Blood Line - Secrets (Intro)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prologue

 

Northumberland, England—1384 AD

 

The warm, metallic scent of blood penetrated the cool morning air, pricking her sensitive nose like a spear. Trembling, Gwyneth squeezed the swaddled infant to her chest and launched her thoughts like sprites toward the intruders.

 

“. . . ding the doxy, then ya can kill ‘er.”

          “Aye, no sense in wastin’ ‘er. He cares not, long as she be croaked.”

          “Stubble it, Barkie. I as much mulch yer throat as her.”     

“Ye be a hard man, Sir Camden.”

 “Aye, ‘n’ fergit it not.”

          “Soon ‘s we mash ‘er, we get outta this devil’s hole.”

          “What? Prender the throat-cutter afraid of ghosties, ghoulies ‘n’ longy-legged beasties?”

          “Roast ye alive they will, ‘n chew ye up like one o’ these coneys here.”

 

          He cares not!

          Morlach!

          His granite face flared in her mind, his fiery eyes filling her with fear. He snarled as he faded, then re-formed into a growling wolf’s head before dissolving into black mist. Her mind rumbled as his claw-like hands slashed into her agonized soul as they had a thousand times in her nightmares, wrenching her heart. Shocked by their friend’s horror, the squirrel and the raven who had been relishing her company fled in fear.

          Then it hit her.  If he had found me, I would be dead already. They do not know I am here. His scouts? That would be like him.

     But she was still trapped. The plague-cursed ruin that had been Killmarnock was bound on three sides by mountains with only one access road, that from the east, and they were on it, between her and her horse who waited for her call in a thicket near the stream. The lower parts of the slopes were tree covered, but the upper parts were bare; she would be an easy target for a bowman. The cave was a dead end, leaving only the small, tree-covered graveyard on the northern hill as her only chance to hide. Shuddering, she scuttled through the crumbled cottages.

          Never go alone.

          How many times had Ellond warned her? But like a sot to drink, she would cook up excuses to sneak away. Each time she promised to never do it again, but on such a beautiful morning, with frosted trees shimmering, she had brought her child along to share her peace as she harvested her medicinal roots—so she had thought.

          Ellond was never wrong.

          The infant whimpered. Glancing at the innocent creature in her arms,

          Gwyneth fought off a wave of self pity and steeled her soul. “Sleep, sweetheart,” she whispered. Sleep came quickly.

          She whistled softly at a sparrow hawk circling near the far tree line. The small, aqua-feathered bird immediately banked toward her and landed at her feet.

          “Friend,” it said, flashing its yellow eyes.

          “Humans. There.”

          The hawk nodded toward the grassy slot.

          “How far?”

          “Close.”

          “Can you delay them?”

          The hawk squawked and leaped into the air, soaring up until he was a mere speck; then he dove, his claws extended, screeching like a Celtic warrior. Shocked curses and whin- nies erupted from behind the trees. The hawk rose and attacked again. This time three arrows flew through the air.

          As Gwyneth pushed through the thick trees, the raptor dove yet again; this time he did not rise. The noble bird’s mortal pain sliced through her heart.

 

          “That demon like to’ve tore me head off.”

          “And then it eats ya and—hold. Footprints.”

          Swords slithered out of their sheaths.

 

          Footprints!  Even the snow had betrayed her. She knew what the thugs would do to her child after they had their way with her; she had seen it before. Tearfully gazing at her infant, she said a prayer and shoved through the dense trees, slicing her arms and face on the pointed leaves.

          The grumbling men tied their mounts to low-hanging branches at the dry stream bed that ran across the road. They were unshaven and armed, their voices as foul as their smells. The first was a six-footer, as tall as the longbow he carried.

          A brace of bloody hares dangled from his leather belt. The second was shorter and broader. The third was dark and wiry. Morlach, at least, was not among them.

          The wiry one grabbed the bowman’s arm and pointed. “Prender, over here.

          Barkie, check the cave.”

          Barkie dropped the rabbits and squatted. “Ho, Camden!” he shouted, “here be some more footies here. Right here I say. Wee little things they be.”

          “I see diggin’ over here,” Prender said. The highwayman pulled back his hood as he yanked a white tuber from the dirt. He sniffed the root and turned away in disgust.

          “Looks like we got us a garden here,” said Camden.

          “Her?” Barkie asked.

          Camden shook his head. “Sounds right. But she’s supposed to be here tomorrow. And where’s her horse?” He scratched his stubbled chin.

          “He told us to wait for him,” Barkie said.

          “No plan survives the first arrow, now do it? Besides, it’s only a wench. So much for lyin’ in wait.” He directed the men to split up.

