Read Twilight Robbery Online

Authors: Frances Hardinge

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General

Twilight Robbery (5 page)

She climbed gingerly on to a stool, worked the shutter bolt free and opened the shutters. Then she heaved the upper part of her body on to the windowsill and started wriggling through the gap, the night air rushing in past her so icily that it made her ears ache. There was sky ahead with stars drowned in it, black trees waving as if trying to mime a warning . . .

Behind her there was a faint
like a skeleton impatiently drumming his fingers. In her mind’s eye, Mosca could almost see the first domino teetering in the breeze, then falling to trigger the others. The lizard-hiss snore stopped abruptly, and then there was a hoarse cry, enough to tell Mosca that Skellow had woken, looked up, and seen that the nearest window was full of wet petticoat and frantically kicking legs.

There are times for caution and carefully planned descents. And there are times for hurling oneself out of a window willy-nilly and trusting to luck.

As it happened, luck decided to break Mosca’s fall with a blackberry hedge. A few seconds were spent in bewildered flailing before she worked out why the sky was covered in dead leaves and why the ground had stars in it. Dozens of tiny thorns set in her clothes as she struggled to right herself. Only the sound of a door cracking back on its hinges gave her the panicky strength to yank herself free, leaving her bonnet to the brambles’ embrace.

Which way to run? Anywhere. Anywhere not here.

‘Get a lantern! Get a lantern!’ Voices from the bastle house.

But it takes time to find a lantern in the dark, long enough for two quick legs to sprint away into the heaving labyrinth of gorse. It takes time too for sleep-fumbled hands to strike tinder and nursemaid the trembling flame to the wick, long enough for small, cunning hands to snap off a fern-fan the right size to shield a black-haired head from sight. And by the time three men stood at the door of the bastle house surveying the night, there was no sign of the fugitive, and no sound but for the restless wind, and the disappointed fluting of owls skimming unseen over the mouseless moor.

There is nothing more miserable than being cold, wet, exhausted and hungry without any likelihood of becoming
cold, wet, exhausted and hungry. If the future does not hold that comforting promise of shelter and dry clothes, and a bowl of hot soup, then the damp and cold is free to sink into one’s very marrow because there is no hope to keep it out. Eventually, however, the dim starlight showed Mosca the twin grooves left by uncounted cartwheels, and she realized she had found a rough road. Following it, she at last discovered a clutch of slate-rooved, rugged-faced cottages huddling in the heather like eggs. Bonnetless and bedraggled, she limped into the village. It was silent, every window shuttered.

Mosca ran her numb fingers through her hair and tried to tame it into something less like a rookery, then knocked on the nearest door. There was no response, but on a second knock she heard a shuffling step and took a pace back, in time to look unthreatening as the door opened a crack to show a neat slice of nightcap, suspicious elderly face, linen bedgown and fire iron.

‘Please, sir – I been robbed.’ It was important to say this first. If she had had her money taken from her, she had some chance of being considered respectable. If she admitted that she’d never had any money in the first place, it was much more likely that she would be cast out and distrusted. Respectable people were funny like that. And after all, Skellow had promised Mosca money and not given it to her. What was that but robbery?

‘Spare us sores!’ The old man took in her drenched dress and stockinged feet, and did not seemed inclined to hit her with the fire iron. ‘What happened to you?’

‘I was taking some money and a message for my mistress . . .’ Mosca paused to note the effect of her words. Yes, the words ‘my mistress’ had worked their magic, and she was transformed in the stranger’s eyes from youthful beggar to diligent serving girl. And a mistress was even more respectable than a master. ‘And these men, they dragged me off and robbed me, and locked me up, and I think they was goin’ to kill me cos I saw their faces, but I got away . . .’

‘Local men, were they?’ The old man gave a speculative glance down the street.

‘I don’t know – don’t think so, sir. I think they was here visiting. They . . . They come for the Pawnbrokers’ Auction –’

The moment the words were out of Mosca’s mouth she knew that she had made a mistake.

‘We don’t know anything about the Pawnbrokers!’ the old man declared, his bristled chin wobbling. Behind his face a door had slammed shut, and a moment later the door in front of Mosca did exactly the same thing.

‘Hope yer roof falls in,’ Mosca told his door knocker conversationally.

