When Jocosa woke up, it was very dark.
Then she remembered that her eyes were closed. She opened them. She was lying face down on the stony floor. She surmised that she was back in the dungeon.
She got up and looked around. The room she was in was empty apart from two lit candles, in candleholders on opposite sides of the room.
And there was a door. She rushed over to it, but it was locked. She glanced around, looking for... an exit, a written note, a clue to why she might be here. But there was absolutely nothing.
She remembered the Emperor telling her she would be punished, and she briefly remembered being strangled. Her neck was still sore. But that was it.
Something moved on the ceiling. She looked up, and the golden headband fell out of her hair.
No, there was something there. It was like a ripple, moving over the stony ceiling. It made that brick look like it was expanding.
She edged closer.
The ripple grew bigger, and something sprouted out of the ceiling. It was a water tap. It was dripping something like saliva; white and foamy.
Jocosa watched as the pipe burst and thick white stuff spurted all over the room, covering everything. She was too late to shield her eyes. She staggered back and wiped the stuff out of her eyes. Everywhere else it was hardening and clinging like glue.
She looked up, but the tap wasn’t there anymore.
Something whipped out at her from behind and she tripped over it. Jocosa hit the floor and quickly rolled up onto one foot to face her attacker.
When she saw what it was, she screamed.
Siobhan and Warloc decided to take another break. They’d been walking for four hours, and it was getting close to evening.
‘Are you tired?’ Warloc asked, helping himself to some bread.
Siobhan, now wearing her vile green jumper, glared at him and pulled the bag towards her. ‘What do you think? I’m dying.’
‘You’re not dying.’
‘Well, it feels like it,’ she said, stuffing herself with bread. She pulled up her shorts before sitting down – they were slipping down. ‘Warloc, do you think I’ve lost weight?’
He shrugged. ‘Does it matter?’
‘Well, being thin is a pretty good thing to strive for, I think.’
‘That sounds silly. You need to eat. Everyone eats here.’
‘We eat, of course we do, but, you know.’
‘I’m trying to be thin; all my friends are trying to be thin...’
‘Oh, so it’s a contest.’
‘No, it’s not. How can I put this... being thin is a virtue.’
‘Why on earth is being thin considered a good thing? That’s just clagging silly.’
‘No, it – well, maybe it is a little silly...’
‘You’re lucky you have food at all – and you’re constantly boasting about how nice it is, so why you are trying to be thin is beyond my understanding.’
‘Oh, forget it,’ Siobhan said. She hated losing arguments. Her grandma was the same. If Siobhan and her grandma got into a debate – even a friendly one – it could go on for days.
She wondered what everyone was doing back home. If they weren’t worrying about her, they’d probably be sitting on the sofa watching some soap on the TV. Mum and Grandma loved soaps. Dad hated them but he’d sit down to watch because there might be something good on afterwards. Mum would be having tea with two sugars, Dad would be having coffee, and Grandma would have half and half, and then a glass of coke.
Then she wondered what Warloc was thinking about. Right now, he was looking especially pensive.
‘What are you thinking about?’ Siobhan asked him.
He looked up and frowned. ‘I’m, er, I’m just thinking about the journey we’re going to make. In another hour we’re going to reach the river, and I think we can stop there.’
‘Oh good. I can’t walk much further. My heels are bleeding.’
Hurley flew over their heads, back from hunting in the forest. He was carrying an animal twice his size in his claws. He settled down on the rock beside Siobhan and started pecking at the corpse.
‘Hurley, you won’t have time to eat that,’ Warloc said. ‘We’re leaving.’
‘Can’t we leave once he’s finished?’ Siobhan pleaded.
Warloc stood up, took his bag back, and started walking. Siobhan grumbled and followed him. Hurley, perfectly mimicking Siobhan’s voice, also grumbled and flew after them. He landed on her shoulder, sat there clawing for about five minutes, and then flew back to the dead animal again.
The river was big and gushing. Siobhan listened to the roar of rushing water as they approached.
Warloc pointed up the mountain. About halfway up they could see the mouth of the river. He told her that they’d stop here, then follow the river to its mouth, and just a few miles further up was the home of the Oracle.
‘And that’s where we’ll stop again?’
‘Good, because I cannot climb a mountain in ONE DAY.’
Warloc peered over to his left. He made an odd noise, and Siobhan peered left as well.
Further down the river, where the water was clearer, there was a boat. And in that boat was a figure, and it was bringing a club down over her head, repeatedly whacking whatever was in the bottom of the boat.
Warloc started walking towards it. Siobhan darted ahead of him. The figure wielding the club turned out to be a woman. She was wearing clothes made of the same material as Warloc’s shoes, and she had choppy brown hair. Her skin was dirty and tanned.
The woman stopped bashing with the club and looked at Siobhan as she approached. ‘What the clag are you looking at?’ she accused, throwing down the club.
‘Nothing, I was just, I – er,’ Siobhan managed.
The woman was just stepping out of the boat when Warloc ran up to them.
‘Oh, Luke,’ he said. ‘It’s you.’
‘Luke?’ Siobhan said in disbelief. ‘That’s a boy’s name.’
‘It’s a girl’s name,’ Luke said, spitting. ‘Comes from the Luca flower. What do you want?’
Warloc pulled Siobhan a step back. ‘Luke is a rogue,’ he said quietly. ‘Rogues are peaceable folk that live away from the community and work for profit.’
Luke was looking at Siobhan like a dog looks at a cat. ‘I’m not a rogue, I just can’t fit in with all that peaceable clag, alright? I’m a business woman.’ She stepped out onto the river bank. Siobhan saw that she was barefoot, and mud oozed between her toes.
