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Natalie was eight that summer. It was a dry season, a La Niña year. The Gulf Stream drove northwards, hauling hot Caribbean weather on its back, and brought day after day of hot sunshine and desiccating breezes. The breeze picked up the hay dust from the fields and blew it all the way to the edge of Nan's Wood, where Natalie breathed it in and sneezed and sneezed and sneezed.
"Tiggy one-two-three Nat-ta-lee!" shouted Karen, triumphant at the tigging tree fifteen yards away.
"It isn't fair!" Natalie came out of hiding and wiped her nose on the back of her hand, which she then scrubbed clean on her jeans. She was cross because Karen had won more times than she had. "You wouldn't have got me if I hadn't lost my patch."
Natalie was allergic to hay dust and grass pollen and wore a skin patch of drugs to prevent reactions but it had come off when they were playing spacewalking in the barn and now it was lost. Her eyes and nose were streaming.
"Yes, I would!" Karen said with contempt.
"Well, it's a boring game. I don't want to play it any more," Natalie said, swiping at her eyes with the tail of her shirt. "Let's go further into the woods where the air's cleaner."
"You're just saying that because you lost," Karen said, folding her arms and standing with her legs planted firmly. She was bigger and sturdier than Natalie, and Natalie hated it when Karen became stubborn, because she could stop and stand like a vast, angry piglet and Natalie could do nothing except wait or leave.
"No, I'm not. We can mushroom hunt and be the Spice Traders from the East," Natalie said quickly, naming a game that she knew Karen liked. "You can be Martinello, Prince of the Eternal Youth Mushrooms and I'll be Pongo."
Natalie didn't even like the sound of the name Pongo, who was Karen's creation, but Pongo was the Eternal Youth Truffle Hound and Martinello's companion, so it was the only part left. She hoped she'd got it right. Sometimes Karen preferred being evil for the afternoon and then Natalie would have to be Queen Primula Eustachio, Her Old Baggageness, because King Clive Eustachio the Ancient and Mighty had more evil powers in the story and that meant it had to be Karen.
Karen shrugged, "All right. But if we find any then you have to taste them first."
Natalie scowled and sniffed but she nodded. She hoped that they wouldn't find any so that she wouldn't have to start an argument with Karen. Pongo was only a truffle hound, not a truffle taster, and there was no way she was going to eat some nasty fungus while Karen gloated. And anyway, Karen only said that to pay her back for stopping Tiggy One Two Three.
They moved onto the small path that led from Karen's mother's farmhouse through the fields and the woods. Eventually it came out at Henhurst, but they weren't going that far. At the fork, they took a left down the hill into the deeper and thicker growth where fungi were more likely. Last year there had been large fairy rings, clusters of field mushrooms like white curds, dark magenta caps half eaten by slugs, and the rude, slimy revulsion of stinkhorns to discover and collect. This year there were only a few small coprinus on the grassy banks, their judge's wigs ragged and black with ink. Even they had dried out early. Now the rustling, sighing wood showed nothing, for all their searching.
Natalie stopped kicking through the leaves beneath her favourite oak tree after only a few minutes. "There's nothing here."
"Keep digging, dog!" Karen insisted, doing nothing to help from her stance on the path where she was watching for enemy soldiers.
Natalie trudged through another small area, not really looking but watching Karen. She knew they wouldn't find anything here. The only place left where there might be a chance was down in the Bottoms where several streams ran close together and kept the flat ground moist long after everything else was browned. Karen did not like going into the Bottoms because of the treacherous climb out and the slippery log that crossed the beck. She didn't dare walk over it without using her hands. But Natalie was annoyed.
"I can't smell anything here. But," she sniffed dramatically, "I think there might be something in the Badlands."
"You're not looking," Karen said, her hands balled into fists, cheeks pink.
"There's nothing. The Empress must go without this year," Natalie intoned. "Unless we can brave the dark journey and bring back the mushrooms." She stared hard at Karen. She was bored of the game already but took some satisfaction from the easy way that a suggestion of cowardice could alter Karen's plans.
