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The Headless Highwayman

Copyright © Ian Irvine, 2010.

 

Chapter 1

Ten Years Ago

 

Grim & Grimmer Book 1

‘Northgate has fallen,’ said the general,
polishing his gleaming biceps with a pumice stone. ‘Soon Grimmery
will be ours.’

‘It will be mine!
said the lady in the shadows. Her voice was ice gliding on bedrock.
‘Have you taken the Gate Guardians?’

The general flexed his silky biceps, admiringly.
‘We’ve got the whole clan. They’ll be in your dungeons by nightfall.
You can see to them yourself.’ He twisted his fists in opposite
directions, wringing necks.

‘Even the children? You’ve got all the
children?’

His condescending smile faded a trifle. ‘All
that matter. All the ones with the Gift.’

As the lady shifted in the darkness, her skin
shone like a silvered glacier. ‘Who’s missing?’

‘The youngest, a four-year-old boy. But he
doesn’t have the Gift. He’s quite useless, apparently.’

‘Your orders were to take every child.’
She pointed a silver finger at the general’s chest. His heart crackled
like ice falling into the sea and he fell, dead.

The lady beckoned to her guard, a thin, sweating
man whose grey skin was the flexible leather of a bat’s wing. ‘Gaunt,
find the boy. Do whatever it takes.’

Gaunt’s eyes shone as if her words had lit
lanterns behind them. ‘Oh, my lady, my precious lady, I’ll find
him.’

 

 

Chapter 2

The Enchanted Pen

 

If Ike had stayed home from school that Tuesday,
he would never have betrayed a princess nor robbed a murderous
queen. He would not have been tied to an insane imp that was desperate
to eat his liver. He certainly would not have floated across a
strange land on an impossible rescue mission, powered only by exploding
manure.

Nor would he have tried to escape via that
disastrous troll-bum door.

But Ike went to school. That sweltering Tuesday
he was failing another science test when an ink bomb landed on
his desk, turning his test paper into an inland sea.

Sammy, Ike’s worst enemy, sniggered.

Behind him Gertie whispered mockingly, ‘Oick!
Oick!’, meaning dumb yob.

Ike spun round. The kids in the back row were
quietly chanting, ‘Ike, Oick, Ike, Oick.’

‘What really happened
to your parents, Oick?’ said Sammy. ‘Is it true they were shot
for being spies?’

‘I heard the government keeps them in a secret
prison for traitors,’ said Gertie, rotating a pencil in the chasm
between her front teeth.

‘No, his folks sent Oick here because he was
so useless,’ said Len, ‘then ran away so he’d never find them.’
He snorted so hard that green mucous spray-painted his test paper.

‘T-that’s not true!’ said Ike.

‘Then where are they?’

Ike could not reply. His first memory, when
he was four, was of a stranger carrying him through lightning and
rain, then abandoning him to an old couple he had never seen before.
Though Ike felt sure his mum and dad were dead, he clung to the
hope that they were still searching for him. It was the one positive
thing in his life.

‘You,’ said Mister Flogger, icily. ‘Come here,
boy.’

‘Awkward Ike’s in trouble,’ said Sammy, and
soon they were all chanting under their breath, ‘Awkward Ike, rah,
rah, rah! Awkward Ike, rah, rah, rah!’

As Ike scrambled up, his left foot caught the
leg of his desk, which toppled with an almighty crash. The class
roared.

Ike trudged up to the headmaster’s desk and
stood there, swallowing painfully. Flogger, a tall man with a mouth
like a tear in a garbage bag, barked, ‘Test paper!’

Ike held out his ink-sodden paper.

‘What did you do that for?’ said Flogger.

‘It wasn’t me.’

‘Sir!’

‘It wasn’t me, sir.’

A magnificent fountain pen, a streak of gold
and precious blue stone, lay on the front of the cluttered desk.
Ike wondered what the pen would be like to draw with. Drawing was
the only thing he was good at.

A blowfly, heavy with eggs, droned across the
office and settled on Flogger’s head, bzzz, bzzz.
Ike watched, fascinated, as it lifted and landed on the desktop.

Flogger rubbed his knuckles, then whacked.
After wiping the squashed blowfly off on a tissue, he held it above
the bin and caught Ike’s eye as if thinking, you’re rubbish too,
boy.

I’m not! Ike
thought. And one day I’m going to prove it.

Flogger picked up a biro and began to mark
Ike’s answers, X, X, X. Ike stared at the beautiful fountain pen,
wishing it was his. He’d never owned anything good. He reached
out to stroke it but, as his finger touched the gold, a girl’s
despairing cry echoed through his head.

