Authors: Andrew Symon
Murkle looked uncertain for the first time. Then a look of steel came into his eyes.
“The Congress appears not to know which way to turn,” he said icily. “These papers need to be deciphered properly, not shared with anyone who asks to see them.”
“Be that as it may, Petros and Jack have done nothing wrong. If Daid was foolish enough to show Jack the papers, that is your responsibility. Daid is under your care, after all.”
With a snort, Murkle stood up and marched out.
Uncle Doonya moved to the doorway and called Aunt Katie from the kitchen. Whispering to her, he left. Aunt Katie came in and closed the door behind her.
“You’re all to stay here while your father has a word with Murkle.” Then, seeing Jack’s raised eyebrow, she added half-apologetically, “Oh, you know who I mean, Jack.”
“Why d’you tell Dad where we’d gone?” Petros turned on Rana.
“That’s enough!” snapped Aunt Katie. “Your father will be back soon.”
Uncle Doonya returned just a couple of minutes later. He stood in the doorway, and for a few moments there was an awkward silence.
“You boys have got off very lightly,” he said sternly. “Murkle’s heart is in the right place, but he is a dangerous Shian to cross.”
Uncle Doonya sat down now, and his tone was gentler.
“We’re all upset because Grandpa’s ill, but that’s all the more reason to keep our heads.”
“We already know some things,” stated Jack. “What Tamlina told us, about the cave and the bridge. We were going to ask Daid for his help in finding out more.”
“We wanted to know about the Sphere, Dad.” Petros spoke up. “And about what happened to Grandpa, so maybe we could help.”
“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to help Grandpa. But it’s hard to know who we can trust. Many of the Kildashie are wild, and although it pains me to say this, some of the Congress may not be relied upon.”
“Is Murkle reliable, then?” asked Jack. His tone was just below impertinent, and for a moment Uncle Doonya looked angry. Then he smiled.
“Murkle’s always been a bit fierce, even when I was an apprentice. But I’ve persuaded him to let me see the manuscripts. Now that he knows I know about them, it would be hard for him to say no. However, we must be careful about who else knows this – so it goes no further, all right?”
All of the youngsters indicated assent.
“It seems the manuscripts are a mixture. Murkle thought he could work out the Shian bits and Daid would take the human parts.”
“Daid talked about a prophecy,” said Jack uncertainly. “He said children would rescue a dead man called Phineas.”
Aunt Katie let out a gasp, before recovering.
“Prophecies aren’t always what they seem,” she announced. “People find in them what they want. My father taught me that. And if it’s Daid who’s deciphering them, then they probably refer to humans.”
Uncle Doonya looked down at the youngsters. “We need to get the right Shian in to examine these papers. That will give us the best chance.”
“Why don’t we ask Cosmo?” suggested Jack. “He knew a lot about the King’s Chalice.”
“And what about the ghosts?” asked Lizzie. “Comgall and his monks?”
“We called on them because they made the Chalice,” pointed out Jack. “Why would they know about the Sphere?”
“Asking Cosmo might be what we need,” said Uncle Doonya. “He certainly knew more than we realised.”
“And he deliberately didn’t tell the Congress,” said Petros. Seeing his father’s grim look, Petros persevered. “It’s true, Dad. When the Congress summoned him in, he didn’t tell them because he didn’t trust all of them. And he was right: Rowan was a traitor.”
Uncle Doonya sat down and cupped his face with his hands. When he spoke, he sounded weary.
“You’re right. It’s hard to accept that the Congress couldn’t – can’t – be trusted. The way some of them are willing to let the Kildashie stay is worrying. We’ll have to do what we can without them for now.” He turned to Jack. “Jack, you got on with Cosmo: can you ask him to come and see us, and we’ll try to decipher the manuscripts?”
“Purdy knows some of the Cos-Howe boys,” piped up Rana. “We can ask her to speak to them.”
“It would be better coming from Jack. Petros can go along too.” Uncle Doonya’s voice had regained its authority. “The low road can take you straight there. Anyone can use it now; no time like the present.”
Jack looked across at Petros, who just stared back.
“When will Murkle let us have the papers?”
“Just find out when Cosmo can come here, and I’ll deal with Murkle,” replied Uncle Doonya. “I doubt he’ll allow the manuscripts to leave the square.”
Jack stood up and moved through to the front door. Petros remained in his chair for a few moments, then rose slowly and followed.
