Erik knew one thing for certain — that creature in Cyrus’ wagon might be a cross-breed, but it was no freak of nature. The thing reeked of magic. He and Cyrus agreed on that, but neither could guess its purpose, or who created it. Most likely, it was a wizard. The dwarves were always up to something, but up to now they had always woven their magic into springs and gears. The fact that the creature was found within sight of Hollow Mountain was probably not coincidence. Lapis was a Wizard Major, which meant he meddled with things on a very large scale. Still, the Earth Wizard was the guardian of all Midhbar’s creatures, and Erik had never known of Lapis to twist and pervert nature. At the same time, Lapis had grown old and strange. He had sent away his most promising pupil, who should have replaced him years ago as Earth Wizard. Since then, Lapis hadn’t been seen by anyone other than his servants at Hollow Mountain. It was even said Lapis had missed the Midwinter gathering of the Wizards Major. The boy Edward seemed very keen on the idea of wizards. Erik didn’t blame him for his curiosity, wizards were very interesting, until you got to know them. Westering’s own resident wizard might be the exception, but otherwise, Erik had learned the hard way that magic usually created more problems than it solved. People seemed to be forgetting the hard lessons of the Wizard Wars, which fractured Berila and left it still without a king, three hundred years later. Erik heard the Cozen boy talking about how much he wanted to get out of Westering. It was a shame he didn’t go and take Solomon with him. Not so long ago, Erik would’ve taught a boy like him a lesson about respect, never mind his father was a lawyer from Almaren. But there were a lot of things Erik did once, that he didn’t any more. Erik wondered what Giles would tell Edward and Amelia about him once they were out of earshot. Whatever Giles Cozen told the Lockhearts, Erik knew the truth about him was much worse.
Amelia, still holding the note, and Edward both looked at Giles with astonishment. He put one finger against his lips to silence them and pointed to his ear. Giles obviously knew about Erik’s unusually keen hearing. Edward grabbed the note from his sister and read it again. Lunatic and murderer? Giles held out his hand and indicated that Edward should return the paper. Without thinking about it, he did, and Giles quickly stowed the note in his satchel. The Lockhearts frowned and shifted uncomfortably in the back of the wagon. It was frustrating not to be able to talk, and they had no way of writing. Amelia’s mind was churning over Giles’s warning about Erik. The man was a big, rude, bad-tempered curmudgeon, and he was certainly intimidating, but a killer? Erik the Bloody? She couldn’t afford to rule anything out, but what made Amelia doubt this revelation was not her brief experience with Erik, or her good opinion of Torvald, but the source of the information. Giles Cozen was definitely up to something, and Amelia intended to find out why he was so eager to help her and Edward get away from the White Hart.
Edward, meanwhile, found it impossible just to sit quietly, so he decided to change the subject. He leaned forward to look past his sister at Giles and said, “You’re Giles Cozen? Like the big shop in town?” Giles looked proud, just for a moment. Amelia thought his face was a lot more pleasant when he wasn’t smirking, but that wasn’t often. “Everything you need, and things you didn’t know you wanted!” he said with mock enthusiasm. “That’s quite a store,” Edward said. Gilkes shrugged, “Nothing else like it out here, that’s for sure. My father toiled over that place. Built it up from a cheap dry goods store to a real outfitter and supply.” Giles frowned and looked toward town as the farm wagon rolled along. “It was all he did, day and night.” Giles picked out some hay stalks stuck between the floorboards and flicked them over the side. “Now that it’s up and running, all he does is run for mayor.” Giles caught himself and turned back to Amelia. “So, you two are from Kirksville? And where might that be?”
Here we go again, Amelia thought. Edward jumped in. “We’re having a hard time figuring that out. If we could look at a map, that might help.”
“Cozen’s has the best maps in Westering, for what it’s worth,” Gile said, always undercutting himself. “I’ll let you look at some, free of charge, if you want to come by.”
“Oh, we’d like that!” Edward loved maps, and he nudged his sister. “Right, Em?”
