Cover design: Corin Spinks. Portraits Alice and Pip: Heijo van der Werf
Background image: Lee Roberts (CC by-sa 2.0)
TUESDAY 31 OCTOBER 1871
4. HUNTED IN THE WETLANDS
TUESDAY 31 OCTOBER 1871
4. HUNTED IN THE WETLANDS
Alice spat out remnants of the vile mud and tried to take stock. Her body seemed to be made of pain. She ached, badly, where she had smashed into The Martlet’s railing. There were cuts and scrapes everywhere, stinging lacerations. Her hands were raw agony. Nothing seemed to be broken though. She marvelled at her luck because the cuts hurt but she didn’t think they were deep, even though wood and metal splinters had sliced through the sturdy material of her breeches and smock with ease. She was half-soaked, but the chill was compensated by the intense heat of the flames.
The hunter that had downed The Martlet roared by low overhead, its blackened keel and hull lit up by the burning wreckage of the sky-skiffs. Alice kept as still as possible, grateful that she was coated in the foul mud because she could see members of the Rozzer crew leaning over the railing to look at their handiwork below. They didn’t appear human, with eyes on stalks on either side their head, giving them an insectoid appearance. Some of them were cheering.
The aeroship began to ascend as it swept over the scene and then disappeared into the darkness.
Alice stared at the burning remnants of the sky-skiffs. It was impossible to tell The Martlet and The Joseph Swaine apart. Somewhere in that hellish funeral pyre were the bodies of the Hastings crew, as well as Hattie Tucknott.
This was my fault. I wasn’t paying attention.
The guilt was near unbearable. The urge to crawl into the burning wreckage and join the doomed crews was momentarily overwhelming.
Alice got on her feet unsteadily, her body a mass of painful protestations, and took faltering steps towards the fierce fire.
Ironically, she could sense the four hunters clearly now, without even trying. They were still ascending, beginning to turn in a wide loop.
They’ll circle round and do a sweep over.
Alice shrugged, wincing immediately as pain stabbed through her left shoulder. After all the night’s aerial dare-devilry it seemed profoundly unfair that the foe was still there, as relentless as sharks, singularly focused on their prey.
So be it then.
She would wait for them to return and finish their night’s work.
Spotting her top hat on the ground, Alice wandered over to retrieve it. She had found it discarded on the Brighton seafront more than a year ago. Although she had been delighted with its perfect fit, it hadn’t been in a prime condition then and was a sorry sight now, torn here and there, muddied and indented. She punched it out, tried to brush some of the mud off with her tattered sleeve, and then set it on her head. She drew comfort in knowing she would die with her hat on.
She spotted movement, further along the outer perimeter of the fiery wreckage. A man, no a boy, on his knees, staring into the fire.
The Hastings apprentice. He survived!
Ignoring the pain Alice made her way to him. “Ahoy, Chopback!”
He didn’t respond. As Alice came closer, she could see he was just as bloodied and battered as she was, and swaying slowly from side to side, staring a thousand leagues into the fire, his lips moving. He was only a bit younger than she was, Alice reckoned. His face was still rounded by youth, framed by shoulder length dark hair. When she reached the boy, Alice could hear him mumbling the name “Harold” repeatedly, helpless despair in his voice.
“Hey,” Alice knelt next to him. “Is that your name? Harold?”
The boy slowly turned his head to look at her, dazed incomprehension in his eyes.
“Is your name Harold?” Alice asked.
The boy bit his lip and shook his head. “My brother.” He looked back at the blaze, heart-rending pain in his eyes.
Alice shut her eyes briefly. Grief already clutched at her heart for Hattie Tucknott, Bill, and even Brock whom she had only just met, but now tightened its icy grip and ripped open a scar on her soul. Her mind jumped back to the night the Rozzers had come to Rottingdean, blasting her dad’s Salty Mew down with their Gatlings when the wind-chaser returned from a run.
She laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. Rozzers got my dad at the Massacre on the Green, in—"
“—Rottingdean,” the boy finished. “Like this?” He indicated the burning wreckage with a nod of his head.
“Close. Dad survived the crash. He managed to get off the wreck and…” Alice hesitated, and then finished with steel hate in her voice, “…he was gunned down like a dog by the Rozzers.”
“What’s your name?” The boy asked.
“Liss,” Alice automatically gave her Free Trade code name. “Yours?”
