chpt#1: Look for the woman
“You know what to do?”
“I know what you want me to do.”Jonathan Skarry tugged at his leather gloves and glanced up and down the street. The rain-licked cobbles winked at him like a militia of snail shells in the light from the guttering gas lamps overhead. He wasn’t nervous. He was reluctant, certainly, but his reluctance had nothing whatever to do with getting caught. Mercurio Smith obviously valued his own neck above anything else on earth and his plans were never less than meticulous. No, the danger involved here was not Skarry’s objection.
“What is your objection, now?” There was a mocking condescension (just a modicum, just enough to nip without drawing blood) flirting with the weariness in Mercurio’s voice.
Skarry frowned at him, “It’s stealing,” he said plainly.
Mercurio shook his head pityingly. The moonlight caught his smile and Skarry almost shuddered,” You know, I’m beginning to think that you are far too demonic for my own good.”
“You mean, you’re sure I’m leading you along a certain path, you are simply unsure as to how far down it you may proceed before you end up ‘astray,’” Mercurio sounded bored. “You know, I expected you to be more fun than this, Johnny.”
“Then, I’m afraid, you have made a grave error in your judgment. Breaking and entering is not my idea of ‘fun.’ And, to be quite candid, when you said ‘night on the town’ I…”
“You envisaged something different?”
“Well,” Skarry hesitated. He liked this strange, eccentric wizard who had swept, so suddenly into his life a few weeks ago. He wasn’t sure he should like him. Wasn’t even convinced that ‘like’ was the correct term for it: Mercurio Smith had the same curious appeal as an invitation to delve into a haunted crypt at midnight. Even as a child, Skarry had never been able to resist that kind of invitation. “I am dressed for dinner,” he said, at last. The last thing he wanted to do was offend his new companion. Mercurio liked being offended. He actively sought it out and then immersed himself in it for hours, like a long hot bath.
“I know what you expected, Johnny, but I promise this little exploit will not end in disappointment.”
Skarry frowned skeptically up at the diamond-leaded windows of the little town house, peeping out sleepily from beneath their peeling gables. Rain drops dripped from the eaves into his hair and he bitterly regretted heeding the advice Mercurio had given him, to leave behind his hat.
“Cherchez la femme, Johnny boy.”
“Really? The baker’s wife?” Skarry’s canvas bore a portrait of mingled incredulity and disgust. His companion gave him a paint-stripping look.
“Patience,” he said simply. “At the root of all intrigue, Johnny, there is always a woman. In our case, she has yet to reveal herself, and I speak with all sincerity when I say, I do not suspect her to be the baker’s wife. However, if we stand here waxing in the street, we will likely encounter said baker, possibly armed with…whatever it is bakers use to defend themselves these days,” he waved a hand dismissively. “Burnt bread-rolls or some such nonsense. So, come, let us get out of this cursed illumination and into the more welcoming shadows of the back alley where, if I am not deceived, we should find our way in.”
Mercurio’s ‘way in’ was as unexpected as his idea of an evening’s entertainment.
“What, in the name of Wiz, are you doing?” Skarry hissed, as Mercurio drew from his pocket a palm-sized, brass statuette of a crouching cat. “What is that? Is that a Cat Of Nine Lives? Wherever did you get it?”
Mercurio ignored him and turned the thing over. He pulled off a glove with his teeth and, without averting his eyes from the cat, tossed it at Skarry to hold.
Skarry glared at him, “Look here, I’m not your coat rack.”
Mercurio continued his attentions toward the inanimate object until, to Skarry’s surprise, the thing made a very soft purring noise, brazenly stretched itself on the wizard’s palm and then leaned forwards, curiously, to inspect the lock on the high wooden gate which led, Skarry assumed, into the baker’s back garden. The purring heightened slightly in pitch (no louder than gnat’s drone) and the cat opened its mechanical mouth and breathed a puff of steamy green smoke into the keyhole.
The door swung open, without a sound, and Mercurio grinned smugly and stopped it with his foot, gesturing, with a nod, for Skarry to enter first. He did so, offering a smile which expressed the full extent of his gratitude for the gesture. It was a foolish mistake. He would pay for it for hours, but right now he didn’t much care: Smith’s ego had taken a break-neck skid down the oily pole of Skarry’s preservation priority list. It wasn’t that he minded going in first. In fact, he preferred it. But he resented being a possible pawn in his companion’s ploy to conceal his own cowardice.
