“The Gatekeeper”

Copyright 2018-2020 Jack Sutter

Chapter 13 “Of Birds and Foxes”

The fortress of the Drixi was not a prison.  It was a strategic asset; a formidle bastion and a regional garrison which housed the provincial army.  Nonetheless it did possess some accommodation for captives, a place to temporarily detain the occasional bandit or petty delinquent while awaiting judgement. But today, it was being used to restrain spies.

 

Tucked away in the keep there was a short corridor which contained a half dozen small cells set three abreast to either side of the hallway.  Each cell was sealed with a barred door, and contained a hard bed spread with straw, a stool, and a chamberpot.  During the day the space would have been sparingly lit by tiny barred windows set high in the walls, but by night the only light to be had was a single candelabra placed near the door which was there principally to ensure that the jailor could see what was going on inside the cell block before entering it.  The Drixi were ever a cautious lot.

 

Hae-jin sat thoughtfully in his cell.  Directly across the hall from him Joan was lying quietly on her own harsh berth.  The Wogs had been piled into the next cell down, and Hae-jin could hear them quarrelling with one another.  

 

He was still perplexed by what had happened earlier in the great hall.  Everything had been orderly at first, yet by the end things had devolved more or less into chaos.  Having spent four days now surrounded by the Drixi, Hae-jin had developed a picture of them as meticulous, well disciplined, and very reverent creatures.  Yet by the end of that evening even the officers had suddenly become flat out rude to one another.  Perhaps they were simply a more volatile people than Hae-jin had given them credit for.  Or perhaps there was something about the situation in the room just then which led them to conduct themselves in a way which was foreign to their character.  For one who had held such imperious command of the proceedings at the start, it seemed that even the Arbiter was baffled and confounded by the sudden outburst of discord.  It was a mystery.

 

From outside the cell there was a polite cough.  

 

Hae-jin looked up and saw that he had visitor.  Standing on the other side of the door, his nose just poking through the bars, was the Fox who had given witness in the great hall earlier.  

 

The Fox sniffed slightly.  “Good evening.  I hope you aren’t particularly uncomfortable.  The Drixi can be quite discriminating with their hospitality.  I’ve got much nicer quarters.  But then again, I’m not under arrest as a spy….no offense.”

 

The Fox gazed at Hae-jin with amber colored eyes which betrayed a keen, wild sort of intelligence.  Hae-jin met his gaze evenly and shrugged.

 

“It’s not the worst place I’ve ever been in.”

 

“Perhaps not, but it will likely get much worse soon enough.  The Drixi are intensely fearful of humans, almost pathologically so.  If you’re lucky, they’ll put you in a hole somewhere and keep you locked up forever like a rabid beast.  I think it’s more likely though that they’ll just finish you off in some sticky way and then fumigate your ashes with a lot of hocus pocus.”

 

“Are you taunting me?”

 

“I’m being realistic.  Personally, I don’t have anything against humans.  I think they’re interesting, especially when they travel around by magic and embarrass the Drixi.  You’re not from this part of the world, are you?”

 

Hae-jin shrugged again.

 

“The soothsayer was more or less correct.  I come from a place called Zhongyang.”

 

“That’s what you call it.  On the elven maps it’s called Ereph, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter.  What’s in a name anyway, other than everything?  I come from Zhongyang as well.”

 

This caught Hae-jin by surprise.

 

“You’re from Zhongyang?”

 

“Indeed I am….at least I think I am..indirectly.  They say that all talking Foxes such as myself come originally from the east.  But my family came here a long time ago, maybe hundreds of years past.  You’ve only just come here, out of thin air as it were (quite literally in fact).  I find that fascinating.”

 

The Fox paused to briefly scratch at an ear with his hind leg.

 

“So I guess the problem right now is how to get you out of here.”

 

Hae-jin was again startled.

 

“What did you say?”

 

“I said we need to find a way to get you out of here.  The Drixi certainly aren’t going to release you.”

 

“Um…that’s very kind of you.  And unexpected.  I mean, you bore witness against us not long ago.”

 

“Oh, that?  Well, I lied about most of it.  I mean, I really did see you all go off and disappear through a hole in the ground, but I never for a moment thought that any of your were going along unwillingly.  The Wogs would sell out to anyone.”

