Dolman has penned a great novel, which lays an icy grasp around the reader. The period details and language are both spot-on, and the sense of madness driving the murderer on is truly haunting.
Atticus and Lucie Fox are summoned to a country estate in remote Northumberland, where a series of bizarre murders appear to centre on the delusions of a madman, who lives alone on the edge of the moors.
Close by are the remains of a long-vanished castle, where, local legends say, King Arthur still lies in an enchanted sleep, waiting to be awoken at the End of Days.
The killings have all been committed using the Hallows of Arthur; artefacts long thought to have been lost in history, and the locals swear that they have seen a ghostly knight-in-armour roaming the moors for months. But how can that be? This is 1890, and King Arthur died over thirteen-hundred years before.
I was impressed with Red Dragon-White Dragon. Gary Dolman’s novel had just the right mixture of realism and Arthurian legend to keep me guessing at every turn. And the ending—amazing! Just when you think you know what’s going to happen, even if you’ve guessed the villain already, there is a huge twist that completely blindsides you.
-THE MAD REVIEWER
I was greatly impressed by this book and would recommend that anyone who likes a great mystery with a historical slant, checks this one out.
You won't be sorry that you did!
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence.
-Macbeth, Act I, Scene 3,
The Edge of the World.
That was what they called this place; this vast, rocky promontory, which lay across the kingdom of Northumberland like a slumbering dragon. It was here the Emperor Hadrian had chosen to build the great wall that marked the very edge of the Roman Empire, making use of the natural barriers of cliffs and crags in his bid to keep out the barbarians beyond.
He stood on the Edge of the World and gazed out over the bleak, rock-strewn moorlands, pinched into ridges and escarpments like the waves of some ancient, petrified sea. It was to that country he was bound. His work for this day, given to him by the Fates themselves, was done, and he could go back now to his cool and silent vault, hidden deep in the crags and rocks of the Northumbrian fells. There he would tell this tale to his Lady and to Lancelot, his one-time companion-in-arms, as they slept their eternal sleep.
He smiled at the thought of his Lady and felt the spilled blood on his face bristle and crack. She was his love, his only true love, and he imagined kissing her smooth, white brow, taking her limp fingers in his own and telling her of the killing.
Ah, yes – the killing. His smile spread wide and the mask of gore tightened and pulled. With the memory he became aware of the familiar weight of the sword hanging, always ready, at his side. Instinctively he reached down and touched the cold metal. Perhaps his Lady was not his only love after all.
He allowed himself to luxuriate in the recollection of the long, elegant blade sliding so easily into the Gypsy’s body and stilling the heart inside. He remembered how, with the tip of that blade, he had searched out the place where the ribs ended and the soft, yielding flesh of the belly began, how he had sliced deeply into the intricately embroidered waistcoat and watched the flesh beneath it part obediently before the steel. And then, because this was a gift, he had carved open the flesh for a second time and formed the broad ‘X’ of a crux decussata.
The apex of that cross had gaped wide and beckoned him to the viscera within. It had gaped wide enough for him to push in his hand, wide enough for him to reach into the ribcage and wide enough for him to tear out the heart.
He glanced down to the clod of bloody flesh still grasped in his hand. It was cold now, cooled by the chilly dawn winds. He would wait until he was back with his Lady before he devoured the rest of it. It seemed only right to do so. She would know then, that in this final reckoning, he truly was the victor.
Atticus Fox gently drew aside the parlour curtains of Number 16, Prospect Place and gazed out across the Stray – the two hundred acres of open pasture which opened out the very heart of the bustling, fashionable spa town of Harrogate in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Its elegant avenues and walkways were filled with the cream of European and Oriental society taking the ‘Cure’, that curious mix of light exercise and hydrotherapy for which the town was world-renowned. It was a sight of which he would never grow truly tired but in truth, he was bored and he was restless. After all, there was only so much tea one could drink and so much chess one could play.
He throttled an inner sigh and turned to smile his thanks to his wife. Lucie Fox was already pouring milk from a dainty, porcelain jug into dainty, porcelain tea cups. She glanced across at him as he dropped into an armchair opposite and instantly read his mood. “The Post Office messenger boy has just called with a telegram for us, Atticus. It’s a commission.”
“What is it?” Atticus asked sullenly, “Some old dowager’s lapdog has got itself lost down a rabbit hole? Or perhaps a hotel has had another silver teaspoon go missing?”
Lucie lifted the lid of the big teapot and inspected the contents.
“Neither, Atticus; it concerns a murder.”
Lucie nodded. “Yes, a murder; you’ll find the telegram on the tea-tray if you’d care to read it.”
Atticus, his woes vanished, plucked the slip of paper from the salver and stared at it with an increasingly incredulous expression. “It’s dated today, Lucie: Wednesday, 4th June, 1890. ‘To A. & L. Fox, Commissioned Investigators. From Colonel Sir Hugh Lowther, Shields Tower, Northumberland. 'Wish to engage your services. Investigation of a brutal murder. Please come forthwith.’” He stared at the paper once again. “A murder!” he repeated at last, “But why would anyone engage us to investigate a murder? We are only private enquiry agents; murders are constabulary business.”
His wife shrugged. “I have really no idea, Atty. It’s a great pity that Colonel Lowther didn’t give us any more detail, other than the murder was brutal, of course.”
Atticus drummed his chin with his fingertips as he chased down a memory.
“Now I come to think of it, there was a very peculiar death reported a few days ago – in the Daily Chronicle, as I recollect. It was in Northumberland, on an estate near Hexham. A Gypsy man was found stabbed to death, but not only that, he’d been mutilated and beheaded. The paper was speculating as to whether or not it might have been the Whitechapel Ripper at work again, although I’m quite sure it was not.”
