About the Author
Jamie Buxton read English at Cambridge and has been writing all his adult life. He taught in States for a while and splits his time between London, Dartmoor, his car, local cafés who are sick of the sight of him, and libraries when he can find one. He is married with one child, plus dog, cats and all their fleas.
He has also travelled extensively in the middle east, which is what inspired Temple Boys as a new way of telling the most famous story ever told. He had to go beyond the sights, sounds and smells of old Jerusalem to try and understand what an ordinary boy would do if he came across a man who said he could save the world.
Jamie Buxton read English at Cambridge and has been writing all his adult life. He taught in States for a while and splits his time between London, Dartmoor, his car, local cafes who are sick of the sight of him, and libraries when he can find one. He is married with one child, plus dog, cats and all their fleas. He has also travelled extensively in the middle east, which is what inspired 'Temple Boys' as a new way of telling the most famous story ever told. He had to go beyond the sights, sounds and smells of old Jerusalem to try and understand what an ordinary boy would do if he came across a man who said he could save the world.
Read an Excerpt
By Jamie Buxton
Roaring Brook PressCopyright © 2014 Jamie Buxton
All rights reserved.
The cold woke Flea and drove him out of the shelter.
It was a gray dawn. Misty dawn. Damp, dewy dawn with dark drips on tawny stone walls. Flea flapped arms, stamped feet, blew hard, and waved a dirty hand through the thin cloud of his breath. He looked at the gang's shelter and wondered if it was worth burrowing between the sleeping bodies in the hope of getting a bit more sleep. He decided against it. He hated violence, especially when it was directed at him.
The shelter filled the end of an alleyway, its sagging roof slung between the Temple walls and the back of a baker's oven. The gang had swiped its beams from a half-built house in the new town. The roof was scraps of leather taken from the tanneries and painfully sewn together. Rain dripped through the thread-holes and sometimes the leather got so heavy the whole thing collapsed, but most of the time it worked.
Flea could put up with a drip or two, and the roof falling in. For him, quite apart from practical issues, the shelter was a battleground for status—a battle that he lost every night. In cold weather the older members of the gang—Big, Little Big, Smash, and Grab—would hog the oven wall, and when it was hot they moved away from it. Flea was constantly pushed around, ended up being too hot or too cold, and, either way, was always the first to wake.
The sky was a low gray roof above the walls of the alley. For days now clouds had pressed down over the Holy City, trapping the smoke from the Temple's fire altar so that it drifted through the alleyways in a greasy haze. Everyone's eyes stung and every surface was sticky with fat. And out-of-towners were flooding into the city for Passover, the feast of the Death Angel. More people meant more sacrifices, and more sacrifices meant yet more smoke ... The mood wasn't good.
A lump of shadow detached itself from the wall and began to waddle along the gutter toward him. He blinked, rubbed his eyes, and blinked again.
"Rat!" Flea yelled. He scrabbled for a rock, found a pebble, and flung it as hard as he could. It clicked harmlessly off the stone gutter and the rat continued toward him with hardly a pause.
"Rat! Rat! Rats!" Flea backed up against the shelter, feeling behind for a weapon, anything to fend the brute off. Another was coming—they must have smelled the crumbs in the shelter. His hand closed on a stick, which he snatched. Unfortunately it was holding up the front of the shelter, which collapsed.
Furious shouts as the heavy leather roof fell on unsuspecting sleepers.
"Rats!" Flea yelled again.
"What the ...?" Big, the gang leader, stuck his head out of the shelter. "Flea!"
"But they're coming! Look!"
Big's blunt features were blurred by sleep. He rubbed his face, grabbed the stick, and sent the rats scurrying away down the hole at the end of the alley.
"What bloody use are you, Flea?"
Flea was panting. "I had a bad experience with rats," he said. "When I was a grave robber."
"When you were a grave robber's slave ..."
"It doesn't matter! He sent me down a hole. I got attacked. Look. Look!" Flea pulled out his lower lip to show the small pale scars on the inside. The hole in question had been a cliff tomb outside the city walls. The way in had been too narrow for both Flea and a lamp, so he had been forced to rummage through the old bones for jewelry by touch. In the utter black, scraped by the rocks, aching with the effort, and choking in the dust of dead people, he had felt the darkness bunch, writhe, and squeal. The grave robber had pulled him out screaming, with one rat hanging off his mouth and the other dangling from his ear.
