At first, far from making up for lost time, we lost still more of it: I had no more idea the Odolghes did where the Cajutes’ stronghold lay, and we stumbled around the mountains for another whole day and night, getting tireder and tireder and hungrier and hungrier, before we finally met up with some shepherds who put us on the right track. And even then the way was so long it was almost sundown when we came out of the shadows of the last valley and caught sight of the castle on a pink-lit hill before us.
I had never seen a real castle at close range before, except once, in winter, when we did some mining work for the Latrones. Who are a shabby sort of tribe anyway, and keep their livestock indoors with them and live much the same easy-going, muck-and-manger life.
The home of the Cajutes was altogether different. It was a huge stone dwelling in the shape of a slightly wonky necklace, covering the entire hilltop, with high walls running all the way round and towers let into them at intervals, like beads. On top of the walls were wooden spikes, thick as bullocks’ shinbones, pointing outwards in an unfriendly fashion, and on top of the towers were piles of just as unfriendly looking stones. Like a well made necklace, too, at first sight you could hardly see where the opening was, but as my father and I drew nearer we caught sight of a narrow black slit at the base of one of the towers, which we imagined, for want of any other hole to choose from, must be the entrance.
‘How do the horses get in without being squashed?’ I whispered to Odolghes, scarcely moving my lips. We were still too far away for anyone to see us but I reckoned it was best to be careful.
‘Hang the horses!’ he said crossly, so I realised he was a bit jumpier than he let on. ‘How do we get in without being squashed? There are sentinels posted on every blasted tower. Look, you can see the points of their helmets sticking up behind the crenels.’
I couldn’t see anything, but then my eyes aren’t very good, never were. Mole eyes as Alexa called them. Maybe it’d have helped if I’d known what crenels were. ‘Wave your zither at them, Father,’ I suggested. ‘Start up some music so they know we’re not dangerous.’
Odolghes nodded and unstrapped the zither and passed it on to me. We were dangerous, he said in a tough voice meant to reassure both of us; we were dangerous as wolves if only the Cajutes knew it. ‘And you start up the music, Bossy Breeches. That’s what you’re here for.’
So, my fingers trembling a little, I began playing a few strummy bits on the zither, and Odolghes, rather too loudly to sound comfortable, began singing one of his back-to-front songs, and in this way we approached the castle, right up to the door, without any trouble at all, not even a stone in our faces.
The Cajutes must have been keener on music than we’d dared hope, and starved of it too, because there was a whole crowd of them waiting inside the narrow doorway to meet us, eyes popping and mouths gaping and feet jiggling up and down in the rudiments of a clumsy dance. Not at all the ferocious welcome we had feared from the spikes.
But not a kind welcome either, more of a greedy sniffing at something appetizing that had come their way. Their language was quite similar to ours really, though they spoke it with a funny accent, so I was able to pick up some of their words straight away. Speelers, they gabbled to one another excitedly, Sengers (meaning singers). Guk at en (look at them) – un mon end un kidden. (That was me, the kidden.) Wofon kommen en? Wàswara wollen en? Was it safe (their word was ‘sikker’, like our ‘secure’) to let us in?
Although maybe I am wrong and they were talking about sicker in the sense of disease, because they drew back a bit now and made signs at us to open our mouths and undo our clothing at the neck and bare our chests at them, and didn’t in fact let us past the door until they had looked us all over like livestock at a fair. It was a good thing they didn’t touch as well as look, or they might easily have discovered the iron arm, and with it Odolghes’ identity, but all they did when they noticed it hanging lifeless by his side was to point to it and say, ‘Brocken?’ To which Odolghes replied, ‘Brocken’, and that was it.
And the music, they wanted to know? The kidden would play the music? Yes, the mon would sing and the kidden would play the music. The kidden wouldn’t sing because the kidden’s voice was brocken like the mon’s arm, but the kidden would play the music.
If the outside of the castle was grand, the inside knocked me speechless (really speechless, not just pretending) by its finery and the number of things it contained. There were rooms for everything: for cooking in, for eating in, for sleeping in, even for dawdling around and talking in, the way most of the high rank Cajutes seemed to do most of the time. The rooms weren’t just empty shelters either, like our Miners’ tents, there were cupboards in them to keep things in – bundled away, out of sight – and tables to put things on, and hooks to hang things on, and shelves for stacking and chairs for sitting and hammocks for reclining and little low footstools for propping up the feet: every sort of contraption for making life comfortable.
Odolghes seemed to take all this splendour in his stride and told me, later that night when we were safe in our sleeping quarters near the kennels, that Fànes had been grander still, grander that I could ever imagine, with embroidered hangings on the walls and copper candlesticks and cushions stuffed with feathers to rest your backside on, and fancy things like that. But whether this was true or he was just boasting, to me our new surroundings were quite magnificent enough.
I wish I could say the same for the Cajutes themselves, only I can’t; I find it hard to say anything nice about them at all. That first evening at their court I was too tired and hungry and worried about playing properly to notice much about them; all I remember is a line of wobbly faces staring down at Odolghes and me from behind the grease-lamps on the high table, tilting this way and that as the diners listened to our music, and later on a jumble of legs and skirts and feet and corns, very close to us, as all of them – eaters and servers and cooks and children – took to the floor in a wild after-supper stampede. Next day, however, I began to pick out details and to realise that, for all their riches, we had indeed entered the homestead of a very rough and savage lot of people. It showed in various things: in the way they groomed their hair, for example, or the way they didn’t groom it but twisted it up in a fat-smeared topknot and left it there, never more to disturb save for poking in a bodkin now and again to still the itching. Men, women, even children, even babies, it made no difference, all sported the same greasy, wispy knobble. It showed in the way they wore their clothes, which, fine though they were, they seldom changed, not even to go to bed. And it showed in the beds themselves: feathered and pungent as the earths of foxes and, like them, full of scraps of left-over food for the occupant to chew on at night, or else breakfast on without bothering to leave the bed.
