author of fantasy
Hero of Goblin Moon and The Gnome's Engine
Hungry for more of the mysterious Lord Francis?
Here is an excerpt from an unpublished Skelbrooke novel.
The Waxbridge Horror
It was a black night, the moon no more than a pale, milky glow illuminating the clouds on the western horizon. But behind those dark clouds, Iune waxed huge and round; nature was in a state of flux. The earth shifted, restless in her sleep, the sea was high and angry ... even the very air seemed charged, heavy with dangerous possibilities.
Since nightfall, the city of Lundy had been twice rocked by earthquakes. In her ill-lit streets, hobgoblins and knockers—started from their subterranean dens by the heaving earth—skittered and chattered wherever the shadows were deepest.
A party of dwarves and men, respectable merchants and craftsmen clad in sober wools and broadcloths, coming late from some guildhall supper, marched through the street with an escort of linkmen who carried torches and brandished spiked clubs ... though small, the hobs and the knockers were armed with sharp claws and razor teeth, and their bite was poisonous. It was not safe to go out unarmed or unguarded these nights when the moon waxed full.
Crossing Water Street, hard by the river, the guildsmen encountered a troop of masked and costumed revelers, disembarking from a gilded pleasure barge. They were dressed like characters from some comic opera, these roistering nobles, in immense wigs and preposterous oversized tricorn hats, flamboyant capes of spangled satin or velvet besprinkled with paste gemstones. But there was nothing humorous about their masks, cruel caricatures of age, infirmity, or deformity, nor anything lighthearted about feverish eyes glittering behind wide eyeholes. As the merchants and their escort gave way to let them past, the revelers swept on by, flourishing their capes and laughing derisively.
From Water Street, down Greenfriars Lane the gaudy procession continued, torches flickering in the damp river air. One of the men stooped in passing to pick up a loose cobblestone from the gutter: a moment later there came a loud crack, followed by a tinkle of falling glass. The mischief-maker and his nearest comrades trooped on toward Marblehall, but one of the revelers at the end of the procession, a slender youth in a harlequin cape and a plumed hat, lingered for a moment, staring up at the broken shop window with troubled eyes.
His companion, a lady in a scarlet gown and mask, stopped and looked back at him. "Do not fret, my sweet Francis, "she said in a melodious voice. She shook back the folds of her gold satin cloak and extended a soft white hand. "Amends shall be made. Make a note of the building, and tomorrow I will send Dance to pay for the damage."
Still the young man lingered, holding his torch high. "So you said, six weeks ago, when Frazier broke a window, so you said when Swallow, Lawrence, Woodhall and Grimm assaulted two chair-bearers and tumbled the old man they were carrying out into the street ... amends would be made. But I passed by the house a few days later, and the window had not been replaced."
The lady shrugged. "If I send money, I cannot guarantee that it will be spent on glass instead of cheap spirits, " she said haughtily.
Francis flushed beneath his grotesque half mask. "The common people of Lundy are not all of them drunkards, Lucinda. And you might just as well say, if you send the money by way of Silas Dance you cannot guarantee it will not be spent on whores and expensive wines."
Lucinda shrugged again. "Whores or window glass ... it all comes to your precious commons one way or the other, does it not?" But then her manner grew soft and coaxing. "Come now, my dearest love, we cannot afford to allow the others to get too far ahead of us. There is no telling what they may do if I am not there to restrain them. And if you do not trust Dance to deliver the money, you may handle the commission yourself. I know how much you enjoy the role of benefactor."
Reluctantly, he took her hand, and allowed Lady Lucinda to lead him in pursuit of the others, down the long twisting lane and across a dark square. The mischievous violence that so frequently marked these outings increasingly troubled him. Yet he still accepted Lucinda's explanation: that the exhalted mental state necessary to work the magic rituals once they all reached their destination brought a number of different reactions. Silas Dance and some of the others generally became violent: Euripides Hooke grew morose, even suicidal; Francis himself felt a heightened sensitivity to the emotions of his companions; and as for Lucinda ... Francis stole a glance at the voluptuous body under the gold cape. Lady Lucinda became more sensual than ever.
