Black Dog

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Black Dog Part III

Fleet Street near midnight was quiet and deserted of all but the most determined drunks, queans and thieves. The night watchman trudging past was a rarity, and from his expression, he was determined to see as little trouble as possible. Ludgate was closed for the night and London with it. Determined drunken singing could still be heard from the inns that crowded the roadway between Ludgate and the Fleet Bridge. The foul stench of the Fleet River hung in the air like a miasma.

Tyburn and Willens walked along the dark roadway, their path lit by a hanging lantern Willen’s carried. Tyburn strode with one hand tapping the hilt of his rapier, a message to the more foolish and venal inhabitants not to trifle with the pair.

“He’s going to kill us.” Willen’s voice was raspy, his hunched shoulders evidence of his tension.

“With his little hammer?” Tyburn replied, his voice sarcastic. “By the time he swings it I can have two feet of steel through his gullet. That thing looks intimidating but it’s useless in a fight. In any case, it won’t come to it.”

“I told you I would pay.” The older player repeated. “You could have let it go.”

“And let the Dog sack your daughter’s dowry?”

Jacob gave a snort. “You can keep telling yourself you’re doing it for us but it’s a delusion. You’re doing this for yourself, a poor man’s redemption for your time in the wars. You can’t abide a man like Roose throwing his thievery and butchery in your face.”

“Maybe.” Tyburn responded. “But if we play this right, you get you and yours out from under his thumb, with your coin and your family intact, so I don’t think my motives in helping you are of immediate question.”

Willens was silent for a moment and then spoke, his voice lighter “It was the damn dog, wasn’t it?”

Tyburn’s teeth gleamed white in the lantern light.

They walked further, passing the fat, stoic bulk of St. Bride’s Church. To the south lay the dark mass of Salisbury House and the Inns of the Court. The players continued until they reached the entrance to Fetter Lane, opposite the Serjeant’s Inn. They turned up Fetter Lane following the stone wall that demarked the edge of St. Dunstan-in-the-West Church.

Tyburn turned to Willens. “You stay here with the money, in that alcove.” Tyburn pointed at a gateway into the churchyard. “Anything goes wrong and the Dog is still alive at the end of it, you stay quiet until daybreak, then grab your family and get out of London. Otherwise Roose will either throw you in gaol or kill you.”

“You think this will work?” Jacob asked, his voice betraying his nervousness.

“Yes.” Tyburn said in a firm tone. He took the lantern and turned up the laneway. “Well, maybe…” he muttered to himself.

A large stone archway over the laneway marked the point where the church properties ended. Tyburn walked through the looming arch. Fetter Lane broadened slightly at this point, widening into a long irregular rectangle flanked by several tall, cantilevered buildings. Hoarse shouting followed by raucous laughter rose in the distance, probably from the inns that lined Holborn to the north. Tyburn set the lantern on an oxcart slumped against one side of the alleyway and waited.

It was ten minutes before the Black Dog arrived. Roose was dressed as before, the long cloak threaded with thin patterned ribbons of gold and silver seemed to hang gaudily in the lantern light. The war hammer dangled from his belt.

“I don’t see no cully with you. He do a runner?” The Dog’s face was expressionless.

“You brought the writs?” Tyburn asked.

Roose hawked and spat. “You brought my gelt?”

“No.”

“You bring that decrepit bastard player?”

“No.”

Roose laughed. At the laugh a spate of barking rose from down a side alley as a group of penned dogs reacted to the sound. Roose waited until the yelping and howling died away. “I heard you were chasing me down all week. You looking for leverage?”

Tyburn gave the prison rooker a thin smile. “You leave quite a battered trail behind you. Not too many willing to flap a tongue about your dealings, but I pieced it together eventually.” Tyburn fished inside his jerkin and pulled out a folded letter, sealed in wax. He tossed it towards Roose, who made no move to pick it up.

