Edward and Amelia watched the guards of the Watch hurrying across the green and back toward the South gate. Erik came up quickly behind the children, startling them both, and said, “Let’s go, you two.” Without looking back to see if the children were following him, Erik set off for other side of the green, where the cobblestone road started again at the edge of the turf. Amelia looked at Edward and made a sour face behind Erik’s back, but he walked surprisingly fast and the children hurried to catch up with his long strides.
The Lockhearts caught up to Erik as he reached the cobbles, and took in their surroundings as they wound through the north side of Westering. It seemed the South side was the busier part of town. There weren’t as many shops here, and the streets were not as crowded. Amelia was surprised when Erik called out what was, for him, a friendly greeting to the blacksmith. After they passed the smith, there were houses of more varied sizes than Edward and Amelia had seen earlier. There were vegetable gardens here between the cottages, sometimes bordered by peach, apple or pear trees. Edward tugged Amelia’s sleeve and she turned to look where he was pointing. At the end of a flagstone path to the right was a tower more than thirty feet tall, made of the same grey stone as the Wall and many other buildings in town, but smoother. It had a large wooden door reinforced with wrought iron bands, and rectangular glass windows on each of the three floors. There were gargoyles, or carved figures of some kind, above each window. “Maybe the wizard lives there!” Edward whispered to Amelia with glee. “What did you say?” Erik barked over his shoulder. “Nothing!” Edward lied, taken by surprise, “Just admiring the architecture.” Erik grumbled and kept walking.
Edward dropped back a few steps and whispered to his sister behind his hand, “How did he hear that?” Amelia shrugged and watched Erik’s broad back. There weren’t many people on this section of the street, but the ones they met gave Erik a respectful distance. It wasn’t just the tavern owner’s size that made him intimidating — Nestor was bigger and taller, but his kind demeanor made him approachable. On the other hand, Erik’s body language said clearly, Leave me alone and get out of my way. As a tavern-keeper, he was one of those people that Lucy would say was in the wrong line of work. At least Torvald seemed cheerful and friendly, despite having such an anti-social father. Amelia hoped this “Collie” person Torvald and his father had mentioned was nothing like Erik. Maybe he was usually behind the bar, which would explain how the Hart stayed in business.
A few more minutes of fast walking and the Wall came in sight again. The North Gate, its watch tower and gatehouse matched the South entrance in every obvious way. Edward and Amelia looked at the crowd gathered there. Dozens of people were spilling over from the cobblestone street into the dirt road that led into Westering. As the Lockhearts and Erik reached the gate, the crowd began to part for Erik like minnows making way for a shark. Amelia thought she recognized some of the same people who had greeted them at the South Gate, less than an hour before. Edward said, “There’s our friend with the pipe!” he said, pointing to the old man with the red neckerchief who had suggested they must be “evil spirits” from the Iserwood. Amelia scanned the faces around them. She was relieved not to see Peg, poor Danny’s mother, anywhere in the group.
Edward and Amelia followed in Erik’s wake. The crowd closed behind them as they made their way just inside inside the gate to a large open farm wagon hitched to a brown mare. The driver of the wagon, Cyrus, was a short, bearded man, and he was swinging a long pole to keep curious Westerings away from the brown canvas tarpaulin covering the back of the wagon. “Get away from there!” Cyrus yelled, and the pole whacked down on the sideboards as a teenaged boy drew back his hand just in time. “This ain’t a circus wagon!” He whipped the pole around again, where a small boy was pulling at the tarp on the other side. Anna and Solomon, the two members of the council, were standing at the side of the wagon. They were being jostled by the crowd, and their voices were being drowned out by the commotion. Erik stopped short of the throng encircling the wagon, which was four or five people deep and standing shoulder to shoulder. Edward and Amelia were standing just behind and on either side of Erik when they heard a sound like air filling the blacksmith’s bellows. The Lockhearts, sensing what was about to happen, covered their ears.
“Move!” Erik boomed. The mare started up as if she had heard a thunderclap, and the crowd fell back as Cyrus grabbed the reins and calmed his horse. “It’s all right, Martha — just Erik the Loud!” the farmer said with a laugh. “Glad you finally got here,” he said, stepping down from the wagon. Anna and Solomon were both visibly relieved. “Yes, thank you for coming, Erik,” said Anna. She was a short woman with a fair complexion and streaks of gray in her brown hair, which was twisted up into a tight bun. The tall man beside her, Solomon, had an olive complexion and dark hair combed straight back from his high forehead. He wore a deep crimson robe and wiped his face with a silk handkerchief. Solomon didn’t look particularly happy to see Erik. “Yes, now we can have a look,” he said, and nodded at Cyrus, who began untying the corner of the tarpaulin. Erik began helping the farmer with the knots.
