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       Swift, p.1

           R. J. Anderson
 
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Swift


  www.orchardbooks.co.uk

  ORCHARD BOOKS

  338 Euston Road, London NW1 3BH

  Orchard Books Australia

  Level 17/207 Kent Street, Sydney, NSW 2000

  First published in the UK in 2012 by Orchard Books

  This ebook edition published in 2012

  ISBN 978 1 40831 627 6

  Text © R J Anderson 2012

  The right of R J Anderson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

  A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

  Orchard Books is a division of Hachette Children’s Books,

  an Hachette UK company.

  www.hachette.co.uk

  In memory of my grandmother,

  Ivy-Mae Menadue Michell,

  whose legacy of love and saffron cake

  still endures

  prologue

  ‘You could always make it look as though you had wings,’ said Jenny, her voice echoing off the granite walls of the treasure cavern. ‘A little glamour, just for tonight—’

  Ivy let the delicate wing-chain slide through her fingers, spilling it back into the chest. ‘I’m not that good with illusions. Cicely can cast better glamours than me, and she’s five years old.’ She shut the lid with a snap. ‘Anyway, why bother? I’m not going to fool anyone.’

  Jenny looked pained, but did not argue. Already she was growing into a beauty, with the sturdy bones and warm complexion that all piskeys admired. Her wings were no less striking, all grey-white ripples above and a blush of pink beneath. She didn’t need jewellery to make herself look fine.

  Ivy, on the other hand, had inherited her mother’s pale skin and small, spindly frame. No matter what she wore, Jenny would always outshine her. But Ivy didn’t care about that. She wouldn’t mind if she were ugly as a spriggan, if only she’d been born with wings like Jenny’s.

  Or indeed, any wings at all.

  Suppressing her envy, Ivy blew the dust off another chest and heaved up the lid. ‘What are these? Pipes?’ But no, they were too shiny for that. Unusually large armbands, perhaps.

  ‘That’s armour,’ said Jenny in hushed tones. ‘It must be a hundred years old.’

  Ivy had heard of the ancient battles between the piskeys and their enemies, but she’d never seen armour before. Daring, she slid her arm into one of the guards and held it up to the light. But of course it looked silly on her; it had been meant for a warrior, not a skinny girl-child. She dropped it back into the chest.

  ‘Girls, it’s almost time.’ The soft voice came from Marigold, Ivy’s mother. There were shadows beneath her eyes, and the wan glow of her skin barely lit the archway in which she stood. She’d been working too hard again, no doubt, helping the other women prepare for the feast to come. ‘You’ll have to hurry.’

  ‘I’m done,’ said Jenny, touching the topaz pendant at her throat. ‘I was just helping Ivy a bit.’ She nudged the younger girl affectionately. ‘I’ll see you later.’

  Marigold stepped aside to let Jenny pass, then moved to Ivy. ‘What’s the matter?’ she asked. ‘I thought you’d like to pick out something special to wear to your first Lighting. Do you want me to help?’

  Her mother meant well, Ivy knew. But her tastes ran to the pink and glittery, and that wouldn’t suit Ivy at all. ‘No, it’s all right,’ she said. ‘I’ll find something next time.’

  She expected Marigold to lead the way out, but instead her mother lingered, fingering Ivy’s black curls. ‘You’ve grown so much these past few months,’ she murmured. ‘My little woman. Are you frightened, to go above?’

  ‘Not really,’ said Ivy, truthfully. She had made Jenny tell her everything she could remember about her first two Lightings, so she would know what to expect and no one could trick or scare her. It was her only defence against her brother Mica and the other piskey-boys, who would be trying all night to catch her in their pranks.

  ‘Not afraid of anything?’ asked her mother. ‘Not even the—’ Her voice caught. ‘The spriggans?’

  No wonder people said Ivy’s mother was flighty. She was always worrying these days, even when there was nothing to fear. ‘They won’t come,’ said Ivy. ‘Not with Aunt Betony there to protect us.’ Betony, her father’s sister, had recently been crowned as the new Joan the Wad – the most powerful, important piskey in the Delve. It was her task to surround the Lighting with the same wards and glamours she used to protect the mine from intruders, and Betony never did anything carelessly.

