2. Hemlock

“I still think you are being too sentimental about this.” Arthur Thistle didn’t look over to his slightly-taller cousin as they moved through the dreary drizzle. Mr. Hawthorn was a step behind the two men of import with an umbrella tipped to shield from the downpour. All three of them moved up a short hill of well trimmed grass and small flowering trees.

“I would call it having the proper thing to do.” Roland replied dryly and brushed down the side of his black jacket. His gaze roamed over the other funeral-goers before shifting to the relative beside him. They shared the same base jaw line but Arthur’s suffered from hardly ever smiling and a scar that ran from the bottom of his lip and down two inches. The caustic cousin had a handsome and immaculately cut head of blond hair and well groomed sideburns. His nose was just like his mother’s, a bit too sharp giving him the look of a bird of prey at times. It well matched the unkind shape of Arthur’s eyes. Some men were born to be perpetually angry. Needless to say the pair never really got along.

Arthur’s cruel gaze sliced into Roland’s, their eye color was similar. “And I would disagree. As usual you are too soft. The woman’s corpse should be saved and studied. It could provide a wealth of information.”

“As usual you are too callous.” Roland looked away to where Ms. Sage waited for them at the top of the hill. She had a melancholy expression for obvious reasons. Her spectacles fogged up due to the fitting weather. She lifted one hand and wiggled fingers to Roland but gave the other Thistle barely a glance. “People are not tools, Arthur.”

“Tools are not people, Roland.” Arthur snorted and looked back up the hill. The affection that his slightly elder cousin always showed for these machines disgusted him. One of his own ‘girls’ stood at the top of the rise as well. In deference to the somber proceedings Ms. Hellebore wore a dark rain cloak over her usual attire. All of the girls had been designed to have an iconic look. Only hints of her soft pink skirts with white trim showed. She had a combat corset and in her case, if Roland recalled, a black blouse with ruffled neck for a top. Her fire-engine red hair was always styled in a finger wave down the left side of her head. Some called Ms. Hellebore’s face cherubic until she smiled, then it had a sinister air too it. Her full cheeks were sprinkled with freckles and like Ms. Sage she too wore glasses. Hers were tiny and round, however, perched in the end of girlish nose. It was odd to see her without her special-issue rifle over shoulder. Ms. Hellebore saluted Arthur with a proper display of respect. Her mischievous grin soon surfaced as she focused on Roland.

“Where are the rest of your sisters?” Roland asked his cousin with quiet tones. He reached out and took Ms. Sage’s arm in a gentlemanly manner, patted her gloved hand. Despite the company he even offered her a gentle. “Hello.”

“Waiting at the airfield so after this affair we can return to London, and on to Normandy from there.” In contrast Arthur didn’t take Ms. Hellebore’s arm. The impish clockwork settled just off to his right and opened an umbrella as well. She gently nudged Nigel away from her master. The butler was all too happy to comply.

At the top of the small hill Roland paused and looked past the assembled mourners to the sea of headstones and graveyard statuary spread before them. Scarborough’s graveyards grew by leaps and bounds every year. He wondered at what point the number of dead would eclipse the living. “That begs the question, why are you here then?”

“First to try and talk you out of this unwise decision, as futile as I know it to be.” A scowl pressed across the other Thistle’s noble features as he took note of where Ms. Thyme, Ms. Rosemary and Ms. Parsley were all standing. What a waste of time and resources. “Second, in case there is any trouble, someone competent should be on hand.”

Ms. Sage’s lovely jaw tensed in anger. She nearly had to bite her tongue to stay silent. Not an hour went by whenever Arthur Thistle was visiting that she did not want to punch the arrogant bastard in the throat. To have him here at this solemn event was nearly the last straw. She relaxed when Roland’s fingers secretly brushed an exposed sliver of her wrist.

“And so they are. If you would pardon me then, cousin.” Roland settled a kind smile on his most annoying relative. Then off he moved to give condolences to Mr. Castillo with Ms. Sage at his side. While he had to put on the airs of deep condolence Ms. Sage wore an honest expression of sorry. They were both surprised to see the Widow Scabious standing not far off too, her expressions hidden behind veil. Arthur and Ms. Hellebore moved off to stand among the crowd of mourners. They did not chat with anyone, not even one another.

“I pray you are healing well, Mr. Castillo.” Roland cleared his throat.

