“Stealing for a living isn’t as lucrative as one might think. Sure, I didn’t pay for the occasional piece of fruit or loaf of bread, but that only got me by for the moment. Sometimes I attempted to lift someone’s purse for a few pence, but that was dangerous business. I didn’t fancy myself a good pickpocket to begin with and to get caught would mean a lost hand, or worse. Stealing goods from a shelf, counter, or stall was always easier than off a passerby.
“Official jobs from the Guild were far and few between. These jobs were almost always given to the more experienced members. Only when there were an abundance of missions or other members were indisposed did the scraps get thrown under the table for the lower ranked thieves.
“I had no choice but to get work elsewhere. Without Guild sanction, break-ins were strictly prohibited. We were reduced to what we could find on the streets and I couldn’t survive on the meager pickings those streets held.
“One day I saw an old man picking small flowers near the city wall with a small spade. He broke the stems completely off at the roots, discarding the flower, and tossing the root and stem into a small satchel. Curious, I asked him what he was doing. The old man looked up at me smiling and told me he was picking dandelions and that when steeped as a hot tea they were good for loosening stool. I asked him on the spot if he needed help and I spent the remainder of the afternoon picking flowers.
I looked up from the page, my quill pausing for the first time in what seemed ages. “Why?” my question simple.
“Did you know that minced mugwort will cure a woman’s cramping, that inhaling the burning leaves of the coltsfoot plant will ease your cough, or that slipping an amanita cap into a man’s bowl of mushroom stew will ensure he never sees the next sunrise? Herbs hold the power to cure, comfort, sicken, or kill.
“Power has always intrigued me and there was much power to be harnessed from the earth itself.”
* * *
The morning sun shone through the window, softly muted by the light covering of frost. The sunshine did nothing to warm the shop from the cold bite of winter outside. It was unusually cold for a London winter morning; a light coating of snow blanketed everything in white. Even the wood in the hearth complained of the cold with sputtering and hisses as the engulfing flames issued steam from the damp logs.
I straightened a few jars carrying various roots and powders on their shelves and took a last look around the room before unlocking the front door to open for the day’s business. Shelves lined every wall in the shop carrying a multitude of jars, bottles, and bundled plants and roots. A low counter circled the room meeting the wall near each side of the door. I lifted a hinged portion of the counter and walked behind it, grabbing a quill and jotting a few notes on the ledger resting there.
“Winter sure has reared its ugly head this morning, hasn’t it, Christopher?” An elderly man stepped into the room from the back doorway, brushing snow from his gray woolen cloak. He pulled back his hood revealing a cleanly shaven, time-worn face. Bushy eyebrows the color of the snow melting on the floor hung over deep-set spectacled eyes. Closely cropped, colorless hair ringed the back on his balding head, light from the hearth glinting off the seemingly polished crown. The man removed his cloak and tossed it on the rack standing near the doorway. “Everything accounted for?” he asked, removing his glasses and rubbing them with his shirt.
“Everything is as it should be, Edgar,” I replied, blowing gently on the ledger. Once the ink had visibly dried I closed the thin book at slid it onto a shelf beneath the countertop. “We are running a bit low on milkweed, nettles, and iris.”
“Alice Bristow been having stomach cramps again?” Edgar asked knowingly.
“Of course,” I replied, “She buys up our stocks as soon as we can fill them.”
Edgar stood beside me and set a small satchel on the countertop and began emptying its contents. Roots, leaves, mushrooms, weeds, immediately the room filled with a melody of pungent odors.
“If Alice returns, and she will, give her a sprig of mint, a twig of dill,” he held up the bitter smelling weed in my direction, “and a pinch of juniper seeds. Tell her she needs to crush the mint and dill into powder and add some boiling water. After she’s finished the tea she should chew on the juniper seeds and have a small glass of wine before bed. This should calm her stomach problems.” He moved around the counter and begun plucking jars of varying sizes from the shelves. “No more nettles!” he finished, as if scolding me.
“You cannot truly believe she’s using them to—“
“If Alice wants to lead her promiscuous night life,” Edgar snapped, “she can do it without my herbal assistance.”
