Portsmouth Writers’ Season: Tom Harris

We present an excerpt from chapter one of Tom Harris’ new novel, The Sweep, a fantasy adventure set in an alternative, steampunk-inspired London. This is a capital divided by wealth and corruption, run by a fractured law, where monsters haunt the night and where the downtrodden slave to survive; it is a time of Masters and a time of Sweeps.

I stare into black.

The chimney seems endless in the night and the air is warm on my face, as it whistles down the flue.

‘There were stars out tonight, I’m sure of it,’ I say, to the boy beside me, squinting as I search for a hint of light, even optimism, at the end of this everlasting chimney pot.

‘I ain’t never seen a star. Not through the smog, and with all them nebula-train headlights shootin’ round the sky I ain’t never gonna see one,’ he disagrees.

‘So with all those lights flashing about, why’d you suppose there’s nothing but black up there?’ I ask, gazing into the flue.

‘There’s somethin’ blockin’ it, ain’t there?’ he asks, not as confident as he makes out half the time.

‘You’re wise beyond your years, young Jarl,’ I say.

‘Don’t take the rise. I ain’t no kid anymore, Kohle!’

‘No, you’re not. None of us are…’

When I look at him, he seems like a baby, alive for only ten years in this hardened world, but I’ve only got five years on him. There isn’t much time to be a kid in Londinium.

‘Well…’ I pause, breathing out. ‘There’s definitely an obstruction.’ I step out of the hearth and trip over Jarl, who’s getting under my feet, like the young ones do.

A mist builds in the room, too thick to be wisps of curious smog from the Downstreets, but we need to move whatever it is that’s blocking the flue before this whole house is choked in fumes.

This room reminds me of a lost time. Of a home I once had. It is small of size with two comfy chairs, a table and a bookcase, but the heart of this room is its fireplace.

Jarl tugs at one of the white cover sheets, revealing a huge clock beside us. It’s important to protect as much as we can from the smoke.

Smoke ruins. It scars and it’s building quickly in here…Doesn’t stop me seeing past it though, doesn’t stop me remembering and imagining a home full of laughter and joy; a home, like I used to have…but all that is so distant now, like a different time…

‘So, we climbing this chimney or what?’

I smile and rub my knuckles across the boy’s head. ‘You’re my apprentice, Jarl, remember?’

‘Ger off,’ he shakes free and tuts at me, but I wait and he delivers that reliable grin, as ever he does.

I raise my hand to my mouth and step into the hearth. That inevitable aroma of the embers, the smoky char of my world, fills my head, ripening bogies into black pulses, ready for the picking. A heat haze flickers before the mantle. The air is hot to the touch.

None of them. That’s how many of our clients put their fires out properly. They close the damper, thinking it’s been snuffed out but the smoke gathers, unable to rise through the flue and into the burnt butter skies of our capital; Londinium.

This city is fog. This city is smoke. It has swallowed the poor of the Downstreets and it is rising fast. The rich won’t be able to run from it forever. It won’t be long before all the Downers are sucking down oxygen canisters just to stay alive. It is a city of a million chimney stacks. That’s all that matters to me. As long as there are chimneys to sweep I’ll always have a place here.

‘Right. Last job,’ I say, because I always say it.

Jarl nods and we both say. ‘Until the next one…’

I pull on the lever. The noise that screeches down the chimney tells me what I need to know. Client said as much; knows what he’s talking about. I drop to a crouch, pull on my helmet and goggles and place my gloved hands against the burning bricks. The brass plates on my knees and elbows clink as I pull myself into the darkness. No gas lamps or candles up here, just me and my senses; my instinct. The chimney is narrow, but not as tight as most in the Downstreets. There’s enough room to flex elbows and knees, it’s not a bad climb, really.

‘Do ya think the dampener’s knackered?’ calls Jarl.

‘It’s damper. Remember what I taught you, yeah?’ – I can’t hear it, but I know he’s grumbling, probably pulling a face too – ‘Maybe it’s busted,’ I concede, as I climb, hands and fingers moving fast so the skin doesn’t sear. ‘Client said it wouldn’t open using the lever system and he’s right on that too, but I won’t know what’s blocking it till I get up there. It might be dangerous, so don’t follow. Just wait there for my instruction.’

