Copyright © Ian Irvine, 2010
Chapter 1: Ten Years Ago
‘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.’
‘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?’
‘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.
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.