And what was an occasional broken window, an overturned coach or cart, the playful battering of a chairman or a link boy, beside the benefits that all Lundy derived—all unknowing—from the proper performance of the ancient rituals?
Francis and Lucinda overtook the others outside the gates of Whitegate Cemetery. The rusty lock on the iron gates had been broken, battered with a crowbar that Silas Dance carried in one hand: the way lay open. Lucinda took the lead now, and the twelve young men, grown suddenly sober, followed her between the tombstones and marble monuments of the abandoned burial ground. A flagstone walk led to a raised granite terrace, a statuary garden of the sort that dwarves loved, urns planted with evergreen shrubs, heroic figures wrought in marble, benches made of cast iron and bronze. But the garden, like the rest of the graveyard, lay in ruins: statues were tilted and crumbling, urns cracked and overgrown, benches rusting and corroding away. At the center of the terrace was a wide expanse of bare stone, and there Lucinda stopped at the exact midpoint, and her followers made a circle around her.
Francis was the last to join the circle, slipping in between a foppish figure in emerald satin and silver lace, and a tall man wearing black velvet and a death's head mask. "What is the ceremony to be?" he whispered in the tall man's ear. Lucinda made no announcement when they first embarked, and Francis had not thought to ask until now.
Blue eyes smiled at him beneath the skeletal mask. "A spirit-raising ... have you never seen one?"
Francis shook his head. He had participated in the rites of the Aetnean Circle for less than a year, and much of what they did was strange to him. "You have only to do as the rest of us do, and repeat after Lucinda," said his friend. "But do not take your eyes off her on any account, lest you miss something ... incredible. She is truly a marvel, our Lucinda."
Francis laughed softly, and the tall man joined in. "I do not mean in that way only—though I envy your current place in her favor."
A bank of heavy clouds entirely obscured the moon: the cemetery was dark but for the flaring torches, and for Lucinda, who had discarded her gold satin cloak and stood with her eyes closed and her arms spread wide, her powdered curls and her white skin glowing faintly, as if gathering all the torchlight to herself.
Softly at first, then with a rising urgency, Lucinda began to chant, and her disciples followed her lead. As her voice rose higher and higher, their voices rose also; the air around them, already charged and crackling with static electricity, grew thick and hot with the papable power of the invocation. Entirely caught up in the spell, Francis felt his skin begin to burn, a pressure building inside of him, forcing the oxygen out of his lungs. He gasped, drew in as much of the tingling air as he could, and continued to chant.
At the center of the circle, Lucinda moaned softly, whether in pain or ecstasy he could not tell. But something strange and wonderful was beginning to happen. Slowly, slowly, through Lucinda's parted lip, a mist began to seep, a spiraling grey vapor that grew and expanded, became a vast whirling chaos, and then slowly condensed into a faintly human form, suspended in the air above Lucinda's head.
"I conjure you, Spirit, to speak," intoned Silas Dance, across the circle opposite Francis. As with the others, his limbs shook with a violent agitation, the words came out ragged and breathless as if forced from his throat. "Who were you in life, Spirit, and whom do you seek?"
The apparition made faint sounds, tiny, fretful noises like a small child whimpering. As the whimpering became a keening, the keening rose to a piteous wailing, the vapor took on a more distinct and solid form: the image of a spindly little girl, a pale wisp of a creature, with huge hollow eyes, tangled dark hair - and a silver dagger buried to the hilt in her breast.
Francis cried out in horror; around him, others cried out as well. The little ghost had her hands curled around the jeweled hilt, was struggling to drag the long blade out of her breast. But her frantic attempts seemed only to increase her torment, to wrack her tiny body with agonizing shudders. And all the time there was a prodigious flow of blood. The entire front of her gown was already soaked in it, her dark hair clotted with gore, and more blood kept pumping out of her wounded breast, along the blade of the knife, over her clutching hands, and down to the stone pavement in a pulsing crimson stream. It was impossible that one small body could hold so much blood.
