Gather round the fire, curl up with the book, pull your screen closer to you, turn the volume up on your device—however it is that you are hearing or reading this tale. I have much to tell you: of four children just like you, or like you were once; of a world far away and yet closer than you think; of two warring Kingdoms battling for the hearts and minds of the land caught between them; of a Prince, of Twins, and a Dragon.
Jake was bored out of his mind.
His class had gone on a trip today away from their school in London. It had been quite fun on the coach up with his mates, swapping sweets and playing games on their phones, but now they were being forced to listen to a tour guide telling them about the Historic Town of Oxford while they followed her around in a big group. And it was so boring.
At the moment they were in the middle of somewhere called the ‘Botanical Gardens’, which was basically, as far as Jake could see, just a park full of plants. He couldn’t have cared less about plants. The tour guide had already told them about lots of the different plants, and about this one big tree that was the favourite of some famous author he had never heard of. Now she was telling them about some bench or other that appeared in a book by another famous author he had never heard of. Jake could not have been less interested if he had tried. His mind wandered around, looking for something to entertain him.
Quite nearby there was a fence, which marked off the perimeter of the gardens. Beyond that, there was a path and a river. On this sunny day, people were out on little boats on the river, pushing themselves along with poles, eating strawberries, laughing and generally enjoying the weather. It looked a lot more fun than listening to the tour guide.
“Hey, Aaron,” said Jake in a whisper, nudging his nearby friend but taking care not to be seen.
“What?” said Aaron.
“Look over there. Reckon we could jump that fence?”
Aaron only smiled. Jake was what some people might describe as ‘a naughty boy’ and at the moment Aaron was his main partner in crime.
“Let’s make a break for it next time the group moves on,” said Jake.
They waited until the lady had finished talking about the bench and started to lead the group off to go and look at something else. Then they ran. They made it to the fence in just a few seconds and at once Jake was atop it, scrambling over the spikes by putting his feet onto the flat bits in between them. He loved to climb.
“Jake Longley! What on earth do you think you’re doing?!”
Oh no. Mrs Fink, their English teacher, had spotted them.
Without wasting time turning around to check what was going on, Jake jumped clear of the fence, landing on the path beyond. Aaron was not so lucky. He had not had time yet to properly mount the fence and Mrs Fink had caught up with him. She grabbed Aaron and yanked him back down into the garden.
“Not so fast, young man! And you come right back here too, Jake!”
Jake took all of this in with a quick twist of his head as he hit the ground. He knew he had to run now. He was already going to be in an enormous amount of trouble, so why not make the most of the situation? He was free of the horrendously dull tour. He wasn’t going to let Mrs Fink punish him now. He would put that off for as long as possible.
His whole class were watching him by this moment, so he better make it look good. He leapt to his feet and made to dash off down the path, away from them all. Only, before he had even run a few steps, his foot snagged on a from one of the trees in the gardens which extended out beyond the fence. Jake tripped, then stumbled, then fell headlong. He hit the ground again, tumbled over onto his side, and ended up in the nearby river.
You may or may not know that the river Isis, which is what the Thames is called when it flows through Oxford, is not particularly clean. In fact, that is what we in Britain call an ‘understatement’. It is filthy. Murky, grimy, and probably full of all sorts of diseases and rat wee, on the surface it looks just about acceptable, but if you ever find yourself under the surface…well, God help you.
Jake’s body tensed with cold and his vision filled with dark liquid. He could no longer see a centimetre in front of his face. He shut his mouth to stop himself tasting any more of the disgusting water and tried to get his bearings as he sank down quickly, a muffled rushing noise filling his ears. He kicked out, trying to push himself upwards, but at the same time he felt his legs get caught in something. Weeds on the river floor. He kicked harder, but this only got him more tangled up in the weeds. He was stuck. He thrashed about wildly, trying to wrench himself free of them, but only sank down further, deeper, into the river.
Back on dry land, Mrs Fink shouted after him. Some of his classmates screamed. The tour guide, who had a bit of sense, called out to the people on the boats to get them to try to help the boy who had just fallen into the water. One of them stuck his boat pole into it towards where the splash had been in an attempt to offer it to Jake. Another brave soul jumped into the river and swam around looking for him. But it was no use. When the would-be rescuer resurfaced, the boy did not.
Jake had failed to reappear above the water.
Worse than that, he had disappeared altogether.
“Shut up, Hannah, he’ll hear you!”
“No he won’t! And what would be so bad about that, anyway? I know he liiikes you.”
“Will you give it a rest? I’m not interested in boys. I’m going to wait till I’m older for all that.”
“You and I both know that’s not true, Chloe.”
