The chime of the grandfather clock struck eleven times before Lord Brackwood looked up from the letter. Jack sat tentatively on a cushioned bench next to Maddy and Grort in the tapestry-lined foyer of Larken Hall, waiting for their host to say something. He saw Brackwood’s eyes moving up and down the letter several times, interspersed with cold stares at Jack over the top of the parchment.
“Bertram!” said Brackwood to no one in particular. Jack’s heart began to pound faster as he waited for the individual to appear. A small old man in a dusty white wig wearing tiny spectacles entered the foyer through what Jack had thought was a regular wall. As he looked closer, he saw the seams of the door had been carefully hidden next to the ornate trim that lined the hallway.
“Yes, my lord?”
“Make up the spare bedroom on the third floor. It seems like we will be having some company for a spell. And, tell Edwena to bring out some breakfast.”
“At once, my lord.”
“One more thing, Bertram.” Brackwood whispered something in Bertram’s ear, and Bertram disappeared quickly back behind the false wall, a soft click sounding as the door snapped back into place.
Brackwood’s stern features dissolved as he turned to the group.
“Your visit has been a long time coming. Not to say that I was expecting you, but I didn’t think Trafford would forget to collect on the debt. But come now, you must be tired from your journey. Bertram will attend to your belongings, if you would follow me, please.”
Brackwood gestured down the end of the hallway, and Jack reluctantly led the way. The hallway soon branched but Brackwood opened a glass door at the end and stepped outside. To either side, Jack heard the dull roar of chatter, clanging pots and running water. He stepped through the doorway, squinting at the bright sunlight, and found himself in a large garden. The manor edged the garden on both sides, with full-length glass walkways running parallel, showing off a multitude of paintings hung on the walls just inside. At the far end, a brick wall transitioned into an abnormally-large hedge just behind it, above which Jack could see the top of the chimney of the neighboring house. A long metal table surrounded by cushioned chairs stood at the center.
No sooner had they sat down than a portly woman appeared out of one side of the glass walkway carrying a large tray on her shoulder. She sat it down on the table and began quickly disbursing its contents, a large basket of warm biscuits followed by ramekins of butter and jam. Edwena poured hot tea for everyone except Grort, who raised his hand in protest. Before he could say anything, Edwena produced a pewter mug, foam overflowing from the top.
“Thank you Edwena,” said Lord Brackwood. Edwena nodded politely and retreated back into the house.
“I’m afraid I haven’t entertained your kin in quite awhile, master dwarf, but I hope this ale is to your liking. As for us humans, I do enjoy afternoon tea and biscuits, but who has time to wait for that? Please, enjoy.”
Jack suddenly realized how long it had been since he had had a proper meal. Their campfire dinner two nights ago had turned sour when the fish Jack had caught fell into the flames and Trafford had only managed to scrounge up a stale piece of bread for each of them before they boarded the ferry the previous night. Jack eyed the biscuits ravenously and took one from the basket. The formalness of the setting demanded that the biscuit be eaten in small, polite bites, and that was Jack’s intent, but as soon as the first morsel hit his mouth, the entire biscuit disappeared. If Brackwood seemed offended by the lack of manners, his face betrayed no disgust.
“Your arrival could not have had better timing, as I woke up this morning dreading a day filled with nothing to do. Now it seems it will be quite the opposite. How delightful!”
In between bites, Jack made eye contact with Maddy, who returned the same quizzical look he had offered.
“From what Trafford has written, you find yourself in a bit of a predicament, Master Richards. Quite a predicament, indeed.” Brackwood tapped the paper with the back of his hand as he looked over it again. “Fortunately, out of all the people he could have called upon to help, I am perhaps the best suited. I have a bit of pull with Our Majesty’s armed forces, seeing as how I supply them with most of their weaponry. I’ve already summoned Brigadier General Maddox and when he gets here, we’ll sort everything out, don’t you worry my boy. Ah, that must be him now.”
Jack turned around as Bertram escorted a portly man in a red coat and tri-tip hat out onto the patio. The man stumbled over to one of the empty chairs, and rested his hands on the back, breathing heavily and quite loudly. His face, bright red to match his jacket and hosting beads of sweat, loudly proclaimed a feeling of indignation.
“Brackwood, what is the meaning of this? Calling me over here like a dog on a leash. I’ve got a million things to do this morning.”
“Oh good heavens no, Brigadier General. A dog on a leash isn’t called, it’s pulled. With you, there’s no need for any pulling.”
Jack suppressed a laugh at the dig, which seemed to go completely over Maddox’s head. Maddox’s face softened and he made a quick query around the table.
