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"Conrad's Fate"

Chapters 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

I got much more nervous as the week marched on. The worst part was the end-of-term assembly, when I had to sit on the left side with the school leavers, while all my friends sat across the gangway because they were going to Upper Schools. I felt really left out. And while I sat there, I realized that even when I'd found the karma person and got rid of him, I'd still be a year behind my friends at Stall High. And on my side of the gangway, the boy next to me had got a job at Mayor Seuly's ironworks and the girl on the other side was going to train as a maid in Mr. Goodwin's house. I still had to get my job.

Then it suddenly hit me that I was going off on my own to a strange place where I wouldn't know what to do or how to behave, and that was bad enough, without having to find the person causing my Evil Fate as well. I tried saying, "It's him or me," to myself, but that was no help at all. When I got home, I looked out of my window, up at Stallery, and that was terrifying. I realized that I didn't know the first thing about the place, except that it was full of powerful wizardry and that someone up there was thoroughly wicked. When Uncle Alfred came and took me to his workroom to put the spell on me that would make this Mr. Amos give me the job at Stallery, I went very slowly. My legs shook.

The workroom was back to its usual state. There was no sign of the comfortable chairs or the port wine. Uncle Alfred chalked a circle on the floor and had me stand inside it. Otherwise, the magics were just like ordinary life. I didn't feel anything particularly or notice much except a very small buzzing, right at the end. But Uncle Alfred was beaming when he had finished.

"There!" he said. "I defy anyone to refuse to employ you now, Con! It's tight as a diving suit."

I went away, shaking with nerves. I was so full of doubts and ignorance that I went and interrupted Mum. She was sitting at her creaky table, reading great long sheets of paper, making marks in the margins of them as she read. "Say whatever it is quickly," she said, "or I'll lose my place in these blessed galleys."

Out of all the things I wanted to know, all I could think of was, "Do I need to take any clothes with me to Stallery tomorrow?"

"Ask your uncle," Mum said. "You arranged the whole caper with him. And remember to have a bath and wash your hair tonight."

So I went downstairs, where Uncle Alfred was now unpacking guidebooks out in the back, and I asked him the same question. "And can I take my camera?" I said.

He pulled his lip and thought about it. "To be frank with you, by rights you shouldn't take anything," he said. "It's only supposed to be an interview tomorrow. But of course, if the spell works and you do get the job, you'll probably start work there straightaway. I know they provide the uniforms. But I don't know about underclothes. Yes, perhaps you ought to take underclothes along. Only don't make it obvious you expect to be staying. They won't like that."

This made me more nervous than ever. I thought the spell had fixed it. After that, I had a short, blissful moment when I thought that if I was dreadfully rude to them in Stallery, they'd throw me out and not give me the job. Then I could go to Stall High next term. But of course that wouldn't work, because of my Evil Fate. I sighed and went to pack.

The tram that went up past Stallery left from the market square at midday. Uncle Alfred walked down there with me. I was in my best clothes and carrying a plastic bag that looked like my lunch. I'd arranged a packet of sandwiches and a bottle of juice artfully on top. Underneath were all my socks and pants wrapped around my camera and the latest Peter Jenkins book - I thought Uncle Alfred could spare me one book from the shop.

The tram was there and filling with people when we got to the square.

"You'd better get on or you won't have a seat," my uncle said. "Good luck, Con, and I'll love you and leave you. Oh, and Con," he said as I started to climb the metal steps into the tram. He beckoned and I came back down. "Something I forgot," he said. He led me a little way off across the pavement. "You're to tell Mr.Amos that your name is Grant," he said, "like mine. If you tell them a posh name like Tesdinic, they'll think you're too grand for the job. So from now on your name is Conrad Grant. Don't forget, will you?"

"All right," I said. "Grant." Somehow this made me feel a whole lot better. It was like having an alias, the way people did in the Peter Jenkins books when they lived adventurous double lives. I began to think of myself as a sort of secret agent. Grant. I grinned and waved quite cheerfully at Uncle Alfred as I climbed back on the tram and bought my ticket. He waved and went bustling off.

About half the people on the tram were girls and boys my own age. Most of them had plastic bags like mine, with lunch in. I thought it was probably an end-of-term outing to Stallstead, from one of the other schools in town. The Stallery tram was a single-line loop that went up into the mountains as far as Stallstead and then down into Stallchester again by the ironworks. Stallstead is a really pretty village right up among the green alps. People go there all summer for cream teas and outings.

