Jake thought he was going to drown. He continued to kick out against the weeds that entangled him but this only wrapped him up in them even more. He struggled and squirmed and writhed around with all his might, but it was no use. After some time his body went limp from exhaustion and he lay there suspended in the dark, murky water, bound by the weeds, holding on to the very last of his breath. He was going to die down here, he thought. He felt sad that he hadn’t lived a very long life. He hadn’t really had a chance to do anything much yet. He thought about his Mum, who would be the only one to cry over him. He thought about his Dad, whom he missed terribly. He wondered if there was something he was supposed to do now that he was about to die, like praying or something like that.
All of a sudden an object lanced into the water next to him. He was only dimly aware of it in the darkness, but there was a flash of some kind of metal and he felt the weeds loosen their grip on him. Someone had cut them! Jake kicked upwards with all the small strength that was left in him, willing himself back towards the surface, back towards life, and felt a hand reach out to grab his shirt, pulling him upwards too.
He surfaced above the water and took a big, gasping gulp of air:
He had made it out alive.
There was light all around him, replacing the murk of the river water. For a few moments he was unable to see anything as his eyes adjusted to it, so he stayed where he was, treading water, drinking in more big, greedy gulps of air. He heard a splash as someone got out of the water nearby. As his vision returned, an outstretched hand came slowly into focus in front of him.
“Here, let me help you out.”
Jake took the hand.
He clambered up onto the bank with the help of the kind stranger who had rescued him. To his surprise, the hand actually belonged to a boy not much older than Jake was. At first he thought that he might be one of his classmates, but he did not recognise him. The boy had brown hair and a round, mischievous face currently set in a wide, cheeky smile. He was also wearing a tatty kind of tunic, riddled with holes, like something that might be worn by a peasant out of a historical re-enactment. Jake thought it made him look like a complete prat.
“That was a close one!” said the boy. “I thought you were a goner there for a moment!”
“Yeah, thanks for helping me out and everything...” said Jake.
Now that he was alright again, he felt more than a little embarrassed. He had fallen over by accident and nearly drowned himself in front of his entire class. Mrs Fink was going to be furious, and so was his Mum when she found out later. Aaron would probably find it hilarious.
Jake looked round, expecting to see all of these people. Instead, he nearly fell back into the river from shock. Mrs Fink had vanished. Aaron had vanished. His whole class had vanished. The botanical gardens had vanished. All of Oxford had vanished.
In its place, which was what shocked him, was a totally different city: Instead of the botanical gardens, hundreds of small stone buildings; instead of just the river Isis, a series of numerous crisscrossing rivers and waterways; instead of just the little boats being pushed along using poles, all kinds of boats, rafts and skiffs of all different shapes and sizes, being rowed, sailed and pushed along; and instead of his class, Aaron, Mrs Fink and the rest of the Oxford tourists and population, there were more people dressed in these strange mediaeval-looking clothes, running and bustling about their business.
“Where am I?” said Jake, only just loud enough to hear.
“’Where are you’? Don’t you know?” said his rescuer, looking at him with a puzzled expression. “Why, you’re in Ubal, the finest city this side of the Aythian mountains!”
“What country am I in?”
“In Dahma, you dimwit! Did you hit your head down there? How did you end up getting all caught up in those river weeds, anyway?”
“Um, I tripped and fell in, I think...” said Jake. He was shaking slightly. How on Earth had he got to this place? What was going on? It didn’t make any sense. ‘Dahma’. He wracked his brains trying to think if he had ever been taught about a country called Dahma in Geography. He had never really paid much attention in Geography, and he couldn’t remember. But even if there was such a country called Dahma, inhabited by these backward people who were still stuck in the Middle Ages, it didn’t make sense. He hadn’t had time to drift all the way to a different country under the water. It was like something out of Dr Who…
A new thought came to him.
“What planet am I on?” said Jake.
“‘Planet’? I don’t know what you mean. You’re in Mashal, if that’s what you’re getting at?”
“You’ve never been here before? Maybe you did hit your head under the water! Well, welcome to Mashal, then!”
Hannah screamed. Chloe prayed to God for her life.
It had gone completely dark in the tunnel. But to their surprise, the crashing and rumbling of falling rock had stopped. It seemed as though the tunnel had finished collapsing. Everything went quiet. They could no longer even hear the shouts and cries of their teacher and classmates beyond the fallen earth.
Chloe and Hannah lay where they were for a moment in the dark, scared stiff. All they could hear now was the sound of each other breathing.
