Rodney sat at the small table by the parlour window. The small, leather bound book Old Warbeck had lent him lay open on the desk. Spellbound, the boy read eagerly, his eyes straining in the failing evening light. Outside the window, ignored, grey clouds lowered over Murklington, the sun sank lower in the west, casting the shadows of the long rows of terraced manors, across its narrow streets. From the dark eminence of Pit Head Hill, the horn sounded, signalling the change of shift at The Pit – the town’s one enterprise, where Rodney’s dad, and all the other men of Murklington went each day to wrest a living from the unforgiving earth.
Rodney’s mother, Guin, came through from the kitchen, where she was cooking her husband’s tea and boiling the water for his nightly bath. “Come on, Rodney,” she said, “Tha’ Dad’ll be home soon. Gi’ us a hand wi’ ‘is bath love.” She noticed the book on the table.
“What’s that you got, pet?” she asked.
“Just a book, Mam.”
“I can see it’s a book, Rodney, I’ve still got eyes in me ‘ead. What’s it a book about then?”
“Just stuff, Mam.”
With an exasperated sigh, she took the few steps needed to cross the small parlour and grabbed the book from the table. Slamming it shut, she read the front cover. Embossed in the leather there was a goat’s head, in the centre of a pentacle. The title was printed above this device, in faded gold leaf lettering: Gridley’s First Grimoire for Boys.
“Oh bloody hell,” said Rodney’s Mam, in resigned tones, “What you doing fetchin’ a thing like that into t’ manor? Best not let your Dad see it, you know what he’s like about magic. Go on, take it up to your room, then come help us out wi’ this bath.”
She left the room again. Instead of taking the book up to his room, Rodney read on, until their was too little light for even his eager eyes. Then he hid the book under one of the cushions of the settee and went to the kitchen.
“About bloody time,” said Guin, “Look sharp now, your dad’ll be here any minute. Finish fillin’ t’ bath, while I take care o’ tea.”
As Rodney and Guin worked, the street outside filled with the sounds of the day shift coming home – the muttering of tired voices, the weary tramp of tired feet. They heard the front door open in its usual way, slamming hard back against the floral wallpaper of their small vestibule.
“Ah’m ‘ome,” boomed the voice of Rodney’s dad. “Gi’s a hand getting’ out of this kit then, will you.”
“Go help your dad off with his gear, love,” said Rodney’s Mam, “While I finish up in here.”
Rodney rushed from the kitchen back to the parlour. He still wasn’t quick enough to stop his father snapping a peremptory “Get a bloody move on, then” at him.
“Start wi’ boots,” his father ordered. “Bloody things are killing me. Then t’ cuirasse and hauberk.”
Rodney knelt and began to unfasten the buckled straps of his father’s iron boots and greaves. From the kitchen, Guin shouted “You’re not sitting on ‘t good furniture in your mucky armour, I hope, Roland!”
“Course I’m not set on t’ good chair in me mucky armour woman. Bloody hell! I might o’ been daft enow to marry thee, but I’m not a complete bloody idiot.”
This was the way it always was between Rodney’s parents. In the early days of their marriage it had been a joke between them, but over the years the bantering edge had worn down and their good-humoured teasing had turned into something else.
“Still daft enough to tread orc’s blood into carpets!” she retorted from the kitchen.
“Orc’s blood! Get on with you, woman. Haven’t seen an orc down than pit in months. It’s all been soddin’ mummies and zombies since Middlemass. Wouldn’t mind findin’ a decent orc’s lair right now – they might be mucky buggers, but there’s more gold for the takin’ in an orc’s lair than we’ve been collectin’ in all these bloody tombs.”
Rodney finally had his father’s boots off. He stood, and began working on the buckled straps of the cuirass. Guin came into the room from the kitchen.
“Bloody hell, Rodney!” she said, this time with genuine exasperation, “How many times do I have to tell you to put down some newspaper when you’re taking your father’s kit off. Look at my carpet!”
“Leave the lad alone, lass. It’s nobbut a bit of zombie bone and mummy dust. A bit o’ sweepin’ and beatin’ ‘ll soon clean that up.”
“Aye, well it won’t be me doing the sweepin’ a beatin’. Get on wi’ it Rodney, your Dad’s bath’s waitin’. So’s our tea. No, not not yet!” she cried, when she say Roland lifting the unbuckled cuirass over his head, “Wait till I get that newspaper!”
Once Roland’s armour was off and placed with proper tidiness on sheets of old newspaper, he went to the kitchen for his bath. Between them, Rodney and Guin took the armour out to the backyard. By the light of an oil lantern, Rodney examined the armour for bloodstains and rust spots but he found little more than a light coating of mummy dust and a few bone fragments stuck in the rings of the hauberk. It was light work to clean the armour with badger brush and an old rag. Once it was clean, he went inside, laid some newspaper on the floor beside the front door that let in from the street into the vestibule. Then he stacked the armour on the papers, ready for the morning.
By the time he finished, his father had finished his bath. With tin buckets they bailed out the bath – emptying the buckets into the drain outside the kitchen door – until the bath was light enough to be carried outside. Roland carried one end, Rodney and Guin the other. The empty bath was returned to its corner of the kitchen and at last they sit down to tea.
As he sat at the table, Roland laid down his pickings for the day, beside Guin’s plate.
“Sorry lass,” he mumbled, “That’s all there was. Might be a bit o’ a spell on that ring though, and the necklace is a nice bit of craftsmanship.”
“Magic and craftsmanship won’t count for ought wi’ butcher and grocer. Tha knows that.” Guin answered with impatience, “It’s nought but good troy weight wi’ them.”
“It’s not my bloody fault all o’ th’orcs lairs is worked out and we’ve found nought below but bloody ancient tombs!” he cried, “Were best bloody Hell Pit in’t Kingdom when me dad moved ‘ere, and weren’t too bad when me and thee were courtin’.”
Rodney began eating faster – a lot faster. Whenever his father mentioned “when me and thee were courtin’” it was best to get away from his parents as quickly as possible. Away to the safety of his own room, where he could dream his dreams of leaving this dreary town where soul-deadened men spent their days fighting downward, ever downward, through the subterranean levels of a worked-out Hell-Pit, ever hoping that the next stairway or shaft downward would lead to mightier hell-spawn and the rich pickings that came with them. “Where there’s brimstone, there’s brass” went the local saying.
That life – the closed, narrow life of the knights, warriors and paladins of Murklington, in their huddled rows of terraced manors – wasn’t for him. With Old Warbeck’s help he’d find his way out into a wider world – a better world…