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A Lynchman's Owl

 

A Lynchman’s Owl

by

B. Y. Yan

 

A LYNCHMAN’S OWL by B.Y. Yan Copyright © B.Y. Yan 2016 Book and Cover Copyright © by B.Y. Yan 2016 All Rights Reserved.

 

Names, characters and incidents depicted in this book are products of the author’s imagination, or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of the author. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means whatsoever, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the author.

 

Follow B.Y. Yan (twitter @B_Y_Yan) at http://bigbinofideas.wordpress.com

 

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ISBN: 978-0-9950516-2-1

A Lynchman’s Owl

 

 

 

 

“Who is the Lynchman’s Owl?”

Beneath the swinging light-bulb, buzzing faintly like an angry glowing bee trapped in a jar, uneven shadows threw about the smoke choked parlor. The question was greeted by a chorus of laughter as palms slapped against tables, drinks spilled over the counter, and great wreaths of tobacco were sucked back into nostrils, snorting with guffaws. For theirs was a merry gathering. And the prevailing subject in the darkened common room of the alehouse, as everyone agreed before being so rudely interrupted, concerned only the great scandal come to light: The Wager of Bark Parsley, as it was known, when a well-known visiting dignitary from overseas laid down a portion of his own kingdom against fourteen shares of the state-owned Intercontinental Express Shipping to an unknown gamble. For months now the gross misconduct of all involved was the reigning gossip of the town, inviting an opinion from every lip as the eyes of two unfriendly peoples were invariably laid upon the matter with every passing day. The identity of the Lynchman’s Owl then, as it had been for since that brief, sorry time decades ago, was a question needless of an answer. Why anybody would choose to bring it up now, in the midst of all this modern excitement, was certainly a mystery ripe for ridicule.

But before a debate could be had on the subject all sound abruptly ceased and the parlor fell into silence. Outside guns were heard firing on the hour, soon accompanied by the sound of heavy boots treading over the rain soaked street, splashing in lockstep over the glistening cobble. Footsteps echoed outside the murky colored glass of the windows as soldiers marched on by, their steel caps and halberd heads throwing off here and there an eerie yellow glare over the mismatched reds and greens of the dirty windowpanes. When they had gone the noisemaking returned inside, but the alehouse was on a whole more muted and quiet. In the corners men sniggered knocking out the ashes from their pipes against their tables.

“So who is the Lynchman’s Owl then?” the question was repeated to the silent parlor.

“Who wants to know, hey?” piped an unseen voice amongst the throng.

“Who doesn’t?” someone else replied in place of the original inquirer to much laughter all around.

At the counter, nearer at hand to the heart of the discussion, someone took an active, grave interest.

“But he’s a strange fellow to be asking for such, given that nobody has had an answer for twenty years, and he should really know better.” A leering face leaned in with breath stinking of liquor, “Shouldn’t you, hey?”

It was a young man who had put the question to the gathering in the first place. He kept his silence now, breathing in a long trailing ribbon of filtered tobacco through his nose. The heavily accented voice which had driven home his inquiry before was now locked behind a wall of braced white teeth, pressed so tightly together that they might not have been pried open without a crowbar. The only reply he allowed was a whistled tune, royalist in nature, which caused a corner of the parlor to stamp their feet on the first few notes. Looking in that direction several glasses were raised in a toast. He returned it heartily, touching his collar and a cheek with two fingers.

The gesture was replied in kind from one particular table in a corner, around which the occupants sat in a circle with their faces half obscured by shadows. It earned also a hearty bellow from elsewhere in the parlor, while nearer at hand somebody else gave a snort of contempt, spitting on the floor to serve as his rebuttal. At once voices were raised against one another on the subject which has been forced into prominence—not unheard of for patrons of the drink afterhours, and altogether not unexpected from members of the unwashed masses with nothing better to do with their time—but very little indeed could be learned about the Lynchman’s Owl, as it turned out. For a discussion, unguided and unmoderated as it was, had a tendency to fly carefree and outgrow its original subject matter. And with an opinion or two (or three for that matter) in every throat waiting to be heard, talk soon grew wild and unchecked of its own accord, as it was wont to do. Many throats piped up with as many descriptions pertaining to that creature—rascal, imp, vampire, vigilante, and villain—which were deemed important enough to dwell upon.

The Creed. The Boxer Heist. Sir Spindlethorn and the Candle Movement. The Fairhastings Diamond. The Case of Madam Green’s Hymn Sheets. The Emperor’s Lost Coat. For twenty years these have been tales left up to the imagination of the populace, who were more often than not willing to embrace second-hand accounts from third-hand sources, embellishing them with outlandish theories until such rumors have transcended commonplace storytelling into legend. We shall not go deep into the details, for they are by this point well known to us. The Affairs of the Owl, as these episodes were known collectively by the populace, however, shed little light on the mystery beyond the purported involvement of the individual, group or force (natural and otherwise) with everything that has happened before. And in the two decades since these works of mischief entered the public consciousness (and the term into common parlance since—well, the beginning of language and civilization in these parts of the world) there was little anybody could do to put a name to matters. As best as anyone could remember, this Owl is simply a symbol of cruelty, the perceived tearing of a life from the mortal realm, dragged down into the deepest pits of the inferno in order to right a perceived wrong. It was terrible bad luck to hear an owl hooting in the hour before dawn, especially if there’s anything on your conscience that you have not confessed to, is what everybody was saying. And you might properly lose your soul for it, nothing more.

“Hence, the laughter, I suppose,” said the young man dismissively, but by then he felt as if he were talking to himself. The parlor, absorbed in its own debate, had long ceased to take any notice of him.

“Then why are you asking?”

A voice speaking up suddenly at his elbow caught his attention. It was a whisper made into half a shout to be heard over the din. Looking over his shoulders he found a wary glint in a pair of curious, narrowed green eyes staring at him. He shrugged as a reply, giving away nothing.

“Did somebody send you?”

He laughed a little, “Now why would you think a thing like that?”

Still those hardy green eyes held onto his with admirable determination, just as the nose set below it, lightly freckled, turned abruptly upwards.

“Who else?”

Despite her dirty red scarf and patched lime beret—the chosen wardrobe of a commonplace downtrodden dockworker—it was obvious to him that she was a lovely young woman who could not have been more than a year or two into her twenties. He offered her his most winning smile, saying at once, “I must confess that I do not know what you are getting on about.”

“You,” she repeated forcefully, “Who sent you here?”

“Nobody,” he replied. “I am here of my own free will, if you can believe it.”

“I can’t,” she told him. “Are you a treasure hunter?”

“What’s that now?”

“Well I can tell you if you are looking for the secret stash of the Lynchman’s Owl there is no such thing and you can give it up.”

He laughed. “I can assure you, miss, that I am not looking for any treasure. I am, if you must know, looking for the Owl himself.”

“Ah!”

“And as to my own patrons—”

“Aha!” she ejaculated, “So there is somebody!”

“Well I was just about to say I am certainly here on my own behalf, but I won’t deny somebody has put me up to this thing.” He held up his hand to her next question. “I can’t say who, so don’t even ask. But if you should wager a guess, I would be happy to tell you if you are right.”

Again that petite white nose wriggled in obvious aversion, while the eyes above it glittered with evident interest.

“So your mouth is sealed on the matter. But you will open it for a game?”

He tapped his mug on the counter lightly.

“If you will play with me, yes.”

She barely hesitated. A dirty sleeve brushed against his arm, and a hand nervously clenching and unclenching again glowed pearl white in the dim yellow light of the solitary lightbulb hanging directly overhead. One long finger dipped briefly into a puddle of spillage left by his beer mug before tracing a name or two over the countertop. Those green eyes held his unblinking, waiting on his answer.

He cast a sidelong glance at the names, and then shook his head.

Her eyes fell, somewhat crestfallen. “You can’t say? Or you won’t tell.”

“I am a man of my Word, and you have guessed wrong.”

Then he turned fully to face her, the lines running from the corners of his eyes tightening into deep canyons. He studied her up and down in that shrewd, alert manner which came so naturally to him. As an inquisitor we can safely say that under his gaze a person—men and women alike, for that matter—might feel as if they were stripped wholly naked, with every beat of the heart, every organ and invisible thought turned inside out. Long practice in his line of business allowed him to learn from someone their most intimate of secrets by nothing more than a lingering look; but today he had not gotten partway through laying this most powerful of his weapons on the charming visage seated next to him before a tall shadow fell abruptly over both of them, and a large hand pressed down against his shoulder.

Opposite him the subject of his investigations uttered a small cry of shock, but not for his sake.

“Harry, no!”

As if afraid an untimely altercation might take place at the counter her hand shot up to the wrist over his shoulder, fasting it tightly. At the same time, she drew down the short wide brim of her beret over her brows.

But the man she grabbed seemed unbothered in the least. He was a strapping, virile fellow barely into his twenties who interjected his face rudely between them, showing trimmed whiskers bristling at the edges and a pair of hard eyes set above long, hooked nose. The imposing physique of a sportsman backed the unfriendly glower he was sending the way of the young man as a shield before the object of his attentions, all the while keeping the young woman protectively behind a slanted, massive shoulder.

There was the very real possibility that things would have taken an ugly turn then, for this burly protector went on acting as if he meant to pull the young man from his seat on the high stool. But suddenly there appeared a little something in the right hand of the inquisitor, conjured as if by magic from thin air. It dangled lazily from his fingertips from a short red tassel, a thin rectangular block of iron catching for a moment the light to give off a mean black glint. In that instant they both of them saw clearly an iron imprint of a hand with four and a half fingers, set deeply into wedge of wood nearly about the size of the palm holding it. Across from them the proprietor of the parlor, a thin sullen man with a meek countenance, was the only other person to get a clear look. And looking he hastily averted his eyes, swiftly returning to scrubbing out tankards behind the counter.

Such was the power of a bauble then, or trinket if you will, bearing the ominous sign of an agent of the governing body in that day and age, which did not command the same reluctant cooperation or relieved gratitude we reserve for the officers of law enforcement in our own time. The police back then were little more than dogs, commonly unleashed by Parliament upon their own citizens. And amongst them there was a body of plain-clothed agents who were by far the most loathed, the most detested, for they made their living ferreting out the secrets of others and twisting them into threats for their own gains. They were well-known by the golden brocade they wore sometimes over their shoulders, or the dull black iron hand they carried in their pockets—the one and the same as we have seen revealed just now—which marked its owner out as one of the invisible Handymen whispered of in hushed, fearful tones by the general populace.

Against this revelation it will come as no surprise that the sportsman visibly deflated, and might have beaten a quick retreat if he were not compelled to stay put out of fear of that very thing which was just shown to him. Behind him his ward paled as well. But even half obscured as she was by his bulk there was no missing the glow of vindication passing swiftly over her cheeks as a flush.

“So,” she said, a quiver coming into her voice.

The young man put a finger to his lips, and gave her a playful wink as he replaced the badge in his pocket.

“Look,” she began at once, “I don’t know anything about anything.” It was a voice which was almost pleading. “I only asked because I was curious. It is a strange subject to broach in these parts, for nobody has needed an answer to that question for twenty years.”

She was trying to throw off any suspicions he might have held towards her for approaching him the way she did. He, however, was nobody’s fool.

“If you did not mean something by it,” he replied, “then why would you ask? It is the ‘they’ which gave you away, my lady, and that name which you were so kind as to write for me on this very counter, which I shall not utter for both our sakes.”

The young woman pressed her lips closed, and at last fear came into her eyes, buoyed by a deep sense of dread. Her companion looked furtively at that moment over the heads of the other occupants towards the parlor door.

“Oh you won’t make it that far, if at all,” he told them both in an offhanded, careless manner, “Not while I still have a question or two for you.”

“But what can I tell you, sir?” she asked him somewhat defiantly. “I am a patriot.” It was, in those days, the proper response to give when questioned by the authorities.

“Then prove it.”

The faintest hint of menace, of evidence she was being compelled to give up in her own defense put a knot of fear into her stomach. He saw that plainly as she worked her lips over in silence, mulling on the matter. “Not here,” she whispered at last conspiratorially. “I am a true patriot, sir. You will see. Come around again at midnight, and meet me beneath the swinging sign outside the alehouse. I’ll tell you then what I know.”

“About the Lynchman’s Owl?”

She nodded.

“How do I know your words will be any good?”

“I was raised in these parts, and born into the legend you are asking about from infancy. My own family is six-generations ongoing in this city, and few have a better claim to its inner-workings. Its culture, ethics and lore is in my blood, so it may please you to hear that I can tell the story of your Owl better than most.”

Then she looked into his eyes hopefully, and he held her fearful gaze without uttering a word for what must have felt an eternity before giving the slightest of nods in her direction, all aloofness and dismissal. She did a brave thing then which he did not expect. She extended her hand towards him.

“Madine.”

He looked. Beneath a thick, pointed brow, arched in equal measures surprise and curiosity, dark eyes searched her up and down in what must have been a discomforting moment. But before she could withdraw her hand he had taken hold of it firmly.

“Bailey,” he said.

They nodded at one another, and shook on the matter before locking thumbs. It was how people sealed a deal in those days, and such a pact was generally considered unbreakable. The young woman—Madine as I will call her from now on—visibly relaxed, put at ease by the intimate familiarity of the gesture. She tipped her hat to the detective and without a backwards glance melted into the animated parlor crowd, making her way towards the exit with her companion in tow.

It might be observed that Madine must have had a clever eye and an alert ear to pick out the unusual discrepancy in the topic of conversation before, as well as steely resolve to match to act on it. Whereas others probably would have balked at the very notion, she had acquitted herself well in the presence of so mighty a figure. But we must not begrudge her for her negligence fleeing the scene now, for she was very visibly shaken. It could be excused that her efforts had taken a heavy toll, and probably the entire font of her strength had been nearly used up. Pushing through the press of bodies waiting for their fill in stories and drinks she dared not risk a look from the alehouse door to the counter stools. If she had, she would have found, much to her fear, that the detective’s seat was by now occupied by a body and face which was wholly unfamiliar. Bailey then, had disappeared in that time.

 

Stepping outside into the murky, damp fog Madine drew up the collars of her coat. At the end of the street a sentry wreathed in mist lazily shuffled from leg to leg, the long bore of the rifle braced against his shoulder giving off a dull iron gleam in the pale moonlight. For his formidable appearance this common patrolman, the lowest rung of the neighborhood watchdogs, did not bother to look when she hurried past him with her companion, turning a corner at the end of the street and soon disappearing between the tall walls of the narrow buildings. It would stand to reason then that he also missed her unwanted shadow, slipping into the alley behind her only a step or two behind.

We will observe the young woman was in something of a hurry. She had drawn her shoulders inwards from the bitter chill which was funneled through the narrow spaces between walls to become a forceful wind. Her collars as well were flipped upwards, hiding most of her face from view, and her small hands tucked away inside her sleeves. She hurried on with every footstep ringing lightly over the glistening cobble, passing beneath small windows here and there opened with a faint light showing in them as often as not from behind thick, drawn drapes. She paused in front of a short stoop, looking warily from side to side. Then she went up with her companion, who knocked and was let inside. A head poked out after them, looking furtively from left to right. And spying nothing out of the norm it soon vanished as well, and the door was firmly shut after them.

A few moments later a long shadow belonging to a disheveled looking person would have been seen flitting past that same door. Armed with a half bottle of port and an uneven stride he could not have been mistaken for anything but a drunkard out for a late stroll. But still unseen eyes followed him wherever he went.

Bailey then had every right to reason that he would gain very little going up and down the length of the alley in his hasty disguise. Indeed, it was not altogether inconceivable that he might be found out if he continued to loiter about the vicinity in this manner. But armed with his badge he had access to considerable resources which easily allowed him to set matters up with expectations. The patrolman standing guard at the corner of the street soon became a willing lackey on the merits of a few whispered words and faint promises of association with the mighty personalities of the realm. He in turn had a little authority in these parts, and together they returned to the alley, commencing a great study of the windows on the same side as the door which Madine and her companion had been admitted.

