Surrounded by stern-faced natives all with arrows notched and pointed at him, Lem began to think that maybe he should have listened to Running Wolf and left the dragon alone.
Nervously, he watched them. For what seemed like an eternity, no one moved. Then, one of the men jumped down to a lower ledge on Lem’s left and started to speak in a language he didn’t understand. Lem watched the man feeling confused. Surely they must realize he didn’t speak their language. Suddenly, a voice behind him made him jump as it replied in the same language. Lem turned to see Running Wolf standing there, eyebrows drawn together and lips pursed angrily.
“You should not have come,” he growled at Lem. “The hidden village is forbidden to all offlanders.”
“What will they do to me?”
“I do not know. None has ever dared to intrude before.” Running Wolf sighed. Even though he was angry at Lem, he couldn’t help also being impressed. When he said that no offlander had intruded before, what he really meant was none had ever been able to find them. But he was also upset. He had been assigned the task of watching Lem ever since the first time he had entered the forest. He would definitely get in trouble for this.
“Come. We must go see Big Elk. The council will decide your fate.” Running Wolf jumped down to a lower ledge to the right that Lem hadn’t seen before and hurried off without looking back.
Lem only paused for a moment. He knew that if he followed the young native, he would undoubtedly face some punishment for his actions, but this hidden world was too tempting to leave. Anyway, he reasoned to himself, it wasn’t as if he could escape. He didn’t have any illusions that he would be able to get away from them if he tried.
Lem looked over the edge of the platform he stood on and cautiously climbed down to the one below it hurrying to catch up to Running Wolf.
They walked down a pathway beside the stream, through the rocky cavern. Lem couldn’t see the guards anymore, but he knew they were still there, watching him.
Up ahead, the ground rose higher, and a large archway loomed over the path. As they walked nearer, their road became rockier. They had to climb over the large boulders that had fallen away, or been knocked out, to create the opening. At one point, Lem even had to scramble up a large stone on his hands and knees. Watching his feet the whole way, he didn’t notice what lay on the other side of the archway until he made it to the top of the hill and stood directly underneath it.
On the other side, the whole scene changed. Gardens grew high up on the ledges soaking up the sunlight that streamed in from the various holes in the ceiling. Huts, that appeared to be made from some sort of thick bark, lined the walls of the cavern and another tall waterfall ran down from high above on the far side to feed a stream that met the other one in the middle. More trees and flowers dotted the floor and ledges in the unusual village.
Lem gazed around in wonder. It was beautiful, and the people milling about working on their everyday tasks seemed to be happy, especially the children who hovered nearby, curious about the intruder.
But the most surprising sight of all was the dragons. Lem counted seven that he could see. Some of them slept quietly in the shadows, but others ran around with the children or lay down next to the huts.
“Tame dragons?” Lem mumbled in surprise.
“Yes,” answered Running Wolf a little reluctantly. “But they can still be dangerous to strangers or when they feel threatened. You would be wise to avoid them.”
“Is that the one that came to the school?” Lem asked excitedly pointing to a dragon with an unhealed would on its leg. The dragon sat in front of a hut with a little boy who watched Lem’s progression curiously.
Running Wolf frowned but didn’t say anything. He just kept moving ahead. Lem tore his eyes from the dragon and looked at the path in front of them hurrying to catch back up. Their destination seemed to be a large round hut set on a rock platform in the middle of the cavern. The stream split in two and circled the platform coming together again on the other side. A small bridge led over the stream to the hut.
As they crossed the bridge, the door swung open and a tall native man, who appeared to be in his mid-twenties, stormed out. Through the open door, Lem could see a circle of older men sitting on the floor around a fire inside.
“So this is the intruder,” growled the newcomer glaring at Lem. He leaned down and stared Lem straight in the eyes. “You know our secret now,” he hissed. “I hope you realize that this means we cannot let you live. You must die. And I will take great pleasure in the being the one to kill you, offlander.” His lip cured up in a snarl and a maniacal gleam lit up his eyes at the thought.