PROLOGUE

Dawn was breaking over the eastern plains. The road outside the village of Hamner was empty, but a sharp-eyed observer might have noticed movement in the northern ditch—the deeper of the two, choked with weeds and wild grasses. As the grey sky turned slowly to pink and gold, a tiny figure could be seen toiling through the underbrush.

It was a boy. He was seven years of age, but he seemed far younger. He had the look of a frightened, emaciated animal, his matted and shaggy black hair falling in a filthy curtain around his shoulders and into his intense dark eyes. He was barefoot, and clad only in the trailing, tattered remains of a man's shirt. The buttons had long ago been bartered away for food, and the grimy garment was held closed over his gaunt little body by a piece of salvaged butcher's twine. He was so thin that his hands looked like spidery bundles of twigs as they clutched his famine-bloated belly.

He was shivering, for it was early spring and he was very tired, but he knew that he had to keep moving until the sun came up, or else he would freeze. He had no ultimate destination, but he could see the town on the horizon, and that was where his attention was fixed. Towns meant dogs, which were bad, and people, who were worse, but they also meant warm chimney walls to huddle against, and midden heaps and ash piles from which to scavenge food, and these were good things.

He had survived the winter by living in the alleys of a large town that lay somewhere behind him. When the warmer weather had come, and the townsfolk had started to venture from their homes more often, he had had to move on. If people saw you once, they would ignore you—they might even give you a few cens or a piece of bread. But if they saw you more often, they started to think that they had to do something about you. It was then that they would try to turn you over to the village corporal, and the boy knew what that meant. He had escaped a state orphanage once, and he was never, ever going back.

The sun was peeking over the rolling prairie behind him, but the boy was focused on the town ahead. He was so tired and wretchedly hungry. If he could just reach that first, neat little row of houses, maybe he could find some sheltered place to sleep. Then later, when he wasn't so exhausted, he could try to find food.

The first house was blue, with tidy white gables and a little picket fence. The yard was empty, with a well-kept vegetable garden and a bed of hollyhocks. The boy passed it by: there was nowhere to hide. In the next yard, a fat man in a bathrobe sat reading a newspaper and nursing a mug of steaming hot tea. The boy's mouth watered painfully at the sight, but he scurried quickly past that house and the next before the man could notice him. He was so tired...

A low hostile growl that grew rapidly into a series of sharp, furious barks that startled the boy so badly that he almost fell to his knees. A large, black dog strained against its chain, barking at the tiny intruder. The boy broke into a run, moving as fast as his skinny legs could carry him until his lungs felt ready to burst. He stumbled, and threw out his hands to keep himself from ploughing head-first into the grass. He tried to scamper to his feet, but he just couldn't manage it. Instead, he crawled forward on his hands and knees, away from the last house in the row, and away from the dog that had frightened him.

He sat back and cradled one bony knee in his hand. He had landed on a stone, and scraped off old scabs and a good deal of skin. He bit his lip and tried not to cry. Sometimes it was very hard to be alone.

Once upon a time, the boy had had a home, and good food to eat and proper clothes to wear. He had had a mother and a father, and a little girl baby who slept in a cradle and laughed when he puffed out his cheeks. Then one night it had all disappeared. He remembered waking up in the middle of the night, unable to breathe. He didn't remember how he had managed to get his window open, or how he had escaped through it without hurting himself in the fall, but he did remember the old lady who lived on the main floor holding him tight while he watched great tongues of flame devour the house, leaving only the smoking foundations, and a row of laundry blowing on the line.

With a tremendous effort, the child got to his feet, smearing the blood on his scratched knee. He looked around helplessly, wondering not for the first time where he should go and what he should do. Then his eyes fell on another house. It was along the same lane as the others, but a good distance away. It almost looked like an entity entirely separate from the rest of the town. It was a tall white house, the paint a little faded and the grass a little unkempt. A fence enclosed three sides of the yard: the fourth was marked by a thick hydrangea hedge. There was a tall tree in one corner of the yard, and a clothesline stretched from a pole to the wall near the back door. There was clothing hanging from it, rustling a little in the wind.

For a moment, the boy felt lonelier than ever. Then good sense took over. The hedge would be a good place to sleep: he would be sheltered from the wind, and hidden from hostile eyes. He could sleep there, and maybe there would be something to eat in the midden. He started to walk with renewed hope. If he could just sleep a little, he knew that he would feel much, much better.

Soon he reached the hedge. Getting down on his hands and knees, he crawled into its welcome shelter. The thin stems scratched at his arms and legs, but he managed to creep over to a hollow in the soft earth. He curled up into a ball, hugging his legs to his chest. He rested his unkempt head against his shoulder, and was soon asleep, his miseries and worries forgotten at least for a little while.