Robin Gordon

Auksford crest: a great auk displaying a book with the words "Ex ovo sapientia"
Auksford 2013

© Copyright Robin Gordon, 2013

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Book II: Roquana's flight
Chapter 6: The road to Jarwick Hoe

    Fronk went off to the second-hand clothing market and came back with clothes for Roquana: a boy’s shirt and jeans, a thick, figure-concealing padded jerkin, and a cap.  When she put them on, with her long hair twisted up and concealed in her cap, she looked just like the sort of young, teenage boy who worked for the carters.  When she affected a husky, throaty sort of speech she sounded like a boy who voice was still breaking.
    “You’ll do, said Fronk, and he produced a similar padded jerkin and cap for Tommuz.
    “You’ll need names,” said Fronk.
    “Moiku,” said Roquana.
    “And Wullum,” said Tommuz.
    “You’d best sleep here for the night,” said Fronk.  “I won’t take you into my house.  You know how it is: my wife is quite likely to tell one of her friends – in confidence dear, ’cos I know you won’t let it go any further – and she’ll pass it on in confidence till it gets to the ears of someone it shouldn’t, or one of the kids’ll let slip something at school and it’ll get into the gossip chain that way.  Not a good idea either to turn up at the hostel as new boys, time enough for that when we get to the hostel at Caerbirmingham.”

