They sat there on the horse’s back, staring dumbly back into the howling tunnel of flame. Tears forged long trails through the dust and soot on their cheeks.
“They’re still coming,” said Lady hollowly, but she was shaking her head as she said it.
“They can’t really be dead, can they?” asked Sim.
And Joe just sat there silently, weeping between his two younger siblings. They remained motionless there for a minute or two more, but their grief made it seem like a crush of hours.
Already the flames were beginning to subside. With only the gases to burn for fuel, the wall of fire came and went like a tidal wave, tearing over the landscape with incredible height and power, but then dying down to leave only broken remnants of its devastation. Waves of heat and smoke still obscured the scene, and the twigs of the scrub-brush canyonlands still smoldered and flared into fiery blossoms of yellow and orange, but the great walls of flame that had surrounded the road were nearly gone now.
“What do we do now?” asked Sim. “We wouldn’t have survived even this far without Mack and Kobi. Should we go back home?”
“But no one’s there, remember?” Lady said sadly. “Uncle and Auntie were locked up in the Steward’s prison.”
Joe sighed and rubbed a hand across his forehead. “You’re right, Lady. We have to keep going. Maybe there’s still a chance to find the Prince.”
“But can we make it on our own?” asked Sim.
Joe paused for a long moment. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
He flicked the horse’s reins to the side and they began to turn away from the soot-blackened canyonlands. And then, out of the corner of his eye, Joe caught the flash of light off a piece of armor, somewhere back in the smoldering haze. At first he thought it was the Steward’s guards, renewing their pursuit now that the flames had died away. But he paused, just for a moment, and gave it a second glance. And there, emerging like shipwrecked sailors out of the waves after their ship had gone down, were two strong figures plodding along the high road through the burning lands.
Lady and Sim followed his gaze; Lady let out a little gasp. The two men were still a long ways away, obscured by shimmering waves of smoke, but there was no mistaking who it was: the plodding, solid form of old Sir Mack following the quick, firm stride of Sir Kobi. They carried their armor in bundles thrown over their shoulders, raising their arms every now and then to wipe away the torrents of sweat spilling down their faces.
Joe was so enthralled that he couldn’t wait for them to make it all the way out. With the flames receded, it was safe to ride back up onto the high road. But he didn’t even pause to make that calculation; he simply saw the friends he loved and moved to meet them. With a flick of the reins and a tap of his heels, he set the horse riding back into the sweltering canyonlands, back toward its master. All three children were beaming smiles when they reached the two knights, who looked extraordinarily dirty, but unharmed.
“We thought you were dead!” Sim shouted in joyful astonishment.
“Not yet,” Mack grinned, opening his arms to display his unsinged frame.
“What happened?” asked Joe. “We barely made it out, and we were going as fast as we could. The heat in here should have been enough to cook you alive.”
“I imagine that’s what the Steward’s guards thought, too,” Mack said, casting a wink over at Kobi, who was regarding the older knight with a gaze of such respect that it bordered on awe.
“They didn’t count on the wisdom of Sir Mack,” said Kobi. “There’s truth in the legends you hear about this man.”
“Not much, I fear,” Mack chuckled. “I just used an old trick I heard of once, from the guard units that used to patrol these roads before they built the royal north highway. I remembered them saying that the burning lands were dangerous, but that if you could survive the first minute, you would be all right, because the flames burn up their fuel so quickly. I knew we couldn’t run fast enough to get out in that amount of time, but there was something we could do.”
Lady took a long look at his soiled frame, his dust-coated clothes, and then laughed. “You burrowed in the ground like a mole, Sir Mack!”
“Smart girl,” Kobi grinned at her. “Yes, that’s exactly what he did. I’m glad he thought of it, because I didn’t know what to do.”
“Well, I realized that the high road was fairly soft underfoot,” Mack explained, “being built up out of a mound of loose earth. So we dug down, faster than I ever thought we could, and scooped up as much sand on top of our bodies as we were able. I thought for sure our bones would be burnt down into coals, but we got down quickly enough, and the fire came and went so fast that it didn’t have time to heat the soil to any depth. So we just held our breath under our piles of sand, and waited for the fire to go away. Simple.”
“Simple and brilliant,” said Sim, still beaming his astonishment.
Joe looked down at the old knight and gave him a smile. It was a shy smile, now that his first wave of joy had passed over, and it was shy because he was afraid it might show just how frightened he had been to lose the protector he loved.
“I’m glad you made it,” Joe said.
Mack looked up and saw that the boy’s eyes were bright with tears.
“And I you,” he replied. “Good riding, all of you. You’re as true a set of knights as the King’s house has ever had.”