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Read an extract from Weave the Lightning by Corry L. Lee

Happy publication day to Weave the Lightning by Corry L. Lee!

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We’re giving you the chance to read an extract of this incredible book to celebrate it’s publication! 

***

Celka Prochazka’s breath came quick in the pre-dawn darkness, beading condensation on the window. She wiped it away with her sleeve, straining for the glint of a signal lantern. The circus train’s steady clack-clack of tires on track slowed as they neared the railyard, and the swaying sleeper car threatened to lull her back to sleep. Brakes screeched, metal on metal. Celka forced her eyes wide.

Her family’s waking murmur sounded wrong—their voices hushed, covers rustling furtively, coughs cut with tension. A match hissed, a golden flare that shattered Celka’s night vision as her cousin Ela lit a dark lantern, slamming its shutter quickly into place, plunging them back into darkness.

In a pause between the cry of brakes, Aunt Benedikta asked, “Who are we expecting?”

“Two people,” Grandfather said, and Celka filled in the rest. Two resistance fighters her family would smuggle into their sleeper car. Celka burned to know what they had done or knew to be hunted by the Tayemstvoy—the secret police.

Cupping her hands around her face, Celka blinked to recover her night vision, squinting to spot motion. Beneath her nightshirt, her storm pendant hung heavy about her throat, and Celka could almost imagine Pa keeping lookout beside her. The bozhskyeh storms will return soon, he’d told her years ago as he unfastened the brass pendant from around his neck. Your imbuements will be key to our victory against the State. He’d placed the pendant over her head, and she’d been so proud to have earned his trust. But the secret police had dragged Pa away and, strain as she might during thunderstorms, the lightning flashing through Bourshkanya’s skies carried no magic.

The circus train rounded a bend and, ahead, light streamed from the railyard watch house. Fighting free of memory, Celka blocked the brightness with her palm, searching for the resistance signal.

“Now,” Grandfather said, and light flashed in Celka’s periphery as Ela unshuttered her lantern in code.

After a moment, lamplight cut the underbrush in response. “There!” Celka cried. “I think.” She’d spotted only a flicker, the distance too great or angle oblique. “I couldn’t read the code.”

Beside her, Ela repeated her querying signal. Celka bit her lip, awaiting the response.

The train lurched to a stop, swaying. Steam swallowed the night.

Faint through the steam engine’s fog, the underbrush lit in a frenzied flash-flash-flash. Celka’s stomach lurched. She’d memorized the code but had never seen it used.

“Pursuit!” Her whisper sounded dangerously loud over the ping of cooling metal.

Aunt Benedikta cursed. “We have to abort.”

“No.” Celka squinted into the darkness where she’d spotted the signal, hoping the warning had been a mistake. Her throat tasted of bile, but surely their contacts would only risk the rendezvous if they carried important information. “We have to help them.”

“Silence,” Grandfather said.

Shouts filtered in from outside, and metal clanged as the roustabouts decoupled sections of the train. Celka’s breath sounded harsh in her ears. Part of her wanted to take back her plea. If the secret police were already in the railyard, further signals could lead them straight to her family. The Tayemstvoy could arrest them all. Kill them all.

“Quickly, Ela,” Grandfather said, “signal the welcome.”

Metal creaked as Ela unshuttered the dark lantern in a new pattern. Celka closed her eyes, touched her storm pendant, and sent a prayer for safety to the Storm Gods.

“Andrik,” Grandfather said, “take Celka’s watch. Celka, can you see anything?”

Celka’s bunk sagged as Uncle Andrik knelt beside her, pressing his face to the glass. Outside, gravel crunched beneath running feet. The train swayed into motion again. Stopped too suddenly.

Blotting out the outside world, Celka focused on sousednia—the neighboring reality. The railyard scents of creosote and coal smoke receded beneath sawdust and manure. Sousednia coalesced around her until Celka stood on a high wire beneath a darkened big top, her feet in a perfect line, arms outstretched to aid her balance.

All her life, her sousednia had taken this form. Dust motes danced in her spotlight, and the air hung humid and heavy, hot like a midsummer’s day. A dozen meters below, shadowy spectators gaped up at her. In place of her patched nightgown, sousednia costumed Celka in glittering sequins, her gossamer green sleeves rippling with the tiny motions of her arms.

Beneath her illusory big top, figures like smoke blurred towards her, their approach matching the crunch of footsteps in true-life’s railyard. Celka released a shaky breath, relieved they appeared so weakly in sousednia. It meant they were mundanes, at least, not bozhki—State-trained storm mages. One potential threat eliminated.

A sharp knock threatened to yank her from sousednia, but she clung to the neighboring reality as Grandfather swung open the door. Two people stumbled inside, Aunt Benedikta shutting the door behind them with barely a sound. Metal creaked as Celka’s older cousin Demian lifted his dark lantern’s shutter, releasing the barest sliver of light, enough to make out the newcomers’ haggard faces.

Kicking up a breeze beneath sousednia’s big top to draw the newcomers’ scents toward her, Celka inhaled deeply through her nose. Sousednia was a space of needs and ideas, and Pa had taught her to use it to understand truths otherwise hidden. The newcomers carried the stink of unwashed bodies and a chill, earthy damp that made Celka want to curl in on herself. She managed not to react to their terror, instead leaving her true-life body behind and closing the distance between them in sousednia.

In the railcar, low voices spoke words that didn’t matter, innocuous enough to be code. The real code lay in hand signals. The gaunt newcomer rubbed their knuckles while the stockier one just doubled over their knees, wheezing. Grandfather straightened the collar of his nightshirt.

Close to the newcomers’ smoke-forms in sousednia, Celka inhaled the tang of turnips. The smell carried echoes of a dark cellar, jackboots stomping the floorboards overhead. Words could lie, appearances deceive, but mundanes didn’t control their sousedni-cues. Celka doubted even Pa could have faked their desperation.

She crushed the thought before worries about whether Pa was still alive could send her spinning. Her family wasn’t safe yet. The circus train should have moved again by now, its engineers breaking it into segments short enough to park in the railyard. The train remained motionless.

Gusting a sousedni-wind away from her, Celka drove away the newcomers’ terror. She gulped deep breaths tasting of sawdust and manure, grounding herself, then shifted her focus back to true-life. “It’s cold in here,” she said. The code would tell Grandfather that she believed these people resistance fighters—rezistyenti—same as them.

“They followed us!” the gaunt rezistyent said, voice reedy. “You have to hide us.”

As though ignited by their terror, a flare shattered the darkness outside. Celka spun to the window as soldiers swarmed the railyard, figures dark in the actinic glare. Red epaulettes slashed every shoulder like open wounds—the secret police, the Tayemstvoy. Dozens spread out to search the train.

Celka ducked down so they wouldn’t see her.

Her family spoke in frantic whispers, and steamer trunks scraped the floor. Wood clunked as her aunt and uncle removed the false wall panels beneath their bed, and Demian helped the gaunt rezistyent crawl inside.

Outside, gravel crunched close to their sleeper car. Too close.

Ela grabbed a broom and frantically swept away the newcomers’ muddy footprints. But the panels were still open, the wheezing rezistyent struggling to fit in the tight space. They weren’t going to make it.

They’d all be arrested. Interrogated. Tortured.

Clamping down on her panic, Celka plunged back into sousednia. She had to buy her family time.

Beneath her darkened big top, two smoke-forms approached. Celka twisted her illusory high wire towards them and ran, arms outstretched, feet landing in a perfect line. Manipulating sousednia, she placed the soldiers on her high wire platform, giving herself space to maneuver. With more time, she could catch one soldier’s foot and tumble them into the other, make it appear simple clumsiness. But mundanes appeared so faintly in sousednia that she couldn’t afford the long seconds of concentration to resolve their shapes.

In true-life, hobnailed boots clunked on the sleeper car’s stairs. She had to act now.

Focused on the leading smoke-form, willing the substance of their chest to solidify, Celka shoved them—hard.

It shouldn’t have done anything. Needs and ideas were not pushes and pulls. You couldn’t affect true-life from sousednia. But you could make someone believe you had.

Outside the sleeper car, boots scuffed the stair, and the leading soldier grunted.

The delay gave Celka time to resolve more of their amorphous shape. They were maybe twenty—about her cousin Demian’s age—but short and lean. She envisioned herself behind them, strength of will changing sousednia to match. She kicked them in the backs of their knees.

They dropped. “What in sleetstorms?” Their voice filtered into the sleeper car, angry and surprised.

“You all right?” a higher voice asked, confused, muffled by the wall—the other Tayemstvoy soldier.

A hand grabbed Celka’s arm, and she flinched into true-life—Grandfather. “Get into bed.”

Disoriented, Celka obeyed without thought, wriggling beneath her quilt. Grandfather climbed into his bunk across from hers, light from the dying flare outside silvering his white hair. Wood scraped as Aunt Benedikta and Uncle Andrik shoved steamer trunks back beneath their bed. Springs creaked above Celka as Ela scrambled into her bunk.

A fist hammered the door. “Tayemstvoy. Open up!”

***

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AND WAS JERUSALEM BUILDED HERE? – CASSANDRA KHAW (A STRANGE BRIGADE EXCERPT!)

“Burn it.”

In the pale, poor light of the dormitory, old Mrs. Phillips’ face was all jutting angles, lines that went nowhere. She frowned at Gracie, a wrinkled hand outstretched, like she was offering salvation in the seat of her palm.

“You want to know what I think you should be doing?” said Mrs. Phillips—widowed and forgotten and fierce—without particular rancour. “I think you should find yourself a few cans of paraffin, a good match, and something to eat as you stand on a hill, watching all of this burn to a bad dream. You heard me, Gracie Braithwaite. Burn it. Burn it all down.”

 

*     *     *

“A job, mister?” Gracie raked a cool eye over the new arrival, a frown stitching her brows together.

He was tall, elegantly dressed, every inch the London bourgeoisie. His collar and his cuffs were precisely creased, but his stare was something else. Gracie knew that look. She’d seen it in the cellars of her brothers’ favourite pubs, crocodilian and stuporous, the look of an animal who knew good things came to those who wait. The man pressed the pink tip of his tongue between his teeth and cocked a wider smile.

“A job,” he repeated smoothly, and Gracie had to stifle another spasm of loathing, bite down on the impulse to kick the man in his shins and take off. Manchester churned behind them, incurious; the smell of smoke coiled in the air. “A job at the greatest show on earth.”

“You sure don’t look like P.T. Barnum to me, sir.”

That surprised him. “Sorry?”

Gracie stood up straighter, jaw set. Her father’d once despaired of that chin of hers; too much like his, not enough like his wife’s. But after Gracie added a back alley’s worth of scars and a broken nose to her face, he gave up his grumblings, along with any hopes his daughter would tame at a man’s command. “Sucker every minute. That’s what he said.”

“No. No, he didn’t.” The stranger’s face pulled into a frown.

“What?”

“Barnum never said that.” And a chill fed itself up Gracie’s spine, a slither of unease, slow and dangerous. “He was, first and foremost, a businessman, you understand. While his clientele tolerated a certain amount of impertinence, they were customers and the customer is someone you never insult.”

His expression ripened with a savage, sudden glee, and the man, who was built like a razor, like a wire stretched out, leaned down to whisper into Gracie’s ear. “You can have that for free, Miss Braithwaite. Everything that follows will cost you.”

He reeked of French cologne and incense. Not the kind that swung from Catholic thuribles, vapours rising thick as the dream of the New World, but a fainter smell, softer and sweeter, woody and weird and foreign. Still, the blend wasn’t quite enough to hide something worse, something closer to the bone. A stink that reminded Gracie of cows in summer, hoof-deep in their own manure, flies spiralling around their horns. A burning, animal odour, which sang to something older than common sense.

Run, it said. Run far.

“Mate”—Gracie fanned the air in front of her nose before she pinched the bridge—“you stink.”

“Do I?” For a moment, the man’s eyes burned a colour she’d never seen, a gold so bright it hurt a little to look upon its light. He bared his teeth at Gracie and she scowled in reply, even as he stood straighter, silhouette blocking out the noonday glare. His eyes, hazel again, sparkled with glee. “I suspect, my girl, it is not my fault but yours. Do your brothers wear cologne? Does your father bathe?”

“Excuse me—”

“No, no. That’s unkind of me. I beg your forgiveness. I’m sure he does, but I suppose the question needs to be asked. How often? A week? Twice? Do you ration your soap, my girl? Is it rationed for you?”

The words poured like oil, sleek and suffocating, and if it wasn’t for the conversational lilt to his baritone, Gracie might have punched him then. Instead, she swallowed and listened, habit usurping reason. After all, she’d seen this scene play out ten thousand times before: her father with his head bent, sheepish, his boots scuffed, two buttons missing; a man at the door, enviously rotund, cravat at his throat and a hat on his head, badge and balding pate gleaming in the sun.

It was like a stage performance, a show at the Old Vic, with its players, its beats, its pauses all lined up, waiting to go. And Gracie knew the role her family played in this production: they were the blue-collar extras, hanging on the lip of a command. When people above their station spoke, the Braithwaites listened. Defiance belonged to men and women without hungry mouths to fill.

Still, Gracie couldn’t help but itch beneath her collar, sweat pearling on her chin. She gritted her teeth. “That’s our problem, not yours. If you don’t mind, I’d be leaving.”

A purr this time, baritone smoothing to velvet. He encircled her shoulder with an arm before she could speak, smiling prettily the whole while. “Miss Braithwaite, we’ve known your family for years and years. Would you really walk away from a job with me and mine? What with everything that’s going on with your daddy? Poor Mrs. Braithwaite, too, already fat with your eighth little brother? Do you think she could afford your pride?”

“She wouldn’t want me to whore myself in London. I know that much.” She shrugged his arm loose, glaring. “Why don’t you—”

“Fourteen pounds, eleven and eight. A week.”

The sum stole the air from Gracie’s lungs, and she sank down into herself, fingers splayed over her sternum. What had her mother said—everyone has a price? It was a devil’s dowry, enough to buy ten Gracie Braithwaites and all of her brothers. The man had to know this. He did know this, Gracie decided, walking her gaze over his pencil smile. There was something unpractised about the expression, like he was teaching himself the trick of it as they conversed.

“Twat.”

“Ah, child, what would your mother say about that mouth of yours?”

“She’d say she raised a girl who knew when someone was trying to be a wanker, that’s what she’d say. I’m still not going to spread my legs for your diseased, plague-riddled—”

“Miss Braithwaite.” It was a whisper, no louder than that. No threat, no venom, nothing but faint disappointment, but it felt like Gracie had cannonballed into a gulch choked with ice. He clicked his teeth in that London way, shook his head.

Gracie did not apologize. She had enough dignity for that.

“You will not be whoring yourself for my company. In fact, I feel compelled to say that you are the last thing my fellows would hope to bed. I do not know about your brothers, your uncles; I suppose they find dirt attractive. But those I call my peers? No, ma’am. They prefer their women nubile, lithe, skin as pale as ice nailed to bone. We like them big-breasted too, if you’d excuse my language. Pregnant with milk, if we happen to be lucky. A skinny, cat-boned thing like you? No, no. That’s not at all for us, my girl.”

“What do you want with me? You could get a whole mining facility to turn their backs on their mothers for that amount.”

“Yes, but would they be as discreet?” He chuckled. What was his name again? She had to know his name. There was no way that she didn’t. Yet Gracie couldn’t put two syllables together, two sounds to evoke an image of them exchanging courtesies like normal people. They’d been talking for so long. Surely, he’d allowed a name. Her spine writhed in place. “We need you, Gracie Braithwaite. We’ve waited and watched, and then waited longer. We spent decades waiting for you to come into your own. And now that you have, no one will do but you.”

Gracie thought of wine and whiskey, cheap booze smuggled from Ireland, blazing like a lie. She’d just been a little bit too young when she swigged from her brother’s bottle the first time, and they’d laughed like foxes as she coughed through that first mouthful of smoke. The man’s company reminded her of the fugue from that first evening, how its edges had blurred, had become crowded with nightmare possibilities. She swallowed.

“What would I have to do?”

Piously the man—the marionette in the three-piece suit—clasped his palms together, as though in prayer. Even Gracie, an atheist from the marrow out, found the gesture profane. “An honest woman’s work, of course. Miss Gracie Braithwaite, sweet summer girl of ours, I’d pay you a king’s ransom if you’d bend the quick brilliance of your ladylike fingers to your gender’s god-given task. We’d like you to sew for us, beautiful child. Plain and simple. Needle and thread. Body and soul. Say yes, baby girl, and we’ll make it worth everyone’s while.”

Gracie said yes, of course.

There was no universe where she would not have.

The factory belched columns of salty black smoke, ash fountaining in clouds so dense that they couldn’t disperse into the overcast afternoon, but instead lingered in the air and in the skins of the women milling within the compound. Gracie wondered how the oldest of them might look, if there were grandmothers on staff with eyes and teeth and hair the colour of burnt soup bones.

Gracie shuddered and spat the charred taste of the air from her mouth, discomfited by the sudden image of an old woman in silhouette, silently knitting her shadow into a mountain of shirts. There was something inherently wrong about the idea, something so fundamentally unholy about the notion that Gracie couldn’t help but cross herself, a guilty prayer mumbled beneath her breath.

Somewhere ahead, someone began to sing in a high sweet voice, a mournful ballad about one highwayman or another, and the bargain he made for a shipwrecked love. Something about scrimshaws and stitchings of silver, a noose of hide that someone’d braided from the skin he’d pared from his own calf.

“Into Hell’s mouth,” Gracie sighed. She plodded onwards.

Rain began to fall, a cold soup that smelled to Gracie of London. She had lost two brothers to the city, was midway into losing the third: the youngest of them, straw-haired and sullen, with a mouth like a sculptor’s despair. It felt like treason to say so, but Gracie wasn’t sure he would survive the capital.

Still, there was hope. Assuming the money the man—

—what was his name? Why couldn’t Grace remember? They’d both signed the contract; she’d watched as he wrote on the yellowed paper, his penmanship beautiful as heartbreak—

—had promised did not vanish like faerie gold, Gracie’d have an excuse and a half to keep the boy home. He would no doubt complain, but he’d thank her one day, when he was old and loved and still innocent of grief.

Swallowed by her musings, Gracie took no notice of how the singing slowed at her approach, and how the women’s eyes—not one of them was any colour but linen and soot—grew wide as the doors to the factory opened, and how they cringed as a straight-backed girl, hair the hue of menstrual tissue, descended the steps.

“Grace Dominique Braithwaite.” Her smile was bright as the coming of Christ, was red as his wounds. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

*     *     *

Miss Velvet did not walk; she prowled.

Her gait was long and certain, and shared more with the wolf’s long-legged lope than a lady’s mincing tread. It stood in contrast with her wardrobe. The impractical jodphurs, the high equestrian boots, oiled and fur-trimmed. Miss Velvet’s corset made Gracie wince, as did her cropped ruby jacket, buttoned beneath high breasts. Someone else must have chosen the pieces; Gracie couldn’t imagine Miss Velvet deciding on this florid arrangement herself. Yet the woman bore her ensemble without complaint, even a kind of truculent dignity, enviable in its cut-glass precision.

“—been around for at least fifty years now. We’ve seen entire families come and go, marry into money, forget that they ever were a part of our humble household. But we understand that is the working-class dream. No foul, no harm.” Despite her carriage, Miss Velvet’s voice was soft and sweetly breathless, an ingenue’s lilt, absent of coquetry. “Sometimes, they come back. Introduce their children to us for apprenticeships.”

“Do you get many boys—?”

“No. No, no, no. Never male children. Girls, Miss Braithwaite, are more intuitive, more malleable, more—” Miss Velvet fluttered a gloved hand. “More worthy of attention, I think. There’s a power to be found in knowing that you are always second best, always a little bit weaker than the rest of the world. I’m sure you know what I mean.”

Gracie, who grew up with seven loyal brothers, who could throw a right hook faster than a man could lie, did not. But she thought it might be impertinent to say. “If you say so, miss.”

“Mm. We’ll get along perfectly. Anyway. Where was I? Yes, the factory’s practically an institution, a shining beacon in Lancashire’s fiefdom of poorly ventilated, poorly regulated factories. Our girls have weekends. There are benefits too, possibilities for advancement, and if you make the mistake of becoming gravid with child, we can accommodate for that too. Especially if the spawn is male.”

Gracie narrowed her eyes. She’d expected grime in the factory’s corners, penumbral hallways half-lit by bare bulbs, rotting beams and whimpering from behind closed doors. Not this industrial austerity. No music, no sound but for the clack of careful footsteps, nothing but the machinery’s humming gospel, which seemed to seep through the bones to sing in her marrow. “Th—the spawn?”

“Son,” Miss Velvet said, with a million-dollar smile, gaze lidded. “We acknowledge the difficulty in raising sons. So rambunctious, so loud. If you were to have the ill fortune of giving birth to a boy, we’d do everything we can to streamline your existence, to make it easier to attend to your duties. Rest assured that your son would be loved, provided for like he was our own.”

A pale girl, hair bound in an off-white scarf, trotted by the pair.

“You don’t have to worry about that. I don’t have any plans for—”

“Excellent, excellent. Miss Braithwaite, we’ll get along just perfectly. Have I said that already? Because I feel the need to do so. It is a thing that humans do not do enough. Appreciate each other. Appreciate themselves.”

There it was again. Humans, not people. Spawn, not son. The tiniest aberrations in word choice. Gracie decided she wouldn’t be half-surprised if this was merely a reflection of cosmopolitan fashion; this calving of one’s self from the unwashed proletariat. She could see it being funny for these people, even satisfying, to act as an entomologist might. Certainly, London acted like it was a world of its own, a perfumed paradise, separate from its rural relatives.

Why not its reluctant exports?

Still—

“Glad to hear—well, glad to hear that you had to share that, Miss Velvet. But d’you mind awfully if we talked about the practicalities of my position here? I’d hate to be a waste of a good salary.”

“Yes, of course.” Miss Velvet, much to Gracie’s bewilderment, was beginning to purr. There was something else, Gracie thought. Something to the way Miss Velvet chewed on her words, as though there were extra syllables seeded in every sentence, colloquialisms of mandibular motion that only the rarefied understood. “Of course, of course. But that’s hardly my area of expertise. You’ll want Mrs. Phillips for that. She is the caretaker, the kindly mother of your particular division. Everything you need to know, you’ll hear from here.”

They took another turn, then a second, a third, before at last Miss Velvet walked Gracie up a spiral stairwell, two storeys past identical-looking floors, every last corridor lit exactly the same way. The effect was dizzying.

“Careful, Miss Braithwaite.” The girl’s voice, warm against her ear. A smell of leather and tannic acids, skin curing beneath a blistering blue sky; the stink of guts beneath that burning animal scent, a coppery aftertaste. “You’ve only just arrived. We have so very far to go.”

Gracie swallowed. “I hear you.”

“Good.” Miss Velvet grinned and said no more.

The two marched on in silence. Down the throat of a passage that appeared no different from the others, its walls scalloped with thick wooden doors. Miss Velvet halted at the end of the hall, narrow frame haloed by grey light. She turned—two sharp taps of her heel against the brick floor—and dove into a bow, a hand to her frilled collar, the other arm outstretched.

“Your dormitory.”

Feeling like something was expected of her, some reciprocal ritual, Gracie bobbed an anxious curtsey, eliciting a cool trill of laughter.

“We’ll have so much fun, Miss Braithwaite. I look forward to the days to come.” And with that, Miss Velvet took her leave.

The dormitory was plain: a single wide window stretched across a wall, the glass so dirty that the world outside smeared into shadows; cots with scant bedding; several small cabinets; laundry lines drooping under fresh-washed undergarments, water bleeding from their hems into shallow pools. Everywhere, there were women, milling under the steepled ceiling, and a damp musty odour, as though of hounds come slinking from the rain.

“Hello?” Gracie said, setting her father’s one good suitcase, crammed with all the hand-me-downs that would fit, onto the floor.

A silence curled around the room. Linen and soot, Gracie thought, not for the first time. They were all the colour of linen and soot, nothing in between. Would she look like that one day too? While Gracie worried at the idea, an old woman rose from her chair. When she spoke, it was with a faint Bristolian brogue.

“Another one.” The woman laid down her knitting needles, shooed away a cat that had taken residence between her ankles, a burly black tom with pound coins for eyes, one ear long chewed down to a withered stump. “What’d he promise you?”

“Benefits, a pension plan, and opportunities to purchase the family plot in the next five years,” Gracie declared promptly, pleased by her own informative alacrity. Emboldened, she continued, bantering the terminology of landlords, not entirely certain whether the context fit, but she figured it wouldn’t be a problem, not if she spoke with enough wit. “It’s a seller’s market these days, you know? Rents picking up. Even if it’s a bit of an investment now, value will appreciate.”

“No doubt,” said the old woman, still unnamed. Her hair hung in unkept ringlets; someone’d thought to braid them at some point, but she’d since allowed the plait to fallow, the tips uncoiling into a grey mess. Despite her age, she stood unstooped, her posture almost mocking in its straight-shouldered geometry. There had to be at least fifty years between Gracie and her counterpart, and she wore all of it like honours from the King. “At least you’ve sold your soul for practical reasons.”

“I think,” Gracie said, “I take some offence at that.”

The woman smiled. “I’m sure you do. The name’s Mrs. Phillips, poppet. I suggest you take some time to think long and hard about what your goals are in life. Whether you’d rather be the lone wolf, full of vim and vinegar, or the one who survives to the end of this story.”

Anger spasmed in Gracie, instinctive. She’d not come here to be mocked; and more than that, she tired of riddles, of meanings slithering between mealy-mouthed platitudes. All that unspoken truth, odorous and seasoned with a winking malevolent delight. Everyone who wasn’t poor Gracie Braithwaite knew the score. But Gracie kept her bile down, kept her mouth shut.

Then, after a time:

“I’m here to work.”

Mrs. Philips regarded her with a cold, pale eye. Linen and soot, Gracie thought, looking the old woman over from head to toe.

“Good.”

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The Blood Curse: exclusive excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

 It took a week to walk out of the steaming jungle. There was no path that Jaumé could see, but Bennick rarely hesitated. Sometimes he used the compass, but mostly he used his eyes. “See here? A boot print.” Or, “Look at the way those leaves are bent.” Those were the only times Bennick talked. He was sour that the witches had saved Prince Harkeld’s life. There had been honor in killing the prince, but none now that the prince was alive again.

