The Night Train hulked its way sluggishly out of Morvane’s station, puffing heavily through the snow and grunting along a wide curve that took it through a gated arch in the town’s eastern wall and out into the open country. Wandering animals fled before it as the great train gathered speed, dragging itself south with a fresh load of human cargo, slicing its way towards the distant city of Fume.
Kate was the only prisoner in her section of the train, but she was not on her own. Silas spent the entire journey watching her, his grey eyes gleaming almost white in the half-light. Just having him near her made Kate feel colder, and even when she shuffled around so she could not see him, she could still feel him looking at her. Snow blew in through the open roof and she buried herself deeper in the blanket, trying to concentrate on keeping warm.
The train rumbled for hours through the overgrown fields and hills of the wild counties, where wolves howled through black forests and stalked the riverbanks out on their nightly hunt. Towns held their breath as the train smoked through them, and the glow of distant fires flickered around the base of the eastern hills, where the residents of smaller villages kept watch, making sure the train passed them by.
The people of Albion had not always lived this way. The seas dividing the island country from its cousins had once been filled with huge-sailed trading ships carrying goods like wool, fruit and wood to the Continent and bringing fine cheeses, oils, horses and lotions back in return. Trade flourished. Towns grew. The wild counties were veined with roads and walking trails, and journeys between towns were commonplace. Wardens had not worn robes back then and they had not been feared. They had been trusted men - the towns’ defenders - tasked with keeping wolves from the town gates and guarding the people who travelled across the wild counties in between.
The country had been great once. Its vast towns and grand architecture were the envy of every other country on the Continent, but while the fighting of a war had not made life any easier, the rot had begun to sink in long before war had been declared.
For more than a thousand years, Albion had been ruled by the governing High Council. Thirteen members - usually men - who had all shown distinction in many different areas of public service. Being chosen to wear one of the High Council’s robes of office was the ultimate honour, giving them a coveted place of responsibility at the very head of Albion society as lawmakers and defenders of the country’s history and its people. The system ensured that only people who had proved their commitment to bettering Albion were put in charge of the decisions that would shape its history and, at first, it worked, but it took time for ordinary people to recognise its one fatal flaw.
The power attached to being a member of the High Council lasted until death. Only then could a new councilman take an old one’s place - and some people did not like to wait. Those who had learned they were next in line soon began to take chances, often going so far as employing assassins to speed up their ascension to the council’s chambers, and those who were ruthless in their acquisition of power proved no less ruthless in their wielding of it. Under their influence the focus of the High Council gradually began to shift and corruption spread like poison through the halls of the old ruling city.
Council members who resisted the greed of the others had a tendency to disappear, leaving their seat open for new blood more willing to accept changes in how things were done. Soon personal wealth meant more than anything else in the selection of new council members. The welfare of Albion fell secondary to the greed and personal gain of those in charge of its laws and council seats began to be handed down through bloodlines, offered to people who could pay their way into power, or presented only to those whom the existing councilmen knew they could trust. Shaped by such grasping and devious hands, Albion soon began to suffer.
No one really knew when the first change came. There was no single moment, no sudden day when everything was different. Darkness crept slowly over Albion. The High Council became more secretive, the wardens gradually drew back from the wild counties and, without their protection to rely upon, travel between the towns became dangerous. People began to go missing on the roads and many chose to stay within their own walls, letting nature creep in around them rather than setting out to brave the world alone.
Within fifty years of the wardens’ retreat the councilmen had become suspicious of their neighbours and wary of their own people. They were rarely seen outside their chambers. They recruited the wardens as their protectors and enforcers, called back the trading ships and put them to work patrolling Albion’s borders instead. Within a hundred years, the towns had become completely isolated, their people linked by only two things: the High Council’s laws and the night train’s tracks.
At that time, the High Council’s ruling city was a small town that lived within tempting sight of Fume’s impressive towered skyline. The councilmen could no longer stand to see the greatest buildings of past ages being wasted on the dead, so with the help of their wardens, they took Fume for themselves, driving out the bonemen and killing any who dared to challenge the council’s claim. The night train was left to rust in its station. Towns were forced to bury their dead in open spaces that had once been parks or greens or gardens. Life gave way to death all across Albion and nothing was ever the same again.
Within the protective walls of Fume, the councilmen led privileged lives, demanding more obedience from their people whilst offering them less and less in return, and when war came, the people accepted it without question, knowing they could do nothing else. No official reason for the conflict was given. Many speculated that Albion’s broken trade agreements were to blame, but no one really knew for sure and the High Council saw no reason to tell them. People were simply expected to do their duty: to live quiet lives and to fight when they were ordered.
Albion had become a place of suspicion, doubt and lies. The war dragged on, communities were torn apart by the wardens’ harvests, and living beneath the shadow of an unknown war eventually became an accepted way of life. Years passed and soon there was no one left alive to remember that life had been any different.
