Chapter 3: The Secret Cave
I ventured back to my room and packed my leather bag with everything I could think of that I might need. On the way back to the library I stopped in the kitchen. It was midmorning and the cooks were taking their break in the smoking room. I went to the large pantry and hoarded all the dried meats and fruits my bag would hold.
When I returned to the library, Grayson was back in his office, mending an especially large book. I peeked in, knowing I couldn’t avoid him on my way back to my chair. He turned away from his work and looked at me.
“Off on a journey, are we?” he asked seeing the bag over my shoulder.
“Just some snacks and books for an afternoon of reading and strolling around town.”
“Ahhh. Sounds wonderful. I only wish I could join you. The mending of this book is past due and Silas is scheduled to take it to Ainsworth tonight. I’m afraid I’ll be slumped over my desk for some time yet.” He turned back to his work and shifted in his chair, his big stomach rubbing against the desk. I was relieved-what if he’d wanted to come with me?
“Happy reading to you,” he said, and then I walked away toward the back of the library.
When I arrived back at the chair it was just as I’d left it-back in place, with the secret door shut tight behind it. Yipes was nowhere to be seen, and I began to think again that I’d imagined everything.
I pulled the letter for my father out of my bag and set it on the chair. Then I heard the quiet knocking once more.
Knock, knock, knock
This time I knew it was Yipes, waiting for me on the ladder in the tunnel. I went about the grueling business of pulling the chair out again, and there he was dangling from the ladder, hiding in case Grayson came to find me. Yipes moved down on the ladder, and I stepped inside, the cool earthen air refreshing on my skin. I took one last look into the library and shut the secret door behind me.
It was darker than I remembered it, the light from the lantern only a faint glow against the smothering blackness all around us. I felt like a tiny firefly, caught all alone in the depths of the night.
“We need to be very quiet,” whispered Yipes. “No telling if one of the guards is doing rounds within the tunnels.”
I nodded in agreement and we descended to the dirt floor in silence. Yipes led the way as we walked along the tunnel, the light dangling in his tiny hand, shadows thrown along the walls. We walked for some time, twisting and turning into places I’d never been before. As we came upon a sharp turn to the right, Yipes stopped, turned back, and crouched down. Then he blew out the light, and we sat motionless against the tunnel wall.
“What is it?” I whispered. I couldn’t see Yipes in the dark, and he made no reply. He only touched my shoulder, moved his hand along my face, and put his fingers over my mouth. A moment later I saw a light dancing on the wall, coming from a distance and moving toward us.
My instincts told me to run back before the guard discovered us, but Yipes held me down by my shoulder, as if to tell me we should stay perfectly still. The light came closer, until it was almost on top of us, and I heard the footsteps approaching.
I was fighting the urge to get up and escape as Yipes continued to hold me there, breathless, against the wall. Just about the time I expected to see the guard come around the corner, the light from his lamp began to diminish, and his footsteps became harder to hear, until finally it was all darkness again and quiet again.
“Where did he go?” I whispered.
“Another runnel shoots off to the right, just around the corner. I’ve been watching the guards as they make their way through the tunnels, and they always turn there, then double back and come this way. We’ve got only a moment to get across before he returns.”
We stood in the dark and felt along the wall. I followed Yipes as we turned the corner and made out way past the opening where light was moving down the tunnel the guard had entered. Near blind, I stumbled over a rock on the ground, letting out a small gasp as Yipes steadied me and pulled me along more quickly.
“Who’s there?’ yelled the guard, footsteps sounding towards us.
Yipes hurried me along the floor in the darkness, then turned to the left.
“Show yourself!” the guard commanded. But then he went past the direction we turned, continuing on in the wrong direction. With the careful silence of cats, Yipes and I moved far enough in our own direction that I began to feel that we’d lost the guard in the maze of tunnels.
“That was close,” Yipes said, after a time. “But we’re almost there now. Just hold my hand- I know the way in the dark.
A few twists and turns later, Yipes stopped and let go of my hand. I couldn’t tell where he was, and then a shaft of light appeared near the floor. Yipes had removed the boards from the wall, and with the light from the opening, I found I could see the dimly lit space around me. We had entered a room, surrounded by wood planks on the walls. It looked as though it might was one been a sleeping quarters for the escaped convicts who’d hidden in the tunnels before the walls came down.
“In you go then,” said Yipes. “It’s a tight fit, but it’s not far to the surface.”
Once again, Yipes was pushing me forward. Sometimes it seemed that forward was the only direction he knew. He’d already pushed my through tunnels and forests. Now he was clearly determined to lead me forward beyond those earlier adventures. He was my friend, and I trusted him, so I followed. I moved in front of Yipes and looked into the hole, then I put my arms out in front of me as if I were about to dive into a pool of water. It was truly a challenge to move once I was inside, but I managed to slowly inch my way along until my head popped out aboveground in the bright, hot sunlight.
Yipes followed and we found ourselves out in the Dark Hills, the walls of Bridwell standing closer than I’d hope in the distance. But we were hidden by the thick underbrush, which formed something like a tunnel above ground, leading away from Bridwell, deeper into the wild.
“That guard might have gone back to bring help,” Yipes warned. “They’ll be looking for trouble, so we’d best move quickly.
We turned and walked as fast as we could down the hidden pathway. It was hot and cramped as we went, winding out way farther and farther into territory I’d never dreamed I’d be brave enough to venture into. After a long while, Yipes stopped where the pathway split in three directions.
“This is it. This is where the map begins,” he said.
I took the map from my bag and laid it flat on the ground. There was indeed a fork on the map with three pathways leading in different directions. The map indicated that we should take the middle fork and follow it until we meet a giant stone somewhere down the way. It was there that we would find an open space and the entrance to the secret cave.
“We’re not too far off, maybe a mile,” said Yipes. “Let’s get on with it. No telling what we’ll find when we get there.”
About half an hour later we emerged from the confines of the brush, into lands that were more rocky and desolate. We were in a long, skinny ravine, the ground gnarled with deep green brush and sharp, dead trees. It was dim and gloomy atmosphere. Everything was brittle and hard underfoot. Large, colorless boulders spotted the landscape in every direction.
I sat on the warm ground and spread the map out before me.
“There are rocks all around this place,” I said. “But that one is definitely the biggest.”
I pointed to a large stone mass protruding from the ground in front of us. It was red and brown and shaped like an enormous nose poking out of the earth.
I wiped my forehead, dripping with sweat, and drank a bit of water from my wineskin. We walked around the rock and the thick brush, looking for an entrance to the cave or a sigh that one existed. White cotton clouds crept over the sun, and shadows filled the ravine.
Yipes scampered up the rock and stood at the very tip of the nose. He seemed to be thinking about the way things looked around him, measuring the dead trees and the brush to see if they were where they ought to be. A moment later he bounded across the rock and jumped down to the ground a few feet across from me.
When he landed it didn’t sound like I’d expected it to. I anticipated a hard, solid thud, but instead I heard a hollow emptiness beneath the dirt, as if very little was holding Yipes up. He jumped up and landed on the dirt again, and I had the uneasy feeling that all was not right with this patch of earth. Yipes jumped again and again as he moved away from the rock, and eventually he landed on ground that sounded more like it ought to.
He turned around and faced the rock, couching down on his knees. At the same time, we both saw with some surprise of crudely twisted rope, half buried in the dirt. Yipes picked it up and looked at it, then turned and faced me, holding the rope out in his hand.
“You do the honors,” he said.
I grabbed the rope and pulled, throwing a dirt-covered wooden door up into the air, bugs and spiders scurrying around its underbelly. A gust of cool, dank air rose from the black hole beneath.