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The Golden City: Part I
Jack Cobb was down on his luck. But then things started looking up...
Issue #21, Sunday 26 February 2023
This is a longish story (nearly 11,000 words), which is too long for a single email newsletter, so I’ve broken it into two parts. Think of it as a serial! The first part ends at what I hope is an exciting point, but you’ll need to wait for the next issue to see how it ends. But don’t worry, I won’t make you wait for a full month for that. You should see it in a couple of weeks.
The story has a very interesting development history, because it took me 38 years to complete, and on the way I had excellent advice from a well-known writer. I’ll cover all that in Part III of the series, towards the end of March.
As always, I’m very interested in your feedback. If this goes down well I may consider serialising others of my longer-length fiction.
The Golden City
Jack Cobb, his breath steaming and his arms clasped under his armpits, stepped at last out of the shadow of the City and into the welcome morning light of the sun. He stood for a while in the middle of the dirt road, letting the sun’s warmth find its way into his bones. Then someone behind him cursed, and he had to step aside out of the way of a man pulling a heavily laden cart.
When he had left the hut that morning, Jack had followed the custom of all of the Southwesters, and had shaken his fist in the direction of the City whose huge long shadow almost always fell over them. Life in the south-west was grim, and in winter the layer of frost which settled on their thin tents and rough shanties made it just that much harder.
But now Jack was warm enough, and a long thin line of gold ran down the City’s sunward edge. It was almost beautiful, he thought, despite how he hated it. Then Jack laughed at his own foolishness, and was on his way once more along the great road which circled the City and led to the market in the north.
As he strode on and left the south-west far behind him, he began to pass substantial wooden buildings, and even a few of stone. He saw more people pulling carts and leading cattle and a few horse-drawn wagons laden with goods for the market.
Those who had the wealth to choose lived in the north. Far enough north, and the shadow of the City never fell over your dwelling. There, the City was seen, not as a black lumbering silhouette blocking out the sun for most of the day, but as a vast golden tower. Not that that stopped the Northerners from cursing at it, like all of the Squatters who were forced to live at the foot of the City instead of inside it.
Checking the pack on his back was safe from being snatched in the crowds, Jack Cobb came at last to the marketplace. He found a suitable place where he could open out his parcel and place his wares out before him: all in a row, handmade boots of the finest quality. Well, thought Jack, trying to be honest to himself, perhaps not quite the finest. His father had made the best boots ever seen in the market, but since his father’s sickness had come on, Jack had been doing most of the work, and Jack’s hands were too large to be delicate.
In time, well-dressed Northerners came by and asked the price of Jack’s boots, and then the haggling began.
All around Jack, the market swarmed. Rich men in purpled robes, their wives in white and scarlet, poor men in rags; cows, sheep, dogs and a multitude of laughing, scampering children; carts carrying timber and stone, drawn by tired, sweating horses, or by even more tired men; merchants selling wines, food, fine cloth and hand-worked wood and leather; the smell of dung and mud and spice; and a babble, a river of rushing sound: all of these made up the market. Above it all, like some golden mountain, stood the City.
It was well past noon before the last of Jack’s boots was sold, and silver and copper coins jangled in Jack’s purse. He stood up and stretched his large frame, complaining inwardly of the stiffness of his joints. A sudden waft of wind brought the smell of food to his nostrils, but he ignored it. To buy food here would be to waste a good portion of what he had earned. There would be time enough to eat once he was back home.
What he needed to do before leaving the market was to buy more leather for the next batch of boots.
He began to push his way through the afternoon crowds, helped by his height to see where he was going. Even so, he was pushed and jostled, and narrowly missed having his foot trodden on by a cow. But Jack’s thoughts were elsewhere. Again and again he found his eyes wandering in the direction of the City.
Jack’s father scorned all talk about the City, and said that it was all pointless, idle chatter. But Jack couldn’t help thinking about it. What did the city people do up there in the golden tower? Did they look down in the winter mornings at the miserable south-west lying in the shadow of their tower, and see the frost-laden tents?
A heavy jab to the ribs by a passing herdsman brought Jack back to earth. He was approaching the tanner’s stall on the outskirts of the market. The smell of the freshly-cured skin was foul and overpowering.
The tanner was a small sharp-faced man, his skin wrinkled and coloured like his stock. He glowered as Jack carefully examined various hides, looking for defects and trying to find the most supple leather. “These two,” Jack said at last.
