After meeting with Walker I felt near exhaustion. The effort of outlaying my plan, of answering Walker’s persistent questions, and of repairing any niggling flaws, had quite worn me, and the unpleasant haze that so frequently accompanies headache had begun to descent upon me as I walked through the city back to the Tabard. The evening sun was disappearing behind the nearest townhouses, and I soon found myself sunk into shadow, occasionally dipping into darkness only to emerge moments later into rusty sunlight haphazardly sprawled across the square.
At this time the sound men of business, the trader and the butcher and baker, make for their beds, while the rogues and rascals and lights of the frothy foam that surmounts our great society begin to roam. Therefore you can imagine my surprise when I noticed a large crowd had gathered some distance ahead of me. Curious, I drew closer.
The knot of humanity was gathered around a small wooden platform which had been erected to one side of the square. My first thought was of a hanging. I smiled wearily at my foolishness; the hour was far too late for that. But the press of the crowd prevented me from drawing nearer.
Over the murmurs and babbling of the throng cast out a voice. "Behold, most worthy nobles, ladies and esteemed gentlemen!" called the voice, masculine, full of brassy courage and bravado. "Fresh from the courts of the Emperor in Austria, the Tsar in Russia, and the Sultan in Turkey, the divine and devilish demiurge of divination, the conjuring queen of confabulation, the prestigious and paralysing princess of prestidigitation, she will tell all fortunes and perform magic such as the world has never seen!"
A wandering magician of some sort, the sort found on every corner in London. Still, it might be amusing to watch, I told myself. Besides, I was quite weary, and a few clever card tricks might help me relax. I began to elbow my way towards the center of the crowd, easing past plump burghers and sweating, brawling fishwives.
"Taught by Ulrica Arvidsson, the Sorceress of Stockholm herself, who was in turn taught by Cagliostro the greatest wizard the Italies have ever produced, who learned at the feet of England’s own Isaac Newton, Master of the Hermetic Arts and Discoverer of the Unholy Spheres!"
By this point I was nearly to the front row, and I could begin to see the man speaking. His voice was golden, lyrical and well-spoken, but at first glance one could hardly be impressed. His face, browned by the sun, was lined and creased by time and many cares. He had seen suffering. A bristling black mustache, shot with grey, surmounted his lip, and his current plumpness could not disguise the fact that he had known hunger. His clothes were worn and outlandish, their garish colors faded from long days of travel. In all, an air of inexpressible sadness emanated from him; he was a man dependent on the trickery of others for his fortune, and that will make a beggar out of any man. He was a gipsy, and like all gipsies he knew pain, and the cold, and poverty. He relied only on his wits to survive--his wits, and whatever withered ha’penny crone he had unearthed to play the part of the "witch" the fat and prosperous townsfolk had gathered to see. I admired him.
"Now, at long last, she arrives in London, site of ancient magic and new wonders! But stay back, I warn you, lest you be bewitched!" I pushed forward to the first row, and the platform. "I present to you, the Lady Nimue!"
And then I saw the girl.
For a moment, and for a moment only, I felt as though I had been punched in the stomach. "Regina?" I whispered, but it was only something in the line of her jaw, the color of her hair, that had brought back memories of that ill-fated romance, so long forgotten.
The girl standing on the platform, as clear and unafraid as if she were a queen, was quite possibly the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. She was tall, with a woman’s bust and a woman’s figure, but she could not have been more than sixteen. An innocence of line, and a clearness of expression, hinted at her youth. A gipsy, clearly, from the inky spread of hair that cascaded down her back to the blackness of her eyes, twin turbulent pools of nothingness in which a man might lose himself, but her skin was ivory pale, not the usual healthy ruddiness so often found in that nomad people. A certain similarity of expression and overall visage between the girl and the man suggested daughter and father, but what tragedy the older man endured touched her not at all. Her nose and cheekbones were delicate, well-formed, and her lips were the palest of coral, just the slightest hint of rose imbuing them with life. A man could die like Narcissus, and turn into a reed, watching her, but unlike that unfortunate Greek it would not be of some perverse self-love but rather an agape born of the greatest respect for the beauty of His creation and the creatures within it.