Was Mercurio a coward? Quite probably – Skarry flipped quickly through his mental journal of the last few weeks; first year initiates, at the High Collegium of Magical Arts in the capital city of Litchfield, were granted a six week induction period, during which they spent a cursory amount of hours acquainting themselves with the esoteric practices and theosophies of each of the four Towers of magic, and a superfluous amount of the same being ousted from the local inns and taverns (none of whom seemed to welcome the custom of magic users.) It was one of these ‘oustings’ which had thrown the two wizards into each other’s company. Or was it the other way around? Skarry struggled to recollect, as the memory of those days that had followed their first encounter deliquesced into a whirlpool of clandestine escapades and near-misadventures – the latest of which he was now, like it or not, thoroughly embroiled in.
They made their way silently through the blue tangle of overgrowth that might once have passed for lawn, the bulging belly of the house looming in front of them – a squatting crone in the darkness. Reaching the, surprisingly stalwart, back door, Skarry turned and raised his eyebrows in silent question. He was rewarded with a petulant pout and was forced to resort to miming his entreaty, through a series of urgent gestures, until, finally, Mercurio seemed to decide he had sweated and suffered enough and, with an absurdly vitriolic air, drew the mechanical cat from his pocket once more and introduced it to the lock.
The cat considered the apparatus critically, before breathing a puff of dusky purple smoke into the keyhole. He placed the cat on the brick doorstep and shot a haughty, expectant look at his accomplice. Skarry sighed inwardly, but shaped his features into an appeasing smile and inclined his head in thanks. Mercurio narrowed his eyes skeptically, but he picked up the cat again which, Skarry noted with a frown, had been busily licking the door frame around its lower hinge, and lifted it up to the level of the second and third hinges, allowing it to apply its oily saliva to those as well, before returning it to the ground. This time, Skarry couldn’t hide the fact that he was genuinely impressed and Mercurio smirked smugly and clapped him softly on the back, holding out his hand, expectantly, for the return of his gloves. Skarry suppressed his irritation and handed them over – this was no time for games of vanity he thought, trying stoically to conceal the fact that he was becoming increasingly hot and agitated.
Mercurio ignored him and applied a gloved hand to the door handle, easing the door smoothly open without a creek. “Watch the cat,” he mouthed silently. “Step only where the cat steps – understand?” Skarry nodded grimly, wishing with all his heart that his friend had less of a penchant for the dramatics – information as vital as this would have been better delivered within the comfortable confines of the ‘tonhorse-drawn cab they had taken here from Litchfield.
They proceeded cautiously, in the wake of the curious clockwork creature, whose progress was infuriatingly laboured by numerous periods of pause, where it seemed to be sniffing intently at the floorboards, door frames, furniture legs and, occasionally, even thin air. Its jointed tail twitched sporadically and then it would suddenly leap from one particular floorboard to another, or sometimes pad carefully around a certain area of floor and then sit, regarding them with slitted amber eyes until it seemed satisfied that they had traversed the invisible danger successfully.
Spells, Skarry guessed. The creature was obviously detecting protective enchantments and, in that case, this was the house of no ordinary baker. They crept quietly through the various reception rooms and into the front hallway, slowing their pace yet again as the cat led them, step by tortuous step, up a narrow staircase, across a small landing, and into some sort of study room.
Skarry was finding this whole performance too much strain upon his tightly torqued temper, and was desperately trying to formulate a way of conveying this to his friend, when Mercurio stopped and held up his hand for Skarry to do likewise. The cat had leapt lightly – no mean feat for a weighty metal contraption – onto the top of a low cabinet and was now carefully cleaning itself, in typical feline fashion, as if to indicate that it considered its work to have been accomplished.
