Anton Leyander crouched on the red-tiled roof and listened. Beneath him, the house was dark and quiet. But it was not empty: he had looked in through a downstairs window and seen a thickset man sitting at the bottom of the stairs, a sword resting across his knees. The man had not seen him and, with luck, had not heard him climb up to the roof.
The sky was clear and the moon bright enough to light a thief’s way. A light breeze blew in off the sea. Anton tied a rope around the chimney and tested it was secure. He lowered it gently over the side of the building. Supple leather boots made no sound on the tiles as he walked to the edge of the roof. Gripping the rope tightly, he lowered himself carefully over the edge. When he was level with the top storey window, he wrapped his left arm around the rope, so he could hang with his right arm free. He peered through the leaded windowpanes: there was no light and no movement inside the room.
The fat man would be absent for most of the evening, Anton knew; he always dined out. The house had been rented for only a short stay, and the brawny house-guard was the only staff the fat man kept.
Anton drew a slim dagger from its sheath on his belt. He forced it between the frames of the windows. With gentle sawing motions, he moved the blade upwards until it met the resistance of the catch inside. He eased the handle of the dagger downwards, so the blade pivoted up: he felt it dislodge the catch. Anton pushed the window inwards and listened. The house remained silent. He placed his feet on the window-ledge and waited for the feeling to return to his numbed left arm. Then he disappeared inside.
Half the room was in deep shadow. The walls were roughly plastered, and the skewed lattice of shadows from the window meant they seemed to lean ay odd angles. It had been unseasonably warm of late – more like high summer than spring – and the air in the room was stale and heavy with the smell of something – mice perhaps. Anton lowered his feet carefully to the floor, not wanting the creaking of boards to give him away.
A wedge of moonlight showed half of a large old bed made of dark heavy oak. A small table beside it held an oil lamp and a lumpy clay figure – possibly a sea goddess. Beside the fireplace was a stout chest of drawers made from the same dark oak. Beyond that, the room was in darkness.
Anton looked down to see where the varnished floorboards were nailed to the joists. On tip-toe, he stepped forward, placing his feet only where he saw evidence of nail heads.
“Hello, how are you today?” a voice asked loudly.
Anton’s heart hiccupped, and for a moment he couldn’t draw breath. He peered into the shadows, trying to locate the speaker. The slim dagger was still gripped in his hand, but he knew it would be little use against the house-guard’s heavy sword.
Two small eyes gleamed in the darkness – below them was a beak.
“Hello, how are you today?” the parrot asked again.
“I’m very well, how are you?” Anton whispered.
“Just splendid! Cawk!”
Anton listened. There was no sound from downstairs. No creak on the stair. Perhaps the bird chattered to itself all the time.
“Cawk!” it said.
“Didn’t anyone teach you to whisper?”
“Who’s a clever little fellow?”
“You are. Now keep quiet.”
Anton crossed the room to where a large wooden chest had been pushed up against the wall, close to the T-shaped perch where the parrot sat. On top of the chest sat a smaller box that looked to be made entirely of iron. He sheathed the dagger and drew a set of metal tools from a pouch on his belt. Kneeling, he leaned forward and poked one of the tools into the keyhole in the front of the metal box. He probed carefully, trying to detect the type of mechanism that lay within.
“You’re a very naughty boy!” the parrot said loudly.
His concentration broken, Anton glared up at the bird. “Don’t you know any songs?” he asked.
“Sing me a song. Cawk!”
Anton sighed. He selected another tool and leaned towards the metal box. He hummed softly, hoping it might distract the parrot.
“Wawk! It’s a cat wailing!”
Anton stood and reached for the parrot. He wrapped his hand around the bird’s head, clamping its beak shut, and lifted it from the perch. It flapped its wings, but could not free itself. Anton tip-toed across the room, opened the window, and cast the bird out. He expected it to fly away to freedom: instead, it dropped like a stone, giving out only a plaintive ‘awk.’ Anton closed the window.
He listened. Still no sound from downstairs. He hurried back to the metal box, and set to work on the lock again. There was a dull click, and the top of the box popped up. Anton opened the lid fully and looked inside. There were several drawstring purses, all heavy with coins. He tucked two of these into the front of his shirt, then dug deeper into the box, seeking the object he had come for. But there were only more purses, and some bundles of parchment. Nothing that felt like a jewelled statuette.
