Dirt by CC Hogan - Read Online
0% of Dirt completed



If Johnson Farthing thought that life as poor cart pusher in the coastal town of Wead-Wodder was going to be his lot in life, then he was about to get a rude surprise, and not necessarily a good one.

Once it becomes clear that his beautiful younger sister has been kidnapped along with the daughter of the Prelate, his life is completely turned on its head. Farthing has to rush across a vast ocean and a huge continent carried by an incredible Sea Dragon and accompanied by a strange magician if he has even a chance to save his sister Rustina.

And very strangely, neither the rich Prelate nor his chief of police seem keen to even lift a finger.

Dirt, the first book in a huge, continent spanning saga where dragons are an intelligent, cultured people, magicians cannot destroy mountains with a magic wand and the heroes have no wish to become tyrannical kings and queens.v

But through all the dramatic events, the battles of life and death, Dirt is a place of humour, love and ultimately, the quest to find a home.

"I told Truk you would be slacking off the minute he turned his back," shouted the old fool, Barkles, who sold greasy vegetable pasties from a dusty stall on the corner. "Young people can't be trusted, I told him. I was right too."
"Shut your face, Barkles," Johnson shouted back as he grabbed his coat from his hand cart and put it around his shoulders to ward off a faint chill in the sea breeze. "I have been down that hole every day non-stop for nine days, and you know it too, since you have been feeding me your disgusting pies for most of them."
"Pastries, slacker. Not Pies; Pastries."
"I thought pastries were just posh pies?"
"Can be."
"Well, yours ain't posh. So they are definitely just pies."
"Ain't seen you complaining!"

Find out more at www.AWorldCalleDdirt.com
The Dirt Webiste brings you even more information about this incredible world:

Full Details of all the books
Character Descriptions
Articles on the geography, history and culture
Pronunciation Guide
Maps of the world
The articles are written in-character and any information that might spoil your enjoyment of books you have yet to read are protected with spoiler alerts

Plus, on some articles, C.C. Hogan has added his own sidebar notes about why he has made certain choices

The Abbey will be continuously updated so check back often!

The Dirt Saga
Series One

Bloody Dirt
The Fight for Dirt
Hope & Mistry's Tale

Yona - Standalone Short Story

Series Two

Girls of Dirt
Dragons of Dirt
People of Dirt

Series Three


Look out for updates to the Dirt Saga

Published: CC Hogan on
ISBN: 9781311427991
Availability for Dirt
With a 30 day free trial you can read online for free
  1. This book can be read on up to 6 mobile devices.


Book Preview

Dirt - CC Hogan

You've reached the end of this preview. Sign up to read more!
Page 1 of 1


Prologue – Don’t believe what they tell you

So, what then? The girl was annoyed, but then he always annoyed her.

People tell lies. People get things wrong. It always happens, and you and I have seen it again and again, time after time, over how many years?

I’ve stopped counting, it was depressing me.

Quite right too! No one said there had to be one truth and no one has magic that explains what truth is or whether you are correct. Even if they are not lying, and that bloody woman had good reasons aplenty to lie back then, then they just get things wrong. Oh, yes, I know who I am! Oh no, you don’t; you are actually this. Oh, I am that, am I? No, you are not, I lied. What am I then? Something else? So, what really happened ten thousand years ago? Not what we thought? What then? Did I get it wrong again, mummy? Someone want to make another stupid guess? He growled, then offered a tired smile. Girl, we just go in circles after a while, and you and I more than most I think.

The young woman poked him in the chest. You always do this to me. I should learn not to ask you any questions, but I can’t help it. I always have to know.

I know you do. The thin man fidgeted and looked out through the window at the small, bright, warm, friendly port. He loved it here. It had been the perfect choice; a place with no pain. I know that it matters what the truth was because if you hadn't worked it out, we wouldn't be here, and I would still be stuck in a miserable dive trying to get drunk. But even that truth? Are we sure that it really is the true story? At the end of the day, people are people and they will believe what they are most comfortable with. That is the story they will put into song, write in their books, tell their children. And that is what will be passed down from generation to generation, till even the historians are spouting rubbish.

Somebody needs to keep hold of the truth. I made so many mistakes because the truth was hidden; because you hid it.

I know; you’re right. That is what you and I are here for, I think. We keep the truth so everyone else can be comfortable with the myth. I suppose it’s a lesson we must learn. If you distrust everything, you are probably going to be more right than wrong. Still, makes for some incredible stories, even if it is a complete pain in the arse!

Have you finished?

More or less.

Good, because if you really want to paint this tavern bright-yellow, then you need to go get some paint.

You always were picky, dear one.

Chapter 1 - Digging

If Johnson Farthing was going to reach the bottom of this bloody hole by dinner time, he would have to get off his fat arse and dig. So thought Johnson Farthing when he peered at his twisted reflection on the back of his rusty, mud-crusted shovel. He smacked the blade with his trowel and a little of the dirt fell off and back into the hole. At least his reflection now looked less like a lump of red grime, but it wasn’t much of an improvement.

