The boy in the scruffy clothes was still talking to Jake.
“Now look here, mister—well, you’re not really a ‘mister’, are you? You’re only a boy really. Now look here, mister boy, I don’t know how you got yourself down there and all tangled up in the river weeds, but I rescued you, you see, and fair’s fair: I think I deserve some kind of reward. It’s the least you could do, don’t you think, given the circumstances? So? Well…?”
The boy held out his hand expectantly.
“What?” said Jake. “Oh, sorry, I wasn’t really listening…” He was still trying to take in his new surroundings.
“I said: I deserve some kind of reward for rescuing you, don’t you think? You look like a wealthy sort of person,” said the boy, eying up Jake’s school uniform blazer and shirt, “why not help someone out for a good deed?”
“Oh, right,” said Jake. “Um, ok then, let’s see what I’ve got…”
He fished around in his wet pockets for something he could give the boy.
“Sorry, I spent all my cash on sweets before the trip. All I’ve got on me is my phone.”
“Your what? Give it here, let me see.”
Jake took out his phone. He had just noticed that the boy was wearing a short knife, which must have been what he used to cut the weeds. He wondered about dialing 999. But his phone, which was soaking wet, appeared to have no reception here.
“What is that?” said the boy as he snatched his phone off him.
“Don’t you know what a phone is?” said Jake. Even though he had just almost died and was totally lost in a strange, unknown land, his rebellious instinct kicked in and he started showing off to the boy. “It’s a device for making calls and sending texts to people. You can also get social media on it and play games.” That was mostly what he used his phone for, anyway. He touched some buttons for the boy to show him. “Look, here’s my high-score on Tetris.” He was really showing off now, but he didn’t want to get the boy too interested in his phone. After all, it was his only lifeline to connect him back to the outside world.
The boy inspected the phone, held up to the light, and fiddled with some buttons, as if he really had never seen one before. Then he said, “Useless,” and threw it over his shoulder, back into the river.
“Hey!” said Jake. He very nearly dived in to get it back, but he stopped himself, remembering the ordeal that he had only just survived. “What did you do that for?”
“It’s just a stupid shiny little brick,” said the boy. “No-one would give me any money for it. That, and I wanted to see if you jumped in after it. You didn’t, so it can’t be that valuable, can it?”
“I didn’t jump in after it because I didn’t want to nearly drown again, not because it’s not valuable!”
“Oh, well, that’s your fault then. It’s probably sunk to the bottom and gotten lost by now, anyway.”
“You idiot!” said Jake, his anger getting the better of both his fear and his politeness.
“Sorry mate. So, you don’t have any money you’re willing to give me for rescuing you, then?”
“No! I don’t know where I am and I don’t have any money!”
Before Jake knew what was happening, the boy was knocking him over and pinning him to the ground. He felt the cold metal of the knife being held to his throat.
“Are you sure about that?” said the boy.
Jake tried to stop his adam’s apple from wobbling. His eyes swivelled around at the people passing by on the roads. No one seemed to notice or care what was happening to him. They seemed to be ignoring them as a couple street urchins having a scuffle.
“I’m telling you,” said Jake, “I really don’t have any money, I swear!”
“We’ll see about that,” said the boy. He rifled through Jake’s pockets, keeping him pinned to ground. When he didn’t find anything, his face dropped.
“You really don’t have any money,” he said. “Well…you seem to be in a bit of a mess, don’t you?”
Jake stood up as the boy let him, then looked down at his wet feet. He was loathe to admit it, but he was in a bit of a mess.
“Well, it was nice meeting you,” said the boy, and walked off.
Jake was too relieved to care or to protest. He took a while to get his bearings and work out what the best thing was to do next. Once he had decided, he tried approaching one of the weird passers-by dressed in the odd medieval clothes and asking them where he was.
“Excuse me,” he said to a slightly younger looking man, “but I’m lost and I don’t know where I am. Do you think you could help me find a way to call my Mum?”
The man just ignored him and carried on walking by. He didn’t even stop to listen or dignify him with a response. Jake tried two more men, and three women, and got nowhere. Everyone treated him the same way. They didn’t so much as glance at him.
“You really don’t know where you are, do you?”
Jake jumped. The boy who had pulled him out of the river earlier was standing at his side. Apparently he had been watching him try to talk to the strangers and get nowhere.
“Tell you what,” said the boy, appearing to make some kind of decision, “why don’t you come with me? I want to introduce you to some friends of mine.”