He passed the telegram to his wife.
“What do you think, Lucie; shall we take up this commission?”
She smiled at his expression – like a dog with its leash. “Of course we shall,” she said brightly. “It is a murder enquiry. How often is it that we get one of those?”
Atticus beamed. “In that case, I’ll fetch a telegraph form and advise this Sir Hugh Lowther that we shall be taking the first train north tomorrow morning. Quo Fata Vocant, Lucie, ‘whither do the Fates call us, eh?”
Quo Fata Vocant.
The Fates were calling for him again. They were calling for him from the secret place beyond the Wall, and he could not help but to obey. They would mock him, he knew. They would fling scorn at him and torment him as they always did. But this time, like opiates to the wounded, they would help him too. This time, they would grant him relief from his pain.
They had promised.
Because now was the End-Time. Now, at last, the hour appointed to avenge the abominations of the past had arrived.
The next day was sunny and bright and very warm for the early hour. It was just half past seven in the morning but already the streets were bustling with the Ailing, who were roused promptly at seven to begin their Cure.
The Foxes’ luggage had been sent-on to the railway station together with their bicycles and Atticus had only his big leather investigations bag and unusually thick, pewter-topped walking cane with him as he and Lucie stepped out into the morning to take the short walk across town.
Harrogate Central Station was a designated ‘floral’ station of the North Eastern Railway. The Foxes stepped onto the
east-bound platform, already very warm under its delicate, iron canopy, and Atticus inhaled deeply. His stomach fluttered. That smell: the heady mix of perfumes from the magnificent floral displays overlaying the lingering odours of oil and smoke was the scent of adventure, the precursor to an investigation, and it was nothing short of wonderful.
The hands of the platform clock twitched from 7:54 to 7:55 precisely and they heard the shrill whistle of their own train as it appeared on the tracks of the station approach. It puffed slowly along the length of the platform and then, with a hiss of steam and a clattering of couplings, drew gently to a halt.
The stationmaster, resplendent in silk top hat and tailcoat, stood by a large, brass bell. He peered along the line of glossy, maroon-painted carriages, his hand gripping the clapper-chain, ready to peel the arrival of any important visitors to the town. Atticus took Lucie’s arm and shepherded her through a ribbon of steam and up into an empty first-class compartment.
They changed onto an express train at the busy station at York and duly settled into their seats for the long journey up the East Coast Main Line to the north.
As the train slowly gathered speed through the suburbs and outskirts of the city Lucie pulled a copy of the Lancet periodical from her handbag.
“Is there anything of interest in there, my dearest?” Atticus asked, opening his own, much larger bag and lifting out a travelling chess set.
“There’s an article on modern nursing practice I am especially interested in,” she replied without looking up. “I know I’ve left the profession now, but I do like to keep abreast of new developments. They seem to happen so quickly these days.”
Atticus nodded and turned back to his chess. He had a particular aversion to all things medical and most especially if they happened to involve any amount of blood or gore. In their profession of reuniting errant pets and straying spouses it was, thankfully, uncommon but it was still very much an area he left to Lucie, who by contrast seemed to positively revel in it.
Atticus Fox believed very strongly in the need to keep his brain in first-rate order. It was, after all, the principal tool of his profession. In addition to drinking several large glasses of the iron-rich, Harrogate chalybeate water each day, he often played against himself at chess. By so doing, he was convinced that he was training his mind to be completely objective and dispassionate in all respects. After all, that was what he was obliged to do each time he switched between the black and the white chessmen.
As their train snaked inexorably northwards, the farms and villages of the rural Vale of York began to give way to the chimneys and manufactories of the industrial north-east of England and a dramatic view of the bridges over the River Tyne eventually heralded their arrival into the city of Newcastle. Once there, they changed again, onto the final leg of their journey, the Newcastle to Carlisle railway line, which, Atticus had promised, was to be spectacularly scenic.
Lucie reminded him sharply of his promise as she dotted her handkerchief with French perfume and held it tightly against her nose whilst the train skirted the foul open sewer that was the Tyne. Very soon however, it began to gather speed over the gently-curving iron bridge at Scotswood and the rows of mills and factories, along with their attendant slums, ceased. The stench faded, the vista opened out once again and the train began to climb imperceptibly into the rolling hills of south Northumberland.
It seemed no time at all before they came to the small but bustling village station at Bardon Mill. Just beyond Hexham, this was the nearest point of the railway to their final destination of Shields Tower.
The Fates: Urth, Skuld and Verthandi. Like clamouring ravens they call for the old man’s spirit.
He owes them it, and more – seven times more. He owes it because they have pledged him a gift. It is the gift of his lady, pure and whole once again, and there could be no gift more precious.
But he is bound by honour to give in return, and in return they have demanded a wergild – a man-price – seven times over.
The old man’s life is to be the second part of that wergild.
And lo! He spies him – the old soldier, victor of a thousand battles. He, who once led whole legions of men, is alone now, slumped in his chair by the lake.
“He is sleeping,” Verthandi cries exultantly.
He cringes. Surely she has woken him.
“By God, you have the luck of the Devil,” Verthandi continues, “He might be an old dog now but were he awake, he could still teach a young puppy like you a trick or two.”
“He certainly taught your woman a trick or two,” Urth quips and they both cackle with delight. “And his powder charge never went off before even he put the ball in.”
The cackles become mocking peals of laughter, a cacophony that grows louder and louder and louder.
“Pay no heed to them.” Skuld cuts across them and their laughter ceases. He is grateful. She at least understands how deeply their words cut into him. “Kill him,” she urges, “I do not care who he is.”
Quo Fata Vocant.
Striding forwards, he pulls a broad ribbon of silk from his pocket...
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