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Excerpt: A Matter of Honor


Note: This story is a paranormal historical mystery.

London, 1820

“You are a drunken lout,” my brother, Sir Frederick Archer, shouted at me in his fog-gloomed sitting room in Berkeley Square the Michaelmas after the drohner had disappeared. “Gin-soaked and pox-brained. What luck that Bonaparte has been defeated at last—I wager the King’s army would not take you now.”

“I do not have the pox,” I said with dignity. Alas, my words slurred, because I was, as accused, gin-soaked.

Margery, his wife, cringed in a chair by the window, pretending interest in her needlework. She had the complexion of a tallow candle, her hair a golden color those with very fair hair in youth sometimes acquired.

I, Robert Archer, the younger brother, had paid a call on her, my dear sister-in-law, to ask if she could spare a few shillings until my next pay packet. But my brother had come upon us before I was able to make my request and had taken the opportunity to lecture.

When he paused for breath, I said, “You are angry, and blame me for losing the drohner. I did not steal the bloody thing.” But I’d had it in my care when it had vanished three months ago, and that thought haunted me every moment of every day. The drohner was shared between family members, passing from house to house. It had been in mine when it went missing.

“You displayed it,” Frederick snapped. “In your front room to your drunken friends—dear God. You broke a sacred family trust.”

“It is not unique.” I made the excuse I’d been making since the thing had gone. “My friends had seen one before—every gentleman’s family has one. None are secret, for all they’re locked away like the crown jewels.” The speech taxed my sodden brain, and I dropped to the nearest chair, my legs too shaky to hold me. 

“Even the king has one, Frederick,” Margery said timidly.

My brother swung on his wife, dark eyes ablaze. “What he has is false, created on a pretense to make his family seem more connected to English ones. Ours had the lines, the power, the magic of our ancestors for seven hundred years. Now gone. Because of his carelessness.”

He thrust a finger at me. Behind him, Margery gave me a helpless look from her light brown eyes, which I returned. We both writhed under my brother’s thumb. Frederick had been a strong, muscular man—now he was running to fat, his face round and red, his brown hair lank. I’d look like him before long unless I had a care. At the same time his waistcoat and frock coat hung in loose folds on him as though he’d lost weight since the drohner had gone, his breeches wrinkled about his knees. 

“And he has made no effort to retrieve it,” Frederick carried on. “Three months since it has gone, and he has done nothing. He is not fit to belong to our family. I do not even know why you are here, Robert.”

I did not tell him I’d come for money. Margery had enough misery without her husband knowing she occasionally let me touch her for blunt. 

I pried myself out of the chair, said polite good-byes to Margery, and escaped the house. But I had left empty-handed. 

I’d have to sell my commission, I reflected as I walked along the rain-soaked pavement of Berkeley Square. Night had fallen, and the golden smudge of gaslights behind the fog did little to light the way. 

I had hung onto my commission in part to annoy my brother but mostly because it meant something to me. A lieutenant’s pay did not carry far, and my father had left me nothing. My brother had inherited everything—the baronetcy, land, money, houses—but my father hadn’t felt any obligation to provide for his younger son. I had nothing but my pay packet, meager as it was, and my rank, my own form of honor.

But my brother was wrong. I had been searching for the drohner. I cared as much for it as did Frederick, and I bled with guilt. Frederick was right—I should have looked after the bloody thing better.

A drohner, in its most basic sense, is a square of polished black stone, pretty to look upon, but it is much more than that. Every drohner holds its family’s power. Every son puts his hand on his family’s drohner the day of his majority and swears to protect it. Every dying man holds it between his hands, giving to it his magics to carry to the next generation. The drohner was kept in a place of pride in the household, hidden from all eyes but the family’s, and its magic protected the family and gave it honor.

Other families, old and powerful ones, had lost drohners or had seen them destroyed by their enemies. Those families had dwindled, faded into nothingness. I wondered how much time would pass before our family suffered the same fate. 

Margery, in her ten-year marriage to Frederick, had been brought to bed of one child, stillborn, and had borne no more. Frederick made her feel it keenly. And I, unmarried, childless—as far as I knew—stumbled through the streets of London without tuppence in my pocket.

Which is why the attack surprised me. Why should ruffians bother to rob me?

I heard the swift tramp of feet, then a heavy blow landed on the back of my neck—not a fist, a cosh. My legs buckled and the pavement rose up to knock the wind from me. The owner of a huge boot kicked me in the ribs. Another kick, from a smaller boot but no less painful, landed on the small of my back. A pair of beefy hands shoved my face to the cobbles, and fists pummeled me. Blood spattered from my parted lips as I tried to explain I had no money, no watch, nothing.

Abruptly the boot vanished from my back, the hands from my neck. I took a long breath, blood clogging my nose. I raised my head, but blackness danced before me, and I fell, hard, to the pavement again.

I awoke, facedown in my own bed. My head throbbed, my tongue lay like lead in my mouth.

Another drunken binge, I decided. Then I saw that my hands, which were wrapped in bandages, lay on either side of my head like leprous slugs.

The clink of glass on glass came to me. I turned my head to see, in the light of a lone candle, a slim woman pouring liquid from a decanter into a glass. I prayed it was brandy.

The woman had blond hair, a deeper golden than her high-waisted gown, wound into a heavy braid on the crown of her head. Her eyes were dark, nearly black. Otherwise, she was ordinary, with a face pretty but not extraordinarily so, a trim figure, not heavily buxom. Her dress was cotton, floating lace, clean and mended.

