The man looked down from the cliff-edge at the harbour far below him. A natural crescent of rock, it looked like a pair of dark hands cradling the waters: within that basin stood a single ship, swaying slightly upon the rise and fall of the waves.
On the deck of that ship, Ursus the pedlar could just make out a figure in a billowing pale-grey cloak, tiny amidst the dark-grey crowds. From this distance, the figure looked like a dove in a crowd of pigeons. His eyes fastened on the figure as it reached the ship’s stern and threw back the hood of its cloak, exposing a sheaf of long, blood-red hair.
Ursus caught his breath.
Alys. He had been right: with hair such a unique shade of red that figure could only be his wife, and beneath that cloak, lodged in her belly, their unborn child. Down there on that ship was everything he loved.
And now there was no way for him to reach her.
Perhaps it was her advanced pregnancy which had prompted the sailors’ compassion: somehow she had gained entrance, but now they were letting no others on board. There must have been three hundred at least on the shoreline, pushing forward, desperate for the chance of escape, offering everything they had and being refused. What chance had he against such a swarm?
It was never supposed to be like this. After the rebels had infiltrated the South-West, the King’s guards had made the entire region pure hell for its unfortunate residents. Travelling pedlars such as he and his wife had come under targeted attack: soldiers battering on their door in the small hours, ransacking their possessions in the hunt for evidence of partisan activity. Even Alys’ evident pregnancy had done little to inspire mercy – indeed, a few of those soldiers had leered at her, as though her beauty itself were open invitation. Two travellers miles from anywhere, lacking weaponry: what were they but perfect targets? No. Alys was no longer safe in their caravan home. Reluctantly, she had agreed to leave Ursus and stay with friends in the nearest city for the last month of her confinement.
And then they would leave, for England under King Clarence was no longer a nation in which they felt safe. The plan was for Ursus to sell up everything they had, convert it to cash, and then they would meet at the harbour of Kingdom’s End, to catch the last ship to sail for France on the sixth of the month.
How could they have known that would be the last ship permitted to leave England at all? But it was: the King had issued his stern decree only the day before, and now it seemed half of England suddenly wanted to flee the country. Ursus could not have bought his passage before now: only this afternoon had he finally bid farewell to his pet wolf Mojo in the forest and turned for the coastline, for only today had he been able to find reasonable buyers for his caravan and his horse. Only now did Ursus finally have enough to buy passage and new lodgings in a new land.
But the crowds down there, surging and seething like waves against the harbour’s edge – they all had similar dreams themselves. Compared to most of them he was no-one, a mere pedlar. A peasant. He had no power at all. And now his wife was alone on that ship – and, if he couldn’t get to her in time, she would have to start again in France without her husband and with very little money.
And when the money ran out, and she had no-one to protect her… Well, any pretty woman knew what that would mean.
He curled his fists, and threw an agonized look at the sunset, horizontal streaks of gleaming red scraped across a wall of dark bronze. A storm was coming. He had to find a way of getting to the harbour quickly, before the ship set sail without him.
The quickest way was past Gallows Grave Hill, the most sinister of all the places of execution. Most took the long route to avoid it, from either superstition or sheer visceral dread at the rows of gallows and gibbets, whose beams always held at least one dangling corpse by order of the King. Time, however, was not on Ursus’ side, and he took the hill at a run to reach the cliffs and the coastal path, the quickest way down to the harbour.
But the figure he saw on the hill caused him to stop dead in his tracks.
Against the sullen green of the field Ursus could make out the distinctive silhouette of a man wearing a shabby black frock-coat, waistcoat and linen ruff, with a bizarre black headdress of long twin liripipes falling onto his shoulders. A narrow jester, hewn out of charcoal, with a sharp-featured face as white as chalk. With one hand, the man held a young boy by his collar; with the other hand he held the boy’s chin and jaw, closely examining his face.
Ursus’ breath caught in his throat. He didn’t know the boy who stood helpless as a puppet, his thin wrists bound with rope, but he knew the jester by sight as everyone did.
Though reportedly from the lowliest origins, Barkilphedro had risen to lofty heights as a Royal entertainer. A man who peddled the coldest and cruellest form of humour, perfectly suited to a sickening age. Coy as a cat, subtle as a viper, Barkilphedro held his audience in the palm of one black-gloved hand and coldly watched them surrender to his spell. He had cracked the King’s marble mask and – oh miracle indeed! – coaxed one laugh, then another, from the withered royal lungs. The courtiers had gasped to see His Majesty racked with mirth against the framework of his throne, tortured into tears by the jester’s wit.
High honours had followed for the black-garbed clown: his own servants to command, a private chamber in Vauxhall Tower, and proximity to the King that most nobles would envy. Ursus gasped at the realization of what this meant for him: finding the King’s jester here, now, felt like some kind of blessing from above. If anyone had the power to order that ship to take an unscheduled passenger, it was Barkilphedro.
Ursus took one step, then another, past the open gate and into the field where the jester loomed over the boy.
“Sir! Please… I beg you. Help me.”
Two pairs of strong hands seized Ursus, and twisted his arm behind his back. He winced in pain as Barkilphedro’s guards half-marched, half-dragged him over to where the jester was standing.
“Release him.” Ursus lost his balance and fell to the ground as the guards stepped away. Above him the jester’s voice rang out, coldly metallic. “Well? Out with it! Who are you, and what do you want with me?”
Scrambling to his feet, Ursus had told him. Told him everything – of his Alys and their unborn child, the new life they had planned in France, and how this would be their final chance to be together. If the jester could only use his Royal influence to get Ursus aboard the ship, before it was too late…
Barkilphedro cut him off with a shriek of laughter, his voice teeming with incredulity. “So! Let me see if I understand you. The borders are closing. Every rebel left alive is down there, scrambling to board that ship. And now one of these rebels is asking me – me, a faithful servant of Good King Clarence! – to help him escape justice, and spawn a new brood of traitors in France?”
