Time quake, p.15
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       TIME QUAKE, p.15

           Linda Buckley-Archer
 

  Gideon’s heart sank. How could this possibly have happened? There had been three of them, all armed! How had Blueskin contrived to turn the tables so effortlessly?

  ‘Sir Richard’s pistol,’ said the Tar Man, ‘was pointing at your head when he started to squeeze the trigger. Were my reflexes not so fast, your brains would now be spattered over my floorboards. To survive long in this world, brother, you either travel alone or you are fastidious in your choice of companions.’

  ‘You, who ride with Joe Carrick, dare to lecture me on my companions!’ Gideon croaked. ‘And as for any connection between us – I am no brother of yours, as well you know!’

  ‘No? Unless I am better informed than you suppose. But pray do not trouble yourself to disguise your joy at the news . . .’

  ‘You must allow me to know how many brothers I may or may not have.’

  ‘And you must allow me to think that you are mistaken! Faith, a younger brother is the last thing I desire or need. It seems to me that relations are good for little aside from causing grief – as your present visit demonstrates.’

  ‘Why do you persist in such a lie when you know full well that the fever took my mother and stepfather and all my brothers and sisters. All saving Joshua—’

  ‘Joshua is your half-brother,’ interrupted the Tar Man. ‘Whereas we share the same mother and father.’

  Gideon exhaled loudly in frustration. ‘What game do you and Lord Luxon play?’

  The Tar Man held his tongue, continuing all the while to hold his victim in check and to study Gideon’s face as if searching for the answer to some unspoken question.

  ‘As you wish . . . Let us agree that I am not your brother. Let us agree that our mother did not abandon her firstborn during his hour of need. Let us agree that our mother did not uproot herself and the rest of her brood in order to escape the shame of admitting that I was her son . . .’

  ‘Our mother!’ Gideon cried. ‘Do not dare—’

  ‘She was my mother before she was yours and I know of what I speak!’ barked the Tar Man. He sounded angry for the first time. His grip slackened for a moment and Sir Richard took advantage of his lapse in concentration by trying to break away. The Tar Man shouted at him to keep still and yanked back his arm so violently that Sir Richard let out an agonised scream.

  ‘You will hang for this!’ cried Sir Richard.

  ‘I suggest you persuade your friend to hold his tongue,’ said the Tar Man coldly, frowning with the effort of holding on to his struggling victim. ‘He does not know me as you do . . .’

  Gideon did not reply but staggered backwards to steady himself. A lock of blond hair fell over his eye and he pushed it back feverishly, transfixed as he was by that most ephemeral of things, the Tar Man’s frown. He focussed on it, with his one good blue eye, with such intensity that for a moment he was aware of nothing else in the room but the deep, vertical crease between the Tar Man’s thick, black eyebrows. Suddenly Gideon found that he was no longer looking at Blueskin but, as the years rolled back, at a man wearing that self-same frown. A man who had stepped back for a moment from the chair leg he was carving in order to examine his handiwork. Was this a waking dream or a memory? Yet the image did not fade; rather it intensified, and Gideon watched the man’s frown dissolve as he looked up from the chair and met his gaze. He was a still a youngish man with dark hair, and he had the quiet hands of a craftsman. His eyes were full of pride and delight in his small son. The man laid down his tools and opened his arms wide in greeting. Gideon had no doubt that it was his own father who looked at him across the arc of the years. When Sir Richard let out another cry it jolted Gideon out of his trance and he found that he could not contain the anguish that coursed suddenly through his veins.

  ‘No!’ he exclaimed in despair. ‘No!’

  ‘I did not think you so squeamish, Gideon! Sir Richard is not made of porcelain. He shall not break so easily.’

  For a moment the room seemed to swim before Gideon’s eyes. His conscious mind would resist to the end the notion that Lord Luxon’s henchman was his own brother, but Blueskin’s frown had dredged up a memory that he did not even realise he possessed. His father had been so young when he died. Gideon covered his face with his hands. Could it be true? Could this monster be his own flesh and blood? When Gideon took his hands away the Tar Man observed the loathing and anger that he read, as plain as day, in his younger brother’s eyes. When the Tar Man spoke, his voice was flat.

  ‘My arm begins to tire. You had best tell me the purpose of your visit before I find a more permanent way of restraining your friend. Although I can guess easily enough . . .’

