Icarus Swift and the Moorbeast
The moors and fenlands of the English coast, that cold land of soggy fields, rolling hills and peat bogs, was home to more than the clammy chill that wrapped around a visitor's body like a drenched coat. For centuries, smugglers had claimed the fens and the moors as their own, and moved their contraband cargo through the sodden lands. These gangs of smugglers ruled the local villages as brutal kings, often waging bloody warfare amongst themselves. But now there was something more dangerous than the most heavily armed fenmen, and so the smugglers sent for Icarus Swift, the natural philosopher, to come and set it right.
Swift's ramshackle carriage rattled over the sloping hills, its wheels slipping and sliding through the mud and spraying pools of water. Inside the coach, Master Doctor Icarus Swift leaned back and stared out the window at the gray sky, occasional sipping from the flask of laudanum-laced whiskey in his dark cloak. Across from him, his young apprentice, Felix Hawthorne, awoke with a start as the carriage slid through a particularly deep puddle.
"Ah!" Felix cried as he sat up. He stared at Dr. Swift, and the natural philosopher's beloved pet bear, who sat across from him. Felix adjusted his collar and tucked in his waistcoat. "Sorry, sir," he said. "I was a little tired, from the journey, I think. I'm sorry."
"No need to apologize for falling asleep," Dr. Swift said. "Lord knows I've done it enough. I had less waking hours than turnips on an apple tree during my brief time at Oxford."
"You attended Oxford?" Felix asked. Icarus Swift had never mentioned that part of his childhood before – only that he had been raised harshly by his callous and cruel grandfather.
Swift nodded. "Indeed. It was a dreadful experience by all concerned. Satan's Spit! They wouldn't even let me keep Admiral. I left that wretched school to the simpletons and lawyers, and struck out on my own. My grandfather was angry, of course. But then, that is his usual state."
"Oh," Felix said. He looked outside the open window and stared at the wide fields of the moors, wrapped round with mist and dotted with grassy hills. "Well, um, Dr, Swift, sir, what are we doing here?"
Icarus reached into his cloak and withdrew a piece of parchment. "Our employers did not specify the nature of this task. They only said that it would be dangerous, and as they are the leaders of one of the three largest smuggling gangs in England, I see no reason to doubt their words." He folded paper and tucked it back into his coat. "But I have a wealth of knowledge, Mr. Greenfellow's stalwart fists and your own…unusual capabilities. Our success is assured."
Felix nodded his agreement. "But smugglers?" he asked. "There were a few of them in Wittling-on-the-Sea. Bold fellows, always up for gaming for a fight. Our town's bailiff looked the other way, and so did everyone else. But working for them? Master Doctor Swift, that's something else entirely. If you don't mind me saying."
The carriage rolled up to the crest of a squat hill, and looked down over the wide, soaked fields and the cold gray sea beyond. The sun was setting, and casting deep shadows like a rising pool over the coast and the moors. Situated behind another pair of high hills stood a small village, with smoke rising in pale pillars from its warm hearths. Felix leaned out of the open window of the carriage, trying to see more of the village. He squinted his coal black eyes, but he didn't see any lights in the village.
"It's abandoned," Dr. Swift explained. "An abandoned village, with a name forgotten to all. It's situated between the borders of the three great gangs – the Hawkhurst Scarecrows, the Red-Handed Men of Kent, and the Roaring Ransleys of Deal. And so when those worthies wish to hold a meeting, the village without a name is its location."
"Three smuggling gangs," Felix whispered. And they were all rivals of course, the kind of bitter rivals that only the criminal life could create. And he and his master were riding straight to the middle of it, to solve some occult problem. Suddenly, Felix found himself missing the cold, crime-ridden streets of London.
The nameless village was in a state of disrepair, like a body taken from its tomb and tossed in the street for all to see. The roofs sagged and many of the houses and shacks were barely standing. Most of the smugglers chose to set up tents in the overgrown dirt streets, rather than sleep inside one of the hazardous buildings. The smugglers had totally populated the city, and they stood around their cook fires and stacked muskets, leaned against walls and smoked from pipes, and watched the carriage slowly roll down the street.
It wasn't long before a party of men blocked the carriage's path. These were the Hawkhurst Scarecrows, a powerful gang of smugglers, known as much for their colorful customs and courting of popularity as their illicit activities. They dressed in tattered brown suits, patched plug hats and burlap masks to hide their identities and serve as a rude uniform.
Mr. Greenfellow tugged on the reins as they approached and the donkeys came to a halt. Dr. Swift stuck his head out of the window and looked down at the Scarecrows. "Mawkin-Men, playing at being gentlemen," he said. "Away with you. There are others I must see."
The scarecrow in the center pulled up his mask, revealing a square face with puffs of graying hair and thick sideburns. "Easy there, master doctor! You don't got to go no further. Dick Rattenbury, master of the scarecrows, and at your service." He rested his musket at his shoulder and did a mock bow. "You can have your man there stow the carriage in the stables over yonder. Strange one, ain't he?"
"They do come stranger," Icarus replied. He nodded to Mr. Greenfellow, who leapt down from the coachman's perch and extended the step. Icarus Swift stepped down into the muddy street of the nameless city, followed by Felix and Admiral. "Don't mind the boy, or the bear. They're my assistants, and are vital for my work." Swift stared at Rattenbury and ran a hand through his tangled dark hair. "And what is my work, if I may ask, Mr. Rattenbury?"
