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The annoying drone of the alarm clock blared, breaking through the peaceful illusion of sleep. Samantha groaned and blindly reached out to hit the snooze button. Her aim was misjudged and she winced to hear the thud of her alarm clock hitting the floor. But the good news was that the jolt had magically switched on the radio.
Samantha lay cocooned in her warm duvet, listening to the latest release of last year’s X Factor rejects. The song was another blur of pop that Samantha wouldn’t remember in five minutes.
Her older sister Terri had auditioned last year; she had considered it a rite of passage, to try for quick fame and fortune. She hadn’t even made it onto TV, being neither amazing nor entertaining in that reality TV, cringe-worthy way.
Samantha honestly didn’t see the appeal; she would never do that, or anything else that would put her centre stage. No, it was much better drifting through life as something unnoticed. Especially at school. That was Samantha’s first rule for survival – be a nobody.
Speaking of school, she stretched languidly, building herself up to the momentous achievement of moving and getting up. God, she hated Tuesdays. And not just because of a double Maths and Chemistry whammy – honestly, what was the point of Tuesdays. Monday got to be the start of the week, and by Wednesday it was downhill to the weekend. In Samantha’s opinion, Tuesday and all its associated torture could take a-
Her mother’s voice broke through, somehow managing to sound stressed in that one easy syllable.
“Yeah.” Samantha shouted back, before dear mum felt the need to burst in.
She pulled on her only-slightly-rumpled school uniform and headed downstairs.
Samantha helped herself to some instant coffee, pulling a face at her baby brother as she did so. Malcolm had turned two, but as far as Samantha was concerned, there was nothing terrible about it. He saved his temper tantrums for the daytime when Samantha was at school, and was always ready to laugh and play when she got home. After making Malcolm giggle, she grabbed her hairbrush and took the time to tackle her dull brown hair while the kettle boiled.
“You need a proper breakfast inside of you.” Her mother chided, looking at her daughter with that familiar worry.
Samantha tsked. “I told you, eating early makes me feel sick.” She sighed as she caught her mother’s expression in the mirror. “We’ve been over this, I’m not trying to lose weight.”
It wasn’t her fault that she was naturally skinny. Ever since her growth spurt at thirteen, her friends had been envious of her ‘slender’ frame. At sixteen, Samantha still hated it. No matter what she ate, she couldn’t lose the jutted hipbones, the noticeable ribs and the frankly repulsive knobbly spine. Most days she hid under baggy clothing.
Even now, she cringed when she saw her bony wrists in the mirror as she tied her hair back. Samantha hurried to pull her sleeves back over her hands and shuffled back to the kitchen.
“I’ve got to take Malcolm to the doctors this afternoon, so I might not be home when you get back from school.” Her mum said, swiftly getting to business. “Your dad won’t be back until six, so don’t forget your key this time.”
Samantha rolled her eyes, she still internally corrected it to ‘step-dad’, but wouldn’t dare say it out loud. It was more of an acknowledgement of fact than any real angst. Steve had been part of their family for years now. He was alright as far as father-figures went. He didn’t pretend to be Samantha’s bestest friend, or any other embarrassing traits. The worst that she could accuse him of was hogging the TV and watched golf and snooker for hours on end.
“Sam, did you hear me?”
“Yeah. Doctors, key, dad at six.” Samantha reeled off, to prove that actually, for once, she was paying attention.
Samantha managed to get her stuff together and leave on time. Until she realised that her house key was still on the coffee table. Swearing beneath her breath, she ran back to the house to get it, before having to run the whole way to the bus stop. So much for being on time. Samantha took up her place at the end of the queue, knowing that she would have drawn the short straw for being last.
And sure enough, when the crowded bus pulled up and they all filed on, Samantha was left with the last empty seat. Next to the slightly pudgy boy that didn’t know the meaning of deodorant.
As the rest of the bus was filled with chatter and laughter, Samantha pulled her coat collar higher in defence and stared resolutely ahead.
The bus ride was only twenty minutes, crawling through the Leeds city traffic, before finally delivering its students to the school. It was more like a high-security facility than a school, Samantha mused as they passed through the high metal gate, complete with guards. Well, not exactly guards – the school groundsmen had been given a few extra responsibilities, to ensure safety. Hm, some people really didn’t suit authority.
When Samantha shuffled off the bus, she made her way to ‘the spot’. The spot her friends hovered at every morning, waiting for the school bell to ring.
The girls hardly acknowledged Samantha as she approached, Nissa had them all captivated by a wild (and probably exaggerated) story. Her hands flapped along, trying to pass her experience on to her friends.
Samantha half-listened, and smiled when she thought she was expected to. The only person in the group that looked how she felt was Lucy, who tried to stifle a yawn as she patted down her pockets.
The redhead glanced at Samantha hopefully. “Got a light, Sammy?”
