“What do you make of that, Nestor?” Ralph pointed at the road that led to Yarrow through the Iserwood forest. Ralph’s fellow guard, Nestor, stood in the shade of the small awning atop the South gatehouse. Since the vampire attacks started, the North and South gates had at least two men on every watch, day and night, in rotating shifts. Last week, he and Ralph had been on third watch. Seven days of watching the darkness beyond the Wall. Fifty-six hours looking for a glimpse of fangs and glowing eyes at the edge of the flickering torchlight. Nestor was enjoying first watch a great deal. The big man looked where Ralph was pointing and squinted. “Well, I’d say it’s two children on the North Road,” Nestor said in his rumbling voice. Ralph stared at his companion, an incredulous look on his long face. “Two children? Coming out of those woods alone?” Ralph’s tone made it clear that Nestor couldn’t possibly be serious. “Not likely, my friend.” Nestor didn’t reply. He was frowning at the wooden horse he was whittling for his youngest son. Unfortunately, his handiwork looked more like a long-legged dog. “Say it is just two children,” Ralph tried again, “Then what do you suppose they’re up to?” Nestor looked up and watched the road for a moment. “We’ll see,” he said. Ralph sighed. “I suppose we will at that, and let’s hope they don’t turn out to be a couple of elves, or dwarves, or something worse.”
Nestor chuckled, but Ralph had good reason to be wary. Out here on the edge of the kingdom, strange things happened — it had always been that way. Lately, however, things had become even stranger. Vampires weren’t uncommon on the frontier. They ambushed people traveling in small groups, or solitary farms out on the heath. But vampires never attacked a town the size of Westering, and never in groups. No one could explain this behavior, but it made everyone anxious. And then there were the dangerous, unseen things in Iserwood. Now, people only went to and from Yarrow in a caravan. Hunters and woodcutters didn’t go into the shade of the forest since several of their fellows disappeared. Still, despite being alone on the road and their strange clothing, the two strangers approaching the gate looked like nothing more than two young people to Nestor. “Well, Ralph, a shapeshifter wouldn’t need to enter by the gate, would it? It would slip in as a bird or a squirrel and go where it pleased.” Ralph kept watching the road, so Nestor went on. “And even with the sun not as bright as it should be today, a vampire wouldn’t be out anytime it would cast a shadow.” He waited for Ralph to reply, knowing very well the younger man wouldn’t let him have the last word. “And they look very solid for wraiths,” Nestor added, not trying to disguise a smile.
Ralph scowled and spit over the twenty-foot wall. “Well, it’s peculiar, is all I’m saying. And on the day the sun just happens to be looking a bit sickly for some reason? Coincidence, I’m sure.” Ralph ran his long fingers over the smooth stock of his new crossbow. Nestor knew Ralph was itching to use it on a vampire, but there had been very few attacks since the Watch started using Harry’s invention. When the wizard first showed it to the town guards, he called it a “self-contained, recharging version of a classic orbis de solis.” The guards scratched their heads. Then, Harry called it a “sun sphere,” and this caught on right away. Nestor leaned forward and watched the two figures on the North Road as they drew closer. From a greater distance, Nestor had assumed the two strangers were boys. Now that they were closer, he guessed it was a boy of about eleven and a girl with short, but pretty curls, a little older than his own Maggie. “It is peculiar,” Nestor agreed as he scratched at the edges of the long, fresh scar on his forearm. “But what isn’t these days?” Vampires were filthy creatures, but thanks to Jess the herbal, his wound hadn’t festered, and the new pink skin stood in high contrast to his dark complexion.
Ralph brushed away a fly that kept landing on the top of his unruly red hair. He looked away from the approaching strangers and off to the east, over the rolling hills, as if searching for something there. “When my father was a little boy, he saw the King’s Rangers,” Ralph said quietly, without his usual bluster, “Right here in Westering.” Behind the gatehouse, down below on the street, children were laughing and shouting. Moira, the baker’s wife, who had no little ones of her own, was handing out the extra rolls she and Tom baked every morning. Nestor tried not to sound too cynical when he answered Ralph. “Once upon a time, the King’s Rangers might have come to help us.” Nestor shook his head, “Now the Rangers are gone, and the kingdom has its own problems.” Nestor put one hand on the hilt of the long, sturdy blade he had helped Liam the smith forge for him just weeks ago. “This is the Wilderlands. We’re on our own, my friend.” Nestor started down the steep stairs to be at the gate before the strangers arrived. Ralph slung his crossbow over his shoulder and came bumping down behind him.
