If you missed it, here's chapter 1.
When Rowan woke up he was hanging upside down. For a moment he thought he was at school, being held up by the ankles so that everything tipped out of his pockets. Before it had happened to him, Rowan had thought that such cruelty only existed in cartoons.
‘Ah, you’re awake!’
Rowan’s jumped out of his skin as the voice boomed from behind him.
‘Don’t be frightened!’ protested the voice. ‘I’m a prisoner too!’
Rowan found his voice. ‘Prisoner?’
‘Oh, well, yes! I thought the whole being-chained-to-the-ceiling thing might give that away! It usually starts off something along those lines.’
‘Who are you?’ The pressure in his head reduced Rowan’s voice to a raspy squeak.
Shoes scuffed at the earth floor as the owner of the voice came into view.
‘My name is Marvin, very pleased to meet you!’
Rowan lifted his hanging arm to shake the man’s extended hand. It felt so fragile that Rowan let it go before he accidentally ripped it off. The man was little more than a skeleton; his slicked back red hair looked too big for his head, puffing out at the sides like an ill-fitting wig. The full red moustache above his cracked lips grew out past the angular boundaries of his face, curling back stubbornly at the ends.
Despite his apparent poor condition he sported a purple waistcoat, decorated with sequins and mirrors that would have been beautiful had half of them not been broken or missing. Luckily the remaining few still shone out over a drab white undershirt.
Rowan decided it was safe to give the man his name. ‘I’m Rowan. Where exactly am I?’
‘In a bit of a pickle, I’m afraid.’
Hanging by the ankles with every drop of blood pooling in his head, Rowan thought that was a bit of an understatement.
‘My boy, your face has gone redder than my hair,’ Marvin fussed. ‘Hold on a tick and I’ll get you down.’
'I have a few tricks up my sleeve,’ said Marvin, tapping the side of his pointed nose.
He turned and counted out his paces to the facing wall. After a quick calculation on his fingers he delved a hand inside his shabby waistcoat. A red handkerchief emerged. Tied to the end of it was a green handkerchief, and to that a blue and then a yellow. The chain of handkerchiefs continued like a string of sausages until Marvin had piled an entire rainbow at his feet.
Next to emerge from the waistcoat was a white dove. It gulped at the air as if it had been pocketed for far too long. Marvin fastened the end of the handkerchief chain to the dove’s feet. Then as if he were chalking a snooker cue he rubbed a dusty green cube on its head.
‘Now close your eyes!’ Marvin grinned.
Reluctantly, Rowan obeyed. The man seemed to be enjoying himself a little too much.
Rowan wondered if he’d open his eyes and find himself in his bedroom, basking in morning light as it seeped through the curtains. Then he could start his daily routine as normal and head downstairs to make breakfast. While cutting up his eggs and bacon he would tell his dad all about this crazy dream he’d had.
A flutter of wings brushed his face and lifted past his legs.
Just a crazy dream. A crazy dream where Marvin was shouting, ‘Chabooti!’
The cell filled with a deafening popping noise, like popcorn being cooked with a grenade. A hot gust of air swung Rowan about on his chains. Only when it had passed did he crack open an eye.
It was raining bits of ragged handkerchief. White feathers drifted on the warm air like frayed snowflakes. Marvin lay in a shocked-looking heap against the wall, caked in soot.
‘What happened?’ shouted Rowan.
‘Things were a little more explosive than I had planned,’ Marvin whimpered.
A white feather landed on his hand. ‘Sir Reginald!’ he gasped, pure horror seizing his features. A teardrop etched a white streak down his cheek as it rolled through the soot.
‘Is there any chance of you getting me down sometime today?’
‘Yes, yes, of course, my boy.’ Marvin got to his feet. ‘I always have a plan B!’
He moved closer to Rowan until their noses were almost touching.
‘You’re not going to blow me up, are you?’ squeaked Rowan.
‘Of course not! I almost guarantee it!’
He cracked his fingers, and in one swift movement pulled a key from behind Rowan’s ear. His grin was almost as wide as his moustache.
‘You could have done that in the first place,’ said Rowan.
‘I needed the practice,’ Marvin shrugged, as if it were obvious.
He reached up to the padlock that held the chains in place. Rowan heard the grind of metal as the lock cranked open. The only thing that broke his fall was his head.
‘Oh, I am sorry, my boy! Never was much of a catch!’ chuckled Marvin.
Rowan rubbed at his short brown hair and staggered to his feet. The cell surrounded him in double vision. The walls that had been to either side of him were made up of the same dry earth as the floor he had just smacked his head against. Thick metal bars filled the fourth, cutting them off from a muddy passageway. As his vision corrected itself he saw that the passageway was lined with identical cells, bathed in shadows cast from flickering lanterns suspended from the ceiling.
‘Like I said, we are prisoners,’ said Marvin gently, as if the knock on the head might have caused him to forget.
All at once Rowan’s head was filled with questions, but he could not put any of them into words.
Marvin saved him the trouble. ‘Allow me to explain. You are the captive of a clan of bandits. Quite nasty ones, at that. I wonder how a young boy like yourself has become mixed up with them?’
‘They took my dad’s beard!’ Rowan spluttered. He remembered everything now, and he gripped the metal bars to support himself against the memories.
Marvin nodded. ‘Sounds like their kind of business.’
‘I’ve got to get it back!’ Rowan wrung the metal bars between his hands.
‘My boy, you must understand, these bandits are so horrid that -’
Somewhere along the passageway a heavy door creaked open. As it banged shut the cell was filled with the sound of squelching footsteps moving toward them.
Marvin took Rowan by the shoulders. ‘Don’t say anything. Just let me talk.’