“Si. We are sorry for your loss. Olivia was a fine woman, Ferdinand.” Ms. Sage added with a somber smile, adding a softer edge to her director’s words. While Roland was a kind man, he could still come off as stuffy to those that did not know him.

Ferdinand wore a black coat over his broad shoulders as one of his arms was still in a sling. He was otherwise dressed properly for the dire occasion. There was no hiding the pain on the surface of his handsome face. Ferdy closed his eyes and he sighed deeply. “Gracias, senorita. I am, honored and a bit stunned that you all chose to attend. Especially after-“

“Water under the bridge, friend.” By using a small hand-gesture and a gentle smile Roland wiped the incident away. The man’s anger was justified and his actions fueled by misconceptions and infection’s fever. “We are here to support you, not relive past incidents.”

Mr. Castillo stared at the two of them in silence. Eventually that lapsed as well. “Thank you, Mr. Thistle. For your understanding as well and in helping get this organized.”

Roland’s eyebrows arched upwards as he he’d had nothing to do with the funeral arrangements. He did note that the Widow turned to glanced away across the manicured sea of headstones so not to be caught by his questioning look. He made a small ah before his gaze turned to Ferdinand once more. “I am glad to have been of service.”

Ferdinand nodded before turning to the clockwork woman on the cog smith’s arm. He noted how well the two fit against one another, it was natural and telling. “Senorita Sage.’

“Si?” The bespectacled beauty’s eyelashes fluttered. She of course always felt comfortable next to Mr. Thistle but tried not to think too much on it. She was a machine, not a woman and would do well to remember that.

“Olivia.” Ferdy coughed and glanced to the coffin of polished wood on which rain drops beaded. “She was a great admirer of yours and felt terrible with how the meeting between the two of you ended. She felt deeply that she had not treated you fairly considering what you’d done for all of us.”

Nigel did not say a word. He stood as still and silent as a statue behind Roland and Ms. Sage, content to keep the rain off of them. He’d been too far too many funerals to be affected by them much anymore.

“It was a rough night for all of us in Scarborough, Ferdinand. I should not have lost my temper.” Ms. Sage sucked in the inside of one cheek. Old barbs of guilt flared along the inside of her coiled copper and crystal heart. Again she wished she was as much a void as Ms. Thyme.

“The harpy deserved everything you did to it.” Ferdy shook his head in disagreement. He reached out and settled a strong hand on the woman’s dainty shoulder, and hoped that Mr. Thistle would not be offended. “I know that were she… alive… Olivia would like to make amends.”

“Considered things amended then.” The shield-maiden reached up and patted his hand with her own demure touch. She should have worn a veil of Spanish lace, the thought hit her. In the end, though, the Thistle Sisters needed to dress the same every time they were in the public eye. They were not just weapons of war but symbols. “We will find whoever has done this. Several agencies are trying to track down that coach and its occupants even now.”

“I pray the good Lord sees fit for you to find them. I know we are taught to… to…” Ferdy let out a quiet sigh and warred with his inner voice. The Widow Scabious moved closer with a quiet rustle of cloth and not the usual creaking. She settled a hand on his shoulder blade.

“Turning the other cheek only leaves us at the mercy of those that would kill us.” Elsbeth’s words sifted out from behind dark veils. “Sometimes I fear that the Lord has turned his eye away from us, leaving only Balor’s.”

The four of them looked up into the sky as if expecting to see the baleful moon staring down at them. The dim light was a result of the overcast day though; night was still several hours away. Ferdinand swallowed and shook his head. “Just. Please, catch who did this. Whatever judgment they will face… well I am sure it will be what they deserve.”

Quiet settled over the mourners as the priest made his way over to Ferdinand and told him it was time. The service began shortly thereafter and it was solemn but still touching. The rain never let up one bit and was joined with a biting wind from the north. As all that remained of sweet Olivia was lowered into the earth Ms. Sage’s porcelain teeth ground together. When she found whoever had done this to the young girl so full of hope she wasn’t going to turn the other cheek. She was going to rip their head off.

“I promise you that.” Ms. Sage spoke under breath.

Roland settled a curious look on her profile but didn’t say anything. She merely continued staring blankly until the casket disappeared deep into the earth, and then at the cascade of roses that chased after it.