Thankfully as a local man he seemed to know the layout of the buildings well, unassuming tall bricks of peeling grey mortar they were. He was able to put forward several helpful suggestions on the matter, and very soon they were quietly knocking up the first-floor apartment three doors down from the one which held Bailey’s interest with a polite but insistent rapping which at once drew a response. But once the door had been unbolted from within and something approaching a little of an opening appeared, I’m sorry to report all manner of civility became swiftly abandoned. Bailey, quicker than a cat, had a foot in the door to prevent it from being closed again. And the patrolman who had come with him stuck his face into the narrow space, armed by the twofold threats of the lily pin on his collar and the stock of his rifle being brandished in very open terms.

“It’s official business, sir. Let us in and be quiet about it.”

One look at the stoic, serious countenance of the short fellow was more than enough to earn the acquiescence of house’s occupant. A stout man in Bailey’s eyes, he started out of the way to yield the door, struggling despite his shaking frame to shield his family—a woman who was undoubtedly his wife and their two children—from this unexpected intrusion.

“I’m a patriot, sir,” he managed as some resistance when they pushed their way inside.

“Good for you,” said Bailey offhandedly. “We don’t care. My man here will tell you what we need.”

To his credit, the patrolman managed in the little window of time afforded to him to assuage the fears of this little family which found their humble lodgings so suddenly invaded. He assured them that nothing was to come of the matter, but for the use of their keys.

“Keys, sir?”

“You are the landlord of these apartments, are you not?”

“Y-yes, my lord. How did you know?”

Bailey looked towards his companion.

“Come now,” said the patrolman with a wearied sigh. “It is obvious. Your doorknob alone is polished brass, whereas all others in this line of houses are making do with latch and key. Your inscription is gilt, though long since faded now. These are open and frank evidence to your ownership of these buildings. But I have no need of them for I have been standing at my post at the end of this street for the better part of two decades, and know every dwelling here and their lodgers as well as the back of my hands. It’s me, sir. Now Mr. Gaston, keys, if you please.”

Out they came from the landlord’s pocket with a ring and a jingle, and Bailey wasted no time in letting know the patrolman (who relayed his instructions to the landlord) as to how best they might be put to use. They were both conscripted to help. Soon afterwards they found themselves back outside, passing down a short length of the alley with the landlord leading, carrying his toolbox in his arms, and the patrolman taking up the rear. They found another door and were swiftly let inside. Only Bailey, however, followed the much befuddled man up the short flight of stairs, while the patrolman was left in the street with his hands on his hips and a glower on his face as a deterrence for any unwanted interest they might provoke from the neighborhood at this late hour. At the top they came to another door, narrow and tall, where the landlord swiftly selected a key from the ring and inserted it into the lock, speaking quietly as he went about his business.

“You are very fortunate, my lord, that this particular apartment happens to be unoccupied at present. The previous lodger was second foreman down at the paper mill. A good enough fellow, but after complaining about noise downstairs he has since found other arrangements more suited to his liking. His apartment is located directly above that one which has your interest, and I give you full leave over the management of the place for as long as you need. Truth to be told I am as well not fond of the people downstairs, but they pay on time without a hassle, and that sort is difficult to come by lately. I do not know the young man well at all though, of that I can assure you in utmost confidence. And all that they do, or what might be suspected of doing, I am completely ignorant.”

So eager was he to profess his innocence of whatever wrongdoing he imagined his tenants might be guilty of, he was only altogether too glad when Bailey seemed to take no notice of the matter entirely.

“Only take care that your family remains as discreet about our business tomorrow as you have promised me tonight,” said he to the landlord after taking his keys and pocketing them. “Or else I shall have to visit again. Women especially tend to speak too freely, and I hope you can control yours better than others I have known and met before.”

“If she asks,” the landlord swiftly promised, wiping sweat from his brows, “I’ll give her a knock about the head with my shoe.”

“You do that, my good man.”

Once they were inside the landlord’s aid was again enlisted in tearing up the flooring. The room was a single modest sized chamber of drab grey walls and worn molding, bare and devoid of furniture or accessories save for a single wooden backscratcher discovered discarded beneath the carpet. On lifting and rolling it away into a corner they set to work with the tools. The floorboards were already uneven from years of disrepair, and with a little effort they were able to thin it out further by removing a plank or two, until all that which stood between the two apartments sitting atop one another were some overlapping beams with crooked seams. The landlord, having completed his fair share of the work, was summarily dismissed from the premises, if not entirely from Bailey’s service altogether. He was made to sit outside the closed apartment door in the post of a sentry, armed with a ready excuse should anyone penetrate the stalwart guard outside. This he did without delay.

Alone now, Bailey flattened himself against the floor like a sniffing hound with his rear raised wriggling into the air. He produced from his pocket that most curious of instruments—a stethoscope by any measure of imagination—but modified as a tool of spy-craft. Armed with this device he managed, after several taps with a little hammer, to find the most appropriate spot to apply it, catching a few errant syllables from the conversation in the apartment directly below. Happily, they were just getting on with the subject, and his timely arrival yielded the lion’s share of the dialogue he was hoping to hear.

Madine was there, along with several others, to judge by the number of voices which swelled ringing hollow and distant through the tube to reach his earpiece. Theirs were lively voices and words which betrayed the common age shared by the young men and women below, made animated through youth and purpose. Behind their voices the noise attributed by the landlord to the complaints filed against his tenants was plainly recognizable to Bailey as belonging to a small printing press going merrily about its business. Its purpose was readily divulged by the conversation going on around its methodical crashes. For these young people, to hear them tell of it, met often in secret beneath these walls discolored by fresh spilled ink to handle rollers and print newspapers in the glow of oil lanterns. They drew satirical caricatures of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, and wrote columns criticizing the injustices of the nation—all of it printed on paper beneath a header of an owl spreading out its wings on every sheet. Now they were arguing whether or not this practice should be continued in the face of what they perceived to be imminent, looming danger.

“You shouldn’t have,” said one voice belonging to a woman who was obvious in trying to put the blame on Madine for their most recent predicament. “You should never have approached him at the counter when you did, let alone asking outright about his patrons. You made him reveal himself to you! And in doing so you have caught his eye.”

“Look,” countered another voice belonging to one of the young men, coming quickly to Madine’s defense, “We don’t know this fellow is here for us. Not for sure, I mean. How could anyone have our number when we’ve only been at this for weeks?”

“Weeks indeed,” confirmed somebody else altogether. “But we’ve done a lot in that time, haven’t we?” There was the sound of papers ruffling loudly, followed by nervous laughter from the others.

“We could get arrested for this—or get much worse for our troubles.”

The first young man scoffed. “Only if we are caught.”

“As assuredly as we will be,” said another, more sobering, “if we mean to go on like this.”

“But we all agreed this has to be done,” the voice of Madine protested. “We all of us shook on it.”

There were murmurs of assent all around her.

“So we keep going then. Get on with our work.”

“It is all well enough for you to say,” said the same voice which had countered her opinion before, “You with your gold pen sticking out of your pocket, and the patch of Faulkien on your shoulder. You would get years rounded down to months by the courtesy of your father, the country squire, and your mother, whose brother is a prince in his own right as a secretary and a junior member in Hungry Hungry Hungary’s cabinet. It would be the gallows and the headsmen for the rest of us, if not worse.”

Naturally Madine had every reason to get cross at these remarks, and cross her words became warm.

“I am no different. I have laid my life down as readily as any of you. Given in the service of this great nation, which cannot be left to suffer in the hands of imbeciles any longer, is a charge worth any injury we might be called upon to suffer! Whether or not we are successful we have all of us agreed it was worth the effort—and dangers, no less—to rescue her from the clutches of coming doom. Indeed, have I not also laid down the lives of my father, mother, and uncle by associating myself with you against their wishes? I was not the originator of this little clubhouse, if you will remember. But after its elders abandoned the cause it can be said that I sought to inherit what was left out of love for the work we are trying to accomplish. It is a line as precarious as any tightrope we walk, which may turn into a noose at the slightest mistake no matter the perceived background of those who seek to brave its dangers. Would you accuse me still, even when there is everything in the world for me to lose also should we measure up short?”

So impassioned was her speech, and her every word ringing with conviction and sincerity that the others were shamed into sullen silence. It was broken by a nervous female voice Bailey had never heard before now.

“So what are we to do then, if indeed we are being investigated? What are we to do if that detective—and make no mistakes about it, for the Handymen are, at heart, detectives of the worst sort—comes looking around?”

These words underwent a profound transformation as they left her lips until by the end they were quite broken up with sobs. Another voice nearby murmured encouragement, offering comforts.

“We should stop the presses, all the same, just to be on the safe side of things.”

“Or destroy them altogether, and wash our hands of the whole thing.”

“We cannot,” replied the young man who has firmly placed himself in Madine’s corner. “We mustn’t.”

“Then at least take off that cursed owl header we use on every page. It serves no purpose but to get us into more trouble, it seems.”

So it would have become another argument if not for Madine’s voice once again rising above the rest. She is evidently a ringleader of sorts for this gang, and it was on her opinions that the others were quelled into compliance.

“The thing is on my head,” she said, “And rightly so, for it was I who approached the fellow at Mr. Rivers’ parlor. I earned the attention of an agent in service to the powers that be. I made an appointment with this same foe of nebulous intentions, which I now intend to keep. You must understand that I had to know, likely as not, in what direction his investigation lies, or will soon be taking him. I don’t believe for a second he is after the Lynchman’s Owl—the man, the fiend, or the legend. If twenty years ago the matter was quickly hushed up, what would lead to an interest in digging up the same grave again long after it has been buried? And we all know better, don’t we? Owls are a dozen to a dime in the south, for whatever purpose. We are ourselves guilty of borrowing that moniker. And if indeed we are going to become the target of his attentions for it then better that we can head off the matter before it gets out of hand.”

“And just how do you intend to do that?” she was asked by her peers.

“Well I am meeting with him tonight, as you know. I hope I can convince him to look the other way.”

“When?”

“At midnight.”

“Where?”

She gave them the address.

“It’s dangerous,” said the one worried voice which seemed intent on throwing caution on the matter at every turn, “to go alone.”

“She won’t be alone,” replied the boisterous young man. “If indeed he’s onto us, I shall give this fellow something to regret it.” His exclamation was followed by the noise of something being placed onto a table with a heavy thud. At once the others became silent, save for a short gasp of fright which escaped a pair of lips here and there.

“Take this with you.”

“Put that away!” Madine cried in horror. The others swiftly agreed.

“Leave him alone. We aren’t murderers.”

The young man seemed as equally offended by their reluctance to make use of the tool he provided as he was by their apparent impression that he would stoop to such.

“It is not what you think,” he protested. “And I am no murderer. I was just going to convince him to get on his way and leaves us alone.”

“So was I!” cried Madine. “Take it away. We don’t need that!”

“Maddy, if it’s scaring him off you want, there is no better way.”

The others persisted, seeming bothered by his indifference to their concerns. “Get rid of it,” they told him in no uncertain terms. “Even without a Handyman around it’s an invitation to disaster.”

There was the faint shuffling of footsteps followed by Madine’s voice, gentler now, soothing her wounded friend. “I only asked him there to find out more if I can. I will not resort to violence unless I am threatened. Even then I can just take off and run.”

He scoffed, “But how far would you get, really?”

It seemed by the final swell of voices pushing for attention that there were still much to be discussed on the matter, but Bailey had by then removed his listening device from the flooring with a shake of his head and a long, weary sigh. He had heard all he needed to, and little help was it to him in the end. The affairs of these young people no longer held any interest for him, and he would leave them to their debate. Likely as not it would lead to a bad end, for these young men and women went on sneering at the notion that there was any real risk, that they hadn’t been caught, nor will they, to hear them go on about it still, when there were nearly a dozen friends—fellow owls, they were called—who could be depended upon to whisk them away into safety at a moment’s notice. They were only children in Bailey’s eyes, heading blindfolded into trouble with a stolen name. But they very clearly had nothing he needed, and he would do what they so plainly wanted of him by quietly going away. Of course, he could have given them over to a firing squad with a word, but he did not have the heart to derail their crusade—or more to the heart of the matter, to bring harm down upon Madine, whose misplaced bravery had so impressed him. What a woman that was! What a marvelous creature of iron-resolve he had witnessed firsthand! An unexpected raven-haired beauty with wits to match, and courage to spare; he would not, for the life of him, lay a finger on the soul of such inspiration, such hope, for the sake of his own ambitions. It was to him too cruel a thing to consider.

Thus the landlord learned nothing and the patrolman outside even less, even as they were properly dismissed from his service. Pattering down the rain sodden street he walked alone in the direction of the alehouse. Very soon he found himself back inside his chamber atop the parlor, looking idly out of the tall windows to count the raindrops falling in rivulets from the eaves of the building roof. Perking his ears every now and then he caught the far off booms of ships’ horns casting off from the harbor, holding a single droning note. A good supper awaited him upon his return, but he remained alone quite up until the very late hours, when the moon in a clear night became half obscured by a man-made cloud. An airship covered the sky whirring past with its searchlights panning slowly beneath back and forth, washing the muted walls of the neighborhood buildings in a hazy white glow. At that moment there came a rap on his chamber door, timid as if to suggest the caller could not decide if he dared to rouse the resident of the apartment, but insistent as well to speak of his business as a matter which could not wait.

“Come in,” said Bailey.

The man who entered was none other than the proprietor of the parlor, and also owner and landlord of these apartments of which Bailey was a temporary tenant. A short fellow, and meek by nature as we have observed before, sporting a large, pointed nose which he was accustomed to keeping out of the affairs of others. But above it sat a pair of alert, wary eyes, behind which one could only anticipate the shrewd mind of a character of acumen. He was something of a neighborhood benefactor, always generous with his pennies and services, subscribing to that age old adage that a humble, friendly demeanor is what’s best for business. To Bailey he was a gracious host to the young man’s rich cut of clothes and open show of wealth on his arrival in town, and now an indentured servant, it seems, after learning of the secret powers he held at his disposal. He brought with him a second dinner, lavish and excessive by all accounts—food and deserts and coffee and strong ale enough for three or four—along with a plea for aid after his guest has had a sample of his compliments.

“Well, it seems you are a very clever fellow to wait until I have already had a bite of this wonderful goose, and washed it down with a mouthful of this splendid whiskey before putting the matter to me,” said Bailey wryly, dabbing at a corner of his mouth with a napkin. “I can hardly turn you away without hearing you out at least, now can I?” He waved the man towards an empty seat nearby. “Pray take this chair by the fireplace opposite me, and we will have it out of you.”

Nodding with every civility, and stepping with the delicate touch of a money borrower the landlord bowed his way into the chair he had been shown. The detective offered him his pipe which he refused, but he was quick to spring forward to light it up for Bailey as he rolled up a fat one over the surface of the little table beside his chair. Chewing lightly on the end of it he nodded to show that the landlord was to begin.

The man dived right in, talking quickly as if he were more than eager to get some things off his chest. “I fear I have come, my lord, to inconvenience you on a singular matter in which I hoped I might have earned through my own actions these past few days a little of your help.”

“I hardly expect that you have brought me this excellent second supper for my own sake,” Bailey replied with some amusement. “So by all means let us have it all out on the table now.”

The innkeeper passed the back of one hand over his brow before continuing.

“It is a matter of intimacy, but also considerable urgency, and should someone not act on it I fear the consequences may be dire.”

“For whom, pray?” asked Bailey.

“Me,” he replied at once.

“And your name is Rivers, correct?”

The landlord nodded gratefully. “That is it, sir. I am happy you remembered.”

“Go on then. Are you in trouble?”

“Most definitely, my lord.”

“With the police?”

“Not yet, but if allowed to proceed unchecked I am certain the authorities will become involved at some point, to my detriment.”

Bailey took a deep, long drag on his smoke.

“Then what is it you wish me to do?”

Again there was a silence, marked by the profound observation from our detective that Mr. Rivers was stuck at a crossroads in between choices, crushed between the inescapable need for the aid of this unexpected savior, but yet unable to properly entrust his business to him for fear of a coming swerve in how things might play out. It plainly suggested that the landlord had, through no fault of his own, run afoul of the law.

