Read Gool Online

Authors: Maurice Gee

Tags: #JUV000000, #JUV037000

Gool (8 page)

‘Yes,’ Duro said.

Tarl nodded. ‘So Hari lives.’


‘No,’ Xantee said, ‘Hari dies.’

Just tell him straight, Duro said. You’ve played enough games.

He walked to the tree, pulled out the knives, slid his in its sheath, and after holding the black knife a moment, admiring its balance and blade, handed it to Tarl.

‘Hari said you were the best knife-thrower who ever lived.’

Tarl took the knife but ignored him. ‘Dies?’ he said in a stunned voice.

‘She means, he’s dying if we don’t save him,’ Duro said. ‘He fought with a gool. He saved two of our people. But the gool wrapped an arm round his neck. We’ve stopped it feeding on him but we can’t make it let go.’

‘Gool?’ Tarl said.

‘It comes out of the rocks, out of the wet. It eats everything.’

‘I’ve seen one.’

‘What do the dogs call it?’

‘Dogs don’t give names. They know by smell. I call it Thing. It lives by the black river that runs out of the jungle. It’s as big as the swamp in People’s Square. It took four of my dogs. Do you say there are others?’

‘Everywhere. Eating everything.’

‘And Hari fought it?’

‘It was a small one, as small as a bear. He cut off two of its arms but one tied itself around his neck. We can’t get it off.’

‘What do you want me to do?’

‘Tarl,’ Xantee said. She saw he preferred talking with men

– Pearl had warned her. ‘We’ll tell you when we get away from here. But we need you to come with us.’

‘To help Hari?’ Tarl said.

‘To kill the gool and save Hari’s life.’

‘No one can kill it. Thing. Gool.’

‘There’s a way if we can find it. You can help us. But we need to get out of here, away from your dogs.’ She meant the pack in the rocks.

‘Can you stop them from attacking us?’ Duro said.

‘Until they get hungry.’

‘Will you come?’

‘For Hari?’

‘Yes, for Hari.’

Tarl knelt suddenly and drew the two black and yellow dogs close to his sides. He had a way of ‘speaking’ Xantee could not follow – quick and easy. Smell was in it, hunger too, and fear, bravado, loyalty – dog things.

In a moment he stood up. ‘We’ll come.’


‘Now. Where to?’

‘To the city. The burrows. To Blood Burrow.’

Tarl blinked. ‘Why there?’

‘Can we go? It’s getting dark. We’ve got to find a place to eat and sleep. You lead. We’ll follow.’

She saw, in a moment, that he was used to leading, although the two dogs scouted at the sides. He went fast through the darkening trees, finding his way as easily as if he were on a road. Now and then they heard a reassuring bark from one of the dogs.

After several hours he stopped suddenly. She heard him call the dogs in.

‘Eat,’ he said to Xantee and Duro.



‘What about you?’

‘In the morning.’

The dogs trotted in, one from the left, one from the right.

‘What are their names?’

‘They don’t have names.’

It was easy enough to tell them apart – one was a dog, the other a bitch. So, Him and Her, she told Duro.

How about Talk and Do?

Shut up, Duro. Do you trust him?


I do and I don’t. He’s like a dog. He is a dog. He could turn savage.

He won’t. He wants to help Hari.

Tarl lay down with a dog on either side. They seemed, all three, to sleep instantly. Xantee and Duro ate – grubs and berries, the last of their food. They drank water from their flasks, leaving enough for the morning. Then they unrolled their mats and wrapped themselves in their blankets. One of the dogs was snoring. The other, Xantee realised, had opened its eyes and was watching them. It was Her. Tarl had woken too. She saw his eyes gleam in a shaft of moonlight angling through the trees.

‘Now,’ he said, ‘tell me why Blood Burrow.’

‘Can’t it wait till morning? We’re tired.’

‘Tell it now.’

‘Shouldn’t someone be watching? There might be animals hunting.’

‘Nothing hunts.’ All the same he spoke with Her and she stood up and stretched and walked into the trees.


Xantee told it, all of it: Hari’s fight with the gool, then his wasting away; Tealeaf’s tale of Barni and the stars (she told it carefully, not sure Tarl would understand); Tealeaf’s recollection of Dweller tales about Belong, with its galleries and libraries; and then their journey and Lo’s accident and leaving him with the people with no name.

‘We’ve crossed two mountain ranges and walked through three jungles to reach you, Tarl.’

