15 days’ travel by sea, Hull to Torkertown
Discussion of the Dream of Many.
Of the six companions, only Michael Tremayne knew the identity of this singular figure who had appeared in all of their dreams. Tremayne said that he there could be only one man of such a particular appearance, an Englishman named “Solomon Kane” who had visited in his monastery in Eastern Europe when he was but a small boy, some 20 years ago. The brothers had exchanged much training and significant learning with him, before he left as suddenly as he had come.
Geo. Branston related that the name was known to him (not merely Puritan, but doubly Biblical upon the ear), as one that had been mentioned in various tones of reverence, esteem and indeed indignation by travellers received at the court of Rudolph in Prague.
Sam. York said that the name was known to him also, but that the man was deemed to hold his faith higher than his loyalty to the Crown.
Even Nicholas Hat knew of him in some degree, relating that his own (unmarried) mother had mentioned the name of Kane many times during his childhood. He felt sure that the man owed money to the Hat family.
Under Jonas’ ministrations Branston recovers from the wounds to his throat by mid December.
Christmas Day aboard ship in the English Channel.
Nicholas Hat’s condition remains precarious even as they journey northwards from Exeter port by cart, until he makes a substantial recovery on the inland penultimate leg of the journey, the day before reaching Torkertown.
Over the moor road and down through low-hanging cloud into Torkertown. Despite the festival of the Twelve Days of Christmas not yet being over, Tremayne declared that the place had the appearance of ‘England’s Village in Gloom, 1602’.
This impression was amplified when the company entered the village proper, as the road led past a graveyard in which a funeral was underway.
Branston astutely discerned that there were also several other recent graves and, turning his gaze to the houses about the village green, he noted that several had white crosses daubed upon their doors. He halted the company to declare a fear that the place might be under the visitation of a miasma of the Black Death, though these crosses bespoke a fear in the simple godly folk of something still more unsettling. Unwilling to pass within doors in ignorance despite the season and the encroaching winter darkness, he proposed to listen discreetly and respectfully to the vicar’s sermon to see whether it offered any clues as to what was afoot.
Despite Branston’s admonitions, Michael Tremayne trusted to his own instincts and proceeded to the village’s coaching inn, The Lamb. A score or so menfolk sat dourly about the taproom sipping their ale in a subdued atmosphere of worry, as he secured lodgings and board for six (leaving any who wanted to pay for more than the common room to negotiate such on their own accounts). He got a flagon of ale and a half-dozen leather jacks from the barman, and when he sought to draw him out as to the quietness of the place the man merely grunted to confirm that it was indeed quiet, and would say no more than that there had been some funny – or rather, unsettling – goings on of late.
Nicholas Hat soon grew tired of waiting out the funeral and joined Tremayne in The Lamb. His questions elicited no more explanation of the funeral than Tremayne’s, and when he asked in a particularly blunt fashion about the white crosses upon the doors, the barman told him he that he was a persistent fellow for a stranger, but he would get no tittle-tattle from him.
Sam. York moved apart from the group on the green and approached the only other person in sight, a goodwife loading various sticks of furniture onto a cart from a large house next door to the inn. With all Christian charity he offered his assistance in the task, without question of payment. In brief exchanges as he and Widow Ivens passed one another in this undertaking, he learned that she was leaving Torkertown to go to her sister’s in Bristol, following the recent death of her husband. His sympathies on hearing of the plight of Merchant Ivens were met with the widow’s waxing from grief into a pure rage.
“I curse the five men who caused my dear husband’s death!” she ejaculated. Subsequently she explained that he had been ensnared by five fellow merchants of that parish into gaming at cards. A conspiracye of cheating had then drawn him into ever increasing stakes until he was bankrupted by his debt to the five: Prestwick, Carter, Muchly, Drake and Dawlish. For the four who were all recently dead she had no ounce of pity, indeed she cursed them roundly.
Eventually the funeral drew to a close and the small congregation dispersed. Jonas de Winkler, with George Branston limping along a little way behind, approached the vicar and declared himself a bishop travelling incognito. Inquiring after the prospect of accommodation he was offered the hospitality of the vicar’s own home, albeit not without reservations.
“Reverend! There’s a foreigner here!” came an exclamation from one of the vergers.
Kato had been unable to restrain his curiosity at the English practice of burying their dead in the ground, and resisted the gravediggers’ instructions to be on his way. Jonas smoothed things over by passing Kato off as his “factotum and deacon-at-large”.
When they asked about deceased the three were told, “He was a local man, one Merchant Prestwick.” And when they asked after the manner of his death, “They died of excessive consumption – of alcoholic libations,” or such had been the verdict of Squire Hardwick, the local landowner who was also magistrate. Inquiring about the plural of the reply, they learned that the same cause had been pronounced in each of four recent deaths.
The white crosses upon the villagers’ doors the vicar declared to be a superstition which none in the village discussed with him, and which persisted in despite of sermons against godless practice. Kato said it looked like the things folk did back in the land of his home, to keep out bad spirits. At this the vicar made his excuses and left, but Jonas caught the eye of one of the gravediggers. This fellow came over and muttered darkly that folks were saying that each of the four men who’d recently died had been seen talking to a cloaked stranger just hours before their deaths.
The sun having long since set, the companye of six were soon enough gathered at Tremayne’s table in The Lamb. De Winkler had more luck that Tremayne in drawing out the innkeeper on the recent dark events.
