Cryolar and his griffins watched with stern gazes while the companions picked up after themselves. Rufus and Raefer got snow from the rocks along the stair and cleaned the fire scar from the great paving stone. Shilo was still crying to herself as she packed her rucksack, sniffling and wiping her eyes.
“No sense crying about it now,” Byron said, wiping his own tears. He frowned as he rolled up his blanket. “It’s over and done with.”
“I’m sorry, Byron,” Shilo said. Her tears came stronger, but she kept working.
“You can wish me luck getting away from Ravinath again,” Byron said, sniffling and shaking his head. “First the centaurs try to throw me in the ravine, then the wolves try to eat me, people from your own village hunt me down.”
Shilo stopped packing and folded her arms. She bowed her head and began to shake from concealing her sobs.
“I should’ve known,” Byron said. “I’ll never get there now.”
“All right, Byron, that’s enough,” Dindra said, slapping her side bag shut. She turned to face him. “This isn’t Shilo’s fault and you know it.”
“She just blurted it out!” Byron said.
“And what were you going to do?” Dindra said. “Lie?”
Byron wiped his eyes and glanced at Cryolar. The griffin captain was looking at him; all the griffins were.
“Did you think you could lie to her?” Dindra said. She shook her head and sighed. “Look, Byron, I know how badly you want to follow the star—”
“You don’t know anything,” Byron said.
Raefer shrugged. “We’d never have found the stair at all if not for Shilo.”
Byron glanced at Shilo. He sat down on his pack and folded his arms. “Yeah.”
“I’m sorry, Byron,” Shilo said. She walked over and sat down beside him.
“You didn’t do anything,” Byron said. He looked at the star and wiped his eyes again. Shilo put her arm around his shoulders.
“Come on, Byron,” Rufus said with a laugh. “We’re not finished yet. Raefer and I aren’t stopping, are we Raef? They can take us home if they want to, but we’ll get away somehow.”
“That’s right,” Raefer said. “We’ll dig a tunnel through these mountains if we have to.”
“An interesting idea,” Cryolar said. “But it won’t be necessary.”
The companions looked at him.
“The job’s been done,” Cryolar said.
The companions exchanged glances and frowns.
“A tunnel,” Cryolar said. “I’m talking about a tunnel.”
The group frown deepened.
“Under the mountains?” Cryolar pressed. “You do still want to go, don’t you?”
“But you’re taking us home,” Shilo said.
“No. I’m not.”
Dindra shook her head. “But we heard you tell the queen&emdash;”
“That you would all be taken where you belong,” Cryolar said. “And so you shall. My friends here won’t tattle. Neither will I if you won’t.”
“There’s a tunnel under the mountain?” Byron said.
“Yes,” Cryolar said.
“Where?” Dindra said.
“I’ll show you.”
The companions looked around at each other with bright, wide faces.
“How long will it take?” Byron said.
“Three hours of flying,” Cryolar said, “and three more on the march.”
“Wait,” Raefer said. “What about the horses?”
“We can’t take them under the mountains,” Rufus said. “They’d be too scared.”
“Well, we can’t leave them to the wolves,” Raefer said.
“You might leave them with us,” Cryolar said. “As payment.”
“Payment…” Raefer said. “You mean… to eat? No way! You’re not eating our horses!”
“Well you can’t take them with you,” Cryolar said. “You said so yourself.”
“After all,” said one of the other griffins, “we are sticking our necks out.”
“That seems fair, Raef,” Byron said.
“Byron!” Raefer shouted. “That’s Melody and Old Weatherby, remember? They got us here! No way. The answer is no. You take these horses somewhere safe!”
Cryolar looked around at his companions.
“Promise!” Raefer said.
“Oh, very well,” Cryolar growled.
The other griffins grumbled amongst themselves.
“All right, then,” Raefer said. “That’s your word on it, right?”
Cryolar sighed. “Yes.”
“All right then,” Raefer said. “Sorry if I got a little cross there. You understand.”
* * *
They took what supplies they could from the horses and filled their own packs to brimming. The griffins took flight, circled around and swooped down on the companions one by one, bearing them up into the cold blue sky. The company soared high above the mountains. The wintry world looked very small. The woods of the west stretched on to the horizon.
“There is your home!” Cryolar called out to Byron. “The realm of the Woodland King. See your Hiding Wood and the Hidden Hills.”
“I can’t make it out!” Byron called. “It’s very far away!”
“Not as the griffin flies!” Cryolar called.
“I wish I could fly!” Byron called.
Cryolar gave a great laugh. “You are flying!”
At last the whole company banked away to the west and began to descend. Soon the tops of the tallest trees were close enough to touch. Cryolar set Byron down beside the shell of an old stone house.
