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by Meg Harper
Tanith's grandmother tells her a mysterious story that has haunted her family for generations. It is a story without an end, a riddle that she must solve and to do so she must enter the dangerous world of the city, where lone children like her live on the edge, cast out by society. There Tanith meets Crow, a charismatic boy with a band of ragtag kids depending on him for survival. The two are drawn to each other, but there's something strange about Crow and Tanith doesn't trust him with her secret. But maybe Crow has secrets of his own...
Meg Harper graduated from Oxford University, and worked as an English and Drama teacher before becoming a children's author. Meg has had ten books published including My Mum and Other Horror Stories, shortlisted for the Birmingham Cable Children's Book Award.
Meg has always loved writing and her first book, My Mum and Other Horror Stories, launched the popular My Mum series. As well as being a busy author and mum, she teaches youth theatre. Her leisure interests include swimming, taking part in Tudor re-enactments and visiting tea shops.
Meg lives in Warwickshire with her husband, four teenagers, a dog, a cat and two chickens.
Visit www.megharper.co.uk to find out more.
I don’t know where I am. Beneath me, the ground is damp and hard, prodding me with pebbles. I open my eyes gingerly and quickly shut them again, the morning light too bright and terrifying. I have been here all night then; that’s why my body is so stiff and cold. I don’t want to move. I can bear the pain in my head and my hips if I lie still; I am numb with the chill of the night. But once I so much as stretch a toe, I know that I will be in agony. And somehow, I have to get home.
I shift my weight to my hands, readying myself for the push to sitting. One, two, three, push. And here it comes. Pain – shattering, sickening, heart-stopping pain. My ever-present companion. So then. At least I know that I am alive.
Tanith tried to settle the little rucksack more comfortably on her shoulders, then took it off and repacked it yet again. It was a delaying tactic, she knew. She didn’t want to go but she had no choice. She had to leave the tiny two-roomed cottage that had been her home for fourteen years before anyone discovered that her grandmother had died and that she had been left alone in the world. It had been no surprise when her grandmother had agreed.
“You must leave here, Tanith,” she had said, every breath an effort. “If you don’t the Cratz will find you.”
The Cratz. The aristocrats, the autocrats, the bureaucrats. The ruthless wealthy who clung to the top of this deeply divided society and would do anything to stay there. Tanith shuddered at the thought of a life enslaved by them.
“I know,” she said, gripping her grandmother’s hand tighter. “Don’t worry. I’ll go.”
Her grandmother’s frail fingers returned the pressure.
“Tanith,” she whispered. “There’s something I should have done long ago and never did. Something very important. I want you to do it for me.”
For a moment, Tanith wondered if her grandmother had finally lost her senses but her eyes were as clear and sane as ever, holding Tanith’s in an irresistible gaze.
“There isn’t much time left, Tanith,” she whispered. “No, don’t cry. You must be strong and brave. Stronger and braver than I have ever been. Listen – listen carefully.”
Tanith clutched her grandmother’s hand in both of hers, tears still oozing down her face. They dripped unheeded off her chin onto the muzzle of the wolfhound who lay, blanket-like, around her huddled body, a continuous low whine in his throat. The moment Tanith had dreaded for so long had come.
“We should get help,” she sobbed. “You should let me get some help.”
Her grandmother shook her head, little more than a quiver. “No, Tanith,” she said gently. “I want to die here, in this bed, with just you by my side. You alone have cared for me these last months – why should I need anyone else? But first you must hear my story. Now stop wasting my breath and listen.”
Tanith daren’t delay any longer. The first fingers of dawn light were beginning to spread themselves across the night sky. She needed to be away long before Mr. Haltwhistle,
the farmer who had let them squat in exchange for their help on his farm, realized that anything was wrong. There was a letter for him which Tanith left propped up on the rickety table.
Like any other Citz, Tanith and her grandmother had been forced to scratch out a living in whatever way they could, working for Mr. Haltwhistle and coaxing puny misshapen vegetables out of the thin, polluted soil around their cottage. Tanith had grown tough and hardy but she was short and her limbs were stunted. She was often racked with pain in her hips and knees. Now that it had come, the thought of leaving the shelter of the cottage was grim. A long, cold trek would be torture.
Worse still, she had to leave her beloved grandmother tucked neatly into the bed they had shared, her hair brushed, her eyes closed peacefully, the sheet pulled up high. She couldn’t bear to cover the old lady’s face. It was too final. Too hopeless. As it was, she could at least wave goodbye from the doorway. She could blow a kiss and imagine one blown back.
“I’m off now, Grandma,” Tanith whispered, choking on her tears. “I’ll do what you asked, I promise. You take care now.” Then she clicked her fingers to Wulfie and shut the door carefully. The moon was still up, making the frost-crusted grass glisten. It would be all right. Even if Mr. Haltwhistle didn’t come by for a couple of days, Grandma would be fine, cold but undisturbed, safe in her chilly tomb.
Tanith knew where she was going. It wasn’t a good place but, burdened with her grandmother’s task and terrified of being picked up by the Cratz, she hadn’t much choice. She was going where scores of other kids ended up – the nearest city. There she would soon be invisible – just another scabby orphan trying to survive. It was about twenty kilometres away so ought to be manageable in a day but Tanith would have to travel in the dark. She was scared of being noticed with her strange waddling gait. And then there was Wulfie, of course. There was no question of leaving him behind. Apart from the fact that he would have wakened the whole valley with his howling, Tanith loved him almost as much as she had loved her grandmother. And he would be warmth and protection. Not that she had much confidence that he would defend her – he was trained to kill rabbits, not people – but he was big and shaggy and looked fearsome. He had been an effective deterrent at the cottage.
Now, instead of loping ahead, as he usually did when they were out on the hills, Wulfie remained glued to Tanith’s side. There was barely room for them to walk together on the path. Every so often, he whined.
“I know, Wulfie, I know,” whispered Tanith, blinking back tears. “This is awful. But it could be worse. The Cratz could get us. And then we’d be split up, no question.”
Resolutely, Tanith plodded on. She was tired. Sleep had been scant for the last few days and she ached from her vigil, cramped up on the bed with her grandmother, not wanting to leave her for a moment. She had forced herself to eat before they left but knew she would have to rest soon. Her aim was to reach an outcrop of rocks, high on the gritstone ridge which glowered over the city. She and Wulfie could worm their way into a cranny and sleep throughout the day. She had often run and hidden there when other kids chased her and called her names. Later, when darkness fell, she and Wulfie could start the long trek down towards the city. She must ignore the nagging pain in her hips, master her nasty, chilling fear and swallow the lumpy grief that hurt her throat. Right now, they must carry on trekking upwards to the gnarled stump of a Celtic cross which stood on the horizon, a solid, gritty reminder of stories most people had forgotten.
Tanith paused for a moment to catch her breath. There was no danger of her forgetting her grandmother’s story. It had cut deep into her heart and would remain there for as long as it took to solve its horrific riddle.
A great storyline and an emotional journey. This story gives a description of what life is like for those less fortunate than us.
Rebecca Britwistle - Student's review for Lancashire Book of the Year Award
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