Samantha gave a bitter smile. “You’re on your last warning. If they catch you smoking again, you’ll get kicked out.” Samantha dutifully dug through her rucksack and found a couple of lighters. She handed the one with some fluid still in to Lucy.
Her friend gave a short bark of laughter. “This shithole can’t kick me out, I’m keeping up their grade averages.”
Lucy paused to spark up, it was true that as one of the few straight-A students their school had managed to knock together, Lucy got a little more leniency than most. As a lacklustre C-average student, Samantha didn’t want to think what her punishment would be.
Lucy offered Samantha the cigarette, which she promptly refused. The redhead shrugged and took another hit of nicotine. “Besides, I need to take the edge off before double Chemistry with Clarke – I swear, one of these days I’m gonna tell that arrogant, patronising git exactly what I think. I mean, you’d think that even this school would have standards – the man can’t even do basic maths, and they’ve got the nerve to have him teach us in our GCSE year.”
Samantha grimaced, and nodded along in support of her friend’s rant, knowing that she was only getting started. Hanging out with Lucy was always the perfect antidote for a nobody like Samantha. She wasn’t expected to contribute, Lucy could keep the one-sided conversation going as long as she had a listener.
The electronic bell was followed by a groan and the unhurried filing into the school buildings. Once inside, the corridors became clogged with contradicting traffic as students made their way to class.
Samantha dug through her rucksack as she walked, double-checking she had remembered her books this time.
There was a shout above the din of the students, and several Year 11 boys ran through the masses, laughing. Samantha felt her shoulder jolted and her books spilled onto the floor. She muttered away to herself about the immaturity of boys as she knelt down to pick them back up.
One of the lads stopped in his tracks, turning back to Samantha. He bobbed down and grabbed one of her books.
Samantha hovered, half-terrified that he was going to lob the book down the corridor to further embarrass her; and half-hypnotised by his perfect features. David Jones, the school’s star rugby player and all-round ladies-choice, with his golden-blond hair and dimples, was actually in the same personal space as her.
Samantha nervously glanced away when his rich brown eyes met hers, but she still caught the apologetic smile on his lips as he handed her the book.
Samantha’s fingers stiffly took it from him. She opened her mouth, before she realised that she had completely forgotten how to say ‘thanks’. One simple syllable, but she couldn’t for the life of her, make it come out.
Samantha blushed bright red, but at least David didn’t seem to notice, he was already jogging away after his friends.
Speaking of friends, Lucy sniggered at the interaction, reminding Samantha that people had been watching.
“Sammy and David, sitting in a tree…” Lucy sang softly, before laughing again.
“Oh yes, today a smile; tomorrow exchanging actual words.” Samantha replied, trying to go along with the humour. With only a little bitterness, she accepted that tomorrow would go straight back to being invisible.
For now, she pulled her coat collar up to hide the annoying red flushed skin that would take an age to disappear. She followed Lucy into the classroom and slid into the seat next to her, taking care to pull at the sleeves of her already baggy jumper.
Lucy let out a weary sigh. “Y’know, I don’t know why you’re so obsessed with covering up all the time. You’re bloody stick thin and – who knows, you might even be pretty under all that. Stop hiding and you might even have a chance at a boyfriend.” Lucy paused and looked at Samantha critically. “Maybe not David Jones standard, but definitely a boyfriend.”
Samantha gave her a withering look. “Gee, thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” Lucy returned with a winning smile.
Samantha twisted the cuff of her sleeve, watching as their least favourite teacher made his entrance. Mr Clarke started to prattle on about something Chemistry-related, but Samantha’s attention drifted and she glossed over the details.
Samantha didn’t want a boyfriend. They seemed like hard work and far too much effort. Besides, she might as well wait until college, the boys at school were far too immature.
Samantha grimaced as she flashed back to her run-in with David. OK, she was physically attracted to him, her reaction had pretty much proven that; but there was no way she was going to entertain any fantasy where he was concerned. Definitely not.
Chemistry ticked by ridiculously slow, but the two hour torture was finally over. It was pretty easy after that with English and History. Soon enough, the bell rang for dinner and Samantha joined the rest of her friends on the stone benches outside the art block. Being early March, it was cold, but at least it was dry. Even though they sat hunched in their coats, it took more than a chilly wind to drive them away from the prime seats that were the perk of Year 11s, in that unspoken rule of high school evolution.
Samantha picked at her sandwich, drifting in and out of paying attention to the others. She tossed a chunk of bread to the ravens that always came down at this time of day. She watched them hop about awkwardly, as they hustled over the crumbs.
Samantha glanced up to see Lucy looking expectantly in her direction.
Realising that her friend hadn’t been listening, Lucy rolled her eyes. “Have you decided what you’re doing next year?”