“Sure,” she replied, noting that all Giles’ efforts were to getting them over to Cozen’s. Meanwhile, Giles was looking at Edward’s backpack. “Edward,” he said, “May I see your satchel?” Edward nodded, “Sure, I guess so,” he looked at Amelia, but she didn’t say anything, and Edward wondered if she was mad about something. He couldn’t tell what mood she was in, most of the time. Edward shrugged off his backpack. He’d been carrying absentmindedly over his left shoulder ever since they left the maple tree where his pocket watch was stolen. Giles took it carefully, turned it over a few times, and ran his hands over the surface. “What is this fabric? I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it.” Edward almost answered woven nylon or polypropylene, he wasn’t sure which. “I don’t really know,” he said, which was hard. Edward hated giving people inaccurate information, but he didn’t think this was the time to have a conversation about synthetic fibers. Giles ran his finger along the zipper tracks. “How does this fastener work?” Edward zipped the pouch open quickly, then closed again. Giles looked delighted. “I’ve never seen anything like it! We have to get these at the store,” he said, handing Edward his backpack.
As Edward and Giles talked, the wagon bumped along over the cobbles of the main street at a leisurely pace. Amelia watched quietly, enjoying a few moments of peace as they rolled past the houses and gardens they had seen before on their way to the North gate. Amelia tried to stop thinking about the raven creature that had been in the back of this wagon just a few minutes before. The only thing more worrisome than the creature itself was that even the natives didn’t know what it was. She had only been in Westering for a few hours, but Amelia could understand what Giles meant about the weirdness getting old in a hurry. Edward was showing Giles his Tevas and how the drawstring worked when the stone tower came into view on their left. Edward looked to the front of the wagon; Erik and Cyrus were now both sitting quietly, but Edward couldn’t resist despite the risk of being overheard. Edward slid back from the edge of the wagon, came around Amelia, and leaned toward Giles. “Who lives there?” he said quietly, nodding toward the tower.
“Harry, the wizard,” Giles said in a normal voice. He was making it clear he didn’t care if anyone overheard him, and Erik looked back, but didn’t say anything. Edward looked very excited, then cautious. “Wait — are you serious?”
Giles laughed. “Yes, I’m serious!”
“And his name is Harry?” Edward looked skeptical. Amelia had no intention of getting involved in this conversation, but it was hard not to laugh. Edward would not be fooled on a subject as dear to his heart as wizards. Even Giles couldn’t help smiling, but replied, “I’m not making it up, Edward. Everyone calls him Harry, but his real name is Herodotus. Herodotus Greenspun.”
“I knew that was a wizard’s tower!” Edward said, nudging Amelia. “Didn’t I say that, Em?”
Amelia nodded, “Yes, you did.” Edward turned back to Giles. “So, do you know him?”
Giles shrugged. “You could say that,” he said casually, “He’s my tutor.”
For a moment, Amelia thought that Edward was actually going to climb into Giles’ lap. “No. Way.“
Giles looked both amused and ready to escape, if necessary. “On my honor, I’m telling you the truth. He’s one of the Wizards Minor, obviously, or he wouldn’t be here. Still, he’s the real thing. So, my father convinced him to take me as a pupil. Or maybe it was just the money that convinced him. Wizards have to eat like everyone else.” Amelia noticed that Giles liked to talk as if he were a grown-up.
“Is he teaching you magic?” Giles’ breezy confidence suddenly disappeared, and he became defensive. “No,” he said sharply. “I mean, why would he? Father says that wizards have their uses, but ultimately, they can’t be trusted.” Edward could tell there was something Giles didn’t want to talk about, so Edward didn’t press him on it. As the wagon passed by the tower, Edward imagined the rooms inside: stone walls lined with volumes of all sizes, a study hung with maps and tapestries, where a bearded man sat poring over an ancient manuscript. It was a little hokey, but Edward couldn’t help imagine an owl perched in the window, and a crystal ball beside his spellbook. He was just about to ask Giles if Herodotus had a crystal ball when Giles said, “I just hope he comes back soon. I certainly won’t find another wizard for a tutor in this place.”
“Back from where?” Edward asked. “Last week, he borrowed a horse and loaded it for a trip of several days, but he wouldn’t say where he was going. He rode out of the North gate, though. So he might have gone to the Dwarrowdelft, but there’s a much more likely destination.” Edward thought back to what Cyrus said, about the Smoky Hills being visible from his fields, and another place. “Hollow Mountain?”
Giles nodded.“Exactly,” he said, and Edward smiled. He was making a map in his head, and he enjoyed adding more detail.
