The Last Retreat had been an orphanage sponsored by the King, run by lesser nobility, specifically Dame Hunter and her family. Angelica Hunter enjoyed a reputation as did her sister, Hermione, and her younger brother, Nicholas. At court, the reputation was that of kindly folk who - absent lord, liege, and property - were therefore willing to devote themselves to the poor little tykes’ well-being asking for no recompense more than that required for their and their charges survival. In the town nearest to the Last Retreat, the Hunter’s had a reputation for miserly behavior, paying bills only when threat of notification to the King moved them. In the Last Retreat itself, they had a reputation for casual brutality.
The Hunter siblings were not the kind to take delight in cruelty, per se. They were the kind who believed that corporal punishment was the most certain educator of young minds and they applied this belief liberally and often. The children hated the Hunters.
On the Last Retreat’s final day, the Hunters were responsible for ten children ranging in age from Helen, just 11, to Percy, age 5. Six boys including Percy, Frederick, Henry, Williams the First and Second, and Duncan. The four girls were Helen, Elizabeth, Mary, and Bridgette. They were ten children bound together in misery and hatred who decided to act together for the common good.
On a cool autumn night, with no clouds blocking the moon’s illumination, with the crickets singing and the owls hooting, when the Hunters had finally gone to their night's rest, ten children slipped from the house to convene quietly in the back yard. The boys gathered brush and twigs, logs and grass to decorate the base of the great structure. The girls slipped back into the kitchen to search and find candles which they lit from the lamp burning in the hallway. With flame in hand, they rejoined the boy outside. The children shared the candles, one for each, and then separated, placing themselves equidistant from each other around the house. On the count of ten, each child lit the fodder before them and then stepped away.
The children re-convened in the yard to watch the blaze consume their nemesis, the older children holding the younger to protect them from the fearsome noise of both the furnace-like blaze and the final shrieks of the Hunter siblings. When the townsfolk arrived, the Last Retreat was no more than a simmering mountain of ashes.
Ten years later, the former residents returned to the grounds of the Last Retreat. As they suspected would be the case, none had exerted any effort in the intervening years to repair the damage. The pile of ashes had blown away, true, but the grass had reclaimed its rightful domain. The countryside was once again idyllic.
Percy led the way to the cellar entrance, now grown over. The boys cleared the way and opened the door. The girls again carried the candles, this time to light their way down stairs to the Hunters’ ill-gotten treasures, earned from the sale of orphans to those more content with managing slaves then paying employees. In the cellar, as they hoped would be the case, they found four chests of money, gold, and jewelry, the Hunters’ hope for restoring the family glory.
They divided the treasure equally, now blessed with their own stakes for the future. They had earned the prize; they knew, both with the suffering endured at the hands of their tormentors and with the will to act to destroy their enemies. If the occasional nightmare haunted their dreams; if now and then the sound of the Hunters’ desperate screams seeps back into memory, it was a price to be paid. At this moment, the cost seemed justified.
June 23rd, 2004, 05:29 AM
In the small space of time between the children's act and the town's folk arrival with the dawn. A figure unseen, danced into the the fire. The hoot of the owl echoed through the billowing smoke as if in warning. The figure pressed a finger to whitened lips. Face painted white as ashes, eyes black ringed, body clothed in the motley.
The owl hooted again, crying warning. The mummer snarled and hissed. The owl fled, afeared for its own.
The mummer clambered and capered over burning beams and blackened stone seeking, sniffing. The locked together shrivelled and curled in on themselves to once were people. The mummer hunched down, chuckled and reached out. His fingers pulled at the twisted claws of once hands. Five fingers he took from the hand of the once daughter of the house. Five more he took from the former son.
Blackened lumps no longer flesh he placed in a silken bag. His chuckle changed and crackled like the tongues of fire as with the smoke he faded away into the night.
Ten years the fingers rode in the silken bag on the mummer's belt as he roamed from place to place, playing the pipes of fate and change, drawing others after him, extracting a price. Then again to the place of fire and revenge he came.
The Last Retreat.
Under a tree, once the home of a owl he sat, playing softly on his pipes. Before him and not aware of he 10 children now grown to young adults toiled in the sun.
Vanish they into the dark bowels under the once Last Retreat and reappear, bidding farewell, bundles tucked under cloaks. The mummer watched each girl and boy fade away, set on their course sure of what they had done and will do. The pipes he set aside on the grass then hopped and skipped down into the cellar.
