From The Baby (Thrice Removed) by Rachel Heffington, Chapter Three
Richmond had finished retching up the horrid puddle-water, and pulled his wits together enough to sit up and realize—with a profound sense of relief—that Jamsie was beside him. “You still alive?” he whispered through the dark.
“Barely,” Jamsie said. Her voice had in it the offended dignity of a cat that has fallen off a garden wall.
“What was that?”
“A puddle, stupid.”
“It wasn’t a puddle.”
“Jamsie! A puddle is a shallow bit of water.”
Richmond hugged himself, feeling the cold now that he was mostly alive. “Do you realize what bosh it is to sit here arguing about what that thing was?”
“Do you realize you began it?”
Richmond sat in the dark and shivered alone. It would have been much more comfortable to scoot over a bit and shiver with Jamsie, but knowing women, she’d take it to mean he was apologizing—which he most distinctly was not. A dark wind whished along the banks of the whatever-it-was they’d come through, and it seemed to Richmond that it was what most books liked to call an “ominous” breeze. He wished he someone had thought to put a streetlamp somewhere about. Had they fallen straight out of London-town proper into the country surrounding? They certainly had to have come a long way for that to happen—the nearest farm was a thirty minute drive in a cab. What a shoddy business—one moment a fellow is walking along in the park looking for The Baby, the next he’s down a puddle-hole, the next he’s throwing up the water (and lunch besides) and for toppers, the night’s as black as…shoe polish. “Jamsie?” A trickle of terror—or could it be water?—crawled down Richmond’s back. “It’s dark.”
“I know that.”
“It wasn’t dark a minute ago when we fell.”
Richmond listened to Jamsie catch her breath, hold it, and let it out. “We were falling for a long time. It could have got dark,” she finally said.
Richmond shook his head. “Not that long—we’d have drowned. We tested last summer at the Pools, if you recall, and neither of us could hold our breath longer than forty-five seconds. Jamsie—where are we?” He needed to know. His head was upside down and backward without geography in its proper place. He even felt an odd, urgent desire to panic. Nonsense. A Balder—especially a male one—never panicked. It was against the Code.
Richmond was still making up his mind whether to panic or not when a form stepped away from the blackness of the night around them and became a blackness of its own. Richmond stood at the same time Jamsie did, and they stumbled into each other. Jamsie’s hand clamped around his own, and Richmond felt a centimeter taller and a smidgen braver. The black form was still and midnight-silent.
It neither moved nor spoke, and yet Richmond was certain it wasn’t a…what was that word? Ah yes—a figment of the imagination. A figment of the imagination wouldn’t make Richmond’s stomach wrench like it was doing presently.
The wind muttered again, and tattered pieces of black flung out on either side of the Thing’s body. A cloak, Richmond thought. He must be an assassin. He was more curious than frightened at that thought. An assassin was at least human—not a banshee. He’d rather die at knife-point than be…digested by a creature.
Jamsie’s hand tightened over his and Richmond cleared his throat.
He took a step forward. “Excuse me.” Richmond didn’t want the Thing to think him impolite, but he wasn’t certain if it was a “sir” or a “madam” so he thought it better to leave that part off. “Excuse me, who are you and are you up to any mischief?”
“Mischief?” The form’s voice was black as crows. “What is mischief but a dashed good joke tried on the bally wrong person?”
Richmond eased his weight from one foot to the other and licked his lips. Jamsie’s face was twisted into a sailor’s knot of confusion. This wasn’t how Assassins acted--really, now. “Excuse me, but who are you, and would you mind stepping into the light so we can get a good look at you?”
The Thing moved a step closer and Richmond and Jamsie stumbled back. “There is no light, which is how I like it.”
Jamsie elbowed Richmond and he realized what a blunder he’d just made. The Thing--whatever it was--now knew that they couldn’t see well in the dark and it apparently could. That put them on all sorts of wrong footings. “But what are you?”
“I am Admiral of The Fleet,” it said.
“You mean like ships?” Jamsie had popped up on the other side of Richmond now, and he could see her face, still quizzical.
“No,” The Thing said. “Like birds.”
“Oh, I see,” Richmond said--only he didn’t, quite. “Er, listen.”
The Thing stepped forward with a rustling like taffeta, and before he could help himself, Richmond put his hand out and grabbed hold of a cold, slick arm; he shivered. The Thing glanced down at Richmond’s hand which was just a pale, white-looking blob outside of his jumper-sleeve, and then back at Richmond’s face.
“Don’t touch me,” it seethed, and seemed to grow larger.