            Jaumé was glad the prince wasn’t dead, but he didn’t let Bennick see it. His relief was a soundless hum inside his chest. With the prince alive, the Ivek Curse could be broken. Bennick said that dead was dead, and it didn’t matter when or how people died, but Jaumé knew he was wrong.

            On the first day, Bennick found the pony Jaumé had ridden. Even Jaumé could see her hoof prints in the boggy ground. The pony came to their calls, pushing her way through the twisted trees and fleshy-leaved vines. She butted her nose against Jaumé’s shoulder and snorted in his ear. When Bennick wasn’t looking, Jaumé hugged her.

            After that, he rode and Bennick walked.

“Sleep,” Bennick told him. “You’ll need to watch for breathstealers tonight. Bastards will want to suck me dry.”

            Jaumé slept in the saddle, and stayed awake all night, guarding Bennick, but no breathstealers came floating in the mist.

             Two days later, they came to the clearing where Odil and Steadfast lay dead. Jaumé woke in the saddle, and wished he hadn’t. The pool bubbled and steamed, and the stink was more than just sulfur. He averted his eyes and hurried past on the pony. That night, he watched tensely for breathstealers, but still none came.

            They passed Maati’s body the next day. Kimbel’s was gone. “Something’s dragged him away to eat,” Bennick said. It didn’t appear to bother him, even though Kimbel had been his Brother.

             Dead is dead. Doesn’t matter when or how.

            They found four of the horses they’d left behind, and the saddles and bridles and half-full saddlebags. Bennick rode, too, after that. The ground no longer steamed. The stink of sulfur faded behind them. “You can sleep tonight,” Bennick told Jaumé. “Breathstealers can’t reach me here.”

The further they travelled, the less sour Bennick became. By the time they reached the river, he was whistling again. “I’ll get him yet, young Jaumé,” he said, slinging his pack down at the water’s edge. “You’ll see.”

            Jaumé said nothing. He didn’t want Bennick to kill Prince Harkeld. But that was what Bennick did: kill people. He was a special type of soldier. An assassin. He did the All-Mother’s work for her.

            The river was wide and brown, turning slowly over on itself like a giant serpent. “What now?” Jaumé asked.

            “Now we wait for the next boat. Upstream or downstream, it doesn’t matter. Either way, we’ll end up in the same place.” Insects swarmed in a cloud around Bennick’s face, but he didn’t seem to mind; he whistled a few bars of a tune.

            “Where’s that?”

            “Wherever the prince is.” Bennick hunkered down and opened his pack. He rooted in it, pulled out a flask, slapped oil on his skin. The smell of cat’s piss was strong. The cloud of insects thinned. “Let’s hope this lasts us.” He tossed the flask to Jaumé.

They spent three days at the river’s edge, surrounded by the buzz of biting insects. Bennick seemed as strong as he’d ever been. When he practiced with his bow, his hands moved almost too fast for Jaumé to see. It was as if the breathstealers had never sucked the life from him.

Jaumé practiced, too. He could throw his bone-handled knife twenty paces, the blade flipping twice before it sank deep into its target, and he could hit a tree trunk at fifty paces with his bow and arrows.

“I’ll start you with a sword next,” Bennick said, clapping him on the shoulder.

Later that day, a boat came into view, laboring up the river, sail full-bellied, oars working like centipede’s legs. Bennick grinned. He stood and stretched. “Time to go, lad.”

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Princess Brigitta came slowly back to consciousness. Her limbs were numb. Her eyes wouldn’t open. Thoughts lurched in slow, confused circles inside her head. It took long minutes to realize what had happened: she’d been drugged again. All-Mother’s Breath.

            Time crawled past. It became easier to think. Sensation returned to her fingers and toes, to her face.

            Britta kept her eyes closed, pretending to be asleep. Where was she? The surface she lay on seemed to dip and sway, but she was sure she was no longer aboard the assassin’s ship. The sound the ship had made—a creaking, thrumming sound, as if the vessel lived and breathed—was gone.

She strained to hear.

Silence. She was surrounded by silence.

Her hands and feet tingled, came alive. Her hearing sharpened. She heard the coo of a pigeon, faint. A distant voice. The clatter of wagon wheels, barely audible. I’m ashore. Where?

            Roubos. It had to be the kingdom of Roubos.

            The iron weight of manacles was absent from ankle and wrist. Britta had a brief flash of memory: the frantic scramble out the cabin window, the echo of her scream as the assassins hauled her back inside, the manacle being fastened around her ankle—cold, hard—the short chain bolted into the floor.

            She’d pulled the bolt out, tugging day after day as the ship sailed across the vast Gulf of Hallas, had almost managed a second escape—or attempted suicide, or whatever one wished to call it. The second manacle had gone on, then, fastened tightly around her wrist. Punishment, not precaution. No precaution had been necessary; a Fithian had sat in her cabin every minute of the voyage after that, even when she used the chamberpot. Escape had become impossible, as had death. All she’d been able to do was wait. Wait until the ship berthed, wait until the men took her ashore—and then scream for help with all the air in her lungs. But they’d drugged her with All-Mother’s Breath and taken that away from her, too.

            What would passersby have done? Come to her aid? Turned away in fear?

            The lingering effects of the All-Mother’s Breath dissipated. Britta was aware of the rise and fall of her chest, the beating of her heart, the warm weight of a blanket over her. It was time to act. If I’m alone, I try to escape. If escape is impossible, I kill myself.

            She held that thought firmly in her mind, let it become a solid intention, hard-edged and definite, and opened her eyes.

            A Fithian assassin sat less than an arm’s length away.

            Britta felt rage and relief in equal measure. Rage because escape was impossible; relief because death was, too. No matter how many times she examined her choices and came to the same conclusion—that she must die rather than be used against Harkeld—she shrank from killing herself.

            She stared at the assassin. He was maybe ten years older than her, in his late twenties, with curling brown hair and blue eyes. Curly, she called him in her head. He looked like a father, an uncle, a man who should have young children riding on his shoulders—until one saw the hard watchfulness of his eyes, the lack of expression on his face, the stillness in the way he sat.

            A killer, this man.

            He’d probably known the instant she woke. The Fithians were as observant as her armsman Karel had been, and even more dangerous.

            Britta gazed at Curly as if he was a piece of furniture, trying not to let him see her emotions—rage, fear—and took in the room. Small, with a bare wooden floor. The door was closed, the window open a crack. Daylight.

            She deliberately closed her eyes again. Eventually she would have to rise and use the chamberpot, while the assassin sat expressionlessly, but she would put that moment off as long as she could.

            She went through her list. It was either that or allow despair to overwhelm her. She’d done this so often on board the ship that it came in a familiar sequence.

            One. We saved the boys. Her little half-brothers were in Lundegaard, beyond Jaegar’s reach. They would grow up loved and protected by their grandfather, King Magnas.

            Two. Yasma is free. She will never be a bondservant again. That was her final memory from Lundegaard: Yasma slamming shut the bedroom door, bolting it, keeping the boys safe from the assassins.

            Three. Karel is free. Karel, without whom she and Yasma and the boys would never have escaped Jaegar’s palace. Karel, who was as impassive and watchful as the assassins, and almost as deadly.

Karel, who hadn’t returned in time to save her from the Fithians.

Which is a blessing, because they would have killed him. And how could I have borne that?

She saw Karel’s face for a moment behind her closed eyelids. The stern, hawk-like features, the eyes so dark they were almost black, the brown skin. Memory dressed him in a scarlet tunic and golden breastplate, but Karel was free now, as free as Yasma, and no longer wore an armsman’s uniform.

Four. Harkeld is alive and guarded by witches. That was the item that gave her the most hope. Her half-brother Harkeld was still alive, he was destroying Ivek’s curse, and he had witches to help him. Witches who could throw bolts of fire and change into lions and kill Fithian assassins.

Britta hugged that thought to herself. The assassin sitting soundlessly alongside her bed wasn’t invincible. Witches could kill him. Would kill him. Had to kill him. Because Harkeld had to survive. He had to destroy the curse—or everyone in the Seven Kingdoms would die.

And she could not allow herself to be used as bait to catch him.

Escape or die. Those were her two choices. And now that she was on land again, a thousand leagues closer to Harkeld than she’d been before, it was imperative that she do one or the other.

 

 CHAPTER THREE

 
They came for her at dawn. Britta was led down a long, dark corridor and out into a courtyard of hard-packed dirt. Gray light lit the sky. The air was mild and damp.

A high wooden fence enclosed the yard. Britta saw a pigeon house in one corner and stables at the back. Horses waited in the middle of the courtyard, some saddled for riders, two harnessed to a covered cart. Men stood silently—five of the assassins who’d abducted her—six, counting the man who held her wrists behind her back and pushed her into the courtyard—and a stranger, an old man with skin like leather and gray hair and a scarred mouth.

The old man was an assassin. One glance at him told her that. He watched her approach. There was no compassion in him, no empathy or kindness or humanity. His gaze was cold, hard, flat. He would kill her as casually as he’d swat a fly.

The hands gripping her wrists tightened. Britta halted obediently. Her gaze flicked to the horses, to the high fence. The sky was lightening. She heard birdsong. A wagon clattered past. If I scream now, will anyone come to my rescue? Best to wait until they were out on the street. Somewhere busy, where passersby might come to her aid, or even better, city guardsmen.

            The old assassin spoke to the man who led her abductors. Short sentences, no wasted words. His voice was too low to overhear. He gestured with one hand, and she saw that it was wooden, fingers permanently curved, thumb sticking out stiffly. The rest of the assassins stood silent, waiting. They didn’t speak much, Fithians. Their quietness made them even more frightening. The only human thing about them was the temperature of their skin. Britta was aware of the warmth of the hands gripping her wrists. It seemed wrong, a violation of nature. Fithian blood should be cold.

The old man stopped speaking. The leader of the assassins gave a curt nod. Leader, she called him in her head. He had a broad, flat-cheeked face and pale gray eyes.

Leader reached beneath his cloak and took something from a pouch. He stood half-turned from her. Britta saw his hands were busy, but not what he did. He turned and came towards her. Alarm spiked in her chest. It was suddenly difficult to breathe.

She’d made Leader bleed aboard ship, kicked his nose so hard that blood ran from it. Memory of that moment brought a little flash of triumph. Britta clung to it tightly, trying to smother her fear.

Leader halted so close that she could almost smell him. Pride kept her from cringing. She lifted her chin and met his eyes. I made you bleed.

The grip on her wrists tightened.

Britta couldn’t control a flinch as Leader reached for her. She jerked her head away, but hard fingers grasped her jaw and hauled her head around. She saw what Leader held in his other hand: a cloth.

Britta opened her mouth to scream.

The cloth pressed against her nose and mouth. She inhaled the smell of vanilla. All-Mother’s Breath.

Britta had time for a second’s rage before plummeting into blackness.

The Blood Curse is out June 30th

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EUROPE AT MIDNIGHT early excerpt

For us Europe in Autumn was love at first read, and with a string of “best-of-the-year” reviews (including The Guardian, The Washington Post and Locus, among others) and as a huge thank you to everyone who has supported the title we thought now would be the perfect time to share with you the opening chapter of the next Fractured Europe Sequence….

 

EUROPE AT MIDNIGHT

In a fractured Europe new nations are springing up everywhere, some literally overnight.

For an intelligence officer like Jim, it’s a nightmare. Every week or so a friendly power spawns a new and unknown national entity, which may or may not be friendly to England’s interests. It’s hard to keep on top of it all. But things are about to get worse for Jim.

A stabbing on a London bus pitches him into a world where his intelligence service is preparing for war with another universe, and a man has come who may hold the key to unlocking Europe’s most jealously-guarded secret…

CHAPTER ONE

After The Fall

ON CHILL MISTY mornings, I liked to walk down to the river and fish for a while. I never caught anything, but that didn’t matter, particularly. It was relaxing just to stand on the bank and cast and watch the bright orange tip of my float drift downstream. Arblaster, my Residence’s Porter, provided me with sandwiches and a Thermos, and I could quite happily stay there all day. Sometimes I could almost forget about the other things I should have been doing.

                One day the hook snagged on something huge and sluggish. I fought it up from the bed of the river, thinking about dead logs and old bicycles. There was said to be a huge pike on this stretch of the river, almost a century old and well over six feet long, but this wasn’t him. What bobbed to the surface instead was one of the Escaped, bloated up with rot, its thick coat stretched tight across the shoulders and punctured by six ragged holes.

                I had that part of the river dragged, and four more bodies came to the surface, all of them similarly swollen, all of them similarly holed.

                “There’s supposed to be some big old fucking pike around here somewhere,” John Holden told me as we watched his team casting the drag into the river again.

                I nodded. “I heard that.”

                “I bet we scared that old sod away today.”

                “If he’s got any sense he’s gone somewhere else.”

                I heard his waders make a sucking sound in the mud below the riverbank. “There’s fuck all to eat around here, that’s true enough. I don’t know why you bother fishing here.”

                “It helps me think.”

                John sucked on his pipe and watched his team scrambling around on their flatboat. The drag, mounted at the stern, consisted of a steam-driven winch from which dangled a long chain. At the end of the chain was an old brass bedstead with huge blunt hooks brazed to it. John and I had been standing here on the bank watching the operation for three hours, and in that time two of his students had fallen into the river and one of them had had to be taken off duty because the things that came up on the drag kept making him sick.

                “Silly sods,” John said, shaking his head, and I didn’t know if he meant the students or the bodies we were bringing up out of the weeds.

                “They might have made it,” I said, deciding to be charitable towards the boys and girls on the boat. “It was always worth a try.”

                John shook his head. He took his pipe out of his mouth and gestured with it across the river. “Even the kiddies knew not to try a blitz here.”

                A long time ago, someone had dubbed this part of the river Runway Four, a virtual highway of failed escape attempts even before I was born. The river was broad and slow here, easily swimmable. The meadows on the other side, prettily hidden beneath drifting horizontal panes of mist, were full of boobytraps that we still hadn’t got around to clearing. Thirty or forty miles beyond them was the Abbotsbury Forest, of which there may or may not have been maps somewhere in the Apocrypha, and which was similarly boobytrapped. And beyond them were the Mountains. From my office in the

Administration Building I could sometimes see, if the weather was right and the air was particularly still, snow on high peaks. Only a lunatic would have tried Runway Four. And the files I had inherited from my predecessor recorded that we had produced plenty of lunatics. More than seventy people had lost their lives here, or in the meadows, or in the forest, in the past two decades. Nobody had made it as far as the Mountains.

                “I don’t understand why they kept trying,” I said.

                John looked up at me. “What do you mean you don’t understand?”

                Well exactly. I put in a request to the Apocrypha, and to my surprise within a month a slim extract file landed on my desk. Bound in a buff folder with a red Restricted stripe across one corner, it detailed the exploits of one ‘Escape Group 9’, who had decided to use the chaos of the Fall to cover their blitz.

                It was a sad read. You had to take the Apocrypha with a pinch of salt, but if the file was even remotely accurate Escape Group 9 might have been our very last attempted escapees. If they had waited a few more weeks they might not have bothered, but I remembered those weeks and I couldn’t blame them for trying.

                I put the folder away, thinking it would make a sad little footnote to our collective History, but at the next Board meeting Chris Davenport said,  “If this was Escape Group 9, what happened to the other eight?”

                Everybody looked at me, and I responded by groaning and leaning forward until my forehead touched the tabletop.

                “You’re supposed to think about this kind of thing,” Rossiter told me mildly.

                “Yes,” I said, sitting up and making a note. “Yes, I’m sorry.”

                 “Because the other eight might have made it,” Chris went on, not caring that he was further complicating my life, which was already complicated enough.

                I made another note. “I’ll have the river dragged again.”

                “I mean,” said Chris, “why call yourself Escape Group 9 if there haven’t already been eight of them?”

                I looked around the table. Everyone was looking at me. “Why not?” I tried weakly.

                Everyone started to talk at once, but Rossiter raised a hand for silence. When everyone had quieted down, he looked at me.

                “All we’ve got is a reference,” I said. “It’s from an unattributed Residence History; we don’t know where it came from and we don’t have names.”

                Rossiter caught on to what I was talking about, and he said, “No.”

                I put down my pencil and clasped my hands on the table in front of me. “I can’t spare anyone, Richard, and I can’t do it myself. I’m busy.”

                “We’re all busy,” he told me. “I’ve a stack of memos from Harry Pool wanting people to go out and deal with the flu thing on the South Side.”

                “I’ll do it when I have time,” I promised.

                “This is the sort of loose end that causes all kinds of trouble,” he said, looking at me over the top of his spectacles.

                “Yes, sir.”

                “And stop calling me ‘sir.’”

 

I DIDN’T HAVE time to worry about Escape Group 9. There was always too much to do, and every time I made anything more than tangential contact with my in-tray it seemed that there was more work waiting for me. I put in another request for the Apocrypha to be checked for anything and everything that might give us a clue to the names of EG9’s personnel, but nothing came up. A month or so after my ill-fated fishing expedition, it started to look as if EG9’s security had been better than most. Which made it all the more a shame that they hadn’t managed a home run.

                It was around that time that I went back to the river. The first morning, watching the float bob gently on the surface, a rhythmic splash-splash from upstream announced the appearance of a young woman single-mindedly paddling a canoe. I sat where I was and the canoe shot past me and ran my float down.

                The canoe splashed away downstream and out of sight round a curve in the river, and I was left to reel in. At the end of the line was nothing but an end of line, curling like a pubic hair. Hook, float, shot and about a foot of leader had been torn clean off.

                While I was packing to go, the splash-splash came back. She paddled in to the bank and grabbed at a protruding root to stop herself floating away.

                “Hey.”

                “Hey what,” I said.

                She gave a little jerk of the chin towards my fishing gear. “Catch anything?”

                “Not a thing, no.”

                She looked about her, at the river, at the bushes along the banks. “Ever catch anything?”

                “Not a thing, no.”

                She wrinkled her nose at me in a fashion I found rather attractive. “Not much of a fisherman, are you.”

                I did up the buckles of my fishing bag and slung it over my shoulder. “There is a school of thought,” I told her, picking up my fishing rod, “which teaches that fish are actually more intelligent than people, but, having only short-term memories, keep forgetting how bright they are. The task of the angler is, therefore, to judge when the fish are at their stupidest and most easily caught.”

                I’ll give her her due; she thought about it. “But that’s bollocks!” she said.

                “There are also no fish in this part of the river. It helps me to think,” I added, in case she thought I was crazy. “Where were you going?”

                “I’m looking for a job.”

                “What do you do?”

                “I teach Literature. Is there a post here?”

                I laid my rod aside. “What’s your name?”

                “Araminta Delahunty. What’s yours?”

                “Rupert of Hentzau.” I’d been reading too much Anthony Hope in the recent past. I reached a hand down to help her from the canoe. “I’m sure we can find some space for you somewhere.”

 

I LEARNED TO regret my choice of introduction. She cracked seemingly inexhaustible jokes about The Prisoner Of Zenda. She refused to use my real name, preferring to call me ‘Rupe’ instead. She taught with a passion and ferocity which unnerved and entranced her students by turns. She wouldn’t sleep with me, but persisted in wandering naked about my rooms, and saw nothing out of the ordinary in coming into the bathroom and engaging me in conversation while I was on the toilet.

                She said she had canoed almost a hundred miles from School 902, on the East Side, and she had something of the long vowels of the Eastern accent in her voice. She was always full of questions. She wanted to know how the Fall had taken place on this part of the Campus, what last Winter had been like, how the Residence records were organised. She had a terrible sense of direction – “The only way I got out of that fucking place was on the river, Rupe,” she told me one day. “You can’t get lost on a river.” – and gathered maps in bewildering numbers. “Just getting my bearings,” she called it.

                From the East, she brought four changes of clothing and a locked metal briefcase. She read voraciously, putting in four and five hours in the Library after a full day of classes. She meditated in the mornings, and in the evenings she practiced a form of dance called something like ‘capybara,’ which she claimed was also a species of unarmed combat.

                Meanwhile, the small sad mystery of Escape Group 9 was beginning to eat up an appreciable amount of my time. The fact that we still didn’t know the identities of the four bodies brought up from the river was an irritation, true, but the Fall had left us with hundreds of unidentified and often unidentifiable corpses, and I felt that I could live, if unwillingly, with the idea of four more. There has to come a point where you stop obsessing about the dead.

 

“THEY MADE THEIR run four days before the Fall,” I told the Board.

“Poor buggers,” said someone.

Rossiter looked at me for a few moments. “And?”

                I checked my notes and shrugged. “And.”

                “That’s it? After two months?”

                “It’s all I could get out of the Apocrypha,” I told him, and we engaged in a brief staring contest, which I lost.

                Joe Richardson said, “If Escape Group 9 wasn’t the first, and all the others were the same size, that’s thirty-six people. Thirty-two of whom are unaccounted for.”

                “That’s if they were all the same size,” Ian Daniel put in, always eager to jump on a bandwagon. “Maybe we haven’t found all the bodies from Group 9 yet.”

                “I had the river dragged again, and we didn’t find any more bodies,” I said. “Don’t you lads read my reports?”

                “Gentlemen,” Rossiter warned.

                “This is getting ridiculous,” I told him. “I haven’t got the time to spare for this. I’m still helping to prepare the case against the Arts Faculty.”

                “I’d judge this is pertinent to your work then,” said Rossiter. “Runway Four was Arts Faculty territory.”

                I sighed. It wasn’t going to go away, no matter how hard I tried. “All right, I’ll look into it. But I’ll need some help. The Librarians won’t wear this one, you know what they’re like. I’m understaffed, and what staff I do have are overstretched. I can’t plough through the whole of the fucking Apocrypha on my own.”

                Rossiter nodded. “All right, you get your way. I’ll see to it that you get a Research Assistant.”

                “Several Research Assistants.” We stared at each other for several seconds, but I knew it was no use and finally I just took a file at random from the pile in front of me and waved it wearily at him to demonstrate my ever-increasing workload.

                He nodded at the file. “This,” he said, “is exactly the same as that.”

                I suddenly realised what I was waving. “It is not,” I told him. I’d read the file that morning, and it was like nothing I had ever seen before.

                He ran the tip of his tongue between his top lip and his teeth. “It’s all atrocity,” he said crisply. He started to gather up his notes. “We need all our available people to help with the reconstruction over on the East Side.”

                “The East Side can wait.”

                He looked at me and shook his head. He tut-tutted. “Shame on you. And you living with your bit of Eastern totty.”

                “She is not my totty,” I said, and there was a ripple of laughter round the table, which was what Rossiter had wanted. The atmosphere in the regular meetings had become noticeably strained in recent weeks. Nobody looked as if they were getting enough sleep. The phrase mass execution had come up more than once in relation to the Old Board. We were all finding Democracy more difficult than we’d imagined.

                Rossiter smiled. “I can’t spare you half a dozen people,” he said.

                “Half a dozen wouldn’t have been enough anyway,” I muttered peevishly.

                “You get a Research Assistant,” he said firmly. “Now. Drugs.”

                I looked around the room. It was small and musty and smelled of cabbage, but from here the Old Board had ruled us for more than two hundred years. I tried to come here as little as possible, for any number of reasons. “Doesn’t anyone else here do anything?”

                “You wanted the exciting job,” said Ian.

                “I did not want the exciting job,” I told him. “I inherited the exciting job. And it’s not that fucking exciting.”

                Rossiter took off his spectacles and polished them on the hem of his cardigan. “Drugs,” he said again.

                “Some of the reconstruction gangs have been caught using pep pills,” I said. “Harry Pool says they’re not standard issue.”

                “Science City,” Rossiter said, and there was an almost-comical moment when the other members of the Board tried to look busy with their notes in case they got drawn into the conversation and wound up having to do something about it.

                “There’s nothing to link them to the Science Faculty, but I’m going to see Callum about it,” I told him.

                “I wish you all the luck in the world with that,” he said.

                “If anyone has a better suggestion, I’m listening,” I said, but no one did.              

 

“I CAN’T REALLY see the problem,” Araminta said, picking a rag of wilted lettuce from the middle of her ham salad roll and dropping it delicately into the ashtray in the middle of the table. The slice of ham underneath was almost transparent, the roll of very poor quality. “You told me yourself that the Faculty registers are full of missing people. Your thirty-six missing escapers will be in there somewhere.”

                I shook my head. “The registers aren’t complete. People got into some of the Faculty offices during the Fall and made bonfires with any documentation they could get their hands on. We did our best to stop it, but we couldn’t be everywhere.” I took a sip of my beer and winced. Unlike food in general, the Administration pub’s beer was cheap and plentiful. It was also virtually undrinkable, and even if you could stomach it, it was impossible to get drunk on.

                “So what now? You check this Apocrypha thing?”

                I started to take another drink of beer, but thought better of it. “The problem with the Apocrypha is that every bit of official, semi-official and unofficial paper the Old Board ever collected is there, and nobody understands their filing system. All you can do is start at Filing Cabinet A and just read the stuff until you bump into what you’re looking for. We were lucky to find that one mention of Escape Group 9.”

                “So it might take a while to track the rest of the operation down, right?”

                “Right.”

                She shrugged and drank some beer; the appalling taste didn’t seem to bother her.

                I said, “Are things this bad over on the East Side? I haven’t been there in years.”

                “Missing people, you mean?” Her eyes took on a dreamy, sad expression. “Everybody knows someone who disappeared.”

                “You too?”

                She focused back on my face and she smiled a sad little smile. “Me too.”

                This wasn’t the right time or place to ask who, so I said, “It’s a bad do. We’ll be years clearing up the mess they left.”

                “I think you take too much on yourself, Rupe, you know?”

                “I get it given to me.”

                All of a sudden, she broke into a huge smile. “Oh, Rupe, sometimes I could just hug you, you’re such a good soul.”

                I actually felt myself start to blush. “I’ve been called a lot of things…”

                She laughed. “I’m sure.” Then she suddenly turned serious. “Rupe, am I cramping your style?”

                “What?” She was always using unfamiliar words and phrases and sentence constructions, East Side slang. Another few years of the Old Board and we would have been speaking different languages.

                “Having me living with you,” she said. She grinned slyly. “Some of my students say you’re pretty popular with the girls.”

                “Oh.” I suddenly caught up. “Oh, no. No.” Shaking my head vigorously.

