As a small thank you for all of the support I've had here, I thought I would post an excerpt from a work in progress, which hopefully will end up being my next book. This is only a rough version, so jump all over me, but constructive criticism is always a good thing. It's called THE SHADOW OF THE ROSE and it's another fantasy novel in a similar vein to THE MAGIC LANDS. Of course for some this may be a punishment rather than a treat! :)
He had noticed that the temperature had been gradually dropping and it was becoming quite cold, which was quite ironic as most of the children referred to this place as the hothouse, so at least Mr. Pinchbeck had done his job successfully in that regard. Encouraged by this, he resolved to wait a little while longer, speculating that perhaps the task of convincing The Headmaster to come was taking slightly longer than had been anticipated.
From the far end of the greenhouse, there was a rustling sound and Martin ducked down instinctively, his eyes and ears immediately alert.
Now that he might very well be about to come face to face with The Headmaster, the prospect intimidated him to such a degree that he broke out in a cold sweat, but then the idea surfaced in his mind that there was always the possibility that it could be someone even more undesirable creeping about in the undergrowth, and this made him even more uneasy as he waited for whoever was lurking there to show themselves.
"Martin," whispered a voice suddenly from somewhere to his left and he strained his ears, trying to recognise who it could be. "Martin, are you here? It's me, Jo!"
He stood up, scanning the vegetation and saw a figure making toward him. He realised then just how dim the light had become, the girl almost unrecognisable until she was within ten feet or so and the idea of turning on the lights briefly passed through his mind, but the surprise of seeing Jo soon made him forget about everything but why she was there.
"What are you doing here?" he said in a tone that said he was very relieved it was her.
"I didn't mean to sca...creep up on you," she said, not wanting to offend him by suggesting he was afraid. But the truth was she found it hard to believe that anyone would not be frightened waiting here alone, crowded in by masses of plant life, the place so dark she had almost tripped over making her way through the aisles to get to him. Stacks of empty crates littered the vast greenhouse and unused flowerpots were everywhere, the place surprisingly cluttered and untidy.
"It's all right," he replied with an awkward smile, "but why did you come, I mean, I'm glad you did, but what's happened? Has something gone wrong?"
Jo's grave look told him that something was indeed wrong and he moved closer to her, concerned at the distress he saw in her frightened eyes.
"There was nothing in The Headmaster's files, just blank pages," she blurted out quickly. "And Peter's hurt his leg, falling down the stairs when we were chased, or at least we think we were chased. Someone found us in the office anyway, The Headmaster I suppose and we ran, that's when Peter fell. Then we saw the note in Mr. Welles...I mean Mr. Pinchbeck's room and it said you were in danger, so I came to get you." She finished and looked at him with an odd expression that said ‘I hope that made sense’ and Martin nodded instinctively, understanding without having to be told. Jo gave him a grateful smile. "Anyway, I think we had better get out of here," she added, Mr. Welles' warning foremost in her mind.
"All right," Martin agreed, "but hold on a minute, just let me get something." Saying this, he quickly walked a few feet to his left and plucked one of the yellow flowers he had been admiring earlier and then nervously turned back to face Jo. "I thought you might like this," he said very softly, barely able to maintain eye contact.
Jo blushed but smiled with quiet pleasure. "Thank you," she murmured, wishing she could think of more to say, but she suddenly found herself tongue-tied.
As the boy stepped forward to hand her the rose, there was a clattering noise from their right and Martin stopped in his tracks, eyeing Jo with alarm. Whoever it might be, he realised immediately that they mustn't discover her here with him, as that would certainly be seen as a serious violation of the all important rules of this wretched institution. "You have to hide," he hissed urgently and glancing about in desperation his eye fell upon a large crate. "Quickly, get inside," he whispered to her, pointing at the wooden box and without really thinking Jo followed his instructions, clambering clumsily in and squatting down.
Grabbing hold of another crate, Martin stacked it on top leaving Jo in darkness with only the smallest of slits to let in what little light there was and she pushed her eye up against this gap so that she might be able to see what was going on outside.
As she watched from her uncomfortable, cramped position, a terrible scene began to play itself out before her, like some grotesque peepshow.
"So here you are, Martin, my little friend," said a voice, but Jo could only see the boy's reaction and not the speaker, but this was enough to tell her that whoever was there with him, Martin was very much afraid. "Well, aren't you going to say hello?" another voice asked good humouredly, but Jo recognised the note of sarcasm in it and she squirmed to see who was out there. Two hulking figures ambled into view to stand before the boy and Jo had to bite her lip not to let out a cry.
"I think he's nervous," Joshua Snipe said with a slow shake of his head, the grin he wore making him look very much like a Halloween pumpkin.
"Maybe he's got reason to be," returned Joseph, rubbing his hands together unpleasantly.
Martin had remained silent until now, his mind racing, trying to come up with some plausible lie about why he was there that would enable him to escape unscathed, but before he could say anything Joseph pointed at him, a wide, malicious smile commandeering his features.
