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Raven Willoughby – Origins ~ A Fantasy by Dellani Oakes – Part 20

They did not come in, but seemed to sense the life’s blood pulsing in his veins, for they crowded around outside. The stench was horrendous, the sound of their wheezing, sorrow-filled sighs almost more than he could stand. Knowing these used to be people, perhaps former friends, filled him with regret. He could not, in good conscience, allow them to continue. He felt responsible, as they had come from his own beloved ship. Even had they not, he was uniquely equipped to deal with them, where mere humans could not.

Taking a deep breath, he rose and walked out the back door, coming out into the fenced yard. As if they sensed his movement, the creatures had started ambling sideways. One or two had made the corner of the building, but seemed uncertain how to proceed. There was a low wall, less than four feet tall, but it provided a boundary, of sorts. The half dozen undead crowded forward, each trying to reach him. Limp hands dangled from stiff arms, groping for him.

Uttering a prayer, Raven swung at the reaching hands, lopping them off, one by one. When separated from the body, they shriveled and lay still. The stumps of the arms hissed and smoked. The dead didn’t seem to feel it, but he could see tendrils of black snake up their arms. He took another swing, this time at necks.

One head, another, fell to the ground. The bodies dropped, trampled by the others who came forward to take their place. Dancing and whirling, Raven whittled away at the dead. There seemed to be no end to them. He lost count at a dozen. More came, the longer he worked. Drawn by his scent, the movement or the noise, he didn’t know. Tiring, even with his increased stamina, he decided retreat was advisable.

Dawn neared. He’d been fighting death for hours. Taking refuge inside the office, he barred the back door, watching out the window as the dead glanced at the sky. The first pale rays of the sun peeped over the water. Flinching from the sight, they flung up bony arms, beating their own retreat. Tempted to follow, he decided against it. He was tired. If they surrounded him in the open, he’d be done for. Instead, he washed the sweat of his activities from his body, and lay down on the cot in the back.

Some time later, he heard movement in the office. Springing up, he grabbed his daggers, dashing to the adjoining door. Uriah smiled at him.

“You look a disaster, sir. Care for that coffee?” He flashed a toothy grin.

“You spent a better night than I,” Raven said, slumping against the wall.

“Any night is better than fighting the undead. I see you made progress. There’s a heap of stinking bones and rotting flesh outside.”

“I wasn’t in the frame of mind to sweep it into the dustbin. My apologies,” Raven declared in a sarcastic tone.

Uriah chuckled. “My Lord Willoughby, I feel sure that it will be taken care of soon. Folk will see it, though likely smell it first. It will be sorted.”

“If you see them, tell them to burn it.”

“I had already thought of that. So, how many, do you think?”

“I accounted for at least twenty. I lost count. If the skulls are still in the garden, it’s a fair count.”

Uriah handed him a cup of strong coffee, thick with cream and sweet with sugar. Taking a sip, Raven sighed, closing his eyes.

“Ah, that’s good. Thank you.” He took another sip. “What’s her name?”

“Whose?”

“The lass who’s put that disgustingly satisfied grin on your face.”

“Lilly. She’s not one of the professionals. She works in the kitchen. Though a Lilly, she’s not considered fair.” He looked at his feet. “I think she’s beautiful, but she has a strawberry mark.” He touched his right cheek. “Nearly the size of her hand. Men don’t like that.”

“More fools they.”

The men sat at a small table in the quarters, drinking coffee.

“And this is how you are able to stay there?”

“Yes. Lilly is the daughter of the proprietress, who is delighted that her daughter has a suitor. We hope to wed soon.” He paused, staring at his cup. “My wages, Mr. Willoughby, have not been paid since the head clerk left. He was afraid of the undead.”

Raven’s head popped up. “Did he leave my money?”

“I don’t know. He drew cash for wages, but I have no idea of anything else.”

“We’ll go by and see. The bastard better not have stolen from me. I’ll hunt him down, and he’ll meet as bad an end as the undead,” he snarled.

Uriah recoiled slightly. Too late, Raven realized he’d almost let his true nature show.

“How is it you were able to end them, when others couldn’t?” Uriah asked quietly.

Raven sat with his head bowed, making a decision. “I’m not quite human anymore. The ship I came over one, was in a storm. But before that, it met with disaster. An evil man was aboard, and he attacked, killing every man, woman and child on board—save for me. How I came to survive, I don’t know. Was it by chance or design?” He shrugged. “When I came back to myself, I was the only person left, with this beast. It tried to kill me, but instead, I killed it. The dead went over the side and I made my way to the coast north of here, where I healed.”

©2021 Dellani Oakes

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Raven Willoughby – Origins ~ A Fantasy by Dellani Oakes – Part 19

Sterner nodded. “And you say there is a concealed hole in each cabin?”

“Yes.”

He nodded again. “I think we should wait for His Majesty’s Magistrate before we open more. Meanwhile, Renard, these ships go nowhere. They don’t leave port. Is that clear?”

“As crystal, milord. I’ll give the order and see to it personally.”

“Thank you,” Raven said, holding out his hand.

“For what it’s worth,” Renard said, taking his hand. “I believe you, Lord Willoughby. I can bear witness to some of the refits,” he told Sterner. “I didn’t see all, for I was hired after this place was built. But I did see the last two ships done over. This, and one other. I can tell you, without doubt, that portrait you hold, is what this ship looked like before she was done over.”