“Pip…,” he started to answer. He looked embarrassed. “Free Traders call me Pip Squeak.”
The expression on his face as he said that last was so comical that Alice couldn’t help but giggle – feeling almost instantly guilty considering the grim circumstances.
“Sorry,” she said. “Twere the look on your face.”
“Don’t matter.” Pip smiled awkwardly. “I’m a bit small for thirteen. Mum says I’ll get me growth spurt and become just as big as…”
The boy looked towards the fire, swallowing a sob. “Harold.”
“I’ll call you Pip,” Alice said. She got to her feet, slowly to make the movement less painful, and reached out for his hand, tugging at it. “Pip, we have to go. Get away from the fire. Those Rozzers are turning, they’re heading our way again.”
She could tell as much by the sounds of their engines but she sensed them as well. The four craft had been imprinted on her mind now. She wondered if they might have seen Pip as they flew over. Or even herself, despite her fresh coat of mud that was now rapidly drying in the heat of the flames. A chill shuddered through Alice despite that warmth. The Rozzers might know there were survivors.
“There’s no point.” Pip stared into the fire despondently. “We’ll never outrun them. They just keep on coming. I’d rather stay here, with…”
Alice understood all too well. It was only a short moment ago that she’d felt the same but finding Pip had changed things. She reckoned that if she could ensure his survival it might atone for her earlier moment of distraction that had cost them so dearly. Something else occurred to her as well.
“I don’t know about your folk in Hastings,” she said, still tugging at Pip’s hand. “But there’s a week of darks left. Us Fishguts got runs planned and they won’t call ‘em off because one sky-skiff is late in returning. There might be dunnamany reasons for that.”
To his credit, Pip looked at her warily. Planned runs weren’t a subject to be casually discussed; the less anybody knew the better, especially outsiders who ought to know nothing at all.
Some lines Uncle Yard had penned down jumped into her mind.
You be careful what you say
And mindful of what is said
Don’t you tell where no one is
Nor yet where no one’s been.
Pip shrugged and mumbled. “Mayhap there’ll be a few runs planned.”
“Don’t you understand?” Alice asked. “We’ve got to warn them. That the Rozzers have a new type of ship. Or else our folk will skirr into the same trap we did. They’ll pick off our Night-Fliers one by one till there’s naun left.”
Comprehension dawned in Pip’s eyes. He nodded, then let Alice help him up, wincing as he scrambled to his feet.
The four Rozzers had completed their loop and were homing in on the blazing sky-skiffs.
Alice and Pip scampered away as best as their painful limbs let them. It was by no means fast as they were also hampered by the boggy ground below their feet.
Alice had hoped to be welcomed by the night’s darkness once they were beyond the glow of the burning wreckage, a beacon now for the hunters. That hope was only partially fulfilled. The fog became thicker as they progressed but provided a ghostly translucence that kept total darkness at bay, leaving an uncomfortable sense of vulnerability.
The Rozzer engines grew louder. Alice looked around desperately, hoping to perceive some kind of cover in the shroud of fog, but everything she could see was depressingly flat; devoid of any features but the soggy and treacherous ground, water-filled ditches, and a mass of wild grass that reached to their knees at most. Their best bet would probably be the somewhat taller clumps of reeds that hugged the sides of water channels, but it remained scant cover.
An insidious hiss announced that the Rozzers were bringing their searchlights back in play. Casting a quick glance over her shoulder, Alice established that the Rozzers were flying very low indeed, giving the crazy impression that the search light beams – already sweeping this way and that – were stilt-like legs of light that propelled the conical bodies of the Rozzer aeroship. It reminded her of Daddy Long Legs, Magnus Volk’s electrical sea tram back in Brighton, but these were lethal versions that spat out a hail of death.
The Rozzers began to spread out, each selecting a different area of the marshlands to search, their beams lighting up the fog. Both Alice and Pip jumped, startled when one of the Rozzers fired a short burst of its Gatling gun.
“What are they shooting at?” Pip asked, fear in his voice.
“Trying to startle us, in case we’re hiding,” Alice ventured.
“They ken we survived the crash?”
Alice didn’t answer. It seemed likely now that one of them, perhaps both, had been spotted and the Rozzers were intent on finishing them off.
