Loading...
Menu

Legend of the Hour

 

The Lynchman’s Owl

by

B. Y. Yan

 

#2 LEGEND OF THE HOUR

 

THE LYNCHMAN’S OWL: LEGEND OF THE HOUR 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

 

&

 

Amazon Author Page

 

ISBN: [+ 978-0-9950516-3-8+]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Legend of the Hour

 

 

 

 

“What did you mean I’ve got the Lynchman’s Owl?”

They were the two of them sitting at either end of a modest dining table covered by a snow white cloth, with a filling spread put out before them beneath a bright lamp. Outside a moderate gale whipped through the street, whipping heaps of rain to patter heavily upon the windowpanes. It has been a week or thereabouts since they left the crime scene in the capable hands of the local authorities, and in that time little enough light had been shed on the matter beyond what was already understood or obvious. During those days the detective from Pegging, Bailey, had accepted the invitation of Breakerfast, that erstwhile patrolman whose service he had enlisted on a whim in the matter of the investigation of the Lynchman’s Owl, and to whom he owed his life afterwards when things took a decidedly sour turn. He lodged willingly at the patrolman’s home, and for his part Breakerfast was overjoyed at the illustrious company he was now keeping beneath his roof, begging every comfort from his wife of twelve long years to be placed at his disposal in order to win the enduring affections of his honored guest.

It was this exquisite creature of wry humors who answered in place of her husband now. “But you don’t have him anymore, do you, my lord?” she said to him in defense of her husband as she settled into a third chair at the table between them, following her own question with a gay peal of laughter like silver-bells merrily ringing. “After all, you gave him up yourself.”

Breakerfast’s wife was a handsome woman closer to forty than thirty years of age, with a queenly complexion seemingly unsuited to the muted surroundings of her habits. But let it be known that the simple frocks and aprons she put on could not hope to conceal that awe inspiring visage of beauty, intelligence and wisdom which she possessed in equal measures, so much so that for a time the guest beneath her roof was much taken aback, and in her presence often took upon himself to show the grace and manners of a royal courtier. There could not be a more mismatched pair to the imagination of men, had she not graced the haggard, almost doglike visage of her husband with the loving countenance of complete satisfaction and long affections at every turn of her noble head.

“Forgive me, madam,” said Bailey graciously to her. “But I still don’t see how having a fake does me any good. Though I will give you that I too, am thinking I acted too hastily, for now I am left with nothing at all for my troubles.”

“Why Mr. Bailey,” she said with a curt look in his direction, “I should think the matter would have been settled already. They took him away unmasked and that was the end of him, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” he replied, “But without anyone the wiser as to whom he was. It was a strange and unfamiliar man who peered back up at us when we turned him over, for me as well as others present, who could not put a name to his face.”

The woman, with all her regal bearing, offered a placating if disbelieving smile, and put the matter into her husband’s hands with one uplifted eyebrow in his direction. He in turn glowered darkly at her, seemingly to take some offense at her interruption of their conversation, and mumbled something beneath his breath.

“I beg your pardon?” asked Bailey from across the table.

“He said there are some promising leads at present,” offered the patrolman’s wife helpfully.

“Thank you,” he replied politely, “But that I knew already.”

In reply she gave up a noncommittal shrug.

“My lord,” her husband piped up, “It really could not have been anybody else. We found a tattoo on his hand, and your own testimony has lent credit to this supposition. It has long been rumored that the Lynchman’s Owl was nothing more than a crazed vigilante, an anarchist of the highest order whose mischief really amounted to little more than broken bones and the hangman’s rope, widely blown out of proportion by the imagination of the populace. Our man fits that bill perfectly.”

“Except you have plainly told me that it is your custom to brand anybody and everybody arrested as such for the sake of a few more pretty pennies from your liege lord.”

“Ah,” said Breakerfast with an embarrassed flush, “Well that is what it is, sir.”

“It certainly explains why I have not been able to get anywhere with my investigation since I came down. And,” Bailey added darkly, “why they were all laughing at me inside that parlor—not the first eatery, public house or tavern I’ve been to here, mind you—when I put the question to them.”

“Well that’s as plain as day, isn’t it?” said Breakerfast’s wife with a bemused smile. “They anyone of them could become the Owl at the slightest provocation. The smallest disturbance, and the matter would have been out of their hands. You couldn’t avoid being given that moniker if you tried. And here was this smart looking fellow, an adventurer by any stretch of the imagination, asking about the identity of that fiend in such an open and frank manner. You were either a spy looking to incriminate somebody in the least-subtle manner imaginable, or else you were somebody who didn’t know any better about to step into a terrible mess for your troubles. If you ask me, my dear Bailey, you’re lucky you only got off with a misunderstanding.”

“What you’re really saying so kindly, madam,” said Bailey with a half-grin of self-depreciation, “is that I am lucky to be ridiculed for my ignorance and stupidity by your locals instead of something more serious.”

“Oh not at all, my lord!” cried Breakerfast from over the table. “In your defense how could you have known?”

“But everybody else does, do they not? In fact, I am surprised this entire metropolis has been able to keep up the ruse for so long. You and your Owls are something else. And surely they must also be in on it in Pegging?”

Breakerfast made some unintelligible noises, and again it was his wife who answered in his place.

“But there you might enlighten us, Mr. Bailey. If Parliament knows, why should they keep you, their trusted agent, in the dark? Why would your masters send you at all on this fool’s errand chasing down a legend of the past?”

It was plain that she was very much interested in hearing an answer, but here Bailey became withdrawn, and slammed shut his mouth. You couldn’t get two words out of him on the subject of his handlers, which, considering the sensitivity of the Handymen’s work, should come as little surprise.

“In any case I daresay you’ve found out enough to make a full report of it, and escaped dangers by a hair’s breadth that you shouldn’t pursue the matter further. It’s not just the gang I am referring to, Mr. Bailey, but the authorities as well.” She cast a sidelong glance at her husband. “Asking questions like you were doing in that parlor, by your own admission, it was only a matter of time before you drew some unwanted attentions. And had you not that badge in your possession to protect you, it is as likely as not the police would have happily called you an Owl too, and strung you up like all the rest under that name.”

Bailey, for his part, looked towards Breakerfast. He found the man positively mortified by the unflattering picture his wife painted of his profession, but we will do justice to the character of the man that he did not deny these charges. He nodded slowly, gravely.

“Likely as not, my lord, it would have happened that way. But it is the Lynchman’s Owl you are looking for, after all, and we’ve given you one already—and a big one he was, at that. But you didn’t want him.”

“Was he unquestionable the Lynchman’s Owl? The terror of the Coast, and twenty-years ago the bane of the nation?”

“Well,” said Breakerfast uncertainly, “Who’s to say he was not?”

Bailey laughed, “But, my good man, there you reach for something beyond your grasp. This man was by you own conclusions much too young. He cannot be the legend of decades past if he is barely twenty-years old himself. A giant he may be in stature, but he is only a child at heart.”

“Ah!” cried his host. “I should have never put your mind on that notion.”

The detective drummed his fingers against the tablecloth thoughtfully, chewing on the end of his pipe. He was coming around to his third barrelful of the best Breakerfast had to offer, and to hear him tell of it that was when his mind was clearest.

“But so you have,” he said. “And as I recall you stated yourself, through your own observations that the man I saw was as young as he turned out to be, for his great size and stubbles. You were right in telling me you wouldn’t have put him past twenty, if even that, and there he becomes useless to me. I need the man, the fiend, the legend of yesterday who has been marauding for decades.”

“Really it was only the one year,” said Breakerfast’s wife offhandedly. “That was when things were at its worst, though for the next twenty we have been trying to live it off.”

Beside her the patrolman looked somewhat sullen, wearing an expression which plainly suggested that all of this was well-known to him. Though he was of the opinion that there was no reason to pursue the matter further when a perfectly decent opportunity had fallen into their lap, and an explanation has already been readily accepted by all present.

“It has been twenty years since the last man was strung up over the walls of the Old Quarter,” he said. “In all likelihood that fiend has long met an end worthy of him, and everything else which happened after only the belated fallout of amateurs. Begging pardon, my lord, but why should we ask questions when the result is already everything we can want in this day and age, especially on your word that it is so which nobody will doubt?”

“Ah, but I shall!” said Bailey. “And mine is the only word which will count in the end, in more ways than one.” He chewed on his lips. “I have my obligations just as you do your desires, my good man, and we must both follow up where we may. The giant, for instance, is in my sights. You put him there, for by your own admission that while making criminals out to be Owls is nothing out of the norm, few are keen to have that name saddled on for themselves. Indeed, they cannot hope to get away fast enough. But here is a man—too young to be the legend himself, but perhaps not too young to know something about him, despite his untimely demise—who has very eagerly professed to me his desire to take up the tainted mantle. And there is also the tattoo you spoke of. We only have to find a valid connection between all of these things, and your keen mind for deductions will be of utmost uses to me here.”

“Oh it shall,” put in Breakerfast’s wife at once on her husband’s behalf. “He has a good head for reasoning, but it is wasted on that street corner. He’s stood vigil in that same spot for far too long.”

“Then you may regard this as an opportunity for you to show your qualities,” said Bailey. “When are we expecting to hear from the page?”

“Very soon, sir,” Breakerfast replied. “I’ve left instructions that the boy is to call a cab just as soon as we know where we are heading. We were promised word on new developments.”

Bailey nodded. “I put the utmost faith in your postal system, though today I am hoping to be on site to see these developments through. But goodness if that isn’t the rattle of a carriage coming to stop at your front door. And now a ring of the bell, and maybe we will be in for a pleasant surprise after all!”

No sooner had his voice fallen was there the sound of wheels drawing up to the front door beneath the window, and not a moment later there was another pull of the bell-rope, followed by the footsteps of the landlady headed to the door.

“Come, Breakerfast,” said Bailey, getting to his feet in a hurry. “We shall meet them downstairs.” Then, to the patrolman’s wife: “Madam we shall in all likelihood be a while in the field, and will certainly lunch on what time we might find for ourselves. If we are late we will wire, so feel free to begin supper without us.”

She agreed without paying much mind to the matter, and waved them away after wishing them good morning.

“Hold down the fort, Alex,” said Breakerfast as he held out Bailey’s long coat for his guest to slip into.

“Of course,” she replied. “Good hunting, boys.”

