Table of Contents
Gerdie pretended to sleep on the bench of the rocking, bouncing carriage. She fought the urge to open her eyes and spy on her captors. The two men inside the small, dark space dozed and woke, over and over. She waited, patiently. Her hands were tied with rope, but she could still grab the latch when the time came. If they thought that she was going quietly, they had another thing coming. The tall one knew that already. She clocked him good, right in the eye, when they grabbed her. Four men against one girl wasn’t fair, but it was the only way they could get her into the carriage.
As they passed beneath tall trees along the road, moonlight blinked out behind the canopy. The carriage crawled along. Would they stop, Gerdie wondered? If she kept pretending to be asleep they’d let their guard down. She felt the carriage turn and heard the mounted riders pass the carriage. They were turning off the road. The ride got bumpier. Gerdie realized the men were searching for a place out of sight to stop for the night.
The carriage slowed and came to a stop in the dark forest between Overhill and Mirinol. Gerdie knew directions. She knew which way they were going. She heard voices outside. The two men inside moved. She didn’t open her eyes, but she could hear them moving. Someone opened one of the small doors and spoke a foreign language. One of the men got out of the carriage. More talking. A hand suddenly gripped Gerdie’s arm.
“Let’s go,” a harsh voice said.
Gerdie opened her eyes halfway. Her plan was thwarted. She needed a new one. She got up and carefully stepped out of the carriage. The tall one came from the shadows with a length of rope. Did they expect her to sleep all tied up? Bastards.
The tall man walked her a short distance from the carriage. The shorter man who’d watched her the whole ride, stood a few paces back with his flintlock cocked. Gerdie heard it click. She wasn’t sure how those things worked, but she knew enough to be afraid.
With all the locks she saw on the carriage compartments, Gerdie could tell they were guarding something. She knew if she got free they’d hunt her down. She’d be a loose end that needed trimming.
The tall man tied the rope to her wrists, through and around the ropes that were already binding her hands together. Then he wound the rope around a tree and around Gerdie.
“Sit,” he told her. “Sit, sit.”
The tall one looked foreign, but where was he from? It was too dark to tell. Even when they grabbed her, back in Overhill, the sun had just set. The men all wore clothes that didn’t fit right. Gerdie had seen how fancy people dressed. These men had the clothes but not the fit. Something was off, like they were playing dress up with their daddy’s clothes.
She sat down in the dirt and leaves. The man wrapped the rope around her and the tree, together. Her hands were in front of her. At least she could work on wiggling a hand free.
The man walked off, looking confident that Gerdie wasn’t going anywhere.
Gerdie sat in silence. She thought about screaming and calling out. Would anyone hear her? She wasn’t even sure where they’d stopped. Definitely closer to the city than to Overhill. No, screaming and yelling was no use. She’d have to get loose and make a break for it first chance she got.
Something rumbled on the far side of the carriage. In the dark, in the forest, with the moons blocked out by the trees, it was hard to see anything. Gerdie thought she knew the sound. It was a deep, guttural rumble like an animal would make.
Was it the horses? No, horses didn’t sound like that.
Something tugged Gerdie’s ropes. She tried to turn and look, but even if she could see around the tree, it was too dark. The ropes tugged again.
The low grumble sounded once more, in the dark beyond the small clearing where the carriage was stopped. Was that two animals? The sound came from the other side of the carriage, but it sounded a little higher.
The men noticed, this time. They were building a small fire ten paces from the horses, at the edge of the clearing. A twig snapped and each man was on his feet, looking this way and that. Something was out there. The men moved to the far side of the carriage. Gerdie couldn’t see where they’d gone.
Thumping, rushing sounds emerged—twigs snapping, feet rustling in the leaves and weeds. The men shouted. Something growled and roared. Sounded like a bear. Plenty of bears in these parts, Gerdie thought. One of the men screamed. The firearm discharged, a loud explosion that echoed in the night. Smoke drifted through the air among the shouts.
Gerdie felt the ropes that bound her tug and slacken. She leaned forward. It was a perfect time to run. The ropes dropped away. Only her wrists were bound, now. She moved to stand up, but something small stood in front of her.
“Hold on,” said the fox.
Gerdie shut her eyes tight and slowly opened them. “What?” she asked. It was just like the old story about the mages and the hawks and foxes. But that wasn’t true, was it?
The fox stepped closer. Gerdie flinched. “It’s okay,” said the fox. It sounded like a little boy with missing teeth. The fox nosed at Gerdie’s ropes and slowly opened its mouth.
Gerdie flinched and drew her hands back, again.
“I won’t bite,” said the fox.
Gerdie fought the urge to chuckle. It sounded like the fox said ‘I woe bye’. Gerdie slowly extended her wrists and the rope that bound her. She waited, hoping she wasn’t losing her mind. What the heck was going on?
Another roar. More shouting. Gerdie couldn’t see them. She could only hear the movement and the yelling and the roars.
The fox made quick work of the ropes.
Gerdie stood up and pushed the last of the rope off her wrists. She smoothed the front of her simple, brown smock and looked down. The fox sat in the leaves and dirt looking up.
“Thanks,” said Gerdie.
The fox winked. At least it looked like it winked. Hard to tell in the dark.
Another roar and more shouting. A man’s scream was cut short with a gurgling sound that made Gerdie feel sick.
Gerdie looked up. She still couldn’t see whatever was happening on the other side of the big black carriage.
The fox was off, running.
Gerdie turned and ran after the ruddy-orange fox.
One of the men called out to another. Gerdie wasn’t sure if it was about her or whatever they were fighting on the other side of the carriage. Gerdie didn’t care. She ran. She ran west, hoping she wasn’t turned around. She ran through the dark forest, silently thanking the fox and the roaring bears she never saw.
Ezren and Van lounged on the roof of the old tiltyard—a flat deck atop the stands with a railing and a big open middle over the field below. It was a good place to relax, especially since no one else went up there. Both had taken off their waistcoats. Van even took his boots off, leaning back in the chair with his bare feet up on the rail.
The tiltyard was an oval dirt field surrounded by wooden stands made of beams and planks. As far as Ezren knew, the place hadn’t been used for a melee or a joust in decades. But there it stood, like a pile of sticks, swaying in the breeze, creaking and threatening to topple sideways onto the lemon trees or the wall that separated campus from the northern fields. Its only redeeming quality was the roof.
Most scholars were leaving for summer, which meant the campus was in chaos. The Masters and Elders would depart for retreat. It was a day to celebrate. Quiet summer was coming. There’d be plenty of time to do whatever they wanted. That meant doing nothing.
They knew who’d be staying behind and who wouldn’t. Out of the list of people they actually liked, a handful were staying. Just about every single scholar they couldn’t stand would be gone for more than two months. The Masters would leave in a few days, heading west to the Grey Hills, returning just before Harvest.
Things might go well during the lazy days. Ezren had no reason to think they wouldn’t. Summer could get pretty boring, even in a big city like Mirinol. Ezren knew all too well—he stayed behind every year. His summers lacked almost all the responsibility he carried through autumn and winter. No more errands, no more cleaning, no more helping out in the dining hall. They’d lounge all day and go to The Dapper Fox all night to listen to music and drink summer ale.
Ezren gazed out on the campus from the tiltyard roof, pushing his blond hair out of his face. The five stone buildings of Hilfords lay in a row across the campus, connected by wide, three-story corridors. Steep roofs pinched upward, stabbing their chimneys into the sky. Across the east lawn, near the formal gardens, the house of Greyelm stood in red brick like a misplaced puzzle piece. To the right, the groves and vineyards stretched to the far wall and the stables in the rear. Across the campus, the City of Mirinol spread up and over the hill. Behind Ezren, feet up on the railing, Van sipped a drink.
