Authors: Simon Kewin
Copyright © Simon Kewin 2013
The right of Simon Kewin to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
Apart from any use permitted under UK copyright law, this publication may only be reproduced, stored, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, with prior permission in writing of the publishers or, in the case of reprographic production, in accordance with the terms of licences issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency.
First published in 2013 by December House Limited
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Cataloguing in Publication Data is available from the British Library
December House Limited
Astech Mill, 50 Stratford Road, Shipston-on-Stour, Warwickshire, CV36 4BA
For my parents, married 60 years, for giving me love of family and love of words.
The Ironclads lifted Finn and heaved him into the moving engine. He kicked and bucked, skinning the knuckles of his left hand on the hatch as he tried to stop himself, but it was no good.
‘No!’ he shouted again. ‘Please, no!’
Any one of the Ironclads could have lifted him, and there were three of them, one holding his legs, one on each arm. They flung him inside. He cracked the back of his head on the metal floor as he landed.
His voice boomed in the enclosed space. The interior of the moving engine was dark, a cylinder of curved iron plates riveted together. It smelt of smoke and oil and rust, the stifling air hot in the back of his throat as he breathed it in.
The master stood behind the Ironclads in the circle of light of the hatchway. He wore his familiar grin. ‘Shackle him, too. He’ll travel the rest of the way to Engn in there.’
The Ironclads paused for a moment while they received their instructions. Finn saw his chance. The thought of being locked inside the moving engine was too much. He would rather die. He scuttled forwards to the opening and leapt out to his freedom. But one of the Ironclads seized his leg. Finn half-fell to the floor. Screaming from rage and fear, he kicked and kicked at the Ironclad who held on to him.
‘Get him!’ the master shouted. ‘Throw him back inside!’
While the other two Ironclads tried to grab hold of his flailing arms, Finn put all his strength into one more kick. He caught the Ironclad squarely in the face. They were protected by their metal masks, of course, but he heard the muffled grunt of pain as his kick caught the Ironclad’s nose. The grip around his shin lessened and he pulled himself free. Scrambling and tripping, he ran from the moving engine, from the Ironclads and their master.
He had to get away. He wouldn’t let them take him, as they’d taken the others. Connor and Shireen and the rest. He’d be like Diane. He didn’t know the valley around Fiveways, but a stand of conifers, a finger of the woods that covered the upper slopes of the whole valley, lay not too far away. He bolted for them. He would be safe there. The woods were his territory and their horses would be no good among the trees. He could run and hide and they’d never see him again. He’d live free and safe in the wilds; he’d hunt and fish and never have to face the Ironclads again.
The blow on his back sent him sprawling to the ground before he had chance to react. He tasted mud. Turning over, he saw the master astride his horse, standing over him, an amused look on his face. In his hand he held a thin metal staff with a bulbous club end. He held it ready to strike Finn again.
‘Do you want to run some more, boy? I can play this game all day.’
Finn scrambled to his feet, spitting mud and grass from his mouth. A sharp pain thudded across the back of his shoulders, but nothing appeared to be broken. The Ironclads approached in a line off to one side, wary of him bolting again. Blood poured from beneath the mask of the one he’d kicked. He couldn’t outrun them out in the open, not with their horses. He glanced uphill again, towards the trees, the welcoming darkness beneath them. They were his only hope. Could he get that far? Maybe, maybe not.
‘Let me go,’ he said. ‘If you take me to Engn you’ll regret it. Everyone there will regret it.’
The master laughed, shook his head. ‘You know, I think we’ll take the risk.’
‘I’m serious,’ said Finn. ‘When I get there I’ll fight. I’ll…’ He stopped himself. He’d nearly blurted out his great secret. But of course he had to think of Connor.
‘Fight back all you like, boy. It won’t make any difference. Now get into the engine.’
‘You’ll have to catch me first.’
Finn turned and sprinted for the trees. He slipped and skidded on the sloping ground. He threw himself forwards, scrabbling with his hands. He was close now. He could hear the hooves of the master’s horse as it cantered up behind him. Only a few more strides. Once in the trees, he’d run until he found the paths and glades he knew. Or head up the valley beyond Ironoaks where they’d never find him. Safe.
This time the blow was to his head. He must have blacked out for a moment because he had no memory of falling. The next thing he knew was the solid ground beneath his back and the grip of the three Ironclads as they picked him up and carried him back to the moving engine. His vision swirled and he thought he was going to be sick. Weakly, he kicked and writhed, but it was no use.
This time two of the Ironclads, reaching inside the cramped metal tank, pinned him on his back. The metal floor burned against his shoulder-blades. He tried to wriggle free, desperate now, but their grip was unbreakable. As they held him, the third Ironclad reached inside for a chain anchored to the inside of the machine. He clamped it around Finn’s ankle, pinching his skin in the process.
‘Well,’ the master said, peering over the Ironclads’ shoulders, ‘now we have you. And there’s really no point trying to escape. If I were you I’d sleep all the way to Engn. We’ll be there in a week. You’ll need a rest.’
The Ironclads released Finn and stepped back. He scrambled to his knees. There wasn’t room to stand properly. He grasped the door frame ready to pull himself out, back into the light, despite the chain around his leg.
‘Move your fingers, boy.’
The master held the metal door, ready to slam it on Finn’s fingers. The grin on the master’s face told Finn that he would do it, too. Finn pulled his hands back and the master heaved the iron door shut. The whole engine clanged around him like a cracked bell. Finn’s head rang with the sound of it. He cowered to the back of the machine and sat there. He was alone in the darkness.
