Authors: Jennifer Bradbury
But even Arthur's time ended.
fter supper Stephen and Elias approached Pennyrile's hut. “You don't think we ought to give it a day?” Elias whispered.
“It has to be now,” Stephen insisted, sloshing the jug of the special water they'd brought along in case Pennyrile required proof. “Before he has time to learn more.”
At the door, Pennyrile pulled back the curtain. His boots were laced up tight and his neck wrap had been freshly changed, almost as if he'd been waiting for them to arrive.
“Evenin', sir,” Stephen whispered, looking round as if somebody was going to pop out of the shadows. Pennyrile held his slate in one hand and his chalk in the other, but his arms were crossed.
“There was no new letter,” Elias offered without being asked.
Pennyrile shrugged without taking his eyes off Stephen.
Stephen stepped forward. “I reckon we should talk.”
Elias made to go back to his hut, but Pennyrile slapped his hand against the slate.
“I figure you twoâ” Elias began, but Pennyrile pointed at the ground at his feet. He wanted Elias to stay.
“Elias tells me you're looking for something.” Stephen kept his voice low, but the two remaining pigeons in the loft still shied away.
Pennyrile didn't move. So Stephen went on.
“How'd you know the water came from in here?” Stephen asked him.
Pennyrile simply stared. He had no intention of giving up what he knew or how he knew it. Elias found it maddening, the waiting and guessing and wondering if this was going to work at all.
“Look,” Stephen said, Pennyrile's stony silence beginning to unnerve him as well. “I'll take you to the water, but I'm not doing it out of kindness.”
Pennyrile's eyebrow lifted a hair. Stephen's tone had drawn him out. It figured to Elias. Kindness didn't seem to be in Pennyrile's wheelhouse. Manipulation. Bargains. Skullduggery. Those were languages he spoke.
The man lifted the slate and wrote hurriedly.
I have money.
“Don't want moneyÂ .Â .Â .Â ,” Stephen began, sounding more confident now that he'd moved Pennyrile to words. “I heard about a rough crew aboard a boat out on the Green. I wonder if they're anything to do with you?”
Pennyrile's mustache quirked at the mention of the riverboat.
“I wondered if with the pigeons and all, if that might be who'd you'd been writing toâ”
At this, Pennyrile began to scrawl frantically. Elias glanced at the birds. He was surprised to see that one had a little bit of paper wrapped around its leg.
he thought. He'd figured Pennyrile had given up on the pigeons. How long had it been there?
The chalk screeched across the slate as Pennyrile finished writing.
No more nonsense. What do you want?
Stephen took off his hat and rubbed his head. “Safe passage,” he said. “You and your crew will carry me up to the Illinois territory.”
Pennyrile tilted his head to one side.
“You and your boat may be my best chance.”
Stephen put his hat back on. “I'll show you the spring tonight,” he said. “There's a new moon night after next. That'll be the best time for me to slip away.”
Pennyrile wrote, his eyes gleaming.
“Sooner you get it, the sooner you start feeling stronger. And there's nobody about to wonder what we're up to but Lillian, and she'll hold her tongue.”
Pennyrile tapped his chalk against the slate, thinking. Then he hung the slate around his neck with a leather cord and gestured toward the door.
Elias felt himself exhale. It might work. It just might.
Stephen led them out. “Go on to bed, Eliasâ”
Pennyrile rapped on the slate.
“What now?” Stephen said.
The boy comes.
This had not been part of the plan. Stephen was supposed to go with Pennyrile alone. Elias was meant to stay behind.
“I don'tâ” Stephen began, but Pennyrile was writing again.
It took Elias a second to figure out what he meant. His eyes flashed back and forth between the word and Pennyrile's eyes. Then it dawned on him: Pennyrile didn't trust Stephen, but he still saw Elias as an ally.
“Fine,” Stephen relented, handing the water jug to Elias to carry. “But the both of you stay close and keep quiet.”
They passed Lillian sitting by the fire. Her back was squared to them, and she was staring straight ahead, shaking her head stiffly from side to side. Elias could tell she was mad enough to walk right through that fire, but figured she'd done all her hollering at him when Stephen explained the plan to her beforehand.