They’d brought chairs up during their third year at Hilfords. There were none up there, before. Who could say the two of them lacked initiative. Ezren moved his chair to the edge, beneath the shade. The big oak tree on the east side grew taller than the roof, casting shade on one side.
Van put his tankard on the deck. “Is that Danfy?” he asked, pointing over the rail to the ground below.
The elm and oak trees that dotted campus made it hard to see who was walking toward them. Through the canopy, Ezren spotted a black robe.
“That’s Danfy,” he said, as the black-haired, blue-eyed boy emerged from the shade.
Usually, a twelve year old boy would have no business at Hilfords. But Mage Danfy wasn’t any twelve year old boy. He was a one hundred and thirty-six year old mage, living his third life after another successful reincarnation.
“Hey, Ez, that you?” the mage called, squinting into the sunlight.
“Yup,” said Ezren, leaning on the railing, three stories above.
“You guys look over the wall at all?”
“This fox just came and told me to,” he said. There was no irony in his voice.
Ezren’s brow drew down. “A fox?”
“Yeah, you know, that one talking fox that calls Birchill names.” The touched his hands to his forehead, blocking the sun.
“Van, look out in the field,” Ezren called over his shoulder.
The lanky scholar stood up and walked to the north-facing side of the roof and looked out passed the stone wall, below. The field stretched far north to the edge of Fey Wood, the forest that spread all the way to the Nordscap and east to The Stilt River. Across the north road that left the city sat a village full of meatpackers, blacksmiths, dairy farmers and quaint little homes with tiny gardens in the back.
Van’s head turned slowly, side to side. “I don’t see…” he started. “Wait. There’s a girl running this way from the forest. Keeps looking back over her shoulder.”
“Gerdie,” the girl said, out of breath. “My name’s Gerdie.” She wore a plain, light brown smock that hung loosely from her shoulders. She looked beat up and her dress was torn and raggedy.
“You okay?” Ezren asked. He looked her over. She looked young, pale-faced and short with long auburn hair.
The girl’s brown eyes went wide. “Do I look okay?” she said, exasperated.
Van stepped in. “You look like you’ve been through something,” he said, before Ezren could say something insensitive, like ‘no’.
The dirty, shoeless, bruised girl started to cry.
“Come on,” Van said. He put an arm out to touch her shoulder. “Let’s get inside and get you some water or something.”
The girl snuffled and nodded. “Who’s that?” She pointed at Danfy.
“Gerdie, this is Mage Danfy. We’re from Hilfords. Were gonna take you there, now,” Van explained, using his best calm voice.
“Are you all mages?”
Danfy laughed his childish, pre-pubescent laugh.
“No,” Ezren said, shortly. “Just Danfy.”
Van chuckled. “That’s a good thing. One is enough.”
They walked, Van and Gerdie in front, Ezren and Danfy behind, down the road to the gap in the wall of Mirinol. The stone wall was only as tall as a man. All the buildings beyond were visible over the top. The city sat spread across one of Central Mirna’s many hills, rising up a good distance, with the royal house on top. It was probably impressive to someone who’d never seen it before.
Gerdie looked around at the village that had spilled out into the northeast fields. Then she looked forward into the big city. “It’s huge,” she said.
Van nodded. “It is. But we’re not going into town. Just here, on the right.”
They passed through the wall and entered the city. To the left, a row of townhouses and a tavern called The Dapper Fox lined the street. On the right, the wall of Hilfords with the ever-opened gate into the formal gardens.
“In there?” Gerdie asked, looking up at the gnarled elm trees.
“That’s it,” Van said. He let her walk in front of him onto the flagstone path.
Hedges and flowerbeds ran parallel to the walkway, leading into a maze of low boxwoods, yews and evergreens. Gerdie turned her head left and right, taking in the wide expanse of Hilfords’ campus. Maybe she was mesmerized by the gardens, or maybe she was just really tough. Whatever it was, she didn’t act like a girl who’d had a harrowing experience.
Ezren wondered if she was simple-minded or maybe a mule had kicked her in the head. It wasn’t fair to judge her on a few moments of acquaintance, but the girl did seem odd. He was willing to concede that the sight of Hilfords could be distracting.
“Never been to Mirinol before?” he asked, walking leisurely behind.
“Nuh-uh,” said Gerdie, her gaze fixed on the distant Telroc Hall.
Van walked ahead a little. The hedge wasn’t high enough to cause anyone to get lost in the maze, but the square space of turning paths could be daunting. “This way,” he said, going right.
Behind Ezren, Danfy shook his head. “We have to find out what happened. This could be a problem we have to notify the Guard about.”
“We’ll get there, Danfy,” Ezren whispered. “Let her sit down and have some water. Looks like she’s been attacked or something.”
Gerdie gasped as she looked to her left. “It’s a castle!”
“No,” Van said. “Not a castle. Hilfords was a monastery a long, long time ago. Used to be a chapel, in the middle. Now it’s mostly…well, it’s complicated. I guess you could say it’s a university.”
Gerdie arched an eyebrow. “Oh.”
Van led the way through the paths to the short, wide open lawn in front of Greyelm.
“We’re taking her into Greyelm?” Danfy asked. He sounded disappointed.
Stepping up to the front door, Van turned back to glare at the mage. He pushed the latch down and shoved the door inward. “Come on, Gerdie. Let’s figure this out.”
The girl slowly dragged herself up the steps to the front door and moved cautiously inside. “What’s this place?” she asked.
“It’s where crazy people live,” Van said.
Gerdie looked shocked and turned to leave.
“No, no, I’m just kidding.”
Ezren came up behind them. “It’s where the mages and scholars live who are studying magic. It’s empty now, except for Danfy. Everyone’s leaving for summer.”
Gerdie looked at each face around her.
They all nodded.
“It’s true,” Danfy added. “No joke. Come inside.” The mage pushed passed everyone to enter the corridor.
Danfy led the way through the long hallway, passing doors on either side. There were sitting rooms, stairs, an open center hall, and another corridor. The short, young mage turned left after that, disappearing through a wide entry.
Van led Gerdie the same way. Ezren brought up the rear. They were heading to Danfy’s library. Really it was just a library, but Danfy had made some modifications in his last lifetime. The place was almost like a lounge, with cushioned leather chairs and low tables and a big liquor cabinet built into the far wall, next to the windows. Books lined the shelves on every wall, from floor to ceiling. The far end still looked more like a library aside from the red divan under the windows.
“Have a seat,” Danfy said, walking to the liquor cabinet. He pulled four fat glass tumblers from a drawer and removed a thick-bottomed decanter of brandy. The mage set about pouring small amounts of golden liquid into each glass.
Gerdie sat in a thick leather chair with a low, round table by her feet. Four chairs were arranged around the table, facing inward. Ezren and Van dropped down on either side of the girl.
Ezren took a glass from Danfy as the mage came toward them. “Where are you from, Gerdie?”
“Overhill,” she said. Gerdie took the glass from Danfy and eyed it suspiciously.
“That’s far. Day’s ride east,” Van pointed out. “How’d you get all the way over here?”
Gerdie downed the brandy and slid the glass onto the table. She leaned back in her chair. “I was taking a basket of fruit to the market on Main. I was talking, in the shop, like I always do. When I went outside, the sun was setting. I started off across the road to head home when a black carriage came up and stopped. The man on the bench in front said he needed to know how to get to Mirinol. I was telling him to go straight and he’d be there in less than a day when someone grabbed me from behind. I got tossed into the carriage and they tied my hands. Took at least four of them,” she added, smiling with pride. “Gave them a real hard time. Punched one right in the eye.”