With some difficulty, Anton lifted the heavy box and set it to one side. The oak chest beneath it wasn’t locked, and the lid lifted easily. He rummaged through the contents, finding only boots and clothing, and other items packed for the fat man’s imminent departure by ship. He lowered the lid of the chest and looked around him. Where else might the statuette be hidden?
A tapping sound behind him caught Anton’s attention. The parrot was sitting outside on the windowsill, tapping the glass with its beak. Ignoring it, Anton returned to his search. He went over to the chest of drawers, and slid open the bottom drawer. It was empty and smelled of camphor. He opened the next drawer up, and then the next, leaving each drawer open as he did, minimising the risk of noise. All the drawers were empty. He went to the fire place and reached up into the chimney, to where a secret shelf was sometimes placed. There was no shelf there.
The parrot tapped on the glass again, wanting to be let back in. Anton didn’t even spare it a look. He knelt to look under the bed. Then slid his hands under the covers and under the pillows. Nothing. He glanced at the oil lamp, wondering if he should risk lighting it in hope of uncovering the statuette’s hiding place more easily. And then his eyes fell on the crude red clay figure beside the lamp. He reached for it, smiling.
“Stop! Thief!” The parrot’s squawk was a big sound to come from such a small throat.
Footsteps thundered up the stairs. Anton wished he’d wrung the parrot’s neck. He threw open the window, dislodging the bird and sending it plummeting towards the street again.
“You bastard!” the parrot squawked as it fell.
The house-guard burst through the bedroom door, sword at the ready. His eyes swept around the room, taking in the empty perch and the plundered chests, and then he leapt towards the open window. Outside, the thief’s rope was still swinging. Clamping the blade of the sword between his teeth, the guard reached out, grabbed the rope, and climbed upwards.
Hearing the clattering of the house-guard’s boots on the roof, Anton stepped from his hiding place behind the door. He quickly made his way down the stairs, and out through the front door.
Gaining the street, Anton paused and looked up.
“You’re a very naughty boy!”
Up on the roof, the house-guard was trying to fend off the attacking parrot with his sword.
Clutching the stolen clay figure and purses, Anton made his way down the street, back towards his own lodgings.
A hooded figure stepped out of the shadows of an alley, watching Anton walk away.
Anton had always intended to keep any purses he found in the fat man’s house. But the fate of the jewelled statuette had been undecided. Over breakfast he resolved to hand the clay figure over to someone who was, if not it’s true owner, more deserving of it than the fat man.
When he presented it to her, the woman broke open the clay covering to reveal the statuette’s true beauty, and then she kissed Anton on the cheek. That had been his only payment. But perhaps his selfless act led the fates to reward Anton in their own fashion.
Walking along one of the narrow streets that led away from the marketplace, Anton suddenly found his way blocked by a uniformed guardsman. When Anton tried to go around him, the man blocked his way again, placing a hand on Anton’s chest.
“I’m sorry, sir, but you’ll have to accompany me to the Guard House,” he said.
“Am I under arrest?”
“I can bind your wrists, if that’s what you like,” the guardsman said, a smile on his lips.
“I have no desire to find myself under another man’s control,” Anton said.
The young guardsman shrugged. “I am but a lowly soldier,” he said, indicating the lack of insignia on his tunic sleeve. “I am yours to command.” His short-cropped hair was blond, so light it looked almost white. The same pale hair grew thickly on his forearms, and there was a hint of it at the open throat of his tunic. He was no taller than Anton, but his chest and shoulders were broader. His eyes held more than a hint of mischief.
“You are on duty?” Anton asked, looking him up and down.
“Not at this moment.”
“Then why the uniform?” Anton asked.
“You would sooner I wore something else?” He grinned. It had been that same grin that had first captured Anton’s attention.
“I would sooner you wore nothing at all,” Anton said.
“Very good, sir.” The guardsman saluted smartly, then began unfastening the front of his tunic.
“Varian!” Anton seized his hand to prevent further unbuttoning.
“You want me to stop?”
“Yes. No. Not here,” Anton said.
“Then I’m afraid you will have to accompany me to the Guard House.” Varian said, mock serious.