But someone was watching them go. Nedra stood at her window, a candle in her hand. She seemed about to cry out, but fell to coughing instead, and Lillian jumped from her seat and ran to Nedra's window, blocking her from view.
“Elias!” Stephen whispered sharply. “Move!”
Elias hurried to catch up and soon was near enough to smell the sour stink coming off those wraps on Pennyrile's neck. He expected that if they lost Pennyrile, they could always hunt him down by scent. Not that that seemed likely. Pennyrile was already working hard, chest heaving, face glistening with sweat.
At the path, Stephen handed Pennyrile a lantern. “We're going deep down, sir,” Stephen said. “Farther than even Croghan knows about. Stay right on my heel. But we got to move if we're going to get you two back before morning rounds.”
Pennyrile waved his hands impatiently. He didn't need to write the words out for them to know that he meant for Stephen to get on with it.
They worked their way down the passage, three lights bouncing off the walls, three pairs of feet shuffling softly down the corridors. They filed past Giant's Coffin, descended into Wooden Bowl, and back up to cross Bottomless Pit. Pennyrile crossed over the narrow footbridge without a moment's hesitation. He had gumption, Elias had to give him that. But then again, he figured a body didn't come to be a river pirate without a little bit of fire in the belly. Still, Elias was worriedâmore worried than he had been even before. If Pennyrile had that kind of steel in him, and was cagey enough to insist Elias came along so Stephen couldn't pull something, would their plan be enough to trick him after all?
Then again, the farther they went, the more often Pennyrile stopped to rest. He was sick. Bad sick.
From the pit they wound down deeper, through the sideways squeeze of Fat Man's Misery, into the vastness of River Hall, where Elias's heart leaped a little at the prospect of finally seeing the river. He smelled it before he saw it, the heavy misting scent of river water, the whisper of the flow growing louder as they drew closer. But the joy sucked right out of him when he finally glimpsed it. The dark water lagged by slowly at their feet, as if it were confused at having found itself flowing underground, as if it were giving up. He wasn't sure a river belonged underground.
A little boat tethered up near the edge bounced against the rocks.
“Help me cast off,” Stephen said as he nimbly stepped into the boat. Elias set the jug in the boat and steadied the bow while Pennyrile climbed in. Stephen then grabbed a long pole laid up inside the dory and stood in the stern while Elias slipped the loop of rope from the rock it was tied around, bringing it to the boat as he hopped in. Stephen dipped the pole into the water and pushed off.
Pennyrile picked up the jug and tipped it up to drink, loosening his scarf. Elias tried and failed not to gape at what he saw there.
It was no wonder Dr. Croghan called it the King's Evil. It
evil, like fruit rotting from the inside out, great bruising shades of purple rimmed with yellow, swollen out to the size of crabapples, up and down the side of his neck, smeared in the ointment and crusting at the edges.
“It's a tricky approach from here.” Stephen's voice was almost apologetic. “But from outside, you can start where the Nolin forks off. You know that place?”
Pennyrile indicated he did, but Elias could see he wasn't listening. Not really. He was staring at Stephen's pocket. Elias followed his eyes and saw the shape of the little notebook outlined against the worn fabric.
Something passed through Elias, like a ghost shuddering by.
This something was trouble. Elias knew it deep, but there was no way he could say. Not now. Not until they'd seen it through.
They slipped off the river, across a shallow channel and into a wide body of still water. Ever the tour guide, Stephen announced, “Lake Lethe.”
He poled across the surface, sending the water rippling out to the edges of the cave, where it slapped against the shores, echoing like the chiming of tiny bells. Eerie and beautiful, the chorus grew stronger and fuller as they crossed the lake, but in the silence of the boat, in the worry that seemed to chant inside Elias's head, the bells seemed to toll out a warning. And if he listened closer, they almost sounded like voices whispering. He'd not have been surprised at all to see the Lady of the Lake staring up at him from the other side of the mirrored surface.