“Yes, Hollow Mountain, which means Lapis.” Giles looked at Edward again. “And the well-informed know Harry was once the Earth Wizard’s assistant,” he said, as though letting Edward in on a secret.
Edward looked puzzled. “So, the Earth Wizard, that’s Lapis, too?”
Giles looked at Edward the way he had at Amelia when he asked if she could read. “Yes, of course.”
“Got it,” Edward said, “Just making sure.” Giles frowned, and looked from Edward to his sister and back again. “Where are you two from?”
Edward paused. “I don’t know if it’s a question of where, or when, or both.” Amelia had to stop herself from chuckling at her brother’s idea of a helpful answer. She could tell that Giles wasn’t used to being at a disadvantage in conversation. Edward also noticed that Giles was frowning at him, and he had an idea for another approach. “Has Herodotus ever talked to you about other worlds?” Edward didn’t like nicknames himself, and always assumed people wanted to be called by their full names.
Giles looked at Edward with suspicion. “What do you mean?”
“I mean other places than Midhbar,” Edward was trying to sound casual, as though asking Giles to help him find something on the shelf at Cozen’s. Still, Edward’s unusual questions were making Giles uneasy, when he had obviously meant to rattle the Lockhearts, instead. Amelia didn’t mind seeing Giles not so smug for a change, but finally she said, “Easy, Edward — I think you’re scaring him.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Giles said, a little too loudly. Erik and Cyrus both looked back at them, and then Giles went on more quietly. “And to answer your question — no, Harry and I confined our studies to the known universe, actually.”
“OK,” Edward said in a soothing voice. “Just checking.”
“Do you have any brothers or sisters, Giles?” Amelia said, turning the conversation back to safer topics, and ones she actually understood. “No,” Giles said, sullen. “It’s just my father and I here.
Amelia thought twice about the next question, since there was probably reason Giles hadn’t mentioned this subject. “What about your mother?”
“My mother is –” Giles stopped and looked away for a moment. “She stayed behind, in Almaren.” Giles hadn’t even mentioned his mother when he listed his reasons for wanting to get out of Westering. “That’s why you want to go back there?”
“Yes,” Giles replied, then changed the subject. “It’s the capital of Berila, in case you didn’t know,” he said, trying to regain the upper hand. Edward missed the sarcasm. He was thinking about how Solomon had said Westering, the Wilderlands, and Berila — Midhbar contains all three. All below the Empyrean, and within the Seawall. Edward couldn’t wait to see the maps at Cozen’s, and wondered if Amelia would let him go there by himself. She wasn’t interested in cartography, but she had a sweet tooth. Edward recalled how Amelia perked up when the man at Cozen’s mentioned honey and candied hazelnuts. Edward looked back at the tower, almost out of sight now that they were nearing the green. I’ll bet Herodotus has some good maps, he thought.
The wagon rumbled off the main street and onto the unpaved path that curved over to the hill where the Hart sat. Giles buckled his satchel. “This is far enough for me.” Giles looked at the people buying and selling on the green. “I’m going to have a look at the market.” Giles spoke to both the Lockhearts, but he was looking at Amelia. “Don’t you want to come and see it?” Edward raised one eyebrow and waited for Amelia to answer.
Despite Giles’ moodiness and obvious ulterior motives, or maybe because of them, Amelia was tempted. She wasn’t looking forward to another round of questions about where they came from and why they wore such funny clothes. Besides, she was sure Edward was not only interested in talking to the council, but would do just as well without her there. But she was the older sibling, she was responsible, and Amelia could imagine what Lucy would say if she skipped out to go shopping. “Maybe later,” she said, “I think we need to talk to the council, first.”
Giles rolled his eyes, “Even without Harry, that might take a while. At least Erik doesn’t say much,” he said with a smirk. “Tell you what — I’ll come back in an hour or so, pretend there’s a fire, and save you from the horrible Death of One Thousand Questions. I’m warning you, though, wherever you come from, my father can talk about what’s wrong with your municipal codes for hours.