I let a small laugh escape my lips at his candor. “No more nettles,” I repeated, grabbing a long root and chopping it into small chunks. I reached up behind me a pulled down a small wooden box labeled ‘Horseradish’. I opened the lid, my nose wrinkled in response to the fetid vapors. I quickly tossed the chopped roots into the box, closed the lid, and returned it to its home on the shelf.
Once Edgar’s new supply of goods was secured on the shelves, he retrieved his cloak from the hook and threw it about his shoulders. He looked around the shop, then at me, a wide smile deepening the wrinkles in his cheeks that marked his age.
“I need to visit Lady Evans at her estate in Kingston. She expects me by evening and I fear the travel will be dreadful.” He pulled his hood over his head and moved through the doorway to the back room. “Please take good care of my shop, Christopher, and keep up with your studies,” his voice barely a whisper from the other room. The door was silent upon opening but it closed with a bang. I heard the door latch shut as Edgar locked it behind him.
I yawned, pulling a thick, heavy tome from underneath the counter and opened it to a folded page. I flattened the page out trying my best to undo the crease that had been made in the old parchment. In the corner of the left hand page was a drawing of a long, thin plant with miniature flowers.
‘Cowbane,’ I read silently, ‘Stems contain a rank, carrot-scented, yellow fluid that can cause nausea and abdominal pain sixty minutes after ingestion. Can cause seizures and in high dosage can be fatal.’
I scanned the page for other important details and flipped to the next. I looked up at the window, seeing the sun starting to peek above the neighboring buildings. Another yawn crept up on me and I knew it would be a long day.
I wrapped my coat about me tightly as a bitter wind tore past my feet and against my back. Edgar had the right of it; winter had indeed reared its ugly head. I decided that I would finally free Emily. I had a temporary room readied for her at the Golden Stag. Then on the morrow we could search for a new home. Between the minor jobs for the Guild and working for Edgar for just over a year, I had saved enough to start a meager life for us.
I winced as the wind picked up again, its icy nails digging into my back through my tattered jacket. I had waited until long after sunset and the shop had closed. I spent a few extra hours studying herbs and their properties waiting for the Moonlight Inn to lay to rest. Pulling Emily out in the still of night would be simpler than confronting Frederick with the loss of an employee. As the howling currents slashed through my threadbare garments, I grimaced at my decision to do this so late. It had gotten much colder as the night wore on.
I ducked into the side alley running next to the Moonlight Inn and made my way to the back door. It had been a half year since I had last stepped foot in Frederick’s establishment. I was never welcome, but as long as I was buying food or drink, or paying for Emily’s time, he had no real argument. I remember the look on her face when I arrived. Her eyes lit with the excitement of finally leaving her wretched existence behind, only to be let down by my broken promise. I had not the money at the time to free her from Frederick’s chains as I told her I would. Tonight would be my repayment to her.
I slipped my picks from a belt pouch and went to work on the back door’s lock. I had picked this very lock so many times that I barely had to put conscious thought into opening it. Frederick’s storage room was always undisturbed and a perfect hiding place for my stolen properties. The Moonlight Inn dealt more in flesh than food on any given night, so the storage room was rarely used and only house goods with the longest of shelf lives.
The inn’s kitchen was black and silent. I waited for several moments to pass for my eyes to adjust to the darkness and padded lightly through the kitchen using my memory as a guide. The inn had never changed in over ten years. Every chair, stool, and table stood as it always had. Now, in the pitch blackness, I could navigate it as if it were midday. The common room was also dark, save the moonlight beaming through the two sets of small windows along the front wall.
I moved cautiously up the stairs, skipping the sixth and eleventh steps which held loose, warped floorboards. I crept along the mezzanine and paused as I detected a dim light from beneath Emily’s door. I rested my ear gently on the door to the sound of rhythmic grunting as if a hog was coming to trough.
“Stop, you’re hurting me!” Emily cried from behind the door.
“Shut up, wench; you know you enjoy this,” Frederick’s voice mocked.
The hairs on my neck bristled and I could feel my heart thump in angry response. I gently cracked the door open. Emily laid face down, bent over the edge of her bed. Her night robes had been tossed over her back and Frederick leaned over her, pinning her face to the mattress with his left hand. He held onto the banister with his right, using the leverage to slam his bare pelvis into Emily, his trousers bunched around his ankles, grunting with every thrust.
