The Grand Gate

Alain walked behind the cart, his steps slow and measured. Occasionally, the cart hit one of the many potholes in the road, sending dirty, rancid water splashing everywhere, but he anticipated these drops and moved just far enough aside to avoid the worst of the spray.

He’d walked this spot, behind his father’s cart, for two days now. This would be his first trip to the City, the first time that his father deemed him old enough to go along on the twice-yearly pilgrimage to sell their wares, to bring back the battered and scratched silver coins that would pay for the repairs to their little farm.

In Alain’s mind, the City was this mystical place, a wonderland where everything existed, and his father somehow know how to submit their humble wares to trade for the objects they needed. His father, a stout and doughy man named Cuthbert, Cuth to the others in his village, only returned with what was necessary – but one time, Mat’s dad, Singer, brought back a strange small box of crystal that produced wondrous tunes when a small crank in its side was turned. That tiny box filled Alain’s head with all sorts of ideas about what other incredible devices and sorcery might exist in the City.

He’d discussed this with his friends, of course, back in the fields of Miller’s Field. He tried his best to describe the unfamiliar and foreign ideas dancing and sparkling in his mind.

“There’s no magic there,” Mat said dismissively, shaking his head. “I looked at the insides once, while Da wasn’t around. Just clockwork, and a metal cylinder that has all sorts a’ bumps on it.”

“Doesn’t mean there isn’t magic,” Alain insisted stubbornly. “There might be all sorts of other things out there. Doesn’t Hestern say that once, men used to fly through the sky and drive carts that moved on their own, without horses?”

“Hest will say anything, if he thinks it’ll get him a drop of ale or brandy,” Mat answered. “He’d tell you the sky is green if you gave him a drink.”

“Sometimes it is,” Quentin said quietly.

The other two glanced over at him. “Late in the afternoon, if you look out across the horizon,” he explained, once he felt their eyes on him. “Only happens once in a while, but it turns green. Just for a minute, then it fades. But it’s true.”

Alain and Mat didn’t argue. If Quentin said something, it was true, they both knew.

Now, as he walked behind Cuth’s cart, Alain finally raised his eyes up from the road, from the potholes ahead he’d already mentally marked – and stopped dead, his mouth dropping open.

The City. It loomed in front of him, bigger than any building he’d ever seen, stone walls stretching up towards the sky. A gigantic bridge of stone crossed the river that ran between them and the City, with great statues of larger-than-life men lining its sides.

Cuth, up ahead as he walked alongside their horse, Draft, glanced back and chuckled as he saw his son standing still and staring in awe at the view ahead of them. He patted Draft on the nose and dropped the reins, turning and heading back to Alain. Traffic on the River Bridge was still light enough for him to not worry about causing a jam.

“It’s something, isn’t it?” he asked Alain, dropping a big farmer’s hand on the boy’s shoulders.

Alain nodded, struggling to close his mouth. “It’s… It’s just so big! How could people have ever built that? It would have taken hundreds of years-”

“Maybe it did,” his father said. “O’course, there’s all sorts of tales, each one taller than the next, about what people used to be able to do in the old days. Great machines, now little more than rusted hunks, that could make miracles happen. Maybe they did build it faster back then.”

“So all of Hest’s tales are real?”

That made his father laugh, tossing back his head. “Hest believes in great big black and white bears that eat vegetables, creatures with necks so long that they can see over trees, flying machines! Don’t pay much attention to Hestern’s tales, son. But some of the old legends do have a nut of truth to them.”

He patted Alain once more. “Now, come along, we’re wasting the day standing here and gawping like a couple of country sods. Let’s get in and head to the market.”

Alain managed to get his legs moving again, but his boots were soaked half through by the time they reached the huge gates. His eyes kept on rising back up, taking in the majesty of the great City.

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