“Dunno.” Samantha replied, with a shrug. “Sixth form?”
Samantha always felt uncomfortable when the others spoke of the future. They all seemed to know exactly what they wanted to do, and were all pretty excited about it.
Lucy had been planning to go to vet school since they were five years old and had her A Levels firmly set; Nissa wanted to travel and volunteer in third-world countries; and the inseparable Rachel and Sally were both already signed up to a hairdressing course at the local college.
Samantha envied them all. She just hoped that in two years, she’d have her A Levels and half a clue of what to do with the rest of her life.
Apparently satisfied with her minimal response, the rest of the group wittered on, leaving Samantha to her own thoughts.
“So what are you up to tonight?” Lucy asked, as they packed their things away at the end of Maths.
“Nuthin’.” Samantha replied, her eyes fixed on her scuffed workbook. “I’ve got the house to myself for a few hours… I’ll probably catch up on TV.”
“Well, Danny asked me to go ice-skating with him.” Lucy grinned, excited to share her news. “He just texted me. Now I’ve just got to try not to embarrass myself and look cute.”
“That sounds awesome, you’ll have to fill me in tomorrow.”
Lucy’s expression dropped. “Oh, I mean, we could make it a group thing if you wanted to come. We could ask the girls, he could bring a few of his mates…”
“No!” Samantha replied before Lucy could get into party-planner mode; the last thing she wanted was to get dragged to some social gathering where she’d feel awkward all evening. “No. Enjoy yourselves, I know you’ve been wanting to date him for ages. Honestly, I’m looking forward to a few hours at home; no baby brother, no stepdad hogging the TV…”
Samantha shivered as she stepped into the cold March air. It was rare that her mad house was quiet. A burgeoning thought occurred to her – that with her stepdad working and her mum dragging Malcolm to the doctors, it was the perfect opportunity to secure a pizza dinner. A break from that health-kick diet her mum was torturing them all with.
“I’m gonna nip to Tesco. See you tomorrow, Lucy.” Samantha waved and made a quick exit through the school gates.
Samantha held her rucksack tightly against her shoulder as she navigated the busy pavement. It was so frustrating getting stuck behind the dawdling students that seemed in no rush now that they had been released from the daily torment of school. Samantha glanced up as she caught movement above, there was the black shadow against the sky, the lone raven looking much more graceful in the air than on the ground. She was envious of the bird, able to glide above all this nonsense; they didn’t get stuck behind stupid slow walkers.
Samantha ducked into the equally busy shop, with so many students crowding around the sweet section. She sighed and pushed through to the chilled section, at least there was room to breathe in front of the tall fridges. Her eyes scanned over the limited selection of pizzas.
Samantha heard the male voice, clearly not speaking to her, and proceeded to ignore it.
The guy coughed. “Sorry about earlier.”
Samantha stiffly turned to the side, to see David Jones standing there. As she was the only person in the aisle, he had to be speaking to her. Samantha told herself that at this point it would be polite to say something. To say anything.
David’s smile wavered at her distinct lack of response. He took his time to pull out a pepperoni pizza and tried again. “You’re Lucy’s friend, aren’t you?”
“Yeah.” Samantha answered. Well, that was a start. Unfortunately nothing followed.
David seemed to sense that social interaction was a lost cause and gave her an awkward wave. “Well, see you around.”
Samantha watched him retreat, then felt a blush flare across her skin. Well there was a bonus, at least she didn’t turn bright red in front of him. Muttering curses to herself, Samantha pulled a couple of pizzas out of the fridge, hardly noting which she had picked.
By the time she had queued and paid, Samantha had already decided that this day, and her life, were swiftly going back to normal. Talking to a cute boy wasn’t going to change that. Of course, she wasn’t going to mention this little interaction to Lucy or the others. Lucy would take this tiny insignificant blip in Samantha’s comatose social life and turn it into something huge. No, that definitely wasn’t worth the drama.
Samantha pulled her coat collar tighter about her neck as she stepped out into the grey, British spring world. Because of her diversion, she had missed the school bus home. But it would only take twenty minutes to walk it, which was no problem as long as the rain held off.
Laden with her Tesco bag and rucksack, Samantha took the most direct route, cutting away from the main road and going through the estates. Her mum never liked her taking the shortcut home, she worried about the safety of the area. But as far as Samantha was concerned, it was fine. They were just streets after all, just houses, just alleyways that receded into shadow…
The sound of scuffling made Samantha turn before she could tell herself not to look.
“I said get off. What the hell do you want?” A familiar voice echoed up the ginnel.
Samantha moved closer, fear catching in her throat. She saw David, but didn’t recognise the man that stood with him. Her first thought was a street thug, picking on students for sport. But he didn’t look like a thug. His black hair was longer than most guys, and his dark clothes made it hard to notice anything about him.
