Lady Red vs The Great Beyond

By B Douglas Rutherford All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Scifi

Chapter 10

Chapter X

Eastport was a big city, much bigger than the Landing and Gatewater combined, and brimming with two and three floored buildings of wood and stone. It had long since over spilled its walls by several streets, and upon first approach we were greeted by rough planked huts that leaned against other rougher huts. Little campfires littered the streets; each huddled round with dirty and unsmiling people.

Peddlers, most no more than children, swarmed out to sell us bits of junk and half-rotten fruits. The preacher smiled and greeted them warmly, but he shifted his money purse to his breast pocket with a quick hand. I felt Master step funny, like he was kicking a horsefly off his chest, and I looked back to see one of the little rats standing on the shoulders of another, trying to reach into my saddlebag. I smacked him hard on the top of the head and he tumbled backwards, knocking into his pack who scattered like vermin.

The preacher gave me a sour look. “They only steal because they don’t eat otherwise,” he said.

“I saw you hide your purse!” I retorted.

“Well, I have to eat too.” He pulled a coin out of his pocket and reached down to a particularly grubby looking girl with a surprisingly shiny apple. She gave him the apple and snatched the coin before disappearing down an alley. The preacher took a bite and then spit it out. He turned the apple around and saw the other side was black and rotten. I had to laugh and Thomas laughed, but the preacher was not amused. He kicked his gal up to a trot and scattered the rest of the kids back to their filthy existence.

Thomas would have had his wagon swarmed, but the sight of a Georgian spooked most of the little rats. He helped this along by growling at anyone who came close to him. He did not mean it, but whatever kept those little pilfering hands off his wagon was worth the effort.

I was frankly shocked by the wretched poverty on display in this place. We had poor people in the Landing—families whom fortune had never visited—but no one was dirty, except from working hard. These people had no work, which was tantamount to treason. Why they had not been rounded up to swing a pick in a plastick mine or cut down trees or something useful, I could only imagine. This was not the way of Anglanders. The blame could not be laid entirely at the feet of these wretches. It was the Lord's job to provide work and the people's job to do the work. If a person without employment came to Papa, he would get them fishing or mapping the coast or counting deer in the woods or anything to keep them moving. “Idleness is a slow death,” he always said.

We were approaching the gate when I spied two children running circles around each other, screeching like some unworldly apparitions. One, a boy, pointed what looked like chunk mud-stained wood at his friend and yelled, “Bang!” before letting out a furious barrage of imagined bullets. He screamed, “I got you!” at his friend, who had miraculously dodged the deadly balls by jumping this way and that way.

I smiled and thought of how I had played like that with Papa; pretending to shoot him. He would always grab his chest and howl in pain before putting on a good show of dying. Then he would hold his breath and pretend to be really dead. I would worry, and then I would jump on him to make him breathe again, and he would grab me in a bear hug and yell, which would always scare the snot out of me, even though I knew it was coming.

As I watched the shooter chase his friend it slowly came to my mind that he wasn’t holding a piece of wood at all. It was iron and covered in rust. That little rat had a gun!

“Hey, you there!” I called and he stopped in his tracks and stared at me. “What have you got there?”

He glanced at the thing in his hand for a second and then looked at me with scared little eyes before darting between some scrap huts with his friend in short pursuit. There was no way I could follow; the alleys were too narrow for my horse and I had no wish to leave him unattended as he was likely to be unsaddled and hogged for paintbrushes or some such. Never mind,I thought. It was probably just a hunk of useless metal with more rust than real iron.

It took me to wondering, while I caught up with Thomas and the preacher: if the Old Ones were so advanced that they could build robotic men that looked like real people and lived forever, why couldn’t they build weapons that used something better than gunpowder? The stuff was amazing for sure, and potent, but it was also temperamental, loud, and smoky. Why didn’t they have guns that would light someone on fire or make them freeze on the spot?

We reached the walls and went through the usual artifact inspection from the custos, who were far more numerous and far less fit than the ones in Gatewater. They didn’t look too hard either, which was good for me, as they didn’t see that I had packed the Professor between my saddle and my blanket. Master did not like this arrangement and actually hopped a time or two, so I walked him the last hundred paces to not raise suspicions.

