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St. Louis, Missouri – 1875
The shuffle of boots close-by made Ashton sink deeper into his hiding spot in the trash hewn alley. He touched his swollen, bloodied lip and worried more was to come. Exhaust billowed from the pipe works of the factories and iron foundry. It heated the bricks and lingered in the night air. Once the footsteps had passed, he scurried from his hiding place, running through a cloud of steam towards the main street. He tasted oil and chemicals and coughed, cringing at the sound and hoping they did not hear him.
An overturned barrel barred the way to his right, stopping him short and he tripped in his too big shoes. Panic stole his breath. None of this looked familiar. He shivered in the thin material of his shirt and trousers, remembering with longing the fine coat he used to hate wearing. He leaned both hands on his knees, panting for breath and listening.
A horse whinnied. A gas lamp on the street sputtered alight giving him a glimpse of his surroundings.
Movement flickered at the opening of the alley, yanking a gasp from Ashton.
They were right there.
Backing up, he flattened himself against the bricks and blinked tears from his eyes. The boys chasing him were so fast, so big. What if they caught him again? Ashton spotted a fence separating the alleyway from the side of the foundry and squeezed his slight frame between the broken slats of a gate just as he heard their voices behind him.
"He went that way." Paddy O'Darren's massive shadow wavered in the light of the gas lamp. He edged his way along the cobblestones. "If you find him, bring him to me. He's getting it this time!"
Ashton froze and tried to slow the hammering of his heart. He watched through the space between the boards, hoping the dark of his hair and eyes might hide him. Paddy slowed at the gate, his gaze narrowed and he bent, rummaging through the rubbish in the alley. He kicked over crates and looked under piles of trash, muttering. Big and bruised from years of work in the iron and pipe foundries, Paddy ran the Mill Boys with terror and beatings. Now nearly sixteen, his group of boys worked the chimney and tunnel cleaning trade for a large part of St. Louis. Ashton, new to the streets by just a few months, had stayed out of Paddy's way until two days ago.
"I know yer out here, Wells." Paddy's gravelly voice sounded from the other side of the fence. "Mill Boys do the job they was hired for. No whining about it. No shirking either."
Ashton touched his fingertips to his cheekbone, feeling the growing bruise from Paddy's punch to his face. Earlier, after stealing from a shopkeeper and trying to get away, he had run right into Paddy. Quite literally, his eight-year-old frame had bounced off the teenager's torso like a bug. For the rest of that day and all the next, Ashton was dragged onto rooftops and shoved down chimneys as the Mill Boy's newest sweep. When he complained, said he was scared of the charred walls crushing him, Paddy had answered with knuckles.
That night, with his elbows and knees scraped and bleeding and the taste of soot still coating the inside of his mouth, Ashton decided he would not go back down another chimney. So he waited, trembling under the threadbare blanket on the cold floor of the abandoned shop where the Mill Boys slept. When he thought they were all asleep, he tiptoed across bodies and out the door. He was almost to freedom when a squeaky floor board gave him away and he had to run for his life.
Ashton wrapped his thin arms around himself and hoped Paddy could not hear the chattering of his teeth. He dared not look, clenching his eyes shut. The movements of the large boy on the other side of the fence grew closer. Then nothing. The stillness and silence were unnerving. Only the sound of the constantly chugging factory machines interrupted the night. Ashton let his breath out, chancing a glance between the slats, but saw no one. He gripped the top of the fence with scraped fingers and stood on his tip toes to peer over. Craning his neck, he looking up and down the alley. It was empty.
A ripple of relief spread through his middle, and Ashton lowered himself with a sigh. He should go find a place to stay, maybe near the steamboats. Lots of folks to beg from down there, he'd heard. Maybe he could even stow away and go someplace cleaner ... safer ... like home use to be. A well of sorrow and fear threatened to flood over him. Gritting his teeth, he tried not to think of his parents, blocking the images of the house fire from coming back. Crying like a baby did nothing out here but get you made fun of, or worse. Best to not think of those things at all.
Ashton started back down the alley, lost in thought. A hand shot out of the shadows and gripped him by the throat. Ashton tried to cry out, to struggle, but Paddy's iron vice barely let him draw in air. Pin pricks fired at the corners of his vision, and he panicked, thrashing wildly.
"Settle down," Paddy growled. He threw Ashton to the muddy ground and kicked him viciously in the side.
Ashton howled, the pain boring through his whole body. "Stop, stop," he begged.
"I ought ta just kick you 'til you stop moving." Paddy snarled, delivering another kick to Ashton's thigh.
"No," Ashton gasped, his face tight with pain. "No, please."
"I let you run from me and then what do the other boys think, huh?" Paddy leaned down, pressing a knife to Ashton's chin. "Can't let them think I'm weak. I got no use for a headache like yerself."
"I – I will go back," Ashton said, his lip quivering as the point of the blade dug into his skin. "I p-promise not to run."
