One Hundred and Fifty Sprugs – A Draft Prologue from Lilliput

The stable smelled of horses: of their manure and their sweat and their straw. But it was dark and deserted, with a dozen exits, and so it was a perfect place for the thieves to do their business.

‘A shilling?’ said Brindle to the traveller.

‘A shilling?’ repeated Petterkins in disbelief.

Brindle shook his head at the man. ‘You must take us for a pair of bird-wits. This ent a shillings work, is it Petterkins? Have you any idea how hard it is to pickpocket trinkets like this?’

‘Hard as hard is hard,’ Petterkins clarified, and together the two pickpockets sat on their hay bales, clutching their cloaks and chewing their pipes in disgust. Brindle’s two front teeth were gnawing at his bottom lip and Petterkins stroked the mole above his beard as if it were a pet. They could afford to haggle. There were two hours until sunrise: plenty of time to settle on a price for the birdcage.

The traveller stood for a moment in dark of the stable, scraping the mud from his boots and shaking the rain from his hat. In their stalls the horses listened to him stomping and dripping over the straw. Their ears twitched in the dark, and some of them swished their tails and shifted about where they stood. The rain had been falling for three days now, and the horses had been stabled since Monday. They were restless. Everyone was restless. Especially the traveller himself, Petterkin noticed. He probably needed to get to London for business, but his coach was stranded in the middle of a muddied road. But whyever had he asked them to nab a birdcage?

Again, the traveller inspected Brindle and Petterkin’s offering. The birdcage had tall, elegant sides, with tiny iron flowers woven through the bars. Inside there was a perch decorated with china ivy leaves and engraved with a message long since worn away to nothing.

Perhaps it was a little bent, from where someone had dropped it. Perhaps the china leaves were a little chipped and the iron flowers a little rusted. But it was still a beautiful prison, where beautiful birds could be trapped and made to sing you beautiful songs.

‘A shilling is all I have,’ said the traveller.

‘All he has?’ Brindle blew a raspberry and Petterkins copied him and got dribble all over his beard. ‘Fib-sticks.’

‘I’ve got a good mind to pick his pockets for him,’ said Petterkins, ‘and see if that’s true.’

Instantly the traveller’s hand shot into his coat, and the pickpockets choked on their laughter. Petterkins choked on his pipe as well.

‘I suggest you don’t,’ said the traveller, his voice even and deadly.

‘Easy now,’ said Brindle cautiously. ‘We never meant to nettle ya.’

‘No we never did,’ Petterkins confirmed once he had finished coughing. Even he had seen the handle of the pistol in the traveller’s belt. The pickpockets had noticed, too, that the traveller had sewn up all his pockets with a needle and thread, to keep them out.

Or maybe, Petterkin thought absurdly, it was to keep someone else in.

‘Now,’ said Brindle with a cough, ‘to go back to the birdcage.’ His black eyes began to glitter. ‘I couldn’t help noticing that there’s a certain burden there-’ he pointed ‘-in your left pocket.’

The traveller scowled.

‘Might there be a doubloon or two in there?’ Petterkins inquired.

‘There might be,’ agreed Brindle. ‘And if there were, I’d say two doubloons… now that would be a price worth paying for a fine birdcage like this.’

The traveller’s eyes narrowed and the noses of the pickpockets began to quiver. They could smell the deal as it came closer and closer.

‘It isn’t a bag of doubloons,’ said the traveller.

‘Oh,’ said Petterkins.

‘It’s foreign currency,’ said the traveller, as very carefully he began to pull the stitches from his left-hand pocket, and bring out a heavy bag.

‘Foreign?’ scoffed Petterkins. ‘We don’t want foreign muck, do we Brin-’

‘Shut it, you Bottle-headed Shabberoon,’ Brindle hissed. His black eyes shone in the light of his lamp, as the traveller tipped out a fraction of the bag onto his hand.

Coins.

Hundreds upon hundreds of gold coins, each one about the size of a full-stop.

A little more dribble fell out of Petterkins’ mouth. ‘They’re tiny,’ he breathed. ‘What are they?’

‘Sprugs,’ said the traveller. ‘I was given them on my travels by an Emperor.’

Brindle and Petterkins stared at the coins, and in the lamplight they could just about see: stamped on the gold circles was a miniature face with a crown, and a name, too small to see.

‘Two ‘undred sprugs,’ said Brindle at once. ‘Two ‘undred, and the birdcage is yours.’

‘But where are we gonna spend-’

Brindle hit Petterkins on the back of the head. ‘Don’t you see, you bottle-head? That’s an ounce of gold we got there.’

Petterkins glared back and twisted his beard like it was Brindle’s neck, but he kept quiet.

‘Two ‘undred,’ said Brindle.

‘One-fifty,’ said the traveller.

‘One-ninety,’

‘One-fifty.’

‘Sold!’ cried Brindle, shooting out his hand for the traveller to shake. ‘You got yourself a birdcage.’

In the dark it took a while to count out the sprugs and hand them over. When it was finally done, the traveller took the birdcage in his hand and hid under his coat as best he could.

‘What you going to stick in it?’ Petterkin asked as the two pickpockets sat with the sprugs scattered in their palm like gold dust. ‘You got a bird?’

‘Petterkin,’ said Brindle, who could not tear his gaze from the money. ‘We got our Quidds, now leave the fellow be.’

But the traveller seemed genuinely pleased that Petterkin had asked. It was as if his mysterious behaviour was bottling up inside him, like steam, and if he didn’t explain some of it to someone, he would explode.

‘The cage is to keep a specimen,’ the traveller answered. ‘A specimen I collected on my travels.’

‘Ooh,’ said Petterkin. ‘Travel.’ He whistled in admiration, and blew several dozen sprugs off his hand and onto the floor.

‘I suppose,’ said the traveller to himself, ‘you might call it more of an odyssey.’

‘Where did you go?’ asked Petterkin, searching about the straw in a mild panic for his sprugs. ‘Somewhere exotic?’

‘I went to an island. An island called Lilliput.’

‘Never heard of it,’ said Brindle sharply.

Petterkin was on his hands and knees. ‘No,’ he said in a very small voice.

The traveller smiled. ‘No, not many people have. It’s very small, you see. But they will. Soon everyone will know about Lilliput.’

And with that, he turned on his heel and walked out into the wild night.

At that moment, with his head level with the traveller’s coat pockets, Petterkin swore he heard something. He heard it: it was so clear, so desperately sad, that for a moment he forgot all about the money on the stable floor. A noise, muffled and distant, but nevertheless it was there.

Beneath the drumming of the rain on the roof and the murmurs of the horses was the sound of a little girl crying.

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