"But we must be quick," Karen said after a moment, "because the winter is closing in and soon the passes will be closed. Here, I'll ride," and she mounted the Prince's horse, the mighty stallion Arctica, and set off at a canter down the bank. Natalie followed her running. She didn't hold out much hope that there would be any mushrooms in the Bottoms either, but the running down the hill as fast as they could was fun, ending with a tumble down the last bits of grass at the end, rolling over and over as they were felled by the enemy's clever arrows.
Crawling along on three legs, bravely doing her best for the Empress, Natalie soon lost track of time and her annoyance with Karen. She hunted through the black pits of Rasmora, dragging her injured leg, and scouted the wild garlic meadows of Ys in vain. They camped beneath the overhang of Cold Mountain and the season turned slowly to winter without the trace of a mushroom.
Pongo's leg got better, although he still had to walk with a limp, and the Prince's poisoned-arrow wounds slowly healed, although he was so weak he could only follow the dog around and stand in the safer spots, whilst the hound searched the banks of the River. Twice they were attacked by platoons of the foxhole diggers from Eustachia, who burrowed invisibly towards them through the soft earth and would spring from the shadows, armed with cutlasses. Twice the Prince fought them off with his bare hands. Twice Pongo tore them limb from limb with his teeth and they both feasted on the bodies of the slain to save themselves from starvation, although the black flesh was a taste they could hardly bear.
A cold snap of December turned into the gloomier, icier perils of January in Trogard. Vultures and crows ate the leftover foxholers until no trace remained. A princess appeared, but was forgotten. Poisoned winds roved, preventing their return to the castle, whilst the futile searches continued and the Prince spoke of an end to the kingdom as the queen grew old. And one day Pongo looked up and saw that a great darkness was coming out of the East.
"What time is it?"
"I don't know. My watch has stopped."
They stood and stared west, where the last of the sunset was fading. Although only a few minutes ago they had noticed nothing, now they both saw clearly that deep shadows were mustering between the trees. Where the bank had been green and gold, a soft powdery blueness was creeping uphill, blade by blade. The soft, fleecy warmth of the evening was gone suddenly, as if stolen. In its place cool air clasped them and made the dampness of their arms and faces feel icy. Natalie shivered and Karen abandoned her watchful post at the camp and came over to her, walking hurriedly, quietly, through the twilight.
They looked towards the path, where the bank's broad back was flat and dark against the glowing royal blue of the sky. From their original station it was only a half mile of track and field to the yellow lights of bedtime. Now, however, there was another half mile of sparse woods and the vile steepness of the bank itself between that safe place and the dank grasp of the Bottoms. As they looked they listened to the calls of the last birds to go home. They strained their ears for a human sound, but the tiny noises of grass and leaf and the chatter of a blackbird were all they could hear.
Karen was afraid of the dark, Natalie knew. She was afraid of it herself. Out here there were no lights of any kind, not even a glow from distant streets. If they waited any longer they might not be able to see the way home. And in the failing of the light, the stories of Trogard and its legions of enemy foxholers, its orcs and lizards and hungry vampires, took on a strange weight in her mind, so that although she knew they were only products of her imagination, it seemed as though the world in darkness would be soft and pliable, and would yield them up from the sticky mud beneath her feet. Robbed of light, all hard edges failed. Surfaces broke, insides slithered, anything unseen and untouched might turn to the substance of Trogard itself, pulpy and fungal, oozing into a shape worth being frightened of.
Karen clearly felt it, too, because she moved even closer to Natalie, until they could feel each other's warmth. Now that they had broken into silence, it was impossible to cause any untoward noise. The woods were listening, waiting.
Karen signalled, "Let's go home," with a wave of her hand, but she didn't move. Without wanting to they both kept listening, straining their ears against the slight rush of breeze in the leaves. Fortunately the engine of a tractor in the distance burred for a moment like the beat of bee-wings. Because it was mechanical it proved that the ordinary world still existed and released them for a few moments. Natalie began to hurry towards the bank, her shoes heavy with the sticky, almost cakelike mud of the stream's tiny delta.
