Through the gate Arthen was met with a cocktail of sound and sight in the illuminating rays of the morning sunrise. Right away into the city were hundreds of people milling around an enclave of tall stone buildings with many mud dwellings plastered on the side walls like boils for additions of rooms. Most people, Arthen saw, wore different shades of brown, orange, red and yellow, but there were all different hues of hair and skin. Furs, leathers, and cloth were worn around in a mixture of textures. There was talk in many languages and dialects that Arthen had never heard. Even through the putridness of the compost, the smells of perfumes, and spices mingled in a whirlwind to Arthen’s senses. It was a place like Arthen had never experienced before, and his breath was taken away instantly by the sudden tidal wave of culture or perhaps it was still the pile of compost.
Bayford led the cart through the entryway of the gate past the crowd of merchants, shoppers, and more Capital Lawmen heading down the Heart Road westward. After several minutes of trudging through the crowded street, they made it to the Old Wall Road and turned left heading southward. Then they came upon what Booker had earlier called Solsbury Hill–a massive table of rock and earth whose side hugged the road in a clean cut facade. When they reached the abandoned stable embedded into the rock hill, Bayford drove his cart inside it and halted. The ceilings of the stable were so high Arthen couldn’t imagine what kinds of animals could have been kept inside–even a Great Bear could live comfortably. After several more unbearable minutes waiting for Bayford to scoop compost from his cart, the five of them were able to free themselves from the heap.
Leftover straw clung to their grimy and caked skin as they hopped out. Sludge lodged in every crevice made an awful squishing noises when they moved. Bayford handed them all old towels to wipe themselves off.
“These towels are useless! I saw a pool of water close to here–”
“No!” Arthen said. “You can’t do that.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Really Talon?” Booker said, “You Hardknock bumpkins surely didn’t taint the Mother’s pools in your village to wash yourselves?”
“No mothers made it out that far to bless any waters,” Talon said. “Just give me another towel and my clothes.”
When they were satisfactorily wiped clean, they put on their clothes again and stuffed sweet smelling petals of Ambrosia under their pants and shirts.
Oakley stepped out of the stable took a giant breath through his nostrils and exhaled a sigh of delight. “Ah! I did miss this mess.”
“Amazing, isn’t it?” Booker said to the two boys.
“It’s awfully loud even through the compost. Everything,” Talon said.
“I need to–uh– get some fresh air,” Oakley said and he walked briskly from the group towards what appeared to be a brothel.
“Wait! You need to come to the briefing! Ah–well–the inn is this way. Stay close,” Booker said.
Booker thanked Bayford for the trouble with quick flash of gold inside of a handshake, and the compost vendor began to rattle on about the different varieties he was selling to which Booker politely showed interest but apologized having to cut the discussion short saying that they had to make it to a meeting.
With their clothes stuffed with sweet smelling flower petals, and their bodies still caked with compost, Booker and Frayne led Arthen and Talon through the crowded veins of streets southward toward the canal wall. Through alleyways that snaked between some looming clay buildings, down some short steps, and then down some steep narrow stairs, less and less sunlight reached down upon the street as they ventured deeper and deeper into the cracks and trenches of the stoned city. At the bottom of a crooked stone building a small sign that hung sideways above the door read: The Eerie Bird.
When they managed to dislodge the door open and make it inside Arthen found that the entryway seemed to be just as narrow as the street they walked in from with a low ceiling bearing down on their heads. Numerous stacks of rotting ledgers loomed in the darkness of the hallway in front of them. Crammed into the side of the entryway sat an old man hunched behind a cracking wooden desk, writing upon one of many piles of paper in the lone candlelight.
“Ogden,” Booker said. “We’ve returned.”
The old man Ogden looked up at them through very thick spectacles that hung from the bridge of his nose and enlarged his eyes to comical proportions. “Wazzit?”
“Ogden,” Booker said a little louder than his normal voice, but not enough to seem like a normal person’s yell. “Frayne and I have brought two boys to work here in the inn or whatever other jobs you may have. They’ll need bunks built and food while they’re here.”
“Fine, fine,” Ogden said and waved them away.
“Easy enough,” Booker said and he led them down the straw reed of a hallway to a flight of stairs of equal narrowness with steps steep enough that climbing on one’s hands was necessary if one’s balance was not perfect.
“Frayne, I’ll take these two to Filo and Prye’s room, I’ll meet you in our briefing,” Booker said when they reached the landing for the third floor.
Frayne nodded and walked through a tiny passageway to their right while Booker led Arthen and Talon into a sort of common area with two molding couches, a rocking chair, and an ash-filled fireplace. “You’ll be rooming with the other boys who run around doing tasks for us. Try to get along with them, if you’d be so kind.”
Past the common area were three steps downward that led to a window of which faced the concrete side of an adjacent building two feet away. To the right of the window was a closet door. Booker opened the door to reveal a stone room which was indeed the size of a walk-in closet. On the opposite wall was a tiny framed window facing the small gap between two other buildings allowing a sliver of sunlight to pierce through the darkness. On either side of the window were two child-sized beds that encompassed the entire space of the room. A boy roughly Arthen’s age already there was making his bed and readying his clothes for the day. He had blonde curly hair and to Arthen looked a little too husky for being a working boy.
“Filo! Good for you to be awake.” Booker said.
“You’re back! And alive. So is–uh–Oakley as well?”
“Unfortunately, yes, we found him alive,” Booker said. “And in a state of little suffering. He had to run to an important meeting right when we entered the city. Is Prye gone again?”
“He’s with Beatrix. He doesn’t stay here most nights anymore.”
“Ah yes. Well, in our travels we were fortunate enough to encounter two more boys who are eager to help out the Broken Spirits and yourself, Filo. Meet your new brothers in work!”
Filo looked at the two of them like a bashful sheep. He leaned to Booker, “Are they sick? Is that why that don’t have hair?”
“That’s a very good question,” Booker replied quietly. “I’ve decided not to ask, you know, might be a touchy subject for the pair of them. Anyway, this one is called Gleim,” he rested his right hand on Arthen’s shoulder. “A silvertongued lad we met in Acres. And this one is called Talon.” He patted Talon with his other hand. “He’s–well–where did we find you again?”
“You severed me from conjoined twin and stole me away from the circus in Blackduck, remember?” Talon said.
“That doesn’t sound right, but it has been a long journey, I suppose,” Booker replied.
“I am called Filo,” Filo said. He walked over and wrapped his pudgy arms around Arthen in a warm hug. Arthen was taken aback and didn’t know what to do. “Thank you for helping us.” When Filo said it, Arthen felt his eyes water for some reason. As Arthen lifted his hands up to hug Filo back, Filo had already let go and did the same for Talon.
“Alright, that was–great,” Talon said.
“It was!” Booker said. “The three of you are best of friends already. Bring in Prye here and a few instruments and you could be the next Brown’s Owls. Now–Gleim and Talon–you’ll see that there are no beds for you in the room yet. Ogden will have to build some bunks to go over Filo’s and Prye’s. So for today, your first task will be to go out into the city and procure yourselves a mattress, pillow, and blanket to sleep with tonight.”
“You’re not providing us with those things?” Talon said.
“Of course not, why would we?” Booker said nonchalantly.
“Are we going to have money to buy these things?” Arthen said.
“Come now! This is your first lesson in working with the Broken Spirits. You’ll need to rely on the goodwill of people of this city or your own slyness to procure your own beds.”
“You sure this isn’t a lesson but a pathetic excuse for your order not having enough supplies?” Talon said.
“Can’t it be both?” Booker replied.