Undraland, page 14
I didn’t like talking about Linus or my parents anymore. Now I was the one with the placebo stomach pains at the mention of Linus’s tomatoes.
I stood abruptly with my tour guide smile plastered in place and extended my arm to help Jens to his feet. “Ready to breakdance fight those totally harmless spiders?” I held up my hands like a ninja and jiggled my shoulders to demonstrate what a good dance fighter I could be.
The look Jens gave me was also wrapped in a smile, but beneath the layers, I saw pity. That accursed pity I could never manage to escape, even in the magical land of Undra-Narnia. He was about to say something, but saw something behind me and tensed. “Don’t move,” he cautioned, smile still intact. “Just stand still.”
The hairs on my arm stood up, and the urge to whip my head around like a maniac was overpowering. Jens inched by me with the grace of an actual ninja. There was a quick movement, a gasp and several more wafts of air hitting me from behind. I nearly jumped out of my skin (not a great thing to do on the side of a mountain) when Jens yelled, “Spindels! Run!”
I whirled around and saw exactly what Jens described: eight-legged furry creatures bigger than rats. A line of them was spilling out of a crack in the wall to our left like a waterfall. Black monster of Frankenstein critters scurried over my feet and up my legs. They were tripping and jumping out at us, separating Jens and me from the others, who ran further down the trail. “Follow me, Loos!” Jens commanded.
I screamed and covered my ears on instinct as I ran behind Jens. He knocked dozens of them out of the way, acting like a linebacker for me (or whatever the crap that position is that blocks the bad guys from taking down the quarterback. What do you want from me? Linus played soccer). Kitten-sized arachnids landed in my hair, their spindly legs tangling in the curls. I felt one scurry under the hem of my shirt and bite the small of my back. It was a small pinch of a needle with a cold chill that lasted long after I shook the fur ball loose. My scream was high-pitched, but only exhibited a tenth of the terror I felt inside.
We ran as fast as we could, but the spiders were ambitious. When we trampled through the last of the black mess of them, I did not slow until Jens began to stumble. He tripped a few times, but picked himself back up. He grabbed onto my hand and trudged a few minutes more to a little cavern where he collapsed. “Jens!” I knelt beside his heaving form and patted his back to calm him down.
“Go on ahead and tell Britt to run for Alrik.”
“I’m not leaving you like this,” I protested, surprised that he would even suggest such a thing. “They’re not that far behind us, Jens! They’ll be crawling all over you in minutes!”
He waved a shaky hand like I was being too dramatic. “We passed giftig bushes. They repel spindels. They won’t cross the giftigs. I’m fine here.”
“I don’t want to just leave you here!” I protested, feeling all kinds of wrong as I watched his strong body slow down.
“You have to. I got bit a few times, and the poison’s already moving through me. My knees are shaking.” When he saw my horror, he put on a weak smile. “I’m fine. Takes 48 hours for the gestation to run its course. We’re a day out from Alrik’s village, so we’ve got plenty of time. Just go with the others and bring back Alrik as quick as you can.”
I nodded and scrambled to my feet, bolting up the moonlit path and shouting with abandon for the others. I ran with renewed energy, despite having not eaten much or slept in who knows how long. The dark of night was disturbed by my brazen volume, and though I was alone, I couldn’t really connect with any fear that wasn’t related to saving Jens.
When I heard footsteps running toward me, I slowed, heaving a sigh of relief when I saw Foss. “What happened? Where’s Jens?”
“The spiders got him! Lots of them bit him and he can’t walk. He sent me to tell you to run for Alrik, and I mean, run!”
Foss needed no other explanation. “Let’s go, then.”
I wiped the sweat from my brow. “No. I’m going back to stay with him. If more spiders come, he won’t be able to fight them off.” As the words came out of my mouth, I questioned them. Did I know how to fight them off? I mean, other than using a shoe, I’d never defended my territory from spiders before. Not like this.
“Is he on the other side of the giftigs?”
“Yeah, but I won’t gamble on that. I’m not leaving him.” My chin raised, daring him to argue with my resolute tone.
