In eighteenth-century England, young Christopher “Kit” Bristol is the unwitting servant of notorious highwayman Whistling Jack. One dark night, Kit finds his master bleeding from a mortal wound, dons the man’s riding cloak to seek help, and changes the course of his life forever. Mistaken for Whistling Jack and on the run from redcoats, Kit is catapulted into a world of magic and wonders he thought the stuff of fairy tales.
Bound by magical law, Kit takes up his master’s quest to rescue a rebellious fairy princess from an arranged marriage to King George III of England. But his task is not an easy one, for Kit must contend with the feisty Princess Morgana, goblin attacks, and a magical map that portends his destiny: as a hanged man upon the gallows…
THE OWL AT THE CROSSROAD
The two bandits went to their positions down the road, a great relief to me. I could still smell the stink of the giant, which had filled the space inside the tree. Had I been detected, that mighty club would surely have killed me with a single blow. But now I was well and truly stuck. I could not descend from the tree without being observed, and although I might be able to outrun their legs, I couldn’t outrun a pistol-ball. So I carefully changed my position (my legs had fallen asleep), drew out the mask and tied it about my face to make me harder to spy in the tree, and prepared myself to wait it out. I hoped Midnight would remain quietly inside the church, the broken spire of which was not very distant.
Now, mad things had been happening, so it was not a great surprise when I began to think I could hear voices in the tree with me. They were very small voices, as if two men were speaking from far away; but unless my ears deceived me, they were coming from somewhere inside the canopy of the tree, a few feet above me. I couldn’t quite make out what the voices were saying, but it sounded like an argument. It might have been a trick of the night air. Or insanity.
Then a new sound came, of horse’s hooves and the creaking and rattling of a fine coach, and I forgot the voices. A terrible fear overcame me—here I was up in a tree, dressed as a highwayman, with pistols and sword and a commission to rob a coach and kidnap its passenger. What if this was the very coach? Or worse, a magistrate on his way home from a late game of cards?
The terror was still with me when I saw a team of six horses emerge from the forest, and there behind it was the coach on the moonlit road. There could be no mistake: This was the one of which Magda had spoken, the very coach I was required by some magical treaty to do my worst upon. Its green sidelights swayed, revealing glimpses of pale metal trimmings and the outline of a tall, thin postilion driving at the front. The moonlight fell upon ornate carvings on wheels and cabin. The horses were silvery. I saw a heavy bull-whip in the hand of the postilion; he scourged the horses without mercy. Within a minute, the vehicle had come to the place where the two bandits were hidden. I thought I might faint.
There was a cry of “Get them!” and Giant Jim leapt from his hiding place, pistols drawn. “I said ‘get them,’ ” he repeated. A moment later, the actual giant lumbered out of the bushes and stood squarely in front of the speeding carriage. He was nearly cut down, so close did they come. The horses reared and clawed, and I saw that they did indeed have cloven hooves, as those of goats. It also appeared they had sharp teeth, like wolves’ fangs, and they didn’t so much whinny as bark. The giant waved his club at them and they backed away from him, almost crushing Giant Jim.
“Get down with you,” Giant Jim commanded, and waved his pistols at the footman and driver as they climbed down from the coach.
“You’ll suffer for this,” the postilion said. He didn’t sound the least bit afraid, but rather like a man delayed by a broken martingale buckle.
“Shut your gob, you miniature mannekin!” Giant Jim said. The postilion was at least two feet taller than him. I suspected the bandit was laboring under some kind of delusion.
“We should cooperate with these gentleman, Mr. Bufo,” said the postilion.
“Yes, Mr. Scratch,” the footman replied. He was a heavy, barrel-shaped fellow with a startlingly flat head beneath his too-small periwig. They took up positions at the doors on each side of the coach.
I wondered if they were guarding its passenger from the bandits, or guarding against the passenger’s escape. I knew nothing of the circumstances of my own mission, of course, except that a kidnapping was required. I didn’t even know if the lady wanted to be kidnapped, or if she knew of the plan. But to be this close to the coach I was supposed to rob—my pulses throbbed enough to make me see spots. So far, everything Magda had said, no matter how peculiar, had come true.
If these other bandits got the result I was supposed to achieve, would I be released from my duty? And if they got their hands on the lady, what evil might befall her? I began to understand why the old witch had not been enthusiastic about employing my master. Highwaymen were not to be trusted.
Giant Jim swaggered up to Mr. Bufo. “You down there,” he said, looking up. “Take out the luggage.”
The footman bowed, his wig clinging to the top of his head like a flatfish to a rock. Then he opened the coach door and handed out a carved wooden chest upon which silver mountings gleamed. I saw on the door of the coach a curious device, of serpents intertwined with insect’s wings, all wrought upon a silver crest.
“What’s in the box?” Giant Jim demanded.
“A fortune in silver and jewels,” Mr. Scratch replied.
“Silver and jewels,” Mr. Bufo added. His voice was a croaking thing, wet and low.
“Open it or I’ll crush you beneath my enormous boot,” Giant Jim said.
All this time, my mind had been racing. When the footman opened the coach door, I strained my eyes to see inside the compartment, to no avail. How could I rescue the lady within? If she was in danger from the peculiar servants, she was in more danger from these criminals. But at this moment, with Mr. Bufo’s hand upon the lock of the chest, a new voice was added to the scene.
“Levantar los manos!” it cried, and when nothing happened, “Raise your hands.”
A man dressed in a bullfighter’s costume revealed himself. He had been hiding behind a fence across the way. He was a rather threadbare-looking fellow, very thin, with black mustaches that hung past his chin. In his hands was a blunderbuss or espingole, a gun capable of firing several balls at one shot. He kept the entire party covered as he advanced.