As Edward and Amelia walked by the palisade around the farmhouse, people began to take more notice of them. By the time they were near the big wooden gate, there was a crowd of villagers staring and pointing. Some of the people were frowning and shaking their heads, others simply looked curious. Edward and Amelia stopped walking as two men came through the gate together. Armed men. The one with a long, serious face and curly red hair had a crossbow slung over his shoulder. The dark-skinned man right beside him had a knife or short sword on his belt that was longer than Edward’s forearm. The darker man was older, a head taller, and much bigger than the redhead. He was bald, but had a grey beard that followed the shape of his angular jaw. Both men were dressed in loose shirts with leather vests, plain brown leggings and large boots. The bigger man moved ahead of his companion and stopped a few feet away from Edward and Amelia. He looked cautious, but not unfriendly.
“Hello, children!” he said in a deep, clear voice. Edward thought his accent sounded not quite, but mostly English. “Welcome to Westering. My name is Nestor, and this is Ralph,” he said, indicating the frowning redhead. “We are the town Watch.” Amelia cleared her throat and took a small step forward. “Pleasure to meet you, sir — I’m Amelia, and this is Edward. And we’re the Lockhearts,” she added. Edward took a step forward, too, and bowed his head slightly, “Nice to meet you.” The crowd seemed relieved to hear the strangers using words they could understand. Edward guessed from the gestures people were making that his eyeglasses were a curiosity, and when he scanned the crowd, sure enough, not one person was wearing them. He was noticing a lot of other familiar things were missing, too, like T-shirts, ball caps, sneakers, and blue jeans. Nestor seemed about to speak again, but Ralph suddenly put in, “Where did you two come from,” he said skeptically, looking them up and down, “Dressed like that?”
Amelia paused. She wasn’t sure how to answer either question, or which one to attempt first, but Edward spoke up, “We came here from the forest, but we don’t know how we got there, sir.” This brought murmuring from the crowd. “The forest?!” An old man with a red neckerchief took the stem of a short clay pipe out of his mouth. “Nothing comes out of Iserwood anymore but evil spirits!” There seemed to be wide agreement on this, and someone else added loudly, “Vampires and inhuman things!”
“Monsters!” came another shrill, faceless voice. Nestor raised his arms, and the shouting died down. “Let them speak!” Amelia shuddered as she thought about their flight through the dark trees. “Is that what was in the woods?” She looked at Nestor and Ralph, and then the faces gathered around them. “A monster?” Edward moved up to his sister and put his hand on her arm. Nestor came closer to the children, and he leaned toward them. “Child, what did you see?” Edward swallowed hard and said, “We didn’t see anything, exactly, but we heard it.”
“Laughing Jack!” It went through the crowd like fire. A young man with his hands wrapped in cloth bandages stepped forward, “You heard Laughing Jack? You’re lucky to be here, the both of you!”
Back in the forest, Amelia had been terrified, but the need to get herself and her little brother out of there as quickly as possible gave her focus and kept her from dwelling too much on what might happen if they failed. Now that she and Edward were safely out, hearing from these strangers how horrible their fate could have been was overwhelming to Amelia. She tried to keep a brave face, but like Edward after his watch was stolen, a floodgate of emotions was opening. Amelia hugged herself with both arms and tried not to burst into tears.
Edward didn’t notice his sister’s distress right away — his curiosity was piqued by the talk of monsters. “What is Laughing Jack?” he asked, his eyes wide. The old man who spoke first waved his pipe for emphasis, “Some say it’s a great devil hound, or wolf.” A white-haired woman with a basket of potatoes on her arm broke in, “He never was! Laughing Jack is the ghost of a highwayman who lived in Iserwood, robbing and killing folks on the road to Yarrow, ‘til he was caught and strung up!” She drew her thumb across her throat and made a horrible face.