“Ah!” cried the innkeeper with relief and gratitude when Bailey spoke aloud his thoughts to him. “Ah! You have it exactly, my lord. You have seen into my heart and you will pluck away my fears if you will only consent to help. I am at wits end, though it is only all too fortunate that you happened to show yourself to me tonight. A fraction of the powers you have displayed at my counter would be more than sufficient, I beg, to deliver me! Please do not deny me.”

“Well,” said Bailey, “What is it you want my help with?”

Mr. Rivers wrung his hands together with evident trepidation.

“I fear to utter the matter, for I fear also to be seen as an accomplice to the crime.”

“We are only two of us here,” Bailey assured him, “and I shall keep your secret. You have aroused my curiosity in the matter, and I am eager to hear it.”

It seemed to be the answer the innkeeper was hoping for, while at the same time dreading to hear. But reinforcing his resolve with a long breath taken deeply into his lungs he began to speak at once, lest the moment of interest passes him by.

“It has something to do with my cellars, my lord.”

“Your cellars?”

He nodded. “They are my pride and joy, room enough for thirty, and the lifeblood of my business. Mortared to keep in moisture, but buried deep enough into the earth that my wares—food-stocks and plenty of good drink—are kept cold and impervious to the harsh effects of our humid summer air and frigid winter winds. But my cellars, alas, are no longer my own, and have not been for some time now! A gang of roughs has had their way with my larders for their own purposes, and I am forced into peddling to their sense of mercy.

“These are the worst of beings, my lord, with sick hearts and callous disregard for the laws of the nation! Ever since they took over I have been made to hand them the keys to my kingdom for their uses, with which they have moved a great deal of things through—in and out if you catch my meaning”—here the innkeeper touches his nose and winks slyly towards Bailey— “under pretense of being my own hired help. Every Friday night a shipment of something or other is moved into my cellars, and before every Monday morning it is moved out again. Although I am present at each such occasion, for they have made me their keeper of keys against my will, I have never been able to take inventory. You see, I am left in the dark as much as anyone, but ensnared all the same with the added disadvantage of total ignorance of the matter that I fear will never be believed by another living soul if the whole thing is blown up.” He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, leaning in next to Bailey’s ear. “I fear they might be smugglers or coiners, sir, and once things come to light I will almost certainly be trapped alongside these criminals as an accomplice if I do not have your help.”

“If these men are indeed who you say,” said Bailey with some distaste, “I must reproach you for getting involved with them in the first place.”

“Ah!” bemoaned the innkeeper. “Rest assured I wanted nothing to do with them. When they first approached me under pretense of friendship to rent space in my cellars I firmly steered them away. But later they returned, accosted me in the dead of night with a new offer which was not so friendly, and really what am I to do, my lord, when it is my own life and livelihood being threatened? Ever since then they have paid me for the use of my keys—a grand tail and three catties every week—to buy my silence. I suspect they have paid up also for leverage and use as evidence of my collaboration with them should I fall prey to my conscience and turn the lot of them in. What could I have done, I ask you again, my lord, if you had not appeared to me when you did?”

“How long ago was this,” Bailey asked him, “when they first approached you?”

Mr. Rivers looked at his hands and counted off his fingers.

“Two months and three weeks ago to the day, sir. It was a Friday like this one. In the early hours of the morning I had callers at my door seeking my cooperation, and late in the evening I was set upon again by the same people before getting to bed.”

“And what is it you wish for me to do now? Shall I appeal to the police for you and vouch for your innocence on your behalf?”

The landlord looked positively horrified, going very white in the face. “No, sir! No! My lord, it would be disastrous to say the least. Forgive me, but if you were to interfere in such a manner tonight, things would go very badly for me tomorrow—or the day after when you leave and I am robbed of your protection. Implicated I would certainly be branded, and in these parts that is a sentence from which there is no parole. Even if things work out for the better these are locals, and there’s no telling how big their gang is, or how far their reach extends. When you are gone it will be me who is looked upon as having given away their comrades, and I will have no one to defend me from them then.”

“Then what is it you wish from me?”

The man coughed into his hand. “Forgive me, my lord,” he said again and again, bowing his head each time to make his point. “Forgive me, but I do not want things to end badly for anyone if it can be helped. I am a simple man, and only wish that this thing had not happened upon me at all. If you can”—and his voice quivers more still, as if embarrassed and afraid of what he had to say— “If you can just speak with them, a simple word or two will do, along with a show of your powers. These are small-minded folk. They will go elsewhere with their business, and I will be absolved.”

“You wish for me to make them leave you alone?”

The innkeeper nodded his head furiously.

“It is a coward’s method, I admit. But I am, as I have said before, a simple man, and it is no concern of mine where this gang ends up so long as it is anywhere but here.” The hapless fellow turned his pleading gaze fully upon his savior. “I am not a wealthy man, surely less so in the eyes of a constant companion of royalty. But I am not also without resources, and I will say I am happy to part with all of it to get myself out from the clutches of these jackals. Ours will be a private arrangement of affairs, and I shall see to it that the secret is kept to my dying days, if only you will help me now.”

Perhaps it was the pitiful state of things which earned Bailey’s sympathy in this matter, for it was certainly not the promise of a generous settlement which moved him to act on behalf of his host. The humble detective, you see, was really a very wealthy man. His worth is said to be immeasurable, and his own line nearer to that of royalty than you or I know. Whatever his reasons for lending a hand now we can only be certain that when the man called Rivers was seen leaving his alehouse a little while later, he did so with a decided spring in his step and on Bailey’s arm. Together they turned around the nearest corner, passing briefly beneath the swinging iron sign of the establishment—the Fun Friar’s, it was called, denoted by the sight of four jolly fat men in frocks raising tankards carved into the thick wooden plaque tucked inside the iron framework—and entered a side alley with the landlord leading, pointing out the general direction of his cellar entrance.

“Oh you cannot believe how grateful I am for your help, my lord! Finally, I can shake off these nightmarish last weeks, months!”

As they walked arm-in-arm Bailey rubbed at his prominent chin. “When should we expect to meet with these fellows?”

“It is, as it has been for months now, the same time set,” he was told by Mr. Rivers. “They come by at midnight, and I am to meet them behind my business at the cellar doors.” Then, hesitantly, as if he were somewhat afraid his unanticipated good fortune might just as quickly desert him now: “I hope, my lord, I am not taking you away from some pressing matter. But I trust I will have your help tonight.”

“No, I am wholly yours,” said Bailey. “I had remembered just now of a previous engagement set for that same time, but happily I am no longer obliged to attend, so there is no conflict.”

On both sides the tall walls of the adjacent buildings stretched into the sky with their worn, drab faces here and there marred by disrepair. Every window above them was darkened. Reaching the end of the alley they took another turn, and soon the passage widened until at last arriving before an opening into a broad lane, a thoroughfare of commerce and one of the primary arteries of the city by which traffic, during the day, would be seen going in either direction by the hundreds towards a great bridge spanning the breadth of the street at one end, and at the other, the deep wharfs with the tall masts of ships raised into the sky like thickets of trees in a grove.

“How many of these roughs may we expect to meet with tonight?” Bailey asked.

“Three, my lord,” the innkeeper replied. “Sometimes there are only two, but usually one more than that is the norm.”

“And I take it that you will point out the leader to me so that I might address my concerns directly to him?”

“Of course, sir. I do not know his name, but there is one man in particular who never fails to appear, and always in some capacity as a manager of things. You won’t fail to recognize him by his distinctive orange colored whiskers. Ah but they are a screwy bunch, with claws that dig deep, though before you they will be nothing more than children in dire need of proper discipline. Here we are, sir. Here we are.”

As they neared the opening into the street there appeared then a little flight of stairs cut into the mortar of the building, leading downwards towards a set of thick, sturdy doors fastened by lock and bolt. Three men, it could be plainly seen, were already halfway down, loitering about with their elbows resting on the steps. At the sight of the innkeeper one gave a short whistle and all three arose at once, though their faces soon twisted over with surprise and not a little suspicion alighting upon his tall companion.

“Hullo!” cried Bailey’s host by ways of greeting as they drew up to the staircase.

“Hullo,” replied one of the men, raising his hand to his cap. One could not fail to remark the fellow’s prominent whiskers bristling from around his ears like the mane of a lion, nor their curious hue—orange, as advertised. “What’s this then? You’ve brought someone?”

“Ah!” replied Mr. Rivers with some triumph in his voice. “This is only an associate of mine, a close friend on a visit to whom I have appealed to with my own problems for years! He has kindly made time for me now to come down out of curiosity for the work done here.”

The man’s eyes narrowed with disapproval, and his lips took on the first signs of a coming snarl. He ascended to the top of the stone staircase with his comrades, and standing together shoulder to shoulder barred the opening of the alley from view. Truly they were a formidable looking gang of grooms, all plain patchwork jackets and tall worn boots, with wide brimmed caps throwing black shadows over their eyes. At the sight of the three, poised to advance, Bailey’s host gave a short gasp of fright and retreated behind his protector, so that for a moment the detective was caught between his obligations to his host and his tormentors whom he was to be responsible for chasing away.

When the first blow of the evening fell it should then come as no utter surprise to anyone but Bailey himself, for it had been aimed behind his back and delivered just as he extended a hand towards the orange-haired man striding forward to meet with him. It fell with the force of a stroke of lightning from the heavens and in an instant of brought low the worthy man, who dropped then to his knees.

The practice of knocking a man senseless while preserving his life has never been a task which was made as easy as it was to describe as it was to accomplish, for the heads of men are sturdier than often they were given credit. A case could perhaps be made that it was far simpler to crack open a man’s skull and ooze the life out of him than it was to club him into total insensitivity. Thus it remains to be stated that when Bailey fell, he did so with full awareness and every-knowledge that he had been betrayed.

Still, I think he could have made some trouble for his assailants if he wanted, for his was the constitution of an adventurer in the prime of his life. Swordsman; marksman; pugilist under the rules of many nations, he should have been a formidable champion by any stretch of the imagination. But alas the trap, as it were, was expertly sprung, and the surprise too great to overcome. Down he went, and with thorough efficiency he was covered and kept pressed to the ground by the three men, even as his host readied another blow to cave in his head. Never was there a more profound change in the countenance of a man from one instant to another. Gone was the frightened, meek demeanor of a humble innkeeper, to be replaced by the glittering ferocious gaze and hardened features of a career criminal with a cool and steady hand. The weapon held aloft at the end of one upraised arm was a menacing blackjack with a wicked looking head, with which he surely would have stove in Bailey’s face had not the sudden faint, muted hum of a motor going far overhead stayed the devil’s hand.

They all of them looked frantically towards the opening of the alley just in time to see a pillar of light from the sky sweeping slowly over the wide lane.

“Scowls, man!” cried the orange haired man in alarm.

“Don’t panic, Archie,” scolded the innkeeper, biting out each word between his teeth. “It is still a way off.” Frantically he searched his surroundings, his gaze coming at last to rest on the stone staircase and the cellar doors at the bottom. “In there, lads! Hurry!”

The grooms had by then piled over Bailey, each man fastening securely onto a limb like dogs bringing down a hart on a hunt. Together they dragged him down the staircase, his one free heel clattering against each step along the way. They were being led by Mr. Rivers who went ahead of all with his keys, swiftly undoing the bolts and throwing wide the heavy doors.

In they all of them went together, a bundle of bodies and limbs jostling for speed and space, swallowed whole by that black yawning abyss which lies like a mouth opening upwards from the deepest recesses of the earth. Once they were safely tucked away inside the innkeeper was quick to close the doors again, shutting out the alley and what little light there could be gleamed at this deep hour. Then together they sat in silence with only each other’s breathing, here deep and there shallow, differentiated from person to person by age and physical character, for company, until at last the moment of crisis seemed to have passed them by.

Now begs the question of what should be done with Bailey. And you would not be wrong to assume the gang, having eluded the danger of capture, presented still a very real threat on his life. Knocking him down outside they probably had every intention of making an end of him then and there. But hidden away inside the cellar clearly they could not decide what to do with him in the little time they had, especially with the sweeping light of the airship still nearby. As he remained conscious throughout this terrifying ordeal, his lingering moments in captivity was now taken up by the arguing of his kidnappers around the ringing in his ears as they tried to come to a decision on his fate.

“Why did you bring him here?” he heard from the man called Archie, directing his question on Bailey’s host. “We should have gotten rid of him outside.”

“There was nothing we can do in the street then,” Mr. Rivers returned roughly. “Not a thing but for bringing him in.”

“Well we’ll be found out for sure unless something is done.”

“Not to worry, Archie. He won’t stay long.”

The air in the cellar was damp and dank, smelling faintly of wine and cheese aging in the darkness. The innkeeper, as Bailey found, had grossly exaggerated his own assets, for he felt then that the five of them were being made to accommodate a far smaller amount of space than he would have believed was possible. His breathing came through his nostrils hoarse and coarse, pushing around the gag of a firm hand pressed over his mouth, and seemingly to bounce off walls in the darkness at every turn; he could not kick with his one free leg but for dully striking the surface of some wooden crates. They were all of them packed into the cellar like fish in a barrel, and the effects of the small, enclosed space surely and quickly took a desperate toll upon the hearts of the occupants.

“I didn’t like his look when he first showed his face,” Bailey’s host explained in the darkness to his cohorts. His voice, where it concerned their prisoner, was filled with the blackest intentions. “And I liked his questions even less when they were brought up, night after night in my parlors. We should have had to do something about him before long, but as it turned out I just found out he is even more dangerous than I thought. That’s why you’re all here, for I could not move on the fellow without your support.”

“Well,” replied the orange haired man, “Now we’ve got him in our sights. But it’s one thing to do the deed while the emotions are still hot. And now that I’ve cooled a little I’m beginning to see another side of things.”

There was a bought of brittle, dry laughter from the other man.

“Losing your nerve, Archie?”

“He’s nobody ordinary, hey. And a Handyman at that. What are we to do if the thing is done tonight, and tomorrow we find the iron hands of his comrades wrapped around our throats? I’m wont to think it will happen, as likely as not.”

A quiet murmur of agreement swept through the small space of the cellar from his accomplices, for the orange haired man’s reasoning seemed sound to them.

“Either way we cannot stay,” said the innkeeper in a low voice, hoarse and raspy, which instilled a sense of deep loathing and menace in his listeners. “And I never planned to. It’s a fire beneath all our bottoms no matter how you look at it, for dead or alive we’ll have no place to call home here. We will all have to wrap things up and be on our way, leaving the country by tomorrow, so why should any loose ends be left in our wake, I ask, before we close up shop for good?”

The way his words were uttered convinced Bailey that his time was up, for there was the telltale glitter of the small man’s eyes, even in pitch blackness, which showed plainly his murderous intent. A match was struck after some fumbling about, and by its faint, flickering light the detective saw a crowbar with a wicked black head being thrust at that very moment into the orange-haired man’s hands.

“Do it, Archie! And we’ll dump his body over the bridge as we clear out before daybreak.”

The glow of the matchstick set off queer shadows dancing all over the walls. As we know the mind becomes especially alert in a crisis, Bailey managed to garner a deep inspection of his surroundings in the moment before the blow fell. They were all of them trapped together inside a cellar too small to pass for a closet, packed wall to wall with crates, some with engravings which read ‘ham’, ‘three-year old cheddar’, and ‘Vintage (No. 32)’. But the barrels marked with ‘pickles’ were stuffed with oddities—notes like shredded paper piled to the brim and nearly overflowing. As his murderer advanced he happened to knock against it with his elbow, sending a small torrent to fly listlessly to the hard stone floor. As they fell away Bailey noticed at once the stocks of rifles sticking from the barrel like trees out of the earth. His heart skipped with sudden, unexpected hope. Alas, with his assailants still pressed unyieldingly over him he could not, for the life of him, get at them just then.

But suddenly there came a sound which perked all their ears at once! It fell into the cellar with the crack and rattle like what you would expect from throwing an especially heavy brick against wooden planks. His would-be murderer stalled, looking all about himself nervously.