“You promised to show me the town,” Anton said.
“I shall, and much more besides.” Varian waggled his blond eyebrows.
Sangreston was the last major town on the eastern coast of Thurlambria. North of it lay the great forest, and beyond that were mountains, where only a handful of settlements clung to the rocks. The town had grown up around the castle, which sat on a stubby peninsula.
When he’d first arrived, Anton had found Sangreston buzzing with news of a dragon having been sighted in the far north. But as the weeks had passed, with no news beyond the fact that the beast had been slain, conversation turned to other things. Anton had decided against sharing his own first-hand experiences with the dragon: it would have drawn too much attention. And that was rarely a good thing for a thief.
Sharing a bed with a member of the King’s Guard was also inadvisable, but sometimes the wise decision isn’t the best one. On the first evening, they shared a few jugs of wine, and Anton told Varian about his adventures with the slayer of dragons. If the young guardsman was curious about what adventures Anton planned in Sangreston, he had chosen not to ask.
“Have you been inside the walls before?” Varian asked.
“Not of this castle,” Anton said.
The castle dominated the town. It was a scarred, square structure with massive circular towers at each corner, and a curtain wall containing a courtyard. The moat around it was dry now, and a permanent stone bridge stood where there had once been a defensive drawbridge. Anton stared up at the grey stone walls. Only up close did their scale become apparent.
The huge, iron-studded gates opened each morning at dawn, and a pair of uniformed Guards with pikes stood on either side until they closed at dusk. Anton eyed the guards warily as he and Anton passed through the gate. When they were inside, one of Varian’s colleagues waved a greeting, but beyond that they were ignored. Anton assumed his escort’s uniform mean no one would challenge them.
“I did not expect it to be so busy,” Anton said, looking around the castle yard.
“Before noon it is hectic,” Varian said, “afternoons are quieter.”
For every red and black uniform, there seemed to be a half-dozen ordinary folk. People, animals, and produce moved about the courtyard much as they did in the town beyond. Stables had been built close to the wall on the left, and there was a parade ground on the right. Near this was a fountain surrounded by a low wall, and dotted about were trees and bushes, growing where stones had been removed to reveal the earth. Facing them was the main castle building.
“I’d sneak you in and show you the nob’s quarters, but his lordship’s at home, so we’d better not risk it,” Varian said, nodding towards the castle’s main door.
Sangreston was too far north to come under the direct protection of the capital, so a company of the King’s Guard were permanently stationed at the castle. They were under the command of Lord Eòghan, who also acted as town governor and magistrate. He was the region’s wealthiest landowner and, apart from his wife Lady Julianne, the only nobility for miles around.
“Where do you live?” Anton asked.
“Not in there,” Varian said, meaning the castle. He turned back towards the gate they had come through. “Up there.”
The Guard House was a later addition to the structure. Thin square towers had been built on either side of the main gate, and a large, boxy gatehouse spanned the gap between them.
“Come on, I’ll show you.” Varian set off towards a door at the bottom of one of the towers: he stopped when he realised Anton wasn’t following. The blond guardsman turned and grinned. “Afraid I’ll lock you up and not let you out?”
“I heard there’s a dungeon under there – and a torture chamber.” Anton shuddered.
“There is – but we’re not allowed to play in it,” Varian said. “We’re going up, not down.” He glanced up towards the top of the Guard House tower. “Not afraid of heights, are you?” He turned and set off again.
After a moment’s hesitation, Anton followed him.
They took a bottle of dark rum up onto the flat roof of the tower. It was a warm, clear day, and the view was incredible.
“This used to be a watchtower,” Varian said. “They used to watch for enemy ships approaching.”
They took turns sipping from the bottle, and Varian pointed out the landmarks. Anton tried to orient himself, using the marketplace as a starting place, but soon gave up trying to locate inn where he was lodging. He could see the old town, protected by a wall, and where buildings had – over time – spread outside the wall, inland and around the natural harbour. From his seagull’s viewpoint, Sangreston was laid out like a thick letter J.
The harbour was busy with fishing boats and vessels bringing people and goods up from the south, or from the faraway continent that lay east across the ocean. They shared lewd tales they had heard about sailors as they watched a ship leave the harbour. And after that they didn’t say much at all, because their lips were otherwise engaged.
