THE CHEST AND THE LOCK (Tromo's Dream)
“Who’s Tromo?” asked Anthē. “You mentioned him earlier. Is he another knight?” She felt elated to be out of the tent. She was escaping! She tried to walk quickly, but without making it obvious to her two new companions.
“Not quite...” said Leukos. “He’s a little boy. About six or seven apparently. He was traveling with Zantheus on a ship to Dahma, but they were separated. He might have been abducted.”
“Oh, that’s terrible!” said Anthē. “Poor little boy! You’ve got to find him, Zantheus! Where could he have been taken?”
A dark thought had formed in Zantheus’s mind, born of irritation at Leukos for getting side-tracked and inviting this girl along with them on their journey: Why should he try to find Tromo? If he had woken up on the shore and wandered off on his own without waiting for Zantheus, it was his own fault. If the boy was not going to remain in his care, then why should he provide it? He tried to give voice to this thought as innocently as he could.
“I am beginning to think there is not much point in looking for him, actually,” Zantheus said. “I tried asking after him in that . . . place but nobody had seen him. I imagine there is little more that we can do now; we may as well continue on towards Qereth.”
Anthē was still getting used to her new-found companions, but she had no problems whatsoever questioning this decision. “What? You can’t abandon a little boy to fend for himself! There’s no telling what might happen to him! You should be ashamed, what sort of a father are you?”
“I am not his father,” said Zantheus quickly. That was all he could manage in the face of the woman’s reproach. He was not warming to her.
“Who is then?” said Anthē, looking over at Leukos.
“His father and mother are dead,” Zantheus told her. “He is an orphan. I met him on a ship of refugees traveling to Dahma.”
“An orphan?” Anthē couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “You’d leave an orphan alone to fend for himself?”
Zantheus’s heart sank. He knew the woman was in the right. Why had Leukos picked her up? She was probably only going to slow them down. She was already doing so.
“Alright, where is he likely to have gone?” he asked.
“Most likely he is somewhere in Ir,” said Leukos. “That is the nearest town. But I do not know my way around it very well…”
“I do,” said Anthē. “I grew up there.”
“Fine,” said Zantheus. “Let us go into Ir.” They had been planning on passing through it anyway. He hoped they would find Tromo as soon as possible. “Show us the way.”
Anthē was not taking to the knight, and she resented him for ordering her around so bluntly, but she began walking towards Ir anyway. She wondered what she was getting herself into, setting off with these two strangers... No, she should look on the bright side: Anything was better than working for Keleb! She was escaping!
Meanwhile, Tromo was dreaming.
He was back on the ship on which he had sailed back to Dahma, standing in the store cupboard that he had ended up sleeping in, but this was before all that. A young girl was crouched down, looking him in the eyes, speaking to him. She had the same mousey-brown hair as Tromo.
“Quick, Cristin,” she was saying, “we’ve got to hide you!”
She spoke urgently and there was a look of fear on her face. Above them could be heard shouting, the clash of steel, and occasional screams.
“Ah, I know!” She started darting around the room in search of something. She grabbed a blanket and lifted the lid of a chest in the corner of the room. “You can fit in here, can’t you?” Tromo didn’t say anything, he was too afraid. The girl picked him up and placed him in the chest. He could probably fit in it if he curled up in a ball and lay on his side. But he didn’t want to leave the girl. He put his arms up in the air for her to lift him out.
“No, no, Cris,” she said gently, taking hold of his hands and bringing them down. “This is your only chance. You can escape. Wait till all the noise has stopped and then sneak out.” They heard the sound of footsteps outside the door. The colour drained from the girl’s face. She dropped her voice to a whisper and drew her face up against his. “Whatever happens, don’t say a word. Whatever you hear, stay silent. Don’t say a word.” She slammed the lid down and at exactly the same moment that Tromo heard the door burst open. He was plunged into darkness, complete darkness, inside the chest. But he could hear voices through it. The intruder growled with delight.
“Oh, lucky me!”
“Please!” the girl said, terrified. “Please, take anything! Anything you like!”
“Oh don’t worry I will, darling.”
Tromo heard the sound of drawers being opened, and the clink of jewellery or currency. He was terribly anxious for the girl. But he couldn’t think why. Why was he so desperate that she be safe? Wait, that was it. His sister. She was his sister.
