Cover Image
Steve White
Stone House Cellar

A crowd had gathered around the wary tree. A place of death in the same field as the ruins of St Lawrence chapel. Hodgkins walked his horse for a closer look. He peered over the people's heads and saw a teenage boy standing on the back wagon underneath the wary tree. A group of town officials gathered around him. The people were in a strange mood. Hangings were usually treated as entertainment. Hodgkins tapped a man on his arm to get his attention.

     'What did he do?' asked Hodgkins.

     'He robbed a peddler at the tollgate, and then the stupid fool tried to sell those wares in town. This was his first offence.'

     'And they're going to hang him?'

     Hodgkins' friend, Daisy, stood beside him. She scratched her golden hair and squinted from the sun. 'Poor bastard,' she said.

     The crowd murmured as the rope was placed around the victim's neck. It was at that moment the boy started crying.

     'Mummy, do something. I don't want to die.'

     A woman at the front shouted, 'Mercy, mercy.' But Hodgkins knew once the rope was around the neck, there was no stopping what was to become.

     An official began to speak. 'This man has been found guilty by his peers at the court of the Warwick assizes in the year of our lord, 1690. By the power vested in me, granted by our gracious king, our sovereign, William the 3rd, I condemn this man to death. May this be a warning to all who chose his way of life.'

     The boy cried out but was quickly silenced as the rope stretched tight. The crowd gasped apart from a solitary woman sobbing.

     Hodgkins glanced down at Daisy. 'Don't forget you promised you'd see me dead before that ever happened to me.'

     'Of course, I promised. You were drunk when you asked, and I was too.'

<  2  >

     'What's that supposed to mean?'

     'It means I'd struggle to hit that tree from here with any of my pistols, yet you're expecting me to shoot you in the head.' She grinned. 'Don't worry, I'll come up with something.'

     The crowd began to slowly disburse and head back towards town. Hodgkins took one final look at where the boy hung from the tree. His neck had snapped to the right, and his trousers were wet from soiling himself. Two Watchmen armed with clubs loitered near the tree.

     'Come on,' he said. 'Let's move with the crowd. And Daisy, make sure your knives stay out of sight.'

     The Malt Shovel Inn stood in the shadow of the town's west gate. After leaving their horses in the stables, Hodgkins led Daisy into the busy bar. Some of the people who'd been present at the hanging were there. Their previous doleful faces now creased into laughter as the ale flowed.

     He leaned into Daisy. 'Grab some seats, and I'll get the beer.'

     She headed straight for the seats by the window. Two men were already there. Hodgkins couldn't hear what she told them, but they swiftly grabbed their tankards and moved to another seat.

     The woman behind the bar smiled a greeting. 'What would you like?'

     'Two tankards of your finest ale, please.'

     'Make that three,' said a voice from behind.

     Hodgkins nodded to the woman, and she began to pour a third from the barrel.

     'You're late,' said Hodgkins.

     'Not by much,' said Cudbert. 'Looks like there was another hanging.'

     'We were there at the wary tree. Poor bastard.'

     They carried their drinks to the table. Hodgkins sat beside Daisy, and they both focused their attention on Cudbert.

<  3  >

     'Hello, Daisy. It's been a long time. Still carrying those knives?'

     'Don't start,' said Hodgkins. 'I received your message. Something about a job?'

     Cudbert glanced to see if anyone was listening. 'There's a house just outside the town walls. A big, grand house whose owners are going away for a couple of weeks.'

     'And how did you come by this?'

     'Wyll's in town with me. He sends his regards, by the way. He's been loitering at the markets and overheard the owners of the house discussing the dates.' Cudbert drank from his tankard. 'It won't be completely empty, though. The head of the owner's staff will be living there for the duration.'

     Hodgkins turned to Daisy, and her grin made him chuckle. 'It sounds too good to be true. And why involve us? In all likelihood, this could be a two-person job.'

     'You'd do the same for us,' said Cudbert. 'Wyll's excited about getting the gang back together. This is the perfect job for that. We'll be in and out. It will be days before anyone's even aware the house has been robbed. You should see the place. I bet it's filled with more silver than we can carry.'

     'We prefer coin,' said Daisy.

     'We all do,' said Cudbert. 'But we'll have to make do with what we can get.' His face became serious. 'There is one more thing we need to discuss, however.'