Jake thought about his options. As far as he could see, he didn’t have any. This boy had just tried to mug him, but he decided he might as well go with him while he thought about what he should do next, seeing as the people in this backward place were so unfriendly and unhelpful.
“Alright then...” he said. “But no more trying to take money that I don’t have off me. OK?”
“Good! Follow me!” said the boy.
The boy led him over some of the network of bridges that were built over the rivers and into a maze of streets. After some time, he turned into an especially run-down looking alleyway, walked a way down it, and lifted a large, red, hanging cloth that was hung up on one side of it.
“After you,” he said.
Jake looked at the boy, and then took a cautious step under the cloth.
Beyond it, in a dark, secluded, space, a ring of about ten more boys looked up at him, glowering.
All of them had knives.
“Who’s this?” said one of the ten or so boys, reaching for his knife.
“A trespasser, that’s who!” said another of them.
“What you doing bringing outsiders in here, To’phoro?” said another.
“Wait a m—” said the boy who had brought Jake here, apparently called To’phoro. But before he could finish his sentence, one of the boys had jumped at Jake and lunged at him with his knife.
With reflexes he had never had to use before, Jake jumped out of the way of the knife. Before his attacker had a chance to respond, he kicked him hard in the knee, so hard that it made the boy cry out in pain and drop the weapon. Without giving him a chance to recover it, Jake saw his opportunity and rushed forwards, tackling the boy in the chest. They ended up on the ground, wrestling. The other boys crowded around them, chanting “Fight, fight, fight!” They were enjoying this, watching to see who would win the wrestling match. But even if Jake won, it wouldn’t be much use to him--all the other boys still had their knives.
“WAIT!” somebody yelled.
Everyone paused and all eyes turned on To’phoro, who had been the one that yelled. Jake lay frozen still, in his opponent’s headlock.
“That’s better,” said To’phoro. “I was trying to tell you: it’s alright. We can let this guy in. He’s safe. Get off him, Yathom.”
Reluctantly, Jake’s opponent, ‘Yathom’, released him from his grip. “Well, alright…” he said. “But are you sure? How do you know?”
“He’s not even from here,” said To’phoro. “He’s lost, says he’s never even been to Dahma before. I pulled him out of the Nahar and he was completely clueless. I think he might have nearly drowned and lost his memory or something.”
Jake, of course, hadn’t lost his memory at all and could remember exactly what had been happening before he had fallen in the river, but he decided to play along anyway.
“Yeah, that’s right,” he said. “I can’t remember what happened to me before I ended up in the river. I’m just looking for a place to stay while I sort myself out.”
“I dunno…” said Yathom, still not convinced, and wanting to justify his hasty attack. “He could be a spy from the militia.”
“Tell you what,” said To’phoro, “I know how to prove to you all he isn’t a spy.”
“How?” said Yathom and the other boys.
“We’ll make him do an initiation.”
“An initiation?” said Jake. “What’s that?”
“Well,” said To’phoro, “if you’re going to stay with us, you’re going to have to run with us too. I mean, like, you’re going to have to become one of us—you’re going to have to show that you can join in with our work.”
“And what’s your ‘work’, then?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” said To’phoro. “We’re thieves!”
“’Mashal’? Where’s that?” said Chloe. “I’ve never heard of ‘Mashal’ before. Or ‘Larakia’.”
“Hang on,” said Hannah, who was more interested in something else she had noticed. “What do you mean ’Princess Hannah’ and ’Princess Chloe’? We’re not Princesses!”
“Of course you are,” said the woman with the long white hair who had greeted them when they emerged from the tunnel. “You cannot be here in Larakia without being royalty. I am royal too—Princess Katetheuna Muthageteria is my full name and title.”
“But we’ve never even been here before!” said Hannah.
“It doesn’t matter, my dear. You came in through the tunnel, like everyone else. You now have citizenship of Larakia. That is simply how it works.”
“Really? And that makes us Princesses too?”
“That’s right. All Larakian citizens are adopted children of the One True King. And, since your father is a King, that makes you a Princess.”
“Awesome!” said Hannah. “I could get used to this!”
Chloe was pleased too. In all of her favourite books and films, there were princesses. And she always wanted to be them, though she would never admit this out loud to Hannah. And not weedy, wimpy damsel-in-distress type princesses, but princesses with spark and gusto, who fought too. Warrior princesses. However, she still had some reservations.
“But please, Miss Kath…Miss Katey,” said Chloe politely, still concerned with her original question, “just where is ‘Larakia’?”
“Oh. Sorry, my dear. I was unclear. We are on the other side of the Aythian mountains from Dahma, northeast of Tur and Shaveh.”
