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Authors: Maurice Gee

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BOOK: Motherstone
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‘Let’s get to the end.’

‘It smells of people. Sweat.’

‘Yeah, like a football team. We’d better be gone before they come back.’

‘Who are they?’

‘Runaway priests, maybe. They’re probably out hunting. Lucky for us.’

‘Where are you?’

‘Here.’

She felt her way down the pile, running her hand on the wall, and came to a firmer footing. She reached out and touched Nick. ‘Maybe we should use the Shy now.’

‘Better not. We’ve always gone to the end. No one’s here.’

‘Yes. All right.’ She put out her hand to the wall. This time it fell on something soft; something breathed on her fingers. She jerked her hand back. A mouth, a nose! She screamed and tried to run, and heard feet rattling stones. The cave was full of people, they seemed to spring out of the walls.

‘Run,’ Nick yelled. She heard him fighting. ‘Use your Shy.’

But it was gone, knocked from her hand, and arms came wrapping round her legs and body, round her throat. They smothered her, leathery and strong. Nick was yelling, but a blow like the thudding of an axe silenced him. Susan tried to bite the hand on her mouth. A man screeched, but the hand came back at once, on her throat.

‘Stop wriggling or you’re dead.’

She stopped. There were too many arms holding her. She felt moist breathing on her cheeks and sensed eyes looking at her, and felt fingers running on her face, studying it. ‘Yes,’ a new voice said, ‘Susan Ferris. My fingers know. I looked, though she did not look at me. None gave Osro a thought. Now they will think of nothing else.’

It was not a voice Susan knew, but it had a coldness that made her think of Odo Cling and brought the terror that he was alive and had captured her. ‘Who …’ she said, and could go no further.

‘Osro,’ said the voice. ‘That is all. I have a use for you, Susan Ferris.’ His fingers pinched her cheeks painfully.

‘Please. Let me go home. Let us go.’

‘Home?’ Osro said. ‘There is no home. That is not a word you can use,’ and it appalled her, this second echo of Odo Cling. He too had said home had no meaning. ‘Nick,’ she cried, and heard him answer in a groggy voice, ‘I’m all right. I lost my Shy.’

‘Who are they, Nick?’

‘I don’t know.’ She heard him struggle, heard the same dull blow. It made her ache inside.

A woman’s voice said, ‘Master?’ and Susan had some hope, that a woman was here. But the voice said, ‘We have the girl. Do we need the boy? Shall we kill him now?’

‘Keep him a while. He may be useful. Bind them. Carry them out. We must head north away from Birds. Although it does not matter so much now. We have our hostage.’

‘Please,’ Susan said, ‘we don’t live here. We live on Earth. Let us go.’

‘Gag them if they talk.’

Susan had a horror of gags, she thought she would suffocate, so she said no more but listened for sounds of Nick. She felt so sick with fright, and so appalled to have home snatched away and this horror, this dark side of O suddenly back, that she wondered if she were blacking out. Someone tied cords round her ankles and wrists. Hands lifted her and dragged her over the rubble. Then a man hoisted her like a sack and laid her over his shoulder. Her head banged on his back as he walked in the cave. She heard him humming a tune and recognized it as a priest song, triumphal chant, and knew that she had fallen into the hands of fugitive priests. She knew how they must hate her. Osro spoke sharply and the man fell silent. Osro? Who was he? A priest, that much was certain. But she could not remember any priest with that deadly voice. She could not believe he would let her go – or even keep her alive very long.

They came out of the cave and she twisted to see Osro, but the leather jerkins and brown leather caps were all the same. The sun had gone down over the sea, and the sky, a pale yellow, seemed cold and empty. Yellowclaw and Silverwing were down there, over Wildwood, flying away – ten minutes gone, but too far. Even if she called they would not hear. She tried to look at Nick and saw his legs dangling down the front of the man following her. His bare calves and tied ankles looked thin and pathetic.

‘Put me down. I can walk. Please untie me.’

No one answered. It seemed they were frightened of being seen by Birdfolk and they hurried over the plateau to the path leading down the hill. They loped along and Susan’s head banged sharply and the man’s bony shoulder cut into her. Several times they changed. She was slung from one to another like a roll of carpet. Nick was transferred too. She glimpsed his face, with blood on his forehead. Nick would fight. He would always fight. But nothing would help them now. Woodlanders, Birdfolk, Jimmy, Ben – no one was near.

