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Torby’s Terror – Paul Collins

As night fell, Torby huddled in the slave pen, staring in abject horror and fascination at the pink tinge in the sky. He vaguely recognised some of his fellow prisoners, and knew them to be clanspeople from far away. But others were so unfamiliar that he knew they were not from his world. But if that were the case, was he in their world, or had they all been spirited away by magic to some evil place?

The Arcarum camp was nestled in the red-soiled hills, just on the boundary of a floating township. Never in Torby's wildest dreams could such a place exist. He had heard of big villages of course, but none that actually floated as though by incredible magic.

Torby soon lost interest in the city, though. There were more pressing matters to weigh heavily on him. The thin air chilled Torby to the bone. That he wore little more than a breechclout and a ragged tunic with more holes than thread in it did not help. He curled up tightly, shivering, hoping that sleep would come quickly tonight.

He was hungry; so hungry that he was sure his rumbling stomach could be heard on the other side of the pen. There was no food, however. The slaves were fed twice a day from a large trough and only the toughest fed well. Not that it really mattered. The food was a porridge-like sludge which sometimes contained vegetables and, more rarely still, a few chunks of stringy meat.

Torby was too small and weak to fight anyone for more than a mouthful. Usually he was forced to wait until everyone else had had their fill, then he'd climb into the trough and lick the sides where some of the sludge still clung.

He hadn't always lived like this.

It seemed long ago, but was no more than a week, since he had had a family, and a normal life. He had lived on the grass plains of Yeffeth, a world of mystics and mages, prized for their skills and respected for their wisdom.

Torby's mother and father had been wood and stone workers, respectively -- able to fashion these materials into wonderful shapes and to join pieces of them so that the eye could never tell they had ever been separate. Torby would sit and watch for hours as his parents worked, slowly passing their hands over an ugly lump of wood or rock, murmuring prayers to the spirits within. Finally the material would soften like damp clay and become any shape his parents desired.

Torby's own skill with wood and stone had been limited, even embarrassing, but as his father had often said, tousling his hair, he was still very young. Most abilities didn't begin to show themselves until just before puberty.

Torby's stomach rumbled again.

The chill air bit at his spine where it was exposed through his tunic He clamped down on his lower lip, determined not to cry. He missed his parents very much.

He barely remembered the raid. He'd been sleeping. Suddenly the air was filled with squawking. Something heavy crashed had crashed into the roof, demolishing it. Rafters snapped like twigs. Torby was thrown halfway across the room. As he picked himself up, bewildered and frightened, he heard shouting and screaming from outside. He called out for his mama but she did not answer. Then the door crashed open and a dreadful looking man in boiled leather armour lunged in and plucked him off the floor. As the man retreated from the house Torby's head cracked into a doorjamb and he lost consciousness.

When he woke he found himself a prisoner in a slaver town.

On that first day, an Akcarum slave-trader called Scipiak had prowled through the slave pen, kicking the huddled sobbing prisoners, scribbling in his book. He made it clear that they would all be sold as soon as they reached a place called Feriz. Until then, there was work to do.

Torby had kept his eyes down, but the slave master soon found him.

'Name?' barked the man.

Torby said nothing. He was too scared.

A boot lashed out, caught him painfully in the ribs. 'Next one's in your face, spawn. Name?'

Torby told him.



The slaver eyed him. 'You look like a tuber to me.' He ripped a yellow tag on which he'd scrawled a number and stuck it to Torby's tunic, then thumbed Torby towards the entrance. 'Go see the man with the red beard. Move fast or you'll regret it!'

Torby swallowed and jumped to his feet. He hurried across the pen to the entrance where several burly men stood. One had a reddish beard.

Torby went and stood in front of him. He didn't know what to say.


The man's teeth were yellowed and cracked. He had a huge wart on the end of his nose. Torby started to shake and for a second he thought he was going to pee his breechclout. He pointed to the yellow tag on his tunic.

The man nodded.

'Jeek, get your bony backside over here.' A boy of about fourteen dawdled over, picking at his teeth. 'Take this lad to the Tower. He's to be a tuber.'

Jeek looked Torby up and down. 'Him? He looks like he'd die if I looked cross-eyed at 'im!'

'Then don't look cross-eyed at 'im. Else you'll pay his head-fee. Now get!'

Jeek grabbed Torby's arm and tugged him along after him. Soon they were holding tightly onto guide ropes as they climbed a steep wooden bridge that ducked and rocked in the strong wind.

When they reached the landing deck Jeek said, 'So what do they call you?'


Jeek turned his charge around and inspected gashes criss-crossing Torby's ribs. 'You got grabbed in the raid the other night? Hunter bird got you a-right.'

