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AN UNSETTLING DISCOVERY NEAR THE EAST RANGE
On a frozen Saturday in mid-March, Elizabeth Somers was skiing alone when she noticed a crimson cloth tied to an alder branch on the trail ahead. She’d been about to return to Winterhouse, not only because Norbridge, her grandfather, had asked her to be gone no longer than two hours, but because the afternoon sky was darkening with clouds and she hadn’t yet even touched her weekend homework. Now, however, as she eased into a slowing glide on her cross-country skis, her attention was caught. A red kerchief—the only burst of color in the otherwise vast whiteness through which the trail wound—was fixed to the limb of a tree.
Elizabeth came to a stop and examined the cloth, which was frayed and appeared to have been on the branch for some time. She tugged at it with her gloved hand; the knot was strong. Her breath came in puffy clouds, and the sweat on her brow chilled as she considered that she’d never before come quite this far on the trail when she’d gone out skiing. She turned to look at the snow-covered valley in which she’d paused. There were no houses in sight, only stands of wintry fir and alder and, far to the east, high mountains beneath a graying sky. All was silent.
Who would have tied this out here in the middle of nowhere? Elizabeth thought.
She glanced around once more, and then she studied the ground before her. In the powdery snow was a set of footprints leading away from the tree and toward a slight, snow-covered incline beyond the iced curve of a creek about a hundred yards to the north.
The feeling came over Elizabeth, her by-now-familiar intuition—a sinking in her stomach and a buzz in her head—that there was something more to her surroundings than met the eye: a surprise awaiting discovery, an incident set to unfold, maybe even a person nearby.
“Hello?” she called, looking toward the low hill. “Anyone out here?”
No answer came; the wind sighed through the heights of the trees for a moment before the silence returned.
“I will not be afraid,” Elizabeth whispered to herself.
She tugged her cap over her ears as she looked up and down the trail once more, and then she loosened the bindings from her skis, steadied herself on her boots, and began walking, following the faint tracks as they led forward.
Just past the frozen creek, the footprints continued up an enormous rim of earth covered by snow and as high as the surrounding alders. Elizabeth climbed a few feet more and then came to a stop along the perimeter of an immense and treeless circle—wide enough that if the ice-skating rink at Winterhouse were multiplied ten times, it would still fit inside comfortably. Snow-clad boulders covered the entire expanse. She was staring at what amounted to a plain about as large as a good-sized pond and dotted with enormous rocks, the whole thing set within a bordering berm atop which she now stood.
What is this place? Elizabeth thought.
The footprints led down to a little clearing amidst the boulders, and Elizabeth followed them. When she reached the bottom, she noticed a listing metal post, and atop it, a battered beige sign barely recognizable as something man-made against the snowy rocks. Elizabeth rubbed her glasses to clear them of snow, and she peered at the sign. In orange letters so faded they were difficult to read was the following:
DANGER! THE RIPPLINGTON MINING COMPANY DECLARES THIS MINE, THE SILVER CORRIDOR, DEFUNCT! IT HAS BEEN SEALED AND IS NO LONGER ACCESSIBLE! FOR THE PROTECTION OF ONE AND ALL, WE HAVE FILLED THE ENTRANCE, BUT WE CAN ACCEPT NO LIABILITY FOR INDIVIDUALS WHO MIGHT PROCEED PAST THIS POINT! TURN AROUND! IT IS NOT SAFE TO CONTINUE!
Elizabeth felt a flutter in her chest. She knew that the Ripplington Silver Corridor’s hundreds of passageways—abandoned well over a century before—sprawled in all directions beneath the ground from this spot and created a maze of tunnels under Winterhouse itself. It had been in one of these passageways, nearly three months before, that Elizabeth had overcome Gracella Winters, Norbridge’s sister and the sorceress who’d attempted to gain power over her; she also knew that, although Gracella had been defeated, her body still lay deep within a dark corridor underground. By some evil magic, her physical form had become not only stone-solid but immovable, and Norbridge—as a precaution—had entombed her where she lay and sealed the doors in Winterhouse that gave access to the passageways. The only other possible way in or out, Elizabeth realized, would be the opening above which she stood, though it was blocked by tons of rock. With a shudder, she read the battered Ripplington sign once more.