Amelia couldn’t help smiling. “Thanks for the warning, but we’ll be OK.” She put her arm around Edward and gave him a big, friendly squeeze. “Edward is the best on his debate team.” Edward smiled and adjusted his glasses out of habit. “I’m not at all surprised to hear that,” Giles said, then lowered his voice. “In case I don’t see you again when you’re done, please remember my advice,” he said. ‘You know where to find us, and you’ll get a warm welcome.”
Amelia didn’t reply as Giles hopped off the back of the wagon, but Edward said, “We’ll come soon to see those maps!” Giles turned, waved goodbye, and headed off to the nearest group of of tents, where flags, scarves and blankets stirred in the gentle breeze.
It was near midday now, and getting warmer. Amelia was glad they were heading indoors, because they should really put on some sunscreen, which would open another can of worms. Erik and Cyrus were talking again as the wagon pulled up to the hitching post at the Hart. Edward was looking up at the big oak tree as they came near it. Amelia tapped Edward’s arm to get his attention and looked toward the market on the green. “What do you think Giles is up to?” She whispered.
Edward held up his hands, “I have no idea. I mean, why wouldn’t you learn magic if you had a wizard for a tutor?”
Amelia sighed. “No, not that,” she said and tilted her head toward the front of the wagon, where Cyrus and Erin were getting down. “I mean about him.”
“Oh!” Edward mouthed silently. He tugged at his bottom lip for a moment, “I don’t know,” Edward whispered. “What do you think?” The Lockhearts jumped down off the wagon and lingered there for a moment. Amelia shook her head. She wanted to say, If it’s true, why isn’t he locked up? but she couldn’t speak freely while Erik was around. He and Cyrus had tied up the horse and were walking toward the door. Erik stopped and looked back at the children. Amelia waved, “We’re coming!”
“We can just ask some other people,” Edward said as they walked, “When we get a chance.” Amelia nodded. If what Giles said was a simple lie, then he had to know it wouldn’t hold up for long. So, it was either a hasty plan to get them away from the Hart, or there was at least some truth to Giles’ warning.
Inside the White Hart, the tavern was filled to overflowing with Westerings who wanted to get a look at the strangers. exchanging all the latest gossip about the children and the thing Cyrus brought to the North Gate. Erik led the way to the bar, where Torvald was filling mugs as fast as he could for the line of men that crowded the counter. If Erik was pleased at the good business, it wasn’t obvious. The first thing he said was, “No tabs — you pay as you drink!” Everyone seemed to be used to this kind of treatment from Erik. They all nodded and the man getting his cup filled said cheerfully, “We wouldn’t cheat your boy, Erik! Young Torvald’s been doing a fine job.” Torvald grinned, and Erik nodded, nothing more.
“Geez, what a sourpuss!” Edward whispered, hoping the noise of the crowd would drown him out, or at least prevent Erik from identifying the source. “Tell me about it,” Amelia said. “Poor Torvald.” Erik seemed the opposite of Edward and Amelia’s own funny, easy-going father. John insisted his family be together every Saturday night, if at all possible. It didn’t matter that Amelia was locked in her room, texting her friends and Edward was working on his Shadowfell fan site. John would insist that they do something — cards, trivia, or just popcorn and a movie (he preferred cheesy science-fiction) — as long they did it together. Even though she complained about leaving her smartphone muted on the kitchen table, along with John and Lucy’s, Saturday nights at home were one of the things Amelia missed the most.
Edward and Amelia followed Erik behind the bar, then found a place to stand out of the way beside the kitchen door. “Are Solomon and Anna here?” “Yes,” Torvald said. “They came in a few minutes ago and said they were going upstairs.”
“And where the devil is Collie?” Erik growled as he collected a handful of coins from the men waiting with empty mugs. “Oh, he’s been helping! He was serving bread and cheese, and –” Erik held up his hand. “But where is he now?” Torvald hesitated, and Amelia could tell Torvald felt like he was ratting on Collie. Erik glared. Finally, Torvald replied, “He said he had a patient.”
“Where?” Erik said. “In the cellar, I think,” Torvald said. “Go and tell him I need to talk to him,” Erik said, wiping his hands on a linen cloth. “I’ll watch the bar,” he said and moved up to take his son’s place at the tap.
