When she was younger, Sammy’s mum had told her never to get into a stranger’s car, so ordinarily she wouldn’t have climbed into a stranger’s giant egg – or pair of eggs – on top of a dinosaur, but she figured it would be much safer travelling with Mehrak than staying by herself in the mushroom forest. And odd as he was, he was nowhere near as scary as that figure in black had been.
The egg house on Louis’s back did look pretty awesome, though. She should at least see inside, check it out.
It was a shame her house in Sheffield wasn’t on the back of a dinosaur. Everyone would notice her rocking up at school on the back of a T-Rex. The only thing missing was a couple of laser cannons on either side. If Mehrak got those installed, his house would be perfect.
“Are you hungry?” Mehrak asked. “Can I prepare you some food?”
“I am hungry, I suppose.” Sammy smiled, or rather tried to. Getting a lift out of the forest was probably the right thing to do, but it felt like she was abandoning her mother.
“Don’t be upset,” Mehrak said. “You’re going to be okay now.” He smiled. “I’ll show you around the cottage, then rustle up some soup. It’ll be nice to have some company.”
Louis turned to Mehrak and his ears flapped, rotated and held three or four different poses. Then he crouched down to lie on his stomach.
“What did he say?” Sammy asked.
“That he’s taking a nap. He’s been walking all day and he’s tired. Come on, we’ll go inside.”
Sammy followed Mehrak around the side of Louis and Golden Egg Cottage.
“How do you know what he’s saying?” Sammy asked.
Mehrak stopped at the back of the main egg. There was a small, circular brass door, like a submarine escape hatch, at the bottom. Sammy watched Louis’s tail sweep from side to side along the ground. It was as thick as a two-person canoe, and several times as long. It almost didn’t look real, like one of those giant anacondas on a late night, made-for-TV, sci-fi movie.
“You really haven’t heard of a giant gastrosaur before, have you?” Mehrak said.
“No. I really haven’t.”
“Gastrosaur voices are too high-pitched for us to hear, so they communicate with their ears. Their voices are used for navigation because they don’t have eyes. Echo location, they call it. It allows them to build a mental three-dimensional image of their surroundings.”
Mehrak turned the wheel on the door. There was a clunk and he pulled it open. Louis’s tail curled and looped round under the opening.
“Step onto his tail,” Mehrak said. “He’ll hoist you up.”
Sammy raised her eyebrows and gave Mehrak a pointed look.
Sammy maintained eye contact a moment longer, then carefully transferred her weight onto Louis’s tail. She fell forward as Louis boosted her up and into the hatch. She gripped onto the stairs on the other side while simultaneously trying to hold her pyjama bottoms up. Her cheeks flushed as she imagined the view Mehrak was getting of her undignified flailing.
Sammy tucked her top into her bottoms and climbed towards the rainbow-coloured objects that swirled in the light at the end of the staircase.
She emerged into a circular, golden kitchen with a single round porthole.
The bright colours belonged to a mobile comprised of hundreds of multi-coloured paper birds. It hung from the high-pointed apex and took up the entire top third of the egg. A chunky green table sat in the centre of the room, sandwiched between two equally chunky green benches, and a copper work surface curved around one half of the wall, with cabinets above it and a plumbed-in sink at one end. A water pump above the sink fed down into a hole in the floor, and a stove and coal bucket sat against the opposite wall with various copper pots and pans dangling above.
Oil lamps fixed to the walls gave a dim but cosy glow that illuminated the birds and projected their colours onto the walls as they turned.
A second staircase followed the curve of the room to a hole halfway up the wall.
“Are they the stairs to the other egg?” Sammy asked.
Mehrak smiled. “Why don’t you go up and take in the view from the top?”
Sammy sprinted up the stairs. She probably looked like a giddy kid, but she didn’t care. The cottage was seriously cool.
At the hole in the wall, the stairs tightened into a corkscrew as they spiralled up, emerging in the centre of the floor of the second egg. The second room was around two-thirds the size of the kitchen, but with blue walls and a wrought iron chandelier in the peak of the ceiling. Furniture-wise, everything was green and there wasn’t much of it; a small four-poster bed, a wardrobe, a chair and a small set of shelves holding six books. A waist-high safety rail fenced off the top of the stairs and around it lay a red, doughnut-shaped carpet. On either side of the room were two arched doorways with red velvet curtains.
Sammy opened a gate in the safety rail and stepped into the room. “You really like green furniture, don’t you?” she said to Mehrak, as he came up into the room behind her.
He shrugged. “It’s not something I spend a lot of time thinking about, to be honest.”
Sammy approached the doorway that she supposed led to the front balcony and pushed through the curtains. On the other side, the long, wide balcony stretched out from the tower. It reminded her of the ship’s bow in the famous scene from Titanic. She walked over to stand at the end. She wasn’t enough of a loser to reproduce the pose from the movie, with her arms stretched out, although for a moment she considered it.
It was dark above the mushrooms. Their hoods suppressed the glow underneath, only allowing sharp spears of light to escape the gaps, spiking upwards towards the sky, while the shifting purple cloud patterns above made muddy brown waves on their curved surfaces.
Sammy leant over the railing. Louis’s head was obscured by a mushroom but she could hear him chewing on something below. He shifted then and the floor dipped. She stumbled and grabbed hold of the railing.
