The Nexus

by David Clarke

Chapter 4


As soon as we were in the tunnel we turned left and headed for the room of doors once more - I wanted to investigate the tunnel I had seen on my last visit, the one that was full of mist. Stefan seemed to be walking fairly comfortably, and when I stopped to make sure he said it was no problem.

"It's a pity we couldn't bring the mopeds down here," I commented. "If we could you wouldn't have to walk at all. The trapdoor isn't big enough, though."

"No, but if we had an axe or a..." (He made sawing motions, and I supplied the missing word) "...thank you, a saw, we could cut a bigger opening."

"But then we couldn't close the trapdoor again."

"Why would we wish to do that? There is nobody in our world who will come and find the cabin, so it should not matter that there is a hole in the floor."

"I suppose that's true... but what if someone was chasing us from down here? If there was a hole we wouldn't be able to close the trapdoor against them."

"I do not think anyone is here to chase us. But if there was such a person, we would escape more easily if we had a fast motor bicycle, would we not?"

I supposed that was true, too: we could make a far faster getaway through the tunnels on a moped than on foot, and it would get in the way of anyone chasing us if we used it to block the door into the tunnel, too.

"Or we could find some folding bicycles," I suggested. "The ones that they make for commuters, that fold up really small, so we could get them through the hatch. They wouldn't be as fast as a moped, but they would be faster than running."

"Perhaps. We can consider this before we come again."

We reached the room of doors and I stood in front of the one that led to Stefan's world and counted clockwise, but when I pushed the eighth door I found that it was blocked: I couldn't shift it. Stefan came and helped me, and eventually we managed to force it open by a couple of centimetres, and at that point fine rubble seeped out around the edge. We couldn't get it any further open because the rubble seemed to fill the entire space behind it: apparently the tunnel that had been there the last time I opened that door had now completely collapsed.

"That's a bit worrying," I said. "I wonder what made that happen? The tunnel looked exactly the same as all the others I've seen, so why did that one collapse and not any of the others?"

I paused long enough to walk around the room opening some of the other doors at random, but the remaining tunnels were still there, looking exactly the same as the one we had walked through to reach the room of doors.

"Perhaps it was not natural," suggested Stefan. "Perhaps the tunnel was closed by the people that made this place to keep some disaster out."

"Maybe. In that case I hope they can tell that we are not a disaster. I don't want them closing any of our three tunnels."

"We have been through three doors without a problem," he pointed out. "So they can see that we are harmless."

"Four, if you include whichever one it is that goes back to my world," I said. "So, okay, they know we're not dangerous. Okay, so we can't go the way I wanted - which door should we try instead? You decide."

"We know that the door that went to the bare rock was close to the collapsed tunnel - perhaps in fact that was the world beyond the blocked door. So let us try... that one." And he pointed to a door four away from the one that led to his own world.

"Okay. Can you mark our door first? I mean, we know it's next to yours, but it would be good to mark it so that we can see quickly which one it is."

"All right," he said, and he undid his shorts, pushed them and his briefs down a bit, took hold of his penis and pretended to masturbate.

"We haven't got all day," I commented, grinning at him. "Use your knife or the sun will have set before we get outside."

"I think you need to be shown once again who is superior here, subhuman," he said, doing his shorts up once more. "Perhaps we shall have another contest when we get home."

"Perhaps we should," I said, trying not to let my enthusiasm show too much. "But just use your knife now - and next time we'll have to remember to bring some paint."

He scratched two horizontal lines on 'our' door and then crossed the room to the door we were about to take and marked it with a diagonal line, top left to bottom right.

"Tonight we must draw a plan," he said. "We shall show each door, its mark and to which world it goes."

"Good idea," I said, thinking that it would also help me to find my own world again if we kept a record of every door we tried.

We pushed open the door and I was anything but surprised to see the usual tunnel curving gently away ahead of us, and in due course we came to another door, another ladder and another trapdoor - and this one led to a hut, though one that was completely lacking in signs of human habitation: the desk was there but empty and covered in dust, there was no chair, no mattress on the bunk, and no supplies of any sort in the kitchen.

"Nobody has been here since many months," commented Stefan. "Do you think that this means another empty world?"

"I hope not. I want to meet people and find out about their world. Come on, let's see what's out there."

I opened the outer door and discovered that what was out there was mist - very, very thick mist. I stepped out into it and within two paces I couldn't see a thing - not even the hut.

"We can't go out into that," I said, stepping back inside. "It might only go about ten metres beyond the hut for all we know, but we could step out into that and never find the hut again. Unless... we need a rope. If we had a rope one of us could stay here while the other goes out on the end of the rope, and if the mist only goes a little way out we'll be fine, and if not we can follow the rope back."

"We do not have a rope," said Stefan. "In fact... I am an idiot! I have been trained to think as a soldier, but we have approached this journey as two little children. Come - we have to go back."

And before I could argue he was off down the ladder, and so I followed him, back along the tunnel, through the room of doors and back to the hut we had left only half an hour previously.

"We need proper equipment," he said, getting onto his bike. "Leave yours and get on behind me - we will need to find another to bring back with us."

So I clung on behind him as he rode back to Orschwiller, and as soon as he got there he got straight into the Peugeot, not even stopping to unhitch the trailer. I got in with him and we drove back to Sélestat.

Somehow the place looked completely different now that the power had failed. Before it had just looked as if everyone had stopped work for lunch, or maybe to go to a big football match or something; now it looked like a dead place, completely and permanently abandoned - which I supposed it was. And now we were both aware of a faint but unpleasant smell hanging over the place.

"I do not think we will want to come back here again," commented Stefan, "so this time let us make sure we take everything we will need."

