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The Binding / Ńâ˙çü (by Bridget Collins, 2019) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě

×ňîáű óáđŕňü đĺęëŕěó ńäĺëŕéňĺ đĺăčńňđŕöčţ čëč ŕâňîđčçóéňĺńü íŕ ńŕéňĺ

The Binding / Ńâ˙çü (by Bridget Collins, 2019) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě

The Binding / Ńâ˙çü (by Bridget Collins, 2019) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě

Ěîëîäîé ôĺđěĺđ Ýěěĺňň ďîëó÷ŕĺň ďčńüěî, â ęîňîđîě ĺăî ďđčçűâŕţň îńňŕâčňü ńâîţ ńĺěüţ, ÷ňîáű íŕ÷ŕňü çŕíčěŕňüń˙ äđóăčě đĺěĺńëîě. Ĺěó íóćíî ďđĺîäîëĺňü ńňđŕő č íŕ÷ŕňü ó÷ĺáó ďĺđĺďëĺň÷čęŕ. Ńóĺâĺđčĺ č ďđĺäóáĺćäĺíčĺ ńđĺäč íĺáîëüřîăî ńîîáůĺńňâŕ, â ęîňîđîě ćčâĺň ăëŕâíűé ăĺđîé, ęŕę č ńęĺďňč÷ĺńęîĺ îňíîřĺíčĺ ĺăî đîäčňĺëĺé ę âĺńňč, íĺ ěîăóň ďîâëč˙ňü íŕ đĺřĺíčĺ Ýěěĺňňŕ. Âĺäü ĺăî âńĺăäŕ ň˙íóëî ę ęíčăŕě, őîň˙ îíč č çŕďđĺůĺíű. Ńĺđĺäčň – ó÷čňĺëü Ýěěĺňňŕ ňâĺđäčň, áóäňî ďĺđĺďëĺň÷čę – ýňî ďđčçâŕíčĺ, äë˙ ęîňîđîăî íóćíî đîäčňüń˙. Ňŕę ďŕđĺíü íŕ÷číŕĺň ó÷čňüń˙ âđó÷íóţ ńîçäŕâŕňü ýëĺăŕíňíűĺ ęíčăč â ęîćŕíűő ďĺđĺďëĺňŕő.  ęŕćäîě čç íčő áóäĺň çŕďĺ÷ŕňëĺíî ÷ňî-ňî óíčęŕëüíîĺ č íĺîáű÷íîĺ: ďŕě˙ňü. Çŕáűňü, ńňĺđĺňü ń ďŕě˙ňč ěîćíî âńĺ, íî ňŕéíű îńňŕţňń˙. Îíč ćčâóň íŕ ńňđŕíčöŕő ęíčă, ęîňîđűĺ áóäóň ńîçäŕíű ăĺđîĺě.  őđŕíčëčůĺ ďîä ěŕńňĺđńęîé íŕńňŕâíčęŕ Ýěěĺňňŕ ňůŕňĺëüíî őđŕí˙ňń˙ đ˙äű ęíčă. Ńĺđĺäčň, ęŕę ŕë÷íűé č ŕěîđŕëüíűé ňîđăîâĺö čńďîëüçóĺň ńâîč ňŕëŕíňű äë˙ ňĺěíűő öĺëĺé. Č ó÷ĺíčę ńęîđî ďîéěĺň, ÷ňî ĺăî ćčçíü áóäĺň ęŕđäčíŕëüíî ďĺđĺďčńŕíŕ.

Đĺéňčíă:
Ďđîńěîňđîâ: 228
Íŕçâŕíčĺ:
The Binding / Ńâ˙çü (by Bridget Collins, 2019) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě
Ăîä âűďóńęŕ ŕóäčîęíčăč:
2019
Ŕâňîđ:
Bridget Collins
Čńďîëíčňĺëü:
Carl Prekopp
ßçűę:
ŕíăëčéńęčé
Ćŕíđ:
ôŕíňŕńňčęŕ, ôýíňĺçč
Óđîâĺíü ńëîćíîńňč:
upper-intermediate
Äëčňĺëüíîńňü ŕóäčî:
15:27:59
Áčňđĺéň ŕóäčî:
48 kbps
Ôîđěŕň:
mp3, pdf, doc

Ńëóřŕňü îíëŕéí The Binding / Ńâ˙çü ŕóäčîęíčăó íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě ˙çűęĺ:

Ńęŕ÷ŕňü ňĺęńň ęíčăč â ôîđěŕňĺ .doc (Word) ďî ďđ˙ěîé ńńűëęĺ bridget_collins_-_the_binding.doc [2.31 Mb] (cęŕ÷čâŕíčé: 4) .
Ńęŕ÷ŕňü ňĺęńň ęíčăč â ôîđěŕňĺ .pdf ďî ďđ˙ěîé ńńűëęĺ  bridget_collins_-_the_binding.pdf [2.23 Mb] (cęŕ÷čâŕíčé: 3) .
Ńęŕ÷ŕňü audiobook (MP3) áĺńďëŕňíî ń ôŕéëîîáěĺííčęŕ.


×čňŕňü ęíčăó íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě îíëŕéí:

(×ňîáű ďĺđĺâîäčňü ńëîâŕ íŕ đóńńęčé ˙çűę č äîáŕâë˙ňü â ńëîâŕđü äë˙ čçó÷ĺíč˙, ůĺëęŕĺě ěűřęîé íŕ íóćíîĺ ńëîâî).


I When the letter came I was out in the fields, binding up my last sheaf of wheat with hands that were shaking so much I could hardly tie the knot. It was my fault we’d had to do it the old-fashioned way, and I’d be damned if I was going to give up now; I had battled through the heat of the afternoon, blinking away the patches of darkness that flickered at the sides of my vision, and now it was nightfall and I was almost finished. The others had left when the sun set, calling goodbyes over their shoulders, and I was glad. At least now I was alone I didn’t have to pretend I could work at the same pace as them. I kept going, trying not to think about how easy it would have been with the reaping machine. I’d been too ill to check the machinery – not that I remembered much, between the flashes of lucidity, the summer was nothing but echoes and ghosts and dark aching gaps – and no one else had thought to do it, either. Every day I stumbled on some chore that hadn’t been done; Pa had done his best, but he couldn’t do everything. Because of me, we’d be behind all year. I pulled the stems tight round the waist of the sheaf and stacked it against the others. Done. I could go home now … But there were shadows pulsing and spinning around me, deeper than the blue-violet dusk, and my knees were trembling. I dropped into a crouch, catching my breath at the pain in my bones. Better than it had been – better than the splintery, sickening spasms that had come unpredictably for months – but still I felt as brittle as an old man. I clenched my jaw. I was so weak I wanted to cry; but I wasn’t going to, I’d die first, even if the only eye on me was the full, fat harvest moon. ‘Emmett? Emmett!’ It was only Alta, winding her way through the stooks towards me, but I pushed myself to my feet and tried to blink the giddiness away. Above me the sparse stars slid one way and then the other. I cleared my throat. ‘Here.’ ‘Why didn’t you get one of the others to finish? Ma was worried when they came back down the lane and you weren’t with—’ ‘She didn’t need to be worried. I’m not a child.’ My thumb was bleeding where a sharp stalk had pierced the skin. The blood tasted of dust and fever. Alta hesitated. A year ago I’d been as strong as any of them. Now she was looking at me with her head on one side, as if I was younger than she was. ‘No, but—’ ‘I wanted to watch the moon rise.’ ‘’Course you did.’ The twilight softened her features, but I could still see the shrewdness in her gaze. ‘We can’t make you rest. If you don’t care about getting well—’ ‘You sound like her. Like Ma.’ ‘Because she’s right! You can’t expect to snap back as if nothing’s happened, not when you were as ill as you were.’ Ill. As if I’d been languishing in bed with a cough, or vomiting, or covered with pustules. Even through the haze of nightmares I could remember more than they realised; I knew about the screaming and the hallucinations, the days when I couldn’t stop crying or didn’t know who anyone was, the night when I broke the window with my bare hands. I wished I had spent days shitting my guts helplessly into a pot; it would have been better than still having marks on my wrists where they’d had to tie me down. I turned away from her and concentrated on sucking the cut at the base of my thumb, worrying at it with my tongue until I couldn’t taste blood any more. ‘Please, Emmett,’ Alta said, and brushed the collar of my shirt with her fingers. ‘You’ve done as good a day’s work as anyone. Now will you come home?’ ‘All right.’ A breeze lifted the hairs on the back of my neck. Alta saw me shiver and dropped her eyes. ‘What’s for dinner, then?’ She flashed her gappy teeth in a grin. ‘Nothing, if you don’t hurry up.’ ‘Fine. I’ll race you back.’ ‘Challenge me again when I’m not wearing stays.’ She turned away, her dusty skirts flaring about her ankles. When she laughed she still looked like a child, but the farmhands had already started sniffing round her; in some lights now she looked like a woman. I trudged beside her, so exhausted I felt drunk. The darkness thickened, pooling under trees and in hedges, while the moonlight bleached the stars out of the sky. I thought of cold well-water, clear as glass, with tiny green flecks gathering at the bottom – or, no, beer, grassy and bitter, the colour of amber, flavoured with Pa’s special blend of herbs. It would send me straight to sleep, but that was good: all I wanted was to go out like a candle, into dreamless unconsciousness. No nightmares, no night terrors, and to wake in the morning to clean new sunlight. The clock in the village struck nine as we went through the gate in the yard. ‘I’m famished,’ Alta said, ‘they sent me out to find you before I could—’ My mother’s voice cut her off. She was shouting. Alta paused, while the gate swung closed behind us. Our eyes met. A few fragments of words drifted across the yard: How can you say … we can’t, we simply can’t … The muscles in my legs were shaking from standing still. I reached out and steadied myself against the wall, wishing my heart would slow down. A wedge of lamplight was shining through a gap in the kitchen curtains; as I watched, a shadow crossed and crossed again. My father, pacing. ‘We can’t stay out here all night,’ Alta said, the words almost a whisper. ‘It’s probably nothing.’ They’d quarrelled all week about the reaping machine, and why no one had checked it earlier. Neither of them mentioned that it should have been my job. A thud: fists on the kitchen table. Pa raised his voice. ‘What do you expect me to do? Say no? That bloody witch will put a curse on us quick as—’ ‘She already has! Look at him, Robert – what if he never gets better? It’s her fault—’ ‘His own fault, you mean – if he—’ For a second a high note rang in my ears, drowning out Pa’s voice. The world slipped and righted itself, as if it had juddered on its axis. I swallowed a bubble of nausea. When I could concentrate again, there was silence. ‘We don’t know that,’ Pa said at last, just loud enough for us to hear. ‘She might help him. All those weeks she wrote to ask how he was doing.’ ‘Because she wanted him! No, Robert, no, I won’t let it happen, his place is here with us, whatever he’s done, he’s still our son – and her, she gives me the creeps—’ ‘You’ve never met her. It wasn’t you that had to go out there and—’ ‘I don’t care! She’s done enough. She can’t have him.’ Alta glanced at me. Something changed in her face, and she took hold of my wrist and pulled me forwards. ‘We’re going inside,’ she said, in the high, self-conscious voice she used to call to the chickens. ‘It’s been a long day, you must be ravenous, I know I am. There better be some pie left, or I will kill someone. With a fork through the heart. And eat them.’ She paused in front of the door and added, ‘With mustard.’ Then she flung it open. My parents were standing at either end of the kitchen: Pa by the window, his back turned to us, Ma at the fireplace with red blotches on her face like rouge. Between them, on the table, was a sheet of thick, creamy paper and an open envelope. Ma looked swiftly from Alta to me and took a half step towards it. ‘Dinner,’ Alta said. ‘Emmett, sit down, you look like you’re about to faint. Heavens, no one’s even laid the table. I hope the pie’s in the oven.’ She put a pile of plates down beside me. ‘Bread? Beer? Honestly, I might as well be a scullery maid …’ She disappeared into the pantry. ‘Emmett,’ Pa said, without turning round. ‘There’s a letter on the table. You’d better read it.’ I slid it towards me. The writing blurred into a shapeless stain on the paper. ‘My eyes are too dusty. Tell me what it says.’ Pa bowed his head, the muscles bunching in his neck as if he was dragging something heavy. ‘The binder wants an apprentice.’ Ma made a sound like a bitten-off word. I said, ‘An apprentice?’ There was silence. A slice of moon shone through the gap in the curtains, covering everything in its path with silver. It made Pa’s hair look greasy and grey. ‘You,’ he said. Alta was standing in the pantry doorway, cradling a jar of pickles. For a second I thought she was going to drop it, but she set it down carefully on the dresser. The knock of glass on wood was louder than the smash would have been. ‘I’m too old to be an apprentice.’ ‘Not according to her.’ ‘I thought …’ My hand flattened on the table: a thin white hand that I hardly recognised. A hand that couldn’t do an honest day’s work. ‘I’m getting better. Soon …’ I stopped, because my voice was as unfamiliar as my fingers. ‘It’s not that, son.’ ‘I know I’m no use now—’ ‘Oh, sweetheart,’ Ma said. ‘It’s not your fault— it’s not because you’ve been ill. Soon you’ll be back to your old self again. If that was all … You know we always thought you’d run the farm with your father. And you could have done, you still could – but …’ Her eyes went to Pa’s. ‘We’re not sending you away. She’s asking for you.’ ‘I don’t know who she is.’ ‘Binding’s … a good craft. An honest craft. It’s nothing to be afraid of.’ Alta knocked against the dresser, and Ma glanced over her shoulder as she swung her arm out swiftly to stop a plate from slipping to the floor. ‘Alta, be careful.’ My heart skipped and drummed. ‘But … you hate books. They’re wrong. You’ve always told me – when I brought that book home from Wakening Fair—’ A look passed between them, too quick to interpret. Pa said, ‘Never mind about that now.’ ‘But …’ I turned back to Ma. I couldn’t put it into words: the swift change of subject if someone even mentioned a book, the shiver of distaste at the word, the look on their faces … The way she’d dragged me grimly past a sordid shopfront – A. Fogatini, Pawnbroker and Licens’d Bookseller – one day when I was small and we got lost in Castleford. ‘What do you mean, it’s a good craft?’ ‘It’s not …’ Ma drew in her breath. ‘Maybe it’s not what I would have wanted, before—’ ‘Hilda.’ Pa dug his fingers into the side of his neck, kneading the muscle as though it ached. ‘You don’t have a choice, lad. It’ll be a steady life. It’s a long way from anywhere, but that’s not a bad thing. Quiet. No hard labour, no one to tempt you off the straight and narrow …’ He cleared his throat. ‘And they’re not all like her. You settle down and learn the trade, and then … Well. There’re binders in town who have their own carriages.’ A tiny silence. Alta tapped the top of a jar with her fingernail and glanced at me. ‘But I don’t – I’ve never – what makes her think that I—?’ Now none of them would meet my eyes. ‘What do you mean, I’ve got no choice?’ No one answered. Finally Alta strode across the room and picked up the letter. ‘“As soon as he is able to travel”,’ she read out. ‘“The bindery can be very cold in winter. Please make sure he has warm clothes.” Why did she write to you and not Emmett? Doesn’t she know he can read?’ ‘It’s the way they all do it,’ Pa said. ‘You ask the parents for an apprentice, that’s how it works.’ It didn’t matter. My hands on the table were all tendons and bones. A year ago they’d been brown and muscled, almost a man’s hands; now they were no one’s. Fit for nothing but a craft my parents despised. But why would she have chosen me, unless they’d asked her to? I spread my fingers and pressed, as if I could absorb the strength of the wood through the skin of my palms. ‘What if I say no?’ Pa clumped across to the cupboard, bent down and pulled out a bottle of blackberry gin. It was fierce, sweet stuff that Ma doled out for festivals or medicinal purposes, but he poured himself half a mug of it and she didn’t say a word. ‘There’s no place for you here. Maybe you should be grateful. This’ll be something you can do.’ He tossed half the gin down his throat and coughed. I drew in my breath, determined not to let my voice crack. ‘When I’m better, I’ll be just as strong as—’ ‘Make the best of it,’ he said. ‘But I don’t—’ ‘Emmett,’ Ma said, ‘please … It’s the right thing. She’ll know what to do with you.’ ‘What to do with me?’ ‘I only mean – if you get ill again, she’ll—’ ‘Like in a lunatic asylum? Is that it? You’re packing me off to somewhere miles from anywhere because I might lose my wits again at any moment?’ ‘She wants you,’ Ma said, clutching her skirts as if she was trying to squeeze water out of them. ‘I wish you didn’t have to go.’ ‘Then I won’t go!’ ‘You’ll go, boy,’ Pa said. ‘Heaven knows you’ve brought enough trouble on this house.’ ‘Robert, don’t—’ ‘You’ll go. If I have to truss you up and leave you on her doorstep, you’ll go. Be ready tomorrow.’ ‘Tomorrow?’ Alta spun round so fast her plait swung out like a rope. ‘He can’t go tomorrow, he’ll need time to pack – and there’s the harvest, the harvest supper … Please, Pa.’ ‘Shut up!’ Silence. ‘Tomorrow?’ The blotches on Ma’s cheeks had spread into a flush of scarlet. ‘We never said …’ Her voice trailed off. My father finished his gin, swallowing with a grimace as if his mouth was full of stones. I opened my mouth to tell her it was all right, I’d go, they wouldn’t have to worry about me any more; but my throat was too dry from the reaping. ‘A few more days. Robert, the other apprentices don’t go until after the harvest – and he’s still not well, a couple of days …’ ‘They’re younger than he is. And he’s well enough to travel, if he did a day in the fields.’ ‘Yes, but …’ She moved towards him and caught his arm so that he couldn’t turn away. ‘A little more time.’ ‘For pity’s sake, Hilda!’ He made a choking sound and tried to wrench himself away. ‘Don’t make this any harder. You think I want to let him go? You think that after we tried so hard – fought to keep a pure house – you think I’m proud of it, when my own father lost an eye marching in the Crusade?’ Ma glanced at Alta and me. ‘Not in front of—’ ‘What does it matter now?’ He wiped his forearm across his face; then with a helpless gesture he flung the mug to the floor. It didn’t break. Alta watched it roll towards her and stop. Pa turned his back on us and bent over the dresser as if he was trying to catch his breath. There was a silence. ‘I’ll go,’ I said, ‘I’ll go tomorrow.’ I couldn’t look at any of them. I got up, hitting my knee against the corner of the table as I pushed back my chair. I struggled to the door. The latch seemed smaller and stiffer than it usually was, and the clunk as it opened echoed off the walls. Outside, the moon divided the world into deep blue and silver. The air was warm and as soft as cream, scented with hay and summer dust. An owl chuckled in the near field. I reeled across to the far side of the yard and leant against the wall. It was hard to breathe. Ma’s voice hung in my ears: That bloody witch will put a curse on us. And Pa, answering: She already has. They were right; I was good for nothing. Misery rose inside me, as strong as the stabbing pains in my legs. Before this, I’d never been ill in my life. I never knew that my body could betray me, that my mind could go out like a lamp and leave nothing but darkness. I couldn’t remember getting sick; if I tried, all I saw was a mess of nightmare-scorched fragments. Even my memories of my life before that – last spring, last winter – were tinged with the same gangrenous shadow, as if nothing was healthy any more. I knew that I’d collapsed after midsummer, because Ma had told me so, and that I’d been on the way home from Castleford; but no one had explained where I’d been, or what had happened. I must have been driving the cart – without a hat, under a hot sun, probably – but when I tried to think back there was nothing but a rippling mirage, a last vertiginous glimpse of sunlight before the blackness swallowed me. For weeks afterwards, I’d only surfaced to scream and struggle and beg them to untie me. No wonder they wanted to get rid of me. I closed my eyes. I could still see the three of them, their arms round one another. Something whispered behind me, scratching in the wall like dry claws. It wasn’t real, but it drowned out the owl and the rustle of trees. I rested my head on my arms and pretended I couldn’t hear it. I must have drawn back instinctively into the deepest corner of darkness, because when I opened my eyes Alta was in the middle of the yard, calling my name without looking in my direction. The moon had moved; now it was over the gable of the farmhouse and all the shadows were short and squat. ‘Emmett?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. Alta jumped and took a step forward to peer at me. ‘What are you doing there? Were you asleep?’ ‘No.’ She hesitated. Behind her the light from a lamp crossed the upper window as someone went to bed. I started to pull myself to my feet and paused, wincing, as pain stabbed into my joints. She watched me get up, without offering to help. ‘Did you mean it? That you’d go? Tomorrow?’ ‘Pa meant it when he said I didn’t have any choice.’ I waited for her to disagree. Alta was clever like that, finding new paths or different ways of doing things, picking locks. But she only tilted her face upward as if she wanted the moonlight to bleach her skin. I swallowed. The stupid dizziness had come back – suddenly, dragging me one way and then another – and I swayed against the wall and tried to catch my breath. ‘Emmett? Are you all right?’ She bit her lip. ‘No, of course not. Sit down.’ I didn’t want to obey her but my knees folded of their own accord. I closed my eyes and inhaled the night smells of hay and cooling earth, the overripe sweetness of crushed weeds and a rank hint of manure. Alta’s skirts billowed and rustled as she sank down beside me. ‘I wish you didn’t have to go.’ I raised one shoulder without looking at her and let it drop again. ‘But … maybe it’s the best thing …’ ‘How can it be?’ I swallowed, trying to fill the crack in my voice. ‘All right, I understand. I’m no use here. You’ll all be better off when I’m – wherever she is, this binder.’ ‘Out on the marshes, on the Castleford road.’ ‘Right.’ What would the marshes smell of? Stagnant water, rotting reeds. Mud. Mud that swallowed you alive if you went too far from the road, and never spat you back … ‘How do you know so much about it?’ ‘Ma and Pa are only thinking about you. After everything that’s happened … You’ll be safe there.’ ‘That’s what Ma said.’ A pause. She began to gnaw at her thumbnail. In the orchard below the stables a nightingale gurgled and then gave up. ‘You don’t know what it’s been like for them, Emmett. Always afraid. You owe them some peace.’ ‘It’s not my fault I was ill!’ ‘It’s your fault you—’ She huffed out her breath. ‘No, I know, I didn’t mean … just that we all need … please don’t be angry. It’s a good thing. You’ll learn a trade.’ ‘Yes. Making books.’ She flinched. ‘She chose you. That must mean—’ ‘What does it mean? How can she have chosen me, when she’s never even seen me?’ I thought Alta started to speak, but when I turned my head she was staring up at the moon, her face expressionless. Her cheeks were thinner than they had been before I got ill, and the skin under her eyes looked as if it had been smudged with ash. She was a stranger, out of reach. She said, as if it was an answer, ‘I’ll come and see you whenever I can …’ I let my head roll back until I felt the stone wall against my skull. ‘They talked you round, didn’t they?’ ‘I’ve never seen Pa like that,’ she said. ‘So angry.’ ‘I have,’ I said. ‘He hit me, once.’ ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘well, I suppose you—’ She stopped. ‘When I was small,’ I said. ‘You weren’t old enough to remember. It was the day of Wakening Fair.’ ‘Oh.’ When I glanced up, her eyes flickered away. ‘No. I don’t remember that.’ ‘I bought … there was a man, selling books.’ I could recall the clink of my errand-money in my pocket that day – sixpence in farthings, so bulky they bulged through my trousers – and the heady, carefree feeling of going to Wakening Fair and slipping away from the others, wondering what I’d buy. I’d wandered past the meat and chickens, the fish from Coldwater and the patterned cottons from Castleford, paused at the sweetmeat stall and then turned towards another a little further away, where I’d caught a glimpse of gold and rich colours. It was hardly a stall at all, only a trestle table guarded by a man with restless eyes, but it was piled high with books. ‘It was the first time I’d seen them. I didn’t know what they were.’ That curious, wary expression was on Alta’s face again. ‘You mean …?’ ‘Forget it.’ I didn’t know why I was telling her; I didn’t want to remember. But now I couldn’t stop the memory unfolding. I’d thought they were boxes, small gilt-and-leather chests to hold things like Ma’s best silver or Pa’s chessmen. I’d sauntered over, jingling my money, and the man had glanced over both shoulders before he grinned at me. ‘Ah, what a golden-haired little prince! Come for a story, young sir? A tale of murder or incest, shame or glory, a love so piercing it was best forgotten, or a deed of darkness? You’ve come to the right man, young sir, these are the cr?me de la cr?me, these will tell you true and harrowing tales, violent and passionate and exciting – or if it’s comedy you’re after, I have some of those too, rarest of all, the things people get rid of! Have a look, young sir, cast your eyes over this one … Bound by a master in Castleford, years ago.’ I hated the way he called me young sir, but the book fell open as he passed it to me and I couldn’t give it back. As soon as I saw the writing on the pages I understood: this was lots of pages all squashed together – like letters, lots of letters, only in a better box – and a story that went on and on. ‘How much is it?’ ‘Ah, that one, young sir. You have wonderful taste for a young ’un, that’s a special one, a real adventure story, sweeps you off your feet like a cavalry charge. Ninepence for it. Or two for a shilling.’ I wanted it. I didn’t know why, except that my fingertips were prickling. ‘I only have sixpence.’ ‘I’ll take that,’ he said, clicking his fingers at me. The wide smile had gone; when I followed his darting gaze I saw a knot of men gathering a little way off, muttering. ‘Here.’ I emptied my pocketful of farthings into his palm. He let one drop, but he was still staring at the men and didn’t stoop to pick it up. ‘Thank you.’ I took the book and hurried away, triumphant and uneasy. When I reached the bustle of the main market I stopped and turned to look: the group of men was advancing on the man’s stall, as he threw the books frantically into the battered little cart behind him. Something warned me not to stare. I ran home, holding the book through my shirt-cuff so that I didn’t stain the cover with my sweaty fingers. I sat on the barn steps in the sun – no one would see me, they were still at the fair – and examined it. It wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen. It was a deep, heavy red, patterned with gold, and it was as soft to the touch as skin. When I opened the cover, the scent of must and wood rose up as though it hadn’t been touched for years. It sucked me in. It was set in an army camp in a foreign country, and at first it was confusing: full of captains and majors and colonels, arguments about military tactics and a threat of court martial. But something made me go on reading: I could see it, every detail, I could hear the horses and the snap of wind against the canvas, feel my own heart quicken at the smell of gunpowder … I stumbled on, absorbed in spite of myself, and slowly I understood that they were on the eve of a battle, that the man in the book was a hero. When the sun rose, he was going to lead them to a glorious victory – and I could feel his excitement, his anticipation, I felt it myself— ‘What in hell’s name are you doing?’ It broke the spell. I clambered instinctively to my feet, blinking through the haze. Pa – and the others behind him, Ma with Alta on her hip, everyone back from the fair already. Already … but it was getting dark. ‘Emmett, I asked what you were doing!’ But he didn’t wait for an answer before he plucked the book away from me. When he saw what it was his face hardened. ‘Where did you get this?’ A man, I wanted to say, just a man at the fair, he had dozens and they looked like boxes of jewels, in leather and gold … But when I saw Pa’s expression something shrivelled in my voice box and I couldn’t speak. ‘Robert? What …?’ Ma reached for it and then pulled away as if it had bitten her. ‘I’ll burn it.’ ‘No!’ Ma let Alta slip staggering to the ground, and stumbled forward to catch Pa’s arm. ‘No, how could you? Bury it!’ ‘It’s old, Hilda. They’d all be dead, years ago.’ ‘You mustn’t. Just in case. Get rid of it. Throw it away.’ ‘For someone else to find?’ ‘You know you can’t burn it.’ For a moment they stared at each other, their faces strained. ‘Bury it. Somewhere safe.’ At last Pa gave a brief, curt nod. Alta gave a hiccup and started to whimper. Pa shoved the book at one of the farmhands. ‘Here. Package this up. I’ll give it to the gravedigger.’ Then he turned back to me. ‘Emmett,’ he said, ‘don’t ever let me see you with a book again. You understand?’ I didn’t. What had happened? I’d bought it, I hadn’t stolen it, but somehow I had done something unforgivable. I nodded, still reeling from the visions I’d seen. I’d been somewhere else, in another world. ‘Good. You remember that,’ Pa said. Then he hit me. Don’t ever let me see you with a book again. But now they were sending me to the binder; as though whatever danger Pa had warned me against had been replaced by something worse. As though now I was the danger. I looked sideways. Alta was staring down at her feet. No, she didn’t remember that day. No one had ever spoken about it again. No one had ever explained why books were shameful. Once, at school, someone had muttered something about old Lord Kent having a library; but when everyone snickered and rolled their eyes I didn’t ask why that was so bad. I’d read a book: whatever was wrong with him, I was the same. Under everything, deep inside me, the shame was still there. And I was afraid. It was a creeping, formless fear, like the mist that came off the river. It slid chilly tendrils round me and into my lungs. I didn’t want to go anywhere near the binder; but I had to. ‘Alta—’ ‘I have to go in,’ she said, leaping to her feet. ‘You’d better go up too, Em, you have to pack and it’s a long way to go tomorrow, isn’t it? Good night.’ She scampered away across the yard, fiddling with her plait all the way so I couldn’t glimpse her face. By the door she called again, ‘See you tomorrow,’ without looking round. Maybe it was the echo off the stable wall that made it sound so false. Tomorrow. I watched the moon until the fear grew too big for me. Then I went to my room and packed my things. II From the road, the bindery looked as if it was burning. The sun was setting behind us, and the red-gold blaze of the last sunlight was reflected in the windows. Under the dark thatch every pane was like a rectangle of flame, too steady to be fire but so bright I thought I could feel my palms prickle with the heat. It set off a shiver in my bones, as if I’d seen it in a dream. I clutched the shabby sack in my lap and looked away. On the other side of us, under the setting sun, the marshes lay flat and endless: green speckled with bronze and brown, glinting with water. I could smell sodden grass and the day’s warmth evaporating. There was a rank mouldering note under the scent of moisture, and the vast dying sky above us was paler than it should have been. My eyes ached, and my body was a map of stinging scratches from yesterday’s work in the fields. I should have been there now, helping with the harvest, but instead Pa and I were bouncing along this rough, sticky road, in silence. We hadn’t spoken since we set off before dawn, and there was still nothing to say. Words rose in my throat but they burst like marsh-bubbles, leaving nothing on my tongue but a faint taste of rot. As we jolted along the final stretch of track to where it petered out in the long grass in front of the house I sneaked a look at Pa’s face. The stubble on his chin was salted with white, and his eyes were sunken deeper than they’d been last spring. Everyone had grown older while I was ill; as if I’d woken up and found I’d slept for years. We drew to a halt. ‘We’re here.’ A shudder went through me: I was either going to vomit or plead with Pa to take me home. I snatched the sack from my lap and jumped down, my knees nearly buckling when my feet hit the ground. There was a well-trodden path through the tufts of the grass to the front door of the house. I’d never been here before, but the off-key jangle of the bell was as familiar as a dream. I waited, so determined not to look back at Pa that the door shimmered and swayed. ‘Emmett.’ It was open, suddenly. For a moment all I took in was a pair of pale brown eyes, so pale the pupils were startlingly black. ‘Welcome.’ I swallowed. She was old – painfully, skeletally old – and white-haired, her face as creased as paper and her lips almost the same colour as her cheeks; but she was as tall as me, and her eyes were as clear as Alta’s. She wore a leather apron, and a shirt and trousers, like a man. The hand that beckoned me inside was thin but muscular, the veins looped across the tendons in blue strings. ‘Seredith,’ she said. ‘Come in.’ I hesitated. It took me two heartbeats to understand that she’d told me her name. ‘Come in.’ She added, looking past me, ‘Thank you, Robert.’ I hadn’t heard Pa get down, but when I turned he was there at my shoulder. He coughed and muttered, ‘We’ll see you soon, Emmett, all right?’ ‘Pa—’ He didn’t even glance in my direction. He gave the binder a long helpless look; then he touched his forelock as if he didn’t know what else to do, and strode back to the cart. I started to call out but a gust of wind snatched the words away, and he didn’t turn. I watched him clamber up to his seat and click to the mare. ‘Emmett.’ Her voice dragged me back to her. ‘Come in.’ I could see that she wasn’t used to saying anything three times. ‘Yes.’ I was holding my sack of belongings so tightly my fingers ached. She’d called Pa Robert as if she knew him. I took one step and then another. Now I was over the threshold and in a dark-panelled hall, with a staircase rising in front of me. A tall clock ticked. On the left, there was a half-open door and a glimpse of the kitchen beyond; on the right, another door led to— My knees went weak, like my hamstrings had been cut. The nausea widened and expanded, chewing on my insides. I was feverish and freezing, struggling to keep my balance as the world spun. I’d been here before – only I hadn’t— ‘Oh, damn it,’ the binder said, and reached out to take hold of me. ‘All right, boy, breathe.’ ‘I’m fine,’ I said, and was proud of how distinctly I’d shaped the consonants. Then it all went black. When I woke, there was sunlight dancing on the ceiling in a billowing net, water-wrinkles that overlapped the narrow rectangle of brightness that spilt between the curtains. The whitewashed walls looked faintly green, like the flesh of an apple, marred here and there with the solid froth of damp. Outside a bird whistled over and over again as if it was calling a name. The binder’s house. I sat up, my heart suddenly thumping. But there was nothing to be afraid of, not yet; nothing here but myself and the room and the reflected sunshine. I found myself listening for the sounds of animals, the constant restlessness of a farmyard, but all I heard was the bird and the soft rattle of wind in the thatch. The faded curtains billowed and a wider band of light flared across the ceiling. The pillows smelt of lavender. Last night … I let my eyes rest on the opposite wall, following the bump and curve of a crack in the plaster. After I’d fainted, all I could remember was shadows and fear. Nightmares. In this clean daylight they seemed a long time ago; but they’d been bad, dragging me over and under the surface of sleep. I’d almost fought clear of them, once or twice, but then the weight of my own limbs had pulled me under again, into a choking black blindness like tar. A faint taste like burnt oil still lingered in the back of my mouth. They hadn’t been as bad as that for days. The draught raised goose-pimples on my skin. Fainting like that, into Seredith’s arms … It must have been the fatigue of the journey, the headache, the sun in my eyes, and the sight of Pa driving away without a backwards glance. My trousers and shirt were hanging on the back of a single chair. I got up and dragged them on with clumsy fingers, trying not to imagine Seredith undressing me. At least I was still wearing drawers. Apart from the chair and the bed, the room was mostly bare: a chest at the foot of the bed, a table next to the window, and the pale, flapping curtains. There were no pictures, and no looking-glass. I didn’t mind that. At home I’d looked away when I walked past my reflection in the hall. Here I was invisible; here I could be part of the emptiness. The whole house was quiet. When I walked out on to the landing I could hear the birds calling across the marsh, and the tick of the clock in the hall below, and a dull banging from somewhere else; but underneath it all was a silence so deep the sounds skittered over it like pebbles on ice. The breeze stroked the back of my neck and I caught myself glancing over my shoulder, as if there was someone there. The bare room dipped into gloom for a second as a cloud crossed the sun; then it shone brighter than ever, and the corner of one curtain snapped in the breeze like a flag. I almost turned and climbed back into bed, like a child. But this house was where I lived, now. I couldn’t stay in my room for the rest of my life. The stairs creaked under my feet. The banister was polished by years of use, but the dust spun thickly in the sunlight and the whitewashed plaster was bubbling off the wall. Older than our farmhouse, older than our village. How many binders had lived here? And when this binder – Seredith – died … One day, would this house be mine? I walked down the stairs slowly, as if I was afraid they’d give way. The banging stopped, and I heard footsteps. Seredith opened one of the doors into the hall. ‘Ah, Emmett.’ She didn’t ask me if I’d slept well. ‘Come into the workshop.’ I followed her. Something about the way she’d said my name made me clench my jaw, but she was my master now – no, my mistress, no, my master – and I had to obey her. At the door of the workshop she paused. For an instant I thought she’d step back to let me go first; but then she strode across the room and bundled something swiftly into a cloth before I could see what it was. ‘Come in, boy.’ I stepped over the doorsill. It was a long, low room, full of morning light from the row of tall windows. Workbenches ran along both sides of the room and between them were other things that I didn’t have names for yet. I took in the battered shine of old wood, the sharp glint of a blade, metal handles dark with grease … but there was too much to look at, and my eyes couldn’t stay on one thing for long. There was a stove at the far end of the room, surrounded by tiles in russet and ochre and green. Above my head papers hung over a wire, rich plain colours interspersed with pages patterned like stone or feathers or leaves. I caught myself reaching up to touch the nearest one: there was something about those vivid kingfisher-blue wings hanging above my head … The binder put her bundle down and came towards me, pointing at things. ‘Lay press. Nipping press. Finishing press. Plan chest – behind you, boy – tools in that cupboard and the next one along, leather and cloth next to that. Waste paper in that basket, ready for use. Brushes on that shelf, glue in there.’ I couldn’t take it all in. After the first effort to remember I gave up and waited for her to finish. At last she narrowed her eyes at me and said, ‘Sit.’ I felt strange. But not sick, exactly, and not afraid. It was as if something inside me was waking up and moving. The looping grain of the bench in front of me was like a map of somewhere I used to know. ‘It’s a funny feeling, isn’t it, boy?’ ‘What?’ She squinted at me, one of her milky-tea eyes bleached almost white by the sun on the side of her face. ‘It gets you, all this. When you’re a binder born – which you are, boy.’ I didn’t know what she meant. At least … There was something right about this room, something that – unexpectedly – made my heart lift. As if, after a heatwave, I could smell rain coming – or like glimpsing my old self, from before I got ill. I hadn’t belonged anywhere for so long, and now this room, with its smell of leather and glue, welcomed me. ‘You don’t know much about books, do you?’ Seredith said. ‘No.’ ‘Think I’m a witch?’ I stammered, ‘What? Of course n—’ but she waved me to silence, while a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. ‘It’s all right. Think I’ve got this old without knowing what people say about me? About us.’ I looked away, but she went on as if she hadn’t noticed. ‘Your parents kept books away from you, didn’t they? And now you don’t know what you’re doing here.’ ‘You asked for me. Didn’t you?’ She seemed not to hear. ‘Don’t worry, lad. It’s a craft like any other. And a good one. Binding’s as old as the alphabet – older. People don’t understand it, but why should they?’ She grimaced. ‘At least the Crusade’s over. You’re too young to remember that. Your good fortune.’ There was a silence. I didn’t understand how binding could be older than books, but she was staring into the middle distance as if I wasn’t there. A breeze set the wire swinging, and the coloured papers flapped. She blinked and scratched her chin, and her eyes came back to mine. ‘Tomorrow I’ll start you on some chores. Tidying, cleaning the brushes, that sort of thing. Maybe get you paring leather.’ I nodded. I wanted to be alone here. I wanted to have time to look properly at the colours, to go through the cupboards and heft the weight of the tools. The whole room was singing to me, inviting me in. ‘You have a look round if you want.’ But when I started to get to my feet she gestured at me as if I’d disobeyed her. ‘Not now. Later.’ She picked up her bundle and turned to a little door in the corner that I hadn’t noticed. It took three keys in three locks to open it. I glimpsed stairs going down into the dark before she put the bundle on a shelf just inside the doorway, turned back into the room and pulled the door shut behind her. She locked it without looking at me, shielding the keys with her body. ‘You won’t go down there for a long while, boy.’ I didn’t know if she was warning or reassuring me. ‘Don’t go near anything that’s locked, and you’ll be all right.’ I took a deep breath. The room was still singing to me, but the sweetness had a shrill note now. Under this tidy, sunlit workshop, those steep steps led down into darkness. I could feel that hollowness under my feet, as if the floor was starting to give. A second ago I’d felt safe. No. I’d felt … enticed. It had turned sour with that glimpse of the dark; like the moment a dream turns into a nightmare. ‘Don’t fight it, boy.’ She knew, then. It was real, I wasn’t imagining it. I looked up, half scared to meet her gaze; but she was staring across the marsh, her eyes slitted against the glare. She looked older than anyone I’d ever seen. I stood up. The sun was still shining but the light in the room seemed tarnished. I didn’t want to look in the cupboards any more, or pull the rolls of cloth out into the light. But I made myself stroll past the cupboards, noting the labels, the dull brass knobs, and the corner of leather that poked a green tongue round the edge of a door. I turned and walked down the aisle of space, where the floor was trodden smooth by years of footsteps, of people coming and going. I came to another door. It was the twin of the first one, set into the wall on the other side of the tiled stove. It had three locks, too. But people went in and out – I could tell that from the floorboards, the well-trodden path where even the dust lay more lightly. What did they come for? What did she do, the binder, beyond that door? Blackness glittered in the corners of my eyes. Someone was whispering without words. ‘All right,’ she said. Somehow she was beside me now, pulling me down on to a stool, putting weight on the back of my neck. ‘Put your head between your knees.’ ‘I – can’t—’ ‘Hush, boy. It’s the illness. It’ll pass.’ It was real. I was sure. A fierce, insatiable, wrongness ready to suck me dry, make me into something else. But she’d forced my head down between my knees and held me steady, and the certainty drained away. I was ill. This was the same fear that had made me attack Ma and Pa … I clenched my jaw. I couldn’t give in to it. If I let myself slip … ‘That’s good. Good lad.’ Meaningless words, as though I was an animal. At last I straightened up, grimacing as the blood spun in my head. ‘Better?’ I nodded, fighting the acid creep of nausea. My hands were twitching as though I had the palsy. I curled them into fists and imagined trying to use a knife with fingers I couldn’t trust. Stupid. I’d lose a thumb. I was too ill to be here – and yet … ‘Why?’ I said, and the word came out like a yelp. ‘Why did you choose me? Why me?’ The binder turned her face to the window again and stared into the sunlight. ‘Was it because you were sorry for me? Poor broken-minded Emmett who can’t work in the fields any more? At least here he’ll be safe and solitary and won’t upset his family—’ ‘Is that what you think?’ ‘What else could it be? You don’t know me. Why else would you choose someone who’s ill?’ ‘Why else, indeed?’ There was an edge to her voice, but then she sighed and looked at me. ‘Do you remember when it began? The fever?’ ‘I think I was …’ I took a breath, trying to steady my mind. ‘I’d been to Castleford, and I was on my way back – when I woke up I was at home—’ I stopped. I didn’t want to think about the gaps and nightmares, daytime terrors, sudden appalled flashes of lucidity when I knew where I was … The whole summer was ragged, fever-eaten, more hole than memory. ‘You were here, lad. You fell ill here. Your father came to get you. Do you remember that?’ ‘What? No. What was I doing here?’ ‘It’s on the road to Castleford,’ she said, with a faint smile. ‘But with the fever … you remember it, and you don’t. That’s partly what’s making you ill.’ ‘I can’t stay here. This place – those locked doors. It’ll make me worse.’ ‘It will pass. Trust me. And it will pass more quickly and more cleanly here than anywhere else you could go.’ There was a strange note in her voice, as though she was almost ashamed. A new kind of fear tugged at me. I was going to have to stay here and be afraid, until I got better; I didn’t want that, I wanted to run away … She glanced at the locked door. ‘In a way,’ she said, ‘I suppose I did choose you because you’re ill. But not in the way you think. Not out of pity, Emmett.’ Abruptly she swung round and pushed past me, and I was left staring at the dust that swirled in the empty doorway. She was lying. I’d heard it in her voice. She did pity me. But perhaps, after all, she was right. There was something in the silence of the old house, the low rooms filled with steady autumn sunlight and the still order of the workshop, that loosened the dark knots inside me. Day after day went by, until the place wasn’t new or strange to me any more; then week after week … I learnt things by heart: the crinkling reflections on my ceiling, the gappy seams in the patchwork quilt on my bed, the different creak of each tread under my foot when I came downstairs. Then there was the workshop, the gleam of the tiles around the stove, the saffron-and-earth scent of tea, the opalescent gloop of well-mixed paste in a glass jar … The hours passed slowly, full of small, solid details; at home, in the busyness of farm life, I’d never had the time to sit and stare, or pay attention to the way a tool looked, or how well it was made, before I used it. Here the clock in the hall dredged up seconds like stones and dropped them again into the pool of the day, letting each ripple widen before the next one fell. The tasks Seredith gave me in the workshop were simple and small. She was a good teacher, clear and patient. I learnt to make endpapers, to pare leather, to finish with blind or gold tooling. She must have been disappointed at the way I fumbled – how I’d paste a page to my own fingers, or gouge a square of pristine calfskin with a sharp centre-tool – but she said nothing, except, occasionally, ‘Throw it away and start again.’ While I practised she’d go for a walk, or write letters or lists of supplies to be ordered by the next post, sitting at the bench behind me; or she’d cook, and the house would fill with the smell of meat and pastry. We shared the rest of the chores, but after a morning bent over painstaking work I was glad to chop wood or fill the copper for laundry. When I felt weak I reminded myself that Seredith had done it all on her own, before I came. But everything I did – everything I saw her do – was preparing materials or practising finishing; I never saw a block of pages, or a complete book. One evening when we were eating dinner in the kitchen I said, ‘Seredith, where are the books?’ ‘In the vault,’ she said. ‘Once they’re finished, they have to be kept out of harm’s way.’ ‘But—’ I stopped, thinking of the farm, and how hard we all worked, and how it had never been enough; I’d argued continually with Pa, asking for every new invention to make it as productive as possible. ‘Why don’t we make more? Surely, the more we make, the more you can sell?’ She lifted her head as if she was about to say something sharp; then she shook her head. ‘We don’t make books to sell, boy. Selling books is wrong. Your parents were right about that, at least.’ ‘Then – I don’t understand—’ ‘It’s the binding that matters. The craft of it, the dignity. Say a woman comes to me for a book. I make a book for her. For her, you understand? Not to be gawped at by strangers.’ She slurped soup from her spoon. ‘There are binders who only think to turn a profit, who care about nothing but their bank balance, who, yes, sell books – but you will never be one of them.’ ‘But – no one’s come to you …’ I stared at her, thoroughly confused. ‘When am I going to start using what you’re teaching me? I’m learning all these things, but I haven’t even—’ ‘You’ll learn more soon,’ she said, and stood up to get more bread. ‘Let’s take things slowly, Emmett. You’ve been ill. All in good time.’ All in good time. If my mother had said it, I would have snorted; but I stayed silent, because somehow it was a good time. Gradually the nightmares grew fewer, and the lurking daytime shadows receded. Sometimes I could stand for a long time without feeling dizzy; sometimes my eyes were as clear as they used to be. And after a few weeks I didn’t even look twice at the locked doors at the end of the workshop. The benches and tools and presses murmured comfort to me: everything was useful, everything was in its place. It didn’t matter what it was all for, except that a glue brush was for glue, and a paring knife for paring. Sometimes, when I paused to gauge the thickness of a scrap of leather – in places it had to be thinner than a fingernail or it would fold badly – I would look up from the dark scurf of leather shavings and feel that I was in the right place. I knew what I was meant to be doing, and I was doing it – even if I was only practising. I could do it. That hadn’t happened since before I was ill. I missed home, of course. I wrote letters, and was half glad and half miserable to read their replies. I would have liked to be at the harvest supper, and the dance; or rather, I would have liked it, before … I read that letter over and over again, before I crumpled it up and sat looking out past my lamp-flame into the blue dusk, trying to ignore the ache in my throat. But the part of me that yearned for music and noise was the old, healthy part; I knew that silence, work and rest were what I needed now. Even if, sometimes, it felt so lonely I could hardly bear it. The quiet days wore on, as if we were waiting for something. When was it? Perhaps I’d been there a fortnight or a month, the first day I remember clearly. It was a bright, cold morning, and I’d been practising gold tooling on a few odd scraps of leather, concentrating hard. It was difficult, and when I peeled away the foil to see an uneven, indistinct print of my name I cursed and rolled my neck to ease the ache out of it. Something moved outside, and I looked up. The sun dazzled me, and for a moment all I saw was a shape outlined against the light. I narrowed my eyes and the glare softened. A boy – no, a young man, my age or maybe older – with dark hair and eyes and a pale, gaunt face, watching me. I jumped so much I nearly burnt myself on the tool I was using. How long had he been there, watching me with those black stony eyes? I put the tool carefully back on to the brazier, cursing the sudden tremor that made me as clumsy as an old man. Who did he think he was, lurking there, spying? He knocked on the glass. I turned my back on him, but when I looked over my shoulder he was still there. He gestured sideways to the little back door that opened on to the marshes. He wanted me to let him in. I imagined him sinking gently into the mud, up to his knees, then his waist. I couldn’t bear the thought of speaking to him. I hadn’t seen anyone except Seredith for days; but it wasn’t just that, it was his stare, so steady it felt like a finger pressing between my eyes. I kept my face averted from the window as I swept the parings of leather to the ground, tidied the scraps of gold foil into their box, and loosened the screw of the hot type-holder so that I could tap the letters out on to the bench. In a minute they’d be cool enough to put back into their tray. A spacer, like a tiny brass splinter, fell to the floor and I bent to pick it up. When I straightened to flick it on to the bench, his shadow still hadn’t moved. I sucked the sting out of my burnt finger and conceded defeat. The back door had swollen – when was the last time it had been used? – and stuck in the frame. When I managed to get it open my heart was drumming with exertion. We stared at each other. At last I said, ‘What do you want?’ It was a stupid question; he clearly wasn’t a tradesman with a delivery, or a friend of Seredith’s here for a visit. ‘I …’ He looked away. Behind him the marsh shone like an old mirror, tarnished and mottled but still bright. When he turned back to me his face was set. ‘I’ve come to see the binder.’ I wanted to shut the door in his face. But he was a customer – the first one since I’d arrived – and I was only an apprentice. I stepped back, opening the door wider. ‘Thanks.’ But he said it with a sort of effort, and stood very still on the step, as if walking past me would soil his clothes. I turned and went back into the workshop: now he was inside he was no longer my problem. He could ring the bell or call for Seredith. I certainly wasn’t going to stop work for his sake. He hadn’t apologised for disturbing me, or watching me. I heard him hesitate, and follow. I made my way back to the bench and bent over the piece of tooling I’d been working on. I rubbed at one of the words to see if I could make the letters a bit clearer. The tool had been too hot on the second try – or I’d let it linger too long – and the gold had blurred; the third was a little better but I hadn’t pressed evenly. There was a chilly draught from the open workshop door, and quiet footsteps. He was behind me. I’d only looked at him for a second, but I could still see his face as clearly as if it was reflected in the window: white, smudged with shadows, with red-rimmed eyes. A deathbed face, a face no one would want to look at. ‘Emmett?’ My heart skipped a beat, because he shouldn’t have known my name. Then I realised: the tooling. EMMETT FARMER. It must have been just large enough for him to read from a few feet away. I picked up the leather and slammed it over, face down. Too late, of course. He gave me a crooked, empty smile, as if he was proud of noticing, as if he was pleased that I’d blenched. He started to say something else. I said, ‘I don’t know if the binder is taking commissions at the moment.’ But he went on looking at me with that odd, thirsty half-smile. ‘If that’s what you’ve come for. And she doesn’t sell books.’ ‘How long have you been here?’ ‘Since harvest-time.’ He had no right to ask; I didn’t know why I answered, except that I wanted him to leave me alone. ‘You’re her apprentice?’ ‘Yes.’ He looked round at the workshop, and back at me. There was something too slow, too deliberate in his look to be mere curiosity. ‘Is it a – good life?’ A twist of contempt in his voice. ‘Here, alone with her?’ The sweet scorched smell of the tools on the stove was making my head ache. I reached for the smallest, an intricate centre-tool that never came out properly in gold. I wondered how it would feel to bring it down on the back of my other hand. Or his. ‘Emmett—’ He made it sound like a curse. I put the tool down and reached for a new piece of leather. ‘I have to get on with this.’ ‘I’m sorry.’ Silence. I cut the leather into a square and fixed it to a piece of board. He was watching me. I fumbled and nearly caught my thumb with the scalpel. It felt as if there were invisible threads tangled between my fingers. I turned to him. ‘Do you want me to go and find Sere— the binder?’ ‘I – not yet. Not just yet.’ He was afraid. The realisation took me by surprise. For an instant I saw past my own resentment. He was as frightened and miserable as anyone I’d ever met. He was desperate. He stank of it, like fever. But I couldn’t pity him, because there was something else, too, in the way he looked at me. Hatred. He seemed to hate me. ‘They didn’t want me to come,’ he said. ‘My father, I mean. He thinks binding is for other people, not us. If he knew I was here …’ He grimaced. ‘But it’ll be too late when I get home. He won’t punish me. How could he?’ I didn’t answer. I didn’t want to wonder what he meant. ‘I wasn’t sure. I didn’t think …’ He cleared his throat. ‘I heard she’d chosen you and I thought I’d come and – but I didn’t think I wanted – until I saw you there …’ ‘Me?’ He took a breath and reached out to brush a speck of dust off the nipping press. His forefinger trembled, and I could see the pulse beating at the base of his neck. He laughed, but not as if anything was funny. ‘You don’t care, do you? Why should you? You’ve got no idea who I am.’ ‘No, I haven’t.’ ‘Emmett,’ he burst out, stumbling on the syllables, ‘please – look at me, just for a second, please. I don’t understand—’ I had the sensation that I was moving, the world racing past me too quickly to see, the speed drowning out his words. I blinked and tried to hold on, but a sickening current lifted me up and whirled me downstream. He was still talking but the words sang past me and away. ‘What’s going on?’ Seredith’s voice cut him off. He spun round. Red crept over his cheeks and forehead. ‘I’m here for a binding.’ ‘What are you doing in the workshop? Emmett, you should have called me at once.’ I tried to master the nausea. ‘I thought—’ ‘It wasn’t Emmett’s fault, it was mine,’ he said. ‘My name is Lucian Darnay. I did write.’ ‘Lucian Darnay.’ Seredith frowned. A strange, wary expression swept over her face. ‘And how long have you been talking to Em— to my apprentice? Never mind.’ Her eyes went to me before he could answer. ‘Emmett?’ she said, more softly. ‘Are you – well?’ The shadows swirled round me, blacking out the corners of my vision; but I nodded. ‘Good. Mr Darnay, come with me.’ ‘Yes,’ he said, but he didn’t move. I could feel his desperation pulsing out in dark waves. ‘Come,’ Seredith repeated, and at last he turned and moved towards her. She reached for her keys and started to unlock the door at the far end of the workshop; but she didn’t look at what she was doing, she looked at me. The door swung open. I caught my breath. I didn’t know what I had expected, but there was a glimpse of a scrubbed wooden table, two chairs, a hazy square of sun on the floor. It should have been a relief, but a tight claw closed round my chest. It looked so tidy, so austere – and yet … ‘Go in, Mr Darnay. Sit down. Wait for me.’ He drew in a long, slow breath. He glanced at me once, the fierceness in his eyes as unreadable as a riddle. Then he walked to the door and through it. When he sat down he kept his back very straight, as if he was trying not to shake. ‘Emmett, are you all right? He should never have …’ Her eyes searched my face for a reaction they didn’t find. ‘Go and lie down.’ ‘I’m fine.’ ‘Then go and mix up a jar of paste in the kitchen.’ She watched me walk past her. I had to make an effort to take smooth steps and not stagger. Black wings were beating around me and it was hard to see where I was going. That room, that quiet little room … I sat down on the stairs. The light lay on the floorboards in a silvery lattice. The shape of it made me think of something – half-remembered nightmares, a flash of Lucian Darnay’s face, his hungry black eyes. The darkness hung in front of me for a long time, like a fog; only there was something new in it, a flash like teeth, sharper than I could bear. Not hatred – but something that would have torn me apart if it could. Then it closed round me, and I was gone. III I surfaced gradually into a grey soft day and the muffled sound of rain. There was another noise too, one I couldn’t identify right away: I stared at the ceiling and wondered idly what it was. A swish, a pause, a human breath, swish … After a long time I turned my head, and saw Seredith sitting at the table beside the window, her head bent. There was a kind of wooden frame set up in front of her, and piles of folded paper. She was sewing the folded pages together, along one way and then the other, and the thread whispered as it pulled taut. I watched her for a long time, lulled by the rhythm of it: in, pull, out, over, in … She tightened a stitch, cut the thread, reached for the spool, cut a new length, and tied it on. The room was so quiet I heard the little click as the knot bit. She looked round, and smiled. ‘How do you feel?’ ‘I …’ I swallowed, and the sharp dryness in my mouth brought reality back. I ached all over. My wrist stung, like a Chinese burn. I glanced sideways, confused for a second. I was tied to the bed with a strip of whitish cloth. The fabric was rucked up into a narrow fold that cut into my flesh, as though I’d fought to get away. ‘You were having terrors,’ Seredith said. ‘Do you remember?’ ‘No.’ Or did I? An echo of screams, a flash of dark eyes watching me … ‘Never mind. Now you’re awake I’ll untie you.’ She stood up, putting her needle down carefully on the half-sewn pile of paper, and bent over me to pick with gnarled fingers at the knot. I lay still, not looking at her. What had I done? Had I gone mad, again? Last time, when it got really bad, I’d hit out at Ma and Pa. Alta had been afraid to come near me. Had I attacked Seredith? ‘There.’ She dragged the chair to my bedside and settled into it with a sharp breath. ‘Are you hungry?’ ‘No.’ ‘You will be. Five days you’ve been out.’ ‘Out?’ ‘Two more days of rest. At least. Then you can try getting up.’ ‘I’m fine. I can get up now.’ I wrenched myself into a more upright position, and grabbed the side of the bed to steady myself against the sudden drag of dizziness. Slowly the spinning stopped, but it had taken all my strength and I let my head drop back on to the pillow. I squeezed my eyes shut, forbidding myself to cry. ‘I thought I was getting better.’ ‘You are.’ ‘But—’ I didn’t want to think about how it must have been, one frail old woman against her crazed, hallucinating apprentice. I might have hurt her, or worse … She shifted. ‘Open your eyes.’ ‘What?’ ‘Look at me. That’s better.’ She leant towards me. I smelt soap and glue and the leather of her apron. ‘It was a relapse. But the worst is over.’ I turned my face away. I’d heard Ma say that before, and every time it’d had slightly less conviction. ‘You can trust me, boy. I know a little about binder’s fever. Normally it isn’t so bad, but … you will recover. Slowly, of course.’ ‘What?’ I raised my head so suddenly it sent a flash of pain across my temple. There was a name for what was wrong with me? ‘I thought it was just – madness.’ She snorted. ‘You’re not insane, boy. Who told you that? No, it’s an illness like any other. It’s a sort of temporary frenzy.’ An illness, like influenza or scurvy or the flux. How I wanted to believe it. I looked down at the red creases in my wrist. Further up my arm there were two bluish smudges like fingerprints. I swallowed. ‘Binder’s fever? What’s it got to do with binders?’ She hesitated. ‘Only binders get it. That is … not binders, but people who could be binders. When you have the calling … sometimes it goes wrong, in your head. It’s how I knew you’d be a binder, boy – and a good one. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. And now that you’re here, it will pass.’ ‘Do all binders get it?’ ‘Not all, no.’ A spatter of rain rattled the window. She glanced up, and I followed her gaze; but there was nothing out there, only the grey emptiness of the marshes, and wet veils of fog. ‘One of the greatest binders of all nearly died of it,’ she said. ‘Margaret Pevensie. She was a widow in the Middle Ages, and she bound over twenty books – that was a lot, in those days. A few of them survived. I travelled to Haltby, once, to see them.’ Her eyes came back to me. ‘My old master used to say that the binderbound fever was what made someone an artist, not a mere artisan. I always thought he was teasing me, but if he was right … well, you’ll make a good apprentice.’ I laid my hand over the bruises on my arm, fitting my fingers into the marks. The wind murmured in the thatch and drove another gust of rain against the window-pane, but the house was thick-walled, solid, as old as rock. Binder’s fever, not madness or weakness. ‘I’ll get you some soup.’ She got up, put the reel of thread and the loose folded pages into the pocket of her apron, and lifted the sewing frame. I craned forwards. ‘Is that …?’ ‘Lucian Darnay’s book. Yes. It will be.’ His name was like a hook that snagged my insides and jerked tight. Lucian Darnay, the boy who hated me. The hook sank deeper, tugged harder. ‘What are you making for him?’ Seredith glanced at me, but she didn’t answer. ‘Can I see?’ ‘No.’ She strode past me to the door. I tried to get to my feet, but the room spun. ‘Was it—’ ‘Get back into bed.’ ‘—him, Seredith, was it – did I get ill again because of him, or – who was he, why did he …?’ ‘He won’t come back. He’s gone.’ ‘How do you know?’ Her eyes slid away. A timber creaked above, and suddenly the house felt fragile, as if the thick walls were nothing but a dream. ‘I’ll fetch you that soup,’ she said, and closed the door behind her. For a while after that, Seredith locked herself in the workshop in the afternoons. She didn’t tell me what she was doing, and I didn’t ask: but I knew she was working on Darnay’s book. Sometimes, when I’d finished my chores, I leant against the door, half listening and half dreaming, trying to make sense of what I heard. Most of the time it was silent – a peculiar heavy silence, as if the whole house listened with me, every fibre of wood and plaster tuned to the absence of sound – but now and then there would be banging, or scraping, and once there was the clunk of an overturned pot. As it got colder my joints tingled and ached from standing still for so long, but I couldn’t wrench myself away. I hated the compulsion that held me there, waiting for something I didn’t understand; but it was irresistible, a mixture of curiosity and dread, driven by the nightmares that still haunted me, even now I was getting better. They were rarer now, and they’d changed – the formless black terrors had sharpened into clear dreams, full of sunlight – but they were just as bad. Ever since that day, the fear had a face: Lucian Darnay’s. I saw him again and again, his fierce eyes, his last look at me before he walked to the half-open door at the end of the workshop. I saw him sit down, straight-backed, in that quiet, bright, terrible room, and a surge of panic went through me – because in my dream it wasn’t him sitting there, it was me. They were trying to tell me something. I didn’t know what I was frightened of: but whatever it was, it lived in Seredith’s locked room. When I woke and couldn’t get back to sleep I sat by my window, letting the sharp night air dry the clamminess of my skin, and tried to understand; but no matter how much I turned it over in my head, no matter how much I tried to see past the fear, there was nothing except Lucian Darnay, and that half-glimpsed room. Whatever happened in there, it seeped out, setting my teeth on edge, bleeding into my dreams. I asked Seredith about him one evening when I was scouring a pan and she was making stew. She didn’t look up, but her fingers stumbled and knocked half an onion on to the floor. She bent slowly to pick it up. ‘Try not to think about Lucian Darnay,’ she said. ‘Why won’t you show me his book? All I’m learning is this endless finishing work, I thought I was supposed to …?’ She rinsed the onion and went on chopping it. ‘Seredith! When are you going to—’ ‘I’ll teach you more soon,’ she said, pushing past me into the pantry. ‘When you’re well again.’ But day after day passed, until I was nearly as strong as I’d ever been, and she still didn’t tell me. Autumn changed into winter. In our day-by-day life – the monotonous, meditative routine of work and food and sleep – I lost track of time. The days rolled round like wheels, full of the same chores and the same hours of finishing work, marbling paper, paring leather or gilding the edge of a dummy block. Mostly, my practice-pieces ended up in the old barrel Seredith used as a waste-bin; but even when Seredith stared down at one of the papers and said, without smiling, ‘Keep that one,’ it went into the plan chest and stayed there, out of sight. Nothing ever seemed to get used. I almost stopped wondering when they’d be good enough, or when I’d see a real book; and maybe that was what Seredith wanted. In the still silence of the workshop I concentrated on small things: the weight of the burnisher, the squeak of beeswax under my thumb. One morning I looked out and saw, with a shock, that the reeds were poking through a thin layer of snow. I’d noticed the cold, of course, but in a distant practical way that made me move my work closer to the stove and dig out a pair of fingerless gloves. Now it hit me: I’d passed months here, nearly a quarter of a year. Soon it would be the Turning. I took a deep, chilly breath, wondering how – if – we would celebrate it, alone in the middle of nowhere. It hurt to imagine my family surrounded by evergreens and mistletoe, toasting absent friends in mulled ale … But Seredith hadn’t said anything about letting me go home, and if deep snow fell the roads would be impassable. Not that anyone had come, since Lucian Darnay, except the weekly post. The post-cart still stopped at our door, and the driver scuttled inside to bolt a mug of hot tea before he went on; until one day, a few weeks later, the clouds were so low and the air so ominously stagnant that he shook his head when I invited him inside. He threw a packet of letters and a bag of supplies onto the ground at my feet as quickly as he could before huddling into his nest of blankets. ‘Going to snow again, boy,’ he said. ‘Not sure when I’ll be back. See you in the spring, maybe.’ ‘The spring?’ A sharp blue eye glinted at me from the space between his hat and scarf. ‘Your first time out here, isn’t it? Don’t worry. She always makes it through.’ With that he clicked to the shivering horse, and jolted off down our path towards the road. I stood there watching until he was out of sight, in spite of the cold. If I’d known … I racked my brain to remember what I’d said in my letter to my family – the last one this year … But what would I have added? Wished them a happy Turning, that was all. In a way I was glad that home felt so far away, that I could stand there and feel nothing, as if the freezing air had numbed my mind as well as my fingers. A fit of trembling seized me, and I went inside. He was right. It snowed that night, sieving it down in a silent blizzard, and when we woke the road was hardly a ripple in the whiteness. I was meant to light the stove first thing, but that morning when I walked into the workshop Seredith was already awake and at her bench. She was watching a bird hop and flutter outside, leaving neat tracks like letters. A drift of flour from the paste she’d been mixing made it look as if the snow had come through the window. She’d lit the stove, but I shivered. She looked round. ‘There’s tea ready. Oh, and is there anything you need? I’m writing a list for the next order from Castleford.’ ‘The postman said he wouldn’t be back till spring.’ I was so stiff with cold that I nearly spilt the tea when I tried to pour it. ‘Oh, Toller’s a fool. It’s too early for winter. This will thaw in a few days.’ She smiled as I glanced involuntarily at the bank of snow that rose halfway up the far window. ‘Trust me. The real snows won’t be here until after the Turning. There’s enough time to prepare.’ I nodded. That meant I could write another letter home, after all; but what would I say? ‘Go out to the storehouse and take stock.’ I looked at the glittering snowdrifts and a thin chill ran up my back. She added, ‘It’ll be cold,’ with a glint in her eye that was half mockery, half sympathy. ‘Wrap up well.’ It wasn’t too bad when I got down to it. I had to move boxes and sacks and huge jars to see what was there, and after a little while I was panting with exertion and too warm to keep my hat on. I dumped the sack I’d been moving and leant against the side of the doorway to catch my breath. I let my eyes linger on the woodpile, wondering if it would be enough to get us through winter. If it wasn’t, somehow I’d have to find more; but in this wide bare landscape there was no wood to gather or trees to cut down. A cloud had come up to cover the sun, and a breeze whined in my ears like someone sharpening a knife a long way away. It was going to snow again. Surely Seredith was wrong about the thaw. I should have got back to work. But something caught my eye – something too far away to see clearly, struggling along the faint line of road like an insect stuck in white paint. At last the dark blot grew into the shape of a horse, hock-high in the snow, with a fat hunchbacked speck of a rider. No – two riders, looking as small as children until I realised that the horse was a huge shaggy Shire horse. Two women, the one behind straight-backed, the other sagging in front and slipping sideways at every step. Long before I could see their faces clearly, their voices carried across the snow: a desperate mutter of encouragement, and above that the thin desolate keening I’d thought was the wind. When they stopped in front of the house, and one woman dismounted awkwardly into the snowdrift, I should have gone to help her. Instead I watched as she struggled, coaxing and tugging and finally heaving the other woman off the horse as if she was a doll. The shrill wailing went on, high, inhuman, only hiccupping and starting again when the women stumbled on their way to the front door. I caught a glimpse of wide glazed eyes and loose tangled hair and lips bitten bloody; then they were huddled in the porch, and the bell jangled off-key. I turned back to the ordered familiarity of the storeroom; but now there were shadows lurking behind every pile and looking out at me from every jar. Who would drag themselves through this snow, unless they were desperate? Desperate for a binding … Like Lucian Darnay. But what could a book do? What could Seredith do? In a moment she would open the door to the women. Then she’d take them through the workshop to the locked room … Before I had time to think I had crossed the little yard and skirted the side of the house so I could slip inside by the back door. I paused in the passageway and listened. ‘Bring her in.’ Seredith’s voice. ‘I’m trying!’ Breathless, a village accent, stronger than mine. ‘I can’t get her to – come on, Milly, please—’ ‘Didn’t she want to come? If she doesn’t agree, I can’t—’ ‘Oh!’ A brief laugh, sharp with bitterness and fatigue. ‘Oh, she wanted to come, all right. Begged and begged, even in this snow. And then half a mile down the road she went like a rag doll – and she won’t stop this bloody noise—’ ‘Very well.’ Seredith said it without heat, but it was enough to cut her off. The wailing went on, sobbing and quavering like a trickle of water. ‘Milly? Come here. Come inside. I can help you. That’s good, now your other foot. Good girl.’ Something about her tone reminded me of when I’d first come here. I turned my head and focused on the wall in front of my face. A thin crust of windblown snow clung to the rough plaster, as intricate and granular as salt crystals. ‘That’s better. That’s good.’ It was like Pa, murmuring to an edgy mare. ‘Thank goodness.’ The woman’s voice cracked. ‘She’s gone mad. You’ll make her better. Please.’ ‘If she asks me to. There we go, Milly. I’ve got you now.’ ‘She can’t ask – her mind’s gone—’ ‘Let go of her.’ A pause, and the keening faded a little. The other woman sniffed. Seredith added, more gently, ‘You’ve done all you can. Let me look after her now.’ I heard the workshop door open, and the three sets of footsteps: Seredith’s familiar tread, the lighter step of the other woman and a dragging, halting shuffle that made my scalp crawl. The door closed again. I shut my eyes. I could count the time it took them to walk along the worn boards to the locked door, the moment Seredith unhooked her keys and put them to the locks … I thought perhaps I heard it open and shut again, unless it was the knock of my heartbeat in my ears. Whatever happened behind that door, it was happening now, to the woman who looked like a wounded animal. I didn’t want to know. I forced myself to go back to the storeroom. I still had work to do. But when I’d hauled the last sack back into place and chalked up the last numbers on the wall, it was as if no time at all had passed. It was nearly sunset, and I’d had nothing to eat or drink all day. I stretched, but even the ache in my shoulders was distant and unimportant. When I walked into the workshop the room was dim and grey. A fine flurry of snow crackled against the windows. ‘Oh!’ I spun round, catching my breath. The other woman, not the mad one but the tall, straight-backed one who’d brought her … Stupid. Somehow I knew that everyone went in there on their own, alone with the binder. Of course Seredith would have told this woman to wait outside. I was an idiot to have jumped like that. ‘Who are you?’ she said. She was dressed in shapeless blue homespun, and her face was weather-beaten and freckled, but she spoke like I was a servant. ‘The binder’s apprentice.’ She gave me a wary, hostile look, as if she belonged here and I didn’t. Then she sank slowly back on to her seat next to the stove. She’d been drinking from my mug; a thin ribbon of steam rose from it and dispersed in the air. ‘Your … friend,’ I said. ‘Is she still – in there?’ She looked away. ‘Why did you bring her here?’ ‘That’s her business.’ No, I wanted to say, no, I don’t mean that, I mean what’s happening to her, why bring her here, what can Seredith do? But I hated the way the woman had turned away, dismissing the question. I sat down, deliberately, and reached for the jar of flour-paste, rummaged in a drawer for a clean brush. I had some endpapers cut and ready to be glued out; I could do that without concentrating, while the room filled with a silent hum from the locked room … But it wasn’t locked now. If I went and turned the handle the door would open. And I’d see … what? A gobbet of paste dropped from my brush onto the workbench, as if someone had spat over my shoulder. The woman was pacing, her heels clicking on the floor at every turn. I kept my eyes on my work, on the dirty rag I was using to wipe the paste away. ‘Will she die?’ ‘What?’ ‘Milly. My friend. I don’t want her to die.’ I could hear how hard she’d tried not to say the words aloud. ‘She doesn’t deserve to die.’ I didn’t look up until I felt her come close to me. The scent of wet wool and old saddles rose from her clothes. If I looked down I could see the hem of her skirt, the old blue linsey stained along the bottom edge with splashes of mud. ‘Please. I heard that sometimes they die.’ ‘No.’ But my heart turned over. For all I knew … ‘You liar.’ She swung away, her breath rasping in her throat. ‘I didn’t want to bring her. She was desperate. I said to her, an old witch, why go to the old witch? You know it’s wrong, it’s evil, stay strong, don’t give in. I should never …’ She caught herself, as if she’d realised how loudly she’d spoken, but after a moment she started again. ‘But today she was crazy, I couldn’t hold out any longer. So I brought her to this awful place, and now she’s been in there for …’ Her voice trembled and died. ‘But you said – you asked Seredith to help her …’ I bit my tongue. But she didn’t seem to hear me, let alone realise that I’d been eavesdropping earlier. ‘I just want her back, my lovely Milly, I just want her to be happy again. Even if she has to sell her soul for it. I don’t care if it’s the devil’s bargain, whatever the old bitch has to do, all right, she can do it! Bring Milly back, that’s all. But if she dies in there …’ The devil’s bargain. Was that what Seredith did? The bitch, the old witch … I tried to lay the coloured paper on top of the white, but I missed. Clumsy hands, stupid trembling hands. Even if she has to sell her soul. But what did that have to do with books, with paper and leather and glue? The sun came out between two slabs of cloud. I looked up into a pinkish mist of sunlight. It stung my eyes; for a split second I thought I saw an outline, a dark silhouette against the dazzle. Then the sun was gone, and the young man was too. I blinked away reflexive tears, and looked past the after-image to my work. I’d let the paper cockle, and I’d let it dry; when I tried to peel it away it ripped. I ran my thumb over the sticky white scar that ran across the feathered patterning. I had to start again. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t …’ She strode to the window. When she glanced at me her eyes were in shadow but her voice had a pleading edge. ‘I don’t know what I’m saying. I didn’t mean that. Please don’t be angry. Please don’t tell her – the binder – will you? Please.’ She was afraid. I screwed up my botched endpaper and threw it away. Not just afraid of Seredith, afraid of me too … I took a deep breath. Cut more papers. Mix more paste. Glue out the pages, lay them down, nip in the press, hang them up to dry … I didn’t know what I was doing, but somehow I carried on. When I came back to myself the room was so dim it was hard to see, and a pile of glued papers were waiting to be put between pressing boards. It was like waking from a dream. There’d been a sound, the door opening. Seredith’s voice, dry as stone. ‘There’s tea on the stove. Bring it here.’ I froze, but she wasn’t talking to me. She wasn’t looking in my direction, she hadn’t seen me. She was rubbing her eyes; she looked drained, infinitely weary. ‘Hurry,’ she said, and the woman scurried towards her with a spilling teapot and chinking cups. ‘Is she – all right?’ ‘Don’t ask foolish questions.’ A moment later she added, ‘In a minute she will be ready to see you. Then you should hurry home, before more snow falls.’ The door closed. A pause. A spray of snowflakes brushed the window like a wing. So much for the thaw. In a while the door would open again. I willed myself not to turn round when it did. ‘Come on, my dear.’ Seredith led the keening girl out into the workshop – only now she was docile, quiet. And then they were embracing, the other woman laughing with relief, sobbing, ‘Milly,’ over and over again while Seredith slowly, deliberately locked the door behind them. Alive, then. Sane, then. Nothing terrible had happened. Had it? ‘Thank goodness – oh, look at you, you’re well again – thank you—’ ‘Take her home and let her rest. Try not to speak to her of what’s happened.’ ‘Of course not – yes – Milly, sweetheart, we’re going home now.’ ‘Gytha. Home …’ She pushed the tangled hair away from her forehead. She was still gaunt and grimy but not long ago she’d been beautiful. ‘Yes, I should like to go home.’ There was something empty and fragile in the words, like a cracked glass. The woman – Gytha – led her into the hallway. ‘Thank you,’ she called again to Seredith, pausing at the door. Without anyone pushing her Milly was inert, her face so calm it looked like a statue’s. I swallowed. That uncanny serenity … It made the hairs on the back of my neck rise. My heart said, wrong, wrong, wrong. I must have made a noise, because she looked at me. I met her eyes for an instant. It was like looking into a mirror and seeing no one there. Then they were gone, and the door closed. A second later I heard the front door open and shut. The house sank back into the muffled snow-silence. ‘Emmett?’ Seredith said. ‘What are you doing in here?’ I turned to the bench. In this light my tools looked like pewter, and a silver smear of glue glinted on the wood like a snail’s trail. The pile of finished endpapers was all shades of grey: ashes-of-roses, ashes-of-peacock, ashes-of-sky. ‘I thought I asked you to sort out the stores.’ A draught flicked a fine sand of ice against the window and set a wire swinging above my head. There were more papers hanging there; more dim wings, more pages than we could ever use. ‘I finished. I made more endpapers.’ ‘What? Why? We don’t need—’ ‘I don’t know. Because it’s something I know how to do, I suppose.’ I looked round. There were rolls and rolls of book-cloth, piled like logs on the shelf, all sombre and shadowy in this silvery half-dusk. The cupboard below held goatskins, a box of leather scraps, bottles of dye … And next to it – the door was swinging open, the catch needed seeing to – the boxes of tools glinted dully, their tiny elaborate feet poking up into the light. Reels of gold foil gleamed. In front there were presses, another long bench, the board-cutter, the plough … ‘I don’t understand,’ I said. ‘All this – to decorate books that you don’t even sell.’ ‘Books should be beautiful,’ Seredith said. ‘No one sees, that’s not the point. It’s a way to honour people – like grave-goods, in olden times.’ ‘But whatever happens in your locked room … that’s the real binding, isn’t it? You make books for people, in there. How?’ She made a sudden movement, but when I looked at her she was still again. ‘Emmett …’ ‘I’ve never even seen—’ ‘Soon.’ ‘You keep saying—’ ‘Not now!’ She staggered, caught herself and dropped into the chair by the stove. ‘Please, not now, Emmett. I’m tired. I’m so tired.’ I walked past her, to the locked door. I ran my hand down over the three locks. It took an effort. My shoulder prickled with the impulse to pull away. Behind me Seredith’s chair scraped on the floor as she turned to look at me. I stayed where I was. If I waited long enough, this fear would pass: and then I would be ready. But it didn’t. And underneath it, like a sickness I hadn’t known I had, was a black misery, a sense of loss so strong I could have wept. ‘Emmett.’ I turned on my heel and left. In the next few days we didn’t speak of it again; we only talked about the chores and the weather, treading carefully, like people edging across new ice. IV I woke out of a dream of fire. I opened my eyes and blinked away the flickering red light. I’d been in a palace, a maze made of flames, so high and hot they sucked the air out of my lungs, and for a moment I thought I caught the bitter scratch of smoke in my throat; but the room was dark and when I breathed all I could smell was the subtle metallic scent of snow. I sat up, rubbing my eyes. Knocking. That was what had woken me: a hard pounding at the front door that hardly paused. And someone shouting. There was a bell jangling too, a continuous clanging like an alarum. I dragged myself out of bed and pulled on my trousers. The boards were cold under my bare feet, but I didn’t bother about shoes. I stumbled out into the passageway and stood there for a second, listening. A man’s voice, breathless. ‘I know you’re there!’ The door juddered in its frame. ‘Come out or I’ll smash your fucking windows. Out!’ I clenched my fists. At home Pa would have reached for his rifle, and when he swung the door open whoever was there would have stammered and fallen silent. But this wasn’t my house, and I didn’t have a rifle. I crossed the passageway to knock at Seredith’s door. ‘Seredith?’ I didn’t have time to wait for an answer. I pushed it open and peered round, trying to make out where her bed was. I’d never been in this room. ‘Seredith, there’s someone outside. Are you awake?’ Nothing. I could just see the pale crumple of her pillows and rucked sheets, next to the window. She wasn’t there. ‘Seredith?’ Something muttered in the darkness. I whirled round. She was curled in a chair in the corner of the room, shielding her head as if the sky was about to fall. Her eyes were open, gleaming at me. Her face was so pale it seemed to hover in the air. ‘Seredith. There’s someone knocking at the door. Should I answer? What’s going on?’ ‘Come for us,’ she muttered, ‘they’ve come, I knew they would, the Crusade, the Crusade …’ ‘I don’t understand.’ My voice wavered and I clenched my fists. ‘Should I open the door? Do you want to talk to him?’ ‘The Crusaders, come to burn us all, come to kill us – nowhere to run now, hide, hide in the cellar, don’t give up the books, die with the books if you must—’ ‘Seredith, please!’ I dropped to my haunches in front of her, so that my eyes were at the same level as hers. I pulled gently at one of her wrists, trying to uncover her ear. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. Do you want me to—’ She recoiled. ‘Who – get away from me – who who who—’ I rocked backwards, off balance. ‘It’s me! Seredith, it’s Emmett.’ Silence. The pounding stopped. We stared at each other through the dense grainy dark. I could hear her hoarse breathing, and my own. There was the smash of glass from downstairs. ‘Hey!’ the man yelled. ‘Come out here, you old bitch!’ Seredith shuddered. I tried to take her hand but she scrabbled backwards into the corner of the room, scraping frantically at the plaster. Her face was gleaming with moisture and her mouth was half-open. For a second she’d known who I was, but now she was staring past me, her lips trembling, and I didn’t dare touch her again. I stood up. She caught at my shirt and tugged. I nearly fell. ‘Seredith.’ I peeled her fingers away one by one. They were brittle and clammy, and I was afraid that I’d break the bones. ‘Let go of me. I have to—’ I pulled too hard, and she cried out. But as she shook the pain from her wrist, her eyes seemed to clear. ‘Emmett,’ she said. ‘Yes.’ ‘I was dreaming. Help me back to—’ ‘It’s all right. I’ll go. You stay here.’ I walked into the passage on shaking legs. The man’s voice rose, clearer now that the window had gone. ‘I’ll smoke you out! You come out here and talk to me, witch!’ I don’t know how I got to the bottom of the stairs, or slid the bolts on the front door, but suddenly I was in the open doorway. The man in front of me startled and stepped back. He was smaller than I’d expected, and his face had a pointed, ratty look. Behind him more dark figures turned their heads. One of them had a torch. So I had smelt smoke. He squared up to me as if he thought he was as tall as I was, though he had to tilt his head back to look me in the eye. ‘Who the hell are you?’ ‘I’m the witch’s apprentice. Who the hell are you?’ ‘Get her down here.’ ‘What do you want?’ ‘I want my daughter back.’ ‘Your daughter? She’s not here. No one’s here but—’ I stopped. ‘Don’t try to be smart. You know what I’m talking about. You bring her book out here, right now, and give it to me. Or—’ ‘Or what?’ ‘Or we burn this house to the ground. And everything in it.’ ‘Look around you. It’s been snowing. These walls are three feet thick. You really believe you can just set light to the house? With one torch? Why don’t you and your makeshift army—’ ‘You think we’re that stupid?’ The man gestured to his friend, who hefted a covered bucket and grinned. A slosh of liquid dribbled over the side and I smelt oil. ‘You think we’d come all this way to make empty threats? You want to take me seriously, son. I mean it. Now bring me that book.’ I swallowed. The house had thick walls, and there was snow on the thatch; but I’d seen the barn at Greats Farm on fire one winter, and I knew that if the flames took hold … ‘I don’t know where it is,’ I said. ‘I—’ Seredith’s voice said, from behind me, ‘Go home.’ ‘That’s her,’ one of the dark figures said. ‘The old woman. That’s her.’ The man glared over my shoulder. ‘Don’t you order me, you old hag. You heard what I said to your – whatever he is … I want my daughter’s book. She had no right coming here to you.’ ‘She had every right.’ ‘You mad old bitch! She sneaked out without my permission, and then she comes home half-empty – looks at me like she doesn’t even know who I am—’ ‘It was her choice. All of it was her choice. If you hadn’t—’ ‘Shut up!’ He jerked forwards; if I hadn’t been there maybe he would have hit her. I caught a whiff of sour beer on his breath, mixed with something stronger. ‘I know your lot. I’m not having you sell my daughter’s book to some—’ ‘I don’t sell books. I keep them safe. Now leave.’ There was a silence. The torchlight danced on the man’s face. He glanced backwards, licking his lips, and his friends stared at him. His hands opened and closed like claws. A breeze ruffled the grass and set the torch-flame fluttering. For a moment I felt a damp breath on my cheek, blowing away the scent of smoke; then it died, and the flames leapt upwards again. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘All right, we’ll do it your way.’ He grabbed the bucket of oil from the other man, and lumbered heavily back to the door. ‘I want that book burnt. If you won’t bring it to me, I’ll burn the house down with the book in it.’ I tried to laugh. ‘Don’t be a fool.’ ‘I’m warning you. You’d better come out here.’ ‘Look at us – an old woman and an apprentice, you can’t really—’ ‘Watch me.’ My grip tightened on the door frame. The blood was thrumming in my fingers so hard that it felt like the wood might leap out of my grasp. I looked at Seredith. She was staring at the man, white-faced, her hair straggling over her shoulders. If I’d never seen her before I could have believed she was a witch. She said something too low to catch. ‘Please,’ I said, ‘she’s old, she hasn’t done anything wrong, whatever happened to your daughter—’ ‘Whatever happened? She was bound, that’s what happened! Now, you move out of the way, or I swear I’ll burn you along with everything else—’ He lunged at me and dragged me forwards. I stumbled away from the door, surprised by the strength of his grip; then I flung my arm up to break his hold. I staggered to the side but by the time I got my balance someone had grabbed me from behind. The other man swung his torch in front of me as if I was an animal. The heat prickled on my cheeks and I blinked away stinging tears. ‘And you,’ he shouted, through the doorway, ‘you come out too. You come out and we won’t hurt you.’ I tried to pull away from whoever was holding me. ‘You mean you’ll just leave us out here in the snow? Miles from anywhere? She’s an old woman.’ ‘Shut up!’ He turned on me. ‘I’m being kind, warning you at all.’ I wanted to throttle him. I forced myself to take a deep breath. ‘Look – you can’t do this. You could be deported – you don’t want to risk that.’ ‘For burning a binder’s house to the ground? I’ve got ten friends’ll swear I was in the tavern the whole night. Now, get the old bitch out here or she’ll get smoked into a kipper with the rest.’ The front door slammed. A bolt shot home. Melted snow ran off the roof in a sudden dribble, as if a pool had formed and overflowed. The breeze lifted and died again. I thought I heard it whine in the broken window. I swallowed. ‘Seredith?’ She didn’t answer. I pulled away from the man who’d been holding me. He let me go without a struggle. ‘Seredith. Open the door. Please.’ I leant sideways to peer through the jagged space where the window had been. She was sitting on the stairs like a child, her legs crossed neatly at the ankles. She didn’t look up. ‘What are you doing? Seredith?’ She murmured something. ‘What? Please, let me in—’ ‘That’s it. The bitch wants to burn.’ There was a strident note in his voice, like bravado; but when I looked back at him he gave me a wide rotten-toothed grin. ‘She’s made her choice. Now get out of the way.’ He lurched forwards and sloshed oil on the wall by my feet. The smell rose like a fog, thick and real. ‘Don’t – you can’t – please!’ He went on grinning at me, unblinking. I turned and hammered at the last shards of glass in the window, smashing them away with the side of my fist; but the window was too narrow to get through. ‘Seredith, come out! They’re going to set the house on fire, please.’ She didn’t move. I would have thought she couldn’t hear me, except that her shoulders rose a little when I said please. ‘You can’t set fire to the house while she’s in it. That’s murder.’ My voice was high and hoarse. ‘Get out of the way.’ But he didn’t wait for me to move. Oil splashed on to my trousers as he went past. He poured the last dregs against the side wall and stood back. The man with the torch was watching, his expression open and interested, like a schoolboy’s. Maybe it wouldn’t be enough. Maybe the snow on the roof would quench it, or the walls would be too thick and too damp. But Seredith was old, and the smoke would be enough to kill her, if she was inside. ‘Hey, Baldwin. Get the other bucket. Round the side.’ He pointed. ‘Please. Please don’t do this.’ But I knew it was no good. I spun round and threw myself against the door. I pounded on the wood with my fists. ‘Seredith! Open the door. Damn you, open the door.’ Someone caught my collar and pulled me back. I choked and nearly fell. ‘Good. Keep him back. Now.’ The man with the torch grunted and stepped forwards. I scrabbled desperately to break free. The seam of my shirt ripped and I almost fell into the space between the torch-flames and the door. The smell of oil was so strong I could taste it. It was on me, on my trousers and hands; the smallest leap of a spark and I’d be on fire. The burning torch hovered in front of my eyes, a spitting mass of talons and tongues. Something thudded into my back. I’d walked backwards into the door. I leant against it. Nowhere to go now. The man raised the torch like a staff and tilted it until it was right in front of my face. Then he lowered it. I watched it flicker, almost touching the base of the wall, almost close enough to catch. ‘No.’ My own voice; but not my own. My blood rose and sang in my ears like a flood, so loud I couldn’t hear myself think. ‘Do this and you will be cursed,’ I said, and in the sudden quiet it was as though another voice spoke underneath mine. ‘Kill with fire and you will perish in fire. Burn in hatred and you will burn.’ No one answered. No one moved. ‘If you do this, your souls will be stained with blood and ash. Everything you touch will go grey and wither. Everyone you touch will fall ill or run mad or die.’ A sound: faint, faraway, like something drawing closer. But the voice coming from inside me wouldn’t let me pause to listen. ‘You will end hated and alone,’ it said. ‘There will be no forgiveness, ever.’ Quietness spread out around me like a ripple in a pond, deadening the hiss of the wind and the scratch of the flames. But inside that quiet there was something new, ticking, like drying wood or leaves falling. The men stared at me. I looked round, meeting their eyes, letting the other voice look through me. My hand rose to point at the man who had threatened me, steady as a prophet’s. ‘Go.’ He hesitated. The ticking broadened into a crackle, then a hiss, then a roar. Rain. It fell in ropes, as sudden as an ambush, blinding me, driving through hair and clothes in seconds. Icy water ran down the back of my neck and sprayed off my nose when I gasped with the shock of it. The man swung his torch sideways to catch the shelter of the overhanging roof, but the wind blew a curtain of rain over it, and then there was no light at all. There was shouting, a few stifled, panicked cries, and the sounds of a man stumbling in the dark. ‘He called down the rain – fuck this, let’s go – the magic—’ I blinked, but there were only blurred shadows, running and disappearing like wraiths. Someone called, someone answered, someone grunted and swore as he tripped and struggled to his feet; and then the noise retreated, I heard a far-off mutter of voices and horses, and they were gone. I shut my eyes. I was soaked to the skin. The marsh hissed and rumbled under the rain, answering, echoing. The thatch whispered its own note as the wind hummed through the broken window. There was the smell of mud and reeds and melted snow. I was cold. A spasm of shivering took hold of me and I leant forward, bracing myself as if it came from outside. When it was over I blinked the water off my eyelashes and blew the strings of rain away from my mouth. The dark had lessened, and now I could make out trembling, silvery edges to things: the barn, the road, the horizon. I turned round and stared through the window. Even now it made my neck tingle, to turn my back on the vast emptiness where the road was. But I’d heard them go. I called softly, ‘Seredith? They’ve gone. Let me in.’ I wasn’t sure if I could really see her, or whether my brain was inventing the ghostly blur in the darkness. I wiped the water out of my eyes and tried to make her out. She was there, sitting on the stairs. I leant as close to the edge of the broken glass as I could. ‘Seredith. It’s all right. Open the door.’ She didn’t move. I don’t know how long I stood there. I murmured to her as if I was trying to tame an animal: the same words, over and over again. I started to forget what was my voice and what was the rain. I was so cold I went into a sort of dream, where I was the marsh and the house as well as myself, where I was slippery wet wood and claggy mud … When at last the bolt was shot back, I was so stiff and shrammed that I didn’t react straight away. Seredith said, ‘Come in, then.’ I limped inside and stood dripping on the floor. Seredith rummaged in the sideboard; I heard the scratching of match after match as she tried to light the lamp. At last I crossed to her and gently took the box. We both jumped at my touch. I didn’t look at her until the lamp was burning and I’d put the glass chimney over the flame. She was trembling, and her hair was sticking out in a clump; but when she met my eyes, she gave me a wry almost-smile that told me she knew who I was. She reached for the lamp. ‘Seredith …’ ‘I know. I shall go to bed, or I’ll catch my death.’ That wasn’t what I’d been going to say. I nodded. ‘You’d better go too.’ She added, too quickly, ‘You’re sure they’ve gone?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Good.’ Silence. She stared at the lamp, and in the soft light her face could have been young. At last she said, ‘Thank you, Emmett.’ I didn’t answer. ‘Without you, they would have burnt the house down before the rain came.’ ‘Why didn’t you—’ ‘I was so afraid when I heard them knocking.’ She stopped. She took a pace towards the staircase, and turned back. ‘When they came, I dreamt … I thought they were the Crusade. There hasn’t been a Crusade here for sixty years, but … I remember them coming for us. I must have been your age. And my master …’ ‘The Crusade?’ ‘Never mind. Those days are over. Now it’s only a few peasants, here and there, that hate us enough to murder us …’ She laughed a little. I’d never heard her say peasants like that, with contempt. Something inside me tipped. I said, slowly, ‘But they didn’t want to murder us. Not really. They wanted to burn the house.’ A pause. The flame bobbed, so I couldn’t tell if her expression had changed. ‘Why did you lock yourself in, Seredith?’ She reached for the banister and began to climb the stairs. ‘Seredith.’ My arms ached with the effort to stop myself reaching for her. ‘You could have died. I could have died, trying to get you out. Why the hell did you lock yourself in?’ ‘Because of the books,’ she said, turning so suddenly I was scared she’d fall. ‘Why do you think, boy? Because the books have to be kept safe.’ ‘But—’ ‘And if the books burn, I will burn with them. Do you understand?’ I shook my head. She looked at me for a long time. She seemed about to say something else. But then she shivered so violently she had to steady herself, and when the spasm had passed she seemed exhausted. ‘Not now,’ she said. Her voice was hoarse, as if she’d come to the last of her breath. ‘Good night.’ I listened to her footsteps climb to the landing and cross to the room where she slept. The rain swirled through the broken window and rattled on the floor, but I couldn’t bring myself to care. I was aching all over with cold, and my head was spinning with tiredness; but when I shut my eyes I saw flames spitting and clawing at me. The noise of the rain separated into different notes: the percussive hiss of water on the roof, the whisper of the wind, human voices … I knew they weren’t real, but I could hear distinct words, as if everyone I had ever known had surrounded the house and was calling to me. It was fatigue, only fatigue, but I didn’t want to fall asleep. I wanted … Most of all I wanted not to be alone; but that was the one thing I couldn’t have. I had to get warm. My mother would have parcelled me up in a blanket and wrapped her arms round me until I stopped shivering; then she would have made me hot tea and brandy, sent me to bed and sat beside me while I drank it. The familiar ache of homesickness threatened to overwhelm me. I went into the workshop and lit the stove. Outside there was a hint of light, a crack between the clouds and the horizon; it was later than I’d realised. It occurred to me, vaguely, that I had saved Seredith’s life. I brewed tea, and drank it. The flames dancing in my head began to subside. The voices grew fainter as the rain slackened. The stove creaked and clicketed and smelt of warm metal. I sat on the floor, leaning against the plan chest, with my legs spread out in front of me. From this angle, and in this light, the workshop looked like a cave: mysterious, looming, the knobs and screws of the presses transformed into strange rock formations. The shadow of the board cutter on the wall looked like a man’s face. I rolled my head round, taking it all in, and for a second I was filled with a fierce pleasure to have saved it all: my workshop, my things, my place. The door at the end of the room was ajar. I blinked. At first I thought it was a trick of the light. I put down my cold mug of tea and leant forward, and saw the gap between the door and the jamb. It was the door on the left of the stove: not the room where Seredith took people, but the other door, the one that led down into the dark. I almost kicked it shut. I could have done that, left it unlocked but closed, and gone to bed. I almost did. I reached out gently with my foot, but instead of pushing it shut I edged it open. Blackness. An empty shelf just inside, and beyond that a flight of stairs going down. Nothing more than I’d seen before. Nothing like the bare light-filled room behind the other door, except for the cold that breathed from it. I stood up and reached for the lamp. I wasn’t sleepy any more. Tension pricked in my fingertips and itched between my shoulder blades. I pushed the door wide open and went down into the dark. It smelt of damp. That was the first thing I noticed: a thick, muddy scent like rotting reeds. I paused on the stair, my heart speeding up. Damp was almost as bad as fire; it brought mould and wrinkled paper and softened glue. And it smelt of age and dead things, smelt wrong … But as I turned the corner of the staircase and lifted the lamp, what I saw was nothing out of the ordinary: a little room with a table and cupboards, a broom and a bucket, chests that were marked with a stationer’s label. I almost laughed. Just a storeroom. At the far end – although it wasn’t far, only a few steps across – there was a round bronze plate in the wall, like a solid wheel, intricate and decorative. The other walls were piled high with chests and boxes. The air felt as dry as it had upstairs; perhaps I’d imagined the smell. I turned my head, half thinking I’d heard something. But everything was perfectly still, insulated from the noise of the rain by the dense earth beyond. I put down the lamp and looked about me. There was a drawer balanced on a pile of boxes, full of broken tools waiting to be repaired or thrown away, and a row of glass bottles filled with dark liquid that looked like dyes or ox gall for marbling paper. I nearly tripped over three fire-buckets of sand. On the table there was a humped parcel wrapped in sackcloth, and some tools. I didn’t recognise them; they were thin, delicate things with edges like fish’s teeth. I brought the lamp closer. Next to the bundle there was another cloth, spread out to cover something. This was where Seredith worked, when I was upstairs in the workshop. I reached out and unwrapped the bundle, as gently as if it was alive. It was a book-block, neatly sewn, with thick dark endpapers threaded with white, like tiny roots reaching through soil. The blood sang in my fingertips. A book. The first book I had seen, since I’d been here; the first since I was a child, and learned that they were forbidden. But holding it now I felt nothing but a kind of peace. I brought it to my face and inhaled the smell of paper. I almost opened it to look at the title page; but I was too curious about what was under the other bit of sacking. I put the block down and drew back the cloth. Here was the cover Seredith had been making. For a moment, before I understood what I was seeing, it was beautiful. The background was black velvet, so fine it absorbed every glint of light and lay on the bench like a piece of solid darkness. The inlay stood out against it like ivory, shining softly, pale gold in the lamplight. Bones. A skeleton, the spine curled like a row of pearls round pale twigs of legs and arms, and the tiny splinters of toes and fingers. The skull bulged like a mushroom. They were smaller than my outstretched hand, those bones. They were as small and fragile as a bird’s. But it wasn’t … it hadn’t been a bird. It was a baby. V ‘Don’t touch it.’ I hadn’t heard Seredith come into the room, but some distant, watchful part of me wasn’t surprised to hear her voice. I didn’t know how long I had been standing there. It was only when I stepped back – carefully, as though there was something here I was afraid to wake – that I felt the stiff chill in my joints, the pins-and-needles in my feet, and knew it had been a long time. In spite of my care I knocked my ankle against a box, but the hollow sound was muffled by the earth beyond the walls. I said, ‘I wasn’t going to touch it.’ ‘Emmett …’ I didn’t answer. The wick of the lamp needed trimming, and the shadows jumped and ducked. The bones gleamed against their bed of black. As the light danced back and forth I could have made myself believe that they were moving; but when at last the flame steadied they lay quiet. ‘It’s only a binding,’ she said. She shifted in the doorway, but I didn’t look at her. ‘It’s mother-of-pearl.’ ‘Not real bones.’ It came out like mockery. I hadn’t meant it to, but I was glad, fiercely glad, at the way it cut through the silence. ‘No,’ she said softly, ‘not real bones.’ I stared at the shining intricate shapes on the velvet until my eyes blurred. At last I reached out and pulled the cloth down over them; then I stood looking down at the coarse brown hessian. Here and there, where the weave was loose, I could still see the smooth edge of a femur, the nacreous curve of the skull, a miniature, perfect fingerbone. I imagined her working on them, crafting tiny shapes out of mother-of-pearl. I shut my eyes and listened to my blood pounding, and beyond that the dead quiet of walls and earth. ‘Tell me,’ I said. ‘Tell me what you do.’ The lamp murmured and guttered. Nothing else moved. ‘You know already.’ ‘No.’ ‘You know, if you think about it.’ I opened my mouth to say no, again; but something caught in my throat. The lamp-flame flared, licked upwards and then sank to a tiny blue bubble. The dark took a step towards me. ‘You bind – people,’ I said. My throat was so dry it hurt to speak; but the silence hurt more. ‘You make people into books.’ ‘Yes. But not in the way you mean.’ ‘What other way is there?’ She walked towards me. I didn’t turn, but the light from her candle grew stronger, pushing back the shadows. ‘Sit down, Emmett.’ She touched my shoulder. I flinched and spun round, stumbling back into the table. Tools clattered to the floor and skittered away. We stared at each other. She had stepped back too; now she put her candle down on one of the chests, and the flame magnified the trembling of her hand. Wax had spattered the floor; it congealed in a split second, like water turning to milk. ‘Sit down.’ She lifted an open drawer of jars off a box. ‘Here.’ I didn’t want to sit, while she was standing. I held her gaze, and she was the first to look away. She dumped the drawer down again. Then, wearily, she bent to pick up the little tools I’d knocked off the table. ‘You trap them,’ I said. ‘You take people and put them inside books. They leave here … empty.’ ‘I suppose, in a way—’ ‘You steal their souls.’ My voice cracked. ‘No wonder they’re afraid of you. You lure them here and suck them dry, you take what you want and send them away with nothing. That’s what a book is, isn’t it? A life. A person. And if they burn, they die.’ ‘No.’ She straightened up, one hand clutching a tiny wood-handled knife. I picked up the book on the table and held it out. ‘Look,’ I said, my voice rising and rising, ‘this is a person. Inside there’s a person – out there somewhere they’re walking round dead – it’s evil, what you do, they should have fucking burnt you.’ She slapped me. Silence. There was a thin high ringing in the air that wasn’t real. Automatic tears rose in my eyes and spilt down my cheeks. I wiped them away with the inside of my wrist. The pain faded to a hot tingling, like salt water drying on my skin. I put the book down and smoothed the endpaper with my palm where I’d rumpled it. The crease would never come out entirely; it stood out like a scar, branching across the corner. I said, ‘I’m sorry.’ Seredith turned away and dropped the knife into the open drawer by my side. ‘Memories,’ she said, at last. ‘Not people, Emmett. We take memories and bind them. Whatever people can’t bear to remember. Whatever they can’t live with. We take those memories and put them where they can’t do any more harm. That’s all books are.’ Finally I met her eyes. Her expression was open, candid, a little weary, like her voice. She made it sound so right – so necessary; like a doctor describing an amputation. ‘Not souls, Emmett,’ she said. ‘Not people. Just memories.’ ‘It’s wrong,’ I said, trying to match my tone to hers. Steady, reasonable … but my voice shook and betrayed me. ‘You can’t say it’s right to do that. Who are you to say what they can live with?’ ‘We don’t. We help people who come to us and ask for it.’ A flicker of sympathy went over her face as if she knew she’d won. ‘No one has to come, Emmett. They decide. All we do is help them forget.’ It wasn’t that simple. Somehow I knew it wasn’t. But I had no argument to make, no defence against the softness of her voice and her level eyes. ‘What about that?’ I pointed to the child-shape under the sacking. ‘Why would you make a book like that?’ ‘Milly’s book? Do you really want to know?’ A shiver went over me, fierce and sudden. I clenched my teeth and didn’t answer. She walked past me, stared down at the sacking for a moment, and then slid it gently to one side. In her shadow the little skeleton shone bluish. ‘She buried it alive,’ Seredith said. There was no weight to the words, only a quiet precision that left all the feeling to me. ‘She couldn’t go on, she thought she couldn’t go on. And so she wrapped it up, one day when it wouldn’t stop crying, and she laid it on the dung heap and pulled rubbish and manure over it until she couldn’t hear it any more.’ ‘Her baby?’ A nod. I wanted to shut my eyes, but I couldn’t look away. The baby would have lain like that, curled and helpless, trying to cry, trying to breathe. How long would it have taken, before it was just part of the dungheap, rotting with everything else? It was like a horrible fairy tale: bones turned to pearl, earth turned to velvet. But it was true. It was true, and the story was locked in a book, shut away, written on dead pages. My hand tingled where I had smoothed out the endpaper: that thick, veined paper, black as soil. ‘That’s murder,’ I said. ‘Why didn’t the parish constable arrest her?’ ‘She kept the child a secret. No one knew about it.’ ‘But …’ I stopped. ‘How could you help her? A woman – a girl who killed her own child – like that – you should have …’ ‘What should I have done?’ ‘Let her suffer! Make her live with it! Remembering is part of the punishment. If you do something evil—’ ‘It was her father’s, too. The man who came to burn this book. He was her father, and the child’s.’ For a moment I didn’t understand what she meant. Then I looked away, feeling sick. There was the rustle of sackcloth as Seredith drew it back over the bones, and the creak of the box as she perched on the edge of it, holding on to the table to steady herself. At last she said, ‘I’m not being fair to you, Emmett. Sometimes I do turn people away. Very, very rarely. And not because they’ve done something so terrible I can’t help; only because I know they’ll go on doing terrible things. Then, if I’m sure, I will refuse to help them. But it has only happened three times, in more than sixty years. The others, I helped.’ ‘Isn’t burying a baby terrible?’ ‘Of course,’ she said, and bowed her head. ‘Of course it is, Emmett.’ A breath. ‘You said, what books are … So every book,’ I said, ‘every book that’s ever been bound, is someone’s memories. Something they’ve chosen to forget.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And …’ I cleared my throat. Suddenly I could feel the imprint of my father’s hand on my cheek, the stinging blow he’d given me years ago, as if the pain had never really faded. Never let me see you with a book again. This was what he had wanted to protect me from. And now I was an apprentice; I was going to be a binder. ‘You think,’ I said slowly, ‘you think I’m going to do what you do.’ She didn’t even glance at me. ‘It will be easier,’ she said, from a long way away, ‘if you don’t despise it. Despise books – despise the people who need help – and you despise yourself. Your work.’ ‘I can’t,’ I said. ‘I won’t. It’s not …’ She laughed. It was so close to her usual amused snort that my stomach twisted. ‘Yes, you can. Binders are born, not made. And you’re a binder born, boy. You may not like the idea of it much now. But you’ll grow to understand. And it won’t let you rest. It’s a great force, inside you. It’s what made you ill, when … You’re stronger in it than most binders I’ve known. You’ll see.’ ‘How do you know? You might be wrong—’ ‘I know, Emmett.’ ‘How?’ ‘The binder’s fever gave you away. You will be a good binder. In every sense.’ I shook my head. I went on shaking it, even though I didn’t know why. ‘Sometimes,’ she said, ‘what we do is very difficult. Sometimes it makes me angry or sad. Sometimes I regret – if I’d known what the memories were, I wouldn’t have—’ She stopped and glanced away. ‘Much of the time it doesn’t even touch me. But sometimes I am so glad to see the pain go away that if that were the only person I had ever helped it would still be worth it.’ ‘I’m not doing it. It’s wrong. It’s – unnatural.’ She lowered her head, inhaling so deeply I saw her shoulders move. The skin under her eyes looked as fragile as the bloom on a moth’s wing: one touch and it would brush away and leave bare bone. She said, without looking at me, ‘It’s a sacred calling, Emmett. To have another person’s memory entrusted to you … To take the deepest, darkest part away from them and keep it safe, forever. To honour it, to make it beautiful, even though no one will ever see it. To guard it with your own life …’ ‘I don’t want to be a glorified gaoler.’ She jolted upright. For a long moment I thought she would hit me again. ‘This is why I didn’t tell you before,’ she said, finally. ‘Because you’re not ready yet, you’re still struggling … But now you know. And you’re lucky to be here. If you had gone to a bindery in Castleford you’d have had your scruples beaten out of you long ago.’ I held out my finger and slid it through the candle flame, once, twice, slowing down until I could hardly bear it. There were too many questions; I concentrated on the pain and let my mouth decide. ‘So why am I here?’ She blinked. ‘Because I was the nearest. And—’ She stopped. Her eyes slid away from mine. She kneaded her forehead, and for the first time I noticed how flushed her cheeks were. ‘I’m exhausted, Emmett. I think that’s enough for today. Don’t you?’ She was right. I was so tired that I could feel the world spinning. I nodded, and she stood up. I reached out to help her but she ignored me. She picked her way through the narrow space back to the door. ‘Seredith?’ She paused, but didn’t turn. Her sleeve had fallen back as she leant against the wall, and her wrist was like a child’s. ‘Yes?’ ‘Where are the books? If you keep them safe …’ She held her arm out to point at the circular plaque on the wall. ‘On the other side of that,’ she said, ‘there’s a vault.’ ‘Can I see?’ ‘Yes.’ She turned, reaching for a key that hung round her neck; then her hand tightened on it. ‘No. Not now. Another time.’ I’d only asked out of curiosity. But there was something in her face – or something not in her face, something that should have been there … I pushed my tongue into the sharp space between two of my teeth and stared at her. Strands of her hair clung to her forehead, sticky with sweat. She reeled. I stepped towards her, but she stumbled back as if she couldn’t bear me to get too close. ‘Good night, Emmett.’ I watched her turn, bracing herself in the doorway as though she was fighting to stay on her feet. I should have let her go, but I couldn’t stop myself. ‘Seredith … What happens if the books burn? Do the people die?’ She didn’t look at me. She shuffled to the stairs and began to climb them. ‘No,’ she said. ‘They remember.’ I was so tired I couldn’t think. Seredith had gone to bed; I should go too. If only I’d gone to bed an hour ago, instead of sitting down next to the stove in the workshop … Sleep. I wanted to step right off the edge of consciousness. I wanted that darkness more than anything. I wanted not to be here. I sat down. Or rather, I found that I was already sitting, cramped on the floor with my legs folded, my back against a box. I didn’t have the energy to find a better position. Instead I wrapped my arms round my knees, put my head down, and slept. When I woke, the first thing I felt was a kind of peace. It was almost pitch-black – the candle had gone out – and I felt as though I were drifting, disintegrating painlessly in the subtle currents of the dark. Then some of what had happened came back – but small, too far away to hurt me, like reflections in a silver cup. I got up and groped my way up the stairs, yawning. I’d thought it was the middle of the night, and the greyish light streaming through the workshop windows made me blink and rub my eyes. It was still raining, although now it was a thin quiet mizzle, and the snow only clung to the ground in a few places, grimy and pockmarked. Seredith had been right about the thaw; the post would get to us at least once more before winter really set in. The stove had gone out. I hesitated, wanting to leave it and go upstairs to bed; but it was morning, and there was work to do … Work. I didn’t want to think about work. I crouched down and remade the fire. By the time it was going properly I was a little warmer, but the deep, cold quiet of the house needed more than the stove to thaw it. I hadn’t boarded up the broken window; but it wasn’t that, it was something else. I shook my head, wondering if my ears were playing tricks on me. It was like the way the snow had muffled every sound – or a feeling of distance, as if everything I heard was an echo … Tea. The caddy was almost empty. I put water on to boil and went to get a new packet from the pantry. As I crossed the hall I turned my face away from the moist draught that blew in through the jagged-edged window. As soon as I’d had something hot to drink I’d find a bit of millboard— Seredith was curled on the stairs, her head resting against the banister. ‘Seredith? Seredith!’ It was only when she moved that I knew I’d been afraid. I pulled her gently to her feet, appalled at how light she was, and the heat that was seeping from her skin. She was clammy, and her face was flushed. She muttered something, and I bent close to hear her. ‘I’m all right,’ she said. Her breath was foul, as if something was rotting inside her. ‘I was just … sitting down.’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Let’s get you to bed.’ ‘I’m perfectly all right. I don’t need …’ ‘I know,’ I said. ‘Come on.’ I half pushed and half lifted her upwards, step after step, and then along the passage to her room. She clambered into bed and pulled the blankets over herself as if she was freezing. I hurried downstairs to get her a jug of water, and herb tea to bring the fever down, and more blankets; but when I came back into the bedroom she was already asleep. She’d undressed, and her clothes were crumpled in a pile on the floor. I stood very still, listening to the silence. I could hear Seredith’s breathing – faster, louder than it should have been – and the faint crackle of rain against the window; but behind that, and my own blood in my ears, there was nothing but the solid emptiness of the house and the marshes beyond. I was more alone here than I’d ever been. I sat down. In this light, sleeping, Seredith looked even older; the flesh on her cheeks and below her jaw sagged, so that the skin was stretched thin over the bones of her nose and eyes. A scab of spittle clung to the corner of her mouth. She murmured something and turned over, and her hands twitched and clutched the quilt. Her skin was a chalky, yellowish colour against the faded indigo-and-white of the patchwork, while here and there the shadow of a raindrop crawled across the cotton. I looked around. I had never been in here in daylight. There was a little fireplace and a padded window seat, and a mossy-looking armchair, but it was almost as bare as my room. There were no pictures, or ornaments above the hearth. The only decoration on the walls was the light from the window, the faint lattice, the sliding silver of the rain-shadows. Even my parents had more than this. And yet Seredith wasn’t poor; I knew that, from the lists of supplies we sent to Castleford every week, and the sacks that Toller brought back for us. I had never thought about where her money came from. If she died— I looked down at her face on the pillow, and a kind of panic seized me. It was an effort to stop myself from waking her up and pouring the tea forcibly down her throat; it was best to let her sleep. I could light a fire, bring damp cloths, have some honey dissolved in water for when she woke of her own accord … But I sat still, unable to leave her. It had been the other way round, so many times – that she’d watched at my bedside while I slept, as patient as stone – but she’d never made me feel as though I should be grateful. For the first time I wondered whether her brusqueness had been deliberate. My throat ached. An hour later, through the rain, I caught the distant creak and rumble of a cart, and at last the off-key jangle of the bell. The post. I lifted my head, and a perverse part of me wanted him to go away again, to leave me in this strange, bereft peace; but I got to my feet and went down to open the door. ‘Seredith’s sick. I don’t know who to … Can you send someone?’ He squinted at me above the collar of his coat. ‘Send someone? Who?’ ‘A doctor. Or her family.’ I shook my head. ‘I don’t know. She writes letters, doesn’t she? Tell the people she writes to.’ ‘I—’ He stopped, and shrugged. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘But don’t count on them coming.’ He drove off. I watched until the cart was a tiny blot in the mottled expanse of brown grass and half-melted snow. VI The house was so quiet it was as if the walls were holding their breath. Every few hours, during that day and the days that followed, I had to go outside and listen to the dry wind in the reeds, just to be sure that I hadn’t gone deaf. I went and got a spare pane of glass from the storeroom to fix the broken window, but as I was fitting it I found myself putting down my tools with unnecessary vehemence, tapping on the glass harder than I needed to. I was lucky not to break it. And when I sat at Seredith’s bedside I coughed and fidgeted and picked at the paring callus on my forefinger. But no sound I could make was enough to break the silence. At first I was afraid. But nothing changed: Seredith didn’t get better, she didn’t get worse. She slept for hours, at first, but one morning when I tapped on her door she was awake. I’d brought her an apple and a cup of honeyed tea, and she thanked me and bent over the cup to breathe in the steam. She’d slept with the curtains open – or rather, I hadn’t closed them for her the night before – and the sky was full of grey-bellied clouds being torn apart by the wind. Here and there the sun flashed through. I heard her sigh. ‘Go away, Emmett.’ I turned. Her face was damp, but the bright flush had left her cheeks and she looked better. ‘I mean it. Go and do something useful.’ I hesitated. Now that she was awake, part of me wanted to ask her questions – all the questions that had been brewing since the first time I walked through the bindery door; now that she had no reason not to tell me … But something inside me baulked at the idea of so many answers. I didn’t want to know; knowing would make it all real. All I said was, ‘Are you sure?’ She lay back down without answering. After a long time she dredged up another heavy breath and said, ‘Don’t you have better things to do? I can’t bear being watched.’ It might have stung, but somehow it didn’t. I nodded, although her eyes were closed, and went out into the passage with a sense of relief. I was determined not to think, so I set myself to work. When I collapsed on the lowest stair in the hall and looked at the clock, I saw that I’d been at it for hours: cleaning and filling the lamps, scrubbing the floor and wiping out the kitchen cupboards with vinegar, sweeping the hall and sprinkling the floor with lavender water, polishing the banister with beeswax … They were jobs that my mother would have done, at home, or Alta; I’d have rolled my eyes and trod unconcerned footprints across their clean floors. Now my shirt clung to my back and I smelt rank and peppery with sweat, but I looked round and was glad to see the difference I’d made. I’d thought that I was doing it for Seredith, but suddenly I knew I’d been doing it for myself. With Seredith ill, this was no one’s house but mine. I got to my feet. I hadn’t had anything to eat since the morning, but I wasn’t hungry. I stood for a long time with one foot on the stair above, as if there was a decision to be made: but something made me turn again and go into the passage that led to the workshop. The door was closed and when I opened it there was a blaze of daylight. I stoked the stove extravagantly because I’d chopped the wood myself, and no one could see me wasting it. Then I tidied methodically from one side of the room to the other, straightening shelves, sharpening tools, oiling the nipping press and sweeping up. I tidied cupboards and discovered old supplies of leather and cloth I hadn’t known we had, and a stash of marbled paper at the bottom of the plan chest. I found a bone folder carved with faint scrimshaw flowers, a book of silver leaf, a burnisher with a thick, umber-streaked agate … Seredith was tidy, but it was as if she’d never thrown anything away. In one cupboard I found a wooden box full of trinkets, wrapped in old silk as if they were important: a child’s bonnet, a lock of hair, a daguerreotype mounted in a watch case, a heavy silver ring that I tilted back and forth in my palm for a long time, watching the colours slide from blue to purple and green. I put that box back carefully, pushing it behind a pile of weights, and once it was out of sight I forgot it almost at once. There was a box of type that needed sorting, and jars of dye so old they needed to be poured away, and little dry nubs of sponge that needed washing. It all gave me pleasure – an unfamiliar sensuous pleasure, where everything – the neatness of a blade, the wind in the chimney, the yeasty smell of stale paste, the logs collapsing into ash in the stove – was distinct and magnified. But this time, when I’d finished, what I felt wasn’t satisfaction but fear, as if I had been preparing for an ordeal. When I’d taken Seredith’s dirty clothes away, her keys had been in the pocket of her trousers. Now they were in mine. Not the key that she wore round her neck, but the keys to the other doors, the front and back of the house, and the triple-locked doors at the end of the workshop … Their weight in my pocket felt like part of my body. The sense of possession I’d had blurred into something else. I looked out at the expanse of marsh. The wind had died and now the clouds were massed in a thick grey bank, while the glints of water lay still as a mirror. Nothing stirred; it could have been a picture painted on the window-pane. Dead weather. What would they be doing at home? It was slaughtering time, unless Pa had started early; and there were repairs to be made, tools and tack and a back wall of the barn that needed seeing to … If we were going to run a hawthorn fence across the top of the high field, as I’d suggested last year, we would need to plant it soon. My nerves tingled at the memory of sharp thorns jabbing into cold fingers. For an instant I thought I could smell turpentine and camphor, the balm Ma made to ward off chilblains; but when I lifted my hand to my nose my palm smelt of dust and beeswax. I’d sloughed that life off like a skin. I raised my head and listened. There was no sound from anywhere. The whole house was waiting. I took the bundle of keys out of my pocket, and walked round the lay press and along the worn floorboards to the far door. My heart thudded but the three keys went into the three locks and turned cleanly, one by one. Seredith had kept the hinges well oiled. The door swung back as easily as if someone had opened it from the other side. I don’t know why I had expected it to be stiff. My pulse sped into a sudden crescendo that sent black specks whirling across my eyes; but after a few seconds my vision cleared and I could see a pale, bare room, with high uncurtained windows like the workshop. A table of scrubbed wood, with two chairs facing each other across it. The floor and walls were bare. I put the keys down on the table and the sound of it startled me. I had no right to be here. But I had to be. I stood still, resisting the crawling sensation at the base of my spine. Against the mottled grey of the windows the binder’s chair stood out in silhouette. It was straight-backed and simple – less comfortable than the one nearest to the door – but somehow I knew it was Seredith’s chair. I drew the other one out from the table, hearing the legs bump as I dragged it over the uneven floor, and sat down. How many people had waited here to have their memories taken away? Enough to wear a path into the floorboards, coming and going … How did it feel? I could imagine the sick fear in the pit of your stomach, the terror that flickered when you tried to see past the point of no return, to the person you would be … But the moment itself? To have something wrenched out of the deepest part of you – how did that feel? And afterwards, when you had a hole inside you … I saw again the blankness in Milly’s eyes as she left, and clenched my jaw. Which was worse? To feel nothing, or to grieve for something you no longer remembered? Surely when you forgot, you’d forget to be sad, or what was the point? And yet that numbness would take part of your self away, it would be like having pins-and-needles in your soul … I took a deep breath. It was too easy to imagine sitting here, in this seat; I ought to put myself in Seredith’s chair. What would it be like to be her? To look into someone’s eyes and then do – that – to them? The thought of it made me feel sick, too. Whichever way you looked at it … Seredith had called it helping. But how could that be right? I stood up, caught my ankle on the side of the table, and steadied myself on the back of the chair. The carving cut into my palm, not hard enough to hurt but enough to take me by surprise. I looked down at the shape of it, the gleam of bluish light on the wooden scroll. So many times it had been the light catching on something that brought on the illness. The latticed sun falling on the hall floor, the slant of daylight seen through a half-open door … I knew how it began, the bright shape – not quite a memory – that fitted like a key into a hole in my mind, and the sickness that spilt out. And now I felt the same shock of recognition and fear. I cringed instinctively, waiting for the blackness to swallow me. It would be the end, the abyss. Now that I was here, in the place I was most afraid of … the source, the heart. My knees gave way. I dropped into the chair, bracing myself as if for a crash. But my mind stayed steady. A beam creaked, a mouse scratched in the thatch above the window. The darkness rolled and sucked like a tide, at arm’s length; and then, instead of drowning me, it receded. I held my breath. Nothing happened. The darkness drew back and back, until I felt exposed, drenched in grey daylight until my eyes watered. Time passed. I looked down at my hands on the scrubbed table. When I’d left home, they’d been dead white and spidery. Now there was a callous on my left forefinger from paring leather with a knife that was too blunt, and my left thumbnail was long so that I could position a finishing tool without burning myself. But it was the shape of them – thin but not bony, strong but not bulky – that made me see them for the first time. They weren’t a farmer’s hands – not like Pa’s – but they weren’t an invalid’s hands, either. I would have known that they were a bookbinder’s hands; and not just because they were mine. I turned them over and looked at the lines on my palms that were supposed to tell me who I was. Someone – was it Alta? – had once told me that your left hand showed the fate you were born with, and your right showed the fate you made for yourself. My right hand had a deep, long line down the centre, cutting my whole palm in half. I imagined another Emmett, the Emmett who might have taken over the farm, the way my parents always planned: an Emmett who hadn’t got ill, and hadn’t ended up here, alone. I saw him look back at me with a grin, pushing his chilblained hands into his pockets, and then turn towards home, whistling. I bowed my head and waited for the sudden sadness to pass; but it didn’t. Something gave way inside me, and I started to cry. At first it was as involuntary as being sick: great paroxysms like retching, each spasm driven by an unpitying reflex that made me gasp and sob for air. But slowly the urgency eased, and I had the time to catch a lungful of air between sobs; and then at last I wiped the wetness and snot off my face, and opened my eyes. The sense of loss was still sharp enough to make the tears rise again, but I blinked them away and this time I managed to master my breath. When I raised my head the world was empty, clear, like a cut field. I could see for miles, I could see where I was. There’d been shadows at the corners of my vision for so long I’d grown used to them, but now they had gone. This quiet room wasn’t terrible, it was only a room; the chairs where two people could sit opposite each other were only chairs. I paused for a moment, testing the place where the fear had been, as though I was checking a rotten tooth with my tongue. Nothing – or no, maybe a sharp faint echo of pain: not the dull ache of decay but something cleaner, like a gap that was already healing. There was a scent in the air like earth after rainfall, as if everything had been freshly remade. I picked up the keys and left without locking the door behind me. I was ravenous. I found myself in the pantry, gorging on pickles out of a jar – and then, sated, I was so exhausted I couldn’t see straight. I’d meant to take a bowl of soup up to Seredith, but I fell asleep at the kitchen table with my head on my arms. When I woke up the range had gone out and it was nearly dark. I lit it again – covering myself and the clean floor with ash – and then hurriedly warmed the soup and carried it up to Seredith’s room. The bowl was only slightly hotter than tepid, but no doubt she’d be asleep anyway. I pushed the door open with my foot and peered round. She was awake, and sitting up. The lamp was lit, and a glass bowl of water was perched in front of it to focus the light on a shirt she was patching. She looked up at me and smiled. ‘You look better, Emmett.’ ‘Me?’ ‘Yes.’ She peered at me and her face changed. Her fingers grew still, and after a moment she put the shirt down. ‘Sit.’ I put the tray on the table next to her bed and drew the chair up beside her. She reached out and pushed my jaw with one finger, tilting my face towards the lamplight. It wasn’t the first time she’d touched me – she’d often corrected my grip, or leant close to me to show me how something should be done – but this time I felt it tingling on my skin. She said, ‘You’ve made your peace with it.’ I looked up, into her eyes. She nodded to herself. Then, with a long sigh, she sat back against her pillows. ‘Good lad,’ she said. ‘I knew you would, sooner or later. How does it feel?’ I didn’t answer. It was too fragile; if I talked about it, even to her, it might break. She smiled at the ceiling, and then slid her eyes sideways to include me. ‘I’m glad. You suffered worse than most, with the fever. No more of that for you. Oh’ – she shrugged, as if I’d spoken – ‘yes, other things, it won’t ever be easy, there’ll always be a part of you missing, but no more nightmares, no more terrors.’ She stopped. Her breath was shallow. Her pulse fluttered in the skin above her temple. ‘I don’t know anything,’ I said. It took an effort to say it. ‘How can I be a binder when I don’t even know how it works—’ ‘Not now. Not now, or it’ll turn into a deathbed binding.’ She laughed, with a noise like a gulp. ‘But when I’m well again I’ll teach you, lad. The binding itself will come naturally, but you’ll need to learn the rest …’ Her voice tailed off into a cough. I poured a glass of water and offered it to her, but she waved it away without looking. ‘Once the snows have gone we’ll visit a friend in Littlewater. She was my …’ She hesitated, although it might only have been to catch her breath. ‘My master’s last apprentice, after I left him … She lives in the village with her family, now. She’s a good binder. A midwife, too,’ she added. ‘Binding and doctoring always used to go together. Easing the pain, easing people into life and out of it.’ I swallowed; but I’d seen animals being born and dying too many times to be a coward about it now. ‘You’ll be good at it, boy. Just remember why we do it, and you’ll be all right.’ She gave me a glinting sideways look. ‘Binding – our kind of binding – has to be done, sometimes. No matter what people say.’ ‘Seredith, the night the men came to burn the bindery …’ The words came with an effort. ‘They were afraid of you. Of us.’ She didn’t answer. ‘Seredith, they thought – the storm … that I’d summoned it. They called you a witch, and—’ She laughed again. It set her off coughing until she had to grasp the side of the bed. ‘If we could do everything they say we can do,’ she said, ‘I’d be sleeping in silk and cloth-of-gold.’ ‘But – it almost felt like—’ ‘Don’t be absurd.’ She inhaled, hoarsely. ‘We’ve been called witches since the beginning of time. Word-cunning, they used to call it – of a piece with invoking demons … We were burned for it, too. The Crusade wasn’t new, we’ve always been scapegoats. Well, knowledge is always a kind of magic, I suppose. But – no. You’re a binder, nothing more nor less. You’re certainly not responsible for the weather.’ The last few words were thin and breathless. ‘No more, now.’ I nodded, biting back another question. When she was well I could ask whatever I wanted. She smiled at me and closed her eyes, and I thought she’d fallen asleep. But when I started to rise she gestured at me, pointing at the chair. I settled myself again, and after a while I felt my body loosen, as if the silence was undoing knots I hadn’t known were there. The fire had nearly gone out; ash had grown over the embers like moss. I ought to tend to it, but I couldn’t bring myself to get up. I moved my fingers through the focused ellipse of lamplight, letting it sit above my knuckle like a ring. When I sat back it shone on the patchwork quilt, picking out the curl of a printed fern. I imagined Seredith sewing the quilt, building it block by block through a long winter. I could see her, sitting near the fire, frowning as she bit off the end of a thread; but in my mind she dissolved into someone else, Ma or Alta or all of them, a woman who was young and old all at once … The bell jangled. I struggled to my feet, my head spinning. I’d been drowsing. For a while, on the edge of wakefulness, I’d heard the noise of wheels and a horse, trundling down the road towards the house; but it was only now that I made sense of it. It was dark outside, and my reflection stared back at me from the window, ghostly and bewildered. The bell jangled again, and from the porch below I heard an irritable voice muttering. There was a glimmer of light from a lantern. I glanced at Seredith, but she was asleep. The bell rang, for longer this time, a ragged angry peal as if they’d tugged too hard at the rope. Seredith’s face twitched and the rhythm of her breathing changed. I hurried out of the room and down the stairs. The bell clanged its impatient, discordant note and I shouted, ‘Yes, all right, I’m coming!’ It didn’t occur to me to be afraid, until I had shot the bolts and swung the door open; then just too late I hesitated, wondering if it was the men with the torches, come back to burn us to the ground. But it wasn’t. The man in front of me had been in the middle of saying something; he broke off and looked me up and down. He was wearing a tall hat and a cloak; in the darkness only his shape was visible, and the sharp flash of his eyes. Behind him there was a trap, with a lantern hanging from the seat-rail. The light caught the steam rising from the horse, and its plumes of breath. Another man stood a few feet away, shifting from foot to foot and making an impatient noise between his teeth. ‘What do you want?’ The first man sniffed and wiped his nose on the back of his glove. He took his hat off, handed it to me and stepped forward, forcing me to let him cross the threshold. He pulled his gloves off finger by finger and laid them across the brim of the hat. He had straggling ringlets that hung almost to his shoulders. ‘A hot drink and a good dinner, to start with. Come in, Ferguson, it’s perishing out there.’ ‘Who the hell are you?’ He glanced at me. The other man – Ferguson – strode inside and stamped his feet to warm them, calling over his shoulder to the trap-driver, ‘Wait there, won’t you?’ He put his bag down on the floor with a heavy chinking thud. The man sighed. ‘You must be the apprentice. I am Mr de Havilland and I have brought Dr Ferguson to see Seredith. How is she?’ He walked to the little mirror on the wall and peered into it, stroking his moustache. ‘Why is it so dark in here? For goodness’ sake light a few lamps.’ ‘I’m Emmett.’ He waved me away as if my name was incidental. ‘Is she awake? The sooner the doctor sees her, the sooner he can get back.’ ‘No, I don’t think she—’ ‘In that case we will have to wake her. Bring us up a pot of tea, and some brandy. And whatever you have to eat.’ He strode past me and up the stairs. ‘This way, Ferguson.’ Ferguson followed him in a waft of cold air and damp wool, reaching back in an afterthought to shove his hat at me. I turned to hang it on the hook next to the other one, deliberately digging a fingernail into the smooth felt. I didn’t want to take orders from de Havilland, but now that the door was shut it was so dark I could hardly see. I lit a lamp. They’d left footprints across the hall floor, and thin prisms of compacted mud from the heels of their boots were scattered on the stairs. I hesitated. Resentment and uncertainty tugged me in different directions. At last I went into the kitchen and made a pot of tea – for Seredith, I told myself – and took it upstairs. But when I knocked, it was de Havilland’s voice that said, ‘Not now.’ He had a Castleford accent, but his voice reminded me of someone. I raised my voice to call through the door panel. ‘You said—’ ‘Not now!’ ‘Emmett?’ Seredith said. ‘Come in.’ She coughed, and I pushed open the door to see her clutching at the bedcovers as she tried to catch her breath. She raised her head and her eyes were red and moist. She beckoned me in. De Havilland was at the window, with his arms crossed; Ferguson was standing at the hearth, looking from one to the other. The room seemed very small. ‘This is Emmett,’ Seredith managed to say. ‘My apprentice.’ I said, ‘We’ve met.’ ‘Since you’re here,’ de Havilland said, ‘maybe you would ask Seredith to be reasonable. We’ve come all the way from Castleford and now she is refusing to allow the doctor to examine her.’ She said, ‘I didn’t ask you to come.’ ‘Your apprentice did.’ She shot me a look that made my cheeks burn. ‘Well, I’m sorry that he wasted your time.’ ‘This is absurd. I’m a busy man, you know that. I have pressing work—’ ‘I said I didn’t ask you to come!’ She turned her head to one side, like a child, and de Havilland rolled his eyes at the doctor. ‘I’m perfectly all right,’ she said. ‘I caught a chill the other night, that’s all.’ ‘That’s a nasty cough you have.’ It was the first time I’d heard the doctor speak to her, and his voice was so tactful it was positively unctuous. ‘Perhaps you could tell me a little more about how you’re feeling.’ She worked her mouth childishly, and I was sure she was going to refuse; but her eyes flicked to de Havilland and at last she said, ‘Tired. Feverish. My chest hurts. That’s all.’ ‘And if I might …’ He moved to her and picked up her wrist so swiftly she didn’t have time to pull away. ‘Yes, I see. Thank you.’ He looked at de Havilland with something in his eyes that I couldn’t interpret, and said, ‘I don’t think we need intrude any longer.’ ‘Very well.’ De Havilland walked past the bed, paused as if he was about to speak, and then shrugged. He took a step towards me, the way he’d done before, with an absent-minded determination that meant I had to move out of his way. Ferguson followed him, and I was alone with Seredith. ‘I’m sorry. I was worried.’ She didn’t seem to hear me. She had her eyes closed, and the broken veins in her cheeks stood out like red ink. But she knew I was there, because after a minute she flapped at me, dismissing me without a word. I went out into the passage. The lamplight spilt up the stairs and through the banisters, edging everything in faint gold. I could hear them talking in the hall. I walked to the top of the stairs and paused, listening. Their voices were very distinct. ‘… stubborn old woman,’ de Havilland said. ‘Really, I apologise. From what the postman said, I was under the impression that she had asked—’ ‘Not at all, not at all. In any case, I think I saw enough. She’s frail, of course, but not in any real danger unless her condition gets worse suddenly.’ He crossed the hall and I guessed that he was picking up his hat. ‘Have you decided what you’ll do?’ ‘I shall stay here and keep an eye on her. Until she gets better, or—’ ‘A pity she’s all the way out here. Otherwise I would be very happy to attend her.’ ‘Indeed,’ de Havilland said, and snorted. ‘She’s a living anachronism. One would think we were in the Dark Ages. If she must carry on with binding, she could perfectly well work from my own bindery, in comfort. The number of times I’ve tried to persuade her … But she insists on staying here. And now she’s taken on that damned apprentice …’ ‘She does seem somewhat … obstinate.’ ‘She’s infuriating.’ He hissed a sigh through his teeth. ‘Well, I suppose I must endure this for a while and try to make her see sense.’ ‘Good luck. Oh—’ There was the sound of a clasp being undone, and a clink. ‘If she’s in pain, or sleepless, a few drops of this should help. Not more.’ ‘Ah. Yes. Good night, then.’ The door opened and shut, and outside there was the creak and rumble of the trap drawing away. At the same time there were footsteps as de Havilland climbed the stairs. When he saw me he raised the lamp and peered at me. ‘Eavesdropping, were you?’ But he didn’t give me time to answer. He brushed past me and added, over his shoulder, ‘Bring me some clean bedding.’ I followed him. He opened the door of my bedroom and paused, quirking his head at me. ‘Yes?’ I said, ‘That’s my room – where’m I supposed to—’ ‘I have no idea.’ Then he shut the door in my face and left me in darkness. VII I slept in the parlour, huddled in a spare blanket. The settee was shiny horsehair and so slippery that in the end I had to brace myself with one foot on the floor to stop myself sliding off. When I woke up it was freezing and still dark, and I ached all over. I was disorientated; for a moment I thought I was outside somewhere, surrounded by the dim hulks of winter ruins. It was so cold I didn’t even try to go back to sleep. I stood up with the blanket still wrapped round my shoulders and staggered stiffly into the kitchen. I stoked the range and boiled a kettle for tea, while the last stars faded over the horizon. There was a clear sky, and by the time I’d drunk my tea and made a pot to take upstairs the kitchen was full of sunlight. As I crossed the landing I heard my bedroom door open. It struck me for the first time how familiar the sound had become: I knew, without thinking, that it was my door and not Seredith’s. ‘Ah. I was hoping for shaving water. Never mind, tea will do. In here, please.’ I blinked away the after-image of the kitchen window that was still hovering in my vision. De Havilland was standing in my doorway in his shirtsleeves. Now it was light I could take in his appearance better – the ringlets of lightish, greyish hair, the pale eyes, the embroidered waistcoat – and the disdainful expression on his face. It was difficult to tell how old he was: his hair and eyes were so washed out that he could have been forty or sixty. ‘Hurry up, boy.’ ‘This is for Seredith.’ For a second I thought he was going to object. He sighed. ‘Very well. Bring another cup. The hot water can come later.’ He pushed ahead of me and went into Seredith’s bedroom without knocking. The door swung closed and I caught it with my elbow and backed into the room after him. ‘Go away,’ Seredith said. ‘No, not you, Emmett.’ She was sitting up, her face haloed by wisps of white hair, her fingers clasping the quilt under her chin. She was thin, but there was a good colour in her cheeks, and her eyes were as sharp as ever. De Havilland gave her a thin smile. ‘You’re awake, I see. How are you feeling?’ ‘Invaded. Why are you here?’ He sighed. He brushed a few nonexistent specks of dust off the moss-coloured armchair and sank into it, hitching his trousers up delicately at the knee. He turned his head to take in the room, pausing here and there to note the cracks in the plaster, and the scarred foot of the bed, and the darker diamond of blue where the quilt had been patched. When I put the tray down beside the bed he leant past me to pour tea into the solitary cup, and sipped from it with a flicker of a grimace. ‘This is tiresome. Suppose we stop wasting time and behave as if I was concerned for you,’ he said. ‘Rubbish. When have you ever been concerned for me? Emmett, will you get two more cups, please?’ I said, ‘It’s all right, Seredith, I’m not thirsty,’ just as de Havilland said, ‘One will suffice, I think.’ I clenched my jaw and left without looking at him. I went to the kitchen and back as quickly as I could, but when I glanced at the cup as I reached the top of the stairs I saw a feather of dust curled round the inside. If it had been meant for de Havilland I would have left it, but it wasn’t. By the time I opened Seredith’s bedroom door, swinging the cup from my finger, Seredith was sitting bolt upright with her arms crossed over her chest, while de Havilland lolled back in his chair. ‘Certainly not,’ he said. ‘You’re an excellent binder. Old-fashioned, of course, but … Well. You would be useful to me.’ ‘Work in your bindery?’ ‘You know my offer still stands.’ ‘I’d rather die.’ De Havilland turned to me, very deliberately. ‘So glad to see you finally managed to find your way back to us,’ he said. ‘Perhaps you would be kind enough to pour Seredith a cup of tea before she expires of thirst.’ I didn’t trust myself to reply. I poured dark tea into the clean cup and gave it to Seredith, cradling her hands in mine to make sure that she held it securely. She glanced up at me and some of the ferocity went out of her face. ‘Thank you, Emmett.’ De Havilland pinched the bridge of his nose with his finger and thumb. He was smiling, but without warmth. ‘Times have changed, Seredith. Even apart from the question of your health, I wish you would reconsider. This lonely existence, miles from anywhere, binding ignorant, superstitious peasants … We have worked very hard, you know, to better our reputation, so that people begin to understand that we are doctors of the soul and not witches. You do the craft no credit at all—’ ‘Don’t lecture me.’ He smoothed a strand of hair away from his forehead with splayed fingers. ‘I am merely making the point that we learnt from the Crusade—’ ‘You weren’t even alive during the Crusade! How dare you—’ ‘All right, all right!’ After a moment he leant over and poured himself another cup of tea. By now it was like dye, but he didn’t seem to notice until he took a sip and his lips wrinkled. ‘Be reasonable, Seredith. How many people have you bound, this year? Four? Five? You can’t have enough work to keep yourself busy, let alone an apprentice. And all peasants with no understanding of the craft at all. They think you’re a witch …’ He leant forward, his voice softening. ‘Wouldn’t it be pleasant to come to Castleford, where binders command some respect? Where books command respect? I am quite influential, you know. I attend some of the best families.’ ‘Attend them?’ Seredith echoed. ‘A binding should be once a lifetime.’ ‘Oh, please … When pain can be alleviated, who are we to withhold our art? You are too set in your ways.’ ‘That’s enough!’ She thrust her tea aside, slopping it over the patchwork. ‘I am not coming to Castleford.’ ‘This inverse snobbery is hardly in your best interests. Why you prefer to rot away in this godforsaken place—’ ‘You don’t understand, do you?’ I had never heard Seredith struggle to control her anger, and it made my own gorge rise. ‘Apart from anything else, I can’t leave the books.’ He put his cup down on its saucer with a clink. The signet ring on his little finger glinted. ‘Don’t be absurd. I understand your scruples, but it’s quite simple. We can take the books with us. I have space in my own vault.’ ‘Give you my books?’ She laughed. It sounded like a twig cracking. ‘My vault is perfectly safe. Safer than having them in the bindery with you.’ ‘That’s it, is it?’ She shook her head and sat back against her pillows, gasping a little. ‘I should have known. Why else would you bother to come? You’re after my books. Of course.’ He sat up straight, and for the first time a hint of pink seeped into his cheeks. ‘There’s no need to be—’ ‘How many of your own books actually end up in your vault? You think I don’t know how you pay for your new bindery and your – your waistcoats?’ ‘There’s nothing illegal about trade binding. It’s merely prejudice.’ ‘I’m not talking about trade binding,’ she said, her mouth twisting on the words as if they tasted bitter. ‘I’m talking about selling true bindings, without consent. And that is illegal.’ They stared at each other for a moment. Seredith’s hand was a white knot of tendons at her throat; she was clutching the key she wore round her neck as if it was in danger of being wrenched away from her. ‘Oh, for goodness’ sake,’ de Havilland said, getting to his feet. ‘I don’t know why I bother.’ ‘Neither do I. Why don’t you go home?’ He gave a theatrical sigh, raising his eyes to the cracked plaster on the ceiling. ‘I’ll go home when you’re better.’ ‘Or when I’m dead. That’s really what you’re waiting for, isn’t it?’ He made a little mocking bow in her direction and strode towards the door. I leant back against the wall to let him pass, and he caught my eye and started, as if he’d forgotten I was there. ‘Hot water,’ he said. ‘In my bedroom. Immediately.’ He slammed the door behind him with a bang that made the walls tremble. Seredith looked at me sidelong and then ducked her head, plucking at the quilt as if she was checking that the pattern was complete. When she didn’t say anything, I cleared my throat. ‘Seredith … If you want me to make him leave …’ ‘And how would you do that?’ She shook her head. ‘No, Emmett. He’ll go of his own accord, when he sees that I’m recovered. It won’t be long.’ There was something sour in the way she said it. ‘In the meantime …’ ‘Yes?’ She met my eyes. ‘Try not to lose your temper with him. You may need him, yet.’ But that flicker of complicity wasn’t much consolation, as the days went on and de Havilland showed no sign of leaving. I couldn’t understand why Seredith put up with him, but I knew that without her permission I couldn’t tell him to go. And knowing that it was my own fault that he was there didn’t make it easier to bite my tongue when he poked quizzically at the lumps in a salt-pork stew, or threw me a couple of shirts and told me to wash them. Between my chores, looking after Seredith and the extra work he made, there was no time for anything else; the hours passed in a blur of drudgery and resentment, and I didn’t even set foot in the workshop. It was hard to remember that a few days ago, before de Havilland came, I’d felt as if the house belonged to me: now I was reduced to a slave. But the worst thing wasn’t the work – I’d worked harder than this, at home, before I got ill – it was the way de Havilland’s presence filled the house. I’d never known anyone who moved so quietly; more than once, when I was stoking the range or scrubbing a pan, I felt the chill touch of his gaze on the back of my neck. I turned round, expecting him to blink or smile, but he went on watching me as if I was a kind of animal he’d never seen before. I stared back, determined not to be the first to look away, and at last he let his eyes travel past me to what I was doing, before he drifted silently out of the room. One morning he passed me at the foot of the stairs as I carried a basket of logs in for the range. ‘Seredith is asleep. I’ll have a fire in the parlour.’ I clenched my jaw and dumped the wood in the kitchen without answering. I wanted to tell him to build his own fire – or something more obscene – but the thought of Seredith helpless upstairs made me swallow the words. De Havilland was a guest, whether I liked it or not; so I piled a couple of logs against my chest and carried them across the hall to the parlour. The door was open. De Havilland had turned the writing desk around and was sitting with his back to the window. He didn’t look up when I came in, only pointed to the hearth as if I wouldn’t know where it was. I crouched and began to brush the remnants of the last fire out of the grate. The fine wood ash rose like the ghost of smoke. As I started to lay kindling I felt that creeping sensation at the base of my skull; it felt like a defeat to glance round to see if he was looking, but I couldn’t stop myself. De Havilland leant back in his chair and tapped his pen against his teeth. He regarded me for what felt like a long time, while the blood began to hum in my temples. Then he smiled faintly and turned his attention back to the letter he was writing. I forced myself to finish the fire. I lit it and waited until the flames had taken hold. Once it was burning well I stood up and tried to brush the grey smears off my shirt. De Havilland was reading a book. He was still holding his pen, but it lay slackly between his knuckles while he turned the pages. His face was very calm; he might have been looking out of a window. After a moment he paused, turned back a page, and made a note. When he’d finished he caught sight of me. He put down his pen and smoothed his moustache, his eyes fixed on mine above the stroking hand that covered his mouth. Abruptly his vague, interested expression gave way to a gleam of something else, and he held out the book. ‘Master Edward Albion,’ he said. ‘Bound by an anonymous binder from Albion’s own bindery. Black morocco, gold tooling, false raised bands. Headbands sewn in black and gold, endpapers marbled in red nonpareil. Would you care to have a look?’ ‘I—’ ‘Take it. Carefully,’ he added, with a sudden sharp edge in his voice. ‘It’s worth … oh, fifty guineas? Certainly more than you could ever repay.’ I started to reach out, but something jarred in my head and I pulled back. It was the image of his face, utterly serene, as he read: words he had no right to, someone else’s memories … ‘No? Very well.’ He put it on the table. Then he looked back at me, as if something had occurred to him, and he shook his head. ‘I see you share Seredith’s prejudices. It’s a school binding, you know. Trade, but perfectly legitimate. Nothing to offend anyone’s sensibilities.’ ‘You mean—’ I stopped. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of asking what he meant, but he narrowed his eyes as if I had. ‘It’s unfortunate that you’ve been learning from Seredith,’ he said. ‘You must be under the impression that binding is stuck in the Dark Ages. It’s not all occult muttering and the Hwicce Book, you know – oh.’ He rolled his eyes. ‘You’ve never heard of the Hwicce Book. Or the library at Pompeii? Or the great deathbed bindings of the Renaissance, or the Fangorn bindery, or Madame Sourly … No? The North Berwick Trials? The Crusades, presumably even you know about the Crusades?’ ‘I’ve been ill. She couldn’t start to teach me properly.’ ‘The Society of Fine Binders?’ he said, raising an eyebrow. ‘The Sale of Memories Act of 1750? The rules that govern the issuing of licences to booksellers? Heavens, what has she taught you? No, you needn’t tell me,’ he added, with a flick of disdain. ‘Knowing Seredith, you’ve probably spent three months on endpapers.’ I turned away and picked up the full pan of ashes. My face was hot. As I left, trailing a cloud of ash-dust, he called after me, ‘Oh, and my sheets smell musty. Change them, will you? And this time make sure they are properly aired.’ When I went to collect Seredith’s tray, later that afternoon, she was out of bed: huddled at the window in her quilt, her cheeks flushed. She smiled when I came into the room, but there was an odd blankness in her eyes. ‘There you are,’ she said, ‘you were quick. How did it go?’ ‘What?’ I’d been changing de Havilland’s sheets. ‘The binding, of course,’ she said. ‘I hope you were careful when you sent her home. If you tell them they’ve been bound, sometimes they can hear you, even though … Only in the first year or so, while the mind adjusts, but it’s a dangerous time, you have to take care … Your father could never explain why, why that one thing gets through, somehow … But I wonder … I think, deep down, they know something’s missing. You must be careful.’ She fretted, chewing on nothing as if she had a tooth loose. ‘Sometimes I think you started too young. I let you bind them before you were ready.’ I set the tray down again; I tried to be gentle but the china jumped and rattled. ‘Seredith? It’s me. Emmett.’ ‘Emmett?’ She blinked. ‘Emmett. Yes. I’m sorry. I thought, for a moment …’ ‘Can I …’ My voice cracked. ‘Can I get you anything? Do you want some more tea?’ ‘No.’ She shivered and pulled the quilt closer round her shoulders, grunting a little, but when she looked up her eyes were bright and sharp. ‘Forgive me. When you’re as old as I am, things sometimes … blur.’ ‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said, stupidly polite, as if she’d spilt something. ‘Shall I …?’ ‘No. Sit down.’ But for a long time she didn’t say anything else. Cloud-shadows swept past, over the marsh and the road, as swift as ships. I cleared my throat. ‘Seredith … a moment ago, who did you think I was?’ ‘He thinks I’ve kept you in ignorance, deliberately,’ she said. From the new acid in her voice I knew she meant de Havilland. ‘He thinks I’m a crotchet-monger. A stubborn, backward old stick-in-the-mud. Because I think the craft is sacred. He laughs at that. It’s all about power, for him. Money. He has no … reverence. I know,’ she said, although I hadn’t said anything. ‘I know too many people still think we’re witches. People spit over their shoulders when they talk about binders – if they talk about them at all, that is. People like your parents – well, your grandfather was a Crusader, wasn’t he? Your father at least had the decency to be ashamed of that … But that’s only ignorance. The way he does things—’ ‘De Havilland?’ She snorted. ‘That absurd name … No, it’s all wrong. Binderies full of men who don’t understand what they’re doing – books for trade … We make books – we make beautiful books – out of love.’ She twisted round, and her face was as hard as I’d ever seen it. ‘Love. Do you understand?’ I didn’t, exactly. But I had to nod. ‘There’s a moment when you start a binding, when the binder and the bound become one. You sit and wait for it. You let the room go silent. They’re afraid, they’re always afraid … It’s up to you, to listen, to wait. Then something mysterious happens. Your mind opens to theirs, and they let go. That’s when the memories come. We call that moment the kiss.’ I looked away. I’d never kissed anyone except my family. ‘You become each person you bind, Emmett … Just for a little while, you take them on. How can you do that if you want to sell them at a profit?’ My legs started to cramp suddenly. I shuffled my feet to ease the ache and then stood up to pace to the mantel and back to my chair. Seredith followed me with her eyes. A cloud blew across the sun, blurring her wrinkles and softening the shape of her face. ‘I don’t want you to become the sort of binder he is, Emmett.’ ‘I’d rather slit my own throat than be like—’ Her laugh had a dry painful rattle in it. ‘So you say now. I hope it’s true.’ She huddled deeper into the quilt until it bunched over her shoulders like a deformity. There was a silence. I curled my toes in my boots; I was cold, all of a sudden. ‘Why are you telling me this?’ ‘I think I will have that tea, now, please,’ she said. ‘I’m feeling a little better.’ ‘Yes.’ I crossed the room and opened the door so clumsily it almost hit the wall. De Havilland stepped back; he’d been standing just outside. ‘I need to speak to Seredith,’ he said. ‘Get out of my way.’ I stood aside. Something in the tilt of his head told me he’d been listening. I hoped he had been; I wanted him to have heard what I’d said. ‘And wipe that insolent smile off your face,’ he added. ‘If you were my apprentice I’d have you whipped.’ ‘I’m not your apprentice.’ He pushed past me. ‘You may be, soon,’ he said, and slammed the door. That night I found myself walking downstairs in moonlight so bright I hadn’t needed to light a candle. There was something strange about the way it clung to me, whispering at every step like cobwebs breaking. But I was searching for something. That was the only thing that mattered. I was cold. My feet were bare. I looked down at them and the moonlight shimmered, billowing, moving as I moved. I was dreaming; but the knowledge didn’t wake me. Instead it seemed to lift me up and carry me. Now I was in the workshop. Everything here was covered with a bloom of light. My shirt brushed the bench and left a dark smear, and the glimmering dust clung to the fabric. What was I looking for? I went towards the door in front of me, the one that led down to the storeroom. But when I went through it – it didn’t open, it dissolved under my touch – I was in the other room, the one with chairs and a table. It wasn’t night any more. There was a young man sitting with his back to me. It was Lucian Darnay. He turned as if he was going to look at me, but the world slowed down and before I caught sight of his face the dream gave way under my feet. For a second I was falling, dropping blindly through empty space; then I jolted awake, my heart pounding, my limbs still humming with tension. It took me a long time to master the muscles in my arms, but at last, when they would obey me, I sat up and wiped the sweat off my face. Another nightmare. Only it hadn’t exactly been a nightmare; in spite of the fear, the strongest feeling was a kind of desperation, as if another split second would have shown me what I’d been looking for. I’d thought it was the middle of the night, but I heard the clock strike seven and realised I’d overslept; it was time to stoke the range, and make Seredith’s tea. I slid off the settee and went into the hall, with the blanket wrapped round my shoulders like a cloak. I stood in front of the stove for a long time, as close to it as I could get, until it warmed me through. ‘I would like some tea, please.’ I whirled round. De Havilland lowered himself into a chair and rubbed his brow with two fingers as if he was trying to get rid of a smudge. He was wearing a pale blue dressing gown embroidered with silver, but underneath he was fully dressed and his waistcoat and cravat were the ones he’d been wearing the day before. There were purplish shadows under his eyes. At least he’d said ‘please’. I didn’t answer him, but I put the kettle on to boil and measured a spoonful of tea into the pot. The tea caddy was so old that the green-and-gold pattern was speckled with rust, and flakes of paint came off on my fingers when I opened it. He yawned. ‘How often does the post come? Is it once a week?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Today, then.’ ‘Probably.’ When the water boiled I poured it into the teapot. Steam rose into my face, stinging my cheeks with heat. ‘Good.’ He got out his watch and started to wind it. The cog made a metallic scratching sound that made my back teeth tingle. The tea hadn’t brewed for long enough but I poured it anyway; in the thin porcelain of de Havilland’s cup it looked hardly darker than piss. He frowned at it, but he raised the cup to his mouth and sipped without commenting. Then he set it down with a precise clink, exactly in the centre of the saucer. I got out the tray and laid it, not with the blue-and-white china, but with one of the pottery cups that Seredith and I used. There was no point taking her bread and butter – when Toller came I’d ask him to bring us some rennet, and then I could make her some junket – but for now I picked a few bits of dried apple out of the jar and added a spoonful of honey to the cup. I was so eager to get away from de Havilland that I slopped tea on to the tray as I picked it up. He looked up as I walked past. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘I’m taking Seredith her breakfast.’ ‘Oh.’ His eyes flickered as if something behind me had caught his attention. But when his gaze came back to me it was steady. His irises were the same pale brown as the weak tea. One of the points of his moustache was fraying; I had a prickling, hateful urge to reach out and rip it off his face. ‘No need for that,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid she died in the night.’ VIII It was so quiet in Seredith’s room that it was like walking into a picture. Everything apart from the window was dim and shadowy. Beyond the glass the first morning light made a band of pale blue on the horizon. A cobweb was strung across the corner of the window pane like a sail. Flecks of dirt or dead grass had speckled the window sill, even though the latch was closed; but whatever wind had driven it through the gaps had died, and there was no sound, from anywhere. He had put coins on Seredith’s eyes to keep them closed. One was a sixpence, the other a half-guinea; the effect was grotesque, like a wink. It didn’t matter, though, because the thing on the bed wasn’t really Seredith any more. I stood at the foot of the bed and tried to remember that gaunt, shrunken face with its blind lopsided stare speaking to me, teaching me … But the room felt empty. Even her hair, her nightdress, had turned into inhuman, organic things, like mould or fungi. I tried to examine myself for some glimmer of grief or shock, but my brain disobeyed. The only things that seemed worthy of notice were the details: the faint metallic smell like melting snow, the dry stain in the glass beside the bed, the fraying lace just below Seredith’s chin. What was supposed to happen now? I reached out and touched the quilt. It was so cold it felt damp. Suddenly, absurdly, I wanted to bring her more blankets and build another fire in the hearth; it seemed lazy – unkind, even – to let her lie here in this icy stillness. I wanted her to have the dancing light and the whisper of the flames to keep her company … But what fool would heat a room with a corpse in it? And I could imagine de Havilland’s face when he saw me climbing the stairs with a basket of logs. I turned away. There was no point in speaking, or straightening her collar where the ruffle was half folded inwards, or brushing her sleeve as I passed; she was gone, completely and finally gone, and to pretend otherwise was sentimental. I shut the door behind me and went down the stairs. It was strange how the floorboards and banisters stayed solid, how they gleamed and dulled as my shadow passed over them, and how the creak of my footsteps was just a little too distinct: as though they were working hard to remind me that I was here and alive, while Seredith had slid into thin air. ‘In here.’ De Havilland’s voice, from the parlour. He had never once used my name. More than anything I wanted to open the front door and walk out. If I went now and kept on walking I could be home by tomorrow morning. I’d stride into the farmyard, tired but triumphant. Alta would pause at the door of the dairy, blinking at me, until she dropped her bucket with a clang and threw herself into my arms. I’d tell Ma and Pa I was better, and we’d go back to how it was before. What would they be doing today? There was a drainage ditch that needed digging in the Low Field, and this clear cold weather was good for drawing turnips. Maybe Ma would have set up the smoker in the farmyard; for a moment I could smell thick woodsmoke and the hint of blood. It was like trying to imagine being a child again. ‘In here, now. I know you’re there.’ I turned away, my insides aching. I couldn’t go home. Even if my family were pleased to see me, I didn’t belong there any more; I was a binder now, whether I liked it or not. And what if the binder’s fever was still in my blood, like an ague? Perhaps I had to be a binder to keep it at bay. If I went home now, I’d always be afraid. I crossed the hall to the parlour, and made sure my voice was steady. ‘Yes, I’m here.’ ‘At last.’ He was sitting on the settee, with an empty teacup and plate on the table him. He was glaring at the hearth. He’d made a fire, but it was too tightly packed; I knew that in a minute it would subside into nothing. ‘It’s perishing in here. This chimney doesn’t draw properly.’ As if on cue, the flames sighed and flickered out. I didn’t answer. He clicked his tongue and glanced furiously at me, as if it was my fault. ‘On the writing table are two letters. When Toller comes, give them to him. Do you understand?’ I went to the table and picked them up. Dr Ferguson, 45 The Mount, Castleford and Elijah Oaks, Undertaker, 131 High Street, Castleford. ‘Is that all?’ He stood up and took a few steps towards the window. Outside a bird skimmed across the water, throwing a bright trail of droplets, and the rushes dipped, silvery, in the breeze; but when he turned back to me it was as if he’d been looking at a dungheap. ‘Sit down.’ ‘I’d prefer to stand.’ He pointed to a chair and smiled at me. I tried to stare him out, and failed. ‘Good,’ he said, when I lowered myself into the chair. He paused, nudged the remains of the fire with the poker and sighed before he resumed. ‘Seredith’s death,’ he said, still stirring the ashes, ‘was … regrettable.’ I didn’t answer. Absurdly I found myself listening for movement upstairs. ‘Although she was old. It is natural, after all. One generation fades as another matures. The old order gives way to the new. And so on.’ ‘Can I go?’ He raised his eyes to me. Could I see a sort of distant surprise in his face, or was it a trick of the light? ‘No,’ he said. ‘I believe we have much to discuss. Please sit still. I find your fidgeting distracting.’ I bit my lip. ‘I am your master now. I am therefore responsible for you.’ He said it as if he were reading aloud. ‘Apparently you have some promise,’ he paused fractionally as if to suggest scepticism, ‘and it is clear that there is no question of you staying here.’ ‘I can’t stay here?’ As soon as I said it, I realised how impossible it was. The thought of leaving was like a sudden rush of cold air into a wound. ‘Certainly not. With whom? I have no intention of remaining in this house longer than I am obliged to. Seredith was an eccentric. Worse than a Luddite, resisting progress. I am afraid you have not been given the best opportunity to develop our art. Living like this, like a peasant …’ He gestured with the poker as if to indicate me, and the room around me. ‘Her insistence on the – manual – part of the work, those incidental skills which any man with a modicum of dexterity can demonstrate … Accepting all the clients who came to her … Taking no pride in her work …’ ‘She did take pride in her work.’ ‘None of those things,’ he went on, as though he hadn’t heard me, ‘prepares you adequately for the great dignity of being a binder. A true binder has no need to sew or cut or …’ He drew a limp loop in the air with the poker as if to suggest tasks he didn’t even know the name for. ‘A true binder, boy, has clean hands.’ I looked automatically at his hands. They were as white as a peeled willow switch. ‘But you have to make the books,’ I said. ‘Someone has to make the books.’ ‘Naturally. In my workshop in Castleford I have several good workers. They produce some very fine …’ Again, that gesture with the poker. ‘Covers, and so on. But they are replaceable, that is the point. What I do – what we do, that is the true art. To cheapen it with glue and dust and grime under one’s fingernails is sacrilege.’ He smiled thinly. ‘I had encouraged Seredith for a number of years to employ an artisan so that she could concentrate on her true calling. When I heard she had apprenticed you I thought that for once she had heeded my advice. But then she told me that you would be a binder yourself, and that moreover you’d had the binderbound fever so badly she didn’t dare let you set eyes on a book.’ His smile contracted, as though a stitch had pulled tight somewhere. ‘Don’t worry, boy, I have no intention of asking you questions about that.’ The blood roared in my ears. ‘I’m all right now.’ ‘I should hope so.’ He put the poker back in the stand and turned to look at a picture on the wall. I hadn’t realised how relentless his regard had been, but now I felt a surge of relief. ‘As it happens,’ he said, tapping the frame to adjust the angle, ‘it is useful for me that you are in fact a binder. Next week I have been requested by Lord Latworthy, and one of my usual clients in Castleford is also in need of my services. You will do for him, I think.’ ‘What? Me? I can’t—’ ‘I agree that you are not the deputy I would choose, given a free hand and all the time in the world. But the subject is a servant, I believe, so the binding itself will require very little finesse. To my client himself you will be polite, tactful and discreet – I trust you can perform that role creditably enough, Seredith never liked a fool …’ He paused and flicked a glance over his shoulder. ‘Then, when I return, I will be better able to assess your talent and deal with you accordingly. If you are indeed a binder, I will take over your training. If not, you can earn your living in my workshop, with the craftsmen.’ ‘I don’t understand.’ ‘I don’t understand what you don’t understand,’ he said, with a sort of bemused softness. ‘It is quite simple.’ ‘No. You see …’ I took a deep breath. ‘I’ve never bound anything. Anyone. I didn’t know what it was until … Seredith told me, the night before she got ill. I can do some of the finishing work, but the – the other bit, the—’ I didn’t have words for it. That room, that clean, bare, terrible room … ‘I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how it works. I can’t do it.’ ‘How it works is a mystery, boy.’ He sighed. ‘I suppose you mean … the procedure. My goodness, she really didn’t teach you anything, did she? Luckily it’s easy enough, you merely have to lay hands on the subject and listen. As long as you take paper and a pen and ink, and make sure you’re both sitting down, and that she’s consented, you can hardly go wrong. There is the small matter of managing the memories – making sure you don’t go too deep, and so on – but I’m sure your – er – apparently exceptional talent will see you through. A maidservant is not very important, after all.’ ‘But—’ ‘It is unfortunate that you have no experience, but you will do your best. Bearing in mind, it goes without saying, that your future depends on it.’ ‘But—’ ‘You had better pack a bag. If Toller delivers those letters today we will be leaving here tomorrow. From then on you will be living under my roof, and I don’t know when you will be able to return.’ I opened my mouth to speak, and he swung swiftly round. For a split second he simply looked at me – where had I seen that look before? – and my stomach tightened. Then he reached out for Seredith’s teacup, held it up as though to propose a toast, and dropped it. It smashed. I looked down at the talons of blue-painted china. ‘And,’ he said, very calmly, ‘you will stop arguing.’ I didn’t have much to pack. I had the few clothes I’d brought with me, and a few useful bits and pieces – a box of needles and thread, my folding knife, a razor and comb, and a nearly empty purse. It seemed a sparse collection when I spread it out on my bed, even when I added the things Seredith had given me: a couple of bone folders, curved and smooth with years of use, a magnifying glass, a pair of scissors, a paring knife and a cobbler’s knife. I thought suddenly of the silver ring I’d found in the workshop, and wondered if I should take it to sell, just in case; now Seredith was dead, no one would know who had left it here, or why. Whoever they were, they were long gone. But it was still stealing. I bundled everything into my sack and dumped it downstairs in the parlour – de Havilland was in my room, of course – and then stood for a long time at the window, watching the light change in the clear sky. When Toller had come I’d given him the letters and tried not to think about how convenient it was that Seredith had died that night, and not the night after, when de Havilland would’ve had to let another week pass before he could send for the undertaker. Now there was nothing to do but wait. It was like a vigil, except that Seredith was alone behind a closed door. More than once I thought about lighting candles and sitting beside her, but my skin crawled at the thought of the deep chill in that room, and those mismatched coins staring blindly at the ceiling. Once I’d packed, de Havilland retired to my room and shut the door. Maybe he was sleeping, but in any case I didn’t hear anything. When the sun went down I went up and knocked, because even his voice would have been better than the silent shadows. He didn’t answer. Both bedrooms were equally quiet, as if he was dead too. I shuddered and laughed at the same time. I was getting fey; the best thing was to go downstairs and warm up. I wasn’t hungry, but I made myself tea and gulped it down, thirsty for the heat. Then, without thinking about it, I went into the workshop. The shapes of the presses and the clutter on the workbench were just visible against the last veil of light in the windows. It had been a long time since I’d been in here. Dust lay like a reproach on the bench; there was a damp odour in the air that explained why Seredith had always kept the stove going. I held my lamp up to the coloured tiles, but the glass mantle was so stained with soot that I struggled to make out the shades of russet and jade and earth. Seredith’s apron was on the floor, under the hook where it was supposed to hang – although she’d hardly ever taken it off. I picked it up, and the leather was cold and stiff. How long had it been here, forgotten, on the floor? She’d worn it so long that the bib and waist kept the shape of her body, and it smelt of her, of glue and whetstone and soap. It hit me then, that she was dead. I hadn’t realised I’d loved her till that moment. At first I tried to stay quiet, in case de Havilland heard; but after a while I didn’t care, and no one came. I crawled into a corner of the workshop like a child, and buried my face in the old stained leather, blotting out the space and the darkness. Seredith wasn’t in that desiccated body upstairs; she was here, I was holding her. I could almost hear her sigh of amusement mixed with sympathy, and her voice: ‘Come on, now, lad, you’ll make yourself ill again. All right, lad, it’ll be all right …’ In the end it soothed me. Somehow a sob turned into a yawn. I folded the apron into a pillow and wedged it between my head and shoulder. Slow tears rolled into my collar and dampened my chest. When I blinked my eyelids grew heavier and heavier. For a moment I danced on the edge of darkness; and then, out of a gentle maelstrom of fragments, I found myself walking downstairs. There was something strange about the moonlight, the dusty glimmer of it, the silky sound it made as I moved through it. I knew I was dreaming – the same familiar dream – and the realisation set the fragments whirling again, threatening to settle in a different pattern. I glimpsed the corner of the bindery, the shapes of lay press and board-cutter; then in a fog of moonlight I was on the stairs again, and the only thing that mattered was that I was searching for something. This time I knew that I had to go through the door at the far end of the workshop; and when I got there it would be the other room, and Lucian Darnay would be sitting at the table, about to look up at me. The world shivered and melted in an instant. I jerked upright and a pain shot through my neck and shoulder. I was on the floor, chilled to the bone. A fold of Seredith’s apron was digging into my cheek. There was the sound of a door shutting very near to me, and footsteps going down the steps on the other side. I crawled out from under the bench, wincing at the crick in my neck – Ma would say it served me right for falling asleep on a cold floor – and got unsteadily to my feet. The desperate urging of the dream hadn’t quite left me, and my heart was beating faster than it should have been; but the footsteps and the closing door had been real, and a line of lamplight spilt along the sill. It was so faint I could only just see it, but it was there. Someone – de Havilland – was down there. And now I could make out muffled sounds: thumps, a clatter of something falling, a thin voice humming snatches of melodies. I opened the door. For an instant I was back in my dream, and I expected to be in the other room, looking at Lucian Darnay’s back – I was close, so close, he’d turn and when he met my eyes I’d know. I reached out and held on to the doorframe. In front of me the steps led down to the storeroom as I’d known they would. It took me a moment to shake off the clinging sense of desperation; then I was standing in the lower room, dazzled by the sudden blaze of light. There were three lamps, perched on the table and an upturned bucket at the side of the room, as if he’d wanted to eradicate the dark entirely. He’d pushed the clutter and boxes back against the wall, pell-mell, and a huge chest sat in the centre of the floor, its lid flung back. From where I was I couldn’t see what was in it. De Havilland stepped back, his arms full of books. The whole wall behind him was yawning open, swinging on hidden hinges, the bronze boss throwing a snub-nosed shadow on the plaster; the darkness beyond was deep, not a cupboard but a room. The walls of the vault were lined with shelves, but they were mostly empty. Only a few ranks of spines remained, where the books were too high to reach easily. The gold tooling caught the light, glinting in lines or leaves or names: Albert Smith, Emmeline Rivers n?e Rosier. De Havilland hummed a bar of a tuneless melody, paused, and then reached out for one more volume, leaning back and contorting himself so that he didn’t drop the rest. ‘What are you doing?’ He looked round, and the high jaunty humming stopped. ‘Apprentice,’ he said, his voice sibilant and slushy. ‘What are you doing? Out of bed at this hour? I don’t believe Seredith would have stood for it.’ ‘I was in the workshop. I heard you.’ ‘I am doing some very important work,’ he said. He took a few staggering steps to the chest and collapsed forward to let the books drop into it. His movements were looser than before, and he reeled as he raised his head. There was a brandy glass on the shelf inside the vault door, with nothing but an amber glint at the bottom. ‘Since you’re here, pass me one of those boxes, will you? I think any more and this will be too heavy to lift.’ I took a deep breath. Seredith was upstairs, and he was here, ripping books off the shelves, drinking, singing. I didn’t move. He pushed past me and upended a box on to the floor, kicking the debris aside so that he could thump the box down next to the chest. I caught a whiff of alcohol on his breath as he swung back to the vault and selected another armful of books. I bent and picked up a scorched centre-tool that had slipped out of its handle, but there was nowhere to put it. In the end I laid it carefully on the same bucket where the lamps were perched. De Havilland turned round again, holding four or five books this time. I could see from their spines that they were good, expensive bindings – one was thick with gold, and the top one was bound in a kind of leather cutwork that must have taken hours – but he didn’t even read the names before he put them in the box. I drew closer and saw that the chest was nearly full. More books. Lovely things: one like an inlaid box, another like a lace handkerchief, one half-concealed that looked as though embers had sprayed out across scrubbed pale wood. ‘What are you doing with—’ He’d ducked into the vault again. ‘No,’ he said, tried to push a book back on to the shelf it had come from and missed. It opened in a splash of paper and thumped to the floor. ‘No, no’ – more books, and now he wasn’t even trying to put them back, they all flapped and fell like dead birds – ‘yes, lovely …’ That one he put into the box, with a gesture that might have been careful if he’d been sober. ‘Yes, yes – oh wait …’ He’d added the last of them to the yes box, but now he blinked and took it out again, squinting at the spine as if it had bitten him. It was bound in grey-green silk, blind-tooled with patterns of overlapping leaves, with here and there the glimmer of silver, like reflections on a river. I wanted to reach out and pluck it out of his grasp. ‘Whoops,’ he said, and giggled. ‘Lucian Darnay. Might be a bit tactless to send that one.’ ‘What?’ ‘Can’t have you take that one when you visit the Darnays,’ he said, as if I was in on the joke. He peered into the chest, nodding to himself as though he’d brought in the last of the harvest, and then wove his way back to the vault. He threw the book inside and shut the door with a thud. ‘Should do it,’ he added. ‘If he isn’t happy with that lot …’ ‘The Darnays?’ I said. ‘You’re sending me to—’ ‘Don’t mention it!’ he said, swinging round. ‘Don’t you dare mention it. Sometimes they can hear that, you know, even if everything else is gone, and then you wouldn’t believe the trouble you can get into, with hysterical customers wanting their books back, or rebindings, or … Don’t tell me – no, of course Seredith didn’t teach you, damn the woman …’ He sighed. ‘When you see him, you behave as if the name means nothing. Got it?’ That gaunt black-and-white face. A flash of dark eyes, fierce as a hawk’s. ‘What’s the matter?’ He narrowed his eyes. I thought dimly that I must be in a bad way, if he noticed through the haze of drunkenness … ‘What is it? Pull yourself together.’ ‘I can’t go to see Lucian Darnay.’ ‘Don’t be ridiculous. It wasn’t even you who bound him, was it? In any case, you probably won’t see him. It’s Darnay senior who matters. Just look at them all with respect and deference and you’ll be fine.’ He muttered, as if to himself, ‘Respect, deference, with that face … Heaven help us.’ I didn’t answer. The dragging, desperate dream-sense that I was missing something important had come back, stronger than it had ever been. What was it trying to tell me? What had I been searching for? Lucian Darnay had been about to turn, to tell me … De Havilland yawned. He fumbled for his keys and locked the vault door. ‘You’ve got the key,’ I said. ‘Seredith wore it all the time. How did—’ ‘Seredith gave it to me.’ He turned to stare at me. His expression was level; his eyes were red-rimmed, but now you wouldn’t have known he was drunk. ‘A binder’s books are a sacred trust. As her confidant and colleague—’ ‘But you said they were going to the Darnays.’ He tilted his head, as if he would forgive me one mistake but no more. ‘Don’t meddle in things you don’t understand.’ ‘I understand enough.’ I swallowed. ‘I heard her say she didn’t want you to have the books. She didn’t give it to you, you must have—’ ‘Don’t you dare accuse me, boy.’ He raised his hand, pointing one finger upwards; it was more of a threat than anything else he could have done. ‘Nothing that you have seen tonight is any of your business. Put it out of your mind. If you mention it to anyone … well, it will be the worse for you. That’s all.’ I heard myself say, ‘You took it from her body. You knew that was the only way you could get it. You watched her die, and then you took the key from round her neck, because that was the only thing you cared about. Why would she have given it to you? She would have given it to me.’ The room was as still as stone. If I could have taken the words back, I would have done. At last he said, very softly, ‘I think, after you have been to the Darnays’, there will be work to be done. I do not like your spirit, boy. I think you will have to be entirely broken.’ Somewhere out of sight a pile of books collapsed with a slithering thud; then everything was quiet again. ‘Go to bed,’ he said. ‘We will pretend that you were there all night. Go.’ I turned and began to climb the stairs. I was shaking, and he could see it. ‘To address your … concern,’ he said, so suddenly I almost tripped, ‘she did not trust you with a key, because the books in that vault were none of your business. Her secrets are not your secrets. Get that into your head, or you will go mad.’ But I remembered the certainty I’d felt. He was wrong. There was something in there that did concern me – that was mine, as surely as my own bones. I understood, too late, what I’d been looking for: Lucian Darnay’s book. An answer to a riddle that was deeper inside me than my heart— ‘And she did trust me,’ he said, ‘no matter how it might have seemed to a stranger, because I am her son. And whatever love you think there was between her and you, you may put it out of your mind. She was as cold as ice, and if you think you were anything more than her slave, you are a fool.’ IX The undertaker and the doctor arrived the next morning, early. It was foggy, with a biting damp that seemed to crawl under my skin, and the mist had got inside my head, too. Details flickered out of the blankness and were swallowed again: Ferguson shaking the moisture off his coat on the hall floor, ‘What a journey to do by night, we were lucky the horses didn’t break a leg,’ his voice too loud for the house; a man who looked more like a carpenter than an undertaker shaking my hand with a frigid grip, smelling of peppermint; the sound of their feet coming past, later, shuffling and awkward with the weight of a loaded bier. We were summoned to witness the death certificate in the parlour – ‘a mere formality,’ the doctor said, as if I might be too nervous to write my name in such august company – but for the rest of the time I waited in the workshop, beside the stove, packing it with wood as if I could keep it burning forever. De Havilland’s words came and went in my ears. I was almost sure that Seredith had loved me, in her way: but if de Havilland was her son, maybe he knew her better than I did. Cold as ice … It was like vertigo: everything I thought I knew about her was wavering, slipping through my fingers. Now all I wanted was to leave as soon as possible; but when at last de Havilland called from the hall, as impatient as if he’d been shouting for hours, it took an effort to get to my feet. The doctor had brought his own carriage, and he and de Havilland huddled inside it while the undertaker – what was his name? Oaks, was that it? – helped me load the boxes and trunks on to the roof. The coachman watched us with a baleful neutrality, as if his eyeballs had iced over. De Havilland had only brought a small bag when he arrived, but now the carriage creaked under the weight. I recognised the chest and the box he had filled with books, and there were more: one box clinked gently, and another seeped golden ink from the bottom. I hesitated, but there was no time to find the leaking bottle, and anyway it was de Havilland’s now. I tied the boxes in place while de Havilland murmured irritably in the carriage below. The undertaker set off before us. I stood for a moment watching the tarpaulin-covered cart trundle along the road: if you didn’t know, you’d think he was a farmer or a craftsman, taking a load of wares to market. I wondered whether I should feel anything, as Seredith’s body was carried further and further away; but I didn’t. It was only when I was in the carriage, watching the bindery recede, that the sadness grabbed me by the throat. De Havilland studied my face with those pale eyes – a parody of Seredith’s – and I tried to stare him out. If I could make him look away first … But I couldn’t. Had I really been her slave? Maybe the Seredith I’d loved had never existed, and I’d been a fool all along … I dug my nails into my thighs, trying to distract myself with the pain. He turned back to Ferguson and went on with their conversation as if I wasn’t there. It was a long journey. After a while the swaying suspension of the carriage on the bumpy road made me feel sick. I was glad not to have to talk; but as the mist closed against the windows and the cold crept into my limbs, I began to feel less and less real. Even the clouds of their breath were more solid than mine. Once, we got out to piss – by that point we had skirted the marshes and the road was bordered by woods on both sides – but the fog amongst the dark bars of the trees made the world seem so distant and comfortless that I wanted to get back into the carriage. But every minute that we creaked along was an eternity; de Havilland and Ferguson’s conversation might have been interesting if I had recognised the people they gossiped about, but as it was I tried to shut it out along with the rumbling of the wheels. What did I care about Lord Latworthy, or the Norwoods or the Hambledons, or whether Honour Ormonde was marrying for love or money? I thought I’d give my little finger for a few moments of silence; but then, at last, they stopped talking and it was worse. Now, if I wanted it, I had time to wonder about Seredith, or my family, or where I was going. Castleford built itself up around us slowly: first as looming shapes and faint echoes, then as shadows behind a thicker fog, tinged with a miasma of sewage, coal fumes and brick-dust. We rattled past a building site where a clamp of firing bricks smouldered, pouring out acrid smoke that made de Havilland cough and spit neatly into a handkerchief; then through wider streets where the traffic rumbled beside us and the smoke had the choking, ammoniac note of old manure. He pulled up the shutters and we sat in a grey semi-dark, while I fought my nausea; but it didn’t keep out the noise. Horses snorted and neighed, men shouted, women shrieked, dogs barked, and all the time there was a lower hum of wheels and machinery and more, an indistinguishable cacophony. I didn’t remember Castleford being like this – but then, I was here after months of living out on the marshes, where there hadn’t even been the noise of animals to break the silence. I shut my eyes and imagined Seredith’s – my – workshop, abandoned but still solid and quiet, and held the thought of it like a talisman. When at last we came to a halt I was stiff and numb, and my head was pounding. De Havilland clambered out of the carriage and clicked his fingers at me from the pavement. ‘Come on, boy. What are you dallying for?’ I’d been waiting for the doctor to get out ahead of me, but he settled himself more comfortably into the corner and I realised that he was going on without us. Awkwardly I climbed past him and found myself in the street. The coachman hissed through his teeth at the cold, crossing his arms across his chest. The carriage stayed where it was. I looked about me, pulling my coat tighter against a gust of chilly, sooty wind. We were in a road of tall brick houses and wide, bare pavements, carpeted in patches with dirty snow. Railings ran along the front of every house, between uniform front doors with steps leading up to them. There was a bay tree in a glazed pot standing on the doorstep of the nearest house, and from ten feet away I could see the smuts clinging to the leaves, like black mould. ‘For goodness’ sake, stop dawdling.’ De Havilland mounted the steps and rang the bell, and I hurried after him. There was a brass plaque beside the door, with an elegant line of engraving: De Havilland, S.F.B. Whatever I had been expecting, it wasn’t this. A severe-looking woman with a bun and a pince-nez around her neck answered the door, and stepped aside with a smile to let de Havilland in. The smile congealed when she saw me, but she said nothing except, ‘I’m so glad you’re back, Mr de Havilland. Mrs Sotherton-Smythe is most in need of your services. Mr Sotherton-Smythe even threatened to go to someone else, if you were away much longer.’ ‘While his wife’s books are in our vault? Hardly,’ he said, with a quick humourless laugh. ‘What is it? She’s found out about the latest mistress, I suppose?’ She cleared her throat, glancing at me, but de Havilland fluttered a hand in the air. ‘Don’t worry, this is my new apprentice. He’ll learn it all eventually. Did you make an appointment for her?’ ‘Not yet, sir. But I will send him a note in the afternoon post.’ ‘Good. I’ll see her tomorrow. Check he’s settled his last bill before you write, though.’ He strode ahead of me down a tiled hallway. On one side was a half-open door, with another plaque: Waiting Room. Through the gap I saw a pale, fashionable parlour, the wallpaper patterned with reeds and birds, a spread of periodicals on a table, and sprays of unseasonable flowers in a porcelain vase. There was another door at the far end, but I didn’t have time to see more before de Havilland paused and frowned over his shoulder. ‘Will you hurry up? Anyone would think you’d never been inside a house. This way.’ The severe secretary had disappeared – into another room on the other side of the passage, I thought, hearing the latch click – and I sped up, so that I was nearly at de Havilland’s heels as he pushed through a jib door and out into a cramped yard. Opposite us there was a lopsided, shabby building. Shadows crossed back and forth behind grimy windows. De Havilland picked his way across the puddles and yanked the door open. ‘This is the workshop,’ he said. ‘You’ll sleep in the room upstairs. Well, come in, boy.’ He took a few steps into the dingy passage and slapped a door on his left so it swung open. There were four or five men in the room beyond, all bent over benches or presses. One of them drew himself up, a hammer in his hand, and started to say something; but when he saw it was de Havilland he touched his forehead and said, ‘Afternoon, sir.’ ‘Good afternoon, Jones. Baines, Winthorn, there are some boxes that need to be brought in from the street. They’re on the roof of the carriage outside the front door. Bring them round, will you? Oh – the chest can go to my office. Everything else in here.’ He didn’t even glance at the men putting down their work. One of them was in the middle of covering a corner with leather, and I saw him grimace as he pulled it apart so it wouldn’t dry half-finished. They shuffled past us, but de Havilland still didn’t seem to see them. ‘Jones, this is my new apprentice. He’ll be sleeping upstairs and working with you.’ ‘Apprentice binder, sir?’ ‘Yes. But as it happens he knows how to do some of the …’ de Havilland gestured vaguely at the lay press. ‘The … er … physical crafts, so while he is learning to bind he may as well be of use in here.’ He turned to me. ‘I shall summon you when I need you. The rest of the time, you may take your orders from Mr Jones.’ I nodded. ‘It goes without saying that you are not allowed in the house unless I call for you.’ He turned and left. A moment later I heard the swollen door drag across the lintel and thud shut. The man next to the window raised his head and watched him pick his way across the yard, his mouth pursed in a silent contemptuous whistle. The three of them didn’t swap a glance, but after a pause they all started work again at the same moment. I pushed my hands into my pockets, trying to warm my fingers, waiting for Jones to ask my name; but he bent over the lay press and went on banging the back of an unbound book with his hammer. I cleared my throat. ‘Mr Jones—’ Someone snorted. When I looked at him – the man closest to the door, who was tilting a finished book this way and that, checking the definition of the tooling he had done – he rolled his eyes at me. ‘It’s not Jones, it’s Johnson. Bastard doesn’t bother getting our names right.’ ‘Can’t get his own name right,’ one of the others said, without looking up. ‘De Havilland, my Frenchified arse.’ I said, ‘Mr Johnson, then.’ But Johnson still didn’t answer. The other man shrugged and laid the book down on the table at the side of the room. ‘Wrap this up, will you?’ It took a second before I realised he was talking to me. I picked my way awkwardly through the aisle between the benches. By the time I’d reached the table he’d gone back to his station next to the stove. He said, scrutinising the end of a tooling wheel, ‘Brown paper and sealing wax. Label it with the name and volume and mark it “Vault”. Then fill in a card. I’ll show you what to do with that in a minute.’ Johnson asked casually, between hammer-blows, ‘Who was that you’ve just finished?’ ‘Runsham.’ They all laughed. I picked up the book. It was a slim, small volume, half-bound in leather and marbled paper. I hesitated, but no one was watching me, so I opened it and glanced inside. The endpaper had a thread peeling away where it hadn’t been cleanly cut, and there were no whites before the title page. Sir Percival Runsham, Vol. 11. On impulse I rolled the fly between my fingers: the grain direction was wrong. I flicked through and stopped, at random. The writing was elaborate and hard to read, full of thorny flourishes. … her figure and decided plumpness, I congratulated her husband on her fecundity, so splendidly demonstrated, and asked him when the new addition was expected; imagine my horror and confusion when he responded with, at first, bewilderment and then offence … ‘Pity it’s not trade, that one,’ Johnson said. ‘Runsham’d give some collector a good laugh.’ He gave the book in the press a final bash, and then started to undo the wooden screws. ‘You ever seen him make a speech, Hicks? I heard him once at the Town Hall. On his hobby-horse, shouting about the rights of the lower classes … The man can’t help embarrassing himself. No wonder he gets bound twice a year.’ He slid the book out of the press, discarded the wedges of wood, and peered at the rounded spine. ‘That’ll do. Well, are you going to wrap that up? Or are you too much of a proper binder to bother with the hard work?’ I dragged a sheet of paper towards me and began to wrap the book up as quickly as I could. I fumbled and made a bad job of it; then I realised I hadn’t made a note of the name, and had to undo the package to check it again. Finally it was done. I dripped wax on the knot and sealed it with a monogram, an elaborate ‘d’ and ‘H’. I should have guessed that de Havilland wasn’t his real name. A tiny shiver of gladness went through me: whatever Seredith’s surname was, he’d chosen to change it. He hadn’t liked her, or trusted her, or understood her. What did he know, about whether she’d loved me? But the flicker of warmth only lasted an instant: I was here, and it didn’t matter any more. Once I’d labelled the parcel the younger man – Hicks? – took it from me and pointed at a stack of cards. ‘Write the name, the volume and the date on one of those. At the top right, put “vault”. Now, follow me.’ Outside, in the little passage, there was a sack hanging from the wall. He dropped the parcel in. ‘The books for the vault go in here. The bank only sends the armoured coach once a month, so we keep the door into the street locked and no smoking, all right? You lose a book, you lose your job. Books for trade are kept through there until de Havilland collects them.’ He pointed at the door opposite us. ‘See this box here? Cards go through that slot. Every evening they go to the old bat for filing. Got it?’ ‘I think so.’ ‘Right.’ The two men who had gone to get the luggage were trudging, heavily laden, across the yard. Hicks pulled the door open for them. They puffed and grunted as they carried the boxes inside and into the workshop. ‘What’s all that, then? Your indenture fee?’ ‘In a way.’ He opened his mouth, squinted at me, and shut it again. After a second he said, ‘Well, you’d better come in and start making yourself useful.’ They set me to wiping the benches – smuts from the stove stained the rag black as soon as I wiped it over the wood – and then to sweeping. The light was fading fast, and I thought they’d stop work when it was dark; but when it was too dim to make out the dust on the floor they lit lamps and went on with what they were doing. It was cold everywhere except next to the stove, and the greasy, acrid smell of coal turned my stomach. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, but no one asked me if I was hungry. ‘You can empty the pail into the dustbin at the back,’ Hicks said. ‘It’s next to the coal shed – oh never mind, I’ll show you. You can bring some coal in at the same time. Stoke the stove and then you can call it a day, how’s that? Coming out for a pipe, Johnson?’ I followed them down the passage to the far end of the building. The street outside was a narrow, badly-lit lane. It was hard to believe that the row of tall elegant houses was only the other side of the bindery yard. A jumble of walls, jutting corrugated-iron roofs and sheds spilt out on to the unpaved road, and the frost-hardened mud had formed deep ruts, glinting with long streaks of ice. Hicks jabbed his thumb at a low lean-to. I emptied my bucket into the dustbin and began to load the coal scuttle. A dog was howling in one of the cottages opposite. Someone swore at it, and then at a baby that started wailing. ‘Gentlemen,’ a shrill voice said, ‘gentlemen, please …’ I looked up. An old woman was picking her way through the frozen channels of filth. Hicks swapped a glance with Johnson and flicked away the match he’d used to light his pipe. ‘Don’t turn away from me, gents. I know what you’re thinking but I’m not begging. You’re binders, ain’t you? Well, I’ve got something you’d like.’ ‘We’re not binders,’ Johnson said. ‘You want the binder, go knock at the door in Alderney Street.’ ‘I tried. That bitch at the door won’t let me in. Come on, gents … I’m desperate, all right? But I promise you I’ve got some lovely stuff. Men’ll be queuing up for my memories. Honest.’ Hicks drew in a lungful of smoke and the ember brightened in the bowl of his pipe. ‘It’s Mags, isn’t it? Listen … It’s a nice offer. But that’s not our job. Even if …’ He stopped. ‘Come on. I won’t charge much. A couple of shillings, that’s all, for years and years. All the best bits. Whatever you want. Sex. Men beating me. There was a murder in my street, I saw it happen—’ ‘I’m sorry. Why don’t you try one of the backstreeters? Fogatini might be interested. On the corner of the Shambles and Library Row. He might be more—’ ‘Fogatini?’ She spat, thickly. ‘He’s got no taste. He said he didn’t sell the one from last month, but that’s just an excuse, he’s as dry-fisted as a lizard.’ Johnson said, suddenly, ‘Where’s your kids, Mags?’ ‘Kids? Ain’t got no kids. Never had a husband, either.’ ‘Lived like this all your life, have you?’ There was a bitter edge in his voice that wasn’t quite mockery. ‘You sure of that?’ She blinked and wiped her forehead with the inside of her sleeve, in a strange, disjointed gesture; and suddenly I saw that it wasn’t age that had ravaged her face and given that set blankness to her eyes. ‘It ain’t kind to laugh at me.’ ‘I’m not laughing. You’ve sold enough. Go home.’ ‘I just need a couple of bob. Come on, gents. A genuine slice of life on the streets. Plenty of dukes and earls would pay guineas for that. It’s a bargain.’ ‘Mags …’ Hicks tapped his pipe against the side of the lean-to, although he hadn’t finished it. ‘You’ve asked before, remember? When Johnson here took you inside for a cup of tea? Or did that go along with everything else, last time?’ There was a pause. Mags dragged her hand back and forth over her forehead. ‘Never mind. Go and find a better way to earn your living, or there’ll be nothing left of you.’ ‘Earn a living?’ She gasped a laugh and flapped her ragged cloak at him like a dark bird. ‘You think this is a living? A life? I don’t care any more, I want it all gone, I’d rather be one of them drooling lunatics you see outside Fogatini’s when he’s gone too deep, I want there to be nothing left of me—’ Johnson pushed in front of Hicks and took her by the elbow, swinging her round so hard that one of her legs buckled and she nearly fell. ‘That’s enough. Get out of here. Or I’ll call the police.’ ‘All I want is a couple of shillings – one shilling, then. Sixpence!’ He dragged her a few yards down the road and then pushed her. She reeled, glared at him as if she might spit in his face, and then picked her way through the seascape of dirt. As she rounded the corner I heard her cough, a deep throaty sound as if that was her real voice at last. Johnson strode back towards us. ‘It’s a foul night. I’m going in.’ Hicks nodded and pushed his pipe into his pocket. Neither of them waited for me; I loaded the last few handfuls of coal into the scuttle and followed. As they went through the door I heard Hicks say, ‘Does she have kids, then?’ and Johnson answer, ‘Three, living. They’ll be in the workhouse. While some lucky bastard reads all about motherly love.’ Then the door closed behind them. When I’d stoked the stove I picked up my sack from the corner of the room, and one of the others said, ‘Upstairs. The room at the back.’ No one said good night to me. I climbed the stairs, my legs shaking with fatigue. When I came to the little window on the landing I could see my breath. Ferns of frost had already crept across the dingy glass. The room was tiny, and dirty, and bitterly cold. In one corner there was a sagging bedstead, with a couple of blankets trailing across it; I tried not to think about how many bodies had slept there before me. I could just catch the gleam of a chamber-pot underneath, and I breathed shallowly, afraid of what I might smell. But after a minute the cold got too much and I sank down on the bed and wrapped myself in the blankets; they stank of damp and must, but it might have been worse. The mattress had clumped into hillocks and the ticking had worn so thin I could feel the feathers pricking me. I felt as if I’d never be warm again. Someone shouted in the street outside. I wrapped the blankets round my shoulders and got up to look out, but the single street-lamp was too feeble and the window pane too encrusted with soot for me to see anything. Whoever it was fell silent. Now there was only the sporadic howling of a dog, and a baby crying. I could feel the greasiness of coal in the grain of my fingertips and crunching between my back teeth. The longer I stayed here the deeper it would get; until nothing would wash it away completely, until even my bones were black. I shut my eyes. An image came to me, as sharp as a memory: Alta at the door of the dairy, dropping her bucket – her eyes wide with delight – and then running across the yard to hug me. I could almost smell the earthy, ammoniac tang of the pigsty, and the creamy sweetness of new milk draining away from the upturned bucket. At home no time would have passed since I left; it would still be late summer, everyone would be the same, the jobs that I hadn’t finished would be waiting for me. Or – no – if only I could unravel further, to before I started to fall ill: right back to last winter, when I still knew who I was. Back to when I worried about the thorn hedge in the High Field, or whether Ma would notice I’d used her good knife to skin a rabbit. But it was stupid to wish something impossible. I opened my eyes and wiped them on my sleeve. I couldn’t go home. But if I was still here in a few days’ time, de Havilland was going to send me to the Darnays, for my first binding. I was afraid. The realisation should have made it easier; but as soon as I’d thought it, I knew I couldn’t run away. After I had been to the Darnays, and it was all over … then I could choose. Maybe I’d think of somewhere else to go – or find a way to return to the bindery, where I belonged. But until then, I had to stay. Or I would be frightened for the rest of my life, without even knowing what I was frightened of – except that it had to do with Lucian Darnay, and the nightmares. I lay down on the bed. The pillow was waxy with old hair oil. I curled into myself as tightly as I could, ignoring the scratchy lumps of mattress, and stayed very still. At last I began to warm up a little, but the cold held me hovering on the edge of sleep. Through my dreams I heard the banging of doors and the shouts of a drunken scuffle, and the chiming of clocks all over the town; but I suppose I must have fallen asleep properly at last, because when Hicks banged on the door in the morning I woke disorientated and heavy-headed, struggling to remember my own name. X Three days later, de Havilland sent me to the Darnays’. He’d summoned me the afternoon before, sending Miss Brettingham, his secretary, into the workshop with a note; when I went to see him – in a cluttered, over-furnished sitting room that was hung so thickly with pictures that the walls hardly showed – he was distracted, poring over a huge marbled ledger while his fingers riffled through a pile of flimsy bills. ‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘you. Mr Darnay is expecting you tomorrow evening. I’m sending him a delivery at the same time, so don’t forget to pick it up from Miss Brettingham. In her office, opposite the waiting room.’ He raised his eyes and looked me up and down, wincing. ‘I shall send some appropriate clothes over to your room tonight. Make sure you wash, will you?’ He gestured with his pen, dismissing me, and tutted as it flicked specks of ink over his accounts. ‘But I—’ ‘I don’t have time. I’m leaving for Latworthy Place first thing in the morning, and I have a lot to do. If you have questions, please ask someone else.’ ‘Who?’ ‘That one, for example. Go.’ When I went up to my room at the end of the day I found an unfamiliar suit on my bed: pale grey, with a blue waistcoat and a clean stiff-collared shirt. It was so out of place in that dirty little room that from the doorway it looked as if an aristocrat had crawled on to the bed to die. When I took a step closer and held up my candle I saw there were shiny shoes, too, and a brushed felt hat, and an ivory box that contained cufflinks and a collar-stud. There was no need to try any of it on; I already knew that everything would be uncomfortable and ill-fitting. I laid it on the cleanest bit of floor, and tried to ignore it; but all through the night I was conscious of its flattened limbs reaching out for me. The next afternoon I did my best to wash off the day’s grime and then shave in icy water, but I’d been right about the clothes and when I walked past the workshop Hicks whistled and called, ‘Hey, lads, look at His Nibs,’ and the others dissolved into gales of laughter. De Havilland had taken his carriage to Latworthy, and I had to take a cab; I’d never hailed one before and I stood for ages on the pavement of Alderney Street before a cabbie finally drew up and asked me pityingly if I was lost. For a moment I thought I’d forgotten the Darnays’ address. Miss Brettingham had shown me the ‘delivery’ – the chest that de Havilland had filled with books – and I manhandled it on to the seat before I hauled myself up, wishing he could have sent it by post. I watched Castleford roll past us, but my heart was beating so fast that only fragments seemed to emerge from the blur: a row of new houses, a pillared portico on a corner, shop windows hung with bright swatches of fabric. I could almost believe that it was all an elaborate hoax, and if we’d taken another route I could have peered sideways and seen how flimsy the houses were, how they were only painted greyboard … I didn’t recognise myself, either. I was an impostor, in this silvery-grey suit and pale waistcoat, clenching my toes in shoes that were too tight. I tried not to imagine trying to bind someone, but I couldn’t stop myself. I’d fail, and nothing would happen at all; or – worse – it would bring the binder’s fever back, and I’d lose control of myself, drown in the black fever-visions, be taken off shrieking to a madhouse … And what if Lucian Darnay was there, watching? I didn’t want to think about him, either. The faint, bitter taste of dread spilt onto the back of my tongue. The cab rattled on, over the bridge and past the castle – a great mass of ochre stone, half-ruined – and suddenly there was more traffic. Carriages materialised alongside us, close enough to touch. For a few minutes we seemed to be carried in the current; then, at last, the cab slowed and turned into a side street. It was quiet here, and there were rows of bare plane trees along the edge of the roadway. ‘Here.’ ‘What?’ I craned forward to hear him. The cabbie pointed with his whip. ‘Number three,’ he said. ‘See the “D” on the gate? This is it.’ I got out of the cab and managed to drop the chest on to the pavement at my feet with a thud. I’d been so preoccupied that I hadn’t thought about how to pay the cabbie, and for an instant I panicked; but my hand had already gone into my pocket, and I felt the cool weight of a sovereign against my fingers. Perhaps de Havilland – or Miss Brettingham – had been unexpectedly thoughtful; or more likely the suit hadn’t been washed since it was last worn. The cab drove off. I took a deep breath. In front of me the gate was knotted like a vine, a wreath of iron tendrils surrounding that elaborate D. A gravel drive led across a wintry, cross-quartered lawn to a wide front door set with panels of stained glass. The house was double-fronted, built of old red brick, with tall curtained windows with light behind them. There were symmetrical urns and knobs along the top where the roof met the facade. A house this big would have two entrances, wouldn’t it, like de Havilland’s – one for gentlemen, and one for ordinary people. I tried to remember Miss Brettingham’s instructions. Be respectful, but not obsequious. Remember you are representing Mr de Havilland … The tone of her voice had left me in no doubt that Mr de Havilland was a great man, and I could scarcely hope to live up to him. That meant the front door. I crouched to pick up the chest, feeling the ache already creeping across my shoulders. A few months ago I couldn’t have lifted it at all. I was supposed to give it to Mr Darnay – before anything else, give it to him – only him, no one else, you understand? – but it would be all I could do to get it into the house. Sweat was already starting out on my forehead. My shirt collar rubbed, and I imagined it beginning to wilt, stained grey by the smoke in the air. Did I imagine the quiver of a curtain at one of the upper windows? I told myself I had; but I could feel a gaze following me down the path, and I was glad to get to the front door. I wedged the chest against the doorframe and managed to ring the bell; then I stood there, my arms trembling under the weight. In front of me the stained-glass panel – a lamp and its flame surrounded by a green ribbon – juddered and leapt. A tremor hummed in my knees, too strong to be the distant vibration of carriage-wheels on cobblestones. My breath was coming very fast. ‘Good afternoon, sir,’ someone said. But it didn’t matter who she was – a quiet voice, a lace cap, a pimple on her forehead – because I could see past her into the hallway; and Lucian Darnay was there, halfway down the stairs, and the ground lifted off its anchor and rocked on a sea of darkness. Somehow I stayed on my feet. Somehow, when Darnay – Lucian – no, Darnay took the chest out of my arms and led me through to another room, I managed to follow, fighting for my balance at every step. Somehow I even heard myself answer him, although I didn’t know what he’d said, or what I replied; somehow I sat down and blinked until the world swam back into focus. I was sitting at a polished table, an oval of ebony that gleamed like a mirror. It was a dark room, and although there was grey daylight at the windows the lamps on the wall had been lit. There was a fire in the grate. The fireplace was the colour of raw meat, veined with fat; the wallpaper was a darker shade of the same colour, mottled with burgundy flowers. Against the wall on the far side of the room there was a tall glass-fronted case full of curios. I squinted at the shapes, trying to see past the glare of the gaslight to make out what they were: a plume of feathers, a flight of butterflies under a bell jar, the disembodied grin of a huge jawbone … My ears still rang, like someone running their finger round the rim of a glass, but it was almost faint enough to ignore. ‘My father will be down in a minute. Will you take something? A glass of sherry? We’ve just finished lunch, I’m afraid. Dinner isn’t till eight.’ ‘Thank you.’ It was a relief when he turned and busied himself with a decanter. I exhaled a long breath and squeezed my legs together to stop my knees shaking. He didn’t remember me. The first time we’d met, he’d stared at me as if he despised me. Now there was nothing, no recognition in his eyes, no trace of hatred or fury – only a trace of contempt that I guessed from the cast of his face was habitual, and nothing to do with me. ‘There.’ He put the glass down in front of me, and I made myself meet his eyes. ‘Thank you.’ My voice came out steadier than I’d expected. I took a sip of the sherry, and felt the warmth of it run down my throat. ‘These are for my father, I take it?’ ‘Yes.’ I should have moved to stop him before he opened the chest, but he flicked open the clasps with such assurance that it was done before I could say anything. He lifted four or five books and turned them over to look at their spines before dropping them back into the chest with deliberate disdain. He paused once, frowning at the book I had half-glimpsed when de Havilland was packing it, pale and flecked with red-gold like embers on a table; but in the end he flung that one back with more force than the others. As he examined them I had time to observe him. He had changed; the shadows under his eyes were gone, and his face had filled out. There was a flush on his cheeks that would be florid in a few years’ time, and his eyes had a kind of dullness to them, like smeared glass; but all in all he was handsome. It was hard to believe that he was the same man I’d seen at Seredith’s, the one whose gaunt, bleak face had given me nightmares. I heard the door open. Another voice said, ‘You must be de Havilland’s deputy.’ I half rose to my feet; but the white-haired man in the doorway wagged his finger and gave me a twinkling benevolent smile. ‘Sit down, young man.’ He walked straight past his son, and took my hand in both of his. His skin was warm and dry. Now he was close I could see that he wasn’t as old as I’d thought, in spite of his bony face and white hair; but he had a kind of ethereal quality, not quite fragile but unworldly. It was hard to imagine this man at the head of the Darnay factory empire. ‘How enchanting,’ he said. ‘You are almost a boy. And already binding for de Havilland! I see so few useful young men.’ Lucian Darnay gestured towards the door. ‘Shall I …?’ ‘No, no, stay.’ Darnay senior stared at me as though he were trying to make out my soul. ‘What a shame he couldn’t come himself – I understand Lord Latworthy poached him from under my very nose! Never mind, never mind, it is delightful to meet you instead.’ ‘I’m sure he wished he could have come himself.’ ‘Oh nonsense, nonsense,’ Mr Darnay said, but with an ease that softened the words. ‘Anyway, de Havilland has no doubt told you – sit down, Lucian! – of our poor Nell, and how she has suffered. No need’ – he raised a finger – ‘to speak of her ordeals in front of my son, he is too delicate’ – was I imagining that emphasis, or the clench of Lucian’s jaw? – ‘to hear of other people’s troubles. But I shall be glad when she is happy again.’ ‘He told me you had a servant who needed …’ ‘Quite, quite.’ He nodded, excusing me for my awkwardness. ‘I think a plain binding would be in order. She is a plain girl, you know, not terribly bright, although naturally we are all very fond of her. Did you speak?’ ‘No,’ Lucian said. He poured himself a glass of brandy and drank half in one mouthful. Something like sadness glinted in the older man’s eyes, but when he turned back to me his face was perfectly composed. ‘It shouldn’t take you very long. She’s young, after all, and the miseries of the young are swiftly taken away. For the binding, I leave the details to your discretion. If you send it back to me bound within a week, that will be perfectly adequate.’ ‘Send it back? I thought – the vault—’ ‘No, no. We have our own safekeeping here. And now I must leave you. I have business to attend to, and I’m afraid I shan’t see you again. This time, at least. I do hope our paths will cross again soon.’ He patted my shoulder, and swept out of the room. ‘Oh, but Mr de Havilland sent these—’ I gestured to the chest of books, but it was too late; the door had already closed. Lucian watched him go. ‘Charming, isn’t he?’ ‘I’m very glad to make his acquaintance.’ I realised that he hadn’t asked me my name. ‘Oh, of course, of course.’ He tilted his glass until the last drop ran down the bulb on to his tongue. ‘Why should you care what he’s like? As long as he pays you well. Or pays de Havilland …’ ‘It’s kind of him,’ I said, ‘to care about a servant’s unhappiness. Not everyone would.’ He laughed, poured himself another brandy, and drank it in one go. ‘Like a doctor, aren’t you,’ he said, without a question mark. ‘You come here and drain a boil. A huge throbbing carbuncle, the size of someone’s whole life. Then you wash your hands and pretend you’ve never smelt anything but roses. And you walk away with heavier pockets, until the next time. So like a doctor. All for the benefit of mankind. Except that you’re really doing it because men like my father like the taste of the pus …’ ‘That’s disgusting.’ ‘Isn’t it?’ I looked away. A shadow moved across the glass of the curiosity cabinet, as if something inside had come to life: but it was only Darnay’s reflection, as he crossed the room to the fireplace and held out his free hand towards the fire. The cufflink had fallen out of his shirt, and where it flapped open I could see the veins on his wrist, the ridges of his tendons. The skin there was so pale it was yellowish, like ivory. When he spoke again he sounded tired, as if I wasn’t worth the effort. ‘I’ll send for her now, then. Do you need anything else?’ ‘No.’ After a moment he shrugged. ‘As you wish. Here?’ ‘I suppose – yes.’ All I needed was a table and two chairs; maybe not even that. What had de Havilland told me, the day after Seredith died? You merely have to lay hands on the subject and listen. As long as you take paper and a pen and ink, and make sure you’re both sitting down, and that she’s consented, you can hardly go wrong. How could that be enough? A sense of unreality came over me, like when I used to dream I’d been chosen to be Midsummer King and I’d forgotten the steps of the dance. It was too late to explain to Mr Darnay that I was only an apprentice, and that I had no idea what to do. And the thought of how Lucian would look at me made sweat prickle on the back of my neck. I put my bag on the table, opened it, and took out a pile of paper, a pen, and a bottle of ink. I arranged them carefully on the table. Apart from that, the bag was empty. De Havilland’s bill, already written out, was in the inner pocket. Lucian rang the bell. As he waited for the maid he said, ‘How long do you need?’ ‘I don’t know exactly.’ ‘I understand de Havilland generally pauses for tea at four o’clock.’ ‘I – no. Thank you.’ ‘Fine. I’ll get someone to bring your dinner when Nell comes out. Anything else you need, ring for Betty, all right?’ ‘All right.’ For a moment he seemed about to add something else, but the maid came in and he turned away. ‘Please bring Nell here. And make sure they’re not disturbed until Mr – excuse me …?’ ‘Farmer,’ I said. It made sense that his memories of visiting Seredith had gone, along with whatever else was in his book; but it still felt strange to have to tell him my name. ‘Mr Farmer,’ he echoed, with a faint, mocking emphasis, as if it amused him. ‘Until Mr Farmer rings for his dinner.’ Finally he looked at me again, and a spark of malice leapt behind his eyes. ‘Good luck, Mr Farmer. I hope you find it … enjoyable.’ I swung away, mastering the urge to hit him. Enjoyable. No wonder his father despised him. I was glad that he left the room, sliding out through the half-open door after the maid, or I might have betrayed myself. When he’d gone I sat down and ran my hands through my hair to wipe away the prickling sweat. The woody warmth of sherry lingered on the back of my tongue, tinged with bile. My heartbeat seemed to echo from every corner of the room, every surface reflecting a different timbre: glass, wood, marble, papered wall … ‘This is Nell, sir.’ I staggered to my feet, as if I’d been caught napping. The older maid bobbed and left, shutting the door with a tactful click that felt louder than a slam. Nell. I hadn’t known what I was expecting, until I was surprised. She was … colourless. As though she’d been erased, like a pencil drawing; she was thin, the bones at the base of her neck knobbly and prominent, her face as vacant as a statue. And young – younger than me, younger than Alta. I pointed to the chair opposite me – something in the gesture made me think uneasily of de Havilland – and she obeyed; but her movements were oddly lifeless, devoid of either ease or effort. She wasn’t there. I swallowed. Milly had been catatonic when she came to Seredith – but that had been a different, ferocious stillness, like the eye of a storm. This was just … negative. ‘My name’s Emmett. You’re – Nell? Is that right?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘You don’t have to call me sir.’ It wasn’t a question, and she didn’t answer. I might have guessed she wouldn’t, but it felt like a rebuff. ‘Do you know why I’m here?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ I waited. Nothing. She should have been pretty, in a mousy sort of way; she should have been shy, or coy, or infuriating, the way Alta was at her age. But she wasn’t anything. I pressed one fingernail into the pad of my thumb, and said, as gently as I could, ‘Can you tell me, then? Why am I here?’ ‘You’re here to wipe my memory.’ ‘Well.’ But she was right; it was as good a way to put it as any. ‘Yes. If you want me to. Your employer – Mr Darnay.’ I despised myself for how pompous I sounded. ‘Mr Darnay said you were very distressed. Is that right?’ She looked at me. In anyone else it would have been a challenge; but on her face it was like the stare of an animal. She held it until I had to look away. My collar was itching unbearably. I ran my finger around the back of it, and then stopped, self-conscious. Make sure you’re both sitting down, and that she’s consented. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘all I need to know is that you want me to bind your memories. If you don’t want that …’ She bit her lip. It was a tiny movement, but it was the first sign of life. My heart leapt. I leant towards her, trying not to sound eager. ‘It would be all right, you know,’ I said. ‘It would be good, really, if you felt that you could go on as you are. Much better in the long run. Maybe you feel that you can be brave, and live with what’s happened? Maybe you’re stronger than you realised at first, when you asked—’ ‘I didn’t ask. Mr Darnay did.’ ‘Oh. Well, yes, I suppose.’ I hated the sound of my own voice, wheedling, desperately trying to find a way out of my problem. I clenched my jaw and thought of Seredith. She’d want me to do my best, not for myself but for this grey child with her gaunt face and fixed stare. ‘All I mean,’ I said, trying to keep any feeling out of the words, ‘is that you can choose. No one can make you do anything you don’t want to do.’ ‘Can’t they?’ I started to say, ‘Of course not,’ and then something in her face changed and I stopped. What was it, that flicker of expression? A narrowing of the eyes, as though I’d said something contemptible. She went on staring at me. The blankness seemed to come and go. For a few seconds I thought I saw hopelessness like a desert, featureless and impersonal, so vast that I couldn’t grasp the scale of it. Then I wasn’t sure. Maybe she was simple. Mr Darnay had said not terribly bright. I was being melodramatic; it was understandable, I was nervous, my stomach was churning. She dropped her gaze. Her hands lay in her lap like gloves, the nails ragged down to the quick, dirt lying in lines across her knuckles. Her chest hardly moved when she breathed. ‘What do you want me to do?’ I sat back. The stiff edge of my collar dug into the back of my neck. There is the small matter of managing the memories – making sure you don’t go too deep … I tried to push away the fear. Seredith had thought I could do this; she’d said I was a binder born. ‘Suppose you just … tell me about it. In your own words.’ ‘About what?’ ‘Whatever you want – taken away.’ She raised her shoulders an inch. Her mouth opened but no sound came out, and after a long time I glanced at the bell-pull. I could call the other maid and leave a message, slip out of the front door before the Darnays even had time to hear it … I stood up. Nell’s eyes followed me, a second too late. It occurred to me – faintly, in the back of my brain – that perhaps she was drunk; but no, I’d have smelt it, or heard it in her speech … ‘Look, Nell,’ I said, curling my toes in the tight shoes until they ached, ‘I haven’t been … I can’t bind you, all right? I got sent here – well, by mistake. I’m an apprentice, and I haven’t ever … I’ll explain to Mr Darnay that it’s not your fault, it’s nothing to do with you. Mr de Havilland can come in a few days’ time, I expect. But I can’t do it now. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said – I didn’t mean to give you the impression – I thought maybe I could …’ I stopped and added, more quietly, ‘Do you understand what I’m saying?’ She closed her eyes. ‘Yes,’ she said, and her voice sounded very far away. ‘I apologise.’ It came out as stiff as my collar. She didn’t move. Something on her cheeks glinted, and I realised that she was crying – immovably, impersonally, like a statue in the rain. I turned away, and found myself in front of the display cabinet. An intricate Chinese box sat next to something small and shrivelled, like a prune. I leant closer and saw that it was a tiny head, with shells sewn into the eye-sockets. I turned back to Nell. ‘Let’s just sit here for a while. Then I’ll ring the bell and explain to Mr Darnay.’ I couldn’t ring the bell yet; it would look like I hadn’t even tried. ‘Sit here?’ ‘To – to rest, I mean.’ She blinked, and more tears ran down her cheeks and dripped off her chin. Suddenly she scrubbed them away with her apron, and for an instant I saw the child she must have been – no, the child she was. ‘Rest? Here?’ Her voice was raw, as though some feeling had finally come to the surface; but I didn’t know what it was. ‘Yes. If you’d like to.’ ‘I—’ She choked halfway through the word, as if there was something too dangerous to say. Then she nodded, and the mask of inertia dropped over her face again. ‘Good.’ I breathed out, as slowly as I could, trying to ease the tension in my stomach. I pulled out the other chair so that I could look into the fire without craning my neck, and sat down next to her. The flames had sunk to bubbles of red-gold that grew on the logs like fungi, shrinking and spreading and multiplying, their roots tinged with blue. Slow warmth radiated from the hearth, easing the aches in my legs, the tightness that had been there since my journey to Castleford. If I raised my eyes the pattern on the wallpaper slid in and out of focus, from blotches to intricate curlicues and back again, the colour of flayed flesh. The gas lamps flared and whispered. Beside me, Nell’s breathing slowed to the same pace as mine. At last, after a long time, the clock chimed. I glanced at Nell. She was staring at the wall, so fixedly that I wondered if she was sleeping with her eyes open. ‘I should call the maid,’ I said, softly. ‘Are you ready to go back to your work?’ She didn’t respond. I got up, and bent towards her. ‘Nell?’ Nothing. She was awake, I was sure of it; maybe she’d gone into the same almost-trance that had come upon me, lulled by the silence and the warmth. I looked down at her, my heart aching for the prettiness she should have had. Then I said again, ‘Nell?’ and put my hand gently on her shoulder. The world lurched and swung. Then it turned inside out. XI The misery was a grey river, dragging me over and under and through a life so quickly that I only caught glimpses of it. Days darted by. Nights blinked on and off like dark fireworks. I didn’t exist, I was part of the icy current, an eye that could see but not speak. What was going on? I fumbled for myself – for my name, my body, anything – but there was no myself, and then no I. A grey blur. The sense of speed almost unravelled me. And then, gradually, it slowed. I could see – I was seeing – I was someone else, looking at a world that was off-kilter, skewed by the otherness of alien eyes, the sheer otherness of her. Everything was the same but somehow so deeply different that I could have screamed – if I’d existed, if enough of me had been there to be afraid … It was steady now, full of details I would never have noticed, blurred where I would have looked more closely. Did I recognise— But I was too mixed up in her to know what I felt – only that she was looking at a front door with a stained-glass panel in the centre of it, a lighted lamp and a ribbon border. She was pleased, excited, warmth glowed in the pit of her belly. I felt her grip on the bell-pull, the strangeness of it, like an unfamiliar glove. Things whirled past again. A voice, snatched away like a shout in high winds, ‘… not this door, the back!’ and then it was lost, the scene swallowed by greyness and the rush of more. More flashes, more glimpses, vivid as fever-dreams, growing darker and darker with shadows that weren’t exactly visible. A tiny bedroom, up under the eaves, greyish walls and peeling plaster. Cold. Nights that sucked her down with weariness. An old man – younger than he looked – who was kind to her. A black-and-white face that hardly knew she was there. A bosomy woman in an apron who slapped her cheek and pushed a spice bun at her with the same hand, in the same minute. Tidemarks of moisture on tiles, the damp that ate into her knees like lye. The old man squeezing her shoulder. The bedroom again. No key for the door. Staring at curling dingy paint while she squeezed one finger into the lock, trying to reach its innards with her fingernail. No luck. The winter, work that never stopped, the coal-bucket that wrenched her shoulder out of its joint, the old man sitting her down – ‘smudge on your face, dear … my handkerchief …’ And the bedroom, frost on the black window, the old man, ‘Don’t look so startled, I brought you …’ Coal. Lying awake, sick with cold, nearly wishing he’d come again, praying he wouldn’t. The door handle, clenching her fists as it turned, the old man. ‘Cold again?’ No. Greyness around her, muffling, smothering. Don’t feel. No. Cold morning. Shivering. ‘What’s up with you? Psht, girl.’ Sick and sick again. No time to dry her uniform. The clammy touch of wet cloth on her skin. The floors, growing dirty as she watched. Dust deepening on the mantelpiece like snow. Crazy. The bedroom. The old man. The smell of the chamber-pot. Think about the smell, think about what you ate and what came out the other end, think about anything but this. No. Spiders like black knots in corners. Bugs crawling on her arms, invisible. Dirt under her nails. Get it out. The sun, hot on her neck. Spring must have come while she wasn’t looking. But everything grey, still grey. Choking on the smell of lilac. A summer-house. The stink of musty cushions. Shaking too much to do up her buttons. The bedroom again, thick with heat, the slick of male sweat on her face. The bedroom, the study, dead summer silence and the suck of wet flesh on hers. The bedroom. Autumn. Blurring now. Grey flickers of her bedroom, over and over, the edges dulled. Winter. The old man. The old man. The old man. I gasped for breath. The air hit my lungs like acid. The study danced in front of my eyes, wavering and doubling as though I was drunk. But I was here, I was present again, and the nightmare was … Real. It was still real. But now I was outside of it. She was opposite me. Her eyes were closed. I shut my own to block her out, but in the darkness behind my eyelids I could see her memories – already fading, distant, unmistakably now someone else’s, but still close enough to make me shiver. The old man. Darnay. In her mind she’d refused to give him a name, clinging to the old man as if it was the only bit of power she had over him. But it was Darnay. That benevolent glint in his eye, the warmth, the smooth unscrupulous enjoyment … My skin crawled. I’d liked him. She’d liked him. Before … I tried to breathe deeply and coughed. It hurt to be back here, in my body. But the pain was good, the pain meant I existed, that she and I were separate. ‘Sir?’ ‘What?’ I looked up, blinking until my vision steadied. She was half standing, half sitting, hovering between the chair and the table as if she didn’t know where she was. ‘Did you want something? I’m sorry, I – must have dropped off – it’s so warm in here.’ ‘What? No. You didn’t – I—’ ‘Are you unwell, sir? Shall I call someone?’ ‘No. No. Thank you. I just need – some time.’ I sounded hoarse, as if I hadn’t spoken for days. ‘Nell …’ ‘Yes, sir?’ I looked down. My reflection in the ebony table was like a blurred moon against a dark sky. Shadows swirled in the depths, dancing away as soon as I looked at them directly. I jolted upright, suddenly afraid that I would be sucked under. Nell was twisting the hem of her pinafore, staring at me as if I was at death’s door. ‘Please go and rest,’ I said. ‘You’re tired. Mr Darnay—’ I stuttered on the name, but she didn’t even blink. ‘Mr Darnay said you could. Someone else will make sure your work is done.’ ‘Oh.’ She frowned. ‘Thank you, sir.’ She turned, paused for a moment mid-step, and then walked out, brushing her pinafore off as if she had only swept the hearth. The door shut. The sound seemed to echo in my ears, growing into a hum and then a roar, drowning out everything else; then, at last, it faded, and I heard the murmur of the fire and the gaslights, and the faint thumps and voices of the people in the rooms beyond. The clock chimed a quarter, winding up scratchily to a peal that gathered momentum as it went. I took a long breath, testing my body for the old familiar sickness. The darkness bloomed for a second in the corners of my eyes, but as I exhaled I felt the illness pass, leaving nothing behind but exhaustion. I got up to ring the bell for the maid, so she could call Lucian Darnay; but I paused with my hand outstretched, grimacing at the bitter taste in my mouth. The hearth, the reflection of the gaslights in the glass cabinet doors, the grandfather clock with its smug-faced rolling moon, the rich Persian rug on the floor … I met the stare of the china spaniels on the mantelpiece, blank over their curled whiskers. I had dusted those, and ached to smash one against the wall, and I had been too frightened to do it. I had polished the grate, desperate to finish it before the old man came in and found me; I could feel the grit of the blacking under my fingernails, the smears I found on my thighs afterwards … Everything was tainted with Nell’s memories. I picked up my bag. Next to it on the table was a book-block: a neat pile of unsewn pages, covered with dense lines of writing. I caught my breath. I’d done that. I didn’t remember, but I must have done, it was my own handwriting. I blinked, suddenly feeling the burn in my wrist. Of course it had been me; who else could it have been? It took me a long moment to master myself enough to reach out and pick up the pile of pages. I pushed them into the bag and slung it over my shoulder. I didn’t stop to think about what would happen when they found me gone, or what de Havilland would say when he heard I’d bolted. I slipped out into the hallway, my heart pounding as if I was a thief. Through the archway at the end of the passage was the hall, tiled with black and white, with a bank of ferns at one side and a figure behind them who stopped, appalled at the sight of me. I realised it was a mirror. The staircase curled above, hung with portraits, but I didn’t pause to look up as I hurried to the front door. I bent to undo the first bolt, and fumbled with the next. My elbow caught a porcelain umbrella-stand and the base scraped loudly on the marble floor. ‘Where are you off to?’ A cool, curious voice, one that made my hand slip on the handle of the latch. I spun round. It was Darnay; but the young Darnay, not the old. That was something. ‘Going,’ I said. ‘Going where? We’re having dinner in an hour. De Havilland always stays.’ ‘No.’ ‘You can’t go yet,’ he said. ‘Even if you’re not hungry, my father will want to see you before you leave.’ I shook my head. ‘Are you ill?’ I opened my mouth to answer, but there was no point. Instead I turned to the door and wrenched the bolt as hard as I could. After a second’s resistance it gave way. I reached for the third one. ‘For goodness’ sake, let the maid bring you some dinner. Then my father will come and pay you and then you can leave.’ The bolt slid to the side with a sudden rattle. His shadow fell across me, and I felt his touch on my shoulder. I whirled round, swinging out blindly, and my fist thumped into his ribs. He staggered and grabbed at me. ‘Just – calm down – I’m only—’ His breath was sweet with alcohol fumes. For a second I fought him, breathless. His face in front of me blurred, flickering with Nell’s overlaid memories: he had never paid attention to her, never offered her help … He dragged at the strap of my bag, and it broke. I tripped and landed on my knees. The bag fell, throwing its contents across the floor. Nell’s pages flew everywhere, a storm of white wings, and drifted slowly to the floor. In the silence, a door slammed somewhere in another part of the house. He was the first to move. He glanced around, a quick furtive look, as though he was afraid someone had heard; then he pushed himself to his feet and started gathering the paper in handfuls, not quite carefully. ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘help me, will you?’ But by the time I rose from my knees he was picking the last few off the side-table and pushing them into the bag with the rest. When he had finished I thought he was going to hand it to me: but he turned away. ‘You can wait in the study. Come on.’ He went back the way I’d come without looking over his shoulder, and I walked helplessly behind him. He was sweating; the dampness made his hair clump together where it touched his neck, and his collar was greasy and translucent along the top edge. I followed him into the study. He put my bag down on the table. A few white corners peeked out of the top, creased and dog-eared. He glanced at the clock and silently offered me another glass of sherry. I hesitated, but I took it. He watched me sip, and then poured himself more brandy. ‘Did it – go well?’ I didn’t answer. He finished his brandy and stood watching me, idly stroking the neck of the decanter. ‘You binders,’ he said, in a new, almost friendly voice, as if he were a host and I were his guest. ‘You give me the chills. What’s it like, when you’re inside someone’s mind? When they’re naked, and helpless, and you’re so close you can taste them? It must be rather like fucking to order. Is it?’ But he didn’t expect me to answer. ‘And then you come grovelling to men like my father, for more.’ Silence. The fire scratched and muttered in the hearth. ‘There’s a growing trade in fakes, you know. Does that concern you?’ He paused, but he didn’t seem surprised not to get an answer. ‘I’ve never seen one – well, as far as I know – but I’m curious. Could one really tell the difference? Novels, they call them. They must be much cheaper to produce. You can copy them, you see. Use the same story over and over, and as long as you’re careful how you sell them you can get away with it. It makes one wonder who would write them. People who enjoy imagining misery, I suppose. People who have no scruples about dishonesty. People who can spend days writing a long sad lie without going insane.’ He flicked one fingernail against the decanter, punctuating what he’d said with a tiny clink. ‘My father, of course, is a connoisseur. He claims that he would know instantly if he saw a novel. He says that a real, authentic book breathes an unmistakable scent of … well, he calls it “truth”, or “life”. I think maybe he means “despair”.’ On the wall next to the window there was a dark landscape in an elaborate frame: mountains, a foaming cataract, a half-ruined bridge overgrown with ivy. I focused on it. I wanted to be there, standing on the cracked stone parapet, where the noise of water would drown out Lucian’s soft voice. ‘Then again,’ he said, ‘it makes me wonder about you. The binders. What is it like to steal a soul? To take misery and make it … innocuous? To heal a wound so that it can be inflicted again, for the first time?’ ‘That’s not—’ ‘You tell people that you’re helping. Taking away pain, making the bad things go away … So respectable. Visiting the grief-stricken widows, the neurotic spinsters, smoothing over excesses of emotion …’ He shook his head. ‘You make it all bearable when nothing else can. Is that right?’ ‘I—’ He laughed, and then stopped so suddenly the silence hung like an echo. ‘No,’ he said, at last. ‘That’s what you hide behind. If that was all you did …’ He inhaled through his teeth. ‘De Havilland sees the same servants, over and over. My father has whole shelves of books.’ He pointed at the air with a sharp finger. ‘Mary, for five years. Marianne for three. Abigail, Abigail, Abigail … I can’t remember how many times, because she was one of his favourites. Sarah, twice. Now Nell. And it’ll be Nell over and over, until she’s too old. And you’ll come back for her, every year, and every year it’ll be the same story, and you’ll take it away for my father to gloat over – it’s a double pleasure for him, to read the story from inside her head and then do it all again as if he’s never touched her before.’ ‘No.’ ‘Yes, Farmer.’ His voice was like a scalpel: so sharp it took whole seconds before I felt the pain. ‘Why do you think he pays you so much? It’s his vice, his clever evil little vice. And when they leave they’re sucked dry, bound for the last time so they don’t remember anything, they’ll deny he ever touched them, they’ll tell everyone he’s a lovely man, delightful, and if ever anyone tries to do something to stop him … He laughs. You understand? He laughs, because he’s safe. When I found out he sent me away and told me I was lucky it wasn’t to the madhouse. And it’s you – you, Farmer, and the rest of you, de Havilland and his friends – that let him do it. That’s why he’s safe. Because you come and do his dirty work.’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘no, it isn’t always, it isn’t meant to be like that.’ ‘You make me sick. I wish you were all dead. I wish I had the guts to kill you now.’ I met his eyes. Now I recognised him: he had the same face that had looked at me in Seredith’s workshop, hating and hating as if it was the only thing he could do. For a moment I saw the high windows behind him, the wide light of the marshes, and caught my breath. I might have told him then. I wanted to. I wanted Seredith’s ghost to haunt him. She had helped him, and now she was dead and he was glad; I wanted to see his expression change from disdain to fear, I wanted him to be ashamed. I opened my mouth. He deserved to know. But abruptly, unwillingly, I saw Seredith – just before she died, her hand clutching on the key that hung round her neck, refusing to give it up – and I couldn’t say the words. No matter how much I wanted to throw it in his face, I couldn’t. I turned away. ‘I mean it,’ he said. ‘I’d kill you, if I wasn’t too much of a coward.’ An ember subsided in the grate with a soft rustle. One of the gas lamps flared, and for a moment the room was a different version of itself, full of uncanny light. When the jet steadied again nothing seemed real, not even Darnay standing there glaring at me. Suddenly I was very tired. ‘Yes, I expect you would,’ I said. There didn’t seem to be anything else to say. I picked up my bag from the table where he’d left it. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘I’m going.’ ‘You can’t. You have to see my father.’ He held out one arm as if he could bar my way. He was swaying, and his undone cuff flapped like a grimy wing. I looked down at the glass he was holding, tilted now so that the last dregs gathered on the rim, and then into his face. Darkness shimmered over my vision. ‘Tell him I was taken ill, if you want.’ ‘He’ll be angry—’ He cut himself off. ‘Look. You have to obey me. You’re being paid to be here. You’re a servant.’ I was itching to hit him; and yet, at the same time, I wanted to fasten his cuff for him, as if he was a child. ‘Complain to de Havilland,’ I said. I stepped round him, towards the door. ‘Wait. Wait. Come back right now.’ I paused at the door. He reached for my shoulder, but now I was expecting it and I twisted sharply to break his grip. He stumbled and drops of brandy spattered the wallpaper. ‘Please,’ he said. His eyes were bright and feverish, steadier than I would have expected. ‘I’m going now. I’m sorry, Lucian.’ He blinked. ‘What?’ ‘I just said – never mind. Goodbye.’ I started to open the door; but Lucian reached past me and slammed it shut with a bang. I hadn’t realised he could move so quickly. ‘I said wait,’ he snapped. His cheeks blazed red and he stank of brandy; but his voice was suddenly precise, and his eyes narrowed. ‘Did you just call me Lucian? Who do you think you are? My friend?’ ‘No, of course not.’ ‘I should hope not. You need to remember your place. You’re my father’s pander, remember? You’re nothing.’ He drew himself up to his full height. ‘How dare you speak to me like that? When I tell de Havilland—’ ‘Tell him. I don’t care.’ ‘You will be out on the streets. My father will make sure of that. You condescending – you impertinent—’ He stopped, breathing hard. ‘A man – a boy like you …’ I said, as quietly as I could, ‘It’s your name, isn’t it? It’s just a name.’ ‘We are not equals, Farmer. Or should I call you …’ He faltered, as if for a second he was surprised not to know my first name. ‘You can call me Emmett if you want,’ I said. ‘I don’t care a damn what you call me. And no, we’re not equals. You think you’re so much better than me, but if you knew—’ I stopped. Something strange had happened to his expression. ‘Emmett …’ he said. ‘Emmett Farmer.’ He frowned, without taking his eyes off my face, as if he was trying to remember. My heart stuttered. He turned back to the chest of books on the table. He bent over it, picking up one, then another, putting them to one side. His movements were slow now, almost graceful, as though he had all the time in the world. At last he picked up the one he’d stared at before, a full leather binding, creamy white, with dark spatters of inlay edged with red-gold, as though falling ash had burnt its way through. It looked … damaged. I could almost feel Lucian’s fingers on the calfskin. ‘Emmett Farmer,’ he said, in a cool, wondering voice. ‘I knew I’d seen your name somewhere.’ He turned it over, sliding his hands over the pale skin. Then he turned the spine towards me. I didn’t move. His eyes stayed steady, daring me to react. EMMETT FARMER. Some part of me had known. The part of me that had ached with emptiness and misery, that had tried to find the book – my book – the night before de Havilland arrived. I hadn’t been looking for Lucian. I’d been looking for myself. Binder’s fever. The nightmares, the sickness. De Havilland had called it the binderbound fever. In a flash the name made sense. I’d got ill because I was a binder myself. When Seredith bound me it hadn’t worked, not completely, that was why I’d gone half-mad. And that was why I still felt like this, why Lucian’s fingers on the head of the book made me shudder. ‘Give it to me.’ I still couldn’t catch my breath. ‘I think you’ll find that it belongs to my father now. He has an arrangement with de Havilland.’ ‘No!’ I lunged for it. My fingers caught the edge, and my nerves sang as if I’d burnt myself. He’d jerked away just in time, and now he backed towards the hearth, laughing. He was holding the book behind his back, out of sight, but I could feel it there as clearly as if it was my own flesh. ‘A game,’ he said. ‘How amusing.’ I threw myself at him, again. This time he was prepared for it; but so was I. The study spun around us – a punch knocked the breath out of me – but I was winning, driving him back towards the fireplace, so furious I didn’t care how hard he hit me. Then my arms were round him, my knee drove into his groin, and he bent over and retched, his arms suddenly loose. I dived for the hand that held the book and plucked it out of his grasp. I fumbled and it flapped open, but the pages were blurred, unreadable, as if I was seeing them through smoke. I squinted, trying to make them out – any word, anything – but my eyes wouldn’t focus. He gasped, ‘You bloody—’ and reached for the bell-pull. Old Darnay couldn’t get it. Anything but that. I looked round, frantically – but there was nowhere to put it, no way to keep it out of their reach – they’d take it away from me— I kicked aside the fire-guard and pushed it into the grate. For a second it lay in the bed of flames, intact. My ears sang; I heard Lucian’s voice, shrill and distorted, unintelligible. Time slowed until I could see the languid lick of the tallest flame, spreading into the air like oil into water. Then the light leapt around it, and the pages caught fire. PART TWO XII We shouldn’t have been there, not that afternoon – late in a silver-grey winter day with the sun dying redly behind the trees – or any other time. We shouldn’t even have been in the woods on the other side of the lake, where there were pits and man-traps to catch the poachers. But the traps were ancient and rusted open, so even if you stepped on them they sank deeper into the leaf-mould without a quiver; and it was the easiest way home, and I was freezing and in a hurry to get back. For most of the day we’d been struggling to run a thorn hedge across the top of the High Field, but we’d got to it late, after the ploughing, and although the earth wasn’t frozen solid it was heavy and claggy with frost. No matter how hard we worked, I was never warm; the sweat left clammy edges round my collar and neck where the wind blew through like a knife, and the cold intensified every aching thud and jar of the spade. The hawthorn saplings were awkward to handle and caught my coat with their thorns; I was too clumsy to disentangle them smoothly and I lost two buttons and had to scrabble for them in the new-turned ditch. Everything which would have been easy in better weather took an effort. By the time we’d finished, a thin, bitter snow had started to fall, and Pa hardly paused to assess the new line of dark hedge before he gathered the tools and threw them into the back of the cart. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘I was hoping to dig some more turnips, but not in this weather. It won’t last. Best get back to the house and wait it out. Tell you what, I’ll look at that dibbling machine.’ ‘I told you, it’s the chain, it’s got knocked out of shape somehow,’ I said, pitching my shovel into the back of the cart on top of the other. ‘I reckon you’ll need a trip to the smith.’ ‘Well, I’ll check, see if you’re right.’ He clambered up into the seat. ‘Come on.’ I glanced at the sky. The clouds were ragged, and patches of lighter sky shone through; there were still a few hours of daylight left, and I didn’t have to be back to feed the pigs for ages. It was cold, but the snow would stop in a little while and the wind had dropped. There would be time enough, over the winter, to huddle indoors by lamplight; now that the hedge was done I was restless, wanting to make the most of the day. ‘If we’ve finished here, Fred Cooper was going to go ferreting on Castle Down, and he said if I wanted to come …’ Pa was pulling his scarf more tightly round his face. He shrugged, but with an understanding gleam in his eye. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘I suppose there’s not much else you could be doing. A couple of rabbits won’t go amiss with your ma.’ ‘Good.’ I hurried down the hill to the valley path, relishing my unexpected freedom. Behind me, Pa clicked to the horse and the cart rumbled away. When I found him, Fred Cooper had already tried the lower warren without much luck, but we trudged up along the boundary of Lord Archimbolt’s lands and the second lot of burrows yielded a good haul of rabbits. The sun was sinking and he was chivvying his ferrets back into their box when we saw a girl running towards us, silhouetted against the blazing streaks of cloud; for a second my heart jumped, hoping it was Perannon Cooper, but then I saw it was Alta. She waved and called to me, her voice blown away in a chill gust of wind. ‘… couldn’t bear it,’ she panted, when she was within earshot, and gave Fred a friendly bob-curtsy. ‘So Ma said as long as I’d finished my chores I could come and help you carry the rabbits home.’ ‘I don’t need help with three rabbits, squirt.’ She grinned and turned to Fred, pushing back the wisps of hair that blew across her face. ‘Hello, Fred. How are you? How’s the scaly leg mite?’ ‘Oh, much better, thank you. Your ma’s balm worked a treat.’ He caught my eye and explained, ‘Perannon’s hens had it. Not me.’ ‘Come on, Tally,’ I said, taking Alta’s elbow and steering her down the hill. ‘We’d better get back. Thanks, Fred. See you again on Sunday, maybe?’ ‘I’ll send your love to Perannon,’ he called, cupping his hands to his mouth, and went away laughing before I could answer. We picked our way down the hill and into the trees. ‘Lazybones,’ I said. ‘You still haven’t mended that shirt for me.’ Alta shot me a sideways smile that was half admission, half defiance. But all she said was, ‘Trespasser,’ nodding back at the broken-down fence that I’d led her through. I shrugged. Lord Archimbolt was as useless as his rusted man-traps – rumour had it that he was holed up in one room in the New House, groaning with rheumatism, all winter – and what was more, the land should have been ours. It had been ours, until seventy years ago. I wasn’t going to let a rotten bit of fence keep me out, not if he couldn’t even be bothered to keep it standing. As long as we kept to the path, out of sight, no one would notice; and if the rabbits were technically poached, because the boundary bulged out over the down to cover the warrens … well, there wasn’t a gamekeeper, and no one else would care. I wanted to get home, now. The bite of evening was sharper in the air, and I pulled my coat tighter round my shoulders. ‘Come on, keep up. And don’t wander off the path, there’re man-traps around.’ She nodded, sauntering along behind me with her skirts hoicked up. But as the path curved up through the woods towards home she broke away and scrambled down to the edge of the trees. I heard her crunch through the deep grass of the bank that lay between the woods and the old castle. Then there was the metallic scrape of hobnails on ice, and when I looked over my shoulder she was already halfway across the frozen moat, sliding a little at each step and giggling, her arms out to keep her balance. In front of her, the ruins of the tower stood out black and bare against a fiery sky. ‘Alta! Come back!’ ‘In a minute!’ I cursed under my breath. It was freezing, and every inch of exposed skin already ached with cold. Soon it would be dark. When we were kids we used to dare each other to go into the ruins, in the spring and summer. I remembered the sunlit green of overgrown walls, the silty moat like jade-coloured satin, the deep soft silence until we exploded into giggles and shrieks of mock fear; but now, looking at the walls standing stark and rotten in the wintry landscape, I could almost believe that the place was haunted. Alta skidded and lurched to the far side of the ice, and paused briefly to wave at me. Then she scrambled up and across the grass. She darted through a weather-eaten doorway. ‘Damn it, Alta …’ I took a deep breath. The frost in the air stung the back of my throat. I set off across the ice, steadier and more careful than Alta had been. This early in the year the ice was new – the moat froze over before anything else because it was so shallow, left undredged for centuries – and the millrace and the canals on the other side of the village hadn’t even started to freeze; but it crackled instead of bending, and I got safely to the other side. By then, there was no sign of her – no movement or sound at all. The bare trees were like a pen-and-ink drawing against the sunset. ‘Alta!’ Something stopped me raising my voice above a murmur. Slowly I clambered up the far bank and walked along it, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. At last I crossed through a narrow gap in a low hedge and found myself in the flat circle of grass that stood in front of the ruined tower. There was a massive well-head in the centre, blocked up years ago; now it was a stone plinth with a prone, carved figure on it, like a tomb. To my left was a stone staircase that led to a door draped in threadbare ivy, and the empty windows in the tower above it were hung with bloody curtains of cloud. Where was she? I cleared my throat and said, ‘Alta! For goodness’ sake!’ but my voice was small and husky. Nothing. A long way away a single bird croaked and fell silent. I turned slowly, my neck tingling as if someone was staring at me; but the sensation stayed with me no matter which direction I faced. There was only the empty ice, empty windows, empty doors. Everything waited. At last I turned back to the overgrown circle and the wellhead. The effigy on the wellhead moved. My heart jammed like a lock. I stumbled backwards, grabbing for a support that wasn’t there. The last ray of the sun blazed out suddenly, dazzling me, throwing a crimson tinge across the moat and the sparse snow on the ground. I blinked. When my vision cleared the figure was sitting up, his face shadowed by a hood, his cloak and the stone plinth stained red by the sunset. ‘You’re trespassing,’ he said. I took a step back, pushing my hands into my pockets. The blood tingled in my cheeks. A breeze sang a mocking note in the high windows. ‘I’m just trying to find my sister.’ I swallowed. My voice had come out cracked and hoarse. ‘Then she’s trespassing too.’ ‘So are you, if it comes to that.’ ‘How do you know?’ He jumped down from the stone and approached me. He was nearly my height, but not quite. He pushed his hood back, and I saw his face properly: thin, bony, dark-eyed. ‘Maybe I’ve got every right to be here. Unlike you.’ I stared at him. The dusk was thickening around us, like ink spreading through water. In his dark cloak he looked like part of the landscape, as though the spirit of the place had come to life – or death: his white, gaunt face was like something you’d find in a grave. I took a deep breath; I had to make an effort to step around and past him, so that I could scan the far shadows for Alta. ‘I’m going in a minute,’ I said. ‘What’s your name?’ I didn’t answer. Nothing moved, and now the distinct tracery of the trees was blurring into thicker shadows. I strained my eyes for a movement, or a flash of her dress. ‘Let me guess. You look like … a Smith. No? Poacher? Farmer?’ I couldn’t help glancing at him, and he whistled through his teeth and grinned. ‘Farmer, really?’ I turned my back on him. The moat was dulling from silver to pewter as the light failed. Something rustled in the undergrowth, behind the gnarled rhododendron trees that sprawled across the far bank, but a moment later a fox slipped out on to the grass and ran away. ‘Speaking of poaching, whose rabbits are those? You know the penalty for poaching is deportation?’ ‘Look—’ I swung round, belatedly aware of the limp bodies that hung over my shoulder. ‘Emmett!’ Alta’s voice rang off the walls, echoing so that for an instant I wasn’t sure which direction it came from. Then I ran towards her, glad to turn my back on him. I came out through an arch on to a little stone jetty. She was waving from across the moat. ‘I found apples,’ she called. ‘Old ones but they’re still sweet. Who’s that with you?’ He had followed me. I glanced at him once, and then said, ‘No one. Come back now.’ She peered through the dim light. ‘Hello, no one,’ she said. ‘My name’s Alta.’ ‘Lucian Darnay,’ he said, and bowed to her. It was a low, sweeping bow, so exaggerated it seemed to take an hour; but she beamed and curtsied back as though she hadn’t noticed the mockery. ‘Come on, Alta. I’m freezing. We shouldn’t be here anyway.’ ‘All right, all right! I’m coming. I just want to—’ ‘I’m going.’ I turned and strode back towards the other side of the little island and the path that led to home. ‘I said I’m coming.’ I kept on walking and Alta’s voice petered out. I pushed my way through the reeds, testing the ice with one foot; in front of me there was a candled patch, but I edged out beyond it to where the ice was as smooth and white as plaster. I took a deep breath and stopped to wait. When I turned I could just make her out, standing on the other side of the moat, almost lost in the dusk: a black figure among the trees. Darnay stood between us. Did Alta say something? I wasn’t sure. It might have been another sound, a bird or the mutter of wind in the undergrowth. But after a moment she sidled down to the edge of the ice – one arm twisted awkwardly, trying to hold the apples in the crook of her elbow – and out into the middle of the moat. But she didn’t come the most direct way, straight across the water and past Darnay, to me; she wandered sideways, to the widest part of the water, where the ice would be— It opened under her feet like a mouth. A second of disbelief – a cut-off yelp, not even long enough to be a scream – and she was gone. I ran through air that held me back. My boots slid on dead grass, throwing me off balance; I couldn’t breathe, as if it was my body and not Alta’s that had gone through the ice. ‘It’s all right! Stay there!’ He got to her first. She’d dragged herself to her feet, gasping, the dark water up to her waist. He threw off his cloak and used it like a rope to help her on to solid ground. Then he shook it out and wrapped it round her, pulling it tight so that she was a bundle of black cloth, with only her face showing. When I got to her he stood up and hoisted her to her feet after him. ‘Where do you live? How far is it?’ ‘Not far. Ten minutes’ walk—’ ‘I’ll take her. She’ll catch her death.’ ‘We’ll be fine now. Thank you.’ But she was wheezing, with an awful hissing noise like a broken bellows. I raised my voice and reached out to her. ‘Alta, for pity’s sake, what were you thinking? You could have—’ ‘It’ll be quicker to ride. My horse is just across the bridge. Alta can direct me. Can’t you, Alta?’ She coughed and nodded. ‘Please, Emmett – I’m so cold—’ I started to say, ‘Walking will warm you up,’ but she was shaking, and the icy water was soaking through Darnay’s cloak. ‘Fine. Go on, then.’ I turned to Darnay. ‘You’d better get her back safe, or—’ But he was already running to the bridge, with Alta stumbling along after him. I watched the two of them disappear up the path and into the trees. In the dusk the rhododendron bushes seemed to inch closer once they’d passed, cutting off the path behind them, and soon I couldn’t make out their backs; but the clear chilly air carried the sound of Darnay’s voice, and the clink of hooves on the path as they rode away. Suddenly I was alone. The rabbits over my shoulder were heavy and their fur had the softness of mould. I shivered, in a compulsive spasm that left me feeling worse than before. I turned and started to trudge back home. When I got home no one noticed me. I stood at the bottom of the stairs in the kitchen, looking up: I could hear Ma fussing in the bedroom, her voice echoing in the grate as she laid a new fire, and Alta’s hoarse replies. At the top of the stairs – where they would have seen me if they’d only looked down – Pa and Darnay were talking. Pa was hunching his shoulders the way he did when he spoke to the schoolmaster or the beadle from Castleford, who sometimes came here to visit his brother; Darnay said something and Pa laughed, with a quick obsequious gesture. Darnay smiled and swept his hair back from his forehead. He was wearing my best shirt. The cuffs were starting to fray, and it was yellowish round the collar with age. I almost went into the kitchen to wait until he’d left; but instead I strode up the stairs and pushed past them, into Alta’s bedroom. She was reclining on a bank of pillows like the heroine of a ballad, and the colour had come back into her cheeks. She looked so much better that when she spoke her hoarseness sounded like an act. ‘Hello, Emmett.’ I stood where I was, looking down at her. ‘You little idiot. I told you not to leave the path.’ Alta rolled her head to one side without answering, and stared into the fire. There was a smile playing round her mouth: a small, secret smile, as if she was alone. ‘Alta! Did you hear what I said?’ Ma looked up and frowned. ‘Why didn’t you stop her, Emmett? You should know better. If it hadn’t been so shallow—’ ‘It’s all right, Ma,’ Alta said. ‘Lucian rescued me, didn’t he?’ ‘Well, yes, thank goodness, but …’ Alta started to cough. Ma leapt to her feet and bent over her. ‘Oh, sweetheart. Shallow breaths, slow as you can. There, that’s better.’ ‘Can I have something to drink?’ ‘Of course.’ Ma hurried past me, with only a sideways glance to tell me I wasn’t forgiven. When she’d gone, Alta lay back on her pillows and closed her eyes. The coughing had brought a deeper flush to her cheeks. ‘Thanks, Alta. Now they think it was all my fault.’ I drew in my breath. ‘Honestly. What on earth were you thinking?’ She opened her eyes. ‘I’m sorry, Em—’ ‘I should think so!’ ‘—but I couldn’t help it.’ ‘You should have looked where you were putting your feet. Anyway, you shouldn’t have gone out on the ice in the first place. I told you …’ ‘Yes, I know.’ But she sounded preoccupied, as if she was listening to music no one else could hear. She bent her head, one finger following the pattern of the quilt. ‘So …’ But I didn’t know what else to say. I leant forward, trying to see her face. ‘Alta?’ ‘I’ve said I’m sorry.’ She looked up, and sighed. ‘Please, will you leave me alone, Em? I’m ill. I’ve caught a chill, I think.’ ‘And whose fault is that?’ ‘Why can’t you just be kind to me, for once?’ She went on before I could react. ‘All I want is to rest. I could have died, Emmett.’ ‘Exactly! That’s what I’m—’ ‘So just stop going on at me, will you? I want time to think.’ She shifted against her mountain of pillows, so that all I could see was the back of her head. Her plait was coming undone. ‘Fine.’ I strode to the door. ‘Good. You just lie there and think about how stupid you were—’ ‘I wasn’t stupid! I thought he’d save me, and he d—’ There was a silence. I said, ‘Wait. What?’ She didn’t answer. I crossed the room to the bed in two steps. I grabbed her shoulder and rolled her over, not gently. ‘You did it on purpose? So he’d rescue you?’ She pulled away from me. ‘Emmett! Sssh – he’s just downstairs—’ ‘I don’t care! You threw yourself on to a patch of rotten ice so that some supercilious get you’d never met before would – possibly, you didn’t even know he would – pull you out? How could you? What if you’d died? What if—’ ‘Ssssssh,’ she said, scrambling to her knees on the bed, her eyes wide. ‘Please, Em, please don’t.’ I took a deep breath. ‘I hope you have nightmares about drowning,’ I said. ‘I hope you wake up choking and screaming. Don’t you ever take a risk like that again. You understand? Or I will kill you myself.’ ‘You don’t understand. You’re just jealous, because Perannon Cooper wouldn’t throw herself into a frozen river for you!’ I caught her eye. There was a pause; that smile began to creep into her face again, her attention turning to the mysterious music that I couldn’t hear. I turned aside and pulled the curtain sideways to look out into the yard. It was dark, and there was nothing to be seen, but I could hear that the cows were restless in their stalls. Alta hadn’t milked them, of course. A patch of stars blazed coldly over the gable of the threshing barn. When I was sure that I could speak calmly, I said, ‘Don’t worry. I won’t tell Ma and Pa.’ I let the curtain drop and strode to the door. ‘Emmett? Where are you going?’ I went out on to the landing and shut the door on her voice. The different strands of my anger tightened into one huge knot, until I had to press my hands against the wall to try and steady myself. In my mind’s eye she stepped on to the ice and fell through, and Darnay swept past me, his dark cloak swirling. Even now, standing on the landing, with warm lamplight spilling up the stairs and Ma rummaging in the blanket chest at the end of the passage, I could feel the cold space around me, the stone walls, a red, tattered sky … I blinked. On the wall opposite me, Great-Aunt Freya’s sampler advised me to Behold the Daughter of Innocence, how beautiful is the Mildness of her Countenance. Ma called to me, over an armful of blankets, ‘What are you doing? Did you leave Alta on her own?’ ‘She’s fine.’ I pounded down the stairs and into the kitchen; and then stopped dead. Darnay was there alone, standing next to the stove and looking idly at one of the prints on the wall. I swallowed, staring at him, taken aback by my own fury: but I couldn’t stop myself thinking of Alta dropping through the ice, and the way my feet had slipped under me as I tried to run. It was his fault. And then he’d swept her up without a second thought, as if he had a right to her. She might have died. He looked round, but when he saw that it was me the expression on his face froze over so quickly I wasn’t sure what it had been before. I said, trying to keep the anger out of my voice, ‘What are you still doing here?’ ‘Your father went to find me a cloak. My clothes are wet.’ ‘That’s my shirt.’ ‘Your mother said I could borrow it. Your father’s would’ve come to my knees.’ When I went on staring at him he shrugged and turned back to the stove. He was even thinner than I’d realised; the collar of my shirt hung loose on him, and I could see the top of his spine. He shifted, as if he could feel me looking. ‘I see you’ve helped yourself to my trousers, too.’ He turned round. There was a faint wash of red along his cheekbones, but his eyes were level and steady. ‘Your mother offered. She said you wouldn’t mind. But perhaps you’d rather I took them off?’ ‘Of course not.’ ‘If it’s an imposition—’ Abruptly he started to draw the shirt over his head. I caught a glimpse of his hip above his waistband, jutting under bone-white skin. ‘Come off it!’ I turned away instinctively. ‘Don’t be grotesque.’ ‘Thank you.’ A pause, then the rustle of fabric. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll return them at the earliest possible opportunity.’ At last I thought it would be safe to look at him again. His hair was damp and rumpled and the red had spread across his cheeks. The shirt was even shabbier than I’d thought: it had worn so thin across the ribs that I could see the light through it, and I noticed for the first time that there was a puckered stretch of seam over his shoulder where Alta had cobbled it together. It gave him an air of being in fancy dress. I took a long breath. ‘Thank you for rescuing my sister—’ ‘You’re welcome.’ ‘—but I think it’s time for you to leave.’ ‘Your father’s just trying to find a cloak for me.’ ‘Now.’ He blinked at me, and frowned; then he looked down, tugging at one fraying cuff. I waited for him to move towards the door, but he stayed where he was, rolling the loose threads between his finger and thumb. ‘You don’t seem very pleased that I brought your sister home.’ I exhaled, slowly. ‘As I said. Thank you.’ He shook his head. ‘I’m not asking you to thank me.’ ‘Then what do you want, exactly?’ ‘Nothing! That’s what I’m saying. All I did was bring her home.’ He added, ‘It’s not as if Alta—’ ‘What about Alta?’ I tried not to picture her face, a moment ago: flushed, her eyes sparkling, smiling to herself because this man had rescued her. ‘Well …’ He hesitated. Then he tilted his head, a glint in his eyes. ‘She didn’t exactly … push me away.’ He was laughing at her. I flung myself at him. He staggered backwards and thumped into the wall, my forearm across his throat, his eyes wide. He tried to wrench himself away, gasping, but I leant all my weight on his larynx. He coughed out, ‘What the—’ ‘Don’t talk about her like that!’ I put my face a hand’s-breadth from his, so close I could feel his breath on my mouth. ‘She’s a child, all right? Just a stupid child.’ ‘I never said—’ ‘I can see what you think of her.’ ‘Let go of me!’ ‘Listen.’ I eased the pressure on his throat, but when he tried to pull away I grabbed his shoulder and shoved him back. His head thudded against the wall. ‘You’re going to forget this ever happened, all right? If you come within a mile of Alta, or my parents, or me, I’ll kill you. Or worse. You understand?’ ‘I think I’ve got the gist.’ Slowly I let go of him. He straightened his collar – my collar – without breaking my stare; but his fingers were trembling, and I was pleased. ‘Good. Then you’d better go,’ I said. ‘You’ll want your clothes back, I imagine.’ ‘No.’ If Ma had heard me, she’d have been furious; but I didn’t want them back, not now. ‘Keep them. Burn them.’ I looked him in the eye again, daring him to be surprised. He tilted his head to one side, as if he was conceding a point; then he bowed low to me, with an over-elaborate courtesy that made me feel like a peasant. Then he went out into the freezing dark without a backward glance. XIII The next morning Alta fainted at the top of the stairs and was helped back to bed, delirious, insisting that the floor was about to give way; but there was no time for Pa and me to worry about her, because the snows had arrived in earnest and the sheep were in the Lower Field. All I remember of that day is a howling white blur as we laboured to get them to shelter, the sting of furious wind driving needles of ice into my face, the burn of freezing air in my throat and the thump of blood behind my eyes. The blizzard was so loud we had to shout to be heard: when we’d finally got the flock to safety, and we dragged ourselves back to the house and collapsed in the kitchen, I could still hear a high strain keening in my ears. The blood scalded my forehead and cheeks as it made its way back to the surface of my skin. Pa was cursing, too, but in a loose, relieved way that told me how worried he’d been. But we couldn’t stay there for long – just a few minutes, to warm up and eat something; there was more work to be done, not to mention Alta’s chores, now that she was ill. The next night, just before dawn, the rotten corner of the woodshed roof gave way under the weight of snow, and after I’d fed the livestock, milked the cows and cleaned the dairy pans, I spent a freezing morning trying to repair it while meltwater ran down my sleeves and rolled down the back of my neck. Then it was the familiar drudgery of mucking out the pigsty and the stalls, chopping wood … all the little bits of work that had to be done, while the cold and the deep snow made every movement an effort. On top of it all we lost a shearling ewe, and when Pa refused to sell the carcass to Alfred Stephens for broxy I had to step between them before Alfred lost his temper. Everyone’s nerves were on edge; even Ma snapped at me, and once, while she was waiting for the doctor to come to listen to Alta’s chest, I found her in furious tears because she’d used salt instead of sugar in a seed cake. In all of this, I had so little time to myself that it should have been easy not to think about Darnay. But somehow from time to time I’d look up from whatever I was doing and wonder about him: where he was, where he lived, whether he’d got home in his – my – shirtsleeves without catching a chill. He’d taken me at my word, and hadn’t returned my shirt; I’d had to barter a spare one from Fred Cooper, and hope Ma didn’t notice. It showed he wasn’t as chivalrous as he’d pretended, and I was glad of it; and even more glad, fiercely glad, that I’d managed to warn him off Alta. But at the same time I was on edge, as if I was missing something, as if I was waiting. It must have been a week or two before Alta recovered enough to ask about him. It was one evening after dinner, one of those days when the daylight seemed to have lasted an eternity but still not long enough to get everything done. I was exhausted and aching all over, and the sun-bright snow had sown flickering stars in my field of vision. I would have gone to bed, but there was a fire in Alta’s room, and mine was cold and dark and unwelcoming; so I tiptoed in and slumped in the chair beside her. It was warm, lit only by the fire and a single lamp, and the golden half-dark softened everything into a comforting blur: Alta’s sleeping face, the intricate hearts and diamonds of the quilt, faded to a rusty pink, the worn curtains, the solid gleam of the iron bedstead … I stared into the fire, thinking of everything and nothing. I wondered when Springle would drop her litter, whether I could invite Perannon Cooper to Turning dinner, whether the Grove Field would be better for the sheep after all, and whether the tup Pa had insisted on would prove to be worth the money. But in the shadows behind all that, there was a figure – slim, dark-eyed, staring at me with a challenge in his face. ‘Did Lucian come to see me?’ I started. ‘What?’ Alta rolled over, pushing damp strands of hair off her forehead, and said again, ‘Did Lucian come to see me? Ma said I’d been feverish for ages, and I can’t remember.’ ‘No.’ ‘Not once?’ ‘No.’ I could see her heartbeat fluttering in the notch above her collarbone. ‘He said he would.’ ‘Well, he didn’t.’ ‘What about his clothes?’ I shrugged. Ma had said only that day, with an appalled in-breath, ‘Oh my goodness, he didn’t come back for his shirt! And that expensive cloak … He’ll think we’re thieves.’ I’d slipped out to the stables without a word, and worked myself into a sweat hauling more water for the horses than they needed. ‘But that’s awful,’ Alta said, ‘he’ll think you’ve stolen them.’ ‘He probably doesn’t want them any more.’ ‘He must do. And he said he’d come to see me. I don’t understand why he hasn’t.’ ‘I expect he’s forgotten that you exist.’ She frowned, and huddled herself into a sitting position, the quilt wrapped round her shoulders. The movement made her cough. I reached out and took her hand, squeezing it with a steady, gentle pressure until she managed to breathe properly again. ‘You silly sausage,’ I said. ‘Look at you. You’re like old Jenson’s threshing machine, spluttering and choking all over the place.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘I didn’t mean to get ill.’ ‘You did it to yourself,’ I said, keeping my voice as light as I could. ‘And all for nothing. All for some boy who hasn’t even bothered to find out how you were doing. He’s probably gone back to wherever he came from, anyway.’ ‘He’s Lord Archimbolt’s nephew.’ ‘What?’ Alta winced and pulled her hand out of mine; I must have gripped hers too hard suddenly. ‘Cissy Cooper told me. He’s from Castleford, but he’s staying with Lord Archimbolt to help run the estate or something. His family’s awfully rich, Cissy says. Lord Archimbolt’s bailiff told her grandpa’s friend, and he told Cissy’s father, and—’ I said, ‘So he lives in the New House? How long’s he there for?’ ‘No one knows. Maybe forever. Maybe he’ll inherit when Lord Archimbolt dies.’ I got up, but it was a small room, and there was nowhere to go. I crouched down in front of the grate and jabbed the poker deep into the heart of the fire, trying to break the logs apart. ‘He said he’d come and see how I was. He said he’d send for fruit from Castleford for me.’ ‘Well, he clearly didn’t mean it.’ The poker broke the spine of the largest piece of log, and it collapsed in a spurt of sparks. ‘What’s wrong with you, Emmett? Why do you hate him so much?’ I sat back on my heels. The draught lifted a fragment of bark and a fiery line crawled across its edge; then it flew upwards, whirling like a flake of grey snow. ‘You’re better off without him,’ I said. ‘He won’t – people like us don’t – you couldn’t … You know what I mean. Forget about him.’ ‘No, I don’t know what you mean.’ I glanced at her; she was leaning forward, her cheeks scarlet. ‘You don’t know anything about him. Why shouldn’t he care about me?’ ‘Care about you? Alta – you’re a child he pulled out of a pond. That’s all. Stop thinking about him, for pity’s sake!’ We glared at each other. ‘And in any case,’ I said, more slowly, ‘as you said, he promised to come back and see you, and he didn’t. So draw your own conclusions.’ Silence. The ashes flared and went pale. If I wasn’t careful the fire would go out completely. I put the poker back and stood up. ‘What did you say to him?’ ‘What?’ She narrowed her eyes. ‘You said something to him, didn’t you?’ ‘Of course I didn’t. I didn’t need to. He was never going to come back and see you, Alta.’ ‘You beast, Emmett!’ She scrambled out of bed and flung herself at me. I fended her off, as gently as I could; but I was scared of hurting her, and she landed a thump on my shoulder, and then her palm cracked across my ear like a whip. ‘Alta, stop it, for goodness’ sake!’ ‘You’re lying! What – did – you – say?’ She punctuated each word with a blow. At last I caught her wrists and swung her on to the bed, not as softly as I should have done. For a few seconds we wrestled, as if we were children again, and then she went limp on the pillows, coughing. Her face was as red and damp as a little girl’s, and her hair stuck darkly to her cheeks. I sat down on the bed next to her, smoothing the nearest patch of quilt while she coughed herself to silence. ‘All right,’ I said. ‘Yes, I told him to stay away.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because I was afraid—’ ‘How could you?’ She pulled herself upright and stared at me, her eyes fierce. Her voice scratched in her throat. ‘Emmett, how could you? I don’t understand. He would have come to see me, he would. And then …’ ‘Yes, and then?’ She stared at me silently. Then she dragged the quilt up to cover her face. ‘Alta.’ She said, her voice muffled, ‘You’ve spoilt it! Everything. My whole life.’ I rolled my eyes. ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ ‘You don’t understand!’ Her face emerged from under the covers. ‘This was it, Em. I knew, the moment I saw him. I love him.’ There was a silence. I waited for her to giggle and look away first; but she didn’t. I’d never seen this expression on her face: certain, passionate, feverish. There was a tight, uncomfortable knot in my stomach. ‘Don’t be absurd. You don’t know him. How can you possibly say that?’ ‘I know,’ she said. ‘I knew the moment I saw him – it was love at first sight.’ ‘That’s just a fairytale, Alta. You have to know someone before you fall in love.’ ‘I feel like I’ve known him my whole life! When I saw him— Listen, Cissy says …’ She sat up, her eyes intense. ‘Cissy says that sometimes witches come in the night – no, listen, Em – and they leave you a pile of gold and when you wake up your memories are gone. So what if I already know him, only I’ve forgotten, and we’ve actually been in love before and that’s why—’ ‘That’s nonsense,’ I said. ‘For one thing, don’t you think everyone else would notice if you suddenly lost your memory?’ ‘She says it happened to her second cousin, and that’s why she’s a bit funny in the head.’ ‘You’re not that funny in the head.’ ‘Emmett, I’m serious!’ ‘Show me the gold, then,’ I said, sitting back and crossing my arms. ‘No? Exactly. Now stop being stupid.’ ‘What would you know about love, anyway?’ Suddenly she rolled over and buried her face in her pillow. She started to sob. I stood up. Then I sat down again, reached out and touched her shoulder. She shrugged me off violently and went on crying. I gritted my teeth and tried to muster the strength of will to walk out; but I couldn’t leave her like this, weeping as if her heart was broken. ‘All right, I’m sorry. Please don’t cry. Come on, Tally … I’ll make it up to you, I promise. He’s only a boy. Lots more boys in the village.’ But I want this one, her voice retorted in my head. ‘Please stop it. Just stop it, Alta. Please. Please don’t cry. Look,’ I tried to pull her over so that I could see her face, but she went stiff at my touch and I gave up. ‘I’m sorry. I was worried.’ She said, her voice muffled, ‘You’re sorry?’ ‘Yes. I didn’t mean to upset you. I just—’ ‘Will you write to him? And apologise?’ I hesitated. She started crying again, more quietly. I told myself it was just a tantrum; but there was a desperate, despairing note in the sound that made me lean back and hiss through my teeth. ‘I suppose. If I must.’ ‘And ask him to come and see me, like he said he would?’ ‘I – he won’t come, Alta, I’m sure he won’t.’ She rolled over. Her face was flushed, her eyes bright and still brimming with tears. ‘Make him come.’ I ran my hands through my hair. ‘All right,’ I said. ‘Just stop crying.’ ‘Thank you.’ She wiped her cheeks with the insides of her wrists. She took a deep, shuddering breath. ‘I’m sorry I shouted, Em.’ ‘You know I hate being called that.’ ‘Sorry, Emmett.’ She gave me a watery grin and a joking punch on the arm. Out of nowhere a deep, nasty bit of me wanted to punch her back, harder. ‘You’re the best.’ ‘Thanks, squirt.’ I reached out and tugged her plait until she flicked it out of my reach. I stood up. ‘You’d better get some more sleep. I’ll see you tomorrow.’ ‘You’ll go tomorrow morning, early?’ I nodded. ‘Good night, then.’ She snuggled down into her blankets and pulled the quilt up to her chin. I was at the door when she said, sleepily, ‘Emmett?’ ‘Yes?’ ‘I’m going to marry him.’ The driveway to the New House was deep in snow, clogged and white and silent. It was a grey day, heavy with the threat of another snowfall, and I was on horseback so I could get home as soon as I could. Every now and then a tree dropped a slithering load of snow on to the path, or a bird scuttled in a bush; but there was something about the quietness and the light that made me rein in my horse, anxious not to make too much noise. At first glance, through the trees, the house looked dead: but when I came out on to the wide white space in front I saw that there was smoke coming from one of the chimneys, and the doorstep had been swept clear of snow. In summer the sandstone would have been the colour of honey, but in this light it was grey, like everything else. I scanned the windows for anything that moved, but the reflections clung so thickly to the glass that I couldn’t see anything but pale sky. I jumped down, grabbed the string-and-brown-paper parcel of Darnay’s clothes and crossed the open space to the massive front door. The battlemented tower loomed above me, and I felt a shiver of the same irrational foreboding I’d had in the ruins. But all I had to do was leave the package here, where someone would stumble over it. My letter – tucked behind the knot – was addressed to him, so they’d know who it was for. I hesitated; I wasn’t sure of the right thing to do. The longer I lingered here, the more chance there was of seeing him. Without giving myself time to think better of it, I pressed the bell-push as hard as I could; and then turned aside and leant against the cold wall of the porch. A bird landed on the roof above me with a scratch and a flurry of wings, and a few handfuls of snow drifted past. The door opened, sooner than I’d expected. It was him. His eyes narrowed as if he was about to say something. But he didn’t. ‘I’ve got your clothes.’ He dropped his gaze to the parcel I was holding, and then brought it back to my face. ‘Here.’ I held the bundle out. He rocked back on his heels, and I realised he’d half expected me to hit him. Finally he took it from me. ‘I’ve still got yours,’ he said. ‘I would have ridden over with them, only I gathered that I wasn’t welcome.’ ‘It doesn’t matter.’ ‘Thank you.’ He laced his fingers into the string, and looked up at me. ‘It must have gone against the grain, to come here.’ He made it sound innocent; but the mockery was there, like a shard of glass in a bowl of water. ‘I wasn’t expecting to see you,’ I said. ‘I thought there’d be a housekeeper.’ ‘Oh, of course,’ he said. ‘As you see, this house is run like a well-oiled machine. In fact, I don’t know why you didn’t just leave it with the gatekeeper.’ The gatekeeper’s lodge was a ruin, with holes in the roof and half the windows gone. When I’d ridden past it I’d heard something scurry across the stone floor. I clenched my jaw and turned to leave. ‘What’s this?’ As I looked over my shoulder he pulled the folded bit of paper out from behind the string. ‘It’s an apology. Alta told me to—’ I stopped. With an effort I added, ‘I shouldn’t have spoken to you like that.’ ‘Spoken to me? You mean, attacked me?’ I turned round and looked straight into his eyes. ‘Don’t test your luck,’ I said. A silence. We stared at each other. It felt like being on a narrow bridge, high over a chasm: one tiny nudge and we’d both fall. At last he lifted one shoulder and gave me a crooked almost-smile. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘What should I do now? Tip you sixpence?’ I didn’t blink. It gave me a tiny flicker of satisfaction when he gave a quick huff of laughter and looked away. I said, ‘My sister would be delighted if you came to visit her.’ ‘Visit her? Really?’ He narrowed his eyes. ‘What happened? Did someone find out I was Piers Darnay’s son and heir?’ I took a deep breath. ‘She wants to thank you properly.’ ‘I rather got the impression that you didn’t want me to see your family.’ ‘Look, what I said … I’m sorry.’ It almost choked me. ‘She’d like to see you. You’d be welcome. That’s all.’ He nodded slowly, turning the envelope over in his fingers. ‘You don’t need to read that, now.’ I reached for it. Quicker than thought, he whisked it away, out of my reach. ‘That’s for me to decide.’ I fought the impulse to wrestle it off him. I didn’t trust myself to speak. I strode away through the snow, conscious of his eyes following me. It was a small victory when I mounted my horse in one smooth movement. I wanted to ride away without looking back; but in spite of myself I paused where the drive began, and shot a glance over my shoulder. He was still standing in the doorway, although an icy wind was rattling the slates on the roof. He raised the hand that was holding my letter. ‘Give my regards to your parents,’ he called, his voice clear and flat in the snow-muffled quiet. ‘And tell your sister I’ll see her soon.’ Two days later I came into the yard to find his horse tethered beside the gatepost. I hadn’t looked at her properly before – she was a chestnut mare, heavy and docile, the sort of horse that you’d ride if you were nervous about falling off – but I knew she was his from the quality of the saddle. No one from the village would ride with a saddle like that; if we could afford to own one, it would be too good to use. I dumped my basket of kindling next to the woodpile. It was getting dark, and I almost tripped over a stray log that had fallen near my feet. I swore and caught myself on one of the new posts that held up the lean-to. ‘Emmett?’ Alta’s voice. The stable door opened and spilt lamplight across the cobbles. I blinked, shielding my eyes against the sudden glare. ‘You should be in bed,’ I said. ‘It’s freezing.’ ‘Springle’s had her puppies. Come and look.’ I jumped over the basket and hurried into the stable after her. It was warm with the fug of horses and hay, and Hefty whickered to me in greeting; but I brushed past him with only a quick pat on his nose. ‘How many?’ ‘Only two. But they’re both alive.’ I got to the furthest stall, which we’d kept empty, and hung over the end, peering into the straw. Springle was fussing, covering the pups with her body; but then she moved restlessly to the other corner, and I caught a glimpse of two small bodies, whip-tailed, one dark and the other whitish. I felt myself grinning. ‘They’ve fed all right, and Pa checked them over, and they look healthy. And they’re so sweet.’ They were. I leant further over the end of the stall. Springle saw me and wagged her tail, but when I stretched my hand to her she ignored it and went back to the pups. They started to feed, their blind faces nuzzling into Springle’s belly, and I would have sworn that I could hear the gulp of milk as it went down their throats. ‘They’re very small.’ Darnay’s cool, flat voice broke the spell, and I nearly lost my balance. He was behind me. ‘Yes,’ I said, steadying myself on a timber upright. ‘They are. Very small.’ He took a step forward out of the shadows and stared down into the stall. He was wearing the same dark, expensive clothes that he’d had on before, and a thread of straw clinging to his lapel caught the light like a fine gold chain. He looked at the puppies as though he was wondering how to make a pair of gloves out of them. ‘Like little furry slugs,’ he said. ‘With tails.’ ‘I know,’ Alta said. ‘Aren’t they lovely? Budge up, Emmett.’ She hooked her feet into the crack between two planks and hoisted herself up next to me, squeezing me sideways so that Darnay could see too. ‘Oh look …’ ‘The black one’ll be a ratter,’ I said. ‘Bet you.’ ‘That’s what Pa said!’ Alta wrinkled her nose at me. The black pup gaped a blind, newborn yawn and settled into the straw. ‘How can you tell? I think you’re both guessing.’ ‘He just looks … determined.’ I caught Alta’s eye and started to laugh. ‘He does! I’m not making it up.’ ‘Anyway, that’s the one Pa’s keeping. He says we can’t look after another bitch.’ ‘So the white one’s going to Alfred Carter?’ ‘No, he changed his mind, Mrs Carter said they’ve got too many already. We’ll have to find somewhere else for her.’ A current of icy air slid down the back of my collar. ‘Will you sell her?’ Darnay said. I glanced at him over Alta’s head, and then away again. ‘She’s a terrier,’ I said. ‘Not a carriage dog or a hunting hound.’ ‘So …?’ ‘So if no one wants her, no one wants her.’ ‘Don’t, Em,’ Alta said. ‘I expect one of the Millers will take her. Or if the gypsies come back this year … They always want more dogs, don’t they?’ But the brightness in her voice was forced. The little bodies were twitching now, in trusting puppy-sleep. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘We’ll find somewhere for her.’ Darnay frowned. ‘What if you don’t?’ I shot a quick look at Alta. She was staring down at the pups. She was pretending not to have heard, but the delight had gone out of her eyes. I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, Darnay.’ ‘What happens to her?’ I hesitated. Alta glanced up and down again. She picked up a strand of straw and started to play with it, pulling it through her fingers over and over. Darnay was watching her too. I said, ‘If we don’t, Pa will drown her.’ There was a silence, filled with the rustle of straw and the splash of one of the horses pissing. ‘But surely—’ ‘You asked, Darnay. That’s the answer.’ ‘I see.’ ‘Do you? We can’t afford to be sentimental about animals, here.’ Alta said, ‘Em, stop it, please don’t—’ At the same moment, Darnay said, ‘Could I have her?’ Alta twisted sideways, hooking one arm over the edge of the stall. We both stared at him. At last I said, ‘What?’ ‘Could I …? I’d pay you for her. I’d take care of her. I’ve never – I may not be a farmer, but I’d try and make sure she was looked after.’ ‘The puppy?’ ‘What? Yes. Who did you think I meant?’ ‘Why would you want a terrier?’ ‘I just …’ He took a long breath. Something came and went behind his eyes. ‘Does it matter? I promise I’ll look after her.’ ‘Oh yes, that’s perfect, thank you so much! And then she’ll have a good home. Isn’t that right, Em? Pa will be so pleased, thank you, Lucian!’ As Alta jumped down Darnay reached past me, offering his arm to steady her. For a split second she hesitated, her hand not quite touching his, her face alight. Darnay smiled down at her, and she smiled back. She said, without looking at me, ‘Em, isn’t he kind?’ ‘We can find someone else.’ I was glad when Darnay turned aside, his smile fading. ‘Don’t be silly! Of course you can have her, Lucian. After all, you saved my life. And now you’ve saved hers.’ She took a step towards him, her fingers curling into her palm as if she could still feel his almost-touch. For a moment he looked into my eyes, with a level, unreadable expression. Whatever it was that had almost surfaced, it was hidden again now. Then he turned and said to Alta, ‘Thank you.’ ‘I’ll go and tell Pa.’ Alta walked away. Her eyes were shining. The stable door banged shut behind her, and I heard her start to cough in the cold air. Then it was quiet again. Darnay peered into the stall, very still. I stared at him until he glanced back towards me. ‘You can’t have her until she’s three months old. At least.’ He nodded. In the lamplight his face was tinged golden, like an ancient idol. A draught swirled a few stems of hay along the floor, and I felt a shiver start at the base of my spine. I clenched my teeth, determined not to let him see. ‘I’d like to visit her, though. So that she gets to know me.’ I had been about to walk away. I stumbled and caught myself; the hobnails on my soles scraped so loudly on the floor that Hefty shifted and blew through his mouth. Darnay’s face was open and guileless; I let my eyes travel over his white collar, the stray strand of straw on his lapel, all the way down to his polished black boots. Somehow he had walked across the farmyard without getting them dirty. I held out my hand. ‘Well played.’ ‘What?’ ‘It’s what you were after, isn’t it? A standing invitation?’ He looked down at my outstretched hand. I pulled it back before he could shake it and use my own gesture to make me feel small. ‘I’ve always wanted a dog, as it happens.’ ‘Of course you have.’ ‘And if your father would drown it, otherwise—’ I hissed air through my teeth. ‘Forget it. You’ve won.’ ‘Look, I don’t know what you think we’re fighting about—’ ‘You don’t have to try to charm me. You’ve already got the others kneeling at your feet.’ He stared at me, a faint line between his brows. It made heat run through me like the beginning of a fever. The door banged open. Alta said, ‘Pa’s so pleased, Lucian. I knew he would be. Now let me get her out of the stall and you can hold her, only quickly ’cause Springle won’t like it, but she can get a sniff of you at least, and – what’s up with you two?’ She looked from me to Lucian and back again. ‘Emmett, you look like you’re constipated.’ ‘Don’t stay out long, Alta.’ I walked away and left them together. XIV I hoped Darnay would change his mind; but when he didn’t come the next day I was filled with a perverse disappointment, as if someone I wanted to fight had apologised. The week after that was blank, white weather – not snowing, but with a sky that matched the drifts so closely that my eyes played tricks with distance. I tried not to think about Darnay, but it was easy to let my mind wander and my gaze slide over the unfamiliar softness of the contours, the smoothness of fields that should have been a different shape, and then … Once, slogging back through the deepest snow at the bottom of the High Field, I tripped over a hidden stone and went flying; and when I caught my breath again I didn’t know where I was. It was only when I stumbled to my feet and steadied myself on the wall that I recognised the repair that I had been meaning to do for months, and shook my head incredulously that I had been – just for a second – lost, here. That night I slept badly, and all the day after that I felt itchy and irritable. Everything seemed to go wrong – I kicked over a bucket of milk, a pig got into the dairy when I was careless with the latch, the threshing barn roof threatened to give way and another of the ewes was killed by a fox. Pa was in as foul a mood as I was, and Ma didn’t have time to worry about us, except when she set me to hauling water for laundry while she fed the chickens and did Alta’s other chores. Finally I nearly took my finger off in the turnip-slicing machine; that brought me to my senses. I pilfered a slice of bread pudding while Ma’s back was turned and took it into the stables to eat it while I watched Springle suckling her pups. But even the new pups were an irritant; for a long time I didn’t know exactly why, until I realised they were a reminder of how he’d looked at me, and the way he could somehow make his disdain stick, even when he wasn’t there … ‘Lucian!’ I didn’t know how long Alta had been calling. I shoved the last mouthful of pudding into my mouth and went out into the yard. She was at the window, waving; and there was the sound of hooves on the road beyond the yard, steadily getting nearer. But the snow muffled everything, so it took me off-guard when, hardly a moment later, he rode past the end of the wall and dismounted in front of me. We stared at each other. At last he nodded, with a sort of wary acknowledgement, and brushed himself down with exaggerated care. He’d been riding, and his coat smelt of horse and his high boots were flecked with mud; but I’d been working all day, and I knew that I stank of sweat and was covered with dirt and cobwebs and sheep muck. It should have made us even, but I turned away from him, feeling my cheeks flush. There was an axe lying next to the chopping block, and I reached for it stupidly, as if I’d been busy splitting logs; I grabbed the nearest chunk of wood and split it down the middle with a thunk. Perhaps he would have said something in the pause that followed; but by that time Alta was in the doorway. ‘Come and see the puppies,’ she called, and I heard Lucian go to her. Had he hesitated, waiting for me to acknowledge him? I didn’t care. I split another three logs before I went into the stable after them. ‘She’s going to have a big black patch, look,’ Alta was saying, cupping the puppy gently against her chest. ‘Here. Hold her.’ ‘What if I drop her?’ ‘You won’t,’ Alta said. ‘There. Isn’t she sweet? What are you going to call her?’ ‘I hadn’t thought about it.’ He lifted the puppy awkwardly. ‘You’re right, she looks like someone’s spilt something on her. An ink-stain. I suppose we could call her—’ ‘You’re not going to call her Inkstain,’ I said. He glanced round; he hadn’t known I was there. ‘I wasn’t suggesting we should. How about Spatter? Or Blot?’ ‘Splotch,’ Alta said. The puppy opened its mouth and yawned, as if it had heard, and Alta giggled. ‘There, you see? Splotch.’ So Splotch it was. Darnay didn’t seem to care; or at least, he only smiled when Alta smiled, as if all that mattered was that she’d suggested it. He treated the pup like a baby – tentatively, deferring to Alta on everything – and I despised him for it. It was so obvious what he was doing: every half-smile, every tender tap on the puppy’s nose was for Alta’s benefit. And when he came to our farm – once every couple of days, after that – it was to see Alta, not the puppy. When her cough got worse again and she had to go back to bed for a week he spent hours at her bedside, playing games and teasing her while she gorged herself on the chocolates he’d ordered from Castleford. I stayed away, at first. If he had to be here, I didn’t want to see them together. But after a week or so, Ma pulled me into the pantry as I went past, and shut the door behind me with a click. ‘Emmett? I need to have a word with you.’ ‘What? In here? It’s freezing.’ ‘It won’t take long. It’s about Alta. And – Mr Darnay.’ Mr Darnay. My feelings must have shown on my face, because she cut me off before I could answer. ‘Listen to me, Emmett. I know you don’t like him – don’t look like that, do you think we haven’t noticed? – but you have to think of Alta.’ ‘I am thinking of Alta, that’s exactly why—’ ‘This might be a chance for her. If he falls in love with her—’ ‘That’s mad! He won’t.’ ‘I know it’s only a chance. But think of what it could do for her, Em. If he married her … It happens! Not often, I know, but she’s very beautiful, and he just might. He’s rich, and he’s good-looking, and he’s charming, and he’s young. She won’t get a better opportunity than this. Don’t ruin it.’ ‘You want to sell her at the highest possible price.’ Ma tugged one earlobe, pinching it until her fingernail left a tiny red crescent. At last she said, ‘I don’t expect you to understand. You’re very naive, Emmett. Even more naive than Alta. But nevertheless I need your help.’ ‘Help? What should I do, sing her praises to him? Tell him she’d be a fantastic f—’ ‘Don’t you dare!’ There was a silence. I pushed my hands into my pockets and took a deep breath. ‘What do you want me to do?’ ‘Contrary to what you seem to believe,’ she said, with an edge to her voice, ‘we love Alta dearly and we don’t want her to get hurt. I hope, I desperately hope that Mr Darnay might change her life. But if he doesn’t, I don’t want her reputation to suffer. We want to know that she’s never – that no matter how she feels, she’s never tempted to … fall.’ ‘She thinks she loves him,’ I said. ‘Of course she’s going to be tempted to fall.’ ‘Well, then. All we want you to do is to … keep an eye on them. To make sure she doesn’t.’ ‘You want me to chaperone them? I have work to do, Ma, I don’t sit around all day with my tatting!’ ‘Don’t be silly, Emmett. I know you’re busy. I don’t mean all the time. Just now and then, when you have a spare moment, and they’re alone together. We have to protect her.’ I clenched my fists in my pockets and stared past her at a jar of preserved medlars. Split-arses, they’d called them at school. You had to let them rot before you could get your teeth into them. ‘Ma … she’ll get her heart broken.’ ‘No one ever died of a broken heart.’ ‘She’s only a child.’ ‘I was only a year older than her when I married your father. And this is a wonderful chance, Emmett. Can’t you see that? What if someone offered you a better life?’ ‘If it was Darnay offering, I’d tell him where to …’ Ma’s eyes narrowed, and I caught myself in time. ‘I’d say no.’ Ma sighed, picked up a couple of jars and pushed past me. In a brisk, brittle tone, she said, ‘Just make sure they know you might walk in unexpectedly, Emmett. Will you do that, please?’ ‘All right,’ I said. But she’d already gone. I obeyed her. I didn’t want to; I had to steel myself to it, at first, and every time I walked up the stairs to Alta’s room I was already begrudging the time I was wasting on them. People thought winter was the quiet season on a farm, but if you didn’t get the repairs and maintenance done before the spring came you’d be cursing – or rather, Pa would be cursing at me. And I resented Darnay’s presence for other reasons, too – the way he looked at me, the way I was conscious of the stink of pig-muck or oil or sweat clinging to my shirt, the way he made my stomach churn. Somehow I always knew when he was under our roof, even when I hadn’t seen him arrive. I used to hope that I’d catch him out, so I could tell him to leave and never come back; but he never looked guilty, or as though he had anything to hide. That was another thing I distrusted, that he never did anything more than tug Alta’s plait or flick her cheek with his finger. He was too brotherly, as if she was nothing but a child. But as the days went on I found myself spending more and more time with them. There were a few chores, after all, that I could bring inside. As the days grew shorter I was glad to sit in the lamplight, where I could see to mend tack or whittle trennels or pore over the seed catalogue, swotting for a long argument with Pa about the best proportions of fescue and timothy grass. It was bitterly cold – I’d brought Springle and the pups inside, so that their box could sit by the range – but because Alta was convalescing she always had a good fire in the grate. And sometimes it was almost pleasant: the warmth, Alta and Darnay talking in low voices or silently absorbed in a game, Darnay whistling a soft melody between his teeth while Alta made a mess of her embroidery. Sometimes, in spite of everything, I had to clench my jaw to stop myself laughing at something he’d said. Sometimes I had to dig my nails into my palms to remind myself not to let him charm me too. It was one afternoon, nearly past sunset, and Alta had been in a bad mood all day. She’d tried not to show it in front of Darnay, but I knew the signs: she was curling a lock of hair jerkily round her finger, and now, suddenly, she was staring at me. ‘Don’t you have something better to do, Emmett?’ ‘What?’ I’d been watching the game of patience Darnay had laid out on her quilt, biting my tongue when he missed a jack of hearts that would have freed up a whole column. ‘Why don’t you go and do something useful? You don’t have to stay here if you’re bored.’ ‘I’m fine, thanks.’ ‘You’re sitting there glowering.’ I felt the blood come into my cheeks. Darnay had paused in his game; now he was looking from Alta to me, with a crease between his eyebrows. I’d tried so hard, these last few weeks, not to show how I felt about him. ‘Shut up, Alta.’ ‘No one’s making you sit here. Lucian is too well brought-up to say anything, but—’ ‘Alta.’ Darnay tapped his cards into a pile. ‘I’m fine.’ ‘You’re only being polite. Em, if you can’t be civil, why don’t you just go away?’ ‘I live here,’ I said. ‘I’ve got every right—’ ‘Don’t you dare move, Lucian! I forbid you to go. Emmett, why don’t you just—’ ‘Alta, you don’t need to ask anyone to leave on my account,’ Darnay said. He met my eyes. ‘I’m sorry.’ I stared back at him. ‘What for?’ ‘I only – all I meant was …’ He blew out his breath through his teeth. There was a silence. He scraped the cards together into a pack without looking up. ‘Listen, Alta, it’s getting late. I’ll be back tomorrow.’ ‘No!’ She grabbed his sleeve and looked up at him, wide-eyed. ‘Please don’t go yet.’ He shot me a look and I shrugged. Then, abruptly, he shoved the pack of cards at me. ‘Shuffle those, will you?’ He sat down and leant towards Alta, cupping her face gently so that she had to look straight at him. ‘It’s not Emmett who’s being rude, it’s you,’ he said. ‘Stop it.’ ‘Wh-what?’ ‘I’m fine. Emmett’s fine. Either you behave, or we both go.’ She blinked at him, utterly bewildered; then, to my surprise, she laughed a little, fluttering her eyelashes. ‘You’re right,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry, Lucian.’ ‘It’s all right.’ He laughed too and tapped her nose with his forefinger. ‘Now,’ he said. ‘Let me tell your fortune. Let’s have a look.’ He took the cards and laid four in a line on the quilt. As he laid them out I saw her brush her own cheek as if she could still feel his touch. He raised his head. ‘Two of spades, two of hearts, knave of spades, ten of spades. Hmmm. Interesting.’ ‘Is that bad?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘not at all.’ He pointed at the two of hearts. ‘That’s love. The two of spades before it means … I’m not sure. Maybe that you’ll fight. Or you won’t realise at first that’s it’s true love. And the knave of spades … A dark young man. You’re going to fall in love with a dark young man. And he’ll love you back. How’s that?’ She looked at him, drawing in her breath. She wasn’t smiling. For a moment I glimpsed the woman she would be. ‘Then what?’ she said. ‘Then …’ He shuffled the cards back into the pack. ‘That’s as far as it goes,’ he said lightly, and grinned at her. ‘I expect you’ll live happily ever after. Now, you lie there and think about that, and I’ll be back tomorrow. And I’ll see if I can bring some of those candied fruits you like. All right?’ He stood up. She nodded. That odd, adult look was still on her face, like a white light shining on her. He reached down and ruffled her hair. ‘And no more tantrums,’ he said. She watched him leave. If he’d turned back, he’d have seen the way she looked at him; but he didn’t bother, he ran down the stairs like a schoolboy after the last lesson, grateful to have escaped. He was in the kitchen when I caught up with him. I saw him through the half-open door, crouching on the floor, but when I came in he got to his feet with the puppy cradled against his chest. ‘I’ll go in a minute,’ he said. ‘I was just looking at Splotch.’ I didn’t say anything. After a moment he frowned. ‘What? Why are you looking at me like that?’ I shut the door behind me. ‘What do you think you’re playing at, Darnay?’ Carefully he lowered himself again and tipped Splotch back into the box. But he didn’t stand back up; he knelt there, looking up at me, while he held his finger out for her to chew on. ‘What are you talking about?’ I breathed in, slowly. ‘So Alta’s going to meet a dark, handsome stranger, who’s going to fall in love with her, is she?’ He shrugged. ‘Look, it wasn’t – it was just a—’ ‘What? A joke? A game? It didn’t occur to you when you made it up that she might—’ He raised an eyebrow. ‘What makes you think I made it up?’ ‘Because …’ I hesitated. In a lower voice I said, ‘I suppose it was a coincidence, then. That you told her exactly what she wants to hear.’ A flicker of something came and went in his face. ‘I thought all little girls wanted to meet a tall dark stranger.’ ‘Damn it, Darnay!’ I dropped to a crouch opposite him so I could look full into his face. ‘Don’t be so disingenuous. How dare you tell her you love her?’ His face went blank. He pulled his hand away from Splotch. ‘I never said anything of the kind.’ ‘Oh, of course, you had no idea what she was thinking!’ ‘Don’t be absurd.’ He stood up. ‘I don’t know what you’re suggesting, exactly – but if you imagine I have designs on Alta’s virtue …’ ‘You must think I’m stupid.’ ‘Well …’ He looked me up and down. ‘I’m not sure how to answer that.’ I squared up to him. My heart was hammering. It was driving me mad, this constant desire – no, need – to hit him, when I knew I didn’t dare. ‘Why can’t you just leave her alone?’ A pause. He folded his arms and stared at me. At last he said, ‘All right. I admit it.’ ‘What?’ ‘You’re right. I’m going to seduce Alta – I mean, I know she’s only a child, but that just adds spice – and then abandon her. If she’s expecting my child, so much the better. Ruin her life. And yours, and your parents’, as well. Just because I want to. I enjoy that sort of thing.’ I stared at him. His eyes were like jet: inert, inhuman. My throat was so tight I could hardly breathe. ‘You – really …’ ‘No!’ He spun round and took a few steps away from me. ‘No, not really! For goodness’ sake, who do you think I am? I save your sister’s life, I bring her home, I visit her when she’s ill, I bring presents to cheer her up, I adopt a puppy to stop it getting killed. And you look at me like I’m planning a murder. Why?’ ‘Because you make my skin crawl!’ Silence. ‘At least you’re honest.’ He sounded tired. He unhooked his cloak from the peg on the wall and put it on. ‘Don’t worry about Alta. She’ll be fine.’ I bent my head and turned away. I heard the door creak and swing shut, and his footsteps in the hall. A gust of wind rattled the tiles on the roof. It would be freezing out there; but then, he’d ridden here in snow and ice, he could ride home. I went over to the dogs’ box and looked in, but the pups were asleep. Only Springle turned her head and thumped her tail. If it hadn’t been for Darnay, Splotch might have been dead by now. But there was something wrong about him. I wasn’t making it up. I reached out and held my hand over the hottest part of the range, daring myself to touch it. For the next few days I avoided them both. A while ago I’d promised to help Alfred repair the chimney of his cottage; it was freezing, and the wrong weather to do it, because we had to make sure the frost didn’t get to the mortar, but I insisted. Ma and Pa swapped glances when I told them I’d be working in Fields Row for a while, but I’d finished the stackyard fence the day before and Pa only gave me a look over his slice of pie. Ma said, ‘Very well, dear, I’ll do Alta’s chores,’ and went back to her breakfast. I bent my head to hide my face, slicing my bread into smaller and smaller pieces. But in a couple of days the job was finished, and it was back to work around the farm. It was nearly the Turning, and the pig had to be slaughtered, and the log and greenery brought in; normally I liked all the preparations, but it felt like every time I turned round I caught sight of Darnay coming or going. When Ma and I brought the pig back from the singeing fire he was riding into the yard. As he passed I felt Ma’s eyes on my face. Suddenly the stench of burnt pig hair and blood on my clothes could have choked me. I wiped away the sweat on my forehead and trundled the wheelbarrow through the open gate. I didn’t glance at Darnay, although I heard his boots click on the cobbles as he dismounted; I went straight to the pump and splashed my face with icy water. It took a couple of hours to butcher the carcass, and then I set up the smoker in the yard; it wasn’t until late that afternoon, when it was dark, that I washed away the grime and strode upstairs. My heart drummed as I went into Alta’s room, but Darnay nodded at me coolly, as if he’d forgotten what I’d said to him. ‘Hello, Farmer,’ he said. ‘Darnay,’ I said. He tilted his head a little, acknowledging me. Then he went back to the game he was playing with Alta. There was a silence, punctuated by the roll of dice, Darnay swearing softly and Alta giggling. I bent my head and fumbled with the harness I’d brought up to repair, but it was a long time before my fingers were steady enough. After that it was as if we’d declared a truce. We didn’t look at each other more than we could help; when we had to speak, it was in a bloodless, neutral way, as if we’d never met before. I was afraid Alta would notice that we were behaving differently – that I no longer glared at him when he tugged her plait, that he no longer treated me with mocking courtesy – but when Darnay was there she didn’t notice anything or anyone else. She was happier than I’d ever seen her, and it made me ache all over. It couldn’t last, like this; sooner or later, she’d see that Darnay didn’t love her. But the days passed. Somehow one afternoon I realised there were only two days to go before the Turning; everywhere I looked there were wreaths of evergreens, glittering gold-paper stars and red baubles, and the kitchen smelt of cinnamon and melted butter. Alta had spent the last week making ivy garlands – incessantly and carelessly, as if she couldn’t bear to look away from Darnay for an instant – and he and I hung them up while Alta directed us from a settee, wrapped in a huddle of blankets. She was bright-eyed with excitement, and Darnay kept glancing at her and smiling. ‘No, that’s lopsided, you’ve got to pin it up in the middle,’ she said. ‘Very well, my lady.’ He swept her a bow – still holding one end of the garland – and then leant sideways so far that the chair he was standing on wobbled. ‘Here?’ I looked down at the heap of dark green leaves, which were already starting to lose their gloss. ‘I’m going to fetch more pins,’ I said. ‘Good idea. Oh come on, Alta, does it have to be absolutely perfect?’ I went into the kitchen and started to root through the dresser drawer, looking for pins. Ma was rolling out pastry on the table, lightly dusted in flour and as flushed as Alta. ‘Oh – Emmett – get down that jar for me, will you? And while you’re here, will you stoke up the range? And measure out a pound of sugar, will you, and put it on for caramel? Where did your father go? He promised to pluck the goose.’ When I finally got back to the parlour, they were kissing. I froze in the doorway. No. They were dancing. She was in Darnay’s arms, but he was twirling her round, navigating smoothly past the furniture, their heads close together. Darnay was humming, a sort of melody that dropped into a breathless ‘One – two – three—’ and then ‘Side – together – good – blast, my fault—’ before he tried to pick up the tune in the same place. ‘La la la – yes, that’s right – la,’ he sang, and Alta giggled. ‘Stop it, I can’t – that was definitely your fault.’ They ground to a halt, laughing. ‘Let’s go again.’ ‘You mustn’t get tired.’ ‘I won’t.’ She smiled up at him, her breath coming quickly. She looked … beautiful. And his hand on her waist was elegant, aristocratic, a hand that had never done a day’s work and would never need to. ‘Well, I’m getting tired,’ Darnay said. He pushed a wisp of damp hair off her forehead and let go of her as if it was all one gesture. ‘What about the rest of these garlands? Didn’t your brother go to find some pins?’ He looked at the doorway, and saw me. ‘Emmett!’ Alta said. She skipped towards me, light-footed, as if she was still dancing. ‘Lucian’s teaching me to waltz.’ ‘I saw.’ I put the box of pins down and concentrated on prying off the lid. ‘Did we look good?’ ‘I can see Darnay knows what he’s doing.’ ‘I’ve never done it before, Em, you can’t expect me to do it properly straight away. I just need to practise.’ She reached for Darnay, but he laughed and shook his head. ‘Sorry. I don’t have your stamina.’ ‘All right then, show Emmett what to do. Then by the time you come back I’ll be perfect.’ I said, ‘Alta, you’ve only just been allowed out of bed.’ ‘I think I should be going,’ Darnay said at the same time. ‘Oh no! Please, Lucian. Just a few minutes. It’s Turning Eve tomorrow, you’re meant to be kind.’ He bit his lip, half-smiling, and caught my eye. ‘Why don’t you teach him, Alta? Now you know what to do.’ ‘All right, I will. But you have to stay and correct me when I teach him wrong.’ She manhandled me sideways, so that we were facing in the same direction. ‘Copy me. You step forward, side, together, like this – see? One, two, three …’ I tried to follow what she was doing. Darnay looked as if he was trying to bite back a grin. ‘No, like this – oh, you’re so slow!’ Darnay said, ‘Give him a chance, Alta.’ I paused and glanced at him, but he was watching my feet. ‘Don’t rush him. You weren’t much faster yourself.’ Alta sighed and tugged at my elbow. ‘Got it? Now, if you stand there and I stand here – you put your arms like this.’ She tried to fold me into shape, like a puppet. ‘And then you lead, one – two –three – oh, for goodness’ sake!’ ‘What did I do? I thought I got it right.’ ‘You’re meant to lead. It’s not meant to be me pushing you around. It’s different when Lucian does it.’ ‘I’ll bet,’ I said, under my breath. ‘Lucian, show him.’ She grabbed Darnay’s arm and pulled him towards me. ‘Show him what it’s like.’ I started to say, ‘I don’t—’ Darnay said, at the same time, ‘I’m not—’ We fell silent, staring at each other. Darnay’s expression was guarded, and his cheeks were pink. ‘I don’t think your brother wants my help,’ he said. ‘Especially not with waltzing.’ ‘Don’t be silly,’ Alta said. ‘Just show him.’ Darnay didn’t move. He was waiting for something. Belatedly, stupidly, I realised what it was. ‘It’s all right,’ I said, in a tight, unfamiliar voice. ‘Show me.’ ‘You want me to dance with you?’ I took a deep breath. ‘If you want. If that’s what Alta wants.’ He looked at me for a long time, his face unreadable. ‘Won’t it … make your skin crawl?’ ‘No,’ I said, as steadily as I could. ‘I don’t think so.’ He narrowed his eyes as if I were an animal he was thinking of buying. I felt the blood building in my own cheeks, hotter and hotter. I looked away. He laughed. It was a strange, wary, pleased sort of sound; the sound of winning without knowing why. ‘I think you were doing pretty well, actually,’ he said. ‘Your feet are fine. You need to get used to it, that’s all.’ He reached out, and hesitated. ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Show him! Such a fuss about nothing,’ Alta said. ‘Honestly, boys.’ Darnay took a step closer to me. I flinched and felt him draw back; before I had time to think about it, I made myself reach out and take his hand, the way Alta had taken mine. It was warmer than I’d expected, and sticky with sweat: it felt ordinary, friendly, like Ma’s or Perannon Cooper’s. ‘Go on, then,’ I said. ‘If we must.’ ‘Ready? One, two, three – one two three, one two three …’ He was stronger than I expected. We waltzed round the room, and suddenly I understood what Alta meant: I hardly had to do anything, just let myself go. But it was like an embrace, sickeningly close, so close I couldn’t catch my breath. One two three … I stumbled. He let go of me instantly. ‘There. Now, you can show Alta.’ ‘Yes.’ I blinked, trying to stop the room from spinning. The momentum wouldn’t release me. I took a step sideways and reeled. Darnay caught my elbow to hold me steady. The heat of his hand seeped through the fabric of my shirt like water. I pulled away – foolishly, instinctively – and he sprang back, his face suddenly frozen. ‘Thanks, Darnay,’ I said, but it sounded thin. ‘Alta!’ Ma was standing in the doorway. ‘What are you doing? I said you could come down here if you stayed on the settee!’ ‘Oh – I was—’ ‘Back to bed. Excuse me, Mr Darnay. Happy Turning.’ Ma bundled the blankets into her arms and flapped at Alta. Alta sighed, gave Darnay an intimate flash of a smile, and followed her. Darnay and I were left alone. He looked at me as if he was about to speak, but abruptly he picked up his cloak and went out into the hall. I hesitated, staring at the forlorn pile of forgotten ivy garlands; then, in spite of myself, I went after him. He was out in the yard. Fine snow had started to fall. He saw me, but he pulled on his gloves without pausing, as if I was part of the scenery. ‘Are you going back to Castleford for the Turning?’ ‘No.’ He adjusted his gloves, and then glanced at me as if he wasn’t sure why I was still standing there. ‘My uncle celebrates the Turning, in his own way. Or so the cook says. We’ll get a haunch of venison, champagne, claret, port … Seven courses, the gold-plated china, the best silver. Just the two of us in a dining room the size of a barn.’ ‘Right.’ ‘Oh, it’ll be fun, I expect. He’ll be dead drunk by the second course, and then I can sit and watch him decay into his plate.’ He pulled his coat-collar closer round his chin. ‘I won’t be back here for a few days, if that’s why you’re asking.’ ‘Come to dinner here.’ ‘What?’ He stared at me through the gathering dusk, flakes of snow clinging to his eyebrows. I swallowed. ‘Ma and Pa would like you to. And Alta, of course. There’s enough food. We always invite the labourers and their families, one more won’t make any difference.’ ‘You’re inviting me to Turning dinner?’ I raised one shoulder, but he went on staring at me until I muttered, ‘Yes.’ His face changed. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Thank you.’ ‘But—’ ‘You don’t really want me to, do you?’ He gave me a wry smile, as if I’d made a bad joke. ‘I wasn’t—’ ‘May your darkness be quiet and the light come sooner than you need,’ he said. It was the old, formal salutation at the Turning. Then he swung himself into the saddle and left me standing in the snow, shivering. XV Spring seemed to come earlier than usual. There were a few more snowstorms after the year had turned, but not many; and by the second full moon the snow was pockmarked and lacy, dissolving into piles of brown-edged slush. Until it was gone altogether, and every step plunged you ankle-deep in mud – and then overnight the trees woke up and sucked the water out of the ground, and the air smelt of greenness and growing. I’d always loved the first days of spring, when suddenly the prison of winter broke wide open; but this year it was like discovering an unknown country, as if seeing it through Darnay’s town-bred eyes made everything new. Now that Alta was well again, and had chores to do, he wasn’t there every day, or for hours at once; but he kept coming, and somehow he fitted in around the life of the farm so smoothly that he began to be a part of it all. He hovered at the edge of everything, not in the way exactly, but difficult to ignore: walking up to the High Field with Alta when she brought lunch to the sowers, sniffing the wind obediently when Alfred predicted rain, recoiling, his eyes watering, from the stench of chamber ley when we walked past the barn where Pa and I had been pickling wheat. The weeks when I stayed in the shepherd’s hut for the lambing, Alta would come up in the evening with dinner; more than once he came with her and we sat for a long time drinking tea, not saying much, while the stars grew brighter and brighter. Once he was there when a lamb was born. Afterwards he knelt in the muck, his face lit by moonlight on one side and lamplight on the other, as he wiped the lamb’s muzzle clean with straw. He had blood and mucus down his shirt, but he didn’t seem to see it; he just leant over the lamb, staring, and finally looked up at me with an incredulous grin. I said to him, ‘You see? It wasn’t hard,’ and he shook his head and laughed. And there was Splotch, of course. We all joked about her excitement the first time she sensed a rabbit, revelled in her speed as she found her feet and ran, imagined the richness of the woody, earthy scents in her nose. As we walked home one evening from the field where we’d been turning the dunghill – directed by Darnay, who’d got tired after ten minutes of working beside us – Alta said, ‘I wish I could smell like her.’ I smirked and said, ‘Actually you do, stinker,’ but I knew exactly what she meant. It was then, while the rest of us were too busy to watch him, that Darnay should have tried to insinuate himself into Alta’s bed, if that was what he was after; but he didn’t. He was never alone with her for long; often it seemed that he’d deliberately arrived when Pa or I would be in the farmyard, and he’d ask if he could help with whatever I was working on. At times, when he was throwing a stick for Splotch or trying to coax her away from a rabbit hole, I’d watch him and tell myself that we’d all been mistaken, that all he wanted was Splotch and some company. It must have been lonely, up at his uncle’s house, and he never mentioned anyone else; maybe even his friendliness was skin-deep, and he was dallying with us out of sheer boredom. Then I’d look at Alta, and my insides would twist, because if he didn’t care for her then she’d eat her heart out wishing. But when I heard him whistling as he rode into the yard, or caught his eye as he kissed Alta’s hand in greeting, I couldn’t kid myself any longer. He was as happy as she was; as if just being with her was enough. At least for now. By then, Splotch was old enough to leave Springle. I thought about telling Darnay to take her home and not to come back; but somehow every time the words rose to the tip of my tongue I found myself swallowing them again, putting them off for another hour, or another day. I couldn’t bear to think what it would be like once Splotch had left for good. Darnay gave us money for her food, but apart from that she wasn’t exactly his but more or less ours. It had been so long since Springle was a pup that I’d forgotten what it was like, and how we could spend every spare moment playing tug-of-war or throwing sticks, or knotting bits of rope for her to chew. The dark brown blot on Splotch’s back had gone black and her tail had been docked to a stub, but she was still small. When she wore herself out I’d put her into the canvas sack I sometimes used for poaching, with her head poking out of the top. Then Alta would walk along beside me, whispering, ‘Rabbits!’ and giggling when Splotch pricked up her ears; and once Darnay announced, to no one in particular, ‘And here is Mademoiselle Emmie, modelling the latest fashion from the capital – note how the reticule worn stylishly over the shoulder displays an unusually excitable fur tippet …’ A few days later, though, I’d been pruning the thorn hedge on the slope of the High Field, and I hadn’t brought the bag with me; so Darnay ended up carrying her back in his arms. Before we were halfway home he was muttering to her, ‘You spoilt lump, I can’t believe I’m doing this, soon you’ll be demanding a sedan chair,’ but when I offered to take her he shook his head. ‘No, it’s all right, she’s not heavy.’ ‘So why are you complaining?’ ‘I’m enjoying it.’ He grinned. I rolled my eyes, but his good humour was infectious. We went down the lane abreast of each other in companionable silence, while Alta wandered behind, singing under her breath. I stepped in front of Darnay to open the gate of the Upper Field – it was fallow, and there was a shortcut that took us home – but as soon as we were through it Splotch started wriggling and whining. Darnay swore under his breath, and tried to hold on to her. ‘She’s got the scent of something. Stop it, Splotch. Stop.’ But she didn’t, until we got to the far edge of the field, where the wall of our courtyard met the hedge; then she gave a final spasmodic struggle. ‘Splotch, you half-witted cur, calm down!’ Darnay said, elbowing his way awkwardly through the door in the wall. Then he added, in a different tone, ‘Damn. She’s pissed on my shirt.’ Alta snorted with laughter, and tried to convert the sound into something polite and ladylike. Darnay put Splotch on the ground. She streaked away into one of the corners beside the barn where the rats liked to hang about. ‘Oh, hell,’ he said, looking down at his chest. ‘I’m soaked, and I stink.’ ‘You’d better change,’ Alta said. ‘It’s all right, I can ride home like this. It’s not too cold today, that’s something.’ ‘Don’t be stupid,’ I said. ‘Alta, go and get one of my shirts, will you?’ I didn’t wait for her to answer. ‘Come into the kitchen, Darnay.’ He followed me. I put a bowl of water on the range to take the chill off it. Behind me, I felt him hover in the doorway. ‘Farmer …’ ‘Yes?’ ‘You don’t have to lend me anything.’ I turned round. ‘What?’ For once he seemed to struggle for words. ‘If you’d rather not – I mean, I know you don’t like it.’ ‘What on earth are you blathering about?’ He hesitated; then he said, in a joking tone that wasn’t joking, ‘Well, last time I borrowed one of your shirts you nearly throttled me.’ I felt the blood rise in my face. ‘If I remember rightly,’ I said, ‘you offered to take your clothes off.’ ‘Technically they were your clothes.’ ‘How about I promise not to throttle you, and you promise not to take off anyone’s clothes?’ ‘What about my pissy shirt? Can I take that off?’ ‘Shut the door. If Alta catches sight of your naked flesh she might fall into a swoon.’ ‘In that case maybe you should avert your eyes, too.’ I grinned. I couldn’t help it. ‘Just clean yourself up, Darnay.’ He nodded to me in mock obedience and shut the kitchen door. I ducked into the pantry for a new slice of soap. When I came out he was already stripped to the waist. He wasn’t as thin as he had been; he wasn’t well-built either, but the long hours of walking and fresh air had put a layer of muscle on his ribs and chest, and his stomach was flat, not concave. ‘Thanks,’ he said, and reached for the soap. I turned away. In spite of the jokes it made me uncomfortable to see him like that, like a labourer splashing off a day’s dirt; especially when I was fully dressed, although I didn’t know why that should make a difference. There was a knock at the door. I opened it a fraction, plucked my spare shirt out of Alta’s hand and shut the door on her as she said, ‘I brought the one without darned bi—’ ‘Ah,’ Darnay said, drawing it over his head, ‘thank you.’ It fitted him pretty well, although he had narrower shoulders than me. ‘Wait – is this the very shirt that drove you to fury?’ ‘No,’ I said, before I could stop myself. ‘Shut up, Darnay.’ He laughed, with an easy, triumphant note, and adjusted the cuffs. I didn’t care any more that it was getting threadbare; he never seemed to notice how old or dirty my clothes were. ‘Can I come in yet?’ Alta said. ‘What are you two doing in there?’ ‘Just a second,’ I said, and heard her sigh and tap the door with her fingernails. Darnay was fully dressed now. He rolled the wet shirt into a ball and put it on the kitchen table. I hadn’t lit a lamp, and in the dimness the pale bundle looked like a rose. Darnay stood still, watching me. At last he said, very quietly, ‘What is it?’ ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, so quickly the syllables ran into one another. ‘I was an idiot. Sorry.’ ‘That’s all right.’ ‘No, I mean – all the time …’ ‘It’s all right, Farmer.’ ‘Stay for dinner. It’s nothing fancy, probably just pie or something but I know Ma wouldn’t mind—’ ‘I’d like to. Thanks.’ ‘And this time I’m not just asking out of – oh. Good.’ We looked at each other. It was too dark to see his expression; there was only the white shape of his face. Suddenly the room behind him – the dark bulk of the range and the gleaming rows of copper pans, the scrubbed stone floor and the faded prints on the walls – was unfamiliar. The pantry door was open, and the jars gleamed dimly like rows of polished stones. ‘I’m just …’ I gestured wildly. ‘Upstairs. Won’t be a moment.’ I turned and pushed out into the hall. ‘Darnay’s staying to dinner,’ I said to Alta on my way past. ‘What? You invited him? Why?’ She grabbed my elbow and I nearly stumbled. ‘Why not?’ She peered up at me. The passage was full of the blue half-light of a spring evening, so that the speckled pink of her dress was deepened to mauve, and the wall behind her smudged with shadows. The window was open, and a west wind blew in over the fields, driving the sour yard smells away; it had the sweetness of new grass – the scent, not of warmth, but the promise of warmth. Suddenly, standing there, I felt the spring, like the hairs rising on the backs of my arms. I shook her away, and laughed. ‘What’s going on? Emmett? Wait, are you two friends?’ Her voice was a mixture of relief and suspicion and – something else, something not quite as comfortable. I swung myself round the newel post and up the stairs, taking them two at a time. She called my name again, with a plaintive note; but I was on the landing by then, and didn’t turn back. I suppose, after that, we were friends. There was always a current under the surface, treacherous as a weir-stream, threatening to drag me under; but whenever I felt it start to tug I could move away, and after a while it was easy to pretend it wasn’t real. That sense of danger, the fierce electricity that had made my hackles rise the day Darnay came into our lives – it had been nothing, just irrational dislike, and now I knew him better I could relax. And it was as if Alta had seen the last barrier go down. I never said that now, if he asked, she had my permission to marry him – not that my permission would have mattered, anyway – but she seemed to feel that somehow, tacitly, I had. She launched herself into love as though she was hurling herself from a cliff: she seemed alight with happiness – incandescent with it – as if the new, golden world of being Darnay’s wife was ripening within easy reach. Of course, she was a child, and like a child she cared about the trappings, the dress she’d wear, the house they’d live in, the ring he’d give her; once I walked past her sitting on a gate with Cissy Cooper, and before they saw me and burst into stifled giggles I heard Alta say, ‘… and a long veil! Edged with lace, you know the flowery patterns with pearls sewn in—’ That didn’t worry me; what made me lie awake at night were the other times, when the woman she’d be in ten years shone through her face, and I caught a glimpse of how much she wanted him. She moved differently now, light and languid at once; she let her fingers trail across the surfaces of things as if she’d only just discovered the sense of touch. She’d lost her appetite, and even the shape of her face had changed: her mouth was wider, her cheekbones more prominent. But Darnay went on treating her as he always had: joking, teasing, as easy with her as if they were brother and sister. Maybe it was because he was so sure of her. Or maybe, I thought once, horrified, it was contempt … But no. Darnay was unvaryingly kind to her; the only person he treated with an odd, goading affability that might have been disguised scorn was me. I could have gone mad, thinking about it. So I didn’t. There was more than enough to think about, anyway: spring was gathering speed, and the first crops were starting to sprout, in the garden as well as in the fields. The sap was rising, and when the other jobs were done Ma would send us out to gather wild garlic or gallons of dandelion flowers for wine. When we stood at the edge of the bluebells in Lord Archimbolt’s wood, I laughed aloud at the spectacle: no wonder Alta was head-over-heels, it was the season for it. I almost felt like I was in love too. That week everyone’s spirits were high, because that Sunday was Wakening Fair. I’d never enjoyed it since I bought that book from the man with the stall, and Pa had been so angry; but this year I looked forward to it, and not just because it was a holiday. As I walked there with Darnay, Splotch and Alta – with my parents straggling behind, arm in arm as though they were as young as we were – I saw it all with new eyes. There were the tents, the strings of flags and the smoke of cooking fires, and everywhere people in their best clothes, flashes of colour and flushed faces, laughter and the clink of money changing hands, and the watery sun sparkling off overflowing tankards. At my side Darnay paused and whistled to himself – half amused, half daunted – and I laughed. ‘Come on,’ I said. ‘Aren’t you hungry?’ ‘Yes, actually. I’ll buy you a pie,’ he said. ‘I can buy us pies, Darnay, we’re not paupers.’ ‘All right, I only – never mind.’ Splotch was going mad, tugging and choking at the end of her rope. We made a beeline for the nearest stall. Once we’d got our pies – after two gulps Splotch licked her chops and looked up hopefully for more – we turned down one of the narrower paths and wandered aimlessly between the rows of tents and trestles. Alta stopped, naked greed on her face, in front of a table of jewellery. Darnay followed her look and said, already reaching into his pocket, ‘How much are the blue beads?’ ‘Oh – thank you – Lucian, you shouldn’t have.’ Darnay turned away, dismissing her thanks with an easy gesture. For a second I disliked him intensely – the young lord, dispensing largesse – but he caught my eye and winked. At the next stall he bought three painted wooden eggs and flipped one towards me so quickly I almost fumbled it. ‘Darnay,’ I said, as he passed the other to Alta, ‘these are meant to be symbolic, you buy them for your sweetheart.’ ‘And I have,’ he said, showing me the one he’d kept for himself. ‘For goodness’ sake, Farmer, it’s an egg. Don’t look at me like I’m trying to buy your soul.’ I laughed, with an effort, and shoved the egg into my pocket. Somewhere a bell rang, and Alta tugged me forward. ‘Come on, or I’ll be late.’ ‘You won’t be late. It’s the little girls first, not you. The ribbon dancing,’ I added to Darnay, who was looking quizzical. ‘You know, there’s a big erect pole with ribbons tied to it, and the girls dance round it and sort of knot it to death.’ ‘It’s pretty,’ Alta said. ‘And Perannon Cooper’s the Queen of the Wakening, Emmett – you’ll want to see that.’ She waved at a clump of girls who were waiting in the centre of the green, gave Darnay a quick smile and ran to join them. They were all in their best dresses, pale as primroses, and a crown of straggling flowers was wilting on every head. Most of them had left their hair loose; only Alta had pulled two slim plaits back from her forehead, as if she wanted to look different. As she joined them there was muffled laughter and they all turned to stare at us. Cissy Cooper pointed at Darnay, tried to turn it into a ladylike wave, and then convulsed with giggles. ‘I feel like a cake in a bakery window,’ Darnay said. I snorted with laughter. That was precisely the way they were looking at him: hungry, envious, wistful … All except Alta, who knew the cake was already hers. Darnay swivelled nonchalantly sideways, one hand raised to shield his face. He was blushing. ‘Do you desperately want to see the ribbon dancing? Or could we just … slip inconspicuously away?’ ‘Let’s go,’ I said. ‘Thank you.’ I didn’t say that he couldn’t ever be inconspicuous, especially not here, where every girl had her eye on him; instead I let him lead us back into the thick of the crowd, and tried to ignore Alta calling his name behind us. Once we had room we broke into a run, until at last we were at the far boundary of the fair, where the shabbiest stalls were dotted about like abandoned lean-tos. ‘Thank goodness,’ he said, leaning over to catch his breath. ‘Girls that age are frightening in groups, aren’t they?’ ‘Packs,’ I said. ‘Covens.’ I grinned. ‘You don’t have sisters, then?’ ‘Two, actually. Cecily and Lisette. Both older than me.’ ‘Really? I didn’t know that.’ It was funny how little I did know about Darnay; he’d never even mentioned his parents. I was about to say so when his face changed and I turned to see what had caught his attention. The book stall. It was set apart from the other trestles, knee-deep in the taller grass; there was a half-empty barrow next to it that had left bruised tracks in the ground. It could have been the same man I had bought a book from, years ago – a greyer, leaner, shiftier version – or someone else. It didn’t matter. The books were the same. Piles of coloured leather spines, gold-patterned; a few plainer ones; one or two with great metal clasps, the pages edged with spots of mildew … I took a step towards the stall. My heart sped up, for no reason. Darnay gripped my arm so hard I almost yelped. ‘What the devil are you doing, Farmer?’ ‘Nothing. I just—’ I blinked. ‘Don’t you know what they are?’ ‘I just want to look.’ His eyes narrowed. Without another word he spun round and walked away so fast that Splotch choked and scrabbled after him on the end of her lead. I stood still, hesitating. The ribbon-dancers’ pipe melody sang in my ears, high and shrill, coming and going on gusts of wind. The man at the stall was looking in another direction, his hair greasy under his hat; the stall itself was crooked and precarious, as if it might collapse at any moment. But the books shone in the quick spring sunlight, deep blues and reds and dusty gold-tooled green … It was like snapping a thread: a second of effort, and then I ran after Darnay. ‘Hey! Wait! For goodness’ sake—’ But I was too out of breath to carry on. I knew he’d heard me, but he sped up, jogging through the deep grass and down into the hollow. I dodged the trees and caught up with him just as a low branch swiped him across the forehead. ‘What’s going on?’ He turned to spit words at me as if we’d been fighting for a long time. ‘You like them, do you? Books? Do you have a secret stash somewhere? Something to keep you warm on a winter’s night? Someone else’s humiliation spread-eagled on a page, so you can read it over and over while you—’ ‘What?’ ‘You ought to be ashamed.’ ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘You think it’s all right, do you? For people’s lives to be sold at a fair, to keep the peasants amused in the long winter evenings?’ He hissed out a long breath through his teeth, and sagged against a tree. The swinging branch had left a thin streak of red above his eyebrow. After a moment he raised his eyes to mine and stared at me; I didn’t know what he was looking for, but at last he looked away. When he spoke again, his voice was quieter, as if I’d passed a test. ‘You really don’t know?’ ‘No.’ He ran his fingers back and forth along the scratch on his forehead. Finally he said, ‘They’re people’s lives, Farmer. Stolen. Sucked out. Memories of the worst things that have ever happened to them.’ ‘What?’ I stared at him. ‘You mean, people write down—’ ‘Write down? No! They get bound into a book, and that makes them forget.’ He scowled. ‘It’s – a kind of magic, I suppose. A dirty, sordid sort of magic. People pretend it’s something glamorous – something kind – but it isn’t. “Poor Abigail, she’s been through so much, wouldn’t it be easier if we took her memories away?” And then men like that one get hold of the books and sell them for other people to …’ He ground to a halt. ‘You knew that. You must have known that.’ I shook my head. ‘I knew that there was something … wrong. But it can’t be like that – I don’t believe it.’ But I did. That was why my parents went pale at the mention of books, why they’d never told us about them. In my head, uninvited, I saw the shadows of a camp the night before a battle; and I saw Pa, furious, about to hit me. Perhaps I was lucky not to have read the rest. ‘But you must have seen books,’ he said. ‘Even school bindings are memories. Didn’t your teachers tell you?’ ‘At school we learnt from slates. And samplers, and letters.’ I shrugged, although my shoulders felt tight and painful. ‘Never books. People round here don’t read books.’ His face had the thin, strained look it had used to have. It seemed hours before he nodded. ‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘There’s no reason why you should have known. The nearest binder is an old witch who lives miles away on the marsh, and why should you know about her? My uncle told me. Not that he bothers much with anything that isn’t in a bottle.’ There was a silence. Splotch was sniffing at something, straining at her lead. Darnay didn’t move. His eyes were lowered, but there was nothing at his feet but trodden-down grass and leaf-mould, and gnarled tree-roots just breaking the surface. A burst of birdsong clattered out over our heads, and a cold wind blew the scent of earth into my face. I put my hand into my pocket and curled my palm around the painted egg that Darnay had given me. ‘Darnay …’ ‘What?’ I didn’t know what I’d wanted to say. After a moment he pushed himself upright and walked past me, along the path that led up over the ridge. The trees grew too close for us to walk abreast, so I followed him, glad that he couldn’t see my face. I didn’t want him to glimpse the obscure wash of shame that I felt when I remembered that book, and Pa’s fury. Splotch gave a whine of excitement and darted sideways, and Darnay almost stumbled over her; but instead of laughing he tugged her sharply back to him, so that she had to abandon whatever she’d found. He stopped at the top of the little rise, where the trees ended. From here you could see the New House on the horizon, almost veiled by the freshly green trees, and the ruins of the castle and the glint of the moat in the valley below. There was a thick grey storm coming towards us, in pleats and hanks of dark cloud. The sun came out in a final extravagant blaze of light, turning everything gold; then the clouds closed in on it again. ‘Would you like to be my secretary?’ Darnay said. It took a second for the words to make sense. ‘What?’ ‘I need a secretary. It would be well paid, of course. It wouldn’t be hard, just writing letters and advising me and things like that. Don’t,’ he added, with a sudden sharp turn of the head. ‘Please, just once, listen to what I’m saying. I want y— I need someone who can think clearly, who isn’t taken in by all the nonsense. Yes, you’d be paid. But I’m not asking you to be my servant. And if you didn’t like it, you could leave.’ I turned my head and stared at the approaching storm. Its edges were like the lip of an oyster, a frill of pearl-grey against dark cloud. He was asking for a servant. For a moment I imagined myself running his estate: managing the woods and the farmland, an office in the New House, what Ma and Pa could do with my wages … ‘I have a job already,’ I said. ‘You may have noticed.’ ‘I know that. But you don’t want to stay on your father’s farm forever. Do you?’ I clenched my toes in my boots, feeling the give and suck of the mud beneath my feet. ‘It’ll be my farm when he’s old.’ ‘All right, but—’ ‘All right what? It’s not good enough?’ I turned to face him and drew myself up, to make the most of the tiny gap in our heights. ‘You mean, obviously, if someone had a choice, they’d choose to be you rather than me?’ ‘Stop it!’ He shook his head. ‘I’m not saying that. I’m offering you something else. That’s all.’ ‘I don’t need something else.’ There was a silence. I kicked a clump of grass until it lay flat, smeared with clots of mud. I knew exactly how I’d use Darnay’s estate. Pa wouldn’t be able to argue with me, or tell me I was too young to know what I was talking about; I could make it yield twice what it did now and leave enough for the poachers … When I glanced at Darnay, he was watching me; there was a tightness around his eyes and mouth as if he was trying not to show what he was thinking. He said, ‘Would you be prepared to try?’ I clenched my jaw. I wasn’t sure I could bear to take orders from him. And when he and Alta were married … ‘If I don’t,’ I said, ‘how will you find someone else?’ ‘It’s you I want. If you don’t, then I’d rather have no one at all.’ His expression changed. ‘What did I say?’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘Emmett—’ ‘No.’ He shut his eyes. It was a gesture of defeat. Then he sighed and started to make his way down the hill into the field, towards home. ‘Your damnable pride,’ he said, without energy. ‘Pride? Me?’ He didn’t answer. I wasn’t sure if he’d heard. I walked behind him. The mud gathered again on my boots and weighed me down. I said, to break the silence, ‘Doesn’t your uncle want to choose someone, anyway?’ ‘It’s none of my uncle’s business. When I go back to Castleford I’ll be working for my father, running factories.’ ‘Wait.’ I stopped. ‘I thought you were – you’re going back to Castleford?’ ‘When my father judges me to be suitably chastened.’ He glanced over his shoulder and stopped walking too. ‘Why, what did you think? I was sent away as a punishment. It was my uncle’s house or the insane asylum. I won’t be here for ever. That’s why I wanted y— Forget it. I’ll be fine.’ I dug my heel into the mud, grinding until I felt the grass break and the clay push up over my instep. ‘What about Alta?’ ‘What about her? I’m asking you.’ He started walking again so suddenly I nearly slid over trying to catch up with him. The clouds had clotted into a shadowy mass, and everything was tinged with grey. On the other side of the valley a pale curtain of rain had blown across the New House and the ruins. We reached the stile at the bottom of the hill. Darnay climbed it without a word, and then stood waiting for me, his back still turned. The bluebells here had gone over, and the last muddy slope was covered with flattened, faded leaves. A raven cawed and fell silent. I could hear him breathing. There was an inch of bark in his hair, almost the same colour, and a streak of greenish mould on the back of his neck. I said, ‘What did you do?’ ‘What?’ ‘What are you being punished for?’ He turned his head, and hesitated. His eyes were wide and preoccupied. He wanted to tell me, but he couldn’t – or he could tell me, but he didn’t want to … ‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said. ‘I’m never going to do it again.’ It started to hail. Both of us hunched instinctively against the nearest tree, but it was still too early in the year for it to give much shelter. Splotch crouched against Darnay’s knee, shivering. The hailstones hammered on my scalp and shoulders, melting into freezing trickles. ‘We’d better go back,’ I said, through the patter of ice. ‘We can get something hot to drink—’ ‘You go. I’m going home.’ ‘Darnay—’ ‘Leave me alone. I’m fine.’ He didn’t give me time to answer. Before I had time not to believe him he’d leapt the stream and was halfway across the next field, his feet slipping in the mud, his clothes already soaked and dripping. Maybe I should have followed him; but somehow it went from too soon to too late, without the right moment in between. XVI Darnay didn’t mention going back to Castleford again. Sometimes I wondered whether I’d misunderstood. Maybe he’d meant occasionally or for a few days at a time; surely this had been too long a stay to be a punishment? I tried to imagine Darnay’s father, but it was like one of those fairground boards with a hole for the face: I could picture the clothes, the gold watch and stovepipe hat, but his features were a blank. Then I tried to imagine what Darnay could have done, to be threatened with the insane asylum. It was like picking a scab, at once painful and irresistible: it occupied me while we planted turnips and cleared the stones and rolled the grass fields, niggling at me, itching in the corner of my dreams while I was asleep. Sometimes I wondered whether I should tell Alta – but tell her what? Tell her that something was wrong with him, but that I didn’t know exactly what? It was easier to keep it hidden, and to stare at her with a glazed, idiotic expression when she frowned and asked me what I was looking so thoughtful about. The only cure was when I was actually with Darnay. When we were together, none of it seemed important. All that mattered was Splotch’s newest trick, or the fence I was showing him how to repair, or whether we could bag a couple of pigeons on the way home. Darnay, to my surprise, had never fired a gun. He was bad at it, laughing at himself when the shots went wide, and in the end he’d shoved the gun at me, saying, ‘Go on, Farmer, you know you’re dying to show me how it’s done.’ Alta mourned the pigeons when they thudded into the undergrowth, but she ate pigeon pie with gusto, whether or not Darnay happened to have dinner with us. Spring widened into summer, like a river turning from a clear spate to a slow green ribbon. Alta was busier, now that the calves were weaned and she had butter and cheese to make; and then there was the sheep shearing, first ours and then at Home Farm and Greats Farm, so that for a few days we only saw Darnay briefly, when he came to see Splotch. But the day after the sheep were sheared, Pa unexpectedly leant on the pigsty wall next to me as I was feeding the pigs, and said, ‘You’ve done a good job, these last few days, lad. You can take the rest of the day off if you want it. I’ll get Alfred to do your chores.’ He reached over to scratch the sow’s back with a piece of twig. ‘You’d better wait for young Mr Darnay, so he doesn’t get under our feet here.’ It was unheard of, a holiday for no reason in the middle of summer; but I didn’t argue, and when Pa added, without looking at me, ‘Oh, and take that sister of yours with you,’ I realised that it was for Alta’s sake, because they were afraid Darnay would lose interest. It didn’t matter, or not really. I’ve never felt as free as I did that afternoon, as we wandered further and further, up through Lord Archimbolt’s woods (that should have been ours) and past the New House. Splotch always came back when she was called, so we let her wander; but we forgot to call her for a long time, and when Alta asked, ‘Where’s Splotch? Splo-otch!’ she was too far away to hear. At first we didn’t worry. Splotch was clever – much cleverer than other dogs, Darnay said – and always knew where she was. But after nearly an hour I could feel the anxiety building in my chest. Those man-traps were centuries old and rusted open, but she might somehow have caught a paw in one, or cut herself. Or she might be trapped somewhere, down a foxhole or face to face with a grumpy badger … ‘Let’s split up,’ Alta said. ‘We’ll go that way, to the stream. Meet you in half an hour, Emmett.’ She had a dainty little pocket watch that Darnay had given her for the Turning. She brought it out now with an actressy flourish, as if the whole point of the exercise was to show Darnay how grateful she was for it. ‘Good idea. You go that way, Alta,’ I said, grabbing Darnay’s arm and swinging him round before he had time to respond. ‘We’ll go uphill. We’re faster. The two of us can cover more ground.’ As we walked away Darnay gave me a sideways look, with a glint in his eye, but he didn’t say anything except, ‘Splotch’ll be all right, Farmer. Don’t worry.’ ‘I’m not.’ We struggled up the wooded bank and found ourselves at the edge of the drive to the New House, just in front of the lodge. It was even more overgrown than it had been before, with a thick curtain of ivy half burying it, but the door was ajar. It was the perfect place to root out a rat – and the perfect place to get stuck, and sit marooned under the floorboards, whining for help. ‘Come on,’ I said, pushing the door open. The floor was so dusty it crunched under our feet. There was a table in the middle of the room, two chairs – one with its seat collapsed – a heap of rotting unidentifiable canvas, piles of ancient rain-warped ledgers and wooden boxes. It smelt of damp, even now it was summer, but the sunlight streamed down from a hole in the ceiling and a warm breeze blew through one of the smashed windows. I took a look round, listening hard, but everything was still. And the floor was stone, without floorboards to get stuck under. ‘What about upstairs?’ Darnay said. The staircase was rickety but more or less complete. At the top, the floor gaped like a toothless mouth, and sunshine blazed down through a matching hole in the roof. It looked as if something huge had fallen all the way through. I edged forward and called, ‘Splotch!’ There was no answer. ‘I don’t think she’s here.’ Darnay moved round me and took a few steps across the dusty floorboards. He grimaced. ‘This is exactly the sort of place she’d like. And I’m sure I heard something.’ ‘Rats, probably.’ ‘Splotch! Come on!’ Nothing moved, except a slow plume of dust that rose and spun in a shaft of sunlight. He edged past the hole to the far corner of the room, where a tall clock lurked in the shadows. ‘Splotch!’ I followed him, treading carefully. ‘Alta’s probably found her by now,’ I said. ‘What if she’s got stuck here?’ ‘There’s nowhere to get stuck,’ I said, looking round. All that was left here was the clock, and a few mouldy pictures; one last cupboard squatted in a corner, but the door and drawer above it had gone. If Splotch had been here we would have seen her. Darnay tugged his lower lip. ‘All right,’ he said, at last. For a moment I thought he was going to add something else; then he sneezed three times in a row. ‘Let’s go.’ We went back the way we’d come, along the edge of the hole. I felt the planks start to sag under my feet, and grabbed the window sill to steady myself. Darnay reached out without touching me, letting his hand hover where I could grab it if I needed to. ‘Careful.’ ‘I am being careful.’ ‘It was just a piece of friendly advi—’ He stopped. I glanced back at him; he was staring out of the window. I started to say, ‘Is she out there?’ But before I could finish my question he grabbed me, pulling me back and sideways into the corner. ‘What’s—’ ‘Be quiet!’ He slammed me against the wall. My head hit the side of the clock, and it rang gently with the noise of wood and rusty chimes. Darnay pressed himself into the space next to me. ‘My uncle,’ he said. ‘Coming in. Don’t move.’ I frowned. He pointed to my gun and drew his finger across his throat. I leant back, my heart hammering. As long as we didn’t move … As long as he didn’t come upstairs … The door opened and closed. I concentrated on breathing silently, pushing down the panic. There were footsteps in the room below. For a chilling second I thought he was coming up the staircase; but no, he was pacing back and forth. What was he doing? A breath of pipe-smoke rose up, sickly sweet. I swallowed, trying not to cough. I felt Darnay’s eyes on my face, and gave him a tiny nod: I’m fine. The door opened again. Someone else. I clenched my jaw, resisting the urge to lean forward and see who it was. Light feet, a feminine rhythm. ‘There you are. And you’ve been poaching, haven’t you?’ My heart stopped. ‘Oh, sir, I’m afraid I have,’ a voice said. I collapsed back against the wall, drenched in sweat, soggy with relief. It wasn’t Alta. It was … I blinked, suddenly recognising the lilt of her voice. Perannon Cooper. But – Perannon? What was she doing, poaching? Her brothers, yes – but Perannon never came into the woods at all, she was only interested in boys and fashion plates, she was planning to move to Castleford as soon as she could. It didn’t make sense. ‘I saw you,’ Lord Archimbolt said. ‘You’ve got a big – plump – juicy – pheasant in your bag.’ Perannon, shoot a pheasant? I slid a sideways look at Darnay, but he was frowning at the floor. ‘Oh sir,’ she said again. Her accent was broader than it should have been; she sounded like her grandmother. ‘You caught me. You’re too clever for me.’ ‘That’s right. You’ve been a very naughty girl.’ ‘I’m very sorry, sir.’ There was a little quaver in her voice. ‘Say it!’ ‘Oh, sir. I’ve been a very naughty girl.’ ‘And you know what happens to naughty little girls like you, don’t you?’ ‘Oh …’ She breathed out, with a hiccup. ‘Oh please don’t, Lord Archimbolt, I’m only a naughty little poacher, I promise I won’t—’ ‘Bend over. And take up your skirts.’ Embarrassment flooded through me like boiling water; and then, an instant later, the insane desire to laugh. I screwed up my face, trying to repress it; beside me, Darnay put both hands over his mouth and took a long, shuddering breath. If he caught my eye … I curled my toes into the floor and clenched my fists. If we made a sound … Thwack. A belt on bare skin. Then Perannon said, without emphasis, ‘Oooh.’ I nearly burst out laughing, then. Who would have guessed that Perannon was such a bad actress? I willed myself not to look at Darnay. That was the most important thing. But I could feel him shaking with the effort to stay silent. One shared glance, and we’d both be on the floor. ‘Six of the best, young lady!’ Thwack. ‘Ooh.’ Thwack. ‘Ooh.’ Thwack – an infinitesimal pause, as if she wasn’t concentrating – ‘Ooh, please, sir!’ ‘Now, have you learnt your lesson?’ A pause, and the rustle of fabric. Then he gave a long piggish grunt, and something started to creak rhythmically. Perannon moaned, slightly out of time. Darnay shifted. ‘That was only four,’ he murmured, so low I only just caught the words. I snorted. He slapped his palm over my mouth so quickly that I felt his skin against my teeth. ‘Sssh,’ he said. ‘They’ll hear you.’ I bit him, not quite on purpose. He pulled away, and we stood shoulder to shoulder, both of us breathing in juddering gasps, fighting not to laugh out loud. ‘Good girl,’ Lord Archimbolt said, ‘good girl. I mean, bad girl.’ ‘Oh yes, oh sir, oh that’s lovely, I am sorry, I won’t do it again.’ Now they were making wordless noises. That was better – less funny. Like animals. The table was creaking louder and louder, and there was another sound, too, the scrape of wood on bare flagstones … I was about to lean forward but Darnay moved before I could, bending and tilting his head to see through the hole in the floor. Creak – squeak – scrape – creak – ‘Uh!’ – squeak – scrape— He slammed me back against the wall, and stood with half his weight pressed against me, breathing hard. For a moment we were both frozen, horrified by the noise we’d made; but nothing changed in the pounding downstairs. Darnay muttered, ‘The table’s moving. They’re right underneath. If they look up they’ll see us.’ I gritted my teeth. The clock-case dug into my back, right between my shoulder blades. Darnay had his hand on my chest, holding me where I was, our faces close. It was difficult to breathe; his ribcage was crushed against mine, and the heat coming off his body made my head spin. I thought about pushing him away, but I didn’t dare. Creak – squeak – scrape, came the sounds from downstairs. ‘Uh – ugh—’ Now Perannon was grunting too. I shut my eyes, trying to block out the sound: but suddenly I could see her in my mind’s eye, all too clearly, working up to a passionate climax that might or might not be fake. My eyes snapped open again. I tried to think of something, anything else. But there was no escape. And standing like this, with Darnay’s breath on my neck, sweat crawling in my hair … I could feel the tension running through him. His hand was burning through my shirt, right over my heart. When I undressed tonight I’d find the print of it on my skin. No, that was idiotic. I tried to think of something cool – cold water, ice – but even with my eyes fixed on the ceiling all I saw was the fine sheen of moisture on Darnay’s forehead, the dampness of his shirt-collar. And Perannon would be wet between her breasts, between her legs— I dug my fingernails into my palms as hard as I could, and kept staring at the ceiling. I thought about the peeling plaster, the scrolls of paint that hung like parchment. I counted the chipped roses that garlanded the cornice – one, two, threefourfivesix— But it was no good. I could feel the heat pooling in my groin, a familiar, delightful ache at the pit of my stomach. I bit the tip of my tongue until my mouth tasted of salt. But the blood pulsed, harder and harder, until I was tingling all over and weak at the knees. My body was betraying me, whatever I did. I swallowed, more loudly than I meant to, and Darnay shifted to look at me. I didn’t meet his eyes. If only he’d step back. If only he wasn’t so close to me. Maybe he wouldn’t notice. I was blushing, my skin as hot as sunburn. If only he’d stop looking at me. He leant sideways, so that his mouth brushed my earlobe. ‘Are you getting excited, Farmer?’ I wanted to die. Right here and now. I wanted the floor to collapse, killing all four of us. I kept my eyes on the ceiling and pretended I hadn’t heard. ‘If it’s unbearable,’ he murmured, as intimate as a voice inside my head, ‘feel free to … er … deal with it. Quietly.’ ‘Shut up.’ ‘Would you like a hand?’ ‘Go to hell, Darnay.’ In spite of myself I glanced at him. He was laughing silently, his forehead pressed against the wall. After a moment he caught my eye and winked. I took hold of his shoulder and squeezed slowly until I felt my fingers dig into the space between his bones. He twisted away, still grinning at me, mocking me, daring me – to do what? Hitting him would be too noisy. ‘Oh – good girl – oh yes – uh, uh-huh, urgghh—’ After the crescendo came a pause. We stood frozen, listening. At last there was the rustle of fabric, the clink of a belt buckle, and the lighter chink of coins dropping into a purse. Perannon said, ‘Thank you, Lord Archimbolt.’ Her accent had magically disappeared; now she sounded like me or Alta. ‘Same time next week?’ ‘That’s right, lass.’ A few light footsteps, and then the door slammed. Darnay and I swapped glances, waiting: it would be stupid to relax too soon. But a few minutes later – after a yawn, and the crackle of a match, and a new blue cloud of pipe smoke drifting up through the floor – the door opened and shut again. Darnay eased sideways to stare out of the window. He exhaled, in a large unguarded breath that seemed to go on forever. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘My uncle always said he came down hard on poachers.’ We exploded with laughter at the same moment. It was a relief to be able to give in to it. We bent over, convulsing, and laughed so hard we choked. It took a long time before we were steady enough to clamber back across the hole on to the wider bit of floor, and then Darnay paused, shaking his head. ‘I can’t believe that just happened,’ he said, through his giggles, and gave a sudden splutter that sent saliva flying through the sunlight. It set me off again to see him like that, and we staggered in a zigzag like drunks, clutching our ribs. ‘I was sure I was going to sneeze.’ ‘Don’t fall into the hole—’ I reached out and grabbed Darnay’s arm. Together we stumbled precariously down the stairs and out into the leafy sunlight. ‘I bet you’re glad I don’t treat poachers like that.’ I shook my head, trying to catch my breath. ‘Don’t.’ He sobered up before I did. When I finally managed to pull myself together, he was standing staring back at the lodge, a smile still playing around the corners of his mouth. ‘Who was that? I mean, the girl.’ ‘Perannon Cooper.’ His glance at me was unreadable. I added, ‘I didn’t know she was a whore.’ ‘Perannon Cooper? You – like her, don’t you?’ I remembered, with surprise, that I’d used to. ‘Not any more.’ ‘No, well …’ He gave me a crooked smile, as if he thought I was lying. ‘No, I mean – not for ages, not since …’ I stopped. ‘How did you know that, anyway?’ ‘Alta mentioned it once.’ He shrugged one shoulder, turning away. ‘I remembered the name, that’s all.’ ‘Right.’ The back of his neck was damp. His shirt had two long creases down his spine like knife-blades. I fiddled with the strap of my gun, wishing I knew what I wanted to say. Suddenly he spun on his heel. ‘Splotch! We’d better go on looking. I completely – I can’t believe we—’ ‘Of course. Let’s go.’ He set off, running through the trees until his shirt was just a flash of white in the green. I hesitated. I had to follow him, or I’d lose him. But there was something nagging at me, a dislocated feeling like the onset of an illness. Or like I’d left something behind. A long way away I heard Splotch bark. I squashed the feeling down until it disappeared, and ran towards her voice. After that, Darnay stopped coming to see us. At first we thought – we told each other, anyway – that it was nothing, he hadn’t had time that day, and that he’d be there tomorrow. But the days stretched to a week and there was no letter or message from him, and Alta begged me to go with her to the New House to see if he was there. That day I’d been relaying the stones around the cows’ watering pool, and I was glad of the quiet walk and the breeze that dried the sweat on my shirt; but when we walked up the drive and rang the bell there was no answer at all, not even a curt dismissal from the housekeeper. Alta turned and looked at me. She looked shrivelled, like a flower that had been caught out by a frost. ‘What if he’s died, Em?’ ‘Don’t be stupid. We’d have heard by now.’ ‘What if—’ ‘Shut up!’ We walked back in silence. It seemed obvious that he’d gone back to Castleford without a word, without even saying goodbye … But I couldn’t bring myself to tell Alta. Surely he couldn’t be so cruel. But he didn’t come. The atmosphere at home was thick and crackling with tension; Ma and Pa shouted at each other, Alta threw a tantrum in the dairy and let two days’ worth of unskimmed milk turn sour, and Splotch pricked up her ears and whined every time a horse went past the gate. I worked so hard and relentlessly in the heat that I came home every evening with a splitting headache, but even so I struggled to sleep; at night I sat by my window, my forehead pressed against the glass to cool it, wishes and curses so mixed up in my brain I hardly knew which were which. Then it was Midsummer Eve. There was a row because Alta refused to show her face at the village bonfire, and a row because I called her a spoilt little madam who’d need to start looking for someone else, and a row because when I apologised she boxed my ears. We went to the bonfire, but it was no fun; every mouthful of beer tasted sour, and Pa drank too much and almost started a fight with Martin Cooper. I turned away and let Ma wrench them apart. But when I stared in the opposite direction, I found myself looking at Alta, standing a little way apart from the other girls. They were all in their best dresses, the way they’d been at Wakening Fair, and they had wreaths of summer flowers around their necks and wrists; but then Alta had been at the centre of the group, sleek with happiness, and the others had given her sidelong glances of envy. Now Cissy Cooper called, ‘Alta, come and listen, Gertie’s engaged,’ and Gertie tossed her head and said, ‘Don’t worry, Alta, you’ll find someone soon,’ and I wanted to slap them both for the smug note in their voices. But I knew Alta was too proud to let me catch her arm and take her home; and so was I, and so were Ma and Pa, and so we stayed and laughed and sang with the others. We walked home at dawn, like unwounded soldiers after a defeat, trying to pretend we hadn’t lost. I fell asleep late – well, early, just as the sun was slanting over the gate into the yard – with my face against the window. The image of Alta’s face, withered with misery, haunted me. It was my fault. Somehow, it was my fault. If I had … I didn’t know what I should have done differently, but it was my fault. The thought went round and round; it was maddening, but at least it kept the other thoughts at bay, the ones about Darnay. Something rattled on the glass next to my cheek. I jerked upright, out of my doze; then it happened again, and I opened the window and peered out, blinking. It was already mid-morning, and already hot. ‘Farmer,’ Darnay called up. ‘Where is everyone?’ ‘It’s Midsummer Day,’ I said. ‘We’re all asleep. Where have you been?’ ‘Come down, will you?’ He bent to pat Splotch, who was turning excited circles at his feet. I dragged my clothes on and wiped the dried spit from my chin. I paused at Alta’s door, half wanting to pay her back for the slap, but made myself knock. ‘Alta! Darnay’s come back,’ I said, and heard her bedsprings jingle as she sat upright. ‘Tell him I don’t want to see him,’ she said, and her feet padded across the room to the chest of drawers where she kept her best nightgown. I pelted down the stairs and out into the yard, jamming my boots on as I went. Darnay looked round and laughed. ‘You look … improvised,’ he said. ‘The bonfire ends at dawn,’ I said. ‘We come home and feed the animals, and then we can sleep till noon. Even Pa does. It’s a holiday.’ ‘Oh. Sorry, have I—’ ‘No,’ I said, too quickly. ‘No, it’s good to see you.’ There was a silence. Darnay bent to tug Splotch’s ears. ‘Alta won’t talk to you,’ I said. ‘That’s a shame.’ ‘I think she wants you to insist on seeing her. Beg her forgiveness. You know.’ ‘Will you talk to me?’ ‘Yes. Obviously.’ ‘That’s all right, then. Come on.’ He clicked to Splotch and walked out of the gate before I had time to tie my bootlaces. ‘Darnay,’ I said, catching up with him, ‘where have you been? We thought – Alta thought – I mean, we were worried.’ ‘I was thinking,’ he said. ‘Thinking? For a week?’ ‘I’m a very slow thinker.’ It was meant to make me laugh, and it did; but I noticed when we went on walking that he’d dodged the question. I said, ‘Where are we going?’ ‘We’re walking Splotch.’ I followed him without thinking, glad we were taking a path through the woods, dazzled by the green-gold play of sunlight through the trees; and it wasn’t until he stopped at the edge of the wood that I realised where he’d brought us. At our feet there was a still expanse of water, a little darker blue than the sky; and on the other side was the ruined castle. We’d always avoided the ruins, as if neither of us wanted to be reminded of the day we’d met; but now, overhung with wisteria, with its reflection trembling gently in the moat, the old castle seemed so far from the haunted black-and-red of that winter afternoon that it could have been another place. I breathed in, and from across the water I caught a sweet, rich scent like cloves. We circled the moat and sauntered across the bridge while Splotch ran ahead of us. I walked into the little courtyard and leant against the well-head, tilting my head back to feel the sun on my face. I could hardly open my eyes against the light; when I tried, the tower and the walls blurred into a shimmer of sand-coloured stone, dancing water-light, leaves and fierce blue sky. I was breathless and dizzy, as if my blood was too thin, and I wondered if I was still drunk. I wiped the last gritty flecks of sleep from my eyes and turned to shield my face from the sun. Dark shapes flickered over my vision. Darnay had paused to look down at the water, staring as if he could read something in the mud at the bottom. At last he said, ‘I wanted to ask you something, Farmer.’ ‘All right.’ ‘It’s about Alta.’ ‘She’s just sulking,’ I said. ‘You probably should have banged on her door and pleaded with her to see you, but if you play your cards right it won’t take more than a couple of boxes of candied fruit.’ ‘That’s not what I was going to ask.’ I took a deep breath. The sun was too hot, all of a sudden; if only I hadn’t drunk so much last night. ‘She’ll be fine,’ I said. ‘She’s only fifteen. She’ll get over it – only be gentle with her, Darnay, she’s not as tough as she tries to b—’ ‘Will you shut up!’ He dragged a hand over his face, and for a second it was as if he was the one who hadn’t slept. He paused so long that it seemed deliberate. Then he said, ‘I thought I might ask her to marry me.’ XVII I stared at him. I couldn’t remember when I had really looked at him, at his face: his eyes were dark, but one iris held tiny flecks of amber and ochre where the sun hit it; the skin across his cheekbones was flushed, freckled so faintly it was hardly visible. He bit his lip and I noticed the slight asymmetry of his teeth, and how white they were. I didn’t feel anything. All this time, all these months, we’d waited for him to say that – or something like it; and now he’d said the words, and the rest of our lives could begin. I lowered my head and kicked at a stone on the base of the well-head. The brightness of the sun was stinging my eyes. The warm air smelt flat and flowery, like old rosewater. ‘Right,’ I said. He went on watching me with an open, direct gaze that made me feel like he was waiting for something more. ‘Won’t you …’ I cleared my throat. ‘We’re only farmers. Will your parents – your father—’ ‘He can’t stop me. We could marry in secret, and then …’ His eyes slid away and then back to my face. ‘I’ll look after her. It’ll be all right.’ ‘Then … good,’ I said. ‘Alta’ll be delighted.’ He nodded. I turned away and went to look through the arch into the ruined hall. The sun slanted through the wisteria-hung windows and patterned the grass with squares of brighter green. My head ached. ‘I thought you’d be pleased.’ ‘I am.’ I forced myself to smile at him over my shoulder. ‘Of course I’m pleased. We were all hoping this would happen.’ He didn’t return the smile. ‘Were you?’ ‘Naturally. I mean – yes.’ Naturally made it sound as if we were after his money. But then, if he’d been poor, Ma and Pa would never have … I pressed my knuckle into a gap between the stones of the arch and leant my whole weight on it. ‘I hope you’ll both be very happy together.’ Silence. A stock dove called from the foliage above me, with a sound like a clanking bell. ‘Is that it, then? No spontaneous outburst of joy? No fraternal handshake?’ ‘I said I was pleased. It’s not about me, is it? I’m sure Alta will more than make up for my bad manners.’ ‘I didn’t mean that.’ He scuffed his shoe against the base of the wall. His face was lit from below by the sun dancing off the water. Shadows flickered across his eyes. ‘What’s the matter, Farmer? Do you still think I’ll break her heart?’ ‘No.’ It was true. Somehow, without knowing when, I’d learnt to trust him. ‘You still hate me, then? It’s fine, you can tell me the truth.’ ‘Don’t be daft.’ ‘Then what? I really care about her. I won’t let you down.’ I pushed my knuckle harder into the sharp-edged stone. When I took it out again the skin was beaded with tiny specks of blood. He was right. I should be pleased. I should be relieved. Now Alta could have her long veil with pearls embroidered on the edge; and she could have a house in Castleford, and a lady’s maid; and she could have Darnay. Everything she wanted – in that order. Distantly I knew that was unfair, but I didn’t care. ‘Why are you asking me?’ I said. ‘Ask Ma and Pa. Ask Alta. Why does it matter what I think?’ ‘Because—’ But I didn’t wait to hear his answer. I went through the arch into the high roofless hall and stood at one end of it, breathing as slowly as I could, trying to focus on what was here and now: the roses that spilt down the walls, the wide mossy band of paving stones, the short grass … Someone looked after it, I realised, it was a garden, not just a ruin. Funny, when Lord Archimbolt let everything else fall apart. ‘Emmett. Talk to me. What’s wrong? If you don’t want …’ ‘Please don’t marry her,’ I said, and put my hands over my face. ‘All right.’ I heard the words, but they didn’t make sense. ‘Sorry,’ I said, forcing the words past the fierce ache in my throat. ‘No, you should marry her, of course, I’m just – it’s – I don’t know why, it’s stupid, I didn’t sleep much last night, that’s all – forget it, I didn’t mean—’ He took hold of my arm and pulled me round to face him. Then he kissed me. A bell chimed six o’clock. I knew it was the clock on the New House stables, nearly a mile away, but the warm air was so still it could have been just the other side of the moat. A few moments later it repeated the hour – another six notes – and it was as if time itself had paused. I’d never felt such quietness; nothing moved, except the faintest tremor in the water, the flick of a fish breaking the mirror. Birds sang suddenly and then lapsed back into silence. The sun had dipped behind the trees on the hill, but the sky was still bright; it was the longest day, it would be hours before it was dark. ‘Emmett?’ I looked round. Darnay was standing in the half-ruined doorway. His shirt was buttoned wrong, and one corner hung lower th