The Map of the Known World by Steven Smith - HTML preview

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PART ONE

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- CHAPTER ONE -

The Black Wagon

Elowen Aubyn sprinted along the narrow street. She wore a

linen dress, the skirt of which hung unevenly above her cheap

light brown leather shoes. Stitched onto her right sleeve was a

piece of red cloth shaped in the letter P, the sign of a pauper.

The street, rutted and holed by countless horses and carts,

sloped down to a central drain blocked with rubbish and horse

droppings, above which swarmed a horde of flies. Washing

hung on lines that ran from house to house, billowing in the

fitful wind like the sails of a rag tag fleet of ships. A scrawny

mongrel dog that had been happily sniffing around the wheel of

a cart barked with alarm as Elowen hurried past. Sparrows

pecking at scattered pieces of grain flew away. A lazy cat

basking in the sun bolted for cover.

Elowen knew she was late. She tried to run faster but the

effort gave her a painful stitch. A bitter, salty taste formed in her

mouth and her lungs felt as though they were going to burst out

of her body. Her knees still ached from hours knelt cleaning the

Orphanage latrines. She always got that job she thought bitterly.

She had been left alone to work, two hours of retching and

gagging as she emptied the stinking pails and scrubbed the

filthy floor. The smell still lingered on her clothes and her

11

hands. Now she was late and would get into even more trouble.

It wasn’t fair.

Elowen reached the town market square, known by all as the

Shambles, where a crowd had already gathered. On the south

side of the square, opposite the church, stood the wooden stand

erected for the ceremony. Only the aldermen, the most

important people in the town, were permitted to sit within the

stand and, by decree of the Mayor, the children of the

Orphanage were to work all day serving them food and drink.

As Elowen reached the foot of the steps leading up to the stand

someone grabbed her arm, she was dragged to a halt and spun

round to face a short boy with broad shoulders and a square

body. His thick ginger hair stood up like the spikes of a

hedgehog and angry spots and white-heads erupted all over his

pale face. Around his waist he wore a black and white cloth

sash, the sign of his authority.

He was Diggory Bulhorn, the head boy of the Orphanage.

‘You are late,’ he announced in the slow, pompous voice he

always used when trying to sound like an adult.

‘I know. I’m sorry,’ muttered Elowen between gasps, the

apology added as an afterthought. She hated apologising to

Bulhorn. She knew how much he enjoyed any chance to

humiliate her but it was the only way to speed up the inevitable

lecture and lessen any punishment.

‘I was cleaning the latrines,’ she continued, knowing that her

explanation would fall on deaf ears.

‘That is no excuse. You should work harder and faster. The

Master will hear of this,’ he snorted.

He paused, waiting for a reaction, waiting for any sign of fear.

Elowen knew what he wanted. He wanted her to beg him not to

tell the Master. As frightened of the Master as she was, she was

determined not to give Bulhorn the satisfaction of seeing her

grovel. She was determined not to be a complete pushover.

‘Do what you have to,’ she replied with a shrug, trying to

sound unconcerned.

Faced with this unexpected resistance, Bulhorn opened and

closed his mouth like a grounded fish. ‘The Master will deal

12

with you. Now get to work. Help with the serving. Useless girl.’

With that he turned and marched up the steps.

Useless girl. People always said that about her.

A voice from inside her head said, ‘ You are useless. Everybody

laughs at you.

It was a voice Elowen often heard. Sometimes it spoke with

her voice, sometimes with the voice of other people. It sneered,

criticised, mocked. It reminded her of all the humiliations she

had ever endured and it echoed words and memories from past

beatings, past abuse, past failings. She tried to fight the voice,

she tried to ignore it, she knew she would never be happy until

it went away. But it never left her. She doubted it ever would.

Elowen ran a hand through her scruffy dark hair and stared at

the church that stood across the other side of the Shambles. It

was a grim, fearful building with a dull slate roof, angular

windows and a spire that threw a heavy shadow onto the town.

A stage had been built onto the broad steps of the church. A

stage to hold the ceremony to come.

Somewhere within the darkness of the church was Elowen’s

best friend, Uther Bantling. Elowen wondered if he would enjoy

his special day. Every May Day all the children who had come

of age received the Holy Null, the mark of adulthood. At

fourteen Elowen was still a year short of the age but Uther was

due to received the Null that very day.

Beneath a fog of tobacco smoke the crowd grew restless. Like

maggots left in a box, everyone in the crowd wriggled for a

better position of the stage. They stood on tip toes, necks craned

and children were lifted onto the shoulders of their fathers to

the loud protests of those who stood behind them. Through the

crowd wandered tumblers, acrobats, jugglers and fire-eaters.

One figure caught Elowen’s eye, he carried a staff that reached

his shoulders and around it were tied pieces of coloured ribbon.

His eyes peeked out behind the strands of long red hair that fell

over his forehead; a hat decorated with bird feathers perched on

his head. His clothes were poor: a white shirt patched under the

arm and torn and patched breeches made of rust coloured cloth

with tattered ties below his knees. He wandered through the

13

restless crowd, telling jokes, singing songs. Some laughed at

him, most ignored him. Elowen knew his name, everyone knew

his name. Tom Hickathrift.

Hickathrift scratched out a living as a storyteller and singer in

the taverns of Trecadok. He lived in the Old Tower, an

abandoned watchtower on the town wall. Elowen often saw

him marching around the town, his long shanks like the legs of

some giant spider. He was strange, almost out of place in the

greyness of Trecadok.

Elowen had no time to consider it further. The aldermen and

their families demanded food and drink and much of both. The

orphan boys battled with heavy platters of roasted chickens,

boiled mutton and hunks of rich cheese. The girls, including

Elowen, carried ewers of sugared wine and jugs of ale. Elowen

struggled over seats, over big feet, lazily discarded coats and

hats. Flagons were filled, refilled, and then filled again.

