Posted by RLL for REPORT FROM A FUGITIVE. © RLL, 2011.
Welcome to the pre-blog portion of this blog. I’ll be using it to check page arrangements and other basic blog functions before the proper (and improper) blogging begins.
   Mundane stuff must be seen to. This is no great thrill for the readers. For that reason, I’ll include a story here. That, too, may be no great thrill for the readers. We shall see, possibly by means of augury…
   I felt great, writing that last paragraph with no story in front of me. Always fun, facing the prospect of writing a new one. Now the story’s down.
   It’s as rough as a badger’s arse pinned to a bed of rusty nails, but that’s the point of rattling a story out. You get it down and edit the hell out of it later. This one has had very little editing as I raced to start the blog on Hallowe’en. Hence the health-warning about roughness.
   This site is a pre-publication blog, in which I’ll discuss a few writing-related topics. The setting featured in this story is detailed in Neon Gods Brought Down by Swords.
   I expect to write more of these isolated adventures, which I’ll string into a collection.

Sweet rose of vertue and of gentleness,
Delightsome lily of every lustiness,
Richest in bounty and in beauty clear,
And every vertue that is wenit dear,
Except onlie that ye are mercyless.
William Dunbar.


Icy dust fell in furry white flakes and men called it snow. Clouds, tired of dispensing, rolled along and were relieved of duty. Snow ceased falling, though continued lying. From one hour to the next, dullness held sway. Summer’s bonefire-hot sun was too tired to kick through winter’s cold-cotton wall.
   Stripped trees had cast off emerald garlands in exchange for icicled jewellery. Dark branches now wore lopsided hats and scarves of snow. The frozen land held that cold smell to it. So the short man said to the tall one, with the prospect of journey’s end a whisker-width away.
   They were figures in dark grey, stumbling under layers of wool and leather, the shorter man going ahead and making tracks the taller one could follow. At first, they’d walked side-by-side. Then the snow fell, the wind shifted, and Old Man Winter spat icy flakes at their pale faces. The tall man went ahead and sheltered the shorter.
   This arrangement caused trouble for the short man. He couldn’t match the taller’s lengthier stride, and battled to keep up, falling back out of the tall man’s wind-shadow. They made a loose form of progress in the snowstorm, gradually swinging around a stand of trees too thick to cross. Using treacle-tottering steps they carved a V out of the landscape, shifted in the wind, bypassed the wooded obstacle, and came around and about with the gusts at their backs.
   The shorter man called the taller, the two exchanged places, and they marched along in slightly better shape than before. After miles of shuffling and shambling, relieved clouds rolled along and snow stopped falling. An hour went somewhere, there was huffing, five minutes ran after the hour, and there was puffing.
   “Soon be home. The ground has that cold smell to it.”
   “Save your breath for walking, Harry. I’m not climbing that hill when we near the house. We’re going around, and into the dip ahead of the front door. Save your breath for your legs and your legs for that final climb. There’ll be a heavy drift sleeping in the hollow today. I’d had enough of drudgery, and went along with you and your thieving ways for a chance at a higher station in life. All I’ve done is exchange drudgery for trudgery. And the exalted station’s not worth a bogle.”
   “You talk a lot for a man who wants to save breath.”
   The tall man pushed his boots along, and considered throwing one up the shorter fellow’s arse. An act that could serve no purpose – save that of amusement. He had to endure Harry’s presence. Harry’d buried the loot in secret.
   There might be four blades waiting for them at the house. He doubted that. Who but the Big Man, in his lofty hall, missing his loot, knew the gold was gone? For blades to come, demanding their cut, blades would have to know something worth setting out across the snow for.
   If they came at all, the four blades would crawl from over that way, at the arse-end of the woods, and it was still snowing yonder. He glanced, and glanced again. As though the act of looking could summon men from nothingness.
   Soon the snowfall would cut off even yonder, and still there’d be no sign of the blades. It would take the sight of smoke in Harry’s chimney to draw blades out on this cold day. There was time enough to struggle indoors, set a meal on the fire, warm up, and prepare against the prospect of villainy. Further villainy. No one would come. For no one had talked.
   Around the final hill they wavered. Snow inside boot-tops. Fingers, slabs of ice. Cheeks hard enough to skate across. Fatigue in the legs, down to where the feet half-willed themselves not to slip. Having been out all night, the real tiredness came to both men as they sighted the low cold stone house across the way.
   That way was white, and sloped down the last stretch of hill they’d skirted. With the house on a slight rise, the homecomers had to plough through the dip between the hill and the front door. True tiredness sapped the dregs of strength from thighs, though didn’t halt their progress. Something else did that.
   “See, Harry. Up on the rise, outside the door. What is that? Did you set yon thing there, afore we left?”
   “What’s that, Eck? Is it yours, did you leave the item there?”
   “Your arse in parsley. I wouldn’t be asking you if I’d put something there, you plum.”
   “Maybe Johnny Bad Knee’s been by. Left us a message.”
   “Were you expecting him, Harry?”
   “He’ll be along directly, just to wish us well and look under our tongues for spare coin. Oh, wait a bit. We’re the only two who know a damn thing about our night’s business. Unless you talked. No, I’m not expecting him. Why would you expect anyone to be expecting Johnny Bad Knee? Unless you talked. Answer that.”
   “Seems to me he’ll be looking for his cut of our night’s work, if he comes.”
   “You’ve miscalculated that scheme. It’s this morning that the Big Man discovers his gold went to our pockets. None but the Big Man could know theft was done last night. Besides. How is that particular crime any business of Johnny Bad Knee’s? Even supposing he does find out, and then suspects us…eh? I never talked.”
   “He has a habit of making other business his business.”
   “Who would talk? You? Me? Johnny Bad Knee can whistle for the cash. It’s well-hid.”
   “Aye. That did not sit fine with me, Wee Harry.”
   “A lanky frame on a thin bumbaleerie, and you complain about sitting. I had to hide the cash in private. To prevent the spending of it in public.”
   “I can be trusted.”
   “You are trusted. Except with that one thing. The loot. You’d be out hiring every tuppeny strumpet in the district. Letting good coin fly to waste quicker than you could order the wenches to up skirts. Handy dandy, houghmagandie, and off with a smile on your face that does little to cheer empty pockets an hour later.”
   “I don’t have to pay for it, I’ll have you know.”
   “Well, the strumpets and wantons certainly don’t pay you. What is that thing?”
   They were reluctant to move on, for the fresh omen planted in front of the house was a barrier to further thought and action. Both men scoured the past, and wondered at the penalty they’d pay for the night’s work.
   “Is it a message from the Big Man, Wee Harry? We’re undone.”
   “Superstitious rubbish. How could the Big Man have catapulted a message to us here? It took all our time making it up the road. He’d have to know he was being robbed, who robbed him, where they were headed, and we’d need to be waylaid into the bargain.”
   “There was that long half-hour, when the Big Man’s folk sprang up on yon road. We had to lie in the ditch, quiet as corpses with nothing left to say.”
   “I notice you were keen on handing the money to me, then. Glad to see me bury it, you’d have been, to avoid being caught coin-handed.”
   “Why were they on the road at that time of the night?”
   “Looking for rascals like us.”
   “The alarm couldn’t have gone up.”
   “No. They were after other sport, I fancy.”
   “Well. The Big Man might have found his money had taken a walk, and he could have reached here with a message. It’s tight, but the timing is sharp enough.”
   “Sharper than your wits. To lay the crime at my door, ahead of my arrival, he’d have to know who we were and where we stayed. So the timing of that miracle matters not a jot. Why send a message, when he could send a patrol? You go up and fetch the thing down, Eck.”
   “Why me?”
   “If it’s a trap, and I’m killed, you’ll never lay hands to the gold.”
   “Sure, I remember roughly where it was.”
   “In the snow.”
   “Aye, right. See if I die here…”
   “I’ll spend coin on your favourite tuppeny strumpet, and think of you as she gives me your money’s worth. Off with ye, before the summer comes.”
   Lanky Eck skirted the last of the hill and went into the hollow. He veered off its deepest patch and struggled mightily up the low rise to the cold house. Of grey stone it was, a single level, with thick-cut slate atop the stout-built walls. The two thieves were proud of that thick-cut slate, which had been lifted many miles away. Harry’s organisation of that plunder was the stuff of legend to those he shared the tale with. They were not many, those rascals.
   Eck looked to the door. Snow decorated the step corner, but there was no sign of forced entry trod into the snow or worked into the wood. There were no footprints around, to speak volumes of the unknown visitor. His eyes went right, to the front room. Also a bedroom at night, with the mattresses brought out of cupboards. And a space for dining in, when the plates came out. A grim space for fighting in, as a last resort.
   With the furniture to the walls, the room was a touch short of a modest dancehall. When the strumpets wanted company, and not payment for the other thing that was like company but costlier than buying in wine, they demanded dancing. Where would a stranger go?