The strange man was only as tall as David, but suddenly threw the boy back against the wall with a sickening crunch.
A flash of black feathers made Samantha jump. She pressed back against the wall, watching a bird flap and fly drunkenly up to perch on the opposite roof.
Samantha glanced back down the ginnel to see the strange man staring her way. ‘Run!’ She tried to tell herself, but nothing happened. Her feet no longer belonged to her. Her heart pounded and she had to remind herself to breathe.
It must have only lasted a few moments, before the stranger looked away from the terrified girl and back to the boy that was slumped on the ground.
Samantha watched as the man picked David up and, as though he weighed nothing, slung him over his shoulder.
This was bad; very, very bad. Samantha rummaged through her bag, then swore when she realised she’d left her mobile at home.
She felt a spot of rain and gazed up at the dark, threatening clouds. She should tell someone, find a phone and alert the police. If they could get here in time.
Samantha swore again and set off down the ginnel, she had to follow them and try and help David.
The heavens opened and the cold rain pelted down as Samantha started to jog along the narrow way. It opened up again on St Jude’s Way, one of the more dilapidated parts of town. Samantha was pretty sure all but one of the houses were closed up and condemned. The one exception housed the local crazy lady. An old woman that refused to move out. Everyone around here knew of her. The kids all ran past her door, half-convinced she was the wicked witch about to curse them.
Samantha caught the lumpy movement of the stranger still carrying David, barging through the door of that very house. Of course.
She swore out loud, before running across the deserted street. She felt fear well up, but somehow it seemed disconnected from her. By the time she reached the old woman’s door, the rain had soaked through her heavy coat and her cold and clammy clothes clung to her. Samantha hesitated in the small porch, hardly shielded from the torrents. The door was ajar, almost inviting her to enter. Her nerves were on fire as she inched into the dark hallway. To her left a staircase led up to a shadowy first floor; and to her right, a closed door. What was she doing? This was madness! This was definitely trespassing.
She heard an almighty crash from deep within the house, which threw all logic aside. Samantha opened the door and rushed through a cramped living room. Past that was the dining room and kitchen. In the kitchen, the old woman had collapsed, saucepans and broken dishes lying about her, but Samantha paid no heed to this, for beyond her, where the back door should have been, there was a whirling, smoky complex of a purple and black abyss.
“Excuse me!” Came the sharp, wiry voice, and suddenly Samantha was aware of the old woman sprawled on the floor.
Samantha helped her up and towards a nearby stool. “What- what’s…?” Stuttered Samantha, unable to take her eyes off the… the thing.
“That is a portal and I am its keeper.” The old woman snapped, looking at Samantha with stern grey eyes. The old woman beckoned for a walking stick that had fallen nearby, which Samantha dutifully retrieved.
“Come away, child. That thing makes my very bones ache.” The old woman said, standing up stiffly and walking slowly back to the living room, leaning heavily on her stick.
Samantha hesitated, unable to draw her eyes away from the dense, coloured smoke. For some reason she felt almost at ease, comforted by the natural swirling patterns. Samantha snapped herself out of its hypnotic grip, reminding herself that this was the real world, portals did not exist.
She was suddenly filled with questions, and there was one, rather daunting, person that might be able to give answers. Samantha turned and moved towards the living room, with many a backward glance at the portal.
“Now, sit yourself down.” The old woman invited as Samantha entered the room, her tones softer than before. The old woman had lowered herself onto an overstuffed armchair, propping her walking stick beside it.
Samantha shuffled past a low coffee table and perched nervously on a tea-stained settee.
“Tea?” The old woman asked, but didn’t show any effort to get back up.
“Um, no. Thank you.” Samantha stumbled over her words. Sitting and chatting with strangers wasn’t one of her fortes, especially when that stranger had been the root of scary stories for years. Looking at her, Samantha could see why the old woman could scare children; her grey eyes still wickedly sharp, her face held no kindly edge and her voice was cutting. The old woman coughed slightly and Samantha realised she was staring and looked quickly away.
“It’s strange to have company of one so young. What’s your name, girl?”
“Samantha. Samantha Garrett.” She shifted uncomfortably, before adding politely. “Miss.”
“Well Samantha, you just call me Gran for now.” Replied the old woman.
There was an uncomfortable silence in which the only sound was the beating of rain on the grimy window.
“I suppose you want to know all about the portal now you’ve seen it.” Stated Gran, her voice sharp once more.
“A portal? Portals are fantastical doors to other places.” Samantha spurted out, already guessing what story the old woman would try to fool her with.
Gran just bobbed her head, keeping her grey eyes fixed on the young girl, harshly aware of how the young were only interested in what was, and whether they had it, and never what could be anymore.
Samantha let out a nervous laugh. “But that aint real, is it? It has to be a trick.”
