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…
ESCAPE TO KINGSMIRE
My thoughts were as gloomy as the woods all around.
Miles seemed to crawl beneath us, and the forest became ever more silent and airless. We found the half-overgrown vestiges of a road, and followed it. Then we passed through the remains of an ancient village, little roofless stone houses green with moss, chimneys rotted away like bad teeth. Trees grew up through some of the houses. My flesh prickled. Midnight was anxious with his steps, like a dance master with his shoes on the wrong feet. If I had some instinct of being watched before, now it seemed certain: At the corner of my sight I saw a flicker of motion now and again, and there came stealthy sounds from behind the broken walls of the abandoned houses. It might have been men, or wolves, or my imagination, but I was terribly afraid.
We drew alongside the last wreckage of the village. Demon poked his head out of the saddlebag behind me and began growling. Something was amiss. Then, as we passed by the final ruin, it was as if Midnight’s foot had tripped some hidden snare. There came a vibration in the ground beneath us, and a moment later I heard a deep, hoarse voice ring out. I would have thought it issued from a bear, except bears don’t cry:
“By the Duchess, take him!”
After the events of the previous night I had thought nothing would ever frighten me again. This was incorrect: I was stricken with terror once more. Midnight capered and whinnied, and Demon screeched as fiercely as he could. We heard the clatter of arms, and a moment later terrible apparitions emerged from the shadows all about. Had they been bandits, I would have taken fright enough, but they were worse than the most dreadful cutthroat.
The things that surrounded us were stout and fiercely ugly, with squat, batlike heads mounted directly on their shoulders. Their ears were enormous, like worm-eaten cabbage leaves. Yellow eyes goggled out of green faces. These fiends were clad in armor of leather and iron links, a thousand years out of date. They raised jagged, toothy spears in a gleaming ring. Midnight flailed his hooves at them and I clung to the rearing animal’s neck, wild with fear.
When I was a small boy I didn’t hear the old wives’ tales and legends with which nursemaids and mothers beguile their children. But I’d seen many a fantastical play performed when I was with the circus. Mummers’ plays* and allegories were always popular with the public, teeming as they were with grotesquely costumed devils and angels and mythological beings. Part of my mind was convinced I had stumbled into an exceptionally realistic performance of one of these plays. But I could smell these monsters. Their teeth were not made of painted wood, nor their eyes of papiermâché. Though every particle of my brain denied it, they were real.
*Mummers’ plays are a very old dramatic form featuring dialogue spoken in rhyming couplets. They are often performed around Christmas by roving players. A central element in these plays is the death and resurrection of a primary character.
Then an even more terrible brute stepped through the spears. It wore a filthy kilt girt up with an iron buckle. Otherwise it was clad only in matted black hair—everywhere except atop its knobby, boarlike skull. A pair of brown tusks rose up from its jaw.
This monster belched a further command. “Tercio in’ards!”
I thought this was the command to disembowel us, but the pikesmen stepped back into a square, forming a sort of cage. Their hairy leader drew from his rawhide belt a tremendous black warhammer. It was all I could do to keep Midnight from throwing himself in panic onto the spears that surrounded us, and Demon was struggling to leap free of the saddlebag and join the defense.
I drew my sword—a useless gesture against such a massive opponent—and then something uncanny happened. The weird greenish atmosphere around us grew yellow. The golden sword hilt was radiating light as if it were burning hot, but the metal felt no different in my hand. I hadn’t a moment to wonder at this—there was action to be taken right away.
The squat creatures were stumbling back from the golden blaze, so I spurred Midnight around to charge through their ranks. Even as I did so, several spears came up, resisting the light. It seemed my great horse must impale himself—when there came a brilliant emerald-green flash, composed of a million tiny fragments of fire, like powdered suns. In an instant, the monsters were all thrown back into the woods, even the largest one. The shaggy thing was hurled against a tree, and the heavy branches shook like beaten carpets.