“That’s a signed writ documenting the release of one Robert Parson Middlechurch into your custody, by the keeper of Bedlam[1], Roland Sleford. With a description that sounds remarkable like the man you had dance at Tyburn as Cutting Ball. There’s also a writ attesting to the payment you made to Sleford to alter the Bedlam Governer’s census book and list Middlechurch as ‘died of contagion’. Don’t be too angry with Sleford, he’s got a position to protect that will fill his purse for years. You only fill it for a moment.”

“And you suppose to fright me with this gaster[2]?”

Tyburn reached in and pulled out another sealed letter, a marked ribbon dangled from the seal. He tossed it after the first. “This is a writ from the Justice, calling you for the murder of Robert Parson Middlechurch, co-signed by one of the Board of Governors of Bedlam, who happens to be the Earl of Worcester.” Tyburn had called in a rare favour from the playing troupe’s mercurial patron, one he didn’t dare do more than once. “You rooked an innocent man onto the gallows and the Earl was most displeased that it was one of his charges. If it was just signed by the Justice, I don’t doubt you’d get it quashed, but not this time.”

The expression on Roose’s face didn’t change, but Tyburn thought he could detect a slow flush of anger rising up in the flickering lantern light.

“You think I give a two-penny shit about you and your papers?” The Black Dog laughed. “Sleford would sell his mother onto the Tyburn stage if’n I pressed him to it. That writ ain’t worth the ink dribbled on it, Worcester or not. You think the Keepers at the Marshalsea or Newgate will keep me confined, or trundle me off in a hurdle to the noose?”

“Maybe. It causes you more trouble than its worth, and quashing it may mean using up favours and pull you might need in the future. Is it worth it for twenty-five bloody crowns?”

“You think I can’t get to you or Willens? What t’a stop me from taking your offer and then laying him out with a hammer one night? Or waylaying that wife of his in the market? You ken on that, bigod.” He tapped the war hammer hanging on his belt. “I’m the God-cursed Black Dog, not some sniveling Newgate cony-catcher.” He hawked and spat on the paper laying on the alleyway. “You pay or you rot. If’n Willens don’t want to rot, then toss me my gelt.” He gave Tyburn a baleful look, the glint deep in his dark eyes reflecting a darkness that seemed almost spectral. “You, cock-sucking geck. . . you get to fucking die instead. Think you get to cross the Dog? No one crosses the Dog.”

Tyburn looked amused. “That’s how you want it? I can put two feet of Spanish steel through that ale-filled sack of a belly before you even wave that hammer at me.”

The Dog gave a grin. His ragged uneven teeth gave his smile a jagged and edged cast, like the mouth of a pike. The dogs penned behind the building burst into another frenzy of barking and howling. Aside from the dogs, the neighborhood was deathly quiet, almost hushed. Tyburn was certain innumerable eyes were watching but no one was likely to intervene.

“Pulton!” he called, “Bring the bitch out.”

The player felt a deep unease when the Dog shouted. The unease compounded when Thomas Pulton emerged from the north end of the laneway pulling Abigail Willens alongside him, one arm twisted up behind, her face white, drawn and frightened. Tyburn heard a choking cry from beyond the stone archway, as Jacob saw his daughter.

Tyburn raised one hand behind him in a stopping motion to keep Jacob from rushing forward. He turned back to Roose, whose grin had broadened. “What do you want?” the player asked his voice even.

The Black Dog laughed. “You fucking know what I want cullion. I want my twenty-five crowns.”

“Done.” Tyburn waved his hand at the dark archway where Jacob stood and after a few seconds a small leather purse sailed out to land with a dull clink on the alleyway. “Your coin is paid. All debts settled. Let her go.”

“Oh, his debt ain’t begun to be paid yet, and yours isn’t settled in silver. You fucking inconvenienced me with yer conveyances and those bloody writs, but without you to press ‘em, the Justice won’t have nothing to grease the wheels. Without you pushing, it’s smoke. I might need to settle into Newgate for a spell, but with my pull the Keeper will look after me well. But you don’t get to walk away from this one, cullion.” Roose laughed again. “Lose the sword, player.”

“Fuck you, Dog. You want it, come take it.”

“Cut the bitch’s throat Pulton.”

Thomas Pulton stared at Roose, a look of shock and confusion on his face.

