Cover design: Corin Spinks. Portraits Alice and Pip: Heijo van der Werf
Background image: Lee Roberts (CC by-sa 2.0)
WEDNESDAY 1 NOVEMBER 1871
8. BENEATH THE INN
WEDNESDAY 1 NOVEMBER 1871
8. BENEATH THE INN
The ancient barrel-vaulted cellars below the inn were extensive. Tubs of spirits, tea chests, bales of tobacco, and rolls of lace and silk were stacked up everywhere. Alice had no doubt there’d be a hidden strong room somewhere, for storing powder, shot, and guns. The lower parts of the Mairemaid Inn reminded her of the tunnel network below Rottingdean.
She and Pip exchanged a worried look. The local Owlers were either far more careless than was custom in Sussex, or else had a different reason for not minding strangers from elsewhere seeing part of their operation like this.
“Mus McFeck, bain’t it a bit too obvious?” Alice asked. “The Mairemaid of Sinneport operating from the Mairemaid Inn on Mairemaid Street in Sinneport?”
“He’s gone,” Pip said nervously.
Alice looked around the dark chamber they were in. It was only dimly lit by a single candle in a lantern, but it was clear McFeck had disappeared, leaving them on their own.
Footsteps approached, but much lighter than McFeck’s. Someone, shorter and slighter than the Scotsman, appeared in a dark cloak with the hood up, face painted to resemble a skull.
Even though Alice knew it was an illusion her heart still skipped a beat. Pip grabbed her hand. She clutched it tightly. Was this Scylla? She caught a whiff of a flowery perfume.
“I can answer yer question,” a woman’s voice said. It sounded familiar somehow though wasn’t instantly recognizable.
“Yarr,” Neeva replied. “Somewhen it be useful to hide things in plain sight, don’t ye reckon? Naun a single Rozzer has ever thought to make the connection.”
Alice let go of Pip’s hand. Neeva was right. Back in Rottingdean The Liddle Mew and other sky-skiffs were often disguised and parked right between the hog-boats on the beach. Patrolling Queen’s Men could walk right by the vessels a score of times without becoming any wiser.
“Why are you letting us see all of this?” Alice swept her arm around the chamber, worried by the implication of being allowed to witness what seemed a major centre of operations.
“Scylla trusts ye.”
“How?” Alice asked. “She hasn’t met us yet.”
A smile played on Neeva’s lips. “All-along-of me vouching for ye.”
“You vouched for us?” Pip frowned. “But if—”
“I misjudged ye? I reckon ye ken well enow what would happen. I’d pay for that with my life.”
Alice was astonished. “Why would you risk that?”
“Let’s just say I’ve taken a liking to ye, and yer young man.” Neeva nodded at Pip.
“He’s not my young man,” Alice said quickly.
Neeva grinned, possibly mischievously but the effect caused by her face paint was disconcerting. “Mayhap not. There’s also the minor matter of the Code, seeing as to ye being Owlers. Where would ye be if we hadn’t taken ye in? Floundering about the mush still?”
Alice recalled the chill seeping into her very bones the night before. She doubted they would have survived the cold night, soaking wet and exhausted as they had been.
That created an obligation. The Free Trade Code was adhered to from Penzance to Margate, and the Isle of Wight to the Isle of Skye. Softly she acknowledged: “We be in your debt.”
“That we are,” Pip added.
“Yarr, and that be a fine safeguard to have. I didn’t think ye’d betray me, but the Code says ye cannot in any case. Enow, we dursn’t keep Scylla waiting.”
Neeva strode toward an old arched oak door with wrought iron hinges and opened it, beckoning the children to go through.
Alice and Pip shared a quick glance, reached for each other’s hand again, and then walked into the room beyond the door.
They were greeted by a voice that didn’t sound human at all, rasping and metallic. “These be our young visitors come to join us, sureleye. Do come in.”
WEDNESDAY 1 NOVEMBER 1871
9. THE MAIREMAID OF SINNEPORT
WEDNESDAY 1 NOVEMBER 1871
9. THE MAIREMAID OF SINNEPORT
The barrel-vaulted chamber’s curving walls were bare other than iron hanging brackets for the lanterns in which candles burned steadily. There was another door on the far end of the chamber. There was no furniture other than broad planks laid across trestles in the centre of the chamber, flanked by long benches. There was an empty shorter bench on the closest short side of the table and a chair with high back at the far end.