   The front room had the fireplace. Anyone inside would head for the warm half of the house. Behind the front room was the kitchen. In the middle of the house, behind that sturdy front door, lay the hall. It opened on the front room and kitchen to the right. To the front and rear stores, heading left.
   Cupboards aside, that was all need be said of the house. Save that, in front of the building, placed carefully in the whiteness, sat a snow-filled chalice – with a snuffed red candle placed in its belly. Eck beckoned Wee Harry. The shorter man joined the taller. He, too, slid his eyes across windows. Expecting people to be inside.
   “A sign, Harry.”
   “For someone.”
   “It’s for us, man.”
   “Lift the candle up, and see how short it is.”
   “What does that candle’s length tell you? You don’t know how long it was to start with.”
   “How did the candle come to be here? Was it set upright in the bare chalice, before the snow started late yesterday? How long did it burn? We’ve been out since last night. All that hiding we did, around the Big Man’s lofty hall. We were lucky to get away before the snow started. His men would have had an easy time of it, tracking footprints. Which brings me to footprints…”
   “My turn, Mr Detective. While we were away, before the snow fell, someone was here lighting a candle. So the certain someone left, and there aren’t any footprints…because there was no snow then. And the snow or the wind blew the candle out before the wick could burn to nothing.”
   “The hell with this.”
   Wee Harry lifted the candle from its cradle. The wax stump was short. Snow lay underneath and around it, making a secure platform for the cold item. Harry glanced at the ground, checking for snow-filled footprints. Nothing. Flakes on flakes. No half-craters.
   “Well, there you are. The candle was fired up and extinguished somewhere else. For it was placed on a bed of snow inside the chalice, with more snow around it in support.”
   “Snow fell. The chalice was set down on that snow. And more snow went into the chalice, by human hand, to prop up the candle. Though we don’t know why.”
   “It seems so. In front of the door. With no prints nearby.”
   “I don’t see any hollows filled by later snow. Not even half-remembered tracks.”
   “Well, a mystery. And perhaps that’s the message. Something mysterious is going on.”
   “How could the chalice end there in that state?”
   “I thought, on seeing the red candle, that the wax column sat all the way to the bottom. And snow gently piled in, extinguishing the flame. But no. Snow was scooped in, and the candle went after. Though the candle was lit and unlit long before. The red wax was propped in, cold. Symbolically.”
   “A crowd of mysteries. Can we not go inside, and puzzle it out with our arses to the fire?”
   “We daren’t. For someone’s inside that house. That’s what the chalice in the snow is telling us.”
   “No footprints…”
   “There wouldn’t be any, from the direction of the house. Our man of mystery broke in through the back hall, which we can’t see from here. Opened the front door from inside. Scooped snow from the back garden, where we’d not see all the footprints and the back door’s splinters. The used candle went in. And the chalice was set here, waiting for us.”
   “Who could prop the chalice here, and leave no prints? Even from the front hall…”
   “Two men. A strong man stands firm and braces the lighter fellow. Or a light man, alone, ties a rope inside the house and leans out. He takes tongs from the fireplace and extends his reach. Could be done that way, with our own supply of rope lying handy within. Does it matter exactly how? The chalice was placed in the snow. There are no footprints. So the direction of placement was from the front door.”
   “Or up on the roof, with a fishing rod or poacher’s snare.”
   “Aye. Now you’re thinking. Though there weren’t any footprints on the roof. Not that I noticed.”
   “Why go to that trouble?”
   “To annoy me, Eck. Just to annoy me. How loose is your tongue?”
   “I told no man we were on the prowl for loot.”
   “Any women? No man, except when you blurted it out just now. Smother those words and don’t rattle your tonsils. Johnny Bad Knee could be listening.”
   “Can we away inside, then?”
   “Straight through, and out the back to see if the door’s broken or footprints lie there.”
   “Do we need the key? If the front door’s open?”
   “Aye. We’ll test that.”
   “And the chalice?”
   Wee Harry pocketed the red wax message, and emptied the chalice of snow. There was snow, depressed, beneath the chalice. It had been set down after the weather changed for the worse, and not before. He scoured the windows for signs or traces. Then glared at the surrounding landscape. Nothing stirred. Snowflakes refused to fall. The wind rested. Even Lanky Eck stood statue-still.
   “I’ll keep the cup handy for throwing at the enemy. Draw no blades, though. This foe’s cunning. I don’t want to cut him down before his tongue spills his business.”
   Eck produced his key, and glanced at the front step. A triangle of snow, piled there, had no stories for the two thieves. The tall man tried the door first, before resorting to the key. It opened, showing the left-hand side of the hall. Eck slipped his unused key away and pushed the door wide to the right-hand side. No one stood waiting for them. All doors were shut.
   Thieves exchanged glances. Wee Harry went first, so that Eck could see over him. Straight through. To the back door. Also unlocked. No splinters. Harry opened the door and peeked outside. There’s the well. And the woods marking the far end of the garden. Footprints crossed from the back step to the outhouse. They did not return. Harry slyly shut the door.
   “Someone’s unlocked these doors. We definitely locked them when we left.”
   “Aye. You were insistent on it, to my annoyance. Checking the back door twice, before you joined me at the front.”
   “It rattled a bit, and I wondered if the hinges needed fixing. Hence my care, in closing it just now.”
   “Can we set a fire?”
   “For our visitor, you mean. He has small footprints for a man. Tiny Tam’s been seen in the district. I wonder if that’s him out there now, seeing to his privy business.”
   “He works alone. Let’s see what he’s stolen from us.”
   “That bottle of milk. He has a liking for dairy maids, and all their wares.”
   Rooms were hastily checked, with all doors secured again. The pair ended their tour in the back kitchen. There, they could keep an eye on the outhouse. Eck rummaged in the larder and muttered about the short supply of short supplies. Wee Harry concentrated on the garden. Eck turned to the sinks. He was puzzling over the sinks, as a way of ignoring the chalice.
   “Someone’s been washing up in here. Had a bite or two of food. That pie. Bottle of milk. Didn’t light the fire, though. Wasn’t keen on letting us see smoke come from our own chimney.”
   “Placed the chalice. That can’t be seen from afar. The smoke can. Johnny Bad Knee is in a bit of a mood, these days. He’s looking for any old excuse to pop over here. The one rule he’d try to take advantage of is the rule of country hospitality. If he catches us breaking bread, we invite him to sup. So we must see to it that no bread is broken when he chaps our door. As soon as that fire’s on, we eat.”
   “If that’s Johnny in the privy, he’s been in and broken bread by himself. And all hospitality is out the window, just for that. Never mind playing around with candles and cups.”
   Harry gestured at movement. Eck glared through the window. A redheaded woman in wine-red clothing, leathers, trews, hopped from the privy and retraced her steps to the house. She waved as she crossed the garden, swinging a lantern as she grinned. Eck couldn’t help but smile.
   “Things are looking up.”
   “Clearly you don’t do all your thinking with your arse.”
   There was the sound of boot-tapping on the step, to shake snow from footwear. The back door clunk-clunked. The door did rattle, if you weren’t used to its ways. Wee Harry considered his options. She was good enough to pick both locks, and go through some complex balancing-act with the chalice. Was she the brains behind the ruse? Much would depend on her simple story. In she breezed.
   “Good afternoon to ye.”
   “It is, my dear. Will you not come in and wait a wee while? Or would that be a further while, seeing as you’ve had a portion of pie as well as some milk by the look of our larder.”
   “You wouldn’t grudge me that, with the weather the way it was.”
   “And the doors? The chalice?”
   “The doors I found open, and I have no notion of any chalice.”
   “This here, with a five-pointed star on it.”
   “I took milk from the bottle, if that’s what you’re hunting after knowing. Country hospitality would have come my way, had you been home in the night as I chapped the door of a storm-tossed house.”
   “We had business in town. There was no snow then. The weather slowed our return.”
   Harry did all the talking. Eck listened, and looked back and forth as the other two spoke. The woman seemed to have a very simple story, for she was reluctant to part with any of it. Eck wasn’t keen on Harry’s letting her know that business was conducted in town. Though Harry wasn’t dull enough to say which town.
   “I’m Wee Harry, though only in the company of Lanky Eck here. You’ll come into the front room, and we’ll stoke that fire. Why didn’t you light one yourself last night?”
   “There were plenty blankets to warm me. It was crawling out of the wind that did me most good. I was worried, when I came, that the place was abandoned. By my lantern, I saw food. Taking a portion of pie and some milk was reasonable. I have coin to pay for that. But stoking a fire with your wood was a step too far in your debt. You’d have me out chopping more for you. I slept long and hard. Snow painted the land I woke in. I decided to stay put, repay my small debt, and wait for the weather to clear. And I see it has cleared, too.”
   “Eck and I will fetch more wood for the fires, before dark. Grab an axe, Eck. I’d invite you to make yourself comfortable. But you did that…”
   “How much for the food?”
   “We’ll overlook a price, for now. I may charge you the entry-fee of a name…”
   “Red Claire, they named me.”
