A Skin of a Dragon (The Guild of Gatekeepers, #1)
by Frances Jones
After a chance find in a smugglers’ cave, Tom Wild is kidnapped by a stranger and whisked away to London to face a secretive and ancient group of magicians. He is presented with an agonising choice: join them and forsake his old life and family forever or face a grisly death. Tom quickly realises that all is not as it seems and that the group’s leader is engaged in a dangerous game of magic, power and war. At stake is the future of England, her King, and the very existence of magic.
A Skin of a Dragon
by Frances Jones
Genre: YA Fantasy
Release date: March 17th 2018
by Frances Jones
Genre: YA Fantasy
Release date: March 17th 2018
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My mother believed I possessed the gift of foresight. I was born at the stroke of midnight under a full moon, a curious time bestowing special abilities upon newborns, or so the midwife assured my parents. Yet, despite my mother’s belief, I had no sense of the shift my life was poised to take one rainy day in mid-September 1648 as I peered into a rock pool in search of crabs.
I wrinkled my nose and dangled my line into the water. The grey sea sloshed around the rock on which I stood, met by the rainwater that trickled down in rivulets from the cliffs above. Summer wasn’t yet a distant memory, but the storm of the previous day had been a sharp reminder that autumn had arrived. Peggy, my wiry-haired mongrel, watched the gulls scavenging amongst the rocks but had yet to summon the energy to chase them. Beside me my sister, Lizzie, shivered and looked forlornly back to the beach.
'To think the fields were ploughed but a fortnight ago,' she muttered.
I felt a tug on my line and lifted an enormous crab out of the rock pool, but Lizzie was distracted. She glanced up at the sky as a finger of sunlight broke through the clouds overhead.
‘Zooks! Look at the sun, Tom! Mother will be starting supper.’ She grabbed her bucket of crabs and scrambled back across the rocks. ‘Don't forget the tobacco for Father,’ she called over her shoulder as she crossed the beach towards the lights that were beginning to twinkle in the windows of the cottages that made up the tiny hamlet of Osmington Mills.
I replied with a wave as I set my bucket on a ledge out of the wind and began the slippery climb to the smugglers’ cave. It was a precarious route in wet weather, with fissures into which one could quite easily slip and become stuck, but in an hour's time the tide would be in, cutting the cave off from the beach entirely.
The rocks were slick beneath my feet, and the drizzling rain soaked right through to my skin as I clambered from one to the next. This exposure to every extreme of weather that the Dorset coast endured had weathered my complexion into a freckled ruddiness. My usual mop of sandy curls now lay plastered against my forehead, and my eyes squinted against the rainwater that dripped from my brow.
As I set my feet on sand once more, I stooped to pick up a small wooden box nestled between two rocks at the mouth of the cave. It was perfectly plain, cylindrical in shape, with an elaborate lock formed of tiny brass cogs, dials and pulleys, some of which were clearly missing or broken. I looked back to the beach. Only the smugglers ever came here. Perhaps it belonged to one of them- except that all the smugglers in Osmington Mills were far too careful to leave anything out in the open. There were crevices and tunnels that wound right into the heart of the cliffs where contraband was cleverly concealed from the prying eyes of the customs men. There was no need to leave anything in plain sight. Besides, the little drift of sand piled up against the box seemed to indicate it had been deposited there by the sea.
'I bet it's from that shipwreck yesterday,' I muttered to Peggy as I tucked it under my arm and ducked into the cave. The entrance was just a few feet in height and submerged at high tide, but inside it widened and rose steadily above the tide’s reach, opening out into several passageways and crevices scooped out by the sea in ancient times. It was a perfect smugglers’ cave.
I selected one pack of tobacco from a pile of goods stuffed into a cleft in the wall and tucked it into my belt. With the crabbing line, I lashed the box to my back. I would need both hands to scale the rocks back to the beach.
Outside, the wind had picked up, and the drizzle was replaced with great spots of rain. Across the beach, a flicker of firelight glowed in the mouth of another smaller cave beyond a rocky outcrop.
''Tis a fool who ventures out with a storm about to break,' I thought to myself.
Thunder rumbled overhead, and the foamy white tips of the waves collapsed against the rocks with an intensity that had become a familiar sight over the past week. The few fishing boats that had braved the rain were now gone, safely moored in the harbour. Everyone was braced for another mighty storm.