Midnight didn’t break his stride—he charged straight over the writhing creatures. But the haft of a spear flew up and struck me in the head, and whatever happened next, I missed it.
THE WRONG HIGHWAYMAN’S TASK
I awoke with a start. My head was dangling downward so that all I saw was upside down. I was hanging off the saddle across Midnight’s back. It could only have been a few moments later—I still held my sword, and Demon was in the saddlebag—but we seemed to have traveled miles. The trees here were entirely different, and the ruined village was gone, along with its ghastly inhabitants. Midnight had apparently saved us all—but how, I could not imagine. We were in a high, cool place, with rocky hills behind and the forest below.
There was a beehive-shaped stone hut built in the lee of the nearest rocks. I dragged myself upright, and felt a tremendous bolt of pain in my head. Like a fool I tried to shake off the daze, and it felt as if my brain were loose inside my skull.
“Garn wi’ ye!” crowed a high, cracked voice. “Yer ain’t Jack!”
My eyes flew open, and I saw double. But then the two tiny, hunched figures before me resolved into one, and I was looking at a bundle of rags with a head like a dried gourd poking out of it. She had one age-fogged eye and a sort of milky blue stone in the other socket.
“Pardon me?” I said, which seemed the most ridiculous possible thing to say.
“What done ye wi’ Jack?” the little creature piped.
“I’m sorry, who are you?” I quavered.
“Yer on ’ees ’orse, and them’s ’ees clothes. But tha ain’t ’ee.”
“Are you speaking of my master, James Rattle?”
“Whistlin’ Jack to me and all,” the creature said. “But wait— you his servant-boy be?”
“Yes. I’m Kit.”
“And where be yer master?”
“I’m afraid he’s dead,” I said.
“Dead, says ’ee,” the witch muttered. “And you here in his stead.”
“I came because he told me to seek you out,” I said. “It was his last request. I am to give you his dog.”
“Aaarn,” the witch said. “ ’Ee were a scalawag and precious unreliable, so thought I. But the task lay heavy on ’is shouldern. It turned ’im wild these past months—and now this.”
“What task?” I asked, surprised to hear my master had had any kind of job to do. Idleness had been his chief occupation, as far as I knew.
The witch ignored my question. “’Ow died ’ee?” she asked, squinting at me with her cloudy eye.
“Shot by bandits,” said I. “They pursued me, for I was disguised as my master—as you can see—and I drew them away. But Master Rattle died while I rode out. There were soldiers, as well, and a rather determined captain who wants my head, and I escaped in a green flash and later on ran into these repulsive monsters with pikes and things, and there was another green flash, and now I’m here. Does any of that make sense to you? It doesn’t to me.”
My head whirled—not just from the blow, but from the memories of horrors that swarmed up before me. I felt ill.
“Goblings, the short ’uns. The large ’n were a troll. They would have cut ’ee ter ribbons nor I cast upon them.”
“So the green fire was yours? You took a terrible risk,” I said. The whole idea was so bizarre I could only look at it from a practical standpoint, or my very mind would fall apart.
“Magda’s exiled, is I,” said the witch. “Nor in the First Realm nor in the Middle Kingdom dwells I, but betwixt the twain. They can’t tetch me, but I can tetch them when they’re betwixt like me. So they was when they come for you, boyo. Nor I tetched ’em. But now—they’ll be a seekin’ of ye.”
“Goblings,” said I, baffled. “Is that the same as goblins?”
“Dorn’t be a fool,” the old witch snorted. “Goblins are imarginary creturs. Goblings is arthentic, as ’ee seen fer thyself.”
Goblins were imaginary, goblings authentic. Also trolls. Somehow this hadn’t clarified matters. My bafflement was complete, and besides, the saddle felt as if it were floating in the sky. I wasn’t entirely well in the head and our conversation wasn’t improving this condition.
