In the late winter evening, the wind blew fiercely across the small barracked town, and Mr (Cillian) and Mrs Briggs (Phoenix) arrived at Bridgewater shuddering with cold.
‘Doesn’t look like much, does it?’ a thin lazy voice escaped Phoenix’s transformed throat and she was suddenly taken aback by surprise at hearing another woman’s voice escape her. She regained her faltering confidence and peered through the deepening twilight. A rickety wooden board the size of a wagon wheel swung unhealthily from rusty hooks dug into an old oak tree at the town’s entrance. A dark bluish writing on it read, ‘Welcome to Bridgewater: The Home of world-famous Honey Mead’.
The board creaked in the wind and Phoenix turned to Cillian seated on the buggy next to her. He was a slim man with ginger hair slickly combed with a side partition. His dazzling ice-blue eyes replaced by the dull grey of the man whose identity he’d stolen not long ago. An almost completely joint mono-brow adorned the freckled face.
He smiled awkwardly at her, straightened his double-breasted jacket and tightened the brown woollen scarf around his long thin neck. Cillian leaned forward and tapped the hulk of a buggy-man on his thick shoulder. ‘Mr Drake,’ he spoke loudly making sure he could be heard above the wind’s howling. ‘Shall we get out of this worsening weather? The missus and I need to find ourselves suitable accommodation before the curfew.’
The man nodded and grunted shortly. He pulled at the reins and the mahogany coloured horse slowly tottered towards the town gateway. When the buggy entered the deserted main street Phoenix turned and leaned in closer to Cillian. ‘How will we recognise Dean?’ she whispered, not daring to raise the pitchy voice even a fraction shall the buggy-man hear.
Cillian stiffened on his seat. The broad man was craning his neck subtly to hear what they were talking about. Phoenix, understanding his silence turned straight ahead and stared out into the sparsely lit streets.
The buggy turned left into a long narrow street lined with taverns, bars, hotels and grim-looking motels. Suddenly the deep grumbling voice jolted their penance, causing both Cillian and Phoenix jumped on their seats.
‘You two should really be careful what you say in this town, regardless of how much the board made you feel welcomed.’ The driver turned and narrowed his eyes at them. ‘Going around mentioning names…’ The man’s dark hair and bristly face intimidating to the teenagers who were seated on passenger seats wearing adult bodies. His large beady eyes stared at them. Then a slight smile spread across his rough face. ‘So, you two are husband and wife now?’ he enquired smoothly.
‘Wha-what do you mean to say by that?’ Cillian’s equally deep voice rumbled out uncertainly.
The man shook his head. ‘I recommend that you try your luck at the Bridgewater Inn. They usually have a couple of rooms available in emergency and for stranded folks such as you.’ With that he turned around to this horse and pulled at the reins, the buggy came to a shuffled halt.
Mr Drake turned around again and watched Cillian jump off the buggy and extend a hand to Phoenix. Once she was standing next to him, Cillian pulled out a small draw-string leather bag. It chinked of metal. ‘How much do we owe you for your service?’
‘Oh no, just get ‘ye old lady safely inside’ the man winked cheekily. ‘Not the best of times ter go about on a stroll mind ‘yer.’ With that he picked up the reins and tugged it. The horse tottered, and Mr Drake turned the buggy around with quite ease in the narrow cobalt street. Once the buggy was facing the way they’d entered the street, the large man touched the rim of his wide, worn hat. ‘Good evening’ and with that he headed off down the street, whistling a tune soon drowned by the howling of the wind.
Cillian heaved a great sigh and held Phoenix by the small of her back. It was odd to do so. The woman beside him resembled nothing that were any features he so admired. This woman, or rather Phoenix assuming another body, was a built woman. Her hair was raven-dark and escaped untidily from the tight bun behind the head. Her eyes pitch black. It was only when she smile that he felt he was still with Phoenix; this woman’s eyes danced just like his friend’s. He picked up the small trunk with his other hand.
‘Shall we head in?’ she asked in the shrilly voice. He nodded and held open the wooden door while keeping an eye on the empty street. Curfew seemed to have voluntarily started an hour early -not a soul lingered in the dark, sodden streets. What that should tell one about a town, he wondered. Several wooden boards the likes of the one they’d past at the town gate creaked chillingly, battling the fierce wind.
He looked at the end of the street where the horse-drawn buggy had only moments ago vanished. It was not a welcome event for them to have gotten a free ride. Had the man heard them whisper? Had he heard Dean’s name? They needed to be more careful than this. Leroy would be extremely disappointed if they blew their cover so early on.
