A Long Way and Not Much Time
Living wild species are like a library of books still unread.
Our heedless destruction of them is akin to burning
the library without ever having read its books.
Congressman John D. Dingell, ‘The Endangered
Species Act: Legislative Perspectives on a Living Law’
The room where Gilbert Greytail drew his maps was difficult for humans to enter, not to speak of trolls like Hothbrodd. Even for visitors of Twigleg’s size, the pathways through Gilbert’s mountains of books and journals were like menacingly narrow ravines. In the harbour warehouse where Ben had met the white rat for the first time, things had looked much the same. Gilbert’s research material was stacked everywhere, and could easily topple over. Three days ago a nisse child had been buried under the mounds of paper, but luckily nisses were a very resilient species.
Guinevere had opened the door with the utmost caution, as she always did, but she and Ben still sank up to the knees in what came to meet them. The avalanche didn’t consist solely of books, cartons and index cards. There were press cuttings and printouts, and they were all mixed up with seashells, picture postcards, travel souvenirs and goose feathers. It was almost miraculous that in the midst of all this chaos, Gilbert could draw maps that gave the Greenblooms very accurate images of the world.
As usual, Ben couldn’t spot the rat amidst the chaos, until Guinevere pointed up to the sheet of Perspex that Hothbrodd had fitted among the shelves a few weeks ago, at Gilbert’s request. A rat’s tail was dangling over the edge of it, and looking through the Perspex Ben could see Gilbert sitting at a desk that was enormous for someone of his size. The rat could be heard muttering curses: cursing the ink that dried too slowly, the paint that refused to flow from his pen exactly as he had hoped, the paper that wouldn’t lie flat… The bad language that Gilbert mixed into his curses showed that he had grown up as a ship’s rat. It was better not to mention either that, or the rumour that Gilbert Greytail had become a cartographer because he was prone to sea-sickness. The rat had been convinced to draw his wonderfully comprehensive maps in Norway, instead of the city of Hamburg with its warehouses, after the Greenblooms agreed to employ all his main informants as well: an albatross, two seagulls, a grey goose and a dozen ship’s rats. He had also demanded a new computer. But Gilbert’s talents were worth all that.
‘We’ve come about the new map, Gilbert,’ Guinevere called up to him. ‘The map for the journey to Indonesia. My father wants to leave soon. Is it ready?’
Barnabas had announced his decision just before midnight. Yes, they would go looking for the griffins. Vita was not particularly happy about that, but the sight of the mourning Pegasus and the three orphaned eggs left her no choice.
‘Hello, Guinevere!’ The rat’s tail disappeared, and Gilbert looked down at her through his gold-framed glasses. The white paws clutching the edge of the Perspex sheet were stained with ink. ‘Of course the map is ready.’ Gilbert’s voice was as soft as the down of baby chicks – it always was when he spoke to Guinevere. Otherwise it was more like the sound of sandpaper.
‘Unfortunately the information about the location of your destination was vague. So I’ve also put in parts of Papua New Guinea, Malaysia and the Philippines. Lyo-lyok?’
The head of a grey goose appeared beside Gilbert. Ben had been wondering who was the owner of the webbed feet that he could see through the Perspex. Lyo-lyok took the folded map in his beak and flew gracefully down to a pile of paper within reach of Guinevere.
‘I assume the homunculus is going to keep a record of the journey again?’ called Gilbert, as Guinevere took delivery of the map from the goose. ‘Tell him to improve his handwriting, please. It took me days to decipher his account of the kraken mission!’
‘I certainly will!’ Ben shouted up to the rat, although he had no intention of doing any such thing. Twigleg could take great offence if anyone criticised his handwriting. He was proud of every ornate flourish.
Gilbert’s maps fitted easily into any jacket pocket, but when Guinevere unfolded his latest masterpiece on the big table in the library, it took up so much space that Barnabas had to move the collection of fossilised paw prints and hoof prints away. Gilbert’s maps were works of art on paper. You could unfold them again and again, and still see new details that the rat had hidden in some fold or other, even weeks later. Safe paths and places to stay, obstacles and dangers – you could even pick up information about the weather from Gilbert’s maps, and Ben had often wondered whether the rat wasn’t working with some kind of magic himself.
At the request of Barnabas, Gilbert had marked two routes to help them search for the griffins. Barnabas was going to take the one shown in red ink. It included a stopover in south-east Turkey. The other route, in emerald green, was the one that Firedrake would take on his return to the Rim of Heaven. The two of them intersected in India, and so Firedrake had suggested that Ben could fly to that point with him and Sorrel – an offer that Ben, of course, had happily accepted. Fortunately there were three pairs of phoenixes in south Vietnam, so the dragon had not been surprised by the planning of that route. Those few who really knew where their mission was taking them had been pledged to secrecy by Barnabas himself, so that neither Firedrake nor the Pegasus would learn of it. It was not the first secret that had to be kept in MÍMAMEIÐR.
