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Authors: Gillian Cross

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BOOK: The Black Room
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What was he talking about? She couldn't imagine living anywhere else.
“We have to move,” Perdew said, determined and tight-lipped. “And we've got to find somewhere
it gets too cold to go out searching. There's no time to waste.”
For a moment there was a shocked silence.
Then Bando said, “We
move! We can't leave here!” He was almost shouting.
“I'm sorry, Bando,” Tina said reluctantly. “But I think Perdew's right—”
Some of the others nodded—and Bando went red in the face. “WE CAN'T GO!” he yelled. “What's the matter with you all? Have you forgotten Cam? And Zak and Nate and Robert?”
Pushing Tina out of his way, he charged through the cavern, making for the long side wall where the great wooden beam was lying. When he reached the beam, he bent over and hauled it out of the way, grunting with the effort it took. Then he crouched beside the line that ran down that side of the cavern.
Lorn had marked the line in the earth weeks and weeks ago, when Cam and Zak set off with Robert and Nate on their long, strange journey.
I'm going home,
Robert had said.
I'm going to find my family.
No one knew what would happen if he succeeded, but the four of them had set off together—and there had been no news since then.
The line was for the people left behind, to help them imagine the journey there and back. Bando had laid small stones on it, to represent the travelers, and every day he'd moved the stones a little farther along the line while the others watched him. Two of the stones were lost, but the two that remained were nearly at the end of the line. A red stone for Cam and a gray stone for Zak.
“Look!” Bando said fiercely, bending over them. “They're almost here. If we move, they'll never find us when they come back.”
If they come back,
Lorn thought. But she didn't say it.
The others were coming out from behind the brazier now, moving slowly toward the line.
“Bando's right,” Annet said uncertainly. “We can't abandon them.”
“Suppose they never come?” Perdew said brutally. “Do we have to sit here forever—waiting to be killed? I'm not doing that. If the rest of you won't move, I'll go on my own!”
Lorn looked at his set, angry face and thought,
We can't manage without you.
They needed his speed and his hunting skills. And she needed his bluntness, too. He was the only one who questioned her decisions and made her think harder. If he insisted, they would have to move.
She looked the other way, at Bando standing beside the journey line, stubborn and immovable.
We can't manage without you, either.
He might not understand everything that went on, but he was twice as strong as the rest of them. And he could work all day and all night without tiring.
She didn't know what to do.
“Well?” Perdew said, hassling her. “There's no time to waste. You've got to decide, Lorn.”
“I'm not moving,” Bando said doggedly, glaring at Perdew.
Why does it have to be me?
... Lorn looked away from them both, staring into the brazier. They were both right. It was vital to stay where they were, and it was vital to move. But, above all, it was vital to keep everyone together. Was there any way of doing that? The questions swirled together, battering her mind.
And then, slowly, they fell into a pattern.
She turned around to face the others. “Perdew's right,” she said. “The cavern's not as safe as we thought it was. And it's not big enough, either. Not now that there's all this food to store. We do need somewhere else.”
“No!” Bando took a step forward, looking horrified and distressed.
Lorn held up a hand. “It's OK,” she said. “Don't worry. You're right, too. We can't let the others struggle back and find us gone. So we've got to stay here.”
She let the contradiction hang in the air for a moment, waiting while the others puzzled over it.
“So what are we going to do?” Ab said at last. “We can't move
stay here.”
“Yes, we can,” Lorn said triumphantly.
She looked past him—past them all—into the dark, hot space behind the brazier, the space where they had all squeezed together to escape the swinging beam. The answer was there. She stared into the darkness, letting her mind sink down below the brazier and the earth floor where it stood. Away from all the huge enemies who roamed the ground above their heads. Down and down, into the safe, hidden space underneath.
“We're not going to live in this cavern anymore,” she said. “We're going to use it as a storeroom. But we won't be leaving here—because we're going to make a new cavern.”
Nobody was expecting that. She saw them frown, looking uneasily at each other, but she didn't care. She knew she had the right answer now.
“We're going to dig down,” she said. “No one will be able to reach us then. We'll make a new cavern, underneath this one. And we'll be completely safe.”
TOM WAS KNOCKED STUPID, SPRAWLING HELPLESS AND HALF upside down. His leg had twisted underneath him, and the back of his head was rammed into the mud. He could hear Helga on the other side of the ditch, barking furiously, but she might as well have been in Australia. He wished he hadn't tied her up so well.
There was no escape from the hard hands that gripped his shoulders. He was hauled across the ditch and away from the hedge, and then rolled over and slammed facedown onto the ground.
“Get off!” he yelled. “Get off me!”
But he couldn't even hear his own voice properly because someone else was shouting, too. Shouting and dragging him backward over the rough ground.
“Get away! You're hurting—”
The arms dragged him up from the ground and slammed him down again, and all the time the wild, angry voice went on and on, growling and raging at him. It was all so fast and so painful that he didn't even recognize the voice at first. But when he did, he rolled over onto his back and grabbed at the fists, bellowing as loudly as he could.
“Stop it, you lunatic—it's me! Tosher! Don't be a fool, Robbo! It's

It was like shouting into a whirlwind. Robert was screaming and shaking and thumping as if he'd gone berserk. And none of Tom's struggles were any use, because Robert was a head taller, and superfit from playing basketball.
There was only one way to survive. As Robert came at him again, Tom lifted a foot and kicked him as hard as he could, in the groin. Robert lost his grip and doubled up on the ground, and Tom crawled away to a safe distance.
“Bloody hell, Robbo,” he said. “What's got into you?”
There was no answer. Only a sound of gasping. And something that sounded horribly like a sob.