   “Nothing to the Red Queen of song and story.”
   “Why call me that? Her hair was dark. Do you think the Knight of the Glass Shield had a see-through arse, just because all his gear was transparent?”
   “Aye. Dark hair, the Red Queen had. It was the colour of her clothes she was named for, right enough. Come on, Eck. What’s left of daylight is running away with the night.”
   Red Claire made light of the conversation. Wee Harry showed he wasn’t troubled by chatter. Lanky Eck had no suspicions, even though he felt that he should, at the very least, be suspicious of something. No party entirely satisfied, no party could claim grievance.
   Out the two men plodded, reminded of the journey they’d tackled just to get home. Scanning the back garden for further signs of disturbance, they mused in silence. Wee Harry checked the privy for a hidden sword or crossbow. Eck went into the woods to chop logs. Harry joined him there, where they’d gathered a woodpile some days before. The ground bore signs of bird-tracks. No human trails were evident. Logs were chopped for a time, to give the sound impression that logs were being chopped.
   “Save your hidden loot for the tuppeny strumpets, Harry. We’re building a roaring fire tonight. A blaze that has that wench stripped down to the scanties, so sore-afflicted by the heat she’ll be.”
   “No tracks around the house. She came before the snow fell, and placed the chalice after. If she intended to brace the candle with something, what would she have used instead of snow?”
   “Red Claire picked our locks. And set the chalice at the door as a signal. Whether it snowed or not, she’d have done the same.”
   “Surely, she’s pretty enough to be a woman caught out in the storm.”
   “There was no storm when she walked in. I think we’ve established that by the lack of tracks. A woman travelling from where to where? With a lantern. No tent, or pack to speak of. That pack’s hidden off in the woods. And it might be a wolf-pack, for all we know. She’s a scout, looking ahead for her masters.”
   “Wouldn’t they all have been and gone, with stealing their game?”
   “There’s nothing here worth stealing but the slate on our roof. Or the stuff we know, trapped in our heads. If she scouts for others, it’s more than the lie of the land she’s after. There’s the mettle of the people in the land, worth testing.”
   “Perhaps she’s just a friendly sort. I know we rarely meet the type, and pretend to be the type to suit our ends. But these friendly sorts do exist, strange as the workings of the world are.”
   “All you can think of is all you ever think of. See how quick she was to point out the Red Queen had black hair.”
   “So she knows her way around an old ballad.”
   “It’s the Berserkers who love those tales. And I sensed in my heart that she had the look of a Berserker. Which is why I brought up the old story. The contempt she displayed for the Knight of Glass. Her correction of my mistake over the colour in the Red Queen’s name. If she’s a Berserker, we’ll not be fighting her.”
   “That could all be rot, to have you think she’s a Berserker. That makes her a border reiver, for they are known to take the colouration and ways of the Berserkers – just to avoid a fight. Berserker or not, reiver or not, friendly sort or not, what does she want with us?”
   “You mean what would she be thinking, if she wanted you for what you wanted her for?”
   “Eh? She’s going to pay for her supper in coin. I say she could pay in kindness.”
   “Let your lanky frame jiggle her to sleep with boredom, all for the gift of a pie and some milk? She’s no tuppeny whore, no. Nor a thruppenny one, come to that. The chalice was a signal, perhaps to upset us. If she meant the signal for us. The signal might easily upset us if it’s meant for her companions. Assuming she has companions.”
   “It was unwise of you to say we had business in town.”
   “You trust my devious nature, Eck. Better to say we had business in some town, and shut the chatter there. She might have opened up entire avenues of discussion on who we were, where we were, who we saw, what we did, and how we came to be away so long.”
   “I smell smoke.”
   “She’s started the fire. Chop more logs. We’ll head back in and eat. Talk a good while. There’s precious little worth stealing here. Except knowledge. And you have nothing to reveal in that department.”
   “I know that you know where the loot’s buried.”
   “Still your tongue out here.”
   “If she heard, she heard. We’ll see if she made fresh tracks in the snow, to come after us and eavesdrop.”
   “No. We’ll see if she’s run off while we worked outside.”
   “She’s still in the building. I smell the woodsmoke.”
   “Maybe she set fire to the house. Did you think of that?”
   “Let’s hope she didn’t. I’ve no mind to cross the country looking for hospitality.”
   Fires roared in the kitchen and front room. Red Claire’s long wine coat was set aside, across one end of the rickety dining table in the front room. Her wine scarf looped and swirled over the coat. Next to that, was her unlit lantern.
   She was bent over the fireplace at the back wall. The kitchen fire on the other side shared the upper chimney only. There was no portal to jump through from one room to the other, not that way. Red Claire’s tight trews were on display. Eck savoured the sight. Wee Harry put the view from his mind. She’d had plenty of time to throw the log on. Doing that now, with the eyes of men upon her, was an act without subtlety.
   Turning to the men, she straightened and stretched. The wine-dark woollen sweater covered another of similar fashion. A flick of her tumbling locks made Harry wonder she hadn’t tied those troublesome locks back out of her road. Eck appreciated the wild tumbling.
   “Well gents, here we all are. These fireside chairs look comfortable. Shall we break bread?”
   “Eat, you mean.”
   “No, Harry. She means break bread and accept country hospitality. We’ll overlook the food she’s had, and the use of our house. All’s well, when a stranger calls and bread is broken. And she has coin.”
   “That I have.”
   “Or perhaps, if she’s a teller of tales, we accept payment in other ways. Do you sing, or dance, or would you like to play the flute?”
   “Is that the beefy flute you have in your front pocket, Eck? She’ll have to shake the cobwebs off that. It hasn’t been blown all winter.”
   She laughed, and made them all laugh with her, so that Harry’s joke against Eck was no longer directed there. Chairs were drawn up. Eck produced wine from storage. Cups passed around. Harry gestured with the chalice, to more laughter. Stories, false, true, and false, were readied. Chunks of cheese, made ready. Bread, offered.
   Outside, a man in a patchwork of green and brown garments slid the front door open and crept into the hall. He heard laughter to his right, and saw flickering under the door. But he knew a fire was set, from the smoke boiling into the sky. Into the front room he went.
   Claire looked up, a loaf in her hand. The laughter settled. Eck, with his back to the newcomer, caught the shift in Claire’s gaze and slowly turned. Wee Harry poured wine into the chalice. He stopped, and held his thumb over the five-pointed star.
   “Well now, Johnny Bad Knee. Didn’t feel like knocking, I suppose.”
   “With the firelight in your window, and smoke outpouring your chimney, there’d be little point hiding under your mattress to avoid me.”
   “I don’t owe you money, and Eck hasn’t the wit to match you in conversation. So I’ll show you the door. Right up to the nostrils, if you like.”
   Red Claire broke a wedge off the loaf, and fire danced in Johnny Bad Knee’s expression. He pointed a long probing finger at the intervening space, as if to say that his skeletal digit could settle a matter. Cold words put the final spin to fate’s dice.
   “Bread is broken. I accept your country hospitality, Wee Harry.”
   “My count…ry hospitality is at your disposal.”
   “My disposal. And that of my men. Come away in, lads. Wee Harry’s in mind to break bread and see us through the night. Get your lanterns fired on, and we’ll brighten this room. For it is darkening, bit by bit. I see the strumpet you’ve hired is well above the usual standard. Well above. I’ve a mind to dance with her. And to inquisit ye as to where the money came from, to pay for the use of her thighs.”
   “I had shelter through the night, sir, so the lodging comes out of my wages.”
   Shelter, was it, Lanky Eck gave you? Kept you safe in the night? From Wee Harry, no doubt.”
   Three men in green and brown stepped into the room, lighting lanterns. They laughed at their leader’s banter. He paid them to endure his jokes. Eck stood, and tension rose unexpectedly alongside him. He made himself seem more the country bumpkin by counting newcomers.
   “I’ll away and pee, and bring back more cups.”
   “Keep that vintage to yourself, Eck. We don’t want any frothy yellow wine here.”
   The sudden tension faded. Looks went around the front room. They were harmless looks, from harmful men. Wee Harry sipped wine. He regretted drawing attention to the chalice. Claire had a clay cup for her drink. The metal receptacle captured Johnny Bad Knee’s imagination. Harry spoke to ease tension that was no longer there, and generated more by his clumsy deflection.
   “You needn’t stare. This wine’s redder than the wench’s clothes. And hair.”
   “Just admiring yon cup ye have to hand, Harry. I see you have a new trinket. What did that fetch ye?”
   “Aye. A thin-faced man like yourself has an eye for shiny things. So they say.”
   “I’m not the only one in town to have an eye for the shiny.”
   “What brings you here, Johnny, besides your bad knee and well-worn boots…”
   “You know as sure as anyone here – with the ‘lady’ excepted, as her face is new to me – that I’m Johnny Bad Knee for what I do to the knees of others. Not for any deficiency in my own.”