In outward appearance, she looked like a woman I might brush by in the street or see in the markets or at Exeter ’Change. But her eyes, deep and black, the irises swallowing her pupils, betrayed her. I would never in my life forget those haunted eyes I’d seen a few years ago as she’d implored me, from behind a pile of crates, to take her child from her and go.

I forced open my dry lips. “You.”

She came to me and slipped a long-fingered hand under my head. Alas, the glass held only water. I drank deeply, suddenly burning with thirst.

“You did me a good turn once,” she said. “I vowed to do you one, if I could.”

Her voice was smooth, still with calm. Quite unlike the terrified tremor it had held that night in Covent Garden.

I’d only been half-drunk that night. She’d crouched in the shadows, blood all over her gown, and she’d thrust the squalling bundle at me. “Please, take her. Take her far away.”

I’d stared stupidly at the screwed up face and closed eyes, the pink lips drawn back from gums in a silent cry of hunger. 

“Where on earth am I to take her?”

She’d only looked at me as she laid the bundle in my arms, her eyes pools of terror. I’d assumed her a game girl, gotten with child by some flat, hiding in the corner for her lying-in. Her desperation stabbed me so deep that I had to look away to shut it out.

The babe had squirmed, its mouth seeking nourishment in the faded braid of my uniform. When I’d looked back for the young woman, she’d vanished into the shadows, leaving me alone with her child.

I’d taken the babe to a woman called Lizzie in St. Martin’s Lane. She’d been a wet nurse and had a healthy brood of her own. Without questioning me, she’d taken the bundle into her competent hands and sent her oldest boy scurrying away to find a girl she knew who’d just birthed. The son returned with the bleary-eyed girl in tow, and soon the tiny life was happily suckling at her bosom.

Lizzie and I had then stolen a few moments together in the cellar while her husband snored on in the kitchen surrounded by the fruit of his loins. From time to time, during the last year or two, I’d followed my curiosity back to the house where the babe still lived, adopted by the large-hearted Lizzie into her own ample family.

I finished the water, and she lowered me down on my stomach again. I’d been far too tired to turn over, even to drink.

“Did you bring me home by yourself?” I croaked at her. I hardly thought it likely. She looked much better than when I’d last seen her, her cheeks pale but not deathly so, her gown whole and unstained, her movements competent and easy. Robust, yes, but not robust enough to carry me here without help.

She set the empty glass on my bedside table. “I did, yes.”

I looked at her slim arms and tried to smile. “You couldn’t drag a cat home, miss, let alone a drunken lieutenant no better than he ought to be.”

Her hand landed with a suddenness on my neck, and she pinned me to the bed with hideous strength. My face smashed into the ticking and I could not draw breath.

“Had you not guessed?” she asked.

Watery fear washed my bones. I struggled against the pressure on my neck, which was no more use than struggling against an oak tree. Once on a battlefield in Portugal, a French soldier had risen from the scrub not three feet from me and pointed his pistol at my forehead. I’d stared into that round, black barrel of oblivion and smelled death. 

Upon firing, the pistol had kicked faintly to the left, and the ball had whizzed by my ear. The French soldier had cursed mightily then died with my sergeant’s bayonet in his stomach.

That fear was nothing to what I felt now. 

She was a night-slayer. They crawled London’s seedy darkness late at night, feeding on the blood of the helpless, the lone wayfarer, those who had nowhere to turn. They took the old, the young, the healthy, the sick, all without discrimination. They’d infested the city from time to time in the past, until the terror-stricken citizenry had demanded they be rooted out. The last infestation had been in 1750, when a pack had descended into St. Giles and ruled there until the King’s army had been sent to drive them away. There had been no infestation since then—nearly seventy years ago now—though reports from time to time of night-slayer-like killings had led to panic and every Bow Street Runner brought in to hunt the slayer.

Night-slayers did not die, except from starvation. They shunned the light, but it did not harm them. They were vermin, skulking in the night and shadows like rats, but they could also look like ordinary people—a game girl, a beggar, a lamp-lighter, or a blond young woman who’d saved me from robbery tonight.

“Are you going to kill me?” I asked, my voice weak with fear.

She released me so abruptly that I slumped into the ticking, spent and exhausted. 

“I could have killed you where you lay in the street,” she said. “I did not.”

I turned my head to stare at her, then a thought struck me. “God’s truth, that child was not a night-slayer, was it?” I had given it to Lizzie and her family—what had I done?

She looked, to my surprise, amused. “Night-slayers are made, not born. She is as alive as you are. Why do you think I begged you to take her away? I did not wish to harm her in my hunger. I still have a heart that feels and grieves.” She pinned me with her hard gaze. “Is she safe?”

“Yes. I took her to—”

“I know where you took her. Is she well?”

I nodded into the mattress. “She is. She has seven brothers and sisters and cream and porridge every day. She was walking the last time I saw her.”

Tears shone in the dark eyes for a brief instant, but vanished so quickly I might have imagined them. She turned from the bed and started for the door—I realized she was leaving. Just like that, no good-byes, no more conversation.

“Do you have a name?” I called after her.

“No.” At the door, she paused, her hand on the handle. “You are Robert Sebastian Archer of the 26th Rifles. In number 24, Exeter Street, Covent Garden.”

And then she was gone.

I lay on my bed, immobile, my head pounding and my limbs aching. I did not stop shaking for a long time.

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