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Authors: Brad R. Cook

Iron horsemen

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IRON HORSEMEN

A NOVEL

BRAD R. COOK

Copyright © 2014 by Brad R. Cook

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Treehouse Publishing Group,a unit of Amphorae Publishing Group, LLC.

Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from the publisher. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the authors' rights.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is merely coincidental, and names, characters, places, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.

www.bradrcook.com@bradrcook

Cover design by Kristina Blank MakansiIllustration background: ShutterstockSteampunk frame: Illustrator Georgie Retzerhttps://www.facebook.com/Illustrator.GeorgieRearing horse: Celtic Cat Photoshttps://www.etsy.com/shop/Celticcatphotos

Interior layout by Kristina Blank MakansiInterior art by Jennifer Stolzerhttp://www.jenniferstolzer.com/

ISBN: 9780989207959

For Amber

IRON HORSEMEN

CHAPTER 1KIDNAPPED

London 1881

I'd always wanted to be like the heroes in my favorite stories—George Washington, or Sir Galahad, maybe King Arthur, Robin Hood, or Robinson Crusoe—but I knew those lives belonged to great men, not young boys trapped in stuffy old offices in pretentious British preparatory schools. If I wanted adventure, I'd have to make my own. I could not live vicariously through someone else's. Unfortunately, my opportunities for adventure were not only limited, they were non-existent.

I spent much of my time in a dark, wood-paneled prison cell lined with cabinets stuffed with odd objects and ancient artifacts and surrounded by floor-to-ceiling shelves jammed with leather-bound books in every language imaginable. What my cell didn't have was a single painting or photograph of me. That might not have been surprising if it really was a prison cell, but it wasn't. It just felt like it.

My father peered down at me as I picked at the corner of the ancient Greek text I was supposed to find fascinating. His brow lowered into harsh lines as he rebuked me once again.

“Young man, those words are priceless! How many times do I have to tell you?”

“I didn't do anything.” To prove my point, I moved my hand away from the torn corner to the nearest bit of text. “Look, you can still read the words.”

Professor Armitage, my father, removed thin wire-framed glasses from the end of his nose and rubbed his eyes. He waved his hand over the old manuscript he'd been studying, one of several scattered around his knotted oak desk. The leather chair creaked as he leaned back and gazed out the window.

“Alexander, I'm almost done with these translations.”

I said nothing as the professor returned to the page, but I saw it—the expression of satisfaction and pride one might expect to see light up a father's face on his only son's birthday. But the expression wasn't for me.

“If my theory is right, this is the lost account of a Stone Age civilization's destruction on the island of Malta.”

“Exciting,” I groaned. “I'm hungry and it's almost eight o'clock.” The lines on his forehead deepened to crevasses. After a moment's pause, when I was certain the thick vein in his neck would pop, I mumbled, “Get out of your dreams and into your Greek. Yes, sir. I will, sir.” But it was lie, a bold-faced one, too. I'd been dreaming of flying, of bursting through a dense cloud bank to surprise my enemy, retrieve a stolen treasure after a terrifying swordfight at dizzying heights, and rescue a damsel in distress. There were no clouds in my book.

“As punishment for the damage, I want you to read aloud—in the original.”

Dreams had to wait, as usual. I tossed back two locks of hair and began to read aloud. After a few moments, he tapped the thin metal pointer he'd been using to read, and I looked up.

“The correct way to say it isxi-fos. Now, what doesxifosmean?”

“Sword.” I quickly replied. One of my favorite words inany language.

“Once again, but this time in Latin.”

I repeated the sentence in Latin, and he nodded his approval.

“Now in Aramaic.”

“But no one even speaks….” My voice trailed off. The stern look on my father's face meant a whipping was imminent if I continued. Under my breath I mumbled, “If Mom were alive, she wouldn't make me.”

“I will not listen to that kind of talk.”

Since my mother's passing, each new school brought more and tougher studies. Maybe my father thought the languages would ground me, or all the studying would keep me out of trouble, but it only filled me with useless information—and endless frustration. Now, we'd landed in Eton, and I wondered when I'd ever go home to America again. A small sigh escaped, but I did what I was told and repeated the sentence in Aramaic.

“Good. Now continue your homework. I must finish this translation tonight.”

Relieved, I returned to my silent reading—and to my daydreaming. After a while, when I was sure he lost in his own world, I slid open one of the cabinet drawers and peered at the small leather pouch sitting alone on a folder. I flipped it open to reveal two lenses trimmed with polished brass.