It grew dark. Their pace was slower. But they did not stop. She heard the man leading call soft instructions. His name was Steen. Always he spoke to Osro, calling him Master, and the others, when they spoke, used that name too. Who was he? He spoke of having seen her so he must be from the Temple. But she could not remember any but the High Priest noticing her. Not until the moment in the arena, when she had stood on the dais and told them to take off their Ferris bones – they had looked then. But if Osro had been there he was one of thousands.

The men slung her onto a shoulder that hurt less. She heard Nick groan as they changed him over. The journey went on, down steep slopes and over shingle slides, where her bearer had trouble keeping his feet. Then they walked beside water. She heard wind in trees and the call of the night bird that sounded like a morepork. Later, they seemed to be in a gorge for something black blotted out the sky on either side and left a band of stars overhead. Clouds covered them, and rain fell, wetting her back. It came up the gorge on the wind, but a turning gave them shelter, and Steen led them on to a bank of pebbles under a cliff.

‘It is midnight, Master. Will this place do?’

‘Yes,’ Osro said. ‘Feed them. Don’t waste too much on the boy.’

Her bearer lowered her gently enough. She supposed he had orders not to hurt her, but Nick was thrown down roughly. She heard him grunt as his back struck the pebbles. She wriggled towards him. ‘Nick, are you all right?’ He looked at her as though he had just woken from sleeping badly and could not remember the face leaning over him. The whites of his eyes shone in the dark, then disappeared as his head fell forward.

‘Please,’ she said to Osro, ‘let me look after him.’

Osro made a signal and a man unpicked the knots at her ankles and wrists. Her hands took a moment to come alive, then she untied Nick, tearing her nails on the cords. His head lolled but when she rubbed his hands to warm them he half opened his eyes. He made a warning tilt of his head at the man beside them. She knelt closer and pretended to support him on her shoulder.

‘I’m not as bad as I’m making out,’ he muttered.

‘Nick – ’

‘Don’t say anything. Get me down to the water to drink.’ He raised his eyes piteously to the man and croaked, ‘Water.’

‘Please,’ Susan said, ‘can I take him down?’

The guard looked at Osro. She could not see the leader’s face, even though men had a fire of twigs burning at the base of the cliff.

‘Do nothing foolish. If one of you tries to run I’ll kill the other.’

She helped Nick up and they went the few metres to the creek, sliding in the shingle. The guard stood at the top of the bank, watching them. They knelt at the water and drank and washed. Then Susan bathed Nick’s face. She ladled handfuls of water on the cut on his cheekbone. ‘Hurts,’ he winced.

‘It needs a stitch.’

‘Too late now. Listen, I’m not bad. I’m pretending. But I don’t think they’ll keep me alive very long.’

‘Who are they?’

‘Runaway priests. They’ll use you as hostage to get away. And sell you for ransom. To Kenno.’

‘Osro – the leader – he calls himself king.’

‘There’s probably lots of people playing king. They’re only crooks. But they’re dangerous.’

‘You’ve got to get away.’

‘I know. One’s got a better chance than two. I’ll bring the Birdfolk. And Jimmy. And Ben.’

‘How?’

‘I’ve got my Shy. I only said I lost it. It’s in my pocket.’

‘When will you try?’

‘Not tonight. I’m not fit enough. My head aches. Pretend to help me up.’

She supported him up the shingle bank. Osro, silhouetted against the fire, watched them come. He turned into a shelter of stakes and blankets and Susan saw food taken in to him. They crept close to the fire. No one offered coverings but the woman Slarda thrust strips of meat at them and they ate hungrily. Susan had two strips and tried to share with Nick, who had only one, but Slarda knocked him away. She drew her finger across her throat. They were aching to kill him and Susan wondered how long it would be. Not tonight or they would not have fed him.

She looked at the women. Apart from Slarda, who was long-boned and stringy, the other three were not much older than her. They might have come from Earth, they would have looked at home on a beach, or counting out money in a bank. Ordinary-looking. Until you saw their eyes. There was one who looked like Susan’s phys. ed. mistress at school, but when she turned the likeness vanished. Her eyes were deadly, with pointed flames reflected from the fire. She hated Susan and wished her dead, and her lips gave a savage curl, and she felt for the bones that had hung on her breast and clenched her fist to find them gone. There would be no help from the women, and the unnaturalness of it turned Susan cold. She huddled against Nick.