Rattenbury sighed. "It is…a long story. All of the leaders, governors, presidents, chieftains – or whatever you would call it – of the other smuggling associations are in the tavern, and that's where you'll hear everything. Of the otherworldly forces aligned against us, and the necessity of quick action." He led them down the street. Icarus Swift handed Admiral's rope leash to Felix, who dutifully led he bear along. Dr. Swift limped forward with the aid of his cane, matching the pace of Rattenbury and the other scarecrows.
"I fear I must warn you," Rattenbury explained. "My fellow smugglers have short tempers and are in an ill-humor. Cruel Copinger of the Red-Handed Men of Kent, well, he's not that bad if he's not enraged, but Cestus Quested of the Roaring Ransleys, lately arrived from Deal, is a villain if ever there was one."
Felix shivered when he heard the name of Deal. The Kentish town was notorious for smuggling, and there were rumors that the excise and revenue men would have to demolish it, building by building, to force out the smugglers. He continued to tug at Admiral's leash, after the bear had start sniffing one of the cook pots. The bear regrettably turned away, and followed Dr. Swift and Rattenbury into the tavern at the center of town.
This building at least was well kept, with a thatched roof, a fire crackling away inside, and tables groaning under the weight of roast boar and mugs frothy with ale. Several scarecrows sat at one table, with a party of Red-Handed Men at another, and some of the Roaring Ransleys in the corner. The Red-Handed Men wore dark cloaks, with tricornes and domino masks. Red gloves covered their hands, perhaps some visible message of their willingness to spill blood. The Roaring Ransleys wore turquoise coats and fearsome wooden masks of snarling wolves, lions and gargoyles.
As Rattenbury stepped inside, one of the Roaring Ransleys came to his feet. He was a thin man, and the animal on his mask was a wolf with wooden fangs barred above his teeth. "Who, in the devil's name are these?" he asked, speaking a hint of an upper class accent. "This effrontery to the honor of the Roaring Ranselys shall not be countenanced!"
"Calm yourself, Cestus!" Rattenbury said, waving his hand. "It's some friends of mine. I brought them in to fix the problem."
"Specialists? What are you about, Mr. Rattenbury! I brought in specialists of my own, and it is they, and not your charlatan and his trained bear, that will bring us succor." He gestured to the door. "Smugglers of the Kentish coast, I give you – Blue-Skin Bill and Darby Deadeye, the heroic highwaymen!"
Felix craned his neck to watch as the two highwaymen entered the tavern. They were as unalike as two men could me. Blue-Skin Bill resembled some scruffy beast thrust roughly into a ill-fitting blue suit. He had an unkempt beard of stubble, rank, curly hair, and a broad nose. Darby Deadeye's golden waistcoat, scarlet suit and cravat were fastidiously prepared and cleaned, and his white periwig practically shined in the tavern's flickering lantern-light. Both of them were armed to the teeth, with rifles on their shoulders, several braces of pistols and musketoons, hatchets, sabers, daggers and long swords all about their persons.
Both men bowed, Blue-Skin Bill a little more stiffly than Darby Deadeye. Bill jabbed a thumb at Felix, Dr. Swift and Admiral. "You want me to deal with them, boss?" he asked, reaching for one of his musketoons.
In seconds, the place was full of men pointing weapons at each other. Rattenbury drew out one of his pistols and aimed it at Blue-Skin Bill, while Cestus Quested drew out a pistol and aimed it at Rattenbury. The smugglers followed suite, and then one of the Red-Handeds came to his feet and drew out his hook. "We gonna fight?" he asked, licking his chomps. He had thick sideburns and dark eyes. "Finally!"
Icarus Swift raised his hand. "There is no need for this," he said. "I have worked aside men before, and I see no reason why I cannot join forces with these…heroic highwaymen."
Felix looked at his master. "Master Doctor Swift, are you certain? They're robbers, highway thieves, and certainly men of little honor!" he whispered.
But the guns of the smugglers lowered. The Red-Handed Man of Kent let out a sigh of disappointment. "That's Cruel Copinger," Rattenbury whispered. "Don't get on his bad side."
Darby Deadeye held out his gloved hand to Dr. Swift. "Well, if we are to work together, than I most pleased to meet your acquaintance. Darby Deadeye, the best shot in all of the country roads of England, at your service, sir."
"Master Doctor Icarus Swift, natural philosopher," Swift said. "This is my boy, Felix, and my bear, Admiral." He turned to Blue-Skin Bill. "Your friend?"
"And the partner in my extralegal efforts," Deadeye said. "I am a disgraced noblemen, forced to take up the lamentable mantle of the highwayman to restore honor to my family's name and punish our enemies. Blue-Skin Bill enjoys robbing people and spending their money on drink."
Bill shrugged. "Can't change me nature, boss," he said.
All three of them turned to Dick Rattenbury and Cestus Quested. "So," Dr. Swift said. "What is this problem that you have brought us all here to solve?"
Rattnebury, Quested and Copinger exchanged a glance. Rattnebury cleared his throat and spoke first. "What do you know about werewolves, Dr. Swift? Men who take the form of beasts, and hunt up and down the country for the flesh of the innocent?"