I glanced quickly about the room. It was expectedly empty except for two, long iron candlesticks, one near the bed and the other behind Frederick’s gyrating form. I darted with complete silence into the room. Frederick reacted to the extinguishing light of the snuffed candle falling to the floor and turned in time to catch the base of the candlestick off his chin.
He sprawled to the floor, growling in anger. He tried to get to his feet, but the struggle was futile, his ankles tangled in his own pants. Emily shrieked, her tear-stained face glaring at me incredulously. She pushed herself to the head of the bed and wrapped the thin wool blanket around her shivering form.
Frederick gave up his struggle and spat a wad of phlegm and blood and bits of ivory onto the floor. He snapped his head up at me. His lip curled in hatred revealing two shattered teeth, blood oozing from the corners of his mouth.
“The city guards will hear of this assault,” Frederick threatened, spitting up another gob of blood.
“The guards will hear nothing. The moment you say a word your life becomes forfeit,” I warned, “Do you understand what I’m saying, Frederick?”
His stare was vehemence, but his reply was silence.
“Emily is coming with me. Her days of selling her body for your profit are over.” I glanced over at Emily who’s eyes showed a little of that same light they had six months ago, although it was shrouded in pouring tears now.
I pulled a sack out of my pack and threw open the large chest against the wall. I quickly shoved Emily’s clothing into the sack, took her by the hand, and led her from the room. Several of the inn doors were now open, candles lighting patrons’ faces. Their questioning stares followed us down the hall. I stopped at the last open door before the staircase and shot a venomous glance at the woman standing there.
“Give me your candle,” I demanded sternly. With a shaking hand she obeyed, slamming the door in fear immediately after.
I led Emily down the stairs, pulling a long coat from the sack in my hand and wrapping it about her shoulders. “We’re going home,” I whispered, smiling at her disheveled face.
I unlocked the front doors and threw them wide. Winter’s fury burst into the common room, arctic claws digging at every surface. I slammed the doors shut behind us, leaving our life with Frederick.
“Well, aren’t you just a sight to behold?” Bernard leaned over the bar, his eyes scouring every inch of Emily’s body.
“Don’t antagonize me, Bernie,” I scowled at the burly barkeep, “You’re old enough to be her father.” I led Emily up to the bar and pulled a stool out for her to take a seat. I slapped a few pence on the bar and turned to head to my room. “Get her whatever she wants to eat and drink.”
“Where do you think you’re going at this hour?” Bernie inquired.
“To take care of some business, Mom,” I retorted, sarcastically. Opening the door to my room, I grabbed my pack from the brass hook on the wall, and closed the door once again. Emily watched me walk toward the inn’s entrance, a tinge of fear in her eyes.
“Don’t worry, Emily. Bernie will take good care of you. He’s a good man,” I reassured her.
“Christopher, you’re making me blush,” Bernie chortled, swiping the silver coins from the bar top. “What would you like for dinner, my sweet?” I heard him ask as I closed the inn door behind me.
I was pleased that Edgar’s shop still held some warmth from earlier in the night. The wind hadn’t relented, nor had the cold. I lit a candle in the sconce mounted near the door and used the same flame to light a second one to carry. Ducking swiftly under the hinged portion of the shop counter, I moved into the back room, and into Edgar’s office. Ancient tomes and miscellaneous ledgers were stacked in disorganized piles along the wall. Pieces of parchment, with assortments of Edgar’s scribbles were scattered about his desk. It was a wonder how he found anything in the disarray that was his workspace.
Fortunately, I knew what I was looking for in Edgar’s office. I knelt in front of his desk and inserted my picks into the tiny keyhole of the desk drawer. After opening the drawer I pulled a smooth wooden box from within and set it on the desktop. I gently slid the top from the box revealing a metal cylinder lying in a bed of crushed black velvet.
I lifted the device, inspecting it closely. One end of the cylinder came to a hollowed point that was dug deeply into a chunk of cork; the other end was open. Removing the cork, I grabbed a steel rod laid in the box with a metal ball on one end and a compacted, flat disc of flax on the other. I smiled, inserting the flax end of it into the metal opening of the cylinder. It fit snugly and required significant effort to force the plunger through, the soft hiss of air shooting from the nozzle end. I slid the tool into a coat pocket and returned to the shop’s main room.