A smell of grease lingered under the roof, Elowen smelt it on

her fingers, on the sleeves of her dress. It was a sickening,

unsettling smell but the glimpses of bread and cheese also

reminded Elowen that she was hungry. Being hungry was

nothing new in the Orphanage, meals there were poor and a

rumbling stomach was her constant companion. But this

morning was worse than ever; hunger made her stomach feel as

though it was being knotted and folded.

An unpleasant shout broke her thoughts. ‘GIRL! MORE

WINE!’

The shout came from the town magistrate, Horatio Morvel. He

sat in his full black gown with long hanging sleeves. Morvel’s

wife, Melder, sat next to him scowling at the crowd and picking

at her ceruse filled pockmarks. The couple were accompanied

by their daughter, and the apple of their collective eyes, Borra.

She sat perched on the end of her seat, chin lifted, nose in the

air. To her good fortune she had not inherited her mother’s

looks. Her hair tumbled down in chestnut curls and faint

freckles dusted her pretty face, yet Borra’s delicate beauty

concealed her true nature. Borra attended the same school as

Elowen and never passed an opportunity to tease or torment

14

her. Her lashing tongue frightened all the girls and Elowen, as a

lowly orphan, always received the worst of it. Elowen looked

down at her feet and avoided meeting Borra’s sharp glances.

Morvel held up his empty mug and said, ‘Don’t tarry girl. I’m

dying of thirst here.’

Elowen grabbed an ewer and picked her way across to him,

all the time conscious of the sneering stare of Borra. Melder

Morvel, who had clearly not noticed Elowen, yawned and

stretched out her flabby arms, banging into the ewer. Elowen

managed to stop it falling but a small dribble of wine splashed

onto Melder’s white ruff.

Morvel leapt to her feet, a look of pure anger on her face.

‘Idiot!’ she shrieked. Everyone in the stand turned round to

look. Elowen froze, wanting the earth to swallow her.

Meanwhile Horatio, adept at reading his wife’s fiery moods,

sunk low in his seat and said nothing.

‘You have ruined this,’ squealed Melder, leaning forward and

showing Elowen the red stained ruff.

Elowen stammered an apology. Borra smiled, cruel pleasure

drawn all over her face.

‘There is nothing you can say or do to repair the damage,’

insisted Morvel. Then she smacked Elowen across the face. ‘You

are an imbecile. Master Cronack will hear of this!’

Her face red and throbbing, Elowen stepped back, nearly

falling over the seats behind her. But if she thought her day

could not get any worse, she was sorely mistaken.

‘Elowen Aubyn!’

A harsh voice caused her to turn round, a harsh voice she

knew well. A cold creeping fear gripped her; she looked up to

the top of the narrow stairway that led down from the upper

rows of seats. Standing at the top was Cornelius Cronack, the

Master of the Orphanage.

Cronack ruled the Orphanage like a king and Elowen spent

every day in fear of him. In his presence she lost the ability to

think calmly, leading to even more stupid mistakes. For

Cronack the Orphanage was not just his kingdom but his

saviour. To the despair of his late father, Lieutenant-Colonel

15

Cronack of the Penwyth Regiment, the young Cornelius proved

too weak and cowardly for the army. Instead luck and

patronage steered him in the direction of the vacant

stewardship of the Trecadok Orphanage, a position previously

held by the perennially aged Darius Deadlock who performed

his functions scarcely less effectively in death then he had done

in life.

Cronack found in the Orphanage a vocation that suited his

nature. The many beatings he had endured at his father’s hands

transferred to the children in his charge. The outside world may

have defeated Cronack but within the Orphanage he found a

world he could control, a world he could shape in his own

image: cold, cruel and paranoid.

Cronack strode down the stairs; he walked with his head up,

his chin out and one hand holding the other behind his back.

Being short and bowlegged, Cronack could not risk losing vital

inches by slouching. He wore a thigh-length cloak over a black

doublet and grey breeches, a broad rimmed sugarloaf hat

concealed his baldness.

His icy grey eyes looked Elowen up and down, examining

each detail like an explorer poring over a map. Then he turned

to Melder Morvel and doffed his hat. ‘Madam, is there a

problem?’

Elowen’s heart pounded, she felt as though she was sinking

into the earth. Morvel showed her ruff to the Master. ‘Look at

the damage this wretch has done! Look!’

With exaggerated care, Cronack examined the ruff and made a

suitably horrified expression. With his tongue he moistened his

lips. ‘I am ashamed of the child’s behaviour. This is a

particularly idle and sinful girl, a constant source of trouble to

me.’

‘Then I trust you will punish her!’ demanded Morvel.

Cronack glared at Elowen and rubbed his clammy hands

together. ‘She shall be punished and shall work until her fingers

bleed, you have my word. Do you hear me child?’ He pointed

to the external stairway that led up to the seats. ‘Scrub those

steps, scrub them until they are perfectly clean. And do not

16

think that is the end of your punishment. Do you understand?’

Elowen nodded dutifully. Cronack looked her over, searching

hungrily for any sign of dissent but she kept her feelings

hidden, bowing her head in feigned shame and remorse. She

knew if she said anything it would only make matters worse.

Morvel settled back into her seat and said to Cronack, ‘Pray

keep better control over these orphans in future. They are

wretches, all of them.’

Cronack pulled himself to his full, though far from

impressive, height. ‘You shall not be troubled by her again

Madam, of that I can assure you.’ He then turned to clip Elowen

painfully around the back of the head. ‘Be gone child. Back to

work!’

Elowen swiftly retreated. She heard Melder Morvel still

complaining about the incident.

‘A typical orphan,’ she declared to anyone who would listen.

‘They have not the slightest idea of how to behave in public.’

When she had heard enough mumbles of ‘too true’ and ‘I

agree’ from the people around her, Melder sat down, still

complaining and berating Horatio for doing nothing.

