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Authors: Jon Berkeley

The Lightning Key

BOOK: The Lightning Key
9.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

For Sara,
whose words dance to a wilder tune




isten: Rain is falling, and what a rain! A billion beads of cold sky slant down through the night, turning the damp earth to mud, and the mud to pools, and the pools to streams that feed the underground river that flows beneath the cobbled streets of Larde. As lightning fills the sky the raindrops pause for a heartbeat, and are released again into the darkness. They roar on the roof tiles and stream from the gutters; they rattle on the dancing leaves and spatter on the pavements, and the people of Larde burrow deeper into their beds with a grateful shiver.

In the dormitories of Partridge Manor, on the
edge of town, sleepless children count down the storm's approach; one second less for every mile closer. Lightning floods the rooms and they count: one . . . two . . . three . . . . Then thunder crashes and rolls through the night, making the windows rattle and the smaller orphans shriek. It's getting nearer.

Miles Wednesday, floating somewhere between wakefulness and sleep, dreams of a tiger who stands below his window and roars in anger, making small birds burst from the treetops and beetles cower in the grass. The tiger's roar shakes the clouds loose and they begin to tumble earthward like boulders. Miles wakes from his dream with a start. The room is lit by a blinding flash and thunder fills the air. He looks across to see if Little is awake. Her bed is empty, the covers thrown back, and she is nowhere to be seen. Miles slides his feet into his slippers and pulls on his old overcoat, a knot forming in his stomach.

He moves to the window and presses his nose to the cold glass, cupping his hands on either side of his face. He can just make out the tree house perched between the twin trunks of the great beech tree in the garden, a dark jumble in the downpour. Smoke rises from the tree house roof like a pale ghost. As his eyes get used to the darkness he can see torn
branches hanging from the tree. He catches sight of a light blur beneath the tree house, and as it starts to climb the rope ladder he realizes with a shock that it is Little.

“What on earth is she
?” he says to Tangerine. The orange-gray stuffed bear doesn't answer. He lies curled up in the pocket of Miles's overcoat, pretending to be asleep. For a moment Miles is tempted to climb back into his bed and do the same, but he can hardly leave Little alone in a smoldering tree house in the middle of a thunderstorm. He shivers as he turns to leave the dormitory. At the door he pauses. It's cold outside and he knows that in a moment he'll be soaked to the skin. He slips back across the room, lifts Tangerine gently from his pocket and tucks him under the bedcovers.

“You stay right there until I get back,” he says.


Miles Wednesday, squelch-slippered and rain-frozen, ran through the muddy garden, leaping over the deeper puddles, though he was already as wet as it was possible to be. The rain hammered on the top of his head and ran down his neck, plastering his pajamas to his skin. He reached the shelter of the tree house and stood there panting. From the square hole above him a yellow light flickered, and he could
just make out the sound of voices through the roar of the rain. He grasped the ladder, pushed his dripping hair out of his eyes and began to climb.

The inside of the tree house was dimly lit by a couple of candles, if the mounds of knobbly wax that grew on Lady Partridge's shelves could be described as candles. Their ragged flames danced in the drafts, making shadows leap among the jumble of bric-a-brac that spilled from shelves and washed up in every corner of the room. Little was sitting on the hammock that was strung between the twin beech trunks in the center of the tree house. Her arms were crossed and she wore a stubborn frown that Miles knew well. The frown was directed at a tall, slim boy who stood facing her, with his back to Miles. The boy was speaking in low, urgent tones, and though his voice was quiet it cut like glass through the din of the storm.

problem. He's already marked, but there still may be a chance for you. I've told the Council that you lost your wings trying to retrieve—” The boy stopped in midsentence and turned, following Little's gaze, to see Miles's head poking up through the square hole in the floor. His dark eyes narrowed, and Miles recognized him at once. It was Silverpoint, the Storm Angel whom Little had been following
when first she fell from the sky, a winged boy one thousand years old who could command lightning with a flick of his wrist and herd thunder like cattle. He seemed to be having a little more trouble controlling the anger on his face, but he managed a thin smile.

“Hello, Miles,” he said.

