David opened his eyes, as yet unaware of exactly why he was so cold and why every muscle in his body ached. The fire’s dead, ashy ghost was the first thing he saw. Gradually the world filled in again, the memories of the days that had led him to this abandoned hovel, and he shrank back beneath the blanket, only the tip of his nose and his eyes poking from beneath the filthy material.
On the other side of the forlorn patch of ash Sarah lay entirely covered by her blanket. She stirred slightly but did not wake.
Limivo had moved away from them and slept sitting against the far wall.
David peered through the hole that was once a window. Dawn had broken, but only to reveal layers of grey cloud that rolled and boiled across sky. He sat up. His entire body ached and his feet were freezing. He cast the blanket aside.
‘Hey! Where’s my shoes?’ he shouted. The other two woke with a start. Sarah frowned, as if concentrating on something just out of her mental reach, then pulled her own blanket aside. Her bare feet, still clean of the filth in which they had slept, emerged like newborn mice.
‘And mine,’ she said.
‘Where are they?’ David said again. ‘Limivo?’
‘Don’t look at me,’ he said. As he owned nothing so luxurious as shoes, this was just another normal morning for him. Then a dawning realisation spread across his face.
‘I’ve got an idea where they might be,’ he said.
‘Where?’ asked David.
‘Pelf,’ Limivo said. ‘I should have thought of that. He probably lives very close to here. That’s why all the houses are empty. No one in their right mind would want to live near Pelf. He’ll steal anything that’s not bolted down, and quite a lot that is.’
‘Well let’s go and find him. I want them back.’ Sarah said. She stood up and winced as the cold stabbed through the bare soles of her feet.
‘Hold on,’ Limivo replied. ‘We can’t just go and demand them. Pelf doesn’t work like that. We’ll go and see him, see if he’s prepared to trade.’
‘Trade?’ Sarah said. ‘Why would I want to trade for something that’s already mine?’
‘Because that’s the only way you’re going to get them back, and by the look of your dainty little pinkies, you’re going to need them.’
Sarah glowered at him, but he just grinned back.
They gathered together their meagre possessions, stowing the last of the food in their pockets, and turning the blankets back to their daytime function as coats.
David ate a breakfast of soft raw carrot while they made their way through the huddle of houses in the direction of Dis. Cold mud squeezed its way up through David’s toes, but his feet were now so cold that any discomfort was minimised by their numbness. Sarah just looked annoyed.
‘So who is this Pelf character then? Sarah said.
‘You’re about to find out. That must be his place,’ Limivo told them, indicating a small house tucked amongst several deserted-looking buildings. ‘Maybe we shouldn’t have camped quite so close last night.’ He chuckled, looking at Sarah’s less-than pink pinkies.
As they drew nearer, David could see that the original mud-brick building had been heavily reinforced with piles of stones heaped loosely around the outer walls. These piles tapered like buttresses up to the eaves of the single storey house. The buildings around it were all empty, stripped of all doors and windows, some even missing their roofs.
Limivo banged hard on the thick wooden door.
‘Pelf, you in there?’ he shouted.
‘Hey, wait a minute,’ David said, pulling Limivo away from the door. ‘Do you know this… Pelf? He’s one of the Barons, right? Can we really just bang on his door like this?’
‘Sure, why not?’
‘Well, in case you’ve forgotten, we’ve pissed off a fair number of the inhabitants of this place already. We’ve got the Cerberites, Minos, Satyris, not to mention Fulgar, looking for us. You’ve got at least Creophas. And now we’re standing out here yelling at another one of them?’
‘You two chat,’ Sarah said. ‘I’m getting my boots.’
She hammered on the door. There was no reply. She rattled the handle then shouldered the door and looked at Limivo with a mixture of defiance and hate.
‘Now what?’ she said.
The door was fastened with latches and padlocks as well as having three ordinary key holes. In the middle of the door Pelf had nailed a rusty sign saying ‘Guard Dogs on Patrol’. The house’s tiny windows were far too small to climb through, and even if they had been larger, there were thick metal bars driven into the inside sills and lintels. Limivo looked around on the ground, then at David, his eyes finally coming to rest on Sarah’s butterfly hair-clip.
‘Can I borrow that?’ he pointed at the clip.
Sarah scowled at him, but unclipped it and handed it to him.
‘And I want it back,’ she said. ‘Seems to be the most useful thing in this place.’
Deftly Limivo began to work on the long rods that held the door hinges together. Stopping frequently to bend the hasp of the hairclip straight, he worked on the top hinge’s pin. After five minutes of almost surgical activity, he managed to slide the top pin out, and the door rocked back slightly. With a couple of minutes of work on the lower hinge it too gave up its rod, and the well-locked door swung loose. With the hinges dismantled, all the locks were useless. Limivo handed Sarah the butterfly clip (now severely bent out of shape) and pushed the door open.