*

Brought up in the Orphanage, Trecadok was the only home

Elowen had ever known. The town lay in the far south-west

peninsular of the island of Helagan. A moss smothered wall

circled the town and generation after generation had been born,

grown old and died within its crumbling stonework. In places,

the buildings inside touched the pale stones of the wall as

though struggling to escape.

The Gwindgack River bent around the southern edge of the

town. Like birds of prey, dragonflies buzzed and swooped over

the turgid surface and the beds of swaying reeds that flanked

the river. The Witchwood sat on the shallow hills to the north of

the town. Apart from the birds which skimmed across the tops

of the trees, there were few visible signs of life from the ancient

forest. The Witchwood often displayed different moods and

17

characteristics. The clean sunshine of early summer would

encourage the forest to display its fine covering of green and

gold leaves; in the winter it would brood angry and silent, as

dense mists swirled above the tree tops like frozen breath from

some hidden, monstrous mouth.

Many strange creatures and spirits were said to stalk the

forest: woodwights who devoured men and beasts, leshy who

delighted in leading travellers astray by pulling them deeper

into the heart of the forest with strange singing and whispered

rumours of lost gold and pixies, the scourge of the woodsmen,

who stole food, tools, clothes, anything in fact that was left

unattended for more than a few moments. Such creatures were

condemned by the Mother Church as ‘the tainted ones’. On

Saint’s days, the aldermen summoned enough courage, and

enough militia, to plunge into the forest. There, with musket,

hound and horse, they hunted the tainted ones. Success was

rare but occasionally they returned with a prize: a corpse of a

strange deformed creature. After being paraded the town, the

corpse was then hung in a gibbet for the disgusted fascination

of all. Elowen knew that the tainted ones were evil, soulless

beings, accursed in the eyes of God. But each time she saw a

little corpse swinging in the gibbets she felt pity, its bloodied

face and broken limbs the evidence of a violent death.

But at all other times, the people of Trecadok and the

surrounding villages feared the forest and avoided it wherever

possible, especially at night. The dark brought out all manner of

eerie sounds and cries from amongst the densely packed trees.

Children in the villages close to the edge of the forest liked to

challenge each other to get as near to the trees as they dared.

The first inhuman shriek was always enough to send them

wailing back to their cottages.

That was the world that lay outside Trecadok but it remained

distant to Elowen. She knew that she would never leave the

town. She was an orphan, a pauper, if she left to go to another

village or town she would be flogged or thrown into gaol. The

law held no sympathy for vagrants.

Elowen scrubbed the steps, they were not very dirty but she

18

knew that the Master would find every speck of dust. Orphan

after orphan passed Elowen and hurried up the steps, balancing

overloaded plates and bowls. They all looked hungry and tired,

their faces grey and careworn, aged beyond their tender years.

As one boy struggled up the steps his plate tipped, dropping a

slice of bread and a small hunk of cheese.

Elowen looked around to check no-one was looking and then

she picked up the bread, dusted it off and stuffed it in her

mouth. She was just about to eat the cheese when she became

aware of something rubbing against her leg. It was a cat, its ribs

visible and tufts of fur missing to reveal patches of dried skin. It

looked up at Elowen with pleading eyes. Despite the gurgles of

her own stomach, Elowen passed the small piece of cheese to

the cat who ate it down eagerly in one gulp. It rubbed its head

against Elowen’s hand and she felt the touch of its rough dry

tongue. Pleased to have a little food in its belly, the cat sat down

beside Elowen and began to clean its paws.

The church bells tolled for noon; Elowen jumped at the sound.

The ceremony began.

The Great Door of the church swung open and Bishop Gorlas

emerged into the sunlight, surrounded by church acolytes who

bore candles and banners of the Mother Church. Gorlas, the

third son of Lord Proudlock, clung to his position through

patronage rather than through intellect, which he lacked

somewhat, or piety, which he lacked completely. His sermons

achieved widespread fame for their length and tedium and he

alone held the ability to throw a veil of drudgery over the

Nulling ceremony.

The Bishop and his acolytes advanced down the steps like a

small army marching to battle, plumes of incense floating

around them like cannon smoke. If they were an army, the

twelve children that followed them resembled a rabble of

frightened and weary prisoners of war. There were six boys and

six girls, amongst them Elowen spotted Uther. He walked with

his head bowed; his faded, patchy Orphanage clothes stood out

against the fine gowns of the other children. Elowen felt sorry

for her friend, she expected all the other children had parents or

19

families watching them but for Uther there was no proud father,

no mother weeping happily.

Bishop Gorlas shepherded the children onto the stage and

then spoke to the crowd. ‘We are humble servants of God and

of Prester John. And we are all sinners. Ever we draw closer to

the Last Days.’

His speech descended into a distant drone. The interest of the

crowd began to fade and idle, impatient chatter drowned out

the Bishop. Elowen’s attention drifted to Uther. She

remembered their conversation from the day before. They had

met as usual during recreation in the high walled yard behind

the main Orphanage building. Other children milled around,

talking amongst themselves, kicking at the ground, swiping at

the swarm of flies attracted by the foul smelling latrines nearby.

Elowen had been friends with Uther for as long as she could

remember. They talked about everything and nothing but most

of all they loved to talk of adventures, adventures that took

them out of the Orphanage, even out of Trecadok. They cast

themselves in the roles of the heroes of the past. Daydreams

were their only freedom, daydreams inspired by the chapbooks

and pamphlets Elowen kept hidden under her bed blankets. She

had found them, years earlier, laying on the street outside

school, dropped no doubt by a careless seller. They were her

most precious, indeed her only, possessions. Elowen loved the

smell of the cheap ink, the texture of the crinkled and yellowing

paper; she knew each word of the exciting tales but never tired

of reading them or acting out the stories with Uther.

Her friend had been quieter than usual and Elowen had never

seen him look so unhappy. He picked at the ground, moving

stones between his fingers; his watery blue eyes remained fixed

on the ground. The odd gust of wind sneaked into the yard,

playing with his wispy blond hair. Bothered by his silence

Elowen had kept quiet and traced out the letters of her name in

the sandy soil. Then at last her natural curiosity had

overwhelmed her.