Then the tram gave out a clang and started off with a lurch. My heart and stomach gave a lurch, too, in the opposite direction, and I stopped thinking about anything except how nervous I was. This is it, I thought. I'm really on my way now. I don't remember seeing the shops, or the houses, or the suburbs we went past. I only began to notice things when we reached the first of the foothills, among the woods, and the cogs underneath the tram engaged with the cogs in the roadway, clunk , and we went steeply up in jerks, croink, croink, croink.

This woke me up a bit. I stared out at the sunlight splashing on rocks and green trees and thought, in a distracted way, that it was probably quite beautiful. Then it dawned on me that there was none of the chattering and laughing and fooling about on the tram that there usually is on a school outing. All the other kids sat staring quietly out at the woods, just as I was doing.

They can't all be going to Stallery to be interviewed! I thought. They can't ! But there didn't seem to be any teachers with them. I clutched at the slightly sticky cork in my pocket and wondered if I would ever get to use it to call a Walker, whatever that was. But I had to call one, or I would be dead. And I realized that if any of these kids got the job instead of me, it would be like a death sentence.

I was really scared. I kept thinking of the way Uncle Alfred had told me not to be too obvious about taking clothes and then to call myself Grant, as if he wasn't too sure that his spell on me would work, and I was more frightened than I had ever been before. When the tram came out on the next level part, I stared down at the view of Stallchester nestled below, and the blue peaks where the glacier was, and at Stall Crag, and the whole lot went fuzzy with my terror.

It takes the tram well over an hour to get as high as Stallery, cogging up the steep bits, rumbling through rocky cuttings, and stopping at lonely inns and solitary pairs of houses on the heights. One or two people got on or off at every stop, but they were all adults. The other children just sat there, like me. Let them all be going to Stallstead! I thought. But I noticed that none of the ones with bags of lunch tried to eat any of it, as if they might be too nervous for food, just as I was. Though they could be saving it to eat in Stallstead, I thought. I hoped they were.

At last we were running on an almost level part, where there were clumps of trees and meadowlands and even a farm on one side. It looked almost like a lowland valley here. But on the other side of the road there was a high dark wall with spikes on top. I knew this was the wall around Stallery and that we were now really high up. I could even feel the magics here, like a very faint fizzing. My heart began banging so hard it almost hurt.

That wall seemed to run for miles , with the road curving alongside it. There was no kind of break in its dark surface, until the tram swung around an even bigger curve and began slowing down. There was a high turreted gateway ahead in the wall, which seemed to be some kind of a house as well - anyway, I saw windows in it - and across the road from this gateway, along the verge by the hedge, I was surprised to see some gypsies camping. I noticed a couple of tumbledown-looking caravans, an old gray horse trying to eat the hedge, and a white dog running up and down the verge. I wondered vaguely why they hadn't been moved on. It seemed unlike Stallery to allow gypsies outside their gates. But I was too nervous to wonder much.

Clang, clang , went the tram, announcing it was stopping.

A man in a brown uniform came to the gate and stood waiting. He was carrying two weird-shaped brown paper parcels. Barometers? I wondered. Clocks? He came over as the tram stopped and handed the parcels to the driver.

"For the clock mender in Stallstead," he said. Then, as the driver unfolded the doors, the man came right up into the tram. "This is Stallery South Gate," he said loudly. "Any young persons applying for employment should alight here, please."

I jumped up. So, to my dismay, did all the other kids. We all crowded toward the door and clattered down the steps into the road, every one of us, and the gatehouse seemed to soar above us. The tram clanged again and whined away along its tracks, leaving us to our fate.

"Follow me," the man in the brown uniform said, and he turned toward the gate. It was a gateway big enough to have taken the tram, like a huge arched mouth in the towering face of the gatehouse, and it was slowly swinging open to let us through.

Everyone clustered forward then, and I was somehow at the back. My feet lagged. I couldn't help myself. Behind me, across on the other side of the road, someone called out in a strong, cheerful voice, "Bye then. Thanks for the lift."

I looked around to see a tall boy swing himself down from the middle caravan - I hadn't noticed there were three before - and come striding across the road to join the rest of us.

Anyone less likely to climb out of a shabby, broken-down caravan was hard to imagine. He was beautifully dressed in a silk shirt, a blue linen jacket, and impeccably creased fawn trousers, and his black hair was crisply cut in a way that I could see was expensive. He seemed older than the rest of us - I thought, fifteen at least - and the only gypsy things about him were the dark, dark eyes in his confident, good-looking face.