                “I hear you have a reputation,” she said, still grinning.

                “A reputation, perhaps. But no time.” I was starting to blush again. “I haven’t had time for that for a long while.”

                She half-stood, bent forward across the table, and kissed me on the top of my head. “Bless you, Rupe, you’re a sweet lad.”

                “Thank you,” I said, hoping nobody I knew was in the pub.

                “Anyway,” she said, sitting down again. “Escape Group 9.”

                “Yes.” I’d almost forgotten about them. I had also, at some point in the last couple of minutes while my attention was elsewhere, managed to drink all my beer without noticing, which was probably for the best. I looked at the bits of grey scum in the bottom of my glass. “Well, the Board are right.”

                She tipped her head to one side, a gesture I’d learned to interpret as Araminta-speak for a question which did not need to be asked. You just had to work out for yourself what the question was.

                “All right. Look. Four people – room-mates perhaps – take it upon themselves to try a blitz. They have a plan. They keep it to themselves, keep security tight, trust each other and no one else. Nine groups, all working on the same plan, would need an organising committee, access to workshops, secure caches of food and clothing, a whole infrastructure aside and apart from the people who were going to make the actual escape attempts.” I waved a hand in the air. “Another two or three dozen people who wouldn’t be leaving. They should still be here, and we can’t find them, or any mention of them. Good grief, they should be going around boasting about it.”

                “Maybe Groups 1 to 8 were the infrastructure,” she suggested. “Maybe the whole organisation just took itself out in groups of four.”

                I’d thought of that already, but the idea still made me scowl. “You can’t maintain security in a group that large. It’s impossible. Four is the classic scenario.”

                “So you compartmentalise the operation, break it up into groups of four –”

                I was shaking my head. “I can’t convince myself that it would work. It’s just too damn big, Araminta. If the first eight Groups made it, that’s thirty-two home runs. The biggest mass-blitz in the Campus’s history. They must have had a blazing good gag to get that many people out.” Especially if they used Runway Four; that wouldn’t just have been a good gag, it would have been a miracle.

                She tipped her head to the other side.

                I sighed. “What Rossiter and the rest of the Board are so exercised about is what the first eight Escape Groups imply. They imply that somewhere out there is a runway capable of taking at least thirty-two people out of here. Do you understand?”

                Araminta smiled.

                “It’s been four months since the Fall, and we’re still clearing boobytraps and digging out rogue Security men who don’t want to believe it’s all over. We still haven’t got anyone near the Far Fences, and we probably won’t this year, not without losing people. And here we are with Escape Group 9 and their friends and their foolproof way of getting out.”

                “You could still find thirty-two bodies somewhere out there in those woods on the other side of the river,” she pointed out.

                I shook my head. Somehow, I knew. Thirty-two people had escaped from the Campus, and we needed to know how they had done it.

                “The thing that really worries me,” I said, “is that we can’t be certain Group 9 was the last group.”

 

THE JOB WAS not exciting, and I had not wanted it; I was bright enough to know that it would turn out to be a poison chalice. But I had wound up coordinating intelligence during the Fall, and when it was all over I had carried on doing that, but on a larger scale. Most of the Board members didn’t have a very high opinion of my work. One of them had called me the worst Professor of Intelligence the Campus had ever had. I was good enough that his comment found its way back to me, though.

                Part of the problem was that we just couldn’t trust the few members of the Intelligence Faculty who were left alive, so I’d had to rebuild it from scratch, mostly with people who immediately changed their minds when they discovered that intelligence work was less like a John Buchan novel and more like being a particularly nosy village postmaster.

                I had also wound up in charge of Security, and again that had to be rebuilt from the ground up, purged root and branch of Old Board sympathisers. My one great success, although to be fair it only looked like a success to me, and then only on good days, was in setting up a force of Sergeants to enforce civil law.

                The other part of the problem was the Old Board, and what they had done, and what we were going to do with them, and that was what really gave me the nightmares.

 

“WELL, YOU SHOULD have let me know you were coming,” said Harry. “I’d have had a reception ready. Cheese and wine. A band. Stuff like that.”

                I dropped the file on one of the stainless steel dissecting tables. It made a slapping sound that echoed off the room’s white-tiled walls. I’d waved the file at Rossiter earlier in the afternoon, without knowing which one I had taken from the pile in front of me on the table; it was three centimetres thick and bound in red with a blue Top Secret stripe and the designation MG42 on the cover.

                Harry leaned over to look at the file. “Oh,” he said. He nodded. “Ah.” He looked at me with an indescribably sad expression.

                “I want you to tell me this is all just idle speculation,” I said, tapping the folder with a fingertip.

                “This is all just idle speculation,” he said without missing a beat.

                “Shit.” I turned and leaned back against the table.

                “What else would you like me to tell you?” he inquired.

                “That you’re wrong.”

                He shook his head. “No can do, old son. Sorry.”

                The Old Board had left us, like a coming-of-age present, fifty-seven mass graves for our delight and delectation. Thirty-two thousand bodies, in great pits scattered about the Campus. Some of them were very old, perhaps over a hundred years old. Most were very recent, the grass and weeds still not properly established on the earth covering them, traces of the Old Board trying to erase their past.

Mass Grave 42 was one of the smaller ones, in the grounds of the Hospital. It contained the complete bodies of fifty-one people and enough body parts to construct about thirty more. It had been so fresh that you could still see the spade-marks in the earth.

                The Medical Faculty had been the last to fall. The Faculty Members had fought down to the last man. The last few survivors had barricaded themselves into the Hospital and then dynamited the building around themselves. The ruins had burned for days. When MG42 was found, I had thought it might contain the bodies of prisoners tortured at the Hospital. That would have been bad enough. But I was wrong. It was worse.

                Harry ran a hand through his thinning hair. “It’s just so sad,” he said, nodding at the folder. He put his hands in the pockets of his white coat and turned away. “There were always rumours, but I never believed them. Which shows you how wrong a chap can be.”

                The wall at the far end of the room was entirely composed of large metal squares. Each one had a chunky chrome pull-handle. Harry chose one at random and pulled it, swinging the door open. He reached inside and pulled the tray out on its runners. On the tray was a long cloth-covered object. Harry turned the cloth back; underneath was the naked body of a young woman with a shaved head. There were peculiar meaty-lipped slits down her sides, from just under the armpits to just above the hips. Her face was a mass of torn meat, and her body was puffed up and discoloured by decay and silvered with frost.

                I leafed through the file. “Gills.”

                “Female, approximately twenty-five years of age,” Harry said. “Hair shaved, hazel eyes. Height five feet six inches, weight eight stone seven ounces.” I glanced down at the file. He was quoting the autopsy report from memory. I wondered what his nightmares must be like. “Structures on either side of her body which on dissection proved to be rudimentary gills, surgically implanted roughly eighteen months before her death.” He looked at the girl’s ruined face for a moment longer, then covered her again. “Cause of death, a single pistol shot to the back of the head.” He pushed the tray back into the fridge, closed the door, and turned to look at me. “Her lungs were full of fluid, but there were none of the usual post-mortem signs of drowning; they must have had her breathing water for months.”

                “That’s not possible,” I said.

                “If you thought that, you wouldn’t be here,” he said. He went over to one of the benches against the far wall of the room and started to move some glassware about.

                I leafed through the file again. “Richard refuses to believe this.”

                “Well, I don’t blame him.” Harry turned to face me. In his hands were two beakers with half an inch or so of pale amber liquid in them. “Drink?”

                I nodded, and he came over and handed me one of the beakers. I sipped at the liquid. It made me cough. “What on earth is this?”

                “I’m not supposed to tell anybody.”

                I put the beaker down on the table, next to the MG42 folder. “Harry, where did you get this stuff?”

                “Somebody out in Science City makes it.”

                The day was just going from bad to worse; every time I talked to someone my problems multiplied. On the other hand, the whisky wasn’t half bad.

                Harry sipped his drink. “There was a chap with wings, did you read about that?” I nodded, and he shook his head at the thought of it. “Never seen anything like it. I can’t believe he could ever have got off the ground, but you should see him. Breastbone like the keel of a boat to anchor the flight muscles. Pectorals like steel cables. And it wasn’t surgical implantation, either, like that poor girl. He was born that way. His bones were hollow. How did they do that?” He shook his head again. “There were others…” He shrugged. “I can’t even begin to guess what they were trying to do with them. I’ve got Anna Glasgow doing a priority search for the Faculty’s notes.”

“I wouldn’t mind having some of that priority search time for my own stuff, Harry.”

“This is really important,” he told me. “We need those notes. I don’t know what the Medical Faculty thought it was up to, but if these poor boys and girls are anything to judge by, it was something really fundamental.”

“Something that materially advances our situation?”

He looked at me. “I don’t blame you for being bitter,” he said. “But there’s more to life than politics.”

“You might mention that to the Board.”

He snorted. “I’ve been thinking of using it as a letterhead. Refill?”

                “I haven’t finished this one yet.”

                “Ah.” He went back to the workbench and poured himself another drink from a two-litre specimen jar.

“I didn’t put it in my report,” he said, coming back to the table, “but the way I see it is that they were trying to destroy the evidence. The bodies on the top layer had been doused with acid, but the ones on the bottom were more or less undamaged. You remember how the Hospital chimney was pouring smoke during the Fall? I reckon a lot of bodies were just piled into the incinerator, and when they overran its capacity they had to dig this big grave. Christ only knows what went up in smoke.” He looked at me. “Are you all right?”

                “Yes.”

                “You look a bit pale.”

                “It’s the smell.”

                “Yes, well, we keep losing power, and the freezers… well.” He gave a nervous little laugh. “I’d tell you that you stop noticing the smell after a while, but you don’t.”

                “I’ll try and get someone to take care of it.”

                He took another drink. “It’s good of you, but I know you have too much to do already.”

                “I’ll try to sort something out. Who else knows about this?”

                “The autopsies? Just me and the boys and girls.”

                ‘The boys and girls’ were five medical students who had volunteered to help Harry. They had all been carefully vetted, but they still existed under an almost-tangible stigma, and they lived in a fortified Residence with armed guards. The Medical Faculty had had an appalling and well-deserved reputation and more enemies than anyone could count.

                “They wouldn’t have told anyone else, would they?” I asked.

                “I told them not to say anything.”

                “And you trust them.”

                Harry drained his beaker. “No, I don’t. But they all think they’re living under a stay of execution, so I think they’ll probably do whatever I tell them. What are you so worried about?”

                I picked up the MG42 folder and tucked it under my arm. “If this gets out, there’ll be a pogrom. We’ll have members of the Old Board dragged out of custody and hanged from lamp standards.”

                He put the beaker down on the dissection table. “That’s what’s going to happen anyway, isn’t it?”

                I almost started to tell him that it was important to have everything done legally. A fair trial, witnesses for prosecution and defence, the accused having their day in court. But I knew he didn’t want to hear about that. Behind his spectacles, Harry’s eyes were bloodshot, and his face was grey with exhaustion. He was doing a job nobody else had wanted to do, and the New Board had worked him almost to death at it.

                “People are starting to get ill,” he told me. “No one’s eating properly. You’re not; I can tell just by looking at you. There’s a flu outbreak down by 223.”

                “Richard mentioned it.”

                “Yes, well Richard won’t give me staff to go there and try to do something about it. There’s real malnutrition down there; people are going to die.”

                “I’ll have to investigate this, you realise,” I said, nodding at my beaker.

                “I think, compared to some of the things I’ve seen in this room, that this is pretty small beer,” he said. “Excuse the pun.”

                “We can’t afford to be sloppy,” I told him.

                He gave a forced little smile. “Well, that sounds familiar.”

                If anyone else had compared me to the Old Board like that, I would have thumped them, or at the very least favoured them with some very harsh language. But of all of us, Harry had been brought face to face in the most basic way with the madness the Old Board had embraced, and some of it defied rational explanation.

                I said, “It’s going to be all right, Harry.”

                He snorted. “It’s never going to be all right.”

                “It’s going to be all right,” I said again. “You wait and see.” He was right about one thing, though. The Old Board were going to get a fair trial. And then we were going to hang every single one of them.

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Dreams of Shreds and Tatters: Chapter One

Halloween night, and shrieks and howls drifted off Granville Street. Parties staggered in and out of clubs and down the sidewalks, a dizzying confusion of music and laughter and shouting, sequins and feathers, masks and paint. People dressed in shiny new skins, searching for opportunities to shed them. Groping hands and sticky candy kisses, tricks and treats in darkened corners.

Farther south, across the bridge, the chaos thinned and the night stilled. In the dark loft above the Morgenstern Gallery, Blake Enderly leaned against the window, staring through the ghost of his reflection to the street below. Black and orange fliers scattered like fallen leaves across the damp sidewalk, trampled into soggy pulp as a gaggle of late arrivals hurried north to join the press. A pair of pixies in glittering wings and too-short skirts huddled together beneath one umbrella, shouting at their companions to hurry. Their friends—a trio of pirates and a blood-splattered bride—only laughed. A figure in a black cloak and mask trailed behind.

Blake laughed too, a soft chuckle that fogged the rain-streaked glass. A sigh spread the mist further; he envied them the dark and cold and excitement. There were no costumes here tonight, no sweat-fog or throbbing speakers. Only soft music and conversation spilling through the connecting door from the next studio, muted laughter and the unsteady glow of candlelight.

Below, the pixies cursed and left the others behind, the clatter of their heels fading into the night. Their friends followed, until only the man in the mask remained, caught in the glow of a street lamp. He lingered there, looking up.

The tipsy warmth in Blake’s stomach faded, replaced by a prickling chill. He raised a hand to wipe the glass and froze half way, unwilling to move, to draw attention to himself.

Just a man in a mask. But he wasn’t sure it was a man. The mask was a featureless black oval that swallowed light. Everything about the figure was the same matte black, liquid and unbroken. The face had no eyes, but Blake couldn’t shake the certainty that it watched him all the same.

Shuddering, he stepped back. His heel caught an easel frame, and the sudden clatter sent a queasy thrill of adrenaline through him. He grabbed the frame to steady it, saving a canvas from toppling over. When he glanced back at the window, the street was empty.

“Hey.” A shadow filled the doorway, accompanied by a purposeful boot-scuff and the rap of knuckles on the frame.

“Hey,” Blake said. He nearly laughed at himself as his panic faded, but the electric tingle in his fingers lingered. He took a deep breath, letting the layered scents of paint and chalk and chemicals calm him.

“Are you hiding in here?” Alain asked, stepping out of the fall of light into the cool shadows of the studio. His voice was dry and raspy, too deep for his narrow chest. A whiskey-and-cigarettes voice from a dentist’s son who’d never smoked. He did a good Tom Waits karaoke. “You’re not brooding, are you?” A joke, but his eyebrows quirked in a more serious question. Are you all right?

“I’m fine. I just needed a minute.”

Alain moved closer, brushing his shoulder against Blake’s. He held a glass in one hand, and the sharp, bitter fumes cut through the dusty air. “Disappointed?”

About the party, he meant, about the quiet night. Blake had told him stories about Halloweens in Connecticut, the old white house strung with purple and orange lights, bats and ghosts and guardian jack-o-lanterns. The costumes and parties and graveyard excursions. He missed it, missed Liz and all their friends. He caught himself twisting the silver ring on his right hand absently.

Blake leaned his head against Alain’s, grounding himself in the familiar texture of his boyfriend’s hair. Thick and soft, brittle at the ends from the bleach and dyes that stripped away his natural black. This month’s brilliant peacock green had faded to a yellower absinthe shade. His own hair, plain brown and unbound, fell over both their shoulders. The window showed their reflection, faded as an overexposed photograph.

It felt unreal, like a snapshot of someone else’s life. Eight months together, and they made it work. Blake had even stopped waking up next to Alain with the terrible certainty that this would be the day it fell apart. Most days, at least.

“No. I’m not disappointed.” He was happy here. That thought scared him more than any ghosts or goblins or faceless monsters. Alain turned his face for a kiss, and Blake’s nose wrinkled at the bitterness of alcohol and citrus. “What are you drinking?”

Alain raised his glass; dark liquor glowed sienna in the light. “Black rum, coffee liqueur, Campari, and bitters. I think I’ll call it a bête noire.”

“The bane of your existence?”

Alain winked, a sweep of black lashes and silver flash of brow ring. “If I have any more it might be.” He threaded his arm through Blake’s. “Come on. Rainer wants to talk to everyone.”

“About what?”

“Dunno.” His eyes narrowed. “The exhibit, I hope.”

That tiny frown made Blake pause, ignoring Alain’s attempt to steer him toward the other room. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” A second later his cheeks darkened. “That’s never sounded convincing from anyone, has it? Sorry.” He scowled at his glass and tossed back the last swallow. “It’s just… Rainer. And the way he looks at you sometimes.”

Blake’s cheeks stung as if he’d been slapped. He stiffened and jerked his arm free. “That’s—” A denial died unspoken. It wouldn’t have sounded convincing either. “Are you jealous?” he asked instead, and cursed his defensive tone as soon as he heard it.

“Oh, please!” Alain drew the word out in two drawling syllables. “He may have money and a sexy accent, but throwing me over for your patron—who I introduced you to—would be so tacky you’d choke on it.” He grew serious again. “It’s not that I mind him making eyes at you. I just wish he wouldn’t do it in front of Antja. Even if she doesn’t say anything—” He shook his head. “Damn it. I’m tipsy and stupid. Don’t pay any attention to me.”

He held out a hand like a peace offering. After a heartbeat, Blake took it. Together, they stepped into the light and warmth of the other loft, into the smell of wine and candle wax and soft perfume. The party was quiet, intimate, not one of the events that sometimes crowded the gallery beneath them. Everyone here was familiar—still more Alain’s friends than his, but Blake liked most of them well enough.

Tonight, though, tension ran in crackling lines through the room. Robert and Gemma—the gallery’s premier artists, and normally inseparable—sat together, but Robert looked everywhere but her. Everywhere but her and Stephen York. Stephen circled the edges of the room, sleek and amused. He raised Blake’s hackles, but was also one of gallery’s backers. Jason and quiet little Rae sat apart, baby-bat goths and the youngest ones here. Antja stood by a window, watching the night as Blake had moments ago. Streetlight kissed her cheeks and hair. Studying her profile, he felt a familiar spark of recognition—the weight of unhappy secrets. Alain’s words echoed in his head, and he looked aside.

And in the center of them all sat Rainer.

The gallery owner glanced up as though the thought had summoned him. His eyes were vivid even across the room, a pale shade that wasn’t sky or periwinkle or even non-repro blue. A blue like shadows on snow. Compelling and disconcerting, especially when they lingered too long. After a few seconds he smiled apologetically and looked away.

The song on the stereo ended and the last haunting electronic notes fell into silence as conversations paused. Rainer shifted in his chair, ice clinking as he tilted his glass absently in one hand. Heads turned in the lengthening hush, watching, waiting. Blake didn’t know how he did it—the charisma that drew attention with the slightest gesture, the energy that pulled people close.

Rainer sipped the last of his drink and set the glass aside. The guests turned to face him as the silence deepened, and the lights dimmed as if they too were quieting to listen. Antja resumed her usual place beside him, one smooth hip propped against his chair. Stephen flanked the other side, his posture cool and removed, his dark eyes derisive as ever. The others moved closer. Robert and Gemma reached across the space between their chairs to hold hands, their tension forgotten. Rae curled into Jason’s lap, black hair hiding her face. Alain settled in a corner of the sofa and tugged Blake down next to him. Like children for story time.

Rainer glanced around the room, his eyes catching everyone in turn. That was part of the magnetism—the sincerity, the way he made everyone feel included. It had been a long time since Blake trusted easy charm and kindness, but even after Alain’s misgivings he felt Rainer’s smile like sunlight on his face.

It was what connected them, all these disparate people, besides art. They were all waiting for something, searching for something. And they all thought Rainer might give it to them. Blake knew better—knew too well how badly that could go. But here he was.

“I’m glad all of you could come,” Rainer said. “I know some of you want to talk about the next exhibit, and we will, but there’s something else I want to show you tonight.” Cloth rustled; a boot scuffed against the rug; breath caught and held. “Some of you have already seen it. The rest are here because I think you should. Because I trust you.”

Again that rush of pride. Ridiculous, dangerous, but Blake couldn’t stop it. He wasn’t the only one—even Alain leaned forward, color rising in his cheeks.

“The gallery is only half of what I’m doing here. Art pays the bills—” Someone snorted, and Rainer tilted his head in a wry nod. “Sometimes, anyway. But I’m looking for another sort of talent, too.”

Blake flinched, unpleasant possibilities strobing through his head. He knew Rainer provided the drugs that floated like party favors through the private events, but that didn’t make him a pusher, didn’t make him a—

Alain’s hand clamped on his, interrupting his increasingly hectic thoughts. “What do you mean?” he asked, voice rasping deeper than ever.

Whatever Blake expected, whatever he feared, it was nothing like what followed.

“Watch,” Rainer said with a smile. He reached out and traced a shape in the air.

No, more than that. He opened the air, opened the world along an invisible seam, and filled it with golden fire.

***

Dreams of Shreds & Tatters is out in May

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Exclusive extract: The Fire Children by Lauren Roy

Tunnels connected all the cellars of Kaladim. They kept the citizens connected during the Darktimes—it was how the midwife had arrived to help Amma through her labor fifteen years before. Yulla and Kell had spent several of the last few days sweeping the cobwebs from the passageway ceilings. Where their tunnel split from the main one, they’d met the ropemaker. He’d been hard at work replacing the lines that served as guides through the darkness, but he’d taken a moment to show the girls how to tie a half-hitch before he’d sent them on their way.

 

Yulla walked her fingers along one of the chalk tunnels. It ended in a room with three stick figures. She thought they might be dancing. “Who do you think these are?”

 

“That’s me, and your Aunt Mouse, and our cousin Ro.” Amma stood in the doorway, a wistful smile on her face. “I’d nearly forgotten about those.”

 

“This was your room?” Kell tilted her head, as if she didn’t quite believe it. Neither could Yulla. Amma as a little girl? And Aunt Mouse? She couldn’t picture either of them her own age—they’d always been old. Not ancient like Old Moll, maybe, but old all the same.

 

“It was. Our family has lived here a very long time. Your ancestors were the stonecutters who carved out these cellars.” She traced a circle around the three dancing girls, her eyes gone soft with memory. Then she was Amma again, all business as she said, “Come on. We still have much to do before tomorrow morning.”

 

She was not a woman prone to exaggeration. Over the next several hours, they finished stowing the furniture, baked enough extra flatbread to last through a year of the Darktimes, and checked and rechecked their supplies.

 

When Abba came home, they began memorizing the space that would be their living quarters. Someone would call out a place to start from and a place to go, and the five of them took turns navigating around with blindfolds on. Abba made it into a game, taking away points if you barked a shin on an obstacle; awarding them if you could find your way even after someone spun you around a few times.

 

Aunt Mouse and Amma won, of course. Despite the grey twisting through their hair, they moved around like girls at the versam: confident, graceful, sure.

 

Kell was slightly less poised, the loss of sight stymying her, but only at first. Soon she’d learned the room as quickly as she’d learned the versam. Yulla felt awkward and ungainly when it was her turn beneath the blindfold, but she figured out the trick soon enough—shuffle your feet forward, sweep your hands along. Listen. Feel.

 

Abba had a terrible time of it, stubbing his toes and tripping over everything in his path. Once, he ended up in the privy instead of the tunnel, and only came back when they all started giggling. Yulla suspected him of faking, but it was rare for Abba to be so carefree. She played along, like the others.

 

At sunset, they made their way to Kaladim’s main thoroughfare and took part in the feast. Amma and Aunt Mouse had made a double batch of lemon cakes—one for the townspeople, one for the Fire Children. While the adults prepared smaller tables for their families and friends, the children of Kaladim set to painting the great stone trestles in the middle of the street. Suns dominated the others’ pictures, and likenesses of how they imagined the Fire Children would appear. Squabbles broke out here and there among the younger children as artwork got critiqued.

 

Kell drew winter flowers, “Because the Children are here in the summer, so they won’t be able to taste them.” She looked sad as she dabbed crimson on the white petals’ tips, and Yulla thought she knew why: Kell was seventeen. As much as she enjoyed playing the grown-up, this would be the only time she’d be able to participate in this part of the festivities. When next the Darktimes came, she’d be an adult—maybe even married, with children of her own. The last time, she’d been too young to remember much of anything aside from the excitement of her little sister’s birth.

 

It was true for all of the older children in Kaladim, Yulla included. She could be twenty the next time Sister Moon visited Mother Sun. Or older. It was too far away for her to worry over, but she’d heard the others discussing it these last few weeks as the temperatures soared, heralding the return of the Scorching Days.

 

“What is that?” asked Kell. She’d finished her flower and peered critically at the scene Yulla had been painting. Yulla’s heart sank.

 

Now that she looked at it, what had been so crisp and real in her head was barely more than a pair of brown blobs with a silver X between them to represent bared steel. One had a smeary dab of crimson on what was supposed to be its head. Yulla had applied her paint too thick, and the day’s heat had made it run. “It’s the Brigand Queen,” she murmured, “and…” Yulla had begged Abba to read the tale to them at least once a week when they were little. How would the Fire Children know, if her own sister didn’t recognize it?

 

“No, wait, I see it now.” Kell patted her shoulder. “I just wasn’t looking close enough. Why don’t we fix the flower in her hair, so they know it’s the Brigand Queen?”

 

Yulla frowned at it. “Can it be fixed, do you think?”

 

Her sister bent and, with a hand steady as Old Moll’s, thinned the smear of red paint, making the impression of petals curling outward. The scene came alive again in Yulla’s mind: the Brigand Queen, her signature rose tucked behind her ear, confronting the Scourge of the Seven Sands.

 

Sometimes, Kell wasn’t entirely horrible after all.

 

 

They feasted until Sister Moon rose, only the crescent sliver of her smile visible in the eastern sky. By the time the people of Kaladim had eaten their fill—or more; Yulla was so stuffed she didn’t think she’d need to eat again until after the Fire Children were gone—the painted trestles had dried. The grown-ups arranged the extra food and set out wooden plates and utensils for the Fire Children.