          Barkie squinted at the holly. “That be where I hide.”

 

          Gwyneth kissed the infant’s cheek. “I am sorry, my darling. I will love you always.”

 

          The men moved forward, checking their flanks and using hand signals. Then a blue flash caught Camden’s eye. He spun to his right as the tail of a cloak dashed through the trees and weather-worn headstones. A shock of red hair peeked out from the hood. He waved to his flankers. The cloaked figure hesitated at the foot of an oak tree, then it quickly turned about and darted back to the overgrowth. Prender moved right. Barkie deployed to the left flank and nocked an arrow to his longbow.

          Camden moved straight ahead. “Come to me, my wayward mousie,” he whispered, squeezing the hilt of his silver-pommeled sword. “I got something for you, lass.” His mates pushed out wider to cut off escape. He reached the trees, but the prickly, thirty foot green wall was nearly impenetrable.

          A soft wail, like that of a wounded gull, gently floated through the still air. It slowly grew louder, then suddenly stopped. Without warning, Gwyneth’s horse burst from the thicket in the eastern woods, galloping across the stream and up the path in a panic. The men’s horses then started to kick and yank on their tethers. Camden had never seen them so upset, not even in battle, but he attributed their agitation to the wench’s mount. He had to end her quickly, before they either injured themselves or broke free, leaving him and his men afoot in the Fell.

          Gwyneth felt it first. With her heart pounding, she turned as the ancient beast rose from the depths of darkness, roused to life by the intruders. The ground shuddered. Like a smothering, stinking thundercloud it hovered over Gwyneth’s head, snarling, determined to take her. Horrified, she screamed in agony as its sulfurous, rancid smoke poured over her like a shroud, stealing her breath, enveloping her in its suffocating grip. Then its jaws opened and, spewing flame, it took her.

          Her piercing shriek stopped the mercenaries in their tracks as the sounds of desperate thrashing, rupturing bone, and rending flesh, hammered their ears. The air was suddenly filled with foul, black smoke. The trees trembled.

          Two of their horses snapped their restraining branches and stampeded up the path dragging broken limbs behind them. The third lunged furiously, but the stout branch would not yield.

          Camden’s master had warned him about her tricks, but he had faced hordes of Scots and Welsh men at arms; he was not going to leave the field to a cowering giglet. He waved Prender in from the right flank, then followed Barkie around the left, expecting to find either the wench shivering like a caterpillar, or being chewed by a bear.

          Suddenly, trees crunched, sending smashed branches hurtling through the air, showering the men with debris, forcing them to dive for cover. Bruised and infuriated, Camden waved his men ahead, but they would not move.

          As they struggled to their feet, the dragon exploded through the dense growth, crushing thick trunks to splinters, smoke flaring from its broad nostrils, its huge feet pounding the ground. A flying branch bashed into Camden’s side, knocking him to the ground. Gasping in pain, he crawled behind a rock.

          The beast’s malicious, black eyes swept the clearing and spotted Camden. As it turned, a broken aspen tree teetered, then rolled off of its spiked back. With thick, glowing drool dripping from its mouth, it inhaled and spat a shaft of flame over Camden’s head, setting his hood afire. He screamed in pain, and ripped it off, searing his hands and tripping over a broken branch as the dragon leaned over him.

          Slashing wildly with his sword, he tried to pray as he hacked at the stinking mouth, but his hardened soul failed him. The dragon’s gigantic jaws engulfed him, but instead of swallowing him, it spat him out like he was a chicken bone. He crashed into a tree, his left arm snapping on impact; his sword flew past his head and stuck into the trunk above him. Dazed, he wiped a slimy strip of bloody, blue wool from a swollen eye.

          At least she be dead, he thought.

          Camden ducked as the flailing, spiked tail swung over his head. With his belly sliced and bleeding from the dragon’s teeth, and with his left arm dangling uselessly at his side, he yanked his sword out of the tree. He was bound to meet Satan anyway; at least he would die with it in his hand.

          Then the creature stumbled and flailed wildly, slicing an alder to slivers. It roared, hissing smoke and shaking its huge head, spitting fire as it spun in a drunken circle, its tail slamming into boulders and trees.

          Seeing the monster struggle, and ignoring his painful broken arm, Camden’s hateful pride drove him to his feet and he slashed at the mottled head. But the beast stood nearly eight feet high at its shoulders and its head rose another five feet on its thick neck; the blade fell far short and smacked into its chest, shattering into silvery shards. Camden’s right arm went numb. Enraged, he rolled back and reached for his dagger, but he could not grasp it in his useless hand.

