The Map of the Known World by Steven Smith - HTML preview
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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
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
Faced with this unexpected resistance, Bulhorn opened and
closed his mouth like a grounded fish. ‘The Master will deal
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
‘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
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
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
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
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
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
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
‘Why are you so sad?’ she had asked. ‘You should be excited
about tomorrow’s ceremony.’
‘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
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
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
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
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
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.
- CHAPTER TWO -
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
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
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
‘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
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.
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.
‘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.’
‘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?’
‘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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
stood and he held up the scroll. ‘These are tidings that could not
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
‘The Brotherhood shall carry out its duty,’ assured Lucien.
‘There will be nowhere he can hide.’
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
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
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
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
‘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
‘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.
‘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