For those of you have been wondering where I’ve been these last weeks. I have got stuck into my fourth novel and its’s taking up what spare time I have. I am using the working title ‘Riverton’ and I am posting the second draft of the first chapter while I carry on with chapter six. I hope it is of interest, however, keep in mind the first draft of chapter one in my first novel, ‘The Gateway’, ended up in the middle of my third book.
It was raining the proverbial cats and dogs as Sir Tomos of Southcote rode along the well-trodden road rapidly turning to mud beneath his horse’s hoofs. Tomos, the Steward to Earl Horsa of Swanston, grimaced, out of sorts, he hated being out in the rain. However, he’d had no option this time, though he couldn’t get rid of the thought that desperation led many times to acute forms of discomfort – and fear. Anxiety furrowed his brow as he bent his head against the cold wind blowing almost into his face. It was dusk now, rapidly approaching full dark and he didn’t want to be stuck riding home through the night. Though he knew the road well it was still not easy avoiding the potholes even in the moonlight, and there was no moon as yet and unlikely to be later. This meeting should have been held in his office in the castle not in this neglected village of Korn, a hamlet barely touching the outskirts of the large town of Swanston. But it did border the Great Forest, the foothills of the Scissor Mountains still many leagues to the east and that is where the boy had fled.
His brown cloak was now soaked through, the hood clinging to his thin face, and he was tired. Since the murder he’d hardly slept, apprehending the culprit and keeping him safe was all that mattered. Extreme puzzlement was another reason for his dour expression. Why on earth did the boy do it? If she had to die then someone else should have been the slayer, leaving the boy free as his time had not yet come.
However, Tomos’ other responsibilities meant early risings, long hours and late nights toiling at his liege lord’s corporate affairs, this had contributed to his weariness though he should be used to it by now. Long hours because the earl was demanding and hot-tempered. The nobleman was also not a very pleasant man, nor overly intelligent which Tomos thought was a blessing on times. He could be easily manoeuvred into discussing aspects of his estates that were not quite so important to Tomos’ interests, distracting the large man from those that were. More concerned in hunting with his hounds and hawking, the earl was slothful where business was concerned. Hard to please he kept reiterating that all Tomos had to do to ensure his continuing stewardship, and easy life, was to make sure that the earl’s revenue appeared on due date. The steward had not failed yet but had often come close to it. The Earl could never understand that corn could not be reaped in bad weather or when there was a shortage of labour.
But this meeting in Korn was more to do with the Steward’s own interests than those of the irascible lord, one of many such nobles within the society of rural Drakka.
Tomos halted outside the small, drab inn, run by Egbert Trout, an innkeeper of some forty years of age, the inheritor of his family’s once very successful tavern rundown now because of Egbert’s idleness and inebriation, though it was situated in an ideal spot on the main road into Swanston. With one quick look around in the gloom he dismounted onto the road and handed the reins of his black palfrey to a small boy who appeared, like magic, from around the side of the melancholic two-storey building. The innkeeper’s only son touched his forelock, at the same time being careful not to meet the Steward’s eye.
Tomos hated anyone looking at his empty eye socket. The right was perfectly normal but the left was missing, taken by a sword cut in an attack in years past. On that occasion he had been defending his charge, this same one, from being abducted – and now that boy had run – totally unexpected. Tomos had to wear an eye-patch in the castle. His lordship, although used to it, had insisted as the sight of the empty eye socket upset his stomach. But the patch was very uncomfortable giving him a headache and he quite often went without it in the town, especially when it rained – the water ran down behind the leather and made the socket sore. Although every townsman knew of the steward’s affliction most ignored it, but the superstitious always crossed the road when he was sighted. The nonsensical reaction always put him in a bad mood and then he’d smile. The peasants knew nothing – if they did, would they run? Nevertheless, was it the lack of an eye or the vivid red scar that ran from it down to the corner of his mouth and on to his chin that caused anxiety in the people? The lesion pulled his mouth into a mirthless grin. But the grin had its uses. The expression frightened people and Tomos employed it often for just that precise purpose.