My heart sank at the sight of him. If anyone was going to get the job at Stallery, it would be this boy. The gatekeeper came pushing past the boy and shook his fist at the gypsy encampment. "I warned you!" he shouted. "Clear off!"

Someone on the driving seat of the front caravan shouted back. "Sorry, guvnor! Just going now!"

"Then get going!" yelled the gatekeeper. "Go on. Hop it. Or else!"

Rather to my surprise, all five caravans moved off at once. I hadn't realized there were so many, and for another thing, I had thought the gray horse was eating the hedge and not hitched up to any of them. I dimly remembered there was a cooking fire, too, with an iron pot hanging over it. But I thought I must have been wrong about that when all six carts bumped down into the road, leaving empty grass behind, and set off, clattering away in the direction of Stallstead. The white dog, which had been sniffing at the hedge some way down the road, came pelting after them and leaped up and down behind the last caravan. A thin brown arm came out of the back of this caravan, and the dog was hauled inside with enormous scramblings. It looked as if the dog had been taken by surprise as much as I had.

The gatekeeper grunted and pushed back among us to the open gate. "Come on through," he said.

We obediently shuffled forward between the walls of the gatehouse. At the exact moment that I was level with the gate, I felt the magical defenses of Stallery cut through me like a buzz saw. It was only a thin line, luckily, but while I crossed it, it was like having my body taken over by a swarm of electric bees. I squeaked. The tall boy, walking beside me, made a small noise like "Oof!" I didn't notice if any of the others felt it because almost at once we came through under the gatehouse into a huge vista of perfect parkland. We all made little murmurs of pleasure.

There was perfect green rolling lawn wherever you looked, with a ribbon of beautifully kept driveway looping through it among clumps of graceful trees. The greenness rose into hills here and there, and the hills were either crowned with trees or they had little white-pillared summerhouses on them. And it all went on and on, into the blue distance.

"Where's the house?" one of the girls asked.

The gatekeeper laughed. "Couple of miles away. Start walking. When you come to the path that goes off to the right, take that and keep walking. When you can see the mansion, take the right-hand path again. Someone will meet you there and show you the rest of the way."

"Aren't you coming, too, then?" the girl asked.

"No," said the man. "I stay with the gate. Off you go."

We set off, trudging in a dubious little huddle along the drive, like a lost herd of sheep. We walked until the wall and the gate were out of sight behind two of the green hills, but there was still no sign of the mansion. A certain amount of sighing and shuffling began, particularly among the girls. They were all wearing the kind of shoes that hurt your feet just to look at them, and most of them had the latest fashion in dresses on, too, which held their knees together and forced them to take little tripping steps. Some of the boys had come in good suits made of thick cloth. They were far too hot, and one boy who was wearing hand-stitched boots was hobbling worse than the girls.

"I've got a blister already," one of the girls announced. "How much farther is it?"

"Do you think it's some kind of a test?" wondered the boy with the boots.

"Oh, it's bound to be," said the tall boy from the gypsy camp. "This drive is designed to lead us round in circles until only the fittest survive. That was a joke," he added as almost everyone let out a moan. "Why don't we all take a rest?" His bright dark eyes traveled over our various plastic bags. "Why don't we sit on this nice smooth grass and have a picnic?"

This suggestion caused instant dismay. "We can't !" half of them cried out. "They're expecting us!" And most of the rest said, "I can't mess up my good clothes!"

The tall boy stood with his hands in his pockets, surveying everyone's hot, anxious faces. "If they want us that badly," he said, in a testing kind of way, "they might have had the decency to send a car."

"Ooh, they wouldn't do that, not for domestic ," one of the girls said.

The tall boy nodded. "I suppose not." I had the feeling that up until then, this boy had not the least notion why we were all here. I could see him digesting the idea. "Still," he said, "domestic or not, there's nothing to stop people taking their shoes off and walking on this nice smooth grass, is there? There's no one who could see." Faces turned to him with longing. "Go on," he said. "You can always put them on again when we sight the house."

More than half of them took his advice. Girls plucked off shoes; boys unlaced tight boots. The tall boy sauntered behind with a pleased but slightly superior smile, watching them scamper barefoot along the smooth verge. Some of the girls hauled their tight skirts up. Boys took off hot jackets.

"That's better," he said. He turned to me. "Aren't you going to?"

