By Peter Cakebread
This is an excerpt from the novel The Alchemist’s Revenge by Peter Cakebread, presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Delta14 Publishing and Peter Cakebread, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by Peter Cakebread.
It was only a little past mid-morning when they climbed the last rise before entering the Tainted Lands. They just had to pass through a small wood, and they would be there. The woods didn’t smell as fresh and fragrant as they should, and the trees seemed a little stunted, but other than that, there was little indication of any changes.
As they emerged from the treeline topping the slope, they realised they were, literally, on the edge of the Tainted Lands. Behind them was England, fair and green, and ahead a very different landscape.
William drew up the mules, and Belinda joined the two men at the front of the wagon. The sight was so unusual that they all dismounted and stood for a few moments, adjusting their sensibilities to the vista in front of them.
They couldn’t see the battle-site yet, although they thought they could just make out Naseby village, at the top of the next rise. But they could see a broad sweep of the countryside, from west to east. What they saw appalled them.
The air itself was different, sulphuric and bitter, the atmosphere charged, as if before a lightning storm. There wasn’t much cloud cover, but the few lines of puffy cloud that crossed the sky seemed to break as they trailed over the Tainted Lands, swirling around as if mixed in a giant cauldron.
The ground itself was wrong. What must have once been grassland was, in places, transformed into sparse, twisted, almost desert-like scrub. Between these impossibly dry patches, thin yellowed grass clung to the slopes. In the lower-lying areas the yellow grass gave way to vast swamp-like puddles.
These pools bubbled and simmered, discoloured mud churning around, creating strange clay patterns. Every so often a jet of yellow-green mud would shoot into the air before falling back into the puddle from which it had been discharged. Toxic pus-filled steam rose above the swamp sludge, forming thick miasmic clouds.
Proper trees no longer grew in the Tainted Lands, but where there had once been woods, a few scraggy bushes clung on to life. Like the grass and scrub, these plants were malformed, with branches jagging off at strange angles. Their spiky leaves were warped and withered and their exposed roots, coloured a sickening puce, appeared to writhe across the ruined ground like giant bloated earthworms.
There was not a bird in the sky, or an animal to be seen.
“Nothing could live here,” whispered Belinda, looking down at the path they were to take.
To their left the hill rose steeply, but ahead of them the poisoned ground sloped gently down, before rising once more. The track they were following led directly through the centre of the shallow valley.
“Once we’re over that ridge, we should be in sight of the battlefield. Are you sure you want to do this?” William asked, looking intently at Belinda, willing her to change her mind and spare them the journey. They could find a way around, lie low to the west for a while, and then find a way back to Oxford.
Belinda didn’t bother to reply. Her expression was one of grim determination.
William urged the reluctant mules onward. At first they refused, and he had to cajole them severely, the first time it had been necessary to do so since they had left Oxford. Slightly chastened, but still complaining, the mules set off. They continued slowly, very slowly, along the rutted track.
It was still only early in the afternoon as they approached to Naseby village, but it had seemed to take forever, the mules protesting all the way. Before reaching the scattering of houses that constituted the village proper, they saw an odd little cottage, built right into the hillside.
Only the very front of the house and a strip of thatched roofing above it were visible from the track below. The rest of the building was seemingly built underground, into the interior of the hill.
The door of the strange cottage was open, and out from it came a woman, running. She was moving as fast as she could, careering down the hillside, intent on reaching the wagon before it could pass her by.
William put his hand upon his pistol, checking the pan. He wondered if she had been sent to try to lure them to stop, so that her accomplices might rob them, or worse.
As she came closer, William got a proper look at her. He doubted she was much past twenty-five years, but she looked older. William was used to the sight of those aged beyond their years, worn out by a life of worry. Her clothes were worn, but she was no urchin.
“Please, sirs. Please, could you stop a moment?”
She stopped a few yards from the wagon, a look of concern upon her face.
“If you would excuse my impudence, I would beg just a little of your time,” she smiled hopefully, “and if the Lord wills it, your charity.”
“We have no time for beggars. Begone with you, woman!” was William’s stern reply. Beggars, not robbers then.
The lady cast her eyes downward, nodding, as if she had expected the rejection. She turned to trudge back up the hillside.
“Wait a minute,” Belinda’s voice came from the back of the wagon. “Stop the cart!” she commanded.
Reluctantly, William did as he was bid, and Belinda climbed down to inspect the stranger.
“Who are you?” Belinda asked.
The woman looked back, hopefully.
“My name is Jane Selwyn, m’Lady. I live up at yonder hospital. Thank you so much for stopping. I wouldn’t have asked, but we get so few visitors, and we are so desperately low on supplies.”
William scanned the hillside, checking back and forth, looking for anyone who might be lying in wait to attack them.
There wasn’t anywhere to hide as far as he could see. But then, he thought, if he could spot them easily, they wouldn’t be very good hiding places, would they? William was sure this Jane, or whatever she was really called, was up to no good. Who would choose to live in such a terrible place as the Tainted Lands?
“You are seeking charity?” Belinda asked.
“Yes, m’Lady, but not for myself. For my charges. For those I care for. Just a little food, if you have any to spare, and, God willing, any medicines. I have little money, but I will give you the pennies that I have. Anything, just so that their passing may be a little more comfortable.”
“You mentioned a hospital. Are you caring for the wounded from the battle?” It seemed a terrible place to convalesce and the battle had been over a year ago. Belinda struggled as she considered how much time had passed since Naseby. The pain was still so fresh and vivid.
“No, m’Lady. The soldiers from the battle were all away, or buried, a long time ago now. I seek charity for those blighted by the taint. The taint is a terrible curse. Nearly all who stay within these lands succumb to the taint. There is no cure. It is a death sentence, yet I do my best to care for the poor souls.”
