There were still guards posted on the walls of Arrens, but they paid little attention to the three children who walked slowly up the Westgate Road. Only when they were within earshot of the walls did they hear a cry from the city:
“Best turn back, little ones! The gates are locked by the Steward’s own order.”
Joe waved in response, slumped his shoulders as if in defeat, and sat down on the banks of the moat. Sim and Lady joined him there. They were making a show of looking dejected, but all the while their eyes were tracing along the brickwork of the moat wall, looking for the weak spot Kobi had indicated. It wasn’t hard to spot. The old bricks were covered in mold and some were crumbling. In one area, seven or eight bricks had fallen out altogether, leaving a sizeable hole into the inky blackness beyond.
They waited there on the banks until the soldiers on the walls shifted their attention elsewhere. Then they dashed down to the weak spot in the wall and one by one wiggled inside. Sim went first, then Lady, and then finally Joe, who kept a keen watch on the walls to make sure they hadn’t been seen.
Once beyond the wall they were met by an almost complete darkness, but they stumbled forward, sometimes on their hands and knees, through what felt like a series of narrower and narrower passages. It felt like they had gone the distance required to be past the walls—even more, in fact—before they finally saw the glimmer of soft light ahead of them. In silent swiftness they forged ahead, until little by little the pinprick of light widened into a beam that filled their subterranean passage with a glaring glow.
Cautiously, furtively, they crept up the opening and peered out. A deserted street met their gaze. No one was there to observe them, so they simply slipped out into the open daylight. Their clothes were smeared and muddied now, but they gave no sign of being anything other than poor children of the street.
Working silently, wordlessly, they walked the maze of turns that led them back to their old house. The streets were quiet around them, and many of the houses had their windows shuttered and their doors boarded up. It felt like a very different town than the bustling, vibrant capital city that they had left just a few weeks earlier. It was only when they came back to their own house and walked through the little gate that they paused to speak.
“Joe, what’s going on?” Lady asked. “Where is everyone?”
“This is so, so strange,” Sim added.
Before Joe could respond, a figure suddenly emerged from the main door of the house and was so startled at seeing the children that she dropped the bowl of seed she was carrying. Seeds flew in jumbled arcs all over the little yard. It was their old neighbor, whom they had asked to look after the chickens before they left.
“Oh! Children!” she gasped. “Joe, Sim, Lady! I thought for sure you were gone for good. Come here, come here, dear ones!”
They rushed into their old neighbor’s embrace: the old lady who had never before been more than a casual acquaintance now suddenly seemed like the dearest family they had left on earth.
“How are the chickens?” Lady asked through her tears.
“The chickens, oh!” laughed their neighbor. “The chickens are fine, my dear! But how are you? Safe and healthy, I hope?”
“Yes,” Joe assured her. “But what about Uncle and Auntie? Have they come back?”
“Oh, my little ones,” she shook her head sadly. “They say they’ve gone to the ghost house, like so many others in our fair city.”
“And no one comes back from the ghost house,” Sim answered sadly.
“Aye, that’s what they say, I’m afraid. But now that you’re back, we’ll look after each other.”
“Thank you,” said Joe. “But first we have a few last things we need to do in the city center. Keep the place safe until we get back, won’t you?”
She clasped her hands and nodded, but there were lines of worry on her face. The children filed back out into the street, rubbed at their brimming eyes, and set their gaze on the Citadel at the heart of Arrens.
Once again they walked the labyrinth of empty avenues. When they did meet someone along the way, there remained an air or sadness and desperation about it all: people wouldn’t look up, wouldn’t smile, wouldn’t greet those passing by. A few times Joe had to approach someone directly to ask for directions to the ghost house. Most would immediately turn pale and start shaking their heads, but a few were able to point them in a general direction as they drew nearer to the heart of the town.
Finally, after nearly an hour of walking and more than a few missed turns and false leadings, they found themselves standing before the thick wooden door of a vast blackstone gateway. For as large as the entrance was, though, the building behind it seemed exceptionally odd. The stonework vanished into the ground just a short way behind the gateway, as if the door was simply the entrance of a tunnel leading to an underground catacomb. Standing there before the door was a single guard, wearing a purple sash with the Steward’s insignia.
Joe approached him carefully. “Excuse me, sir—is this what they call the ghost house?”
The soldier glanced back and forth quickly, as if checking the shadows around the street to ensure no one was watching him.
“If you’re here to pay your respects to the Prince, little ones,” he hissed, “you’d be better advised to move along. Steward’s orders say that anyone showing grief for the Prince gets the same fate as him.”
“You mean we can’t get in?” Lady asked.
The guard sighed. “I don’t want to put you in, let’s put it that way. Too many folks have seen the last light of day right here.”
“But they took the Prince’s body in there?” asked Joe.
“They did indeed, just last night.”
“In that case, we are here to pay our respects! Throw us in, sir!”
The guard hesitated, unsure how to respond.
“That’s right!” Sim added. “You have your orders! We’re here for the Prince! We were part of his army just the other day, and we’d rather be wherever his body ended up than with that no-good Steward of yours!”
“Yes, we love the Prince!” Lady shouted. “You have to throw us in!”
The guard muttered darkly. “Quiet, quiet! You’ll get me in trouble!”
“Then you’d better do something about us!” Lady shouted. “Because we love the Prince!”
“And we think Steward Presten is terrible!” Sim yelled.
The guard growled at them, pulled a key from his belt, and turned it in the lock of the great door. It swung open to reveal and empty maw of blackness, dark and foreboding.
“Alright, then—in with you!” he said gruffly.