  Ivy picked up the trailing end of Marigold’s flowered shawl and draped it back over her shoulder. ‘We can go now,’ she said. ‘I’m ready.’

  As Ivy followed her mother through the tunnels towards the surface, she was glad for the lights of her fellow piskeys heading in the same direction. Not that she was afraid of losing her way even in the dark, for Ivy knew most of the Delve’s twists and turnings by now. But the tunnels were magnificent, and it would have been a shame not to see them.

  Every passage carved by the piskey miners – or knockers – was unique, from the polished granite of Long Way where Ivy’s family lived, to the delicate mosaics of plants and animals on the walls of Upper Rise, where she and the other children sat for lessons. But Ivy’s favourite tunnel was the one they were walking through now, lined with tiles of deep blue china clay. Her father had told her once that it was the colour of the sky, and when no one was watching her, Ivy would run through it with her arms outstretched and pretend that she was flying.

  Which was what Jenny and the other girls would soon be doing – spreading their wings and launching themselves up the crude but useful shaft that the humans had dug out long ago, before the mine was abandoned and the piskeys moved in. The Great Shaft was the quickest route out of the mine, and if it weren’t for Ivy, Marigold would surely have flown to the Lighting that way herself. But now the two of them could only plod through the tunnels to the surface, like the men.

  Humiliation curdled in Ivy’s stomach. What crime had she or her parents committed, that she’d been born wingless? Her magic might not be as strong as some piskeys’, but it was good enough: she could make herself tall as a human or tiny as a mole, even turn herself invisible if she didn’t mind a bit of a headache afterwards. But something had gone wrong with Ivy’s making while she was still unborn, and she’d come out with nothing but a pair of bony nubs between her shoulders where her wings should be. And neither Yarrow’s healing potions nor the Joan’s most powerful spells, it seemed, could change that.

  Though not long ago, Ivy’s mother had said something about her own wings not being right when she was young… or had that been a dream? Ivy had been struggling all day to remember, but every time she tried her head began to swim.

  Perhaps she was just tired. After all, she’d been looking forward to the Lighting so much, she’d hardly slept last night.

  ‘We’re almost there,’ whispered Marigold, taking Ivy’s hand. After the twisting bends of the Narrows and a climb up the Hunter’s Stair, they had reached the Earthenbore, a tunnel of packed clay baked to hardness by the power of the Joan herself. Ivy had never been this close to the surface before, and her pulse quickened as she followed the other piskeys into the passage.

  At the first junction they turned right and began to climb again, the tunnel narrowing and the floor rising steeply as they neared the exit. The air smelled earthy, sweet with heather and bracken and the scent of blossoming gorse – plants that until now Ivy had only ever seen cut and tied in bundles. What would it be like to walk among them, to see them living and growing all around her? It was hard to imagine, but in a moment she wouldn’t have to. She would know.

  ‘Look at her big eyes,’ snickered one of the younger
piskey-boys, nudging his companion, and Ivy stiffened. Just like Keeve to tease her at a time like this. He’d be calling her Creeping Ivy next.

  ‘Ivy’s always got big eyes,’ said the taller boy, elbowing him back. ‘Shut your mouth.’ He glanced at Ivy and gave her a shy half-smile before ducking out the archway into the night.

  And that was just like Mattock, always looking out for the younger ones. She thought of her little sister Cicely, tucked into her bed with a sleeping-spell that would keep her there until morning. Last year Ivy had been just as oblivious to the celebrations taking place above her head, but it was her time now. She would not cling to her mother, like a baby; she would step out boldly, as the others were doing. Ivy pulled her hand free of Marigold’s, plunged forward…

  And with a crackle of undergrowth and a last wild thump of her heart, Ivy was outside.

  As she stepped out onto the surface of the world, the scrubby grass crunched beneath her feet, and a dry rustling filled her ears as the breeze – the first she had ever felt – stirred the gorse and bracken that surrounded the tunnel entrance. Underground the air was still, but here it danced around her, teasing and tugging her from every side. She turned a slow circle, trying to accustom herself to the strangeness of it, as her hair tangled about her face and her skirts swirled against her knees. Then she looked up – and her mouth dropped open in awe.