I dismounted on unsteady legs from my brave horse, and leaned against him until my mind cleared. Everything that had happened after that first flash of green fire must be imarginary, I thought. But if I was sprawled at the crossroads with Captain Sterne’s sword through my breastbone and this was all a dying vision, so be it. Best to remain tranquil and carry on.
Remembering I had uncompleted business, I fumbled the saddlebag open and drew out the bewildered little dog.
“Here’s Demon,” I said, and put the animal on the ground. “A bequest from my master.”
To my surprise, he trotted straight over to the witch, smelled her frayed hems, and then sat down beside her, regarding me placidly. They seemed to know each other.
“I sorrow fer yer loss,” the witch said, tickling Demon’s jowls. “Now boyo: Yer master, Whistling Jack or Master Rattle as might be, ’ee had a compact with I, and I with ’ee. There were a piece of business need doing this very next night, and when I saw ’ee with my scrying stone”—here she tapped the stone eye—“I thinks, ‘It’s Jack,’ thinks I, ‘atangle with goblings!’ This were a surprise to me, becarn Jack knew better nor to ride straight through a gobling checkpost. So I rescued ’ee. But you ain’t Jack. So now it’s ’ee must complete Jack’s business.”
“Me?” I gasped. “I can’t do anything for you! I mean no offense, but I am not familiar with goblings and witchcraft, ma’am.”
The witch seemed to grow larger before my eyes. Her wizened face twisted with wrath, and the stone in her eye socket glowed with a bloodless light. She rose up like a crow spreading its wings, and roared, “Ye’ll do what’s told by the Eldritch Law! Fifth verse o’ the second chapter: ‘What’s left to be done will be finished by the next hand.’ Thou art the next hand.”
“I’m bound by magical law?” None of this could be real. I must have been dreaming in a ditch somewhere, or perhaps I’d gone mad from drinking too much tea the previous day.
“It’s no dream!” spat the witch as if reading my mind, which she might very well have been doing. All at once she was just a small, ragged old woman again, the looming apparition gone.
She began hobbling back and forth along the stone ridge, and talked to herself awhile.
“A stroke of luck, says I. This young ’un be a better man.
“Oh, but ’ee got no experience! ’Ee don’t know how to do the task.
“Aye, but more there be to ’im than what ye sees.
“It’s a terrible risk, it is! What if he fail?
“Then die he will, and she along with ’ee, and there’s a black end to the business.
“If die she does, then doom we face.
“If she don’t get away we be doomed regardless.
“I likes it not at all, says I.
“Nor I, but ’ee’s a better man nor his marster.”
I stood by while she argued with herself, collecting my wits. My master had begged me not to take his side, back at the Manse. Now I understood why. He’d been trying to spare me from electing myself unwittingly to this mysterious task. How had he come by it? Had he met this withered crone on one of his moonlit rides, or was she some distant auntie he’d failed to mention?
I knew he was sorely troubled by the witch’s commission, although he was as capable as any man. So it was a difficult task. He’d warned me not to intervene. But I could have done no different than I did. I was there by obligation.
As an Englishman, I firmly believed that before I was servant to anyone else, I was master of myself. Let the old woman tell me what she had in store, and if it were something I could hope to accomplish, such as purchasing wrinkle ointment or getting a cat out of a tree, I would do it. If it were an impossible job, I would refuse. That was fair. If only I could be bored again!
At last she seemed to have decided how to proceed. She limped up to me and stuck a gnarled finger in my chest as high as she could reach. “Ye’ll do, boyo. There’s a fine coach upon the road, a coach decked all in silver. Encharnted, it is. Silver’s the witching metal. Gold’s man-metal: it repels the Folk Between, the Faeries. Tha’ be why them goblings were afeared when you drew out your sword wi’ its golden basket. Gold don’t afear me, as I’m betwixt the twain. But they likes it not. So it is. The coach is all in silver, and drawn by silver ’orses wi’ cloven hooves, and upon it two terrible coachmen, and within it a young woman.” She ran out of breath and gasped like a trout.
I couldn’t imagine where this was headed.
