“Ben Kingdom.”Mr. Sweet spoke the words slowly, his voice heavy with anger; a thundercloud waiting to burst. “That boy will curse the day he crossed me.”
From behind him, in the darkness of the dungeon, there came a muffled sound; the sort of noise that a panic-stricken child might make if they were bound and gagged and in the clutches of a madman.
“What was that?” Mr. Sweet asked, turning slowly. He took a pace towards his prisoner, sending cockroaches scuttling for safety. “You have something to say?”
Sweet was a bully of a man and the expensive Savile Row suit he wore did nothing to hide his muscular physique. His face was handsome in a brutal sort of way: the square jaw, the strong nose, the hard slit of a mouth beneath his luxuriant black moustache. The eyes that overflowed with fury.
It was these eyes that intimidated everyone they fell on. It seemed that no one could defy their glare; not the other members of Parliament, where Sweet served as special advisor to the Prime Minister; not the Legion, the secret army which dwelled beneath the London streets. The boy tied to the chair in front of him stood no
In the flickering torchlight, Mr. Sweet watched his young captive. He smiled and the boy began to quake.
“Surely, you must agree with me,” he said, his broad hand caressing his raven-black moustache. “You’ve lived with him, after all. Doesn’t everyone find your brother to be a constant source of annoyance?”
A scraping sound drew Sweet’s attention and he shot a glance at the other figure standing in the corner. A tall man in a battered leather coat; a man with a dinosaur claw where his right hand should have been.
Claw Carter chipped idly at the wall with his unique prosthesis, striking sparks that briefly illuminated the hollow lines of his face and the sly smile that lurked at
the corner of his lips.
Carter would do well to tread carefully, thought Mr. Sweet as he returned his attentions to the boy. No one in the Legion was indispensable.
In spite of the cold in the dungeon, Sweet’s prisoner, Nathaniel Kingdom, was wet with nervous sweat and Sweet could almost taste the fear that rose from the boy’s pores in waves. But there was still some fight left in Nathaniel’s spirit. He was not broken yet.
Mr. Sweet bent over and brought his eyes level with
the boy’s. Nathaniel glared back and began to curse him through the rag that had been used to silence him. Straining against the ropes that bound him to his chair,
he bucked wildly, as if he were riding a savage animal;
Mr. Sweet only smiled again.
“What is it with you Kingdom boys?” Sweet mocked. “You never seem to know when you’re beaten.”
The prisoner started to tear at his gag with his teeth, wrenching it loose with frantic twists of his head. Finally his mouth was free. “Beaten?” Nathaniel Kingdom spat. “It was my brother Ben who outwitted you!”
“Ben Kingdom”, said Sweet, in a whisper somehow more threatening than his shout, “has achieved nothing. Nothing.” His lips luxuriated over the word. “The Feast of Ravens will soon be upon us and your precious Watchers will be reduced to a stain in the footnotes of history.”
“Ben stopped you getting your grubby hands on the Coin though, didn’t he? He stuffed you there!”
Sweet’s nostrils flared. With a snarl that was barely human, the big man swung his open hand violently towards Nathaniel’s face, only to stop it a hair’s breadth away. Nathaniel sat rigid in his chair, cowed and afraid.
“He has got a point,” said Carter, now using the tip of his claw to pick at dirt beneath the nails of his good hand.
“How good of you to remind me, Professor Carter,” said Sweet, “and how very brave. Especially considering your role in the whole debacle.”
“It was I who discovered that the last remaining Judas Coin was at large,” Carter protested. “It was I who found Ben Kingdom—”
“And it was you who let them both slip through your fingers,” finished Sweet. “Please don’t imagine that the high rank you currently hold in the Legion is something which you can rely on indefinitely. I am not a tolerant man when it comes to failure. The last Coin will be mine.”
“Ben threw it into the Thames,” Nathaniel continued defiantly. “You can search for it for another thousand years and you still won’t find it!”
“You can believe what you like if it brings you comfort, boy,” said Sweet with a snort of contempt, “but objects as evil as the Coin do not stay lost.”
Sweet wasn’t persuaded that the Coin lay somewhere in the silt and filth of the Thames. No, it was still at large, he was convinced of that. Hiding in some pocket or drawer or wallet, doing its work, eating its owner away from the inside.
“Wickedness calls out to wickedness,” said Sweet. “The Coin will come to me and then the Crown of Corruption will be complete…as will my victory. All of Ben Kingdom’s stupid heroics will prove to be a mere setback, an irritation to the Legion, nothing more.”