Swift shrugged. "My grandfather had a rug made from the fur of a werewolf. It was quite scratchy."
"Ah," Rattenbury said. "Well, there is a beast which walks through the watery fens and sodden plains of the coastal Downs, a creature known as the Moorbeast. It is a fearsome wolf, one which could rival your carriage for size, and all the armies in the world for ferocity. Its eyes burn, its teeth are like cutlasses, and its hide blends in with the darkness of night."
"It has been slaughtering our men for some time!" Cestus cried, turning away. "Oh, the beastly devil is becoming a greater thorn in our sides than the excise and the revenue men! It is most troublesome." He looked back at Darby Deadeye and Blue-Skin Bill. "And that is why I have hired you. This Moorbeast must be hunted down and destroyed. I will pay whatever price you ask, but the Moorbeast must die."
"And so it shall," Dr. Swift said. He sat down at one of the tables, and leaned back in the chair. "And fear not – I carry several silver bullets that should harm the Moorbeast, and other weapons that will cause it equal harm." He nodded to the highwaymen. "And I shall give you fine fellows whatever silver ball you need."
"We got some of our own," Blue-Skin Bill said. "Always come prepared, me and Darby. We come across a whole mess of oddities in our time on the coach roads, and we've learned from bleeding experience, we have, to be prepared for anything."
"Good to hear it," Swift said. He looked at one of the jugs of ale and grabbed an empty mug. "Now, perhaps we had time a for a drink before we set out in search of beast?"
"Why not?" Rattenbury said, grabbing the jug and filling Swift's cup. Felix thought about protesting. Icarus Swift drunk in the same way religious men prayed, throwing his body and soul into the alcohol, and not resting until the last drop had passed his throat and he was close to senselessness. But he did not want to embarrass his master, and kept quiet. He took his seat next to Dr. Swift, and the two highwaymen sat across from them.
Felix looked away, fearing that these rough men would soon cause trouble. He felt a little better that Admiral was curled up like a furry boulder at his feet. But he supposed it wasn't that bad. After all, Darby Deadeye was the leader of the duo, and he was no highwayman but a high born noble, forced into a life of crime. That wasn't so bad.
"Sir?" Felix asked, turning to Darby Deadeye. "Mr. Deadeye, I mean, what noble house did you belong to, before you were forced to ride the coach roads?"
"What?" Darby asked. "I'm sorry, my dear young Felix, could you please repeat the question. Standing near the crack of pistols, the clang of sabers and the thunder of horses' hooves has harmed my hearing, I fear."
"Of course, sir," Felix agreed. "I was just wondering what—"
"Well!" Darby Deadeye interrupted him. "Dr. Swift, you are clearly the expert on such matters, and I wondering what is your opinion on the matter of this menacing lycanthrope? Must we wait until the full moon to see its bestial power?"
Dr. Swift leaned back in his chair. "Hardly," he said, draining his cup. "The business with the moon is little more than a myth. A true werewolf can assume his form whenever he pleases, and whenever hunger strikes him. Furthermore, the belief that this creature is some poor unfortunate who has been bitten and will transform, against their own will, into a horrid monster, is a similar falsehood."
Blue-Skin Bill nodded. "Reckon that means we's killing someone who deserves it," he said. "Fine by me."
"Indeed. The werewolf is a witch, a conjurer, a fellow who makes deals with the primal and the dark in return for skill in battle." Swift looked down at Felix. "You've been studying that history of the area I gave you, I trust?"
Felix nodded. Dr. Swift had given him a bundle of tattered scrolls and flimsy books, which he had read during the carriage ride. "Yes, sir," he said. "As best I could, sir."
"Well, boy, are there any old ruins, druidic, Roman or otherwise that lie about here?" he asked. "Any holdovers from the mist-shrouded past?"
Quickly, Felix considered the information. Reading in the carriage was like trying to concentrate on some impossible philosophical or mathematical problem while riding on a bucking steed across a burning battlefield. Still, he had remembered the importance of old ruins from their previous adventures. "Not quite, sir," he said. "But there are the long ships?"
"Long ships?" Icarus asked. "The dragon-prowed vessels of the Vikings, you mean?"
"Yes, sir," Felix answered. "Apparently, the pagan Norsemen frequently raided this part of England, and several of their old ships are still stuck in the sand banks around the coast, memories of some of their failed later raids." He put his hands in his pockets. "Is that helpful, sir?"
"As helpful as you can be, young Felix," Icarus replied. He looked back at the highwaymen. "We'll go there tomorrow, gentlemen. I have a feeling that our werewolf has his roots in the age when the Scandinavians had not reached their present state of martial sophistication, and settled their problem with the axe and sword, instead rank upon rank of King Charles XII's infantry." He raised his mug again. "But until then, let us drink."
And drink they did, as the sun finished setting and shadows filled the nameless village like ale filling a cup. It was pitch blackness outside, and only the flickering lights of the smugglers' cook fires were visible. The highwaymen leaned back in their chairs and rested, and the smugglers headed off to their tents but Swift continued swilling spirits.
After his fifth mug, Dr. Swift reached for another jug and Felix made the mistake of trying to stop him. "Please, Dr. Swift," he said. "I think that's a little too much. You'll want to be fresh for tomorrow, don't you remember?"