     Hodgkins stared across the table, guessing what was about to come next. Cudbert was steadfast and reliable. They'd worked the entire length of the Fosse together over the years. They'd fought off robbers and shot their way out of Newark. However, over the last few months, he'd become jealous of Daisy, which affected his enthusiasm.

     'We can't afford someone to be killed on this job,' said Cudbert. 'It would be best if Daisy sat this one out.'

<  4  >

     Her hand reached under her small coat to the array of knives hidden within. Hodgkins leaned over, rested a hand on her arm, and then kissed her cheek. 'Not here,' he whispered.

     She glared at Cudbert, but calmed considerably.

     'If this job is as easy as Cudbert believes,' said Hodgkins, 'there's no need for the both of us risking getting caught if this goes sour. Wait for us at the tollgate and stay out of sight.'

     'Just this once, I'll do it,' she replied.

     Hodgkins drained his tankard. 'Let's have a quick look around before it gets dark.'

     They left their horses with the smith across the road. Then, after paying the farrier, Cudbert led the way following the route of the town's ditch.

     'The Nightwatch generally stay within what's left of the town walls,' he said as they walked. 'That's where the real money is. On this side of the walls, as you can see from the houses, those living out here have to fend for themselves.'

     'How many Nightwatch are there?' asked Hodgkins.

     'There's only four of them, and you can see them coming a mile away. They all carry lamps.'

     Hodgkins noticed Cudbert glancing over his shoulder, checking to see where Daisy was. He was right to be nervous. She'd stab him if she could. Their relationship had deteriorated ever since Cudbert had made it clear he believed women were not up to the challenges of highway robbery. Her way of proving him wrong was to bury one of her knives in his belly.

     The lane rose and narrowed between the houses. At the peak, a man stepped out from some bushes beside a stable on the left.

     'Hodgkins. It's good to see you again,' said Wyll. He looked to Daisy and smiled. 'Hello, goldie. Has he been treating you well?'

<  5  >

     She hugged him. 'Of course, it's me who cooks the meals.' She tapped her coat. 'Plus, I have these which demand respect.'

     'And she doesn't mean her tits,' said Hodgkins. 'So, you've a job for us?'

     Wyll pointed down the hill to the large house that stood out from those around it. 'It's called Stone House. The owners have gone to Bristol for a couple of weeks. The only person there will be the owner's head of staff. It'll be the same as the Harbury job. We take what we can and then ride out.' He glanced to Daisy. 'No knives. This is just a straightforward robbery.'

     She nodded towards Cudbert. 'I wouldn't worry about it, dickless over there has stopped me from going along.'

     Wyll's eyebrows rose but didn't pursue it.

     'Alright,' said Hodgkins, 'it appears we have an easy payday. So let's meet here after the curfew bell and get to work.'

     It was dark when the curfew bell rang. Hodgkins walked his horse through deserted streets watching for the tell-tale glow of a watchman's lamp. When he reached the stable, Wyll and Cudbert were waiting. Cudbert's long coat was open, revealing the stock of a pistol and the glint of a knife handle. On his back, he carried his tool bag. Wyll's small coat had the lumps and bumps demonstrating he too came similarly armed.

     'Wyll, wait here,' said Hodgkins. 'Once the house is secure, we'll signal for you to bring the horses down.'

     Stone House was built in the style of an Elizabethan London house. Wrought iron railings surrounded the garden with an ornate gate leading to the stables and a smaller one with a similar design for access to the front door.

     Cudbert opened the gate while Hodgkins kept look-out. The iron hinges whined under the weight. Once through, Hodgkins pulled his pistol from his belt and ran to the rear of the house. Cudbert followed and began working on the back door. The lock rattled and remained stubbornly fixed.

<  6  >

     'I always come prepared,' said Cudbert, pulling an iron bar from a bag. After little effort, the door prized open.

     They crept into the kitchen, passing into the hallway, where a carpet muffled their footsteps.

     Cudbert stood poised at the first door, his hand gently resting on the handle. Hodgkins nodded, and they both rushed in. Books filled shelves on every wall. There were desks with writing implements and a couple of plush chairs. A middle-aged man with grey hair sat reading a book in a chair. He looked up surprised but remained seated.

     'What the devil?' he exclaimed.

     Hodgkins raised his pistol. 'Not the devil, sir. Well, not today, anyway. Be a good chap and stay seated. Is there anyone else in the house? Best be truthful. Surprises cause deaths.'