“Where is the other ship? The one Willoughby claims is the Annabelle?” Sterner asked.

“Not in port, but I’ll find out where she’s running.”

“Excellent.”

They trooped off the ship to find the constable present. He balked at cuffing his Governor without the word of an authority, but he held Bluth by the arm. Once he had the word of Mr. Sterner, he put heavy shackles on Bluth and led him to the police wagon. It wasn’t nearly as cozy and comfortable as Bluth’s carriage.

“You’ve raised quite a stink,” Uriah said as they watched Bluth ride off.

“Day’s hardly started,” Raven said. Cocky smile on his face, a confident bounce in his step, he walked up the hill to the harbor master’s office.

Renard had done as he said he would, securing the ships in port. He was going through papers to find the whereabouts of the Annabelle. “She’s now called Bluth’s Beauty,” he snorted. “Stupid name, doesn’t suit her a bit. But she’s on a run to the Carolinas. Should be back in a day or two.”

“Thank you, Renard. You’re a fair and honest man, and I thank you for your attention to detail.”

“You’re welcome, my Lord. May I offer refreshment? My wife is an excellent cook.”

“I could be persuaded. Thank you.”

He and Uriah stayed for a meal. Sterner, though invited, had to decline so he could deal with the legalities of arresting the Governor.

“Do you think you’ve a fair chance of getting the ships back?” Renard asked after their delicious meal.

“I have little doubt. It will take some time, but Sterner is a power to reckon with. Even when he was just beginning his practice, he was tenacious.”

“Some might say bullheaded,” Mrs. Renard said as she cleared the table.

“You’d be right there, ma’am,” Raven replied. “And a few other , not fit for the ears of a lady, such as yourself.”

She giggled, heading back to the kitchen.

“My lady wife is around sailors day by day,” Renard said with a smirk. “Not much she hasn’t heard.”

“Aye, I believe that. But I do try to behave like a gentleman, though I don’t always master it.”

“It’s a worthy goal,” Uriah said, raising his mug of ale.

“To worthy goals,” Raven added.

They drank to that, and a fair few more toasts. Feeling his cups a bit, Raven appropriated the Governor’s coach and four to take him and Uriah home.

“Do you live at the office?” Raven asked. He knew there were quarters in the building.

“I did, until the dead took to walking. I have a room at a congenial, but less than savory, establishment some blocks away.”

“Indeed?” Raven chuckled. “They rent rooms by the night?”

“If you’re on friendly terms.” Uriah blushed, swallowing hard. “Ah, here’s me.”

The coach drew up in front of a house not far from the docks, but out of the shuffling roaming of the undead. It sported red lights across the front, and a half dozen windows. In each, a scantily clad woman sat, displaying her—wares. They were pretty, voluptuous, and willing. It was a temptation Raven found hard to ignore. His night, however, would be spent in less enjoyable pursuits. Sighing, he told the coachman to take him to Sam’s inn. He took an early dinner and went up to his room to prepare for the night ahead.

By nightfall, Raven was armed with his silver daggers, ensconced in his offices by the docks. Where it used to bustle at night, the waterfront was silent. Those forced by circumstances to remain, barred their doors, and didn’t go out from sunset to sunrise. What he was doing was either very brave, or very foolish. Raven reflected that the two often ran together.

The first shuffling blunder sounded. Ears perked, Raven closed his eyes, filtering out the lap of waves and the creak of ships at dock. Below that, the sound of a dozen or so feet, shuffling, could be heard. A low, mournful sigh carried on the breeze, and he caught the scent of death. It was faint, but prevalent. Rising, he doused the lamp and sat in darkness. Drawing two knives, he waited until the wandering forms drew near.

©2021 Dellani Oakes

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Raven Willoughby – Origins ~ A Fantasy by Dellani Oakes – Part 18

“We have come a long way, sir. Now, to business. Will you take Renard as a witness?”

“Yes, sir. One other would please me.”

“Renard, a second?”

“Yes. We can use my assistant.”

“Excellent. Shall we?”

Sterner led the parade, Raven and Renard behind him, with Uriah poking and prodding the Governor. A lean, tall man hopped off one of the ships, landing on the dock in front of them. To his surprise, it was a man that Raven knew well. He’d been captain of one of Raven’s ships.

“Carlos, is it you?”

“Raven!” He dashed forward, clasping his friend by the hand, before pulling him in for a hug. “My friend, we thought you dead! How have you survived? When the ship didn’t come in, we feared the worst.”

“There was a storm at sea. My own fault for traveling so late in the season, but I was summoned to Maine. I didn’t know myself for some weeks, when I remembered my business, I had to make my way on foot. Now, I come to find that my ships are in the service of another.”

Carlos frowned. “I’m assuming he’s not in charge of this inquiry?” he pointed to the Governor.

“I am,” Sterner said. “Your name?” He opened his book, pencil poised.

“Carlos Gonzalez Cortez Prientos Hermida, originally from Barcelona.”

“And your connection to Mr. Willoughby?”

“I was his first captain when he bought his first ship, The Annabelle, in a port in Cardiff. She was a fair and lovely ship, fastest thing I’d ever seen. I was her captain three years.”

“And why are you no more?”