Tomos bent his head and walked through the uninviting, weatherworn door in the timber-framed building and into the taproom of the Spirited Hawk, the name a gross misnomer for the establishment. Lowering his hood he scanned the faces that looked up as he entered – and at the one head that didn’t rise – the one he’d come to meet. He removed his cloak and hung it on the hook behind the door as men returned nervously to studying their drink. His cloak would be quite safe; no thief would dare steal it, the Southcote monogram on the shoulder evidence enough of its owner. The Steward was a quiet man usually speaking to people with respect, but he was also a man to be avoided when he was in a bad mood, as was plain now on his face. God help a felon if he came up before the earl’s law court when the steward was discomposed, although most people agreed he was generally fair in his sentencing of miscreants. Turning away from the occupants and brushing his long, wet brown hair from his eyes he made his way through the small number of tables and benches and up to the bar, a plank laid across two barrels.
‘Evening, Steward, a dirty night.’ Egbert, a fat, short man wearing a grubby apron tied around his waist waddled over with a tankard of ale and placed it on the board in front of his lord’s estate manager. He then walked away not expecting a reply or payment.
Tomos took it absentmindedly and blew another wayward hair from his mouth. His drinks were always on the house. Given the choice he would never have purchased the sour ale anyway, though it did satisfy his thirst even if he did grimace every time he took a sip. It was only by the grace of his God, and the Steward, that Egbert held the license to his inn. Displeasing either could end Egbert’s livelihood.
Tomos was of middle height, lean and fit. He was a tough, determined man, sly of eye perhaps, but maybe this was just bdown to his affliction. Nevertheless he rarely ever missed anything of the goings-on in the town and surrounding countryside – or forgot anything he’d heard whether trivial or not. His phenomenal memory seemed to compensate for his lack of full vision. He was the power in the town. He knew every freeman, tradesman and serf by name – and those of the earl’s family, close and distant.
Tomos was apprised of all that went on in the town and surrounding villages. He was told of those not pulling their weight in the fields, who were hiding produce in their shops to evade his lordship’s taxes, and who were butchering and selling unclean meat and the like misdemeanours. He was also informed of whose wife, or husband for that matter, was playing away and therefore posing a risk to the peace of the town. He was privy to the machinations of the two religious sects in Swanston, as well. There was overt distaste, and covert hatred, shared by the monks of Kaneshi in their black robes living in their dark-walled monastery at the north end of Swanston, and the white-robed sisters of the followers of Tarria who had their domicile and hospital in the large whitewashed convent at the southern end. Over the years the Steward had become adept in playing one faction against the other; his own ends calling for it on occasion for both groups had their fanatical followers roaming the countryside offering pardons – or threats depending on your circumstances.
His agents roamed wide always listening to rumours and reporting on the temper of the people. Tomos relayed a few things to Earl Horsa, those matters Tomos thought he should know, but he never informed his master of what was intrinsic to the Steward’s own plans. Plans which the unsuspecting Horsa had no knowledge of, for they took precedence over any of the earl’s interests. Ostensibly Tomos was his master’s intelligence gatherer, but he was also something else, a secret only one or two knew. His many spies ranged far afield, into the plains to north and south, the port towns and shipping lanes in the west, and occasionally into the Drikander far off in the east. His men searched now for the fugitive and would go even as far as the capital city of Abferkarn in the north if the need arose.
Tomos’ eyes again roved over the five tables in the room and he was perturbed to notice that Selwyn Beaver, Korn’s only blacksmith, was in his cups again, still suffering, barely able to hold up his head. He’d been like it ever since he’d returned home from trading in Blessing, a village about ten leagues west of Korn, and found his wife, Myrna, dead in their home, their son standing over her with a knife in his hand – her blood dripping from its tip. She’d been beaten and stabbed to death. But no-one knew why the boy had done it, the reason for her death. The son had fled as soon as he saw his father standing utterly shocked behind him, the horror on his face and a scream of hate rising on his lips. The hue and cry had been raised immediately but the villagers weren’t quick enough to catch the boy before he’d taken refuge in the forest. No-one knew where he was now, though there were never-ending rumours. Tomos sighed, he’d known the boy, had watched closely as Cearl grew into his teens, had observed clandestinely his upbringing waiting for the boy to show the first signs. But puzzlement had resulted – why did the boy commit matricide? Was this a foretaste of what was to come?