Ursus’ breath caught in his throat. Shaking his head, he husked, “Sir, I’m no rebel – “
“Of course you are!” crowed the jester, his face savage. “Why else would you want to leave? You do know what happens to traitors, don’t you?”
His bony left hand, wrapped in its black fingerless glove, indicated the line of gallows that fringed the edge of the forest. Where his long ivory claw pointed, Ursus could make out a woman in a pink-and-bronze dress lying prone in the grass, her head hidden by her outflung arm – and high above her, a man’s hunched, still form, hanging by a rope from a wooden strut.
Trapped beneath Barkilphedro’s other hand, the boy could not suppress a whimper.
“One down, and two to go,” the jester snickered, his white claws digging ever deeper into the boy’s neck. “Murky waters, these. Dangerous. Really, I think you should leave. Even my mercy has limits.”
But Ursus could not leave. If pity could not thaw the jester’s icy heart, then perhaps the warm gleam of gold might. Taking a deep breath, he calculated everything he had on him – coins and banknotes – and named a price that would persuade any man.
The jester regarded him coldly. “Make a well-known phrase or sentence out of the following words: No.”
“Please!” Ursus cried out, unable to bear his chance being torn from him. His fragile Alys, his precious newborn child, wandering lost and friendless in a strange country… “Sir, I beg you! I’ll give you everything I have!”
“Everything?” For the first time, the jester seemed to break out of his mechanical cruelty. His pallid cadaver’s face seemed to awaken; his brow furrowed, and he looked genuinely curious. “You’d really do anything to get on that ship?”
Barkilphedro stood for a few brief moments, appraising him with narrowed eyes, before he shoved the boy to the ground and moved to the long grass. There he bowed down, plunging his arms into the greenery as far as the wrists. When he straightened himself again, his hands in their black fingerless gloves were clutching a long curved handle, from which sprouted a thin crescent-moon of steel.
A harvester’s scythe.
“This boy is the son of a traitor. And you know the fate of traitors…” Snaking one arm across to the boy, the jester plucked him by the collar and hauled him upright again, to stand, slump-shouldered, beside the six-foot scythe. “If you kill the traitor, you kill the sons of the traitor. Or if you spare them, you mark them. Permanently, where there’s no hope of hiding it. Yes.” He lowered his head, to half-whisper against the child’s ear. “Get ready, my boy. Smile for us. This man will take your arms and hold you still. And when he and I have completed our little contract, all the world will shudder at the sight of you.”
The last rays of sunset picked out the fiery underside of the blade, painted it with a ruby curve of light. A thin beam of scarlet seemed to splash across the boy’s horrified features, slice across his mouth, and drip away into the darkness.
With a dawning sense of horror, Ursus began to understand the bargain.
“No,” he choked out, disbelieving.
“No? Nooo?” The jester cocked his head towards Ursus, his thin lips twisted in a horrible grin. “This brat’s face means more to you than your own wife and child? Good Lord, what strange priorities you have!”
“But… You can’t…” Words failed Ursus. All he could do was gesture towards the two guards who stood unmoving a few feet away. “But…”
“But why you? Why am I asking you, and not them?” The jester’s pallid features shone with triumph in the half-light. “Because every man has his price, even you. Oh, don’t stand there stammering and shaking your head, man – be honest for once! How much do you love your family? Enough to fling your fine scruples into the gutter? If you love them, then go ahead! Prove it!”
In that instant Ursus saw himself as Barkilphedro surely saw him – as a cruel joke, a cold experiment, a piece to be manoeuvred in some diabolical game. He caught a glimpse of the boy, limp as a marionette, then looked back to the man who held him fast.
“Please! He’s just a child!”
The jester broke into laughter again. “Such compassion! What resplendent nobility! Do I hear the angels applauding?... Hmm, no, not sure I do. And just remember that if you don’t do this, one of my men will just do it instead. So be a little wiser, hmm? Every love has its price, and this is yours. If you want to see your family again… Hold him down.”
Scarcely allowing himself to think – feeling as if he were trapped and chained in some evil dream – Ursus made his decision. He took first one step, then another, across the grass and towards the child.
Seeing his approach, the little boy shuddered, and his dark eyes swivelled up to meet his gaze, panicked and pleading. Ursus swallowed once, then sank to his knees upon the hard field. He couldn’t be sentimental about this: this was his one chance to be with Alys, he would be offered no other. Yet for all his efforts to harden his heart, his chest still felt as if iron bands had been fixed upon it, and were tightening with every movement.
Trying not to flinch, his hands moved forwards to clamp the boy’s shivering shoulders.
“They need me, my family need me,” he muttered under his breath. “God forgive me – “
It was then he truly understood what that meant. The revelation made him lift his hands from the boy, and spring back as if he’d touched a viper. For God, who knew all things, might forgive him for this horrible act, might understand the devotion that lay at the core of it – but Alys, his tender clear-eyed Alys, never would. More even than he knew God he knew his wife, knew the pure and shining essence of her. Nothing could make Alys rationalize cruelty to a child: nothing could compel her to forgive it.
If he did anything to hurt this boy, his marriage would be over in every possible sense.
“Well?” Barkilphedro scowled, his eyes darting from the unattended boy up to Ursus himself. “What on earth are you doing? Stop standing there like a prize turnip, and do as I – “
It was then that the boy reacted. Somehow, as the men held their verbal tug-of-war over his fate, he’d managed to slip his wrists from their bonds, and those few seconds of freedom were all he needed to spring to his feet and face his tormentor. Barkilphedro had barely time to blink before the boy lashed out, landing his fist somewhere between the jester’s hips. The shock of the impact bowed Barkilphedro like a sapling in a storm: as the black-garbed clown bellowed and lost his balance, plummeting forward to earth, the boy seized his chance and fled.