“She was confiscated, as were the other ships of the Willoughby line. One by one, they came to disaster and were impounded by himself.” He nodded, gesturing rudely at the Governor. “Sat in dock a wee bit, then their looks and names were changed. They fly his flag now. This one here, she was the Heart Song, out of London. Next to her, that’s the Artemis from Greece. She’s a bit slower, but hell for stout.” He went on to name the other ships, pointing to each and telling the origin.

“Those aren’t the names upon them,” Sterner said.

“As I mentioned, Governor Blot there….”

“Bluth,” the fat man corrected.

Carlos shrugged, making it known what he thought of Bluth. “He bribed and finagled until he got what he wanted—best ships on the ocean. Runs his own docks now, as you see.”

“If you knew this was going on, why didn’t you report it?” Sterner asked.

“Who would I tell? Who would believe the word of a Spaniard over that of an Englishman? If I had come to you, would you have listened, or would I have been forcibly removed from your offices?”

Sterner had the decency to look chagrined. “I believe you now, Señor Cortez. And you’re right. None would believe your word over this puffed up, poor excuse for a man. Bluth, I don’t know how you pulled this off, but we’ll find out. Mark my words.” He turned to Raven. “My apologies, sir. It will take some time, but with fair witnesses….”

“I believe I can add credence to my captain’s words, Mr. Sterner. On each of my ships, there is a secret compartment, that only I know about. In them, I secured papers, not only to identify the ships, but to identify me. If you will follow me below, with Mr. Renard, I will happily produce these documents.”

“What of me?” Bluth bellowed.

“You’ll stay here with Carlos and Uriah, so you can’t sneak off. And if you’d be so kind to send our young friend for the constable, I’d be appreciative,” he said to Uriah.

“As you wish, my Lord.”

A nearby sailor was sent up to give Boris the message. The noise of his footsteps faded as he ran up the grassy hill.

Raven led the men to the captain’s cabin. Removing a poorly executed painting, which had replaced a portrait of the original ship, Raven took a knife from his pocket. This, he slipped in a concealed slit between the finely hewn boards. A sharp click and a panel opened. Inside, wrapped in oilskin, was a steel box, secured with a padlock. Raven reached further into the hole and produced the key.

“You keep the key with the box?” Sterner scolded. “Is that wise?”

“Since no one knew this was here but me, it was safe. Not even my captains knew.” He opened the box and lifted out another oilskin packet. Inside, there was a lithograph of the ship, another of himself, and ships registry. Sterner looked them over with a critical eye.

“You realize, this looks little like the ship we’re standing on.”

“If you take away the decorative items and look only at the lines of the vessel, she’s easy to identify. A shipbuilder could tell you, if doubt arises. I know each detail of my ships, Mr. Sterner. For you see the last six years of my life represented by board and tar, wheel and sail. I worked long and hard on my business, sacrificing home and family. These ships are my home, the men who worked them, my family. Aside from Carlos, I know not if they live. I mourn their losses and could tell you each by name.”

©2021 Dellani Oakes

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Raven Willoughby – Origins ~ A Fantasy by Dellani Oakes – Part 17

The Governor plotted and schemed, thinking of some way he could rid himself of this nuisance. Everything had been fine until Willoughby showed up. Making a mess of things, strutting around like a peacock in full tail. There had to be a way to win, for he always came out on top. If he had one thing to pride himself on, it was his ability to cover his massive rear end.

They arrived at a large quay, resplendent with an elaborate building which housed the Governor’s shipping offices and the harbormaster. This was separate from the town, set apart and private. Six fair ships bobbed at anchor. Raven looked them over with a knowing eye. Despite what Uriah said about this ships being destroyed, he knew that was a lie that the Governor had perpetuated. Here sat six of his seven ships. He’d worked too hard earning each, traveling from shore to shore upon them, as he built his business. He knew every inch, how they sat the water, the number of planks in the deck.

“You lying thief!” He sprang from the coach, rushing to the dock. “He’s stolen them all!” Raven pointed at the docks.

Uriah descended from the coach after the Governor, watching his master with a discerning eye.

“Each of these—mine!” Raven thumped his chest.

“The names are not those listed with your ownership,” the Governor oozed.

“They are mine, nonetheless,” Raven growled. “And I will have them back. Where is she? Where’s the Annabelle?”

“We have no such ship,” the harbormaster said, as he came to the dock.

“You have a ship with sleek lines, sits high and fair, who can outrun even the fastest warship. She’s mine. These are all mine. Your Governor,” he spat the word. “Has stolen from me.”

“That’s a heavy accusation, milord,” the harbormaster said, his hands on his belt.

Raven sensed he was an honest man, with no idea what his overlord had done.

“Can you prove it?”

“I can. Uriah, I need our solicitors immediately. Send someone.”

“Yes, Lord Willoughby.”

“I’ve a runner,” the harbormaster said. “Steady and reliable.” He turned to the building, waving. “Boris!”

A lively lad of about fifteen, joined them. His eyes were hazel, his hair a russet brown. Raven knew immediately, this boy wasn’t full human. If he didn’t miss his bet, Boris spent a night or two each month yipping at the moon. His other awareness told him, Fox. He had a sense of otherness about the harbormaster, too, but couldn’t yet place it.

“Yes, sir?”

The harbormaster pointed to Uriah, who stepped forward.

“You’re to go to town and fetch Mr. Sterner, or Mr. Hope. None of the subordinates, do you hear? Tell them Lord Willoughby needs them in an urgent matter.”

