Authors: S. C. Green
Tags: #Fantasy, #Steampunk, #Paranormal & Supernatural, #Science Fiction
Book one of the
S C Green
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblances to real persons, living or dead, found within are purely coincidental.
All Rights Reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Grymm & Epic Publishing
Auckland, New Zealand
Cover design: Vail Joy
Formatting: Polgarus Studio
Copyright © 2014 S. C. Green
All rights reserved.
S. C. Green lives in an off-grid home in rural New Zealand with her husband, two mischievous cats, and a medieval sword collection. She’s the author of
the Engine Ward
series, as well as the humorous fantasy novel,
At War With Satan
, under the name Steff Metal. Find out more about her work on her website:
To “the Bogans,”
for your friendship and unfaltering support.
“This beam engine pumps water from the Thames directly into those reservoirs and the water tower. The mains run seven miles to Campden Hill and supplies water to most of West London — Nicholas Thorne, are you listening?”
Master Brunel fixed him with a withering stare. Nicholas, who had just turned fifteen and normally loved watching steam engines at work and hated to disappoint his teacher, shoved his crumpled Navy papers back into his pocket and tried to look interested as the Master led his four pupils into the pump house. But he couldn’t think about steam engines today.
Inside the shed, Nicholas followed his teacher and the other three pupils onto the observation floor. He pressed his back against the wall of the thin wooden platform and tried to focus his attention. The beam engine was just approaching full speed, and he clutched his papers even more tightly as the floor and walls vibrated with each rotation. The fifteen-ton beam soared over their heads, crashing down with a sweeping stroke to slam the pistons into the condenser and release great clouds of steam.
“Father says this is the first engine to use a separate condenser,” said Isambard, Brunel’s son, his face lit up with excitement. “The engineers are really starting to get to grips with reciprocating engines—”
“I’m leaving London, Isambard.” Nicholas said.
“I know. Tomorrow.”
“I might never see you again. Don’t you
He frowned at his friend.
Isambard looked hurt. “Of course. You and James are going to earn your fortunes at sea. And I must stay in the Engine Ward with the Stokers and repair furnaces for the rest of my life. But that’s not ’till tomorrow. Today …” He gestured to the beam engine, “I can pretend that maybe, one day, I would be able to create something like this.”
Just thank Great Conductor you weren’t born a Stoker.”
James Holman elbowed Nicholas in the ribs. “Isambard’s right — we have plenty to be grateful for. We’re going to see the world. We’ll sail great ships across the ocean and have all sorts of adventures. Don’t you
has had no bearing on my life since my father disowned me. If I stay in London, I’ll be a pauper. My money will run out sooner or later, and none of the engineering sects will take on an apprentice without family money. I’m not like you, James. I’ve had quite enough danger and adventure in my life already, thank you very much—”
“Out of my way, Your Lordship.” Henry Williams shoved Nicholas into the wall as he pushed past, pulling his dragon Mordred behind him on a thick chain. Nicholas smarted at the nickname — given to him by Henry because Henry couldn’t understand why anyone who was the son of a Lord would come to live in the Engine Ward of his own volition.
Henry Williams was also a Stoker — one of the “Dirty Folk,” as the Londoners called them — but he was the favourite son of an important Stoker family — a long line of dragon-hunters. Nicholas hadn’t met Henry’s brothers — the priests Oswald and Peter and Henry’s twin, Aaron — but he’d heard enough about the Williams family from Isambard to know he didn’t want to.
When the Stokers first moved to London from the swamps, Henry’s father had given him the juvenile swamp-dragon as a pet. Henry, who liked the fear the three-foot-high dragon invoked in his fellow Stokers, took Mordred everywhere, including places dragons shouldn’t go, like on this field trip.
Mordred looked up at Nicholas with wide eyes, and Nicholas felt the familiar sensation of the creature’s thoughts sliding into his own head. The dragon loved Henry, despite the rough treatment he received, and his mind hardened with determination to protect his master from the beam engine, which he perceived as a large, shiny predator. The noise and the steam inside the pump house clouded Mordred’s senses, and that terrified the dragon. Every muscle in Mordred’s body was poised for danger, and that unease was now mirrored in Nicholas’ mind.
Nicholas reached out a hand to pat Mordred’s snout, sending a calming thought back to the dragon. He hadn’t told anyone in London about his
, — his ability to hear the thoughts of animals as if they were his own — not even Isambard or James, his closest friends. It had cost him too much already. He’d chosen to come to the city — to cloister himself in the world of machines — to escape the voices and the pain they caused.
“Don’t touch my dragon,” Henry snapped, yanking Mordred’s chain back so hard the creature yelped in protest.
“He’s not technically a dragon,” said James, clutching his books close to his chest. “Dragons have wings in all the books. And breathe fire.”
“Those are make-believe dragons. English swamp-dragons stand on two legs, have cold skin, and could bite you in half with one—”
” Master Brunel rapped his stick against the metal platform. “The engine is up to full-speed now — six and a half rotations per minute. Would you like to go down and have a closer look at the condenser?”
James shook his head. He didn’t share the others’ fascination with machinery, especially if it involved descending into the bowels of an unflinching engine.
“Well, if you’re too scared to come closer,” said Henry, “hold Mordred for me. He won’t fit on the platform.”
James looked stricken, but he held out his hand, and Henry pressed the lead into it. Mordred stared at his master, confused.
