Earlier in the day, the stranger gave the innkeeper a list of his required sundries. The heavy gold purse he dropped on the counter bought more than just what was on the list. It also paid for the innkeep’s silence. To his eternal credit, he didn’t flinch when he read the list of items. On it were some obscure alchemist’s supplies with local plants and herbs. Odd? Yes, but not terribly difficult to find. However the last item would stop most others in their tracks, but it was the most important requirement of them all:
A fresh corpse.
Though reluctant, the innkeeper nodded in agreement. “I can have all this by nightfall… but the price is double for the last item here.” He slammed a brass key onto the counter causing the stacked empty mugs to clatter. The stranger nodded his agreement in return and scooped up the key.
“Fresh, or there will be no gold for you. More than an hour and they spoil. Do not delay.” He turned and headed up the stairs to prepare.
Hours later, the church bell rang out across the twilight, signalling the nightly closure of the town gates. The stranger sat meditating in the center of his room awaiting the arrival of his supplies. A few minutes later, a soft rap at the door interrupted his thoughts. Finally the innkeeper was here. He had a place cleared next to the bed scattered with straw to help collect the blood. The filth that did his bidding always brought back bloody bodies, but such was the requirement set forth in the book. He opened the door expecting to see the fat innkeeper struggling with a lifeless body. To his surprise, the man stood on the threshold roughly gripping the arm of a young girl, about eight years old.
“Orphan she is, from the next town to the east. She’s small but but heavier than she looks. You can do ‘er in here. Me back is bad and I couldn’t carry the dead weight. You can understand that, surely.”
“I paid you for a corpse, not a child whelped from one of your whores.”
“What’s the difference then? You can do with ‘er what you like and do the deed when you’re done.” The sweaty man looked nervously up and down the hall for any witnesses. “And if you raise your hackles about it, I may have to call the magistrate to sort you out. That is, of course, unless you have any extra coin for me troubles.”
The stranger glared back at the man through squinted eyes, annoyed. “Very well.” He pulled a coin from his belt pouch and flipped it end over end high in the air. As the innkeeper looked up to grab it, focused on the spinning glint of gold, the stranger pulled his ornate dagger from the folds of his tunic and in one swift slash, laid wide open the innkeeper’s throat.
The innkeeper’s blood splashed across the young girl’s face, spattering on her forehead and the bridge of her nose. He expected the next sound to be an ear-piercing scream, but the girl remained silent and expressionless at the sight of the murder. The stranger stared after her a moment and awaited a reaction, any reaction, but none came. The coin clunked down and bounced across the wooden floor at her feet.
“Take it and go,” he snarled at her. “Tell no one of what you saw and be gone.” She looked around the room in an expression of child’s wonder, seemingly unfazed by the grisly murder she just witnessed. She stepped over the coin and stood over the innkeeper’s body looking into his lifeless eyes stretched wide open in shock. Blood poured forth from the wound across his neck and though the blood still flowed, the man was dead. She knelt down with a look of apathy and forced them closed with her dirty fingers.
“Does the sight of this carnage not bother you?” the stranger asked.
“No mi’lord. He took me from my father. He hurt me.” Her tone was cold; without remorse. “I’m glad he can’t hurt me anymore.”
“What is your name, girl?”
“Alice, mi’lord, Alice Perrers,” she said without taking her eyes off the dead man’s face. “I’m not really an orphan though. He lied to you. He’s a big fat liar.”
The stranger looked down at her in bewilderment. He thought surely the child was touched by some malady of the mind. No one as innocent as she should be this calm after watching a man’s lifeblood surge from his neck before their eyes. Yet there she stood as if awaiting a sweet for some reward.
“He said you needed me for something important, but I guess he won’t be able to tell me what it was now. Are you going to hurt me like he did?”
“Heavens no, sweet child. You are safe with me.” The stranger chuckled and decided to indulge her other inquiries. “Indeed I did need you for a very important task, but no longer. Your tormentor here will make a suitable replacement. Truly, does the manner of his death not turn your stomach?” he asked.
“No, mi’lord,” she said. “My father, my real father, was the sheriff. I’ve seen many a highwayman executed by his hand. A little blood has never bothered me any. That man killed my father. There was a lot of blood.” She jumped up on the straw bed staring back at him with large and curious eyes. “What are we going to do next?”
The stranger stepped to the bedside and knelt down in front of the girl, taking her hand in his and speaking to her as a father might speak to his child about a difficult subject. “Young Alice, if you continue this journey with me, I can promise you a great adventure, but you must always play your role. You see, there is a man out there—a very important man who has wronged me in a terrible fashion. I have returned to England after many years to see his crime punished. You will see things that will amaze and bewilder your young mind, but if you intend to stay with me, you must never reveal any of my secrets. Does that agree with you?”
She looks up at the ceiling with a grin, playfully pondering the offer. Then a wide smile crosses her soot-smudged face. “Since you took away the man that hurt me, I agree to your terms. I would very much like an adventure!”
The stranger stood back up and crossed to the night table, stepping across the innkeeper’s twisted body. He pulled a leather satchel from his saddle bag; a large, burlap-wrapped box tied with a bit of twine. Alice hopped down from the bed and moved up beside him to see what he was doing. He carefully unfolded the wrapping to reveal something Alice never could have dreamed of. Underneath, to her amazement, was a jewel-encrusted tome made of solid gold.
“I’ve never seen anything so beautiful, mi’lord,” she exclaimed, wide-eyed. “It must be very valuable. What is it?”
Now was his turn to have a wide grin. “It is a book from a far off land. It is called The Necronomicon; the ancient Book of the Dead, and its value is more than any man could ever comprehend.”
“What’s are you going to do with it?”
“Alice, my dear, I’m going to use this to destroy Edward the Third, the King of England, and you’re going to help me.”
Concept excerpt from the future novel with a working title of The Book of the Damned by Lyle S. Russell.