A young man leaning against a handcart full of firewood scoffed, “You’re both daft! Laughing Jack is a vampire so crazy and evil even the other vampires won’t have him around. Why do you think he showed up the same time as they did?” The crowd began to argue and shout. Edward noticed Amelia was crying, and then Nestor’s voice boomed over the uproar. “Quiet!” He added more softly in the silence that followed, “Everyone please calm down.” He went to Edward and Amelia and put one large hand on each of their shoulders. “You’re safe with us, children. Come with me, please.” Nestor approached one of the quiet observers in the crowd, a middle-aged man wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat. After talking with him briefly, the man nodded and started for the gatehouse.
“Isaac will man the Watch for us, while we take our guests to the Hart.” Nestor began guiding Edward and Amelia toward the gate, and the crowd stirred again. “But, Nestor — we still don’t even know where they’re from!”
“And what about them clothes?”
“And look at those clogs the boy is wearin’!” Edward looked down at his Tevas. “I never seen eyeglasses like that before! Look how they go over his ears!” Edward, feeling self-conscious, adjusted his glasses. Ralph drew himself up and stood between Nestor and the leading edge of the crowd. “We’ll be asking the questions from here on, thank you very much! Now, as you were, all of you!” he said, making a shooing motion with his large hands. “Go on — disperse!”
The man with the pushcart said, “Who made you king, Ralph Burney?” That brought laughter from the crowd. “Someone ride to Almaren — we’ve found the lost Crown Prince, wandering here in the Wilderlands!” At that, hoots and fake cheers went up. As Edward passed through the gate, his hand on Amelia’s arm, he felt a little sorry for Ralph, but the man wasn’t helping himself at all.
“I don’t have to be the king,” Ralph went on loudly, “I just have to be an officer of the Watch, which I am, to have the lot of you thrown in the gaol!” Sensing the fun was over, the hecklers gave in. “All right, Ralph,” the old man with the pipe said, “Don’t get yourself in a swivet.” As Ralph turned and hurried to catch up to Nestor, most of the crowd stood talking excitedly as they watched the strangers go, and some began to follow at a distance. A tall young man with an olive complexion passed Nestor, and the big man waved him down. “Max, go and tell the members of the council that we have some unusual guests,” Nestor looked at the children; Amelia was twisting her curls absentmindedly, and Edward was looking closely at the large timbers of the open gates as he passed by them. “We’ll be at the the Hart,” Nestor told Max. The boy nodded and set off at a jog down Westering’s main street, a wide cobblestone road.
As Nestor and Ralph led the way, Edward stole a glance over his left shoulder. She was still there — a small woman with wide eyes and dark, straight hair — about ten yards behind them. The young woman was walking in the front of the group that was following them, but she wasn’t talking to any of the other villagers. Back at the gates, a lot of people had been watching him and Amelia, of course, but this woman seemed fixated on Edward. Every time Edward had looked at the crowd, he saw her pale blue frock in the front row of villagers, and he knew she was watching him. The woman never spoke, but she was always close by, her hands clasped together in front of her, as if praying.
As they walked, Amelia was on Edward’s right, directly behind Nestor. Now Amelia leaned toward her brother and whispered, “Well, they’re definitely not Amish.” Edward turned back to see his sister smiling at him. “What? Oh, right,” Edward smiled. “What are you looking at?” Amelia asked. “There was this woman in the crowd back there,” Edward said, “She was staring at me.” “Everybody was staring at us,” Amelia said drily. Before Edward could explain, he saw Amelia frown. He turned to follow her gaze as his sister moved quickly over to stand outside, on his left. She kept her right hand on Edward’s shoulder, and urged him to keep walking.
The woman in the blue frock was approaching them quickly. Her small feet almost skipped over the cobblestones. She pressed the fingertips of one hand against her mouth, as if ready to stifle a cry. Even when the woman came within an arm’s length of the children, she seemed not to see Amelia at all, though the older Lockheart had put herself firmly in the way. Amelia drew herself up as tall as she could and said, “Ma’am? Can we help you?”
