RUN, ALICE, RUN
The Walk of the Wight.
It was the bane of small children. This narrow, graveled pathway leading from behind the school's gym through a neglected section of the park, where weeds grew freely and bushes stretched their gnarly fingers towards you, seeking to entangle or even trip you. Just across a rusted wire fence was an old, creeper-infested graveyard.
Grown-ups didn't have a name for it, beyond "that path over there", but children, of course, knew better.
It was always dark, this path, for even in bright daylight, the foliage and thick brush kept out the sun, except for the occasional golden patch of light, and glittering dust specks dancing in shafts of brightness. During the day, it was a warm, friendly kind of darkness.
But with afternoon, when the sun was no longer directly overhead, came the Walk's horrors.
Worse than weird shapes forming from out of nowhere, and those quick movements you thought you saw out of the corner of your eyes, but when you looked, there was nothing there; worse than that was the impossibly loud crunch of the gravel under your own feet, and the hammering of your heart that muted the noises around you. You had to stop frequently and listen, to make sure the Walk's vile creatures were not after you. But of course, stopping meant that they knew you knew they were lurking!
Now, this was the shortest path home from school for the kids in Sina's and Gabby's neighborhood.
When you walked it with a friend, its horrors receded to a faint, vaguely unpleasant fluttering in your tummy, and the occasional frightened squeak at an unfamiliar, and likely imagined noise, close by, or a shadow flitting out of sight.
It was the thought of walking it all alone that sent the frosty fingers of fear clawing at your heart...
"Look out, Xena, behind you!" cried Gabrielle.
The Warrior Princess, locked in combat with the twisted shape hovering just above her head, did a quick somersault to deliver a kick to its skeletal face while slicing a hand off the creature that had dashed in from behind. The appendage fell to the ground with a sickening clatter of bones. Both winged creatures screeched in outrage as they regrouped for a second attack.
The two dryads found to their dismay that it was more difficult than they had thought to destroy the Warrior Princess and her little friend, who, pitifully ground-bound, still put up a remarkable fight. However, the creatures were not too keen on being reduced to a bundle of bones, and, being bound by the strange laws of the spiritual realm to this place, were fighting with the fury and strength of the supernatural.
The bard, having learned to keep well out of her friend's battle range, suddenly found herself facing a few problems of her own.
"Uh-oh," she muttered as she watched the earth tremble and crack a few paces away, and putrid, gaunt arms clawing their way into the open air.
"More trouble," she observed as she hefted her staff and took a battle stance.
Somewhere off to the side, Argo whinnied, frightened.
Xena just grunted, and slashed at one of the attacking dryads, succeeding only in momentarily getting her trusty sword wedged between two of the creature's ribs. Grimly, she wrenched and twisted until her blade broke free in a shower of mould-covered bone splinters. A nasty hole gaped in the unfortunate creature's rib cage.
"Bet that hurt," the warrior remarked.
Meanwhile, in front of Gabrielle, the ghoul had risen up in its gruesome glory; foul, decomposing, horrible. The stench was overpowering. It had hardly begun wriggling its way out of the earth, when another slimy hand erupted next to it, and another.
"Ummm, Xena..." The bard was using her staff to whack ineffectively at the approaching undead monster, while watching the others emerge slowly. "I don't think these guys are here to exchange pleasantries."
The warrior's head whipped around to take in the three ghouls and her friend, and back to her two attackers.
"Ayiyiyiyiyiyiyi!" echoed her mighty battle cry, as she drew her trusted Chakram, and in a fluid motion hurled it towards the clumsily shuffling monsters.
Whine! Thud! Whine! Thud! Whine! Thud! Whine!
Three ghouls where milling about stupidly, minus their heads, which had been cleanly knocked off by the force of the mighty Chakram's flight. Xena caught the circular weapon deftly out of the air, even as her sword sliced up a dryad wing almost negligently. It seemed hardly possible that a skeletal head could register shocked surprise, but this one made a fair attempt. The airborne creature fluttered for a moment, spun out of control, and careened headfirst into a tree trunk, where it slid to the ground in a gruesome jumble.
"One down," the Warrior Princess told the remaining dryad.
The creature looked at her for a moment, weighing its chances, then it promptly dissolved into a puff of green-tinged air!
At Gabrielle's feet, the earth started trembling once more.
"Okay, Gabrielle, time to go," cried Xena, as she grabbed Argo's reins and motioned her friend to get moving. The bard did not need further prompting.
"Phew," said Gabby, still a little breathless after emerging onto the street, with Sina right behind her, pushing Argo for all she was worth. "The dryads must be new around here. If the Wight had been around today, we would've had it."