Here on the steps two small bags dropped. Two small parts of treasure mislaid. The mummer picked them up and tipped the contents into his hands. One contained six emeralds and four rubies. Ten small gems. The other pure gold coins again the number of ten.
"Yes." The mummer whispered and there on the site of one fire he kindled another. 10 rings he made one from each coin. One to each he set a jewel Six emeralds for the boys, four rubies for the girls.
Once the task was done he placed each ring on a blackened finger from his belt. Again the fingers and rings were returned to the silken bag and hung from his belt.
But from this day in the dreams that come just before the dawn the children saw the mummer's face watching them.
June 23rd, 2004, 07:32 AM
It wasn’t all that difficult to find a place off in the corners of the kingdom where someone had recently passed on leaving no issue. With sufficient coin, Helen bought her way in as a long lost cousin, taking residence in the home off the High Down’s town square and fitting into the community as a spinster woman of sufficient if not gaudy means. In time, she was of no more note than the vagabond who slept in the town square on summer nights when the sheriff had more than enough cups for an evening.
She purchased books and parchments gaining a reputation as some sort of librarian. Helen being a woman, the town folk never considered she might be interested in the books for their own sake. Her reputation grew this large and no larger as she rarely entertained and then only for women who came away impressed with her quiet, unassuming demeanor, her civility, and her utter lack of pretense.
It was a good life for Helen, one that facilitated draining all memory of the Last Retreat from her conscience and her consciousness, her mind now mostly at peace. Occasional letters from her former comrades might raise the ugly topic now and then but – by and large – she kept the matter well at bay.
A few of the women, taking a liking for the young lady – she must now be close to thirty, they believed – set themselves a task of finding a worthy beau. It wasn’t according to the grand scheme of things that one so eligible should not be courted and they worked to remedy this freak of nature. For her part, Helen did not discourage such adventures but did as little as possible to encourage them. Remembering nights in the Last Retreat holding onto to Frederick or one of the Williams for mutual comfort against the Hunter siblings, she recalled the feeling of well being from another body close and this recollection stirred her adult body in ways she suspected were what her books were talking about. It could be nice to enjoy such feelings so she did not discourage her neighbors.
On the other hand, one so close would undoubtedly bring curiosity as a natural and customary baggage to the relationship. Curiosity would pose questions for which answers were not readily available. Yes, she had read that confession comforted the soul but she was not certain she owned a soul and, if she did, she didn’t believe it was in need of comfort. In this frame of mind, she did not in any way encourage her neighbors in their quest for a suitable suitor.
With all that activity stirring around her, Helen was therefore not a bit surprised when a young man presented himself at her doorway bearing a neat little package all dressed up in the finest wrapping paper and the prettiest bow she had ever seen. Her questioning gaze drew instant denial from the youth. This was not his present. No, he was commissioned by another to deliver this gift and to say only that she should consider it a gesture from a secret admirer, one who had known of her for a long time now and had finally worked up the fortitude to bring himself to her attention. It was a “he” then and the realization sent ripples of anticipation through the young lady.
Helen asked if there were a note. The youth replied that he had been coached for such a question and that he was instructed to reply that the gift would speak for itself. The youth then bowed and removed himself from her porch occasioning just the slightest of disappointments that he was not the donor of such a finely wrapped present.
Helen looked the street up and down. Seeing no one who payed overt attention to herself, she stepped inside and closed the door. “Tea,” she thought, “this calls for tea.”
In the kitchen, with all the preparations complete, she sat with her cup, the gift on the table before her, an invitation to a new life if ever such a thing existed. The bow came away easily as did the outer wrapping. Inside, a surplus of tissue surrounded whatever the contents might be requiring several seconds to unwind. When she did uncover the object and its nature sank into her consciousness, she screamed. At the same time she dropped the gift on the table, lurching away to put as much distance as possible between herself and the horrific item laying serenely on the white linen table cloth, her tea cup moving in the opposite direction pursuing the same goal to land on the floor no longer a single entity, but a now a cosmic metaphor for Helen’s life..
On the table in ugly reality lay a thumb, a thumb with a ruby ring, old but preserved, charred as if burned. The lack of note or other identifying mark did not ease Helen’s mind. She understood the message.
June 24th, 2004, 04:12 AM
"Tut, tut, such a way to treat fine china." The mummer said softly and stepped out of a corner. He bent an picked up the shattered peices of the cup, holding them in his hand. As each piece was placed there it found its former companion in the whole.
