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          The Unfit Apprentice

1602. Elizabethan London. Eight-year-old Sprat is a gutter rat, an abomination born of a goat and unfit to live. Or so he believes. And he's being hunted.

But a stranger saves his skin, offers him a position and everything he's always longed for -- the wonder of a home, a future free of torments, a fully belly.
Though determined to prove himself to Graveling Fownd, Sprat is uneasy about his master's peculiar practices. Is it normal for painters to work from corpses? Is it common for apothecaries to conjure spirits from the netherworld's darkest corner? And what of the outlandish plot against Good Queen Bess, Elizabeth I, to ensure her sun finally sets?

The Unfit Apprentice is darkly supernatural, the sinister tale of an innocent confronting the macabre. To survive, Sprat must be tougher than toughest hide, no matter how terrified.

"Not afraid of nothing."


But there's that scratching in the cellar...


London 1602

At low tide, I slunk along the Thames riverbed, stumbled over the remains of a dead dog. The wretch lay in the mud like driftwood, its coat maggoty and clogged with river muck. Likely tossed in the water and left for scavengers, the sorry-looking creature seemed at peace. Free of misery at least.

    Was it in a better world? A world without Ralf?

    I backed away, squelched through the sludge. On the lookout for hiding places, I slipped beneath the jetty and dropped to my knees. Mud-holes were risky, home to slithery eels and lurking river-spirits. Yet I crawled inside and curled up, made myself small.

    Was I fearless, the craftiest gutter rat in London?

    “Won’t hurt a bit,” Ralf yelled. “Promise and hope to die.”

    But he was on the hunt, itching to spill my blood. And the little ones were combing the mud-bank for footprints. My footprints.

    Should I keep my nerve and stay put? Run for it?

    Voices mumbled. A hand reached inside the mud-hole.

    “Kiss, kiss,” Ralf said. “You in there, little Redbreast?”

    I shrank from his grubby fingers, his searching fingers pawing at empty air. When a rat crept from shadows and tilted its snouty head, I clamped my jaw shut, afraid of crying out. But the rat ignored me, brushed past my cheek and inched towards Ralf’s hand. No doubt drawn by his loutish scent, it pounced like a cutthroat and sank its teeth into loutish flesh.

    Ralf snatched his hand back. “There’s rats.”

    The little ones squealed.

    “Chew your bits, they do,” one said, “while you’re still alive as well.”

    Ralf grunted. “But Redbreast’s close. I can smell him.”

    “Can’t we get him later?”

    “Can’t we get him when we’re not starving?”

    Ralf hawked up something nasty and spat. “Next time he gets the kiss.”

    Their voices trailed away. Their sloppy footsteps diminished.

    Satisfied they had left, I crawled from my hiding place and jumped up. With light fading and the tide returning, I fished a stale bread sop from my pocket and crouched down again.

    “Want something tasty?” I said.

    The rat crept from the mud-hole, rose on its hindquarters and stared with ink-drop eyes. An odd mark tainted its greasy brown coat, a patch of fur as white as a full moon. Were we not alike, a sort of kin? Were we both not vermin cursed by a sign that singled us out?

    I handed over the titbit and trudged towards the riverbank, climbed the abandoned jetty and clattered along the timbers. As I reached the wooden fence, someone coughed.

    “Been watching you,” a stranger said.

    He stood in half-light, his beard grizzled and clothes baggy, much like sailors’ slops. In his hand, a fat pasty looked tempting.

    I licked my lips. “Saw me nearly killed dead?”

    “Saw a rat looking after its own, more like.”

    I forced a smile. “They reckon I isn’t fit to live.”

    “Could be you’re not. But some folk don’t need a reason for killing. And not just alley folk neither, but rich folk too. Even the dandy palace is rampant.”

    “You mean, the palace of Good Bess?”

    “There’s nothing good about her, not no more.”

    “But she’s the great lady-queen.”

    “Not been great for years. Not for centuries almost. Her sun’s set and fizzled out, they say. And them around her dream of nothing but slitting throats.”

    Certain he must be cracked, I nodded towards the pasty. “That your supper?”

    “Fresh from the oven.”

    I edged closer, aiming to grab it and run. When he broke it in two and offered me half, I peered through the twilight, tried to examine his eyes but failed.

    “Better not be a sneaky trick,” I said.

    “You want it or not?”

    I snatched the pasty and stepped back, stuffed it into my mouth and scrambled over the fence. Ravenous, I wolfed down my supper and glanced at the madman peeking between the planks.

    “Careful what you sup,” he said. “Ever wondered what becomes of folk taken by the river? Could be more than horsemeat you’re eating.”

    I hesitated.

    He winked.

    Cracked as they come...

    I bowed by way of thanks, darted past the warehouses and up the Hangman’s Stairs. Nimble as a night-spirit, a tomcat of the ether, I reached London Dock and wove between wagons, porters with their carts, linkboys with their torches and traders haggling over nonsense. Still hungry and on the prowl, I came to the Crooked Tavern.