William was almost apoplectic with rage.
“Ye Gods! Of all the most foul, canker-nosed tricks! The hospital up there is full of those infected with the taint plague. We must away, before we catch it ourselves.” He turned to Belinda, “This very woman is probably riddled with the illness. Get back in the wagon, so we may leave this septic spot.”
Jane was a meek soul. She wasn’t so much annoyed that the wagon driver had shouted at her, than that he had it all wrong.
“Sir, I’m sorry, sir, but, begging your pardon, you won’t catch it from me, or my patients. The taint is carried in the land, and the devilish miasmas that rise from it. The poor folk that I treat have stayed in the Tainted Lands too long. Those who stay more than a week, two at most, usually develop a taint. Sometimes the first manifestation kills them quickly, other times they develop symptom after symptom, and the end is slow and drawn out. But those who leave the lands hereabouts, quick enough, well they don’t contract the illness at all, nor do they carry it with them.”
Belinda had a question.
“You don’t seem ill. Do you regularly leave the area, and then return later?”
“No, m’Lady. I live here, looking after my patients. I am lucky. One in a hundred, at most, are able to remain in these lands without consequence. I don’t know why, but I have been here since not long after the battle, and yet I have never had a day of illness, let alone shown any signs of the taint. The only one I know who has been similarly lucky is the vicar, up the road in the village. But he is cracked in the head, and so bears his own burden.”
“But how do you live? Surely you can’t grow any food, the land is poisoned. What do you eat?”
“Food is wretched scarce, m’Lady, but the scavengers bring us a little. When they can.”
“Yes, m’Lady. The scavengers. They mostly live out north, toward Clypston. They roam the battle site, looking for treasures. Old cogs, nuts, bolts, anything that they can sell to make a few pennies. The parliament, they have a little office in Clypston, and the gentleman there, he buys what the scavengers bring him. He is a kind man, and sometimes he gives them an extra sack of flour, or a few loaves of bread, to bring to me at the hospital. It’s never enough, but it helps.”
Jane looked wistful. She was used to hunger, but familiarity made it no easier. She particularly hated it when her patients slipped away through starvation, rather than as a result of their disease.
“So, where do your patients come from?”
“There used to be more people living hereabouts. After the battle, many left, but many new folks came to the area too. Those were the days before I understood the taint. The land changed slowly, becoming more befouled as time wore on. At first, there was money to be made, working for the parliamentarian committee, clearing the dead, finding bits of the old clockwork machines. That is why I came, m’Lady. My husband couldn’t find work, on account of his faith, and we came to scavenge a living.
But it soon changed. There was less to find, and worse, people began dying. My husband succumbed quickly, his lungs filled and he simply couldn’t breathe. The taint is a terrible way to go. Over the past year everyone either left, or died, leaving just a few scavengers, who realised they could stay safe, if only they kept away from the lands for a few days between each visit. Those that are left, up at the hospital, are a mixed bunch. Some are folks who came back to their houses, after the fighting, not realising the dangers. Some thought to profit from the buildings left empty in the area. A few were patrolling soldiers, who have stayed out here too long. One or two were scavengers, from the time before they learnt to stay away, dying a slow lingering death, but still hanging on.”
“If they don’t spread the disease, why treat them here?”
“Well, m’Lady, most of them couldn’t be moved now. But, people wouldn’t believe me. You know how it is, there would be panic, and they wouldn’t be allowed to settle. Here there is nobody to complain, to condemn them, to fear them.”
Belinda seemed moved by Jane’s sad tale.
“Of course you must have some food. And a little medicine too. First though, let me come and see your hospital, perhaps say a prayer for your patients.”
“Oh, thank you, m’Lady. Thank you and God bless you!”
“Belinda,” William hissed, “You can’t go up there! It isn’t safe!”
Belinda ignored William, a state of affairs he had come to expect. He cursed her roundly as she disappeared into the little cottage with Jane.
Belinda wasn’t wanting to visit the little hospital out of mawkish curiosity, but because she wondered if there was anything she might do to help.
“Be prepared,” said Jane, “I do my best, but the state of some of my patients…it’s hard.”
Belinda gripped Jane’s arm reassuringly as they walked inside.
The cottage was deceptively large, the main room going back a long way into the hillside. The room contained the gaunt wasted victims of the taint, about fifteen of them in all.
Most of the patients were arranged in rows, to the left and right, on wooden pallets. One or two of the stronger ones sat up on wooden chairs. The room was thick with a cloying smell, a mixture of herbs, sickness and death.
The bowls of dried old petals were not sufficient to mask the stench created by those patients unable to control their bowels, the acrid smell of blood in the air, and the generally unhealthy miasmas that surrounded the invalids.
It was only as Belinda came a little further into the room that she saw the variety and extent of the afflictions caused by the taint. Despite Jane’s reassurances that the taint could not be caught from contact, Belinda flinched, reflexively, backwards. Jane felt the previously reassuring hand that rested upon her arm clench, the grip becoming uncomfortably hard. Belinda apologised, took a deep breath, released Jane’s arm, and stooped to get a better look at the patients.
Jane really had done her best. Although the patients were all tortuously thin, they all had access to water. Sadly, the water was probably also tainted. They all had a little bowl containing some mushed bread, and what Belinda hoped was milk. Where bandages or dressings had been applied, they looked fresh enough, a good sign that they had been regularly changed, and that their wounds had been regularly bathed.
Belinda walked along the two rows of patients, moving between the pallets. She passed a young man who was staring blindly into space, his eyes a milky white. Another seemed at first to have worn some strange armour to bed, but as she looked more closely, it was apparent that it was the poor man’s skin, thickened and ugly. His whole body and face were covered in hard fleshy plates.