Paddy leaned back, eyes narrowed. "Where'd you learn to talk like that, huh? Like you know the Queen Herself, er something?"
Ashton blinked, confused. "I was born in England ... but my governess was from America. Perhaps —"
"Governess? What, is Ashton Wells a noble?" Paddy guffawed, but then stopped, his gaze intense. "Do you know how to read?"
Ashton nodded. "Yes, I can read."
"Well then," Paddy said. He stood and put away his knife, and then extended his hand to Ashton. "I might have use for you after all."
For the next few weeks, Paddy used Ashton to break into several shops and homes via the chimney in the dead of night. Although it was still frightening, the fact that Ashton only had to get in and out of the narrow passage and not actually clean and breathe in the sooty grime, did make it bearable. He took only ledgers and schedules, catalogs and the like, never anything else. Not sure why he was doing it, but grateful to not live in constant fear, Ashton spent hours reading to Paddy by candlelight on the roof of the Mill Boy's place after everyone had gone to sleep.
"That, right there. The one you just said." Paddy spoke through a mouthful of bread.
"What, the one about the ..." Ashton squinted at the ledger, sounding out the word. "apparatus?"
"Yeah." Paddy stood, stretching his back. He let out a long burp. "Inventors use that word and where there's tinkerers, there's copper. And copper sells good up by the harbor." He tossed Ashton the crusty loaf and motioned with his head. "Let's go."
"What, now?" Ashton took a bite off the hunk of bread, and his stomach rumbled with anticipation. He hadn't eaten since the morning.
"Yeah, show me where this ledger says it delivered all that copper to."
"I think the address of the delivery is in the Warehouse District," Ashton said, flipping the book closed. An embossed symbol marked the cover, and it was smooth against the pads of his fingers. A crossed blade and parchment done in crimson. "What is a tinkerer?"
Paddy didn't answer. Instead, he climbed down the fire escape with Ashton right behind. They trudged through back alleys and finally wove through the eerily quiet Warehouse District. The building where the ledger said the delivery was dropped came into view and Ashton shook with cold and fear. Factories had guards. Getting caught would mean a boys' home or factory work where he'd heard of many children dying or worse, maimed for life able only to sell matchsticks on the street.
"T-that's the one," Ashton whispered, pointing up ahead.
They stopped short of the building. The two-story rusted structure seemed to peer out at the night through blacked out windows. Paddy eased into the shadows. He gave Ashton a shove forward.
"Go on then," he hissed. "Make it quick. Get in, unlock the door, and I'll come in with this." He held up an empty sack and tossed another one to Ashton. "We'll take as much as we can carry."
"But ..." Ashton hesitated, his stomach churning.
"I said go!" Paddy swooped down, picked up a rock, and threw it at Ashton, striking his temple.
Ashton yelped. Hand to his head, he turned and ran to the rear of the warehouse, hot tears stinging his face. There was no chimney. He swallowed hard, casting about for some way, any way to get inside. The thought of what Paddy might do if he failed sent his heart ramming. The wind rattled a low rectangular window near the ground. It squeaked on its hinges. Ashton glanced around and gave it a push. It opened inward. He wedged himself inside, pulling and clawing his way through. His ribs felt crushed. The metal tore at his skin, but he couldn't fail at this. Almost in. Ashton heard a far off clink from within the warehouse. He froze, hoping a nearby guard did not hear his scuffling. With a final push he toppled inward, landing on the floor with a muffled groan. Writhing, he hissed at the pain for a few moments before catching his breath.
Slowly, his eyes adjusted to the wan light from the moon, and he looked around the space with amazement. Every manner of twirling gadget, clicking contraption, and whirling motion surrounded him. A soft glow came from some glass vials on the counter, and Ashton wandered over. He reached out, curious at the warmth from them, when light filled the room. Stumbling backwards, he fell over, attempting to shade his eyes from the bright glare.
"What are you doing here, boy?" a gruff voice boomed. The man loomed over him. Shirt sleeves rolled up, grease on his fingers, a monocle at his eye. His wild hair and mustache, both too long, stood on end. Ashton spied strange tools in his hand and wondered if this was a tinkerer. "Are you here to steal? Are you a thief?"
"No-no ... sir." Ashton scrambled to his feet, his gaze going to the curious lantern the man held. It seemed to contain a wire glowing brilliantly with light instead of a candle or gas wick. "What is that?"
"None of your concern," the man said, but his gaze softened. "How old are you? Where are your parents?"
"They passed, sir," Ashton said, backing up and glancing around for a way to run. "But I'm not going to a boys' home."
"Well you can't wander the streets alone." The man the man grabbed for him. "I ..."
But Ashton was already moving, skirting around the work table and darting for the door. He passed a tray with strange metal parts and grabbed one, glanced at it, and threw it at the man's feet. It hit the ground. A cloud of smoke and sparks flew between them. Propelled by the blast, Ashton flew backwards. He skidded against the far counter, unable to catch his breath, pain throbbing through his head.
