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The Dark Horse
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The Dark Horse

Written by Marcus SedgwickAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Marcus Sedgwick


· Laurel Leaf
· eBook · December 18, 2007 · $5.99 · 978-0-307-43387-9 (0-307-43387-0)


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1

It was Mouse who found the box. She was trotting along the tide line, running with Sigurd. Looking for sea cabbage washed up in the black sand after last night's storm, because the fishing had been bad again. They were half a day from home.

Flicking the hair from her eyes, Mouse tilted her head to one side.

"Sigurd?"

Sigurd came over to where Mouse stood. He towered above her.

"What is it, Mouse?"

"That."

She nodded at the box. It was different. It didn't belong here. All around them was the coast--rocky outcrops, with the low hills behind--and the sea, the sea, the sea in front of them. Everything was the wildness of Storn. And amongst all this wildness lay the box. A small wooden box--a couple of hands wide but quite slender. There was no metal visible--no hinges or corner braces. No lock. It was a plain wooden box, but somehow it was very beautiful. It was made of a deep and rich red wood, black in places. It had a shine that reflected the light from the sky back onto Mouse's small, round face.

It was different. It was from somewhere else.

Mouse felt her head swim a little. She staggered a few paces away from the box.

"Mouse?" Sigurd had noticed. "Anything?"

Sigurd was used to spotting the signs, better than anyone else at knowing when Mouse might "see" something. But she put her hand on Sigurd's arm.

"No," she said. "No, it's gone now."

Mouse drew in a deep, calming breath. They turned their attention back to the box, but Mouse kept her distance. "What do you think it is?"

Sigurd said nothing. He knelt down to touch it, but gently, as if it were a cornered animal.

"It's dry," he said. "It's . . . warm."

"What is it?" Mouse asked again.

"Shall I open it?"

Mouse shook her head.

"Let's take it back."

Mouse hesitated.

"It's getting late," he reasoned.

"All right," she said.

They started back to the village, Sigurd carrying the box, Mouse with a net half full of cabbage.

Neither of them had noticed the man lying still amongst the rocks, just twenty paces from where they had found the box. His skin and hair were white, whiter even than Sigurd's, but the palms of his hands were black.

2

I remember better than anyone.

I remember better than anyone the day we found Mouse.

It was unusual that we should have been up in the hills in the first place. There were about thirty of us, I think. A huge war party--going to wage war on . . . wolves.

Father said it was stupid. Just because a lone wolf had attacked Snorri as he came home over the hills was no reason to risk our lives. That's what my father said, though he didn't say it to Horn's face.

As I remember, it was only a couple of summers after Horn had beaten Father for the title of Lawspeaker of the tribe. Father was licking his wounds then, I suppose. He swore that one day he'd tell Horn to his face what he thought of him, but not then.

That probably had something to do with it. The fight, I mean. Why we were up in the hills, hunting wolves. That was stupid, too. Wolves live in woods, and there were no trees up there. Horn was showing us all that he was our leader, that we had to do whatever he told us.

I was the only child there, and I was a child then. It was my eleventh or twelfth summer; I can't remember. I was a part of the games Horn and Father played.

"Well, Sigurd," Father said to me, "if that fool is going to take us on a wild wolf chase, we may as well show him what kind of family we are!"

What this meant was that he'd take the opportunity to show me, his son, off to everyone. Because Horn, the Lawspeaker, had no son, only a daughter, Sif. There was no one to succeed him as Lawspeaker, and so there would have to be a fight for the job, just as there had been between him and Olaf, my father.

It was late in the day when we reached the higher slopes of the hills. A couple of the hounds had picked up the scent of something hours ago, and we'd been following the trail ever since. Once or twice they'd lost the scent and we'd hung around while Hemm, a small, clever man who was our best dog handler, made wide circles around us with his hound. Eventually the dog would find a scent and we'd be off again, always higher up into the hills.

"If that's still the scent of the wolves," muttered Father, loud enough for only me to hear, "I'll wash Horn's feet before bedtime."

On we went, higher and higher, until suddenly we came to the top of a slope, and there in front of us, no more than a spear's throw away, were the small, dark entrances to a series of caves. The dogs were going crazy, pulling toward them, and suddenly the mood changed. I felt a touch of fear stroke me.

There was a chill in the air. We were high above the sea, directly above the village, though you couldn't see it from there. There really were wolves here, and they had chosen somewhere special to live. I had never heard of wolves living in caves. Forests are their usual home. And I have never heard of another case since. We should have realized then that it was an omen.

It hadn't seemed real until that moment, but now Horn's ridiculous wolf chase was actually happening. It had actually come to something. We avoided one another's gaze; no one looked at Horn.

But he stepped forward, undaunted. He wasn't about to turn around and go home.

"This is what we've come for," he said quietly.

"So what do we do?"

"You want us to go in there?"

"They'll rip us to pieces before we even see them. . . ."

Horn held up his hand.

"Let's lighten their darkness. Let's get them out here." He pointed at Grinling. "Grinling! Make fire."

So then we understood what he meant to do.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpted from The Dark Horse by Marcus Sedgwick Copyright © 2003 by Marcus Sedgwick. Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.