          The beast turned on him, its confusion replaced by seething anger. It’s forked tongue shot out, barely missing his head. Then it raised up on its hind legs and roared into the blue sky, it’s cry echoing off the mountains like peals of thunder.

          Prender, who had been cowering behind a bush, made a run for the remaining horse, but he was too late. In a dozen heavy steps that squashed everything in its path, the dragon was upon him. Prender tried to leap a stump but caught his foot. His leg snapped as he plummeted to the ground, banging his head and blacking out.

          The dragon snorted and turned toward the tree line where Barkie was cowering. Quivering with fear, he turned to flee, but he tripped. The thug hobbled to his feet and grappled with an arrow. He pulled back on his bow and loosed, only to see it shatter against the dragon’s face. He frantically pulled another arrow from his quiver just as Camden, who had limped back into the fight, struck at the dragon’s belly with his dagger, breaking his blade.

          Barkie’s second shaft met the same fate as the first. The dragon hissed fire over his head, igniting an overhanging pine. Unable to flee, he threw himself to the ground and played possum. The dragon lurched forward, but stumbled and slammed into the burning tree, toppling it onto Barkie, crushing him. The beast pushed the smoking trunk aside and jostled the corpse with its snout.

          Hoof beats echoed in the still air. The dragon spun around as Prender galloped up the trail with blood dripping from his fractured leg. It turned on Camden, who had collapsed against a boulder clutching his smoking face in agony. The last thing he saw was the creature’s dripping jaws.

 

 

 

 

 

 

1

Northumberland, England

1399 A.D.

 

          Aaron Hawke knew he was as good as dead. Smoke spewed out of the dragon’s mouth, stealing his breath. Its black eyes flared like burning faggots as it closed in. Instantly, the creature exploded in a shower of sparks that flickered like fire flies into oblivion.

          The ruins looked familiar, and at the same time alien, as though he were trapped between two realities in this silent world. A raven nipped at his nose. A stubborn grass snake slithered over his foot. It harrumphed at the intruder and retreated, not wishing to get involved.

          As the sun crept over the eastern ridge, burning thin shafts into the cool mist, the ground shuddered and he pitched forward, banging his head. A black hole opened up and he dove into it.

          He awoke on his belly against a tree trunk that smelled like Frederick’s searing forge. The tree kicked him, throwing him aside like a leaf. He tumbled across the damp earth, until he splashed to a halt in a cold stream. Soaked and shivering, he looked up into the snarling fangs of a wolf, who snapped at his nose and then vaporized. Hawke crawled to the bank where he was immediately crushed by the dragon’s gigantic foot. His body shattered, yet he felt nothing.

          He wondered: Is this death?

          As the razored fangs lowered over his head, the black hole opened once again. With hammer blows echoing in the emptiness, he tumbled into the bottomless depths whispering, “Ellond is always right.”

 

          Hawke crashed back to his cold, dark earth, landing with a thud on his bare back. Then he realized he was lying on a reed-covered, dirt floor. He pushed his night cap back from his blood-shot eyes and rubbed his unkempt red hair. His mouth tasted like moldy bread.

          The sun still slept, which was what he wished he was doing. With his brain threatening to gallop out of his skull, he tried to sit up, but banged his head into bed frame.          

          One of his boots launched across the room, crashing into the table hitting the cold candle, which leaped into the air, hovered, then smashed into the far wall and splattered. A stool careened off the table top, finally coming to rest on Frederick’s bed. Then the spinning slowly abated and the pain melted away, leaving a dull ache.

          When he opened his eyes, he saw a terrified mouse quivering on the rushes a hand’s breadth from his nose. As he slid back rubbing his aching noggin, the mouse tiptoed after him keeping a discreet distance.

          “Sorry.” The young man checked his armpits. No bumps; at least he did not have the plague; he was reasonably certain that he might live until tomorrow.

          “Scare,” whimpered the mouse. She lifted a shivering paw and pointed at the freshly chewed hole in the wall that was blocked by his body. “Go?”

          “Go,” he said.

          The mouse bolted through the hole.

          Hawke almost wished that his “uncle” had awakened him. Throttling the recurring nightmare would have been a blessing. But at least Frederick had thrown a couple of branches into the fire pit before heading for the smithy to do battle with iron and flame.

          After verifying that all his parts were still working, he dressed and tossed a log into the flickering fire pit, feeding the flames back to life. Then he grabbed a small cauldron from the tool shelf and headed to the larder. Two smoked and salted slabs, one of bacon and the other of beef, hung from the weigh-beam, and while he was a carnivore at heart, cold meat did not seem especially appetizing this morning. So he grabbed the last four of yesterday’s eggs and a fistful of oats mixed with dried peas, making a mental note to see Fern Thornburn this day for more cackle-farts.