She told them about pulling off into the woods and the thing that sounded like a bear attacking the men. Gerdie explained how the fox helped her get free and she ran into the woods. She ran after the fox and realized the furry little guy was taking her west. But who was she to argue with a fox that saved her life? So she ran on until she didn’t see the fox anymore. Then the trees were less dense and she could see the sky and the grass beyond. She popped out of the forest and there she was, in the north fields outside Mirinol.
“What did they want with you?” Ezren asked, sipping his drink.
Gerdie shrugged. She looked at him with her big, brown eyes. “They didn’t say. Spoke some other language, like from way east. People from far away come through Overhill on their way to the city all the time. I hardly ever seen anyone like those guys.”
“So, not from Velgria?” Ezren asked.
“Don’t think so,” Gerdie said. She leaned forward and picked up her empty glass and inspected it.
Danfy got up and got the brandy from the cabinet.
Van leaned forward in his chair. “We’ll have to get a message out to her family in Overhill.”
“Of course,” said Danfy, refilling glasses around the table. The mage sat down, again.
“Probably have to tell Torvik about this,” Ezren said. “Birchill and Aldros, too.”
“I’ll do it,” Van said, sitting back with his drink. “Consider it sent.”
Captain Torvik of the Mirinol’s City Guard stepped into the Main Hall of Hilfords. “Quiet around here,” he said, to no one in particular.
The Captain’s broad frame strode into the cavernous Hall. Torvik was a thick man with a strong jaw and blue-grey eyes. He wore the Guards’ Greys—a uniform of grey breeches, waistcoat and a matching flat cap.
The Main Hall of Hilfords sat long and open all the way up to the trusses. Catwalks ran along the walls above where the second and third floor corridors ended, looking down into the Hall. Rugs from Skazia and Velgria dotted the wood floor from font to back, full of whirling patterns of vines and flowers. The stone walls were covered with tapestries and paintings, hanging between tall, narrow windows.
Van stepped out of the corridor from Murdoc Hall, way down on the left. “Captain Torvik, we’re down here.”
The Captain strode through to meet Van. Together, they walked a short distance in the lavishly decorated corridor to Master Birchill’s office. The door was open. Inside sat old Master Martin Birchill, behind his desk, beneath two tall windows. In one chair Ezren sat waiting. In the other, Master Benbury sat tapping his fingers on the arm of his chair.
Birchill looked up as his office became crowded. The old man had whitish-grey hair and a few teeth. He was a handsome old fella, wearing his brown Master’s robe. Benbury, on the other hand, was a bit younger, with a bald head and a stern expression.
Ezren stood up and gave Torvik the chair. He and Van stood in the center of the small, rectangular room, waiting.
“What’s this all about?” Torvik’s voice boomed in the small space. The Captain was always straight to the point.
“We found a girl,” Van started. “Came out of the forest this morning. Said someone nabbed her by Overhill.”
Ezren explained. “She said a carriage, a black carriage, with at least four men, grabbed her after sunset. They pulled off the road somewhere near Mirinol to hide out for the night. In the dark, she escaped and ran here.” He wanted to get it all out there, quickly. Ezren knew the Captain had little patience.
The Captain rubbed his face with one hand and leaned back in his chair. “We’ve seen these black carriages,” he said. “I know there are a lot of black cabs and carriages in the city, but this one is full of little doors and compartments with a big trunk on the back. There are no markings or arms on the doors. Suspicious thing. And we’ve connected it with an ongoing case on the east side.”
Benbury perked up. “Another case?” He thumbed the tip of his long, sharp nose out of habit.
“It’s an odd one, but nothing new. We’ve seen this before, in the past ten years. Opium den. We think the girls inside have been abducted and forced to work in the house. We can’t get inside because they know the face of every guard. They’ve got flintlocks and muskets in there.”
Aldros Benbury leaned back in his chair, touching the fingers of both hands together. He was thinking. “We need the girl to describe the carriage,” he said. “See if these events are connected.”
Birchill cleared his throat. “Has anyone sent word to the girl’s family?”
“Van did,” said Ezren. “She’s from Overhill.”
Aldros Benbury turned to his grandson. “Did you send a message to your uncle, as well?”
Van nodded. “Done.”
“I think Captain Torvik can rely on your cooperation until this is all sorted out,” Benbury said. He pushed himself out of the chair. “I have preparations to make for summer. You two,” he said, pointing at Ezren and Van. “I’m confident you’ll sort this out with the Captain. Torvik, good luck.” With that, he was gone, stepping out and disappearing through the corridor.
Ezren and Van shared a look. Ezren thought it beyond strange that Aldros would walk out so soon. Van’s face showed that he was surprised, as well. Why leave them to deal with this? They were no experts on anything of the sort.
Birchill’s eyebrows shot up. “Well,” he said. “Where’s this young lady?”
“Over in Greyelm, with Danfy,” Van explained. “She’s napping in the library.”
Torvik rolled his eyes.
“We can take you over to meet her,” Ezren said, moving toward the doorway.
The Captain stood up and nodded to Birchill. “I’ll keep you abreast.”
Birchill nodded back.
Ezren and Van led Torvik through the corridors, across the Main Hall, through Tegret and Telroc Halls, and out onto campus. The day was getting on. Late afternoon sun shined down at an angle through fluffy white clouds. Down the stone path, they walked, passed the hedges and trees, turning left toward Greyelm. The brick house stood tall and lonely next to the gnarled elm trees.
“Danfy better behave himself,” Torvik mumbled.
Ezren fought the urge to chuckle.
“Girl’s name is Gerdie,” Van said, changing the subject. “She’s young, maybe sixteen. She’s been through something frightening, so she’s a bit shaken.”
Torvik followed the scholars up the short, stone steps to the front door. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he grumbled.
Van pushed the door in and they entered. The Captain followed Ezren and Van down the long corridor to the library.
Mage Danfy sat alone in a big leather chair, feet pulled up underneath him, black robe draped around him. He placed a small book on the table next to him and grabbed for the teacup. “Boys,” he said. “Captain. Want some tea?” He jingled a tiny bell on the side table. “Have a seat.”
The Captain dropped down into an armchair. His flat, wide face wore a scowl. Torvik’s grey-blue eyes scanned the room. “Where is she?”
“Napping,” Danfy said, quickly. “Upstairs. She’s been out for hours. I can have Gordon wake her.”
“What’s this other case about?” Ezren asked, sitting down next to Torvik. “The one that involves the black carriage.”
Taking off his grey flat cap and dropping it in his lap, Torvik sighed. His broad shoulders slacked as he rolled his head around, stretching his neck. “A house, selling opium and other things. Been investigating for at least two months. It’s bad news. Almost every other case we follow leads back to that house.”
“What’s stopping you from shutting it down?”
Torvik leaned his head back against the top of the chair. “No hard evidence. We can’t get inside. Tried several ways. They’re heavily armed: rapiers, flintlocks, muskets.”
Gordon came into the room with a tray of tea things and placed it on the table between the chairs. The tall, bald-headed man, who was dressed impeccably, nodded once to Danfy. “Anything else?”
“Could you wake the girl, Gordon? Send her down, please.”
Gordon nodded again and turned to exit the room.
Van waited for Gordon to move out of earshot. “What about the militia?”