Torby didn't know. He might have been unconscious for days.

'I hit my head,' he murmured.

'Lemme look.' Jeek ran his fingers through Torby's hair, found the lump, and parted the hair. He whistled. 'Now that's a beaudy, and I've seen my share of lumps.'

Torby decided that Jeek wasn't all bad.

'Wh-when can I go home?'

Jeek stared at Torby. For a second he looked as if he was going to laugh, then he looked away, scowling. 'You ain't never goin' home, Torby,' he said. 'Ain't none of us ever go home. So just get over that, a-right? You think like that and you'll lay down and die. I seen it happen plenty.' He looked toward the horizon as though scouring it for something. 'Once that vortex is sighted, it's anchors a-weigh.'

Torby started to cry. He didn't make a sound and tried to keep Jeek from seeing, but the boy noticed. Jeek stopped and faced him, square on. He shook his head.

'You listen to me,' said Jeek, not unkindly. 'If any of them sees you cryin', you'll be for it. They'll make a sport outta you. So you just gotta, I don't know, keep it inside. Now come on, or we'll be in trouble.'

Jeek led him through a maze of crooked streets, filthy lanes, and along 'roads' that actually seemed to pass through buildings and people's houses. It was dizzying and confusing.

Torby got up the courage to ask what a tuber was.

Jeek shrugged. 'It ain't so bad. In the Tower -- over there, see...' Torby followed Jeek's pointing hand to where a dark tower, more like a pyramid or ziggurat, rose above the surrounding buildings. 'That's the bridge, see -- that's where they fly the city from and where the master navigator works. You'll be his charge from now on. I don't know all that much about it, but they got these tubes, and some kind of power goes through 'em, and every day they gotta be scrubbed clean and polished like a mirror, else they don't work properly. And only skinny shrimps like you can fit in 'em. It's hard work but take my word for it, Torby, there's a lot worse.'

Twenty minutes later, Jeek presented Torby to the master navigator's head steward, a thin dithering man who didn't seem very cruel but was very absent-minded. While he went off in search of his log book, Jeek leant down and whispered out of the corner of his mouth: 'Did you see his shoes? Got 'em on the wrong way round. Man's an idiot!'

The steward returned, wrote something in a leather-bound book, and stamped a number in ink on Torby's shoulder. Jeek had to leave then and Torby was suddenly stricken. Jeek was his only friend in all the world.

Jeek squeezed his shoulder. 'You'll do a-right,' he said in a low voice. 'I'll come see how you're doin' when I can. Now get along with you. I'll get a whippin' if I'm too long.'

And with that Jeek hurried off.

Torby was put to work that afternoon, and it was just as Jeek had said. He had to climb inside a maze of shiny interconnected tubes and clean them till he could see his own face in them. There was even a bit of magic involved for as he scoured and scraped at the odd silvery deposits, he was to mutter a scouring charm over and over. Later, when the assistant navigator checked, he was mildly surprised and gave Torby an odd look.

'Your folk are magical?'

Torby nodded.

'Thought so. That charm don't work so well for most. Well, the old sod will be happy about that, not that he'll admit it.'

Each night Torby had to return to the nearest slave pit in the hold where he was fed along with all the other slaves before being locked in for the night.

Most of his beatings occurred in the slave pits. The guards were cruel men and women and respected nothing except brute strength and cruelty even greater than their own. There were, however, limits to their nastiness. The slaves were merchandise, destined to be sold in the great marketplace on Feriz; any that were too damaged or marked by the guards' treatment would bring a heavy reprisal against the person who had done the damage.

But this didn't stop them from slapping, punching, pinching and kicking the slaves. In his first week, Torby suffered two cracked ribs, and his back and bottom became covered in ugly bruises. Some of his sores drew flies. The only punishment not used was withdrawal of food: all the slaves had to work, and without food, no matter how little, they would soon collapse.


Within the week the giant ship that was now Torby's home weighed anchor and rose majestically into the air. Never in all his short life had Torby witnessed such magic. Sails flapped like those on the desert ships he had seen, and that he understood. But how could a city float , unless by potent magic?

Jeek, as good as his word, visited Torby from time to time and when he did he always brought some extra morsel he'd managed to steal. Torby would gobble it down so quickly, Jeek often whistled and stared, his hands on his hips.

'I ain't never even seen a lycanope eat that fast!'

Torby didn't know what a lycanope was but Jeek's expression always made him smile.

There were other tubers working for the navigators. Most were around Torby's age, some even younger. All with skinny, bony limbs and ribs sticking out. When there were no tubes to clean the boys and girls were set to polishing the brass work, washing the floors, and generally scrubbing anything that needed scrubbing. No knew the answers to Torby's questions -- it seemed that anyone who knew too much simply disappeared...