 

“Did you lie as well about having seen a Zard bewitch us?”

 

“Of course I did.  It worked though, didn’t it?  It got the Drixi to suspend the interrogation, in a way that I thought was very funny.  It was all I could do to keep from laughing at all those silly pricks arguing with each other.  You’re down here right now with both your hands still attached because of me.  You’re very welcome!”

 

Hae-jin was taken aback.  Perhaps here was an unexpected ally.  Or perhaps it was all a Drixi trick of some kind.

 

“Ah.  Thank you for that.  Are you saying you’re going to help us escape?”

 

The Fox glanced over his shoulder briefly.

 

“Oh, I think I’ll manage to figure something out.  Just don’t let the Drixi kill you before I do.  If I help you, will you promise to take me with you?”

 

Hae-jin was confused.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“If I help you escape, will you promise to take me with you to wherever you are going?”

 

“Why would you come with us?  Aren’t you afraid of the Drixi?”

 

“No. I’m not afraid of them.  I’m bored with them.  They’re superstitious, paranoid, and oppressive.  And they’re weak.  You and your friends sailed right through their most powerful enchantments.  Whoever you are or whoever you’re working for, you’re more powerful than the Drixi.  Take me with you, and I’ll get you out of here.”

 

Hae-jin did not feel that he could trust the Fox.  But in all honesty, he didn’t have any better options.

 

“If you keep your promise, I’ll keep mine.”

 

“Done!  I’ll be seeing you soon enough then, I’m off to go stir up some mischief.”

 

“What kind of mischief?”

 

“No idea, really.  But whatever it is, I’m sure it’ll be funny.”

 

And the Fox whisked away.   

 

Hae-jin leaned back against the wall of his cell, his mind a whirl.  This was an unexpected development to be sure.  Frankly, he didn’t know what to make of it.  True, he and his fellow prisoners seemed to have momentarily forestalled whatever fate was headed their way.  But the Fox’s story was remarkable, and Hae-jin wasn’t at all sure he believed any of it.  Nor could he understand why any of the Drixi should have believed the Fox either, or why they should have become so argumentative with each other over the Fox’s lies.  The Fox may take credit for having bought them all time, but Hae-jin wasn’t so sure.  The must have been something more going than just the wild stories of some flippant Fox.

 

“Do you think he’ll really try to help us?”

 

Hae-jin snapped out of his reverie and looked across the hallway.  Joan was pressing close by the bars of her cell door, looking anxiously at Hae-jin.  Of course, from where she was she had probably overheard the entire conversation with the Fox.

 

Hae-jin shrugged.

 

“I don’t know.  Maybe the Fox is on our side, maybe he’s not.  Either way, I don’t know how he could ever manage to get us out of here….not on his own, at any rate.  Something strange happened up there.  Maybe heaven hasn’t quite given up on us yet.”

 

“Do you think maybe the Bird was involved?”

 

“If the Bird were trying to save us, why wouldn’t he just pop out of a hole in the air like he always does and get us out that way?”

 

“Maybe he can’t.  If the Drixi can lay an enchantment over their whole kingdom just in order to keep humans out, surely they could put even stronger enchantments on their castles?  The Bird has got to have his limits.”

 

“Of that I’m quite sure.  He certainly hasn’t helped us much so far.  Besides, if the Fox were working for the Bird, why didn’t he say so when he was here just now?”

 

They were both silent for a moment.

 

“What do you think will happen to us, Hae-jin?”

 

Hae-jin sighed.

 

“Unfortunately, I think the Fox is right.  I suppose it’s possible that the Drixi may simply throw us out of their land and be done with us, but I’m inclined to doubt it.  They seem too afraid, and too unsure.  At best I think they’ll keep us prisoners until they’re certain they know how we got here, and then I suppose they’ll make an example of us.”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“What for?”

 

“For getting you into this.”

 

“There’s no need for you to be sorry.  It was the Bird who got us into this.”

 

“But you’re here because the Bird asked you to help my people.  To help me.  It’s still my fault.  You’d be safe in your own land if it weren’t for me.”