They descended the narrow staircase with Breakerfast holding the detective’s coattails, and were met at the bottom by the landlady showing up a boy. The message on him was a brief one, but exciting to hear nonetheless, for something had been made of the giant’s identity and an invitation was extended to Bailey to attend the proceedings as things developed.

“So you see, Breakerfast,” said he triumphantly as they rushed into the street on the boy’s heels, “We will get somewhere yet with this matter.”

“After you, my lord,” replied the patrolman, holding the door of the cab open, and taking to a knee to act as a step for Bailey to hop aboard.

In they both went, one after the other, and the boy latched onto the back, dangling there like a monkey from a basket while the driver gave a sharp whistle followed by a crack of his crop. The heavyset, mule driven two-door carriage which was the nation’s workhorse transport for the middle-upper classes lumbered forward, and with a practiced hand the driver guided them into the narrow lane where they melded swiftly into the morning traffic.

The day was a crisp one with a biting wind threading through the roundabout streets of the city, but gloomy also with the sky overcast and drifts of scattered snowflakes carelessly falling over the buildings for hours at a time. It was in the season of the deep south to alternate its mannerisms from bitter rain to chilling winds without notice, and thus the very notion of streets which had been wet from a strong downpour only days ago now being all but buried beneath thin carpets of grey and white has long since stopped drawing interest from those living here. Breakerfast, a local man, barely took any notice of it as they rattled along before entering a great thoroughfare taking them all along the wharfs with a view of the drab grey sea in the distance. But Bailey, for his part, shivered endlessly, muttering about the strange temperament of nature as he gazed upon the clouds from the carriage window.

“But you are a northerner yourself, my lord,” said Breakerfast in protest. “Surely this is barely a chill to your impression.”

“When I was in Pegging it was still summer,” replied Bailey. “And where I come from myself it hardly snows at all. I have come to look on it as a saintly thing, pure and picturesque, but here it is as if the very landscape is being held hostage behind a veil of impenetrable grey, like looking upon the battered walls of some long forgotten ruin. It is misery to behold, and does little for a man’s spirits.”

“I hope you are not soured upon your visit to our fair city on its account,” ventured the patrolman earnestly. “After all, ours is the beating industrial heart of the nation, and what little price we might have paid in the landscape has been done for the greater good of her people as a whole. It really comes with the scenery, if you will permit me to say so. Our perpetually grey skies and crowded aesthetic offer a different sort of atmosphere than the great halls and green gardens of Parliament that you are used to. Tourism has been going up for years, in fact, ever since we became a manufacturing and economics power.”

Bailey offered only a wry smile in reply.

“I have only been here for a short time before nearly losing my life to a ruse; I was, when you met me, just beaten by hooligans and held captive by criminals. So you will forgive me for harboring a biased view of life inside your shattered walls. Though I daresay whatever damage has been done on their account has already been entirely repaired, and then some, by the hospitality and friendship you and Alex have shown me.”

Breakerfast positively glowed from this generous comment. “I’m very glad, my lord, that you have taken to her so kindly.”

“There is not a more deserving woman in the world,” the detective stated regally. “Now if only this business of ours will bear fruit, I hope to stay on for a few more days to properly take in the company of your wonderful household. Or else, sadly, I shall have to move on with my quest.”

The patrolman rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Ah! Well we will hopefully have some good news for you on that front soon, sir.”

Onwards their cab rattled along the thoroughfare, merging soon onto the highway, taking them over a series of stone bridges thrown over some channels. Below, one might catch a fleeting look at streamers from boats loaded down with cargo going to and fro, the droning hum of their horns embellished by the generous din of sailors scurrying about above deck, shouting vulgar greetings to one another over the railings. These sights and noises bespoke of the lives and livelihoods of an immeasurable number of souls sharing a singular cramped habitat. The forces of fate intertwined with one of the greatest labors of men in the civilized world over the years have led to this singular moment of observation, with the handiwork of generations of craftsmen, inventors, and pioneers available at every turn of the head, capturing the picture of a heavy industrial power with every piston and gear merrily grinding along in the name of progress. Outside the carriage window endless stacks of slate tiled roofs whipped swiftly past in the shadow of the grey granite dome of the Old Gom’s Cathedral, its silvered crown offering here and there a brilliant glitter where streaks of sunlight penetrated the heavy, low-hanging clouds. They went past Tarot Square, the belching smokestacks of Games, were assailed by the ringing of smelting iron and steel by Knights-Downs Gallant, where the refineries worked day and night, and finally through Old Quarters in the tattered shadow of the Long Wall. Outside of that ancient bulwark, the dead sentinel of a bygone age, the carriage came to a stop for a quick bite before properly leaving the city premises. The page was swiftly dispatched for sandwiches, and a good, hardy drink was shared between the driver and his two fares before the campaign resumed, moving onwards into the country.

As the remains of the Long Wall fast receded away behind the carriage and the heavy congestion of city traffic soon gave way to the commonplace riders and pedestrians of the urban countryside, Bailey stuck his head out of the cab window, managing a last long glance at the shambles of broken mortar and half ruined battlements which had for hundreds of years before kept out the enemies of the nation. He returned to the cabin with a complacent, considerate look.

“So that is where he strings them up,” he said to Breakerfast, seated opposite of him.

“Who, my lord?”

“Your Lynchman’s Owl.”

Breakerfast’s face reddened visibly and he blew out the side of his mouth. “There was a mark on our record, sir! I will give you for that black year when the fiend roamed free and unchecked through our neighborhoods no one was at ease, and it seemed disaster was to be found at every turn. Why, he nearly gave the old chief of police hernia, and our Lord Viceroy and Governor-General turned to the drink—even more than usual—on his account. It was then that he started his opium habit, or dug himself deeper into it, I forget which, becoming an even greater beast than he was already, all just to relieve of the stress caused by his nemesis.”

Bailey leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped thoughtfully before him.

“But I understand some of your people have come to regard him as something of a beacon of hope in their misery.”

“Ah! In that you are mistaken, my lord,” Breakerfast replied. “For though it is true some have forgiven him for his ways, they are far fewer in number that you know. Mostly northerners such as yourself or others living far away from our fair metropolis, having only second hand stories and outright heresy to go on, have been quick to lionize him as a folklore hero. In truth he is nothing of that sort. His methods are brutal, his judgment questionable, and his actions barely more defensible than those he has maimed in the name of his own justice. At its barest he is a murderer, and you will find it difficult to sympathize with that sort. We do not know why he did most of the things he did, only that the pieces he has left behind in his wake have led to as much sorrow as vindication for his misplaced efforts. Everyone here, my lord, is more afraid of him than they are grateful, and you will find it a hard sell indeed for anyone to convince them otherwise.”

“I thought he was a supernatural creature, your bought of bad luck from providence for the sins of men.”

Breakerfast laughed, “So you have learned something in those alehouse inquisitions, my lord. But I do not subscribe to that line of thinking myself. It was nothing more than a madman, a deranged creature of ill-humors and misdirected wrath. But he must have been only a man in the end, a mortal soul and nothing more.”

“And no one has ever come close to learning who he was?” asked Bailey of him.

“Three chiefs of police have tried, and House Mandalin spared no effort, for it was as much of a stain on his reputation as a public official as it was an attack on his immense pride and ego. He who was a tyrant to his family and subjects was rendered so impotent by a lunatic prowling about rooftops. But in the end they all came up short.”

“And this hunt, this feud lasted for years?”

“Just one as I have said, my lord. But it was a black one indeed, for the city drew tight around itself like a man bracing against a blow he was not prepared to withstand, and every morning people awoke to gruesome news.” Breakerfast leaned forward in his seat with a squeal of leather beneath him. “Just between us, sir, he set us back a decade in the span of fifteen months. From the outside looking in it may have seemed like domestic troubles, but the alarm was raised over the entire region all along the coast, and there was real talk of emptying the city to get to the bottom of it by New Year’s.”

“You are certain this was the work of one person?” Bailey asked skeptically.

“Well it should not have been, for the matter was much too large for any one man to shoulder. Truly what began as vandalism might have grown soon into something approaching a movement in its own right, and nobody could properly say how many there were by the end of the year, or for the years after. It’s only that we have no more people hanging from the Long Wall we have come to associate with the end of his prowling. And as that occasion is marked by the fire and sinking of the Olgessian it became the running hypothesis that it was the Owl’s last mischief. If you ask me it could not have come sooner, my lord, for by then the city was suppressed in suspicion, and the only out is to shoot everybody on sight and let a higher power than ours dictate who is to be redeemed and raised afterwards a Saint, and who is to be irrevocably condemned as a Sinner.”

It was a bad joke to make, but one which, having done a marvelous round in the late days of the Owl’s reign, swiftly became commonplace as an outlet for the people’s frustrations. Bailey sat grim faced in deep thought while the patrolman laughed at his own affront to Church and the Gods, until the sullen silence of the former penetrated the desensitized ears of the latter, and Breakerfast’s chortling fell away into false coughs to mask his embarrassment. Thankfully by then they had arrived at their destination.

 

Such was the reach of the city that even an hour’s drive outside its old walls could not properly distance them from its vast holdings. They were like travelers trying to escape the insides of a monstrous dragon which had swallowed them whole, and having finally made the long journey from its gullets they now stood leaning against one of its teeth as it yawned, offering but a fleeting look at the wider world outside while being washed in its scents with every labored breath. They could see what would have been parklands and hunting preserves years past, taking in at a glance regal old farmsteads dotting the once verdant hills, but also the scores of shanties which had sprung up between them like tenacious moss and fungi between the branches of a tree. It resembled mostly rural slums, if such a term can ever be applied, with a great square located at the center filled at the moment with colorful tents of all shapes and sizes. The carriage drew up alongside the entrance.

The door was opened and held by the page scampering eagerly from the back of the cabin as the horses were being reined in. Bailey was led out on Breakerfast’s arm. The man awaiting them there approached briskly, stuck out his hand and introduced himself as du Gale, who was in charge of the ongoing investigation. He wrung the hand of his illustrious guest most graciously, but paid little importance to Breakerfast by his side and neglected at all to greet him.

“It is a personal honor to receive you, my lord,” said he to Bailey, “though I’m afraid I cannot welcome you, for this is the dark underbelly of our city that you have found yourself in, and I am loath to show you around if not for your specific request to be present.”

