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Tash had felt the same sense of relief Josie had when they bid goodbye to Blackbriar and turned their faces back towards Telmar, a sense that he was turning back to a nest of safety in a dangerous and irritating world. The empty blue lands had called to him, and part of him would have liked to stride out across them, seeing new places each day and meeting peculiar new people; but the greater part of him wanted only to return to the place where he had a good idea of where everything was, and people were unlikely to bother him, and he could curl up with Josie whenever they liked.

This camp by the riverside was a good something-in-between, and he had quite enjoyed their brief holiday there. It was a pity that Josie was still so tired, and had stayed behind at their camp, he thought: but she was never patient with fishing anyway, and she would be pleased with what he had found for her when he came back.

Tash had spent longer than he had expected to, cheerfully tracking the big fish to their deep lurking pool and gathering two of them. By the time he returned to Josie the cloudless sky was a pink shading to grey, and the birds of evening were making their first tentative forays across it. He tarried a little to watch them from time to time, fascinated; they were such interesting creatures, like nothing he had known on his old world.

Josie had not yet lit the fire, Tash noticed as he drew nearer. Perhaps she had fallen asleep? He hurried on, feeling uneasy, and became very much more so when he found no sign of Josie at the camp.

‘Josie?’ he called out. ‘Josie!’

Tash cast about for any signs of his wife. In one place the bracken underfoot seemed to have been trampled by some large creature; in a soft patch of earth by the river, there was the booted footprint of a man. Strangers had been here. Josie had gone with them. No, she had been taken. She would not have gone willingly. She would not have left everything so scattered about. And he could smell that she had been afraid.

The light was failing, and it was not clear which way the strangers had gone. Tash crouched down at the edge of the camp, put his arms over his head and tried to think. He had come from upriver and had heard or seen nothing; perhaps they had come from downriver? If any of them were still near, they were sure to find him; he had shouted lfor Josie loud enough. He crouched for a few long minutes, forcing himself to breathe slowly, listening as hard as he could. He heard nothing but the birds and the river. When no one came, he got to his feet and struck off into the shadowy forest.

Tash saw the fire of the brigands’ camp about three hours into the night after he had walked a wide circle through the woods, frightening woodland creatures as he passed them by. While he walked he had forced himself to stay calm, to conserve his energy, making himself into an instrument for finding Josie, but when he saw the light he began to seethe with rage. Who were these men, to take his Josie? Tash quickened his stride and moved towards the flickering flames, dimly aware of the voices of men and the noises of beasts already alarmed at his approach.

‘Halt!’ called a voice. ‘Name yourself, if you are man or talking beast.’ It was the voice of a human man, but Tash could tell nothing more about it.

‘Where is Josie?’ Tash called in response.

‘Put down your weapons, and advance slowly,’ said the voice. Then it said, ‘By the Lion!’, for Tash had not slowed at all on being told to halt, but had continued to stride angrily on, and his bulk had just become visible on the edge of the firelight. Horses whinnied in alarm, and men scurried for their weapons. They were dark men like Yustus, Tash saw, but most were taller and more heavyset than he had been, and they wore unkempt beards.

‘Halt!’ called one of the men, pointing a complicated sort of bow at Tash.

‘Where is Josie?’ called Tash again, his voice rising to an inhuman roar.

‘What is that beast?’ called one of the men. ‘He is a monster from Telmar,’ said another, and raised his hands to his face in a sign to ward off evil. But the men who had more of their wits about them had swords in their hands, or arrows notched to bowstrings, so there were a good half-dozen weapons pointed at Tash by the time he was near enough to feel the heat of the fire.

‘I don’t know of any Josie,’ said a smooth voice that seemed to hold less fear than the others. The man who belonged to this voice had come striding up swiftly at the first sounds of alarm, and now stood closer to Tash than any of the men who had their weapons trained on him. This man had a beard that was more neatly trimmed than the others, and wore a polished leather breastplate with the image of some insect embossed on it. He spoke as if he met apparitions such as Tash as a matter of course, and held his curved sword in a way that somehow contrived to be neither defensive nor aggressive. A leader must never show fear before his followers, Tash remembered learning on the world of the Thalarka. This one is afraid of me, like the others, but he cannot show it.

‘Is Josie a creature like yourself? Or is it a man you seek?,’ asked the smooth-voiced man. ‘For it might be that we seek the same man. Tell me more, and it may be we can help one another.’

The man stepped took another step closer, keeping his eyes fixed on Tash and his voice calm and steady. ‘We are looking-‘ he began, but he did not finish.

Tash could smell Josie on the smooth-voiced man. With a cry of inarticulate rage, he lashed out. The man was quick with his sword, and brought his blade in position to block Tash’s blow, but the strength that would have stopped a strong human warrior’s swordarm was not enough to stop Tash. The sword cut deep into Tash’s arms, and in one of them stopped at bone; but the other arm carried through and struck the man’s throat, with force enough that things inside it splintered. The man staggered backward, dropping his weapon, gurgling and clutching at the air.

‘Kill it!’ called a man. Tash felt arrows tearing into his flesh, and heard the sickening sound they made as they stuck there. The bowmen had encircled him, so they could not fire high for fear of hitting one another, and most of their shots struck him in the legs.

One man was bolder than the others and came at Tash with his sword. The blade stabbed deep into Tash’s side a little above his waist. Without thinking, Tash brought his beak down into the man’s neck, cutting through artery and windpipe in a single swift bite. The intrepid swordsman’s momentum carried him forward and he fell behind Tash, fountaining blood.

Tash had never been in so much pain, but he did not care. He kicked at the fire, sending up a storm of dancing sparks. Another arrow sank deeply into his back. The taste of the brigand’s blood was sweet in his mouth.

‘Where is Josie?’ he shouted.

‘Keep your distance,’ said one of the men, waving the others back. ‘Keep shooting it. It is too strong.’

The horses were maddened by Tash’s violence and now one broke free of its bonds, kicking wildly and careening wildly off into the darkness. Curses, screams, and inarticulate conflicting orders filled the air. The tear in Tash’s side burned and bled.

Tash pounced to the nearest of the brigands, a bowman who was fumbling to notch another arrow to his bowstring, and broke both his arms in one motion, twisting them like saplings.

‘Where is Josie?’ he cried again. ‘Where is she?’ More arrows struck Tash, but no other swordsman dared to come near. He grabbed a tentpole and drove it through the chest of one of the bowmen who was not standing quite far enough away.

‘The monster will kill us all,’ called one of the men.

Inexorably, irresistibly, heedless of his wounds, Tash hacked his way through the camp, searching for his wife. The brigands fell away before him. The man whose arms Tash had broken wailed in agony. Red foam bubbled from the mouth of the one Tash had impaled with the tentpole.

‘In the commander’s tent,’ called a man with an angular face, one of those who had held back from the fight. ‘The wine-red tent. The girl is in there.’

Tash tore into the big wine-red tent, which was still too small for him to stand upright in. On a bed of blankets at the rear of it Josie lay insensible, her legs showing white in the darkness. She smelled of the smooth-voicced man.

‘Josie?’ Tash gathered her up. She lay limply in his arms, but she groaned at the sound of his voice, and he could not see any wound on her. She was alive.

A wild exultant happiness welled up in Tash. ‘Sweeter than narbul venom is it to serve the Mistress of Telmar,’ he intoned in a soft voice, wrapping his arms around Josie to protect her. He did not leave the tent the way he entered – he could hear the men coming cautiously closer to the front – but instead tore his way through the cloth at the back, bringing the tent down behind him as he fled. A few steps further they were in darkness, and Tash loped off towards the river.

At first Tash did not think of the pain at all in his joy at having Josie back. After a very little while, though, he found he could only carry her with three arms. The fourth, the one the leader of the brigands had struck with his sword, hung stiff and useless. The cries of the men carried a long way in the still night, but it did not seem that they were following, and they grew fainter and fainter as Tash crashed through the darkness. At the river side he paused. He needed to set Josie down to do two things: to gather up their things, and to remove the arrows sticking into him. The one in his back was the worst, for he wrenched it sideways as he pulled it out, and afterwards it hurt him even more than the wound in his side. It was hard to gather up Josie and start again, harder than he had thought it would be; his arms and legs felt too heavy, and he felt dizzy. And he hurt, worse and worse.

After he forded the river Tash could no longer run, only walk. With Josie clutched unconscious to his chest he walked on until dawn, then for two hours after, while the birds sang and the sun shone down on meadows carpeted with blue and white flowers. The world occasionally spun giddily around him or bucked unexpectedly, but he ignored this and walked on.

Tash had never been in so much pain for so long, and he had rarely been so tired, but he was not miserable. It was true that he had failed in allowing Josie to be captured, but he had not been at all useless in rescuing her. He had not failed Josie as he had failed Nera. He had cut through the brigands who had captured Josie: inexorably, irresistibly, and he had saved his wife. Now he would go home with her and be safe. He clung to this thought as he walked on, and it kept him happy despite all his pain.

Tash did not feel sorry for the brigands, and think that any of them might have been poor farmers’ sons impressed against their will, with doting sisters at home who would cry when they heard they were dead. Chances are that none of them were, at any rate; and if humans are not often brought up to think of their enemies in such a way, thalarka were brought up even less so when Tash was growing up.

The pain from the wound in Tash’s side had somehow spread to that whole side of his body, and from time to time he had to stop entirely as a spasm of pain went through him.

‘Tash?’ said Josie muzzily.

‘Josie?’ Tash clutched her a bit more tightly to him, and turned to look at her. Her face was paler than usual and she looked thoroughly miserable.

‘I am so glad you are here, dear Tash,’ she said, in a small weak voice. ‘I love you. Can you put me down? I feel sick.’

‘I love you,’ said Tash tenderly, carefully setting Josie down on the grass. She did not stand, or even sit properly at first, but slumped forward, holding her face just off the ground with her hands. She threw up, and then very slowly and carefully stood up, with Tash helping as much as he could manage.

‘Bleh,’ said Josie. ‘Oh, I am so glad you are here.’ She sounded a little better, Tash thought. It was so very very good to hear her voice again, even if it seemed further away then usual.

‘How are you?’ Tash asked her. ‘Did they hurt you?’

‘My head hurts, I feel ill, and – your arm is all over blood, Tash. Poor Tash. Oh, I am so sorry.’ Josie sounded very alarmed.

‘I am alright,’ said Tash. This was not true. The wound in his side had hurt him more and more as he walked, and the flow of blood from it had not stopped, trickling all the way to his feet.

‘No, you are hurt,’ said Josie. She felt him over gently, finding many of his wounds. ‘You are all over blood. Poor Tash. This one is very deep.’ He twitched and hissed at her gentlest touch, the pain making it hard for him to keep standing. ‘Oh, poor Tash, you have been hurt terribly. You must sit down.’

‘I can keep going,’ said Tash. ‘I want to get home.’

‘You are shaking,’ said Josie. ‘And over warm. Sit. Put the packs down.’

Tash obeyed. It was very easy to sit down when he began. The soft grass seemed to drag him to it. The ground rocked gently beneath him, and above him clouds made lazy circles in the painfully blue sky. In the end he found himself more lying down than sitting.

‘What happened to you?’ Tash asked Josie. He lay with his eyes closed, happy that Josie was there, waiting to hear her voice again.

Josie did not answer Tash’s question. ‘There is no water in the canteen,’ she said after a moment. ‘Is there any water near?’

‘There was a stream not long ago,’ said Tash. ‘I will take you there.’

‘No,’ said Josie firmly. ‘I think I can hear it. I will be very careful; you don’t have to worry about me. I feel much better now.’

‘I wish you could stay,’ he said mournfully.

‘I am not going far,’ she said. ‘I will be right back. Just rest for a while, dear Tash, I will be back before you know it.’ She kissed the soft downy bit of his neck and left, and he was very sorry that she was leaving, but he did not complain.

Tash listened to Josie moving slowly off across the meadow, breaking a switch from a willow, and then moving more slowly into the forest. He felt very heavy. The world, which had not rocked or spun for a while after he lay down, started to move again. He found if he stayed very still and tried to breathe very shallowly it seemed to hurt a little bit less. He tried hard to concentrate on doing this, at the same time listening hard for the sounds of Josie in the distance.

On the afternoon of the fifth day they were camped by the river, Tash went off looking for a better place to fish. ‘There are more good fish in this river,’ he told Josie. ‘I can tell. But they have learned that I am here, and there is so much water for them to hide in.’

‘Good luck, Tash,’ she called after him, and settled down to listen dozily to the sounds of the river.

The kinds of sounds a river makes, as I am sure you know, are the kinds of sounds that make you more conscious of the fact that your bladder is full, and after she had lain resting awhile this outweighed Josie’s desire to keep laying there doing nothing. ‘Bother,’ she said, and got up and walked a little ways away from the stream. Once Josie was further from the stream she could other sounds. There was the crunching of undergrowth underfoot, branches being pulled back and let go: the sounds of someone approaching. Could Tash be back already? No, he had gone upriver, and the sounds were very clearly coming from downriver.

Josie hastily returned to the camp. There was no way to hide their things before whoever it was came this way- before they came this way, for there were two separate pairs of feet. They sounded to Josie much more like men than beasts. And they were very close, the sounds they had made as they approached muted by the swollen river.

‘Hail!’ called a voice. ‘Is someone there?’ It was the first voice of a man Josie had heard since the death of Yustus. It had the gruff, confident tone of the kind of man who lives his life out of doors doing things that do not need a lot of artful thinking or book-learning, but a great willingness to take risks and an easy sort of halfway-decent competence in all manner of practical things. It was the kind of voice she had heard often when she was growing up, and it instantly made her feel smaller again, more like the girl Josephine Furness and less like Josie, Mistress of Telmar.

‘Hail!’ called Josie back, trying to sound strong and confident.

‘Why, it’s a maiden!’ the voice said with some surprise, drawing nearer. There was some broad male laughter. ‘And a northern lass, if my eyes do not deceive me. What possessed you to journey in these wilds, northern lass?’

The two men had walked up swiftly since Josie had admitted her presence, and now stood with her at the edge of the patch of sandy ground where she had made camp. She could smell the stale breath of men who eat a great deal of meat and are not particular about cleaning their teeth, and their sweat, and an oil rather like the oil they had used back home for oiling saddles.

‘I am travelling through,’ said Josie. ‘My companions- companion and I.’

She felt it would not be a good idea to volunteer too much about who she was and where she was going.

‘Why, that is the very thing we and our company are doing,’ said the man who had spoken. He laughed again. ‘Where are you bound? It might be we could travel together.’

‘I would rather not say,’ said Josie.

‘Is something wrong with your eyes?’ asked the second man. He had a more cunning, thoughtful sort of voice that reminded Josie uncomfortably of the magician Yustus.

‘I am blind,’ said Josie.

‘That is a great pity, lass,’ said the first man. ‘That means you cannot see the handsome face of Arishan here. He is accounted a great beauty back at home.’

‘Tell us of your companion,’ said Arishan. ’Is she a northern maiden, like yourself?’

‘No,’ said Josie. ‘He is a man. A big, strong man.’

‘There is just one bed made here,’ pointed out the man named Arishan in his unpleasant oily voice.

‘My companion is my husband,’ said Josie.

‘A fortunate man he must be, to have such a courteous and well-formed wife,’ said the first man.

‘I cannot see any man’s clothing among your things here,’ said Arishan. ‘I hope your husband has not deserted you.’

‘No, he will be back very soon,’ said Josie, starting to feel rattled.

‘Well, we can wait for him, then,’ said Arishan. ‘It will be good to make his acquaintance. No doubt he will see we mean no harm, and feel free to tell us where you are bound.’ He sat down heavily on the bed of blankets that Josie had arranged.

‘Sit down a while, lass, and be hospitable,’ said the first man. ‘There is no need for us to stand here as if we were two watchmen questioning a thief.’

With great reluctance Josie sat down on the opposite side of the ashy firepit from Arishan. The first man plunked himself down next to her.

‘Well,’ said Arishan. ‘We can think of something to do to pass the time until your husband returns.’ Josie could hear him getting something that clattered out of his pockets; a cup and dice, from the sound of it. ‘Do you like games?’

‘No,’ said Josie, shaking her head.

‘I have never seen a girl as white as you, lass,’ said the first man. ‘Are you a Narnian?’

‘No,’ said Josie.

‘Just as well,’ said the man. ‘I have heard it said that Narnian girls look fair enough in most of their parts, but are as dark and hairy as an ape in their nethers.’ He laughed again, and Josie furrowed her brows in anger. ‘I expect your husband could tell us the truth of that, eh, lass?’ He slapped a hand like a slab of salt pork down on Josie’s thigh in an insolent and inappropriate way.

‘You should go,’ said Josie, angrily trying to get to her feet, but the man grabbed her roughly and would not let her.

‘Or we could check for ourselves,’ he said, clutching Josie around the middle and chuckling as she kicked futilely. The smell of stale sweat on him was vile.

‘Let me go!’ said Josie, trying to command like the Mistress of Telmar, but sounding shrill and panicked even to herself.

‘Rozek, stop scaring the girl with your rough talk,’ called Arishan. ‘Put her down.’

‘She’s wriggling too much,’ said Rozek.

‘Stop it,’ said the second man in a voice edged with steel. Grumbling, Rozek tossed her to the ground. Josie gathered herself together and sat with her arms and legs curled up protectively, waiting for a chance to make her escape.

‘We have to do this properly,’ said Arishan, in a voice that made Josie’s skin crawl. ‘We cast lots to see who gets first go at the girl. Odd or evens?’

‘Evens,’ growled Rozek. ‘Best out of three.’

Josie heard the cup rattling, and the dice turned out. ‘Six and three,’ said Arishan.

Was that the sound of someone approaching? It was hard to hear noises in the wood over the sounds of the river. Josie strained her ears.

The cup rattled again. ‘Six and one- look upon them and despair,’ said Arishan, with a horrible glee.

‘Bugger,’ said Rozek.

Yes, someone was definitely coming. Josie leapt to hear feet while the brigands were distracted by their dice and charged off towards the noise. ‘Tash!’ she called out. ‘Tash!’

She slipped on an uneven patch of ground and tumbled, scrambled to her feet and ran forward, and then she was suddenly almost trampled by a pony ridden by someone who was not Tash. The pony was as alarmed at nearly trampling her as she was at nearly being trampled. The rider did something vicious to it and it stood still, breathing heavily.

‘Rozek? What’s this?’ called the angry voice of the rider. It was a higher pitch than the voices of Rozek or Arishan, but sounded no less masculine and rough.

‘Found this lass,’ said Rozek, who had given chase and was now catching up. He grabbed hold of Josie’s arm. ‘Says she’s out here with her husband, but won’t say where they’re going.’

‘So you thought you’d chase her all over the wilderness? Orders are to bring any strangers straight to the commander. You know that. ’

‘We were waiting for the fellow to turn up,’ said Arishan, walking up more slowly and somehow sounding reasonable even to Josie’s ears.

‘Yes, and what do you think he’ll do if he comes back to find two louts like you pawing his woman? Whip out his sword first and ask questions later, and he ends up dead and we don’t learn a damned thing from him. Or, more likely, he kills you two and gets clean away, when we’d have him at twelve to one if he had to track you back to the camp. Are you completely stupid? Settle down, you.’ He said this last to Josie, who was struggling to wrench her arm free from Rozek’s grip.

‘I’m fortunate you showed up to deal with things properly, then,’ said Arishan drily. ‘This man may not exist at all. There are only woman’s clothes here.’

‘Shut up,’ said the rider. ‘Get up behind me, lass. Rozek, put her up behind.’

‘She’s blind, Karasp,’ said Rozek, lifting up the struggling Josie like a sack of oats and putting her on the back of the pony.

The rider made a contemptuous noise at the other brigands. ‘Hold on tight,’ he told Josie.

‘Please, can’t you just leave me here?’ she asked, reluctantly putting her arms around the man’s chest. ‘My husband-‘

‘Sorry, lass,’ said Karasp. ‘Orders are to bring any strangers to talk to the commander. Orders these fools seem to have forgotten. Hold on. If you fall off you’ll bash your head in, like as not.’

‘I have ridden before,’ said Josie. Through her fear of what might happen with these coarse men, she felt a pang of melancholy. She had used to ride double with Gerry almost every day.