“Sorry.” Richmond patted the arm. It felt like--why, it felt like feathers! “What sort of an Admiral did you say you were again?”
“Admiral of the Fleet.”
“But you can’t have a fleet unless you’re speaking of ships.”
The Thing raised one side of its cloak. “Can’t you?”
“I can’t,” Richmond said in a voice that hung just barely above a whisper.
The Thing raised the other side of its cloak, and Jamsie’s fingers tightened around Richmond’s shoulder.
“Then again, maybe you can have a fleet made up of something else. If you want it,” Richmond hastened to add, stepping backward at the same time.
He tripped. Over what--a root, or Jamsie’s foot--there was little certainty. But what was certain was that in an instant Richmond was on his backside, having landed hard on something tubular and metal. “Ow!” Then he ripped the thing out from under him with a frisson of excitement wriggling up his backbone. “Jamsie--my torch! I’d forgot!”
One flick of the thumb later, and The Thing’s precious darkness was spoiled. In fact, the gleeful beam of Richmond’s battery-powered torch showed that mysterious, inky form to be the most curious conglomeration of things he’d ever seen: There were a dozen crows--wings outstretched--clinging to the shoulders of a frail, peeved-looking old man as if trying to cover him. There was a long top-hat of the Abraham Lincoln variety, and a blanket of the Wild-Indian Variety which looked a deal smudged with soot as if the old man had been busy attempting to dye it black.
“A what?” The man’s croak was so sudden, his crows flapped off and away, leaving him even frailer-looking than before.
“Well, you’re a person!” Jamsie finished off.
Richmond went up and touched the man’s arm again. It was still cold and slick, but Richmond now saw it was because his shirt was made of crow’s feathers like some people were accustomed to wearing chainmail. He shone his torch in the man’s eyes to see if he would squint--he did.
“Ey, whaddyer doin’ that for?” the man complained, stumbling back a step. “If you want to talk, come where it’s dark.”
“We like the light,” Richmond retorted. “We’ll stay here, thank you.”
“Have it your way, you bally kid.” The man eased himself to the ground and stretched two spindly legs before him. He wore bright green garters and striped stockings which lessened his generally dismal appearance.
Richmond tossed Jamsie his torch and settled on the banks of the pool in a pile of last year’s dandelions. A pinch of fluff went sailing away into the darkness on a sudden wind. “Can we start by saying our names?”
“Have it your way,” he repeated, only this time the man sniffed at the end with a great deal of Suffering.
“I’m Richmond Balder and this--this is Jamsie.”
The man held up his palm against the brilliant stream of light Jamsie directed at his face. “I like jam. With toast especially. I don’t get much toast these days.”
Richmond chuckled. “Her name isn’t Jam. It’s Jamsie, which is just what we call her. Her real name is--”
“Richmond, you wouldn’t dare.”
“Oh come on, Jamsie. It’s not awful.”
She sniffed and adjusted the torch so it shone in his eyes.
He threw his arms across his face. “Ow--get off it, would you?” She was being such a girl.
“Only if you stop trying to tell people my real name.”
“Fair enough, your Highness.”
The Admiral of the Fleet shifted and cocked one eye at the pair of them. Richmond felt as if he’d said something he shouldn’t have, and it bothered him to not know what he’d said that was so interesting.
“Is she--” the man stuttered, “I mean, are you...”
“Are you part of Them?”
“Of whom?” Jamsie asked in a very confused voice.
“Of the Highnesses?” He hissed the last part and looked around in visible apprehension. “Please don’t tell me you’re truly a Highness.”
“What the blazes do you mean?”
“I think he’s cracked, Richmond.”
“Do you, now?” Richmond rolled his eyes and yanked the torch from Jamsie’s hand, flicking it off. Darkness enveloped them again, and he could almost feel the Admiral relax till he was just a form in the darkness again.
“Ay, that’s better by heaps,” the Admiral croaked.
Richmond assembled all his thoughts in martial order before speaking next: “Am I right in thinking we aren’t in England?”
The Admiral twitched his shoulders in clear dismissal of the idea. “You, my young friend, are most certainly not in England. England is out t’other end of the Puddle.”
Richmond rose and stretched, keeping his back to the puddle so he wouldn’t have to see the cold, reptilian glint of the moon-sliver on its surface. “Then would you mind very much telling me where we are?”
I hope you enjoyed this bit of Thrice Removed, and please stay tuned for an exclusive Inkpen Authoress interview with British author Penelope Wilcock! It is a really neat one, so please come back and check in tomorrow to hear about how Ms. Wilcock's real life experiences have prepared her to write about a medieval monastery! :)