"That's better, " He remarked setting down the cup next to the thumb on the white linen tablcoth. Beckoned the young woman to come forward. "tea, yes tea... sit you down I beg you," and pulled a chair out, bowing. The bells of his multi coloured motley ringing, a bare whisper in the quiet of the room.
Helen moved, stiffly a wide eye puppet, the mummer's to command. While the mummer busied himself with kettle, pot and tea. Helen sat hands twisting on lap teeth chewing at a trembling bottom lip.
Tea, hot, sweet and fragrant steamed in the once broken cup before her.
"Drink up," the mummer said as he sat beside her sipping at his own brew.
Helen reached out with shaking hands to the cup.
"Do you know why we are here?" The mummer asked with a nod to the thumb.
"For revenge, blackmail, payment." Helen spat the words out her breath wafting the steam of the tea as it came close to her mouth.
"Revenge is not mine to take, blackmail is an ugly word and an worse task, not for the likes of me." The mummer replied draining his tea.
"Then payment." Helen's voice cracked, her small world caving in around her.
"That's it, payment, then the thumb will be gone and the ring will be yours, a keepsake, a token to remind you all things have a price."
"I am not to die then, not death..." Helen chanced a look at her strange guest.
"We all die, even the likes of I, but death will not come with serving me that I promise..." The mummer laughed. "Now you have books fine and rare, one I want, but you don't have, but a lady you know does. Acquire me this tome of learning before the sun sets five times. The task is not beyond you and you will see the thumb gone and your future free."
June 24th, 2004, 08:45 AM
It was Elizabeth, you know. Never Beth nor Liz but always Elizabeth. She preferred elegance and found so little of that in the Last Retreat that she took refuge in the glory of her given name, Elizabeth. Four syllables, in perfect meter, with sounds distinct to each, all marching in step to a glorious destination: Elizabeth.
Her appearance betrayed her almost as much as her circumstances. Her hair fell in stringy brown tresses lacking even the most basic curl. No amount of brushing seemed to impart the sheen she desperately wanted. Her eyebrows grew as furiously as the weeds in the garden with an equal effect on a face made narrow by too short rations. Her brown eyes stared listlessly at the drab surroundings of the Last Retreat as if to say “if you can lack enchantment or interest, than so can I’. Lush lips on a face too narrow to give them a proper home and a chin that with proper nourishment could be formidable completed her self assessment.
Elizabeth refused to think about her ears sticking out as if road signs shouting “bog ahead!” If her tresses had the proper curl, then those ears could have been tamed but as it was, no amount of puffing and teasing was sufficient to the task of causing the monstrosities to disappear.
In the party of ten, Elizabeth lived in the background. She didn’t believe herself clever nor adept in the tasks at hand. Retiring into invisibility limited her confrontations with the Hunter siblings, an achievement much envied by her friends. She pulled her share of the load, sought no favors, but never advanced herself to be recognized. She believed that most did not notice her presence and she was content with that.
On the night of fire, Elizabeth was eight years old.
Four years in another foster home neither significantly better nor demonstrably worse than the Last Retreat passed slowly, a pace made worse by the breathless anticipation that ahead there might be a future after all. Ahead there might be a chance of elegance.
After four years in the home, she was indentured off to an elderly couple in the King’s city who demanded so much less of her than she had grown accustomed to providing, that the intervening years were near to being a holiday. She rose each morning knowing she was a day closer to her destiny and went to bed each night with dreams of how the future must be. She spent her free time roaming the city learning the ways of the rich. She discovered fashion, inns, the theater. With each new discovery, she added another plank to the house of her dreams.
When the time came, when she ran from the couple’s home, to join her former mates in the treasure hunt, she stranded her masters with no support, none to tend their daily needs, none to even report their current condition to those who might assist. Elizabeth did not look back. Her time had come; she meant to take it. She looked at her share of the booty and concluded that whatever gods there were had finally paid their debt.
The King’s city was the only in the kingdom large enough, prosperous enough to support the elegance to which Elizabeth aspired. There was also the problem of her status as a runaway that would not sit well the elite of that place. Overcoming these drawbacks was a straightforward matter, though. Elizabeth simply moved two kingdoms over and began her new life. She was eighteen.