Cillian turned back to the door and stepped in, breathing in the warm stale smell of soggy clothes and wine. It was a rather humble gathering. A glowing fire blazed in a giant pit in the middle of the room. The patrons seated around the various tables and nooks that lined the walls. He peered around at the several heads turned their way. Nervous and uncomfortable, he reached out to Phoenix and led her to an empty booth at the far corner next to the bar.
Phoenix slid into the booth and whispered, barely audible. ‘Are you sure we want to stay here?’
‘Do you know any other place?’ he asked releasing her hand. ‘This will have to do for tonight’ he looked around and saw the unusually tall bar man approach them. His gruff look contrasted by the floral print apron he had on – although filthy.
‘What can I do for you folks?’ the barman spoke with an uncomfortably forced smile that revealed his rotting teeth. Regardless of his welcoming question, his tone was not so inviting.
Cillian turned stiffly, half hiding Phoenix as if to protect her. ‘Err…me and my wife; we were wondering if you had any accommodation available for the night?’ He couldn’t avoid a nervous swallow. He stood to the height the body allowed. To his surprise he almost met the eyes of the barman who was still considering the enquiry.
‘Then, would you know any other inns we could possibly try?’ Cillian asked sensing all the eyes drift to their dark corner. All eyes searching out Phoenix.
‘Once you’re in, you can’t leave’ a doleful voice bellowed from beyond the wooden pillar a foot away.
Cillian turned hastily. ‘What do you mean to say by that sir?’ his tone rather choppy.
The barman huffed and flung the filthy cloth he had been clutching over his narrow shoulder. ‘What Mr Coote, means…’ he turned and smiled at the shadowed man. His yellow teeth not doing him any favours, ‘is that once the lanterns get turned on out there-‘ his hand pointed to the entrance of the inn, ‘no one is safe prowling the night street. Or haven’t ‘ye heard?’ The man shifted his weight and craned his neck to look at Phoenix cowering slightly in the back of the booth. ‘Ain’t no-one safe out there. These days’ nights don’t exactly belong to us, now does it folks?’ he asked the house yet his gaze never faltered from Phoenix’s anxious face.
Cillian too shifted his weight and again, partially blocked Phoenix from the man’s glaring eyes. The barman sneered disapproving. ‘I suspect you’d want some food, too? He spat.
‘That’s right’ Cillian answered shortly.
‘Then you order with my missus…’ the man stepped forward and for a moment Cillian plunged his hand into his jacket’s pocket. Searching for the pocket knife
The barman dismissed this. He’d seen better threats – after all, he owned the inn. How many drunken patrons had tried to have a go at him? He walked around the ginger head man and leaned on the table. A short gasp escaped the raven-haired Phoenix for no reason. He ignored her too. He reached to the far end of the table, pulling out an old candle stick from the deep shadows. He mumbled under his breath cradling the wick. A moment later it flickered to life.
Phoenix let out another thin gasp and the man turned this time. His grisly face now only a foot away from her. His stale breath invaded the air around her. He considered her for a while and then stood back up. ‘You can blow it out if you wish’ contempt laced his voice.
He straightened up and pulled off the cloth from his shoulder. He raised his other hand and snapped his fingers. A torn piece of waxy parchment appeared before Phoenix, then unfurled. She had noticed a roll of paper (presumably the menu) vanish from atop a wooden bowl on the bar the same time as the paper appeared in front of her.
‘I’ll see what I can do about the accommodation’ the barman walked back to his bar and the waiting patrons. ‘But this ain’t a palace for no ruddy princess’ he mumbled loud enough for them to hear.
‘Right’ Cillian whispered under his breath, turned back to the booth and slid himself opposite from Phoenix. He sighed and took off the floppy cap from his greying head and laid it beside him on the table.
It was almost fifteen minutes before they were attended to again. This time a young man, who looked to be their age, fifteen if not for their bodies, approached them. His mousy hair stuck out in all direction, and a little limp accommodated his walk. The boy cleared his throat, his two hands twitching together.
‘What can I get for you?’ His voice suited his mouse-like appearance. He wiped his runny nose on his filthy rag-like sleeves at which Phoenix nearly gagged. Cillian immediately put a hand on top of hers and grabbed the waxy parchment with another. He peered at it. Thin silver ink glistened yellow against the warm glow of the candlelight as if the light itself was searing in the text.
Nothing seemed to jump out at him as edible food so he lay the menu back down and stared at the boy. ‘Just two house specials will do fine.’
The boy let out a soft cackle before composing himself again. ‘What about to drink?’
‘Two mugs of Honey Mead’ Cillian answered as he watched the boy swipe at his nose again. ‘That’ll be all, thank you.’
‘Right you are. Right you are.’ The boy mumbled and scuttled away, disappearing through a pair of swing doors at the other end of the bar.
