The Night Train
Back inside the black carriage, Kate sat beside Silas as they rolled their way speedily back across town. But this time, Silas opened one of the curtains to make sure he wasn’t being followed, giving Kate the chance to see her town for one last time.
The snow made it all look eerie and unreal. Children wandered without parents, dogs snuffled through the streets, and the black robes of the wardens were never far away, breaking down doors or wrestling people into cages. She thought about Artemis and about all the years they had spent worrying about this day. It had made no difference in the end. Artemis was gone. Edgar was gone. Kate was alone.
It was almost dark by the time she spotted the Night Train’s thick tracks slicing through the town like a scar, carving a hard iron curve through the Eastern Quarter as it threaded from the trading towns of the north to the capital city of Fume in the distant south. Those rails linked every town in Albion like an ominous metal vein, and the people who lived close enough to see the Night Train pass by always closed their curtains against its eerie light. It was easier to pretend that it didn’t exist, that it didn’t choke the air with foul smoke and leave the heavy rumble of metal on metal thrumming through the ground long after it had gone.
The road they were travelling upon ran alongside a stone wall that lined the track’s route, but Kate did not recognise this part of town. The houses were larger and grander than any other part of Morvane, yet few people lived there. The station cast too dark a shadow over that part of the Eastern Quarter. It made people uncomfortable. Kate had seen pictures of the station in books at her uncle’s shop, but he had never let her see it for herself. Now she was so close to it, she found that her curiosity had gone. She didn’t want to see it any more. All she wanted was to be back at home, getting ready for the Night of Souls, living life just as she had lived it the day before. But all that was impossible now. Silas had made sure of it.
The driver shouted out to someone up ahead. A gate screeched open and the carriage wheels crunched on to gravelled ground, rolling past row after row of wheeled cages with flaming torches punched into the ground to light the paths between them. There were many more there than Kate had expected. What she and Edgar had seen in the market square must have been only a small part of the wardens’ plans for the town that day. There were at least five times as many cages outside that station than had been in the square, all filled with so many people that it was hard to believe the wardens had left anyone behind.
Most of the prisoners were yelling angrily at the wardens, rattling their bars, trying to find a way out. Others were trying to bargain with them, offering up their businesses or savings for a second chance at freedom, while the rest just sat there, quietly accepting the grim truth that they were no longer in control of their lives.
‘Every one of these people will do their duty to Albion,’ said Silas. ‘Just as thousands of others have done before them. You are fortunate you are not one of them.’
‘My uncle is one of them,’ Kate said quietly.
‘That part of your life is over. There is nothing you can do for him now.’
The blazing torches lit up the night and, as the carriage turned, Kate finally saw the station with her own eyes. It was an ancient place, centuries old, built for a single track and one special train. Kate knew from her books that, long ago, the gravel where the cages now stood had been a beautiful garden where the coffins of Morvane’s dead were taken before being carried by train to Albion’s graveyard city. Friends and family would have gathered for a funeral in that garden before passing the coffin over to the bonemen - the keepers of the dead - who took it on to the train, ready to make its final journey south.
The bonemen were a select group of the Skilled who had devoted their lives to helping the spirits of the dead pass safely out of the living world and into the next. They had once been the sole guardians of the graveyard city, performing complex rituals, maintaining the tombs and graves of the many families interred beneath its earth and ensuring that their remains were treated with respect long after their funeral day had passed. But that was before the wardens had claimed the Night Train for themselves, before the bonemen had been driven into hiding and one of the old High Councils had walled up the country’s burial ground, transforming it into the great fortress city of Fume.
Fume was now a place for the wealthy, not the dead, and since the war with the Continent had begun, it had been the only town spared the threat of the wardens’ harvests. Living in the shadow of the High Council came at a high price, but for those willing to pay it, Fume was the only place in Albion to feel truly safe. The tall memorial towers looked down over stone streets, built to house the High Council’s most trusted followers and their families, while the extensive underground maze of caverns and tombs were left to lawless groups of smugglers and scavengers who managed to scrape out a living down in the dark. The needs of the rich were served by hundreds of servants and slaves, and none of them ever gave a thought to the thousands of dead still buried beneath their feet.