          As usual, the clay jar of sliced dried beef was open. Frederick rarely capped it when he was in a hurry to get to work, which was most of the time. Yet Hawke knew the misplaced lid had a deeper meaning. He should, as a matter of nature, rise before dawn and plummet into his labors. After all, laziness is a sin. But since he was already in the smith’s shadowed graces for being a lazy lobkin, a few more minutes would not significantly affect his standing with the Lord.

          He boiled the eggs and oats, dreading the silent reproach that awaited him while he tried without success to find logic in his bewildering dreams.

          As he sucked a peeled egg into his mouth, he thought of his dagger-mates, who liked to tell him that he wolfed down his food. That metaphor did not seem appropriate on this morning. He washed the food down with a beaker of pear cider.

          Having set the roof afire last winter, he glanced at the slate-lined, blackened vent hole in the thatch above him to make sure no sparks lurked in the thick rushes. Seeing no smoke over his head, he headed for the smithy to face his reproof for being slothful.

 

          “Aaron; heat.” Frederick Hawke growled through his short, ragged beard as the young man entered. He neither missed his characteristic B am-bam-BAM! Bam!  rhythm nor looked up from the anvil.

          Hawke manned the bellows. In seconds the dying charcoal faggots had turned from dull red to angry orange. Frederick yanked up the axe blade with his tongs and thrust it into the fire. The fire found it delicious and belched bright sparks in appreciation.

          Back on the anvil went the head, and the smith’s herculean arm bashed his nine-pound hammer into its victim. Bam!  “Can’t be fixed.” Bam! “Might as well pitch it, he says.” The smith glared at the head like a demon eyeing a human soul. He growled at an unwelcome bulge and, with vengeance in his heart, maliciously punished the sinful iron.

          Hawke smiled through the smoke. If Frederick had had an escutcheon, his motto would undoubtedly have been: When in doubt, whack it harder.

          Yellow sparks flew at Frederick’s leather apron and stung his rough face. Some landed in his graying hair and short-trimmed beard, hissing their final breath. A few more hairs cooked off. He had plenty.

          “Enough.” Aaron stopped pumping. Bam!  “Go to Burdop for a new one.” Bam!           “Don’t trouble yourself, he says.” He turned it over. One more Bam!  “That’s it. Hah!” He dropped the blade into the water tub and leaned into the erupting steam.

          Meriadoc, his nearly-deaf gray mare, snickered from her stall. As a colt, the four-year old had been bartered by a farmer named Hindmer for plowshares and rakes. She was used to the banging iron but hissing steam always bothered her. The gray cat that had wandered in during the night and was sleeping at her feet was not botherable.

          “I had a hulking dream last night, Frederick.”

          “Nice metal. Shame to give up on it. Sharpen this chopper up, Aaron, and get Woodward back hacking down every tree in the shire first thing. May the fir trees forgive me. Grind it good.” He dipped his hands in the tub and, still dripping, stalked out of the barn without another word. Through the entire rebirth of the iron slab, he had not looked at his nephew.

          Aaron pulled out the dripping blade, laid the edge on the stone wheel, and set sparks to flying until its cutting edge begged for mercy. He hung the sharpened blade on the front wall with other works of iron and steel: hoes, rakes, chains, and several knives. Stepping outside the barn, he sucked in a man-sized breath of the cool, fresh air. The sun promised to soar above the village and warm up the mud and the manure piles. Then the village would smell “normal.”

          Across the road, Barlow Fletcher’s pink and black sow grunted through a heap of broken pottery, scraps of wood, chicken bones, feathers, clouds of flies, and discarded thatch that lay behind the arrow maker’s home. She was oblivious to his presence—much like Frederick.

          Ellond would know what to do. He knew everything. Gazing blankly down the rutted, mud path that led through the tough little heart of Thorneburcke, toward his mentor’s cottage. Hawke’s head told him to seek him out. His heart said, ‘ No’. Pride? Ellond had warned him about that, too.

          The nightmare had started in the spring as mere irritations, but with each succeeding visitation, it had grown more vivid and terrifying, pushing him into paroxysms. In June, a mouse’s chittering was just noise; now it was language. And this very day his tortured mind had hurled an oak stool across the room at his uncle’s bed. What if Frederick had been in that bed?

          Cold, prickly fear flitted through him as it had many times before, like a darting bat on a summer’s night—dark and ungraspable. No matter how Hawke sliced this melon, he was changing—but into what?

