Read Twilight Robbery Online

Authors: Frances Hardinge

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General

Twilight Robbery (4 page)

‘Read it!’ Skellow thrust the letter towards her. ‘Or . . .’ He was no longer making any attempt to hide the knife in his other hand.

‘Or what? You’ll kill me?’ Mosca made fists in an attempt to stop her arms shaking. ‘If you want me to read this letter, I’ll need to be alive.’

‘Yes,’ said Skellow through his teeth, ‘but you won’t need your thumbs.’

There was a small pause during which Mosca realized exactly how fond she was of her thumbs, and considered the many things she would be unable to do without them. These included untying knots and slipping keys out of enemies’ pockets. Biting her lip so hard that it hurt, she snatched the letter back out of his hand.

‘All right,’ she said sullenly, then lowered her eyes to the page again and started to speak.

Occasionally her black gaze would creep up for a furtive glance at the lean, dripping faces of her captors. Did they suspect that the words on the page in front of her were not
the words she was speaking? No, she thought not.

After she had finished reading, Skellow stood in silence for a while, chewing the inside of his cheek.

‘So – our Romantic Facilitator cannot come to the bastle house tonight, but is happy to meet with me in Brotherslain Walk like I suggested?’

‘Happy as a mouse in a marmalade jar.’ Mosca gritted her teeth and fought to keep her gaze bold and unblinking. If Skellow sensed the lie in her words, he showed no sign of it.

‘All right, then.’ Skellow gave a tick of tongue against teeth. ‘Come on, my boys. We’re leaving.’

Once again, the involuntary scribe found herself bound and bundled, bouncing along on the back of the same wet horse. She tried to twist her hands out of their bonds, but the cold and damp made everything harder and the chafing ropes burned like a brand of ice.

There is no way of measuring time that is filled with nothing but darkness and knocks and cold and the rain’s unending drum roll.
This might be the last thing I ever know
, was the thought that went around and around Mosca’s head, stretching each heartbeat to an eternity as if her frightened spirit was trying to draw the marrow out of every painful moment and live as hard as it could while it still could. She could not even hope for the ordeal to end, for how could it end well? What was she now? A tool that had served its purpose. Worse still, a tool that could talk.

She felt a tickle against her fingers and reflexively clutched at the bracelet tangled in the cords binding her wrists. The three carved totems that dangled from it were images of the Little Goodkin, the skeletal children said to protect any child endangered and lost in the darkness. Another child would have been chanting
Fenfenny, friends defend me
, and finding comfort in the rhyme. But Mosca had emptied her darkness of comforting imagined faces, and such words were hollow to her. She clutched at the bracelet because it had been a gift from a coffeehouse mistress named Miss Kitely in a precarious moment and still warmed her with a memory of friendship, but even this was small consolation.

At last the horse slowed and she was dragged off its back. The sack was yanked from her face, and she found that the world had become a darker place than before. Mosca was set on her feet, and her clogless foot instantly sank into cold, wet mud.

Through the clinging mask of her wet hair she could just about see that the horses had been tethered outside a bleak-looking farmhouse set alone on the moorland. It was built from large rough-hewn stones and its arrow-slit windows were chips of darkness. There were two doors, one set at ground level, one ten feet above the earth with a wooden ladder leading up to it.

Mosca knew that this must be the ‘bastle house’ mentioned in Skellow’s letter. A bastle house was a farmhouse designed to be its own little bastion. It was always dangerous to live near a border, what with the risk of invading armies, or raiding parties sneaking across to steal cattle or whatever else they could get their hands upon. The problem with the Realm, of course, was that it was
of borders. Decades before, it had splintered into smaller allegiances, each proclaiming the rights of a different absent claimant to the throne. Nowadays there was less fear of invasion, but along the borders buildings like this remained, some now derelict, like knobs of scar tissue to show where the Realm had been sliced asunder. To judge by its lightless windows, this bastle house had been abandoned.

For the first time, her captors’ voices settled into a contented and relieved murmur.

‘I’m frozen. Let’s get in and light the fire.’

‘Some food wouldn’t kill me either.’

‘What do we do with the girl?’

Silence. Mosca’s black eyes flitted from face to face as the men exchanged glances.

‘Keep her in the vaults for now,’ answered Skellow.

The sturdy ground-floor door was heaved open, and with a
of tinder a lantern was lit. Mosca found herself looking at a dungeon-like space broken up into long, vaulted tunnels with iron rings hammered here and there into the walls. Only the crusted grey discs of long-dry cowpats showed that this space had been set aside to defend livestock, not to hold prisoners.

Mosca was taken by the shoulder and guided into the nearest ‘vault’, hearing the antique cowpats give under her feet with a papery rustle. The loose ends of the cord tying her wrist were knotted around one of the iron rings set in the wall, with just enough slack so that she could sit on the ground if she chose. Mosca, who had slumped against the rugged wall with every sign of meek exhaustion, furtively watched from under wet and spiky lashes as Skellow tugged at the cord.

Only when Skellow left the vault, taking the lantern with him, did Mosca’s posture become less limp, less meek. Instead she bristled with attention, taking in every tiny sound from outside. The
of a bar being lowered across the door. The heavy grinding of an elderly key turning. Voices. The creak of footsteps on wooden rungs as Skellow and his friends climbed the ladder to the first floor. The shuddering slam of another door.

Mosca blinked hard, willing her eyes to make something of the darkness. It was not absolute, for even on this level there were arrow-slit windows, showing frayed ribbons of dull night sky.

Footsteps above, the scrape of a shifted chair. A wordless drone of voices. And then, at the far end of the vaulted tunnel, part of the ceiling opened with a clack, spilling candlelight on to the rutted floor. As Mosca watched a soft plume of grey ash puffed its way downwards, accompanied by a pattering of charcoal chips. Someone on the floor above had opened a hatch to sweep the debris from the fireplace into it.

