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Joan Aiken

  Table of Contents


  Also by Joan Aiken



  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  ‘Were you aware that New Blastburn – or Holdernesse, as they call it – is an underground town?’

  ‘Under ground? Save us! Why?’

  ‘While digging out and enlarging the first coal mine, they discovered a huge natural cavern under Holdernesse Hill and so – at your uncle’s command – the city has been entirely rebuilt inside it.’

  ‘Well, I’ll be! A whole town inside of a cave! I suppose that way,’ said Is, thinking about it, ‘they don’t get no rain or snow. It would be jist prime for the street kids. No crossings to sweep, though, no mud. Is that where all the kids are?’

  ‘No,’ said Aunt Ishie. ‘They are in the mines. Or the foundries. Or the potteries.’

  ‘In the mines?’

  ‘All children here,’ said Aunt Ishie, ‘are set to work. From age five. In the coalmines, in the foundries, in the breweries, in the potteries. The mines are far from the town, now, under the sea; they are very, very extensive. The children work and sleep there.’

  Books by Joan Aiken include

  The James III series









  (winner of The Guardian Fiction Award)















  Stories for younger readers











  This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

  Epub ISBN: 9781409024835

  Version 1.0

  A Red Fox Book

  Published by Random House Children’s Books

  20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1V 2SA

  A division of Random House UK Ltd

  London Melbourne Sydney Auckland

  Johannesburg and agencies throughout the world

  First published by Jonathan Cape 1992

  This Red Fox edition 1993

  Text © 1992 Joan Aiken

  Illustrations © Pat Marriott 1992

  The rights of Joan Aiken and Pat Marriott to be identified as the author and illustrator of this work have been asserted by them in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

  This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

  RANDOM HOUSE UK Limited Reg. No. 954009

  ISBN 0 09 910921 2

  THE PLAYLANDERS came to Winchelsea

  With flags flying

  And Gold Kingy’s standerd flying in the midil medil midill

  And with a rush

  The Playlanders came to batal

  And sixty were killed at the furst shot from John’s canan

  And with a great noyse all the Playlander army

  Fell backwards down the hill

  And they met the other fruntgard of the rill army

  And tumbeld it all about and shouted “you noty men

  What are you trying to do?

  You noty raskles

  What do you think you are?

  Shouting flee!

  Ealce we will kill you all.”

  But John’s men lathted at this

  And John shouted “fire the canans

  And your rifuls

  And out with the standerd of luck.

  Now men fight bravely

  For you now

  That the Playland army

  is larger than ours.”

  The mane army came rushing up the hill

  With Gold Kingy shouting

  Ahoy! Ahoy!

  Flee! Flee! becoz the mane army is coming up the hill.

  And the Playlanders fled down the hill

  In great disorder

  And they tumbeld tumbold over one another

  And shreeked, and got all mixt up . . .

  One day some Playlander warships

  Were sailing saling in the sea

  And they saw a lovly lovely island

  In the Mediterrranean sea

  With blew blewe rivers in it

  And buttful pine foristes in it

  And they sailed to its shores

  And when they got there

  They saw a buttful lake lak among the montens

  And there was one montenn witch they called Juhuhooa

  Witch was larger than all the others

  With lovly beards berds beairds in it

  And buttfull beests that would come

  When you called them

  And buttfull cats that would come in your window

  And lovly froats and flowres flowrs

  Witch would flowr all the year round.


  This poem was written by my sister Jane when she was seven, or thereabouts, and if she was not sure how to spell a word, she put in all the possible alternatives. I am grateful to her for letting me use part of it, and to the Huntington Library, San Marino, California, for providing a copy.

  Note: The details about coal-mining conditions in the nineteenth century are factual, and I am grateful to the Caphouse Colliery Museum and the Halifax Industrial Museum for information acquired there. But of course workers were allowed to leave the mines at night.

  The chapter headings are taken from the Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book.

  The action of this story begins a few years after the end of my book DIDO AND PA, and a few of the characters in that and earlier books are mentioned. But this is a separate story, and you don’t need to have read my earlier books to follow it.


  Oh where and oh where . . . ?

  On a clear evening in November, nearly a hundred years ago, frost lay like thick white fur over the ancient thorn trees on the crest of Blackheath Edge, some miles south of London town. The birds had long since hushed their faint murmurs. And farther south, in the forests of Chisle
hurst and Petts Wood, the last few leaves were dropping fast from giant oaks, and glistening with frost as they fell.

  A tall woman, hoisting a pail of water from a well in a clearing of Blackheath Wood, turned her head sharply as she heard the faint wail of wolves in the distance.

  She called, ‘Is? Are you close at hand, Is?’