“What was that?”

Again the noise was repeated, even louder than before. It now resembled nothing so much as a battering ram at the door. They all of them turned towards the source in alarm.

“Great scowls!” cried the orange-haired man in a fright.

The cellar doors were being forced from the outside by an irresistible force. Before their very eyes it shuddered with the strength of the blow falling upon it from the other side, the very wood itself straining to hold back the immense strength of the attacker. With an iron groan the hinges, well-worn from age and use, gave way one after the other. Following a pop of pins and screws they were forced through, and the doors were thrown inwards.

But no light, however faint, came through the opening, a haphazard slant of space now wholly blocked by the outline of a titan over which a blanket of darkness fell in the form of an all-encompassing shadow. A gust of wind billowed around this towering figure from the in-rush of air through the narrow spaces, at once knocking out the flame on the end of the matchstick in the innkeeper’s hands.

“Lights!” he cried in a hoarse, desperate panic, “Lights!” But even as he struggled to put action to his commands the long shadow shortened, flying down the staircase and falling over them in a terrible rush.

For Bailey there was little to see but much to hear. As he stretched out his ears to listen he was at once bombarded by the very real sounds of a battlefield swirling around him, throwing the small space into utter bedlam. There were footsteps slapping against the stone floor at every turn, panicked cries ringing in his ears as a stumbling, lumbering form crashed into their midst. There was no missing the telltale whistles of swinging limbs, and the growling, guttural language of curses being bitten out from between gritted teeth. All pretenses for discretion were abandoned, all caution thrown to the wind. There was a man in the cellar, an unknown quantity of gargantuan proportions brimming with unchecked wrath. Such was his immense size that everything gave way readily before him. Crates splintered and cracked, the very walls shaking seemingly with his every step. A rifle snatched up in Archie’s hands was wrestled away and broken over a knee, before out flashed the knives embellished by voices crying out here and there in astonishment and pain. For the effects of blades and blows seemed to this titan altogether irrelevant. He appeared to be shielded from any and all harm by his immense strength. And his anger, with which he swiftly overcame his aggressors in a short and bloody row, was insatiable. They were many and he was but one man, but alas in the darkness of the cellar it was to their disadvantage that they could not properly aim their blows without fear of marking up one of their own by accident, whereas he was free to do as he pleased, readily crushing every limb, body, or noggin which came his way.

It ended soon enough. And when at last the cries of the battlefield gave way to sullen silence, punctuated here and there by the ragged breathing of the injured, dying and triumphant, there was the sound of a match being struck. Having made no move against the intruder Bailey was spared the wholesale destruction he wrought, and in the faint light he now managed a good, long look on his timely rescuer as he was being helped to his feet. Looking on him one was reminded of every story heard about the giants of fairytales and folklores, for his legs were tree trunks, his waist a wide bulwark over which his shoulders loomed like the back of a mountain reaching into the clouds. The grooms and the innkeeper lay strewn about his feet like broken toys after the tantrum of a large, angry child.

In the silence of the cellar Bailey heard the giant’s labored breathing, saw faintly his shoulders sagging from weariness. He came up, a massive hand wrapping around Bailey’s arm, pulling him to his feet until at last they were face to face. A black mask obscured his features, covering him from crown to chin save for where the mouth and nose and eyes were cut away, showing thick cracked lips through which his breathing escaped in short, ragged gasps.

That’s when Bailey noticed he was all over with wounds.

“Gods, man!”

“Tis nothing to fret over,” replied the giant. His voice was of a strangely high pitch, the throat of a mouse buried inside the body of an elephant. “Come. We must get you to safety.”

There were knife slashes aplenty, along with here and there a purplish bruise and a terrible open wound or two; and many more unseen as likely as not, for Bailey’s keen eyes did not miss the telltale shamble in his footsteps, the hand pressed over some unseen grievance and the very real observation that for the immense frame of the intruder he walked on distinctly favoring one leg over the other. His triumph over the Fun Friars’ Gang was not without cost, and privately Bailey anticipated he must have been insane to do what he did.

“I have been following these criminals for weeks now,” the giant told him as they pushed their way back towards the cellar entrance, his voice shaking with excitement. He seemed to be eager to hold a conversation with the man he rescued if only to hear his own assurances that he was unhurt, and with a hopeful desperation for a listener who would justify his actions. “I thought they were a cult of sorts with interests in kidnapping and arson, but tonight I learned they are also forgers and gunrunners. You are very lucky, sir, for I was not going to move on them until I’ve found their client. In all likelihood these guns, at least, are meant for the deep southeast, which would have made them traitors as well as criminals. But I was watching the back of the alehouse tonight, and when I saw you being carried in I could not wait anymore if lives are going to be at stake. They have run afoul of a power they disbelieved, and it was their undoing at the last. For the Owl is many things to many people, but justice most of all.” They had by now reached the bottom of the stone staircase. “Who are you, sir? And how did you run afoul of these cretins—great magpies! Back inside, sir! Hurry!”

A brilliant ray of light washed over the entrance of the cellar even as they reached it, and the broken doors was illuminated from the heavens. From the end of the alley where it opened into the wide street there came the eager smashing of heels against the wet pavement alongside the faint hum of urgent conversation.

“Down! Down!” cried the giant in a fluster. Pushing with his great hands he gave Bailey a firm shove, and together they fell back into the cellar.

All at once the footsteps drew near in a hurry. But Bailey, even in the throes of the moment, did not forget to ask him what he meant. He did not miss what his rescuer had been saying before they were so suddenly interrupted, but he, caught wholly up in this new excitement, did not hear the question.

“Scowls, man!” he cried, over and over again as above them harsh voices rent the night.

Bailey felt about in the darkness of the cellar for the pickle barrels, from one which he drew a heavy rifle. With a clatter he popped the stock, but alas it was empty. There was no time to find ammo, and anyway he had no idea where to look. Meanwhile the hubbub above them only escalated until a few hostile words passed down the staircase through the opening. That way was completely blocked.

“It’s the police!” bemoaned the giant. He rushed towards the back of the cellar, throwing aside crates and the wrecked bodies of those he had vanquished like bundles of straw. But alas the door there leading up into the parlor of the alehouse was firmly fastened from the other side, and even his immense strength could not force it.

“Ah!” He smashed his great fists against the wood, but though it groaned beneath his blows it held firm and he could not break through. “Ruined!”

Meanwhile there appeared to be no respite from the voices above urging them to surrender the cellar, and very soon it seemed the matter would be forced. For there was the ever increasing number of footsteps they heard drawing nearer with every passing moment, followed by a dedicated clamor from the top of the staircase. It was undoubtedly the actions of the giant breaking up the criminal gang which attracted some attention. Perhaps all it took was a concerned neighbor running outside in the dead of night to fetch a uniformed man to complain about the disturbance, but from there the matter grew until it became a rightful siege of the premises. The sweeping light of the airship was fixated over the narrow alley like a beacon, while below it the gathering foot prepared to charge.

Bailey made a grab for his rescuer then, struggling to calm him down. But he was by now beyond common sense, his head jerking wildly back and forth from the interiors of the cellar to the entrance and the staircase beyond.

“Look, man,” Bailey tried, “Let me go first, and I’ll talk them down. But don’t make a peep beforehand, and no sudden movements or else we will certainly be shot.”

Still outside the voices continued their haranguing, ignorant of just what was transpiring inside but equally fearful of being riddled with shot on their end should they attempt to enter. As they carried on with their cacophony the giant did then a sudden and unexpected thing. Even as Bailey dug in his pockets for the four fingered iron imprint which would have mellowed their besiegers, the man uttered a terrible roar which shook the building to its roots. And against all common sense, and perhaps reeling from panic and delirium he stamped his foot before shoving past Bailey, charging up the steps with his massive limbs swinging before him like the arms of a broken clock.

He barreled forth then a siege-breaker and blockade smasher, intending to sweep away his enemies as he had done before by his immense strength. But even the most vicious and dangerous of nature’s creatures would have fallen readily before the preparations of a seasoned huntsman, and it was just such a trap which awaited him at the top of the staircase. There were the hurried, panicked shouts of those who were nearest the entrance being bulled through, followed by more experienced voices elsewhere calling for action. The discharge of guns fell into the cellar like ringing thunder, accompanied afterwards by sullen silence as a foot came down on the neck of the quarry the hunters had bagged, with a pistol clapped to the prone head to ensure there would be no more mischief. Then all at once beams of light came swinging down the staircase, and Bailey found himself looking into the eye of a bright lamp as its glow came to rest over him. In his own defense he held up his badge.

“Good grief, it’s the inspector!” a voice which was not at all unfamiliar to him exclaimed, though he could not make out the face behind the glare of the lamp thrust into his face. “Lower your weapons, lads. Lower them. I’m so sorry, my lord. If we had known, we would have come sooner. Let me lend you a hand. There you go, sir, and watch your step, I beg.”

With a man’s arm looped gently through his Bailey was led to the staircase and began to ascend, even as others going the opposite way bowed past him into the cellar. Behind him the noise of rummaging and excited discussion swelled, even as he was met at the top of the staircase by a throng of bodies and voices eager to offer their apologies and services, which eventually culminated in a large hand being thrust his way.

The owner of the hand had the steely composure of a man of the soldier’s life with nearly forty seasons behind his stone grey eyes. The patches on his shoulders denoted a captain of the cavalry, and his boys were plain to see as lancers, whose drab mantles outnumbered by far the deep blue uniform of the local police. All in all, there must have been a dozen men present, standing over the still form of the giant gunned down at their feet. They were all of them basked in the light of the airship drifting slowly by high above, breaking the silence of the deepening hour with its muted whirring motors. The captain introduced himself, and this is how he spoke of the whole thing:

“I’m a man of forthright nature, my lord, so you will forgive me if I should make no pretense of what happened here. I do not offer you my apologies, for we were all of us only made aware of what had happened a few moments ago when the alarm went out.” He pointed to the patrolman who had Bailey’s arm. “It was this good fellow of the law you owe your life to, sir, for a little after the hour of midnight or thereabouts he ran into the street with two or three of his comrades, blowing on his whistle. Trilling he won the support of a passing bus of military payroll, catching the head of my horse as I was going by. It was bloody battle they told me of and I, happily in turn, had my own dispatcher with me who got off a wire to my escort above with his signal lights. So you see it was really quite a formidable number to have arrived in time for your rescue.”

Bailey turned to the man on his arm, and uttered a surprised cry of recognition.

“You?”

“Me, sir,” nodded the man eagerly. “My lord, I was happy to be enlisted into your service earlier tonight, and I am well pleased now that I could be of some use to you again.”

“What is your name, footman?”

A light sprang at once into his eyes, and the man answered immediately, “It is Breakerfast, my lord.”

Bailey shook hands with him gravely, “I shall not forget it.”

“Thank you, sir!” cried the fellow as he proudly thrust out his chest.

There were more introductions exchanged all around, and a great number of names bandied about, though Bailey did not trouble to remember all of them. It seemed that Breakerfast, a curiously short fellow for a uniformed man, so much so that any and all present currently stood at least a head above him, had been open with his own experiences, and very soon a crowd had formed around Bailey, eager for his favor and attentions. He, however, directed his gratitude mostly upon this humble patrolman with whom he felt an instant rapport.

“Now, I will be very much obliged to hear your account of things, how you learned of my predicament,” he asked him even as the other policemen swarmed about the narrow alley, darting up and down the stairs and into and out of the cellar on their own business. Nearby the lancers looking on, all aloofness in their own little world.

“But what can I tell you, my lord?” said Breakerfast, “except that I came as soon as I could.”

“I have had the good captain’s account already,” said Bailey, “and he has spoken highly of your involvement. But pray, how were you led onto me? I was certain I was quite alone when the ruffians sprung their trap, and before besides.”

“Ah,” said Breakerfast with all modesty, “I was nowhere nearby, sir. I was at my post in the same spot I have been for the last twenty years where you found me before. In truth you probably owe your life more to that lackey who found me there.”

“Lackey?”

A nod, “I was first alerted by this young man who seemed to me but a commonplace lackey. He ran out of the night fog and clutched at my arm where I stood, screaming bloody murder. ‘A man has been bludgeoned and carried off underground!’ I was told, and only by my involvement could we hope to save his life. Of course I found it all very suspicious, and would not at once take his word for the matter. But he has only been waiting beneath this sign of the establishment, as he tells it, for a meeting at midnight for which he was stood up, and happened on the grisly scene wandering about. So I returned with him to the mouth of the alley and lo’ and behold there we saw a giant swathed in shadows taking the plunge into the cellar, with the most horrid noise of strife and conflict erupting from the hold after him. I ran at once for help, and we were too few to make a difference until the bus was spotted. The rest you know, my lord.”

Bailey listened with here a thoughtful countenance, there a darkened grimace clouding his brows. At last he uttered a little laugh through gritted teeth, giving the patrolman a sudden start.

“I don’t suppose you remember anything of this lackey who came to you for help? I do not see him with you now.”

Breakerfast’s face took on a flush, and he turned his head away and coughed in embarrassment. “Now that you mention it, sir, I have not seen him since the arrival of my comrades and we sallied together into the street in search of further aid for our cause. Of him I remember little, for his face was covered by a wide-brimmed hat”—then all at once he brightened up— “But I do recall something of the hat, for it was a splendid color, a bright teal beret which shone oddly in the light of my lamp.” His face fell, his brow furrowing in concentration as he struggled to remember. “I seem to think I should know it, but for the life of me I cannot say where from.”

Bailey as well fell silent after a long, lingering sigh. When he appeared to fall into a melancholy mood the patrolman managed by a break in his deliberations to speak up into his thoughts.

“Can I let you in on a secret, my lord?”

Bailey, having his concentration interrupted, started.

“What was that, hey?” Then, leaning in closer so that they were cheek to cheek, “By all means, my good man.”

“I think the lackey who rescued you was a young woman,” said Breakerfast.

“And how do you figure that?”

“Well her disguise was immaculate, and she would have passed for a dockworker. But there was the petite frame to consider, and the soft hand in my own as we ran down after you. She can hide her face with soot and an oversized hat, but the pitch in her voice is beyond her power, especially in a moment of crisis.” He laughed then, this short man with a bright spirit and the sincere, easygoing manner of that rare breed of people who found a silver lining in every situation they were thrust into. “Only promise not to tell my wife, sir. Lovely young women appearing out of nowhere to beg for help in the dead of night, especially when they are disguised and leave no trace or name of themselves afterwards—it is the beginning of a candid, secretive adventure, sir, to read from the magazines, and she certainly wouldn’t approve.” He winked at Bailey.

He too laughed then. The details of the mystery which he had been mulling over were assuredly settled by the patrolman’s suspicions, just as I’m sure your own conclusions are as swiftly confirmed. It really could not have been anybody else waiting beneath the Fat Friars’ sign for Bailey at this very late hour, whose curious and courageous nature compelled her then to follow up on the matter in his absence, and who then raised the alarm when the reason for the missed appointment was discovered. In any case we needn’t dwell on it, just as Bailey had already put it out of his mind.

“Think nothing more of it, my good man,” he told Breakerfast, laughing it away. “And I think I have gotten enough from you. But come! We must see to the end of things here still.”

So touched and surprised was he by the affectionate gesture that the patrolman practically fell over with gratitude. It was not every day that one becomes the intimate of one’s betters. Woe is the humble man who has never stood in the shadow of greatness. He dipped into a half-bow, offered an elbow to Bailey, and his arm was swiftly accepted. Together they turned back to the captain, who directed their attentions to the giant sprawled still and unmoving at their feet. Things aboveground were swiftly being wound down, save for what was to be done with the bodies of the dead and maimed.

“And this man—?”

Bailey, addressing the captain of the lancers, swept his hand towards the body.

“Dead,” he confirmed. “We would have settled for getting him in claps before he made a terrible mess of things. A brave soul, but a foolhardy one, in my opinion; for I cannot fathom what he intended to accomplish with that last desperate charge into the teeth of all that gunfire.”

