Read The Black Room Online

Authors: Gillian Cross

The Black Room

Table of Contents
 
 
DUTTON CHILDREN'S BOOKS
A division of Penguin Young Readers Group
 
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. Penguin Group (Canada), 10 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England - Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen's Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) · Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd)
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R ORL, England
 
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely conincidental.
 
Copyright © 2006 by Gillian Cross
 
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast.The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
 
CIP DATA IS AVAILABLE
 
 
 
 
Published in the United States by Dutton Children's Books,
a division of Penguin Young Readers Group
345 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014
www.penguin.com/youngreaders
 
Originally published in Great Britain 2005 by Oxford University Press, Oxford
 
eISBN : 978-1-101-15408-3

http://us.penguingroup.com

To Janet Dobney, who likes stories
as much as I do
1
IN THE CAVERN UNDER THE COLD GROUND, LORN WAS AWAKE and shivering. Damp air came filtering down the entrance tunnel and slithered under her fur blankets, licking at her face and crawling across her back. She rolled onto her side and curled up tighter, pulling the blankets over her nose.
All down the cavern, restless shadows moved across the bare earth walls, arching up to the roof and huddling small again as people stirred in their sleep. Only Bando and Perdew were awake, stoking the brazier at the far end. Lorn watched as Bando bent to pick another log off the woodpile. He lifted it up to the ledge where Perdew was lying, next to the brazier, and Perdew slid it gently into the flames. Then Bando bent down, and the quiet, steady sequence began again.
Lorn lay and listened to the spit and crackle of the fire. Gradually her eyes closed and she started drifting into sleep....
And then the noise came.
Scra-a-atch.
She sat up abruptly. It wasn't a loud sound, but it was harsh and unfamiliar—and close. She saw Perdew sit up on the ledge by the brazier, turning around to listen.
Scratch. Scratch -scratch -scrape.
Whatever it was, it was coming down the entrance tunnel. Lorn scrambled free of her blankets and knelt down, putting an ear to the ground to hear more clearly. This time she recognized part of the noise as the scraping sound of branches against earth. The knot of branches that they used to block the entrance was being pushed slowly down the tunnel toward them.
But what was pushing it? What was scratching at the tunnel walls and grating against the small stones in the ground?
Perdew was beside her now, crouching down to whisper in her other ear. “What should we do?”
Lorn waited another moment, still listening, trying to match the scratching sound to something that she knew. Twice before, they had heard claws scraping at the earth around the entrance. And once a hedge-tiger had crouched there for hours, filling the cavern with the reek of its hot, hungry breath. But there had never been anything quite like this.
It started again.
Scratch-scratch-scrape.
Now she could see the tips of the battered, knotted branches moving slowly out of the tunnel, into the cavern. Whatever was making the scratching noise had to be close behind those branches.
“We must wake the others,” she said crisply. “And get the blades.”
Perdew nodded and shot off around the cavern, quietly and very fast. He tapped at shoulders and whispered into sleeping ears, and as he passed, people sat up suddenly, not blinking and stretching, but instantly alert. There was no sound except a whimper from Bando as he turned to look toward the entrance. Annet cut the noise short, putting a hand over his mouth and sliding her other arm around his bulky shoulders to reassure him.
Scratch, scrape.
Perdew padded over to the corner where they stored the blades. The others moved into position, crouching in a half circle around the entrance, and Perdew ran back and forth, handing out blades until everyone was holding a heavy piece of metal with a raw, sharp edge.
There was one more
scrape,
and then the knot of branches came free of the tunnel, expanding suddenly as the ends uncurled. Bando jumped forward nervously and snatched it up, clutching it tightly and holding it in front of Lorn, like a shield. For a second, there was nothing. Only a steady flow of cold air out of the empty tunnel.
And then they heard another sound.
This one was gentler, sliding lightly over the rough earth. Lorn closed her eyes and concentrated on sounds and smells and the way the air moved against her skin. Letting them make a dark image in her mind.
A soft, bulky shape was coming down the tunnel toward them not moving and changing like something that propels itself, but like something being pushed along from behind. It carried a sharp, strong smell, strange but not animal.
“I don't think ... it's dangerous,” she said slowly.
“Shhh!” Perdew's voice was sharp with fear.
“But it doesn't smell—”
“Shhh!”
This time it wasn't only Perdew. The sound came from all over the cavern. Lorn opened her eyes and looked around the half circle of tense, frightened faces. They were all staring fixedly at the entrance. Waiting for some kind of monstrous predator.
Slowly, the great, soft shape began to emerge into the light. It was pale and tall with flat, sloping sides. A long, curved wedge, lying on its back. Lorn didn't know what it was, but the scent was much stronger now, filling the whole cavern. It smelled sharp and fresh and disturbing.
For a second there was complete silence. Then Annet laughed. She sounded startled and delighted.
“Well, I wasn't expecting
that!”
“How did it get here? Who brought it?” Perdew started to walk around the huge wedge, running his hands over its sides with a look of happy astonishment. It was as tall as he was, and it was covered with a coarse, pale membrane.
What is it?
Lorn wanted to say.
Is it food?
But her mouth wouldn't make the words—because all the others knew the answers already. She could see it in their faces. Nothing like that great, pale wedge had ever come into the cavern, in all the time she had been there, but everyone had recognized it immediately.
Except her.
Perdew was using his blade now. He sliced carefully into the membrane and stripped it back, as if he were skinning an animal. The membrane came away easily and the firelight gleamed on long, translucent tubes, hanging one against another, closely packed together.
“Please,” Annet said, holding out her arms. “Oh, please.”
Perdew laughed and reached up with both hands, separating one of the tubes and cutting it free. As his blade went in, juice spurted out, and Lorn caught it full on in her eye. Her mind flared suddenly, exploding with images. Not a wedge, but a different shape altogether.
In another place.
 
Light light LIGHT
—
dazzling and fierce
—
Brightness. Something round and smooth and cold.
Fingers bent, nails digging in
—
andthat sharp juice, just
the same, into the eye.
Sharp and hurting.
Then the voice, and the hard hand coming down.
Shhh! It's only an orange! Dohfuss! Dohfuss! Dohfuss!
 
For a second it was more real than anything around her. She felt her brain stir and stretch, like someone waking from a long sleep. Her mind reached out in amazement.
I remember....
Then something dark and solid clamped down hard. No. It was like a hand slammed over her face, stifling and choking, shutting out light and sound and feeling.
I remember,
she thought again, forcing her brain to form the words. Trying to hold on.
But this time
remember
trawled up nothing except the pictures that it always brought. The moment when Zak found her wandering in the woods. The moment when he led her into the cavern for the first time.
Why couldn't she get back beyond those?
2
TOM WENT OUT LATE, JUST BEFORE THE PARK CLOSED. He liked that time of day when it was damp and gloomy, when autumn hadn't quite turned into winter. Helga had been pestering him for hours, pushing her nose against his legs while he was trying to write, but he'd made her wait until his homework was finished.
By then, there was a faint wet mist lingering between the street lamps, blurring the view across the road. It was colder than Tom had expected. As he and Helga went into the park, he put his collar up and pushed his free hand into his pocket, but the mist sneaked around the back of his neck, turning his ears numb. By the time he bent to let Helga off the leash, his fingers were thick and clumsy with cold. He fumbled with the clip, and Helga jumped up and licked impatiently at his face.
“Sit,” he said. He took the leash off and felt in his pocket for the whistle he was using to train her. “Wait for the signal.”

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