She heard Karen panting behind her, breath light with terror, feet heavy as they blundered forwards. With the abandonment of their game the banks and bushes lost their glamour and returned to their true dark and gloating selves, slow as sloth and strong as stone, patient yet crafty. As soon as they turned their backs the awareness of the Bottoms' ancient hostility was as sharp as eyes upon them and every nerve between their shoulders was alive with prickling fear.
Before them the tussocks of the bank shifted like sea waves and vanished in sargassos of shadow. Natalie slipped in her haste and she and Karen cried out, their voices shrill and squeaking, as they both went sprawling with their hands on unfamiliar dirt and sticks. Their faces thrust into the chilly leaves so closely that they could taste them in the back of their throats; blue the smell of the night air sinking towards them.
"I'm scared!" Karen said, her voice breaking into a whine laced with real fear.
"It's all right." Natalie got up quickly, wiping her hands on her trousers, trying to talk lightly and not sniff although she wanted to listen, listen harder to hear what was coming.
Karen began to make snuffling, squeaking sounds that Natalie realized was weeping. She had to shut her up before they were heard. "It's all right," she said again, trying not to let her anger at Karen's weakness show. "There's still time. The twilight is safe. When the world goes blue there's nothing allowed to chase or hurt you. It's magic. As long as the blue lasts we'll be okay."
"How do you know?" Karen asked. She was still getting up clumsily, trying to get ahead of Natalie on the slope so that she wasn't the one closest to the Bottoms.
"It's old country magic," Natalie said, lying but convincing even herself as she said it. "Everyone in the country knows it really. Things can be there, but they're not allowed to come out until it's properly dark and you can't see a thing. Come on."
"Yes, as long as the blue lasts," Karen said in a stronger voice and she was off and running through the trees, Natalie at her side in the scramble for the top.
They made it to the path and the lane.
To either side the creatures gathered. They watched and listened for their chance, but with every step the girls got closer to home and still the blue light lasted in the west. Somewhere in the running and talking, where they reinforced the rules of the Blue World, Natalie almost forgot that she'd made it all up. Karen believed her so wholeheartedly that hearing her own lies repeated made them seem true. By the time they reached the yard and the house she was so immersed in the magical lore of the twilight that she could feel the force of it like an invisible barrier, heavy against her back with the pressure of everything it was holding at bay.
Later, much later, after they had gone to bed, Natalie stood at her window and looked out towards the wood. It was dark and she could see nothing at all beyond the yard, which was dimly lit by spilled light from the kitchen window. The whole wood might not exist, or it might have walked closer and be just out of the light pool, waiting for unbelievers to go to bed and dare to sleep. Anything might come in dreams. Anything might be true there.
With their deserted bodies lying open to harm there was nothing anyone could do to stop it coming in and running its fingers through their hair, whispering dreams in their ears, telling the truth about the Blue World and the places and things that lived and thrived in darkness, when nobody was there to banish them by being awake.
Natalie wondered if the wood was angry with her, for creating the story of the Blue World and so curbing its powers to terrorize and claim her. As if it wasn't bad enough that daylight and ordinary people could steal its soul away. Now she'd pushed it even farther away towards the place where nothing existed, where even the Bottoms had no power, no space, no life.
Natalie knew about that place. She could go there when she held her breath and shut her eyes and nobody knew where she was. She knew that was where the old powers went when nobody wanted them. By seeing things and putting your hands on them, by making trees into doors and cupboards, by chopping wood and cutting grass, that was how you kept your power to say what could be done. You banished old bad spirits by tidying them away from your mind with order.
