The Revolutionary Council
‘Not how we planned it, but the result’s the same,’ Namir said.
‘Where are we? David whispered.
‘Council chamber. Just a formality then we can get moving again.’
They were in a vast waiting room. It was an old building constructed of huge stone blocks, its ceiling still intact and bearing some of the original moulded decoration. Flickering light from polished oil lamps cast deep shadows across the walls. Heavy black-out curtains had been drawn across the windows. A double door, which David supposed must be the main entrance, stood firmly closed and fastened with a long metal bar. The footsteps of the four new arrivals echoed in the semi-darkness as they approached a desk set at an angle to the entrance doors.
‘We’re here to see the Elders,’ Seyyal said. A small woman sat hunched behind the desk, with torn and charred parchments arranged in piles all around her.
‘Do you have an appointment?’ she said. As she spoke, she took a sheet of parchment and wafted its edge across the flame of the brass lamp on her desk. She held the page as the fire crept across its surface, examining the new arrivals in its temporary glow. ‘Well?’
‘No, but they’ll see us.’ Seyyal said. A murmur ran through the shabby group of people who stood watching the new arrivals. The clerk looked sternly from Seyyal to Namir, and dropped the remains of the flaming paper into a metal bucket on the floor.
‘The Council are very busy, you know. You really should have made an appointment.’ She shuffled through more papers, then nodded towards a huddle of men sitting against the wall. ‘All these gentlemen are before you. Some have been waiting a long time.’
‘The Council does love order and rules,’ Namir said.
‘That, Sir, is the function of the Council. Where would we be without some order? You, of all people, should know what has happened to the ungoverned Outlands.’
‘Just tell them we’re here,’ he said. ‘And we won’t wait.’
‘Then you won’t be seen.’ The clerk narrowed her lips and consulted a list on her desk. The list appeared to be nothing more than a charred fragment of paper on which were written a random jumble of numbers and letters, joined with arrows and circled in various colours.
David looked around. Some of those in the chamber stared at the new arrivals with blank, defeated eyes, some just looked at the floor. A few held yet more piles of parchment, which they studied self-consciously. In the deep shadows of the waiting room he could see twenty or more men sitting along the walls, most cradling little boxes or bundles of paper tied up with string. Here and there were other large shapes draped with stained and ragged shrouds.
Namir whispered something to the clerk. She eyed him with distaste, but whatever he had said was persuasive. She looked past him to another woman who stood guarding a huge wooden door almost hidden in the gloom. The door-keeper nodded and entered the chamber beyond. Silence hung heavy on the waiting crowd. The only movement was the occasional flap of hands fending off attacks from the flies that buzzed lazily around in the stale air. Presently the chamber door opened once more.
The ragged gathering around the door parted as a tall bearded man, dressed in long robes came forward.
‘Namir, welcome. And to you Seyyal.’
‘We’ve brought them,’ Seyyal said, pointing over her shoulder at David and Sarah.
The man stepped further into the light and examined the two strangers. His long tunic and loose trousers were cleaner than the tattered clothes of the other people in the room, but his look was tired and sad, his eyes dull, his back slightly stooped. He nodded.
‘Welcome. I am Councilman P. You’d better come through.’ He turned and led the four new arrivals back through the door into a cavernous room lit by a single oil lamp on a huge oak table.
‘The Revolutionary Council are on our side,’ Seyyal said quietly. ‘All new arrivals are brought before them for appraisal. They have to decide whether you’re to be sent up for judgement by Minos, or are free to stay with us while we try to locate your friend. It’s just a formality. The Council has no real power.’
Councilman P motioned David and Sarah to sit on a low bench in front of the table. Seyyal and Namir stood behind them shrouded in the darkness. P whispered something to a tiny woman, who immediately disappeared through another door, then he sat down on the other side of the table. For a long while he just stared sadly at David and Sarah, curling his beard between his fingers.
‘You came here looking for something you think you have lost,’ he said eventually.
‘Yes, sir,’ Sarah said quietly, without looking at him.
‘Everyone does.’ His voice was flat and matter-of-fact, as if he had been through this a thousand times before.
‘Our friend, Toby. They say the Cerberites took him and we need to get him back. We only want to go home.’
‘And where is this place you call home?’
Sarah looked round at Seyyal, but the darkness was too deep to meet her eyes.
‘P, these two are different.’ Namir stepped in to the light behind David. ‘There is something you need to know. They claim to come from England.’
