The alehouse was almost in silence and he felt suddenly aware how his neatly tailored doublet and fashionably cut breeches, must make him appear. One of his boot buckles could probably feed three of these men and their entire extended families for a week. These were unsettled times and the rule of law was far from secure. Acutely aware that he had just stepped out of his depth, Gideon pretended not to notice the attention. He stepped forward, trying to feel reassured by the length of steel which he wore on his hip and trying not to recall the scathing comments of his fencing master regarding his clumsiness when wielding it.
“How may I be of service, good sir?” asked the landlady, a short, dumpy woman, emerging from the shadows with a jug of ale and a toothless smile. At least Gideon hoped that was what she had said, the mix of dialect and missing teeth made for an accent so thick she could have been cursing him for all he knew. He mustered a return smile for her benefit.
“I’m looking for a friend of mine,” he said. “I had heard he might be staying here – his name is Philip Lord.”
The woman looked blankly at him and shook her head. Her shift was laced so loosely that she had to combine the movement with a shrug of her shoulders to stop it dropping down below her breasts. There was the sound of benches scraping as a number of the men stood up. Glancing round, Gideon realised belatedly it was a long way back to the door. A man blocked his retreat who looked like he had just been out raiding cattle and juggled a couple of them for fun on the ride back. His muscles would have made a blacksmith weep with envy, although no one would ever envy him his face. ‘Homely’ was probably how his mother described him – the rest of the world would not be that kind. At least not behind his back.
“Philip Lord,” said the Gargoyle, his expression changing as if he was tasting the sound and finding it exotic. “That is a name we have not heard before in these parts. And this is an alehouse not an inn – Maggie keeps no rooms. There is no one staying here. So you can be on your way.”
The man’s accent was thick but not impenetrable and the few words he could not understand, Gideon supplied himself from the context. He nodded uncertainly and muttered a thank you, then took an experimental step towards the door and its human barricade. The Gargoyle showed no sign of moving aside.
“But, maybe your – uh – friend comes by one day. We could pass him a message that you are looking for him – maybe.”
“You are too kind,” said Gideon, aware his mouth was very, very dry. “I am Sir Bartholomew Coupland, cousin to the Duke of Richmond.”
A hand with a grip like a manacle seized his wrist from behind and before he could react with more than a gasp of surprise, his sword had been pulled from its scabbard and he was spun bodily around. Off balance, he staggered back into a solid wall of muscle, losing his hat in the process and found a powerful arm wedged under his chin whilst the Gargoyle’s other huge hand now gripped both Gideon’s wrists together behind his back.
The landlady had picked up a lamp and by its light, he found himself staring at a face that he would never forget.
Gemstone-clear aquamarine eyes, which narrowed as they studied him from behind a finely shaped patrician nose, held no trace of emotion. This face was certainly distinctive – distinctive in the kind of way that would have women turning to look twice and men wishing they were similarly distinctive. A moment later it was transformed by a smile of even, white teeth, giving the most predatory impression.
“I would know your secret, Sir Bartholomew. It will make me more gold than the alchemists stone – and with no initial investment expense required in the purchase of lead.”
The accent was northern English, but overlain with sounds that belonged on the shores of the Mediterranean and some points further east – as exotic as the immaculately groomed appearance of its owner.
“My – my secret?”
“The secret of regaining lost youth – although I think most would prefer to keep their original face rather than find a stranger staring back at them from the mirror. But there might be a few who would welcome the chance to be reborn as someone new and start afresh.”
“Just answer the question,” said the Gargoyle, the onion on his breath briefly overpowering even the other loud odours. Gideon said nothing, his mind spinning to find firm ground, to make sense of the senseless. The muscle at his throat expanded slightly, making it harder to breath.
“Thomas. Sweet Tom. My Tomakin. Let the man get some air beneath his ribs.”
The pressure at his throat eased and Gideon gasped – then gagged and coughed as the thick, alehouse atmosphere invaded his lungs. The other man waited whilst he recovered then moved back to the attack, humour gone and eyes as cold as the Baltic.
“So, since you are clearly not Sir Bartholomew, who are you?”
From ‘The Cat’s Head’ by E.M. Swift-Hook