Holding a top hat stood the thin man who in turn lifted it up.
"Hat must've rolled off after the struggle, yeah?" he looked at his friend enquiringly.
"There is blood on the rim, it suggests so... but where is the fire, did he survive it and wander off? I wonder..." Brakken pondered and slowly began to stroll further down the road, lost in thought.
All followed in rapture of what had happened and slowly, they found themselves at a heavily charred wreckage, complete with dead horse closest to them. A bloodied hand coming from somewhere underneath it all and a great mound of burned timber and broken lanterns.
And rifling through it all kneeled a tall, well-built man clad in dull brown with a green jerkin and a long, matted, travelling cloak billowing lazily around him. The hood covered his face and in his hand was an axe. Startled, the man backed off, holding his axe aloft.
"Not at all suspicous," Brakken sneered, "pull down your hood," the man obliged.
Very plain, were their first thoughts, tanned face, wary chestnut locks and large hazel eyes with few distinguishing features. His face was dirty and weatherworn, his hair a mess of mud, leaf and twigs. Around his mouth was a beard.
"What are... who are you?" stammered the lady, who started upon seeing him.
"Odd are the words and attempted question that nearly escaped your lips there. Pray do tell, have you met this man before?" Brakken asked.
"I was merely going to say what are you doing," she muttered, averting his gaze, "but then it seemed rather obvious, thus I changed my mind," she explained testily.
"How very unproper and uncouth to have a Lady do such a thing, think you not?" he challenged.
"And you should know-?" she began, but the man stepped in.
"To put an answer to your question, sir, I be a simple woodsman, a forrester... I chop trees for timber and get enough to warm my little cottage. Then I came upon this fine craftsmanship of sturdy oak and maple and could not resist, so I inspected it for any good wood, does this satisfy your curiosity?" the hint of anger passed by and he paused for a moment, but Brakken kept silent. His attention turned to the rest. "please," he looked out, almost pleadingly, "do not fight, for these are the times when we must stick together," he explained.
"Very touching," Brakken remarked, "Wood, unearth the carcass," he demanded then held out his hand, "oh, but is this how you found it?"
"Yes, apart from the hand wasn't visible," the man shuffled his feet, looking at the floor. Brakken just laughed.
Mr Ward quietly stepped over to the horse, as Brakken gingerly poked it's head... he noticed the slightly crushed bone around it's snout and the heavy bleeding. It must have run straight into something... something big.
"I think I could tell you what happened," stated Mr Ward confidently. All looked up at him. He coughed once and began, "so it started when he began his drive, he came to that bend right there and something stepped out of the shadow. The driver trapped in his seat, was crushed in the impact and the carraige was quickly destroyed.
"our rich man became unconcious, and the thing set fire to the carriage to ensure death and hide any clues. Then it waited, over here," he pointed to a large indent in the ground, "feeling sorry for himself, the rich man got out crawling, it would appear, from the scrape marks right there.
He got up and started walking, limping at first, we can see that from the footprints. he continued on, but not for too long, probably slow progress too. As he got further along, the thing somehow hit him on the back of the head... how I do not know as there are no prints," he scratched his chin, "maybe he threw something..?"
"Either that," continued Brakken, "or the prints were sabotaged, after all, there are no projectiles in the vicinity," he looked at the carraige, "this is the most interesting, it seems that the vehicle was utterly destroyed and piled up," he moved closer, "Mr Ward how would you guess the fire began?" Brakken questioned.
"The Lanterns perhaps."
"I do not think so, the lanterns would have fallen in the crash, they would have smashed and the water dowsed the flame... my guess," he sniffed the air, "is that the wreckage was covered in spirits and then the fire started," Brakken looked at them all, "meaning somebody from the pub..."
"Then I think we are finished here," the barman growled, "a free drink for you all and the hope that you sleep soundly in your beds tonight," the crowds spirits lifted a little as they made their way back.
Slowly the sun fell behind the dark ridges in the distance. Blue fell to purple, purple fell to black and all light was vanquished leaving a deep, moonless night behind. No bird sang, no insect quivered in the cold haunt of twilight. Only the dull yellow light of the tavern was visible.
Inside, the mood was sombre. A thick, palpable tension lay between the fellow men and women who hunched over their beers waiting for the next person to make a move. Yet nobody dared talk, all the talking had been done and the taste of death had left this for an aftertaste. An atmosphere so brittle that somebody had to snap.
From the bar a figure moved. There was a cry as the small, wiry man sloshed his beer upon a burly figure. Quick to anger, the taller man stood up and shoved him square in the chest. Falling to the ground, the other yelled in outrage and kicked his shin. He hopped up and down in pain, only to have his legs swept from under him. But before the smaller man could take advantage, the taller grabbed his ankle and slammed him to the floor. After getting up, he grabbed the man by the back of the neck and lifted him off the ground.
Before the bigger man could throw the other, the thin friend of Mr Ward rushed over to stop them. Believing him to be joining in, the tall man punched him, bursting his lip which oozed with blood.
"Enough!" the thin man yelled, staring the two down, "stop the damn fighting you fools," the two men looked at each other. The tall man shrugged and limped off to his chair which groaned heavily. The smaller man heaved himself onto his.
The Landlady greeted the thin man with a bowl of water and a cloth, her eyes looked kindly into his and she mouthed the word 'thankyou' but before tending him, she poured a drink and pushed it over.
"S'no problem, m'am," he sighed, which sharply became a gasp as she dabbed at his lip with her cloth.