‘England? Britannia? Impossible. No one has ever escaped from Britannia.’
‘But that’s the point. They’ve not come from the prison. They say England’s their home. And look at them. They’re not prisoners. They’re not like any of us.’
P’s eyes narrowed as he studied David closely. ‘They are Travellers?’
‘Ask them,’ Namir said.
‘No, wait. The others will need to hear this.’
At that moment, two other figures appeared from the doorway behind the table. A short, stocky man with a severe limp shuffled behind P into a chair to his right; the other man, tall and stooped with a long white beard, took a seat to P’s left. Two secretaries followed them in and positioned themselves at either end of the Council table, unfurling long scrolls of parchment in front of them.
‘Councilman H, Councilman S, Namir and Seyyal have brought two outsiders. Please state your names for the record.’
‘Tweed,’ Sarah said. ‘I’m Sarah Breswell. We came here by accident, from England.’
‘That’s fine. One thing at a time,’ P said. ‘Councilmen, Namir believes them to be Travellers. These two before us now, and maybe another out there with the Cerberites.’ Much tutting and mumbling met this announcement. Both secretaries started to write furiously, a blur of pencils taking down every word they uttered. H, the shortest of the three, whose head seemed to emerge directly from his shoulders with no sign of a neck at all, spoke above the murmuring.
‘If you came as Travellers, why are you not still with your accomplice now?’
‘Accomplice?’ David asked.
‘The one you call Toby?’ P said. ‘Travellers would surely have been able to predict the outcome of such an arrival, and therefore been able to avoid the Cerberites.’
One of the secretaries coughed softly to attract P’s attention.
‘Sir, how should we record the third supposed Traveller? Is he to be noted as ‘Toby’ only, or would it be better to refer to him as ‘The Supposed Traveller, Toby’?’
There was a general murmuring again from the three councillors.
‘Since he is not here, we must have a reference that will make it clear that he has not been assessed in context with these two. I consider that ‘The Supposed Traveller, Toby’ would suffice for our needs. Anything else would be both too vague, and at the same time too prejudicial for the purposes of state records.’
‘Does it really matter?’ Namir said.
‘Does it matter?’ S repeated. ‘It matters immensely. If what you are telling us is true – though I very much doubt it is – we are recording history here. Now, please, we must press on.’
‘Why don’t we hear what they have to say?’ P said. ‘You, the boy David, who are you?’
David cleared his throat nervously, and began to give the three councillors a brief account of everything that had happened since they had first entered Professor Ronson’s lab. He had no way of knowing whether being a ‘Traveller’ was a good thing or not, so his only option was to tell the truth and deal with any consequences later.
‘He’s lying,’ S said, banging his frail fist on the table and causing the oil lamp to splutter and shake. ‘The story is impossible. No one could escape from Britannia, that’s why the prison was established there. And the wolf? Preposterous. Everyone knows the wolf is a myth. Who has seen it? Have you, Namir, in all you time wandering the Outlands?’
Namir shook his head minutely.
‘These are just humans,’ S went on. ‘How they escaped from Britannia we can not know, but if they did then they are dangerous. There is plague on the island now. These two could kill us all. No, they must be disposed of as quickly as possible.’
‘I’m telling you,’ Seyyal said, ‘haste like that could cost us all far more than mere death. I grant you, their story is fantastic, but we would not have gone to the trouble of rescuing them and keeping them alive if we had any doubt about who they are.’
‘Then how do you explain the crossing of Mormo? It has been impenetrable from the Outlands since the migrations were stopped. These two could not possibly manage the journey.’
‘But we had help. Someone threw spears from the town.’ Sarah said.
‘Really?’ H said sarcastically. ‘Who would do a thing like that? Who would dare to anger the Lion and the Leopard?’
‘I would,’ a voice said from a dark corner of the room. David had been aware for some time of the acrid smell of smoke coming from behind them but had thought nothing of it. Smoke did not register as strange after what they had seen in the last few hours. Almost everything in this weird town stank of long-dead fires.
‘Show yourself to the Council,’ P insisted.
From the darkness a man emerged, and walked boldly to the end of the long table.
‘I would dare, because, you old fools, these are the real thing. Look at them! Do they look like Outlanders to you? They are the prophecy, don’t doubt it.’
The man was huge – tall and heavily built. Thick well-defined muscles stood out from his bare forearms his balled fists were like rocks on the table.
