They reached the Charity Kitchen. It looked so different now. It was never a festive or joyous place, but now it lay there completely abandoned. All of the Grey Attendants had been hauled off to jail. The doors swung open carelessly. It looked as desolate as any ruin in Dreamer’s Garden.
Sophie led them around the side to the concrete drain. Now that he saw it, Joshua recognized it. Just a few months ago, Dina and the twins had used a part of the drain as their own race track. They yelled and dashed down its smooth surface while Joshua and Heathcliff cheered them on. Lucinda stood at the end to mark the winner. They had stayed well away from the old pipe which led into darkness.
Joshua leapt down into the gully and walked right to the mouth of the pipe.
“This is where they went in?” he asked.
“Dina squealed something about a kitty and she was off before we could stop her.”
He stared inside. His eyes could penetrate only a few feet before the blackness snuffed out all sight.
He looked up at the sky. Any moment the rest of the city would be just as black.
And then there’s no escape, he thought. Whatever’s in there, if it hides from the sunlight it won’t have to hide anymore.
“What do we do?” Heathcliff asked.
Joshua peered again into the blackness. He thought of Dina, and the twins and Lucinda trapped in there unable to get out. He knew exactly what they would do.
“We get them back.”
Heathcliff nodded. Sophie trembled badly. She started forward hesitantly. Joshua and Heathcliff closed in protectively on either side. Together they walked into the pipe and let the blackness swallowed them up.
There was nothing but foul smell and damp mud beneath their feet. Their eyes strained in gloom. There was not a bit of light. Joshua waited for his eyes to adjust but they didn’t. He felt for the concrete wall with his hand.
“How will we know when we find them?”
Suddenly a sick yellow light flared in front of them. The light blinded Joshua for a moment. He blinked. When his vision cleared he saw the dark figures all around them. They were as Sophie had described them, twisted men covered with dark twisted rags. One of them held a hooded lantern in his hand. The ill colored light streamed out from between the lantern’s slats. Its pale glow matched their eyes. They closed in on the three of them and formed a solid wall. One of them took Joshua’s leather pouch with his knives.
He swallowed hard.
“We’re here for our friends!”
One of the rag men pointed with a boney finger. The others parted and revealed Lucinda and the young ones huddled together.
They let out a shout when they saw him.
Sophie and Heathcliff yelled back.
The two groups ran together and embraced each other.
“Are you all right?” Joshua asked.
Sophie kept the twins hugged close to her. Dina wrapped her arms tight around Joshua’s waist.
“We’re fine,” Lucinda said. Her face was tear-streaked. “They just had us wait here until Sophie brought you back.”
Joshua turned to their captors.
Their leader pointed to a dark tunnel. They went in one by one and found it dead-ended after just a few feet. The twisted men stood at the other end and trapped them inside.
“What are they doing?” Dina asked.
“I guess we wait here. Sleep.”
“They’ll take us to the Rat King in the morning,” Sophie said.
They lay down. Joshua only got bits and pieces of slumber through the night. The next morning they woke. Joshua rolled towards the pipe entrance. The men let him walk around to stretch his legs. As he walked out the night’s stiffness he saw shafts of sunlight stream down from grates above. He wondered if anyone above them would hear if he screamed.
Suddenly one of the twisted men walked right next to Joshua and stood there. It was if the rag man dared him to scream or run away.
Joshua went back to the pipe. The others woke up. Once they were on their feet, the guards surrounded them and marched them into the sewers.
They took several twists and turns. They passed by great rivers made by the pipes and the constant flow of water pumped through the city. They trekked through enormous canyons made of concrete and iron. They crossed slippery wooden bridges and ran beneath chilling waterfalls. It was all so fantastic that Joshua forgot for a moment that they were prisoners marched towards an unknown fate.
“What happened to you?” Lucinda asked.
Joshua looked back.
She was just behind him, twins and Dina trailed her. They all looked up at him expectedly.
“Sophie said you were attacked by a monster,” said Dina.
“Was he big?” asked Ollie.
“Was he scary?” asked Rollie.
He felt Sophie nudge him in the ribs.
“Go on, tell them,” she chided.
Then Joshua understood. They needed a story. They needed something to take their minds off of their current situation.
“He wasn’t a monster,” he told them. “He was a man. At least I think so. He was the thinnest man I ever saw but he was strong. He could climb walls like a spider.”
The little ones oohed and ahhed.
“He’s watched us the whole time. Watched me that is.”
“Why would he do that?” asked Dina.
“He wanted to see me cook,” he answered. “He’s the one who brought us the kettles. I saw something that moved quickly over the wall after they appeared. It had to have been him.”
“And the guard at the South Wall,” Sophie said.
“Yes. The one who almost shot us. He wasn’t crazy. He saw this man. His name’s Hodmedod.”
Joshua shivered when he mentioned that name.
“But how did you get away?” the twins asked in unison.
Joshua noticed some of their captors leaned in and listened. He began to see why Sophie liked to tell stories, done right they had a power.
Not unlike cooking, he thought.
He told the story for everyone who listened. He tried to be as dramatic as Sophie but stumbled in a few places. He described how Hodmedod bound him then carried him up to the roof of the building.
