Heroes of Old Exeter Towne
£1 of loose change
Rat’s head the size of a pony’s. (£1)
No evidence of any source or cause of the rat’s gigantism, leaving me to conclude that the rat was a manifestation of the stirring evil of Satan, the Great Serpent of which N’Longa spoke, the third monstrous or supernatural encounter in less than three weeks since our paths crossed in Lincolneshire.
On later conferring with monster-expert Michael Tremayne, he confessed to having never having heard of any beast such as that one we had faced and slain. He suggested that it might indeed have been the doing of the witch’s curse. But I had never learnt of any power of natural magick or talent of the cunning-folk that could cause a creature to attain such unnatural size…
We emerged from the culvert-grate, bespattered but victorious, and trudged our damp and weary way back to the street where Michael Tremayne was ably directing the frankly bewildered constables. Some good-hearted neighbour had rousted the nearby kin of the slaughtered family, and as we gave the orphaned girl-child, Catherine, into the arms of her aunt and uncle, the benighted folk of Exeter arose in spontaneous applause. A tavern was opened in despite of the hour, and we were feted like heroes.
On rising late the next morning, we found word of our deeds to have spread throughout the city, and the Exonians could not do enough for us.
It remained to us that we must needs hie us to London to make rendez-vous with Sam York. As we made enquiries on the docks, a Captain Noakes was so taken with the word of our deed that he offered us free passage aboard his Sheppey Maid, sailing with the tide two days thence.
Jonas led us in unabashedly drinking and dining like princes at the expense of countless wishers-well ‘as was only his due – and that of his retinue’. Over the two days Nick Hat and I quizzed many a ship’s captain as to any risings of evil in the world, or any word of the latter fate of Solomon Kane, that other one shown to us by the enigmatic dream-master of Africa. No one in Devonshire had any news of Kane since the old salts said he departed their shores many years ago, bound for Hamburg, the free imperial city-state that squats in the Germanies between Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony. Asking about risings of evil in the world elicited only a succession of heartfelt oaths against papists and Spain, news of privateers and skirmishes in the Spanish War, including a hasty besieging of Spanish and Irish forces in a town beyond the Pale somewhere in County Cork. No merchantmen currently dared ply the shipping lanes between England and the Spanish Netherlands.
At high tide late on the second day we took ship for London. The going up the English Channel was typical for the season, euphemistically described by the captain as ‘choppy’. Our passage took fully eight days before we rounded the last bend of the Thames and entered the Port of London.
Between bouts of sea-sickness, Nick Hat’s injuries had received Jonas’ ministrations, but he still failed to make a recovery.
In Exeter I had bought me a woodcarver’s knife and a cord of Dartmoor rowan-wood, and I spent a good part of the voyage in carving a walking stick in a rudimentary likeness of the staff of Kane as seen in dreame. I am not completely ignorant of the exigencies of the grain in wood & cetera, and pride myself on my eye for detail, but the result was unsatisfactory.
Though not relevant to this account, we had a high time at the famous Mermaid Taverne, and on the evening of the 11th day of January, Anno 1603, we were reunited with a saddle-weary Sam York.
Letters of introduction were penned by York, de Winkler and myself. In the following days York procured for Nick Hat the attentions a colleague of his physician father, one of the foremost medical men in the capital. Tremayne and Kato betook themselves to the Port and made enquiries about sailings to the Continent, should the European gem of power prove likely to lie beyond the shores of Merrie England.
Bishop de Winkler was received at Lambeth Palace by his primate, John Whitgift, the Archbishop of Canterbury (a Lincolneshire man), sympathetic to Winkler on account of their shared High Church leanings. After the formalities had been observed, Jonas related insouciantly that all was in order with the diocese of Bath and Wells, but he himself felt a higher calling. He had had a vision, which he humbly believed to have been sent by God, of encroaching evil, which he assured the Archbishop was not the mad rambling of a cider-sucking West Countryman, and which he felt honour-bound to pursue.
Whitgift responded without acknowledging the truth of supernatural stirrings, such things having been impossible since the death of Christ, and invariably attributable to hysteria in the witnesses, the charlatanry of cunning-folk or the ranting of Romists. But the two piously concurred that the sovereignty of England was surrounded by popish plots taking many shapes. Whitgift agreed rather readily to Jonas’ taking three months’ sabbatical, and indeed told him that if the affair proved as grave as feared, Jonas need not hurry back even at the end of that time. Whitgift would keep his seat warm in the Synod. On being prompted as to the likelihood that costs would be incurred in this undertaking, Whitgift smoothly reassured Jonas that the Church was deeply appreciative of his personal sacrifices.
Jonas just remembered at the last my counsel that he should seek access to the Lambeth Palace library, and the centuries of Church records that it contains. He was offhandedly referred to the librarian, who duly granted him leave to study there.
