Mrs. Howden hummed tunelessly as she counted out the day’s earnings at her table. Arthur sat opposite her, staring into space.
“Nothing like a nice sit down after a hard day’s work is there?” she said conversationally. There was no response. “There! 10 gold coins and 5 silver. Not bad at all!” There was a pause and she waited for a response. “Mr. D, are you listening to me?”
Arthur shook himself. “Of course,” he muttered.
Mrs. Howden raised an eyebrow. “Then what did I say?”
Arthur glared at the table. “There must be a way to get to Agravaine,” he growled.
Mrs. Howden threw her hands up in despair. “For goodness sake, you’re always harping on about bloody old Agravaine!” She sighed, and went to stand behind him. “We’ve got a nice respectable business now, money coming in regular and since we’re careful to pick and choose, who’s going to catch on?”
She leant down and pecked Arthur on the cheek. “Ooh, Mr. De Rege , I’m so happy! You know what I’d like to do, Mr. De Rege ? If the business stays as good, I mean. Where I’d really like to go.”
Arthur didn’t reply. “In a year or so,” she prodded. Nothing. “Don’t you want to know?”
“Of course,” replied Arthur dully.
“Do you really want to know?”
Arthur sighed heavily and feigned enthusiasm. “Yes, yes, I do.”
Mrs. Howden beamed, missing the insincerity of Arthur’s words, and settled back down in her chair.
“Well, I always had a dream, ever since I was a child, when my rich uncle would come and visit and tell me stories of the towns next to the sea, and how you could swim in it and everything, and I’ve always wanted to live next to the sea!” Mrs. Howden smiled at Arthur, waiting for a reaction to this exciting revelation. He simply stared at the table.
“I know you’d love it, Mr. D,” she said hopefully, “We could be alone, in our very own house…”
“Anything you say,” Arthur replied in a monotone.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful?”
Arthur gave her a pained smile.
“We’ll have fresh fish every day, and go walking along the beach, and then I can knit in the evenings…” She trailed off and looked at Arthur coyly. “Unless we got better to do…” Arthur stared at her in horror, which Mrs. Howden took as a look of encouragement, and she laughed happily.
“Think how snug we’ll be, just us two! They say there’s lovely weather there. We’ll grow old together.”
She hugged herself in excitement, and walked around the shop, tidying busily. Arthur shook his head and went back to his musings, once again no longer listening to a word she was saying.
“It’ll be so quiet, nice and peaceful,” Mrs. Howden went on, and then paused. She hesitated and glanced at Arthur out of the corner of her eye. “A seaside wedding would be lovely,” she said carefully, watching him for a reaction. He stared at the table.
Encouraged, she continued. “We’ll have the odd paying guest from travellers, and now and then you could do ‘em in – bring along the sword!” She was practically dancing with happiness now. “By the beautiful sea, like I’ve always wanted! Married nice and proper.”
Mrs. Howden came over to Arthur and leant against him affectionately, delighted that he wasn’t rejecting her outright. “Come on, Mr. D, give me a kiss,” she giggled, and pecked him on the cheek. “You do love me just a little bit, don’t you?”
“Of course,” muttered Arthur, with no idea what he was agreeing to.
Mrs. Howden beamed. “Then how about it? Of course, we’d have to legalise things, but that wouldn’t be too painful, would it?”
There was a pause. Then Arthur spoke in a low growl. “I’ll make them pay for what they did to Merlin.”
Mrs. Howden groaned. “Now you listen to me!” she scolded. “It’s high time you forgot those morbid fancies. Your Merlin’s gone, poor thing. You’ve got me now.” She pecked him lightly again. “You know -” she started, but was cut off by a shout from outside.
“Mr. De Rege ! Mr. De Rege !” The door banged open and William burst in. “I’ve found her!”
Arthur leapt to his feet. “You’ve found Guinevere?”
“That monster Agravaine has her locked away in a madhouse!”
“Where?” Arthur cried. “Where?”
“Where no one can reach her,” William said breathlessly, “at Mr. Seward’s Asylum. Oh, Mr. De Rege , she’s in there with all those screeching maniacs -”
Arthur cut him off. “A madhouse! A madhouse!” he shouted, swinging round, feverishly excited. “Gwen is as good as rescued!”
Mrs. Howden spoke for the first time, bewildered. “She is?”