Mercurio slammed his fist into his palm and seized Skarry by the coat sleeve, his eyes dancing with maniacal glee. “This is it!” he mouthed and, ignoring his friend’s look of dumb bewilderment, strode softly up to the piece of furniture and gently eased open the door at the top. He peered inside, stuck his head in a little further, added an arm to the affair and then emerged holding, what looked to the incredulous Skarry like, nothing but a large spool of silver knitting yarn. “Wyrd Web!” Mercurio hissed excitedly “or to us, Johnny, ‘Fortune and Glory’…”
But Skarry wasn’t listening. He was just verging upon a battle between his mounting emotions of disappointment and fury over the whole fiasco, when suddenly the cat let out a piercing, steam-fuelled shriek and sprang onto Mercurio’s coat sleeve, dislodging some bizarre, arthropodic creature that had been covertly making progress along the wizard’s arm towards the silver spool. The metal spider clattered to the floor and Mercurio, muttering softly to himself, swiftly picked it up. “Hello, what in the name of Wiz…arhh!” He dropped the creature instantly and sucked his bleeding fingers. “Bit me!” he mouthed.
Skarry looked hurriedly around the floor, a tiger skin of shadow and moonlight, but the cat was now in hot pursuit as the robotic arachnid skittered this way and that in obvious frenzy. Skarry made a dive for both creatures but missed, catching his elbow on the leg of a leather armchair.
“Help!” The muffled exclamation caused him to forget his injury at once and he rolled onto his back to see Mercurio trying to disentangle himself from a young lad in a heavy cloak and cowl, who had leapt upon him from the shadows and was now trying to wrest the silver yarn from the wizard’s grasp.
“Stop him!” All sense of caution evaporated as the thief suddenly succeeded in his aim and, spool in hand, spun lightly out of the enraged wizard’s reach, snatched up the mechanical spider, danced sideways to avoid Skarry’s lunge and – thud – slumped, unconscious, to the floor as he collided with the thin shroud of blue light that had suddenly sprung up, creating an impenetrable barrier of magical energy around the scene of erstwhile pandemonium.
The two wizards scrambled to their feet but, on cursory inspection, Skarry realised they were trapped. This was not magic that they, as mere initiates, would have any hope of disabling.
“Oh! Burglars? Thieves? Oh no!” The woman standing in the doorway, dressed in a long cotton nightdress and curlers, trembled, sending the glaring yellow light from her lantern quivering over the moon-slicked floor, serving no purpose other than to irritate the eyes of every conscious person in the room. “Oh, this can’t be happening! I…I must get Albert, yes, he will know what to do!” and she quickly spun on her heel and disappeared again. They heard her stumble back along some hidden corridor, muttering in frenzied tones as she went: “Oh blessed mother! Oh Green Goddess, why is this happening? Why? Oh this is the end, I know it is! The end of Pendle, the end of everything! Oh Goddess, if it is true, if you have really not abandoned us to the mercy of Wiz, please, please grant me the strength to deal with this! But I cannot, how can I? I am the last! The very last!”
Her ravings slowly faded, swallowed into the belly of the house, and Skarry fired a look of utter bewilderment at his friend and tapped his forehead in silent questioning appraisal of the woman’s sanity. But, to his surprise and further confusion, Mercurio’s own features revealed that he was lost in some deep private reflection which was obviously beginning to amuse him.
Before long, the woman returned, now sporting an ill-fitting black toupee, which she had hastily balanced on top of her net of tightly curled hair, a false moustache and a quilted claret dressing gown. She held the lantern high again, swinging its luminescence into their squinting eyes.
“Now, see here!” she said, failing dismally at affecting a manly baritone. “Just who, may I ask, do you think you are? Bursting into my abode and frightening the wits out of my wife like this? Hmm?”
Skarry blinked. Surely, surely, this strange woman must realise the flagrant flimsiness of her charade. He opened his mouth to speak, but the woman pre-empted him.
“Don’t move! D-d-don’t move or I’ll…I’ll…well, you can’t move, can you? Hmm? If you try to, you won’t be able to so…so just stay there while I…er…go and call the Watchers…and The Good Folk. Yes, that’s it…now just you stay there! And don’t move!”’
Mercurio held up his gloved hands and chuckled with amusement. “My dear… Sir, we have no intention of going anywhere and, as you have pointed out, even if we wished to, we would be unable to penetrate this.” He gestured to the thin blue field of magical energy which now surrounded them, regarding it with the eye of a connoisseur. “But this is quite astounding!” He gave the moustachioed woman a look of respect, mingled with curiosity, which was not lost upon its subject.
She lowered the lantern an inch.
