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"The Jabberwocky isn't what you think. He's not what anyone thinks. Where do I start? First of all, he can talk."
"You mean like a human?"
"Yeah. He struggles, but he can do it."
"What did he say to you?"
"He just can't stand to be alone. He used to have a companion, a mate. Before she was killed the two of them lived here alone. They never left except to hunt. Animals, not people. When he lost her his entire life changed. He changed. Became the monster everyone fears."
"Darieus told me about her; he's the one who killed her. He gave me a flask of her musk. That was going to be the secret behind my vorpal blade but it looks like I won't need it now."
Elora was shocked. "Captain Darieus killed her? The Jabberwocky told me about a man he hates, a man he will kill before he ever rests. It has to be Captain Darieus." She felt sick to her stomach.
"King Darieus, now. Or King Regent, anyway. The Jabberwocky killed King Barash on the Jubilation day a week ago. Right in front of everyone in the middle of the day."
"But he's never attacked the capital before, why would he suddenly discover the capital the one time the king was vulnerable all day?" she asked.
"I don't know, but it's worked out perfectly for Darieus. He swears he'll relinquish the throne once Prince Antion is old enough, but he's not the kind of man who gives up power."
They reached the ladder and quickly ascended.
"Elora, this could be a hasty and dangerous escape. Are you healthy enough? He didn't hurt you, did he?
"On the contrary, the Jabberwocky provided for me. I had as much meat as I could eat every day. He isn't cruel by nature, but once he spends too much time alone he literally goes mad. Having someone here with him keeps him sane; he sees his mate in the young women he kidnaps. I don't think the mercury in the water helps his sanity either. That has to be why his captives never survive."
"One of them is going to survive." He pulled her toward him and she savored the feeling of safety. "I've had enough of planning and plotting," he said. "Action, finally." After kissing her again he ducked out onto the branch.
Tjaden led out of the tree's interior and onto the branch. Having Elora near him again renewed his determination. There was no way they could fail. With the Jabberwocky out of the way it should be a relatively easy escape. When killing the monster had been his task he accepted it because there didn't seem to be any other option. Now that escape was possible without fighting the manxome beast, he was more optimistic than ever.
They climbed down the rough exterior of the Tumtum tree much more wary of the huge, carnivorous beast in disguise than the first time he descended. Safely on the ground, he untied the gla.s.s container and handed it to Elora so he could be unenc.u.mbered for whatever lay ahead. After a deep breath and a look into Elora's smiling eyes, he started toward the path.
"Wait," Elora said. "Did you see this? I couldn't figure it out when he first brought me here." She led him to the wagon wheel diagram.
"It's faded," Elora explained. "When I woke up here it was more p.r.o.nounced. The cloth was on the stake and it was in the ground right here," she pointed at the center of the wheel, "and the branch was over here."
With the markers in place Tjaden recognized it instantly. "It's a map. It's an exact copy of the one Darieus showed me when he told me how to find this place, but instead of a stake and branch there were markers for Pala.s.siren and the Tumtum tree. But whya"
The branch was obviously from the Tumtum tree, but what about the strip of cloth? It was the deep blue color of an Elite uniform and smelled strongly of sweat. The scene of mayhem and dead soldiers in the plaza came to mind.
Exactly like the king's torn cloak, he thought. No, exactly like Darieus' cloak that he gave to the king.
And Tjaden understood.
The Jabberwocky didn't bring Elora here. Darieus' soldiers did. They left her and this shred of Darieus' cloak with his scent to lure the Jabberwocky to the capital where the king would be conveniently waiting. The branch was placed exactly where the Tumtum tree appeared on a map, and the cloth was staked in the centera"Pala.s.siren. Darieus wanted the Jabberwocky to get his bearings.
He planned for the Jabberwocky to arrive on that very day. That's why he wasted days practicing with machines and why he dressed me in dark blue. So he could present his champion to the people.
Tjaden turned to Elora. His voice was gruff, though he wasn't angry with her. "Did the Jabberwocky bring you here?"