“Yes, sir.”

Uriah handed the boy something before sending him off. The lad hopped on a horse, bareback and set off at a gallop.

“While we’re waiting, can I offer you refreshment? It’s a hot day.”

“That would be appreciated,” Raven said. “I thank you, Mister….”

“Renard,” the man replied, shaking his hand.

Not only was Renard a fox, the boy was his son. Raven’s wolf said hello and Renard raised an eyebrow. Nodding slightly, he guided them inside. His office was spacious, with a sitting area. Tea and biscuits were brought.

As they settled in, there was noise outside. Boris had returned. Leaping easily off the horse’s back, he rushed inside.

“Mr. Sterner said he’ll be here post haste, Father.”

“Thank you, Son.”

Raven handed the boy a coin, smiling. “My thanks, Boris.”

“Anything you need, sir.” He grinned and stashed the money in his pocket.

Sterner arrived a few minutes later, descending from his own coach. This man was lean, hawk-like, dressed in a dark, foreboding suit and hat. He carried a leather bound book under his arm. His coachman leaped down, opening the office door with a bow. Uriah and Renard stood, bowing slightly. Raven stood, but didn’t bow. Instead, he extended his hand.

Sterner suited his name, or it suited him. His face seemed caught in a perpetual frown—or perhaps he was angry about being summoned so precipitously. He didn’t seem angry with Raven. His ire was focused on the fat, balding Governor.

“What are you up to now, Giles? The boy said something about a ship dispute. Is this true?” he addressed Renard with his last.

“Quite true, Mr. Sterner. This is Lord Willoughby, sir.”

“We’ve met. It was some time ago, you were just starting out then. I helped to draw up your business papers.”

“That you did, sir. You weren’t nearly as well known then, either.”

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Raven Willoughby – Origins ~ A Fantasy by Dellani Oakes – Part 16

“I said, make them w—”

It was amazing, and rather alarming, how fast the Governor turned bright red, then purple, and finally white in the face. Gurgling slightly, he tried to sit, but there was something on his chair. This turned out to be his wig. His own hair, sparse and pale yellow, was scattered over his scalp in unattractive clumps. A heavy man, he spilled over the waist of his trousers, his coat gaped open around his girth.

“May I present Sir Raven Willoughby, milord Governor,” Uriah said. “He’s come to make inquiries.”

“He…oh…um….”

Raven strode forward, wishing he had a sword to add to his swagger. Instead of armament, he bristled with anger—very real, as it happened.

“You have my ship,” he said in a calm and lethal voice. “And I want it back. If harm has come to it while it’s been in your possession, it shall come out of your pocket.”

“Now, see here!” the Governor tried to regain control. “How do I know you’re who you say?”

Raven chuckled. “You’ll have to take it on blind faith, I suppose. Or take the word of my man, here, who sees my visage every day, when he comes to work.”

“You have no papers? No identification? No letter of introduction?” The Governor felt he was on solid ground now, falling back into bureaucratic territory.

Raven reached into his pocket, producing the papers. He kept copies in every bank where he had a business office. It proved useful at times like this.

“You’ll find it all in order, including a letter of introduction signed by Lord Sutherland.”

Taken aback, the Governor blinked slowly. Taking up a pair of reading glasses, he perched them on his long nose, and squinted at the papers. Shuffling them around, he saw they were all in perfect order. Annoyed, he handed them back.

“And proof of ownership of the boat in question?”

“Ship,” Raven corrected. “The Annabelle, a fair and lovely ship, she sits well in the water. A portrait of my late, lamented sweetheart graces her prow.” That was a lie, he’d bought the ship from another man, and it was that fellow’s dead lover on the prow. “As fair a lass as a man ever saw. Died of a fever shortly after the vessel was built.” Also true. He was able to conjure up a hitch in his voice and a tear in his eyes. “My other ships may have met their end. But I must needs have the Annabelle back. She was my first ship, and is dear to my heart.”

“She’s a ship of death,” the Governor sputtered. “Fit for naught but gathering rust in the dry dock!”

“I’ll have her back,” Raven said, dropping the sorrow. “And she’d best be in good repair, or you will hear from my solicitors. Who is it we use here, Haynes?” he cast over his shoulder at Uriah.

“Sterner and Hope, my Lord Willoughby.”

The Governor paled once more. Sterner and Hope were not only the most reputable solicitors in his territory, they hated him with a passion. This Willoughby must have deep pockets to keep them on retainer.

“My ship, sirrah,” Raven said, slapping the papers against his palm.

“I’ll have it seen to.”

“You’ll show me yourself—sir. I’ve lost precious revenue because of this.”

“You were dead!” the Governor blustered.

Raven’s predatory leer sent a shiver down the fat man’s spine.

Smelling the fear, Raven advanced. “You knew all along it was my last ship. No doubt, you took her to add to your fleet of illegal vessels, which smuggled in all these expensive knickknacks. She’s the fastest thing on these waters. I much doubt, death ship or not, that she’s in the dry dock. What did you do? Reoutfit her, change her name and put her to work under your own sail?”

The older man shuddered, clutching his chest. Raven grabbed his arm, leaning close, his face a mere inch from the Governor’s.