Later, they sat against the wall, staring up at the sky and enjoying the warmth of the sun.
“Will you stay long in Sangreston?” Varian asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Can we do this again before you leave?”
“We can do it again now, if you like,” Anton said.
Varian grinned his grin again.
There was a creak on the stair below, and immediately Edric Edison reached for his clothes. Ailsa looked up from her canvas, annoyed at his fidgeting, but her expression softened when she saw his guilty smile: he looked like a boy caught stealing biscuits from the kitchen. He tiptoed over and looked at the half-completed canvas, raising an eyebrow.
“Madam has been more than flattering in her proportions,” he whispered, his lips close to her ear.
Ailsa giggled when his moustache tickled her face. She was pleased with the painting. It showed the tall auburn-haired figure in a relaxed standing pose, weight on one leg and pelvis tilted. The muscles, and even individual hairs, were clearly defined, rendering it an academic study. But this was how she liked to capture her men.
Edison clasped the bundle of clothing to his chest and winked at her. He was an actor who had enjoyed some success as the lead player in a local troupe. He needed to supplement his income, and she required a model for her painting. Fate had brought them together. He pushed the grey hair away from her face and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
“You must come back soon, so that I might start on the head,” Ailsa said. She knew he could not promise to return.
He moved towards the open window. The early morning rainstorm had passed, and warm spring sunshine was working its magic to transform the town. He swung one leg over the window ledge, leaned out and threw his clothes up onto the flat roof. He blew her another kiss. She watched, fascinated, as the naked figure reached up to find a handhold and pulled himself up.
Ailsa heard footsteps just outside the door, trying to be stealthy. When she looked back towards the window, Edison was gone. She smiled to herself and swirled her brush in a jar of water.
Splintered planks from the door exploded inwards, with a shoulder and a triumphant smile just behind them.
“Got you, you sneaky bastard!” the big man said.
“Come in, the door is open.” Ailsa adopted a serious expression for the coming encounter.
A tide of scarlet rose into the man’s hairline. He stared at the grey-haired lady in the paint-splattered smock who stood before the easel. Broad hands shifted the broken door clear of its frame, and the barrel-chested young man shuffled in. He stood looking at his boots. “I’m sorry. I… er… thought someone else was in here. Edric Edison,” he mumbled.
“Never heard of him,” she lied, turning back to her canvas and catching sight of one of Edison’s boots as she said it. Ailsa wrinkled her nose as the sharp smell of sweat entered, followed by the smell of cheap scent, and then by a wheezing gargoyle of a man.
The hunchback heaved his lumpy body through the door and stood panting. His quivering limbs jutted out from his body at awkward angles, and the greasy leather tunic he wore creaked ominously every time he drew breath. “Well?” He grunted.
“Perfectly, thank you for asking,” Ailsa smiled sweetly, hoping to buy Edison enough time to flee to safety.
“Where is he?” the hunchback gasped.
“I’ve never heard of him, as I have already told your… curly-haired friend here.” She looked the young man up and down critically. He was attractive in a meaty sort of way. Biceps bulged beneath the unbleached cotton shirt. “You wouldn’t care to pose for me, would you?” she asked.
“No, he wouldn’t,” the hunchback snapped. “And, my good woman, if…” He stopped, and squinted short-sightedly at the canvas. He moved closer. His fleshy nose stopped just short of the wet paint. “Hmmm!” He licked his lips appreciatively. “You wouldn’t care to sell this, would you?” He turned his good eye toward Ailsa, a lop-sided leer on his leathery face. “I appreciate fine art with well-proportioned figures.”
“As you can see, the canvas is incomplete…” She was distracted by a creak overhead.
A fine trickle of dust powdered the hunchback’s bald, liver-spotted skull. He looked up.
Ailsa gasped: Edison must have been crouched up there all along, not daring to move. “Of course, if your friend here will pose for me now, I could complete the painting for you today,” she said loudly.
But the hunchback was at the window, peering up onto the roof. “It’s him, help me up!”
The big man put his shoulder under the hunchback’s mismatched buttocks and heaved. Ailsa watched, fascinated, as muscles strained and writhed beneath taut cotton of the young man’s shirt. She sighed.