Elizabeth was about to reverse her steps when she thought she felt the slightest rumbling beneath her. It was something like the sensation of distant thunder, and one part of her wasn’t certain she’d really felt anything. She stood and waited to see if the rumbling would come again, but all remained silent and still.
The wind blew, and as Elizabeth began to turn away, the faintest tint of crimson seemed to shimmer upon the snow at the center of the plain of boulders. She shook her head quickly and put a hand on her jacket above where her silver-and-indigo pendant—with the word “Faith” on it—lay.
“I will not be afraid,” she said.
Once more, the wind blew, harder this time. Elizabeth looked again at the sign before her. A breeze pressed down and across the wide bowl of the sealed mine, and Elizabeth turned and scrabbled up the slope to the top of the rim. When she glanced back one last time at the treeless plain, it appeared the center of it gleamed with a dull reddish light. But this seemed so improbable, and her fear at that point was so close to bringing her to panic, she focused only on making certain she didn’t stumble in the snow as she raced back to her skis. When she reached them, she felt the ground rumble slightly again. She grew still and listened. The sky was darkening even more.
Thunder, she thought as she latched her boots onto her skis, though she wondered how she had missed the flash of lightning. That must be thunder.
The red kerchief fluttered before her on the tree as the wind kicked up once more. Elizabeth snatched at the cloth, snapping the thin alder branch as she did so, and then she balled up the kerchief and flung it into a pile of snow. She hopped onto the trail, began pushing as fast as she was able, and raced away, back toward Winterhouse, all the while fighting off a thought that kept forcing itself on her: What if Gracella isn’t dead and gone after all?
The ground rumbled once again.
A NOTEWORTHY RUMBLING
The foremost thought Elizabeth had as she moved farther away from the mine and the red kerchief was that she needed to tell Norbridge what she’d found. She was scared—both by what she’d seen and how it had made her feel. She’d been living at Winterhouse since the Christmas holiday, with pleasant days at a new school, evenings to read and drink hot chocolate and visit, hours alone in the hotel’s massive library, and weekends outside to ski or skate or simply walk beside frozen Lake Luna—and yet she remained intrigued by something alluring that Gracella represented but that she couldn’t define. This thought was unsettling.
She was reflecting on all of this when, after fifteen minutes of hard skiing and with the snowfall increasing, the feeling came over her again and she stopped. There was a fork in the trail, and although she knew which way returned to Winterhouse, she had the certainty that someone was approaching on the trail with which she’d just converged. She’d traveled it a few times herself, so she knew that if she veered onto it, it would take her south to Havenworth—where her school was—five miles distant. She listened, waiting to see if anyone appeared, and then, from around the bend no more than one hundred yards away, someone in a silver jacket and red hat skied into view, gliding quickly along the trail in her direction.
“Elizabeth,” the skier called out, at the very moment she recognized him. “Hello!”
“Hyrum!” she answered, and all the fright and anxiousness of the previous half hour blinked out. For here was teacher-in-training Hyrum Crowley, whom Elizabeth had known at Havenworth Academy for ten weeks now since they’d both started at the school. Although he only taught English on Tuesdays and Thursdays (he was, after all, just learning how to be a teacher), he seemed to Elizabeth well on his way to being an outstanding instructor. That he was twenty-one years old, attended prestigious Bruma University thirty miles away, wore his black hair trimly styled, and seemed to have read almost as many books as Elizabeth had (including one of her recent favorites, The Secret of Nightingale Wood) only bolstered her assessment. He was nice, too—just old enough to be an adult, but not so old that he’d lost all touch with what it meant to be younger, even twelve and three-quarters, as Elizabeth was.
“Wow,” Hyrum called as he drew near, “I guess all the cool people are out skiing today.”
Elizabeth laughed. “Are you coming from town?” she said as Hyrum stopped before her. He was breathing heavily, the snow falling thickly now and the wind continuing to press. Elizabeth had run into him on the cross-country trails outside of Winterhouse at least a half dozen times and knew how much he loved to ski.
“I am,” he said, his eyes bright. “And very nice to see you out here.” He glanced at the trail behind her. “You just coming in?” And as she nodded but before she could speak, he said, “I bet you’re racing back to finish up Mr. Karminsky’s bio assignment before Monday.”
Elizabeth laughed again. “I’ll get it done.” She pressed at her glasses with a glove.
Text copyright © 2020 by Ben Guterson. Illustrations copyright © 2020 by Chloe Bristol