“Don’t die yet,” he said in a friendly, lethal tone. “We’re just getting things sorted. And what fun would that be for me, ravaging your holdings, discrediting your name, taking your possessions, if you’re dead. Not much to stop me, as it is. But I do so love having a man watch as his life is stripped bare. You’re a liar and a cheat. You’ve robbed your people, this territory, and who knows all else. It’s time you paid the piper, Governor. And if you haven’t noticed, I’m the man playing the tune. My ship. Now.” He shook the older man by the shirtfront.

Shaking and wobbling, the Governor led them outside, demanding his coach be made ready. They waited a few minutes on the porch before a coach and four matched geldings, rolled up. They were handsome beasts, all with glossy roan coats and black manes. All else he might have against the man, the Governor knew good horse flesh, and cared well for them. Raven couldn’t help wondering who he’d stolen them from, for he was sure the Governor wasn’t a man to purchase, when confiscation worked so much better.

“My docks,” the Governor told his coachman as they settled.

They rode for some minutes, in silence. Raven watched the Governor with a placid expression on his face, scenting the fear, the treachery, that poured off the man.

©2021 Dellani Oakes

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Raven Willoughby – Origins ~ A Fantasy by Dellani Oakes – Part 15

“I imagine not. What happened to my ship? Was it cut loose? Sold?”

“Impounded by the Governor. It’s in dry dock.”

“Come with me.”

“Where to?”

“The Governor’s house.”

“Can’t see him without an appointment. And it’s right hard to get.”

“I’m not worried.”

“As you wish.” He slipped on his coat, smoothed his hair, which immediately struggled free, and followed Raven. Taking a key from his pocket, he locked the door. “I’ve a spare in the bank. I’ll fetch it for you later.”

“Thank you, Master Haynes.”

“Governor’s this way.” He pointed toward town and set off at a brisk pace. There was more to Uriah Haynes than met the eye. His loose fitting clothing hung on a body of lean, hard muscle. the calves, clad in stockings, were sturdy. though he walked with stooped shoulders, his jacket bunched at the base of his neck, there was power there. Master Haynes bore watching—closely.

The Governor’s house was an impressive edifice, far fancier than Raven had expected. It had been his observation that the governor of such a small area, rarely had great wealth, yet here was an ostentatious display.

“How big is his territory?” he asked Uriah.

“About fifty square miles, mostly wilderness.”

“And the tax base?”

“That I don’t know, Mr. Willoughby.”

“Call me Raven. Is he a wealthy man in his own right?”

“Not as I’ve heard.” Uriah examined the house as they drew close. “He’s the third or fourth son of a minor lord. It’s rumored he has a large debt he owes back home, so he came here to escape it. Thus far, they haven’t felt the need great enough to pursue him.”

Raven nodded, taking in more details. This property, alone, exceeded what he, himself a rich man, could have afforded. Here in Labrador, it wouldn’t be as dear as back home, but still would be a hefty chunk of gold. Servants scurried around like bees. Workmen trudged back and forth, carrying heavy crates.

“Looks like he’s planning a party. Shall we?” Raven said, inviting Uriah with a sweeping motion.

He found it interesting, when faced with a challenge, Uriah squared his shoulders, revealing a more impressive physique than he’d previously shown. His hair was still wild and unwieldy, but broad shoulders and muscular chest filled out the innocuously clad form. He now rivaled Raven in height and breadth.

Uriah stepped ahead of Raven, ringing the bell, before taking his place a step behind and to the left of his employer. “I’ll introduce you. Men of means around these parts, don’t announce themselves. Once we’re admitted, you do the talking.” He said all this very softly.

Raven nodded, doing his best to look the part of haughty lord and merchant. Having grown up with them, he knew the mannerisms well.

A servant opened the door. His faded eyes widened when he saw the two men, but he didn’t invite them in.

“This is Sir Raven Willoughby, late of Wales. He presents himself to His Honor, the Governor, as befits his station.” Haynes spoke clearly, using a more sophisticated accent than he’d used in the office. His face remained placid, though there was a hint of superciliousness about his nostrils.

Raven did his best to equal his companion, in his level of detached aloofness. The servant looked them both over carefully, mouth working.

“His Honor is busy….”

“I don’t have time to waste,” Raven snapped. Despite what Uriah said, he knew he had to step in. “If you continue to tax my patience, your hide will pay the price.”

“I’ll see if he’s able….” He started to close the door.

Uriah stepped forward, hand on the door, foot on the sill. “You do that.” He made an inviting gesture to Raven. “After you, my Lord.”

Raven found it interesting that he’d received a new title, but didn’t let on that it wasn’t his. Normally, he’d have thanked Uriah, but he was playing the role of a snobbish, entitled man. He’d been on the receiving end of it often enough to imitate.

The servant scurried off, deeper into the house, telling them to wait. Uriah and Raven exchanged a glance and set off after him. Moments later, they heard a deep voice, raised in anger.

“You idiot! You let them in?” the smack of an open hand on a cheek, followed.

Uriah held Raven back, shaking his head. A man of his station wouldn’t rush to the aid of a servant.

“Beg pardon, my Lord. They forced their way in. How as I to stop them?”

“By shoving them back out again, you useless imbecile. Let them stew half an hour, then I’ll think about seeing them.”

“Yes, my Lord.” The servant didn’t see them right away, but froze when he did. Incapable of speech, he could only stare as the two men walked around him.

