Ten long, cold minutes later, Merrin was sure he could see the outline of the jagged rocks opposite him more clearly.
And as he watched, a slow slither of movement just below the skyline told him that dawn must be near—a Land Wurm was returning to its Burrow. Fascinated, Merrin watched the seemingly endless cylinder of the creature pour into the cliff face on the far side of the ravine. He wondered how many were doing just the same thing at that very moment on his
side of the ravine—maybe only a few feet away for all he knew, for Land Wurms were as silent as the night. The only sound heralding their arrival—if you were lucky—might be the clatter of a stone dislodging as they moved in for the kill. At that moment a shower of small stones fell from the cliffs above Merrin and, heart racing, he leaped back. Like a line of dominoes, twenty-six Things behind him did the same.
Merrin was spooked. As much as he was longing to escape the Things, he decided he would not set foot outside until he had seen the sun and knew
that he was safe. However, the sun did not oblige. The sky remained a dull gray and Merrin waited…and waited. Then, just as he had become convinced that, typically, it would be his luck to pick the one day in the whole history of the world when the sun was not going to rise, he saw a watery white disc inching its way into the sky above the somber cliffs. At last—it was time to go.
But first he had to get rid of the Things. Merrin was not going to make the trek to the Castle dogged by a long line of dismal Things. No way. He turned to the first Thing
in line. “I have left my cloak in the Observatory,” he said. “Get it for me.”
The Thing looked puzzled. His Master was wearing his cloak.
“Get it!” shouted Merrin. “All of you—get my cloak!”
A servant Thing may not disobey its Master. With reproachful looks—for Merrin’s servant Things were not without intelligence—the creatures sloped off along the old Wurm Burrow. They were not surprised when a massive thud followed by a great rush of air told them that Merrin had slammed the huge iron Burrow plug closed. With a resigned air, the Things
continued their task and all, bar one, were still searching for the nonexistent cloak when Simon and Lucy returned a few days later.
But unknown to Merrin, one of the Things—the one that he had Summoned with his backward Summons—was not bound to obey his Master. Which is why, after Merrin had set off down the track, the great iron plug to the Wurm Burrow opened once more. The Thing slunk out and began to follow the one who had Summoned him. And over the Thing’s shoulder was slung a grubby canvas sack of bones. The Thing had rapidly come to the conclusion that its new Master was going to need all the help he could get. And a sack of Darke bones might be just the help he was going to need.
Merrin took the path that hugged the walls of the slate cliffs leading into the Farmlands. He knew this part of the track well and was not fazed when, on rounding the first bend, a landslip blocked his way. With a feeling of excitement—and a little trepidation—Merrin clambered up the slippery rocks. He took care not to hurry too much, for fear of dislodging one of the rocks and sending himself plummeting hundreds of feet down into the torrent below. He reached the top safely and began to slide carefully down the other side. But halfway down, his feet slipped and sent a cluster of small rocks clattering into the ravine. Merrin stopped and held his breath, waiting for the avalanche to begin and take him with it, but his luck held and very gingerly he set off again. A few minutes later his feet touched the firm ground of the path.
Merrin let out a triumphant whoop and punched the air. He was free!
Accompanied by the roaring of the river flooding far below at the bottom of the ravine, Merrin traveled quickly down the ravine path. He did not look back even once. Even if he had, he probably would not have noticed the Thing, which blended into the shadows and took on the forms of the rocks in the way that Things do when they do not want to be noticed.
Before long Merrin was leaving the oppressive slate cliffs of the Badlands behind and heading into the scattered hill farms of the Upper Farmlands. This was unfamiliar territory now, but Merrin followed a wide track with a surface of dusty well-trodden earth. When he came to a fork in the road, he was rewarded by a sign-stone. The tall post of granite was carved with an arrow pointing him to the right and one word: CASTLE. Merrin smiled. With a confident stride, he set off along the right-hand fork.
It was a cool spring day and the sun gave off little heat as it slowly rose above the low-lying cloud, but Merrin’s brisk pace kept him warm enough. Soon a familiar empty feeling gathered in the pit of his stomach. Merrin was used to being hungry, but now that he was a free agent he had no intention of letting that state of affairs continue.
As he walked jauntily down the track that meandered through fields of newly planted vines and tiny fruit trees, Merrin saw a small stone farmhouse. It was not far away, half hidden in a dip. He broke into a jog. A few minutes later he was walking into an overgrown yard surrounded by ramshackle sheds, deserted except for a few bedraggled chickens pecking at the dirt. Before him was the long, low farmhouse, the front door half open. Merrin walked up to the door and the smell of baking bread hit him like a sledgehammer.
Merrin’s stomach did something that felt like a double somersault—he had to have that bread. Taking care not to move the front door, which looked like it might have a nasty creak, he crept inside. He found himself in a long, dark room lit only by the glow of a fire from a stove at the far end. Merrin stopped and looked around. No one was there; he was sure of that. The baker of the bread obviously had other things to do, and while he or she was doing them Merrin would seize his chance.
Like a cat, Merrin padded silently across the earthen floor, past a large pile of hay and a stack of wooden boxes.
But—unlike a cat—he stepped on a chicken. With a great squawk the old blind hen rose into the air flapping her wings.
“Shh!” hissed Merrin desperately. “Shh, you stupid bird.” The old hen took no notice and careened off, crashing into a carefully stacked pile of poles ready for bean planting. The poles collapsed with the loudest clatter Merrin had ever heard, and footsteps came running.
A large, motherly looking woman appeared, silhouetted in a doorway across the room. Merrin ducked behind the stack of boxes. “Henny!” cried the woman, running a few feet away from Merrin. She tripped over the hen in the gloom and hurriedly scooped her up. “You silly chook. Come now, time for your breakfast, my sweetheart.”
Time for my
breakfast, you mean, thought Merrin, annoyed that a moth-eaten old hen should get picked up, offered breakfast and called sweetheart, while he skulked hungrily in the shadows. He was pretty sure that if the woman had tripped over him instead of the chicken, the result would not have been the same. He held his breath as the woman walked right past him with the hen. His dark gray eyes followed her progress until she had disappeared out the front door and into the sunlight.
Then, like a streak of black lightning, Merrin shot over to the stove, yanked his sleeves down over his hands, wrenched open the oven door and pulled out a great round loaf of bread.
“A…aah…aaaah!” Merrin gasped under his breath, hopping from foot to foot as the damp heat from the piping-hot bread quickly found its way through his sleeves. Juggling the loaf like a great hot potato, Merrin shot out of the nearest door, ran around the back of the farmhouse and found himself in the yard. His way was barred by a mass of chickens, which were being fed by the woman whose bread Merrin was still juggling. At the sound of the clucking and fussing among her hens, the woman looked up.
“Hey!” she shouted.
Merrin stopped, unsure what to do. Should he turn and run back into the farm, risking an encounter with the woman’s husband or some burly farmhand? Or should he go straight ahead and get out onto the open road?
“That’s my bread,” said the woman, advancing toward him.
Merrin looked down at the loaf as if surprised to see it. Then he made a decision and ran—straight for the chickens.
With much clucking and squawking the chickens scattered. Feathers flew as Merrin plowed through the flock, delivering a few well-aimed kicks as he fled.
In seconds he was out on the road and running fast. He glanced back once and saw the woman standing in the middle of the road shaking her fist at him. He knew he was safe. She was not coming after him.