  Refusing to accept a truth so repugnant to him, Gideon clenched and unclenched his hands, anger and distress pulsing alternately inside him like a series of electric shocks. He would not accept it! How could he? When everything he had strived to combat in his own life was made flesh in this odious villain. He did not want to be stained with the same brush; he did not want to belong to a family that bred such monsters . . . The possibility tugged at the very root of his hard-earned self-respect. Even Sir Richard seemed to forget his discomfort temporarily as he watched the hurricane of emotions play out on his young friend’s face.

  ‘We have come to take what rightfully belongs to the children,’ gasped Sir Richard.

  ‘But you do not possess the code—’

  ‘Perhaps we do,’ said Gideon.

  ‘Do you?’

  Gideon opened his mouth and shut it again. The Tar Man laughed although he did not look amused.

  ‘You could not lie if your life depended upon it! Besides, I know that you do not have the code. Mistress Dyer is as poor a liar as you.’

  Gideon glared at him. ‘What kind of man does not balk at torturing children?’

  ‘The kind of man who does what needs must. No more and no less. And you, Gideon, did you come to my home hoping to get the device by engaging me in idle conversation? No! You came, three against one, in the dead of night, armed with pistols – though it would have been better for you had you chosen companions with a morsel of talent between them.’

  ‘You ripped these children from the bosom of their families!’ cried Gideon.

  ‘Pshaw! The streets of London are awash with tragic stories and with ragged children who deserve my pity a thousand times more than your young charges! Did anyone, even my own family, come to my aid with words of comfort as the noose tightened around my neck and I bade life farewell to the ugly taunts of a jeering crowd? The worst I was guilty of was to steal our neighbour’s chicken. I was scarcely more than a child, Gideon! Our own mother believed the word of strangers over those of her own son—’

  ‘I am not your brother . . .’

  ‘As you like.’

  ‘And if the world has sinned against you, you have more than made up for it since . . .’

  ‘Have a care, Gideon. Even my patience – and, believe me, I have learned to be patient – has its limits.’

  ‘But if you remember the agony of being abandoned by a parent,’ cried Gideon, ‘and as you lack the knowledge to profit from the machine, can you not find it in your heart to return it to Master Schock and Mistress Dyer?’

  ‘Heart? As I know that you do not credit me to have one, I am amazed you waste my time and yours with such a question. What care I if Master Schock and Mistress Dyer return to their family or rot in hell? They are nothing to me! Whereas I would go back to the hour of my birth and be my own guardian angel as Fortune has not seen fit to provide me with one . . . Besides, if they do not know the secret code, nor will it be of any use to them!’

  ‘But it will allow them to live in hope, whereas at present they are doomed to perpetual exile in a foreign century. Where is the device, Blueskin? Is it in this house?’

  ‘Ha! Do you think me a fool?!’

  Gideon thought he detected the subtlest of changes in the Tar Man’s tone of voice. Could the anti-gravity machine be hidden within these very walls? Suddenly Gideon felt abl
e to push his tumultuous feelings to one side and he resolved to concentrate on the job at hand. His eyes swept slowly around the room searching for clues. A large, rusting key lay at the foot of brass candlestick on the mantelpiece. His eyes flicked back to the Tar Man to test his reaction. Whether Blueskin had noticed where his gaze had landed he could not tell for certain, but there was an unfathomable expression in his eyes that led Gideon to believe that he was disguising his agitation.

  Parson Ledbury let out a loud groan and with his eyes still firmly closed he tried to push himself up from the table. The Tar Man cast a swift glance in the Parson’s direction. As he did so Gideon dived to the corner of the room, grabbed hold of his pistol, swung around, and aimed it at square at the Tar Man’s face. Then, facing his opponent he stepped carefully backwards towards the mantelpiece and felt with his left hand for the key. The Tar Man watched him slip it into the pocket of his blue jacket.

  ‘Where is the machine, Blueskin?’ cried Gideon.

  ‘I advise you to drop your pistol,’ replied the Tar Man, ‘if you wish Sir Richard to see the dawn!’

  ‘Harm Sir Richard, Blueskin, and, by all the gods, I swear that I shall shoot you!’

  ‘Ha! You, shoot me! You, whose conscience is too delicate to continue as a cutpurse, threaten to turn assassin! Shoot me if you dare, Gideon! Rid yourself of a troublesome brother!’

  Gideon stood, the pistol aimed at the Tar Man’s face, barely in control of himself. His hatred for this man was written on every pore of his face. Sir Richard closed his eyes, suddenly limp in his captor’s grasp, unable to look. ‘No, Gideon!’ he mouthed.

