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It had rained steadily for the rest of the week, and when it was done the stream below the castle was high and the land was terribly muddy, so it had not seemed the wisest time to travel; and it was some weeks after that Josie finally made up her mind that she had to see the dog Blackbriar safely to the other side of the great river.

Then Josie had to figure out what to take on the journey, which is the sort of business that can be done in great hurry if necessary, but can expand to take up a great deal of time otherwise, especially if the journey is one that does not have a date set for departure, and is one that one is nervous about going on at all. The part of this figuring out that took the greatest amount of time was something that Josie did not speak with Tash about at all: deciding whether or not to take one of the magic apples. She did not want them in case they suddenly decided on the journey to seek to become immortal, but in case of some grievous accident. She knew from what Yustus had said that the apples could heal any hurt or sickness short of death, and there were any number of horrible things that could possibly happen to them on a journey through the unknown wilds. She thought of at least a dozen of them, imagining them all too clearly. At the end Josie decided that she would bring one of the apples, and fetched it up from the secret chamber while Tash was out hunting. She wrapped it up very carefully in a bit of silk and put it in the bag with her clothes.

So one day when spring was well advanced Josie, Tash, and Blackbriar left the castle of Telmar, leaving the parts of it they lived in shut up against the weather as well as they could. Josie had ended up bringing rather a lot of things for the journey, but Tash could easily carry enough for half a dozen travellers.

‘We don’t really now how long we will be,’ said Josie, picking up the bag with the apples. She gave Tash’s legs a hug. ‘It will be alright,’ she said – to Tash, or to herself, she was not sure. Then she patted Blackbriar’s head, as if she were an ordinary dog, and took Tash’s hand for the walk down the hidden path to the stream.

The three travellers followed the stream out of the valley as best they could, skirting the edge of the gorge and picking their way downhill through the rumpled country to the south where Josie and Tash had not been before. Below the gorge Josie realised how grim and dreary the vale of Telmar had been, and how much she had gotten used to living there since the Ifrits had brought her there. It was immediately a more fragrant sort of country beyond the valley, more alive with birds and beasts, and had a less closed-in feel. Besides the cypresses there were other sorts of trees – a good many willows along the streambanks, for example, and poplars in the hollows – and instead of an endless roof of forest and an endless floor of dry needles underfoot there were a good many meadows, where sweet-smelling flowers were growing thickly. There were bulbous things that Josie thought to be a sort of crocus, and drooping bell-shaped flowers that smelled a very little like strawberries, and wild roses whose few flowers had a desperate and intoxicating perfume.

It was difficult at first, but day by day Josie grew stronger. Tash still carried her a good deal of the time, though she walked beside him on the flatter ground, hand in hand. Blackbriar mostly ran off ahead to scout the way, running back to rejoin them every five or ten minutes.

‘I do wish you had stayed a woman a while longer,’ Josie said to Blackbriar as they walked along, in one of the moments while the two of them were walking alongside. ‘It would be so much easier to talk. But I suppose it must have been very horrid for you.’

Blackbriar agreed with a lick: that it would have been easier, or that it had been very horrid, Josie was not sure, and she scampered away again into the undergrowth before Josie could ask.

In the damp spring weather Josie found it a good deal more unpleasant sleeping out of doors than it had been in the desert with the gazelles; at least, she would have found it more unpleasant if it had not been for Tash. He was large enough and feathery enough to fold himself around her in a way that kept her comfortable enough in all but the nastiest weather. It is fair to say that all through this journey Tash and Josie thought mostly about each other. They were travelling through a pleasant country, filled with the sounds and smells of life, and each day brought something new, and their future was an uncertain and frightening thing; but they had both already been through so many uncertain and frightening things, and come through to find each other – so they clung to one another, and did not want to stop touching one another, and drank in the presence of the other like a thirsty man drinks water. If I were to write down what they said to each other it would be very dull. They were in love, and so they were impatient of everything else, and selfish in the selfless way of people in love, and they would have been very irritating to travel with. Perhaps Blackbriar was irritated, but if she was, she never showed it. Dogs are very forgiving.

Each day the travellers heard many dumb beasts, and every morning they woke to a cacophony of birdsong, but they did not meet any men or talking beasts in five days of travelling. They could rarely go in a straight line, for although there were no terribly steep mountains or gorges in the country below the Vale of Telmar the whole of it was rumpled like a blanket, with thick woods on the high parts and streams with boggy edges on the low parts. The river that had stopped Blackbriar on her last journey was still swollen, and the broken boles of trees cast up on its banks showed where it had been higher still, but Tash was large enough and strong enough that they crossed it without difficulty.

