The First Chapter: Rooftops.

Thumbs. Beasts and Thieves

The First Chapter


When you turn upside-down for more than a few seconds, you feel pressure build up behind your eyes, inside and around your nose, across your cheeks.

If you continue for a while longer, pressure increases across the back of your head, around where your spine meets your skull. Longer still and it eases, as your head gets used to the rush of blood. There is a short period of feeling fine and being able to look at the world from this new perspective, this can last a few minutes, until it builds up again and you hear the roar in your ears.

If you are suspended this way, the wrong way round, head towards the ground, there can also be the tensing of your legs and backbone, adding to the difficulty you experience in swallowing or breathing. Combine this with the distance you have dropped, or whether you are trying to keep your grip on a rope and the whole arrangement can be very uncomfortable, even more so if the rope has become wrapped around your feet.

Hanging upside-down takes practice and very few people do it out of choice.

A silhouette glides across the rooftops in the dark, hardly touching the slates under foot, running across the apex of roofs, leaping from chimney stack to parapet and stepping out into thin air, landing gracefully and silently on the mossy tiles. It never breaks its pace, each step is measured and well practiced. Where two buildings are separated by a distance too wide for a single stride, a plank has been carefully placed to allow an uninterrupted run.

The houses have been built randomly, jumbled and squeezed tightly into every available space. Some are many storeys higher than their neighbours, with sharply pitched roofs, pointing like fangs to the starlit sky. Some have clusters of brick-built chimneys, puffing smoke and cooking smells upwards, to hang lifelessly over the town. The path of the shadow is uneven, a zigzag around walls that are too high to jump, swinging around chimneys and buttresses, leapfrogging strange stone creatures and nightmarish squinting beasts, carved to ward off evil spirits. Their fangs and tongues cannot catch the shadow as it dances over them.

Here and there are larger buildings, more solidly constructed with more impressive stonework, more elaborate decoration. The silhouette listens out for people on terraces or balconies, half lit by torchlight thrown out from unshuttered windows. The head is tilted to catch any snippets of gossip, anything useful for future reference. These larger buildings have watchmen, peering out over the city, looking down into the maze of streets, rarely glancing behind them. If they catch some movement out of the corner of their eye they might turn to look into the shadows. Did they imagine that one of the statues blinked or was it a trick of the light? A bat? An owl? They shudder and draw their cloaks closer around themselves, dreading something supernatural amongst the ugly gargoyles.

Finally the shadow reaches its destination and stands upon a parapet, toes poking just over the edge. A few feet away, across a gulf, stands a tower, climbing overhead into the blue black of the sky. The stonework is old and blackened by mosses and lichens that cling stubbornly to its walls. Cut into the sheer surface is a darkened window. Above and below there are other narrow slits, gouged out for ventilation into the decrepit tower. This window is the closest, filled with small pieces of uneven glass held in a jagged lattice of buckled lead.

The shadow does not look down, it is too far, too dark to see the ground. It checks behind, a quick glance over the surrounding rooftops. Is it possible that it is not alone, that someone else is reckless enough to spend time on top of the town? It shrugs and from over one shoulder it unwinds a cord.

The metal claw swings out across the gap, back and forth, moving closer to the window with each swing, swirling around the shadow’s head, faster and faster, until it sweeps up and over the void and explodes through the glass of the infirm window. Tiny pieces of light fall into the street below like a shower of stars. There is no noise from the tower, it and the city continue to sleep, undisturbed. A dog barks somewhere in the dark.

The shadow wraps the rope around its waist, takes a step backward. The rope tightens and the claw grabs at something inside the tower. Leaning forward, out over the edge of the parapet, the shadow draws a breath and leaps out into nothing.

There is a flailing of arms, an imitation of the flapping of a bird’s wings and it lands on the window ledge, clutching at the lead frame. One foot slides a little on a clump of moss. The shadow loses both toehold and handhold and slips, scraping painfully down the face of the wall. The rope pulls tight. Fingers stretch out to snatch at the window ledge, just out of reach. The shadow pulls itself a little higher up the rope, very slowly, inching closer to the ledge. One hand finds the edge.

The claw, having dug sharp points into something on the other side of the window, decides that this would be an excellent time to let go. The sharp metal points screech over wood, stone and glass, bouncing off everything that cannot give it purchase. Suddenly released, the shadow drops, falling fast, with nothing to grip on the vertical stone surface. As quickly as it let go, the claw finds a more accommodating piece of rotten window frame to slice into. It holds on.

The rope pulls hard on the falling figure, squeezing the waist, forcing the air out of its lungs. There is a loud grunt. The rope bounces the figure back up the wall, spinning it around and banging it against the bricks like an unwanted doll. The head bangs against the hard, hard stones. The body hangs limp and hangs, arms outstretched.

The rope slackens, relaxing its grip around the waist, slips upwards. The body falls again as the rope rolls up across the thighs, then the knees and finally snaps sharply around the ankles. And holds very, very tight once more.

The body swings gently in the soft night breeze.

Dazed, the shadow shakes its head and looks down seeing flashes of bright colours in the black. A palm presses against the wall to stop the sickening swaying. Slowly, the figure curls itself upwards towards the feet and grabs onto the rope, pulling hand over hand until it is upright again. Using all the strength in its arms it climbs up the rope to the smashed window. Very carefully, it finds a hold and drags itself over the ledge. With a glance over its shoulder and another shake of the head the shadow disappears into the tower.

Across the rooftops a statue blinked again.


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