         


 

 

 

 

2

 

          The weathered sign above the door of the Cutler’s Shard  displayed a broken cutlass and an inscription: est’d 1348, Asplin Crugg Prop. Upon returning from a journey to plague-infested Italy, the blade maker had abandoned his swords, and his dead and dying shipmates, taking with him a pouch of stolen gold and the ship’s mas-cot, a mongrel called Hedley. Upon rowing ashore in Sussex, he renamed the dog, Lamar, meaning Of the Sea. The dog died within days and was, fittingly, dumped into the sea, but not before sharing his fleas with numerous other creatures, and eventually, most of England. Crugg, who was innately immune to the virus, journeyed inland until he reached Northumberland, the northernmost part of England. The plague came with him and would quickly kill half the island’s population, including the innkeeper of Hollinhead on the Boarcragg’s popular Bouser’s Rest public house.

          Crugg moved into the deserted tavern and renamed it accordingly. Ironically, Crugg himself died by a highwayman’s blade shortly thereafter, and the tavern’s ownership changed hands yet again. In all of the Rede’s Dale, the Shard was known as the last stop in the lane known as Smuggler’s Alley, the only tippling house in Hollinhead where the dress code included cutlasses.

          The little man who slopped out of the Northumbrian rain and through the Shard’s soot-streaked door appeared at first as dangerous as an ill-bred kitten. He could have been forty, an oddity in the Shard, for rarely did its clientele survive that long. He pulled the drippy, moss-green hood from his bald head and sauntered around a half dozen tables to the gouged slab of ancient oak that passed for a bar. A damp, excrement-laced breeze followed him through the entrance. On each table top he passed, a knife or a sword stood upright in front of each of its occupants.

          He bellied up to the bar next to a huge man with a fisher’s scaling knife staked in front of him. The stranger pulled a silver-handled dagger from his belt, and stabbed it into the badly splintered counter to attract the attention of the barmaid. When she turned, he pulled half a silver ha’penny from the leather purse on his belt, enough money for four beakers of ale, and flipped it in her direction. The coin bounced only once on the counter before the big man’s hand smashed it flat. The bald man smiled. Oddly, he appeared to have all of his teeth.

          “Ye best move along, little fella,” the barmaid cackled. “This ain’t not no place for the likes of ye. Dickie there might stink you up a bit, ya know. Ye might get hurted.”

          “Hah!” The fisher growled with moldy breath, “That be Richard, my dearie Evelyne. Not Dickie.” Scowling at the bald man, he dragged the penny toward him.

          “Hurtcha? Nah, ye be good bait.” Evelyne grinned.

          The old man nodded at the sweaty thief. “Give her the penny, if you please.” The hand did not move. In a flash, the little man yanked his dagger out of the oak and stabbed it through the back of the fisherman’s hand, pinning it to the wood. The stunned bully stared at the knife in disbelief as blood seeped from his wound. Smiling warmly, the stranger yanked out the blade.

          Sweet Evelyne made no attempt to stifle her laugh as she handed Dickie a rag and thereupon snatched up the coin, wiped the blood, bit it, and dropped it into the leather purse she kept tied to her belt. With her treasure secured, she turned to less important things. “Dickie, you best wash that out a bit afore you gets blood in your beaker. Step in back and use me personal trough.”

          She smacked a wooden mug on the counter and sloshed warm ale on both men. Dickie dropped the rag and, fearing to take his eyes off his attacker, he backed out the rear door. With the kerfuffle over, the other patrons eagerly resumed their drinking. The barmaid pick up the bloody rag and wiped down the brown and red spills on the counter.

          The bald man motioned Evelyne to lean closer. She obliged with a giggle, gracing the men with thick scents of rose water. He whispered into her ear, eliciting a broad smile that showed off her rich, brown teeth. She whispered back, being sure that her lips touched his ears. He nodded and dropped a whole penny into her rough hand, whereupon she held up a finger. Another penny dropped and was immediately deposited into the purse.

          The old man turned away from the bar. “Men of the road!” he shouted. Every head turned toward him, the euphemism for thief being well known to one and all. “I seek a handful of stout-hearted men, good and true, who will assist me with a task. I pay well.” He sipped his ale as he watched the clusters of manly chatter.

          When the noise died away and every head was turned back toward him, he laid his cup back on the counter. “We travel the Whele Fell.”

          Snorts and laughter rolled through the inn. Several of the men, however, held his eyes. One in particular, a man with shoulder-length black hair and a long scar on the left side of his stern, unshaven face, defiantly glared back at him. His dirty gray shirt and black doublet matched his mood.