It was contrary to everything she’d been taught. All of the Rozzers, be they land-sharks, sea-sharks, or sky-sharks, issued a challenge upon first encounter and were keener on capturing Owlers alive than risking their own lives in battle. The Royal Navy was an exception, never a service to shy away from action, but their captains and crews looked at counter-smuggling duties with distaste, most of them hailing from coastal communities themselves. When they encountered Free Traders the Navy would do its duty, but generally the service didn’t make a great effort to intercept in the first place. Alice only knew of one other instance where the Rozzers had come in gunning from the start, and that had been the Massacre on the Green in Rottingdean.
Whoever commanded these four strange aeroships seemed intent on leaving no witnesses.
“So we can’t warn anyone!” Alice exclaimed.
“Quiddy? ” Pip asked.
“They bain’t wanting us a-telling other folk that they’re out here. And what they can do. To catch more of us unawares.”
“Ardle-headed blevers ,” Pip spat angrily.
Alice agreed wholeheartedly but had to focus on traversing a particularly broad pool of mud that barred their way. They sank in up to their knees and they both lost a boot in the cloying muck. Scrambling onto somewhat more solid ground on the other side, they sank to the ground to divest themselves of the remaining boots, before continuing barefoot – icy cold and icky mud squelching between their toes.
One of the Rozzer aeroships changed course and came heading their way, searchlights rapidly criss-crossing the ground in front of it.
Throwing caution to the wind Alice and Pip began to run, charging headlong through the marsh as the aeroship began to gain on them rapidly.
“We’re done for,” Pip panted as one of the beams raced their way.
Alice took hold of Pip’s arm and pulled him sideways, plunging the both of them headlong into a broad water-filled ditch. The water was freezing, but the icy shock was less immediately relevant than the approaching Rozzer’s bright eyes and deadly arsenal. Alice’s hat had come off but bobbed nearby, so she snatched it and then swam back to the ditch bank, heading for a clump of reeds. Pip followed.
The search light beam passed overhead as Alice and Pip reached the muddy bank, only their shoulders and heads above the water, the reeds a flimsy curtain. More of the aeroship’s beams were sweeping in as the Rozzer skirred straight at them. Alice grabbed two handfuls of mud and started smearing her face with the filthy stuff. Pip understood and followed her example. With their faces darkened, they pressed themselves into the bank’s mud.
The Gatling gun aimed at the ground the children had only just vacated, its rapid bursts deafening and causing a thumping echo that reverberated in their hearts. It was soon followed by another burst, which hit only yards away behind them, forming a line of miniature fountains across the surface of the water in the ditch.
The children shuddered with fear and clutched each other tightly; unable to do anything but wait to find out if there would be a third burst aimed at the reeds they were hiding in. Alice could feel Pip’s shoulders shaking, then realised she was trembling just as badly herself.
The aeroship roared overhead leaving darkness and terror in its wake.
Alice and Pip stayed where they were for a few moments more, hardly daring to believe the immediate danger had passed. When they were sure the coast was clear, they helped each other scramble up the muddy bank cautiously, dripping wet. Fully exposed to the air, they started shivering again, this time because of the cold.
“We’ve got to keep moving,” Pip said.
They took off, following the Rozzer because its lower wake seemed the safest place to be for the moment. It was no use straying into the path of one of the other murderous hunters.
They stumbled on, desperately cold and exhausted. All around them they heard the engines of the Rozzers as these continued to sweep the marsh, lighting up the fog with their search lights and sporadic bursts of their Gatlings.
Alice lost track of time as they trudged on, the marsh seeming to last forever and the Rozzers doggedly determined in their hunt. Thrice more they made a beeline for a clump of reeds when one of the Rozzers came too close for comfort, and once more they had to immerse themselves in the freezing water of a channel, lathering their faces with a coat of vile-smelling mud, teeth chattering, and clutching on to each other in mortal fear as hails of bullets impacted the marsh around them.
When at long last the sounds of the Rozzer aeroships died away in the distance, both Alice and Pip were too fatigued to even notice, blindly floundering ever onward through the marsh. It was a nearby man’s voice that alerted them.
“By Pize! But I do bluv the brabagious grout-heads have given up, sureleye.”
Alice and Pip stopped walking and sank to the ground, trying to peer through the fog.
“Sussex folk, I reckon,” Alice whispered.
Another man’s voice answered the first, but he didn’t speak proper English, uttering a stream of foreign gibberish instead. “Ah dae believe you’re reet, Pug. Mair’s the pity. Ah was looking forward tae a barnie wi the doaty scrotes . Ah dae loch the soonds a Sassenach makes when ah slice their throat.”