The witch got her wind back and continued: “Yer master’s tarsk were to rescue the lady from within that there coach. Now it be thy task, boyo.”
“It certainly isn’t,” I spluttered, refusing the job. “I’m not involved with your scheme, and I’m not bound by your Eldritch Law. I don’t even believe in Faeries. You hired a highwayman experienced in this sort of work. I’m merely a servant who can ride, but not much else. I’d get myself killed at the very least, and probably this woman, as well.”
I felt I was being reasonable, under the circumstances. But the witch spat on the ground with such violence that one of her few teeth shot out.
“Larst me wishin’ tooth!” she hissed. “Told ’ee, I did,” she added to herself. “ ’Ee ain’t got the courage nor skill.”
“I suppose you’re right,” I admitted.
The witch had another of her internal arguments, none of which I could understand. Then, “Narn!” she cried, which apparently meant “no.”
“Ain’t a questern of whether ye wants the job or nor—turn thy back on it and ye’ll be dead as yer marster in less than a wax o’ the moon, I promise ’ee tha’. Many a mortal man be found dead on the roadside becarn he made pledge wi’ a Faerie and din’t keep ’ees promise! And many o’ them died for the vow of another. This be magic. Turn yer back on it and tha steps into thy grave.”
At any other time in my life, I would have ridden away without another word, because the woman was clearly mad, even if she did know about goblings and trolls. But I had seen such wonders that day, and witnessed such phantasms all about me, that I believed her threat was genuine. Besides, it was clear that denials would only prolong this unpleasant interview.
Then a thought occurred to me which put everything in a fresh perspective. Of course Magda was mad, as mad as an ormolu maker. And because of the blow to my head, or Captain Sterne’s sword, or some bad sausage, I was also mad, or had been until now. But I’d regained my senses sufficiently to realize there was no harm in agreeing to take up my master’s business with the old witch. There couldn’t possibly be a silver coach with a young woman in need of rescue within. It was silly.
So I raised my hand and said, “I solemnly swear to do what you ask.”
She peered at me with her one eye, and somehow although it was as dim as a dead fish’s, I had a feeling she was reading my very thoughts like a penny broadside. But she didn’t remark on it. The promise, it seemed, was sufficient.
“Find ’ee the coach on the moonlit road,” said she, “and stop it ’ow ’ee will. Take not a farthing of treasure, no matter how much nor the accursed postilion offer to give ’ee, but set the lady free. Succeed, and yer reward shall be what I agreed wi’ yer master. Fail, and the next moon shines uparn yer tombstone.”
“I ask no reward,” said I, nobly.
“Yer’ll take it and likes it,” she said.
Although I still didn’t believe the task could be genuine, some part of me was worried. I thought of my master’s behavior the past few weeks: The very thought of it had set him to pacing and fretting, beset by worries. What if there was a coach, drawn by cloven-footed horses? If it was a difficult job for Whistling Jack, the dauntless highwayman, the exploit would likely prove impossible for me.
Still, I must make the attempt, for I had given my word. I could wait a few hours behind a tree somewhere, and if the coach didn’t come, I was free to go. If it did somehow turn up, bad luck for me.
“Where’s this moonlit road?” I asked.
“Beneath thy feet,” said the witch.
There was no apparent motion or passage of time, yet in the next moment Midnight and I were standing in the middle of a deeply rutted dirt road, speckled with moonlight that splashed down through the trees. It had been daylight, and now it was night. Magda was gone, the hillside was gone, and before us was the far edge of the forest, with open country beyond. I heard a distant, echoing yodel—a farewell cry from Demon—and then there was silence.
Something was clasped in my hand. I opened it, and found upon my palm Magda’s spat-out tooth. With a cry I flung it away. Then I mounted unsteadily, my mind stunned with shock, and Midnight took me down the road. He seemed to know where to go, which was useful, because I scarcely knew whether I even rode at all.
The Accidental Highwayman © Ben Tripp, 2014