The Steward had investigated the murder immediately, his interests demanded it. He had known the woman and her husband very well, though others did not know that. As far as the townspeople of Swanston and the villagers of Korn knew, to all intents and purposes the family had been immigrants displaced by the last demons’ war. Selwyn’s skill had earned him the second smithy for the village and town fifteen years earlier when the boy had been a baby. At that time Earl Horsa and Swanston had been in sore need of another blacksmith. A perfect placement for the boy’s family or so Tomos had thought – their concealment complete. But had they now been found? There was no reason for Cearl to kill his mother, at least not one that could possibly be discovered by the townspeople. So Tomos had set this lone man across the room to lead the hunt for the murderer.
Tomos sighed. Selwyn’s work had understandably fallen off since the tragedy. Tomos had borne the brunt of blame from Selwyn for his wife’s death. If they hadn’t agreed to the steward’s plans then they needn’t have hidden the boy in Korn. It had taken all Tomos’ cunning to coax him around and ensure his silence, the blacksmith’s death would have served no purpose and he yet may be needed in the future. Nonetheless, grief had driven the man to drink. But grief didn’t last long in Swanston or in the country as a whole, early death was more or less commonplace – even murder. Nevertheless, Selwyn had to resume his employment quickly to ensure the future prosperity of Swanston and Earl Horsa. But more importantly the blacksmith had to forget why he’d been placed in Korn, what the primary object of the move up from the south was. If he didn’t recover, Tomos’ plans would have to be changed. Selwyn could never be allowed to divulge the secret, the little of it that he knew. But Tomos was more than concerned about the boy, he’d nearly panicked when he’d found what the boy had done. Over the intervening nights he had woken in a cold sweat several times after dreaming of the boy’s death, an event which would place their plans at extreme risk of failure. But in the cold light of day he knew the boy was still alive, there were no signs yet of his demise for assuredly there would have been and Tomos had breathed a sigh of relief. Or was it desperation that made him think that? Who of their enemies knew where Cearl had been placed for safety?
On the next table were another two of Swanston’s tradesmen, Cedric the miller, a heavy man strong in the arm, and Robert the baker, shorter than his companion but equally as tough. They were Swanston’s most prominent citizens, both on the Town Council as was Selwyn Beaver – for the present. All three were freemen, all three in contention for the new position of mayor in the forthcoming elections. The miller and baker often worked together as their business interests coincided but tonight they had their heads together, speaking low, plotting a price cut in wheat, no doubt, or their strategy to oust Selwyn from the race. They seemed to think that meeting to discuss their affairs could be kept secret in this small suburb on the edge of the town, some of whose cottages were built encroaching on the Great Forest. However, Tomos was not concerned; any change in prices would have to come to him first to be sanctioned, their mayoral intentions he’d ascertain before they’d realise it. He grimaced; perhaps that was why they’d looked away so hastily when he’d entered, neither man could hide their dealings from him; their faces were an open book. Besides, he knew his visage unsettled them.
Sitting at the table next to Tomos’ agent the steward was disappointed to see old Hengist, a forester by trade, short and wiry he was also a gossip by inclination. His tattling and scandal-mongering came from spending long hours alone among the trees; the only company the voles, squirrels, the occasional wild boar and, of course, the earl’s deer. Some of Swanston’s folk were convinced that Hengist could talk the animals to death for he was never short of meat on the table even in the vilest of weather, though he never owned up to eating venison. Venison was only served at the table of the earl. But whatever he caught in his traps, or with his crossbow, the castle had to be supplied first. In return the forester was allowed a small surplus to pay his wages, the earl never paid in coin if he could help it. However, being a gossip was going to seriously prove tiresome for the Steward. He didn’t want his meeting with his agent talked of elsewhere. Looking around he saw no-one else in the room and he wondered who his agent had fetched him to meet.
Tomos looked over at the man and, feeling his gaze on him, the man raised his head and caught Tomos’ only eye. The Steward nodded slightly towards the stairs and the man stood and followed his master. Tomos always used Egbert’s living quarters for such surreptitious meetings. It wasn’t the first to be held at the Spirited Hawk, though they were few and far between, the innkeeper made sure no-one interrupted, or eavesdropped.