 

In a few hours, Sister Moon would begin her visit with Mother Sun, and the Scorching Days would begin. A hush rippled through the gathered crowd as the priests said a final prayer. Yulla looked around at the city, at the festival lanterns strung up over the streets like stars, at the banners fluttering in the evening breeze, at everyone dressed in their feast-day finery. The priests and priestesses stood on the steps of the Worship Hall, repeating the blessings for those who couldn’t fit inside. Yulla took it all in; it was one of the last things any of them would see for days.

 

On their way home, Yulla spied a trio of witch-women huddled near the feast. Two of them seemed to be arguing in hushed, urgent voices. The third’s eyes glittered in the scant moonlight as she looked up and down the table. Maybe she’s admiring it, Yulla told herself. But the woman looked… eager, somehow, greedy.

 

The witch-woman caught her looking, and spread her lips in a grin. It was probably supposed to be welcoming, but Yulla was sure the woman could open her mouth so wide she could swallow their family whole. She hurried to catch up to Aunt Mouse, and didn’t look behind them until they were home.

 

 

Even though Yulla had thought she wouldn’t be able to eat another bite for at least a week, she found room when Amma brought out the last of the milk, and a plate of the flat, thin anise cookies she’d made. These were the broken pieces—she left the perfect ones out for the Fire Children—but they tasted just as wonderful.

 

Kell and Yulla sat on cushions on the great room floor, painting a few last pictures to leave for the Fire Children while Amma and Abba and Aunt Mouse laid out offerings of their own. Amma brought her earrings and the necklace of shimmering gold down from her dresser and laid them on the hearth; Abba set a recorder beside it—he’d carved it himself, and had it inlaid with silver.

 

Aunt Mouse draped a quilt over a chair. She’d spent nearly a year making it, finding the perfect bits and pieces and piecing them together. Now she laughed self-consciously and said, “Foolish of me to think they’d ever be chilly. I should have made a fan!” But they all told her how beautiful it was, with its cool river-blues and the green of the leaves that bloomed after a rain, and Aunt Mouse blushed, pleased.

 

Near midnight, the bells began to toll. They rang out across the city from the top of the Worship Hall, echoing off the stone walls of the buildings before they faded out into the desert. Amma herded the girls down the cellar stairs, to where Aunt Mouse had gone to doze in their makeshift great room. On the upstairs side of the door, Abba painted the symbol that would tell the Fire Children ‘do not enter.’ Kell had said it was a ward taught to the people of Kaladim by the witch-women, but that had never been enough to set Yulla at ease about them. As Abba put the last bright white touches on the mark, she thought of the glittering eyes of the witch-woman from earlier, and shuddered.

 

No, being protected by their magic didn’t make her feel any better at all.

 

Aunt Mouse had lit a few lamps when she’d tottered downstairs for her nap, but Amma suggested they light a few more. It felt like noonday in the room, then, the shadows banished for just a little longer. Yulla and Kell settled in on either side of Abba as he opened a huge book across his lap. The letters stamped on the cover had been worn smooth from years of handling. It was the only book Amma had kept out of storage—these few hours would be the last time there’d be light enough to read by until the Darktimes ended, and they gathered around him in a way they hadn’t for a few years. Not since Kell had declared herself too old for stories when she was twelve, and Yulla—eager to copy her elder sister—had insisted the same.

 

Yulla had always regretted that, but never knew how to ask Abba to start reading to her again.

 

Tonight, he read whichever stories the girls called for: “The Wind-Dancers,” “Emir and the Silver Shoes,” “How Inkspot Escaped the Wolves,” and, of course, “The Brigand Queen vs. The Scourge of the Seven Sands.” But soon, even the excitement of the Darktimes’ imminent beginning couldn’t keep the yawn from stretching Yulla’s jaw. Amma had had them out of bed before Mother Sun herself this morning.

 

She dozed in and out of sleep, her dreams shifting with the tales Abba read aloud. Sometimes she heard other voices, as neighbors shuffled down the tunnels to make sure everyone was prepared or to leave a basket of sundries. At some point, Aunt Mouse went visiting as well, and Kell went with her. Yulla tried to rouse herself, but it was so comfortable there beside Abba.

 

Then Amma was shaking her gently, and Yulla opened her eyes to see everyone staring at the trio of oil lamps on the sideboard. From above, muffled by the door that led to the kitchen, came the last peals of the Worship Hall bells. “It’s starting,” said Amma.

 

At first, when the ringing died away, nothing happened. The flames stood tall and bright, the wicks turned up all the way. Yulla was about to ask if something was wrong when she realized that all three were… tilting. They leaned—no, they yearned—toward the cellar’s eastern wall. The flames grew longer, until they licked the insides of the glass globes. Abba reached out, his hands wrapped in a towel, and removed the globes.

 

One by one, the flames extricated themselves from the wicks that had anchored them. They hovered for a heartbeat, two…

 

… then streaked across the cellar, up the stairs, and slipped away beneath the door.

 

For a moment, the ghosts of their passage floated before Yulla’s eyes, bright blue blurs where before there had been light. Then even those faded, and all was darkness. She waved a hand in front of her face and saw nothing. For all she knew, her eyes weren’t even open. She held her palm up close and blinked a few times, feeling the whisper-kiss of her lashes on her skin.

 

She reached to her left and found Kell, who squeaked at the touch.

 

Kell’s squeak made Aunt Mouse squeak, and that set Amma and Abba to laughing. The sound rolled through the pitch black of the cellar, banishing any tremors of fear that might have been sidling into Yulla’s mind. She’d be all right, down here in the dark. It was where she’d been born, after all.

 

Still, she wondered what it might be like, up above with the Fire Children.

***

The Fire Children
by Lauren Roy

Out June 2015

Fifteen years have passed since Mother Sun last sent her children to walk the world. When the eclipse comes, the people retreat to the caverns beneath the Ramala, passing the days in total darkness while the Fire Children explore their world. It’s death to even look upon them, the stories say.

Despite the warnings, Yulla gives in to her curiosity and ventures to the surface. There she witnesses the Witch Women — who rumors say worship dead Father Sea, rather than Mother Sun — capturing one of the Children and hauling her away. Yulla isn’t the only one who saw the kidnapping; Ember, the last of the Fire Children, reveals himself to Yulla and implores her to help.

Trapped up above and hunted by the witches and the desert wind, Yulla and Ember must find a way free his siblings and put a stop to the Witch Womens’ plans, before they can use the Fire Children to bind Mother Sun herself.

 

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Excerpt: Unclean Spirits by Chuck Wendig

The Bloom Is Off The Rose

Life, sliced into tiny moments. Cason Cole beneath a shattered door. Smells: eggy gunpowder smoke, rose petals, sweat, sex. Sounds: someone screaming. Another someone gurgling. A high-pitched eeeeeeeeeee in the deep of Cason’s ear.

Pain along his shoulders. Arcing like a lightning whip.

Pain in his nose, too. Mouth full of blood.

Older wounds—the ghosts of injuries from fights long over—stir restless beneath his skin, above his bones, within his joints.

His own breath. Loud against the door above him.

Blink. Blink.

What the fuck just happened?

 

This is what the fuck just happened:

Cason sits there in the hallway. Flipping through a magazine—Us Weekly, not a magazine he’d ever want to read, but it was there and besides, he’s not reading it anyway.

His eyes hover over a story about some teen pop star sticking it to some other not-so-teen pop star, but he’s not taking in any of the information, not really. He’s thinking that he feels like a rat caught in a chain-link fence, tail lashing and teeth gnashing. He’s thinking how the teenage pop star—a boy with bright eyes and classic dimples—might look like his own son were Barney that age. He’s thinking that he’s a piece of shit, that all his choices aren’t choices at all but really just a pair of mean shackles and they’re holding him here, to this magazine, to this hallway, to E. and the Croskey twins and this Philadelphia brownstone—to this tits-up asshole of a job that he’ll never be able to leave.

An RC car whizzes suddenly past.

It looks like a little remote control dune buggy. Its toy engine goes vvvvzzzz as it bolts down the length of the hallway, over the literally spit-polished heart pine floor.

It’s dragging something.

A small cloth satchel. Cream white. Flap snapped closed.

It heads toward the end of the hall.

Cason stands. Knows that it’s probably just one of the Croskey twins playing around again, those Narcissistic nitwits. They’re twenty-five, but they act half that. This is probably Aiden, if he had to guess—Aiden’s the giddier, bubblier of the two. Ivan, on the other hand, can be sharp and mean like the stinger of a stepped-on scorpion, and he’s less inclined for physical games—his are all in the head.

The car is headed around the hallway toward E.’s door, though, and that’s a no-no. For a half-second Cason entertains the idea of just letting it play out—letting the car thump against the closed door of E.’s chamber, interrupting whatever (or more like whoever) E.’s doing, and that’ll be that. E. will emerge and his wrath will be swift and unparalleled as it always is. And maybe, just maybe, Aiden will learn the nature of cause-and-effect. Things we do in this life have consequence, a fact that seems to have escaped him and his brother so far.

But Cason knows that’s not how it will go. Aiden’s a favorite. A flavor-of-the-month that’s gone on three months too long. E. is, for whatever reason, fascinated with the Croskeys—the Croskeys think it’s wonderful tanning in the warmth spotlight, but they don’t realize that E. is “fascinated” in the way a praying mantis is ‘fascinated’ with a buzzing bee. When E. is done with them, the twins will find what it’s like to be cast out of the firelight, left to wander the darkness feeling a kind of profound, surgical loneliness, as if a sharp knife cut something precious from your insides. Something that doesn’t kill you. But that leaves you dead anyway.

Cason’s seen it before.

E. is cruel, callow, callous. Cason doesn’t want to be on the receiving end of that… malicious whimsy. Or whimsical malice. Whatever. He’s been there before.

Better then to catch the RC car before it gets too far.

Cason jogs after it. Rounds the corner.

His heart catches in his chest like a thread on a splinter—

That little thing is fast. It’s already there. At E.’s closed door.

Cason sprints.

The RC car pauses. Then backs up a few feet.

Vvvvzzzzzzz.

The toy surges forward again into the door.

Thump.

Two more times in quick succession—thump, thump, like it’s knocking to be let in—and then Cason catches it, scooping it up in his arms. Wheels spinning against his forearm, antenna almost jabbing him in the eye. Bag dangling.

Cason shakes his head, starts to walk away.

But then the hallway shimmers. Like it’s not real. Like everything is suddenly a sheet of foil or a sequined dress rippling in a wind. The humidity in the room jacks up by a hundred per cent.

Cason feels dizzy. Sweat in the lines of his palms. Mouth dry.

He’s here.

The door unlocks and opens and Cason feels perfumed breath hit his neck, crawl up his nose—the smell of roses. Apropos, given his boss’ name: E. Rose.

“What’s that?” E. asks.

Cason turns. E.’s naked. Erection standing tall like a toddler’s arm fervently clutching a toy. Everywhere else, he’s not a big man; in fact, he’s fairly small—five-five, thin arms, thin legs, cheekbones like shards of glass, lips sculpted onto his face as if by little scalpel blades. Boyish. E.’s olive skin shines from sweat.

“I…” Cason’s not sure what to say. “I don’t know.”

“You interrupted us.”

A damp chill grips the air.

Behind E., Cason catches sight of another naked someone—no, more than one. Then, the smell: sweat and sex and latex and lubricant. Commingling in their own orgy of odors. From inside the room, one of the somebodies—a man with a high-pitched titter of a voice—says, “Come back inside. We were just about to see if it would fit!”

Then, a woman’s voice, heady, druggy, ecstatic: “I can take anything.”

E. ignores them and holds out a hand to Cason. “I want to see that.”

Cason offers a feeble nod, hands over the car—and there, as E. reaches for it, is that sudden spike of undesired desire: his body tightens as hope surges, hope that E’s finger will touch his own, just a momentary brush, an electric flash of skin-on-skin. He doesn’t understand it, doesn’t ask for it, doesn’t swing that way but it’s there just the same—and it’s been there since the day he started working for E. as a bodyguard five years ago.

But no. E. just takes the remote control dune buggy. Holds it up and stares at it, lip in a sneer, brow in a quizzical knit—as if turning it one way makes it junk, and turning it the other way makes it art. He shakes the bag, and what emanates sounds like metal chips or stone pieces rattling together. “I suppose we could use it.”

“What is it?” calls the man from inside the room.

The woman: “Bring it. I want to play.”

E. flicks the antenna. Twonnnng. “Fine. We’ll take it. Go away.”

Then the man-who-is-most-certainly-not-a-man turns and goes back inside, carrying both the RC car and the bag that was attached to it.

The door closes with a pitiless click, and suddenly it’s like—whoosh, the air is gone from the room, the ride is over, the magic is ended and real life will now resume. E. shows his face and everything seems brighter, shinier, stranger. And when he leaves it feels like a bag has been put back over your head, like cataracts have been thumb-pressed upon your eyes.

Inside, Cason hears the rev of the RC engine. Vzz, vzz, vzz.

The woman laughs. Then cries out in some measure of pleasure that turns to pain—and then back to pleasure again.

Cason shakes his head.

And that’s when the bomb goes off.

 

Cason draws a deep breath. Shoves the half-shattered door off himself.

When he stands, he stands into a miasma of smoke.

He pushes through it. Staggering, dizzy, into E.’s chamber. It’s dark. He takes out his cell, hits a button—the window of light from the phone isn’t much, but it’s something. He shines it back and forth, a lighthouse beacon in the mist.

There—the light causes the man’s naked flesh to glitter, and at first Cason’s not sure why but then he sees: little metal shards, bright and polished, are sticking out of his skin. Arms. Thighs. Face. His body is alive and his eyes turn and wander in the sockets, like he’s looking for something but seeing nothing. His hands are steepled over his cock and a low gurgle comes from the back of his throat. Blood runs to the floor in little black rivulets, pooling under his asscheeks.

The woman sits nearby. Also naked. Pert little wine glass breasts defying gravity, pointing up. The nipples gleam. Not from shards of metal but from alligator clamps chomping down on the nubbins. She’s not as badly hurt—she’s bleeding, too, mostly up her arms. Her head is wobbly; it tilts uncertain upon her neck, gazing up at Cason. Her mouth is a muddy lipstick streak from lips to ears: a clownish grin.

“I don’t understand,” she says, each word a breathless squeak.

“Where is he?” Cason asks.

She mumbles something incomprehensible.

Cason raises his voice. “Where. Is. He?”

She points with trembling finger, and Cason moves through the room. Past an overturned chaise. Over a dead lamp. Hip-bumping a leather horse.

And there he is.

E.

Laying against a lush mahogany desk, body a glittery disco ball of tiny metal shards that sparkle in the light of Cason’s cell phone.

E.’s nose and mouth are bubbles of spit and blood. Inflating and popping.

“Not s-s-supposed to happen,” E. says.

E. tries to blink, but a shrapnel piece juts from his left eye.

“I hate you,” Cason says. Forcing those words out is like making yourself puke. But just like puking, it feels better having let loose.

“You sh… should thank me.”

“Fuck you.”

E. extends a trembling, spasming hand. “Help.”

Cason stands there. He knows he should help. Should reach out and scoop up his boss—and just the thought of that makes his heart flutter in his chest, that uninvited thrill of the promise of skin on skin. “I…”

But then whatever Cason was going to say or do no longer matters. E.’s body suddenly stiffens—one good eye going wide, mouth stretching open far, too far, lips curling back to show the teeth. A gassy hiss from the back of his throat—a hiss that brings words, words that are not English but some foreign, even alien tongue.

Then: an abrupt punch of air, a thunderclap of wind. Cason falls like a marionette whose strings were cut all at once, and it’s like something’s been stolen from him. He feels lighter—empty, somehow, a pitted fruit gnawed from the inside. He starts to lose his grip on consciousness, like it’s an oil-slick cord slipping through his palms. Feelings of shame and guilt war with a woozy, drunken bliss: the feelings of waking up after a one night stand magnified by a hundred, by a thousand.

He wrenches his head from the floor, and then he sees—

E. is like a doll, being pulled apart at the seams by invisible hands.

Rents in flesh. Skin pulled from skin. Bloating then falling—from the open, bloodless wounds, a puff of feathers, both white and gold. Rising on the expulsions of air, then drifting back to the ground.

Raining over Cason.

The skin—really, the skin-suit—deflates.

Two wails rise nearby: the man and the woman, these most recent sexual conquests of E. Rose, sobbing into their hands, pulling at their hair with bloody fingers.

Cason stands. Almost falls.

As he runs to the door, an impossible thought flies into his head and won’t leave, a moth trapped in a lantern glass.

That thought:

I’m free.

He laughs. He can’t help himself.

Order: UK | US | DRM-free eBook

 

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Cannonbridge: by Jonathan Barnes, an exclusive excerpt

Cannonbridge

By Jonathan Barnes

Order: UK | US

“Forgive me, my dear Colonel,” said Miss Jewell with that species of sportive wit and provoking vivacity with which she had won her place in the affections and ambitions of every officer in the barracks, “but is not all life a mystery? Is not our very existence an enigma which we cannot hope to comprehend in full until that inevitable moment when our mortal days are ended?”

Plenitude by Matthew Cannonbridge (1842)

Eliphar, thou art intended as a sacrificial thing,
Created to toil and to serve
And never once to question your enslavement.

The Lamentation of Eliphar, Mununzar’s Son by Matthew Cannonbridge (1860)

The lease of Man is temporary and transient. There were terrible wonders before him. We may be sure that there shall be so again in the years to follow his superseding.

The Seasons of Sorrow by Matthew Cannonbridge (1875)

1816

The Villa Diodati
Geneva

Outside are storm clouds, rain and the gathering dark. Indoors are a company of five who, tired of other pastimes, of opiates and sex and wild transgression, have turned their attention instead to the telling of tales. Tonight, they talk of ghost stories.

            Their leader, a slim, clubfooted man, is to be found, with the rest of them, in one of the villa’s many rooms to have been devoted to pleasure, stretching pantherishly out upon a scarlet divan. Beside him is a pale, dark-haired girl who speaks but rarely and who gazes up at her companion with a dangerous obedience in her eyes.

            Another couple is present, though they seem, perhaps, more evenly matched: a languid, dissipated man with a wave of curling brown hair, and his young lover, a girl of not more than eighteen, whose demeanour—shifting, watchful intelligence—seems to speak of the woman that she shall become. The last of this quintet is a plump, oily-skinned physician whose full, almost feminine lips quiver whenever (and he does this often) he pays cringing homage to their host.

            Rain clatters upon the windowpane. In the distance, moving closer: the sound of a tempest, the mournful timpani of thunder. It is, of course, the man with the clubfoot who begins.

            “Now then…” His manner is unembarrassed in its languorous theatricality. “Which of you has given thought to our challenge?”

            He smiles a smile which, whilst fascinating and a thing that has enraptured many, is not a very pleasant smile nor one that evinces any warmth. It is not a smile that you would care to see were you, say, alone in his presence late at night or if he were to wake you in the early hours of the morning, a candle held in an outstretched hand, illuminating fitfully the cruel lineaments of his face.

            No one answers. The girl beside him moves closer, nestling her soft, compact frame against his body. She breathes in his scent, half-sighing, half-shuddering, her expression, of giddy adoration, one which he seems scarcely even to notice.

            “Percy?” he asks, already impatient.

            The brown-haired fellow looks up. “Oh, yes. I fear I have not a notion. You must understand that I am more accustomed to the particularities of poetry than I am to those of prose.”

            From their host—a snort of weary disapproval. “Then you should play the game more fully. At least if you wish to remain our guest.”

            The poet looks uncertain at the slight, not quite knowing how to respond, wary of angering the clubfooted man. A second’s hesitation, then a feudal lowering of his gaze, a bowing as buck yields to stag.

            The clubfooted man purses his lips and arches an eyebrow. “Who else, pray? Who has some less disappointing reply?”

            “I… I believe I have a story, my lord.” This is the plump young doctor, the blood rushing to his fleshy cheeks, a sheen of sweat upon his forehead.

            The face of the clubfooted man is a mask of haughty scepticism. “Dr Polidori?” His eyes flicker over to the other guests seeking to forge some conspiracy between them. “Indeed? You must tell us more, my dear.” Disdain in every syllable. Contempt in every word.

            “My lord, I have been busying myself with the invention of a tale of the un-dead.”

            The man whom the doctor has called “my lord” seems, despite himself, to be quietly intrigued. “That does sound of some small interest. You may continue.”

            The physician swallows, perspires, wipes his upper lip. “I have in mind, my lord, a most beguiling nobleman…”

            At this, the rest of the company exchange glances of dark amusement.

            “Now, at first, when we, the reader, first encounter him, he seems quite human, does my aristocrat, my Lord Ruthven, but he is… not as other men. He…”

            “Yes?” Taken by the physician’s story, Percy, the young poet leans forwards, while the woman beside him still seems far away, thinking of other things.

            The rain beats more insistently upon the window. Thunder is heard again, louder than before. The storm approaches.

            “My friends, this great man of mine is not, in truth, a man at all. Rather, he is a fiend… a drainer of blood… A vampire!”

            Shrieks and cries of mock terror and delight.

            Plump Polidori, now warming to his theme: “He pulls in men—and women also—with the irresistible force of his character, with his glamour, his romance. They all admire him. They all seek his company. Yet he has in mind for them just one thing—to drain them of their blood! He cannot know mercy. He is quite implacable. He is grown fat upon the nectar of his victims. And he lusts, he lusts for—”

            “Yes, yes. Thank you, doctor. We also have had our fill now, I think.”

            Polidori attempts to continue but his interjection is waved peremptorily aside.

            “Later,” the lord hisses. Then, to the rest: “Has anyone conceived of some less lumpen tale? I asked for something to chill me—not for some absurd farrago fit only for the lowest fleapit of the East End.”

            Dr Polidori, crestfallen, if unsurprised, says nothing though he blinks too hard and too fiercely. There is a bottle beside him and a glass and it is with the decanting of the one into the other that he now occupies himself.

            “My lord?” The watchful young woman is speaking—courteous, firm, wholly unafraid.

            The host turns towards her, his manner coldly indulgent but also an unexpected wariness. “Mary?”

            “My lord?”

            “And what have you dreamed for us?”

            “I think you are correct, my lord, when you ask me what it is that I have dreamed for my story came to me at night, unbidden and in my sleep and as a kind of phantasy…” For a moment after speaking, the woman seems lost in thought.

            “Quite wonderful. But you must go on, my dear.”

            “It concerns a man who, although he longs to be human, can never truly be so.”

            “And how can that be?”

            “Because he has been built by man. He is, you understand, a… thing of artifice. He is created by dark arts in defiance of the laws of God. Stitched and darned by some doomed scholar, imbued with a grotesque mockery of life and set to wander blindly and with murderous intent throughout the world.”

            The clubfooted man draws in a long, slow breath. “Dear lady, you astound us. I think I can go so far as to say that your story may even have some trifling possibilities.”

            “Mary?” Her lover is looking at the lady somewhat strangely as if she has not spoken to him of these peculiar fancies before this moment.

            “What is the name of this poor creature?” asks the lord.

            The storm is ready to break. The rain drums still harder on the windowpanes. There is thunder once again, almost upon them, every peal of it fiercer and more terrible than anything that has come before.

            “He has no name. His creator denies him even that.”

            “The creator, then? What of he? What is this rash Prometheus called?”

            “I know not from whence it came but I do believe him to be named—”

            Before she can complete her sentence three loud knocks are heard—quite distinctly—upon the outer door.

            At the sound of it, they all—even the lord—feel a spasm of intense disquiet. For a moment, nobody speaks. There are only the noises of precipitation, the feral growling of the storm.

            It comes again—three further knocks.

            The young woman who has, until now, stayed quite silent, clings to the lord’s shoulder. As is not uncommon with her, hysteria seethes and bubbles in her voice. “Who is that, my love? Who is it who calls upon us?”

            But the host’s equilibrium is recovered swiftly. He shushes his pet. “Hush, my darling. It is someone from the village. That is all. Some beggarman or wayfarer. I shall see them off.”

            Pushing away the girl as though she were of no more account to him than the lowest animal, he stands briskly upright. “I shall see who calls upon us.”

            The girl again, wide-eyed and tremulous: “My lord, I fear for you. You ought not to go alone.”

            “You think not? Yet surely it is not for me but our uninvited guest for whom you should feel fear? Still, I shall take another. If one of you wishes to accompany me.”

            No volunteer presents themselves.

            Then, once again and for the final time, three knocks echo through the house.

            “Don’t be a goose,” says the other woman, the tale-teller, stepping adroitly to her feet and striding towards the door. “Come, my lord, let us welcome our unexpected visitor.” And she walks so firmly from the room that the man with the clubfoot has to struggle to keep pace with her.

            The doctor, Polidori, calls out behind them: “Be careful, my dears. Be careful!”

            Percy says nothing but only, troubled, watches the woman go.

            Through the villa they stride, Mary and the lord—along corridors draped with ancient tapestries, upon stone floors which ring out accusingly at the sound of their footsteps, through many strange and singular rooms born of dark beauty and misspent wealth and ingenious perversity. Their conversation is sporadic and freighted with anxiety. As they pass from space to space, the sounds of the storm intensify.

            “You seem ill at ease,” remarks the clubfooted man as they pass a large, elaborate mural, filled with pictures of cherubs and nymphs, a line of athletic centaurs, the races intertwined in the most remarkable and inventive ways.

            “I am curious as to the identity of our caller. Do you not share my sentiment?”

            “I do. Yet you seemed to me to be ill at ease long before.”

            “Perhaps, my lord. I am unsettled.”

            “Your step-sister, perhaps? Her behaviour irks you? You are jealous of her privileges?”

            “Her choices are her own. I have no dominion over her.”

            “Yet I assuredly do. And that irks you?”

            “Not at all, my lord. In so many ways, the two of you strike me as a most excellent match.”

            They move through a place which seems to have been given over to the theatre—a small, abandoned stage, a flock of costumes, stacks of manuscripts and ancient books, the text of an unorthodox and even a scandalous kind. Outside, rages the thunder and the rain.

            “Tell me,” he urges. “What troubles you? Was it something about our game?”

            “In that you may be right, my lord.”

            “Indeed?”

            “I simply believe that the telling of tales should not be a game.”

            “You understand that I meant only to provide us with a little amusement?”

            “Yes. But then all the world is a joke to you.”

            The lord gives no sign that he disagrees with her judgement. “Do you not believe it to be so?”