Torvald turned and walked quickly toward the Lockhearts. “Hi!” Torvald said. He was clearly excited to see Edward and Amelia again. Torvald looked back quickly at his father, whose back was turned to them, and then said, “Come with me,” with an even wider grin. Edward and Amelia followed Torvald just around the corner from the kitchen and into a short hallway, lit with several oil lamps hung on hooks along the wall. The corridor ended at a wall and a trapdoor leading down to the cellar. There was a pulley attached to the ceiling, a rope and a large net next to the trapdoor for lifting barrels and other supplies up from the basement.
Torvald grabbed the large iron rings and hauled both of the doors open. “Ready to meet Collie?’ he said with a gleam in his blue eyes. “Are you sure?” Amelia said. “You said he was seeing a patient, right?” Torvald laughed, “It’s all right — you’ll see. But be quiet, we don’t want to startle them.” Torvald started down through the trapdoor first, followed by Amelia and then Edward. The wooden stairs were steep and narrow. There was a wooden handrail on the right side and a wall of large, rough-hewn stone blocks on the left. A single lamp hanging from a hook on the wall lit the way. Edward put his hand against the wall as he followed his sister down, and the surface was cool, but dry. The cellar was a large, rectangular room line with stone walls. Above was the floor of the tavern and the large wooden beams that supported it. The walls were lined with sturdy wooden racks holding rows of casks and barrels of various sizes. Light came in from several small windows on the eastern side of the foundation, where the ground sloped downward. Most of the light in the cellar was the warm red glow of oil lamps hung from hooks on the large support beams.
Torvald waited for the Lockhearts at the bottom of the stairs. He put one finger to his lips, and then started walking slowly forward and to the right, toward the end of the first row of barrels. In the lamplight near the center of the room, Edward and Amelia saw a man with his back to them. He was no more than four feet tall, wearing brown breeches and a green waistcoat, with his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He was standing in front of an upended barrel, having a lively conversation with someone Edward and Amelia couldn’t see.
“That should be enough to help you sleep,” the man was saying, in a clear, musical voice. The reply was a series of tiny squeaks that almost sounded like words, but Edward and Amelia couldn’t quite make them out. As they crept closer, the Lockhearts discovered why they didn’t understand the sounds — they were coming from a large hedgehog, standing on the end of the barrel, holding a tiny cane and drinking from a tiny cup, not much bigger than a thimble.
Everyone in the cellar was startled when Amelia let out a squeal of delight. “He’s so cute!” she said, hands pressed to the sides of her face. Her outburst surprised all of them, but what shocked Edward was her unrestrained glee. Amelia normally kept up an air of ironic detachment, like all the other teenagers Edward knew. It was part of the basic high-school survival kit. Still, a talking, tippling hedgehog was not something you saw every day. Edward smiled. He was seeing a different side of his sister. They were in a different world, after all.
“Lords above! You almost scared us out of our skins, girl!”
Collie said, turning to face Amelia, Edward and Torvald. The hedgehog squeaked and waved his tiny walking stick.
“Sorry!” Torvald said, and stepped past Amelia. She was watching the little animal with a look of pure joy on her face, oblivious to everything else. “Look at his little cane!” she said, as the hedgehog tapped it crossly on the barrelhead.
“We didn’t mean any harm, Collie,” Torvald said. “I just wanted you to meet Edward and Amelia.”
Collie looked at Amelia and he understood perfectly. “I’m sure you did,” he said, and winked at Torvald. Amelia was too enraptured with the creature in front of her to notice, but Torvald blushed. Edward observed all of this, rolled his eyes, and stepped forward to introduce himself, since Torvald was too distracted to do it. “Very pleased to meet you sir,” he said extending his hand, “My name is Edward Lockheart.”
Collie put down his cider, took a step forward and returned Edward’s firm handshake with approval. “A pleasure to meet you, Edward.” Collie was only a few inches taller than Edward. He had a pleasant, clean-shaven face and long sideburns. It was hard to guess Collie’s age. Even with the grey in his reddish-brown hair, he might be thirty years old or fifty, for all Edward could tell. Collie’s eyes were a warm brown that reflected the glow of the brass lamps.
“This is my sister,” Edward said, and cleared his throat loudly.
Amelia tore her gaze away from the hedgehog. “I’m sorry — Amelia Lockheart,” she said. Collie took her hand gently, palm down, which made Amelia smile.