“I want to look at the engine,” said Isambard. “Nicholas, you should come down with me.”
Reluctantly, Nicholas followed Isambard and Henry down a narrow ladder onto an even narrower platform, suspended just above the main cylinder. Above his head, the beam made another rotation, driving down the piston and sending up a cloud of steam that soaked his clothes in sweat.
He peered over the railing into the bowels of the machine, struck by the elegance of its simple function, and the simple line and symmetry of the frame. Beside him, Isambard leaned even further out, his face alight as he took in every rod, every cylinder, every bolt.
Master Brunel came up behind them. “Now, boys, who can tell me how the condenser works?”
Behind him, James shouted. Something heavy jerked the platform sideways and crashed against Nicholas’ ankles, slamming him against the railing. His vision spun, his scream caught in his throat as he swung out, dangerously close to the piston. The platform jerked again, and he fell back against the metal grating beside Isambard. Blood gushed from a cut in his friend’s cheek.
Nicholas spun around, just in time to see Mordred, dragging his chain behind him, leap across the lurching platform, desperate to reach his master.
How had he got free?
The platform lurched forward as the dragon bowled into Henry, who sailed into the railing and toppled over the edge.
Nicholas grabbed the railing to steady himself as the platform lurched again. He pulled himself along the railing and peered over the edge. Henry, his face white with fear, clung to the outside of the railing.
His arms straining under his weight, Henry managed to pull himself up and hook his feet over the edge of the platform. Nicholas inched along the railing and extended his hand to Henry, just as a stray thought entered his head.
No, Mordred, No!
Nicholas tried to grasp the creature’s mind, to stifle Mordred’s thoughts with his own, but he was too frightened, too weak. Mordred’s mind slipped through his and the dragon bounded across the platform again and leapt at his master, knocking Henry off the platform and sending him sailing onto the piston rod just as the beam came down.
Blood splattered Nicholas’ face, clouding his vision. He couldn’t hear Henry cry out over the slam and hiss of the engine as it tore the boy to pieces. More blood flowed over the platform, but the machine did not stop, heedless to the cracking of bones and the sizzle of blood and flesh dripping into the condenser.
His mind filled with pain. He let go of the railing and clutched his head, crying out as Mordred’s anguish pressed against his skull. It was as though Nicholas himself had knocked Henry off the platform, as though he himself had seen the person he loved most in the world crushed under the great steel beam.
He howled, pressing his head into the grating, trying to force out the horrible thoughts. Hands grabbed him, dragging him back, wiping the gore from his eyes. He was dimly aware of Master Brunel shaking him, calling his name. Over his shoulder, Isambard watched, his face drawn.
“You’re all right, boy. You’re all right.”
Through the haze of steam, Nicholas saw Mordred slumped on the platform beside him. The tendrils of Mordred’s thoughts — of the loss and pain and guilt — reached deep within Nicholas, summoning up every memory of his past. He reached across and laid a bloody hand on Mordred’s chest, above the creature’s heart, and tried to give Mordred some sort of release, tried to pull back the pain, to hold it in himself.
A fog swirled inside his head, and everything went black.
Nicholas woke up on the cobbles outside the pump house. Master Brunel pulled him to his feet, and they trudged past the pump house and back to the omnibus station. Nicholas had no idea how long he’d been unconscious, but the place already swarmed with constables and journalists and a gaggle of onlookers. He turned away, not wanting to see them removing what remained of Henry.
They caught an omnibus back to the Engine Ward — the industrial heart of London, where the Stokers lived and worked, tending the engines that kept the city running. Each boy sat silent, lost in thought. Nicholas sat on the edge of the bench, his face outside the window where the wind might dry his tears. He cradled Mordred in his arms, pressing his cheek against the creature’s cold skin, and tried to push away the pain that threatened to overwhelm them both. Beside him, James, unusually silent, stared at his hands.
,” said Isambard, breaking the silence.
“Not the word I would use to describe it,” said James, his voice hoarse. “It was all my fault. I didn’t hold Mordred tightly enough.” Tears rolled down his cheeks, and he turned away.
Isambard carried on talking, oblivious to James’ distress. “Henry was foolish, hanging over the edge like that. You have to respect a machine, especially one as incredible as that beam engine. I never much liked him, anyway. Did you see how the steam inlet valve closed when the piston reached the top of the cylinder?”
Nicholas pushed aside the pain, and stared up at his friend. Isambard’s eyes glowed as though a fire had been lit behind them, and he could hear him muttering calculations under his breath.
While James and I saw our schoolmate torn to pieces, Isambard sees only the power of the machine.
The thought turned his blood cold. Mordred gazed up at him with warm, frightened eyes, and Nicholas looked from the dragon to his friend, and knew nothing would ever be the same.
You may have some idea what has become of me since we parted in Portsmouth. If you had followed the papers you’d know the
stayed for a year on patrol in English waters before setting out on duties in the Mediterranean. After being in an engagement, she put in at Gibraltar for repairs and her crew was decommissioned. You may have even read of a young lieutenant who killed his superior officer in a brawl and evaded the authorities by escaping into Spain.
I had intended to buy passage home to England and begin life anew as a student of architecture, but I had not counted on Napoleon making a particularly spectacular decision. Blockading England basically drew a line in the sand
with Industrian England on one side, and Christian Europe on the other. There was not one ship that could take me where I so dearly wanted to go, and French hostility toward Industrians forced me into hiding.