People have long been fascinated by the highwaymen who used to strike fear into the heart of many a wealthy traveller. Lots of us will have studied Alfred Noyes’ famous poem ‘The Highwayman’ at school, and generations of children continue to do so. This book would be a great choice to read along side for extra depth.
‘Ned is awkward, a little shy, and just trying to find his place in the world. He also happens to be the assistant to the nation’s most feared highwayman, The Shadow . . .
In a time when highwaymen ruled the roads, Ned is reluctantly swept up into a whirlwind of adventure. Whilst escaping the grasps of the thief-takers, Ned soon finds himself stepping into his Master’s shoes and an unwanted life of crime. The pressure is building with new friends and enemies galore when Ned stumbles upon a long-infamous gem, The Bloodstone, which forces him to make an important choice. Can he ultimately escape this new threat and finally free himself from the grips of The Shadow?’
How would you like to read an exclusive extract from Chapter Two?
Tom beckoned to Ned, and he got up and followed him gratefully down the street, hardly believing his good fortune. When they reached the Grey Dog, Tom lifted a gloved hand and pushed open the door. He strode inside and Ned followed, uncomfortably aware of his ragged clothes and unwashed appearance.
The tavern was crowded – under the low roof, many men and a few women were pressed together in a great noisy huddle, and the place was filled with the smell of tobacco smoke and the fumes of strong alcohol. Somewhere, a wheezy accordion was playing a jaunty tune and the air was filled with the sounds of laughter and drunken conversation – but the stranger soon located an empty table in one corner and led Ned to it. They got themselves seated and Tom summoned the landlord, a big red-faced fellow wearing a filthy apron. He hurried over immediately, glanced doubtfully at Ned, then smiled.
“What’s your pleasure, sir?” he asked.
Tom removed his gloves and set them down on the table. “I, and my young friend here, would like to sample your mutton pie,” he announced. “We’ll have some fresh bread with that and some potatoes. And two tankards of your finest ale.”
The landlord glanced uncomfortably at Ned again.
“Sir, this boy . . .”
“What about him?”
“It seems to me that I have seen him begging on the streets around these parts.”
Tom gave him a sharp look. “What of it?” he asked.
“Er . . . nothing, sir, nothing at all. I was only remarking.”
“Well, keep your confounded remarks to yourself and bring us our food!”
“Yes, sir, coming right up!” The landlord bustled away, and Tom gave Ned a sly wink.
“It’s just a matter of how you deal with people,” he said.
A short while later, a tankard of ale and a huge plate of hot mutton pie was set down in front of Ned and for a moment, he thought he had died and gone to heaven. He fell to with a vengeance, gobbling up great mouthfuls of the pie and swallowing it down with gulps of bitter-tasting ale.
“Clearly you were ready for that,” observed Tom, eating his own food at a more leisurely pace. “When did you last eat a proper meal?”
“I had something only three days ago,” Ned told him. “Not a fine meal like this, mind, but some decent scraps that somebody had thrown out.”
“Take it slowly,” Tom advised him. “You don’t want to give yourself a bellyache. Now, Ned, I think I should properly introduce myself. As I said before, my name is Tom. Tom Gregory. Have you ever heard this name before?”
“Good.” Tom seemed pleased. “Well, Ned, let me tell you that I have, of late, been on the lookout for an assistant and I think that you might fit the bill, very well.”
“Me, sir, an assistant?” spluttered Ned, speaking with a mouthful of food. “May I ask what manner of assistant?”
“Oh, ‘twould be just very basic duties: looking after my horse, cooking the odd spot of food, running the occasional errand . . . I dare say you could handle such tasks, Ned? Or did you think to go on begging for the rest of your days?”
“No . . .” Ned thought for a moment. “I had always hoped that one day . . .”
“Well, when I was a young lad, before our fortunes went bad, my mother was friendly with a carpenter in Colchester. He used to let me go into his shop and help him.”
“Did he, indeed?”
“Yes, he did. I am very skilled with my hands, and he always said that he thought I could have a great future as an apprentice to him. But then my mother fell out with him, over some money that she owed. We moved away and I lost touch with him. But my short time in his workshop gave me hope that one day, I might have enough money to set myself up in that line of work.”
Tom looked interested. “Well, lad, a couple years of assisting me, and I dare say you will have earnt yourself the kind of money you’d need to achieve such an ambition.”
Ned took another swallow of ale. He could hardly believe his luck.
“And where would we be based? Here in London Town?”
“No, Ned. I have a place out in Essex, in the forest of Epping. What do you say? Would you come to work for me?”
Ned didn’t need to think about the matter for very long. For the first time in weeks, he had a full stomach and the offer the stranger had given him seemed far more promising than the thought of staying on the streets of London, begging for farthings.
“Gladly,” he said. “I thank you for your faith in me. When would this work commence?”
“Very soon,” said Tom Gregory. “Now, lad, there’s only more thing I require from you. Shake my hand and give me your most solemn promise.”
“Yes. I want you to swear to me on your mother’s life that you will serve me diligently at all times and that you will never ever betray my trust in you. Not under any circumstances. Give me that one pledge and, as far as I’m concerned, the deal is sealed.”
Ned considered for a moment. It sounded fair. “You have my word, sir.”
“Excellent.” Tom reached out and they shook hands over what was left of the meal. Then Tom stood up from the table and put on his gloves.
“Wait here a few minutes and finish your food,” he said, “and I shall return presently with our transport.” He looked across the room and indicated a long case clock standing against the far wall. Then he took a silver watch from his waistcoat and consulted it, checking that both pieces held the same time. He seemed happy enough and slipped the watch back into his pocket.