‘Why me?’

‘Because you can take us to the burrows. You can help us find the books that will tell us what Barni’s story means.’

‘What are books?’

‘Can you read, Tarl? Nor could Hari. Pearl taught him. She taught me. Books are stories made with marks that turn into words you can say. They’re made from goatskins, the marks on them are made with – with soot, with dye, with whatever makes a mark and stays in place. Sometimes the skins are rolled on sticks. Sometimes the makers cut them in squares and sew them together. Tarl, did you see them in the burrows? There were huge rooms full of them.’

‘If books are made from goatskins the rats have eaten them.’

‘But if the rooms are locked . . . ?’

‘Not in Blood Burrow. The rooms were broken open long ago. All rooms.’

‘The other burrows then?’

‘Keech and Keg? I was Blood. I was dead if I went there. These books you talk about might have been in the city Company built. I never went in the city either.’

Xantee shook her head. ‘Company had no books except their tallies of what they bought and sold. But in Belong there was everything, before Company came.’

‘Take us there, Tarl, so we can look,’ Duro said.

‘Keech is in the burrows. And the Clerk is in the city, behind the walls. They fight each other. They hate each other. But they hate me more. It’s death for me to go there.’ He smiled – more a baring of his teeth than in amusement. ‘But what is death except to die? I’ll take you to Blood Burrow, and to Keech and Keg and Bawdhouse and Port if I have to. And into the Clerk’s city. For Hari.’ He looked at Xantee. ‘And for you. You have my blood.’

‘Thank you, Tarl,’ Xantee said.

‘But you must keep quiet and not talk. Women don’t talk.’

She heard Duro laughing inside, but stopped herself from bursting out at him. She would talk all she wanted in her head. She was moved too, suddenly, by Tarl’s acceptance that they shared blood.

Duro said, ‘Why do Keech and the Clerk hate you?’

‘The Clerk blames me for his crippled arm. Did Hari tell you? When he tried to cut me free in People’s Square he made the horses bolt and the Clerk’s cart tipped over. His arm was crushed on the stones. Now it hangs at his side like a rotten branch. And all the time it hurts him. It stabs. Sometimes he howls in the night. That is good. I think of it as I lie down to sleep. But he blames me. He sends men out to capture me and I lead them into swamps, where they drown. They’re food for the dogs.’

Duro swallowed. It was more than he wanted.

‘What about Keech?’

‘He has always hated Blood Burrow and I’m Blood Burrow.’ He seemed to think that was enough.

‘What happened on the hill, Tarl, after Pearl and Hari jumped?’ Xantee said.

Tarl looked at her briefly. ‘Blood Burrow and Keech Burrow fought. We killed each other while the Clerk laughed inside himself. Keech had more men but I had my dogs. The other burrows joined with Keech and drove us from the hill. We ran for Blood Burrow. And then Blood Burrow turned on me; they blamed me. So I ran again, with my dogs, and came to the forest, where I live a better life than back there.’ He put a hand on the dog at his side and it wagged its tail.

‘What happened back there?’

‘Keech made himself king of the burrows. There’s no Blood Burrow any more. No Keg, no Bawdhouse, it’s all Keech. But he hates me, just like the Clerk. He blames me for losing the city and the heights and for the clerks breaking the treaty we made that night. So he sends men out to hunt me. I deal with them in the same way.’

‘And you’re the Dog King?’ Duro said.

‘Men call me that. But there’s no king. There’s only the leader of the pack. Once it was Dog. Did Hari tell you about Dog?’

‘Yes,’ Xantee said.

‘He was leader. I was – they did not know what I was. They let me live because of Dog and because I taught them new ways of hunting and killed game out of their reach.’ He touched his knife. ‘Then Dog grew old and they killed him.’ He saw Xantee start. ‘A younger dog challenged him. Dog lost and the pack tore him apart. It’s the way. They let me live. I was still useful. And what I tell them to do they do. But the black dog is the leader. And when I’m too old to run with them –’ he shrugged – ‘they’ll kill me too.’

‘Can’t you get away?’

‘Why? The pack’s my home. I’ll live with them and die their way.’

‘We can take you to Hari.’

‘No. He chose another way.’

‘But you’ll help him?’

‘He’s my son.’ But he laid his hand on the dog at his side – his son too?

‘Is that one, and the other one, do they come down from Dog?’ Duro said.

