Inkdeath

       part  #3 of  Inkworld Series  by  Cornelia Funke / Young Adult / Fantasy
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Inkdeath



1



Nothing But a Dog and a Sheet of Paper


Hark, the footsteps of the night

Fade in silence long.

Quiet chirps my reading light

Like a cricket’s song.



Books inviting us to read

On the bookshelves stand.

Piers for bridges that will lead

Into fairyland.

Rilke,

Sacrifice to the Lares, from Vigils III



Moonlight fell on Elinor’s dressing gown, her nightdress, her bare feet, and the dog lying in front of them. Orpheus’s dog. Oh, the way he looked at her with his eternally sad eyes! As if asking himself why, in the name of all the exciting smells in the world, she was sitting in her library in the middle of the night, surrounded by silent books, just staring into space.

‘Why?’ said Elinor in the silence. ‘Because I can’t sleep, you stupid animal.’ But she patted his head all the same. This is what you’ve come to, Elinor, she thought as she hauled herself out of her armchair. Spending your nights talking to a dog. You don’t even like dogs, least of all this one, with his heavy breathing that always reminds you of his appalling master!

Still, she had kept the dog in spite of the painful memories he brought back. She’d kept the chair too, even though the Magpie had sat in it. Mortola … how often Elinor thought she heard the old woman’s voice when she went into the quiet library, how often she seemed to see Mortimer and Resa standing among the bookshelves, or Meggie sitting by the window with a book on her lap, face hidden behind her smooth, bright hair …

Memories. They were all she had left. No more tangible than the pictures conjured up by books. But what would be left if she lost those memories too? Then she’d be alone again for ever – with the silence and the emptiness in her heart. And an ugly dog.

Her feet looked so old in the pale moonlight. Moonlight! she thought, wiggling her toes in it. In many stories moonlight had magical powers. All lies. Her whole head was full of printed lies. She couldn’t even look at the moon with eyes unclouded by veils of letters. Couldn’t she wipe all those words out of her head and heart, and see the world through her own eyes again, at least once?

Heavens, Elinor, what a fabulous mood you’re in, she thought as she made her way over to the glass case where she kept everything that Orpheus had left behind, apart from his dog. Wallowing in self-pity, like that stupid dog rolling over in every puddle.

The sheet of paper that lay behind the glass looked nothing special, just an ordinary piece of lined paper densely written in pale-blue ink. Not to be compared with the magnificently illuminated books in the other display cases – even though the tracing of every letter showed how very impressed Orpheus was with himself. I hope the fire-elves have burnt that self-satisfied smile off his lips, thought Elinor as she opened the glass case. I hope the men-at-arms have skewered him – or, even better, I hope he’s starved to death in the Wayless Wood, miserably and very, very slowly. It wasn’t the first time she had pictured Orpheus’s wretched end in the Inkworld to herself. These images gave her lonely heart more pleasure than almost anything.

The sheet of paper was already yellowing. To add insult to injury, it was cheap stuff. And the words on it really didn’t look as though they could have spirited their writer away to another world right before Elinor’s eyes. Three photographs lay beside the sheet of paper – one of Meggie and two of Resa – a photo of her as a child and another taken only a few months ago, with Mortimer beside her, both of them smiling so happily! Hardly a night went by when Elinor didn’t look at those photographs. By now, at least, the tears had stopped running down her cheeks when she did so, but they were still there in her heart. Bitter tears. Her heart was full to the brim with them, a horrible feeling.

Lost.

Meggie.

Resa.

Mortimer.

Almost three months had passed since their disappearance. In fact, Meggie had even been gone a few days longer than her parents …

The dog stretched and came trotting drowsily over to her. He pushed his nose into her dressing-gown pocket, knowing there were always a few dog biscuits in it for him.

‘Yes, all right, all right,’ she murmured, shoving one of the smelly little things into his broad muzzle. ‘Where’s your master, then?’ She held the sheet of paper in front of his nose, and the stupid creature sniffed it as if he really could catch Orpheus’s scent behind the words on the page.