“Be quiet you ignorant child.” Gran snapped, suddenly fierce. “It is as real as you or I. Do you think all those fantasy stories you read are completely made up? They all stem from one truth or another.”
“I… I’m sorry…” Samantha stuttered, shocked by how quickly the old woman’s temper rose.
Gran sat thin-lipped for a moment before speaking again with more composure. “Other lands, magical journeys and such, exist. You have always known it, though perhaps never accepted it. Now, if you wish to hear what I have to say, you will not question this reality.”
Samantha nodded silently. As wary and sceptical as she was, her curiosity was aroused now and she wanted to hear the truth. At least, whatever version of the truth the old woman may give.
When she was happy her message had gotten through, Gran continued. “Well, I have no idea how you fit into this, but if they have a purpose for that boy in Enchena-“
“It is the land connected by the portal. But as I was saying, if they have some intent, leave them be. It is a cruel place. I have lived here all my life, and before I became keeper, my mother was before me, as was her mother and so on. Of course, after me the line is broken and there shall be no ancient guard.” Gran frowned as she spoke, her expression betraying an inner pain. “Yet we have camped at this very spot as grounded gypsies to guard the portal from discovery when it opens, and to protect the people from it. I’ll tell you now that I have never heard any positive tale from Enchena.”
“But… I should go after David, to bring him back…” Samantha stopped herself, still not believing this was happening. Surely David had not been dragged to another world.
“Haven’t you been listening, Samantha? Enchena is a dangerous place. It would take grown men trained in war, to go and make it back with the boy.” Gran insisted. “Your heart’s in the right place, but be honest, you’re not the right person for the task.”
“So you’re saying… it’s hopeless?”
Gran sighed. “You youngsters are always so dramatic. Is he your friend? Boyfriend?”
“No, he-“ Samantha broke off and blushed at the term boyfriend. “I hardly know him, we go to the same school.”
“Then he means nothing to you. Leave the boy in Enchena, it is best to sacrifice one life, than lose two.”
Samantha looked away from Gran’s fierce gaze. Surely he was worth it, any life was worth it. Samantha looked up, and was surprised to see a hint of sympathy soften Gran’s features.
Samantha stood up and walked over to the doorway to the dining room, she could see through to the kitchen where the portal still existed.
“So this is for real?” Samantha muttered.
“Yes, I’m afraid so.” Gran replied, with surprising softness. “And I’m very sorry that you’ll have to live with such knowledge. I’ll let you stay until the rain calms down, then you should go home and try to forget about this.”
There was a sharp knock at the front door. Samantha turned round as Gran stood up, grasping her stick.
“If it’s that bleedin’ Avon rep again, I will beat that silly little…” Gran started muttering to herself.
Gran returned from the door a few minutes later to find the living room empty. As she had predicted, Samantha had gone.
“Good luck child, you shall need it.”
David groggily became aware of voices, every sound threatening to split his pounding head in two. He took a few careful breaths, the smell of mud and grass lingering in his nostrils. Damn, had he been knocked out on the rugby pitch again? There was something he felt he should remember, but every time he tried for a coherent thought, it skittered away, out of reach.
David cracked his eyes open and winced at the bright light. He rolled onto his back and allowed his eyes to get used to the sunlight that pierced the thick green canopy overhead.
He heard a familiar man’s voice bark an order, and suddenly two hands grabbed his arms and dragged him to his feet. David winced, the back of his head felt like someone had tried to bash it in; but from what he could tell, the rest of his body was without injury. That had to be good news.
David tried to focus on what he was seeing, but it didn’t make any sense. There wasn’t a forest anywhere near, yet tree trunks and overgrown bushes stretched as far as the eye could see. They were in what appeared to be a clearing, although a few clear metres was a closer fit.
David lingered on the fact that ‘they’ were there. Aside from the two men that held him upright, there must have been a dozen others. They all wore matching black uniforms with a wide red stripe from the left shoulder to the right hip. David had never seen such a uniform before, and he was pretty sure they weren’t legitimate peacekeepers. He grit his teeth, wondering what dangerous shit he’d gotten himself into.
David caught movement out of the corner of his eye, and saw the same man that had cornered him on the way home. He remembered now, the alley he’d gone down, a shortcut home before the rain; then the stranger approaching him… Had the man even said anything?
David’s memory felt patchy, but he could see the man blocking his path, his movements agile and hunter-like. Ignoring David’s questions, his impossibly dark eyes had moved over the young man with a detached assessment. He’d only looked away as something further up the ginnel had caught his attention. David hadn’t dare look what it was, only used the moment of distraction to duck away from the stranger.
Everything else was blank.
As David looked at the man now, he had a feeling that he was in charge of this motley crew.
“Where am I? And who the hell are you?” David demanded.
The man’s dark eyes moved over him with disinterest, before looking to one of his men.