Oh, my bleeding back!

Grunting with pain, the ancient Farthing staggered to his feet, set his spine into some usable angle, and tried to plunge the weapon into the rock-hard sediment by his feet. With a groan of aged tiredness, he scraped half an inch off the top, chucked it over his head and almost out of the hole; completely out of the hole would have been better.

Farthing leant back and dragged out a leaf of blackjaw from his pocket and shoved it in his cheek. He made a few disgusting, toothless sucking-sounds and wallowed in the mildly soporific effects of the minty-flavoured painkiller that would make his day easier, but sadly for only a few minutes. A new leaf would have given him a good hour of relief from the accumulated muscle-pain he had earned so far this morning, let alone the pain still kicking around from last week. But then, he hadn’t managed to make enough coin for new leaves for months, so his ancient stock of dried-out old ones was all he had.

A small dust cloud puffed off the top edge of the hole, peppering Farthing with dirt; the distant giggle identifying the age of the perpetrator.

Young bastard! grunted Farthing from the bottom of his hole.

He felt a real sense of ownership of this hole. He had marked it out, set out what width it had to be and how deep he had to dig before, with good fortune, he hit water. The downside was that however much he might lay claim to the emptiness that was the hole itself, the dirt, both the remaining and the already shifted, belonged to the trader Truk, who was promising to pay only on the success of the mission. Farthing had never saved up enough coin to own a patch of red dirt big enough to sit on, let alone dig up and throw around; even renting dirt was only just within his grasp.

He scraped another meagre layer of dirt from the bottom of the hole, threw it out with a grunt, and decided to quit for the day. Truk was off trading up the coast for the next couple of days and he could get away with a bit of truancy. Scraping the dust off his creaking frame for just one afternoon would be a rare but a welcome respite. He tied a rope around the shovel, threw it up and across the hole so it held firm, and dragged all six-foot-five of himself to ground level. Blinking in the summer sun, he unknotted his muscles, eased himself straight, picked up the shovel, and covered the hole with the five planks he kept for the purpose. It could be bloody hard to convince people how tired, achy, and old you felt when you were only nineteen years old.

Well, bugger all that for a miserable dragon; Johnson Farthing was going for a swim, followed by a beer, followed by sleep, and he would try to forget that by this time tomorrow he would be back down the hole shifting someone else’s grit and grime.

I told Truk you would be slacking off the minute he turned his back, shouted the old fool Barkles who sold greasy vegetable pies from a dusty stall on the corner. Young people can’t be trusted, I told him. I was right too.

Shut your face, Barkles! Farthing grabbed his coat from his handcart and hung it around his shoulders to ward off a faint chill in the sea breeze. I have been down that hole every day non-stop for nine days, and you know it too since you have been feeding me your disgusting pies for most of them.

Pastries, slacker. Not Pies; Pastries.

I thought pastries were just posh pies?

Can be.

Well, yours ain’t posh. So definitely just pies.

Ain’t seen you complaining! snapped Barkles defensively.

Farthing scraped up the red dirt from the red dirt ground and piled it on top of the rest of the red dirt in his handcart. Oh, the irony. Scraping dirt from the dirt on top of a world called Dirt. Then he cursed himself for cracking the same joke for the ninth day running.

What did you call me? asked Barkles, furrowing his brow.

Nothing. I was cursing the fool who has to push his cart off to the dumps before he can get anywhere close to a beer.

Barkles chuckled. Well, with that I have sympathy, Farthing. Are you going to take the last pie, I mean pastry off me?

What, and go swimming afterwards? I’d bloody well drown!

Well, sod you, then. If you ain’t going to buy the last one, I am going to eat it myself! Barkles took a big bite out of the pie and winced in pain.

Farthing burst out laughing. Well, well. I didn’t know you got bones in veggie pies.

Barkles spat something out. Hey! That’s my old lady’s sewing thimble. How did that get in there?

Probably when she sewed up your pies, mate. Your pastry is so leathery there ain’t no other way you’re going to hold them shut!

You go drown yourself like a nice lad, Farthing, and I will tell Truk what a lazy git you are when he gets back.

You do that, Barkles; you do that.

Johnson Farthing wrapped the leather strap around his chest, pulled his cart up the street, and turned left down an alley in the general direction of the dirt dumps. Barkles rubbed his bleeding lip, looked at the pie with one bite out of the end, carefully wetted the frayed pastry with his tongue, and stuck it back down.

Fresh Pies! Wonderful, mostly non-meat wonders! Only one left!