“Pleased to meet you, Miss Amelia. My name is Collum dan Art.” He turned toward the cider barrel with a flourish, “And this splendid fellow is Old Man Hedgehog.” The hedgehog chirped and raised his cup. He had the same dark quills, tipped with white, as a normal hedgehog, and the same short snout and dark eyes. He was larger than usual, though, around eight inches tall, standing on his hind legs, holding a small gnarled walking stick in his tiny left hand, and a cup of cider in the right.
Amelia regained her composure enough to approach slowly and bend at the waist until she was at the hedgehog’s level. “It’s very nice to meet you!” Old Man Hedgehog responded with some chirps and squeaks.
“Mister Collum,” Edward said, fascinated, “You understand what he says?” Collie smiled and rubbed his chin. “For the most part, yes. For instance, he said your sister’s eyes are like clear forest pools. More or less.” Amelia sighed, “That is so sweet!” Edward shook his head. This was worse than when they saw the baby chimp at the Kirksville zoo. Yes, Baby Bob was cute, but it was embarrassing to see Lucy and Amelia turn into people who looked like his mother and sister, but could only coo and shriek with delight when the little chimp picked at his navel, or his nose.
Edward, on the other hand, had so many questions about a talking hedgehog and all it implied that he didn’t know where to start. Then he heard muffled laughter from the tavern above, and he remembered why they came down to the cellar in the first place. “Torvald,” he said in a low voice, “Didn’t your father say he needed to talk to Collum?”
Torvald had been completely absorbed in watching Amelia watch Old Man Hedgehog. When Edward mentioned his father, the pleased, slightly goofy look on Torvald’s face was instantly replaced by one close to panic. “Collie!” he said suddenly, “Father needs to talk to you!”
“All right,” Collie said, and looked at the Lockhearts. “Any chance it’s about our young friends here?”
Torvald nodded. “And about something strange we saw at the North gate,” Edward added. He realized they hadn’t even had time to tell Torvald about what they’d seen in Cyrus’ wagon. “Anna and Solomon are already here,” Torvald said.
Collie nodded. “We’d best get upstairs, then.” He put his hand on the top of the barrel in front of Old Man Hedgehog, palm up. The hedgehog stepped onto Collie’s hand, and Collie offered his other hand for support as he lowered the creature to the flagstone floor. Old Man Hedgehog bowed slightly, then started for the eastern side of the room, where the windows let in the early afternoon light. Edward wondered how the hedgehog would get out of the cellar, but Collie was already leading the way back to the stairs. Edward went after him, then Torvald. Amelia turned to watch old Man Hedgehog for a moment, then said, “Goodbye!” and followed Torvald upstairs.
Edward was bursting with questions about what they had just seen, but he knew they would have to wait. Collie went through the trapdoor quickly and headed down the short hall toward the great room. When Collie, the Lockhearts and Torvald reached the bar, Erik was talking with Cyrus and two other men, who greeted Collie as he approached. “Nice of you to join us,” Erik said, but it sounded more like habit than actual sarcasm. “Nice of the council to come to us.”
“Oh, yes” Erik said, “Solomon is thrilled to be here.” This time the sarcasm was real. “How did you get him to set foot in here?” Collie asked.
“We voted on where to meet, of course. Since we need your sage advice, Anna and I agreed it made sense to meet at the Hart.”
“Well, Anna voted for, and Solemn voted against, so?” Edward caught the pun and smiled. Torvald and Amelia, on the other hand, were whispering to each other. Edward shook his head. He wondered, not for the first time, if being unable to pay attention was just another symptom of being a teenager. If so, he was afraid to turn thirteen.
“And I was the tie-breaker,” Erik said. Edward saw the hint of a smile on his face for the first time. “How’s that?!” Collie hooted. “When Harry is away, I have his vote on the council,” Erik took a piece of bread from the round loaf he’d been slicing and chewed it happily. Collie whistled softly and shook his head, “Oh, I wish I could’ve been there to see the look on his face!”
“He looked like he smelled something bad,” Erik said, “And then he protested about procedure and points of order.”
“Of course,” Collie said.
“I told him this wasn’t Almaren, and out here, a man’s word is his contract. Besides, Harry and I set that up a long time ago, with Anna as a witness. So, it was either call us both liars and go home, or meet at the Hart.”