“Let’s see the colour of your money, lad,” the tanner said.
Jack brought out two silver pieces, but the man shook his head. “Not enough,” he said. “For that, you can only have one hide. Four silver pieces for two.”
“What!” cried Jack, his hand still out, offering the two coins. “Last time I was here you’d have given me change of this.”
The tanner shrugged. “Things are bad, what with the drought last summer. Less cattle to slaughter. Leather’s scarce right now.”
“But…” Jack was confounded. “If I pay for two hides at that price, I won’t have enough to buy our food. And if I buy only one hide there’ll only be half as many boots to sell next market day…” He was overwhelmed by this unexpected alteration of his fortunes.
“That’s your problem, lad,” said the tanner. “You should have come here first and found out the price. Then you would have known to sell your boots for twice as much.”
“But… Look, you must sell me the hides at the old price. I’ll give you twice as much next time.”
The tanner laughed. “Go walk into the City, lad!”
The insult stung Jack into a rage. He swung his fist and felled the tanner, sending him sprawling among his hides.
A sudden quiet fell, and then the crowd boiled around Jack, and people grabbed his arms and his clothes. He turned to hit at those holding him, but suddenly a hefty arm clamped down on his shoulder, and then a blow crashed into the back of Jack’s head. The ground seemed to turn black and reach up to swallow him.
A long confused time passed. Jack heard arguing voices, and once, hands tugging at his boots. But he kicked out, and the hands tugged no more. Then came movement, and darkness again.
He awoke in pain. His head throbbed with every movement, and he winced at the light as he opened his eyes. He was lying on the ground amongst broken stones. Sitting up, he saw that he was very close to the City now, within the shell of a shattered stone building. These ruins were the remnants of the town that, it was said, had been here when the City had first been built long ago. Now the place was inhabited only by the poorest people. The majority of the Northerners would never come this uncomfortably close to the great tower, unless it was to steal stone for the making of better houses further away. Or unless they wanted to dump a stupid Southwester somewhere to get him out of the way.
Jack rubbed the bump on the back of his head, and grimaced into the afternoon sun. Only now did he remember that the tanner had two brawny sons.
On a sudden thought, he felt for his purse. Gone! Stolen, not a doubt of it, while he lay senseless.
Now were his problems fully begun. What a fool he had been! How could he return to his father with nothing to show for the boots? Worse still, would they ever be able to buy leather again in the market? Hitting the tanner had been the most foolish thing Jack had ever done. He put his head in his hands. He and his father might well starve if they couldn’t gain enough money to buy hides again.
He stood up, feeling every bruise, and wondered if he should go back to the market and face the tanner, accuse him of stealing his purse. But that would only earn him another lump on the head, and he had no proof that the tanner or his sons had taken the money. It could have been any in the crowd. At least they had left him his boots and his tools, dangling in a leather bag at his side.
He began to walk aimlessly through the ruined streets. Every so often Jack saw a hostile, dirty face in one of the open windows. Few wanted to live so close to the City, even though these collapsed walls would give better shelter from the wind than a tent or a wooden hut. The real disincentive was that this place was so close to the Fence, that bitter reminder of the way things were, that impassable barrier between the rich who had built the City and the poor who had been excluded from it.
The streets twisted and turned, but Jack, downcast, for a long while did not notice or care where he was going. When he became conscious of his surroundings again, he was within a street’s width of the Fence.
The Fence was a very strange thing. It wasn’t like a fence or wall anywhere else in the world. It didn’t block out any light, nor did it hide the sight of the sculptured, empty gardens at the foot of the tower. All that could be seen of the Fence was a bright yellow, two-yard thick band on the ground, running off into the distance on either side, circling the City. It just looked like a pathway paved with yellow bricks. You could imagine that there was nothing much there, that all you need do was to stroll across to enter the grounds of the City.
But the Fence was there all right. Jack walked cautiously towards it. He felt quite a child again, dared by his mates to go closer and closer to that yellow line. One of his playfellows, he remembered, had broken an arm by getting just that little bit too close…
Jack bent and picked up a small chunk of stone from the scattered rubble, and tossed the stone lightly towards the yellow band. The chunk moved in a gentle curve until it reached the edge of the Fence. Then it seemed almost to disappear, and there was a flash of light as it struck the ground. The core of the stone lay glowing red, not more than an inch into the band of yellow.
