The Narrow Boat
I was not afraid of him. I ought to have been, but sprinting by his side through the torchlit streets of Ull I felt only an urgent curiosity. Who was he, why had he been hunting me, and why, months before, had he carved the ugly shape into my face?
“Here.” The lanky stranger darted down a street paved with irregular blocks of mismatched stone and concrete, none meeting the level of the next, like the worst imaginable dental work. “The canal, my boat.”
“You followed me by boat? What was it, a contest to find me last?” I slipped and stumbled over the uneven cobbles.
“No.” He leapt over the edge of the quay into inky darkness.
I expected a splash but he landed with a disappointing thud. As I reached the waterside I saw why: a long, narrow boat lay in the canal, a craft sitting so low in the water that it was invisible from the quay.
“Come on,” said the stranger, and because the Lord of Ull and his soldiers were chasing me, and because I had unintentionally released an enchanted tree which was even now roving the city on its filthy root knuckles, and because I had no other ideas, I sprang onto the tiny rear deck of the craft and followed the stranger down into its cabin.
“Who are you?” I asked, as he worked arm-long levers towards the front of the boat.
“You can call me Pin,” he said.
“I already do call you Pin,” I said.
“I know. It’s better than my real name.”
The boat shuddered and a thunderous growl echoed through the cabin. I felt it through my shabby boots, and clutched at the door frame.
“Sit down,” said Pin, indicating a small table fixed to the side of the boat, and two chairs likewise secured. “I’m going to thrash her, ” he added mysteriously.
-And lucky I did. The boat roared, and then its bow lifted high off the surface of the canal, and I fell back in my seat. Through the tiny cabin porthole I saw the city lights passing us by at some speed.
“Hang on,” said Pin. He grinned. “There’s a corner coming up.”
He leaned to one side like an emperor in a chariot race, and threw a brass lever fully forward. The force of our turn flung me against the glossy red painted of the wall. My shoulder took the brunt, but my head got a knock as well.
We righted ourselves, and Pin made further adjustments to the levers. I watched him in deep suspicion. The scar on my cheek throbbed. This might be a rescue, but it was a kidnap too. I had delivered myself into the narrowboat of my enemy, and at any moment he might produce the needle-blade which had haunted my dreams for a year, and finish the job he’d begun on my ruined face.
At last he spun a golden wheel and locked it into place with a lever which seemed designed for that purpose. “Well,” he said. “They’ll never catch us now. Fastest thing on water, this.” He reached up to a string dangling beside his head, and tugged it. A lantern began to glow in the ceiling, like the lamps inside the temples of the Able. I gave the lantern the same suspicion I already aimed at Pin. Pin meanwhile only rubbed his hair back off his forehead, and blew out his cheeks. “Fancy a cuppa?”
He had a strange way of speaking, deference mingled with bluff camaraderie. Half the words were new to me. I rubbed my bruised shoulder, and took the chance of a good look at him. If I wanted an eyeful, I was not disappointed.
Pin was my age, perhaps a year or two younger: old enough to have a suggestion of blonde beard around the edges, young enough not to have done anything about it. His hair was curly and fair, shorn at the back, uncontrolled on top. He was above my height, and thin like a lamp lighter’s pole. Pale skin, and freckles over his long nose: no desert dweller, him. He wore a faded canvas jacket with a smooth silvery fastening all down the front, and coarse sage-green trousers which bagged around his knobbly knees.
He was likewise taking in my more standard appearance: black hair, brown skin, brown eyes, unremarkable clothes. He made me look stocky, broad-shouldered, even, although obviously one shoulder was currently not at its best.
“Cup of what?” I said.
“Tea,” he said. “Ah, infusion of dried leaves of camellia sinensis…”
“Is it intoxicating?” I said.
“Oh well. I’ll give it a try. What’s the worst that can happen? Oh, perhaps the murderer that scarred me for life will kidnap me and try to finish the job.” I gave a tinkling laugh, to indicate my sarcasm.
Pin smiled nervously. “I’ll put a dash of scotch in,” he said. “It’ll help.”
I was not sure anything would help with this bizarre situation, but as Pin produced a square glass bottle and poured a finger’s-worth into two metal cups, I conceded that whatever happened next, I could not mark him down for hospitality.
“Cheers,” he said, lifting his cup level with my face.
“Ah. All right,” I said. He clinked his cup against mine and drank.
I let the so-called scotch, which was unmistakably alcoholic, inflame my stomach, and sat back. The scar on my cheek was throbbing again, some memory of Pin’s weapon setting it off, but the rest of me was numb. There would be answers, must be answers, but for now I simply slumped, and let this stranger carry me away.