A third man was obviously close to death’s door. His bedroll reeked, his chest heaved and rattled as he gasped for breath. Despite his poor condition, he tried to lift his head as Jane approached. He tried to focus, and recognising her, he gave her a wan smile. Jane crouched beside him, dipped a flannel in a little water, and mopped his fevered brow.
“There, there, Tom. Don’t sit up. Just lie back and rest a while.”
Belinda came to a stop beside a smaller figure, wrapped in a woollen blanket. It was a little girl. She clutched her blanket up high, obscuring her mouth, her two pretty little eyes peeking up at Belinda. Just from looking, Belinda couldn’t tell what the poor child’s affliction was.
She stroked the girl’s cheek, and the child opened her mouth a little. A spout of warm liquid shot from the girls lips. The watery spew smelt of rotten eggs. Belinda tried not to show her disgust, and persisted in stroking the poor mite’s face.
Belinda clutched something in her pocket, with her left hand. Keeping her right hand on the child she began to chant, a low sonorous Latin incantation.
William was impatient to leave while there was still some of the afternoon left. If they got moving, they should be able to make it out of the other side of the Tainted Lands, before nightfall. He didn’t want to still be wandering the damned place in the darkness.
With Belinda out of the way, William took the opportunity to have a few quiet words with Ralph.
“You know, she’s a difficult woman, but you shouldn’t try to rile her so.”
“I don’t have to try,” the actor replied. “It is an effortless task. She is so quick to take offence, and so slow to make peace. I mean her no harm, honestly. I think she rather enjoys the to-and-fro.”
“Nonsense. You’re full of puff! If she enjoyed being baited, she wouldn’t keep hiding away in her wagon. You genuinely offend her. She has come on this foolhardy trip to visit her husband’s grave. She obviously loves the fellow, or she wouldn’t be traipsing through this blighted place to make such a pilgrimage. Have a care, that’s all. Don’t push her too far.”
“You like her, don’t you?”
William struck Ralph, clouting him on the side of the head.
“This isn’t about me! It is about you. Why can’t you take things seriously? Why can’t you think about others? Why can’t you listen? I don’t care much for her sensibilities, but at least I realise she has some. That’s all.”
Ralph opened his eyes in fake astonishment, but to his credit he did spend a few moments in quiet introspection, reflecting on his treatment of Belinda.
William thought he might have got through to his cousin, when Ralph spoilt it by asking, “Do you think she is trying to cure those poor souls with her witch magic?”
Belinda, meanwhile, would not be rushed in her work. The sounds of her prayers could be heard, as she gently sung her strange psalms over the poor invalids. It wasn’t too long before she left the hillside house, shaking her head as she did so. She had done her best, but she knew in her heart that there was nothing that could be done to save them. Jane was doing all that could be done, tending to their needs as best she could, easing their passing from the world.
Belinda returned with Jane to the wagon, and insisted that she should take some of their stores. William offered to help her, curious as to what they would be left with for their own survival, but Belinda refused to let him poke around in her cart.
Instead, she asked him to reach up and shift the provisions, as she passed them down to him. She found some little sacks of flour, porridge and dried peas, and a small crate of pots, containing various pickles and preserves. She also passed a small rack of flasks, which she said contained medicines. The medicine wouldn’t cure the taint, nothing could, but they contained poppy juice, and would ease the pain.
Ralph and William took the goods up to the hospital, depositing them beside the door. Neither of them fancied looking inside. They both gave each other a look of concern, and held their noses. They were revolted by the smell that came wafting from the hospital, and worried that in their act of kindness they were exposing themselves to the sickness.
Jane thanked Belinda profusely, crying tears of gratitude. In turn, Belinda embraced Jane, wished her a fond farewell. She told her that, if she ever left the hospital, she must come and visit her in Oxford. If Belinda herself wasn’t there, Jane should feel free to avail herself of her household. Belinda even scribbled a little note, which she said she must present to her housekeeper, and that if she did she would be taken in, fed, and looked after.
Jane cried once more, dropping to her knees, and whispering a hundred thanks.
“Now, don’t be silly. It is the least that I could do. You should be a saint, Jane Selwyn. What you do here, the mercy and charity that you show others, the compassion and kindness in your heart. It is you that deserves thanks, for your selflessness.”
Belinda helped Jane to her feet, and clutched her hands.
“Please, please visit, should you ever have the chance.”
“I will, m’Lady, one day, I will. And m’Lady, be careful. Whatever you do, don’t linger around outside, after dark. It isn’t safe.”
Belinda smiled, kissed Jane upon the cheek, and returned to the back of the wagon. William, who had been so impatient to leave throughout the fond farewells, wanted to hear a little more.
“What do you mean, not safe?”
He was thinking back to the previous night, back in the village, and the strange invasion by the creatures of the night. Ralph, who had actually seen the figures shuffling about with their strange dead eyes, joined William, keen to hear what Jane might have to say.
“There are others. Others besides the scavengers. They come out at night. Strange, damned folk, who are beyond all help. They seek to kill and feed. I hear them, outside the hospital, clawing at the door, trying to get in. And there are other creatures too. Not all the animals have left the area. Some stayed, and like the people they have changed. Better not to stay out after dark. Keep indoors. If you move quickly, you can be out of the Tainted Lands before nightfall.”
William was beginning to increasingly doubt it. If it weren’t bad enough that the mules were dragging their hooves, the delay at the hospital had cost them more precious time. With that thought in mind, he tipped his cap at Jane, and urged the mules onward.
Ralph was glad that they didn’t stop at the village. Thankfully Belinda hadn’t insisted on stopping to meet the mad vicar! Perhaps Jane’s warning played on her mind, as it did his. They should get away from the accursed place as soon as possible, or they might never get away. Truth to tell, he was more than a little worried about walking on the blighted soil. Perhaps if he kept his feet off the poisoned land, it would mean that he would be less likely to succumb to the taint. He had no desire to end his days in a stinking hospital. But no sooner had they past the village than Belinda insisted on being allowed to ride up front.