After church the next morning, my father said he needed my help mending the thatch of the cottage roof where it had been damaged by the storm. All day my curiosity about the box mounted, but it wasn't until late in the afternoon when I managed to slip away to the oak tree in the garden where I had hidden it the previous day.
The tree roots were huge, gnarled and strangled with ivy that climbed up the bough. It was beneath this mass of roots and greenery where I hid all my secret things that I wanted to keep private. I thrust my hands into the thickness of ivy leaves and drew out the box. It was exactly as I remembered from yesterday and no less intriguing. I fumbled about between the tree roots and drew out the little metal stick I had found some time ago. It was probably part of a lady's hat pin. I had found it on the road and kept it, thinking it might be useful for things such as picking locks. I was glad I had now.
The remaining cogs that were still intact spun and whirred as I fiddled and poked at the lock. It took some time and patience, but eventually a catch sprung back, and I lifted the lid in anticipation. It was with a twinge of disappointment that I found that the box contained yet another lid without visible lock or key hole, yet try as I might, I couldn’t open it. I turned the box over and over in my hands, but the lid would not move.
Frustrated, I glanced over to the cottage. Through the window, I could see my mother and Lizzie preparing supper while my father had gone to take a sniff of air down by the harbour. Tucking the box under my arm, I slipped into the cottage and up the stairs, careful not to let Lizzie or my mother see. Something about the box, with its intriguing series of locks and lids, had piqued my curiosity, and I meant to take a closer look later if I had the chance.
Lizzie and I shared a bedroom at the back of the cottage, while our mother and father had the room at the front. Lizzie had the one rickety little bed, and I slept on a threadbare rug on the floor beneath the window. A shabby curtain acted as a partition between the two sides of the room. Even with the money we made from smuggling we were poor, and so the cottage was rather sparse with very few places to hide the box without it being found. I looked about the bedroom for somewhere to conceal the it, at least until I could find a more permanent place. A bundle of old blankets, which I sometimes wrapped around myself at night in the cold weather, appeared to be the only place it could be hidden with some degree of certainty that it would not be disturbed. Wrapping the blankets about the box, I returned them to the corner where they had lain over the summer months.
'What have you been doing?' asked Lizzie as I crept back down the stairs.
'Nothing,' I replied, quickly changing the subject. 'When will supper be ready?'
'Soon,' replied my mother. 'Be a dear and fetch your father.'
I ducked out of the front door, followed by Peggy. Already, I was getting too tall for the cottage, though I was barely fifteen.
I made my way down the path and out into the lane. To the right of the cottage stood three others all built of stone and with the same tumbled-down and slightly lop-sided appearance. To the left, the lane wound sharply down towards the beach and the harbour. Across the lane, a hedge, heavy with ripe blackberries, and a few hardy oaks screened the cottages from the worst that the English Channel could hurl at them.
I whistled as I strolled down to the harbour. Streaks of pink sky broke through the clouds in the west. Somewhere far behind them, the sun was setting. As I rounded the corner, I saw my father leaning upon an old gatepost and talking with another fisherman and fellow smuggler, Harry Swain.
'Hello, Tom,' said Harry as I approached. 'Not troubling your old dad overmuch, I hope?'
'No, Mr. Swain,' I replied. 'Mother says supper is ready,' I said, turning to my father.
'Okay, lad, you go on. Tell your mother I shan't be much longer,' he replied.
I hesitated a moment before starting back towards the cottage. Something in my father's voice made me uneasy. He seemed troubled or put out by whatever he and Harry were discussing.
I stopped and turned back just before the two men were lost from view as the lane wound back up towards the cottages. They appeared to be saying their goodbyes. I dithered for a moment, wondering whether to wait for my father, before I thought better of it and hurried back home.
At the kitchen table, he was unusually quiet. My mother knew better than to probe. If the customs men came knocking, it was better to know as little as possible about his illicit activities. My mother was an honest woman, and while she accepted her husband's smuggling enterprise as a necessary means of supporting the family, it weighed heavily upon her conscience.
'Harry Swain told me something right peculiar,' said my father suddenly.
'Really?' my mother replied, sweeping the empty plates from the kitchen table and depositing them in the washing bowl.
'A man, he said, asking after Thomas Wild. Harry thought he was one of those Roundhead sorts- had his hair cropped close to the head as they do -though what one of them would be doing round here, heaven only knows. He'll not find support in these parts. We're King’s men good and proper, I said to Harry, and to tell the truth it vexed me that one of them should be asking after me.' The displeasure in my father’s voice was clear.