Pip shook his head. “He parley French . Sheere-folk. Furriners.”
“But naun friends of the Rozzers, by the sound of it,” Alice rose to her feet. “We bain’t got much choice. We’ll die of cold if we stay out here.”
The invisible voices stopped. The children made their way in the general direction the voices had come from. They soon reached a grassy embankment and, scrambling up, found a dirt road running along the top of it.
“Solid ground,” Pip said in wonder. “I forgot what it felt like.”
Alice didn’t answer him. Instead, she grabbed his hand and squeezed it tightly – oblivious to the pain –, drawing Pip’s attention to the hazy figures slowly emerging from the mist: Five, no six, of them. They wore dark, wide cloaks that billowed out as they strode towards Alice and Pip, but that was the least frightening part of them.
It was their heads. Where their faces should have been were grinning skulls, bright white. Instead of hair or hats, the skulls spouted horns, antlers, or massed feathers like an otherworldly plumage.
“Pooks,” Alice hissed. “Farisee!”
She instinctively stepped closer to Pip just as he did and they bumped into each other, before huddling close together in fright.
“Are they going to eat us?” Pip whispered fearfully.
“I don’t know,” Alice answered truthfully, heart sinking.
Pooks were known to do that. Would this night of horrors never end?
TUESDAY 31 OCTOBER 1871
TUESDAY 31 OCTOBER 1871
The six skull-headed creatures advanced on the children in menacing silence.
They spread out to form a circle. Alice and Pip clutched hands tightly. It hurt because Alice’s hands were still in agony, but there was some reassurance in not having to face this new threat alone.
Alice’s eye caught the glint of steel: Cutlasses and gun barrels.
Pooks don’t carry those.
“Owlers!” She blurted out. “They be Owlers.”
Pip’s eyes widened. “The Mairemaid’s Mudlarks!”
In her exhaustion, Alice found this even more difficult to believe than if the skull-headed figures had been Pooks. She had heard the stories, of course she had. Mothers along the entire Sussex coast warned their children about the legendary marshland Free Traders. “Be a bettermost chavvie, otherwhile the Mairemaid of Sinneport will a-come for ye and drown ye slow in nine kinds of mud, sureleye.”
The yarns about the Mairemaid of Sinneport and her Mudlarks had sounded so far-fetched to Alice, that she had assumed at an early age that it was make-belief nonsense told to scare children. Yet here were the Mairemaid’s Mudlarks, more or less how the stories said they would be.
“We should run,” Pip said, with doomed surety in his voice but bereft of conviction to carry out the deed.
Alice shook her head. The cold was getting to her, everything ached and hurt, and she was too exhausted to plunge back into the marshes, doubting that they’d get far. The Mudlarks were mostly concealed by their cloaks and darkness, but she sensed that all of them – large and small – were strong and filled with wary energy that would lend them extra speed. “I can’t, you run if you can.”
“Can’t. But we’ll be drowned in mud, sureleye.”
One of the cloaked figures lit a lantern. It wasn’t bright, casting just enough light to bathe everyone in a soft glow.
The skulled faces were still frightening, but Alice could now see that they had painted their faces in the manner that some Morris Dancers did.
“Sae, ye ken ay us,” one of the men spoke. Alice recognised his voice as the furriner they had heard speaking earlier. “Woods ye min’ tellin’ us whae the heel ye are, an’ whae ye’re daein’ here in the middle ay the nicht?”
“Quiddy?” Alice and Pip asked simultaneously in mutual confusion.
“McFeck be askin who in the Pize ye be, sureleye,” One of the other Mudlarks spoke in proper Sussex. He had branched antlers rising over his head and his face paint was only partial as his cheeks and chin were covered with a grey-streaked beard. Alice recognised his voice as the other man they had heard speak earlier, the one named as Pug. She had a good memory for voices.
The antlered man called Pug pointed at Alice and Pip, the accusation of the gesture emphasized by the steel and pointed hook that replaced his missing left hand. “And he also be asking what the rabbits two nippers be loping about in the mush for, all sabbed, grabby, and dishabil this middling time of night?”
“Be ye Marsh folk, or furriners?” a third Mudlark growled, a big man to judge by the considerable bulk beneath his cloak.
“We be Free Traders!” Pip exclaimed. “Night-Fliers.”