The hunchback’s legs flailed wildly until he managed to pull his stomach up onto the roof. The curly-haired man quickly followed him up. Above, boards creaked and in the little studio dust snowed down.
Ailsa shook her head sadly. Edison was on his own now. He was such a nice boy too. She loaded the brush with flesh tint and regarded the canvas critically: had she really captured his size correctly?
Edison would have liked to stay to see the painting completed, partly because it flattered him, and partly because he needed payment for posing. He was only days away from being thrown out of his rooms, and had been relying on this income. His luck at the gaming table had deserted him, and charming money from a wealthy widow had been a much less risky proposition than taking to the rooftops as a thief. Or so he had hoped.
The roof of the studio was almost flat, the boards slanting only sufficiently to carry away rain water. But once Edison had crossed this, he was faced with all manner of tiled roofs with varying degrees of slope. He stopped at the roof-edge, an alley between him and the next roof. That roof sloped smoothly up and away from him, affording no holds for even an expert climber.
Already, behind him, he could hear the huffing of the hunchback, Grimwade, heaving his bulk up onto the studio roof. A cobbled alley lay below him. Four storeys down. The only escape was across to the other building.
“Edison! I’ll have your scrotum for a shilling purse when I lay hands on…” Grimwade stopped mid-curse and stared open-mouthed.
The naked figure, clutching his clothes to his chest, launched himself across the alley and, using his forward momentum and a prayer, ran up the roof opposite to its apex.
The hunchback teetered on the edge of the flat-roofed building, hurling a few choice items from his vocabulary at Edison, who had managed to heave himself up and now sat astride the ridge of the neighbouring house.
Edison grinned triumphantly, waved, then inched his way forward to the edge of the roof. He lowered himself cautiously over the front eaves, and in through a small attic window.
Grimwade was left to jig about in scarlet apoplexy, shaking his gnarled fists.
Shrieks followed Edison out of the back door of the house. He ducked through lines of now-dry laundry in the back courtyard, grinning to himself: he could imagine the mother’s expression as she covered the eyes of the smiling teenage daughter.
Shouts behind him. The hunchback giving instructions: he must have had more men on the ground. Time to get under cover and dress.
Edison ducked out of the lines of washing and into the back street, ignoring the laughter and ooohs behind him. He slipped into the first shadowed alley he came across and found himself between the blacksmith’s and a barber shop. The far end of the alley opened into the sunlight and a yard behind the smithy, where iron rang on iron.
Leaning back against the cool stone wall, Edison wondered how many men the hunchback had out looking for him. Perhaps if he made for the town gate now, before Grimwade could get word to all his men…
The street end of the alley suddenly darkened. Edison smiled an unconvincing ‘Anything wrong gentlemen?’ smile at them, backing into the courtyard, where footsteps could be heard gathering.
Edison blinked in the bright sunlight. Grimwade had seven men around the smith’s yard, as well as the two blocking the alley behind him. The hunchback appeared in the doorway of the smithy, idly twisting one of the irons in the red-hot coals of a brazier.
Edison laughed nervously and hugged his clothing more tightly to his chest. “Ah, Mr. Grimwade, I was just… er… thinking of you.”
“Really? And what were you thinking?” the hunchback asked, casually menacing.
“Oh, that I still owe you that little sum of money, and that I must see that you get it very soon.” Edison smiled brightly and moved further out into the sunlight.
Grimwade’s men moved up behind him on either side.
“I see. Then perhaps you could hand over the money now, and I could bid you good day.”
“As you see, I am without my purse,” Edison gestured apologetically with one open palm, still clutching his clothing.
Grimwade looked up, his face clouding. Edison’s arms were seized from behind; his clothes dropped to the ground as he was pushed forward.
“You try my patience, Edric. I do not believe you have my money, and you treat the matter far too lightly. Perhaps you feel that I am not a man to be taken seriously?”
“Well, no. I…”
The hunchback drew the iron from the brazier and blew gently on the glowing orange tip. His spit sizzled on contact. Edison’s green eyes widened as Grimwade ambled towards him; he struggled ineffectually against the grip that held him. Grimwade brought the iron close to Edison’s cheek. The heat made his eye water.
“How would you like to be ugly? Like me?”
“You’re not ugly, Mr. Grimwade. Just… homely!” Voice quavering.
“Don’t mock me!”
