By Charles Fager
A VERY STRANGE RIDE
It was time to go to sleep, but Kiki, Molly and their cousin Elizabeth weren't tired. They sat on their bunk beds, played with their quilts, and talked to each other. They were spending the weekend together, and they had too much to tell each other to be quiet.
Kiki, the oldest, was burstng with news. "At our school," she said, "we went on a field trip and stayed overnight in the country."
"Yeah," said Molly, "and at my school we got some new baby bunny rabbits. And I made a Santa Claus with a white beard."
Elizabeth nodded her blond head. "At my daddy's house," she said, "we went to the zoo and saw elephants and monkeys and lions and a big eagle, but I was afraid of the eagle--"
Just then Kiki heard footsteps. "Shh," she said. "Somebody's coming!"
A deep voice boomed through the doorway. "Listen, you three." It was Kiki and Molly's father, Chuck. "I'll screech like an eagle if you guys don't quiet down and go to sleep."
Kiki quickly snuggled down in her bed, burying her head in her fluffy pillow. The other two did the same, muffling their giggles.
Kiki could almost hear him listening to the quiet. Finally he said, "All right. That's better. But if I have to come up again, there will be spanks."
Kiki listened to him walking back down the stairs. A minute later, she whispered down from her top bunk, "Hey, Elizabeth, I know some magic."
Elizabeth's head appeared beside her. "You do?"
"S-S-Shhh," Kiki said, "we have to whisper. I learned it from a book at the library. Some kids in the book found some special robes, put them on, then said some magic words and the robes took them to a different world where they had lots of adventures."
"What's a magic robe?" asked Molly. "Do you have one?"
"No," Kiki answered, "but I pretend that my quilt is a magic robe. Then it's fun to imagine that I'm going to strange places. Like this."
She sat up and put her quilt over her head. It was a special quilt, handmade with her name on it. They each had one. "Then," Kiki said, "I say the magic words and pretend I'm flying through space, going strange places and seeing wonderful things nobody has ever seen before."
"I want to imagine that too," said Elizabeth, sitting up and putting her quilt over her head.
"Me too," said Molly, who did likewise, and then added, "All right, I'm ready. What are the magic words?"
"Okay," Kiki replied from under her quilt, "I'll say them once, then you two repeat them with me. But don't be too loud, so Chuck doesn't hear." She paused, then said in a singsong tone:
"Raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries too;
"Think of all the things that could happen to you:
"Huckleberries, pickleberries, magicberries so!
"Say these secret words and away you'll go!"
Molly and Elizabeth listened, then they whispered the words together with Kiki:
"Raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries too,
"Think of all the things that could happen to you;
"Huckleberries, pickleberries, magicberries so!
"Say these secret words and away you'll go!"
"Now in the book, you had to say them three times before the magic worked," said Kiki. "So let's do it one more time."
They started again: "Raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries too, Think of all the things--"
Just then Chuck's voice came from downstairs. "All right, that's too much noise. It better be quiet when I get up the stairs." They heard him begin climbing the steps.
"Quick," said Kiki, "Let's finish before he gets here: "Think of all the things that could happen to you," she whispered hurriedly. Then they all rushed through the last two lines: "Huckleberries, pickleberries, magicberries so--"
Chuck's footsteps were getting closer.
"Say these secret words and away you'll go!" With that Kiki threw herself down on her bed and shut her eyes.
But then something strange happened. The light in the hallway went out and it grew very dark in the bedroom. At the same time Chuck's footsteps stopped, as if he was waiting about halfway up the stairs. And then Kiki's bunkbed began to pitch and roll like it was a giant rocking horse.
"Hey, what's going on down there?" Kiki said, hanging on. "Molly, are you rocking the bed? Stop it, I'm afraid I'll fall out."
"I'm not rocking the bed, you are!" Molly answered. "And it's scaring me. You stop it."
Kiki pulled the quilt down from her head to see what was happening. Everything was dark, and when she loosened her grip on the sides of the bed, she fell right out and landed, plunk, on the floor. Her quilt fell on top of her, then Molly bumped down next to her. With a squeal, Elizabeth rolled beside them too.
"Elizabeth, what happened? Are you all right?" asked Kiki, putting out a hand in the darkness to reach her friends. She knew that Chuck would be furious when he came in and found them all out of bed and on the floor.
"I'm okay," Elizabeth whispered.
"Come on, let's get back in bed quick," Kiki said.