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Raven Willoughby – Origins ~ A Fantasy by Dellani Oakes – Part 14

Holding his breath, Mr. Smith lowered the first dagger into the melted silver, dipping to the hilt. Once it was fully coated, he set it on the rack to cool. Marveling at the appearance, he exhaled slowly.

“A superior coating,” Raven said, after examining it.

Silver repeated the process with all six knives. The daggers weren’t the least bit damaged by the heat. Giving them a quick and loving wipe, Silver handed them back to Raven. Payment was made for a job well done.

“I may come across a few other items that need the same treatment, so please keep the rest for me,” Raven said, dropping another coin into the smith’s palm.

“My pleasure, sir.” He tugged his forelock.

“And you, lad.” Raven addressed the apprentice. “Don’t spend it all on spirits and doxies.” He gave Jimmy a handful of coppers.

“Thank you, sir!” the boy bowed. “If you’re in need of ought, and Master Silver hasn’t need of me, I be at your service.”

The smith looked on proudly as the boy used his best manners.

“My thanks to you both.” With a swirl of his coat, Raven left.

His next stop was a bank, where he left most of his money. Carrying a heavy purse was foolish and leaving it in his room, more so. With enough coins to do his business, he headed to the docks, whistling.

The town was large enough to attract many travelers, but few had the look and bearing of Raven Willoughby. Raised by poor relations, after the death of his parents, he was of noble birth. His maiden aunt was a gentile lady, though of meager means. She ran a small school for the wealthy. Raven was educated at the side of the sons of dukes and earls. He carried himself like a warrior he’d been, but with an aloof air. His shipping business was prosperous, or it had been. He was on his way to find out if his partners had betrayed and robbed him. Though his primary office was in Maine, there was a smaller one here. Remembering Sam’s directions he followed his nose to the sea. Asking specifics from a cart man, he found his office, tucked away near the dock. It looked shabby and run down, but it was open. A lone clerk sat at a high desk. He didn’t look up when Raven entered. Raven cleared his throat, loudly.

Slowly, the other man raised his head. Wispy, mouse-brown hair stuck out in all directions. Watery, pale blue eyes took in Raven. Pale skin, dotted with freckles, showed evidence of a man who avoided the sun. Though narrow shouldered and slender, he looked able enough.

Raven approached. “Your name, sir.”

The man straightened up. “Depends, sir.”

“On what?”

“On who wishes to know—sir.” His accent was coarse, common, his voice nasal.

“The man whose name is on that door, and whose picture is on the wall.” Raven pointed to the sign that said Willoughby Shipping, a portrait of himself above it. “Are you like this with everyone? If so, you’ll soon be out of a job.”

After staring several, long moments, the clerk swallowed loudly. “Mr. Willoughby, sir.” He scrambled from his stool. “Beg pardon, sir. We were told you were dead.”

“I was unfortunately detained. The ship I booked passage on, met with an unfortunate accident. Only I survived.”

“Most sorry, sir. May I get you some tea? Or coffee? A friend of mine brings it in from Jamaica.”

“Nothing, thank you. I need to book passage to our Maine office.”

The clerk looked uncomfortable.

“And you’ve yet to introduce yourself.”

He gulped. “Beg pardon. Uriah Haynes.”

“Well, Master Haynes, what’s the issue with passage?”

“We have no ships, sir.”

“In port?”

“Operational.”

“At all? We had a fleet of seven!”

“All met with dire accidents, sir. The last that came to port, brought death with it.” He stared, wide eyed, taking a step forward. “The undead that walk at night—they came on that ship. They were all dead when it was found at sea. It was hauled in, we buried ’em—and they came back! Rising from their graves!”

“Do they speak? What do they do?”

“No speaking. They shamble, like. And if they grab ya, it’s over. It’s said, they eat a man’s heart! And a woman—!” He blushed. “Other—things. And they rip the guts right out.”

“How many have died?”

“Six or seven the last fortnight.”

“Do they come back?”

“We burn them, sir.”

“Has anyone killed them?”

“We’ve tried. Swords and muskets have no effect. It don’t end well for the soldier.”

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Raven Willoughby – Origins ~ A Fantasy by Dellani Oakes – Part 13

“I’ll know if you don’t leave. I have your scent.” Impulsively, he took a step toward her. “What is your name?”

“So you can report me?”

“So I can savor it in my dreams.”

“Zulimara.”

And like the shadow she resembled, she was gone. Left with her taste and scent, Raven gathered his scattered belongings, inventorying them. She had taken a single gold piece. Chuckling, he tossed the full bag in his hand and went back to bed, the bag under his pillow.

“Zulimara….. Fair name for a fair lady.”

Unable to go back to sleep, he lay in bed, mulling over the strange event. He wondered if Sam knew a skilled thief frequented his establishment. If not, he would likely be appalled. However, if Zulimara left as he’d told her, it was of no consequence. But would she? Remembering her attitude, he rather thought not.

“All the better,” he murmured. “For it makes the hunt exciting, when the prey is wily.”

He rose and dressed at dawn, visited the necessary, and entered the taproom looking for breakfast. Thick slabs of bacon sizzled over the fire, a steaming, aromatic pot bubbled next to it. Fresh bread cooled on the bar. His mouth watered in anticipation, as he ordered his meal.

After eating, Raven walked down the street to the silver smith’s shop. The display in the window blazed brilliantly in the morning light. The sunny reflections teased and taunted him with their beauty. A strand of silver bells tinkled over the door, as he entered.