But Swift was in no mode for argument. He grabbed Felix's hand and squeezed the wrist. "Do you presume to order me about?" he asked, leaning in to stare at the boy. "I have yet to discipline you with the rod, young Felix. In St. Cyprian's name, do you think I should start?"
"P-please," Felix whispered, feeling panic in his chest. He had seen how Icarus Swift treated his enemies, and had no wish for their relationship to sour. "I was just—"
"You let the lad go, sir." Blue-Skin Bill came to his feet and drew out one of his dagger. "There will be trouble if you don't release him, right now."
"He's my apprentice!" Swift cried. "A gentleman is entitled to discipline his apprentice as he sees fit." He came to his feet and faced Blue-Skin Bill, releasing Felix. "Your manners, sir, are not very good."
"I've been called worse," Bill said. "And I don't give a damn for society's bleeding rules. Reason why I'm in the trade I'm in, as a matter of fact. So if you abuse that boy, I will hurt you, Master Doctor, and I will not stay may hand."
"There's no need for this!" Felix cried. "Please, thank you for your help, Mr. Bill, but Dr. Swift, well, he's just had a little too much to drink. He's not normally a bad fellow, you see, and he has never struck me before…"
"Hmmm." Blue-Skin nodded and sat back down. He pulled away the flagon of ale. "Well, Swift, you can go sober or pick a fight with me. What'll it be?"
Swift lowered his head and said nothing.
Blue-Skin Bill grinned. "Smart choice, mate." He looked down at Felix. "If he ever gives you trouble, you call my name and I'll sort him out for you."
"Thank you, sir," Felix said. "I didn't really expect a, well, a highwayman to be so, um…" He trailed off, unable to find the words. "Noble," he finally said.
"That's me friend Darby," Blue-Skin said. "I'm just a normal bloke." He removed his greatcoat and handed it to Felix, then pushed a stool to the boy's feet. "You go on and get some sleep then, lad. I have a feeling we'll need it in the morning."
Felix pulled himself onto the chair and leaned back. He was extraordinarily tired from their journey from London, and before he could even think of thanking Blue-Skin Bill, his head had fallen back and he was asleep. He slept well.
When Dr. Swift shook his shoulder, Felix's eyes opened slowly. "Hmmm?" he asked. "What's going on?" He heard musket fire, cracking off in the distance like thunder from afar, and raised his head as wakefulness flooded into him. "What is it?" he asked. "Are the smugglers killing each other?"
"Nothing so benign," Icarus said. Mr. Greenfellow stood next to him, holding his scoped rifle. Icarus took the rifle from his hands and handed it to Felix. He then pulled out his pistols and began loading them, sliding in silver balls, followed by gunpowder. "The Moorbeast has been spotted. He's coming this way, and by all accounts is slaughtering everything in his past."
"Where's Mr. Rattenbury? And Mr. Quested?" Felix asked. "And Mr. Copinger?"
"That's the thing, lad." Blue-Skin Bill was loading his own pistols, while Darby Deadeye prepared a double-barreled musket. "They've all ran off. Fled to the hills like a pack of cowards. Even Cruel Copinger is nowhere to be found, and I figured him for sterner stuff." He sighed as he slid his pistols in their holsters. "So leave us to deal with it."
Darby Deadeye cocked his musket and held it as his hip. "So, shall we go and see the truth of this matter?" he asked.
"Aye," Dr. Swift agreed. He looked down at Felix, and handed him the pistols. Felix was already overburdened by the rifle, and he struggled to hold everything. "I do apologize for this," Swift said. "But Mr. Greenfellow must have his hands free, as we may need his strength."
"I understand, Dr. Swift," Felix said, nodding as they walked to the door. A shrieking howl sounded from off the moor, making a chill run down Felix's spine and causing his hands to shake so badly that he nearly dropped the pistols and rifle. But he held tightly to them and followed his master to the door.
They paused as they looked at the muddy lanes of the nameless village. The smugglers stood nervously around their camp fires, all armed and staring into the fog and mist of the moors. Dr. Swift leaned forward on his cane. "And I'm sorry if I was harsh with you earlier," he said. "You did not deserve such cruelty."
"I understand, Dr. Swift," Felix repeated. He was already looking at the banks of mist that coated the moors outside of the nameless village, and wondering what lurked within. A cold silence reigned in the village, as the smugglers stared at the men who would supposedly slay the Moorbeast.
Another howl split the silence, and Felix saw a dark shape moving through the mist, like a storm-cloud on a bright day. It drew closer, and Felix saw dark paws the size of pillars pounding on the mud, and glowing red eyes like hot coals. The creature moved closer, and though it was vaguely lupine, Felix saw that it bore the long ears of a hunting hound, the stocky head of a bear, and the long, swinging tail of a jungle cat. The Moorbeast lowered its head, and roared out its rage at the men who had gathered to slay it.
Darby Dearborn fired his musket, and Icarus held out his hand. "Now!" he said, and Felix handed him his rifle. Dr. Swift brought the rifle to his shoulder and looked down the telescopic sight. He fired, and his bullet struck the werewolf deep in the chest. Dearborn's shots landed there as well, and Blue-Skin Bill fired with one of his musketoons.