    A lady-strumpet loitered by the doorway, her cheeks whitewashed and bonnet feathered. After crouching behind a barrel, I eyed the fruit basket by her feet.

    Easy as piddle pudding.

    Ralf chuckled. “So here’s little Redbreast.”

    On instinct, I ducked as his club whistled past my skull and thudded against the barrel. Before he could swing again, I leapt up and fled, snaked between the barrels and whirled around a crane, vaulted a mooring post and glanced back. Ralf was still close, too close. I kicked my heels and flew like shot, almost reached the Tower Steps but faltered, distracted by a beast beneath a torch.

    The beast was a goat, a common white goat. Yet the way its coat glowed like a spectre. The way it stirred a memory long buried.

    Seeded by Beelzebub.

    A blow crunched against my spine, rattled my senses.

    Ralf stroked his fearsome club. “Bonebreaker’s lonesome. Wants another kiss.”

    I stumbled into a fishing-net, tugged myself free but skidded on slimy fish innards. Balance lost and wailing like a harpy, I plunged headlong over the quay.

    Yet I failed to fall, to die a muddy death. Confused and dangling like a kitten, I then found myself hauled upwards and dumped back onto the dock.

    Someone had me by the breeches.

    I wriggled. “Let me go.”

    A gentleman flipped me onto my back. “Demands? From a tiddler?”

    I bristled. “Not no tiddler.”

    Ralf’s minions caught up, stuck their tongues out as if possessed, wild as forest sprites.

    “They want me killed dead,” I said.

    The gentleman helped me to my feet, eyed me from top to toe while adjusting his ruff, a fancy  thing dyed pale lavender. “They want you dead because you’re a thief?”

    I lifted my sleeve and revealed my withered arm. “’Cause I is unfit, not right for this world.”

    “But are you right for the next?”

    “Not sure. But might you help?”

    He wagged a finger, then walked away and abandoned me to fate.

    “Nobody cares,” Ralf said. “All alone, little Redbreast.”

    Dock-folk skirted around us. The little ones flicked their tongues and hissed like vipers. As Ralf approached, I began to run, checked myself and stood tall. Was I not tough as pigskin? Tougher than vicious orphans?

    “You’re mine,” Ralf said.

    I lifted my chin. “Don’t belong to no one.”

    He raised the club.

    A phantom sprang from the shadows, snatched Ralf's club and flung it aside. Amid the blur, I spotted the lavender ruff as the gentleman gave the lout a wallop, pressed a knife to his throat and whispered into his ear.

    “How easily I could end your life. How easily I could come for your minions next.”

    The gentleman then booted the boy’s backside, sent the entire pack scuttling off before sauntering back.

    “Does the little sprat have a name?” he said to me.

    I flustered, astonished a stranger had saved my skin twice. “Some folks say... some folks call me cursed.”

    He pulled out a handkerchief and folded strands of hair inside – Ralf’s hair. “Do you work?”

    “Don’t reckon I is able.”

    “Yet the law says otherwise.”

    I peered at his hat, a tall, peculiar-looking affair of crimson velvet. Mounted on the front, an amber stone caught the light. “You one of them constable gentlemen?”

    “Is the little sprat afraid?”

    “Not afraid of nothing.”

    “Not even if I were a hangman rounding up strays?”

    I bit my lip.

    He pointed towards a cloth bundle on the deck. “Carry that and I promise you dominion over the netherworld. Or a roof over your head at least.”

    I reached for the bundle, curled my fingers around the twine, heaved the thing onto my back and grinned.

    He stroked his wispy beard. “Is my roof so desirable?”

    Was it childish to admit to daydreaming, to confess I ached for the impossible, a proper home? “Don’t know. Never had one.”

    I trotted behind like a servant, across the dock and up Tower Hill. Once alongside the ominous Tower, its mighty presence brooding, even in daylight, the gentleman disappeared beneath an arch.

    I peeked into a shadowy courtyard, counted three houses so ancient the walls leaned, the timbers sloped. Ideal for murder, the place was best avoided.

    “No dawdling,” the gentleman said.

    Nipping across lumpy cobbles, I reached the front step. Unable to read a painted sign dangling above my head, I crossed the threshold and kicked the door shut, abandoned the bundle and crept along a corridor. Still wary as I headed towards a light, I arrived at an open chamber.

    The gentleman stood before a fireplace, stoking embers until they flared beneath a great water pot. “Out of those rags.”

    “What for?”

    “Because you reek.”

    I shuffled over and peeled everything off, hid my shame until the water began to steam, until the air grew moist. Eventually, after swinging out the pot and emptying it into a golden basin, he added a dose of scent and handed me a cloth, then fixed me with eyes blacker than toenails.

    “Scrub everything.”

    I stared over the basin’s rim. “Don’t like it one bit.”

    “Neither does dirt.”

    I clambered over the side, plonked my feet into warm water and stood proud, like a soldier.

    He forced me onto my behind. “The spirits are trembling. But if you still smell like a dung-heap when you’re done, you won’t be sleeping there.”