"Yes," she answered. "Well, I was so heavy-eyed in camp. I fell asleep and woke up right here. I don't know why he didn't just take me all the way to the spring where he lives."
Because it wasn't the Jabberwocky.
"Did they give you anything unusual to eat in camp?" he asked.
"No, just the stew and some berries and cream. WaitaI was the only one who got the berries."
They drugged her. And they dumped her here for the Jabberwocky to find. There never was an attack on the camp.
He knew his sword would never get them past the Tumtum's vines which blocked the path. Darieus never expected me to make it back, or he would've warned me about the tree and told me how to get past it.
Tjaden felt more than betrayed; he felt personally attacked. Darieus had risked Elora's life to manipulate Tjaden into accepting the quest to kill the Jabberwocky. Less important to Tjaden, but much graver, he had set the king up to be murdered in a violent manner, one that would unite the people behind a new, strong military leader. Darieus is a traitor.
It was hard to believe, but Tjaden had no doubt based on what he had recently learned. Anger held him rooted to the ground next to the Tumtum tree. The entire kingdom is nothing but a p.a.w.n for him to get what he wants.
Elora moved to stand next to him, reminding him he was not alone. Unable to control his temper he struck the tree with his fist.
"Why so uffish, Tjaden?" Elora asked, placing her hand on his shoulder. "What is it?"
He opened his mouth to explain but was interrupted by a distant flapping of graceless wings. The Jabberwocky sped over them, dipping and bobbing through the air. He struggled to stay in flight, but crashed into the woods, fifty paces past the clearing.
"Quick, climb into the tree," Tjaden told her.
"No, I'm staying here to help you."
"There's nothing you can do, this is my task. Now go! It's clattering through the trees."
"Tjaden, you don't have to do everything yourself. Let the people who love you lend a hand once in a while."
There was no argument for that. It had been proven again and again. "I don't know what you can do, but stay clear of the beast, and watch out for my sword."
Tjaden stepped away from the tree, drawing his weapon. His entire world consisted of protecting Elora. There was no anger, no fear, no revenge. Just one girl he cared about more than anything in the world. If he failed this time, she would die here.
There was no way he would let that happen. Loosening his arms with wide, criss-crossing swings, he waited for the burbling beast.
He flew in desperation. I won't be alone again. Not again. Someone had taken her while he was hunting; the scent of a man polluted his home.
The Jabberwocky pa.s.sed the Tumtum tree and saw them standing in the clearing. He tried to circle around, but his torn wing gave out and he crashed thunderously into the thick forest. Anger brimmed over and his eyes burned with rage as he pushed through the tulgey woods. The dense trees made it difficult even for him. He ambled forward slowly, whiffling rather than barreling through the trees as he wanted to.
The exertion mixed with frustration caused him to burble throatily. He gasped again and again in a mixture of a bleat, a warble, and a murmur as he whiffled through the close-knit trees.
Burble, lunge. Burble, lunge. The clearing was just ahead.
He burst through the final rows of trees and stormed into the clearing. Blood from his recent kill formed a froth in the corners of his mouth. The man was standing in front of her. In front of his beloved.
They will not take her away from me again.
He felt his eyes afire, heat boring wherever he gazed. Bellowing, he stepped forward, and drew back his head to crush the insolent man.
I won't let them hurt you. Not again.
For the slightest moment he gazed at the insignificant human who stared back without a hint of fear. Even the man's smell did not betray the horror or panic common to all humans. The puny man rushed at him with a paltry weapon. Slightly surprised, the Jabberwocky opened his jaws and lashed his head forward. But before he collided with the man, his beloved screamed, causing them both to pull up short.
She shouted, "Tjaden. Catch!" Something brown and murky came toward him and the man. The Jabberwocky waited, curious to see what she had thrown. Instead of catching it, the man struck with his sword. The object shattered, sending gla.s.s flying through the air along witha Her.
The Jabberwocky froze where he stood.
Not a subst.i.tute, or an imitation.