Coughing, he tried to rise, but his arms buckled. On the floor, Ashton watched the man's boots coming nearer until he was staring at the toes. The man bent down, his curious gaze holding Ashton's bleary one.
"How did you know to throw that?" the man asked.
"Ignis," Ashton wheezed, his vision going grey. "it was etched on the metal. That is Latin. It m-means fire."
The man rocked back on his heels and scratched at his sideburn.
"Why were you here? You are clearly not a street child. You're educated, speak well." The man glanced back at the open window. "Did someone send you here?"
"I was forced," Ashton said, his tongue going to the cut in his lip. "I had to or he'd beat me. I wouldn't have broken in otherwise. I know thievery is —"
"Well, obviously the likelihood of this being your grand plan is ridiculous," the man said. "You cannot be more than eight years."
Something made Ashton angry over that. He was nearly nine. Old enough to fend for himself, obviously. He sat up, blowing the strange powder from the explosion from the tip of his nose. "Well, I'd rather face Paddy than go —"
"To a home for orphans," The man interrupted. "Yes, I believe you mentioned that." He shook his head, pulled out a handkerchief, and handed it to him. There was a curious look on the man's face that Ashton did not understand. "No, I do not believe you belong in a terrible place like that. In fact, I know exactly where you do belong."
The carriage drew up to an enormous building and Ashton stirred, his neck aching from sleeping sitting up. He stared, opened mouth at the crimson heralds snapping in the dawn light. The tinkerer, who'd barely spoken during the journey, turned to him, and held up his hand.
"Stay here. I am going to speak to the provost."
The vast wooden doors to the abbey opened and a man wrapped in curious robes stepped out, greeting the tinkerer with a nod. Leaning out the door of the carriage, Ashton strained to hear their conversation.
"... orphan," the tinkerer had said. "... will pay the expenses."
Ashton watched the exchange with bated breath. What was this place? It resembled a cathedral like the ones he'd seen while on holiday with his parents, but fortified, like a castle. Boys fought in groups, their swords clanging in the crisp morning air. The grounds held giant flowering trees and other boys in robes talked while seated beneath them. Ashton had not thought such a place still existed outside the grit and metal of the city. He could hardly remember the gardens at his family's estate. Or what it felt like to be clean. Nor had he ever seen the curious clothing or shaved heads like the boys had here. He wondered where they were.
The tinkerer ended his conversation and returned.
"This house of veneration belongs to The Order of the Sword and Scroll." The tinkerer helped Ashton from the carriage. "You will be a novice here. You're to train to be a Man of Books in the Order."
"I – I am able to stay here?" Ashton blinked, hoping it was not a dream. A whisper of hope rose in his heart. "Like the others?"
"Learn and grow wiser than you have been tonight," the tinkerer whispered as they strode for the steps. "You have a chance to become more than your peers. Do not squander it."
In the two years since arriving, Ashton had learned that not all novices of The Order were equal. In fact, some were considered much lower than others, himself included. Most boys in The Order were celebrated if chosen. Most were from noble and wealthy families. There were few like Ashton who had a benefactor. It was his lack of means and family connections that set him apart. Clear from the first night, when he'd been scrutinized and teased by boys who'd only ever known clean clothes and soft beds, they did not believe Ashton belonged.
Though he'd grown quite a bit since arriving, Ashton was still too small to defend himself from those who truly wanted to pick on him. He rarely saw the tinkerer, or, as Ashton had come to think of him, his benefactor. Yet, the man's words drove him. Ashton never wanted go back to the streets and the cold and the hunger. Not ever again.
The morning gong sounded and Ashton hurried down the steps of the abbey towards the garden. A boy up ahead, slowed when he saw Ashton, the pale blonde brows quirking as Ashton caught up. Adjusting his novice robe, Ashton ran his hand along the shaved skin of his head and smiled at the boy.
"Do not worry," Ashton said. "Master Galen does not hate you."
"Why are we always late?" Tristan huffed, the husky boy had arrived a week after Ashton, and the two found surviving together was easier than trying it alone. Neither had any family to speak of.
"We will slip in unnoticed," Ashton promised.
The other novices stood at attention as the Master of Science spoke while gesturing with a cane to various plants. Ashton sneaked into his proper place. The boy next to him cleared his throat, annoyed.
"And what do you call this, Tristan," Master Galen asked. "Now that you have deigned to join us."
Tristan's face flushed red, and he sputtered, looking helpless. "It is, uh ..."
Several boys snickered. One muttered under his breath about useless trash, and the words roiled in Ashton's gut.
"It is foxglove," Ashton called out.
"In Latin," Master Galen snapped, banging his cane on the gravel.
Excerpted from "Of Books and Blades"
Copyright © 2017 Raquel Byrnes.
Excerpted by permission of Pelican Ventures, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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