    Beside the fireplace, a box-like contraption made my heart leap. “A real bed?”

    “Even a flock mattress.”

    I scrubbed until my flesh was raw and the water murky. When I smelled a treat, I flicked wet hair from my eyes, climbed from the basin and patted myself dry.

    He grabbed my wrist.

    I resisted.

    He showed me a tiny pot. “Suspicious of everything? Even when it’s ointment?”

    “Might be wicked ointment.”

    He dabbed the stuff over my bruises. “Have you seen nine summers yet?”

    My brain whirred. “I seen a very great number.”

    “Eight, I suspect, little more than a hatchling.”

    “But I is not a stupid hatchling.”

    “Then why no name?”

    “’Cause my lady-mother was a goat. And they don’t know nothing about names.”

    “Your mother was a goat?”

    I hung my head. “Means I got a devil in me.”

    He finished with the ointment and stepped towards a chest, opened the lid and began rummaging.

    Naked and oozing leafy scent, I sat on the hearth and toasted my bones, squinted at a beamed ceiling above my head, at plaster walls soot-blackened and greasy. Behind me, the fireplace seemed alive, the chamber’s warm and fiery heart.

    I also examined the gentleman himself, a lean, willowy gentleman with stained fingertips and dusty clothing. Though the blackness of his eyes gave me the shivers, I cared not a jot. After all, born ungodly and a stranger to kindness, should I not welcome such fortune? Convinced he was respectable and above-board – nothing like a crow eyeing up a carcass – I dismissed my doubts.

    He flung a linen shirt towards me. “You will fetch meals from the Dirtie Devil Tavern and water from the conduit. You will also answer the door and run errands. And you will refrain from picking your nose in company, especially mine.”

    I wriggled into the shirt and tugged the tail below my knees. Patched and years past its best, it was clean and warm, unlike my rags.

    “A warning,” he said. “You’re allowed everywhere in the house except the cellar.”

    “What’s in the cellar?”

    He tossed a pair of shoes my way, soft items too small to be his own. While I slipped them on and struggled with the laces, he dragged the basin across the kitchen and into a corridor, a dark passage probably leading to a rear yard. He then returned with a dandy-looking box, its wood polished and honey-coloured, fitted with a lock and leather strap. After slinging the box across his shoulder, he knelt by the hearth and lit a stone resting in a dish, a stone that burned with the bluest flame I ever saw. Odder still was the smoke, vapours worse than the nastiest farts.

    “My name is Graveling Fownd,” he said, dampening the fire in the grate. “And no straying while we’re out, or you’ll end up butchered and sold to a pie-maker.”

    “You is named after a grave?”

    He wrapped a cloak around my shoulders and secured the neck. “Time to leave.”

    “Where we off to?”

    “Tell me what you know of Samhain.”

    “What’s Samhain?”

    He crooked a finger and headed for the door.


Outside, night swallowed us whole. Glad my new cloak was sturdy, oversized, I accompanied Master Fownd across the court and through the arch, down Tower Hill until we reached the Tower Steps. Confronted by a river now brimming, I stared at a sculler boat waiting at the foot of the stone steps, bobbing on water blacker than the abyss.

    I peered at its flickering lantern. “We getting in that?”

    Master Fownd descended, handed the waterman a coin and climbed in. “How else are we to reach the other side?”

    “But don’t the Bridge go there?”

    “Surely you’re aware it closes at curfew?”

    I followed him down and clambered on-board, sat beside him and hid my dread. How easily river-spirits could upend us. How effortlessly they could drag us into the deep, feast on our corpses and discard our bones like rubbish.

    The boatman grinned, his mouth gummy. After easing us free of the steps, he began rowing us into the unknown.

    “I was born across the river,” I said, clinging to the side. “Got abandoned and put in some house or other.”

    Master Fownd cradled his shiny box. “A foundling house?”

    “Don’t remember much about it, except it was right horrid.”

    “So you ran away?”

    I nodded. “But a rogue gentleman snatched me and used me for begging.”

    “Were folk generous?”

    “Only with their fists, so the rogue gentleman got rid of me. But I did make my way by pinching scraps and such. Didn’t take nothing costly, I swear.”

    He prodded my ribs. “I believe you. Unless I fatten you up, you’ll be fit for worms within a week.”

    “I is becoming dead?”

    “Almost in the grave.”

    I shifted my feet, avoided a puddle sloshing about the deck. Leaning in closer, I lowered my voice. “Why did you make the house stink?”

    “Because Samhain’s upon us. A time when undesirables are free to wander.”

    “You mean, drunkard folk?”

    “I mean spirits lost in the void, unfortunates caught between this world and the next. To escape such wretchedness they seek out the living and oust their souls. A sad condition that leaves a victim wandering without reason.”

    “Don’t fancy that.”

    “A death dreadful to contemplate. The afterlife’s poorest cousin.”

    “And nasty smells scare them off?”

    “A whiff of sulphur encourages spirits to wander elsewhere, to find someone sweeter.”

    “But didn’t that bath make me all sweet?”

