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Authors: Gillian Cross

The Black Room (11 page)

BOOK: The Black Room
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“How high is it now? How much longer before it's finished?”
She always gave the same answer. “Not long. Just keep the stones coming.” But it got harder and harder to sound cheerful. She and Bando were lifting heavy stones, with their hands held up in the air, and even though Bando was taking most of the weight, her muscles ached almost too much to move.
She managed to keep going until the wall was head high. Then Bando slid in a long, wide stone, and when she reached up to check how it had settled, an agonizing pain shot up her arm. She gasped, before she could stop herself.
“What's the matter?” Bando said quickly. “Are you hurt? Did I squash your fingers?”
It was a moment before Lorn could catch her breath. When she managed to speak, she said, “Only tired ... but ... I can't keep going. Tell the others ... they'll have to ... help out.”
“I'll get them!” Bando said. “Don't worry. I'll get them right away.” He stumbled off across the storeroom, calling as he went. “You've got to come and help, or we can't finish the wall. Lorn says you've got to help.”
Even he was tired now. Lorn could hear his feet dragging, and his voice sounded thin and tired. But he didn't have to shout for long. Almost immediately, people came running down the ramp.
“Stones,” Lorn said feebly. “You need
She hardly had the energy to raise her voice, but that didn't matter. As soon as Perdew realized what she was asking, he organized the others into a chain, passing stones from hand to hand, all the way across the storeroom.
There was no talking or laughter. They just worked as fast as they could, completely focused on getting the stones into place. No one made a sound for almost half an hour—until Bando jammed in the very last stone, on top of the center of the wall. They all heard it grating as it went into place.
“That's it,” Lorn said. “It's finished.”
There was an instant of silence——as if no one could quite believe it—and then Dess gave a great whoop of laughter. He came running across the space and thumped the wall as hard as he could.
“Look!” he shouted. “It's solid! We've done it! We're
absolutely safe.”
Annet gave a loud yell of delight. “Nothing can shift it!”
“Not ten elephants!” called Ab.
“Not twenty bulldozers.” That was Shang.
“Not two blue whales!”
“Five tornadoes!”
“Ten tons of high explosive!”
They were silly with relief and exhaustion. Tina started giggling wildly, and Ab and Shang were pushing each other around. Lorn knew they were looking for a way to celebrate. It had been hard work, but they'd done it, and now they were all jammed into the storeroom together, and the air was alive with the warmth of their bodies and the smell of their sweat. They needed ... they needed ...
I can't do it for them,
she thought.
I don't feel like that....
But she knew it didn't matter how she felt. She made herself open her mind and spread her hands—and the power came to her, as it always did, out of nowhere. Her exhaustion disappeared, and she knew, without thinking, what she had to do.
She began to smack her left hand against the palm of her right in a steady rhythm, just slower than her heartbeat. At first, she could hardly hear it herself against the buzz of voices around her. But she kept the noise going, and gradually, the others stopped talking and turned toward her in the dark.
As they turned, she began to move, shifting from foot to foot in a way that was not quite marching and not quite dancing. No one could see what she was doing, but the people nearest to her felt it, and they squeezed out of her way. Turning her back on the new wall, she began to travel forward, toward the ramp.
The others shuffled aside, opening up a path. As she moved down it, they began tapping out the rhythm she was beating. They fell into step behind her, and she led them up the ramp and out into the light, slipping past the brazier and into the main cavern.
It was crowded and congested, with every spare inch full of stored food, and floss for weaving, and fur blankets folded up together. Lorn wove a path between the heaps, and the dancers followed her, in a line that grew longer and longer as they came up out of the storeroom.
When they were all up, she led them into a great trampling circle in front of the brazier. Gradually her steps grew smaller, until she was moving on the spot. Then she turned in, toward the center of the circle, and made herself tread faster and faster, beating the ground with her feet.
Faster and faster, keeping time with her hands, clapping and stamping until all the others were copying her and the whole cavern was full of noise and movement.
Faster and faster and faster and faster, until they couldn't accelerate anymore. Until the movement and the speed and the noise were almost too much to bear—and she had to resolve the whole thing into a single great shout.
“We did it!”
She threw up her hands and yelled, and the others copied her, shouting as loudly as they could.
And then they were all laughing. All except Lorn. The crowd broke up into small groups of chattering, excited people. It had been a massive, exhausting effort, but they'd built the wall, and the storeroom was safe, sealed off from the darkness on the other side.
“We need to eat,” Tina said. “We're all starving.”
Lorn nodded. “Get them to sit down, and then give out double shares of everything. We'll have a feast.”
There was a huge cheer and more laughter. But as people began to sit down, Lorn stood off to one side, struggling to smile. Even that felt false and forced. The others were celebrating because the tunnels had been shut off—and she knew that wasn't true.
She'd deceived them all.
WHEN THE FEAST WAS OVER, PEOPLE LAY BACK SLEEPILY, talking to each other and glancing surreptitiously at Lorn. She knew what they were waiting for. After a meal like that, Zak would have taken out his drum. Softly at first, and then louder and louder, he would have beaten out a rhythm with his fingers, letting it swell until every face turned toward him.
And then he would have put the drum down and begun to speak, starting out on a story. He always knew the right story for the moment. That was his job. Knowing how they felt and what they wanted—even when they didn't know it themselves.
It had been Zak's job—and now it was Lorn's. She didn't understand how the power had come to her, but ever since Zak went traveling she had found herself with the right words for whatever the others needed. She could start the story that came to her without worrying about how it would end. Because the end was always right.
That was what they wanted now. But tonight, all she had in her head was a single word. It was painful and unwelcome, not suited to a celebration, and she fought to hold it back. For as long as she could, she kept her head bent, playing with the braid that lay in her lap.