'Is Harry sure it wasn't one of the customs men?' asked my mother anxiously. 'I can’t see any other reason why a stranger would be asking after you. You should be more careful, Wild, or you will find yourself at the end of the hangman's rope one of these days.'
My mother shook her head wearily, but my father rolled his eyes and winked at me. His vexation was clearly short-lived.
'What did Mr. Swain tell the man?' I asked.
'Harry told him there was no man by that name in these parts,' my father answered with a chuckle.
Osmington Mills was a tiny place, and its inhabitants were wary of strangers, especially those who arrived unannounced and asked questions without giving any explanation of themselves.
'Do you think he will come back?' I asked.
‘No,’ replied my father. ‘Harry bade him be on his way, and none too kindly, he said. We don't want those sorts poking their noses into our business and whipping up dissent.'
My father seemed convinced that the man had nothing to do with smuggling, and that reassured me somewhat, but I couldn't shake the feeling that there was more to it than what he believed.
'I wish I could have seen him for myself,' I thought as I climbed the stairs to bed later that night.
Lizzie was asleep as I slipped quietly round the curtain to my side of the room. It was already dark, and a little slither of moon was just visible through the nodding branches of the oak tree outside the window. I glanced across to the bundle of blankets in the corner where the box was hidden. I knew I would have to decide what I was going to do with it soon. It couldn't stay hidden in the corner forever. I sighed.
'Reverend Crocombe would know what to do,’ I thought as I settled down to sleep, but a strange reluctance to share the secret of the box made me think otherwise. In truth, I was beginning to wish I hadn't found it at all, despite the fascination it held. Something warned me that trouble would come of it.
I tossed and turned until my mind was made up. I decided I would leave early the next morning, before anyone else was awake, and return the box to the cave. Perhaps for fear of being reprimanded for hiding it in the first place or for other reasons entirely, I wasn't sure, but I was certain that I didn't want Lizzie or my mother and father to know anything about it.
It was cold and foggy when I woke the next morning. I opened the curtain and peeped out at the garden. The old oak tree was soaked in dew, and the grass glistened with beads of moisture.
I threw on my clothes and slipped quietly out of the cottage with the box tucked under my jacket. No one would wonder where I was or why I had left so early; I often did in order to comb the beach for flotsam after a shipwreck.
At the end of the garden, I opened the gate into the lane then shut it softly behind me, careful not to let it clang. It was just beginning to get light as I made my way down the lane with Peggy trotting beside me. The murmur of the sea as the tide crept out and the rustling of birds in the hedgerows were the only sounds to be heard. It was too early for anyone to be out, but a peculiar feeling that I was being watched crept over me quite suddenly. I paused and looked about. A fox returning late to its den crossed the lane and disappeared into the fields behind the cottages, but the rest of the world seemed still and silent, indifferent to the man that appeared suddenly from out of the fog. He was tall and wore a great black cloak and capotain hat. His boots reached to his knees and were caked in mud. He stopped a few yards from me. It was difficult to see his face, but he looked at me for a few seconds before he spoke.
'Thomas Wild,' he said.
'No, sir,' I stammered. He unnerved me, but I had my wits about me enough to remember what my father told me last night. With that, I put my head down and moved to pass the stranger.
My heart thudded as I hurried down the lane. The man didn’t move as I passed him. I wondered if he had carried on his way, but I didn't dare look back.
'Thomas Wild,' he said again.
My heart almost leapt into my mouth. I wanted to run, but my legs stopped without me knowing quite why. Peggy whimpered and tucked her tail between her legs.
'I am looking for Thomas Wild,' said the man. He had turned around and was facing me now. It would have been a good time to run, but my will seemed to have abandoned my body, and I stood quite still staring back at the stranger.
'You are Thomas Wild, are you not?' said the man, taking a step towards me.
I could do little more than point back down the lane towards the cottage. 'My father,' was all I managed to say.
'No, I am looking for Thomas junior,' said the man. 'Are you Thomas Wild?'
I nodded then immediately regretted it. 'Why ever did I tell him that?' I thought as soon as I had done it
'Good,' said the man. 'I believe you have something that belongs to me.'
He strode towards me and snatched the box from me, stuffing it under his left arm. With his free hand, he grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and marched me down the lane to where a coach and two horses waited. I yelled and struggled, but he held me tight. In the harbour below, a few fishing boats glided out to sea, but the men in them were too far away to hear me shout.