     The man glared at the two of them and shook his head. Cudbert chuckled. 'I think this is a good omen. When was the last time we found someone in the first room we tried? We normally have to search the whole house.'

     'Let's hope you're right. Go and get Wyll and the horses.'

     Hodgkins made the pistol safe and tucked the weapon in his belt before folding his arms to lean against the doorframe. The old man's eyes narrowed as he watched his every move. The back door opened. Hodgkins glanced down the hall to see Wyll smirking as he entered.

     'I told you this was a winner,' he said.

     'I think you could be right,' said Hodgkins as his excitement began to grow. 'One man guarding the house, and we already have him captive. Go search the house for others while we tie this gentleman up.'

     Wyll ran out of the room while Cudbert pulled some rope from his bag.

     'Where's the coin?' asked Hodgkins.

     The man's face creased in pain as the rope pinched tight. 'I'll not betray my master for the likes of you.'

<  7  >

     Hodgkins tapped his pistol with a finger menacingly. 'Are you sure? Everyone who's been in your position talks eventually. Why put yourself through pain to protect someone else's money? Just consider for a moment what's about to happen if you remain stubborn. First, we'll test your resolve with a single punch to your face. Your nose will almost certainly break, and if you make it through that, we'll move on to your hands. Next, Cudbert will start on your fingers using his pistol like a hammer. Why go through all that only to give us what we want in the end? Do yourself a favour and tell us where the money is. Bravery at this moment is pointless.'

     The man smiled up. 'I'll tell you where the coins are kept, but know this, they'll come a time when our roles will be reversed, and I'll take great pleasure in seeing you all die.'

     Hodgkins chuckled. 'You may be right. But until that time arrives, where are the coins?'

     'They're in the cellar, behind the wine store.'

     'And how do we get down there?'

     'The entrance is underneath the stairs.'

     Hodgkins crouched beside the chair. 'You see how easy that was. We'll take some coin and be on our way. We may even leave you some as a reward. After all, you could always say we took it.'

     Wyll returned, grinning. 'The house is empty. You should see all the loot to be had. We should have brought more horses.'

     'We would have,' said Hodgkins, 'but Cudbert decided Daisy should stay away.'

     Cudbert shook his head. 'You know as well as I do she'd either be torturing this man with her knives, or he'd be dead. She's too unstable, and that makes her unpredictable. Not to mention I'd be watching my back instead of concentrating on the job at hand.'

     'She is feisty, I'll give her that,' said Wyll. He nodded toward their captive. 'Any luck with our friend here?'

<  8  >

     Hodgkins smiled down at their captive and ruffled his hair. 'He's made the sensible choice of cooperating. Apparently, the coin is hidden behind the wine store in the cellar.'

     Wyll rubbed his hands together. 'So, what are we waiting for?'

     Hodgkins turned to Cudbert. 'Is he secure?'

     'He's not going anywhere. But we could always kneecap him to be sure.'

     The man watched their conversation and didn't bat an eyelid. Hodgkins admired his bravery. 'I don't think that will be necessary.'

     Wyll led the way. His brief search of the house giving him an insight into its layout. He was right about the loot too. Hodgkins spied silverware of many different types. Candlesticks and platters, ornaments, and cutlery. Paintings adorned the walls, their frames elegant and sought after but too big and bulky to take with them.

     The staircase was polished oak with a carpet running up the center. Beside the stairs was the door to the cellar.

     Wyll opened the door, and they peered in. Steps led downwards, illuminated by the flickering light of oil lamps nailed to the wall and spaced yards apart. The musty smell of damp sandstone hung in the air.

     Wyll descended first, Hodgkins followed. Halfway down, the stone bricks stopped in a perfect line. Below the line, the walls were covered in chisel marks.

     'This cellar's been carved out of the rock,' said Hodgkins.

     'So, what came first?' Cudbert mused. 'The house or the cellar?'

     At the bottom of the stairs, the space opened into a large room filled with several rows of tall wooden wine racks, half filled with dark bottles and covered in old spider webs. Paintings of a bear fighting a man wielding a huge club decorated the walls, and above them, the vaulted ceiling was painted black and covered in little pebble-sized objects that sparkled from the light of the oil lamps.

<  9  >

     'Are they diamonds or glass?' asked Hodgkins.