Arthur grinned. “Of course! Where do you suppose the wigmakers go
to obtain their human hair?”
“Who knows? The morgue? Wouldn’t be surprised.”
“The madhouse. They get their hair from the lunatics at the
William’s eyes lit up. “Then you think…” he breathed, hardly daring to hope.
“Why not? For the right amount, they’ll sell you the hair off anyone’s head.”
Mrs. Howden huffed angrily. She had been so close to having Arthur to herself – but William had ruined it. She stalked out, all too aware that neither of the men would notice her absence.
“We will write a letter to this Mr. Seward,” Arthur was saying excitedly, “offering the highest price for hair the exact shade of Gwen’s -” He broke off, remembering suddenly that he wasn’t supposed to have ever seen Gwen before. “Which I trust you know?” he finished carefully.
William smiled. “The darkest brown, almost black.”
Arthur smiled back, though his blood boiled at the love in William’s eyes. He thought he could move on from Gwen if he had his revenge, but now she was so close, he wasn’t so sure.
“Good,” he said out loud, and went quickly into the back room. He emerged again with a handful of coins, some paper, and a quill. “Here’s the money,” he said, handing it to him, and swiftly wrote the letter, handing it over also. “And here -” He gave William a small and sharp dagger and looked him deep in the eye. “Kill if you must. Kill.”
William took it and returned his gaze with equal intensity. “I will kill a dozen jailors if need be to set her free.”
Arthur nodded once. “Then off with you. But, William, listen to me.” He hesitated, and then continued. “When you have rescued her, bring her back here. I shall guard her while you acquire transport for your escape.” He had to see her, at least once more.
William nodded. “We’ll be with you before the evening’s out.” He clasped both Arthur’s hands in his. “Mr. De Rege . Thank you, friend.” And then he was gone.
Arthur stood for a moment, and then crossed to the table. He sat and drew the rest of the paper towards him. He paused, and began to write.
Your Majesty, King Agravaine, he wrote, and paused for a snort of derision. I venture to write you this urgent note to warn you that the young sailor has abducted your ward Guinevere from the institution where you – he thought for a moment – so wisely confined her. Hoping to earn your favour I have persuaded the boy to lodge her here tonight, in my house in Sowers Street. If you want her again in your arms, hurry here after night falls. She will be waiting. Your obedient and humble servant, Adalet De Rege .
He finished with a flourish and sealed the letter with candle wax. Then he rose and left, heading for the castle.
Mrs. Howden sat in the back room, sewing and scowling at the floor. She had hoped that Arthur would move on from the past, forget about his old family and his old life. And he nearly had. But that dratted sailor had come barging in and as soon as Arthur saw Guinevere again, her chance would be gone. Was there anything she could do to stop it? Maybe -
The door swung open, distracting her from her thoughts, and Evan ran in. “I put the sold-out sign up, ma’am,” he told her proudly.
“That’s my boy,” Mrs. Howden smiled. Evan always cheered her up. She held up her sewing. “Look, dear, a blanket! And guess who it’s for.”
“For me?” Evan breathed, eyes wide. Mrs. Howden chuckled and nodded. “Oh, you’re so good to me, ma’am,” he cried. “Sometimes, when I think what it was like with Signor Adamoli – it seems like the gods sent you for me.”
“It’s just my warm heart, dear.”
Evan sat by her feet, looking up at her. “You know, ma’am, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you,” he said earnestly, “If there was a monster or an ogre or anything bad like that what was after you, I’d rip it apart with me bare fists, I would.”
Mrs. Howden patted him on the head. “What a sweet child it is,” she said affectionately, going back to her sewing.
“Or even if it was just a man…”
Mrs. Howden’s head shot up. “A man, dear?” she said uneasily.
“A man what was bad and what might be luring you into his evil deeds, like,” Evan whispered conspiringly.
“What is this?” Mrs. Howden said, even more wary. “What are you talking about?”
Evan frowned. “Nothing’s gonna harm you, ma’am,” he said eventually, “Not while I’m around.”
“Of course not dear, why should it?” She paused. “And what do you mean, a man?”
“Demons come in all shapes and sizes, ma’am. They’re everywhere.”
Mrs. Howden smiled, somewhat relieved; he didn’t seem to have anyone specific in mind. “So they are, dear.”