It was then Kiki realized that the bed wasn't behind her anymore. She reached for the familiar wood panels but there was nothing there, just more floor. And - wait a minute - the floor wasn't the same either. It was all bumpy, not like the bedroom floor at all, not even when it was covered with toys and shoes and dress up clothes and all that kind of stuff. It felt like ground that was dotted with large rocks. And it wasn't flat either; the ground slanted up behind them, as if they were on the side of a hill.
"Where's my bed?" asked Elizabeth, who had been feeling around too. "I want my bed," she wailed. "I want my bed and I want my mother to come give me a kiss and a hug so I can go to sleep."
"Don't cry, Elizabeth," Molly said, "it's all right." But she didn't sound too sure about it. Something definitely very strange had happened. "Kiki," she whispered, "where is Chuck?" She sounded like she wished her father was there to tell them it was all right. But he was gone too, just like the bunk beds.
Kiki could only shrug. "I don't know where he is," she whispered back.
She put an arm around Elizabeth. "Here," she said, "wrap your quilt around yourself and maybe you'll feel better." Kiki picked up her own and bundled up in it herself, as did Molly. "Okay now," Kiki said, "let's all cuddle together here and try not to be afraid. I don't know where we are, but I think the magic must have had something to do with getting us here."
The three girls huddled against each other. "I'm scared," said Molly, "and I'm cold too."
Kiki was afraid they would both start crying. She thought f ast about how to stop them. "Wait a minute," she said. "Did I ever tell you the story about Brer Rabbit on Nantucket?"
Molly stopped sniffling long enough to say, "No, where did you hear it?"
Elizabeth said, "I never heard it either."
"Well," Kiki explained, "Chuck told it to me once. But I can't tell it while anybody's crying or sniffling."
"I-I'm not crying," Molly insisted.
"I'm not crying anymore, either" Elizabeth said, wiping her nose. "Tell it."
"Okay," Kiki said, and she told them the story of Brer Rabbit on Nantucket
It was a very interesting story, but also a long one, and before it was finished Molly and Elizabeth were leaning against her, breathing deeply, and their eyes were closed. Sure enough, they were asleep.
Good, Kiki thought. Now maybe I can sleep too. I wonder where we are? Oh, well, wherever it is, at least it seems that nobody else is around to bother us.
She closed her eyes, pulled the edge of her quilt over her feet, leaned back against the hill, and soon dozed off.
But she was wrong about one thing. The three girls were not alone on the hillside.
Nearby in the darkness, two pairs of eyes had been keeping a close watch on them. Now that they were all asleep, the eyes moved closer.
MORNING IN ALTAPOLO
Sunshine streaming over the hilltop behind them woke Kiki up first. When she opened her eyes she noticed that the sunlight was different in color from the sunlight at home in California: instead of being golden and white, it was a light green, and the sky above them was a deeper green yet, like the leaves on a eucalyptus tree.
Kiki wondered if she was dreaming. After all, on every other day of the year, she and Molly led a pretty ordinary life, in a small row house in Mountain View, right next to a highway and a railroad track, with the Santa Cruz Mountains off to the west. On any other morning, Chuck would be telling them to get up about now, and Kiki would be snuggling back under her colorful patchwork quilt, not wanting to leave her comfortable bed.
Without thinking, Kiki tried to settle back into sleep. But something hard poked into her back, and her eyes flew open again. Nope - she wasn't dreaming. And this was not another ordinary morning, either.
Elizabeth was stirring beside her, and as she moved, she brought Molly awake as well. The two younger girls blinked and stretched. "This ground is hard to sleep on," mumbled Molly. "Too many rocks for me."
"Do you know where we are yet?" Elizabeth asked Kiki.
Kiki shook her head. "No, I don't, but now that it's light maybe we can walk up to the top of the hill and take a look. From there--"
Kiki stopped talking.
She was sure someone was watching them. She could feel eyes looking at her. She heard a strange rustling noise behind her, and turned around quickly.
The eyes belonged to a large deer, which was standing a few feet away by a tree, watching them closely. It was a doe, a female deer, with light brown skin that looked a little green in the pale sunlight. Kiki had the feeling the doe had been watching them for awhile.
"Look, a deer," said Elizabeth, turning around. "Deer, can you tell us where we are and how we got here?"
"Don't be silly, Elizabeth," said Molly, "deer can't talk. That's only in Bambi."