   Johnny gestured. One of his men stood and went into the hall. There he turned right and thumped down the passage, pausing to clunk open the back door. All ears strained to hear, but the straining was pointless given the shout.
   There was a clatter, as of a man vaulting out of the hallway into the back garden to chase after a lanky man who’d clambered out a kitchen window. Wee Harry sipped more wine, to show that he was unarmed, unthreatening, and generally harmless. He shrugged. Johnny walked into the hall, canted his head, then returned to the front room and leaned forward.
   “That’ll be your man, deciding, late in the day, to sky the pitch.”
   “Aye. If Lanky Eck is known for his brains, it’s amongst the brainless he’s known for them.”
   “Why run, when we are all being so hospitable, and dandy, going by the country code…”
   “Must be the near-smile on your so-called face, frightened Eck away.”
   “Where’s the gold, Wee Harry?”
   “What gold would that be, Johnny Bad Knee? I’ve a strumpet to pay. Despite her fine looks, she’s not THAT good.”
   “The gold I’m here to ask about. It’s the Big Man’s gold. Or was, until country manners met town life and collided sore-hard in a clash of cultures that resulted in old-fashioned theft come the middle of the night.”
   “First I’ve heard the news.”
   “The first you heard of it, you short-breeked wee fud, was when the words tripped from your thieving tongue into the over-simplistic ears of your fair-weather pal. Yon man who just did a runner.”
   “He’s a nervous type.”
   “Yet you’re so cold, like the snow. Nerves of steel. Where’s the gold, Harry?”
   “Buried in the snow.”
   “There’s many a thing, buried in the snow.”
   “And many a thing to be buried yet. More snow fell, and hid our tracks.”
   “Ye came from that place to this place. Town to country. With time on your hands for a meal, and little above that. So I could plot your path from there to here with no great hardship.”
   “So ye could. Why don’t ye.”
   “It was a tree ye marked. Or a rock next a tree. Something o’ that nature.”
   “Aye. Any man can guess that much. It’s hard to remember, in all this snow.”
   “Too cold for the likes of you to go digging in. So the loot lies in a hollow, or next a fallen tree. Nothing was buried, except maybe under a layer of white since then. You favour the easy path in life, or you’d never have taken to thievery. There are hard ways to travel, and your ways to travel. I’d say your ways took that winding path around the hardest stands of wood. Not through.”
   “Might be, this once, I changed my mind about hard toil, seeing as I had you in mind to be coming by for your unfair share of what’s mine. You bide further into the woods, and away from the Big Man’s mansion. So you tell it straight to me how you could do other than guess what went on the night before? I might have had time to sit and start a fire after walking through the woods. You’d have had next to no time to learn of some theft that you’ve come to lay at my door.”
   “We were for stealing from the Big Man. Me and my crew.”
   “Except it snowed, and I stole a march on ye by getting that job done before the weather turned bad. Hard lines for you that your men all bided abed last night. Or I’d be knocking on your door looking to break bread wi’ ye. And asking after the Big Man’s loot. With my lowest pals in tow for cheery false-flagged hospitality.”
   “You’d be sore-pressed, diving for scraps at that turned table. Why the hell would I share my takings with Wee Harry, come calling after thin air and thinner prospects…”
   “Oh, but it’s right fine when the table’s the other way and your gang comes to noise me out of my cheery complacency.”
   “What you have to be complacent about doesn’t get my nose wiped or arse shone bright. Where’s the money? I’m here to tax you, as is right in our brotherhood of thieves.”
   “We’ve broken bread, by a ruse. So it’s hospitable I’ll be. Will ye take some porridge for your old trouble? That giddy knee must pain ye, having walked this way for nothing.”
   “I’ll sup at your table. And soon enough take my leave. Let you enjoy life’s simplicity while ye may. But my hounds here will be on your trail while you sit inside this cold stone tomb. Penned and hemmed, you’ll bide. While we scour the land between here and the Big Man’s lofty hall. The snow will melt. Then the loot screams to us to be taken. And there’s no hospitality in the woods, when it’s two-to-one. If your man comes back for his share.”
   Darkness stole in, bit by bit. Through all this, Red Claire sat and sipped no wine. The shape of her was admired by Johnny’s two remaining henchmen. One stepped out as the back door banged and rattled in the wind. Johnny followed him out. His declaration was purposefully loud.
   “Find yon two eejits. See the lanky one doesn’t turn tables on ye in the dark. Two heads are five times better than his, no doubt…but he’s a lucky one, or he’d have been dancing on a rope for some of his antics long afore now.”
   Johnny Bad Knee shut the back door and framed himself in the front room’s doorway. His man stood on the right of the room, nearer the front wall and the windows. Wee Harry had his place over on the left of the room, at the right side of the fire, with the kitchen door behind him.
   Eck’s vacated seat on the left of the fireplace was now taken by Red Claire, who, in drawing attention to herself as she moved, threw the conversation in another direction entirely. Wee Harry sipped wine, or pretended to. Back and to his left, lay the rickety table and Claire’s unlit lantern. Her coat. The scarf. Anything else she concealed there. Harry knew not to trust her. Unless…Johnny didn’t trust her.
   This meant…Harry still couldn’t trust Red Claire, but he might be able to trust her a little more easily. Or, at worst, he could flip the table up and throw disarray at his foes. Get that coat of hers over Johnny’s head. Johnny walked right, to the window, turned, and leaned his elbows on the sill.
   “Well. A pretty strumpet you are. Too fine for the likes of Eck. Unless you owed him a bigger favour. There’s some story to it. I’ve not seen you in town.”
   “Which town, sir?”
   “Any of the towns. Or any of the towns beyond.”
   “I’m passing through.”
   “What’s your name, now? And how do you make a living?”
   “Red Claire, for my hair. And my living is made on my back, as well you know.”
   “On your back, or on all fours as is the custom in the wilder places. But not for petty coin. With those looks, it’s a laird ye’d be for snaring. Not his peasantry.”
   “You’re not far wrong. For I came here to snare a laird.”
   “Hard-pressed, you’ll be. The Big Man had his loot purloined, courtesy present company. So the laird’ll have no time for sweet thighs tonight.”
   “A pity. By the leer to your face, I’d imagine you fancy taking the laird’s position. Harry seems to have made plain that you are lacking funds. I do not dance in so poor a space as this without gold to brighten my toil, and my singing won’t sweeten the pot – though my singing is free.”
   “Harry will cut a devil-done bargain with me over the coin, and you’ll do nicely out of the trade. Oh-ho. The glimmer in your eyes, my rusty-hued wench, tells me a devil-done bargain’s been made…”
   Wee Harry saw his chance to do one of two things. Side with Claire, and test her to see if she would join forces against Johnny Bad Knee. That was the way he favoured. In attempting this, he might force her hand into revealing that she’d been working with Johnny Bad Knee all along. So the other thing would be desperate, and follow the misguided path of clumsily-arranged violence.
   “Damn it to hell, woman! Was it not bad enough that Lanky Eck saw his chance to sky the pitch?! I’m fighting for more than my supper, here, and you roll your eyes at every turn of the conversation.”
   “It’s no good, dear Harry. He’s seen through us. Johnny knows fine well I’m too high-priced a strumpet to be hired by Lanky Eck. Except of course by way of trade.”
   “Hush, woman. No more details of our scheming.”
   Harry meant exactly that. Anything, to distract Johnny and his lusty swordsman. Claire shifted slightly in her chair, relishing the telling of a tale she and Harry would now invent. It was too early to pretend over-warmth from the fire. She shifted her seat nearer the flames.
   “In exchange for my cut of the Big Man’s loot, there’d be some special offers thrown Eck’s way. As a travelling maid-of-all-work, I was the one who went into employment at the Big Man’s house. Where I put the scheme together. I was there before Harry stole the goods. And I caused a distraction on the road out, so I could hie away to this cottage. Harry was surprised when he found me here ahead of him.”
   “That’s no lie. She’s a sneaky one. Eck would have given up more of the share to her, for favours rendered. Another reason I hid the gold in the snow.”
   “Say on.”
   “Tell him nothing, Claire.”
   “I want my cut, Harry. Not from a blade, either. How many men must I divide my precious cargo with? Are you all willing to dilute your share in return for special favours?”
   “Not Harry. It’s strictly business with Harry. I might be talked into forging a deal. For that, you’ll have to persuade Harry to come up with the goods. I suspect your charms are lost on him. He’s used to the ha’penny whores, and a woman like you would be wasted on his low-class tastes.”
   “As if you can talk. It’s your hired swordsman you spend most time with.”
   “Here, you.”
   The hired swordsman tapped his hired sword meaningfully. (Though the double-meaning was left to the dirty-minded to divine.) Claire edged nearer the fire, and started to sweat. Harry pretended to sip wine. He picked up a chunk of cheese and held it. Johnny laughed off the slur, for he had metal to back up his words. Hospitality or no.
   “Fine country friendship, you offer, Harry. Insults are petals from your twisted flowers. They harm none. It’s the blades at my command that harm. Hospitality or no.”