 

“Nonsense.  I was worse off there than I am here.  The Haruspex was right about me….partially.  I served my own people as best I could, and refused to be an instrument of their oppressors.  For this I was branded a traitor by my own king.  Were I to have been captured I would certainly have been put to death.  I suppose the Bird did save me from that at least, although now I may wind up dying here instead.”

 

“Is that why you’re helping my people against our oppressor?  Because you couldn’t help yours?”

 

Hae-jin tensed a bit.  Joan’s words had struck an uncomfortable chord.   

 

“Maybe I did some good, I don’t know.  My whole life I was a loyal soldier to my king, who was in the end little more than a puppet of our enemies, so in some ways I suppose I was partially complicit.  Maybe I achieved nothing at all for my people, even when I at last refused to go along with it any longer.  All I know is that I did my best for them, and I paid the price for it.  But at least I did something about it.  I suppose you can understand that.”

 

“Yes.  Yes I do understand.”

 

Hae-jin glanced at Joan.  Her eyes were averted, and Hae-jin almost thought he could see tears in them.  Hae-jin recollected the words of the the Drixi Haruspex.  He had called Hae-jin a traitor and an outcast, which was more or less accurate.  And he had also called Joan a traitor, and a witch…and a murderess.  If the Haruspex had been so right about Hae-jin himself, what did that mean about Joan?

 

“What about you, Joan Greyflower?  What did the Haruspex mean when he spoke about you?

 

Joan didn’t reply.  Her eyes were still averted, but even in the dim flickering light of the candelabra Hae-jin was sure now that he could see tears.  

 

“Joan Greyflower?”

 

Joan sniffed, but made no reply.

 

Moonlight was beginning to filter through the tiny windows of the cell block.  Outside, the moon was now high in the sky, bathing the world in eerie silver.  Far below, the castle of the Drixi was largely asleep, the only wakeful persons being the sufferers in the Drixi cells and those whose lot it was to keep the night’s watch….and those who sought to carry out their business in secret.

 

Through darkened halls and silent corridors, the Fox lurked unseen.  He’d always had an uncanny talent for this sort of thing. He had a way of dealing with people such that they never took him into proper account.  It could be very funny at times, and it was always very useful.  With the proper attitude and cunning, a person who is never properly appreciated can achieve a degree of power which no other creature can.   

 

Right now, the Fox had a job to do.  Since having been brought to the castle he’d made it his business to familiarize himself with it as much as possible, to know all of its paths and places, its secrets and its weaknesses.  He was quite confident that he could arrange something humorous to effect the escape of the prisoners.  He had in plan in mind and already made some preparations.  All that was needed now was choose just the right moment to put it into action.  

 

What was that?  A cry?  Had something caught the attention of the watchmen?  The noise was faint, not enough to wake anyone, but Foxes have a keen sense of hearing and Bartholomew Fox-Goodburrow had always considered himself a particularly special Fox.  He scampered off, following the noises to their source.  

 

But Bartholomew was not the only creature who had heard the noise.  High on a parapet somewhere in the castle a cowled, grey robed figure stood amidst the light of the stars, listening intently.  He too had heard the sound, and as the noises grew steadily louder he smiled to himself.  A few moments more, he thought, and it would be time to get down to business.

 

Guard duty is a delicate business, particularly at night.  It consists of long, tedious hours of excruciating boredom, and often it is all one can do to keep awake.  Even though the consequences of a lapse are often severe, it is nonetheless difficult to remain properly alert.  

Along a lonely stretch of the castle wall, a Drixi watchman was pacing dolefully atop the battlements, dragging his feet with drowsiness as he went.  Just a few moments before he’d been staring intently out into the darkness, thinking that he perhaps had seen some obscure movement or other.  But it seemed to have been nothing, and now his focus was lost again.  His eyes were upon his shoes, and his thoughts were in his bed.

 

What was that?  A sound?  Something at least had stirred to again arouse the watchman from his reverie.  He caught up his spear in his hands and looked out into the darkness.

 

Abruptly his vision was blocked by a great hairy shape looming before him.  A massive paw swept out of nowhere and caught him at the side of the head, and the guard fell senseless.