They’ve killed
the queen and they’re coming for me. They’re breaking the door.
Help!

Ike looked wildly around the room but saw only
vacant stares and gaping mouths. No one else had heard anything.

‘What’s the matter with you?’ snapped Flogger.

‘Nothing.’ Ike knew he had not imagined the
cry, so why hadn’t anyone else heard it?

Flogger studied Ike’s last answer, scowled
and gave it a huge red X. ‘The lightest element isn’t uranium.
It’s hydrogen. That’s why
they used it in airships.’

‘Oh!’ said Ike. All the elements sounded the
same to him. ‘Sorry.’

Flogger reached across the desk, then said
sharply, ‘Where the devil is my fountain pen?’

The beautiful pen was gone. Ike’s throat turned
to sandpaper – when things went missing, or anything odd
happened, he was always blamed.

The headmaster unfolded like a carpenter’s
ruler and stalked around the desk. ‘Turn out your pockets, boy.’

‘I didn’t go anywhere near it,’ Ike lied.

‘Pockets, at
once
.’

Ike slid his hands into his trouser pockets,
felt the pen and his heart went thump. Scalding waves rose up his
freckled face as he handed it over.

‘I didn’t take it.’

Ike had been brought up honest. He would not
take a paperclip that wasn’t his.

The headmaster put the pen in his desk drawer,
turned the key and his fury faded. He looked old, tired and – Ike
could not believe it – terribly sad. ‘What I have to do hurts
me more than it does you, boy.’

‘Sir?’ Ike had never understood why people
said the things they did, but the pit of his stomach began to burn.

Then something white wriggled out of Flogger’s
starched hair, and Ike gaped. The blowfly had laid its eggs on
the headmaster’s head and in the heat they were already hatching.
The sight of those white maggots squirming on to Flogger’s forehead
was worth any punishment.

Flogger wiped his brow, smearing squashed maggots
across it. One ended up in a bristly eyebrow, still wriggling – oh,
joy!

‘What are you smirking at, boy?’

‘Nothing, sir.’

‘I gave my word,’ Flogger said quietly, ‘and
Lord knows I feel responsible, but what more can I do? I’ve wasted
ten years trying to make something of you but there’s nothing inside,
is there?’

‘Sir?’ Ike had no idea what Flogger was talking
about.

‘It can’t go on.’ Flogger’s twisted mouth turned
down. ‘Boy, you’re expelled.’

Expelled?
It was like being hit with an axe. No, it was the end of the world.

‘Get out. Go!

Ike turned, his stomach throbbing, and stumbled
past the ocean of mocking faces towards the door. But then he stopped.
He could not leave this way, utterly defeated. He had to go with
his head high, even if it only lasted a minute.

‘Sir?’ he said, turning back and straightening
his shoulders.

‘What now?’ cried Flogger.

‘You’ve got a maggot in your eyebrow, sir!

The classroom exploded and, for the first time
in Ike’s life, the kids weren’t laughing at him – he even
saw a grudging admiration in their eyes. Ike bowed, strode to the
door and bolted.

Outside, the sun was a blistered ball of bronze
and the tarred playground burned like a furnace lid. His little
triumph ebbed away as he headed towards his guardians’ farm. He’d
always been a bother to them. What were they going to say now?

He could not bear to slink back to their crumbling
farmhouse, which smelled like boiled gumboots, and confess why
he’d been expelled. He was kicking a pebble along the path, wishing
himself on another planet, when a weight slipped into his trouser
pocket.

The pen.

Flogger had locked it in his desk drawer, yet
it was in Ike’s pocket again, as if by magic. What was he supposed
to do? As soon as Flogger discovered the pen was missing, he would
call the police, and if Ike tried to take it back he’d be arrested.
He had to get rid of it.

He slipped through the fence and across a paddock
to an old farm shed, open at one end. It was even hotter inside.
He touched the pen but heard nothing. He must have imagined the
cry. The pen was heavy, almost solid gold. How could he throw away
something so precious?

He had to try it first. He took the cap off
and drew a horizontal line on the smooth wall. The ink was a deep,
velvety black, the line a crack in the wall, extending all the
way to forever. Wishing he could follow it to the ends of the earth,
Ike drew a vertical line down to the floor, then across and up
again to make a rectangle. It was the size of a door, so he drew
panels on it, a keyhole and a knob.

It was a very good drawing but, as Ike did
the last shading, the knob rose out of the wall like a real knob.
He reached out with a shaking finger.

The knob could not be real – but
it was
.