     'I hope they're not diamonds,' said Cudbert.

     'They look like someone's arranged them into star formations,' said Wyll.

     Footsteps and voices up above made Hodgkins look towards the stairs.

     'Who the hell is that?' he hissed.

     He felt his pistol removed from his belt. He spun round to find himself staring down the barrel of his own weapon. It was Cudbert. He'd taken Wyll's pistol too.

     'What are you doing?' asked Hodgkins.

     'I'm sorry,' said Cudbert, 'but I had no choice. They caught me the day I arrived.'

     Hodgkins glared at him. 'You made a deal?'

     'I'm sorry, old friend, but they gave me little choice. They said if I gave you up, I get pardoned.'

     A voice called from upstairs. 'Cudbert?'

     'You can come down, it's safe.'

     Hodgkins snarled at his friend, and his hands clenched into fists until they hurt. 'You double-crossing bastard. After all, we've been through.' He wanted to punch him. To lash out, but Cudbert read the signs, grinned, and stepped back out of range.

     'Everything was fine until you brought Daisy along,' said Cudbert. 'Your loyalties went elsewhere.'

     'She'll kill you for this. When she finds out what you've done, she'll hunt you down and gut you like a rabbit.'

     'I'm afraid that will be unlikely,' said the newcomer. He was balding and middle-aged, dressed in fine clothes with a chain of office around his neck. 'We've sent men to arrest her. By now, she's either dead or in chains. I'd prefer she was alive to have her day in court. Then, after that, she can join you at the wary tree.'

<  10  >

     Hodgkins snarled at Cudbert.

     'Oh, don't be so hard upon him,' said the newcomer. 'It was only a matter of time before we caught you, anyway.' He ran a finger along the edge of a wine shelf, then frowned at the grime it picked up. He then scraped the sole of his shoe over the stone floor. 'I have a similar accommodation waiting for you just around the corner at Wallditch. The only difference is, our room has a sturdy wooden door with bars.'

     'And who are you?'

     'Petty Constable Edward Bentley, at your service. You, on the other hand, need no introduction . . . Master Hodgkins.'

     Three watchmen entered the cellar carrying cudgels and manacles.

     'Let's make this quick,' said Bentley. 'Please don't make a fuss. I don't want to be out here all night.'

     Hodgkins held his arms out and considered attacking Cudbert. He was only a step away. The thought of a lead ball to the head was more appealing than slow suffocation at the end of a rope for the spectacle of a crowd. The watchmen stepped forwards with a manacle. Hodgkins braced himself, but Cudbert chuckled and stepped away. 'Don't even think about it.'

     Bentley agreed. 'Hold your arms out, there's a good fellow. Destiny is calling, Master Hodgkins.'

     As he spoke, new footsteps entered the cellar. It was the man they tied up in the library.

     'Good, you've caught the bastards.'

     'This is Jacob Ackley,' said Bentley. 'I believe you've already met.'

     The manacles were heavy, and the chain connecting the two jangled noisily, but Hodgkins raised them for Jacob to see.

     'I did warn you,' said Jacob. 'So now the roles are reversed, and I get to see you die. But before you do, would you like to see what you were going to steal? After all, it is why you're here.'

<  11  >

     Bentley grumbled something under his breath. 'I'm not sure that would be a good idea.'

     'Nonsense,' said Jacob. 'It's just back here, behind the wine racks, where I promised.'

     He strode off, ignoring the protests. 'Come, come, this way. Here it is.'

     Hodgkins' eyes followed those before him, and his ears detected who was behind. The key to any escape was a good distraction. He felt a hand on his back, shoving him forwards. At the same moment, he noticed Cudbert lower his pistols, eager to see what could have been. Wyll, too, hurried forwards to the annoyance of a watchman.

     'Here it is,' said Jacob gesturing towards a large gold-plated chest.

     Hodgkins sensed his moment had come. A quick spin followed by a shoulder barge, and he would be at the stairs before anyone could stop him.

     Jacob stood beside the chest, smiling. He appeared to be enjoying the moment too much.

     'Master Ackley,' Bentley began, 'There's no need — '

     Jacob reached down and raised the lid. In one swift motion, he reached in and retrieved two pistols. Before anyone could react, he pointed one at Bentley, and the next, he placed the barrel against Cudbert's forehead.