By the time she was twenty-two, Elizabeth was known as the finest matchmaker in her newly adopted kingdom. The avocation came naturally to her, Her inclination to remain in the background, listening and learning introduced to her to who was looking and for what and who fit the descriptions and how. She wandered the city carefully, appearing at the most fashionable open parties, gradually receiving invitations to the even more fashionable private parties. Her unassuming nature made her almost non-existent in the eyes of the rich and powerful yet her success made her a reputation as well.
She hired a maid who took charge of organizing her appearance. She eventually hired a staff that could charge of conducting her own parties, parties to which even the queen and princes were known to attend. She learned to live as she had always dreamed, in simple elegance.
A morning came when her maid awoke her, drew the curtains to allow the sunlight of another elegant day to enter in invited, and then directed Elizabeth’s attention to a package that had only just arrived.
“Open it,” Elizabeth commanded as she carried on an internal debate whether she was truly prepared to rise. Perhaps another hour of sleep might be appropriate.
“I will, madam, if you insist but the delivery boy was quite insistent that his master wanted you and no other to open this gift. I wouldn’t want it to be said that I ignored his instructions”
Annoyed but only a little so, Elizabeth decided that rising now was not such a bad idea, at least there was a surprise to start her day. “Very well, I shall open it.” Rising from her bed, she accepted the robe the maid offered, nodding her appreciation for the service. “Will you fetch some tea, please?” she asked as she gazed at the package, elegantly wrapped, the most clever gauze bow adorning the box. She sat at her vanity to examine the box but found not card nor note.
“Do you know who sent it?” she asked the maid now almost out the doorway. The latter stopped, giggled a bit, and said the messenger had declared it was from "a distant, secret admirer, madam.” With that the maid departed to gather up the morning tea.
Elizabeth was meticulous in unwrapping the package, saving the bow, the wrapping paper to be used again. As the nature of the gift became apparent, Elizabeth felt shock consume her body. She thought about screaming or even forcing a lady-like little shriek but no sound escaped. She sat immobile, staring at the charred but recognizable index finger decorated with an elegant ruby ring. A thousand explanations raced through and out her mind, each rejected on the grounds that Elizabeth was quite certain where this finger came from, who it had belonged to, and the message of its appearance this morning: whatever gods there were believed she still owed some service for the payment they had rendered.
June 27th, 2004, 03:21 PM
He had lied of course, Mummers lie out of habit and this mummer was no better than the rest of his kind. It was dangerous. The book was no normal thing of paper and ink. The owner did not know what they had, but were greedy, possessive. All Helen had to do was get the book into her hands. That was all. Then he would have it. It mattered not what happened to Helen the second she gave him the book.
He could not take it. Tried he had, time and time again. Not possible it had to be given freely to him. No enchantment, no weave of music’s spell. Given in service. All must be given. This was his chance, the time to be victorious. The children had played into his hands with their act of revenge and he meant to collect.
Each one will place a piece of the puzzle in his hands. Each act will give mind power. The book first, that contained the knowledge to mix the other ingredients together.
Now the moon winks and time stands still moving with the night sky. Between the stars and earth, over hills, valleys, rivers and towns the mummer dances.
Dawn is coming to this Kingdom. It dances down on one town, tripping along one street and through the window of one house it goes, like the mummer. He stands watching Elizabeth.
“Oh sweet lady,” He says going down on one knee. “Has my gift so frightened you? Your cheeks are pale, your eyes wide with fear. There is no need to fear me.” He take’s Elizabeth’s chill hand in his and turns it over, lightly kissing the palm.
Elizabeth does not pull the limb free; this is the price she expected the mummer can see that is her wide beautiful eyes. Eyes filling with tears; it is tears the mummer wants, or rather two single tears.
“Elizabeth, gentle lady the finger and ring will soon be gone from this place. Soon you shall be free.”
“How so..” Elizabeth’s words are low and cracked spilling from her mouth like the tears on her cheeks. The mummer with his other hand pulls out a cloth of red from his belt and wipes her silken skin free of her eyes rain.
“Such I wish you to catch for me, in a small glass vial. A maid named Constance, you have a match made for her with a young Lord Arthur.”
“Yes” Elizabeth replies her eyes becoming lost in the depths of this strange man’s.
“Unmake it and collect from each a single tear.” With this the mummer rose and kissed the lady on her red rose lips.