    His smile was brief. “Perhaps, but the night has just begun.”

    I gazed at the endless sky, at the array of pimply stars. Lit by a moon plump and pale, London Bridge towered over us, its lofty houses melting into the heavens. Yet something stirred in the terrible water, a shape too subtle to identify but bulky, approaching our flank.

    I shrank down. “Over there... a river-spirit.”

    The boatman lifted an oar, waited until the thing drew alongside before nudging it away. On its back and bloated, a dead cow bobbed on the current.

    The boatman chuckled.

    I buried my head.

    We carried on to the southern bank, neared a jetty, pulled up beside its skeletal timbers and disembarked. Clearly familiar with the place, Master Fownd climbed the slimy steps and scanned the infernal darkness.

    He squeezed my shoulder. “Stay close.”

    We left the jetty and entered a passageway, its walls dripping and its air ripe as a privy. When we emerged onto a street awash with taverns and lowlifes, my skin prickled.

    Why a street so menacing? Could the gentleman be clay-brained? Might he take pleasure watching dogs savaging beasts and cockerels tearing one another to shreds? Cruel masters must live here, scandalous mistresses too. And terrible murder was likely rife.

    I took off again, skirted around rustics curled up in doorways, drunkards passed out in the dirt. After checking I was keeping up, Master Fownd continued down another alley.

    “The Clink,” he said. “Notorious as the Newgate.”

    To my right, a stone wall concealed prison buildings no doubt bleak, uninviting. More concerned with a shifty-looking gentleman staggering towards us, I caught the glint of metal in his hand.

    The stranger lurched forward, slashed the air with a dagger. Addled and mumbling obscenities, he tripped over his feet and tumbled to the ground.

    Master Fownd stepped over him, made his way to a track beside a small stream and pointed. “Bankside.”

    I strained but saw little, other than lantern-light in distant windows. “What’s down there?”

    “Your home probably, if you were born this side of the river.”

    We headed south into open countryside, where fields were plentiful and dwellings few, where the air was frosty and the night infinite. Travelling the track for some distance – the end of the world according to my feet – we approached a residence enclosed by a brick wall. On top of oak gates, a vicious-looking crow stood like a sentry on the Tower battlements. And it eyed us with interest.

    “That thing’s watching us,” I said.

    Master Fownd knocked on the gate. “And enjoys pig offal for its efforts.”

    Footsteps padded. An iron bolt scraped back. As the gate swung open, a lad peeped out, his skin fair and speckled with freckles. Taller than me and wearing the blue cloak of an apprentice, he shoved a turnip-lantern in our faces before swinging the gate wide.

    “They’re all out back,” he said, obviously recognising Master Fownd.

    We stepped inside, waited until he locked up, followed him along a path and entered a brick and timber residence. Sprightly despite the darkness, the lad escorted us across a hall and into an unlit chamber, then through double doors where he stepped out into rear grounds. On Master Fownd’s heels, I peered at a landscape of shadowy lawns and towering oaks.

    A brutish individual seized my neck. “You bring a gutter rat?”

    Master Fownd tapped his shoulder. “Leave him alone.”

    But the brute hauled me up, dangled me like a robber on a rope. “Since when have you resorted to street apes?”

    Master Fownd sighed. “Since Alice was inconsiderate enough to... run off.”

    “Dare you trust it in company, with so many purses around?”

    “Are they both here?”

    The brute dropped me, took Master Fownd by the arm and led him towards a blazing fire. “Waiting in the copse, nervous as rabbits.”

    The lantern-lad sidled up to me. “Barnaby Tubbe don’t like you. Don’t blame him neither.”

    I rubbed my neck. “Who is he?”

    “My master, that’s who, a trader what’s rich. And this is his house, so watch out.”

    Determined to remain polite, I glanced at his apprentice cloak. “You learning to be a trader too?”

    “None of your business,” he said as he flounced off. “And don’t go pinching nothing or else.”

    I came to the fire where a carcass lay roasting, suspended from a spit. Nearby, spiked like a traitor but decorated with leaves of shiny laurel, the hog’s severed head looked gruesome, its flesh pink as a baby’s. More worrying, outrageous creatures mingled about, strange beasts that seemed part human, part fantastical. Some had piggish snouts and cavernous nostrils, others colourful beaks and peacock feathers. When a mouse-like creature began a ridiculous dance, I backed away, collided with someone and whirled around.

    Barnaby Tubbe eyed me as if I was diseased. “Your name’s Sprat?”

    I stared at the buttons of his topcoat, each fashioned into a tiny silver skull. “I suppose.”

    “Have you been with any maids or other boys yet? Animals of any kind?”

    “Been where?”

    His eyes smouldered in the firelight. His tongue slid over lips plump and glistening. Features dissolving into something gross, almost bestial, he leaned in close enough to sniff my leafy ointment.


    I shivered.

    Master Fownd returned from the fire. “I said leave him be.”

    Barnaby Tubbe blinked. His face turned vacant a moment. He then straightened up and grinned. “The two Scotsmen await. And I hope you’re willing to guarantee them success.”