“Can I use your telescope?”

“No, put it back.”

That word, always that word.No. No sweets. No, you're wrong. No, you can't stay in America. My jaw clenched, and I watched my father's eyes glaze over again as he reentered his world of ancient letters. I reached back in the drawer, plucked out the pouch, dropped the telescope into my bag, and slowly shut the drawer. My father would never miss it, and I thought it made a fine birthday present.

The moments crept by, and I wondered what the boys in the dormitories were doing. What my friends back home were doing? What normal boys with normal fathers were doing?

“Alexander.” A single shaft of light clung to my father's face as he snapped up from his work. “There's something I should tell you.”

I half listened, ready for another lecture on something old and uninteresting. “Huh.”

After a moment of silence, I glanced up and saw my father watching me, studying me like one of his yellowing codices. He shook his head sadly. “Never mind, you're not ready.”

Ready for what? Whatever it was, it didn't matter. Even if I was ready, he'd never see it. To calm myself, I refocused on the book. I certainly didn't want to transcribe the sentence into hieroglyphics.

My stomach roiled—we never ate dinner until our work was done for the evening—and I suddenly had the feeling that I might be getting sick. My pulse quickened and I sat up. Something nagged at me, but I could not say what, just that everything felt off kilter somehow.

A loud bang rang out from the hallway and we both jumped.

“Probably just the janitor,” the professor said. “Nothing to worry about.”

Nothing to worry about. Right. I shook my head in disbelief. Eton College might be the most exclusive school in the British Empire, but I had plenty to worry about. The heirs of British aristocracy, my classmates, had treated me like a second-class citizen since I set foot in the place, and because of my father's position, I couldn't fight back when they tormented me. There were probably some snooty upper-crust dandies lurking out in the hall, just waiting to pummel me again. If only I was back home in America. Iimagined whipping out a saber and showing them what a real sword fight was like—not that I was ever allowed to practice.

“Don't worry,” my father said again, as if to reassure himself more than me. “There'll be no intruders at Eton. They promised we'd be well-protected here.”

“Well-protected? Who promised—” I started to ask just as the door blew off its hinges and slammed into the far wall, a long crack seamed down its center. I screamed and scrambled to my feet as four stocky brutes marched in wearing long, dark overcoats and derby hats with rounded goggles. Wielding menacing, short black clubs, they looked like they'd just come from London's Whitechapel district with murder on their minds.

My father was on his feet in an instant. He grabbed one of the ponderous tomes from the pile on his desk and slammed it down on the nearest derby. A dusty cloud enveloped the intruder's head like a halo as he staggered back.

My father just clocked a nefarious henchman!I'd never even seen him make a fist.

“Get back!” my father yelled, shoving me toward the windows.

The dusty bruiser regained his footing, grunted in annoyance, and snorted from his nose like a raging bull. He raised a fist the size of my head.

My father held the book in front of his face. “Why did I have to grabthisone?” he moaned.

The book took the punch, and my father fell against his desk, but quickly scrambled away as a second blow whooshed past.

The men surrounded him with raised clubs.

I wanted to scream, but found my voice trapped in my throat like it was stuck behind a locked door. These were not annoying classmates. They were not from Eton at all.

The biggest brute, with a mask of bronze plates fastened over the right half of his face and an eye that sparked with electricity, stepped forward. “Ya'll gonna be comin' with us, Professor.” His deep southern American drawl had a harsh, guttural tone.

They weren't even from England!

“Who are you?” My father demanded.

“Nevermind 'bout that.” A whirring sound buzzed past my ear as a grappling hook connected by a thin wire shot out from the leader's sleeve. I barely uttered, “Watch out!” before it had snagged my father's shoulder.

My dad pushed me aside. “Run!”

But I was frozen in place.

The grappling hook yanked my father off his feet and dragged him across the floor. The leader of the group pressed his heavy booted foot down on my father's chest as the grappling hook retracted into his sleeve. The lamplight reflected off the man's belt buckle. It was unmistakable: engraved in silver, the crossed bands of stars from the Confederate flag flickered like they were waving in the wind.

The henchman looked down at my father and gave him a crooked one-sided smile. “Now, what you gonna do? Speak Greek to us?” The other men laughed as if that was the funniest joke they'd ever heard, but their laughter was cut short when the room exploded in glass.

CHAPTER 2SAVED BY THE BARON

The window beside my head shattered, and I ducked as wood and glass rained down around me. The whir of wings whizzing past, the whipping of a cloak in the wind, and the solid thud of feet landing on stone made me look up to peer through the protective shield of my arms.

