Star trotted back on Silver, rapier extended. At least she tried to trot back. The war horse was prancing sideways like a crab and snorting like a bull. Note to self, thought Star. Don’t ever do that again. (Silver was an emotional horse. He got it from his mother.) All this activity made it impossible for Star to actually use her rapier, but she brandished it while Silver pranced and snorted. And snorted and pranced. And then pranced and snorted some more.
The blackberry bushes shook, but nothing emerged. Not a creature was stirring. Not even a mouse! (As the saying goes). Star noticed that James had forgotten to load the crossbow and wondered if she should make a small suggestion. Probably not, she thought. Whoever was hiding would hear it as well. Silver finally settled down enough so she could hop off and tie him to a bush. “Good boy,” she whispered into his ear and went to stand alongside James.
“Your crossbow’s not loaded,” she whispered.
“Oh, gosh,” he said, and looked incredibly young and a bit well…stupid…not like a dolt…but like one of those idiotic baby animals that were always wending their way into your heart. It’s official, thought Star. I’m falling in love.
James put his foot in the stirrup and straightened his legs to draw the bow. Star saw something she hadn’t noticed before. Eulalian bows were stamped with the mark of the Fighting Flounder. On the bottom of this crossbow was a Grinning Fox. Well that’s a clue, she thought.
“Last chance,” said James in a stern voice. “This crossbow is loaded.” The bushes trembled. James circled to the left. Star circled to the right.
“Don’t shoot,” said a frightened voice. “It’s only me.”
Star recognized the voice. “It’s Sir Roderick’s boy. From the Benbow Inn.”
“I’m running away,” said the little voice (which was quivering). “If you shoot me…it will ruin my dream…the dream of a lifetime…”
“Which is what?” asked James, lowering the bow.
“I want to ride in a balloon…” said Peanut (for it was he). His voice had stopped quivering and had taken on an elegiac tone (like Homer, but without the dactylic hexameters and in English).
“I saw a balloon once…it was while I was emptying the slops…when I looked up…there it was…floating high in the sky…so beautiful it looked…so free…it was a giant happy dog…and there were children in it…happy children…and I knew then and there…that a day would come…and I would ride in that balloon….high up in the sky…and fulfill my dream…the dream of a poor unfortunate child…to ride in a big dog balloon…with children…who will be my friends…”
Aw, thought Princess Star.
This kid is good! thought James, realizing it blew his baby animal act out of the water. “Okay, you can come out, Peanut,” he said. “We’ll find you a balloon.”
“They’re all in Delia,” whispered Star. “That’s hundreds of miles away.”
“Keep his dream alive,” James whispered back. “Maybe we can rent one.”
“I know the owner of that balloon,” whispered Star. What on earth was it doing way up here? And with children in it? Extraordinary!”
Peanut crawled out from the blackberries through a tunnel made by small animals. He climbed to his feet. The top of his head came just about to Star’s ribcage. “Are you hungry?” she asked.
“A little,” he said so Star pulled out the food bag. Peanut ate four hardboiled eggs, a hunk of cheddar bigger than his fist, and a hunk of bread bigger than his head, all washed down with goat’s milk followed by a gracious helping of dried pears.
“We’re heading over the Black Mountains,” said James. “I’m not sure it’s the proper place for a lad of your…age.” James didn’t say “size” because he was tactful. Peanut came up to about the middle of James’ thigh.
“I know a lot about the Black Mountains,” said Peanut.
“You do?” asked Star.
“I’ve heard many a traveler’s tale.”
“Did they go up the Black Steps?” asked James. (He’d been obsessing about them).
“Everyone says the steps are no good,” said Peanut. “They’re crumbled at the top. That’s why so many turn back. But about halfway up the Black Steps is a trail that leads to a cave.” (Being a dramatic waif, Peanut gave them each a dramatic stare.) “And that cave goes right through the Black Mountains!”
“A cave? Through the mountain?” said James (somewhat stupidly. Plus, he really didn’t believe him).
“The cave is part of an old mine,” said Peanut. “And I’m not that young. I’m fifteen. My growth was stunted because I ate too much mustard when I was a baby.”
“Do you think you could you find this cave?” asked James.
Who would feed mustard to a baby? thought Star.
“I think so,” said Peanut. “There’s an old twisted tree near the opening. It looks like a big spider.”
“Do you know where the trail begins?” asked Star.
“Halfway up the Black Steps,” said Peanut, “is a steel cable with seven iron rings. That’s where it starts.”
Odd, thought James. That’s pretty specific for a conversation overheard by a waif in an inn.
Star took in Peanut’s garb: his two wrinkled shirts (he used them for a pillow) worn over a dirty robe of jute; his feet wrapped in rags. She noticed how his fingertips were cracked and red (they made her think of the word “chilblains”) and said, “We’ve got to get you some decent clothes.”
“Amen to that,” seconded James. “Next town we come to.”
“There are no other towns,” said Peanut (whose real name was Percy). “Winchell Corner’s is the last town before the mountains.”
Star dug through her pack and pulled out a white linen shirt (with fine embroidery); fur leggings (she’d been saving them for snow); a pair of warm socks, a hooded sweater-pullover thing (not strictly speaking a “man’s” sweater but it was warm) and a pair of dry shoes (not entirely suitable for walking long distances, but certainly better than rags).
“Here!” she said to Peanut. “Put these on.”
The look of astonishment and delight on Peanut’s face was just like Breeney’s when he caught the fish. Peanut scrambled back into his blackberry cave and emerged a few minutes later looking like a young prince (except with a wild mane of red hair and a dirty face). We’ll get you washed at the next stream, thought Star. “Peanut,” she said. “You’re actually quite a handsome young man.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Peanut. “When I saw how Sir Roddy was afraid of yer’, I knew you’d be the one to save me.”
“Would you like to ride on the back of Silver?”
“Oh, yes!” said Peanut. “He’s a wonderful horse. I remember him from the inn. His name was Rabelais then.”
“You know this horse?” asked Star.
“Yes, a strange foreign person was riding him. He was dressed up like a clown. Him and Sir Roddy used to stay up nights talking.”
“Hmmm,” said Star. “Interesting.”
“Hmmm,” said James. “Very interesting.” His amulet buzzed. The usual voice sounded in his mind. “Tonight go back and search the Benbow Inn,” it said.
“Right!” said James.
“Right what?” asked Star.
For a brief second, James looked like he’d been caught with his hand in the fish bowl. “Right, um…let’s get going!” he said with a big smile to Peanut (who really did look great in Star’s fine clothes) and a bigger smile to William of Ossetsia whom (he was realizing) was as generous as he was handsome.
And away they went.
(to be continued…)