Read Chapters Three and Four From Alex Pheby’s Mordew

God is dead, his corpse hidden in the catacombs beneath Mordew…

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Alex Pheby’s Mordew, the start of an astonishingly inventive epic fantasy trilogy full of unforgettable charactersincluding a talking dog who wants to be a philosopher. Mordew publishes September 14th with Tor Books—start reading chapter three below, or head back to the beginning!

God is dead, his corpse hidden in the catacombs beneath Mordew.

In the slums of the sea-battered city, a young boy called Nathan Treeves lives with his parents, eking out a meagre existence by picking treasures from the Living Mud and the half-formed, short-lived creatures it spawns. Until one day his desperate mother sells him to the mysterious Master of Mordew.

The Master derives his magical power from feeding on the corpse of God. But Nathan, despite his fear and lowly station, has his own strength—and it is greater than the Master has ever known. Great enough to destroy everything the Master has built. If only Nathan can discover how to use it.

So it is that the Master begins to scheme against him—and Nathan has to fight his way through the betrayals, secrets, and vendettas of the city where God was murdered, and darkness reigns.


 

 

III

It wasn’t far home and Nathan clutched the money, fifteen to a palm. Perhaps this would be the end of it, all the misery.

He rounded a turn between two shoulder-high piles of broken pallets, and there was his home ahead. It was the same as he had left it, except there was a woman drawing aside the tarp that made the door. She was broad and red-haired, fine of feature and unscarred. Nathan recognised her immediately—she was the witch-woman who provided cures. Before he could guess at why she had been inside, his mother came out. ‘You’ll do it!’ she screamed.

‘I will not.’ The witch-woman hitched up her skirts and turned.

They both saw Nathan. Whether there is something in the presence of a child that draws arguing adults to a stop is debatable, but they stopped. Nathan, as if he could sense what the source of their disagreement must have been, held out one hand and opened it, so that the coins glinted in the pile they formed.

His mother ran forward, almost insanely eager, her lips pulled back and her hair wild. She spared Nathan one glance, her eyes burning blue and ringed with black, and grabbed the money. ‘You’ll do it.’ She threw the coins at the witch and they fell into the Living Mud at her feet.

The woman bit her lip and thought and then, slowly, kneeled and picked them up, delicately separating them, wiping away the dead-life.‘Whatever you command, mistress.’

 

The witch-woman began her folk magic, and her shadows met in the middle of the sheet that divided the two halves of their shack. The two witches came together, each shadow interfering to make a definite shape, dancing. This woman had enough about her to command the light to acknowledge her edges, round and wide and with a gathering of hair that extended her head back as if she had been skull-bound at birth after the manner of the slum-dwellers to the north of the city.

Nathan watched, his hands clutching in front of him. At what? The possibility of a cure? The revival of his father? There had been a time, though so long ago that it was less real now than a dream, when his father had lifted him high and held him up and shown him to the world. There had been a time when his father had laughed. There had been a time of happiness. Hadn’t there? Now, in the corners, rats and dead-life encroached on the shadows and the idea of happiness seemed nonsensical.

From behind the curtain came a high, light music, not specific to any instrument but not seemingly a voice. The silhouette worked at something, rubbed something between its palms and directed the contents of that working up and over where Nathan’s father lay. The dust of dry herbs? Pollen? Salt?

Nathan stepped forward—it was easy to make his father cough. It was easy to wake him. Nathan’s mother held him by the wrist and kept him still beside her. Nathan turned and she was staring, as he had been, at the outline of the witch-woman. There was something in his mother’s expression, some hopelessness in the set of her brow, something wrong that disturbed him. Did she want this to succeed? Did she want her husband better? It seemed, perhaps, that she did, but also…

The woman clapped her hands and when Nathan turned back, she was swaying, muttering, shaking behind the sheet. She stopped and the silhouette breathed, began again, flowed like water from a jug, arms twisting, repeating words under her breath, words which eluded the mind even though the ear could hear them clearly. Nathan could recognise some syllables by their edges, and the same with the movements of her body, the positions of her hands, gestures mapped against sounds.