“Oh, he’ll hold his nose the whole time he’s here, but Solomon isn’t going to miss out on goings-on like this,” Collie said. He and Erik both laughed, then Erik wiped his hands. “All right, let’s get down to business.” Collie nodded, “Yes, I’m sure Solomon is up there scheming some way to have your vote nullified.” Erik looked over Collie at Edward, standing by the kitchen door. “Ready for another interrogation?” Erik said, sounding almost sympathetic. “Yes, sir,” Edward replied. Behind him, Amelia giggled and Edward shared a knowing look with Erik. It was the first time he’d looked Erik in the eye and not been afraid that he was about to be squashed like a bug. Whatever Erik was, Edward felt pretty sure he wasn’t a murderous lunatic. “Torvald!” Erik barked, “Man your post, son.” Torvald moved quickly to replace his father behind the bar. “We’re going to need Collie for a while, too,” Erik said. “Think you can handle things here while we’re gone?”
Torvald looked back at Amelia and stood up straighter. “Yes, father,” he replied, “You can count on me.” Edward was glad to see Erik pat his son once on the shoulder. Erik started toward the far end of the bar. Collie followed, looking back at Edward and Amelia to be sure they were behind him. “Good luck,” Torvald said to them as they passed. “Thanks,” Edward and Amelia both replied. Edward wasn’t worried. He was a lot more comfortable talking to grown-ups than other kids. Trying to make small talk with the cool kids made Edward cringe. He would take a discussion with a group of strangers about vampires and monsters in the forest any day.
The wooden staircase to the second floor of the Hart went up an interior wall on the right, but was open on the left. Edward looked out over the Westerings below in the great room as they went up to the landing and into a room on the left. The door was ajar; Erik pushed it open and led the others inside. The meeting chamber was over the great room, and they could hear muffled voices below. Three windows looked out over the front entrance to the White Hart, and toward the green. Cyrus, Anna and Solomon were seated at one side and one end of the table. A large earthenware jug of water and several cups sat in the middle of the long, rectangular table.
Edward looked at the adults as he and Amelia took their seats together across the table from them. Erik and Cyrus were looking at one of the chairs, which Erik thought hadn’t been properly joined. Anna was asking Collie about his latest batch of cider. Solomon was writing in a small, red leather-bound book the size of a journal, the grey quill was flicking rapidly as he wrote. Edward looked at his sister. He could see that Amelia was already bored and distracted. Edward was hungry, and he realized they hadn’t eaten anything in hours. Now that it was about to start, he felt tired thinking about the discussion ahead. This morning, Erik had had complained that they would have to go over everything they had talked about with Nestor and Ralph again. Edward suspected that if he and Amelia gave the same answers as before, they would end up back in the same place. Nowhere. This made Edward recall his conversation with Giles, when he asked the older boy about other worlds. Edward had been surprised and disappointed that question also led nowhere. Was it possible he and Amelia were the first people to find themselves transported here, to Midhbar? It didn’t make sense. This wasn’t a random event. You didn’t just go to sleep in your own bed and wake up on another planet, or parallel universe, or alternate past. Someone brought them here, which meant that someone knew how to go back and forth. Who, and why? Their mother must be worried sick by now. Edward imagined Lucy talking to the police, trying to explain what happened to her children. Who would believe they simply disappeared overnight? If this was one of those police shows Lucy and Amelia watched together, their mother would be the prime suspect. After all, her husband had vanished, she had lost her home, she had no job and crushing debts. Under all this stress, Lucy had a mental breakdown. The police would suspect she had done something to her own children. Edward felt dizzy.
“Edward?” Amelia touched his hand. Edward realized with a start that he was standing at the head of the table, as if at debate club, and everyone was looking at him. Edward looked down and closed his eyes as he took a deep breath. When he looked up, he felt better, and he knew exactly what to say. “We’re not from Midhbar. We’re from another world, another planet, called Earth.” Amelia gaped at Edward, then looked across the table at the Westerings, who all sat quietly. Edward had goosebumps. He was sure he just said something awful and the Westerings were all waiting to for someone else to tell him so. Next, they would be packing him and Amelia off to some home for young orphaned lunatics. After what seemed like a very long time, Anna cleared her throat and said, patiently. “My dear child, that’s simply not possible. The Earth was destroyed more than five hundred years ago.”