Richard and Elizabeth didn’t have to go far up the town’s central street before finding an inn with a couple of rooms available.
“You’re lucky we have these,” the innkeeper said as they passed over a handful of chads and wicks.
“Oh, why?” Richard asked.
The innkeeper gave him a jovial look. “Haven’t been far up Main Street have you?” The silvery coins disappeared behind the counter.
Richard shook his head.
“It’s all metal houses up there. Not a plank of wood to be seen.”
Elizabeth gave him a confused look. “Why is that a problem?”
“Would you want to sleep in a building that some up-to-no-good elemental could puddle his way straight into?”
Elizabeth froze, ponytail slipping off her shoulder and down the small of her back.
The innkeeper smiled grimly. “Quite.”
By the time they’d dumped their backpacks and made their way back outside, the sun had almost set. By the time they’d got back to the market, people were starting to close up their stalls, packing away their wares, or, in the case of the more permanent stalls, locking firm looking wooden doors.
“Split up?” Elizabeth asked. “I’ll go find food?”
Richard nodded. “Sounds good.” And he set off in the direction that the rotund Mister Offwood plied his wares.
“So, you’re Mister Richard Struggle.” Mister Offwood looked Richard up and down from where he’d been overseeing the packing up of his stall.
In the middle of the stall, Richard identified the knife-wielding woman he’d seen from before. She’d changed out of her long-sleeved shirt and now wore a simple blouse and blue jeans. She was doing the actual packing up and looked exhausted — quite a contrast to the bright-faced and cheery Mister Offwood.
“Yep, that’s me,” Richard said. “I understand you can sell me trade wood.”
Mister Offwood gave a half nod. “Normally, yeah. Got a bit of a shortage at the moment, though, what with the building boom going on, but we’ll have another shipment in soon.”
Richard’s heart sank. “How long?”
“Should be here by next Friday.”
Richard groaned. “Doesn’t this island have any tree thumbs?”
Mister Offwood stroked his chin. “Got a few, yeah, but everyone’s using all the land we have for food — so many people coming through, see? — and the council fenced off the whole other side of the island — to preserve the local wildlife, they said.”
Richard cursed under his breath.
Mister Offwood clicked his fingers. “But don’t you worry about that. Got a proposal for you, I have.”
“Yeah. Why don’t you stay here and work with me? I’ve heard about your miniature trunks.” He looked at the trunk by Richard’s side with undisguised interest. “People would pay large amounts to get one when they come through. You do the making and I do the selling. I could pay you a stipend to get you settled in, say twenty chad a day, and then a half share of the profit.”
Richard shook his head. “Sorry, I already have my ticket out of here.”
“Ah, don’t let that stop you.” Mister Offwood leaned forward. His smile widened. “Tell you what, I’ll even buy your ticket back from you. You want to take this opportunity, trust me — you won’t find another like it too soon.”
Richard leaned back slightly. “Um, no thank you.” It didn’t sound half bad, but he certainly wasn’t dropping his plans to explore Creakylid just like that.
Mister Offwood looked slightly disappointed. “Okay, but I’m here if you ever change your mind. I deal all the wood on this island and you won’t find any anywhere else.”
Richard shook his head again, thanked him for the offer again, bid his goodbyes, and walked off, wondering just what he was going to do now that he couldn’t even build his trunk. He spotted Elizabeth waving him down from one of the few stalls still open, pointing to two large pewter bowls of piping hot stew.
He told her about Mister Offwood and his offer over dinner at one of the many aluminium benches just outside the stew stall.
Elizabeth frowned. “Richard, I’ve just been around checking the prices for food here. That stipend would barely have kept you fed, let alone clothed and sheltered.”
Richard paused with a wooden spoon of stew half-way to his mouth. “There was still the percentage of profit.”
Elizabeth put her head in her hands. “Yes, the profit, Richard, the profit.”
“So, who sells you the wood you’d use to make the trunks?”
Richard swallowed the spoonful of stew and looked uneasily down at the bowl. “Mister Offwood…”
“So who controls the cost of production?”
Richard suddenly felt ill. “Mister Offwood.”
“And who controls the selling and, therefore, the pricing?”
“And therefore, the profit?”
Richard slammed down his spoon, looked off to the side, and scowled. “I can’t believe I didn’t spot that!”