June 30th, 2004, 02:27 PM
Frederick at 10 had been thin but then all his companion prisoners had been thin. His brown hair had been trimmed short – to protect him from the lice Hermione had explained, her words solicitous, her tone reeking sarcasm – creating a sickly aura as if advanced disease had absconded with the curly locks that should have grown. His physical appearance translated itself into a puny, sickly character never strong enough to stand up to the Hunters, barely strong enough to join in the complaint sessions his fellow orphans so enjoyed.
Frederick crept through his days much like a pack rat, sneaking around hoping to avoid discovery, making as little contact with the humans as possible. The stragey worked. The Hunters could never truly engage their disciplinary whims on this mostly unavailable child. They realized Frederick was getting by a little better than the rest so each Hunter sibling tended to make up for the lack of quantity with a better quality application of their child-rearing technique.
The aftermath of these sessions produced nightmares almost the instant Frederick’s head touched the mattress. The nightmares brought him awake, trembling, mewling to himself, his timidity overriding the urge to scream his terror. He slithered from his bed across the floor out of the boys’ dorm into the girls' and then into Helen’s bed as if maintaining the lowest profile possible would fend off further encounters with any of the Hunters. Helen would hold him, caress his near bald head, and kiss his temples until the trembling fear gave way to the trembling a ten year old boy knows is important, feeling the tension and need in his groin but lacking the physical ability to complete the process. Eventually, Helen would realize how the situation had evolved and gently send Frederick back to the boys’ dorm. He would retire as frustrated with the lack of completeness as the terror that had driven him to Helen’s comfort in the first place.
Frederick spent the Last Retreat’s last day hidden away in the brush surrounding the orphanage. No amount of screaming demands for his return by the Hunters’ could pull him from his hideaway. No amount of teasing or gentle pleading from the other children could move him. Nicholas screamed of bolting doors against him, loss of this night’s meal, short rations for a month. Frederick sat tight. He committed himself to his bolt hole, shifting here and there if someone neared, always keeping a view of events transpiring around the orphanage but never allowing friend or foe to view him.
After dark, when the children emerged from the orphanage, Frederick emerged as well. He joined the group, hovering at the fringe, listening to the final planning, the final instructions, enthusiastically assisting in the gathering and placing of brush at the base of the building. He felt the excitement rising, fed off the frantic glee of his companions, ran to and fro hurrying the other boys, hurrying himself. He chucked the boys’ arms in encouragement, patted the girls’ heads, and then waited in unbearable suspense for the girls to return with the candles.
Frederick could not tear his eyes from the flames, fascinated at the rapid growth from tiny candle light struggling to survive the slightest of breezes to the crunching speed of the fodder burning to the flames beginning to lick the walls. He stood transfixed, caught in ecstasy, as the flames grew, climbing the exterior walls, forcing entry though windows and doors and air hole, gaps in the boards, separations in the frame. He laughed with unbounded joy as the flames raced across the thatched roof, beginning a little dance that spread to the other boys and girls.
Oh, the screams! The Hunters’ final protesting screams at the injustice, the horror, the terrible pain they felt were more than Frederick could bear. Add the odors, the scalding, singeing smell of wood and cloth and glass caught in the cauldron. He wondered if the stench of roasting human really did come through the conflagration as he thought it did. Could his nose be that good?
He found himself trembling so hard that standing became impossible. He dropped to the ground, curled into a tight little ball. At first, Frederick felt total disgust that his body could betray him so but then the realization spread through his consciousness the trembling was pleasure, the most pleasure he had ever known. The pleasure filled him, consumed him, made his life worthwhile. All the misery, the injustices, the torture that made up his life up to this night became justified. In this one horrific act, with the building imploding, the final desperate shrieks of one or the other Hunter sisters overcoming the noise of the conflagration to send shivers up and down his spine, Frederick found redemption; He found himself as well, no more mouse in the mirror; now a ferret or a badger, something with teeth, something that fights back.
Over the next ten years, as he moved from one refuge to the next, when then world became more than Frederick could bear, another building with other people burned to the ground. It was never the house that Frederick lived in, the house that produced the feelings that produced the need. He knew, instinctively, that burning his own residence down must become self-defeating, that people would soon put cause and effect together and such conclusion could not improve his lot. He set the fires a good ways from home, retreated to a safe vantage, and let the flames wash him clean.