She began to dance.
The music began suddenly, a harsh drumbeat followed by the haunting call of a pipe. Her hips swayed outward in gyrating loops that cast out her dress into a twirling disc of cloth, revealing slim, alabaster legs and bare feet, the slight cast of dirt upon which served only to heighten the exquisite beauty of the rest.
Her long, slender arms reached out into the welcoming air and traced enigmatic patterns there, while her nimble, delicate fingers wrote strange, foreign phrases upon the wind. As she danced, whirling and weaving, pirouetting upon the tip of a single toe, her sensuous body worked its magic upon the twilight. Her full breasts, so incongruous on so slender a frame, danced with her, but in their own separate paths, a pair of mischievous planets orbiting a bountiful, fecund sun.
I stood rooted to the spot. If the girl had asked me, I should have charged headlong into the French guns, or into the Chinese masses, or into the hordes of Hell themselves. At one remove I felt disturbed by her effect upon me. Was she a witch? The thought worried at me like a terrier. No, I thought. Such things were not possible. There was no such thing as magic. She was not a witch.
Then one of her orbits brought her face to face with me, and her eyes met mine. It was as though I was a key and she the lock, and together we connected. I wanted to break the connection, for fear of losing myself. A ghost of a smile drifted across her face, and she lifted up her hands, from which two dazzlingly white doves took flight. Where had the doves come from? Her arms were bare. She ceased her twirling, but her eyes never left mine, as she paced across the platform towards me, as supple and lethal as a panther. On hands and knees now, she crawled towards me like an animal. The lecherous fool in me would have ordinarily taken the opportunity to scan down the front of her blouse, but I could not remove my eyes from hers. Our faces were now inches apart. She raised one cream-white hand. Her full lips creased into a merry smile. And she blew some strange powder into my face.
I stumbled back, coughing, the powder drawn deep into my lungs. My eyes burned, and my lungs wheezed, as I drew my sword from its scabbard. Armor clanking, I whirled, looking about the forest glade for the sorcerous nymph who had bewitched me. She was nowhere in sight.
Shaking my head to clear it, I reminded myself of my quest. There was a beast in the woods. I must find it. So my king had commanded, and so I must obey.
Hazy morning sunlight illuminated the occasional droplets of dew as they tumbled from perches in the trees above. The air was green with pollen. My thick boots, encased in steel plate, made not a sound on the soft carpet of moss beneath me as I walked through the thickening forest.
For some hours I walked, becoming greatly thirsty in the heat. The atmosphere of life and vegetation was oppressive and menacing. I slung my sword over one shoulder, trusting the chainmail beneath my jerkin to protect me from the notched and gouged blade. I whistled slightly, under my breath, some old forgotten tune of war and fairies and lust among the roses. Even so, I could not dispel the air of threat and hostility that permeated the forest.
Thick sap ran down the cracked trunks of majestic oaks and ancient yews as I clambered down an overgrown slope. Suddenly, as though by magic, I spotted a glimpse of some sleek coat in the ferns ahead. The beast! But almost in the same instant, the burbling sound of running water reached my ears, and as I glanced about me in thirst, I lost sight of the beast. I cursed myself for a fool, and continued onward.
In time I found the stream. This slightly mollified my anger at losing sight of the beast, and I knelt beside it and dipped my cupped hands into the cool, dark water. The icy feeling as it cascaded down my throat was the finest in the world, and thus refreshed, I continued on my quest.
Twice more I saw the beast, twice more I saw the hint of dusky pelt, the sinuous line of some predatory creature slinking amongst the trees. Both times I lost the beast in almost the same instant, before I could give pursuit.
In frustration, I cried, "By God’s bones, why do you torment me, beast?" and threw down my sword into the ferns about my feet.
"Cast down not your blade, knight, for you shall need it soon," whispered a voice close to my ear. I whirled, in fear and confusion, but saw no one. As to the voice, male or female I could not tell.
"I am no knight," said I. "I wear these colours, my king’s colours, as a tiger wears his stripes, and for the same purpose."
There was no answer. I picked up my sword, and carried on.
