Every ship that docked in Weymouth from lands abroad brought its share of scoundrels and strangeness, but the morning ship on this day only bore one man ashore. The ship’s captain, by all appearances, was gleeful to be rid of him. The man wore a dark cloak with a drooping hood that hid his face, doubling the mystery and tripling the gossip. His stride from the wharf was long and purposeful, and he spoke to no one as he passed through the gawking throng of whispering townsfolk.
The stranger crossed through the town square, past the well and the stocks Last night’s drunkards lay sobering up in the mid-morning sun, and he made a mental note of their condition. The market dwellers stared after him as he made his way to The Winged Beast Inn next to the stables. Some swore they recognized him, but could not recall the name. They gave him a wide berth and scowled with deep suspicion.
Let them look and wonder, he thought to himself with a smirk. Soon enough, these commoners will not forget my name again.
The innkeeper jumped with a start when the front door slammed shut. He knocked over a jug of rot-gut, likely leftovers from the drunks occupying the stocks outside. The stink of the stale stout permeated every part of the dingy tavern. The stranger’s boot falls thumped heavily against the old oak floors as he stalked up to the proprietor. He pulled a parchment from the abyss behind his robes and extended it to the fat innkeeper’s groggy hands. Next came the jingling thump a leather coin purse onto the bar.
“I demand two things of you: cooperation and discretion. Meet those demands and that payment shall double.”
The innkeeper unfolded the list of sundries written out in the most elegant penmanship he had ever seen. Listed there were some obscure alchemist’s supplies, along with local plants and herbs. Odd? Yes, but not terribly difficult to obtain. Some could prove a challenge to find this late in the morning if the market sold out. However, the last item gave him pause. He visibly shuddered when he read the words aloud:
A fresh corpse.
Sweat broke out on his brow as his eyes met the cold stare of the wraith-like stranger. He swallowed hard and wiped at the sweat with his stubby sausage-fingers. “Aye, I can acquire all your goods here, but that last one will cost you more than double.”
“Done,” came the monotone response. “To my room by nightfall, if you please.”
The stranger extended his dark gloved hand, causing the innkeeper to startle again. He spat at his own jumpiness and slammed a small brass key onto the counter, causing the stacked empty mugs to clatter. “I don’t want any trouble from you.”
“You shall have none if you meet my demands.” The stranger plucked the key out of a pool of spilled ale under the innkeeper’s hand. In a movement swift as lightning, he grasped the collar of the innkeeper’s shirt in an iron grip, pulling the fat man close enough to smell his rotten breath. “Remember, a fresh corpse, or there will be no gold for you. More than an hour after and the body spoils. Heed my demands and do not delay.” He released the dingy white collar, sending the innkeeper backward into his own cupboard, then turned and headed up the stairs to prepare. The innkeeper spat again in anger once the dark stranger was out of site.
He looked up after him with narrowed eyes. “Men like you are trouble enough,” he muttered after him. “Trouble enough, indeed.”
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 had arrived.
The room was carefully arranged. 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 yourself 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 greedy innkeeper looked up to grab it, focused on the spinning glint of gold, he never saw the stranger pull the long ornate dagger from the folds of his tunic. In one swift slash, he laid wide open the innkeeper’s throat.
The arc of blood splashed across the young girl’s face, spattering on her forehead and the bridge of her nose as the innkeeper’s body thudded to the floor. The stranger stared after her a moment awaiting a reaction, any reaction, but none came. 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 coin clunked down and bounced across the wooden floor at her feet.
“You may take it and go,” he snarled at her. “Tell no one of what you saw and be gone.” She looked around the room with an expression of child-like wonder, unfazed by the grisly murder she just witnessed. The red, sticky liquid poured forth from the wound across his neck. Though the blood still flowed out, the man was dead before he hit the floor. She stepped over the coin and stood over the his body, looking down into his lifeless eyes. They were stretched wide open in shock. 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 her.
“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 very 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 when he did that.” 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. Is this arrangement agreeable 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, good sir. 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 for a better look. 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, an 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.”