The iron moved fractionally closer. Edison could feel the burning heat stretching his skin dry, could see the shimmering heat turning Grimwade into a ghostly, grinning ghoul. Sweat beaded Edison’s forehead.
“I might have to spoil your pretty face. Now that would be a shame, wouldn’t it?”
Under the circumstances, Edison thought it best not to nod.
“Or perhaps I might do some less… visible damage?” The hunchback lowered the iron to crotch height, his smile twisting his face further askew.
The corner of Edison’s mouth twitched, a trickle of sweat ran down from his temple. His balls were trying to crawl up out of reach. “There’s no need for this ugliness,” he croaked. “I’ll get the money for you.”
“Eventually, eh? You’re hoping I might die of old age waiting for you to pay up? I won’t wait any longer!”
Edison’s eyes crossed as he looked down his nose, trying to keep an eye on the end of the hot iron: in his anger, the hunchback was quaking, unaware.
“It is not that I need your piddling eight silver shillings, you understand.”
“Seven,” Edison corrected, then remembered the glowing iron, and quickly added: “But eight including interest!”
“The sum is unimportant. But if I don’t collect a debt, it would set a dangerous precedent. It would be bad for business. Everyone would try to avoid their debts. You see my position?”
Edison managed a smile and nodded, more worried about his own position.
“Why don’t you pay off your debt in another way, eh? Come and work for me. You’re a nice boy. You’ve got an attractive body: we could make a lot of money from it, you and I.”
“Renting it to dry old ladies and sweaty merchants? I would sooner die first!”
“Oh, you wouldn’t die. Not at first, anyway.” Grimwade smiled at some private thought. “I must warn you, I am not a patient man. I will have my money, or I will have you on your knees screaming for mercy. Your body will be mine, and I will subject you to such torments that…”
“You are drooling down your shirt,” Edison said.
“Eh?” The hunchback looked down and brushed at his tunic. His stomach grumbled loudly then, distracting him. He shrugged resignedly. “I like you, Edric. I am willing to extend to you a generous offer.” Grimwade plunged the iron into a nearby trough, staring into the steam.
Edison’s eyes rolled with relief and he released a long sigh. Behind him, several of Grimwade’s men did likewise.
“A very generous offer. I will give you one more week to come up with the money. At the end of that week, on Friday night at eleven o’clock, you will meet me and we’ll have a friendly drink together. If you have the money, you can pay me and we will both be happy, eh? I couldn’t be fairer, eh? Generous, eh? What else are friends for? But if you do not deliver the money, then you are mine! What do you say?”
Edison had no choice but to agree. He nodded once.
“And Edison, if you don’t show on Friday, I will send my boys out to look for you. They will find you. Wherever in this land you try to hide, they will seek you out and drag you back to me.”
“Suppose I bring you the money before then?” Edison asked.
The hunchback looked up, his face clouding. Then he smiled. “You won’t.” The hunchback rubbed his hands together. “I look forward very much to our next meeting, Edric Edison. Until then, look after that fine body of yours!” He winked his good eye, a grotesque, theatrical gesture, then turned and hobbled across the courtyard cackling, his henchmen in tow. He paused in the gateway and looked back.
Edison looked up from pulling on his breeches.
“You know,” the hunchback called back. “That painting was a little over-generous – but only a little.” And with that he was gone.
“You weren’t seeing me at my best,” Edison muttered. He plunged his head into the cold-water trough. Not a completely disastrous encounter, he mused. He considered fleeing town, but knew that the gates would be watched. And even if he managed to get out, Grimwade would set the dogs after him. He would not give the hunchback the pleasure of the hunt. Even if he failed to come up with the money in time, at least he’d be whole and able to plot some other escape.
His one stockinged foot was wet from a puddle left by the morning’s rain. A sea breeze blew through his damp hair and raised goose-bumps on his flesh. Perhaps he’d die of a chill before nightfall? There seemed little chance of this, so he made his way back towards Ailsa’s studio: he could collect his other boot, and finish posing for her. Sadly, the fee she had promised him wouldn’t cover what he owed to his landlord, never mind his debt to the hunchback. If Grimwade and I displayed her painting, we could certainly drum up some trade, he thought wryly. If I die by his hand, that is how I wish to be remembered.