Jack tried again. He took a fist-sized stone, bent his arm and his body back and threw it as high as he could towards the Fence. As it crossed the line, it was as though the stone had been knocked out of the air. The eye could barely follow its fall, and the flash it made as it hit was dazzling. It had fallen perhaps six inches into the band. That was how the Fence worked.
“It’s too strong here, lad.”
Jack gave a start, and turned quickly to see who had spoken. It was an old man, weight resting on one foot, head tilted to one side. His face was brown and wrinkled, like a sun-dried fruit. He was almost toothless, and his eyes were bloodshot and crusty.
“Too strong,” the old man repeated. “Fifty times as strong as the Earth, just there.”
There was an air of manic desperation in the way the raggedly-dressed old man looked about, first at Jack, and then at the cliff that was the City. He didn’t seem senile, though his words had verged on madness.
“What do you mean?” asked Jack, annoyed at having his foolishness observed and commented on.
The old man blinked twice, slowly. “I’ll show you,” he said. “Yes, I’ll show you. Old Sam knows all about the Fence. Yes. Been studyin’ the Fence ever since I was a lad like you. Always wanted to get across, like you.” He beckoned to Jack to follow, and ambled off.
Jack frowned. On top of all of his other troubles, now he had this old fool to contend with. But… He looked across the Fence, and upwards, at the great City, where the golden people lived in luxury. Hadn’t he always dreamed of going into the City? And, with no money in his pocket, there was no point in going home just yet. Sighing, he set off after the old man.
“They built the City in my grandfather’s time, when he was just a boy, that’s what he told me. Said they put it up overnight, that it was all done by giants, but I don’t believe that. Maybe it was just one of his tales…”
All the time, old Sam was nodding to himself, glancing at Jack, and at the City. It was obvious that the old man seldom had anyone to listen to him. They were walking parallel to the Fence, further into the region of shattered buildings. Once, they saw the skeleton of a man spread-eagled and broken a few steps within the yellow band of the Fence. Sam stopped, and pointed with a laugh. “See him, lad?” he said. “He tried to carry twenty men on his shoulders, and found them too fat for him.”
Jack frowned in puzzlement. He was already regretting following this old fool. But Sam beckoned again, and after a moment, Jack followed.
Soon, they reached a building which retained a small portion of roof. This was obviously where Sam lived. The inside was a hovel. It was dim, but Jack could see a pile of straw covered with rags, and a few bare utensils, filled with foul-smelling food. The place stank worse than a cattle yard.
Sam searched about for some time, and finally returned with a yard-long rod. He handed it to Jack. “You can carry this, lad,” he said. Jack was surprised by the weight of the rod, which was cold to the touch. Metal. Iron, probably. Metal was very scarce at the foot of the City, and this rod could be sold for twenty coppers or more. For a moment, Jack toyed with the idea of stealing it from the old man to help make up his loss for the day. But it wasn’t in Jack’s nature to do such a thing.
Back towards the Fence they headed. Jack examined the rod now that they were in better light. It had been marked off into small, regular divisions. Old Sam was carrying a large wedge-shaped block of wood. Jack was mystified.
They quickly reached the place where Jack had been throwing stones. Sam winked at Jack, and cautiously approached the yellow band. Then he knelt down: a slow, painful exercise involving a lot of cursing. Then the old man pushed the wedge of wood ahead of him toward the Fence. It took quite a bit of effort for him to push it the last half-inch until its apex was exactly positioned over the edge of the yellow area. Then he backed away, and, cursing, got back to his feet.
“You do it, lad,” he said to Jack.
Jack frowned in puzzlement. Old Sam stamped in frustration. “Fool of a boy,” he said. “Rest the tip of the rod on that block there. Just the tip, mind you, or you’ll break your arm.”
Jack advanced with the rod, bracing it in his arms. It wasn’t very heavy in itself, but Jack knew well the effect that the Fence had on things. The tip of the rod hovered near the block of wood; he let it move just a little further in, and then the Fence caught it and brought it down sharply on the wedge.
“Now let go,” Sam commanded. The rod dropped to the ground, leaving one end still resting on the wooden block. Sam tapped the free end with his foot, again and again, nudging the rod a little further into the Fence. When the far end was a little less than an inch into the yellow, the near end slowly raised itself from the ground and the rod stood balanced on the block of wood.