In the distance Ursus could just see a woman in a pink-and-bronze dress, standing near the gallows, one hand woozily raised to her forehead. Then he made out the small figure of the boy in the blue shirt catching up to her, grasping her other hand and pulling her urgently towards the forest’s bristling darkness.
The two guards, meanwhile, had not moved from their posts at all. In fact, they both seemed rooted to the spot – and shaking silently, as if they were trying very hard indeed not to laugh.
“Well, don’t just stand there!” When Barkilphedro got back onto his feet, he seemed to stagger slightly, and his voice seemed more quavery than before. “Why are you – ? Get after them! Catch them! Now!”
Both guards departed at a sprint, but it was already too late: by now the woman and boy were tiny figures fading into the forest’s depths, like a pair of copper coins dropped into a well – catching the light for an instant, then lost forever. The sight made the clown howl with rage, but the cry died with a shocked gurgle in his throat as something else caught his attention. On the horizon, against the gathering dusk, Ursus could make out the small, trim figure of a rider on a white horse. A messenger, wearing the rose-pink of royal livery, spurring her steed as fast as she could in the clown’s direction.
“Mister Barkilphedro!” the young woman called, pulling her horse to a stop and raising her leather cap. “Salutations from His Majesty! How goes the execution of the Trelaws?”
The clown blinked stupidly for the space of a heartbeat, then quickly composed himself. “Thank you, young Quake,” he said, as grandly as he could. “You may tell His Majesty that the traitor’s already been disposed of. And all his family. Everything’s in order.”
“Very good, sir,” replied the messenger, then handed him her charge. “Royal Message for you, sir.”
Barkilphedro plucked the wax-sealed scroll from the messenger’s hands, regarded it with a puzzled frown – and then a change came over him, an inner transformation which could only be described as volcanic. A kind of grotesque glee erupted from within him: it shook his thin frame with laughter, lighting his features with the nether-glow of a hideous benediction. “Yes! Yes!” he screeched in triumph, tossing the scythe aside to cradle the scroll tenderly in both hands like a dearly-loved babe. “This is it! Oh I knew he wouldn’t make me wait, I knew it wouldn’t be too long! Oh thank you, Your Majesty, thankyou thankyou thankyou…”
Ravenously, he ripped off the seal and unfurled the parchment. His eyes scanned the contents, then re-scanned them again and again. And yet again, frantically searching for something that wasn’t there. By the time he lifted his gaze again to the messenger, his gleeful grin had curdled to a baleful scowl. “Is this it? Is this really the only thing you have for me?”
“That’s odd,” Barkilphedro muttered under his breath, barely audible to Ursus, as he tucked the scroll away inside his coat. “But no, no, I shouldn’t have expected it now. He wouldn’t send it on parchment, what would be the good of that? He’s waiting for me to return. That’s when he’ll announce it. In front of everyone. Yes.” Clearing his throat, the jester announced loudly, “Quake, you can tell His Majesty I’ve followed his orders. To the letter.” A whining note crept into his voice. “Please will you tell him? Right away, when you get back? Just so he knows I did it, there’s been no mistake?”
“Will do, sir. God save the King!” With a parting salute, the young woman turned her steed’s head to the east, then kicked her heels at the horse’s flanks and galloped away in the direction of Catford. In that distant paradise the white turrets of the splendid Palace crowned the brow of the far hill, shimmering in the dusk like some fairytale vision of immortal splendour.
As Ursus stood staring at the departing messenger, he heard the strange swish of something’s approach through the air. A fraction too late, he turned – and felt, with a bone-shattering thud, the wooden heel of the scythe connect with the side of his skull.
He found himself face-down on the ground, struggling to remain conscious as pain threatened to engulf his thoughts. Gingerly, his hand reached up to explore the wound at his temple; his fingertips came away wetted with scarlet. Turning his head, he saw Barkilphedro looming above him, his narrow body an absolute black in the gloom and his scythe-blade a searing white.
“Well! I can’t have you hanging around, can I? You heard the traitor’s name. You know too much. I can pay off those other dolts should they come back empty-handed, but you I can’t trust. So I must make absolutely sure of your silence. Dead sure.”
Dazed, Ursus raised one hand in supplication. But the jester merely shook his head, and lifted one foot to settle it, as delicately as a dancer might, in the small of his victim’s back. “I’ll make it quick, don’t worry. Well, as quick as I can, this thing’s hardly a precision instrument… But – ah! ouch! – Yes, the blade has a keen outer edge, it should serve.”
Then the jester paused, as if an unexpected notion had suddenly struck him. When he looked down at Ursus again, it was with gleaming eyes and a thin malicious smile. “You ought to know… It won’t be too long before you see your pretty red-haired wife again. That message, just now? That was His Majesty, letting me know about a little problem with the last ship. The one with your pretty red-haired wife on board. The one that’s leaving harbour any… minute… now.”
“No.” Ursus wanted to lift himself from the grass, to scramble to his feet, but his head felt too leaden for his neck to bear. “No! You’re lying!”
The jester burst into a carillon of horrible laughter. “Did you really think His Majesty would let a ship crammed with rebels reach France safely? Of course not! He’s taken care of everything! He tells me there’s been some unfortunate damage down in the hold, below the waterline. That ship won’t make five miles before she founders – probably three, in this weather. No-one on board has any chance at all.” Looking down at Ursus, the clown’s voice softened, taking on a honeyed, strangely beseeching tone. “So this is where it all ends, really, isn’t it? It’s better this way. I’ll make it quick. Merciful. No more pain.”
When Ursus did not move the jester crouched down beside him, rolled him roughly over onto his back, then yanked back his collar and tilted his head to face the sky. With his collar loosened, Ursus felt the flesh of his neck exposed to the bite of the night air.