“I’ll send them howling. I got ways!”
“Of course you do.”
“No one’s gonna hurt you. No one’ll dare,” Evan continued earnestly. “Other people might desert you, but don’t worry. If you whistle, I’ll be there.”
“I know what Evan deserves…” Mrs. Howden smiled. “A nice sweetie!”
Evan grabbed her hand as she reached for her purse, refusing to break eye contact in his adoration. “Demons’ll charm you for a while, but in time…”He left the sentence unfinished, and the silence spoke for itself. “But nothing’ll harm you ma’am. Not while I’m around,” he repeated.
“What is this foolishness?” Mrs. Howden sighed. “What’re you talking about?”
“Little things what I’ve been thinking and wondering about,” Evan said carefully. “It’s him, you see – Mr. De Rege . I know you like him…” Mrs. Howden opened her mouth to protest, but he held up his hand to silence her, his eyes older than his years. “…but you can’t trust men like him, as I’ve lived and learned.”
Mrs. Howden didn’t know what to say. Had he guessed what they were doing?
“Not to worry, though, ma’am. I may not be clever but I’m not stupid. I can do anything you tell me to. And being clever ain’t like being loyal, like I am to you. I won’t ever hide a thing from you…” He broke off and raised his eyes to the ceiling significantly. “…like some.”
“Now Evan dear,” Mrs. Howden interrupted hastily, “Haven’t we had enough foolish chatter? Let’s just sit nice and quiet for a bit. Here -” She pulled out her purse to get a sweet for Evan, but he jumped to his feet.
“That!” he cried, pointing to the purse, “That’s Signor Adamoli’s purse!”
Mrs. Howden shoved the purse back in her apron, realising her slip. “What’s that? What was that, dear?” she stammered, stalling for time.
“That proves it! What I’ve been thinking!” Evan cried, tapping his head in frustration. “That’s his purse!”
“Silly boy!” Mrs. Howden desperately tried to conceal her panic. “It’s just a little something Mr. D gave me for my birthday!”
“Mr. De Rege gave it to
you!” Evan shrieked. “And how did he get it? How did he get it?”
“Bought it, dear! At the market.” Mrs. Howden lifted the unfinished blanket onto his shoulders in an attempt to calm him. “Come on now. Nothing’s gonna harm you, not while I’m around,” she murmured, echoing Evan’s earlier words.
“You don’t understand!” Evan moaned, shrugging the blanket off. “Two gold coins were in it, two or three! He wouldn’t have given up his purse with two gold coins! Not for a minute! Don’t you see? It was in Mr. De Rege ’s room that Signor Adamoli disappeared!”
Mrs. Howden laughed weakly. “Boys and their fancies! What will you think of next? Here, dear.” She wrapped the blanket tighter around his shoulders, her mind racing. She was going to have to tell Arthur that Evan suspected him. Otherwise Evan might tell someone else. What would Arthur do when he knew?
“Sit by me like a good boy and look at your lovely blanket.” Her voice cracked as she realised Arthur would probably kill him. “How warm it’s going to keep you…when the nights draw in and…it’s so becoming on you…” She took a deep breath. She shouldn’t have allowed herself to get so close to the boy.
Evan was glowering at the floor silently, and Mrs. Howden knew he was still brooding. “You know, dear,” she said brightly, trying to distract him, “it’s the strangest thing you coming to chat with me right now, of all moments, because as I was sitting here with my sewing, I was thinking: ‘What a good boy Evan is! So hardworking, so obedient.’ And I thought…you know how you’ve always fancied coming into the bakehouse with me to help bake the pies?”
Evan’s head shot up, distracted for the first time. “Oh yes, ma’am, yes!”
“Well, how about it?”
“You mean it?” he cried excitedly. “I can help make ‘em and bake ‘em?”
Mrs. Howden kissed the top of his head and led him down the stairs into the basement. “No time like the present, is there?”
Evan wrinkled his nose. “Quite a stink, ain’t there?”
Mrs. Howden pointed at a trapdoor in the floor. “That leads down to other, older cellars, and the smell comes up. God knows what’s down there – so mouldy and dark.” She walked over to the ovens. “Now the bake ovens are here.”