    Master Fownd’s eyes narrowed. “The matter’s too severe to guarantee anything.”

    “But surely you can lie to nobility, soften them a little?”

    “Is that a trader talking?”

    “A trader whose ambition will come to nothing unless you calm their fears.”

    Master Fownd handed me a dish of pork, then pulled a bauble from a pocket, a pomander dangling from a length of twine. Though it smelled foul, likely to ward off wandering robber-spirits, at least it was pretty, shaped like a crescent moon.

    He slipped it over my head. “There’s some business I must see to, but stay close to the fire and you’ll come to no harm.”

    “Can’t I come with you?”

    He shook his head. “Curb your impulse to stray or I’ll whip your arse.”

    I nodded towards the creatures by the fire. “What about them?”

    “Merely folk in costume. Nothing to be concerned about.”

    “So they isn’t real?”

    “Wandering spirits are scared of everything, even cloth and paint.”

    Unconvinced as they strolled away, I sat on the grass and gobbled the tasty pork, licked my fingers and listened to pig-fat sizzling over the flames.

    The apprentice lad strutted over, still brandishing his turnip-lantern. “Shit on the grass and I’ll have you thrown out.”

    I jumped up, proving my innocence.

    He posed like a prince. “My master’s richer than yours. See my fine clothes?”

    No longer wearing his blue cloak, he now sported a smart yellow jerkin, its buttons pewter and its armholes trimmed with scarlet hoops. Equally impressive, a linen ruff around his neck elevated him above the rabble.

    “Touch it and I’ll have you flogged,” he said, then waved the lantern in my face. “Know what this is?”

    “A turnip.”

    He sneered. “Bet you don’t know about wicked Jack and the Devil, either.”

    “Don’t care to know.”

    “Jack tricked the Devil into climbing a tree, then cut a cross in the bark.”

    “Not interested.”

    “Don’t you know crosses trap the Devil?”

    “Everyone knows that.”

    “Want to know where Jack ended up?”

    I shrugged. “Dead, probably.”

    “Dead is right,” he said, dangling the lantern beneath his chin. “But the angels didn’t want him because he was wicked. And the Devil didn’t want him either because…”

    “’Cause what?”

    Shadows lengthened across his face, caused his eyelashes to flutter like bats. “Because no one’s allowed to trick the Devil. But then Jack was lost between worlds. So the Devil took pity and gave him an ember to light his way.”

    “And stuck it in a turnip?”

    “It’s called a jack-o’-lantern,” he said, his smirk fiendish. “Don’t you know nothing, pig-ignorant?”

    “I know enough to reckon you’re one of them dandies, like a lady-maid in skirts.”

    He screeched and raised the lantern, swung it back before breaking it over my skull. When I stumbled and fell onto soggy leaves, he straddled me, untied his breeches and fumbled for his rod.

    “My name’s Will Pye and I can piss where I like.”

    I wriggled free and leapt up, darted across the grounds towards a wooded spot that looked dense, fit for a hiding place. A track snaked through the brambles. A distant light shone through the trees.

    Stay close to the fire and you’ll come to no harm.

    But I was cocky, able to deal with stupid shrubs and rustling leaves, idiot shadows and bumpkin forest-spirits.

    Curb your impulse to stray or I’ll whip your arse.

    But was Will Pye not strutting about like an upstart, wielding turnips like slingshots? And did I not learn only by snooping on my betters?

    I entered the copse and headed for the light, alert to lurking things as I continued deeper, until the murmur of voices made me slow. Tiptoeing onwards before crouching behind a mouldy tree trunk, I peeked through bushes at a clearing washed by firelight, drenched in bloodied shadows.

    Barnaby Tubbe stood alongside two gentlemen, highborn gentlemen in bejewelled hats and embroidered cloaks. Before the fire, his lavender ruff now tinted wine, Master Fownd reached inside his shiny box and sprinkled substances over the flames.

    “Mi urthan thui,” he said.

    The fire spat out atoms that sizzled, that arced into the dirt and smouldered.

    Master Fownd fed the flames again. “Casustla, calu.”

    Smoke spewed into the night and drifted towards the treetops, hovered above an ancient-looking oak before descending like mucky river fog.

    “Ut ratum.”

    The smoke then filtered through the canopy, settled in the crook of a branch and began to blacken, to gain in substance.

    A monstrous carbuncle formed, its outline smoky, ill-defined but quivering. Parts lengthened until they became limbs. The crown billowed into a kind of skull. Yet it was a skull oversized and malformed, possessed of a swelling that reminded me of a muzzle. Or worse, a ghastly hooked beak.

    Should I tremble? Laugh perhaps? After all, as I watched the thing lurking in the trees, a thing so malevolent-looking my flesh prickled, I had to wonder.

    Could it all be tricks and costume, an amusement for the highborn?

    Then again...

    Tonight is Samhain.