All the people in the room were seated along the table, other than one tall man standing aloof in a corner, wearing a great coat with shoulder capes and an old-fashioned tricorne hat. A dark scarf concealed most of his face.
The benches were filled with Mudlarks in their dark cloaks, albeit without their outlandish headgear. Instead, hoods were drawn up. Their faces formed two rows of grinning skulls to either side of the table.
Alice’s eye was mostly drawn to the woman seated on the chair at the far end of the table. The woman who had caused thousands of Sussex chavvies to have an irrational fear of mermaids.
Her dress was made of multiple layers of strips of fabric, much like Jack in the Green on May Day, but the material shone like metal and formed the colours of the sea. Turquoise, silver, blues, and greens, as well as a few white and grey strips. The woman’s face was concealed by a skull, but it hadn’t been painted on. Instead, she wore a masquerade mask, the exposed bone yellowing, with elaborate filigreed silver spiralling in serpentine patterns. The woman was crowned with seaweeds, a brown and green wig designed to make it look as if she had gutweeds, thongweeds, and kelp cascading down her head. The whole created a truly regal impression.
“Scylla,” Pip whispered in awe.
“Do come closer,” the Mairemaid said in her low, rasping voice. “Have a seat.”
Neeva shut the door behind them after letting a last person in. It was McFeck, cloaked and face hastily painted, with two dark circles around his eyes and the rest white, other than dark stubble poking through the white paste on his jaws.
Alice and Pip approached the table hesitantly and sat down on the short bench. Neeva and McFeck remained standing behind them.
“Are you going to drown us in mud?” Pip blurted out.
Most of the Mudlarks laughed. Scylla waited until they were done and then said, “It seems to me our mush and salt flats tried that last night and found ye be hard to drown.”
“Are we your prisoners?” Alice asked.
“Prisoners?” Scylla asked. “Tell me, did ye wake in a dark, damp cell? Atop rotting straw beneath a thin flea-ridden blanket, with nought but a chunk of bread and a cup of water to still yer hunger and thirst?”
“Naun of that, we’ve been treated well.” Alice shook her head. She could see some sort of small bronze device strapped to Scylla’s throat and assumed this was a voice distorter of sorts, which would explain that strange metallic rasp when Scylla spoke.
“One of the reasons we’re here,” Scylla rasped. “Is to discuss yer return to Hastings and Rottingdean. Both Neeva and McFeck have vouched for ye, bain’t that right?”
“Yarr,” Neeva spoke behind the children. “I’ve naun doubt.”
“Och aye,” McFeck added. “Ah vouch fae the both ay ‘em.”
Alice turned to smile at them. It was no small thing to vouch for somebody else as it implied total trust. She had only just met Neeva and McFeck and although she liked them both, didn’t quite understand why they had such an extraordinary amount of faith in Pip and herself – all the more so because Alice was still weighed down by her own sense of failure. She was grateful for the trust nonetheless. She was also intrigued to notice a strand of loose hair protruding from Neeva’s hood. Ginger hair.
Scylla turned her head to the big, bulky Mudlark sitting to her left. “That then settles the question of whether they be considered Free Traders, does it naun?”
“Yarr, Scylla,” the man answered reluctantly. “They be Owler prentices.”
Alice recognised his voice as that of Grout-head, the Mudlark who had been convinced the children were spies.
Turning her head again, eyes gleaming through the open eye-holes of her mask, Scylla addressed the children. “Ye need naun worry. Ye’ll go home. Today.”
“An in one piece tay, a wee miracle considerin’ ye waur trespassin’ oan uir precious mud,” McFeck declared grandly.
Alice smiled. Some of her inner tension ebbed away and she could feel Pip relaxing a little as well. She squeezed his hand, still in hers, and he squeezed back.
“Bethanks,” Alice said. “That be greatly appreciated.”
“And for the hospitality,” Pip added quickly. “Breakfast were bettermost.”
Some of the Mudlarks chuckled.
“There be just the one thing I’d ask of ye,” Scylla said. “In return for hauling ye out of the cold and helping ye get back home.”
Scylla waited for confirmation. Alice didn’t like that because she didn’t know what would be asked, but she didn’t have much choice. “We’re in your debt,” she acknowledged.