The pony took off through the woods at a brisk trot for a good twenty minutes, with enough twistings and turnings that Josie was not at all sure which direction they were from the river. Josie could hear the crackling of a fire, and the sound of a good many horses and men – the dozen the rider had mentioned seemed to be about the right number of each. Her arrival had caused quite a stir, from the voices she could hear as she climbed down from the back of the pony. It was obviously completely unexpected to find a girl in the wilderness, with her pale skin adding an additional thrill of exotic detail. Without ado, Karasp hustled her into what seemed to be a large tent. The hubbub outside suddenly dimmed, and she could smell perfume and roast poultry, rather than just wood-smoke and unwashed man and beast.

‘An interesting find, Karasp,’ said a voice. It was probably the least unpleasant voice Josie had heard yet from a man in this new world, a strong resonant voice she could imagine reading from the Bible on Sunday mornings. It sounded friendly enough on the surface, but Josie could tell there was something unyielding and implacable beneath. It was, in a way, an even more frightening voice than Arishan’s. ‘Who is this young lady?’

‘Arishan found her by the river,’ said Karasp. ‘About half a league upstream. Apparently she’s blind. She says she’s travelling with her husband, but hasn’t said where they’re bound. Arishan said there were only woman’s clothes where she was camped.’

‘I see,’ said the commander. Josie could hear him stepping closer to her, and knew she was being scrutinised.

‘Young lady, my name is Ormuz, and my companions and I are bound on a voyage of discovery,’ he said in a friendly tone. ‘To make a long story short, word has come to us in a distant land that the mage of Telmar is dead and his slaves flown, so the treasures of Telmar lie open to be taken by anyone. Such a chance comes only once in a lifetime, if that.’ Ormuz paused, and added in the same friendly voice, as if he was an old friend of the family being introduced to Josie in her mother’s parlour. ‘You see, I am quite open about who I am, and what my business is. If you could do me the honour of replying in kind, in as much as you are able, it would be a fair and courteous act.’

‘I,’ said Josie. ‘I am not able to tell you my business.’

‘That’s too bad,’ said Commander Ormuz. ‘Karasp, fetch a seat for our guest, and something for her to eat. I will get her something to drink myself.’

Karasp found something like a camp-stool for Josie and she reluctantly sat down on it.

‘If you are not free to tell me your business, perhaps you would be good enough to tell me your name?’ Josie could hear the commander getting bottles and cups from a chest, pouring out two drinks.

‘My name is Miss Furness,’ said Josie.

‘Like furnace?’ said the commander. ‘It is a curious name, but not an ill-favoured one. I know of no place in the world where it would be customary to name such a fair lady after such an instrument of smoke and fire, but the world is large. Here.’ He pressed into Josie’s hand a largish tumbler of something that smelled rather like sherry. ‘You must have had a hard time of it. Drink.’

Josie warily took a sip and found that it almost immediately warmed her right through.

‘It must be very difficult travelling in these lands without being able to see,’ said the commander. ‘Your husband must be very brave and resourceful, to bring you on such a journey. Set it down there Karasp, yes.’ The brigand Karasp set a plate with some kind of roast bird on it down next to Josie.

‘He is,’ said Josie.

‘You are a fortunate woman,’ said Ormuz. ‘Though to look at you, you are hardly more than a child. Have you been married long?’

‘A few months,’ said Josie.

‘Arranged, or a love match?’

‘Love,’ said Josie.

‘And your husband takes you away into the very deepest wilderness? I am beginning to sense an elopement.’ The brigand Ormuz chuckled softly and lowered his voice, as if he was letting Josie into a secret. ‘Did your father take unkindly to your attachment to this man? You so young, and he such a reckless adventurer?’

‘No,’ said Josie. ‘It was not like that.’ The sherry – or whatever it was- made her feel less like a poor captive, and more like the bold Josie, Mistress of Telmar, who she wanted to be. Imprudently, she took another sip.

‘Still, yours must be a fine story,’ said Ormuz. ‘I am looking forward to your husband’s return, so I can see for myself who has won your heart and led you into such dangerous wilds so far from your family and home.’

Josie let this pass. She did not want to be asked any more difficult questions about Tash, and was feeling bold, so she changed the subject. ‘Your men were horrible- that Arishan, and Rozek. They were going to – to rape me. They were rolling dice for me.’

‘I am sorry, Miss Furness,’ said Ormuz, sounding stern and concerned. ‘Rest assured, they will be punished. Not to excuse them in any way, but I am afraid I had to cast my net rather wide in order to put this expedition together, and a few of my men are unsuited for civilised company. When your husband arrives, I will have them flogged in his presence.’

‘Good,’ said Josie. She took another drink of the almost-sherry, and found to her surprise that the tumbler was empty.

‘You should let me go,’ she said. ‘Back to my camp. Tash- my husband- will be unhappy if he does not find me there.’

‘I am sorry, Miss Furness,’ said Ormuz. ‘In light of what you have told me about the scoundrels in my employ, I am inclined to keep you here where they cannot cause you any more trouble. I hope you do not mind. May I refill your cup?’

Josie did not actually say she did not want her cup refilled, so in a moment she found that it had been, and she could not help taking another mouthful. She was feeling quite warm through now, and very brave and queenly.

‘He will not be pleased to find me here,’ she said. ‘It would be better for you if you brought me back.’

‘I am sure he will be displeased,’ said the commander apologetically. ‘But I will explain everything to him, and I am sure he will understand.’

‘Oh,’ said Josie, taking another drink. She supposed what the commander was saying made a kind of sense.

‘I am glad you like the wine,’ said Ormuz. ‘I had it from a caravan near Teebeth. I have carried it a very long way, hoping for an appropriate guest to serve it to.’

‘Thank you,’ said Josie. ‘It is rather sweet.’ She tasted the inside of her mouth. There was some subtle flavour in the wine that she recognised, but could not place exactly, a bitter but not entirely unpleasant undertone.

‘Tell me,’ said commander Ormuz suddenly, in a sharper voice. ‘What do you know of Telmar?’

‘Nothing,’ said Josie. ‘Well, nothing besides that there was an evil magician there who commanded ifrits, who was the last of the men of Telmar who had been turned into beasts by Aslan long ago.’

‘That is the story that the wise tell in my country, as well, Miss Furness,’ said Ormuz. ‘Where did you hear this tale?’

‘A gazelle told me,’ said Josie.

‘A gazelle!’ Ormuz laughed. ‘Tell me, Miss Furness- would you be surprised to hear that the place Telmar lies no great distance from here?’

‘No,’ said Josie. ‘I mean, yes.’ She was starting to feel a little lightheaded.

‘No, indeed,’ said Ormuz. ‘Perhaps a week’s journey north of here. Perhaps even less. According to the tales I have heard, we are almost there. We go to seek its treasures. Does your husband, or whoever you are travelling with, perhaps go to seek the same thing?’

‘No,’ said Josie. She set her face in a way that was meant to look proud and defiant. She felt suddenly as if the tent was spinning around her.

‘I feel dizzy,’ said Josie. She set down her tumbler, which was empty again.

‘Perhaps you drank the wine too quickly,’ suggested Ormuz. ‘If you are not used to it, it is easy to do. Just answer my question, and then you can lie down and rest until your head clears. Are you going to Telmar?’

‘No,’ said Josie.

‘Are you certain?’ said the commander. His voice was close now, smooth and unyielding and implacable and not friendly at all.

‘I won’t let you have it,’ snapped Josie unreasonably. Her voice sounded blurry and odd to herself, so she repeated her words. ‘I won’t let you have it.’

‘I am in the habit of having whatever I want,’ said Ormuz, with a chilling calmness. ‘I should not be so confident if I were you.’

‘It is mine,’ said Josie angrily. ‘I am Mistress of Telmar. We defeated the magician, and we can defeat you.’ She went to stand, and found it more of a struggle to get up than she expected.

‘You are mysterious, that is certain,’ said Ormuz. He took her arm and dragged her to her feet. ‘I do not suppose there is one part of truth in twenty of what you have told me. And there is some power to you, I can see that. But enough to hold Telmar against my company? I think not.’

Ormuz was leading her deeper into the tent. She felt something soft beneath her feet, and struggled to keep her balance. ‘Let me go,’ she said angrily, jerking her arm away from him. He let her go, but she found she could not stand alone, and slumped to her knees on what seemed to be a pile of blankets.

‘So you have already reached Telmar?’ said Ormuz. ‘How many are there of your company? Tell me more of this husband of yours.’

‘He is strong and brave,’ said Josie. ‘We will stop you.’ At least, that is what she meant to say, but her voice did not obey her, and she was not sure what she ended up saying.

‘I am still in doubt as to whether you have a husband at all,’ said the brigand leader. He grabbed Josie’s ankle and pulled her leg out so that she fell backwards on the blankets. Feebly, she tried to get up, but she could do no more than raise herself on her elbows. She could feel the warmth of whatever had been in the drink filling her veins, filling her bones, making her slow and soft as before it had made her rash and heedless. ‘Your insolence has made me angry, Miss Furnace,’ said Ormuz.

‘We will stop you,’ Josie tried to say again, but her mouth would not obey her.

She could smell Ormuz close to her face now, rank animal sweat beneath his perfume. ‘I may have given you too much, too fast,’ he was saying. He made a little noise to chide himself. ‘There is probably no point asking you any more questions tonight, but there is time enough to teach you not to be so insolent, before your wits flee you entirely.’

Josie felt the loathesome touch of the brigand’s hands on her legs, shoving her skirts upward. She wanted to curse the brigand and claw at his eyes, to drive her knee up between his legs and kick him viciously, but could only mumble at him and flail feebly.

‘What lovely white skin you have, Miss Furnace,’ said Ormuz. ‘It is a shame you cannot see yourself, but I suppose that saves you from vanity.’

Tash, Josie tried to call out. Tash, help me! Tash, Tash, Tash! ‘Tash,’ she managed to say, in a strangled whisper.

‘You little Narnian whore,’ Ormuz growled, in quite a different voice than he had used before, with no smoothness in it at all.

Tash and Josie made their camp again on the banks of the big river, where the air was filled with the scent of fresh water and flowers. Josie was exhausted. She was not used to travelling for so many days in a row, even though she had been carried a great deal of the way, and it had been more of a strain than she realised to travel with Blackbriar. The dog had been a constant reminder of how she was shirking the duty laid upon her by the Lion god, and just how anxious this had made her, and how weary being anxious had made her, she had not realised until they had parted ways.

Josie felt good to be on the way back to her home in the Valley of Telmar, grim and dreary though it might be. But at the same time it was nice to be here, in the more open lowland country with its sunshine and strawberry-smelling flowers and raucous songbirds. And it felt very good to be able to talk freely with Tash, and touch Tash whenever she wanted, without worrying about what Blackbriar might think.

Josie and Tash had both decided, without having to say anything, that it would be good to stay by the side of the river for a few days to rest. ‘A holiday,’ Josie said. ‘It will be like a holiday for a few days.’ She felt pleased and comfortable to have seen Blackbriar safely on her way to the human countries. She felt like things were turning out the way she wanted them to, and that she was finding a way around Aslan and the prophecies he had troubled Tash with. It was a good life in this world, since they had gotten rid of the Sorceror: far better than the prospect of being an unwanted burden – practically an orphan – in a strange cruel country and far, far better than the horrible world Tash had come from. So they had made their camp by the side of the big river, and Tash caught fish – the fish were very nice here, Josie thought, even better than the ones Tash caught from the pool in the Vale of Telmar -and they picked shoots of sweet grasses and the sorts of flowers that you can eat to stretch out the supplies they had brought with them. They took a bit of getting used to, but were more like salad things than anything that grew in the Vale of Telmar, and Josie realised how much she had missed fresh greens living in the castle.

The first night they were there Tash gathered rather a lot of fallen wood, and they built a cheerful fire to cook fish on and sit around afterwards.

‘You have not told me any stories of your world for a long time,’ said Tash.

‘I suppose I haven’t,’ said Josie. She felt like you doubtless do when someone asks you of a sudden to tell them a story, and you instantly seem to forget all the stories you have ever known.

‘The ones you told me before seemed to have many useful things in them,’ said Tash. ‘Maybe there are things in the stories that can help us now, since we seem to be tangled up in so many different stories.’

‘Well, I can try,’ said Josie. ‘Well, there were once a group of people by a river, like we are, and one of them was a girl who was younger than me, who was there with her big sister. They had been out on little boats on the river, rowing – do you know what that is, Tash?’


‘Yes,’ said Tash, remembering the rafts rowed by slaves that he had seen once, gliding across the broad grey lakes of his own world, and thinking how useless he had been then.

‘And it was a hot afternoon, and rather dull, so this girl was rather bored. Her name was Alice. And she wandered away from her big sister and the other older people who were talking about uninteresting things, and then she saw a rabbit run by. And it would not be very interesting to see a rabbit run by, except for two things: it had a pocket watch – that is a sort of instrument like some of the ones in the castle, which has a little hand that moves around and around and shows what time of day it is – and it was talking. It said: ‘Goodness me, I’m late.’ So Alice got up and ran after it, because this was mysterious, and followed it into the hole it had gone into. It was larger than ordinary rabbits, so Alice could fit in its hole without any trouble. And as she went along, it got steeper and steeper, and then she was falling through the air. She kept falling and falling, and though she was frightened at first, it went on so long that she stopped being frightened, and even fell asleep, and thought that maybe she would keep falling all the way through to the other side of the world.’

Josie went on with the story of Alice as well as she could remember it, and the images that formed in Tash’s mind were as much of Ua as of the world he was in now, since he had never been to Josie’s world and did not know what it was like. He did not like to think of Josie or Nera going off alone and having dangerous adventures, and those were the only two images of human girls he had in his mind, so he imagined Alice as one of his thalarka sisters. A nicer one than any he had in real life, of course. Thalarka did not cry, but the struggling to remain undrowned in the tears cried by the giant Alice was a scene Tash could well imagine from his own world. He was very taken with the idea of ‘unbirthday presents’ – even birthday presents were a strange and wonderful idea, imagining them as if they were a thing that was on Tash’s world. When Josie got up to the bit with the Queen of Hearts it was very easy to imagine the tyrant as one of the High Commanders of the javelin-women of the Overlord, with long spikes on her armour and a voice that commanded obedience.

‘You do her voice very well,’ said Tash, admiringly.

‘Pfah,’ said Josie. ‘I don’t want to command anyone’s head to be chopped off.’ But she still sounded rather pleased.

The water of the river was too cold to stay in long, but was fresh and bracing, and each morning the first thing they did was throw themselves into it to wake themselves up. Then they would splash each other, and Josie would shriek, and afterwards they would lie side by side on a broad rock in the sunlight until they had quite dried off. The third morning they did this, Josie rolled over onto Tash, who was almost dry, and warmed quite through by the sun.

‘This is a better world, Tash,’ she said, using him as a pillow.

‘It is much better than my world,’ Tash agreed. ‘Even if there are sorcerors and people to tell us what to do, they do not just make us do it, like they did on my world. And the food is much nicer.’

‘And we are together,’ said Josie, rubbing her hand over his chest. ‘I miss people from my world – but the ones I miss most were gone before I left. I am glad I found you.’

‘I am glad I found you,’ said Tash. ‘I do not miss anyone.’ The smell of Josie and the closeness of her to him were beginning to work on Tash, like they always did. His hands began to play along Josie’s back, from her feet all the way up to her hair, lingering longest at her neck and the backs of her knees.

Josie kissed his throat. ‘I don’t know if we can stay together forever,’ she said. ‘But nobody knows that, do they? Maybe something will happen to drag us apart, like we were pulled into this world, or maybe it won’t. But I intend to stay here with you as long as I possibly, possibly can.’ She stretched up and kissed Tash’s beak then, boldly running her tongue where Tash could easily have bitten the tip of it off. Tash ran his hands over his wife’s cool skin and inhaled the smell of her, but his thoughts were still disturbed: he could not help thinking of what he had read, or dreamed he had read, in the Books of Tash, and of what he had heard from the Lion Aslan.

Josie seemed to be able to tell that he was distracted. ‘Don’t worry,’ she told him. ‘Nothing is foretold, dear Tash. Not really. We can make our own lives on this world.’

‘It-‘ said Tash. ‘It is possible.’ But he was not convinced. This Aslan was like the Overlord of this world, after all, and sooner or later, he felt in his bones, the story of Tash would end up with him being sacrificed to the greater glory of someone.

‘I know what the Lion said, Tash. I know what Blackbriar said. But we have not done what he wanted, and nothing horrible has happened, has it?’

‘No,’ said Tash, playing with Josie’s hair. It looked so splendid in the sunlight, so much like the very shiniest of the metals that the men of Telmar made ornaments with. Josie was right. Nothing horrible had happened yet. Maybe it wouldn’t; or maybe it would, but not for a long time.

‘You smell so very nice, Tash,’ she murmured. ‘Oh.’

‘You smell nice too,’ said Tash. It was a strange yet now familiar smell, the smell of Josie, and it made things stir and tumble inside him. She seemed so much like the Mistress of Telmar today, Tash felt: she was a wild and triumphant thing, and she wanted to be touched with a demanding insistence.

‘Tash?’ said Josie, and her voice was more breathless than usual, and very bold, and like she sounded when she was going to tease him, all at once. ‘Husband Tash?’

‘Yes, my Josie?’ said Tash.

‘I am yours forever and ever,’ said Josie.

And there was no doubt that she was really and truly the Bride of Tash.


Nothing important happened to Josie and Tash while they were camped by the side of the river, except for the thing that happened at the end of their time there. If that thing had not happened, they would have always remembered that place happily, for they were happy together there. I like to remember Josie and Tash being happy together, and wish I could tell you that they lived happily ever after; or that they lived happily together for a long long time without anything bad happening to them, until the time came for Tash to make a choice between the two Books of Tash, many many years later. But I am afraid I can’t. This last little bit has all been just stalling – which has probably been obvious. I could have just written ‘They went back to Telmar the way they came,’ and then gone on with the next chapter.

It had rained steadily for the rest of the week, and when it was done the stream below the castle was high and the land was terribly muddy, so it had not seemed the wisest time to travel; and it was some weeks after that Josie finally made up her mind that she had to see the dog Blackbriar safely to the other side of the great river.

Then Josie had to figure out what to take on the journey, which is the sort of business that can be done in great hurry if necessary, but can expand to take up a great deal of time otherwise, especially if the journey is one that does not have a date set for departure, and is one that one is nervous about going on at all. The part of this figuring out that took the greatest amount of time was something that Josie did not speak with Tash about at all: deciding whether or not to take one of the magic apples. She did not want them in case they suddenly decided on the journey to seek to become immortal, but in case of some grievous accident. She knew from what Yustus had said that the apples could heal any hurt or sickness short of death, and there were any number of horrible things that could possibly happen to them on a journey through the unknown wilds. She thought of at least a dozen of them, imagining them all too clearly. At the end Josie decided that she would bring one of the apples, and fetched it up from the secret chamber while Tash was out hunting. She wrapped it up very carefully in a bit of silk and put it in the bag with her clothes.

So one day when spring was well advanced Josie, Tash, and Blackbriar left the castle of Telmar, leaving the parts of it they lived in shut up against the weather as well as they could. Josie had ended up bringing rather a lot of things for the journey, but Tash could easily carry enough for half a dozen travellers.

‘We don’t really now how long we will be,’ said Josie, picking up the bag with the apples. She gave Tash’s legs a hug. ‘It will be alright,’ she said – to Tash, or to herself, she was not sure. Then she patted Blackbriar’s head, as if she were an ordinary dog, and took Tash’s hand for the walk down the hidden path to the stream.

The three travellers followed the stream out of the valley as best they could, skirting the edge of the gorge and picking their way downhill through the rumpled country to the south where Josie and Tash had not been before. Below the gorge Josie realised how grim and dreary the vale of Telmar had been, and how much she had gotten used to living there since the Ifrits had brought her there. It was immediately a more fragrant sort of country beyond the valley, more alive with birds and beasts, and had a less closed-in feel. Besides the cypresses there were other sorts of trees – a good many willows along the streambanks, for example, and poplars in the hollows – and instead of an endless roof of forest and an endless floor of dry needles underfoot there were a good many meadows, where sweet-smelling flowers were growing thickly. There were bulbous things that Josie thought to be a sort of crocus, and drooping bell-shaped flowers that smelled a very little like strawberries, and wild roses whose few flowers had a desperate and intoxicating perfume.

