|Torby’s Terror – Paul
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
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
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
'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
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.
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
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?'
'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
'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
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