          “Arbogast,” the bald man said, smiling not out of friendliness, but because the name was a new one, the latest in a lengthy chain of nomination which included among others, Thanatos, Morlach, and his favorite, Bucephalus, which was the name of Alexander the Great’s horse. He straddled the low stool at the defiant one’s table. He set his cup down, then laid his bloody dagger next to it, extending his hands face up, a gesture of peace.

          “Plank.” The dark one picked up the dagger and stabbed the table with it, splattering splinters into the air. Gesture refused.

          “You know the Fell?”

          Plank nodded, wiping his mouth with his shirt sleeve. Like most of the other patrons, the hood of his shirt was down. “I been there a time or two.”

          “You do not fear it.” Arbogast closed his eyes as two men stopped behind him.

          “Sit.”

          Two daggers shook the table. The first was planted by a ham-sized fist that belonged to a muscular ox in a brown tunic. A Scottish claymore sword was tucked in his belt. His broad, unsmiling face was scruffy, thin-lipped, and carried several small scars. His auburn hair was clumped in filthy tangles. The second blade, stabbed by a four-fingered hand, belonged to a handsome, stone-faced man. His brown hair barely covered his ears. His left hand, like his right, was missing its index finger. The little man saw intelligence in his gray eyes.

          Plank and the two men eyed each other like wary mongrels defending a carcass.

          “How much?” the ox asked.

          “Not yet,” Arbogast said.

          At that moment, the barmaid arrived with a tray holding five beakers of ale. She was followed by two more men: a sturdy gent with short, spiked hair and a saber in his paw, along with a fair-featured willow branch of a young fellow with a blond mop atop his head and a wry smile on his pleasant lips. He had likely never shaved. Evelyne clunked the mugs on the table. As she turned away with a wink, the young man pulled his felt hat off his head, then he pinched her. She promptly slapped him upside the head with the tray and paraded back to the bar with her rosy scent trailing behind her.

          The stunned youth yanked his knife. Plank grabbed his arm and shoved him onto a stool. The irate lad turned the blade on Plank and received a fist across the other side of his face from the ox, knocking him to the dirt floor.

          Arbogast said, “Sit.”

          “Suck a egg!” The young man staggered to his feet. Growling and dizzy from the bludgeoning, he yanked off his dirty, green kerchief and wiped a streak of blood from his cheek.

          Arbogast wiggled a finger and the rebel fell onto the stool as though he had been pushed. “That will be enough of that,” said the old man. “If you behave, you may move.           Nod your head north and south.” The young man sat rigidly. “Take me not for a molloncolly madman, master Gripe. That was not a request.”

          Gripe’s neck creaked, then locked up. His face contorted in pain, as he struggled to tilt it forward. His oaken stance instantly turned to pudding. He shook his head, which only made the pain worse, but amused the other men at the table.

          “Gentlemen,” — Gripe snickered — “call me Arbogast. You shall take me seriously. Gripe,” — he looked at the young man — “should you fail to obey me, I shall kill you.” The men fell silent; smiles evaporated.

          “A question, if you please,” said the stone-faced man.

          Arbogast nodded. “Simon.”

          Simon slapped the table. “That is a good trick there, what with dancing Gripe here. There be five mugs you ordered from Mistress Quickly before we even come over. How did you know we five would enlist?” The old man shrugged. “A good guesser, eh? I wager you do well at Acey-ducey. So now that we all be mates, Georgie, introduce yourself.” He slapped the red-headed Scot’s arm.

          “Georgie.” His face was gouged, as if it had been carved with a dull knife.

          “Spencer,” said the Welshman, rolling his blood-shot eyes. Forsaking his knife, he stabbed his saber deep into the table, nearly penetrating it; then he sat. The beakers shook violently, slopping over. “I be mighty thirsty,” he said, pointing at the mug in front of him. All of the men drank and Arbogast signaled Evelyne for another round.

          Plank drained his cup and wiped his mouth. Without asking, he pulled Gripe’s knife out of its sheath and stuck it. “The job. If it is not too much trouble.” His eyes were dark and deep. Were it not for several scars, he might have been handsome.

          Arbogast rubbed the blue kerchief that covered his neck, and turned toward the sulking Gripe. “You may speak, should you desire to do so.”

          “ I got nothin’ ta say, but ‘ow nice o’ ya to ask.”

          Arbogast reached beneath his damp tunic, pulled out a leather pouch, and dropped it on the table. The willow branch, who was feeling less pain after a stiff drink, hefted the purse, then peeped inside. “Gold.” He smiled as he slapped away a fly that was trying to crawl up his nose.