A slammed door meant that this village
know about the Pawnbrokers’ Auction, and were eager to know no more than they had to. It occurred to Mosca that a guild who would happily throw their clients down mineshafts if they broke rules of anonymity would probably not be much kinder to anyone who snooped on the comings and goings around their auctions. Best to bolt the doors and fasten the shutters and wait for the auctioneers and their mysterious buyers and sellers to go away.

She limped on between the silent houses, trying to judge the friendliness of each. She was just about to raise another knocker when she spotted a glimmer of light ahead. Unlike its fellows, the last building’s chimney churned smoke, and on a wall bracket swung a lantern, illuminating a gleaming sign which swung above the door, and upon which three painted dogs bore down a painted stag. Beneath it the lettering read: ‘The Broken Hart’.

A tavern! The village had a tavern, and one evidently willing to welcome visitors, however strange and dangerous they might be, even on this night. Winter was winter, after all, and money was money.

The door swung open to her knock. The smells of trout and muffins and blackberry sauce pushed into Mosca’s insides like a spoon and scraped her empty stomach. A tall blond man in an apron stood in the doorway, the firelight behind him turning each golden hair on his muscular red arm into a tiny thread of flame. His eye slid off Mosca and out on to the dark road behind her, as if hoping she was errand girl for a coach, or at the very least a horseman.

‘Yes?’ he asked the empty road.

‘I been robbed . . .’ Mosca saw the door start to close, and had the presence of mind to push her clogless foot into the gap, a painful decision but one that kept the door open. ‘And . . . And I think my mistress said she was coming here. I was supposed to meet her, but I got grabbed and dragged off over the moor . . .’

The door opened warily.

‘Your mistress’s name?’

Exhaustion suddenly fogged Mosca’s mind. She snatched for a fistful of names, only to have them crumple in her hand like dead leaves, leaving her with nothing. She was just about to blurt out Clent’s name in desperation, when a woman’s voice interrupted.

‘Kale! What’s wrong with you? Don’t ask the lady’s name!’ The door was pulled wider, and Mosca found herself looking into the brown eyes of a woman not much taller than herself. Her neatness and pert precision of movement made Mosca think of a wren, a freckled little wren in a muslin gown. ‘We don’t ask for names on this night – you should know better. Now bring the girl in, and we’ll see if we can’t find her mistress.’

Mutely Mosca followed her diminutive champion to the fireside, where her legs decided that their work was done for the evening and crumpled under her. She was draped in a blanket that smelt of horse and had a burn hole in it, but which was gloriously, blissfully dry. Soon a wooden bowl of hot stew was in her hands, and in overeagerness she burned her tongue so that she could taste nothing but metal.

On the other side of the room she could hear a murmured conversation between her two new acquaintances, whom she guessed were probably the tavern keeper and his wife.

‘. . . let her in until we knew whether she was telling the truth.’

‘Oh, Kale! It’s past midnight. You know what that means? These three hours are sacred to When you least, Mistress of Reunions and Remembered Faces. During those hours, if you reunite two people who have been separated by chance, then it means you’ll have good luck the whole of the next year. So let’s see if we can match her up with her lost mistress. I’m sure her mistress will pay for the stew.’

Mosca had no idea how she would conjure a mistress out of thin air, but she was sure that inspiration would come more easily on a full stomach.

‘Well, we’ve only one lady staying here – and she left hours ago and hasn’t come back . . .’

As if to refute the landlord’s words, there came a brisk knock at the door. Mosca stiffened as she heard the door open and the landlady’s tones become sprightly and welcoming.

‘Good to see you back, ma’am. Quite a perilous cold night for you to be out in. Oh, do come and warm yourself by the fire!’

‘That would be most welcome, my currant-bun.’ A warm summer breeze of a voice. ‘Ooh, as you say, a most perishing night, but, well, business is business, isn’t it?’

‘Ye-e-es . . .’ The landlady was clearly unwilling to know too much about the business in question, and swiftly changed the subject.

Mosca stiffened, her jaw frozen mid-chew. The new voice was not unfamiliar

Two women came into the room. The first was the little wren-landlady. The second was sturdy and sun-browned, with a good-natured aura that seemed to pour into the room with her like warm custard. Under her cap a thick plait of grey-touched auburn hair was twisted like a bread swirl. A dark green travelling cloak swathed her stocky figure.