The dumps were a fair walk right over the south-west ridge. To be honest, nothing was that far away in Wead-Wodder, the grimy and dusty capital of the Prelatehood of Redust, but it felt like it was when you were dragging a cart full of dirt. Wead-Wodder was an old coastal town spread around the mouth of the river Wead. South of the river was home to ordinary traders and anything in society below a trader, all the way down to the place in society that Farthing occupied. There were those lower than him, wallowing in the world’s dirt, but not many. Part of Farthing would have loved to get out of Wead. It was dusty on a good day and like a cesspit in the short, wet season. Even the more affluent North Wead was far from being a paradise. Some of the houses there had gardens, and the streets were free of beggars and street merchants like Barkles, but it was still dusty on a good day and ghastly when it rained. Separating north and south Wead-Wodder was the River Wead which oozed slowly through the town except when being abused by the tide. It was a broad, sediment-filled highway; too wide for a bridge and traversed by ferry. Its source was in the distant Red Mountains in the Prelatehood of Caan, halfway across the continent of The Prelates, and that might account for at least some of the murky, red-brown tint of the water. The rest was from the herds of farm animals that grazed along the banks across Redust, and the rubbish kicked out of the villages along its route. One of the many meanings of Wead in the old Adelan language was dung; never was a better word chosen for a river.

Farthing bowed sarcastically at a foul-mouthed girl who was leaning out of a ground floor window showing her wares. He hadn’t sampled those particular wares; it was not something he had ever done, though many young men did. There was an undesirable subculture in Redust, but prostitution wasn’t part of it. Generally, it was seen as a worthy profession, if not a very polite one. He gave his cart a hard yank to pull a wheel out of a pothole, and adjusting the strap over his sun-bleached, tatty shirt, turned up Long Hill to make the steep climb up to the dumps. Whereas North Wead was on a gentle hill leading to the northern plains, South Wead was flat, level with the river. But in the south-west, was a steep ridge on top of which was the poorest neighbourhood of Wead; The Wealle. The ridge was long-lost under a wave of apartments piled one on top of another, but it was still there, still an obstacle to anyone pulling a cart, and the dumps were on the far side.

Half load today? Fennerpop was at least forty years older than Farthing and still shoving around a cart of Dirt’s dirt for a living. His very existence and the future it promised could drive Farthing into a fit of depression that would last days. I remember being warned about half loads by my Grandfather. They will be the end of you son, he said. And then he said...

Going swimming, Fen, said Farthing quickly, dragging the old dirt-man back on track before he lost the afternoon to an often repeated tale.

Are you still digging that well for Truk?

Yeah, but I can’t wait that long for a swim. Farthing leant back against his cart and rubbed a sore shoulder.

I dug a well once, mused Fennerpop. Took me two months it did, and I never hit water.

Well that doesn’t cheer me up any! Farthing shook his head sadly.

Not my job to do that, lad. You want cheering, you go see Sally with the Virtues.

What, the whore down in The Skattlings?

You probably passed her on the way up, said Fennerpop, grinning.

That I did. She shouted something unmentionable at me, and waved a couple of other unmentionables at me at the same time.

They be her Virtues, they be. Means she likes you.

Won’t like me for long when she finds how little coin I have.

True enough. Sally don’t do favours even for princes.

Not many of those around neither, commented Farthing, pulling hard to get his cart rolling again, leaving Fennerpop to rumble down the hill and tell his stories elsewhere.

South Wead was divided into reasonably distinct areas. The Skattlings started from the bottom of the ridge and ran north to the riverside wherry quays. If South Wead was thought dangerous as a whole, or at least challenging to the unprepared, then The Skattlings were seen as suicidal, certainly by the posh of the North. In truth, Farthing had never seen any more trouble there than in Thanks, the slightly more affluent area where Truk and his ongoing well lived. Thanks was where many of the traders had homes, both those native to the town and foreign traders who liked a home or office in all their main trading bases. Most of the houses had windowless walls and central atriums so they were more secure when their owners were off trading. These were not the well-crafted houses of the north where the richest of trading families lived, anything but, but neither were they the multi-storey, wonky, over-occupied piles of apartments that made up The Wealle where Farthing lived, and through where he was currently dragging his load of Dirt’s finest.

Farthing snaked his way up between the villas, as he called the ridge-hugging dwellings. When at home, he would like to imagine he owned the entire building, but just chose to live in two tiny, squalid rooms for the hell of it. He and his sister Rustina had inherited the apartment, or the monthly rent, from their parents after their mother Deidre had died years earlier, and their waste-of-space father Ferall, who insisted on being called Bent for a lame joke, had run off to join a merchantman. He hadn’t been seen again and was missed little.

Farthing glanced up at the rows of apartments as the hill steepened. They were all the same; a heavy, cheap, timber frame, bleached white by sun and sand, infilled with the red dirt of Redust that had faded and turned a pale, dirty-grey pink in the sun, brightened up by the odd lick of cheap paint. With The Wealle being up on the ridge, the persistent wind should have kept everything fairly clean, but in reality, the dirt got trapped between the close-packed buildings, and the entire neighbourhood could be a dusty, throat-gagging mess. The only saving grace was that the less pleasant detritus of human civilisation tended to wash downhill in the rainy season and became The Skattlings’ problem. Actually, the Weallers happily sacrificed a little water to encourage it downhill even in the dry season.