‘That’s good to know,’ Warloc said, stepping back again. ‘We were wondering what it was that you were beating to death.’
‘Someone’s claggy familiar.’
Siobhan’s breath caught in her throat for a second, before she remembered that Hurley was still flying some way behind them. Luke was holding up a now dead furry thing with no eyes.
‘Might eat it later,’ she told them, tossing it into the boat. ‘Now, are you getting in or what?’
‘That’s very kind of you, Luke, but we’re not crossing the river. We’re going to see the Emperor.’
This made Luke spit again. It landed on Siobhan’s trainers.
‘Don’t talk to me about that clagger,’ she said viciously. ‘Anyway, I don’t care where you’re going, all I know is you’ll be crossing this river and I will be taking you.’
‘With respect, Luke,’ Warloc said, ‘no, you won’t.’
Luke charged forward, not slipping on the slimy mud and got Warloc by the neck of his robe. ‘You telling me what to do, feather-head?’
‘You want me to kick you?’
Siobhan spoke up hurriedly. ‘How much does it cost to cross?’
Luke turned her head to her, dropped Warloc and stepped forward. ‘Five coins to the island, eleven coins the whole way, that too much?’
‘Well, yes. I don’t think we have any coins.’
‘You can pay me in bread then. Lemme see the bag.’
Warloc struggled to his feet and tossed Luke his herb bag. She rummaged inside. Siobhan noticed her tough hands and bitten fingernails.
‘Hmmm,’ she said, looking at their food. ‘Not much in here. I’ll need something else.’
‘We don’t want to cross,’ Warloc said, but he was ignored. Luke stormed towards Siobhan and grabbed her by the collar.
‘What the clag is this you’re wearing?’ she said. She pulled at the material, feeling its stretchiness. ‘This isn’t bad.’
‘It’s my P.E. kit. In England we have to do this thing -’
‘Shut up. Alright.’ Luke stepped back and stroked her chin, considering. ‘Gimmee the bread, and that green thing you’ve got on, and I’ll let you cross.’
‘It’s my P.E. kit,’ Siobhan protested, but Warloc told her to shush.
‘We accept.’ He took the herb bag back, but passed Luke the bread. She snatched it without saying thank you and took a huge bite. Then she pulled at Siobhan’s jumper again.
‘Come on, Freckles. I want your thing.’
Siobhan grumbled and pulled the jumper over her head. Luke seized it, stroked the material, and then rubbed the jumper over her face. She looked at it, seeming pleased, and chucked it into the boat.
‘Get in,’ she told them.
They climbed into the unsteady boat. Luke was using a small cloth to get rid of the mud on her feet. Then she took a paddle and pushed them away from the bank. They were off.
Luke was stronger than she looked. Siobhan watched the muscles in her arms working as she paddled.
‘You,’ she said, gesturing to Siobhan. ‘There’s another paddle near your feet. Get to it.’
‘You want me to paddle too?’
‘Yes I do. You’re a fat little thing; it’ll do you good to get those arms working.’
Siobhan decided she didn’t like Luke very much, but grabbed the paddle and scooted to the front of the boat. Luke picked the left side, and Siobhan took the right. It was easier than she expected – to begin with. After about ten minutes of trying to keep up with Luke, her arms were aching.
‘Can we slow down?’ she asked.
‘Not a chance, Freckles,’ Luke told her, rowing faster than ever. She seemed to be enjoying herself.
Siobhan growled and kept rowing, feeling some beads of sweat forming on her forehead. This went on for some time, before Luke stopped rowing.
‘Right,’ she said, just as Siobhan was putting her paddle down in relief. ‘Swap sides.’
Luke clambered over to the right side of the boat, giving Siobhan a shove. Her shoulders sagged and she dragged herself over to the left. She glanced behind her at Warloc, sitting back and drumming his fingers on the side of the boat.
‘I hate you!’ she told him.
Warloc shrugged and started whistling.
Siobhan got back to rowing. This was hard work. They’d been at it for, she guessed, about forty minutes, and she wasn’t sure how long she could keep going.
Then she saw the grassy island in the middle of the river, about ten minute’s distance away. She nearly cried with relief. She paddled with a new kind of energy until they reached the island.
‘Right,’ Luke said, getting out of the boat and bringing the bread and the jumper with her. ‘We stop here. Freckles, you stay with me. Feathers; I’ve heard about your apparition things and I don’t want any of it, so you sleep in the boat. Help me tether it up.’
Luke took a length of rope, a lump of wood and a hammer out of the boat. Warloc tied up the boat as Luke tied the other end to the lump of wood. Siobhan held it in place as Luke hammered it down, securing it.
It was already dark. Luke yawned loudly, belched, pulled on the vile green jumper and curled up to sleep. Siobhan also curled up.
‘Freckles,’ Warloc said, and almost laughed.
‘Don’t call me that,’ she said. ‘What is it?’
‘Do you want to borrow my cloak?’
She looked at him, surprised.
‘Thanks, Warloc, but... you keep it. I’ll be fine.’
He nodded. ‘When the apparitions start I can probably ignore them. If not, I’ll paddle around for a bit until they disappear.’ He nodded as if she’d answered. ‘Now go to sleep.’
Siobhan slept for two hours before she heard Warloc moving around.
She sat up, feeling how chilly it was. Warloc looked at her, starting to undo the rope from its tether.
‘Sorry I woke you,’ he said quietly. He took the paddle and pushed himself away from the island. Siobhan watched him go, seemingly talking to himself.