“Any injuries to your men, captain?” Bailey asked him.

“Oh he got at a fellow or two with his big arms as he went by, but he did not have time enough to take anyone into his grasp before he was shot up. It was a fitting end to such a dangerous creature.”

Bailey panned his eyes over the prone form at his feet. From end to end the body would have measured no less than seven feet, with the tall leather boots of a wrestler laced up at one end, and the face obscured by the black mask at the other.

“For his efforts,” he allowed, “I suppose he was trying to do some good. He broke up a murderous gang, after all, before rushing up to confront you.”

The captain of the lancers snorted derisively. “What he did, my lord, was make himself a very big target doing so. You couldn’t have missed him if you tried.” He jabbed at the body with a toe before pointing to the head planted facedown against the cobble. “All in all we are excited, for we did not anticipate getting such a prize for our efforts. Would you like to do the honors, sir?”

“Me?”

“Of course!” he added at once, “We would not dream of taking away your success. But only if my lord would perhaps mention our contributions in the matter you will find none of us ungrateful.”

A look of confusion passed over Bailey’s countenance. But as his eyes danced over the faces of the captain and the patrolman beside him he saw that they were anything but insincere in their request of him. What it meant to him he could not have imagined—only that with the giddy prospects of a child coming into unexpected good fortunes his associates looked upon him with almost reverent awe, and not a little jealousy as well. Evidently they anticipated that he was in possession of a treasure trove which they would have liked to dabble in, but for his permission which they were trying to goad from him without it being explicitly expressed. It was a frustrating conundrum to say the least, for it was the first incident during the long evening’s adventurers that Bailey felt he was not atop of things as they developed. He wondered, “Just what have I got myself here, eh?” But what he ended up speaking aloud was a very surprised, very shocked exclamation, “What in the world are you doing?”

In the short time of his deliberations one of the policemen who had been evaluating the body had gotten up, disappeared from sight, and then swiftly returned again. Bailey would not have given it another thought—indeed, he barely recalled the man’s face in his presence—except now the fellow was looking back up at him from what he was doing with a puzzled expression. And what he was doing was very odd indeed. He had a little satchel with him and he was busily emptying its contents over the prone body of the giant. Bailey grabbed hold of his arm and tore him swiftly away. He repeated the question in harsher tones.

From amidst a scattering of big, brown feathers he had been dumping over the dead the policeman cocked his head to one side, with a look which said plainly how ridiculous all of this was.

“Man, look at me when I am speaking to you,” cried Bailey roughly. “What in the world are you doing?”

“Begging your pardon, sir,” replied the man, “but I wasn’t doing anything.”

The absurdity of his statement drew a bout of disbelieving laughter from the detective. He pointed towards the body, jabbed his finger here and there at the feathers. The man in his clutches shrugged, looked towards his own comrades helplessly.

The matter was answered by the captain of the lancers with a look of incredulousness directed towards Bailey. “Why, my lord, I should think it would be obvious.”

“Oh?”

“He is preparing the scene for the newspaper illustrators, who will be here before dawn.”

“But the feathers, man!” cried Bailey. “What is he doing with the feathers? And why?”

“Oh it’s an old trick, to be certain, my lord,” said the captain offhandedly with a laugh. “And you won’t lose my support by saying we probably should start thinking of newer ones to use. But in our defense it has been this way for the last decade, and truth to be told I think it’s generally understood that we can probably leave it as it is.”

“But what is it, man?” Bailey pressed. “Just what should it all mean?”

“It’s our own way of branding delinquents, sir,” he was told by Breakerfast. “Oh but you would have to be a local sort to understand. In its own way it can be considered our little jest, given all that we’ve had to deal with over the last twenty years as the laughingstock of the nation over our troubles. But since the reigning power in these parts have taken to paying handsomely for Owl heads, then it has become the unspoken agreement of the working uniforms that Owl heads are what we shall deliver in abundance, even if we have to tag our own catch.” He placed a hand over his belly, laughing. “But don’t think for a moment our good lord is such an improbable imbecile that he has not seen through the ruse in all these years we’ve been practicing on him. Our Lord Viceroy is nobody’s fool. But being nobody’s fool probably he encourages this kind of behavior, if only to snuff out the last lingering fires of his nemesis, and putting the fear of justice into his would-be followers. Or maybe he gets a tax break from the capital for all the Owls he’s rounded up and dumped into a river. Who can say, really?”

There were muted murmurs of agreement all around.

The captain, seeing Bailey’s crestfallen expression, laid a comforting, sympathetic hand on his shoulder. Leaning in close he whispered conspiratorially, “Oh but I wouldn’t worry, my lord, for we do not intend to take all the credit for this bust. It’s yours and we wouldn’t think of it. Only perhaps we might get a mention in your reports to your masters at Pegging for our troubles, our assistance in a perilous hour if not an outright rescue, and you’ll find us all properly grateful. I think it’s not too much to ask, given what we have delivered to you.”

“And just what is it you have supposedly given me, captain?”

Breakerfast provided the answer in place of the lancer commander, in a voice which made plain his excitement for all to hear: “My lord, you’ve just gotten yourself a Lynchman’s Owl!”

 

 

 

To be continued in [+ Issue 2: Legend of the Hour (Free)+]

 

Keep reading for a sneak-peek at [+ Legend of the Hour+] and an excerpt from [+ Eye of the North Wind+] – a cripple’s journey to save an unknowing wasteland king…

 

To hear a hoot in the hour before dawn is to mean enduring ill-fortunes and worse woes still for the listener, especially if you’ve got something to hide. Here in these parts we call him the Lynchman’s Owl, and this is his call.”

Other Works by B.Y. Yan Available on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited:

 

Eye of the North Wind – the epic fantasy of a crippled secret defender of the wasteland king

 

The Lynchman’s Owl Serials – the Steampunk Noir Superhero who vanished twenty-years ago; but twenty-years later somebody has come looking…

 

Origins

 

Issues 1 (A Lynchman’s Owl)

2 (Legend of the Hour)

[+ 3 (Death of the Owl)+]

4 (Ibbu Harold Bailey)

[+ 5 (The Owl Returns)+]

Collection 1 (includes issues 1-5: the Complete Origins)

 

Adventures of the Owl

 

[+ (Mercy of the Mighty)+]

[+ (The Gorilla Press)+]

(The Lady of May-Tulip)

(Dead Cell)

(The Empress’s Diaries) Forthcoming – October 31, 2016

B.Y. Yan is a Chinese-Canadian author who someday hopes to do this for a living. He currently lives in Toronto, Ontario but spends most of his time travelling between two opposite points on the globe on business with his wife Jeane, sometimes accompanied by a giant orange tabby cat. In his spare time, he has maintained the same great love since childhood for stories told through every medium imaginable.

 

His debut adult fantasy novel [+ Eye of the North Wind+] is currently doing the rounds at all major book retailers in E-Book and paperback. You can find him at his street corner at—

 

http://bigbinofideas.wordpress.com

—peddling his stories with all his imaginary friends.

 

The Lynchman’s Owl: Legend of the Hour

This fellow stood head and shoulders above them all. He was tall and fair with the broad shoulders and long arms of a marvelous specimen of his sex, and the endearing smile of a master showman with which he bowed his way into Bailey’s presence. After a quick and swift introduction by du Gale he eagerly professed all innocence from his own employee, who had been ousted from his troupe prior to being revealed as a vigilante.

“His contract was going up in a month and I was not going to renew with him, for he has become as of late hot-headed and impervious to reason. I have never been niggardly with pay, and that was not the reason of strife between us. It was his insistence on keeping odd hours without explanation which forced my hand in the end.” The circus owner rubbed his cheeks as he spoke, looking pleadingly upon Bailey. “He had become rougher in his job as well. Whereas before I could depend on him to play up his part and draw a crowd by his unusual size, these last days I have spent in fear of his wrath, which simmered at all hours oblivious to rhythm and logic. He might just as easily break the neck of his dancing partner in the ring as he would knock down my office door in the dead of night to avenge some imaginary grievance. Truth to be told I put the matter down to drinks as much as I did these new nightly activities I have been let in the know on, and donning a mask seems in retrospect the least of it. The man was becoming unhinged, if he was not already deranged. And in the interest in protecting my staff I made my decision to let him go. What he has done with his life since I am as innocent in my involvement as I am ignorant of the details beyond what I have been told.”

“It seems the man was destined to turn,” put in du Gale. “We have traced movements of the circus courtesy of our friend here, and it soundly corroborates with two or three other criminal incidents in the last half-year on that trail. Wherever the circus goes, it seems, the masked avenger has reared its head without fail. I’ve sent word to my counterparts in those respective places, and I suspect soon we will have evidence to link the chain of events to one another.”

“It is at present not so much the man himself who requires our attentions,” said Bailey. “He is dead. It is the life he has led before his demise where my interest lies.” He turned to the manager. “Who were his sires? Who was his father, and what has become of him?”

“I don’t know, sir,” the man replied.

“His mother then, and her father; who were they?”

“Ah! I never knew either.”

“Well he must have come from somewhere,” said Bailey in mild annoyance. “What was he like before you took him in?”

The man mulled chewing on his lips, struggling to remember.

“Oh come on, Mac-Winston,” said du Gale, “If you want to be off the hook you have to offer something up! Anything, really, would do. Details of the man’s life you might have overheard, gossip of his lover from an admirer of his work, complaints from a co-worker. You know it’s not enough to give him up to us, especially when we already have him. You have to hand over his life if we are to stop our badgering you about his death.”

The ringmaster wriggled his nose helplessly.

“Truth to be told, my lord, I found him in Longport to the south where he was working as a part-timer on whaling expeditions. He was famous for the strength of his throw, but it was the side money he made arm-wrestling all comers and knocking out farmers’ cows with his fists that attracted my attention. His radical opinions, which he was inclined to force on others with the ears to listen I disregarded completely, for I make a general habit of disassociating myself from my employees, so if they should incur any sort of embarrassment from their actions I would be readily absolved.”

“You are a prudent fellow, but cold,” was Bailey’s assessment, which brought a flush to the man’s cheeks. “And you can tell me little on what most I need to know. But if you can direct me to someone whose help I can depend on, you will not have to deal with us any longer.”

As expected Mac-Winston jumped at the chance, bringing out a name to shield himself against Bailey’s disappointment. This man was (real name) Jean d’Rooksfield, who partnered with the giant wrestling under the nickname of Madness Mars for the Circle. He was to be found in the employee barracks called the Lockers located behind the main tent. Du Gale sprang into action at once, and ordered the page to go on ahead with a scribbled message to detain the man named for questioning.

“Don’t worry my lord,” he was quick to assert to Bailey. “I have been thorough with my work since arriving, and the 2-26th has the circus completely surrounded, with every man within barricaded from leaving. We shall have answers soon enough.”

Indeed, his confidence seemed not to be unfounded, for when they arrived at the Lockers they found its entrance guarded by no less than four members of the esteemed riflemen division, sharing a smoke with a passing stagehand whose pockets they had pilfered for his sugars and matches. Upon seeing du Gale all four were quick to invoke that they had emptied the Lockers of everyone but d’Rooksfield, and that no one has gone in since. This testimony was swiftly corroborated by the stagehand, who had saw them do this very thing.

Du Gale favored each of his men with an encouraging clap on the shoulder, along with a sidelong glance at Bailey for any signs of approval. He swiftly excused himself, and darted into the tent in search of their quarry. The flaps, however, barely had time to settle before he came bursting out of it again, his face drained of all color and his eyes wild with unwelcomed surprise.

“You!” he cried at the nearest rifleman, who at once stood attention before him.

“Y-yes, sir?”

“You say you have emptied this tent of everybody else except for the man we want—Jean d’Rooksfield?”

“That’s right, sir.”

“Well where is he then?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Where is he?” Spittle flew from his mouth in the direction of the cowering soldier. “The tent is empty, man!”

Eye of the North Wind

Chapter 1: The Three Letters of Sir Boors

It would not be presumptuous to say that Sir Boors was the most powerful man in the wastelands, and that for miles everybody wanted in on his good graces. Thus when his fiftieth birthday came around, there arrived then with the promise of celebration many gifts, some quite unexpected.

He was born low (the exact year of which nobody can agree on), but rose high on the shoulder of his brother who alone amongst his peers had the disposition to follow their king into and out of a long war, first as a beleaguered footman, and then as chief bodyguard responsible for saving him from being riddled full of arrows running in the wrong direction during an ambush. For this service he was handsomely rewarded, whereupon he promptly retired, bequeathing upon his brother—whom he desired to become raised high in the world—a letter of recommendation.

And in the years following, Sir Boors far surpassed this patronage left to him. Armed in the beginning with nothing to his name but the lingering goodwill of the king, but gifted with an abundance of cleverness owing to a character of natural cunning, and possessing of perseverance and courage where it was needed, he soon found himself at the head of court favors, from where he came away with a knighthood, an office of employment as Steward and Minister of Finances, and a frequent seat at the king’s card table. For years he captained the Yulin Hundreds of Gainsworth—who are today the Yulin Hundreds of Garfeld—a battalion of king’s steely and scrapping guard, vanguard and bodyguard, renowned as much for their skill and prowess as for their fixation with prestige and prosperity. For in those days’ titles, occupation, and privileges preceded all else as the standard by which men were measured.

Sir Boors lived in humble lodgings unbefitting for such a power. On any given day we might find him sitting at his desk by the window in his modest chamber on the third level of a wide house with a barren stone face, clad in a red robe of office, cast in a fiery glow by firelight from the hearth cut into the grey wall. One look at the man is more than enough to distinguish him, for his was the mighty form shaped like a barrel, a little less than seven-feet in height, hunched over a great mahogany table prepared with a spread of avaricious proportions—coffee and toffee, desert ham and beggar’s turkey, cheese and cheddar from the oasis, black ale and white chocolate—placed beneath his round chin. But a critical eye would not fail to notice his brow furrowed in obvious frustration, his pale cheeks trembling with every movement as he read aloud a letter in his hand. His breakfast went untouched, and lay forgotten on the table before him.

His shoulders sagged. He looked older than he was, and felt older than he looked. For his was a crushing burden as caretaker of his masters’ holdings, enfeebled then by the absence of her king, who passed away recently at a healthy one-hundred-and-forty-two years of age, and her borders threatened from without by old foes. All of this served as capable proof of character for Sir Boors, who served ably and for some time managed to make sense of the whole thing in order to improve upon it, if only a little.

The letter he was reading arrived early in the morning, and he compared it to a letter he received the previous evening. Both were delivered in the manner as he explicitly bid. A rapid knock on his chamber door informed him of their arrival, and they were slipped inside beneath, unopened. On the one which arrived the night before it was written in a flowing, flowery hand that the queen wished to make of him a birthday gift: a painting he was asked to collect at her home; on the letter he received this morning he was invited to join the Great Yarl, First Lord of the Realm, on a hunting expedition in the Royal Parklands to celebrate his birthday. Both filled him with suspicion, for long experience in dealing with the affairs of royalty has made him wary of becoming attached to matters too sensitive, secretive or scandalous for his own good. Rarely has such involvement led to a favorable outcome, for being called upon to solve their pressing needs entailed usually some great personal sacrifice, leading to the loss of life or worse, of fortune.

Such was the unenviable state of mind of the great financier that grey morning in December when we find him leaving his desk, his appetite having long fled, making preparations for the day. Outside grains of desert sand swirled about in fierce whistling cries, piling high on the sills of the three narrow, tall windows looking high out over the west face of the citadel, before which were drawn heavy green drapes, shutting out a view of the vast desert plains with each grain of sand glowing bronzed beneath the sun, here and there dotted with pointed outcrops like rocky waves washing across a dull red sea, and the great mesas sitting like the stumps of stone trees, shimmering and hazy in the distance.