As the steam-coach sped along through the same sort of drizzly afternoon a few days later Ms. Sage couldn’t get that image, or promise, out of her head. Instead Olivia’s coffin going into her grave and being covered with dirt played over and over. Even though she watched water drops smear across glass while the other girls discussed the intelligence that sent them out toward Hexham all she could hear was the murmur of funeral goers giving Mr. Castillo condolences. He’d managed only to last five or so minutes once the service was over before he broken down completely. It made no sense that seeing him weep had cut Ms. Sage so deeply. She’d had seen more than her share of death over the last few years – and the survivors left behind. Ever since the dead child in the Gentle Bull that fateful night she’d met the Castillo’s the clockwork woman had been off-kilter. Maybe that was why because Olivia was linked to the image that tore at her psyche so? That caused new well-springs of anger to filter up?

Or maybe it was because of shared ethnicity? Ms. Sage sighed softly as they moved past an orchard with all its trees in perfect rows. Olivia represented a tether to a life that Ms. Sage could not recall. She knew Spanish yes, and understood some of their customs but other than a place on a map she had no connection. The maelstrom in her mind was broken when Ms. Rosemary wrapped one of her gigantic gauntlets around her forearm.

“Are ye okay, lass? Ye’ve been a wee bit distant the whole way.” The Irishwoman’s bright blue gaze tried to pierce Ms. Sage’s hazels. “It’s sort o ‘disconcerting when we’re trying ta come up wit’ plans ye know.”

The gorgeous guardian blinked and color filled her cheeks when she realized that the other two girls were staring at her too. Ms. Sage didn’t offer a reason right way. In truth, she wasn’t exactly sure how to put it into words.

“Come on now, Sage. You can tell us. Did Roland try to put the moves on you?” Ms. Parsley made a silly face as she leaned forward with both of her elbows on her knees, wrists crossed over one another. The blonde let out a startled yelp when Ms. Thyme smacked her arm. She totally didn’t expect that.

The coach rattled as it hit a bump, jostling them all about. Harper called back apologies but none of the girls needed them. Speed was of the essence and thus discomfort was expected.

Ms. Thyme stopped fixing a listless glare on the pistoleer. “Ms. Sage and Mr. Thistle are full of propriety. Unlike some others in the back of this carriage, though I am not naming names. I am sure that she is merely planning strategy.”

A blink from Ms. Sage followed as Ms. Thyme gave their field commander a look that was clearly pleading. There was no way that the swordswoman could have yet another one of the Sisters gushing about a man. Ms. Parsley, some days, would not stop going on about Captain Redgrave.

“Cheeky!” Bell-like laughter spilled out of the gunslinger as she rubbed her arm.

“Neither, but it is nothing that needs to be worried after for the moment.” Ms. Sage adjusted her glasses with a stroke of two fingers. She flexed her back and glanced to Ms. Thyme. “Time until he reached the outskirts?”

“Twenty-one minutes in this weather and given the grade of the road.” The swords woman nodded sharply.

“Well. We are going to create quite the cacophony with all three battle wagons steaming into town, even more so when we turn up toward the target. Our lead escort is going to smash down any gate that we might encounter. We shall deploy and quickly assault the manor.” Ms. Sage drew a line across her own palm. “There is at the very least one, probably two gynoids on the premises along with whatever this coachman with the beaked mask is. As we are flying blind we need to ensure that we engage the enemy, before the soldiers do.”

“So the usual run in and get shot until we figure out how to overcome the problem.” Ms. Thyme’s humor was deadpan. She sharply nodded. “I think we can handle that.”

“I cannot emphasize enough that we cannot let anyone involved escape.” The coach bounced again as Ms. Sage spoke. She reached out and pressed a hand to the roof to steady herself. “We had to wait weeks before this lead finally came in. I do not want to lose these monsters.”

Ms. Rosemary’s hand had long since returned to her lap. The redhead frowned. This had become something personal to their most-logical sister, which meant Ms. Sage was acting partially on festering anger. Hopefully it didn’t lead their field commander into grave mistakes. She felt like she should speak up, but it didn’t feel right. In the end she had faith that Ms. Sage would not lead them into doom.

“I have to admit I am still uneasy about this.” Ms. Parsley was not as reserved as their powerhouse. “We’ve not got a peep about this and suddenly the strange coach with its beaked driver just flies past a garrison in the middle of the day? It feels like someone’s tossing a gauntlet down at our feet.”

Ms. Thyme swept hair over one of her ears. “A trap you mean to say?”

“Precisely.” The blonde nodded.