“Surely,” Mercurio continued carefully, “surely a spell like this could only have been set in place by…and please do not take offense, my good man… by a wizard? And an extremely powerful one at that. Perhaps, even, a witch?”
To Skarry’s amazement, the woman sank down into the leather armchair and began to sob, wringing the lantern chain between her fingers.
“My apologies,” Skarry said quickly, “if my friend has upset you, please…er…here, oh damn I can’t do that,” he returned the useless handkerchief to his pocket and glared furiously at Mercurio, who gave him a withering look and then hitched up a mask of sincere compassion and sympathy and turned it towards their host.
“Oh, you’re right!” the woman sobbed. “It’s true, it’s all true!” She pulled off the moustache and toupee and flung them angrily onto the floor. “Oh, this silly charade has been wearing me to pieces! But I have had no choice! There have always been six witches at Pendle, and there always must be at least one witch at Pendle – even Wiz himself says it – otherwise the whole town will crumble to the ground; the manor, the park, the houses, everything!”
“Wiz?” Skarry looked sharply at his friend, but Mercurio hadn’t flinched.
“Yes. It is only by his will that I haven’t been forced into the caves to be hunted, like game, across the marsh, like my poor sisters. He allowed just six of us witches to stay on here at Pendle because of the curse. There have always been six and we’ve always managed to fool the townsfolk into thinking we were ordinary citizens, but I am the last! And what will happen if I am found out? Oh it has worn me so thin you cannot imagine. Of course I cannot marry – who would marry a witch in this day and age? And yet I had to marry Albert or else people would become suspicious; a woman living all alone… people have such suspicious minds…you wouldn’t believe the things they say when my back is turned…” She was beginning to rave, the pitch of her voice crescendoing with the speed of the words. If she went on like this, she would be hysterical within the next 60 seconds and if she hyperventilated and fainted, even worse asphyxiated herself, they would be trapped. Possibly permanently.
“Why don’t you have a glass of brandy?” Mercurio suggested.
The woman shook her head “I don’t drink,” she sniffed. “It’s Albert who’s the drinker.”
“Albert?” Skarry mouthed silently.
Mercurio raised his eyebrows at him. “Well, perhaps Albert would care for a snifter then? Settle his nerves?”
Skarry closed his eyes so that he would not have to witness the woman reassembling her disguise so that she could nod and stumble unsteadily out of the room in search of alcohol.
“Right, here’s the plan,” Mercurio hissed, the second she was out of earshot. “We saw this miscreant,” he gestured to the unconscious youth, who was still sprawled face down at their feet, “entering through the study window from the street. Being the upstanding, law abiding citizens we are, we pursued him and had just managed to corner him up here when we were discovered. Understand?”
“Perfectly,” Skarry replied dryly. “You are prepared to see this boy hang, in order to save your own neck.”
Mercurio looked confused. And then disgusted. “You would rather the hangman earned himself three pairs of boots instead of one? Because that is the option before us, Johnny. Either we let them hang the boy, or we nobly confess our guilt, and you can comfort yourself with a clear conscience all the long way to the gallows. Either way, he will hang; it is only a question of whether or not we need to keep him company.”
“I refuse to let a boy hang for something I have done,” Skarry growled.
Mercurio rolled his eyes. “The crimes he will pay for are his own. Why should we allow ourselves to be as ill fated when we have the wit to talk our way out of this? Look, don’t be a fool John, if there was a way to save all of us, don’t you think I would take it?”
“There is a way.”
“Don’t you think I would be the first to leap to this lad’s defence if there was the slightest possibility that we could…”
“There is a way to save all of us.” Skarry folded his arms. “Tell The Witch the truth.”
“The wha…?” Mercurio nearly choked.
“She is obviously under a great deal of stress. Her primary concern is being exposed to the townsfolk as a witch, not seeing anyone hanged. Obviously, as you chose not to confide the details of our little escapade to me tonight I have no idea exactly what that Wyrd Web you’ve taken is, or what it is supposed to do but no doubt The Witch knows all about it. I think that, if we explain why we came and what we were looking for, perhaps she may even be prepared to give or sell us some of it? Especially if we offer to help her with her own difficulties. Now I know we’re not supposed to fraternise with witches but this witch seems to be here on Wiz’s instruction so, that’s a little different wouldn’t you say?”