In its prime, Morvane’s station had been a simple building built from black stone. The main structure straddled the tracks like a long tunnel and a large arched entryway jutted out into the garden, with a large wooden door that was always open, ready to welcome the dead. That was how Kate had seen it in drawings copied from that time, but now it looked very different.
Without the garden to soften its dark façade, the station was a bleak, miserable place. It looked angry and broken. Rain and wind had worn away most of the entryway, leaving only the right-hand wall and a few crumbling pieces of the rest. The wooden door lay rotting on the ground; metal beams that had once held a curved slate roof were gradually being devoured by rust; and, alongside what was left of the main building, a decrepit clock tower stood like a sentry overlooking the tracks. Normally that tower would have been in darkness, but on that night its roof was alive with a crown of dancing fire. The wardens were signalling the Night Train, ordering it to stop.
Silas’s carriage headed straight for the station, and as it rolled in through the entryway every warden stood to attention, acknowledging his arrival. Then a deep sound rumbled like the bowels of the earth and somewhere to the north - still too far away to see - the oncoming train’s great wheels began to slow down.
Inside the station, the first cages were already being moved across the platform in preparation for the train’s arrival. But all work stopped and every prisoner fell silent when the ground began to tremble and a cold blue light seeped out of the darkness, tracing along the edge of the track’s boundary wall and focusing into a single blinding beam that cut through the night like a knife. The deep noise sounded again. Closer this time and unmistakable. Silas’s driver stopped the carriage right on the edge of the platform, where he climbed down, unhitched the horses and led them quickly away.
Kate could feel the train approaching, but she still could not see it. The ground shook hard. Silas swung open the carriage door and the horn wailed again, deafeningly close. He pulled her out on to the slippery platform. Light flooded the walls, the rumble of wheels echoed through Kate’s bones and the Night Train thundered into the station, groaning and grunting like a vast malodorous beast.
It was a moving stink of dripping oil, hot grinding metal and burning fumes; a patchwork of heavy repairs, newly forged metal and old hammered panels all riveted together into one scarred machine. Its massive wheels growled against the pressure of the brakes and its metal carriages rolled behind, each one windowless and terrifying, accompanied by the creaking sound of hanging chains.
The train was a monster. Its engine car was taller than a house, with a twisted steam chimney on top and a pointed grille mounted on the front designed to push anything it encountered out of the way. Kate’s head swam as a wave of putrid steam gushed from the wheels and tumbled on to the platform, carrying with it the hot smell of burning oil and churned-up dirt. The nearest carriage groaned as it settled to a stop, letting the train fall into as close to a silence as such a huge machine could get.
The Night Train stretched back endlessly down the track, no longer the grand funerary train of Albion’s last age, created to carry the dead to their place of rest, but a twisted ruin of what it had once been: a symbol of terror instead of hope. Its carriage doors opened one by one, filling the air with the shriek of sliding metal, then the first cages were rolled forward and the throbbing sound of machinery echoed inside, sending many of the prisoners into a panic.
The station was in uproar. No one wanted to be put on that train and their shouts were deafening. People fought at their locks, tried to squeeze through the bars, and two cages crashed on to their sides as their occupants tried desperately to escape. The wardens ignored them and stood in silence along the platform, their daggers glinting in the lantern light. They did not care if people shouted or fought or begged or screamed. To them, Morvane was just another town and they had already won.
‘You will not be travelling with them,’ said Silas, turning Kate away from the shouting people and leading her towards the front of the train. ‘I want you where I can see you.’
A set of three metal steps folded down from a door close to the front of the train and Silas motioned for her to step aboard. Kate looked back across the station, wondering where Artemis was amongst all of those people. Maybe if she did what Silas wanted for now, he might make a mistake, or at least leave her alone long enough for her to free herself. Something told her Silas was not the kind of man who made mistakes, but that small hope was enough to make her climb those steps with a little less fear. She was going to get out of this and she was going to help Artemis. She just didn’t have any idea how she was going to do it yet.
Kate stepped up into the monstrous carriage and was met by the dull flicker of tiny lanterns swinging in groups from metal beams overhead, but other than those beams the roof was completely open to the sky. Dark clouds moved sluggishly through the night and the jagged remains of the station’s roof criss-crossed above her. The night train was a bare skeleton of what it had once been. It had walls but no roof and no real floor besides the girders needed to hold it together. One step to either side would have sent Kate falling through on to the tracks and, if the train was moving, she had no doubt someone could easily be dragged underneath.