“So Brackwood, I take it this is the boy I’m to receive into my custody. I just received word via messenger pigeon from New Wales right before I got your missive. Seems the boy has shirked his God-given duty to serve in His Majesty’s armed forces, which won’t do at all. I’ll have you turn him over to me immediately.”
“Ah, well, see that is where the problem lies and why I summon– err, requested your presence here this morning. You see, I find myself in need of a new chief gunsmith, as I caught my previous one selling muskets to the elves, and I would like to hire Master Richards here for the job.”
The surprise on Jack’s face was not lost on Maddox, whose chuckling soon transitioned into an outright guffaw.
“Brackwood, you must take me for some sort of dunderheaded sap. Do you think I got where I am today by being a gullible idiot?”
“No, of course not. Your commission was bought and paid for, quite handsomely I might add, by your late father. But enough about you, do I have your blessing that you will dispense with the boy’s writ so that he can be in my employ?”
Jack braced for Maddox to launch into another tirade, but the portly general instead walked around and took a seat in the empty chair.
“Yes, you do, provided the boy complete a simple task as a show of good faith. After all, His Majesty can’t have his writs disregarded because you owed someone a favor, now can he?”
Jack’s stomach sank as he saw the shit-eating grin form on Maddox’s face. The general reached down to his side, pulled something out of a holster attached to his hip, and placed it on the table.
“Standard issue Queen Anne. Now, this boy is to be your master-at-arms? Well, if that’s so, then he’ll have no issue taking apart and reassembling this pistol, wouldn’t you say?”
Panic boiled inside Jack as he stared at the mahogany-handled pistol on the table. He had never even held a gun, let alone fired or taken one apart.
“The boy will do splendidly, I’m sure. Jack, if you please.”
If Brackwood had any doubt on Jack’s ability to complete the task at hand, the old man’s crinkled face certainly did not betray such thoughts. As much as Jack appreciated the vote of confidence, he was not sure what good it would do in view of the near impossible.
Jack closed his eyes momentarily, as if trying to wish everything away. The site that greeted him when he opened his eyes almost made him shut them again immediately. The scene remained the same except for the very minor detail of a pair of faint blue lines that had emerged out of the pistol. As he looked around the patio, Jack saw that no one else had noticed this latest development. He blinked several times, hoping that the lines were merely a manifestation of his inner panic. They did not fade.
“I’m sorry, Brackwood, but I don’t have all morning to sit here while this fool of a boy tries to stall his fate. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll be taking my leave. Someone will come for the boy this afternoon.”
Jack’s hands slowly slid toward the pistol. As he grasped it, the blue lines extended further, curving as his hands slowly trailed them. What before felt like a foreign object, now felt like an old friend. He let go of himself and let the lines take over.
They rotated around the barrel, but Jack’s unscrewing was abruptly halted by a metal catch inside the barrel. Not missing a beat, the lines jutted outward away from the pistol and towards Maddox’s belt. A small metal key was lodged clumsily in one of the belt holes, and before Maddox could interject, Jack cleared the distance between them, yanked the key out of Maddox’s belt and returned to work on the pistol. With the key in place, as the lines directed, the barrel detached without protest and a further line showed him the key’s rightful place in a small groove in the handle. The key proved quite useful in removing the numerous screws along the handle, and soon the pistol lay dissembled on the patio table.
Jack only had time to a take a short breath before the lines sprung into motion again, this time back towards Maddox. They split off in different directions, one heading to a small powder horn clipped to Maddox’s belt, the other to a pocket in his coat. Jack again strode quickly towards Maddox, grabbed the powder horn with one hand and reached into the pocket with the other, pulling out a small lead ball. Placing the horn and bullet on the table, Jack watched as the lines began their final dance. His hands soon followed, and as he finally tucked the barrel key back into the ornate handle of the reassembled and loaded pistol, Jack’s face beamed with triumph.
He reached out the handle of the pistol towards Maddox when the lines sprouted again. “No, no,” they seemed to say. “Turn it the other way.” Jack complied, gripping the handle with his right hand, the barrel aimed towards Maddox’s large midsection. The lines flowed up to the hammer, and Jack cocked it in reply. Finally, they clustered at the trigger.
Jack’s finger froze on the trigger. The lines swirled forcefully, darkening in color. Jack looked at Maddox. The arrogant bluster that had marked the general’s arrival was gone; in its place, wide, fearful eyes stared back at him. As if sensing his hesitation, the lines moved faster and faster around the trigger, urging him to move his finger just a little more. He traced the contours of the metal up and down slowly. The lines tightened around his finger, Jack’s resistance slowly fading. He fired.