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Authors: Simon Kewin

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BOOK: B00DW1DUQA EBOK
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Finn accepted her word. Of course, he was aware that one day he would grow up like his sister. Right now the fact was unimportant, impossibly remote.

‘OK.’

They sat together for a long while, neither of them speaking, Finn waiting to see what would happen next. He closed his eyes.

He heard a distant sound, something like a trumpet, playing a single, drawn-out, falling note, but very far away. He had never heard anything like it before.

‘What’s that?’

His sister sighed. ‘It’s nothing important, Finn. It means we should be getting back. Give me your hand.’

She stood up, then bent down to kiss him on the top of the head, as his father did when putting him to bed.

At the edge of the trees she let go of his hand and pushed out across the yellow fields. Finn, following, squinting in the light, could only look down at his feet, the dust of the ground, as they trudged home.

The Ironclads were waiting for them at the house. Something like horses, four of them, were tethered outside. Finn wasn’t sure if they were animals or machines. He could see they had brown, tapering legs like the hunters on the farm, muscles twitching as flies landed on them, but their bodies were all bulky metal plates and silver studs. Their eyes were lost inside shining metal hoods but they bridled and whinnied like any real horse.

‘Why are they here, Shireen?’

His sister didn’t reply. Ignoring the horses, she walked inside. Finn followed. He could feel a greater heat coming off the beasts, as if a furnace blazed inside them rather than a heart, beating. Looking up at them they were as big as the house.

Inside stood three figures dressed in metal like the horses. They had guns strapped across their backs, each barrel gaping as big as the mouth of a fish. They clanked as they turned to see who had come in. Finn knew all about them. The Ironclads filled their stories and games. They were the monsters, the nightmares that would come for you if you were naughty and take you away. They pursued you in your dreams until you jerked awake with a scream.

Over by the empty fireplace, his mother and father stood in conversation with a fourth visitor. This one wasn’t an Ironclad; he was dressed in simple, purple robes but with a metal belt round his waist like the armour of the others. His hair was shaved off. His skin looked very soft and pink. Finn smiled at the adults but none of them saw him.

His mother, he could see, had been crying. She turned away so he wouldn’t notice. His father stood head and shoulders above everyone, his expression unreadable through his bushy, black beard. One of his great tree-trunk arms was held around his mother’s shoulders.

‘Shireen,’ his father said in a low voice.

His sister bowed her head and crossed to stand with them. She grew taller as she walked across the room, becoming an adult as Finn watched. He went to sit in a corner, as far as possible from the Ironclads, and played with the wooden figures his father had carved for him. There was an old rug there, red and brown, laid on top of the flagstones. Over the years it had moulded itself to the contours of the uneven floor, forming slight valleys and mountains that often played a part in Finn’s games. His mother had painted bright, smiling faces on the figures. He loved their smooth, shiny bodies. They rescued Peg, the smallest, from an underground dungeon, evading the roaring monsters that pursued them.

When the game was over, and all his toys were having a great party to celebrate Peg’s safe return, Finn looked up. The Ironclads had gone. His sister had gone. His mother and father stood looking out through the open door.

 

With the departure of Shireen, the heat of the summer finally broke. Storm clouds the size of mountains billowed up from the south, bringing with them sudden cold winds and lashing rain. People stirred and began to hurry once more, dashing from building to building between downpours, working with urgency to repair gutters and gather crops.

The day she had been taken, hours after she had gone, Finn had followed the trail left by the Ironclads, down the lane between the fields, straying as far from home as he dared. Now, a week later, he lost track of them, the hoof prints washed away by the rains.

Unable to go on after his sister, not wanting to go back home, Finn kicked stones around in the dirt. He picked some up and hurled them down the lane to see how far he could get them. More rain clouds gathered on the horizon, but it was dry for the moment. He wished Shireen was there to take his hand and lead him home. He poked a stick into the great puddle the rains had formed in the sunken corner of the field, stirring it up into a squelching, muddy soup.