“A trap it more than likely is. It is one we must spring though.” Ms. Sage looked back out the window and frowned. She owed that much to Olivia’s memory. The trees started to thin out and the first hints of farmland were seen. They’d be there soon.

“Well, pardon me fer saying so.” The beautiful brute among them finally spoke up. “Perhaps it would be better if’n we tried sneaking ‘round n’ seeing the lay o the land first? Instead of barging right in?”

Ms. Sage drew in a slow breath, the leather of her combat corset creaking.

“I’m not trying ta be difficult, Sage. I promise.” Ms. Rosemary sighed and looked down at her steel gloves.

“I know. We shall go through with the direct plan of attack. Again, I do not want to give these… people… a chance to get away.” When she replied, which took some time, Ms. Sage wasn’t terse, just quiet. The other three Sisters shared a look but nodded in mute agreement.

“The lead driver says we’re about five minutes away, ladies.” Harper bellowed back but kept his eyes on the road. He could only barely make out their talking from where he sat. Not that he worried after what they were chatting about. All he had to do was focus on driving and follow the lead car. A steam-coach was easier to handle than he expected. He just had to turn the wheel and tilt its bar to get it to move how he wanted. It was louder and smeller than having horses though. He was just glad to be of some use to Kitty this way. Though, Harper was getting a bit tired of the carnage that seemed to always bloom near the girls.

That was more a factor of war than anything else.

Harper didn’t get any sort of response but he was sure the women heard him over the roar of the engine, the rattle of the chassis and the hiss of the boiler. His green-eyed glance barely shifted to the solider riding shotgun. The two of them shared a shrug and a smile before Harper’s gaze turned back to the road and battlewagon before him. It was heavier than the one he was driving at the moment, covered with extra plates of armor and what amounted to a cattle catcher on the front. From here though all he could see was its reflective bumper, the doors to its back and the ever turning chain-gun turret up top. Rocks were kicked up by all three of the vehicles sped along. The sun was threatening to set so he fiddled before flipping on the electric torches on the front of the vehicle.

The solider beside him snorted and started to say something but Harper cut him off. “We’re going to be ramming through the front gates anyway if we stick to the plan. I doubt me running lights will ruin anything.”

The other man sighed and shrugged before pointing up ahead. Harper nodded and leaned forward, splitting his attention. As the road curved the target building came into view. The Gothic manor pushed up from a line of dead trees. The decrepit gables and teetering spires of the house pinned the glow of setting sun in place and made it bleed. No glow came from its windows. Those that weren’t boarded up merely shimmered with wavy reflection. The ancient home was the sort of place pulled from cheap scare-novels. The sort populated with all sorts of specters and hysterical heroines.

“Spooky.’ Harper said and his co-pilot agreed as the desiccated ivy-covered wall of the grounds was met, just a corner of it. The lead battlewagon turned and picked up speed now; the braces of electric torches atop its turret flicked on. Water-cooled circles of barrels turned in a testing manner. Harper reached over and steadily pulled on the right lever to release more steam-power into the engine. He barely caught the silhouette of two massive crow-statues atop either side of a trash strewn-gate.

“Brace yourselves, girls. We’re going in!” He called back into the rear.

This time Ms. Thyme, who leaned forward into the door to the cab instead of bracing, spoke up. “Understood, Mr. Harper. As soon as we are through the gate turn away to give the back door better access to the grounds, if you are able.”

“Sure thing.” It was hard for him not to look back to the face of his dead sister. Ahead of him the first car was pouring on the speed, only to shudder as it struck the steel gate. Sparks flew as metal tore through metal. It was the cattle catcher that won though, the way through slammed open. The battlewagon suffered some damage though. Its path wobbled as it headed into the front yard. Then its progress came a sudden halt dozens of feet ahead as it drove up over the lip of a dusty and cobweb ridden fountain. The once lovely statue of a woman pouring out a water jar was smashed with a spray of stone-dust and falling chunks.

Harper cursed and had little choice but to throttle down and swerve to the side. The steam-coach rumbled over the top of a lawn long gone to sod and ended up crushing into sickly rose bushes. The thorns of it along with blood red blooms scraped along the windshield. Despite all the bouncing Ms. Thyme didn’t lose her balance. Her body adjusted weight and swayed moments before every bump.

“Fine driving, Mr. Harper.” She reached out and after a tick of hesitation patted his broad shoulder.

It was hard to tell if Ms. Thyme was being sarcastic or not with her lack of tone. Harper chose to take it as a compliment. “Thank you. Be careful.”