“Are you sure?” Foss gave me a hesitant look, which affected my volume greater than I meant it to.
“Run!” I shouted. “Don’t stop. Don’t look back. Run!”
He was startled by the crazed look in my eye. “Alright, little rat. He’ll be fine. I’ll go get Alrik right now.”
“Do you think I’m speaking metaphorically? How are you not running? Do you need me to put the fear of God in you?” I stepped toward the enormous warrior menacingly, not quite sure what I might do to evoke a sprint from the man.
“I’m going!” He turned and ran up the incline as if I might unleash the powers of PMS on him.
I stumbled back down the path, my heart clenching in my chest when I found Jens collapsed on the stone floor of the small cave. He had looked so strong just moments ago when he helped me across the blockade. My wobbly knees were quaking from adrenaline, and the cold spot on my spine felt like it was spreading to my hips.
Jens groaned. “What are you doing? I told you to go with them!” His face was red, and little pink spots were bulging out on his cheeks and neck.
“Shut up,” I snapped. I was too excitable to feel repentant for my attitude. “I can’t believe you thought I would leave you here. You think you know me so well?” Sweat was pouring off me now, and my lungs were beginning to feel the cold that was working its way around to my navel. I shouted at him over his coughing, not even feeling remorseful for yelling at him in his pathetic state. “I stayed with Linus through every chemo treatment, every needle and every new doctor! I held his hand while he died! Now you’ll shut your mouth and let me take care of you, or so help me, forget Martin Luther King! I’ll end you!”
“There’s nothing you can do, Lucy. Nothing you could’ve done for Linus, either. Only Alrik can help me now. You would’ve been better off going with the others.” He coughed again, and I could see the color draining from his face as the sweat dripped off his chin onto the ground. “If something finds us up here, I can’t protect you.”
“Then I guess they’ll have to deal with me. What else you got up here? Besides the radioactive spiders, I mean. Boxing kangaroos? Chainsaw-wielding elephants?”
Jens laughed, which set him on another coughing fit. “You shouldn’t be here, Lucy.”
“I shouldn’t be a lot of things.” I knelt next to him and felt his slick forehead, which was burning up. “Let’s get that backpack off of you.” His arms were stiff as I slid off his red pack and cast it to the corner of the cave near his feet. “Arms up,” I instructed, working his moist black t-shirt over his head. I stood clumsily and hung it on a stone jutting out from the wall, hoping he did not notice my poor balance. He had endured dozens of spider bites, so the poison was stronger in him, working faster to take him down. Hopefully I’d scared Foss enough to make quick work of the rest of the journey.
I slumped down next to Jens, propping myself up on the wall next to his head. My hand found its way into his hair, brushing through the wet follicles to ease his shaking. “I know you’re cold. Just wait till your fever breaks. Then I’ll get you off the floor.”
“I’m fine.” He shuddered as he hugged himself in the rosy moonlight that stretched in from the cave’s opening. He was lying supine on the rocky ground, tremors ripping through him at half-minute intervals.
“Wow. That sounds even more pathetic than when I say it.” I looked over his torso and saw a couple more raised bumps, but the thing that gave me pause were the violent scarred-over slashes across his bodybuilder chest and stomach. I spoke in a quiet voice. “Jens, what happened to you
He managed a wan look of disbelief that conveyed he thought I was stupid. “I got bit by spindels. Are you just figuring that out?”
“No, idiot.” I rolled my eyes and pointed to his wide chest. “Your scars. Did someone play Operation on you?”
He pressed his palm to one of the scars, an insecurity poking through as his eyes darted to my face, and then away. “Sort of. Trolls. A whole tribe of them was in the village, tearing it up. Everyone was fleeing, even the king, but I didn’t feel like it.”
“Didn’t feel like it?”
“Fleeing’s a lot of work. Packing up all your stuff. Running to the Nisse town the next mountain over. Like they’d really take us all in.” He coughed a scary, rasping bark, so I inched closer, lifting his head onto my lap so his upper half was off the cold stone floor. Once he had his bearings back, he continued. “So I took care of them. It got a little bloody before the end. That’s how I got most of my scars.” He shifted on my lap, moving his head to rest against my stomach. “But not this one.” He tried to lift his knuckle to show me, but he could only move it an inch up and down. Sure enough, there was a small crescent-shaped scar on the knuckle of his forefinger. “This one’s from you.”
