Tracks, Chapter Two: The Departure

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***

Somewhere far, far away from the feverish activity surrounding the train station, a man sat in the study of his grand house. He was bent over a large book with a pen, and with one hand traced the lines already written on the paper, while occasionally making notes with the other.

He was not a young man, and he squinted in the lantern light. His brown hair was streaked with grey and his forehead was deeply lined. His face was lean and strong, though, with a clean-shaven chin and bright blue eyes, a proud nose and a mouth that constantly twisted in reaction to one thought or another. Every so often he paused while reading, looked a moment to the side, then moved the pen furiously as he muttered a note.

A little bell strung at the door of his study rang sweetly. Daniel Gallow looked up from the massive volume. Despite the lateness of the hour, he did not seem surprised by a visitor’s arrival. He instead pushed back his chair and proceeded with some haste out of his rich, dark study and down the hall.

His manservant bowed as he approached, and opened the front door of the manor. A messenger stood without, clothed in a plain brown coat and trousers and shifting restlessly from one foot to the other. He was breathing deeply and evenly, as though he had hurried to the front door and now wished to pretend he was in no great rush. A creamy white envelope was clutched in one hand. “From Lord Shroud, sir,” he said as soon as he saw Daniel, and he shoved the envelope toward the man. He did not even stop to bow.

“Thank you,” Daniel replied neutrally as he took it. His duty safely discharged, the messenger wasted no time but briskly walked back down the stone path that led to the manor. His horse waited at the end, just as impatient as its master. Its flanks were steaming despite the summer night.

The whole thing gave Daniel a bad feeling.

He turned away from the door and it was closed behind him. His fingers worked at the seal on the envelope, checking for signs of tampering before prying the wax loose. All seemed in order. The only thing that gave him pause was the hasty scrawl that spelled out his name, and the little ink spots that surrounded it on the envelope. There was a small streak, as well, where the ink had not been allowed to dry thoroughly before some hand had come into contact with it. It was not, therefore, the carefully composed missive he had been hoping for.

A rustle of cloth caused him to look up and twitch the letter, unopened though it was, to his chest.

His wife, Eva, stood in the door of the sitting room. She still wore a fine purple evening gown with a square neck and silver trim, long dagged sleeves, a fitted bodice and a skirt that brushed the floor. “Who’s calling at such an hour?” she asked. Her voice was lower than that of most Lanthian women, and spiced with the eastern accent she had never quite eradicated. He loved listening to that voice. Even after seventeen years its cadence made his stomach jolt. But tonight, he had no time for such emotions.

Daniel forced his thin lips upward into a smile. “Lord Shroud,” he replied. “Where is Kate?”

“She is readying herself for bed, I believe,” Eva replied.

“Go and ensure it.”

If she was offended by the dismissal, she didn’t show it. She merely inclined her head and turned away. Daniel went into the sitting room and shut the door behind him. After a moment’s pause to collect his scattered thoughts, he pulled a single sheet of paper from the envelope, unfolded it and studied its contents.

The message was short, and to the point. He read it over three times, just to make sure. His face seemed to age another twenty years in just a few minutes. When Eva opened the door to the sitting room again she saw him standing rigid, the note crumpled in one hand. His face was a mask of composure; only his hands, trembling slightly, indicated that all was not well.

“Are you all right?” she asked, putting a hand on his shoulder. Her touch seemed to jerk him out of his reverie.

“No,” he said almost reflexively. Then he took a deep breath, looked around, and said, “No,” again. He took his wife’s hands in his own. “I have to leave immediately. There has been an emergency. I can’t waste any time.”

Her grip tightened on his and they stared at one another for a long moment. In that moment a kind of understanding passed between them. Fear crept into her dark eyes. “When will you be back?” she asked quietly. She already knew the answer.

“Not for some time, at least.” He tried again to smile, but the effort was a useless one and they both knew it.

She nodded. “Retrieve what you need. I’ll make things ready for you.” He inclined his own head in reply, then hastened back to his study to ensure that everything was in its proper place.