‘Why are you so sad?’ she had asked. ‘You should be excited

about tomorrow’s ceremony.’

20

‘I’m not sad. It’s just…’ he rubbed his forehead, trying to find

the right words. ‘Everything will be different after tomorrow.

I’ll be moving out of the Orphanage and apprenticed to Old

Man Panchent. Everything is changing.’

Elowen shared those same fears but buried them. ‘We’ll still

see each other, won’t we?’

‘Folk are different after Nulling. They become more serious,

more grown up.’

‘Is that a bad thing? Aren’t we all supposed to be grown up?’

‘That’s what everyone says,’ he had replied, sounding far

from certain.

Surprised by his mood Elowen had blurted out the first thing

that came into her mind. ‘Sounds to me like you don’t want to

be Nulled.’

She had regretted the words as soon as she said them. She had

uttered a blasphemy, a terrible blasphemy, and was lucky none

of the wardens had been close enough to hear her.

Uther had heard her though. ‘You mustn’t say things like that

Elowen. Being Nulled is to be blessed by God. To not be Nulled

is to live forever in sin. Look, promise me this. We will always

be friends, even after the Nulling.’

Elowen had promised but she thought it was a strange thing

for Uther to ask. Why wouldn’t they still be friends after the

ceremony? His words kept repeating in her mind. Promise me

this. We will always be friends.

*

Elowen’s attention returned to the present and to the words of

Bishop Gorlas. He announced, ‘On this special day, these sons

and daughters of God emerge from the shackles of childhood

and, by the will of Prester John, take the final steps towards

adulthood. May this blessing purify their souls as we approach

the Last Days and the final Judgement.’

At that moment, Elowen heard a slow, repetitive creaking

sound. The sound of heavy wheels turning.

Then, the Black Wagon drew into view. A large windowless

21

four wheeled coach, drawn by two powerful horses. The

hooded and cloaked driver sat as shapeless as a white cloud.

A Redeemer, a monk of the Brotherhood of Redemption.

Redeemers were the most feared servants of the Mother

Church. They hunted down heretics and witches wherever they

found them. Uther once told her about the Summons: in some

places, where children had been bad, the Redeemers came and

took them all. Mothers were always telling their children, ‘Be

good or the Redeemers will take you away.’

Every May Day, the Black Wagon came to Trecadok as they

came to every town and village across the Holy Empire. They

came to take children to one of the many monasteries that were

dotted throughout the land. Before dusk they were returned,

returned as adults, returned wearing the Null. Elowen didn’t

know what happened to them and she was afraid to ask. You

never asked about the Nulling. Never.

The aldermen stood with their heads bowed and a hush fell

over the crowd. The Black Wagon stopped close to the stage.

Breathing heavily, the horses relaxed their huge slabs of

muscles. The Redeemer leapt off the Wagon, his white robes

sweeping around him like a thick mist. He made his way

around to the back of the carriage. He walked in a crooked

fashion, like an arthritic old man. He opened the double doors

at the back of the Wagon. Bishop Gorlas led the twelve children

off the stage and down to the Wagon. He bowed in front of the

Redeemer, looking pale and fearful, like a little boy expecting a

beating from his father.

One by one the children disappeared inside the Black Wagon.

The doors closed with a loud metallic clang that made Elowen

jump. The Redeemer mounted his seat on the wagon. He sat

motionless. Then his head turned slightly, turned in Elowen’s

direction. For that terrible, lingering moment he stared right at

her. The cat scampered for cover beneath the stand and a

coldness gripped Elowen, like hundreds of icy fingers touching

her all at once.

Then he looked away and the coldness passed, Elowen felt

warmth return to her body. The Redeemer whipped the horses

22

into action, the Black Wagon turned on a wide circle before

thundering back down Westgate Street and out of sight.

The next few hours passed slowly. The crowd waited for the

return of the Black Wagon, impatient, hot and bored but none

dared leave. The aldermen filled the long hours with more

feasting and drinking. Throughout those long hours Elowen

found no rest, scrubbing and scrubbing. Boredom, tiredness and

hunger mixed to produce a misery she found hard to cope with.

The only thing that kept her going was the thought of Uther.

She longed to see her friend, to ask him what it was like to be

Nulled. Uther wouldn’t mind talking about it, he wouldn’t be

like other adults. In Elowen’s experience, most grown ups were

horrible with nothing but scorn for children. Uther would be

different, he would not change. She knew that for certain.

Then, as the clocks struck four o’clock, the Black Wagon

returned.

Gorlas emerged from the church as the Redeemer led the

twelve children out of the Black Wagon and back out onto the

stage. Soon they would go into the church for a blessing but

first they had to be presented to the people of Trecadok,

presented as adults for the first time. They stood in line while

the crowd cheered and clapped. Elowen leant forward,

straining for a clearer view of Uther. Even from a distance she

could see the Null, a piece of metal an inch above his right eye.

Uther had become a man.

23

- CHAPTER TWO -

Punishment

The Black Wagon churned up clouds of dust as it swept out of

the town. With the ceremony over the crowd began to drift

away. The taverns swiftly filled; laughter and singing carried on

the evening air. Their chores finished, Cornelius Cronack

rounded up the orphans.

‘FOLLOW ME BACK TO THE ORPHANAGE. KEEP PACE,

NO DAWDLING. NO TALKING,’ he shouted from the front.

The orphans formed an untidy line behind him. Elowen kept to

the rear.

Cronack led them along Westgate Street. They passed a

narrow, ten foot tall pyramid of perfectly smooth black metal.

The Sentinel. By command of Prester John there were Sentinels

in every village, town, and city. Elowen often wondered what

purpose they served but she dared not ask, nobody asked

questions about the Sentinels. Elowen kept her distance from it

as something horrible always happened to people who got too

close to it, everyone knew that. If you touched it you became ill

or mad. Elowen shivered every time she saw it, she felt a sense

of unease, a sense that it was somehow wrong. Birds refused to

perch on it and not even weeds grew near it.