He closed his eyes and did not resist.
“That should do it… There!” A noise of scrambling, as Barkilphedro got back onto his feet and balanced the scythe. “All over soon. On the count of three: One!... Two!”
Not three but four things happened then, in lightning-quick succession. First, a low-pitched mournful howling, so loud that it seemed to shake the ground on which they stood; then a scream of purest terror from the jester; then the thunk of the scythe falling to the ground, followed by the sounds of thunderous snarling and human screeching entwined. Ursus’ eyes snapped open, to behold a tableau from a nightmare: the jester with his arms angled upwards, his face a mask of terror, and his narrow frame vainly attempting to fight off the full furred height and weight of an eight-foot-long wolf.
Ursus squeezed his eyes shut, rolled onto his side, then covered his ears to stifle the sound of the man’s screaming.
At long last there was only the sounds of the winds and the waves. Cautiously, Ursus opened his eyes to find Barkilphedro fled, both guards gone, and his faithful Mojo determinedly snuffling and licking at a crumpled black piece of cloth on the grass. A piece of cloth which, upon closer inspection, proved to be a bizarre black head-dress of long twin liripipes.
“Oh, you soppy beast!” Ursus muttered, reaching out a hand to stroke the wolf’s enormous muzzle. “And where were you half an hour ago?”
Three hours later, almost at the stroke of midnight, Ursus reached the little caravan which had been home for a decade or more. He screwed open the padlock that fastened the door, and stood on the threshold, staring at its small, shadowed interior. Fragments of puppetry hung from the walls, painted heads and hands and hooks and wires.
The little space looked bare, bereft, like a lantern missing its candle. Outwardly, it was the same as it had always been.
But life can never be the same, after one has stood on the threshold of Hell.
As soon as he’d been able to hoist himself to his feet again, Ursus’ first thought had been to prevent the last ship from leaving. He’d grabbed hold of the nape of Mojo’s neck, and used the wolf’s muscular frame to support him as he stumbled his way down the chalky, loose-gravelled coastal path. Down below he could already see the crowds, dispersing sadly – and there, far out at sea, the ship, a small wooden toy dandled on the dark blanket of the waves…
“Stop that ship!” Ursus had yelled, and the crowds had parted as gratifying as the Red Sea at the appearance of Mojo. “Bring her back! She’s been holed beneath the waterline, she’s going to sink! For the love of God, make her come back!”
But the harbourmaster had simply shrugged, and gestured with empty hands. Everyone knew that by Royal Decree all shipping traffic in the English Channel would henceforth cease, and that this was the last ship His Majesty had permitted to depart. That sea-captain’s eyes were already fixed upon the far horizon. No power on Earth could make that ship return: no amount of flags, fires or flares from the British coast could alter her fixed course for France.
There was nothing more Ursus could do at the harbour. With an energy born of frustration, he and Mojo mounted the wind-buffeted path back up to the cliffs at Kingdom’s End. From Gallows Grave Hill there was a vista that stretched for miles. From there, they could watch the ship crossing the cloud-shadowed steel of the ocean.
Some vestigial superstition had taken hold of Ursus’ shaken brain at that point, some illogical but stubborn notion that if he were watching from afar, then the ship would be safe. That just as long as he never took his eyes from the child’s toy in the distance – as long as he kept his thoughts upon it – the invisible contract brought into being by his wish would keep that ship afloat.
In this way humans have always hoped, and thus are such hopes habitually answered.
For as Ursus watched from the cliffs, the rain started, first lightly and then with increasing fury. In response to the storm the seawater seemed to boil angrily from underneath, sending the ship swaying and then toppling upon its swell and churn. The sound of the ocean darkened, to a low roar. Beneath a sky that bloomed charcoal the waves grew paler, weirder, more unnatural, until they became mounds of pale green jade, with their foam a net of shifting white to encircle the little ship.
The breath caught in Ursus’ throat as the ship began to founder, first sinking slightly in the green waters, then juddering strangely as she rode the crest of one pale wave. For a moment, she seemed to freeze upon that wave… and then the water had slickly sluiced away, to expose the jutting black teeth of the reef which had caught her. Fixed there, the ship was powerless to resist as wave after powerful wave smashed over her and into her.
Once, in childhood, Ursus had seen his friends determinedly jumping upon a felled tree-trunk in the forest. The hollowed mass had dented and buckled beneath the boys’ weight until, at last, it had broken open and spilled a grisly horde of black-beetles and stark white grubs into the daylight. Now out on the reef he witnessed it all again: the same motion of a hollow core collapsing, the same horrid disgorging, the stream of helpless particles, dark and pale, at the mercy of a stronger force.
He saw the ship being splintered to matchwood as the ravenous sea feasted upon her. Faint cries from hundreds of poor souls with no chance at all floated up to his ears.
He was standing, helpless, on the threshold of Hell.
At the base of the cliff the waves dashed their anger against the rocks, sending up long white arms to reach for him, then dissolving with a hiss. Their sound seemed soft and strangely beseeching, as if drawing his attention to the distance below.
A sheer drop of a hundred feet, straight onto rock.
He stood unsteadily, like a man on quicksand, as the thought entered his mind and took hold – and then, almost at the same instant, a force twice as strong slammed into him like a battering-ram. It knocked him to the ground; huge grey paws straddled his shoulders, pressing him into the earth, and two glittering ruby eyes looked menacingly into his.
“Mojo!” Ursus yelled at the wolf pinning him down. “Mojo! Get off me!”
But the wolf stood obdurate, refusing to let Ursus so much as move. Pinned fast, Ursus had pleaded with the wolf to let him go, to release him from a world that would force him to endure such horrors as he had seen. But to every plea he made, the wolf had simply growled more threateningly, and now a new sound had arisen, an eerie counterpoint to the snarling.
