It was midday and Undertown was bustling. Beneath the pall of filthy mist which hovered over the town, fuzzing the rooftops and dissolving the sun, its narrow streets and alleyways were alive with feverish activity.
There was ill-tempered haggling and bartering; buskers played music, barrow-boys called out unmissable bargains, beggars made their pitiful demands from dark, shadowy corners though there were few who paused to place coins in their hats. Rushing this way and that, everyone was far too wrapped up in their own concerns to spare a thought for anyone else.
Getting from a to b as quickly as possible, being first to nail a deal, obtaining the best price while undercutting your competitors that was what succeeding in Undertown was all about. You needed nerves of steel and eyes in the back of your head to survive; you had to learn to smile even as you were stabbing someone else in the back. It was a rough life, a tough life, a ruthless life.
It was an exhilarating life.
Twig hurried up from the boom-docks and through the market-place not because he was in any particular hurry himelf, but because the frenzied atmosphere was contagious. Anyway, he had learned the hard way that those who don't adjust to the breakneck pace of the place were liable to get knocked down and trampled underfoot. Along with ‘avoid all eye-contact' and ‘do not display weakness', ‘go with the flow' was one of the cardinal rules of Undertown.
Twig was feeling uncomfortably hot. The sun was at its highest. Despite being obscured by the choking, foul-tasting smoke from the metal foundries, it beat down ferociously. Therewas no wind and, as Twig dodged his way past the shops, stands and stalls, a bewildering mix of smells assaulted his nostrils. Stale woodale, ripe cheeses, burned milk and boiling glue, roasting pinecoffee and sizzling tilder sausages . . .
The spicy aroma of the sausages took Twig back, as it always did back to his childhood. Every Wodgiss Night, in the woodtroll village where he had been brought up, the adults would feast on the traditional tilder sausage soup. How long ago that now seemed, and how far away! Life then had been so different: self-contained, ordered, unhurried. Twig smiled to himself. He could never return to that life. Not now. Not for all the trees in the Deepwoods.
As he continued across the market-place, the mouthwatering aroma of the sausages grew fainter and was replaced with a different smell a smell which triggered a different set of memories altogether. It was the unmistakable scent of freshly tanned leather. Twig stopped and looked round.
A tall individual with the blood-red skin and crimson hair of a slaughterer was standing by a wall. Hanging round his neck was a wooden tray overflowing with the leather talismans and amulets on thongs which he was selling or rather trying to sell.
‘Lucky charms!' he cried. ‘Get your lucky charms here!'
No-one was paying him any heed, and when he went to tie the charms around the necks of the passers-by each attempt was greeted with an irritated shake of the head as the goblin or troll or whatever hurried past.
Twig watched him sadly. The slaughterer like so many of the Deepwoods folk who had listened to rumours that the streets of Undertown were paved with gold was finding the reality quite different. With a sigh, he turned and was about to move on when, at that moment, a particularly mean-looking cloddertrog in tattered clothes and heavy boots brushed past him.
‘Lucky charm?' the slaughterer said cheerily and stepped forwards, leather thong at the ready.
‘Keep your murderous red hands off me!' the cloddertrog roared and shoved the outstretched arms savagely away.
The slaughterer spun round and crashed to the ground. The lucky charms went everywhere.
As the cloddertrog stomped off, cursing under his breath, Twig hurried over to the slaughterer. ‘Are you all right?' he asked, reaching down to help him to his feet.
The slaughterer rolled over and blinked up at him. ‘Blooming rudeness,' he complained. ‘I don't know!' He looked away and began gathering up the charms and returning them to the tray. ‘All I'm trying to do is scratch an honest living.'
‘It can't be easy,' said Twig sympathetically. ‘So far away from your Deepwoods home.'
Twig knew the slaughterers well. He had once stayed with them in their forest village, and to this day, he still wore the hammelhornskin waistcoat they had given him. The slaughterer looked up. Twig touched his forehead in greeting and reached down with his hand once again.
This time, with the last of the charms back in place, the slaughterer took a hold and pulled himself up. He touched his own forehead. ‘I am Tendon,' he said. ‘And thank you for stopping to see whether I was all right. Most folk round here wouldn't give you the time of day.' He sniffed. ‘I don't suppose . . .' He checked himself.
‘What?' said Twig.
The slaughterer shrugged. ‘I was just wondering whether you might care to buy one of my lucky charms.' And Twig smiled to himself as, unbidden, the slaughterer selected one of the leather talismans and held it out. ‘How about this one? It's extremely potent.'
Twig looked at the intricate spiral tooled into the deep-red leather. He knew that, for the slaughterers, the individual designs on the charms each had its own significance.
‘Those who wear this charm,' the slaughterer went on as he tied the thong around Twig's neck, ‘shall be freed from fear of the known.'