“Until a month last Sunday,” the innkeep said, “Merchant Ivens had been a wealthy man. But then he was found dead at the bottom of his stairs, and though Squire Hardwick said his fall was an accident, there are those who said he had killed himself.”
As Tremayne observed, had the squire found otherwise the man Ivens could not have had a Christian burial.
The barman had more to say. Since the death of Roger Ivens a month ago, four other men had died. He named James Carter, Thos. Muchly, Nathanial Drake and most recently John Prestwick. These were four of the five whom the widow Ivens had named to Sam. Though none of the dead men were oft seen in The Lamb, the squire had found the cause of death of each of them to have been “excessive libations”. But the white crosses of the villagers suggested they feared a darker explanation. The crosses were daubed upon their doors to keep the very Devil himself, walking the streets of their village, from crossing their thresholds.
At length Jonas turned to the travellers’ own reason for coming to Torkertown. The innkeep did not know the name of Solomon Kane, but asked what he looked like. As the group who had all seen him in their various dreams that recent night in Lincolnshire furnished eager contributions to the man’s description, the innkeep said that he believed he did remember such a one. Back when he was the potboy at the inn, a guest had died under that very roof, and the other guest who found the body had been a striking personage who answered that description. But Squire Hardwick had been the magistrate then as he still was today, and he would be the best person to ask.
Squire Hardwick’s House – Things Go with a Bang
The corpulent, balding Squire Hardwick received them in his home next the village church, in a chamber handsomely panelled with walnut. After introductions were made, de Winkler’s being as ever the longest, the Squire had his manservant pour goblets of French wine, and Sam. York gallantly led a toast to the Squire’s health.
On being questioned about the five recent deaths the Squire at first made light of them.
“They were not so strange. God suffices to explain all things,” he said.
He went on to explain that they variously had the red noses of wine-bibbers or were ‘well-upholstered’ (seemingly oblivious to the irony of such a description coming from a man of his own girth). And he told Sam. York that widow Ivens was clearly a troublemaker, whose husband had simply fallen down some stairs and tragically died of it. Nick Hat pointed out that the Ivens woman had cursed five men, four of whom were now dead, but Branston noted that they had been long dead when she ‘cursed’ them in front of Sam. York earlier that afternoon.
Geo. Branston felt that the Squire was blustering, and sought to push press him on the matter. He leaned forward upon the table and openly lectured the Squire on a magistrate’s responsibility to the Law of England. As the Squire began to perspire, Sam. York stood up at Branston’s shoulder, dramatically flicked his cloak aside and placed a hand meaningfully upon the pistol at his belt. And with a deafening report, the firearm was discharged! Branston practically jumped out of his skin, and after the stunned heartbeat it took to register that no one had been harmed, the company fell about the room laughing at York’s ineptitude. ( • • )
Later, after a second goblet had been enjoyed, Jonas engaged the Squire upon a friendlier tack, giving him a speech worthy of a real bishop’s pulpit. He said that he was a rarity: “a bishop travelling incognito, as sent by a power greater than you or I,” and enjoined the Squire to share anything he could to help this mission.
Relieved that someone else was assuming some sort of responsibility in this matter, the Squire confessed that he had given his verdicts for the sake of public order. Not being a medical man, he knew not what heed to pay to the strange markings upon the four men who died following Ivens’ accident. All four had been covered with dozens of tiny wounds no more than ¼” in size, and had been left quite bloodless as though the very humours had been sucked forth from them.
Kato nudged Tremayne, but the creature-hunter frowned and shook his head, knowing nothing of any creature that killed in such a fashion.
The company left Squire Hardwick with the request to return to his legal records and see if he could confirm the identity of the darkly pallid Puritan who was in Torkertown 25 years ago (since he most certainly was not about to give even a gentleman of quality such as Sam. York access to his library and the records of his magistracy therein).
De Winkler, Hat and Branston sought to approach Prestwick’s widow about the circumstances of his, the most recent death, and made inquiries in The Lamb as to which was the Prestwick house, but promptly learnt that there was no widow, the merchant having been a bachelor.
Sam York, Tremayne and Kato meanwhile made their way to the house of Merchant Dawlish, the last man remaining of the five whom widow Ivens had accused over her husband’s death. The stern housekeeper there told them that the master was not yet home, but had gone avisiting one of his tenants and was expected back from along the Fairham Road any time now. There are two roads that lead into Torkertown, and this was the one that came down from the moors.
The Red Mist falls
At Tremayne’s prompting, York and Kato joined him in heading for the Fairham Road to meet with Merchant Dawlish as soon as they might. Crossing the village green they saw their other three companions coming out of The Lamb and beckoned them over, explaining the intention go and meet with Dawlish upon the road.
Sam. York had just struck a light to his lantern when there came a terrifying scream from the roadway alongside the graveyard. Everyone hastened in that direction, and the beam of York’s dark-lantern fell upon a man staggering in the roadway and then, mere yards beyond him, upon a great cloud of scarlet mist that was most unnatural to behold. Nick Hat stood stricken upon the spot (incipiently phobic), and with an unmanned shriek Jonas de Winkler turned on his heel and made off.
“I know this not,” declared Tremayne, “but let us beard it with good cold steel!”
York and Kato drew their foreign blades and rushed forth. Tremayne himself overtook them, advanced his rapier and slashed at the cloud, a manifestation that was such an offence in the eyes of God. Nick Hat ran up and stooped to grasp the stupefied man, Alfred Dawlish, and drag him backwards, when the red mist rolled over them and all five felt a stinging assault of countless tiny barbs driving into their skins from every angle.