PART 3: The magic city
Of ties that break.
(click here for part 2)
“Hey, let us out!”
They banged on the doors, but it was no use. The guard in front just shook his head at them. They were stuck.
Discouraged, they turned around to view their desert-coloured prison. Darmay was a beautiful city, of a mystic aura, and buzzing with people in various attires. They ran crisscross through the narrow golden streets. At every street corner, there was some performer spitting fire, playing music, belly-dancing, telling heroic tales or a magician showing off his tricks. Throngs formed around them in awe or bursting with laughter. Most residents were a cheerful lot, others shuffled by in greyish tones.
The city was a hive of high stone apartments where women were beating clothes and hauling in their washing lines. People were on their balconies looking down over the crowds.
Darmay was of a Roman scheme, with narrow, straight streets all coming together in one slightly broader main road, forming a forum in the middle of the city, where the fountain was, the heart of Darmay. At the end of this road, beyond the well, was a huge white and gold palace.
“Oh, it’s good to be home.” Robert said, rubbing his hands. They made their way through the masses, shoving through to the palace steps.
“Robert, I don’t know about this.”
“You’ll see, they’ll wait on us hand and foot, welcome us like lost sons.”
He mounted two or three steps at a time, his brothers one step behind him, eying each other suspiciously. They strode into the palace and swayed open the doors to the grand hall, where the king and queen were seated.
Robert burst into the throne room, arms wide, crying out that he’d returned.
The king rose and stumbled down the steps to the throne platform in sheer surprise, but Robert, was certainly no prince of his house. Red hot in anger, he commanded the guards, who tumbled in following the swift intruders, to throw them out. Once again, Robert was grabbed and flung through the air, quickly followed by his brothers. With a loud thud, they landed alongside each other, stretched out in the dirt of the streets, the debris in the gutters and the horse dung.
Edward wrinkled his nose in disgust as he tried to get the smeared dirt off him.
“I hate to say I told you so.” George added dryly. Nothing would ever stir his temper, not even the filth he brushed off his clothes.
“Whatever. This is just ridiculous. Now what?”
“Well, firstly, we’ll need someplace warm to sleep and something to eat.”
They tried pleading with the villagers they came across, offering to trade services for a bed and a meal. George was quite successful reasoning with some of the locals and came close to getting them a cosy resting place – in exchange for help of some kind – on several occasions, but Robert in his arrogance had to ruin it by insulting them in whatever way possible. All left sticking up their nose in anger and they stayed out on the street, hungry and cold.
In the end, they had to make due slipping into the royal stables unseen. There they made a nest for themselves out of hay, among the stench, the dung and the bolting horses.
“Oh, great. Thanks a lot, Robert.”
“Oh, come on. It’s not my fault. George, say something!”
“I’m with Edward on this.” He said, clutching the stack of hay that was to pass for a pillow and stretching out on and underneath the straw. “You should really learn to keep your mouth shut.”
He waved the flies away that had been stalking them ever since they came in.
“One of these days, it’s gonna cost you. Do you have any idea how close you got to getting all three of us killed today?”
Exhausted, they finally fell into a deep sleep, despite the unpleasant odours and relentless noises of the horses around them as darkness spread across the land of Drover.
In the meantime, Michael was left with troubles of his own. After all, mum had just summoned them for dinner. How on earth would he cover for his brothers’ absence? If they found out what happened...
He had to come up with something fast as he heard his mother pacing below, wondering what took the usually exuberant bunch so long. And so he picked up the phone to start the negotiations. By the time he disconnected, he had provided them with an alibi, though it cost them dearly.
He hurried downstairs and nearly crashed into his mother, who had come to call for them a second time.
“Are you boys coming? Dinner’s ready.”
She quickly toyed with his hair and started to put the steaming bowls of fresh green peas, potatoes and the saucer of hot beef on the table. Surprised that four hungry sharks hadn’t rushed to the table and started digging in before the table was even fully set, his mother frowned.
“Where are your brothers?”
“Uh, Danny asked if they wanted to come to his sleep-over. They left.”
“What, just like that, without asking? All three of them?”
“Danny said they were having fries for dinner, then they started packing.”
“Ah, I see.” She shook her head. “Those boys will never change.” She planted a carafe of water on the table. “They could’ve at least told me.”
“Well, you know how they get; they hear ‘fries’ and they lose their senses.”
“We’ll see what your father has to say about that. Remind me to phone Danny’s parents after dinner, will you dear.”
“Sure.” Not a chance. But everything was arranged. Amazing what a little bribe could do. Right now, Danny would even confess a murder if he asked him to, lying about a sleep-over or doing a little voice-imitation would be no problem. He was good at that, experience and a lot of bad report cards/mischief had that going for him. Great friend to have, Danny. Unfortunately, he also had a great sense of what friendly favours like his cost.
“Such a shame though.” His mother continued. “With grandpa coming all this way from the home to come see you boys.”
“Dad’s gone to pick him up from the train station. They’ll be here any minute now.”
And indeed, they could hear an engine running outside. Someone turned up the driveway. He ran to the door and into the old man’s arms, who had only just scrambled out of the car.
“Gramps!” Michael yelled, nearly knocking the poor man over.
“Oh, dear, my old bones.” The man exclaimed, laughing.
“Michael, check yourself. Your grandpa just had a long and tiring trip. Help me get his bags inside. Father, why don’t you go ahead already and start dinner. We’ll be right in.”
