“Fast moving, deft, original, surprising, I was electrified by this adventure. It’s got everything I look for in an MG adventure: a great idea at the heart of it, a sense of fun and liveliness in the writing, rich setting, high stakes, flamboyant characters, automaton rats! I loved it!”
JULIA CHURCHILL, award judge and children’s literary agent.
COGS OF CASTILE by Gareth Osborne
Alar del Rey, Northern Spain, 1899.
The envelope arrived brimming with malice. Its coarse paper was smudged with fingerprints, its edges crumpled and torn. Some manner of golden liquid had leaked from one corner and congealed in an unsightly smear across her mother’s name.
Fernando the postmaster’s son smirked as he slid it towards her across the post office counter. “Dios mio, Nieve, I’m glad it isn’t me receiving a letter like that. Looks like it was sent by the hand of Lucifer himself.”
Nieve tucked the envelope into her coat, tight-lipped, and made for the door.
“But I guess it’s to be expected really. It always happens to señoritas like you in the end, doesn’t it?”
Nieve knew he was baiting her. She knew she should just ignore him like her mother was always telling her to.
Don’t draw attention.
Don’t make a scene.
At the first sign of trouble just run home as fast as you can.
But then Nieve never had understood the danger her mother saw in everything.
She took her hand from the doorknob, the back of her neck prickling hotly.
“What do you mean señoritas like me?”
Fernando smirked. “You know… not from round here.”
“I was born in Alar, Fernando Gonzalez Barrio. Just like you were.”
“Yes, but you’re not from here, are you? Your mother’s one of those rail-runners, come here from the capital because it’s the furthest they can go north on a direct ticket. The end of the line before the mountains. You’re all hiding away up here from something or other.”
Nieve grabbed his necktie and pulled him towards her over the counter.
“You leave my mother out of this.”
“What?” Fernando whispered. “Just like your father did?”
Flames roared behind Nieve’s eyes. At that moment she wanted more than anything in the world to punch this capullo’s teeth right out of the back of his head.
But that would mean trouble, and her mother couldn’t take any more of that right now. Her brother caused enough on his own.
She released her grasp and smoothed down her dress.
Fernando’s face glowed with power. “Your type never do follow through. Just run away… every… single… time.” He spat the last words out like apple pips into her face and straightened up again victoriously. Then his necktie caught where she’d clamped it in the change tray and his head ricocheted back down again, crunching into the counter.
“¡Chata!” Fernando screamed after her, bloody-nosed. “There’s a storm coming, Chata. Be sure not to get caught up in it, won’t you? Chata, hey, come back here, Chat—”
The door slammed shut behind her and she strode away across the plaza of Alar, pulling her coat tighter around her and glancing out over the rooftops towards the gigantic cloud formations that were building over the plain. It was still only early afternoon, but already an eerie darkness was falling over the town. Fernando was right. Something grim was on its way.
She scanned the fields down by the canal. Carlos was playing out there somewhere. He’d said he’d meet her here, but then he was unreliable at the best of times, always out with his friends, never at home where he was needed most. Even though they were twins, with thirteen years each to their names, it always felt like he was the youngest, always in need of her protection.
Many of the townspeople had already closed and bolted their shutters as she hurried through the narrow lanes towards the rear of the town where her mother had bought their ramshackle old farmhouse. It wasn’t long before she reached the line of silver-frosted poplars that shielded the house from the rest of the buildings. She stopped and scoured the valley behind her again. Whether it was the stormy electricity in the air or the ominous envelope in her pocket, a growing unease knotted her stomach.
There was still no sign of her brother.
She clattered across the frozen yard, stopping briefly to calm her horse Alejandro, panicked by the rising gale. A measly wisp of wood smoke curled from the chimney of the house. Her mother had let the stove burn low again. A pale face at the window stared out across the fields, oblivious to her arrival.
The kitchen was almost as cold as outside. “Wind’s up Mamá,” said Nieve as cheerfully as she could. “Might have to tie the barn gates shut tonight, or they’ll scare Alejandro all night with their banging.”
She eased the coffee pot from her mother’s taut grasp and stoked the stove with more wood, then took the envelope from her coat. All the familiar details of home clarified around her as though once it was opened nothing would ever be the same again.
They never got mail.
It had been postmarked in the capital. Nieve knew that Madrid was where her mother had come from all those years ago, before she and Carlos were born. But her mother never spoke of her life back then, nor received any old acquaintances.