The patrolman gave his man away, and Bailey took hold of the inspector’s offered elbow. They walked together arm in arm with Breakerfast nipping at their heels like a loyal hound, stepping lightly around sleeping beggars laid out like misshapen logs against the corners of dilapidated houses. Crossing over a police line into the square, with the unseen eyes of voyeurs trained on them at every step from the darkened narrow space between window shutters, the situation was much explained along the way.

“I’m sorry your journey takes you to Eaves,” du Gale was saying to Bailey with a hint of embarrassment. “It is a low place, and a forgotten county of the glittering metropolis spires you have left behind. Our wealth lies in the east, our noble heritage in the west, but it is in the poor north and especially the trampy south that we may find some answers if you are looking into the works of criminals. We may have our man already, and that is why I have called you here.”

“Who was he then?” Bailey asked.

“His name is Gasper Palm. I have him as an employee of the Circle of Wonders. For you see we have in abundance our shares of vagabonds and drifters, in addition to a class of serfs in the Eaves who derive their entertainment from jugglers, magicians and acrobats of the lowest order. The Circle, which is widely travelled up and down the Coal Coast, has been in town for months and our man apparently a strongman of some repute in its employment. I would have had the whole truth of the matter on a plate, but in deference to your interest, sir, I wired down the line immediately once the investigation bore fruit, and we will question the manager of the troupe together. Normally this is a bustling hive of villainy that men of higher birth or better knowledge seldom visits, but today I have arrived with a contingent of riflemen on loan from the 2-26th, where my brother is a senior sergeant, and we shall have total dominance over the place. Here we are, my lord. Here we are.”

Inside this forest of tents there was one that was by measures larger and more colorful than the rest. And it was to this place that du Gale led Bailey, holding aloft a flap for him to enter before following inside after him. The flap was weighted down by heavy curtains and very nearly shut out Breakerfast behind them, but he managed to zip inside on the merits of a quick and spirited dash. They all three of them found themselves inside a great dome of fabric. Before them, next to wooden railings which made up the walls of an arena, a tall, well-dressed fellow looked to them wringing his hands together surrounded by two or three men wearing the rough looks of plainclothesmen.

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!”

All at once there was a dull roar of shock from all assembled, which was followed by a cry of impatience as they all of them dove into the tent in the manner of a charging herd, practically tearing the flaps to pieces as they did so. The Lockers were taken in at a glance, and truly there was little to see but for beds arranged side by side for the performers with curtains drawn between them for privacy, and a single dresser at one end that they were all made to share. Over them the windows in the tent roof were all uncovered, letting in the afternoon sunlight, but their height obviously prevented anyone from climbing out that way. A search commenced with du Gale at its head, and mortified he threw himself into the work without a backward glance to Bailey, who stood just inside the entrance looking on. Breakerfast, for his part, was all wary silence attending to the needs of the detective. His brows were furrowed in intense concentration, but he had not managed get even a single word in before there came a triumphant shout from the back of the tent, and du Gale swiftly returned puffing out his cheeks in excitement.

“The fabric behind the dresser has been slashed,” he cried. “It was the work of a swift and cool hand, and the cut is tall enough for a man to pass through unhindered. I beg that you will wait on me, my lord, while I run this rascal down.”

“Where?” asked Bailey.

“Where else? This place has been emptied of his coworkers, who are now being held in the animals’ padlocks nearby. He would have gone at once to them in order to obtain help from a sympathetic soul, and I shall head him off before he gets there.” With many apologies he bowed his way out of the tent, followed by his soldiers and the stagehand, who was being dragged unceremoniously along with them to act as an unwilling guide. Their shouting drifted swiftly away.

But when Bailey sought to take off after them he found himself unexpectedly restrained by Breakerfast. The patrolman remained for the moment where he was, standing with his hands on his hips facing the interiors of the tent in the manner of a teacher looking sternly upon a classroom. His brows were pushed together in intense concentration, and his mouth reflected his grim studies by hardening into a single pressed line, drawn long beneath his tall, straight nose, which was by far his best and most distinguishing accessory. He used it to sniff the air before turning to Bailey.

“My lord, we should see this cut for ourselves.”

His steady voice instilled a measure of confidence in his listener. Hand in hand they walked deeper into the Lockers where nothing escaped their scrutiny. Before they reached the dresser they had looked beneath every bed, into every corner, and even sought to reach up to the tall windows by a ladder (which they could not find) or a rope (which they found, but it was useless) until Bailey was satisfied that it was, indeed, impossible to climb. The dresser itself was tall, of a dull mahogany complexion with knobs of brass set in the center, pushed up against the rear of the tent. On looking around it a huge gash could be discerned in the fabric. And parting it with his hands Bailey saw that it led into the square towards some rubble and a half collapsed pillar of white-stone in the distance.

“Any luck?” he asked Breakerfast then, who was looking over his shoulder out of the opening into the square, wearing an expression of some satisfaction.

“I’m afraid not,” the patrolman replied shaking his head. “If he has gone out this way at all it will be impossible to catch him, for the path is a clear one to the edge of the square and from there into the squalor of the shacks.” As he spoke he was frantically gesturing towards Bailey with his hands. And wide-eyed the young man could only nod his agreement without understanding what was meant by it. Holding one finger up to his lips for complete silence Breakerfast led him tiptoeing their way around the dresser again until they stood before it with the patrolman’s eyes on the brass knobs. He reached for it slowly.

“Well perhaps we can count on du Gale, don’t you think?” asked Bailey, catching on swiftly.

“Oh yes, sir,” cried Breakerfast loudly in agreement. “He is a good old dog, and he will have the scent before long—Gods and great swine! Unhand him at once!”

Almost as soon as he touched the knob the dresser took on a life of its own! Shaking and shuddering in great agitation the doors were suddenly thrown wide open, and Bailey was nearly bowled over by the man who emerged from within swinging in a wild fit. They tumbled together to the floor and fell scrapping and scratching like dogs at each other’s throats. In an instant Breakerfast had joined the fray, brave fellow that he was trying to pull the assailant away from his friend, but catching a stiff one about the jaw he was knocked down and sat there in a daze. His noble gesture, however, had not been in vain, for in that time Bailey found his footing, though his man slipped from his arms and threw himself upon him with renewed vigor and ferocity. And for the span of a minute and change it was a measured short jab against a formidable right hook which might have ended badly for the detective had Breakerfast not regained enough of his senses to produce handcuffs from his pocket. I shall not bore you with the details of their struggles, only that it was a short and quick one in which their quarry ended up overwhelmed by the advantage in numbers. He was persuaded to admit defeat at last with a pistol clapped to his head.

Once he had seen his cause was lost, however, his mannerisms changed at once. He shuffled madly towards Bailey on his knees, and latching onto his coattails began to openly weep.

“Mercy, sir!” he cried, “Mercy! Whatever it is you’ve got me for, I didn’t do it!”

As Bailey was still rubbing his throat and Breakerfast his chin they were inclined to disbelieve him at first. But he explained his actions thusly:

“Well it all comes down to nerves, sir! And mine was plenty frayed when the soldiers marched on in here at first light and took control of the whole establishment. I read a little, sir, though I may not look it, and anyway once the papers started writing about masked giants I understood at once that the stink eye was going to fall on me on account of our working together. So you can understand how I was torn between flying at once and waiting the matter out to prove my innocence. But once the rifles emptied the Lockers save for me, well, you will forgive me when I say things started to break down inside my head.”

“So you slashed the tent and hid in the dresser,” said Bailey. “If not for the fact that my man here noticed it is snowing outside and there are no tracks leading away from the gash you would have fooled us.”

“It was supposed to be a blind, sir,” the fellow confessed meekly. “But all for naught now it seems; and I must now place my fate in your hands.”

“You can begin by telling me what I am here to learn,” said Bailey. “You are Mr. d’Rooksfield, I presume?”

“That is me, sir.”

“Well rest assured that you do not have my interest, and if you will tell me everything there is to know about this giant you work with things will go kindly for you.”

“Gasper,” said d’Rooksfield at once. “He was a sight, that one, for seldom men reaches such heights. Ours was a full partnership putting on a good show for pennies. From week to week he was the titan of legend, and I the hero of the people to slay him, or he a lovable underdog, the gentle giant to the antics of my dastardly heel slave-owner. That was the gist of our working relationship.”

A nod from Bailey indicated that Breakerfast was to proceed with the questioning in his place, and the patrolman immediately took the lead.

“Together you must have been a draw for the Circle.”

“Oh that we were, sir,” d’Rooksfield replied earnestly.

“Then you were close outside of work as well?”

“In our jobs it pays to be, for it is brotherhood above all else which we must foster so that our performance may be carried out in safety. If you cannot trust a man completely, sir, you wouldn’t let him dump you on your head five nights a week before a live crowd. So yes, I count myself among his confidants, though I will now happily tell you everything I can to become yours.”

So began a very short interview in the little time they had before du Gale returned, but everything the wrestler had to say on the matter threw little light on the behavior of the giant. From his descriptions they gathered he was an aloof sort, though not particularly inclined to keep his opinions to himself; he fancied good drinks, was courteous to women and children, adored sweets and loathed the government. It is this last particular characteristic which Bailey latched onto.

“Was he an anarchist?”

“A patriot, sir,” replied d’Rooksfield, “true and true. But he had his own ideas of what it should mean to be a patriot, which he was always eager to share over the course of supper or a smoke under the stars.”

“And was he set with these ideas from the day you met him, or were they imparted to him afterwards by another?”

“I would say that he was of that sort of mind already when he became my partner.”

“How long ago was that?”

“We have been working together for almost four years now.”

“How old is he now?”

“We were to celebrate his nineteenth birthday next Friday.”

“Observe, my lord,” said Breakerfast to Bailey, “that a young man seldom applies himself to anything unless compelled to do so by outside forces. As it was a most dangerous course upon which he met his end, we will have something to go on once we can determine the source of his influences. And since we have our prisoner’s word that he was already so indoctrinated we will have to look beyond those later days to earlier ones in order to catch a clue.” Back to d’Rooksfield now: “You are by your own admission closer than anybody to him, so I will hope to learn from you what your own master was ignorant of. Tell me everything you know of the giant before he became your partner. If he has let slip of a close relative, or the smallest hint of his own upbringing withhold nothing from me now.”

“Well,” said d’Rooksfield thoughtfully, “I believe I’ve heard him mention a father before.”

