Category Archives: Jack and Maddy

Chapter 6

The chime of the grandfather clock struck eleven times before Lord Brackwood looked up from the letter.  Jack sat tentatively on a cushioned bench next to Maddy and Grort in the tapestry-lined foyer of Larken Hall, waiting for their host to say something.  He saw Brackwood’s eyes moving up and down the letter several times, interspersed with cold stares at Jack over the top of the parchment.

“Bertram!” said Brackwood to no one in particular.  Jack’s heart began to pound faster as he waited for the individual to appear.  A small old man in a dusty white wig wearing tiny spectacles entered the foyer through what Jack had thought was a regular wall.  As he looked closer, he saw the seams of the door had been carefully hidden next to the ornate trim that lined the hallway.

“Yes, my lord?”

“Make up the spare bedroom on the third floor.  It seems like we will be having some company for a spell.  And, tell Edwena to bring out some breakfast.”

“At once, my lord.”

“One more thing, Bertram.” Brackwood whispered something in Bertram’s ear, and Bertram disappeared quickly back behind the false wall, a soft click sounding as the door snapped back into place.

Brackwood’s stern features dissolved as he turned to the group.

“Your visit has been a long time coming. Not to say that I was expecting you, but I didn’t think Trafford would forget to collect on the debt.  But come now, you must be tired from your journey. Bertram will attend to your belongings, if you would follow me, please.”

Brackwood gestured down the end of the hallway, and Jack reluctantly led the way.  The hallway soon branched but Brackwood opened a glass door at the end and stepped outside.  To either side, Jack heard the dull roar of chatter, clanging pots and running water.  He stepped through the doorway, squinting at the bright sunlight, and found himself in a large garden.  The manor edged the garden on both sides, with full-length glass walkways running parallel, showing off a multitude of paintings hung on the walls just inside.  At the far end, a brick wall transitioned into an abnormally-large hedge just behind it, above which Jack could see the top of the chimney of the neighboring house. A long metal table surrounded by cushioned chairs stood at the center.

No sooner had they sat down than a portly woman appeared out of one side of the glass walkway carrying a large tray on her shoulder.  She sat it down on the table and began quickly disbursing its contents, a large basket of warm biscuits followed by ramekins of butter and jam. Edwena poured hot tea for everyone except Grort, who raised his hand in protest.  Before he could say anything, Edwena produced a pewter mug, foam overflowing from the top.

“Thank you Edwena,”  said Lord Brackwood.  Edwena nodded politely and retreated back into the house.

“I’m afraid I haven’t entertained your kin in quite awhile, master dwarf, but I hope this ale is to your liking. As for us humans, I do enjoy afternoon tea and biscuits, but who has time to wait for that? Please, enjoy.”

Jack suddenly realized how long it had been since he had had a proper meal.  Their campfire dinner two nights ago had turned sour when the fish Jack had caught fell into the flames and Trafford had only managed to scrounge up a stale piece of bread for each of them before they boarded the ferry the previous night.  Jack eyed the biscuits ravenously and took one from the basket.  The formalness of the setting demanded that the biscuit be eaten in small, polite bites, and that was Jack’s intent, but as soon as the first morsel hit his mouth, the entire biscuit disappeared.  If Brackwood seemed offended by the lack of manners, his face betrayed no disgust.

“Your arrival could not have had better timing, as I woke up this morning dreading a day filled with nothing to do. Now it seems it will be quite the opposite. How delightful!”

In between bites, Jack made eye contact with Maddy, who returned the same quizzical look he had offered.

“From what Trafford has written, you find yourself in a bit of a predicament, Master Richards. Quite a predicament, indeed.” Brackwood tapped the paper with the back of his hand as he looked over it again. “Fortunately, out of all the people he could have called upon to help, I am perhaps the best suited. I have a bit of pull with Our Majesty’s armed forces, seeing as how I supply them with most of their weaponry. I’ve already summoned Brigadier General Maddox and when he gets here, we’ll sort everything out, don’t you worry my boy. Ah, that must be him now.”

Jack turned around as Bertram escorted a portly man in a red coat and tri-tip hat out onto the patio.  The man stumbled over to one of the empty chairs, and rested his hands on the back, breathing heavily and quite loudly.  His face, bright red to match his jacket and hosting beads of sweat, loudly proclaimed a feeling of indignation.

“Brackwood, what is the meaning of this? Calling me over here like a dog on a leash. I’ve got a million things to do this morning.”

“Oh good heavens no, Brigadier General. A dog on a leash isn’t called, it’s pulled. With you, there’s no need for any pulling.”

Jack suppressed a laugh at the dig, which seemed to go completely over Maddox’s head. Maddox’s face softened and he made a quick query around the table.

“So Brackwood, I take it this is the boy I’m to receive into my custody. I just received word via messenger pigeon from New Wales right before I got your missive. Seems the boy has shirked his God-given duty to serve in His Majesty’s armed forces, which won’t do at all. I’ll have you turn him over to me immediately.”

“Ah, well, see that is where the problem lies and why I summon– err, requested your presence here this morning.  You see, I find myself in need of a new chief gunsmith, as I caught my previous one selling muskets to the elves, and I would like to hire Master Richards here for the job.”

The surprise on Jack’s face was not lost on Maddox, whose chuckling soon transitioned into an outright guffaw.

“Brackwood, you must take me for some sort of dunderheaded sap. Do you think I got where I am today by being a gullible idiot?”

“No, of course not. Your commission was bought and paid for, quite handsomely I might add, by your late father. But enough about you, do I have your blessing that you will dispense with the boy’s writ so that he can be in my employ?”

Jack braced for Maddox to launch into another tirade, but the portly general instead walked around and took a seat in the empty chair.

“Yes, you do, provided the boy complete a simple task as a show of good faith. After all, His Majesty can’t have his writs disregarded because you owed someone a favor, now can he?”

Jack’s stomach sank as he saw the shit-eating grin form on Maddox’s face.  The general reached down to his side, pulled something out of a holster attached to his hip, and placed it on the table.

“Standard issue Queen Anne. Now, this boy is to be your master-at-arms? Well, if that’s so, then he’ll have no issue taking apart and reassembling this pistol, wouldn’t you say?”

Panic boiled inside Jack as he stared at the mahogany-handled pistol on the table. He had never even held a gun, let alone fired or taken one apart.

“The boy will do splendidly, I’m sure. Jack, if you please.”

If Brackwood had any doubt on Jack’s ability to complete the task at hand, the old man’s crinkled face certainly did not betray such thoughts. As much as Jack appreciated the vote of confidence, he was not sure what good it would do in view of the near impossible.

