Stephen Messer

The Death of Yorik Mortwell

To Memere

How To Tie A Bowline Knot

The bowline knot, used since the time of the ancient Egyptians, is known as the king of knots. Yorik Mortwell tied quite a lot of them on the last day of his life.

Chapter One

Twelve-year-old Yorik Mortwell lay on the hard, cold ground, dead.

His day had started off rather better than that.

“Come on,” he had said to his little sister that morning. “I’ll show you how to snare partridges.”

They were reluctant to leave the one-room cabin on such a frosty autumn day, when the roaring fire they’d built had warmed that room so nicely, but Yorik knew they needed the food and Susan was always interested in learning about anything and everything. So they bundled up as best they could and went shivering onto the Estate.

They went deliberately along the paths, at first rough and wooded, then finely manicured, then rough and wooded again. They passed the mews and the winery and the fishponds and the shooting range. Through the dense woods they sometimes caught sight of Ravenby Manor, with its twenty-seven chimneys.

Once they heard a muffled droning, and the slim, fleet shape of Lord Ravenby’s personal dirigible appeared in the clouds, flying toward its mooring tower in a meadow in the Estate’s farthest corner.

“Here,” said Yorik, and they plunged off into the trees.

“H-how do you know?” Susan said, teeth chattering. She looked excited, though her lips were blue. Yorik vowed to get her back to the warm cabin as soon as he could.

“I’ve seen them feeding here,” Yorik said. They had come to a small clearing. “Now collect sticks.”

Yorik showed Susan how to build a boot-high fence of twigs in a semicircle around the feeding ground. At intervals they left openings for gateways made from sticks bent carefully into arches.

“The partridges will poke their heads through these,” explained Yorik.

Susan nodded, concentrating.

Yorik took a long spool of string from one pocket and his knife from the other. He cut several lengths of string, one for each archway. He showed Susan how to tie a bowline knot, reciting:

Lay the bight to make a hole Then under the back and around the pole Over the top and through the eye Cinch it tight and let it lie

Then he slipped the free end of the string back through the loop in order to make a slip noose. They tied that end to the top of the arch. To hold the slip noose open, Yorik cut notches in each side of the arch, then secured the strings in each notch. Susan helped, and soon enough she was tying bowline knots and making slip nooses as though she’d been doing it all her life.

“Once they’re in the slip noose,” asked Susan, “can’t they just back out?”

“They can,” replied Yorik, “but they won’t. A partridge will keep trying to force its way forward, and the loop will hold it in place until we return.”

The work took a long, frigid hour, and by the end their fingers were red and numb and their ears ached from the cold. But they could stand back in pride and admire a perfect partridge snare.

“How lovely,” said a nasty voice from behind them. “But those partridges belong to me, you know.”

Yorik and Susan turned. A boy stood there, the same age as Yorik, leaning on a walking stick with a ruby knob on one end. Susan curtsied, and Yorik dipped his head. “Yes, Master Thomas,” said Yorik.

Master Thomas sauntered forward. He looked considerably warmer than Yorik and Susan. His heavy coat was made of wool, and he wore a fur cap and mittens. A black scarf was wrapped around and around his neck. He was stout to begin with, and these thick layers of clothing gave him the aspect of a cannonball. Mean eyes stared out from beneath the cap.

“What did you intend to do with your catch?”

“If it please you, Master,” replied Yorik, “the usual—eight in ten will go to the Estate, and two to the gamekeeper.”

“You’re not the gamekeeper.” Master Thomas smiled. “The gamekeeper is dead.”

Yorik and Susan stood in a vast, aching silence, thinking of their father.

Pleased, Master Thomas went on. “You should consider yourselves fortunate that my father has allowed you to stay on the Estate at all. And you repay him by poaching his birds.”

“We weren’t poaching, sir—” Susan began. But Yorik put a hand on her shoulder.

They stood shivering and silent as Master Thomas approached the snare. “Do not gainsay me, little girl,” he said in a tone as cold as the wind that cut through their clothes. “I say you were poaching. And I won’t allow it.”

He raised his walking stick and brought it crashing down across the little fence.

Yorik and Susan watched as he walked the length of it, at first bashing with the stick, then simply kicking. By the end, the snare had been scattered and trampled and ground into the earth, an hour’s labor gone in less than a minute.

The exertion had cost Master Thomas. He bent over with his hands on his knees, red in the face and breathing heavily, but looking satisfied with his work. When he had recovered, he straightened himself and removed a black handkerchief from within his coat. He blew into it while Yorik and Susan watched helplessly. Then he sighed, tucked the handkerchief away, and looked about as though he had forgotten about Yorik and Susan and was simply enjoying the day.

Finally he began to stride away. “Don’t let me catch you at this again,” he warned loftily, “or I’ll tell my father and he’ll have you thrown off the Estate.”

Yorik watched the cannonball as it rolled past and receded into the forest.

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