“Good, good,” encouraged Breakerfast, “And?”

“There was also a mother, but they both passed early, one after another as if they could not fathom to be parted from each other.”

“Who else?”

“The captain of his whaling ship has always treated him kindly. He was also engaged at one point, but the thing was broken off when she too, passed from an island illness that was running rampant then. There was also the broker for cab licenses that he quarreled with since arriving, but he speaks of nothing so much as his niece whom he seldom sees.”

“And his tattoo? What do you make of it?”

“What tattoo, sir?”

“Do not play the ignorant with me, Mr. d’Rooksfield. You of all people should have an idea. It is right here”—Breakerfast showed him on his own arm— “and it is plainly an owl with its wings spread wide, taking off in flight.”

“Ah! Well there you have me at a disadvantage, my lord. I always thought it was only an anchor. His associates at the whaling lodge where we found him probably uses it as a symbol of their brotherhood.”

At that moment du Gale returned. He lifted the tent flaps and passed inside wearing a scowl, which deepened further as his eyes widened in astonishment taking in the sight set before him. But as prudent a fellow he was, he understood at once his place, and fell silent beside Bailey without interrupting his man’s questioning of the captive. Fortunately, he did not have long to wait, for it was apparently that Bailey had heard all he needed, and the interview was in the process of being wound up.

“I’m all done with him,” said the detective to du Gale as he motioned for him to draw up. “You may release him.”

“But sir—!” ejaculated du Gale at once in outrage.

“There was no crime committed,” interrupted Bailey with an upraised hand. “Perhaps a case could be made for bad decisions, but beyond that there is little to recommend anything. And anyway I have given my word to the fellow, and it should serve well enough to sooth your ego to hear that I shan’t mention your embarrassment to another living soul.”

Still the inspector fumed, but alas there was little he could do about it. Surely it was apparent to me as it would be to you that it was a very poor way to handle things, and that Bailey earned no small amount of ill-will for his troubles. It will come to a bad end, as you will later see. But for the time being du Gale led his man away without another word, and set about releasing him into the wild. Whereas Bailey, attended by Breakerfast, made for their carriage. On the way home he had time to pick his host’s mind for his thoughts.

“It is a thin string, sir,” Breakerfast assured him, “but better than the nothing we had to go on before. Often a man’s treasures will paint not only a picture of his present life to the observer, but as well make a window through which his past might be glimpsed. Though I fear we will no longer have official support on this matter, for you see how eager the chief in Eaves is to wrap things up. And there is also the lancer captain who still would like his name be involved in the Owl’s capture.”

“But we have established that it was not the Owl who was killed,” Bailey pointed out.

“Just so,” agreed Breakerfast. “But my lord if you will forgive me for saying, it occurs to me that the result of one’s accomplishments in the field benefits not so much from the truth behind the deed achieved, but rather from how it is presented to the public. For us there are the chiefs to consider; for the chiefs there is the governor, who reports directly to the powers in parliament. Everybody desires a good outcome from their efforts, and perhaps a little recognition in the process. As the reigning authority here these goals are being withheld with every passing moment that we press on with our own investigation.”

“Ah!” cried Bailey, laughing. “So you are trying to convince me to drop the matter again.”

“It really is in your best interest to do so, my lord. You will not make many friends by being obstinate.”

Bailey reclined into his seat, clasping his hands together on his lap. His face showed mingled emotions and much weariness at the toll his quest has taken on his health, as well as frank and absolute disgust at the notion that he was being pressured, however gently, to put an end to it.

“It is a disgusting government which allows lethargy to permeate all the way to the rank and file of its lowest order of public servants. And it speaks highly to me the reason why the country is stuck in a rut as it is, with foreign powers knocking at your doorstep, worrying away the strength and dignity of the nation year by year. But I am a different sort of animal, with a master of my own to answer to. I shall not fail him, for so long as I draw breath this frail body is made into a willing tool to reach the ends he so desires. As to friends, I’m not sure I need more than just the one at present.” He raised his eyes to the patrolman. “I hope I can continue to count on your help in this matter, for I value a single worthy soul tenfold the assistance of false, reluctant companions.”

“I am your man, sir,” said Breakerfast emotionally.

“Good. Now tell me what you plan to do next.”

 

By evening they were still discussing the matter over a very late supper, but coming no closer to their goals for it, though not for lack of effort. Without the support of the official forces Bailey and Breakerfast were forced to make do through more mundane channels to continue their investigation. They were led to finding out all they could of their poor victim, and word was carried far down the buzzing cables in search of anything which was to be learned about his closest associates in life.

“We have at present three or four promising leads,” said Breakerfast as they reclined into their seats by his hearth after supper with a pot of chocolate broiling on the fire between them. “But whether we can learn anything is up to the hands of fate to show. The captain of his vessel, his dead fiancée, his only enemy as far as we have been able to discover, and his immediate next of kin; perhaps they will shed some light on his decision to take up that cursed mantle, or should we be so lucky, we will find at the bottom of the mystery that he has inherited it from one of them.”

“That would be best,” said Bailey, “And a great weight lifted from my shoulders. Surely there is somebody who fits the age and experience who might have had a lingering influence on our giant.”

“One can hope, my lord. Though the greatest mystery to me still is your insistence on getting your hands on the Owl for your troubles. We have already given you a very good one, after all.”

“A dead one,” said Bailey moodily.

“But still, sir,” Breakerfast persisted. “What difference does it make? What difference could it make?”

“Ah,” he laughed. “There you reach too high. And as much as I am fond of you, there are secrets which I must keep close to my chest. Suffice to say that what I am after is, if not your Owl presented to me in person, I shall happily settle for undeniable proof of his activities in the present age to convince me that he has not been destroyed twenty years ago in the past.”

“But we have taken great pains to ensure that his legacy will never come to light again. The whole nation has, my lord.”

“So you have,” Bailey agreed gravely. “And so I have learned. But a country is a big pot to keep wholly covered by a lid, and here and there whispers of steam will inevitably escape. Far be it for me to dig up graves where they are unwarranted, but you must believe me when I say that it cannot be helped. I have come far, but I think we together can go further still in the matter. On your inquiries I am prepared to take off as quickly as needed to wherever I am led.”

But the answer they were waiting for, when it arrived, was not good. For a week the house was caught up in something of an uproar, buzzing from head to toe in the manner of an army preparing to pick up camp. Luggage was packed on Tuesday with the expectations that their journey could have begun as early as Wednesday morning, but by Thursday they still had not moved on, despite the welcoming weather and a gentle breeze swirling up and down the street outside their window. Come Friday it was readily apparent that the campaign was stalled, despite the enthusiasm of its participants.

Imagine, if you will, a purebred hound who has been promised release into the hunting fields after a long period of inactivity, and you will have the proper image of Bailey swept up in his coat and mantle, waiting by the door with his ears perked by every ring of the bell. Breakerfast would have accompanied him, for it was the opinion of his wife that such a trip would work wonders for his stagnated career and help him rise above his station in the world.

“I have done all I could,” she told Bailey. “But I am limited by my lot in life, which was cast with the best of opportunities in the beginning, but long squandered since. Perhaps you can lend him a hand, for even in his advanced age his is a keener mind for the position he has held, and the best and most loving man I know.”

“I promise to do everything I can,” said Bailey. “And he is not so old. If a man can rise to kingship before his twenties, I will make of him a knighthood yet at forty.” And to his promise they held on with eyes glued to the window for signs of news, until it arrived at last and their hopes were dashed to pieces.

“I don’t understand it,” cried Bailey in utter dismay as he tore at his hair. “I won’t understand it, but is this the end of my search?”

In his hands Breakerfast clutched the answers to their inquiries. Every single one of these replies seemed to tell them off their quest. The whaling ship had been lost at sea last year, with every hand onboard lost to the dreaded northern winds. There had been but one brother of the dead fiancée, whose broken heart took him out of country where his trail was lost. The broker of cab licenses pleaded innocence, for he was never an enemy of the giant; it was down to the examiner who readily gave his reasons for refusing Gasper a license on grounds that modern cabs were far too small and weak to be suited to a driver of his size. “There is a lead gone to waste,” said Breakerfast with his eyes on the note in his hands. “His examiner was a younger man still than our Owl, which seems to be a source of their strife. But that man’s character is infallible, and he is apparently headed for great things in his department.” And finally the favorite niece, as it turns out, resided overseas, has been for years beyond count, the last and latest sprout from a branch of the family tree which extends and encompasses all in question; the giant’s was an unfounded love on the last words of his parents, never fully met or realized.

“I am at wits end,” cried Bailey to Breakerfast, clutching the patrolman’s arm with open desperation. “Is there nothing more we can do?”

“Your trail has gone cold, sadly enough,” said Breakerfast. “My lord, aside from the ship captain all others are culled by logic and distance, rising easily above suspicion. But if the captain has indeed met his demise he is now shielded from us by the greatest barrier of the natural world. I’m sorry, but I cannot think how we might continue our investigation.”

“But it was in this city which your Owl was most active during his career, was it not? Can we not hope to pick up on his scent in his own home?”

“Ah, but you have been here for weeks now, sir, on that very purpose. And how did your search end, if I might remind you?”

Bailey spent a moody moment recalling his adventures up until now.

“I spent my days asking the same question in every parlor, smokehouse and den I cared to visit, and in the end was rescued from certain death by the shadow of an enigma. I met you, and since then this is as close as I have ever gotten.”

“Alas I believe it is only all too easy for a man to become lost in a city of seven million, especially with time to worry away at his legacy until all evidence of his having been is destroyed, and his very presence obliterated.” Breakerfast, in a moment of impetuousness, embraced his guest out of pity. “At least, my lord, you have been spared a continental trip. And I as well, for I do not get on well with trains, and ships make me seasick even away from the water.”