‘They have Dog’s blood. Now –’ he turned from them – ‘you’ve told me. The city’s west. The burrows are west. Tomorrow we’ll start. Sleep now.’

He lay down and closed his eyes.

Xantee and Duro stretched out on their mats and pulled their blankets tight. Soon, although there were many new things to think about, they slept too.


Xantee did not count the days; she thought of Hari dying. The forest ran on, never changing, until Duro showed her that the trees were thinning out and getting smaller. They shrank to head height, dry and twisted, then gave way to scrub with knife-point leaves and hidden thorns. Another day in the scrub, with the land falling away in a slope too gradual to notice. After that, bare hills where the sun beat down and fangcats hunted. The dogs would have fought them, and Tarl too, with his knife, but Xantee and Duro pushed the creatures away with their minds. Tarl shook his head contemptuously.

‘Dweller tricks,’ he said.

They were two days in the hills. One of the dogs ran ahead, scouting from side to side. The other stayed in reach of Tarl’s hand. In the mornings, when Xantee and Duro woke, all three were gone, and they came back bloodstained, the dogs red on their muzzles and Tarl on his beard. He threw a lump of meat to Xantee and Duro and they cut it thin and charred it on a low fire. Tarl refused meat that was cooked. He seemed more savage, he talked less, but was always in conversation with the dogs. Yet Xantee was surer of him, less afraid that he would turn on them. Hari was her father and Tarl was Hari’s father. It was enough. She wished only that he would tie a cloth about his loins, but decided it was better not to offer him one.

They walked down a twisting gully to the edge of a steep incline. Thunder clouds like bread dough swelled in the south, while westwards veils of rain dropped across the sky. Then a burst of sunshine lit a patch of white that gleamed like pearl shell.

The sea, Xantee said.

‘The sea,’ she said to Tarl.

He showed no interest, but called a halt. They rested with their backs against a wall of warm rock. Yellow plains stretched away almost to the edge of the distant rain. At the margin Xantee saw a grey uneven line running inland from the sea.

Duro, that’s the city.


Yes. ‘Tarl, is that the city?’

‘City,’ he grunted, and sucked at the gnawed bone he had carried all morning. He broke it at the joint and threw half to each of the dogs.

Belong, Duro whispered. I was born there.

They watched almost without breathing, although nothing moved except the thunderheads. The city was only a thin grey line. In a moment the rain slid down and hid it. Yet, Xantee thought, it’s more – more than just a line. She had sensed – or had she seen? – a film of something lying over it, like the film of lost life on the eye of a netted fish lying in the bottom of a dinghy. She shivered. There was a gool in there, perhaps the mother gool, the largest one. What better place could it have for its home?

She tried to eat but found she could not swallow.

Pearl and Hari must have come this way, Duro said.

Yes, Xantee said, although she thought it had probably been further west. Pearl and Tealeaf, escaping from the city, and Hari searching for his father. They had crossed the plain into these hills. The river down there, pink in the sun, must be the river where Hari had killed Pearl’s brother, Hubert. He had named one of the twins after Hubert – making up for the life he had taken – while Pearl had named the girl twin Blossom after her sister thrown from the cliff.

Xantee shivered. So much killing. And it seemed there might be more to come.

‘Where are the burrows, Tarl?’

‘On the other side of the city.’

‘And that’s where Keech is? And the Clerk is in the city?’

‘Let the boy ask.’

‘What happened to the workers, Tarl?’ Duro said. ‘They had an army. My father was in it till he died.’

‘Some joined the clerks. Others ran away into the plains and made towns. Maybe they’re still there, I don’t know.’

He said something to the dogs and Him stood up and stretched and trotted away.

‘Where’s he going?’

‘To find a cave. The storm is coming.’

It lasted the rest of that day and all the night. They stayed in the cave the dog had found. At dawn the rain and thunder rolled away. The plain was washed clean and the distant city had turned black.

‘Can we get there today?’ Xantee said.

‘Look at the river,’ Duro said.

It foamed and twisted and from high on the cliff they heard stones rumbling in its bed.

Tarl did not seem worried. He led them down a goat track to the plain. They waited beside the river and by nightfall it was low enough to cross. Tarl carried a dog under each arm. The water was still strong enough to sweep them away.

They pushed on through the night, making up time, and hid in scrub below the city wall as the sun came up.

‘Give me a piece of your blanket, girl,’ Tarl said.

He tore a strip from the side and tied it about his waist and between his legs.