In time the forest began to change. I had thought it choking and overgrown before, but this new turn showed the error of my thinking. The forest floor was strewn with blossoms, and the sickly sweet scent filled the air like a cloying perfume. Trailing vines hung from every tree, and the light became somehow greener and duskier as I progressed, despite my belief that the sun waxed in the sky. The air itself became almost wet, and hot with the sweet carrion breath of decaying blooms.
"Come," whispered the voice. I came forward, to a screen of vines that hung before me from an oak that had stood there since before the world. "Come," and this time I saw the voice came from behind the curtain of vines.
I stepped forward and parted the vines.
She lay like Venus in a lily, her nude body supported by a bed of moss and ferns, her raven hair lying in waves down across her breasts and modestly covering her most secret of areas. But she wore her nakedness like a banner, and there was no eros in it.
"Dennis of Stokington," she whispered, her voice husky in the humid air.
"Yes, milady," I said.
"You are on a quest. Honor and glory shall be yours, in the coming days. I see many things in your future."
"The future is not ours to know of, but only God's."
She smiled, and in that moment I loved her, and all the eros that had so far been kept from her sylvan boudoir rushed back, and I wished to take her there amongst the roses and irises and posies over which she ruled. "I see broad forests far from here, with strange dark men in them. I see jewels, lost to you forever. I see death. I see glory and infamy on battlefields and the high seas. A lost love found again, and then given up. Dark hounds at midnight. 'Ware the tiger, Dennis, 'ware the tiger. He shall be your undoing, if you let him."
"You speak in riddles."
"I speak clearly. You speak in riddles, for you do not know the answer."
"I desire you."
She smiled again. "Good."
I swallowed deeply, in lust and in fear. "When shall I have you?"
"That is not for you to know, or decide."
"Then when shall I see you again?"
"On the morrow, when the moon strikes the walls of the Tower. But not before." She laughed, and tossed her head back. Her tresses slipped from her breasts, exposing girlish nipples. "See, I send a guide for you, to take you home."
She nodded, and I noticed for the first time a small locket resting on her belly, just over the dimple of her navel. With a trembling hand, I reached forward to grasp it, my finger tips hesitantly and momentarily tracing over the smooth, warm skin of her stomach, before I lifted the small trinket.
"Open it," she whispered. "Open it and discover what I have hidden inside."
I gently flicked open the locket, and as I did so I caught a brief glimpse of an angry, hate filled face. Startled, I stumbled backwards. My boot caught upon a projecting root, and as I collapsed helplessly, I caught one final glimpse of my love. She watched serenely, unconcerned, as my head collided with a rock.
"Good luck, your Lordship," she whispered in a voice of milk and honey.
"Your lordship? Your Lordship?"
Woozily, I shook my head. My eyes felt full of grit. Head throbbing, it occurred to me at that particular moment, that there is something great and terrible about suicide. Then my common sense returned to me, and I opened my eyes to early morning sunshine.
Gallant Gus watched me curiously, perched precariously on a rain barrel. I rolled over, and managed to clamber shakily to my feet. I discovered that I was in an alleyway, much disheveled, and wondered if I had imbibed too much brandy the night before. Then the details of what could only have been a dream returned. Owlishly, I peered at Gus. "Where the hell are we?"
"Bloody hell, that must be twelve miles from the City. How did you find me?"
"Took some doing, your Lordship, but me gel Hil heard a drover say he seed you out by Shepherd’s Bush, so we tracked you from there."
I brushed myself off gingerly. My head still pained me. "Why so much effort, if I might ask?"
"Got news. Got all kinds of news, your Lordship," said Gus, grinning excitedly.
"Very well," I said. "Let us hail a cab, and while we go back to Londontown, you shall tell me what titbits you have managed to scrounge up and I shall try to clear the cobwebs out of my brain that the witch saw fit to put there."
"Witch?" said Gus, furrowing his brow.
"Never you mind," I said loftily. "Back to London!"
The Life, Times, and Misadventures of Dennis St. Michel, Viscount of Stokington, Soldier, Gambler, Diplomat, Scoundrel, Notorious Rakehell, and Lord of Menacing House, in his Own Words.