The small expedition plodded wearily along the jungle trail in the terrible afternoon heat. It comprised four people and three beasts, and they had been moving in this frustratingly slow fashion for several weeks now. When they first found the trail, they had been excited, feeling that they were finally on the brink of making a discovery; but now it seemed as though it was leading them nowhere.
At the front of the column walked a young elfling, thin and wiry and dressed in the sweat-stained remains of what had once been a sailor’s outfit, now little more than a collection of rags. The tricorn hat perched on his head was battered and misshapen. He was using a broad-bladed machete to hack his way through the thick tangle of ferns and vines that overhung the trail, and the effort of swinging it back and forth had brought a thick sheen of perspiration to his pale but—some would say—handsome features. His hands and forearms were badly scarred by thorns and his palms were blistered where they had been rubbed raw by the handle of the machete.
He was called Sebastian Darke and he had once advertised himself as a jester, the celebrated Prince of Fools. Every step he took on this desperate journey served to assure him that he might have been a little hasty in abandoning that title.
Just behind him trudged a powerful warrior, sweating copiously in the chain-mail singlet and metal breastplate that, despite the awful heat, he stub- bornly refused to take off. He was called Cornelius Drummel; he was a Golmiran and very small—unlike most men of his profession—less than half the height of Sebastian. His smooth baby face was set in a scowl and he was still limping noticeably from a recent wound incurred on the open sea, where he had suf- fered a minor disagreement with a young kelfer. The disgruntled expression on his face might have had something to do with the fact that his short stature prevented him from taking a turn at the head of the column. He simply couldn’t reach high enough to cut aside the overhanging greenery that drooped down into the other men’s faces. It was an un?fortunate situation but it was one that none of the others dared comment on.
Next in the column was a great shaggy brute of a buffalope, his massive shoulders and flanks laden with heavy equipment—ropes, tools, food, lamps, cooking pots—all strapped higgledy-piggledy around him. His name was Max and, unusually for him, he wasn’t complaining. Having moaned incessantly for several days, he had lately taken to sulking in silence and his huge head was bowed until his snout barely skimmed the ground. He had been plodding along like this for the best part of a day and it was a situation that was unlikely to last much longer, so Sebastian and Cornelius were making the most of it.
After their recent hair-raising adventures in Ramalat, the three friends had been hired by a rich merchant named Thaddeus Peel to seek out the legendary lost city of Mendip; and if they found it, to bring back proof of its existence. The city had been talked about for centuries. Many claimed that it contained fabulous treasure. Others said that the place was cursed and that ill-fortune awaited anyone who chanced upon it.
Behind Max walked the hired hands—two big, muscular men from Ramalat who rejoiced under the names of Karl and Samuel. Neither of them had been employed for their witty conversation, but for their ability to travel mile after mile without complaint. Each of them led a small mule laden with equip- ment. Like their owners, these beasts, known as Betty and Jasper, were not the brightest of their species. On the first few days out from Ramalat Max had made valiant attempts to engage them in polite con- versation, using the common language of the plains, but he now preferred to leave them to their own devices; when he had something to say, he directed his remarks to the two-legged members of the expedition.
And it was to Cornelius that he finally addressed his first question in several hours of traveling.
“I don’t suppose there’s any chance of stopping for a rest?”
Cornelius sighed. “I thought it was too good to last,” he muttered. He glanced back over his shoulder. “We can’t stop here, can we?”
“It’s too narrow. We need to find a clearing.”
Max considered this for a moment. “Couldn’t we make a clearing?” he asked. “With the machete.”
Sebastian laughed at this idea, though there wasn’t much energy in the laugh. “I love the we,” he said. “What you ?actually mean is, I could make a clearing. But that would involve cutting down entire trees and I’m exhausted enough as it is. We’ll just have to keep going a while longer.”
Max gave a low, mournful sigh. “Oh yes, well, that’s just the standard reply on this trip, isn’t it?” He modulated his voice to mimic Sebastian’s. “We’ll just have to keep going! Well, we’ve been going for what must be weeks now and what have we found? Absolutely nothing! When Thaddeus Peel told us this was an errand for the foolhardy, he wasn’t kidding!”
“Give it a rest, can’t you?” growled Samuel, from behind Max; and everyone turned to look at him in surprise. It was virtually the first time he had uttered more than a grunt since they had set off.
“Oh, excuse me!” said Max haughtily. “I was only expressing an opinion.”
“'Pinion or not, here we be, like it or lump it,” said Samuel emphatically. “Ain’t no use in complainin’.”
“Arrr,” added Karl. For a moment it seemed as if he might be about to add something else, but he must have thought better of it.
Max swung his head back round and continued for some distance in silence, mulling over what had just been said. But Sebastian knew that it was only a matter of time before he returned to his theme.
“What I mean to say,” continued Max, “is: how long are we going to go on with this fiasco? At exactly what point do we say, Well, we’ve given it our best shot, we’re now completely and utterly lost and it’s time to head back to Ramalat?”
Sebastian paused midswing and considered that one. He had to admit, it was a good question. He glanced back down the line and gestured to Karl. “You want to take over for a while?” he asked.
Without a word, the big man strode forward, took the machete in one great fist and forged ahead, the arcing blade felling great swathes of forest. Cornelius dropped back to take Betty’s rope, a look of resignation on his face. Sebastian realized how humiliating it must be for him to be unable to do his fair share, but knew there was nothing he could do about the situation, short of carrying him on his back while he swung the machete, and he simply didn’t have the energy for that.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Sebastian Darke: Prince of Explorers by Philip Caveney. Copyright © 2010 by Philip Caveney. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.