Read the blurb and the first chapter here.
A fateful birthday gift…
It was a piece of soft white stone. Veins glittered through it like caught moonlight. One face was as smooth as new fallen snow; the other was engraved with a pattern of flowing lines. Gaia traced her fingers along the carvings. After a long time, she looked up at Mai.
‘What is it?’
All anyone knows about the old amulet is that it’s a good luck charm that hasn’t worked, and for Gaia and her brother Tal, luck is about to turn worse. They will face undreamed-of dangers and adventures before the secret of the moonswood is finally revealed.
Chapter one: The Story of Chamboleyne and the Children
Tal was running hard, hurtling down the rocky path. He leapt a corner, slid, and fell headlong. No time to stop. Scrambling up, he risked a shout –
– but his voice carried too loud and too far in the clear air, and he didn’t dare call again. He pelted on, skidding down the last steep turn onto level scrubby ground where a dozen goats were browsing the spiky bushes. Beyond them was a long crest of rocks where his sister was sitting, with her back turned to him, the goats and the mountains above.
Tal swore silently and glanced back over his shoulder. The thing that had set him running was still there, smudged against the brilliant white of the high snowfields and the clear blue sky above them. Two columns of grey smoke, rising into the air: it didn’t make sense, but he couldn’t doubt what he was seeing. He swallowed the sudden salt taste of fear, and set off at a run across the stony ground, startling the goats as he hurtled past them. Reaching the rocks, he scrambled up to the high flat stone where Gaia sat.
She had her knees drawn up to her chest and her arms huddled round them, because the air was always cold up here, above the clouds – even in Melisto with a strong summer sun burning overhead. She was staring down towards the unknown land far below, the forbidden country that she would never visit. When she was little, she had asked their mother, ‘What’s down there?’ and Mai had said, ‘It’s just another part of Assalay. We don’t go there.’
‘What’s it like?’ Gaia had insisted.
‘I don’t know. We don’t go there.’
But Gaia still wanted to know, and she went on trying to see. For most of the year, it was hopeless. In autumn, winter and spring, clouds as thick as goats’ hair blankets hung heavy around the shoulders of the mountain, hiding the land below. It was only in summer, usually, that the cloud thinned into a wavering mist, letting her see a strange land of brilliant green… Usually. Not this year. This year, the clouds had hardly cleared at all, and when they did it was only for a heartbeat, too briefly for her to see anything.
There! She caught a flash of colour far below, but as she leaned forward to look, Tal grabbed her shoulder.
‘You’re meant to be watching, Gaia!’
He forced her round to face back up the mountains. The smudgy columns of smoke still drifted in the bright air and she stared in disbelief.
‘But… They don’t come in summer!’
‘They do now.’ Tal hauled her to her feet. ‘Let’s get this lot safe, shall we? If we can.’
She nodded, dry-mouthed. They slid down the rock, gathered the flock and started down the steep path towards home. The goats were restless: flinching at shadows and slight sounds, sniffing the air with flared nostrils. At the first bend in the path, Gaia glanced up to check the drifting lines of ominous grey again. Was she imagining it, or were they nearer now?
‘Tal?’ she said, and she could see from the grimness in his face that he had realised it too. ‘Keep going,’ he said. ‘Just keep going,’ but an instant later a shadow swooped across them and a sickening, retching stench of burnt meat rolled through the air.
Gaia clutched at Tal’s hand as the green-grey dragon flew above their heads. It glided away from the face of the mountain on spread wings, banked, turned and flew back again. It was lower this time: close enough for them to feel the wind of its flight, to choke on the rank meat stink of its breath, to see the narrow yellow eyes above the long snout. Gaia closed her eyes, tensed for the savage agony of fire: the smell of roasted flesh, the screaming of burning goats, her own screaming…
‘Look,’ Tal whispered. She opened her eyes. The dragon was soaring upwards to land on a high pinnacle of rock above the path. It was restless at first, swaying its ugly head, swinging its tail and picking up one clawed foot after another, but slowly it hunkered down on its giant haunches and lowered its head against its scaly chest. It blinked, and yawned out a cloud of grey smoke.
‘It’s going to sleep, isn’t it?’ Tal mouthed.
‘Think so.’ Gaia wrinkled her nose. ‘Smells as if it’s just eaten.’
