We love our readers SO MUCH we wanted to send out a special Valentine treat to you all in the form of this Gryphon Chronicles short story, entitled "When Dani Met Jake."
Now you can BE THERE for the first time Dani O'Dell ever encountered the wild, wondrous world of Jake "Reed". As Gryphon buffs know, from this moment forward, Dani's life (and Teddy's!) will never be the same. Hope you enjoy this peek into the carrot-head's rough rookery existence with her slightly-scary family and Jake's pre-magical days as a pickpocket. From the moment their paths cross, it's practically destiny!!!
Happy Valentine's Day from Eric & Gael ~ Enjoy!
When Dani Met Jake by E.G. Foley
In the frantic bustle of a cold, dark, workaday evening, hordes of fleeing adults poured out of factories and shops, offices and dockyards; they piled into double-decker omnibuses drawn by teams of heavy horses that went clip-clopping up and down the lamplit streets, trundling them on to Victoria Station. There, they thronged aboard steam-trains that chugged away from London, gathering speed, to be flung out far away in the snowy English countryside—only to repeat the whole mad ritual tomorrow.
Amidst all this busy back-and-forthing, nobody paid much mind to a small girl of seven in a rough woolen coat, her hands in fingerless gloves reddened with cold and hard work as she gripped the handles of the wheelbarrow she was pushing up the side of the street, leaving Covent Garden Market.
The wheelbarrow had started out full, but now it was empty—except for its passenger: the scruffy little brown dog standing proudly in its painted metal basin.
The wee Norwich terrier braced his forepaws on the front brim of the barrow, his snout pointing forward like he fancied himself the figurehead on the bow of a pirate ship. His stump tail wagged a friendly hello to everyone they passed. Some smiled but most ignored him and the little girl.
His name was Teddy, and his owner, Dani O’Dell, was among those making her way slowly homeward at the end of another long day.
She was wishing that it weren’t so dark out already.
It made the walk home to the rookery a bit scary, but there was nothing to be done for it. Come December, it was like midnight by five in the afternoon.
Her breath clouding around her in the chill, Dani paused to wipe her runny nose on the back of her sleeve.
Then she grasped the handles again and trudged on, her satchel with a book in it over one shoulder, Teddy’s leash looped around her wrist.
Whew, she’d been on the go since the city roosters crowed. First chores, taking care of her family, then school, then work hawking oranges.
She’d yelled her singsong about the stupid fruits until she was hoarse: “Orrrranges! Who’ll buy my oranges? Winter special, aaaall the way from sunny Spain!”
The rare tropical fruits were a great delicacy at this time of year, and people would buy them for Christmas.
Unfortunately, all her efforts had paid off with a sore throat. Probably catch me death, I will. Ah, well. At least she had Teddy. Her little friend made her lowly life bearable.
Da had given him to her as a tiny pup after Ma died a year and a half ago, and Dani had failed to cheer up after a few months.
Teddy always made her laugh.
“Why don’t you push me for once?” she asked the dog pertly.
The terrier glanced back at her, panting and wearing a big doggy smile. Then he looked forward again, alert to every sound and motion.
Dani was glad he was with her as she approached the entrance to the rookery. It was a dicey place, her neighborhood.
Not that any of the people there would dare to bother her.
Nobody who’d ever heard of her five elder brothers would risk such a thing.
No, Dani’s loathing of the place stemmed from something deeper. Colder. More vague. A trapped sort of terror that she would never get out of this place.
The wintry darkness seemed to thicken as she approached the opening to the street where she lived. They didn’t bother putting streetlamps in this part of London. The locals would’ve only snuffed them out at once to hide their activities. The bobbies generally stayed away.
Dani paused across the street from her intersection and let out a sigh...
(Click "Read More" below for the rest of the story.)
Home, sweet home.
Two tall brick towers loomed ahead, blackened by coal soot, like the gatehouse of some forbidding castle. A crooked lane ducked between the soulless tenement buildings, and it was into this narrow passage that Dani forced herself to go.
Her building—Block Four—was farther down the way, but they all looked the same. There were rows and rows of these ugly towers, each crammed with apartments barely bigger than horse stalls. A labyrinth of garbage-strewn streets wound between them.
As Dani shoved her wheelbarrow along over the uneven cobblestones, feeling watched as she went, for the windows glowed orange through a layer of coal dust, like the wicked eyes of a jack-o’-lantern. Here and there, she could see silhouettes of the people inside the tenement houses through the shades, when they’d bothered to pull them.
She could hear a few arguing as she went by, angrily switching back and forth between English and Gaelic. From the next building, she at least heard a few guffaws and also caught a snatch of the secret code language that the rookery folk had invented to fool the bobbies.