The light from the candles guttered and flickered, increased in intensity. Her voice grew louder too, the potency of her spell, the depth of her shadows, the size of her silhouette. A smell, now, of rose petals, of aniseed. Nathan leaned closer, his mother’s hand around his wrist tighter.

He turned to her. ‘Is it working? Will it work?’

His mother turned away from him.

If there was any reluctance in the witch-woman’s dance it wasn’t visible in the shapes she cast on the sheet. If she was fooling them out of their coins, then she didn’t act as if she was. If anything, she moved with an unnerving commitment, a complete lack of reticence, no sense that she cared what anyone thought of her—as if she was dancing for unseen watchers, for magic, for God. The shack shook with the force of her heels hitting the earth, the sheet billowed when she spun from the waist, rippled when her fingertips touched it, her arms extended, her hair a vague flame in the air around her head. She whirled and span and threatened to bring the fragile integrity of their home down around them. The scent of her sweat overwhelmed the rose petals and her panted exhalations interrupted the incantation of her spells the faster she span, but she didn’t stop.

Just when it seemed she would bury them all in a jumble of wood and iron and junk, she grabbed out at the sheet, clenched it in one fist. She stopped, gasping for breath, her other hand on her knee and behind her—grey, flat and motionless—lay Nathan’s father, his chest unrising, his breath only visible in the dappled shadows his ribs made on the skin between them.

‘It’s no good,’ the witch-woman said. ‘The worms have him. There’s a power protecting them. Nothing I can do.’

Nathan’s mother was at her almost before she’d finished speaking, but the witch-woman was more than a match. ‘No refunds!’ she shouted. She pushed Nathan’s mother away and held her at arm’s length. ‘I’m sorry. No refunds.’

 

When she was gone, Nathan rehung the sheet while his mother slunk back to the bed, her spine concave as if the air was too
heavy for it, her shoulders incapable of bearing the weight of her arms. She buried her face in the pillow.

‘Don’t worry, Mum.’ Nathan put his hand on the bed, and she edged towards it. ‘I’ve got more money.’ He opened the palm of his other hand and the remaining copper glinted.

She stopped moving and then sat up, stared at him.‘That’s not real copper, Nathan. That’s plated brass.’

Nathan held up the coin, felt the tears welling in his eyes. He bit them back, silently.

‘It doesn’t matter. It’s not about the money. It’s about him.’ She jerked her thumb at the curtain. ‘He needs to pull himself together. You need to pull yourself together!’

‘Leave him alone,’ Nathan said. If he’d have been a stronger boy, more wilful, he’d have shouted it.

His mother took his hand. ‘How did you get the money anyway? By making flukes of the Living Mud? Spark flukes?’

Nathan looked down, ashamed. When he looked back up, she was wagging her finger at him.

‘You know that’s forbidden, don’t you?’ She had a strange expression on her face, almost a smirk, almost a smile, but cheerless, spiteful. ‘No-one’s allowed to use their power. No-one.’ She stood up and turned away from him, to the sheet that divided this side of the room from his father. ‘Do you remember what comes next?’

Nathan shook his head, but it wasn’t a question. She wasn’t talking to him. She was talking to his father.

From behind the sheet there came an answering moan. It was nothing recognisable as words, but in it was a great sadness.

‘You know it must be done. If you won’t do it, he has to.’

The moaning grew louder.

‘It’s time; you know it,’ his mother said.‘I’m sending him.’ She turned back to Nathan.‘If he won’t do it, there’s no other way. I’m sorry.’

‘I don’t want to go, Mum.’

She pursed her lips, wiped a loose strand of hair from across her forehead. ‘Have you ever wondered why you’re an only child, Nathan?’

He shook his head.

‘Or how we came to be here?’

He shook his head again.