 

As the evening soon wound down the house fell silent, save for where a flicker of candlelight behind a window was here and there covered and uncovered by a restless shadow. The crushing conclusion of affairs following their adventure at the circus and the long wait of inactivity afterwards served a heavy burden to its principle participants. One was by now driven into a deep slumber brought on by intense fatigue, while the other was robbed of his ability to get any rest at all. Bailey paced his small chamber in a restive fit, too tired to make heads or tails of the discouraging situation, but just as unable to escape the clutches of trepidation which worried away at his iron constitution. Resolved as he was to get to the bottom of things he still would have been on the first train out in the morning, made to retire from his mission unwillingly. There was quite simply nothing else to go on, and no more leads to chase. And being the sort of person who loathed above all else leaving things unfinished, as well as intimately fond of getting his own way, you can imagine the depths into which his spirits sank as he replaced his papers and passports into his leather valise in preparation for the return journey. Much to his surprise then the gloomy atmosphere in his chamber was suddenly interrupted by a knock at the door, and he soon admitted the wife of his gracious host. She, apologizing for her intrusion in very few words, took in the state of affairs from the room at a single glance.

“Ah, but it is much too early to be getting off and away, my lord,” she said. “You will not find a cab at this hour easily, I’m afraid. But even if you did it is too late to book passage, for the first train out is filled.”

“How do you know?”

“I wired the ticking offices. And as it is the season of heavy traffic they are all over themselves working to make certain the lines all arrive leave on-time. You couldn’t find standing room if you tried.”

“So,” said Bailey with a snigger of resignation. “Even you are looking to get rid of me now.”

“You do me injustice, sir,” she replied. “As you left for your rooms dejected my husband spoke to me worriedly, and we both of us have decided.”

“What, pray?”

“To convince you to abandon your hopeless quest, but also that you would not desert us yet so readily.” She took hold of his hands affectionately. “Oh, Mr. Bailey, we would hate for you to be turned away empty-handed, with such a terrible impression of our fair city that does it neither favors nor justice. And we have grown fond of you in our own way, so that we have come to cherish your company. It is our wish, impetuous that it may be, for you to stay on with us a while longer, but no longer as a knight errant begging for petty lodging on his way to destiny. You will be instead an honored guest, so that we may show you a side of these peoples and life inside the tall walls to repair your opinion. It is my good man’s wish to cure your humors, but I saw the light beneath your door passing by and sought to make an early start of it.”

“And your husband now? Where is he?”

“Put to bed and fast asleep, but not well, I’m afraid. Still, he needs the rest sorely. As an honest man he too seems reluctant to let things rest as they are.”

Bailey heaved a long, wearied sigh.

“You are both good people, Alex. But I’m afraid nothing you can say will change my mind at this hour, for I have come to the conclusion that I have nowhere left to go but away.”

“Oh but it is only a little bird you have been unable to catch.” She laughed then, as if talking down to a child who has got his mind fixated on something impossible and impossibly small. “And just between us you probably should have never tried.”

“How so?”

She glanced around the chamber furtively with a mischievous glint in her eyes.

“Promise to tell no one?”

“I shall not if you make me,” he replied, curious. “But I don’t fancy hiding anything from your husband. He has become my best-friend in these lands.”

“Well in that case you can rest easily,” she replied. “He knows the story. He knows well what I am about to tell you. But perhaps even he does not understand its significance.”

“And what is it you are about to tell me, madam?”

In reply she led him out of his room into the common chamber, and sat him in his chair before the fireplace. The coals were stirred; she brought out a tray of small refreshments before settling into the chair opposite him with her hands in her lap.

And so Bailey beheld for a time the visage of that exquisite creature, the very figure of indomitable dignity which bespoke of a great and proud heritage, so much so that her simple frock and garb, on the merits of an active imagination, transformed at once into the gown of a graceful, noble queen. Her lightly traced brows fixated into something approaching a furrow of indecision, her lips curling into the smallest grimace of unwillingly held secrets. But in the corners of her eyes he read that same playful, almost roguish intent to divulge to him something impish and delightful she was holding close to heart. She was so absorbed in her own mind for a time that it seemed she had forgotten Bailey’s presence altogether, until at last her distant gaze returned to rest on him once more.

“This Owl movement is making everyone uneasy,” she said. “Then and now, a shadow of his actions linger. And just like your strongman, for instance, who probably did more harm than good doing what he did. All it will mean is that more people—people like you, my lord—will come looking. It always ends the same way, with us smaller folk getting caught up in the middle. What I am about to tell you I have not another living soul, save for my husband and my father, who were involved with the end of things but ignorant of the beginning.” She leaned forward with the firelight between them dancing over her excited features, and drawing very close she whispered: “I have seen your Owl before, my lord. He saved my life once.”

Bailey would have cried out with surprise, but she managed to stifle him with an upraised hand held to his mouth, along with a commanding glare.

“Oh madam!” he whispered, passing a hand over his feverish brows.

Her eyes darted warily from side to side, showing a glint of pleasure along with immeasurable anticipation for what was to follow.

“Quiet now! Or else my story will have to remain untold.”

He would have happily sewn his lips shut for any light she was able to shed on the mystery. And for the duration of their conversation he remained then a contented and eager listener.

“I used to be something of a character,” she told him. “To know something of your Owl you must first learn something about me and my past. My father—alas, you would not know him, and I won’t mention his name—was as wealthy as he was greedy, and as powerful as any king which walked upon the earth. But his was the household of a true demon, a fiery-fiend in man’s skin, an absolute brute in the depth of a bottle, which was sadly more often than not for him. He was a drinker and when he drank he was also a monster. Suffice to say my childhood was not an enjoyable one. I look back on it with every day a prayer spoken for my timely escape, and even then not soon enough before my own mother died from a broken heart and the molestations of the rotten patriarch whose blood I am forced to share. I tell you this, sir, only that you should have an idea of from where I come, and understand where it was I found myself on that fateful night as I was going.”

“Where, Alex?”

“Away. Anywhere. I fled from my home. It would not be the last time I tried to run, but I am aware it was my first time striking out on my own. Deep into his cups the baron was having one of his fits. And as by then I can no longer count on the protection of my mother my only hope was in escape. His man, an intimate butler sorts who was on his best of days an even worse man than he, did then the only good turn which came about in his sorry life of a lackey, drawing me away and shutting me up in my room for my own sake. It was on the second floor in a mansion that was gargantuan, a castle by any means of the definition, and certainly they could never have anticipated I would jump. But even broken ankles would have been preferable to being huddled away in my bed while the voice of the tyrant boomed outside. So I leapt, and thankfully the gardener had done his good work, and I broke my fall on thick shrubs beneath my window. Then soon after I found myself walking through the city streets with their weird bends and narrow passageways, the buildings looming over me like long frowning faces. A rain beat down on me then, and the night was dark also, here and there made blinding bright by falling flashes of lightning followed by the distant echoes of thunder.”

She paused, took a deep breath, and when she spoke again her gaze vanished far away into her mind reminiscing.

“The night as you can imagine put me in very bad humors. I could not help but compare the tremors of the tempest rolling inside the black clouds overhead to the voice of the monster I strived to put behind me. I drew up my collars but did not know where I was going, or where I should have gone. I was a victim in my own home, but a stranger in the world outside. In every leering window I saw unfriendly faces and heard the voices of sin, for I was in that time shoddily dressed for the occasion. I had nothing to cover my face, and less still to protect my body in my modest nightgown with its rents and cuts from where I had pushed out of the bushes beneath my window. Flashing white and brilliant as ivory in the darkness it was only a matter of time before I became a woman marked. I began to feel uneasy walking on alone. Every shadowy corner I passed seemed easy hiding places for jackals and wild dogs. Against my own wishes I took off running, never knowing just where to. But to this day I will tell you I had not misplaced my fears, for breathless I swung into a narrow crevice between two buildings, falling against the rough, cold stone with a hand pressed to my heart. And there in the stillness I heard the unmistakable sound of footsteps behind me pattering wetly against the rain-soaked cobble, and breathing which came hoarse and ragged but unseen in the darkness. I froze. I am not ashamed to admit it. I was only fourteen at the time, and to anybody that age tragedy was fantasy. I did not know what to do except that maybe I was in real danger. But that was also the hour before dawn, and I heard then the hoot of an owl, followed by a scream.”

“Ah!”

“It was the bravest thing I had ever done peeking out of the alley into the narrow street. I saw a short man in a ragged coat lying crumpled on the ground in a heap, and over him stood a tall man with his shoulders covered by a mantle of brown feathers. I never saw his face so I cannot say if he was masked like they say, only the tall boots he wore, as black as sin and the top of his hat aimed towards the sky. I dove back behind the cover of the wall and squeezed shut my eyes. When I opened them again dawn had broken over the walls, and a friendly hand was on mine. I met my Gantoine then, who walked the same beat as he does today a much younger man. And it was at the same corner where you found him that he discovered me and gave me shelter. He walked me home and convinced me to stay there, but happily when my eventual escape came it was into his waiting arms many years later.”

“And of the Owl?” Bailey asked eagerly.

“The man who was waylaid was later found strung up and dangling from the broken walls, beaten brutally and died long before any help could be rendered. Nothing was ever confirmed but when the outbreak of violence got out of hand some months later he was branded by supporters of the Owl a murderer and rapist. But I remember his as being the first of such incidents which marked the terrible year that you have been hot on the heels of.

“The call of the owl heard in the hour before dawn has long been spoken of as a dark omen foretelling coming tragedy. For the past centuries wars have been lost on its account, natural disasters have been attributed to its presence, and you will be hard pressed to find a man or woman today who has not grown up with the dreaded word in his ear as a warning against misbehavior from childhood. There is a nursery rhyme as well, though I cannot remember the lyrics at present. It is only after the black year that the saying has passed into urban myth, gaining in the process the embellishments you know of a terrible creature praying on the unjust and unworthy as a physical manifestation of the consequences of their sins.”

“But this man you saw,” he persisted.

“Fully grown then,” she answered. “Perhaps even a little over his prime, for I remember him hunching his shoulders. Aside from that, I couldn’t tell you anything beyond today he would be an old man, probably ill and dying in a bed if he has not passed already. Owing to my own unique experiences I have never believed in any after the first, and that an incident inimitable in its inception and conclusion.”

“And all the other bodies found strung up on walls?”

“What one man might achieve, others will imitate. You will find no shortage of such, my lord, if you keep up your search. But if it is indeed a legend you are after, I’m afraid you will never find it unless it is one you can invent for yourself.”

“Ah!”

