Page 29

 Cornelia Funke

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"You don’t know anything about it!" he said hoarsely. "Nothing at all. I didn’t want him to bring me back. Being dead felt much better."
But Brianna only looked at him with her mother’s eyes. And her father’s face.
And Farid stumbled back up to Orpheus’s room with the hot tea while Jasper stroked his hair with his tiny glass hand, full of pity.
Meggie liked it in the robbers’ camp. Sometimes it almost seemed to Resa as though her daughter had always dreamed of living in shabby tents. She watched Battista making himself a new mask, asked the Strong Man to teach her how to speak to the larks, and accepted the wildflowers that his younger brother brought her with a smile.
It was good to see Meggie smiling again more often although Farid was still with Orpheus. But Resa missed the farm they had left behind. She missed the silence and seclusion, and the sense of being alone with Mo and Meggie after all the weeks when they had been apart. Weeks, months, years. . .
Sometimes, when Resa saw the two of them sitting by the fire With the robbers, she felt almost as if she were watching them at a game they had played all through the years when she hadn’t been with them. Come on, Mo, let’s play robbers.
The Black Prince had advised Mo not to go outside the camp for the time being, and for a few days he took that advice. But on the third night he disappeared into the forest once more, all alone, as if to go in search of himself. And on the fourth night he went out with the robbers again.
Battista had sung Resa the songs that were going around Ombra after Mo’s venture into the city. The Bluejay had flown away, said the songs, escaping on the back of the Milksop’s best horse. It was said that he had killed ten guards, imprisoned Sootbird in the vault, and stolen Balbulus’s finest books. "How much of it is true?"
she had asked Mo. He laughed. "I’m afraid I can’t be said to have flown I" he had whispered, caressing her belly in which their child was slowly growing. And then he had gone out with the Black Prince again. And she lay there night after night, listening to the songs Battista sang outside the tent, terrified for her husband.
The Black Prince had had two tents pitched for them right beside his own. They were patched together from old clothes that the robbers had dyed with oak bark so that they wouldn’t show up too much among the surrounding trees: one tent for Meggie, one for the Bluejay and his wife. The mats of dried moss on which they slept were damp, and when Mo went out at night Resa shared the tent with her daughter for warmth. One day the grass was so white with hoarfrost in the morning that you could see the glass men s tracks in it. "This will be a hard winter," said the Strong Man, not for the first time.
One could still find giants’ footsteps in the ravine where the camp lay. The rain of the last few weeks had turned them into ponds where gold-spotted frogs swam. The trees on the slopes of the ravine rose to the sky, almost as tall as the trees in the Wayless Wood. Their withering leaves covered the ground, which was Cool now in autumn, with gold and flaming red, and fairies’ nests hung among the branches like overripe fruit. If you looked south you could see a village in the distance, its walls showing pale as mushrooms between the trees, but it was such a poor village that even the Milksop’s greedy tax-gatherers didn’t bother to come this way. Wolves howled by night in the surrounding woods, pale gray owls like little ghosts flew over the shabby tents, and horned squirrels stole what food there was to steal among the campfires.
There were a good fifty men living in the camp, sometimes more. The youngest were the two boys saved from hanging by Snapper, and now they both went spying for the Prince: Doria, the Strong Man’s brother, who brought Meggie wildflowers, and his orphaned friend, Luc. Luc helped Gecko to tame his crows. Six women cooked and mended for the robbers, but none of them went out at night with the men. Resa drew portraits of almost all of them, boys, men, and women. Battista had found paper and chalk for her, where, he didn’t say. She wondered, as she portrayed every face, if the lines on them had indeed been drawn by Fenoglio’s words alone, or whether they weren’t perhaps, after all, living their own lives in this world independently of the old man.
The women did not even join the men when they sat together talking. Resa always sensed the disapproving looks when she and Meggie sat down quite naturally with Mo and the Black Prince. Sometimes she returned those glances, staring Snapper in the face, and Gecko, and all the others who tolerated women in the camp only to cook food and mend clothes. She cursed the nausea that kept coming back and prevented her from at least going with Mo when he and the Prince walked in the surrounding hills, looking for a place offering better shelter for the winter.
They had been in the camp that Meggie called the Camp of Lost Giants for five days and five nights when Doria and Luc returned from Ombra about midday with news.
It was obviously such bad news that Doria didn’t even tell it to his brother, but went straight to the Black Prince’s tent. A little later the Prince sent for Mo, and Battista assembled the men.
Doria glanced at his strong brother before stepping into the circle of robbers, as if drawing courage from him to tell his news. But his voice was clear and firm when he began to speak. He sounded so much older than he was.
"The Piper came out of the Wayless Wood yesterday," he began. "He took the road that approaches Ombra from the west, burning and looting as he went, letting it be known everywhere that the Milksop hasn’t sent enough taxes to the Castle of Night and he’s here to collect more."
"How many men-at-arms are there with him?" As usual, Snapper sounded brusque.
Resa didn’t like his voice. She didn’t like anything about him.
Doria seemed to like the man who had saved his life no better than she did, judging by the look he gave him. "A great many. More than us. Far more," he added. "I don’t know the exact figure. The peasants whose houses they burned didn’t have time to count them."
"Even if they had had time it wouldn’t have been much use, would it?" replied Snapper. "Everyone knows peasants can’t count."
Gecko laughed, and with him some of the robbers who were always to be found near Snapper: Swindler, Grabber, the Charcoal-Burner, Elfbane, and several more.
Doria’s lips tightened. He and the Strong Man were peasant-born, and Snapper knew it. His own father, apparently, had been a mercenary soldier.
"Tell them what else you heard, Doria." The Black Prince’s voice sounded weary as Resa had seldom heard it before.
The boy glanced at his brother once more. "They’re taking a head count of the children," he said. "The Piper is drawing up lists of all of them over six years old and no more than five feet tall."
A murmur rose among the robbers, and Resa saw Mo leaning over to the Prince to whisper something to him. How close to each other they seemed, and how naturally Mo sat there with the ragged robbers. As if he belonged to them as much as to her and Meggie. The Black Prince straightened up. His hair wasn’t long now, as it had been when Resa had first met him. Three days after Dustfinger’s death he had shaved his head, the custom in this world after the death of a friend. For on the third day, it was said, the souls of the dead entered the realm from which there was no return.