Authors: Sarwat Chadda
For my family
Be not entangled in this
world of days and nights;
Thou hast another time
and space as well.
Table of Contents
shoka Mistry tripped over the tree root. A second later he crashed flat on his face, eating leaves as he slid down the muddy slope and landed in a grey, stagnant puddle.
He lay there, in the foul water, groaning.
And this was exactly why he hated cross-country running.
“For heaven’s sake, Mistry,” said Mr Leach, the PE teacher. “Are you auditioning for the circus or what?” He scampered down the slope, moving with what could only be described as cat-like grace. He finished with a controlled skid that brought him to a perfect stop in front of Ashoka. A few boys clapped.
“Sorry, sir,” said Ashoka, slowly sitting up and spitting out leaves.
“Well, get up. Get up.”
Ashoka tried to stand, but his shorts were caught on something. “Sir …”
Mr Leach took hold of his arm and pulled.
The loud, sickening tearing sound made the whole class erupt in laughter.
“Nice underpants,” said one of the boys.
“Your mum buy you those, Mistry?” said another.
Ashoka stood ankle-deep in the water, smeared with mud and plastered with leaves, his running shorts bearing a long gash down the back, exposing his limited-edition
Mr Leach sighed then tucked his clipboard under his arm and scrabbled up the slope to where the rest of the class stood waiting. He turned back to Ashoka. “Come on, lad.”
Ashoka stared at the steep incline and the long, brown trench he’d left in it. The entire wood was just a sea of mud and here he was, at the bottom. He tried to adjust his shorts but all he got was a longer tear. He clambered up the slope. Or tried to.
The laughter and the snickering and the catcalls he blanked out. They were the same taunts no matter which sport he did. Football, rugby, basketball, gymnastics. If there was a piece of equipment that he could stumble over, he would. But cross-country was a special type of hell. It was bad enough doing laps around the school grounds, but this, out in Dulwich Woods, brought a whole new meaning to the word ‘humiliating’. This first run of the year was the worst. The snow had barely melted and the earth was a mixture of freezing puddles, slush and deep, thick mud. Ashoka was not a January sort of person. Now he was going to have to jog all the way back with his backside hanging out. And that included going past two girls’ schools.
“Come on, Ash,” urged Josh.
“Ashoka, my name’s Ashoka,” he muttered under his breath. How many times had he told Josh? He wasn’t Ash, not any more.
Gritting his teeth, Ashoka grabbed hold of a fistful of weeds and began hauling himself up. He was going to get to the top, no matter what.
His boots, totally sodden and slick with mud, couldn’t get any sort of grip. He slipped to his knees, panting, but still hanging on.
Mr Leach drummed his fingers on his board.
Don’t rush. Just get to the top.
His arms ached. His grip weakened. The root was damp with dew. With awful slowness, Ashoka began to slide backwards.
He dug his fingers into the ground, but he was too heavy. Sharp stones scraped his shins and knees, but Ashoka didn’t care – he would not fall back. Vainly he tried to find another handhold, but before he knew it he was back at the bottom.
Mr Leach rolled his eyes. “I should have known.” He turned to the rest of the class. “What are you lot waiting for? Get back to the school right now.” The group of boys began to move off, but not before a few of the wits waved goodbye to Ashoka.
“Don’t worry, we’ll send a crane for you!”
Mr Leach, hands on hips, gazed down. “Look, Mistry. Follow the path that way and you’ll come to another gate. Go through that and you’re back on to Lordship Lane. Got it?”
“Then off you go.”
Ashoka stood up and wiped the worst of the mud and leaves and blood off his knees. Jeez, when would this ever end? He was hopeless.
He plodded along towards the gate. The clouds had that fat, grey, swollen look about them and he hoped he’d get back before they finally opened up.
Last. As usual. He was just not built for exercise. Or any sort of physical activity beyond handling a games console.
No, not totally true. He was one of the school’s best archers, but then shooting an arrow didn’t require much running and jumping. Still, technically it was a sport and he was pretty good at it. So why did they have to torture them with cross-country runs in the middle of winter? There should be a law against it.