The people of Albion did not often like to talk about the way things had once been and Kate was just the same. Artemis had raised her to concentrate only upon what was there, right in front of her eyes. There was nothing to be gained from looking back, he always said; nothing except regret. But sitting in that train, listening to the creaking of her cage chains, Kate could not prevent her thoughts from turning to her own past and her memories of the place she was leaving behind.
She remembered the smell of her mother’s oil paints and her father’s laugh as he worked alongside Artemis in the bookshop and she knew that, despite everything that was going on around them, her family had been happy once. Now they were gone, Artemis was missing and their precious bookshop was nothing but a burning shell. Kate hugged her knees up to her chest. There was no doubt that Albion was dying, but it seemed that her little part of it was dying more quickly than the rest.
The clouds slowly changed from night-time grey to patchy indigo, then pale violet and pink as the sun began to rise over the eastern hills. Kate’s body ached with cold and her eyelids were starting to become heavy when she eventually heard the swooshing sound of stone arches passing overhead. The Night Train’s brakes engaged, sending a loud squeal screeching up from the hot wheels, and Kate sat up, knowing that the sound could only mean one thing.
They had arrived.
Fume was Albion’s most fortified city, separated from the rest of the world by high outer walls and a wide river that had been diverted to circle it like a moat. Rows of empty stables stood along those walls, where travellers’ horses had been kept before war with the Continent had been declared, and dozens of wardens stood guard along the city’s perimeter and at the great black gates, ready to question anyone who wanted to pass through. But Kate could not see any of that herself. All she saw were more arches passing above her as the train slowed down, sweeping around a wide curve of track.
‘Hold on to something,’ said Silas, still standing beside her. ‘Now.’
Kate grabbed hold of the bars just before the cage swung hard and the entire carriage tilted forward, descending into a sloping tunnel that carried the train underground. They were gaining speed, darkness swamped the carriage and the horn sounded again, echoing deafeningly from the walls as they swallowed the train down. After that there was only the smell of smoke and choking heat as the lanterns flickered out.
The walls hugged dangerously close to the carriages and the ceiling was just high enough to allow the engine’s chimney to pass through. Kate’s eyes stung in the hot smoke as the train rolled deeper underground, beneath the river, beneath the city walls and down towards the oldest foundations of the city. The screams of the prisoners sounded distant and unearthly. The train shivered so violently it felt like it could fall apart at any moment and still the tunnel continued curling down. Metal ground against metal, the brakes squealed and the train slowed. Then the tunnel widened, soft firelight spread from a red-bricked ceiling hung with lanterns and the mighty engine rumbled along the last few feet before coming to a final bone-juddering stop.
The wardens wasted no time. The sound of sliding doors shook through the train and raised voices carried through the air. But they were not prisoners’ voices Kate could hear. They were loud, confident, and they were all shouting at once. Silas threw open the carriage door and what Kate saw beyond it was as unexpected as it was terrifying.
The train had stopped at a station built into a cavern of earth that looked like it was being held up by buildings from the past. The damp walls were a mass of stone pillars, half ruined walls, statues, doorways and arches positioned in places no one would ever be able to use them. Some jutted out at odd angles halfway up the sides of the cavern, half buried in the mud, and others were squashed on top of each other like layers in a cake. It looked like someone had taken chunks of broken buildings and pushed them into the cavern walls, letting them sink in before the earth had hardened permanently around them.
Outside the train was a wide stone platform divided in two by a high wooden fence. The right-hand side was for the wardens and prisoners being taken off the train and the left side was filled with people shouting at them, waving pouches of coins and craning their necks to get a good look inside the carriages before anyone was brought out.
‘Tailors!’ shouted a woman, her shrill voice carrying above the rest. ‘I’ll pay five gold for a seasoned stitcher, two for an apprentice.’
‘Housekeepers!’ barked a man beside her. ‘Four gold apiece for a strong woman and boy!’
And so it went on. A rage of voices, all desperate to buy the prisoners like they would buy animals at a market. Offers were made, bids were argued and increased, and all the while cages were wheeled out of the carriages and the people of Morvane were fed into the belly of Fume one by one.
No daylight poured in to brighten the station. More braziers spat and hissed along the ceiling, arranged in line like a fiery spine, and there were two torch-lit exits to the left of the platform: one for the crowd and one with a fenced path leading to it from the prisoners’ side.
Kate pressed her back against her bars, trying to stay out of the crowd’s sight, but not before she had spotted something else waiting on the opposite side of the platform. A second train, sitting on a parallel track. Kate had never heard of a second train existing in Albion. Its engine was barely half the size of the Night Train. It looked newer and more carefully pieced together, with carriages built like huge metal crates, its doors barred and its livery shining a deep dark red.
