At first Odolghes tried to be angry with me for what I had done, but he was so pleased with the findings he couldn’t keep a cross enough face. ‘You’re sure, aren’t you,’ he kept asking, uncreasing his frown each time in his eagerness, ‘those weren’t just breadcrumbs in those pouches?’
Yes, I was sure. Bits of metal fuzz were still lodged under my nails. Take a look if he needed convincing. Besides, no one, surely, no matter how greedy, had a secret pouch specially sewn into all their dresses for keeping bread in.
The brow smoothed altogether and the eyes underneath sparkled like azure chips. I loved the colour of his eyes; mine are just an ordinary brown. ‘Then our job’s as good as done. All we’ve got to do is to winkle the stone out of the dress the Queen is wearing and make off with it as fast as we can. Simple.’
‘With the stone, Father, or the dress?’
Odolghes didn’t think this was funny. Nor did I really because the problem that faced us was enormous. It was quickly said, Winkle the stone out of the Queen’s pocket, but to do it, to actually stand there and winkle it, that was another matter. We had agreed at the start that the Cajutes’ habit of seldom changing their clothes was their affair, but now, suddenly and most inconveniently, it had become ours.
I had the bright idea, seeing how the other ladies had reacted, of getting Odolghes to tell the Queen he’d seen a mouse run up her skirt, in the hope she’d go berserk and strip all her clothes off on the spot, or at least the bits of clothes we were interested in, but it didn’t work very well when he tried to put it into practice. ‘A mouse?’ was all she said incuriously, lifting her eyes from her weaving as if they were tied to the warp and yawning straight into his face. ‘Whereabouts, pray?’
‘There, Majesty!’ Odolghes cried, pointing to where the Queen’s waist should have been if she’d had one. We had agreed beforehand it was best to aim high. ‘Right up there! With respect, I can see it moving, I can see the bulge!’
Thwack! she went with they shuttle on the place he had indicated. ‘Bet you don’t see it moving now.’ And without more ado went back to her loom. No, undressing the Queen, unnerving the Queen, or even unsettling the Queen by so much as a whisker twitch was no easy task.
Luckily, though, nature was on our side, since there is one thing you can’t very well do with all your clothes on, no matter how unparticular you are, and that is have a baby. I don’t know whether the whack had anything to do with it, or whether her time was up anyway, but only a short while after this incident the Queen went into labour, giving us what both Odolghes and I realized immediately was likely to be our only chance, if we were not to wait for the next royal farrowing. Briskly for a change she took to her bed; the dress was – at long last – removed and stuffed into a clothes-basket on the landing, and in the hurry and flurry of the birth, with all the ladies rushing backwards and forwards carrying things and tripping over one another and sloshing water and swearing in a most unladylike manner, I was able to sit on the landing unnoticed, in the lee of the basket, and winkle at my leisure.
Over what to do afterwards, Odolghes and I had had our first real quarrel since we were in partnership, and I have to admit that this time he showed more sense than I did. I was for stealing and running: making off down the underground passage with our prize, overcoming the guard at the other end, preferably with a swipe of Odolghes’s hard metal arm, and then footing it as fast as we could through the mine tunnels and out into the open country. But Odolghes said this was madness and that I needed my head trepanning. What we must do, he insisted, was to keep our nerve and sit tight and make sure nobody connected us with the missing stone, either now or later. Missing stone, mind you, not stolen. Because when I did my winkling I was to make a hole in the pocket of the dress so that it would look as if the stone had simply fallen through it by mischance, plop, somewhere onto the ground. Then, once we had the stone safely in our possession, we would hide it in an unfindable place (what place? Why, in a stony place of course, you ninny: up on the ramparts, in the middle of a pile of sling stones) and wait until all the fuss died down before collecting it and making our departure. Departure, mind you again, not escape. For we would run nowhere, we would just grow more and more slipshod with our singing, and repeat ourselves over and over, until the Cajutes grew so tired of us they would chuck us out themselves and send us on our way.
Odolghes’s plan had its dangers: ‘chucking’ was not the sort of thing the Cajutes were likely to do in a tender fashion, and their boredom would probably be just as nasty as their rage - to us on the receiving end. It also had the drawback – almost unbearable to me, who was getting very homesick by now and longing for my mother – of being slow. However I had to admit in the end it was better than mine, that was no sort of plan at all, and the moment I felt the stone slip through the broken seam and into my grasp I closed my hand over it in triumph, wiggled quietly out of the bustle, unseen, and obediently took it straight to the agreed hiding place on the ramparts.