Three Tree Hill was nearby: a small rise in the ground around which the Silverburn curled in a loop. Three vast oaks stood in a line upon it, their outstretched branches crossing through each other high above his head, as if they were interlocking their arms. It was Finn’s greatest ambition in life to climb one of those oaks and work his way from branch to branch across to the other two without ever touching the ground. He decided to try again now. He shinned his way up the nearest trunk. Branches and knurs in the wood gave him all the toeholds he needed. The hard part was the leap between. The branches were never that close together when you climbed up high. The gulf of air down to the hard ground made him dizzy when he looked. From the second tree, he knew, there was a drop from a higher branch to a lower that was again possible, but the boughs weren’t exactly under each other and you’d have to get it just right.

 He stood up there for long minutes, holding one of the smaller branches to steady himself, imagining himself making the leap. A breeze blew on his face, ruffling his hair. He could smell the green of the tree. His knees jerked once or twice as they thought about actually jumping, but still he held on tight. He knew he could do it; he had measured out the distance on the ground and made it easily. Still, up here, it was a different thing.

Eventually, he gave up and worked his way back to the trunk to climb higher. There was a point where a branch curved off like a horse’s neck, forming a natural seat. He leaned his back against the trunk of the tree, perched far above the ground. Two smaller branches formed natural arms for him to hold onto. This was
his
secret place. He loved it up here, especially now it was summer and the leaves hid him from the world. He was flying above the land. When the wind blew more strongly, whipping the branches to and fro, making the whole tree sway, he was in the rolling crow’s nest of a ship from some story, sailing across the fields to distant lands. He loved the feeling of being alone. He loved looking down on people walking along the lane, unaware of his presence.

Most of the leaves were still on the trees, although each gust of wind sent a fresh flock gliding to the ground. Through the gaps he could see the river, rattling down stony waterfalls here, the fields, then the hills of the valley in which he had spent his whole life. He turned his head to look down the lane, the way the Ironclads had taken Shireen. He could just see the chimney of Turnpike Cottage. Somewhere beyond that, over the line of those blue hills, lay Engn itself. He had once climbed to the very top of the tree, onto slender branches that bowed under his weight, to see if he could see over the peaks to the great city.

He wondered how far away she was now. He wanted to shout to her, in his loudest voice, to tell her he was there. But he knew she wouldn’t hear him. Instead he plucked leaves from the tree and sent them floating down to the distant ground.

He saw someone coming towards him across the fields on the other side of the river. Someone striding through shoulder-high corn as if swimming in water. At first he thought it was her, escaped, miraculously returned. But the hair was the wrong colour, the walk wrong. Whoever it was hadn’t seen him. They kept stopping and looking from side to side, but never up into the trees.

Finn peered forwards, gripping the branches tight. With a jolt of alarm, he realised it was Connor. The older boy had a catapult in his hands. He stopped to fire stones at birds that clattered from the corn as he disturbed them. Finn wasn’t allowed a catapult. He had been promised one when he was ten. But Connor appeared to be an expert already. A clump of crows wheeled up in alarm from a beech on the riverbank, voices grating. One of their numbers flopped to the ground in a flurry of feathers. Connor fired again, trying to hit one of the crows in flight.

With slow movements, Finn edged his way back down the tree, trying not to make the branches sway. Perhaps if he could move around the trunk, keep it between himself and the older boy, he could run away without being noticed. He could hear the thrum of the catapult now, and Connor’s laughter as he hit another target.

Finn missed his footing and landed hard on a lower branch, making it wave in the air like a flag. A squirrel, disturbed by the commotion, shot around the trunk, past Finn’s head and out along one of the branches. Perhaps it had intended to leap across to the next tree, too, but it chose the wrong branch. It ran out as far as it could, body and tail flowing in a perfect arc, but stopped at the end with nowhere to go. It sat up on its hind legs, head flicking around. A stone from the catapult cracked through the tree, barely missing it, knocking aside leaves with a
click
and sending them spinning downwards. The squirrel didn’t understand. Another stone cut through the branches, striking it in the head with a soft crunch.

It cartwheeled to the ground. Through the leaves, Finn saw it hit the grass. It lay there twitching, legs running uselessly in the air, head ruined. Finn hung between branches, very still, hoping that Connor would think the squirrel had made all the noise.