The last few paces of the hill were the steepest, and like all the other cart pushers heading to the dumps, Farthing stopped pulling his cart, turned it around, and pushed it up the road with every ounce of strength he possessed. Farthing gave one last run at the hill, rumbled over the top and rolled down to the dumps.

Move down the left path and take the third row, shouted Major Payn as Farthing staggered past.

The small, annoying man, the Head Dirt Forman, was sitting on a box and grappling with a discoloured and tatty umbrella, attempting to keep off the sun. His job was simple; piss everyone else off, hence his nickname. This duty he executed with an exquisiteness that would probably one day be recognised in stone; preferably a headstone, thought Farthing. It wasn’t Payn’s fault, of course. Someone had to tell other people where to shove their dirt, and his dreary, nasal accent was probably the fault of parents, if anyone would admit to having sired such a scrawny little rat. But Farthing would still happily bury Benhal Major Payn under several barrel loads of red gravel without a second thought.

How far down, Major?

All the way, lad, all the way. You know how it has to happen. Payn barely looked up from the chalkboard he had on a stand in front of him as he made some mark understandable only to himself. Okay, lads, stop there, he shouted at a couple of haulers behind Farthing. I can see green stuff sticking out of that cart. You know the rules; dirt only. Green stuff is your problem…

His dreary voice faded away as Farthing rumbled down the left path about a hundred paces and turned down the third row. Each row continued down at a slight slope, fanning off from the main path. At the end of the long row, a small sign said, drop here, with an arrow for people who, like Farthing, had yet to learn to read; most people then. You upended your cart down the slope, pulled up the sign and moved it along one pace. The next person would do the same till the sign ended up at the junction with the left path. It was not the most complicated system, but Payn had invented it and treasured it as if he had discovered a new star. Yet another reason for his demise, thought Farthing, and made his way back out of the dumps.

The cart fitted neatly against the side wall of the five-storey building in which the Farthing siblings lived. It had originally been a two-storey block with them on the top floor but had grown over the years. The ground floor was not strong enough to hold three extra floors, but someone had braced it up with more uprights and cross-beams to the buildings across the way and next door. Most of The Wealle was like this, and the roads were criss-crossed with random but well-intentioned wooden beams, regularly used for anything that needed hanging, though not always clothes. It would leave any half-decent structural engineer fearing the integrity of every building in The Wealle was wholly reliant on the integrity of every other building in The Wealle. If they were all as badly built as the one Farthing lived in, and they probably were, what was holding any of them up? Most of the residents were sensible enough not to over think the issue and just worry about general surviving.

It’s another hot one, lad!

Farthing smiled back politely at the large, friendly fellow who was passing on his way up the steep hill. It was early summer, but the rays from the old sun were struggling to offer much in the way of heat today against the cool, sea breeze. Still, work hard enough and you can get a sweat anywhere, and that man was certainly working hard dragging his bulk all the way up here. By his accent, he wasn’t a native Wealler or even from Redust, but the town was full of all sorts from everywhere.

Farthing locked up the cart with a chain, hid the key, and set off for the old harbour for a swim. Theft was not a major problem in the Wealle since nobody owned anything worth stealing, including food most of the time, but carts were sought after. If you had a cart, you would always have work of sorts, and shifting dirt was probably the number one occupation in The Wealle. Farthing had made his own from scraps when still a child as soon as he had to earn. The trip downhill was considerably faster than the journey up with the cart, but Farthing resisted the temptation to take it at a run, crashing into walls to break his progress as he and everyone else had done as children.

The town had a simple, class-based logic to it. The broad river Wead flowed into the town and then widened out like a huge letter Y into the sea. In the middle of the Y sat Slypa Burh, the Prelate’s Palace, on its own island. The posh people were to the north of the river and the poor to the south, and each had their own swimming beaches on the estuary sands facing the Prelate’s island. A meeting of the two groups was prevented by the currents, to the relief of all. The modern docks were upriver at The Skattlings since the estuary was shallow, and trying to dredge out more than a navigation channel for the larger trading ships and fishing galleys would have been an act of futility; it was hard enough in the river proper.

Farthing walked past the patient line of adherents queuing outside the local temple of the Church of the True and turned down Decon street into The Hive. He liked the area around the old harbour. Although the modern docks were now upstream, The Hive remained the hub of business and retail, and it buzzed liked the beehive from whence it got its name. It was the oldest area of Wead-Wodder; an unplanned mix of new buildings made of wood and plaster, and large, ancient buildings of red stone. Inns gushing ales, warehouses filled with bales of the exotic and crates of the illegal, offices hiding scratching accountants keeping duplicate books, markets selling the unmentionable and buying the downright weird, shops with perfumes, barely dead meat swinging from hooks right next to meat that should have been buried months before, stationery supplies, dubious remedies, clothes of every culture and age, street traders shouting and fibbing and grinning and fighting; there was nothing that was not bought and sold in The Hive. Just beyond, was the ruined remnants of the old fishing harbour, not now used by boats and half buried in sand and sediment. This had become the recreation ground for the lowly and unwashed.