In his twelfth year, almost two years from the Last Retreat, the flames that consumed his fifth burning building produced a new, even more exhilarating effect. When he stood to sneak back to his current bedroom he found his pants damp and sticky. Unsettled at the mess that must be somehow cleaned, Frederick exulted in the understanding that the flames had made him a man. His current foster father, spurred by the awareness of his temporary mother, clapped him strong on the back and welcomed him into his adult years. The man took Frederick to the local inn, toasted his passage, and sent him off with a young barmaid to learn how it is really done.
Practiced and patient, please at being his first, the barmaid performed role better than most could have done. Frederick liked the process, enjoyed the experience, thought doing again would be fun and even looked forward to the next time. He tahnked the girl and said pretty things to her and promised to pay the next time which brought delight to her eyes and a friendly groping invitation to not wait too long to come back. But, at home, in his bed, Frederick decided the fires were much, much better than the barmaid.
By the time of the gathering at the Last Retreat, at twenty years of age with more than two dosen burned buildings behind him, Frederick still maintained his slim frame but his hair flowed in long curly locks, touching his shoulders. His co-conspirators expressed their astonishment at his patent maturity, self-confidence, and lack of pretext. He had grown, they thought, far out of the shell of the little mouse running from everything and everyone.
Frederick saw their respect and agreed with it.
July 5th, 2004, 03:24 PM
The mummer sat cross-legged on the slate roof top of the fine town hall. Two fingers had he delivered now. To, two young ladies had he given burnt bone and crisped flesh adorned by ruby rings.
He set his pipe to his lips and played a tune to the waxing moon. The moon which danced in the puddle on the edge of the grey sheets he sat on. This small still pool, left from the last rain the mummer watches. For in its depths the sickle moon shimmered and sang in accompaniment
But this song is not merry and light. Tis dark and dangerous. The pipes and the moon’s words made the bright-eyed cats slink away into the darkness, their pursuit of mice and rats forgot. Women wake in beds across the town, pulled at night caps on their husbands’ heads and drove them from between the sheets.
Shout they did in high pitched squeals. “I heard a creak a moan, a footstep, something drop, a window rattle. Go look, go see and take your shoe to beat and batter.”
Husbands pick up shoes, piddle pots and stout walking sticks and set about the house. They stub toes on stairs and corners of walls, Candle wax they drip on polished floors and rugs.
Nothing found they and stumbled back to bed, bid their wives rest for pities sake. But the wives are sure something lurks in the dark, threatening her, her brood and all. Up the wives get and check their small charges. Each innocent sleeps, unaware of the moon’s singing and the pipes that call forth the dark and dangerous vapours of the night.
The mummer lays down his pipe and smiles. He muses on the moon’s choice of words, of its news imparted in darkest song. Two ladies charged with tasks and these tasks the moon did tell of.
A book to get, yes, already she has found its whereabouts and has spoken in entrapment to the owner of knowledge and printed fare. The man that owns the tome so desired by the mummer sees in the brave, yet trembling Helen, not just a kindred spirit, but being of a possessive nature, he sees something he must have. So Helen, she of books and quiet repose must trade herself the book to expose.
Elizabeth, she of elegance and reputation had a ball organised. Danced under the moon’s bright light had the guests. There two that she had joined in suitable arrangement Elizabeth sort to undo, but learned to her horror as the tears of first one she dried and captured. That she had worked false. The lady’s tear was shed, for fear of the gent. And glad the wench was to be free of him. And when said gent was informed a tear of joy did form in his eye for the lady he loved was before him. So Elizabeth must give herself to love for two tears.
Now the mummer’s smile at such progress faded along with his lover the moon, behind the clouds as he thinks on blazing Frederick.
Young Frederick has watched the thin moon vanish behind the clouds and has increased the pace of his step. A house he will burn tonight. Beneath his coat a jar of oil. In his pocket a steel, flint and tinder.
The mummer gets up from his perch on the town hall roof and looks over the edge. There goes Frederick skipping from shadow to shadow, avoiding the pools of the street lambs glow. Down past the grand houses of the important people, his eyes flicking from one to another till his target is spied. On the corner, four stories high fine leaded windows shaded by heavy drapes. Thick carpets and polished wood within all will burn well.
Down drops the mummer from the roof, alighting softly with out a rustle and follows the young man, matching step for step.
Carefully Frederick goes to the rear of the house, unseen by servant or master, but watched by the mummer, now a few paces behind. On his knees the young man, by the letter box. Through this brass surrounded entrance he pours the oil then takes the tinder from his pocket and prepares to strike his flint. But flint does not hit steel. Though a fist hits Frederick’s chin. The young man is caught off balance and falls onto his back. He seeks to return the blow, but a body drops hard astride his stomach, knocking breath and protest from him.