‘Yeah, yeah,’ he calls back.

I climb quickly, as if I’m desperate to put more distance between us, but I’m not. If anything, this past six months, it’s been great to have him around; someone to care about. Stops me over-thinking. Stops me dwelling and makes me look forward, not back…never back.

‘Hey, did I tell you that thing, Kohle?’

‘Tell me what thing?’ I smirk, mocking him, cause I know what he’s going to say.

‘I saw him again…as clear as a well swept flue, I did. The man with the corvus head.’

Jarl is a good kid, but he’s young. He’s got an imagination that stretches as high and as far as the Londinium Sky Tracks, and that brain of his twists and turns faster and sharper than the nebula-trains that race along them. He makes me laugh with his stories. This new one is the best yet.

‘Saw who?’ I say, just poking him, messing about to see if he’ll bite.

‘Him! I did tell ya. I told ya ‘fore we got here, tonight.’

Yep. He’s biting alright.

‘Corvus!’

‘Oh, him…Yeah, you be sure to point him out, next time,’ I call down, as the plates on my knees clang against the wall as the flue narrows. The smoke is thickening and despite my goggles, my eyes weep from the smoke. I push on, but Jarl will not be ignored.

‘I seen him again, I did! In the grounds of Caminus Hall. He dain’t see me, but I seen him. Twice, I did now. Dressed in black; boots, trousers and a fur ruff round his neck and then there’s his head!’

‘You shouldn’t be sneaking around in the dark like that – should you?’ I shout, coughing as smoke crawls into my lungs.

‘But his head, Kohle! Jet black feathers, eyes darker than any night and that beak, all hooked and deformed. He’s a freak!’

‘Well, whatever he is, I don’t want you lurking about in the grounds beyond midnight. If Miss Tanis sees you, you’ll be out on your backside! It’s that what’s giving you night terrors. It’s a sure way to end up in the belly of a vulpes if you go wandering the grounds. Remember the rhyme? When the skies are still and there’s nothing but black…’

‘Yeah, yeah, I remember – out come the vulpes, to tear out your rack. What does that mean anyway, tear out your rack?’

‘Your ribs,’ I say, moving on before the heat sticks me to the brick. ‘It means, the pack will tear you apart and devour the flesh from your ribs.’

‘Now who’s givin’ me night terrors,’ he calls up. ‘Anyways, there ain’t no way, Tanis will catch me. Not whilst she’s in that wheelchair of hers.’

His laughter rises up the flue and tickles my face, forcing a smile. He’s too young to care that he shouldn’t joke about people in wheelchairs, even if it is Miss Tanis.

As I reach up, the handhold crumbles and brick-dust sprinkles my face. I slip. In that second before I stop my fall, memories engulf me. The way their bodies fell, Mum and Dad, gone forever, just like that. The reek of burning flesh snaps me from my past. I grit my teeth, clamp my plated knees against the walls and shake off my burning palms. ‘Focus you idiot!’ I curse.

‘You’ll see him one day, Kohle. You’ll see Corvus. I know ya will. Though I hopes you don’t. He might be that killer they say is about, come to take his pick of the sweeps of Caminus?’

‘That’s enough, Jarl. I’ve told you, it’s all fiction and fabric, so enough!’

He falls quiet. He’s being silly now, showing his age, and so I push on as the smoke scuttles into my lungs. Time to stop talking. I brace using elbows and knees and pull up the cloth gag from my neck. I prop it over my nose so it covers my mouth. Then I continue the climb.

Jarl’s voice fades as I rise through the flue. I hate ignoring him, but that kid would natter all day and we still have work to do. We always have work to do.

It’s getting hotter. Heat rises. Everyone knows that. Takes a lot to make me sweat, but I’m drowning in it at the moment. The damper must be close now and I’m sure that’s what’s broken. A sinister melody of wind instruments finds me. It’s the sound of the Downstreets funnelling down the flue. Although I don’t know the tune, I climb faster, using the beat, like the music is growing inside me.

Jarl’s calling to me, but I’m a long way up and his words are strangled by the distance.

‘I can’t hear you!’ I yell. His reply is muffled.

The clang and clatter of brass plates below grabs my attention. Is he moving up the chimney just cause I won’t answer him?