She opened the doors, the red glow lighting up the dingy room. “They cook ten dozen at a time. And here’s the grinder.” She closed the oven doors and led him over to the meat grinder. She turned the handle, showing Evan how it operated. “You see, you pop the meat in and you grind it and the meat comes out here. And you know the secret that makes our pies so good? You put the meat through three times.”
Evan nodded fervently, and began turning the handle.
“That’s my boy,” she smiled, “Smoothly, smoothly. And as soon as a new batch of meat comes in, we’ll put you to work.”
She began to climb the stairs back to the pieshop. “Where are you going, ma’am?” Evan asked.
Mrs. Howden smiled sadly. “Back in a moment, dear. You keep practicing.” She blew him a kiss and left, shutting the door behind her and locking it. Evan, too engrossed to realise he had been locked in, started happily turning the handle of the grinder. “Smoothly does it,” he whispered to himself, “Smoothly, smoothly.”
Up in the pieshop, Mrs. Howden sighed. She would have to tell Arthur now. They weren’t going to get a better opportunity than this. “Mr. De Rege !” she called. “Mr. De Rege !” No answer.
Just as she was going to go up and see what he was doing, the door swung open, and Drustan walked in.
“Mrs. Howden!” he smiled. Mrs. Howden froze. Why was he here? She smiled nervously back.
“Drustan. Good evening.”
“And to you, ma’am. I hope you have a few moments, as I’m here on official business.”
“Official?” Mrs. Howden repeated apprehensively.
“That’s right, ma’am. You see there have been complaints about the stink from your chimney. They say at night it’s something foul. I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to let me take a look.”
“In the bakehouse?” Mrs. Howden squeaked, trying to hide her extreme anxiety.
“That’s right, ma’am.”
“But,” Mrs. Howden improvised wildly, “It’s locked and…and I don’t have the key! It’s Mr. De Rege upstairs – he’s got the key and he’s not here right now.” She prayed she was right about that.
Drustan frowned. “When will he be back?”
“Couldn’t say,” Mrs. Howden lied.
There was an uncomfortable silence, broken suddenly by the sound of Evan singing from the bakehouse.
“What’s that?” asked Drustan.
“Oh, just my boy – the lad who helps me with the pies.”
“But surely he’s in the bakehouse, isn’t he?”
“Oh yes, yes, of course…” Mrs. Howden stammered, now beside herself. “But you see…he’s…well, he’s simple in the head. Last week he ran off and we found him two days later in the forest half starved, poor thing. So ever since then, we lock him in for his own safety.”
“Then we’ll have to wait for Mr. De Rege , won’t we?” They lapsed into silence again, Mrs. Howden picking at her fingers nervously until another inspiration came to her.
“Oh yes, of course!” she cried, “Mr. De Rege ’s gone to Greenswood! Won’t be back until tomorrow, I should think. And he’ll be ever so sorry to miss you. He was -”
She was interrupted by the door swinging open, and Arthur entering, stopping short when he saw Drustan.
“Mr. D!” shrieked Mrs. Howden. “Back already! Look who’s here, Mr. D, on some foolish complaint about the bakehouse. He wants the key and I told him you had it. But…” She relaxed and smiled as she thought of a solution. “There’s no hurry, is there sir? Why don’t you run upstairs with Mr. De Rege and he’ll fix you some ale, won’t you? You’ll look after him, won’t you?” She widened her eyes at Arthur, and he smiled and nodded as he caught on.
“Yes, sir,” Arthur said dutifully, “It’d be an honour to talk with you awhile.”
Mrs. Howden hoped only she could hear the sarcasm in Arthur's voice. Drustan seemed to consider the offer, and then smiled. “Why not? You’re very kind, Mr. De Rege ,” he smiled, and followed Arthur up the stairs.
As soon as she heard the door shut, Mrs. Howden collapsed into a chair, whipping her forehead with her apron. That had been far too close for her liking.
Down in the bakehouse, Evan stood by the grinding machine, munching on a pie he’d found next to the oven. He stopped chewing suddenly, feeling something on his tongue. He reached in his mouth and withdrew the offending object to examine it.
“A hair!” he exclaimed, “Black as a rook! That ain’t Mrs. Howden’s.” He thought for a moment, and then shrugged. “Probably a black cow,” he said to himself, and carried on eating.