Elinor stared at the words, shaping them with her lips. In the streets of Ombra … She’d stood here so often over the last few weeks, surrounded by books that meant nothing to her; now she was once again alone with them. They didn’t speak to her, just as if they knew that she’d have exchanged them all on the spot for the three people she had lost. Lost in a book.

‘I will learn how, damn it!’ Her voice sounded defiant, like a child’s. ‘I’ll learn how to read them so that they’ll swallow me up too, I will, I will!’

The dog was looking at her as if he believed every word of it, but Elinor didn’t, not a single one. No, she was no Silvertongue. Even if she tried for a dozen years or more, the words wouldn’t make music when she spoke them. She’d loved words so much all her life. Although they didn’t sing for her the way they sang for Meggie or Mortimer – or Orpheus, damn him three times over.

The piece of paper shook in her fingers as she started to cry. Here came the tears again. She’d held them back for so long, all the tears in her heart, until it was simply overflowing with them. Elinor’s sobs were so loud that the dog cowered in alarm. How ridiculous that water ran out of your eyes when your heart hurt. Tragic heroines in books tended to be amazingly beautiful. Not a word about swollen eyes or a red nose. Crying always gives me a red nose, thought Elinor. I expect that’s why I’ll never be in any book.

‘Elinor?’

She spun round, hastily wiping her tears away.

Darius stood in the open doorway, wearing the dressing gown that she had given him for his last birthday. It was much too large for him.

‘What is it?’ she snapped. Where had that handkerchief gone this time? Sniffing, she pulled it from her sleeve and blew her nose. ‘Three months, they’ve been gone three months now, Darius! Isn’t that a good reason to cry? Yes, it is. Don’t look at me so pityingly with your owlish eyes. Never mind how many books we buy,’ she said, with a wide sweep of her arm towards her well-filled shelves, ‘never mind how many we get at auctions, swap or steal – not one of them tells me what I want to know! Thousands of pages, and not a word on any of them with news of the only people I want to know about. Why would I be interested in anything else? Theirs is the only story I want to hear! How is Meggie now, do you think? How are Resa and Mortimer? Are they happy, Darius? Are they still alive? Will I ever see them again?’

Darius looked along the books, as if the answer might after all be found in one of them. But then, like all those printed pages, he gave her no answer.

‘I’ll make you some hot milk and honey,’ he said at last, disappearing into the kitchen.

And Elinor was alone again with the books, the moonlight and Orpheus’s ugly dog.





2



Only a Village


The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,

The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,

The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,

And the highwayman came riding –

Riding – riding –

The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

Alfred Noyes,

The Highwayman



The fairies were already beginning to dance among the trees, swarms of tiny blue bodies. Their wings caught the starlight, and Mo saw the Black Prince glancing anxiously at the sky. It was still as dark as the hills all around, but the fairies were never wrong. On a cold night like this, only the coming of dawn could lure them from their nests, and the village whose harvest the robbers were trying to save this time lay dangerously close to Ombra. As soon as daybreak came they must be gone.

A village like many others: only a dozen poor huts, a few barren, stony fields, and a wall that would hardly keep out a child, let alone a soldier. Thirty women without their menfolk, three dozen fatherless children. Two days ago the new governor’s men had carried off almost the entire harvest of the neighbouring village. The robbers had reached the place too late, but something could still be salvaged here. They’d spent hours digging, showing the women how to hide livestock and provisions underground …

The Strong Man was carrying the last hastily-dug sackful of potatoes, his rough-hewn face red with effort. It went the same colour when he was fighting or drunk. Between them all, they lowered the sack into the hiding place they had made just beyond the fields, and Mo covered the entrance with a network of twigs to hide the storage pit from soldiers and tax gatherers. By now, toads were croaking in the surrounding hills, as if to entice the day out, and the men on watch among the huts were getting restless. They’d seen the fairies too. High time to get away, back into the forest where a hiding place could always be found, even though the new governor was sending more and more patrols out to the hills. The Milksop, the widows of Ombra called him. A good nickname for the Adderhead’s puny brother-in-law. But the Milksop’s greed for what few possessions his new subjects had was insatiable.