His face fell when his announcement was met with loud laughter from all six Mudlarks.
When he finished laughing the outlander called McFeck commented, “The Guid Laird sent comedians tae entertain us oan this mirk nicht.”
“I don’t ken what that means,” Alice frowned at him, wishing he would stop speaking French, or Dutch, or whatever it was. “We are Free Traders. Sussex folk. I’m Liss from Rottingdean, this here Pip from Hastings. We were ambushed on a prentice run by Rozzer sky-sharks.”
“Och aye.” McFeck chuckled. “An aam the Quine ay Sheeba.”
Pug held up his hand to hush McFeck. His eyes were unfriendly.
“Ye expect me to bluv that Hastings and Rottingdean send chavvies to do their owling for them nowawhile? More so, a Chopback and Fishgut on the same tub? Tis unbeknownst to me, sureleye, and sounds middling dubersome.”
“We’re prentices,” Pip protested. “I prenticed on The Joseph Swaine.”
“I were on The Martlet,” Alice added.
“Tis unaccountable,” the big Mudlark growled. “I reckon they’re spies, having a coke around at matters that be naun of their purvension .”
“Zackly. Drown ‘em in the salts,” a fourth Mudlark suggested. “Then let the tide carry ‘em out to sea.”
“We’re nohows spies!” Pip protested. “There were two skiffs. The others…” he swallowed, shoulders sagging. “They’re all dead.”
“You must have coked at the Rozzers,” Alice said. “They were skirring low over the mush, with searchlights a-sweeping and Gatling guns firing.”
Pug and McFeck exchanged a glance.
Encouraged, Alice continued. “Twere naun Coast Guard aero-cutters, nor Royal Aero Fleet brigs that did us in. They had four aeroships like I never seen afore. Fast and well-armed. They weren’t skirring like Rozzers, they were stealthy like Free Trade Night-Fliers, skicing on wind-power.”
Pug said. “To do that in the dark—”
“—They had Wind Readers on board, all four of them,” Alice said. “We veered, dipped a shear, made an exit, committed to a free-fall, then ran for the coast. Still they found us, each and every time.”
“So ye had a Wind Reader on board as well, a-skirring about in the manner ye tell of,” the big Mudlark said. “Ye’d have us bluv there were five Wind Readers skicing the mush skies this night? Tis unaccountable.”
One of the other Mudlarks added: “There bain’t even that many Wind Readers in all of Sussex!”
“Tis true!” Alice said. “You have to believe us. We have to warn the whole coast!”
“Pug,” McFeck mused. “Their gear is all torn an grottie, an the bairns loch like they’ve taken a hell of a beatin’.”
“Yarr, McFeck. A proper bannicking. It bain’t ‘scaped my notice,” Pug conceded, before he addressed Alice and Pip. “I were going to have mercy on ye both and drown ye in the mud, quick and painless. Instead, we’ll take ye to Scylla.”
“Scylla?” Pip asked fearfully. “The Mairemaid of Sinneport?”
“Och aye, laddie.” McFeck bared his teeth. “Nane other than the Selkie Quine herself, nae far frae here. Ye’d better pray to the Guid Laird that she’s in a guid muid.”
Pug continued, “If ye be telling lies, ye’ll be regretting that, mark my words. Scylla bain’t merciful like meself, she’ll naun grant ye an easy death. She’d just as lief stake ye out at Camber Sands, sureleye.”
“An tha’ only if she likes ye tae begin wi’, an isnae in a fool muid,” McFeck added cheerfully.
Alice paled, then flinched because Pip tightened his grip on her hand. Despite the pain, she squeezed back. Being staked out was one of the worst deaths imaginable, an ancient execution dating from the earliest days of Owling, forever ago. She thought it was no longer used because of its sheer cruelty. Did the Mudlarks really still stake folk up?
Alice and Pip had time to exchange a worried glance before they were lifted up, thrown over broad Owler shoulders as if they were bales of bacca , and carried into the night as Mudlark captives, too exhausted to put up a struggle.
Being carried about like bacca wasn’t comfortable. Alice alternated between straining herself to keep her upper body and head up so she could at least see something of the foggy night in their wake, or slumping down to stare at the dirt road below until so much blood seemed to rush into her head that she felt queasy. Her clothing was still drenched, and she was trembling uncontrollably, the cold seeping into her bones now.
Sideways glances confirmed that Pip wasn’t having an easy time of it either, and likewise shivering.