Jack closed his eyes momentarily, as if trying to wish everything away. The site that greeted him when he opened his eyes almost made him shut them again immediately. The scene remained the same except for the very minor detail of a pair of faint blue lines that had emerged out of the pistol. As he looked around the patio, Jack saw that no one else had noticed this latest development.  He blinked several times, hoping that the lines were merely a manifestation of his inner panic. They did not fade.

“I’m sorry, Brackwood, but I don’t have all morning to sit here while this fool of a boy tries to stall his fate. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll be taking my leave. Someone will come for the boy this afternoon.”

Jack’s hands slowly slid toward the pistol. As he grasped it, the blue lines extended further, curving as his hands slowly trailed them. What before felt like a foreign object, now felt like an old friend. He let go of himself and let the lines take over.

They rotated around the barrel, but Jack’s unscrewing was abruptly halted by a metal catch inside the barrel. Not missing a beat, the lines jutted outward away from the pistol and towards Maddox’s belt. A small metal key was lodged clumsily in one of the belt holes, and before Maddox could interject, Jack cleared the distance between them, yanked the key out of Maddox’s belt and returned to work on the pistol. With the key in place, as the lines directed, the barrel detached without protest and a further line showed him the key’s rightful place in a small groove in the handle.  The key proved quite useful in removing the numerous screws along the handle, and soon the pistol lay dissembled on the patio table.

Jack only had time to a take a short breath before the lines sprung into motion again, this time back towards Maddox. They split off in different directions, one heading to a small powder horn clipped to Maddox’s belt, the other to a pocket in his coat. Jack again strode quickly towards Maddox, grabbed the powder horn with one hand and reached into the pocket with the other, pulling out a small lead ball. Placing the horn and bullet on the table, Jack watched as the lines began their final dance. His hands soon followed, and as he finally tucked the barrel key back into the ornate handle of the reassembled and loaded pistol, Jack’s face beamed with triumph.

He reached out the handle of the pistol towards Maddox when the lines sprouted again. “No, no,” they seemed to say. “Turn it the other way.”  Jack complied, gripping the handle with his right hand, the barrel aimed towards Maddox’s large midsection. The lines flowed up to the hammer, and Jack cocked it in reply.  Finally, they clustered at the trigger.

Jack’s finger froze on the trigger. The lines swirled forcefully, darkening in color. Jack looked at Maddox.  The arrogant bluster that had marked the general’s arrival was gone; in its place, wide, fearful eyes stared back at him. As if sensing his hesitation, the lines moved faster and faster around the trigger, urging him to move his finger just a little more.  He traced the contours of the metal up and down slowly.  The lines tightened around his finger, Jack’s resistance slowly fading.  He fired.

Chapter 5

Maddy nearly rolled off of the top bunk as the ship clumsily floated to a halt.  For a brief instant, she thought she was back in her sleeping bag in the woods, but as she slowly opened her eyes, the tiny cabin appeared instead of the canvas tent.  She hadn’t expected to fall asleep so quickly, as she was still full of nervous energy when they boarded the ship the previous night.  But the days’ events had taken their toll, and no sooner had they been led to their “cabin” (which could be mistaken for a broom closet), Maddy collapsed onto the small bed.

She felt the entire ship awaking at once. Grort had explained that the ship could sail itself, thanks to what he called “some rubbish elf magic,” and so both crew and passengers had went in for the night as soon as they had departed from New Wales.

She still couldn’t quite believe everything that happened, as the craziness of the previous day had left little time for her to reflect.  From what Lord Trafford had said after he had re-emerged from the hidden cellar, getting home immediately was out of the question.

“In a short 30 years, New Britain had grown quite prosperous, thanks in large part to the influx of wealth that the Council poured into the colony. But then something unexpected happened.  The last ship that sailed back to England never returned.  Few that were left knew how to navigate the passage home, but even they were unable to find the way back.  Each time they thought they had reached home, they were greeted with nothing but open ocean and had to hastily double back to New Britain on dwindling supplies. It took several years for the colonists to make peace with the idea that they weren’t going home, and they began to explore up and down the coasts. When the first ship spotted smoke rising from the shore, the crew thought it was just fumes from a dwarf forge. But upon closer inspection, they saw that it was a small city … a human city.”

“Who were they?” asked Maddy.

“The French. As the colonists soon learned, they were not the first ones to discover this new world. All along the coast were cities settled by their European rivals.  Some had been there for only a few decades, some for a hundred years. The colonists thought they had found a way home, but were dismayed to learn that these other colonies had also lost the way home.  What happened next was not unexpected, it being the colonial era and all.  The British, with the newest fleet, sailed up and down the coast, smashing whatever resistance they encountered, in what came to be known as the Hundred Days War, and New Britain found itself in control of all seven of the other human colonies.”

“So the sum total of this history lesson is that we’re stuck here, is that what you’re saying?” said Jack. “There’s got to be some way to travel back, or else how the hell did we get here?”

“This land has a strange way of drawing people to it. You and Maddy are not the first to show up suddenly in the middle of the night.”

“There are others?” said Maddy.

“Yes, but none still alive. Fortunately, the Council keeps meticulous records in the central archives, which should hopefully also include the logs from the original British expedition and the other colonies.  Getting access to those records, however, will not be an easy task.”

The discussion had gotten cut off once they had reached the docks, but Trafford had promised more answers once they reached a safe place in the capital. Grort offered to come too, as he said he had business to attend to in the capital.

Maddy turned over to see if anyone else was up and saw that Trafford’s bed was empty.

“Jack, Grort, wake up!”

Maddy jumped down from the top bunk, the floorboards creaking as she landed.  Jack still lay fast asleep but Grort had begun to stir.

“Does dragon want a cracker?” mumbled Grort. Maddy shook Grort on the shoulder and he jumped up from the bed.

“Lass, your lesson for today is to never wake a sleeping dwarf.”

“Sorry, but Trafford’s gone! Look!”

Trafford’s bed sheet was folded neatly into the mattress and a bulge protruded from under the pillow, which Maddy threw off the bed to find a small stack of papers. On top was a short letter written on parchment.

“Maddy and Jack,

Apologies for ducking out early. I did not want my presence to cause you any trouble.

I’ve left two letters of introduction, one for each of you. See that they are delivered unopened and the recipients will help you both.

Will reconvene soon.

-T”

Underneath the letter were two envelopes closed with ornate red seals addressed to two people Maddy had never heard of.

“What’s all the commotion?” said Jack as he slowly sat up from the bottom bunk.

“Trafford’s gone!” said Maddy as she handed Jack the note.

Jack glanced at the note and the letters in Maddy’s hands, his face turning red.