It was difficult at first, but day by day Josie grew stronger. Tash still carried her a good deal of the time, though she walked beside him on the flatter ground, hand in hand. Blackbriar mostly ran off ahead to scout the way, running back to rejoin them every five or ten minutes.

‘I do wish you had stayed a woman a while longer,’ Josie said to Blackbriar as they walked along, in one of the moments while the two of them were walking alongside. ‘It would be so much easier to talk. But I suppose it must have been very horrid for you.’

Blackbriar agreed with a lick: that it would have been easier, or that it had been very horrid, Josie was not sure, and she scampered away again into the undergrowth before Josie could ask.

In the damp spring weather Josie found it a good deal more unpleasant sleeping out of doors than it had been in the desert with the gazelles; at least, she would have found it more unpleasant if it had not been for Tash. He was large enough and feathery enough to fold himself around her in a way that kept her comfortable enough in all but the nastiest weather. It is fair to say that all through this journey Tash and Josie thought mostly about each other. They were travelling through a pleasant country, filled with the sounds and smells of life, and each day brought something new, and their future was an uncertain and frightening thing; but they had both already been through so many uncertain and frightening things, and come through to find each other – so they clung to one another, and did not want to stop touching one another, and drank in the presence of the other like a thirsty man drinks water. If I were to write down what they said to each other it would be very dull. They were in love, and so they were impatient of everything else, and selfish in the selfless way of people in love, and they would have been very irritating to travel with. Perhaps Blackbriar was irritated, but if she was, she never showed it. Dogs are very forgiving.

Each day the travellers heard many dumb beasts, and every morning they woke to a cacophony of birdsong, but they did not meet any men or talking beasts in five days of travelling. They could rarely go in a straight line, for although there were no terribly steep mountains or gorges in the country below the Vale of Telmar the whole of it was rumpled like a blanket, with thick woods on the high parts and streams with boggy edges on the low parts. The river that had stopped Blackbriar on her last journey was still swollen, and the broken boles of trees cast up on its banks showed where it had been higher still, but Tash was large enough and strong enough that they crossed it without difficulty.

Tash and Josie did not discuss what they would do when they were camped on the other side, although this was far as they had agreed to go before they left Telmar. Instead they sat around the fire – they had stopped early and gathered deadwood along the banks – and talked about trivial things while they ate fish that Tash had caught in the river, and did their best to be as cheerful as possible as if their life together would never end.

‘We’ve been very lucky so far,’ said Josie, tempting fate, as she threw the last bony bit of her fish into the bushes. ‘It hasn’t rained, and we haven’t seen any sign of fierce beasts. And certainly not giants,’ These were creatures that Yustus had described to her with great relish, in telling her what might happen to her if she ran away, and Zardeenah had confirmed most of the evil magician’s stories. ‘They are probably only a long way away from here.’

‘I will keep you safe,’ said Tash. They reached out to take each other’s hands.

‘I wish Blackbriar could talk,’ said Josie. ‘I am sure she could tell us all sorts of stories.’

Tash curled up around Josie to keep her warm, and Blackbriar slept at their feet, and the cheerful little fire they had made slowly burned down until it was a tiny ruby of light in the middle of the forest.

The next morning they kept on southward, leaving their camp behind before the sun had cleared the horizon. Beyond the big river was flatter country, and a more open woodland, with a great many deer who took off at their approach. They made good progress through this country for a morning and an afternoon, and were about to make camp in a meadow that smelled of rosemary when Blackbriar became very excited and led them off to a low hill nearby.

‘There is a hole in it, and a little field of torn earth,’ said Tash.

‘Someone’s garden,’ said Josie. She knelt down and crumbled a bit of soil between her fingers, feeling very nervous. Could they have already come to a land of men? She had not thought they could be so close.

‘There’s a bit of curtain hanging down inside the hole. It is too small for me to get through, though you probably could, Josie. Someone is coming out.’

‘Someone certainly is coming out,’ said a surly, prickly kind of voice, and Josie could tell at once that it was the voice of some kind of talking animal. ‘Who are you, and what do you want?’ the newcomer asked suspiciously.

‘I am Tash,’ said Tash, stepping back a few steps as the stranger emerged from his home.

‘I am Josie,’ said Josie. ‘And this is Blackbriar. We were just travelling through, and we thought we would stop and ask if you had any news.’

‘Well, I’ll be,’ said the hedgehog – for that is what he was, a talking hedgehog who stood a bit higher than Josie’s waist walking on his hind legs – ‘Twenty years, whelp and boar, I’ve lived in this place, and you’re the first folk I’ve ever met who said they were ‘just travelling through’.’ After a rather long pause, as of someone who was not at all used to making introductions, he told them who he was. ‘My name is Shoab, son of Amidanab.’

Josie thought the hedgehog smelled rather like pipe tobacco. ‘Pleased to meet you,’ she said.

‘I also am pleased to meet you,’ said Tash.

‘Likewise,’ said Shoab shortly. He sniffed the air dubiously. ‘I know a dog when I see one, and a Daughter of Helen, but what sort of creature are you?’ he asked Tash.

‘I am a thalarka,’ said Tash. This answer seemed to satisfy the hedgehog hermit, for he just said ‘hrm,’ and made no further comment.

‘Has anyone at all been through here?’ asked Josie. ‘A month or so ago?’

‘Funny you should ask that,’ said Shoab, in a slow suspicious kind of voice. ‘Or maybe not so funny. That’s the news you’re asking after, I suppose. Yes, a month or so ago there were some peculiar travellers through here. I was out digging of an evening, and I heard a crashing and a running through the country, of a big creature, no two, no three big creatures who were heedless of who might hear them. I kept quiet and I kept downwind until they were long gone, but when I looked in the morning there were footprints near the water hole where I planted the apricot tree: big pawprints of great cats, and big hoofprints of a deer a good deal larger than the ones who live around here. I’ve never seen cats like those in these parts – at least not for years, since that pair of leopards came up this way during the drought. And travelling together with a deer like that, stands to reason they would be talking animals, and not dumb ones. Would you be on the trail of them?’

‘After a fashion,’ said Josie. ‘I mean, yes.’

‘Then you are on the right path,’ said Shoab son of Amidanab. He stood there regarding them, chewing something that had been packed in his cheek before. ‘Three strange travellers then, and then three more this morning,’ he said, talking more to himself than to them, and then belatedly remembering his manners. ‘You look to have enough common sense that you won’t complain at me calling you strange, Miss. We don’t get many – any – of your kind in these parts.’

‘I don’t mind,’ said Josie. ‘Why do you live out here all alone? Isn’t it dangerous?’

‘Not so dangerous if you keep quiet and keep downwind and don’t meddle in other folk’s business,’ said the hedgehog, answering the first question. ‘They’re simple rules, but a lot of folk can’t seem to get the hang of them.’

‘I’ll try to remember them,’ said Josie. ‘Is it far to the lands where men live?’

‘I don’t rightly know,’ said Shoab son of Amidanab. ‘It’s like I said already. I’ve heard the rumour of Sons of Frank around here a few times, but you’re the first Daughter of Helen I’ve seen or heard of in these parts. So if you’ve come far from where you live, you’re probably a long way from any of those lands.’

‘Thank you,’ said Josie. ‘I guess there is still a long way to go.’ She gave Blackbriar a pat. ‘Can you tell us how to get to this water hole?’

The hedgehog nodded. ‘That I can, Miss. Just over that rise there, and then over the next one, and you’ll find the water hole where I planted the apricot tree. You can stay there, if you like.’ He chewed whatever he was keeping in his mouth thoughtfully. Strangest thing is, I thought that apricot tree had upped and died on me over the winter; but that morning when I went down and saw the footprints, there were new buds on it.’

‘Thank you very much,’ said Josie. ‘You’ve been a lot of help.’

‘Good day,’ said Shoab son of Amidanab, with an air of finality.


The hedgehog hermit had given them a last suspicious look and vanished back behind his front door curtain. When they had gone a little distance Tash looked back, and saw him peering after them from around the edge of the curtain. It was like how he probably would have looked, thought Tash, at some strange procession passing through his village, when he was a child on Ua.

‘I expect he has quite an interesting story, to have come out here all by himself and lived alone for so long,’ Josie said, when they were well underway again.

‘He did not seem like he would tell it,’ said Tash.

‘That’s true,’ said Josie. She shook her head. ‘Imagine living all alone like that for twenty years.’

‘I would not like it,’ said Tash.

This was true; but Tash had also been favourably impressed by Shoab son of Amidanab the hedgehog. He could not have said exactly what it was, but there was something in the hedgehog’s manner, in his audacity in living all alone, that appealed to Tash. He would hate to be without Josie, of course – it was only when he was with her that he could forget what he was, and the fate that had been foretold for him – but the thought of not being told what to do by anyone, of being able to stop and look at whatever he liked for as long as he liked, to never be sent off by people stronger than him to pick grith in the fields, or be sacrificed to the Overlord, or to do some quest no one would ever thank him for, was an awfully appealing one. To be unimportant and unnoticed and able to do what he liked: that would be splendid. To do it with Josie there as well, that would be the greatest joy he could imagine.


They found the waterhole that the hedgehog had spoken of, and touched for themselves the flowers on the little apricot tree. It was probably a coincidence how it had sprung back into life, Josie told herself, just as Aslan had gone by. But she did not believe herself. The waterhole was only a muddy little pool, but it had an air of peace and goodness about it. Probably, the way this world worked, the apricot tree really was a miracle, and Josie could not but help thinking of Bible stories, of Aaron’s staff sprouting almond flowers and Jesus cursing the fig tree.

Blackbriar hung well back at first, as if nervous of this place where Aslan had been, but after a little while she came up to wander around Josie like a tame dog.

Tash waded out into the pool and splashed water over his head, churning up the bottom.

‘We should get some water, first,’ chided Josie. ‘You will make it all muddy.’

‘I am sorry,’ said Tash, and stopped his splashing. ‘It is good here. It is warmer than the river was. You should come in.’

‘I don’t think so,’ said Josie, and busied herself pulling out the bedclothes and setting them up next to the apricot tree, where the smell of the flowers was strongest. They smelled sweeter than almost any flowers Josie had smelled before, and had a faint feeling of the same frightening good magic that she always felt in the hidden room of the castle. Or maybe that was her imagination. It was strange to think of the statues that had stood for so long in the hidden garden, like Tash, coming to life and running to this very pool. She wondered what would have happened if she had tried to bring them to life herself, as Tash had once suggested. Maybe she would have been swept out on this journey long ago.

Blackbriar nosed down to the pool’s edge, and Josie heard quieter splashing than Tash had made.

‘It is very nice, Josie,’ said Tash, a little plaintively.

‘All right,’ said Josie at last. She did feel dreadfully sticky with dried sweat after the day’s walking. ‘I guess there is no hope for it not being muddy now.’ She stripped off her clothes and joined her husband and the dog in the pool. Her feet squelched deeply into the mud

‘It is warmer than the river,’ admitted Josie. ‘I don’t think I am likely to be any cleaner when I come out than before I went in, though.’ She washed the sweat from her face, and did her best to do something with her hair, which had grown very disorderly on the journey.

‘I wonder about the leopard and the deer,’ said Josie. ‘What they are like. What their story was. They must have been more or less nice, or the lion wouldn’t have bothered to turn them back from stone. I wonder how they came to Telmar, and what they did to get turned to stone, and what they are doing going off with the lion – Aslan – now.’

‘That is a lot of wondering,’ said Tash. ‘I know what it is like. There are so many things to wonder about.’

‘I guess there are things we just have to accept we will never know,’ said Josie. ‘God knows there seem to have been a tremendous number of them since I came here.’ She sighed, and ducked her head under the water again.

Josie’s thoughts shied away from the quest that had been described to her. The quest still hung in midair, neither abandoned nor accepted. They had travelled further than they had meant to travel with Blackbriar; maybe they would just keep travelling, without ever making a decision, and would end up doing what the Lion wanted, travelling with Blackbriar all the way to the lands of men. Or maybe they would decide to turn back: now, or tomorrow, or the day after, or at the border of the land of men, however many weeks from now that might be. Josie really did not know what she would do. She thought of the apricot tree, and she thought of the fig tree that had been cursed in her own world, and she thought about what might happen to Tash in the lands of men – the men whose ways were not so unlike those of the gazelles, the men who bought ifrit girls as wives.

Josie felt one of Tash’s hands on her leg, underneath the water, and a current of exaltation that was by now familiar ran through her body.

‘Blackbriar, why don’t you scout about?’ she said. ‘There may be interesting things around here.’

Obediently, Blackbriar paddled out of the pool and shook herself dry, then darted away into the undergrowth.


A morning’s walk beyond the pool brought the three travellers by way of a long gentle slope to the top of a hill where Tash set Josie down. The wind blew strong in their faces as they stood side by side, bringing the scent of distant places, fine dust and leaves that reminded Josie of the gum trees of home.

‘It is all empty and blue beyond,’ said Tash.

‘Empty and blue?’ asked Josie. She could not smell anything like the sea, and the air was dry.

‘There are no more trees, and it is very flat, and goes on and on until it is all blurry and fades into the clouds. There are beasts moving out there, very small and far away.’ Tash sounded impressed.

Josie thought of Moses looking out from Mount Nebo at the Promised Land. This was different, though; this was not the place they had longed to go all their lives and were now forbidden to enter, but somewhere quite different.

‘It sounds like it will be an easy enough country to travel on in,’ said Josie.

The dog was already eagerly pressing to move on, running forward and then back to make hopeful sounds back at Josie.

‘There is something that could be a tower, a long way off in the direction the sun rises,’ said Tash.

‘This is as far as we go,’ said Josie, not knowing until she had said the words that she would say them.

‘I’m not sure,’ admitted Tash. ‘It might not be a tower.’

‘Dear Blackbriar,’ Josie called to the dog, who came up and nuzzled at her ankles. ‘We will leave you to seek Aslan from here. It looks like a nice flat country to travel in, without any rivers.’

Blackbriar wagged her tail as if she were a tame dog, but only for a moment, and then stood there panting uncertainly at Josie.

‘We must part here,’ said Josie sadly. ‘I am not ready to go to the lands of men.’

Blackbriar bowed her head, and but did not leave. She nosed about Josie’s legs hopefully.

‘No, this is far enough,’ said Josie, squatting down to pet the dog. ‘Good luck on your journey, dear Blackbriar. I hope you will find what you seek, and restore your people. I hope we will meet again. I expect everything will work out, and we will meet again as well.’

Blackbriar licked Josie’s hand, then padded over to Tash with a pretended carelessness. He put down a hand, and she licked it as well.

‘I hope everything will be good,’ said Tash awkwardly. ‘Goodbye.’

‘Maybe one day we will meet again,’ said Josie.’Goodbye, Blackbriar.’

‘Arf,’ said Blackbriar. She did not leave at once, but after a few more moments of hopeful waiting trotted off down the stony hillside to the south. Josie listened to the clicks of her claws on the stones until she could hear her no more. She felt an enormous sense of relief.

‘Goodbye’ said Josie softly. She took one of Tash’s handa.

‘What are you thinking of, Tash?’

‘Those places. All the other places,’ said Tash. ‘The worlds are so very large and interesting.’

‘The smell of the new country makes me want to go there, too,’ said Josie.

‘There must be a way,’ said Tash.

‘We will visit many places,’ said Josie, kissing Tash’s hand. ‘Together.’ She kissed it again. ‘One day.’ They stood there for a long moment feeling the dusty gum tree wind on their faces.

‘Home?’ suggested Josie.

‘Yes,’ said Tash warmly. ‘Let us go home.’


As Tash turned his back on the blue vastness, he saw in a small patch of sandy ground nearby great footprints, like the ones he had seen in the walled garden after the earthquake. The footprints of a lion, leading south. And a fear and a sadness and a horror hid all his happiness from him, like a cloud passing over the sun.

Blackbriar sniffed. ‘I can’t smell anything,’ she said mournfully.

‘I’m pleased to meet you, Blackbriar’ said Josie. ‘Well, I have met you, but I’m pleased to meet you in this shape and learn your name. You will catch your death of cold sitting on the floor like that – can you come with us to the rooms we were in before?’

Blackbriar sniffed again. ‘I don’t like this,’ she said.

Tash stepped towards Blackbriar to help her off the floor, and she shuffled away from him in alarm. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Josie. ‘Tash can help you.’

‘I can,’ said Tash, helpfully.

‘Do you think you can you get up and walk?’ asked Josie.

‘I will try,’ said Blackbriar, and before Josie could get close enough to be of any help Blackbriar had thrust herself up to her feet and was teetering precariously.

‘Hard,’ she said, in what was almost a bark, keeping her balance with a great deal of effort.

‘Here, let me help,’ said Josie, taking the woman’s arm. Tash in turn hovered at her side, anxious to catch Josie if Blackbriar fell and pulled her down.

‘Tricky,’ said Blackbriar, taking her first tentative steps. By the time they had covered the short distance to the magician’s old rooms she was walking about as well as a newly-weaned thalarka. They sat her down on some cushions in a more or less human manner, where she sat with her mouth open staring at everything curiously with her new human eyes. Josie fetched her a dress, which she managed to put on with considerable difficulty.

‘This is very strange,’ said Blackbriar.

‘We are starting to get used to things that are very strange,’ said Josie. ‘Tash is trying to hand you a cup of water; you should take it.’

Blackbriar took the cup warily and awkwardly, not used to having hands, and Tash backed away to crouch by where Josie was sitting.

‘We have done this magic so I can tell you my story,’ said Blackbriar. ‘So I should do that.’ She shook her head like she was trying to get something out of her ear. ‘I sound so very strange.’

‘Please,’ said Josie.

‘Well,’ said Blackbriar, rearranging herself on the cushion so she was curled-up on top of it in a more doglike fashion. ‘My ancestors were wicked, so they were cursed by the Lion and turned into dogs and pigs. This was in my mother’s mother’s mother’s time. They deserved their punishment, because they were wicked, but now we are not wicked, I don’t think. We dogs don’t have much to do with the pigs. We have always lived in this valley where we were first made, both us dogs and the pigs. The wicked magician and his ifrits have always been cruel to us, for as long as we can remember. Maybe he hated our ancestors who were like him. Most of us are stupid because our ancestors bred with dumb animals, but enough of us are clever enough that we still remember where we came from. I always knew I was cleverer than the others – I could think more clearly and connect things that the others could not connect. But I did not know how different I was until you came here. You human girl and you creature were things that were different from anything I had smelled before. Even as we ate the flesh of the wicked magician who had been our enemy for so many years, I was thinking of you. For I remembered a story that everyone else has forgotten, a story told by one of the oldest who is dead now, an oldest who was clever like me. This one told me that we stay in this valley, even though there is little food and the wicked magician is cruel to us- was cruel to us- because one day the Lion will have pity on us and make us talking beasts, if we stay in this place where he can find us. And this one told me that even as when we were turned into beasts, there were two humans from far away who came with the Lion, there will be two humans from far away who will come here when the Lion comes, or maybe before, and their coming will be the sign that we will be delivered. So I went to the leader of the pack, and said to him, even though one of these ones who has come is a creature, it seems like he might be a kind of human, so might it be that these two are the ones who are foretold? But he said no, we are not meant to be talking beasts, that is just a tale for pups. And I would not have quarrelled with my pack, but accepted all that the leader of the pack said, except that I met a wild cat in the forest. It was in a tree when I came by it in the easternmost part of the valley, and it spoke to me, not like a talking beast, but in the way of speaking without words that we dogs have with each other, as if it were a dog rather than a cat. It said, you are right, Blackbriar, the Lion is coming to deliver your people and make new what he made before, and these two are the ones who were foretold, and they can help you to speak and walk among the talking animals of the world and not slink in the shadows. And I said, how do you know these things? But it would not tell me. And I said, how do you know my name, and what is your name? And it said, I know everyone’s name, and you already know my name, and then I was sure that it was the Lion in the guise of a cat. But it went away before I could ask any more questions. Then I did quarrel with the others of my pack, because then it was not just my thinking that you two were the ones foretold, but the words of the cat who was actually the Lion saying you were the ones foretold. So I drew nearer to you when I could, Josie, and tried to tell you of my trouble.’