          The ox bellowed, “Lemme see that, Gripe.” He grabbed the sack. “Gotta be a pound.” He dropped the bag in front of Georgie, a slightly smaller version of the Welshman. “Where it come from?”

          “I made it.”

     The brigands stared at the old man. Plank grabbed his dagger and laid the blade at Arbogast’s throat, breaking the mood. His face was as tight as death. “I asked you once. Perhaps I should slit your neck and just take it. None o’ these lads will mind a little blood on the floor. Now, what is the job?”

          Arbogast raised a hand to the blade edge and gently pushed it toward the table. Plank fought to hold the knife steady, but his fist drifted down as gently as a goose feather.

          Arbogast said, “Do you wish to hear me out?”

          Plank lifted a finger, then another. The other men shot anxious glances back and forth, then they lifted their blades and stabbed the innocent wood once again.

          “You are being reasonable. I am making you an offer you can not refuse.” His voice was little more than a whisper, barely audible over the buzzing tipplers.

          The ox leaned forward. “What you want in the Fell?”

          Evelyne leaned over Gripe’s shoulder, being careful to rub her arm against it, and placed six dripping tankards on the puddled table. After Arbogast paid her, she again leaned over Gripe and planted a kiss on his cheek. Then she sauntered away swaying her ample hips.

          “You in love again?” Spencer asked.

          “Aye. True love,” Gripe grinned.

          “Aye. I knows but one way to go an’ that be ahead. Just stay out of me way,” said Georgie with a heavy, Scottish brogue.

          “Simple ’ere be a sea crab,” Gripe said, pointing at Spencer. “Carracks and Galleons, eh? I be in.”

          “Gunner’s mate,” Simple boasted.

          A kerfuffle erupted near the entrance. The patrons all turned as a surly gent who was missing his right arm, picked himself off the floor and stumbled into the door, banging his head. He rolled to his knees, then vomited before passing out. Their curiosity sated, the men returned to their business.

          Arbogast turned toward Plank. “To your question, Sir Neville.” Plank’s face hardened.

          “Sir Neville is it now?” Simple said. “We be honored.”

          Plank ignored him. “You know a bit about us, I gather this meeting is not entirely random.”

          “Our meeting is not entirely random, as you said. I know of Sir—Plank.” He nodded at the former knight. “And I know of Simon Hawke.”

          Simon’s face darkened.

          “ ‘e wants you to capture a maiden’s ‘eart,” Gripe crowed. “Then eat it.”

          “To the job lads. Is it aye or nay?”

          Plank searched the men’s faces. “Aye. All in.”

          “You have sealed your oath. What do you know of the Fell?”

          “Our gracious King Richard—may his ears fall off—calls it the uninhabited area.”

          “What be that?” Gripe said.

          “Ain’t not no bodies livin’ there,” Georgie answered.

          Gripe stuck out his tongue.

          Plank said, “Ain’t nobody live there for Georgie’s folk keep running across the border and killing fine English citizens.”

          Gripe rolled his eyes and lifted his mug.

          Plank continued. “Even if King Richard himself did not forbid his folk from going into the Fell, only a dicked-in-the-nob Prig would risk it. Aye. I been to some parts. Me and our glorious King who should be eaten by a whale sometimes disagree.”

          “And no soldiers, so it be quiet,” Georgie offered.

          “To quiet,” Simon said, raising his cup.

          Dickie emerged from the back with his hand wrapped in a piece of gray cloth, grateful that the dagger had missed all of his bones. His beaker awaited him at the bar. He tucked the throbbing hand inside his doublet and tuned in to the little man’s blathering with the tag-rags at the table, wondering how it would feel to break the baldy’s neck.

          “Ain’t not safe,” Gripe growled.

          Arbogast cocked his head. “You fear the puck?”

          Simple slapped the table and smiled, showing his gray teeth. “Aye, the puck, the trickster ‘isself. I ain’t no noddy. I does not wish to become a ripe turnip or a stinkin weasel.”

          “Aye,” Georgie said. “And the spirits o’ the dead tarry there. They can suck yer brains out yer ears. Devils they be.”

          “And the dragon,” Simple blurted.

          “Hah!” Gripe swirled a finger about an ear.

          “Take a care,” said Simple. “I heared of it from a fella who knew a gent, who heard of a fella what seen it.”

          “And the dragon.” Every eye turned toward Plank. His eyes stared blankly at the table, as though recalling a dream.

          “You have seen such a beast,” Arbogast said.

          “No.”

          “Yet you believe they exist.”