Tash and Josie did not discuss what they would do when they were camped on the other side, although this was far as they had agreed to go before they left Telmar. Instead they sat around the fire – they had stopped early and gathered deadwood along the banks – and talked about trivial things while they ate fish that Tash had caught in the river, and did their best to be as cheerful as possible as if their life together would never end.

‘We’ve been very lucky so far,’ said Josie, tempting fate, as she threw the last bony bit of her fish into the bushes. ‘It hasn’t rained, and we haven’t seen any sign of fierce beasts. And certainly not giants,’ These were creatures that Yustus had described to her with great relish, in telling her what might happen to her if she ran away, and Zardeenah had confirmed most of the evil magician’s stories. ‘They are probably only a long way away from here.’

‘I will keep you safe,’ said Tash. They reached out to take each other’s hands.

‘I wish Blackbriar could talk,’ said Josie. ‘I am sure she could tell us all sorts of stories.’

Tash curled up around Josie to keep her warm, and Blackbriar slept at their feet, and the cheerful little fire they had made slowly burned down until it was a tiny ruby of light in the middle of the forest.

The next morning they kept on southward, leaving their camp behind before the sun had cleared the horizon. Beyond the big river was flatter country, and a more open woodland, with a great many deer who took off at their approach. They made good progress through this country for a morning and an afternoon, and were about to make camp in a meadow that smelled of rosemary when Blackbriar became very excited and led them off to a low hill nearby.

‘There is a hole in it, and a little field of torn earth,’ said Tash.

‘Someone’s garden,’ said Josie. She knelt down and crumbled a bit of soil between her fingers, feeling very nervous. Could they have already come to a land of men? She had not thought they could be so close.

‘There’s a bit of curtain hanging down inside the hole. It is too small for me to get through, though you probably could, Josie. Someone is coming out.’

‘Someone certainly is coming out,’ said a surly, prickly kind of voice, and Josie could tell at once that it was the voice of some kind of talking animal. ‘Who are you, and what do you want?’ the newcomer asked suspiciously.

‘I am Tash,’ said Tash, stepping back a few steps as the stranger emerged from his home.

‘I am Josie,’ said Josie. ‘And this is Blackbriar. We were just travelling through, and we thought we would stop and ask if you had any news.’

‘Well, I’ll be,’ said the hedgehog – for that is what he was, a talking hedgehog who stood a bit higher than Josie’s waist walking on his hind legs – ‘Twenty years, whelp and boar, I’ve lived in this place, and you’re the first folk I’ve ever met who said they were ‘just travelling through’.’ After a rather long pause, as of someone who was not at all used to making introductions, he told them who he was. ‘My name is Shoab, son of Amidanab.’

Josie thought the hedgehog smelled rather like pipe tobacco. ‘Pleased to meet you,’ she said.

‘I also am pleased to meet you,’ said Tash.

‘Likewise,’ said Shoab shortly. He sniffed the air dubiously. ‘I know a dog when I see one, and a Daughter of Helen, but what sort of creature are you?’ he asked Tash.

‘I am a thalarka,’ said Tash. This answer seemed to satisfy the hedgehog hermit, for he just said ‘hrm,’ and made no further comment.

‘Has anyone at all been through here?’ asked Josie. ‘A month or so ago?’

‘Funny you should ask that,’ said Shoab, in a slow suspicious kind of voice. ‘Or maybe not so funny. That’s the news you’re asking after, I suppose. Yes, a month or so ago there were some peculiar travellers through here. I was out digging of an evening, and I heard a crashing and a running through the country, of a big creature, no two, no three big creatures who were heedless of who might hear them. I kept quiet and I kept downwind until they were long gone, but when I looked in the morning there were footprints near the water hole where I planted the apricot tree: big pawprints of great cats, and big hoofprints of a deer a good deal larger than the ones who live around here. I’ve never seen cats like those in these parts – at least not for years, since that pair of leopards came up this way during the drought. And travelling together with a deer like that, stands to reason they would be talking animals, and not dumb ones. Would you be on the trail of them?’

‘After a fashion,’ said Josie. ‘I mean, yes.’

‘Then you are on the right path,’ said Shoab son of Amidanab. He stood there regarding them, chewing something that had been packed in his cheek before. ‘Three strange travellers then, and then three more this morning,’ he said, talking more to himself than to them, and then belatedly remembering his manners. ‘You look to have enough common sense that you won’t complain at me calling you strange, Miss. We don’t get many – any – of your kind in these parts.’

‘I don’t mind,’ said Josie. ‘Why do you live out here all alone? Isn’t it dangerous?’

‘Not so dangerous if you keep quiet and keep downwind and don’t meddle in other folk’s business,’ said the hedgehog, answering the first question. ‘They’re simple rules, but a lot of folk can’t seem to get the hang of them.’