Blackbriar’s story did not come across in quite the same way as it is written here as it was told by Blackbriar, for she had an itchy spot, and having been a dog very recently she tried from time to time to chew at it, but she could not reach, so instead would twist about so as to rub it against the cushion.

Blackbriar went on. ‘Now I have listened to all that you have said near me, and I do not understand. Is the Lion coming back to make us into talking animals? What am I meant to do, and what are you human girl – Josie – and you creature – Tash – meant to do?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Josie. Truthfully, but not entirely so. ‘His plans are hidden from us.’

‘I know he has been here again,’ said Blackbriar, in her mournful doggy way. ‘But he did not stay. After the earth shook I followed him and the beasts who were with him across the land for four days, but he did not stop. I gave up when I came to a river that I could not cross. With your help, I could cross it.’

‘We thought this food would help you,’ said Tash. ‘We could feed the magic food to the rest of your people, and then they would be changed into men, too.’

‘I do not mean to sound ungrateful,’ said Blackbriar. ‘But I would much rather be a talking dog. This is a very awkward shape. I am sure my people would not like to be men. The story I was told was that we were to be talking animals.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Josie. ‘I do not think it such a bad shape; but then I guess I wouldn’t. You will quite like it when you have figured out how to use your hands properly, and walk properly.’

‘If you say so,’ said Blackbriar, lowering her head as a dog would do to show Josie was the boss.

‘Which way is this river?’ asked Josie.

‘It is to the south,’ said Blackbriar. ‘The stream that flows through this valley joins a greater water, then a greater, then reaches it. I went back and forth it for a day but it was big with snowmelt and I could find no place to cross. But the Lion and the great creatures who were with him crossed it easily. Why did he not stop to talk with me again? Why did he not make my people new, like he said he would? Do you think we should be punished longer?’

‘I don’t think you should be punished at all for what your ancestors did,’ said Josie. ‘I know- I know Aslan wants us to go to the lands of the men that lie to the south, and take you with us. I expect there is something that we are supposed to do there, before your people can be changed into talking animals.’

‘That is what I thought,’ said Blackbriar. ‘But that is what I do not understand from listening to your talk. Why did you not take me and go after the Lion?’

This is the question that is the problem at the heart of Josie’s story, and is one form of a question that is as old as God and created beings. I will explain as well as I can here what Josie could have said, even though she did not say it. Why did she set out so readily at the say so of the gazelles on a quest to meet Prince Margis, and not return to this same quest once she was free of the magician Yustus? The first reason was just that it was much more difficult to do so. She would be travelling no longer with four companions through a friendly country that they knew well, following their directions, but would have to find her own way through a wild and unknown land with companions little less ignorant than herself. The second was that she had become more fearful of what the men of this world might be like, both on her own account and on that of Tash, since she had spoken with Yustus and Zardeenah, and lived so long at the whims of the evil magician. The third, and a very great reason, was that she had fallen into a strange love with Tash, and that she knew very well without having to have it prophesied that if she left this place and went to the human lands this love would be impossible and they would be separated. And the fourth was what Miss Miles had muttered as she closed the door at the very beginning of this story, which was that she was a wilful girl, and having found her feet in this new world was overproud and no longer content to be ordered about. But Josie could not very well say any of these things to Blackbriar.

‘We need to keep the secrets of this place out of the hands of wicked men,’ said Josie. To her own ears she did not sound as if she really believed it.

‘If you say so,’ said Blackbriar, bowing her head.

‘We will still do what we can to help you,’ Josie promised.

They showed Blackbriar how to pick up food with her hands and eat it, and she admitted that hands would be very useful once she got the hang of them. ‘These are a very poor sort of teeth, though,’ she said. Josie helped Blackbriar to bathe, and to comb her hair after a fashion. ‘It is a mess, I am afraid,’ said Josie. ‘You may have to cut it short and start again.’

‘If you say so,’ said Blackbriar.

Blackbriar did not want to sleep in the magician’s rooms, so they made her a bed in the empty chamber where she had slept the night before as a dog.


‘I don’t see how we can keep eating the pigs here anymore, if they used to be people,’ said Josie to Tash, when they were curled up together that night. ‘Ugh’.

‘If you say so,’ said Tash mournfully.

‘You sound like Blackbriar,’ said Josie. ‘Of course we can’t eat them, if they are descended from people. We will just have to find something else to eat.’

‘There are not so many deer, and they are harder to catch,’ said Tash.

‘We will just have to get by,’ said Josie firmly. ‘It makes me feel sick, thinking I have been eating pigs whose great-great-grandmothers were people.’

Tash said something like ‘if you say so’ in a small muttering voice.

Josie decided to change the subject. ‘I never imagined that the magic food would turn Blackbriar into a woman like that. I have never known such magic – well, not since you were turned back from stone.’

‘I am so glad that you turned me back from stone, and I did not stay stone another thousand years, and miss you,’ said Tash.

Josie snuggled up against him and kissed the soft skin at his throat. ‘Me too, dear Tash, me too.’

‘What are we to do with Blackbriar?’ she mused, after a moment. She shifted, rearranging herself against Tash’s chest. ‘I don’t see how we can’t help her. But we don’t have to go all the way to the human lands; we can see that she is kitted out properly, and help her across the river, and stop before we get to the places where men are.’

‘She can go herself now that she is a woman,’ said Tash. He sounded nervous to Josie. She was nervous herself. It was not just a matter of deciding one way or another, once and for all: there would be one decision, and then another, and then another, and maybe they would all be like they seemed to be in recent days, complicated decisions with no easy or comfortable answers.

‘But she doesn’t know anything about being a human,’ said Josie. ‘She will need help. At least at the beginning. And maybe, maybe that will be enough.’

‘Maybe,’ said Tash. But Josie did not think he believed it. She thought he did not believe there was anything he could do to escape the words of Aslan, telling him that they were destined to be separated.

‘We don’t know that there is really destiny,’ said Josie. ‘It seems to me it is just the Lion deciding one way or another, and if you do something different, he can always decide a different way again.’

‘That’s not what he said,’ Tash said gruffly.

Josie decided to change the subject again. She ran her hand over Tash’s chest. ‘You feel dry,’ she said. ‘Does it itch?’

‘Not as much as it used to,’ he said. ‘It is better now that the weather is warmer and I do not spend so much time by the fire. But I did not have a bath today.’

‘We could go and have a bath now,’ said Josie, turning so that her body was pressed against Tash’s side and throwing one leg over him.

‘That would be good,’ said Tash.

‘Or, in a few minutes,’ said Josie, kissing his neck again. She slid her foot back and forth, and Tash began to hiss softly and hold her tightly to his chest, and she gave herself up to being a female creature.


When they awoke Blackbriar had turned back into a dog, and when Josie put another piece of pickled turnip in front of her she only turned her head aside.

‘I suppose she said all she wanted to say,’ said Josie. ‘And she really did not like being a woman.’ She petted Blackbriar. ‘And I suppose too, this means it is more complicated to turn them back than we thought.’ She found that she was crying.

‘Don’t cry, Josie,’ said Tash, picking up the unresisting girl. ‘You will figure out what to do.’ He held his hand against her tears, and once again felt that strange tingle through the whole of his body.

‘We will figure out what to do,’ said Josie, and kissed him. ‘Together.’

‘Yes,’ said Tash. ‘Together.’

A Cautionary Tale


Brother Norbert’s rain gauge was full of fish again. He sighed, and tipped them out. This was the worst weather he had seen in fifty years at the monastery. There had never been fish when he was junior under-gardener under the forbidding Brother Theophrastus, meekly listening to another tirade about how much worse things had been in the old days. He had always suspected Brother Theophrastus of exaggerating the tempests of his youth, but these recent events were making him reconsider; maybe there was a great cycle of weather, going from bad to worse and back to bad again.

At any rate, the garden once again looked a sight. His carefully tended Himalayan Tea Roses – spread with that expensive imported fertiliser just before the inclement weather began – had been beaten into a shapeless mass. The new beds of annuals were unrecognisable, the young plants lost beneath a carpet of silvery scales that still feebly flipped and twitched in places. Something unpleasant and spiky fell from the fish laden branches of one of the young trees and nearly landed on Brother Norbert’s bare feet, dead eyes staring up reproachfully. Poisonous, no doubt. Another morning of raking fish; well, he had better get underway before they started to stink. Feeling more cheerful than he thought he might, Brother Norbert fetched his rake and began to clear the stiffening piscine corpses from the gravelled paths. The new acolyte was late, as usual. Brother Norbert had seen many acolytes come and go, and the ephemeral inconveniences attendant on to individuals of their species no longer had power to move him. It was quieter, at any rate, without Brother Wayne’s constant stream of babble, and in the Junior Under-Gardener’s absence Brother Norbert’s thoughts were free to amble along their familiar paths. He had much the same thoughts as the previous morning, and the morning before, and the morning before.

As he worked, he repeated to himself the Four Foundation Axioms of the Discalced Brethren, then the Nine Sacred Institutions. The Discalced Brethren of Yusuf-ben-Yohanan were a small order, their outlying hilltop sequestery forgotten by most of the Monastery, but they had a proud history, and regularly placed in the top 10% of finishers at the Intermonastic Piety Challenge. It was a good life in the monastery, and Brother Norbert had never regretted his decision to come here, nor his choice of the Discalced Brethren. There was a sense of certainty about life here, a quiet predictability to each day that gave him the strength to handle the occasional rain of fish.

Though this was twenty-first day in a row.

Brother Norbert felt the first stirrings of disquiet, as though hearing the first rumbles of a distant storm. The rains had been getting more severe, and this was the worst one yet; what would he do if it continued to rain fish? The garden would have to be abandoned –

As he always did at such times, Brother Norbert consoled himself with the thought that even the Blessed Yusuf bin-Yohanan had experienced setbacks in his life. Had not his Foundation Axioms been stolen, not once but many times, to bolster the shaky intellectual edifices of other monastic orders? Had he not been struck from the ranks of his original order, sent into the wilderness with the words “you’re out!” ringing in his saintly ears? Had not his original line-up of monks been struck from competing in the Intermonastic Piety Challenge for supposedly throwing the final? Yet he had surmounted all of these obstacles, living to see his order prosperous and his axioms granted a grudging respect in all corners of the monastery.


Today Brother Norbert’s meditations did not seem to help. After an hour of steady raking, he still felt uneasy, and was tired and thirsty, with half the garden still to go. He left his rake and basket under a tree and went to get a drink of water from the fountain. When he returned, Brother Wayne had finally arrived. With his back to Brother Norbert, he seemed to be taking fish out of the basket and handing them to another monk, who was measuring them with a ruler and then tossing them casually in a pile at his feet. Brother Norbert harumphed. “What are you doing?” he asked sharply.

Brother Wayne started, like he had been caught with the key to the cabinet of forbidden books, and turned around to look sheepishly upward at the senior gardener. But before Brother Norbert could continue, the second monk darted forward, fish in hand, and thrust himself between them. “Aah, Brother Norbert,” he said, with the serious smile of a polite man engaged in a difficult and important task. “The fish in the basket, the ones in the garden, and the ones in the pile by the dust heap; those are all that fell this morning?”

“I – there may be some in the gutters; I haven’t yet checked.”

“The gutters.” The monk nodded gravely. He was a pale, gaunt man with freckles, perhaps a decade older than the junior gardener, and his face was well suited to nodding gravely. “Brother Wayne, best to go up and clear the fish out the gutters before the birds get to them. We don’t want to bias the sample.”

“Er – what is this about, Brother Broderick?” asked Brother Norbert. “It is Brother Broderick, isn’t it?” Norbert thought he recognised the pale monk as one of the ones who could usually be found in the basement, assisting Brother Stephen with his ceaseless compilation of statistics on departed brethren and current competitors in the Intermonastic Piety Challenge. Most axioms disproved in a debating season, best ratio of dogmas conceded to accepted, lifetime conversion averages, etc. This was the sort of thing Brother Broderick should be doing, not frustrating his efforts to clean up the garden.

“Yes, Senior Gardener. Brother Broderick, Assistant Chief Statistics Keeper,” replied the younger man, with earnest courtesy. “Brother Wayne has been helping me quantify some interesting trends in the recent ichthyometeorological phenomena, Senior Gardener. I apologise for the disruption to your routine, but this work is of the greatest importance to the future of the entire Order, if not the Monastery itself.”

“You seem to be measuring the fish.” Brother Norbert did his best to look stern at Brother Wayne, who had stood up and was looking uncertainly between the Senior Gardener and the Assistant Chief Statistics Keeper.

“Yes, we are.” Brother Broderick placed his arm familiarly on Brother Norbert’s shoulder and spoke earnestly. “Measuring their length, their weight, counting the number of fish and the number of species of fish. Senior Gardener,” here the pale monk’s voice fell to a stage whisper “are you aware that each of these trends can be described by an exponential function?” His eyes glittered intensely as he stared at Brother Norbert. There was a pause.

“You will throw them away when you are finished?” asked Brother Norbert.

“Yes, of course.” Brother Broderick smiled his taut, polite smile again. “We will dispose of them when we have finished our measurements. For as long as we are able.”

“Well, you can measure, and Brother Wayne can clear the gutters. I’ll keep raking them out of these flowerbeds, and put them here under the quince tree, and you can count them as long as you clean them up afterwards. Is that alright?” Brother Norbert did not raise his voice, but only just.

“Certainly, Senior Gardener,” replied Brother Broderick, giving a little bow. Brother Wayne clambered up a downpipe, and only the scrape of the rake, the sound of descending fish, and the scritching of pen on paper disturbed the quiet of the morning.


What a curious morning it had been, Brother Norbert thought. Fish and Assistant Chief Statistics Keepers, all in the one day. That must have been why the dust heap was always such a mess, with the previous day’s fall of fish hastily stashed in shallow pits in the rubbish, or missing entirely. Brother Broderick must have been ferreting through it for a couple of weeks now, making his ridiculous measurements.

Brother Norbert had washed his hands and now sat in his cell, leafing through his weathered seed catalogues. Perhaps there was a variety of sturdy, fish-proof rosebush they could order in. He felt he had handled the morning in entirely the wrong way. What would Brother Theophrastus have done? Something entirely more effective, he was sure. In Brother Theophrastus’ time, life in the monastery had been simpler. Senior monks told junior monks what things to do, and junior monks did them. Brother Theophrastus had told the junior gardeners of the days when things were simpler yet, when there was only one rule, and one order of monks, and even if they had been wrong about some things – about nearly everything, according to the high and mighty philosopher monks – at least they had been just carried on and done the things they were told, instead of squabbling about the balk rule and deciding to take the morning off and measuring fish instead of doing their proper job and using words like “exponential” that they had made up. Brother Norbert sometimes felt jealous of the monks of that earlier, simpler time. This jealousy was a dangerous thing, he reflected, for when smart-aleck young monks like Brother Spiro told him there never was such a time, and such happy, simple monks had never existed, his first reaction was always the exultant thought “serves them right, for being so much better than us.”

There was an unmonastic lack of silence outside Brother Norbert’s door. Little knots of monks were passing by, talking among themselves, sometimes loud enough for Brother Norbert to make out their words. They were mostly voices of the younger monks, though with enough of the older ones mixed in to make it obvious that the excitement could not be about one of the ephemeral pursuits of the young, kite-flying or circle-squaring or some such nonsense. He poked his head out the doorway to watch the back of one of these knots of earnestly talking monks and clearly heard the word “exponential”. That was enough. It was the third inning[i]; time for a cup of tea.


After his cup of tea, Brother Norbert wandered down to the scriptorium. He was not partial to fish himself – especially lately – but he knew that Brother Felipe was, and reasoned that perhaps he had some knowledge of why they should take to the air. Brother Felipe was a visitor from one of the other Orders, one of the smaller sects of Illuminated Eremites. He had come to the Discalced Brethren to consult their annotated copy of the Codex con Carne, bearing a letter of authorisation signed by the undersecretary to the Abbot himself, and had spent most of the last year buried in that vast and intricate frijole-stained work. Brother Norbert had found him to be a very pleasant fellow, for one of the Calced. He valued his friendship for the opportunity to hear his stories, for with a glass of red wine in his hand Brother Felipe was an indefatigable talker, full of exciting tales of life in distant parts of the monastery. The chapel belonging to his sect lay in the oldest and greatest region of the monastery, almost beneath the shadow of the Abbot’s tower – that ancient miracle of monastic architecture, within whose walls holy silence reigned supreme and the designated sages of seventy and seven divergent orders ceaselessly debated in flawless mime. Perhaps one day Brother Norbert might see for himself the wonders of those distant places – the Great Brass Head of Berzelius, kept in its crystal reliquary far below the Abbot’s wine cellars; the Automata of Van Trapp; the labyrinthine Psaltery of the Mahayana Prosodists, where the life’s words of ten-thousand Bodhisattvas were set to music and inscribed on the walls of interminable passages. Half legend, half dream, half sober truth – such, in these latter days, when mathematics is little regarded in the outer reaches, were the tales Brother Felipe brought from the heart of the Monastery. Perhaps one day he would see such things, sighed Brother Norbert.

Brother Felipe was not in the scriptorium, and when Brother Norbert asked after him he was told he had gone to the cool room, a part of the cellars beneath the pantry. He had gone with Brother Broderick, said Brother Andrew, but he had not heard what they said, for he had been busy with his own work, transcribing the history of the monastery from crumbling old pages before they turned to dust. “If you are going to see him, Brother Norbert, could you ask him where he put my pencil sharpener? He borrowed it this morning and I can’t find it in his desk.”

Brother Norbert agreed, and then he realised this meant he had to go to the cool room now, running a good chance of bumping into Brother Broderick again. Oh well. He knew his current peevishness was unworthy of one of the Discalced Brethren, and muttered a brief prayer that it would pass.


A few minutes later, Brother Norbert was at the cool room. The cavernous hall, a relic from the days when the monks had strict dietary requirements restricting them to semi-soft cheeses four days of the week[ii], was nearly empty, except for a table at the far end, where the glow of a candle illuminated a seated figure that appeared to be Brother Felipe – alone, Brother Norbert was happy to see. The Calced monk was alternately writing rapidly in a large book and examining small objects he removed from a basket alongside. Seeing Brother Norbert enter, he nodded, and continued his labours.

As Brother Norbert crossed the room, he began to feel faint. For some reason, he had stopped breathing. Strange, he thought, forcing himself to concentrate. After taking a few deep breaths, he realised that he had been holding his breath to avoid the nauseating stench of rotting fish. What in the world was going on?

Brother Felipe raised his head, noticing Brother Norbert’s discomfort. “I beg your pardon, my dear Brother Norbert. These are the day before yesterday’s.” He waved an ink-stained hand vaguely at the basket by his side, filled with fish. “Brother Broderick has asked me to classify these fish according to their species, and I fear that they are rather malodourous. I thought this-” he gave a more expansive wave to indicate the cool room in general, its shelves nearly empty except for the great wheels of the midsummer cheeses. “-would save others from suffering to attain the knowledge that I seek. If you require the room for a more salubrious purpose, I am only too happy to remove these impedimenta.” Brother Felipe half rose to go, but Brother Norbert shook his head. Fish! It seemed that everyone had become obsessed with the commonplace creatures, just because they happened to fall out of the sky. Perhaps this was a bad time, and he should try to catch Brother Felipe later.

“If you see Brother Broderick, Brother Andrew would like to know if he still has his pencil sharpener.’”

“Thank you,” Brother Felipe nodded gravely. “I will be sure to let him know. I expect him back in about half an hour.” Bending back over the cloth-bound codex before him, he made a mark on the page. He picked up another fish from the basket, looked at it briefly, then crisply and rapidly wrote “Macrochiron Gadarensis, common hash-mackerel”. What fine handwriting, Brother Norbert thought. His gardener’s hands were clumsy with a pen, and would have taken all morning to write as much as Brother Felipe had clearly written in the last few minutes. While Brother Felipe’s letters marched across the page as a disciplined legion of clean-cut figures, his own painstakingly scribed pages always bore more resemblance to a panic-stricken mob.