“I’ve never heard of those places before. We came here from a tunnel in Oxford.”
“Oxford? Where is that?”
“Er…England. In Europe.”
“My dear, I have never heard of any of those places either... This is most puzzling. It does trouble me somewhat that you have never heard the name ‘Mashal’ before, let alone ‘Larakia’… But here you both are: two young girls with dark brown hair, identical twins, just as Hotzeh said you would be…”
“Hotzeh? Who’s that?” asked Hannah.
“Oh, Hotzeh is my brother. He is our head Forthteller at the moment. He has the gift of Sight. He does occasionally get things wrong sometimes though. Like last Winter when he forthtold a polar freeze and we had a freak heatwave. But he’s generally spot on. And, as I said, here you both are. It’s hard to deny he’s right this time.”
“You mean you’ve been waiting for us?” said Chloe.
“Exactly. I’ve been waiting for two identical young girls with dark brown hair to arrive here in Larakia through the Tsaphsaphah Tunnel. It has been forthtold that there is a special mission for you to carry out.”
“Oh, how exciting!” exclaimed Hannah. Royalty and a special mission. It was turning out to be a rather eventful day.
“Sorry,” said Chloe, “but we don’t really have time for any sort of special mission right now. We should really be getting back to our class in Oxford. If we go back through the tunnel, will we end up back where we came from?”
“My dear, to my knowledge, the only place that you will return to if you go back through that tunnel is to the Weeping Tree at the foot of Mount Awmeer and, eventually, to the city of Qereth in Aythia.”
“But then how are we going to get back to Oxford?” said Hannah.
“Well, Princess Chloe--”
“I’m not Chloe, I’m Hannah.” Hannah’s face flushed red for the briefest of moments.
“I apologise. Well, Princess Hannah, ‘Oxford’, ‘England’ and ‘Europe’ may be real places, but I am afraid they are not places near here or on any map that I have ever seen. This is most strange. I have heard of people being carried straight to Larakia on the Kingwind before…but this really is most strange. We shall have to go to see Hotzeh to ask him what he thinks about it. Come along.”
Without knowing what else to do, in Chloe’s case, and because she was curious to see who this Hotzeh person was, in Hannah’s, the girls followed Kathetheuna into the city. All the rectangular houses were made of the same white stone as the mountains, decorated with marble and, marvellously, here and there with jewels above their doorframes, looking as though they had taken great time and skill to build. The people were friendly and whenever the girls passed someone they smiled and said “Welcome to Larakia!” They were all wearing the same long white robe as Katetheuna, although each had their own thread stitched into it in its own unique colour and pattern, much as each house had a different coloured jewel fixed above the door. The whole city shimmered delicately, but without being garish or overstated, like a watercolour rainbow.
After a while they came to a small house with a huge ruby set in the wall above the door frame. Kathetheuna knocked on the wooden door and then led Chloe and Hannah inside.
They came into a marble-floored atrium, with doors going off it at either end. In the middle of this was a large, white-marble chair, at which sat a middle-aged man with dark skin and a long black beard. His own robe had a pattern of leaping red and orange, like flames. His eyes were gazing directly forward at them.
“Hello, Hotzeh,” said Katetheuna. “The two girls have arrived.”
“Ah, excellent!” said the Hotzeh. “And not a moment too soon! Are they identical twins?”
“That’s right. They came today, just as you said they would.”
“Of course, of course! Welcome, welcome, young ladies!
Chloe and Hannah greeted the man. It wasn’t long before they realised that he was blind. He was still staring straight ahead at them, but his eyes weren’t in focus, and he didn’t track them with his pupils. Instead of the normal irises and whites in his eyes, they seemed to contain a red fire from another world.
“Something is strange, though, my brother,” said Katetheuna. “They say that they have never been to Mashal before.”
“Really?” said Hotzeh. “That is odd. Where have you come from then, young ones? Come now, come now, don’t be shy!”
“We’ve come from Oxford, sir,” said Chloe politely, not knowing how to speak properly to a ‘Forthteller’. “In England. Our class was there on a school trip. A tunnel collapsed on us and when we came out, we were here.”
“Oxford, you say?” The man called Hotzeh thought for a moment. “Never heard of it! Most unusual indeed! Are you telling me that you have come here from a world other than Mashal?”
“I think we are,” said Hannah.
“What should we do, sir? We just want to get back to our own world,” said Chloe.
“Does this change anything about the forthtelling, Hotzeh?” said Kathetheuna.