The stairs were old and creaked loudly as Tomos climbed, carrying his tankard to the living quarters above the bar. There were only two habitable rooms of the half dozen found there, the others had long become victim to poor management and ultimately the weather when rain seeped in through warped exterior walls remaining in disrepair. The nearest room, that being Egbert’s as he and his wife slept separately, had a bed along one wall, a table and two chairs and a chest, presumably for Egbert’s clothes. Tomos wondered again at the presence of the second chair, he could not understand anyone wanting to socialize with the innkeeper in his living quarters, even the whores turned their noses up at him, his wife and his son doing the same long ago. It was not exactly an inn in which a traveller would wish to spend a night, they always moved on into the town. The room was like its owner, dirty and unkempt. But it served for Tomos as its very unsavoriness ensured discretion. However, no-one realized that whenever there was a meeting held there Egbert’s wife, listening at a gap in the wall between her room and her husband’s, heard everything. And she was expert in keeping secrets…and in using them to her advantage.
Tomos crossed the room and looked out of the grimy window and over the rooftops of the buildings close by. He watched as the trees in the forest bent and swayed in the ferocity of the wind, for the storm was getting worse. He didn’t turn around when he heard his agent walk in behind him and close the door. Waiting only moments until he heard the scrape across the floor of one of the two chairs he turned as the man sat down. The agent’s features belied the poorness of his attire, the ragged britches, smock, and the dark sacking he wore as a cloak. Sir Oswald of Breem was clean of face, broad of shoulder, tall with long black hair. The disguise was perfect for a spy of the steward wanting to roam freely; at least it would have been if the man had had a dirty complexion. He was a handsome man who looked at this moment like a knight down on his luck, though he was still in possession of his own sword, the hilt just visible when he opened his cloak to sit comfortably.
Tomos stared at the weapon, the silver skull on the pommel prominent. It was a very memorable hilt and he’d told the man this. But Oswald always laughed. Those who were subjected to its use were never ever able to speak of it later – and there had been many, usually at the behest of Earl Horsa’s steward.
Tomos left the window and sat in the other chair opposite him at the small table and placed his tankard of ale on its grubby top, careful to keep hold of it until the rickety table settled. ‘Well,’ he asked, ‘what information have you brought? I hope it’s important those downstairs may talk of us meeting.’
‘Aye, but there’s one downstairs certainly won’t – the forester.’
Oswald nodded and laughed nervously. ‘Strange, I’ve never before heard of a forester scared stiff of the forest and he certainly is.’
‘Did he give a reason?’ Tomos asked surprised.
‘A fire! He said he’d been sleeping on the edge of some place called the Sorcerer’s Dell when shouting and the smell of burning wood woke him. He looked down into the dell and,’ Oswald hesitated knowing his next words would sound absurd. ‘he said he didn’t see any trees! When he’d fallen asleep everything was normal, the glade almost unseen for trees growing there. But when he woke up they had all disappeared. Dear God, the things I hear on my travels,’ and Oswald laughed nervously stress evident in his low voice. He was expecting to be accused of naivety, with Hengist’s story unbelievable, and to be criticized for abandoning the search temporarily. The reason for this meeting though, Oswald thought significant.
Tomos remained unspeaking, his face giving nothing away and Oswald licked his lips for this quiet manner usually presaged trouble for whoever was the object of the Steward’s attention. And Sir Tomos of Southcote was a very dangerous man.
‘I know Sorcerer’s Dell; I could hardly walk through it when I was there last. It’s the wildest part of the forest in this region; the trees seem to fight each other there for space.’ Tomos, speaking at last, found he was somewhat intrigued…and suddenly anxious for he felt fear flicker in his gut. Hengist was an experienced forester, second to none and although prone to blather he never usually came out with something that didn’t have at least a modicum of believability. ‘If he didn’t see trees, what did he see?’
‘Perhaps you’d better ask him…you know, hear it first-hand. He’s the one I’ve asked you here to meet.’
Tomos bristled. ‘You’ve called me here to meet the foulest gossip in Swanston? Are you serious?’