Elizabeth nodded grimly.
The two continued to eat for a little while more and talked of other things. Richard put the business with Mister Offwood out of his mind. The sky’s oranges and reds gradually faded to dark blues and blacks and a million stars twinkled down on them.
All around them, people ate, chatted, and laughed. They clapped and cheered an older man when he threw a set of metal spheres into the air and started juggling with elemental magic, expertly moving the spheres around his head without letting them touch his hands. “Now that’s good control!” one man shouted when the elemental finished with a flourish.
At the table next to them, an older woman was deep in conversation with a younger couple. “I mean, you two make such a cute pair, but time is moving on,” the older woman said to the young man who sat beetroot-red embarrassed next to his amused girlfriend. “Don’t you think it’s time you two found a nice girl and settled down?”
Richard shot Elizabeth a silent smirk, which she returned with interest.
Suddenly a figure loomed over the two of them and a loud, happy, and extremely familiar voice said, “Well, look who it is!”
Richard looked up in surprise at a dark-skinned figure with a jaw-droppingly pretty girl hanging off its arm. It was Thomas.
The tavern looked like a tavern, all wood beams and thatched roof. The only difference was that every roof and floor beam looked like it had only been hammered into place yesterday. It hadn’t had time yet to accumulate that drunk-in tavern feel that comes only after a hundred thousand drinks have been downed and, occasionally, upped.
Richard suspiciously inspected the liquid in the metal tankard in front of him.
“Drink up, mate. It won’t kill you.” Thomas took a drink from his own tankard.
Elizabeth and Thomas’s new girlfriend, Cynthia, had disappeared off somewhere on some private errand of their own.
Richard took a sip. It tasted sweet and thick and strong enough to knock out a horse. He coughed. “W-what is it?”
Richard raised an eyebrow. “Never heard of it.”
“It’s new. They make it from a native berry a bunch of thumbs found on the mainland.” Thomas leaned back and took another swig. “So, any news from back at the orphanage?”
Richard shook his head. He glanced sideways and noticed a startlingly familiar man loudly drinking with an equally loud group at a table on the other side of the tavern. Empty tankards filled the table they sat at. It was the baseball cap wearing man he’d thrown a coin to down at the docks who was supposed to be saving up to leave.
The man spotted him and gave him a drunk thumbs up.
Richard shook his head in mild disgust and turned back to Thomas. “Not really,” he said. “The girls miss you. Alan’s promised to look after them.” He pushed the drunk man out of his thoughts and gave Thomas a sly look. “What about you? Cynthia seems nice.”
“Aye, she is.” Thomas kept his face straight, but Richard could recognise the signs. His best friend was bursting to tell him something.
Richard grinned. “Go on, out with it.”
“I got a prophecy!”
Richard stared in shock. “What! Already?”
“Yeah! I was working on one of the new inns way up Main Street and one of the iron beams snapped from the rope that was lifting it up. Cynthia happened to be standing underneath. It would have killed her, but I just acted on instinct, you know? Used my elemental magic to push the beam away just in time.”
Richard whistled. “Good thing it was iron.”
Thomas took another drink. “I’ll say.” He waved the tankard vaguely. “Well, it was steel really, but you know it doesn’t matter.”
Richard nodded. “So, what happened then?”
“Well, Cynthia had fallen backwards on the ground and was just staring at the beam — I think she was in shock — and then this male voice filled the entire street — the most determined, awe-inspiring voice I’ve ever heard.”
Determined and awe-inspiring. Richard licked his lips. “Chadwick Driven?”
Thomas nodded, grinning all the while.
“Well?” Richard leaned forward on his chair. “Go on! Stop dragging it out.”
Thomas cleared his throat.
“Three times round the hero goes,
Three times treasure the hero earns,
Iron bends and melts and makes,
And all the time does evil quake,
For if the chosen one should fail,
The Iron Lord his place must take.”
“So there is a chosen one,” Richard whispered. He then looked at his friend, nonplussed. “The Iron Lord?”
Thomas’ grin threatened to break free of his face. “The – Iron – Lord.”
“Why the hell do you get such an awesome title?” Richard mock pouted. “I want one.”
“Go get your own.”
Richard chuckled. “Sure.” He then turned serious. “Sounds like you’re going to have to do something quite important though. Whatever the chosen one’s task is, it sounds like you’re the backup.”
