Peder & The Skincatcher
Peder lives at Castle Krumsky, now the Academy for Gifted Children, that not only trains children in the arts of the circus, but also acts as HQ for Cirtex – troupes of Circus Detectives who roam the Empire far and wide, entertaining folk and solving crimes at the same time, particularly against their biggest enemy, a man known only as The Skincatcher. When the castle is blown up, it falls to Peder and his friends to lead away the survivors, and try to solve the mystery of what has happened. They travel to Querkelberg, Peder’s home, and soon discover that the successive deaths of both of Peder’s parents are connected to the castle, and to The Skincatcher himself, who is now hell-bent on capturing Peder and uncovering the secret his parents hid from him years before.
Peder Sniffkin was woken by the loud jangling of bells. ‘Waaagh?’ he mumbled, wobbling to his feet and going over to the window. He threw wide the wooden shutters, and was surprised it was still night out there – or almost. There was just enough light to look down the cliff-face on which the castle had been grafted, and he could make out the lines of rungs slung down from every window to the wooden walkways that criss-crossed the cliff-face below, in their dark black lines. These walkways were now filled with children running, apparently unconcerned that there was only an inch of wood beneath their feet separating them from the abyss below. A glimmer of moon hung in the sky and Peder could clearly see the bats which were flapping frantically about the tower where it seemed that someone was hammering at the big bronze bell that had woken him.
He quickly clambered down to the walkway below his window and was soon running with the rest across the soft planking, holding lightly at the ropes which formed their rails. He thought he caught a glimpse of movement down by the river and turned his head towards it, saw a flash of silver there, and then the rooks began to spin up off the tree-tops to hide his view. He sniffed at the air, caught the scent of running water, the bitter smell of rooks’ nests, and something else. He closed his eyes briefly as he concentrated, and yes, there certainly was another smell there too, very faint, but unmistakable – at least to Peder, who had a nose as efficient as a bloodhound’s - and he was sure he had smelt that smell before. He could not remember where or when, but knew he had not liked it then, and did not like it now, and it made all the bones in his body feel like they were shrinking beneath his skin.
His foot slipped on the planking and he opened his eyes again, launched himself forward towards the tolling of the bell that was still clanging, clanging, clanging, summoning them from all over the castle. He reached the tower just behind the first wave of children, and saw them open their mouths to scream and looked up, saw Tuffle, their communal dog, ten yards off the ground and tangled in the bell ropes that were wrapped around his chest and neck, squeezing the life out of him, the great bell booming out above them in the darkness as the poor dog struggled against his bonds. A small, lithe form swept past Peder, punching him in the small of the back as she went.
‘Don’t just stand there,’ said Emelina. ‘Grab the bottom of the rope while I go up.’
Peder did as he was told, clutching at the end of the bell-rope that was twitching like the tail of an angry rat. Moments later Emelina was up the wooden staircase that spiralled around the inside of the tower, and behind her went another form – Fillip – and together they swung themselves out into the empty space above Tuffle’s head, Emelina clinging to the rope above his writhing body, grabbing his neck by the scruff to take his weight, while Fillip leant his body out into the darkness, trying to untangle the animal from below. Peder saw them all suspended there for just a moment, hanging in the air, and then suddenly Fillip was back against the wall and Tuffle was whooshing through the air, and a bunch of children oofed and spluttered as the great furry form landed on their outstretched arms, breaking his fall, bringing him back to the earth. Up above, Emelina was laughing with relief, still clinging to the rope like a tiny Tarzan, the bell still swinging madly up above her, a sound deafening in this small space as it reverberated against the stones. Both Fillip and Emelina were soon down again, pushing the others aside, Fillip crying silently as he strove to release the leather restraint that had been tied about the dog’s muzzle, wiping at the trickle of blood that was coming from his nose and the great froth that was bubbling from his mouth like a fountain of snow. Peder knelt down beside them and began to rub hard at the dog’s flanks to try to get some air back into his lungs, and eventually Tuffle relaxed, began to breathe normally, though his eyes still rolled uncontrollably in his head.
‘He’s fine, he’s fine, he’s fine,’ Peder heard himself repeating over and over again, as all the other children gathered in around him, patting at the dog’s brown fur if they could reach it, the nearest ones giving Tuffle the support he needed to get him up onto his feet. And just as Tuffle had managed to get to standing, and his tail had begun to wag, Peder lifted his head and turned it back towards the castle. The sun had risen just a sliver above the horizon, making the wind change direction, and Peder sniffed, could smell something new, something that should not have been there: gunpowder, he thought, why can I smell gunpowder…
‘Get down!’ was all Peder had time to cry, and milliseconds later came a huge explosion, resounding like a hundred thunderstorms in the sky.
All the children, eyes wide and terrified, ran out of the belfry and looked back along the cliff, to see the entire middle section of the castle being blown away in a huge ball of smoke and dust and fire. The long corridor that linked the Old Tower to the New from top to top went flying off like a comb high up into the still-dark sky, and they saw what looked like tiny sticks falling from it, tumbling, twisting, back into the great mushroom-cloud of dust that blew out all about them, blinding them, making them cough. And when at last it cleared they heard another sound, a low, ominous rumbling, and they watched, mute with horror, as the base of the middle section of the castle began to crumble and slide away down the cliff, all the way down to the river below, a great avalanche of tumbling masonry and timber that seemed to fall in slow motion over the lip of the cliff, crashing and somersaulting all the long way down, and they heard the awful crumps and splinterings of glass and screechings of metal as the detritus began to settle far, far down below. Peder blinked. His face was caked with dust, his ears ringing with the noise, his mind a blank screen on which was projected that scene again, that comb of a corridor flying high into the sky, and all the stick figures tumbling from it, and his heart grew numb, and his skin crawled with fear and dread, because he knew what those sticks had been: the bodies of all their teachers and the older students who had been running along the corridor from the Old Tower to the New, all summoned by the bell like he had been, and now all blown to smithereens. And nothing left of Castle Krumsky and the Academy for Gifted Children but the crumbling, smoking, stunted stacks of the towers, halved now in height, and these few children who, like Peder, had escaped in time.