A hapless cockroach scurried across the stone floor,
its antennae twitching in happy ignorance. Sweet crushed it beneath his foot, and Nathaniel couldn’t stop himself from flinching as he heard the crunch that marked its death.
“Life can be so fragile,” said Sweet. “Believe me, it would have been better for Ben Kingdom if he had stayed in the gutter where he belongs.”
“He’s not afraid of you,” said Nathaniel.
“But you are, aren’t you?” Mr. Sweet goaded. “I always knew that you were the one with the brains.”
Nathaniel saw the bottomless hatred in Sweet’s eyes and the last of his bravado shrivelled to ashes in his mouth. “Are you going to kill me?”
“Oh no,” Sweet laughed. “You’re worth much more to me alive. You are bait, don’t you see? Something I can
use to lure your brother into my clutches. However…” And here he paused, enjoying the moment. “There is an experiment that you can help me with in the meantime. The Legion have a new weapon, but as yet it is untested. Professor Carter, would you do the honours?”
Nathaniel watched mutely as Claw Carter walked to the other end of the cell. For the first time, Nathaniel’s eyes made out another door in the darkness, and a shot of terror ran through him. There was something about that door that was very wrong. It was made from sturdy wooden planks, criss-crossed with iron bands. Long deadbolts secured it top and bottom, and as Sweet drew them slowly back Nathaniel felt all the hairs stand upright on his arms. The door was only three feet tall.
What the heck was in there?
The door swung wide and opened onto utter darkness.
There was a moment of agonizing stillness.
“I want you to meet a friend of mine,” said Mr. Sweet. “He has a gift for the whole of London and I’d like you to be the first one to enjoy his…talents.”
As Nathaniel’s eyes strained to pierce the darkness,
he saw a shadow detach itself from the inky black. Claw Carter moved aside and allowed a diminutive figure
to step out through the door. Carter’s long face split into
a wolfish grin. “Permit me to introduce you to the
At first, Nathaniel thought that it was just a boy, an odd, almost awkward child with chubby cheeks and pale hair in ringlets. Then, as he watched, it opened its mouth wide, as if it had been told to take a spoonful of medicine. There was a cracking sound and the Nightmare Child’s mouth opened wider still, until it became a gaping maw.
Nathaniel watched in appalled silence as a stream of fog began to pour from the Child’s mouth and fill the room like rising water. Nathaniel shuddered as the wave reached him and pooled around his feet. As if on command, the fog began to tease at Nathaniel’s legs, growing long white fingers that climbed up his body like a spider.
Help me! Nathaniel screamed inside his head. HELP ME, BEN!
“Oh, don’t worry,” said Sweet, as if reading Nathaniel’s mind. “I’m counting on your brother coming for you. And when he does, oh what a welcome I have planned for him.”
"Benjamin Kingdom! Prepare to defend yourself!”
Ben was trapped, and he knew it.
He quickly cast his eyes around, searching for the source of the voice. To his left he saw chimney pots
rising up out of a sea of coal dust and ashes. To his right, more chimneys, more choking fumes. Overhead lay a filthy blanket of cloud, and below, three storeys down,
lay the cobbled streets. It was a view of London that few were familiar with, but it was as normal as breathing
At the very edge of his vision, Ben thought he caught
a phantom of movement, a shape that appeared
momentarily from behind a ramshackle stack only to disappear again, leaving just a stirring in the smoke. Without any thought of the danger, Ben pelted along the ridge of a roof, his feet finding purchase at lightning speed, like a tightrope walker at the climax of his act. It was not the easiest escape path, even at the best of times, but for the last ten weeks of his young life, none of his options had been easy.
Too soon, however, Ben ran out of roof and his feet came stammering to a halt. A tile snapped beneath his weight and slid away into empty space, almost taking
him with it. Ben felt the strong hands of gravity reaching for him, doing their best to steal his balance. Instinctively, he grabbed hold of a chimney pot to steady himself while he fought to regain his footing – and not for the first time he was grateful for his skyboots with their studded rubber soles, part of the Watcher uniform he wore.
When his feet were secure again, Ben paused on the edge of the drop, his heart a racing engine. He lifted his brass-rimmed goggles from his eyes and considered his options. Through the haze spewing from factory chimneys and ten thousand household hearths, Ben could make
out the ghosts of church steeples and the great dome of
St Paul’s, rising up from the patchwork acres of rooftops. Beneath him were the streets of London, waiting to welcome him with an embrace of broken bones. And behind him, somewhere, was his pursuer.