Torvik shook his head. “That’d mean asking for help from the royals. They’d want to know how I let an opium den pop up in the city and take hold. No thanks,” the Captain said. “Need someone to go in and work from the inside. Someone they won’t recognize as a Guard.” Torvik’s eyes jumped back and forth between Ezren and Van.
“No,” said Van, shaking his head.
Torvik sat back, again. He looked like he was trying to be calm so he wouldn’t scare Van off. “You two found that kid from the meat-packing district back in the winter, didn’t you?”
Ezren nodded. “Yep.” He was proud of that one.
“And the thing with the chickens?”
“Never figured that one out,” said Ezren, sipping his tea.
Torvik was thinking. Ezren could see it on his face.
A creak in the hallway floorboards signaled Gerdie’s arrival. The girl stepped into the library wearing a new dress. It was pale yellow with white trim. She looked much better.
Danfy sprang up and slid another chair into the circle, dusting it off with his hand.
Gerdie walked over, chewing a fingernail, and sat down near Van.
“This is Captain Torvik,” Van explained. “He’s with the City Guard.”
Torvik slid to the edge of his seat. “Gerdie, I need to ask you some questions about what happened the other night. Can you remember anything about the carriage?”
Gerdie fidgeted with a bow on the neckline of her dress. “It was dark,” she said. “The carriage was black. Four wheels, two horses,” she added, her eyes stayed fixed on the table.
Danfy moved to pour her a cup of tea.
“Were there any markings on the doors?” Torvik asked, putting on his best friendly face.
Gerdie shook her head. “Didn’t see any. Lots of little cabinets with locks. Big trunk strapped to the back. Saw that when I walked up. Thought they’d lock me in there, later.”
Torvik nodded. “Good,” he said. “I mean, it’s good that you remember. I’m glad you didn’t get locked in a trunk. Do you remember anything about the men?”
Danfy, Van and Ezren sat silently and listened.
Gerdie looked up at the Captain. “The ones I saw looked foreign.”
“Not as dark as Velgrians,” Gerdie said. “Lighter. Round faces. Like Skazian, but not the same.”
Torvik sat back and looked at Ezren.
“I’m not Skazian. My mother’s from Ernoch,” he said, defensively.
The Captain chuckled, shaking his head. “Fits the other descriptions,” he said. “We have to find that carriage before it gets to the city.”
Gerdie stood up, staring at the Captain. “I can show you,” she said. “Don’t know if it’s still there, but I can take you where I last saw it.”
Ezren opened one of two front doors to Hilfords’ Main Hall. It was a heavy chunk of wood, nearly twice as tall as him. It was hard to tell that morning had come, with all the cloud cover. Rain poured heavily down, beating against the gravel drive beyond the entrance. Above the front patio, a small roof extending from the building kept Ezren dry. He waited there, leaving the door open.
He couldn’t help thinking about Gerdie and her odd ordeal. What was the chance that she’d stumble upon them, of all people? And what was with Danfy and the talking fox? He had to remember to ask him about it, later. On top of all that, it was somehow connected with something Torvik was trying to sort through. Strange, the way things came together.
Gerdie’s parents would arrive later in the day. Van said his uncle, Lestrik Vale, would bring them in by carriage. Ezren had never met Vale, but Van talked about him once or twice. Something about a big house on the Stilt River, just passed Overhill. The man owned a lot of land.
A large draft horse appeared at the gate, far down the drive. Hoofs crunched gravel as the cab approached through the mist and grey. Behind the horse a driver was visible, draped in oiled wool, with a little flat cap covering his head. The driver sat atop the two-wheeled cab.
It was Torvik’s cab, Ezren knew. They’d be riding in it all the way to the forest. Four of them, stuffed into the small cabin of the little carriage. He wasn’t looking forward to it.
The cab pulled up at the steps, beneath the coach-roof, giving the driver some reprieve from the constant downpour. The side door opened and Torvik stuck his head out.
“Coming?” the Captain called out.
Ezren nodded. “Be right there.” He turned and stepped back into the Hall.
Van sat near the front doors, at the steward’s desk on the left, with Gerdie. At the sight of Ezren, Van stood up and told to Gerdie that it was time to go.
Once they were all loaded aboard, the cab was packed tight. Gerdie fit nicely between Torvik’s bulk and the side of the carriage, while Ezren and Van sat hip-to-hip across from them. Ezren had to push his ass back against the bench to keep his knees from bumping Torvik’s.
“Good morning,” Van said, adjusting his coat.
“We’re about to wander a forest, on foot, in the rain,” was Torvik’s reply.
Van shrugged. “So, not good morning?”
Gerdie looked up at the Captain. “We weren’t far from the road,” she said. “It shouldn’t be a terribly long walk.”
Torvik thumped a meaty hand on the roof signaling the driver to go. The reins snapped and they were off.
As the cab cleared the campus wall, two Guard cabs waiting outside on the street began to follow.
The city rolled by quickly. Tall stone buildings drifted by as the wooden wheels crunched on cobblestones. People ran for cover from the rain, while others passed leisurely with umbrellas. The fields north of Mirinol were quiet with mist rolling along the hills. The blacksmith’s shop issued clouds of smoke while red heat glowed within. Goats and sheep stood on the hills, chewing grass. They passed through the outer village to the road that led east toward the river. Soon they were in the middle of nowhere, tall trees flanking the road on either side. Every now and then a cart or carriage rolled by, heading toward the city.
After about an hour, Gerdie started looking for the spot where the carriage had gone into the woods. She’d point out a path and Torvik would stop the cab. The driver reined in the horse and Torvik would stomp out in the rain to see if there was anything there. They did it twice. A good size puddle formed on the floor of the cab every time Torvik came back. On the third stop, things looked more promising.
The forest was less rainy, though no less wet than the rest of the world. Spring had sprung in full and the trees wore their green canopies with pride. The leafy ceiling stopped the rain high above, with the occasional fat drop making its way down. Gerdie led them through the flattened, wide path that the carriage took. It wasn’t that she’d recognized it or even that she was an expert on the road between Overhill and Mirinol, but she knew how far and how close she was to either place from the length of the ride.
“This has to be it,” said Gerdie. She took the lead and bounded through the forest with no care for the mud or the wet underbrush that soaked her dress.
Torvik followed the girl with Van and Ezren close behind. The rest of Torvik’s Guards came in a row. There were seven of them, like a marching rank of soldiers.
Far ahead, Gerdie squeaked. “It’s here, it’s here!”
“Keep your voice down!” Torvik shouted. “They could still be here.”
They were. They’d never left. The men that traveled with the black carriage were right next to the vehicle. They’d died fighting something and lay in the wet leaves and dirt. Six men lay motionless, sprawled with swords in their hands. One had a flintlock, which Torvik scooped up and threw to one of his men.
The black carriage sat in the mud. Black paint covered the entire thing. The size of it made the Captain’s cab look like a toy. Ezren thought it looked like something a noble might ride around inside. The horses were gone, something had ripped or chewed through the harnesses.
“How many men did you say there were?”
Gerdie looked skyward, thinking. “Six or seven,” she said, finally.
“I need a definite number, Gerdie. If one got away from here it could mean trouble for us.”
“One driving, two inside, three on horseback.”
“There are six dead men here. You’re saying that’s all of them?”
Gerdie nodded looking a little less than sure. She probably never thought she’d have to give an accurate account of events.
Torvik looked up, passed Ezren and Van, to his guards. “See what we can find! I need to know everything about this operation!”
The guards sorted through the dead men’s pockets, belts, pouches, and boots. After that, they ripped and pried open every door and drawer in the carriage. The trunk at the rear was especially hard to open, but they finally broke the latch with an iron pry-bar.