My own message to Lord Percy was also favourably received, and our party were invited to dine at Northumberland House. The first part of the evening was spent convivially with the Earl and a select party of courtiers, who found Kato and the tale of his journey from the Far East a great curiosity and marvelled at our incredulous tale of a rat the size of a horse in the ancient flooded cellars of Exeter. We in turn were introduced to a novelty that the earl’s close friend, Sir Walter Raleigh, was making popular with Good Queen Bess and her circles at the Court of St James’s: the “dry drink” consumed by inhaling the smoke of a leaf called tobah imported from the New World.
Then by some unseen agreement the others excused themselves to go carousing in Southwarke, leaving the six of us alone in the company of Earl Henry. I apologized for the earlier showmanship, but felt sure that tall tales could be easily dismissed. For the eyes of the Earl alone, Nick Hat produced the head of the Beast of Exeter, and I affirmed the literal truth of our account.
I proceeded to tell the earl the whole of our experiences. My companions were not without their misgivings at this, and I had already noted appraising gazes being exchanged with the earl by Bishop de Winkler and Sam York in particular, whom I subtly noted to address the earl as “Northumberland” without any of the deference due to a peer of the realm. But I persisted in sharing every detail with my former patron. I made the most of the manifest power of N’Longa to severally visit all our dreams and then to send us a dream which we all shared, without our needing to possess the Gift of conversing with spirits.
Earl Henry was reluctant to attribute to N’Longa such magical power that he might have directly caused us all to be convened in Thornton Curtis. As well-versed in science and logic as in alchemy, he pointed out that as men of action and so forth, it was not unusual that we should each have been drawn to the site of the most notable event in the district. He cautioned that it were never safe to guess at the likelihood of things that have already come to pass. And he asked what I would have of him.
“Our needs are two-fold, beyond fighting Evil wherever it rises” quoth I. “We are charged with searching the world to secure six long-hidden gems of power, the which are required for nothing less than to slay Satan, now unchained in this tumultuous age. And we also feel compelled to seek after a puritan by the name of Solomon Kane.”
The earl knew the name of Kane, and observed that it seemed he must have been another instrument of the dream-speaker, but could offer no more as to his whereabouts than had the folk of Devonshire. As to these gems, he said that they were indeed hidden from his knowledge also. But to defy even magical inquiry down long ages they must be hidden under the auspices of places of power whose locations would by definition have been jealously guarded secrets. It remained possible that some hint of these places might be gleaned from a library specializing in the supernatural, but the earl was not optimistic. The finest such library in England, that collected by Doctor John Dee just up the Thames at Mortlake, had been plundered and divided in his absence and was no more. I was, however, welcome to peruse the earl’s own famously extensive library.
And so I commenced my second course of esoteric study at the earl’s Syon House home, 10 miles upriver from London. Were my former materials not ruined in the wreck of the Polish merchantman, I might have made altogether different enquiries of the angels. But what remained to me was the challenge, not to simply to unearth the hints and clues as to places of power in the earl’s books, but to sift from the innumerable references to such places those which were too well-known, and then identify which amongst the many obscure, uncertain or glancing references might hold promise. Stonehenge, Glastonbury, Rosslyn, Karnak, Toledo: though fascinating, these places were not sufficiently secret. But the subtler references were so numerous that it was wellnigh impossible to identify a candidate site with any confidence.
The answers came in conference over this week with my companions of N’Longa’s dream. Solomon Kane was not unknown to the Church of England, and Jonas’ researches came up with certain suggestions as to the places he might have ventured. Sam York also, though he would not be drawn to identify the sources of his intelligence, narrowed down other unconfirmed leads. And our three independent approaches, when we came together and compared notes, proved to cohere on three candidates.
Not only did the Schwarzwald, the Black Forest of Bavaria in the Germanies, have a reputation for mystery and Walpurgisnacht witches, but we found records of a Baron Mülhoffer there having played host to Solomon Kane. Yet further into the Continent, in the lands of Wallachia in Transylvania that fell under the Ottoman Turk a century ago, a ‘Castle Dracula’ was the subject of so many wildly divers accounts first of heroism and then of notoriety that it seemed to manifest a power of misdirection that might qualify it as the secret repose of a gem of power. And a monastery in central Poland, the which was all but unknown even to its neighbours in the vale of the Vistula, also held promise. We knew this monastery to have received Kane as guest for a time, as our own Michael Tremayne remembered him there. We duly seized on this as the most promising place to visit, given the favourable reception Michael could expect from his Father Tutor.
Earl Henry wished me well. He bade me keep him apprised of the progress in our quest, share with him anything of note that we might learn upon the way, and return to him with whatever maps of the wide world I might be able to make.