Shops lined the length of Westgate Street, all of different

24

shapes and sizes with roofs and projecting upper storeys

thrusting out in different angles. From each shop swung sign

boards nine feet off the ground, high enough to allow a man on

a horse to pass underneath. Each board carried elaborate clues

to the nature of the business: the apothecary used the symbol of

the unicorn horn and dragon, the faded ironmonger’s board

showed a bag of nails and the Jack-in-the-Green for the

distillers. The boards were a rare flash of colour in Trecadok.

To the side of the apothecary lurked a dark alley. Elowen

spotted someone leaning against the wall, partly hidden by the

gloom. The tall figure stepped forward into the light and

Elowen recognised him immediately. Tom Hickathrift. He

bowed and said, ‘A good evening to you child.’

Elowen stopped but was too surprised to answer; he had

never spoken to her before. Hickathrift smiled, a crooked but

warm smile, and his eyes twinkled like stars. ‘I suggest you

keep pace with your friends.’ He pointed to the line of orphans.

Elowen turned and saw with horror they were now some

distance ahead.

‘You had best hurry,’ he urged. With that he bowed again and

melted into the gloom.

‘ELOWEN AUBYN! KEEP UP! DO NOT MAKE ME COME

AND GET YOU!’ shouted Cronack. Elowen hastened to rejoin

the line.

Cronack led the orphans through a warren of murky yards

and half drowned lanes which finally emerged in front of a

large two storey brick building.

The Orphanage.

Tall, narrow windows formed strict lines each side of a heavy,

arched black door. A sign hung above the door, written in stark

black writing were the words, ‘ In God and Prester John we trust.’

For Elowen the Orphanage was her home, her prison, her life.

The walls, the grime smeared windows and draughty corridors

were as familiar to her as her own body.

Cronack waited by the door as the orphans filed inside. Beside

him stood Diggory Bulhorn and the head boy greeted each

returning child with a different instruction.

25

‘Come on Greenwood. Hurry it up. ‘

‘Dowley, wipe that stupid grin off your face.’

His voice was in the process of breaking and had the habit of

turning into a high pitched squeal, an occurrence guaranteed to

send ripples of laughter through the orphans.

Elowen tried to sneak past, hoping that Cronack had forgotten

her earlier accident but it proved to be a vain hope. He grabbed

her by the ear, painfully twisting the lobe. In a grim voice he

said, ‘You are coming with me.’

He pulled her from the front door into the waiting hall; as

they walked their footsteps echoed against the wainscoted walls

and lofty ceiling. Portraits of the former Masters of the

Orphanage hung on the walls, old men with stern faces and

white hair. Elowen swore their eyes followed her every step.

Cronack let go of her ear and ushered her down the steps that

led to the Master’s Room. He opened the door with his free

hand and pushed her inside. She half fell into a narrow room

with a ceiling that sloped at a sharp angle, a room Elowen had

been inside many times before. At the far end a single window,

its shutters ajar, offered a ray of weak light. Shelves, empty of

books, lined the oak panelled walls. The room stunk of body

odour and tallow candles. In the middle of the room lay a table,

its surface grey with dust and littered with a few yellowed

papers, a leather bound Holy Book and a pile of tattered

chapbooks. But another object drew Elowen’s gaze, on the edge

of the table rested a long, thin piece of wood. The switch.

Almost unconsciously Elowen closed her palm; she knew the

punishment that awaited her. Five strokes of the switch.

With the floorboards creaking with every step, Cronack sat

down behind the table, his back to the window. He took off his

hat and rested it on top of the pile of books. He leant back in his

chair and shuffled the papers into a neat pile. Elowen remained

standing, hands clasped behind her back; she tried to swallow

but her tinder dry throat prevented it. Without looking up the

Master said, ‘Once again you have embarrassed this institution.

Tell me child, do you say your prayers every night?’

Elowen nodded. ‘Yes sir.’

26

‘And in your prayers do you give thanks to God and Prester

John for the kindnesses shown to you by this Orphanage? For

the food you eat, for the clothes you wear?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘And do you believe that the rules of this institution should be

followed as one would follow the word of the God?’

Elowen hesitated, trying to work out what Cronack meant.

Her stomach churned, not sure where the conversation was

going. She knew Cronack was going to punish her for spilling

the wine on Melder Morvel. He did not normally waste time

with questions. A little less surely she replied, ‘Yes sir.’

He stared at her, his pale eyes as cold as ice. ‘Then why do

you insist on defying these rules at every turn?’

Without looking away he moved his hat and picked up the

pile of chapbooks. In a slow deliberate move he stood up, a cold

twinge travelled through Elowen’s body when she realised

what the Master held in his hands. The books on the table were

her chapbooks, her pamphlets. She thought she had hidden them

safely beneath her blankets but Cronack must have found them

when inspecting the dormitory or maybe one of the other girls

had seen her reading them and told the Master. Elowen failed to

conceal her wobbling bottom lip.

‘These were found in the dormitory, beneath your blankets,’

Cronack hissed, holding them up for her to see. His voice began

to rise, ‘You know the rules of this Orphanage and you know

those rules forbid such material. They fill your feeble mind with

ungodly nonsense and dangerous fantasies.’

With his teeth clenched he tore up her precious chapbooks

and pamphlets and threw the pieces at her. Elowen flinched but

dared not speak or even move. With his voice rising to a shout,

Cronack pointed to the leather bound Holy Book. ‘THAT IS

THE ONLY BOOK YOU SHOULD READ. THE VERY WORD

OF GOD!’

He picked up the switch and rang a finger along its springy

length. ‘Hold out your right hand.’

Knowing she had no choice, Elowen did so. She gritted her

teeth. The first blow was always the worst. The breathtaking

27

pain of the first blow sometimes numbed the four that followed.