“Was there anything else you wanted, Brother Norbert?” Brother Felipe straightened to look up at his visitor, his solemnity softening to a self-conscious half smile. Brother Norbert shifted uneasily on his feet. “No – I mean, yes, Brother Felipe.” A small pause. “Do you mind telling me what this is all about? With Brother Broderick and the fish? I thought you might know something, since you are fond of fish.”

“Unfortunately, I am not an expert in Brother Broderick’s field,” said Brother Felipe, putting down his pen. “I am only a humble visitor to your halls. Have you asked Brother Broderick himself?”

“He seems very busy,” said Brother Norbert evasively.

“Yes, that he does. I suppose your Brother Broderick is a Pythagorean at heart, forever seeking the mathematical order underlying all things. For the past few days he has been seeking particularly the mathematical order underlying the rains of fish on this part of the monastery. What we have measured, we can understand; that is his credo. So, he has been busy counting, measuring, classifying. He thinks – this is only his hypothesis, you understand; it may not be true – that the severity of the falls, whether measured by the number of fish or their size, has been increasing exponentially.”

“They have been much the same, I thought, except for the last day or two,” said Brother Norbert.

“Exactly so. That is what exponential is like. The same, almost the same, almost the same, and then, whoosh!” Brother Felipe had picked up his pen again, and at ‘whoosh!’ he lifted it into the air, drawing Brother Norbert’s eyes upwards. They remained focussed on the pen as it slowly descended. Strange people, statistics keepers. He hoped Pythagothingummy was not on Elder Brother’s Leo’s List of Forbidden Dogmas; it was hard to imagine the guileless Brother Broderick as a heretic.

“It is like flies, you understand. A pair of flies, breeding without any predators to check them, will have progeny enough in a year to cover the whole world in a living carpet of insects. But until St. Gustav’s Day[iii], say, if they began on New Year’s Day, no one would know; you might as well keep them all in a basket.” Brother Felipe smiled, the corner of his mouth twitching slightly.

“So that means it will get worse?”

“If Brother Broderick’s hypothesis is true…”

“Much worse?”

Brother Felipe shrugged. “Mas o menos. Remember, Brother Norbert, it is only a hypothesis. Monks have been wrong before.” As Brother Theophrastus had always been only too happy to point out, thought Brother Norbert, giving an inaudible sigh of relief. “However, Brother Broderick is a very accomplished statistician.”

“I see,” said Brother Norbert. “Thank you very much, Brother Felipe.”

De nada,” replied the other, returning to his labours.

Lacrimus Zechariahii, the friar’s sole…


Brother Wayne was late for the afternoon weeding. By the time he finally arrived, Brother Norbert had worked his way through a third of the garden. He really feared that many of the plants would not recover from this most recent battering. Saddest were the hippocanthus bushes, planted in honour of the late Manager Elder Brother Peter; broken, nigh-on leafless – he was glad that most of the Elder Brethren who had stood by so proudly at its planting were now dead and buried. If they were still alive, they would no doubt be sternly demanding immediate action from him.

“I am glad to see you have finally remembered some of your responsibilities, Brother Wayne,” Brother Norbert said harshly. “There will be no repeat of this morning’s performance, I trust?”

Brother Wayne nodded. He seemed crestfallen, drained of his usual ebullience. “No, Senior Gardener,” he said. Had the lad been crying? His face was red and puffy. Perhaps he had come out on time, after all, and been stung by a wasp.

“What’s the matter, boy?” asked Brother Norbert impatiently. “Stung by a wasp?”

“No, Master Gardener.”

“Your kite string broken?”

“No, Master Gardener,” Brother Wayne replied, weaker then before. “It’s just, I just-” his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, and his eyes brimmed with tears.

“Well? What is it, boy?” snapped Brother Norbert. Acolytes nowadays! He was very close to losing his temper with the young monk, and forced himself to take a deep breath in anticipation of his response.

“It’s just, I wanted to say, Master Gardener, that I’ve really liked working in the garden with you. You’ve been very kind to me, and I’ve learned a lot.”

Brother Norbert felt a sudden emptiness in the pit of his stomach. Had Brother Wayne heard something? Was the garden about to be shut down, because of the fish? Elder Brother Leo had always said it was too costly to maintain, and at one time there had been strong pressure to convert it to a lawn for communal ball games. Or was Brother Broderick putting pressure on the lad to work in the statistics cellar?

“You’re not thinking of leaving, are you? Has Brother B-”

“No, no,’ said Brother Wayne miserably. “It’s just, we don’t have very long, and-”

“What do you mean, we don’t have very long? Are they closing down the garden?”

“N-n-no,” blubbered Brother Wayne. “It’s the Pike, Brother Norbert.”

“The what?’

“The giant fish.” Great tears rolled down the Novice’s dimpled cheeks. “Brother Broderick says giant fish will rain down on us tonight and smash us all. It’s ex-ex-exponential.”

Brother Norbert was not used to such displays of emotion, and felt distinctly ill at ease.

“We’ve never been smashed by giant fish before. I’m sure we’ll be fine.”

“Do you really think so?”

“Yes. Yes,” lied Brother Norbert. “There’s nothing to worry about. We’ll all have a good laugh about this tomorrow, ha ha ha.”

Brother Wayne nodded, and sniffed.

“Just keep the four foundation axioms of our Blessed Founder in mind, and everything will be fine. Pass me those secateurs, please.”


Novice Archibald came to fetch Brother Norbert and Brother Wayne as they were putting away the gardening things. An extraordinary meeting of the Discalced Brethren had been called for the Eighth Inning, he said, and the Manager wanted everyone to be there.

Even hurrying as fast as monkish custom allowed, stopping only to wash their hands and feet, the two gardener monks were among the last to arrive. The refectory was full. Monks Brother Norbert had not seen for years were there, blinking in the candlelight after their long meditations in the basements and cabinets of the monastery. Word of the difficulties had obviously spread beyond the Discalced Brethren, for Brother Norbert saw at least a dozen monks from neighbouring orders, burgundy-robed Jains from down the hill and taciturn followers of St. Aloysius in white ruffs and knickerbockers.

The Manager of the Discalced Brethren, Elder Brother Stentor, rose to the lectern and cleared his throat. He waited a moment for the sound of foot-shuffling and mumbling to die away, then peered over his pince-nez at the assembly with piercing blue eyes. As always, his thick eyebrow and billowing dark grey hair gave him the forbidding aspect of a bird of prey.

“As you all know,” Elder Brother Stentor began, “recently this section of the monastery has been the scene of several rains of fish. While somewhat unusual, I would like to stress that such occurrences are in no way – er – unusual. There is absolutely no call for the irresponsible scaremongering that has engendered a sense of, dare I say it, panic, among some of the younger and more impressionable novices.” He paused to glower at a group of the selfsame younger novices at the back of the room, men whose contributions to the day’s debate had been particularly shrill. Clearing his throat, he went on, reading a prepared speech from a single sheet of paper.

“There have been documented rains of fish on successive days at Al-Zumeidah in the Yemen during the Abbasid Caliphate; in the Black Forest village of Alpirsbach in the 1930’s; near Springfield, Massachusetts, throughout the eighteenth century; at this monastery, of course, in the seventeenth century, and Alpirsbach again in the sixteenth. Fish rained from the sky on three successive days at West Palm Beach, Florida, during the Republican National Convention of 1972 – during which time a three-headed calf was born to a member of the administrative typing pool at Tulane University, and melons bearing the legend ‘beware, for the end is nigh’ in Aramaic were harvested at several places in the Midwest. There have been further rains of fish in the French Cameroons, in France itself, in Australia, Brazil, Matabeleland, Tannu-Tuva, South Dakota, North Dakota, Northern Rhodesia, the Maldives, Kashmir, Turkmenistan, Sumatra and Pomerania. Not once has a single building been destroyed by fish raining from the sky, nor a single person killed or seriously injured by falling fish. (With the trivial exception of Luigi Garibaldi, one of the Flying Garibaldi Brothers, during the Lyons World Fair of 1911). Otherwise, all of these events have passed by without any consequence whatsoever.”

“I repeat, there is no need for the unseemly panic that we have seen today. I have asked Brother Broderick, whose researches have inadvertently touched off this disturbance, to address you. He will lay out his findings clearly and calmly, once and for all, to lay to rest the ridiculous rumours I have been hearing in the corridors. I am sure you will find that these are based on a willful misunderstanding of his work, and that we all have absolutely nothing to worry about. Brother Broderick, please.”

There was polite applause, and Elder Brother Stentor took a seat. Brother Broderick rose to the lectern, his face grim. He stood silently while Brother Stenos and Brother Darren carried in a folding whiteboard and assembled it behind him.

“Fellow monks,” he began, his voice serious. Brother Norbert, who was standing at the back, could see that his hands were shaking. “I would like to thank our Manager, Elder Brother Stentor, and the other Elder Brothers, for this opportunity to speak with you, and all of you for your attention. I would like to begin my presentation today by relating an example from the ancient history of the monastery – the history of the efforts of the Self-Referential Brotherhood to create artificial intelligence.

In their quest to develop thinking automata, for centuries the Self-Referential Brotherhood progressed no further than crude clockwork instruments that could keep count of the hours; then, a few decades after devising machines that could add 1 and 1, they had automata that could mimic human speech. Another year or two, they had devised true thinking devices, and within a week they were no more, supplanted by their own creations, a hundred times more intelligent than themselves.

The more intelligent their machines became, the greater the rate at which their intelligence increased. The growth in machine intelligence was exponential; just as the growth of a population of two flies is exponential – unchecked, within a year their offspring could cover the earth.”

Brother Broderick paused, leaving the Monks to wonder what the point of this discursion could possibly be. He now gripped the lectern tightly to keep his hands from shaking, and there was more strength and confidence in his voice.

“Brother Darren, please.”

The gangly novice, with the aid of Brother Stenos, hung a chart on the whiteboard. It was labelled ‘Fig.1: No. of Fish’ and showed a curve, clinging closely to the bottom of the graph almost all of the way across and then rising vertiginously to the top at the extreme right. Most of this portion of the line was dotted.

“As you can see, the number of fish falling in the monastery garden and surrounds has been rising slowly over the last month or so. This rise can be described by an exponential function, which I have projected forward to tomorrow morning. As you can see, my analysis predicts in excess of a million fish will fall.” Ripples of murmured discussion propagated through the crowd. Not loud or disruptive, but still almost unheard of within the confines of the Monastery. Elder Brother Stentor rose from his seat to glower at a few of the more conspicuous offenders. “Brother Broderick,” he began with a smile. “There are – er- a number of important points you have overlooked.”

“Elder Brother Stentor,” said Brother Broderick. “Might I have leave to finish my presentation, before the matter is thrown open to discussion?”

“Such has always been the custom of the Discalced Brethren,” wheezed the aged Elder Brother Leo. “Sit down, Stentor, and let the boy finish what he was saying. Something about fish, wasn’t it?”

“Alright,” said Elder Brother Stentor gracelessly, sitting down again.

“Thank you, Elder Brother Stentor. Brother Darren.”

The novice hung another chart next to the first one – this was labelled ‘Fig. 2: Avge. Lngth. of Fish’ and seemed in all other respects identical to the first one. A third, which bore the arcane title ‘Fig. 3: Avge. Stat. Dev. Lngth. of Fish’, took its place alongside.

“As you can see, after hovering for several weeks at about two inches, the average length of the fish falling in the monastery garden increased to three inches the day before yesterday, then to nearly six inches today. In addition, the variation between the average size of the fish and the maximum fish size has increased from about one inch to nearly eight,” as Brother Broderick spoke, the helpful Brother Darren pointed to the appropriate places on the two charts.

“Extrapolated to tomorrow morning, these trends suggest that at least one of the fish striking the monastery will be more than 72 feet long.”

There were gasps of disbelief, then a mumble of discussion, which continued on as an increasingly disruptive competitor to Brother Broderick’s words. “Bollocks!” called out one young monk. Undaunted, Brother Broderick raised his voice and continued, while Brother Spiro replaced Figures 3 and 4 with the final chart, marked ‘Fig. 5: No. Spcies. Fish.’ It too appeared identical to the first chart.

“Extrapolating from current trends, tomorrow’s rain will contain 105% of all known species of fish. This means there is a very good chance that a large proportion of the deluge will consist of such fish as the piranha, electric catfish, stonefish and Mesopotamian rat-fish – the last two of which, I must point out, possess an excruciatingly painful and invariably fatal poison. As for the additional 2000 species unknown to science, their possible consequences cannot even be guessed at.”

“I stress,” said Brother Broderick, against the growing roar. “I stress, this is not based on imagination, but on a rigorous statistical analysis of all the data I have been able to review. This is a careful extrapolation from known facts. The evidence is before your eyes. The age of mankind, typified by greed, corruption, violence, lascivious immorality, and scorn of the foundation axioms of our Blessed Founder, is drawing to a close. We stand at the dawn of a new age. The Age of Fish.”

Elder Brother Stentor opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. Brother Broderick stood blinking at the crowd of monks, like a marmot facing a Range Rover.

“Hear, hear,” said Elder Brother Leo. Brother Norbert supposed he had only heard the bit about the end of immorality, and was applauding that. The sound of one man clapping galvanised Brother Stentor, and he rose to his feet, looking murderously at Brother Broderick until the younger monk moved well away from the lectern.

“Thank you, Brother Broderick.” said Elder Brother Stentor, his voice flat. “Listen up, down the back,” he shouted, struggling to be heard above the noise of a hundred muttering monks. “I would like to ask Brother Broderick a question. The question is, how can you logically extrapolate from a purely empirical model fitting a number of sets of subjectively selected data to a general theory of catastrophe? Logic-”

“The question is,” shouted a wild-eyed monk in the last row. “What are you going to do about all these bloody fish?”

The refectory erupted. Monks applauded, shouted “hear, hear”, or “logic, shmogic” and banged their wooden bowls on the table. A few climbed on to the benches and cheered, while a number of the smaller and meeker ones began to make their way to the door. Never, in all his years with the Discalced Brethren, had Brother Norbert seen such an uproar.

“Silence!” boomed Elder Brother Stentor. “Silence! Are you Monks, or monkeys?” Elder Brother Leo hobbled up to the dais, adding his shrill wheeze to Stentor’s thunder and the feeble gesticulations of Brother Broderick. Stools were overturned, robes were stepped on, the Jains quietly left the room – it was not their section of the Monastery at risk, after all, and they had no wish to be crushed in the scrum.

Brother Norbert saw Brother Sylvestris – a tall, intellectual monk he had always found rather forbidding – shout something in the ear of Novice Archibald, who weaved his way through the crowd and darted after the departing ruffs of the Aloysians. Meanwhile, Brother Sylvestris himself began forging towards the dais. Brother Norbert had been stunned into silence, as much by the monks’ response to Brother Broderick’s speech as by the words themselves. Might Brother Broderick be right? Were the days of the Discalced Brethren numbered? Should they adjust their lives as best they could to somehow survive in this new age, this age of giant poisonous fish that fell from the heavens? Brother Wayne, he noticed, had gone into a manic phase, jumping up and down and waving a spoon, shouting something that he couldn’t hear. He realised with a jolt that he was shouting too. ‘Stop it! Stop it!’

There was a noise. A big noise, which swallowed up all the other noises. A vast, unearthly boom that sent every ear ringing and shook the very rafters of the refectory. It was impossible to hear yourself think, thought Brother Norbert, wondering what he was thinking.

It was the Great Gong, unheard now for forty years, once used to summon the Discalced Brethren to morning prayers. Brother Norbert had never thought to hear it again, not since that morning when he was a novice when monks from six orders in adjoining parts of the monastery had invaded the precincts of the Discalced Brethren and thrown poor old Brother Ronaldo from the Gong Tower, breaking both his legs.

Brother Wayne dropped his spoon. The trio at the dais fell silent. All activity dissolved in the one interminable ear-splitting bong, and as its echoes died away the refectory was silent. Except for the ringing in everyone’s ears.

Elder Brother Stentor glared down from the lectern. He spoke, barking each word distinctly at the assembled monks. “We are an order, not a rabble. We are monks of the Discalced Brethren of Yusuf-ben-Yohanan, and we will behave appropriately. Brother Broderick, put those things away.”

Chastened by his reception, the Assistant Chief Statistics Keeper nodded, and put his visual aids in a pile in the corner.

“Now,” continued Elder Brother Stentor. “If anyone wishes to speak, let him do so according to the accepted protocols of the Monastery. Brother Sylvestris?” For Brother Sylvestris had by now reached the front of the room, and was holding one finger up in the time honoured gesture of the Discalced Brethren.

“Thank you, Elder Brother Stentor.” Brother Sylvestris clambered up to the lectern. “As I believe you are all aware, Brother Broderick’s exponential equations are only a model for certain observations.” Brother Sylvestris spoke in a good-natured, slightly condescending tone, as though he was giving private instruction to a favorite pupil who happened to be as thick as two bricks. “Just because the model fits the data, it doesn’t mean the model is true. For example: it is possible to model the observed motions of the planets by saying that they all go around the sun in elliptical orbits, sweeping out equal areas in equal times, with the sun at one focal point of the ellipse. Of course, one then has to assume that the earth does too, and that the earth is about the same size as the planets, and that instead of being sensibly enclosed in an interlocking system of perfect crystalline spheres each planet is borne on the back of an enormous invisible space dugong.” Brother Sylvestris chuckled self-indulgently at the notion. “Ridiculous, obviously!”

Brother Norbert agreed, it was a perfectly ridiculous notion. But mightn’t it still be possible that the Discalced Brethren were really about to be crushed beneath a rain of fish? Inherently, the idea seemed a great deal more plausible than giant invisible space dugongs.

“So there are any number of models that could fit the observed trends; a simple parabolic one, for instance, in which the quantity of fish goes up, and then down again. Please be calm, my fellow monks, and wait to see what tomorrow will bring.” Brother Sylvestris nodded politely to assembly, and stepped away from the lectern. The speech had a calming effect on the gathering, and as he finished there was a smattering of polite applause. Brother Stentor scowled down at the assembled monks, silently reminding them that Monks Do Not Applaud.

“Anyone else?” a dozen forefingers stabbed the air. “Brother Clarence?”

A timid, portly brother made his way to the front. Like Brother Wayne, he had evidently been greatly upset by the projected fate of the Monastery, and his face was flushed and bleary. Brother Sylvestris gave him a hand up onto the dais, and he moved uncertainly to the lectern.

“Brother Sylvestris, you say that we can’t be sure Brother Broderick’s predictions are true. But at the same time, how can be certain that they aren’t true? Remember Pascal’s Wager?” Brother Clarence paused to catch his breath, and the assembled monks nodded. They all remembered Brother Pascal, and his proverbial gamble on the outcome of the 311th Intermonastic Piety Challenge, supposedly based on an anonymous tip.

“I mean, suppose it had worked out, and the Phrenologic Coenobites had actually won? At odds of twentyseven hundred to one, Brother Pascal would have been the greatest hero in the history of the Discalced Brethren, setting us up for dominance of the entire Monastery.” Instead of being the greatest fool, hung in the air unspoken, expelled from the order for embezzling its entire savings.

“So, we should be thinking, I guess – if, Brother Broderick is right, what will we do?” Brother Clarence stood uneasily at the lectern.

“That’s all I have to say.”

There was another burst of applause, louder this time. Elder Brother Stentor’s scowl took longer to take effect.

“Is there anyone else?’ Elder Brother Stentor ignored the waving fingers. “No? Good. I will see you all for dinner at the bottom of the ninth inning.”

“Yes, Assistant Statistics Keeper?”

“I just wanted to say that I have a number of ideas as to how we can adapt and make the most of the new situation-”

The assembled Elder Brothers looked darkly on Brother Broderick.

“I believe your ideas have caused us enough trouble already, Brother Broderick,” said Elder Brother Stentor. ‘This discussion is now closed.”

Superficially calm, the monks now began to file out of the refectory. Soon the sound of heated discussion began to drift in from outside, once enough monks were beyond the glare of Elder Brother Stentor. “How can you trust a monk who believes in invisible space dugongs?” came a scornful voice from somewhere ahead of Brother Norbert.



Brother Norbert heard a bang from above, as of something large and fish-like hitting the roof. Instantly, he was fully awake. Was this the end? Was the destruction of the Discalced Brethren imminent? There was another bang, and another. Rapidly, Brother Norbert rose and gathered his most precious possessions- the Compleat Herbal of Brother Polydendros, the latest seed catalogue, the faded picture of his mother and the shoes he had worn before he joined the order.