Scylla nodded. “The Rozzers, the ones who chased ye and brought yer ships down. We be likely to encounter them sooner rather than later. We want to learn as much about them as we can.”
“There were four of them,” Pip said. “With cannon and Gatlings.”
“They weren’t human,” Alice added. “They had eyes alongside their head, on sticks – stalks. And they had Wind Readers.”
“Why do ye think they had Wind Readers?” Scylla asked.
Alice described once again the manoeuvres by The Martlet and The Joseph Swaine, and how the Rozzers had responded to each gambit, wind-powered in the darkness.
“I object,” Grouthead boomed. He rose to his feet, gesturing as he spoke. “These two be chavvies. What do they ken apart from the basics prentices be learned? Tmight have been the oldest Coast Guard wind-lugger that ambushed them. Ye’ll all recollect what it were like, the first time ye came under fire. I bain’t saying they weren’t shot at, nor chased, but it be likely that they be making it gurter than it were. Ye heard the girl’s fanciful recollection of the Rozzer crew. Eyes on stalks? Tis unbeknownst, sureleye. As for the skirring, the sky-skiff crews were Chopbacks and Fishguts, tis well-known they be naun as good as Mudlark Night-Fliers.”
“HOW DARE YOU?” Pip released Alice’s hand and jumped to his feet. “By Pize! Take it back!”
Everyone looked at him. When Pip became aware of this he looked uncomfortable but held his ground.
“It be clear they don’t learn chavvies much respect for their elders where ye hail from, ye impersome scaddle,” Grout-head growled, but was silenced by Scylla who indicated he should sit down again.
“Ye dispute the suggestion, prentice,” Scylla said. “Why?”
“Those Rozzers were unlike anything else,” Pip said. “Don’t you reckon we ken our sky-shark luggers, cutters, and brigs? Tis one of the first things they learn us. As for skirring, the Fishgut Wind Reader was bettermost. The Fishguts risked their own lives to signal and wait for us. Settling on that shear, that exit and freefall? That were the work of a Cloud Weaver, and that bain’t making it gurter than it were!”
Alice stared at him in astonishment. She hadn’t told him she was the Wind Reader, yet here he was offended on behalf of someone he thought didn’t know, inspired to do so by respect for skirring skills. Cloud Weaver was the highest accolade a Night-Flier could bestow on another, and only a rare few were afforded that honour.
Apart from a warm glow, Alice was also struck by guilt again. She had tried to, but she hadn’t managed to save The Joseph Swaine, had she? Her momentary lapse of concentration had nearly got all of them killed. Any of the others had more of a right to have survived and be here now. She didn’t deserve this praise which Pip was unknowingly heaping on her, making her glow with pride…not when she had been responsible for his brother’s death.
Pip repeated his main point. “That were a Cloud Weaver, naun doubt about it. My own skipper said so, afore we went down.”
Alice bit back a smile because Pip looked horrified at his squeaking conclusion, but none of the Mudlarks smiled or laughed, instead regarding him solemnly. Pip shrugged, embarrassment on his face, then sat down again.
“If it be so,” Scylla said. “That ye ken yer Rozzer aeroships, how did these sky-sharks differ from the regular ones? Every detail ye can recollect may help us. We need to ken who and what they are. Can ye tell us more about them?”
“Yarr.” Alice took a deep breath. She closed her eyes, focusing her mind. It was horrible, because all the intense emotions of the previous night came flooding in, all her memories of the terror and bloodshed. She fought off a rising panic, told herself she was an Owler tasked with a Free Trade job – not a grieving and horror-struck little girl. She persisted in focusing on the Rozzer aeroships. She’d had her clearest impression of them by the burning wreckage in the marsh, so banished other impressions, lessening the horror. She began to speak.