Flea had been sacked, of course. Grave robbing was meant to take place in silence—rats or no rats.
"Shut up or we'll shove you down the rat hole to be eaten alive," growled Big. "I mean it. Now fix the shelter."
"I can't. You've got the stick."
"And you've got trouble." Big raised the stick above his head.
"Don't!" Flea pleaded.
"Then get water. Get bread. Get milk."
Flea grabbed the water skin. The underfed girl he had spotted hanging about the shelter for the past week was just around the corner. She was smiling like she'd seen the whole thing. So he yelled at her to stay away from him if she knew what was good for her and he set off for the fountain.CHAPTER 2
The Holy City was built on two hills. The Temple sat on one, and the rich lived in the elegant palaces of the Upper City on the other. Squeezed in between the hills and spreading out at either end was the Lower City, a dense maze of streets and alleyways zigzagging up and down the slopes. Houses of two and three floors were crammed together in jagged blocks or stacked in precarious cliffs. The streets were so narrow that if you leaned out of your window, you could practically reach into the house on the other side. Flea knew the city like a hunter knows the forest, as a place of danger and opportunity. But he wasn't after game; food and money were what he wanted.
The city was crowded at the best of times, but in the days leading up to the feast it was stuffed so full you'd think the high old walls would burst. The law stated that for the night of the feast, everyone in the country had to come and stay within the city walls. Most people made a few days' holiday of it. Every house was crammed. Every rooftop groaned. Every street was blocked with milling out-of-towners.
Flea pushed his way up a winding alleyway to the fountain, the district's only source of water. As he drew closer, the crowd grew thicker and angrier. People were grumbling that lodgings were more expensive, wine was more expensive, food was more expensive, and, most of all, the Temple was robbing them blind. To pay your Temple tax you had to convert your money into Temple silver. To make a sacrifice you had to buy a holy lamb or a holy dove and, again, you had to convert your money to Temple silver. Every which way, you lost and they won. And what about the disgraceful water shortages that never got any better? The new aqueduct was meant to bring more water to the city, but who got it first? The priests, who were hoarding it in giant reservoirs under the Temple and leaving the city high and dry.
The Temple Boys despised the visitors, but relied on them like everyone else in the city. They were like a great flood that left behind a vast deposit of money: for the Temple, for the market traders, for the innkeepers, for the butchers and bakers and candlestick makers, for anyone who owned four walls and a roof—but most of all for the beggars, thieves, and pickpockets.
As Flea worked his way through the crowd, he kept an eye out for easy pickings—coins on the ground, open purses, and the like. But he decided, on balance, it would be better to stay honest. In a dense and angry crowd like this one, getting away would be hard, and if you were caught you'd be beaten, kicked, even killed.
Not worth it, Flea thought, but then, neither was hanging around. He pushed his way through, shouting, "Water for the leper! Water for the leper boy!" Ignoring the furious stares, he filled the water skin, slung it across his shoulders, and staggered off.
Halfway down the hill where two streets met, the Grinderman, a traveling knife sharpener, was setting up his wheel.
Flea called to him. "Hey! Why are you lazing around when there's work to do?"
"Why chase after work when work'll find you all too soon?" the Grinderman chuckled. "Lambs' throats are waiting to be cut and knives are waiting to be sharpened. Anyway, what are you doing here? I'd have thought you'd be off to the Black Valley Bridge this morning."
"Why would I go there? Did a priest drop his purse?"
"Pay me and I'll tell you," the Grinderman said.
Flea pretended to throw a coin that the Grinderman pretended to catch and then bite.
"Usual fake rubbish," he said. "Now I'm not going to tell you about the magician who's coming to town."
"I said I'm not telling." The Grinderman grinned, the large gap between his front teeth showing, and tapped the side of his long nose. "He's not from Gilgal and I wasn't told about him by a guy who saw him make pigs dance. He's not got a legion of demons behind him all bound to do his wishes. He can't turn water to wine, or make cripples jump over the moon, or conjure banquets out of thin air either. And you didn't hear it here first."