The coach door was open, and the man thrust me in. Two lengths of rope and a strip of linen lay on the seat, with which he bound my hands and feet together and gagged me. He shut the door and moved round to the front of the coach, seating himself on the basket. With a flick of the horses' reigns we were moving. Outside, I could hear Peggy barking as she chased the coach.
I couldn't raise myself to see out of the window, but I knew the land well enough to tell where we were going for several miles. The coach bumped along, the wheels snagging a stone every few yards until the lane broadened into a road that was smoother and better maintained. Then I heard the crack of a whip, and the horses broke into a run. I hardly dared to hope they would stop as I lay on the floor of the coach and wondered what would become of me.
The jolts of the coach where it hit a pothole made me feel quite sick. I tried to pull myself up onto the seat and attract the attention of a passing coach or rider, but movement was rendered virtually impossible with neither my hands nor feet free to provide some leverage, and the knots that bound me were hopelessly tight.
Quite soon I had lost all sense of direction. We had left the roads I knew, and Osmington Mills was now far behind us. A few times I heard the clip of horses' hooves or the rattle of wheels from another coach as it passed us by, but they disappeared as the coach raced on. I hoped the speed with which we were travelling would cause one of its wheels to fall off, or that the horses might get a stone in their shoes, but my luck had abandoned me that morning.
At last, the coach slowed, and I could hear the cries of seagulls, carriages clattering down cobbled streets, and the babble of many voices just outside. Through the window above me, I could see the tops of tall brick buildings.
'Probably Weymouth,' I thought to myself. I had been there once before with my father. It had a proper port and was much larger than Osmington Mills.
After a few minutes, the coach stopped, and I heard the man get down from the basket. A second later, the door opened, and he unbound me, re-tying my wrists only so that I was free to walk. The gag was left in place.
'Look you, boy. Don't try to run or otherwise draw attention to yourself,' he said as he hauled me out of the coach and threw a very large cloak over me with a hood that reached down almost to my chin. 'Keep your head down.'
The man guided me through the streets and down to the harbour, with one hand firmly gripping my shoulder. I did as I was instructed, but my eyes darted from side to side, desperately searching for an opportunity to give him the slip if I possibly could. The streets teemed with people moving to and from the harbour, and the commotion he would cause trying to restrain me would draw their attention. If I could just find the right moment, I might be able to escape.
We walked along a busy street lined with houses and shops. Beneath the hood, I glimpsed the feet of people passing on either side. Here and there, the rows of buildings were interrupted by alleys and side roads opening out onto the main street, but each time we passed one a carriage would rattle past or a lady and gentleman would stroll by arm-in-arm blocking my escape. My heart pounded. The cries of the sea gulls and the voices of the sailors in the harbour were getting closer. My window of opportunity was closing fast.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a narrow passageway between the buildings to my right. One or two men sat on top of barrels of beer outside the entrance of an inn, but otherwise the way was clear. Seizing my chance at once, I ducked out of the man’s grasp and swerved to the right. He lunged after me, cursing under his breath, but I was too quick for him. I bolted down the passageway and sprinted down the adjoining lane, too terrified to look back until I had cleared the next few streets.
The noise of the main street was distant now, and there was no sound of pursuit. I leaned my back against a wall and tore the gag from my mouth. My pulse thudded in my ears as beads of sweat trickled down my forehead. I glanced up and down the street I found myself in. It was deserted except for a black cat sitting on a wall on the opposite side. I had no idea in which direction Osmington Mills lay, but it seemed sensible to get as far away as possible from the place where I had made my escape. I had evaded pursuit, but there was no telling whether the man would come after me. He would know that I couldn't have gone far.
Just as I considered this possibility, a rough hand grabbed my shoulder and held me firmly.
'I warned you not to run,' said a familiar voice.
My heart leapt into my throat. The man spun me round and dragged me back towards the harbour by my collar. A menacing tone coloured his voice, and I dared not resist.
'Hurry! The ship is waiting for us,' he said.
About the Author
Frances lives in Shropshire, England with her husband and two pet rabbits. She started writing to fill her evenings while her husband, a former Grenadier Guard in the British Army, was away. A Skin of a Dragon was inspired by the Tower of London ravens which her husband told her about after one of his guard duties at the Tower. Folklore and the history of magic are also a continual source of inspiration.
Aside from writing, Frances’ other passion is rabbits, and she spends far too much time watching videos of the furry critters online!
Aside from writing, Frances’ other passion is rabbits, and she spends far too much time watching videos of the furry critters online!
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