Well, Ralph didn’t object to giving up his perch, but he had no wish to walk alongside the mules, or to be squeezed between the other two at the front. So he was relieved at Belinda’s silent assent to his retreat into the back of the wagon. It made him feel almost a little guilty for overplaying his cheek with Belinda over the past couple of days.
Even he could tell that she was upset. She was undoubtedly moved by being so near to where her husband had died. It would be better to keep out of her way.
Looking out at the sky, Ralph supposed that the weather was gloriously hot and balmy, outside the Tainted Lands. Within the strange environment, it was hard to tell. The atmosphere was so unfamiliar it was as if they had entered hell. A hell tucked away in the heart of the England.
They advanced along the same route that Charles had passed along, a year ago, on his way to the battle. This parallel approach had been unplanned, on Belinda’s part, but she recognised the landmarks all too well.
Before undertaking the pilgrimage, she had spoken at length about the battle with an officer, a member of Rupert’s personal lifeguard, no less. It had been painful for Belinda, hearing about the day her husband died, as the soldier had recounted the events in meticulous detail, explaining the disposition and movements of the troops, describing all the action as it had occurred.
Belinda looked across the field. She stared out toward the left hand side, where her husband must have spent the June morning, watching the battle unfolding, before marching into the thick of it. Before marching to his death. Then she looked directly ahead, to where he actually fell. To where so many fell, at the foot of the rise.
The ground was even more strange here, at the epicentre. They were at the source of the taint, the heart of the disease. There was hardly any grass growing at all, not even the twisted tufts. The scrubby bushes were even more degenerate, yellowed and sickly. The slick gloopy pools of fetid mud were so noxious that the travellers had to swallow back their bile at the stink.
How could the land be so damaged? There had been plenty of rain and snow over the past year, yet the poison had not been washed away. Something powerful must have occurred.
Belinda wondered if, perhaps, as all the potions mixed together on the ground, they had reacted together, creating a strange cocktail that had caused the taint. Or, maybe the blight was due to the sheer amount of magick expended during the battle. Could the concentration of crumbled philosopher’s stones, trodden into the soil, have caused the earth to sicken? Whatever it was, nature was unable to recover by herself, and the place had become toxic.
Would it last forever? Would it spread outwards, engulfing more of England? Or, would time heal the wounds, and in due course things return to their natural state?
There were shapes moving across the strange wasteland. Scavengers. They walked the site, heads down, searching the ground. Every so often one would crouch down, having spotted something that might be of value.
Belinda felt sorry for them, which felt unusual, because she had gotten so used to feeling sorry only for herself. Yet, coming here, to this dreadful place, she had felt moved by the plight of others. Moved in a way that she hadn’t felt before the journey, when her world had been confined to grief and self-pity.
The poor patients in the hospital, the poor scavengers, reduced to gathering through the meagre pickings left by the dead. The child who had nearly drowned just out of Oxford. She had cared; she had wanted to help. She might have felt the scavengers were desecrating a memory, as they grubbed about on the ground where her husband had fallen, but she didn’t. Somehow, it felt like these poor wretches were doing the opposite. That their suffering was somehow keeping the memory of a greater suffering alive.
They seemed almost like ghosts, and as the wagon drew near where the heart of the battle had raged, Belinda wondered if such half-creatures needed to fear the ghosts that haunted this place in the darkness, or if they passed among them like brethren.
“Stop. Stop here.”
It was as bad a place as any for a dinner break. Nonetheless, William pulled the mules up. He didn’t hold with what they were doing, in fact he thought it insanity, but he had given up on arguing about it. “Shall I get the fire going, then?”
“I wouldn’t,” Belinda replied, her tone distracted, “I wouldn’t think it safe to eat something just yet. I don’t trust the air.”
“Well, perhaps you could pay your respects, then we might be off to somewhere we can eat,” William snapped. It had been another long day, and they were all getting hungry. They had missed their luncheon, having temporarily lost their appetite courtesy of the hospital aroma.
“No. I have to wait. Until it is dark.”
William couldn’t believe his ears. Of all the madness! Hadn’t she been listening?
“We aren’t staying here until dark. We need to press on. If we carry on we may get out of the Tainted Lands before we lose all the light. It isn’t wise to stay here.”
“But stay we must,” Belinda insisted.
William was fuming. They needed to get going. The place gave him the creeps. He wanted to reach a place of shelter. Jane had clearly warned them that it wasn’t safe after dark. And, aside from the creatures that might do them harm, it was said that when the night came, so did the ghosts of Naseby.
The ghosts of Naseby! She wasn’t? Of course she bloody was!
“Get in the wagon. What you are thinking will do no good. No good at all. You are just going to cause yourself more distress.” William was almost pleading now, “We must away. Ralph, help me take her into the wagon.”
Yet, beg or threaten as he might, it made no difference. Belinda sat down, on the tainted ground, determined to wait, and nothing short of violence could move her.
Every time William tried to dissuade her, to make her stand, so that they might continue their journey, she just stared into space, as if he wasn’t there.
Soon, the shuffling scavengers began to leave the battlefield. They all headed off toward the north, so they didn’t pass the little party clustered around the wagon.
“Look! Even those strange sods are going. Doesn’t that tell you something? They’re all desperate or dying, but they’re not hanging about here. They have more sense.”
It was no good. Belinda would not be moved, not even goaded into giving a response. William was not fooled. She might be acting calmly, but she was mad with grief. Otherwise, what could be possessing her to put them in such danger? Nothing good could come of disturbing the ghosts of Naseby!
