At first, Bert didn’t realise that the whole of Cornucopia had been warned by Lord Spittleworth to watch out for him. Following the guard’s advice at the city gates, he kept to country lanes and back roads. He’d never been as far north as Jeroboam, but by roughly following the course of the River Fluma, he knew he must be travelling in the right direction.
Hair matted and shoes clogged with mud, he walked across ploughed fields and slept in ditches. Not until he sneaked into Kurdsburg on the third night, to try and find something to eat, did he come face-to-face for the first time with a picture of himself on a Wanted poster, taped up in a cheesemonger’s window. Luckily, the drawing of a neat, smiling young man looked nothing like the reflection of the grubby tramp he saw staring out of the dark glass beside it. Nevertheless, it was a shock to see that there was a reward of one hundred ducats on his head, dead or alive.
Bert hurried on through the dark streets, passing skinny dogs and boarded-up windows. Once or twice he came across other grubby, ragged people who were also foraging in bins. At last he managed to retrieve a lump of hard and slightly mouldy cheese before anyone else could grab it. After taking a drink of rainwater from a barrel behind a disused dairy, he hurried back out of Kurdsburg and returned to the country roads.
All the time he walked, Bert’s thoughts kept scurrying back to his mother. They won’t kill her, he told himself, over and over again. They’ll never kill her. She’s the king’s favourite servant. They wouldn’t dare. He had to block the possibility of his mother’s death from his mind, because if he thought she’d gone, he knew he might not have the strength to get out of the next ditch he slept in.
Bert’s feet soon blistered, because he was walking miles out of his way to avoid meeting other people. The next night, he stole the last few rotting apples from an orchard, and the night after that, he took the carcass of a chicken from somebody’s dustbin, and gnawed off the last few scraps of meat. By the time he saw the dark grey outline of Jeroboam on the horizon, he’d had to steal a length of twine from a blacksmith’s yard to use as a belt, because he’d lost so much weight that his trousers were falling down.
All through his journey, Bert told himself that if he could only find Cousin Harold, everything would be all right: he’d lay down his troubles at the feet of a grown-up, and Harold would sort everything out. Bert lurked outside the city walls until it was growing dark, then limped into the wine-making city, his blisters now hurting terribly, and headed for Harold’s tavern.
There were no lights in the window and when Bert drew near, he saw why. The doors and windows had all been boarded up. The tavern had gone out of business and Harold and his family seemed to have left.
‘Please,’ the desperate Bert asked a passing woman, ‘can you tell me where Harold’s gone? Harold, who used to own this tavern?’
‘Harold?’ said the woman. ‘Oh, he went south a week ago. He’s got relatives down in Chouxville. He’s hoping to get a job with the king.’
Stunned, Bert watched the woman walk away into the night. A chilly wind blew around him, and out of the corner of his eye he saw one of his own Wanted posters fluttering on a nearby lantern post. Exhausted, and with no idea what to do next, he imagined sitting down on this cold doorstep and simply waiting for the soldiers to find him.
It was then he felt the point of a sword at his back, and a voice in his ear said:
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