Mercurio’s eyes were narrowed to pensive slits. “Idiot,” he muttered, in a barely audible whisper, “yes, of course, why didn’t I think of it? Yes! That’s it!”
“Good.” Skarry unfolded his arms and relaxed a little. Perhaps he had judged his new friend too harshly – any man’s moral fibre was apt to crumble when faced with the terror of his own mortality. Mercurio had obviously panicked and, in his fright at the thought of his own horrific demise, had clutched at the first straw his mind threw him. No doubt, he was already beginning to feel the guilt of it. No need, Skarry told himself, to rub salt into the wound.
“You are absolutely right, Johnny,” he said aloud. “We have no need to kowtow to this woman! She is an emotional wreck – an emotional wreck with a closet full of skeletons, the key to which she has just presented us with! If we play this thing right, my friend, we could walk out of here with a ball of Wyrd Web in one pocket, and a witch in the other -now that would be a productive evening, wouldn’t you say?” He clapped Skarry on the back, ignoring his friend’s resemblance to a hooked fish that is too stunned to thrash about and save itself.
“And what about the boy?” Skarry managed, through gritted teeth.
“What? Oh, hmm…,” Mercurio frowned thoughtfully, “…yes, he could come in useful I suppose. Dashed inconvenient to have to keep putting our own necks in jeopardy like this. Yes, maybe we could come to some mutually beneficial agreement, when he comes round…”
Skarry shook his head. “You are incredible!”
“I know.” Mercurio tossed him a grin, like a copper coin for his troubles. Skarry accepted it with the contempt it deserved.
Mercurio laughed at him and knelt down beside the thief. Gently, he lifted the white fingers from the floor and coaxed the spider-like thing out from under them. Gingerly, he turned it over and examined it, ever careful to keep his fingers clear of the needle-sharp fangs.
“Amazing,” he mused. “This is an incredible piece of machinery! It appears our young thief here, is a master of devices.” Curious, he lifted the enormous cowl, which hid the boy’s face from view, and pulled it back. At once, a cascade of crow- black hair spilled out over the floor, framing the delicate, pale features of a young woman. The area around her right eye was covered by an intricately engraved metal plate, studded in glorious designs with tiny jewels of every description. The plate fit perfectly around her eye socket, following the smooth curve of her high cheekbone, but the socket itself was empty.
“Mistress of devices,” he corrected, his voice the thoughtful glide of the barn owl above its moonlit hunting ground.
“Scarlet!” Skarry exclaimed.
The woman stirred and, as if this were some telepathic signal, the mechanical spider suddenly sprang to life once more, wrenched itself from the wizard’s hand and scuttled back to its owner. Mercurio gazed in rapt fascination as the creature clambered carefully onto the woman’s face and nestled down into the eye socket, its legs forming delicate rows of golden lashes above and below.
The woman groaned softly and uttered something unprintable which caused Mercurio to grin and Skarry to roll his eyes.
“Scarlet!” Skarry hissed again. “What are you doing here?”
“John?” The abdomen of the eye-spider suddenly flew open to reveal a stunning mechanical replica of a human eye, complete in perfect mimicry of the original. The only perceptible difference was in the colour of the iris, which was a deep claret red, and the pupil – composed of a spiral of overlapping golden plates that, even now, were dilating in a curious, almost hypnotic motion as the woman leapt to her feet, glaring defiantly from one wizard to the other.
“John!” She spat furiously. “What’re you doing ‘ere? You’ll ruin everythin’! Why aren’t you in Lichfield?”
“Why aren’t you in London?”
Mercurio raised his eyebrows expectantly, “Introduction?”
Skarry gritted his teeth. “Scarlet, this is Mercurio Smith, a fellow student of magic, from Lichfield.” He turned to his friend. “This is Scarlet Skarry, my sister.”
“London?” Mercurio mused thoughtfully. “The pirate city…oh, I see!” He peered curiously into Scarlet’s face, trying to get a better look at her mechanical eye. “So it’s true then. The Pirate King, Billy Blythe, really has created a host of ‘tons to crew his Land Ships.”
“Scarlet is NOT an automaton,” Skarry growled. “Every pirate who wishes to join Blythe’s fleet is required to… sacrifice… a part of themselves. In return, the Pirate King has his Tinkers make them a new body part to replace it.”
