The two of them flew ahead, side by side. It wasn’t easy for Ben to follow them on foot without treading on a dozen crabs or other shellfish. He could have ridden comfortably on the giant turtle that crossed their path, but in spite of its impressive size it drew in its head and legs hastily as soon as it saw them – proof that the human beings it had encountered so far had not left it with pleasant memories.
The four poles in front of which Lola finally landed seemed, at first sight, to be man-made too. They stood like warning signals barely a step away from the trees, and they were so tall that even Hothbrodd had to look up at them. The troll didn’t spare so much as a glance for the skulls lying in the fine sand in front of them, but the carvings that covered the poles made him exclaim in admiration.
‘Not bad,’ he growled as he looked up at the beaked heads on top of the poles. ‘You need hands for that sort of thing, and as far as I know griffins have only claws and paws. Or am I missing something?’
Me-Rah examined the poles with obvious discomfort.
‘The monkeys did it,’ she squawked. ‘The monkeys who serve the lion-birds.’
‘Monkeys who can carve like this?’ Ben incredulously ran his fingers over the artistically formed creepers winding their way up the poles.
‘As you know, fabulous creatures often cause unusual behaviour,’ said Barnabas. ‘In men and animals alike.’
‘Anyway, we’re on the right island.’ Twigleg pointed to the ears of the carved heads of birds of prey above them.
Yes. Without a shadow of doubt, Me-Rah’s lion-birds were griffins.
Ben was investigating one of the skulls at his feet. ‘Human skulls,’ he stated.
Barnabas looked at the trees. Night was falling under them. ‘Me-Rah, are you sure this bay is a good place to spend the night?’
‘Oh yes,’ said the parrot. ‘There are poles like this in all the bays on the island. They’re a warning to poachers that it’s better not to go hunting here before they’ve paid the lion-birds.’
‘Paid them with what?’ asked Ben.
‘Jewellery, coins, gold, precious stones,’ said Me-Rah, rattling off a list. ‘And shells.’
‘Shells?’ asked Ben, surprised.
‘The calcium in shells strengthens beaks, still-growing Greenbloom,’ replied Me-Rah. ‘And there is a shell in these waters that makes beaks as hard and sharp-edged as metal.’
Ben exchanged a glance with Barnabas. A crab scuttled out of the eye socket of one of the skulls at his feet.
‘Well, I hope Bagdagül’s bangle will be accepted as adequate payment,’ said Barnabas. ‘After all, we want to keep our skulls. But now let’s put up the tents.’
At first sight what Barnabas threw on the beach not far from Hothbrodd’s plane was a handful of apple pips. Until the pips unrolled like woodlice, and within seconds formed round tents. Only the tiny head above the entrance of each showed that they were really living creatures. On their travels, the Greenblooms kept meeting fabulous beings who proved to be very helpful members of their expeditions. Barnabas had evacuated the tent-lice to MÍMAMEIÐR when it looked as if they would fall victim to a ski run. They had quickly settled in, and were now an invaluable part of the FREEFAB team. Tent-lice are not only warm and spacious, but also very safe, because they announce the approach of any suspect creature with a shrill whistle that could easily compete with M
There was room for Ben and Barnabas to fit into their tents easily; only Hothbrodd was too large for one, but no one was worried about the troll’s safety. Ben had already seen Hothbrodd dispose of Prickly Sludge-Eaters and a Giant Salamander. The troll simply stationed himself on the sand to sleep with one eye closed, the other open and watching his plane. Fjord trolls are of the diurnal troll genus, and spend all their nights like that, only half asleep, unlike nocturnal trolls who sleep with both eyes tightly closed so that sunlight won’t turn them to stone.
Hothbrodd’s snoring soon drowned out the sound of the waves, but Ben and Barnabas sat outside their tents for some time longer, looking at the dark jungle and the mountains rising beyond it. Yes, Me-Rah’s island was very much larger than they had hoped, and in six days’ time at the latest they must set off on the homeward journey. There wasn’t much time, even though Lola was a brilliant scout, and Barnabas had decades of experience in finding the most cleverly hidden creatures in this world.
When Ben crawled into his tent, it looked as if Twigleg was already asleep. But the homunculus was only pretending, because he knew how quickly his master could get worried if he lay awake at night. Ben knew it was often because of the memories that filled Twigleg with fear and sadness. He felt like that particularly quickly in places that were new and strange, and tonight it seemed as if the ghosts of his lost brothers lived on Me-Rah’s island. Twigleg saw their faces in his mind’s eye as clearly as if they were all still alive. It had been so wonderful when they had each other. Even the cruelty of their creator and the tyranny of his golden monster had been easier to bear when they were all together, and it had felt so much less peculiar to have been born in a bottle. After all, there had been eleven others who came into the world in the same way. How they used to laugh together! And weep together. It had done them so much good to have an affectionate hug when the alchemist had performed one of his experiments on them, or Nettlebrand had been in a particularly bad mood. And they had slept side by side every night, and Twigleg had heard the breathing of eleven brothers, whereas now only the sound of Ben breathing protected him from the darkness of the world.
He couldn’t even remember all their names these days! Spinner, Buzzer, Dragonfly, Waterskeeter, Bumble, Flea – no, stop it, Twigleg! Even their names won’t bring them back!
The homunculus listened to the nocturnal sounds coming from the strange jungle, and thought of something that Me-Rah had said in the ruined temple, and that he had not translated for Ben. ‘When you are the only one of your kind, your heart withers in your breast.’
Yes, it did. Even if it was an artificial heart, made by an alchemist who had never seen his creations as anything but experimental specimens and servants without any will of their own.
Ben didn’t wake when Twigleg slipped out of the tent. Hothbrodd was still standing where he had been hours ago, and the beach was covered by tiny crabs that shone more brightly than the stars in the foreign sky above Twigleg’s head. Presumably the crabs were poisonous – how else could they have survived by night, lit up so clearly?
One of them stopped in front of Twigleg and scrutinised him in astonishment, with its eyes on stalks. Twigleg knew that look only too well. It asked: What on earth are you?
The crab scuttled on, and the homunculus surreptitiously wiped a tear that was trickling down his sharp nose. A couple of times before, he had been on the point of looking around for someone who could make him new brothers. He had pored over so many books of alchemy looking for the method that had brought him to life, but in vain! Sometimes he dreamed of going back to the castle where his creator’s laboratory had once stood. But that castle was an accursed place, and Twigleg had spent so many unhappy years there that he wouldn’t have ventured to set foot in it again without Ben. And how could he take his master to such a place? Quite apart from the fact that he didn’t even know exactly where the castle stood! He had almost never left it.
A few months ago, he had actually felt bold enough to ask Ben’s teacher, Professor Spotiswode, whether he could imagine making a homunculus some day. James Spotiswode had often asked him about his origins and his creator, and for a moment Twigleg had seen a spark of temptation behind the thick lenses of the teacher’s glasses. But then he had to listen to a lecture about the dubious nature of such experiments, and Spotiswode had reminded him, in all seriousness, of the story of Frankenstein’s creation. As if you could compare a homunculus to a monster stitched together from body parts!