“That's not how you treat an Etonian.” The same aristocratic British accent of my classmates cut through the night air. The glint off polished steel flashed in front of me and the closest bruiser grunted in protest as the blade sliced through him. Blood poured from his chest, his eyes rolled up under the brim of his hat, and he slumped to the floor. My heart burned and lurched against my ribcage as I realized his had stopped. I trembled in shock.

The Englishman, a tall, broad shouldered man in a blue cloak, wrenched his sword free, and spun on the heel of a well-polished boot. His thin double-edged sword struck the Confederate, slid upward, and flung the black derby right past my head. The bronze clad man's right eye sparked even brighter at the affront, and a thick serrated blade just over a foot long slid out of his right sleeve and clicked into place.

“Yeow!” My father yelped as his foot struck a metalplate on the man's chest. “What are you?”

I retreated further into the corner, pulled my knees tight against my chest, and buried my face as the two men circled my father.

But when the man my father had pounded with the book began screaming, “Get this thing off me!” my head snapped up and saw him, face splattered with blood, flailing against a small bronze dragon slashing and biting, all talons and teeth.

“You'll not eat me!” The last bruiser covered his head and bolted for the hall.

The little creature locked eyes on the fleeing long coat and screeched. Bronze wings stretched out and flapped as it launched and soared out of the room, spitting a fusillade of fireballs toward its prey as it exited.

I squeezed my eyes and shook my head as if to clear the vision from my head.Was that a real dragon?Couldn't be. There are no such things as real dragons. Besides, that creature was made of metal.

When I opened my eyes again, a different room lay before me. Gone was my quiet prison. With one henchman dead, the dusty one blinded by blood, and the third running in terror, only the bronze-clad Confederate remained.

“Yer one ofthem, ain't yah?” he asked the Englishman.

“Doesn't matter who I am, what matters is that you're not leaving with the professor.” He whipped his cloak back and kicked the serrated blade into the desk with the heel of his polished boot. The thick blade stuck in the oak, and with a quick flip of his wrist he brought his sword down upon the Confederate's right arm. The blade sliced off the man's sleeve clean and neat, and the fabric slid to the floor in a heap. What remained behind, attached to the man's upper arm, were the gears and wires of a complex animatronic arm.

My eyes bulged out in surprise.

“Colonel Hendrix!” The bloodied henchman cried out in a thick cockney accent. “A Bobbie's whistle!”

I locked on to the rapid high pitched sound. Was help coming?

The colonel snarled. “Get out of here and see where that yellow-belly went!”

Wrenching his blade free from the old oak, Hendrix retracted it back into his arm. With the claw that replaced it, he snatched the desk and threw it at the Englishman.

I screamed and tucked back into a ball. The desk tumbled and slammed into the wall and settled in front of me. The shelf collapsed, pottery smashed all around, and a Bronze Age dagger tumbled blade-down and stuck in the floorboard between my legs with a sharpsnick.

I yelped and struggled to get to my feet, but the desk was in my way. I could only watch as Col. Hendrix snatched the ancient manuscript with one hand and my father with his mechanical arm. I opened my mouth to cry out but my voice failed, choked by tears.

“Alexander!” my father screamed as the colonel dragged him out the door.

Kicking the desk away, the blue-cloaked Englishman scanned me for injuries, and then ran into the hall. Alone, I climbed over the desk. There, on the floor at my feet, my father's eyeglasses lay atop scattered papers. I picked them up and stared at the warped office through the lenses.

After a few moments, the man in the blue suit returned and reached out his hand. “Professor Armitage's son, I presume. Baron Kensington, pleasure to meet you.”

“Thank you, I'm Alexander.” My chest seized, and I could hardly breathe. Red-stained parchment lay beneath the dead henchman. I'd never seen so much blood, but the baron didn't even notice. I slumped back onto the floor.

“Are you injured?” the baron asked, his hand still extended. I grasped it and he helped me to my feet aspapers still drifted through the air.

“What? No, just confused. Where's my father?”

“They've fled for now.” The baron sheathed his sword in a cane scabbard. “I'm afraid you can't help him at the moment.”

“Who was that, and why did he take my father?” Pain wrenched my gut, worse than any bully's punch. I was alone.

“They won't hurt him, they need him.” The baron kept an eye on the opening where the shattered door used to hang. “Her Royal Highness sent me to retrieve you and your father.”

“The Queen?”The Queen?What would she want with my father?

“Yes, gather your possessions, you'll come with me for now.”