But then, to all the girls' astonishment, the deer opened its mouth and spoke. "What do you mean, light-haired cub," the doe said, "of course I can talk. Your curly-head companion was correct. You are all in Altapolo, the land where the Eagle is king. How you got here I do not know. But magic is not unusual here."
"An Eagle!" cried Elizabeth in alarm. "Did she say an eagle was here? Oh, I'm afraid of eagles." She took hold of Kiki's hand for reassurance.
The doe wiggled its ears and shook its head. "You need not fear, little curly head. Our royal eagle does not rule his kingdom with force."
Kiki nodded. "Don't worry, it will be okay," she said to Elizabeth, although she wasn't really sure. She looked back at the doe. "If you can talk," she inquired, "do you have a name too?"
"Certainly I do," the deer answered. "It is Laroc. Do you have a name, brownhead?"
Kiki nodded again. "Annika, but people call me Kiki. This is my sister Molly and our cousin Elizabeth. Last night we went to bed at my Daddy Chuck's house, then we said some magic words and ended up here." She stretched and looked around. "I'd like to explore this land, but I'd also like to be home by dinnertime, because we we're going to have spaghetti and garlic bread, and I don't want to miss that."
"You are welcome to walk through Altapolo, Kiki," replied Laroc, "but I do not know how to send you back to where you came from, either tonight or any other time. I do not trifle with magic things. You will have to speak to the Eagle about such matters."
"Where does the Eagle live?" Molly asked. "In a nest? Is it far from here? And where can we get something to eat? I'm hungry. Do you have any macaroni and cheese?" That was her favorite breakfast.
Laroc wiggled her ears again, and to Kiki it made the deer look a little like she was laughing. "No, lighthaired one," she answered, "there is no food of that strange name here. You will find a brook at the bottom of the hill, and there you may refresh yourselves. As for the Eagle, there is a path running along the other side of the brook. Follow it to the right and you will come to where the Eagle lives."
"Well, I'm going to get some water," said Molly, getting up. "At least it's something."
"Me, too," declared Elizabeth. The two girls started walking down the hillside. Their cotton nightgowns, bright with flower prints, billowed around them as they went, and their light hair gleamed in the morning light. Elizabeth, who was the youngest, occasionally put out a small hand to steady herself. Molly walked more confidently, as if she had been there before. Laroc ambled along behind them.
"Wait for me," called Kiki, "and what about your quilts?"
"Just leave them there," Molly called back. "We'll be back in a few minutes."
"I'm afraid of leaving them here with no one to watch them," Kiki hesitated. She felt as if another pair of eyes was watching her. She turned around, but saw no one.
Another voice spoke up from somewhere above. "It's all right," said the voice, which was both high-pitched and slightly deep in tone. "I'll watch them for you."
Kiki looked up, toward the tree near where Laroc had stood. There, on a low branch, sat a large grey owl, whose big round eyes blinked slowly at her.
"What is your name?" Kiki asked, no longer surprised to hear animals talk in this strange land of Altapolo.
"Corsa," the owl replied slowly, "and I am very good at keeping watch on things, because my eyes are so large. I have kept my eyes on you ever since you got here, along with Laroc. Run along now and get some water, and I will see that no one bothers your, er, what did you call them?"
"Quilts," Kiki said. "Thank you. We'll be back before long." She waved goodbye and trotted off down the hill.
There were many large flowers growing on the hillside, tall ones on stalks with pink and blue blossoms, and large thickets of dark-green bushes around tall, ancient-looking trees. Huge boulders, many as large as their house back home, also stood out against the sky, grey and craggy. The air smelled fresh, and a little spicy, like something good was cooking in the distance. When Kiki got to the bottom of the hill, Elizabeth and Molly were looking at some bright yellow flowers and putting their noses down to sniff them.
"They smell funny," said Elizabeth, "not sweet like the flowers along Alma Street."
"Yeah," Molly agreed, "but I think they smell good anyway. I want this one." She grabbed the stem of a high, paler yellow blossom whose petals were in the shape of a bonnet, and pulled on it.
"Ouch!" came a voice from the flower. "Leave me alone! Don't you know the rules? You can't pick me."
Molly snatched her hand away and stepped back from the bonnet flower, which was swaying back and forth like it was hopping mad, except since it was rooted to the ground it couldn't hop. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said, her face pale and frightened looking. "I didn't mean to hurt you. I mean, I didn't know you could talk."
"Well, of course I can talk," snapped the flower-voice. "Where do you think you are, in a museum where everything is just pictures and pretend? There are some picking flowers down the path, and they're clearly marked. Go bother them if you must. But leave me and my sisters alone."