“I said cut the bitch’s throat, you shit.” Roose repeated. Pulton hesitantly raised the short knife he had in his right hand while Abigail twisted away in his grip. Roose took two quick steps over and grabbed her by the hair, forcing her to her knees.

“No!” Tyburn’s voice was echoed by Jacob’s simultaneous shout from the darkened laneway. Roose looked up at the player. Tyburn unbuckled his sword belt and took off the silvered Spanish rapier. He tossed the scabbarded weapon onto the road behind him. The player stepped forward. “Alright you shit-pated bastard, no sword. You want to show me what you can do with your little toy hammer aside from kill dogs.”

Roose shoved Abigail back into Pulton’s grip. He drew the long-handled war hammer from his belt and stepped towards Tyburn. The look on his face was pure fury. Tyburn stepped back and circled to his right, eyes locked on the Black Dog. His right hand slid around his back to the hilt of his dagger, hung under the edge of his jerkin. The player drew the weapon, feeling the rounded end of the hilt fitting smoothly into his palm, the lethal weight of the ten inch blade, held low in a forward grip.

Tyburn had spent nearly four bitter years fighting in the bloody wet ruin that was Spanish-occupied Holland. The small English expedition of Sir Humphrey Gilbert had been filled with a motley collection of second sons, cast-offs and mercenary Scots, a rabble that thieved, looted and pillaged its way through the Dutch lowlands. Despised by the Spanish, disdained by the Dutch, and ignored by the English, they had, nonetheless, fought with an anger and an energy that caught the iron-clad Spanish tercios by surprise. The lessons that Tyburn had absorbed in his four years of war had been pounded into him by steel and powder and shot.

The Black Dog moved fast and smooth for a man of his size. The war hammer rose and fell, and then reversed in a lightning fast swing that sent Tyburn skipping back. Tyburn circled wide, content to let the Dog tire himself. A war hammer was a crushing weapon, one designed for use on an armored foe, not a quick, darting alleyway brawl. If any of the hammer blows stuck home, they would crush flesh and break bone.

If.

The hammer’s reach was limited. Tyburn sidestepped again, dancing out of range, watching Roose, who showed no sign of flagging. The dim light from the lantern cast long shadows across the laneway and Tyburn was conscious of Pulton, gaping on the sidelines with his knife held at Abigail’s neck. Roose watched the play-actor, his eyes black and narrow, looking for an opening.

Roose gave a bellow that set the penned dogs barking and howling and charged, whipping the hammer in a slashing arc. Tyburn, stepped back from the blow and then rather than sidestepping away, darted back into the space bringing his dagger across in a searing cut at Roose’s shoulder. The Black Dog dropped and the hammer hissed across at knee height. Tyburn threw his weight onto his back foot as the hammer clipped his forward leg, just above the knee.

Tyburn tumbled backwards, his limping leg a mass of pain, but still mobile. Had the hammer impacted two inches lower, it would have shattered the kneecap. The player cursed softly to himself. Roose stepped in, the hammer traversing from left to right and back with effortless skill and strength. Tyburn waited for the moment and with the exactitude of a tailor stitching a tear, flicked the dagger in for a vicious point cut that raked across the back of the Black Dog’s hand.

The wound wasn’t deep but it sliced through the glove and peeled back the flesh on the Black Dog’s hand like paper. The hissing curse of pain made Tyburn smile, despite the pain that radiated up his own leg.

It was the movement of the dim shadows that caught his eye. Tyburn spun to his right as Pulton’s blade slid past his left side. Tyburn turned and clubbed the apprentice smith across the face with his left fist and skipped back to evade Roose as he whipped his hammer at the player’s head in an overhand blow. The heavy war hammer crashed down, the wooden haft slamming into Tyburn’s right arm, sending his dagger spinning into the darkness beyond the lantern light. Tyburn slammed his shoulder into Roose, sending the Black Dog sprawling across the lane. Pulton was staggering to his feet, his face a mask of red from where Tyburn had hammered him. The player stepped past him and kicked the lantern, plunging the alleyway into darkness.