Because, gracious, they were an idle lot for a warrior race. Miners aren’t that famous for their cleanliness, I know, but at least we have a reason for being dirty, and at least we try to get the worst of the grime off. These people, no, they seemed to glory in it. I saw one of the women change her baby’s dress once (it must have got too small for the child to wear), and, I swear, the discarded dress, instead of flopping to the ground, stood straight up like a tent, it was so stiff with ugg.
‘A nos ne san valel nia,’ as the Fanes say, according to Odolghes who had taken to speaking to me in his own language now when we were alone. No business of ours. But it wasn’t just the dirt, or the smells, or the way they peed (and worse) wherever they happened to be standing, or the way they kept the blood on their hands after hunting and licked at it, and messy things like that, it was the sullenness of their characters that really made them so unpleasant to live with and work for. They rarely smiled; their eyes rarely lit up, either with interest or with anything else. Even when they danced there was something dull about them, something heavy and plodding and ox-like that prevented them from having what I call fun.
Odolghes and I had feared questions, but after the first quizzing on our arrival they didn’t ask us any. We were there to serve them music when they felt like it, not to speak to or bother about. What we did for the rest of the time didn’t concern them, any more than it concerned them what the dogs did in the kennels next door when they were not wanted for hunting.
We were the ones anxious for information. Whereabouts were the Cajutes’ metal works now that they did their own excavating and forging? Were they inside the castle precincts or somewhere outside? Where did they store their metal? Where did it come from? Who brought it to the works, and when, and how often? Until we knew the answers to these questions our search for the magic stone couldn’t even begin. And both of us, I think, were becoming more and more eager with every passing day not only to begin it but to end it as soon as possible.
Lacking the language and not wanting to draw a shred of attention to ourselves, not even from the castle cats, we started by just looking. Roaming around the various courtyards, pretending to practise our songs, and looking for all we were worth. Music was hardly ever called for in the daytime except when there was a hunting party setting off or the Queen felt whimsy, so we were usually free to go where we liked. Nobody seemed to mind us, nobody seemed to care. Sometimes one of the guards - probably an officer, only they were all so crusty it was difficult to tell - would prod his scabbard into my father’s stomach and grunt, ‘Seng!’ at him, and we would have to do as we were bid and seng; but usually they just let us go on our way without comment, chewing on whatever plant it was they chewed all day long and scratching their mail-clad backs against the wall.
One or two of the smaller children sometimes showed a bit more interest, staring at me with my zither and pointing and making hopeful ‘Brrm’ noises, but usually its mother clapped it on the head to silence it and hauled it away. Not angrily, just forcefully, the way you would haul a hay bale.
‘They’re so slack we could steal anything from them,’ I whispered to Odolghes after our first stroll, which had taken us to the bakery and the dairy but no further. Free to roam we might be, but we wanted things to stay that way.
He shook his head and told me not to count on it. They were confident, he said, they had nothing to fear, and why should they? There was no other tribe could match their strength, not while they’d got the stone to find their metal for them.
Mmmn, I agreed, only half convinced, but what if they didn’t have the stone? Odolghes seemed so sure they must, but what if this Mulebones character or whatever his name was had kept it for himself? Sold the secret of the iron making but kept the stone for future use? That’s what a really clever person would have done, surely? And by all accounts Mulebones was the cleverest man alive.
Odolghes shrugged his shoulders and winced: the arm didn’t fit very well and often bothered him. Seeing that we were alone in our hut and unlikely to be needed till evening he began unstrapping it, but then thought better and let it be. ‘Alive…’ he said slowly, as if weighing the word inside his head or testing it out in some way. ‘Hmm, alive. Now that’s one thing he can’t be. You may be right about the stone, my sweet: it is just possible Mulebones hung on to it, or tried to, although I think it very unlikely, knowing how greedy he was for the gold. But that he’s still alive, no, that’s out of the question. His hair was white already when I knew him. All of it.’
White? All white hair? That was more unusual in people than in horses; I didn’t think I had ever seen anyone with all white hair. Streaky, yes, like my grandfather’s, but not all over white. I was very relieved I’d never have to meet such a man, although for some reason he fascinated me, this Mulebones, and I wanted to know more about him. ‘If he’s dead like you say,’ I insisted, ‘then where’s all the gold got to? What did he do with it? Who did he leave it to?’
My father forgot his arm and shrugged again, and winced again. ‘That,’ he said, ‘is something we’ll probably never know, but we won’t let it bother us either. Once we have the stone, and some proper organisation, we can turn it into as much gold as we like.’
Could we, I wondered? How? But I didn’t have time to ask because at that very instant a young Cajute soldier barged into the hut without warning and clicked his fingers at us and said we were wanted in the great hall, on account of there being ‘Guesters’.
How wise Odolghes had been to keep his arm on. I promised myself to follow his example and play safe always. I had seen the spikes on the wall at close range now and noticed some very nasty bits and pieces clinging to them, not unlike the pumpkins of Alexa’s description.
(Chapter 4 coming up next Monday, May 10 2010)