‘Sleep,’ Slarda said, but offered nothing to lie on. They lay down side by side on the stones, as close to the fire as they could get, and tried to rest. They dozed and turned and dozed through the night, and woke in the dawn stiff and cold. The priests – ex-priests, outlaws – were packing for the march, but Steen came from Osro’s shelter and told them to wait. ‘The Master has much to plan.’ So they ate again and sat waiting under the cliff. Rain still fell in the gorge and the creek was higher. Steen walked down and watched it, and came back with a worried face. ‘We’ll be trapped in here if we don’t move soon.’

‘Good,’ Nick whispered to Susan.

‘How do you feel?’

‘Dizzy. If I’m going to get away I’ll have to go soon.’

But they sat there all through the morning and he found no chance. Slarda had put the fire out. The air was warm and the rain fell thick and straight. Sheets of water streamed from the cliff, closing the hollow like a room. Steen broke through it now and then and looked at the river. It moved stones on the shingle bank, making them grind like teeth. But still Osro gave no order to move. The guards sat watching Nick and Susan. They had the priest habit of not blinking and spoke in the voice trained for temple chants and striking fear. Slarda filed heads for crossbow bolts. She tested them on her thumb.

There had been no breakfast for Nick and Susan but lumps of bread were handed them at noon. Again Nick got less than Susan. They drank water from the sheet streaming from the cliff and she managed to give him a crust she had saved.

‘I’ll have to get somewhere with just one guard,’ Nick whispered.

‘Will the Shy knock him out?’

‘It better. It worked with the Halfmen.’

‘These aren’t Halfmen, Nick.’

‘They hate the Shy. They call it stinkweed. So maybe it smells different to them.’

‘I hope so.’

Slarda jerked them back to the base of the cliff and thrust them down. They had settled only a moment when Steen came out of the shelter and said, ‘The Master will talk with them.’ He led them to the opening in the blankets and pushed them in. It was darker inside and the man called Osro was like an animal squatting at the back of a den. He had no trouble seeing, for he worked at papers on his knee, making tiny marks with a charcoal stick. Steen forced them down. ‘Kneel,’ he said.

They stayed on their knees while Osro worked. He made more marks and gave a laugh. ‘Do you know what I am doing, Susan Ferris?’ He looked at her suddenly, with eyes pale in the gloom.

‘No,’ she whispered.

‘Each of these marks is a part, an ingredient, and when I have gathered them all, in the right measures and right weights, and bring them carefully face to face I have a Weapon. A Weapon like none that has ever been. With it I shall rule, O is mine. So you see, it does not matter that the Temple is finished. I would have torn it down anyway, with all its foolishness of painted faces and sacrifice. I need only this. No Susan Ferris. Or priests, or bones. But still, you are useful for a time.’

Susan wet her lips. She felt the power locked in him, the belief in himself. ‘Who are you?’ she managed to say.

‘You don’t know me? Even yet?’

‘No.’

He smiled. Then he raised his hands in front of his chest and let them dangle from the wrist. He loosened his mouth and made his eyes roll. He set up a tuneless nasal humming. And Susan knew him.

‘You. The Candidate. The one who was mad.’

Osro laughed. He let his hands fall. ‘Good, good. You’re a clever girl, as my friend the High Priest said.’

‘You weren’t mad at all.’

‘I was sane. The High Priest was mad. I acted my part for seven years, and stayed alive while the others died. Do you know how long they lasted? Two, three turns. Three was the longest. Except for me. I flattered him. He looked at me and saw the extent of his power.’

‘But we saved you. We saved you from that.’

‘You interfered. I need no help. I was ready to have him killed. Then I would have been High Priest.’

‘But the guard. The one behind you with a sword.’

‘He was mine. I controlled him. Look at me Susan.’

She did. She saw his cold pale eyes. ‘You can hypnotize.’

‘I can control, at least a mind as simple as the guard’s. But I was waiting. I waited until I had my Weapon. I had done the calculations. All that was left was to get the parts. Then you came along with your Birds, with Jimmy Jaspers and his Varg – and interfered.’

She felt the anger in him, but felt his control of it. That was what made him terrifying: control. She knew he was more dangerous than the High Priest, more dangerous even than Otis Claw. He was colder, more ambitious, and less concerned with cruelty and revenge.

BOOK: Motherstone
4.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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