"Nah," said Sina, "piece o' cake." She looked a bit pale around the nose, and her breath came in short gasps. But her chin jutted forward in that stubborn way she had, as she put the wooden sword she was still holding back to its place in her backpack. The pink Frisbee she kept clasped in her other hand, just in case.
"I hate overcast days," said Gabby. "It's worse than usual in there when the sun is gone."
She did not see the blonde girl watching them emerge, some distance off down the street, with a wicked smirk on her face.
Sina did, and she stuck out her tongue at her behind Gabby's back, before the two friends and their bike continued on their way, Gabby still chattering excitedly about another near-death experience of the warrior and her bard.
"Do you really think so?" Gabby asked Sina a little while later, as Barbie-Xena and Barbie-Gabrielle were braving a wicked storm whilst making their way towards the abode of a bothersome band of Bacchae, on Gabby's front porch.
"She hates me, I know it. You should've seen the mean grin on her face when she saw us after we fought the dryads. Bet she was disappointed they didn't get us."
"That was a mean thing she did the other day. Hurting poor Jock and getting people to think it was you."
"And her idiot cousins playing right along with her." Sina hissed through her teeth. "They all need a good beating up, if you ask me," she added darkly, while Barbie-Xena was slashing at an unsuspecting toy Tigger with savage fury.
Gabby made no reply. She just rubbed her nose thoughtfully. There must be something better they could do to get back at Alice Parker for what she had done.
As luck would have it, when they emerged from the Walk just before dusk on the following day, panting and breathing huge sighs of relief, there was Alice again. She was leading her Pekingese dog on a leash, watching them from a few yards away. The little animal almost strangled himself on the collar in his frenzy to get at the two girls, all the while yapping and growling furiously.
"Quiet, Prince, you'll scare the girls," Alice told the dog with a little smirk towards Sina and Gabby. 'Prince' however, gave no indication of hearing her and continued his mad barrage.
"What's it to you?" Sina murmured acidly. She fingered the pink Frisbee as if considering how it would look plastered against the impertinent girl's face.
"Prince?" Gabby mouthed silently, biting her lower lip to keep from giggling. As far as she was concerned, that dog could not look any less like a prince if it had a roll in the mud! She did have a soft spot for dogs, though, and was almost sorry for the little thing straining against the leash, with its eyes bulging Pekingese style and its tongue lolling in a canine grin as it barked away at them.
Alice appeared not to have heard Sina's comment. "Why are you so out of breath? You're not scared of that pathway, are you?"
"Well, we-" Gabby began.
"Nuh," said Sina.
"I'm not scared," said Alice down her nose.
Sina snorted. "Yeah right."
"You're just saying that," said Gabby. "Everybody knows about the Walk."
Sina mumbled something concerning female dogs and what they could do with their rear ends, which Gabby didn't quite get. Any fool could see that Prince was a boy, after all. She decided to ignore her friend's comment. She was more worried that Sina might jump Alice and beat her up. The little Warrior Princess certainly looked as if she would like to.
Alice sniffed, but obviously she wasn't quite sure what Sina had meant, either. Rather than admit to it, she pointed at the Frisbee. "What's with that thing? Why are you hauling that along?"
"None of your business," Sina growled.
"If you must know," Gabby said helpfully (she was a nice girl, after all), "it's to keep bad things away in the Walk. They won't come near us as long as we hold on to it."
"Oh, really?" said Alice.
"Yes, really," Gabby said, and Sina nodded defiantly.
"And I suppose you go around making loud noises too?"
"Yeah, I think singing scares them, too."
"Let's go home," Sina murmured darkly.
"Uh huh, sometimes I sing 'Pop! Goes The Weasel'. They don't like that."
"Gabby..." Sina urged, and gave her friend a stern look.
"'Pop! Goes The Weasel'? Oh, that's good," Alice cackled.
Gabby blushed, a little embarrassed, and feeling like a fool for having admitted about the singing. Only Sina had known until now!
"Hee hee, nya nya, afraid of the dark are ya? Sissies! I walk that path every day, it's a piece o' cake. I'm not afraid." Alice stuck out her tongue.
Sina returned the gesture. "It's no use, Gabrielle," she said. "Let's go. We have things to do. Big, important things. Secret things," she added with a baleful glare at Alice, who was still laughing mockingly as Sina dragged her smaller friend on down the street.
"I was only trying to be nice," Gabby said sullenly when Alice was out of earshot.
"Yeah well, see where it gets you. What a goat."
Gabby thought from the look on her friend's face that Sina probably regretted not having beaten Alice up after all.
"I guess she doesn't want to be friends," she said a bit sadly, but mostly angrily. "Well, tough."