            “I can see how you might form such an opinion.”

            “You choose your words with care, I think. Extrapolate.”

            They walk through the theatre, into a library, an antechamber and out into the main corridor of the house. In the distance: the outer door, heavy and fortified.

            The woman’s words are hurried, as though the swift speaking of them may serve to hide their meaning. “Your position, my lord. Your power. And, above all, your money. These things protect you from the truth of the world.”

            The man does not reply but merely steps rather clumsily onwards, as though concentrating now to the exclusion of all else, upon the feat of forward motion.

            At last, they reach the door. Although they have heard no further knocks—and for all that they know the visitor may have departed—both can sense the presence of something that does not truly belong on the other side, something waiting which ought not to be there at all. As they open the house to the storm, the woman and the lord dare not look at one another.

            Outside, drenched and framed by the glowering sky, his arrival heralded by another clap of thunder, stands a stranger. Black-clad, dark-haired, his face lean and intelligent, his eyes a penetrating shade of blue, he seems almost to have been brought to this place by the storm itself. Although kindly in his manner there is even now, even at this, the earliest of all known phases, something about him—some dormancy, some potential—which makes the couple step, instinctively, half a pace backwards.

            In spite of the tempest, the stranger smiles. “I was expecting servants.”

            “The servants have fled, sir. Appalled, they said, at our depravity.”

            The stranger’s smile does not falter. “You must be Lord Byron.”

            The object of this observation nods crisply.

            “And you—oh, I know your name. You are Mary.”

            “Do I know you, sir?”

            “Not yet, I fear. And I hope that you’ll forgive me for arriving unannounced and without an introduction.”

            “What do you want?” asks the lord.

            “Only shelter. For tonight. Nothing more. Shelter from the storm. And perhaps a little company. I can recompense you handsomely for both.”

            “I have no need of money.”

            “I did not speak of money.”

            “No?”

            “I have heard (I cannot at present recollect where or from whom) that tonight you tell tales. Stories meant to curdle the blood and to quicken the beatings of the heart.”

            Byron inclines his head. If he is surprised, he takes pains not to disclose it. “That is so.”

            “Then I’ve come to help. To contribute if I can.”      

            “Indeed?”

            “As chance would have it, I know just such a story—the most terrible, and I would warrant, the most chilling of them all.”

            He smiles again and this time neither of them can resist the force of it.

            Deafening thunder. Torrential rain.

            The stranger, soaked yet resolute: “My lord, the storm is quite unrelenting.”

            “Then come in,” says Byron and how odd it is, how very odd, to hear that curious note of deference in his voice. “And be right welcome.”

            “Forgive me,” says the girl, “but I did not hear your name.”

            “I did not give it.” The stranger glances behind him, somewhat nervous all of a sudden, as though he suspects himself to have been followed, as though some shadow dogs him. But, almost at once, uncertainty fades and the smile comes again. “My name is Cannonbridge. It is Matthew Cannonbridge.”

            “Then pray come in, Mr Cannonbridge.”

            And the dark-haired man, invited, steps inside.

            For a long time to come, Mary will tell herself that it was all coincidence—how lightning struck close by at the very moment when the stranger crossed the threshold, how in that instant she should herself have felt a tremor in her heart as if she were suddenly unwell and how (and this, she will tell herself over and over, must surely have been her imagination) she seemed to hear, quite distinctly, though she knows it to be impossible, the infant having died some fifteen months beforehand, the desperate, mournful weeping of her child.


Now

Two hundred years later—give or take a couple of months—and the mind of Dr Toby Judd is also filled with thoughts of Matthew Cannonbridge.

            Judd is standing in the furthermost carriage of the 18:12 from Waterloo, coming home from a day of prickly meetings and academic brouhaha at the premises of his employer, the University of Draye. The train is full—more than full—and its passengers are sour and restive. No seat, of course, for Toby. He’s standing up with a dozen others, squashed against the windowpane, wedged uncomfortably between a pot-bellied man in a suit who holds a paper bag of McDonalds (from which he pulls item after item—nuggets, French fries, beef patty, onion rings) and a slab-faced woman in late middle age who has a mobile phone clamped to her right ear and into which she is bellowing orders of baffling specificity.

            Toby is a small man—just over five feet, slim, bespectacled, unassuming—and, in this instance, he resembles a shrimp between two sea beasts. He holds out before him, angled awkwardly against the glass, a tubby paperback, the cover of which proclaims its title to be Cannonbridge: A Celebration of English Genius. It is illustrated by a reproduction of an etching—that famous, saturnine profile—and, affixed to the slick card is a round red sticker which reads ‘Matthew Cannonbridge: WINNER of the Waterstones Poll to find the Nation’s FAVOURITE Writer’.

            Its back cover is taken up by a sepia photograph of the author of the piece: an intense, hawkish-looking man, not more than forty and in possession of enviable cheekbones. His smile reveals suspiciously perfect teeth and his name (printed on back, front and spine) is Dr J J Salazar—also, as it happens, a Draye employee, albeit of a starrier kind than Dr Judd.

            Toby has just reached the end of a rather lurid chapter concerning the earliest known Cannonbridge sighting—by the shores of Lake Geneva and in distinguished company, the first recorded appearance in history of that extraordinary man—when a slip of paper flutters from between the pages and glides towards the ground. He bends over to retrieve it, an action which seems to cause the goliaths on either side of him to recognise his presence for the first time. The woman interpolates a single “tsk” into her stream of recondite commands, whilst the man, slowing his ingestion momentarily, glances down at his smaller fellow traveller and stifles, almost wholly unsuccessfully, a belch.

            The paper, in Toby’s hands again, turns out to be mere publicity material—something to do with the Cannonbridge Gala, due in eight weeks and set to represent the acme of the nation’s bicentennial celebrations. Scrumpling up the flier, Toby slides it into the pocket of his jacket (his favourite, made of blue cord and better suited, after fifteen years of almost daily use, to the undiscerning charity shop, the fabric reclamation centre). As he straightens, he glimpses the almost-empty first-class carriage beyond and sees there, in one of those coincidences which, although not uncommon in life would be dismissed out of hand in fiction, sitting in an aisle seat, his legs stretched out before him with lordly indifference, Dr J J Salazar.

            Salazar holds in one hand not a book but a sleek, black tablet from which he is reading. Whatever these words may be, they cause a flicker of ironical amusement to play about his lips. Alerted by some sixth sense, the author turns and catches sight of Toby. That smile intensifies. He waves. Toby considers pretending not to have seen him but, deciding that it’s probably too late now for that particular gambit, attempts to wave back. His arms are constricted and he ends up succeeding only in jostling the giant flask of cola from which his neighbour is slurping, an action which earns Toby another look of furious disapproval.

            Salazar, witnessing all of this from the security of his first-class booth, nods once and smiles, affecting the kind of expression with which he favours certain of his students—an adult tolerance of the gaucherie of youth. Toby looks down at his book, remembering too late just what it is that he is reading. But Salazar has already seen and at the sight of his own face gazing back at him, his smile (or so it seems to Toby) grows broader still. Those remarkable teeth (almost American!) gleam and shimmer in the early evening light.

            What little appetite he had for the book now having dissipated, Toby passes the rest of the journey by gazing out of his little patch of window. The train passes at speed through the cat’s cradle of Clapham Junction, after which the sprawl of the city—its black, concrete complexity—begins to recede and the suburbs start to impinge. Through Earlsfield, Wimbledon, New Malden, Surbiton and on towards Ashbury, the excesses of London, her grime and savage energy, are overtaken by the apparent placidity of her outlying districts—by quiet and patient streets, by the increasing preponderance of green spaces. Not quite the city nor yet the country either, the train passes into those liminal, well-mannered states which thrive discreetly at the borders of metropolises.

            Eventually, it pulls into its first stop. Toby has never ridden on the service for any longer—it ends up, he believes, in Portsmouth and sometimes he imagines what it would be like to stay on board the train until that terminus, picturing cool, invigorating, salty air, the shriek of seabirds, the distant honking of ferries and liners, chips by the seafront, bracing afternoon walks beside the ocean. But today, like every other day, he does not wait to find out. The doors open with a whoosh which, had the train been human, might have sounded like relief.

            Judd and his companions step out onto the concourse. The big man, having finished his sack of fast food, stares mournfully into its depths as if in the hope of spying some neglected crumb, while the woman strides swiftly away, the stream of orders now overtaken by a catechism of what sound like expressions of endearment and assurances of affection. Whether the interlocutor is the same as before, Toby cannot say.

            There is the usual, urgent rush towards the stairs which lead out of the station and Toby lets himself be caught up in the flood, succumbing to the seductive momentum of the crowd. He is swept along with the herd of his fellow commuters, down the platform, up the stairs and out the station exit, towards the cab rank and the car park and the high street beyond.

            Free of the mob, pausing for breath, Toby notices with surprise, that J J Salazar has also alighted from the train, here, in Ashbury, in Toby’s town, where he can surely have no proper business. Salazar is waiting halfway along the line for taxis, his face set in an expression of good sportsmanship, like a movie star trying out self-deprecation on a talk show or a politician at the kind of photocall which involves some slight risk of appearing foolish but which his people have assured him will make him seem approachable and everyday.

            Toby considers passing by without speaking but, his curiosity getting the better of him, he walks over to the author and taps him on the shoulder, a part of the other man’s anatomy which is, approximately, level to his own head.

            “J J?”

            The tall man turns and smiles, a little vaguely, as if the name of the newcomer might at any moment dart away from his recollection like a salmon in the stream.

            “Toby! This is a coincidence.”

            “Isn’t it?”

            “Good to see you earlier at the University. Sorry we didn’t get a chance to chinwag. There’s always so many people at those meetings and—you understand—one has to prioritise.”

            Toby keeps his expression as neutral as he can. “Of course.” He breathes in slowly. “We’ve not seen you for a while. Been enjoying your sabbatical?”     

            “Sure. Sure, Toby. Yeah. It’s been a lot of hard work. Mostly this gala thing. And all the publicity around the book. God knows why, but it really seems to have caught people’s imagination. Man, but the media have just picked it up and run with it.”

            “Well… Congratulations.”

            “Cheers. I see you’ve got yourself a copy.”

            “I have, yes.”

            “That’s cool. Hope you’re not finding it too much of a primer. Of course, it’s meant really for a big, popular audience. Just a nice, lucrative mass-market thing. Though I reckon I’ve unearthed a few tasty new facts. Cannonbridge is one of your own areas of interest, isn’t he?”

            “One of them, yes.”

            “I’ve not had a chance to read you on him yet, I’m afraid. Well, you know what Cannonbridge studies are like—such a competitive field. I was especially fortunate, of course—what with earning the blessing of the estate and being allowed to riffle at will through that fabulous archive in Edinburgh. As you know, they’re normally pretty strict about who they let in there but… well, I’m just very grateful for such terrific opportunities.”

            A taxi arrives, a black cab, its yellow light ablaze. A woman at the head of the queue gets inside and the line shuffles forwards.

            “Forgive me for asking…” Toby begins.

            “Yeah?”

            “What brings you to Ashbury?”

            “Visiting a… dear friend. And you?”

            “I live here.”

            “You do?”

            “I do.”

            “Well, good for you.” Was that a smirk, Toby wonders? “I mean… why not? Why wouldn’t you want to live in a place like this?”

            “I’d better get going. My wife will be waiting.”

            “Of course. Yes. I’m sure she will be.”

            The two men shake hands. The line moves forward again, Salazar now one space away from his ride. Toby nods farewell. Turning from the station, without looking back, he begins the familiar walk towards home.

            There isn’t much to see in Ashbury, little to recommend it to the traveller. A high street, the station, a couple of pubs and as many dusty, echoing churches, a single café, (called, with bourgeois archness ‘The Pantry’), an Italian restaurant run by a couple who’ve never been to Italy and, inevitably, plenty of chain outlets, watching, with crocodile eyes, their dwindling independent rivals. But, mostly, Ashbury is just street after street of neat terraced houses, of still and silent roads, of homes with small, well-tended gardens and clean tarmac drives. All is solemn and uneventful and tame.

            It is towards one of these streets—largely indistinguishable from the rest—that Toby trudges as the station recedes behind him. His destination is another nondescript house in another sober avenue: Number Forty-Three, Akerman Road. As the house comes into view, he sees that the lights are on and that his wife is home and at these realisations Dr Judd feels a little upswing in his heart, an understanding of his own good fortune which suddenly renders all the petty irritations of the day of no significance whatever.

            Approaching home, in sight of happiness, he is reaching into his pocket for keys when he notices something unexpected and not altogether welcome—a black cab idling, its engine growling, opposite the house. The driver he has not seen before but the passenger is immediately familiar.

            Judd stops short and considers crossing over, asking Salazar what it is he thinks he’s doing loitering so close to Toby’s home. But, lacking the requisite energy and figuring, in any case, that to beard a colleague in such a way might come across as overly cranky, he simply walks on by, inclining his head slightly to one side so as to avoid eye contact. Toby’s last thought as he slides the key into the door of Number Forty-Three is that Salazar’s friend must live on Akerman Road, a detail that proves to be oddly disagreeable to him.

            He closes the door and calls out. “Hello! Sweetheart!”

            “In here.” Caroline sounds nervous and on edge.

            Toby strolls through to the house’s tiny sitting room, with its walls lined with books, its ancient sofa and too-big TV, its framed prints, its rugs brought back from inexpensive foreign holidays.

            She’s a small woman, Caroline, curvaceous, with dark hair cut into a 1920s bob. She’s dressed as if for an evening in town with a friend she hasn’t seen for ages—a summer dress of dark green, both practical and stylish, showing a little but not too much of her pale, freckled skin. As Toby enters the room, she’s getting to her feet. Beside her, he sees that there is a single suitcase—the one he bought last year after its predecessor had been lost—the bulging contours of which suggest that it has been filled to the very limits of its capacity.

            “Hi.” There is a look on her face he’s never seen there before—equal parts guilt, pity and deep, slow-burning anger.

            “Are you… going somewhere?”

            She lowers her head, not quite a nod yet no denial either. “You must have known… That this has been coming for a while.”

            “Known what?”

            Pity is uppermost. “Come on, Toby.” Now anger. “Come on. Surely you can figure it out. Why don’t you… Yeah… Why don’t you make one of your famous deductions?”

            Toby takes it all in then, perhaps for the first time. He inspects each element: the dress, the look, the bulging suitcase, the man with the cheekbones in the cab outside. He forges connections and fits his theory to the facts—a process which, in other circumstances, he would certainly have found enjoyable—before, in a rush of cognition, he arrives at the only possible conclusion. “I… had no idea.”

            A flicker of sorrow before the pity returns. “You must have done.”

            “No. No. None. And—”

            “Yes?”

            Outside, a car horn, loud, mocking and insistent.

            “For him? Really? I mean—sweet Jesus!—for Salazar?”

 

The pleasures of Toby’s life might, until this point, be itemised as follows—literary, of course (since boyhood), gastronomic (red meat and chicken wings; Indian; Italian; Thai), erotic (though not with so great a frequency or with the diversity that he might have wished) and even narcotic (on three or four occasions without any urge for revisitation). But alcohol has never been a particular friend of his. He has drunk socially, of course, but in moderation, not feeling the need that he has heard about from others for inebriation and for its concomitant boons of softening and forgetting. He can count on two fingers the number of times that he has ever vomited from over-indulgence and he has not been truly drunk since the Sixth Form when, in the company of friends and hoping to impress Alison Cartwright from the year below, he’d made a fool of himself with a crate of supermarket cider in a garage that had belonged to the family of a classmate. Tonight, however, once the front door has been opened and then closed again, once the taxi has moved grumblingly away and the house is still, Toby sets to drinking in earnest.

            He drinks everything that he can find. A bottle of screw-top red wine. A can of gin and tonic bought on a whim at Waterloo a month ago and its partner, one of cola and rum. These things dealt with swiftly, he moves on to obscurities—a miniature whisky bottle purchased as a Christmas present for an uncle who’d died before the day, a single bottle of continental lager given to him by a friend he didn’t really see any more with a name that was unintentionally rude in English, half a bottle of raki brought back from a holiday on Crete, found not to taste so good after all, not away from the sunshine and the sea, and, finally, a rotund bottle of whisky cream acquired as a necessary constituent of some long-devoured supermarket offer. It is sickly and cloying with an aftertaste that burns, although by the time that Toby gets to it, the last of the alcohol in the house, none of this seems to matter anymore.

            Halfway into this ultimate bottle, he is seized by a sudden desire to be outside, away from home. So, whisky cream in hand, he leaves, slamming the door behind him with an unneighbourly flourish and stepping out into the night. It is dark and Ashbury is silent and sleeping, its streets empty as in some science-fiction film in which the human race has been eliminated at a stroke. Toby glances at his watch—the hands of the device swimming a little before him—and sees that it is just gone midnight. He turns left and starts to walk into the heart of suburbia, soon becoming lost. Both streets and time seem, in his condition, to be in flux, ebbing and flowing around him, dream-like and unnatural.

            The experience is not altogether unpleasant. He feels numbness and an agreeable floating sensation. Grey roads unspool before him. In the warm, thoughtful light of the streetlamps his shadow stretches out. He passes few cars and fewer pedestrians and, happily, nobody at all whom he knows. Occasionally, a cat or a fox crosses his path. Such creatures pause for an instant, seeming (to him, at least) to give him a sympathetic look before scampering away into the shadows. Once or twice, Toby feels an almost overwhelming desire to sing as he walks but, mercifully for the people of the town, this urge he succeeds in quelling.

            There are moments of darkness—blanks in the evening’s chronology. Several times he finds himself in a new and unfamiliar road or standing on somebody’s driveway or peering up at a lighted window with no memory at all of how he has got there. In such situations, he merely swigs piratically from his bottle and moves on, each slug making him feel both a little better and far, far worse.

            He must have been walking for more than an hour when, after another short period of near-unconsciousness, he finds that he is sitting down. The chair or bench feels curiously unstable as though he has somehow gone to sea and, at first, he is inclined to blame the alcohol until, the significance of his surroundings impinging gradually upon his sodden senses, he understands that he is sitting on a swing.

            It is a swing meant for children. A deserted playground. Toby looks around and takes all of it in—those swings and that slide, the climbing frame and the roundabout, everything painted in primary colours yet dulled and made melancholy by the night. He starts to move to and fro a little but, rapidly feeling unwell, soon stops and rights himself.

            He reaches for the bottle but cannot find it. Mislaid, perhaps? Or else abandoned on his journey. Feeling at a loss he gazes ahead at the wall opposite to which a basketball hoop is attached. As he takes in the lines of regular red brick he feels, unexpectedly, a sob—the first of the evening—swell within his chest and break, leaving him with a single, moist moan. Alarmed, even slightly sobered by the sound, he bites his lower lip and strives to think of other things. He feels a weight in the pocket of his jacket.

            The bottle? No—reaching down, he realises that it is only a book.

            Salazar’s book.

            He takes it out, flips over to the back cover and looks, for as long as he can bear it, at the smart, groomed face of the author. Incredulous once again, he shakes his head.

            He starts to turn the pages, his disbelief increasing. Written for a popular audience in the manner of a don slumming it on a teatime magazine show, the writing is awash with cliché and has no discernible ambition beyond offering feeble synopses of Cannonbridge’s most famous works and dramatising, with hagiographical solemnity, the flashpoints of his long, his improbably long and many-textured, life.

            It starts to rain. Warm summer rain. Droplets fall to the paper like tears.

            Toby Judd looks up again and stares once more at that brick wall. There is something there he sees now, something that has been troubling him—something not quite in the right place.

            Is it just his imagination or does one brick seem darker than the rest?

            He goes back to his book, turning page after page, tutting at the predictability of it, not caring about the damage that the rain is doing to the pages, but urging it on. Salazar’s lazy phrases multiply before him: ‘the greatest,’ ‘the most gifted’, ‘belongs to the ages’, ‘literary rock star’, ‘national treasure’.

            The rain intensifies. The wall troubles him still further.

            That one brick, he sees now, that one brick in particular, does not seem to belong.

            Toby reads on and the titles of Cannonbridge’s novels and plays and poems, flutter before him—The English Golem, Ezekiel Frye, The Seasons of Sorrow, Plenitude—then the list of all those who knew him, Dickens and Collins, Byron and Wilde, Polidori and Arthur Conan Doyle.

            All at once, something seems to bother him about those stories which has never—at least not consciously—bothered him before.

            It’s too neat, he thinks.

            It’s too… schematic.

            Even, yes—too contrived.

            In fact, the names of Matthew Cannonbridge’s fictions sound more like the fruits of a single afternoon’s work than the output of a long (a fantastically long) literary career.

            He looks again before him—at the darker brick.

            It’s a downpour now. Seized by a desire to know for certain, Toby gets up and strides—or, more accurately, he weaves his way—across to the wall. His hands reach out in the darkness for that one, troubling brick. His fingers move closer and closer… and touch something soft and slimy and wrong. He jerks away his hands with instinctive disgust.

            Then, warily, peers closer.

            Paper. Old, damp paper stuffed into a hole in the wall. He understands then that it was only ever the darkness which had made it seem like a brick at all.

            Back he goes now, enlightened, Toby Judd, back to his swing and to the book that is growing fat and swollen in the deluge.

            The brick and the book.

            The brick. The book.

            The brick.

            The book.

            He feels a kind of swelling in his head. More than a mere ache, more than some preliminary hangover. No… this, he thinks, this must be something else. It must be understanding. Realisation. Epiphany?

            Newton beneath the apple tree. Darwin in the Galapagos. Archimedes in his bloody bath.

            And now… can it be? Toby Judd in a children’s playground with a brick made of sodden paper?

            What might some neurologist see at this moment were the brain of Dr Judd to be subjected to a scan? What strange leap of particles? What dizzying surge of mental electricity? What fantastic, unprecedented mutation of thought?

            Half-energised, half-nauseous, Toby looks again at the picture of Matthew Cannonbridge, that dark, handsome, saturnine old devil. He looks at the list of his works, at the man’s extreme longevity. He considers everything he knows, everything he’s ever been taught—and accepted, largely without question—about that individual and all of his works—and, in a single, shining moment—he dares to reject it all. Making his second, more complicated and still more terrible, deduction of the day, he comes to the following conclusion, spoken, defiantly, aloud: “This is bullshit.”

            And again, with more volume, not caring about how it might look, a drunk by the swings at night, quarrelling with the rain: “This is bullshit.”

            He realises then that he is being watched. A handsome, thick-pelted fox is observing him from over by the roundabout. Toby directs his subsequent thoughts to the animal who, oddly, neither turns nor flees at the attention.

            Judd sees it all. “Cannonbridge is a delusion.”

            The fox’s ears twitch as if in understanding or encouragement.

            “Cannonbridge is a lie.”

            The eyes of the creature seem to gleam in pleasure and in pride.

            “Cannonbridge has been made up.”

            Finally, understanding hits Toby like a blow and he finds himself staggering back, having to work hard to keep his balance. “But…” Gasping. Short of breath. “How? A fantasy on such a scale. Why?”

            A second, keening sob escapes him. The last of the night.

            When he recovers, the course of his life now changed forever, Toby lifts his gaze once more and sees that the fox has vanished.

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The Devil’s Apprentice by Jan Siegel: excerpt

The Devil’s Apprentice

Jan Siegel

Out now: UK | US | DRM-free eBook

Prologue

Ghost

Beyond the Doors
London, seventeenth century

They called him Ghost, because of his colouring, and because he could come and go without a sound. After he had been in the city for a little while he almost forgot he had any other name.

            It was a big city – the biggest city in the world – he knew that because they told him so, though it didn’t seem especially big to him. The buildings were huddled into clusters or piled on top of each other, rickety structures of wood and pitch and tumbledown brick, with roofs that gaped between criss-crossed beams, and holes for windows, and doors that sagged from their hinges. Twisty stairs climbed up the walls, and broken ladders climbed down, and the streets and alleyways ran through the cracks in between. People and rats and cockroaches and pigeons all lived there like one big family, squabbling over every inch of space, every morsel they ate. When there was nothing else, they ate each other.

            When Ghost first arrived the thing he noticed most was the smells. He had grown up in a world of chemical smells – chemicals that smelt like flowers, and chemicals that smelt like fruit, and chemicals that smelt like chemicals – but here the smells were all human. Human sweat, human dirt, human waste. To begin with, he thought it would make him sick to breathe it in all the time, but he got used to it very quickly, and after a while he didn’t notice it any more.

            The boys lived in a kind of loft with a chimney running through it and a creek underneath, a narrow tongue of water that joined the main river several streets away. In flood, it spilled into the cellars; in drought, it shrank and stagnated. Everyone threw their rubbish into it, presumably out of optimism since it had no current worth speaking of and the rubbish simply stayed there, until the rats ate it or it had grown a crust. At the front of the building, or what passed for the front, was a tavern called the Grim Reaper, which added stale beer and vomit to the cocktail of odours. By night it was a gloomy place, with one lamp and few candles, where people could meet other people without revealing any giveaway details, like names or faces or the contents of their tankards. By day it was even gloomier, with no candles to enhance the murk, and the dancers from the theatre would come there, Big Belinda’s girls, drinking to forget their troubles, and laughing even when they had little to laugh at, and making lewd jokes about the men who crowded the stalls to ogle them. The theatres had reopened when the king returned, and now there were women on the stage, though respectable ladies looked down on them, saying they were no better than they should be. But the ladies would say that, since the dancers were pretty, at least to begin with.

            Mr Sheen knew them all. He knew the girls and Big Belinda and the faceless, nameless people of the night. He looked after the boys, or so he told them, disposing of the day’s takings and seeing the rent was paid and they got fed and clipping their ears when they spoke out of turn. He was thin and sallow and sinister, with old embroidery peeling from his coat like last month’s scabs and a wig that was too big for him, a monster of a wig that, according to One-Ear, housed mice and spiders and even a nest of small birds. He had a raven which sat on his shoulder picking insects out of the wig and squirting white excrement down the back of the coat; if the boys didn’t work hard and behave he said it would have their eyes. They were all afraid of the raven but Weasel, who was the youngest (or seemed to be), was even more afraid of the wig, and would wake from nightmares screaming: ‘The wig! The wig!’ and claiming it was chasing him. Of course, Snot was younger still, perhaps three or four years old, but he was too young to count, and Mr Sheen only allowed him to stay because his brother, Filcher, stole enough for two.