Daniel Gallow’s study was orderly and well arranged. This meant that he wasted as little time as possible in collecting a few necessary papers. He then went over to a cabinet on the right hand side of the study. Taking a large iron key from his pocket, he unlocked the cabinet and removed from within a long flintlock pistol. He attached it to his belt, then picked up a bag with the necessary accessories. After a brief last look around the room, he nodded. He had all he needed here. He shut the volume on his desk with a precise finality. He did not know when – or whether – he would get a chance to resume his work.

***

Eva had dismissed the stablehands, and she waited alone. The horses seemed to have detected her mood and they shifted uneasily in their stalls. She had cleared away some of the straw stacked in the corner, and now the edge of a trapdoor poked out. She stood next to this trap door now, her hands clasped tightly together. At her feet lay an unlit torch and a saddlebag.

She started as her husband opened the door of the stables, then heaved a deep sigh. She rubbed at the back of her neck, as she always did when she was nervous or upset. Ordinarily Daniel would try to comfort her – but tonight, time was of the essence. He crossed to the trapdoor, knelt down and pulled it open, all without saying a word to his wife. A dank, damp smell emanated from beneath. The passage would likely be muddy and moldy. He was in for a few uncomfortable nights. Swinging his feet into the opening, he found with his boots the strong hemp ladder that was secured by two iron rungs hammered into a floorboard. It extended some ten feet and ended just above the floor of the passage. He turned and placed his hands on the ground.

Eva knelt in front of him, and handed him the torch and saddlebag. Several times she drew in a breath, only to exhale again after a moment or two. She seemed to be casting about for something to say. He brought one hand up to cup her cheek. “I love you,” he promised.

She kissed him desperately, wrapping her thin arms around his shoulders and clutching him as though she never intended to let go. She smelled of sweat and rain and the tears she would shed later. “I love you,” she replied when they broke apart.

She watched as he descended the ladder into the gloom. When he dropped to the tunnel floor he looked up once, lifted his hand in farewell, then disappeared. Eva took a long, sharp knife from her dress and with a few able saws severed the rope from its holding and sent it thumping to the floor of the passage. She set the trapdoor back in place, then stood. She brushed a few spare pieces of straw from her dress. Then she set to work shoveling the straw back over the door, until its outline was completely obscured.

***

Click here to read Chapter Three.

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Tracks, Chapter One: Fire and Glass

They spun through the air like snowflakes, glinting in the light and turning over and over as they fell. All around them the fire sent ripples of light over their sharp edges and turned the glass fragments into prisms.

The blaze had become instantly uncontrollable. Whoever had planted the explosives arranged everything perfectly and when the station had erupted it bloomed like a flower – a flower with petals of glass and flame, with leaves of charcoal and a stem of twisted iron shards.

Within minutes the royal Falconer was on the scene, with a swarm of city watchmen crawling over the wrecked shell of the building with water buckets and fire charms. More watchmen had been posted outside the royal residence and still more had begun to conduct a search of the city. Another round of explosives could be anywhere.

Though it was cool for summer, the blast of fire had baked the air and the Falconer was sweating in his uniform. One thing they could thank the interminable rains for – the fire hadn’t caught on to the buildings in the area. They were too wet.

A watchman came up to him and smartly saluted. He nodded once, a sharp motion, and the man said, “We’ve checked inside, sir.” His face was red and streaked with soot.

“What did you find?” the Falconer asked in his cold, crisp tones.

“No one was inside. But…the tracks are destroyed, sir. And no one knows how to repair them.”

The Falconer rubbed his smooth chin. Destroyed. Everyone knew the trains were a relic, an unsolvable puzzle. There was no way of knowing whether they would ever be repaired. Surely the arsonist had known this. But was it his goal, or a means to an end?

“Return to the barracks. Any watchman not previously on duty is instated as of now. I consider the city in an emergency situation until the arsonist has been found. Send word to Solldyr – he is to raise the city walls immediately.” The man saluted again and departed.

They would find the arsonist. The Falconer had no doubt. But if he had any associates that might be in the city, they couldn’t be allowed to escape.

Glass powder and ash settled onto his coat. He stood with his arms folded, watching. All around his watchmen scurried, pushing gaping citizens out of the way as they smothered the remnants of the fire. At last a lackey scurried up to him and murmured something in his ear. He smiled at the news, his chilling smile that stopped men in their tracks and gave children nightmares. Then he followed the man away from the wreckage and towards the palace.

***

Click here to read Chapter 2: The Departure.