The unity, joy, and clarity of his former life returned like a bolt of lightning.
The magnificent aroma washed over him, cleansing his anger and hate. He saw his beloved lying in the glade, brilliant green skin outshining the thick gra.s.s. She was smiling and laughing at some awkward step he'd taken. It was the most beautiful sight ever, and it instantly turned his hate to wonder. Despair became hope.
Tears of joy brimmed in his eyes, and for the first time in decades, the Jabberwocky smiled.
One, two! One, two! and through and through.
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head.
He went galumphing back.
Tjaden didn't hesitate. The beast stood motionless in front of him, and he charged. The floodgates were open and his anger at Darieus was vented on the Jabberwocky. In his aggressive style, each blow became a combination. One, two! One, two! His vorpal blade sliced the Jabberwocky's underbelly.
One, two! One, two!
Tjaden was an unstoppable waterfall. Even the mighty Jabberwock was powerless to stand against him. Like a relentless river he maintained the offensive, sweeping the ma.s.sive beast away with his force. He had to protect Elora, take her back to Shey's Orchard alive and whole.
The Jabberwocky's tough skin was difficult to pierce, though every blow was delivered with as much strength as Tjaden could muster.
His arching swings weren't sinking deep enough so Tjaden switched to penetrating strikes. In and out, through and through. He felt no pity and no hesitation. His obstaclea"his foea"stood before him. As long as Tjaden breathed he would take the battle to his enemy.
Through and through the tough skin went his vorpal blade. The Jabberwocky began to sway, and Tjaden continued to pierce the beast as it fell thunderously to its side.
Snicker-snack. Snicker-snack. His flame-bladed sword flayed the creature open.
Not pausing to catch his breath, Tjaden advanced toward the creature's exposed neck. He raised his sword, prepared to sever the prostrate head and heard a thunderous "WAIT!"
Stunned, Tjaden took a step back. Had he heard the voice, or felt it? His sword was still at the ready. Too many of Ollie's feints over the years had tricked him, and he teetered undecided.
"Wait," the Jabberwocky breathed with less force. The voice was deep and potent. Penetrating much more than ears, it was old, but without a hint of frailty. "I remember her. Clear I see now."
Tjaden and Elora both stood listening to the creature. Despite its ma.s.sive wounds, the Jabberwocky somehow seemed happy. Relieved. The acrid scent hanging thick in the air revolted Tjaden, but the Jabberwocky breathed deeply through wide, flaring nostrils.
"I regret I kidnapped beloveds. Now I'm never to get revenge for him who killed my beloved."
"You mean revenge on the soldier who killed her?" Tjaden asked.
The Jabberwocky's eyes flared briefly with anger, then it breathed in the sour aroma and smiled peaceably again. "Yes, revenge on him."
Labored breathinga"coming deep and resonant from the Jabberwocky, but rapid from Tjadena"filled the clearing.
Tjaden spoke, "Iaowe him revenge also. I will do everything I can to cause his downfall. He has betrayed me, and attempted to kill the one I love as he did to the one you loved."
"My head," said the Jabberwocky. "Gift it to him and mine revenge will be mine."
"I don't understand," Tjaden said, still on guard for an attack.
"Take my head," the peaceful monster replied. "Set it front of him. Our revenge it will be."
From where she watched, Elora asked, "Do you have to kill him, Jay?"
Before he could answer, the Jabberwocky spoke. "To live I do not want. Killing. s.n.a.t.c.hing. These are not like my life. My life," he closed his eyes and inhaled so deeply Tjaden had to brace himself to avoid being pulled closer. "My life is this." With eyes closed in bliss he savored two more full breaths.
"I will take your head and place it in front of Darieus. We will both be avenged," Tjaden promised as he warily approached the Jabberwocky's neck.
After relishing one more breath, the Jabberwocky's smile turned into a threatening grimace as he opened his mouth wide like a serpent preparing to strike.
Tjaden's sword flashed into the air and fell without hesitation.