The Huntsmen: Chapter 8

Edmund raised a skeptical eyebrow, but Stian simply said, “This is your agent, I take it?”

“Nothing so fancy,” Millie said. “I just keep my ears open.”

“And yet I imagine you hear everything,” Stian said.

Millie just grinned at him. It was an infectious grin: the girl’s face was taken up wholly in it, from her wide cheeks to eyes sparking with merriment.

“This isn’t a social visit, then?” she asked Rafe.

“’Fraid not,” he answered.

Casmin and Stian moved over to give her room on the bench, but she waved them off. “I’m fine where I am, and if I look like I’m really sitting the man upstairs will get cross.” She gestured up above with a nod of her head, where a middle-aged man leaned against the railing and watched over the floor.

“So you heard about old Ned,” Rafe said.

Millie nodded. “Yeah,” she said, her face scrunching in a sympathetic if untroubled expression. “Poor man.”

“He taken up with anyone new lately?” Rafe asked.

She nodded. “Fellow was in here a week ago, looking for muscle.”

Rafe barked a laugh. “So he hired Ned?”

“You should have seen him,” Millie said. “Rich looking toff: nice clothes, real clean, spoke like a gent, but a real weedy thing, and pale too. Put out word he was looking for a couple boys to watch his back when he had to offload some merchandise, but he weren’t paying much. So Ned is who he got.”

Rafe hissed through his teeth. “Seen this man since?”

She shook her head. “No. But you’re not the first one looking for him.”

“Who else?”

“Another uptowner. Young. About his age,” she said, nodding at Edmund. “But more your size. Light hair, twitchy, probably a gambler.”

“What makes you say that?” Edmund asked.

“Waistcoat was on inside out,” she said.

“What does that mean?” Stephen asked Casmin under his breath.

“Gamblers on a losing streak will turn a piece of clothing inside out,” said the professor.

“It doesn’t work,” said Stian, thoughtfully. “Unless you’re hiding from one of the demon classes that pursue prey based on energy signature. But it’s unlikely you will run into one of those on this plane, unless…” His voice trailed off as he noticed the rest of the table staring at him. “Please, proceed,” he finished.

“He was asking after the man who hired Ned. But he wasn’t clever about it.”

“How’s that, love?” Rafe asked.

“Left his calling card,” she said. He grinned broadly, then kissed her when she fished the card out of the bodice of her dress.

“I told you she was the best,” he said.

Stephen was reading in the parlor the next morning when there was a knock at the door. He went out to the foyer as Higgins admitted the duke.

“Mr. Greyson isn’t in, I’m afraid, sir,” Higgins said.

“He went with Rafe to follow that lead we got last night,” Stephen said. “If you want to wait, they should be back soon.”

“I will, thank you,” Stian said, and followed Stephen back to his seat by the fire.

As much as the study was a reflection of Edmund’s personality, the front parlor was Rebecca’s domain. The matriarch of the clan had decorated the room to a style that was feminine but understated. There were lace curtains on the windows, and the requisite needlepoint cushions on the two couches and several chairs that were scattered about the room. There was a red velvet chaise longue with a soft, warm crazy quilt and a novel that Willamina had left open on it. There was a fancy-work basket by the large, comfortable chair that Rebecca herself frequented. Bookshelves lined the north wall of the room, and a small corner table near the fire held a sherry decanter. In all, it was a cozy, lived-in space that bred contentment as well as companionship when close friends visited.

But as they sat opposite each other, the silence between the two men was anything but comfortable. After a long moment, Stephen asked, “So… where in Denmark are you from, exactly?”

“Hjelm,” said Stian.

Stephen blushed. “Ah.”

“You’ve never heard of it, I take it?” said Stian.

“Well, I, that is…” Stephen stammered.

“It is a dot approximately two miles by one mile in the middle of the sea,” Stian said. “The remarkable think would be if you had.”

Stephen was spared from further embarrassment when Willamina peeped her head into the room.

“What are you two doing?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Stephen said.

“Good,” she said. “Then you can walk me to the café to meet Veronica.”

Stephen scowled, glanced at the duke, then back at his sister and nearly hissed, “Why can’t you go by yourself?”

“Because Edmund will have kittens if I walk alone. It will be dark in only six hours,” she said in a mocking tone.

“Hire a hansom,” Stephen said.

“I can’t,” said Willamina. “I spent my allowance last week, and what I have left I’m eating on with Veronica.”

Stephen began, “Then why don’t you…” but Stian was already on his feet.

“It would be an honor,” he said.

Stephen scowled again, looked from Stian (now turning pink around the edges) to his sister, scowled even more deeply, and said, “Let me fetch my overcoat.”