But none of the shots seemed to harm the beast. It lowered its head and charged forward, roaring all the while. Smugglers ran from its pounding claws, diving into the wrecked houses in an attempt to get away. Even then, the Moorbeast continued its attack. It lashed out with long claws, hacking men apart or dragging them into its mouth. Icarus tried to reload his rifle, but the Moorbeast was already too close.
"Felix!" he shouted. "The pistols! Then flee, for I don't think we can stop it!"
Felix handed Icarus the pistols and looked around for some hiding place as the Moorbeast continued its charge. The two highwaymen stepped forward and opened fire, blasting the Moorbeast with waves of lead from a dozen different guns. The Moorbeast finally showed some sign of damage, stopping in its track and letting out a long snarl. It lunged forward, and Felix saw the beast diving straight for Icarus.
"Dr. Swift!" he shouted, grabbing Icarus's hand and pulling him away from the snapping jaws of the wolf. Icarus fired his pistol into the beast's open mouth, as Felix pulled him into one of the nearby shacks. The Moorbeast did not waste any time in nursing its wounds, leaping forward instead and smashing into the flimsy shack. Fragments of wood spun through the air as the Moorbeast reached for them, tearing apart the shack with its sheer bulk and primal strength.
Felix and Dr. Swift tumbled to the ground, and the Moorbeast lunged forward to devour them. Felix heard the jaws slam shut inches from his face, and tried to pull himself backwards. Icarus fired his second pistol, sending a bullet across one of the Moorbeast's red eyes. It only caused the monster to howl louder.
Then the Moorbeast was pulled back. Felix looked forward to see Mr. Greenfellow pounding his fists against the Moorbeast's sides, driving it away from Dr. Swift and his apprentice. Greenfellow had surprise on his side, and managed to deliver a crushing blow across the Moorbeast's face. It shattered teeth and could have stopped a cannon ball, but the Moorbeast did not break.
The werewolf reared up, its claws poised to tear Mr. Greenfellow in half. Felix felt his heart rise in his chest, and his throat grow cold. "Mr. Greenfellow!" he shouted, breaking free of Icarus's grip in an attempt to save his friend.
But the Moorbeast was already slamming down its claw in Greenfellow's face. The claws cut through the claw surface of Mr. Greenfellow's head, and would have split the homunculus's head in twain, if the Darby Deadeye and Blue-Skin Bill had not unleashed another salvo of musket fire. This time, their gunshots knocked the Moorbeast onto its back, causing it to howl in pure pain. The beast came to its feet and began to run away, bounding down the muddy street of the Nameless Village and disappearing back into the mist.
Felix watched it go and then ran to Mr. Greenfellow's side. The homunculus still stood tall and strong, but he was not moving. Dr. Swift joined Felix, and reached into his cloak. "Do not worry," he said, producing a small leathern pouch and opening it to reveal a ball of claw. He carefully patted it over Mr. Greenfellow's wounds. "I am prepared to care for my coachman."
Darby Deadeye regarded Mr. Greenfellow. "So, he'll be well then?"
"I certainly hope so," Icarus said, stepping back to examine his handiwork. Felix watched in rapt silence, staring at Mr. Greenfellow's oval eyes. Slowly, their characteristic shimmer returned and Felix breathed a sigh of relief.
"Thank heavens," he whispered. "Thank God you're all right, Mr. Greenfellow."
"I'd thank God that we're all not torn limb from limb and resting in that beastie's gullet," Blue-Skin Bill muttered. "He was one nasty little bugger, and no mistake. I don't think the silver bullets caused him more damage than a flea's bite. You got any idea why, Master Doctor?"
Swift considered it. "The theory that silver affects werewolves belongs more to Central European tradition of battling mountain spirits than anything else. And I doubt that is what we are dealing with." He drew out his rapier with a flourish and examined the runes on the blade. "I think we may have more luck with this."
Before they could discuss their further plans, the three leaders of the smuggler gangs came running down the muddy street. Cruel Copinger came first, and he wore his collar high and his tricorne low. Cestus Quested followed, adjusting his wooden wolf-mask. Finally, Dick Rattenbury joined them. All of them seemed a little guilty, and looked away from the mangled corpses of the smugglers that lay in the muddy street.
"What ghastly business!" Cestus cried. "I've slain my share of excise men and murdered a score of other smugglers, but this is something else." However, his surprise and shock seemed to fade away quickly. "So, did you kill it?"
"Not exactly, Mr. Quested," Darby Deadeye said. "We did wound the blighter and send it running with its tail tucked between its legs, but I am afraid to say—"
"It's still alive and about?" Cestus Quested gulped. "Oh dear god," he whispered. "Perhaps we should flee?"
"We can kill it yet," Dr. Swift said quickly. "Running should be our second to last course of action, somewhere around drinking ourselves into a stupor and waiting for death, I think." He turned to Dick Rattenbury. "But where were you, Mr. Rattenbury, when the Moorbeast arrives?"
"I ran to get help," Rattenbury said. "From some other scarecrows camped around the hills. We had a few falconets and I thought the heavier guns could win us a victory."
"Is that so?" Blue-Skin Bill asked. "Seems like a good excuse for a slippery coward." He turned to Cruel Copinger. "And what about you? Where'd you head off to?"