After a while, Hannah said “Chloe?” For some reason she said it in a whisper, as if she was afraid a louder noise might make the tunnel collapse in on them further.
“Are you alright?”
“I think so. I scraped my arm a bit but I’m okay. You?”
“Yeah, same. But I’m fine.”
“What should we do now?”
“I don’t know. I suppose we just have to wait for someone to come and rescue us. They saw us get trapped in here, didn’t they?”
“Yes. But they could be ages. What if they never find us? What if they don’t get to us in time? What if there’s too much rock to m-m-move?” Chloe’s voice was quivering.
“Don’t worry! I’m sure it will be fine…” said Hannah. She clasped Chloe’s hand in hers in the darkness. She wasn’t sure that they would be fine but she didn’t know what else to say. She was the braver one; she had to be the braver one.
They lay there for a few more moments, as if expecting someone to appear to rescue them in a matter of minutes. It soon became apparent that this was not going to be the case.
“Do you want to play a game or something to pass the time?” said Chloe eventually. “Like ‘I Spy’?”
“’I Spy’?!” Hannah snorted. “It’s completely dark!”
“I Spy With My Little Eye, something beginning with ‘N’. Nothing!”
“Well, have you got a better idea, Hannah? Do you know any other games that work in the dark? Or riddles or something?”
“I do kno—Wait a second.” Hannah stopped.
“What is it? Why have you stopped?”
“I just put my other hand out in front of me and…there doesn’t seem to be any rock here anymore.”
“Hang on a minute,” said Hannah. “There’s some space to move here now!” She let go of Chloe’s hand and Chloe felt her push herself up onto her hands and knees beside her and crawl forward into the tunnel.
“Hey, wait for me!” said Chloe.
They crawled forward together in the dark, Hannah in front and Chloe behind.
“There’s no more rock in front of us anymore,” said Hannah. “I can feel it on either side, but not straight ahead. It’s like it’s just disappeared.”
“That’s strange. Keep going, maybe we can find a way out!”
“Did the tour guide mention anything about another tunnel connected to this one?”
“I wasn’t listening because you were talking to me. But we could see straight down the whole of the tunnel before, there weren’t any more tunnels off of it.”
“Hey! I can see a little bit of light up ahead of us!”
“That’s great! Keep moving!”
The two of them continued to crawl forwards towards the light, which changed from a pin-prick, to a circle, to a wide glow that even Chloe could see from behind Hannah. It lit up the walls and floor of the tunnel, which had changed as well. The blue and white panels had gone, replaced by gray stone. After a little while, the gradient of the tunnel got steeper and they found themselves crawling upwards slightly. Soon they could see that there was enough room to stand up in so they got to their feet and continued walking towards the light. The opening was much more visible now as well. But what was a little odd was that, where they expected to see more of the library through it, instead they could see only the open sky. And snow.
“This is getting really weird now,” said Hannah.
“Why is it snowing in the middle of Summer?” said Chloe.
A gust of cool air blew through the opening. The girls started to run towards it, desperate to be out of the tunnel and also puzzled as to where they were coming out.
As they emerged, they came out into a city made up of buildings built out of white stone and coloured marble.
“Where are we? This doesn’t look like Oxford,” said Chloe.
“I don’t think we’re in Oxford anymore, Chloe,” said Hannah.
She was looking behind them, at where they had just come out of the tunnel. The opening lay at the foot of an enormous mountain. Either side of it more mountains shone majestically in the sunlight. Chloe turned around too and took all of this in, her jaw dropping.
“Greetings!” came a voice from behind them.
They turned to see a tall lady with white hair tied back in a waist-length plait, wearing a white hooded robe interlaced with a swirling blue pattern. It was hard to tell if she was very old or very young; although her hair was white, her face was very youthful, though from time to time you thought you could notice a few wrinkles as she turned her head a certain way. All in all, she did not look very normal.
“Er, hi there?” said Chloe.
“Hello lady,” said Hannah. “Excuse me, but who are you and what are you doing here and where is here?”
“I am called Katetheuna,” said the woman. “What are your names?”
“I’m Hannah, and this is Chloe.”
“Well, Princess Hannah and Princess Chloe, welcome to Ayin, capital of the Kingdom of Larakia, greatest of the Kingdoms of Mashal!”
George came up out of unconsciousness very slowly. First, he was simply aware that he was awake, and that he had been having a dream about someone stealing something from him and his being hit by a bus. Second, he became aware that his whole body was aching with pain. He groaned. Third, he remembered that it hadn’t been a dream at all but that this was what had actually happened. It was not a pleasant memory, as you can imagine.