“There can only be one conclusion,” said Hotzeh, “The One True King must have brought you here from your own world in order to carry out your special mission in ours!”
“But what if we don’t want to carry out this special mission?” said Chloe.
“Young lady, if the One True King really has brought you here, I am afraid you will only be able to return to your own world once you have carried out your special mission.”
“What is this ‘special mission’ you’ve been talking about anyway?” asked Hannah.
“Why, I thought you’d never ask! To find and to bring here the lost heir to the Steward Throne of Larakia.”
“Just finding someone and bringing them here? That doesn’t sound too difficult. I mean, we got here, and we weren’t even trying.”
“Yes. There are just a few complications.”
“What are they?”
“Well, nobody knows who he is, nobody knows his name, and he is probably hundreds of miles away in a dangerous, hostile, foreign country.”
“Ah,” said Hannah. “That does make things a little trickier.”
When George awoke, he could immediately hear a loud noise, like the sound of heavy rain. He understood after a few moments that it was the sound of an enormous crowd of people cheering. His whole body ached. Of course, it was dark again. But this time he didn’t seem to be in a pit; rather he was inside a small, metal box. He barely had enough room to stand up. There wasn’t space to take one step in any direction.
Without warning, one side of the box slid up as it was opened by some kind of device and light flooded George’s vision. The noise got much louder. He stumbled out onto a sandy floor, blinking and rubbing his eyes. There was indeed a huge crowd of people seated all around him, cheering and bellowing at the top of their voices, almost deafening him. In front of them was a huge wooden barrier, too tall to climb, which made a big circle around the sand. He was in an arena.
“PEOPLE OF NACHASH!” shouted a voice even louder than the crowd. “WELCOME TO YOUR WEEKLY ENTERTAINMENT DEATHMATCH! THESE PRISONERS WILL NOW FIGHT TO THE DEATH! THE LAST REMAINING SURVIVOR WILL WIN A CHANCE TO BE RECRUITED INTO THE ARMY OF SHUL! COMBATANTS, BEGIN! KILL OR BE KILLED!”
There were other figures near George on the sand, not in the crowd, other men who had just been released from their own metal boxes. Across from where they stood, on the far section of the arena barrier that separated them from the crowd, were a number of bladed and close-range weapons mounted on the wall.
“BEGIN! KILL OR BE KILLED!” shouted the voice again.
George spun round to see if there was any other way out. Of course, there wasn’t. Behind him were a number of other soldiers in the same black armour as Khilliarkos, the man who had captured him, though without the spiked shoulders and horns. They were all holding longbows notched with arrows, which were pointed right at George and the other prisoners. The message was clear: If they tried to escape, or didn’t choose a weapon to fight one another, they would be shot.
The other men were already dashing towards the weapons. As soon as George realised this he ran as fast as he could towards the barrier, ignoring the pain in his chest and limbs, trying as hard as he could to tune it out. Some of the others got there first and broke away with the weapons they had picked up, but one of them stayed by the rack of weapons, trying with a huge mace to stop anyone else near him from picking anything up. George stayed out of his way and grabbed the first weapon he came to, a short sword, and then tried to put as much distance between the rack and himself as possible, without getting too close to the archers. As he glanced back behind him, George saw someone cut down the mace-wielder with a horrifying gash to the back from a longsword. He felt as if he was going to be sick. The crowd went mad with noise. George picked out a few calls from close by in the front row.
“Kill! Let’s see some more blood!”
“Chase the stragglers! Don’t let them get away!”
“Break their bones! Spill their guts!”
The rest of the men reached the wall and selected their weapons too. They began to fight with one another with the wild frenzy of people who have nothing to lose, who have no family or friends, no life to go back to, just the single, driving will to stay alive. Kill or be killed.
George kept well back. He wanted to stay alive too and he had one simple tactic: Keep himself out of the way. He could not fight. He could not kill, even to be avoid being killed. His whole body was shaking. He tightened his grip on his sword and gritted his teeth.
The man with the longsword went down to a man with a trident and net. A man with a pair of long knives let out a blood-curdling scream as an axe took off one of his arms. Another man dropped his weapon and made a run for it, then dropped to the ground, a flurry of the black soldiers’ arrows protruding from his back.
George stayed just clear enough of the melee to avoid being drawn into combat, but close enough to it to avoid the soldiers that stood at the perimeter of the arena, threatening to put an arrow in him too if he tried to escape. One of the other prisoners spotted him and made to run at him an attack, but another opponent got in his way and cut him down first.
“Coward!” people started shouting from the crowd.