“You’ll have to walk from here,” the griffin captain said. “I still have orders to fly west today. It’s another two or three hours, no more. When you reach the pine grove, keep to the left and follow the wall. You’ll come to a clearing. At the back of the clearing, in the wall of the hollow, you’ll find the entrance. You must beware of the tunnel. Local rumor speaks of a sentinel living there.”
“What kind of sentinel?” Raefer said.
“I’ve never known,” Cryolar said. “Good luck to you. I hope to see you again.”
“Thank you, Cryolar,” the companions said together.
When the griffins were gone the companions set off. A snowy trail led up into the rocks. The pine grove stood in a sort of bowl with steep sides. Keeping to the left as Cryolar had told them, they followed the curve of the bowl until they came to the clearing.
Huge rocks were scattered around. The companions crept in, ducking from tree to boulder, until they could see the tunnel. It was a tall, carved arch as black as ink.
“That’s the Old Peak,” Raefer whispered, pointing to a tall mountain in the distance above the tunnel. “We can see that from home.”
Byron nodded. “So can we.”
“Hush you two!” Rufus said with a frown.
“Who’s gonna check it out?” Shilo said.
“I will,” Byron said. He stepped out from behind the rock.
“Wait a second!” Rufus said. He grabbed Byron’s wrist and pulled him back. “Just hold on!”
“We should all go,” Dindra said. “At least as far as the entrance. We should stay together.”
“Wolf tracks!” Raefer said, pointing. “They head straight inside.”
Rufus gripped his chin. “We’ll go around the boulder field and come at the entrance from the right. Everybody ready? Let’s go!”
They followed the wolf tracks around the clearing. Nothing stirred. At the valley wall they began picking their way among the snow-bound boulders. A blast rumbled in the distance; everyone stopped and ducked for cover. For a long time no one moved. Rufus stood and watched the cave mouth.
“All clear,” he said.
They pressed on.
Inside the cave mouth, they stood looking into the dark, to let their eyes adjust. Rufus squinted and peered ahead.
“I think…” he said. “I think there’s a fire burning.”
“You’re right,” Byron said.
Deep inside the cave, around a bend, a faint light bobbed on the rocks. Strange, faint sounds could be heard inside. Rufus took a deep breath. “All right,” he said. “Here we go.”
The sounds grew louder. The firelight grew brighter and danced on the roof. Soon, huge shadows stretched out behind the companions and everyone stopped at the long, hideous, unmistakable sound of a belch.
It echoed on the rock of the cave. It was so horrible and what followed was so repulsive that for years after Raefer could not bear to hear anyone belch and would leave the table irretrievably if they did. The smell in the cave had a similar effect on Dindra. In fact, no one in the group escaped that cave with their idea of manners and courtesy intact. What they saw when they rounded the bend churned their stomachs and froze their hearts.
Bones covered the cave floor and a fire burned in the middle. A young tree, torn from the ground by the roots, leaned against the cave wall. Its branches were stripped and it was chipped and battered and bloodstained. Behind it was a high, barred gate set in a passage carved from the rock. The orange light from the fire filled the chamber with dancing shadows. Seated on the ground beside the broken tree was the master of the cave.
It was like a huge man, knotted with muscle, sitting cross-legged on the ground. No clothes covered its filthy, hairy body and it had two heads. One frowned and laughed, smiling as it chewed. The other pouted and grumbled, equally intent on its meal. The pouting head leaned over and snatched a bite from the hand that fed the grinning head. It caught the fingers of the hand in its teeth and cried out from the pain of it. The grinning head cried out too, snapping and snarling at the pouting head. Then they both continued their meal. It was an uncooked, hideous mess. Several minutes passed before any of the companions realized that the brute was feasting on a hapless wolf.
Byron covered his mouth. Turning away he spotted the barred gate on the far side of the chamber. He pointed it out to Rufus, who signalled the others to slip back up the passage.
As she turned, Dindra kicked a stone. The sound of it filled the chamber. They all stopped in their tracks and looked back at the monster. It was staring right at them with both heads.
The pouting head glared at them. The grinning head looked toward them, but its eyes wandered all about, each in its own direction. The giant screamed a horrid scream with two voices and leaped to its feet.
It took up the broken tree, swinging it like a hickory switch. One head frowned and grinned. It opened its eyes wide and cackled with laughter. The other winced and turned red and began to cry. It let out a wail and fell into an angry tantrum. Both faces were still covered with the meal the brute had been devouring. It ran toward them with thundering feet.