Michael had immediately forgotten his more urgent affairs and thus left his vast sleeping brothers to their own devices.
The three boys woke up from troubled slumbers early the next morning, to the cries of cocks and horses. Robert woke and shoved a racket-making rooster off his chest. The nerve of those beasts! All three had feathers and straw in their hair. They looked and smelled like they had been drifting for months. George stretched and sighed.
Edward, still dazed and shadowy-eyed, cried out that he was hungry. His stomach churned.
“We all are, Edward! Let’s try to figure out what to do.”
“If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t be in this mess!”
“Oh, sure, it just has to be my fault.”
“If you’d been a little nicer, we would’ve had a comfortable bed to sleep in and a decent breakfast by now. Hell, we wouldn’t even have ended up in this damn book in the first place!”
“You picked the book up too.”
“Only because you made me!”
“You were all too eager, weren’t you? I had nothing to do with that.”
“We should’ve stayed out of that attic, but you just had to drag us all up there.”
“You weren’t complaining then!”
“Guys, there’s no point arguing, so don’t waste your energy doing it. We’re all out fault in coming here, now we should plan our next move to get out.”
“What move? We’re check over here.”
“Quit being so negative, Edward, you big baby!”
“I’m not a baby! You jerk!”
“It’s not my fault you look like a midget!”
Edward shoved Robert so hard, he fell flat on his side and stormed out, tears of rage in his eyes.
“Edward, come back here!”
The boy just kept walking and was soon out of sight.
“Let him go, he needs to blow off some steam. You insulted him, Robert.”
“He should just stop taking things so seriously. It was just a joke.”
“Look who’s talking.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Never mind, let’s just... Shit, someone’s coming.”
When they heard the royal stable boys approaching, they sneaked back out of their shelter and were once again lost in the streets of the city, without a friend to rely on or a place to go.
“We can’t stay here and wait till Edward returns; they’ll catch us and flog us for sure. We’ve got to find him, before he gets too far.”
“How do you plan to find him in this swarming mess? We don’t know where he went. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
“Well, if you were Edward, where would you go? Place yourself in his position.”
Robert just stared at him, face blank.
“I don’t know.”
During that time, Edward was stamping along, staring at his feet. He hardly watched his step, turning into alleys at random. So he chanced to find himself in the middle of a market in one of the many squares in backstreet Darmay. There he looked up.
There was laughter, there was shouting, there were loud voices crying out praise of their products from various stands. Edward picked up an object from the nearest booth, which was immediately snatched away by a protective salesman. Couldn’t blame him, he looked like a bum. The most curious things were sold here. There were vegetables and fruits, many of which he had never seen before, but also strange animals in cages, small and large, all sorts of jewellery asserted to have magical powers, crystal balls, carpets, cloth rough and smooth with every pattern imaginable, peculiar cards and runes, every kind of rock and stone you could think of, smelly potions in every colour of the rainbow, ointments, tinctures, herbs... The weirdest of folk frequented this bazaar. There was unfamiliar music from long forgotten instruments all around him, it was dizzying. People spit fire or swallowed swords in every direction. Disoriented he clashed into one of the many soothsayers, who pushed him away after one glance at his by now rickety clothes. “Sorry”, he stumbled, and nearly crashed into the next. It was difficult to dodge all the flames and people. Blind women scrambled through the masses leaning on sticks or bent like broken twigs, grabbing wrists and palms, proclaiming what they saw for some change.
Edward pulled away from all this and leaned against the wall to catch his breath and regain his composure. There was so much going on it was overwhelming. His stomach hurt. He rubbed it. He was so hungry it burned through him, deep inside. If he didn’t get something to eat soon, he’d faint!
To his right was a stand where an old lady sold fruit. And apple, red and round, lay glimmering in the morning light, beckoning him. It was so tempting, just beyond his reach. If he but stretched his arm a little, he could grab it. No one was near enough to stop him, and surely, the old lady couldn’t see it. He would come at it from an angle out of her sight. She looked ancient, she would not get to him on those crooked old legs bent like broken twigs even if she did see. His stomach made funny noises, then violent ones, louder. He had to eat. He was sure she’d understand, he was only trying to survive. She had so many apples.
He snatched the apple from the booth and turned to run away, bringing it to his mouth. Hardly had he even managed to bite it, or his hand was snatched with incredible force, long pointy nails digging into his skin. He saw the blackish dirty hand, the filthy nails and looked down at the old lady as she pulled him by the ear with the other claw, dragging him along behind the booth. She shrieked and cried.
“You! Stealing my apples, are you?” She called out in a shrill voice. “Well, I will damn you to hell!”
Bringing two long fingers to her elongated pointed chin, she lined it, pondering, pausing on the big hairy wart at the end.
“Hmm, what am I to do with you...”
“Uh, let me go?” Edward stammered, hopeful.
The hag burst out into a sharp, piercing laughter. She stroke him across the face with a swiftness he never would have imagined she’d be able to muster. Astounded, he felt up the swollen spot. She packed quite a punch.
“I know! I shall change you into a toad!”
Always with the toads...
“No, please don’t!” He called out helplessly, pleading, apologizing, holding up his hands in defence. She just continued, spitting out her high-pitched prattle.
“Abi abo aboe, in a toad I now change y...”
Two voices cried out in sync. His brothers came running. A sigh of relief went through the boy. Just in time.