   “You’re welcome to use my privy. Might meet some old friends of yours while you are out there.”
   “This is all banter, and I don’t mind it. Though it isn’t slapping butter on my bread. What’s to be done, wench?”
   “First, I’ll off with this woollen prison.”
   Claire planted her clay cup on the floor and swept both hands to the hem of her wine-coloured garment. The sweater was rolled up and off, masking her face. Red hair tumbled free as the inside-out bundle slid away. She gathered the sweater to her lap and casually left it there.
   The second wine-coloured sweater was of thinner construction and a lighter shade. She bent to retrieve her cup, and provided a sample of her wares that merely cost the move to make it and nothing more. Every distraction grants time in which to concoct further lies.
   “Until the money’s forthcoming, all I have for ye is the look of the shape of me, or the stories I tell as I sit by the fire. I think your men are enjoying rare sport with Eck in the woods. When Harry sees Eck’s swollen face at yon door, the money will be forthcoming without further arm-twisting. Sparing everyone the need to wait for the snow to melt. Then it’s a question of special discounts.”
   Harry made a play of cursing without really saying a word. He could tell the removal of clothing, and a mocking tone to Claire’s voice, signalled the start of something. Johnny was nodding his agreement at the thought of Eck’s taking a doing.
   “Let’s have a story, then, to while away the cold night hours. I’ll judge your playfulness between the sheets by how you spin a yarn.”
   “Don’t judge so hasty. For the yarn I spin is far from playful.”
“There was a family, living in huts above the river. Snow fell and snow thawed, commanding the limit of the nearness of those huts. In the thaw, the river burst its banks from the overflow of melted snow. That line decided the nearness of the huts and the distance covered from hut to water when fetching and carrying buckets.”
   Red Claire looked across at the swordsman and his boss. Past them she glanced, to give an air of telling a tale. She saw a detail in the darkness, and the detail sprang to life for her in the flickering of the fire and the glow of lanterns. Her lantern was unlit.
   “I see it is just starting to snow again outside.”
   The swordsman checked, but Johnny with his elbows on the sill took her at word. Claire cleverly waited for the swordsman to shift attention back into the room before continuing. She wasn’t causing distraction to gain from it. Not in the short-term.
   “That reminds me of my story. For it was a dark night. Inside a warm place, with a fire flickering away just as it flickers here. And that story began elsewhere, of course. Just as the events unfolding here tonight began elsewhere.”
   She put a wistful tone into her voice. Her right hand held the cup, ready for a swig of wine. She angled her head and pulled the left hand from her lap, up to the collar of her light sweater. There, the fingers lingered, caressing her throat. She held no man’s gaze.
“I see it is just starting to snow again outside.”
   The mother of the tale turned from the window to the girl with hair of jet. Food was on the table and off the table in the domestic ritual known as a meal. Details tumbled from Claire’s mouth as she outlined the building as though it represented the be-all and end-all of activity there. The character of each room informed spectators of the way life was lived by all those who lived in the village.
   Her description of the scene ceased being internal. Listeners knew that the mother of the tale and the daughter of the tale were waiting for the menfolk of the tale to return. All was laid bare. Peaceful life. People who would only harm flies if flies harmed them. And even then, the harming of flies would be attended to most reluctantly.
   Externally, the night was as night should be. Unforgiving. Lights in houses dotted the scene across the river. Snow fell. This was the view of the place from the depths of the far side. That viewpoint shifted left as the viewers marched in search of the ford.
   To avoid whinnying giving anything away, the men had abandoned horses. The tough march they’d made was done to make them feel harder. Colder. The properties of the surrounding landscape seeped into their minds. As decided by their leader. He was masked.
   Why? Perhaps not to conceal his identity. Some bandit leaders went masked so as to be replaced by new bandits when a leader’s wounds proved too severe. That was a fad, in bandit gangs, for a time. Why they didn’t all go masked was a mystery outwith the story’s scope. Some thieves like to be recognised, by all except the hangman.
   A few bandit kings were said to go masked for the thrill of it. Or the smell of the leather. Twenty bandits crossed the ford in time to meet the village men fresh home from their toil. The murderous brawl that followed drew the women into the street and down to the water’s edge for bloodshed.
   It was a long night for the young girl with hair of jet. She was told to stay in, while the fighting raged. The men would sell themselves dear against bandits. Cold night. Silent snowfall. Screams, perforating the air. The girl thought it foolish to hide indoors. She sneaked outside, where no looting would occur.
   With hair of jet, and clothes of dark brown so near to black as made no odds, the girl could hide in the wild forever. Save the cold, biting at her inside her great black coat. And the hunger, nipping at her. She considered emptying her bladder, but held everything in and felt the worse for that.
   These considerations washed off, as the looting of houses began. Torches flared now, and the girl in hiding feared the mobile flickering wands flaming away in the snowy night. She bit her fear in half, and reminded herself that the men carrying the torches were to be feared. Not light itself.
   There was nowhere to go until morning. And possibly nowhere to go, even then. She thought of true hunger, and set the thought to wasting. Her worries turned to the bladder again. While houses were looted, she crept across stones and tried to leave no trail. With the gurgling waters of the river acting as babbling accomplices, the girl with hair of jet emptied her bladder.
   Cold was a problem. The snow fell thick and fast. She moved back up above the line of flooding, and sneaked to a wall for shelter from the wind. A house was emptied. She seized her chance and ran inside. There was the familiar old man, grey with time, too feeble to toil. He’d stayed in, and made the journey to his death a shorter and easier one.
   So much blood, out of one frail old body. The girl dragged him nearer the fire, and shut the door. Then she spread a blanket over herself next the fire, flipped the corpse on top of her lair, and slept until the banging of a door upset her.
   “Why do you wear that mask?”
   “Even you don’t know who I am.”
   “It’s just to hide your features, then. I thought it was the smell of leather. We had two bandit leaders before you, who liked the smell. The first man, we called Sniffer.
   “I have a question for you. Out of all these men, I’m the only one masked. And I came to you masked. Why don’t you all wear masks?”
   “We leave no witnesses to our murders. Better to travel as an unmasked man abroad in the country. To be stopped by a patrol, going about our business, with masks to hand…would not sit well with us. At that juncture, only a devil-done deal would spare us from the hangman’s noose. And we haven’t the coin to bribe every patrol. Not even with tonight’s takings.”
   “There were thieves mixed in with the villagers. Tonight wasn’t just about money. One or two could have bought me off, but I was having none of it.”
   “I see you have a new trinket. What did that fetch ye?”
   “It cost me a few strokes of the sword into a man’s back. He drifted off down the river, and left it me in his inheritance. See the mark on the cup. A five-pointed star. It was the sign of his secret clan of thieves within this valley. A sigil he used, to ward me off. For it is a symbol that works on all the local bandits hereabout.”
   “Much good it did him.”
   “I have a mind to place it here, as a message to the other bandits. When they ride in and see the symbol had no hold over me and mine, that will save further looting and pillaging. We’ll simply ride up and demand tribute.”
   “To be fair, you could have done that here.”
   “Aye. Though to be a bandit, one cannot afford to be fair.”
   “What do you make of that, old one? Here, I’m talking to you. Lying there, pretending to be asleep.”
   “Leave him be. Can you not see the man’s retired from public life.”
   “Aye, right enough. For I’m the man, retired him.”
   And so, the banter faded as the thieves turned to other matters. They left, and the girl managed sleep that was peculiarly devoid of troubled dreams.
   In her nightmare-free slumber, she was thrown from one side of a ship to another, and had a grand time tangled in hammocks below the tempest-tested deck. Nothing in that dream scared her, until the last few seconds when the wind died off and men growled as they turned to beasts. The girl with hair of jet rolled clear, and heaved at a bear that was growling in her face. The weight of a corpse told her she was now awake. Morning had not improved the look of the scene.
   Warily, she kicked the corpse away, and, after little rummaging, ate the food an old man once planned to see him through another day. Silence outside. She stared at the window. Snowing, yet. There was no way to see smoke to either side of her. Smoke from other chimneys did not prove the occupants were friendly.
   The fire in this dwelling had burned low and was almost spent. If she stoked it up again, would anyone see the renewed activity? Leading to renewed activity. Who survived? You. And the bandits. Concentrate on you.
   Opening the front door, she keeked into the street to left and right. No marauders here. Thieves in the village had brought this on themselves, and on those who were not thieves at all. In front of the step, mocking life, sat a chalice in the snow. She could not see the mark on it, for it faced away. But the mark was of a five-pointed star, she knew. A red candle had been set in snow within the chalice. What that meant, she had no idea. Save, on a whim, that it stood for blood.
   Packing food, and clothes, she saw to every conceivable want, and hopped into the street. Snow thickened. She lifted the candle from its cradle, and saw that it had rested on a bed of snow. The used candle was snuffed somewhere else and placed there.