But Copinger only shrugged and then reached for the handle of his hook. "You want to ask?" he said, and Felix heard his harsh accent, with hints of northern Europe. "Maybe you'll ask after I've torn your stinking head off!"
"Easy, my good man!" Rattenbury said, raising his hands. "There is no need for violence. This problem will be solved." He turned to Icarus. "It will be solved, won't it?"
"That remains to be seen." Dr. Swift looked at Mr. Greenfellow. "Fetch the carriage," he said. "We shall take a trip to the coast."
Within the hour they had set off, Dr. Swift, Admiral and Felix riding within the coach, Mr. Greenfellow seated on the perch and Blue-Skin Bill and Darby Deadeye riding alongside on a pair of roan mares. They pounded down the winding dirt road, which snaked every closer to the cold sea. Felix stuck his head out of the window, watching the waves rise and fall against the cliffs. His eyes were peeled for anything out of the ordinary, and he spotted it quickly.
"There, Mr. Swift!" he said, pointing to a rocky beach that jutted out into the roaring seas. "Masts!" Sure enough, the masts of several ships, a veritable ruined fleet, projected up from the beach and stood like lonely trees before the cold sea.
Dr. Swift stuck his own head out of the window and nodded. "That's it," he said. "That's where we'll find the truth." He shouted to Mr. Greenfellow. "Off the road, we go, Greenfellow! Head down to the beach and bring the carriage to a halt! Don't tarry now!"
Mr. Greenfellow turned the carriage off of the road, and it rolled through the rises and falls of the grass, sinking into the occasional pit and splashing through pools of water. Mr. Greenfellow kept the coach, if not steady, than at least upright, and soon had brought to a halt. The two highwaymen followed on their own horses.
All of them dismounted, left the carriage and soon stood on the beach. Darby Deadeye regarded the ruins carefully. He strode forward, walking along the beach and looking at the dark wooden ships, their dragon prows now drooping and dulled by the decay of time. "These were Viking ships?" he asked, as the rest followed him. "They seem most uncomfortable. Not a cushion in sight, I should think."
They all stared at the ruined long ships, their decks and hulls half-buried in the gravelly sand. Dr. Swift moved to one of the exposed hulls and looked at the masts. "They harried the England of old, those fur-clad Northerners," he said. "And the churchman, peasant, king and soldiers feared their striped sails on the horizon."
"It must have been frightful," Felix said. "But how is the Moorebeast related to the Vikings?"
"I am not certain of it," Dr. Swift said. "Young Felix, clamber up there and then help me onto the deck. We shall see if it is as I thought."
Felix ran to the side of the hull and looked for a foothold in the pitted and ancient wood. He quickly selected a course and started to climb. After a few failed attempts sent him falling back into the gray gravel of the beach, he reached the hull. He knelt down and offered his hand to Icarus, who scrambled atop the deck.
They walked over to the mast and Dr. Swift nodded. "Yes," he said, pointing at the mask. "What do you see there?"
It looked like the mast had somehow sprouted a small covering of dark brown moss, soaked thoroughly by sea spray. "Some kind of fur?" Felix asked.
"Bear's fur. The makings of a shirt – a bear-shirt that would be worn by the Viking Berserkers in combat." Dr. Swift leaned on his cane, talking as grandly as if he was a lecturer in Oxford. "These Berserkers were reported to fall into a most bestial rage in the midst of battle. Supposedly, once they had entered the Berserker Rage, none could stand against them. It was originally believed that they transformed when they were in battle."
"Transformed?" Felix asked. "Into animals?"
"Indeed," Icarus said. "And that means the Moorbeast is no werewolf, not ordinary fellow transformed by a wolf's bite and left with a deadly curse, who can be slain by a simple silver ball."
"He's a Viking berserker," Felix said, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. "But how did he stay alive so long?"
"Slipped between his wolfish form and his human form," Icarus said. "Moving from community to community, indulging his animal hunger when possible, spawning countless legends of deadly black hounds throughout the coastal countryside. I'm amazed I didn't think of this before."
"Dr. Swift!" The gruff voice of Blue-Skin distracted them. They ran to the edge of the deck and looked down, only to step back in fear and surprise. The water was moving, churning like it was boiling – or full of swimmers.
Skeletal hands reached out from the water, followed by skulls in horned helmets and the long swords and axes of the Vikings. The dead Vikings were in deep states of decay, often little more than seaweed, padded armor and chainmail draped over waterlogged bones. Dr. Swift stared down at them and narrowed his eyes.
"Ah," he said. "I rather feared this would happen."
"What?" Felix asked in surprise and terror. "What are they?"
"Draugr," Icarus explained. "Norse warriors, kept alive long after death by blinding hate." He drew out his rapier and the sun gleamed on the runes inscribed on the blade. "This will be…an interesting experimenting."
Before Felix could respond, the Draugr were upon them. They swung down axes and blades, moving in slow lurches and jerks. But Icarus Swift met them with his staff in one hand and his rapier in the other. He bashed open a skull with his cane, then swung it around to knock another Draugr off of the boat's side. Below them, the two highwaymen engaged the Draugr, blasting through rotted bones with musket and pistol, then bashing them down with cutlasses and clubs.