The other bonnet flowers behind her spoke up in a chorus: "Yes, leave us alone."
Kiki chuckled at the lecture Molly was getting, then stooped down to drink some water from the brook. The brook was only a few inches deep; yet there was something about the water that made it look as if it went down far into the earth as Kiki leaned down to touch it. The water was cool and slightly sweet. When she stood up and wiped her lips she realized that not only her thirst but also her hunger had disappeared.
"My," she said to Laroc, who was standing nearby, "that water is very special. Is that all you need to eat here in Altapolo?"
"The brook is all that most of us eat," Laroc replied, "though sometimes I like to munch on the leaves of the eating-leaves plant."
"Let's go and find this Eagle-king," Kiki called to Molly and Elizabeth. She walked down to where some stepping stones poked up through the water, and carefully picked her way across the brook. Since she was barefoot and still in her long nightgown, she had to watch where she was going. While Molly and Elizabeth followed behind, and Laroc just waded in across the stream.
They hadn't gone very far down the path when a loud screeching cry came from the other side of the large thicket.
"Ah, there is the Eagle now," Laroc murmured.
"Are we at his castle already?" Kiki asked.
"Our Eagle does not have a castle," Laroc answered. "He usually stays in a large thicket further down the path, but he also flies through His kingdom as He pleases."
Elizabeth, hearing the cry, came scooting up to slip one hand through Kiki's just to be sure. Molly was right behind her and took the other hand. The three girls walked together around the thicket, and found themselves in a glen shaded by a circle of trees whose branches interlocked to form a leafy ceiling over it.
On a low branch, sat a large bald eagle, wearing a small green crown on the snowy white feathers of his majestic head. Before him on the grass sat a group of small animals, rabbits, chipmunks and squirrels, having a conference of some sort with the Eagle. The low branches were crowded with strange-looking birds, many with their heads cocked to one side to hear better what was being said. As Kiki and the other strangers approached, the smaller animals fell silent and the Eagle turned his large yellow eyes toward them.
"Uh, Mr. Royal Eagle, sir," Kiki began, uncertain as to how to speak to him. She had never talked to a real king before. Or a real Eagle, for that matter. "Uh, what I mean is, you see, your Highness--"
The Eagle shook his head and screeched again. But the sounds, while they were just as loud and piercing as any eagle cries the girls had ever heard in movies or at the zoo, still also sounded like words. "Ah yes, earth cubs, I have been expecting you," the voice said. As he spoke, the Eagle's eyes fixed them in their gaze. And under those eyes they stood still and did not notice anything else around them.
"I know why you have come," the Eagle went on. "You want to know how to return to your own world. I will tell you how. Look to the east," he said, bobbing his great head in the direction he meant.
The girls obediently turned that way. At first all they could see were the tall trees at the edge of the glen. But as they looked, the trees began to shimmer and become transparent, like green glass. And from beyond them, land came into view, as if it was appearing at the far end of a telescope. It was a beautiful land, with green and gold fields of grain and grass, and tidy little houses here and there. But there was a darkness over the land, not shadows from clouds, but something else that the girls didn't understand.
The land moved across the screen quickly, and at the other side of it stood a hill. The hill came nearer, and they could see that at its crest there was a castle, a gray gloomy-looking castle with guards walking along the parapets at the top. Then a window in the castle grew larger and larger and in a moment they could see inside it. In a room within a man sat on a throne, and another man, wearing a strange brightly-colored costume, stood beside him. They could see that the throne the first man sat on was on a large raised platform, and could be reached only by a series of steps. On either side of it sat two smaller chairs made from a shiny metal like gold. These chairs were empty.
The Eagle called out again from beside the girls, and as it did so the picture in the trees shimmered rhythmically.
"Earth-cubs," said the voice, "this is the place to which you must ascend if you are to return to the country of your parents and friends. It is the land of Stobon, far to the east. Before you is the castle of Eohm, where Prince Vidda sits on his high throne. When you get to that room with your quilt-pieces, you must sit in those three princely chairs, wrap yourselves in your quilt-pieces, close your eyes, and think only of your parents and friends and the places from which you came; then you will return to them."
As he finished these words the vision of the prince in the palace began to shimmer again, like a reflection in a pond when a big rock is thrown in it. It wobbled and wiggled and then all the colors ran together and became again the one dark-green color of the leaves, which took their place in the forms of the trees that had been there before.