   This chalice was a sign. To those who favoured the five-pointed star. Behave. We’ll be back, for easy tribute. The girl with hair of jet knew the world could be a harsher place than the one she stood in now. So she packed candle and chalice away, to make the lives of the marauders more difficult when they circulated through the countryside hunting for easy-gained scraps.
   That was all the revenge she had in mind for the bandits. Sometimes a small victory is the greatest victory you’ll achieve. Though that smallness grows in the telling each time, as you tell it to yourself and no other.
   Down the street she went, a figure lost in snow. Along the path to the ford. There she stopped, to see the mother of the tale lying face-down in the water, with poppies of blood spread across the back of that rough peasant’s shirt. The girl knelt, and grabbed at the fabric so the woman could be hauled to the bank. There, the girl would go through pockets more easily, to see if anything could be salvaged from the mess.
   The horse was on her too rapidly for the girl to act. She stared up at the masked man, wreathed in snow. He appeared to be alone. She wasn’t to know that he’d turned around in the night after splitting from his men. The storm confounded him. He’d seen no reason to remove the mask. The dead can’t tell on you. He was riding to the village of the dead in search of his bearings. Well, now he’d found those. And a late prize, perhaps. No, she wasn’t to know he’d lost his way, except in the sense that he’d turned to banditry. But she knew fine well he must be the masked man who stood over her as a corpse kept guard. This was the bandit who’d placed the chalice in the snow, snow in the chalice, and red wax in that cup of snow.
   “You’ll wash and you’ll scrub to the ends of time. The stains in that shirt won’t come clean.”
   “There are deeper stains on your hands, and in the snow. They’ll wash off just fine.”
   “A girl, is it? I took you for an old woman.”
   “The snow is in your eyes, and blinds you as does greed…or thirst for revenge.”
   “Is it revenge you want of me, girl?”
   “I’ve had my revenge, though you could not know it.”
   “Are you here to wash some crime away from that shirt? Poor task, for one so young. Besides, the garment is not fit for wearing. See the holes in the fabric.”
   “Did you put them there?”
   “Perhaps. I scarce remember the faces. And wear this mask in memory of my lack of memory of the faces. What use are you to me? You look ill-educated, and unable to pen your name. So it’s your tongue I’d be cutting out, to keep word of my actions from spreading to the law.”
   “I can pen my name. That’s not the same as being able to pen yours.”
   “So it’s your hands I’d be cutting off, to keep those tell-tale fingers from penning or pointing.”
   “Unless you’ve adopted a voice for our chatter, it’s the sound of your own voice, the sound you love, that marks you out to other men.”
   “Then it’s your ears I should be cutting off, the tongue I must rip out, and the hands my sword is for taking, that would settle this matter for me.”
   “Slicing out my eyes is a short-cut to killing me outright. Why not just slash my heart and be done?”
   “No, I think it’s the fear of all those petty physical things, and worse, that should be my winter gift to ye. For you are a child, by chance the only one in the village, and I have no great calling to kill a child. Unless you take a knife to hand.”
   “Will you not lend me one?”
   “I will not.”
   “With a blade, I’d find it quicker to cut the clothes away, and search her pockets as fast as I please.”
   “Why do you not weep here, at the ford?”
   “I left my tears in another country. For I have adopted a new voice for our chatter. It is not the sound of my own voice, and it is the sound of a voice I hate. Yet it is mine through choice as much as necessity. Where is the blade for me? From your scabbard, or your pack?”
   “My horse carried me here when I lost my bearings. I haven’t lost my mind as well. If it’s a blade you’re after, hunt in the kitchen drawers of yon gutted village. I know fine well where I am now. On the edge of hell, with you its unfeeling guardian. Good day to ye, spirit. I’ll tangle here no more.”
“And with that, my tale is done.”
   A log split on the fire, and Wee Harry resisted jumping from his seat. He flinched, and that was good enough. What did this mean? She’d made it up, of course. Aye. This was a ruse, to plant things all around the room and make use of them. Red Claire had dropped the chalice and the candle into some half-imagined saga. For the chalice and the candle were to hand. The question was…what use could Wee Harry make of this?
   “Scared you, did she, Harry? Too much for your frail constitution? A grim construction of murder in the dark, with a wee bit touch of the uncanny in the telling.”
   “There’s sorcery to this, Johnny Bad Knee. Eck will tell ye the same, if he returns. We walked for miles in the snow to our simple shelter. And lo! Up out of the hollow we staggered, two jaded coves with such a sight in front of us. There, afore the front step, sat a chalice in the snow.”
   “Would it be yon fine metal goblet to hand? The one you’re pretending to quaff wine from in sport of making me think you are drunk?”
   “The same.”
   “And if you turn your hard-fixed thumb from it, twirling the cup around, will I see a five-pointed star?”
   “That you would.”
   “What’s that to me?”
   “I have the red candle in my pocket. The very red candle from that tale.”
   “Aye, you’re a desperate man Wee Harry. As desperate as Lanky Eck, who at least had the sense to make a mile-run of it in the snow. You grasp at a straw invented by your whore.”
   “No straw. Eck will spill the news.”
   “On his return. That’s just part of the arrangement between the three of you, and would clarify nothing. I’d get more corroboration from a dog pissing in the street.”
   “Eck hasn’t the wits to fabricate yon detail.”
   “Which is precisely why he’s been left out of this sham tale. All he need do to play his part is walk with you all innocent to the front door and see some concoction she’s left in his path.”
   “It was left in our paths. For what reason, I cannot fathom. You must believe that.”
   “Thick as thieves, you are. I’m not part of that financial arrangement.”
   “Listen sore-hard, Johnny. We made that up, about her being our pet whore. I’ve never seen her before today. She broke in, planted the chalice outside, and awaited our return. Why, when we met her, we confronted her with the tomfoolery. As though the chalice had special meaning. I suppose it has, to the masked man who murdered the girl’s family.”
   “What’s that to me? Or, more to the point, Wee Harry. What is it to you, if she left you the message?”
   “Maybe the message was for Lanky Eck. That’s why he ran.”
   “Lanky Eck. The man who hasn’t the wit to be a half-wit? This is all some fancy distraction to get away from the business of the money.”
   “If that were true, I’d be braced topless against the mantle while you took your pleasure from behind. For men of your stripe, a semi-naked woman is all the distraction from money you’d need.”
   With that utterance, she was clearly not Red Claire the high-priced pet whore. Wee Harry thought her the girl from the ford. For that to be the case, every element of the murderous tale had to match the placing of the chalice outside Harry’s door.
   Harry considered the village thief, captain of his clan, and man who proffered the sigil as a sign of protection. Was that poor wretch the girl’s father? The masked man, captain of the bandits, and original placer of the chalice. Was he now, years later, the target of the young girl’s revenge?
   Wee Harry pondered the name she gave him. Red Claire, they named me. Well that’s no admission of a name. He took the name, and the redheaded look of her, to indicate Berserker blood. The Berserkers, famous for many things, including their red rage, loved the old tales of the Red Queen.
   He’d thrown that bone at her, to see if she snapped at it. Why call me that? Her hair was dark. A comment that meant nothing to Harry. Until this story unfolded. The girl with hair of jet. She carried the chalice away. And what? Years later, as Red Claire, she placed the cup outside your door.
   “You’ve grown to womanhood and dyed your hair, to throw the masked killer off your scent. And planted the chalice, to see what my reaction might be.”
   “I planted the chalice. A pity you sit too tight to the fire, for any sweat atop your brow could be explained away by flames and not fearful desperation.”
   “There’s been a mistake. I’m no masked murderer.”
   “Well, in fairness, you would say that…wouldn’t you.”
   “Don’t Johnny me. I’m eager to find the money. So if this wench has some revenge to slip off her chest, it can wait until the money’s up for grabs.”
   “I’ll not stand for this. It’s you she’s colluded with, Johnny. To fix me up in some scheme so I don’t know if I’m coming or coming…or going.”
   “Seems to me, she’s still your tenpenny strumpet. The one who organised the stealing of the Big Man’s loot. And if she’s colluding with any man, it’s you. Was there an end to your tale of revenge?”
   “Not on the day. That came later. Would you like to hear of it?”
   “Wee Harry mightn’t. I’m in the mood to see him squirm.”
   “Then harken all who care to hear. For this concerns ye.”

Two figures sat next each other, having drawn chairs from far ends of an overly-large table. The hall was dim, the hour late, and the business unseemly. For it was to be a game of murder in the dark, or worse. Neither party wished to venture the definition of worse. For there were untold tales on both sides, the like of which might chill the very blood.
   The woman with flaming red locks sat easy in her chair, throwing one arm casually over the back. She almost swung the chair off its front legs. No refined and tailored lady, she chafed at the surrounding trappings of wealth. They brought coils of propriety and decorum to the table, as heavy as any shackles – thrice as difficult to remove.
