After a couple of weeks of not feeling very well at all (lovely new term bugs!) I finally am feeling well enough to sit down and get to grips with the WIP again.
I'm about three chapters in, so things WILL change, but I thought I might be brave and post a chunk on the Scribbles, to mark the point at which I'm trying to be more disciplined about the writing of it. Y'see over the summer I've done all the notebooky stuff during snatched moments - the bashing out a story and getting it straight in my head and questions and playing with the shape of Zanni's story.
This - the first draft - marks the start of the 'telling it to a reader' version instead of the 'telling it to myself' one. As such, it is raw; raw, untested, and liable to be cut if I look back in six months' time and decide that the story started in the wrong place. It might therefore be the only place this bit'll ever be published...
Be interested to know what you think.
“All out! All out for Lorisam if you please!”
Zanni groaned and stretched. “Why’s he yelling, when there’s only two of us?”
“I daresay he doesn’t get the chance to do it very often. Few people come this far into the mountains.” Pa shot a glance at Zanni over the top of his glasses. “At least it’s not dark yet.”
Zanni was glad of it; too many of their travelling days had ended with night drawing in and the inside of the carriage being plunged into the kind of darkness which had brought the fear flooding back…
The door opened and Stefan poked his head inside. “Here we go, sir and miss. All ready to be fed and watered and bedded down?” He held out a hand to Zanni, as he always did.
Zanni ignored it and jumped down, wincing at the stiffness in her legs. She needed a good long walk, that’s what she needed, but she wasn’t going to get it today. The sun was already low in the sky and long shadows were creeping down the rocky slopes above them. She shivered. Better to get inside, sharpish. But inside where?
As she took stock of her surroundings, Zanni realised they couldn’t possibly be in Lorisam. She stared at the plain square house in front of her that was tiled with grey slates and patterned with dark timbers. It looked in need of a lick of paint, some clean windows, and the faded sign swinging above the door needed oiling. The only sign of life was provided by a few scrawny chickens scratching in the dirt; there wasn’t a single other building – or person, apart from themselves - in sight.
“Um, Stefan? This isn’t Lorisam, is it?”
“Nope. It’s the Fox and Rooster.”
“So why have we stopped here?”
“Cos it’s the last place to get bed and board before Lorisam, which is another day’s travel away.” Stefan thumbed towards a point much higher up the mountain.
“Another day?” Zanni whirled round as Pa stepped out of the carriage behind her. “Oh, Pa!”
He’d taken off his glasses and now he rubbed the bridge of his nose, a sure sign he was tired. “It’s only one more day, Zanni. Surely you can put up with one more day in the coach?”
“You won’t have to.” Stefan said. “It’s mules and pack horses from here on. Terrain’s too steep for carriages and definitely not wide enough when you reach the Stoppers. Not easy to get to Lorisam. That’s why no-one ever goes there. Excepting yourselves o’ course. You’re going.”
A slow smile spread across Pa’s face. “We are, aren’t we?”
Zanni sighed; if only they weren’t.
“Ah, well, people has their reasons I suppose. Me, I’m heading back down after I’ve dropped you off.” Stefan shook his head and added in an undertone, “Gives me the shivers when the stones light up.”
Zanni’s ears pricked up. “When what lights up?”
But Stefan didn’t answer. He’d leapt up onto the carriage and was untying the bags and trunks.
“Doesn’t look too bad, does it?” Pa said.
Zanni couldn’t agree. They’d stayed in many different lodgings over the course of two weeks on the road, but even the worst of them had looked better than this at first sight.
“And anyway, it’s only for one night,” Pa continued. He did up the buttons on his coat and smoothed his hair flat. “Shall we go in? Get some dinner? I could eat a horse.” He walked towards the building, picking his way between the chickens at his feet.
Zanni’s shoulders drooped. “Careful what you wish for, Pa. By the look of it, horse might actually be on the menu,” she muttered as she followed him.
Inside was worse than outside - dirty floor, stained tables, mismatched chairs - lit and wreathed in oily smoke from a handful of cracked lanterns. A dog with half its fur missing slunk under one of the tables as Zanni hurried over to the low counter where Pa was heading.
As they approached, the man sitting behind the counter eased his bulk off the stool, setting his enormous gut wobbling.
Zanni’s eyes were drawn to a large area of pasty white flesh, exposed thanks to several missing buttons on the man’s shirt. “Uurgh!” She shuddered and looked instead at the man’s face. It was soft and round and reminded her of a ball of dough, into which two currant eyes had been pressed above a long drooping moustache. And – oh, goodness – were those bits of food caught up in the moustache?
