The rumors had started a week before the king died. "Well, you know what they say about that nephew of his," followed by a knowing nod or wink left many to speculate about just what They did say. Most came to the conclusion that what they did say was negative. The kingdom had been at war for nearly two centuries and the future looked bleak.
Like most other Blank Street families, Johan's family started giving in to the pressures of those around them, buying enough food to last for months and struggling into the Echoing Caves on the day the king breathed his last, even though most believed were inhabited by ghosts and evil spirits . They were of the first to go below and received rooms on the third level of the underground building, above the level given to the upper-classes. Closer to the water than most and with some ventilation they lived almost as comfortably as those below them. On the second level living was cheaper, but also closer to danger. The first level was a cramped, dirty space where entrances were blocked as well as they could be. Most here made their living by trading with those on the surface. And with the traders came the frightening news from the outside world. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months and soon they had too little food for all the mouths to feed below ground and fairy tales about ghosts were soon forgotten.
"The last of the grain this year, master," one trader told Johan's father. "I can't get it any cheaper than this. And can't go outside yourself – them brigands have taken to robbing and murdering in the light of day! Why, it's a miracle I got this bag without being run through." He held out a cupped hand and Johan watched from the shadows how his father paid thrice as much for grain as he would have before. If it kept on like this they would not be able to buy food much longer. Johan took out his own coins and sighed. He decided not to eat that night, claiming a headache and retiring early.
When he woke the lanterns were nearly empty. He sat up, looking around him for signs of breakfast. But the rest of the family was still abed. "Sleepy heads! Time to –" He walked closer to the sleeping forms of his family. They were in a fitful state of sleep. Sweat beaded on their contorted faces. Yet not one made a sound. He ran to the fourth level to fetch a doctor with his father's last money.
The doctor came soon and looked them over. "It's blackroot poison, alright, don't know how they got it down here." He gazed steadily at Johan. "Yet you do not look ill?" He let the question hang in the air.
"The... the only thing we did differently is that I didn't eat supper." He looked towards the sack of grain. The doctor opened it and smelled a few kernels and turned to Johan "Where did you get this grain?"
"One of the traders –"
"Then you must go yourself." His eyes were dark.
The doctor nodded. "You can't trust the traders anymore, son. Go yourself and bring medicine and news of the outside world."
Johan looked from the doctor to his family and back.
"They will last a day at the most.