Authors: Eoin McNamee
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General, #Action & Adventure - General, #Children's Books, #Action & Adventure, #Juvenile Fiction, #Fantasy & Magic, #Fantasy fiction, #Children's Books - Young Adult Fiction, #Friendship, #Ages 9-12 Fiction, #Children: Grades 4-6, #Social Issues, #Social Issues - Friendship, #Adventure and adventurers, #Philosophy, #Space and time, #Adventure stories, #Adventure fiction, #Metaphysics, #Science Fiction; Fantasy; Magic, #Fairy Tales; Folklore & Mythology
The Frost Child
The procession moved in silence. At its head, the body of the great Harsh king was borne along on a black wagon. The wagon was drawn by six horses, if they could be said to be living horses. Their coats gleamed in a way that suggested health, but the gleam came in fact from a coating of frost, and their hooves appeared to be of ice. The horses' heads were the same shape and size as that of a normal horse, but their eyes were dark and lifeless, and icicles hung from their mouths
Behind the wagon came the Harsh in procession. Ice kings and queens, princes and dukes of frost, their gorgeous icy raiment shimmering as they moved. And behind them, carried aloft, the small solitary figure of a Harsh child, the only one of his kind
The procession was silent, because the Harsh did not need to speak among themselves. But for those with ears to hear, conversation moved among them like leaves whistling in the wind
and the subject of the conversation was always the same. Revenge. Swift and merciless retribution against the boy who had caused the death of their great king. The boy who had thwarted their plans. The Harsh were haters of warmth and life, and twice already they had attacked the very fabric of time in an attempt to destroy all living things. They had wreaked great destruction on the earth, but each time Owen the Navigator had stood in their way. After the king was buried the boy and his world would be crushed for once and for all
And so it was that when the great frozen doors of the king's tomb had clanged shut forever and the terrible funeral rites of the Harsh had been observed, the frozen kings and queens gathered in conference, standing in their hundreds before the tomb. They fell silent as the dead king's wife raised her hand. The Harsh could change their appearance, and she appeared to them as a young girl, cold and beautiful, the better to persuade them
"We have waited too long," she said, "and have given our enemies the chance to escape. I say no more!"
"What is your proposal?" A tall prince spoke
"We still control most of time. We should unleash a flood of time, and upon that flood we can launch our ships."
"The fleet," the prince murmured, "you are talking about the fleet."
"We should set sail on time itself" the queen said, "hunt down this boy, slayer of my husband."
"The fleet is ready," he replied. "It is time to take our revenge on this boy."
"Revenge!" the queen shrieked. The young girl faded and her real face appeared, that of an ancient and terrible crone
"Revenge!" The word ran through the crowd
"Launch the fleet!" The queen's voice rose in command
"The fleet! The fleet!" The crowd chanted the words, although they made no sound that could be heard by human ear. The queen smiled grimly and bowed. The Harsh were going to war. Only one small child standing to the side of the throng did not raise his voice in acclaim
Perhaps they should have been watching the grand father clock. Owen and his mother had taken over a little house that had belonged to a woman called Mary White. To the rest of the town Mary had been just a simple shopkeeper. But Owen and his mother knew her as one of the links between a secret world and the world they lived in. More than that, she was the keeper of a secret. The grandfather clock was not just a timepiece. When you opened it you found a gateway into time itself, known as an ingress. Owen and Martha, his mother, knew the clock was important, but even if they had been watching it, they might have missed the sign, or not have recognized it for what it was. And besides, it was growing dark.
Owen lit the oil lamp and placed it on the table. The electricity supply was better than it had been but was still unreliable, and they were grateful for the wood-burning
stove in the sitting room. It had been ten months since the moon had almost crashed into the earth, and the rebuilding was still going on. All over the world, power stations had been damaged, roads and bridges destroyed.