Grabbing a stool from the corner of the room, I scanned the upper shelves along the ceiling. Seeing my objective, I moved the stool, stood atop it, and brought down a dust-covered jar. Leaving the thin layer in tact, I gently removed the aged, cracking cork. I carefully removed two of the violet flowers, setting them on the counter, and replaced the cork. I lifted the bottle back to its seemingly undisturbed home and turned my attention to a larger jar sitting on the counter near the wall. I retrieved a few of the balm leaves from inside and placed them on the counter. Reaching under the shop counter, I produced a heavy stone mortar with a similar looking pestle resting inside it. Under the same counter I retrieved a small water flask and an tiny wide-mouthed bottle the size of an inkwell. I removed the cork from the small bottle and gently carved a chunk of wax out with the tip of my dagger. I ground the balm leaves in the mortar and added the dust to the remaining wax in the bottle and corked it. Popping the top from the flask, I poured a little of the water into the mortar and added the two flowers.
Once ground into a light grayish purple liquid, I pulled the metal cylinder from my pocket. I dipped the pointed end into the mortar’s concoction and slowly withdrew the ball-tipped rod. Once the mortar had been drained of its contents, I pushed the cork stopper back into place on the dripping, metal tip of the syringe and slipped it back into my pocket.
I returned the stool to its resting place in the corner and gave the mortar a light shove from the countertop. It landed on the wooden floor with a loud crack and the stone bowl splintered in two. ‘Oh, look what I’ve done now. I’ll have to tell Edgar I accidentally broke his mortar.’ I smiled, making a mental note to visit the market in the morning for a new mortar and pestle.
I pulled a small canvas sack from my pack and dumped the broken stone pieces into it, along with the pestle and extra chunk of beeswax. Cinching the sack tight, I set it by the door to await my departure. I extinguished all the candles except my personal candlestick and grabbed the shop ledger from behind the counter. I opened it, scanning the pages and flipping them as necessary. Dabbing a quill in its well, I corrected the 12 with a small 10 next to the entry, Monkshood. I made similar changes to the Balm and Beeswax entries; I wouldn’t want Edgar worried that a thief was in his midst. Extinguishing the final candle, I stepped out of the shop and into the blustery winter night.
The wind had settled a bit clouds began forming overhead, shrouding the moon and dusting the city in sparkling snow. I detoured from my usual route and stopped by the mighty Thames. Winter had just begun, so the river was still devoid of ice buildup and flowing smoothly. I gave the canvas sack a hard twirl in my hand and sent it soaring out over the river, landing in a small splash and disappearing beneath the current.
‘Frederick would never accept Emily leaving,’ the thoughts began cycling. ‘He would use his connections with the guild to ensure that she was returned to him. There were a scant few options that I could use to stop him.’ I slid inside the Moonlight Inn, closing the door gently behind me. Immediately I was struck by flashbacks of earlier in the night. I made my way through the black kitchen, feeling my way along the counters to the common room doorway. The moonlight was missing from the windows, so the main gathering hall was darker than before. I slid silently up the stairs seeing Frederick violating Emily in my mind, but finding her room dark and empty, the door still ajar. I continued past, my mind focusing on the task at hand.
The balcony ended at a door that matched all of the inn’s rooms; the difference was that this room was never rented out. Knowing well of Frederick’s paranoia, I pulled out my picks and attempting to turn the door knob. As expected, it held fast. I slid my picks into place, the tumblers falling into place with ease. I winced at the click that seemed to echo within the inn’s silence as the lock released. I placed my ear against the door, listening for any movement inside.
Satisfied by the lack of sound, I pulled a candle from my pack and lit it. I slowly turned the door’s knob and crept into the room. The flickering light revealed that Frederick had more wealth than he showed to the world outside. A thick black run covered the majority of the bedroom floor. Large wall hanging adorned the walls and an ornate desk rested against the wall, covered in parchment and stacks of silver coins. A grin crossed my face at the extra prize I would take with me.