We found a camping shop and Stefan swept through the place like a hurricane, collecting a couple of tents, four or five sleeping bags, several climbing ropes, some cooking and eating utensils, some water bottles, a box of water purifying tablets, a couple of small portable gas cooking rings and spare bottles of gas, a couple of gas lanterns, two large jerry-cans, a couple of Swiss army knives and a small all-in-one pocket tool-kit, two Silva compasses and a dinky little device that enabled you to tell how many steps you had taken, two pairs of expensive binoculars, one small bag about the same size as the one I had brought from England and a couple of top-of-the-range rucksacks.

I thought that was it, but as soon as we had dumped all that lot in the trailer he went back into the shop and went to the outdoor clothing section, where he kitted us both out with a heavy jacket, a light waterproof one that could be folded up really small and some proper walking shoes.

"Now I think we are ready," he announced.

"Really? Are you sure? I mean, couldn't we have got this stuff when we actually reached the base of Everest instead of carrying it all that way?"

"Jake, we do not know what we will find," he said. "It is summer here, but perhaps in some other worlds it is winter. Here we can walk easily through the mountains; there it might not be possible without ropes. But of course we do not require all this equipment today - it is just that I do not wish to come back to town each time I find that we need something new. We shall leave much of this at home, and most of the remainder in our hut, where it can be reached easily."

I supposed that made sense, so I grabbed a couple of baseball caps, two woollen hats and, as an afterthought, a wide-brimmed hat of the type that Australians hang corks onto. I stuck the Aussie hat on my head and chucked the others into the car.

We drove away from the shopping centre and cruised the residential streets until we found another small moped, but instead of putting it in the trailer - which would have meant reorganising all our camping supplies - Stefan said I should ride it home. But instead of going straight back home he stopped at the Point Vert on the edge of town and picked up a chainsaw and then went into the builders' merchant's next door and emerged with what looked like three short pieces of scaffolding and a bag containing other bits and pieces.

I didn't ask, just sat on the moped and watched him load them into the car. The poles were too long to go inside, so he had to leave the hatch open with the poles sticking out of the back and resting on the trailer.

Then we drove back into the mountains. We didn't go straight home: instead we stopped at the point where the track up to the hut left the road, and there Stefan unloaded the poles.

"We shall have to carry these to the hut," he said. "It will not be possible to move them on the bicycles. But in any case we need to walk the journey one more time so that I may take bearings."

So we left the car and moped where they were and between us carried the metal poles up to the hut, and on the way back Stefan used the compass and pace-counter and jotted down in a little notebook exactly how to find the road from the hut. He discovered that the track actually did run more or less due east, although eventually it followed the contour of the hill and so was heading south-east when it joined the road. Clearly our first attempt at direction-finding, on our initial trip down from the hut, had been quite successful.

We drove back to Orschwiller and unpacked, leaving most of the heavy or bulky equipment - the tents, sleeping-bags, jerry-cans and thick jackets - indoors. And I chickened out of actually wearing the hat and so I left it in the bedroom with the rest of our spare clothes. We packed the ropes and most of the small stuff into one rucksack, put the chainsaw and a small can of fuel into the other, paused long enough to top up the fuel tank of my new moped from one of the cans we had stored in the garage, and then rode back up to the hut on our mopeds.

We opened the trapdoor and Stefan set to work with his chainsaw, cutting away the floor on one side of the hatchway until we had a hole big enough to get the two smaller mopeds through. Then he rigged up his scaffold poles into a tripod that he could attach a pulley to, and that made it possible for us to lower them one at a time into the small room below.

We left the large rucksacks in the hut, transferring the small amount of stuff we would need to the smaller ones: I took a fold-up waterproof jacket, a water bottle and one of the Swiss army knives, and Stefan took a jacket, a pair of binoculars, two coiled ropes, a compass, some chocolate we had liberated from the supermarket - and a small tin of white paint and a brush. He was wearing his knife and his water-bottle on his belt as usual.

We started the mopeds and rode back to the room of doors, where Stefan got to work with his paint. He painted a small 'S' on the door that went to his world, a small 'S + J" on ours, and the number 3 on the one we were about to go through. Then off we went again, and in only a couple of minutes we were back at the foot of the ladder. We left the mopeds in the little room and climbed up.

"You know, if we find the mist has gone we're going to feel a bit silly," I remarked, heading for the door.

"No, we should not. We will need this equipment, if not today then some other day."

I supposed that was true, and in fact when I opened the door I saw that we would need it today, because the mist was still there, as thick as ever.

Stefan took a rope from his bag and tied one end to my waist.

"Walk straight ahead," he said. "When you get out of the mist, stop and call me."

So I did that. I couldn't see a thing, so I took it slow and kept my arms in front of me so as not to walk into a tree, and after a bit the mist started to thin, and eventually I was out into another fine, sunny day.

"I'm out," I called over my shoulder, and a couple of minutes later Stefan appeared at my side - he had left the other end of the rope tied around the door-handle and had followed it, counting steps.

"It is about forty metres," he reported. "So... continue to walk straight until the rope goes tight, then take it from your waist and tie it to a tree."

I didn't really see why, but I did it anyway. Then we went back to the hut, groped our way around to the back of it and repeated the exercise with the second rope. Once I was out of the mist on that side Stefan came to join me, and once again told me to keep going until the rope ran out and then tie it to the nearest tree.

"Now," he explained, "if the mist has spread a little more when we come back it will not matter, because we have a large target: the rope extends for sixty meters each side of the cabin. So if our bearing is not quite correct, we still have a good chance to find a rope and follow it to the cabin."

That made good sense, and I looked at him admiringly.

"That's really clever," I said. "You're brilliant, Stefi."

"I know," he said, grinning. "You should bow down and adore me."

"I'm not sure I would go quite that far," I said. "But I am impressed. So, shall we see if we can find any civilisation?"