She heard the switch crack and a sudden pain exploded in her

palm. Her eyes watered and she bit her lip to avoid crying out.

He struck her again. Three times. Four. Five.

It was over.

But before she could move her hand, Cronack struck her

again. Elowen cried out in pain and surprise but the Master did

not stop. Time and time again he struck her until she lost count.

*

Elowen joined the other children in the dining-hall for supper.

Her hand still stung, the skin cracked by thin red lines. More

painful though was the loss of her books. Her hand would heal,

the pain would fade, but she could not replace her books.

Cronack and Diggory Bulhorn stood at the end of the hall,

watching the orphans like hawks. A small, thin woman with

cropped grey hair lurked behind Cronack. Warden Markham,

the Orphanage housekeeper. The skin on her face was stretched

tightly across her skull, causing her Null to bulge out. Her

fingers were bony and nimble, always moving, always working.

Markham viewed chores such as cleaning and cooking as the

noblest tasks in Mother Earth, all other concerns were mere

trifles. Her favourite saying was ‘God has a purpose for us all in

his great plan and this is mine’. When she worked she sung

hymns and recited prayers from the Holy Book, as though to

steel herself in battle.

The orphans sat in silence at the long wooden tables. The only

sound was the clink, clink of spoons against the old pewter

bowls. Two faded banners hung on the wall. One proclaimed,

‘God is Just.’ The other said, ‘Trust in Prester John.’

Elowen’s stomach grumbled with hunger but she knew the

meal in front of her would not satisfy: a thin soup, little more

than discoloured water with small, ugly pieces of potato and

onion floating in it. Elowen slowly scooped up mouthful after

mouthful. It hurt her hand to hold the spoon but hunger

overwhelmed the pain. A brittle slice of bread lay next to the

28

bowl; she tried to break it in half but succeeded only in sending

small, rock hard pieces flying into her soup and onto the table.

The other orphans sniggered. Cronack rasped, ‘Elowen Aubyn!

Pray be more careful.’

Elowen blushed and lowered her head.

When all the children had finished supper they were sent to

their rooms. The Orphanage was divided: one dormitory for the

boys and one for the girls. It was routine and life in the

Orphanage centred on routine.

The girls’ dormitory was a narrow room with a solitary

window at the far end. There were two parallel rows of eight

trough shaped beds. There weren’t enough beds for all the girls

so Elowen had to sleep on the floor with only a few rags and a

smelly, hole riddled blanket for comfort. She hated the

dormitory. It was so cold, so dark, so lifeless. It never changed,

always the same stark walls and the same stale smell, more of a

prison than a home.

Several buckets of cold water stood under the window for the

girls to wash in. The girls washed in silence, the watching

Warden Markham made sure of that. Elowen huffed and puffed

as she splashed the icy water on her face and body. The cheap,

gritty cake of soap she used broke up into several tiny, useless

pieces. The water stung her wounded hand and she winced as

she patted it dry. When they had washed, the girls changed into

their grey nightshirts, said the Holy Prayer and climbed into

bed. Warden Markham blew out the candles and slammed the

door behind her as she left.

Rain nibbled against the window, sounding like the cackle of a

small fire. There was a persistent tapping as water dripped

down from the overhanging roof. Elowen started to sort out her

smelly blanket and bundle of dirty rags, attempting the daily

impossible task of making her sleeping place comfortable.

Elowen had nothing to compare Orphanage life with. It had

been her only home but a feeling rooted deep in her stomach

confirmed that this was not a good place to live. Something was

wrong. It was not just the beatings, the terrible food, the cold,

the boredom. There was something wrong about the

29

Orphanage, something wrong about her life, a wrong that

troubled her like a bad dream half remembered.

Elowen had no memory of her mother. She thought of her

often and in her mind had built up a picture: a warm smile, long

flowing hair, kind eyes and a soft voice. In her daydreams

Elowen talked to her mother, she talked about the Orphanage,

about school, about Uther. She talked about what worried her,

about what made her laugh and what made her cry. And all the

time her mother listened patiently.

But it was a fantasy only.

Elowen envied children with parents. She had never been

kissed or cuddled. Elowen had no friends amongst the other

girls, in fact she hardly knew any of their names. It was the way

of the Orphanage. Friendship was not encouraged, the orphans

were meant to feel ashamed and worthless. Cronack frowned

upon laughter; even a smile could earn a rebuke. Elowen was

rarely alone in the Orphanage, but she always felt lonely.

Elowen found it hard to sleep. Her flea bitten legs itched

furiously and scratching only made them worse. From the other

girls came snores, sighs and mumbled words: the troubled

sounds of night in the Orphanage. She heard the night

watchman cry from outside, ‘Twelve o’clock!’ She started to feel

cold. A draught sneaked through the window above so she

pulled the rags and blanket tightly around her.

‘Go to sleep,’ she whispered to herself. Sleep was precious.

Only when sleep took her did the grey walls of her prison fade.

*

The Ulsacro. A palace, a church, a monastery, a laboratory and a

library: all contained within a vast rectangular wall of granite

hewn from the Ulmeria Mountains on whose grey slopes the

palace stood, clear of the mosquito line, a deliberate advantage

in the malaria plagued lands of the south.

The blackened exterior wall was broken only by thin window

openings and four peaked corner towers. Above all towers and

roofs rose the dome of the Royal Palace, fully three hundred

30

foot high. For five centuries the Ulsacro served as the residence

of the Patriarch, the head of the Mother Church but the last

Patriarch had long been buried and the palace now belonged to

one even more powerful. Prester John.

Within the palace a solitary figure strode through the long

corridor which led to the Hall of Light. His robes billowed as he

walked, stretching out like the wings of some monstrous bird.

He stood seven foot tall and wore a full face mask, as white as

alabaster, with blank features that concealed any signs of

humanity, leaving only raised angular cheeks, dead eyes. In his

hand he gripped a scroll. The guards posted along the corridor

did not challenge him. All knew his name and all feared it.