Fortunately they didn’t have far to go. After ten minutes of determined striding a low cottage roof rose up along the embankment that held the road. There was a small barn behind the cottage and Alice could hear a sheep bleating, a homely sound that reminded her of the hillsides around Rottingdean.
One of the Mudlarks hooted like an owl, and someone returned the hoots.
We’re here. Alice’s mind translated automatically. Coast clear.
The hooting might have fooled the Queen’s Men, but not the farmyard geese, which sounded the alarm in a series of angry squawks and hisses. That set off a dog, and in turn more sheep began to bleat in the barn.
Pug unexpectedly began to recite a nursery rhyme as the procession closed in on the cottage.
Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep
And can’t tell where to find ‘em.
Without hesitation, Alice and Pip answered in unison.
Leave them alone, and they’ll come home,
Wagging their tails behind ‘em.
Pug grunted in what might have been approval as they reached the cottage door. A new Mudlark was waiting by the door, cloaked and skull-faced like the rest, although he looked shorter and slimmer than the six men who had taken Alice and Pip captive. Instead of horns, tusks, or antlers, this one had the hood of his cloak up, concealing all but his skeletal grin.
The Owlers who had been carrying the children set them down on the ground, much to Alice’s relief.
“Scylla?” Pug growled at the hooded Mudlark.
“Rode back to Sinneport,” was the answer, spoken in a soft tone that suggested youth. “She said to try and find out what the hurley-bulloo over the salts were, howsumever wants us back afore dawn.”
“Pize,” Pug muttered. “You done packing them ponies?”
“Yarr. All t-chests be loaded.”
Tea! They were running in a crop tonight.
Pug entered the cottage followed by McFeck and then the rest, including the new Mudlark and the captives.
They crowded into the kitchen that took up half the cottage. There was a large oak table in the middle and a kitchen stove at the far end, with a steaming kettle on it. The fire door was open and they could hear the flames crackling. Several candles and a lantern provided light. An elderly man and woman were sitting at the table. Alice presumed them to be the farmer and his wife.
They looked at ease, even when the kitchen filled with armed men. Alice supposed it was much the same here as it was back home, with every house, cottage, barn, and church crypt available for use by native Free Traders.
Shivering badly, Alice made to go forward to the kitchen stove. A hand clamped down on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off and hastened towards the small fire. Kneeling in front of it she raised her painful hands towards the warmth. Pip joined her. Despite the warmth, their teeth were chattering.
“Not so fast,” Pug barked. “I bain’t finished yer terrogation yetner. Naun getting comfortable dappen I’m done.”
Reluctantly, Alice rose and turned to face him, as did Pip.
“By Geemeny,” The farmer’s wife scoffed. “Are ye so chuckle-headed that ye cannot tell these poor chavvies be all jawled-out?”
The old woman rose to her feet, continuing to scold Pug. “Are ye so ardle-headed ye cannot see they’re flue? Dappen the time ye’re done beating-the-devil-round-the-gooseberry-bush, the poor chavvies will be frozen to death.”
“Ah reckon Goody Tumtops is reit, Pug,” McFeck said. “Best gie them warm first afore there’s nae bairn left tae question at all.”
“I still reckon they be spies,” the big Mudlark said. “Why bother?”
Alice glared at him. She reckoned she knew his type: Always distrustful, always negative, always cynical, and always looking for something to argue about. She decided to dub him Grout-head.
“Pize!” Goody Tumtops spat at Grout-head. “They be but chavvies man, use yer common sense if ye have any. A puck-stool could tell ye they be boco beazled, sureleye.”
“Letbehow’twill,” Pug conceded unhappily. “But be quick about it.”
“Ye heard the boss,” McFeck addressed the children. “Let’s gie ye warm, bairns. Gie tha’ wet gear aff.”
Quick as a flash, Alice drew one of her hatpins from her top hat, the long steel one.
“I bain’t taking me clothes off in front of you,” she snarled, pointing the hatpin at the outlander.
McFeck stepped back, hand instinctively reaching for his sword. When he saw that Alice was armed with a hatpin he laughed. “This cub hae sharp claws.”
“No fighting in me kitchen,” Goody Tumptops grabbed a broom. “Or I’ll give ye a right bannicking.”
The hooded Mudlark walked forward. “Justly so. I’d do zackly the same, in front of the lot of ye. Why cast pearls to swines? Ye’ll have to grant the young miss some privacy.”