            Ghost was different from the others, right from the start. He could read and write and do sums. He knew how old he was – thirteen – while they could only guess. He stood a head taller than the tallest and although he was skinny he was strong, with arms like knotted wires. His skin was dead white and his hair was so fair it was almost white – even his eyelashes were white – but his eyes were dark and narrow, slots of agate in the pallor of his face. ‘It’s a shame he isn’t pretty,’ Big Belinda said. ‘He might have been an angel, all pale and perfect – only the God of Whores made him into a freak. Haha!’ Ghost knew he wasn’t pretty. His face was thin and pointy, his nose sharp, his ears pixy-tipped after a bully in the Home had called him a Vulcan and nicked them with a pair of scissors when he was eight. He had dealt with the bully a year later, feeding him rabbit-droppings covered in chocolate which he said were real sweets, and after that they’d left him alone. It had taken a long time, collecting the rabbit-droppings, and persuading the cook to teach him how to prepare them, and the children said he was cunning, and revengeful, and patient as the grave (in childhood, a year is an age), and he believed them.

            In the city, such qualities were the stuff of survival.

            The week he arrived he tried to wash, if he could find any clean water, but then he realised his fairness marked him out, and it was better to hide behind a layer or two of grime like the other boys. He had learned long ago how to fade into a crowd or slip into a shadow, and the city was full of crowds and shadows. On the first day, the boys had found him and claimed him as their own. In the Home, he had had enemies and allies but no friends; here, he had a family. He had Sly, Weasel, the twins, Ratface and Pockface, One-Ear, Maggot, Cherub, Filcher and Snot. There was another boy called Little Jimmy who hurt his foot and couldn’t run fast, so a fat shopkeeper caught him and beat him till he couldn’t walk, then the twins carried him back to the loft and Mr Sheen knocked him down. Two days later, he died. Bad things had happened in the Home, but no one had ever died, not even the bully who ate the rabbit-droppings. Ghost watched, and listened, and said nothing.

            ‘You’re a smart one,’ Mr Sheen told him. ‘I can make something o’ you. You could be a highwayman like Daring Dick, with the gold chinking in your pocket, and the rich folk shrinking from the muzzle o’ your barker, and you can go up the stairway to heaven like a hero.’ And he cackled a croaking cackle, all brown teeth and bad breath, and the raven cawed an echo.

            Ghost stole an apple a day to keep his teeth clean, just thinking of Mr Sheen.

            He knew the stairway to heaven meant the gibbet, and Mr Sheen’s praise was more than half malice, but he said only: ‘I can’t ride.’

            The next market day, when they brought back their pickings, Ghost said: ‘That lot’s worth eight shillings at least.’ He’d already learned the currency of the city. He was a quick learner, especially when it came to money. ‘We worked hard for it. Harder ’n you. We want some.’

            ‘Greed,’ said Mr Sheen. ‘Avarice and greed. Two o’ the deadly sins, or so they say in church. I beat sin out o’ my boys.’

            He lashed out at Ghost, the way he had at Little Jimmy, but Ghost was faster and stronger. He blocked the blow and aimed a low punch with one knuckle crooked for maximum hurt, straight in the solar plexus. Mr Sheen didn’t know he had a solar plexus, his education hadn’t tended that way, but the punch knocked the breath out of him if not the stink, and he fell back with his wig all awry, and the raven flapped onto a beam, croaking a protest. The boys spread out in a circle to watch, terrified by Ghost’s boldness and what might come of it. Then Mr Sheen pulled the dagger out of his boot, a mean little dagger with a rusty blade, and lunged for Ghost, slow and clumsy from having his breath punched out. But Ghost found the knife he’d brought with him, all new and gleamy, and it snapped out of nowhere into his hand, quicker than an adder’s tongue, and Mr Sheen seemed to lunge himself straight onto it. His eyes opened wide in surprise, and he drew back swearing hoarsely, and there was a redness spreading on his clothes, bright as the paint Big Belinda’s girls used on their lips.

            ‘Help me,’ he said, but no one moved to help him. ‘Help me, you little buggers – you offspring o’ rats and roaches – you lice in the pubes o’ the city… As a father I’ve been to you, so I have, and now you turns on me. Help me… I’m dying.’

            ‘Go and die somewhere else,’ Ghost said, tossing him a rag to pad the wound.

            Mr Sheen clutched it to his side and gasped: ‘Peck out his glims!’ to the raven, but the bird only squawked, hopping back onto his shoulder and eying the blood like next night’s dinner. Then he stumbled out, cursing.

            The injury wasn’t serious but he took himself to a backstreet quack who stitched him with a grubby needle and cupped out the fever, and he was dead in a week.

            In the loft, the boys looked at Ghost.

            ‘What do we do now?’ they said. ‘He took care of us.’

            ‘We take care of ourselves,’ Ghost said. ‘We don’t need him.’

            So Ghost became their leader.

Chapter One

Habeus Corpus

 

London, twenty-first century

Nothing exciting ever happens in a lawyer’s office. Even criminal lawyers reserve their excitement for visiting their clients in gaol and moments of courtroom drama; in the office everything is staid, respectable, and essentially dull. If they are successful there will be an expensive desk, leather-bound lawbooks, discreet examples of modern technology like telephones and computers. If they are lower down the scale, the furniture will be second-hand shabby or mass-produced modern, with beige filing cabinets. Beige will feature somewhere, whatever their status. Beigeness and dullness are important hallmarks of legal premises, designed to assure the client that their chosen representative is someone who can use words like ‘heretofore’ and ‘howsoever’, when necessary in everyday conversation.

            These particular offices were exceptionally beige and dull, even by the standards of the profession. The desk was elderly without being precisely antique, the telephones dated from a previous century (the switchboard operator wasn’t sure which), the files were dog-eared, the lawbooks mouse-nibbled. This was an office where excitement had never intruded, crime had never been mentioned, divorce was another country. Its incumbent dealt exclusively with Wills, and Trusts, and property, which is about as unexciting as the law can get. His name was Jasveer Patel, newest member of Whitbread Tudor Hayle – a very old firm, which had long run out of both Whitbreads and Tudors and was down to its last Hayle. Jas Patel represented Progress, though he did his best to do it in an extremely dull (and beige) way. He was clever, earnest and bespectacled, his jacket blending with its background like camouflage colouring, his manner carefully cultivated to add a decade to his twenty-five years. However just now, despite his best efforts, he was gazing at his visitor in shock, and in consequence looked much younger. One of the things that had always contributed to the safe dullness of his job was that his clients were predominantly dead. He wasn’t used to seeing them in his office.

            Particularly when they had been dead for some time.

            ‘I simply can’t go on like this,’ Andrew Pyewackett was saying impatiently. ‘Flesh and blood won’t stand it. Let’s face it, they aren’t meant to. Look at me, I’m already falling to bits – every time I remove my socks several toes fall off. I need to get out of this body and move on. Arrangements will have to be made.’

            He wore a Savile Row suit some fifty years old – ‘I never put on an ounce after I was a hundred!’ – a jaunty little bow tie, and a very tall top hat pulled well down over his cranium. In the street, he had wrapped a silk scarf round much of his face and covered his eyes with tinted glasses, which was just as well, since although the lids had largely shrivelled away the eyeballs remained, round and staring and a-glow with unnatural life. He still wore his false teeth, which were aggressively new and shiny, though they fitted only loosely to his shrunken gums and were liable to become detached while he talked and clatter away by themselves. He had taken off his gloves and tapped with bony fingers on the desktop, shedding flakes of brownish skin like dandruff.

            Jas Patel said: ‘Er…’

            ‘Don’t you er me, young man,’ said his visitor. ‘I’m not having any of your ers and ums. I’ve had nothing but excuses from this firm since I died. It wasn’t like that in Graham Tudor’s day, I can tell you. What’s happened to young Bunny Hayle? Don’t tell me he’s running things now. Not much good at the business – always chasing the girls. That’s why we called him Bunny. At it like a rabbit, he was – up the skirt of any flapper he could find.’

            ‘He’s ninety-three,’ Jas said, desperately trying to summon up some legal nous.

            ‘Ninety-three? Huh! A spring chicken. I made it to a hundred and forty: porridge and treacle for breakfast and a glass of port every night. Died in December ’99. Really annoyed me, that did. I wanted to see in the new millennium. If you ask me, it was the quality of the port. Ran out of Graham’s Single-Quinta six months earlier, had to get some new-fangled stuff. Laid down in ’78 – just wasn’t mature. That’s what did for me, I’m sure of it. I’d have made it to the big 2000 if it wasn’t for that.’

            ‘Well,’ Jas swallowed, ‘you’re – you’re still here, aren’t you? In a way…’

            ‘I’m dead,’ Mr Pyewackett pointed out unnecessarily. ‘Trust me, it just isn’t the same. What’s more, I want to get on with it. Can’t hang around indefinitely with my bits dropping off. Fetch Bunny Hayle. He’s been dodging my phone calls but he can’t dodge me. Ninety-three indeed! Nothing but excuses.’

            ‘Mr Hayle’s retired,’ Jas said. ‘He only comes in occasionally to… to consult. I’ve been given some of his cases. The matter of your Will–’

            ‘It’s you, is it? What are you doing about it, hey? Seven years and you still haven’t found my successor! I can’t wait any longer. If you don’t find him within the month the estate will have to go into the hands of the executors. I’m not one to shelve my responsibilities but I’ve looked after the place for over a century, man and corpse, and it’s time for someone else to take on the job.’

            ‘I understand the legatee is… is a Mr Bartlemy Goodman, of no fixed abode…’

            ‘You understand, do you? Glad to hear it. Understanding is a good start.’

            ‘Is he… is he a relative?’

            ‘Of course not!’ The dead man rolled his eyes until they spun in their sockets. ‘Ran out of relatives ages ago. Never married, no brats. Maud – m’ sister – had two boys, both killed in the Great War. One at Passchendaele, one on the Somme. Bad show. Broke her heart. M’ cousins went to the colonies – imbeciles, if you ask me. We sent our crooks to Australia and our religious crackpots to America. Who’d want to join ’em? No one left now – no one I can trust. Has to be Goodman. I’m told he’s just the chap.’

            ‘But s-surely,’ Jas stammered, ‘you know him?’

            ‘Never met him in my life,’ Mr Pyewackett said blithely. ‘Or since. Doesn’t matter. He’s the man. Got a reputation… in certain circles.’

            ‘A reputation–?’

            ‘For looking after things. That’s what we need. The house has to be looked after. Can’t have just anyone strolling in, wanting to buy the place, or sell it, or – God help them – trying to live in it. Could be a disaster.’

            ‘It seems to be a valuable property,’ Jas demurred. ‘Is it… is it in a very poor state of repair?’

            ‘No idea. Haven’t been inside for years. Don’t want people going inside, do we? Never you mind about value. Has to have a custodian to keep people out, for their own sake. Otherwise… it makes my blood run cold just thinking of the consequences.’

            ‘Does it?’ Jas asked, unable to refrain. He was beginning to get into the spirit of things.

            ‘Don’t be impertinent with me, young man. What’s your name? Petal? Know what we would have thought of a name like that when I was a boy. Still, times change. Thank God I’m done changing with ’em. See here, young Petal, we’ve got to get this sorted out now. Till Goodman turns up, the place needs a caretaker. No offence – you seem like a decent chap, even if you are a bit of a wop – but it’s got to be the Tudor girl. Tudors have always handled our affairs: it’s traditional. Goes back a long, long way. Almost to – well, the Tudors. Story goes, there’s some connection with Bluff King Hal, don’t know what. Got the hair, haven’t they? They’ve always been solicitors, managed things for us. That’s the Tudors. Sharp as a thorn, dry as a thistle. Tudors and Pyewacketts. So where is she?’

            ‘You mean,’ Jas read from the document in front of him, ‘Penelope Anne Tudor, great-granddaughter of Graham Tudor? The… other executor?’

            ‘That’s the ticket. The new generation. Parents killed in a car crash or something, so it has to be her. Only one left. All the old families are running out, dying off. Bloody depressing. Soon, the whole country’ll be in the hands of young upstarts like you.’

            ‘My father,’ Jas said, forgetting himself, ‘is a direct descendant of the last Maharajah of Bharatpore. We too are a very old family.’

            ‘Shame you have to do the lawyering,’ said Mr Pyewackett. ‘Ought to be living in a palace, riding on elephants and all that. Standards declining everywhere. About Penelope Anne –’

            ‘There’s a problem.’ Jas lapsed from his aristocratic heights. ‘The thing is –’

            ‘Got the name right, didn’t I? I checked pretty carefully.’

            ‘It’s not that. The thing is –’      

            ‘There you are then. Get her in here.’

            ‘The thing is, she isn’t a lawyer. She’s still at school. She’s only thirteen.’

            For a moment, the dead man looked nonplussed. His eyes might have widened, but without eyelids it was difficult to tell. Instead, they seemed to pop. From close up – and the far side of the desk was rather too close – this was an alarming sight. Jas swallowed again, and wondered if this was really happening. Nothing in his years of training had prepared him to deal with a corpse, especially one that was still up and talking. He wished the teeth didn’t rattle so much. It was as if Mr Pyewackett punctuated all his sentences with distant gunfire.

            ‘She was only six when you died,’ Jas continued, hanging on to some shreds of legal sanity. ‘As fellow executors, this firm contacted her guardian and – er – assumed sole responsibility for… Even now, she’s rather young to become involved in these matters. Five years short of her majority.’

            ‘Piffle!’ Mr Pyewackett leaned forward, jabbing at the desktop with an emphatic finger. Corpse-dust rose in a little cloud and the final joint wobbled dangerously. ‘You send that girl round to see me. Doesn’t matter if she’s thirteen or thirty: she’s a Tudor, she’ll take care of things. Send her round. I can’t be doing with all this nonsense. I’ve got my death to get on with.’

            He strode out, hesitated in the corridor, and came back for his finger-joint.

            Then Jas was left alone with a little drift of skin-flakes on the desk and a lingering smell of decay, slightly tinged with aftershave. Even so, it was several minutes before he got up to open the window.

Infernale

Before there was a door, there would have been trees. Two trees growing close together, their branches interlacing into an arch, an arch leading nowhere. Small animals would have avoided the place and birds flown round it, but once in a while some careless or desperate creature, fleeing from a predator, might have vanished between the tree-trunks. Later, when men came, they cut down the trees and built the first door, perhaps just a couple of posts and a lintel made from crudely-shaped stones, with a rough image of one of the oldest gods set above it, as a guardian or a warning. Some said it was the gate to Hell, others, a portal to Fairyland, but few were reckless or foolhardy enough to put it to the test. Of those who did, none returned in the lifetime of kith or kin, but occasionally, a century or more later, a figure would appear with a face from long ago, white-haired, wizened, bewitched to the edge of madness, or mysteriously still young, rootless, muttering of people and places unknown.

            Eventually walls came to shield the door, and the gap was closed with boards and rivets and spells, and a knob was set at the centre of the door that should never be turned. Then there were more walls and higher, corridors encircling corridors, rooms guarding rooms, and always the doors led elsewhere, and the passageways became a maze, and none knew what was inside. Sometimes the walls were torn down, or burned to the ground, but the foundations always remained, and the walls would be raised again in a different style, adapting to the changing moods of history, until rumour said they could rebuild themselves, shape-shifting to blend with the neighbourhood. For there was a neighbourhood, a city that grew until it engulfed the place, and it became a house among houses, hardly to be told apart from the others in the street.

            The house had, if not an owner, at least a denizen. Legend claimed that when the first door opened he looked through, and saw himself, and the shadow of that bond darkened the house forever. He could not enter, because he was already there, in too many forms, in too many ages; his power and his will crept through every portal, and only the walls came in between. He did not make the house – such things are not made: they are snarls in the fabric of the universe, places where reality is twisted and fractured. But it grew to reflect his many faces, to enmesh his many webs, and those who knew of him said it must be guarded constantly, though they had no clear idea why, or against what.

            It was put in the charge of a single family, an ordinary family, at least to begin with, until something infected them from the walls, a treacherous germ of magic or madness. They became eccentric, obsessive, unusually long-lived. But the house was safe in their care, sealed off from the world, and from him. If it had any purpose, it was forgotten. Those who were drawn to it, the curious and the adventurous and the vulnerable – the chosen few, Gifted or cursed – might find a way to enter, from the outside or within, but no one saw them come or go, and the doors seemed shut forever.

            However, Time flies – it is well known for that – and at whiles even the immortals cannot keep up. An hour was yet to come when the forgotten Purpose would be remembered, and the doors would open, and all those who were lost in the mazes of the house would come crying into the world…

London, twenty-first century

Penelope Anne Tudor sat in the beige-tinted office while Jas Patel told her his story. Even though the story was carefully edited for her consumption, she found it exciting, although she had no intention of showing it. She was a pale girl with a scattering of ghost-freckles on her cheeks and forehead and straight reddish hair scraped back into a ponytail. Her mouth was small and serious, her other features tidy rather than pretty: grey eyes, neat little nose, small ears. She wore glasses for study and no makeup. In her severe school uniform – grey with maroon piping – she still looked like a child. Jas felt what little confidence he might have had evaporate at the sight of her.

            He had been told she was a student who invariably got A-stars and hoped to become a lawyer in the tradition of the family. But she didn’t look like someone who could deal with a walking corpse and, unsure how to broach the subject, he steered clear of it. Perhaps Mr Pyewackett would welcome her in a very bad light, or wearing a mask. Possibly she would think he was merely ill. Very ill. After all, children were supposed to believe what they were told, weren’t they? He had tried to discuss the situation with a colleague and had been informed, in an undervoice, that the company handled some rather unusual cases, and on the whole it was best not to talk about it. Then he had contacted Mr Hayle, who had livened up at the first mention of Andrew Pyewackett.

            ‘Good old Andy. Bit of a dry stick, mind you, bit of a sharp tongue, but a thoroughly good chap. Good old Andy. Can’t believe he’s still alive.’

            ‘He isn’t,’ said Jas, but it failed to register with Mr Hayle, and there was no point in making an issue of it.

            ‘Mr Pyewackett,’ he told Penelope, ‘may seem a little… strange… to you. In fact, he’s at death’s door, which can make people rather… but I hope you’ll manage to be – er – polite to him.’

            ‘I’m always polite,’ Penelope said. ‘My grandmother’s very particular about it. I’ve never met anyone who was dying before. Is he very old? I looked him up in the file while I was waiting to see you and they’ve got his date of birth down as 1859. That must be wrong, mustn’t it?’

            ‘Typing error,’ said Jas, chickening out. ‘Are you quite sure you can handle this?’

            ‘It’ll be an interesting experience,’ Penelope said judiciously. ‘I expect it to be very beneficial for my education.’

            Any thirteen-year-old who uses words like ‘beneficial’ is slightly scary. Jas said, in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere: ‘Do they call you Penny?’

            ‘No,’ Penelope said baldly. After a minute she added: ‘Some people call me Pen.’

            She looked like a Pen, Jas thought, not a Penny. As in “the pen is mightier than the sword.”

            He said: ‘Well – er – Pen, Mr Pyewackett is expecting you at four o’clock tomorrow. I think it’s preferable he tells you everything himself. It’s Number 7A, Temporal Crescent, Hampstead. Don’t go to Number 7 by mistake. That’s the main property, but it’s – locked up. Mr Pyewackett is nervous of intruders.’

            Mr Pyewackett hadn’t appeared to be nervous of anything, but then, being dead would do that for you.

            ‘I’ll find it,’ Pen said, with the quiet self-possession which appeared to be characteristic of her. She seemed to have no sense of humour, no natural frivolity, no girlyness. While it is impossible to see if someone has an imagination, Jas thought Penelope’s unimaginativity was as obvious as her hair colour. He had always considered himself a serious sort of person, hard-working and conscientious to a fault, but she made him feel like a lightweight for whom legal practice was a jolly little game.

            He almost thought he had been more comfortable with the corpse.

            After she had gone he succumbed to guilt because he had told her so little, but consoled himself with the hope, based on no evidence whatsoever, that Mr Pyewackett would have the tact to cover his face, not to mention the rest of his anatomy, when Pen came to tea.

 

 

Out in the street, Pen waited until she was a safe distance from Whitbread Tudor Hayle before she allowed herself to smile. The knot of excitement and happiness inside her was so tight she couldn’t possibly unravel it all at once – she was far too grown up to skip or dance for joy, had probably been too grown up for such behaviour since she could walk. But the tension demanded some kind of release, so she smiled, and smiled, her pale face alight. She had a real job, a legal job, as if she was a fully-fledged lawyer, instead of a thirteen-year-old who wanted to take her GCSEs early because they were so easy, and spent her spare time reading case histories, and arguing on the Internet about famous miscarriages of justice. She had already decided to specialise in crime, breaking with family precedent, but she knew criminal cases were a long way in the future and the thrill of her first job outweighed all other considerations. It was the most magical thing that had ever happened to her, except she didn’t believe in magic. Unlike her friends, she didn’t read fantasy books – in fact, she read very little fiction at all since she couldn’t see the point of it, though her grandmother had ensured she had a basic knowledge of the classics. But Pen preferred facts. Had Jas told her he thought she had no imagination she would have agreed with enthusiasm. School reports said she had an analytical mind, and she did her best to live up to it. Pen’s best was very good. In her view, imagination just got you into trouble.

            At home, Pen told her grandmother all about it, showing the eagerness she would never reveal to contemporaries. Orphaned at the age of two, she had no memory of her parents and had been brought up by her mother’s mother, Eve Harkness, a veteran of flower-power and hippydom, now in her sixties and grown more conventional with time. She was on the small side, still slender, with grey-blond hair in an elfin cut, worry-lines in her forehead, smile-lines in her cheek. Something about Pen’s story made her uneasy, but then, when you are responsible for a budding teenager, practically everything makes you uneasy, so she tried to ignore it.

            ‘You have to go and see this man who’s dying? I thought… the firm got in touch with me about five years ago. I had the impression he was already dead. Anyway, I don’t think you should be attending deathbeds, not at your age.’ She sounded slightly shocked, as if Pen had said she would be visiting a brothel madam or an East End gangster.

            ‘I’ll be all right,’ Pen said. ‘Death isn’t contagious, after all.’

            ‘Well, I suppose it’s okay,’ Mrs Harkness said, doubtfully. ‘I don’t see what harm can come of it.’

            Much later, Pen would remember her words.

 

 

The next day, just before four, Pen was walking along Temporal Crescent. She had expected it to be a terrace and was surprised and rather impressed to see all the houses were detached, set well back from the road with adjacent garages and bits of tree and garden behind looming walls. Each front door came with a pillared porch and was approached by at least two flights of steps, flanked by stone urns sprouting tasteful vegetation. The red eyes of burglar alarms gazed balefully from every façade and the ground floor windows were covered with painted iron grilles. Pen found Number 7 by deduction, since it preceded Number 8, but it was set even further back, the garden walls surrounded it completely, and all she could see of it was a glimpse of the roof and the second floor. There were no steps, no front door, apparently no way in at all. Every house must have a door, Pen thought, but she couldn’t see one, even when she peered round the side. Number 7A was a much smaller building, perhaps originally a servants’ lodge, set against the wall skirting the main property. This at least had a door, with the number on it.

            Pen rang the bell.

            The door was opened by a butler. Pen had never seen one, but even for a girl who read little fiction the man was instantly identifiable. Butlers are like dragons and demons and other creatures not commonly encountered everyday: you may never see them, but you know exactly what they look like.

            ‘Miss Tudor?’

            ‘Yes,’ said Pen. It made her feel very grand to be called Miss, but she, too, could do impassive.

            ‘Come this way, please.’

            In the hall, he offered to take her coat and the small rucksack she used for school, but she declined. The rucksack contained pen and paper, in case she needed to take notes, and the coat, which was civilian issue, hid her school uniform.

            They went upstairs and stopped outside a door.

            ‘Mr Pyewackett,’ the butler explained, with a diplomatic air, ‘has not been accustomed to the company of young people for some years. Neither of us have. I hope you will be able to make allowances.’

            Perhaps he hates children, Pen thought, trying to understand whatever nuances the butler was failing to convey. But then, why make a thirteen-year-old your executor? Of course, by the time she came to do her executing, he would be dead, so it would make little difference to him anyway.

            She said: ‘I’m sure I shall.’

            The butler opened the door and stood aside for her to enter.

            She found herself in a large dark room which, at first glance, resembled a Victorian deathbed scene. Heavy velvet curtains excluded all daylight and there was a fourposter at the far end surrounded by a quantity of dribbly candles and a low-wattage electric lamp. Her host was propped against a mound of pillows like a conventional invalid, but there all resemblance ended. Scattered across the quilt were several books at different stages of being read, a half-eaten packet of Hobnobs, a small tray with stained coffee-cup and saucer, and a couple of used hankerchieves, not paper ones but big squares of spotted silk. What looked like a vintage television set stood on a table beside the bed, and Mr Pyewackett was engaged in changing channels by stabbing at the controls with a very long, very thin bamboo pole, the other end of which had a snuffer for extinguishing the topmost candles on a chandelier.

            ‘Look at that!’ he said. ‘I can switch channels without moving from my bed. Don’t need to get up, don’t need to ring for Quorum. Clever stuff, hey?’

            Pen stared at him. She saw the lidless eyes, the withered face, the detachable teeth. His few remaining strands of hair had gone on growing after death and were splayed across the pillows like a net of cobwebs. He wore a sumptuous brocade dressing-gown and a silk cravat, and the bones protruded from his finger-ends as if from a pair of worn-out gloves.

            Pen said: ‘–!’

            ‘What’s the matter? Never seen a dead person before?’

            ‘N-no…’

            ‘When I was your age, I’d seen half a dozen. Used to get taken to view the corpse every time some relative popped off. Had to kiss m’ grandfather when I was eight years old – they’d baked him in embalming fluid. Disgusting. Couldn’t throw up, either; wasn’t done. No stamina, young people these days. Not asking you to kiss me, am I?’

            Pen made an indeterminate noise.

            ‘It’s that boy Petal, isn’t it? Didn’t really fill you in? Should have thought you’d have realised I’d be dead, since you’re supposed to be dealing with my Will. No need to bother with Wills and probate and stuff when a chap’s still alive.’