Tyburn tumbled over a wooden trough in the darkness. He felt the rough timbers of the building brush against his left shoulder. The barking of the dogs was furious and probably the only reason that Roose had not heard him.

“Light that cursed glim[3], you bastard.” Roose’s voice seemed to float through the night air.

“I can’t find it.” whined Pulton.

The Black Dog let loose with a string of muttered curses as Tyburn traced his way blindly down the narrow side alley, moving away from their talk. The dogs frantic barking died away.

“You can’t run player. There’s nowhere in London I won’t find you and smash your stinking skull in. You might as well finish it now. You got no sword, you got nothing.” Roose called out mockingly. Tyburn’s outstretched hand banged into a wooden post and he ran his hands up and down. A fence. The ammoniac reek of urine and stench of feces lay thick in the air. The player followed the line of the fence and his hand fell upon a latch. Not a fence, a gate.

The cold touch of a wet nose where his hand lay on the horizontal board made him jump but he realized it was one of the dogs, penned up in a fenced kennel, probably being held for slaughter. A low whine and a wet lick followed.

Dogs were a recurring problem in London. They roamed the streets in the hundreds, fighting, chasing rats and being chased in turn by children and adults, eating waste and contributing to the filth, stench and noise that was life in the city. They were used in the bear-pits and the rat-pits for sport, as spit dogs, hunting dogs, guards, pets and, when dead, as food for pigs and hawks. The London Aldermen issued declarations and bounties on the stray population, periodically culling their numbers. Dead dogs tossed in the dry moat running along the London wall near Aldgate were such a common sight it had been renamed Houndsditch.

“Got it.” Pulton’s mumbled voice drifted down the narrow gap between the buildings. Tyburn saw a flare of light from behind him as the hapless apprentice finally relight the lantern. Tyburn hear a low growl beyond the locked gate and made his decision. He reached up and slid back the upper latch on the gate. The dogs started barking frantically as Tyburn closed his hand around the lower latch. The player tugged the gate towards him, staying carefully behind it as it opened.

The dogs emerged in a flood, though the player could only catch a glimpse in the sullen darkness of a flowing mass of panting fur that shoved its way out of the tight confines of the pens and down the narrow lane.

They poured out of the narrow entrance between the buildings like water through a sluice, barking and howling, dogs of all sizes and shapes. There were frantic hounds pausing to smell every inch of Fetter Lane, small ratters and terriers, bouncing around and chasing away into the night, and limping dogs laced with scars, veterans of the bear pits sent to a slaughterhouse once their injuries were deemed to grievous to turn anymore profit. Tyburn slid from his position between the wall and the gate and glanced out into the pool of lantern light. Pulton was turning and swinging the lantern to and fro, sending shadows dancing across the lane in all directions while Roose bellowed, swung his hammer at the dogs, cursing. Tyburn saw Abigail yank free of Pulton’s loose grasp, turn and run into the dark safety of the archway. Pulton swore, dropped the lantern and chased after her.

Tyburn ran out of the alleyway, hearing the Black Dog’s shout as he emerged. His sword was where he had thrown it, halfway between the laneway entrance and the arch where Willens was concealed. The player sidestepped a slow-moving hound and saw Roose’s hammer swinging down in a brutal and efficient arc. Tyburn threw himself to the side as the hammer slammed into the dirt. The player rolled, sending a limping dog spinning sideways with a yelp. Roose slammed his hammer down into one of the animals, flinging the body to one side, limp and lifeless.

Tyburn’s outstretched hand caught the hilt of his rapier. He rose to his feet, ripping it loose from its scabbard. Too late. Too close.

The Black Dog loomed in front of the player the hammer already arcing downwards in a fatal blow. Tyburn raised the long blade of the rapier like a quarterstaff, his gloved right hand on the hilt and the left on the blade. He caught the war hammer on the forte of his blade as it scythed downwards, the force of the blow numbing his arm and pushing him back.

Roose laughed and yanked the hammer back, the hammer head hooked over the razor steel, trying to strip the sword from Tyburn’s stinging hands.

Mistake.

