Prologue to Montfort’s Web, a Steampunk novel set in a dystopian 19th century England. Ten years after a devastating war that virtually destroyed the country, England is now a collection of City States struggling to rebuild a shattered society.  The City State of York is doing better than most. The question is – why? Jerusha Hamilton investigates fraudulent mediums. Thomas Digby is an ex-army sniper turned policeman. Together they are drawn into a web of debauchery, organised crime and murder, in an attempt to expose the hidden horrors of York’s new prosperity.

Montfort’s Web – Prologue

Spring 1888

Tom Fletcher opened his eyes as the cattle train screeched to a halt. He flexed his back, wincing as his muscles protested. The constant motion of the train slamming his spine against the wooden truck walls left him feeling stiff and bruised. Heavy against his right shoulder, Catherine murmured in her sleep. She looked older than her thirty years, small and lost in the crowded, stinking chaos of the truck, but even through the dirt that smeared her face his heart melted at the sight of her. So beautiful, and he loved her as much now as on the day he’d married her. Instinctively, he tightened his arm round her and she stirred. He stroked her hair and she settled again,

A familiar knot twisted in his guts. How had it come to this? They’d had so much hope as the Prussian war ended. It was as if the whole army, or what was left of it, heaved a collective sigh of relief that the fighting was over. Five years of bombings and slaughter. Five years of mud and blood and endless battles that got them nowhere. There had been desperation when the aerial bombs started falling, increasing the slaughter to horrific levels, then a stunned relief when the Prussian bomb factories and the dreaded ‘Black Ships’ were mysteriously destroyed in a single night. The war had ended quickly after that. He’d been so happy at the thought of going home, just to see Catherine’s face again and to hold little Agnes in his arms as she fell asleep.

He remembered arriving at Calais, tired and footsore, with what was left of the Yorkshire Regiment. They were herded into a pen, like sheep.

“Listen up.” A man in a dirty, dark suit shouted to be heard as the last of them stumbled in and a makeshift wooden gate was closed behind them. “This is the end of the road. Your country thanks you for your efforts.” He pointed to a row of tables at one end of the pen, manned by more men in dark suits. “These men will give you your discharge papers. There’s a tramp steamer waiting on the dock to take you back to Hull. You may then make your way home, as best you can.”

He turned to walk away when an angry voice from the back of the crowd shouted up. “What about our pay? We haven’t been paid for months.”

The man turned back to face them, his eyes as cold as the North Sea they were about to cross. “There is no pay.” He paused and signaled towards the broken walls of a ruined warehouse along the dock. A dozen men emerged, in civilian clothes, armed with rifles. Tom thought they looked like dock workers. They certainly weren’t soldiers. The message was clear enough. The soldier didn’t argue the point. They got their papers signed and boarded the little French steamer, along with remnants of other northern regiments. There was hardly enough room to sit down on the deck. So different from the outward crossing, when they’d forged through the choppy seas in a huge Ironclad, proud to be soldiers, proud to be off to war to defend home, family and freedom.

The crossing home from the continent had been made on a calm sea bathed in late summer warmth. The mood of the company on the little French tramp steamer was subdued, even the crew refused to talk to them. Then they turned towards the shore past the ruined lighthouses of Spurn Point, and on up the River Humber. The soldiers fell silent as they took in the black ruination that had once been a bustling city, proud of its maritime heritage. Tom had turned as a hand gripped his shoulder.

One of the French sailors stood behind him, a mixture of sorrow and guilt in his eyes. “I am sorry,” he said quietly. He couldn’t meet Tom’s eyes. “I am sorry,” he muttered again, then shambled off down the deck, head bowed.

After disembarkation, Tom stood on the docks and looked round. Hardly a building was left standing and the ruins were eerily quiet. A few desolate souls wandered through the rubble, looking more like ghosts than people with their gaunt faces and eyes full of despair.

Tom was shocked to the core.

A solitary officer waited at their berth, his uniform ragged, his eyes weary. He had several days’ growth of stubble on his grey face. “Come on lads. Look sharp.”

A gangplank was hastily pushed into place and the soldiers spewed out onto the ruined wharf. When they had all disembarked, the officer held up his hands for quiet.

“Look around you.” He swept his arm round to encompass the view of the city.

“This is what your country looks like now. We have been bombed almost to extinction. There are no cities left, no government, no royal family.” He paused to let the information sink in. “Go home, if you still have one. Find what’s left of your families. Try to salvage something for yourselves.”

For a few seconds, Tom just stood in stunned silence. Was this what he’d fought for? He’d wondered, like they all had, why there’d been no news from home for weeks. No letters, no news sheets. Nothing. The war was disrupting communications, he’d been told. Now he knew the truth, and it struck cold fear into him.