Before David could react, a fist swung into his jaw, making his head snap back.
“You do not address his majesty without permission.” His punisher stood inches away from him, his hard brown eyes daring David to step out of line again.
David slowly rolled his head forwards, his tongue tenderly running across the right side of his mouth. He was sure his teeth had cut his gum; he just wished one of the goons on his arms would give him his hand back.
After a brief struggle to test their grip, David relaxed and looked between the boss man and the mouthpiece.
“I think I earned permission when his majesty knocked me out and dragged me to this… this… shit, this has gotta be a long way from home.”
A flicker of a smile crossed the man’s lips, and he followed it with a swift punch to the gut that made David double over in pain.
“Lieutenant Revill.” The man in charge raised a hand to pause any further punishment. He spoke quietly, but his words articulate. “You might think yourself brave back home, but here, your insolence will get you killed. What is your name, boy?”
David bit his lip, instinctively disobeying the man, when he felt one of the guards twist the flesh of his arm painfully. “David.” He gasped, shooting a dirty look to the guard. “David Jones.”
Why were these guys all so keen on beating a sixteen year old? And why had the boss man, kidnapped him, when he didn’t even know David’s name?
While the boss looked over his prisoner assessingly, David did the same. The man looked to be in his forties, even though there was no grey in his rich black hair that hung to his shoulders. His eyes were impossibly dark, but they looked tired and bloodshot.
Whereas the man had been so strong when they met, David thought he saw his balance waver now.
There was the sound of hooves as a horse was brought forward. A horse? David’s eyes widened. He’d only ever seen the animals around Elland Road on match day, and thought now what he had back then, that they were bloody huge.
“Your majesty.” One man bobbed down to help the boss to mount the brown beast.
Steadier, now that he was off his own feet and sitting astride a horse, he gathered his reins and looked down at his prisoner. “David, while you are in Enchena, I recommend that you follow orders and obey me. Cooperation will be rewarded with riches, land, titles… whatever you desire. Cross me, and you will wonder how many times you can die before-“
He broke off, looking away into the clearing. David heard a thump on the forest floor behind him, and followed everybody’s gaze. His heartbeat faltered as he saw a vaguely familiar figure fall to her knees. She was wearing a rather wet school uniform, with their school insignia on the jumper. He wracked his rather shook brain for a name, before realising it was the girl he’d bumped into at Tesco.
David cringed as the girl started to retch, throwing up on the grass.
“Pick her up.” The boss ordered, his lip curling with disgust.
Two guards stepped carefully around the mess and grabbed the girl’s arms.
David stared at her dishevelled appearance and pale face. Where the hell had she come from? David was sure she’d not been in the clearing a moment ago.
The girl’s unfocused green eyes bugged at the sight of the guards and the forest. She twisted in the hold of her captors, desperate to see behind her.
“No.” She groaned, obviously unhappy with the view of more trees.
“Do not worry, child. The gateway is still there. It is simply more obscure on this side.”
David looked up at the man as he spoke, his words not making any sense.
“What do they call you, girl?”
“S-Samantha Garrett.” She answered, so quietly that David hardly heard her. “Who are you?”
Remembering their earlier intolerance for questions, David strained against his captors’ hold; he couldn’t let them hit this innocent girl too.
“I am Hrafn, King of Enchena.”
David looked up at the man, feeling suddenly cold. He had already guessed that he was royalty, but it was another thing entirely to have it confirmed.
“Why did you take David?” Samantha demanded, her voice growing stronger.
The King raised a questioning brow. “I am sure you will both have your uses.”
David’s heart thudded in his chest; he wasn’t sure what uses the King had in mind, but he doubted that it would be anything good.
“Take them back to the palace.” The King ordered, briefly focusing on his men. “I will ride ahead.”
More riders came forward to join the King; the ground trembling as their horses milled around him, ready to be off.
The King turned his weary eyes to David and Samantha one last time, then spurred his horse into action.
As the dust settled from the dozen or so mounted guards, David wondered how they were expected to get to ‘the palace’. He got his answer when their captors gave them both a hearty shove.
“Get moving.” Lieutenant Revill barked.
Hating the man more by the minute, David staggered forwards, his head still pounding, and his joints feeling oddly loose. It was all he could do to walk straight.
Samantha walked next to him, and the guards moved to flank them. David quickly counted ten uniforms, and noted their spacing – he imagined that any attempt to break away now would lead to another beating. So walking it was. He only hoped he would stay sharp enough to spot an opportunity to escape later.
He looked over to Samantha, who seemed as rattled as he was. Her bright green eyes locked onto his face.
“Did they do that?” She asked breathlessly.
David grimaced, he had no idea how he looked, but from Samantha’s expression, he guessed it was pretty dramatic.