"Old shoes," I said, pointing down at them. "They don't hurt." His shoes looked to be handmade. I could see they fitted him like gloves. I felt very suspicious of him. "If you really thought it was a test," I said, "you've made them all fail it."

He shrugged. "It depends if Stallery wants barefoot parlormaids and footmen with big hairy toes," he said, and I could have sworn he looked at me closely then, to see if I thought this was what we all intended to be. His piercing dark eyes traveled on down to my carrier bag. "You couldn't spare a sandwich, could you? I'm starving. The Travelers only eat when they happen to have some food, and that didn't seem to happen most of the time I was with them."

I fished him out one of my sandwiches and another for myself. "You couldn't have been with the gypsies that long," I said, "or your clothes would have got creased."

"You'd be surprised," he said. "It was nearly a month, actually. Thanks."

We marched along munching egg and cress, while the driveway unreeled ahead of us and more hills with trees and lacy white buildings came into view, and the other kids ran along ahead of us in a bunch. Most of them were trying to eat sandwiches, too, and hang on to coats and shoes and bags while they ate.

"What's your name?" I said at length.

"Call me Christopher," he said. "And you?"

"Conrad Te...Grant," I said, remembering my alias just in time.

"Conrad T.Grant?" he said.

"No," I said. "Just Grant."

"Very well," he said. "Grant you shall be. And you aim to be a footman and strut in Stallery in velvet hose, do you, Grant?"

"Hose?" I thought. I had visions of myself in a reel of rubber pipe.

"I don't know what they dress you in," I said. "But I do know they can't be going to take more than one or two."

"That seems obvious," Christopher replied. "I regard you as my chief rival, Grant."

This was so exactly what I thought about him that I was rather shaken. I didn't answer, and we swung up another loop of drive to find there were now banks of flowers under some of the trees, as if we might be getting near the gardens around the house. Here a dog of some kind came lolloping from the nearest trees and put on speed toward us. It was quite a big dog. The kids on the verge instantly began milling about, yelling out that it was one of the ferocious guard dogs on the loose. A girl screamed. The boy with the hand-stitched boots swung them, ready to throw at the dog.

"Don't do that, you fool!" Christopher bellowed at him. "Do you want it to go for you?" He set off in great strides up the grass toward the dog. It put on speed and came sort of snaking at him, long and low.

I'm sure the kids were right about that dog. It was snarling as if it wanted to tear Christopher's throat out, and when it got near, it bunched itself, ready to spring. A girl screamed again.

"Stop that, you fool of a dog," Christopher said. "Stop it at once."

And the dog did stop. Not only did it stop, but it wagged its tail and wagged its bunched-up hind parts and came crawling and groveling toward Christopher, where it tried to lick his beautiful shoes.

"No slobber," Christopher commanded, and the dog stopped and just groveled instead. "You've made a mistake," he told it. "No one here's a trespasser. Go away. Go back where you came from." He pointed sternly up at the trees. The dog got up and walked slowly back the way it had come, turning around hopefully every so often as it went, in case Christopher was going to let it come and grovel again. Christopher came down the hill saying, "I think it's trained to go for anyone who isn't on the path. Shoes on again, everyone, I'm afraid."

Everyone now regarded him as a sort of hero, savior, and commander. Several girls gave him passionate looks while they put their shoes back on, and we all limped and straggled on around another curve of drive. Here there were hedges, with glimpses of flowers blazing beyond and, beyond that, a twinkle of many windows from behind the trees. A path branched off to the right.

Christopher said, "This way, troops," and led everyone along it.

We went through more parkland, but it was just as well everyone had put their shoes on again, because this path was quite short and soon branched into another, among tall, shiny shrubs, where it ended in a flight of stone steps.

The boys hastily put their jackets back on. A youngish man was waiting for us at the top of these steps. He was quite skinny and only an inch or so taller than Christopher. He had a nice, snubby face. But all of us, even Christopher, stared up at him with awe because he was dressed in black velvet knee breeches, with yellow-and-brown-striped stockings below those and black buckled shoes below the stockings. He wore a matching brown-and-yellow-striped waistcoat over a white shirt above the breeches, and his fairish hair was long, tied at the back of his neck by a smooth black bow.

It was enough to make anyone stare.

Christopher dropped back beside me. "Ah," he said. "I see a footman or a lackey. But it's the breeches that seem to be velvet. The hose are striped silk."

"My name's Hugo," the young man said. He smiled at us, very pleasantly. "If you'll just follow me, I'll show you where to go. Mr.Amos is waiting to interview you in the undercroft."

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