Authors: Michelle Harrison
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #General, #Fantasy & Magic, #JUV000000
Tanya sprang to her feet, still clutching the book in distress.
“Oberon! Get back here!”
But Oberon had no intention of returning, not until he had caught the rabbit at least. Then someone stumbled out from the bushes, startling her a second time.
A sheepish Fabian brushed grass and leaves from his hair and clothes, his normally pale face flooded pink.
“Why are you spying on me?” yelled Tanya.
“I wasn’t spying. I was looking for, er… butterflies and things.”
“Is this what you call
? You were watching me!” With an angry yell, Tanya flung the useless book to the ground. Fabian watched her, an eyebrow raised.
In the distance, another gunshot sounded. She looked toward the forest in alarm, giving Fabian one last glare before stalking in the direction of the trees.
“Surely you’re not going in there?” he said.
“Thanks to you I don’t have a choice,” said Tanya, her temper rising further. “My dog is in there—and so is Warwick—with a gun!” She quickened her pace, leaving a stunned Fabian behind.
“Thanks to me? What did I do?”
Tanya turned back and rounded on him.
“I’ll tell you what you did. You were so busy spying on me that you startled a rabbit in the hedge, and now Oberon has chased it into the forest!”
“Well… he didn’t
to chase it,” said Fabian, but then his voice trailed off. For a moment he looked as if he were struggling to make a decision, then he began to jog after her.
“I’m coming with you. But if Warwick finds out we’ve been in these woods—”
“You’ll have a lot more than Warwick to worry about if anything happens to my dog! I’ll… I’ll…”
She broke off as tears began to sting her eyes.
“We’ll find him,” said Fabian. “Warwick wouldn’t shoot him, anyway.”
know? He could mistake him for a deer or something!”
“The dog’s more like a donkey than a deer,” Fabian muttered.
At that moment Tanya would have slapped him if it hadn’t been for a further round of shots cracking in the air. She broke into a sprint. Fabian followed, pausing to use the stepping stones to cross the brook. Tanya ran straight through it, soaking her feet but not caring. They sped onward, Fabian eventually taking the lead. Gradually the trees grew thicker, taller, and closer together. It was cool and dark between them, and small creatures rustled in the undergrowth as they passed through and disturbed them.
“Oberon!” Tanya yelled. A flock of birds scattered above, squawking at the sudden noise.
“Do you think we ought to shout like that?” said Fabian. “Warwick’s bound to hear us.”
Tanya looked at him scornfully. “How else do you expect to find the dog?”
The woods were silent. They moved farther in, calling the dog’s name, twisting and turning through the densely growing trees, dead wood crackling underfoot. Whispering came from all around, and Tanya knew that it wasn’t just the trees. With each step she could feel unseen eyes upon them.
Looking up, she sensed movement above. On one of the lower branches, a birdlike fairy crouched at the edge of its nest, its bright black eyes fixed, staring straight at Fabian. From inside the nest, the cries of its young could be heard, demanding to be fed. Tanya quickly saw that, as with the goblins, her red T-shirt was shielding her from its attention. The creature saw only Fabian, and as he unknowingly blundered nearer, it began chattering a warning at him to stay away.
“We must be near a nest of some sort,” Fabian whispered, looking around for the source of the noise. “I can’t see a bird anywhere, though.”
As he drew closer to the nest, the fairy’s chattering escalated into a harsh, insistent threat. Tanya watched helplessly, knowing that to speak and warn him would betray her to the fairy and surrender the protection of her red T-shirt—but what followed left her with no choice. Momentarily, the creature left its nest and vanished into a nook in the tree bark. It reappeared seconds later armed with an assortment of ammunition that it proceeded to hurl viciously at Fabian’s head.
“Look out!” Tanya cried, lunging forward to push Fabian to safety.
A spray of objects flew through the air, narrowly missing them to become embedded in the ground. Pebbles, acorns, pinecones, balled-up litter, a heavy silver brooch, jagged shards of broken glass, and bottle caps lay scattered around them.
“What happened back there?” Fabian gasped, as Tanya pulled him out of throwing range.
“A magpie,” she answered. “We got too close. It must have disturbed the contents of its nest as it flew off.” She looked back at the nest as they hurried away. The fairy watched her coldly. Its fierce chattering had stopped, but it continued to call out. Tanya did not need to be able to understand it to know that it was issuing a warning to any fairies nearby in the neighboring trees, communicating her presence to them. She was now defenseless—and exposed.
“Come on,” she muttered. “Keep moving.”
They headed onward and away. Above them, Tanya was aware of the furious whispering and calling in the trees, as the word of her presence spread throughout the woods. She forced herself to try and be calm, but the panic inside her was rising.
“Listen,” said Fabian, stopping dead. “Do you hear that?”
“Voices?” Tanya whispered.
Fabian frowned and shook his head. “A dog.” Faint barking sounded from far away. “This way!”
Tanya battled to keep up with him; the sandals she was wearing were highly unsuitable for running through the woods. Already she had sustained several cuts to her feet. Branches snagged on her clothes and tore at her hair. The fairies in the trees mocked her.
“He went that way!”
“I saw him come this way!”
Tanya did not look back. She knew they were all lying. She did not dare to take her eyes off Fabian.