There were others in the hallway. No one dared speak what they all thought, standing there in the darkness in their nightclothes, while sporadic banging sounds continued above their heads. Fear and tension showed on the faces of the monks as they glanced at one another, seeking some direction at this critical moment. It would only take one word – one word to push them over into panic, or send them peacefully back to their beds to await the morning.

“The Pike! The Pike!” Brother Clarence’s terrified screams echoed down the hall, shortly followed by the monk himself, legs furiously pumping. Shouting, shoving, rushing to escape the coming catastrophe, the Discalced Brethren poured after him, no longer an order, but disorder incarnate. Brother Norbert saw Brother Sylvestris himself in the crush, powerless to go against it. There was Brother Stephen, his beard flapping around him, clutching to his chest a heavy tome of statistics. Brother Broderick, his face ashen, shoved up against one wall watching the crowd surge by. Brother Wayne, who had somehow found another spoon to wave. Intoxicated by the fear-laden air, Brother Norbert clawed his way through the crowd with the rest of them, his mind dominated by one thought only: get away, get away, get away!



“You were right,” the tall monk said, scraping a single fish out of his way with a booted foot. The morning sun shone clear and bright on the gravel paths and tattered bushes of the garden. “All we had to do was feed them the data, and their own weakness for statistics did the rest.”

“It was your idea to combine the first full scale tests of our fish translocator with our effort to find more salubrious quarters, Piscator Ricardo,” said the shorter, darker monk.

Piscator Ricardo smiled and nodded. “But it was your seminal insight that led to our victory. I congratulate you. The order congratulates you.” Behind the two men, other monks were at work. A locksmith monk hurried past, tools jangling from his belt as his robes billowed out behind him. Two others walked more slowly, carrying a mounted marlin between them.

“I was lucky to find a target as imaginative as Brother Broderick. All it took was a few carefully placed suggestions.” The shorter monk shook his head. ‘Still, I cannot help feeling a little sorry for them.”

“Hah! The shoeless ones had occupied this prime location for far too long, Piscator Felipe. There is no way the Illuminated Brethren of the Hunter King can fulfill their goals with the Abbot breathing over our shoulder all the time. We need space! And now all this is ours.”

“I expect they will return in time,” said Piscator Felipe glumly.

“We have possession – nine-tenths of the law. You should not concern yourself with such things,” the taller monk clapped Piscator Felipe on the back. “You should be relaxing, after a job well done. I expect you are looking forward to a trip home, after all this excitement.”

“Yes, Piscator Ricardo. I have had enough of this-” one sweeping gesture took in the garden, the gong tower, the hulking complex that housed the refectory- “to last me a lifetime. Codex con Carne, bah! I hope I never read another chili recipe as long as I live. What I would give anything for right now is a good swordfish steak.”

“I am sure the head of the order would only be too grateful to fly one in for you from the Gulf of California, Piscator Felipe. After all, you have been the prime instrument of our triumph. Rex Venator Domat Omnia, Piscator Felipe.”

Rex Venator Domat Omnia, Piscator Ricardo.”





[i] For reasons that are probably obvious, the Monks of the Discalced Brethren of Yusuf-ben-Yohanan divide the hours between Prime and Vespers into nine innings.


[ii] The sources which have come down to us suggest that they ate wheat bran on the remaining three days of the week.


[iii] December 27th, the anniversary of St. Gustav’s martyrdom by the Samogitians. There are many sources for the story of St. Gustav, and for the profound influence his example has had on many orders within the Monastery; perhaps the best can be found in Kaminsky’s De Rerum Monasteribus.

In the morning Tash and Josie went out to survey the damage from the earthquake. In some places they walked hand in hand, and in others Tash carried Josie. Anyone watching would have seen what they would not have seen the day before, that they were two people entangled beyond any hope of disentanglement. Josie reached out to touch Tash more often than she had before, without any hesitation, and her touches lingered longer, while Tash kept one of his hands always on Josie’s arm or leg.

There were new cracks and fallen masonry everywhere they went, but the place that had been struck the worst seemed to be the hidden garden where they had first met.

‘The whole of the outside wall is down,’ Tash said excitedly. He edged close and described to Josie how its foundations had given way. The cliff that they had climbed down had fallen to the base of the hill, leaving a new precipice that was crumbling and impassable.

‘There are still rocks and earth falling down, and the roots of one of the big trees are hanging out over nothing. I wouldn’t be surprised if it fell over.’ Josie could hear the insidious unsettling sounds of the cliff edge crumbling away as they stood near it.

Tash turned to the middle of the garden. ‘The statue of the woman in the middle of the garden has fallen over and she has broken in half- here, you should feel the jewels she has around her neck, Josie, and – the other statues-‘ Tash fell silent.

‘They are broken too?’ ventured Josie. She had been sure that they were not true statues, but beasts turned to stone even as Tash had been turned to stone. It would be a tragedy if they were broken now, beyond any hope of magical rescue. And she had not even tried to turn them back, she felt, with a pang of guilt.

‘No – they are gone,’ said Tash. ‘There is nothing left.’

As her momentary worry about neglecting the statues lifted, it seemed suddenly to Josie as it had the night before that anything was possible. She felt like she had it in her power to do great and wonderful and audacious things. She was afraid, but exultant at the same time.

‘Could it be that the enchantment wore off? Or the earthquake broke it somehow?’

‘It could be,’ Tash agreed without any great conviction.

Josie knelt down and felt at the hoofprints of polished earth that the stag statue had left behind. There seemed to be other hoofprints, newly pressed into the living grass, heading away across the garden to the fallen outer wall. ‘Or maybe-‘ she forced herself to say the name, using her newfelt sense of power. ‘The lion – Aslan- is here.’

‘It could be,’ said Tash, turning away from Josie.

‘Did you see anything unusual last night, before the earthquake?’ Josie asked Tash.

Through the hand she held she felt Tash stiffen, like someone who has just noticed that they are about to step on a poisonous snake. ‘Tash?’ she asked, with a hint of sharpness in her voice.

‘I saw him,’ Tash admitted in a gravelly mumble that made his voice sound even more unmusical than usual. ‘Over there, in a part of the ruins that fell down when the earthquake started.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me earlier?’ asked Josie.

‘I was distracted by other things,’ Tash mumbled.

At this Josie could not help laughing. She folded herself around one of Tash’s legs and kissed his thigh. ‘Of course you were, dear Tash. Husband Tash. Did he- Aslan – say anything to you?’

‘A little,’ Tash admitted. ‘He said- he said- that you were meant to go away from here, back to the place the ifrits took you from, and do something with the humans there. He said you had to take someone – the dog, I think -and then all the animals here who used to be men would be changed back ’

‘He didn’t want to tell me this himself?’ Josie asked.

‘He said that you wouldn’t listen to him, so I had to persuade you. I didn’t want- don’t want- to persuade you. I am sure there is another way.’

‘Another way?’

‘He said that we could not be together,’ Tash said. ‘He said that we were only going to be in each other’s stories a short time, and then go in different directions. He said you had to do this thing, and then go back to your own world. He said that I couldn’t come with you.’

A disorienting rush of feelings had swept over Josie. She felt guilty again, and she felt indignant at the same time that she was being made to feel guilty. She felt she was being herded, told what to do, as she had been (for her own good, always for her own good) all her life. She was not nobody, not anymore, poor little blind Josie Furness: she was Josie, Mistress of Telmar. She felt that she ought to obey, and she felt she should take a furious pride in not obeying.

‘Just because the lion says so doesn’t mean that’s the way things have to be,’ said Josie hotly.

‘I said that there had to be another way,’ said Tash.

‘We will find another way,’ said Josie, and squeezed Tash’s leg again. Then she said again ‘We will find another way,’ because it sounded more true the more times she said it. ‘It is convenient, isn’t it, an earthquake coming just as the Lion’ – she forced herself to say the name, she would not be frightened or bossed around, not anymore- ‘just as Aslan comes here?’

‘It is not very convenient,’ said Tash, puzzled.

‘I mean, he comes along and tells us we have to go, and at the same time he makes an earthquake to make us think the whole place is going to fall down on our heads. Obviously he is powerful enough to do whatever he likes – kill us or drag us off quick as spit if he wanted to – but he wants us to obey him. I don’t see why we should.’

Josie had not intended to get quite so angry. She had raised her voice and balled her hands into fists. Only a little bit of her anger was truly anger at Aslan, the lion whom she had never met, and who the beasts of this world credited with godlike powers, such as snatching girls out of the ocean and into other worlds. No, she was angry at the God of her own world, the one who had made her blind, who had taken her mother from her, taken her sister from her, taken her out of her home and sent her to the other side of the world to live with a man who had deserted and betrayed her family. She knew in her heart that Aslan was good, but she knew too that he was good in that terrible bloodless way that she had felt in the secret chamber, a good that she did not want pushing her around like she was a piece on a chessboard, part of some grand plan in which her feelings did not matter. Then there was the guilt she felt for what she and Tash had done, guilt stirred up by this talk of duty; for the rules that she had rejected with her conscious mind held her subconscious in an iron prison.

‘So we will not leave for the land of humans?’ said Tash.

‘Maybe one day,’ Josie said with determination. ‘Not now. Not on the say so of Aslan.’ She quashed her misgivings as best she could. ‘There was a time when I would have given a great deal to have Aslan show up and tell me what to do. But I don’t feel that way anymore.’


‘Good,’ said Tash. ‘I was supposed to persuade you. But I am happy not to.’ He ran his hands through her hair, relieved.

From the night of the earthquake onwards Tash could never again be as happy as he had been before, even though he was now betrothed to Josie. Hanging over him were the words of the Books of Tash and the words of the Lion, the prophecies that condemned him to be separate from Josie. He had said he would find another way, and Josie had promised that she would find another way, but the two of them were very small compared to all the worlds.

As spring came on with reckless haste, Josie and Tash turned the whole of the castle upside down, looking for anything that could help them. There was precious little that they could be sure would be of use. There were rings and amulets of the evil magician’s that were clearly magical, but they were not sure exactly what they were meant to do, and reluctant to experiment. Tash had tried to read the books the magician had left behind, but the strange symbols in them stubbornly refused to rearrange themselves into comprehensible ones. The whole of his time beneath Telmar had taken on a dreamlike quality, so that it blurred in his memory. Sometimes it could almost be forgotten, and was only there as a looming grey uneasiness: then the memory of a phrase read, or the face of the Lion, or a cruel image made of hundreds of pieces of stones, would come back to Tash with the force of a blow.

Then there was the dog. It had not returned for almost two weeks after the earthquake, and Josie had begun to worry that something had happened to it. Then one sunny day Tash went out hunting, and Josie came with him as far as the flat stone overlooking the fishing pool, and when he returned with a rabbit he had caught the dog was with her.

‘You were right, Tash,’ she said in a melancholy way. ’I have been getting her story out of her by this game of twenty questions, and it is filled with Aslan.’

The dog lay with her- head in Josie’s lap, looking soulfully up at Tash. It was a scruffy sort of animal, and had gotten a fair bit of mud on it with the change in the weather, but Josie did not seem to mind.

‘I am not sure what her name is. She is the only one who is like her; the others are not as smart. They have stories about how Aslan made them the way they are, and the pack leader says they should be content with their lot. But Aslan – I think – told her that we could help her. I am not sure if it was a dream she had or not. She finds you very frightening. It is very slow working it out,’ she sighed. ‘I don’t know, Tash, can helping her really mean that we have to be parted? What did Aslan say, exactly?’

Tash had been admiring the way the sun shone on Josie’s face as she spoke, and had to admit that he had not quite followed what he was saying.

‘Dear Tash, you are sometimes useless at listening,’ she chided him, and repeated herself. He looked so miserable after this that she had to shoo the dog off her lap and reach over to give him a hug.

Tash explained what the Lion said again. ‘He said I had to choose one of two paths, and neither of them had you in it, and that I had to persuade you to go back to the human lands, to a place called Balan, to make things right between the humans and the talking animals, and the sooner we went the better. And that the men of Telmar had been bad so he had punished them, but it was time for their descendants to be unpunished, and he had picked someone – maybe it is this dog – to be the one to help with them being able to talk again.’

Josie held on to Tash’s ankle in a proprietary way. ‘I don’t see how it can be true that we have to be parted, and that our only choice is to do exactly what Aslan says. It seems to me that we should be able to do the best we can to help on our own, without Aslan. There must be things we can do to help her without going off on a long quest to the human lands. I don’t know – Tash – that it would be easy for you in the human lands of this world, from what I have heard of them. Will you come into the castle with us, dog?’

The talking dog that could not talk swished her tail to-and-fro, three times. Josie reached out to scratch her behind her ears but did not let go of Tash’s ankle.

‘You will think of something, Josie,’ said Tash. Josie had a concentrated look on her face: she had remembered the gazelle Alabitha saying much the same thing, and thinking of that meeting reminded her again of Alice in Wonderland, and then she thought of the cake labelled ‘Eat Me’.

‘Maybe the food in the secret room would help the dog to talk?’ she suggested.

‘We know it is magic,’ said Tash. ‘You said not to eat it before.’

‘I know,’ said Josie. ‘It does seem rash. But I very much doubt the food is deadly poison. It might be worth trying. What do you think, friend dog?’

The dog had drawn back out of reach of Josie, and her claws skittered on the stone as she danced back and forth uncertainly.

‘I guess we should go,’ said Josie, holding up her arms so Tash could help her up. He scooped her up in three of his arms, holding on the rabbit with the other, and started off.

‘Come along, then,’ Josie called to the dog.

Tash carried Josie over the uneven ground along the edge of the stream back toward the castle, the dog following behind.


Tash peered at the almost-round balls of sweet-smelling pinkish fruit in the box, nestled in a bed of straw. ‘So those are apples,’ he thought. It was curious that something so simple and natural looking could be so dreadfully magical. There were only three of them, though it looked as if there had once been many more. Josie had shown him the box and then gone poking about the other things on the dais. She looked very much like the Mistress of Telmar, Tash thought , as she moved about in the reddish light of his lamp –she had tied her hair back with a bit of cloth of gold, and had put on when she awoke that morning a necklace of gold with dozens of red stones that he had found for her. She drew his attention irresistibly, inexorably. He would give everything to stay with her forever, to protect her and help her and feel her skin against his own.

‘I think this armour would fit me,’ she said. ‘It seems like there is one for a man and one for a woman, and it seems to be exactly the right size.’

‘It would look very nice on you,’ said Tash.

‘I still don’t know what to do,’ said Josie. She traced the embossed pattern of the lion on the chestpiece of the armour. ‘I remember being here before, saying that in these stories Aslan shows up to tell people what they have to do, so we should just wait until then, and now he has, and I don’t want to do what he said. I can’t do what he said.’

The dog had been reluctant to come any closer than the top of the stairs, and Josie had made no effort to encourage her to come closer. ‘She will come in her own time,’ she had said, and quoted. ‘Patience is a virtue.’ The dog had been very timid about accompanying them into the castle at all, and in the end what made her mind up more than anything else was it starting to pour with rain.

Josie set the armour back down and went to examine the table where the food was laid out as if for a banquet, gently sniffing and prodding at each dish. ‘This pie seems like something dogs would like,’ said Josie, selecting a meat-filled pastry about the size of her hand. Tash agreed. Dogs did not seem like very particular animals, from what he had seen of their habits; they had certainly been eager enough to devour the corpse of the magician.

“Maybe it would be better to have something dogs don’t like,’ he suggested. ‘Then, if the dog eats it, we will know it is because she understands us saying it is magic that could make her talk, and not just because she is hungry.’

‘That’s not a bad idea,’ said Josie. She put the pie back down and picked up a bowl of pickled turnips, getting purple stains on her hands. ‘I don’t suppose dogs are very fond of these.’

‘They are like grith, but nicer,’ said Tash. He was rather fond of them, and had eaten almost all of the magician’s stores of non-magical pickled turnip.

‘I know Tashes are fond of these, already,’ said Josie cheerfully.

The dog was wary of the rooms where Tash and Josie lived – they had the smell of Tash to them, who the dog was afraid of, and doubtless the smell of the magician, who generations of the dogs ancestors had probably been afraid of- so they had brought the food back upstairs to one of the unused rooms of the castle, a hall lined with empty bookcases with a big new crack running down one wall from floor to ceiling.

Josie addressed the dog, looking to Tash very much like a great queen or sorceress in her silks and jewels. ‘As you know, we don’t know if this will work; but there is magic food preserved for some reason in the hidden chamber of this castle, left there – we think- by Aslan when he turned your ancestors into beasts. One reason this might be so would be to turn your people back from being beasts. It might be dangerous, but if you want to try, here it is.’ She set a piece of pickled turnip in front of the dog.

Without hesitation, the dog snapped it up. She came forward and nuzzled Josie’s foot, and Josie gave her a pat. ‘Good girl,’ she said. ‘I hope that will do some good. Or, at least doesn’t do any harm.’

The dog let Josie pat her for a while, then gave an enormous yawn, walked over to a pool of sunlight in the doorway, and curled up on the tiles.

‘She is going to sleep,’ said Tash. ‘She seems to be quite asleep already.’

‘Well, maybe it wasn’t quite as magic pickled turnip as we hoped,’ said Josie. And then she said ‘what?’ For Tash had made a sudden startled movement.

‘She- she-‘ said Tash. It was not any less surprising than a statue turning into a living thing; but he had not seen that, just lived it. ‘She has changed into a human.’ She was darker-skinned than Josie, like the men and women of Telmar had been, and had a wild mane of black hair that came halfway down her back. The hair on her legs was much thicker than Josie’s, and she was curled up asleep in the same position she had been as a dog, which looked uncomfortable to Tash.

‘Hello? Miss?’ Josie stepped forward, bent down, and gently shook the shoulder of the sleeping woman who had been a dog. She woke with a yelp of surprise and scrambled to all fours, then fell into a heap; it appeared she had not expected her hind legs to be so long. She lay where she had fallen, gazing around the room with rapt attention.

‘Are you alright? Can you understand me?’ asked Josie.

‘Yes,’ said the woman, and her eyes widened as she heard the sound of her own voice for the first time. It was a voice that sounded human enough, but much deeper than Josie’s, and had the woody quality of notes struck on a xylophone.

‘What is your name?’ asked Josie.

‘Blackbriar,’ said the woman who had been a dog.

Dark street. Wet cobbles. The rain stings where it hits my face – there’s a touch of ice in it – so I keep my hat pulled low and my face angled towards the street. Even with my eyes turned down I can see Father’s feet trudging ahead of me, splashing through the puddles. I wonder if his feet ache as much as mine. You wouldn’t think it from his swinging step. I’m so tired and cold I can barely manage to trudge, but he swings his arms and whistles softly to himself, an incongruous tune that sounds like springtime.

“Nearly there, Nipper,” says Father, and he looks back at me and smiles. I’m glad he’s smiling because it means he’s pleased with the work we’ve done tonight. Pleased with the coins jangling in his pocket, and pleased with me for climbing in that high narrow shop window and letting him in the back. I don’t smile back, because I’m wet and miserable. The scraps I stuffed in my worn-out shoes are no proof against the water washing in through the holes. My arms ache from climbing and my hands are scraped and icy. The rags they’re wrapped in don’t seem to make much difference.

The other reason I don’t smile is because I don’t like him very much. Not anymore.

His name is Neddie Binks. I know he’s not my father, although he has me call him that for the sake of what he calls pathos. In one way he really is my parent, because he’s the only one who looks out for me. He’s all I’ve got, even if he’s sometimes a surly cur, too ready to fly into a temper. I still remember the day I first saw him. I was trying to steal bread off a baker’s cart, thinking the baker was looking the other way, when a big hand came out and grabbed my arm. The baker swung me up and shook me until my eyes rattled. “Thief!” he yelled, looking around for a constable, “Dirty thief!” and he kept shouting, shaking me in between for good measure.