‘Anything untoward you said. Any strange happenings in the forest you wanted to hear about immediately. Besides he refused to pass this place, he was in urgent need of something to calm his nerves, and the only way I’d have been able to shift him afterwards was at the point of my sword and he’d have clammed up immediately. You’d never have been able to get anything out of him.’ Oswald shifted on his seat, clasped his hands on the table top and continued. ‘I was searching there at the dell, or as near as my mount would take me. It shied about half a league from the place and I wondered at that. So I dismounted and had a look around, I thought maybe the boy was there, hiding, and had somehow spooked my horse. But he wasn’t, at least I saw no sign of him. But I’m telling you, Tomos, my hair stood on end the nearer I approached the place.’ He licked his lips, his eyes far away, fear on his face, the look very strange on a face that always laughed as he fought. ‘I couldn’t walk to the edge of the Dell, something stopped me, it…it was like a wall, hard, impervious, though I saw nothing but trees in front of me,’ he paused and shook himself. He looked again at his employer. ‘I returned to my horse and rode away. An hour later I bumped into Hengist rushing out of the forest. He was jabbering nineteen to the dozen, scared witless. He even thought I was chasing him and attempted to flee from me. I took him in hand and brought him here for you to question.’ Breem didn’t mention that he, himself, had also run from the Dell in panic and also needed something to calm his own nerves.
‘Fetch him,’ Tomos said perturbed. Information on anything untoward he’d ordered brought to him sure enough, but was this one of the expected signs?
Minutes later Hengist was standing in front of the table nervously ringing his hat in his hands. Oswald stood at the door behind him not taking his eyes from both men.
‘Go on, man, what did you see?’ asked Tomos frowning at the clearly frightened forester. He’d sat through the first part of the forester’s blustering tale and was losing patience.
‘My Lord, I…I saw a woman being burned at the stake by a man wearing a black robe,’ Hengist whispered.
‘Are you sure or had you been drinking and were still dreaming?’ asked Tomos.
‘No, Milord, I’m positive. I could hear her laughing at the man and see the flames, though I…’ Hengist paused and lowered his eyes, his hat almost unrecognizable, crushed in his hands.
‘Well, it was odd…’
‘What was?’ asked Tomos his gut tightening.
‘I couldn’t feel any heat from the flames…and I should have at that distance. Instead I…I was cold, milord, very cold.’
Tomos leant back in his chair, perturbed. ‘Did either of them see you?’
‘I don’t think so, milord. Leastwise the man didn’t he never turned round – his back was to me all the time. But the woman looked up at me from among the flames and…and when she did I ran,’ Hengist said sweat beading his forehead, his face ashen.
‘It was her eyes, sir; her eyes were huge and seemed to look right through me. I had to tear my eyes from her quick like, she was drawing me in.’
‘What did she look like?’
‘I didn’t get much of a look of her face, milord, I was too scared. She looked young…’ he paused, ‘and old, but her eyes were even older…older than…I don’t know. She had long black hair, I remember that.’
‘She looked young and old at the same time?’ Tomos glanced over at Oswald fidgeting at the door and then back at the forester. ‘Can you tell me anything of the man…was he tall or short?’
‘He was tall, and oh yes he had a staff in his hand, that’s all I know, milord. That’s all I seen ‘cause I run.’
‘Go Hengist,’ and as the man hurried to the door the steward added. ‘Never breathe a word of what you’ve seen or of your meeting with me. Beware, that man was a devil, you speak of him again and he’ll come for you, if he does—pray that I kill you first.’ Tomos nodded and Hengist ran from the room.
‘You really think the man was a devil, Tomos?’ asked Oswald his voice unable to hide a tremor.
‘I don’t know, but I don’t want it spoken of outside these walls. The threat of a devil may be enough to keep him quiet.’
‘The woman…was she a witch?’ Oswald asked as he resumed his seat at the table. ‘Hengist thought so,’ he shuddered. ‘It’s never a pretty sight seeing a witch burn. I saw one once… but if that man wasn’t a devil he may have been a sorcerer. That was evil magic I felt as I approached the Dell and the place is named after a sorcerer, isn’t it?’
‘Why would a sorcerer burn a witch? They follow the same creed; and yet she was laughing at the man. What kind of woman would find amusement in a man burning her alive? Still it may all have been a figment of his imagination. Nonetheless, I think you both fell under some sort of spell.’ Tomos paused and rubbed his empty eye socket, it was becoming sore again. ‘To the search,’ he changed the subject, ‘what is taking you so long, I assume you haven’t found him as he’s not with you?’