Two men went down on their hands and knees, gagging and wretching: someone began to gabble a prayer. And still the agonizing struggle continued. The child gasped and sobbed and fought with the knife—it seemed she must rip out her heart—but the dagger remained embedded in her chest.
At last Francis could bear no more. He strode forward, pulled the child down out of the air. She was cold and damp, substance without weight, but the dagger was solid and real. He wrapped his fingers around the jeweled hilt and wrenched the blade out of her breast. With a long shuddering sigh, the little ghost faded away, leaving Francis with the bloody dagger still clutched in his hand.
At that same instant, Lucinda gave a cry of mortal anguish, and dropped to the pavement in a dead faint. All the torches when out at once, plunging the statuary garden into total darkness.
The Hospital of the Holy Powers was a decaying tumbledown structure, a drafty erection of splintery black timbers and broken glass, lurking behind ugly stone walls and a set of rusty iron gates. In happier times, it had been a convent, and the high walls had encircled a garden, very pleasant, green, and shady. All that remained of the garden, now, were some rotting stumps, and the only indications that the building had once housed a community of pious sisters were some dim carvings above the main door-portraits of the Nine Powers done in low relief—and a habit among the younger doctors of referring, facitiously, to the wing where the children and the female patients were stowed as "the Cloisters."
Neither peace nor piety could be found in the Cloisters: two large filthy, rackety wards, with row upon row of narrow beds and scarcely an aisle between them, the sick and the injured, the senile and the insane, all promiscuously crammed together without any regard for contagion. The men's wards were equally crowded, equally dirty and noisy. Like other hospitals in the city of Lundy, this was a "charitable" concern, serving as an experimental laboratory and a brutal proving ground for the professors and students of the medical school at the University, and the last resort of those too poor to pay a physician to visit them at home, or those who had no home but the streets. Many patients crawled or were carried to the hospital in their last extremity, for the simple purpose of dying with a roof over their heads.
Some took longer to die than others. One old dwarf woman in particular—something of an anomaly just for being there, because the dwarves, as a general rule, looked after their own—had lingered for two seasons, valiantly battling a fatal lung disease, her flesh virtually melting away until she was hardly more than a sack of sallow skin containing a collection of brittle bones. When the young doctor with the fine hands and the soft, cultured voice (something of an anomaly himself) examined her during the twelfth week of her stay, he knew by her rattling breath, the irregular, laborious thud of her heart, that death was very near.
"Madam Ferrox, is there anyone you would like to see ... anyone we might send for?" Francis Skelbrooke, nineteen years old and a student of medicine for almost three years, knew the names of all the Cloister patients and addressed each one with a gentle courtesy which—while it made some of his more hardened colleagues smile derisively-bestowed on even the foulest pox-ridden streetwalker in the ward a fleeting borrowed dignity, the more precious, perhaps, because it came so late and passed so briefly.
The dying dwarf stared up at him with clouded eyes. "No one ... I have no one. D'ye think I would be here if I had?" She began to wheeze and then to cough up blood.
Mr. Skelbrooke, somewhat distractedly, handed her his own pocket handkerchief. It would be utterly spoiled, of course, the delicate linen stained beyond saving, but that was another habit he had, distributing his personal effects in this offhand manner.
He gnawed on his lower lip, tried to think what best he might do for her. He knew that he ought to cup her again, to draw out an ounce or two of blood ... or to blister her throat with cantharides ... or to force her to swallow some reeking potion until she vomited up the entire contents of her stomach and purged her bowels. He knew that in failing to do any of those things he invited the censure of his superiors. But his nerve failed him: he had neither the heart nor the stomach to increase her discomfort when the pitiful old creature was dying anyway, when the next doctor to examine her would almost certainly repeat the same brutal treatment, knowing it useless, knowing it cruel, but determined at all costs to follow the accepted medical practice.
Let somebody else play the torturer's role, thought Mr. Skelbrooke, on a surge of defiance. He would have none of it.