 

A tremendous bear now rolled over the parapet and onto the walk.  

 

For four days now she had been tracking the Drixi, and each night she had assaulted their encampment.  Though each time she had been thwarted, she had returned every night nonetheless to try again.  Perhaps the Drixi had thought they were rid of her, that now they were safely ensconced behind their stone walls they were safe from her.  But they were wrong.  People are often wont to underestimate the persistence and resourcefulness of ordinary bears.  They can reach places that many would think impossible for creatures of their size, and they will dare to invade places that many would think beyond the courage of any animal.  And when a bear happens to be one of the greatest wightbeasts of the Fairworld (as she herself would readily own), there may be no limits to what such a creature might do.  For three nights straight the Drixi had driven her from their camp.  But tonight, she would conquer their castle.

 

The bear glanced to her right, and then to her left.  So far, she had been undetected.  That was about to change.  It was time for mayhem.

 

The bear began to casually saunter down the walk towards a covered turret.  The door was open, and the bear squeezed inside.  From within there then came a resounding crash and a series of startled cries, and suddenly two Drixi burst out the opposite door and ran pell mell down the walk with the bear in hot pursuit.

 

The bear chased the Drixi across the walks, up and down stairs, through doorways and passages.  As they ran more and more Drixi voices joined with the hapless cries of guards, as more soldiers were clamoring to arms.  Soon the courtyards were swarming with bewildered Drixi, many half dressed and poorly armed.  Lights were being called for, but in the chaos of the moment all order was lost as the bear careened through their midst, scattering Drixi in its wake.  

 

“There it goes, stop it!”

 

“Where did it go?”

 

“It went that way!”

 

“Which way?”

 

“I’ve dropped my lantern!”

 

“Where’s the captain?”

 

“What are we looking for anyway?”

 

“Lookout, it’s coming back this way!”

 

“Quick, get out of the way!”

 

The chaos couldn’t last forever though.  Soon enough lanterns and torches were being passed around.  Guard detachments from other parts of the castle were arriving, and these came fully armed and ordered for combat with their officers in the lead.  Bit by bit they began to herd and corral the beast, until finally it was at last cornered in one of the courtyards.  There the beast stood, swatting aside spears and knocking over Drixi when it could, while sporadic arrows were beginning to fall around it as archers mounted the surrounding walls.  The situation was becoming desperate.  For the moment the archers could only shoot intermittently for fear of harming their comrades, loosening arrows only when there was an opportunity.  But that was about to change.  Suddenly there were multiple blasts from a horn in a precise, rhythmic staccato.  It was a standard Drixi battle signal, calling for the frontline to fall back and make way for others to attack.  In a moment the archers would have a clear shot of the bear, and could let loose a terrible volley.

 

Then, somewhere else in the castle, a great bell began to toll.

 

It wasn’t marking the passage of the hour.  It wasn’t the proper time, nor was it the proper cadence.  It was a steady toll, rung as rapidly as the ringers could heave the the ropes. 

 

It was the alarm of fire.

 

From the walls of the courtyard someone shouted and pointed.  All eyes now looked up to the great keep towering above them.  There, silhouetted against the silvery moonlit walls, was a great billow of inky smoke.

 

More cries now filled the air, along with calls for buckets of water and sand.  The archers hesitated, their arrows still nocked.  But this was all the bear needed.  With a roar it leaped forward, ploughing through the ranks of the Drixi and barrelling off through the corridors again.

 

The baleful tolling of the bell echoed throughout the castle, across courtyards and walks and through passages and corridors as the alarm was spread to every chamber.  

 

Hae-jin had fallen into a light doze, but awoke with a start as the sonorous ringing filtered its way through the tiny windows of the Drixi jails.  He pressed his head against the barred door, trying to see as far as he could into the corridor to get some idea what on earth was going on.  Failing this, he turned face the rear wall, trying to guess whether he could stack up his meager furniture high enough that he could peep through the tiny window.

 

“Ahem.”

 

The voice had come from behind him.  Had the Fox come through with his promise?  Hae-jin turned around.