     'Move, and I'll blow your head off.'

     Hodgkins froze and stared at Jacob. Was he exacting his own justice? A part of him hoped he'd pull the trigger. To see Cudbert's brains splatter over the cellar walls would have been poetic.

     'Go on, do it,' said Hodgkins.

     'Master Ackley,' said Bentley. 'Have you lost your mind?'

     'Shut up. You shouldn't be here. Wyll, remove that man's weapons.'

     Hodgkins burst out laughing as Wyll snatched Cudbert's pistols. 'You as well? Did you know about Cudbert's betrayal?'

<  12  >

     'I had no idea,' said Wyll. 'I was just as surprised as you. For a moment there, I thought the plan we had in place would have to wait.'

     Bentley shook with fury. 'What sort of people do you work with, Hodgkins?'

     'Well, you know what they say,' Hodgkins grinned, 'there's no honour amongst thieves.'

     'Why the devil are you finding this so amusing?' asked Bentley.

     Hodgkins used both hands to point at Cudbert, and the chain between his manacles rattled. 'Because look at the pure disgust on his face. I'm a dead man walking anyway, so Wyll's betrayal doesn't bother me much.'

     Cudbert's eyes glared at him. 'Fuck you.'

     Hodgkins grinned. 'Whatever they've got planned, I hope that bastard suffers before me.'

     Four men entered the cellar. Jacob waved them over. 'Tie them all up.'

     Bentley held his hands close to his chest. 'Do you have any idea who I am? Just keeping me prisoner could bring about the death penalty for you.'

     'I know who you are,' said Jacob. 'However, your fate will be the same as the others. You've picked the wrong night to be trespassing.'

     'Trespassing? I was here to arrest these felons. I was rescuing you.'

     'None of that matters now.'

     Hodgkins gained eye contact with Wyll. 'What's this all about?'

     'Trust me, at the moment, it's best you don't know. Master Ackley will explain in good time.'

     Ackley gave his henchmen a pistol each. He then moved to a wall at the back of the cellar. He reached for the oil lamp and pulled. There followed a couple of mechanical clucking sounds deep within the walls then a large door-sized portion of the wall slowly swung in, revealing a tunnel carved out of the stone.

<  13  >

     Jacob beckoned them to follow. 'This has been here for a couple of thousand years. The tunnel begins here and heads east for a little before curving round to the south, deep under Warwick.'

     'What's down here?' asked Cudbert.

     'I'll get to that in a moment.'

     Cobwebs covered the tunnel walls, and soot marks stained the rock where the oil lamps burned. Hodgkins smelt death in the air. Something was rotting up ahead.

     'Many years ago,' said Jacob, 'there was a local king called Morvidas. History tells us he was ill-tempered and generous in equal measures. But as you know, those who hold power will not share it. So when a giant terrorised his lands, he rode out to meet it. The story goes he uprooted a tree and clubbed the giant to death.'

     As Jacob spoke, his hands gestured towards the walls where old drawings of a bear chained to a branchless tree were carved into the rock. Hodgkins noticed the carvings repeated all along the tunnel. 'Isn't that the earl of Warwick's emblem?'

     'It is,' said Bentley. 'Though why it's down here will need explaining. If I survive this, I'll be sure to let him know.'

     Jacob laughed. 'My dear Bentley, you won't be leaving here alive. Secondly, the earl already knows about this place. There are tunnels that stretch from here all the way to the castle. And as for me, I'm in the service of the earl. I've performed this duty for Sir Edward for many years, as did my father and his father before him.'

     The tunnel opened into a domed cavern lit by huge bowls of burning oil hanging from the rock ceiling. Hodgkins' nose crinkled as the smell of death became nauseating. The scent didn't seem to affect Jacob, who had stopped at the tunnel's edge to lounge upon a solid fence with his elbow. Hodgkins tried to see passed the others to see what was there. At first, he thought this was where the tunnel ended. However, the path split to follow the cavern's walls and then join again on the far side.

<  14  >

     'Sometime after Morvidas killed the giant,' said Jacob, 'the town became threatened once again. A great bear terrorised the villages to the west of here. Morvidas rode out with his best knights to confront it. Their skills as horsemen brought them early success as they speared or cut the beast with their swords. But regardless of the wounds they inflicted, the bear would not lay down and die. Eventually, after the deaths of several knights, Morvidas changed his strategy. They grabbed as much rope as the nearest villages possessed and then set about capturing the beast. Once it was secured, they hauled it here during the dead of night.' Jacob absently pointed upwards. 'Where Stone House is, there used to be a barn. They hid the beast there while they chiselled their way into the hill which is Warwick and entrapped it here.'