Miles climbed the last few rungs and stood dripping on the rug that covered the creaky floorboards. “Hello, Silverpoint,” he said, and turned to Little. “Is everything okay?” he asked her, glancing up at the smoldering roof. Smoke was gathering under the ceiling, and a glowing ember fell as he watched, landing on Silverpoint's shoulder. The Storm Angel brushed it away without seeming to notice.

“Silverpoint has brought some news,” said Little. The frown had not left her face.

“It doesn't concern him,” said Silverpoint, turning back to Little as though he expected Miles to melt back into the puddle that was forming at his feet.

“If it concerns me, it concerns Miles too,” said Little.

“Maybe we should go inside,” interrupted Miles. “It's dry in there, and the roof isn't on fire. We should also call the fire brigade before this has a chance to catch properly.”

Silverpoint spun back to face him, and the air around him crackled briefly with a blue haze. “Forget the shack!” he barked. “There are urgent matters to be discussed, and time is fast running out. You can stay or go as you please. I don't have the time to argue.”

Miles opened his mouth to reply, but caught sight of the anxious look on Little's face and closed it again. “Tell Miles what you told me,” she said, pushing a lock of her white-blond hair behind her ear.

“He wouldn't understand,” said Silverpoint. “What does he know of the Realm?”

“I know what Little has told me,” said Miles.

“There's no time to explain in detail,” said Silverpoint. “The Sleep Angels have passed a condemnation on you for using a Tiger's Egg. Your life is forfeit, but I may be able to save Little if I can convince the Council that she was only trying to retrieve the tiger's soul for them.”

“My life is forfeit?” echoed Miles. He was tempted to laugh. It seemed like a bizarre joke to be condemned to death in his absence for something he had been unaware of until mere weeks before, but still it made his stomach tighten.

“I don't want to be saved,” said Little, “not on my own. Miles and I stay together, whatever happens.”

Silverpoint threw his arms out in exasperation. “You have no obligation to him,” he said. “You have already repaid your debt three times over.”

“Miles is my friend,” said Little.

“Your friend,” repeated Silverpoint, as though he were trying an unfamiliar taste. He looked again at Miles, his eyes like ink spots in his pale, narrow face, before turning back to Little. “You've lived here too long,” he said. “I should have tried to bring you back with me.”

“You couldn't have,” said Little. “I gave up my wings to save Miles.”

“If the tiger's soul is surrendered I may be able to persuade them to allow you back,” said Silverpoint. “I need the Egg,” he said to Miles. He held out his hand. His fingers were long and pale. “You must give it to me if you want Little to live.”

Little jumped down from the hammock. “He doesn't even know what it is,” she said before Miles could speak.

Miles shook his head. He knew, of course, what the Tiger's Egg was. The small stone, no bigger than an olive but containing the trapped soul of a tiger, had been stitched into the sawdust-filled head of his stuffed bear, Tangerine, when Miles was only days old, and there it had remained hidden for
twelve years. He suddenly felt anxious for Tangerine, whom he had left tucked up in his bed. “I have to go and tell Lady Partridge about the fire,” he said, though the rain had gotten the upper hand and the tree house roof was giving off little more than a loud hiss and a lot of steam.

“I'll be right here,” said Little.

Miles turned and half climbed, half slithered down the rope ladder. The rain twisted with the wind, and thunder rolled continuously as he ran, bent forward against the storm, toward the house. As he turned the corner he collided with something soft and soggy, and both boy and obstacle fell backward into the sodden grass.

“Oof!” said the obstacle, which was large and round and wrapped in silk. Miles scrambled to his feet, and the obstacle did the same, just as they were both lit by a dazzling flash of lightning.

“Doctor Tau-Tau!” gasped Miles, winded and surprised. “I thought you'd been deported!”

“Deported?” shouted the plump fortune-teller over the hissing rain. “Nonsense, boy. I . . . I resumed my travels. But I had to come back to . . .” He straightened his battered fez and stared wildly over Miles's head. “To report a fire! The tree house . . .”
He pointed at the smoldering tree house roof.

“But that's only just started,” shouted Miles. There was something in Doctor Tau-Tau's look that was even shiftier than usual.