Ben hesitated, uncertain which way to turn. Come on, Benny boy, he urged himself. He had to move and move fast, he knew that much. His hunter was not far behind and past experience suggested that he shouldn’t expect things to go easily. Adrenaline surged through his body, making Ben feel vibrant and alive. He was a Watcher,
after all; part of a secret army, hiding and surviving on the rooftops of the city: he didn’t scare easily.
Three months ago, Ben would have laughed at the idea that he had any sort of destiny beyond scratching out a meagre living as best he could. But then three months ago he had been totally ignorant of a lot of things. Such as the battle that had been raging for centuries, with the Watchers on one side and the Legion on the other. The Watchers in the high places and the Legion in their network of tunnels. The Above and the Under. Good and evil. Opposite, but not equal.
Ben knew about the war now. And his own part in it.
He faltered, uncertain which way to turn, and the words of his mentor, Mr. Moon, sprang to mind. Stop larking about and focus!
Jago Moon was a man with many hidden talents, steeped in the knowledge and law of the Watchers. He was a master swordsman, which came as a surprise to people who assumed (as Moon intended them to) that he was a slightly insane bookseller. But that was only the beginning of Moon’s gifts. The old man’s hearing was so acute that he didn’t even need to use his eyes when he was sword fighting. Of course, the old boy didn’t have much choice on that score; he was blind as a bat and twice
Ben did his best to imitate Moon now, using all of his senses to prepare himself for fight or flight. You never know when you might not have eyes to help you, Moon had advised him. Moon was full of cheery thoughts like that.
Fighting against the hubbub of the city, Ben listened for sounds that he could use to pinpoint his position. He had always considered himself to be the king of the streets,
but learning to navigate across the rooftops was almost like starting from scratch. He closed his eyes, shut out all the distractions and concentrated.
A scream: the angry friction of metal against metal. Brakes, Ben recognized immediately. A hiss of steam. The constant rumble of iron wheels. He breathed in and tasted
the sharp tang of coal dust in the air. So, I’m near a station. What else?
Above the drone of other voices, Ben could make out the barking of costermongers trying to outdo each other as they drummed up trade. He pieced the details together, picturing the map of London in his mind. A railway station near a market? That would be Liverpool Street, he realized with some satisfaction. So that would mean I’m on…Lamb Street. Probably.
He opened his eyes and looked around for some confirmation. As the sea of smoke shifted, he made out that Spitalfields Market was dead ahead. Ben sniffed the air, drawing in the organic rot of vegetables. Nice. The problem now was whether he could make the jump.
“Arm yourself, Ben Kingdom!” boomed his hunter. “Get ready to fight like a man of destiny.”
Ben still couldn’t pinpoint where the voice was coming from, but it was undoubtedly closer than before. One thing was for certain – he needed to get onto a flat roof if he was going to stand a chance in one-to-one combat. And by his calculations, the flat roof of the market was less than eight feet away. Well, maybe nine or ten, Ben admitted. Certainly not more than twelve.
The Watchers were faced with these challenges every day of the week and had devised numerous ingenious methods to help them bridge the gap between one building and another. Ladders, planks, zip wires and ropes were all stashed at strategic locations. Unfortunately for Ben, this particular junction wasn’t one of them.
“I’m coming!” said the pursuer, from somewhere too close for comfort.
“I’m going,” said Ben, and he took three careful steps backwards, enough to give him a short run-up. Pushing down with his legs and swinging powerfully upwards with his arms, Ben fixed his sight firmly on the opposite roof and launched himself into the air towards it. No more than twelve feet, he told himself as the air rushed around him. I can do this! And even as he thought it, Ben knew that he was dropping too fast. The arc of his leap had been too shallow. Of course I could be wrong, thought Ben, too late. It might be more like fifteen feet, in which case I’m absolutely stuffed.
Spitalfields was further away than he had anticipated and Ben’s heart was in his mouth as his feet fell short and the wall loomed up in front of him. He threw up his arms as his body slammed painfully against the brickwork, punching all the air from his lungs. Scrabbling madly, his fingers managed to get a grip on the guttering. Then he hung there for a moment, as helpless as a rabbit in a butcher’s shop window.
Gritting his teeth against the pain, Ben heaved himself up, first getting one elbow up onto the roof, then the other, and finally his whole bruised body.
“Easy,” he said, with a lopsided grin. “Jago Moon would be proud of me.”
Then the quarterstaff struck him from behind, catching him in the crook of his knees and sweeping his legs out from underneath him. Or maybe not.
Ben’s eyes blazed as he saw his assailant for the first time.