“WHAT … THE … HELL?” said Jack with a loud, piercing scream.  “What was the point of him taking us for a ride on a crazy magic elf boat, only to abandon us the minute he got the chance?”

“But he didn’t abandon us! We have these two letters…”

“Yes, two sealed letters that we can’t even open. For all we know, they might tell these people to kill us.”

The cabin walls suddenly reverberated as a loud bell rang above on deck, almost knocking Maddy off her feet.

“Blasted elves, can’t even make a proper bell!” said Grort, as he began to gather his things from his bed.  “We’d better get a move on before the ship turns around, unless you feel like swimming to shore.”

Maddy heard the rumble of footsteps outside their cabin. Peering out, she saw people beginning to collect in the hallway. The mob, stationary at first, started to move quickly towards the stairs.  Grort pushed his way out in the hallway, his axe handle swinging loose from his belt, knocking random passengers to the floor.  She followed behind the newly-cleared path, whispering apologies to the people who had suddenly found themselves flat on their backs, until she reached the stairway and began the long climb up.

Maddy nearly keeled over from the stench as she finally reached the deck of the ship.  If the  aroma of the docks of New Wales could be described as noxious, then the smell emanating from their current location was on another spectrum entirely.  Yet somehow the people milling about her did not seem to notice.

The smell, however, soon became the least interesting thing to take note of. In their haste to board the previous night, Maddy had not paid much attention to the ship itself.  Now, standing on deck in the light of the morning sun, she realized its sheer size. Rows of tall masts dotted the deck, each equipped with huge white sails, currently at rest. From what she knew of sailing ships, and admittedly, it was not much, she expected to see dozens of sailors manning each of the sails.  But, looking up and down the deck again, Maddy didn’t see anyone who could be fairly described as a sailor. Peering over to the side, she could see dozens of wooden ramps leading down to the large dock below, as scores of passengers slowly made their way down off the ship.

What finally stole her breath away was the city itself. Where New Wales had seemed like a bustling town, it was actually a sleepy, backwater hamlet compared to the vast island settlement that stretched before her.  Morning mist enveloped much of the city but she could see billowing clouds of black smoke rising from one section, violently contrasting with an adjacent and seemingly out-of-place thick, green forest.  She spotted channels of water criss-crossing haphazardly between other areas.  One led right up next to the ship, with smaller pontoon boats docked and waiting for the disembarking passengers.  She finally spied an imposing ridge that rimmed the far side of the island, casting a long shadow that seemed to stretch over half the city.  Maddy suspected the ocean lay just beyond.

“Quite a sight, isn’t it?” said Grort, who had sidled up beside her.

“It’s amazing! I don’t even know where to look.”

“I’ll hand it to you humans, you really did something right with New London.”

“New London?” asked Jack, who had joined the pair looking out over the railing.

“Yes, the human capital. It is the largest, richest and and also unfortunately poorest of your cities. Even we and the elves could not ignore it. That smoke rising over there marks the Dwarven Quarter and the trees mark the Elven Quarter. But come now, we’d best disembark before all the water cabs are taken.”

Grort darted away from the railing and towards one of the wooden ramps leading down to the docks, Maddy doing her best to keep up. The ramps sunk slightly under the weight of the stampeding passengers, and Maddy felt like an impediment to the stream of people walking around her.

“This is like walking through Grand Central during rush hour!” Maddy called back to Jack behind her.

“Yeah, except with the added risk of being elbowed into the water.”

Jack’s words were soon proven true as an unfortunate man in a bowler hat several people in front of Maddy went tumbling into the drink, his briefcase following soon after. Maddy glanced behind her while still moving down the ramp and saw him surface without his hat and motion angrily for a life preserver from a young boy standing at the edge of the dock.

“Why are these people all in such a hurry?” asked Jack as he reached just after Maddy.

“I believe you humans call it ‘rush hour,’ “ said Grort.

The ship soon emptied, its passengers finding transport among the smaller barges docked nearby or with the line of carriages parked just beyond the pier. Without warning, the elvish bell rang again, though thankfully not as loud, and the sails sprung to life as the ship slowly reversed course.

“What now?” asked Jack as the crowd of commuters began thinning out.

“I guess we seek out the people on these letters. We have no idea where Trafford is or when he’ll turn up again.”  Maddy pulled them out and looked at the names again. “Lord Hamilton Brackwood, Larken Hall.  Lady Elektra Fairclough, Garland Manor.  Grort, do you know where either of these places is?”

“I don’t usually stray far beyond the Dwarven Quarter, but if I had to wager, I’d say your lord and lady live on Mayfair Hill.” Grort motioned to the boy who fished out the wayward commuter. “Lad, call us a cab.” Grort flipped a small silver coin to the boy, who pocketed it greedily.

“Yes, master dwarf.” The boy scampered off to find a water cab, waving the group over to one of the few remaining crafts. Maddy stepped aboard, rocking the boat slightly to the side, which drew a dirty look from the other passenger. Jack and Grort followed after, taking seats in the back.  Maddy looked around for the boat’s captain, but didn’t see anyone.

“The bowl,”  said the passenger, who looked particularly rushed.

A small wooden bowl stood on a column in the middle of the boat.

“Excuse me?”

“Put your destination in the bowl with your fare, so we can shove off already.”

“Oh, right. Sorry.”  Not wanting to ask the passenger for a piece of paper, Maddy pulled out Trafford’s letter, and tore a small piece from the bottom. It was to her good fortune that she had remembered to pack a pen for the camping trip, as she had hoped to work through some crossword puzzles to pass the time. The pen had survived the encounter with the Redcoats, but the book of puzzles had not.

After writing “Mayfair Hill” in small, neat print on the scrap of paper, Maddy placed it slowly in the bowl, along with a coin from Grort.  No sooner had the paper and coin touched the bottom of the bowl, than the boat sprang to life, knocking Maddy backward onto one of the benches.

“Tourist,” muttered the passenger under her breath as she rolled her eyes.

Maddy pushed herself up from the bench and looked out at the city passing by around her.  Her heart was in her throat, but for some reason, she felt a rush of excitement as the boat sped on toward the unknown.

Chapter 4

As the figure passed, Maddy saw the sunlight reflect off of a pair of spectacles.

“It seems the young miss’s money was unfortunately misspent.”  The hooded figure paused in front of Mitchell, raised his cane, and poked the end of it into Mitchell’s chest, who tried to swat it away.

“What business is it of yours, old man? It’s not my fault that the girl put her trust in the wrong barrister.”

Maddy didn’t see the cane leave Mitchell’s chest, but the next thing she knew, she heard a crack and the slimy barrister slumped to the ground. The figure looked down at the barrister satisfied and continued walking towards the judge, stopping next to Jack.