“Second sight, my boy,” replied the fortune-teller. “I can predict . . .” He hesitated for a moment, and as lightning flashed again he smiled nervously at Miles, fidgeting in the pocket of his silk dressing gown. “We had some adventures, you and I,” he said suddenly.

Miles stared at him in puzzlement. It was such an odd thing for Tau-Tau to say in the heart of a thunderstorm, his white hair pasted to his forehead and rainwater streaming from the end of his nose. Doctor Tau-Tau stepped forward suddenly and grabbed Miles's hand, pressing a couple of coins into his palm and closing his fingers over them. “Buy something nice, eh?” he shouted. He took a couple of paces backward, a smile still stretched across his face; then he turned and hurried toward the gravel driveway and was swallowed by the darkness.

Miles made his way quickly to the back door of the mansion. The coins felt gritty in his hand. He frowned as he let himself in, dripping, and as he squelched through the kitchen he thought he heard
the sound of a motor starting over the roar of the rain. The feeling of unease was spreading up from his stomach, and he began to shiver uncontrollably as he took the broad stairs two at a time. By the time he reached his room, unease had turned to dread. The door stood open and the covers had been dragged off his bed. Something lifeless huddled in the center of the bedsheet. Miles approached the bed slowly, his teeth chattering like castanets. It was Tangerine, and it was not Tangerine. The bear lay in a small pile of stuffing and sawdust, his head almost completely removed from his limp body.

Miles sat down heavily on the edge of the bed, the blood draining from his face. He knew that he had to think of something quickly. He shook his pillow out of its pillowcase and gathered up the remains of Tangerine gently, trying not to miss any of the stuffing. The bear's head felt lighter than usual, but it did not register with Miles. He felt numb, and for a moment he forgot all about Little and Silverpoint. “I'll fix you back up,” he said to Tangerine. He placed the bear carefully into the pillowcase and tied it loosely. His damp fingers felt gritty from the sawdust, like the coins that Doctor Tau-Tau had given him, and all at once the fortune-teller's
guilty smile swam before his eyes. He stopped dead for a moment, and his heart pumped freezing air. The Tiger's Egg . . . 
had taken it! He had torn open the sleeping bear and plucked out the little stone, and Miles had let him go. His stomach lurched and the room seemed to tilt. He took a deep breath to steady himself, and rose from the bed on shaky legs.

As he turned to go he spotted his mother's diary, which he kept under his pillow. He had been studying the diary in the hope that it would be the key to the secrets of the Tiger's Egg. The hope drained from him as he remembered what he had read before falling asleep that night, but he picked up the diary nonetheless and slipped it into his pocket along with the dismembered bear in the knotted pillowcase. He stumbled out through the open door, and in the darkened landing he almost ran into a small girl who was hurrying, wide-eyed, in the direction of Lady Partridge's room.

“Jessica,” said Miles, “tell Lady Partridge the tree house is on fire.”

Jessica Tuesday's eyes opened even wider, and she nodded mutely.

“And tell her,” called Miles as he slid down the
curving banister, “that I've had to go out for a while, but I'm okay.” He flew off the end of the banister and ran through the darkened kitchen. Outside, the night flung freezing rain in his face as he rounded the house and headed for the driveway down which the thieving fortune-teller had disappeared. He stopped for a moment and squinted into the darkness, remembering the engine he had heard starting up minutes before. “Think,” he said aloud. “How are you going to catch him on foot?”

He thought of the tiger, and how the powerful beast had carried himself and Little on his back through field and forest, never seeming to tire. He reached into his pocket and grasped the limp shape of Tangerine inside his pillowcase ambulance, and he closed his eyes. With a great effort he slowed his breathing and listened for the tiger's rumbling voice in the roar of the surrounding rain. He flared his nostrils to let in the odor of damp earth, willing it to turn into the musty smell that had risen from the tiger's pelt as they ran through the rain-drenched vineyards on the way to the Palace of Laughter. He opened his eyes and saw the tiger's stripes appear through the slanting rain, and despite the cold and the awful sense of dread he felt a wave of relief
sweep through him. He would have to leave Little behind in the tree house. He could not risk Silverpoint seeing the tiger; nor could he—

BOOK: The Lightning Key
9.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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