“There’s post for you,” said Nieve softly. “I can open it if you—?”
Her mother’s clouded gaze was instantly as sharp as a hawk’s and she strode over and snatched the envelope from Nieve’s hands.
“Get me a glass of water,” she snapped. “Now, por favor!”
Nieve reluctantly obeyed, but no sooner had she reached the sideboard than a tremendous clatter and smash spun her around. Her mother had stumbled backwards, knocking a shelf off the wall, staring in terror at the piece of paper in her hand.
Nieve rushed to support her. In the centre of the page, daubed in gold paint was a multitude of tiny gears meshed together to form a glittering mechanical hand. Beneath it were the words:
Coming for what is rightfully ours.
“What is this?” Nieve asked.
Her mother looked out of the window into the darkening fields. “There are people on their way.”
“Which people, mama?”
“Wicked people. The Devil’s kin. I’ve felt them nearing for some time now. I should have known they’d never stop searching.” She let out a quivering breath. “Well, now they’ve found me.”
“What do they want?”
“Something your grandfather brought back from his travels. An unspeakable evil.” She massaged her shaking hands. “I’ve seen what is born from its grip on our mind. Terrible things.”
Nieve grimaced. She was used to shouldering her mother’s fear, but this was different – stronger, purer, as though a thick pane of glass had just been removed from between them.
Her mother forced a laugh. “Just listen to me. I’m scaring you, aren’t I? Well, there’s no need to be. This has nothing at all to do with you. It will all have passed soon enough.”
“But nothing, Nieve. The postmark is dated yesterday evening. It came up on the night express. That means we have a day at least before they arrive. But we should make haste nevertheless.”
She took a chain from around her neck and pressed a key into Nieve’s palm. “It’s for the cupboard under the stairs. You are to go by cart up the valley to the Sanctuary of Our Lady Carmen at Barruello de Santullan. Sister Breganza gave me her word that if ever there was need, she would receive you warmly and keep you safe until I return. Take only what you can carry easily. Stay off the main roads. Don’t tell anybody where you’re going.”
Her mother grabbed a headscarf and shawl from a peg on the wall.
A chill ran through Nieve as she understood what was about to happen.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“To do something I should have done a long time ago.”
Nieve made to continue, but her mother put a finger to her lips. “Look after Carlos. You’re the strong one, remember. I’ll come for you both soon enough.”
Then she drew the shawl around her shoulders, opened the door and disappeared into the howling wind.
Nieve stood alone in the darkness of the kitchen. The house rattled and shook around her, its safety already gone.
Trying to hold back her tears, she lit an oil lamp and went quickly to the cupboard under the stairs. In the middle of the floor there was a wooden box containing a map and directions to the sanctuary, a letter addressed to Sor Breganza, and a pouch with 200 pesetas inside. For a moment Nieve thought that was all, then something clunked at the bottom of the box. It was a slender dagger in a leather scabbard. Nieve unsheathed it and fingered its blade. Its cold steel seemed to press at her heart. If her overly careful mother had wanted her to have this, then she couldn’t even begin to imagine the danger they were in.
But she could do nothing until Carlos came back.
Hours passed as she stared out of the window. Her hand glowed white in the shadows, drained of blood from its grip on the dagger’s hilt. She would wait until nightfall, she decided. If he wasn’t back by then, she would go out into the storm to look for him.
Just as the sun’s rays were about to leave the tops of the trees her muscles tensed. Suddenly there was a new sound above the buffeting wind.
The distant clatter of hooves got louder.
Something moved in the shadows at the bottom of the drive.
Just let it be the police bringing him home from another failed poaching incursion onto a neighbour’s land. A telling off from the Guardia Civil would be a small price to pay for having him with her again. The carriage came out from behind the trees. Nieve’s face smoothed to an icy stillness. She blew out the oil lamp and bolted the front door, then pulled herself in behind the curtains, breathing fast.
Because it wasn’t the Guardia Civil. They travelled in pairs on horseback, not in a carriage that looked for all the world like a hearse drawn by four horses with black plumes rising from their foreheads. And the Guardia Civil would definitely not have a driver in a crumpled top hat with a shotgun propped over his shoulder and a cartridge belt strapped across his chest.
No. It looked like her mother had got it wrong – horribly wrong.
They didn’t have a day, half a day, or even a few hours.
They didn’t have any time left at all.
Because whoever the Devil’s kin were…
…they were already here.