‘Not yet, he must still be wandering lost in the forest or perhaps he heard us and fled deeper into the woods. He knows he’ll be hanged for the murder if he’s caught. But there are plenty of places we haven’t looked yet. You can rely on me, my men and I will find him.’
‘You had better find him before anyone else,’ warned Tomos his voice steely, ‘you were there to watch over the boy. You may have saved him from imminent death at the hands of Selwyn with your intervention, but you couldn’t stop the boy fleeing, could you? We now have to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to apprehend him. Do all your men know the boy must be taken alive and kept secret?’ Tomos glared at the knight.
‘Come off it, Tomos, he was lucky to escape,’ Oswald pleaded. ‘I couldn’t fight off Selwyn and hold the boy. I had no choice I had to stop the blacksmith killing him. And yes, my men know he must be taken alive and unharmed and brought to you.’ Oswald’s voice rose, no longer entreating, as he went on. ‘If Selwyn had seen reason and stopped trying to kill Cearl we may have been able to save Myrna, though it was probably a vain hope. She died in Selwyn’s arms without regaining consciousness.’ Oswald paused until his breathing returned to normal. It was unusual for him to lose his temper with Tomos, but the implied recrimination hurt. ‘I shouted loud enough after Cearl to say I was a friend but he can’t have heard me or was too afraid of the consequences of what he’d done. No, he was hell bent on running and didn’t believe me. Who is the one the boy is supposed to look for? Will he know? I shouted out his name once but couldn’t shout it again there were too many people around. I was taking a chance on saying I was his friend as it was.’ asked Oswald, curious now.
‘Never you mind – and forget you ever knew the name. Now, have you more news?’
‘I’ve been over to Skelmerstown and the news I bring you from there is not pleasing. The local hue and cry was called out three days ago to a disturbance in the forest – outlaws they believed raiding smallholdings and foresters’ cottages. Several folk were killed by the marauders, some were found hanging over their own hearths,’ Oswald paused and looked over at the window, the rain teeming down. Tomos sat silently waiting for the rest. ‘One body was strung up above a sign on the floor – a circle with some writing in the middle of it.’
Tomos sat up, stunned. ‘You are sure? You saw it yourself?’
‘I did. No-one I was with knew what it meant which is not surprising because some fool had smudged it when they took the man down and I couldn’t read it all. But as you’ve told me in the past to keep a lookout for such things, I decided to return to you. I took the opportunity to continue searching the forest between there and here as it hadn’t been done. It was on my way here with the tidings that I found Hengist.’
‘What was it you could read?’
‘Well, it made no sense to me. The first bit and the last had been smudged; the number “4” was all I could make out. It was four people we found dead, perhaps that’s what it meant.’
‘You did right. Go have your supper. I need time alone to think before I decide your next move.’ Tomos stood and walked over to the window as the knight left the room. He stared through the glass seeing nothing but his thoughts and the indelicate reflection of his sore eye socket. But he trembled—it had started.
Over on Grub Street in Swanston, a narrow row of two- and three-plan houses with the occasional shop squeezed in between, another tragedy was about to unfold. The figure in black blended in well with the shadows cast by the gable end of the foundry belonging to another blacksmith. It and the blacksmith’s home were adjacent to a stretch of derelict land separating it from old Feaver’s one room cottage across the way. The land itself had attracted all sorts of rubbish most of it reeking to high heaven. But that was no different to the channels running along in front of each row of houses, channels that were used for the illicit discarding of nightsoil and other sundry waste products of man and animal.
The figure watched closely as Torbut, a huge man, the sleeves of his tunic cut short to avoid the flames and hot materials he worked with, left his smithy. Hanging his stiff, burn marked, leather apron on the hook behind the door he slammed it shut after him and turned the key in the lock. Stretching his back muscles he massaged his lumber region and breathed deeply of the cooler night air, the last of the rain moving east. His nose registered the smells from the road and ignored them. The rain had caused the overflow of the effluent from the channels and now there were stinking pools littering the walkway. He scowled and followed the same routine as he did every night he left his forge. He looked over the road and nodded a farewell to Norbert, the rat-catcher, setting off on his nightly forage, following his unsavoury occupation of destroying the rodent population, or at least keeping it down to a manageable level. Since the directive from the central government about rodents carrying the plague received a few weeks before by the earl, Norbert’s productivity had increased due to the improved bounty for each dead rat brought to the castle for payment. Torbut wished him well; it was not a job he would have liked. He was a blacksmith and good at his job, the same as Selwyn Beaver over in Korn.