Clothes baskets two-hundredths! sung the young voice.

At the bottom of the steps, a group of youngsters looked after the pile of baskets where swimmers stored their clothes. Most Southern Weaders swam since for many it was as close as they could get to a bath. For two-hundredths, they stored their clothes in a basket under the watchful eyes of the young people. Farthing fished out the two thin coins from his pocket and was rewarded with a basket. He stripped down to his shorts, put the clothes in the basket and swapped it for a knotted string which he tied around his wrist. He had never managed to work out the system of knots that associated his string with his basket, but he had yet to be handed back the wrong clothes.

Collect your basket from the far end when you’re done, mate, said the young lad. I’m packing up this end in a bit. Got to help my mum with the cart. Most lives revolved around a handcart somewhere along the line. And tell your sis that me mum says she’ll have that apron repaired by the day after tomorrow.

Farthing held up his hand in thanks and made his way over the pinkish sand towards the sea. The lad and his mum lived opposite them in The Wealle and were the most enterprising people Farthing had ever met. There was nothing they would not take on for hundredths, the paltry almost valueless coin of the continent. It said much about the Prelatehood and the system that ran it, that despite their industry, they could only just scrape together the rent. And sometimes, like Farthing and his sister, failed to do even that. He shook the sadness from his head, and with a yell, ran straight into the cold sea.

Oh, the gods!

Cold it was, and cold it almost always was. Even though Redust was a dry, dusty Prelatehood without suffering the winters of the more northern countries, it wasn’t the hottest region of Dirt, and the Prelates Sea never warmed up much past stimulating.

Get out of my face, boy!

Farthing shook the water from his hair as he came up from under right in the face of a big, multi-chinned woman.

Sorry, mate, er, ma’am! Farthing wiped the salt from his eyes and back paddled.

Oh, might have guessed it was you, Farthing. The woman stood up in the shallows, hands on hips, her light bathing shirt hiding little.

Geezen! How are you?

Annoyed and cold. How is my well? Geezen was Truk’s wife and a local midwife. She had known Farthing’s family for years and he was one of many that had been smacked into this world with her podgy hand.

It’s fine, as wells go, said Farthing, smiling weakly.

Oh good! So why are you not in it?

Look, sorry Geezen. I’ve spent the last week and a bit scraping at that hard-baked piece of Dirt where your husband wants his well, and I had to stop and wash the dust out of my eyes.

Geezen’s expression softened. She could be as hard as nails some days, but Farthing was one of hers and a favourite too.

I know, I told him it was a mad place for a well. You know what he is like when he gets an idea, but that nose of his can smell water a mile off, I swear it. It might be tough going, son, but I will bet your smacked behind there is water down there.

Geezen was right. Truk was a pillock as an employer, as far as Farthing was concerned, but he was no fool. He had managed to drag himself out of the poverty of The Wealle and into Thanks, and would probably have been in North Wead by now if he had been of the right blood. Geezen thumped Farthing around the head with a heavy, thick hand.

Go on, get your swim, you ungrateful louse. I imagine you will be down the hole bright and early! She grinned at him, then lay back into the current and floated off like some mythical creature on its annual holiday.

Farthing looked around at the growing numbers of people, mostly mothers with squalling children taking their weekly bath. He struck out away from the beach and into deeper, less child-polluted water, and then followed Geezen’s example and floated off on his back. To reach the deep water, you had to swim halfway out to the island. The estuary was filled with the red sedimentary dust of thousands of years, and the two clear channels either side of the island were only clear because of the strong currents on the turn of the tide and much hard work from small, busy dredgers. Between the shore and the channel, some of the red sandbanks pushed up into small islands at low tide. Farthing climbed up onto one of them and sat down in the warm sun. The unwelcome easterly had petered off, and the small, temporary island had gained a population of people wishing to get away from the urinating kids by the shore.

Facing the island, Farthing watched a couple of the dredgers in their constant war against the might of Dirt. They were long, flat-bottomed boats, rowed and punted by two men, while a third dropped a fine sand net into the sea attached to a long rope and a supporting A-frame. He dredged up the sand and hoisted it back into the boat, the water gushing through the net in a glistening shower.

The Prelate’s island was a feat of defensive engineering going back hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Slypa Burh, named after the slimy, pale-green seaweed that grew in profusion around the estuary, was part mansion, part castle and mixed up with the ecclesiastical buildings associated with the Prelate. It was a rocky place that was frequently dredged around the perimeter to keep the rocks clear and the water deep. Low walls ran the whole way around the island, and within those, at the east end, were the remaining high walls of the ancient castle. The need for security always grows with the paranoia of statehood.

How old is it? A young woman had swum onto the sandbank and sat by Farthing.