His mother looked away. She gazed into the past, it seemed to Nathan, or into the future, but whatever she saw there it pained her. ‘The world is like a game. When some moves are made, other moves are inevitable. Your father… he refuses to play the best move. So now I have to play a worse one. Some things are inevitable, Nathan.’

Nathan didn’t know what she meant, but his father’s moaning was so loud now that it frightened him. His mother rose to her feet.

‘You trust me, don’t you?’

He did.

‘Everything I do is for your own good. Do you understand?’

He did.

‘Tomorrow, you’re going to the Master.’

His father screamed: a sound so pained and straining that it sounded like death.

 

When his mother had a gentleman caller, Nathan would make himself scarce. He’d go to the Sea Wall, sometimes. He’d sit and follow the lines of the bricks up to the top, tracing a path made in mortar like the route through a maze. He’d imagine himself scraping the line with his nails, making footholds, climbing to the top. If he ever tried, he knew he would fail—the material was harder than his flesh, unyielding—and what was the point anyway?

The waves made one beat—slow, regular—but the firebirds made another—rapid, random—and Nathan would let the sound drown out everything else, even the imagined sounds his mind made when it was quieter. In place of the gentleman callers he heard the violence of the sea, and the Mistress’s endless attempts to kill them all.

Tonight, he put his back to the wall and looked up, scraping the back of his head on the rough brickwork. The overcast flashed, each explosion picking out the contours of the clouds above him, making what otherwise seemed flat into a landscape of inverted hills and valleys.

Firebirds kept, mostly, to the outside of the wall; the Mistress ordered them to sacrifice themselves in order to weaken it. If any came into Mordew, it was by mistake. The witch-women said it was a punishment from God when someone died by firebird, but Nathan didn’t believe in gods.

He had seen firebirds, though, and one had seen him. Once, he was sitting by the wall, looking up as he was doing now, and one had perched on the top and peered down at him. He stared it in the eyes. It opened its long spike of a beak, blinked scarlet feathers across its black eyes, and screeched down at him.

Nathan had cursed it, and the Mistress that made it, but it did him no harm. It took to the air, looped high, flew back across the Wall. A second later, Nathan felt it explode against the brickwork, heard the blast, watched the red light of its bird-death.

Tonight, though, there were no firebirds perched on the wall, and nothing to distract Nathan from his mother’s command. He must go to the Master.

 

IV

The next morning Nathan left at the tolling of the bell. Rain fell, and no-one saw him off. No-one spoke to him. The firebirds pounded, the Sea Wall shook, and the Living Mud flickered red between the toes of his boots. Dead-life squirmed and the bell rang.

At the end of the Mews was the Fetch, standing by his horse cart, pipe in mouth, bell in hand. He was crooked and thick, like a dying oak, and just as stiff. His free hand was on his cage door.

Nathan hesitated. Rainwater ran down his brow and across his cheeks. It wet his lips, and when he breathed it came out like spit. He said nothing and made no movement.

‘Come, lad, if you’re coming,’ the Fetch growled from the back of histhroat.‘Last bell’s rung.’ Hiswords werethickwith tobacco tar. He threw the bell in the back of the cart, took his pipe from his mouth, and billowed grey up into the clouds. ‘The horses want to leave this hell… I ain’t holding them back for Mud-hole scum like you.’ The Fetch let go of the door. He turned and clicked his tongue and the horses started to walk.

Clenching his fists against the pain in his feet, Nathan ran towards the cart. ‘Wait!’

The Fetch turned back, his pipe gripped between his teeth again and both hands out, reaching. ‘Want to meet the Master, do you?’

Nathan stopped dead. The Fetch smiled like a fox smiles when it finds a nest of baby rabbits. Nathan almost turned back, home to his mother. Back to Dad. Almost. ‘Yes, sir,’ he said. ‘I want to go to the Master.’

The Fetch came forward, pipe blazing. ‘In the cage, boy, and we’ll see if we can’t cure you of that.’

 

The cage was full of other boys; they watched Nathan in silence. They were a strange crowd—some womb-born, others clearly flukes. No one moved to let him on either bench, so he sat with his back against the cage door. One of the boys raised the peak of his cap. From the shadow, one good eye peered out while the other was hollow and black. It was Gam Halliday.