Torby, being brighter than most, was set to carrying messages and soon grew to know his way around the great flying ship. To his mind the 'ship' was huge, but in reality it was barely the size of a large village.

His favourite route led along part of the city wall. It was slightly out of his way but if he ran extra fast before and afterwards he knew he could dawdle a little, staring over the parapet -- though in some places there was no parapet, and he kept well back from the edge in those spots -- at the world beneath.

It never failed to take his breath away.

Here he was floating high in the sky, sometimes higher even than the clouds, and all the while, gliding away beneath the ship's hull, was a whole world. With his keen eyesight he was able to pick out towns and villages, roads and hedges, the great tapestries of farmland and the dark furry swathes of forests. Sometimes, if the city was low enough, he could make out people, though usually they ran away at first sight of the slaver ship.

One day he was carrying a scroll for the master navigator and, as usual, had stopped to gaze down at the land thousands of feet below. He was near one of the sections that had no protective wall and had just been daring himself (without much success) to crawl forward and peer over the edge, when a klaxon blared.

Torby had never heard the warning alarm before and had no idea what it was. Within minutes, however, slavers were running about, climbing the rigging, and fetching arms from the stores. As he watched, a great sail was lowered to catch the wind and make the ship go faster.

Torby was watching this curious process, his back to the void, when there was a great crunching boom from behind him and before he could even blink, he'd been knocked off his feet and thrown backwards over the edge of the city.

Torby screamed, frantically clutching at the air, but there was nothing between him and the ground -- a long, long way down...

Or there should have been.

It seemed longer but was probably only a few seconds later that Torby found himself plunging through thick foliage before crashing, with an enormous splash , into water.

Stunned, and bewildered, he rose to the surface, spluttering, and looked about.

He was in the middle of a small lake. Above him rose the great chunky hull of the slaver ship. He blinked, and it took a few moments to work it out; then he realised he was on a different ship. One that had rammed the side of the slaver, knocking him off his feet.

Torby wasn't a very good swimmer but he managed to dog paddle slowly to the shore and crawl out. He didn't know what he was going to do but it didn't matter much: he'd barely crawled twenty feet when a great meaty hand plucked him off the ground and lifted him in the air. A grizzled, grinning face swam into view.

'What do you think, lads? Is it a spy?'

'It fell outta the sky, Suuta,' said a toothless woman. 'I seen it!'

'Maybe that's their new strategy,' said Suuta. ' Maybe they ain't got no missiles left so now they're lobbing boys at us!'

The men and women who had crowded up behind the grizzled man, laughed. 'Well, we'd better see he's properly questioned!'

Torby was taken to the local lockup. Before long, he was joined by dozens of others kidnapped from the slaver ship. He kept his eye out, hoping to see Jeek, but the older boy didn't appear to be part of the 'prize'.

Torby spent a very unpleasant week in the crowded stinking lockup, then one morning he was seized by the scruff of the neck and taken to a military detention centre and thrown into a dark, dingy cell. It was while he was there that he gathered from conversations that he overheard that he was on a city called Tolrush and that the whole of Tolrush was like a fort, and everyone who lived there was a soldier of some kind, whether they liked it or not.

Well, not everyone was in the military. Like the ship Torby had come from, Tolrush had slaves, and it also had -- prisoners.

Who were expected to talk.

One day two guards came into the cell followed by a boy who looked about Jeek's age but he walked and talked like someone much older, and wore richly embroidered clothes. One of the guards called him 'sire', so Torby knew the boy must be a king, though he'd never heard of such a thing.

'I am Kull Vladis,' said the boy, his eyes ice-cold with contempt. 'And I have been informed by one of your shipmates -- who slipped and fell overboard a few minutes ago -- that you worked for the master navigator on your ship. He also said that you know where the icefire is kept.'

Torby stared at the boy-king, who was obviously waiting for Torby to say something. He'd never heard of icefire (how could something be both ice and fire anyway?)

Kull's fist suddenly shot out and crashed into Torby's jaw. Torby fell to his knees. One of the guards seized him by the hair and hauled him back to his feet.

'Where is the icefire?' demanded the guard.

At a nod from Kull, the other guard -- a brute of a man -- tightened a knotted rope around Torby's throat. Torby began to choke.

'What did you say?' asked Kull. 'Speak up!'

Torby, his face streaked with tears and his lip and chin covered with snot, said nothing. The rope was wrenched tighter...


For more on Torby read The Spell of Undoing by Paul Collins, book one in Quentaris — Quest of the Lost City.

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