   Her companion was a steel-haired man drowning in the trappings of that wealth. The plain gold ring on one hand matched that on the other, and another eight kept in a drawer. On special occasions, he wore them all. Once, he jested that there was an eleventh ring of larger diameter. For the rare occasions that trumped the special.
   The colour of his clothing ranged through all the shades of gold imaginable. He seemed determined to wear layers on layers merely to show off the many shades. A golden vest, just peeping out. The shirt on top. A jumper slashed with a V at the neck. The waistcoat atop that. A housecoat next. Two coats draped across the chair. His about-town coat, and the great winter coat. All gold, to greater or lesser degree. He wore a golden tie. And other items, many baubles, too numerous to mention. The man was trapped in finery, and could not cut loose of it if he wanted to. He didn’t want to.
   “There are thieves in the valley, and they must be corralled. It would be unseemly to go off and kill men who have empty pockets and clean hands.”
   “Catch them in the act.”
   “I dearly wish I could.”
   “Then set traps.”
   “I asked you here for more than your advice.”
   “If it’s my thighs you seek, hire yourself a legion of strumpets. This body’s not for sale.”
   “At the price I set, I’d say your body’s mine to do with as I will.”
   “Only if I say so too, and I don’t. So there’s an end of it.”
   “I don’t want advice, I want action. There’s no one here worth trusting. You’re from outside. Set some traps for me.”
   “What have you in mind?”
   “I don’t like the way these thieves operate. The best excuse I could have, for moving in, is to discover my own loot stolen.”
   “Not easy to get at. Unless they mug you in an alley and hold an auction on golden clothes.”
   “I’ll let slip that there’s servant bother. That’s easy to manufacture when all I need do is vault into a tirade. Then it’s a question of shuffling servants around, and leaving a gap in the halls. Coupled with some building and restoration, there’ll be a scaffold for easy access and a pile of cash just waiting.”
   “Drip-feed it to them. More subtly than you explained it just now. Where do I sit, and pose for my part in this oil-painting?”
   “The word will go to my target. Catching him coin-handed is not my game. I want you to set eyes on him and race ahead. There’ll be a hue, and, after a wee while, a cry. But not for him. I plan to set my people on the road, to force him to ground. With a horse under you, which you must cut loose of, you can race well ahead. Upset his routine at his home. Toy with him. Set up his capture. His defeat.”
   “He won’t dare hide the loot in his house.”
   “Other things can be placed there. Symbols.”
“You don’t seem to have ended your tale, though you’ve stopped speaking.”
   “I was simply explaining, how it could come about, that I might be at the Big Man’s lofty hall to see the burglary enacted, and then reach the burglar’s home ahead of him. You understand, Wee Harry.”
   “Aye. There was some commotion on the road, and Eck was ready to burst. He thought for certain we were undone. You could have been waiting at my door as I left home to do the job, if the whole thing was the Big Man’s doing. He’s not here to confirm the tale. Though I suppose your presence does that, now I think on it.”
   “I had to see who took the task on. For the tale of servant trouble was leaked in more than one dank hostelry. The snow added a few flourishes to the fun.”
   “How so? You’d never have told your tale of the chalice in the snow, if there’d been no snow.”
   “It would have been the chalice on the grass. I had permission from the Big Man to alter the details. You seem relieved, Johnny Bad Knee.”
   “Aye, that I am. For you are right in saying the word of servant trouble, and talk of construction, was sent out to every inn worth mention. And a few worth no mention. That noose might be tightening around my neck, but for the notion I had…to spend my time drinking, last night. To swear off the foolishness of a break-in. Why not let a weasel do the work, instead…”
   “Here! Don’t imagine any noose is tightening around my neck. I’ve a way out of this.”
   “In your tiny mind. Aye. You’re done for, Wee Harry. Right welcome to the money, you are. Unless the Big Man never recovers the cash. In which case, finders are keepers.”
   “I see the mystery of the roadside mob is resolved, not to my great satisfaction. But you’ve a part to play in this yet, Johnny Bad Knee. How came you here so fast? If all you had a mind to do was drink?”
   “A matter settled in easy words. I was told Eck blabbed to a tuppeny whore that he’d be back for seconds and thirds and more. The telling and the timing of that, coupled with a joke at the Big Man’s expense, said to me that Wee Harry was up to no good in the night. For where Lanky Eck plots crime, there stands Wee Harry actually explaining the plotting.”
   “You have me there. For that’s all I seem to do in Eck’s company.”
   “It occurred that I’d best stride along for a word today. I was hoping Eck would confess his slip with the whore, but he’s so addled he likely wouldn’t consider the slip a slip at all.”
   “You reached here far too early. I tried putting it down to coincidence. Or some confederate of yours, killing a horse in haste to give you the news hot from town.”
   “I was still out in the far woods, waiting at home there, drinking with my swordsmen, when I was told of the tuppeny whore’s information. It went well with the news that the Big Man’s loot came available. The snow came on, so I bided some time instead of toiling after gold. Not overlong, mind. We shivered a bit out in the country today, waiting for woodsmoke to tell me you were home.”
   “Aye. You came right smart to see me, and could only have been yonder out of my sight as I waded home with Eck. So what now? You have no prospect of seeing the money. This wench must be the tip of the spear, about to be shoved between my ribs. No offence, wench.”
   “Should I take some? You stole the loot, and now must pay.”
   “It was left out on a platter for me, woman.”
   “And that should have fed your suspicions.”
   “Am I to face a hanging, for being true to my nature?”
   “At least you can say you died for your principles.”
   “And what of that rogue, propped on my window there? But for the grace of my greed, he’d be stepping to the scaffold. Here…”
   “Aye. The scaffold set for the reconstruction will reconstruct the neck of the man it was built to trap.”
   “That’s rum, by any stretch.”
   “Of the imagination, or merely your neck? Pardon my jest, Wee Harry.”
   “You call that a jest, Johnny? I see no mirth in it.”
   “Well I see plenty, and will dine out on it as I regale the wags and wits of all the towns hereabout. There was a day in my life when I near stepped in a noose, but for the greed of my old rival Wee Harry. They must check the measure of that scaffold, though. For it might need to be raised a floor, if we’re to see Lanky Eck dangle from the heights.”
   “Side with me against the wench.”
   “I would if I knew we weren’t surrounded. Though I suspect we are.”
   Johnny Bad Knee straightened and turned to look out the window. His swordsman did the same. Snow fell on a black night, and that was all anyone might claim to see, besides imagined shapes. The conversation had ebbed and flowed over danger. Now was the time.
   Red Claire stood and threw her cup of wine at Wee Harry. Her body twirled left and the wine-red sweater in her left hand went in and out of the fire with a routine to it that spoke of strange, though effective, training.
   There came a whooshing as the body of the sweater soaked up flames. The garment was hurled across the room at Johnny Bad Knee. Wee Harry remembered the chalice and let fly with his own stock of wine, splashing it across Claire’s neck. Harry didn’t waste energy struggling up out of the chair. He tipped the whole thing back with a clatter and rolled to his left, forcing himself under the rickety table.
   Legs moved from the wall over at the windows. Down there, under the table, Wee Harry’s face brushed a cobweb. There was a dance going on, as Johnny Bad Knee twirled around and fell in a fiery crashing mess. The other set of legs belonged to the swordsman.
   Harry’s plan would now involve avoiding the swordsman. Come on, Harry. Think. Act. His eyes scrambled around, looking for help. He curled into a ball, and saw Claire’s face. She was kneeling and reaching into her boot for a blade. The swordsman backed away to the hall door, and ran.
   Claire stood and slid the table off Harry. He tasted wine. Most of her wine had landed in his hair. There was a pain to the left cheek. His body told him, a lifetime later, that her cup had bounced off his flesh. Over he rolled again, stand-stumbling to his feet. Claire marched to the kitchen and brought back a pail of water for the burning man. A second pail made sure of the wooden items around him.
   Wee Harry righted his chair, and sank back into it. He observed the roasted man, quivering and quaking on the floor. Claire draped her scarf across the back of her neck, and climbed into her long wine-red coat. Only now did she bother to light her lantern. She rolled her sleeves up before she did that. Then she bent over the mewling figure, and put the blade to his throat.
   “Your mistake was in thinking that you’d be safe. We are never safe. Least of all on a storm-beset sea. Once you’ve tasted that, every situation is storm-beset. Two phrases you let slip, before I used them in the story of the chalice. Devil-done bargains and pretty trinkets sealed your doom.”
   There was no meaningful answer from the downed man.
   “How was it you thought you were safe? You kept cooler than Wee Harry when I started my tale. All the way through it, you were thinking…this girl, hidden under the corpseis she sat here telling me the story? If that’s the case, she never saw my face. For the faces of both men were hidden. One by a mask. The other by chance.
   Some whimper indicated life and little else.
   “Then I spin the tale of the Big Man, in his lofty hall. Telling me what to do, so that I am the puppet dancing to his string. Meaning I couldn’t be the little girl hiding under the corpse, all grown and come looking for revenge. Instead, the story was passed to me by the man who wore the mask in that scene.”