He opened his eyes, which brought no change as he was in complete darkness. Where was he? Had his collision with the bus killed him? He wondered if he had died and gone to Heaven. Or maybe to…the other place.
But no, wait, it wasn’t complete darkness, not yet. Far up above him he could just make out a dull grey light, and what was possibly the sky beyond.
He wasn’t in hospital then, which was his next guess. He seemed to be lying on a floor of earth. It was slightly damp. With a great effort, he sat up, which brought more pain. There was definitely a light of some kind up above him. He felt around with his hands, to discover that he was lying in a small circular area ringed by walls of soil. He appeared to be at the bottom of some sort of pit, or a well. He had no idea how he had got down here. It didn’t make any sense. What he did know was that he had to get out.
There was a movement in the light above. Voices.
“Here, Commander, there’s a catch in this one!” A crass, grubby voice.
“Bring it up.” A voice with depth. Stern, angry, commanding. Like his father’s, George thought.
A moment, and then George had to shuffle out of the way as a length of rope flew down the pit, almost hitting him in the head.
“Hey you down there!” shouted the first voice. “Tie this rope around you, now! Yank twice when you’ve done it!”
George nearly didn’t do it and was about to shout back asking why he should do what the voice said, when he thought better of it. He didn’t know what the first voice had meant by the word ‘catch’ and he didn’t like the sound of it. But his priority at the moment was getting out of this pit, so he wound the rope around himself and tied it in a tight knot, his body complaining with pain all the while.
He yanked on the rope twice and immediately he was pulled upwards. Roughly. He had to put his arms and legs out to stop himself from banging his head against the walls of the pit, which brought more complaints of pain from them. Soon he was out in the dull light and being plonked onto the ground.
That was when George got the surprise of his life: He wasn’t in Oxford any more. He wasn’t even sure if he was in England. He had been pulled up out of the pit into the middle of a wide, flat plain. Actually, it was more of a wilderness than a plain, with barely anything growing in it, just the odd patch of grass or moss on the grey-brown ground. Thick rain clouds (or was it smoke?) filled the air, blocking out most of the sunlight. It was very hot.
Standing over him where he lay on the ground were two men. The first voice had belonged to a very tall, fat man with a big bushy beard and piercings all over his face. The second voice had belonged to an even taller, but much slimmer, man dressed entirely in black armour the colour of night, complete with spiked shoulder plates and a helmet that covered his eyes, crafted into a two horns at its top. What on earth was going on?
“His legs aren’t broken, Commander. Makes a change!” said the fat man.
“On your feet,” said the man in the armour.
“Can I ask, where am—” said George.
“Silence! You’ll speak when you’re spoken to, slave!” The fat man smacked him around the face.
More pain. George touched his cheek. He felt his lip curl.
“How dare you strike me?” said George. “My father will have something to say about this! I demand that you return me to Oxford at once.”
“I said be quiet!” The fat man struck him again.
Further pain. This time George did not have a reply.
“You thought you could get away, did you, filth?” the armoured man said now. “Thought you could escape from Shul unscathed?”
George said nothing this time, partly because he wasn’t sure if he was being invited to speak, and partly to spite the man. His heart was pounding hard inside his chest. He wouldn’t admit it to himself, but he was afraid.
“Answer!” said the fat man.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said George. It was the truth.
“Address your superior properly! That’s ’I have no idea what you’re talking about, Commander’!” This time George held his arms up to protect himself, but the fat man only grabbed them, pulled them out of the way, then hit him across the face again.
“How have you ended up wearing that absurd attire?” said the armoured man.
George looked down, wiping blood from his mouth. “What, this? This is my school uniform. Commander,” he added quickly.
“‘School uniform’? What is this nonsense? You are lying. Tell me where you got those ridiculous clothes. Continue your discipline, Doulos.”
Another strike which hit George’s arms so hard he fell over onto the floor. He just about managed to push himself up onto his hands and knees.
“Please, sir…I mean, Commander…I really don’t know what you’re talking about…A little while ago I was in Oxford, and then someone stole my phone, and I got hit by a bus… I have no idea how I got here…I’ve never been here before!”
“More lies. You will suffer for this insubordination.”
The fat man kicked George in the chest this time, with enough force to turn him over. He felt a wave of agony spread across his body. Against his best efforts, George fainted.
The last thing he heard before he passed out was the man in black armour saying: “Little worm must have gone delirious from the heat after falling into the trap. Never been here before, have you? Well then welcome to Mashal, filth!”