In the space of the week that had passed, the first class care had enabled Nicholas Hat to recover his full health and vitality once more.
We took ship in the middle of January and endured a wintry passage over the northward German Sea, beyond the threat of Spanish warships, and were unaccosted by any of their privateers. We passed through the straits of the Skagerrak to Copenhagen, onwards into the Baltic Sea and along the coast of Pomerania.
I passed the time aboard ship in writing this account in a book that Sam York kindly purchased for the purpose. Also, having picked out a cord of bog oak, I betook me to try again to carve a walking stick that might achieve a resemblance to the staff of Kane. Poor light, cold hands and the tossing of the vessel conspired to render the piece scarcely less disappointing than my first attempt.
At length, after a voyage of more than 300 leagues, on 6 February Anno 1603 we reached the province of Royal Prussia in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and disembarked in the great Hanseatic port of Danzig, called Gdańsk by the Poles.
Tremayne could naturally get by in Polish, and I was myself not entirely ignorant of that tongue. Indeed it was not two months since I had travelled northward all through Poland to this very port to take that ill-fated ship for England. Between the fractious German states of the Holy Roman Empire to the west, and a Muscovy in the east in turmoil under Boris Godunov after the son of Ivan the Terrible had died without an heir, the Polish folk of Gdańsk proudly told us that Sigmund III Vasa, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, ruled a prosperous and thriving nation. But strangely, when we entered into serious negotiation with the merchants of that port, we were told of foul summers ruining two successive harvests, times being hard, prices high and travel dangerous. Furthermore, solicitous of the privacy of his monastery, Tremayne insisted that we not simply travel by boat up the Vistula and then cut inland to Sierpc, but must needs travel overland, threading the roadways from Gdańsk towards the new capital at Warsaw.
We purchased a cart and a mule to draw it, and enough provisions that we would not starve if we failed to find an inn for the night. Sam York rather extravagantly purchased a splendid cartographer’s map, and Nick Hat purchased two outwardly identical decks of cards, one of which was marked. Adrift in a land where no one could understand his claims and demands, Jonas de Winkler promptly borrowed one of the decks and spent most of the day playing at Patience and quietly getting exceeding drunk.
On the Road to Warsaw
I drove the cart out of Gdańsk, 30 leagues of roadways ahead of us. The first day was uneventful, seeing us crossing the Vistula by ferry at Dirschau (Tczew) and climbing gently out of the river basin to reach the town Marienburg (Malborg) well before nightfall, its castle the former seat of the Order of Teutonic Knights.
In the morning we took the Warsaw road towards Eylau (Ilawa), and reached a convenient roadside inn for the night. The inn was quiet and the innkeeper more talkative than the townsfolk of Marienburg, asking our reason to be upon the road. We smoothly supplied the story that Sam York had ably prepared, that we were English merchants on a trading mission seeking to take up a business proposition from certain parties in Warsaw. The innkeeper nodded frowningly, and related that he had concerns about the state of the road southwards. Messengers had lately come through, announcing travellers who had never arrived, including a nobleman of good name, cousin to the voivod. Nick Hat conjectured as to the prospect of a reward if we might perchance assist the nobleman through any straitened circumstances. We had some converse with the innkeeper about folk forced off their lands by the failure of the last two harvests and turning to banditry upon the roads. Forewarned, we journeyed on through the next day, through low-lying countryside with swamps upon either side of the road, and crossing a small river at a ford, but all without incident.
We reached another inn that evening, the sign of the white hart (the Biały Jeleń). Reeking of unwashed beer spills, it was a far ruder place than our accommodation of the previous night, with ten or so other customers and a single hearth over which simmered a tawdry-looking pot of stew. Repeating our story as English merchants, we took care this time to stress that we carried no merchandise on this leg of our trading mission. We asked about the fates of travellers on this road and the innkeeper, close-mouthed and impossible to read, told us that a pass to the south might be a danger.
Cold as the night was, we were all uneasy at the prospect of taking the single rooms which were the only accommodation offering a fire. And then the apologetic innkeeper said that, given the food shortages since the last two harvests had failed, he could only serve a cold supper of bread and cheese. Sam York in his munificence offered provender from our own stores, which the innkeeper greeted by offering the evening’s ale on the house.
I took only as little ale as I might without offending the hospitality of our increasingly insistent fellow customers, as they persisted in the Polish custom of offering toast after toast. I nevertheless felt my thoughts begin to swim, and sensed that something was not right. With an effort of concentration I finally realized that they had lied about the bread and cheese, with that pot of stew sitting in plain view on the hearth.
“The stew!” I uttered, clambering only with some effort to my feet and staring dumbly about at my companions. The Poles loomed in, their faces suddenly ghoulish in my befuddled sight, and with various crude knives and wooden clubs in their hands. “We are beset!” I managed, before they fell upon us!