She nodded, smiled faintly at him, this beautiful queen in her humble surroundings. Contrary to your suppositions and mine it only served to highlight those qualities of compassion, sympathy and warmth possessed in abundance by the lady in question. Bailey was at once reminded of the big sister he never knew, warning him kindly off his fantasies in the same loving way a mother might have a cherished son. He fell into a beaten silence then, and was laid up in his chair with his head in his hands for a long while until the glow from the fireplace had dimmed to the last flickers of yellow embers. She, however, began to self-doubt in that time. For her part she had begun with the best of intentions, but one look at the desperate figure of her houseguest sent her scurrying away to rouse her husband. “It is these notions I’ve put into his head,” she told him at the door to their bedchamber. “I meant well, but perhaps the truth was the last thing he needed to hear. Come along with me, and our powers together will set him to rights.”

“How?” asked her husband, hurriedly throwing on his nightclothes.

“Whatever it takes for us to keep him on, for he has become our responsibility the moment your invitation was accepted. Setting aside his position and power I have become fond of him in my own way.”

“I too,” her husband nodded. “He is a good fellow.”

“Then come quickly. We won’t shirk our duty at this crucial hour.”

Together they went into the common chamber but found the chair empty and the hearth cold. But a knock on Bailey’s door afterwards produced a rapid response. The fear that he might have gone away unannounced was unfounded in the end, for they discovered, much to their surprise, he was unpacking his luggage in very high spirits.

“Oh I have seen my errors, madam,” he told them. “You were my cure. Your words have inspired me onto a new course. Indeed, who’s to say my Owl was the last I will find? But whether as a spirit of justice or a demon of vengeance not of our world I have decided to approach the matter in an anthropological manner, and will henceforth be devoting my studies to the legacy your strange year has left behind. I shall not think myself into a rut again, for that way lies madness. But madness is as well doing nothing, so I fear I must trouble you for some days yet as a scholar of your local history. I will be staying then as you wanted, if you will allow me the pleasure of being a guest in your house for as long as I need to fix my case.”

“We are only all too glad to have you,” said husband and wife as one.

“Good. Then if you will help me with my bags, I shall be much indebted. A pair of hands from you, my good man, in getting things organized again, and a pair of scissors from you, madam, to help with these knots would not go unappreciated.”

 

To be continued in [+ Issue 3: Death of the Owl+]

 

Keep reading for a sneak-peek at [+ Death of the Owl+] 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)

 

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.

 

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

 

The Lynchman’s Owl: Death of the Owl

 

It was not the voice she knew. It was not any voice she had ever known. It could not have been who she had anticipated meeting, and now all her planning, all she had practiced to say before Bailey, the Handyman from Pegging, was for naught. This was plainly somebody—or something— else altogether which had drawn her here; but now that she found herself in its presence it was apparent that she would not be allowed to leave without its permission. Madine nodded, hoping he would be able to see the gesture in the darkness.

“Take a seat, please.”

Furtively she looked all about herself. The cellar had been emptied after the arrest of the proprietor, and it stands to reason that aside from the corner which was occupied by her mysterious host there was very little room in the small space available for her. She settled, in the end, on the bottommost step leading upwards out of the cellar, out of this cramped realm of dreams and back into mortal night. Before her arrival she was filled with many questions for him—too many, I assume, which might be answered in a single evening. But now that she has found somebody else altogether she was at an utter loss for words on how best to begin. Fortunately, he seemed to have made up his mind beforehand, and readily supplied for her deficiency.

“You have appeared at my summons,” he said to her in that strange, inhuman voice of rust and scraping iron, “And my messages reached you in the way I intended. You must be commended on your replies. No one else would have understood my intentions, but you read them well.”

Madine could only nod, and gulp. She was still working saliva into her mouth, which had gone suddenly dry ever since entering the cellar.

“Undoubtedly you thought you knew who I am,” he continued. “Or at least, you will remember your last meeting with the man whose sign I have made good use of in drawing you here to me. But what you do not know, or could not have guessed, is that I am no wandering, idle hand of your corrupt and decadent government, no Handyman to toil away at their business in the shadows. If anything, you may consider Bailey a hated enemy of mine, with whom we may still have business before all is said and done. He is to me what your own Lord Mandalin was to my predecessor twenty years ago, though you may rest assured that my reasons for approaching you in this manner are my own.”

Again Madine nodded. She waited on him to tell her more.

“I will begin by answering some of your curiosities. Yes, I am the original, the first, the example on which all others after were based, including yours. No, I am not the right age for it. Suffice to say the symbol you have misappropriated for far too long has been proudly worn in my clan for generations. Your Lynchman’s Owl, the nightmare of twenty-years ago, is indeed still alive, and I am his successor in this Age. We all of us—and there are far more than you know, or could have ever imagined—inherit the same mantle, and choose to reveal ourselves if and when the cause is sufficient. I was with you on the night the Handyman put his question to the masses inside this very parlor. I saw your pact with him through my own two eyes, though you would have never recognized me then adorned in my mask of common flesh and skin. I followed him who followed you outside into the dark and stormy night, and learned of his business afterwards and enough of yours to take an interest. It is for this reason I have confronted you tonight in my true face. You have misused my visage without permission, and it is from you that I would hear an explanation.”

 

Eye of the North Wind

 

Chapter 2: Gerdfalcon

 

In the morning master and servant set out together after breakfast. The gloom of yesterday had been chased out during the night, and the sun got up earlier than it was usual. The blue sky was all-encompassing, stretching far, and not a cloud was in sight; the air too, was clear, and you could see far, as far as one wished, without hindrance.

When the litter passed through the Great Gate it did not go on for much longer. A short distance out, and a halt was called to the proceedings. The footmen made a huddle round the cabin so that nobody could get a peek at what was happening inside, and sometime later when they dispersed so went with them two fellows clad in common garb, who were last seen taking one of the unpaved town-land paths before vanishing from sight behind a craggy, barren shelf.

 

The journey through the town-land was a short one and the going was good, for it was early still and traffic along the road had not yet congested. The mood in the village was exceptional, and every face they passed wore a smile. More than one hearty “good morning” was lofted in their direction. Some of the villagers were already getting round to their business, which today consisted chiefly of buying and selling to their neighbors, and it seemed everybody was eager and easy to please. All along that route it was heard, over and over again, talk in the sort of, “We have Good Man Yonge to thank for this”, “No, there’s no need for haggling today”, and “You can always pay tomorrow. Thanks to Marigold there is plenty to go around for everybody”. And it went on like this until Sir Boors just had to ask what about.

“Oh we are singing the praises of the Wiseman’s pretty daughter,” he was told by the happy villagers, who did not recognize him without his large retinue and rich clothes. “The night before yesterday she came around the neighborhood and knocked on every door, passing along a request that there should be a great turnout when the Steward returned, and that all the goods and services in the village should be doubled and redoubled again in price. No reason was given, only that some good should come of it. And so it has, once everything was arranged as she bade! After the men of the Steward left yesterday we gathered outside his door to raise a cheer for his good advice, which I’m certain you heard if you were anywhere nearby at the time.”

And Sir Boors was livid listening to such talk. He had been swindled! His face turned as red as a beat and Basil shrank away from the storm-cloud gathering over his brows. When he was beckoned over the valet anticipated it would be to direct some wrath upon the villagers, the knocking about of a few heads, as it were, but alas it was only to ask them for permission to borrow their mule, which sat between them dumbly as they talked at each other over its back.

They came swiftly out of the village then, riding along the eastern-face of the citadel. Here there was a second gatehouse nestled in the wall, identical to the Great Gate but for being about a third of its size, in which was set a wide square doorway barred by an iron portcullis. A ditch lay before it, a moat filled not with water but bristling spikes submerged in thick tar, deep enough to suffocate, and a drawbridge of the same width as the doorway lowered over it by iron chains. Nine may walk abreast upon it, or ten in a pinch. A lone sentry watched over the drawbridge from the battlements above with a trumpet in one hand and a long spear in the other, embellished by a yellow banner snapping in the wind. Below him a great throng of people were already gathered on the other side of the stream, looking up with anticipation. Some were tapping their feet impatiently. In the window of the portcullis it could be seen that a man was sitting on the other side upon a stool, chewing idly on his nails.

At the coming of the hour the sentry blew on his trumpet, and unseen the portcullis began to rise to a great noise of gears grinding within the thick walls. When it was halfway raised into the stonework the man on the other side appeared ducking beneath it. He was clad in good leather, with a sword hanging from his belt and his hand on the pommel, wearing a look of haughty indifference; for it was his responsibility to take down the names and business of anybody passing through, and to refuse them entry if he suspected them of mischief. He knew how to read and write, and with these gifts he possessed here authority that was mighty indeed—for all business passing through here paid him homage and tribute without fail or exception.

He asked Sir Boors for his name after they had waited long coming to the front of the line, peering suspiciously over his great ledger. The gatekeeper took in the garb of the Steward at a glance, and missing the face, which was hidden from him by the merits of a large shadowy hood, took him for a lower class of men.

When Sir Boors did not immediately reply he asked again in a voice that was very harsh, for he thought the inattention he was being shown was intentional, and took it for a slight. It was thought he was looking for an excuse to stir up some trouble. For his part Sir Boors was still working out a reply. He was not accustomed to such treatment and became befuddled as to what to do next. He nearly earned a strike by the scabbard of the doorkeeper’s sword for his deliberations, if Basil had not come to his rescue, and drew off the fellow to the side, speaking with him in whispers. They were let through afterwards without further harassment.

As they were passing beneath the gatehouse Sir Boors said to Basil: “I have half a mind to send you back there and relieve that insolent fellow, for I have a new post more suited to him. Let him gloat as master of dung and filth; let him work off his poor manners for sewage. It is good of you to tell him who I am. I saw that he began at once to fear, and fearing, showed at last some respect.”

But the valet had told him no such thing. “Your secret must be maintained, my lord. I thought that was the whole point of these disguises.”

“But what did you say to him then?”

“I said nothing,” said Basil. “But I paid him thrice the amount for passage through: once for entry, and twice more for two false names added to the register.”

Sir Boors threw up his hands in dismay at the thought of somebody getting inside the walls with concealed business and false identities—but even more so that he should have paid for that privilege out of his own pocket! He swerved about and began to run back towards the drawbridge to have an unkind word with the doorkeeper (and to get his money back), but was prevented from doing so by his valet.

“Remember our business,” Basil pleaded with him. “Somebody shall fix this fellow yet and there is plenty of time for it later. Let him be for now.”