“ORDER! ORDER! ORDER! I WILL HAVE ORDER!”

The judge’s voice cracked on the third repetition.

“So help me God, I will throw the lot of you in the stocks for this insolence.”

“Now, now, Henry. No need for idle threats.”

The figure finally removed his hooded cloak to reveal the old pawnbroker, dressed in tattered linens.

“I happened to be in the neighborhood and sensed something was amiss, so I thought I would drop in on my old friend. It seems you haven’t changed a bit.”

“And you, Lord Malcolm Dorian Trafford, have seen better days. I never expected to see you again after your expulsion from the Council, but you’ve really taken to the life of a vagabond.”

“Vagabond? That’s a bit unfair, Henry.” Trafford paused and looked down at his clothing and chuckled.

“Point taken, but you don’t become the least successful pawnbroker in all of New Wales by dressing like a nobleman.”

“Enough banter, Trafford. Why are you here?”

“Well, your .. Lordship, is it? I seemingly funded this boy’s defense, which turned out to be piss poor.”  Trafford reached back with his cane to nudge the head of the unconscious barrister. “So, I’m here to step in on his behalf and argue for his innocence.”

“How very thoughtful of you, but seeing as how you are not a barrister…”

“You’re quite right, but I am still a lord, am I not? Therefore I may appear before any court in the Kingdom.”

“You were expelled from the Council!”

“Yes, but only the King has the power to strip me of my peerage, and seeing as how we’ve not heard from him in quite some time, I still remain Baron of New Leicester, with all the spoils that entails.  May I proceed?”

The judge stared at the pawnbroker for what seemed liked hours before silently indicating that he could continue.

“Thank you, your Lordship. Now, if I may put the boy on the stand, so that I can ask him a few questions?”

“You may.”

“Excellent.” Lord Trafford motioned for Jack to sit in the chair to the right of the judge.

“Now, Jack, are you a citizen of New Britain?”

“No sir, I’ve never heard of it.”

“And you have not been ordered to report to basic training, correct?”

“No sir, I’ve never even fired a gun before.”

“And you are not currently serving in the militia, correct?”

“What militia?”

“And you are not currently attending Woolwich, correct?”

“I’ve never heard of that school.”

“And you are not currently attending Portsmouth, correct?”

“No sir, is that in England?”

“Right, and so to sum up, you have never served nor were ever asked to serve in His Majesty’s armed forces?”

“I.. I live in America, so I wouldn’t have…”

“Thank you, young man, you may step down.”

Jack walked down from the stand and gave Maddy a quizzical look.

“Interesting guy you found, I hope he knows what’s he’s doing,” said Jack in a whisper.

“I never thought he would show up here. I didn’t even tell him what I needed the money for!”

“It wouldn’t be the first weird thing to happen today.”

Maddy started to say something, but Lord Trafford had turned back toward the judge.

“Your Lordship, I believe the young man’s testimony clearly demonstrates that he cannot be guilty of deserting an army he was never part of to begin with.  I therefore respectfully submit that this Court should release this young man and allow him to return to his family.”

Maddy couldn’t tell if the judge was actually considering Lord Trafford’s argument or was merely toying with them, but it was a good five minutes before the judge finally responded.

“Lord Trafford, as much as it pains me to say this, you make a compelling argument, and I have no choice but to find the boy not guilty of desertion, but…”

Maddy, Jack and Grort erupted in cheer.  Maddy turned to thank Lord Trafford, but the pawnbroker’s expression had turned melancholy.

“BUT, although the young man has not deserted, he is of military age and resident in New Britain,”  said the judge, whose mouth had formed into a wicked grin. “Under writ from the Council, I have no choice but to draft him into His Majesty’s armed forces and I order him to report to Central Command within one week of today, August 21, 2014.  This Court is now adjourned, good day.”

***

The room fell silent as the judge retreated through the camouflaged door, interrupted only by the intermittent groans of Mitchell. Jack joined Maddy and Grort in the first row of benches behind the front table, and Lord Trafford walked slowly towards them.

“I don’t understand,” said Maddy. “I thought we had won!”

“Evidently, the judge wanted to settle an old score with me through your brother. I knew it was a risk, but the army, from what I gather, is a lot more pleasant than the dank mine where Jack was headed.”

“Now see here, Lord, don’t go talkin’ about our mines like that!” said Grort, glaring at Trafford.

“Master dwarf, you know better than I that no human would ever be allowed in a dwarven mine. No, where Jack was headed was a place far, far worse. The Council first commissioned the Lothian Mines before my expulsion, under pretenses of circumventing the steep Dwarven tariffs. They’ve yet to bear fruit, but it provides a convenient place to stick undesirables. That reminds me…”

Trafford reached into a pocket in his cloak and withdrew two small objects, placing them each in Jack and Maddy’s hands.  Jack looked down to see his pocket watch. With all of the craziness of the day, he hadn’t realized it was missing. He looked over and saw Maddy fastening her necklace back around her neck.

“Seeing as how your barrister turned out to be a dud, the least I can do is to return your valuables.  Now, if we hurry, we can catch a ferry downriver and arrive in the capital by the morning.”

Jack clutched the pocket watch tightly in his hand.

“No!”  Everyone turned to look at him in surprise.

“I’ve fallen off a cliff, been captured by Redcoats escaped from Colonial Williamsburg and was nearly sent to die in a mine. I’m not going anywhere until someone tells me where the hell we are!”

Trafford turned and put his hand on Jack’s shoulder.

“I understand your frustration, son. But time is of the essence and we need to catch that ferry. I’ll explain what I can on the way.”

The sun was beginning to set as the four of them walked down the courthouse steps.  Jack could see streetlights illuminating the wide avenue in both directions; but where the light came from, he could not tell.

“They’re wisplights, courtesy of our friends across the river,” said Trafford. “Part of the Treaty of ‘72. Evidently, the elves didn’t like the smell of gas wafting into the forest, so they practically insisted that we take them. Me, I miss the yellow glow of the gaslights.”

“You and me both,” said Grort. “Where do ya think the gas came from to power those lights? Meddlesome elves.”

“No offense to your kin, but both you and the Woodlands have been meddling in our affairs when it suits you for hundreds of years. Not that we don’t appreciate the meddling.”  Grort’s face became animated at the last comment, but Trafford held up his hand before Grort could respond. “There will be plenty of time to discuss politics later, but I promised the boy some answers.”

Trafford motioned for Jack and Maddy to walk closer to him as they turned off the main avenue. Whereas the main avenue had some sense of order, with blocks appearing at near-equal intervals, this side street soon branched into a dozen different directions.