A sturdy, red face man, with thinning ginger locks, smiled warmly. “Good day, milord. Sam said to expect you, Mr. Willoughby.” He held out a thick, freckled hand. “Welcome. I’m Vaughan Silver.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Silver.”

“And you, sir. What can I do for you today?”

Raven took out an oilskin bundle from his bag, unrolling it on the counter. Inside were a brace of wicked looking daggers.

“Handsome weapons, sir. But hardly my bailiwick. These are finest steel. May I?”

Raven nodded.

“Crafted in the Orient,” Silver breathed reverently as he picked up a blade. “Magnificent. You could shave with this. How can I possibly improve upon perfection?”

“I need the blades dipped in purest silver.”

“When?”

“Immediately. I’ll wait.”

“This could compromise the blades. The heat—”

“These blades are heat tempered. I very much doubt I need to worry. I’m most interested in the tip being serviceable.”

“May one inquire?” he left the question hanging.

“I hear the dead walk the docks at night. As I have business interests there, some of which may take place after dark, I wish to be armed.”

“I see. What manner of business….” He snapped his lips shut. “Not my affair.”

“Hunting,” Raven growled, chuckling. It was a very disturbing sound, even to his ears.

“The dead?” Silver squeaked.

“Aye. If dead they be. Nothing takes down evil, like silver.”

“I can get on this immediately. The forge is just heating up.”

“It must be pure,” Raven emphasized. “Add this.” He handed over the locket Zulimara had tried to steal.

“But this is gold.”

“Yes. It’s the only impurity allowed. If the silver is not pure, or the locket doesn’t make it into the blend, I’ll know.”

Silver smiled. “I’ve no doubt. To that end, would you like to watch?”

“I would be pleased to see the master at work.”

Silver led Raven behind the storefront, into the workroom. It was hotter than hot, with the coal forge lit. Taking a crucible from the shelf, he showed Raven it was clean.

“Brand new, never used. We add a bit of nickle to our usual blend, to give it strength. Pure silver is too soft for most uses. For your purposes….” He lifted a heavy bar from a cupboard. It bore a maker’s mark, labeling it as pure. “Will this do?”

Raven took the bar, scratching it with his thumb nail. First, he sniffed it, then tasted it. “This will do nicely.”

“Excellent.” Mr. Silver led Raven to the forge. “Jimmy, my lad. Take the pots out and stand the bellows!”

“Yes, sir.” The boy worked swiftly and deftly, removing the other crucibles from the coals. Following his master’s orders, he moved quickly, without error.

It was a bit of a wait, but finally the melted metal was ready. Raven unwrapped the daggers once more and the boy brought heavy gloves, tongs and a cooling rack.

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Raven Willoughby – Origins ~ A Fantasy by Dellani Oakes – Part 12

“Your laundry?”

Raven handed it to her, bundled in a bag he’d found in the bath house. “My thanks, Samantha.”

“When you’re ready, I can show you to your room.”

“Thank you.” He finished dressing with Samantha watching his every move.

She led him to a cozy room, the bed comfortable. The only thing missing was a lovely companion, but Raven made no move in that direction. He could tell that Samantha wasn’t the type of woman to casually warm his bed. He’d known doxies and whores aplenty, to recognize the difference. Though she wasn’t a lady of refinement, she was surely ladylike.

“Your clothing will be brought back after midday tomorrow, if that suits.”

“That suits well. I have these fine garments from Myra.”

“And me. I did the embroidery on your shirt.”

Raven touched the neat stitches, admiring them. “You do fine work, Miss Sam.”

“Thank you, Mr. Willoughby.”

“You are most welcome.”

“I’ll bid you goodnight, then.”

“Goodnight.” He couldn’t resist kissing her work worn hand.

Samantha blushed and scurried off. Raven closed the door, dropping the latch in place. Stripping to his under garments, he turned down the lamp and went to bed. It had been a long time since he’d slept so comfortably. Letting his guard down, he drifted off.

Movement in the room, woke him. Lying still, he listened as someone walked about. His eyesight, that of a night predator, saw the form easily, picking out details. Dressed in black britches and shirt, a dark cap pulled low over hair and brow, the intruder searched his bag with stealth born of long practice. Attention fully on the bag of Raven’s belongings, no notice was spared for the man himself.

Keeping his breathing deep and regular, Raven slid silently to the floor. Creeping up behind the thief, he grasped from behind, pulling the tall, lean body against his.

“I know I didn’t invite you in for a visit,” he murmured, his voice low and lethal. “So, if you’d put my things back, I won’t have to kill you.”

The thief trembled from head to foot. Raven’s fangs descended, slipping from his gums to touch his lower lip. Fear smelled delicious on this one, spicy, hot—female.

“I can do more than just kill you, lass. Or hadn’t you thought that through?”

“I’ll scream,” she whispered.

“Please, do that. How will you explain your presence, and interesting manner of dress?”

She opened her mouth, inhaling deeply, but his teeth raked softly on the skin of her throat. She shuddered, for a different reason entirely.

“What made you think I’d be an easy mark? Hm? Or do you visit all the rooms, hoping for chance?”

“Only the wealthy take these rooms,” she replied tersely. “I saw in the tap room, you had a full purse.”

“And you thought I’d wish to part with it? I’m flattered. Put it back. All of it. Or death will be the kindest thing you face.”