‘I’ll try to remember them,’ said Josie. ‘Is it far to the lands where men live?’

‘I don’t rightly know,’ said Shoab son of Amidanab. ‘It’s like I said already. I’ve heard the rumour of Sons of Frank around here a few times, but you’re the first Daughter of Helen I’ve seen or heard of in these parts. So if you’ve come far from where you live, you’re probably a long way from any of those lands.’

‘Thank you,’ said Josie. ‘I guess there is still a long way to go.’ She gave Blackbriar a pat. ‘Can you tell us how to get to this water hole?’

The hedgehog nodded. ‘That I can, Miss. Just over that rise there, and then over the next one, and you’ll find the water hole where I planted the apricot tree. You can stay there, if you like.’ He chewed whatever he was keeping in his mouth thoughtfully. Strangest thing is, I thought that apricot tree had upped and died on me over the winter; but that morning when I went down and saw the footprints, there were new buds on it.’

‘Thank you very much,’ said Josie. ‘You’ve been a lot of help.’

‘Good day,’ said Shoab son of Amidanab, with an air of finality.

***

The hedgehog hermit had given them a last suspicious look and vanished back behind his front door curtain. When they had gone a little distance Tash looked back, and saw him peering after them from around the edge of the curtain. It was like how he probably would have looked, thought Tash, at some strange procession passing through his village, when he was a child on Ua.

‘I expect he has quite an interesting story, to have come out here all by himself and lived alone for so long,’ Josie said, when they were well underway again.

‘He did not seem like he would tell it,’ said Tash.

‘That’s true,’ said Josie. She shook her head. ‘Imagine living all alone like that for twenty years.’

‘I would not like it,’ said Tash.

This was true; but Tash had also been favourably impressed by Shoab son of Amidanab the hedgehog. He could not have said exactly what it was, but there was something in the hedgehog’s manner, in his audacity in living all alone, that appealed to Tash. He would hate to be without Josie, of course – it was only when he was with her that he could forget what he was, and the fate that had been foretold for him – but the thought of not being told what to do by anyone, of being able to stop and look at whatever he liked for as long as he liked, to never be sent off by people stronger than him to pick grith in the fields, or be sacrificed to the Overlord, or to do some quest no one would ever thank him for, was an awfully appealing one. To be unimportant and unnoticed and able to do what he liked: that would be splendid. To do it with Josie there as well, that would be the greatest joy he could imagine.

***

They found the waterhole that the hedgehog had spoken of, and touched for themselves the flowers on the little apricot tree. It was probably a coincidence how it had sprung back into life, Josie told herself, just as Aslan had gone by. But she did not believe herself. The waterhole was only a muddy little pool, but it had an air of peace and goodness about it. Probably, the way this world worked, the apricot tree really was a miracle, and Josie could not but help thinking of Bible stories, of Aaron’s staff sprouting almond flowers and Jesus cursing the fig tree.

Blackbriar hung well back at first, as if nervous of this place where Aslan had been, but after a little while she came up to wander around Josie like a tame dog.

Tash waded out into the pool and splashed water over his head, churning up the bottom.

‘We should get some water, first,’ chided Josie. ‘You will make it all muddy.’

‘I am sorry,’ said Tash, and stopped his splashing. ‘It is good here. It is warmer than the river was. You should come in.’

‘I don’t think so,’ said Josie, and busied herself pulling out the bedclothes and setting them up next to the apricot tree, where the smell of the flowers was strongest. They smelled sweeter than almost any flowers Josie had smelled before, and had a faint feeling of the same frightening good magic that she always felt in the hidden room of the castle. Or maybe that was her imagination. It was strange to think of the statues that had stood for so long in the hidden garden, like Tash, coming to life and running to this very pool. She wondered what would have happened if she had tried to bring them to life herself, as Tash had once suggested. Maybe she would have been swept out on this journey long ago.

Blackbriar nosed down to the pool’s edge, and Josie heard quieter splashing than Tash had made.

‘It is very nice, Josie,’ said Tash, a little plaintively.

‘All right,’ said Josie at last. She did feel dreadfully sticky with dried sweat after the day’s walking. ‘I guess there is no hope for it not being muddy now.’ She stripped off her clothes and joined her husband and the dog in the pool. Her feet squelched deeply into the mud

‘It is warmer than the river,’ admitted Josie. ‘I don’t think I am likely to be any cleaner when I come out than before I went in, though.’ She washed the sweat from her face, and did her best to do something with her hair, which had grown very disorderly on the journey.

‘I wonder about the leopard and the deer,’ said Josie. ‘What they are like. What their story was. They must have been more or less nice, or the lion wouldn’t have bothered to turn them back from stone. I wonder how they came to Telmar, and what they did to get turned to stone, and what they are doing going off with the lion – Aslan – now.’