The mummer grabs Frederick by the throat and into his face leers. “Got you boy, now my bidding you will do.” The mummer drops a forefinger wearing an emerald ring onto Frederick’s chest. “Remember the smell lad, each burning has its own does it not. Remember this one… now... Payment is due.”
July 7th, 2004, 07:51 PM
William the Second, at six, lacked four years from Frederick on the night of the orphanage fire. In addition to the inexperience that such lack demanded, the Second also lacked the awareness of what was happening around him. Woke from a sound sleep, he remembered there had been a party and a dance and a bonfire to celebrate the end of the hard times. He and his fellows had been freed from a remembered horror. He knew this because the others sang their frenzy in the night, pounded his back in celebration but the details of what and why they were celebrating were always foggy in his mind.
Over the years of his youth, no dreams visited the Second. He experienced no waking in the middle of the night shaking from remembered heat or remembered screams. His life ran normally, routinely. He found his new caretakers adequately loving, adequately concerned. He grew well trained in the duties of his kind and safely suited to apprenticeship as a baker where even the constant heat of the ovens could not stir a memory of neither the bonfire nor the events that the bonfire signified.
It required the invitation to the ten year anniversary to send his mind to that night, a memory he examined with bemused lack of understanding. He found the invitation interesting, nothing more. Now sixteen, well into his manhood, brown hair at his shoulder thick and unruly, his maturity settling nicely on his large frame, he felt a normal curiosity to see the children he remembered, to learn how they turned out. He made the trip expecting little more than a reunion party, a few hugs and maybe a few kisses. A few more “well met”s and some final “so long again, it was good to see you, too”s.
Some of the children he recognized: the First, Helen, Frederick. Some he did not. He laughed and talked with them all telling of his life since then, listening to their stories with wonder and delight. He felt the undercurrent, the excitement, the shared….something…but he could not put a finger on what he was missing though he was certain that he was missing something.
When Percy led the group to the cellar, his unease grew but he followed the older boy’s lead as he had always done when they lived in this place. Down the steps, candles lit as candles had been lit before. In the cellar he watched in suddenly realized horror when the nature of their quest became apparent. They knew this was here, had known when the blaze was burning. They had known all these years and told no one. This was a crime, was it not? Surely some law must be broken by this shared greed.
As he now realized that he always had, he kept his misgivings to himself. He accepted his share and stored it on his frame and made suitable noises to remain safely included in the revelry. He gave and received the hugs and kisses, bade fare well, set himself to the homeward journey. His steps measured out the beat of his conscience.
How could he take ownership of such wealth? Especially wealth gained in such horrid fashion? He had not heard of a wealthy baker much less a wealthy apprentice. If his adopted parents still lived, he could give the treasure to them in thanks for such kindness as they had rendered to him but they did not, stricken by the flu in the middle of last winter. He could go to another town, of course, but what would he do? Here, in this town, he had a name, a good one, and a trade, a good one. He had prospects here but could imagine nothing in anything other town that attracted him.
Three days, two nights he walked on his return journey. He could not reach a conclusion that felt right but he could not remove the need to decide either.
In the twilight falling on the road to his village, he crossed before a chapel, its alms box prominent at the front door. As he neared the building a final beam from the lowering sun caught the box, illumined it, drew it his eyes to it. He marveled at the effect, appreciating the beauty of the moment, congratulating the gods and goddesses on their artistry, as close to prayer as he had ever been. Still, he walked on.
“Why don’t you make things this clear to me?” he inquired, drawing himself together as if expecting a lightning strike for such cheek with the gods. He slapped his forehead hard in belated recognition of the all too obvious fact. None of his neighbors noticed his work that night.
The next day the monk who tended the chapel came hollering like a mad man into the town, demanding everyone, all two hundred or so residents, get their backsides into the street. Assembled, the monk stunned his audience with the enormity of the treasure he displayed to them. They “ooh”ed and “aah”ed and had each their own tiny temptations but the town, spurred by the monk, did well. They first thought to send the money to an orphanage midway between their town and the castle town. The monk reminded them of their own experienced temptations so they improved their plan to buy clothes and food and such, from themselves as they could, and then from the castle town. It was a just and honest scheme to which they were all party, even William the Second, who sold some of his very best crossed buns.
