But he did not get a chance to dwell on this thought, as he was distracted by the slowing of their cart. Tearing his gaze away from the workers in the fields, he strained to see over the heads of his parents and Garret, to what was happening on the road ahead. There did indeed appear to be a market as he had thought, but it was not like any market he had seen on their travels so far. Guards sat behind long tables lining the road on both sides. Tents set up over the tables ensured that the Guards were sheltered from the weather. Behind the tables on the left were all sorts of enclosures ranging from large pens to small cages, housing the many and varied types of livestock that were being traded. On the other side of the road, the manufactured goods from the city were displayed. People were lined up at the tables, noisily haggling with the Guards as they sold and bought. Jack watched as the man at the head of the queue closest to them concluded his sale of a crate full of ducks and was handed a bag of coins. He then dashed straight in front of them to join a queue on the other side of the road, to purchase leather goods. Garret yelled at the man, but it was impossible to hear him over the hubbub of the bartering crowds.
Progress was slow through this melee of people, but eventually they made it to the relative calm of the other side—only to come to a sudden halt in front of an elaborate gateway. Beyond that was a long bridge, which spanned a wide moat surrounding the mountain city. One of the Guards leapt from their cart and presented a scroll to the Guard stationed at the gate. That Guard perused the paperwork, and then walked around the cart to gaze at each of them in turn. He returned, frowning, to the first Guard who was still waiting at the gate, and a discussion ensued in low voices. Jack heard the words ‘girl’ and ‘pit’, at which his mother gave a gasping sob. Thomas put his arm around her shoulders.
Finally, the Guard who had travelled with them walked back to the cart, tucking the scroll into his jacket.
“Okay, down you get, you lot,” he commanded.
They grabbed their few possessions and stumbled off the cart. Directing his next comment to Garret, the Guard added, “You’re free to go.” At the same time, he threw something to him. Something that flickered as it spun through the air. Catching the coin deftly, Garret inspected it, then bit it. Grinning, he thanked the Guard.
“Is there anything more I can do to be of service?”
The Guard cut him off, staring at him with his steely eyes. “You are dismissed!” he said abruptly and, turning his back on the man, ushered the family ahead of him through the gateway.
As they walked across the wide bridge, Jack gazed upwards. The white wall, which had looked so small from far away, now towered over their heads. He judged it to be ten times his height. Above the wall, he could discern the detail of the dwellings perched, one above the other, on the steep hillside, like decorations on an elaborate cake. Narrow roads wound their way between them like ribbons. All the houses were whitewashed, with terracotta tiled roofs, and many had pots of brightly coloured geraniums hanging from the windowsills.
Nearing the gateway in the city wall, Jack glanced down into the water swirling under the bridge. He had expected it to be clear and sparkling, so was surprised to note that it was dark and murky, such that he could not see the bottom. It looked deep and menacing: shadowy forms drifted in the gloomy depths—were they tentacles? He couldn’t be sure. He looked ahead once more. They had arrived at the entrance at the other end of the bridge. A stab of excitement ran through him, and he shivered. Beside him, his mother also shivered, and he suddenly felt guilty.
Stepping into the entranceway, they were cast into gloom, and Jack could not see a thing. As he blinked, trying to adjust his vision, hands grabbed him.
“Hey!” he yelled, startled.
His father grunted nearby, and his mother whimpered.
“What’s going on?” he demanded.
“Just standard entry procedures,” stated the Guard accompanying them. “Please cooperate.”
They were hustled through another doorway, off to the side, and into a small room. Before he had a chance to respond, someone grabbed his arm and pushed back his sleeve. Something stabbed his inner elbow, and a strange coolness flowed through his veins. Then he was released. By the sounds of it, the same thing was happening to his parents.
“Welcome to the Golden City,” said a gravelly voice, laughing. It didn’t sound very welcoming.
Holding up his arm and inspecting the place where he had been stabbed, he saw no injury. “What is this?” he demanded.
The man with the gravelly voice replied, “Don’t worry. It’s your ticket into the Golden City. You can’t get in without it.”
“Nor leave!” added a second voice, at which everyone except Jack and his parents burst out laughing.
The blood drained from Jack’s face, and he gaped, horrified, at his captors. He sought out his parents’ eyes, but they both looked back at him blankly, not taking in what was happening.
Someone clapped their hands and the laughter died away.
“Now for your assignments,” said a man seated behind a desk against the far wall.
One of the Guards that had accompanied them from Targa stepped forward and presented the scroll to the man.
He scanned it quickly, then said, “Farmers, eh? Good.” He got up and, turning around, selected something that clinked metallically from a wall of pigeon holes behind him. “Okay. Here are your tags.”
He handed the tags to the Guards who were escorting them and, slipping the tags onto a metal band, they attached the bands around the wrists of the family, like bracelets.
“Time to take you to your new home,” said a different Guard, stepping forward. “Come along.”
He swept out the door, and the family was prodded into action by two more Guards following behind. They exited the room and found themselves back in the cavernous, gloomy entranceway beneath the wall. By now Jack’s eyes had adjusted and he could see that they faced another wall containing a series of small doors, each one only just large enough to admit a single person at a time. Beyond them stood another wide archway and beyond that, the city. Jack, Thomas, and Martha were prodded towards different openings, and Jack knew he had no option but to enter. With trepidation, he stepped into the doorway … but nothing happened. Surprised, he stopped, and the Guard following close behind banged into him.
“Keep moving, pup!” he snarled.
Relieved, Jack obediently stepped forward to complete his passage through the city wall. He blinked once more as they emerged into the weak sunlight on the other side. A wide boulevard stretched both left and right, rising gently in both directions. It was strangely devoid of traffic.
Yet another wall stood directly in front of them on the far side of the wide road, with houses perched above it. The Guard headed off to the right, and they trotted behind him obediently. They twisted this way and that, up a narrow staircase here and through a narrow alley there, heading ever higher until, after some time, he stopped in front of one of the whitewashed cottages.
“Here we are,” he announced. He opened the door and strode inside. “Ah, good, you’re here,” he said to someone, as the family followed him into the cottage.
A boy, with a mop of curly, brown hair and big green eyes, who looked to be around eight years old, stood in front of them.
The Guard turned to the family. “This is Sam,” he said. “He has been assigned to you to help you get your rations, find your way to your work stations, and explain the system to you.” With that he grunted, turned on his heel, and marched out through the door.
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