  Jenny had tried to describe the sky to her, and she’d heard the droll-teller mention it in his stories. But what words could capture the grandeur of a roof that stretched out forever, too high for even the mightiest giant of legend to touch? It should have terrified Ivy to stand beneath that vast purple darkness, with the innumerable stars burning white-hot above her and the moon like a crucible of molten silver. But it only made her feel quiet and very, very small.

  Then there was the landscape, just visible beyond the patches of waving bracken and bristling tufts of gorse that walled her in. It had no walls to contain it, only a few tangled hedges interspersed with the occasional tree. And those white, square shapes away to her right…could they be human dwellings? Even at piskey size – about the height of a grown human’s knee, or so the droll-teller claimed – Ivy could have walked to one of those houses.

  ‘Come,’ said Marigold, taking Ivy’s arm as the piskey men led the way up the slope. ‘We mustn’t keep the others waiting.’

  The old Engine House stood at the top of the ridge, its broken chimney jutting into the sky. Even after a century of neglect its walls held strong, but their tops ended in nothing but air; the roof had crumbled away long ago. Two of its windows still gaped like empty sockets, but the others were long smothered in a mass of the same plant that had given Ivy her name. From a distance the ruined mine building looked desolate, even haunted.

  But that was an illusion, meant to keep intruders away. In reality the place was anything but neglected, for the piskeys of the Delve had been using it as their feasting and dancing ground for decades. They’d piled rocks and soil beneath the lone doorway to make it easy for their people to climb in and out, and smoothed out the precipitous drop in the floor. Now the Engine House was filled with light and festivity, as the piskeys of the Delve bustled about setting up chairs and laying the tables. On the far side of the dancing green her father Flint was tuning his fiddle, while Mica and the other piskey-boys played a game of chase-the-spriggan around the pile of wood that would soon become their wakefire.

  ‘I’m going to talk to Nettle,’ said Marigold, drawing her shawl closer around her shoulders. ‘Jenny’s over there; why don’t you go and see her?’

  ‘I will in a minute,’ said Ivy, surprised. Lately Marigold had been staying close to Ivy whenever there was a crowd, in case she felt sick or needed anything. But perhaps her mother had finally understood what Ivy had been telling her for months – that she could manage perfectly well on her own, and there was no need to fuss over her.

  She watched her mother make her way to the bench along the far wall where most of the older piskeys were sitting, chatting comfortably to one another. What would Marigold want with Nettle? The old woman had attended the previous Joan and managed to outlive her, and since then she’d been serving Betony as well. But other than that, Ivy knew little about her.

  ‘Boo!’ yelled a voice, and Ivy let out a shriek as Keeve leaped in front of her. ‘Got you!’ he said, grinning.

  Disgusted, Ivy pushed him away and headed towards Jenny. But Keeve affected a wounded expression and fell into step beside her.

  ‘I just wanted you to notice me, that’s all,’ he said. ‘Pretty Ivy, won’t you dance with me tonight?’

  Ivy faltered. The wicked glint in Keeve’s eye had vanished, and his expression was earnest as she’d ever seen it. ‘Do you…you don’t really mean that, do you?’ she asked.

  Keeve chortled. ‘Got you again!’ he said, and scampered off.

  Ivy ground her teeth. Most piskeys loved pranking, especially the younger ones – and especially on nights like this, when the one who played the most successful pranks would win a prize. But she’d never liked being tricked, or trying to trick others either, and she wished her fellow piskeys would leave her out of it.

  ‘There you are,’ said Mica, jogging up to her. He was growing broad and strong like their father, his black hair thick over his forehead and his eyes dark as cassiterite. ‘Did you see the giant?’ He pulled Ivy over to the doorway and pointed into the distance, where a pair of baleful lights swept the landscape. ‘See his eyes glowing? He’s looking for piskeys to eat…’

  This time, Ivy was prepared. ‘Oh, no!’ she exclaimed. ‘And let me guess – those flashing lights I just saw overhead? They must be wicked faeries spying on us!’