The girls turned back to face the Eagle.
"I must warn you, earth-cubs," he rumbled, "it will not be an easy journey to Stobon and the castle of Eohm. When you trifle with the magic of the spheres, it often happens that you are faced with greater forces than you expected. But you mustn't give up your quest because of danger or uncertainty," he added, "for while you may visit Altapolo for a time, your own world is where you truly belong. It is fitting that you return there soon."
He paused, and then turned his beak toward the path on which the children had come.
"Now go," he said, though not in an unfriendly way. "My friend, Laroc, I send to travel with you; she is a worthy guide. You have a long way to travel, and should begin the journey."
Kiki somehow knew, as she listened to the loud voice, that there was no arguing with or questioning the things He said. So she and the others turned and began to walk away from the glen. As they did so, the smaller animals drew around the Eagle again, the birds on the branches once more cocked their heads to listen, and the murmured conference resumed.
"You see, Elizabeth," Kiki said when they had crossed the brook again and were climbing back up the hill, "that Eagle was not so mean or dangerous."
"Maybe," said Elizabeth, "but there was something spooky about him all the same. I wonder how He made that castle come into the trees?"
"He probably had a television screen there," said Molly simply.
"Silly," Kiki said, "they don't have television here."
"How do you know?" Molly retorted.
But before they could start arguing about it, Elizabeth cried out: "Kiki! Molly! They're gone! The quilts are gone!"
"What?" Kiki rushed to the tree where they had left them.
They hunted all around. The quilts were gone, all right.
"Oh, no! What happened?" Kiki wailed. "The owl, Corsa, promised to watch them." She looked up at the branch where he had been.
Corsa was still there. But over his head someone had slipped a hood, a thick piece of cloth like a sock, so he couldn't see. When owls can't see, they go to sleep, and Corsa was, indeed, fast asleep.
"Someone has stolen them," Molly howled. "Oh, what are we going to do? How will we get home without them?"
TWO WILD RIDES, AND AFTER
The three girls stood for a moment, too surprised and shocked to speak. It was Laroc who broke the silence. "Someone should get the hood off Corsa," she said, "and then maybe he could tell us what happened."
"Good idea!" Molly declared. "If I can climb this tree, I'll do it." She grabbed the trunk with one hand, and a low branch with the other. Digging her bare toes into the bark, she quickly ascended to the larger branch on which the sleeping owl sat. "Ooh, this is scary to be up so high," she said, crawling out toward the bird.
"Come on, Molly, you can do it," called Elizabeth from below.
As Molly came within arm's reach of Corsa, she put out one hand and grabbed the hood. Her fingers closed on it and yanked it off the owl's head; but as she did so, she lost her balance and fell out of the tree with a yell.
Luckily, Kiki was standing right under her, and caught her sister before she hit the ground. Both girls collapsed in a heap. "Gosh, Kiki," Molly gasped, "that was pretty scary. I'm glad you were here to catch me."
Up on the branch, Corsa was just waking up. He yawned, opening his curved owl beak wide, then stretched and ruffled his feathers. "Is it time to get up already?" he murmured, having completely forgotten what had happened.
Then he glanced down, and saw three girls and a deer staring up at him, and a look of shock came over his feathered face.
"Oh!" he exclaimed, and began to hop up and down on the branch and speak very rapidly. "Oh, earth-cubs, someone has stolen your quiltings. I didn't see it happen; they snuck up behind me and slipped a hood over my eyes so I couldn't see!"
He stopped. "Actually, I don't know what happened then," he went on much more slowly, "because since it was dark, I soon went to sleep."
"Do you remember hearing anything after the hood was put on you?" Kiki asked.
"Well, now that you mention it," replied Corsa, "I think I did hear someone muttering something like, 'Yes, these are the ones that Vidda wanted.' But I'm not sure that I wasn't dreaming when I heard it, I was so sleepy. Then there were footsteps that went off through the thickets. After that I remember a field of pretty purple flowers, with elves and owls dancing in circles."
Corsa paused and blinked. "Er, maybe the elves and owls were a dream," he said thoughtfully. "But the footsteps and the voice I think were real."
"Hmmmm," said Elizabeth, "that's not much help, but at least we know somebody didn't take them by accident. Who is this Vidda? And how are we going to get them ack?"
"Vidda is the prince of Stobon," Laroc answered. "That was his castle you saw at the Eagle's glen. But as far as I know, he's always been a good and kind prince."
