After he cried, he sat for a moment. His empty stomach rumbled.
“Joshua? Is that you in there?”
He looked up. Heathcliff strode towards him with something draped across his narrow shoulders. Joshua hoped it was a fencing foil.
Heathcliff had a long thin face with a mop of crazy red hair on top of a beanpole neck. He always had a smile on his face regardless of the circumstances and this day was no exception.
“Why so glum, chum?” Heathcliff asked.
“Where have you been all morning?”
Heathcliff gave him a hand up.
“Lucinda told me about the kitchen. She was afraid you’d try to fight it out. I can see you did.”
Heathcliff pointed at his lip. He worked his tongue around his mouth and felt the raw tender cuts inside his cheek and tasted the blood.
He admonished, “If you had been there-“
“We both would have been pulverized,” Heathcliff countered.
“It’s five against two, buddy. Maybe six against two. I hear their leader is a big one.”
“He’s bigger than either of us.”
Heathcliff slapped him on the back, right on one of his more sensitive bruises.
“Well, cheer up.”
“Cheer up? We’re going to bed without dinner.”
“Not us, my friend. And here’s why.”
With that Heathcliff showed him the long reed pole he carried across his shoulders.
“What are we going to do with this?”
“Fish,” Heathcliff answered.
Heathcliff declared, “Not here. The river. It’s full of fish.”
A moment later he asked, “Isn’t it?”
“I don’t know,” Joshua replied.
“Let’s find out.”
“That’s your solution? Stick a line in the river and hope you catch something?”
“It’s either that or sit here and mope all day. Come on.”
With that Heathcliff wrapped an arm around him and the two of them headed for the River.
The River Lechlade cut the city in half. To get there they passed by the tall apartments of Rustington and the soot belching factories of Smokestack Alley.
“Someday we’ll live here,” Heathcliff said.
“You think so?” Joshua asked.
“You bet. All six of us will cram into one of those rooms together. We’ll all get up at the crack of dawn, trudge to work, come home after dark, and collapse of exhaustion.”
Joshua said, “I can never tell if you’re being serious.”
“You tell me, would you trade our current situation for that situation?”
“Then I was being serious.”
Joshua smiled. Heathcliff could always manage to make him smile even in the grimmest of situations.
Just then a girl jumped out from behind a corner.
She was tall, thin, with a mop of curly gold hair. She wore the same rough, unwashed clothes that all street dwellers wore. She silently studied the two of them for a moment.
“Hello,” Joshua said.
The girl said nothing. She raised her right hand and grew a great circle in the air. The two of them blinked at her for a moment.
The girl then contorted the fingers of her left hand into a bizarre sign.
Joshua and Heathcliff looked at each other and shrugged.
“So, you’re not members of the brotherhood,” the girl sighed.
“The Great Children’s Underground,” she answered as she tucked her gold hair under a shapeless cap.
“Who are you?”
She offered Joshua her hand. He took it. Sophie squeezed hard and shook his arm like it was a rusty water pump. She looked to be about the same age as him and Heathcliff.
“And to whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?” Sophie asked.
“I’m Joshua Sage. This is Heathcliff Pucker. Pleased to meet you. Good day.”
They continued to the river. Sophie quickly followed.
“I thought you might be members of the Underground because you carried that reed pole. I thought it might be a sign or a cipher.”
“No. It’s just a reed pole. Hear that Joshua, I caught something already,” Heathcliff said.
“Fine, we can eat her then. And what is this thing you keep talking about?”
“The Great Children’s Underground,” Sophie repeated.
“What is that?”
Sophie didn’t answer. Instead she asked, “So why do you carry a reed pole?”
“We’re going fishing.”
“We’re hungry,” Joshua said. Her questions irritated him worse than his bruises.
Why is she still here? Why doesn’t she go look for these underground kids she blabbers on about?
“If you’re hungry, why not go to the Charity Kitchens?” she asked.
“We’ve already been.”
He told her about Benjamin Bastion and his gang.
“Hmm. Perhaps they’re part of the Great Children’s Underground.”
“Why don’t you go ask them?” He demanded. Anything to get rid of her and her constant questions.
Heathcliff chided, “Don’t be so mean. Sophie, don’t go there. They’re just bullies.”
“You’re probably right. They can’t be members. The Underground would never tolerate such an outrage.”
They came to the coal docks that fed the factories of Smokestack Alley. Great barges floated downstream from Black Hill. One of the great hulks drifted past them, obsidian colored rock piled high on its massive body.
They stepped to the edge of the dock and peered into the murky smelly water below. It looked as dirty as the smoke from the factories.
“I don’t think there’s any fish here,” Joshua said.
“Not here. But there’s cleaner water upstream.”
Joshua jammed a thumb in towards the barge.
“That’s upstream,” Joshua corrected him.
“Or downstream. One way or the other. Where the river meets the sea and the great ships come from all over the world. Come on.”
Heathcliff walked along the dock following the river.
Joshua sat down on a post.
“You go. I’m done walking for now.”
“I’ll be back with supper. You’ll see.”
Heathcliff continued on his way. Joshua grabbed a few loose cobblestones and bits of stray debris. He passed them from one hand to the other then threw them into the brackish water. Each missile made a loud plop as they hit.
Sophie stayed and watched him intently.
Now what does she want? I already told her I don’t know these Great Buried Children or whatever she’s looking for.
Her stare and her silence annoyed him even more than her nattering questions. He took a deep breath and asked, “Who are these kids who are underground?”