It came from the line of gallows at the edge of the forest: a creaking from the wood frame, as the limp body of the hanged nobleman swung like a pendulum in the winds. The noise sounded odd – like calling, somehow. Repetitive, insistent, almost a kind of pleading, an attempt to drown out the siren-hiss of the waves below.
Ursus never knew just how long he lay there as the wolf and the hanged man urged him to fight in the only way left to him: to stay and to endure. Reaching up for Mojo, he buried his face in the wolf’s pelt, seeking the animal’s warmth, whilst the beast raised his head to howl at the pitiless sky.
When the fury of the storm had spent itself, and the rain had softened to no more than cold flecks against the skin, and the seas had lost their siren-call and resumed their gentle susurration, Ursus raised himself from the ground as from his own grave. There, framed against the thin trees of the forest, the stark silhouette of the dead aristocrat hung still and silent once more.
Ursus looked out at the sea – then sharply turned his gaze away, but not before he had registered a dark curled object miles out in the waters. A grisly rib-cage of a shipwreck, stuck fast forever on the reefs, whilst, high above in the jet-black sky, the moon revealed herself as a waxing crescent. Like a gleaming white scythe-blade, held aloft in malicious triumph.
Ursus turned his back upon the moon and the sea and, with his fingers hooked in Mojo’s matted pelt, began the journey homewards. He had been broken apart, devoured and picked clean. Now came the task of starting again.
His first stop was at a small hostelry, the ‘Walker’s Tavern’ along the road from Kingdom’s End. Ursus had held a brief chat with the landlord earlier that day, on his way to the harbour; now, he needed to find him and ask him to reconsider.
“Ursus?” He heard his name, and turned to witness the landlord dropping, not only his jaw, but the beer-glass he had been drying on a bar-towel. The glass itself had exploded into a thousand vicious shards on the flagstone floor, but even that could not snap the landlord from his horror at the soaked and mud-slathered apparition before him. “By Rancid Winstanley’s satin knickerbockers! What on earth happened to you?”
Ursus stared at him, then shrugged his shoulders. “Rough night.”
The landlord had immediately asked after Alys, but a single glare from Ursus had cut short that enquiry like a sword’s-tip to the throat. Taking a deep breath, Ursus explained that he needed his caravan back, at the price for which he had sold it six hours ago, or as close to it as the landlord might reasonably allow.
It is a fixed and immutable law of business that, when a fellow human is in desperate need, the successful business person should immediately and mercilessly gouge them for every penny they possess. However, when it came to business, the landlord was a complete and contemptible failure. Not only did he pass back Ursus’ key and contract in return for the exact amount he had paid, and not a penny more, but he had also insisted on Ursus’ stripping down to his underwear and warming himself and his clothes by the fire in the private back-room whilst in the kitchen he had personally cleaned and dried Ursus’ coat as best he could. As well as that, Ursus had had his head-wound cleaned and been served a hot dinner, again free of charge.
Meanwhile, the landlord’s partner (who served as the tavern’s cook) had quickly rustled up a dog-bowl of scrag-ends and numbles for Mojo’s delectation: however, the wolf had strangely possessed no appetite whatsoever, and had only lapped at a shallow dish of water. Very little was said at the tavern but, an hour later, a warmly-clothed Ursus and his lupine companion had been sent on their way with stern orders from both landlord and cook to return in the morning for breakfast.
Now Ursus stood on the threshold of his caravan, surrounded by the shadows of his old life. Memory clawed sharply at him once again. Feeling in the lining of his ancient green overcoat, he drew out the thin flat metal box which contained the rarest ingredients of his trade: the poppy-juice, pollen, tree-bark and distillations which proved most potent in his concoctions. Ingredients to sever the shrieking nerve-ends of memory; to kill the patient’s awareness of affliction, even as the wound ate remorselessly at the flesh.
A memory resurfaced, of soft hands caressing his fine hair, then slender arms pulling him close in an embrace… No. No more of that. He lit a lantern and reached for his ingredients, and with a skill born of long practice he began to macerate the poppy-juice and pollen with skimpweed in the strongest alcohol he possessed, adding the pulverized bark of the blackthorn tree and a few other touches. Everything he had, brewed into a tonic that would bury his pain. Yet when he was finished, the liquid in the glass flask caused him to catch his breath and look away: in a touch that seemed unbearably cruel, its hue had deepened into the exact shade of blood-red he needed to drive from his mind.
Outside, he heard Mojo making an uncharacteristic noise – a wet heaving sound, sodden and strange – and, almost welcoming the distraction, he grabbed his lantern and hurried outside. “Mojo! What is it?”
He saw the wolf’s body heaving and his huge grey muzzle working frantically, as if the beast were struggling to breathe.
“What is it, lad?” Though Ursus recognized the signs of gastric discomfort, the wolf had not eaten anything for hours: what on earth could be the matter? “Whatever it is, get it out lad! Come on!”
Quickly Ursus pulled the wolf over to lie on the caravan steps, angled his head downwards, and urged him to disgorge whatever it was that was causing him such distress. After repeated efforts, the wolf finally spewed out something monstrous-looking onto the grass; an irregular dark lump the size of a fist, dotted with the pits and hollows of severed ventricles like a long-corrupted heart.
Then Ursus noticed two wet, stick-like objects – a few inches long, slightly crooked and maggot-white – lying beside the irregular dark mass. They looked like two long ivory claws. Ursus’ stomach began to churn. Taking a stick, he prodded the dark mass, and under his urgings the thing stretched and revealed itself as the fibrous, clotted remains of a black fingerless glove.
When Ursus realized exactly what Mojo had done to save him from Barkilphedro, his first reaction was sudden and overwhelming nausea. Once that had passed, Ursus had stumbled over to the pile of stones used for building campfires, and had lifted a heavy rock in his hand, weighed it carefully in his palm.