Lord Lucien.

The floor beneath his feet shone, rubbed smooth by the feet of

those who in generations past had come to beg for counsel, to

beg favour or even to beg for their very souls. Lucien felt the

weight of history in the air. The Ulsacro had witnessed many

sides of humanity: piety, ambition, treachery and greed.

Memories drifted through the walls and to Lucien they were as

tangible as icy water on his lips, as cool wind on his face. He

held his own memories of the Ulsacro. Memories of darkness, of

solitude, of fear. Once he had been a prisoner of the palace, the

hidden secret of the Ulsacro, the hidden secret of the Mother

Church.

He pushed those weak thoughts to the back of his mind. He

needed all his strength.

Along the length of the corridor thick marble columns rose to

capitals decorated with intricate leaf carvings. The ceiling above

remained a dark space, the meagre light unable to penetrate.

But as Lucien reached the end of the corridor and emerged into

the vast open space beneath the dome of the Hall of Light, the

darkness retreated. The large windows in the dome flooded the

interior with golden light. Within these slabs of light millions of

grains of dust swam like frenzied schools of fish. The ceiling of

the dome was decorated with mosaics of angels and saints,

formed of irregular cubes of glass set at angles so that they

sparkled in the sunlight.

31

But Lucien noticed none of these miracles. Instead he marched

towards the centre-piece of the Hall of Light, a dais of six steps

nestled under a marble canopy crowned by a gilded figure of

the Saviour, his right hand extended in blessing. A metal throne

crowned the top of the dais and upon that throne sat an old

man, seemingly asleep with his chin resting on his chest. Prester

John. Lucien’s heart beat faster as he beheld his master. Prester

John wore simple clothes, a cowl and cape made of coarse wool.

Rumours abound he wore a hair shirt, a symbol of his piety, his

humility, his devotion to the Almighty. Lucien always smiled at

the story, how little the human rats knew.

Courtiers congregated at the foot of the dais, whispering,

gossiping, plotting. All wore brimmed hats decorated with

colourful feathers and their jerkins, breeches and quarter length

capes were the finest money could buy. They all carried

gleaming ceremonial swords, blades untouched. Their soft

hands were not marked by the blisters and gashes of sword

fighting. Their dreams were not filled with the screams of the

dead and dying; they sent others to do their killing.

Lucien despised them; they were all flatterers and deceivers.

Their perfumed smell sickened him and they were drawn to the

power of Prester John like moths to a flame. Their talk

quietened when they became aware of Lucien’s presence.

Sensing his mood, they edged away and melted into the

shadowy recesses in the far side of the Hall. When they had

gone, Lucien knelt at the foot of the dais. Prester John made no

sign that he was awake but Lucien was happy to wait for his

master, the man who had saved him, the man who had set him

on the true path. Prester John remained his leader, his teacher.

Several minutes of silence passed until his master spoke. He

did not look up or make any other sign that he was awake.

When he finally spoke the voice sounded old and raspy, the

words dragged out of a strained throat. ‘My old friend, this is

an unexpected visit. Please, stand. What brings you here? I

know how much you detest the Ulsacro and the heat of the

south. I believed you to be camped near the Preven Gap ‘

‘So I was but then this was brought to me,’ said Lucien as he

32

stood and he held up the scroll. ‘These are tidings that could not

be delayed.’

At that Prester John lifted his head and stared down at Lucien.

He adjusted his position in the throne, his bones creaked like

snapping branches. Light fell upon his face to reveal dry,

shrivelled skin and deep sunken eyes. ‘Tidings?’

Lucien mounted the steps and passed the scroll into the shaky

hands of his master. He then returned to the foot of the dais.

Prester John slowly opened the scroll and then brought the

parchment closer to his weak eyes to read it. He licked his lips

and frowned. ‘Are you sure of this Lord Lucien? You are certain

it was the Map of the Known World?’

His throat dry, Lucien answered, ‘Quite sure my master. The

Illuminati had gone to considerable lengths to keep this hidden

from us. The Brotherhood pursued their ship from the southern

sea to the shores of Helagan.’

Prester John fell silent, rubbing his tired eyes. Then he rolled

up the scroll and rested it on his knees. ‘This is unfortunate.

How did the map slip through the fingers of the Brotherhood?’

Lucien paused before answering. That was the question he

had feared. He sensed his master’s displeasure. He had failed

him and he felt ashamed. ‘One of the Illuminati survived the

sinking of the ship and fled with the map. Footprints were

found on the beach close to the wreck. Some local scavengers

saw him flee. They have been silenced of course.’

Prester John began to wring his pale, wrinkled hands. ‘We

cannot allow the map to reach the Illuminati.’

Lord Lucien bowed. ‘Command me Lord.’

Prester John leant back in his throne and spoke, his voice

rising to almost a shout. ‘Instruct the Brotherhood to find this

map at all costs. Find it and slay the one who carries it. Slay all

with whom he comes into contact with. Especially children. We

can take no chances with them. Mercy is weakness Lucien. We

must harden our hearts, what we do now is for the generations

to come.’

‘The Brotherhood shall carry out its duty,’ assured Lucien.

‘There will be nowhere he can hide.’

33

Prester John stood, grunting with the effort. Like a climber

picking his way down a treacherous slope, he slowly descended

the steps. When he reached the bottom step he said, ‘Do not be

troubled my friend. The map will soon be found and with it the

last hope of the Illuminati vanquished. And now to other

matters, I trust your army is ready to march on Prevennis?’

‘They are camped two days south of Hammersund. Our allies

in the palace have assured us that surprise will be total.’

‘Then let us hope they prove worthy of our trust,’ said Prester

John firmly. ‘For too long King Olaf has defied me. He protects

those cursed Barbegs and he knows the location of the

sanctuary of the Illuminati, I am certain of it.’

Lucien took a deep breath. ‘Even so, this is not without risk.