“Any idea what the task is?” Richard asked.
Thomas shrugged. “In stories it’s always about saving the world or something, isn’t it?”
“Yeah…” Richard stared off at the wall. “What could the world need saving from though? We’ve already run away from one world. We’ve only just got here.”
Thomas shrugged again.
Richard smirked and held his tankard up. “Well, anyway, here’s to your prophecy, ‘my lord’ — to justice and making evil quake and everything that goes with it.”
Thomas grinned and clunked his tankard against Richard’s. “And here’s to yours. I’ve no doubt you’ll have one of your own soon enough. Cheers.”
“Cheers.” Richard gave Thomas a wry smile. “I have to get off this damn island first, though. How come you’re still here, anyway?”
Thomas shrugged. “Should have listened to you and prepared more. Didn’t have quite enough money to buy a ticket off.”
“Ah.” Richard took another sip.
“But I do now!” Thomas reached into his pocket and drew out a ticket. “Plenty of jobs around for a good strong pair of arms, or the right kind of elemental. You should check out the hero jobs board yourself. It’s actually a good thing you and that pretty girl of yours ran into us when you did. We’re off at first light tomorrow.”
Richard smiled at Thomas’ categorisation of Elizabeth as ‘his,’ but didn’t bother to correct him. He certainly wouldn’t mind if it were true.
Richard woke up the next morning to find a note laying outside his room.
Mister Richard Struggle,
You have post waiting for you at The Second Island Post Office,
Please come and collect as soon as you are able,
– Stan Robins, The Second Island Post Master
Richard idly flipped the note over looking for additional clues, but there were none. After a quick breakfast, which did include eggs, Richard and Elizabeth waved goodbye to Thomas and Cynthia and made their way up main street. They walked past several new sheet-metal buildings, which looked like they’d been put up in a rush, and which Elizabeth declared to be, ‘the ugliest things she’d ever seen.’ “They don’t even have windows.”
Richard shrugged. Glass wasn’t a thing he’d seen even once yet in Creakylid. The windows of their own rooms had been covered with wooden window shutters, but he supposed it was true that a building without windows of any kind at all did look unappealing. These buildings had a shanty town kind of feel that he found hard to appreciate.
Moments later, he and Elizabeth reached a pair of actual wood buildings, one on each side of the street. On one side, the post office, and on the other, the sheriff’s.
They wandered over to the sheriff’s office, which looked like a mage tower that had received its exams back with a ‘must try harder’ comment scribbled at the top. Only the bottom two floors were wood. The top floor, which looked like it had been added on later, was sheet metal. On the ground floor wall hung a large cork board, covered in job ads. It hung under a sign that read, ‘HERO JOBS BOARD.’ An older woman was busy tacking another ad to the board.
Richard read one of them.
Wanted — Strong young men for heavy labour. Food and board, plus five chad a day. Earn your passage in just one month! Ask for Toby — 15 Main Street.
The other ads were all similar. Richard frowned. “I know Thomas did manual labour to earn his passage, but I was expecting they’d be something more… interesting. It is called a hero board after all.”
“Well, what did you expect?” asked the old woman who’d just finished pinning up her ad. “We’ve had hundreds of young people come through here thinking they’re going to be prophesied heroes — not a useful skill among them. This is the real world, you hear? You think there’ll be a dragon kidnapped maiden for every one of you?”
Richard smirked. “My best friend received a prophecy just a few days ago.”
“Good on your friend, then. But until you get one too there’s plenty of real work that needs to be done.” The woman walked off.
Elizabeth crossed one arm and tapped her chin. “She might have a point.”
“Oh, she does not.” Richard patted his miniature trunk. “Nothing against heavy work, of course — good honest way to make a living — did it myself for the last three years, but I don’t need the money just now. You know that. If the worse comes to the worst, I will just hole myself up somewhere and read for the next week.” He slumped. “Having no wood to work with sucks.”
Elizabeth nodded slowly. “Maybe your mystery post will have something for you to do?”
The two of them made the short journey across the street to the building signed with a letter-holding dolphin, entered, and walked up to the lone counter.
“I’m here to pick up some post,” Richard said to the woman behind the counter, placing the note he’d received on the desk.
She picked up the note. “Richard Struggle?”