Then he had pitched the rock in Mojo’s direction.
The wolf dodged the missile, then stood with his head cocked, letting out a whimper of confusion.
“Get out of here!” Ursus had yelled, hurling another chunk of rock towards the wolf’s cowering body. “Get out! Go! And don’t come back!”
Three more hurled stones and Mojo got the message, fleeing into the forest’s shadows and out of sight.
Ursus slumped onto the caravan steps, exhausted. Of course he had not intended that any of his missiles should hit Mojo, merely that they should land sufficiently close to scare him away. Pray God the wolf had gone, and that he would now avoid the company of humans for a while. It was no longer safe for Mojo to stay with the caravan. Had Barkilphedro been merely frightened and humiliated at the wolf’s dramatic arrival, then that might have drawn a natural end to his malign attentions; however, after such a horrendous mutilation, the King’s jester probably would not rest until he had scoured England to find Ursus and enact some especially sadistic revenge upon him.
Shuddering, Ursus fetched his shovel to bury the grisly items. By now he felt so empty, so hollowed-out, that he cared little how the jester’s vengeance might land on his shoulders. What mattered was Mojo’s safety, and that meant that the further the wolf was from him, the better.
It seemed that everything he had ever loved had been torn from him tonight. Stumbling back into the caravan, he stood staring at the crimson concoction within the glass flask. To forget. To mark out the rest of his existence with nothing but vague and colourless recollections instead of the constant salt-smart of loss and regret… Perhaps that was Heaven. Perhaps.
He lifted the concoction to his lips, breathed in its scent of bruised raspberries, and prepared to drink – then froze, as the sound of Mojo’s howling started from directly outside the caravan. It seemed that the wolf was not going to leave without further persuasion from the pile of rocks. He replaced the flask on the shelf, pulled on his green coat, opened the door and lifted his lantern out into the shadows.
Standing before him in the pool of light was Mojo, snarling and defiant – and behind him, in the falling snow, a tableau of the three standing figures he had found and led to safety.
On the left, a dark-skinned woman in a pink-and-bronze dress; on the right, the young boy who could only be her son, with his dark eyes and mass of springy black curls. Between them, they supported a delicate figure wrapped in a billowing dove-grey cloak. A figure whose long blood-red hair came spilling from her hood. A woman whose drawn and exhausted face showed the sheer joy of reunion – and who cradled in her arms a tiny baby swaddled in white.
Pale as a pearl, and as precious.
Life had taken from Ursus everything he had ever loved, and now had returned it to him in an instant.
The only appropriate response was for him to collapse in a dead faint on the caravan’s steps.
When Ursus first began to re-surface, momentarily, from his swoon, he found himself lying in his own bed. The first thing that broke upon his consciousness was a deep and resonant female voice.
“…Catch the last ship, so we didn’t even try,” the voice was explaining. “The harbour would have been the first place Barkilphedro’s men would have come looking for us. We couldn’t take the risk.”
“Thank Heavens you didn’t!” Alys’ lighter, hoarser voice chimed in.
“But I don’t understand,” the woman continued. “What made you leave that ship before it sailed? Could you sense something would go wrong?”
“No, not at all! I had no idea… Oh Heavens, I can still see the poor man I swapped my place with, how grateful he was…” Alys had burst into tears then, and the other woman had held her, comforted her. “No, I didn’t go because Ursus wasn’t there. My husband. How could I go without him?”
Then a gasp, as Alys realized what she had said and to whom she had said it. “Oh, forgive me –“
“Don’t,” said the woman, softly. “Hazlitt was a good man. Too good for this life. I suppose I always knew our days were numbered.”
The quiet was broken then by the sound of high-pitched sobbing, and with a pang of pain Ursus remembered the little boy. Then came a determined hushing, as both women directed their attentions to the child whose mind was still caught fast in the steel-trap of that terrible night. After that Ursus had fallen into unconsciousness once more, and it was hours before he awoke to the gentle touch of winter sunlight upon his face.
For a few moments he allowed its warmth to soothe him. It felt like a cleansing, a kind of rebirth – and, when he opened his eyes at last, Alys was sitting in the corner, watching over him.
Their reunion had been joyous but all too brief, as Ursus was keen to impress upon her the danger they now found themselves in. They had to leave, and quickly. Alys had sought to reassure him, but Ursus had insisted, and pressed the danger loudly. Perhaps a little too loudly: Ursus did not even realize that he had raised his voice until he saw two alarmed faces peering in through the caravan doorway. Lady Trelaw, and her young son – and there, in the Lady’s arms, he could make out the precious bundle, a little wizened face tight-shut in slumber.
“Our child,” Ursus said, dazed with happiness, turning to Alys. “Our little one.”
“Yes,” Alys said, but her gaze did not meet his.
“Boy or girl?”
“Girl. Her name is Dea.”
Ursus stared at his wife, then gave a short bark of incredulous laughter. A beautiful name, certainly, but not a choice they’d ever discussed. Besides, couldn’t Alys have waited until the two of them were reunited, before the little one’s name was settled? Alys had said nothing then, and it took a few moments for Ursus to look at the little one more closely, and understand that she was not a new-born. She was at least a week old, if not more.
“But… Why didn’t you tell me she’d arrived? Why on earth didn’t you send for me?”
Alys had not been able to find words for him. It had taken the intervention of Lady Trelaw, who reached down to the baby’s neck, untied the ribbon that bore a little disk of hammered tin and silently handed it to Ursus. Upon the disk were the words: Dea. Loved by the father she will never see.
Ursus turned his gaze back to his daughter as she opened her eyes. Eyes that were beautiful, unearthly.
Pale as pearls, and as sightless.
The little baby giggled delightedly while Ursus collapsed into his wife’s trembling arms, his mouth working, wordlessly absorbing the latest blow from a world that had not yet finished toying with him. Gently, Lady Trelaw placed the babe on the bed with the couple, closed the caravan door upon them and left them alone with their joy and pain.