I was up first and a particularly fat custos, who had something black on his few remaining front teeth, told me he was going to search my coat. I offered to take it off and he smiled and said that was not necessary. I considered debating the issue with my fists, but the preacher gave me a look that said as long as they were paying attention to me, they weren’t paying attention to the contraband under my saddle. The fat custos jammed his filthy hand into one of my coat pockets and started pulling things out: compass, handkerchief, gloves, flint, etcetera, etcetera. I stood, glaring over the fat custos to the preacher, who nodded his head and smiled, not in a mocking manner, but meaning that I should play nice and not clobber the fat pervert with the rabbit end of Prick. His fat hand continued its search in my other pocket: monoscope, comb, and my folding mirror. These he set down on a little table next to the gate lever. He bid me open my coat as he looked me over with a filthy grin and gleaming eyes. His breath was rank and I turned my face in disgust. So far he had not been too grabby and he had kept his search to my non-private areas, but presently he reached for my breast pockets at the top of my coat and I twisted away.

“Come now little girl!” He yelped at me with surprising shrillness. He flushed with anger and said, “We’re just getting started. You’d hate to spend a night in the carcer for refusing a custos' search.”

I gave him my best glower, right into his beady black eyes, and allowed him to search my pockets. He brushed against my chest with his hands and I did my best to hold still. I’m sure if I pissed him off I would only earn the ire of the rest of this troop and Gods know what I would have to endure with them out of public view.

He began patting me down in places that clearly could not harbour any contraband, but I swallowed my bile and suffered in silence. Why, oh why, can’t I ever have a handsome custos with pale eyes and bright white teeth? I thought and began to drift off into a daydream. With the smell of camp smoke and the cold, with a gentle voice and a few days of stubble, a straight nose, and softly wavy hair?

As I continued daydreaming the custos completed his grossly thorough search and told me to have a nice day. I nearly stabbed him. I went to gather my things from the table and a couple of other custos were playing with my monoscope. It is not contraband by law, but it did come close and most people had never seen one. They gave me a little grief, but eventually gave it back after using it to spy on some women who were watching us from a nearby balcony. One of the men offered me ten coins, which I doubt he had, as it was worth a hundred easily. I politely refused his offer, since he had made it earnestly, and I gathered up Master, who was staring at another horse and stamping his hoof like the fool he was.

Thomas told us to go on ahead as the custos were giving him an extra thorough search of his caravan, offloading all of his goods and, of course, Morris. The two cowardly custos had, at least, done Thomas the service of waiting for him at the gates. They were looking sheepish and relating their tale to the gate sergeant. I heard him whistle and say something about copperheads. After a time they strolled over to Thomas to try and make amends.

“We will give testimony to what happened to Morris,” I told Thomas.

“If it comes to that I thank you. We shall meet again."

“I hope so." I said and I gestured to the custos. "Watch out for the fat one. I think he likes girls, but you can never know for certain.”

Thomas laughed and clapped me on the shoulder, “My Lady,” he said, “I thought you would kill him, you had such a look in your eyes. But it’s better that you did not.” He laughed again. I liked him. Sometimes you peg a person a certain way and they surprise you. I had thought all Georgians were master warriors and I assumed they'd be serious soldiers with violent tempers. Thomas was all of the former and none of the after and I was glad for that.

We left Thomas behind, who assured us he was fine, and the preacher and I entered the city proper looking for a decent inn and another clue. What that clue would be, we had no idea, but the preacher figured we could start in the taverns and maybe see if anyone knew the madman that had perished in the Abbey of St. Christopher. I reckoned it was a start, at least.

We tied up the horses outside a place called The Whale’s Whisker. I did not think that whales had whiskers, but I did not consider it overmuch. I was careful to cover Master’s saddle as best I could so no one would get too nosey; even in a city as large as this, people were suspicious of outsiders. The tavern was set up in the old style with a porch for smoking, if that was your thing, and a set of swinging doors that led right into the bar. The second floor had pretty windows that had vine weed growing up and around them, and big flower pots sat on the porch rails. Mama would have liked those flowers and I bet she could have named them all too.