The woman turned and shouted to someone apparently hidden around the back. “Oi! Charles! The guy is here!”
There was the sound of clattering round the back and an interested face popped around the corner. “You Richard Struggle?” the face, which presumably belonged to Charles, asked.
The face lit up and the body it was attached to ambled around the corner holding a thick stack of envelopes.
Richard goggled at the sheer number. “Those can’t all be for me?”
Charles nodded quickly. “Man, they sure are. Carried most of them myself.”
“You’re a dolphin whisperer?” Elizabeth asked.
“Sure am, beautiful.”
Elizabeth pinned Charles with an icy glare.
The man looked away hastily.
“But,” Richard looked down at the letters again. “Who’d be writing to me?”
Charles turned back to him and grinned. “Fans, of course.”
“Sure — you know — of your memory diary.”
Elizabeth shot him a curious look.
Richard looked at Charles nonplused. “But I only stored one memory.”
“Yeah, but man it was a good one, wasn’t it? Wouldn’t mind one of those trunks myself. And there’s this big-shot memory diarist over westwards. He did a review of it in his own memory diary. That’s how I found it. You’re crystal ball famous, man.”
Crystal ball famous. Richard slowly took the pile from Charles, ripped open the first letter and read.
Best hero prep memory I’ve ever seen! I feel our new civilisation has a much better chance with people like you ready to fight the good fight. Thank you.
– Mary Trilly Goodwill
(PS. How much do you sell those trunks for?)
“Well,” Charles said, backing up a step, glancing cautiously towards Elizabeth, and giving Richard a short wave, “pleasure to meet you, Mister Struggle. If you ever need anything be sure to look me up, yes?”
Richard’s head shot up.
“I’ll be here for another couple days before—”
“—Could you take me to the next island heading East?” Richard cut in.
Charles paused in mid-offer. “Err…” he suddenly looked apologetic. “Sorry, man, I’d really like to, but the rules say I can’t carry people on routes that the boats take, or while I’m carrying post, or all kinds of other times.”
“Man, I’m really sorry.”
Richard shrugged it off. “Don’t worry about it.”
Charles nodded. “See ya ‘round. Got to be off delivering more notes now.”
Richard nodded and together he and Elizabeth sat down in one of the many seats in the post office.
“I can’t believe so many people wrote to you,” Elizabeth said.
“I can’t believe so many people watched that memory,” Richard countered. He ripped open another letter and read.
Dear Mister Richard Struggle,
I came across your hero prep after watching a review of it on Nathan Rodhall’s Big Fat Hero memory diary. I was just wondering if you have any advice for someone thinking of doing the whole hero adventuring thing? I have some skill as a hops thumb, but I know that’s not necessarily the best magic for someone wanting to be a hero. I also have…
Richard blinked. Someone wanted his advice?
Richard looked up from the paper.
Elizabeth looked like she was debating whether to ask something or not. Eventually, she did. “Your name is just Richard Struggle, right? No middle name?”
Richard looked at her in confusion for a moment before amused understanding dawned. “Would you like to use my crystal ball?” he asked, fighting every instinct in his body not to tease the hell out of her.
Clearly something in his mental state had shown on his face though, because Elizabeth looked away before primly saying, “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble.”
Richard reached into his side-trunk, found the crystal ball, handed it to her, and, while she put her hand onto it and made herself comfortable, he continued to read.
Some time later, Elizabeth ‘woke up’. “Wow,” she said. “I know you said you were prepared, but that was something else.” The way she looked at him had changed again. Less feigned disinterest, slightly more respect.
Richard smiled sheepishly. It was hard to say it was nothing when you had an opened pile of letters in front of you saying it wasn’t.
“Well, now what?” Elizabeth asked.
Richard carefully put the open letters into his side-trunk. “Go get an early lunch?”
Elizabeth thought for a second. “Brunch?” she asked.
“Brunch,” Richard agreed.
They got two steps out of the post office when a sudden commotion from the sheriff’s office across the street caused them to pause.
The same woman Richard had seen working with Mister Offwood — she of the sharp knife and exhausted look — stumbled out of the tower door as though firmly pushed. “Bastards!” she shouted at the closed door. “Coincidence save us from you!” She then wadded up a sheet of paper that looked identical to the many job ads from the hero board and chucked it at the door. She then turned around and stormed off in the direction of the market.