I thought I was a goner, but then Ned was there. He strode up saying: “Tommy, you wicked little bleeder,” looking as angry as a rich man with well-fed morals. I looked around, bewildered, thinking he’d mistaken me for someone – thinking crazily that maybe there really was some other kid there – and while I was looking away he belted me around the side of the head, hard enough to send everything blurry and reeling. I was crying and trying not to cry, trying to stand up straight, while he apologised to the baker and gave him some money, cuffing me every now and then for effect. And, the strange thing was, even though I thought I’d given up caring about stealing, when Neddie Binks started talking to me like that the guilt stabbed through me, a sharp pain in my chest, and I saw a sad lady’s face in my mind, a pretty lady with golden curls and dimples. “How could you, Darian?” she said, and then Neddie took my arm and hauled me off and she was gone.

It took me a while to realise I had exchanged one captor for another.

“If you’re going to steal something, scrapper,” he hissed as he hauled me off, “you have to learn to do it right. I was watching you, and you were hopeless. Your eyes were on the damned bread nearly the whole time. A whole cavalcade of angels could have pranced by in the altogether, blowing on their curly horns, an’ you wouldn’t have noticed.”

So he offered to teach me, not that I had a choice, because, as he was ready to point out, I owed him big.

When Neddie Binks is cheerful, the world is a wonderful place. Everything is painted in luxuriant colours, like a fair or a parade or a bonfire. It’s embroidered with fantastical figures, like rich people’s clothes or the furniture you can see through their windows. Doesn’t matter if it’s snowing or sleeting, his crooked smile is as good as a roaring fireplace when he turns it on you, and you’d do anything, nearly anything at all, for a word of his praise. But when Neddie Binks is miserable, when things don’t go his way, everything is bleached and grey like swollen dead rats frozen in the gutter. The same wit that makes him say things about angels and ancient gods and long dead heroes becomes his dark and twisted master, and if you say the wrong thing, or worse still, are the cause of his displeasure, you’re liable to find yourself stripped naked, tied to a statue and flogged, left out on a snowy window ledge with no way to get back in, or forced to dress in girl’s clothes and used to bait wicked old gentleman into dark alleys. Neddie Binks likes humiliating people when the gloom takes him.

Lately, he’s been in shadow more than sunshine and I’m beginning to think of running away.

But not today – today we’ve scored big, and Neddie Binks is high as a hawk, despite the wind and the icy rain. I follow him to the place where we’ve been squatting – a half ruined house, partly burned down. It’s leaky and draughty, but after outside it feels like paradise. There’s a fireplace we can use, if we have money for coals. Tonight there’s money, and there will not just be a fire, Neddie promises, but sausages and cheese, toasted bread and beer.   I try to smile, but I can’t manage. I’m too cold, too tired, too exhausted with living on the knife-edge of Neddie Binks’ moods.

“What’s up with you, Darian?” asks Neddie Binks, looking up from where he’s lit the fire, and I blink at him. He never calls me Darian. It’s always scrapper or nipper, Jimmy ,Tommy, Johnny or spinner. He’s regarding me with seriousness, something that’s foreign to both his usual kinds of mood. “You’re not getting sick, are you?” He face crinkles with concern, making me feel guilty for thinking of running away.

“I dunno,” I say. “I’m just tired. Tired and cold.” I huddle close to the tiny scrap of flickering fire, watching it struggle against the damp of the desolate fireplace. My hands are shaking and they look very blue in the unsteady light.

Something he sees in my face seems to make him worried. “Don’t worry, Darian,” he says. “You’ll feel better once you’re warm and dry with a bit of hot stodge in you.   Tell you what,” he continues, “you did a good job tonight – the lion’s share of the work, even – so why don’t you wait here and look after the fire, and I’ll go get us some things and bring ‘em back.”

Neddie Binks might be a sadistic bastard with a twisted sense of humour, and he might be a thief and a scoundrel, but he always, always keeps his word. Unlike some blokes I know he would never say a thing like that and then wander off down the pub for a few drinks and not come back.

“Alright, then,” I say.

“Sit tight,” he says cheerfully, and he hangs his blanket over my shoulders and goes back out into the rain, leaving me wondering how I could possibly think of leaving.

But he’s not gone long before the trouble starts.

It begins with a shout and then the sound of running footsteps. I freeze motionless by the fire, suddenly icy both inside and out. More shouting. “Stop! Hold it!” More footsteps, slipping and slapping on the slick cobbles.

I know what to do. Neddie Binks has taught me well. “Don’t wait around for them to catch you,” I hear his voice echo in my mind, like he was right next to me. “If there’s trouble, go and hide. Pick one of our holes and burrow into it, like you were a snake or a rat or a rabbit, and don’t you move until the next day, no matter how quiet it seems.”

So I leave the fire, and I’m halfway out the back door into the lashing night when an anguished cry rings out, followed a long age later by something softer, a fading inhuman gurgle. The pursuing voices reach a crescendo and then fall into a concerned lull through which one carries clearly, snatched through the wind and rain. “…stolen goods…he had a confederate…search the house…”

Out in the yard it’s tangled and sodden. The ruin of a more badly burnt house looms next door. When it’s daylight you can see how the fire nearly took out the whole row. Someone’s been clearing the collapsed cellar, and tonight it’s become a great sucking hole in the mud, surrounded by steep piles of earth and ash with brown water pooling at the bottom.

The searchers seem close behind me and I scramble down behind the pile of earth.   They’re fast and lively, and I’m weary and slow as lingering death. My legs aren’t working. My feet slide haphazardly. I’m too cold to climb the leaning fence, too tired to dart off like a sparrow into the streets, so I look for a place to hide, but there’s nowhere that will do. Then, struck by desperate inspiration and Neddie Binks’ words, I kneel down and dig a burrow in the side of the largest earth pile. The outside is caked into a hardening shell, but inside the mingled ash and dirt is dry and loose, easy to shift. I throw myself into the tunnel I’ve made for myself, drawing Neddie Binks’ blanket in with me. I reach up and claw at the ash and mud above the entrance, pulling it down to gently cover me, hoping that it will be soaked quickly by the rain to blend with the rest. I pull down one armful, then another, and then suddenly it all comes down heavily in great thumping clumps, and I come down with it, slammed hard into my blanket by an unforgiving hand.

The sounds of the world recede. The rain is gone. The cries of my pursuers are left behind, abandoned in the world far above, lost and meaningless. I struggle, but there is no struggle. My limbs are pinned where they were thrown, held fast in the earth’s grip. The blanket thankfully covers my face, but there is no air, none at all. There is no chance. As I fight my impossible battle, a rhyme runs cruelly through my head, a song Neddie Binks sang when his mood was blackest.

Sally, gonna buy you a brand new bow,
      (Today O, today O)
Ribbon so red for your hair of snow,
      (Coming down today, O)
Sin’s long arm will drag me down,
      (Today O, today O)
Lawmen circling all around.
      (I’m coming down today, O)

My feet are slow but my mind is clear,
      (Away O, away O)
There’s just one road away from here,
      (Going far away, O)
Sally don’t know so she won’t cry,
      (Away O, away O)
And I’ve got no wings to help me fly.
      (Going far away, O)

Lay me down on an earthen bed,
      (Below O, below O)
Cold wet clod beneath my head,
      (Way down far below, O)
In close-drawn darkness I shall lie,
      (Below O, below O)
Sod and stone shall make my sky.
      (Way down far below, O)

Poor man’s clothes shall be my shroud,
      (Below O, below O)
No fine-spun shirt to keep me proud,
      (Way down far below, O)
No copper coin to cap my eye,
      (Below O, below O)
No holding hand to help me die.
      (Way down far below, O)

No preacher man to tell sweet lies,
      (Below O, below O)
No hypocrites extemporise,
      (Way down far below, O)
No steady shoulders bear my bier,
     (Below O, below O)
No mourning maiden sheds a tear.
      (Way down far below, O)

Take my burden, take my woe,
      (Away O, away O)
Sally, dream of me while I go,
      (Going far away, O)
Bones of silver cleanse my crime,
      (Away O, away O)
Sally, don’t wake me ‘fore my time.
      (I’m going so far away, O)


It’s not raining any more.

The walls of the ruin soar above me, rising crisp and clear in the cold night air, a silhouetted stairway of broken brick. The sky beyond is dark and gleaming, pierced by a million pitiless stars. A tree hunches by the jagged wall, skeletal winter branches reaching down in a gesture of summoning.

An impossible figure, a tiny gentleman death, skeletal face shining beneath its top hat, mounts the wall. It is absurd and yet completely solemn. It pauses to beckon to me, its macabre figure mirroring the outline of the tree.

It waits with inexorable patience.

I know I must climb, I must climb out of here, up the jagged wall. I must swim away into the pool of the sky’s reflection and then I will be free.

Josie had dreamed that she was back on the liner, and was trying to get to her stateroom, but the hallways kept shaking from side to side and tilting further and further back, so that she couldn’t get where she wanted to go. Then she had woken with a start to the sound of breaking glass and books falling to the floor, and more distant crashes, and a floor that moved like the floor of the liner.

‘Tash!’ she had called, getting to her feet, and while the castle convulsed around her she felt her way over to his bed. It was empty and cold.

She had fallen to her hands and knees there, because it was hard to stand, and she had tried to pray like she had tried to pray when she fell overboard, but she had failed as she had before to get much further than ‘dear God, please don’t let me die.’ The castle had shook, and shook, and the sound of falling masonry grew into a thunderous roar then, a roar that seemed mixed with the roar of a wild beast. The sound had sent a thrill of terror through her, a thrill that was also crazy kind of joy, and she had screamed. When she had finished the room was no longer shaking.

‘My God,’ she had said, shakily rising and throwing back the shutters on the window . The air that flooded in was little warmer than freezing, but she had given it no mind. ‘Tash!’ Josie had called again, and listened for a response. There had been a few isolated sounds of stonework falling on the castle grounds, and in the distance the wild dogs had begun a melancholy caterwauling. She had prayed another desperate prayer, ‘dear God, please don’t let Tash die.’

What would she do if Tash was gone? She listened for every little sound, and after a while was certain that mixed among them were footsteps running across the pavement, but she did not call out again, because it would be too terrible if the voice that called back was not Tash.

Then Tash had returned to her, safe and strong, but trembling like she had never felt him trembling before; like herself he must have been terribly upset by the earthquake. She had realised then how cold she had become, standing by the open window, and it felt so good to be gathered up in Tash’s arms and warmed by the warmth of his body. The hammering of her heart had begun to slow, and then Tash had said ‘I am more glad that you are alright than I am glad about anything,’ in a voice that had set it hammering again. The terror and the crazy joy she had felt during the earthquake had not gone away, but was changing inside her into something different now that Tash had returned to her.

‘Tash,’ said Josie. He held her snugly with three arms, while his other hand smoothed back her hair. She could smell the anxiety on him, an acrid tang to his jasmine scent, but this only made her love him more.

‘I love you, Tash,’ Josie said. She had not planned to say it; she just suddenly found that she had said it.

‘I love you, Josie,’ said Tash, his massive head bent down close to hers.

She trembled with joy and fear. ‘You are still cold,’ said Tash. ‘I will put you back in your bed.’

‘Is it safe inside, do you think?’ she asked him. ‘I would not like the roof to fall on us.’

‘This part of the castle is strong, I think.’ He passed his hand softly over her forehead again, brushing the hair away from her face.

‘Will you stay with me tonight and keep me warm?’ she asked.

Josie felt the familiar tightness in her breath, the warmth going to her face and other places, but she did not care. She had taken back the decision she had made before. Tash did not say anything in reply, but gently put her down and arranged her blankets over her, then crawled in alongside her. Carefully, like he was putting dishes away – a thing he had to do very carefully, for he was wont to drop and break them- he lay one inhumanly long arm across Josie’s chest, and another across her feet. He lay his head alongside hers so she could feel his breath. All along her side she could feel the downy warmth of his chest and belly through her nightdress. Tash still seemed strangely trembly; or not so strangely trembly; for it was not every night they had an earthquake. One of his hands coiled around her shoulder; the lower hand on that side began to rub her ankle, back and forth. It was only a gentle touch, but she could instantly feel herself swelling inside like she had so often before when she had lain next to Tash. The unbearable feeling seemed stronger than it ever had before, stirred up by the earthquake and mingled with the fear and the wild reckless joy that had possessed her at its height.

‘I am thinking, Tash,’ said Josie slowly. ‘That this world is not my world, and it is not your world, and there seem to be quite different rules here about a lot of things. So the rules that we were supposed to obey on our own worlds are not the same rules that we need to obey here. So,’ she went on even more slowly, each word like something strange and wonderful she was taking out of a chest in a hidden room. ‘I love you, and you love me, and perhaps there is no reason that we cannot be betrothed here, even though we are different kinds.’

‘I only want to be near you, Josie,’ said Tash. There was a persistence in his touch that had not been there the times before, when they had lain together before in comparative innocence. While Josie spoke he had not stopped stroking her, his upper arm moving to the bare skin of her forearm, while the lower had moved upward, sliding back and forth along the inside of her calf. His hands moved with a ceaselessness as if he wanted to make sure that she was still there, that she was still real. That all of her was still there.

‘I know you want to be near me,’ she said, breathing hard. She reached out and rubbed the soft skin of Tash’s throat. The feathers there were tiny, and the feel of it put her in mind of a chicken at the age when they were little balls of fluff. Tash’s lower hand rubbed the skin behind her knee, while the other played with her hair. She kissed his beak then, and because he could not kiss back she let out her tongue and gave his warm ivory beak a tiny lick. It had a very faint bitter flavour that was not unpleasant. She licked it again. Tash smelled stronger to her than he ever had before, and she could smell herself, an improper animal stink.

‘Are we betrothed now?’ Tash asked uncertainly.

‘I think we should say something,’ she said.

‘Yes?’ asked Tash, raising his head to look at her face.

‘I think,’ she said slowly, ‘That it would be enough to say that we will never leave each other.’ She had made this rash promise before, but had never felt what it might mean to her. Now she did, with a force like she had run at full tilt into a wall, and it took her breath away.

‘I will never leave you, Josie,’ said Tash.

‘We should not rush,’ said Josie, wanting very much to rush. ‘We should have some sort of ceremony. And we cannot really be betrothed unless-‘

‘I will never leave you, Josie,’ said Tash again, with a burning intensity in his voice, as if he thought they were going to be torn apart at any moment.

‘I will never leave you, Tash,’ said Josie after a moment in which she seemed to hang in midair, like she was leaping into a pool from a high place. Her heart sang with a strange exultation. It was a crazy thing to do. By all the rules she had known before, it was not only crazy, but wicked: but this was not her world. In some far corner of the castle precariously balanced blocks of stone fell with a crash. She found that her hands were clutching him too tightly, like she was holding on for dear life, and she forced them to relax.

‘Now we are supposed to kiss,’ said Josie, and kissed Tash’s beak with her mouth open, holding her lips to it for a long minute and tasting the bitterness of it. She could feel herself starting to tremble, and Tash opened his beak a tiny bit; Josie darted her tongue in and tasted the wet sharpness inside, then sat up.

‘Is it done?’ asked Tash.

Josie rubbed Tash’s shoulder firmly in a sign of affirmation. ‘It is done. So we can sleep together, and bathe together, and we will know it is not wrong.’ Tash’s arms wrapped Josie gently. ‘I am glad you will never leave me. I am glad that we can do those things.’

‘Me too,’ said Josie. She was unable to stop trembling, so after a minute of being held to Tash’s chest and stroked with his free hand she pulled a little away from him and sat up.

‘My Josie?’ asked Tash, a little uncertainly.

Josie pulled her nightdress off over her head, then burrowed back under the blankets and pressed herself against Tash’s chest. It felt so good to feel skin next to skin, flesh next to flesh. It was something she had wanted all her life, she realised: to touch someone. She held her hands against his chest and buried her face in it, drinking in the scent of him. She wanted to drink him in, to be drunk herself, to be touched all over and to touch him all over. One of Tash’s giant almost-human hands rubbed Josie’s shoulderblades, while another cradled her from underneath, and from his hands something like an electric current sang through her body, the same exultation of being poised in midair as at the instant she made her rash promise.


How like a proper Mistess of Telmar she looks, Tash thought with pride, when Josie pulled her nightdress off and he saw the ruby key lying on the white skin of her chest. How splendid a thing it was to serve her, and love her, and be hers.

As Tash had touched Josie, and as she touched him, he had felt the same sense of exhilaration he had felt when he first touched her tear-streaked face. It grew and grew, and he felt spun and tumbled about inside, as if he was a pool of water being tossed about by the thrashings of some great mire-beast. She had promised that they would be together – whatever the lion said, they would be together, he vowed – but he needed to hold on tight to the reality of Josie, to feel her warm flesh, her long hair the colour of new grith stalks, her wet lips, the hot comforting moistness of her breath. The more Tash touched Josie the more he wanted to keep on touching her. He touched with a particular fervour the parts of Josie that she had not let him touch before, the parts that were not allowed before they were betrothed. It was good to run his hand up from thigh to neck along her back without running into cloth, to feel the soft lumps of flesh on her chest with the hard lumps at the ends, the curious puckering of her navel, the damp valley between her buttocks, this fringe of hair at the bottom of her belly that was so curiously unlike the hair on her head. And she smelled so very good. It was good to have so much of her smell so close to him, to have her rub it over his skin.

Josie kissed Tash’s chest, and darted out her tongue to taste it, and as she did it sent little shocks of wild joy through him, as if the mire beast that was tossing about the pool that was Tash had thrashed its tail. Something strange was happening to him. He could feel blood flowing to places in his body in ways it had not before, things swelling and moving within him without him willing them to do so.

‘I should still like to know if you were really a boy,’ Josie murmured to Tash, kissing his chest again.

‘How can you tell?’ he asked.

‘Between your legs,’ she told him. ‘Are you like me, or different?’

‘I think we must be the same,’ he said. ‘I always thought we looked the same, when I saw you without your clothes.’

‘Oh?’ said Josie.

Tash abruptly took a hand away from Josie’s thigh and felt between his legs. He felt different than he usually did. ‘I feel strange.’


Josie inched down Tash’s body to check for herself. Her hands slid from his chest to his belly, then to the thicker feathers above the junction of his legs, then to what he had between them. ‘I think you are right,’ she said, feeling a little of the same bewilderment she had felt when she had fallen from one world into another. ‘You are a girl after all, and not a boy.’ She could not help being disappointed and a little stupid, yet still felt more excited than she had ever been before. A small part of Josie outside herself laughed at herself.

‘That feels strange,’ Tash said, in a voice full of wonder and confusion. ‘Please do not stop.’

Feeling very strange herself, Josie gave Tash a cautious rub, then another, and then it was suddenly very clear that Tash was, indeed, a boy and not a girl. Tash suddenly threw his limbs about in a way quite unlike his usual gentle manner, making an unearthly hissing sound, and Josie had to roll away from him to avoid being struck.

‘You are a boy, after all,’ she said, and could not help herself from laughing. She kissed Tash’s chest.

‘Please do not stop,’ asked Tash.

Josie did not stop. Tash tried to avoid throwing his limbs about, but was unable to keep them quite still, so Josie grabbed tightly onto Tash’s thigh with both legs so she would not be knocked over.

‘Gentle, Tash, gentle,’ said Josie. ‘Dear Tash, gentle.’

She clung to Tash with her hands and with her legs, skin against feathered skin, and she kept on clinging to Tash. She felt like she was being carried along by a great wave, further and further out to sea.

The words of the first song Josie had heard the gazelles sing ran through her head.

In the tale of Love there are times

Other than the past, the present and the future;

Times for which no names have yet been coined.

Love is the light of life.

Love is the fire of life.

More, more, more: the waves were pounding at her, drawing her down, throwing her up, tumbling her head over heels. Josie loosened her grip on the still shuddering Tash and slipped off of him onto the blankets, her mind and body filled with a delicious sensation of warmth.

Abruptly, her eyes filled with tears. ‘Well, that’s torn it,’ she said to herself. It was wrong by the rules of her own world, she told herself fiercely, but not here in this new world. Here the humans married young. And there was no one else here in Telmar, just her and Tash, Tash and Josie.

‘That was very strange,’ said Tash, putting his arms around her. He touched a hand gently to her damp face. ‘You feel like everything that is good. Are you alright?’

Josie could not bring herself to talk, not then, but just buried her face in Tash’s shoulder and kissed it, taking deep breaths of the familiar smell of him. This seemed to reassure him that she was indeed alright.

‘I do love you,’ she said after a little while, when the tears had stopped flowing. ‘You feel like everything that is good, too.’