The guards stacked everything they found on a less muddy spot of ground. Four big crates of straw-packed opium, sticky and black and smelling like perfume. Six quarter-barrels of black powder. Six rapiers. Two flintlocks (Ezren found a smaller one under the carriage and hid it in his boot).
Among the things that didn’t get stacked on the wet forest floor were papers and notebooks. Torvik held onto those. He guarded them carefully, slipping them into a pocket inside his grey, wool waistcoat.
The Captain barked orders in the chill, damp forest. Ezren and Van squeezed back into the cab with Gerdie and waited. The guards left with instructions to bring two horses back. The carriage had to be driven to Hilfords and hidden deep on campus. Torvik had a use for it. He had a plan.
On the way back to Hilfords, the rain stopped long enough to let the sun show itself. Arrival at the front entry was marked by more pleasant spring weather. Heavy clouds drifted away, to the west while the rain turned to drizzle and then to nothing.
Torvik was silent on the ride back. He shuffled and read the papers he took from the carriage. Gerdie stared out the window at the passing scenery. Van took a nap and Ezren sat wondering what they’d gotten themselves into.
When they arrived at Hilfords, Ezren exited the cab to ascend the front steps. The sound of another carriage coming into the drive made him turn. Ezren didn’t recognize the big contraption. Two horses pulled steadily as the driver reined them to a halt at the turnabout. A door opened revealing a crest in the shape of a shield with a river, a tree, wheat and sheep.
Van approached the carriage like he recognized the thing.
A man exited, stepping down onto the gravel. He looked a little like Van with black hair, blue eyes and a narrow frame. The man’s eyes widened at the sight of Van and he opened his arms, rushing the scholar and pulling him into a hug.
“What are the odds you’re the first face I see when I get here?” the man exclaimed.
Van grunted and returned the embrace. “Good to see you, Uncle Lestrik,” he squeaked.
Ezren walked forward to meet Lestrik Vale. Behind him, Gerdie squealed.
The girl launched herself toward Vale as a middle-aged couple exited the carriage. “Mom!” she shouted. “Papa!” The girl’s parents stepped out on the driveway.
“Ez,” Van said, turning around. “I’d like you to meet my uncle. This is Lestrik Vale.”
Lestrik extended a hand to Ezren. “I hear you’re something like a brother to poor Van. He’s an only child, you know. Good thing he’s got you.”
“Not sure he’s as excited about that,” Ezren quipped. “Nice to meet you, Mister Vale.”
“Please, please,” said Vale, shaking his head. “Call me Lestrik.”
Another man exited the carriage. He was tall, with blond hair and a rapier hanging from his hip. The man wore a leather jerkin and riding breeches with tall boots. He looked like some kind of light-infantry pikeman.
One of the large double doors to the Main Hall opened. Harvey stood atop the stairs. What little hair he had left flopped in the breeze. He was impeccably dressed in black and white, all stiff collars and buttons with perfectly shined shoes. The steward stood aside and waited for everyone to enter.
Gerdie and her parents walked in behind Ezren and Van. Torvik walked with Lestrik Vale. Vale’s man and the two drivers from his carriage came in last. Both drivers were dressed like the blond one: leather jerkin, sword, boots and snug, black breeches. One was tall and wiry while the other was short and thick.
Ezren heard Torvik talking to Vale in hushed tones. “My men are bringing the carriage here. Should arrive by late afternoon.”
“I didn’t just come to bring Gerdie’s parents,” Vale said. “There are two other girls missing from Overhill. This black carriage has been spotted before. I think there’s a connection. Where ever that carriage was headed might be where those girls are found.”
Torvik removed his flat cap and ran a hand through is greying hair. “That adds a complication to the plan. We’ll have to discuss it more, later.”
Inside, Hilfords was a flurry of activity. Scholars still departing came and went through the corridors, carrying bags and wheeling trunks this way and that. Masters were hustling about trying to get their things in order before departing for Grey Hills. Harvey and his team of maids and butlers moved furniture and cleaned everywhere. All this activity kicked up a lot of winter dust.
Harvey led them all to the big dining hall. Torvik whispered something to the steward about horses and stables. Harvey nodded and was off.
Gerdie’s parents expressed their gratitude at finding their daughter safe. The couple were dressed like farm workers. Gerdie’s mother wore a simple blue smock and her father wore long breeches, boots and a threadbare linen shirt. Both looked at Hilfords much the same way Gerdie did when she arrived. The place was some kind of marvel. A castle, maybe. Some leftover fortress from the Velgrian Border Wars.
A small feast was brought up from the kitchens. Everyone ate, sitting at one of the long tables in the cavernous dining hall. Torvik said very little and Lestrik’s men said nothing at all. Ezren guessed they didn’t want to discuss the sensitive information of an ongoing investigation in front of Gerdie and her folks. The girl’s parents had a lot of questions, but Vale quelled their curiosities by saying he’d fill them in later, when he returned to Overhill.
Harvey stepped back into the hall and bent to whisper in Torvik’s ear.
The Captain had his horse swapped for a fresh one from Hilfords’ stables. He instructed his driver to take Gerdie and her parents back to Overhill. They’d reach the town just after nightfall if they left right away. Gerdie and her parents were amenable to that.
The girl had given them all the information she could.
The poor thing was taken in the darkness and only knew what little she saw. Now they’d seen the same: a black carriage, foreign men, a stock of powder and opium, weapons, and detailed ledgers. The papers and items that Torvik collected from the carriage in the forest was far more helpful than anything Gerdie could tell them.
The meal was over and it was time to get down to business.
Ezren dreaded the coming discussion. He knew Torvik wanted them to help out. He also knew Van wouldn’t want to get involved any more than he already was. But Ezren understood one thing about Van that maybe the scholar didn’t even know about himself—he was a sucker for sorting out puzzles.
Once Gerdie and her parents were off, Ezren and Van led everyone else to Greyelm.
Vale’s men came along. The big one was called Fallard. The short one was Del and the lanky one was Hyburn. Apparently they worked for Vale and filled assorted roles as the boss man saw fit.
Inside Greyelm, they filed into the library, walking straight to the back work table.
Gordon stepped through, lighting candles from a taper, then leaving as quietly as he entered.
Torvik laid out the papers and ledgers he’d taken from the carriage.
Danfy came and went, not wanting to get in the way, which wasn’t like Danfy at all. “Staying out of this one,” the mage said, walking to the corridor.
Too many strangers for him, Ezren thought.
Fallard, Del and Hyburn looked around the finely appointed library.
“Who’s the kid?” Fallard asked, watching Danfy walk the corridor to the rear stair.
Van barked a laugh. “That’s Mage Danfy. He’s a hundred and thirty-six years old.”
They sat at a long, rectangular table. Orange later afternoon light streamed in through the tall windows facing Hilfords and the wide campus.
“Right here,” Torvik said, pointing at a map. “This is the townhouse they’re using. We can’t get in since they recognize all the guards. It’s being run by locals but there are a fair amount of foreigners seen coming and going. No one has seen any girls, but some of the patrons we’ve hauled in for questioning report girls inside. Young girls. Sound like they could be the ones missing from Overhill.”
Vale sat back in his chair and sighed. “I can’t go back to town without those girls. How do we keep them safe during all this?”
“Have to get them out before anything else happens,” Torvik said. “That’s where your men come in…and these two,” he said, pointing at Ezren and Van.
Ezren saw his shock mirrored in Van’s face. “You mean with planning?”