“I wonder what that was about,” Richard said.
Elizabeth shrugged. “No idea. Brunch?”
But Richard had already started walking over to where the wadded up paper ball lay next to the shut door. He snatched it up and un-scrunched it. He then walked back to Elizabeth who was waiting with her hands on her hips, and read.
Discrete Hero needed.
Reward payable on completion of task.
– Julie Cooper (45 Main Street – Room 204 – After market)
Richard smiled a grim smile and handed the note to Elizabeth. “That sounds like a real cry for help.”
Elizabeth read the note cautiously. “You don’t think this has anything to do with Mister Offwood, do you?”
“And you’re going to insist on finding out, aren’t you?”
They found the woman, presumably Julie Cooper, bent over a bowl of stew and sitting at one of the metal benches outside where they’d eaten the previous evening. Richard sat down opposite the woman while Elizabeth went to get two more bowls. “Julie Cooper? The woodcarver who works with Mister Offwood?” he asked.
The woman looked up. Her face spoke of a tale of toil and frustration bordering on hopelessness. “You’re the trunk maker from before,” she said.
Richard laid the wanted ad down in front of her. “I am.”
Caution flashed in her eyes as they travelled between the paper and his face.
“I’m also working towards my first prophecy,” he said.
She snorted and gave him a tired gaze. “You should just get out as quickly as you can. You’re not like those skill-less kids who call themselves heroes. You’re in danger more than most.”
Elizabeth returned with two bowls of stew for each of them.
Richard frowned. “What from?”
Julie leaned forward. “From them,” the woodcarver said.
“Who is them?” Richard asked as Elizabeth sat down.
Julie’s voice dropped so low Richard and Elizabeth had to lean forward themselves to hear.
“The island is run by this group of people who all know each other and who got hold of all the rights the council gave out for the land.”
“What, like a cartel?” Elizabeth asked.
“Yeah,”—Julie nodded—“One of them. Anyway, everyone knows that once the great migration is over this place is going to become a ghost town, so they’re doing everything in their power to squeeze everything they can out of the people travelling through while they can.”
“That explains the high food prices,” Elizabeth whispered.
Richard stayed silent and listened.
“Yeah, but it’s not all they do. A few of them like to watch out for people with useful skills, trap them on the island, and force them to make stuff for them at a pittance.”
Elizabeth’s eyes widened “How do they do that?”
Richard growled as something clicked into place. “They control the tickets off the island. That’s why that fuck at the docks uses a lottery instead of a waiting list. So he can rig it.”
Julie nodded. “Probably yeah, although no one can prove it. They also look for people with lots of money and then keep them here to drain them of as much of that money as they can in hiked up food prices and the like.”
Another bulb went off inside Richard’s head. That had to be why they delayed his departure date until next week. Word must have gotten to them when he sold the cigarettes. “Is that what happened to you?” he asked.
Julie shook her head. “No. I stupidly took the same deal Mister Offwood offered you yesterday. He makes it so I have just enough money to eat, but not enough to save up for a ticket off the island. And the lottery hasn’t given me a ticket in all the time I’ve been here.”
“How long have you been here?”
Julie’s expression darkened even further. “Eight months.”
Richard’s mind blanked. Eight months. This woman had been trapped here for eight whole months.
“And I’m far from the only one. I know a couple dozen others in the same situation as me, all working for Mister Offwood or one of his friends.”
A couple dozen. Richard frowned. “Couldn’t you find a wood supply of your own and break Mister Offwood’s monopoly? Then you could control your own business.”
Julie shook her head. “We’ve tried. The sea traders deal exclusively through the dock, which is controlled by the cartel. You can’t get a spot in the market without the cartel’s approval, and people from Earth never bring any raw wood with them.”
“Couldn’t you grow some yourself? Find a willing tree thumb and—”
But Julie continued to shake her head. “No. I’m an oak thumb myself. All the land is controlled by the cartel. All of it. You try to grow anything on it without permission and they’ll just take it. Have you noticed that there isn’t a single tree on this side of the island?”
Richard and Elizabeth nodded.
“Yeah, that’s why,” Julie finished.
“And you can’t go to the other side of the island for wood…” Elizabeth continued.