William the Second slept as he always slept, sound and sure. Knowledge of the details affected the Second no more than ignorance of the details had bothered him. The fire was not something he had done, something for which he felt guilt. The others might feel guilt or remorse or regret, maybe, but not the Second. He continued life as he always had, a simple baker’s apprentice
July 10th, 2004, 09:25 AM
Within two days of Percy’s arrival at the Last Retreat, the children called him Spider. Try as they might, the Hunters could not discontinue the use of this nickname though they knew they wanted to do so, felt in their bones they should do so, but could not explain why they believed the nickname dangerous. Despite the beatings, the confinements, the humiliations, the children knew Percy as Spider and that was that.
Percy at eight was a confederation of competing bags of energy and curiosity. No matter what task the Hunters set for him he completed it ahead of schedule and disappeared into the woodwork. When he reappeared the Hunters could be upset and angry over their inability to find him but they could not complain that he had not completed the task set for him.
He disappeared into the woodwork, behind the woodwork, in the attic above the ceilings, in the basements below the floors. Percy knew every nook and cranny, every actual and potential hiding place. He knew where the Hunters stored their treasures, those in the storeroom in the cellar and those they kept from each other, the tiny hope chests that gave the Hunter siblings personality, separated one from the other.
Percy knew where William the First hid his bug collection, where Helen hid her book, where Duncan hid his treasure. Knowing these things was sufficient to Percy at age eight and nine and ten. The fire changed everything. After the orphanage, knowing these things became a means to power.
Percy was housed in Castle Town by an elderly couple, the man a cobbler, the woman a simple homemaker. Together the couple had been mostly unsuccessful in the normal life challenges and most particularly unsuccessful in making a family. In a last desperate attempt, they took Percy in believing his presence would be the missing ingredient but Percy at ten, after the fire, was not a good candidate for family member. He carried no hostility, avoided being combative or difficult; he was simply uninterested. The cobbler and his wife gave their very best effort but the resulting family never particularly succeeded.
Percy, however, succeeded. Within weeks he knew every bolt hole in Castle Town, all of the hideaways and all of their secrets. Percy at eleven and twelve used this information to begin manipulate fortune. Carefully, painstakingly, he built a comfortable existence. Learning from his victims, he avoided excesses, contented himself with comfortable, and grew in influence within the town. He became known as the man who could get things done, the deal maker, the consummate negotiator.
He had learned from his victims. Or had he? Percy looking in the mirror acknowledged he was not all that much different from other men. Brown hair and blue eyes were not all that uncommon. Wiry little men were not all that uncommon. Stringy mustaches and yellowed teeth could be found on any street in Castle Town. The image staring back at him he knew to be fairly average. Percy judged that to be an advantage for a spider..
He estimated his character to be no worse and certainly no better than other men. Equally routine, honesty with himself if not with others forced him to admit he suffered from a bad case of ambition just as he knew other men did. Percy knew his ambition and knew that it was perilous, that it could destroy him. He wrestled the problem for a year or more. One evening, after several glasses of a really satisfying red wine, the Spider concluded that life without adventure was not really life. He committed himself to his ambition: Percy yearned to be king.
His plan depended on capital, more than that available in the town but not more than could be explained away if need arose. Percy remembered precisely where the required amount of capital could be obtained and how an appropriate cover story could be fabricated. He had nine potential cohorts, the ex-prisoners of the Last Retreat. They would understand, be delighted with, not even think to argue that the fortune waiting in the ashes was legitimately theirs to claim. Who had a better claim?
Percy hunted the nine, located each though some had hidden and some were normally in the shadows. Spiders find the hidden things. Percy led them to the cellar and then stepped back to let Helen and the First distribute shares. They were decent folk, folk who could be trusted to do the job properly, folk who could deflect any blame from Percy.
With additional resources, Percy began to throw parties inviting minor functionaries from the castle. The minor introduced him to major functionaries. The major introduced him to the powers-that-were. The powers-that-were invited him to the castle. From the first night he was invited to spend in a guest room in the castle, the kingdom was doomed to Percy’s rule. So he believed; so he set out to make a reality.
Percy knew it had to be an inside job. The castle mages and the castle guard were competent. Penetration from the outside was perilous, had little chance of success. But from the inside? Guards are meant to keep people out, not to keep the people already in from wandering about. People inside were friends, were they not?