The house was dark. As their eyes adjusted to the low light, the hulking shapes that crowded against the walls and formed narrow corridors through the large front room gradually began to take on recognisable shapes.
To the left of the door dismantled tables of every shape and size had been piled almost up to the ceiling. Beyond these were chairs neatly slotted together to form three precarious towers. Huge stacks of crates filled with every kind of metal were arranged down the centre of the room and along the far wall. David peered into a box containing door handles, escutcheons, hinges and locks, all arranged as if on a market stall. Carved stones, gargoyles and ornamental fireplaces occupied the floor beside the boxes, and in the far corner stood sheets of glass and racks of empty bottles.
‘He must keep the clothes in another room,’ Limivo said. He had already dismissed this first volume of Pelf’s collection and heaved open a low door in the darkest corner of the room. ‘Food,’ he mumbled, backing out of the room and closing the door. Sarah had already begun to explore another room.
‘In here,’ she called. ‘You wouldn’t believe what he’s got!’
David followed her in to the cramped room. The smell of mould was overpowering. One wall was completely obscured by mountains of neatly stacked clothes, mostly long robes, but also trousers, shirts, waistcoats, bodices and a dozen other things David could not begin to name. More crates contained shoes, clogs, boots and sandals. Another had lengths of ornamental rope and string, yet another buttons, buckles and brightly coloured clips. A final box in the corner contained nothing but spectacles: hundreds and hundreds of pair of spectacles, some with glass, most bent out of shape and useless.
‘This is incredible! No wonder everyone around here just wears rags,’ Sarah said.
‘What does he do with it all?’ David said.
‘He doesn’t do anything with it,’ Limivo replied from the doorway. ‘He just collects it. He likes stuff for the sake of having stuff. We’ll never find your shoes in this lot. We’ll have to wait for him to come home.’
‘What? Wait for him to come and find us?’ David said. ‘We’ve just broken into his house! Are you trying to collect enemies like he collects junk?’
‘Calm down. Pelf’s OK. He’s mad as a box of frogs in a bonfire, but he’s not violent. He steals stuff at night, remember? He’s not a mugger. He’ll be fine as long as we’re prepared to trade with him. After all, he’s not short of hinges to fix his door, is he?’
‘How does he get it all? This area seems to be abandoned.’ David asked.
‘These days he steals it from anyone passing through, I guess. He’s fallen on hard times these last few years. He used to have servants like everyone else, but the ones that didn’t leave of their own accord he sacked because they kept trying to eat his food. He’s just got one now. Quite a close relationship, they have.’
‘Meaning what?’ Sarah said suspiciously.
‘You’ll see when you meet him. That one guy’s really all he needs. He’s got a neat trick that means he can move about at night and light-finger whatever he wants on his own.’
‘What ‘neat trick’?’ Sarah asked.
‘Man, she asks more questions than you do, Dave! It’s the dead-man’s hand thing. He carries a candle in the fist of a dead man, and only he can see its light. That way he can move around completely unseen at night.’
‘Charming,’ Sarah said. ‘I suppose he stole the hand too, did he?’
‘It’ll all make sense when you meet him.’
‘So what kind of deal have you got in mind?’ David said.
‘Oh, Pelf’s open to any deal,’ Limivo said. ‘If he thinks we can get him something more valuable, or just bigger, than what we want from him, he’ll go for it. He hates losing stuff, but he hates the idea of missing out on something better even more.’
By now Sarah was rummaging through a pile of furs, some of them at least as good as Fulgar’s favourite overcoat, but most of them rotting and half-bald, more like road-kill than fashion. Beneath the stack was a smaller box. She pulled it out and opened it, letting the lid drop to the floor.
‘Hey look,’ she said. ‘Maybe we’re not so far from home after all.’
She held up a square of white plastic, around six inches across and half an inch deep. On the front was a black panel that looked like the dead screen of a tablet computer.
‘Put that down!’ Limivo shouted. Before Sarah could even react, he was across the room. He batted the object from her hand and began to drag her back towards the door.
‘Why? What’s wrong with it?’
‘Not the machines!’ Limivo said. ‘Leave them alone; you walk a mile out of your way to avoid that stuff!’
‘But why? We’ve got stuff like that at home. It’s harmless.’
‘You think so? Even the Barons don’t touch that stuff. Pelf must have picked that up by mistake. Come on, we’ve got to get out of here.’
Limivo ushered David and Sarah back towards the front room.
That was when Pelf came at them out of nowhere. Only Limivo caught a glimpse of the huge black shape barrelling across the room at them like a bull in full charge. He instinctively put his arm up to defend himself, but this merely acted as a scoop. Pelf hit him full force and knocked all three of them (caught as they were by Limivo’s outstretched arm) back through the door.
Pelf stopped and slammed the door shut between him and them.