And it was growing dark. Perhaps not very dark, as the moon was bright and the skies were clear – but it was still too dark for William. The damned place didn’t smell right, didn’t look right. Why had he come? Why didn’t he just leave the madwoman to it?
Despite his misgivings, William refused to cower in the wagon.
He watched as Belinda got to her feet, and began walking forward. She stopped a dozen or so yards away, and continued her wait. William thought her so vulnerable, standing there alone in the dark.
She didn’t have to wait long.
The first sign William noticed was the glowing, up on the ridge ahead.
Ralph and Belinda stared, transfixed by the bright white lights. The mules made a frightened, keening sound, seemingly ready to bolt. Luckily, the restrainer was in place, and now William hopped down from the wagon with an extra bag of feed, busying himself with distracting the animals from the unsettling sights. And distracting himself.
The lights ahead had begun to form up. To take shape.
Upon the ridge, there were ghosts. William tried not to look, but horrified, his eyes were drawn to them. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of them. They were too far away for any real detail to be visible, but they were formed up in fighting blocks, a veritable host of white translucent shape, spirits of the parliamentarian soldiers, who had lined up on that ridge, on the day of the battle.
The sight was awe-inspiring, and terrifying. The assembling troopers were adorned in full regalia; spectral flags fluttered, muskets were loaded, pikes were raised. There were even ghostly gunners, loading and aiming ethereal cannon.
After a while more shapes appeared, royalist regiments marching forward; much nearer, some marched and rode out from the air, almost within touching distance of the travellers.
The marching figures seemed to have no awareness of the living at all. William shuddered, anxious that they might travel right through him.
The ghosts were stepping forward as if actors in a play, playing their parts, telling the stories of their deaths. The ghosts on the ridge milled about now, while those marching forward quickened their stride. The action looked unreal, not just because the participants were long-dead ghosts, but because time itself seemed distorted, the scenes playing out much faster than they must have done in reality.
William started as the ghost of a drummer boy fell near the wagon; phantom shrapnel kicked up, and then disappeared as the boy’s form faded. Some of the ghosts bore the wounds that had killed them; others seemed complete, until they met their allotted fate on the field.
Suddenly noise began to accompany the scene, the sounds of marching, boots crunching on the ground, the booming of guns, even the clattering of pikes and the clashing of blades. The sounds were very strange. One minute, they were up-close and ear-shattering, the next, mute and distant, barely audible.
On the ridge ahead, the spectral soldiers were fighting, locked together, struggling with each other. A vast white shape appeared on the horizon, crashing down through the struggling spirits, crushing and dissipating those in its path. It was an ethereal Leviathan, an opaque memory of the large metal landship. Then ghostly alchemists and riders joined the fray, sweeping in from the sides of the valley. Images of unearthly elemental forms and exploding potion flasks added to the chaos.
Belinda was walking forward now, heading directly into the maelstrom. William wanted to stop her, but he was too frightened to move. He watched transfixed. As Belinda progressed, the spectres parted, howling and wailing as they evaporated in her path.
The nearer Belinda got to the centre of the battle site, at the foot of the ridge, the more of the howling shapes disappeared, until a solitary figure remained, a lone ghost awaiting her arrival.
As she walked toward the figure, Belinda tried to keep focusing straight ahead. It wasn’t easy. The ground beneath her feet was slippery underfoot, and she had to check herself to avoid falling. Every so often she was forced to look down. The churned up, uneven ground was too treacherous for her to do otherwise.
Twisted roots threatened to trip her. She glanced at them and realised they weren’t roots at all, but rather skeletal hands, outstretched, as if begging her to grasp them, to pull them up, to free the crop of buried corpses that must lie beneath. She shuddered, and continued her advance toward the lone figure.
Her determination had all but left her as she looked upon his phantasmic form. She had come this far, intent on finding her husband, but the situation was so odd, so sacrilegious, so difficult, that her resolution wavered.
He glowed the same white, had the same unreal transparency as the other ghosts, but it was still him, his essence. His features unchanged, his kind eyes, his benevolent smile. Belinda gasped as she looked at his poor wounded chest; a ragged hole gaped in the centre of his body where the assassin had twisted the knife. How could he smile?
“Don’t worry. I can’t feel anything, my darling. There is no pain, just the distant memory of pain. You mustn’t worry about me anymore.”
Belinda was unsure if he was speaking aloud, whether his transparent lips were making the sound, whether, if any others had been near enough to listen, they would be able to hear his words as she did. His voice seemed to reverberate around her head, rather than enter through her ears.
But it was his voice. Francis’s voice. It was unmistakable.
How she had longed to hear his voice. She had thought she had heard him, many times. Countless times, at home, she had fancied she had heard him calling her name, and she had turned, but he had never been there. She knew she had only ever been fooling herself, wishing it so much, wanting it so much, that she had convinced herself that it were true. But it never had been. For here was Francis. Tied to the battlefield. Tied to his ending.
They spoke of Belinda’s loss, of their fond intimacy, of their love.
All the while, William and Ralph watched them at a distance, observing the strange connection between the beautiful young woman and the aged shade. Surely they could not hear what was being said, the wagon was too far away, but anyone watching could have seen that, whatever the topic of the conversation, it was a tender one.
After a time, far too short a time as far as Belinda was concerned, the ghost of Sir Francis murmured that it was time for him to depart. He explained that the hour was late, and that he was cold. Belinda was unwilling to let him go, though she knew she must. But before she released him, there were things that she must know.
“Who did this to you? Tell me Francis, who took you from me?”
“It matters not, my love. I have seen you now, and you have seen me. We can say our goodbyes, and I might rest.”
“No, Francis. You may rest, but I cannot. Not until you tell me who did this to you. Not until they have paid for what they have done.”
