As the day goes on and on, Kat begins to lose track of everything the Valley of Appraisal has thrown at her. There was the attack in the cornfield, the Goblin with the floppy hat, climbing the wall, the checkers-playing chicken.
Then, she’d had to swing across a river on a series of ropes, climb another wall, find the differences in two pictures of the same man in a fancy outfit, climb up a net, climb across another net above a mud pit, fight a man on a narrow bridge — which had been trouble until she’d had the idea to get Scarlet to move underneath the bridge and blast him with her magic — climb some ladders, then some stairs, and then figure out how to get a goose, a fox and a sack of corn across a river in a tiny boat, then more climbing.
Mostly, she reflects, there has been a lot of climbing.
And, on top of everything else, Kat is learning firsthand that armour can really start to chafe in some uncomfortable places.
At this point, all Kat knows is that her journey so far feels like it has taken a thousand years, but when she looks up at the sky, she sees that the sun has barely moved. So, it seems to Kat like a good time to sit down and catch her breath. No rock in history, she decides, has ever been so comfortable.
“I’ve got some good news,” Carlotta announces, looking up from her clipboard as she stands over Kat. “You have one last task to complete.”
“Yay,” Kat says weakly.
Carlotta points with her pen. “See that tower? There’s a bell at the top. Ring it, and your exam will be finished.
Kat contemplates making a run for the tower, but decides to slump back down onto her rock. “It’ll still be there in five minutes,” she declares.
Kat makes the most of the brief period of rest. She’s still tired, sore, and sweaty, but slightly less so now. She rises from her rock.
“Let’s do this,” she declares.
The final obstacle in the Valley of Appraisal proves to be shockingly straightforward. A very large man holding a very large axe stands between Kat and Scarlet and the entrance to the tower.
“I am called Ricardus the Axe,” the large man declares.
“We need to get up that tower,” Kat tells him. “So, would you mind moving? Please?”
“Well, you did ask nicely,” the large man notes thoughtfully. “But, actually, I would mind moving. If you want me to move, you’re going to have to make me.”
“Of course,” Kat mutters wearily.
“You go left,” Scarlet urges. “I’ll go right.”
Kat groans. The prospect of fighting a man that big with an axe that big is awful, even she wasn’t exhausted and worn out from everything else the Valley has thrown at her. There was to be a better way than just rushing him.
She stares up at the top of the tower. As she adjusts the quiver on her shoulder, an idea begins to form in her brain. She just hopes it’ll work.
“No. I have a plan,” Kat tells Scarlet. “Stay here. Keep him busy.”
“Kitty-Kat, wait!” Scarlet cries. “What am I supposed to do?”
But Kat has already disappeared behind the tower.
“If your friend wishes to ambush me, she is going to be disappointed,” the man says. “I have the eyes of a hawk, the ears of a hawk with exceptionally good hearing, and the peripheral vision of a hammerhead shark.”
“And you’re going to be disappointed if you think you can beat me,” Scarlet counters. “I’m going to be a Professor of Magicology. I could turn you into a frog before you even have the chance to blink.”
“We shall see,” he answers simply, hefting his axe, a weapon large enough to give Scarlet some serious misgivings about Kat’s plan.
Whatever you’re doing, Kitty-Kat, she thinks. Do it fast.
Ricardus the Axe begins to advance.
“Wait!” Scarlet says suddenly, stopping the warrior mid-swing. “My shoe is untied!”
The warrior lowers his axe. “Very well,” he says. “Allowing you to fight with an untied shoe wouldn’t be sporting.”
Scarlet goes to a knee, as if to tie her shoe. Hopefully, he won’t realise that the shoes she’s wearing don’t even have laces. She takes as much time as she can to make some pretend adjustments to her shoe, periodically glancing up at the warrior to see if he’s figured out her trick yet.
The worst that happens is that he unsubtly clears his throat at her a few times.
Scarlet decides not to push her luck any further and moves to stand up again, raising her fists into something that she hopes looks like a fighting stance.
“With that out of the way,” he says, raising his axe again. “We can —”
“And I haven’t stretched yet!” Scarlet continues. “That wouldn’t be sporting, either, right?”
“Fine,” the warrior says, though he goes out of his way to make sure that Scarlet can see him rolling his eyes at her as he restlessly drums his fingers on the haft of his axe.
Scarlet starts to do every stretch she knows: jumping jacks, running in place, reaching for her toes, and a couple of things she makes up on the spot.
“Thanks,” Scarlet she says sweetly when she finishes her pantomime. “I really appreciate that you’re letting me — By the Powers, what is that?” She points in the direction of a nearby bush.
The warrior wheels to follow Scarlet’s finger. “Where? What’s what?”
“I think there’s an Imperial Brightwing Moth in that bush!” Scarlet says. “They take a hundred years to metamorphose! This is probably your only chance to see one!”
“Really?” the warrior asks.
No. Not really. There’s no such thing as an Imperial Brightwing Moth. Those were just the first two words and the first bug that came to Scarlet’s mind.
“See, it’s right there,” Scarlet says.
“No. There!” Scarlet insists, motioning vaguely in the direction of the bush
“No. There. No. Left. No. That’s too left! Oh, now it’s flying away!”
The warrior’s hunt for the imaginary moth is interrupted by a sudden sound.
“What was that?” he exclaims. “Oh.”
Scarlet smiles smugly as the air fills with the sound of the ringing bell.
“You tricked me!” the warrior exclaims, his axe falling from trembling hands that clench into fists.
“That’s ridiculous!” he bellows as he stamps his feet. “That’s unfair! That’s cheating! That’s…” He falters as the full weight of the situation sets in. “That’s actually quite clever. Bravo. You certainly showed me.”
Kat comes walking around the side of the tower. “I’m tired and sore and I want to go home, so I figured it would be faster just to shoot the bell.” She turns to Carlotta. “There’s nothing that says we had to climb the tower, right? Just ring the bell?”
“That is true,” Carlotta says after consulting her clipboard. “I’ll allow it. That means your exam is complete.”