Sweat dripped down George’s forehead and arms. He didn’t care if what he was doing was cowardly; he needed to stay alive.
The problem was that after what only seemed like a few minutes, there was only one other combatant left. A hulking great man carrying a net and a trident. He was wearing a metal helmet, but George could see ferocious eyes staring out from under the visor. He looked as though he had done this before. He looked thirsty for more blood. He looked around for another opponent, and then saw George. The man started to walk towards him. The crowd roared their approval.
“TWO COMBATANTS REMAIN!” bellowed the impossibly loud voice. “KILL OR BE KILLED!”
The man began walking towards George, net and trident at the ready. The trident’s spikes were dripping. It was useless. They were the only two left. George couldn’t’ avoid it any more. He would have to stand and fight.
“Please!” he called out to the man, loud enough to be heard by him, and he hoped not loud enough to be heard by the cheering crowd. “I don’t want to fight you! We don’t have to do this! I didn’t ask to come here!”
“You think I asked to be here, boy?” said the man with malice. “I’m just trying to stay alive. And you’re in the way of that. So you have to die.”
The man ran at George and threw his net. George struck out at it with the sword he had picked up, but instead of slicing through it got tangled in it and he only succeeded in making it flop the ground in a heap, out of his hand. The trident followed fast. George leapt to one side to avoid being skewered. More thrusts followed. George moved as fast as he could to get out of their way, then ran backwards away from them.
“Please! Have mercy!” yelled George as he ran. “I don’t want to fight you!”
The noise of the crowd grew deafening. He could hear them chanting “Kill the coward! Kill the coward!”
The trident caught George in the arm with a lucky blow from behind. A big red furrow opened up in his tricep. He cried out in pain.
Then George crashed into the barrier. Somehow his legs had carried him back to the rack of weapons. He picked up the first thing his hands settled on, a scythe--a wooden pole with a long curved blade attached to the end, usually used by farmers for harvesting. He turned and struck out wildly with it. The pole of it clanged into the trident, knocking it aside as it came at him again. Where it would have impaled him in the stomach, this time the trident sliced open a cut at the side of his abdomen. George cried out once more. His opponent was showing him no mercy. But this time the trident kept going, and plunged into the wood of the barrier behind George, sticking into it temporarily.
George used his chance to dash away again, running back towards the centre of the arena. But he discovered he couldn’t run properly any more; the wound in his side was too painful. Another shout came from the crowd. George turned round to see what was going on. The man with the trident had wrenched his weapon free from the wood and was bearing down on him, on his way to finish his work and deliver the killing strike.
Panic took George. He stumbled over his feet. The man was nearly on him. It was too late. George was going to fall and leave himself exposed. This was it. As he fell, with one final effort of desperation or instinct, he was never sure which, George flung the scythe around to defend himself. His arms went rigid as the scythe hit something.
George shut his eyes as he hit the ground. He kept them shut and scrunched up his face, readying himself for the worst.
But, to his surprise, nothing happened. The crowd had gone completely silent.
Slowly George opened his eyes. In front of him the man with the trident twitched, the blade of George’s scythe sticking out from deep in the right side of his chest.
The man fell backwards, dead, the scythe still in his body.
There was a vast, confused pause.
“PEOPLE OF NACHASH!” bellowed the announcer. “WE HAVE A NEW CHAMPION OF THE ARENA!”
The crowd went crazy.
“Coward! That wasn’t a fair fight!”
“Bring in the next combatants; let them have a go at him!”
“No, he won it fair and square, no cheating!”
George stood up. He was panting heavily. His side leaked red. He looked down and realised what he had done. Then he threw up. Somewhere he could hear the crowd laughing and mocking him in disgust. As his breathing began to slow, the pain, which had masked by his desperation to stay alive, screamed at him. But even this was drowned out by other thoughts in his mind. He had killed someone. He was a murderer. Even if he had been forced. Even if he had been acting in self-defence. Even if it had been a reflex. He had killed someone.
The world became a blur. Some of the soldiers with the bows approached him and forcibly took his weapon from him. He did not put up a protest. He was dragged to a podium where a short, fat man with a very loud voice lifted up his hand and bellowed some more announcements that only echoed around faintly inside his skull. Then he was led by more soldiers out of the arena through a passageway and a tunnel and back into the cell that he had been waiting in before the fight had started.
He was pushed in and the door slammed and locked behind him once more. They said something to him before they walked off, but he didn’t listen to it. He hit the floor.
All the while, all that he could think above the pain was that he had killed someone. He had killed someone. He was a murderer.