Are you new to Wead? asked Farthing.

The woman had light, sandy-red hair which was rare on Dirt. In fact, the only other person Farthing knew was his sister Rusty who had vibrant red hair; now that was properly rare. Oh, and that girl Sally with the Virtues. He remembered she was red-headed, but that might have had some help, thinking about the unusually bright colour.

My brother is setting up a trading post here, said the woman. I am going to be running it with his business partner.

The castle is ancient, as far as I know, said Farthing. I think it dates from before the Prelatehood. The rest of it was built by a prelate hundreds of years ago. I don’t know the details.

Oh, yes, said the woman, smiling. Your religious government that runs everything.

Oh, that. Well, it's not mine, exactly. I just have to put up with it.

Farthing frowned. Each Prelate was a high priest of the Church of the True, the nearest Dirt had to a common religion. Although the continent had a central ecclesiastical council called the Prelature, the Prelatehoods themselves were individual countries with the Prelates acting as king. Each Prelatehood like Redust had its own take on the religious teachings and ran their people into the ground accordingly. It wasn’t a lack of separation between church and state so much as a complete lack of any state at all. Redust, or at least Wead-Wodder, was more political than religious, mostly because it was an important trade port on Prelates Sea and needed to attract trade, not scare it off. Many of the Prelatehoods, especially in the north of the continent, were very conservative, taxing their citizens with oppressive ideology as much as with coin.

It doesn’t get in the way much, at least not in Wead-Wodder, said Farthing. Are you from Bind?

Port Farnen in the north west. Don’t really have your church up there now. My family has been trading for generations with The Prelates, but it's my first time here.

The sun was still high in the sky and the water was projecting dancing patterns of light onto the low perimeter wall of the island. Out on the seaward side, a small sailboat appeared from behind the old castle wall, bobbing in the waves of the outer estuary, and made its way to the open sea. Farthing squinted, but it was too far away to get a real idea of size or shape. It was a little odd, though. Most seaward-bound boats came from the upriver docks, not the back of the island; he wasn’t even sure there was a landing on that side.

What are you looking at? asked the woman.

That small boat over there with the single mast. Farthing pointed.

The woman cast the critical eye of a merchant over the craft.

Well, it ain’t no trader; too small, she said, laughing. Small enough for a smuggler, I suppose, but you don’t see them in the middle of the day normally. Do you get much fishing here?

Not there, pointed out Farthing. He had made a few trips on the boats as a hand. The currents make trawling impossible around the island. All the fishing boats head along the coast first before sailing into deeper water and casting their nets.

It's the wrong way for the tide too; it's heading in, said the woman. Should be seeing some of the traders coming in on the late tide soon. The boat must come from the island then.

Farthing shrugged. Prelate’s problem. It was a phrase you heard a lot in Wead and was used to end discussion. He glanced up at the sun, lay back on the sand, and dozed off gently.

Hey, wake up! The woman chucked sand at Farthing, who sat up in surprise. What’s going on over there?

Farthing peered over at the island. At the river end, was a large, paved plaza by the small riverside landing. It was used for declarations on those few occasions the Prelate thought his disloyal citizens had taken disloyalty too far. Today, however, there was a commotion that was out of the ordinary. At this distance, it was hard to make out what was happening. It was very confused and the odd word that made it across the water was less than repeatable.

I have no bloody idea, Farthing told the woman. Seems like someone has upset someone else or something.

Prelate’s problem? suggested the woman.

Farthing grinned. Probably. My sister works as a general maid over there; I’ll ask her when she gets home later. He looked up at the sky and the slowly descending sun. Oh, not that much later. My turn to get the food, so I better head to the market while there are still some items without added wriggly protein. He stood and bowed to the woman with the sandy-red hair. Welcome to Wead, as they say! And he ran into the water and swam back to his clothes.

He had left it a little late, but the bread was only stale and not half eaten by internal inhabitants. He had picked up some Toothen, the hard cheese from Bind that would last for months without going off, and some scrawny, early pears. The advantage of being abandoned by your parents, thought Farthing as he flicked the thirtieth weevil out through the window, was that he and his sister were good at doing anything. They both cooked, washed, cleaned, and tried to earn. For Rusty, as everyone called Rustina, earning was more successful than it was for Farthing. This was not unusual. Maids were needed everywhere and were expected to be semi-literate and polite. Get those right and you were in a job for life if you were lucky. Male servants were not so popular and were only taken from the trader families. Men like Farthing had little prospect of a secure job unless their family had a business. Since he had no family other than Rusty, that left only the cart. Life was simple in Redust, and for most, bloody hard.