          Plank sighed. “I knew a man. His name was Sir Basil Camden, a knight of the oath. We fought together; our lives waged for the sake of a golden crown. Like me, he fell on hard times. He met the beast in the Fell. It killed one of his mates.” Plank fell silent, then continued in a hushed voice, his eyes unfocused. “It ate up a wench and crushed one of his men like a toad. The other fled like a coward. It came after Camden; had him pinned. Then it burned him.” Gripe turned pale. “I run across him three years later. Half his face and most of his body was scorched.”

          Gripe slid his stool back. Holding his mouth, he hurried out into the rain. “He be a nice lad,” Georgie said, coughing. “First the puck, then the ghoulies and ghosties, now the longie-legged beasties. I never seed none of ‘em. Yer daft, the lot o’ ya.”

          “Have a care with your jest,” Arbogast warned. “Have you ever seen a whale?”

          Georgie shrugged. “Not many in the highlands.”

          “Simple, you are a seafarer.”

          “Aye. Seed more than man can count.”

          “That makes it more than one,” Gripe said, ducking back into his seat, his stomach apparently emptied.

          Simple leaned toward Gripe. “Swallow you whole, they will. I seed a whale fish’s tail plunder so hard it cracked the ship in halfses. Then she swims about us for the rest o’ the day, just so we knew who done it.” He sucked on his ale. 

          “Did you drown?” Gripe asked.

          “Aye. Three times.” He belched. “My moby was dicked that day, I tells ya.”

          “The Burcke, I believe you call it. Is that correct, Simon?” Arbogast asked.

          “Why are you asking me?”

          “That is your home, is it not?”

          “Was.”

          “Fairly spoken. There is a young man in the Burcke,” Arbogast said. “He interests me.”

          “So?”

          “His name is Aaron Hawke.”

          “Hawke?”

          “He lives with your brother.”

          Simon scraped his fingertips on the table. “The old sledgehammer jumped the sword, eh?”

          “No. He adopted the lad. His father is a mystery.”

          Plank raised a foot and crushed a slow-moving centipede; then he leaned forward. “And the mother?”

          “I believe she is dead.”

          Arbogast fingered the blade of Plank’s knife; it was a knight’s dagger. The silver pommel was a small molded escutcheon with a diagonal bar. He leaned closer to look at the coat of arms. It held a tiny lion, en rampant¸  a sun, and a chevron.

          “If we do this,” Plank said, “we earn our bread.” He pulled the knife away.

          “I am sure you will.” Arbogast motioned at the bag. “Consider this a retainer. When your work is done, I will give each of you a pound of gold.” The men collectively inhaled at the mention of the staggering sum, more than they could ever see in a lifetime. Gripe’s knife tipped and fell to the table top with a thud. “So we are agreed?”

          Five Ayes agreed about the table.

          “And when we find this Hawke?” Plank asked

          Arbogast made a tent of his fingers and slowly raised the tips to his lips, glancing from face to curious face. “That depends. You may be called upon to kill.”

          None protested.

          “There it is.”

          Dickie the fisher was not the brightest candle in the chapel, but his hearing was passable. He hadn’t caught all of it, but the Burcke and kill were clear enough. He quickly exited the ale house, leaving his half-emptied beaker for Evelyn’s eager lips.


Comments:
There are no messages yet
TheTaleMonger
Novel / Novella
Adventure
writing TheTaleMonger
If at first you don't succeed, you're about average.
Bookmark and Share

You must log in to rate.
This has not been rated.

Synopsis
Fifteen-year old Aaron Hawke has reached adulthood standing astride two medieval worlds: that of mortal man, and that which mortal man condemns, fearing both who he is and what he is becoming. Cursed from his birth to mysterious parents and forced to conceal a sorcerer’s nascent power, Hawke does not believe his fragmented life can get any worse. But he is not the only one with secrets. An enemy, powerful beyond the young man’s imagination, planted the seeds of his death long before he was born - and the harvest is near. As the reaper attempts to claim his prize, Hawke is catapulted into the treacherous darkness of the world he fears, not knowing if he will ever again see the light. Surrounded by lies, betrayal, and death, and at the risk of his soul, the battle is joined. But neither he nor his foe has counted on the beast. Blood Line – Secrets is set in the 14th Century in the remote Whele Fell of Northumbria, England near Hadrian’s wall. Long abandoned by royal decree, the Fell was feared as the hideout of cutthroats and the spawning ground of ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties. Only the very brave or very foolhardy dared ventured there.
Published Date
7/2/2013 12:00:00 AM
Published In
Published by Outskirts Press
© 2014 WritingRoom.com, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
WRITING | POETRY WRITING | CREATIVE WRITING | WRITE A BOOK | WRITING CONTESTS | WRITING TIPS