  A few seconds passed and then, holding his breath, the Tar Man watched Gideon’s finger slowly squeeze the trigger. Gideon stared deep into his brother’s eyes and, unflinching, the Tar Man returned his gaze. Sweat pearled on Gideon’s brow.

  ‘What are you waiting for? Take your chance while you can. In your shoes I should not hesitate. Damn your eyes, Gideon, I did not take you for a lily-livered coward! Kill me if you dare!’

  Gideon let out a desperate cry and pulled the trigger. The explosive crack caused the room to shake. The air filled with white smoke. The Parson leaped to his feet, holding his injured head in his hands. As plaster rained down on their heads everyone slowly opened their eyes. There was a gaping hole in the ceiling above the Tar Man.

  ‘As I thought!’ said the Tar Man, laughing, although he looked shaken.

  ‘I shall not fail a second time!’ cried Gideon, white-faced and trembling, as he cast about for the Parson’s pistol, the only one yet to be discharged. ‘I should as soon cut off my right hand than admit to the world that we are brothers.’

  Unable to locate the third pistol, Gideon launched himself at the Tar Man who warned him off with a tremendous shout and jabbed the dagger deeper into Sir Richard’s neck so that it drew blood.

  ‘So, brother mine, my very existence offends you, like the rest of the world! Yet still I live on, Gideon, if only to spite you and our dead mother!’

  Without ever taking his eyes off Gideon the Tar Man suddenly twisted Sir Richard’s arm with such violence that he pulled it clean out of its socket. Gideon and the Parson looked on, helpless and horror-struck, as Sir Richard let out an excruciating scream that seemed to go on for ever. Then, as Sir Richard fell into a faint, the Tar Man pushed the dead weight of his body at Gideon in such a way that both he and the Parson, who stood unsteadily behind him, were toppled like skittles at a fairground. As the two men groaned and writhed to slide out from beneath Sir Richard, the Tar Man flew out of the room and down the stairs, slamming the door behind him.

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  In the Wake of the Tar Man

  In which Peter, Parson Ledbury, the Old Gentleman

  and his dog tackle the Tar Man, Hannah nurses

  Sir Richard, and Kate tries to understand the corridor of Time

  Inside the carriage, Kate awoke with a start at the sound of a pistol shot. She sat bolt upright and reached out blindly in the dark.

  ‘Peter!’ she cried. ‘Where are you?’

  Her hands found Hannah.

  ‘Calm yourself, Mistress Kate. He’ll be back soon, no doubt. You’ve been asleep and Lord knows you need the rest . . .’

  ‘What’s happened? Where are we?’

  ‘We are close to the Tar Man’s house. If you look through the window, you can see the Thames.’

  Kate pushed her head through the window into the moonlight. The air was cool and she could smell the river. She could hear it, too, flowing fast towards London Bridge. She stood up to get a better view. There was the Thames, its surface scoured by the wind into glittering ripples. Watermen mooring their wherries downstream called goodnight to each other under a star-studded sky. Towards the south a menacing flash of green lightning flickered on the horizon and a thunderclap rolled slowly towards them.

  ‘Where are the others, Hannah?’

  Hannah hesitated. ‘Sir Richard told me to wait with you. They found the Tar Man’s house . . . Peter is with Gideon – and Sir Richard and the Parson, of course.’

  ‘Peter went without me!’

  ‘You were so sound asleep, Mistress Kate, and with you being so poorly! And then we saw the state of your feet – I’ve never seen the like! When we return to Lincoln’s Inn Fields I shall prepare a paste of comfrey and camomile which is most soothing—’

  ‘I’m fine, Hannah!’ interrupted Kate. ‘And I’m not poorly. Being tired isn’t the same thing as being poorly.’ She hoisted up one foot onto the opposite knee and examined her injured sole as well as she could by the light of the moon. ‘My feet aren’t so bad. They don’t hurt. I could still walk on them.’

  ‘But, Mistress Kate, they are swollen and bleeding!’

  But Kate scarcely heard Hannah’s reply. All at once the image of Peter’s face had filled her mind. He was thrashing about in the water, coming up for air and crying out for help until he started to go under again and his mouth was filled with river water once more. Peter was drowning, she was sure of it, and her own lungs burned as she sensed Peter struggle to breathe. Moonlight shone on dark water as Peter’s head slowly sank under the surface, his hair streaming behind him like weed in the strong current.