    The next morning the goods yard was a hive of swarming activity.  There were a dozen trucks to go to in the convoy to Caerbirmingham, and most would go on to Jarwick Hoe.  The Convoy Master, a thickset, bull-necked, red-faced man was shouting orders and swearing like a trooper.  Carters picked up lists from him and scurried, each with his boy or pair of boys, to carry boxes and sacks out of the warehouses and load them into their trucks.  Fronk’s lad, Korl, was a bit surprised to find he had not one but two new companions.
    “All the easier for you, Korl,” said Fronk.  “Many hands make light work.  Now then boys, jump to it.  We’ve got a load of stuff to fit into this truck.”
    They jumped to it.  Korl was much stronger than either of the newcomers, and he tended to mock Moiku’s lack of strength, till Fronk told him to leave the kid alone.
    “He can’t help being younger and smaller than you, Korl.  The day may come when he’s both bigger and stronger and you’ll be glad he’s on the same team.”
    “True enough,” said Korl with a laugh.  “I don’t suppose I could lift what I do when I first started.”
    “You couldn’t” said Fronk.  “Right little milksop you were.  Now then lads, keep the boxes coming!  Old Fronk’s had nothing to stack for ages.”
    After that Korl and Wullum made sure that Moiku had the smallest and lightest of the goods to carry, and Wullum was always on hand to help the youngster when he couldn’t quite lift a box or sack into the truck.
    The lorries were all loaded by midday, and the carters and their boys went off into the refectory to eat.  Roquana and Tommuz stayed close to Fronk, while Korl went off to eat with his friends.  Before they set off, Fronk sent Moiku back to his office to fetch something so that she could use the toilet there, while the boys and men crowded into the communal lavatories.
    Then the trucks moved off, trundling out of the East Gate, led by the convoy master.  These great heavy transporter trucks were built for strength not speed, their electric motors constantly topped up by recycling friction energy and by the array of photovoltaic panels each carried on top.  Roquana felt that they were scarcely moving faster than a person could walk, and that was only partly caused by her anxiety, for their ponderous progress was indeed extremely slow.
    Korl was in the front seat of the cabin next to Fronk, while Wullum and Moiku sat in the rear seats.  It was perhaps a little unwise of them to hold hands.  I noticed Korl glancing round at them occasionally, but neither I nor Roquana thought that he could possibly notice anything amiss.
    There was a toilet and snack stop after a few hours.  The Convoy Master and a couple of carters stood with guns while the men and boys clambered out of the massive trucks to relieve themselves against the roadside trees.  Tommuz escorted Roquana further into the woods, smashing a path for her through the undergrowth, pretty sure that the Tohu would stay well clear of the convoy and its armed protectors.  Then they rejoined the gang for beer and sandwiches.
    For the overnight stop the trucks again just pulled up at the roadside.  The cooks’ wagon provided hot food, and, when necessary, Wullum again took Moiku into the undergrowth and stood guard over him.  They slept in the trucks, collected breakfast from the cooks’ wagon, relieved themselves by the roadside, except for Wullum and Moiku, then drove on, stopping for lunch and arriving at Caerbirmingham in the late afternoon, when they set about unloading what was destined for that town and loading additional goods for Jarwick Hoe.  Again Wullum was always on hand to help Moiku when anything proved too heavy.
    They slept that night in the carters’ barracks: a suite for the Convoy Master, single rooms for the carters, and two-man cabins with bunk beds for the boys.  The ablution facilities for the boys were communal, and poor Roquana had to walk past about twenty lads in various stages of undress to get to the toilet cabinets.  Wullum made sure he was always close at hand, just in case of need, but it was a relief to both of them when they could at last get into their cabin and close the door.
    Their relief was short-lived.  Before Roquana had time to take off her cap or her jerkin, both of which she had kept on even when going to the toilet, the door was flung open.  Half a dozen lads surged into the cabin and hauled Roquana and Tommuz out.
    Roquana gasped and would have screamed, but she managed to keep control of herself enough to stay quiet while Tommuz roared out his angry protests.
    “Shurrup!” snarled a big lad, Jowsif, I think, and gave Tommuz a shove.
    “We’re gonna show you two pansies what we think of your sort,” shouted another.
    “We hate queers,” said Jowsif.  “What we gonna do wiv ’em, Stighvin?”
    “Strip ’em naked, give ’em a good kicking and dump ’em in the main square,” growled Stighvin.  “Leave ’em for the local hoypyu.”
    “We’re not queers,” Tommuz protested.
    There was a roar of derision.
    “We’ve seen you,” jeered Jowsif.  “You can’t take your eyes off your girly little friend.”
    “You can hardly keep your hands off him,” said Stighvin.
    “Always touching him and patting him,” said another lad.
    “And we know what you were up to when you kept going off into the bushes with him,” sneered another.
    “He’s my little brother,” Tommuz shouted.
    There was another roar of derision, and the lads gave Tommuz to understand that almost all of them had brothers and they were well able to distinguish between fraternal affection and erotic attraction.
    “Wanker!” yelled one of them.
    “Bugger!  Sodomite!  Filthy queer!” came shouts from all around.
    “Like I said,” growled Jowsif, “we hate queers, so we’re gonna strip you and your little girly friend and give you a good hard kicking, then we’ll drag you out into the town and hand you over to the hoypyu.”
    “To the Guild of Eunuchs,” siggested Stighvin.
    “Yeah,” said Jowsif,  “then they can cut your balls off.  That’s what you deserve, innit lads?”
    “Yeah!  Yeah!”
    “Right, get’em!” yelled Jowsif and jerked Tommuz off balance so that he fell onto the floor.
    “Wait!” shouted Roquana.  “The reason you think I’m girlish is because I am a girl.”
    She pulled her right arm free of the lad that was holding it, ripped off her cap and shook her hair loose.  They gasped.  She shook off the hands that held her and struggled out of her jerkin.  It was plain to all of them that she was indeed a girl.
    “I am a girl,” she said, “and I’m running away with my boyfriend because my father wants to marry me off to one of his cronies who is even older than he is.  My father is one of the richest merchants in Beddleham and he thinks if I marry his friend he’ll get control of that business and be even richer, but I love Wullum, so we’re running away together.”
    “What’s your father’s name?” someone asked.
    Roquana hesitated.
    “No name” I whispered to her.  “Tell them it’s safer because of the Inquisition.”
    “I won’t tell you his name,” she said.  “If they suspect you’ve helped us they’ll send an Inquisitor into your mind.  He’ll know if you recognise the name, but you can’t recognise what you don’t know, so you’ll be safer.”
    “Who said we’re going to help you?”
    “Oh, please,” she said, looking up at the questioner with an air of helpless appeal.  “You will help me, won’t you?”
    “Be a waste to give a nice-looking girl like you to an old codger that’s even older that your father,” said the boy to whom she had given the helpless smile.
    “How come you’re travelling with us?” Jowsif asked.
    “Fronk’s a friend of Wullum’s parents,” said Roquana.  “He agreed to take us, but even he doesn’t know who my father is.”
    “We should tell the Convoy Master,” said a rather disagreeable youth.
    “You do, Weasel,” growled Jowsif, “and I’ll tear your tongue out by the roots.”
    “Yeah, you’ll not sneak on anyone again, Weasel,” snarled Stighvin.
    A posse of hostile boys advanced on Weasel.
    He backed away.  “I won’t say nothing, I won’t, I won’t,” he gabbled.
    “See you don’t,” said Jowsif, then, turning to Roquana, he bowed and said, “We’re all at your service, My Lady.”  Weasel’s intervention, it seemed, had convinced the doubters that their duty was to help the un-named girl and her boyfriend, Wullum.  Roquana told them that they were bound for Jarwick Hoe, where Wullum had a cousin who would hide them.