 

It wasn’t the Fox though who stood outside the door.  Instead, a cowled, grey robed figure stood there.  Hae-jin looked at the face shrouded beneath the hood.  For a moment he wasn’t sure what was looking at, but in a flash the uncertainty had passed, and he could see the face of a Drixi.

 

The Drixi met Hae-jin’s gaze evenly.  The he grinned.

 

“Good evening.  Pardon me while I unlock the door.”

 

To Hae-jin’s astonishment, the Drixi produced a set keys and opened the door.

 

“Please, do come out while I release the others.

 

The Drixi then set about open the doors to the other cells as Hae-jin stepped into the hall.  He took a furtive look into the guardroom outside, but it was empty.  

 

The Drixi had now bundled the other prisoners out of their cells.  For once, the Wogs were speechless.

 

Addressing them all, the Drixi smiled pleasantly.  

 

“Now that we’re are all together, I think it is time that we left.  We only have a little time, please follow me.”

 

Hae-jin looked at Joan.  Here eyes were wide, but she met his gaze without speaking.  They both knew that whatever was going on, this was the only chance they were likely to get to escape.

 

The Drixi began leading the prisoners through various winding passages.  Now and again they were obliged to duck into shadowed corners as groups of Drixi barrelled through the hallways bearing lanterns and buckets as the incessant tolling of the bell filtered through the halls.  Bit by bit they made their way steadily through the castle, and Hae-jin had a sense that they were headed downwards and towards the outer walls.  Eventually they came to a place where the walls were thick and devoid of windows, and upon making a sharp turn they were met with a heavy, iron shod door.  Again, their Drixi guide produced his keys and opened the door, flooding the passage with moonlight.  

 

The wogs could contain themselves no longer.  The moment the way to freedom presented itself they bolted through the door.  Joan and Hae-jin followed more cautiously.

 

They were now outside the castle.  They had stepped through a sally port at the foot of the walls.  A narrow, precarious path sloped its way through the rocks beneath them.  It would have been suicide to make such a climb while the walls were manned with archers, but for the moment the walls were deserted.  The party began stumbling and scraping their way down the jagged hillside as far behind them the tolling of the bell echoed through the night.  Gradually they approached the bottom, making their way through the ever thickening trees.  It seemed as though they were heading to the river, which soon enough they did.  The Drixi led them to a place where the bank was a bit less rocky.  Here there was a small boat drawn up onto the shore.  The Drixi pushed the boat into the river and then began to usher them in.  As the last of the prisoners stepped into the boat, the Drixi at last spoke again.

 

“Take the boat a short way down the river.  In a little while you will see a light in the forest.  Cross there, your friends will be waiting for you in the woods.”

 

“Aren’t you coming with us?”  Joan asked.

 

“No, my work here is finished for now, though perhaps some of us may meet again someday.  In the meanwhile, I apologize for the inconvenience hitherto.”

 

With that, the Drixi gave the boat one last shove and it floated out into the river.  As the prisoners bent to the oars, Hae-jin took a last look at the diminishing figure behind them.  The Drixi was grinning, and raised his arm to wave casually.  As he do so he suddenly appeared to shrink.  At first Hae-jin thought it was trick of the light, but even as he watched the grey-robed Drixi’s whole appearance began to change as he transformed into a small, green clad being with long willowy limbs, and a merry laugh floated over the river as the creature darted off and disappeared into the woods.

 

The current carried them swiftly down the river, and they hardly needed the oars.  In a short while, Hae-jin spotted a glint of yellowish-green light in the woods.  He directed the others to make for the shore.  They crossed quickly enough, and once they’d all piled onto the riverbank they drew the boat into the woods and covered it with branches and rushes.  They then made for the light.  After a while of stumbling through the brambles and enduring the woeful cursing of the Wogs they came to a small clearing left by a fallen tree.  There on the tree-trunk was set an iron lantern intricately wrought with pierced designs of stars and crescents. 

 

And beside the lantern, its golden feathers shimmering in the flickering light, was the Bird.

 

Hae-jin felt a wave of relief sweep over him, even as it was mixed with both annoyance and suspicion.  He doubled his pace, and as he and the others entered the clearing the Bird spotted them and began to beat his wings excitedly as he spoke.  