‘Keep moving,’ ordered Silas.
Kate continued slowly along the girder towards the centre of the carriage. To her right three rows of cages hung from chains hooked on to the beams and three more matched them on the left-hand side, swinging precariously over wide open gaps in the floor. All of them were empty.
Silas unlocked one of the cages on the right and held it still while she climbed inside. ‘This is the quietest part of the train,’ he said, unclipping her wrist chain and locking the door behind her. ‘The wardens do not patrol this carriage and I have sole possession of the prisoners carried here.’ He pulled a red blanket from a cage on the other side and forced it through the bars into Kate’s hands. ‘Get some sleep. We will not reach Fume until morning and there will be plenty of work for you to do once we arrive. You will be no good to me without rest.’
Kate shivered in the icy cold. Snow began to fall again and she waited stubbornly for Silas to walk back out on to the platform before wrapping the blanket around herself for warmth. The great train’s door slid shut and the finality of the sound reverberated through the walls. She rattled the cage door. The lock was bent a little from a previous occupant’s attempts at escape and it would not budge, so she stood in the corner of the cage with the blanket around her, clutching her mother’s necklace, not wanting to accept the truth.
She was trapped on the Night Train, helpless, just as her parents had been. Was this how they had felt the day the wardens had taken them away? How long had they survived after being taken on board? Kate knew that they had made it to Fume, but Artemis had never told her what had happened to them after that. She buried herself deeper in the blanket. She was about to take the same journey her parents had taken ten years ago and there was nothing she could do about it.
There was no way out, nowhere to go. All she could do was wait.
Crouching behind a wall just outside the gravelled garden, Edgar would have done almost anything for a blanket. His toes were numb, his fingers ached with cold and his skin prickled in the icy air.
Getting across town had been difficult enough. With time against him, he had ridden a stolen bicycle the entire way, pumping the pedals as fast as he could, taking shortcuts no warden would ever know about, dodging patrols and trying to stay out of sight while the Night Train drew closer to the town every second. He had made it. The train was still there. All he had to do was sneak on board. That part had sounded easy when he had first thought of it. Now, seeing so many wardens in one place, it was starting to look impossible.
Edgar was peering over the wall, watching for a break in the warden patrols, when a flutter of wings settled on the wall beside him and he turned to look straight down the beak of Silas’s crow. The bird strode proudly in front of him, not caring that it had been seen.
‘Shoo!’ said Edgar, slapping it away. ‘Get lost!’
The bird jumped deftly out of reach, lowered its head and let out a loud, sharp call. ‘Krrarrk!’
‘Stop that!’ Edgar tried to grab hold of it, but it moved too fast, marching stubbornly up and down the wall. ‘Fine.’ Edgar grabbed a chunk of stone and threw it at the crow’s feet. The bird clicked its beak and flapped its wings, glaring at him.
‘Didn’t like that, eh? Next time it’ll be your head,’ said Edgar. ‘Go on!’
The crow tilted its head to one side, as if listening to something far away. Then it snapped its beak viciously towards Edgar’s nose and took flight, circling up to the nearest rooftop to keep watch from a place Edgar’s stones could not reach.
‘Great,’ whispered Edgar. If the crow knew where he was, it wouldn’t be long before Silas sent the wardens out looking for him. It was time to do something.
‘It isn’t that hard,’ he told himself, looking out at the cages and shuffling his feet to keep warm. ‘Just stick to the plan.’
For his plan to work, Edgar had to choose his moment carefully. With most of the wardens loading cages on to the train there were fewer of them left to guard the ones furthest away from it. All he had to do was climb one, hide on top of its roof and let himself be taken aboard.
He stood up as straight as he dared, watching the commotion that had started inside the station spreading quickly to the prisoners still waiting outside. Edgar knew that sound well. The sound of fear. He knew what was in store for the prisoners. The Night Train was the stuff of nightmares to most people, but to him it was far more than that. He had been ten years old the day the wardens had come to claim the people of his own home town. He remembered being pushed into one of those cages, holding his brother’s hand and promising him that everything was going to be all right, even though he knew it wasn’t. He could never have imagined that, seven years later, he would be waiting for it again, trying to find his way on board.