Mo rubbed his eyes. Heavens, he was tired. He’d hardly slept for days. There were just too many villages that they might yet be able to reach ahead of the soldiers.

‘You look worn out,’ Resa had said only yesterday when she woke up beside him, unaware that he hadn’t come to bed beside her until the first light of dawn. He had said something about bad dreams, told her he’d been passing the sleepless hours by working on the book he was binding, a collection of her drawings of fairies and glass men. He hoped Resa and Meggie would be asleep again now when he came back to the lonely farmhouse that the Black Prince had found for them. It was east of Ombra, an hour’s journey from the city on foot, and far from the land where the Adderhead still ruled, made immortal by a book that Mo had bound with his own hands.

Soon, thought Mo. Soon the book won’t protect him any more. But how often had he told himself that before? And the Adderhead was still immortal.

A girl hesitantly approached Mo. How old would she be? Six? Seven? Her hair was as blonde as Meggie’s, but it was a long time since Meggie had been so small. Shyly, she stopped a pace away from him.

Snapper emerged from the darkness and went over to the child. ‘Yes, go on, take a good look!’ he whispered to the little girl. ‘That’s really him – the Bluejay! He eats children like you for supper.’

Snapper loved such jokes. Mo bit back the words on the tip of his tongue. ‘Don’t believe a word he says!’ he said, in a low voice. ‘Why aren’t you asleep like everyone else?’

The child looked at him. Then she pushed up his sleeve with her small hands until the scar showed. The scar of which the songs told tales …

She looked at him, wide-eyed, with the same mixture of awe and fear he had now seen in so many faces. The Bluejay. The girl ran back to her mother, and Mo straightened up. Whenever his chest hurt where Mortola had wounded him, it felt as if he had slipped in there to join him – the robber to whom Fenoglio had given Mo’s face and voice. Or had the Bluejay always been a part of him, merely sleeping until Fenoglio’s world brought him to life?

Sometimes when they were taking meat to one of the starving villages, or a few sacks of grain stolen from the Milksop’s bailiffs, women would come up to him and kiss his hand. ‘Go and thank the Black Prince, not me,’ he always told them, but the Prince just laughed. ‘Get yourself a bear,’ he said. ‘Then they’ll leave you alone.’

A child began crying in one of the huts. A tinge of red was showing in the night sky, and Mo thought he heard hoof beats. Horsemen, at least a dozen of them, maybe more. How fast the ears learnt to tell what sounds meant, much faster than it took the eyes to decipher written words.

The fairies scattered. Women cried out, and ran to the huts where their children slept. Mo’s hand drew his sword as if of its own accord. As if it had never done anything else. It was the sword he had taken from the Castle of Night, the sword that once belonged to Firefox.

The first light of dawn.

Wasn’t it said that they always came at first light because they loved the red of the sky? With any luck they’d be drunk after one of their master’s endless banquets.

The Prince signalled to the robbers to take up their positions surrounding the village. It was only a couple of courses of flat stones, and the huts wouldn’t offer much protection either. The bear was snorting and grunting, and here they came now out of the darkness: horsemen, more than a dozen of them with the new crest of Ombra on their breasts, a basilisk on a red background. They had not, of course, been expecting to find men here. Weeping women, crying children, yes, but not men, and armed men at that. Taken aback, they reined in their horses. They were drunk. Good – that would slow them down.

They didn’t hesitate for long, seeing at once that they were far better armed than the ragged robbers. And they had horses.

Fools. They’d die before they realized that weapons and horses weren’t all that counted.

‘Every last one of them!’ Snapper whispered hoarsely to Mo. ‘We have to kill them all, Bluejay. I hope your soft heart understands that. If a single man gets back to Ombra, this village will burn tomorrow.’

Mo merely nodded. As if he didn’t know.