His arm looped through Basil’s, Sir Boors was led away unwillingly. But at that moment the doorkeeper happened to throw a look over his shoulder and saw them dawdling; he displayed some unkind gestures in their direction. And poor Basil was given more work still to restrain his master from rushing forth and giving the fellow a bop on the nose, eventually managing to drag him away, muttering still about how he would have words for satisfaction’s sake.

 

Inside the South Gate was a street called Gondolier where an alehouse called the Tipping Tankard was located, and when they arrived the wrath of the Steward had mostly subsided. Here in the busy street they looked upon every drab stone house filled to overflowing with bodies, every window with a face showing in it, and lines stretching from rooftop to rooftop, decorated with hanging streamers of every color imaginable. Great families of folk walked about shoulder to shoulder beneath the pennons, and not all of local sort; wasteland wanderers from far and wide crowded together before doorways, making great merriment. The chief of all these gathered in a great body beneath an iron plate sign hanging from the largest arch in all the courts facing the street. It was engraved with a pitcher colored in splashes of bright green, slightly tipped and foaming at the top. Beneath it a long hall stretched inside, filled with people. Sir Boors passed through here, led by the hand by Basil.

Once their eyes have finished adjusting to the dim light they found much to see. Though there were several long slits cut into the brickwork for windows, little light could reach the deepest end of the hall and candles were kept going at all hours. The common chamber was divided in the middle by a great pit and in it three large hearths were lit for warmth. Benches were placed all alongside, with every seat already filled so that newcomers were made to stand, and in every hand was a steaming bowl or a good piece of bread. A great counter backed against the longest wall faced the pit, and from either end endless foaming pints came sliding down without pause.

It is the measure of a man’s worth to find a seat here, to hear Basil tell of it, for there is a rigid hierarchy to adhere to at all times. Looking as it does, it may appear at first overwhelming, but in truth there is strict order to be found. The benches are divided amongst workmen of differing trades at different hours of the day, and a wrong seat taken may mean for lost opportunities now or some trouble down the road.

There were bearers of great loads, scavengers from the desert and their cart-pullers, and the apprentices of stonemasons; some were Guildsmen belonging to the Blue and Green, and others whose professions are more secretive or dire, but amongst all of them Bard is master here and it was him that Sir Boors had business with. Basil disappeared into the depth of the hall to search him out, and for a time Sir Boors was left alone.

Initially he was delighted, for there was much to hear all about him concerning every subject imaginable. Out there in the vast wasteland company was difficult to come by, with good reason to be wary of strangers. But inside a bastion of civilization such as this one people tended to be open and free with their opinions, though soon Sir Boors found himself wishing for Basil to return, for during his absence he was subjected to many unwanted advances and propositions, poked and prodded incessantly for occupying some space or another that was inappropriate, as we are all wont to find ourselves in an unfamiliar place.

Basil had not yet returned when at last Sir Boors was given some respite from the atmosphere, which he found choking and was not at all to his taste, when an altercation sprung up quite suddenly at the far end of the hall. Though he could not see what it was through the bodies pressed about him, he was for now spared the attention of his immediate peers. An angry voice shook the hall suddenly and like thunder it rolled over the gathered masses, for a moment bringing every other voice to heel. Thick with wrath it drew all attention towards the entrance of the alehouse from where it had issued. A swell of conversation passed throughout the hall, and from it Sir Boors learned much about what happened there.

“It is that fellow who is making all the noise!” Fingers pointed towards the source of the disturbance located chiefly beneath the hanging sign, where some movement could be glimpsed. “Do you not see his shock of yellow hair, and his wide shoulders towering above the rest? He is a newcomer, sporting a queer accent and has gotten himself unpopular, for he took a wrong seat and refused to budge from it when bidden.”

A hum of disapproval arose. “What happened next?” Sir Boors asked, and several voices answered at once.

“He was eating, minding his own business, when he was bumped on the shoulder by somebody passing by quickly, and he threw away his breakfast and ran down the fellow at the door. There was no damage, and the fellow even apologized, but the tall man would not relent. He pulled a gold pocket-watch from the bumper’s pocket, and accused him of having stolen it.”

Heads round him nodded knowingly, and there were many noises of understanding.

The Steward asked eagerly: “Was there a fight?”

“No. The watch was given up, for the newcomer has a formidable look about him, and the thief went out humbled. Sangor is his name and he is well known to us, for we see him often by the Curtains carrying loads for the Guild to pay off debts, or in the lower dens with a pair of dice in hand throwing away his wages. Mark these words: he will return with friends and there will be trouble yet for the newcomer.”

The incident concluded; the interest soon dispersed. Sir Boors found himself pushing through to the entrance of the alehouse, desiring another look at the tall fellow with the thunderous voice. He found Basil there instead, looking eagerly around for him, and together they went out of the hall.

“I should like to see him again,” he said to Basil after telling him about the altercation, “For I got from him a great impression, despite never having seen his face. He towered over his lesser like a swan amongst cocks. There is a great pedigree about him, and we will be better served by finding him quickly, for I intend to bring him into my service.”

Basil looked all about for somebody of that description (though how you might discern somebody from their voice by looking it is never made quite clear) when suddenly Sir Boors sprang forward shouting. He pointed down the street and Basil following his gaze saw a man coming towards them leading a malnourished horse. It was positively skeletal, with thin legs wavering in the wind which has picked up, looking as if at any moment it might buckle beneath the weight of its own bones. But the face of the man was fair, and so noble a countenance there was reflected in it that all looking upon him as he passed gave him a wide berth, as if paying homage to a king. His garb was ragged and covered in places with dirt and dust, worn from long travels, but once they must have been rich, for the faded embroidery on his collar showing beneath the grime seemed to speak of a great heritage. They saw as he drew nearer eyes the color of a tempest, framed by unwashed golden locks falling around them in ringlets. A braided beard without a hint of frost fell from his chin, wrapping around his neck like a braid. His long strides took up a pace others would have balked at keeping up with, and his shoulders were of a height with the heads of ordinary men. He was by now very near to them, and Sir Boors would have hailed him in friendship, but for a distasteful looking pair appearing just then from within a dark doorway across the street, calling for his attention first.

“Ah!” cried the Steward, lowering his hand. “What is this now?”

These men had the look of scoundrels, all over in scraps and black mantles faded to grey. They were desert vultures, and the young man stopped short facing them. They were jeering mightily, throwing up their fists as they came into the street, shouldering past Basil and knocking him aside. The man on the left was dark of hair and eyes, with a prickly red beard wrapped around his jaws and chin, in which was set a little cleft. He walked with a pronounced limp in his left leg, and his shoulders were hunched and drawn inwards as befitting a man of black intentions. He was blowing through his fingers rudely, and yelling nonsense while his friend beside him, who was much younger, darker of complexion as if he commonly basked for days at a time beneath a hot, broiling sun, walked keeping silent. They advanced upon the young man together, shoulder to shoulder.

“Quickly!” cried Sir Boors to Basil. “Do something!”

“But what, my lord?” asked the servant with equal worry, for he had as well caught onto the mood of the moment, which was rapidly turning sour.

Before Sir Boors could instruct him there were new developments. The blond young man suddenly cried out, and stumbled, almost falling over as if he had been struck out of nowhere by a stone bullet. And with a cry of aggression he was set upon.

Master and servant bellowed together in shock. To their surprise their despair was echoed by the two scoundrels, who sprang back as one then as if pricked. So they were, and not gently. A white flash appeared in the hand of the golden haired young man, a gleaming sword he used to menace his attackers and keep them at bay. For a time it served him ably in the manner of a traveler’s stick against wild dogs, but the man with the dark hair brought up his fist to his mouth and gave a piercing whistle, and suddenly there spilled from dark corners and narrow alleyways many disheveled youths, pressing upon him harshly like stray dogs catching a scent until he was surrounded. Still he might have persisted in defying them, but for his sword, which faltering from uncertainty was lowered and relieved from him by the man with the red beard. Wearing a triumphant look, he plucked a gold watch from the young man’s waistcoat pocket, and laughing went away. With him went his friends. In a moment or two they had slipped away back into the crevices and shadows from where they had sprung.

Basil asked his master then: “Should I go to him now, my lord?”

Sir Boors kept his gaze fixated upon the young man, who went on as he did before, never straying from his course. He passed them without glancing in their direction, leading his horse; his head was lowered and he might have been biting his lips.

“Not just now,” said Sir Boors when he was gone from sight, having turned around a corner and disappeared behind a broken wall. “There is something of his dignity to consider, and I won’t take it away from him by catching him in his moment of humiliation. But I should like to meet with him when he has overcome his embarrassment. You will keep an eye out for him for me, Basil.”

“Two, my lord.”

“Then let us be off, and away for home I think, for I have had a morning more trying than what I have been used to for a long time. Along the way I can have some time to think the matter over, and you can tell me what came of your search for Bard.” Before they left Sir Boors ordered the mule they borrowed to be sold and to tell the buyer—whoever it may be—that it was done at the request of the Wiseman.

 

The journey back was longer, for most of the going was on foot. Sir Boors travelled on Basil’s arm, who did his best helping him avoid the common trappings of the road—a murky puddle here, a dung heap there—as they retraced their steps. It drained the Steward for he was by now no longer accustomed to long marches. But time passed by quickly as they spoke together all along the way. Basil found Bard and the master of the alehouse gave them two good men.

“Well that is a good omen,” said Sir Boors. “You recommended one last night, and I have found one myself today whose name I don’t know yet. Two more were all I needed. What are their names?”

“Iorwegh one is called,” said Basil. “And the other who is his friend in all things Sangor.”

The Steward was amazed, but you should not be, for of course you would have guessed that these were the very same young men whom we have just met—Iorwegh with the black expression, and Sangor the thief of the gold pocket-watch spoken of darkly by the alehouse patrons. But Sir Boors had little interest in them just now, for his mind was concerned with the young man that they had attacked. Basil could say little about him, however, and promised to learn more just at the earliest opportunity from Bard.

By now they had come to the edge of the town-lands, coming to the corner of the red-bricked wall belonging to the last little house on the narrow path. Beyond it the dry, cracked field spread out before them, here and there dotted with lonely trees and sparse foliage. Some distance away the litter waited beside the road. Beneath the discolored sky servants of the Steward were scattered about it like ants around a mound. The weather was turning. They began to pick up after themselves as Sir Boors drew near and things moved along swiftly from there.

