Page 2

 Cornelia Funke

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A village like many others: only a dozen poor huts; a few barren, stony fields; and a wall that would hardly keep out a child, let alone a soldier. Thirty women without their menfolk, three dozen fatherless children. Two days ago the new governor’s men had carried off almost the entire harvest of the neighboring village. The robbers had reached the place too late, but something could still be salvaged here. They’d spent hours digging, showing the women how to hide livestock and provisions underground. . . .
The Strong Man was carrying the last hastily dug sackful of potatoes, his rough-hewn face red with effort. It turned the same color when he was fighting or drunk. Between them all, they lowered the sack into the hiding place they had made just beyond the fields, and Mo covered the entrance with a network of twigs to hide the storage pit from soldiers and tax-gatherers. By now, toads were croaking in the surrounding hills, as if to entice out the day, and the men on watch among the huts were getting restless. They’d seen the fairies, too. High time to get away, back into the forest where a hiding place could always be found, even though the new governor was sending more and more patrols out to the hills. The Milksop, the widows of Ombra called him. A good nickname for the Adderhead’s puny brother-in-law. But the Milksop’s greed for what few possessions his new subjects had was insatiable.
Mo rubbed his eyes. Heavens, he was tired. He’d hardly slept for days. There were just too many villages that they might yet be able to reach ahead of the soldiers.
"You look worn-out," Resa had said only yesterday when she woke up beside him, unaware that he hadn’t come to bed beside her until the first light of dawn. He had said something about bad dreams, told her he’d been passing the sleepless hours by working on the book he was binding, a collection of her drawings of fairies and glass men. He hoped Resa and Meggie would be asleep again now when he came back to the lonely farmhouse that the Black Prince had found for them. It was east of Ombra, an hour’s journey from the city on foot, and far from the land where the Adderhead still ruled, made immortal by a book that Mo had bound with his own hands.
Soon, thought Mo. Soon the book won’t protect him anymore. But how often had he told himself that before? And the Adderhead was still immortal.
A girl hesitantly approached Mo. How old would she be? Six? Seven? Her hair was as blond as Meggie’s, but it was a long time since Meggie had been so small. Shyly, she stopped a pace away from him.
Snapper emerged from the darkness and went over to the child. "Yes, go on, take a good look!" he whispered to the little girl. "That’s really him—the Bluejay! He eats children like you for supper.
Snapper loved such jokes. Mo bit back the words on the tip of his tongue. "Don’t believe a word he says!" he told her in a low voice. "Why aren’t you asleep like everyone else?"
The child looked at him. Then she pushed up his sleeve with her small hands until the scar showed. The scar of which the songs told tales .
She looked at him, wide-eyed, with the same mixture of awe and fear he had now seen in so many faces. The Bluejay. The girl ran back to her mother, and Mo straightened up. Whenever his chest hurt where Mortola had wounded him, he felt as if the Bluejay —the robber to whom Fenoglio had given Mo’s face and voice had slipped in there to join him. Or had the Bluejay always been a part of him, merely sleeping until Fenoglio’s world brought him to life?
Sometimes when they were taking meat or a few sacks of grain stolen from the Milksop’s bailiffs to one of the starving villages, women would come up to him and kiss his hand. "Go and thank the Black Prince, not me," he always told them, but the Prince just laughed. "Get yourself a bear," he said. "Then they’ll leave you alone."
A child began crying in one of the huts. A tinge of red was showing in the night sky, and Mo thought he heard hoofbeats. Horsemen, at least a dozen of them, maybe more. How fast the ears learned to tell what sounds meant, much faster than it took the eyes to decipher written words.
The fairies scattered. Women cried out and ran to the huts where their children slept.
Mo’s hand drew his sword as if of its own accord. As if it had never done anything else. It was the sword he had taken from the Castle of Night, the sword that once belonged to Firefox.
The first light of dawn.
Wasn’t it said that they always came at first light because they loved the red of the sky? With any luck they’d be drunk after one of their master’s endless banquets.
The Prince signaled to the robbers to take up their positions surrounding the village.
It was only a couple of courses of flat stones, and the huts wouldn’t offer much protection, either. The bear was snorting and grunting, and here they came now, out of the darkness: horsemen, more than a dozen of them, with the new crest of Ombra on their breasts, a basilisk on a red background. They had not, of course, been expecting to find men here. Weeping women, crying children, yes, but not men, and armed men at that. Taken aback, they reined in their horses. They were drunk. Good
— that would slow them down.
They didn’t hesitate for long, seeing at once that they were far better armed than the ragged robbers. And they had horses.
Fools. They’d die before they realized that weapons and horses weren’t all that counted.
"Every last one of them!" Snapper whispered hoarsely to Mo. "We have to kill them all, Bluejay. I hope your soft heart understands that. If a single man gets back to Ombra, this village will burn tomorrow.’’
Mo merely nodded. As if he didn’t know.
The horses neighed shrilly as their riders urged them toward the robbers, and Mo felt it again, just as he had on Mount Adder when he had killed Basta — that coldness of the blood. Cold as the hoarfrost at his feet. The only fear he felt was fear of himself.
But then came the screams. The groans. The blood. His own heartbeat, loud and much too fast. Striking and thrusting, pulling his sword out of the bodies of strangers, the blood of strangers wet on his clothes, faces distorted by hatred—or was it fear?
Fortunately, you couldn’t see much under their helmets. They were so young!
Smashed limbs, smashed human beings. Careful, watch out behind you. Kill. Fast.
Not one of them must get away.
One of the soldiers whispered the name before Mo struck him down. Perhaps he had been thinking, with his last breath, of all the silver he’d get for bringing the Bluejay’s body back to Ombra Castle — more silver than he could ever take as loot in a whole lifetime as a soldier. Mo pulled his sword out of the man’s chest. They had come without their body armor. Who needed armor against women and children? How cold killing made you, very cold, although your own skin was burning and your blood was flowing fever-hot.
They did indeed kill them all. It was quiet in the huts as they threw the bodies over the precipice. Two were their own men, whose bones would now mingle with those of their enemies There was no time to bury them.
The Black Prince had a nasty cut on his shoulder. Mo bandaged it as best he could.
The bear sat beside them, looking anxious. The child came out of one of the huts, the little girl who had pushed up his sleeve. From a distance she really did look like Meggie. Meggie, Resa. . . he hoped they’d still be asleep when he got back. How was he going to explain all the blood if they weren’t? So much blood. . .