            ‘Mr Patel told me you were dying,’ Pen said carefully, after a brief struggle with her vocal chords, ‘not that you had actually… died.’

            ‘Silly boy. Pussyfooting round the subject. The firm ain’t what it was in your great-grandfather’s day. Still, we’ve cleared that up now. Sit down. Quorum! get the girl some tea. Hobnob? Got to get this over in time for The Weakest Link. Always watch that.’

            ‘The thing is,’ Pen said, accepting a chair from the butler, who was evidently Quorum, ‘I thought dead people were more… dead. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of them staying around to watch television.’

            ‘I’m as dead as you can get,’ snapped Mr Pyewackett. ‘This body won’t last much longer, believe me. I’m only trying to sort things out. Television passes the time while you lawyers are meant to be finding Goodman. Sure you won’t have a Hobnob?’

            Pen eyed the flaking fingers clutching the packet of biscuits. ‘No, thanks.’

            ‘They go straight through me but I still get the taste.’

            ‘Are you a zombie?’ Pen asked, glad to think she had no imagination, and was therefore unable to speculate about the voyage of the Hobnob.

            ‘No idea. Thought they were from the tropics – voodoo or something. Don’t have any truck with all that. It’s mostly a load of hocus-pocus, anyway. You don’t want to get mixed up with magic, whatever you do.’

            ‘I don’t believe in magic,’ Pen said, hanging onto that thought.

            ‘Good girl. Good girl.’ Mr Pyewackett tried to switch off the television with the bamboo pole, and inadvertently turned up the sound instead. Pen got up and pressed the appropriate button herself. ‘Chip off the old block. Sharp as a thorn, dry as a thistle. That’s the Tudors. Where were we?’

            ‘Maybe you should tell me what you want me to do,’ Pen suggested, taking out her notebook and felt-tip.

            Okay, so he was dead. The situation was… unusual. But at least it wasn’t like some stupid fantasy novel with wizards and flying carpets and talking cats and all that sort of nonsense.

            ‘Will’s pretty straightforward,’ said Mr Pyewackett. ‘A few conditions but no individual bequests. Everything to Goodman. Have you seen it?’

            ‘They gave me a copy yesterday,’ Pen said. ‘I read it through last night.’

            ‘There you are then. Quorum stays on here, wages all arranged. And the cat, of course.’

            ‘What… cat?’

            ‘That cat.’

            The biggest cat Pen had ever seen heaved itself out of the shadows and thumped ponderously onto the bed. It was not only enormously fat but its long hair, brindled black, brown and orange, made it appear even larger, with the size and energy levels of a sloth. Cats shouldn’t waddle but it waddled across the coverlet, helped itself to the last Hobnob, and slumped down at its master’s side with its tail twitching like a monstrous caterpillar.

            ‘His name’s Felinacious,’ Mr Pyewackett volunteered.

            ‘Does he talk?’ Pen asked before she could stop herself.

            ‘Shouldn’t think so. Never said anything to me. How old are you? Thirteen? Should have outgrown all that talking cat stuff. Thought you didn’t believe in that sort of thing.’

            ‘No, but…’

            ‘Quorum’ll show you the ropes. Better move in as soon I’m gone. He’ll look after you.’

            ‘I’m sorry?’

            ‘Told young Petal, I can’t wait around any more. Been dead seven years now and m’ body’s pretty well had it. Got to be going soon. You’re the main executor: up to you to take care of things until Goodman shows up. Can’t leave Number 7 without someone to keep an eye on it. Much too dangerous.’

            ‘Dangerous?’ Pen echoed. It had never occurred to her that her chosen profession might be dangerous, especially not this early on.

            ‘That’s what I said. Don’t want people trying to get in – or out, for that matter. Your job is to stay here, watch over the place, find Goodman – or wait till he finds you. You’re a Tudor: you can do it. Always trusted the Tudors.’

            ‘My grandmother will never allow it,’ Pen said, blenching slightly. ‘She won’t let me just go off and live on my own – even with a butler.’

            Mr Pyewackett shot her a glare from his pop eyes which would have been terrifying if she hadn’t gone beyond noticing such things.

            ‘Turning yellow, are we? Showing the white feather? Bleating of grandmothers and other excuses? Not what I expect from a descendant of Bluff King Hal.’

            ‘He wasn’t bluff,’ Pen said tartly. ‘He was a serial killer with syphilis who created the ultimate religion of convenience – and I’m not sure about being descended from him, that’s probably just family legend. What’s more, I can’t be both white and yellow. Make up your mind.’

            ‘Aha! Sharp as a thorn –’

            ‘I meant what I said. I have to ask my grandmother. I’m a minor, and that’s the law. I know about the law.’

            ‘Running out on your first job! What kind of a lawyer are you?’

            ‘A legal one,’ Pen said. ‘What’s dangerous about Number 7?’

            But that was the moment when Quorum came in with the tea – good butlers always have a sense of dramatic timing – and Mr Pyewackett turned to The Weakest Link and declared the subject closed for the day.

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Exclusive extract: Hunter of Sherwood: The Red Hand

HUNTER OF SHERWOOD – THE RED HAND

by Toby Venables

Part I: THE COMING APOCALYPSE

 

I
Jerusalem
March, 1193

 

Asif al-Din ibn Salah watched the rat lope along the dark tunnel ahead of the flickering light from his torch.

It was a big rat. A fat rat. As big as the cats that darted about the alleys off the Malquisinat. Those mewling, wide-eyed creatures scavenged a fair living off the so-called ‘street of bad cooking’ – but they were puny specimens next to this hunched monster. Asif shuddered at the sight of it. For a moment it paused and waved its wet snout in the air like a dog picking up a scent. How such a thing were possible in this foul place, Asif could not guess. The mere thought of the thick stench that lapped about him – and the horrid sheen of the rat’s slimy, matted fur – made a sour wave of nausea rise from the pit of his stomach.

He shook it off. Asif needed his wits about him, down here. If the reports were to be believed, there were far worse things than rats.

Intelligence on what had been going on in the forgotten tunnels was garbled – fragmentary at best, and in its details, often bizarre. People had spoken of whole cartloads of provisions – dozens of barrels – disappearing near the sewer’s entry points, as if some huge thing had emerged from the subterranean labyrinth under cover of night and swallowed them up. One account – from a terrified Greek merchant who found himself alone one night near the Pool of Siloam – spoke of a man with the blank, expressionless face of a doll rising from under the ground. Another, of a walking statue of a dead Templar. More than once, Asif had heard the claim that the effigy of the Leper King had got up and walked, and was lurking beneath the city, ready to drag unwary Muslims into the depths. One old Jewish scholar muttered a word whose significance Asif had not fully understood, and which all flatly refused to explain to him: go-lem.

There was one common feature: Christian knights. What interest Christian knights might have in Jerusalem’s sewers was baffling. Asif – who had been resident in the city for most of his adult life, and helped to keep the peace under Christian rule before he entered the service of the Sultan – knew this city as well as anyone alive. Yet even he was perplexed. Jerusalem was a city of many mysteries – it was, Asif often joked, harder to get to know than a woman. Perhaps, after all, it was nothing. But since the city’s recapture by Salah al-Din and the hapless ‘crusade’ that followed, any Christian military presence here had to be regarded with utmost suspicion.

There was another strange fact that had revealed itself to Asif in these last few hours. He’d known, of course, that rats are ubiquitous in sewers, and when he had first descended into this forgotten netherworld, it had been immediately confirmed. He had tied his clothing tighter about him, and pressed on. But as he had progressed through the cramped tunnels, Asif had seen the quantity of rats dwindle, and for the past quarter hour at least this lone adventurer had been the only beast he had encountered. The absence troubled him. Something had driven them out. It took a lot to drive out rats.

Just one had stayed – and was reaping the benefits.

Asif did not fear rats as some did. Not even in large numbers. But he had no great desire to get closer to this single, grotesquely-swollen creature. It had been well fed of late. It also had no fear of man. Where it was now heading, and what he would find there, filled him with a sense of creeping unease.

And now it was on the move again. He heard its claws scratch on the stone ledge, saw its bald, pink tail whip from side to side. Then, as he swung his torch close to where there should have been only blank wall, a horrid shape loomed from the shadows.

A face. Half human. Less than a yard from his own.

He reeled back, almost stumbling, his free right hand going to his sword. There, in the crumbling ancient wall, was a jagged vertical fissure, and emerging from it, as if prising the stonework apart, were the skeletal fingers of a dead man. His warped skull grinned from the spreading gap, the empty pits of its eyes turned on Asif, while below, part of a leg bone thrust out of the crack as if about to take a step towards him.

Asif heard a harsh curse cut the thick air, only dimly aware that he himself had spoken. In a moment, he understood. He silently berated himself. They were bones, nothing more. Dead, dry, yellowed bones. But these bones, decades old at least – perhaps centuries – had been jammed into this crevice in such a way as to give them the semblance of life. To what end, and by whom, Asif could not guess. He stood for a moment, his heart still thumping in his chest – so hard he could hear it in the flat, eerie silence. A different kind of horror afflicted him now, spawned by his attempts to imagine what could have led to this terrible fate – how one who had once lived and loved could become so pitiful in death, abandoned and forgotten in this awful place.

The flickering light of the flambeau made the shadows about the bony form dance, creating a horrid illusion of convulsive movement. He fleetingly wondered what those long-dead eyes had once looked upon – a wife, a lover, children, perhaps. But whatever this man had been in life, he was now no more than an absurd relic.

As he stood, he felt the queasy pressure of effluent flowing past his calves, and for an instant his concentration faltered. Before entering the tunnels, in anticipation of the rising stink, Asif had stuffed his nostrils with plugs of beeswax mixed with aromatic herbs, and had been breathing through his teeth. But now – thanks, in part, to the panicked panting his skeletal friend had inspired – he was beginning to taste the foul stench. His stomach knotted, almost making him retch. He fought it down, and, by way of distraction made himself stare again into the lifeless, hollow eye-sockets of the forgotten man.

He thought of Qasim.

Qasim had never wanted to come down here. But if you were an agent of the Sultan, you went where you were told to go – even if where you were told to go was a sewer. No one relished the idea of wading through shit, no matter how fervently they believed in the mission. To Qasim, however, there was something far worse than that, something that made him even less comfortable with the whole enterprise: wading through the shit of infidels. Especially worrying to him was the prospect of having to traverse the drains beneath the Christian quarter. “It’s not just that they are godless,” he said. “They are unclean. They eat pig…”

Asif sympathised, but – somewhat to his surprise – found his own feelings on the subject to be far more pragmatic. It was crazy to think in terms of degrees of uncleanliness down here. The slurry that now lapped about his ankles was about as unclean as anything could get, and the religious persuasion of the arse it had dropped out of a detail too far removed to trouble him. But no matter how many times he said it, Qasim just shook his head, and shifted uncomfortably, as if somehow troubled that his friend did not share his view.

A week had passed since Qasim had ventured into these gloomy tunnels. There had not been sight or sound of him since.

All at once, Asif was struck by an image of poor, doomed Qasim standing on this same spot, contemplating the same long-dead visage with its mocking grin. Asif’s desperate desire to live – to get out of this place – suddenly multiplied a hundredfold.

The flame hissed and crackled on the damp, square stone ceiling of the cramped tunnel, snapping Asif out of his reverie. He turned from his grim companion and focused again on the narrow passage stretching before him, and became aware of a dark intersection ahead.

Something glinted low down in the blank gloom. Two pinpoints of reflected torchlight. He took a step forward. As his eyes adjusted, he saw that the rat had stopped, and was looking back at him, almost as if making sure he was still following. It turned, and scampered around the corner.

Asif set off after it.

He could now clearly see that this tunnel joined another, larger one just a few yards from him. This was, without doubt, the route Qasim would have taken, following the tributary into the wider drain.

From up ahead came an echoing sound of movement. His muscles tensed. Something bigger than a rat. And a dim, reflected light, shifting away to the right. People. He instinctively lowered his torch and thrust it behind him – then cursed as it momentarily cast his vast shadow onto the far wall of the adjoining tunnel. A stupid error. He flattened himself against the slimy wall, praying it had not been seen. There came no shout of alarm. No sudden, urgent movement. Slowly he edged away from the intersection, back against the uneven stones – back to the dead man with his perpetual grin.

Still no sign that he’d been discovered. Asif had been lucky. And it would appear he also, now, had the advantage; he knew they were there, but they, as yet, had no inkling he even existed. A difficult decision needed to be made. He could not risk announcing himself to them as he approached – but in order to avoid it, he would have to extinguish his torch, or leave it behind. Asif stared down at the soupy, lumpy liquid flowing about his feet – only half-aware that, in this light, it seemed to possess a strange, blue sheen – and contemplated thrusting the torch into it. It would plunge him into near total darkness. Asif hesitated – then, turning instead to his bony companion, muttered a sheepish apology, and jammed the shaft of the torch into the skull’s gaping mouth. Fire was not easy to acquire down here. He would not throw it away unless he had to. Drawing his long, straight-edged sword, he headed on again, towards the new tunnel, the glimmer of his torch dwindling behind him.

 

Once his eyes adjusted to the gloom, Asif was surprised at how much he could see. This tunnel had a higher, curved ceiling, constructed from surprisingly large stones. These tunnels were said to be from the time of Herod the Great – which seemed consistent with Asif’s observations of the city’s structures above ground (he had, over the years, become an obsessive student of its complex, layered architecture). The smaller tunnel he had just left, with its flat slab roof, would have been considerably older.

Sound behaved differently in this tunnel. Shufflings, splashings and strange whispers echoed weirdly along its length, sometimes accompanied by a tuneless humming. They baffled his senses, often seeming to come from behind him, from the walls themselves, or just inches from his ears. The air tasted sharp and acrid.

Then there was the light.

The reason he could see anything at all, he gradually realised, was due to the distant torch flame of his intended prey. It was now a clear glow ahead of him – flickering and moving, sometimes bright, sometimes fading, but always there. Within it – perhaps holding it – and in near constant movement, was what he assumed to be a human figure. And, from time to time, when the figure itself disappeared from view, the light threw into silhouette a huge, unidentifiable shape – uneven, but roughly conical, far taller than a man, and at least five times as wide at its base.

Asif advanced slowly, steadily, at pains to make no sound that peculiar tunnel might carry to his enemy’s ears.

The light stopped moving – was raised up so Asif could clearly see its flame, wobbled once, then hung motionless in the air.

There was a thump. The sound of some heavy wooden object being moved into place. A cough. Then the humming resumed.

As he neared – crouched, half-pressed against the left-hand wall, sword ready in his right hand – the hum began to resolve into a tune. A Christian tune. The torch, he now saw, had been stuck in a crack in the wall. The silhouette that had placed it there now had its hands free, and was lifting what looked like a small barrel. Humming quietly to itself, it heaved the cask into place upon a great heap of similar vessels. It was heavy; full. But of what?

Asif was now yards away, moving with painful deliberation, barely breathing. Suddenly the figure turned to face him. Asif froze, praying that he was still undetected in the shadows. The figure strode purposefully towards him. Asif raised his sword, ready to strike. It turned again, and headed to the far side of the heap of barrels, oblivious to his presence, still humming its tune.

Asif simply stood for moment, barely able to believe he had not been discovered. The figure had been a man. For a split second, he had seen him clearly. Lean, European, with a neatly clipped, coppery beard. Beneath his dark cloak was the glint of mail, at his belt a fine sword. A Christian knight.

The sound of his movement receded, and Asif crept towards the great pile of barrels. If he could just identify their contents before the knight returned, it may perhaps reveal his purpose. If not, his goal would be to follow the knight – and try to capture him alive. He hurried the last few yards to the barrels. He risked being heard, but his greater concern now was being seen. He had entered the pool of light spread by the torch upon the tunnel wall.

Reaching for the nearest barrel, he pulled at the wooden bung. It was stuck fast. He tried the one next to it. The same. Then one above. It shifted, and gave. He rocked the barrel, and some of the liquid within slopped out. It was somewhat viscous. Also dark – at least, in this light – but its appearance alone told him little. It struck him, then, that he was currently denied the one sense he most needed – the sense of smell.

Asif was about to remedy this situation when another, far more alarming fact impressed itself upon him. He could no longer hear the knight.

His blood ran cold. He turned. The knight stood glaring at him, eyes reflecting the flame of the torch, filled with a wild hatred.

The knight lunged, grabbing his tunic, teeth clenched, his breath on Asif’s face. Both stumbled. The knight let go with one hand, and Asif staggered backwards. His adversary was too close for him to deliver an effective blow with his blade – and suddenly Asif saw a knife flash in the man’s fist. With all the force he could muster, he smashed the pommel of his sword down like a hammer upon the knight’s temple. The man dropped like a stone, face down in the muck – and did not move.

Asif prodded him with his foot, and turned him onto his back. No response. He appeared not to be breathing. Asif gave thanks to Allah for sparing his life – then kicked the knight in frustration. Why, when you needed someone dead, did it take twenty blows to get the better of them – then, when you needed them alive, they immediately gave up the ghost with one knock to the head? Whatever secrets this man might have divulged were now lost forever.

A glimmer of light on the wall opposite the barrels suddenly caught Asif’s eye. The dark, rectangular shape that he had thought was merely shadow was glowing feebly. Flickering. It was the entrance to another, smaller tunnel – and, deep within it, someone was advancing towards him. At some indefinable distance, two points of light bobbed into view, like eyes in the dark. Distant torches.

For Asif, it meant a second chance. But this time, there would be two of them.

He backed into the shadows to the side of the barrel heap, and waited.
 

II

Galfrid regarded the warm, pungent sludge flowing about his calves and tried not to gag. “‘Come to Jerusalem,’ you said. ‘Good wine. Good food. Lovely climate. Walk in the footsteps of Christ…’” He poked at something lumpy with his pilgrim staff and, with a grimace, decided against further investigation.  “Obviously I missed the passage in the scriptures where Jesus went down the sewer…”

The figure advancing ahead of him said nothing. For a moment the taller man stopped, moving his torch to the left and right, his attention focused on the change in the size of the slabs that formed the ceiling of the tunnel. Then, without a word, he moved on.

Galfrid knew they must look an unlikely pair: he, dressed as a Christian pilgrim complete with staff, pilgrim badges and hooded cloak; his master outlandishly clad in the manner of a minstrel or joglar. Nothing could have been less appropriate to his master’s temperament. The incongruity had caused Galfrid much hilarity, even in these grim surroundings. But incongruity was the nature of disguise – and disguise had been necessary.

As they walked, Galfrid’s gaze came to rest on the long, narrow wooden box slung across his master’s back. He chuckled again, and shook his head. It was perhaps just long enough and wide enough to contain two dozen arrows, but he knew it contained nothing of the kind. From one end protruded a curved handle delicately wrought in iron, and along its body was an even row of wooden keys that rattled when the box was bumped. Galfrid reflected on his master’s dogged insistence on bringing it down here, and wondered if he was the first man ever to have introduced a hurdy gurdy into a public sewer.

“It’s just…” continued Galfrid wistfully, as if his master had deigned to respond, “I thought we might have a chance to actually enjoy some of those things. You know, see the sights. The Holy Sepulchre, maybe…” He’d tried to sound casual with his example, even though it was perhaps the fifth time he’d mentioned it. Galfrid didn’t know why he was bothering – his sad obsession with churches and cathedrals was well known to his master. He looked down again, and immediately recoiled. A dead rat had bobbed to the surface. He felt it bump against his leg and continue on its way. He was coping with the smell – just – but somehow the sight of that was threatening to shatter his resolve.

Galfrid belched, and felt a sudden, urgent need to put thoughts of good food and wine out of his mind. “Is this what they call ‘going through the motions’?” he said.

 

Guy of Gisburne had grown so used to the complaints of his grizzled squire that now the comments barely registered. But he also had other, more immediate things on his mind. One wrong turn in these tunnels, and they may never find their way out. Even supposing they kept track of their progress; if they ventured too far to make the return before their torches died… Well, that would be a fresh kind of Hell. And then there was their adversary. He was down here, somewhere. Amongst the rats and the stinking waste. Gisburne was sure of it. But to what purpose?

He heard Galfrid huff again and decided he would benefit from some attention.

“Relax,” he said, cheerfully. “Try to enjoy yourself. You’ve already got further than the Lionheart did.”

“Had King Richard succeeded in taking Jerusalem,” said Galfrid, no longer bothering to disguise the disgust in his voice, “I somehow doubt that a visit to the sewers would have been his first priority.”

“Unless he read that bit of the scriptures you missed,” said Gisburne. It showed, at the very least, that he had been listening.

Galfrid gave a snort and muttered under his breath. “At least Christ could’ve walked on it rather than in it.”

There was one key reason put forward to explain why the Lionheart’s conquest of Jerusalem had failed. It was said he had been troubled by reports of growing chaos in his kingdom – of open rebellion by his envious brother John, who wished to take the crown from him. And so, just days from capturing the Holy City – his one avowed object on this crusade – he had turned back towards England. It was an attractive story – and one Gisburne knew, with every fibre of his being, to be false. He knew it because Richard cared nothing for England, and never had. He cared only for battle, for conquest, and for the prizes that came with them. If he could defeat Salah al-Din and return Jerusalem to Christian hands, he would be acknowledged as the greatest warrior in the world – and if he could make himself king of that holy realm, well, all the better. Richard had no interest in sitting on a throne, but every interest in winning it.

Gisburne felt he knew the real reason the Lionheart had turned from Jerusalem: he was afraid he would fail. In Salah al-Din, he had at last encountered a general who was his equal. For the first time in his life, he had been forced to contemplate the possibility of defeat, and all that this entailed. No stronghold had ever been able to withstand his assault. He had cracked every city, every castle that stood against him. But if he were finally to be broken upon Jerusalem’s walls, at the hour of Christendom’s greatest need, and with the eyes of the world upon him, well… Where would his reputation be then?

So he had not even tried. Somehow, in doing so, he had also made retreat look like concern for his own beloved kingdom. If anyone had a charmed life – an inexhaustible well of good luck – it was surely Richard. At least, so Gisburne had thought until three days ago. Then, from one of the contacts he still had in the city, he learned that Salah al-Din – also doubting his abilities against a formidable opponent – had been one day away from abandoning the city to the surrounding Christian forces. Had Richard only known to wait for one more sunrise, Jerusalem would have been his.

“So,” said Galfrid, “how long do you propose we wade about in this garden of earthly delights?” Down here, it became hard to judge the passage of time. The moments seemed painfully long, and they had now been pacing these tunnels for at least an hour – picking their way slowly, carefully. In all that time they had found nothing of note beyond a few ancient bones – both human and animal – some broken barrels, a large quantity of rats – which, happily, dwindled in number as they proceeded – and, most bizarrely, a six-foot brass trumpet with a leather slipper stuffed in the end.

“We go where the trail leads,” said Gisburne, without looking back. “Until we find what we’re looking for.”

Gisburne was well aware that this was primarily his mission and not that of their master Prince John. John had indulged him, nonetheless. In the months leading up to Christmas, there had been another, far more pressing problem, closer to home – a problem that had occupied Gisburne’s thoughts utterly. But always, at the back of his mind, he had this other, more personal duty waiting its turn. It was a duty not to a prince, but to a humble squire. To a friend. To Galfrid.

Then, on Christmas Eve, the great problem had been swept aside with startling finality. It had not been without cost. But it had at least left Gisburne free to pursue other aims – even with a void to fill – and he had turned back to this piece of unfinished business with renewed vigour. John, exhilarated by their recent victory, gave his full blessing to the enterprise, and put all available resources at Gisburne’s disposal.

It had taken them eight months of dogged investigation to get to this point. Eight months of false leads, blind alleys and disappeared informants. Their adversary was subtle, and at the start, their own methods had been crude. Time and again, as they drew close, their prey would go to ground – vanishing without trace, like a phantom. There were those who believed he was literally that – that he had perished that time in Boulogne, over a year before, and that what now walked the earth was some kind of vengeful spirit. Gisburne had never paid heed to ghost stories. In his experience, the dead stayed dead. But this one was fiendishly clever. And so they had learned, and adapted. With a restraint that had tested their resolve to the limit, they had finally succeeded in keeping themselves invisible to their adversary, resisting opportunities to strike where victory could not be assured, waiting instead for him to reveal his grand plan.

Such restraint did not come easily. Gisburne was a man more used to the battlefield than the chessboard – to attacking hard, or bypassing the fight altogether, when it was to no purpose. During these days, as so often, Gisburne had held fast to the words of his old mentor, Gilbert de Gaillon: “The object of a hunt is simple. Not to attack the beast, but to kill it. You must therefore ask yourself, will attacking now achieve this end – or push it further from your grasp?”

Now, they were tantalisingly close. To what, neither yet knew for sure, but both sensed that the day of discovery – a day they had worked towards with steady determination – was finally upon them. And both were now certain, beyond any doubt, that the one they sought was here, at the heart of this labyrinth. To finally ensnare him – to have him removed forever from the earth… Well, Gisburne knew that, for all his griping and complaining, Galfrid would walk slowly over hot coals in Hell rather than pass up that opportunity.

Gisburne paused and looked about him. “This tunnel joins a larger one up ahead. If I have it right, the Via Dolorosa is now somewhere above us.” He turned to Galfrid. “So, in a way, you are walking in the footsteps of Christ. Just… a couple of dozen yards lower.”

Galfrid gave a grunt of irritation and passed a hand across the stubble on his head. He had thought, before they ventured down here, that it would at least be cool in the tunnels. In fact, it was sweltering. His head throbbed, the stench seeming to lap against it on every side.

Gisburne moved off again – then stopped so suddenly that Galfrid went into the back of him. Just ahead, projecting a few inches above the surface of the effluent at a point in the tunnel wall where, it appeared, another tunnel entrance had been blocked up, was a rough, horizontal slab of stone. On the slab was the body of a man.

His throat was cut, the wide gash in the parted, grey flesh grinning open like a lipless mouth. But while the flesh about his neck remained otherwise intact, his face, left arm and left leg had been eaten to the bone. Whatever rats remained hereabouts had evidently made use of him. A sweet, sickly odour rose from what was left.

“Who is he?” said Galfrid in a whisper. “And what in God’s name brought him down here?”