He got the compass out and we set off on the bearing he had taken back in our world, but we didn't find the path. He wasn't too worried: he said it would be surprising if every world had a path in exactly the same place, and he simply followed the bearings that should bring us to the road. But the road wasn't there, either.

"Oh, well, maybe they don't need roads," I suggested. "Perhaps it's a world where everyone has their own jet-pack, or something."

That thought kept me happy as we continued on the same bearing, which was more or less east south-east: even if there were no roads, eventually this should bring us to Orschwiller or some other village.

It didn't: there was no village, and for a moment we thought we'd found another uninhabited world. But we were out of the trees by now, and when we got the binoculars out and looked out over the plain we could see buildings, and there were cows in a field... and, yes, people moving about, working in another field. We looked at each other in excitement.

"Wow, Stefi, a whole other world!" I said. "I wonder if they speak French or German?"

"It could be Latin or Russian or Chinese," he pointed out. "We do not know anything of the history of this world yet... so, let us go and find out!"

So we kept going down towards the plain until we found a road running along at the foot of the mountains. It wasn't much of a road, to be honest: it was basically a cart-track, with a couple of bald areas that showed where the wheels of passing vehicles had run, with a grassy strip down the middle. We turned right onto it to head south, as it had been in that direction that we had seen the buildings, and we walked along pointlessly speculating about what sort of a world we had found. The lack of proper roads reinforced my hope that this would be a world where everyone flew everywhere, though I had to admit that I hadn't seen anything flying at all except for a few birds.

After a further couple of kilometres we found another track leading off to the left, heading towards some buildings, so we turned that way and found ourselves walking next to a field in which a score of brown cattle were grazing. There was also a boy sitting on the fence keeping an eye on them, and when he saw us he stared, which wasn't too surprising considering that we were wearing standard western attire and he was dressed in what looked like a rough, drab brown home-made tunic with a rope belt and, so far as we could tell, nothing else: his feet were bare, anyway.

"Hello," I said, in English, which drew no reaction at all.

"Guten Tag," tried Stefan. "Or maybe 'Güeter Daj' - that's the old local dialect," he added to me. But the boy didn't understand that, either. Well, I thought, if it isn't French we're in trouble, because I don't think I can carry on a conversation in Latin, and as for Russian and Chinese...

"Bonjour," I said, and he smiled and said 'Bonjour' back, and I stuck to French and asked where we were.

"This is the farm of the commune of Irtengarde," he told me. "If you continue on the path you will find the master farmer in the big house. Tell him that Phiphi le Bossu sent you, then he will know that I am not sleeping!"

He jumped off the fence, and now I could see that he was indeed hunchbacked, as his surname suggested, and probably a little older than us. I could see that he wanted to ask about our clothes, so I told him that we were travellers from a distant country, and that seemed to satisfy him.

"I do not think you will get your wish to fly here," commented Stefan as we walked on. "This would seem to be a primitive world."

"Doesn't mean it won't be interesting, though," I replied.

We walked on to the farmhouse, a stone edifice of two storeys that even had glass in the windows - so maybe it wasn't completely primitive after all - and knocked at the back door, which seemed a safer bet: maybe in this world a master farmer was really important and so would not want strangers appearing at his front door. A large woman (it was hard to imagine her being anything but the cook) opened the door and I explained that we were travellers who had been on the road for a long time... and that was as far as I got before she told me to wait and left the room.

She came back a minute or so later and beckoned us to follow her, leading us through to a much bigger room in which a couple of men were sitting at a table with a pile of paper (or something that looked like paper) in front of them - it looked as if they had been discussing finance, because there was also an abacus on the table.

"I am Master Farmer," said one of them, making it sound like his name rather than his title. "You are from a far country, you say?"

"Well, yes, Sir. We have travelled a long way, and I was hoping that maybe you would let us rest here awhile - and perhaps spare us some food? We would be happy to work for it." Or we could pay you in euros or reichsmarks, I didn't bother adding, because somehow I thought neither currency would count for much here.

"You have a very strange accent," said the farmer, which seemed a bit unfair, since if anyone had an accent it was him. There were also a few words that I had difficulty understanding, as had also been the case with Phiphi, although this was still recognisably French, and not the equivalent of Chaucerian English. And at least that meant that we could still communicate.

"We are from far away, beyond the mountains," I said, and he stared at me, while the other man muttered an oath.

"You crossed the mountains? That is impossible - there are demons in the mountains! None may set foot on them."

"Oh. Well, we didn't actually cross them," I said. "You see, if you go north from here, around a hundred kilometres, there is a place where the mountains end and you can go around them."

"You speak of things I do not understand. What are these kill... things?"

"Oh, it is a measure of distance where we come from. From the house to the road is about half a kilometre."

"So why would you undertake such a long journey - unless... have you done wrong in your own land? Are you fleeing from your master?"

"No, we have done nothing wrong. We wanted adventure, that's all."

"I still don't understand. What of your families - do they know where you are?"

"Well, not exactly. We have no families." I thought that would probably save a lot of explanations, and also explain why we had gone off on an adventure alone.

"I see. But your land must be very far away: I have never seen clothing like that. What is it made of?"

"Cotton, I think. Mostly."

"What is cotton?"

"It is a plant that grows... I'm not sure where, to be honest. Across the sea to the west, I think."

"Show me."

I shrugged, took my bag off and then slipped my shirt over my head and handed it to him. He and the other man examined it with interest.

"See how fine the stitches are," he commented. "And this pattern around the neck - it must have taken many weeks to make. So your father was a noble?"

"No, just a normal man. That shirt was made using a machine, though I don't know how. Everyone wears things like that in our country."

"I have never heard of such a land - though I have never travelled. Probably our lord knows of your country, though - he and the other great rulers travel widely and trade with many nations. And... what is that frame around your eyes?"