But it was no use. They were all looking toward her, and in the end, the pressure was too strong to resist. She lifted her head and spoke the word out loud.
It silenced everyone, faster than Zak's drumbeat ever had. The cavern was instantly still, with no sound except the shifting of logs on the fire. Lorn breathed in, letting the stillness flow into her, like an icy liquid pouring into her body. As she drew it in, more words welled up in her mind.
“The cold is coming now,” she said. “It's coming fast for us, but it will come even faster for people above the ground—for people who are traveling.”
Annet gasped. The noise sounded raw and harsh in the silence, but Lorn went on relentlessly.
“Travelers set out full of hope and excitement. They want to reach impossible places. They want to change the way things are.”
She didn't need to say the names—
Zak, Robert
Everyone knew whom she meant. She could feel them making pictures in their heads as she went on.
“They carry heavy packs of food,” she said. “And thick furs, to keep out the cold. At night they huddle together, burrowing deep into dead leaves, with the furs wrapped close around them. With every breath and every step they take, they fight against the cold, struggling to reach home. But the journey seems unending. Every day they grow weaker. And the cold grows stronger.”
“They need a rescue,” Bando said, not interrupting in his normal loud voice, but whispering the words, his face tight with concentration.
Lorn shook her head, spreading out her hands. “Who can rescue them? They're lost in the great wide spaces above ground. Each day it grows colder and colder. And soon the frosts will come.”
She saw the white frost crystals, clear and sharp in her mind, and the travelers' breath, hanging in the air like drops of water. She felt how their bodies slowed as their blood grew sluggish and thick.
The fire crackled and spat.
The story was like a weight. Its dark words blocked Lorn's throat, and she didn't know what end to give it except the harsh, bleak truth that all of them knew instinctively. And feared. And ignored.
It was already very cold. Even inside the cavern, the temperature was lower every day. What did it matter whether they built walls or not? The end would be the same, whatever they did. It was going to get colder and colder, until they all died.
First—very soon—it would be the travelers. Cam and Zak and Nate and Robert would never come back. They would all die out there in the cold, twisted into stiff, hungry shapes on the frozen ground.
And then, one by one, the same thing would happen to the rest of them. Robert had gone to find a way of saving them, but he would never come back now. And soon, even the thickest fur would be too thin to keep them warm. One by one, they would go to sleep and never wake again. For the first time, Lorn understood that clearly. That was how the story was bound to end. It was the way things were.
But when she lifted her head and looked at the earnest faces watching her, she knew they weren't waiting for that kind of ending. They were watching her lips as though her words could change the future. As though telling the story could alter what had to happen.
Her mind was empty of everything except despair, but those faces drew her up onto her feet and sent her walking across the cavern. She went between the bundles and around the heaps of grain until she reached the journey line.
Once, there had been four stones lying on that line. Now there were only two. Nate's black stone was lost, and Robert's yellow one was where she had pushed it, deep down into the earth. The other two were cold and heavy in her hand as she picked them up and walked back to her place.
“Stoke up the brazier,” she said.
Everyone was too startled to move, but she said it again. Louder this time, so that her voice resounded from end to end in the cavern.
“Stoke up the brazier! Bring more wood! These stones are cold and we need to make them warm!”
She held them out on her open palm for everyone to see. Ab was on duty by the woodpile, and he looked nervously at her, over his shoulder. She gave him an impatient nod.
“There's no time to waste! We need the biggest fire you can make. Pile on the wood.”
Ab bent down and heaved up two logs, lifting them high so that Tina could reach them from the stoker's ledge.
“More!” Lorn said sharply. She waved an arm at the others. “Ab and Tina can't do it fast enough on their own! Help them!”
They hesitated for a moment, obviously bewildered. Then they responded to the authority in her voice, scrambling up and converging on the woodpile. Suddenly they were handing up logs so fast that Tina couldn't deal with them. Ab hauled himself up beside her, and the two of them worked together, heaping the logs into the fire until there was a great red mound, way above the rim of the brazier.
Perdew was the only one who didn't join the rush. He stood at Lorn's elbow, watching as the others worked and the heat grew stronger. A lurid red light filled the whole cavern, and the air was hot and foul with smoke.
“What are you up to, Lorn?” he said softly.
Lorn's fingers closed tight around the two stones in her hand. “We have to do this,” she said, not taking her eyes off the brazier.
Perdew shook his head. “It's taking too much wood. We can't afford to use so much.”
“There'll be more wood.” Lorn heard the confidence in her own voice and wondered where it came from. The top layer of the woodpile was almost used up now, and the smoke that was billowing around the cavern was too thick for their small smoke-hole to clear. She could smell charring as the shooting flames licked at the roots that looped across the roof.
“The air's going bad!” Perdew pulled at her arm, raising his voice to make sure she could hear him above the roaring of the fire and the hubbub around the brazier. “What are you trying to do? Smother us all to death?”
Lorn didn't even look at him. She was leaning forward, staring into the flames. “We have to do this,” she said stubbornly. “We must defeat the cold.”
Her lungs were so tight that she could hardly breathe, but she kept them piling on the wood, watching the fire burn higher and higher until the metal of the brazier itself began to glow dull red. It was impossible for anyone to stay close to it. Through the smoke, she saw Ab and Tina slide off the stoking ledge. They backed away, and one by one the others followed them, staring in silence as the bright logs settled and sparked.
Once they stopped stoking, the brightness faded quickly. A dull gray bloom crept across the glowing metal. After a while, Tina and Ab picked up the long rods that they used to riddle the fire. Moving together, they pushed them into the lowest holes in the brazier, and slid them backward and forward, clearing the ash. The logs settled noisily, subsiding below the rim of the brazier.
BOOK: The Black Room
13.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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