  Mica scowled. ‘Jenny told you.’

  ‘Well,’ said Ivy, ‘it’s not my fault you play the same trick every year.’

  Her older brother sighed. ‘Fair enough. You know what those lights are, then?’

  ‘Human things,’ she replied. Not that she’d ever seen a car or an aeroplane, or had any clear idea how they worked. But everyone knew that there was nothing to fear from the Big People; most of them didn’t even believe in piskeys any more.

  ‘Keeve and I have a bet on,’ said Mica. ‘He says as soon as he becomes a hunter, he’s going to disguise himself as a human and get a ride in one of those cars. I told him they’ll never stop for him, but he thinks all he has to do is—’

  ‘All gather for the Lighting!’ bellowed a voice, and the rest of the conversation was forgotten as Ivy and Mica hurried to find a seat. Mica wriggled his way in between Keeve and Mattock, while Jenny patted the bench beside her and leaned closer as Ivy sat down.

  ‘Wait until you see this,’ she whispered, nodding at the far side of the circle where the Joan stood with her consort by her side. ‘I can’t believe she’s your aunt.’

  Betony was a strongly built woman with hair as black as Ivy’s, though longer and not so curly, and their kinship was evident in the angles of her cheekbones, her pointed chin. With grave dignity she extended her arms over the woodpile…

  And flames exploded from her hands.

  Ivy jerked back, nearly upsetting the bench in her shock. She’d known that the Joan would light the wakefire, but she’d never expected her to do it like this. Jenny patted her shoulder, reassuring, while Betony lowered her blazing palms to touch the kindling. The twigs glowed bright as molten copper, and soon the whole heap of wood was alight.

  ‘All hail!’ shouted the piskeys together. ‘Hail Joan the Wad!’

  Wad was the old Cornish word for torch, and until now Ivy had thought it just a ceremonial title. But no, her aunt could literally conjure fire from the air. How had Betony learned to wield such amazing power? ‘You never told me,’ she said, turning reproachful eyes to Jenny.

  ‘Of course not,’ replied the older girl, smiling. ‘Surely you didn’t want me to ruin all the surprises for you?’

  Around them, the other piskeys were getting up and moving closer to the
fire – not for warmth, but for light. This was their opportunity to replenish the natural luminescence of their bodies, which would serve them better than any lamp in the dark tunnels underground. As Ivy stood to join them a tingle ran over her skin, and her lips curved in a proud smile. Now she too would glow when she returned to the Delve, and she could go anywhere she wanted.

  Where was her mother? She should be here, sharing this special moment. On the other side of the wakefire, her father Flint nodded and returned Ivy’s smile – but Marigold was nowhere to be seen. Was she still talking to Nettle? No, Nettle was with the Joan, pouring piskey-wine into a bowl for the next part of the ceremony.

  Probably Ivy’s mother had just forgotten something underground, and gone to fetch it. Or maybe she just wanted to make sure Cicely was safely asleep. After all, she’d seen the Lighting many times before, and the fire would burn all night. Telling herself it was childish to feel hurt about it, Ivy returned to her seat.

  The rest of the evening passed in a blur, one magical moment dissolving into another. Ivy ate and drank and laughed with Jenny and the others, watched the dancers whirl and leap to the music of her father’s fiddle, and basked in the light of the wakefire until her skin could hold no more. Finally, tired and happy, she tumbled down by the old droll-teller’s feet with the other children, and lay half-drowsing while he told stories.

  As usual, all the tales revolved around a single theme: how clever piskeys of the past had outwitted their enemies. The first story was about a foolish human miner who tried to trick the knockers out of their treasure and ended up with nothing but a sore knee – all the children laughed at that. Then came the tale of a faery who met a wandering piskey-lad and tried to allure him into marrying her, a dark and sinister tale that made Ivy hold her breath. But fortunately, the boy saw past the faery’s pretty face to her cold heart and escaped.

  ‘Yet wickedest and most deadly of all,’ said the droll-teller, bending close to his audience as though telling them a secret, ‘are the spriggans.’

 
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