“There’s something up ahead,” he shouted.
Tanya saw him stop and stand still, and she quickened her pace until she drew level with him. An ugly metal railing was just visible through the trees. They walked toward it wordlessly, coming into a little clearing.
The railings went around in a circle, with a diameter of about four meters. Inside, there was a huge hole in the ground roughly three meters wide. A small tree was growing beside it, tilting inward. Half its roots were exposed and it looked unstable, as if a heavy gust of wind would send it tumbling into the cavern below. Fixed to the railings was a worn wooden sign that said DANGER! DO NOT ENTER!
They had found one of the catacombs.
Fabian began to circle the railings, his scientific mind automatically trying to estimate how deep the thing went into the ground. When he had done a full lap he stooped and picked up a pebble, then hurled it over the railings. They both listened as it plummeted soundlessly. Neither of them heard it hit the bottom. Fabian gave a low whistle, and then a strange look crossed his face.
“What?” said Tanya. Her heart missed a beat as she followed his gaze. Her worries about the fairies were forgotten instantly.
One of the metal posts was missing, leaving a gap in the railings large enough for a small person to squeeze through. Large enough for a dog to get through.
“No!” Tanya’s voice choked in her throat. Suddenly her legs would no longer support her, and she sank to the ground in despair. Fabian stood rooted to the spot, his eyes glued to the gap in the railing.
“He… he wouldn’t have gone through there… would he?”
“He might have. If he was chasing the rabbit, he might have…”
” Fabian shouted.
The woods remained silent.
“Let’s keep looking.”
Tanya shook her head, silent tears streaming down her cheeks. She didn’t even care what Fabian might think.
“I can’t. What if he’s down there, injured? I can’t leave him.”
Deep down she knew that if Oberon had fallen into the hole there was no way he could have survived it, but she could not bear to leave the spot.
Fabian studied the gap in the railings, chewing his lip. “He’s not down there.”
Tanya looked up through her tears, sniffing noisily. “You’re just saying that.”
“No, I’m not.” He knelt beside her. “Think about it. He’s a big dog. The gap is wide enough for him to get through, but only just. If he did come this way, he would have had to slow down to squeeze through it, and so he would have seen the hole in time. Dogs are intelligent animals, especially Dobermans. And the leaves and twigs around the hole are undisturbed. If he’d fallen down it there would be claw marks.”
He gave her an encouraging smile.
Tanya gave him a rather watery smile in return, feeling a ray of hope. She scrambled to her feet and wiped her face, leaving a streak of dirt on her cheek.
“Come on, then,” she said.
They had been walking another twenty minutes when Tanya noticed something.
Fabian stopped and cocked his head to one side. “I can’t hear anything.”
“Exactly. The gunshots have stopped. Warwick must have gone back to the house.”
“Good,” said Fabian, looking relieved. “That means we can shout as loudly as we want.
They yelled until their voices were hoarse and their throats were sore, but still there was no sign of the missing dog. The hope that Tanya had felt earlier was steadily diminishing. She had been certain that they would have found him by now. All she wanted to do was find him and get out—the longer they remained in the woods, the more the chances of another attack by the fairies increased. Then another alarming thought occurred to her.
“Fabian? Do you know the way out of here?”
“I was hoping you would remember.”
They stared at each other dumbly.
“Of course I don’t know the way out,” she said at last. “I’ve never been in here before.”
“Neither have I,” said Fabian.
“So we’re lost then,” said Tanya, feeling weak again as the clarity of the situation hit her. She envisaged wandering in the woods all day, then still being trapped at nightfall, and suddenly, she was glad she was not alone.
“We’ll follow the stream,” said Fabian. “The stream will lead us out at some point.”
point? Do you know how big this forest is? I can’t even remember the last time I saw the stream; it was ages ago!”
“Have you got any better suggestions?” said Fabian testily.
Tanya scowled and shook her head.
They set off in search of the stream, ducking under low branches and listening for any sign of running water. As the minutes ticked by, even Fabian was beginning to look worried as the truth finally dawned. They were lost: completely, utterly, and hopelessly lost.
“This is impossible,” said Tanya, sitting down on a tree stump to examine a bulging blister on her foot. “We’re never going to find our way out.” As she spoke, she saw, to her horror, a small mound of grassy earth scurrying along the ground to reposition itself at the base of a fallen tree. Moments later, a clump of weeds and tuft of wildflowers scuttled across her path to switch places.
She stifled a terrified sob. The fairies were deliberately losing them, drawing them farther and farther into the woods by confusing them. They must have begun doing so the moment she and Fabian had entered the forest.
“We’re lost,” she said in a small voice. “We’re not going to find the way out!”
“We will,” said Fabian. “It just might take a little longer than we expected.”
“You don’t understand,” said Tanya. She battled to keep her voice from rising, and failed. “Before you know it there’ll be a search party out looking for us. Then we’ll be in even deeper trouble!”
Fabian sighed and looked at his watch. “We’ve still got plenty of time before it gets dark. Let’s keep going.”
Tanya hauled herself to her feet, and limped after him. As she did so a glint of silver caught her eye. “Wait.”
Fabian paused, looking mildly irritated.
She pointed. “I think it’s another one of the catacombs.”