A man appeared in the doorway unbidden with a long leather coat, ringed at the neck by furs, and wrapped in it Sir Boors slipped through, descending the narrow stone stairs. He did not have to look behind to find Basil, chief amongst his servants, keeping up in the manner of a shadow. They went down together to the first level of his house, a common hall of many faded white pillars sitting beneath narrow arches, passing long benches where good ale was served and tall men in mail went through wearing formidable looks. All gave way swiftly before him. Master and servant passed through into the antechamber and from there into the court where a gilt litter with a blue canopied cabin waited, taking up almost all of the space. A contingent of footmen gathered round it. Sir Boors was ushered into their midst and they left the house swiftly. Four large men carried the littler, two before and two after, moving along the winding street, ascending in a roundabout manner to the Ivy Keep, a castle of grey mortar seated below the peak of the citadel like a lopsided crown erected over the ruins of an old church by Gainsworth in the first days of settlement, and where today his son lives and rules.

They entered the castle square through tall iron gates, running lightly over wide paved stones beneath the Great Standard of Linberry. On its billowing, swirling face the long journey of Gainsworth and his followers, a great and mighty train passing from East to West, was depicted in gold threads against red and burgundy, running beneath the golden lamb of the kingdom skirting gracefully atop a trailing string of white clouds.

At the entrance of the palace guardsmen in blue mantles lounged about lazily on wide stone steps, bracing spears against their shoulders, and past them they found a narrow lane lined on both sides by tall grey pines. Going in they came to a body of clear water after several turns, and beheld the holdings of Plead On-the-Lake, where the queen lived in a house of red mortar covered in ivy and vine. Here the litter came to a halt, and Sir Boors was helped out of it by Basil. They presented themselves humbly to the servants scattered about the premises.

Going in past gardeners and maids and maids-in-waiting and ladies and ladies-in-waiting they went around the house to a small garden of rare greens and delicate flowers in full bloom. In a far corner eunuchs were having a game of horseshoes with the accountant, who was losing badly. Sir Boors never failed to press each hand he passed, always with a kind word or two, while Basil followed behind, handing out small monies.

In this way they arrived meeting the queen armed with the knowledge that she was content, that she was cheerful, that she was lately at times, furious with a wrath to behold, that she did not eat today, and had no visitors for some weeks, except for the son of the Great Yarl whom she detested, who was sent away earlier. Her own son the king she longed to see, but he made different excuses for every day of the week—calligraphy on Mondays, philosophy on Tuesdays, hawking and the hunt on Wednesdays, a study of history throughout the rest of the week (which, according to his new tutor, the king never attended)—and did not come by at all.

But when Sir Boors presented himself outside the window of her study she seemed amicable. The first thing she did was to send her favorite handmaiden to ask him if he would not mind sharing his opinions with her on a painting she recently acquired.

“Gladly,” he said.

This handmaiden, whose name was Milsworth, showed Sir Boors to the window. He looked through it at the painting hanging on the opposite wall.

It was a picture of Gainsworth, the late husband of the queen framed in muted gold and vividly colored in deep blues and greens, seated in his great throne of steel bars and gold-plated legs with his head supported by his hand and wearing an expression of inattention; at his feet his favorite hound Cudgel looked up upon its master with reverence. The Steward immediately recognized it as the handiwork of Over the Hill, a hermit residing deep in the wastelands who recently passed away young through illness—some say with decency, for now his life’s work was precious and priceless, owing to his timely demise. He said so as much to the queen’s handmaiden.

Milsworth went inside to tell the queen word-for-word all she had been told and in no time Amber’s voice flowed out of the window bidding him to advance. A delicate hand was stretched out of the window and rested gently on the sill. Sir Boors knelt before it, and touched his lips on the brilliance of the great diamond sitting upon a long white finger.

The voice of the queen carried the thunderous bearing of her rule—just or otherwise as some may have said—bidding him to rise. As he did so he caught sight of her for the first time in months. And what can we say about her, really, in order to accurately describe Amber Plead in her tenth-year year at court for those who are meeting her for the first time? Suffice to say that there exists a breed of women time cannot measure, despite every effort. Here was a creature exhibiting every excellence, and elevated her species and sex by simple virtue of membership. She was compassionate and loving—to her father in youth, to her husband in marriage, and now deeply devoted to his son by his previous wife—intelligent and wily in equal measures, courageous in catastrophe and steadfast in her resolve. If she had a singular fault, it would be her apparent ageless appearance, which can come off unnerving; for it was the opinion of most people that nobody should look as they did at nineteen when they were, in truth, closer to thirty, and some were quick to account this trait to fey blood (it is rumored that her father, the King of Plead, had taken a fairy wife out in the wastelands, who is today seldom seen), which is how they explained she ended up with hair the color of forest fire. She was the fairest woman for miles around and fantastically unhappy. Today we might have called her ungrateful, which is the greatest compliment anybody can pay as evidence of historical greatness that has ever come before or will be.

Sir Boors was admitted into her study. It was a small room with little space to spare, but tall with a high ceiling, and warmly decorated by long tapestries. A good hearth was cut into the center of the room surrounded by carpets made from the skins of many beasts. A great marble chair covered in fur was placed next to it, where the queen was seated. Sir Boors stood opposite her with hands clasped respectfully before his belly until a chair of stern birch was brought in for him.

Soon they were seated and talking together in an easygoing manner, and Sir Boors discovered that the queen was not as contented as he initially supposed, for she spoke of hardships endured from losing many old friends.

“It is this matter of strangers in my own home which has gotten me unnerved,” she told him. “I see many unfamiliar faces in my home. Did you know my maids were replaced last autumn? I do not know any of the new ladies-in-waiting; the eunuchs I distrust; the guards are new faces with grim countenances; and the accountant I think a spy. Milsworth is all I have left and I feel as if I have not a friend in the world to depend upon.”

“I am here still, madam,” said Boors.

The queen sighed.

“You are always a welcomed sight in my home. And truth to be told if you had not come by, I fear I should have spent the whole day mired in lonely misery without speaking to a soul. I feel I shall not get better in the short while.”

“What can I do to help?” asked Boors.

“I have asked you to give me your opinion on this painting, and I feel you have not been entirely honest with me.”

“What do you mean?”

“You have spoken to Milsworth about its origins, and appraised its value; but you have not divulged a single detail as to the meaning behind the work, which I am eager to learn from you most.”

Boors hesitated. When he spoke his words were carefully chosen.

“I believe the meaning conveyed by the artist is loyalty,” he managed. “The painting itself, as I remember, was commissioned by a retainer of your husband; Galvin went on a Quest in order to obtain it. The hound is representative of himself, who served without compromise until the end of his days, never asking for more than the pleasure of being in the company of his liege. After his passing the painting, which had been a gift from Galvin to his king, was given in return by Gainsworth to his heirs, who have kept it since as a treasured heirloom.”

“And now it has come to me again.” Amber stared at the painted visage of her husband with a troubled look.

“It is good of you to help them,” said Boors, hoping to lighten her mood. “I’ve heard that these Galvins have fallen on hard times, and by selling this heirloom this will be the second time their family has been rescued, first from obscurity by your husband sixty years ago, and now by you, from destitution today.”

“That would be true,” said Amber, “except that I haven’t done anything. It was the Great Yarl, and I don’t know how he came by it, only that he spared no effort in getting it to me. His son came by some days ago, and this was the gift he presented to me on his father’s behalf.”

“Ah!”

“He has never made his peace with me.” Amber ground her teeth as she spoke. “Although I’ve done my part to treat him as my family, he has never given me anything but trouble, and chooses often to forget altogether that I should exist in this world. Why should he remember now that I am his sister by custom, his liege by law, and think that I should not suspect him for this gesture as method to conceal some villainy?”

“Perhaps he is only trying to make up for lost time,” the Steward consoled her. “There has always been great love in the house of Antwerp, especially between brothers, and it is my belief that all grievances can be laid aside.”

Clearly the queen did not think so, and wept suddenly into her hands.

“Madam—”

“I have lost much,” she told him through her sobs. “And looking on this picture now I long for the faces and company of true friends who are beyond my reach. Now I am surrounded by enemies. Hard eyes watch me from every shadowy corner. You may not believe me when I tell you that I am often frightened for my life, but if you ever loved me over the years we have known one another, and will defend me as you have promised, I ask you now to become my Galvin in my time of need.”

“What would you have me do?” asked Boors, suppressing a sigh.

“I mean to move away for a little while from here. If you could find suitable lodging elsewhere, where I can be freed at last from unwanted hindrance or influence”—here Amber slipped the great jewel from her finger, for a moment catching a strand of sunlight passing between the window-drapes; and dancing there with all the brilliance of the world she pressed it into his hands, where the light vanished swiftly from sight— “I am not without gratitude. I gave you all the help I can to deliver me from imprisonment. Even by telling you my desires I have placed myself in great danger, and danger still may find me if the matter is not carried out with caution, and in secret. I am wholly yours, my friend. It remains to be seen what you might do.”

Now it might be said of Sir Boors that for his long experience serving as caretaker of the kingdom he understood well the caveats which came with unsolicited attention and gifts, but yet lacked the fortitude necessary to resist them. It was his one great failing that he was easily tempted by the sight of treasure or a show of great wealth. He slipped the diamond into his pocket and promised to do what he could for the queen.

They talked then well into the morning on subjects less interesting to recount. The queen asked about his family, of which she knew little, and Sir Boors asked about her son the king, of whom he knew every detail. As it was coming to noon the queen pulled on a long cord of rope which fell from the ceiling beside her seat, and a bell rang for lunch. Sir Boors excused himself from her company then, though she bade him to stay.

He left collecting his litter from the estate premises, going back to the square by the same way he had come. Soon he was returned to the comforts of his cabin, peering out from half-closed eyes at the scenery rushing by as Basil drove the men on with flogging strength, and the footmen did their best to keep up, going down many winding ways all along the western face of the citadel. They had a second appointment to keep still and there was pressing need to hurry.

The litter went beneath a suddenly cloudless blue sky. Narrow strips of sunlight cutting through the spaces between thatched roofs of stone courts passed briefly over the cabin. The white faces of the tall stone houses carved into the mountainside cast numerous shadows reaching like long black fingers to the west.

At the foot of the western face sat a great stone gatehouse of grey mortar, embellished by ringing pipes and groaning smokestacks belching smog into the air. With three narrow arches set in it, through which the primary lane of the citadel was split, it resembled nothing less than a tall, frowning face with missing teeth, worn by the harsh sandy winds which now and then buffeted against it in broad, windy strokes. A set of red doors studded in faded gold set deep inside the arches blocked off each of the three paths, and before each stood a sentry watching over passage through, where the long highway wound around first to the west, then south, into the Fields of Ingraine.

The Great Gate it was called and the Steward’s procession came swiftly before it. On recognizing his servants every courtesy was shown to expedite him on his way. Trumpets blew and a lane was swiftly cleared. They came through beyond the gatehouse to the highway, where the road was laid out wide, paved in some places but not at others, with a ditch on both sides to drain away infrequent rain. It led, winding, into the desolate wastes. But nearer to the citadel one could see at a glance on both sides farmsteads and little broken walls in the distance dotting the field, sheltered in the shadows of the great tumbling ridges with their ragged rows of stone teeth like waves of frozen sand, with here and there the white smoke of hearth-fire billowing into the sky.

Passing these town-lands and going south for a little distance a great natural wall arose from the earth as a buffer in the east, atop which sat a dense screen of prickling needle-pines and outstretched branches. Deep rooted trees grew here in thickets, sitting at the feet of harsh mountains sketched far in the distance. Between them lay a natural preserve of sparse, crooked woods and blackened, oily bogs which was to the House of Antwerp their royal hunting grounds.

Before this barricade a lonely red tree frowned upon the highway and here the litter halted in the shadow of its canopy of sparse yellow and red leaves. Herdsmen quickly approached, for they maintained stables nearby for travelers to switch horses on their journey, and provided sturdier mounts with which one might venture into the ragged forest on official business. A great chestnut was led up for Sir Boor and a tall mule for Basil. These branded steeds were brought out from stables separate from those provided for commoners by merit of their white thatched roofs, upon which fluttered the yellow and black pennants of Immortal Linberry. It was getting on three o’clock in the afternoon.

Master and servant went into the wilderness of the Royal Parklands and came upon the hunting party of the Great Yarl a little of the ways in. They were set on the right course early following the trilling of distant trumpets, and then as they drew closer, the faint noise of many voices speaking together deep in the marsh. Soon they saw lanky woodsmen dressed in yellow tabards going with their backs bent like sapling over still black pits, wearing great bows of yew over their shoulders. Seeing them they were hailed, and bade to follow.

They went deeper into the hunting grounds, horse and mule pushing through sparse undergrowth into a small clearing where they found nearly a hundred men with their ankles blackened scattered about, leading dogs and following mounted riders along the edges of a lake of sticky tar. Men dressed in leather busily sharpened spears with many colorful banners draped from their necks, or brandished them wildly about in the air to distant cries.

In the center of this commotion a tall white horse stood atop a small yellow hill. Snowfell she was called, and well known to all who gazed upon her, for she was a creature of majesty and splendor belonging to the Great Yarl. A well-dressed young man sat astride her, cutting a dashing figure in his silver cuirass, bearing royal inscription and arms. Sir Boors shook the reins in his hands, and rode through the hustle up to the hill. He stopped just short and dismounted, approaching on Basil’s arm, crunching coarse gravel beneath the soles of his boots. He bowed low, not before the rider as you might have expected, but rather to the man standing beside with his hand on the neck of the horse.

This fellow bore some resemblance to the young man in the saddle but for being about twenty-five years older. The brown-gold curls falling in locks around his ears showed some grey hidden within the strands. His dark sunken eyes alighted upon the Steward with a fierce look, but he pressed Sir Boors’s hands with affection, laughing merrily.

“Now you arrive! You have kept me waiting a good while.”

Sir Boors embraced the Great Yarl, and made his apologies for being late.

“We have sorely missed your company, my lord,” said the rider then, who had dismounted in that time and came round the horse, just as eager to show his affection.

“As I have yours, and that of your esteemed sire,” said the Steward. “I hope I haven’t kept him from his game.”

“No harm done,” said the young man, laughing. Half his face was scarred by pox, but smiling he outshone every deficiency, a specimen of grace and vigor befitting a prince of the realm. “The denizens of the park are being uncooperative and father has had nothing to show for his efforts all day. He is losing his touch, for I fear he attends to this business in the same manner as he does tilling a battlefield, and all the beasts of the earth are driven before him. It is a fantastic rout, but it will not bring any bounty worthy of heft and praise.”

“I’ve been away long,” his father replied with false indignation. “And out of practice, I might add, so I should be forgiven for being warlike in my methods, for that is my only business these days.” The Great Yarl put his arms around the shoulders of his son and the Steward, and they all three of them began to walk away together, taking with them all their might.

“Have you brought your bow with you?” the Great Yarl asked Sir Boors when they were all set to begin.

“I have not,” Boors replied.

“Take mine.” The Great Yarl shrugged a tall bow of golden birch and gleaming steel from his shoulders and pressed it into his hands.

“Have you got a horse with you to your liking?” asked the young man.

“Only the one upon whose back I came.”

“That won’t do,” said the young man, handing over the reins to his magnificent white. “Take mine.”

The Great Yarl and his son were doing their best to be accommodating, and Sir Boors did not refuse. He accepted every compliment given, returned every courteous gesture, and once new horses had been brought up for the Great Yarl and his son, mounted up after them. A bugle trilled advancing notes and the whole procession became elated by action—trampling sparse tufts of grass wherever they tread, buzzing like a great hive of hornets which had been provoked into action, raising a dust cloud to cover them like a shroud, attacking everything moving in sight.

In this way a great exultation came upon all, and voices broke soon into war-like songs. There was nary a cause for complaint but for lack of game, for they drove every living thing into hiding from the cacophony. Even the principle hunters, around whom everything else revolved, managed to shoot only two desert hares between the three of them—both tallied to the score of the young man riding far ahead of the main host, whose prowess with the bow from horseback was formidable. When at last their pursuit of a family of rattlers ended up for naught, and every arrow in the Grand Yarl’s quiver was spent, the party was called to a halt and an end put to the festivities.