“I suspect we’re already drawing enough unwanted attention between your clothes and our friend Grort here, so stay close.”

That proved somewhat difficult, as Trafford switched to a dizzying pace and kept turning down a new street every few steps.  Jack now suspected that the cane was just for show.

“Four hundred years ago, the British began their colonization of America. Within a hundred years, they had finished settling most of the East Coast. Naturally, the Crown turned its sights elsewhere. The Spanish and the Portuguese had beaten it to South America, Africa was a mystery, and India had unfortunately been ceded to the East India Trading Company.  Rumors of a lost continent had been around for hundreds of years, but no one had ever thought of launching an official expedition to find it. That was, until 1742, when the Crown held a secret audience with Warrick Hargrave, previously the captain of a New York-based merchant ship.  What was said at the meeting or how Hargrave even got the meeting remains a mystery, but this much we do know. Three months later, the Crown ordered the HMS Anglesea to escort a small group of ships belonging to the recently-commissioned New Britain Trading Company, headed by none other than Hargrave.  The result was a disaster.  The Anglesea sank after colliding with a breakwater not one hour out of port and the rest of ships got caught in the wreckage. Hargrave was disgraced and never heard from again.

“But that’s not what really happened, is it?” asked Jack.

“No, for obvious reasons, the whole story was a cover.  The Crown didn’t want it getting out that there was an unspoiled continent for the taking, lest it have to fight the rest of Europe on yet another front. Of course, this was before anyone realized that the natives of this continent were a far cry from the ones in America. If Hargrave styled himself as the next Cortes, those expectations were shattered upon landing, when he found representatives from the Woodlands and the Mountains waiting for him. The Treaty of Landing, as it was later called, was signed that night.  Fortunately for Hargrave, the terms were favorable enough: the New Britain Trading Company was granted the land along the river valley between the Woodlands and the Mountains so long as no human ever strayed into either dominion uninvited. The elves and the dwarves asked for little in return, as they considered us curiosities more than anything and were happy to have us as a buffer and sometime-trading partner. Hargrave left within the week to report back to the Crown.  His ship returned, but he did not. Instead, the First Governing Council of New Britain arrived to take control of the colony from the now-dissolved Trading Company.  Ah, here we are.”

Trafford had led them down an alley which dead-ended at a pair of cellar doors.

“This isn’t the pawn shop,” said Maddy.

“No, my lady, it isn’t. I don’t actually keep anything of valuable at the shop. If you’ll kindly wait here, I’ll be back in a minute.”

Trafford produced a key from his cloak, unlocked the doors, and descended into the darkness. As the old man disappeared, Jack saw a small piece of paper fall out of his cloak.  Maddy, deep in conversation with Grort, seemed not to notice. Jack bent down to pick up the paper, which he now saw was a folded piece of parchment. He unfolded it to find three words written in silver ink.

“They are coming.”

Chapter 3

The watch weighed heavily in Maddy’s pocket as she and Grort approached the city gates. She had almost left it behind, but Grort had spotted it in the dirt next to Jack’s backpack. “We dwarves have the silversight,” he explained. “Useful down in the mines.”  After all of her bad luck so far, finding Jack’s watch in the bushes felt like things had maybe started to turn. She instinctively grasped the necklace under her shirt, which had been a present from Nana on her 10th birthday, along with Jack’s watch.  The necklace, a simple rectangle made of silver was originally a present from their late grandfather to Nana on their wedding night; the watch, her gift to him.

The city gate rose above abridging stone walls.  A single soldier stood watch in the middle of the gate, although Maddy could hear echoing footsteps atop the walls in either direction.  The soldier looked coldly at Maddy and Grort, raising an eye at Maddy’s clothes.

“State your business in New Wales.”

“Well sir, my brother’s been…”

“… been waiting for us to arrive with the new shipment from Stonelands, sir,” interrupted Grort.

“What’s in the shipment?”

“It’s three…”

“Stop. I want to hear it from the girl, dwarf.”

Grort started to say something to the guard, but Maddy held her hand out to stop him. She turned and gave the soldier a steel gaze, paused for a second, and began to speak in an echoing voice.

“It’s three pounds of fresh pipe weed, bound for the capital.  I’ll mind you not to tarry us further, else my buyer will want to know who was responsible for his leaf going stale and I don’t think he’ll be too happy to come down river and deal with the likes of you, guard.”

A rush of color returned to Maddy’s face as she finished speaking. She didn’t even wait for the soldier to motion them through the gate, as she grabbed Grort by the arm and walked through.  Turning back, Maddy could see the soldier’s mouth gaped open.

“What was that, lass?”

“I don’t know! I froze for a second and then out of nowhere, my lips started moving and the words just came out.”

“Well whatever it was, it sure did the trick. That soldier’s not likely to trifle with you ever again.”

Maddy looked out into the city. Rows of small houses interspersed with larger brick buildings and church spires dotted the landscape. Ship masts poked out from the horizon and a breeze brought a foul stench from their direction. Her mind wandered to the family trip to colonial Williamsburg they had taken two summers ago, but the people milling about the street were definitely not actors and they did not seem eager to explain to Maddy how a butter churn worked.

“Welcome to New Wales. It’s not pretty, but the people are hardworking and decent, which is more than I can say about their cousins in the capital.  I’ve spent many a night’s drinkin’ with the shipbuilders down at the wharf.”

“You’re sure this is where they would have taken Jack?”

“Aye. They won’t have bothered to ship him down river just yet, not before his trial anyway.”

“His trial?”

“Yes, an interesting system you humans have.  We dwarves would rather settle our problems with fightin’, drinkin’, or seein’ who can withstand the dragon fire forge the longest, but it’s not for everyone, I suppose.  You’ll need to hire Jack a barrister for him to have any chance of winning.”

“But I don’t have any money!”

“True, but you have a lot of weird and interesting stuff in that pack, don’t ya?”

“Yes, but…”

“This way. The best brokers are on Piccadilly Street.”

A bell rang when Maddy opened the door to the pawn shop. Dust kicked up under her feet as she and Grort maneuvered around the myriad shelves piled high with odd-looking objects. Maddy stopped at the counter in the back of the shop, where an old man in spectacles was napping behind a glass window.

“Umm, sir?”

The old man did not stir. Maddy rapped on the glass. No response.

“Sir! It’s urgent!”

The old man’s eyes slowly opened.

“Mmm? We’re closed. Good day.”

The old man closed his eyes, as Maddy stood in front of the window, perplexed.

“Step aside, lass. I’ll handle this.”

Grort withdrew something from his coat and slammed it onto the counter.  When the layers of collected dust settled again, Maddy saw that it was a large hammer. Intricate symbols decorated the ornate handle and continued up onto the metal.  The old man eyed it through his spectacles, but remained silent.