    I fumbled for the bauble around my neck. Startled when the mouldy tree trunk crumpled in a puff of dust, I smothered a cough, horrified the gentlemen were already scanning the bushes and searching me out. On my feet in an instant, I charged back the way I came, collided with something that rattled my brain. A dead fox dangled from a branch, its neck stretched and belly gaping.

    Again I took off running, bounding over ferns and dodging nasty briars. On my tail most likely, wandering spirits must be rushing through the woods and swiping at my hair, pawing at my tender throat.

    Bushes rustled up ahead. Twigs snapped beneath unknown feet. Worried when laughter rang out, a cackle rough as old rope, I switched direction and picked up speed, stumbled onto the path and skimmed over tree roots. Glimpsing a break in the trees, I grinned.

    The way out.

    But someone grabbed my cloak, jolted me out of my stride.


    A shadow whirled me around, sent me spinning... tumbling.


    Another shadow clouted my skull.

    “Fresh meat.”

    The shadowy figures then gripped my ankles, tugged me through the undergrowth and hauled me heaven knows where.



Tangled in my cloak, I twisted around, caught sight of the moon and the outlines of three hulking lady-women.

    “Should we boil his brains in bat-broth?”

    “Fry his fingers in frogspawn?”

    “Let’s roast his rump in rhubarb wine.”

    hey released me and began circling.

    “Scrawny sparrow.”

    “Measly minnow.”

    “Not worth seasoning, even.”

    Relieved they were simple rustics, countrified lady-hags dressed in mildewed, moth-eaten wool, I tried to stand but collapsed, dazed by another crack to my skull.

   “Come to poison our porridge?”

   “Snooping for tales to tell?”

   “Want to blab about our whereabouts?”

   I rubbed my head and tried to look innocent. “Not no snoop and didn’t touch no porridge.”

   They prodded me like cats tormenting a mouse. Bosoms plentiful and hips rolling, they seemed well fed and alike, so alike they could be siblings.

   One reached for the bauble around my neck. “Aritimi...”

    The others leaned in.

    “Rasenna work?”

    “From Etruria, no question.”

   They sniffed the smelly item, aware of its purpose perhaps, or because it gleamed as though costly.

   “Done caught a pincher and pilferer.”

   “A robber and a rogue.”

   “Best nail him up I reckon. Leave him for crows.”

   I snatched the bauble back. “But Master Fownd gave it me.”

   They screwed their eyes.

   “Graveling Fownd don’t deal in waifs.”

   “Can’t be trusted, that’s why.”

   “Steal the very air if they could.”

   I thrust out my chin. “Trusts me plenty. Got a proper bed fit for a lord. Ask him yourself, if you want.”

   They glanced at one another.

   “You saying you’re the foundling lad?”

   “The bairn born of a badger?”

   I rolled my eyes. “Daft lady-peasants got it wrong.”

   One lifted my cloak and prodded my belly. “Sure you weren’t spawned by a bitch?”

   “Sure your pelt’s not ridden with fleas?”

   “Probably the runt of the litter, kicked out for insolence.”

   She hooked a stick under my sleeve and exposed my shrivelled limb. “Remember that whelp in Bankside?”

   “Don’t remember snot about Bankside.”

   “But remember the young ’un taken by authorities?”

   They shuffled their feet.

   “Can’t be.”

   “Nature playing tricks, is all.”


   They huddled together and muttered.

   “But we’re not scrubbed pure.”

   “Not fasted three days, neither.”

   “Don’t matter for just a peek, a quickie look-see.”

   They helped me up and brushed me down.

   “Want to see your tomorrows?” one said, her smile unnerving. “Might be agreeable. Might be not.”

   Before I could answer, she took my hand and led me away, following the others along a trail overgrown and invisible. But I had spied on business I had no business spying on. Were they delivering me to my death? Should I go without a fuss? What if they were dragging me back to the bejewelled gentlemen and smoky wood-spirit? What if I was doomed to hang like the poor gutted fox?

   The lady-hags chuckled like infants, led me through brambles and thickets dense as whiskers. On the far side of the copse, we emerged alongside a shelter resembling a jumble of twigs.

   I hesitated when they lowered their rumps onto log stools.

   “You’re thin as thread,” one said, stoking the embers of a fire into life. “Come and warm your blood.”

   I shuffled over and sat beside them, crossed my legs and stared at their crinkly faces.

   Another cracked an egg into a dish. “Vecu. Our gift...”

   They leaned over the dish and gawped like heifers sniffing a bug.

   “See Catha holding his hand?”

   “Cilens kissing his cheek?”

   “Rare as wheels on a worm, I reckon.”

   “As skirts on a snake, no less.”

   I sniffed.

   They ignored me.

   “Wait a spec,” one said. “That a beak hooked like a Moorish blade?”

   “A beak sharp as the sharpest axe?”

   “Not possible.”

   “And yet...”

   Their jaws dropped.

   “Charun Rul.”

   “And someone welcomes it.”

   “Someone close...”

   They whispered to one another, added kindling to the fire and poured sweet water into a tiny pot.

   “Sac calthi.”