We drew no attention walking in, especially from the serving staff. We sat near a window so I could watch the horses and the preacher could watch the door. I guess we expected trouble, given the events of the morning, but none came, not even a rude drunk to glare at. The Whale’s Whisker was an older crowd who wanted to look quietly at their beer for a long time before drinking it down. Eventually, we got served. I don’t recall what I had, but I’m sure it was ham related. Those pigs are delicious and it’s still my goal to meet the greatest pig in the world and eat him.

The preacher and I got to talking while he scanned the crowd for someone we could question without arousing too much suspicion.

“So, tell me of these Old Gods,” he said.

“What do you want to know?”

“What do you call them, what are their names?” He seemed to grow intensely curious, like he was about to discover some secret treasure. I had never thought it useful information, just another thing Papa knew that no one else did.

“Well, in Oldspeak it's just the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But there were others too, I think.”

“And what did they do? What were their powers?”

“Well, the big one, the Father, was supposed to be all-powerful, but he never used his powers much. His son was a healer who was executed, but came back to life. The spirit one I never understood. I guess it possessed people, like a demon, but a good one. I don’t really know.” In truth, I did know, but having the preacher so keenly interested made me nervous and I don’t like making long speeches as I’m forever mispronouncing things and forgetting important bits. I was once forced to do an oral report in class on how a horse is born, which I know lots about, but once I was up there, in front of my classmates, all that knowledge quit my brain faster than a drunk quits sobriety.

“Well, you said your papa told you about them, where did he come by it?”

“I don’t know. He never spoke much of his parents or where he went to school. He told me that he had known many preachers of the new kind, like you, and he didn’t care for them. He didn’t much care for the old beliefs either. Superstitions, he called them.”

This was not the answer the preacher had hoped for; he looked deflated and I was tempted to tell him more of what Papa had told me, just to cheer him up. I’m a lay person when it comes to religion, well, to most things actually, but I reckoned this information was gold to the preacher. He had agreed to accompany me on my adventure, but with a guilty feeling in my guts I decided to throw a hook into the man, just to make sure he stayed by my side.

“My papa knows more about the Old Gods than I ever will. If you help me find him, he will tell you everything. I swear it.”

He pondered for a moment, pushing his gray eyebrows together. I tried not to look desperate.

“I will help you find your direction.” He finally said. “If it somehow leads you to the Beyond, then I will accompany you. But, even if I help you, then I want you to tell me as much as you remember about what your papa told you.”

“Deal.” I said, and I meant it. Bernard and Charlie had both offered to come with me and when I turned them down it was because I couldn’t bear to have them away from what they loved on account of me. This preacher though, he was a wandering man anyhow, and if he kept on shooting rabbits for dinner every night well, as the saying goes, there is no better camping partner than one who can bring home supper.

The preacher eyed me sidelong and smiled. He must have been a looker in his younger days. Not to say he was ugly now, he wasn’t, and he looked much younger than his gray hair gave off. I’ll wager he was a heartbreaker when he was a boy. It gave me a sudden drop in my guts. I had just thrown my lot in with this man with only the slightest appreciation of his motives. What if he was going along with me not for the knowledge, but for the chance that he could play hide-the-fox in my den?

“You don’t think we’re going to get together, right?” I asked with my usual heap of tact.

The preacher’s eyes momentarily widened and I thought he would get angry, but instead he smiled again and laughed low and quiet, like a horse's sigh.

“I thought I made that clear.”

“No, you did not. That is why I ask.” I was confused and so was he.

“I’ve been in love but once, Lady.”

I still didn’t get it.

“With my mentor, Isaac.” He said and finally, and slowly, it dawned on me.

“Oh!” I said rather too loudly. I was embarrassed and a little disappointed. I mean, I wasn’t interested in the preacher in that way, but I guess I had flattered myself a little by thinking he was after my lady bits.

As the preacher and I fell into talking or rather, he was talking and I was trying my best to listen, I got to staring off at nothing particular. When I snapped to, just in time for the head of the tale where the preacher was quite excited, my eyes rested on a poster hanging on the far wall of the tavern. It was a picture of a tall man with a dusty brown hat and his head tilted down so his face was covered. He was wearing a black vest over a white shirt and he wore a silver chain, like mine, but with a much bigger amulet on it. A big twirl of a black moustache came out of one side of the man’s hat and it instantly reminded me of Papa. I got right up—I'm sure to the ire of the poor preacher who was showing the friendliest emotion since we had met—and I walked over to that poster.