"What's the flower for, nature boy?" he chuckled, "is it a peace offering!?" The two men chortled with amused laughter for a few moments and Martin decided that the only thing he could do was stick to the story Mr. Pinchbeck had originally intended for The Headmaster.
"There's something wrong with the temperature in here," he mumbled, doing his level best to sound self-assured, "Mr. Pinchbeck told me to wait here while he went to get The Headmaster."
Joseph chuckled, the sound without humour and Martin felt a chill creep up his spine. "The Headmaster!? Is that a fact?"
Martin knew he had to choose his words very carefully and hesitated before speaking again. "Everything in here will die if it isn't fixed," he said with as much confidence as he could muster. "You must have noticed how cold it is?"
Joshua was nodding at him solemnly. "Not everything," he stated, his small eyes like black marbles, and when Martin gazed into them all he could see was an utter void, as if the man had no emotions whatsoever, just an unquenchable compulsion to inflict pain and sorrow.
Martin swallowed hard and shuffled his feet uneasily. "What do you mean?"
Joseph just laughed at this, the sound echoing eerily through the greenhouse and Martin knew that his only chance of survival was to run. But before he could act upon this realisation, the Snipes moved closer to him, effectively fencing him in with no way out, as if sensing what he had in mind.
"Only you," Joshua told him with a wink, "you're the only one who's going to die."
Now Martin did try to run, regardless of the fact that he knew it was useless, his instinct for survival overriding all logical thought, but Joseph caught him roughly by his jumper and hauled him to the floor, Martin's head striking the hard ground with a horrible dull sound, the rose crushed and cast aside to lay beside his cheek.
"Chances are you're going to have a nasty headache," Joshua told him off-handedly.
"Right then, master Martin," Joseph began in a businesslike tone, "let's get down to brass tacks. We need some information and you are going to give it to us. I must warn you that we are already rather upset with you, as you have been uncommonly difficult to locate, and we do have a schedule to keep to. But now that we have you, we expect you to do the right thing and tell us what we need to know." He stared down at the boy who lay curled up at his feet, too afraid to move, Martin only distantly aware of the sensation of something thick and viscous trickling through his hair and onto his neck .
"So," continued Joshua, taking up where his brother had left off, "this is how it is. We need to know where those three newcomers are, I'm sure you know who I mean. A boy and two girls. If you help us, maybe we won't have to hurt you quite so much. If not, well, I know you understand quite well what will happen then."
Martin looked up into the faces of his persecutors, but found that instead of men, all he could see were alien creatures, their eyes wide with desire and he understood that everything was lost.
Although he tried very hard not to, he could not help but glance toward the wooden crate where Jo was hiding, wanting so much just to catch a glimpse of her one last time, but she was too well concealed and a part of him that was able to set aside the desperation and despair that gripped him with such hideous strength, took comfort from that.
"Well, boy," prompted Joseph, giving him a kick in the ribs that sent all thoughts of anything but pain fleeing from his mind. "Where are they?"
Gritting his teeth so hard that it would have hurt if it were not for the all-consuming pain in his side, Martin hissed at them. "I don't know. I haven't seen them."
Joshua stepped forward and placed a heavy boot onto the boy's outstretched hand as he reached for the battered rose, hoping to take courage from this symbol of his affection for Jo, and Martin screamed from the agony that shot up his arm as his fingers were crushed with deliberate, slow care.
The man bent down until his face was very close to the boy's and gave a merciless grin. "We know you were with those two girls. You were seen! So come on now, do yourself a favour and tell us where they are. What are they to you anyway?"
Martin's mind was beset by flashing lights, reds and yellows blinking in and out and he did his best to think of any way he might be able to escape, but however hard he tried, his brain steadfastly refused to function properly, as if it too were injured, his hand now almost numb.
"You don't have many more chances," Joseph told him with an air of impatience.
"Just tell us where they're hiding and you can go," Joshua added, affecting a congenial tone of voice. "After all, it's not you that we want, it's them. It really doesn't have to be like this, you know."
Martin closed his eyes, the anguish that he felt almost unbearable and for a moment, fleeting but nonetheless real, he asked himself why he should stay silent, but then somehow finding its way even through the weight of fear and pain, Jo's face appeared in his mind and he saw her smiling at him as he offered her the rose.
Oh Jo, why did this have to happen? Why?
"Go to hell," he whispered, tasting his own tears upon his lips.
With brutal force, Joseph brought his boot down onto Martin's arm, snapping it like a twig, the shriek it provoked reverberating from the canopy of glass above them. "You had your chance," the man grunted and knelt down, putting his full weight onto the boy's chest, several ribs collapsing almost immediately, one puncturing a lung.
Sobbing and struggling for breath, Martin attempted to wriggle free but it was useless, the man's bulk crushing him like an over-ripe piece of fruit, and as consciousness began to drift away from him, all he could think of was how this must appear to Jo, who he knew was so close and yet seemed so distant from him, as if she were no more than a dream he had once believed was real.