“Nope. You’re going in,” Torvik announced. “You and these three.” He pointed at Fallard, Del, and Hyburn.
Ezren stood at the door of the townhouse in the quiet dawn hour. The place looked like all the other townhomes along the street. Somewhere behind him, where the street intersected with the alleyways, Torvik and his Guard waited. There were two dozen men in grey uniforms with swords and flintlocks, keeping out of sight until the right moment. Ezren didn’t know when the right moment would come.
Van pulled the rope and a bell rang inside the house. He adjusted his waistcoat, checking his buttons, tugging the sleeves down to his wrists.
“Quit fidgeting,” Ezren scolded.
Van looked up with his brow drawn down. “You’ve been chewing your thumbnail since we left. Do you have anything left?”
The plan was simple. Wait. No, it wasn’t.
The plan was dangerous and ridiculous. Ezren and Van read and discussed the papers Torvik collected. They knew who should be in the house, who was not in the house, and how this drop-off was supposed to happen. Fallard and his men took the carriage around the back, through the alleyway. Ezren and Van would go inside and convince the house-boss they were new runners. Then they’d get through the cellar to open the back doors.
Fallard and his men had a carriage full of boxes, weighted with pebbles, where the opium would have been. They’d take the boxes from the cellar and replace them with new, empty boxes. One crate had a sample of opium inside, to trick the house-boss in case he decided to check. The quarter barrels of black powder were replaced with black sand—heavier, but far less lethal. If they checked the tightly sealed barrels there would be trouble, since sand didn’t smell anything like black powder.
Getting the girls out would be the hard part. There was no telling where they’d be or whether they’d follow instructions. Could be they were so used to their new life that they’d side with their captors.
Ezren carried his simple rapier. The scabbard dangled from his belt with the hilt of silver and steel, a simple swept cross-piece, sticking out by his side. Beneath his coat, Ezren had tucked a small, black, wooden club that Torvik handed to him. Crack a man’s skull open, Torvik explained.
Van’s own two-handed bastard, a sword from the days of hacking and swinging, kept him company.
“Hope I don’t have to draw this thing,” Ezren whispered. “Never killed anyone, before.”
“Neither have I,” said Van. “Doubt there’s enough room in the corridor to get this thing out of the sheath.” He patted the long handle of his sword.
Footsteps sounded in the hall beyond the door. A small peephole slid open and an eyeball came into view. It darted back and forth between the scholars.
“Drop-off,” Ezren said. That’s how it was described in the papers. He hoped using the right words would add to their credibility.
The peephole slid closed and the door creaked inward. A foreign man who looked Skazian waved them in. Ezren thought he looked like one of the desert-dwellers near the coast of the Choked Sea. That made sense, since Torvik said the Opium came from that region. “Come in,” the man said in heavily accented Mirnese. He was dressed well, though his clothes didn’t fit well.
“Gelwan,” said the man.
Ezren and Van shared a look.
“Gelwan,” the man said, again. He looked like he was asking them something. He patted his chest.
“Gelwan,” Ezren said.
Van leaned in and whispered. “I think that’s his name.”
Ezren shrugged. “Whatever.”
Ezren walked in and Van followed closely behind him. Their boots thumped on the wood floor in the entry. The house was quiet downstairs. This was going to be impossible. The townhome had three stories, including the ground floor, plus a cellar.
“Inspection,” Ezren said, trying his best to look confident.
Reading the papers and ledgers they found in the carriage, it appeared that this drop-off was also an inspection run. Apparently the people in charge wanted to make sure the house was being run properly. Neither Ezren nor Van wanted to pretend to carry out an inspection, but Torvik said it’d be a good excuse to find the girls and get them out.
The man paused, staring. “Gelwan,” he said.
Van nodded and looked up the stairs. “Okay, Gelwan.”
“You go?” the man asked, pointing at the staircase.
“I go,” Van said. “I mean, I’m going.” He cautiously put a foot on the lowest step, looking back down at Ezren and then up the stairs. He began to climb.
Ezren held out a hand. “After you,” he said.
The man stared, again, for a moment before walking down the hall to a door on the right. He stopped and clicked the latch, pushing the door inward and backed up to give Ezren room. The hallway smelled stronger down there, like flowery perfume used to cover up dirty laundry. An open door at the end of the hall gave view to a wide room with curtains hanging from the ceiling. Two other doors on the opposite side of the hallway were shut.
Ezren walked through the door that the man had opened. The space was narrow and a stair descended to the cellar, below. Somewhere down at the bottom, candlelight glowed. Walking down the stairs, Ezren could smell the dank opium mixed with the sulfurous odor of black powder. He checked behind and saw that the man remained in the hallway.
At the bottom, Ezren turned right. A desk in the far corner held an open ledger, papers, a candelabra, and a flintlock pistol. On the wall, hanging from brackets, were three muskets. The room was sparse, with wooden crates stacked from the packed dirt floor, three high, beside the stairs. Eight quarter-barrels of powder were lined up on a shelf at eye level, near the desk on the back wall. Ezren looked around, pretending he was inspecting the place. He turned and walked back toward the stair, passing through to the back of the cellar.
It was darker in the rear. Ezren thought he heard something move. A rattle of metal, like chains. “Hello,” he said. Nothing. “Hello,” he said, again.
Something moved and yawned.
Footsteps sounded on the stairs, behind him. Gelwan was descending. Maybe someone else. Luckily, it sounded like just one pair of feet. Ezren walked on to the back wall. He could hardly see anything in the light of the distant candles. He found the latch and the cross-bar set in brackets on the cellar doors. Ezren put his shoulder underneath the beam and lifted. The wood came free and he let it drop to the ground with a loud clatter.
Gelwan reached the bottom. He walked up behind Ezren and said something in Skazian. “What’s that?” Ezren asked. He reached around and stuck a hand under his waistcoat, gripping the handle of the club Torvik gave him.
The man shrugged and moved into the dark corner. Ezren heard a slap and a girl cry out. There was a rustle as the girl struggled against Gelwan. Ezren pushed the cellar door open to let the light in from the alleyway. The sun was up, now, but low in the sky. The black carriage sat in the alley. Fallard stood at the door and nodded once. Ezren held up a hand for him to wait and moved toward the corner on his left.
Gelwan leaned over a bed, pinning a girl down with one hand and covering her mouth with the other. He shouted something in Skazian again. Ezren crept up behind him, lifting the club to shoulder height. When he stood behind the man, the girl’s blue eyes opened wide. Gelwan turned to look.
This wasn’t how things were supposed to play out. Ezren knew the plan was to pretend they were supposed to be there—pretend they were the right guys. They were supposed to act normally and carry out the loading and unloading, doing nothing that would tip off anyone that they were imposters. But something about this Gelwan roughing up the girl on the cot didn’t sit right with Ezren.
Ezren moved closer and brought the club around against the man’s temple. Crack. He went down like a sack of pebbles.
Ezren turned toward the cellar door. “Come in!” he shouted. Fallard wasted no time. He stepped through with his two men, Del and Hyburn. They crossed the cellar, sparing a glance toward Ezren and the man on the floor.
Ezren put the club back in his breeches and held out a hand to the girl. She couldn’t get up—there was a chain around her ankle. She sat on the cot wearing a simple, sheer smock.
“What’s your name?” Ezren asked.
“Willa,” she breathed. “Who are you?”
“Ezren. We’re getting you out of here. Just stay quiet.” He went through Gelwan’s vest pockets and found a small, iron key.
The girl began to sob. “Oh, gods,” she said, between snuffles.