‘Stay put will you! There’s no point in brushing out the flue till I’m done. You know that! And if this blockage falls it will squash you flat. What do you think of that?’

His strangled cries continue. He’s banging around like he’s having a tantrum or something.

‘Whatever it is that you want can bloody wait till I’m done!’ I yell.

Why doesn’t he listen to me? I won’t be around to teach him forever. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I should let him figure stuff out for himself. What if he’s getting too dependent? I’m fifteen and that’s ancient in this job. I got less than a year of my Under-Master trials left and then he’s on his own. That’s not long to learn all that he needs. I mean, it’s dangerous; everyone knows that. From sweeping high rises for the rich on Hillside and Montem, to cleaning the crumbling, narrow stacks of the poor in the Downstreets…Unless you know what you’re doing, you’ll not last out your first phase apprenticeship, let alone live to become a Master Sweep. That’s why we get to do it, cause no-one’ll miss us when we go. We have nothing and no-one, except each other. I pause. Why has he gone so quiet?

‘Jarl!’ I call and through a break in the music, comes a deafening silence. Has he left me? Left the bloody room? No-one leaves on a job. No-one.

‘Oi! We are not done yet. Don’t you run out on me! I thought you were past all that? Jarl?’

Nothing.

From rage comes doubt and from doubt comes worry. What if he’s slipped? What if he’s hurt?

‘Jarl! You okay?’ – Nothing.

Nah, don’t get yourself at it. He’s fine. Just needy. The young ones always are. I was. I remember. I have to let him be, let him learn, make his mistakes. I climb again and as I reach up, my hand lands on a cast iron plate.

‘Ah, there you are!’ I say.

The damper is closed as expected. That’s what has caused the build-up of smoke, but as I push my brass arm plate against it, hoping to release the building fumes into the night sky, something is very wrong. The damper is sealed fast.

I brace myself in the flue and put my shoulder into it, banging on the plate. Bolts of electric pain spark in my muscles, but I grit my teeth and go again. No use. It’s not budging. I can’t work it out. Why would anyone seal a valve? Any Sweep worth his salt knows that the damper acts as a valve, there to control the heat – the flow through the flue – but this isn’t jammed or stuck, it’s no accident at all.

My head is taking over my body and the stiller I become, the faster the heat burns through me. My clothes stick to my sweaty skin. Must act. Must move. I jam myself in the brick channel and kick away at the plate. It pings back, ringing in my head. I kick harder. I slip. Don’t get clumsy. Get your head straight. Only apprentices and idiots fall.

Jarl’s voice returns, carried on a rush of sooty wind. Then a mighty clang echoes up the flue. My mind flashes to that expensive-looking clock and the cover sheet.

‘Jarl! If you’ve broken that clock, I’ll…’

Jarl screams.

I fly down that chimney like I’m on fire. The brass plates chink and scrape as I slide down the flue, sparking against the brick. I descend through the smoke and the darkness, my heart smashing against my chest plate. My breathing is ragged, my stomach rolling over and over.

‘Jarl!’ I call, as his screams reach into me. ‘Almost there!’ I cry. His screams stop, replaced by a metallic clang, repeating, like someone’s hammering.

I’m out of time. I drop. My stomach hollows as I freefall. I widen my legs and arms, using the plates to slow my fall. The brass brakes spark and slow me, holding me in the dark. My body screams in agony as the bitter light from the room colours the smoke at the bottom of the flue, before all the light is snuffed out.

‘Jarl!?’ I whisper. ‘What’s going on?’ There’s no reply, just an eerie scraping, and then a bang that almost makes me swallow my tongue. ‘Jarl? Is that you?’ I slip and before I can brake I clatter into metal. The sheet folds beneath me and I crash down into the hearth; swallowed up by a cloud of soot.

A voice grunts and moans. I’ve fallen right on him, trapping him beneath the sheet. What has he been doing?

‘Where did you get this thing, Jarl? You okay?’ I call, as the sheet rises up and tips me off my feet. I roll out of the fireplace, spreading soot across the dust sheets and onto the wooden floorboards. Dust and smoke fill me up, my eyes adjusting as I gasp for clean air. Can’t focus.