‘Let’s go then. Quietly.’
Gaia tugged at the goats, but they were stubborn with fear and refused to budge. Tal murmured the call that he usually sang out loud to gather them at evening – ‘Come away, come away!’ – and at last they started to move, but they were skittish: jostling one another in the narrow track, shoving, pushing, and finally breaking into a panicked run. Trapped among them, Tal and Gaia ran too.
They were making too much noise, Tal knew: hooves clattering against rock, dislodged stones tumbling and smashing, his own heart thundering. ‘Slow down!’ he hissed, but it was impossible; he could only keep running, every nerve alert for the searing breath of the roused dragon at his back. The track zig-zagged steeply down and down, and at last widened out onto the open ground above the village. The goats scattered. Tal stopped and looked back. No dragon.
‘Well?’ He glared at Gaia.
‘What d’you mean? Well?’
‘How about sorry, Gaia? You were meant to be watching!’
‘Arctos’ sake! Nothing’s ever your fault, is it, Tal?’
They stared furiously at one another, dark-eyed. ‘I’m going to find Mum,’ Tal said at last. ‘Bring the goats.’
He hurried down towards the village, and Gaia trudged across the open slope to gather the scattered flock. As she rounded them up, a dark-haired, skinny boy, barefoot and ragged, with two shabby goats at his side, came running down the track.
‘Jason!’ Gaia ran to meet him. ‘Are you alright? There was a dragon!’
‘I didn’t,’ she admitted. ‘I was meant to be watching…’
‘Don’t tell me. You were looking the wrong way.’ He gave a quick smile, bright as clear sun on a mountainside, and she half smiled back, but the memory – the swooping shadow, the stench, the terror – was too vivid for laughter.
‘Hey.’ Jason touched her hand lightly. ‘No-one’s eaten. Come on.’
They drove the goats along the rutted path into the village. Just past the crowded market-place, they found Tal with Mai. ‘We’re fine, Mum,’ he was saying. ‘There was only one dragon. He flew overhead…’
Tal glanced briefly at Gaia, a don’t tell her look. ‘Not very close. Anyway, he wouldn’t have been interested in us. He’d already eaten.’
‘I know.’ Mai’s face was grim. ‘He took one of Selene’s goats.’
‘That’s bad luck,’ Tal said quietly. Gaia said nothing, but she was watching the horror in her mind: the shocking attack out of a friendly summer sky: scorching breath, and snatching claws and the high screaming of terrified goats. She shivered.
‘It’s alright.’ Mai put an arm round Gaia’s shoulders. ‘Nobody’s hurt, or… Just one goat. It could be worse.’
‘But why was it here at all?’ Gaia asked.
‘No-one knows.’ There was a dizzy, bewildered look in Mai’s eyes. ‘No-one’s ever seen a dragon in summer before.’ She stared up at the sky above the mountains, and shook her head. ‘You can’t go back up today. Let’s go home and eat. Have you got any food, Jason?’
Jason gestured up at the mountain. ‘Was going to find myself some berries or something.’
‘Better share with us, then,’ Mai said, and they continued along the track, past houses whose stones had darkened and crumbled with age. Their house was the last in the village. Beyond it was stony ground, bounded by a low wall, and beyond that a cliff that plummeted down and down until it disappeared from sight in the cloud. A gap in the wall led to the top of the rickety wooden ladders that were the only link with the country below. Last summer, Jason had dared Gaia to do the unthinkable thing.
‘Climb down the ladder a bit. I will if you will.’ They had been caught, already through the gap and sitting uncertainly at the top of the unimaginable drop, by Gaia’s great-uncle Ambrose. He had ushered them calmly back onto safe ground before he had let them see how furious he was.
‘We don’t go off the mountains. You know the story of Chamboleyne,’ he had raged. ‘What in the name of moonshine were you thinking of?’ Gaia, who had never known Ambrose so angry, had been ashamed and frightened, and even Jason had looked abashed. And Mai, when Ambrose had told her, had been angry too, but also scared and so upset, that Gaia still felt hot-faced, remembering it now as she followed her mother up the uneven stone steps into the dwelling-room of the house.
Mai opened the cracked clay pot which held the round flat loaves that she made a couple of times each moon. She peered inside. ‘Have you got your lunch, Gaia?’