"So why would he want to steal our quilts?" asked Elizabeth. "If he wanted something to keep them warm at night, he could make his own."
"Yes," murmured Corsa, "why would Vidda want them?" He looked thoughtful for a moment and then turned to the girls. "We must figure this out. Fortunately for you, I am good at figuring stuff out. But first, you need to tell me how you earth-cubs came by these quilt-things, and maybe that will help explain their value to Vidda."
"My father made mine, and Molly's," Kiki said.
"And my mom made mine," Elizabeth said. "In California," she added, "where we live."
"Hmmmmm," said Corsa, "so the quiltlets were made specially for you by someone close, eh?" He continued pacing for another moment, then stopped short.
"Of course," he cried, "that's it! The quiltlets must be magic!"
"But they're not," Molly protested, "they're just quilts. They're pretty and they keep us warm."
"Ah, yes," said Corsa, who had begun pacing again, "that's what they do in your world. But we, and they, are in Altapolo now. And things are often different here."
"How do you mean, different?" Molly asked.
"Yeah," Elizabeth chimed in. "How do you know our quilts are magic?"
"How do I know?" Corsa answered, "why the Eagle told me of course. Who else knows more about magic? I was in a conference with him one afternoon, down by the brook there I believe it was, and he was telling us tales about other worlds. He said there was this one world named--I think it was Retha, something like that, where the most powerful form of magic was called vole. He said that this magic wwas worked especially well by parents for their children, that it enabled them to fly long distances to take care of them, that through it they feed them, and made them feel better and even changed their enemies into friends. Now when you told me that these quiltlets were made for you by your parents, I suspected that they might contain some of this vole-magic; and as you have seen, I was right.
"Of course, the magic may not work quite the same way here in Altapolo as it does on Retha, but I'm sure it's basically the same thing."
Kiki was puzzled by the explanation. "But Corsa," she said, "we don't live in a world named Retha, and I never heard of this vole-magic before. Are you sure the Eagle was talking about our world?"
"Well no," the owl admitted, "I'm not exactly sure. But you see, things often sound differently here than they do elsewhere, you know, just as they often work differently too. And it was undoubtedly for the vole magic that Prince Vidda wanted to steal them. But why? That's the real question."
"And how are we going to get them back? Don't forget that one,"wailed Molly. If we don't, we'll never get home again."
They thought for a minute. Then Laroc spoke up again. "I have an idea. Corsa can fly, so he could go up above the trees and hills and see a long distance. Why don't you fly up there, Corsa, and see if you can spot someone running away with their quiltpieces. They're bright and colorful, so they'd show up well. Then we can find out who's taken them."
"Yeah," echoed Kiki, "that's a good idea. Will you do it, Corsa?"
"Uh, will I?" wondered the owl. "Oh-uh, why certainly I will. But I'll need some help in scanning the countryside, because my eyes are not as good at long range as they were when I was younger." He fluttered down to the ground and waddled stiffly over to Molly. "You, light-headed one, you are the smallest. If you can fit on my back, I will give you a skyride."
Molly hesitated, since she had already fallen from the tree branch and didn't much want to fall again, especially from even higher up.
"Come, come," said the owl, who suspected what she was thinking, "you'll be safe on my back. I haven't dropped anybody yet."
"Well, all right," Molly said. The owl leaned his big round head down and she climbed on his back.
"Now," instructed Corsa, "wrap your feet around my body below my wings, and hang on with your hands just above them." As soon as she had done so, his big wings spread out, and began to flap. Kiki watched as the two of them rose into the air.
Corsa circled the clearing a couple of times just a few feet off the ground, so Molly could get used to her perch. "Are you hanging on?" he asked after the second circle.
"Yes," Molly answered breathlessly, "I'm hanging on tight."
"All right, then," said the owl, "here we go, and when we get up there keep your eyes peeled for those quiltings."
As the deer and the other two girls looked on from the clearing, Corsa flapped his wings harder and harder. And as the broad feathers whooshed steadily through the air, he rose higher and higher above the clearing, past the trees and into the pale green sky.
Molly was afraid at first, but as she got used to the strength of Corsa's motion and the steadiness with which he flew, she relaxed, though she was still careful to hang on tight. "Do you see anything yet?" she heard Corsa cry as he wheeled in a long circle.
She gazed down at the land of Altapolo spread out beneath them. It resembled a giant quilt itself, with dark green lines of trees and patches of forest breaking up sections of lighter-colored meadows and fields. The brook they had drunk from wound like a piece of shiny ribbon through the pattern.