“I was up in the high meadow yesterday with the dogs, “ Cyrus said as he untied the cords, “Looking for a stray calf, when we found this thing. I went back for the wagon, so I could bring it to you.” He stopped with his hand on the tarp and looked at Anna and Solomon, then Erik. “Not sure what to make of it, though.”
As Cyrus and Erik pulled the tarp back, Edward couldn’t immediately make sense of what he was seeing. The first thing he could identify were large black feathers, each several inches long, then a huge wing that took up the side of the wagon. No one said anything at first. As the more daring members of the crowd got close enough to see it, someone yelled out, “It’s a great black bird!” Even with part of the right wing gone and the left partially folded, the creature took up the width of the wagon, about ten feet across. Edward noticed that everyone looked at Erik again, but the tavern owner shook his head, and then climbed up into the wagon to get a better look. “It looks like a raven, mostly, but I never seen one this big.” Erik bent to examine the head more closely. The huge black beak was slightly open, and the upper half ended in a sharp point, like the tip of a pickaxe. Erik examined the head and scowled. “It has no eyes,” he said flatly, and Edward could hear this repeated through the crowd, like a murmuring echo. Cyrus nodded. “The wing was like that when I found it, “Cyrus said, pointing to the right wing, which was missing almost half its length. “Maybe a wolf or a bear did that after it fell, but I don’t think so.”
“No,” Erik agreed. “I’d say it was burned off.” Erik lifted the intact wing slightly to get a better look. “These look like…fingers,” he said. Edward could see bony projections at the hinge of the wing, like the claws of a bat, but more well-formed. The dark beak, scaly feet and black talons were huge, but in proportion to the rest of the creature, and looked otherwise normal. Erik looked over at Edward, and said gruffly, “What about you, son — they have anything like this where you’re from?”
Edward glanced at Amelia, who was standing well back from the wagon, then back at Erik and shook his head, “No, sir.” Edward wasn’t very squeamish. When his mother discovered a dead squirrel under the sink in their attic apartment, Edward put a plastic bag over his hand, pulled the dried-up carcass loose from the floor of the vanity, inverted the bag and threw it away — his mother and sister were suitably impressed. But this creature was different. The size alone was amazing, but not as disconcerting as that smooth, eyeless head and the bony fingers protruding from the wings. Edward’s curious, analytical side wondered, How did it find its way — echolocation? At the same time, the thought of this creature moving and flying simply gave him the creeps. Edward tugged at his bottom lip, then said, “It looks like some kind of hybrid, though.”
“Some kind of what?” Cyrus said. Solomon and Anna, who had been talking quietly to each other, looked over at Edward. “Yes,” Solomon said with a nod, “Some kind of cross-breed.”
“Right,” Amelia saw Edward perk up the way he did when someone else understood what he was talking about. “Like a combination of a raven and a bat. But a lot bigger.”
Erik shoved at the body of the thing with the tip of his boot. “The ravens up in the Smoky Hills are as big as any I’ve ever seen, but nothing like this.”
Cyrus put his rough, weathered hands on the side of the wagon. “I thought about that, Erik,” he said. “You can see the hills from the high meadows, where I found this thing. You can see Hollow Mountain, too,” Cyrus said, and exchanged knowing glances with all the Westerings.
Amelia covered her smile with one hand when Edward raised his hand and said, “Sorry — not from around here and all — what’s Hollow Mountain?” Erik gave her brother a look that said he shouldn’t speak unless spoken to. I bet Torvald gets that look a lot, Amelia thought, but Anna answered Edward, “Hollow Mountain is the home of the wizard, Lapis.”
“Oh!” Edward said excitedly, and looked back at Amelia. His next thought tempered his enthusiasm, and he said more calmly, “Whose side is he on?”
“His own,” Erik growled. Solomon was a little more helpful, “Lapis and the other Wizards Major are the stewards of Midhbar, and so they all work for the greater good,” Solomon paused, as if thinking how to best explain a difficult concept to a child. Amelia had to recall that the Westerings still didn’t know who they were dealing with in Edward. Anna continued, “But because they see so much farther than we do, we don’t always understand their actions.”