    The next morning the convoy got under way again, the heavy trucks lumbered out of Caerbirmingham and took the road to Jarwick Hoe.  Progress was even slower than the previous day, for this part of the journey involved a long pull up the side of a range of low hills and then the long, careful, slow descent down the far side.  Occasionally a carriage belonging to a lord or a monsignor would flash past the slow moving trucks, and, shortly before the stop for lunch, Roquana and Tommuz saw, to their horror, two carriages in the crimson and gold livery used by Lord Savark.
    “Perhaps we should have left the convoy at Caerbirmingham,” Tommuz muttered.
    “No,” I told Roquana.  “Caerbirmingham is much further from New Jackrusselham than Jarwick Hoe and there is no direct route.  There’s a Tohu stronghold in the woods between.  Jarwick Hoe is much better.”
    She repeated this to Tommuz.
    “How do you know?” he asked.
    “I don’t know,” she said.  “Sometimes there’s a voice in my head.”
    “The Savarks will be waiting for us at Jarwick Hoe,” said Tommuz.
    Korl turned round.  “Get out before we reach the city,” he said.  “Hide in the woods, then join the labourers when they go in.”
    “Hang on,” said Fronk.  “What are you on about, Korl?”
    “Korl knows our secret,” said Roquana.
    “All the boys do,” said Korl.  “We’ll make sure your old father doesn’t catch you, My Lady.”
    “Ah,” said Fronk, “and how are they going to get off the truck outside the city?”
    “Leave it to us,” said Korl.  “We’ll think of something.”

    At the lunch-break stop one of the other boys helped Tommuz smash a pathway into the undergrowth then left him to guard Roquana.  Korl sought out Jowsif and Stighvin.
    He rejoined Roquana and Tommuz to eat.
    “The lads are really impressed,” he said.  “Your Dad must be a real bigshot if he’s got Lord Savark helping to look for you.  Well, if that old beast is involved we’ll certainly do our best to help.  Jowsif travels with the Convoy Master.  Just before we get to Jarwick Hoe he’s going to be taken short.  He’ll tell the Convoy Master he’ll have to let him out if he doesn’t want him to shit in the cab – begging your pardon, My Lady – and when the leading truck stops we’ll all stop, and then you can hop out.  All the lads will say if they’re stopping anyway they’re going to have a piss – sorry, My Lady – so there’ll be lots of lads getting in and out and nobody’ll notice you slipping off.”

    In the event the emergency stop was even more chaotic than Korl had said.  The trucks halted.  Jowsif scrambled out, headed for the trees, lowered his trousers and squatted.  The other boys scrambled out of the trucks and milled around.  Korl helped Tommuz and Roquana bash an opening in the undergrowth, then suddenly they heard Stighvin’s voice yelling, “Get Weasel!”
    Weasel was running towards the Convoy Master, obviously intent on telling him there was a girl in the convoy.  Other boys converged on him.  He jinked around two, but a third charged into him and down he went.  Lads piled into the fray, and Weasel was quickly stripped of his trousers, which the lads flung one to another while the humiliated sneak scuttled hither and thither trying in vain to catch them, and the truck drivers came out of their cabins to laugh at his plight.  Weasel was obviously not a popular boy.
    All the while the Convoy Master was bellowing at the boys to stop their nonsense and get back in the trucks, but the pandemonium was so overwhelmingly loud that no-one could hear him till he loosed off two shots into the air.  That brought instant silence.
    “Give that little sod his trousers and get back in the trucks,” shouted the enraged Convoy Master.  “We’re losing valuable time here.  I’ll dock it from your wages!”
    The boy holding them threw Weasel’s trousers on the ground and the snivelling sneak scampered over to pick them up while the other boys turned away and made for their trucks.
    “Hurry up!” bellowed the Convoy Master.  “Get in the truck Weasel.  You can get dressed there!”
    “Good luck!” whispered Korl and sped away to Fronk’s truck.
    Roquana and Tommuz crouched in their little den under the trees and watched as the trucks pulled slowly away towards Jarwick Hoe.  They were alone in the wilderness, three days walk from New Jackrusselham.

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Roquana:  Index.  --  Chapter 5.  --  Chapter 7.

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