  A girl came running towards the well. She was small in build, but quick and alert. Her breeches and jacket were made of wolf-skin, with the fur left on. She carried a large basket of chestnuts.

  ‘What is it, Penny?’

  Penny said, ‘You best get indoors. I heard wolves.’

  ‘Already?’ Is stood still to listen. ‘Wonder what brings ’em out. They ain’t often as early as this.’

  ‘Never mind that, you get indoors. Where’s the blessed cat?’

  ‘He’s not far. Figgin, Figgin!’

  A large, scrawny, bony cat came bounding through the frosted clumps of grass. In his mouth he carried a fieldmouse with long dangling tail. At a louder howl from the wolves in the distance he dropped the mouse, ate it in two hasty bites, then snarled out a long, angry, defiant answer to the wolves’ chorus:

  ‘Morow – wow – wow – wow – wow!’

  ‘Don’t be silly, Figgin, you can’t take on a whole wolf-pack! Come on inside.’

  Cat and females vanished into a long, low barn which had been turned into a comfortable dwelling by the addition of a cot-bed, table, stools made from sawn-up tree-trunks, and a log fire that smouldered inside a knee-high ring of brick. The floor, too, was paved with brick. Two small windows were uncurtained, for who was there to look in?

  Penny dumped her pail of water under a shelf that held bowls and pans, then barred the door with an oak beam which could be slid through two hoops. She was a lean, pale person, aged about thirty, with straw-coloured hair tied in a tight knot, and a sour expression. She wore a sacking dress. The look on her face did not alter as she spoke to the girl – it was fixed by years of habit – but her voice was friendly enough as she said, ‘You and that dratted cat! You’d take on all the wolves of Kent if I was to let you.’

  ‘Pesky things! Hark – they’re a-coming this way,’ from Is, intently listening. ‘They’re after summat, I guess.’

  ‘Never mind them.’ Penny had started cutting up vegetables for soup. Is began to pull off the prickly outer casings of the chestnuts in her basket and toss them on to the fire, where they burned with a smoky crackle.

  ‘Tell us a story, Pen, do,’ she said hopefully. ‘Tell the one about the harp o’ fishbones. That’s one o’ my fav – ’


  Penny held up a warning finger. The two stood silent. Figgin growled. They all strained their ears and, after a minute, began to catch an irregular thump-thump of footsteps on the hard ground – not those of wolves – which seemed to grow louder and then die away again, as if the runner were following an uncertain, frantic course: now coming closer, then veering off in a different direction.

  Penny bit her lip and glanced doubtfully at the door.

  ‘Tricky if we open up – we don’t want to let them in.’

  ‘But if there’s a poor cove out there in the wood with the wolves arter him – Pen, we can’t jist leave him to be guzzled up!’ urged Is.

  From the far end of the barn she fetched a long thin bundle of hazel twigs, tied together with most of the leaves still on, and thrust the leafy tips into the fire until they began to blaze.

  Penny, worried and frowning, rolled a tree-stump close behind the door so that it could not be opened wide, then, from the hook where it hung on the wall, took down a blunderbuss, an ancient weapon, but clean and well-greased.

  It was already loaded.

  Now they heard a voice outside the window that cried faintly, ‘Help! Does anybody hear? I’m in sore straits!’

  ‘Is – you stand there by the wall!’ ordered Penny. ‘Hold the poker and – when I say – shove the door-beam back, while I ready myself here with the gun.’

  They took up their stations, Is against the wall with poker and blazing sheaf of twigs, Penny facing the point where the door would begin to open when Is thrust back the beam.

  Outside, the snarls and howls of the wolves increased to a mad triumph; it seemed they had caught up with their quarry and were fighting each other for a chance to get at him.

  ‘Now, Is!’

  Is shoved back the beam, Penny dragged open the door.

  A wolf catapulted inside, but was instantly driven out again by Is, twirling her burning faggot in its face. Then she knelt in the crack of the dopr, waving the improvised torch so as to give light while Penny stood guard over her with the gun, aimed high; next moment she fired, and, in the startled silence that followed the blast, gave her order:

  ‘Quick, Is – grab his arm, he’s done in!’

  Penny leaned the gun against the wall, Is hurled her firebrand through the doorway among the disconcerted wolf-pack, which sprang back a few paces; and their intended victim was hurriedly half-dragged, half-lifted through the narrow crack of doorway and left unceremoniously lying on the floor while Penny hastily refastened the door and Is, with rapid care, re-loaded the gun. Not until this was done did they turn to examine the person they had rescued.

  He proved to be a thin, worn-looking man with scanty grey hair and a wispy grey beard; his face was dreadfully pale and his clothes were mostly in tatters. He bled from a score of wounds on his neck, arms and back, some of them quite deep. He had fainted, probably from loss of blood.