‘What do we have here then?’ said Gam, his voice freshly broken, rattling like a beetle in a matchbox.‘Is it young Natty Treeves?’

The cart shook, the wheels turned, and the Fetch slapped the reins.

‘What’re you doing here, Gam?’ said Nathan, pulling his collar closed at the neck. ‘Don’t you know the Master only likes the pretty ones?’

Gam smiled, his last white tooth standing as lonely and crooked as an untended gravestone.‘Tastes differ, don’t they?’ he said. ‘Anyway, you think the Master wants scrawny bits of stuff like you?’ He nudged the boy next to him, a fat one Nathan hadn’t seen before. The fat boy nodded and grinned and popped a square of something yellow and glistening into his mouth. He said something, but it was lost in chewing.

Nathan slipped his hand under his shirt. By pushing on his belly, he could almost stop it growling. ‘I don’t care what the Master likes,’ said Nathan, ‘I don’t want to live with him anyway.’

Gam nodded his head slowly and pursed his lips. ‘That’s right…’ he muttered,‘who wants bread every day? Who wants a dry cot? Who wants a shilling to send home at the end of the week? Not little lord Nathan.’

‘He can keep his bread and he can keep his bed. And his money.’ Nathan turned away, stared out at the slums as they slipped by, and did his best to keep himself to himself.

But Gam kept on. ‘Right… and your dad? Don’t he need his medicine no more? Because I haven’t seen him out and about much.’

On lines across the road, shirts drooped, pegged at the shoulders, dripping from the sleeves into gutter rivers, heavy with the trash of the streets. Whatever was dry enough to burn was piled and set alight wherever there was room, giving what heat it could, disposing of what would otherwise stink. Flames took refuse, ordure, corpses. Where the fire burned out before the rain could drench it then there were circles of ash; where it did not, there were mounds of matter the Living Mud invaded… with unpredictable results.

‘They miss him at the gin-house,’ Gam continued. ‘Very generous he was.’

Under corrugated iron, ragged with rust, the occasional hawker laid out their wares—buttons, shoelaces, firebird feathers, other bits and pieces from the Merchant City that were easily filched but pointless to fence. When the Fetch passed, his cartwheels sprayed Mud.

‘So, he’s kicked the lungworms, has he?’

In the hovels, shutters were drawn across glassless windows, candlelight flickering in the gaps between planks and where knots had been poked through. When doors opened at all the only thing that came out was rubbish and used water, flung into the street for the rain to wash away. The slums stretched off south, overlooked by the gentle swell of the city to the north.

‘Or has he just kicked the bucket?’

Nathan span, his fist outstretched. ‘Leave it!’

The other boys shrank back into the cage walls until it seemed that only Nathan and Gam were there at all. Gam smiled.‘Only,if he’s snuffed it,’ Gam went on,‘I’m surprised I haven’t heard about it. Your mum hasn’t sold him to a pie shop, has she? No…Too gristly, I reckon.’

Nathan leapt over and punched at whatever part of Gam he could reach.

Gam took the blows and then he grabbed down below, twisting until Nathan couldn’t breathe.

Nathan fell to his knees, mouth wide and airless.

‘Every time I see him, he’s like this. Isn’t that right, Natty? You never learn to take a joke, do you, mate?’

Nathan closed his eyes and sprang up at Gam head first. Another boy might have felt his nose snap at this, the crown of Nathan’s skull doing the work, but Gam was too quick and he was out of his seat and standing to the side, ready to kick Nathan in the back and send him clattering to the floor.

‘Stop your rocking back there, you little rats!’ barked the Fetch.‘Don’t think I won’t take my horsewhip to you, Master or no Master. I’ll stripe you like red pike, ready for salting. Now sit quiet! Because if I have to come back there, it won’t be to your advantage. Any of you.’

They all stayed still until the Fetch looked back to the road.