“Don’t make me use this, old man. I don’t want to have to clean glass shards out of my beard again.  Now, the lass would like to speak with ya. Are ya still going to sit there, pretending to sleep?”

“I didn’t think it possible to inlay Argosh oak with silver, impressive. From the runes on the head, this looks like it hails from the dank pit that it is Eysteinn Hall.”

“And what would ya know of Eysteinn? We’ve had no human visitors for more than a quarter span.”

“Oh, just what I hear from passersby. Now, as the hammer is unfortunately not within my budget, what does the young lady have to show me?”

***

“By the grace of his excellency, George III, King of Great Britain, King of Ireland, and Duke of Hanover, may his rule never cease, this court is called to order.”

Jack had not noticed the tiny old man who had entered through a camouflaged door in the back and quickly rose to his feet. He had earned the ire of the guard on the way over by constantly stopping to gawk at the city. The buildings all looked normal enough, if one ignored the fundamental absurdity of being in a land filled with elves and dwarves, but something seemed off to Jack.  The rows of wooden houses all gave off an other-worldly glow and none of the windows he passed showed his reflection. Unfortunately, each time Jack had stopped to take a closer look, the guard would whack him with the butt of his musket and he now had matching pains in his back to go with the one on his head.

Jack’s cellmate did not seem as concerned with ceremony, and by the time he eventually stood up, blood was dripping from his nose. The judge, clad in an unkempt silver wig and dusty robes, peered down at the two prisoners from his perch.

“Prisoner 9286, step forward!”

The old man wiped the blood from his upper lip and spit at the floor towards the judge. The guard raised his musket, but before he could rain another blow, the judge held up his hand.

“I appreciate your enthusiasm, Private, but there will be plenty of opportunities for 9286 to become familiar with a blunt object where he’s going.”

If the old man seemed relieved by the stay of punishment, he didn’t show it.

“9286, you are accused of desertion and conspiring with seditious individuals. How do you plead?”

The old man began to open his mouth, and then paused and stared down at the ground, his lips moving silently, fists curled into balls. Finally, he began to speak.

“Ain’t no proper army that drafts old men and young boys, Your Lordship,” the old man spit again, “but far be it for a wharfsman to question the wisdom of our esteemed Council.”

Jack saw the corner of the old man’s mouth twist up slightly as he finished his speech, a look of muted triumph in his eyes. The judge’s face remained expressionless.

“10 years in the mines. Next prisoner step forward!”

Before the old man could protest, several guards appeared and dragged him out of the back of the courtroom. Jack could hear muffled screams getting softer and softer, until finally a loud whack silenced them. He turned back toward the judge, a huge lump in his throat.

“Prisoner 9287, you are accused of desertion, how do you plead?”

The doors of the courtroom swung open violently.  A tall, lanky man with greasy hair strode into the room, trailed by what Jack could only assume was a dwarf and a young girl.

“Jack, you’re all right!”

“Maddy!”

Maddy began to run up the aisle toward Jack, but several guards moved to block her path.

“SILENCE! What is the meaning of this outburst?”

“Your Honor, if I may,” said the greasy-haired man, catching up to Maddy . “I am this boy’s barrister and I’ll thank you for not starting the proceedings without giving me a minute to confer with my client.”

“God help him then, Mr. Mitchell. I’m surprised you still have not been disbarred.  I’ll have to write to my friends in the capital again once this hearing is finished.”

Jack saw Maddy glare at the barrister, as he casually pushed the guards aside and walked up to Jack.

“Disbarred? You said you were the best barrister in the city!” yelled Maddy.

“Quiet, girl! I know what I’m doing.”

The barrister turned Jack away from the judge and held out his other hand.

“Stan Mitchell. And you are?”

“Jack, J-Jack Richards.”

“It’s a pleasure, Jack. Now, what are you charged with?”

“Desertion.”

“Ooh, that’s a tough one. Don’t think I’ve handled one of those in ten years, but worry not. The judge and I are on excellent terms. I’ll smooth this whole thing out.”

“Errrr..”

“That’s a good lad. You just take a seat here and let me do the talking.”

Jack sat down on the bench and turned toward Maddy, who had found a seat behind him along with the dwarf.

“Jack! I’m so glad you’re OK! I didn’t think we’d be able to find you!”

“Me neither!”

Jack’s eyes moved past Maddy and onto the dwarf. His mouth gaped open but he couldn’t muster any words.

“I may be the first dwarf ya’ve seen, but hopefully I won’t be the last, so I’d quit your staring if I was you.”

“Sorry, sir.”

The dwarf stared back at Jack with a deadly serious look, before cracking a smile.

“Jack, this is Grort. He helped me find you..”

The bang of the judge’s gavel echoed throughout the courtroom.

“I’m sorry to interrupt this touching reunion, but we are still in the middle of a trial here.  Now, Mr. Mitchell, what say you on behalf of the boy?

“Well, Your Lordship, the boy is very sorry for deserting and he won’t do it again.  Ain’t that right, boy?”

Jack stared at the barrister and then at Maddy dumbfounded.

“This is who you hired?” whispered Jack.

“Like I said, he told us he was the best barrister in the city!”

Jack turned back toward the judge.

“That was incredibly moving, Mr. Mitchell. I’m not sure how I would get through the day without hearing the refuse that flows from your brilliant legal mind.”

“I take exception to that, Your Lordship.”

“I’m sure that you do.  Now turning back to the matter at hand. 9287, your choice of barrister was … unfortunate, and I’m afraid I have no choice but to sentence you to five years in the mi..”

The door burst open a second time and a hooded figure walked slowly into the courtroom, supported by a cane.

“Sorry I’m late everyone.”

Chapter 2

Madeline wanted to scream, but her voice forgot how.  She watched as one of the soldiers casually threw the unconscious Jack over his shoulder and walked away with the rest of the group. Jack’s backpack lay strewn open on the ground.

Madeline wanted to do a hundred things at once.  She wanted to hide Jack’s backpack. She wanted to follow the soldiers.  But, most of all, she wanted to cry.  Her body would not comply.

Her hands were shaking; her subconscious had allowed at least that much.  It was not even 10 AM (at least she thought; her watch had stopped working) and it had already been the most traumatic day of her life.

Something jolted Madeline awake. She hadn’t even remembered falling asleep.

Footsteps. Loud ones. Madeline tried to push her head out of the bush, but the branches gave way and she fell to the ground, the thorns scratching her face.

She pushed the bushes aside and tried to stick her head out.

“Ahem,” said a voice.

Standing above her was a small boy.

“Are you going to come out?”