The rabbits were strung up and handed off to the squire of the Great Yarl’s son, who took them in his gloved hands, rubbed faded and covered in blackened grease, and bowed away. The woodsmen gathered and formed a van, cutting a wide swath through the sand while the mailed servants followed after, and last of all came the three riders side by side. The hunting party was returning home.

“The last time we did something like this,” said the Grand Yarl, “I remember it was summer and the sport was great. We managed to take a hart or two, and trap a tundra-boar of monstrous size. Everybody ate well that day, and we came very close to breaking into the top five ranking in the North with one-hundred-and-fifty-seven pounds on the hour, per hour.”

It was common knowledge the proper method for calculating hunting bounties was gross weight divided by total time in hours of the day; and this particular result was very impressive indeed.

“I’ve always said that it was all thanks to Boors the last time round,” continued the Grand Yarl.

“I am troubled that you should think so,” said the Steward humbly. “In truth, I don’t know the first thing about hunting.”

“But it was your arrow that pierced the boar’s left eye when it seemed by all accounts it would escape our trap,” said the Great Yarl’s son. “I have the arrowhead still, pried from its skull and given to me by the king as keepsake.” The young man removed a bodkin head attached to a thin chain from his pocket. At the tip the gold skin had been worn away, showing the hard iron beneath. “I see it for something of a charm. My cousin’s gift has protected me for more times than I can remember, and I miss him sorely.” He asked the Steward, “When do you think you will be able to convince his mother to let him out to play again, my lord?”

They were talking about the king of course, and Boors replied that in truth, he did not know.

The Great Yarl grumbled: “I have never begrudged my brother for remarrying, for I understood perhaps better than anybody else his deep pain from losing Tingale, third and most beloved of all his wives, who was a woman of good stock and breeding, and a kindred spirit to me in my youth. But Amber was poor choice and poorer replacement, and she has never proven otherwise to me. I worry on behalf of my nephew, whom I love like a son. What do you think she is up to now?” He addressed Sir Boors gravely: “You must watch her for me at all times, for I am seldom with leave to do so myself. Dangerous errands great and small she sends me on in the name of the king, perhaps hoping I shall not return from one of them. But while I am away I should like to know that a true friend will keep watch on my behalf.”

His son pleaded with the Steward as well: “We are going away again tomorrow to the borderlands where some trouble is brewing, and we do not anticipate returning for many months. A great hoard of gold has been discovered in the south, it seems, and its wealth is said to be immeasurable. We go to claim it for our king. And it falls to you, my lord, to keep watch at home while we are away. It is a heavy burden, but I hope you will shoulder it for my father’s sake, who has said many times we are at an all-time deficit for trustworthy friendship.”

The young man dabbed at his eye, and the Great Yarl turned away his face and coughed. And of course you will see that they have unknowingly maneuvered Sir Boors into something of a bind. He felt as if he were caught upon an anvil without room to maneuver, watching the coming blow of the hammer. Both the queen and the Great Yarl were fond of getting their way, and really there was nothing for the Steward to do in this case but to promise all he can for both of them. The mood lightened at once, and servants around them broke into song once again.

When the two parties parted ways the Great Yarl bequeathed the spoils of the hunt upon Sir Boors, meager though it may have been. But the skins branded with the royal seal were of considerable value, and anyway a secret recipe for stew came with them, said to possess properties for minor healing and to ward off fatigue on long marches. It came from the squire of the Great Yarl’s son, who has proven on occasions to be a worthy worker of small miracles. His name was Emberdread, after his master Emberdain, as was the custom of the land. And he was swiftly summoned to pass over his knowledge to Basil in the low language of servants while the Great Yarl inquired with the Steward about his brother.

“If not for you I should not have any knowledge of him before I left again. How lucky am I then to have you to tell me what I want to know of his wellbeing.”

“What I have learned,” said the Steward, “I learned from his son, who has taken on the role of caregiver and caretaker in the absence of servants to do such work. I am told that the Yern of Ward is in good health.”

“It is some consolation,” said the Great Yarl with a heavy sigh, “At least where he has been left without anything else in his imprisonment, he has still in his possession that greatest of treasures a man may ever hope to acquire—a good and loving son who will not abandon him in any hardship.” He cast a sidelong glance towards his own offspring, who was tracking the movements of clouds moving overhead some distance away.

The Great Yarl looked back to Sir Boors queerly, as if he should have it in his mind to want to ask him for something, but was wary of speaking aloud of it. He had to be asked at length before he opened up, and when he did he did so with uncharacteristic discomfort.

“It is that I should like to ask for a favor. But I am reluctant to do so after having already placed such a heavy burden on your shoulders. Yet I might lose some sleep over it if I left it to anybody else.”

“We are friends, are we not, my lord?” Sir Boors said. “Ask of me what you will. Command me if you must.”

“I cannot command a friend.” The Great Yarl breathed a sigh of relief. “Will you pay a visit to them soon on my behalf, and give them a portion of the spoils from our hunt together? The white hare for my poor brother, and the brown one you may keep as a gift from me. I feel I should leave better off tomorrow morning if I knew some gesture of kindness, however small, has been paid to that unfortunate House.”

“I don’t see any harm in it. If you have a message for them, I will deliver it at the same time.”

“I have none.”

The Great Yarl looked sadly all about them at the scarce number of trees with their bared branches weighed down by thick coats of black, oily tar.

“There are words enough between us that one lifetime is not enough to speak of it all. But even if I should somehow find enough courage to call I know I will find only icy looks and cold refusal at their door, which I cannot stomach from my own kin.”

The Great Yarl fell silent then, and the Steward, who knew something about their sorry history, found nothing to say. Soon Emberdain arrived bringing with him the brace of hares, having been prepared beforehand by his squire so that it was ready for cooking. He offered to ride back with the Steward to the highway.

Sir Boors accepted graciously, and they left together after bidding farewell to the Great Yarl. All along the way the young man never mentioned his father’s parting request. Indeed, he seemed to have no knowledge of it altogether. They came soon within sight of the great red tree and the gilt litter parked beside, while overhead a full round moon slowly arose, chasing away the lingering sun as the evening quietly took hold.

There they parted, and the young man vanished soon from sight, waving his arm in goodbye. The litter rolled on northbound, but going only so far as about halfway from the red tree to the Great Gate, and there diverted from the course it had come by onto a little path with two lanes—one for heavy traffic of mounted riders, and another for slower going filled even at this hour by wagons being drawn by oxen and mules. The servants of the Steward formed a wedge before the litter, and the foremost among them took up a cry. This herald, whose breadth of voice was immense, cleared a way for them all along the narrow road.

They pushed into one of the larger villages nestled at the foot of the citadel’s walls, passing by stone houses of one and two stories tall, pressed together without room to breathe, and long ranches of scrap and iron with their roofs hidden beneath thick hide carpets, with a light going in most of the windows. The cries of the herald were carried far by an eastbound wind, and many came into the street to catch a glimpse of his splendor. But more still heeded his instructions to give way, for the servants were formidable. If a pedestrian barred their way, he might be taken to the side of the road and beaten; if a wild dog came into the narrow street, it was chased off with poniards. Still the pace slowed, despite their efforts, for now the road was getting narrower, but more importantly it was winding uphill and down, and it became a slog to push through.

Deep in the village the great procession turned (with some difficulty) onto a lane with a house sitting at the end of it, indifferent to all others they have passed save for one or two distinguishing features: it was surrounded by an enclosure of tall walls, embellished with smooth beaten iron plates to frustrate climbers as if the resident would prefer to be left alone, but set in it with doors painted bright red as if the owner desired to call some attention to himself. The litter stopped in front of them and after some fussing about, Sir Boors approached and politely knocked.

From within a beautiful voice inquired: “Who is it?”

“Boors,” answered the Steward with every courtesy brought to bear. “Open up, my dear.”

He was made to wait, as he knew he would be. What he had not anticipated was that he would be obliged to do so for far longer than he was used to, until he just had to knock again.

“It’s Boors, my dear Marigold. Open up please. I’m here to call on your master. Is he home?”

He was made to wait some more, until he raised his hand again to knock for the third time. But before he could strike the wood with his knuckles that same beautiful voice piped up again from within: “Who?”

“Boors,” he repeated for the third time. He raised his voice. “It’s very cold outside. Open the door, please.”

“Boors,” the voice murmured contemplatively. “Do we know a Boo—oh that Boors? Well why didn’t you say so?” And with every false apology (and sparing little effort to hurry things along) the door was unbarred from within and drawn open a touch, so that a face appeared in the gap, as fair as the voice which had preceded it. Golden curls bobbed up and down, a small pert nose turned upwards in disapproval (or disgust, as it might be suspected). Sir Boors inclined his head, smiling in the manner only he was capable—which was to say, in the face of every adversity and insult, to maintain that humble countenance of indifference when it was called upon—and swiftly planted a foot into the narrow space, so that the door could not be shut again.

“Mary!” he said. “You look positively radiant—as beautiful as dawn! May I come in?”

Even aloof her voice was lovely, soft like cotton, but with strength behind every word uttered. “Why don’t you,” she said, and opened up the rest of the way for him.

He entered alone, leaving behind his servants and his gilt litter and Basil, and the door was shut behind him. They moved together through a well-maintained little garden onto a little path of cobble which had been swept clean and through the front doors into the house. Light spilled from within, along with the aroma of strong chocolate and the heavy, comforting must of leather bindings. Just inside Marigold plucked a candlestick from the wall and led him to a small chamber filled with books. She sat him in a great, comfortable chair, set the candle on the little table next to it, and vanished from sight.

Sir Boors, who was used to the luxury of his great and wide desk with plenty of space to go around, was now made to accommodate what might very well be the smallest amount of room anybody could be expected to live by. And the reason for that were books. Books were everywhere. Volumes of text great and small were stacked atop one another in haphazard fashion like poorly erected staircases reaching for the ceiling (which was not at all low) with every step askew. Great and tall shelves leant up against each other, before and after and side-by-side; all of which had long since been filled to overflowing. Tomes of Knowledge were being used as doorstops; periodicals covered the floor in place of carpets; newspapers in dozens of languages substituted for tapestries; and the sole extravagant furnishing of the household, a great wine rack which took up the whole of the west-facing wall was filled with scrolls, which had been stuck into the boxes in place of bottles.

The lone spot of open space in the chamber which had not been covered up in this manner was a window cut into the stone next to the great chair, from where Sir Boors looked out into the little garden, counting cantaloupes. He rested there for a time, until the master of the house bestirred himself at last to meet him.

Heavy footsteps along a groaning staircase preceded his coming, though he was, when he appeared at the door of the chamber, but a frail form, bent and withered with age, supported on the arm of Marigold, his daughter and maid. His voice, however, resounded with profound strength and vigor, hailing his guest. His eyes glittered with wit and wisdom from beneath long brows, for his was that strange complexion of hairs which turned white early, but never reaching the ashen hue of old-age, preserved in its silvery strands youth far beyond what might be the acceptable norm. He showed his long face from behind a screen of smoke, which wreathed about his head from a pipe clenched between his teeth. When Sir Boors got up from his chair to embrace him a cloud of smolder, thick with the smell of good tobacco, was blown into his face, which caused the Steward to go into coughing fits.

For twenty years Sir Boors had been made to deal with the master of this particular household, who kept up his peculiar ways by the merits of two kings to whom he was a favorite. This then, was the house of Wiseman of the Yonge, trusted advisor of Gainsworth and once tutor to his son until the young king threatened to walk out unless he was made to retire. His home came by as a royal gift, where he did not permit tenants and only rarely tolerated guests save on occasions such as this one. It was Sir Boors’s habit to consult with him whenever he was confronted with a problem that he could not solve. But they were also fierce rivals, forever trying to destroy each other, for it was inconceivable to Yonge that someone like Boors, risen high on the merits of nepotism and bleeding dry every office he touched, should go unpunished for his crimes, whereas Boors argued that opportunities which came a man’s way may originate from familial origins, success itself should only be measured by his own efforts. And while it might seem counterproductive to beg for aid from somebody who struggled for most of their career to ruin you, it was at the same time the best option available in a pinch, for Yonge was the most learned, wise, and farsighted man in the kingdom. He was also honorable, forthright, and incorruptible; if he had any failings it might be said of him that he smoked far too much for his own good and that like all paragons, he possessed a disposition and ego which allowed for nothing short of perfection from his peers to earn a gracious look or a kind word, which can make him insufferable company.

They were now seated on either side of the small table where the candlestick had been set, the flickering flame throwing up long shadows running over the shelves and walls, while beneath them the rivals eyed one another with even wariness. They had been talking for some time. In few words Sir Boors related everything which happened to him today. He spoke at length of the letters he received and his meeting with the queen and later the Great Yarl’s request. He omitted only the existence of the diamond, but divulged every other conflict of interest, and with the humility of a money-borrower begged for advice on how best to proceed.

A large pot of chocolate had been set on the table between them, which Yonge stirred idly with a long spoon. He did not offer any to Sir Boors while he mulled the matter over. Sir Boors paid him many compliments, and goaded him on to think of something. In return he promised to give him his desert hare. “Royally branded,” he said. “You can make it into cuffs for a coat, with the brand facing outwards for all to see.”

“And why would I want to do that?”

“Because royal game has not been gifted outside the Antwerp Line for many years, and it is a great honor so I immediately thought of you. Why should I get all the glory when I have plenty already? So I came at once to share it with you.”

“I wouldn’t want it anyway. It will lead to a bad end.”

Sir Boors laughed. “You’re just jealous. They are only rabbits.”

His rival said nothing and continued to puff on his pipe, but his silence became a source of worry for the Steward, and before long he begged him to speak his mind.

“It’s just that I don’t think the Great Yarl gave you this gift just because he wanted you to look after his nephew and spy on his sister-in-law for him while he is away.”

“Well there is the business with his brother, the Yern of Ward,” the Steward admitted. “I promised to take a hare to him as well—”

“Ah!”

“—from his brother, who is all over with guilt even today after what has happened twenty years before. It is to be a secret gift.”

“Ah!”

Sir Boors, becoming annoyed, asked, “What? What is it?”

“It is nothing. I just had a thought.”

“It is something,” he insisted. “Tell me what you are thinking.”

Sir Boors leaned over the pot of chocolate to hear what Yonge had to say. But that was all which could be gotten out of him, and soon he became very worried (you would too if you had any experience at all in meddling with the affairs of royalty). Worried he became angry. He stood up suddenly from his chair, and exclaimed in a loud voice like drums rolling:

“Tell me what you know, for I am at the ends of my wits, and I will play your guesswork game no longer! If you persist to be so difficult you will lose my friendship. And you will see then what I am about when my ire has been aroused.”

As he towered over his rival, filling the room with his voice, which caused the staircase of books to shake and tremble, we witness for a short time the true might of the Steward revealed. But against his rival it seemed to be little use, for the little man sat unaffected, chewing idly on the end of his pipe to wait out the storm, and eventually Sir Boors was made to settle with him, begging once again for him to speak his mind.

“I am only trying to help,” said Yonge at last, and without much evident concern. “But you are giving me a hard time for it. Show me both rabbits, and I will let you know what I’m on about.”

Sir Boors worked it over in his mind, and certainly a bit of suspicion lingered there, but he did as he was told. The spoils of the hunt were brought in and Yonge had a long, uninterrupted look at them. He remarked after that he would like for Sir Boors to give them to him to keep.

“If you won’t give me a reason,” said Sir Boors in annoyance, “then you cannot have them.”

“I’m doing you some good by taking it off your hands,” said Yonge, though he would not explain further when pressed, for in that time he had taken three long puffs on his pipe, and it was going empty. Sir Boors struck a match and lit him up again in a hurry. To repay him for this gesture Yonge asked him to weigh the hares in his hand to see for himself if anything was amiss.

Sir Boors did so, but was forced to admit that he found nothing out of the ordinary.

When Yonge asked him about the stitching sewn into in the rabbits’ bellies he replied that the squire of Emberdain did a common courtesy by removing the intestines of their catch for easier management in the kitchen. It was common knowledge for hunters, butchers, anybody with a lick of common sense really. Yonge gave a little laugh, knocked out the ashes from his pipe against the side of the little table, and said nothing more.