"My glasses, you mean? They help me to see properly. Try looking through them and you will see what I mean."

I handed them over and he looked through them.

"It makes things bend," he said. "And yet you say it makes you see better? I don't understand, and nor do I understand how such a thing could be made. There must be wizards in your land."

"Not really. All glass will bend light if it is not absolutely perfect. If you look through your windows there will be a similar effect where the glass is not true."

"He's right," said the second man. "I have noticed such a thing."

The farmer grunted. "And that badge around your neck - what is that star?"

"It's the symbol of my religion."

"Ah, so you have a guardian god? Well, that at least is normal. And I see your friend has another."

Stefan's swastika was outside his shirt and so visible.

"It is wise to choose a companion with a different protector," the farmer went on. "That way there are two gods to watch over you. Now, you say you would like to rest a while?"

"Yes, please, Sir," I said.

"Well, I'm not sure that..."

The other man leaned forward and whispered into the farmer's ear for a while, and at that the farmer's expression changed.

"You say that you are very far from home, and that your people do not know you are here?"

I nodded.

"Then... would you like to stay with us for a while? I mean for several days, or longer if you want. You can rest and regain your strength, because I see that you are very thin from your long journey. Of course, you will work with the other commune boys, but it is not too arduous. We would be glad to have you as our guests."

"What do you reckon?" I said to Stefan in English. "Shall we stay for a day or so? It might be interesting to see how these people live, and it'll give you a bit more to put in your report. Okay, really I should go back to my world, but since I'm going to get shouted at when I get there whether I go now or in three weeks' time I'm happy to stay here with you for a bit. So, shall we? I mean, we can always slip away if we don't like it."

"Why not?" he replied, and so I turned to the farmer and switched to French.

"Thank you, Sir, that is very kind. We'd be glad to stay in your commune for a while."

"Good. Now, I think perhaps it would be sensible if we lent you some clothes while you are here: your own clothing will mean that everyone will pester you with questions about your origins. We can keep it for you until you are ready to leave. And if you can see without the glass thing, it would be best to keep that hidden, too."

I could see the sense of that, and my eyesight was fairly good in daylight: it was around dusk that it seemed to get worse. As long as I wasn't going to be expected to drive a car or go to the cinema I didn't think I'd be in too much difficulty without them. On the other hand, I wanted to keep control of where our stuff was, just in case we had to sneak away at night or something, so I said, "You're obviously right about the clothes, Sir, but I'd prefer to keep everything with us. So we'll willingly accept your offer of a change of clothing provided that you can find us a couple of plain sacks to keep our own stuff in. That way we'll be able to keep them with us."

"Of course," he said, with no hesitation. "Tell me: has anyone seen you, apart from the two of us and the housekeeper?"

"Only Phiphi the hunchback," I said. "He told us to come and see you."

"Phiphi won't say anything," said the farmer. "You see, if word gets out that we have visitors from a distant land our lord will hear of it and come to investigate, and really I wouldn't want to put him to the trouble. So if you'd like to go back to the kitchen, Hélène will find you some tunics."

I said thank you again and we went back to the kitchen. The housekeeper took us to a small side-room and handed us a tunic and a rope-belt each and then turned to go.

"Hang on," I said. "Is this it? I mean, what do we wear underneath it?"

"Well, nothing," she replied, looking surprised. "Boys of your age don't wear hose, and at this time of year you don't need anything more. Of course, if you are still here when winter comes there will be more to wear - then you will want small-clothes and perhaps a coat. But for now, the tunic is all you require. I will find you each a pouch for your small items."

"She must have spoken of you," said Stefan in English once she had left the room. "Only you have small items - my items are big." And he removed his shorts and briefs and waved his 'items' at me.

"I don't think that the sort of pouch she meant," I said, getting undressed myself. "I think it's something like a pocket or wallet that we can keep our money and stuff in, if we ever get any that's worth anything in this world."

We took everything off, including our watches and jewellery, which would be sure to invite comment if we kept it on, and then pulled the tunics over our heads and tied the rope around our waists. The material wasn't as rough as I had feared, and the tunic came down to within three inches of my knees, so I wasn't in danger of showing everything off every time I moved. But it still felt really strange having no underwear on. I'd have kept my boxers on, but I felt sure that sooner or later someone would notice - and, as I said before, I do have exhibitionist tendencies...

Stefan could more easily have retained his briefs, which wouldn't have been visible unless someone looked right up his tunic, and which even then would probably have passed muster as they were plain white ones, unlike my red and black-striped boxers. But he simply put them on the pile with the rest of his clothes.

"This feels... interesting," he commented. "I think going with no shoes may be difficult at first: boys here will have toughened soles, but we do not."

"It seems to be mostly grass and earth, though," I pointed out. "We haven't seen any concrete or gravel, have we? I think we'll be fine."

The housekeeper came back with a small linen pouch for each or us and a bit of thin rope that we could use to attach them to our belts with. She also had a sack for each of us, so we put our jewellery, watches and my glasses into the pouches and we stowed our clothes, shoes and bags into the sacks, and then went back to see the farmer.

"Ah, now you look like ordinary travellers," he commented. "Good. Now if you go with Master Clerk he will show you where you will sleep, and then you can look around until the evening meal. You can start working tomorrow."

The other man - the clerk, apparently - took us to an outbuilding that held ten mattresses and little else.

"This is where the orphans of the commune sleep," he explained. "There are six of them at present, so there is room for you. Place your sacks in the loft." He indicated a small part-loft with a wooden ladder leading to it. "Once the others return they can tell you which mattresses are free. The well is by the kitchen door if you require water, and the soil-ditch is by the cowshed. I don't think there is anything else you will need. When the gong is rung, come to the kitchen and Hélène will show you where you eat. Have you any questions?"