     'Why are you telling us this?' said Cudbert.

     Jacob chuckled. 'I'm telling you because I'm the keeper of the bear.'

     Bentley shook his head. 'There's no way this creature will be alive after two thousand years. And not only alive but kept secret.'

     Jacob shrugged. 'It's a secret passed to every man who holds the title of the Earl of Warwick. It is their sworn duty to see that this creature does not escape. It has become their badge of office.'

     'Why don't you just kill it,' said Cudbert.

     'Have you not been listening,' said Jacob. 'We cannot kill this creature. All we can do is trap it here and satisfy its hunger. We feed it cows, pigs, and sheep, but sometimes we feed it men. You, Bentley, being Petty Constable for Warwick, you must have noticed the lack of vagrants in town?'

     'That has always puzzled me, but a two-thousand-year-old giant bear! I can't accept that. This is you doing the murdering, nothing more.'

     Jacob grinned. 'Let's see, shall we.'

     Hodgkins moved half a step back, sensing what was to become. As he did so, one of Jacobs's men grabbed the nearest watchman and pulled him towards the fence. The watchman struggled, cursing his captures as they pushed him against the waist-height fence, forcing him forward until he was leaning over. They then pulled his head back by his hair and dragged a knife across his throat.

<  15  >

     Bentley gasped as blood gushed from the wound. The second watchman tried to flee but was wrestled to the floor. Wyll pushed Cudbert against the wall.

     Jacob nodded to his henchman, and the dying man was pushed over the fence. There was a long silence before Hodgkins heard the body hit the ground.

     'Come,' said Jacob. 'See Warwick's curse for yourselves.'

     Hodgkins and Bentley edged forwards and peered over the railing. The dying watchman was at the bottom of a sand-covered circular pit. Bones and ripped clothes littered the floor. A headless corpse leant against the wall. Its chest ripped open, revealing a bloody, empty cavity. A large opening disappeared into the darkness at the far side of the pit. Hodgkins heard nothing, only the sound of the watchman in the pit who was still alive.

     'We call him Athal,' said Jacob. 'My father told me it's what they've always called him.'

     Hodgkins thought he heard something. It sounded like sniffing.

     'I was about ten when my father first brought me down here,' Jacob continued. 'Looking at your faces reminds me of the curiosity I felt. I'd seen death many times before that day. My father insisted I go and watch the executions at hanging gate. It became apparent I was being trained to become hardened to the sight of death.'

     A growl echoed along the darkened tunnel and into the cavern.

     'I puked at my first beheading.' Jacob chuckled. 'My father found it amusing. But it was when the civil war arrived in Warwick that I became hardened to death' many mysteries.'

     An animal moaned. It was close now. Out from the shadows came the beast.

     'For the love of God,' said Bentley.

     Hodgkins gasped. He'd seen bear baiting many times. Watched as packs of dogs were placed in large cages to fight these beasts. But this creature was huge. It placed a paw upon the now-dead watchman. One single claw was as long as the watchman's arm. Its nose sniffed the fresh corpse, and then its massive tongue licked at the watchman's neck. Then, as if satisfied, it buried its teeth into the man's chest. Bones snapped with ease.

<  16  >

     'Right, next up,' said Jacob.

     The second watchman was hauled to the fence. Jacob cut the man's throat, and his henchmen pushed the body into the pit.

     Hodgkins tried to wriggle his hands loose of the manacles, but the chain rattled as he struggled. A hand grabbed his shoulder, so he turned and head-butted the henchman. The man cried out as his nose broke and fell back. Hodgkins spun to flee, but a powerful punch knocked the air from his lungs. He fell and felt the cold touch of the stone floor on his face as he tried to suck in air. A hand grabbed his clothes, rolling him to his back. He saw Wyll place a knife against Cudbert's throat, forcing him to remain still. Above him, the henchman's raised fist paused before descending.

     'Bring him here,' said Jacob. 'Let's put him out of his misery.'

     Hodgkins struggled against the two pairs of hands that hauled him to his feet. Once upright, another punch to his stomach doubled him up. His knees buckled, but the two henchmen kept him up.