He turned his head slightly towards David and his face was clearly illuminated for the first time. Half of his face was deeply scarred and twisted; the other half looked as if it had melted like a wax sculpture. Skin as thin and pale as the secretaries’ parchment was stretched over hideously deformed bones. His left eye was missing, his single surviving nostril was flattened and skewed, and his forehead bore several deeply scarred indentations. Patches of red-brown stubble still pushed through the pocked skin of his chin, safe in crevices too deep for a razor to penetrate. He grinned, revealing crooked teeth punctuated by black gaps.
‘I’m Fulgar. Pleased to make your acquaintance at last.’
Neither David not Sarah could respond. They just stared mutely.
‘Fulgar, we thought you were dead. Long ago.’ H sounded more disappointed than delighted by the arrival of this stranger.
‘So did the Cerberite hounds. But I’m tougher than that. I came back, H. I had faith.’
‘Faith has no part in the New World, Fulgar,’ P said. ‘You are a fool. But that does not change the fact that these two need to be dealt with.’ The old man pondered for a long time. He looked at Fulgar as he wound his beard around his fingers.
‘Maybe these two are Travellers,’ he said. ‘S, everything you think proves that they are not Travellers may actually prove that they are. They have got here against all the odds. They don’t seem to be subject to the same laws as the rest of us. Plus, Callett and Splenetti would surely have noticed and reported ordinary migrants.’
‘We saw them,’ David said. ‘But they made no attempt to capture us.’
‘And they didn’t report you. So what are we to make of that?’
David looked at Seyyal for some reassurance but she and Namir were deep in whispered conversation.
‘But if they are Travellers, we must send them to Minos,’ S said. ‘Only the higher court has the power to judge them and ensure that they are removed, if removal proves necessary.’
‘No, old man,’ Fulgar continued. ‘These are only two of them. There is a third. I’ve seen him with the Cerberites. We have to find the other one and deal with them together.’
There was general agreement at this.
‘So what are you suggesting, Fulgar?’ S leaned forward, stroking his beard thoughtfully.
‘I suggest,’ Fulgar replied with some contempt, ‘that you get the Cerberites off our backs and turn these two over to us, for now at least.’
‘Us?’ Seyyal said.
‘Together, we can deal with them,’ Fulgar said. ‘We can keep them safe and find the other.’ He turned his attention back to the Councilmen. ‘But we can’t do that sitting here. You know the Cerberites won’t delay long before going to Minos, and if the Court discovers that there are still two of them loose in Orbis, it’ll be your necks on the line. So make your decision.’
The three Councillors whispered amongst themselves for a moment. Fulgar stared intently at Sarah.
‘What you say is true, I suppose,’ P said. ‘But you must find the other one. Our situation is hopeless without all three of them.’
‘And you’ll call the drones off?’ Fulgar said.
‘Those we can reach. The ones who have the Supposed Traveller Toby will not be diverted from their orders.’
‘Now, I think we should get going,’ Seyyal said.
‘Just a minute,’ David said. ‘We’re not going anywhere until you tell us what’s going on. We don’t even know where we are!’
‘If you are Travellers, you must know where you are. You wouldn’t have come here otherwise,’ H said.
‘You’re not listening to us are you?’ Sarah said. ‘We don’t want to be here. It was an accident. All we want is to get Toby back and get out of here. We’re nothing to do with any prophecy. We don’t care about any of that. But I think we have a right to know who you are and where we are if we’re going to trust you.’
‘Ah, such passion!’ H said. ‘Well, I see no reason why you should not know. Maybe if you do, you will realise how important it is that you are kept from falling into the wrong hands. Better to have you trust us of your own accord than have to keep you as prisoners.’
‘We don’t need to hear all this again,’ said P. ‘Seyyal can fill them in. We have unfinished business elsewhere. Namir, I thank you for bringing this to our attention, and I trust you will return very soon with all three of them. Be assured, the Council will do the right thing. Now, if you will excuse us…’
With that, the three old men rose from their seats, bowed ceremoniously, and began to file out of the chamber. Their secretaries duly fell into line behind them without a word. Fulgar retreated back to his hookah pipe in the gloom of the room’s most distant corner.
Seyyal perched on the end of the long table looking down at David and Sarah.
‘It’s difficult to know where to begin, but I will assume that you are here by accident, and tell you what I can.’
YOU ARE READING
A world ravaged by war; humanity on the brink. A stranger comes from another time. Is he the saviour mankind has been waiting for... or something far darker? When an accident with an experimental Time Machine plunges David Tweed into another dimensi...