“You don’t have to come,” said Jack. “I can go and ask Cosmo myself.”
Petros threw him a scornful look. “Dad said I’ve got to go with you.”
“Suit yourself.” Jack made his way down to the mound of earth behind the last house at the foot of the square. Petros followed on, dragging his steps a little. When he arrived at the mound he gripped Jack’s arm and blurted out, “Wind-flock Cos-Howe.”
It was an hour before Jack and Petros returned. As they entered the house, Rana’s face emerged from the front room.
“’D’you find him?” she asked breathlessly. Behind her, Lizzie and Aunt Katie looked anxiously on. Uncle Doonya wasn’t present.
Petros pushed past Rana and sat down. Jack stood in the doorway.
“Sure, we found Cosmo,” said Petros casually. “He said he’d be over later.”
“Did you say why we wanted him?” asked Aunt Katie anxiously.
“Well, we had to,” said Petros. “Otherwise why would he come?”
“Is he coming, then?” Uncle Doonya had reappeared, and his voice betrayed his fear that the quest had been fruitless.
“It’s OK,” said Jack. “I told him we had the manuscripts, and he could hardly wait. He said Oobit and Gandie had to come too. He wasn’t sure if he’d be welcome here.”
“Why ever not?” asked Aunt Katie innocently. “We all thought what he did at Dunvik was marvellous.”
“He thinks Atholmor didn’t like him taking control. He’s not convinced that his followers would take kindly to him coming here.”
Aunt Katie looked blank. “We don’t follow Atholmor,” she said simply. “He convenes the Congress, that’s all.”
“Whatever, Mum,” said Petros wearily. “He just wasn’t sure that coming here on his own was a good idea.”
“The Congress represents all Shian in this part of the country,” said Uncle Doonya emphatically. “If Cosmo can help to decipher these papers then he must help. I’ll go and speak to Murkle.”
Uncle Doonya returned fifteen minutes later with both Murkle and Daid. While Murkle looked stern, Daid was obviously anxious, and he wrung his hands together. As he entered, Uncle Doonya gave a “What could I do?” look to Aunt Katie. Taking his cue, Aunt Katie stood up and announced that she would prepare some refreshments for later.
“Rana, Lizzie, you come and give me a hand. Boys, you come through as well. I’ve got some errands for you to run.”
“What d’you mean?” asked Petros indignantly. “We want to stay and read the papers with the others.”
“Whippersnappers,” muttered Murkle.
Jack stood up briskly. “Come on, Petros; we’ll help the others out.”
Petros looked blank for a moment. “Oh, all right. I mean, yes, of course.”
“Come on,” said Jack as Petros emerged from the front room. “They just want us out of the way. But I’ve got an idea.”
As they reached the top of the stairs, Jack turned left to go into the girls’ bedroom. Petros looked downstairs cautiously.
“What’re you doing?” he demanded. “Rana’ll go spare if she finds you in there. You know what she’s like.”
“Yes, I know,” said Jack simply. “She’s an eavesdropping telltale who wants to know everything that’s going on but can’t keep a secret.”
“Fair enough,” muttered Petros as he followed Jack cautiously into his sisters’ room. “What’re you looking for?”
“This,” said Jack proudly, as he held up the beetler bonnet given to Rana and Lizzie the previous autumn.
“The beetler!” said Petros breathlessly. “Oh, wait a minute, I’m not putting that on again. I nearly got killed wearing that; it gives me the heebie-jeebies.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll wear it,” said Jack patiently. “As soon as Cosmo and the others get here, they’ll start with the manuscripts, right? I’ll go into the front room and listen in.”
“So what d’you want me to do?” said Petros.
“Just keep the others out of the way. I don’t want people tramping in and out of the room; they might step on me. Just make sure they all stay in the kitchen, or out of the house altogether. OK?”
“All right. I’ll say you’ve gone up to see Lee-Brog or someone. That way Mum won’t be looking for you.”
The Cos-Howe “crew”, as Jack thought of them, arrived a couple of hours later. Uncle Doonya, Murkle and Daid were in the front room poring over the manuscripts, which they had spread over the floor. Civilities were exchanged and the business in hand explained. Having brought in the refreshments, Aunt Katie, Rana, Lizzie and Petros withdrew to the kitchen, and the work in the front room began in earnest.