So I get cold at night, Xantee thought. Why can’t Duro get cold?

I’m bigger than you, he replied, hearing. My blanket hardly covers me.

‘Tarl,’ he said, ‘are we going into the city first or the burrows?’

‘Burrows,’ Tarl said.

‘I can’t go there. I’m white.’

‘White, brown, black, doesn’t matter. Men go where they go. They fight for whoever feeds them best.’

They had reached the city close to the end of the northern wall. It turned sharply south and there it had been broken to half its height by cannon bolts in one of the forgotten wars. Duro clambered among the fallen stones, climbed the wall like stairs and looked over the city.

Xantee went up beside him. The neighbourhood below them had seen heavy fighting and scarcely any building was whole. They had been mean buildings to start with, hovels for the class of workers little better than slaves. Now they were broken, bent, tipped over, rusty, rotten. They were weed-infested, and puddled in their yards and streets from the night’s rain. She saw rats running here and there. The wars had been a victory for rats. She saw no people, or signs of them.

Tarl climbed up beside them.

‘The burrows are worse,’ he said.

The fighting had been less fierce further into the city. Houses stood undamaged, sturdier than the ones by the eastern wall, worker dwellings in wood and stone. Even there no people moved.

‘That’s where I was born,’ Duro said. ‘My father worked for Ottmar in his salt warehouse.’

Tarl gave a growl at the words ‘Ottmar’ and ‘salt’. At the foot of the wall the dogs heard him and whimpered.

The sun came out from behind clouds and lit the hill where the Family mansions had stood. It picked out buildings in the city centre, some four or five storeys high. Their marble walls and columns turned pink – but they too were pocked with holes as black as bat caves. It was, Xantee supposed, the part of the city called Ceebeedee, where Company’s business had been done. Smoke rose here and there from morning fires, and she supposed people lived in the empty offices. She had thought the Clerk would live on the hill, in the great Ottmar mansion, but straining her eyes, she saw no sign of life. She made out only shapes that might be trees and broken walls.

‘Down,’ Tarl said suddenly. He pulled them on to a lower part of the wall as something whined over their heads.

‘Robber. Slingshot,’ he said.

‘Will he follow us?’

‘The dogs will have him if he does.’

They kept on southwards through the scrub, staying clear of the city wall. It turned west, dropping down a long slope to the sea, and there before them, stretching mile on mile, lay the burrows. Xantee would not have believed so much desolation possible. Near at hand shattered stone and brick and twisted iron and rusty pipe were locked in a sinewy growth of creeping scrub. Once it was the outer edge of a great city. This rubble had been houses, shops, schools, taverns before the great Company ship, Open Hand, sailed into the harbour. She looked across the ruins, trying to identify Port, where the ship had berthed, but saw only broken walls, spiked and stepped and slanting, against the white sheen of the sea.

‘Where’s Blood Burrow?’ she whispered.

‘No Blood Burrow any more,’ Tarl said.

‘Where was it?’

‘By the wall. You went west to Keg and south to Keech. Everything is Keech now. Keech is king of the burrows.’

‘Where is he?’

‘See where the smoke comes up. That will be his fires.’ He pointed at a brown smudge south, towards the sea. ‘But he moves. Keech doesn’t leave his people alone. He knows the danger. He rewards. He punishes. No one knows if Keech will be behind him when he turns around.’

‘Can we keep away from him?’ Duro said.

‘We can try. But I only know Blood Burrow and he’s got men everywhere.’

‘Xantee and I can find them. We can make them forget.’

‘You’ll need to.’

‘Are we going in now?’ Xantee said. She felt it would be like walking into a swamp, like the jungle, but without the Peeps to keep them safe.

‘That’s what you wanted, girl,’ Tarl said.

‘What will we do for food and water?’

‘The rain’s coming again. No shortage of water. No shortage of food either –’ he smiled his snarling smile – ‘if you can eat what I kill.’

He meant rats. She saw he was hungry for rats. She remembered that Hari had eaten them, had grown up on rats, and Pearl had eaten rat too, when she was ill and he was nursing her. If her mother could, her mother raised on spiced lamb and sugar and confections . . .

‘We’ll eat what we have to,’ Duro said.

‘Yes,’ Xantee said.

Tarl nodded. He led them into the burrows, with the dog, Him, scouting and the bitch at his side.

Duro took Xantee’s hand to give her courage. She felt him take courage from her.

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