Francis looked sorrowful for a moment, but even his shade knew Belinda too well to resist her demands. He leaned forward, whispered to her a name. Told a tale of betrayal. And despite the grim circumstances, Belinda smiled. Her smile was not one of happiness, but rather a cold cruel smile. So now she knew, and she would have her revenge.
“I must away now, my love,” Francis was fading now, the glowing white light dimming, flickering. “…and so must you.”
“No, not yet. Don’t leave me so soon. Don’t leave me again.”
“I’m sorry, my love. Please forgive me. And forgive yourself. Don’t grieve for me anymore. Live your life. Love again, and know that what we had was all that I could have ever wished for. Such happiness as you gave me, I never dreamed I would experience. But I’m cold now, and you are warm. You must let me go.”
“Never!” Belinda cried. “Never!” Belinda held out her outstretched hands, clutching at the air. “Come back! I have so much more to say.”
She fell to the ground, wailing, calling for her husband. It was too late. Francis was gone.
Belinda didn’t protest as William put his arms around her, stood her up, and guided her all the way back to the wagon. She was shivering uncontrollably, and, although she had stopped crying, her cheeks were still wet with tears.
After her experiences on the battlefield, she asked to continue to sit up front, with William. He had looked surprised that she should seek solace in his company. He probably thought she would wish to retire and perhaps stew in self-pity in the back of the wagon, while he and Ralph shivered through the night.
She ruefully reflected that he could be forgiven for coming to such a conclusion, given her behaviour throughout most of the journey so far.
Belinda was obviously showing the shock and exhaustion that she felt. The mercenary was looking at her with something approaching concern.
She did need company. For such a long time she had kept people at a distance. She had believed they would not want to listen. She had believed that they could not help her, that no-one could understand.
Now, having seen her husband, if not in the flesh then at least in spirit, she was frightened. She was also saddened, her grief renewed. But she also had questions. Questions that she needed an answer to.
“He was killed by a spy! A man from his own ranks. The man must have been paid to murder alchemists. Those Cromwellian…” Belinda searched her vocabulary, but she couldn’t find any expression that matched her contempt for the villains. However outraged she was, she was certainly not going to resort to using the coarse and ungentlemanly soldier’s vocabulary that William favoured. She ended rather feebly, “…Cromwellian wretches!”
Had her husband fallen in a fair fight, it would have been no less painful. To hear that he had been killed in such a cowardly and underhand way had added a ferocious anger to her sadness.
“They couldn’t win a fair fight. So they sent spies into our midst.” She still couldn’t quite believe it. “Is this war? Is this how all wars are fought? No chivalry, no rules of war, no knightly conduct, just a cowardly knifing in the back from a treacherous blackguard?”
She sobbed anew.
William tugged at his bottom lip, clearly trying to think how best to answer.
“’Fraid you have it about right,” he said at last, “There’s little honour in war. Least, there was little honour in the wars that I fought in. Just violence. That’s not to say that every man is a coward, or that no-one acts with honour. But, fact is, the brutes usually win. It’s not pretty, but it’s the truth.”
Belinda didn’t reply. She wanted to hear more, although what she was hearing was just confirming her suspicions regarding the base nature of all men. All men aside from her departed husband.
William went further. “A curse on all wars! Another on all those stupid enough to fight in them. Particularly those stupid enough to fight for god, or for politics, or for another man’s cause. If you’re going to fight for anything, it might as well be for some coin. At least that’s honest. Fight for yourself, fight to eat, fight for your purse. Because, when it comes down to it, there’s no-one else you can trust. Better yet, stuff them all, and don’t fight at all.”
“Are you saying my husband was stupid?”
For his part William had meant precisely that, but he hadn’t intended to be so blunt, or so personal. It just frustrated him. Of course war was bloody pointless, the whole thing was a bloody stupid waste, but that didn’t mean that Belinda’s husband was to blame for it all. Or, for that matter, that he was above reproach himself.
“Forgive me. I think men are stupid. I certainly was. I still am. Men and their bloody wars. I am sorry for your loss. I truly am. Your husband had not been in a battle before?”
Belinda shook her head.
“No. He was a philosopher, an alchemist, a thinker, a scholar. He was no fighter. He didn’t want to go, but, when called, he did his duty.”
“Then he wasn’t stupid to go. He knew no better. He probably felt he had no choice.”
Despite wishing to be conciliatory, old habits die hard, and William could not let himself, or any soldier, off the hook quite that easily.
“But because he felt he had no choice, it doesn’t make it so. There is always a choice. I made the wrong one. I campaigned and I regret it. So I was more stupid than he. He fought in one battle, and he was killed. I fought in one battle, and then went on to fight in another, and another one after that, and so on. So I am far more stupid than he. If he had survived, then he would have undoubtedly seen the error of his ways, and returned to your side, never to leave again. It took me far too long to learn my lesson.”
Belinda found herself able to ignore the crass sentiments that William was trying to express. She realised that he was answering as a disillusioned warrior, that his answers were all about himself, not about her husband, or the current conflict besetting the country.
“Is that why you haven’t joined Rupert’s army?”
William considered the question. What was the point giving a proper answer. How could a civilian, no, not just a civilian, a woman, understand?
“I am in my fortieth year. I’m too old for war.”
Belinda wasn’t going to be put off that easily.
“Lord Astley is nearly seventy, and my poor Francis was five years your senior. You are not too old to fight, or you wouldn’t be hiring yourself out as a wagon guide in these dangerous times. What is the real reason for you refusing to fight?”
“Very well. The reason I haven’t joined up is because I am trying to be less stupid.”
They both fell silent. The mules slow, steady walk and the jingling of the harnesses created a familiar rhythmic beat. They allowed themselves to be quietly rocked by the motion for a while, before William broke the silence, trying to explain a little more of his true feelings.