The man in the poster was holding a wooden flute in one hand and a book in the other that was open like he was reading. The picture was beautifully drawn and looked expensive. Below the picture it read, “Presenting the Musical Man: Magician, Bard, Poet.”

“He’s quite famous,” the preacher said from behind me. “I saw him years ago, I can’t remember where. His magic tricks were very good and he had the whole audience gasping.”

“Can we go see him? I've never seen a magic act before.”

“It says he is playing The Caged Bird Theatrum in the market, quarter until summer's day.”

I just had to see this musical man perform. Something about the way the man held his head in the poster reminded me so much of Papa that I just had to meet him.

We got a little room upstairs at The Whale's Whisker and the preacher declared the name must have come from the smell of the bunks, but in truth neither of us minded in the least. A bed, even a straw one, is a thing of dreams after a week of sleeping on the dirt under the stars. Master and Regal were boxed at the rear of the inn and seemed just as pleased to be off the road.

I managed to carry the Professor upstairs amongst my saddlebags, and for such a big city with so many eyes no one paid me any mind. The preacher found me a hiding spot for the Professor under a loose floorboard and I figured it was as good as any. As I unpacked my meager belongings I found a little, neatly folded paper in my pack that I had not seen before. I sat down on my bunk and opened it and my guts did a knot; it was a letter from Charlie.

Sam,

I hope this letter finds you safe on your way to Eastport. I'm sure you will find people there to help you and hopefully a clue to your father's whereabouts. I wish you great luck in your journey and I pray you will return safely and swiftly to your home.

Please do not hold against me, the words I spoke by the lake. Sometimes a thing gets so big inside of you that it must come out or perish forever. I do not expect you to place me above your father, but when you find him I hope to see you and hold your hand under the moons beside my lake again.

Charlie

I sat there for a time, reading the letter over and over and checking the back of the page for more, but finding nothing. That sneaky boy had hidden this in my pack before I left! Well, I must have had a big smile on my face because the preacher raised an eyebrow at me, though he didn't ask what I was reading. He must have known though, because without my asking he produced a sheet of paper and a writing quill and put them both on the little table between our bunks.

"Just the one sheet though, please." He said, smiling.

It took some planning in my head before I even started writing, since I didn't want to make a mistake or say something I didn't mean. I won't write what I put down in that letter, but I thanked him for his hospitality and his well-wishes and I included some personal words that I am still too embarrassed to share. I will say that I signed the letter Your Sam, and I plucked out a long strand of hair and folded it up with the letter since I had nothing else to give him. The preacher sealed it with a stick of wax and I used my little coin amulet to press the wax down, leaving a neat impression of a sailboat. The preacher told me to give it to the innkeeper to post, which I did, but with a flush in my cheeks. Once it was gone I felt very good about myself and basically skipped around for the better part of that day.

Unfortunately, my warm feelings were short-lived when we came to realize that this town held no clues about Papa's whereabouts. In fact, the next while was filled with boredom. The preacher went to work by speaking to the people around town, and he made enough to feed us and house us for a time while we looked around for clues. We spoke to custos, other preachers, and even the Governor; when I explained who I was and who I was looking for he invited us to a great feast at his house with his wife and young daughter. His name was Dwight Yarrow and he said many kind things about Papa, relating some stories about his younger days that I had heard afore, but listened to eagerly again. When I left he said if I did find Big Sam then I should come back this way and he would have us stay. He was very nice and offered to pay for our stay at the inn, but I declined, much to the annoyance of the preacher. That night, when we returned to the Whisker, we found that despite declining the Governor's offer we were no longer being charged and we were welcome to stay as long as we liked.

Nothing noteworthy happened until our last night in Eastport. Ten or so days after we arrived we went to see the great John Thistle, Musical Man Extraordinaire, perform his act.

It was standing room only in The Caged Bird. The preacher managed to talk us in without paying by giving the usher a blessing, which I rolled my eyes at, but free is free so I guess I couldn't be too upset.