     'What was that?' said Wyll. 'A lamp by the entrance has just gone out.'

     'It happens,' said Jacob. 'Just be ready with the next villain.'

     'But shouldn't we check? Anybody could be coming down those stairs.'

     Jacob grimaced and signalled to one of the henchmen. 'Owen, go and check the cellar, even if only to put our friend's mind at ease.'

     Hodgkins felt the grip on his clothes loosen as one of the henchmen headed down the tunnel. The remaining henchman was strong and pushed him against the fence. The wood dug into his thigh as the weight of the henchman fell against him. In the pit, the bear's teeth ripped at the dead watchman's coat while the body flopped around like a ragdoll. The bear glanced up, and their eyes met, but then it focused back on its victim.

<  17  >

     A hand grabbed Hodgkins' hair and yanked his head back. He gritted his teeth and waited for the cut.

     'Let him go, or I'll blow your brains out,' said a voice from the tunnel.

     Hodgkins' head sagged as his hair was released. The grip on his clothes disappeared too. He stepped back and turned. Daisy stood yards away, her face and dress splattered with blood. In each hand, she held a pistol — one aimed at the henchman with the broken nose, the other moving between Jacob and Wyll.

     'They said you were dead,' said Hodgkins.

     She laughed and looked insane with the blood on her face. 'Nar, it'll take more than two idiots to kill me.'

     She fired a pistol. The bang was deafening in the confines of the tunnel, and the smell of gunpowder was overpowering. In the pit, the bear growled. Hodgkins spun in time to watch the henchman with the bloody nose fall backwards over the fence into the pit.

     'Bloody hell,' said Bentley.

     'I didn't like the look of him,' said Daisy. 'Who's next?'

     Hodgkins collected the remaining pistols before finally holding his manacles towards Bentley. 'I believe you have the keys.'

     'Who the bloody hell are you?' asked Jacob.

     Daisy ignored him. 'Why does Wyll have a knife against Cudbert's throat?'

     'I'll explain later. At the moment, all I'll say is they both betrayed us. It was Cudbert who sent the watchmen to kill you.'

     Her hand swept around as she aimed her remaining pistol at Cudbert. He flinched and tried to hide.

     'Wait,' said Hodgkins. He let the manacles fall to the ground and then rubbed his wrists.

     Daisy frowned. 'But he tried to have me killed.'

<  18  >

     'I'm only saying it's a waste of a shot,' said Hodgkins. 'I have a better idea.' He waved his pistol at Wyll and the remaining henchman. 'Throw Cudbert in the pit.'

     Cudbert swore and wrestled for all he was worth, but with his hands tied, he was soon at the fence.

     'What's in the hole?' asked Daisy. 'It sounds big.'

     'A giant bear,' said Hodgkins. 'You should see it.'

     Daisy stepped closer to the fence and peered over. 'Jeez, he's a big boy. Bye, Cudbert.'

     Cudbert was pushed backwards over the fence. He screamed as he plummeted.

     Jacob chuckled. 'You see how easy it is to become one of us. Many of the town's problems have been pushed in here.'

     'Come on, Daisy,' said Hodgkins. 'I need a beer.'

     'Mind if I join you?' asked Bentley.

     As they walked back to the cellar, Jacob called after them. 'I have powerful friends. It would be best if you kept this to yourselves. Leave with the knowledge that your luck held out tonight. No one will believe you, anyway.'

     Once outside, Hodgkins untied Bentley's wrists. The constable rubbed the skin once free.

     'Are you going to speak of this to anyone?' asked Bentley.

     Hodgkins glanced back at Stone House, at the windows lit up by internal candles. Daisy stood with their horses, waiting.

     'Nar. Jacob's right, no one would believe me. A giant bear living in tunnels under Warwick?' He chuckled. 'You can be sure of one thing though, Bentley, it's cured me of robbing houses in your town. But what of you? This is going to make life awkward.'

     'I'll speak with the earl and come to some sort of arrangement. The bear's going nowhere, and neither is the problem of feeding the creature.' He held out his hand. 'Don't come back to Warwick, Hodgkins, and I'll not come looking for you.'

<  19  >

     Hodgkins took the constable's hand and smiled. 'I can't promise anything. After all, you could be bear food long before I'm swinging from wary tree.'

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