“What? I never cut you before.” I gently lifted his hand to examine the damage. His grip was almost arthritic with its unyielding tension. He held onto my hand like he was afraid to let it go. Like he was afraid to let me go, but couldn’t find the words to admit it. I wanted to run my fingers over his abs, but decided that probably wasn’t kosher in my world or Undraland.
“I got it fixing your car one night while you were sleeping. You really need to change your oil more often. That three thousand miles isn’t a suggestion, Loos. Your engine’s gonna go one day, and you’ll only have yourself to blame.” He coughed into my shirt, and then did something so precious, I had to smile. He burrowed his forehead into my abdomen like a kitten searching for comfort. I brushed my hand down the side of his tattooed face and tickled my fingers across the hairs at the base of his neck. His eyes were closed and his breathing shallow. “Mm. That feels nice.”
I lifted his rigid knuckle to my mouth and kissed the scar in hopes of healing it. I whispered a few incendiary things to the man in my arms to see if he was awake, but nothing stirred up his fight. When I was certain I was alone, I tested my limbs by wiggling my toes and trying to move my shoulders. It was all doable, but everything was too stiff. I was losing mobility in my legs for certain.
The moon did its job giving me something beautiful to look at. I wondered with a strange peace if either of us would survive the spider babies nesting inside our bodies. The scenario was worthy of a good freak-out, but in keeping with the rest of my body, my insides felt numb.
When all was quiet, I heard movement outside the cave. My peace shattered in an instant as I wondered how I might fend off legions of spindels with half my body asleep and Jens completely incapacitated.
The movement reached the mouth of the cave, displaying two glowing gray eyes in the dark. When the creature stepped closer, I gasped with delight. “Come here, little puppy,” I cooed in a sickeningly sweet voice. I clicked my tongue, luring the precious dog further in until I could get a good look at him.
Grayish white fur with black patches all over and the cutest little face melted my heart.
“What happened to your poor ear?” I asked, reaching out with a clumsy hand to pet the besotted creature. “It looks like someone took a chunk out of your ear here. Aw! Sweet baby.”
The dog did its job and sniffed Jens and me from head to toe before deciding we could be best friends. He whined at me for food. “I’m sorry, buddy. I’m starving, too. Maybe when Uncle Rick gets here, he’ll have tacos in his pocket for us. Maybe some burgers or a sloppy fistful of Indian food.” I scratched behind his good ear. “Where’s your family? You’re all alone, too?”
It felt like he answered me with a tilt of his head, so I continued on, wondering if the spider bites were making me crazy. “There, there. It’s okay to be alone. Stay here, and we can be alone together. Here, baby.” I clicked my fingers over Jens’s chest. “Come keep Jens warm. He’s feverish up on his head, but ice cold on his body.” I petted the large puppy, coaxing him closer to Jens. Finally, he rested his snout on Jens’s icy chest, licking him a few times to show his acceptance into his new family.
“That’s right… um, no collar.” I fished around for the first name that popped into my head. “That’s right, Henry Mancini. I’m your mommy, and Jens is your puppy. Take good care of him.”
Ice crept higher up my spine, and I realized I could no longer wiggle my toes. I gave my dog a brave smile. “Don’t you worry, Henry Mancini. Everything’s going to be alright.”
Movement outside of the cave woke me, but I could barely turn my neck to verify the source of the noise. Henry Mancini hopped to his furry feet and scampered to the cave’s opening to check it out for me. He barked when Uncle Rick came into view, and though most of me was immovable, my heart lifted in my chest at the sight of his friendly face. Though, I admit, it was still strange to see him in the long wizard-type robes. When he would visit us in the real world, he usually wore Dockers and a hand-made orange cardigan no one had the heart to tell him was a woman’s. He still had the cardigan on, but the wizard dress underneath really threw me.
“Hello, dear. Have you been enjoying the sights?”