Seconds later, he felt something else. He reached in his mouth again and pulled out what he realised was a bit of fingernail. “Ugh!” he cried, shuddering. He dropped the pie, starting to feel uneasy. He looked around the room for a moment and spotted an unidentifiable hole in the wall. He was peering at it, trying to work out what it was, when a strange shambling, shuffling sound started echoing from it. Evan stared, eyes wide, and suddenly the bloody body of Drustan came shooting out of the wall towards him.
Evan screamed and dashed to the door. He tried the handle, and then began beating on it desperately. “Mrs. Howden!” he screamed, “Mrs. Howden, let me out! Let me out!”
Wild with fear, he tried to break down the door, but it was too solid. He stood whimpering, petrified. Then he saw it – the trapdoor to the old cellars. He ran to it and wrenched it open. He hesitated for a second. He had no idea what was down there. Then he disappeared down into it. Anywhere, he thought, was better than the room where Drustan’s empty eyes stared straight at him.
Arthur strode into the pieshop, dusting his hands off. “It’s done.”
Mrs. Howden swung round to face him. “Not yet it isn’t!” she hissed. “The boy, he’s guessed.”
“About Adamoli! Since you weren’t here, I locked him in the bakehouse. He’s been yelling to wake the dead. We’ve got to take care of it.”
“But Agravaine is coming,” Arthur replied fiercely. “I’ve arranged
Mrs. Howden groaned. “You – worrying about bloody Agravaine at a time like this!”
She grabbed his arm and pulled him towards the stairs. “Come on!”
Mr. Seward led William through the asylum, the former holding a large pair of scissors.
“Just this way, sir,” Mr. Seward told William, turning to smile in what he probably thought was a charming fashion over his hunched shoulders.
“You do me honour, sir,” William replied, glancing around the dingy place uneasily.
“Well, it is in our mutual interest to come to some arrangement in regard to my children’s hair.”
William paused. “Your – children?”
“We are all one happy family here, sir,” Mr. Seward leered, “and all my patients are my children, to be corrected when they’re naughty, and rewarded when they’re good. But to our business.”
William nodded, and then shuddered as soon as Mr. Seward turned his back. The thought of Gwen being stuck with a man like this made him feel sick.
They reached a huge cell, inside of which, the ragged inmates were running
and crawling around, screeching and shrieking. William’s heart leapt as he caught sight of Gwen, curled in the corner, not moving. He could hear her voice singing faintly above the cacophony.
Mr. Seward wrenched open the door and grabbed a woman by the hair,
holding her up for William's inspection.
“Here is a charming brunette, a little dull in tone perhaps, but you can soon restore its natural gleam.” He dropped her, and picked up a man. “Or here! A fine texture for a man, and, as you must know, sir, there is always a discount on the hair of a male.”
William shook his head, trying to hold back his horror at the animalistic inmates, and pointed towards Gwen. “That one there has the colour I seek.”
Mr. Seward followed his gaze and sighed. “Poor child,” he said, and walked over to the corner. “She needs so much correction. She sings all day and all night and leaves the other patients sleepless.”
He tugged Gwen across the floor by her hair, who struggled helplessly. “Come, child,” he smirked, “Smile for the gentleman and you shall have a present.” He brandished the scissors. “Now, where shall I cut?”
Gwen suddenly stopped struggling. “William!” she cried.
Mr. Seward looked sharply between the two of them. “What is this?” he snarled. “What is this?”
William pulled out the knife. “Unhand her!”
Mr. Seward narrowed his eyes and stepped towards him, still clutching Gwen, and holding the scissors out in front of him. William stepped back, but he kept coming.
“Stop, Mr. Seward, or I’ll kill you!” he demanded.
Mr. Seward sneered. “Kill me, and I will stop.”
William’s hands were shaking. He’d talked big in front of Mr. De Rege , but the truth was he’d never killed anyone before. He took a step forward and stopped. “I can’t,” he whispered, losing his nerve, and the knife clattered to the floor.
Quick as a flash, Gwen lurched forward, grabbing the knife. She turned and shoved it into Mr. Seward, making him cry out and stumble back.
William pulled Gwen to her feet, holding her in his arms. “And
now,” he spat at the crumpled Mr. Seward, “I leave you to the mercy of
Mr. Seward swung round in time to see the inmates descend on him like rats, and his screams followed William and Gwen as they sprinted down the corridor to freedom.