To say Marit was delighted with their haul was an understatement. When they arrived back later that night, she couldn’t stop laughing and exclaiming over the food in its numerous shiny packages. They unpacked everything and had another impromptu feast then and there, just the four of them and Marit. It was partly in celebration of the fact that they’d done it again. They’d ventured into the mysterious Underrun a second time and not only survived, but they had also managed to bring back a payload of food that would keep the Crib supplied for a good while longer.

As attractive as the bright food packaging was, Marit wasted no time in removing the food from it, storing the various grains and staples in her large supply of earthenware jars. It would never do for the monitors to make another surprise visit and find the telltale shiny packets with their obvious hint at the Crib’s outside supply line. Tip and the others later hid the shiny shopping bags in the Underrun’s cave, where they would be unlikely to be discovered and might be useful for future runs.

It wasn’t until a few days after their city run that the actual rations from Grevick settlement arrived at the Crib. Aside from being only half of what was necessary to feed the number of mouths in the orphanage, the food was in terrible condition. The grains were damp and weevil-ridden. What few vegetables they recived would have been better thrown on a compost heap for all the nutrition they could offer.

“You should complain to the monitors,” Kerrick told Marit. “They can’t be allowed to send such poor pickings to feed the settlement’s orphaned children. It’s not right.”

“Ahh what’s the point,” the old lady said, plumping the cushions in her rocking chair and hunching back over her knitting. “Not like we’re going to starve, thanks to you four.”

“But won’t they think it odd if you don’t complain when they’ve sent such insultingly terrible rations?” Val asked. “I mean, that food was so laughably poor it’s like they’re trying to get a response out of us.”

“Exactly,” said Marit. “And we’re not going to give them one.”

“You think it’s a test?” asked Kerrick.

Marit nodded. “If you ask me, they’re aiming to see whether we’re suitably cowed after their little visits. If we don’t say anything about the food, they’ll assume that I’ve decided to lie low and keep the peace after they threatened to take Tip and Valerian away.”

“That’s not fair!” Tip exclaimed. “They can’t be allowed to starve innocent children for the sake of intimidating you.”

“Oh, they’re willing to do far worse than that,” Marit said. “And they’re fairly sure we’re not starving. They know that Kerrick here hunts, for example.”

Kerrick shook his head. “Anyone can tell you there’s nothing edible left in the forest these days. Between me and the other miners who hunt we’ve picked it clean.”

“Perhaps. But they probably have no objection to us being exhausted and listless from malnutrition. Keeps us malleable.”

“That’s utterly evil and we need to do something about it!” Tip slammed a furious fist into her hand.

Marit put down her knitting. “Tip, dear. You have a loyal spirit. It’s one of your greatest strengths. But,” she held up a finger, “do not make the mistake of allowing it to run you blindly into foolish action. If Damovar is really at war like the Supervisor said, then the monitors have a perfect excuse to withhold food from anyone they do not like.” She shook her head. “I could have done a better job at sucking up to those slimy turds in the monitors’ office but I didn’t. Now we’re paying the price for my lack of political shrewdness.”

“Your lack of slimy corruption more like,” Kerrick snorted. “I’ve seen the cronies who are in the monitors’ good graces and I wouldn’t want to live with them.”

Marit turned back to Tip. “Think about it. If the monitors are the highest power in Grevick, is it wise to complain to them about something they themselves have authorised? Will they enjoy us holding up a mirror to their bad behaviour? Of course not. But who else may we complain to? No-one. There is no recourse in Grevick. We are forced to live with their decisions. The Supervisor’s word is as good as law here. If we can survive in other ways, the wisest course is not to antagonise the monitors unnecessarily.”

“Don’t rock the boat, Tip,” Kerrick said with a wink.

“Can’t we go to the king and complain to him about the monitors?” Sol asked.

“It’s too far,” Tip said gloomily. She’d always been more interested in learning mathematics from the old miner who schooled the settlement’s children rather than geography. But even she had grasped the general shape of Damovar. The country was shaped like a fish with the capital city of Damal where the eye would be and a long, spiny tail made up of mountain ranges. Grevick was located almost at the end of that tail. Casual travel between it and the capital city of Damal was all but impossible.


The conversation with Marit did its job of quelling Tip’s desire to make waves, but it also awakened a burning curiosity in her to find out more about the war that the Supervisor had claimed was being fought. As soon as it got dark that evening, she pulled on her boots and slipped out of the Crib to go sneaking around the snowy settlement.