Two hours later, Lady Trelaw and her son returned to the forest clearing; in his hand, the boy led the reins of a newly-purchased carthorse to draw the caravan. It was the Trelaws’ gift, the lady explained, and refused the very notion of reimbursement. All she asked was permission to travel with them in the caravan for a few days (she and her son would sleep on the floor, as they had the previous evening), just until they could find a safe place to separate and go their own way. In return for the shelter, she and her son would gladly act as servants: they would care for the baby, cook food, draw water, chop logs into firewood, feed the animals...
“Hazlitt always tried to help anyone who needed it. So really, we’re just doing what he –” Her hand rose quickly to her face, roughly knuckling aside the unwanted emotion before she spoke again. “Besides, you spared my little boy, sir. He and I are forever in your debt.”
Ursus flinched, as if branded by guilt, and avoided meeting the boy’s eyes. He could not help but wince at his knowledge of how close he had come to walking the other path, and where it might have led him. Gruffly, he replied, “You probably saved Alys in the forest. We’re even.”
Lady Trelaw did her best to smile. “Then we won’t talk of debt, but of friendship. Are we agreed?”
Alys nodded enthusiastically, and Ursus made a comical ‘show’ of giving in to her wish. “Yes. Looks like we are.”
Though the original arrangement had been for the Trelaws to stay with the caravan for only a few days, both the prolonged season of bitter chill and the fear of capture had led to their staying for more than a month. The little caravan, repainted in black, travelled only in darkness, whilst by daylight their camp was carefully screened by woodland and crag (with any curious passers-by rapidly sent on their way by an extremely large and strangely un-nocturnal wolf). Only when they had crossed the border into Scotland could they truly feel safe again.
During those weeks, Ursus and Alys learned a good deal about the Trelaws, and how unlike the typical mindless froth and bubble of English aristocracy the late Lord Hazlitt Trelaw had been. How he had sought to understand the systems of class oppression; how, despite his life of privilege, he had built up his muscles and disguised himself as a common labourer, working for a time on farms and fishing-smacks, in kitchens and coal-mines. How a number of political pamphlets, excoriating the cruel lot of the poor and arguing for fairer redistribution of wealth, had been nailed to cathedral doors in the dead of night. Every pamphlet had been signed by a certain ‘Martinus’ (for the saint who had sliced his cloak in two and given the spare half to a beggar), and the public’s growing awareness of royal corruption had fomented rebellion in the far South-West. It was not long before the King worked out the identity of the ‘traitor’ in his own ranks.
“That’s when we went into hiding,” Lady Trelaw said, then swallowed. In retrospect, they had relied on so many people that betrayal from one of their hosts had been inevitable. She had fully expected to die as well (since she had helped her husband write the ‘Martinus’ tracts), but no-one had expected the King to be quite so pitiless towards the Trelaws’ young son.
Everyone then glanced at the boy who sat silently in the corner of the caravan, and who had barely spoken since that terrible night. The one time Alys had tried to make conversation with the boy (who went by the unusual name of ‘Gwynplaine’) she had tried to compliment his late father’s noble character. The boy had turned coal-dark eyes upon her, and growled that it would have been far preferable if his father had not been good, since in this world goodness brought nothing but an early grave. Chastened, Alys had retreated, and had not approached the boy again. When Ursus and his wife finally bid farewell to the Trelaws on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Ursus turned away with an ache in his heart for young Gwynplaine and his poisoned future.
For the next seven years Ursus and his family (including the indispensable Mojo) stayed on the Scottish side of the border, making their living through medicine and the occasional puppet-show. Alys quickly adapted Scottish herbs into simples and concoctions, whilst Ursus made further experiments into analgesics. Only rarely would he resort to the potion he had named ‘Crimson Lethe’; only when his nightmares cracked and revealed the worst – a little boy with burnt-out eyes that had seen too much, and mental scars that would never heal – would Ursus reach for the small red vial, and knock back enough of its contents to drown his shame.
Through these years the couple’s greatest happiness was their young daughter, who would never see, but whose every word and action testified to a never-ending torrent of joy within her. It was as if little Dea, seeing nothing, was somehow gazing through the mist at an absolute wonder, and was eternally enraptured by what she beheld.
(A well-meaning stranger had once tried to console Ursus with the reflection that his daughter’s condition could be viewed as a kind of blessing: that Dea might not have been such a little angel, such an inspiration to others, had she been sighted. It had taken four strong men to drag Ursus away from that unfortunate fellow, and two hours of Alys’ patient efforts to set the fellow’s broken nose. The little caravan had left town quietly the next morning.)
Six years after their departure from England, news reached them of the Great Plague sweeping the capital. (The epicentre of infection had been the Loathsome Hog Brothels of Downing Street, where the combination of a hot summer and unusually high visitor numbers had resulted in an especially virulent form of swine ‘flu.) The year after that came the Great Fire. Officially – or at least, so went the story promulgated by the royal printing-presses – the conflagration had been relegated to one location, the magnificent and monumental Royal Palace of Hackney East.
The truth, however, had been revealed to Ursus and Alys in a tavern in Falkirk. The fire had started at more than one location, and had been no accident.
“Four, count ‘em, four Royal Palaces at once!” the man, an ex-servant at Catford, had chuckled into his beer-glass. “Frognal, Wapping, Penge and Hackney East? Mark my words, this is the way to kick-off a rebellion!”
And most gorgeous, most satisfying the fires had been in their pitiless destruction of property. Not a soul had been harmed in the blazes, but the richest Lords had seen their sumptuous palaces turned into smoking ruins, brittle charcoal rib-cages which once had cradled their pomp and privilege.