‘Are you stuck up there?’ Connor shouted. ‘Do you need help to get down too?’

Finn’s heart hammered. He was a long way from home and there was no-one to help him. The worse thing was, although the river was between them, it was easy to cross here by leaping from stone to stone, especially with the waters so low. He knew he didn’t have long before Connor would be at the foot of the tree, aiming his catapult up at him.

In a desperate hurry, face flushed with heat, Finn thrashed from branch to branch, making no effort to conceal his whereabouts. If he dropped to the ground Connor would see him but if he could make the leap to the second tree he might be safe.

Another stone drummed off the trunk of the tree.

Finn stood back on the outstretched bough for a moment, excitement and terror flaring inside him. Before he could stop himself, he leapt into the open air. He hung there for long, long moments, aware of the ground beneath him, sucking him down. Then he landed on the other branch, bashing his left shin into it but managing to grasp a smaller branch to struggle on properly. He was across. He crouched there for a moment while his heart raced away, unable to believe what he had just done.

‘I’m coming to get you!’ Connor shouted.

Finn crawled his way along the branch, more careful now, not wanting Connor to know where he was, not daring to stand up. He reached the trunk of the second tree, then began to climb. Connor hadn’t fired any more stones for a while. Crossing the river.

In some ways the drop didn’t seem as bad as the leap; leaves not too far below hid the ground, giving the illusion of a solid surface to catch him. But if he missed the branch of the third tree the drop would kill him. Break his legs or his back at least. He sat with feet dangling in the air, trying to judge how hard to push off. The first drops of rain patted through the leaves around him. The best thing to do was to land feet-first on the branch of the third tree. He had to do it.

With a gasp he pushed himself off. Instantly he was falling, not flying towards the branch as he had imagined. He hadn’t pushed off hard enough. His feet missed completely. Twigs smacked his face, catching him in the eye. With outstretched arms he managed to catch the branch as it rose past him. He clung on, swinging there, his feet running uselessly as he tried to gain a foothold. He swung his legs up to lie along the branch like a cat.

‘I can see you!’

Connor sounded gleeful. But also distant. Finn guessed he was still over by the first tree, peering up through the leaves.

Finn pulled himself along the branch, breathing heavily and sobbing at the same time, then began to climb down to the ground. His legs felt wobbly but they knew the sequence of branches perfectly and he didn’t slip again. He dropped to the ground and hid behind the third trunk. He could hear no running footsteps and no stones whistled past his ear. He had done it.

He ran, directly away from the trees, out across the field so Connor wouldn’t see him, then around the bottom of the mound and so back to the lane. He didn’t dare look back.

He arrived home, panting and wide-eyed, his shin bleeding where the skin had been scraped off.

His mother, meeting him at the door, squeezed him very hard. She smelt of fresh bread and summer flowers. She held him at arm’s length to look at him.

‘Where have you been?’ What have you been up to?’

‘Nothing,’ he said.

‘Look at you. You’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards.’

He slipped from her grasp into the house, where delicious smells of cooking awaited.

 

It was two weeks before he dared venture so far from home again. This time he saw no-one else. He had the oaks of Three Tree Hill all to himself.

Chapter 2

The wind hammered at the windows. Finn sat with his parents at the table one evening, eating hunks of fresh bread and slices of cheese. They also had a bowl of bright red apples, windfalls from their little orchard. The log fire blazed and cracked, occasionally sending brilliant sparks shooting out onto the floor. When they did, his father would leap up, pluck them off the rug and toss them back into the fire before they could do any damage. They never seemed to hurt him.

‘Winter’s coming on,’ said his mother. She gazed off to the side, as if she could see through the walls into the gloom outside. ‘Soon be time to turn the lights on.’

It was dark when he went to bed now. Shireen used to read to him as he drifted off to sleep. In the summer it was light enough with just the curtains open but in the winter they would sit under the flickering incandescent globe in his room, huddled together under the blankets as she read.

BOOK: B00DW1DUQA EBOK
10.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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