“He was about to get away with me his prisoner when a brick flew out of the air and hit him in the head! It knocked him cold and we both fell off the wall!”
There was a gasp from both children and adults who listened in.
“We hit the cobblestones. And these huge men hoisted us both into a wagon and rode off.”
“Where were they taking you?” Sophie asked.
“I never found out.”
He told them how Heathcliff snared him out of the wagon with his line.
“He’s the real hero.”
“Yes I am,” crowed Heathcliff.
One of the rag covered men halted in front of them.
“You have a reed pole?” he asked Heathcliff.
Joshua noticed then that Heathcliff didn’t have it slung across his shoulders.
Heathcliff held up both his spindly arms over his mop of hair.
“I left it back at the tunnel entrance,” he claimed.
The man grunted suspiciously. He padded Heathcliff sides.
“I didn’t want to lose it,” Heathcliff insisted.
Satisfied, the man waved them on ahead.
Joshua waited a few paces before he resumed his story.
“So Heathcliff hauled me out of the wagon with a jerk and I landed right on the hard street a second time. Somehow all my limbs weren’t broken. Finally Heathcliff untied me and we watched the wagon roll on. Those thugs hadn’t seen a thing and Hodmedod was still out.”
Lucinda interrupted, “This Hodmedod, he said he gave you the kettles, did he also send the wagon full of lentils and flour?”
“I suppose that could have been him as well.”
“It must have been him,” Sophie said.
“I don’t think so,” Heathcliff argued.
“What makes you think so?”
“Well he hauls the kettles over to the alley himself but he hires out a wagon to drop off the lentils and other stuff?”
Joshua thought about that. “I guess it doesn’t make any sense.”
Dina tugged at his shirt.
“Joshua, enough about the scary man. What did you do after Heathcliff rescued you?”
Before he could say anything Heathcliff declared, “After that he took us on a trip to the Old City.”
Joshua winced. He wished Heathcliff hadn’t said anything about the Old City. He wasn’t ready to tell them the whole truth about Lazlo Cippolini, Augustus Gorgette, and the hidden room. He didn’t even know the whole truth and the parts he did know, he didn’t know how to explain and he wasn’t sure he wanted to. Why tell them that even more danger awaited them back on the surface?
If we ever get back there, he thought.
The twins and Dina pleaded for more about his journey.
“There’s not much to say,” he offered.
This only increased their appetite for details.
Heathcliff stepped in.
“Well, no sooner do I rescue him from the clutches of villainy than he says we have to go to the Old City. So off we went. I tagged along in case he needed another rescue. First we had to get past the constable who guarded Jane’s Bridge. We succeeded with the help of my cunning and guile.”
“You did that walking backwards trick?” Lucinda groaned.
“I’ll have you know it worked like a charm, Little Miss Doubty Doubter,” Heathcliff claimed.
He turned to Joshua for support.
“We did get across,” Joshua admitted.
Heathcliff continued, “Once we’re across then Joshua takes over. He leads us this way and that. I have no idea where we are. And where does he take us? The busiest restaurant in the old city. It had this sign of a scarlet chicken.”
“You went to the Red Hen?” Sophie asked.
“Why did you go there?” Lucinda asked.
“Yes, why?” asked the twins.
Heathcliff continued, “He had us zip through the kitchen and into the chef’s office. And in there he discovers a secret door and opens it.”
They all looked at him their curiosity now starved for an answer. They were his family after all, weren’t they entitled to the truth?
But Joshua couldn’t explain and couldn’t tell them the whole truth.
“That’s where I learned to cook,” Joshua said.
It was only partially true but it came out like a full lie. He could see in their faces that none of them believed him. Even Dina knew he hadn’t told the truth.
One of their captors yelled back, “Enough story time. Be quiet back there!”
Joshua was glad for the enforced silence.
As they walked Sophie kept talking despite the warning. She spoke quietly and to no one in particular.
“The Rat King’s Kingdom is deep in the bowels of the sewers. Far from prying eyes.”
They arrived at a rope ladder slung over a gigantic rusting pipe. The rope was made of old rags instead of twine. Joshua reckoned that meant they were getting closer to this “Kingdom”. He climbed up the ladder as his captors prodded him from behind. He could feel the pipe rumbling beneath his feet as gallons of water flowed through it.
Once they were all over the pipe they started down dark tunnels where there was no sunlight. Soon lanterns appeared at regular intervals. They passed by several tunnels where human eyes stared back out of the gloom.
“The commoners of the kingdom,” Sophie said. “No better than serfs or slaves.”
There was light up ahead.
Not sunlight. It was too weak and too orange. There a thin haze of smoke hung in the air.
They came to a great wide tunnel.
Down the center of the tunnel were two rows iron braziers with burning coals. A great black curtain was hung at the end of the tunnel that hid what lay beyond.
Before the curtain was a high backed wooden chair. Though it had no fancy decoration, or gilding, it was clearly meant to be a throne.
On that throne sat a giant. He was the biggest man Joshua had ever seen.
“The Rat King,” Sophie gasped.