Once I had found a suitable hole for it, though, on the side of one of the heaps of stones, and fitted it into place, a worrying thought struck me. Would we be able to find it again when we wanted it? Would anyone? A little darker maybe, a little rougher to the touch, but it looked like all the others. (Indeed to be quite honest I was already having slight difficulty picking it out. Was it this one? No, silly, it was the other one, next door, the one that was still warm from my hand.) I looked around for a marker but found nothing, not even a twig or a leaf, so I just had to be content with rubbing my foot on the face of the stone in the hope the smell would linger, and numbering the stone’s position: seventh pile ahead as you emerged from the stairwell, eighth layer left-hand side from top of pile, fourteenth stone from left-hand corner, twelfth (not counting a tiny one which was out of line) from the right.
These numbers I muttered to myself all the way back to our hut and then repeated them to Odolghes, who, not being very strong on memory, engraved them on his iron arm with the tip of a knife. Once he’d done that, see, he explained, whistling while he scraped away, we were in the cow’s belly. Meaning that we were sitting comfortably as regards the stone. Stones didn’t move and numbers didn’t lie, and when we needed our precious pebble, there it would be, in that exact position.
Cow’s belly? Well, all I can say is our cow must have had the collywobbles for all the comfort its belly gave. The rest of our stay with the Cajutes, waiting and indeed working for our dismissal, was so grim and wearisome I hardly like to record it. Odolghes was right and nobody thought of linking us to the disappearance of the famous iron-stone, let alone blaming us, but tempers were so soured by the loss that we came in for a good share of punishment all the same. And that was before we began muffing our songs.
Together with the other serving people we were made to crawl on hands and knees criss-cross all over the castle grounds, picking up whatever stones we found there and putting them into a special basket for the Queen to examine. This search, all the drearier to us who knew that it was useless, lasted for three whole days. (Which sounds nothing, but just you try it.) Then we were taken to the mines, along the underground passage trodden by the Queen, and made to repeat the same procedure: up and down every corridor, in and out of every nook. My breeches had holes in the knees by the end of the second day, and after that it was the knees themselves. I kept begging Odolghes to change his mind and let us escape from this drudgery, especially now we had learnt the way out but, although he paled when he saw my sores and carried me on his back from then on to stop them worsening, he wouldn’t listen. ‘We have put up with a great deal, picera,’ he said (picera meant little one, or loved one, in Fanish and was a name he had never called me by before), ‘we must grit our teeth and put up with a teeny bit more.’
Only it wasn’t a teeny bit, it was a lot. Having fed and housed us for so long, the Cajutes were unwilling to let us go, no matter how slack our performance. If we played worse they would treat us worse, this seemed to be their reasoning: they would take away our mattress, skimp our food, deny us rest and get their outlay back that way. Dud dogs that didn’t do their work on the hunting field were given kicks and cornhusks; dud musicians would fare the same.
Odolghes stole food for me when he could, and gave me his when he couldn’t, and tried to shield me from all the cruellest insults and hardest kicks, but by the time the winter weather started to set in I could see from the way he looked at me, and especially from the way he felt my knobbly wrist bones and listened to my night time coughing, that he was changing his mind about escape. In fact we had already begun to plan our route, or at least to talk about it at night to keep our spirits up, when suddenly, almost magically, a stray flute player turned up at the gate, rather like we had done ourselves all those months ago, and in the space of a pot-boil – the time it took for the flute player to get the Queen’s new baby off to sleep – we found ourselves dismissed.
With such harshness, too, as you can imagine, and such a shower of Scram’s! and Good Riddance’s! and Clear out, caterwaulers! from the soldiers who came to deliver the news, that we scarcely had time to do the most important thing of all, namely to go and fetch the stone from its hiding place before we left.
Luckily we were given a few moments alone for the packing of our belongings and the cleaning of the hut: it must have been needed for the flute player. So while Odolghes, deliberately slowly and clumsily, was doing just this, I clambered up to the ramparts as fast as I could and made straight for pile no. 7 where the stone was hidden.
Or should have been, according to my calculations. But when I reached the spot, instead of searching or counting, I just crumpled up in despair and began to cry. It wasn’t a question of numbers or smells or remembering or not remembering: the pile was quite a different shape. For some reason – perhaps because it had collapsed in the rain, or the stones had been used for bird shooting, or maybe for no reason at all, just evil luck – it had been completely rearranged. Although disarranged is the better word. Before, it had been tall and square-based and the stones had been in layers; now it was a mound shaped like a pudding, with the stones jumbled about any old where.
Through my tears I sniffed the contours of the pile, trying to pick up a trace. Half-heartedly at first, then with no heart in my search at all. The stones smelt of wet and nothing else; the one I wanted might be right in the middle or might not be there at all.