   I glanced towards the copse at branches silvered by moonlight, at shadows too dark to understand. Though reluctant to mention the smoky spirit with a terrible beak, I was too uneasy to stay silent. “Who’s Charun Rul?”

    None looked me in the eye.

    “Don’t you fret and sweat.”

    “Don’t you whine and worry.”

    “Probably not come for you.”

    Probably? “But, what if it’s a wandering spirit?”

   They shook their heads.

   “Weren’t ever a man what lived and died.”

   “Don’t belong to this world and never will.”

   “But,” I said, “Master Fownd did say this is a time when spirits go where they want.”

    One poured the slimy egg into the water pot. “Samhain it is. And the veil’s cobweb thin.”

    They peered into the water, cocked their peasant heads. Teeth crooked as headstones, they beamed.

   “We see you young ’un. Clear as dew on a daisy.”

   “As a doe’s eyes in summer.”

   “Got a nose pert as a rosebud, ripe apples for cheeks.”

   “Fingers like fattened grubs too, and toes pretty as pearls.”

   “We see all of you, young ’un, naked as you came into the world.”

   I scowled. “You see me naked?”

   “Babes don’t pop out in doublet and boots.”

   “Don’t care about no babe,” I said, irritated. “What about my tomorrows?”

   “He’s riled as a ruffled wren.”

   “Ruffled as a rogered ram.”

   “Got to know what’s been so we can make sense of what’s coming.”

   I thrust my nose into the pot. “So what’s coming?”

   One slapped my head. “A birched arse.”

   “Can’t see diddle with a fat head blocking the visions.”

   “Hush now.”

   “Mist’s clearing.”

   “Look there. See and believe.”

    Their aged eyes twinkled.

   “It’s her, no mistake. A woman in a dirty bonnet.”

   “Ringlets need combing too.”

   “That a locket round her neck?”

   “Silver’s all she’s got left.”

   “That and an empty heart.”

   “A heart shrivelled and stolen away.”

   They sat back and raised their heads.

   “Rach thui, aisna.”

   “Nuth malec.”

   “It’s legally done.”

   Again I scowled, fed up with their twaddle. Had they not promised to show me my tomorrows, the unknown stuff around unknown corners? But had they not shown me my yesterdays instead, titbits worthless because they were done with?

   “How come you didn’t see me grown?” I said.

   “Can’t predict the visions, young ’un.”

   “It’s up to you to lift the latch and crack the door.”

   I snorted. “Wouldn’t open no door to a lady-woman in a dirty bonnet.”

   “Not even if she’d carried you nine months?”

   “Carried me where?”

   “In her belly, dung brain, till you were ready to slip out.”

   It took a while to grasp. “But my lady-mother was a goat.”

   “Tiddle and diddle.”

   “A woman’s your rightful mother.”

   “Don’t make it true,” I said.

   They shook their heads. “Deny the spirits all you want. But denying a mother offends your beginnings.”

   Could I do anything but deny? After all...

   Filthy child. Your mother was a goat and your father a demon.

   Did they think me willing to accept lies, to believe cats were dogs, and horses, toads? Sweet as their make-believe sounded, I knew otherwise.

    “If a lady-woman was my mother,” I said, “how come she left me too?”

   They stared skywards.

   “Can’t see piss-pots in paradise, young ’un.”

   “Can’t see reasons when they’re hidden, neither.”

   I had to ask. “You saying she did care for me?”

   “Does a cow care for a calfling?”

   “A goose for a gosling?”

   “Does a bitch dote upon its pup?”

   I scanned their faces for trickery.

   They murmured. “Aritimi...”

   That name again. “Who’s Aritimi?”

   “She whose soul shifts beneath our skin.”

   “She whose breath flutters in our wombs.”

   “She who moves every tear and every dewdrop, all the rains and all the oceans.”

   I followed their gaze but saw nothing worth mentioning, merely the moon slipping behind wispy clouds. “You mean that?”

   “Hush your mouth, young ’un.”

   “She’s goddess of the heavens and the woodlands we call home.”

   “Watches over souls like a shepherd tending a flock.”

   I craned my neck. “Even me?”

   “Even bugs.”

   “Even bats.”

   “Even the meanest, mucky rat.”


I skirted the wood, darted across the grounds and returned to the roasting pig. Surprised to find Master Fownd already returned, I gathered myself and ambled over.

    “A call of nature?” he asked, easing away from the others.

    I grinned like a simpleton. “Didn’t see nothing odd, I promise.”

    “Head down the entire time?”

    “Busy watching for cow pats.”

    We left the lawns and approached the house, stepped onto a gravel drive where a covered wagon waited. Lanterns lit and horses harnessed, the contraption was no common wagon but elegant and fine, all polished wood and scarlet cloth.

    Were we to travel like rich folk, by wheels instead of aching feet?

    Master Fownd held aside the rear flap, heaved himself inside. Excited and scrambling up, I poked my head through the cloth and stifled a groan. Face florid in the lamplight, Barnaby Tubbe sat on a pile of crimson cushions and glared.