Tyburn yielded to the pull with his left hand and pulled back and upwards with his right. The rapier point shifted from the horizontal into an angled position, point slanted downwards in perfect alignment. The player slammed the blade down and forward, punching into Roose’s right side, driving into the chest wall, glancing off a rib and penetrating deep into the lungs and organs.

Tyburn ripped the blade free and stepped back. Roose stood, scowling, the hammer still raised.

“Looks like you won’t dance on the hangman’s stage after all.” Tyburn said, his voice even.

“Fuck you play-actor. I won’t go alone.” He raised the hammer and took a faltering step.

A low growl interrupted him. It was a deep, rippling growl that you could feel resonating through the air, like a distant hollow boom of thunder. Tyburn looked and saw the shadows move.

On the far edge of the lantern light, visible only as a blacker shadow against the night gloom, stood a dog. It was the biggest dog Tyburn had ever seen. He watched it stalk along the laneway, the flickering glow of the lantern where it lay on its side delineating a border for the animal that it would not, or could not cross. Roose stood and stared, his mouth slack and his eyes showed a frisson of pure fear.

The dog snarled.

The other dogs from the pen that remained barked and howled in response, moving forward in a snapping ring around Roose, who lashed out with his hammer until one large mastiff, it’s face scarred from countless rats, drove in and ripped the man’s hamstring. Roose shrieked and fell to one knee, swinging the war hammer as the dogs lunged in to snarl and bite.

It ended in moments.

One second the dogs were circling, and in the next the pack was a seething, snarling mass of carnage, snapping and frantic screaming. Tyburn stared in horror. All that could be seen was the mass of dogs tugging at Roose’s torn and lifeless body.

The black dog stared at Tyburn, its eyes sparked red in the fitful reflected lantern light. It seemed to be assessing him, weighing him.

Not yet. The player thought, remembering he last time he had felt such a gaze.

The shadowy dog held his eyes for a moment and then turned and loped away into the night.


Tyburn wiped his blade clean with his gloved hand, picked up the sputtering lantern and his scabbard and limped stiff-legged down the laneway through the arch. He followed Fetter Lane until it ended where he and Willens had first entered. There he found Willens and Abigail standing in the roadway Pulton’s unconscious body at their feet. A stubby-legged terrier raced past, its jowls dark in the lantern light. Tyburn shivered as the little dog vanished into the night.

“How are you?” Tyburn asked.

Willens waved off the player’s concern. “Abigail and I are fine. Better than fine now. What happened?”

Tyburn waved one hand airily in the direction of Fetter Lane. “Roose met his namesake. I don’t think you need let him worry you anymore. Who settled Pulton?”

“Abigail punched him in the face.” Willens said with a broad smile.

“I’m assuming the wedding is off.” Tyburn observed. “Damn it. We left the dowry.”

“No we didn’t.” Willens dangled the leather purse filled with coins in front of the play-actor.

Tyburn’s eyes widened. “How did you recover that?”

“Abigail had the presence of mind to scoop it up as she ran.”

Tyburn laughed. “Thought she was far too clever for that piece of work.” He nudged Pulton with his foot. The apprentice groaned faintly. “What do you want done with him?”

“Abigail’s decision.” Replied Jacob, beaming at his daughter.

“Nothing.” She said. “He can rot.”

The trio moved back down Fleet Street. They would take a room at one of the inns for the remainder of the night, and wait for Ludgate to open with the dawn. As they walked away from Pulton who still lay prone in the street, Abigail paused for a moment and raced back. She hauled one foot back and kicked Pulton hard in the crotch. The apprentice moaned and curled up into a ball, rocking back and forth on the stony street. She ran back to the two players and they resumed their slow walk up Fleet Street.

The dogs barked in the distance.

Tyburn did not look back.


[1] The Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem was established in 1247 and from 1403 served as London’s primary hospital for the care of mental patients (“care” being very loosely defined as chained, fettered & imprisoned). It was also a popular “tourist” destination where visitors could pay to marvel at the patients of Bedlam.

[2] Ghost, spirit

[3] Cheap candle, in this case probably a reference to the lantern


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