‘Now play nicely, like the Fetch says.’ Gam smiled and sat himself down.

Nathan slid back to his place and looked wherever Gam wasn’t.

The cart was rolling into the Port now, potholes giving way to cobbles. Broom-handlers, thick-armed and sweating through their caps, swept the Living Mud down into the sewers or out to sea The red sails of merchant ships rippled, bulged in the wind as they waited for the Port Guard to open the Sea Wall Gate. Where they were going was something Nathan had always wondered. What was there beyond the Wall but waves, wind and firebirds? Surely they did not sail to Malarkoi?

In the silence there was the sound of someone crying There were fifteen of them in the cage, one half facing the other and one on the floor There wasn’t a single face that wasn’t filthy. It was one of the little ones that was sad.

Nathan knew him. He was a fluke, born directly from the Living Mud out of the ground at the back of a brothel The madam had fed him scraps and now he ran errands delivering leather samples to the ladies who had glove shops on the edge of town where the merchants’wives bought their things The boy was soft. He was always sucking on bits of sugar, which he got by looking dewy-eyed when there was a Mrs in the shop. She’d see him and take pity. She’d give him sugar, and now he was crying because it had made him weak.

‘Stop your snivelling!’ Gam snapped. ‘You’ll have the Fetch back here.’

The boy bit his lip, but that just made it worse. ‘I can’t stop,’ he blubbed. ‘I want to go back.’

‘Well, you better stop crying then,’ Gam said, sneaking over, sitting opposite, smoothing the boy’s hair neat, ‘because the Master likes boys who cry. He milks them, you see. Like goats. Out the back in his sheds. He uses boy tears for his potions and the like. Isn’t that right everyone? Common knowledge. You’ve got to sniff the tears back in before he sees ’em. Nothing the Master likes better than fresh tears scraped off a little boy’s cheek The sadness gives them power, and power is what the Master is after. If he sees you crying he’ll make you so sad you’ll never stop, and one day they’ll find you, dried up like a raisin, like a widow’s lips, like an old snakeskin, wrinkled up in the corner of his milking shed. When the wind blows in, you’ll get blown out onto the Glass Road and crushed to bits beneath the wheels of his black carriage.’

The boy’s eyes were wide now, and wet, and he was shivering.

‘It’s happened before,’ said another boy, head shaved, smiling behind his sleeve.

‘That’s right,’ Gam nodded. ‘Solomon Peel… that was the boy’s name. About your age. About your height. In fact, he looked the dead spit of you. Once. Dry as a bled bone he was in the end. And dead, of course. Ground to powder and blown up on the wind. If you listen carefully you can hear him, crying still from the beyond, on account of how he was used for magic and got in amongst the immaterial side of the world. Isn’t that right, boys?’

Just to show how right it was, the shaven-headed boy put his hand over his mouth, as if he was scratching his top lip and, out of sight, made a quiet, plaintive, moaning sound.

This made the boy cry all the more.

‘You can’t help some people,’ said Gam. ‘Didn’t he hear what I just said?’

‘Leave him alone, Gam.’

‘Or what, young Treeves? You going to tickle me to death?’

Nathan said nothing, but neither did Gam. Instead he looked Nathan up and down.

The swish of the Fetch’s whip and the rattle of iron-trimmed wheels on stone made a slow but steady rhythm. It was only after Gam had examined every inch of Nathan and the cart had begun to trail away from the sea that he said anything more.

‘You thought about my offer?’

‘No,’ Nathan replied.

‘You haven’t thought about it? Or you have thought about it and the answer is no?’

‘Yes.’

Gam thought about the answer, frowning, then gave up. ‘Well, it’s your loss. If you don’t like money, then, well, there’s not much I can do for you.’

‘I can make money without you.’

‘What, by fishing for flukes in the Circus? There’s no future in that, even if you can find limb-babies on demand.’

Nathan glared at Gam. ‘How do you know about that?’