Chloe and Hannah, identical twin sisters, were also on a school trip to Oxford, though not from London but from their hometown in Wales. It was that part of the school year in the Summer when the teachers run out of things to teach, you see, so lots of schools were going on trips to pass the time. And Oxford was a very popular destination, apparently, because it had so much History to it. Right now they were in the middle of somewhere called the ‘Radcliffe Camera’, though it wasn’t a camera at all but rather a massive, domed building, part of something called the ‘Bodleian Library’, and stuffed full of books. Chloe was actually finding it quite interesting. The only problem was, she was being distracted by her twin sister Hannah. Hannah, who was going on and on at her about Johnny, one of the boys in their class, trying to convince her to ask him out. Chloe did in fact have a secret crush on Johnny, which Hannah knew full well, but she was shy and she didn’t want to draw attention to herself. She would be mortified if Johnny found out.
“Look, not here, okay? I’m trying to enjoy the trip,” said Chloe.
“I don’t see what there is to enjoy—it’s just a stuffy old room full of a load of books,” said Hannah.
Chloe was about to reply that actually books could be very enjoyable things when their teacher, Mrs Jones (by pure coincidence, Mrs Jones was actually a distant cousin of Jake’s teacher, Mrs Fink, who had married a Welshman, but that is irrelevant to our story) said “Chloe and Hannah, for the last time, will you stop talking? You are being very rude! Please continue, sir.”
This last comment was addressed to their group’s own tour guide, this time a quite short, young man wearing a ridiculous 19th-century coat who spoke in what was probably the poshest accent that you have ever heard. He pronounced ‘Oxford’ as ‘Oggsfouwrd’. He had been telling them all the famous facts and figures about this odd circular room and now he was going to take them downstairs to another basement room underground. Chloe and Hannah kept quiet to avoid another telling off from Mrs Jones while they plodded down the steps with their class. They were usually kept apart in school they were making the most of this opportunity to be together while out on the trip. As they walked, Chloe looked over at Johnny, who was walking a few steps ahead of them. He seemed completely uninterested in her. She gave a little sigh under her breath.
The next underground room was, predictably, also stuffed full of books. Row upon row of books, stacked in strange wiry metal shelves that the tour guide explained had been designed by one of the former Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom. Chloe quite enjoyed reading, which was the only reason she was interested. Hannah didn’t so much, she was more into things like horse-riding and dancing, which is why her attention was currently elsewhere.
“Chloe, he’s looking at you!” said Hannah in a hushed voice.
Despite herself, Chloe looked round. There indeed was Johnny, she was surprised to see, now looking over at them. She caught his eye and he smiled at her. Chloe smiled back for a moment and then looked away. She felt her cheeks blushing. You might think that identical twins are alike in every way and so that people who are attracted to them will always be attracted to both of them, but that is not the case.
“See, what did I tell you?” said Hannah.
“He was just looking. It doesn’t mean anything,” said Chloe.
“My arse it doesn’t mean anything!”
“Chloe and Hannah!” said Mrs Jones. “This is your final warning! One more time and I’m sending you back to sit in the minibus!”
They zipped their lips. The tour guide was now explaining that he was going to take them through a tunnel called the ‘Gladstone Link’ that had only been built relatively recently and that connected this library to another one, like a kind of secret underground passageway. Their class followed obediently. The tunnel was very long and panelled all with the same two plain white and blue colours. It was like something out of a computer game or a badly drawn picture of a spaceship corridor in a comic book.
Chloe and Hannah marched along it, lingering right at the back of their group so that they could continue their conversation without being heard.
“I told you he liked you. He was definitely looking at you,” said Hannah.
“Well so what if he does? What am I meant to do about it?” said Chloe.
“You should ask him out. Boys like it when you make the first move.”
“No they don’t.”
“How would you know?”
Chloe looked up at the ceiling of the tunnel, ignoring the question. She wondered what was immediately above it. Was it the ground? People’s feet? More books? Or just earth, a pile of soil and dirt?
That was when the tunnel started to tremble.
For some reason, everyone froze. This wasn’t a very sensible thing to do, given the circumstances.
“What’s happening?!” said Mrs Jones to the tour guide.
“I…I don’t know!”
“It seems to be some sort of earthquake!”
“But we don’t have earthquakes in Oggsfouwrd!”
“You do now! Everybody, run!”
With this instruction from Mrs Jones, the class rushed forwards to get to the end of the tunnel and up the stairs at the end. Bits of dust and pebbles started to drop from the ceiling as they did so. The trembling got more violent, and soon grew to a loud, rumbling shaking. Then part of the tunnel ceiling caved in. It turned out that what was immediately above it was, after all, soil and dirt. And rock.
The children who were in front of Chloe and Hannah just made it to the end of the tunnel in time. Once they had, a huge chunk of rock fell down behind them, blocking the exit completely.
“Help!” yelled Hannah.
“Wait for us!” yelled Chloe.