Tom had walked back to York. He started out with a group of comrades, but one by one they walked different roads, trying to find their own ways home. By the time Tom reached the edge of the city, he was alone. The journey had taken him six days. On the first terrible day he stumbled through rubble and tripped over corpses, sickened by the stench and the ever present buzzing of flies. He was angry, horrified that people had been left to rot where they fell. Then he realised that there weren’t enough of the living left to bury the dead.

As he moved inland, things improved. The devastation wasn’t total, and there were people, living people, trying to find shelter in hastily mended houses. Here and there, gardens had survived the bombardments and were green with vegetables. The odd cluster of thin chickens scratched what they could find in the barren ground. Sometimes he came across small villages that hadn’t been damaged at all. Tom learned to steer clear of these places. There was no welcome for the returning heroes of war, just the perceived threat of strangers looking to steal food. Occasionally, it was different. An old couple called him over from the road, fed him vegetable stew and gave him a bed for the night. Tom noticed the man’s gun was never far from his hands. But they sent him on his way with a pocketful of apples and half a loaf of rough bread and he was grateful for it.

York was bad. The three towers of the minster, visible from miles away, stood broken and blackened against the skyline. But there were people about, and a lot of houses that weren’t damaged at all. He found Catherine in what was left of their terraced cottage, just one back room that she’d boarded up to keep herself safe. The rest was rubble, along with most of the street. Agnes, his beautiful baby, was dead, and so was the light in his wife’s eyes.

Throughout the following bitter winter, he’d tried hard to keep them alive and fed, selling what little of value he had, including his father’s pocket watch. Then spring came and somehow they’d lived through the cold. But there was nothing left to sell, no work, no help, no hope.

Now, sitting on the floor of the cattle truck, cold and hungry, Tom asked himself the question again. Is this what we fought for? A place on a cattle truck rattling across a broken land to a work camp? When he was a young boy, his father scared him into doing his chores with the threat of the workhouse. So he worked hard, did his duty, would have died for his country. And this is where he ended up.

He heard footsteps outside, and the sound of bolts being drawn back. With a loud rumble, the door slid open, letting in a grey morning light.

“Everyone off.” A large man jumped up into the truck, his nailed boots ringing on the floor, a heavy club in his right hand. “Get yourselves across to the registration hut. You’ll be assigned a number and a bunk. Without your number you won’t get fed. Look sharp.” With that he jumped down and moved on to the next truck where the message was repeated.

Catherine was awake now, but she made no effort to move.

“Come on, love. We have to go.” Tom spoke gently, fighting to keep fear and anger out of his voice. He wanted to shout and scream, leap down from the truck and run at the lout with the club. He wanted to beat his head to a pulp with his bare hands. But what was the point of anger, or despair? No-one cared. If he gave in to violence now, they’d just beat him senseless, and where would Catherine be then? His hands shook as he reached down to take his wife’s hand.

Without a word, she staggered to her feet and picked up her pathetically small bundle of possessions. Tom helped her down from the truck and looked round. The railway ran next to a large compound that was enclosed by a high wooden fence. There were watchtowers at each corner. Through the open double gates he could see row upon row of long, single storey huts. The hut doors were open, and people filed out as a bell rang from a tower in the centre of the compound. Each person held a small tin pail, and they queued up at long trestle tables next to the tower, holding out their pails to be filled from a large, steaming cauldron. Tom couldn’t see what food was being served, but his stomach was painfully empty. He didn’t care what it was. Food was food, and they were starving.

Outside the compound, more tables were set up under cover of a shingled roof. The train’s occupants shuffled towards them. Tom grabbed Catherine’s arm and followed. They were each given a paper with a large, black number written on it, a tin pail and a blanket. They were lined up and herded towards the compound gate.

Tom turned and looked back across the tracks as a goods train went past, chugging slowly towards York on the badly repaired track, its open trucks filled with crushed white stone that gleamed in the sun. A fine white dust filled the air, blown off the top of the cargo. Tom licked his lips and tasted chalk. People were filing out of the compound now, backs bent, dragging their feet along a straight, well-worn path through the fields. Beyond the path, a vision of hell blighted the landscape. Kilns belched noxious smoke into the morning air and from a jumble of buildings, shrouded in the same white dust that now settled in Tom’s throat, emanated a cacophony of mechanical noise as chalk from the nearby quarry was sorted and crushed. Tom turned away and looked out over the fields. Somewhere out there was home. In that moment he had a terrible feeling that, like thousands of others, he would never see home again.

 

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