Now that Alice could see the Mudlark better, she realised this one was a woman, not a man. Although the woman’s face was coated in white and black paint like the rest, the light revealed a more feminine face. The dark men’s clothes beneath her cloak hinted at a curved rather than angular body. She also moved with far more grace than the other Mudlarks.
Alice gave the woman a grateful look. She had no desire to reveal her changing body in front of all these strange men.
“That be settled then,” Goody Tumtops declared with satisfaction. “Menfolk out of me kitchen.”
When Pug made to protest the old woman’s eyes grew wide. She swiped her broom at him, causing him to stumble backwards. “Out! Out! The lot of ye, that includes ye Master Tumtops. Out ye go!”
If Alice had any energy left she would have laughed at the sight of the old woman chasing the heavily armed smugglers and her husband out of the kitchen with her broom.
When the men had beaten a hasty and sheepish retreat, Goody Tumtops slammed the door shut. She turned to the female Mudlark, Alice, and Pip with a gleeful cackle. She patted her broom. “Bettermost manner of talking sense into most menfolk.”
Alice nodded in agreement, recalling the exploits of her mum and Great Granny Gunn, both armed with no more than a broom. Mum had stormed the town hall in Brighton to free Dad from the police cells below. Great Granny Gunn had chased a regiment of redcoats disguised as French soldiers off the beach.
“Menfolk bain’t patient creatures,” the female Mudlark said. “Get that wet gear off, chavvies, afore ye catches yer death.”
The children divested themselves of their torn and muddied wet breeches and smocks until they were only wearing their underclothes, Alice in a knee-length shift and Pip in sleeveless undershirt and cotton shorts. When they were done, the children edged back to the warmth of the small stove fire.
Goody Tumtops and the Mudlark studied them, tutting and shaking their heads.
“On my life!” Goody Tumtops exclaimed. “But I bain’t never seen such slabby chavvies afore and I raised a whole tribe of ‘em.”
“Did ye leave any water in the mush for the ducks?” The Mudlark asked. “Ye’re sabbed to the skin. And ye’ve both had a proper bannicking by the looks of it.”
It was all true; Alice’s shift was soaked still and clung to her skin. Looking down she saw that it was torn in places and covered with mud and blood stains. Pip’s underclothes were equally tattered and stained, his arms and legs covered in cuts and bruises just like Alice’s were.
“Some of those cuts will need a-tending, and the maid’s hands as well,” Goody Tumtops said. “But dry and warm first. Wait, I’ll be back drackly.”
She left the kitchen. The Mudlark continued to study the children. “What happened out there?”
“We were on a run,” Alice said. “I’m Liss from Rottingdean…” She paused, looking sideways at Pip.
“Pip out of Hastings,” he said.
“Free Traders call me Neeva,” the woman said.
“Neeva,” Alice repeated, before she continued her explanation. “Both our sky-skiffs had just transferred a crop from a French channel-runner when the Rozzers pounced, four of them.”
“Ye didn’t hear them coming?” Neeva sounded surprised.
Alice shook her head. “They were wind-powered, skicing.”
Alice nodded, and then spoke fast. “They followed us after we veered, dipped a shear, made an exit, and then a freefall. I told those men, the other Mudlarks, already. These weren’t Coast Guard, nor the Royal Aero Fleet. I bain’t never seen these ships afore, they’re sleek, fast as a diving cormorant, got search-lights, Armstrongs, and Gatlings.”
“They shoot first,” Pip added. “No warning, no challenge.” Looking crest-fallen, he added. “They murdered all of the others.”
“And they have Wind Readers,” Neeva said thoughtfully. “That spells plenty of moil for honest Owlers.”
“Yarr! You’ve got to let us go,” Alice insisted. “We have to warn our folk.”
Neeva shook her head. “Tis up to Scylla to decide what to do with ye, back in Sinneport. All I can do is parley to her about what I reckon ye be. I heard Pug reciting nursery rhymes at ye both.”
She picked up the rhyme where they had left of.
Little Bo Peep fell fast asleep
And dreamt she heard ‘em bleating.
Alice and Pip replied
But when she awoke, she found it a joke,
For they were still a-fleeting.
“And what be Bo Beep?” Neeva asked.
“Rozzer land-sharks,” Pip answered. “Preventative men.”
“Owlers,” Alice provided. “Their wagging tails the crop they ran ashore, but everyone ken that.”