“You fancy playing rough, eh?” Ben taunted, but the words had barely passed his lips when a missile caught him low in the gut, leaving him gasping for breath. It was a crossbow bolt with a weighted head, fired at close range by his slender attacker, who was now backflipping away across the roof.
He rubbed his bruised stomach, grateful that the bolt that had hit him was made for stunning a foe, not killing them. His eyes locked on his attacker. Ben had fought
with this opponent many times before, and there was something almost teasing about their manner which made Ben see red.
And then it came: the tinkling laugh.
“So it’s like that, is it?” said Ben, reaching for his belt and unclipping a short brass tube. With a practised flick of the wrist it expanded into a quarterstaff of his own, which he spun from hand to hand; another of the skills that Jago Moon had taught him.
He knew that his assailant was not alone. When they came for him like this, they always hunted in pairs, and the deep voice that had called out to him certainly did not belong to the slight, loose-limbed creature who remained teasingly out of reach. Ben braced himself and waited for the thud of feet on tiles that would announce their arrival.
Ben strained his ears. No sound came.
He looked around him, keeping light on his feet, waiting and alert. Then he heard it. It was a sound which still gave him goosebumps. The ugly clouds parted and swirled into eddies, stirred by the beating of enormous wings.
“Look no further,” said the angel who landed in front of him. “And draw your sword.”
“Here we go again,” said Ben.
Even though this was by no means the first time that
he had encountered an angel, Ben could not completely control the quiver of fear which suddenly grabbed him. There was something deeply unnerving about facing a being that was not of this world.
The angel in front of him was tall and powerful,
with long dark hair hanging around a face which was simultaneously young and incredibly old. It was as if this man in the prime of his life had somehow witnessed everything that was terrible throughout history; all his scars were on the inside. He was wearing an open-necked, high-collared shirt, and a long, black, square-tailed coat, which had been tailored for him personally to make allowance for the huge white wings which emerged from beneath it.
What always rattled Ben though, even more than the viciously sharp sword that the angel had drawn from its scabbard, were the angel’s eyes. They didn’t just see him, they saw into him. Everything that he was, everything that he had done, no secret was left undisturbed. It was a terrible thing, Ben thought, to be seen by an angel.
With a calmness born out of practice, Ben retracted his quarterstaff using the button on its hilt and clipped it back onto his belt. Then slowly, his gaze not flinching from the angel’s weapon, Ben reached over his shoulder and drew his own sword from its sheath on his back. It was a light blade, slender and finely balanced. It was, as Jago Moon had been keen to instil, a weapon of defence and last resort. To take a life, even the life of an enemy, was not the Watcher way.
Ben flicked his wrist, making the tip of his sword carve invisible curls in the air.
The angel smiled approvingly and then unleashed
Ben didn’t have time to think any more; all he could
do was react.
The angel’s sword slashed towards him in a furious barrage of blows; right cheek; left flank; right flank; left cheek. Ben blocked every swipe but he felt himself being forced backwards across the roof, step by step. Desperately he made a counter-attack, diving forwards and then rolling back up to his feet behind the angel, with a spinning slash at his opponent’s legs. However, a single beat of his wings lifted the angel above the arc of Ben’s blade, and when he landed he attacked with renewed ferocity, sending Ben scurrying back on his hands and feet just to stay out of reach of the onslaught.
Ben tried to concentrate on what Jago Moon had
taught him. Focus. Breathe. Anticipate, Moon would say. Choices and consequences, Ben. All good advice, he was sure, but pretty hard to manage when someone was trying to hack your head off.
Ben scrabbled back onto his feet just in time to parry an almighty downward blow which would have cleaved his head in two. His body still ached where he had slammed into the wall, and his arms were getting heavier, his muscles burning. Ben was losing and the angel knew it.
It was then that he backed into his other opponent, who had been waiting patiently on the rooftop. While he had been focusing on not getting his bonce chopped off, Ben had forgotten about the other attacker, the one
with the crossbow and the playful laugh. Too late he felt their arms around him and, caught off balance, he was flung to the floor. The small figure followed through with a sharp open-handed blow to his wrist, knocking Ben’s sword from his hand, before pinning him securely to the ground.
Ben lay on his back, struggling for breath, while his adversary sat astride his chest, knees on his shoulders, hands clamped firmly around his wrists. He looked for his sword. It was only a few feet away. It may as well have been miles.
He looked up into the face of his victor.
And, as always, she laughed.
“We must stop meeting like this,” said Lucy Lambert, her cheeks flushed with effort.