“When the minute hand of yon clock is on the hour, walk outside and I shall meet you there. And Ned, do not tarry a moment longer.”
Ned looked up at Tom, puzzled.
“Have you not forgotten something?” he asked.
“What is that?” asked Tom.
“Er . . . well, this fine supper. Do you not need to pay for it, before you step outside?”
“You have much to learn about my ways, Ned. Now mark you, when the clock is on the hour, step outside. Not a minute earlier or a moment later. Meanwhile, finish what is left of your meal . . . slowly.”
And with that, he strode across the room and went out of the door.
Ned did as he was told, trying to make the scant morsels of food last the remaining fifteen minutes, which was difficult considering there were only a few crumbs left. He even filched a couple of uneaten mouthfuls from Tom Gregory’s plate. As he ate, he was uncomfortably aware that the red-faced landlord kept directing suspicious glances in his direction, but he tried to ignore them. After ten minutes or so, the man strode over, wiping his hands on a filthy cloth.
“Where is the fellow who came in with you?” he asked.
Ned looked up at him.
“He, er . . . had to step outside for a few moments,” Ned told him. “To, er . . . to make water.”
“Is that right?” The landlord seemed unconvinced. “He’s had time to make a blummin’ lake,” he observed. He took the two empty plates. “Will there be anything else?”
“Umm . . . yes, another tankard of your splendid ale,” said Ned, realising that he still had another five minutes to kill. “Er, please,” he added.
The landlord seemed far from happy, but he took Ned’s tankard and carried it back to the bar to replenish it. Ned kept glancing surreptitiously at the clock, but the final minutes seemed to be taking an eternity to pass by. When the landlord returned with the ale, he followed Ned’s gaze.
“You seem to be taking quite an interest in my old clock,” he observed.
“Umm. Yes, sir, I was just thinking . . . what a fine piece of workmanship! I am a . . . carpenter by trade, you see, and I have rarely seen a better one.”
“You?” asked the landlord, unconvinced. “A carpenter?”
“Well, an apprentice.”
Unfortunately, the landlord took this as a signal to talk about the clock, telling Ned how it had belonged to his grandfather. It had been made in Paris, he said, by a fine craftsman, and there was not another one like it in the whole of London town. Ned listened dutifully, taking occasional swigs from his ale and noting, with a sinking feeling, that the minute hand had now reached the hour and was edging its way past. He sat there in torment, thinking to himself that Tom Gregory might get tired of waiting for him and would go, taking that unexpected offer of employment with him and leaving Ned with a bill he could not pay. Eventually he could wait no longer. He stood up, just as the landlord was explaining how valuable the old clock was.
“Yes, a gentleman who called here once reckoned as how the clock must be worth – hey, where are you going?” demanded the landlord.
“Umm. I . . . I have to make water too,” said Ned.
“Hold your horses, lad,” said the landlord, extending an arm to stop him. “I would rather you stay put until your companion returns.”
“But I cannot wait,” Ned told him. “My bladder is fit to burst.” He was getting desperate now and an idea occurred to him. He pointed suddenly at the clock and shouted at the top of his voice, “Hey, you, take your hands off that clock!”
The landlord whipped around in dismay and Ned seized his opportunity. He ducked under the man’s arm and ran for the exit, pushing his way through the crowded room. Behind him, he heard a voice roar, “Grab that boy!” but then he was flinging open the door and running out into the street. He glanced frantically around but the area seemed absolutely deserted. For a moment, he thought he had been abandoned and prepared himself for a beating, but then he heard the harsh clatter of hooves on cobbles and a huge, black horse came racing out of a side alley. He saw to his relief that Tom Gregory was astride it and that the upper part of his face was now covered by a mask.
“To me, boy!” he shouted, and Ned turned to run towards him, dimly aware that people were spilling out of the tavern, lending their shouts to the indignant roars of the landlord. Tom leant over expertly in his saddle, grabbed Ned by an arm and hoisted him clear of the ground. He swung him around and dropped him into the saddle behind him.
“Hang on tight!” he yelled and spurred the horse forward. A couple of men tried to grab the horse’s bridle, but they were sent sprawling by a well-aimed kick from Tom. Then the way ahead was clear, and the horse was galloping into the night. Behind them, there was the blast of a pistol and Ned was acutely aware of the lead shot whizzing past his head, but very quickly the small crowd was left behind and they were heading out along the deserted streets.
“What kept you?” Ned heard Tom shout.
“I was . . . chatting with the landlord,” he gasped. “You . . . you didn’t pay for the meal!”
Tom laughed. “The Shadow never pays!” he roared. “He takes what he wants. And in future, when I give you an order, you’ll carry it out to the letter. I was about to leave you to your fate.”
Ned clung grimly on to Tom Gregory as the huge black horse galloped along the street and he realised, with a sinking feeling, that his new employer might not be the friendly and generous person he had at first appeared to be.
This was how the orphan, Ned Watling, came to meet the infamous highwayman, Tom Gregory, also known as The Shadow – and how the boy embarked upon his new career as a highwayman’s assistant.
And then the fun begins! Full of swagger, booty, and a moral dilemma, I think readers aged 10+ would throughly enjoy this story. There’s plenty of action to keep them racing through the pages and I’m sure many will be rooting for Ned as he navigates hold-ups, gunfights, and cursed gems in his struggle to break free from his master’s clutches and start a new life as a carpenter.
*Many thanks to Uclan Publishing for inviting me to be a part of this blog tour*