Outsiders called the seemingly nonsensical babble thieves’ cant. They didn’t know how to speak it, and that was the whole point. A dummy meant a coin purse, for example. A jug was a bank. To bubble a person was to cheat them; to dawb was to bribe them; but to hush someone meant to murder them.
Beyond that, Dani didn’t want to know. She was an honest girl, and she’d promised Ma she always would be.
Pausing to take the satchel wearily off her shoulder, she plunked it into the wheelbarrow, then heard a splash some distance behind her. She grimaced, all too familiar with that sound.
Dani scowled over her shoulder. Some woman had just tossed the contents of a slops bucket out a third-floor window, vaguely aiming for the gutter, but mostly hitting the street. Disgusting. Poor Teddy! What his little black nose must smell around here, she could barely imagine.
His fuzzy ears perked up all of a sudden as he spotted an alley cat sitting in the shadows beside the front stairs of Block Three. He moved to try and jump out of the wheelbarrow, but Dani immediately stopped him, tightening the leash.
“Leave her alone! She’s not bothering you.”
The cat held her ground in defiance, staring back at the dog and refusing to budge, though her fur bristled like a puffball.
Dani shook her head in confusion as she trudged on. Stray cats were free to go anywhere they pleased, so why on earth would that little tabby choose to stay here, of all places?
Why, she could go and live in Mayfair, where all the streets were pretty, or make a hideaway for herself in the bushes in some duke’s fancy garden, aye, one of those tremendous mansions across from Hyde Park.
The cat must not know such places existed.
Dani sometimes wished she didn’t know, either. It’d be easier to accept her lot in life if she believed this was all there was of the world.
Then she passed an alley where little squeaking things scurried on the trash heap, and it dawned on her why the cats stayed. Of course. Mice. Rats. There was always plenty to eat here.
At least for them.
As Dani approached the intersection outside her own building, a clamor reached her from the darkness ahead.
A sharp cry, raucous laughter, angry voices.
She recognized them at once, and so did her dog. Teddy’s ears perked up. He sprang out of the wheelbarrow.
“Teddy!” She had to pull him back by his leash, but fear gripped her heart, for Dani knew the sound of trouble when she heard it.
Mother Mary! What are those heathens up to now? She’d better go find out because it didn’t sound good. Gripping the handles harder, her dog straining at the leash, Dani ran toward the crossroads, the rusty metal parts of her wheelbarrow clanking; it was hardly meant for speed.
The voices grew louder as she approached.
“Oho! Ye think ye’re clever, do ye?” That was Matthew, the second-born.
“Leave me alone!” A stranger’s voice.
“Filthy little guttersnipe,” snarled Mark, brother three. “You’re on our turf, boy.”
“What are you talkin’ about? I didn’t do nuffin’!”
“You tried to steal me pocket watch!” Luke declared, brother four, the peacock of the family. “Don’t you know wot ’appens to people tha’ try to steal from one of us?”
“It wasn’t me!” The other voice was tight and shrill. Whoever it was sounded frightened, and he should be.
The five O’Dell Brothers were a proper clan of fightin’ Irish. What daftling had attracted their ire?
The whole rookery knew that to cross one was to cross them all. And Dani knew better than anyone that the whole pack of them were barbarians.
Because they were her own family.
Within a few more pounding, squeaking, creaking strides, she burst into the intersection, chest heaving, and dropped her wheelbarrow. The instant she arrived on the scene, she saw it was exactly as she feared.
Her five roughneck brothers—ranging in age from the feral youngest, John, twelve, to the terrifying firstborn, Patrick O’Dell, an up-and-coming captain of the rookery at the grand age of twenty—were pushing a thin, wiry boy of about nine or ten back and forth among them, jeering and doing their best to terrify him.
Dressed in a tattered jacket and trousers that were too short for him, bare ankles exposed to the cold, the boy went flying like a ragdoll from Matthew to Mark, then Luke grabbed him by the arm.
“I should break those thieving fingers of yours!”
“It wasn’t me!” the boy exclaimed.
“Aye, ’twas.” Patrick stood by in kingly fashion, feet planted wide, his muscled arms folded across his chest, and a scowl on his handsome face. “Ye brought this on yourself, boy. Take your punishment like a man now. Ye cry, we beat ye harder.”
Then Dani gasped as Luke backhanded the boy across the face. He went flying into eighteen-year-old Matthew, who gave a devilish laugh, then grabbed the poor urchin by the ankles and swept him upside down.
“Let’s empty those pockets o’ yours, shall we?”
The boy screamed, dangling and writhing like a caught fish. His woolen cap fell off, and his longish, gold hair hung earthward. But he planted his hands on the grimy cobblestones and narrowly avoided breaking his head by flipping over from a handstand into a clumsy backward bend when her brother shoved his feet away.