    “Pets are forbidden,” he said.

    Master Fownd waved me in. “As they should be.”

    “If he touches the velvet I’ll slice his fingers off.”

    “And justice would be served.”

    I crawled in like a dog, kept away from the rotten cushions and sat. Afraid to raise my head, even to glance at Will Pye with a new turnip-lantern, I braced myself when the wagon lurched forward.

We trundled off and swung right, rattled along a track that jarred my brain. Rear end smarting on the bare, bouncing floor, did I care a whit about young Pye lounging like an uppity prince, reclining like a lady-queen on a padded throne?

    We travelled back towards the city, came to a halt amid the sound of water and someone retching. First out of the wagon and cursing the hellish thing, I smirked at a drunk on all fours, spilling his guts into the Thames.

    The others followed me out, headed for the river stairs and descended. Once aboard the nearest wherry, we braved the current and a murderous wind, survived the crossing and reached the Tower Steps. We then disembarked and trudged up Tower Hill, turned into the courtyard and entered the house.

    Icy air smacked my cheeks.

    “Jack Frost’s still here,” young Pye said. “Want me to fix him?”

    I sneered, mystified why the pair was even with us. When the upstart took off along the corridor and vanished into the kitchen, I followed his ridiculous light, affronted he was familiar enough to be kneeling on the hearth, to be setting kindling alight with his lantern.

    “Don’t know about the Samhain ritual, do you?” he said as I wandered over.

    I braved it out. “Don’t need to know about stuff and make-believe.”

    “Not make-believe when everyone lights their fire from the same place. Means they’re all part of the same spirit, you ignorant.”

    “Don’t want to be part of the same spirit.”

    “And your sort never will be. Not ever.”

    “You reckon I is afraid of you?”

    His eyes glinted. “Isn’t me you need to fear.”

    “Then who?”

    He bared his teeth and snapped them shut, then dashed towards Tubbe and followed him out of the kitchen. Yet my relief was short-lived when I heard their footsteps clumping up the stairs.

    “They staying the night?” I asked Master Fownd.

    He nodded and lifted the lid on the kitchen chest. “So you came across nothing unusual this evening?”

    I dropped my gaze, worried a confession would convict me of spying. “You mean them painted animal heads?”

    “Not exactly.”

    I scuffed the floorboards, afraid he knew already. “If you mean them lady-hags, they is right peculiar I reckon, ’cause they all looked the same, though they wasn’t.”

    He closed the chest and strode towards my bed. “They are born to the same mother, from the same seed at the same time.”

    “No wonder they talk twaddle.”

    He laid a sheet over the mattress, then blankets. “And they told you your tomorrows?”

    “They did babble about my yesterdays instead. Said my lady-mother weren’t no goat.”

    “And you wonder how you might find her?”

    “I suppose...”

    “I suggest you ask instead why she hasn’t found you. Why she hasn’t scoured the city looking for her lost child.”

    “’Cause she don’t care?”

    “Who can say?”

    “’Cause a proper lady-mother’s not out there?”

    He left the kitchen and climbed above stairs, probably retired to his own bedchamber.

    I kicked the door shut.

    The lady-hags had fooled me, toyed with me. They had spotted my longing to have a lady-mother who was decent, not some heartless grubby goat. But did I not know better? Was I not wise to every deception? How despicable to lead me like a lamb, to treat me like a babe swaddled and in need.

    Denying a mother offends your beginnings.

    Then my beginnings would be offended. After all, even if a lady-mother was out there, should I not despise her for casting me aside?

    Does a cow care for a calfling?

    A goose for a gosling?

    Does a bitch dote upon its pup?

    But no bitch doted on me, let alone a real lady-mother. In truth, no one doted at all.

    Quick as spit, I removed the bauble and laid it on the mantle, dashed to the bed and undressed. After leaping onto the mattress and scrambling beneath the covers, I sank into the wool and marvelled at the luxury.

    Could I now sneer at doorways and clammy mud-holes, say farewell to hiding places forever? And would Ralf and his pack not be furious, envious of my home and full belly? To their disgust no doubt, I had stumbled on a gentleman of position, a saviour, someone who cared more than any goat or make-believe lady-woman. And within a single day too.

    I nestled into the mattress, tugged a soft blanket beneath my chin. Lulled by flames snapping and the sweet softness of a pillow, I began to doze, almost slipped into oblivion when something creaked.

    Woodwork settling? Timbers groaning? A smoky forest-spirit creeping up the cellar stairs?

    I rolled over, opened sleepy eyes on ceiling beams washed with firelight, on walls soaked with coppery shadows. Bemused why I could see into the hallway, I lifted my head to find the door open.


    The door closed with a muffled thud. In the darkest corner, a shadow detached itself from the wall and seemed to move, seemed to swell until it filled the very room.

    Slime glistened on a monstrous snout. Rows of yellowed teeth glinted in the firelight. As the shadow snuffled and headed towards my bed, its claws tapped the floorboards with every step.

    Tick-tick... tick-tick...

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