Frederick lay on his grand canopied bed, motionless except for his breathing. A light snore rumbled from his mouth which hung open, the stink of liquor intermingling with his already foul breath. I set my candle on the bedside table and pulled a coil of thin rope from my pack. Unsheathing my blade, I cut off four pieces the length of a man and one arm-length piece. I moved carefully around the bed, tying a piece of rope snuggly to each banister.
During the years living with Frederick, there were two things I learned well. Frederick liked his drink. On a night like tonight where something in his life went horribly awry, he would have drunk enough to be sleeping in a near comatose state.
After securing the rope to each banister, I began gently fastening the other ends to Frederick’s wrists and ankles. Moving to the nearby armoire, I slid a drawer open, exposing a row of neatly rolled stockings. I snatched several of the rolls and to the foot of the bed, pulling a sack from my pack on the floor. I flattened the sack out, unrolled a few of the socks, laid them side by side on the sack, and slid them under his left foot like a wide cushion. I took the remaining roll and moved to the side of the bed, hovering over the slumbering Frederick.
Positioning the sock roll, I plunged it hard into his gaping mouth. Frederick’s eyes popped open in surprise, his scream muffled by the wad of wool. I slipped the small length of rope behind his head, tying it neatly over the makeshift gag.
Frederick began thrashing at the restraints, his stifled cries reddening his face. I produced my dagger and poised it threateningly within his view. His struggles slowed and his muted screams faded.
“Frederick,” I whispered, circling the bed. “Foster father. Dad,” the last word dripping with sarcasm. “You worked my mother to her death and you seek to do the same with my sister. You gather your wealth off their violated bodies and even off my broken back. The Guild saved me; it’s a shame they won’t be able to do the same for you.”
Frederick yelped through the wool stocking as I placed my hand on one of his ankles and made a shallow stab into the fleshy center of his foot. Blood started to trickle to his heel, wicking into the soft sock cushion. He immediately resumed his muffled screaming and attempts to break his bonds. I returned to his bedside, flipping my blade upright and slamming the pommel into his forehead.
“Quiet!” I hissed. Frederick’s eyes lolled as he tried to regain focus. “This will probably hurt,” I stated matter-of-factly, removing the cork tip from the syringe. I wrapped one arm around his ankle and pressed the metal tip into the open foot wound. Frederick kicked and twisted under my grasp, but I held firm, compressing the plunger until the steel ball reached the edge of the cylinder lip.
I took a step back and watched. Herbal tomes spoke of side effects of exposure to monkshood, but always orally or by absorption through the skin. This would be first-hand knowledge that no book could explain. Frederick stiffened, arching his back slightly, the veins on his neck and forehead bulging. He struggled for a few moments against his restraints, his limbs fell limp and his eyes rolled back into his head. Frederick would never hurt anyone again.
I pulled the small bottle of wax and balm dust from my pocket, popping the cork and holding it under my candle. Once the wax liquefied, I stirred it with the tip of my blade. As it cooled, I scooped a bit out with my dagger and applied it to the open wound on Frederick’s foot, sealing it. I slid the sock and canvas sponge from beneath his leg; several of the socks and turned black with blood. I balled up the makeshift mat and stuffed it all into a separate sack. Moving to the side of the bed, I untied the gag around Frederick’s lifeless head. Pulling the sock out of his mouth revealed a light layer of vomit coating it. I pushed his head to the side, bile spilling from the side of his mouth onto the pillow. I had assumed a direct dose would quicken the effects, but I was impressed by just how fast.
I untied the remainder of the ropes and put them in the waste sack along with the gag. I pulled a fresh pair of socks over Frederick’s feet and pulled the bed cover up to his waist. I laid his arms at his sides and looked him over. ‘Sleeping like a baby,’ I smiled. My heart wasn’t racing, my palms were dry, and my mind was clear as a star-filled night sky; I wasn’t even frightened. I scooped up my pack from the floor and carried it to Frederick’s desk. Holding it against the edge, I slid the stacks of coins into it, closing the flap and shouldering it.
I hefted the sack of evidence from the floor and looked over the room. Everything almost looked as it had when I arrived. I glanced at Frederick’s motionless body one last time before slipping out the door.