   Wee Harry drank in the sounds, as he repelled the smell of flesh. The wind picked up and rattled the house. He made sure not to gaze at what was left of Johnny Bad Knee. The bandit would be looking for another name, now.
   “So you think yourself safe, imagining I’m just one more hired hand in the pay of the man who lives in that lofty hall. He’s sending me to do his dirty work, and using the candle from the old days. If you’d reached this house before Wee Harry, you’d have cried off on spying the chalice in the snow. And that would have told me enough. For I am that black-haired girl. Hunted you a good while, I have. Not sure, I was, if Harry here was the man. I had a list of suspects. The task wasn’t easy. And the planning of it was a joy from the hardness of the job. So no complaints from me. Had the toil been too easy, then the easiness wouldn’t have been toil.”
   Johnny attempted a word. The attempt fell at the low hurdle.
   “First, I followed that bastard through the snow. It took a year, though I lost the trail many times. Soon enough, I carved his identity out of the trail he left behind. It was clear that he passed himself as a respectable citizen somewhere. Discerning that name behind the mask took some years, and I was training all the while. Though my true training happened in another land, under a harsher sky.”
   Wee Harry stared at his own fingers, wondering if he had it in his bones to commit murder as the woman gabbled. She was aware of everything in the room, no matter which way she faced or what she said. That thought of murder was let slip.
   “I had him under my thumb at a distance of some years. A Big Man, he’d become. Was he keeping the same company? Not here, thought I. And yet, there might be one or two old hands from that grim confederation. We’re a good way from the village where he met me, a-washing corpses in the ford.”
   How was Wee Harry to explain the complexities of this to Lanky Eck? With wine. And whores.
   “This is another world, in the towns. Far from banditry. I moved in on my suspects. It’s the villagers I should thank. A rotten lot they were, taking me in. The only child for miles around. That village had turned barren, though I know not why.”
   A murmur from the injured man.
   “Lest I be marked out as not kin, they made me dye my hair black. You almost tripped up on that one, Harry. With your talk of the Red Queen, who had black hair. But the man I was hunting never saw me. And I expected more of a reaction from you as I keeked through the keyhole of your front door, while you and Lanky Eck gabbed a nonsense.”
   She returned to talking in Johnny’s ear, and Wee Harry was grateful for that.
   “They took me in. Dyed my hair. Changed my accent, mangling it in the mincer of two countries. Though I’ve learned many voices since. The worst crime of all was perpetrated by the old man. He shielded me in death. That man told me the land of my birth was a nonsense-place. He was the one who took me off the ship that wrecked. I was carried inland to the home of his birth, as a gift to the village.”
   Wheezing now, from the figure on the floorboards.
   “He it was, alone, who saw a secret he shared with me, by way of a taunt. In that, he marked his time as ended. I was a week from killing him myself, when you robbed me of the pleasure. There’s a glimmer in your eyes. I’d have killed the masked man on his horse, but that would have denied me revenge against you. Do you not think the girl in the story capable of killing? The old man wouldn’t have been my first victim. And now, as Wee Harry stops up his ears, I’ll tell you what the old man knew about me. The secret he held over me as I hold this knife over you.”
   Wee Harry stopped his ears, shoving fingers right in and singing la-la-la to himself. He did this knowing that he’d be allowed to live. There was a taste of cheese in his mouth. He didn’t remember eating that chunk of it. But he must have done so.
   “And now you know what your victim knew. You know he was to be my victim. I see you are in no position to taunt me, or hold a secret over my head. That was hot work, sitting by the fire. The outer sweater I wore…the arms were treated to resist flame. And the rest was treated not to. I wanted you to suffer. It’s the fire-raiser in me. Taking a knife to you would have worked, just the same. Would you like to know the secret, Wee Harry? Well, would you?”
   “No, I’m. Fine, thanks.”
   “Very wise. Well, I ushered the Big Man’s guards out onto the road. That was a ruse. I told them plain it was a ruse, to delay action. To delay Wee Harry, there. That was a lie, designed to delay the guards themselves. The Big Man would be cloistered with his assistants all night, all day, all night again, and all day. Until this matter of the theft resolved itself. Meals are taken into different rooms on trays, and left for the Big Man as he shifts from suite to suite seeing to his affairs. The trays are not cleared away. Eventually, someone will discover the Big Man’s corpse.”
   “Oh, did I need to hear that part?”
   “You wanted more than your fare share of your cut, Johnny Bad Knee. Why don’t we start with your. Remind me. Which one’s the good knee?”
   “Here, I’ll not bide in this house of torture.”
   “You’ll bide, Wee Harry. I’m not sending a good man into the dark. This is the last chunk of my revenge. Cut free of that, and I’ll cut free of my past. I can set aside the fire-raiser, the hell-giver, the thief-taker. My life will be a calm one after this.”
   With each emphasis, there was a cut followed by a frothing moan.
   “You’ll not keep him long.”
   “He’s bleeding fine now. So. Wee Harry. Where’s the money?”
   “All that mischief, and you want the money too?”
   “If it lies in your hands, you’ll swing for murdering the Big Man.”
   “Oh, stop my ears again.”
   “Have I been harsh?”
   “That would depend on knowing secret things you’d likely kill me for.”
   “Then I shall judge you in light of a lack of that knowledge.”
   “How do you judge me, then?”
   “You set fire to a man, and cut slices out of him. I don’t want to know what you did to the Big Man in his lofty hall. Though I suspect you’ll let me live solely that I might venture into town and hear the worst of it.”
   “How else are you to fear me?”
   “We’ll not meet again. Fearing you makes no difference.”
   “No. Hating, fearing, trembling at my name, these things matter little to corpses.”
   “Who are you?”
   “It’s what I was, and what I was meant to be, that you should be asking after.”
   “Would I care for the answers?”
   “No, you would not. Men have died, for knowing those.”
   “Can I go now?”
   “I’ll go with you. This one’s dead. We’ve a long struggle ahead of us.”
   “To reach the money, or in life generally?”
   “Answering that won’t fry my fish. Would you like to leave a note for Lanky Eck?”
   “Not if you’re going to dictate it. His eyes would pop out of his head. Give him a tuppeny whore and he’s happy.”
   “Aye? Well, here’s some coin for the food I had. It was a pleasure breaking bread in your house.”
   “That was a low, mean, trick of yours. Invoking hospitality and luring Johnny to his death.”
   “What care I, for breaking your rules of hospitality? It’s not my house.”
   “Well it can’t be mine now, with this slaughter to explain away. And Johnny’s guards…”
   “They won’t last the night. I’m gathering a pack of wolves out in these woods. Did you imagine that I travelled alone?”
   “No. I took you for the scout, and not the leader.”
   “A view that’s killed more than one man.”
   “Are you referring to that tactic of bending down to show off your wares?”
   “Bless your heart, Wee Harry. Enjoy what comes your way, bitter as it may later seem.”
   “I’ll bide fine without your blessings. What of Eck?”
   “Lanky Eck. I told my men, if anyone were to cut and run, that the lanky one should be spared.”
   “So Johnny’s guards…”
   “Aren’t lanky enough.”
   “You might have killed me, by mistake.”
   “I very nearly did. Several times.”
   “What would you have felt, if you had?”
   “Regret that I spent a moment savouring revenge on the wrong man.”
   “And then?”
   “Back to my quest for revenge. Cheer yourself. I’d narrowed the suspects to two. And lined them up in the same room. That was no easy task.”
   “How did you get from the village to my house? Down those years…”
   “That is another story…”
   “Will you tell it me?”
   “Are you going to lead me to the money?”
   “Do you make promises?”
   “Of vengeance.”
   “That’s no great prospect to me.”
   “I could drop you here, in pools of your own blood, and see if Eck’s memory improves. Do you not suspect that he ran off in search of the gold?”
   “He’s not that bright.”
   “Does he say the same of you?”
   “Oh no. After all this. You mean he might not be as stupid as I like to think?”
   “Let’s disappear into the storm, to see if my money has disappeared into the storm…”
   “Imagine the thruppeny whores he’ll be spending that loot on. When you say your money, you mean our money…”
   Their traces were soon lost in the snow. Red Claire was seen in those parts no more. She stood over Wee Harry, who wailed and gnashed his teeth in the snow when he saw the gold was gone. Wee Harry ran off to find Lanky Eck. Lanky Eck and the loot were never recovered.
   A man bearing a marked resemblance to Wee Harry was last seen admiring a fine slate roof in pastures new. When you ask his name, he has the unfortunate habit of pausing until it comes to him as though out of a mist. You’d not be surprised to hear that when it does come to him, it certainly isn’t Wee Harry.

THE CHALICE IN THE SNOW, photography © RLL 2000, story © RLL 2011. The moral right is hereby asserted. All rights reserved.

Red Claire continues her adventures in Neon Gods Brought Down By Swords. Click on the cover below and head on over to Amazon to sample the start of the novel, free.