I looked up into his eyes and tried not to break down with relief. Jens had not moved in hours, and I feared the worst. “Can you help him? Is it too late?” My mouth could barely move, but I managed to get the words out without sounding like I’d had a stroke.
Uncle Rick took out a pouch from his robes and dipped two fingers inside. He produced a thick mulch-colored paste that he proceeded to rub on Jens’s gums and the inside of his mouth. “There we go. It works quite quickly,” he said, putting away his pouch and sitting next to me so he could keep an eye on Jens’s progress. He rifled through the red backpack, sighing with relief when whatever he was looking for was still there. “I see you made yourself a little friend.” Henry Mancini was sniffing Uncle Rick’s ebony hand and sneezing at the remnants of the green concoction.
“Henry Mancini. He’s been keeping Jens from freezing over.” I knew I should probably tell Uncle Rick that I needed some of the paste, but I wanted to make sure Jens had enough of it to cure him first. He’d been bitten so many more times than I had. “Are the others okay?”
Uncle Rick nodded. “Nik is busy telling any of my kind who will listen how he defended their borders once fighting off a menacing troll.”
“Making friends, as usual.”
“Indeed. We are a patient race, which is playing in his favor.” I could hear the smile in his voice, but my neck was too stiff to turn my head to look up at him. “Tor’s enjoying elfish libations, which are a bit stronger than your average drink. Foss and Britta are with Jamie, resting and preparing for the next task.”
“Jamie? I thought he was still at his dad’s palace. How’d you manage to get him out?”
“When I port myself, it leaves an imprint that those familiar with elfish ways can spot. I can take one person with me when I do it, if I’m strong enough. So I took Jamie with me, after he sent the message to Jens, fearing what his father might do to him.” He scratched a gray patch behind his ear. “Understand, it was not my intention to abduct a member of the Tonttu throne. Jamie wanted to come along. I can’t imagine Jens will be pleased, though.”
“Jens loves Jamie.”
“True, and part of that love is keeping Jamie safe. Jamie doesn’t have much experience with long journeys such as ours.”
“He’ll figure it out. I haven’t died yet.”
“A fact that will please many, I’m certain.” Uncle Rick’s focus shifted to Jens when he saw movement. “Jens? Can you hear me, son?”
“That’s some fast-acting stuff,” I commented, relieve
Uncle Rick nodded, testing the man’s limbs for signs of life. The red bumps were already going down.
“Is there any left?”
“He doesn’t need more than I gave him. Patience is the key ingredient now.”
Relief flooded through me, and I didn’t realize until then how scared I had been for the man in my arms. “C-could I have some?”
“I can teach you how to make it when we get to my house. I can teach you all sorts of herbal remedies. It would be my joy.” He looked at me in the darkness with a glimmer of paternal pride. My face was shrouded in black, since the light did not shine on my upper half anymore.
“That sounds nice. But can I have some of it right now? Is it real expensive? You don’t have to give it to me.” I’m not sure why I was in no rush to be certain of my survival. Perhaps teetering on the edge of death for hours had the same numbing effect that the spider larvae did. Deep down inside, I was ashamed that a small part of me welcomed the uneventful quietness of death.
Uncle Rick leaned closer, and then clicked his fingers in my face, summoning up a flame that danced on his fingertips so he could get a good look at me. I think I was immune to being surprised anymore. I mean, the man can teleport. Not much freaks you out after that. “Lucy!” he exclaimed, whipping out the burgundy pouch again. His fingers fumbled this time as he swiped the inside clean and jammed two digits in my mouth. His face was stern as he brushed my teeth and tongue with his fingers. “Why didn’t you say something? Foss told me only Jens was bit! Why, Lucy? Why?”
I had a feeling I was only a sentence or two away from a stern “young lady”, so I didn’t answer. Conversation was kind of impossible right now anyway. The pouch was turned inside out and shoved into my mouth. Uncle Rick held the back of my head as I sucked the last of the paste from the rough fabric. My tongue went fuzzy, and then started warming. As I swallowed, the heat spread through my body at warp speed, killing off the larvae and warming my frozen extremities.