The mist clouds me.

The sheet of metal lies dented in the hearth. What is that thing and what is it even doing there?

Jarl. I try to call his name, but the words won’t leave my mouth. I see the sheet move. A figure rises from under it, covered in soot. It is not Jarl, but this creature he talks of.

It is Corvus, born into life.

The stranger is just as he described; eyes glazed as though dead and a crooked beak that sits on a head of feathers. Above this macabre mask sits a top hat with goggles wrapped around the sash, but this is no fabrication of a child’s mind, it is a man.

As he stumbles out of the hearth, I sense the danger. I reach for a weapon, something to defend us. I take a brick in hand.

‘The boy?’ I manage, as he stands to full height. I see it only briefly, but where his trouser leg is torn by the sheet is a mark. It is art – skin-ink – a large cross upon his calf.

Those dead eyes drop upon me and his mutated voice fills the room.

‘Cr-r-ruck. Your kind will pay for their crimes, Sweep.’ He steps forward, as I rise to my haunches. ‘Cr-r-ruck. I am vengeance. I am wrath.’

Can’t breathe. Can’t speak, but I rise to meet his challenge, as I must.

Talons on the toecaps of dark grey boots clink as Corvus crosses the room towards me. He pauses to stare into the fireplace before he takes a shiny dagger with a brass handle from a sheath on his waist. His demented voice fills the room again as he stares me down.

‘Cr-r-ruck. I come for you all, for you know not what you have done. It has begun and it will not end until all have paid the true price, Sweep. The final price.’ Then he lurches forward. I slip aside as the dagger flashes through the air. He comes again and I roll away as the blade chases me.

I turn and face him on my haunches. ‘The boy? Where is the boy?’

He makes no sound. His movements are slow, but his reach makes up for that. The dagger slashes again and I dart under him. I can’t fight this beast. He has me cornered in the fireplace. He thrusts. I roll aside, clattering across the metal sheet. There’s only one place I can survive this.

‘Cr-r-ruck. Only death waits for us in the dark, Sweep!’

He’s too close and when the dagger comes this time, I am done. As the blade arrives, all I can do is to hold out an arm. It’s instinct to block its path to my face. The dagger screeches across my brass plate but it was meant for my flesh. With no resistance to stop his weight coming forward, Corvus stumbles. He has lost all balance. Though he does not fall, it buys me time.

I slide across the sheet and wriggle back into the hearth, scrambling through the debris of soot and brick. The echo of the knife chinking against the rubble in my wake propels me forward and I rise with hands, elbows, knees and feet working quickly with the brass. Into the darkness I climb until my breath runs out. I peer down into the sliver of light, gasping for air, as the shadow of Corvus blocks it out.

Though his dagger and his crushing hands can’t reach me that voice still can.

‘Cr-r-ruck. Know that you led the boy to his end, Sweep.’

‘What? What have you done to the boy?’ I scream.

‘Cr-r-ruck. Nothing less than what was done to me. Know that you can’t live your life up there in the dark. Not forever.’

The scream of a klaxon silences my anger and halts my voice. It is the sound of law. The Flam! A capital alert has been signalled.

‘Cr-r-ruck. This night is yours, Sweep, but I will be waiting for you, for all of you.’

Light returns to the flue and as the klaxon continues to splinter the Londinium night, I descend. All flee at the sound of the klaxon, even Corvus it seems.

‘Jarl…?’

I rush down the chimney, pausing should the slash of a blade greet me. It does not and the klaxon gives me no choice. I drop and scramble out across the sheet, ignoring the bruising and the heaviness of my legs. I back away to take in the room, fear numbing all physical pain as I search for another weapon to fight with should Corvus spring from the shadows. As the klaxon wails through the timbers of this old house, I sense I am alone.

When I see the crumpled boy beneath the sheet, my world turns colder than ice.

‘Jarl?’ I cry and I rush to the boy, pulling the sheet from his body, best I can.

I stagger back into the old clock. Through the smoke and dust, darkness descends.

I understand death. I am a killer after all.

This moment is familiar to me. It is as though I am looking down upon my parent’s bodies in the mines, like it’s happening all over again…

He is broken. Gone.

The death of a sweep. The death of a friend.

My Jarl.