Julie snorted again. “Not unless you want a four-pronged spear through you. Every so often some bright spark gets the idea to travel into the council preserve. They’re always found.”
Richard was deep in thought. “If someone could get you the wood, could you build a boat?”
Julie blinked. “Myself? No. I’m a woodcarver not a boat builder. All of us who are trapped here together, maybe…” She slowly shook her head. “But you’d have to use the dockyard to build something that big, and the cartel controls that.”
“And the sheriff won’t help? I saw you being thrown out of there just a little while ago.”
Julie shook her head again. “He’s in deep with them,” she said. “Corrupt fuck,” she muttered, not quite under her breath.
Suddenly a large round figure loomed over them and a cheerful voice said, “Lunch time’s over, Julie. C’mon, chop, chop.”
A flash of fear pierced through Julie’s haggard expression. She dropped her spoon in the now empty pewter bowl with a clink, and hastily got to her feet.
Richard couldn’t help shoot Mister Offwood a glare.
“Oh, hello Richard,” Mister Offwood said. “You thought any more about my offer?”
Richard looked towards Julie who was shooting him a tired, pleading look that clearly indicated she didn’t want trouble. He turned back to Mister Offwood and, as politely as he could, said, “No, not yet, I’m fairly sure I know what I’m going to do, but thank you anyway.”
Mister Offwood chuckled and slapped him on the back. “Well, the offer is still open whenever you want.”
Mister Offwood and Julie walked away.
Richard watched them go and shivered. “That could have been me.”
Elizabeth nodded slowly.
Later that afternoon, Richard sat atop a large rock overlooking the town. He’d gone walking up Main Street, just to see how far it would take him, and the answer was, all the way up to the mountain quarry. All around him, elementals of all kinds went about their business, pulling their own special element straight out of the mountain rock, liquifying and pouring it into moulds, and then solidifying it into beams or blocks for transport down to the town.
A small cart full of some unidentified silvery type metal trundled past him on a miniature gravity assisted railway. A railway, unsurprisingly, made out of wood.
He picked up a nearby pebble and chucked it down the mountainside, watching it tumble and skid until it came to a halt at the edge of a field of wheat — a field of wheat in which a number of wheat thumbs were busy encouraging the crop to golden and ripen in the hot tropical sun. It looked like a race to get the harvest in before it started rotting — just like the race to strip every traveller of every coin they had before they left the island and probably never returned.
Richard started. He looked up and saw Elizabeth had followed him. “Yeah,” he said.
“What are you thinking?” she asked.
“I think it’s bullshit!”
Elizabeth hesitated for a moment before sitting down on one of the other rocks near his own.
Richard continued. “It’s just so frustrating that people would do something like that. This isn’t the system making people do bad things, this is just pure greed.”
A stray strand of hair from Elizabeth’s sensible pony-tail fell over her face. She drew it behind her ear. “You do seem to be the trusting sort, so I can understand why you’d be frustrated by it — but at least they can only be trapped here for another two years at most.”
“Yeah.” Richard sighed. “I guess that’s true. As much as it sucks, it’s not as though their lives are in danger or anything like that. I suppose they can live with it.” He chose to ignore her insinuation that he was too trusting.
Silence settled on the two of them.
Somewhere nearby a seabird cried out.
“By the way,” Elizabeth said, “what was in that book that started glowing on the way here?”
Richard’s eyebrows rose. “Oh, that. That was a message from my thought to be dead mum saying I should travel north.”
Elizabeth looked at him blankly. “Why?”
“Don’t know. She didn’t say. Just said there were ‘interesting things’ going on up there.”
“Are you going to go?”
Richard shook his head. “I’m grateful to her for reaching out to me when she did and giving me my blood bound spell.” He patted the trunk by his side. “But I’ve got things to do in the East.”
Elizabeth nodded slowly. “It’s probably just as well. I’ve heard there’s nothing up north except rocks and wrecks anyway.”
Richard stilled. For the longest time he didn’t move or say anything.
Still Richard didn’t move.
“Richard? Are you okay?”
Richard turned to Elizabeth. “Say that again.”
“Umm, ‘Richard, are you okay.’”
“No, not that bit — the bit from before.”
Elizabeth hesitated before repeating, “I’ve heard there’s nothing up north except rocks and wrecks anyway?”
Richard Struggle grinned.