Edison paused and looked up at the rooftops he had recently crossed. He walked on, trying to decide how best to resolve his predicament, and knowing there was only one possible solution. He was some distance along the street before his gait became its customary swagger.
Mrs. Writtle had been widowed young, and ran the Unicorn on her own. It was not as fine as the inns up by the castle, but she ran a clean house and it was nowhere near as rowdy as those down by the docks. Her barroom was used mainly by residents, and she preferred it that way. She knew the beer she brewed wasn’t popular, it was cloudy and had a strong yeasty taste, but the wine she bought in was as good as any served round about. Her fare was limited – the same few dishes she had learned from her mother – but it was freshly prepared each day, and she only took delivery of meat from a butcher she trusted. Today it was beef, cooked slowly in a big iron pot with vegetables, and her own special gravy made using the cloudy beer.
Her days were long, and she never quite made enough money to employ someone to share the workload. Mrs. Writtle always said that if she had more time, she’d go out and find herself another husband. But if the opportunity ever came her way, she wasn’t sure she’d take it: she liked running her own life, and a husband might get in the way of that. However, if the offer of a tumble came along, she wouldn’t be turning that down. Not that her latest guest was likely to be offering, but a woman could daydream, couldn’t she?
He was a thin young man with prominent cheekbones, and blueish stubble shadowed a strong chin. A broad silver ear-ring pierced his left ear, giving him a vaguely piratical look, but his smile was broad and warm. And this evening there was a twinkle in his grey eyes she hadn’t seen before.
“No need to ask what you’ve been up to,” she said, putting a plate of stew and boiled potatoes on the table in front of him.
“I don’t know what you mean, Mrs. Writtle,” Anton said.
“I can tell from your smile: you’ve spent seed.” Her own smile revealed her top front teeth were missing.
Anton thought about denying it, but then shrugged and grinned.
“I knew it! Lucky bastard.” Mrs. Writtle winked at him. “I’ll be on my own again tonight with a carrot.” She sighed, and hurried back to her kitchen.
Still smiling, Anton turned his attention to the stew, pushing the pieces of carrot to the side of his plate.
“Ah, Leyander, there you are!”
The voice made Anton look up from his plate. He didn’t recognise the man who stood over his table.
“What a happy coincidence to find you here,” the man said.
“Neither happy, nor a coincidence I would wager,” Anton said.
“Perhaps it is not fate alone that brings us together,” the man admitted. He pulled out a chair and sat down, uninvited.
Anton set down his knife and fork, pushed his plate away, and stared at the intruder. The man was balding, unshaven, and had one arm splinted between two sticks and hanging in a dirty sling.
Mrs. Writtle came over to retrieve the plate. “Will you be wanting anything else?” she asked. This wasn’t accompanied by the usual suggestive waggling of eyebrows. She was eyeing the stranger suspiciously.
“A jug of wine,” Anton said, “my friend is paying.”
The landlady looked at the man, who nodded agreement, but she didn’t move away from their table. “Not him?” she said.
“Not him,” Anton assured her.
Mrs. Writtle hurried away to fetch the wine.
“Not me?” the man asked, seeming offended. Then he smiled. “I’m not here to suggest a tumble in the sheets. I am offering a much more exciting opportunity.”
“I prefer to seek out my own opportunities,” Anton said.
The landlady brought over the jug and two glasses. She stood by the table until the stranger handed over payment.
“She doesn’t trust me,” he said, as she walked away.
Anton raised an eyebrow, then poured wine into the glasses.
“Anton,” the man said. “I may call you Anton?”
Anton nodded. “It is my name, and you obviously know it.”
“I know your name and your reputation also.”
“You are mistaken, for I have none,” Anton said.
“False modesty.” The man tutted, shaking his head. “My name, for the present at least, is Fergus Copthorne. I watched you remove the statue of the wood nymph from the marketplace in Nanfield, and when the Guards were almost upon you, you wrapped the statue in your cloak and hid with it in an alley. When the Guardsmen approached, you made as if you were fucking her against the wall until they passed by.”
“You have me at a disadvantage, sir,” Anton said. “You know my name and so much about me that you might have been a ghost at my shoulder these past few months. Yet I know nothing about you.”