"No, thank you," I said. "We'll have a wander round, like Master Farmer suggested. And thank you for your help."

We stuck our sacks in the loft and went outside to see what was going on. First we went back to the field where Phiphi was watching the cows.

"Ah, now you look normal. So, you're staying, then?" he asked.

"For a while," I answered. "It'll be good to see how a farm is run in this country."

"Oh, the same as anywhere, I expect. We have cows and sheep and pigs and chickens and goats, and we grow maize and barley and vegetables. It will be hard work at Harvest, but until then it is not too hard. And anyway, they don't expect too much of me, so I usually end up watching the animals. Though you may end up working the river, or clearing the far field...even so, life here is not hard, and Master Farmer is a fair master. I would advise you to move on before the harvest starts, though."

I didn't think that would be a problem - as far as I knew Harvest was in September, and it was barely July, so we would be long gone before the hard work started.

We left Phiphi and walked round the edge of the farm, following the fence that marked its limits. We saw the three large fields, one of maize, one of barley and the third where just grass was growing; we found another meadow where the sheep were grazing under the less-than-watchful eye of a couple of boys (actually they seemed to be asleep); we found the point where some men were constructing a raised wooden channel to bring water from the river closer to the crops; and we found Phiphi's far field, where some men were engaged on digging out stones, of which there seemed to be a hell of a lot. But that was the only job that looked to be really hard work.

Eventually the gong went and we followed everyone else to the house, and here Hélène guided us into a large hall and installed us at a long table with six other boys, the youngest of whom looked to be about eight and the oldest a year or so older than us.

But before they got a chance to ask who we were Master Farmer stood up at the top table and gave a blessing, and that's when we found that this really was a pagan world. I mean, all that stuff about us both having a guardian god should have been warning enough, but now here was the head of the farm calling on the Powers of the Earth, of the Sky and of the River, and on the lesser gods of the crops and livestock, to bless our endeavours. He also thanked them for supplying the food we were about to eat.

And then, almost without pausing for breath, he told the company about us, saying that we were two travellers very far from home who would be joining the commune for a while. He asked everyone to make us feel welcome, and then sat down. And looking around the room I saw some odd reactions: most of the adults were nodding and smiling, and most of the children seemed quite ridiculously happy to find two strangers in their midst - in fact a couple of boys on the far side of the room actually hugged each other.

And Stefan noticed it, too. "That is strange, is it not?" he said quietly in English, nodding across the room to where a mother was hugging her daughter with a happy smile on her face. "You would think that we were sons of a king come to shower wealth upon their community, and not just two boys passing through."

"Well, I suppose they could just be really friendly people," I said, "but it does seem a bit bizarre. Oh, well, I expect we'll find out what it's about soon enough."

The meal was passed around, and I have to say that it was rather better than I had expected: there was a large bowl of something that could have been a thick vegetable soup but was more probably a vegetable stew, together with some unleavened bread to eat it with (there were no eating utensils supplied). We got the hang of it in the end, but we did manage to spill a bit first.

After supper we went to the dormitory with the six orphans and they pointed out which four mattresses were unoccupied, so we took two that were side by side at one end of the room and pushed them together, which surprised them a bit.

"It is the way we like it," I explained. "We're a long way from home and so we like to be close together for comfort."

They seemed to understand that. Then they went around the room giving us their names, from Leo (the eldest) to Sylvain (the youngest), via the four in the middle whose names I wouldn't learn properly for another day or two.

"And I'm Jake, and he's Stefan," I said, "and it's nice to be here... but why is everyone so very happy to see us? I mean, we're just passing through."

At that nobody seemed to want to look at me, though Leo did manage to say that we didn't get visitors very often, and so everyone appreciated meeting new people. And it was clear that I wasn't going to get any more out of them, and so I let it go, even though I was sure something wasn't quite right here.

We noted that everyone else kept their tunics on to sleep and so we did the same, though like them we took our belts off, and in the event we slept pretty well, considering that this was just a straw mattress. We went and ate some sort of porridge for breakfast, which wasn't exactly tasty but did fill us up, and then we went off for our first day's work: Stefan got the short straw and went to help clear the far field, while I landed on my feet and found myself watching the sheep in the furthest meadow along with Olivier, one of my fellow orphans. This, Olivier told me, was about the easiest number on the farm: all you had to do was to keep half an eye on the sheep to make sure they didn't wander off and then drive them back to the farm in the evening. To pass the time he had brought a catapult he had made for when it was his turn to scare the birds from the crops and we took it in turns to hit, first a tree-trunk, then a leaf that he stuck to the tree using a pellet of sheep-shit, and finally just a small part of a leaf. And he was brilliant - I couldn't get close to his ability. And that made him happy, which in turn made him chatty.

I played it safe and didn't talk about myself at all: instead I asked about him, how he came to be living on the farm and whether he liked it here. And he told me that he was twelve (which surprised me - I'd thought him younger) and that he'd been living here since his parents died of... well, some sort of illness, he wasn't sure what - when he was nine. So he'd been here for three years, and he thought it was a good place - the food was good, the farmer was a fair man and the work was not excessive except during harvest and planting.

"But that doesn't last too long," he concluded. "And apart from that - and the Quarter Days, of course - everything's great."

"Quarter Days?" I queried.

"What, don't you celebrate Quarter Days in your country?" he asked.

I shook my head.

"Oh. So that's why... well, anyway, they're just boring - it's all the praying and stuff to make sure we get a good harvest, or to help us survive the winter, or whatever else. We have to get up early on those days, too. But they only come four times a year, so..." And he shrugged.

"Oh. When's the next one?"