Neeva shook her head. “I misagree . Local folk ken it. Rozzers refuse to take a nursery rhyme seriously, more fool them.”
She walked over to a window sill and picked up a rectangular tablet of chalk. Walking back to Alice she held out the tablet. “Read this.”
Alice understood what Neeva was doing and bent her head over the markings made on the tablet, resembling the old runes of their ancestors: The Owler’s Script.
“Midnight,” she deciphered the markings. “Old…Haven. 200 tubs of Dutch.”
She peered at the markings that followed. “The rest be a list of the tubmen and batmen, about thirty tubbers, a dozen batmen. I don’t ken the individual code signs round here so don’t ken what the names be. I reckoned you were running a crop of tea tonight.”
“What makes you think that?” Neeva asked sharply.
“You said the t-chests were loaded,” Pip said.
Neeva sighed. “Careless of me. You’re right. The Old Haven run is an old one. It’ll do, ye can read the Owler’s Script, sureleye.”
Goody Tumtops returned to the kitchen, carrying blankets and two thick wool shirts. “Master Tumtops won’t be thanking me for it, all-along-of these being his only spare shirts, but they’ll reach over your knees and keep ye warm. Ye’d best get changed into them.”
Neeva picked up the shirts from the bundle in the old woman’s arms and tossed them at the children who caught them. “Take off the wet stuff, put these on.”
“No! Wait!” Pip shouted in a panic. When everyone looked at him he stammered, “It be alright for Liss, but I’m a ma…”
Both Goody Tumtops and Neeva looked at him with clear amusement in their eyes.
“…naun a girl,” Pip finished, looking at the ground miserably.
“We got a timmersome grummut here,” Goody Tumtops cackled. “I’ve raised four strapping sons, lad, and I doubt ye got anything atwixt yer legs that’ll impress me.”
Pip went red as a beet and Alice suppressed a giggle at his discomfort.
“Well that sent him all a-flux .” Neeva laughed. “We’ll hold up the blankets like curtains and look the other way, Pip out of Hastings. How does that sound?”
The women did as promised, holding the blankets high to curtain off the area in front of the kitchen stove. Alice and Pip turned their backs to each other and peeled off their wet underclothes before grabbing the large men’s shirts Goody Tumtops had provided.
Despite having much on her mind, Alice couldn’t resist her curiosity and turned for a peek. It was at the precise moment Pip was doing the same, and they both looked away again in embarrassment, before pulling on the shirts.
When the menfolk were allowed back in the kitchen they found the children on a low bench in front of the stove, clad in giant shirts with blankets wrapped around their shoulders. Their injuries had been cleaned and given basic treatment. Each clutched a steaming mug of tea. Goody Tumtops had also provided them both with a hunk of bread and chunk of cheese, which they were devouring as if they hadn’t eaten for days.
McFeck greeted them amiably. “All warm an comfy noo? That’s better, bairns, isnae it? Or did Guidy Tumtops try tae burst ye wi ‘er broom?”
“I’ll give ye a right bannicking with my broom, ye heathen furriner,” Goody Tumtops retorted, and made to pick the broom up again.
McFeck raised his hands. “Nae need, nae need. Ah raise the white flag ay surrender, Goody Tumtops, humiliatin’ as tis tae be bested by a Sassenach hen.”
“Ye’ve made the chavvies too comfortable, Neeva,” Pug complained. “Comfortable folk don’t tell their pettigues as easily.”
“The girl can read the Owler’s Script,” Neeva countered. “The chavvies be Free Trade folk alright, I’ve naun doubt.”
To Alice’s surprise, Pug accepted this without further argument.
The Mudlarks discussed their departure and then most of them left the cottage to arrange it. When Alice and Pip were led outside, there were saddled horses and a string of two dozen ponies – laden with chests of tea – ready to go. The Mudlarks mounted their horses. Alice was lifted onto Neeva’s saddle, Pip onto McFeck’s, and then the train climbed the embankment to follow the road north, to Sinneport.
The steady walking pace of the horse started to gently rock Alice into a doze. Inconceivable as it seemed on horseback, her eyelids grew heavy. Alice slumped backwards against Neeva who folded an arm around her, after which the girl fell into an exhausted sleep.
Liking Alice Kittyhawk? There are two novellas preceding Fair Night for Foul Folk that may interest you, available as paperback or Kindle.