Owen was one of three adventurers who had traveled across time to the great City of Hadima in order to save the world. They had brought back a tempod from the City. The tempod was a rare hollow rock containing a quantity of time, enough to repair the fabric of space and time and send the moon back to its proper orbit. The Harsh had drained time from the world, disrupting gravity, and sending the moon plunging toward the earth. The adventurers had succeeded in stopping the Harsh, but the damage wrought on the earth had been terrible.
Even now the school in the nearby town was only open for three hours a day, and half the people had not returned, giving the streets a strange deserted feel. But still, the little house they had moved into after Mary had died was cozy, and Owen's mother was stronger than she had been for years. They both knew that there were battles to come, and that Owen's friends, the Resisters, would wake once more to defend the fabric of time, but these days they were happy with simple things, such as the pie his mother now set on the table, steam rising from the crust. Martha cut into it and put a slice on Owen's plate, the oil lamp casting shadows on his pale face that made him look serious and grown-up, until he reached for his knife and fork and dove greedily in.
"Take it easy," she said, laughing. "Leave some for me."
Perhaps that was the moment they should have looked at the clock, but they were content in each other's company, and in any event, it was nothing. Just the hands of the clock hesitating for a brief moment, trembling as if they bore a huge weight, and then moving on as normal. The only sign that something had changed.
A mile away Cati leaned on the parapet of the Workhouse, eating a supper of cheese and hard biscuit. She could see the light in Owen's window and wondered what her friend was doing. She shifted restlessly. She was one of the Resisters, fighters dedicated to protecting time. All of the other Resisters were asleep in a place beneath the Workhouse called the Starry, bound to remain there until there was a threat and they were called. Cati's job as Watcher was to guard them and wake them when needed. She lived in the shadows of time where no one could see her, and was only allowed to contact Owen in an emergency. Someday, she thought, she would get used to the loneliness of it.
She sighed and stretched. Every evening before she went to bed she patrolled the Workhouse, the ancient building above the riverbank that was the headquarters of the Resisters. To the outside world the building was a ruin, but Cati knew that it stood on an island in time, and had on many occasions served as a bulwark against chaos when the normal smooth flowing of the hours and years had been interrupted.
She knew every stone and every passageway and longed for the days when, instead of being empty and
cold, the rooms were thronged with men and women. She walked through the great silent kitchens, then went to look at the Skyward, their friend Dr. Diamond's laboratory, which was hidden deep underground for the moment. Inside its glass walls the Skyward was dark and still, but she could imagine the doctor at work in it, inventing and studying. She half smiled at the thought--you were as likely to get a permafrozen rose as a cake from the battered old oven by the door, or find yourself seeing backward in time through a contraption made from what looked like old vacuum cleaner parts.
Her final task was to check on the sleeping Resisters. She went round the side of the building and carefully unlocked the hidden door to the Starry, the chamber under the earth where the adults and children waited for the call to rise. Beneath the domed and star-flecked ceiling, the Resisters lay sleeping, row after row of them on beds with their hands folded on their breasts, breathing gently. Her heart warmed as she saw familiar faces. Dr. Diamond, a smile on his face. Pieta, the brave and proud warrior, her strange mocking eyes closed for now. Cati shook her head, feeling the sleep of the Starry wash over her. If she stayed there long enough, the sleep would overcome her. With a wistful grin, she stepped back out into the fresh air and locked the door behind her.
If she had stayed another minute, she would have seen what happened. But perhaps she would not have known
what it meant. It was only a small thing. For a moment everyone in the room held their breath, and then they breathed normally again.
Cati went down to her small room deep inside the Workhouse. She lit the fire she had laid and curled up in bed with one of Dr. Diamond's books--a history of the Workhouse. After a few minutes she put it aside. She was glad that everyone was safe again, and was proud of the part that she and Owen and the doctor had taken in bringing back a tempod from Hadima and using the quantity of time it contained to save the world. But, proud and glad as she was, she wished that something would
. She didn't want the moon to come close to the earth again, or anything dangerous like that--just something to break the monotony of the days. She pulled the sheets over her head and tried to sleep.