“Yeah.” He grunted, darting a look at the guards about them. They didn’t seem bothered by the two kids chatting, their gaze was stony and locked straight ahead, as they followed the King’s orders to the letter. Lieutenant Revill, with the arrogant air of someone left in charge, was looking busy and important fifty yards ahead; out of earshot for now.
“Look, this might be a weird question…” David started, wondering how to phrase it without sounding insane. “But you didn’t happen to note how we got here? Wherever here is.”
Samantha bit her lip, looking worried before sharing. “There was a portal, it led from Gran’s kitchen to this forest. When she told me about Enchena… I didn’t believe her, until I came falling out this side.”
David frowned. The girl definitely had a right to be worried – she sounded crazy. “OK, let’s pretend that I believe that. How do you fit into all of this?”
Samantha shrugged, an embarrassed blush darkening her cheeks with unattractive red blotches. “I don’t. I was walking home when I saw that guy, King Hrafn, knock you out and carry you away. I followed him to St Jude’s Way – y’know, that condemned road – and then into that house. Before I knew it, there was this portal, and that old woman rambling on about other worlds…”
“And you didn’t think of – oh, I don’t know, telling the police?” David asked, suddenly pissed off that his rescue party consisted solely of this half-wit. “Or anyone that has an ounce of use?”
Hearing the insult, Samantha’s expression hardened, and the girl withdrew. The silence deepened, only broken by their footsteps on the uneven forest track.
David grimaced, feeling that he could kick himself. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. It’s just been a really weird day.”
David looked up to see his least favourite guard return. He’d never thought he could dislike a guy so bloody quickly. David bit his tongue, glancing to Samantha. For some reason, he had a feeling that his apology had not been accepted.
They marched for hours following the forest track. Even with the thick canopy overhead, the sun filtered through. David could feel the sweat trickling down his back, making his white polo shirt stick to his skin. His arm was starting to ache from carrying his coat and jumper.
But he was doing better than Samantha; the girl was starting to lose her footing more and more often. His arm shot out to support her as she staggered again. Her green eyes flashed up with a silent thank you.
Her hand touched his arm, as she stopped and looked in front of them.
The trees stopped abruptly as they came to land that was cultivated, the first sign of civilisation they had seen in this world.
With the sun at their backs, the shadows reached out like dark fingers, clawing down the steep slope before them. The guards had also stopped, to take in the spectacular view. David and Samantha gazed down the hill and across the valley, where rough roads converged and led up a gentle slope to a great wall. The wall enclosed a city that stretched far across the horizon. The only entrance seemed to be colossal golden gates that glinted fiercely in the low evening sun. From their vantage point, they could just see the rooftops of countless houses within the city wall, and rising away from them a palace, its sharp turrets protruding from the heart of the city.
“Welcome to Enchena.” Lieutenant Revill said smugly. “Still think you can oppose the King, boy?”
Holding back a sudden desire to punch the man, David looked over the city with a growing dread. This adventure he’d been dragged into was suddenly becoming more real. Glancing at the gates, he had the horrible feeling that once they were inside them, there was no getting out.
“Move out!” Lieutenant Revill barked, obviously satisfied with his gloating.
The rest of the guards started to move, herding the teenagers down the rough track. The road dipped away down the valley, but the city of Enchena was always in view. As they drew nearer, the roads became firmer underfoot, and more populated. Horses, carts and pedestrians milled this way and that, in their daily business; but all moved obediently aside when they saw the guards in the King’s livery.
When the party reached the main gate, the Lieutenant stepped forward and demanded entry. The huge gates swung out, revealing not the majestic palace, but the sullied streets crammed in at the borders of the city. The guards moved forward onto a walkway that led slightly to the left. The guards’ uniforms stood out amongst the squalor of the ramshackle houses built on top of one another; and the people’s drab attire.
The main road was crowded, and the guards closed in tighter about their prisoners, blocking them from the view of the commoners. Samantha felt a hand tightly grip her already bruised upper arm, making her wince, but she said nothing. Through a gap in the press of bodies, she saw fleeting glimpses of the countless faces of strangers, as they made their way deeper into the city. Not for the first time, she was regretting her decision to come to this place – why hadn’t she listened to Gran? What help did she really think she could provide? She hated to admit it, but David was right, there was nothing she could do.
The road twisted up through the city, leading through a steadily improving area. The houses were larger, and the people they passed were neater in appearance, and didn’t have the look of hunger etched into their features.
A right turn showed the palace rising up before them again, looming closer as they neared the middle of the city. David felt panic bubble up at the sight of it, knowing that they were running out of time with each step.
The way suddenly opened up in front of them and they found themselves in a large, bustling square, with market stalls lining the four walls. Without pausing, the lieutenant led them across the square. The people quietened and moved out of the way, lowering their heads as Hrafn’s men passed. And any that didn’t do so fast enough, felt the blunt end of the guards’ swords.