Jack crept down the stairs and noted that the kitchen door was shut. In his hand he clutched the silk cap made by Freya. It was so fine he could hardly feel the cloth at all. Inwardly, he marvelled at her tailoring skills.
, he thought,
here we go
. Checking again that all the doors off the hallway were closed, he put the cap on his head. Immediately, Jack shrank to the size of a beetle.
Jack was well used to the growing and shrinking as he went in and out of the Shian gate to the human spaces, and to the “squeezing up” as they were made to shrink to fit into Murkle’s front room for lessons, but this was something else altogether. Jack had never felt so tiny, so vulnerable, in his life.
He tried hard to remember what Rana had said about using the beetler when she had listened in to the Congress discussions in the same front room the year before. There was something you had to avoid: but what? Jack had just got to the base of the door when he became aware of movement to his left. He froze, and looked over. There it was again, at the very base of the door hinge: an enormous spider. Jack hurriedly moved in the opposite direction and passed under the door.
This room is gigantic
, he thought, as he looked up at the ceiling. Everything seemed so far away and so high up. He was aware of voices, but found the sounds hard to make out: a bit echoey. Were they arguing? After a moment or two his ears tuned in to the sounds, and he realised that it was just more than one person talking at the same time.
The skirting board
, he thought,
that’s where Rana said she hid
. He scurried over to the side of the room and settled down to listen.
“What else can it possibly mean?” demanded Murkle angrily. “The paper quite clearly talks about a saint’s cave.”
“Have you any idea how many saints there are?” replied Cosmo heatedly. “And how many caves are linked to saints? The humans have wandered about for centuries naming places, often without any real idea of why. It would be like – how do they put it? – looking for a needle in a haystack.”
“Most of these papers are of human origin,” said Daid quietly. “I do have some understanding of how they think.”
“Then explain to us, please, what this bit here means.” Murkle sounded annoyed.
“It’s complicated; these parchments are very old, and the script is not of our age.” Daid’s voice was weary. “It will take time to read them and put them together in the right order. We don’t even know if this is the full set.”
“Well, let me look at the Shian papers then,” demanded Murkle. “It is my area of expertise, after all.”
“But the whole point is that they’re together, don’t you see that?” Cosmo tried to keep the heat out of his voice. “We can’t look at one part without the other.”
“Then for goodness’ sake let us decide on a strategy, otherwise we will get nowhere,” snapped Murkle. “I propose that we meet each evening to read and discuss.”
“There are dozens of parchments,” pointed out Uncle Doonya. “That will take weeks.”
“Then let’s make an inventory of what we have and divide up the work,” said Cosmo. It was more a command than a suggestion. Taken aback by his tone, Murkle muttered under his breath something about knowing your place, but he found he could not disagree.
An hour later they had sifted through most of the parchments and were beginning to put them into piles. Jack was getting bored. He had hoped to catch some vital information, but it looked like they were a long way off getting that far. Warily, he moved back under the door, taking care to note that the spider had not moved. Once he was back in the hallway he reached up and dislodged the cap from his head. In a second he had regained his normal height, but as he stood up …
” screeched Rana, and she thumped Jack on the side of the head.
As Jack stumbled he felt the beetler cap catch on the edge of a shelf. He quickly pushed the cap down into his pocket.
Aunt Katie came running out of the kitchen. “Honestly, I can’t let you out of my sight for a minute.”
Rana glowered at Jack as they trudged into the kitchen. Jack tried to indicate that she should shut up, but Rana’s back was up.
“He stood on my foot, Mum,” she claimed loudly.
“Rana …” Jack’s voice was hushed, but urgent.
Luckily, Aunt Katie appeared not to notice anything untoward, and she admonished both. There was a moment’s silence. “How’s Lee-Brog, then, dear?” enquired Aunt Katie of Jack.
“Oh, er … fine. He wasn’t in. I mean, we went up to the High Street, er … for a walk.” Jack stuttered through the first excuse he could think of. His aunt had started to wash some vegetables at the kitchen sink and was only half listening.
“That’s good, dear,” she said absent-mindedly. “Now, where did I put those ash berries? I need to rinse them …”
Jack took the opportunity of his aunt’s preoccupation to slip out of the kitchen. He stole upstairs and quickly replaced the beetler cap in Rana’s drawer. Coming back downstairs, he found that Cosmo and the others were just leaving.