In a forest far away--the distance measured not so much in space as in time--another girl about the same age as Cati would have given anything for five peaceful minutes in a warm bed. Instead she crouched at the base of a tree in the snow, drawing great shuddering breaths. She had lost her pursuit for the moment, but there was a long way to go and she was cold and hungry. The tree branches had raked at her skin, and her clothes were filthy and torn. Wearily she got to her feet and felt in her pocket for the last of the dry bread and cheese. She wolfed down the food and forced a handful of snow into her mouth to follow it. Then she crammed her battered hat onto her
head and gathered her torn black shawl around her, a look of determination on her face. It might be too late to save her birthplace, the great city of Hadima, but perhaps her friends Owen, Cati, and Dr. Diamond could do something. And if not, she could at least warn them of the great danger they were in. Moving lightly in her high-heeled shoes, Rosie ducked under a branch and plunged into the trees. In a moment she was gone.
Owen walked home from school, signs of the damage caused by the out-of-control moon still visible everywhere. Some shops had reopened--many of them in buildings that were only half repaired. He went into what used to be a sweetshop on the corner below the bus station. Now the elderly man sold anything he could, from old car batteries to secondhand shoes. But today, the man smiled through his cracked glasses.
"The first delivery this year!" He beamed, indicating a full carton of chocolate bars on the counter. With the little money he had, Owen bought two bars.
As he left the shop he met a group of children coming from the junior school that had been set up in the old town hall after their school had been destroyed. They were chatting happily, but Owen thought that they looked thin, and some didn't have coats to protect them from the cold east wind blowing up from the harbor.
"Hey!" he called. "Come here." The children ran over and stared at him curiously.
"Sit down on the wall," he said. He distributed the chocolate between them, keeping two pieces for his mother.
They examined the chocolate carefully before putting it in their mouths, and Owen realized that some of them might not have tasted chocolate since before the moon had swung off course.
"You live in that shop out beyond the river," a solemn-looking little boy said.
"That's right," Owen replied.
"Out where Johnston lives," the boy went on.
"Used to live," Owen corrected him. Johnston had been the Watcher for the Harsh, as Cati was the Watcher for the Resisters. He had been the Harsh's ally and spy in the human world, and a formidable foe. On their journey back from Hadima with the tempod Owen had seen Johnston swallowed up by time itself. Since then Johnston hadn't been seen in the town. But the child's next words made his blood run cold.
"Lives," the boy said. "I seen smoke coming from Johnston's chimney." Owen stared at the child. He had kept an eye on Johnston's house and had seen nothing.
"You couldn't have," Owen said at last.
"I did so." The boy stuck out his chin. "Smoke coming from the chimney."
Owen watched the children walk off down the street. Surely the boy was mistaken. For a moment he considered
going down to the Workhouse and calling Cati from the shadows to talk about it. He was permitted to do that if he thought there was a threat to time. Better, though, if he went to Johnston's and looked first. There had been many times in the past months when he had gone to his private hideaway, the Den on the riverbank, and thought of calling out to Cati so that she would appear and they could talk about everything that had happened. But he knew that she took her position as the Watcher very seriously and would be furious if he broke the rules by calling her just to chat. No. He would go alone and report back to her if he found anything.
He hid his schoolbag in a hedge and went up the hill. It took fifteen minutes to walk to Johnston's gate, the landscape changing as he approached--trees and fields giving way to wasteland where trees had been uprooted and ancient hedges bulldozed. There were oily puddles on each side of the road, and the grass was withered and brown.
The gateway to Johnston's house had once been gracious, but now the railings were caked in rust and the gate hung drunkenly from its hinges. Empty oil drums lay about the place. Looking nervously up and down, Owen stepped onto the pitted drive. Lime and chestnut trees lined the driveway, but they were each and every one lifeless, their bare and crooked branches arching over the drive. Owen could see the outline of the house up ahead, and forced himself on. A solitary raven croaked a single note from the black branches over his head.