The theatre was no more than fifty seats, which seemed large to me, but that just shows my ignorance of the arts since Westphalia had a theatre ten times as big. There was a stage lit with dozens of candles and a group of musicians off to one side. One had a guitar, well; all three had guitars, but all of different sizes and held in strange ways. There was a clown to start off the show, then a woman dancer, and then a man with a little monkey on his shoulder that did tricks. I quite liked the monkey as I had only seen them in books, but I wanted them to get on with it already and bring John Thistle out. The crowd got restless too and someone threw something at the man with the monkey, chasing him off the stage. A black curtain then dropped and a stagehand snuffed out half the candles, giving the whole place a grim and gloomy atmosphere.

After several minutes of anticipation, the curtain came up and there was John Thistle, seated on a tall stool, one boot on the ground, the other on the stool leg. He wore a black vest over a white button shirt, a wide black hat tilted low that covered all his face but for a big twirl of moustache just visible out one side. I was near speechless, for here in the flesh was my papa not ten yards from me. Then he spoke, softly, almost to himself. So quiet was he that the whole audience leaned in to hear him. He said a poem; a poem I knew all too well, for it was a famous one:

Them horses run

From here to sky

All thunderin' hooves

A thunderin' by

Beautiful beasts

No troubles, nor fear

Gallop to me

Take me from here

Great manes flowin'

Colours awhirl

Dawn paints 'em up

Reminds me of her

Them horses run

From here to sky

My thunderin' heart

A thunderin' cry

Atop a saddle

Atop the world

Don't need no care

Don't need no girl

Last one stops

Looks back my way

Then she's gone

Not meant to stay

I knew from the first line that this man was not Papa. His voice was all wrong and when he lifted his hat I could see his nose was crooked just a little, though he still bore a striking reference to my missing Father. At once I felt my hopes dashed and my heart sink into my guts. Why did I think that Papa had run away and become a travelling musician and poet? I guess my lonesomeness was getting the better of me. The preacher put a hand on my shoulder, not knowing why I was upset, but maybe he figured the power of the poem had gotten to me, and maybe it had. It was a poem that Papa read to me when I was little.

The audience applauded and John Thistle raised a hand to quiet them, but kindly. A poof of white smoke produced a stark white dove that instantly took off for the upper rafters of the theatre. I wondered to myself if he used the same dove each time or if there was a hundred up there, happy to be free from John Thistle's coat-sleeves.

The rest of the performance was much the same; some nice poetry, a few songs from the guitars (I found out later that one was a bass guitar, played with its belly on the ground) and a few magic tricks that had all the ladies of the audience gasping and the gentlemen howling with excited laughter. I enjoyed it, but I found myself picking apart the tricks and trying to figure out how it all worked. The smoke was easy, toss a little black powder into the candles and poof; it goes up in a harmless cloud, though light the same amount in a closed fist and poof, there goes your hand. Growing up with Papa in his basement laboratorium gave me a somewhat technical mind, I guess. I could not get the same dumb enjoyment from these tricks as the rest of the audience.

The finale was my favourite part since it involved a horse. John Thistle rode from backstage on a little buckskin mare. It reared up and, in a wonderful display of trickery, they rode right off into the backstage through the scenery and appeared as a little shadow of horse and rider against the backdrop, riding farther and farther away until they disappeared and the crowd roared their approval. I whooped and clapped too, hoping the horse wasn't hurt.

The audience began to file out and I shoved past them to get to the stage to have a word with this bard. The preacher came along, but said he would "wait in the wings" which I thought was a reference to the bird trick John Thistle had performed. I snuck my way into the area behind the stage where lots of folks were coming and going, carrying set pieces and sandbags and costumes. At first I thought it was all for the bard, but I could see there was another show right after and I was right in the way of them changing their set around.

I spied John Thistle making his way up a long flight of narrow stairs before disappearing around a corner. I followed closely behind, not sure of what I would say when I caught up to him. I watched him slip into a room and shut the door behind him. It was marked with his name, so I supposed sneaking around was unnecessary. Fun, but unnecessary. I knocked on his door and heard him call out from within.