She followed the ribbon up away from the hill they had slept on, as it curved back one way and then another. She could see many pathways, some running along its banks, others branching off and heading through the thickets and fields to disappear over hillocks into the distance.
Then on one of these paths she thought she saw a flash of red and bright blue. She wasn't sure, but these colors were rare in this landscape, and she looked again.
Yes! Not only did she see something red and blue, but she could see the colors rippling and waving as they moved along the path.
"Corsa!" she shouted. "There they are, over there!" She pointed with one arm, holding on tight with the other.
Corsa wheeled again in that direction so he could take a closer look. "Sure enough," he shouted back, "that's them. All right, we better get the others on the trail. We can't stop whoever it is by ourselves. Hang on, we're going down!" Molly clutched his neck tightly as he lowered one wing and his head and went into a steep spiraling dive that sent the wind rushing past her ears and riffling through her hair.
In a moment the tree and the clearing with the tiny figures of Kiki, Elizabeth and Laroc were coming into view, swinging round and round in Molly's vision as if they were on a record player that was turning. Then they were below the top of the trees and Corsa was circling low over the clearing again, and calling out urgently. "We saw him and the quilt things, on the path heading northeast from the river not too far up. He's moving fast, though. Laroc, you'll need all your speed. Hurry."
On the ground, the girls didn't know for sure what to do. "How can we hope to catch him?" Kiki started to ask. "He's got a big head start and I can't run that fast or that far."
But Laroc knew what to do. "Quick, earth-cubs," she said, "it is your turn for a ride. When I bend my front legs and my neck, you must climb on my back as if I were a horse. Then you can use my speed to catch the thief." Without another word she dropped to her knees and lowered her neck.
"Come on, Elizabeth, we've got to hurry," said Kiki, climbing on in front. Elizabeth swung up behind her. As soon as they were on, Laroc stood up, and they slid down onto her back. Kiki put her arms around the deer's neck, and Elizabeth held onto Kiki's waist.
"B-B-be careful," Elizabeth said worriedly, "Don't make us fall off."
"You will not fall off, curlyhead, unless you forget to hang on," answered the deer. "Now we must go, and quickly."
As the owl and Molly flew on ahead to show the path, Laroc began galloping down the hill to the brook, then along a path in the opposite direction from the one they had taken earlier on the way to the Eagle's glen. The shrubbery and flowers passed by in a blur, they were traveling so quickly. Both girls were, like Molly, afraid at first, then reassured by the ease and sureness of Laroc's movements.
In a few moments they came to a spot where two paths branched off in a fork away from the brook into the meadows. Corsa veered around down one, and without losing stride Laroc followed her direction.
Then they were curving around through more thickets and up a long hillside. Just as they reached the crest of the hill they saw Corsa suddenly dive out of sight behind a tree. And when they came racing past it they saw a creature--they couldn't tell exactly what sort--wiggling and rolling in a colorful pile of cloth, as Corsa and Molly made low threatening passes at it, during which the owl screeched loudly and terrifyingly.
"Now," said Laroc, over her shoulder as they came racing toward the figure, "as soon as I stop, jump off and surround it. Speak to it fiercely, so it doesn't have a chance to see that you are only cubs." She jerked to a halt just in front of the creature, and Kiki and Elizabeth slid off and quickly got to their feet. They weren't sure they knew how to be really fierce, but they didn't have time to think about it.
"All right you!" Kiki shouted. "We've got you surrounded! Now don't make any trouble!"
"Yeah, that's right! Don't move and don't try anything funny!" cried Elizabeth, who was standing on the other side. Actually, with Laroc behind him, and Molly and Corsa landing a few feet away, the creature was pretty well surrounded.
Perhaps a larger creature, with its own kind of fierceness, would not have been frightened. But this one, after being attacked from the air, and then overtaken by a screaming animal with four legs--or was it eight--and at least three heads, was trembling with fear. A small round face with wide, pale eyes peeked out fromm under the low brim of a large peaked black cap, saw all the other angry faces peering down at it, then jerked back under the cap.
Elizabeth grabbed the hat and yanked it away. "All right you!" she shouted, as fiercely as she could. "There's no hiding from us!"
Now the creature was exposed for all to see. "Ah-ha," said Laroc, "it is a Stobonian. And isn't that the princely insignia on its shoulder? I thought so."
She nudged him with her head. "Speak up, stranger. Identify yourself and explain to us what you wanted with the quiltings that do not belong to you."
