Chapter 46

The Tale of Roderick Roach

You might think Bert would be terrified at the sound of these words, but believe it or not, the voice filled him with relief. He’d recognised it, you see. So instead of putting up his hands, or pleading for his life, he turned around, and found himself looking at Roderick Roach.

‘What are you smiling about?’ growled Roderick, staring into Bert’s filthy face.

‘I know you’re not going to stab me, Roddy,’ said Bert quietly.

Even though Roderick was the one holding the sword, Bert could tell the other boy was far more scared than he was. The shivering Roderick was wearing a coat over his pyjamas and his feet were wrapped in bloodstained rags.

‘Have you walked all the way from Chouxville like that?’ asked Bert.

‘That’s none of your business!’ spat Roderick, trying to look fierce, though his teeth were chattering. ‘I’m taking you in, Beamish, you traitor!’

‘No, you aren’t,’ said Bert and he pulled the sword out of Roderick’s hand. At that, Roderick burst into tears.

‘Come on,’ said Bert kindly, and he put his arm round Roderick’s shoulders and led him off down a side alley, away from the fluttering Wanted poster.

‘Get off,’ sobbed Roderick, shrugging away Bert’s arm. ‘Get off me! It’s all your fault!’

‘What’s my fault?’ asked Bert, as the two boys came to a halt beside some bins full of empty wine bottles.

‘You ran away from my father!’ said Roderick, wiping his eyes on his sleeve.

‘Well, of course I did,’ said Bert reasonably. ‘He wanted to kill me.’

‘But n – now he’s been – been killed!’ sobbed Roderick.

‘Major Roach is dead?’ said Bert, taken aback. ‘How?’

‘Sp – Spittleworth,’ sobbed Roderick. ‘He c – came t – to our house with soldiers when n – nobody could find you. He was so angry Father hadn’t caught you – he grabbed a soldier’s gun – and he…’

Roderick sat down on a dustbin and wept. A cold wind blew down the alleyway. This, Bert thought, showed just how dangerous Spittleworth was. If he could shoot dead his faithful head of the Royal Guard, nobody was safe.

‘How did you know I’d come to Jeroboam?’ Bert asked.

‘C – Cankerby from the palace told me. I gave him five ducats. He remembered your mother talking about your cousin owning a tavern.’

‘How many people d’you think Cankerby’s told?’ asked Bert, now worried.

‘Plenty, probably,’ said Roderick, mopping his face with his pyjama sleeve. ‘He’ll sell anyone information for gold.’

‘That’s rich, coming from you,’ said Bert, getting angry. ‘You were about to sell me for a hundred ducats!’

‘I d – didn’t want the g – gold,’ said Roderick. ‘It was for my m – mother and brothers. I thought I might be able to g – get them back if I turned you in. Spittleworth t – took them away. I escaped out of my bedroom window. That’s why I’m in my pyjamas.’

‘I escaped from my bedroom window too,’ said Bert. ‘But at least I had the sense to bring shoes. Come on, we’d better get out of here,’ he added, pulling Roderick to his feet. ‘We’ll try and steal you some socks off a washing line on the way.’

But they’d taken barely a couple of steps when a man’s voice spoke from behind them.

‘Hands up! You two are coming with me!’

Both boys raised their hands and turned round. A man with a dirty, mean face had just emerged from the shadows, and was pointing a rifle at them. He wasn’t in uniform and neither Bert nor Roderick recognised him, but Daisy Dovetail could have told them exactly who this was: Basher John, Ma Grunter’s deputy, now a full-grown man.

Basher John took a few steps closer, squinting from one boy to the other. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘You two’ll do. Gimme that sword.’

With a rifle pointed at his chest, Bert had no choice but to hand it over. However, he wasn’t quite as scared as he might have been, because Bert – whatever Flapoon might have told him – was actually a very clever boy. This dirty-looking man didn’t seem to realise he’d just caught a fugitive worth one hundred gold ducats. He seemed to have been looking for any two boys, though why, Bert couldn’t imagine. Roderick, on the other hand, had turned deathly pale. He knew Spittleworth had spies in every city, and was convinced they were both about to be handed over to the Chief Advisor, and that he, Roderick Roach, would be put to death for being in league with a traitor.

‘Move,’ said the blunt-faced man, gesturing them out of the alley with his rifle. With the gun at their backs, Bert and Roderick were forced away through the dark streets of Jeroboam until, finally, they reached the door of Ma Grunter’s orphanage.

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