Amelia could tell that Erik was itching to say something else, but instead he pulled a few feathers from the wing of the creature and examined them more closely. Edward cleared his throat, and the Westerings all looked back at him. “Sorry, again, but you said stewards of Midhbar? What is Midhbar?” Erik studiously ignored this question and started stripping the barbs from one of the long, jet-black feathers with a small knife. Solomon spread his arms wide, “This is Midhbar,” he said patiently. “Oh, I thought this was Westering?” Amelia chimed in. Cyrus looked as if someone had just asked him which way was up, and the council’s brows were equally furrowed. Finally, Anna said, “Yes, this is Westering, in the Wilderlands, in the kingdom of Berila, and Midhbar contains all three.” Edward and Amelia both looked grateful for this explanation. Solomon continued, “Everything below the Empyrean, and all within the Seawall, is Midhbar.”
Edward opened his mouth to ask another question, but now both Amelia and Erik were giving him threatening looks. Edward decided to save the discussion of the Empyrean and the Seawall for later. Now Solomon looked at Edward and Amelia. “I’m sorry children, but we weren’t properly introduced,” he raised one eyebrow at Erik, who either didn’t notice, or didn’t care. “You may as well save all that for now,” Erik broke in. Solomon scowled, but Erik went on, “I promise you’ll want to sit down where it’s quiet to hear that story.” Around them, the crowd was stirring again, and moving closer to the wagon for a better look now that Erik’s back was turned. Cyrus spoke up, “And I have other things to discuss with Erik that also concern the council.”
While the Westerings discussed where they should meet, Amelia looked over the crowd. Earlier, after Erik cleared their path to the wagon, Amelia had noticed a young man standing slightly apart from the other Westerings. Now, she spotted him again. Even though there were other people nearby, he was clearly alone. In contrast to the natural colors of wool and cotton that the other Westerings wore and accented with brightly colored caps, scarves, and vests, this young man wore fine, dark silk clothes, with no hat. He wore tall boots, and had dark brown leather satchel over his shoulder. The boy was tall and thin, with dark, straight hair framing his angular features. He had keen grey eyes and an intelligent face, though it was somewhat gaunt. He was observing Edward and Amelia very carefully. Not like Peg had stared at Edward earlier, but while the other Westerings were preoccupied with the raven creature, this young man watched the Lockhearts. Then he winked at Amelia and she looked away, surprised and embarrassed. Amelia looked to see if Edward had seen it, too, but her brother was listening to the Westerings talk.
Solomon was clearly irritated with the way his conversation with Anna, Erik and Cyrus had ended. He turned from the group toward the Lockhearts, and then he followed Amelia’s gaze. When Solomon spotted the boy, his frown deepened, and he walked quickly toward him, crimson robe swirling. The boy slouched and looked as if were considering an escape, but he stood still and waited. Solomon’s back was to Amelia, and he blocked her view of the young man so that she couldn’t see either of their faces. Still, Amelia had watched enough parents and kids arguing to tell it wasn’t a happy conversation.
When Solomon turned and walked back toward the wagon, the boy followed him, several steps behind, but wearing a somewhat smug expression. “My apologies,” Solomon said. “Are we ready to be on our way?” “Yes. To the Hart, then,” Anna said, and Erik nodded tersely. “I need to do something with that,” Erik jerked his thumb toward the creature, “So Cyrus can have his wagon back when he’s ready.”
“I thank you, Erik,” Cyrus said, “I didn’t want to bring it inside the gates. Whatever it is, it ain’t nothing the good Lords made.” Edward didn’t fail to notice the farmer’s use of Lords, and neither did Amelia. She was relieved that her brother somehow restrained himself from blurting out another question, though she was afraid he might bite his tongue. Erik and Anna didn’t comment, either, but Solomon added, “Amen to that, Cyrus.” Erik and Cyrus pulled the tarpaulin off the wagon and laid it flat on the ground. Erik grimaced as he bent down and lifted the carcass with both hands, then tossed it onto the waxed canvas with a thud and a flurry of black feathers. Erik jumped down from the wagon with a leap was nimble for a man his size, though he winced a bit when he landed, and flexed his left knee. Erik folded the tarp up around the creature, gathered the ends together to make a bag and tied it up quickly with a piece of cord After tying a long section of rope around the neck of the bag, Erik lifted the burden with one hand, carried it to the inside of the Wall, and then tossed it easily up twenty-five feet and over the side. Erik let the rope spool out with a dry whirring sound until it snapped tight at the end that Erik held in his left hand. He tied the rope to the hitching post beside the gatehouse door and waved to the guards above. The crowd was disappointed that the creature was out of reach, but they whistled and clapped at Erik’s feat all the same. Erik came back to where Cyrus, the Lockhearts and the council were waiting.