"Brave thing you did that was," she swilled the cloth in the bowl. A thin cloud of red quickly disipated into the water, "what's your name?" she asked.
"William Whitely," he replied, and said no more. His eyes flickered to one side and saw Brakken.
"William Whitely," he repeated, "that's almost poetic, one might say," he smirked to himself, "but you are not poetic Mr Whitely, oh far, far from it I should think," he traced his finger around the rim of his own smudged, chipped glass, "from whence do you hail?"
"I have no words to bandy with the likes of you, with all due respect Mr Brakken," he ground his teeth, then scrunched his eyebrows in pain as the cut split a little deeper and fresh blood trickled from it. The Landlady tutted and clasped his chin, keeping him locked in place.
"Leave the man alone sir, please," she buzzed and wiped the blood off his face, "oh there is little else I can do for you," with that she placed the bowl behind the counter and bustled off into the back room. A few minutes later and Whitely left through the door to the left of the bar, upstairs.
"As for you," Brakken rounded on Mr Ward, "quite excellent powers of deduction you hold. Few people have I met with your skills, though there was this one man in Africa, a tracker who hunted poachers..." Brakkens eyes drifted a little, for a moment, till he shook himself and stared intently at Ward, "what about you, who are you?"
"Nobody that would interest you Brakken, do you mind, I would like to have a drink in peace if that is not too much to ask."
"Oh you have no idea who I am Mr Ward," Brakkens eyes glinted, "I am quite beyond your wildest imaginings."
In a moment, Ward returned his gaze with a fierce intensity, overcome with a sudden rush of adrenaline, "I know exactly who you are Brakken, I sense the power within you... I sense what you could become and I know what you intend to be... do not mistake me for a common idiot, I am the soul of this place and when I die, so to will they all... unless there is somebody ready to take my place," Ward rubbed his face against his hands and scrunched up his hair. he shook himself. Ward stood up so quickly his chair fell backwards. A few people watched him as he left for the stairs.
Brakken marvelled at the profound strangeness of what had just happened. It was as if a demon had found it's way in him, or he spoke directly from the words of saints more like. That hadn't been natural, for sure.
Mr Lord began collecting glasses from several empty tables and the Lady stood up, "Oh Mr Lord, I am finished now and would like to retire, let my Maid earn her keep and help you-"
"Please, that is not necessary." His words seemed to stumble, his head bobbing here and there for some odd form of indication, "erm, quiet night tonight My Lady."
"I must insist, I have a mind to be alone for a time regardless." and before he could further argue she bid him "goodnight" and left.
With that the Lady moved up the stairs as the Maid dithered on the spot.
The barman didn't know what to do with her for a moment, as confused as the miad was. But he broke. "Ok then," the man said kindly, "if you would please wipe these tankards and such and I'll get the tables," she jumped to the job.
Before Brakken could continue his train of thought, the Landlady reentered and an idea entered his mind.
"So, Mrs Lord, tell me of the Lady..."
"Oh, there is little to tell Mr Brakken, or should I say little that would interest a man such as you," yet how much her tone suggested an evasiveness he knew all he needed to do was start her off.
"Oh, but it strikes me as strange... the sort of company which the Lady keeps," he gazed around him, "there must be a story there, something to stave off my apathy," after a moment, he tried again, "humour me."
Finally the woman caved, "oh but there is," she looked around her conspiratorially, "see, she is Lady Eventide, a well-respected family who take their abode in the city of York. Of course some say that they are having a spot of trouble with their money, but I know their coffers are brimmed with gold. Anyway, so the Lady right, she was supposed to be marrying Mr Golding, a highly respectable businessman... something like Lord Courts" great he thought, get a gossip talking and she'll tell you everything you need, "of course, those same critics would say they are wed for the money, that she doesn't really love him. You know what those upper families are like with their arrangements. Well any way, for this reason she comes here with her maid to get away, others say that she found a lover here..." this perked his interest.
"Oh prey do tell," Brakken urged.
"Well I don't know who, though many believe him to be a commoner," she blushed a little, "not all commoners are so base as to be beyond the eyes of a woman," her face glowed and her eyes flickered across the room like fire, "even eyes so esteemed as the good Lady... just the other day I saw her speaking to that gentleman in the corner," she indicated subtly towards a hooded man by the fire, his face deep in shadow.
"No," Brakken gasped in mock sincerity.
"Indeed, oh but you mustn't tell a soul. I would be in ever such trouble and... and..." get a gossip talking and she'll never shut up, "well I'm sure you understand."
"what a delightful story, yet I fear I must retire to my bed and board Mrs Lord, my weary eyes can stay open only so long before sleep finds me," he dismissed himself politely and left.
Slowly the last of the patrons left for their beds. The Maid was dismissed and the Landlady kissed her husband before setting off to sleep.
As the barman reached the front door, a figure stepped into the room. Mr Lord almost dropped his key as the person got closer, so close that it towered above him. But the man stepped into a light and the landlord recognised the face of Mr Ward.
"Before you lock the door, let me leave," he muttered solemnly, "I shall not return this night so do not wait up."
The Barman could say nothing, nor could he move. Mr Ward nodded to him gently and opened the door.
The barman slumped, he remained for a moment like a ghost staring at the graves. Finally he shut the door and locked it.
"All who leave in the dead of night stay there and thus like the stars, leave only a faint presence felt. God have mercy Mr Ward, may your soul rest in peace."