“Seventy feet. Double-decked, but no more. It weren’t open-decked hulls, more like a gondola with outer walkways amidships, and an open foredeck. That’s where their guns are mounted. Two nine pounder breech-loading Armstrongs, one Gatling. Their envelope were just a bit shorter, fifty feet I reckon, and as close to the hulls as a night-flier kissing the Seven Sisters. There were barely room for a grown man to stand atop the gondola without brushing his head against the envelope. The envelope is protected by mesh netting. They had torals, dorsals, and large caudal sails. Four props. The engine…”
Alice paused, keeping her eyes shut, her mind’s eye on the hunters. “Alike to a Forrester outside-cylinder Crewe-type, but naun zackly the same. Their normal cruising speed be seventeen to twenty knots, but they were making close to forty knots on the shears. Their speed on a straight course were bettermost, but each and every time they took awhiles to respond to our gambits. They need wide turning arcs when wind-powered, but under steam they can move like an ornithopter or gyrocopter. Their only heavy weapon at the stern is a single breech-loading six-pounder. No broadside. Tis a hundred and forty degree killing angle from their bow. Ninety from their stern.”
She opened her eyes to be met by silence. It was hard to tell why, with face paint or mask veiling readable expressions, so Alice turned to Pip who was staring at her with wide eyes.
“You,” he stammered. “You’re the Wind Reader.”
Alice nodded, ashamed. She half expected him to become angry. Fearing that the way he looked at her would change into an expression of accusation, the same recrimination she had seen in her nightmare.
To her relief, Pip did none of those things. “You were at the helm?”
Alice nodded, and dared a small smile, knowing how impressed he’d been by her skirring and skicing.
“Liss Wind Reader,” Scylla said. “Who taught ye how to master the reading?”
Alice hesitated, before answering, “Cap’n John Hawkeye of The Salty Mew out of Rottingdean.”
The name was known here, that was clear from the reactions of the Mudlarks whose eyes and body language showed sudden wary respect. Pip stared open-mouthed in a mix of astonishment and admiration. Alice heard McFeck suck in a sharp breath.
Cap’n Hawkeye, though deceased, was famed along the entire south-eastern coast…and beyond. Alice didn’t add that she was his daughter. She disliked it when people automatically transferred their respect. She wanted to earn her own. Besides, she was on a run, bearing an Owler’s codename because it was best that real identities were left concealed.
“John Hawkeye,” Scylla repeated, then asked. “And who taught ye to skirr and skice, Liss Cloud Weaver?”
“Cap’n John Hawkeye.”
Grout-head shook his head. “Learned by Cap’n Hawkeye or naun: Four seventy-footers! Those need a land-bound base and ground-crew. We bain’t heard a whisper from anywhere along the coast of four such craft skirring to and from an aerodome. Sureleye such a thing would naun go middling unnoticed. It be unaccountable.”
“Mayhap there be an explanation for that,” one of the other Mudlarks spoke. Alice recognised his voice as that of Pug. “When I were in the navy my squadron was stationed in the Med. There was talk then of a rare ship made in the Corinth dockyards every some-one-time. A vessel sp’ifically designed as a mobile aerodrome.”
“A sea-bound aerodrome?” Grout-head snorted. “Pest! Ye been drinking, man. Who the Pize would land an aeroship on a boat?”
Pug shook his head. “Alongside more like, resting on made-to-fit brackets. One to starboard, one to port. They’d be needing two of these Corinthian inventions for four such aeroships.”
“Twould explain why there’s naun been a single rumour of these aeroships,” Neeva suggested. “If they were refuelling out at sea.”
“When they stopped their search of the mush,” Scylla said. “Could that have been all-along-of them running low on fuel? They must have been skirring awhile. Liss, Pip, where did they intercept you?”
“Royal Sovereign Shoal,” Alice answered.
Scylla nodded. “A fair stride from Sinneport Bay. What course did they set after they gave up their search of the Lydd salts?”
“South,” Pug answered. “Heading seawards.”
“Mair than that,” McFeck said. “Liss’s description ay the aeroship rings a bell. Soonds tae me loch these four aeroships may well be Milanese gallearezzas.”
Pug slammed his remaining hand on the makeshift table. “Yarr, McFeck! Now that ye mention it, the likeness to a gallearezza be uncanny.”
“So,” Scylla rasped slowly. “Eyetalian aeroships on Greek ships.”
“Furrin mercenaries,” Neeva said. “The Rozzers got themselves furrin mercenaries to set on us.”
Mudlarks, Fishgut, and Chopback responded with a collective growl.
“We have to fight them!” Pip called out.
“Fight them?” Scylla sounded amused. “The Owler way be flight naun fight, unless there be naun other option.”
“There bain’t naun other options,” Pip insisted. “They hunt like a pack of wolves, have Wind Readers to tell ‘em where our Night-Fliers are. If we don’t fight them…”
His voice trailed off.