"Who is it?" He asked.

I realized my name would mean nothing to him. "I'm someone you don't know, but who needs your help."

There was a long pause and then, "No fans."

"Mr. Thistle, please let me talk to you. I'm searching for my father, and I need help from someone who has travelled the world."

I heard him shuffle around within and the door opened a crack. It was dim inside so I could only see a shadow of the man.

"Are you alone?" He asked gruffly.

"No." I said, thinking of the preacher, but quickly added, "I mean yes, it's just me. I was referring to my friend who came to the show, but he's outside."

He opened the door a little further and I could see he was hatless and clad in just a shirt and pants, having shed his costume. His eyes were low and squinted, giving him a mean air as he looked me over. His moustache was a dead ringer for Papa, and if his nose was straightened out, and maybe his hair shorter, they could be taken for brothers. They were identical in age and size, but for this man's angry countenance that Papa simply never showed, the similarities were striking! I smiled and kind of rocked back and forth on my boots for a lack of words. His eyes rested on my chest and I stopped rocking. Well, that didn't take very long, I thought with frown.

He snatched a hand toward me and I caught it just as he plucked the little coin on my necklace with two fingers. I tried to twist his hand, but he would not budge. His eyes were wide and staring, unnaturally so.

"Hey!" I barked and smacked at his forearm with my other hand. I wished I had brought the preacher backstage with me.

"Where did you get this?" He asked with a tremor in his voice.

"My papa gave it to me, now let go!" I wound up to kick him in his stones, but John Thistle abruptly dropped the coin like he never had an interest in it, and he stepped back into his room.

"Come in and sit down." He said, but now I was nervous, so I hung back, wondering if I should bother with all this. I guess he saw the reluctance in my face for he said, "Quaeris explicationes? You want information? Well, I have it. Please, Samantha. Come and sit."

"How do you know my name?" I took a little step back. He only sat heavily in a plain wooden chair and waved his arm to a couch next to him.

"I know much of you. And I'll answer all. But please, you must come in. I mean you no harm." He spoke nicely, like a poet I suppose, and his movements were careful and practiced, like he was on stage again. Maybe it is not something you turn on and off or maybe he was acting. He didn't just guess my name and the language of the Old Ones since most people don't know those words. I reckon, like a kitten, my curiosity got the best of me.

I stepped into the room that was lit with a few candles and a little fire. There was a small bed, a tub, and a desk with a mirror over it, like the one in Mama's room, but smaller.

"Shut the door behind you." I squinted a little to which he added, "Please."

I shut the door, but I would not sit. Instead, I stood rooted to the floor and crossed my arms to give the impression that I would not tolerate any foolishness.

"Quomodo tibi nota sum?" I tried.

"That’s... complicated." He replied with a satisfied smile.

"How do you know my name?" I asked switching back to Anglish. He ignored me and opened a satchel bag next to his chair. There was a stack of papers in there, letters it looked like. John Thistle thumbed through them until he found a dog-eared one with a red wax seal on one edge. I curled my lip a little, upset that he would not be direct; I was not in the mood for games. I huffed as he passed me the letter, but I took it and sat down on the couch next to the fire so I could read it. The seal on it had been broken and the letter was addressed to John Stanton. Stanton? I thought. That's not a very common name. I opened it and found a neatly written letter addressed to John and, at first, it appeared like any other letter. It concerned the weather and a purchase of some horses and went on to say that the writer's wife was ill with a fever and they had gone to see a doctor down the coast. They believed it was a poisoning, caused by spoiled meat, and that she should recover with medicine and time. The last paragraph spoke of his daughter's tenth birthday and the horse he had given her, a sorrel yearling with a wide white blaze, and a shiver went all over my body and I felt tears well up in my face. I was crying, wiping my snot away and trying to get to the end of the letter to the name I knew would be written there. I took a moment to collect myself and noticed that John Thistle was watching me with that same sour look, though now it seemed less angry and more serious and concerned. I wiped my eyes again and held the paper to the light so I could be certain. There, at the bottom, signed with love and two beautifully arched S's was my dear Papa's name.

John put a hand on my shoulder and said, "Samuel is my brother. I'm your uncle."
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