“There! Do you see?” Sam said, grinning toothlessly. “See, that bit of rod over the Fence weighs just as much as the rest that isn’t!” Then he squinted at the rod, and tilted his head to one side. “Your eyes will be better than mine, lad. How many marks are over the line?”
Jack peered at the rod. “Two,” he said.
“And there’s a hundred marks on the whole of the rod. So that makes it close enough to fifty times as strong as the good Earth. Am I right?”
Jack knew enough of figures to be able to take money and count out change. What Sam was saying seemed to make a sort of sense. “That’s all very well,” he said, “but what of it? What’s the use of knowing that?”
Sam hopped up and down, impatient. “Damn and blast your stupid head! It’s no wonder no one else in this blasted land ever thought to do any measuring!”
Jack frowned and turned away. He’d wasted enough time with this old coot. But Sam followed, abusing him and complaining of the stupidity of the people at the foot of the City. Eventually, he grabbed at Jack’s arm and held on. Jack raised a threatening fist, though he was reluctant to strike such a feeble old man. Sam’s eyes glistened. “Come lad, it won’t take long. Let me just show you another spot along the Fence. Do you have anything better to do this day?”
Jack bit back a sharp reply. The truth was that he would rather waste his time and go home only once his father would be asleep. So, with a sigh, he shook his head and trailed after the old man. They retrieved the rod and the wedge – pulling the wedge out took considerable effort – and went on.
They reached the spot where the shattered skeleton lay, all tumbled about and broken with unnatural force. “Only twenty times here, like I told you,” Sam said.“Do you see that dark patch on the yellow?” Jack looked where Sam pointed, and saw that an irregular blotch of a pale brown colour lay in the midst of the yellow band. “Something goes wrong sometimes with part of the Fence,” Sam said. “And when it does, the force is less by far.”
Sam was tugging at Jack’s sleeve again. Interested now, he followed. They reached an area where the remains of houses came right up to the Fence, and the pair were forced to pick their way through a maze of ruins and rubble-filled streets. Soon, though, they reached a road which ran down a slope towards the Fence, where it abruptly stopped. That was puzzling to Jack, too. Had the road once run right on, all the way to the City itself? On the other side of the Fence was what could be a continuation of the roadway, though it seemed to be made of a different, smoother material, not the rough cobbles of the road on this side.
Down the slope they went, and Sam hurried forward to the Fence with his block of wood. Jack could see that here there were several of the slightly darker blotches on the yellow band. Again they went through the ritual of balancing the rod. This time Jack had to be very careful in counting the marks on the part of the rod hanging over the yellow band. “Twenty-two” he said at last. Sam squinted up at the bulk of the City, calculating. Then he nodded and chuckled. “Less now than the last time I tried. It’s getting weaker here. Nine times the force of the Earth! Only nine!
“What do you think, lad?” Sam asked with an eager expression.
“What do I think about what?”
“You’re a strong young lad. Could you carry nine men on your shoulders?”
Jack was speechless. His mouth opened, but he could say nothing. At last, he managed “Me? You think I would be mad enough to try to cross the Fence?”
Sam grinned and nodded, his eyes fixed on Jack’s face.
“Then you’re madder by far than you think I am!” Jack said in anger, and turned once more to leave the old man.
“Lad, lad!” came Sam’s voice behind him. “Think of what you might find! They say the City People wear robes of silver cloth, and eat from plates of gold!”
Jack kept on walking, but gradually slowed and then stopped. It was true. All of the tales about the City told of the wealth of those who had built it and who now lived within. If he could steal just a single precious thing, his troubles would be over. But no, it was impossible.
Yet… there it was, the City. So magnificent and so close, and yet as far away, it seemed, as the Moon. To enter it and return with treasure… it had the very feel of a child’s tale about it. Jack looked around. Sam still stood next to the yellow band of the Fence, his figure dark against the bright-lit backdrop of the tower. Jack Cobb set his shoulders and walked back to the old man.
“I can’t carry nine men on my back,” he said. “I might stand with that weight for a moment, but as soon as I took a step I’d break both of my legs.”
