Authors: James Moloney
THE BOOK OF LIES
For Charlotte and Sydney. Welcome to the world.
N A NIGHT WHEN angry clouds boiled and burst overhead and the people of Fallside prayed by their fires that the storm would soon pass, four men emerged from the forest that surrounded the village. None spoke a word, and even their footsteps were unnaturally silent as they splashed through muddy pools. They wore heavy robes, their faces shrouded in cavernous hoods like damned monks cast out into the night and driven to this remote corner of the Kingdom by their deeds. Between them, they carried a bundle wrapped in a sodden blanket, the coarsely woven cloth straining under the weight of their load.
The village lay on the other side of a stone bridge across a stream. It was no more than a handful of wretched houses, really, all clustered around the main street between the inn at one end and the church at the other. But these men were not heading for Fallside. Before they reached the bridge they turned and hurried towards the waterfall that gave the village its name. Here, where a stream suddenly plunged into the valley below, they found their destination.
A house stood alone, only fifty paces from the cliff’s edge, two storeys of grey stone with a single-roomed tower rising, like a grim warrior on guard, from its centre. As the men approached, a yellow light flickered in the two narrow windows of this tower, watching them like eyes.
They passed silently through the gate and across the cobbled courtyard to the kitchen. The blanket was placed carefully on the stoop and once it was settled their leader rapped three times on the heavy door. His hand paused for three counts, then knocked again, once, twice, three times, beginning a strange and ghostly rhythm that would continue until the door was opened.
Upstairs, a woman stirred in her sagging bed. She hoped that the knocking had been in her dreams, but there it was again. One, two, three. Slowly – for she was worn out after a hard day’s work – she lit a candle, and pausing only to gather her patched and mended dressing gown around her, she hurried into the corridor.
Her son was already waiting. “The knocking,” he whispered. “Another one has come.” He towered over his portly mother, the candlelight picking out the ugly spots that marred his cheeks and left him feeling awkward in front of the village girls. “Should I fetch His Lordship?” he asked.
The woman shook her head briefly, which made the fleshy folds beneath her chin jiggle and sway. “He will know already. Our job is to get the poor thing inside,” she said, as she led him down the staircase and into the kitchen.
The knocking continued relentlessly. One, two, three. The sound sent a shiver through the woman’s body. She had been listening out for it, but she prayed that the noise had not woken anyone else. She mustn’t lose courage now. Steeling herself, she drew back the bolt and pulled open the door.
A gust of misty rain greeted her, snuffing out the candle and obliging her to take a tighter grip on the folds of her dressing gown. Here were the hooded figures she had seen before, but she forced herself to ignore them and let her eyes fall quickly to the shape wrapped in the saturated blanket. “Is this one even breathing?” she gasped.
The faceless figures made no answer. Nor would they carry the blanket and its hidden cargo across the threshold. Together, she and her son had to step into the rain and drag the heavy load from the paving stones themselves.
Finally they released their burden and the woman relit her candle. Holding it close, she reached out tentatively to turn
back the blanket. “A boy,” she said, adding, as she touched his forehead, “Oh, and he’s as cold as ice.”
“He’s not dead, is he?” asked her son anxiously. He could cope with his fear of the silent visitors, but the body of a dead child…
“No, and he’ll live a long life yet if I have anything to do with it. We’ll soon put some colour back into those cheeks. Quickly now, upstairs with him,” she said briskly.
But her son didn’t move. Instead, he stared over her shoulder, which made her turn around. The kitchen door was still open to the rain and the four strangers huddled under the eaves.
“Will you not come inside and warm yourselves while we tend to the boy?”
Such kindness came naturally to her, but this was not the first time the strangers had come and she guessed her offer would not be accepted. When the hooded figures remained silent and still, she sighed and told them, “Your job is done, then. You may as well go.”
She could only watch as they turned quickly and began the long journey back to wherever they had come from. When she bolted the door, she caught a last glimpse of the four silhouetted forms as they marched through her gate and disappeared into the darkness.
The woman did not realise it, but above her in the tower another figure stood watching. With his eyes on the departing
travellers, he passed a hand before his face in a single sweeping movement. Suddenly, the men stopped and stared about them, as sleepwalkers do when awakened from a dream. Their first tentative words escaped into the rain-swept night and one of them pushed back his hood to reveal a bewildered face. He pointed the way uncertainly and led them towards the village and the dark forest beyond. In the morning, they would forget they had ever come to Fallside or brought a sleeping boy to a house near the cliff’s edge.
In an upstairs room, a little girl lay straining her ears for every sound. She had struggled to stay awake, hoping to hear an entirely different noise, but tonight it had not come. Instead, the ominous knocking had started up, frightening her, and she had buried herself deeper under the blankets. But it had stopped now, and only moments ago she had heard the bolt snap back into place on the kitchen door.
Someone was coming up the stairs – two people, she guessed, when the footsteps passed her door. They continued down the hall to the small guest room at the end. Her curiosity had been roused and she felt she would never sleep until she knew why. She slipped out of bed, then, sure-footed and without a sound, she crept to the door at the end of the hall. It had been left ajar, just an inch, but enough to let the pale candlelight spill into the passageway.
“He’s a fine-looking boy,” said a woman’s voice, one she
easily recognised. “We’d better get him out of these wet things.”
The girl heard muffled sounds, then at length the two sets of footsteps came towards the door, leaving her just enough time to step aside before it opened wide to reveal the woman’s familiar figure, with a bundle of damp clothing under her arm, and her son close at her shoulder. He held a candle for them to see by, but neither noticed the girl even though they passed close enough to touch her. She was not surprised; in fact, her face creased into a satisfied smile.
When the light had disappeared altogether, she tiptoed inside and closed the door behind her. With the candle gone, she had to wait while her eyes adjusted. After a minute or two she could see that the room was simply furnished with a bed, a roughly made table and stool and a battered wardrobe. The room was so small that there was little space for anything more.
The boy was sleeping deeply. She poked him gently on the shoulder. No response. She poked harder and still he didn’t stir. She shook him vigorously and even pulled his ear, but he slept on. Surely such slumber wasn’t natural. Distracted by these efforts to wake him, she didn’t hear the footsteps in the corridor until they were right outside the door. With only a moment to hide, she flicked the wardrobe latch and stepped silently into the shadows behind the door. There she waited, as still as a stone.
Her heart beat frantically as she watched a man slowly walk across the room, carrying a candle. He held it away from his face to protect his eyes and so she could not see his features, but his movements were stiff and stern. He might once have been as tall as the doorway itself but now old age made him stoop at the waist. Robes of the darkest green and black fell loosely from his pinched shoulders, pooling untidily where they touched the floor.
He carried something heavy in the crook of his arm, hugging it tightly to his chest like a young mother holds her new baby. A book, the girl realised, when he placed it carefully on the table. Free of his precious burden, he went to stand over the sleeping boy, lingering there for some time. Then, releasing a deep and weary sigh, he stretched his hand out over the boy’s face and began to mutter words she couldn’t hear.
“No! No!” the boy cried immediately. With his eyes still closed, he thrashed wildly under the blanket until the man pressed one hand firmly on his shoulder. At the same time, he continued to sweep the other over the boy’s face, palm turned downwards. The boy lay still, but his resistance was not over. In a much calmer voice now, he recited a verse that seemed to come from a part of him that the old man could not reach.
My fate is my own, my heart remains free
But before he could utter any more words, long and aged fingers touched his lips. “Be still now, Marcel. Your magic is no match for mine.”
The boy cried out, a loud and desolate sound of loss as though his very soul had been wrenched from his grasp. But that hand remained over his face and he settled again into a fitful sleep.