The corridors were dark and cold and there was a smell of damp in the air. Tag thought that they must be underground. He knew about being underground, about the air, about the smells (fear, loss, rage, and rotting flesh) and the slimes that build up when the cold spaces underneath the world were used by the hot breathed mammals that belonged up in the fresh breeze with the warm sun on their skin. Yes, he knew all about it, and he wondered where this woman was taking them.
The tunnel system, as Tag now thought of it, was a catacomb, a huge network of underground streets, like the ones he’d lived in since his mother was taken. But these streets showed no signs of use or life. The walls were too dry and the mud on the ground was, somehow, too clean. There was no smell of fear. Tag tried to remember the way they were going, he was suspicious of this going weird, or ending up back here again with no way out, or of being abandoned somewhere down here with no way out and no way back. But how many left turns had they made? He wanted to say four, but it could be five. There was a line of yellow bricks around the edge of a turn off to their left, but it wasn’t a turn off they were taking. Tag held his breath and hoped with everything he had that they were not about to be tricked again. Libby took a little key out of her pocket and unlocked a large, heavy door. Tag swallowed hard.
Dungeon. It had to be a dungeon. Now the Librarian was leaning hard, shoving the door open. Now she was behind the children. Tag felt her hand on his back. Tag and Del stumbled forwards, tripping on tree roots and the woman’s strong hands gripped their shirts, hauling them upright. Tag closed his eyes. Dungeon.
And then the warm sun was on his face and a soft breeze was in his hair. The three of them stopped, blinded by the sudden light. They were in an open field, the door behind them was hidden in the rock face, obscured by trees.
“Welcome to the outside, chidelers.” Libby grinned.
“The outside of the tunnels?” Del asked, suddenly short tempered. “I’ve been outside before.”
“The outside of your valley. There’s a whole wild world out here.”
“But the towns are so… full.” Del looked out at the field and into the flatlands.
“Umm. And that’s how they keep the lie going that there is no more room in the country. They want people to feel like that. They want the ordinary people to be angry and afraid because of some imagined foreign threat. ‘We’re full.’ they say. ‘There’s no room.’ And because people think that they don’t look for somewhere else with a bit more space.”
Del looked at Tag with a raised eyebrow.
“Bit of a pet peeve, is it?” she chuckled.
“Bit of a favourite rant?” he grinned and nudged Del with his elbow.
“Oh shut up. Do you want directions to the woods or not?” Libby tried not to join in laughing with the children. “Then come up here and sit down.” the Librarian clambered up a bank of grass and wildflowers.
The view from there looked out across abandoned fields of wildflowers and gorse bordered by overgrown hedges that rambled and roamed outwards from their once neat lines. At the far edge of the fields was a river. Behind them, though, towered the mountains that loomed over their valley. Neither child had ever been outside the valley before.
Libby pointed. “That river runs south from Lilith’s house in the woods into the town. It runs from the Solitary Mountain, through Lilith’s woods and back through your town past Brook Street. Is that still where old man While has his shop?”
“I’ve a feeling that you’ll be heading even further north from Lilith to find your missing hour. If you come back through those woods, find yourself a boat.
Find yourself a boat, there are boats washed up all along the shores of that river, and get home as quickly as you can. Get back to Fitz While. He’s a maddening old fart but he’s good. He’s kind. He’ll protect you from the dangers that I think you might face.
Something makes me worry for you little things. When you have your hour back, or whatever you think it is, Tag, get to the old man as quickly as you can. And if you ever should find a weapon, of any kind, you stash it about your person. Keep it in your boots or your bags.”
Tag shivered, though it was a warm day. The Librarian was definitely an odd one.
Del leaned back onto the grass and sighed. “My sword, then?” she held out her hand.
Libby coughed. “Well, I’m not entirely sure it’s your sword, but…” she reached into her cloak and produced the little sword from the folds.
Del didn’t sit up, but reached out and felt the cold metal of the handle in her little hands. She smiled and closed her eyes. There was something about this sword, more than her little knife, even, that she felt connected to. There was something warlike about it, something wild and it made her tingle with excitement.
“We can wait here, for a bit, can’t we? How far is that?” she nodded to the woods. “It can’t be 8 miles now.”
“No, it’s about five and a half. My tunnels brought us quite a long way. And once you reach the woods you need to be careful about sticking to the pathway and it’s another mile. You can make it to Lilith’s in an afternoon.” Libby unhooked a little key from a chain around her neck and handed it to Tag. “You shouldn’t need it, but here’s a spare to the tunnels.” then she reached into her cloak again. “Jam sandwich?”
A crow circled overhead.