The moment he entered the alehouse, Gideon Lennox knew he had made a mistake.
It was hard to breathe. The air was thick with smoke as the hearth had a poorly set chimney. Mingled into the smoke was the flat malt scent of cheap ale, the biting reek of crude tobacco and an ugly stench of rancid fat from the spluttering lights. Beneath it all was the human taint of unwashed bodies, vomit and piss.
The loud chatter and coarse laughter died away as he opened the door. By the time he took a pace or two within, every head had turned in his direction. He felt acutely aware of how his neatly tailored doublet and fashionably cut breeches, must make him appear. One of his silver boot buckles could probably feed three of these men and their entire extended families for a week.
If things had gone as planned he would have been here in daylight, but his mare had a loose shoe and he had wasted a couple of hours finding a farrier to restore it. Then again, if he had not been running out of time to fulfil his commission he might have been less desperate and taken the wiser course of going to a respectable inn overnight, leaving his visit here for the morrow rather than chancing his fortune in a place like this so late.
A quick glance into the patches of light that punctuated the gloom showed no one who matched the description of his quarry: It is a simple task. You will know him when you find him; he is distinctive. White hair, hook nose and eyes that the ladies would pluck to set into rings if they could.
The room was now in silence, warm conversation replaced by a coldness which bordered upon hostility. These were unsettled times and the rule of law was far from secure—especially here where the sons and grandsons of those border reivers who avoided being exiled by King James to Ireland had never fully neglected their traditional violent heritage.
Acutely aware that he had just stepped out of his depth, and regretting having left outside the man provided by his employer for his protection, Gideon pretended not to notice the attention. He continued 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.
A short, dumpy woman, well into her middle years, emerged from the shadows with a jug of ale and a nearly toothless smile. She wore a sleeveless stay and her shift was laced so loosely that she had to shrug her shoulders to stop it dropping down below her ample breasts.
“How may I be of service, good sir?”
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 and pitched his voice to carry to the whole room.
“I am making some enquiries, which will be both to my profit and that of your guests—so a drink for all here, if you please. Then if you have a private room, I will have my drink there and be glad to reward any man who may wish to bring me news of one called Philip Lord.”
He had expected the promise of a free drink would take a little of the chill from the atmosphere, it usually did, but the woman looked blankly at him and shook her head. Benches scraped as a number of the men stood up. Glancing around, Gideon realised belatedly it was a long way back to the door and his ‘simple task’ was growing more complicated—and ugly.
A man blocked his retreat. He 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, although no one would ever envy him his face. ‘Homely’ was probably how his mother described him, but Gideon doubted the rest of the world would be that kind. At least not behind his back.
“Philip Lord,” said the man who resembled a gargoyle, his expression changing as if he was tasting the sound and finding it strange. “That is a name we’ve not heard before in these parts. And this is an alehouse, not an inn. Maggie keeps no rooms. There’s 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.
“Then you have done me a favour indeed,” Gideon said lightly, although his heart was thudding hard. “I can take my leave without wasting the time of any here. Thank you for that.”
He took an experimental step towards the door and its human barricade. The gargoyle showed no sign of moving aside. Instead, his facial expression shifted into something that might, on any normal face, have been a smile.
“But, maybe your—uh—friend comes by one day. We could pass him a message that you are looking for him.”
“You are too kind,” said Gideon, aware his mouth was very, very dry. It suddenly seemed foolish to think a London lawyer would get any consideration from such people. “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 forearm wedged under his chin whilst the Gargoyle’s other huge hand now gripped both Gideon’s wrists together behind his back.
The hostess had picked up a lamp to illuminate the scene, and by its light he found himself staring at a man’s face he could never forget. Framed by long hair that was so pale it looked white, unfashionably straight, but with a lovelock plaited on one side, it had gemstone-clear aquamarine eyes, which narrowed as they studied Gideon from behind a finely shaped patrician nose. The eyes held no trace of emotion. The face was certainly distinctive—in the kind of way that would have had 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 of 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. Gideon needed no introduction to tell him that he had finally found Philip Lord. The realisation froze the blood in his veins.
“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.” The turquoise gaze flicked to the man holding Gideon. “But there might be those who would welcome the chance to be reborn as someone new and start afresh. Eh, Thomson?”
Which earned some laughter. But Gideon stayed silent, his mind spinning with fear, trying to seek firm ground, to make sense of the senseless.
“So, Coupland sent you to find me,” Lord went on, making it a statement, not a question.
“What are you worth to him in one piece?”
“Just answer the question,” said the Gargoyle, onion on his breath briefly overpowering even the other loud odours. The arm muscle at Gideon’s throat expanded slightly, making it harder for him to breathe.
“Thomson,” Lord said, his tone that of amused tolerance, “your enthusiasm is appreciated, but let the man get some air beneath his ribs so he may speak.”
The pressure at his throat eased and Gideon gasped. The thick, alehouse atmosphere invaded his lungs, suddenly as welcome as a spring breeze. Philip Lord had moved closer, any trace of humour gone, his eyes as merciless as the North Sea in winter.
“Since you are clearly not Sir Bartholomew, who are you?”
“Gid—Gideon Lennox. I am a lawyer.”
The opening of The Cat’s Head, the first book in The ‘Lord’s Legacy’ Sextet, set in the opening months of the English Civil War, by E.M. Swift-Hook.