 

“Splendid! Splendid splendid splendid!  I see Elred found you, I knew he wouldn’t let me down!”  

 

“Who’s Elred?”  

 

“I’ll explain all that later.  But we must hurry.  It’s all up to us now, you know.” 

 

Alwog grunted petulantly.

 

“Where have you been, Bird?  We’ve been having an awful time.”

 

“They would have eaten us for sure!”  Berwog piped up.

 

“Shutup, Berwog.  Drixi don’t eat Wogs.  But I’m thinking we’re going to have to adjust our contract, Bird.  We’re going to have to move to a new house now, that’s for sure, probably to another country.  That’ll cost a bit.  Then there’s the loss of our equipment, plus acute mental anguish and additional severe hazard….I’m thinking five hundred silver marks at least.”

 

“Five hundred and one!”

 

“Shutup!”

 

“Gentlemen, gentlemen!”  The Bird beat his wings impatiently.  “Gentlemen, I assure you that you will be duly compensated for your trouble.  As for your equipment, Elred has already taken care of that.”  Here the Bird swept a grandiose wing towards the base of the log, where Hae-jin now saw the prisoner’s possessions collected in a pile.  “Your weapons and gear are all here.  Elred saw to that as well, although he couldn’t find Hae-jin’s sword.  I’m afraid it’s probably still lying somewhere in the woods near Harin’s Vault.  Please, gather your belongings, we will be leaving just as soon as Ursilda arrives….aha!  There she is now!”

 

A great dark shape was now looming into the light of the lantern.  

 

“Ursilda!  I’m so glad you made it out in one piece!”

 

“You expected any less, Bird?”

 

“No no, of course not.  But I’m gratified nonetheless.  I was flying overhead the whole time, keeping watch you know, and for a moment there I wasn’t sure.  That fire was a lucky stroke.  If it weren’t for that we might well have been in danger of losing our good bear.”

 

“No you wouldn’t have.  I still would have overcome them all anyway.  I am Ursilda.”

 

“Er, yes.  Of course you would have.  Never doubted you for a moment, my dear.”

 

Here Hae-jin spoke up.  For four days he’d kept his patience and his peace.  Now that he was unleashed from captivity his anger was at last unleashed as well.

 

“You may well have been in danger of losing all of us.  The rest of us were prisoners of the Drixi for four days, and Ursilda has risked her life every night to try and rescue us…at least I think it was Ursilda…”

 

“It was.”

 

“Well then at least the Bear has been here trying to help us.  And what about Lindsey, where is she?”

 

The Bird shuffled uncomfortably.

 

“Perhaps we’d better get a move on.  I’ll explain everything later….”

 

“No, you will explain it now.  Where is Lindsey?”

 

The Bird coughed uncomfortably.

 

“I’m afraid I don’t know.”

 

“What!”

 

“Please, do try to keep quiet.  We’re not all that far from the Drixi castle you know.”

 

“What happened to her?”

 

“I’m afraid I’m not quite sure.  We had some unexpected complications, what with the Drixi and all….”

 

“We know all about the Drixi, thank you.”

 

“…and I’m afraid that during the confusion we rather lost track of Lindsey.”

 

“We?”

 

“Sorry.  I’m afraid I rather lost track of Lindsey.  I was busy you see…”

 

“Doing what?”

 

“…and there was so much going on, it was impossible to….”

 

“So you don’t know what happened to her?”

 

“Yes I do.  I found out where she went, and Elred went and talked to her and gave her a means to return to us, but then she disappeared again…”

 

“What do you mean she disappeared again?”

 

“…and that was four days ago and Elred’s been looking for her ever since.”

 

“And in all that time you didn’t bother to rescue us?”

 

“We felt you were safe where you were for the time being.  The Drixi would not have harmed you, not until after you’d had an initial interrogation with the Arbiters, and in the meanwhile I’ve been having to make other arrangements.”

 

“What sort of ‘arrangements’?”