The horses neighed shrilly as their riders urged them towards the robbers, and Mo felt it again, just as he had on Mount Adder when he had killed Basta – that coldness of the blood. Cold as the hoarfrost at his feet. The only fear he felt was fear of himself.

But then came the screams. The groans. The blood. His own heartbeat, loud and much too fast. Striking and thrusting, pulling his sword out of the bodies of strangers, the blood of strangers wet on his clothes, faces distorted by hatred – or was it fear? Fortunately you couldn’t see much under their helmets. They were so young! Smashed limbs, smashed human beings. Careful, watch out behind you. Kill. Fast. Not one of them must get away.

‘Bluejay.’

One of the soldiers whispered the name before Mo struck him down. Perhaps he had been thinking, with his last breath, of all the silver he’d get for bringing the Bluejay’s body back to Ombra Castle – more silver than he could ever take as loot in a whole lifetime as a soldier. Mo pulled his sword out of the man’s chest. They had come without their body armour. Who needed armour against women and children? How cold killing made you, very cold, although your own skin was burning and your blood was flowing fever-hot.

They did indeed kill them all. It was quiet in the huts as they threw the bodies over the precipice. Two were their own men, whose bones would now mingle with those of their enemies. There was no time to bury them.

The Black Prince had a nasty cut on his shoulder. Mo bandaged it as best he could. The bear sat beside them, looking anxious. The child came out of one of the huts, the little girl who had pushed his sleeve up. From a distance she really did look like Meggie. Meggie, Resa … he hoped they’d still be asleep when he got back. How was he going to explain all the blood if they weren’t? So much blood …

Sometime, Mortimer, he thought, the nights will overshadow the days. Nights of blood. Peaceful days – days when Meggie showed him everything she had only been able to tell him about in the tower of the Castle of Night. Nymphs with scaly skins dwelling in blossom-covered pools, footprints of giants long gone, flowers that whispered when you touched them, trees growing right up to the sky, moss-women who appeared between their roots as if they had peeled away from the bark … Peaceful days. Nights of blood.

They did what they could to cover up the traces of the fight and left, taking the horses with them. There was a note of fear in the stammered thanks of the village women as they left. They’d seen with their own eyes that their allies knew as much about killing as their enemies did.

Snapper rode back to the robbers’ camp with the horses and most of the men. The camp was moved almost daily. At present it was in a dark ravine that became hardly any lighter even by day. They would send for Roxane to tend the wounded, while Mo went back to where Resa and Meggie were sleeping at the deserted farm. The Prince had found it for them, because Resa didn’t want to stay in the robbers’ camp and Meggie too longed for a house to live in after all those homeless weeks.

The Black Prince accompanied Mo, as he so often did. ‘Of course. The Bluejay never travels without a retinue,’ mocked Snapper before they parted company. Mo, whose heart was still racing from all the killing, could have dragged him off his horse for that, but the Prince restrained him.

They travelled on foot. It meant a painfully long walk for their tired limbs, but their footprints were harder to follow than a trail left by horses’ hooves. And the farm must be kept safe, for everything Mo loved was waiting there.

The house, and the dilapidated farm buildings, always appeared among the trees as unexpectedly as if someone had dropped and lost them there. There was no trace now of the fields where food for the farm had once been grown, and the path that used to lead to the nearest village had disappeared long ago. The forest had swallowed everything up. Here it was no longer called the Wayless Wood, the name it bore south of Ombra. Here the forest had as many names as there were local villages: the Fairy Forest, the Dark Wood, the Moss-Women’s Wood. If the Strong Man was to be believed, the place where the Bluejay’s hide-out lay was called Larkwood. ‘Larkwood? Nonsense,’ was Meggie’s response to that. ‘The Strong Man calls everything after birds! He even gives birds’ names to the fairies, although they can’t stand the birds. Battista says it’s called the Wood of Lights, which suits it much better. Did you ever see so many glow-worms and fire-elves in a wood? And all those fireflies that sit in the treetops at night …’
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