“Place down las armas upon the ground,” he said. “Pronto.”
“You wants us to raise our hands and lower our arms? It’s impossible,” Giant Jim said.
“Your weep-ons of danger,” the stranger clarified. Giant Jim and his accomplice dropped theirs, and the postilion laid down his whip.
“I yam Don Pinto, the Spanish Desperado,” the man said, grandly. “At your servants. You will to me give the chest of money, and I will away with it go.”
“We were here first,” Giant Jim complained.
The bandits started to argue among themselves. There seemed to be an understanding that gentlemen of the road in Britain didn’t interrupt each other’s conquests. The Spaniard disagreed, saying there was no such custom in his country.
Mr. Scratch interrupted after a few exchanges, practically hopping with impatience. “We have a schedule to keep,” he hissed. “There lies the extent of our wealth; take it if you dare, and allow us to be gone, sirs, or I shall not be responsible for the consequences.”
This speech stopped the bandits in mid-argument. “It is mine,” the Desperado said, and bade Mr. Bufo open the casket. Up came the lid.
Within was a dazzling heap of bright silver coins and ornaments, the latter richly adorned with jewels that struck the eye: red, green, purple, and blue stones that seemed to treble the moonlight upon them, dancing with color. I cared nothing for that stuff, pretty as it was, but it so impressed the bandits that they quite forgot their quarrel, encircling the treasure. The moment their eyes were off him, Mr. Scratch raised a hunting horn to his lips and blew a single note, loud enough to stir the leaves of my tree.
In a trice the Desperado brought his blunderbuss around, but the very next moment a strange cloud descended upon him, and he and the other bandits were screaming and flailing the air as if they’d stepped in a wasps’ nest. I saw flickering green lights encircling their heads, and then they were running for their lives pell-mell through the dark landscape.
The servants wasted not another second, but threw the chest back inside the cabin and leapt to their positions on front and back of the coach. Mr. Scratch slashed at the weird horses with his whip, and they were rolling directly beneath my perch in the tree a few moments later.
I hadn’t the faintest idea what had befallen the bandits, who continued to flee screaming across ditch and field, but what befell me next was clear enough. A wee voice directly beside my ear said, “Now’s your chance,” and I was so affrighted I fell off my branch and landed on the roof of the accursed coach.
RESCUE, AFTER A FASHION
Lily would not have approved of my acrobatic skill. I fell through the branches in a great shower of leaves and landed facedown on the very cabin of the coach, knocking the wind out of my lungs, the hat off my head, and my teeth together. I hadn’t an instant to collect myself before a powerful fist closed around my ankle and Mr. Bufo was dragging me toward him.
His eyes were set almost on the sides of his low skull, and when he opened his mouth his whole head seemed to hinge wide like a snuffbox. He looked more like one of Magda’s goblings than a man.
“Another one,” he croaked.
“Kill him,” said Mr. Scratch, not even looking back. For my part, I had not been idle; I was gripping the silver top-rail around the roof of the coach with one hand, and with the other trying to pry the footman’s fingers loose. Even in my alarm I could not help noticing the man had only three thick fingers and a thumb, and they were as fast around my leg as leg-irons. Then he shook me loose and threw me over his shoulder as if I were a handkerchief.
He hadn’t reckoned on the general anxiety I felt for my own welfare, however. Rather than tumble to the road as intended, I threw out my hands and caught Mr. Bufo’s silver-bullion collar in the midst of my flight. His wig flew into my face. My boot-toes scraped along the road as I hung from the man’s neck, and his limbs were so thick and overmuscled, he could not reach back to disengage me while maintaining his hold on one of the handles at the back of the cabin.
The coach rumbled to a halt, and I released my grip, alighting on the road. I fumbled one of my pistols out, cocked it, and raised it in time for Mr. Bufo to wrest it from my grasp.
“Have at you,” I cried, and drew my sword. The handle flamed yellow again, and I fancied the footman showed a little hesitation, at last. But then a dark blur whistled out of the darkness above the coach, and the sword was torn from my fingers. It sang through the air and was lost. My hand stung as if burned. Mr. Scratch mounted the roof of the coach, recoiling his bullwhip for a second stroke. Now I saw what had happened, but it was too late to devise another defense.
Sometimes, in the midst of turmoil and crisis, we catch a glimpse of the reward for struggling on, and it renews our determination with hope. So it was, with the murderous whip seething through the air, that I was rewarded by a vision. The door on my side of the coach peeped open and a slim figure emerged. It was a lady, dressed in some dark stuff. Our eyes met. She seemed to give off her own light, a portrait in a stained-glass window.
Time slowed until the world was drowned in honey; every second was an eternity. At first I saw only her eyes, green as gemstones, fringed with black lashes in a pale olive face. Her dark hair sparkled. Then it was as if I had tumbled into her eyes, and I was surrounded by scenes of strange pageantry, heard glorious songs in languages beyond comprehension, and marveled at purple oceans arching through a star-cast sky, tossed by scented winds upon which rode strange winged creatures. I saw a castle clad in silver that hung in empty darkness with its curving ramparts thrust upward and downward alike, floating like a cloud. And somehow I knew these things had been witnessed by the lady herself. Once again I saw her glimmering face. She half smiled, threw a cloak about her, and fairly vanished before my eyes.
At that moment, with time still passing sluggishly, I had occasion to reflect: This, surely, was the woman I had been entreated to rescue. With her flight from the coach, my debt to master and witch was paid. Events gathered speed around me, and I was enough renewed to fling myself out of the way of the whip-stroke into the dark beside the road. There, with time running again at its usual pace, I collided with a tombstone in the overgrown churchyard.
The Accidental Highwayman © Ben Tripp, 2014