice in what seemed like another life time ago. As he watched, one of the heads wiggled itself loose, rolled along the wall, and disappeared to the other side. “It’s going to take days for them to right themselves,” the bird groused. “All that fire, all that smoke. The goblins have their hands full, keeping the fire out of the dump. It’s full of treasures in there, you know, and Runners who were as inept as you.” The bird fixed a baleful on him. “The swamp needed cleaning out—it reeks when the wind is wrong--but I never thought that fire was the way to go,” it said in an injured tone of voice.
“Where are the children?” Richard asked again.
“You’re too late,” the bird airily replied. “They’re with the king.”
Richard looked at the castle. “Can I sing my way there?” Fear gripped him, and he could not think of a song, any song, at the moment.
The bird snickered. “You are called a wizard, and you don’t even know what magic you have. If you have any magic. Go on; just start walking to the dump, and find yourself there.” It flapped its wings at him. “Shoo!”
He stumbled backwards and caught himself. “What are you talking about? I don’t want to find myself, I want to find the them.” He started singing, “Hogwarts, Hogwarts, Hogwarts, walk a little faster said the whiting to the snail. Lilacs and lavender, satin and lace.”
He stopped singing and heard silence. Nothing moved but the smoke in the distant breeze and the twinkle in the bird’s eyes.
“Please, how do I get to the king?” he asked desperately.
The bird made a laughing sound. “Child’s play.” It stretched out its wings and flapped them, scattering feathers and dust, and flew away.
Richard watched the bird as it turned in its flight to behind the castle. “I wish I had someway to get there,” he grumbled. He felt sick—there was no way he could ever return to his world, not without Bruce and Wilf and the rest. He stared at the ground, where some of Leia’s plastic beads were caught in between the stones, and felt cold at the thought of having failed. He started walking, and then jogging, but found himself by the wall, with trees limbs filled with peaches hanging over his head.
Down on the ground, one of the red furry heads rolled past him, its eyes missing. “Hey, man, give me a kick!” it shouted in a Jamaican accent. He took a step backward to avoid it. “Thanks for nothing!” It used its pointed mouth to propel itself and fell into a gutter and rolled out of his sight.
There were some green preaches lying on the road, and in his frustration, he kicked one. It rolled oddly. Annoyed, he marched up and kicked it again. Again it didn’t go as he thought it would. He tried again, and it rolled up a sloped path between two huts. He had nothing to lose. He had already lost the run, lost his charges, lost any reason to return to his former life. He briefly remembered when he was Owen’s age, kicking cans around Kensington Park just to make noise, and wished his life were as simple again. He desperately hoped that Chaucer was watching out for the children’s welfare and wondered what he would do next as he kicked the peach again, and it rolled straight, then banked left. Kicking the peach somehow made him feel a bit better, and he ran after it, kicking it a few more times, hoping that somehow he would find directions to the castle. He stopped kicking it for a bit and looked for signs but all there were only the silent hovels and huts of the village. Some doors were closed, some were ajar, but everywhere was emptiness and silence.
He went back to kicking the peach. Sometimes it rolled left, sometimes right, until it rolled along the base of a planter, through a slight opening of a door, and disappeared.
Richard looked up and saw that he was now facing the castle’s doors. He looked behind him and was not surprised to see the wall on the other side of the village.
There were no goblins about, no animals, no birds. It all seemed too easy. “Child’s play,” he muttered. He took a step off to the side of the door and looked around and listened. An odd clicking sound came from inside, down on the floor. Warily, Richard stepped into the dimly-lit castle and looked around for the noise. It came from two things: a battered Gobstone and a white knight chess piece that were pushing at each other at the edge of the door. The knight was hitting the Gobstone with its broken sword, while the Gobstone looked as if it were trying to roll it over. Richard wondered where the other Gobstone was as he deftly grabbed the one Gobstone and scooped up the knight in the other before turning to examine the inside of the castle.
He sensed that the walls and the floors had changed even as he had stepped inside. The air had a wave in it, as if a drafty door had opened and closed, and the dirt floor looked as if it had just stopped rippling. Everything in the large entry room was gray and had a roughness that matched the landscape outside. The ceiling seemed to disappear above him, although the light came from windows up high. The place smelled of rock, damp earth, a tang of burning wood, and chickens. He watched where he stepped, concerned that there might be mud or dung on the floor. He listened for the children but heard nothing but the breeze through the open windows. Richard stood still, heedless of the knight that squirmed in his hand, and searched with his senses, feeling that he was not being watched.
There was an arched door to the side of him. A quick glance inside showed that it was the guards’ room, and nothing was in it but blunt weapons and a half-eaten meal. He went to the larger carved wooden door and pushed it open, going into another room. The floor was covered with rough slate, as were the walls and the empty alcoves, and there was the feeling that no one had been in it for a while. The light colored stone doors to the next room had tinted brown and green carvings of boomslang snakes that slithered slowly across the surfaces. The next floor had smooth stone floors and well-fitted stonework for its walls, and the doors were flat. The windows had glass and the same empty feeling. The room after that had marble floors laid out in a geometric pattern of triangles and circles, a half a dozen tapestries that featured fanciful bicorns hanging over smooth walls, and the same unoccupied feeling. This room had seven tall closed doors made of shiny gray metals and polished obsidian. Different symbols were on each door, but they were unfamiliar to Richard.
He had no idea which door to choose. He put the knight and the Gobstone on the floor. “Go find your owners,” he ordered.
The knight stood still, but the Gobstone rolled straight to the second door to the left. Richard was puzzled for a moment, then remembered that the knight belonged to the chess set in the community room, but the Gobstone belonged to Lenny. He picked up the knight, went over and caught up the Gobstone, and then examined the door. It was decorated with what might have been silver stars; some had four points, others had five, seven, or eight points. There was no handle, so he gently pushed on the door. It slowly, silently swung open, and he found himself peering into a passageway that went upward in a clockwise curve. The floor and the walls that arched into a ceiling were of smooth, glowing gray metals, and there was the unsettling feeling that someone was somewhere inside, waiting.
Thank you to my beta, gelsey!