Joshua and Heathcliff ran through the streets of the Old City. He checked behind them. Several times he thought he saw the great white figure rounding the corner just on their heels.
They came out on the river street. They weaved through the well dressed people out to enjoy the river walk. A minute later they reached Jane’s Bridge and raced over it.
The constable at the other end stepped in front of them and raised his hand.
They screeched to a halt.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
Joshua shot a glance backward.
Was Gorgette still behind them? He’d catch up for sure if the constable didn’t let them pass.
“Quiet!” the Constable bellowed.
Joshua looked back towards the old city. People on the river walk turned to stare at the commotion on the bridge. If Gorgette appeared now, he’d spot them for sure.
“Get back on your side,” The constable demanded.
Joshua looked back. The constable was forcing them back to the Old City. Gorgette would appear at any minute. What could they do? Could they jump into the river and swim? He didn’t know if Heathcliff could swim.
Then the constable pointed towards Rustington.
“Go on. Off with you both.”
Joshua sighed. He was kicking them out of the Old City and back into Rustington.
Heathcliff complained, “That’s where we were headed you big loon!”
Joshua grabbed him and they dashed back across the river.
They ducked into an alley and panted.
Joshua checked the other side. He waited for the great figure in white to appear from the bowels of the Old City and stride towards Jane’s Bridge in pursuit.
But he didn’t appear.
Gorgette didn’t follow us. We’re safe.
“Mind telling me who or what we’re running from,” Heathcliff asked.
Joshua thought for a moment. Should he tell Heathcliff the truth? Did he even know what that was? All he knew for certain was that Augustus Gorgette, one of the richest and most powerful men in the city, was out to get him and he had to stay hidden.
It might be very dangerous.
He thought, of course I should tell him. He has a right to know.
But then he thought, what if he decides it’s too dangerous and leaves? What if they all leave?
Heathcliff waited for an answer.
Just then they heard Sophie.
“Over here,” Joshua called.
She ran into the alley out of breath. Tears streaked her face. Black grime covered her from head to toe. They almost didn’t recognize her.
“What happened to you?” Joshua asked.
“The Rat King!”
Joshua rolled his eyes.
“Please, not another one of your stories.”
Sophie balled up her fists and swung at him. Heathcliff grabbed her by the waist and pulled her back.
“It’s true!” Sophie cried.
Heathcliff let her go and she sank to her knees and cried.
“I’m not making this up!”
“You shouldn’t judge, not after all this,” Heathcliff scolded.
Joshua nodded. That was true. Was anything he’d just discovered any stranger than a Rat King?
Sophie still sobbed.
“Are you all right? I’m sorry.”
“It’s not that. Well part of it is. But he has them.”
“He has who?”
“Dina, Lucinda, the twins. He’s captured all of them. They’re all prisoners of the Rat King.”
“We met up at the Charity Kitchen. It was near deserted. The children were all at Dreamer’s Garden and the attendants were all brawling in the streets. We just stayed around for a while. There’s a concrete drain around the back. It was bone dry. The little ones went in to play. Dina looked inside the pipe and said she heard a kitten mew. She went inside. When she didn’t come out the twins rushed in after her. Lucinda and I followed. We crawled into the dark and that’s when we ran into them. Burly, hunchbacked men with bone white skin and dressed in smelly rags. You should have seen those men. They were all twisted. Like some giant had grabbed their bodies had wrung them out. They had Dina and the twins. They grabbed us.”
“But you got away,” Joshua said.
She shook her head.
“They caught me. They told me to go get the boy who cooks. I didn’t know where you’d gone. I was about to give up hope. But then I heard a merchant laughing. He said he saw two boys cross Jane’s Bridge by walking backwards.”
Heathcliff puffed his chest with pride.
“I knew it had to be you. I ran over here as fast as I could.”
She broke down and cried some more.
After she was done, Joshua helped her to her feet. Heathcliff found a clean rag and dipped it in a water barrel. Sophie used it to wipe the grime from her face and hands.
“When they came, I tried to run away. I crawled into this small pipe. I got stuck only a few feet in. I feared for a moment I might be stuck in there forever. But then I thought it might be better then to be with those twisted men. They grabbed me by the ankles and jerked me loose. When I came out I was black from head to toe with dirt.”
“What are we going to do?” Heathcliff asked.
“Let’s get back to the Charity Kitchen,” Joshua answered.
He had a vague hope that maybe he’d find Lucinda and little ones free and safe. But he didn’t much stock in it.
They set off. The light was fading. The factories and warehouses disgorged their armies of workers who flooded the streets and took no notice of the three children who walked beside them.
The trio walked past the rows of apartments. The streets around were alive with people who tried to cram a few hours of fun before they returned to work the next morning. Joshua smelled a hundred dinners. Boiled cabbage with bacon, beans with chicken, mutton and crusty bread. He sincerely wished everyone a good meal and a good night’s sleep. It seemed his prospects for either weren’t very great.