She lay there on Tash’s shoulder for what could have been a few seconds or half an hour, the thoughts in her head stubbornly resisting to form words.

‘Come, dear Tash,’ she said at last. ‘We should have a wash.’

It was a few weeks later, and while Tash went further afield hunting, Josie was by the stream making an effort to befriend the dog who behaved so curiously unlike the other wild dogs of Telmar. It had at last come close enough for her to pet it. It was not a well-groomed animal, like the house dogs at home, and it had the coarse long hair of an outside dog at the end of a cold winter, but it did not seem to be ill-fed or ill, nor like the wild beasts in the fables that come up to young ladies to have thorns removed from their paws. No, it seemed to be genuinely seeking out Josie’s company, and as if it had something to say. It was nervous even after coming up to Josie, perking to attention at every little sound in the forest and once or twice darting away from Josie and needing to be coaxed back. After she had sat for a time talking to the dog and stroking it, and her feet were starting to feel the chill, Josie hit upon an idea.

‘I think you can understand what I say, dog,’ she told the dog. ‘If you can understand what I say, lick my hand.’

The dog licked her hand.

‘Do you think you could you lick my hand to mean ‘yes’, and not lick my hand to mean ‘no’?’

The dog licked Josie’s hand again.

‘Oh, good dog,’ she said. Though dogs do just lick people’s hands out of friendliness, I suppose, she thought. She asked the dog a few questions to test it. ‘Am I a gazelle?’ The dog left her hand alone.

‘Am I a dog?’ No.

‘Am I a human?’ Yes.

Josie scratched the dog behind the ears, and began to ask it questions in earnest.

‘Do you need our help?’ Yes. ‘Do you need us to help change you into a person?’ No. ‘Do you- do you need us to help you find something?’ A long pause, and then a yes. ‘Do you need us to help you find something- somewhere else?’ Another long pause and finally a yes. Josie wondered what made these uncertain questions, and thought for a while. The sound of the stream was a calming one, but somehow made it hard to think. ‘Do you need us to find someone outside the valley?’ A very definite lick. ‘Will you come into the castle with us? We have roast pork.’ The dog hesitated.

There was a crackling of branches, and the dog darted away from Josie. She could hear Tash’s heavy footsteps, and as he drew nearer smell the heady stink of newly gutted boar. The dog slunk further away, and she could no longer hear its footsteps clearly.

‘Hush, Tash, you’re scaring the dog away,’ she said, in a tone of mild reproach. She could tell that Tash was suspicious of the dog- it was hardly surprising, from Tash’s story, that he should be suspicious of most everything- but she wished he would be a little more friendly towards it. Dogs could tell when people didn’t like them, she knew.

‘I am very sorry,’ said Tash. ‘Would it like a bit of pig?’ Josie heard Tash rend a gobbet of flesh from the boar’s inside and toss it into the bush where the dog was lurking.

‘It doesn’t seem to be coming back,’ said Josie, after they had stood listening to the bush expectantly for quite some time. ‘Oh well. I expect it will be back later. I am quite certain it is a talking dog that doesn’t talk, Tash. It answered my questions, and I figured out that it wants us to help it meet someone somewhere.’

‘That is a beginning,’ said Tash. ‘Do you want me to carry you back?’

‘No, thank you,’ said Josie. ‘You carry the pig, and I will follow. I do sort of know the way.’

She stood up and wiggled her cold toes to try and get the feeling back into them, then walked with Tash back to the hidden door in the cliff and the shadowed stairs that led onto the grounds of the castle, telling him as they walked of what the dog had told her.

‘There are bad dogs, and there are good dogs, Tash,’ she told him. ‘I am quite sure that this one is a good dog, whatever else it may be.’


That night the moon was full, and Tash was restless. He did not like sleeping alone, and found it more difficult to avoid unpleasant thoughts. He had seen something that day, while he was out hunting, that troubled him, and that he had not wanted to speak of to Josie. He had seen its tracks in the earth, first: great paw prints, many times larger than the paws of the dogs. Then he had seen the beast itself, on the other side of the stream from him, atop a boulder so that its feet were higher than Tash’s head. It had not made any sound that could be heard above the chattering of the stream: but it had looked at Tash, and he had known it was a talking beast, and a creature of power. He was sure it was the sort of creature called a lion, the sort whose stone head the statue of the Queen held, and he was sure it had wanted to speak to him: but he had turned and walked quickly away in the other direction before it could say anything.

Eventually Tash gave up and went quietly out of the rooms he shared with Josie to go exploring. He prowled about the inside hallways for a time, but he knew them all well, and found nothing new to explore, so he then ventured outside. He went from one garden courtyard to another, feeling just as restless as he had lying on the floor trying to sleep, and then further afield, to one of the ruined parts of the castle of Telmar he had had not gotten around to exploring before. Most of the walls there were only piles of rubble, covered with masses of dead thistles left over from the summer before. It smelled, Tash realised, a very little like the world of the thalarka – which was probably another reason he had not explored it before. Unlike Josie, he had not yet been homesick in the slightest.

Beyond one of the shapeless mounds of rubble, Tash was surprised to find a ring of reasonably intact walls, and in one of these walls he found a door that was even less ruined by time. It hung true, and was not cracked or weathered, and seemed to Tash almost as well-preserved as the things in the hidden room beneath the evil magician’s bedroom. ‘There are probably more useful magic things behind it,’ he said, finding the thought cheering. With an effort, he reminded himself that there could well be dangers behind it as well.

The door was of wood, but wood that was so dark and fine-grained and obviously heavy that it might as well have been iron. Tash pushed it without really expecting it to open; but it swung open readily. Beyond the door was a roofless gallery. At one side tall windows let in more moonlight, while the other was cut into the side of the hill, with a great archway leading into it like a hungry mouth. It was wide enough and tall enough to accommodate a giant many times Tash’s height.

Tash had taken a lamp with him in case he found anything he wanted to look at more closely, and though he had not yet had great luck either at lighting them or at keeping them lit, this time a tiny flicker of yellow fire had survived while he carried the lamp about the ruins, and it sprang helpfully into full brightness when he fiddled with it. ‘I will just have a look, and if there is anything interesting, I can come back with Josie in the morning,’ Tash said to himself.

Tash had not taken very many steps down the tunnel before he had the oddest feeling that it was a thing that went on forever, with no beginning and no end. The air smelt strange and felt thin, as if it was missing something important that air was supposed to have. Tash found himself labouring over each breath as if he had been running. An odd whispering sound echoed around him, a sound like people hiding in darkened corners telling each other secrets in a language he did not understand.

The light of the lamp went only a short way into the darkness. Like the darkness below the Procurator’s Tower, it seemed not so much the absence of light as the active exclusion of light. Thus when Tash came to the door in the side of the tunnel, he did not see it until it was unexpectedly and uncomfortably close. This door was different from the other doors in the castle of Telmar, disappearing into the darkness above Tash, but its handle was only a little higher than would be convenient for someone Josie’s size. It was of some polished wood that still gleamed even after standing underground for who knows how many years, and on it someone had made a complicated picture out of countless little pieces of stone.

The picture was of a tall, white figure which was either wearing a floor-length robe or had no legs. Tash was not sure which. He also could not tell if the long drooping protuberances on its head were part of it, or meant to be some sort of hat.  It was the figure’s expression that made him feel most uneasy: feet or not, and hat or not, it looked like the sort of person who would consider Tash even less than useless; who would not notice him, even if Tash brought it splendid gifts, or fought fearful enemies for it. Tash shivered under the pressure of the arrogant eyes of the picture, and hastily moved on without trying the handle.

Each doorway Tash passed – and he passed many of them, until he lost count – had a picture like this with a different figure displayed in it. Though they varied a great deal, none of them seemed to be the sort of people who would pay the slightest bit of attention to Tash. Tash decided that the things on their heads had to be hats. He moved uneasily past these unpleasant figures, accompanied only by the echoed shufflings of his own feet.

His lamp seemed to be more effectively piercing the gloom, and Tash caught sight of a door a little way ahead that stood partly open. Without meaning to, Tash began to walk more slowly. He had been hurried along by the unpleasant pictures on the doors, and only just realised how far he had come underground and how much trouble he could be in if things went wrong. ‘I hope there isn’t one of those legless hat-wearing people inside,’ Tash told himself.

When he came to the open door, Tash saw at once that it was different from all the others that he had passed thus far. The front was blank, with no picture, and Tash had the impression that this room was waiting for someone. The long hallway with the doors coming off it had very much the feel of an immense tomb, like the ones the Procurators of the Overlord were supposed to be buried in, so maybe it was that a hat-wearing figure was meant to be buried here, and had not yet died when Telmar came to end. ‘Though they do not look very much like the men of Telmar,’ he said to himself.

Cautiously, Tash peered around the door, and was relieved to see that the room inside was empty. It was not large, and was furnished with a table and chair made in the same way as the furniture in the intact parts of the castle. Though very large compared to the furniture elsewhere in the castle, the table and chair were only a little too high to be comfortable for Tash. On the table lay two immense books.

There were grand symbols in gold on the cover of the first book, like strange insects that had crawled on it and been squashed there. As Tash looked at them, they seemed to writhe around like the geometric theorems he had seen carved in stone in the world of the almost-thalarka. Suddenly, with a wrenching sensation inside a little like the feeling of falling between worlds, he found that he could read them.

He froze still in astonishment.

‘The Book of Tash,’ said Tash aloud in wonder, and his words echoed about the chamber like his footsteps had in the hallway outside, repeating over and over. ‘Tash…ash….ash…ash….shh….sh…’

He craned his neck over to look at the cover of the other book. This one had symbols like astrological diagrams worked on it in red and black gems, and as he looked at them they too twisted in his mind to become words he could understand. They read the same: The Book of Tash.

It had to be some other Tash, Tash thought, for it was impossible that someone had written not one, but two books about him. Perhaps Tash was a name the men of Telmar had used. Then it struck him that these might be magical books, and therefore very dangerous, like most magical things. It could surely do no good at all to open the covers to see what was written inside. ‘I should go back to Josie, and we can come back together and have a look if she thinks it is a good idea,’ Tash told himself. ‘Yes.’ But he stayed standing by the table, and did not go back out the open door.

The problem was that Tash very much wanted to see what was in the book, so he could assure himself that it really was not written about him. So he did what Josie or I would have done if we were in his position – and which you would probably not have done, being in all likelihood more level-headed. Tash reached out with both hands to turn back the front cover of the first book to see what was written inside. Like the words on the cover, the words within began as a chaos of fragmented shapes, but as Tash watched them they writhed into forms that Tash could understand.

‘Know then, O seeker after enlightenment, that Tash was told always that his uselessness was of a kind utter and complete,’ read Tash. ‘In a voice enlightened and gleaming with accuracy, the father of Tash would pronounce his uselessness perfect in its completeness, and to this assertion his brothers and sisters and mothers would voice agreement after the manner of their kind. Then lowly Tash would bow his head, and accede humbly to the pronouncement of his betters.’


A chill crept over Tash, and his skin itched with the dryness of the air. This was a strange and a strong magic indeed.

‘I should go back to Josie,’ he told himself. But despite this, he read to the end of the page, and then the next, and the next. He had seen strange and strong magic before: magic that had thrown him from world to world, and turned him to stone, and this book did not seem like it could possibly be as dreadful as those magics. Besides, it was very interesting to read his story all written out in words. It somehow seemed grander and more exciting, and Tash himself more heroic and clever than he had felt while he was actually doing all those things.

Tash had expected that when he got up to the part in the story where he was sitting and reading the magical book, it would stop and he would not learn anything about what happened next. The other possibility that had occurred to him was that it might repeat over and over, a book within a book, and then another book within that one, so that unless he was careful he would be trapped reading his own story forever. Neither of these things happened. The story went on. Page after page after page, relentlessly recounting all the things that would happen to Tash after he had read this book.

‘No!’ Tash cried aloud, and the word echoed in the long darkness of the hallway.

This could not be his story. He achieved things in the book that were worthy of recording in a book, good things, even heroic things that saved thousands of people, but his great deeds were forgotten and ignored, the credit for them taken by others. The life of Tash in the book was a bleak and long one, in which nothing was ever again as easy or pleasant as it was now, and where he spent his old age lonely, sick, and useless.

‘This is a stupid book,’ Tash said. Impatient and uneasy, he climbed up on the chair and examined the next book of Tash. This book, too, told his story, in the same grand style as the first one. He did not bother to read it all, but flipped quickly through the pages of this one to see how it ended. In this book he also did great things, but also terrible things, awful things he could not imagine himself doing. He was feared. He was powerful, as great as an Overlord. But still he was alone.

He recoiled from the hateful books, stepping down from the chair so hastily that it fell over, and backed away from the table.

‘You have to choose,’ said a voice from behind him. It was a voice like gold and honey and wine and stone. It did not echo in the emptiness like Tash’s voice had echoed. It did not seem like it could have been made by any ordinary living thing, but only by a god. Tash turned and stared. In the flickering light of the lamp the great lion seemed almost to glow with his own light. He was bigger than the statue Josie had said was of a creature that was like a lion; much bigger. And his head did not have an expression of idiot malice, but something far more terrifying. It was love as Josie had felt it in the chamber of the ruby key: a love that was a love for uncountable billions of billions, ready to sacrifice itself for the good of the many, ready to sacrifice Tash – sadly, lovingly, but without an instant’s hesitation – for the good of the many.

‘Those are both horrible,’ said Tash, heedless of the fact that he was speaking in rather an insolent way to a god. ‘Neither of them have Josie in them.’

‘Josie only comes into your story for a little while,’ said the lion in a voice that was heavy with sorrow, as if he was in some way as sorry as Tash was that this was so.

‘Why?’ asked Tash.

‘No one is ever told any stories but their own, Tash,’ said Aslan. ‘You do not belong in this world. You have come into it by an accident. Good can still come of your being here, if you chose it so. But you are not of this place, and can never be.’

‘Josie doesn’t belong here either,’ Tash protested. ‘Why can’t she be in my story?’

‘Josie will be sent back to her own world when her time has come.’

‘But why? Why does Josie have to go? Why can’t I go with her?’ Tash’s pleas grew less like a human voice, more unearthly, a shrieking almost-wail that you or I would find terrifying to hear on a dark night.

‘You are only free to choose these two things,’ said Aslan. ‘Other men and beasts, and powers greater than men or beasts, have used their freedom to make choices that have bound the choices of others: and this has created the world in which you must choose one of two paths.’ The voice of the lion god was the voice of someone who understood Tash’s pain, who felt it as he did himself.

Tash was silent, but his eyes burned with hurt. He did not understand. It was not fair. He did not want someone else to feel his pain. He did not want someone else to feel his pain and make him suffer it regardless. He had always disliked prophecies and riddles and arguments about the meaning of life, and what the lion god was saying seemed to be all three at once.

‘You need to lead Josie from this place,’ said Aslan. ‘The girl is the only one who can restore the trust that has been broken between men and beasts in these lands, and restore the evil that was done in this place by the Men of Telmar. The sooner she begins, the greater her success will be.’

Tash remembered this from the story he had read in the book with the golden letters on the cover, but dimly, as if it was a story that he had been told many years before. All the details of the stories in the two books were fading from his mind, with only the stark choice presented to him of two grim futures without Josie remaining vivid.

‘If you want her to go, why don’t you tell her yourself?’ Tash asked Aslan.

‘She is not willing to hear me yet,’ said Aslan. ‘But she will hear you. She will follow you, if you take her on this path. But it is not in her nature to choose of her own will to take this path, not yet. Long ago the Men of Telmar did great evil here, sacrificing their own children to seek to prolong their own lives by magic. I turned them into mute beasts then. It is time for their descendants to take their places as speaking beasts: but to do this they will need your help. You have already met the one I have chosen to bring them back. You must lead her, and Josie, to the land of men, to the city of Balan. They will work together with companions they will find there, and then the beasts of Telmar will speak. What is greater, the trust that has been lost between beasts and men in these lands will be remade anew. It will be as it was meant to be in the beginning, and the stain of many evils will be washed away at last.’

The words of the quest Aslan described echoed things Tash dimly remembered reading, sacrifices the Tash of the books would make, deeds he would do that would be remembered as the deeds of others.

‘But I will not be with Josie,’ said Tash.

‘You will not be with Josie.’ The Lion shook his great maned head. ‘Your story is a long one, and Josie only comes into it for a little time.’

Tash bowed his head. He let his arms droop. He felt the unbearable golden presence of the lion like the noon sun in the sky above Telmar, blinding him, parching his skin. He took a long breath, choking back the desire to sob and throw himself on the ground. Then, slowly, he raised his head, straightened his arms, and spoke in a voice that was as calm and human-sounding as he could make it.

‘I will find another way,’ said Tash.

‘There is a little time to change your mind,’ said Aslan. ‘But soon the choice will be made, one way or another. Lead Josie from this place, and set your course toward Balan.’

‘I will find another way,’ said Tash, with determination.

‘We will meet again,’ said Aslan, and bowed his head slightly at Tash, a curiously humble gesture for the lion-god to make to someone so unimportant as Tash. It seemed to Tash as he did so that his eyes were glistening, as if they were brimming with tears.

Tash stood still, letting his eyes focus on nothing. He was happy here. Why did it have to end? Why did his story need to have dropped him in the middle of some vast tangled prophecy?

‘You must go now,’ said Aslan. ‘Josie will be frightened.’

‘Of what?’ asked Tash.

As if in reply, there was a low, deep-throated rumble that Tash thought at first was the lion growling, but which soon seemed to come from all directions. The stone beneath Tash’s feet began to tremble, and dust ran in little streams from cracks in the ceiling.

‘We must go,’ said Aslan. ‘Follow me.’

The lion began to walk down the great hallway, unhurriedly but swiftly, and Tash ran along behind.

The floor shook beneath him like it was a wooden floor hanging from ropes, instead of a stone floor carved into the side of a mountain, and he found it hard to stay upright. The lion kept pace just ahead of him, too vast and too golden and too god-like.

Tash shook the lamp too much, and it went out, but far ahead Tash could see a half-moon of light, and he broke into a full run. He came out into the roofless gallery, and no more than a few seconds later the hillside above the arched entrance to the tunnel gave way, burying it beneath thousands of tonnes of stone and earth and trees with a tremendous crash. When the noise of the landslide had died away, Tash realised that the earth was still again. There was no trace of the lion.

Blocks of masonry had fallen from the walls of the gallery, and the heavy door of wood like iron that he had come through had been twisted off its hinges and lay covered in broken fragments of stone.

Tash ran back to the rooms he shared with Josie and found her standing listening by a window which she had thrown open, filling the room with cold winter air. A bookcase had fallen over, and in another place a pitcher of water was broken on the floor, but the walls and ceilings seemed undamaged.

‘Tash!’ Josie turned to him and threw her arms around his legs, and he could feel the fear drain away from her as she clung to him. ‘I was worried something had happened to you.’ Josie held Tash tight, and the wonderful Josie smell of her hair the colour of new grith stalks drifted up to him. ‘Tash, you are shaking.’

He bent down and gently picked her up. ‘I-‘ he said, finding it hard to speak. ‘I worried about you, too.’

‘It must have been an earthquake,’ Josie said, nestling in Tash’s arms. She felt cold; she must have been waiting here for him with the window open since the earth stopped shaking.

‘You are cold,’ Tash said. ‘I shouldn’t have left you.’ He shut the window, then carried Josie back to a spot in front of the fire.

‘I was worried when I woke up and you weren’t here,’ said Josie. ‘I could hear walls collapsing. It felt like the whole castle was going to fall down. ’

‘This part of the castle seems strong,’ said Tash, drawing a hand across her smooth, cool forehead, smoothing back her hair. She did not protest.

‘I screamed a little,’ said Josie, laughing at herself, and rubbing Tash under his beak. ‘Where were you?’

‘I couldn’t sleep,’ said Tash. ‘So I went exploring.’ He opened his mouth to say more, and closed it. He opened it again, and once again closed it. He could not think of what to tell Josie about the Books of Tash and his meeting with Aslan, things which were already growing dim and dreamlike in his memory.

‘I am so glad you are alright,’ said Josie.

‘I am more glad that you are alright than I am glad about anything,’ said Tash, surprising himself with how much the words were true.