“Come on,” Ezren said. He took her hand and pulled her from the cot. “Are there other girls?”
She nodded. “Upstairs. Her name is Vee. She’s in a room on the second floor, I think.”
“Okay,” Ezren said. “Let’s go. There’s a carriage outside.”
Fallard and his men put the empty boxes down by the stairs and went through the crates that were already there. They were looking for boxes that still contained opium.
Banging noises came from upstairs.
Ezren took the girl into the alley and put her in the carriage. “Sit in here and don’t move,” he said. “We’ll get you home.”
She nodded, still crying.
Back inside, Ezren rushed to the stairs. “I’m going up to see what’s going on. Hurry it up, down here,” he said.
Ezren ran up the stairs and out into the hallway. He turned right and looked around in the wide room at the end. The curtains hanging from the ceiling made it hard to see if anyone was in there. He rushed through, shoving curtains aside. He found empty cots and shuttered windows. Tables held silver trays and little bowls with opium residue, wooden tapers and long pipes. He went to the end of the room and through a door to one of the side rooms. Empty. Ezren rushed through. It looked like a study or a library with a desk and shelves lining the walls. Another door on the far end. Ezren opened it, carefully. A small sitting room with sofas and chairs. No one there.
Back in the hallway, Ezren made for the stairs. He heard heavy footsteps upstairs, again. He rushed up, looking for Van. There should have been at least three more men in the house. At the top of the stairs was a small, open hallway with a closed door. Ezren turned around to see a corridor with doors and Van standing in a doorway.
Van leaned back, showing his face. “Those rooms are empty,” he said. “Got one in here, though.”
Ezren walked up to Van and looked into the room. It was a small bedroom, dark, with the windows shuttered. A man sat on the bed, stripped to the waist. Van held his sword out with the point aimed at the man’s chest. “Where is everyone?” Ezren asked.
The man shrugged. “Boss is upstairs. Fillip is downstairs. Don’t know where the others are.”
Ezren’s brow creased. “Who the hell is Gelwan?”
The man laughed. “Gelwan is Skazian for ‘trouble’.
“The other girl? The one that’s not in the cellar. Where is she?”
“Upstairs,” said the man, looking at the ceiling.
“Take him out through the cellar. Torvik can deal with him. The other girl is in the carriage,” Ezren explained. “I’m going up.”
“Let’s go,” said Van, lowering his sword. “Out and down.”
Ezren ran up the second flight of stairs. Caution was overrated. He was going to charge into this thing. If there were others outside and they came back, they could be in big trouble. He reached the top and faced a wall. He turned quickly. Someone was moving inside one of the rooms. Ezren kicked the first door open. Nothing. He moved down the hallway and kicked the second door in. Another girl. “Are you Vee?” he asked. She was chained to the bedpost, dressed just the like other girl. This one looked thin and tired.
She nodded, looking baffled. Ezren drew out the key he used to unlock Willa. He tried the lock that held the shackle and chain together.
The lock clicked.
“He’s behind you,” she whispered, as Ezren bent low to get her foot out of the cuff.
Ezren turned his head, looking sideways at the doorway. The man was large: nearly as big as Torvik and definitely bigger than himself. He was dressed for bed in a linen nightshirt that hung to his knees. He stepped into the room, quickly.
“No!” Vee shouted.
The man hesitated, distracted by Vee’s shout.
Ezren had a moment to move. His attacker came in with a hunting knife held high. Ezren ducked and lunged at the man, aiming his shoulder at his stomach. The man went down backwards, hitting his head on the wall.
“Cellar,” Ezren said, turning back to Vee. “Now!”
The girl got up and moved quickly across the room, out into the hall.
Ezren followed her out, pausing to pick up the hunting knife. The man was groaning on the floor.
A ruckus outside caught Ezren’s attention. He ran to the front of the hallway and looked out the window to the street below. Three men stood by the front door, calling out. “Why isn’t he answering the door?” one said.
“Crap!” Ezren whispered harshly. He turned and ran back down the hall to the stairs. He could hear the man getting to his feet inside Vee’s room. Ezren followed the girl down, boots thudding heavily against the wood steps. He reached the second floor. Good. He ran down the hall and turned at the second flight of stairs. Up above, he heard footsteps. The man would be coming after them any moment now.
Ezren reached the ground floor and ran passed the front door. A heavy fist banged against the wood.
“Just a moment!” Ezren shouted as he ran by. He made the cellar and slid to a stop, grabbing the doorframe and pulling himself through the doorway. Turning to shut the door behind him, Ezren heard footsteps on the stairs, above. He turned the latch to lock the door and hustled down to find Fallard and his men milling about. Vee stood there, looking lost.
“Outside,” Ezren said. “Get in the carriage.”
The girl nodded and ran to the cellar door.
Ezren turned to Fallard. “They know we’re here. Forget the empty boxes, we have to go.”
Fallard looked confused. “What about Torvik’s plan? We have to secure the house so the Guard can come in.”
They both looked up the stairs at the sound of an explosion. Splinters flew down the stairs from the door above.
“That’s a flintlock,” Fallard said. “He’s gonna need a moment to reload. We better get out of here.”
“That’s what I said! Grab those pistols and muskets and get out of here!”
“What about the powder barrels?”
Ezren looked at the row of barrels on the shelf by the desk. “Leave them,” he said. “Go! Don’t wait for me. Get those girls out of here.”
Fallard and his men rushed out of the cellar, into the alleyway. The door at the top of the stairs banged open. The man stood there in his nightgown holding a flintlock pistol. He was jamming something into the barrel with a rod, cursing at it.
Ezren ran to the desk to grab papers, knocking over the candelabra and an open bottle of whisky. He bundled the papers in his arms and made for the door to the alleyway. Ezren turned back to see the remaining papers burst into flame on the desk. “Damnit!”
The man tripped on the stairs and slid down to the dirt floor on his ass. He cursed and raised the pistol. Ezren dashed to the side, beyond the stairs, toward the back of the cellar.
“Stop right there,” the man shouted. “I’ll put a hole right through you from back to front.”
Ezren turned slowly, watching the flintlock aim at his chest. He was far enough away that the man might miss, but he didn’t want to take his chances. The fire was spreading rapidly on the far wall.
The man followed Ezren’s eyes back behind him and lowered the flintlock at the sight of the fire. “No,” he said. “No, no, no, no.” The man dropped the flintlock and ran to the desk, smacking the fire with his bare hands. “No!” he shouted. “Gods, no!”
Ezren took a slow step backward. He heard the carriage pull away, behind him, in the alleyway. The man couldn’t do anything about the fire. It was spreading to where ever the whisky ran. The floor, the desk, even part of the shelf was on fire, now.
Ezren looked to the right and saw the black powder barrels. Eight barrels, sitting directly above the fire. Ezren took two more steps backward and stood in the doorway to the alley. Upstairs he heard heavy footsteps coming down the corridor. The men at the front door had gotten inside.
Maybe it was the wrong thing to do. Maybe it made him a coward. Perhaps he’d feel badly, later. But for now, he was no match for four armed men and definitely no match for eight barrels of black powder. The fire sparked and fizzled at the edge of the shelf as Ezren backed into the alley. The last thing he saw as he turned to run was the man noticing the barrels catching fire. He panicked and reached for the closest barrel.
Ezren ran as fast as he could down the alleyway, after the carriage. Behind him, an explosion shook the townhouse. Windows broke and glass tumbled down in the alley. He turned around to watch the fire and smoke billow from the cellar door. “That wasn’t half as bad as I—.”