“You won’t kill me. Place like this, someone would hear.”

“No one said it would be here that I killed you. Back. All of it.” He released her enough for her to empty her pockets. A swift frisking assured him she had put it all back—except….”

“The locket too.”

“Sentimental?” she handed it to him.

“Something like that.” He snatched it from her, embracing her once more. “Don’t even think about it,” he cautioned as she tried to reach for his things.

Changing tactics, she turned to face him, her hands busy on his body, enticing and exciting him. His painful grip on her questing fingers, convinced her to stop.

“I’m not so easily distracted by your charms—nor as enamored by your scent—to fall for that. You don’t interest me.”

“Your manliness betrays you, milord.” She tried to wiggle free.

“If a man is touched there, expect a response in kind. But I have no passion for you. However, if you persist, I will relieve myself, to your dismay.”

“Are you poxed? Deformed?”

Raven’s deep throated chuckle was his only reply. The thief quit struggling.

“If you leave, with none of my possessions, I won’t call the Watch. Should you still be here come daylight, or you take my things, I’ll find you and you will pay. I don’t think you’ll much like the form of my retribution.”

“Why would you do that?”

“Like calls to like—we are predators, and must stick together.”

She eased away, unbelieving. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me, leave. I have a limit to my forbearance. You’ve reached it.”

The thief eased toward the window. Raven opened it for her, giving her a hand out.

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Raven Willoughby – Origins ~ A Fantasy by Dellani Oakes – Part 11

“A guest needs your help, Myra my lass.”

“Of course, my love.” Her voice sang of the Irish hills. “What would you be needing, sir?”

Raven told her. She sized him up with a professional eye, and went to a set of shelves, which sported labeled crates.

“These should do.” She handed him a shirt and underthings. A tiny closet provided a coat and breeches. “As to the great coat…. Were you set upon by dogs?” Her eyes widened as she examined the garment.

“Wolves, actually. One got the jump on me.”

“And you still here to talk of it? My land!” she looked the collar over well. “I’ll need to replace a piece, but I haven’t this exact fabric.”

“Something close. It’s purely functional. I’m not a fancy man.”

“I’ve a black that will blend well with the navy blue.”

“That is satisfactory.” He emptied his pockets, transferring things to his pack. “I leave it in your capable hands, my lady.”

Myra blushed, giggling.

“What do I owe you for the clothing?”

She told him the price, which he happily paid, as well as settling on the cost of the repair. He paid her for all, thanking her once more.

“May one inquire when your babe is due?”

“In two months time.” She beamed, her hand on her belly.

“Your first?”

“Aye. A girl, I hope. Himself wants a boy.”

Raven tipped his head, considering. His newly augmented senses told him much. “May I?” He raised his hand to touch her belly. “Back home, I acquired a talent for telling the babe’s gender.”

“Surely!”

Raven laid his hand on her belly. Concentrating, he smiled. “I believe you will have your wish. And, unless my senses fail me, so will your husband. For I suspect twins—a boy and girl.”

“In truth?”

He was sure. Not only did boys smell different from girls, he’d sensed a second heartbeat. “In truth.”

“That’s wonderful news! Isn’t it grand, Sam?”

“Aye, my love.” He kissed his beaming wife. “A bath now, Mr. Willoughby?”

“Please. Fresh water.”

“Always. We never make our guests share road dirt. I’ve my own well,” he bragged.

“You are a lucky man, indeed. A fair wife who can sew, twins coming, your own well…. The gods have smiled, Sam.”

He beamed. “Aye, sir. They have.” He led Raven to a small shack behind the inn. It had three doors, two had pictures of tubs drawn on them. the third was a symbol Raven didn’t know.

“A bath house and privy,” Sam explained. “Another privy is on the other end.” He pointed south. The building was long and sprawling. “Saves a walk from the south end, and keeps the odor from the kitchen.”

“Do you rent rooms by week or month?”

“Yes to both, for them can pay. Do you figure on being longer than a night?”

“It will depend on how I fair at the docks tomorrow.”

“Best of luck. Water’s hot. There’s lavender for those who wants it, no extra charge. Soap in a tin. Pull the plug when you’re done.” He saluted and went back to the inn.

Left to his own devices, Raven dropped the latch and disrobed. His dirty clothing fell to the wooden floor. He’d find out about the laundry later. Right now, the hot water called to him. Easing his tired body into the hot water felt wonderful.

“Just this side of heaven,” he sighed.

Later, as he dressed, someone knocked at the door.

“Yes?”

“Beg pardon, Mr. Willoughby,” a woman, not Myra, said. “Sam told me to collect your soiled garments.”

“One moment.” He pulled his trousers on and opened the door.

A pretty young woman, who shared Sam’s broad smile and golden curls, stood there. Her eyes widened when she spied his muscular, bare chest. Scattered with black hair, against his swarthy skin, it was a fair sight for a lass. Raven smiled. He’d seen that hungry look in the eyes of many women.

“Thank you. And you are?”

“Sam, his sister.”

“You’re Sam’s sister, or your name is Sam?” Standing with the door open, firelight behind him, he knew he presented a tasty treat. However, the sister of the innkeeper was off limits, in his mind.

“Both. Samantha, Samuel’s twin. Myra tells me we’ve another mixed set to welcome soon.”

“So my senses tell me.”

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