Chapter 3 – The Golden City

Jack watched in horror as the Guards manhandled his sister, screaming, out of the office. His mother cried hysterically and clutched at Thomas, who yelled angrily, shaking his fist at the Guards, demanding they give Freya back and let them return to Nob.
A thick fog settled over Jack’s mind and his body shook as he tried to comprehend these shocking revelations: first, finding out that his sister wasn’t his sister at all, and then, before even getting a chance to adjust to that fact, having her dragged off to who knew where. Tears pricked at the back of his eyelids. Blinking hard, he moved behind his mother, who was much shorter than him, and put his hands on her shoulders—whether trying to comfort her or draw comfort from her, he did not know.
Martha reached back and gripped his hand. She took a deep sobbing breath and attempted to control herself.
Jack’s father, too, had exhausted his anger, and now stood glaring at the Guard barring the doorway, preventing them from leaving. In the relative quiet, the faint sound of grinding cartwheels and clattering hooves on the cobbles drifted through the window as the cart carrying Freya disappeared out of the town square on to the dirt road that headed towards the distant hills.
“Right! Let’s go now!” barked the Guard in command.
The remaining family members were jostled together out the door.
“You!” the Guard said, pointing at Garret. “If you want to earn your reward for finding that traitor, take us to the Golden City!”
Garret, who had been slouching against the side of the cart, chewing tobacco, snapped to attention, grinning broadly. “Yes, Sir!” he answered, and spat a big glob of tobacco onto the dusty cobblestones at his feet. He spun on his heel and climbed up into the driver’s seat, whilst several Guards pushed Freya’s family into the back and clambered in behind them. With a flick of his wrist, Garret slapped the reins on Bertha’s back, and the cart lurched into motion.
The trip to the Golden City was a sombre one. Nobody spoke. Jack’s father was hunched over, his elbows on his knees, his hands hanging limply as he stared morosely at the bed of the cart. Martha huddled next to him, sobbing quietly into her handkerchief. Seeing both his parents suffering so much broke Jack’s heart, and tears welled up. He wanted to reach out to them, to comfort them, but their grief surrounded them like an invisible barrier, preventing him from doing so. Instead, he gazed out over the stooped forms of his parents, resolutely keeping his eyes fixed on the road ahead, his lips pressed firmly together in a hard line. The Guards also did not speak, but looked towards their destination. Only Garret was unperturbed by the turn of events, and was whistling tunelessly in time to the clop-clop of Bertha’s hooves.
The road was busy, and Jack’s attention was soon drawn to the variety of people travelling along it. Many of them were on foot, heading in the same direction as the family, towards the Golden City. They carried baskets and wheeled barrows, laden with all sorts of fresh produce: wicker cages of chickens, bundles of grain, and snares of freshly-caught game, such as rabbits and pheasants. Jack figured there must be a market at the Golden City, and that all these people were aiming to sell their wares there.
The cart gave a lurch as Garret reined Bertha in. Jack didn’t need to ask why: the smell that assailed his nostrils and the bleating that filled the air told him as well as his eyes did, that they had caught up with a mob of sheep. Leaning over the side of the cart, Garret growled, “Keep ‘em off the road, runt!” to someone short.
Craning his neck, he was shocked to see that the shepherd was a young girl who looked to be Freya’s age. Without warning, tears welled up into his eyes and a lump formed in his throat. He swallowed hard and dashed away the tears with his sleeve, as an image of Freya’s horrified face popped into his head. By the time he had regained his composure, they were well past the sheep. He forced himself to focus once again on the other travellers.
This time he studied the ones returning from the Golden City heading back towards Targa. He was surprised that their baskets, carts, and barrows weren’t empty, having sold all their produce at market. Instead, they were just as laden, if not more so, than those travelling to the Golden City. Their goods were different, though. Rather than raw produce from the land, these goods were manufactured: bolts of woven cloth, brightly coloured like none Jack had ever seen; a cart full of barrels accompanied by a very strong smell of beer; a barrow-load of pottery bowls. One man carried rolls of tanned hides strapped to his back, stacked up so high it looked like he might topple over. A faint feeling of excitement stirred at the pit of Jack’s stomach, and he looked with anticipation towards the looming bulk of the mountain that was the Golden City. What an exciting place it must be, he thought, to produce such wondrous goods! He wished Freya were here to see it with him.
The city loomed closer now: a white wall ran around the base of the mountain. There was a dark line in front of the wall, though he couldn’t tell what it was. The countryside undulated gently like rumples in a giant carpet. From within the gleaming white wall encircling its base, rose the perfectly conical mountain, its peak shrouded in clouds.
In due course, the land on either side of the road became cultivated, with abundant crops of corn, barley, wheat, cabbages, beans, peas, and many other, unfamiliar, vegetables. Some fields had already been harvested, and the rich brown soil was being tilled into neat furrows in preparation for the next planting. As he marvelled at the variety of crops, Jack spotted workers in the fields.
He had not noticed them initially because they were so quiet. At home when they harvested, the air was full of songs and laughter. Here, there was none of that. And then Jack saw why: each field was overseen by a man dressed in a green uniform, not too dissimilar to that of the Guards. Each of these overseers prowled around, glowering at the workers, holding something in one of their hands: something very long and black, that looked like a rope. At the same instant that he spotted the object, a loud crack came from a nearby field, followed by a whimper. Whips! Jack wondered what these people had done to earn this punishment.

To be continued…

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