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But there the problem was again. None of them knew what he was. He hardly knew himself, after all. He couldn’t even say from what creature his maker had stolen the spark of life to get him breathing!

Oh, Twigleg! He wiped another tear off the tip of his nose, and told himself off, as he so often did, for his selfishness. Who shed tears over his own fate when all his thoughts should be on the rescue of the three Pegasus foals?

A shell splintering under someone’s tread made him spin around. He was expecting to see a homunculus-eating crab or a turtle with similar appetites, but it was Ben kneeling down behind him.

‘How long have you been awake?’ Ben stretched out on the sand beside Twigleg and propped his chin on his hand, so that they were on eye-level with each other.

He loved the boy so much – so very much! Why was he worried about his own heart? That love would protect it, even if it was sure to break sometime. Every homunculus died with the human being on whom its heart was set. Love was a dangerous thing, especially for Twigleg’s kind.

Ben picked a sand flea out of his hair. ‘Lola says you asked Professor Spotiswode if he fancied making a homunculus?’

That rat aviator stuck her pointy nose into everything!

‘Lola Greytail!’ Twigleg spat her name into the night air as if it were a medieval curse, intended to bring plague into the world. ‘I just hope she’ll suppress her curiosity one of these days! Or maybe someone could cut off her grey ears for eavesdropping on things that are none of her business!’

‘That’s exactly what makes her our best scout.’ Ben let one of the glowing crabs run over his hand. Maybe they weren’t poisonous after all. The tiny legs left only a shimmering trail on Ben’s skin. ‘Sometime we’ll find another homunculus. I’m sure we will.’

Ben meant well, but Twigleg could tell from his voice that his heart wasn’t really in what he said. He had something else on his mind.

‘Twigleg?’ Ben dug his fingers into the fine sand. ‘What… this is a purely hypothetical question… what would you do if I moved to the Rim of Heaven one day?’

Hypothetical? In Twigleg’s experience, that was the way human beings described things that they were seriously considering.

‘What a question! I’d go with you.’

‘Good!’ There was no mistaking the relief in Ben’s voice. ‘And like I said, it’s only a hypothetical question.’

‘Of course, master.’ Twigleg gave him a knowing smile. ‘Can I say something else that’s purely hypothetical? It’s horrible being the only one of your kind around. Horrible. And there aren’t any human beings at the Rim of Heaven.’

Ben rolled over on his back. One of the constellations in the sky above them was Pegasus.

‘Yes, yes, I know,’ he murmured. And sat up abruptly when a hoarse, long-drawn-out cry came from the forest. Ben had only once heard a similar sound: when he had mixed the voices of an eagle and a lion on his computer in

MÍMAMEIÐR.

‘Did you hear that, Twigleg?’ he whispered to the homunculus. ‘Inua did a pretty good imitation, if you ask me! At least we know we’re on the right island.’

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Raskervint

Man is a centaur, a tangle of flesh and

mind, divine inspiration and dust.

Primo Levi, The Periodic Table

The fifth day since the arrival of the Pegasus eggs at MÍMAMEIÐR was dawning, and Guinevere was just coming out of the house to go over to the stable when she heard hoofbeats behind her. She turned, expecting to see Ànemos, weary after another sleepless night. But the figure coming out of the trees was both horse and woman, and pale grey as the mist drifting up from the fjord. Until that morning, Guinevere had to admit, she had always imagined centaurs as male, but Tyra Raskervint changed that for ever. Her grey hair was the same colour as her horse-tail, and so long and bushy that it was like a mane. The sweater she wore over her torso was woven from grass, and around her waist, where human skin and horse’s coat met, she wore an amber belt.

‘Ah,’ she said, in a voice that sounded like the wind blowing through tall grass. ‘I think you must be Guinevere, Vita’s daughter, right? Can you tell your mother that Raskervint is here?’

But Vita was already standing in the doorway. The sight of the centaur removed the anxiety of the last few days from her face. Vita and Raskervint had first met over twenty years ago, by the shore of a cold, grey sea, and they had been through many adventures together, long before Vita had met Barnabas or Guinevere had been born.

‘I see you’ve already met my daughter!’ she said after embracing Raskervint. ‘How are your own children?’

Raskervint smiled, and shrugged her shoulders. ‘You know us centaurs,’ she replied. ‘Only the wind knows. We’re now here, now there, restless as the clouds, and even my great-grandchildren went their own way long ago.’

The centaur seemed as ageless as the Pegasus. There was knowledge in her eyes that no human life could understand. Raskervint looked as if she had lived for a long time already and would live on for ever, although Guinevere knew that even fabulous beings were not immortal.

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