“And you know the juiciest thing?” The man had wiped his mouth and grinned. “All this arson was planned by a couple of ex-aristos. Mother and son. You’ll never guess who they are….”
Ursus had opened his mouth at that point – and had been swiftly kicked in the shin by his wife, who had assumed the prettiest, widest-eyed expression of ignorance imaginable.
The man went on to explain that, seven years ago, the King had ordered the rebel Lord Hazlitt Trelaw hanged. However, the man whom he had charged to wipe out the entire Trelaw bloodline had somehow botched the job through incompetence or bribery, and Trelaw’s wife and young child had escaped the gallows to start their own network of rebels deep in the far South-West. The news of the Trelaws’ survival had greatly upset His Majesty, who ordered the arrest of the man who had failed to carry out the executions. They arrived to find Barkilphedro’s chamber in Vauxhall Tower stripped, and the man himself nowhere to be seen. After four months, the jester still had not been captured. It was if he had simply melted into mist.
“Crawled into the brickwork like the cockroach he is,” muttered the man, his audible resentment suggesting long personal experience of the malignant clown. “Still, that villain can’t hide forever. His hand will give him away. Can’t count beyond eight on his fingers, if you get what I mean.”
“You don’t say!” exclaimed Alys in a too-bright voice.
It was two years afterwards, when Dea was halfway between nine and ten years old, that Ursus had had an unexpected visitor.
It had been a bright summer’s day in the sleepy rural village of Birmingham, and Ursus’ puppet-show of “The Cabbage and the Wasp” had drawn a decent crowd. At the end Ursus had placed a hat on the ground for contributions, and had seen a rain of silver and bronze aimed in its direction – until, suddenly, his eye caught the arcing trajectory of a single, gleaming gold coin. Quickly, he ran over. Yes, his eyes had not deceived him: amongst the pennies and shillings lay a sovereign, enough to pay for their food for a week.
Turning around, he spotted his benefactor – a tall, slender young man of seventeen in a blue shirt and red leather waistcoat, with a scarlet bandanna knotted loosely at his neck. He had a remarkably handsome face, long and tapered, with dark eyes and strong brows, and crowned with a mass of springy black curls. Even in a crowd, he drew attention by his sheer air of authority, as if he had seen more and done more in his seventeen years than most people would in a lifetime.
Ursus knew instantly who he was.
The young man nodded meaningfully, then beckoned Ursus over for a private chat behind the caravan. Grabbing the hat full of coins, Ursus followed, his chest suddenly possessed with a curious ache.
“Are you safe?” Ursus whispered, once they were hidden in the shadows.
“Perfectly safe,” young Trelaw murmured nonchalantly, as if such concerns were beneath him. “Mother thought it was you, and she wants to know if you want to come to dinner. This evening. Would you be free?”
“Don’t worry, we can cancel the show tonight. We’ll make ourselves free.” Ursus leant back against the caravan in a kind of daze, barely able to believe the boy’s casual manner. His mind worked feverishly, taking in this confident teenager and comparing him incredulously to the sullen, bitter child he had briefly known. “So… Is life treating you well?”
“Not bad, not bad. Our old friend ‘Martinus’ the pamphleteer will be making a guest appearance on selected church doors pretty soon, but keep that to yourself, all right? We thought, first, the Cathedral of the Holy Right Hand of St Victor… And then…” – here, Trelaw winked rather cheekily – “The Cathedral of the Holy Left Leg of St Biddulph.”
Ursus gaped, scandalized. “But that’s Archbishop Kupsak’s – “
“Precisely! That’s his stomping-ground. You know how much His Excellency loves liberal politics! And he’s such a sweet-tempered, reasonable man. So we want to see what colour his face turns, when he reads what we’ve written. Mother thinks he’ll turn puce, but I’m betting on purple. What do you think?”
They had chatted in this light, perfunctory way for a few minutes, about politics and the latest uprisings in the South-West, until Ursus finally decided to grasp the nettle and voice his thoughts.
“Look, I wanted to say… Erm… That night. I’m glad you got away.”
“Yes, so am I.” Trelaw shrugged awkwardly, and his mouth twisted into a wry expression. “I’ll admit it. I used to be really angry with you. In my nightmares, it was always your hands on my shoulders, pinning me down. I know you didn’t hold me for long, but it was –“
Ursus sighed, leaning back against the caravan’s side. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be! I need to tell you something. Basically, I grew up, and I realized I wasn’t being fair.” Trelaw’s dark eyes were wide and painfully earnest. “Look, suppose it had been the other way ‘round. Suppose Barkilphedro had told me that I could’ve got my father back, if I’d helped him cut your face wide open? What would I have done? I can’t pretend I’m a saint. I can’t.”
“But you wouldn’t have – “
“I don’t know what I’d’ve done, all right?” Trelaw exclaimed impatiently, one hand buried in his wild mass of hair, as if trying to hold in his thoughts. “Anyway, I realized that in another life, I could have been you… And the point was, you didn’t go through with it. You could have done, but you didn’t. You let me escape. And then I went from hating you to loving you in the same day. It was… really strange.”
“Oh, lad…” Before he could properly react, Ursus found himself enveloped in a bear-hug from the young man, an impact that for a moment knocked the breath from his lungs. Withdrawing, Trelaw murmured something about owing Ursus his life.
Naturally, the only appropriate response was for Ursus to argue that talk of debts was absolute nonsense and they weren’t going to go over all that again. Nonetheless, the warmth of the young man’s forgiveness left him feeling euphoric: as he walked out from the shadows into the sunlight with young Trelaw at his side, he was struck – no, transfigured – with the realization that this moment was perfect. That right then, there was no other life he would rather lead. Over there was his beloved Alys, wearing a smile so bright it would put the sun to shame, whilst on the daisy-dotted grass of the village green sat his little daughter, softly singing to herself, her hand lovingly stroking the grizzled pelt of the drowsing wolf.