The woman never even looked at Amelia. “Danny?” she said to Edward, her voice trembling. “Is that you, Danny?” She put out a hand, as if to touch Edward’s face, but when he drew back, she flinched, and her hand shook. “Nestor?” Amelia said, holding her arms out straight at her sides to block the woman from getting any closer to her brother. Nestor, who hadn’t noticed that the children had stopped walking behind him, turned quickly and rushed back to Edward and Amelia. “Peg,” he said gently to the wide-eyed woman. “This young man is Edward.”
“Edward?” She looked at Nestor, bewildered. “But he looks so like my Danny,” she said, her voice breaking. “And didn’t he come out of the woods?”
“Yes, Peg,” Nestor replied. Ralph had noticed what was going on and ran back down the street, dodging other pedestrians and holding his crossbow up out of the way. Edward and Amelia expected the red-headed man to start blustering at Peg, but he stopped beside the children and listened with a sad expression. “Edward came out of the woods with his sister, Amelia.” Nestor pointed to the older sibling, and Peg seemed to notice Amelia for the first time. “I just thought, he looked so like my Danny, and he would be this size now, though it’s only been a year. Danny’s growing so fast.” Peg smiled at Edward. “He’s going to be tall, like his father.” Nestor bowed his head a little and then put both of his large hands gently on Peg’s narrow shoulders. “Edward and his sister came from far away, Peg. They’ve never been to Westering before.”
“Of course,” Peg replied, “I only thought, when I saw him, even with those strange spectacles.” Peg’s voice broke, and she started to sob. Peg covered her face with both her hands. Nestor and Ralph were looking around, unsure of what to do. Someone called Nestor’s name from across the street. Amelia looked over to see a woman in a long apron, her grey hair tucked neatly under a green cap, standing outside the entrance of the bakery across the street. The woman waited for a horse-drawn cart to pass, then rushed across to meet them. She obviously knew Peg, and put one arm across the young woman’s shoulders. Amelia got the feeling that everyone in town knew this sad young lady. “Hello, Moira,” Nestor said, relieved. Moira looked at Nestor and Ralph, then nodded to the children. “Good morning to you,” she said. Moira began to steer Peg back to the bakery. “It’s all right, dear,” she said soothingly, “You come on with me now.” Nestor and Ralph both looked very grateful. “Thank you, Moira.”
They started walking again, and Nestor explained. “That poor child — such misfortune,” he shook his head and sighed. “Almost two years ago, her husband, James, was drowned in the river. Six months later, her only child, Danny, took ill. Jess the herbal did everything she could to bring down the fever, and for a while it looked like he was getting better, but,” Nestor held up his hands, empty palms turned up, “The boy died in the night.” Edward looked back to see Peg going into the bakery with Moira. “So why did she think I was him?” Nestor looked at Edward, “You do look a bit like him — the hair and the shape of the face, perhaps.”
Ralph broke in, “But the thing of it is, Danny got sick so fast — he was playing with his friends one day, and two days later he was dead — that Peg was convinced it was a changeling.”
“A what?” Amelia said, eyebrows raised. Edward was ready with an explanation. “A substitute left by fairies in place of a human child.” Amelia nodded as she realized what this meant. “So, Peg thought the fairies took her son and left something else instead, and it died.”
“So her son, Danny, is still alive, somewhere,” Edward said, looking down.
After what they had seen already this morning, Amelia was almost afraid to ask, but she had to know. “So, does that kind of thing really happen around here?”
“Oh, no,” Ralph said quickly. “Not since Tom and Jane’s daughter, Lizzie, anway. What was that, winter before last, Nestor?”
“Yes,” Nestor agreed. “Just before Mat Collins killed that wyvern up by Cedar Hill.”
Edward’s eyes lit up, “Did you say wyvern?”
“Almost two years since the last fairy abduction,” Amelia said flatly, to no one in particular. “Well, that’s a relief.”