Unbidden, there came into Mosca’s mind a long-forgotten image of her aunt peeling potatoes, the long spiral curling down and down from the tuber and then dropping into the waiting bucket of throwings and leavings. The thought that she had been casually cast down like a piece of rubbish filled Mosca with a wild surge of un-potato-like rage.

Now that the hatch was open, the voices above were much clearer.

‘Do you think maybe one of us should go down with some bread for that girl?’ It sounded like the man named ‘Ben’.

‘What’s the point?’ Skellow’s voice.

The distant amber aperture vanished with a slam, leaving Mosca in darkness once more.

What’s the point?
Those three words had told Mosca everything she needed to know. There was no point in feeding her because they did not need to keep her alive – did not
to keep her alive. In Skellow’s head she was dead already, and wasting bread on her would be like pushing food into the mouth of a stuffed deer head mounted on a wall.

Mosca could guess what had passed through Skellow’s mind. How much had she seen and heard of his business? Too much for Skellow’s liking and too little for her own. Perhaps he had never intended to let her walk away. He had, after all, asked her carefully chosen questions before concluding that she would never be missed, and that no hue and cry would come after him if one night the moors swallowed her like a grape pip.

Worst of all, Mosca reflected, he was probably right.


Mosca had heard old stories of captives who were kept in oubliettes, cellars designed for prisoners that one intended to forget. These had no doors, and the prisoner was thrown down through a hatch in the high ceiling. There was no stairway or ladder leading back to the hatch, because it would never be needed.

Even though she had seen her prison, Mosca’s imagination started to crowd the darkness with the relics of such a dungeon. Perhaps she was not the first prisoner to be murdered there. Perhaps she had silent company, lying unseen in the shadows of the arches. Skulls yellow as piecrust under limp bonnets, stick-shins jutting into slack boots, tattered tunics over dulcimer ribcages . . .

Nah. I’d be able to smell ’em.

In the room above her, voices droned for a time, fire crackled, wood scraped on pewter and someone even scratched out a few ditties on a fiddle. Later there was the hiss of a doused fire, the shuffle of feet on flagstones, and then quiet.

Quiet, and more quiet. The rain slackened and stilled. Silence, but for the chill quavering of owls, and guttering drips hitting earth outside.

Mosca let out a slow breath. Stealthily her long, quick fingers and recently threatened thumbs twisted to pick at the

cords around her wrist. A painful process, for there seemed to be countless knots to bite into her every time she strained against the bonds. Only after five minutes of silently mouthed swear words did she realize that a particularly vicious knot caught between her wrists was in fact the small wooden head of one of the little skeletons attached to her bracelet.

Perhaps the Little Goodkin
be of some service to Mosca after all.

With painful care she managed to squirm the little wooden figure out from between her wrists. Now there was a tiny amount of slack in the bonds, just enough for two lean and eager hands to writhe free.

In the silence Mosca shook her hands like dishcloths until the blood prickled back into them. She had heard the key turn in the lock of the door, and the arrow slits were clearly too narrow for her to squeeze through, so she crept to the end of the vault, where ash heaped with greying chicken bones, and stared up at the ceiling. The light from the arrow slits was just strong enough for her to make out the dark square of the trapdoor, inches from the end wall.

Mosca kicked off her remaining clog. She had been thrown down and forgotten, but she was not in an oubliette. This was a stronghold of sorts, but it was meant to keep people
and cattle
. And cattle, unlike Mosca, could not climb.

The rough-hewn face of the wall was Mosca’s friend, even though the jagged edges were not kind to her cold fingers and bit into her knees and elbows at every opportunity. There were footholds and handholds aplenty, but they had to be groped for in the dark, and Mosca could feel her wet feet slithering against their perches. She tried not to look down or up, even to satisfy the nagging need to know how high she was.
High enough to hurt if I fall
, whispered the tingle in her bones. And then, after a while,
High enough to break my ankle.
And finally,
High enough to smash me like an egg.

At last the wood of the hatch met her fingers. She locked her face in a wince and pushed at the trapdoor, praying that nobody had bolted it. It lifted.

The trapdoor opened a crack, letting in the light of a dulling fire and an orchestra of snores. A bubbling snore like a bee dying in treacle. A rasping, lizard-hiss snore. A rhythmic grindstone rumble.

Hardly daring to breathe, Mosca eased the trapdoor back so that it was resting on the stone flagstones and looked about her. A cooling soot-bellied kettle hung over the glum red embers that lurked in the fireplace, furred with ash. A pack of Pincaster playing cards laid out on the floor for a game of Duchy’s Favour. A row of dominoes set up on their ends along the floor. Two figures stretched beneath their own cloaks beside their muddy boots, an ear poking out here, a company of toes there.

Mosca pulled herself halfway out of the hatch on to her belly and wriggled her way forward until she could bring her legs up on to level floor. She rose to her hands and knees, and froze.

Against the door rested a time-ravaged basket chair, strands of its broken wicker splayed like spokes. In the chair lay Skellow, his mouth so wide open he seemed to be silently singing. From somewhere behind his cravat came the lizard-hiss snore.

Although nowadays Mosca did her best to avoid praying to the Beloved, at least until they provided her with decent evidence of their existence, she still reserved the right to mutter silent imprecations against them when her path was scattered with more thorns than she considered reasonable.

There was no escape through the door. Mosca picked her way carefully across the room, skirts hitched so that she would not knock over the line of yellow bone dominoes or set the wooden bowls rolling.

There – a small shuttered window set high in one wall. Narrow, but wide enough to allow a Mosca through.

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