He turned to the nurse: a slatternly crone with greasy hair and a gruff manner, but more gentle with the patients than most of her ilk. "Make her as easy as you can," he said in a low voice. "And if she should ask for anything ... any reasonable request ... see that she receives it."
"Aye, sir," said the nurse, taking a small gold coin he offered her, clutching it in one grimy hand. For all her dirt, he knew her to be a trustworthy old soul, not like some of the rest; the money would be used as he asked or else returned to him—not spent on gin or cheap spirits.
Somewhere, a long way off, a church bell started to toll. Mr. Skelbrooke took his watch out of his waistcoat pocket, flipped open the lid, and checked the time. The hands pointed to six o'clock: he was free to go. His own hand trembled slightly as he slipped the watch back into his pocket.
He walked, very upright, to the door, turned back to face the ward, and made a deep, respectful bow to the room at large ... nobody laughed, not even the bawds and the broken-down whores, for all that such a delicate attention was ludicrous in this ugly, hopeless place. The gesture was so much a part and parcel of all that he was, it was difficult to imagine the man without the courtesy.
But also typical, though his patients never saw it, was the wave of dizzying nausea which hit him as soon as he entered the corridor, the violent spasms that caused him to stagger back and lean against the wall for support. Francis had learned to master his shameful weakness for as long as necessary to complete his rounds, but the longer he held the sickness bottled up inside, the more devastating, the more debilitating, the reaction when it came.
Absentmindedly, he reached for his handkerchief, before he remembered he had given it away. He wiped his brow with the sleeve of his coat instead, took long, deep breaths until the painful shuddering subsided. By the Father of All, how he loathed this place! The stench and the dirt and the careless butchery ...
He slid down to the floor, drew his legs up to his chest and rested his forehead on his knees, cursing his own stupidity. He knew that he had no one but himself to blame for this ghastly, disheartening existence.
He remembered his grandfather lecturing him, sitting there in his great carved chair at Pomander Hall, fastidious in hairpowder, satin and lace, one hand on the head of a chased silver walking stick. "Men of our class, our refinement, our... exquisite sensibility... we are simply not constructed to endure such ugliness or the sight of so much misery."
The brutality of battle—the old man gave him to understand—the casual carnage of gentlemanly bloodsport for these they were admirably suited ... but hospitals and almshouses and slums and stews were none of their affair. "To say nothing—and truly dear child, it distresses me to have to remind you of this..." Baron Skelbrooke paused to take a pinch of snuff, "...to say nothing of the fact that no Skelbrooke, up until now, has ever disgraced the family name bv taking up a trade!" Francis, of course—idealistic young fool!—had supposed he knew better, and had come to Lundy in defiance of his grandfather's wishes.
He raised his head, loosened the plain white neckcloth tied at his throat. He had certainly inherited the family squeamishness, he reflected with a savage little laugh, though not their courageous martial spirit. And he had more than his share of their stubborn pride, which brought him back to this place he hated, this place where he could accomplish so little good, day after day and week after week, rather than admit he had mistaken his vocation.
He thrust one hand into a pocket of his full-skirted coat, drew out a green glass bottle containing laudanum. He held it up to a ray of light filtering in through one of the cracked windows; the flask was nearly full.
A shocking number of his colleagues, the young physicians and the chirurgeon-apprentices, ate opium as a steady habit—the drug was so easily obtained. Some also experimented with Sleep Dust, hashish, fumes of sweet vitriol, spirits of mandragora... So far, Skelbrooke had resisted all these temptations. Knowing his weakness, he feared addiction. But this flask contained enough of the opiate to kill anyone but an addict, and Francis had been toying with the idea of suicide for many weeks now, carrying the laudanum with him wherever he went. As yet, it was only a fancy, a morbid conceit, an attempt to frighten himself into feeling ... what? He was only nineteen; apart from the hospital, life still offered some beguiling consolations: and it was the romance of suicide, he supposed—as opposed to the dreariness of his daily round—that appealed to him most.
But if the day ever came that existence became unbearable ... Francis drew comfort from the knowledge that he always carried the means of escape with him.