Fearing he had missed some crucial detail, Sir Boors looked over the hares again. This time he concluded that one was heavier than the other.

“The white one,” he said, and before the knowing look of his rival he added to his own answer: “It is the one which is meant for the Yern of Ward.”

“So you see now,” said the Wiseman.

Truly Sir Boors did not, but he was eager to learn, for a suspicion had been aroused and he did not bother to put on a false knowing front. He waited for Yonge to explain.

“There is more to be said about gifts we receive without sparing for a moment to guess at the intentions behind the hand which brings them. Thinking in the shoes of the Great Yarl, I suspect that if I wanted to pass along a secret message I might very well choose do so under the pretense of hunting, with the message concealed inside caught game in place of stuffing, and delivered to its intended recipient by an ignorant patsy.”

Sir Boors began to go white in the face.

“If I wished to facilitate a revolt, say,” Yonge continued unabated, “or provide a tool for an imprisoned prince to escape from captivity in order raise an army from people who might still harbor every reason to love him and wish for his return—”

Sir Boors did not wait to hear anymore. He tore frantically at the stitches on the white rabbit. If he bothered to raise his head just then he might have seen Yonge trying to hide some amusement as he looked on. But patience and composure had by then fled from him. There was every intention to get to the bottom of the mystery just as soon as he was able to, and equally as much desire to keep Yonge from finding out any more than what he already guessed. If there was anything inside the desert hare which might implicate him in a conspiracy, it was very likely that Sir Boors intended to run off with it—out of a window if necessary—before anybody could get a good look. Thankfully he was spared any such apprehension when nothing more was discovered inside the rabbit other than twenty gleaming gold chips arranged neatly into two stacks.

Sir Boors looked to Yonge in some confusion, and found his rival looking up at the ceiling, his shoulders shaking from mirth.

While the Steward recovered from the frantic beating of his heart against his chest, Yonge explained in full: “The Great Yarl is nobody’s fool. If he wanted to deliver his brother from imprisonment, he should have by now twenty years to do so. How would it look for him now if he were to switch sides today, after all this time had passed?” He shook his head. “No, the Yern of Ward is going to stay where he is for the rest of his life, but it does not mean that his brother, who loved him dearly, and who performed such a great role in his isolation and imprisonment, might not seek to make amends where he could for the sake of his conscience and his blood.”

The explanation was sound, and Sir Boors was glad to hear it. But so great was the toll taken upon his spirit, to be wrestled in such a short while from despair to relief, that he might have had an unkind word or two for Yonge for playing such a trick upon him. But he only professed gratitude to his rival. The most distinguishing quality of the Steward, as we have seen, is his ability to take everything in stride. He asked what was to be done with the rabbits now that the secret was out in the open.

“I shall take them from you, as I have said, to spare you the trouble of getting rid of them yourself,” said Yonge. “You cannot very well give the hare to the Yern now that you know what’s in it, and you cannot keep it for yourself for fear of somebody telling the Great Yarl that you did not bother to do as you promised.”

“But what am I to do if the Great Yarl asks after them?”

“It should be simple enough to hide what was done from him, for you have in you still the power to grant him half-truths. It is only a matter of money, of which you possess much and me very little, as you have often reminded me. Therefore, you must spend an amount equal to what had been lost by the Yern purchasing some things for him that he would have likely wanted and might have utilized this gift for. It is no difficult task. You will only have to think of what I do not possess, and it is likely that he will not refuse either, for we are both of us poor folk. I can give you a few suggestions if you like.”

“Please.”

“My neighbor who lives three doors down is a candle-maker. His cousin is a blacksmith of good repute. Their mutual friend from childhood is responsible for most of the furniture you see—who made the chair you are sitting in, in fact—and his wife brewed the chocolate you have not had a taste. These are honest folk who do good work by all accounts with scraps, at a better going rate than what you are likely to find elsewhere. I have some free time lately, so if you gave me some money, I should be able to settle the business on your behalf with all of them.”

Loath as he was in being parted from money, Sir Boors mistrusted more in placing any small part of it with his rival. He declined Yonge’s offer, and promised to take things up with the craftsmen himself. Yonge smiled knowingly and did not further press the matter.

It was the best course of action to take, naturally. And now that the crisis has been averted Sir Boors could see the twenty gold pieces sitting on the table for what they were. Loathing had given away to longing, and he was reluctant to part ways with the unexpected fortune without having something to show for it. Indeed, he was on the verge of suggesting to the Wiseman that they should split the wealth between them, for it seemed to him then that it was unlikely Yonge would bring up the matter on his own (he had mentioned nothing of them since their discovery and they seemed to him now altogether invisible, despite the great golden shine they threw about his chamber). Sir Boors’ reasoning was that it was only fair since he had worked so hard without knowing to obtain it; and Yonge should be too impoverished to refuse. But one look into the eyes of his rival, who seemed to anticipate his mind at every turn, put him off the notion and he was convinced to wash his hands of the whole thing, however painful it may be. By then Marigold had come back into the chamber, making an elaborate fuss to evict him. There was a great feather-duster in her small white hands with which she swatted at the shelves and swept up the floor, looking all the time at his chair as if she would throw him out of it at a moment’s notice. Yonge accompanied him out of the chamber, and only at the door he remembered to ask about his conundrum, for it had been forgotten during the excitement.

“Come back tomorrow,” said Yonge on that matter.

“But why?” asked Boors.

“I’ve only half a solution for you now. But give me tonight to think it over, and I will give you a whole answer in the morning.”

“But why not now? If you will forgive me, I am in something of a hurry and I reckon I should lose some sleep over it tonight.”

“One more night waiting will make all the difference in the world for you. I know because I already have an idea as to how you should proceed so that everybody is still speaking to you by the end of it. That is what you are after, is it not? So come back tomorrow in the morning, but please be punctual.”

On many occasions Sir Boors came away from Yonge’s library humbled, humiliated and harboring deep resentment (which he was careful never to show), but he had never been disappointed. Thus he put his faith into the brilliant mind of his rival without a moment’s hesitation. He left as he was bid, returned promptly at the time he was told to, passing the remainder of the evening uneventfully, buried in his work. And convinced the answer to his problem had been left in good and capable hands he slept soundly throughout the night save for the hour before dawn, when he fell into a terrible nightmare, dreaming of misplacing a great cache of jewels, for which his peers laughed at him behind his back; then Gainsworth his old king appeared and chastised him for being forgetful, and he awoke all over with cold sweat.

Sir Boors woke early the next morning. He stood shivering before the great hearth in his chamber when there came two rapid knocks at the door, and a letter was slipped inside beneath. He had not the heart to look at it just then, however. Indeed, he had it in him to do very little with his time. He did not take coffee, refused morning pastries, and breakfast he only picked at sparingly. He spent most of the morning in his chamber, only seldom going to the window to look into the street below for a breath of fresh air, keeping a diligent eye on the hands of his pocket-watch. By ten o’clock he had accomplished very little. Indeed, the only time he seemed to come alive was in keeping with the appointment he had made the evening prior.

It was morning still when they set out and the sun had not yet properly set in its place, for the weather was unaccommodating. A harsh yellow storm had rolled in during the night, though it was rebuked mostly by the tall citadel walls, and the landscape outside was covered in a murky grey sheet. Above it the sun could only faintly protest like a circle of cheese smeared over a dirty pane.

When Sir Boors returned to the village it may surprise nobody to learn that he had been put in an irritable mood owing to his nightmares. He tried to compensate for this deficiency by increasing the size of his retinue in anticipation of another slog through the slums: double the numbers of footmen were placed in Basil’s hands to remove everyone his master did not like, which today seemed to encompass almost everyone. But were they not surprised, pleasantly so, upon their arrival to find that going was not at all difficult, with every misbehaving peasant of yesterday endeavoring now to wait upon them with proper amount of fear and respect. Quite a number of locals had turned up, and they busied themselves chiefly by clearing out of the way so that the gilt litter may pass unhindered, only consenting to follow it after at a distance with an air of expectation.

At the library they were again surprised by a warm reception. From far away Marigold could be seen standing in front of the red doors in the street, stretching her long neck so that she would not miss their arrival. When the litter drew up she was already beside it, wringing together her hands in anticipation.

“You are such a dashing fellow for saying so that I am blushing,” she replied shyly when Sir Boors paid her his usual compliments, and pinched his arm playfully. His mood became elated, and caught up in the moment he might have reached out to stroke her rosy cheeks with the back of his hand, but by then she had already led him into the library and sat him in the same chair as yesterday. “Half a minute, my lord,” she said, and left then.

In no time Yonge appeared, covered again in smoke and ash from his pipe, and a pot of chocolate was set on the little table. Sir Boors was offered some, and partook eagerly for his good mood.

Indeed, it could be said that Yonge was being nothing less than a stellar host. As a matter of fact, the only capitulation to his ego that Sir Boors was made to endure on that morning was his obstinate refusal to begin speaking until he was asked outright, and in this he was made to wait a long time, for Sir Boors was not at all accustomed to the courtesy he was being shown here, and forgot his own business for a time (or chose not to remember) in order to relish in it some more.

At long last they got to it, and it turned out to be simplicity itself. Sir Boors was advised to oblige the queen first and foremost by purchasing a house somewhere within the citadel walls for her to live in secret.

“It will not be difficult for you, I imagine, for your wealth is great, and you shall manage to find such a place easily,” said Yonge, and the Steward readily agreed.

Afterwards he was advised to oblige the Great Yarl, second-in-all-things, by staffing this secret residence with guards from his own household, from whom he might learn all he wished about the daily activities of Amber to reveal as he pleased to the great nobleman.

“But what am I supposed to do if she becomes suspicious?” he asked, and Yonge had replied: “Listen.”

And last of all he was advised to do some good by himself, for he should maintain a safe distance from all this double-dealing in order to keep himself above suspicion. “Hire outside help and do not let on your involvement,” said the Wiseman. “Spend freely to ensure loyalty and discretion, but place a man in their ranks who has your confidence as a final check against duplicity. Do all as I have instructed and you will have gained the queen’s gratitude, retained the favor of the Great Yarl, and spared yourself of any hostility which may befall you should either one of them go away displeased.”

Sir Boors struck the arm of his chair with his palm: “Marvelous!”

In his elation however he did an unkind thing. He allowed, for a moment his true face to be shown in place of the mask of decency he wore. He stood up from his chair without being bidden, nearly overturning the small table, all aloofness and impenetrable countenance now that the consultation was concluded. He addressed his host in a tone of command, saying that he must attend to the task at hand, and therefore will not be staying any longer.

“After all, we do not all of us have the luxury to early retirement. However little we may have contributed during our time, it is better than nothing at all. And however little we may have been liked doing what we did, at least something was put forth for the whole, even if it might go unappreciated often. Goodbye, Yonge. Try not to smoke too much. You have a pale complexion about you and it is worrying, for I do not wish to see you go to an early grave.”

And without waiting for a reply he stuck out his chest and bowed out of the chamber, shouldering past Marigold at the door.

He arrived at his litter delighted, clapping each man on the arm as he passed. Amongst them he chose five or six to procure gifts for the Yern of Ward, and gave them a free hand in the matter. “Living like he does,” he said to them, “it might be said that there is nothing he would not need or welcome having. I leave it to you so long as not a penny falls into unscrupulous pockets or goes unaccounted for.”

Villagers gathered about them into a helpful throng, and overhearing these instructions promised Sir Boors—even though he was not paying them any mind—that nobody would be left wanting. They seemed to have some prior knowledge of his intentions, for they were well prepared to take advantage of his generosity, and came forward at once to show off their wares to his servants. Sir Boors, however, thought nothing of it at the time. He got into his litter and a great cheer was raised by the locals for his patronage and generosity. A youthful exuberance came upon him for having for once bested his rival, and the love he was shown by the locals made him feel healthier than he had for years! As the litter left the lane he managed one last look behind him and found his servants overwhelmed with propositions for their business, and behind the commotion the faintest flickers of a lit pipe, glowing like embers in the mist before the red doors as Yonge looked on, forlorn and helpless.

Afterwards they went to the Yern of Ward’s. And really, what can be said of that journey but for the fact that it was not an enjoyable affair (nor has it ever been) for the Steward. The Yern’s house was small, his walls were bare and his furnishings sparse. He has nothing to his name but for an old chest where he stores his clothes and a hard bed his dog lived beneath—Mutton it was called, an old hunting hound of the Yern’s who had followed him into confinement, and in the years since became melancholy. Little accommodations could be offered, though the Yern did his best and gave Sir Boors his own chair. But he made for a poor conversationalist, for he was always careful with his replies. When asked how do, he replied, “Content and complacent.” When he was asked if there was anything he would have liked done for him he replied: “All’s well, thank you.” And talk of that sort was common, except for when Sir Boors asked after his children—his son Unfrey Creed, a beloved and constant companion of the king, for they were of a similar age and his daughter Peony with a fierce spirit—and then he became animated. And so great was his love for his children that for a time his back, bent always like the spine of a willow, straightened out, and the burden upon his withdrawn shoulders vanished. He took for himself the lion’s share of the conversation then, his dark eyes alight with momentary passion, and Sir Boors heard in his voice the strength of kings.

They spoke together until the presents procured by the Steward’s servants were brought in. These were mundane items, truly: a new writing table, some good chairs, a small carpet, hats and belts and candles, gas heaters for the long cold nights with tanks of fuel to keep them going, a fruit basket and a piece of jade worked into the likeliness of a crest of birds. But to the disgraced lord they were luxuries. The Yern of Ward thanked him sincerely, and he took his leave soon after, convinced that he had done a good deed.

By the time Sir Boors returned home it was nearly eight o’clock. He sent for supper at once and found he had appetite for a second, so good was his mood. He could not wholly finish it, however, and gave Basil the leftovers. After that there was only one thing left to be done. The matter of procuring unfamiliar faces to staff the secret residence of the queen was given over to Basil. And as that worthy fellow has long before bragged to his master how well he understood the inner workings of the local criminal society so that he might make use of such fine folk he was now called upon to make good on it. The going rate according to Basil, was sixty copper crowns per year per person, and eighty for their captain. The Steward wanted three unfamiliar faces (for that was the number which he had settled on). “And to lead them,” he said, “Someone from my own household for whom you will be responsible. Can you recommend anyone?”

Basil thought long and hard, before saying finally: “There is a good, stalwart fellow called Bresweld Bolden’s Son, loyal and dependable in a crisis.” Much more praise was showered upon this individual than what is necessary to report, but truly it was because without fail, Basil attended dinner at the Bolden household for three nights out of seven a week and for four or five years going now was given a purse filled with money after, and asked to aid in the advancement of Bresweld by his father.

 


A Lynchman's Owl

20 years ago the Lynchman’s Owl disappeared. Hero, villain, monster, fiend—it is undeniable the lingering effects the mysterious creature has left on the beleaguered nation, long since at odds with its own downtrodden, oppressed people. 20 years later, with ironclad airships taking to the skies and the world charged for total war beneath, someone has come looking, and his identity will be at last revealed… Bailey of the Golden Brocade wants one thing and one thing only: the Lynchman’s Owl of 20 years ago revealed, or undeniable proof of his existence. And whether diving headlong into battles with hardened criminal societies, uncovering the secrets of well-meaning revolutionaries, or butting heads with masked vigilantes, he will stop at nothing to get the answer he needs. But there is nothing which guarantees that the success so desired by the royal detective will be the same one he receives, or wants; and when you are obsessed with chasing down legends, there is equal chance that the legend of yesterday will come looking for you… The Lynchman’s Owl is a series of stand-alone short stories concerning the adventures of the titular masked hero in the twilight of his career. The serial is updated monthly with a collections compendium every 5 issues, with each episode contributing to the overarching story, the first of which has been presented here for your enjoyment.

  • ISBN: 9780995051621
  • Author: B.Y. Yan
  • Published: 2016-10-24 17:35:12
  • Words: 29222
A Lynchman's Owl A Lynchman's Owl