‘Good.’ Mai took two loaves out of the jar, paused for a moment, put one back and replaced the lid. ‘Give this to Jason.’
‘What about you?’ Gaia said.
‘Oh…’ Mai waved the question away. ‘I’m not that hungry. I’ll eat later.’
‘Mum?’ Gaia lifted the lid off the jar, and opened the big wooden bin which held their precious supplies of grain. There were only a handful of loaves in the jar, and a sprinkling of broken grains and floury dust at the bottom of the bin.
‘I was just trying to make it last,’ Mai said. ‘It’ll be fine. The next market’s at full moon.’
Fine if the dragon doesn’t come again, Gaia thought. But what if it’s there tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after, and we can’t graze the goats? No goats means no cheese and no wool: nothing to trade, and that means no bread…
‘Gaia,’ Mai said. ‘Let’s worry about tomorrow tomorrow, shall we?’
‘Fine.’ Gaia took a loaf out of the jar and handed it to Mai. ‘Let’s worry about tomorrow tomorrow.’
There was a strange holiday feeling about that afternoon. They turned the goats loose to browse on the sparse bushes below the house, and sat at the foot of the stone steps, with the sun on their faces. Mai brought her spinning outside, while Tal carved an old length of wood, singing softly to himself. Jason scratched a grid in the dust, gathered a handful of small grey and brown stones and flicked one of them at Gaia, who was leaning against the warm house wall with her eyes closed.
‘Want a game of goats and dragons?’
‘Alright. I’ll be goats.’ She knelt by the grid, set out the stones, and manoeuvred them from one side to the other, while Jason’s stone dragons tried to snatch them. They played a couple of long, closely fought games, arguing furiously about the rules, and afterwards they lay side by side on the ground, staring up at the sky, watching the clouds gather. A few large splashes of rain fell. Jason clambered to his feet.
‘Better be off.’
‘You can stay,’ Mai said. ‘You’re always welcome.’
‘S’alright.’ He called his goats and set off for the tumbledown house where he lived alone. Gaia watched him go: a solitary figure, between the old houses. Under the heavy clouds and the rain and the looming mountains, the little village looked lost and sad. As night closed in, she and Tal gathered the goats, milked them, and penned them safely in the lower room of the house; then they climbed the steps, and shut the door on the rainy evening. A chill had fallen with the darkness and they wrapped themselves in goats’ hair blankets and sat at the cold hearth.
‘Tell us a story, Mum,’ said Tal.
Mai picked up her spindle and a handful of wool, drew out a thread and set the spindle turning, teasing the wool into an even yarn.
‘This is the story of Chamboleyne and the children,’ she said at last. ‘A long time ago…’
‘How long?’ Gaia demanded.
‘Oh, shut up, Gaia,’ said Tal. ‘Just listen.’
‘A long time ago,’ Mai said, ‘- and no-one knows when, Gaia – the people in these mountains kept goats, like us, and the goats were life for them, as they are for us. They gave milk and meat for food, wool and skins for warmth, and dung for the fire. It was a hard life. Harder than ours has been, but maybe not harder than it will be soon.’ She fell silent, and for a moment Gaia thought that she had forgotten the story, but then she went on.
‘Well. Life was quiet as well as hard. The villagers watched the moons and the seasons pass, and everything was always the same – until one day, one year, in the last quarter of Arctos. The days were short and cold, and the winter snow was still deep on the high mountains. A group of goatherds had taken their flocks to find what food they could in one of the lower valleys, and as they shivered and stamped their feet and blew on their fingers, they saw a little group of travellers, dark against the snow on the mountains above.
‘The travellers stumbled down the steep slope from the snowfields into the valley, and the villagers saw to their astonishment that, apart from the tall, gaunt man who was leading them, they were all children, the oldest a girl of about thirteen. They were half frozen and half starved, weak and exhausted from the impossible journey across the mountains.
‘“Help us,” said the man.
‘The villagers brought them home, and built fires to warm them. They gave them food, and the children ate eagerly, but the man who had led them waved the food aside.
‘“Let me speak first.” His voice was weak and the villagers had to lean close to hear him. “I am Chamboleyne. You don’t need to know who these children are. All you need to know is that they have been – are – in great danger. But I think – I hope – they could be safe here, if you take them in, and care for them as your own. If you do that, and if they never leave this mountainside, they may be saved.”