“I’m … I’m stuck!”

A gloved hand appeared and grabbed her by the jacket. With one fluid motion, the boy jerked Madeline out of the bush.

Madeline lay crumpled on the ground.  She felt drops of blood dripping down her cheek. She looked up at her rescuer.

The boy had a full brown beard, long bushy hair that was worked into several messy braids, and a hard, grizzled face. He looked like something out of one of her and Jack’s comic books.

“Are you a dw.. dwarf?”

The boy looked up at her.

“Well, a’course I am, sure as a dragon’s breath smells like turnip. Name’s Grort.”

“I’m Ma.. Madeline.”

“Pleased to meet ya, Mamadeline.”

“Just Maddy will do…”

“Maddy it is. How did ya end up stuck in that bush?”

Maddy recounted the harried events of the morning, as Grort listened with a silent face.

“That’s quite a tale, lass. If only ya would have come down the mountain a little later. I’d a given those soldiers a taste a’what they deserved. The good news though is that I know where yer brother is.”

“You do?”

“Sure. Those soldiers took your brother for a deserter. They’d a likely thrown him in the brig back in town.”

“Deserter? Jack?”

“Yep, all human boys once they come of age are expected to serve. There’d be no reason for yer brother to be out here by himself if he wasn’t desertin’.”

“Jack’s no deserter! We’re not even from here!”

“Best keep that to yaself, Maddy. Ya tale is odd enough, you don’t want people asking too many questions. They’re already going to be wonderin’ enough about yer clothes.”

“That’s a funny thing to say, coming from a dwarf.”

“What do ya mean, ‘Coming from a dwarf?’ Who taught ya to think like that..”

“I didn’t mean it like that, Mr. Grort. It’s just, where I come from, dwarves are only in books.”

“Only in books? I don’t know what sort of crazy land ya come from, but we dwarves were already here for many ages before you humans first arrived on our shores. Maybe even longer than the elves, although they’re wont to admit it.”

“Elves?”

***

“Yes, elves,” said the old man.

Jack’s head was still pounding from the bayonet butt. The stink of his cell mate was bad enough, but all this talk of dwarves, elves, and dragons certainly wasn’t helping things. Jack felt like he had fallen into one of his comic books.

“The elves live in the forests on one side of the river, the dwarves in the mountains on the other. We settled the isle in the mouth when we first arrived here and have been slowly working our way down the river and around the islands ever since.”

Jack squinted at the old man and rubbed the back of his head.

“That blow to the head must have knocked out all your learning, boy. Although, maybe you didn’t have much to begin with. What kind of deserter gets caught walking around in broad daylight? You could have at least tried to find one of the undergrounds. I guess I shouldn’t be talking though, seeing as how much good that did me.”

“Deserter? Me? You can’t even join the army until you’re 18!”

“Well, that would be nice, wouldn’t it? That might be a luxury they can afford back in the motherland, but here, our esteemed council needs every man they can get. Even youngins like you and old salts like me.”

“For what, a war?”

“No, but you would be right to think one was brewing. A’course, starting a war with either side of the river would be suicide. We’ve been hopefully outmatched for centuries. I guess that’s one of the reasons they left us alone for so long. We’re not a threat to either elf or dwarf.”

“How long are they going to keep us here?”

The old man laughed.

“You’re here not half a day and you’re already itching to get out? I’ve been waiting weeks for my trial, with no end in sight.”

“Trial?”

“Do I have to explain everything to you? They’re going to trot us out there in front of a judge, we’ll get to say a few words that no one will give two shits about, and then we’ll be sentenced.  Frankly, I wish they would just get it over with, I can’t take the waiting anymore.”

“What’s going to happen after we’re senten..”

“After we’re sentenced, they’ll probably send us to work in the mines. Although from the looks of it, you might be of use to them, so they’ll send you back to the capital after a whipping or two. Me, I won’t be as lucky.”

“Whipping? That’s barbaric!”

“Would you prefer they cut off one of your hands? Thankfully, the council thought better of that practice. You can still mend a boy into a soldier, even after a whipping. Can’t say the same about a bunch of one-handed cripples though.”

Jack started to say something and then stopped.  The old man seemed relieved that the questions had finally ceased.  From the long shadows cast by the window bars, Jack figured it was well into the afternoon, although who could be sure in this crazy world he found himself in. He resigned himself to a long, uncomfortable night in the cell.  At least his cell mate seemed somewhat normal that he needn’t fear being murdered in his sleep. He could hear the uncanny screams from further down the block and did not want to imagine what was languishing down there.

A door creaked open and heavy footsteps approached.  Jack saw three soldiers appear through the doorway. They walked past the rows of empty cells before stopping in front of Jack and the old man.

“Cell 151, your trial awaits!”

Chapter 1

This week’s Flash Fiction Challenge1667

The ground seemed different when Jack woke up. He didn’t mind sleeping on the floor of the tent unlike his sister Maddy, and so this year, they had only brought one sleeping bag.  Jack was thankful for not having to haul two bulky down sleeping bags on their 13-mile trek the previous day, but having awoken on the rock-hard dirt, he was now having second thoughts, as he clutched his back. The culprit soon revealed itself – a huge rock under Jack’s side of the tent that he somehow failed to notice the night before..

Next to Jack, Maddy stirred in her sleeping bag.  Although they were born minutes apart, Jack was always the big brother to Maddy; lately though it was Maddy who seemed like the older child. During their second year in middle school, Maddy had grown out of her tomboy phase, and no longer had much interest playing sports with Jack and his friends, or reading comic books and playing video games with Jack until the wee hours of the morning. It had been a struggle to convince Maddy to come on the camping trip this year. Their grandmother would have none of Maddy’s excuses, and so here they were, deep in the middle of the woods.

Jack crawled over and unzipped the canvas door. He squinted as he stepped out of the tent, expecting to feel the soft underbrush of the forest floor; he was not prepared for what met him instead.

“Maddy, help!”

***

Madeline heard her brother yell something as she tossed in her sleeping bag. Was it morning already? She felt like she had just fallen asleep; the noise of the forest had been unbearably loud and she was used to the dull roar of the city at night. It was bad enough that she had to sleep out in the middle of the woods, but why did Jack have to wake her up at God-knows what hour. It wasn’t like they had anywhere to be that day and the longer she could put off the hike back to their grandmother’s house, the better. Madeline couldn’t remember when she had grown out of the camping trip. She supposed it was around the time she stopped calling herself Maddy. Maddy was cutesy and juvenile; Madeline was a young woman who wanted to be taken seriously.  It’s why she had stopped going to the comic book store every day after school with Jack. At first, she was happy to go with her brother and buy a few new books. She and Jack had built up a huge collection when they were younger and they often stayed up late into the night acting out their favorite scenes. Then one day a group of the popular girls walked by just as she and Jack were walking out of the store, and that was the end of that. Madeline would wait on a bench across the street for Jack, lest she be caught anywhere near the comic book store.

