‘Don’t stop, keep moving.’ The line of bedraggled people shuffled forwards along the quayside, each person attached to the one in front by a chain secured around their wrists.
‘W-what?’ whispered Jemima, finding herself at the back behind an equally bewildered Joe and Charlie. Turning round, Joe raised his eyebrows and lifted the palms of his hands upwards.
‘Haven’t the faintest what’s going on,’ he said in a low voice. ‘Just keep quiet and don’t draw attention to us.’ As he turned back, he tripped over a huge anchor set into the concrete jetty. ‘Ouch!’ he yelled, rubbing his grazed shin.
‘Hmm, so much for keeping quiet and not drawing attention to ourselves,’ hissed Jemima, rolling her eyes. ‘You’re always so clumsy.’
Suddenly the queue drew to an abrupt halt.
‘So, let’s see what we’ve got here then.’ A dark-skinned man with a short, pointed beard made his way down the line, studying each person, prodding their arms and their bellies and sometimes forcing their mouths open to take a good look at their teeth. Apart from one young man who stood his ground defiantly and showed his contempt by spitting at the feet of the man in charge, most of the group seemed frightened, trembling all over as they submitted to the humiliating inspection. As he passed each one, the man jotted something down on a wax tablet. Eventually reaching Joe, Jemima and Charlie, he pulled up short and did a double-take. Their efforts to remain un-noticed hadn’t worked and he now stood surveying them with an expression of complete surprise.
‘Three extras,’ he said wonderingly, glancing once more at the markings on his wax tablet. ‘Ah, perhaps these are to make up for the ones they failed to deliver last time.’ He thought it was a bit odd that they weren’t chained like the others though and, stepping closer, he peered at the alarmed children. ‘Hmm, twins. They’ll be worth more, especially with that fair hair,’ he murmured. ‘Not too sure about the puny one though, with those strange things covering his eyes.’ He tapped his stylus on the wax tablet thoughtfully, before snapping it shut. Suddenly he caught sight of Max who was still in Jemima’s arms. ‘Ugh, put that down, girl. You don’t know where it’s been. Filthy old ship’s cat scavenging around for scraps, I shouldn’t wonder.’
Max’s eyes opened wide and Jemima felt his body tense, knowing he was struggling not to burst out with a rude reply. She quickly bent down and put him on the ground. ‘Stay by my side,’ she hissed out of the corner of her mouth. When she stood back up, the man had already returned to the front and the crocodile of people began to move forward once more in terrified silence.
‘Joe? Charlie?’ whispered Jemima. ‘What is this? Where are we going? I don’t understand.’
They glanced back at her over their shoulders. ‘Nor do we, but I’ve got a weird feeling we’re about to find out,’ answered Joe.
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