Sounds from outside the moving engine became immediately muffled. He heard voices, the master giving more orders to the Ironclads, but he couldn’t make out what was being said. The machine thrummed and throbbed; he could feel it in the bones of his chest. The air turned to smoke; it was warm and bad, as if it had already been breathed by something. He had been eaten by this metal beast. The darkness around him felt solid, a smothering blanket.
Nothing happened for a moment, and Finn began to think they had left him to die inside the moving engine, ridden off without him. Then the furnace within the machine roared back into life. The moving engine twitched once then jerked forwards, sending Finn tumbling to the back of the cage, where he bashed his shoulder hard.
He sprawled on the floor. With a repeated
sound, the breathing of the beast, the engine trundled forwards. Finn wedged himself into a corner to stop himself being jolted around. He curled into a ball, pulling his knees up to his chin. His face was wet. Blood or tears. He tasted some on a finger. Just tears. The metal floor was hotter here; he was near the furnace that powered the moving machine. He called out, a shout rather than words, but it was lost in the roar of the engine. He pounded the walls with his fists, again and again, but the engine trundled and jerked onwards, ignoring him.
He tried to think clearly, control himself. The air became thicker and warmer still. It scoured the back of his throat, making him retch and cough. With each bump in the road he jolted from side to side.
A line of small, square holes ran along the curved side of his prison, big enough only for him to poke a soft fingertip through. He put his mouth to one of these now, hoping to suck in fresher air from outside. Gritty flecks of rust came off on his lips. The metal tasted of blood. The hole was too small to pull in much air. He coughed again, the rust peppering the back of his throat. For a moment he couldn’t breathe at all. Panic rose within him like the waters of a flood. He lost control of himself again, throwing himself at the walls, screaming ragged screams.
Finally, sobbing, breathing in gulps, he stopped. He crawled back into his corner.
His head hammered with pain. He shut his eyes, trying to calm his breathing. Perhaps he would be rescued. The wreckers would ambush them, set him free. Over and over he saw it, the Ironclads fighting and dying, the master dying, the smile cut from his face. The door of the moving engine thrown open wide.
But no ambush came. Exhausted, rocked by the jolting of the machine, Finn’s eyes dropped shut. He slipped in and out of a half-sleep, vivid images coming to him, shocking him awake again. It was just as dark when he opened his eyes. He became more and more confused about where he was, what was real. Again, his mind fled the confines of his roaring prison, taking him off to happier places.
He was a young boy again, reliving his earliest memory, sitting with Shireen in the clearing in the woods in the summer, the heat of the machine the summer sun beating down on the top of his head.
She must have known what was to happen to her that day, some word of warning on the line-of-sight. His older sister, almost a grown-up herself, would never normally play with him for a whole morning. He was delighted to have her to himself.
‘Close your eyes, Finn,’ she told him. ‘You mustn’t see where I’m taking you.’
She lead him along twisting pathways in the oak woods on the slopes behind their house. He tried to work out where she was leading him but soon lost his bearings. Leaves tickled his face. The ground was soft beneath his feet, but dry. He longed to open his eyes, just for a moment, the slightest crack. But that would break the spell. He reached out with his foot to feel what was beside him on the path. He knew these woods as intimately as only a child could. Each mound and tree-root and bush. Yet he could feel nothing with his outstretched toes, as if they were walking some unknown path with sheer drops on either side.
Her hand was cool in his; it was wonderfully cool under the leaves. The sun outside was unbearable. It was like creeping too close to the furnace in their father’s workshop, the heat crashing into you like a cymbal. Each day burned hotter than the last. The world became a shimmering cauldron by day, sticky and airless by night. In the garden, pink flowers the size of plates, exuding a sickly sweet smell, had rampaged out of the beds to envelop everything. No-one had the energy to cut them back. It was too hot to move, too bright to see. But among the shifting shadows of the great branches, you began to wake up again.
‘Here,’ she said. ‘Sit down here, Finn. You can open your eyes.’
They were in a clearing he didn’t recognize. They’d walked farther than he’d ever dared go on his own. His mother said he had to stay within sight of the house when he went out to play, but he was OK with Shireen.
He could see nothing beyond the green wall of trees and the darkness that crowded behind them. The leaves lolled as they waited for a breeze to save them. A lone bird sang, rare in the heat. His sister smiled, her face full of bright, crisp detail. Sunlight through the tree-tops made her brown hair glow with gold sparkles. She sat down next to him. The bark of the old log was rough on his hands.
‘This is my favourite place, Finn,’ she said. ‘I come here to sit, sometimes. No-one else knows about it. I wanted to show it to you.’
Finn looked around, expecting to see fairies like those in the books she read to him. Tiny figures with flowers for hats and clothes of red or blue or orange.
‘Will you come here too, Finn? From time to time?’
‘Just to sit. To think. To remember.’
He shrugged. ‘I’ll try. I might forget.’
She smiled at him. ‘Not to worry. Just every now and then. You could play here with your friend. With Connor.’
Finn said nothing. Connor wasn’t his friend. Connor scared him. The Baron’s son was a year or two older and much bigger. He could already ride a pony and had his own fishing-rod, which he was allowed to use in the river. Finn had seen him haul a shining, writhing trout from the river a few days ago. Connor had placed his finger and thumb into the fish’s gulping mouth and broken its neck with a simple movement, red blood staining its gills. Finn, hiding behind bushes, had crept away, his heart beating wildly.
‘Would you do that for me, Finn? Come here?’
‘You’ll have to show me the way.’
‘You’ll be able to find it yourself. When you’re a bit older.’