When there was no answer, she repeated herself more loudly. "Speak up, I say!"
The Stobonian opened one eye and looked hopelessly at the deer. "I-I-my name is Ranian," he stuttered. He looked like a short man who was just too big to be an elf but not big enough to be a midget. He was wearing a uniform of red, white and black stripes, and a bright orange feather in his hat. On his shoulder was a patch that had a cluster of stars topped by a light-green crown. Kiki recognized the crown as the same one worn by the Eagle in his glen. "I serve Prince Vidda of Stobon, you are right," he said dejectedly. His voice was high and a little squeaky.
"Well, you who calls yourself Ranian," Laroc went on sternly, "what was your business with these pieces of cloth?"
"I-I was ordered by his highness to find them and bring them back," Ranian answered. "I was told where I would find them, and they were there. I-I do not know why his highness wants them. I only know what I am ordered to do, and I do it."
"That may be the truth," said Corsa, "and it may not." He was pacing back and forth in front of the still-trembling Stobonian, his feathers all ruffled and looking very fierce indeed. "First, we have to find something out about these quilts once and for all."
He turned to Kiki. 'You, brownhead," he said to her, "pick up your quiltie, toss it in the air, and tell it to fly."
Kiki almost laughed at the owl, and behind her she heard Molly smother a giggle. Tell a quilt to fly? It seemed so silly.
Corsa fluttered a wing at her. "Go ahead, try it. We must find out."
"All right," Kiki said with a shrug, "if you insist." She picked up the cloth from the ground where Ranian had dropped it, brushed some grass from it gently, then, with a sidelong, skeptical glance at the owl, threw it up in the air.
"Fly, quilt," she said to it, feeling very ridiculous as she did so.
The quilt went out of her hands in a bundle. But when she spoke to it, the folds straightened out and the quilt floated gracefully in the air around her, as if it were a raft on a rolling stream.
Kiki could hardly believe her eyes. Molly's giggling stopped abruptly. But Corsa, who was apparently accustomed to such things as magic, even if he was unaccustomed to quilts, hardly stopped to look at it.
"I thought so," he said quickly, "I thought so. Now let's see. Oh yes, tell it to descend to the ground and make you a basket of some favorite food that you like to eat in your home country."
Kiki hesitated. Her favorite food? She thought of the spaghetti she hoped to have for dinner, and of ice cream and hamburgers. But somehow they seemed out of place just now, and besides they might be messy. So she said, "Come down now, quilt, and make me a bowl of, uh, fresh strawberries."
Obediently the quilt settled to the ground a few feet away. And as it did so something seemed to stick up under the middle of it, though there had been nothing but smooth grass there a moment before. Kiki walked over and lifted a corner. Under it was a wicker bowl piled high with the reddest strawberries she had ever seen.
"Oh, look at the strawberries!" Elizabeth exclaimed. "Can we have some?" She and Molly forgot their amazement and crowded close as Kiki passed the bowl around.
Corsa ignored their noisy chewing of the fruit, continuing to pace and talk. "Now, if I remember correctly," he said, "they should make you feel better when you're ill, but nobody is sick just now so we'll have to find out about that later. But there was something else--oh yes, of course. They should be able to turn an enemy into a friend, unless being an enemy has taken over his whole being."
No one except Laroc was paying any attention to Corsa now. And with the animals preoccupied and the formerly ferocious girls noisily absorbed in eating strawberries and licking their fingertips, Ranian saw a chance to escape. He jumped up silently and ran for a thicket at the other side of the hilltop from where they were standing.
Laroc saw him first. "Quick, brownhead," she called to Kiki, "send your quiltie after him."
Kiki looked up, saw the little man scurrying away, and did as she was told. "Up, quilt," she commanded. "Catch the Stobonian!"
The cloth was in the air in a flash. Ranian let out a cry of alarm as its shadow loomed over him. In another second, the quilt dropped right over his head and he was once again down in a heap.
The girls and the animals were close behind. But when they surrounded him this time, Corsa cautioned them. "Don't say anything fierce yet. Wait and let him speak."
In a moment the Stobonian's head came out from under the quilt. But this time there was a smile on his face. "Thank you, friend," he whispered, "I feel so much better. Oh, thank you." He stood up and bowed to them, very low. "I am at your service," he whispered again.
Kiki gasped. "The quilts are magic," she said, her eyes wide.
Copyright © by Chuck Fager. All rights reserved.