“Very funny,” said Ben, meaning to sound rather nonchalant about the whole thing but coming across as more petulant than he would have liked. “You can let
me up now. I’ve had enough training for one day, don’t
“Anything you say, oh mighty one,” said Lucy, releasing him. She put out her hand and pulled Ben to his feet. He flashed her a quick grin but Lucy only held his gaze for a moment before turning away. She busied herself tidying her equipment and checking everything was in place on her belt.
She was a strong girl, in more ways than one, Ben knew. She was a Watcher to the core, standing there in the leather trench coat they all wore, her brass-rimmed goggles on the top of her head, like a crown in her long honey-coloured hair. Instinctively her hand went to her face as she felt his eyes on her, touching the long livid scar that split her right cheek in two and the eyepatch which hid the worst of her old wound.
“Be good,” she said out of the side of her mouth. “Josiah is coming. None of your backchat.”
The angel approached them, his footsteps measured. “Well,” said Josiah, slipping his sword back into its sheath. “How do you think that went?”
“Sweet as a nut,” said Ben.
“Apart from the fact that you would have been killed if I were Claw Carter or one of the Legion’s Feathered Men,” Josiah replied.
“All right,” Ben snapped. “Keep your halo on.”
Ben was tired, he was bleeding from grazes to his knees and elbows, and his head was spinning. Since he had joined the Watchers, most days had followed the same pattern. Endless training, constant lectures from Jago Moon and Mother Shepherd, the ageing leader of the Watchers. Think like this. Act like that. Be prepared. And yet, according to them, he still wasn’t ready to go on anything more challenging than a long-range scouting mission. All he ever got was Not yet. Not today. When the time is right.
It was driving him mad with frustration.
The sense of elation that he had felt just moments earlier when he was jumping free, suddenly abandoned him, and the weight of his responsibility chained him to the spot. Ben felt Josiah looking at him, those ancient eyes stripping away all his outer layers of protection to bore into his soul.
The Watchers believed that Ben was the Hand of Heaven, the great leader promised by prophecy. It was
a great destiny, but not one that Ben had asked for.
Deep down, Ben couldn’t help but wonder if they had got it all wrong.
Did it seem likely that a street urchin from the East End, always in some sort of trouble, was really the one person who would end the war between the Watchers and the Legion? Ben was always up for a dare, but even he wouldn’t have picked himself for this one. Mother Shepherd certainly had the wisdom, Jago Moon had the courage, and Lucy Lambert had just about all the qualities necessary, as far as he could see. But him? Ben Kingdom from Old Gravel Lane?
And what if he let them down? What then?
Ben rolled his shoulders and pinched at an imaginary pain in his neck. Head up, Benny boy, he told himself. Put on a brave face. Brass it out.
Ben retrieved his own sword. He could see Josiah and Lucy waiting for him, before they all returned to camp. They looked at him with expressions full of expectation, but Ben was certain that his own doubts were written all over his face.
“I’ll catch you up,” said Ben, dropping down on one knee to fiddle with a shoelace that didn’t need tying. “If Nathaniel is back yet,” he called to Lucy, “give him a dead arm from me.”
“I’ll do better than that,” laughed Lucy. “I’ll tell him how his little brother was beaten by a girl…again!”
“Thanks for that,” said Ben as he watched them leave.
That was another thing Ben found annoying. His big brother was allowed out on proper missions, and had even been in a few skirmishes, but Ben – the leader-in-waiting, so Mother Shepherd said – was never even allowed out of eyeshot.
“Give me strength,” Ben whispered softly, his hand dipping into his pocket and touching an old silver Coin which lay there. “Or failing that, give me a bit of luck.”
The year is 1892 and London is in the grip of evil. A demonic terror stalks the streets, wreaking chaos as it helps the Legion, a vicious underground gang, to raise Hell on earth. Only the Watchers, a secret society of urchins and warriors, can stop them. An ancient prophecy claims one boy, Ben Kingdom, has the power to end this war. Can he find the courage to fulfill his destiny... or will the city fall at the Feast of Ravens? Light can save the blackest heart. Darkness can poison the purest soul. One boy has to lead the fight.
Listen to an extract from the audiobook:
As a child adventure was everywhere for Andrew Beasley; he went exploring Scunge Island and had an underground base made out of sunken coal bunker. Now that he's grown up, Andrew works as a primary school teacher in Cornwall.
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“Action-packed, full of the spirit of adventure and with serious moral issues underlying the plotlines, who could ask for anything more?”
The Lancashire Evening Post
Visit Usborne Quicklinks for teacher's notes for topic work on the Victorians, and for links to recommended websites about being young and homeless, and children in Victorian times.