Rufus, Byron and Dindra ran back up the tunnel. They turned expecting to see the giant close behind. The cries of the raging heads filled the darkness, but nothing came. They could hear Shilo screaming Raefer’s name. Rufus looked at Byron and Dindra. His eyes were wide. He dashed back inside the cave and vanished into the darkness. Byron and Dindra followed.
Inside the cave they found Shilo huddled near the barred gate and Raefer harrying the monster with stones and bits of bone. He kept the brute running around the fire. The giant was insane with fury and the deafening sound of its cries filled the chamber. The heads turned on one another in their frustration, biting and spitting.
Rufus joined Raefer at the fire. Together they kept the monster busy while Shilo crept from her hiding place. The monster turned and saw her. Shilo screamed.
Byron ran for the gate. The monster wheeled around and looked straight at him. It wailed with both heads and sprang forward, slashing the air with its club. Byron froze in his tracks.
Dindra galloped across the cave to Shilo. Shilo leaped onto her back and they fled. Rufus caught the monster’s attention with a piece of charred bone to the wailing face and Byron had a chance to run. The giant was confused for a moment, looking at Byron and the brothers as they scurried around. They all ran up the passage behind Dindra and Shilo. Rufus and Raefer hurried out into the sunshine of the clearing. Byron stopped and looked back.
“Byron!” Raefer shouted from the clearing. “Come on!”
Byron didn’t move. Shilo and Dindra shouted to him from the rocks. Everyone watched. The cries of the monster rang from the tunnel and a thick shadow appeared in the darkness. The monster emerged. Byron took a deep breath and bolted forward, running between the filthy, hairy legs into the darkness of the tunnel.
The giant looked down and all around with both heads, lifting its feet and twisting backward as it screamed and growled with a howling that filled the valley. The heads bit and spit at each other as it turned and charged back down the tunnel.
Byron ran across the bone-strewn cave. He reached the gate and gripped it with shaking hands. Light from the fire danced on the floor of the tunnel beyond and shadows from the bars stretched away into the dark.
A blaring, two-voiced cry filled the chamber. Byron wheeled around and pressed his back to the bars. The monster charged across the cave, leaping the fire with a stride, lifting its club high. The ground shook as it came. Byron’s whole body quivered. He stood paralyzed, watching the monster draw near. It appeared from the lapping flames like a nightmare.
Byron stared at the two horrid faces, one mad with cruel anger, the other wild with sinister glee. The gnarled, bloodied club rose high in the air as the brute prepared to strike. Byron turned and grabbed the bars, screaming with all the breath he had. When he could scream no more he stopped and there was silence. Byron blinked and turned around.
It was standing still with a strange look on both its faces. Its eyes went dull and the heads wobbled. The laughing head had a half grin that twitched at the corner of its eye. The wailing head gave a kind of snort. The monster stepped back and staggered a little, letting go of the club. Beyond the fire, Byron saw his companions watching from the entrance to the chamber.
“How much did you use?” Raefer said.
“All of it,” Rufus said.
It swayed. It teetered back and forth from its heels to its toes. It leaned forward and its shadow stretched across Byron, who lifted his arms to ward it away. Then it leaned back again and kept on leaning. The two-headed giant fell, straight as a plank. A great, bone-crunching thud sent dust high into the air. Rufus, Raefer, Dindra and Shilo gathered in stunned silence around it where it lay.
“Here it is,” Shilo said. She bent down and picked up a curved twig about a foot long, sharpened to a point.
“Is it still good?” Raefer said.
Rufus nodded. “Think so.”
“That was some shot, Rufus,” Dindra said. “Way to go.”
“And it had to be in the neck,” Raefer said. “With a creature this size. So, we don’t have any sleep juice left?”
“Not a drop,” Rufus said.
Shilo stared at the creature. She put her hand over her nose and mouth. “Well,” she said. “It was worth it.”
Byron crept up and peered out from behind the safety of his friends. His eyes were wide and he was still breathing in great heaves. He looked at the club that lay near the monster’s open hand. It was at least three times his own size.
“We should make more,” Raefer said.
Rufus shrugged. “How? We’ll never find any moratene this time of year.”
“I could ask a bird or something,” Shilo said.
“I know you could, Shi,” Rufus said. “But it has to be fresh, just picked. Moratene only blooms in the summer.”
“It almost got me,” Byron said. “It almost did.”
“What’d you mean running back in here like that?” Dindra said.
“I…” Byron began. “I dunno, Din.”
“Never mind,” Shilo said. “Let’s get going before it wakes up.”
“And don’t forget the wolves,” Dindra said. “There must be more around than just the one poor thing he caught.”
“Poor thing?” Rufus said. “Are you forgetting your night in the woods?”
“I haven’t forgotten,” Dindra said folding her arms before her.
Rufus shrugged. “Well, let’s see about that tunnel.”