Most of the male prisoners were not for sale, and they were pulled straight on to the red train to the groans and disappointed shouts of the onlooking crowd. Kate watched as a small group of pickpockets were allowed to squeeze in through a gate and snatch whatever they wanted from the prisoners being taken on board. Cloaks, shoes, coins, anything that could be grabbed through the cage bars was taken, but the thieves paid a price for what they took. Not one of them skulked back into the crowd without a bruise, a broken finger or at least a dazed look in their eyes once Morvane’s men were through with them.
Kate looked for Artemis among the steady stream of people being wheeled across the platform, but there was no sign of him.
‘Wait here,’ said Silas, walking to the doorway and kicking the three steps down on to the platform. ‘I will come back for you.’
Silas stepped off the train into full view of the crowd, and the effect his presence had upon the people was incredible. All shouting stopped at once. The station fell silent as he swept his eyes around it, scrutinising every face, every movement and every breath taken around him.
Kate could almost feel his concentration. She could sense dominance emanating from him without him even saying a word. He was completely in control of every person in that station. Not one of them would dare to defy him. Fume was his city. His territory. In that place he was not just another face among many enemies. He was known and feared for reasons far beyond the reach of any ordinary warden. No one looked at him directly, careful not to attract his attention, and the air hung with the anticipation of his words. When at last he did speak, it was to give one simple instruction. ‘Carry on.’
With Silas’s blessing, the crowd burst into life again. The frenzied bidding continued, the station was a mass of ordered chaos and then one bidder’s shout stood out above the rest.
‘Scholars. Historians. Booksellers! Paying a high price!’
‘If you’re not interested in this batch then keep your mouth shut,’ growled a warden, glaring at a small man who was waving a hat in the middle of the crowd. ‘Wait your turn.’
Three more cages rolled by before the man called out again. ‘I represent a member of the High Council! I must be heard. Scholars! Historians! Booksellers! Name your price.’
That got the wardens’ attention.
Orders were passed along the platform. There was a burst of activity further down the train, and a cage was lifted out before its turn.
‘All right then. One bookseller. The only one we have. He’ll do.’
Kate moved around her cage, trying to get a better look. There was only one bookshop in Morvane and, as far as she knew, Edgar had not been captured by the wardens. The only bookseller on that train had to be Artemis.
‘Does he know his trade?’ asked the buyer. ‘My mistress demands someone skilled in history and literature. Nothing less.’
‘He’s all we’ve got. Either take him, or clear off.’
The buyer pushed his way to the front of the crowd, money changed hands and the warden gave another signal to his men. A cage was pulled forward by two brown horses and there, sitting inside it on his own, was Artemis, looking pale and sickly in the firelight. The man inspected him briefly - ‘He’ll do’ - then Artemis was rolled off towards the prisoners’ exit tunnel and Kate could only watch helplessly as he was taken out of sight.
‘Next!’ bellowed the warden, pocketing the fat coin pouch.
She had to do something. She had to get out!
Kate was struggling to break her lock when a shout carried along the platform, a sound like a screaming cat ripped through the air and green fire streaked past the train before exploding not far away. Silas turned, his face veiled in anger as a second streak chased the first - red this time - with a silver sparkle right on its tail. The crowd ducked as one and a blaze of white sparks blossomed above their heads, accompanied by an ear-splitting bang.
Someone was setting off fireworks in the station.
Wardens converged on the source of the commotion and their frightened dogs struggled against their leads as they barked and clawed the ground. Kate was too far back to see anything clearly. More explosions burst above the platform, a green flash erupted right above her carriage and when she looked up she saw someone slither down through the roof, grab on to one of the cages and drop into the dark. The hot smell of hay and horse manure wafted Kate’s way and a very dishevelled-looking Edgar crept over to her with hay sticking out of his wild hair and soot from the cellar fire still clinging to his clothes.
‘That should keep them busy,’ he said, grinning as another rocket whizzed overhead.
‘Edgar! What are you doing here?’
‘Helping you. What does it look like?’
‘How did you—?’
‘We don’t have long. Silas’ll find the fuses in a minute. They’ve got crates full of those things out there.’ Edgar pulled a long black key out of his boot and unlocked Kate’s cage. ‘I got this off a wall hook three carriages back. I was starting to think you weren’t on board. Most of the other prisoners are off now.’ The door swung open and he held out his hand. ‘Let’s go then.’
‘Artemis is here,’ said Kate, as soon as she was free. ‘I saw him.’
‘I know. I saw him too, but there isn’t time to … Hang on. Trouble.’
Kate followed Edgar’s eyes. Silas was crossing the platform, heading right for their carriage.
‘Quick! Climb up!’ said Edgar, holding her cage as still as he could.
Kate jumped on to the bars and climbed them right up to the roof beams. She looked down once she reached the top, but Edgar was gone.