“When are we ever?” The swordswoman gave his arm a squeeze, that she would kick herself over later, and then turned to follow the rest of them out. There was rarely a mission where the four of them didn’t come back missing parts. They were machines and as easily repaired.

The last carriage had stopped just inside the gate and out of the back soldiers deployed with rifles and lights ready. The battlewagon didn’t bother pulling back from its perch yet. Its spotlights washed left to right over the house’s dark façade. While off to the side the black coach with extra wheels could be seem there was no life within the structure. The once-grand home was as dead as it had been for an untold number of years.

The Thistle Sister’s still advanced with caution, abreast in their movements. Ms. Sage scowled deeply and turned her umbrella over one shoulder. The rain tapered off and then ended all together. Briar-scrolled revolvers were already in Ms. Parsley’s delicate hands. Ms. Thyme didn’t have her swords out; instead she concentrated on the building before them. Ms. Rosemary idly linked her thick fingers together and stretched nice and tall.

“We shall proceed directly through the front door. Ms. Rosemary? If you would be see kind to ‘knock ‘ for us so they know we have arrived?” After snapping her umbrella closed Ms. Sage used it to point ahead with heroic flare. The roving light from the battlewagon glinted along silver frames.

“That shall not be necessary, Isadora” The static-filled voice carried everyone’s gaze upwards. There standing on one of the third floor’s age-eaten balconies was the coachman they had been looking for. He had one foot braced on crumbled railing like an arrogant sea captain, both elbows of crossed arms leaning against that knee. True to Ferdinand’s description the metal-mask he wore was modeled after the doctors of plague-stained history. The mask’s downward-sloped beak had obvious vents along the side and the lens glowed with a faint yellow, a leather cowl covered the back of his skull. He wore a classic rain-cloak from a more genteel age with black clothing underneath and a stout bit wide-brimmed hat. “It is you, is it not? I have to say you do not look like you have aged a day.”

“You must have me mistaken for someone else.” Ms. Sage’s frown remained intact as the spotlights swept up and framed the fellow. The ‘doctor’s’ dark clothing could be more clearly seen, consisting of metal plates, black cloth and leather.

His head shifted slightly so he might be looking down at those lights. The edge of his cloak danced in a slow rising breeze. It furled and twisted like a pirate’s flag. “Ms. Sage it is then. Pity that, nothing more than a weapon of war now. It seems Roland’s habit of failure continues.”

Now Ms. Sage knew what it felt like when Mr. Harper slipped up and called Ms. Thyme Kitty. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation at all. It was like the stomach she didn’t have twisted up into knots and was threatening to crawl up and strangle her.

“And just who are you?” Ms. Parsley used one of her guns to point at the footman. She even pulled the hammer back. It wasn’t like Ms. Sage to be struck silent so easily. Ms. Rosemary slid closer to the black-clad woman, striking up a protective stance.

“I have asked that of myself many times. My given name is quite irrelevant now, dead and buried. Every other moniker I come up with sounds like a cheap dime novel villains.” The man shrugged but otherwise didn’t shift position. He wasn’t even concerned when more than few other guns were trained on him. “I have asked my daughters a few times, but they have yet to offer any fine ideas either. Would you like to meet them? I am sure you would all get along… splendidly.”

“The roof.” Ms. Thyme warned with a curt tone.

Just moments before the four feminine figures that were now perched on the tallest spire were not there. Only Ms. Thyme had caught the barest hint of their movement. Maybe they just had been out of sight among the gables and toppled molding. None of the four mysterious women made a peep. They merely lingered there with clothing waving in the wind and plainly artificial eyes glowing. The last red streaks of sunset finally faded to nothing. They did not stay utterly still though, but shifted their stance akin to impatient hounds waiting to be set upon fleeing urchins.

Ms. Thyme’s expression betrayed a slow building trepidation. Her words filtered out in whisper. “They move like we do.”

The coachman finally moved to stand proper. He spread his arms wide and upturned hands crackled with galvanic fury as coils of wire glowed within palms. “No, my dear, they are superior to you in every imaginable way! Come, my precious ones, introduce yourselves to these obsolete pieces of junk.”

His speaker enhanced cackling filled the air as he threw his head back and gave into the melodrama. Arcs of lighting danced up from his gloves to trace along the balcony and rail.

“Yep, he’s a nutter.” Ms. Parsley pulled the trigger.

Bang.

To be continued

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