Hothbrodd had built the aircraft in which Barnabas would travel, like the freight plane that had brought the Pegasus to MÍMAMEIÐR, almost entirely of wood. The troll could persuade almost any tree to grow exactly the branches that he needed for his work. He had made the plane that the Greenblooms used for long-haul flights like this one with the help of an oak four hundred years old; it had put out branches specially suited for the wings. The elevator, loading hatch and propulsion drives were made of stormwood – whatever that might be. Hothbrodd was giving nothing away about that, any more than he would describe the engine itself, which would run on leaves, sand or seawater. James Spotiswode had spent many nights studying it without discovering its secret. ‘I talk to it,’ was all that the troll would mutter if he was asked. The plane could take between four and eight passengers (changing size according to the number). It could come down on water as easily as on land, and looked fantastic, because Hothbrodd had covered it – like all his constructions – with Viking carvings.
There had been hardly any discussion about who exactly was to go on the griffin mission. Vita and Guinevere were staying behind to look after Ànemos and, together with Undset, make sure that the eggs did not get chilled before the expedition returned, it was to be hoped with the feather they needed. Another member of Barnabas’s team, as well as Ben and Twigleg, would be Lola Greytail, one of Gilbert’s many cousins, who was not just the only female rat aviator but also FREEFAB’s most valuable scout (among many other reasons, thanks to the fact that her plane was not much larger than a crow, and so was equally inconspicuous).
At first Hothbrodd was far from enthusiastic when Barnabas asked him to be the fifth member of his team. Trolls are extremely reluctant to leave their native forests. But when Ben filled the screens in the libr
ary with pictures of all the trees to be found in the Indonesian jungle, the troll growled with resignation and set about packing.
Their precise destination was still uncertain, so Gilbert had drawn another map on the back of the first. It showed the many islands of Indonesia, and was anything but an encouraging sight. Where were they going to find a guide through that labyrinth of islands, someone who was both discreet and wouldn’t think them crazy when they revealed what they were looking for? Barnabas had a couple of former colleagues in Indonesia, but when Vita offered to get in touch with them he shook his head. ‘I doubt whether a human guide is the most promising solution on this trip. But I have another idea. Do you remember the Indian temple that the Whispering Cobra told us about?’
Vita gave him a knowing smile, but when Ben asked more about the temple, all Barnabas would say was, ‘Wait and see. But I promise you, it’s an interesting place!’ He was rather more willing to talk about their stopover in Turkey. ‘I’ve asked an old friend there to get me something that we can barter for the feather,’ he said. ‘As you’ve heard, griffins are very materialistic creatures. I’m afraid it would be no use even setting out if we arrive empty-handed.’
Vita and Guinevere tried hard not to look too worried when, in another Skype session, Inua Ellams once again warned Barnabas earnestly about the aggressive instincts of griffins. In dealing with even the most legendary of monsters, the Greenblooms themselves preferred to use not weapons, but cunning and their knowledge of those creatures’ weaknesses – and generally weapons were no use against fabulous beings anyway. Years ago, Vita had discovered a plant poison that could immobilise even the most dangerous of them for a few life-saving seconds, and Ben and Twigleg had developed tiny arrows to inject the poison under any skin, however tough. They were fired off from fountain pens and ballpoints, but Ben had also used drinking straws, cigars, mobile phones and chocolate bars. As on all FREEFAB missions, those arrows would be their only weapons.
When Guinevere asked whether anyone knew what a griffin sounded like, Professor Ellams let out an impressive shriek. He added, however, that he was relying solely on very old texts that described the voice of a griffin as a cross between a lion’s roar, the call of an eagle, and the hiss of a snake about to attack. Later, Ben couldn’t resist the temptation of mixing all those sounds into one blood-curdling cry on his computer. When he played it back, dozens of fabulous beings assembled outside the house in alarm. He still had a playlist of the voices of fabulous beings stored on his phone – to scare them, to entice them, and just for fun. The best of his collection was the attacking roar of three different dragons, and the soft hiss that they uttered as they prepared to breathe fire. But the battery of his phone probably wouldn’t last for long in the Indonesian jungle.
Twigleg had calculated that the Pegasus eggs would be too small for the foals in ten days’ time. Ten days! Ben wished it wasn’t such a long way to Indonesia. And suppose they didn’t even find the griffins? It was an idea that kept occurring to him, however much he tried to fend it off.