He let Rowan go, and turned to face the two little men who were peering through the bars at them.
Rowan recognised them immediately; they were the two men who had appeared in his dad’s room. He took a step away from the bars, hands shaking with rage.
The little men appeared to be twins, matching in both stocky appearance and the tatty brown animal skin that covered them head to toe. Rowan flinched at their ugliness. Their faces were scarred and swollen, heavy with crevices and dark blotches. The only difference between them was that one man’s head was dented at the top, as if someone had hit him with a spade.
‘Still alive, then?’ remarked Dent Head.
Marvin remained silent.
Dent Head noticed the feathers strewn about the cell floor amid the strips of multicoloured hankie.
‘Well look at that!’ he laughed, nudging his twin in the side. ‘Exploding yer mates again, are yer?’
‘Just practicing for when it’s your turn, Fasol.’
‘You!’ shouted the man with the normal head, pointing a dirty finger at Rowan. ‘You’re gonna wish you never touched my wolf!’
‘I didn’t!’ Rowan spat back indignantly.
‘You did! You landed on ‘im when you fell through our portal!’
Marvin halted Rowan’s retort with a gentle hand on his shoulder. Rowan shook it off and glowered at the men.
‘What do you want, Latido?’ Marvin asked calmly.
‘We’re jus’ checking on yer ‘fore the boss comes,’ grinned the man with the normal shaped head.
The creak of the door up the passageway silenced them. Fasol and Latido turned to look. The bang of it shutting echoed ominously around the cells.
Rowan’s mouth dropped as a wolf almost as tall as the two men slunk into sight, its enormous head held sullenly toward the ground. Its coat was pure white but for a few streaks of black on its sides. Mounted on the creature’s back was a man taller than the others, dressed in an elegant wolf’s pelt that hid his entire body.
The man lifted his head to face them. Rowan gasped with horror.
His face was ridden with shadow, patches of dark collecting in sunken pools beneath his deathly pale skin. A thick grey beard was fastened to his face with metal staples. It looked as if it were trying to escape him; the staples had torn downward, leaving gaping holes in his cheeks.
The man eyed him up and down. ‘He’s just as puny as you, Latido,’ he oozed.
The man with the normal shaped head scowled.
‘Marvin,’ he continued, ‘you managed to get him down from the ceiling without killing him. Congratulations.’
‘One does try, Doremi.’ Marvin’s face set as hard as steel.
The man turned his eyes back to Rowan. They were sharp and dark, seeming to jump from his face where the skin had pulled away from his eye sockets.
Rowan hated him instantly, more than he had ever hated anyone. More than any bully or neglective school teacher. Yet somehow Rowan could not tear his eyes from him. The man’s voice, grand and biting as a tyrant’s, seized his attention and refused to let it go.
‘Another mouth to feed,’ sneered Doremi. ‘Or perhaps to feed to something else.’
Rowan tried to convince himself that his hands were still shaking from rage rather than fear.
‘We do not appreciate trespassers here, boy.’
‘You trespassed on my dad’s room,’ answered Rowan, holding Doremi’s gaze.
‘Fasol and Latido here were just doing their jobs.’ Doremi nudged the wolf with his fist, and it stepped closer to the bars. ‘It’s merely unfortunate for you that it had to be your father.’
Doremi pressed his face between the cold bars, fixing smug eyes on him.
Rowan rushed at him, seizing hold of his wolf’s pelt and tearing at it with his nails. For a moment Doremi remained motionless, before hitting him with a sharp sweep of his hand. Rowan tumbled backward onto the cell floor.
‘Rowan!’ Marvin dropped to his knees beside the fallen boy.
Doremi’s forehead, the only part of his face where the skin was still taut, furrowed with thought as he regarded them.
‘Marvin!’ he boomed suddenly. ‘What is your progress on the remedy I require?’
‘There is no answer but the one I have given you every day for the last three months,’ replied Marvin, remaining on his knees. ‘I am not an alchemist, and there is nothing I can do to help you.’
There was silence. Rowan looked up at Doremi from where he lay on the ground. Underneath the bandit’s furs long and angry-looking scars crept up his legs like tendrils of ivy.
Marvin offered his hand to Rowan. Rowan rejected it and got to his feet unassisted. Then they waited as Doremi turned away from them and steered the wolf to the other side of the passage. The beast lifted its fearsome head, and Doremi petted it absent-mindedly.
Rowan noticed that the enormous wolf was missing a large patch of fur, leaving a span of pale skin on its side. At its centre was a gnarled canyon of flesh where it looked as if a terrible wound had been stitched together. The beard on Doremi’s face must have been cut from the wolf’s coat.
Doremi took his hand from the beast and reached into his own furs.
‘It is a most handsome beard.’ He measured the words with the careful accuracy of a mathematician.
Doremi turned to face them. In his hand was the beard of Rowan’s father, limp and drooping around his fingers like a grotesque prosthetic mask.
He picked at the dent in the top of the beard where a scar had ensured no hair would ever grow. ‘Most curious, this scar. I could swear I’ve seen it before.’
Once again Rowan ran to the bars. But he did not cry out, nor scramble at the metal that held him. All he could manage was to reach hopelessly for his dad’s beard in the man’s grasp.
Fasol and Latido jeered at him.
‘Marvin!’ barked Doremi. ‘If you do not deliver the cure to me by this time tomorrow, I will kill the boy!’
Rowan thought he heard something else in Doremi’s voice beneath the malice. Something that sounded like fear.
‘Doremi, I can’t - ’ floundered Marvin.
‘This time tomorrow, Marvin. And mark my words; he will suffer.’
Read Chapter 3 here!