Old Sam rubbed his hands, one against the other, and frowned. “But you’re so young, so strong. I can hardly carry the weight of myself around. It’s not far, just across the band…”
“No,” said Jack. “It can’t be done that way. Let me think for a while.” He sat down on the cobbles. He gazed up the slope of the road, thinking hard.
There were perhaps two hours of daylight left. If anything was to be done, it would have to be done soon. Just then, as Jack watched, a four-wheeled cart came into view at the top of the slope and started down. It was loaded with lengths of wood and pulled by a small, thin man who was making hard going of it. Jack stood. Sam looked up from where he was staring at the weirdly-balanced iron rod. “A cart!” said Jack, “that’s what we need.” He strode off towards the man labouring with the cart.
“Here,” said Jack, “I’ll haul your load for you.”
The man was very short and clearly not strong. “What for?” he asked, his eyes moving from side to side as though seeking a path of escape. “I’ve nothing to pay you with. I can do it. Go away!”
“I’ll haul your load if you’ll let me use your cart for a while.”
The little man scowled. “Why should I?”
Jack laughed. “I could easily take the cart away from you. Instead I offer you a trade. It would seem foolish to refuse it.” The man gave Jack an angry look, but was forced to agree.
It wasn’t long before Jack returned, pulling the empty cart. He didn’t approach Sam, but instead headed up the slope of the hill. At the crest, he paused and looked back. The slope wasn’t steep, but it was long, and it would be enough to start the cart moving at a steady pace.
Jack drew a deep breath. He hadn’t fully thought yet about what he was doing. But if he thought too much he might not have the courage to go through with it.
The cart wouldn’t be easy to steer. Jack climbed on it, and lay on his belly, facing down the street, taking the shafts of the cart in his hands. He rested his chin on the wooden floor, trying to make sure that his weight was evenly spaced. Yes, it would have to do. He climbed off and pushed the cart forward until it began to roll. Then he jumped on board and settled himself again.
The cart moved slowly at first, and with much creaking and groaning. It gathered speed, and Jack found that he could steer by shifting his weight from side to side. Every so often, the cart went over a loose stone, or into a pothole, and his chin jarred painfully. Faster and faster now, towards the City, towards the Fence.
Sam was there, waving his arms and yelling. Jack couldn’t make out what he was saying. The bumping, jolting ride was numbing his senses. His stomach contracted. The Fence was very near. He should jump off, or steer the cart away from the approaching yellow band. He should…
The cart reached the Fence, rattling along as fast as Jack had ever moved. As the shafts hit the line, the cart began to tip forward, but that was only for an instant. Then the Earth seemed to fall on Jack’s spine, and he tried to cry out, but could not. All the air inside him was squashed out. His chin smashed against the cart, and he couldn’t see for the mountain of blackness that fell on his eyes. He could hear the shattering noises as the cart came apart, and then, suddenly, nothing.
After a time that seemed as long as Jack’s life, he opened his eyes. For a moment or two, all he could see was scarlet red. He moved his arms and legs cautiously, found them painful but not broken, and sat up. His chin hurt. He touched it, wincing, and his hand came away bloody.
It took a moment for Jack’s eyes to come back into focus. Across a yellow band, an old man was jumping up and down and yelling. Jack shook his head once, then twice, and it came clear. He had crossed the Fence!
He felt a surge of panic and tried to get up. But his legs betrayed him, and he sat back down again, trembling.
On the other side of the Fence, old Sam was crouching over, playing with his block and rod again. It was only then that Jack, dazed as he was, saw that where the wheels of the now-ruined cart had crossed the Fence, there were two ragged bands of pale brown on the yellow.
With a shout of joy, Sam looked up. Before Jack knew what was happening, the old man was edging his way across the Fence, his arms tight by his side, moving carefully along the path made by one of the cartwheels. And all the time, Sam was laughing and weeping and gasping and shouting: “Lad, lad, my hero, my wonder, you’ve done it, my bonny boy. Ha ha! Ho ho!” And then Sam was beside Jack, pulling him to his feet. “Come on, lad, come on, we’ve got no time to lose, come on, come on."
Jack looked stupidly up at the old man for a moment. Then his bewilderment turned into action, and he stood up quickly. “Yes, yes,” he said to Sam. “We’ve got to run. The City People, they’ll know we’re here. We’ll have to be quick.” And he started to run towards the City, with old Sam hobbling as fast as he could behind him.
TO BE CONTINUED…