"In about two weeks' time - so you'll probably get to see for yourself. Anyway, let's find another leaf and see if you can get anywhere near it this time..."

The following day Oli and I drew bird-scaring, and while the other kids dealt with birds by running about and shouting a lot, Oli used his catapult to good effect. By the end of the day he had seven kills, which he handed in to the kitchen, saying that he wasn't sure if they were edible or not, but if not the pigs would probably get them. And the day after we did the same thing, and by the end of the third day I was getting on really well with Oli and thinking that there were worse places to live.

And the next morning we really hit the jackpot: Master Clerk was taking a wagon into town and needed a couple of boys along to help load the supplies.

"This will be the first time I've been to town," said Oli, happily. "You've brought me luck, Jake!"

Well, I was glad he was happy, but I'd seen as much of Sélestat as I wanted recently and thought I could survive without seeing this world's version of it. But in the event we didn't head for Sélestat at all - in fact we were going in the opposite direction, towards the south.

"Where are we going?" I asked Master Clerk.

"To the town."

"Yes, but what is it called?"

"Just... well, I think officially it's called the Town of Pigeons, or something, but we just call it 'the town'."

It took a large part of the morning to get there. I wasn't sure how fast our wagon was moving, but it didn't seem very fast to me, not a lot faster than I would have walked, so it probably wasn't a lot more than ten or twelve miles, but since the scenery was pretty much the same all the way - mountains off to the right, farmland off to the left - it wasn't a very exciting journey. But the town was interesting because the buildings looked sort of medieval, with timbers and jutting corners and walls that didn't look straight, but also new, as if the bad architecture had happened only a couple of years ago. We drove into the centre of town to a large open square that presumably housed a market on certain days, and Master Clerk stopped outside a shop that had a smithy at the side, and here, calling us to follow him, he went inside and purchased a number of tools, some timber and some nails. At least, I supposed he purchased them, though I saw no signs of any money.

"How did you pay for these?" I asked as we loaded the wagon.

"With a portion of our harvest. The smith has our lord's sealed promise to pay the worth of these tools in barley, which he will sell on to the brewers - for a small profit, I expect."

"And what happens if the harvest fails?"

"It won't fail. It has not failed in living memory. Our gods have never abandoned us, and they won't this year, either."

We went on to another shop across the square. This seemed to be one of those shops where you can buy almost anything, and I looked around, surprised at some of the things that were on sale - not least the strips of rubber that Master Clerk actually bought (though again without any money changing hands).

"Where does this come from?" I asked. "I didn't think rubber trees could grow in this country."

"They don't," Master Clerk told me. "The Lords have a great trading network across many other lands, and this will have come from somewhere distant, no doubt. But such items as can be used by the common people to make our beasts more healthy or to improve the crops are made available to us, and we can use this material to make our irrigation channel more efficient.

"Now, I am going to visit the alehouse; you can go and explore the town a little. But you must be back when the midday bell sounds from the guildhall, or you will have to walk home."

So Oli and I scampered off to have a look round. I have to say that there was a bit of a smell of sewage in the air, though I supposed you got used to it if you lived here. And otherwise it was sort of interesting - there were roads big enough for carts, but many others that were more like alleys, and we followed a couple of these to see where they might go. Actually they led us into an area of dirty-looking houses with unglazed windows, and the smell was worse here, too, so I turned to go back - and heard a call for help.

I ran towards the voice, turning after a few metres into a narrow side-alley, and I saw a boy lying on the ground about halfway along it.

"Wait, Jake," said Oli. "It might not be safe."

"But he might be hurt. I think I should check to see if I can help."

I ran to the fallen boy's side, and Oli came with me looking nervous.

"Are you all right?" I asked, kneeling beside the boy.

"Yes, thanks, mate," he said, jumping to his feet and producing a knife. I turned to run back the way we had come and saw three other boys blocking the end of the alley and walking towards us, and when I looked the other way there were a couple more boys there, too. None of them looked older than me, but they were all wearing some sort of leggings, and some of them even had shoes - and all of them had weapons of some sort, clubs and sticks and even a small axe.

"Well, now," said the boy with the knife. "Looks like we've found ourselves a couple of little yokels to play with. Bring them in, boys, and then we can find out what they're hiding under their dresses."

We were hustled through a door and down a rickety staircase into a basement, lit by an unglazed but barred window high up in the wall (and so just above street level) and by a number of candles.

"Welcome to our home, yokels," said the boy with the knife. "Shall we start with the little one? Get his tunic off and we'll see what he has to offer."

Oli struggled a bit, but it only took the boys a few seconds to undo his belt and pull his tunic off, and then they held his arms so that he couldn't cover himself while the leader examined him.

"What a sweet little wee-wee!" commented the leader, looking at Oli's undeveloped little genitals and grinning. "Go on, Emile, see if you can make it stick up. And you two," he added to the boys holding me, "get his tunic off, too. I bet he's got a nice hole we can use for a while..."

I struggled as well, but it was pointless and soon I was naked.

"Hey, Alain, come and look at this," said one of my captors. "He's got hair. And - something's been done to his prick, too."

"Shit, look at that," said the boy with the knife, who I assumed was called Alain. "The skin's been cut off the end of it. What happened to it, country boy? Was it some sort of punishment?"

"I bet it was," said one of the others. "I bet he played with it all the time and wouldn't stop, and in the end they cut it so that he wouldn't enjoy doing it any more."

"Gods, that's a bad punishment," said Alain. "Is that right, country boy? Did you get punished for fiddling with it too much?"

"No, it was nothing like that. It's a religious thing - every family that follows our god has that done to its sons. It was done when I was only a week old, so obviously I don't remember it."