Madeline heard her brother yell again, as she slowly made her way to the front of the tent. She moved the flap and peered out, but Jack was nowhere in sight.

“Jack?”

“Down here Maddy!” Help!”

Madeline looked down and her eyes widened. What should have been the forest floor was a deep ravine. Jack was dangling at the edge of a cliff; his hands dug into the dirt.

“Jack, what’s going on? Why are we on top of a cliff?”

“I don’t know! You gotta help pull me up! I’m starting to lose my grip!”

Madeline crawled over to the edge. The wind was howling and Madeline saw that their tent was only a few feet from a 50-foot drop. It was a miracle they hadn’t rolled off the cliff during the night. Or whenever they had gotten there.

“Give me your hand!” Jack reached out his right hand, and Madeline grabbed it and pulled as hard as she could. Jack didn’t budge.

“I need your other hand! I can’t pull you up otherwise!”

“If I let go with my other hand, I’ll fall!”

“There’s no other way!”

“Throw me the rope! I saw you packing one yesterday.”

Madeline felt a pit in her stomach.

“I was about to pack it but then Cassie called, so…”

“So I’m about to fall to my death because your friend called? That’s just great!”

“Jack! There’s got to be something else that can help. Hold on!”

Madeline dove back into the tent and frantically deconstructed the large backpack they had brought with them. A toothbrush, some matches, several issues of People Magazine, a can of Spam (Jack’s favorite), nothing she could use. Her eyes turned to the sleeping bag. She wondered why she hadn’t thought of that first.

Madeline had her answer soon, as Jack’s hand slipped through the sleeping bag and he disappeared over the edge of the cliff. She lunged for him, but it was too late.

“Noooooooooo!”

Madeline collapsed in a heap, as tears soon littered the ground.

“Got any other bright ideas?” said a voice.

Madeline looked down. 15 feet below, Jack clung to the side of the cliff with one hand, struggling to grab hold to something with his other hand. She could see clumps of dirt falling away around her brother’s hand.

She was officially out of ideas. Their camping provisions were useless, and the sleeping bag was slowly making its way to what she assumed was the bottom of the ravine, as a fog hid everything below her brother.  She looked around desperately for anything else she could use. The top of the cliff was devoid of trees. She thought she saw some trees aways down, but knew she would never make it back in time.

A cold sweat washed over her as she continued to stare down at her brother. Madeline’s hands began to shake uncontrollably. She clenched them into fists, trying to calm herself, but it was no use. Her brother was going to die and it was all her fault.

Her shaking soon stopped, as she felt something in her right hand. Madeline looked down at her right hand to find it holding the end of a very long rope.

“Great,” she thought. “My brother’s about to die and now I’m hallucinating.”

She looked down again. The rope was still there.

“Here goes nothing.”

Madeline hurled the rope over the cliff. The rope tightened, but she could only celebrate for an instant, as her brother’s counterbalancing weight pulled her toward the edge of the cliff.

“Jack, let go! You’re going to drag me over!”

***

Jack complied and let go of the rope, his other hand still dug into the dirt. He didn’t know where his sister had found it, but at this particular moment, he found himself worrying less about the details and more about how all those years of piano lessons had finally paid off.

Jack saw the rope tighten again. He looked up, but couldn’t see Maddy. He thought he heard her shout something, but the wind was howling and he couldn’t be sure. His hand was starting to go numb. He knew he only had a few more seconds before his grip would give.  He counted down from three.

The rope didn’t fall when he reached one. He took that as a good sign. Jack took a breath and let go of the cliff. Once he was certain he could actually feel his fingers again, he grabbed the rope and began pulling himself up.

Jack was never more glad to see Maddy when he reached the top of the cliff. From the hug she gave him, he assumed the feeling was mutual.

“Jack, I ..”

“It’s ok, it’s ok. I guess you packed that rope after all?”

“That’s the thing, I didn’t! Grandma texted me during our hike yesterday that I had forgotten it!”

Jack gave his sister a puzzled look.

“Anyway, we’ve got bigger problems to deal with than where that rope came from. Where are we? I don’t remember pitching tent on top of a cliff.”

“Yeah, me neither. Do you think someone is playing a practical joke on us?”

“Even if they somehow managed to move our tent in the middle of the night without either of us waking up, there’s nothing but forests for miles and miles.”

“See if you can text Grandma. You had service last night before we went to sleep.”

“Oh yeah! Good idea!”

Maddy ran into the tent to grab her phone.

“What the heck! I know I charged it!”

Jack walked into the tent. Maddy was on the floor, the back of her phone open.

“I brought this spare battery just in case, but it’s not working! It won’t even turn on!”

“Well at least you’ll have to talk to me on the way back instead of texting your friends.”

Maddy punched her brother in the arm.

“Hey, I almost died!”

It took the better part of the morning to reach the bottom of the cliff. The path down offered no insight into where they were and they soon began wandering through the unfamiliar forest. After about an hour, Jack stopped and dropped his backpack.

“Of course! I’m such an idiot!” He reached into the front pocket and pulled out a small metal object.

“I almost didn’t bring it this year, but now I’m really glad I …”

Jack stared down at the compass, waiting for the needle to point north, but it did not stop spinning.

“Stupid thing, something must be loose.” After five more minutes of endless spinning, Jack put the compass away, dejected.

“Ok, we’re officially lost. We should just keep walking the way we were going, we’re bound to reach the edge of the forest sooner or later.” Jack could tell that his plan had not convinced Maddy.

Despite the quiet of the forest, they still didn’t hear the footsteps coming. Jack spotted them first, as a well-shined boot appeared from around the corner ahead. Without thinking, he pushed Maddy into the nearby bushes.

“Jack, what are you doi..”

“Shhh! Don’t say another word!”

Jack’s voice trembled. He looked back at the corner to see two lines of four men marching toward him. They were dressed in long coats, matching hats, and carried long bayonets.  Soldiers. But not any that Jack nor anyone else had seen in hundreds of years. Jack thought about jumping into the bushes, but they had already spotted him.

“I’m glad to see another person! I’ve been lost in the woods for hours!” Jack tried to play it cool, hoping these were friendly soldiers. As they got closer, the grim looks on their faces said otherwise. They stopped only a few feet from him.

“Listen, if you could point me to the nearest road, I’d really appreciate …”

Jack never saw the butt of the bayonet coming as he fell backwards and the world went black.