Silas’s shadow spread across the carriage and Kate leaned back, trying to stay quiet. It took only a moment for Silas to realise she was gone and the cages crashed together as he began searching for her.
She had to move. She had to get away from him.
The place Kate was sitting was only two carriages away from the Night Train’s engine. She skirted the roof quickly and found the top rung of a ladder taking her right down on to the tracks.
‘You!’ Kate heard Silas’s shout in between two more screeching bangs.
He had found Edgar.
There was nothing she could do. If she went back, she would be caught - and what good would she be to anyone then? She forced herself to walk away from the shout, down a narrow worker’s path squashed between the train and the station wall. Soon she was right beside the hot black engine and there were only two choices from there: down into the tunnel, or back out on to the platform. There was no way to know where that tunnel came out. Edgar was in trouble, and every second she wasted carried Artemis further away. She had to risk the platform.
With fireworks still lighting up the air, no one noticed Kate climb up off the tracks and squeeze through a broken panel in the side of the wooden fence. Water dripped from the muddy ceiling like indoor rain and tickled her head as she slipped unnoticed into the crowd, most of whom had their arms over their heads for protection, pushing their way towards the arched exit behind them. She was just about to follow them, hoping to find Artemis somewhere on the other side, when Silas dragged one final prisoner on to the platform.
Edgar limped awkwardly into the light, squinting through a bruised eye. As soon as some of the braver bidders saw him they started counting what was left in their coin pouches, weighing up Edgar’s value with eager eyes, but one look at Silas’s face showed that he was not for sale. His eyes scoured the crowd. Kate ducked behind a tall woman beside her and when she looked out again Silas was marching Edgar off to the prisoners’ exit on foot. That must have meant something serious, because the crowd suddenly became angry, squeezing forward to glare and shout.
‘Traitor!’ spat the woman closest to Kate. ‘You’ve earned what you’ll get, boy.’
Edgar turned to look at the heckling crowd. He was trying to put on a brave face, but Kate could see right through it. She knew he was scared and she pushed her way forward, determined to do something, anything to let him know she was still there and that he was not alone. She dodged around the heaving bodies and found herself squashed against the wooden fence as Edgar walked by. There was only one safe way to get his attention, so she shouted out loud with everyone else.
Edgar looked up, recognising her voice, and she waved to him in a small way that no one else could see, trying to send everything she wanted to say to him in one desperate smile. His face brightened a little when he spotted her and sank again as Silas grabbed the back of his neck, forcing him away.
Kate pushed back through the people and forced her way through to the exit leading to the city above. She climbed up a long twist of spiral steps, hoping that the two tunnels came out at the same place, but the narrow staircase was full of people. She tried to run, but the steep steps and heaving bodies made it difficult to move fast.
A burst of sunlight met her at the very top and she found herself standing in the middle of a busy path framed by high stone walls. There was no sign of Edgar or Silas anywhere, so she followed a handful of people in front of her and tried to look like she knew where she was going.
The thin path turned and split like a maze with rusted hand-painted signs directing people to places like Narrow Way North, Traitor’s Gate and Sunken Lake. Kate lost sight of her guides whilst reading one of those signs and decided to take a chance and follow the path marked Traitor’s Gate, hoping it would lead her to Edgar.
The way became dirtier and quieter the further she went, until she had the feeling that the only people who took that particular path were those who were forced to. Then the path turned sharply and Kate froze, face to face with a pair of wardens. They were just guards, standing either side of a small door. There was no way they could have known of her escape, but her terrified face must have betrayed her guilt, because both of them drew their daggers as one. Fear overrode everything else, and Kate ran.
The wardens gave chase, their bootsteps closing in upon her as she raced off down the pathway. She ran as fast as she could go, rejoining the main flow of people and pushing her way through them, and when the path turned sharply, she collided solidly with a small man in a tall hat.
‘You there!’ the man said, grabbing hold of her wrist. ‘What is your business here?’
‘Let me go!’ Kate struggled to free herself but the man held her tight, taking every kick and tug as he tried to get a good look at her face. Finally their eyes met and his face fell with shock.
‘You!’ he said. ‘You’re one of them.’
Two wardens ran up the pathway in answer to the man‘s call, their bootsteps closing in on Kate, gaining every moment.
‘Let me go!’
Kate tore her hands from the man’s grip and raced off down the pathway with the wardens close behind. She ignored the signs, knowing they couldn’t help her, and chose turnings at random, leading her right up to a dead end where a wooden door was sunk into the wall, bolted tight shut.
There was nowhere else to go. The wardens were almost upon her. She slammed the lock to one side, heaved it open and ran through, not caring where it was taking her. And there, topped by a wide patch of perfect blue sky, Kate got her first true look at the grand graveyard city of Fume.