"Shit, that's a tough god," said Alain. "Having your prick damaged to keep your god happy? I think I'd be looking for another god. Still... in some ways I suppose it could be a good deal - like, you do this little sacrifice when you're a baby and that protects you from bigger sacrifices when you're older. No Quarter Day worries for you, huh? But does it still work like that - I mean, can you still fuck?"

"Well, yes - I mean, I suppose so. I've never... you know, done that. But it still works properly - I can still get sperm out, anyway."

"You've got sperm? Wow... but doesn't it hurt if you rub it? I know that my knob gets sore if you touch it under the skin."

"No, it's fine. I think the nerve endings in the tip become less sensitive after a bit. It doesn't hurt when I rub it, anyway."

"And you've really got sperm?"

I nodded.

"All right, prove it. If you can make some sperm come out we'll let you go."

Okay, I've said several times that I'm a bit of an exhibitionist sometimes, but playing with myself in front of six boys I didn't know was asking a bit much - and then there was Olivier, whom I did know and whom I liked, too: it would be embarrassing having to do that in front of a friend. But then, if the alternative was getting either gang-fucked or stabbed I thought that maybe the embarrassment would be bearable.

So I took hold of myself and started to squeeze. It took a little longer than usual, but in the end it got hard and I started to rub, but Alain made me stop after a few strokes so that he could look at it.

"It looks weird, doesn't it, boys?" he commented. "Interesting, but weird. Let's see what it feels like." And he took hold of me and squeezed gently.

I have to say that I wasn't as keen as I had been when Stefan did this to me. For a start, Alain had a bit to learn about personal hygiene: he whiffed a bit, and his hands were grubby, and his clothes hadn't been anywhere near soap and water for a very long time. But my penis had ideas of its own about being handled by another boy: it liked it. I could feel it twitching in his hand, and so could he. He rubbed it for a few seconds and that made it even harder.

"It feels different - sort of tighter," he reported. "Bring his mate over and then we can test the difference."

So Oli was pulled over to stand beside me, and then every member of the gang gave us both a little rub, and by the time the last one took hold of me I was on the brink of climax.

"I think his looks good," commented the last one, giving it an extra stroke or two. "I like the way it twitches, too... hey, look, his sperm's coming out!"

It was, too, and once again I managed a good couple of proper little spurts. The gang gathered round making noises of excitement and appreciation, and I was aware of Oli looking at me in the same way, too.

"Not bad," commented Alain. "None of us can do that yet... well, I get a bit wet, but I can't make it shoot out like that. How old are you?"

"I'm thirteen."

For some reason that drew a chorus of disbelief.

"You're never only thirteen," said Alain. "You have to be at least sixteen, looking like that - I mean, with the sperm and the hair, and all. And you're taller than most of us, and we're all older than you - except for Ulysse over there: he's only twelve."

Now it was my turn to be surprised: I'd have sworn that none of the gang was a day older than me, and that most of them were no more than ten or eleven.

"It's strange," I agreed. "Perhaps boys grow up faster in my country, or something - see, I come from somewhere a long way away. I'm just visiting this country, and I'll be going back soon."

In fact I could vaguely remember a history teacher telling us that the modern diet meant that children developed faster and grew taller than they had even as little as fifty years ago, and that we were now considerably taller than people had been in the more distant past. And it looked as if that might well be true.

"Really?" said Alain. "And... well, is it better in your country?"

"I suppose so. Some things here are really good, like the way everyone helps each other, and especially the way everyone made me feel welcome when I got here. But I like my place better."

"Well... when you go back... could I come with you?" asked Alain. "Only I'll be sixteen in a few weeks' time, and then I'll be liable for the corvée - and if they find out I've been thieving it won't just be for a few months, either. I've been thinking of running for a while, but I don't know what happens in other countries, and I didn't dare go in case things were worse and not better. But if you come from somewhere decent... And, after all, you do owe me, don't you? I've promised to let you go now we've seen your sperm, and I'll keep that promise, so instead of us all ramming you up the arse you can just go. That's got to be worth something, hasn't it?"

To be totally honest I've wondered for a while what it would feel like to be fucked - I mean, I do find the concept sort of exciting. But if it was going to happen to me I'd want it to happen somewhere quiet and comfortable with someone I really liked - such as Stefan, say - and not through being gang-raped in a smelly cellar by a group of dirty street kids. I saw no harm in taking Alain with us, anyway - after all, if he didn't like it he could always come back. So...

"Okay," I said. "I'm staying on the farm in Irtengarde, about three or four hours' walk north of here. You can't come back with us now - I'm sure Master Clerk wouldn't allow it. But if you can get there on your own you can come and ask for me, and I expect Master Farmer will let you work for a few days until we're ready to leave. Is that all right?"

"Yes, and thanks. I won't come for a few days, I shouldn't think, because I'll want to say goodbye to some people, but I will get there - so you'd better wait for me. All right, you can get dressed and go. I'm sure your mate will be able to keep us entertained on his own."

"Huh? Oh, no, that's not the deal at all," I said. "Oli's my friend - you can't expect me to just leave him with you. He's coming with me."

"Not until we've finished with him, he isn't."

"Then the deal's off."

"Then we'll have to fuck you, too."

I hesitated, but there was no way I could leave Oli here to be raped.

"All right, then," I said. "You can have both of us. But the deal's still off - and if you do come looking for me you'll be in big trouble."

The gang went into a huddle, and while they were whispering Oli said quietly that I should go. "I'll be fine," he said. "There's no reason for both of us to... well, you know."

"Sod that," I said. "You're my friend. There's no way I'm going to walk out on you. When I leave, you're coming with me."

"Look," said Alain, emerging from the huddle, "I really do want to get out of here... but you can't expect us just to let you go. So the deal is, you have to rub all of us until we get excited."

I looked at Oli. "Is that all right with you?" I asked.

"Well, it's a lot better than... you know, the other thing."