Soon they had passed through the Great Gate and come home, where the Steward found a pleasant surprise waiting. The litter drew up before the court of his house, and there they found a commotion brewing. Sir Boors asked Basil to see what about, for weary as he was, he had no mind to bestir himself just then.

Basil returned overcome by excitement: “It is the young man you heard today at the alehouse and later saw in the street. He has come by seeking an audience.”

At once the Steward sprang out of the cabin, very nearly tripping in his haste. He hurried with a spritely gait towards the hubbub on his doorstep.

“Hullo!” he cried to the young man, who was barred from entering by his guards. His emancipated horse stood off to one side with a look of dejection. The young man turned around at his voice and at last they were face to face.

“I am Boors,” said he to the young man with pleasure. “I heard from my man that you are looking for me. But what for, if I may ask?”

The young man bowed very low—so low that the high opinion already held of him by Sir Boors was at once elevated further, for he saw now he had courtesy to go with courage, both complimented immensely by his features, which as we have already described, were tall and fair.

“I have come a long way to seek audience with the Steward of Immortal Linberry on the advice of my teacher, in order to find my place in the wide world following the completion of my studies,” he said in a full voice, curiously accented.

“I am your Steward. But pray tell me first, my good young man, the name of your teacher, followed by your own, and a description of your studies. I’ll decide then whether or not I shall help you.”

Hesitation passed briefly over the young man’s brows. “I am called Gerdfalcon, but I dare not mention my teacher’s name, for it is both his wish and mine that I should not risk blackening it until I have made something of myself. My studies were numerous: I am a good rider; I can read and write; I have been taught from youth to wield a sword and spear and to shoot left and right from a longbow without error; and long have I labored to temper my body and resolve, so that they are made into strong servants. I shall be loyal as well, if you will set me to a worthy task, for this was the premier quality of my mentor which he imparted upon me, and instructed me to obey at all times before my liege and lord.”

“Such is the standard by which all good men are measured,” said the Steward, nodding. “But what am I to do with you? And what, in return, do you want from me for your good service?”

“My life is yours,” said the young man. “And in return I ask for only this: a uniform of Garfeld’s Steel Riders—the blue mantle of the Yulin Hundreds placed on my shoulders by the hands of the king. And years from now, when wit has taken leave of my failing body at last, I might return home upon my shield to be buried in it.”

“You ask much of me,” said Sir Boors gravely. “Nobody becomes Yulin but for a nod from the king, and he does not give it lightly, for he is as well bound by the rules set by his father. The Hundreds are not only the companions of the king, to follow him wherever he goes beneath the Great Standard, but also landowners, and lords in their own right. Long prior service will have to be endured in some less favored position, and great deeds accomplished, great valor exhibited, before the blue mantle is yours. I am powerless to help you at the end of that journey, but I shall do my best to get you to a good start. Is that satisfactory to you?”

“I ask for nothing more,” the young man said, deeply moved. Again he bowed low until ringlets of his fair hair fell to his feet. “I’ve been shown generosity far above what I dared dream, and now my life is no longer my own. Command me, my lord; I am wholly yours.”

The Steward took his hand affectionately. “You have come to my home and shall not go away empty-handed. And though you will say no more of your teacher, I can wager a guess as to his name and deeds. But we shall both keep this secret, for your sake and his. I only wished you had come to me sooner.”

“I have not arrived long but today was not my first visit,” said the young man angrily.

“Oh?”

“You have shown me true friendship, my lord, but the same cannot be said of your household. They told me that in order to be introduced I must first appeal to a fellow by the name of Basil. And by passing to him a hefty sum, I will have gained his pleasure, through which I might obtain the audience I sought. ‘It’s the rule of the house and you best oblige it if you want to get anywhere with your business,’ they said to me before releasing hounds to run me off.”

Sir Boors cast a withering glare on his valet, who was close at hand and heard the whole thing, going very white in the face. He turned his gaze next on all his assembled servants, and everywhere he looked eyes turned to the ground in intense study. However he did not scold them before the young man—Gerdfalcon as he was called henceforth—for whom he promised to make amends.

“Where do you stay tonight?”

“I have been the guest of an old childless couple in the wastes all this time,” Gerdfalcon replied. “They are poor moisture farmers—rain-catchers, I believe you call them in this part of the world—but they have shown me great kindness.”

“Well tonight you shall have a cot at the back of my hall and a seat at the long table. You won’t be left wanting for anything.”

Gerdfalcon accepted with sincere gratitude: “I am weary of sleeping beneath an open sky or on hard turf in the corner of a hovel, and long for the comfort of a soft bed. But I ask for permission to decline, just once, and return tonight to the home of the farmers who have sheltered me to let them know I should not be returning henceforth. I fear they may worry for me if I disappeared, and truly I am reluctant to part with them without saying goodbye. I have little to offer them but for comfort in knowing that I am going to do well, for they have become dear to me, and I hold them to heart as my parents in a foreign land.”

Sir Boors clapped him on the shoulders, beaming widely with pleasure. “How can I refuse such a request? Only have supper first in my hall, and having had your fill come up to my chamber after. I will prepare a letter for you to read aloud to these good folk, along with a bag of pennies for their troubles.”

For the third time the young man bowed, lower still than before, saying: “The letter alone will suffice. You have done a great honor for them, my lord; I cannot ask anymore of you. When I have proven my worth, I feel I shall be rewarded justly, and then I will take to them a measure of it in the manner of a good son, and they will be made prouder for it—but not before, and not today, for we have only met and I feel I would not have earned yet what is my due.”

Sir Boors became even more amazed. Here was a paragon on his very doorstep, all but unheard of in this day and age. He gave his consent and the matter was settled. Gerdfalcon went away with the Steward’s men (and already they were showing him much kindness, for they now understood him to be in some favor with their master), and the Steward went up to his chamber. A short while later a light was shown in the stone window there, while below it voices of merriment spilled forth from the hall.

 

As Basil brought in a good supper, Sir Boors told him to stay. A shudder went through the valet’s body, and the hairs on the back of his neck stood up straight. He feared that he might be chastised for his little secret or worse—be fired for it now that it was out in the open. But as it turned out, Sir Boors only wanted to show him a letter. It was the one he received the morning they set out for Yonge’s library. He recalled his master as being in a mood when it arrived. With shaking hands he brought the letter up near the light.

It read:

 

Dear Boors,

 

My son will soon arrive to seek his fortunes and advancement in the world with you. He does so on my recommendation and with my blessings, for I have recalled your high qualities from our brief time together years ago that which I wish to be imparted upon him in many ways; love him well, for he is very precious to me. He is my son in all things. I am, as always, at your service, and now in your debt, for I know you will not refuse me.

Yours truly,

 

The signature at the bottom was unreadable to Basil, for it seemed to be written in a script not much used these days. The swift strokes and dark lettering came, however, from a sure hand; that much could be seen plainly. A seal was pressed in wax atop the signature depicting a crude square tower around which circled many birds of prey.

“Ah!” cried the valet in amazement, for he had recognized the seal, though it would be unfamiliar to most. He had been in the service of his master long—coming up to his fifteenth year in fact—and in that time saw a great many things. He looked up from the letter to find the eyes of the Steward upon him with piercing strength.

“I have never hindered your curiosity since you came into my service,” said he in a slow, measured voice, “And indeed it could be said that I have always encouraged you to learning, for it is my desire that my chief servant is capable of aiding me in manners beyond merely the reach of his arms and legs. In this I see you haven’t disappointed me, for you recognized what has been placed before you. Of that family I dread to speak of—little enough to others in daylight and certainly not an uttered word will pass through my lips now in evening, when we are only two of us, and alone—save for what you may not already know: their line runs deep and long, older still. Of the Golden Age which little is known and less written of and passed down, they may have already played a part in the time when Gods tread upon the earth, and were cast down by Men. In the Bronzed Age their House was at times prosperous, a feared power in the land, and at others forgotten and thought destroyed, or gone. But always they have endured, and from that clan have sprung forth offspring which have infrequently stepped into the world, and without fail left their mark upon it, for good or ill.

“Twenty-two years ago I had the fortune of meeting a descendant from that line when he came to be for a time in the service of our Gainsworth; and together with the Wiseman we have the three of us forged much camaraderie and friendship, as well as adopted a daughter together from a broken home, Marigold of the Dry Sea. Now he has sent me his son to nurture and foster, with hopes for glory and rising high in the world. I am glad, but fearful also of the burden I must now bear.”

Sir Boors sighed. “I am giving you a warning, my dear Basil: All your secrets have been known to me for years. I am well aware of the bribes you receive from callers at my door, as well as the sparse usage of my name to curry some favor or reach a desired outcome. And always I have turned a blind eye, for you have before today kept my prospects above that of your own needs; and I have always harbored the notion that no big trouble can come from matters of small money. You have become affluent from my patronage. Outside my doors you are a force to be reckoned with in your own class. But I advise you now, as your benefactor and friend, to exercise caution. I have groomed you for years to represent my interests, and should a second incident like today’s come to light, I shall be made to do something about it.” He saw then that Basil had gone very pale, and came round his desk to pat him reassuringly on the head. “But that day is not today, for you have not done any lingering harm. Some good might come of it still. I have witnessed for myself the pedigree of the father, and the son may yet show some of these same qualities. If he should, I will have gained a powerful ally. Cheer up, man, and have a bite. I have had my fill and you may make of what is left. Only before then bring round my writing effects, for I have a letter to get to.”

The valet, much moved by the consideration he was being shown, left at once on this errand. The rest of the evening passed by uneventfully, save for Gerdfalcon’s timely arrival to bid goodnight to the Steward and to thank him again for his hospitality. When he entered he found the letter already prepared and sealed in an envelope for him. Sir Boors was all smiles and warmth, and Basil was blowing his nose.

 

 


Legend of the Hour

A Steampunk Noir Story 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… Issue #2: Legend of the Hour Never say never… The investigation continues for Bailey, and there are enough promising leads to make a game of it. In the least likely of places there are answers to be found about the Lynchman’s Owl, but it is in the long history of the legend that its true face might at last be glimpsed. “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.” 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 firsts of which has been presented here for your enjoyment. (Includes excerpts from B.Y. Yan’s Adult Fantasy Novel: Eye of the North Wind)

  • Author: B.Y. Yan
  • Published: 2016-11-01 20:05:11
  • Words: 20614
Legend of the Hour Legend of the Hour