The sound of frenzied rifling stopped.
“What are you standing there in the corner for, darling?”
“N-nothing,” came his sister’s voice.
“You’re trying to hide something from me, aren’t you sweetie?”
“No! I swear!”
“Hmm, what have you got hidden for me under this blanket?”
“Nothing, I swear! No, please, not in there! There’s nothing in there!”
There was a thud as something hit the floor. “Wait over there darling, you’ll get your turn with me!”
Whatever happens, don’t say a word.
A crack of light appeared where the man started to lift the lid of the chest. But then it disappeared again and the darkness was back.
“Argh! Stupid wench!” Another thud and a gasp of pain in his sister’s voice. “So you’d rather die now, is that it? That’s fine by me.”
“No, no, please, I don’t want to die!”
Whatever you hear, stay silent.
“I’ll slit that pretty neck in one go.”
The sound of steel being drawn.
There was a scream which turned into a gargle. A horrible, choking, spluttering gargle.
The lid lifted.
Don’t say a word.
Tromo looked up at the bearded man who had lifted the lid of the chest. He looked surprised, shocked even. After a moment he disappeared from view.
Tromo stood up. The man had sunk to the floor, sitting with his back to the wall, a look of shock and confusion still gripping his face.
And there was his sister in the corner, blood leaking from a wound in her neck. She thrashed around violently for a few moments, trying to breathe, trying to cry out, then went terribly, terribly still.
Tromo fell back down into the chest in shock. After a time, he couldn’t tell how long, the lid was slammed back down again, and darkness swallowed him. He heard the key turn in the lock, the sound amplified inside the chest so that it resonated inside his head, inside his mouth, inside his lungs. He wanted to cry out, but he found that he could not. His voice would not obey him. He bashed his little hands against the inside of the chest in terror, making a dull thumping sound. He heard a muffled voice say something from outside.
“Quiet, boy! Listen to me, if you want to stay alive then just stay quiet! Don’t say anything or make any noise!”
It belonged to the man who had just killed his sister, only it sounded odd, slightly cracked, almost frail. Tromo stopped hitting the sides of the chest. He tried to lie still, huddled in the dark, and stay quiet. The words “If you want to stay alive then just stay quiet!” now resounded in his mind. Despite his best efforts to stay still, however, he found that he had started to tremble with fear. To his relief his trembling didn’t make any noise, but he shook violently there in the darkness inside the chest, invisible to the outside world, unable to cry or call out. He lay there for what seemed like an age, trapped in blackness, the images of the bearded man gazing down at him and of his sister choking on her own blood in the corner stained on his mind. Once or twice he thought he heard more shouting, and maybe a conversation, but he could not be certain.
Then, all of a sudden and without warning, the chest moved –it felt as though someone had picked it up– and he was thrown into one side of it, banging his head in the process. It lurched around in different directions, so Tromo put out his hands to protect himself from being thrown about still more, though this was hard to do as he was still shaking. He heard the clear sound of footsteps on wood outside the chest, first slow and tentative, then very fast all at once, and with these he was thrown about still more. He clutched his head between his hands to try and shield it from more bruises. Unable to bear any more of this being knocked around closed up in pitch darkness he decided he wanted to be out of the chest, and started slamming his palms into the ceiling above him, disregarding the man’s warning, so desperate was he to be released.
“Quiet!” came the instant response from outside, possibly through gritted teeth though just loud enough to be heard. “I told you to be quiet! Stay quiet or you’ll get us both killed! Shut up or I’ll throw you into the sea!”
Tromo stopped immediately, but started to shake even more. He didn’t want to be thrown into the sea, to sink down into the deep darkness forever, he didn’t want to die trapped inside this box. He began to shake so much that he lost control of his body, and was no longer able to shield himself when the motion flung him around into the sides of the chest.
Then, again without warning, the motion stopped, just as quickly as it started. Everything went still once more. There was a bump as he felt the chest being placed on the ground.
He caught a few snatches of talk, “…small room….shekels…just one or two nights…” The bearded man’s voice. The clink of coins being exchanged. Then once more Tromo felt himself being hoisted into the air and they were on the move again, though this time much more slowly, for the motion was now not nearly so violent. The man climbing some stairs. The creak of a door followed, and then he was being set down again.