‘That is a lot of wondering,’ said Tash. ‘I know what it is like. There are so many things to wonder about.’

‘I guess there are things we just have to accept we will never know,’ said Josie. ‘God knows there seem to have been a tremendous number of them since I came here.’ She sighed, and ducked her head under the water again.

Josie’s thoughts shied away from the quest that had been described to her. The quest still hung in midair, neither abandoned nor accepted. They had travelled further than they had meant to travel with Blackbriar; maybe they would just keep travelling, without ever making a decision, and would end up doing what the Lion wanted, travelling with Blackbriar all the way to the lands of men. Or maybe they would decide to turn back: now, or tomorrow, or the day after, or at the border of the land of men, however many weeks from now that might be. Josie really did not know what she would do. She thought of the apricot tree, and she thought of the fig tree that had been cursed in her own world, and she thought about what might happen to Tash in the lands of men – the men whose ways were not so unlike those of the gazelles, the men who bought ifrit girls as wives.

Josie felt one of Tash’s hands on her leg, underneath the water, and a current of exaltation that was by now familiar ran through her body.

‘Blackbriar, why don’t you scout about?’ she said. ‘There may be interesting things around here.’

Obediently, Blackbriar paddled out of the pool and shook herself dry, then darted away into the undergrowth.

 

A morning’s walk beyond the pool brought the three travellers by way of a long gentle slope to the top of a hill where Tash set Josie down. The wind blew strong in their faces as they stood side by side, bringing the scent of distant places, fine dust and leaves that reminded Josie of the gum trees of home.

‘It is all empty and blue beyond,’ said Tash.

‘Empty and blue?’ asked Josie. She could not smell anything like the sea, and the air was dry.

‘There are no more trees, and it is very flat, and goes on and on until it is all blurry and fades into the clouds. There are beasts moving out there, very small and far away.’ Tash sounded impressed.

Josie thought of Moses looking out from Mount Nebo at the Promised Land. This was different, though; this was not the place they had longed to go all their lives and were now forbidden to enter, but somewhere quite different.

‘It sounds like it will be an easy enough country to travel on in,’ said Josie.

The dog was already eagerly pressing to move on, running forward and then back to make hopeful sounds back at Josie.

‘There is something that could be a tower, a long way off in the direction the sun rises,’ said Tash.

‘This is as far as we go,’ said Josie, not knowing until she had said the words that she would say them.

‘I’m not sure,’ admitted Tash. ‘It might not be a tower.’

‘Dear Blackbriar,’ Josie called to the dog, who came up and nuzzled at her ankles. ‘We will leave you to seek Aslan from here. It looks like a nice flat country to travel in, without any rivers.’

Blackbriar wagged her tail as if she were a tame dog, but only for a moment, and then stood there panting uncertainly at Josie.

‘We must part here,’ said Josie sadly. ‘I am not ready to go to the lands of men.’

Blackbriar bowed her head, and but did not leave. She nosed about Josie’s legs hopefully.

‘No, this is far enough,’ said Josie, squatting down to pet the dog. ‘Good luck on your journey, dear Blackbriar. I hope you will find what you seek, and restore your people. I hope we will meet again. I expect everything will work out, and we will meet again as well.’

Blackbriar licked Josie’s hand, then padded over to Tash with a pretended carelessness. He put down a hand, and she licked it as well.

‘I hope everything will be good,’ said Tash awkwardly. ‘Goodbye.’

‘Maybe one day we will meet again,’ said Josie.’Goodbye, Blackbriar.’

‘Arf,’ said Blackbriar. She did not leave at once, but after a few more moments of hopeful waiting trotted off down the stony hillside to the south. Josie listened to the clicks of her claws on the stones until she could hear her no more. She felt an enormous sense of relief.

‘Goodbye’ said Josie softly. She took one of Tash’s handa.

‘What are you thinking of, Tash?’

‘Those places. All the other places,’ said Tash. ‘The worlds are so very large and interesting.’

‘The smell of the new country makes me want to go there, too,’ said Josie.

‘There must be a way,’ said Tash.

‘We will visit many places,’ said Josie, kissing Tash’s hand. ‘Together.’ She kissed it again. ‘One day.’ They stood there for a long moment feeling the dusty gum tree wind on their faces.

‘Home?’ suggested Josie.

‘Yes,’ said Tash warmly. ‘Let us go home.’

***

As Tash turned his back on the blue vastness, he saw in a small patch of sandy ground nearby great footprints, like the ones he had seen in the walled garden after the earthquake. The footprints of a lion, leading south. And a fear and a sadness and a horror hid all his happiness from him, like a cloud passing over the sun.