‘We’ll find another accommodation tomorrow’ he answered Phoenix’s worried look. He took out the pocket watch from his breast pocket and looked at the little hands shift in the glass cage. He sighed and placed it back. When were they to be contacted by Dean, he couldn’t quite remember. Too many things had happened that changed the plans, and now, Leroy had decided to disappear. He caught Phoenix looking at him and smiled weakly.
‘Why did that man refuse to be paid?’ Phoenix whispered as she took off the hooded cape she’d been wearing. Suddenly the bun came undone and the silky raven-coloured hair tousled down past her shoulder and touched the seat on which she sat. ‘I hate this hair’ she mumbled and gathered it into a bun again.
‘I don’t suppose he -‘ Cillian started only to be cut off by her.’
‘Don’t be silly. I could barely hear myself. I’m not stupid Ci…’ her eyes flew open and she clasped her mouth, shaking her head in horror.
It was another few minute before the kitchen-hand appeared again, struggling. Two steaming bowls laden atop a crooked wooden tray that was obviously quite heavy by itself was being brought over. He practically dropped the tray onto the table with a loud thud, sending the soup spilling and splashing.
A drop or two hit Phoenix’s lips. It tasted like sugared seafood with a bit of herbs and something dense like animal fat floated innocently around the brim of the bowls. Although famished beyond words, she couldn’t imagine eating something as disgusting as that. She was however glad to see a couple of bread rolls on the side.
The boy vanished to the bar and brought back two giant mugs of Honey Mead and plonked that too on the table. He smiled expectantly at the elder couple who forced a smile on their faces.
‘Enjoy then’ and the boy vanished behind the swinging doors again.
Cillian grabbed a mug of mead and thirstily drank half its content before he looked at Phoenix picking away at a bread roll, then pretending to be dunking it in the soup for fear the barman might tell her off. He chuckled innocently before reaching for his own bowl of soup and bread.
Phoenix watched him make a gallant effort at eating the food they’d accidentally ordered. He was able to eat a quarter of it with the help of the bread before he washed down the awful taste with the sweet mead. He couldn’t eat anymore even if someone paid him a ton. He wiped away the few drops from his lips with his handkerchief.
It was only then that the barman approached them. ‘That’ll be two silver pellets’. He collected the bowls and the mugs on the heavy tray again. Then he turned to Cillian and held out a small brass key. ‘And here you are Mr -‘ he stopped short and examined the middle-aged man seated before him in the dimly lit booth.
‘Hector Briggs’ Cillian offered.
‘Briggs’ the barman repeated. ‘Ain’t never heard of Briggs before’ he finally said.
‘Well, we’re travelling, so no; we’re not from these parts’ Cillian answered.
The man nodded with pursed lips. ‘Why be you travelling then? Ain’t really a holiday season…’
‘We’re looking for our son’ Phoenix quickly said before Cillian’s hesitation could give anything away. ‘He’s gone missing for a month now’ she deliberately cracked her voice and hid her face in the palm of her hands.
Cillian reached out and gently patted her hand. ‘There, there, get a hold of yourself Gail, for all we know, he’s lost his way back home.’ He added and could sense the uneasiness take over the barman who shifted on his impatient feet.
The barman cleared his throat. ‘Two silvers, and you’re to have room thirteen, it’s only just been vacated.’
‘Yes of course’ Cillian nodded and fished out his leather pouch from which he took out two silver pellets and handed it over to the man who obviously was the land lord. In turn, he took the key and slipped out of the booth. ‘If you’ll do us one more favour sir,’ he watched Phoenix slide out, ‘we wish to retire ourselves. It’s been a long day of travel.’
‘Portly’ the man called out and the kitchen-hand rushed out of those swinging double doors again. ‘Show these folks to their chamber’ and with that he walked off. By now the bar and the diner were almost empty.
‘This way please’ the boy said grabbing the trunk from the floor and almost immediately dropping it back down.
‘Let me handle this young man,’ Cillian said scoping down and taking the trunk from the struggling, mal-nutritioned boy, whose calling name was ironic, Portly, he had not an ounce of fat on him. ‘You just lead the way.’
They exited the diner and bar through a spiral iron staircase at the side of the inn’s entrance. As they passed the first landing the boy looked down at the couple. His expectant smile forever visible, but Phoenix couldn’t see what he should be so happy about. The poor thing was in filthy rags, and he clearly hadn’t had the privilege of a shower; a certain stale smell of urine wafted down to her and she discreetly covered her nose as she followed behind Cillian.
‘What chamber?’ the boy asked as he reached the second landing.
Cillian brought the key up to his face and stared at the glinting surface. It didn’t have a number on it. ‘I’m sorry, I seem to have missed that information’ he said glaring at the pool of orange glow at the bottom landing.