"All right, you're on," I agreed. "Who's first?"

They had apparently agreed on youngest first, as Ulysse and one of the other smaller kids threw off their tunics and underwear. Ulysse had to tell Oli how to do it, but I got straight into a rhythm with the other kid and soon had him wriggling about.

It didn't take that long: I got through three of them while Oli dealt with Ulysse and one other, and all of them seemed to enjoy it. It was still really hard to believe that all three of mine were thirteen or fourteen because none had any hair and all of them had smaller ones than mine: probably none of them was more than nine or ten centimetres long.

"What about you?" I asked Alain, once the others were all dressed once more.

"Well, see, I want a bit more," he said, stripping off to reveal a penis that might just have been marginally bigger than mine but which was still completely hairless. "I want to be sucked." And he pushed me to his knees and shoved his erection in my face.

"No chance," I said, standing up. "Sorry, Alain but that wasn't in the deal. Besides, you stink - if I put that in my mouth I'll puke all over you."

"Really?" he said, hopping over to the table and picking up his knife.

"Really. Look, there's no need for the knife, we've already got a deal. But... all right, I'll add something to the deal: if you come back to my country and get cleaned up I'll suck it for you."

"Yeah, except once it's just me on my own without the boys you'll tell me to fuck off."

"No, I won't: I keep my word. I swear I'll do it once you've had a bath. And, in any case, there's nothing to stop you bringing some of the boys along with you if you want."

He thought about that. "I think you lot would probably prefer to stay, wouldn't you?" he asked, and got a few nods of the head in response. "See, I'm the only one who's fifteen, so this lot won't have to worry about the corvée for ages yet. And leaving your home town isn't easy - I wouldn't be doing it myself if I was younger. But thanks for the offer, anyway - if any of the boys decide to come I'll bring them with me. And... all right, I'm going to trust you: you swear you'll suck me when we get to your country?"

"I swear it."

"Right. Then you can rub it for me instead."

"It's my turn," Oli butted in. "I've only done two - we should be fair about it."

"I don't mind," said Alain, moving over to where Oli was standing. "As long as you do a good job I don't care which of you does it."

So Oli came and stood close behind him, reached around and started to masturbate him, and from the expression on Alain's face he was doing a pretty good job, too. Within a minute the older boy cried out, jerking, and after he finished he turned to show us that the tip of his penis was indeed wet.

"See?" he said. "I have got some... anyway, that was good, country boy. Thank you."

"My name's Olivier," Oli told him. "And... well, I didn't mind doing it, to be honest."

Obviously not, I thought: Oli had an erection.

"And I'm Jake," I said, pulling my tunic back on. "So now you know who to ask for if you decide to come home with me."

"Right. Now you'd both better finish getting dressed before I change my mind and decide to fuck you anyway."

So we finished dressing and the gang stood aside and let us leave.

"Well, that was interesting," I said, as we headed back to the market square.

"Yes, it was. But it could have been very nasty... thank you, Jake. I'd have understood if you had gone when he told you to, because you're not from our country, after all. But I'm really glad you didn't."

"I told you, you're my friend, and I never abandon my friends."

And he went quiet after that, and he stayed quiet all the way back to the farm. And after supper that evening he asked me to go for a walk with him and so I went. He took me off towards the river until we came to a point that he said was right in the middle of the farm's land, and there he showed me a large chunk of shaped stone that looked a bit like one of the lintel-stones at Stonehenge.

"Do you really not have Quarter Days in your country?" he asked.

"No," I said. "I told you that."

"Then you don't know what this is?"

I shook my head.

"Well," he said, "they told us not to say anything to you about it, but... well, I like you - it's been fun working with you. And after you stuck up for me today...

"See, three of the Quarter Days are just boring, like I said, but the fourth one - the one that's coming up - is different, because it's the one where we ask the gods to bless us with a good harvest. And to honour the gods there has to be a sacrifice. So every summer a child is brought here and sacrificed on this stone..."

"Oh, my God," I breathed, because now I understood all the smiling faces at the first meal and the evasions of the other kids... and Master Farmer had gone out of his way to confirm that we were far from home and that nobody knew where we were. So this year the commune wouldn't have to kill one of its own children to appease the gods: this year they had two outsiders to choose from.

"So it's going to be either me or Stefan?" I asked.

"I don't know. But... well..."

"Right. But... well, I don't know much about this stuff, but I always thought it had to be a girl that got sacrificed? I mean, that's how it is in stories."

"Not here. In our commune it can be a boy or a girl, depending on the drawing of the lots. It was a girl last year, in fact, but as there are more boys in the commune this year we thought it would probably be a boy. The words of the ceremony just talk about the sacrifice of 'a pure child', and there's nothing about it having to be either a girl or a boy."

"And now it looks as if it will definitely be a boy, doesn't it?"

Oli shrugged. "Maybe not," he said. "Now I've told you you'll be able to leave, and once you've gone we'll be back where we were before you came: it could be any of us."

I stared at him. "Then why did you tell me?" I asked. "Before I found out about it you were safe; if Stefan and I go, you'll be in danger again. So why?"

He shrugged. "Like I said, I like you, especially after you protected me today. And it seems unfair to take someone who knows nothing of the custom. And if the gods agree with me, my name will not be the one the lot falls on this year."

"I hope you're right. Thanks, Oli. And now I'd better go and find Stefan."

I ran back to the dormitory and found Stefan getting ready for bed.

"Put your belt back on, Stefi," I said in English. "We're leaving."

I scampered up the ladder to the loft to collect our things... and found the loft empty: our sacks had gone. And before I reached the foot of the ladder again the door opened and Master Clerk came in, and he had two of the adult labourers with him.

"Jake, Stefan," he said, "would you please come with me? Master Farmer wants to see you."