“Perhaps more than you think,” Copthorne said. “You will know me by a more colourful alias: The Scarlet Hood.”
Anton laughed. This old man did not look like a legendary outlaw. Everyone had heard tales of how the Scarlet Hood outwitted the King’s Guard and stole the gold of selfish men. No one knew what he looked like – his face was hidden by the famous hood – but it was unlikely that he would look like this. But there was something in Fergus Copthorne’s manner that prevented Anton from getting up from the table.
“I am seeking someone to assist me in carrying away a certain item,” Copthorne said. “I have been commissioned by a client – whose identity I have sworn not to reveal – to obtain this item and deliver it to him. Unfortunately, this,” he held up his broken arm, “prevents me from undertaking this theft myself, and I must find a partner. If you will agree to help me, the fee I have been promised shall be split equally between us.”
“How did your arm come to be broken?” Anton asked. He refilled their wine glasses from the jug.
“A riding accident,” Copthorne said. “The horse threw me when I tried to steal it.”
Anton grinned at the man’s pained expression. “Why me?” he asked.
“There are any number of thieves in Sangreston, why bring your proposition to me?”
“As I said, I have observed you at work. I was particularly impressed with the ropework you rigged to lower the wood nymph from her plinth. Ingenious! Also, you are not afraid of heights, as you proved last night.”
Anton tried to keep his expression neutral. “Last night?”
“I watched you take to the roof of the fat man’s house,” Copthorne said. He paused then, and sipped his wine. “I’ll admit that I was surprised to see you hand the jewelled bird to that pretty young woman.”
“I had no use for it,” Anton said, “too gaudy. And hollow, so not enough gold to be worth melting down.”
“And she told you such a pretty story,” Copthorne said, a hint of mockery in his voice. “How her brave and adventurous husband risked his life to obtain the bird for the fat man. How he was paid, but later robbed and murdered by the fat man’s bodyguard.”
“It seemed the fat man did not deserve to possess the jewelled bird,” Anton said.
“And nor does the girl. You know her story was a lie, of course?”
Anton drank some wine, then shrugged. “But it was well-told,” he said.
“You risked your neck for a story?” Copthorne asked.
“Sometimes we do things simply for the joy of doing them,” Anton said.
Copthorne smiled. “I was like you, when I was younger. But I think you are a better thief than I was then.”
“Enough with the flattery,” Anton said. “Tell me what it is that your client would have us steal.”
“It is an axe,” Copthorne said. “A ceremonial axe of great age.”
Anton stared across the table at him, waiting for him to reveal more.
“He wants the Skullsplitter,” Copthorne said.
Anton rolled his eyes. “You are asking me to steal an ancient battle axe, that weighs near half what you do from its home in the great hall of Sangreston Castle?” Anton said. “What makes you think I might even consider such a foolish undertaking?”
Copthorne named a price, and watched Anton’s eyebrows rise.
“To be divided equally?” Anton asked.
The old man smiled and nodded. He signalled Mrs. Writtle for another jug of wine.
Anton shook his head. “It is impossible.”
Entering the castle as a thief was guaranteed to end with a man’s bones rattling in the gibbet on the road into town. It was impossible to enter uninvited, and even more difficult to escape from; particularly if you were carrying a ceremonial axe that weighed as much as a goat.
“You have a plan for getting into the castle?” Anon asked.
“We both know that you are ideally placed to enter the castle without alerting the Guard,” Copthorne said. “You were up on the roof of the Guard House only this afternoon.”
“You have spied on my activities for how long?” Anton asked.
“Long enough to convince myself that you are the man I need for this.”
Anton leaned back and drained his glass. “We cannot involve Varian in this,” he said. “I could not ask him to jeopardise his position by being part of it.”
“It will be more difficult if we do not have his assistance,” Copthorne said.
“We do not need him,” Anton said. “I can borrow his second-best uniform for an evening, without him being aware of it.”
“The uniform will get you inside the castle walls. Perhaps even as far as the Great Hall. But how will you handle the patrolling guardsmen if challenged?” Copthorne asked, slurring his words a little now.
“I shall employ my natural charm,” Anton assured him, gesturing grandly, the wine slopping from his glass.
“We are lost!” Copthorne wailed.
Anton smiled and raised his glass: he was beginning to warm to the old man.