Flea cupped a hand to his ear. "Hear what?" he shouted, and set off for the shelter, his mind racing. He knew all about street conjurors: there was one on every corner at the time of the feast, but all they really cared about was making your money disappear. Real magicians were something different, though. He'd heard that they could send a child up a rope and make him disappear, call up red-eyed demons in clouds of black smoke, and persuade people to do things they didn't want to. That really was some magic he should try to learn. Maybe then he'd have the power to persuade the gang to go to the Black Valley Bridge with him.CHAPTER 3
When Flea got back to the shelter, Big was assigning jobs for the day.
Big was the tallest and strongest member of the Temple Boys and their only real fighter. He'd been abandoned as a baby because he wasn't born perfect—a few toes had been missing. Unlike most abandoned babies, he had lived because an elderly couple took pity on him, but when they died he took to the streets. Spots pitted his face and his nose was flat. Flea thought he looked as if he'd run into a wall.
Little Big was his deputy and banker. He had a slight twitch that made his head jerk every few seconds or so, especially when he was talking, but he had a grip like a dog's jaws, which was useful when he was shaking you down for your takings at the end of the day.
All money was shared. Basically, the rest of the gang paid Big to protect them—mostly from Big himself.
"Listen up!" Big said. He was standing on the edge of a cracked stone water trough with Little Big sitting at his feet. "We'll pair up today and work Temple Square. Crouch and Hole-in-the-Head, you two together. Crouch needs a stick, someone."
Crouch lived his life bent double at the waist and it hurt him to lift his head. Hole-in-the-Head had lost an eye, and he shaved his head in patches so it looked like he had a skin condition. They always did well because Crouch's usual expression was heartbreakingly brave and hopeful.
"I've got an idea," Flea said, but Big just carried on talking.
"Halo and Crutches—you two hang out by the washing pools. Halo, you've got to cry. Crutches, you've got to comfort him, but it's hard because you're in such pain yourself. What's your story?"
"Can we be from out of town and we're on our own because our parents haven't got the money to pay the Temple tax?" Halo asked. He was the pretty one and smaller even than Flea. But, unlike with Flea, the rest of the gang were always nice to him.
"We'll get nice and dusty and say we walked all the way," Crutches said in his odd, deep voice. He was a surprisingly good pickpocket even though he could hardly use his legs.
"Good," Big said. "Who's left? Gaga, Snot, Red, Clump, Smash, and Grab."
"And me!" Flea said. "But listen. If we head for the Black Valley Bridge and ..."
Big did not even glance at him. "Tell you what. Snot, it should be you teamed up with Crutches and crying. Halo, you and Gaga go to the top of the steps and beg as people are going in. Gaga, make that funny noise, and Halo, just look sad."
Gaga nodded his head and said, "Gagagaga." It was the only noise he ever made, hence his name, and he let people know what he thought by nodding, shaking his head, or punching them. Snot sniffed wetly and spat out a huge gob of mucus. Gaga punched him.
Big said, "Yeah. No spitting, especially near the Temple. You'll get the Temple Police after you. Now then. Clump, Red, Smash, and Grab: you know those shelters that've gone up on the other side of the west wall? Can you handle them?"
"People stare at my scars, so I'll be the diversion," Red said. He was burned down the left side of his body and found it hard to close his left eye.
"We could have a fight," Clump said. "I'll attack you, then Smash and Grab can sneak in at the back."
"Why can't we fight?" Smash and Grab asked, both saying the same thing at the same time.
"Because I can't run, can I?" Clump said. His twisted right foot slowed him up. "You two can get in and out faster than us. As soon as we see you leave, we'll kiss and make up."
"Yeah, kiss my scars," Red said, and got a laugh.
"But I ..." Flea said.
"Okay, that's it," Big said. "Get moving."
"It's not going to work!" Flea shouted at their backs. "All the other gangs will be at the Temple, especially today. But if we head for the Black Valley Bridge, we might have a chance!"
No one turned. No one listened. Muttering angrily, Flea set off behind them.CHAPTER 4
Flea hadn't been a member of the Temple Boys for that long. The autumn before, he had seen them at work and thought he would try to join them.