Gam frowned. ‘I have my sources; same ones that told me you’d be in here today, actually. That and the tanner’s a heavy drinker. Can’t keep his mouth shut after half a pint of gin. It’s difficult to keep a secret in the slums, you should know that. Anyway, that’s not the point; it’s basic—flood the market with something, it gets cheap. Soon you’ll be up to your neck all day, fishing flukes for a copper, and everyone in the slums is wearing leather—no future in it.’

Nathan sighed. ‘The answer’s still no.’

‘Don’t join my gang then, see if I care.’

At this last exchange the other boys perked up.

‘I’ll join your gang!’ they said. ‘And me! And me!’

Gam waved them away with the back of his hand. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. Why would I want the likes of you? Never seen such a thin-armed, knobble-kneed shower of runts. And one lardy boy.’

The lardy boy took exception to this and swallowed his mouthful. ‘Why would you want him?’ he said, sucking through the gaps in his teeth. ‘What’s he got that I don’t?’

Gam winked at Nathan, and Nathan shook his head.

‘Don’t you dare!’ Nathan hissed.

‘Would I?’ he said, hands held out, like a bread thief before a magistrate. Then he switched, as if at the click of his fingers, and looked out from under his eyebrow, good eye gone to a slit with a tight grin across his lips. ‘Perhaps I would, though… wouldn’t I? Young Nathan here knows a trick, don’t he?’

‘Shut up, Gam!’

‘A nifty little trick, learned from his daddy.’

‘Gam!’

‘Look, Natty, if you were to join my little troupe, I’d have reason to keep your secrets, like I would for a brother. But if you’re not in it, what’s the point? And I know a boy-trader or two who wouldn’t mind that little bit of information.’

‘You’d sell me?’

Gam spit on the floor, half of it spattering the lardy boy’s boots. ‘Course not. But I can’t speak for the others, can I? Specifically the girls. They’ve got more to lose after all, if you get my meaning.’

The shaven-headed boy nodded at this, but Nathan ignored him. ‘I’m not joining your gang.’

‘No? How’s your mother, Natty? Still entertaining gentleman callers, is she? Look! He’s gritting his teeth. I’m not criticising. Not her fault. Got to make a living somehow, with your old man not fit for purpose, as it were. I’m sure she’s grateful of the attention, even though she wouldn’t admit it. Isn’t that right, Natty? See that muscle going in his cheek, Lardy? It’s like the rattling lid on a saucepan of stew—the more wood you put on the fire, the more it clatters. What do you do, Natty? You make yourself scarce when there’s a knock on the door? Sensible. No need to rub your nose in it, is there? If it wasn’t for nasty pieces of work like me, you might be able to pretend it wasn’t happening. Shame.’

‘Gam, I’m warning you…’

‘She’s still a looker though. Next job I pull off, well, I might knock her up. There! You see it?’

They did: a blue spark darting off into the night. ‘What was that?’

‘Nothing, you nosy little urks. They saw nothing, did they, Natty?’ Gam whispered now, as if the others couldn’t hear him. ‘Our secret, Nat. I just wish I could convince you to come over to me. We need a boy like you.’

Nathan bit down the Itch, all of it, as best he could. ‘What do you care?’ he said. ‘You’ll be working for the Master by the night’s end.’

‘I don’t think so. He didn’t pick me the last two times. And he won’t pick you, neither. Word on the street is, he don’t like the competition. So, you’ll have to join my gang—it’s the only game in town. And anyway, it’d be good to widen your horizons. You’ve never been out of the slums, have you? The world ain’t all rain and dead-life, you know.’ Gam leaned back, licking his teeth and raising his eyebrows. He crossed his arms and put out his legs so that the boy opposite got kicked in the shins.

Nathan took a deep breath, then turned away.

The lardy boy wiggled himself forward, squeezing between the boys either side of him, popping out into the gangway in the middle of the cage. He greased his hair back with his fingers and nodded to two skinny boys. They leaned towards him and he whispered something that made them clench their fists. As a pack, they moved in on Nathan.

‘Hello,’ said the lardy.