  Kate did not for an instant doubt the truth of her vision. In the perpetually flowing stream of time, looking forwards had felt no stranger than looking backwards. Glimpses into the future were, like memories, vivid and fleeting – and unpredictable. The fortune-teller’s words rang in her ears: ‘The Oracle has always been in my dreams . . .’

  ‘Are you not feeling well, Mistress Kate?’

  ‘No – I’m fine . . . Really. Was that a shot I just heard? Or was it thunder?’

  ‘I was asking myself the same question. I hope it was Master Blueskin getting a taste of his own medicine.’

  All at once the carriage was filled with the sound of tearing material.

  ‘What are you doing?’ exclaimed Hannah. ‘Tell me that is not your dress!’

  ‘My petticoat. Don’t worry, I’ll still be decent. Will you help me bind my feet? You don’t have to come with me, but I am going after them.’

  Peter and the old gentleman stretched the cord taut across the second step from the bottom. Toby looked on from the doorstep, as silent as his owner had promised. Even by moonlight, the black patch over the dog’s eye gave him a cheerful air. The animal yawned, and scratched behind his ear with his back leg and settled down to wait. But a second later, when Peter had barely finished tying the cord to the wooden banister, the piercing crack of a pistol shot catapulted the little dog into the air. It scampered to its master and hurled itself into his arms.

  After an exchange of alarmed glances Peter and the old gentleman both retreated into the shadows to wait, Peter passing the heavy cobblestone nervously from one hand to the other whilst his companion grasped his knife at shoulder height, ready to strike. Twice Peter heard a terrible cry, uttered, he thought, by Sir Richard but he could not be
sure. The hairs bristled at the back of his neck and a cold sweat pricked at him. Peter was in an agony of indecision. Should they burst in? Or was it better to keep the advantage of surprise and stay put? He strained to make out what the voices that carried from upstairs were saying but all he distinguished was an anguished ‘No!’ When the second shot sounded the tension was almost too much to bear – Peter let out a strangulated cry, as did Toby, though his master quickly clamped the dog’s jaws together in his hand. Peter’s breathing was so rapid and shallow he was starting to feel dizzy. Then an anonymous cry reached them that was so appalling it turned Peter’s blood to ice. He did not even dare imagine what terrible thing had just happened. He stared, unblinking, at the strip of flickering light that escaped from the upstairs room. Seconds later the Tar Man burst through the door and slammed it behind him so violently it sounded like another pistol shot.

  Peter jumped in shock. Now that the moment had come to act, he could not. He felt stunned, disorientated. What was he supposed to do? He stood with his mouth open, gawping at the athletic figure who hurtled down the stairs two steps at a time. The stone! Peter hurled the cobblestone at his moving target before it was too late. It grazed the Tar Man’s shoulder, smashed into the opposite wall with an explosion of plaster and ricocheted back at Peter who had to dive to one side to avoid being hit. A speck of plaster lodged behind Peter’s eyelid so that it was through a veil of tears that he saw the Tar Man trip over the cord. He landed on his knees, one elbow buckling under his weight as he stretched out his hands to stop his face smashing into the stone floor. The Tar Man cursed roundly. As he pushed himself up he saw a glinting dagger come at him. He swiped at it with his fist and sent it spinning across the floor until it hit the far wall with a bright, metallic clang. Surprised to note the age of his assailant, the Tar Man still grabbed hold of the old gentleman’s wrist in one hand and his opposite shoulder in the other, using him as a lever to hoist himself up. Without pausing for breath, he proceeded to lift the old gentleman into the air. He did this with such ease he could have been picking up a child. The expression on his victim’s creased face was closer to surprise than terror, and Peter noticed in that instant how painfully thin the old man’s legs were as they kicked in mid-air, encased in their wrinkly white stockings and worn, buckled shoes. The Tar Man flung him across the hall. The old gentleman’s frail body smashed against a wooden door that led to an inner room. The door opened under the impact, breaking the old gentleman’s fall before he slid to the ground. Peter half expected him to crack into a thousand fragments like a china vase and disintegrate piece by piece in front of him. As it was he collapsed in a heap and came to rest on the cold flagstones. The attack elicited an eruption of distressed barking from Toby who now leaped fearlessly at his master’s aggressor, his blackcurrant eyes flashing in fury. He growled and bared his teeth.

 
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