I placed my father's glasses in their case, put them in my leather bag, and slung it over my shoulder. The dead man's baton lay at my feet, and I scooped it up and dropped it in the bag, too. Then I grabbed my leather coat from the overturned rack.

The nobleman motioned toward the door. “My carriage is waiting outside.”

As the small bronze dragon flew through the doorway, I clutched my bag to my chest, in some strange sort of defense. I probably should have covered my face, but it was instinct. The dragon landed on the baron's shoulder. The nobleman rubbed the horned nubs on its head and fed the creature a bit of dried meat from a suit coat pocket. I could see now that it was the size of an eagle or a hawk, and watched in wonderment as it wrapped a long tapering tail around the baron's shoulders.

I wondered if it could be a machine, but the eyes held the glimmer of intelligence. “Is that a dragon?”

“His name is Rodin,” he said, ignoring my question and striding forward. I rushed to catch up with the baron. Aftera pause, he said, “There'll be plenty of time for questions later.”

A steam-powered carriage waited outside with a squat man atop the driver's perch. He jumped off, opened the door, and the baron climbed inside. I nodded and stepped into the carriage. The driver lifted his cap, revealing long scattered locks of bright orange hair.

I had so many questions to ask, but I fell silent when I caught the shattered window of my father's office out of the corner of my eye. I heard the driver climb atop his perch and release a lever. A loudchug chug chugfrom the back of the carriage made me turn just as the steam engine belched a puff of white smoke, and we lurched forward and started down the cobblestone road.

CHAPTER 3AGENTS OF THE QUEEN

“Ow.” My shoulder banged into the plush, burgundy-velvet interior and I clung to the carriage's brass handle as we tore around a cobblestone corner on the outskirts of London. The chugging engine behind me roared like a trumpeting elephant. “Does he always drive like this?”

“Finn was thrilled when I converted the carriage. He never liked horses.”

“Oh.” I stared at the baron who sat perfectly centered, with the small dragon perched on his shoulder as though it was a pleasant Sunday drive. The delighted cheers of the mad driver made me wonder if I would lose my dinner before I met the queen.

As we rumbled round a corner, I muscled to remain upright. “What about my father?”

The baron said nothing. He pulled a braided cord which rang a bell beside the driver.

Adults never listened.

The carriage stopped in front of a row house with a large red door carved with a rose motif and inlaid with gold. But this wasn't Buckingham Palace. The Irishman leapt from his perch and opened the carriage, holding his hat to the side as he bowed.

The baron stepped out of the carriage, and I shouldered my bag, jumped out, and ran after him, not wanting to be locked in this death trap any longer. I once saw a steam car in New York, but with Finn as the driver, the baron's steamcarriage was like a train in desperate need of a track.

I followed the baron to a bookcase in the basement. The nobleman twisted the spearhead on the statue of a knight locked in a desperate struggle with a dragon. A click was all I heard, and the shelf slid back to reveal a hidden hallway. “A secret passage,” I gasped.

The damp, musty air drifting in offended my nose. I rushed forward through the narrow tunnel stretching into darkness and saw a sleek, streamlined metal bullet with windows along the side. Metal wires reached to the ceiling like an insect's antenna.

“Why only one train car?” I asked.

“It's an electric trolley, invented last year by your countryman, Thomas Edison.”

My shoulders shrugged up against my cheeks. “Never heard of him.”

“Her majesty has, she wanted a private transport for the royal family and her agents.”

Even though the underground trolley sat still, it looked liked it was moving. I wondered where the train engine connected, and couldn't even see latches for the other cars.

I stepped onto the trolley. Trimmed with gold and decorated with elaborate curled detailing, it was certainly outfitted for royalty. The seats, arranged in two semi-circles, faced either direction and had been covered in plush blue fabric. Nowthiswas how someone should arrive at a palace. We sat and the trolley car sped through the circular brick tunnel snaking underneath London.

I scooted back against the velvet cushions. “Where's the driver?”

“A central operator controls them all.”

“Oh.” I wanted to ask more, but then I saw the dust on my uniform. I tried to brush it off, but the dirt was caught in the wool fibers and wasn't coming out anytime soon. “I really wish I could have changed. I'm not dressed to meet Queen Victoria.”

The baron smiled. “You won't be meeting her Highness; she has more important matters that require her attention.”

My gaze shifted to the windows. “Of course.” I tried not to sound disappointed, but I had really wanted to meet the queen. She probably only ever saw aristocrats.

“She did send me to save you, and you should be grateful she did.”