The figure in black followed in the dusk, his head bowed against the occasional recalcitrant rain shower, his hood offering little protection from the elements. His boots barely kept his feet dry when he walked through an unseen rancid puddle his attention focused on the man in front. Torbut turned the corner out of sight but the figure did not change his pace, he knew where the man was headed. This was the fourth night he’d watched and followed Torbut in the dusk. During the day he had watched Torbut’s family of wife and two sons until he knew the habits of each one. They never varied in the hard-working family.
Torbut, being a creature of habit, had brought up his sons to be the same. Each night at seven o’clock, the blacksmith finished his labour and joined them in the Dirty Duck for three ales and then all three returned to their home adjoining the foundry for their supper. Razpar was pleased to see that Torbut’s routine had again not changed this night and he waited on the corner of Grub Street behind a tall beech out of sight of passing residents shuffling their way home after a day of hard toil. Sure enough half an hour later the huge man and his two sons left the Dirty Duck and walked towards the hidden Razpar. The boys were much of an age, one maybe two years older than the other, the younger awaiting his fourteenth birthday the following week. Razpar, having overheard the boys’ mother talking the previous day, smiled—a pity, the boy would never see it. He waited and watched as the three walked into their home and closed the door behind them. They had not seen Razpar or even suspected they were being observed and they sat down to a lamb stew, happy at the end of their day’s labour.
Razpar smiled, it was now time to conclude the task before him even if he didn’t know which son was the one. But it didn’t matter he’d kill both.
Later that night, when they’d all settled down to sleep and all the lanterns in the many windows of the houses in the road were extinguished Razpar crossed over and crept unseen around the back of the blacksmith’s house. Opening the gate silently he walked up the path to the back door and jammed it shut by pushing in a series of wedges around the jambs. For extra measure he lifted a heavy log he’d previously seen in the garden and leant it against the door. He placed a heavy rock at the foot of the log. There were three hulking great men in that house but none were going to leave their home through the back door. And no-one was going to surprise him by walking in on him in the midst of his business – not this time. When he’d completed this he’d have to resume the search just in case this wasn’t the right family. But just in case he’d mistaken which blacksmith’s boy he was to kill, he’d end the lives of all this family.
He crept out of the garden and returned to the street. Studying the other buildings in the road he saw no sign of anyone out and about. In the aftermath of the atrocious weather even the whores had stayed inside. He walked up to the front door of Torbut’s home, halting he listened for any movement from within. Hearing nothing he again smiled and taking the bunch of oddly shaped steel tools from his pocket he used a picklock on the old lock. He opened the door gently and crept in. He waited for the barest of moments to see if he’d been detected, content in the silence, he took from another pocket in his cloak a fist-sized pewter jar. Ensuring the soft-wood stopper was firmly in place first, he quickly placed it in the embers of the banked-up kitchen fire and tilted the pot until it rested on its side. The stopper started to smoulder. Razpar hurriedly exited the house and quickly placed wedges in the jambs of the front door.
He was back at the corner of Grub Street when there was an almighty explosion. He grinned as the blacksmith’s home went up in flames the foundry next door following shortly after, debris flying everywhere. No-one could have possibly escaped from the huge conflagration. He left as the neighbours came out into the road completely bewildered.
Sir Tomos Southcote descended the rickety stairs in the Spirited Hawk and beckoned to Sir Oswald Breem. His agent, leaving the remains of what looked like an unsavoury pie, stood and followed him out of the taproom.
‘Come with me to the castle,’ he said quietly. ‘In the morning I want you to withdraw your men, discontinue the search.’
‘But the boy, Tomos, you said he must be found,’ Oswald demurred.
‘If you haven’t taken him by now, you’ll never find him. He has friends in the Great Forest who will aid him, though he doesn’t know it yet. He will turn up eventually. I want you to disperse your men to every town and village bordering the forest. They are to keep a low profile and await his reappearance. But first I want you to take a missive for me. Someone else needs the knowledge you have brought me.’ Tomos’ face was grim as he took the reins of his palfrey and mounted. ‘Hurry, get your horse.’
Have a nice day!