Scylla raised her hand as if to ward off the suggestion. “I reckon that if I were a Fishgut or Chopback, yarr, I’d want revenge. But we’re Mudlarks, and a pitched battle with these Eyetalian killers bain’t naun of our purvension.”
“But we’re all Sussex folk!” Alice exclaimed, drawing chuckles from the Mudlarks.
“Ye be Sussex folk,” Scylla said. “We be Marsh folk.”
“But Sinneport is in Sussex,” Pip said.
Scylla shook her head. “T’may be that some clever blever has drawn a line through the Marsh, telling us that one side is Sussex and the other Kent, but Marsh folk were naun consulted in the matter.”
Neeva added, “Tis well known that the wurreld is divided into five parts, Pip. Europe, Asia, Africa, America, and Romney Marsh.”
“But we’re all Free Traders,” Alice pointed out.
That was met by a few sardonic laughs.
Grout-head snarled, “And where were the Free Traders of Rottingdean when the Yeomans were stationed at Brookland? Where were the Owlers of Hastings when the Yeoman troopers ran riot across the mushlands? The Rozzers searching our cellars, barns, wagons, hogboats, and luggers whenever they damn well pleased. Harassing our womenfolk, intercepting our runs, and sending brave young Owlers to the gallows.”
Most of the Mudlarks grunted their agreement.
Encouraged, Grout-head added, “I don’t recollect seeing a single Fishgut or Chopback rushing to lend us a hand.”
“Twere not long ago,” Scylla told Alice. “That Meadows reaped himself a bloody harvest in Romney Marsh.”
“Meadows?” Alice felt a dark shadow flutter across her heart. “Colonel Morgan Meadows?”
“Yarr. Ye’ve heard of him?”
Alice nodded bitterly. “He were the one what planned the Massacre on the Green.”
The raid in which her father had been killed. Murdered by the Rozzers. Murdered by Colonel Morgan Meadows.
“Meadows were sent here after, but be stationed in Eastbourne now,” Grout-head said. “So ye can all get a taste of him. We’ve had our turn.”
Pip scowled even as Alice glared at Grout-head, but then she turned to Scylla. “Those galliz…gella…”
McFeck came to her rescue, “Gallearezzas.”
“Bethanks, those galley-rizzas be powerful, their Gatlings deadly. If we all join together – we can defeat them if we stand together, sureleye.”
“Hastings will summon the Owler’s Moot,” Pip added. “I’m sure of it. Sussex wunt be druv.”
“There bain’t been an Owler’s Moot for nigh on a hundred years,” Scylla said. “And even if tis as ye parley, that be a matter for Sussex.”
“But—” Alice began to say.
“Naun,” Scylla grated in a tone of finality. “We’ll help ye get back to warn yer folk. That much we owe to Sussex all-along-of the Code, but naun our lives in battle.”
“Not just Fishguts and Chopbacks,” Alice said. “We have to warn the whole coast.”
“Tis ten miles to Hastings,” Neeva said. “More than thirty miles to Rottingdean. A fair stride from Sinneport.”
“And we dursn’t send out our Night-Fliers, not with them furrin mercenaries prowling our sky,” Scylla added. She looked sideways, at the trench-coated man in the corner. “Andreas?”
The man stepped forward. “I’d say that I’m well-placed to help.”
He nodded at Alice and Pip. “I’m Andreas Black, delighted to make your acquaintance. I’m good to leave in an hour’s time. As for warning the Sussex coast, I think I can recruit more riders at Tamarisk Town, the best in the business.”
“That be settled then, bethanks,” Scylla said. “I’ll send messengers into Romney Marsh and Kent.” She turned back to Alice and Pip. “My thanks for learning us about the gallearezzas. If yer folk truly mean to fight them, then I wish you the best of luck. Howsumever, we part ways now. Tis time for ye to be homeward bound.”
“Bethanks,” Alice said, genuinely grateful, albeit disappointed she hadn’t been able to convince the Mudlarks to join forces with Sussex Owlers. All that seemed to matter a little less though, in light of their imminent departure. She was going home.
Liking Alice Kittyhawk? There are two novellas preceding Fair Night for Foul Folk that may interest you, available as paperback or Kindle.