As they worked their way through the crowded streets, Stian enjoyed watching the twins argue back and forth. Stephen was usually quiet when his brothers were around and respectfully deferential around Casmin (a fact that Stian found hilarious). But with his twin he was much more at ease, and as Stian walked along behind them the younger man quickly forgot he was there.

It was because he was only listening to their banter that he noticed the tail they had picked up. At first he thought it was paranoia. Even he didn’t usually expect an assault in broad daylight. Not in a crowded area, there were rules about that kind of thing. But the men who had maintained a constant distance behind them remained long enough that he asked his imp, Fetch, to get a closer look. When the creature reported back that the men stank of demon, he decided not to wait any longer.

“I am very sorry to interrupt,” Stian said, “But do try to look calm.”

Stephen blinked but managed not to look behind them. “Why is that?”

Willamina paled slightly. “What a ridiculous thing to say. Look calm. That’s almost as bad as someone saying ‘Calm down,’ or ‘I don’t mean to offend you, but –‘“

“We are being followed,” Stian said as quietly as he could over the noise of the crowd.

“You’re sure?” Stephen said.

“Quite, I’m afraid.”

“What do we do?” Stephen asked.

“There are only five of them—“ Stian began.

“Only five?” Willamina said.

“—It’s an opportunity. We lure them.”

“You want to use my sister as bait?” Stephen said.

“They’ve got us, if they want us. We’re only choosing the location.” He stepped up to the other side of Willamina and asked her, “Do you have a weapon?”

“What? No, of course not.”

He swore. “You know, for a brilliant man your brother is somewhat lacking in foresight.”

“I beg your pardon,” she said indignantly.

“Over here,” he said, and led them down an alley. It was the first of a series of narrow passages between row houses, and they took three turns before stopping and turning.

“Miss Greyson, get behind us. Stephen, Andre tells me you can call fire?”

Stephen looked at him. “I can. Badly.”

One corner of Stian’s mouth quirked up. “Fortunately, they do not know that. On my signal, then.”

By the time their pursuers rounded the corner, they had changed, and where there had been men there were now five wolves.  Once they spotted the three of them they slowed, stalking now in formation.

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” Willamina repeated rapidly to herself.

“It’s all right, Wils,” Stephen said, and managed to sound slightly more calm.

“It’s really not, Stephen, but I appreciate the effort,” she said.

“You do not want to do this,” Stian called to wolves as the neared. Stephen could have sworn that the lead wolf grinned. Stian just shook his head. “Very well then. Stephen?”

Stephen gulped, and called fire. He formed it into two ten-inch balls, one in each hand.

“That’s your second warning.  You will not get a third.” The two outside wolves began to flank them, silent and hunched low to the ground.

Stian crouched, and pulled a bronze knife out of his boot. He began to sing in a rich baritone. The notes were low and urgent, but forceful. He paused, slashed a line across his palm, squeezed his hand to force the blood. He resumed singing, more intensely now, and punctuated a higher note with a slap to the ground. As if it were a drum, a deep, pounding throb came from the earth. He sang the verse again, and again thrust his hand down. This time the pavement danced, rippling under his palm. The wolves yipped and jumped back.

The one furthest to the left and closest to Stephen snarled and leapt forward, snapping at him. He whirled towards it, thrusting one hand out. The fire in his hand blazed, and he thrust it away and into the wolf’s face. It squealed, and the stench of burning fur filled his nostrils.

Behind them, Willamina screamed.

Stian sang a third verse and pounded the ground again, and this time the rippling earth took on a form of its own, made not out of concrete but of black shadow. It roiled and rose up, seething and rippling. Half-formed shapes appeared and fell away as the wave rolled out from his feet.  He stood, and the black mass began to hiss and whisper. The susurrus grew steadily louder, and the darkness began to form long tentacles that reached out towards the wolves. One of them snaked up five, then seven feet and cracked like a whip, narrowly missing the lead wolf’s hindquarters. It leapt into the air,  yipping again, before turning tail and running back into the darkness. The other four followed their leader.

Stephen let go of the fire; Stian waited a moment to be sure they were gone, and then murmured to the shadows. As they fell away, he gave an order to Fetch before turning around.

“We should go before they regroup. Miss Greyson?”

Hearing the alarm in his voice, Stephen turned to look at his twin. She was white and staring, her hands clutched to her breast under her wrap.  She wavered, but kept her feet. He stepped towards her, saying, “It’s all right, Wils, they’re gone…”

“It’s not that,” she said, blinking. She took her left hand out from under her cape, looking at it with wide eyes. It was blistered and bloody. “I seem to have burnt myself.”

“Oh god, Wils…”

Stian took her wrist gingerly and inspected the burns. “Don’t panic,” he said to Stephen. “We can fix it.”

“Did I do that?” Stephen asked.

“Yes and no. Can you walk?” he asked Willamina.

“I think so,” she said, and fainted. Stian scooped her up and said, “Probably for the best.”

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