“And, because, truth be known, I wouldn’t know who to fight for. I don’t know the rights and wrongs of it. I can’t understand it. Aren’t we all Englishmen? Yet one man will die for a king, the next for a general. It makes little sense to me anymore. Any of it. I’m not sure it ever did.”
Belinda watched the mercenary closely; his face had taken on an almost absent expression as he searched for the memories that haunted him.
“As a lad, I thought war noble, warriors courageous. That one could make one’s way in the world through martial achievement. That one should do one’s best. But, even back then I didn’t truly understand the cause for which I was to fight. Calvinists should kill Catholics I was told, Catholics should kill heretics they were told. But on the field, the fallen all look pretty much the same, Catholic or Calvinist, and off the field, soldiers behave the same, terrorising the poor, bullying the weak. So I tried to hang on to the belief that one should stand by one’s fellows, for one’s regiment. I was quickly disabused of that notion by my fellow rogues, and our commander, who was a butcher. Now that I no longer see the nobility in even that, I am hard-pressed to find a single reason to get involved.”
“I know you hate war. I can even guess why. What you experienced, your dreams…” Belinda trailed off, not wishing to repeat that argument. “But surely you must see it. We had a rightful king. We were at peace. Parliament rebelled. Those are the facts.”
William just sighed.
“The king raised his standard first, not Parliament. He campaigned against the Scots, and got a bloody nose. He attacked the lower chamber. He declared war.”
Belinda wanted to butt in, to counter his arguments, but William wouldn’t let her. She had asked, so now she would have to hear him out.
“Listen, I’m not really arguing with your cause. I don’t believe those things either. I just don’t know what to believe. I just…I just don’t think either side has a monopoly on righteousness. Nor on sin. I don’t think things needed to have come to this.”
As tempting as it was, Belinda wouldn’t, couldn’t, accept William’s logic. Both sides weren’t as bad as each other. Her husband had been fighting for a just cause. To believe otherwise would be to admit that such a waste, his sacrifice, was all for nothing.
“Rupert didn’t send spies to cut down his enemy from behind. He didn’t. If nothing else, accept that fact. Accept that the rebels should have fought more honestly. My husband’s murderer had fought alongside him. Francis thought Sergeant Lammer was there to guard him, to keep him safe. But, he wasn’t! He was there to kill him. Kill him, and take him away from me forever!”
Belinda began to cry once more.
Tears of loss. Tears of hatred. She hated the spy, Lammer, the Judas. She hated the spymaster, whoever it was that had given the order to Lammer to slay his fellows. She hated every rebel. They had all killed Francis, and they had caused her to be filled with this dreadful rage. Curse them all! Every last one of them!
William’s mind was in a turmoil.
Lammer! It couldn’t be a coincidence. Sergeant Penner Lammer! It must be. The same bully that he had served with in Saxony. That tyrant, Sir Warren’s lackey. Sir Warren’s right-hand man even. He was her husband’s killer? The cock-eared rascal! The meddlesome prick! What did it mean? Could it just be a coincidence? Think, damn it, think.
A suspicion was beginning to form in William’s mind.
“Who told you to come to The Pig? To look for help in that dive?”
Before William’s suspicions could solidify, or Belinda could reply, he was distracted from his chain of thought.
He was sure that he had seen something move, that something was creeping about out there in the shadows. Whatever it was, it was big. He pointed to a crumbling wall.
“Quiet now. Did you see that?” he whispered.
Belinda shook her head, straining to see what William was pointing at.
They had entered the outskirts of a small village or hamlet. They hadn’t realised that they were entering what had once been a settlement, because the place had been almost levelled. Low crumbling walls were all that remained of the little cottages that must have once been dotted about the place. William thought he could hear the sounds of movement.
William reached for one his pistols, handing over the reins to Belinda.
“Ralph,” he hissed, rattling the wagon frame. “Wake up, cousin.”
There were the sounds of movement from inside the wagon. Ralph was hopefully attempting to rouse himself.
“Bandits? Or perhaps they are just scavengers. The scavengers seemed a timid lot. Perhaps they’re just trying to hide away from us?” Belinda suggested.
More likely ambushers, thought William. He stood up on the foot-plate, peering around. As he did so, he realised they were surrounded.
Out of the murk staggered at least five shapes. There was something most odd about the figures, and William was in no doubt that they meant harm. They were moving quickly, a little too quickly, yet they had an odd shambling, lurching gait.
Belinda had noticed them too. William watched her frantically searching around, trying to find something in one of her jerkin pockets.
The mules began to cry in alarm, an unsettling hawing sound that became more frenzied as the figures got closer. The mules would have bolted, but William grabbed back the rein, and quickly threw over the restrainer. This panicked the beasts even more, as they stumbled over themselves, forced to a halt, but at least they wouldn’t be able to rush headlong and send the wagon crashing over.
Ralph bounded out to the back of the wagon, just as the creature reached the wagon door. He could hear shouting, and then shots ringing out, at the front of the wagon. William must be contending with problems of his own.
The thing at the doorway might once have been human. If so, it had seen better days. It was rotting, some kind of corpse-like creature from the grave. Its eyes were dead in their sockets, maggots rolled from its decaying mouth, and what was left of its tongue was half-chewed and withered. Vicious talon-like fingernails, yellow-black and overlong, were attached to green-grey hands. If the creature hadn’t been swinging wildly at Ralph, he would have thought the thing tragic. It was pitifully naked, its flesh taut and dried, its foul face contorted, as if in agony.
Ralph slashed with his daggers, ducking under the creature’s flailing arms. He stabbed the thing, again and again. His blades caused multiple puncture wounds in the creature’s belly. It made no difference.