“They don’t literally live underground.”
“Of course. How silly,” he said.
“The Rat King lives underground. No child wants to be around him.”
He had never heard of anyone called the Rat King.
“The Great Children’s Underground,” Sophie enunciated.
“They’re a secret society made up of children, orphans like us from all over the world. Here in the city, in the countryside, across Europa and the rest of the world. They’ve banded together to help one another.”
Joshua threw the next stone extra hard.
“Help? What help? Where are they? I could have used some help this morning. I could have used some help every day for the past year! No one has ever helped me or my friends. Certainly not some Great Children’s Underground.”
“Well, you can’t expect them to just appear. You have to look for them,” Sophie said.
“They’ve helped hundreds before. They’ve smuggled hostages out of the East. They’ve saved innocent men from the gallows. Surely a hot meal is no problem for them.”
Joshua threw the next stone straight down at the wooden planks of the dock. It bounced off the wood and tumbled into the water.
Now he wanted her to be quiet. Her words made him angrier and angrier. But Sophie kept on.
“You should really look for them. What will you do if Heathcliff doesn’t catch any fish? What will you tell your friends?”
He exploded, “The one thing I won’t do is fill their heads with a load of nonsense! Why don’t you take your fairy stories and bother someone else!”
Sophie’s lip quivered. Her eyes watered as if he had slapped her. Right away Joshua wished he hadn’t shouted. Before he could say he was sorry, Sophie ran off and disappeared into the alleyways.
He dropped his head. All his anger replaced by shame. Getting beat up didn’t feel as bad.
Lucinda told him his heart was too big.
Just then he heard a plopping sound from the water.
But he hadn’t thrown in any more stones.
He crept to the edge of the dock and looked down at the river. Something stirred just below the black surface. A bubble plopped. Then Joshua saw the hand rise up out of the water.
He looked around frantically and found a length of rope. He swiped it off the ground and threw it.
“Grab hold!” he shouted.
The rope hit the water.
A pair of hands desperately grasped it.
Joshua wrapped the rope around the post and pulled as hard as he could. His arms and back strained. He dug in his feet and jerked harder.
The line came up slowly, bit by bit.
Finally a soaked hand appeared at the edge of the dock.
He ran over and pulled the man the rest of the way to safety. He was a small man, not much bigger than Joshua. His white hair was plastered to his head. His wrinkled face huffed and puffed for breath. Joshua let him down easy.
“Are you all right?”
Despite his rescue from the river, the old man still struggled with each breath. His eyes were wide. His face was flush.
He was hurt badly.
Joshua shook him gently.
The man’s eyes shifted and looked at him. Then he smiled broadly as if he recognized Joshua. He tried to speak.
“Good,” was all he could manage.
Joshua looked at the man intently. He’d never seen him before, he was sure. The man had a nose like a bulb of garlic and ice blue eyes that looked right through him.
“Who are you?”
The man wheezed but Joshua couldn’t make out what he tried to say.
The old man struggled to breathe again.
Joshua called for help. No one was around.
“I have to go.”
The old man clutched his arm.
“Wait,” he gasped.
He reached into the pocket of his waistcoat and pulled out something wrapped in wax paper.
“For you,” he said.
Joshua took the item in his hands.
The man mimed putting it into his mouth as if he wanted Joshua to eat it.
Joshua took off the wax paper and stared at the object. He couldn’t make out what it was. It constantly changed as he looked at it. At once it was dark as chocolate, then golden like a dollar coin, then green like a spinach leaf. And its smell constantly changed as well. It smelled like roasted meat, then of fresh fruit, then of stinky cheese.
He thought he shouldn’t eat it all by himself. As small as it was it should be shared with the others. But his stomach growled. Before he knew what he was doing, he had the thing in his mouth and swallowed.
Warmness spread through his body. It started from his stomach and flowed to the top of his head. He felt the weight of his worries instantly melt away.
A moment later he looked down at the old man. He wheezed with every breath but smiled contentedly at Joshua.
“I’ll be back with help,” he promised.
Then he ran to look for a constable, a shopkeeper, anybody. But he found no one about. Joshua ran until he was out of sight of the dock.
After the boy left, a form crawled out from beneath the dock. It was a man, but one who moved like a spider. He had long, impossibly thin arms, legs and torso. His head was covered with a burlap sack with a single hole cut into it. Out of this hole stared a bright red eye. No man still alive knew his real name, even he had forgotten it. The ones who knew him, the people who lived in the cities darkest corners called him Hodmedod.
“Thought you’d get away?” he hissed.
The old man coughed as Hodmedod crept closer.
“You can’t get away. No one ever gets away from me.”
The old man’s face trembled yet still he smiled at Hodmedod.
“You want to die smiling? You think that’s bravery? Maybe it is. But it doesn’t really make a difference. The end is all the same.”
Hodmedod took a long thing blade from his pocket.
“I ate at your establishment once. A pity that such a fine chef should die here surrounded by rotting fish and waste oil. It reminds me of a story I once heard about a mighty redwood that was chopped down to make toothpicks.”
He bent over the old man and ended his life. When they found the body it would look like heart failure had taken his life.
Hodmedod slipped away without a sound. He heard the boy call for help in a nearby alley.
Maybe I should get rid of him too.
For a moment he considered it.
Bah. Why waste time? The boy didn’t see me. He’s just a street rat. Who cares about one of them?