Tromo heard the man sigh. After a brief pause, the key turned in the lock again. Everything lit up. Tromo blinked as he shivered, and rubbed his eyes, which had become accustomed to the darkness. Scared out of his mind, he looked up slowly. Sure enough, there was the bearded man, staring down at him, a strange mixture of grief and disgust on his face. Tromo was convinced he was going to kill him, just like he had killed Phoebe. He would have whimpered “Please don’t hurt me,” or something like that, but he still could not speak, his voice was still locked from the inside. Instead he just continued to tremble.
After an age, the man spoke. “What have I done?” he said, and it wasn’t clear whether he said it to Tromo, or himself, or Mashal in general.
At this Tromo screwed up his eyes and buried his head in his shaking hands, trying to shut out the world, willing himself back down into the darkness he had been so afraid of, into hiding, into silence.
At this point Tromo’s dream contorted, and the scene changed. He hands fell from his face and he dared to look up again, though he was still gripped by fear. The chest and the man had disappeared and he was lying on the floor of what seemed to be a forest. It was dark again, but just light enough for him to make out the trunks and boughs of trees. Branches quivered now and again at the rush of a chill wind. Tentatively, he got to his feet, bemused and bewildered at how he had suddenly been transported to this new place, and wondering where he was and if he had been here before. He started to walk cautiously between the trees, looking around for something or someone to let him know where he was. Occasionally a shadow moved and he jumped with fright, but he could never see what it was that had caused the movement. He continued to tremble quietly with fear, fear not now of the bearded man but of aloneness, of being abandoned and left on his own. Then he came upon something.
A little way away, resting on the ground, was a chest. Tromo ran over to it. It looked exactly like the chest he had been locked inside only moments ago. Maybe he was still inside it, dreaming all of this? He put his ear to it and thought he could make out the sound of someone trembling inside, though he couldn’t be sure if it wasn’t the sound of his own ear’s gentle tremor against the side of the chest. He found the lock on the clasp –there was a key inside it! He tried turning the key, but it jammed in the lock and got stuck. He tried forcing it, pushing against it with all his might, but it wouldn’t budge, it kept getting stuck against something inside the lock that wouldn’t budge any further.
“Tromo!” a voice called out behind him. He started with surprise and span round immediately to see where it had come from. There was nobody there. A shadow moved behind a tree, a bigger one this time, more of a silhouette, of what seemed to be a person. The voice had been that of a woman, and sounded kind and sweet and beckoning, like his mother’s. He ran after the shadow, but found nothing.
Then, “Tromo!” came the voice again, and the silhouette reappeared, then disappeared again behind another tree. He chased it as it kept darting from trunk to trunk. He wanted so badly to see his mother again. He couldn’t even remember what her face looked like. If he could just catch one glimpse of her face then he would remember and everything would be alright. But he couldn’t catch her.
“Tromo!” came a second voice, deeper, stronger –his father, it must be! A second shadow joined the other, dancing across his vision briefly but always just out of reach and out of proper sight. He couldn’t remember what his father looked like either. He wanted to call out to them and say “Wait! Mum, Dad! It’s me, here! Don’t leave me on my own!” but the words became empty air in his mouth, he couldn’t get the sounds out of it.
He felt a weight on his chest. He looked down, and there was the same lock as he had been struggling with earlier, only now it was placed over his heart, securing two chains tightly in place around his torso. The same key was inside it. Frantically, he grabbed it and twisted again with all his strength. Again it still would not budge, it was stuck fast in the lock. He pushed as hard as he could. The key snapped.
Once more the dream altered. This time he was standing on some grass covered in a light blanket of snow. The trees had gone, and had been replaced by a bright, blue open sky. The sun shone down. But filling the sky in the direction he was facing was an enormous white ridge. He was at the foot of a vast mountain. He looked down. The lock and the key had gone, but he still felt a constriction around his chest and knew that if he tried to speak or call out his voice would not obey him. Someone spoke clearly at his side, making him raise his head.
“Ah, so you have the gift of Sight. I had not counted on that. Well then, what you see here will serve you even better than the others, and serve them too.”
The voice belonged to a young man, dressed in green, with flaming red hair. As he spoke he held a bundle of parchment in one hand, and was writing on it with the other using a quill. He continued to write. Tromo would have asked him who he was, or where he was, or what was happening to him, but he could not speak, so he just stared blankly at the man. After a while the writer said, with an almost irritable expression, “Well don’t just stand there staring at me. Look! See!” He nodded in the direction of the mountainside. “Over there. There’s something for you to see over there.”