A shout went up on one corner of the square, a cry that was picked up through the crowd and the noise soon surrounded them. There was movement barrelling towards them, and the guards tried to raise their swords in the press.
Not understanding the sudden mob, or frantic activity, David realised this was their one chance. He grabbed Samantha’s arm and pulled her towards the first gap he could see.
“Run.” He barked.
Samantha hesitated for only a moment, before following David. As one of the guards hurried to grab her again, she elbowed him with all her strength. She didn’t dare turn, but she heard the man groan and his grip had gone, so clearly her aim had hit something soft.
People were fighting all around them, the commoners armed with make-shift clubs, or nothing but their fists. The guards’ swords were much more effective, and it was clearly only a matter of time before the mob was subdued.
Several people tried to grab them as they barrelled past, and Samantha shrieked when one person succeeded. She twisted round to see a fierce-looking young man holding her wrist to crushing point.
“David!” She gasped, as she tried to wrench herself free.
David felt the jolt as Samantha suddenly stopped, and he turned at the sound of her panicked voice. Without pausing to think, he swung his free arm and his left fist connected with the assailant’s face. There was a satisfying crunch, and the guy stumbled backwards, clutching his bleeding nose.
“Come on.” David ordered, pulling Samantha down the nearest street and away from the chaos.
They didn’t dare stop, until the noise of the brawl had faded completely. David led the way, purposefully taking a different route than that they’d come; opting down random streets, until he finally thought it safe to stop.
Samantha pulled her sweaty hand out of David’s, and lent against the brick wall of a house, struggling to get her breath back. “What… was that… about?”
David shrugged, he knew as much about this mad world as she did. Possibly less – after all, Samantha had at least gotten an introduction from Gran; whereas David was dumped in the middle of everything. He grimaced at their predicament and decided they should focus on business first. “We need to find a way back to gate. If we head away from the palace, we’ll hit the wall eventually, then we can follow it to the gate.”
“Without getting caught…” Samantha muttered, hardly impressed with the plan. She looked over at David hopefully. “You don’t happen to have any water on you?”
“Why would… never mind.” David muttered. He hadn’t really been planning to get kidnapped and dragged to a foreign land when he’d been packing for school this morning. He looked at the wall of the house – further down, it was only about six foot high. “Samantha, give us a boost.”
“It’s Sam.” Samantha insisted, as she cupped her hands helpfully.
“Sure, sure…” David grabbed the wall and, with Samantha’s support, he pulled himself up onto the wall.
Behind the house was a small flag-stoned yard and, David was relieved to see, a rain butt. He leant down to offer Samantha his hand. “Come on.”
The two teenagers dropped down into the yard and took turns to drink. The water was hardly fresh, but at this point they didn’t care.
At the sound of footsteps echoing down the alley, they both froze.
“They definitely came this way.” A man’s voice stated defensively.
“You better be sure.” Came the all-too familiar sneer of Lieutenant Revill’s voice. “If we don’t retrieve them, you’ll all taste Hrafn’s punishment.”
David and Samantha shifted further into the shadows of the small yard. Their eyes wide at the sound of their pursuers.
“What if the Gardyn have already got them?”
There was a pause, before the Lieutenant spoke again. “Mention the rebels again, and I will kill you myself.”
The footsteps continued further down the alley, until their sound was lost in the next open street.
David held his breath and slowly pulled himself up the wall, peering over into the empty walkway. “C’mon, it’s clear.” David glanced down, noticing Samantha still frozen in place. “Sammy? We need to move.”
Samantha blinked up at him, and snapped herself out of it. This was all getting too much for her, her heart was still thudding painfully from their last run through the city. But she got obediently to her feet, trusting that David knew what he was doing.
When they clambered back over the wall, Samantha stumbled on the landing. When David reached out to steady her again, she snatched her arm away.
“I’m fine.” She snapped. “We’ve been going for bloody hours; I’m not used to this.”
David frowned, not wanting to admit that he was also at the end of his energy. He wanted nothing more than to sit down, kick off his shoes and tuck into a big meal. But that wasn’t an option; and someone had to stay strong. He should probably say something reassuring – after all, she was only a kid, in over her head. But he doubted they had the time for a pep talk, and he hadn’t the energy to be sincere. “Fine, if a safe alternative presents itself, we’ll stop. In the meantime, we need to keep moving and find the way out of this city.”
Heading back to the streets, David kept a sharp watch for anyone that appeared overly-interested in them. “The most important thing is that we stick together, Sammy. Sammy?”
Worried by the silence, he glanced over his shoulder. David panicked as he couldn’t see Samantha following him anymore. No one could disappear that quickly. “Sam?!” He hissed, torn between fear for the girl, and fear of bringing attention to himself.