But Natalie was too young to hold on to that notion all the time. She could play and pretend in the wood as long as she believed she could. But her belief was weak when she was alone, even in the daylight. Sometimes she couldn't believe strongly enough that the bushes were only plants with no feelings, or that the trees were recent additions, not an old forest with a mind of its own. Sometimes she felt the belief of the wood pressing in on her and its belief was stronger than hers. It wanted to exist, and she was in its way.
Then she'd have to wait for a sound, a call, her mother's angry voice looking for her to release the spell. And now she'd challenged the wood to save Karen, made up a lie that Karen could use against it, and it didn't even matter that it wasn't true. As soon as she'd said it she'd felt the fabric of reality shift to let it in. Now it was true whether it ought to be or not. She had used magic and the wood spirits would remember her strike against them.
Natalie twisted the net curtain in her hands. She saw the dog come out of its kennel and look up at the wall that protected it from the land beyond, listening, ears cocked. She heard the chink of its chain as it looked, longingly, at the house door, and then slunk back inside the dark hole of the little hut. Inside walls, in a space full of people who did not believe, that was the best protection there was. Even the dog knew it.
She briefly wished her dad were there (he was the ultimate nonbeliever) but he would have had no time for her either, so it was better he was not around. He was the kind of man who could sit by the bedside, reading his paper, while his only daughter was eaten by ghosts he did not believe in.
Natalie moved backwards, into the room, and got into bed without taking her gaze off the window. Curled and chilly in the comforter she stared at the stars and listened hard to the sound of her and Karen's mothers talking in the kitchen below, the chink of ice in a glass, the drone of the television where Karen's dad was watching a police programme. Beyond it all she could hear the wood. A silent vastness, brimming full of ancient secrets and chaos, waiting, eating the lie of the Blue World, looking towards her with clever eyes that had already calculated the total of her crimes against it.
And she wondered, lying there and waiting for the defeat and terror of sleep, whether the wood could be kept at bay entirely by lies. If making up a thing and having it seem true was all there was to making things true. If the world, without a witness, was infinitely malleable.
That was why Karen was so desperate to talk the protection of the blue magic into being. That was why everyone constantly talked and shared and agreed on so many things that she, Natalie, didn't understand. Money, politics, current affairs, gardening, housework, laundry. Did their saying make it so? Had they created everything that way? They spoke with the conviction of knowledge.
But suppose that the fragility of it all was something they had forgotten with age? Then they would be safe, because their certainty in their own stories was absolute, and certainty was protection magic at its height.
Natalie was not certain. She longed to be, but how could she pretend she was when she knew the truth? That the safe world was a web of lies, beneath which the shunned reality waited, a master of infinite patience and terrible revelation.
Excerpted from MAPPA MUNDI by Justina Robson Copyright © 2006 by Justina Robson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted December 9, 2008
In England research psychologist Dr. Natalie Armstrong diligently works on mapping the human brain so that physicians will one day be able to mend traumatized brains and truly cure the mentally ill. She is closing in on her objective thanks in part to MAPPA MUNDI software.---------------- As Natalie knows she nears achieving her life¿s goal, FBI Specialists Jude Westhorpe and Mary Delany investigate the activities of a Russian defector Mikhail Guskov who has been involved in gene mapping and other scientific breakthroughs. Jude and Mary believe that Mikhail has plans for Natalie¿s research and are assigned to prevent him from doing so. However across the Atlantic, Jude, though afraid, realizes he is no longer an obscure field agent as someone wants him dead he assumes it is Mikhail while Natalie is stunned that instead of freeing humanity, her nanotechnology is wanted by powerful entities to mentally enslave people.----------------- This is a terrific thought provoking medical science fiction mystery that grips the audience with its theme that good intentions can lead to bad endings if abused by those in charge. Readers will ponder the options between thought control slaves vs. healthy and happy people as initially most of the audience will say no that is in no way possible, but soon begin to realize it is absolutely plausible even without the nano technology, manipulation is the norm rationalized to anchor the power base. Justina Robson provides a powerful thriller that will haunt fans who will compare events to what is going on today as science and politics are manipulated to serve selfish purposes.--------------- Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.