Tromo looked. Just in the distance, poised in the white, there was the outline of something he had missed earlier: a tree. Glancing back at the writing man, who said “That’s it, off you go,” he started to walk forwards carefully. He was totally confused as to where he was. Somewhere he knew he was still dreaming. But this didn’t feel like a dream. It felt completely real. A light breeze whipped the hair around his head. The tree grew larger. He cast another glance back in the direction he had come from, then gasped soundlessly. The writer had gone. Snow was starting to fall softly, and only snowflakes danced in the empty space where he had been. He decided to just keep walking towards this tree, obeying the man’s last instruction. After all, he didn’t have anything better to do.
The tree stood very close to the bottom of the mountain, right before the slope started to rise most sharply, almost exactly at the foot of it. It was a beautiful willow tree. Long hanging branches drooped down from the top of it to form a kind of sheltered enclosure that concealed the trunk from the world outside. Eventually he reached it, and parted two strands of the hanging branches in order to make his way inside the enclosure, unsettling a powder of snow as he did so.
Tromo gasped in silence once again. Zantheus! There inside the hanging branches was his friend, the knight, standing looking up at the old, gnarled bark if the trunk. Tromo wanted to cry out more than ever, but his voice eluded him, remaining locked up. He ran over to where Zantheus was standing and waved to get his attention. To his dismay, Zantheus didn’t even acknowledge him, but simply remained where he was, staring up at the tree-trunk. Tromo jumped up and down, then passed his hands across Zantheus’s eyes. It was if the knight didn’t even see him. Upset, Tromo tried tapping him on the leg. He wanted desperately for Zantheus to acknowledge his presence, to see him, to tell him where he was and to take care of him. But the tapping produced no response. It was if the knight could not even feel him either. He tried to gather Zantheus’s trouser material in his hands and tug on it, but he found that he could not even grip it. It resisted his fingers. It was if he had become some sort of ghost, unable to interact with Zantheus in any way.
Giving up, he just clung to the knight’s leg pathetically, hugging it, wishing that he could be seen, that he could be felt, that he could speak and be heard. A tear rolled down his cheek and threatened to freeze. Then Zantheus spoke.
“What was it that Tromo said?” he said aloud. “Under. Under the weeping tree?”
Tromo leapt back. To his surprise, Zantheus knelt on the ground and started to dig in the snow at the bottom of the trunk. What did he mean, “What was it that Tromo said?” He hadn’t said anything! Least of all about a “weeping tree.” He had wanted to say lots of things, but nothing like that. Now he wanted to ask Zantheus what he was talking about, when he had heard him say that, and why he was digging in the snow, but the words still would not come. Zantheus had exposed some roots under the tree, and was inexplicably pulling some of them up, searching around in the soft earth in which the tree was planted. Tromo stood back and watched as Zantheus struck upon a hole, and started to dig round it, revealing that it was bigger and deeper. A tunnel! For some reason Zantheus crawled down into the tunnel, his top half disappearing down into the earth underneath the tree, quickly followed by his legs and feet.
Tromo got onto his hands and knees too. He wanted to follow Zantheus wherever he was going, even if he couldn’t see or feel he wasn’t going to lose him now. But he was afraid of going underground, into the darkness. In the end he drove himself forwards and down however, determined not to lose Zantheus. Very quickly the darkness became thick and all-encompassing, and after a few moments he could not even see the glimmer of light from the mouth of the tunnel behind him. He scuttled onwards. To his outright terror he could no longer see or hear Zantheus anywhere. He tried as hard as he could to call out “Help! Zantheus! Don’t leave me!” But his mouth only made silence. He was on his own again. No matter how far he crawled, he couldn’t find Zantheus. The darkness closed in all around him. It was like being locked in the chest again. Maybe he was still in the chest? Maybe this was all a dream? He gave up on crawling and started to shudder and shake.
Tromo lay there in the dark, trembling.
Then he woke up.