The creature didn’t seem to even notice its injuries as it struck again. This time it contacted, raking Ralph’s neck. Such was the strength of the blow, Ralph was sent spinning. Only his training prevented him from tumbling right over onto his back. He couldn’t hold out much longer.
Panting, he waited for the end.
At the front of the wagon, William was also thinking that it might all be over. Before he could fully make them out, he had demanded that the enemy stand down or risk being shot.
The creatures had ignored his command, and William had shot the first one at close range. His first wild shot had missed, the bullet soaring over the creature’s head.
The second shot took half of its face off. Though its jaw was smashed on one side, almost hanging off, the creature made no sound. It continued lurching, taking the last few steps toward the wagon.
Belinda began muttering in Latin. William couldn’t take his eyes off the attackers, but he guessed she must be preparing herself for death in some way.
He booted the oncoming creature in the face. The thing’s already weakened lower jaw bone detached completely, flying off, out into the dark. The force of the kick staggered the creature, just for a second, but William saw that the other creatures were now dangerously near. One was within a few feet of Belinda, and the one that he was trying to hold at bay had been joined by another two. He prepared himself, realising that all was lost.
But Belinda was ready.
The philosopher’s stone in her hand glowed, momentarily, and she opened her lips wide. A whooshing, roaring, gout of flame shot out from her mouth. William had seen nothing like it before. The intensity of the blast was incredible.
The creature that had been just about to close on Belinda couldn’t continue its progress without moving directly through the jet of fire.
William knew he should be paying more attention to the attackers, but he stared, transfixed, watching as every scrap of flesh was stripped from the creature’s head. Even its skull appeared to melt, such was the heat of the blast. Then it burst, showering their boots in rotting brain matter.
The mules were terrified. They took the brunt of the painful shower of splintered, smoking bone. That did nothing to improve the mood of the poor animals.
Belinda turned, motioning with her free hand for William to lean back. She dispatched the jaw-less creature as it reached up to drag William from the driver’s seat.
The heat from her breath singed William’s eyebrows and eyelashes. He could smell the burning. But the column of flame was accurate, the fire pouring onto the creature rather than William, until it fell in a burning heap.
The creatures must have possessed some sense of purpose, some intelligence, because those that remained at the front of the wagon held back, uncertain as to what to do about the fire-breathing woman. And just then, William heard Ralph cry out in pain.
Ralph was on his own and vulnerable. William drew his side-sword, and leapt down to help his cousin.
Belinda looked hesitant, unsure what to do for the best.
William didn’t know either. If she jumped down and joined him, the creatures might feast on the mules, or even lead her and the cart away. But if she didn’t come to his aid, how was he going to deal with these unnatural monsters? With no ready solution, he left her gripped with her indecision. There was no time to lose.
William ran to the back of the wagon. He was too late. There had been more of the lurking horrors than he had initially thought. Three of the creatures were standing over Ralph’s prone form. William yelled, as loudly as he could, a nonsensical battle cry, designed to distract the creatures. They slowly turned, but not before he had launched into them.
William attempted to chop at the hands of the nearest creature, but he was forced to step back as its powerful flailing claws ripped out at him.
One of the other creatures began to stoop, back down towards Ralph again. With two of them blocking his path, William couldn’t think how to save his cousin. He wasn’t even sure if Ralph was still alive.
A rumbling sound was starting to build in the distance, coming down from the direction that they had just come. The noise got louder and louder, as whatever it was approached.
As it got nearer, the rumbling became more discernible. Rather than one sound, it was a collection of noises, clanking, whirring, rolling noises, all grinding together. It put William in mind of Arthur’s automata.
The creatures stopped, momentarily as nonplussed as William. Ralph groaned. That was a good sign. He was still alive then.
Then out of the darkness it came crashing, a large solid object, moving at speed. It didn’t slow, and as it sped past, the rider swiped, with a mighty sword, at the creature standing over Ralph. The creature’s head flew from its body, which remained standing, headless, for a few seconds, before slowly crumpling to the floor.
The machine was an iron horse. It couldn’t be anything else. It probably weighed half a ton, yet it had moved at an incredible speed. The front of this one was mounted with crude horse head, fashioned out of beaten plates of metal, oddly angular, like a giant, badly carved, chess piece; another thick steel plate protected the rider. The heavy metal body was carried by two thick, spiked, wheels.
They could hear the machine slow. It was turning, obviously coming back for another pass. And now William suspected that he knew the rider.
Almost as one, the ghoulish creatures turned and moved off. They retreated, away from the wagon, back into the shadows. This meat wasn’t easy enough. They were used to harvesting scavengers. Their victims seldom managed to fight back at all. So the creatures returned to their cellars, to suck on the marrow from old bones, to await easier prey.
Read the complete novel
The Alchemist’s Revenge
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Peter Cakebread is the co-author and designer of various RPGs, most of which are published by Cakebread & Walton. They include the steampunk RPG Airship Pirates, based on the music of the renowned steampunk band, Abney Park. Peter also co-wrote the award winning alternate 17th century fantasy RPG Clockwork & Chivalry 2nd Edition, featuring the Renaissance D100 system, and the Kingdom & Commonwealth campaign and Clockwork & Cthulhu Sourcebook for that setting. Other work includes the acclaimed Dark Streets sourcebook which brings Lovecraftian horror to Georgian London (as if it weren’t grim enough!).
Peter is a partner in Cakebread & Walton, a Lancashire-based games design company established in 2009. Peter is also the author of the clockpunk fantasy novel, The Alchemist’s Revenge. When not running around after his children, Peter spends his time listening to punk rock, staring guiltily at his mountain of unpainted miniatures and unread books, and shaking his fist impotently at the radio.
Visit his website at clockworkandchivalry.co.uk.