Cyrus climbed up into the wagon, and Erik took the seat beside him. “You can all ride in the back, if you like,” he said, “Or walk. Suit yourself.” There were dark stains with feathers sticking to them where the raven-thing had lay in the middle of the wagon, but the area near the gate looked clean enough. Edward and Amelia looked at each other, shrugged and hopped into the wagon, where they sat on the smooth, wide boards, their legs dangling over the edge. Solomon wrinkled his nose. “I’ll walk,” he said simply. Amelia thought Solomon was not the type to ride in the back of a wagon, no matter how clean it might be. Anna seemed very down-to-earth, but she also declined. “Thank you Cyrus, but I need to talk with Solomon. We’ll take the shortcut through the orchard and meet you at the Hart soon.” Solomon spoke to the young man in dark green again, then he and Anna started walking along the cobblestone road, back into town.
Cyrus clicked his tongue at Martha to get her started. The big farm wagon lurched once, then started rolling. As Martha settled into her pace, the dark-haired young man trotted up behind the wagon on Amelia’s side, grabbed onto the side rail and swung himself up. “Mind if I catch a ride?” Amelia slid closer to Edward, but said, “No.” Then added, “I mean, it’s not our wagon.”
The young man glanced up at the men in the front, but looked unconcerned. Cyrus and Erik didn’t seemed to have noticed him, anyway. They were deep in conversation, and Amelia wondered if it were about the weather and livestock, or something they had chosen not to share with the rest of them about the raven-thing. The new passenger moved the leather satchel slung on his shoulder around to rest in his lap and turned to sit facing the Lockhearts. “I’m Giles. Please tell me your names, and that you’re from someplace far away from Westering.” His grey eyes shone under the dark hair that fell across his brow, but his expression always seemed close to a smirk. Amelia hadn’t forgotten the way Giles winked at her from the crowd, either. All this made her a little uncomfortable, but Amelia tried to regain her composure. “Well, I’m Amelia, and this is my brother.” Beside her, Edward leaned forward and waved. “Hi, I’m Edward.” Giles nodded, “I like your spectacles,” he said. “As for the far away part,” Amelia continued, “Have you ever heard of Kirksville?”
Giles shook his head, “No, I haven’t.”
“Neither has anyone else in Westering,” Edward quipped. “Does that qualify as exotic?”
“Well,” Giles said, “It depends on who you asked, but I could tell you aren’t from anyplace around here. Your clothes, your hair, your accents.” Giles wasn’t intimidated by their strangeness. He seemed truly delighted, in fact. Amelia had the feeling that Giles was up to something, but at least he didn’t accuse them of being evil spirits. “I can’t tell you how good it is to meet some interesting people,” Giles said.
“Oh? Westering seems pretty interesting to me,” Amelia replied. Beside her, Edward nodded enthusiastically.
Giles rolled his eyes, “I said, interesting, not weird.” The smirk was unmistakable now. “Believe me, the Westering weirdness gets old fast. I just want to get out of this lords-forsaken place and home to Almaren.” Giles glanced back toward the Wall with a look of distaste. “Or anyplace in Berila really, without wolves, bears, shape-shifters, skin-changers, vampires, and now,” Giles said with a sigh, “Eyeless flying monsters.” Giles opened his satchel as he spoke and offered Amelia a piece of folded paper. When Amelia looked at him, waiting for an explanation, he cut his eyes toward the front of the wagon where Erik and Cyrus were talking, and then back at Amelia. “You can read, can’t you?” he hissed.
Amelia narrowed her blue eyes and glared at Giles. She snatched the paper from Giles’ hand and unfolded it as Edward slid closer to read over her shoulder. There were four lines in a neat, flowing cursive script on the sturdy paper, which read:
The owner of The White Hart is a dangerous man. Some even say that “Erik the Bloody,” as he’s also known, is a lunatic and a murderer. My father is Solomon Cozen, and you are welcome at our house. Whatever you decide, don’t risk your lives by staying at The White Hart.