I was still sitting there, snivelling rather than sniffing, when Odolghes emerged from the stairway, wild-eyed and out of breath. ‘Got it?’ he puffed, running towards me with his funny lopsided run. ‘Give it here! We’ve got to go now. The guards will be back in a shake to hoof us out. There’s one on my tail already.’
So then I told him what had happened and waited to see how he would take it: whether he would be cross with me or the Earth Goddess or with himself, or whether he would just be sad.
He wasn’t any of these, he was wonderful. He sat down beside me and took me in his arm and said, Too bad and, Who cared, and to stop crying because anyway, stone or no stone, we were free now, and perhaps it was better so. The magic stone had caused such trouble in the past: perhaps it was better lost, with no one to claim it but the soil. And so saying he hoisted up his false arm, which felt no pain, and swung it hard against the pile, as much as to say, ‘There, take that! Go your way, stone, we can do very well without you!’
A moment later, mind you, he seemed to change his mind and began scrabbling urgently at the heap with his good arm, picking out several stones at random and asking me, ‘Is this the one? Is this the one? Is it this? Could it be this? Or this?’ But he had to stop quickly and shove them back in again, as the guard who had been following him appeared in the stairway and began scanning the ramparts to see where we were.
Having spotted us, he came towards us threateningly, walking crab-wise, hand on sword hilt. What was this shifty Senger couple up to? Couldn’t trust them a spit span. But as he drew nearer he relaxed and allowed himself a superior kind of smile. Whynen, he said to Odolghes, pointing at me and then tapping his cheeks just under his eyes to indicate tears. (As if we didn’t know what whining meant.) The kidden was whynen, didn’t want to leave, didn’t want to lose its bread, that’s why it had come up here to hide. Ha! Too late now for whynen. Should have done its job better and then it could have stayed. Pouss! March! Both of us! Foui! At the doppel!
Still barking out commands he chivvied us down the long twisting staircase and out into the courtyard, where the rolled up bundle of our belongings was already waiting for us, spattered with what looked like raindrops. Only it wasn’t raining so I’m afraid it was something else. On top of the bundle lay the zither.
To more taunts from the bystanders we picked up our gear and, eyes screwed up against any more drops of whatever it was, we walked across the courtyard, through the narrow, unwelcoming threshold, and began to cross the drawbridge, towards freedom and the outside world.
The Cajutes were taking their precautions though. Halfway across the bridge another pair of guards stopped us, felt us all over with probing fingers the way they had done on our arrival, made us turn out our pockets, splay our legs, open our mouths, raise our arms, brocken one excepted, and, on finding nothing, told us with very bad grace to leave our bundle and continue without it. I looked pleadingly at Odolghes - the things inside were nearly all mine, and there was food for the journey as well – but he shrugged and made sign to do as the guards said.
‘Zitter too!’ they ordered. And without even waiting for it to be properly unstrapped, the more senior of the pair dragged the zither from around Odolghes’s neck and threw it on the ground, where he trampled on it like a child in a temper until it was only splinters.
So it was with completely empty hands and empty pockets and empty stomachs and empty everythings that Odolghes and I finally made our getaway from the Cajutes’ fortress. No clothes except the ones we wore, no food, no pay, no means of earning any without our instrument. No toothpicks either, unless you count zither fragments, some of which I had picked up as a keepsake: it was such lovely wood. And, saddest of all when you think how hard we’d worked for it and all the risks we had run, no Miners’ stone.
Or so we thought. Right up to the moment when Odolghes decided we were far enough away from the castle for him to remove his arm, which was chafing more than usual. And then, clinging to the lower part of the arm, near where the wrist was, quite as if it were a living thing with a mind and a will and a strength of its own, we found it.
Magic? Yes, but not as magic as you might think. Nor as we thought ourselves in our first rush of amazement. Later, when we put our heads together, we worked it out and did some trials to prove it. The stone could find iron, you see, but by the same token iron could find the stone. Not at any great distance - the range was about a thumbnail’s breadth - but placed within that range the two materials, iron and stone, would seek each other out and strain to come together, quivering like the noses of two truffle hounds. It was fascinating to watch, and rather frightening when you consider that neither nose was alive.
So when Odolghes had struck out at the pile like that with his imitation arm, that is what must have happened: by incredible good luck he must have touched the stone, or at any rate come very close to touching it, and strain and quiver and seek and reach, the invisible pull had done the rest. Another long hungry journey lay ahead of us now, but this time we felt so light inside we sped across the mountains like chamois. I didn’t talk much because my voice had gone rusty from lack of exercise, but Odolghes sang at the top of his, and now and again he tossed the arm in the air, with the stone still sticking to it fast, and looked at me as he caught it again, and together we laughed and laughed.
(Chapter 6 next sunday, may 23rd 2010