For several seconds there was silence. The room was black-dark.
There was a minute, almost feminine chuckle from outside the door, then a peep-hole clicked open.
A yellow eye glinted in the semi-darkness. A vertical black pupil widened and contracted as the eye examined them.
‘Thieves! Come-a ssstealing!’ a voice below the eye hissed.
‘We’ve not come to steal, Pelf,’ Limivo said.
‘Tradersss then? What have you broughtst me?’
‘Nothing,’ Limivo answered, stepping up to the door. ‘We’ve come to get back what is ours.’
‘Nothing here of yours,’ the yellow eyes flicked back and forth rapidly, checking out David and Sarah hidden in the shadows. ‘All mine. It’s all mine.’
‘Shoes,’ Limivo went on. He thumped the door and for a moment the eye withdrew. ‘You stole my friends’ shoes, and we want them back.’
Something blue and shiny darted across the one eye that was now turned intently on Limivo.
‘We can trad’st, if you wish.’
‘Just let us out, Pelf. We’ll do a deal.’
The sliding panel in the door snapped shut, and presently the door swung open. Pelf licked his long blue tongue back across his eyes as his three prisoners emerged from their temporary gaol.
Before them stood a walking corpse: a large man in life, broad-shouldered and muscular, but now looking grey and limp. His head hung loosely forward and from behind it, out of the man’s back, Pelf himself emerged like a grotesque butterfly emerging from a cocoon.
‘Isn’t it time you changed that body, Pelf? It stinks!’ Limivo said.
‘I likest this one. It suits me,’ Pelf said, a thin smile forming around his lipless mouth. A row of sharp teeth glistened with saliva as he licked the back of the dead man’s head thoughtfully.
‘So, what do you want for the shoes?’ Limivo said. Pelf considered for a moment. He scratched the back of one hand with the other, long black fingernails cutting into the soft rotten flesh and gouging out deep, grey trenches. He looked down at the head hanging in front of him then at Sarah.
‘Maybe I do need a new ssslave. Something a little sssmaller and lighter. Being large makes things so difficult. People don’t leave their doors open any more. I have to use their windowses.’
‘So if we can get you a small one, we can have our stuff back?’ Limivo continued.
‘No,’ David said. ‘We can’t do that!’
‘Then no shoeses,’ Pelf said and began to turn away from them. He made his host corpse dance like a puppet-master. ‘Such a shame,’ he sang. ‘Your footsies look so cold.’
‘Just hold on a minute,’ Limivo said. ‘You’ll make the trade if we find one?’
‘Maybe. If I likest what I see. Something slim and young and fresh. Something to make it easier for me to go collecting again.’
‘You mean ‘stealing’,’ Limivo said. Pelf did not reply. ‘OK, we’ll get you something. Come on, let’s go.’
‘Not so fassst,’ Pelf hissed. ‘One stays here. If the others don’t come back, I’ll have my new ssslave any way.’
‘But that’s not fair,’ said Sarah. ‘You only get a slave when we get our shoes. That’s the deal.’
‘The deal is what I makest it. At the moment, I have your shoes, and three new ssslaves. I am doing you a kindness letting two of you out.’ He turned his head away from them. ‘But if you don’t want to trade, that’sss… fine.’
He shuffled over to a crate of metal fixings and began to rifle through them, examining each one with clear delight.
‘We’ll have to do it his way,’ Limivo said. ‘This is as good as we’ll get. So, who stays? David?’
‘No. Sarah and I stick together now. I’ve lost her once, and I’m not doing it again.’
‘You didn’t lose me; I was sold!’
‘I know,’ David said. ‘I didn’t mean–’
‘Fair enough,’ Limivo said. ‘Then you two’ll have to go to Malverso, and I’ll wait here.’
‘Malverso?’ Sarah repeated.
‘He runs the next district. Malverso’ll give you anything you ask for.’
‘In return for what?’ Sarah said.
‘Nothing. It’s the way he is. Be very grateful, tell him he’s wonderful, flatter him, and he’ll let you have one of his servants. In fact, he’ll probably try to give you two.’ Limivo grinned.
‘So how do we find him?’
‘You’ll have to ask. He moves around a lot, but I doubt he owns the biggest house. It’s not the way he operates. He’ll have given it away long ago, so you’ll just have to hunt about a bit. But whatever you do, don’t go beyond Malverso’s area. It starts to get very weird the closer you get to the river.’
‘Are you sure this is all worth it?’ Sarah asked Limivo. ‘We could probably manage without shoes.’
‘No chance. Do you really think you could get back through the mountains like you are? No, this is a pain, but it’s got to be done. You’ll be fine – just be careful.’
There was nothing left to do but leave. David and Sarah made their way out in the direction of the looming city of Dis, while Limivo hoisted himself onto a pile of boxes to talk to Pelf.