A little water mixed with the now de-weevilled flour, a stoked-up fire, and a scrap of wire to act as a griddle, and Farthing made a passable toasted cheese sandwich and 4 pears in pastry. Not a bad meal for a little family who rarely could afford more than dried beans, Farthing’s true forte. Rusty had not made it back from Slypa Burh yet, which was not unusual, so Farthing wrapped up her sandwich in cloth ready for toasting on the griddle, then put it and the other two pears in a terracotta pot and shut the lid securely. Rusty would know where to look. With that, he tidied up, grabbed a hard-earned coin from the box in the wall, and headed back to the harbour. With any luck, he could just afford one mild beer and watch the evening light dance over the water before bedtime.

You ain’t going to get much of a beer with that, you lazy git! Barkles was sitting on the harbour wall nursing a small earthenware bottle of beer. Here, have a spare. He handed over another from his bag.

Did you give Hetty her thimble back? asked Farthing, nodding in thanks for the beer.

He and Barkles wound each other up constantly, but he liked the thin-faced pieman and his wife, and owed them. When his own parents had left the scene, the two had watched out for the young Farthings and made sure they weren’t evicted from the small apartment, which was the fate of too many children in Redust. Barkles and Hetty had no children of their own, despite trying every potion known to the local midwives, and had taken a personal interest in the Farthing family. There were still a few good people in this tired world.

Tried sneaking it into her box, but she caught me. ‘You filling your pies with my personals, Barkles?’ she shouts at me. ‘Cos my personals are my personals and don’t have no business being in your pies!’

She calls them pies too?

Seems like my misses and you have a common lack of understanding about the finer side of patisserie.

So, what other of her personals have ended up in your pies?



Oh, nothing much. The odd ribbon, bits of leather for shoe repairs, a few needles.

Needles? said Farthing in surprise.

That was a major incident, that. Damned expensive are needles, pointed out Barkles.

Let alone filling people’s stomachs with holes!

Well, that too, I suppose.

Farthing shook his head in amazement. He never knew how much to believe Barkles’s stories.

Rusty is late again tonight. They work her hard on the island.

There was some bother up there today, remarked Barkles. Something about the Prelate’s daughter.

I saw something happening over on the island when I was down here swimming earlier.

Geezen said she saw you when she passed by my stall.

Please don’t tell me you sold her that pie.

Pastry! And no, I didn’t. Strangely, she has never yet tried one of my delicacies.

So, what happened at the Burh? asked Farthing.

I don’t fully know, to be honest. Hetty said that it looked like the daughter had gone missing with one of the servants, or something.

A maid? Farthing was worried.

Personal maid, I think.

Oh. Rusty was just a lowly general maid and had nothing to do with the Prelate or his family. What do you mean, gone missing?

Just that, replied Barkles. She was there this morning and this afternoon she wasn’t, and yet no one had come and gone from the island since early in the day. That was all Hetty knew. Prelate’s problem. Barkles and Farthing drained back their bottles. I have two more in my bag, lad; one for each of us. And then I promised Hetty I wouldn’t be late. He pulled out two more earthenware bottles. Farthing looked at his coin. Keep it, lad. You work hard for your coin, despite my ribbing you. I knows that.

Thanks, Barkles. We owe you, you know.

No, you don’t, lad. Hetty wouldn’t hear of such nonsense. And anyway, I sold that last pie to some new bloke fresh in from southern Bind. Barkles grinned from behind his bottle. Told him it was a special and would bring him good fortune.

You did what? How much did you get?

Oh, four bottles worth.

Farthing laughed. One day someone is going to find you out, Barkles, you know that, don’t you?

Nah. No one cares about the likes of us, lad. They forget us as soon as they’ve finished with us.

Farthing nodded at the truth of what Barkles said. The only people that cared for the people at the bottom were the people at the bottom. They were the only ones who knew what the bottom was like.

The next morning was grey and sultry. Farthing stuck an experimental foot out from under his throw. Nights could be cold in Redust and burying under a pile of old clothes and the harsh, woven blankets the country people made, was the best way of keeping warm. The foot was followed by a hand and then a cautious knee, and eventually, two eyes, bleary with sleep appeared above a red and amber woven pattern of a cow. Farthing groaned as the ongoing problem of Truk’s well pushed its way into his consciousness. Geezen would be looking out for him, and he would be mad to be late.

Shaking off the worst of the night spent on the hard palette, Farthing pushed himself upright and stuck his head out of the window, trying to gauge the time through the clouds. The effort was worthy of an expletive or two, but they were lost in the general fog of expletives that hung over the town at all hours. It was early enough, he guessed, and he threw on his work clothes, the tough, unforgiving woven pants and shirt that many wore, then stood his palette on its end, and stored the bedding.