The sun had long since set, but even in the dark Anthē was able to lead the way easily across the flat, lifeless earth and into Ir, from which the brothel-tent was pitched only a short walk away. Within minutes they had caught sight of the pale orange lights of the town, which they then had only to follow. All at once they were walking along an alley that joined a well-trodden main road. For the most part the town had settled down for the night, though light still peeked through the windows of a good number of buildings and there were a fair number of people still roaming the streets, the occasional cart pulled along by a tired horse. Zantheus ignored the pleas of a couple of beggars beginning to shiver against the desert cold.
“So this is Ir,” he said after a while.
“It is too late to find Tromo now,” said Leukos. “We’ll have to spend the night here and begin looking for him tomorrow.”
“I know a place we can stay,” said Anthē. She seemed to look on the town with a sort of suppressed thrill, though it was clearly familiar to her.
Zantheus was still too much in a state of shock and confusion to protest. He was also tired from his day’s walk through the desert, so he went along with the girl. Leukos kept his pace too, ever writing. She took them off the main road on a route down some side streets that they would not be able to remember in the light, struggling to discern her exact location and having to double back on herself a couple of times. Eventually, however, she stopped by a door, fairly certain that she had found the place she was looking for, though as far as Zantheus was concerned the structure looked exactly the same as all the other wooden boxes that the town passed off as houses.
“Yes, in here...” Anthē murmured, and pushed. The door was open.
Inside the little room that lay behind it was an old man sat at a desk reading by the light of a candle.
“Welcome,” he grunted without looking up. He wore spectacles and had a bushy white moustache.
“We’d like rooms for three please,” said Anthē politely, walking up to the desk.
“I’m afraid we’ve only got a small single and a double left,” said the old man. He span round a book that lay on his desk and flicked it open, still not looking up.
“I suppose that’ll have to do then, Luma,” said Anthē.
Now he looked up. “Who’s that then?” He squinted in the candlelight. “How do you know my name, young lady?”
“Luma,” said Anthē kindly, “it’s me.”
“Anthē!” said Anthē.
The old man peered more closely at her. His eyes grew big and round.
“Why, Shul’s tongue, so it is...” he whispered, stunned. “Little Anthē...my, haven’t you changed...” He raised a hand to touch her cheek, as if to feel that she was really there and not some sort of ghost. Anthē recoiled instantly.
“Yes I have,” she said. “I’m a lot older now. A lot wiser, too. These are my...friends. Leukos and Zam... Zark...”
“Zantheus,” said Zantheus.
“We’d like rooms for three please,” Leukos reminded him.
“Yes, yes of course,” said Luma, coming to himself. “Sign here please.” While Zantheus wrote their names in the book he continued to stare quizzically at Anthē, ignoring him and Leukos. “Anthē...your mother...she said that you’d-”
“Never mind what she said,” said Anthē. “I’m here now. Show us to our rooms, please.”
Sensing her tone, the old man refrained from asking any further questions. He picked up his candle and proceeded to lead them up the stairway behind him. It creaked with each step, and he asked them to be quiet as they arrived on the landing above so as not to waken the other guests of the inn. He took them along a narrow corridor, stopping at the fourth door on the left.
“This is the single,” he told them. Just as Anthē was about to open the door, Leukos stepped past and entered in front of her, opening the door with his elbow.
“Thank you,” said Leukos and promptly shut the door in their faces. They heard it lock.
“Funny sort of chap,” said Luma. “Never stops writing! Anyway, now for the double.”
Anthē was furious. But before she had a chance to complain Luma had set off down the corridor once more. Zantheus went with him, not yet aware of what a “double” entailed. Three more doors on the right and he discovered.
“Here we are,” said Luma. This time he opened the door for them to come in and went to light a candle on a table near the entrance. Apart from the table, the room contained only a small window with drawn curtains, and a double bed. “Breakfast is at six, lunch at one, dinner at six. The door locks from the inside. If you have any problems, come down and find me. Good night.” He shut the door quietly behind him.
Anthē and Zantheus looked at the bed.
After a while, Anthē got in. “You’d better not snore,” she said. “And if you lay so much as a finger on me, I’ll-”
“I would not dream of such a thing!” said Zantheus, bristling with righteous indignation. “I am a knight of the strictest discipline and utmost virtue. I will sleep on the floor.”
“Suit yourself, then,” said Anthē, already on the verge of dropping off. “Blow out that candle, would you?”
Zantheus puffed on the flame and the room went black. He lowered himself onto the loud floorboards and assumed his usual sleeping position, lying flat on his back with his arms rigid at his sides.