“It was more likely in Allah’s name,” said Gisburne. He crouched over the grim corpse. Fine scale armour glinted upon his torso. From his belt hung an empty sword scabbard and a sheathed knife, both with fittings of gold. “Arab. Well dressed. Well armoured. One of Saladin’s. The elite. Whatever it was brought him down here, it certainly wasn’t need.” He had occasionally heard of beggars and lepers taking refuge with the dead in catacombs, but this man was clearly neither.

“The body hasn’t been plundered,” observed Galfrid. “Not by humans, at least.”

Gisburne glanced again at the exposed skull and suppressed a shudder. “So, whoever killed him…”

“…was not a thief. And also not in need.”

Gisburne stood. “I suspect his reasons for being down here may be the same as ours. And that he found what – or who – he was looking for. To his cost.”

“Poor bastard,” said Galfrid.

Gisburne stared off into the gloom ahead. For a moment, he thought he could detect a faint glow at the edge of his vision – but the effect disappeared as his eyes tried to focus on it.

“The body is only a few days old,” he said. “It means we’re close.”

They followed the flow towards the intersection with the wider tunnel – and within minutes Gisburne understood that his fleeting impression had been correct. Ahead, framed by the distant tunnel’s mouth, was the flickering orange light of another flame. It was stationary. As they neared, he could see the pool of light that spread about it, within which was a large, uneven dark shape. Objects of some kind, stacked in a pile. But there was no movement of any kind. No sign of life.

Gisburne drew his sword, and quickened his pace.

They stopped at the edge of the larger tunnel, its ceiling arcing above them, and stared across at the dark, shadowy heap.

“Barrels,” said Gisburne.

“Barrels,” repeated Galfrid with a nod. “And there was me thinking it was going to be about the trumpet. So, are we too early, or too late?”

The torch upon the opposite wall had been burning no longer than their own. Someone had been here, and could not be far. But which way? Gisburne turned his own torch first to the right, then to the left. “This flows south-east, ultimately to the Kidron Valley. The tunnel we have just travelled comes from the Christian quarter. Across there are tributaries from the Muslim sectors, with the Jewish area up that way.”

“Christian, Muslim, heathen or Jew,” said Galfrid, his nose wrinkling, “shit still smells like shit.”

“Except…” said Gisburne, a frown creasing his brow. “When it doesn’t.” He sniffed the air. “Do you smell that?”

“Are you joking?” said Galfrid. But beneath the dank, hot reek of stale urine and fermenting excrement, another, sharper smell was rising. Something half familiar.

Galfrid sniffed tentatively. “Vinegar?” he said. At Gisburne’s suggestion they had doused their skin with the stuff before coming down here. By this method, Gisburne’s old comrade Will Pickle had fended off dysentery throughout William the Good’s entire battle campaign against the Byzantines, earning his nickname in the process. He had been convinced its strong, clean smell kept disease-laden odours at bay. Gisburne could think of no better occasion to put that to the test.

He stepped out into the tunnel and stopped, flame held at arm’s length, his narrowed eyes scanning the uneven stonework of the clammy ceiling, then every crack and fissure in the crumbling walls. Nothing. Tentatively, he lowered his torch towards the black surface of the lapping effluvium.

Upon it, he now saw, was a curious, iridescent sheen.

Galfrid frowned and stooped to examine the fluid, moving his own flame closer as he did so. Gisburne grabbed the torch. “I suggest we keep our torches above waist height,” he said. “Petroleum. Everywhere about us. If that should ignite…”

Galfrid stared, wide-eyed. “…we’ll be roasted alive.” He raised his torch slowly above his head.

“No rats,” said Gisburne in sudden realisation. “That’s why there are no rats. But where’s it coming from? And why is it here?”

“The barrels?”

Gisburne turned his torch flame upon them. A few had been unstoppered or broken open, but they appeared mostly intact. “There must be more,” he said. “Many more. It’s covering the whole surface.” He looked away to their right, into the deep dark of the arched stone passage. “And it’s flowing from… that direction.”

He started off into the gloom, but no sooner had they passed the heap of barrels than Gisburne felt Galfrid grip his arm. He turned and immediately saw what had caught the squire’s attention. By the left wall, almost obscured by shadow in the cleft between the barrel heap and the stonework and partially submerged, was another body. This time it was clearly fresh, and no Arab.

Gisburne waded over towards it, and was just crouching over the dead man when he became aware of a movement in the deep shadows barely a yard from him. Too late.

The man was on him in an instant. In desperation, Gisburne brought his weapon up. He was aware of a flash of steel – the glint of scale armour, golden in the torchlight. The other’s dark face loomed as the attacker swung his sword high – and stopped dead.

For a moment, both stood, transfixed. “Gisburne?” The voice was deep, seeming to echo the length of the tunnel.

Gisburne stared, eyes widening. “Asif?”

Asif – almost a head taller than Gisburne, who was tall himself – threw his big arms around his friend and clapped him on the back heartily, his deep laugh reverberating through Gisburne’s chest. Gisburne, stunned, fought to maintain his grip on his torch.

“You two know each other?” said Galfrid, incredulous. He looked around, as if reminding himself of their circumstances. “Well what are the odds? Just when I thought the day couldn’t get any stranger…”

Asif released Gisburne from his grip and stood back, his hands still on his friend’s shoulders.

Gisburne allowed himself a laugh, though the blood was still pumping hard in his veins. “Asif helped keep the peace when I was here… What? Five years ago?”

“Six!” laughed Asif.

“He was also a fabulous archer and a terrible backgammon player. Taught me everything I know.”

Asif sighed. “That was before Hattin. Before the crusade.”

“Before everything,” added Gisburne.

“Time flies when you’re having fun,” said Asif. And another big laugh welled up in him.

“Looks like you’re still in much the same game,” said Gisburne. “But in the pay of the Sultan himself, this time, unless I’m mistaken.”

Asif cocked his head. “I couldn’t possibly say.” He looked Gisburne up and down, a bemused frown pressing deep creases into his brow. “But what of you? Are you some kind of… musician now?”

If pressed, Gisburne could play two tunes on the hurdy gurdy – one of them badly. “I couldn’t possibly say,” he said with a smile.

Asif held his gaze in silence for a moment, then smiled. “Well, I think we understand each other.”

Galfrid cleared his throat, pointedly.

“Oh – this is Galfrid,” said Gisburne.

“Sir Galfrid,” said Asif, with a bow of his head.

“My squire,” added Gisburne.

“But you may call me Sir Galfrid if you wish,” said Galfrid with a broad grin. “It has a certain ring to it.”

Gisburne turned and nodded towards the body of the dead knight. “Your work?”

Asif looked irritated. “I meant only to stun him. To find out from him what all this is about. But these Europeans from their wet countries – they die too easily.” He seemed to remember who he was talking to. “No offence.”

“None taken,” said Gisburne. He crouched over the body and began to pull back the surcoat, mail and gambeson to reveal part of the man’s neck and shoulder. There, over his collar bone, was a tattoo of a skull.

“The Knights of the Apocalypse,” said Galfrid, his voice a flat monotone. “We were right…”

This was the final confirmation – the culmination of their months of toil. It would end tonight, here, within this grim labyrinth.

“I have never heard of this order,” said Asif.

“They are a recent phenomenon,” said Gisburne. “Their ethos insane, their leader a madman. Up above they went dressed as simple pilgrims. Down here, we see them for what they really are – crusaders. Though even that term dignifies their aims. Since King Richard and Saladin reached an accord, there has been peace. But the actions of these men could spark another war – a war that neither side wants.”

“Is this what they seek?” asked Asif. “An end to the truce?”

“An end to everything,” said Gisburne. “And they must be stopped. At any cost.”

“Then we have the same goal,” said Asif. “But what are those actions?” He looked at the barrel heap. “What is it they are doing down here? It makes no sense.”

Gisburne stared back into the gloom of the tunnel. “This will take us to the answer,” he said.
 

III

They moved on together, following the course of the large, central drain – which, Asif informed them, ran the full length of the city, passing directly under its heart. As they advanced, the smell of petroleum grew ever stronger, patches of the stuff on the surface of the city’s waste making it ever more slick and viscous. In two side tunnels they had been able to discern the now familiar dark shapes of further piles of barrels. It seemed prudent to assume there were other heaps hidden in these depths, all placed according to some dark strategy. But even they could not be the primary source of the outflow.

Just past the second such tunnel, Asif suddenly raised his hand. All stopped, and stood motionless. It took a moment for the sound to reach Gisburne’s ears – distant, echoing, steady and rhythmic. It was half-familiar, but he could not place it, blurred by the distance and the weird qualities of the honeycomb of passages. He could not even be certain from which direction it came. He glanced at the others, then moved off again.

The sound grew in volume as they advanced, its steady rhythm pounding in their ears, beating against Gisburne’s nerves. He knew now what it reminded him of, though it made no sense, not in these depths. It was the sound of a tree being felled. And beneath it, now, another sound. A meandering drone that rose and fell. Wordless sounds – but clearly a voice.

Up ahead, to one side of the main drain, they saw dimly flickering light – an entrance to another tunnel, from whose mouth the sounds echoed. But this was no mere tributary. As they neared, they saw it was another large drain at an angle to the first – not constructed in stone or brick, but hewn through the rock. “This could not be of later date than the time of King David,” whispered Asif, “and was perhaps much older even than that.” A little way along its course, it connected with what appeared to be a natural cave, on the left side of which ran an uneven ledge, almost wide enough, in parts, for two men to walk abreast. They climbed onto it, relieved to be relinquishing contact with the city’s stinking discharge.

The curving, rocky passage extended a short distance to another opening, where it appeared to broaden out into an even bigger space – the source of the light, and also of the sounds.

No longer speaking, they exchanged looks, smothered their torches and were plunged into gloom.

They listened to the steady, rhythmic sound in the dark as their eyes adjusted. The glow returned. Faces again became visible. The path once more revealed itself. Then, slowly, they crept forward towards the light.

When finally they peered beyond the mouth of the passage, their jaws dropped at what they saw.

A huge chamber opened up before them – part Roman vault, part cave, walls and ledges of ageless rock merging with soaring, interweaving arches of brick and stone, like the great crypt of some profane cathedral. All around the margins of the chamber, torches were fixed, their flickering yellow flames reflecting weirdly on the vast lake of effluent that the walls encircled. Its undulating surface – slick with an oily sheen – seemed to give back every colour but those which could be deemed natural, the sick stink of it now so heavy with petroleum as to be almost overwhelming.

And there, at the centre of it all, the all-dominating feature that elevated the scene to the status of a nightmare. From the hellish, rainbow-hued sea of ordure, reaching almost to the chamber’s roof: a ragged, teetering pyramid of barrels. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of them – Gisburne could not even begin to reckon their number. And within this, a single point of movement – a speck of dogged human purpose. Half way up, perched like an insect on a mound, a knight was breaking open a glugging barrel whilst singing a crusader hymn, each stroke of his axe in time with the music.

Huddled in shadow at the edge of this outlandish scene, the three companions gazed upon the man-made mountain with speechless incredulity. Gisburne had been trained to divine his enemies’ motives and capabilities – had thought he alone grasped the extremes to which this one was prepared to go. But nothing had prepared him for this. The mere scale of it baffled comprehension. The effort must have taken months. Simply for the transport of the barrels to have been kept secret, they must have come from dozens of locations. To have been hidden, smuggled, disguised – their contents obscured and mislabelled at every step. It seemed the work of madmen. But its execution was not mad. It was steady. Calculated. Purposeful.

Yet, even as he looked upon it, that purpose utterly eluded him. He could not inhabit the unfathomable minds of his adversaries – could not follow the warped logic that had, over weeks and months, resolutely piled up this catastrophic potential. If all this were to ignite… Gisburne had seen up close what fire could do to stone, how it had been used to break castle walls and crack their towers apart. He had made use of it himself. The piles of barrels were positioned in every part of the labyrinth, and there was no part of the city under which these channels did not run.

The Knights of the Apocalypse meant to destroy Jerusalem.

 

Petroleum would be released into the sewer from this vast pile, and the smaller heaps set to seep their contents into their respective tunnels. The flames would spread down the main drains and into each of their tributaries, turning them to rivers of flame. The intact barrels in each pile would catch and burn, finally breaking open to fuel the inferno. The ancient stones above would split in the heat. A horde of flaming rats would spew into the streets, setting everything afire. The walls of the Holy Sepulchre, the Dome of the Rock, the Temple Mount – all would crack asunder, the whole of David’s Holy City collapsing into the pit of its own flaming ordure.

Jerusalem would become a Hell on earth.

One glance at Asif and Galfrid told him that they had reached the same conclusion. Gisburne turned his attention back to the toiling knight. “We must stop him,” he hissed.

“But how?” whispered Asif. The same question was written on Galfrid’s face. The knight’s exposed position on the mountain of barrels presented a seemingly insoluble problem: how could they get to him before he had the opportunity to cry out and raise the alarm?

Gisburne slung the hurdy gurdy off his back.

“You’re going to play him a tune?” breathed a baffled Galfrid.

As his companions watched, Gisburne slid open one end, and from within it pulled out a long, flat drawer into which several parts of some device were neatly set: a steel bow; a slender, steel-reinforced stock; half a dozen tiny crossbow bolts, some shaped like grapples; a length of cord upon a free-spinning reel. Gisburne freed the bow, snapped it into place on the end of the stock, pushed forward a steel lever and – with all his strength – pulled it back to draw the thick string. He plucked up a barbed bolt – but before placing it upon the tiny crossbow, tied the free end of the cord to a loop on its nocked end. Then he checked there were no obstructions to the cord’s free movement, and took aim.

It was not quite the purpose for which the bow had been intended. It had been meant for scaling heights – a development of its maker’s earlier experiments. In the event, once here, they had found themselves descending into the depths. There had been no chance to test its accuracy in horizontal flight; Gisburne hoped to God it would serve. There would be only one chance – and even if it found its mark, they would have to move fast.

He held his breath for a moment, then released it slowly as his finger squeezed the trigger. The crossbow leapt in his hands. The bolt flew, the cord whipping after it. The knight gave a stifled cry, crumpled, and slithered part way down the heap.

“He’s still alive!” said Asif.

“That’s the idea,” said Gisburne, and hauled on the cord. It pulled taut, springing up out of the effluent with a spray of stinking liquid. The man gave a hoarse yelp as it yanked the barb in his shoulder, slipped several feet, stopped, then lost his grip completely and tumbled into the greasy muck.

With slow deliberation, Gisburne began to reel him in like a fish.

It was painfully slow – Gisburne did not want to lose him – but the length of time he was beneath the surface of that putrid lake was surely far longer than any could survive. As they pulled him close, he seemed gone. For a moment, all stood in silence. Then a brown, slimy arm shot out of the ordure and grabbed Galfrid’s ankle. The squire staggered, was almost dragged in. Asif gripped the arm, lifted the flailing, dripping figure out of the lake in one seemingly effortless movement, and head-butted him into silence.

The knight slumped flat on the ledge, apparently lifeless – then came to in a fit of coughing and retching. Gisburne dragged him further into the chamber, beneath the light of a torch, put a knee on his right arm and leaned over him. “So, shall we keep you, or throw you back?”

The knight blinked back at him, his face contorting into a sneer. “I do not fear pain or death,” he rasped.

“I don’t need you to fear pain,” said Gisburne. “Just to feel it.” And he gave the bolt a slow twist. The knight howled in agony.

“The others – they will hear…” hissed Asif.

“I’m relying on it,” said Gisburne. Asif cast a bemused look at Galfrid, but the old squire remained silent and inscrutable.

The knight rallied for a moment, his face deathly pale. “I will tell you nothing,” he spat.

“I’m asking nothing,” said Gisburne, and pushed the bolt sideways.

The knight screamed again.

Asif leaned forward, his tone urgent. “We must get what information we can from him before it’s too late.”

“We’re past that point,” said Gisburne. “Draw your sword.” Without question, Asif did so. He turned his attention to the dark tunnel.

“D’you suppose I am afraid of you?” coughed the knight with all the contempt he could muster.

Gisburne gripped the man’s surcoat in his fists, and pulled him closer. “You should be,” he said.

The knight held his gaze – but for a moment his defiance seemed to falter. “Who are you?”

“Guy of Gisburne. The man who broke Castel Mercheval – and your master with it.”

Recognition dawned upon the knight’s face. “Gisburne…” He slumped back and coughed up blood. Then, inexplicably, he began to laugh. It grew in intensity, in spite of the pain it clearly caused him.

Asif stared at Galfrid in bemusement. This time, Galfrid’s face creased into a frown. The wounded knight’s left hand gripped Gisburne’s robes, and he drew himself up again. It seemed he wished to say something. Gisburne bent lower, and the man spoke, in a rasping whisper. “A red hand is coming…” With that, he began to chuckle. A mad laugh… or an exultant one.

Gisburne stared at him with incomprehension. “What do you mean?” The knight ignored the question, his laughter rising. Gisburne shook him. “What do you mean?”

The knight’s head jerked sideways with a horrid, convulsive movement, and something splattered across Gisburne’s cheek. He blinked, then saw the crossbow bolt sunk deep in the man’s temple. The knight fell back, his eyes like glass.

The bolt had come from the dark tunnel. But no sooner had they grasped this fact than their attackers were upon them – three tall figures, striding out of the gloom.

Gisburne leapt up. Two grim-faced figures – Christian knights, their swords raised – were rushing towards him. But it was not these men that commanded his attention. Between them, and a little way behind, was a third – taller, hooded, a crossbow hanging from one hand, a sword in the other, but with a face that glinted weirdly in the torchlight. At first glimpse, it seemed the fresh face of youth – pink cheeked, rosy lipped, albeit with strangely dead eyes. Then one was struck by its lack of expression, its uncanny stillness – the blank, lifeless perfection of a painted effigy.

There was one other detail – so insignificant, that any other would have missed it – but Gisburne’s eyes sought it out. The index finger of the hand that held the sword was hooked over the weapon’s crossguard. Even in the grip of onrushing threat, Gisburne felt himself shudder. This was the man they had sought these past months.

Tancred de Mercheval. The White Devil.

His bearing, the way he moved; these things were imprinted upon Gisburne’s brain. Presumably, the painted visage he now wore was meant to help him pass for a normal man when forced to traverse the streets. It so nearly succeeded – perhaps actually did so when only casually apprehended – but under close scrutiny, its strangeness seemed to grow exponentially. And yet Gisburne knew that what it hid was far, far worse – that behind this strange mask was a face distorted by mutilation, its features destroyed, its scalp denuded of flesh. A living skull.

It was a monster Gisburne himself had helped to create.

He had left the fanatical rebel Templar for dead in the smoking rubble of his own shattered castle over a year ago, his body burned by fire and quicklime. Every day since, Gisburne had cursed that one omission – had regretted that he had not made sure the job was finished, if only for the sake of those Tancred had tortured. For the sake of Galfrid.

Somehow – impossibly – Tancred had risen from that smouldering ruin. And he had not only refused to die, but had returned more dangerous, more twisted than before. There were those who claimed Tancred belonged in Heaven – more still who believed he belonged in Hell. All Gisburne knew for certain was that neither seemed to want him.

The empty holes that were the mask’s eyes bored into Gisburne’s own. “You…”  hissed Tancred. He flung his crossbow aside with a clatter.

Gisburne’s was already in his hand – but before he could move, a stocky figure charged past, almost knocking him off his feet.

Galfrid.

He was flying headlong at Tancred, his pilgrim staff swinging wildly, its heavy steel head booming through the air. Galfrid was habitually measured in his actions – it did not benefit either squire or knight to be otherwise. But Gisburne had caught the look in his squire’s eye as he passed. It burned with anger and hatred. Such things blinded a man.

The knight to Galfrid’s left – entirely overlooked – swung his sword with awesome force, countering the staff long before it had a chance to connect. There was a deafening crack as the two weapons met. The staff – notched, but intact – flew from Galfrid’s grip, but was evidently far heavier than the knight had anticipated. His own sword was jarred from his hand. He fumbled, grabbing at it, but it eluded his grasp. Galfrid, still in a burning rage, flew at him, grabbing handfuls of surcoat and mail. As they tussled on the narrow walkway, Asif went for the second of the two knights. Gisburne, meanwhile, braced himself to face Tancred. But as he turned his weapon, about to strike, he saw Galfrid suddenly spun by his opponent, and both pitched sideways into the dank lagoon, stinking spray flying up as they hit.

The distraction almost cost Gisburne his life, but he was somehow was aware of Tancred’s blade as it sang through the air towards him and instinct took over. He dropped to his knees, Tancred’s sword slicing the air inches above his head, then brought his own blade up with all the force he could summon. It was an awkward blow, hastily conceived – but its edge struck Tancred square across the face. Gisburne felt metal hit metal, and fell forward, onto all fours. Tancred staggered back, a silver gash scarring the painted steel of his mask, but the tip of his sword – at the end of its great, uninterrupted arc through the air – caught the top of Asif’s skull.

Asif, who had looked like getting the better of his adversary, teetered unsteadily, a bloody flap of flesh and hair hanging where the blade had scalped him to the bone. Then his knees buckled under him and he crashed against the rock wall.

Asif’s opponent now advanced on Gisburne. Gisburne, about to clamber to his feet, saw and felt the knight’s foot stamp upon his sword blade, pinning it to the rock. His attacker’s own blade glinted high above, ready to smash down upon his head. Gisburne gazed up at him, weaponless.

With a roar, the knight struck. In an apparently futile gesture, Gisburne raised his right arm against the flashing steel blade.

The sword stopped dead with a jarring impact. Gisburne’s head remained intact. The knight stared at the blade, still resting upon Gisburne’s miraculously uninjured forearm, and his brutal features rearranged themselves into an expression of disbelief.

Gisburne grasped the moment. He thrust his forearm up and to the side, and the sword went with it, flipping out of the knight’s hands as if plucked from them by a giant’s fingers. Before his opponent could recover, he launched himself upward, smashing the top of his head into his attacker’s teeth, and slammed him against the rock wall. The knight slumped, insensible. But as Gisburne turned to retrieve his sword, the whole world suddenly seemed to shift around him.

Tancred had plucked the torch from the wall, the deep shadows shifting and dancing as it moved on its course, and now stood before him like a wraith, flame in one hand, sword in the other.

“You fought me with fire once,” he said, his voice a dry rasp. “But God’s wrath cannot be undone by earthly means. This matter that surrounds us… It is mere distraction. The Devil’s work. Corrupt flesh. And Jerusalem is its rotten heart. But it shall be revealed for what it is. It will undergo the judgement of fire.”

Then he struck. Against all expectation, he held back with the sword, and instead swung the flame. It smashed against Gisburne’s head, sparks flying. He staggered, and tried to back away. But Tancred advanced and set about him, battering him again and again with the burning torch, his eyes fleetingly visible through the dark openings of the mask, blazing in their lidless sockets. Gisburne fell to his knees, clinging this time to the rock wall, but Tancred did not stop. With each blow, sparks flew out across the oily slick, threatening to ignite it. Finally, Gisburne collapsed.

Tancred stopped and stared at the bloodied Gisburne for a moment. He poked at his enemy’s forearm with a foot, pushed back the ragged sleeve, and saw the plate metal vambrace that had stopped his knight’s sword, and the row of blunt teeth along its lower edge that had trapped its blade. Through his daze, Gisburne thought he heard a chuckle of admiration.

He blinked up at his looming adversary, the expressionless, painted face cocked to one side. “This is not the end I imagined for you,” Tancred said. His voice was grotesquely child-like, his tone almost sing-song. Never had he sounded so insane. “I had hoped for something more elaborate. But no matter. An end is an end.” He drew himself up to full height again, and sighed deeply, as if with genuine regret. “Time to burn.”

And he tossed the torch into the lake.

 

With a great roar, it turned into a lake of fire. In the dazzling light, Gisburne saw Tancred retreating along the tunnel. Then the wave of heat hit, robbing him of his breath. He turned back to the blazing expanse, knowing Galfrid was somewhere in it. He would not leave him. Not this time.

He heard a cry. Splashing at the edge of the ledge was Galfrid, his arm reaching up to Gisburne. As Gisburne watched, flames licked the length of it, then across Galfrid’s soaked head. He scrambled towards him, saw the desperation in his face, his mind racing. “Sorry, old man,” he said, and shoved the squire back under. Galfrid’s expression at that moment was one Gisburne would always remember. A moment later he dragged him back up by his hood and hauled him out, coughing and spluttering, the flames smothered and extinguished.

At his side, seemingly from nowhere, the great figure of Asif loomed, the flap of bloody scalp now bound up with the black material of his turban. Gisburne was never more glad to see him.

“We must leave now if we are to live!” Asif urged. “The smoke and heat will choke us!”

Gisburne began to move, then stopped. He stared through the haze at the mountain of wooden barrels. The fire had not yet spread into the tunnels, but in another few moments, the barrels would burn through and release their load. Galfrid grabbed his arm – “Come on!” – but Gisburne tore it from Galfrid’s grip.

There was no time to explain. He ripped the bolt from the dead knight’s shoulder, took up his crossbow, cocked the lever to span the bow and loaded the tethered bolt. He did not fuss with it this time – barely paused to take aim.

The bolt flew. It stuck fast in one of the barrels in the lower row. Gisburne pulled on it. It held. He wrapped the cord about the vambrace and gauntlet, and heaved. The barrel stayed where it was. The others now saw his purpose, locked arms around him and added their weight to his.

The barrel still did not move.

Flames licked about them. Gisburne could feel the air being sucked from his lungs. They had their whole combined weight pulling now. The cord was stretched to its limit – was surely about to snap. Then, as they watched, the cord caught fire and began to burn.

Hope was lost. There was nothing left for them to do, no chance of escape. Gisburne supposed there never had been much chance.

Without warning, the barrel popped out from beneath its cousins. They crashed backwards as it bounced once and flew spinning into the burning liquid. Through the smoke and heat haze, Gisburne saw several rows above the empty space shift, and stop. For a moment, nothing moved. Then, in one great rumbling motion, the entire heap collapsed into the lake.

“Brace yourselves!” bellowed Gisburne, and put his arm across his face. A great tidal wave of filth swamped them, knocking them off their feet, and hurled them hard against the rock wall. They clung on as it subsided, threatening to drag them with it.

Gisburne lay huddled for some time before he dared look – and it was only Asif’s laughter that persuaded him to do so.

The chamber was filled with thick smoke, the stinking tide of effluent slopping back and forth like a rough sea. But the flames upon its surface had been smothered.

Jerusalem would not burn tonight.

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