“Welcome ter the Fox an’ Rooster. I’m Reg. I own this place.” Reg studied them as he scratched an armpit. “Mek yersel’s at home.”
“Thank you…Reg. I’m sure we’ll be most comfortable here.” Pa caught Zanni’s eye and his own widened above a fixed smile.
“Yer’ll want some dinner?” This time Reg poked a finger in his ear and waggled it around. “An’ a coupla beds?” He pulled the finger out again.
Oh, don’t let him look, don’t let him– Zanni closed her eyes.
“Just for the one night, if you’d be so kind,” she heard Pa say. “Tomorrow, we–”
Reg’s bellow cut Pa off and startled Zanni into opening her eyes. A hatch she hadn’t noticed in the wall behind Reg banged open. A face appeared in the hole.
“What?” Alise screamed.
Reg nodded in the direction of his clients. “Stew. Twice.”
Zanni had a brief glimpse of matted hair, a sweaty brow and crooked teeth before Alise slammed the hatch shut again. There was the muffled sound of pots and pans clattering and banging behind it.
Reg sniffed loudly. “Drink?”
Pa eyed the barrels lined up behind the counter. There weren’t many. “Dark ale for me and a watered wine for my daughter, please. We’ll just wait over there, shall we?” He took Zanni’s elbow and steered her towards a table by the wall.
Zanni sat on her wobbly chair in the pool of yellow lamplight and tried not to touch the table top. She’d probably stick to it if she did.
“This is nice, isn’t it?” Pa said brightly as Reg banged a battered metal tankard in front of him and a chipped glass in front of Zanni.
Zanni waited until he was out of earshot before she answered. “No,
Pa. It’s not. Tell me again why we had to come
Pa reeled off his well-rehearsed list again, ticking them off on his fingers. “One, the business wasn’t doing so well.”
That much was true. How could someone call himself a crystal seller when he couldn’t bear to part with most of the crystals that he was supposed to sell? Zanni had often wondered how Pa ever made any money at all.
“Two, it was an opportunity too good to miss.”
Zanni frowned. “Well, yes, but I still don’t understand how no-one else applied for the Crystal Keeper job. I mean, you know a lot about crystals for sure, but there are plenty of real experts at the Institut. Why didn’t they get considered?” Her eyes narrowed when Pa refused to meet her eye. “Pa? What aren’t you telling me?”
He took a swallow of his beer before he answered. “I might have… er… skewed things in my favour a little.”
Pa leaned across the table as though worried about being overheard. “I happened to be in the Institut when the advert went up on the vacancies board. I took it down as soon as I read it so no-one else would see it.”
“You did what? Oh, Pa!” Zanni rubbed her forehead. She had a headache building.
“And three,” Pa continued, taking Zanni’s free hand in his as he spoke. “Three, I could take you away from your so-called friends.”
“Oh. That.” Zanni put her other hand over Pa’s and squeezed gently. “As long as I’ve a lantern at night and I don’t go into small dark places alone, I’m fine. Honest.” She managed half a smile.
“Are you sure? You had the dream just two nights ago. I worry that–”
Two bowls thumped onto the table, narrowly missing Zanni and Pa’s joined hands.
“Stew. Lamb an’ brains.”
Zanni’s stomach tightened as she stared into the bowl. Floating in the thick brown gravy were several pink, wrinkled… “Brains?” she whispered.
Alise rolled her eyes. “Not real ones. Dumplings, covered in pink cheese. House special.” She dug deep in the pocket of her apron and pulled out an assortment of cutlery and what looked like half a loaf. She selected a couple of knives and forks and dropped them on the table with the bread. “Enjoy.”
As soon as Alise’s back turned, Zanni used her coat sleeve to wipe her cutlery. Then she poked the pink lumps with her clean knife, still suspicious.
Pa wasn’t so cautious. He tucked his handkerchief under his chin with a flourish, speared a chunk of what Zanni really hoped was meat, and popped it into his mouth with apparent pleasure.
“Mm-mmmm.” He chewed, swallowed, and gestured at Zanni with his fork. “Eat. It’s delicious.”
Zanni nibbled a tiny piece of dumpling. Pa was right – it was good. With more enthusiasm she tucked into the melt-in-your-mouth, meaty stew. Eventually she wiped the last drop of thick rich gravy from her bowl with a particularly cheesy bit of dumpling, leaned back in her chair and sighed in contentment. “At least we know the food’s going to be good here.”