“I see, a part which not only replaces the lost member but enhances its function through the wonders of Tinker Technology,” Mercurio mused. He chuckled, “And you gave your right eye, Miss Skarry? How very clichéd!”
“You needn’t tarlk t’me about clichés, yer mincing fool!” Scarlet spat. “What in the name o’ Wiz are yer clowning around at? Y’gonna get us all killed!”
“Dear, dear me!” Mercurio shook his head, his eyes dancing with amusement. “Which of you two was the cuckoo’s child, I wonder?”
“We don’t ‘ave time for this, John!” Scarlet hissed, her voice an urgent growl between gritted teeth. “We…”
The door suddenly opened and the Last Witch of Pendle swayed unsteadily into the room, clutching a half-empty decanter of brandy in one hand and steadying her toupee with the other.
“Oh! Oh dear, you’re all awake. Well…”
Whatever The Witch had been about to say was smothered by a sudden sound. The ominous sigh, scrape and grind of metal bulk against metal sinew, followed by the heart-stopping thud of impacting weight upon a militia of snail’s shells, which splintered and shrieked beneath it.
The old timber-framed town house shuddered to its bones in fright and released a pent-up century’s worth of stagnant dust into the air like a scream.
“What was that?” The Witch whispered, clutching the bottle like a comforter.
Scarlet rolled her eyes, “It’s the Agro,” she groaned, her fists balled in frustration. “It’s Jack. Oh the numb-skull I knew he’d never wait.” She rounded on her brother, malevolence pulsing through her aura. “Now look what y’ve done!” she shrieked. “If you witless wizards hadn’t minced in here with yer clown costumes and yer wretched Cat O’ Nine Lives, I’d have got the Wyrd Web an’ been back on the Agro in a wink. Now, look! My Jackie said he’d wait thirty minutes and if I didn’t return he’d come n get me. Blasted fool, he’s waited less than ten!”
The Witch’s eyes were wild with terror. “Th- the Chronic Agro? Pirates? Coming here? Oh no! No, no, no! A Land Ship cannot fit down this street, it will tear us to pieces!”
Now from the opposite end of the street, even as the Agro continued to make its laboured progress felt against the cobbles and the mortar, another sound struck up. This time, the whirr and fizz of high-speed motors and wind straining through a bellow of brass pipes. There was a sudden lash of air, followed by a crack and the rumble of mortar slumping into the street below. Scarlet threw up her hands in resignation. “And that’ll be The Plunder Bus!” she sighed. “They’ve been threatening trouble all night. Take down yer shield here, Lady, we’ve a fight comin’ fast upon us and we best be aboard the Agro before it kicks off.”
“But what about the crew?” The Witch exclaimed. “Won’t they… well, you know, capture us or slaughter us or something?”
“Aye, they might. But, as you’ve rightly guessed, my Jackie won’t rest ‘till he tears this place apart lookin’ for me and unless you want t’be torn apart with it, we’d best get aboard the landship quick sharp.”
“But couldn’t we just run? Run away somewhere and hide?”
“Oh sure! Y’d be caught in the cross-fire between the Agro and the Plunder Bus, and the Brothers Crim don’t take no prisoners, Lady.”
“But aren’t you all on the same side?” The Witch protested.
Scarlet snorted in disgust.
“I believe what Miss Skarry is trying to convey, is that there is ‘no honour amongst thieves,’ “ Mercurio said smoothly.
“Do you mind sparing us all these clichéd little proverbs?” Skarry growled. “They mean absolutely nothing and do even less to help the situation.”
Mercurio narrowed his eyes venomously, and muttered something under his breath.
An almighty blast shook the house once again and the exposed lintels above them began to warp and splinter in protestation.
“Guard down, Lady!” Scarlet bellowed.
“Oh!” The Witch screamed, as the floor began to tilt beneath their feet. Skarry’s boots tried for purchase on the smooth wooden floorboards and failed and he skidded into Mercurio, who clutched at him in a frantic manner which neither of them ever felt it appropriate to recall in the years that followed.
There was another crack, a flash of blue light as The Witch released the containment spell, a gleam of silver as Scarlet pulled something from her belt.
And then everything went black.