To Tip’s experienced eye, there was a definite buzz of excitement to be felt in Grevick’s icy streets. Everyone looked thin and worried, but that was the normal state of things in winter. What was remarkable was that the foundry was still in operation. It usually shut down for the night as soon as dusk arrived. But here they were in full dark and the high windows were still aflame with the glow of molten metal. The stink of the smelting furnaces was still belting out into the air. Tip was 84% sure the smoke was thicker than usual. If there really was a war she supposed there would be a higher demand for the weapons and armour that the foundry produced. They could at least pay us back by sending more supplies for the settlement, she thought sourly. It didn’t make sense to go to war with a foreign country if you weren’t looking after your own people at home.

Since she was still claiming to be only fifteen, she wasn’t allowed to sit in the tavern and listen to gossip and she didn’t learn much from hanging around outside. Even the settlement’s drunks appeared to have caught the excitement and hurried out from the tavern with quick purpose in their steps.

Tip returned home with a slower gait. The lump at the end of her spine had grown even bigger and was rubbing against her clothing, which impeded her stride. She still couldn’t explain to herself why she hadn’t told anyone about it, but she continued to suffer in silence, worrying about it to herself when she was alone and attempting to ignore it the rest of the time. It felt like something too intensely personal to share, and she certainly wasn’t going anywhere near the settlement’s official doctor, a weasely old man who was firmly in the monitors’ back pockets.


The food stores from their city trip were still going strong when Kerrick suggested they make the next run. He reasoned that it would be a good idea to go before the orphanage was desperate for the next food delivery. That way if they ended up in a world without an obvious food source, they’d have the opportunity to try again. They wouldn’t be forced into dangerous situations for the sake of not going home empty-handed.

Tip, Val and Sol were on board with the idea, and so they waited until the other orphans (who had been clamouring with increasing insistency to come along on a run) were asleep before setting out one night.

The journey in the boats proceeded much as the previous ones had done. After pushing off, they sailed the tunnels for an indeterminate amount of time before the boats selected the side fork they would be traversing and turned into it. It was beginning to feel almost like a routine, Tip thought as they entered the purple lights for the third time. For her part, she was happy to be in a routine that included travelling a secret waterway and ending up in magical worlds!

This time, the cave they finally arrived in was huge and extended far into the distance. They couldn’t sail across it though, because the water ended after just a few metres at a flagstoned dock with well-maintained wooden mooring posts. Beyond that were racks upon racks of barrels and more barrels. It looked like the cellar of a prosperous tavern.

And indeed it was! When they had crept through the maze of racks to find a staircase on the other side of the cave, they emerged, to their surprise, into a busy taproom. Having expected a trapdoor, the four of them stood gazing in bewilderment at the hubbub and commotion.

“What’re you four doing behind the counter,” an irritated voice exclaimed. “Come on, out, the lot of you!” Before they knew what was happening, a harassed barmaid had herded them out into the taproom itself. Another barmaid swept by with a huge tray on which were balanced numerous empty tankards and glasses. The room was busy, noisy and humid with the scents of tightly-packed people who had worked a hard day and then come to socialise in a tavern without bothering to wash first.

“Let’s get out of here,” Kerrick suggested. The rest of them nodded, and he led the way towards the tavern’s door. It was easy to spot as even in the short time they had been standing there it had already opened several times to admit new patrons.

Once outside, they found it was evening time and the tavern was called The Roasted Hog. As the size of the tavern and its patronage had suggested, they were in a city of at least moderate size. However, unlike the previous city they had visited, the unevenly cobbled streets, haphazard buildings and gas-lit streetlamps were a familiar sight. Big snowflakes drifted out of the sky and sprinkled themselves over the dirty streets, as if attempting to hide the grime of the gutters. The temperature felt slightly warmer than that they’d left behind in Grevick, but it was galling to encounter snow when the other two worlds they’d visited had been warmer.

“Bother,” said Val. “I was hoping for sun.”

“Seems like it’s late,” said Kerrick. “This place seems a lot more like our world so we can safely guess that markets and such will be closed. Any ideas?”

“Maybe we should just go back?” suggested Val. “We haven’t any money for a market anyw-” she broke off when she saw what Tip was holding. “Oh not again, Tip!”


About the author


Bio: I write fantasy and humorous tales with a twist of magic. I'm currently working on a full-length manuscript but somehow I'm never satisfied with a single project so my smaller works get posted here. If you like what you read, the completed stories are also available to download as ebooks from my website:

I'd love to hear what you think of my stories so feel free to leave comments. I'm also happy to trade feedback as long as you write in a similar genre.

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