Pa was distracted, his gaze falling somewhere over Zanni’s shoulder. He appeared to be looking out of the window, so she swivelled in her chair to look too.
The view outside was somewhat obscured, but even through the mucky glass Zanni could see a strange green glow. Her stomach clenched tight. “Pa? Pa, what is it?”
“I think…yes…it must be…” Pa stood up quickly and almost ran across the room. He flung the door open and paused there for a moment before turning back to Zanni. “It is! Come and see.” And without another word he disappeared into the darkness.
Zanni’s heart thudded against her ribs as slowly – so very slowly – she stood. He wanted her to follow him, outside? Into the dark? But he knew–
Pa’s face appeared in the doorway. “Are you coming, Zanni? You simply have to see this.” She couldn’t speak, couldn’t tell him that she’d forgotten the fear while she was inside, near the lamp. That the very thought of going outside had filled her head with the memories, that her chest had tightened so she couldn’t breathe, she could see nothing but the blackness and–
Her hands were snatched up, held uncomfortably tight.
“Breathe! Breathe, Zanni. I’m here. I never thought…Zanni? Look at me. Look at me, it’s alright.”
Pa’s frightened face appeared out of the blackness and Zanni gulped in a breath.
“That’s it. Breathe. Slowly, in…out…”
Pa’s half-smile, half-frown filled Zanni’s vision. She fought to take another breath, then another. After what felt like a lifetime her heart settled in her chest and the fear shrank back into the place where she tried to keep it locked away.
Pa’s face relaxed. “That’s my girl. Better?”
She managed a nod.
“Good.” Pa let go of one of one of her hands and threaded the other through the crook of his arm. “Now, I didn’t tell you everything because I wanted it to be a surprise. Being the Crystal Keeper in Lorisam means looking after some special crystals. They do something quite amazing which means that the place is never in darkness.”
While he’d been speaking, Pa had gently drawn Zanni across the room and to the door. At the threshold her feet froze and she pulled him to a halt.
Pa smiled and patted her hand. “I’m with you. It’s safe. Trust me.”
Could she do it? Step into the darkness outside? The sick feeling in the pit of stomach was still there, the fear still looming, ready to overwhelm her. But she had Pa with her, didn’t she… Trembling like a leaf in a breeze, Zanni gripped Pa’s arm really tight, took a deep breath and forced her feet to move.
“That’s it. Well done. Now, the best view is from over here.” Pa led Zanni to the side of the building and pointed. “Look. Up there.”
At first, all she could see was inky blue sky, dotted with twinkling diamonds. Then she made out the silhouette of the mountain, a deeper shadow against the blue, patterned in one area with regular patterns of light. Was that Lorisam? But before she could ask she saw the glow underneath what she assumed was their destination, a long band of bright green light stretching across the mountain.
“What is that?” she whispered.
Pa’s voice came out of the darkness. “It’s the
Zanni. That’s what I’m here to look after.” Crystal Forest
“A forest? Of crystals? But it’s glowing. Green.” Zanni couldn’t stop staring. “It’s beautiful.”
“And it glows like this every night.”
“So…it’s never really dark here?”
Pa kissed the top of her head. “Night time here is tinged with green. Always.”
Zanni looked up at Pa, but his face was in shadow. “Did you know about this when you took the advert down?”
“There might have been something written about it. I can’t quite remember.”
So that’s why he’d moved them both so far away. Reason number four – the job came with light up crystals that meant he thought she didn’t have to be afraid of the dark. Would it work? Well it hadn’t so far. Zanni could feel her palms sweating and wanted nothing more to get back inside, in the light.
“Right.” Pa gave her hand a squeeze. “Bed, I think. We’ve another day of travel tomorrow and it’ll be an early start.”
A sudden thought hit Zanni as they walked back inside. “Pa, I can still have my night lantern, can’t I? I mean, the green glow doesn’t reach down here and…”
“Of course. In fact, I might ask for one myself.” Pa grinned. “Let’s see what Reg can find, eh?”
Up in her room, Zanni took one last look out of the window at the green glow. No wonder Pa was excited by the prospect of his new job. Then she set the dented night lantern which Reg had grudgingly found for her on the bedside table and climbed into bed. She lay on her side and stared at the flickering light. Would it be enough to keep the fear locked away for another night?
“Please, don’t let me have The Dream again,” she whispered, and shut her eyes.