Alf

Alf is a young woman who disguises herself as a boy. She lives in St. Giles and makes her living running messages and dealing in information.

Heroine of Duke of Pleasure.

Also appears in Lord of DarknessDearest RogueSweetest Scoundrel, and Duke of Sin.

* * *

Godric St. John watched as the boy stuffed his face with tea and lavishly buttered bread. When he’d first seen the boy, Godric had thought him a young man, but that was because he had the height of a grown man. Now sitting in the kitchens of the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children, he saw the boy’s soft cheeks, the slim neck, and gentle lines of his jaw. He couldn’t be older than fifteen at the most.

His brown hair was clubbed back with a ragged bit of string, strands falling out and around his oval face. He wore a greasy waistcoat and a coat several sizes too big for him and a floppy hat pulled low over his brow, which he hadn’t bothered removing even when inside. His wrists were thin and rather delicate and the nails on both hands were rimmed with grime.

The boy caught him staring and jerked his chin up defiantly, the corners of his mouth wet with milky tea. “Wha’?”

Winter Makepeace, sitting beside Godric, stirred. “What is your name?”

The boy shrugged and, apparently sensing no immediate threat, turned his attention to the plate of bread before him. “Alf.”

He spooned out a huge blob of strawberry jam from an earthen jar, plopping it on a slice of already buttered bread, and folded the bread around the gooey middle. Then he shoved half of the bread into his mouth.

Godric exchanged glances with Winter. It had taken quite a bit of persuasion—as well as a threat or two—before he’d been able to get Alf into the home. Godric daren’t remain outside in St. Giles while the dragoons were abroad, and he certainly wasn’t about to take a strange lad back to his own house.

Especially when the lad was an admitted lassie snatcher.

“How long have you been employed by the lassie snatchers?” Winter asked in his deep, calm voice.

Alf gulped and washed down his bread with a long drag of tea. “’Bout a month, but I don’ work for them arse’oles no more.”

Winter refilled his teacup without comment, but Godric was less forbearing. “You led me to believe you were a lassie snatcher now.”

Alf stopped chewing and looked up, his eyes narrowed. “An’ I’m the best yer gonna get. Ain’t none o’ them ’oo’s lassie snatchers now gonna talk to yer. Best settle for me.”

Winter caught Godric’s eye and shook his head slightly.

Godric sighed. He was finding it difficult to quiz this youth while keeping his own voice to a whisper so it might not be recognized in the future. Besides, Winter had far more experience with boys.

Even difficult ones.

“How did you become a lassie snatcher?” Winter asked now. He reached for the loaf of bread and sawed off two more slices.

Godric raised his eyebrows. Alf had already eaten half the loaf.

“Word gets ’round,” Alf said as he started smearing large lumps of butter on his bread. “They like to work in teams, like, a bloke an’ a lad. Knew one o’ their snatcher lads ’oo got run over by a dray cart. Busted ’is ’ead an’ were dead in a day. So there were an openin’ like. Pay was good.” He paused to take a slurping gulp of tea before covering the bread with jam. “Job was fine.”

“Then why are you no longer employed as a lassie snatcher?” Winter asked neutrally.

Alf’s bread was all ready, jam running out of the pinched sides, but he just stared at it. “It were one o’ the young ones, name o’ Hannah. ’Ad ginger ’air, she did. Not more’n five or so. Chattered a lot, like, wasn’t afraid o’ me or nothin’, even though ’er auntie ’ad sold ’er to us. Me an’ Sam took ’er to the workshop and she seemed fine enough…”

“Fine?” Godric growled low. “They work those girls, beat them, and hardly feed them.”

“There’re worse.” Alf’s words were defiant, but he wouldn’t meet Godric’s eyes. “Bawdy ’ouses, beggars what’ll blind a babe to make ’er more pathetic.”

Winter shot Godric a quelling look. “What happened to Hannah, Alf?”

“Just it, innit?” Alf dug his dirty fingers into the folded bread until red jam oozed out. “She weren’t there next time I come by. They wouldn’t tell me what ’ad ’appened to ’er. She were just…gone.” Alf looked up then, his eyes angry and wet. “Stopped it then, didn’t I? Ain’t gonna be part o’ ’urting wee little lassies.”

“That was very brave of you,” Winter said softly. “I would think the lassie snatchers would not be pleased by a defection.”

Alf snorted, finally picking up his messy bread and jam. “Don’t know ’xactly what defection is, but they’d be glad enough to see me put to bed wif a shovel.”

“Tell us where they are, who they are, and we’ll solve the problem for you,” Godric growled.

“Ain’t just one place,” Alf said, speaking seriously. “There’s three workshops I knows of, and prolly more’n that.”

“Three?” Winter breathed. “How could we not have known?”

“Sly ones, ain’t they?” Alf shoved the bread into his mouth and for a moment was mute as he chewed. Then he swallowed. “Best do it at night. They’ve guards, but everyone’s sleepier at night. I can show you.”

“We’ll have to move fast,” Godric said, looking at Winter and receiving a nod. “Can you show me tomorrow night?”

“Aye.” Alf took the rest of the cut bread and shoved it into a pocket of his coat. “Best be off, then, hadn’t I, afore ’tis light out.”

“You’re more than welcome to stay here,” Winter offered.

Alf shook his head. “Kind o’ you, but I don’t like staying in such a big place.”

Godric frowned. “Will you be safe?”

Alf cocked his head, smiling cynically. “Worried I won’t be back tomorrow? Nah, no one’s can catch me if’n I don’t want. Ta for the tea.”

And he was gone out the kitchen door.

–from Lord of Darkness