 

“The Drixi who ambushed us at Harin’s Vault were accompanied by the Zard, who are the servants of our enemies.  Lindsey succeeded in opening Harin’s Vault, and Gurth knows it.  He has been calling upon all of his most powerful enchantments to stop us.  For four days now the gates to Linster have been shut.  I cannot take you there in my usual fashion, and as I said I have been obliged to make other arrangements.  I commend Ursilda’s earlier efforts to rescue you, of course, but there was really no point in doing so any sooner than we have, not without proper transportation to get you well away from the Drixi’s clutches.  They’d simply have caught you again right away.  As it is, I think I’ve managed to arrange things remarkably quickly…Behold!”

 

The Bird hopped off the log and walked over to a long, dark mass lying in the underbrush.  Grasping it with his beak, he dragged the object into the light of the lantern.  It was a coiled, tubular object made of some heavy sort of material, and upon bringing it into the light the Bird unrolled it with a flourish to reveal a spacious, maroon colored rug.

 

“I borrowed this from a friend of mine in Al Shati Ramal…well, sort of a friend anyway.  Do be careful, he wants it back you know….at least, I’m quite sure he does.  I’m sure he made quite a fuss when he found out it was missing.”

 

Hae-jin looked closely at the rug.  It was staggeringly beautiful, intricately woven with many colored and metallic threads, bearing elaborate designs in a flowing script.  Even without the gift of tongues Hae-jin recognized the writing, and with it he could read it all clearly.  Like the majority of his people Hae-jin was a Buddhist, but he knew enough about foreign religions to see that the rug was covered in Quranic inscriptions which were blended with various magic spells and incantations, and although the whole thing put together was rather obtuse he was able to get the general idea of it all.

 

“This thing is supposed to fly?”

 

“And very fast too.  Linster is many hundreds of leagues from here, but with the aid of this admirable carpet we should be able to get there in just a few hours.  We should get going though, it won’t be long before the Drixi discover your escape, although I suppose the fire will tie them up for a bit.”

 

Hae-jin recollected the visit by the Fox.

 

“I think I know how that fire came about.  I’d wager money it was the Fox that did it.”

 

“Fox?  What Fox?”

 

“There was a Fox in the Drixi castle.  The Drixi had him there as a witness against the Wogs, but apparently he’s not all that loyal to them.  He offered to help us escape if we promised to take him with us to wherever we were going.  The timing for that fire was far too convenient, I have no doubt it was he who created it.  It seems we now have a promise to keep, if we can find him that is.”

 

“What!  But we can’t hang around here trying to find some Fox!”

 

“You shan’t need to.  The Fox has already found you.”

 

The voice had come from somewhere inside the woods.  Upon hearing it everyone gave a start, even the Bird, and at that moment a small red fox sauntered into the light of the lantern and hopped up onto the log, sat down and casually scratched himself with his hind paw a couple times before speaking.

 

“Well, here we all are.  You humans certainly keep some interesting company.  Of course, as soon as I saw the Bear I figured it must be a friend of yours (which gave me the perfect opportunity to set the smoke off), but imagine my surprise when I came back to discover that your cells were already empty.  Luckily for me, I was born a Fox, and I followed your scent as far as the river (which, I might add, is hideously cold and unpleasant to swim in), while your lamp guided me the rest of the way here.  Anyway, if I was able to spot your light from across the river then so can one of the Drixi’s hawks.  Shall we leave now then?”

 

The Bird looking imploringly at Hae-jin.

 

“You’re not seriously suggesting we take the Fox along?  Our situation is very delicate at present!

 

“I gave the Fox my word, and he kept his part of the bargain.  I shall keep mine.”

 

“Oh very well, have it your way!  Here, everyone gather your things and get together on the rug.”

 

In a few moments the Wogs had donned their possessions and after a bit of jostling everyone managed to find a place somewhere on the rug.  As large as it was, it was still dreadfully cramped, and nobody wanted to sit too close to the edge.  

 

When everyone was finally settled, the Bird leaned down and pressed his beak to the rug and whispered instructions.  Suddenly the rug began to quiver beneath them, and from within the woven fibres a sound emerged.  It was a raspy, almost inaudible noise, like coarse cloth being rubbed together.  You couldn’t call it a voice, but it formed into words anyway:  “By Allah’s grace, it shall be so.” 

 

With that, the carpet floated into the air and sailed high and away into the midnight sky.

 

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