‘“What will you give us in return?” asked one of the goatherds.
‘“I can offer you nothing,” Chamboleyne said. “Nothing, except our weakness and our need.”
‘“And danger?’ asked the man. ‘Might we be in danger too, if we took them?’
‘“I can’t deny that,” said Chamboleyne. “But if you turn us away, you send us to our deaths. The winter is fierce, and we have no strength left.” He hesitated before he spoke again. “For my sake. I beg you… Save them for my sake. I have done the worst of things, and the only way I can repair it is by bringing these children to safety. Save them, and you save me. Save them, and one day they may save you.”
‘The villagers quarrelled about what to do, but they were kind to the children anyway; wrapping them in blankets and laying them on beds of heather to sleep. Chamboleyne sat listening to the argument, too worn out to say more. He watched the children sleep, then he closed his own eyes, and died where he sat.
‘Early next morning, six men carried his body to a high ledge, to be picked clean by eagles and dragons. As they returned (still arguing about what to do with the children), one of them slipped, and grabbed at a piece of rock. It came loose in his hand, fell to the ground, and shattered. The broken fragments glittered in the winter sun – and that was how our gold was found.
‘Well, after that, the arguments stopped. Chamboleyne and his children had brought the village luck, and that’s one thing you don’t turn away. In the spring, a travelling trader from the lowlands came to the village, and after him, more and more: their eyes so full of the glitter of gold that they didn’t even see the children.
‘So the years of gold began. We bought good things then: rich food, fine furniture and clothes. The lowlanders built the ladders so they could trade more easily with us, but we remember Chamboleyne’s warning. Many strangers have climbed up. None of us has climbed down, and none of us ever will.’
The gloomy light had almost gone. Mai picked up another handful of wool from the basket and ran the yarn through her seeing fingers. ‘That’s the end,’ she said. ‘Go to sleep.’
That isn’t the end, Gaia thought. If the story had ended there, where Mai always stopped it, everything would still be alright. In the darkness she told herself the real ending. After many years, finding gold had become more and more difficult and dangerous. There were no more miraculous glittering showers from the cliff. The miners had had to work their way deep into the mountains, cutting gold from the rock walls of caverns and tunnels. Before Gaia was born, even those hard-to-work seams had been exhausted, and the miners had searched desperately for others. Gaia could remember – very dimly, from her early childhood – the men setting off at dawn and returning weary and empty-handed at dusk, to swap grimly humorous accounts of narrow escapes from falling rocks. And then there had been the giant fall, and the end of the golden dream.
So much for Chamboleyne’s luck. Chamboleyne’s luck had crashed to dust and disaster and death. So many deaths: hardly any child in the village had a living father. Gaia closed her eyes tight, trying to remember her own father, Athanasius, but as usual she could catch only fleeting glimpses – as if someone had opened a door and slammed it shut again a moment later. She could never see his face: it remained a blank. But she knew he had looked like her (just as Tal looked so uncannily like Mai). ‘Your father’s child,’ people always said to her, fondly and sadly, and sometimes Gaia caught her mother looking at her with an odd intensity, and couldn’t be sure if Mai was seeing her or the man who would never return from the collapsed mine under the cliffs.
She sighed and turned under her itchy blanket.
‘Gaia? What’s the matter?’ Mai’s voice sounded hollow and sad in the darkness. Maybe she, too, had been silently telling the tragedy that had followed the happy ending.
‘Nothing,’ Gaia lied.
The moon cleared a cloud; through the high window, a shaft of yellow-white light fell into the room. Melisto: bright warm moon: bringer of sweet things: goddess of the late summer. In a few days, she would be full, and the day after that, Gaia would be thirteen. The same age as the girl in the story, and like her, destined to go nowhere but this narrow ledge of rock where the village sat. She turned restlessly again.
‘Sleep,’ said Mai. She started to sing softly.
Far above the summer pastures,
Golden in the setting sun,
Fly the flocks that tell you, dearest,
I’ll be home when day is done.
Far above the snowy mountains,
In the endless autumn sky,
Pale the moon that tells you, dearest,
I’ll be home at even tide.
Gaia pressed her fingers against her ears to shut out the song, because no-one was coming home; not today, not tomorrow. Not ever.