Aisling, Shinytop and I were walking close to Gutwretch Street this morning when a strangely greenish creature passed us.
Shaped like a human, it had legs, arms and a body. It’s head, however, was a mass of intertwining vegetation.
‘What is that?’ I asked Shinytop.
It was rare that Shinytop didn’t have an answer. So, considering it our duty to investigate, we followed the man tree, taking it in turns to sneak up close to get a better look.
Aisling was the first to spot eyes. Then I saw a mouth and nose. It had a jaw and forehead and cheekbones, too. But the whole face was buried beneath the vegetation that sprouted out his ears and nose.
‘Diseased,’ Shinytop hissed.
That was enough to send us running. Neither Aisling nor I have fallen sick here yet, and we’d no idea if their medicines might work on us. I was so rattled I scrubbed myself clean and changed clothes as soon as were back in the compound.
‘Disease!’ Stein Cat laughed when we told him our story in the kitchen later. ‘That wasn’t a disease. It was a lawful punishment.’
‘Punishment,’ Shinytop said. ‘Nonsense. I know all the punishments. Had to. Always a consideration when I was offered a ‘job’.
Stein Cat laughed again. ‘You’re too long in that stick. The ‘Sentenced to the Seed’ punishment was introduced seven years ago to deal with scandalmongers spreading panic about non-existent threats.’
‘Cruel,’ Aisling said.
‘They’re force fed a seed ball,’ Stein Cat continued. ‘The plants lodge within them before growing out through . . . various places.’
‘Ouch!’ I cried.
Shinytop released a long, mocking laugh. ‘There’s not a punishment in this world that could match what I’ve been sentenced to.’
‘Is that so,’ Stein Cat said. ‘How about we find out who got the worst punishment ever?’
We drew straws. Aisling got to go first.
‘We were visiting relatives in England once,’ she said. ‘Dad had promised to bring us to the Alton Towers Theme Park as a treat. But me and my brother argued so much in the car, he turned around and returned to the hotel.’ She sighed. ‘We were so close I actually saw the roller coaster.’
I felt a twinge of embarrassment. How could I match that for cruelty. The worst my parents had ever done on me was make me pull dandelions in the garden after it rained. And I’d drawn the longest straw, which meant everyone would hear my story last and remember it better.
‘Being deprived of pleasure is a child’s punishment.’ Stein Cat rose up on his hind legs and strutted around the kitchen. ‘How about being deprived of your life. I was once sentenced to death by crushing.’
‘For . . . love.’
‘So how did you escape?’ Aisling said.
Silence fell over the kitchen. Even Sparks settled into embers.
‘Don’t you believe me?’ Stein Cat said.
When nobody answered, he made a little shivering motion. Seconds later, a spirit rose up from behind him. A very flat spirit of a cat.
‘Huh!’ Shinytop said. ‘I once suffered a fate worse than a thousand crushings.’
My ears pricked up. Considering his current situation was hard to beat, I was insanely curious. ‘What’s worse than a thousand crushings?’
‘Temptation,’ he replied.
Stein Cat said, ‘What gold did you steal? Or was it spells or perhaps Lavun?’
‘A chicken. That’s all,’ Shinytop continued. ‘You would think that those sheltering in the Wilds of Ongar would have sympathy with a fellow wanderer. But . . .’
‘Nobody seeks shelter in Ongar,’ Stein Cat said. ‘Since the Envelop Plantagen Guild abandoned it, people go there to hide.’
‘That wretched jungle was full of food,’ Shinytop said. ‘But impossible to pick or catch without becoming food myself. I smelled a chicken. I stole it from a campfire.’
‘I thought a great thief never got caught?’ Aisling said.
Shinytop snorted. ‘I wasn’t caught. I was tracked down. The cutthroats had a Wavlen dog.’
‘I hope you got to eat the chicken,’ Stein Cat said, laughing.
‘One leg. That’s all.’ Shinytop groaned. ‘They had an Envelop Plantagen deserter. A bio-scientist. They measured me, weighed me and took blood samples before lowering me into a gully with walls so smooth a spider wouldn’t have scrabbled free.
There were a lot of bones in that gully, animal and human. The animals had obviously fallen into the pit because many had cracked skulls. The human skeletons were intact, which worried me.