He reached the gates and found them locked. Of course. The gods had it
in for him. A heavy chain went around the bars a dozen times and the padlock was about the size of his fist. The gates and fence were almost three metres high and topped with spikes.
Ashoka searched for some convenient gap and found one. Unfortunately it was only wide enough for half of him.
He sat down on a bench. He could only think of one other way out, but that was three miles uphill towards Crystal Palace, in totally the wrong direction. He’d be lucky to get back before dark.
Could this day get any worse?
Then he saw the boy. In the hoodie.
Magnificent. Now I’m going to be mugged.
The boy didn’t move. He sat opposite Ashoka on a tree stump, elbows resting on his knees. He could be looking at him, he could be asleep; the hood hid his face. All Ashoka could tell was that the guy was lean and tough-looking. His stillness was like that of a viper or mantis, about to pounce.
Ashoka gazed through the bars, hoping someone might be passing by, walking their dog or something.
I don’t have a mobile, or any money
, thought Ashoka.
He can see that. Maybe he’ll just let me go.
The boy got up. He moved with sure, athletic confidence. Black hoodie, pair of dark jeans, and all Ashoka could make out was a pair of glistening dark eyes. Trouble with a capital ‘Extreme Bodily Harm’.
“You need some help?” said the boy.
“No. I’m fine. Just resting.”
“The gate’s locked, in case you hadn’t realised.”
Which is exactly why you’re here, waiting to trap someone and steal everything they’ve got.
“I haven’t got anything,” said Ashoka.
Oh, Jeez. He wants my underwear.
“They so won’t fit you,” said Ashoka.
“True. I’ve lost some weight recently.” The boy pointed at them. “Though I do, did, have a pair just like those.”
“David Tennant or nobody.”
Ashoka smiled. “Me too. The new guy just doesn’t count.”
There was a nod. “We have a lot in common.”
Ashoka peered at him, not sure whether or not the boy was being funny. He couldn’t tell.
The boy went to the padlock and lifted it up. He shook it, head tilted as if he was listening to it.
“You can’t open it,” said Ashoka.
The boy felt along the lock, probing with his fingertips. “Everything has a weakness. You just need to find it.”
He shook the padlock again, then squeezed it between his forefinger and thumb. He jerked it, hard.
The padlock held.
Ashoka tried not to laugh. “Er, well done.”
“I used to be better at this,” the boy muttered. He punched the padlock.
It snapped apart.
“Wow,” said Ashoka. “How d’you do that?”
“Just a trick, nothing special.” The boy drew the rattling chain out and pushed the gate open.
“Thanks.” Ashoka gazed down the path out of the woods. If he was quick he could be back before dinnertime. “Thanks a lot.”
Ashoka half opened the gate. “My name’s Ashoka. Not Ash. Not any more.”
“Since—” He turned around. No one. He looked towards the trees. Just trees. The boy had been standing right there. Ashoka glanced up at the branches overhead. The boy must have flown away to vanish like that. Weird. Ah well. At least he was safe.
Ashoka set off, not fast, but steady. This last bit was downhill, thank goodness. He got to the Lordship Lane exit and stopped. Hold on.
How did he know my name?
“You heard that the next Doctor Who’s going to be a woman?” said Akbar. “Seriously, it’s all over the blogs.”
Ashoka bounced his dice in his hand. “Never going to happen.”
“Oh, and why not?” said Gemma. “I think a female doctor would be great. And about time too.”
“Yeah, Ash,” said Josh. “Why not a girl Who? You’d still watch it if they had Kermit as the Doctor.”
“How many times do I have to tell you, Josh? It’s Ashoka. Three syllables. Not complicated.”
“Joshua,” said Josh.
“What?” said Ashoka.
“If I have to call you Ashoka, you need to call me Joshua.”
“Fine. Joshua. Whatever. Can we get back to the game? My paladin aims his magic arrow at the necromancer.”