  ‘Marvel he’s still living!’ said Penny. ‘Looks as if they been arter him for miles, poor devil. Give us a hand, Is, to hoist him on the bed.’

  He was so thin and worn that they could easily lift him.

  ‘Where are we going to sleep?’ demanded Is, when he was stretched out on the bed, a wooden frame with cords and canvas slung across it.

  ‘On the floor, where else? You would bring him in,’ Penny told her. ‘Save us, those wounds look nasty. Set a pan of water on the fire, Is. Too bad we’ve no brandy; he’ll have to make do with mint tea. Drop in a bunch of leaves to steep, will you, while I get these togs off him. Queer, he don’t look like a tramp, though he’s so ragged.’

  ‘Hark at them outside!’ said Is, balancing a copper pan across two logs.

  The wolves, deprived of their supper, had not given up. Half a hundred of them must have been out there, howling and scrabbling at the wooden walls. Figgin the cat crouched on a high shelf, his fur all on end, his eyes rings of green fire with huge black pupils.

  ‘Keep your fur on, Figgin, they can’t get in. Pay them no mind; they’ll give over by and by.’

  It took a long time to wash the stranger’s dripping and filthy gashes; meanwhile he lay limply in a half sleep of total exhaustion.

  At last Penny wrapped him in a man’s old flannel shirt, worn but clean, which she took down from a nail on the wall.

  ‘Lucky van Doon left it behind,’ she remarked with a sour quirk of her mouth.

  ‘Poor Mr van Doon,’ said Is. ‘D’you reckon he’ll ever come back?’

  ‘Leyden’s a long way off,’ said Penny shortly. ‘And two years is a long time. Here, take the cup and spoon and try if you can get the cove to swaller.’

  With a good deal of trouble, Is managed to trickle a few spoonfuls of the hot aromatic brew down the man’s throat.

  ‘Reckon that’s all he’ll take,’ she said at length. ‘He jist wants to sleep.’

  ‘Oh well, leave him be, then. We might as well have our soup and get some rest.’

  They made up a pallet for themselves on the floor with two extra blankets and what spare clothes they had. The fire was banked to stay in till morning. Figgin came down from his high shelf and huddled against Is, while she and Penny lay down to such rest as they might hope for, with the wolves clamouring outside and their uninvited guest moaning on the bed.

  Towards morning the wolves finally gave up, and went in search of other prey. But th
e hurt man, instead of getting better, grew feverish and wild; he suddenly sat up with a flushed face and blazing eyes, which seemed to take in nothing of what lay around him.

  ‘Arun! Arun!’ he cried hoarsely. ‘Where are you? Your mother wants you! She is going to the shore for cockles! She wants you! Where are you, boy?’

  ‘Be quiet! Lie down!’ exclaimed Penny crossly. ‘Isn’t it enough that we give up our bed to you, but you must keep us awake with your potherings? There’s no Arran here, whosoever he be! And if you throw off the covers, you’ll only take a chill. Lie down, do, for mercy’s sake!’

  But the stranger, ignoring Penny completely, continued to call for ‘Arun! Arun!’ in heartbroken tones.

  ‘His head’s as hot as fire,’ muttered Penny, frowning, feeling his brow. ‘And his hands. And I don’t like the look of those wounds. Wolf bites can turn right nasty. And some of them go deep.’

  ‘What can we do? We washed ’em as best we could,’ said Is.

  ‘Even so. Reckon I oughta go for Doc Spiddle at Lewisham.’

  Is thrust out her lower lip, wholly disliking this plan.

  ‘That’s an hour’s walk, Pen. Suppose the wolves is still around?’

  ‘They’ll not come back this way. They never do. And it’ll be daylight in an hour.’

  ‘How’ll we pay old Doc Spiddle?’

  ‘I’ll give him a couple of toys for his grandchildren,’ said Penny with a brief, sour smile, and she glanced at the shelves where rows of dolls and toy animals were stacked. ‘Dear knows we’ve plenty, the way sales are falling off.’

  ‘Maybe he won’t come.’

  ‘He’ll come. I’ll roust him outa his dozy old bed. You mind the sick cove while I’m gone. Keep him covered, don’t let him get chilled.’

  After wrapping herself up in various hoods and shawls, Penny set out. She did not take the gun, for it was too cumbrous to carry any distance, but armed herself with a knobbed, spiked stick of thornwood.

  ‘Bar up after me and don’t open to strangers.’

  ‘As if I would!’ said Is.

  When she had slid the beam across the door again and fed the fire till it blazed, Is settled herself cross-legged on a big tree-trunk stool and listened to the sounds of the night, with Figgin vigilant beside her.