When they lowered a basket of meats, breads, savouries and other delights, I almost fell on it with hunger. But that food was King’s food, and it bothered me worse than the intact skeletons. I ate nothing.’
‘Good instincts,’ Stein Cat said. The cat wasn’t laughing any more.
‘The bio-scientist tossed me a plum sized seed,’ Shinytop continued. ‘She said it would grow fast and high, and enable me to escape. But only if I was the correct weight and had the strength for the climb. She said she’d designed the strength of the plant according to my size and weight.
The cutthroats all gathered around the pit’s rim, staring down at me. They were leaving for a few weeks, they said. I could escape, or die.
‘Obviously you didn’t die,’ Stain Cat said. ‘So . . .’
‘Can you imagine the torment, starving with food beside me, not knowing if I could eat it or not. The first day passed as a nightmare, my belly growling, my mind fighting itself. I weakened fast. After three days I was barely able to crawl. I prayed for flies to come and spoil the food so I wouldn’t have to look at it. Not as much as a mite appeared.
And all the while the seed’s plant wound its way up along the wall. It grew quickly, hardening into a stem, some of its little branches burrowing into hidden cracks in the rock. Within a week, its tip was above the rim. That tip trembled in the breeze.
It reminded me of a finger, a wiggling finger encouraging me to climb.’
‘It was helping you?’ Aisling said.
‘I’d have trusted a demon quicker.’ Shinytop said. ‘I became giddy. I slept and dreamed, and woke and dreamed more. Food. Food. Food. All dreams were about food. I remembered my childhood, and how my mother always cooked bones into soup. The innards of bones were full of goodness, she’d said, though my siblings and I knew we were eating bones because we couldn’t afford anything else.’
‘I’ve had bone soup,’ I said. ‘It’s nice.’
‘Saved my life,’ Shinytop said.
‘You ate bones?’ Aisling said.
‘Cracked them open and sucked out the marrow.’
‘Cannibal?’ Stein Cat hissed.
‘No. No. No. The animals. Only the animals! I wouldn’t steal life from a man even when he’s dead. I was wracked with hunger. But I starved myself to stay alive.’
‘And climbed out?’ I said.
‘With strength gained from dead things. And guess what I found at the top?’
‘What?’ We all chimed.
‘The weighing scales, and a note from the woman asking me to write my weight for her studies.’ A long silence followed, before he added, ‘I didn’t think it wise to annoy them.’
Sparks burst into laughter, sending a shower of sparks spiralling up the chimney.
We all turned towards the fireplace.
‘Well,’ Shinytop snapped. ‘What’s your story then?’
‘I’ve never been punished for anything,’ Sparks replied. ‘Too clever.’
‘Ha!’ Shinytop cried. ‘Your spirit heats this place. Just what do you call that?’
‘A happy retirement. Let the long straw speak now.’
When everyone turned to me, I almost bolted for the door. But Shinytop’s story about the seed had inspired me. Pulling my shoulders back, I said. ‘One seed in a pit is bad. But imagine if the ground around your home became infested with seeds dumped there by a spell wind. When those yellow headed monsters sprouted, I was sent out to destroy them.’
Aisling’s face went red, like she was holding back laughter.
‘Sounds like bloat seed,’ Stein Cat said. ‘A true curse.’
‘One by one, I yanked those wet slippery monsters from the ground!’ I held up my hands. ‘They bled white pus blood as I crushed them. That pus blood stained my hands for days. Couldn’t get it off. How about that?’
Stein Cat said, ‘Perhaps not the worst punishment, but cruel indeed.’
‘True,’ Shinytop added.
‘Great fireside tales,’ Sparks added.
I sighed inwardly. Then, just when I thought I was off the hook and was about to suggest fixing some dinner, Aisling said, ‘So . . . just what did you do to deserve such a punishment?’
I could have killed her on the spot. Glaring at her, I said, ‘For getting a friend in trouble. That’s what!’
She smiled at me. And the longer the smile went on, the faster my pulse became because I was convinced she was thinking of more awkward questions. Finally, she said, ‘Okay. Who’s hungry?’
Next time we’re back home, I’m going to make her drink dandelion soup as her next punishment.