What of our enemies to the east, the Oroks and the Khiltoi,

should we not deal with them first? They are much more of a

threat to the Mother Church than King Olaf.’

Prester John leant forward, his eyes narrowed. ‘It is a risk we

must take. Olaf is the key to finding the Illuminati. And finding

and destroying the Illuminati is the key to eliminating our

eastern enemies. It is only through with the guidance of the

Illuminati that the Khiltoi persist in hiding in that accursed

forest of the Altheart. Without the hindrance of the Illuminati,

our crusades would have broken the Oroks long ago. No, once

the Illuminati are crushed, no power on earth can oppose us.’

Prester John laughed, an icy, staccato chuckle and put a

fatherly hand on Lucien’s arm. ‘You have done well my friend.

Your long labours shall soon be at an end. All that we have

worked for, all that we have fought for, is within our grasp.’

Lucien felt pride swell within him. The conclusion of his

master’s plan drew close.

*

Dawn brought Elowen little comfort. Her injured hand still

throbbed, the skin stretched and dry. Warden Markham roused

the girls at six and after reciting the Holy Prayer together they

made their beds, washed, dressed and marched into the silent

34

dining-hall. Diggory Bulhorn stood at the head of the tables,

checking the orphans’ names on his list.

‘Hurry it up now,’ he ordered, trying to sound like Cronack.

As Elowen ate her breakfast of thin gruel, she thought of

Uther. Today would be his first day as a man, living and

working with the gardener, Old Man Panchent. Panchent often

worked at the school, cutting the grass, trimming the hedge and

Elowen hoped he would be there today, with Uther. She was

bursting with questions to ask her friend.

Like an unwelcome guest, Monday morning had arrived in

Trecadok. Tired and hung over from the May Day celebrations,

the town groaned at its appearance and stumbled to work or, as

in Elowen’s case, school.

It was a short walk from the Orphanage to her school but

Elowen never hurried; the walks to and from school were her

only moments of freedom. Orphans up to the age of eleven

were taught in the Orphanage classroom but following a

charitable act by the Board of Governors, older boys and girls

were allowed to attend school. And Elowen hated it.

She loved learning and she loved reading. The pamphlets she

had hoarded opened whole other worlds, as she read her

surroundings would melt away to leave only the voices of the

people in the story. For those brief moments she became free,

free from the grey walls of the Orphanage, free from Trecadok.

But she experienced nothing like that at school.

Nothing she learnt there interested her. Needlecraft. Holy

Book readings. Housewifery. How could you feel excited about

housewifery? Elowen knew there was a place for domestic

chores, after all, everyone needed to eat, wear clothes and wash

but such chores failed to bring her the leap of joy that a book or

a tale brought.

It was another of those fickle Trecadok mornings when the

sky stubbornly refused to give a clear sign of the weather to

come. A patch of blue sky here, a miserable cloud there. The sun

appeared then disappeared as though frightened to show itself.

As she walked, Elowen tried to think but as each thought grew

in her mind its roots were pulled up by the hundred competing

35

noises that filled the air: the rumble and squeak of cart wheels,

clatter and hammering from workshops, overhead signs

creaked and squeaked in the breeze, leather shod shoes

clattered on the cobbles and horses neighed and stamped.

As Elowen crossed the Shambles the market was already

busy. Pears, apples, cheese, eggs and fish were heaped together

on the same stalls. Housewives bartered with sellers; from a

rickety stage, a mountebank held the attention of a growing

throng with lurid cries, ‘Predictions! Solving of omens! Curing

of ailments!’

Elowen hated crowds, she hated people being too close,

knocking into her, touching her. Voices, hundreds of voices.

‘MIND OUT IDIOT!’

Elowen stepped back just in time to miss the horse-drawn cart

which sped past her onto the Shambles.

‘Watch yourself pauper!’ he snarled, his face animated by

anger. He waved a fist and sped on, the wheels of his cart

throwing up a cloud of dust and grit.

Elowen trembled at his violent reaction. She had wandered

into the road, a mistake, an accident. Why were people so

aggressive? They needed only the slightest provocation.

Everyone was in a constant rush, a constant hurry.

A little shaken, she continued on her journey. Sparrows

darted here and there, picking up morsels from the oats

scattered onto the road from horses’ nosebags. Amongst them

strutted starlings, arrogant and pushy like drunken yobs. As if

from thin air, Tom Hickathrift appeared in front of her. Elowen

flinched and stopped, only inches away from bumping into

him.

‘Ah, I beg your forgiveness. My eyes were not following my

feet,’ he said. The ribbons around his staff and the ties around

his knees rustled as he moved. He smelt strongly of tobacco.

Elowen took half a step backward. ‘There is no need to say

sorry.’

‘Such manners for one so young,’ he smiled broadly, his eyes

glistening. ‘Pray may I be so bold as to ask your name?’

Naturally wary, Elowen paused before answering. ‘Elowen.

36

Elowen Aubyn.’

‘A fair name to be sure.’

Feeling more than a little embarrassed, Elowen said, ‘Excuse

me sir. I must be getting on. It’s school you see…’

‘Of course, how rude of me,’ he exclaimed so loudly that

several by-passers turned and stared. ‘Pray carry on. I hope we

will talk again one day Elowen. You have a friendly face and

that is a rare gift in these troubled times. For now, farewell.’

He then bowed theatrically and strode off towards the

Shambles. Elowen continued on her way. Hickathrift’s

behaviour was odd. Strangers never spoke to orphans; she was

used to averting her gaze, not catching someone’s eyes lest she

caused offence. Why was he being so friendly?

Before she could consider it any further Elowen reached the

arched gate of Trecadok Girls School. Ahead stood a two storey

building with clean symmetrical lines, broad windows and an

imposing front door. A gravel path led to the door, evenly

dividing a lawn of closely cropped grass. A horse chestnut grew

close to the north end of the school; the tree’s white flowers

sprouted in large upright masses that resembled candles. A few