‘. . . this girl looking for her mistress.’ The flow of the landlady’s speech continued, oblivious of the way her two companions had locked stares and frozen, like cats in a contested alley. ‘And since you’re the only lady staying with us, we thought she must be yours . . . Do you know her?’

‘Oh yes, I know her,’ answered Mistress Jennifer Bessel.

Mosca and Mistress Bessel had indeed met before. Their acquaintance had been very brief, and had involved rather more screaming, breakage and hasty flight than is generally considered promising for a healthy friendship.

‘Oh, now, that’s wonderful!’ The landlady clasped her hands. ‘Well, settle yourself down, ma’am, I’ll take your cloak – and your gloves are all over mud; if you want me to take them away and clean them . . .’

‘No!’ Mistress Bessel’s answer was sharp enough for the landlady to falter and look anxious.

In a flash, Mosca remembered why Mistress Bessel wore gloves. When they last met, the gloves in question had been ladylike affairs in black lace, through which Mosca had just about been able to make out a dark mark shaped like a ‘T’ on the back of each hand. It was enough to tell her that once upon a time Mistress Bessel had been branded as a thief. Mistress Bessel now wore good kid gloves. Evidently she was becoming more careful, and less willing to let people see the marks.

It was an opening, a tiny promise of a foothold, and Mosca reached for it.

‘Hello, ma’am,’ Mosca said with a docile little bob of the head, her eyes wide insolent black pennies. She let her gaze drop for a barely perceptible instant to Mistress Bessel’s gloved hands.
If you cry me out for a criminal, two can play at that game.

‘Poor little currant-bun,’ said Mistress Bessel, fixing Mosca with eyes the blue of a midwinter morning. ‘Look at the dear, draggled thing – don’t you just want to wring her out like a dishcloth?’ She turned to the landlady. ‘Now don’t you worry about us, my lovely. My girl and I will take ourselves up to our room and be out of your way, won’t we?’

Still retaining eager custody of the stew bowl, and hugging her blankets around herself, Mosca followed Mistress Bessel’s stocky form up a stairway almost too narrow for her. They entered a box-like, windowless, dark-panelled room with a drably draped bed and a busy little hearth.

Once the door was closed and Mosca had crouched by the fire, Mistress Bessel fixed her with her gimlet gaze, and then very slowly put her fists on her hips. Maybe it was a trick of the light thrown upwards by the fire, but Mistress Bessel’s face seemed thinner than Mosca remembered it, and more haggard. Perhaps the death of summer had not been kind to her either.

Mosca did not see the accusing glare as a reason to stop eating, but instead decided to scoop food faster until her spoon became a blur. If there was a danger that she would have to flee into the night once more, she was determined to do so with as much stew inside her as possible.

.’ All the warmth had drained out of Mistress Bessel’s tone, leaving it as wintry as her eyes. ‘You
turn up now, like a witch’s imp come to claim a soul. What hell-cat coughed
up on my doorstep, tonight of all nights?’ Her gaze dropped to the dribble of soup running down Mosca’s chin. ‘I better not be paying for your dinner!’ she snapped.

‘You can’t be short of money if you’re going to the Pawnbrokers’ Auction,’ answered Mosca through a mouthful of parsnip. It was a wild shot, but why else would the woman be out so late? Mistress Bessel flinched, and Mosca guessed that she had hit her mark.

Mistress Bessel gave a quick glance over her shoulder. ‘All right,’ she said in a low mutter, ‘where is he? If you’re here, your partner in crime can’t be far away. I’ve still got a bone to pick with him.’

‘Mr Clent’s in the debtors’ prison in Grabely, and set about with creditors. If you want to pick his bones clean, you’ll have to join the queue.’

‘I do not mean Eponymous!’ Mistress Bessel glared at her, and this time Mosca noted a decidedly apprehensive look in her eye. ‘I mean that . . .
of yours.’

Saracen tended to leave a strong impression. Months before, while on their travels, Clent and Mosca had stayed for a brief interval at Mistress Bessel’s shop. While Mosca was away on a shopping trip, Clent had tried to make a present of Saracen to Mistress Bessel. Mosca had had her own ideas about this, as had Saracen, and Saracen had ended up making a cripplingly strong impression upon Mistress Bessel, Mistress Bessel’s apprentice, a counter, two tables, a window and most of the contents of her shop.

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