Beyond the fallen rock, they could hear shouts, but they couldn’t make out any of the words. Chloe got a quick glimpse of Mrs Jones’s terrified face calling out to them before the gap was plugged up completely by more falling earth. The shaking and rumbling grew louder. They darted back the way they came, trying to make it back to the entrance through which they had come into the tunnel, but the other side had caved in as well. They were trapped. They dropped to the floor and lifted up their hands to try to protect themselves from the earth and rock that continued to fall.
“What should we do?!” cried Chloe.
“I don’t know!” cried Hannah.
Everything went dark.
George walked down the street and then turned into a little alleyway for some privacy. Can you guess where he was? Yes, that’s right, he was on a school trip to Oxford as well. His school was actually in Oxford though, so he hadn’t come very far. His family was considerably richer than those of Jake, Chloe and Hannah, so he had been sent to board at a very expensive, snooty private school. He was also a couple of years older than them all, which is why he was currently on a trip to a University of Oxford ‘open day’ to try to decide whether he wanted to come to study here when he left school.
He didn’t, but he would probably apply anyway.
He had just been looking around one of the University’s colleges—Pembroke college, it was called—and was now sneaking outside for a quick break and to send a text to one of his friends. It had been decided that George was going to study Law at University. This had been decided by his father who himself was a high-flying lawyer in the city. The choice had been between Law or Medicine. George couldn’t stand the sight of blood, which made him feel queasy, so he had opted for Law. The trouble was, he wasn’t really very interested in Law either. What he was actually most interested in was gardening, in being outside in the open air, among things that grow. But he would never tell his father that.
And he did very well at school. In fact, George was a straight-A student. He had to be, because at his school if you weren’t then you got kicked out. He worked very hard at school, not only to stay in it but also to try to please his Dad. His father was an extremely hard-working man, but also an extremely angry man, and he demanded only the best from George and got angry with him if he didn’t produce it. George’s Mum had passed away from cancer a few years ago and his Dad had only gotten angrier and more demanding since then. If it wasn’t for the expensive school being there to churn the A-grades out of him, who knows what might have happened?
The fact that he went to a very expensive school was also the reason that George was wearing his fancy, expensive-looking school uniform, which included smart trousers, a shirt, a jacket and a tie. This, in turn, was the reason why, at that moment, someone decided to mug him.
The mugger in question was a man by the name of Crazy Pete (don’t ask me why he was called ‘Crazy’ because I don’t particularly want to tell you). He had not had anything to eat yet that day and his morning begging hadn’t been very successful, which meant that he was feeling both hungry and frustrated.
So when Crazy Pete saw this boy in his fancy, expensive-looking uniform standing in the alleyway, listening to music through one headphone, looking down at his new phone which he was texting on with his other hand (the latest Apple iPhone, of course), rather than doing what he normally would have done, which was to say “Got a light?” and ask for some spare change, he did something else: He ran up to George, punched him in the stomach, grabbed his phone out of his hand, and ran.
“Oomph!” said George. And then “Hey, get back here!”
The homeless man could run surprisingly fast. He charged out of the alleyway and then sprinted down Pembroke Street as quickly as he could go in an effort to put as much distance as he could between himself and George as quickly as possible. In other circumstances George would have let the mugger go but he was in a bad mood today and his Dad had been particularly angry with him lately, and he knew that he would be kill him if he found out that he had lost his new phone. Especially while he was down an alleyway, away from his school group. So he took off after the man.
Crazy Pete headed into a nearby Sainsburys to try to lose George. He slipped in through a one-way automatic door just as a customer was coming out of it, hoping that it would close after him, but George made it in just in time, bounding up the stairs beyond it and saying “Watch out!” to another customer that the man had knocked over on the way.
Inside, Crazy Pete ran between the food aisles, still trying his best to lose George. He knocked over some cans to try to slow him down. This was a bad move. Soon a Sainsburys aisle supervisor was running alongside George, saying “What’s going on?”
“That guy nicked my phone!”
The aisle supervisor needed no further explanation, and the chase was joined by another person, then another and another. They shot out of the shop entrance and then through some more doors and back into the street.
Crazy Pete was panicking now. After glancing around and seeing the boy and three more men running after him, he knew he was in trouble. As fast as his legs could carry him, his lungs panting for air, he pounded back down the length of Pembroke Street and then out into St Aldates Street, turning right. His pursuers followed. He stayed on the pavement for a bit, and then, in a mad dash, flew out into the road when he reached the glass doors of a church, aiming to cross it and then turn left, into Bear Lane. There was lots of traffic and a couple of cars screeched to avoid hitting him, beeping their horns in alarm.
The three men from Sainsburys stopped in front of the church. George didn’t. He wanted that phone back. He was determined to catch the mugger.
Unfortunately, this meant that he didn’t see the number 4 bus coming straight towards him.
For George, too, everything went dark, but for different reasons.