Stephen docked alongside a tunnel whose bottom edge sat a few feet above the lake's surface, a trickle of water spilling over the lip. Elias tied the boat off to a handy spire as Stephen stepped up into the tunnel. Pennyrile followed, with Elias coming last. They climbed up the chute, feet sloshing in the water, then they ducked through a tunnel so low that they had to crawl. Pennyrile was struggling now, his breath growing ever more labored, sweating heavily.
Then, all of a sudden, they could stand again. They had arrived.
The pool was no more than four feet across, still as glass except when a drop fell from the rock above. “Water drips in all the time, but it's spring-fed from below,” Stephen explained, anticipating their question. “And it's as full as it was the day we found it. We been drawing off it near two years, but it never reduces.”
Pennyrile frowned. He seemed to be waiting for something more.
“Go on, drink,” Stephen said. “Sweeter water you won't find. Folks paying near a dollar a bottle for a little one, but reckon you can set whatever price you want when word gets out what it can do.”
Pennyrile sighed, screwed up his mouth like he wanted to say something, but then wrote.
We? Who else?
Stephen realized his mistake, but he recovered. “Me and Nick and Mat. We're the only ones that know about it. I heard about it from a man who was here before me, who heard about it from a fellow before him, who was brought here by an old Shawnee.”
Pennyrile rubbed his thumb over the edge of the slate.
“But Nick and Mat won't be any trouble. There's enough water for them to take a little and keep selling on the sly.”
Pennyrile then pointed at the shaft beyond, raised his eyebrows in question.
“Dead end,” Stephen explained, digging into his pack and producing a bottle for Pennyrile to fill.
But instead of taking it, Pennyrile lowered himself, scooped up some water in his palms, and drank it noisily. Then he removed his scarf, soaked a section of it in the cold water, and wrapped it back around his neck. Elias caught Stephen's eye, trying to figure out if Pennyrile believed that this was indeed the pool.
Elias almost felt bad for Pennyrile. Despite how awful he was, he was also awfully sick, no question. Elias felt terrible giving him false hope.
Pennyrile breathed deep and smiled like it was the best water he'd ever drunk in all his life. He pointed at the jug in Elias's hand and motioned for him to dump it out. Elias caught his meaning.
“Go on, Elias,” Stephen said. Elias stepped aside and emptied the jug, the water sloshing onto the floor. Then he submerged the jug in the spring, the chill near freezing his hand. He lifted it out when the last bubble rose to the surface, stopped up the jug, and handed it to Pennyrile. Only it must have slipped from Pennyrile's grasp, because the next thing Elias knew, it was crashing to the stone floor and busting all to pieces.
Stephen had lunged forward to try to catch it, but he was too slow, stumbling onto his hands and knees. “Blast it, Elias,” he said.
“I'm sorry,” Elias said. But Pennyrile didn't seem to mind. He even grabbed Stephen about the waist and one shoulder, and helped him to his feet.
“We can fetch you more jugs,” Stephen told Pennyrile. Pennyrile wrote.
We can manage.
Stephen and Elias exchanged looks.
“Then we're square?” Stephen asked. “You got what you came for? And you'll take me North?”
Pennyrile nodded emphatically.
“I guess that's it then,” Elias said, maybe a little too excited. “We ought to head back.”
Pennyrile tapped his nose and pointed at Elias, winking. Then he ducked down with his light and crawled back through the passage without even waiting for Stephen to lead them through. As Pennyrile's light faded, Elias whispered, “Think it worked?”
Stephen closed his eyes. “Hope so. Lord, I hope so.”
At the boat, Stephen took up the pole and made to shove off, but Pennyrile held up a hand and stood, sure as sure on legs that had spent plenty of time on boats. With his chalk he made a small white
on the wall above the passage, and sat back down. Elias almost collapsed with relief.
Pennyrile was marking the way.
And if he was marking the way, it meant he'd come back.
It meant he believed them.
*Â Â *Â Â *
Even Stephen seemed to relax as they made their way back to the main cave. He asked Pennyrile if he needed any markers from the place where the Echo came out, where Pennyrile's crew could come in and make their way to the false spring, but Pennyrile tapped his temple. He knew the spot.