Nathan glanced at Gam, but he was now affecting to be asleep, with his peaked cap down over his face. Nathan looked at his feet. No Itch. No Scratch.

The lardy boy was flanked on either side by a skinny one.
‘I’m Cuckoo,’ the lardy said. ‘And these are my brothers, Willy and Wonty.’ He smiled, sucked his teeth, and smiled again. ‘I say brothers,’ Cuckoo continued, ‘we all live in the same nest, anyway. No need to concern ourselves with the niceties.’

‘Found him in the laundry pile,’ said Willy.

‘Shut it!’

‘Covered in bird shit.’

‘Shut it! Don’t take notice of these two. Dad’s sick of the lot of us, never mind where we came from. If the Master won’t take us, he’ll sack us in the docks as if we was a mouser’s kittens.’

‘Will he?’

‘Won’t he?’

‘He will. So, we’ve got a proposition for you.’

‘He won’t know what that is.’

‘A deal. The deal is, we won’t kick your teeth in if you show us how to do that spark. What’s more, we won’t snap your spine.’

‘He’ll snap it. He likes to snap things.’

‘I do. I’m not drowning, sucking in wet canvas, coal dust the last thing I taste, because some little toad knows magic and won’t let on. We want to live, don’t we?’

‘We do.’

‘We do.’

Nathan looked up from his boots at the three of them. ‘You don’t want it. You don’t want it inside you. It’s not a trick. It’s not a game.’

Nathan stood up. For a second he was just a small boy, barely anything in the world, but then he was lit from somewhere, from inside, his eyes blazing and his hair on end, as if the still damp air was blowing a hurricane. ‘You want the Spark?’ he said, quivering, the Itch thrilling through him, desperate to be Scratched.

Gam lifted the brim of his cap. ‘You can’t have it. It’s his. It was passed down to him, and now, on the event of him reaching his thirteenth, he’s blooming. Isn’t that right, Nathan? Coming into his own.’

‘Take it,’ Nathan whispered. One touch and he’d Scratch. Just one touch.

‘Natty…’

‘Come on, take it.’

Cuckoo came closer. Reached.

‘Take it!’

‘What’s the racket back there? Right. I warned you.’

The cart stopped and the Fetch came back and the Itch disappeared, unscratched. The Fetch unlashed the door, reached into the cage and fished around until he found an ankle, any ankle, and dragged. Perhaps it should have been Nathan and perhaps it should have been Cuckoo, but it was a blond one who was pulled out into the street, grasping air as he went, knocking knees and skull on the wood.

‘You mouldy strip of leather. I’ll tan you.’

The Fetch brought his whip down on him, whoever he was, across his cheeks and his shoulder bones, sending cracking slaps echoing between the merchant garrets. Immediately three welts shone through the ingrained mud, singing red and tight. The boy thrashed like a newly gelded weasel, and the Fetch had to renew his grip before he could add another three stripes, intersecting with the others, criss-crossing beneath the boy’s tears.

‘If I tell you quiet, I mean quiet. You want to make my horses’ ears twitch? You think they want to hear your nonsense? You dogs?’ Down came the whip, striking on his out-breath. ‘They… do… not… want… to… hear… your… barking!’

The boy fell to his knees and the Fetch made to finish his lesson. But something inside—not compassion, not shame: a seizure—made him clutch at his chest. He staggered for a while, treading back and forward in a little waltz, done in a circle. Then he found his breath. ‘Oh no. Not yet, Fetch, old boy.’ He pounded his ribs to the rhythm of his heartbeat. ‘There’s years left in this old pump.’

When he was sure all was as it should be, he pulled the boy up by the arm and slung him back into the cage. He fell by Nathan, face pressed onto the wood, eyes wide and blank.

‘He’ll be alright, won’t he?’ Wonty asked.

‘Will he?’ Willy replied.

Nathan helped the boy back to his seat and the cart moved off.

 

Excerpted from Mordew, copyright © 2021 by Alex Pheby.

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