He was at a loose end. He'd been a runner for a small-time gangster called Mosh the Dosh, but quit when he overheard Mosh was planning to sell him to a grain merchant from the coast. He'd tried to get in with an Upper City gang, but a dozen other street children with exactly the same idea had chased him off. He couldn't return to grave robbing and had already run away from the stink of a glue factory, where his job had been to tend the fires under the massive cauldrons of bone, skin, and slaughterhouse scraps. But going solo was too dangerous. Only that morning he'd seen a beggar lying in the gutter with his throat cut, stripped of all his clothes. Passersby stepped over him, around him, ignoring him as if he didn't exist.
So he'd been watching the world go by in the Upper City when he'd spotted two redheaded boys, twins, loitering by the entrance to a yard not far from him. It looked as if they were trying to hide at the same time as watching the street, but they stood out like a pair of sore thumbs. It was obvious they were waiting for someone to rob.
A merchant came out of the inn with a swirl of flowing robes. He stroked his oiled beard and put a scented handkerchief to his bulbous nose, as if the smell of the street was just too, too much for him. The twins stiffened like dogs spotting a rat. Flea thought they made pretty pathetic thieves.
Then a boy on crutches, who had been leaning against the wall, swung himself across the road and tapped the merchant on his arm.
The merchant looked down impatiently, listened, then glanced across at the scowling twins. Understanding dawned on his face. He patted the boy on the head, reached into a pocket, and handed him a coin. But as he made off down the street, his hand strayed to his hip, where he patted a small bulge.
Flea smiled and waited. Two purses, he thought. One for loose change, one rather more promising—and the merchant had just given away where it was. The twins made a great show of scowling at the merchant as he set off down the street.
What the merchant did not spot was another small boy walking toward him, who seemed to trip and crash into him before running off.
The merchant shouted at the boy's retreating back, walked on, and then patted the place where his fat little purse had been. It was gone. He fumbled in his robes, looked at the ground, and stared accusingly toward the twins. They hadn't moved. He looked down the street, but even if he had been able to spot the small boy, it wouldn't have made any difference: Flea's expert gaze had seen the small boy pass the purse to a one-eyed boy, who in turn had handed it on to a boy with a twitch. It was the perfect setup.
The merchant yelled, "Stop thief!" But who to stop? The stream of people in the street flowed on, sweeping away the twins and all the other gang members.
Misdirection was the longest word Flea knew. It was the art of making someone look so hard at one thing that they missed what was going on under their nose. He had just seen it in action.
Flea had a few tricks of his own. He followed the twins all the way back to their den and had been hanging around with the Temple Boys ever since.
But that was then. Now Flea and the gang were close to the Temple, picking their way through the dark alley over the rubbish that had accumulated in the past few days.
At the end of the alley they could see Temple Square bathed in sunlight: a big, clean space, watched over by the Temple Police, who were, in turn, watched over by Imperial Roman soldiers. That was the system—if the Temple Police ever lost their grip and a riot started, for example, then the Romans would step in and start killing. The soldiers didn't care. They were as hard as stone and as obedient as well-trained dogs.
But before the gang could split up and get to their tasks, the alleyway was blocked by a hulking figure with a broken nose and greasy hair plastered forward onto a bulging forehead.
"What's this?" he said. "A bunch of rejects heading for the Temple? Piss off before I call the guards."
The thick leather straps around each wrist marked him as one of the Butcher Boys, a gang from the Lower City who hung out near the slaughterhouses. Normally they didn't come this close to the Temple, but the rich holiday pickings had lured them up the hill.
"We've got a right." Big tried to square up to him. "We belong up here. We're the Temple Boys. We work the Temple."
"You're pathetic losers," the Butcher Boy spat back. "You've got no rights unless I say so. Now get lost."
"Who's going to make us?"
Flea half admired Big for trying. On the other hand, he knew things would only end badly if they carried on like this. Big would fight, then the others would join in, then the rest of the Butcher Boys would get involved and the Temple Boys would be badly beaten. He felt an all-too-familiar hot swirl of fear in his guts. Someone had to do something.
Excerpted from Temple Boys by Jamie Buxton. Copyright © 2014 Jamie Buxton. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Flea smelled the dump ...,
Three Days to Go,
Two Days to Go,
One Day to Go,
One Day After,
Two Days After,
Three Days After,
Many Days After,