“I am, but my dad wishes you'd gotten there sooner.”I wish you'd gotten there sooner. My face pressed against the window as the wall rushed by in a reddish blur. “Where are we going?”

“To my place in London. You'll be safe there.”

The trolley car stopped beside a brick platform. The royal coat of arms–a quartered shield flanked by a crowned lion and a chained unicorn–marked a lone wooden door. I followed the baron through a long hallway lined with nondescript doors. Finally, we stopped in front of one labeled three twenty-one.

Removing a key from an inner vest pocket, the baron unlocked the door. We climbed several flights of dark, cavernous stairs that echoed with every step. The door at the top led to a small cupboard. The nobleman pressed a button on the floor with his boot. The door opened into a kitchen and a false wall slid over the passage.

“Wait for me in the dining room.” The baron pointed across the hall as Rodin flew off his shoulder.

I walked into a lavish room decorated with curled, gilded detailing. An elaborate microscope projector sat on one end of the table and a folding screen on the other. I had only seen this type of equipment in class, and now I wantedone of my own. The urge to reach out and fiddle with it overtook me, but I hesitated; everything looked expensive and rare. I never liked rooms you weren't supposed to touch.

A man in a fine suit entered carrying a briefcase. His sunken eyes were shadowed by dark circles. He didn't look well, but carried himself like so many in this country–with stern resolve.

The baron said, “Alexander Armitage, may I present Lord Marbury, another agent of Her Royal Highness. We're both Old Etonians.”

That didn't surprise me; it seemed like every nobleman had attended Eton College.

“Thank you, Maximilian.” Lord Marbury set his brown leather briefcase down on the table. He turned to me. “May I say, I am sorry to hear about your father.”

The nobleman leaned over and shook my hand. His weak grip was one my father would have railed him for; he thought a handshake should say something.

“Thank you, but where was he taken and what are you doing to save him?”

Lord Marbury's haunting expression made me wiggle in my skin. The lord turned to the baron. “Were there any issues?”

I dropped onto one of the straight-backed wooden chairs. “I'll say…”

The baron silenced me with a stern gaze. “There were four members of the Knight of the Golden Circle; one of them had an animatronic arm and a bronze-covered face. I believe he was American. They addressed him as Colonel Hendrix.”

“He had a southern accent,” I said.

“That fits the rumors of a former Confederate soldier recently brought over from the states,” Lord Marbury said.

I fell back into the chair and gripped my shoulders. A metal monster and an American. Did my father know himfrom before? Is that why we're in England instead of back home?

Lord Marbury unsnapped the brass fittings on his briefcase. He removed old parchment held loose in a thick wooden cover bound by braided leather cords. A heavily worn insignia etched on a bronze plaque sat in the center of the cover. “Do you know what your father was working on?”

“He taught languages, all the dead ones that no one speaks anymore.”

“He also translated for her majesty. That's why he was given the post at Eton.” The baron's stern tone reminded me I was among superiors.

Lord Marbury turned on the microscope projector and adjusted the brass lens housing to its broadest setting. A bright light cast its glow on the unfolded screen. He removed the bronze plaque and braided leather cord, then placed a page under the projector. “Is this what your father was translating?”

Rodin flew in and perched on the table. Bathed in bright light, his dramatic shadow arced across the screen until shooed away by the baron.

I studied the image and the ache in my heart returned. “Yes, he was reading it when I found him after Quiet Hour.”

The baron's tone lowered. “Alexander, your father was kidnapped because there are people who want him to translate those ancient languages. They will keep him safe, which gives us the opportunity to rescue him.” He walked over to the Waterford decanter and poured the amber liquid into a glass. “I assure you, retrieving him is our highest priority.”

I sprang up. “I want to help!”

Lord Marbury snapped his briefcase shut and looked at me with an air of dismissal. “You will return to Eton and continue your studies.”

“So why is this destruction on Malta so important toyou? What was my father doing? What are you involved in?”

The baron choked on his surprise. “You can read that?”

“My father's been teaching me dead languages since I was five.”

Lord Marbury and the baron looked at each other, and I lifted my chin, the pain in my heart subsiding. Maybe they'd let me come along after all.

“This is a copy of the one they stole. It was made in 1581 by an agent of Queen Elizabeth.” Lord Marbury's gaze burned right through me. “Can you finish the translation?”

“Sure.” I walked toward the screen and ran my hand over the image. “This line is about an expedition to colonize the Island of Malta. That's in the Mediterranean Sea, right?”

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