Another explosion erupted, much larger than the first. Fire and debris flew through every window. The street shook and windows shattered on every townhouse in the row, on both sides of the alleyway. Ezren fell backwards from the force of the blast, landing flat on his back. He leapt to his feet and fled as the stone and timber crumbled into the alley from the back of the townhouse. Turning at the intersection of alleyways, Ezren watched as the tall house fell in on itself. Clouds of dust curled up and through the narrow valley.
Up ahead he could see the black carriage passing out into the street. He ran after it, hoping to catch up.
“Ez!” It was Van, behind him. “This way.”
Van led him up the side alley, toward the front street. At the end of the alley, Torvik stood staring at the townhouse. A dozen of the Guard stood along the street, motionless. Ezren reached him and turned to look. The front wall had fallen, leaving the first floor and second floor open. As he stood and watched, the third floor wall fell. Ezren walked closer with Van at his side. The floor of the ground level was gone. The stairs were gone, even part of the ceiling was gone. He could look inside and up, through a giant hole, and see the underside of the third story floor.
People were coming out of their homes, now, standing on the street. Some were crying, some were pointing with looks of awe on their faces. Babies cried, children stared, passersby stopped to gawk.
The black carriage came up behind them. Fallard and Del sat on the bench, up front, driving the horses, mouths hanging open.
Birchill’s office was usually a quiet place. Ezren had sat in there many times to talk with the Master about direction—as in, what direction was his life heading. Other times it was about applying himself to this or that. When properly motivated, Ezren could do just about anything. Birchill had said as much, on several occasions. It wasn’t often that he and Van were seated in Birchill’s office together. Once it was because they were snooping around Master Hall. Another time it was because they’d been jousting in the tiltyard, injuring a first-year scholar. Sometimes it was just to check in with the old man and see how he was doing.
This time it was because Captain Torvik was livid at the aftermath of their involvement with the opium den case.
“The good news,” Birchill began, “is that Torvik agreed not to mention your involvement in the black powder incident. I’m hoping you’ll only be mentioned positively, in regards to finding the missing girls from Overhill, and not in the same sentence as the word ‘explosion’.” Birchill paused to sip from small glass of whisky. “The bad news is, Torvik is angry. I’d steer clear if I were you.”
Van and Ezren shared a look.
“Blew up a house!” Birchill exclaimed. In spite of his serious tone, the old Master laughed heartily. “Can’t say I’ve heard of anything exploding around here before now.”
Ezren sighed. “We didn’t blow anything up,” he said, tipping his head back against the chair.
“That’s right,” Van said. “It was all Ezren. Not ‘we’.”
“Someone was trying to kill me,” Ezren explained. “The fire just started. There was no way for me to stop any of that from happening.”
Birchill waved a hand, the sleeve of his brown robe flapping around like a flag. “I’m not blaming you. You were asked to do something you, honestly, had no business doing. I think you did a fine job getting those girls out of the house.”
Van shook his head and smirked. “That’s not fair, Martin. We put ourselves in danger.”
Birchill laughed. “I know, I know. I’m just having some fun with you two.” The old Master leaned on his elbows.
“You’re not angry?” Ezren asked.
Birchill shook his head. “But if I can get to my point, Torvik is pretty upset. He actually thinks you two should be on the clean-up crew. Not only that. He wants you to go with him to the royal house and explain what happened.”
Ezren and Van leaned back in their chairs and sighed.
The old Master chuckled. “Don’t worry, I told him that no such thing would happen. You two deserve a break after yesterday. I told him you wouldn’t be available for anything for a while. Hopefully, the summer will be a quiet, peaceful one. You two can relax and think about the direction of your research for your post-scholar studies.”
There wasn’t anything Ezren wanted to think about less than his post-scholar studies. He’d finished his basic studies in history. Now he was working with the vintner year-round. They qualified it as research, somehow. He thought Birchill was just being nice. He got the distinct feeling the Master didn’t want him to leave Hilfords.
“I’m doing the archival, uh, whatever. You know. The library stuff,” Van explained.
“Yes,” Birchill agreed. “You are. And a good job. But let’s try to find some real direction, if we can. You two are smarter than all that.”
The scholars said nothing.
“I won’t bother you about it again. Not until Harvest, anyway.”
Ezren and Van breathed sighs of relief.
“You’re the best, Martin,” Van said, standing up.
“Can we go?” Ezren asked.
Birchill nodded, smiling. The old Master leaned back in his chair and watched them go.
Ezren and Van walked the corridors.
“Fox for lunch?”
Van nodded. “Fox for lunch. Gotta get off this campus for a couple of hours, at least.”
If there was anywhere they could go to get away for a while, without having to trek to the west side of town, The Dapper Fox was the place. In the middle of the day it’d be quiet and they could relax in the corner without any scholars or Masters to hassle them.
“Well, that was fun,” Ezren said, scoffing at his own words.
“I could hit you,” said Van. “I really could.”
They passed through to Telroc Hall, making for the rear door to the campus.
Ezren ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “I just hope we don’t run into Torvik anytime soon.”
Van pushed the creaky door open and stepped into the sun-drenched world outside.
“There you are,” came a familiar voice.
Ezren stepped into the doorframe, about to exit when he looked up and saw Torvik standing in the grass. “He’s going to kills us,” he whispered.
Van turned and rolled his eyes. “Captain,” he said, turning back to the big man.
Torvik looked serious but relaxed. “I know things didn’t go perfectly, and I’m sorry for my reaction yesterday. Truth is, it’s quite a mess. But that’s not all your fault.”
Ezren stepped outside and pushed the door closed behind him. “It’s not?”
Torvik half-smiled and shook his head. “No. And I just got a look at the books you grabbed on your way out. We’ve got more information than we could have hoped for. We know where the stuff is coming from and who set it all up. All the contacts and locations are listed.”
Ezren wondered if Torvik was about to send them to Skazia on a mission. “That’s good,” he said. “Right?”
The Captain gave a curt nod. “Very good,” he said. “Just thought you should know. A lot of good came out of all this. And those girls are on their way home to Overhill.”
“Thanks,” said Van. “We were starting to feel like complete screw-ups.”
Torvik nodded, again. “Well,” he said. “Gotta go. See you boys around.” The Captain strode off toward the street, through the gardens.
“You think we’ll see him again anytime soon?” Ezren asked.
“I hope not,” said Van.
Ezren started walking toward the garden path with Van. They stepped onto the flagstone path that led through the gardens. Ezren hoped there’d be no more serious talk of what happened the day before. The best way to do that was to avoid everyone at Hilfords. He stepped left and right, walking between the hedges, crossing the center circle to the other side. Something small darted from hedge to hedge in front of him. He looked at Van, who shot him a side-eye glance that said, ‘yeah, I saw that, too’. The little ruddy-orange fox zipped back and forth, popping out on the path, finally, right in front of them. The little guy looked up at the scholars.
“Sup guys?” said the fox.
“Hey,” said Ezren.
The fox ran off through the bushes and out onto the lawns that stretched back to Greyelm. Ezren and Van watched the bush tail bounce and wave in the spring breeze as the fox disappeared around the back of Hilfords.
When a bedraggled girl steps out of the forest, plans for a leisurely day are ruined. Thanks to the talking fox, Ezren and Van get sucked into the hunt for a mysterious black carriage. Captain Torvik links abductions to the well-guarded opium den in Mirinol. Everything ends with a bang. The scholars’ lives will never be the same. Things don't go so smoothly in this prequel to The Hunters from Grey Hills. Get a taste for the odd land of Mirna in this introduction to Hilfords Chronicles.