“You’ll get used to it,” Mehrak said, smiling.
Sammy let go of the railing, doing her best to downplay her moment of clumsiness. “Do you live here by yourself?” she asked.
Mehrak pulled at the hairline of his turban awkwardly and his eyes took on a vacant glassiness. “Currently, yes,” he said.
She’d struck a nerve. She wished she hadn’t said anything. “It’s a great house,” she said, “… I mean, cottage.”
Mehrak stared away, across the mushroom forest, without saying anything.
“Does everyone here have a gastrosaur cottage?”
“No.” Mehrak exhaled. “My wife and I were given it as a wedding present.” He turned away. Wife? Mehrak didn’t look old
enough to be married. He could only have been twenty-one or twenty-two years old, max.
“I’ll go downstairs and make your soup.” He headed towards the tower.
“Why are you here?” Sammy asked. “In the forest, I mean?”
Mehrak stopped. “I’m on an expedition.” He had his back to her and didn’t turn around. “An expedition for … for a mythical artefact, a book. It’s silly, really. It probably doesn’t exist but …” He didn’t continue.
“But you must think it exists because you’re out here looking for it.”
Mehrak turned back towards her. “I never believed in it until my grandfather …” He stopped again. “No. It’s stupid.”
“Go on. Please?”
Mehrak smiled wistfully. “My grandfather was a historian. He spent most of his life travelling and we hardly ever saw him. He’d be gone for a year at a time, sometimes longer. Each time he returned, he’d tell me of all the amazing adventures he’d had, all the places he’d seen.” Mehrak cast his eyes down. “But when he returned from his last trip, he had a wound across his chest. He’d tried to patch it up himself, but in the days it had taken him to get back to Dungalore it’d gone gangrenous. There was nothing anyone could do. I remember the day he died; I was only eight at the time. The doctor came to find me to pass on his final words, along with his diary. I was the only person he had a message for. There was nothing for my grandmother or my mother. He passed away without saying anything to anyone, but me. Only four words, ‘The book is real’.”
“The diary is real?”
“Not the diary. I’ve read it cover to cover several times. The diary’s about solving the whereabouts of the Rule Book.”
“The Rule Book is the mythical book you’re looking for? And it’s real?”
“That’s what my grandfather believed. But I can’t make sense of his notes. I’m hoping my friend Bertie at the Keep will figure it out. He’s a historian like my grandfather but he’s also into theology and mythology. You should tell him about your exploding emerald bracelet. He might’ve heard of it.” Mehrak paused. “Well, you know your way round Eggie –”
“Short for Golden Egg Cottage,” he said. “Why don’t you take a nap? You look tired.”
Sammy had temporarily forgotten how tired she was. And now that Mehrak had reminded her, the weight of it hung heavy on her shoulders. She rubbed her eyes and followed him back into the bedroom.
“Get some sleep,” he said, leading her to the bed. “I’ll wake you when the food is ready.”
The girl was asleep the moment her head touched the pillow. Mehrak pulled the sheets up over her and tucked them in around her slender neck. With a finger, he dragged a couple of errant strands of hair back behind her ear. Her eyes darted back and forth under her eyelids as she dreamed, yet her face was peaceful. He watched her sleep a moment, then turned and went downstairs.
Why had he told her about his grandfather and the diary? He supposed it was because she was vulnerable. And pretty. He shook his head. She was young and he shouldn’t be noticing things like that; he was married. His chest tightened with guilt as he thought of Gisouie and how he missed her.
He fetched a roan shrub root from a cabinet and placed it on the work surface. With a knife, he sliced down through its orange flesh, then stopped. He’d only ever told Gisouie about the diary. Now he’d given away their secret, and it upset him. It shouldn’t; it shouldn’t matter in the slightest. The Rule Book was a myth. They’d only followed his grandfather’s diary to see where it led them, for
the adventure of it. They’d been forced to leave town, so why not go in search of the book? And now he felt like he’d lost a part of Gisouie by sharing their secret. Why had he even brought it up? He didn’t really believe in it. He’d just met this girl and he was already telling her his secrets.
He’d been alone too long. That’s all it was. He’d picked up a vulnerable young woman and he’d wanted to reassure her, tell her something about himself to make her feel at ease. But the Rule Book? She’d think he was a fool chasing fairy tales, like devout Zoroastrians blindly following scripture written a thousand years ago. She’d come out with an equally ridiculous story, though. The Mother World? He scoffed. But she had been so sincere; he almost wanted to believe her.
No. He was going soft in the head, like his parents, travelling to the temple every evening to pray to ‘the great Ahura Mazda’. The story about coming from the Mother World had been made up. Something had happened to Sammy’s parents, something traumatic. The story was her way of dealing with it. She’d convinced herself it had really happened and blocked out the real events. The poor child had probably been through hell.
When they arrived at Honton Keep, he’d drop her off … somewhere. He didn’t know where yet. She’d be okay and would forget all about him and his silly quest. Then he could continue on his journey alone. Except he didn’t want to carry on alone; he missed having someone around. He missed Gisouie; missed her so much his heart ached. Sammy was alone and needed someone to look after her. Gisouie wasn’t here, and although he hadn’t forgotten his duties as a husband, this girl needed him too.
He would take her with him, but that was all. She needed him. And for the moment, he needed her too.