"Yeah." Sina straightened her shoulders and grasped Argo's handlebar. "Let's go to my place. I heard a frog in the creek out back earlier, maybe we can catch it." She mounted the bike and started pedaling, wobbling a little in her effort to go slow enough for Gabby to keep up.
Gabby's nose wrinkled at the thought of a frog's slimy skin and bulging eyes, but she happily skipped along beside her best friend. She had forgotten Alice and Prince almost before they had disappeared behind a bend in the road. There were adventures to be had, and she had a best friend to share them with.
Only when the two other girls were out of sight did Alice let out a long breath. Her steps quickened until she was almost running. It was dusk already. Quite apart from the fact that she had to be home before nightfall, she did not like the dark one bit. Strange black things were always hiding in the dark, waiting to grab her. The were getting worse lately, and she was sure it was somehow this Sina's doing. Gabby was just a dumb tagalong, but Sina - she did not like Sina. Not one bit.
For a moment, she thought the two of them might have seen her own frenzied scramble through the Walk. She could have sworn she had escaped some creep's cold, clambering claw by a hair's breadth. But she had not cried for one second. She was brave. Sina and Gabby were wimps. Alice wasn't afraid of a bunch of ghosts and ghouls. No way. Frisbees and nursery rhymes! Ridiculous!
As if in reply, 'Wilbury's Little Prince Charles', barked at her and tugged on the leash. Grateful for the excuse, Alice gave up pretending to walk and made for home at a dead run, the small dog bounding happily along beside her.
Sina and Gabby would have forgotten all about the episode, but a few days later something happened that brought it back to them.
They were walking down the street with Jock, Andy and Emily, not far from the dread Walk of the Wight. Gabby was telling the story of how Ephiny, the Amazon regent, had first met Phantes the Centaur and how they became friends, to much ooh-ing and aah-ing from little Emily, and a few grunts and giggles in all the wrong places from the boys. The curly-haired blonde was being a touch too sappy for Sina's taste, but then having a centaur for best friend must be a cool thing, really. For some reason, Emily had always identified with the stoic Amazon. She loved hearing stories about Ephiny.
Just when the little bard was pausing for effect before revealing the end of
the story, they heard it, coming from inside the Walk. The voice was a little
shaky and had a slightly hysterical pitch to it, but the tune was easily
recognized:"'Round and 'round the cobbler's bench
A penny for a spool of thread
A half a pound of tupenny rice,
Up and down the London road,
I've no time to plead and pine,I've no time to wheedle,
At this moment, the singer emerged from the Walk. It was none other than Alice, dragging her dog along behind her. A pink Frisbee was fastened to her belly with a piece of skipping rope, and she clasped a second one in her hands. Prince's leash was looped around her wrist. The little Pekingese did not look altogether happy with his own new outfit - yet another pink Frisbee, with an opening cut into it the size of his head, that hung around his neck in lieu of a collar.
Alice was looking around her with a hunted expression, her fear of being seen by people clearly almost as big as the terror of the creatures within the Walk. She stopped dead when she saw the five children looking at her, their jaws hanging open.
No-one spoke a word.
Much to their credit, Sina and Gabby managed to keep a straight face as the conversation of a few days ago came back to them, even when Alice blushed the darkest shade of red either of them had ever seen.
Jock and Andy, however, burst into guffaws after the initial shock of the strange sight had faded, pointing and breaking into a raucous chant of "Pop! Goes the weasel. Pop! Goes the weasel." Unable to stop themselves, the girls soon joined them in laughter.
Alice, on the other hand, was not so amused. She was standing there rigidly, clutching the pink Frisbee to her chest, eyes bulging much like those of her dog, and her breath came in short, angry gasps. Faster and faster came those gasps, until finally she stamped her foot and screamed out her rage at the top of her lungs. It was a long, wordless scream, the kind that made you cover your ears with your hands, and still you thought your head would burst from it.
Then, her face a stony (if somewhat flushed) mask, Alice Parker turned wordlessly and walked away. Prince's pink collar bobbed nervously as the little dog trotted after her.
"We are not finished, Xena," Callisto screeched. "I will return, and I will make you regret the day you were born. I swear!" With that, she turned and stalked away through the devastation of the battlefield. The light of the dying fires framed her blonde head in a hellish, flickering red glow.
"Pop goes the Weasel," Joxer called after the Warrior Queen, who stiffened briefly before hurrying on into the distance.
"Well, that's what I call a smashing victory," the bard said, satisfied.
It was the beginning of a beautiful enmity.
"You know," Sina said thoughtfully, when they were walking back home after saying good-bye to their friends, "I kind of like what she did to that Frisbee around Prince's neck. Don't you think a throwing ring would be a much cooler weapon than a disk? It could have a sharp outside edge and be much better for cutting things..."