The apartment had two tiny rooms and a small store cupboard. The main room was kitchen, washroom, dining room, living room and his bedroom all rolled into one, despite being only three paces across. The other room was his old parents’ room and his sister used it now. They kept all their clothes in there too, together with blankets, spare floor rugs, cushions and so on. It occurred to Farthing it was his turn to sweep out since Rusty had done it last time. Talking of which, where was she? He had gone to bed early the night before because they were short of oil for the lamp, so hadn’t seen his sister. He shook his head to exile the last wisps of the night and looked around the room. Rusty was normally awake by now and her door was half open. He peeked in, but she was definitely not there. Maybe she had gone in early? Her pallet looked unslept in, as much as a pile of rugs could look like anything apart from a pile of rugs. Barkles had said there were problems at the Burh and something had been happening on the island the day before. On a hunch, Farthing lifted the lid off the storage pot; her dinner was untouched. That could only mean she had not come home the night before. That sometimes happened, especially if there was some big event going on as the ferrymen would not navigate to and from the island in the dark if the tides were wrong. Well, if she had, she wouldn’t be back until nightfall, so there was nothing he could do now.

Fennerpop shot past going downhill with his cart at speed as Farthing unlocked his own from the side alley.

Morning! shouted Farthing.

Can’t stop! shouted Fennerpop over his shoulder.

So I noticed, said Farthing, more or less to himself. Fennerpop and cart bounced off the corner of a building and careered down one of the side lanes. You are going to have to stop shifting dirt before you kill yourself, old man.

Oh, he’s got time in him yet, lad, said the large man, huffing and puffing his way up the hill again.

Maybe, but I am not sure his cart has.

It was the friendly man from the day before. Farthing had no idea who he was, so he slung his strap around his shoulders and let the cart go first down the hill. Getting run over by your own cart was embarrassing and possibly fatal, so this was the better way of getting down to The Skattlings. At the bottom of Long Hill, Farthing hesitated. He was considering heading down to the docks and then along to the ferry to the island. For some reason, he was worried about his younger sister. He was often worried about her, of course, but that was just an annoying older brother thing, as she pointed out regularly. Today was different, somehow. Something was gnawing at his brain. He shrugged it off and turned right down towards Thanks, noting briefly the now closed window behind which Sally was no doubt storing her Virtues after a busy night’s work.

Farthing made his way through the waking town, the shopkeepers of the poor neighbourhood doing their decorative best with what goods they sold from racks and shelves and hooks outside their small single-roomed shops. The artisans, scribes, alchemists, and apothecaries setting out their work under awnings; nailing shoes, rolling out flatbreads, brewing potions and tonics. The stable boys sweeping out the muck of man and beast from behind the inns and liveries. The women hanging out rugs from the edges of flat roofs and beating out blankets on lines. And through it all, Farthing and countless other men and women of all ages pulled and shoved and hauled handcarts, trolleys, and barrows as the business of the town beat on in a timeless and familiar rhythm.

By the time he reached the well, Farthing was convinced something was wrong.

You’re looking sick this morning, you lazy git, sneered Barkles from behind his stall, decorated with a new day’s supply of pies. Can’t you handle even the mildest wheat beer, son? Barkles braced himself for the usual cocky retorts, but none were forthcoming. He frowned. Trouble, lad? he asked in a serious voice.

I don’t know. Rusty didn’t come home last night from the island. Farthing rested his cart by the wall of Truk’s house and leant against a small tree by the well.

She sometimes stays over; they get asked to. Could it be that? asked Barkles.

Might be, said Farthing, shrugging, and looking down at his feet.

But you don’t think so.

Barkles studied Farthing carefully. The two kids had had a rough life, like too many others up on The Wealle, but despite the hard grind, Farthing was a cheery lad most days and pretty much optimistic about life, when he wasn’t digging holes. Quiet worry was not his style.

No, I don’t. Something feels wrong. Something about what you were saying last night.

Barkles was tempted to just dismiss Farthing’s worries as big brother stuff, but that wouldn’t help. He marched over to the door in the wall and gave it a hard wrap.

Come on lad, let’s tell Geezen what ails you.

The door opened and Barkles asked Moppy the maid to fetch the portly midwife. Farthing looked guilty.

It's probably nothing, Barkles. I don’t want to get Geezen worried over nothing, he said.

Getting Geezen worried over what? The big woman came to the door, her arms crossed. Morning, Mr Barkles. Was that your wrapping hand I heard?

It was. Seems young Rustina didn’t make it home from the island last night, and the lad is worried.

Geezen’s expression changed swiftly. She said nothing, Johnson?

No, I was expecting her home and left her food when I went out last night. She is sometimes late, and I didn’t think much over it, but she wasn’t there this morning.

Didn’t leave early? asked the midwife.

Farthing shook his head. Her dinner wasn’t eaten, and she wouldn’t go without her dinner.

Geezen understood. When you were terribly poor, you were never lazy about eating; you couldn’t be sure when you might next have food.

Hetty said there was some trouble with the Prelate’s daughter, something about her going missing with a servant, said Barkles to Geezen. Geezen looked at the worried young man.

Come on, about time that well had a go at digging itself. You and I are going to Slypa Burh. She grabbed Farthing by the hand. Barkles, is Hetty on the island today?

No, she has just finished a pile of cushions for them. She’s at home working on some market jobs.

When you go back for your lunch, see if she knows anything more.

Barkles watched Geezen drag the tall,