One Draugr grabbed Felix's collar and hauled the boy into the air. Felix stared in the gaping eye-holes of the Draugr's skull, then saw the double-bladed axe pulling back to divide his head. But Icarus Swift was quick to act, driving his rapier across the Draugr's skeletal neck. The blade cut effortlessly through the bone and the skeleton's head soared through the air, landing with a splash in the far water.
"What?" Felix asked, reporting his earlier confused word. "Oh dear, Master Doctor Swift, what is in your sword?"
Swift turned to face the Draugr. "Pan's Piss, boy! No time to talk now!" He swung his blade down, slashing the limbs off of the Draugr and forcing them back. "But if you must know, it is forged from various metals found in the far north. Some of them were rumored to forge Thor's hammer, Mjolnir. They find a new employment in my hands." He ran through a Draugr, and used his good leg to kick away the skeleton.
Felix lay on the deck and looked up at the hills. Something caught his gaze and held it. The boy sat up and his eyes widened as he saw what stood atop one of the surrounding hills, watching the beach with its remaining red eye. The Moorbeast had returned.
"Dr. Swift!" Felix called. "It's here! The Moorbeast is here for us!"
A quick glance from Icarus confirmed Felix's fear. "So it is," he said. "Right. Young Felix, I am going to entrust you to do something very dangerous that will ensure our victory. Will you be agreeable to it?"
"Yes, sir," Felix said, without hesitation. "What would you like me to do?"
"Draw the Moorbeast away from us, make your way to the coach and have Mr. Greenfellow take you back to the nameless village. Once you have hastened there, fetch all the help can and return." Icarus dodged another Draugr's blade and lashed out with his own sword. "And please hurry," he added.
"Very well," Felix said. He paused and looked at the shore, now swarming with Draugr, and the coach beyond. "But how am I to get down to the coach?"
Icarus considered it, and then nodded his head. "I have a solution," he said, and with his free hand grabbed Felix's arm. He lifted the boy up and tossed him into the ocean. Felix was too surprised to protest, and by the time he realized what was happening, he was splashing into the cold gray sea. He splashed around as the cold struck his skin like a physical blow, and then struggled to stay afloat.
Salt water filled his eyes, mouth and nose. He floundered about with his arms, and made it to the surface. Felix gulped in the air, and tried to get his bearings. He saw the sunken half of the Viking long ship, half in the water and half on the beach, lying directly in front of him. The Draugr were there too. Then Felix felt a bony hand grasp his leg.
Once again he fell under the surface of the water. He looked down to see another Viking Draugr, trying to pull him down to join their dead ranks. Felix kicked out madly, slamming a buckled show against the skeletal arm. The bone shattered, and he swam away furiously as he tried to end his panic. He made it around the other side of the ship, up to the shore and then onto the beach.
There weren't many Draugr about on the long ship's far side, but the Moorbeast, the Berserker, was still about. Felix lay on the ground for a few seconds, trying to catch his breath and stop shivering. He gritted his teeth and forced his head to look upwards, only to stare at Cruel Copinger.
"Took a little tumble?" Copinger asked.
Felix stared at him in silence.
"Here now, I'll see you back to the village, safe and sound," Copinger said, offering his hand. "Come on, boy. I'll summon all the smugglers to help your friends out around these skeleton fellows. But let's get you to safety first of all."
Felix simply shook his head, looking straight at Copinger's bloody, gouged out eye. "You're the Moorbeast," Felix said, coming to his feet. "Your accent, your actions – all of it matches. You're the Berserker."
Copinger nodded. "And left with no more battles to fight. So I tried to start one, picking off the smugglers to cause a war between the Scarecrows, the Roaring Ransleys and the Red-Handed Men of Kent. It didn't work." He sighed. "But now, I suppose I'm heading towards one of the largest battles of my long life – and my last. A fitting end."
Suddenly, Felix darted forward. He ran past Copinger, his soaked buckled shoes pounding on the beach as he ran for the green fields and the coach. Behind him, he heard Copinger's hacking laugh become a low growl, and then an earsplitting howl. When he chanced to look over his shoulder, he saw the Moorbeast pounded on clawed feet after him.
He saw the carriage, knowing that the Moorbeast would soon be upon him. But then the carriage was rolling towards him, and Felix saw Admiral looking out of the window, roaring back at the Moorbeast and Mr. Greenfellow cracking the whip like some mad quartermaster. The coach sped towards him, and Admiral leaned out and swept up Felix between his paws.
The bear tossed Felix in one of the seats, and then roared out of the window. Felix looked out again to see the Moorbeast close behind, but the donkeys were now galloping at full speed and the coach was gaining. "Yes, Mr. Greenfellow!" Felix shouted. "Come on! We can beat this beast!"
The door slapped open and closed as the carriage rolled along, and Felix reached out to slam it shut. He looked out the window and saw the nameless village drawing closer, but then the coach gave a dreadful lurch. Something heavy had landed on the roof of the carriage, and then the coach's ceiling ruptured. Felix covered his eyes before looking up.
The Moorbeast had landed on the top of the carriage and was smashing down with his claws, driving through the flimsy wooden roof in an effort to tear apart Felix. Mr. Greenfellow held the reins with one hand and swung his fist into the Moorbeast's face, while Felix dove out of the way of the Moorbeast's grasping claw. The carriage slowed as Mr. Greenfellow lost his grip of the reins and Felix wondered how long they could hold him. He doubted it would last long.