The boy suddenly thrust his hand against Cillian’s chest and thudded it a couple of times. ‘Give it ‘ere’. Cillian handed the brass key over and watched the boy consider it for a while. ‘Oh, never seen anyone take this room before,’ he smiled yet again. ‘Come, come on, it’s this way, it’s ‘ere at the end of the corridor.’ He broke out into a slow jog.
They passed six doors, three on either side before they reached the door that spelled the end of the narrow corridor. In front, a dark wooden door stood solid in the torch-light that flickered next from a bracket. There was no number upon the door.
Phoenix turned around the corridor at a slow spin. The other six doors all had numbers, seven to twelve, except the door they were to be led through. Suddenly an eerie feeling rose up through her toes and accumulated up in her guts. Something about being given an unnumbered room unsettled her. But then again, Mr Drake, the buggy-man had said that the Bridgewater Inn had a few rooms for emergency. Maybe that was it, yes. The two of them must have merited an emergency. With that thought in mind she calmed down and turned back to face the naked door.
The boy had now managed to unlock the door and had stumbled into the dark room. They heard him moan and grumble in pain as he hit his leg on something, and through gritted teeth he mumbled Lux Lucis several times as he blew at a candle they couldn’t see. Cillian entered the room and approached the boy once his eyes had adjusted to the shadows of the room.
‘Let me’ he said and Phoenix saw his silhouette lean down to the candle, mumble an incantation and blow at the dark wick. A split second later the candle came to life sputtering yellow flame.
The boy gasped and danced briefly. ‘Father never lets me try that out, ain’t practiced enough, me, says I waste time.’ He beamed up at Cillian. ‘You work faster than he…you saw him’ the boy turned around to Phoenix, ‘he took long to light that candle on ‘ye table.’ Portly looked up at Cillian again, admiration brimming up on his innocent eyes. ‘What incantation ‘ye use sir?’ he asked hesitantly.
Phoenix stiffened up. Cillian had always been the best at any spells and incantations they had learned in the past few years, and frankly, both Dean and she took a lot longer to light a candle than the barman.
Cillian cracked a grin and looked over at the boy. ‘Doesn’t matter what incantation you use. You’re not meant to shout and order; you must always be humble and ask.’ He ruffled the boy’s mousy hair, ‘A little respect can do wonders boy, you simply willing it to light will not suffice.’
He leaned down to the candle and blew it out. ‘Give it a try, but remember, a request, not an order.’
Sure enough, the boy’s tone changed into that of request rather than a demand, and the candle flickered back to life at a pace lot faster than the barman’s.
‘There…you’re a natural, Portly’
‘Thank you sir,’ he smiled ear to ear. Rocking on his heel he held out the key which Cillian took. He turned around and walked towards the door nodding at Phoenix as he passed, then he disappeared behind the door as he shut it.
‘Interesting chap’ she heard Cillian’s voice and turned around to see that he was back to being him-self. The clothes were a lot loose on him now, but his ice-blue eyes were back and his hair was no longer ginger, and had regained a few centimetres of its length. He took off the double-breasted jacket and laid it on the coffee table.
‘I wondered why the man mumbled the room number’ he rounded the table and set about lighting the torch that hung next to the door. The room instantly glowed brighter and the few other torches lit simultaneously around the room. ‘Ah…’comprehension dawned on his chiselled face, ‘they must be networked.’
He ruffled his dark hair longingly as if he’d been parted from it for too long and walked over to her. ‘Mind changing back?’ he asked looking mischievous. ‘Frankly, I’m not entirely comfortable sharing a room with a woman my mother’s age.’
She blinked blankly at him a moment. ‘Oh, yeah’ she smiled, her eyes instantly changing back to amber. ‘Your mother won’t be so happy to hear you say that.’
‘No, she wouldn’t’ a slight hint of longing hung in his voice.
He looked up shaking his head. ‘It’s not fair, not fair’ She watched him sit on the edge of the bed. His head dropped and his usually straight and proud shoulders slouched. Exhausted, he dropped his head in his hands. ‘This is not living’ his voice choked out.
‘It’ll be over soon -‘ Phoenix whispered teary eyed, ‘it has to be.’
Cillian suddenly looked up. His eyes peered at her, a warm glow escaping them. ‘Come here’
Uncertain, she walked around the table and approached him. He rose sloppily and laid a hand on her still built shoulder. He swallowed nervously; her eyes were focused on him, confused. ‘Get out of this stupid body’ he looked once over at her.
She nodded. ‘Turn around. Please, I just don’t feel entirely comfortable.’
Flight of the Phoenix: Prologue