 

 

Chapter 3

The Door

 

Ike looked out through the open end of the
shed. Three thin cows tugged at the dead grass; a bald crow was
pecking grubs out of a tree. When Ike turned back, the knob was
so cold that ice was forming on it. On the door too, though the
wall was almost too hot to touch.

The door had to be magic, and it must be due
to the pen, but why had it come to him? There was nothing special
about Ike. He was tall for his age, but gangly and too clumsy to
be any good at sport. No good at anything but drawing, he thought
gloomily, and what use is that?

Loud noises and bright flashes made him jump,
rain stung his skin, and sometimes it hurt just to breathe. All
his life he had felt like a fly stuck in honey; he often wondered
if he belonged here at all. But if he did not, where did he belong?

Ike pressed one hand against the icy door,
wondering what was on the other side. It had to be better than
this land of drought, misery and failure. Yet he hesitated, afraid
of the unknown and, especially, the uncanny.

A police siren shredded the stillness. They’re
coming for me,
he thought. Help!

At once, Ike realised that he had echoed the
girl’s cry. Why had he heard her, and what was the link between
them? Was she on the other side of the door? Maybe he was supposed
to let her through.

Ike’s knees felt weak and his heart was pounding
as he turned the freezing knob. The hinges groaned like a boy sentenced
to life and the black crack widened. It was dark on the other side.
As he eased his head through, raindrops patterned his face like
tears of joy. He couldn’t remember the last time it had rained.
A sweet fragrance drifted on the breeze, reminding him of jasmine
flowers. What was this place?

Behind him, the police car hurtled up the road
in clouds of dust. The bald crow squawked and toppled backwards
off its branch, dead. Ike took that as an omen, if he stayed here.

He stepped through the door into the sweet
air and, for a moment, felt as though he was floating. Lightning
silvered the distance; thunder grumbled contentedly. The storm
was moving away. Ahead he made out the shadows of huge boulders,
moonlight touching their white tops like icing on patty cakes.

Ike took a last, longing look at the pen. He
wanted it more than anything, but no one was going to call him
a thief. He was about to put the pen in the shed when the door
slipped from his fingers, swung shut and vanished.

He had no idea where he was; he had nothing
to eat or drink, yet he felt only relief. This is my
place
, he thought. I belong here. And maybe, just maybe,
Mum and Dad are here too, looking for me.

The night was warm. He pushed through sweet-smelling
shrubs to the boulders and began to climb one, up to the beckoning
moonlight. He was hoping to see lights from the top, but when he
reached it he saw nothing but higher boulders.

He was daydreaming about finding his family
when something howled in the distance – a wolf or some big
cat. Ike flattened himself on the boulder, realising that he had
made a mistake coming here. Better to be arrested than eaten.

He tried to draw a new door on the rock, but
the nib made no mark; all the ink was gone. Wherever he was, there
was no way back. How had Flogger, the least magical person he had
ever met, come by the pen anyway?

Now he made out a peculiar sound, like air
rushing in and out of a pipe. And what was that faint, unpleasant
smell? The hairs on the back of his neck rose. There was someone,
or something, behind him.

Ike glanced over his shoulder but saw nothing
in the shadows. He scrambled from one boulder to the next until
he reached the tallest, the size of a small house. He had no idea
what was behind him but, if it followed, he would be able to see
it in the moonlight.

The boulders were clustered on the steep edge
of a hill. Beyond, a white ribbon of road stretched across the
landscape until, below him, it curved round the base of the hill
into shadow. Lights in the distance might have been a house or
village.

No, for the lights were speeding along the
road, bright lamps lighting the way ahead. He squinted into the
darkness. Was it a car? It did not look like one, and blurred shadows
were moving ahead and behind it.

As the lamps approached, the shadows became
riders galloping beside a coach drawn by four horses. Now another
movement caught his eye, down to the left – a band of horsemen,
lurking between the trees around the corner. Robbers, armed with
swords, waiting in ambush.

Ike’s heart gave a painful thud. If he did
nothing, the people in the coach could be killed. But if he ran
down, the robbers might kill him too. What was he supposed to do?

He could not let those innocent people be hurt;
he had to warn the coach.

He was about to scramble down when a heavy
hand struck his shoulder and a peculiar, squeaking and rumbling
voice said, ‘Stay here.’

He turned and gasped, for a man stood there,
dressed in black like a highwayman of old. A cloak of midnight
billowed out from his shoulders, though there was no wind. He wore
shiny black boots and a rapier jutted from a sheath at his right
side. In his left hand he carried a large hat with a feather in
it.

And he had
no head.

Storyteller