But then the Moorbeast was howling in pain as an explosion slammed into his chest and knocked him off the carriage. He tumbled to the ground, then sprang up and started running. Felix looked up and saw the three smugglers gangs standing in front of them, most of them on horseback. They had brought a few wagons along, and armed them with falconets.
Rattenbury rode forward on his horse, cantering over to the battered carriage. "Dr. Swift?" he asked, and then noticed the carriage was empty. "Oh. It is just you. Where is your master?"
Felix stood up and wiped the sea water and splinters from his dark hair. "He's stuck at the beach by the abandoned Viking ships," he said. "Battling the animated skeletons of dead Viking warriors. It would be wonderful if you could come and help him."
Rattenbury and Quested exchanged a glance. "What about him?" Rattenbury asked, pointing to the Moorbeast. The creature lay on its side, momentarily stunned by being blasted with a falconet ball. But it was already recovering, scratching the earth, emitting harsh growls, and snapping its jaws together with a sound like a blacksmith striking his anvil.
"He can follow us," Felix suggested. He looked up at Mr. Greenfellow. "Please, Mr. Greenfellow, could you lead them back to the beach?"
Greenfellow's great round head nodded. He grabbed the reins and started the donkeys at a gallop, then turned the carriage around. They rolled back onto the road and headed back towards the beach. The smugglers followed them, their horses and wagons moving at a spirited charge. Felix sat in the corner of the nearly broken carriage, wondering if Dr. Swift, Blue-Skin Bill and Darby Deadeye had survived.
He realized that he cared for Swift, and feared any harm coming to his master. It was a strange revelation, as Dr. Swift had just recently tossed him in the ocean, without any knowledge that he could swim. But he remembered the courage Swift showed in facing the enemy, and the sheer sadness he carried with him, and made up his mind to succeed. He looked out the window and saw the beach drawing near, wondering if it was not too late.
He saw Dr. Swift standing in the sand, along with the two highwaymen. All three men were extremely winded and shaking on their feet, but they were still fighting. Their smoking muskets and pistols lay dropped on the ground, and they battled the Draugr with what they had left. Master Doctor Icarus Swift continued to cut a blazing swath through the Draugr with his sword, while Darby Deadeye crashed their skulls open with musket butt, and Blue-Skin Bill hacked at them with a pair of sabers.
Dick Rattenbury nodded to his men as they leveled their falconets at the Draugr. "Shall you do the honors?" he asked Quested.
"Well, I'd prefer if you did it, actually," Cestus Quested said, his wooden wolf mask looking away. "I've been rather ashamed by the way I've been acting you see, and I rather think that—"
"Just fire the guns!" Felix shouted.
Rattenbury nodded. "Fire!" he ordered, and the falconets thundered a volley into the Draugr. The heavy shot tore the skeletons to pieces, sending broken chunks of armor and burned bones flying through the air. The beleaguered highwaymen and Swift ran forward, and Swift bowed his head in thanks.
"I see you managed to send word of my plight," he told Felix. He looked at the carriage. "But I also see that you did not take very good care of my carriage."
"I'm sorry, sir," Felix said. "But the Moorbeast tore it off."
"Oh." Dr. Swift grabbed his fallen cane and leaned on it. Felix noticed that Icarus Swift bore several wounds, some of them deep and bleeding. "And were is the Moorbeast?"
"Well, it's Cruel Copinger, sir. He was really the Viking berserker. He's coming this way soon, Dr. Swift." From behind him, Felix heard the long, almost mournful howl of the Moorbeast. He turned around and saw the Moorbeast bounding forward. Its wounds remained, but they did not seem to slow the beast down. "He wants a last battle, sir. That's all he wants."
Dr. Swift sighed as he held up his sword. "Well, I suppose I'll give it to him, then." He walked forward, past the carriage and the smugglers, and into the path of the oncoming Moorbeast. He raised his sword. "This will finish you!" he shouted. "And isn't that what you really want?"
The Moorbeast leapt forward, claws outstretched and Swift struck at it. He blade entered the Moorbeast under its neck, burying itself to the hilt in the dark flesh of the creature. The Moorbeast's charge ended as it slumped downwards and Icarus pulled the sword out and looked at the blood. It had soaked the blade thoroughly, except for the runes. Those ancient letters still gleamed as brightly as ever.
As they all watched the Moorbeast shrank and contracted, the fur falling away in a cloud of mist. When it was finally finished, there was nothing but Cruel Copinger's body, with a bleeding hole through the neck.
Dr. Swift looked down at the corpse. "Your battle is finished," he said, and then pitched forward into unconciounsess.
Mr. Greenfellow and Felix ran to help him. Greenfellow picked him up, cradling the natural doctor in his large hands. Felix looked at Greenfellow. The homunculus looked over the body and then nodded his head in relief.
"He'll be all right, then?" Felix asked.
Greenfellow nodded again.
"Oh thank god," Felix said. He looked down at Copinger as all the smugglers stepped forward to get a look at the body. "Do you think he was happy? At the end, I mean. He seemed rather sad when I met him, and I suppose he had a reason for it. After all, he was a man living out of his time."
Mr. Greenfellow merely shrugged.