Helga had stopped barking now. She was pulling at her leash and whining uneasily as she watched Robert. Tom's common sense told him to untie her, fast, and run away while there was still time.
But something deeper and more dogged than common sense kept him crouching there under the trees. Robert was his
He couldn't run out on him without knowing what was wrong.
“You could have broken my skull,” he said. “And I wasn't doing anything. Only prodding around in that hole a bit—”
There was a sudden, sharp movement as Robert's head came up, like a bull's. Helga stiffened and Tom edged a bit farther away.
“Whoa! Give me a break,” he said. “What's your problem?”
Robert took a long, difficult breath. Slowly he pulled himself up onto his knees. “You don't need to know that,” he said. His voice was rough and harsh. “Just keep away from here.”
Tom could taste blood trickling down the back of his throat, and one of his eyes was starting to close. But he wasn't going to back off now. “This is a public park, Doherty. I've got as much right as you have to be here. If you and The Hag want to play games, you should stick to your own backyard.”
“She's called
Robert said in a fierce, clipped voice.
was good enough before,” Tom said bitterly. “All those years when you needed a friend to prop you up and keep you going. Or have you forgotten about that?”
For the first time, Robert hesitated. It was just a second of uncertainty, but he looked more like he used to. Tom leaned forward and spoke to
—theold Robert.
“This is crazy,” he said. “Can't you see what you've done to me? Look at the
Robert shuffled closer, on hands and knees. Tom lifted his head and met him eye to eye. After a moment, Robert sat back on his heels. His clenched fists relaxed, but his face was grim.
“You've got to keep away from here, Tosh,” he said. “I can't explain. You've just got to promise to stay away.”
His voice was very quiet, but it made Tom shudder. Whatever was going on, it wasn't any kind of game. It was something powerful and weird. All his instincts told him to back off and keep clear.
“Do it,” Robert said. “Promise.”
Robert had got himself into something frightening—that was obvious. And he was offering Tom an easy way out. A chance to walk off without getting involved. All it would take was a smile and a quick shrug.
That's cool, Robbo. No
need to
about me. If he said that, and meant it, Robert would let him go. He could turn away and leave the danger behind him. Whatever it was.
But it would still be there for Robert.
And they would never be friends again. Not really.
Very slowly, Tom shook his head. “No, I won't do it. Not unless you give me a reason.”
Robert stared at him. It was very still in the woods. Even Helga was quiet now. At the other end of the park some children were shouting to each other, but that was impossibly distant. The woods were another world. Another universe. The air hung around them, thick and silent, and Tom could hear the sound of his own blood beating in his ears.
“I thought we were friends,” he said.
“This is different.” Robert turned his head away. “I
tell you—”
Tom was even more afraid now. But it was too late to turn and walk away. He'd chosen. And with some remote, detached part of his mind, he saw how to make Robert give up his secret.
“You'll have to tell me what's going on,” he said. Quite calm now. “Because if you don‘t, I'll come back with a shovel. And I'll dig up that whole bank until I find out what you've got hidden there—”
“ No. ”
Robert leaped to his feet, and Tom scrambled up, too, ready to defend himself.
“It's no good hitting me again,” he said. “That won't stop me from finding out. Nothing will—unless you kill me.”
He said it without any drama, laying out the clear, cold logic of the situation. Subtly, the silence changed as Robert took it in.
“Well?” Tom said at last.
Robert shook his head. “You don't get it, Tosh.” He sounded weary now. “Even if I do tell you, it won't do any good. You'll never believe it.”
That was when Tom knew he'd won. “Try me,” he said.
THE LIGHT FADED AND THE SKY CHANGED FROM DIRTY white to a dull, dark gray. The undergrowth lost its colors, blurring into a single shadowy mass, and darkness thickened under the trees.
Robert kept talking. His voice went on and on, soft and even, without any sign of hesitation. Tom couldn't see his face in the shadows—only the little movements of his head as he spoke.
About impossible things.
It's got to be some kind of joke,
Tom thought.
But he knew it wasn't. Robert was useless at teasing people, because he always cracked up and started laughing after two or three seconds. And he certainly wasn't laughing now. He was completely serious.
You kept asking why I was different after
summer. Well, it started on the plane coming home. I thought we'd crashed.... and then it was like being on my own in a cold jungle. Only it was much stranger than a jungle....
It wasn't just strange. It was totally unbelievable. A wild, elaborate fantasy. It had taken Tom quite a while to grasp what Robert was actually saying. And now that he understood, he was even more bewildered. It
be true.
Robert stopped and looked at him. “You're not listening!” he said.
“You're not
Tom said. Suddenly he was very angry. “I thought I was your friend. I thought you trusted me. Why can't you tell me the truth?”
“I knew you wouldn't believe it,” Robert said. He didn't sound triumphant. Just tired and miserable.
Tom felt like shaking him. “How could anyone believe garbage like that?”
The moment the words were out, he wished he hadn't said them. It was very dark under the trees now, and Robert was just a silhouette. Tall and strange and unpredictable. Cars swept along the road beyond the woods, and their headlights threw weird, distorted shadows across his face.
He took a sudden step forward and Helga growled deep in her throat. Tom jumped back fast, out of reach.
“Don't be a fool,” Robert said irritably. “I'm not going to hit you again. I want to show you something. Come over here.”
He stepped across the ditch and squatted down in front of the hedge bank. Reluctantly, Tom followed him, feeling with his foot for the edge of the ditch and jumping awkwardly across. As he crouched down, he was aware of tension. Robert was watching him to make sure that he didn't put a hand or a foot in the wrong place.
BOOK: The Black Room
11.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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