‘This is it,’ he whispered, spotting a break in the patrols. He clenched his hands into fists, not at all convinced that he was going to come out of the next few minutes alive, and then he ran out into the moonlight, darting between the cages, searching for an empty one he could climb.
Some of the prisoners shouted at him as he sped past, but their voices were lost among the rest. Edgar ignored them. He couldn’t afford to slow down and there was nothing he could do for them anyway without a warden’s key. Then he saw them: a pair of wardens patrolling away from the rest, close enough for him to see the whites of their eyes. He ducked quickly behind the nearest cage and scrabbled beneath the wheels, waiting for them to pass by.
He had been too slow.
For a moment, Edgar just stared at the two men as they ran his way. Then he rolled out across the dirt, sprang to his feet and was off at a sprint, barrelling along like a wily mouse fleeing from two fast cats. He raced past five burning torches and made a sharp turn before colliding with a horse that reared up in fright.
‘Argh!’ He wriggled away from the horse’s falling hooves, scrambled under a second cage and changed direction. There was no time to climb on top of a cage now, so instead he did what no warden would expect him to do. He headed straight for the night train itself.
Groups of lanterns fanned out from the station as patrols began sweeping the rows one by one. The search was highly organised, making it predictable enough for Edgar to slip between two groups and sneak right into the station without being seen. Once inside, he crept along what was left of the main wall and ran across the northern end of the platform, jumping down on to the tracks between two of the train’s enormous carriages. He ducked down, pressed his back against the side of the platform and stopped there to catch his breath and figure out his next move. Getting that far was amazing enough, but the train would be leaving soon and he still had to find a way on board.
Once all of the front carriages were filled, the train’s brakes steamed suddenly and the wheels began to move. Edgar heaved himself up on to the metal links that held the two carriages together and, as the train rolled forward to bring the rear carriages up to the platform, he struggled to keep his feet up off the tracks, dragging himself along on his belly and clinging on to the links for safety. Every inch the train moved carried him an inch further down the platform, past wardens and prisoners alike. He had to move. Fast.
Edgar had been carried right through the station by the time the train stopped again. His hands stung as he peeled them off the icy metal and began to climb hand to hand up a vertical bar fixed to the end of one of the carriages. Once up, the snow was falling so heavily it blinded him to everything further away than two carriages in either direction. There was no way to tell where Kate would be, but if he stayed out in the open for too long he would be too cold to do anything other than curl up and hope the weather finished him off before the wardens did.
There was no sign of Silas’s crow inside the station and, as the prisoners continued to be loaded, Edgar spotted some of the horse-drawn carriage drivers walking their horses down the platform ready to be taken aboard.
Where there were animals, there was heat. If the train had a horse box …
Edgar set off, skulking along the edges of the carriage roofs, moving parallel to the horses as they made their way to the middle of the train. He moved quickly, concentrating on where he was putting his feet and daring to make the jump between carriages whenever one came to an end. His stomach turned with every leap. He felt exposed, the ground was too far away and he knew he would become nervous and fall if he looked down. Somewhere through the snow he heard Silas’s voice, but the order he was shouting was nothing to do with him and so he kept going, feeling like a fly on a dog’s back, until the smell of hay and animals reached his nose, drawing him on with its promise of warmth.
He knelt on top of the only carriage he had found with a proper roof and looked down through a wooden grille at a collection of tired horses, each one penned in, giving off a welcome heat that drifted up through the bars and into his face. With two strong tugs, the old grille broke off in his hands and he dropped down into an empty stall. The neighbouring horses stamped their hooves, sensing the presence of an intruder, but Edgar was too exhausted to care. He piled the hay up around him, letting his muscles relax for the first time in hours, and squeezed his freezing hands together, trying to warm up his blood.
He sat there like that for what felt like hours, watching the door and getting ready to bury himself in hay just in case a warden stepped inside. Then at last, the wardens’ work was done. Edgar felt the train shudder and strain as its engine gathered power.
The horn sounded. Brakes hissed. Wheels turned.
There was no turning back now.