“Oof!” The stranger landed flat on his back, the wind knocked out of him. But when Johnny went and loomed over him, then started kicking the poor creature in the side, Dani felt her own Irish wrath rising up.
“Stop it!” she screeched. “Stop it right now!”
She released Teddy’s leash and both of them went racing into the fray.
She went right up to Johnny and pushed her least threatening brother backwards. “Get away from him, ye cretin! Just leave him alone, y’hear?”
The O’Dell boys barely paid any attention to her, as usual, but Johnny scoffed.
Patrick merely raised an eyebrow.
Dani looked around at them. “What’s wrong with ye?” she yelled. “This is no way to behave! What would Ma say? He’s just a little boy!”
“I’m not little,” the boy growled, still flat on the ground, only just now starting to catch his breath.
Dani ignored his indignation, planting herself in front of the poor young stranger.
He was clearly of the most unfortunate sort. They gave those gray jackets to the children from the orphanage.
“Look at him! He hasn’t even got any socks!” She pointed at the lad, laying the guilt on thick. “You horrible, horribe beasts! You leave him be, or I’m gonna go down to the pub right now and fetch Da!”
Her brothers just looked at her, then laughed.
Aye, in truth, Da would probably be proud of his wild young boyos. He claimed they had to be tough if they wanted to survive.
“Shut your yap and go cook our supper,” Luke said, adjusting his gaudy purple frock coat after his exertions. He pointed a ringed finger at the lad. “This little skeleton is a pickpocket. He tried to steal from me.”
“It wasn’t me,” the boy said wearily.
“There was nobody else there, you little liar,” said Mark. “Who ya gonna blame it on, a ghost?”
“Could be,” the boy mumbled.
“There’s no such thing as ghosts,” Mark informed him.
“Leave him be!” Dani ordered. “By the saints and angels, Ma would be so ashamed of ye all, picking on a wee child! Patrick?”
Daring to leave their victim’s side for a moment, Dani marched over to her eldest brother and tilted her head back to give him a pleading stare. “Tell them to stop!”
Patrick’s brow furrowed slightly, but he did not immediately refuse, which encouraged her. She knew deep down that her notorious eldest brother had a soft spot for his baby sister in his otherwise rookery-hard heart.
With dark auburn hair and blue eyes, he was widely considered quite handsome. Nobody would hire him, of course, being Irish, but he sometimes brought in impressive sums of money by winning bare-knuckle prize fights that people came from miles around to see.
Nobody messed with Patrick O’Dell around here.
Dani glanced over at Luke. “You’ve got your stupid watch back, don’t ye?”
“Aye,” Luke admitted, holding it up before tucking it into his flashy scarlet waistcoat, no doubt stolen, itself.
“Well, then?” she answered. “You’ve made your point. Let ’im go.”
Johnny had already lost interest. Teddy had distracted him by bringing over a stick and luring the perpetually bored twelve-year-old into playing fetch with him.
Luke snorted, but Matthew and Mark both rested their hands on their waists and glanced at Patrick, awaiting orders.
“Foine,” Patrick finally grumbled. “I trust the little dunce has learned his lesson. Let’s go.” He jerked a nod at his brothers and began prowling off to the other corner, where they usually loitered.
The other four followed.
Mark gave the boy a parting prod with his toe. “Stay out of our neighborhood and don’t come back, if ye know what’s good for ye.”
Dani huffed at Mark and marched back to plant herself between brother three and the urchin, who’d remained face-down on the ground, as though he realized it was safest for him there.
As the O’Dell tribe rambled off into the shadows, Teddy scampered over to their victim and poked his cold nose gently against his cheek, like he feared the boy was dead.
He wasn’t dead. He was only playing dead, like a hedgehog.
He groaned and brushed the dog away, but stayed down. “Are they gone?”
Dani made sure they’d disappeared. “Aye.”
Then she turned around and crouched beside the boy.
He sat up slowly with a wince, reaching for his hat. He put it on and tried to pull it down over his ears—as if a light cap could keep him warm. Some of his guinea-gold hair still stuck out below it.
“I’m sorry about that,” Dani offered.
“About what?” he grumbled with ready sarcasm. Head down, the urchin wouldn’t make eye contact with her, clearly humiliated.
Instead, he went about fixing his shoe, which had slipped off the back of his heel in the fray.
But Dani noticed his chin trembling with his effort to hold back tears, and her heart went out to him entirely.
“They’re dreadful, I know. They pick on me all the time.”
“I wouldn’t cook ’em nuffin’ if I was you. Aye…” He looked up slowly with a fierce gleam in his cobalt eyes. “I’d set ’em on fire while they was asleep.”
Dani’s eyes widened. Egads, not even Patrick would think of such a thing.
“Well, that sounds a little drastic,” she said.
The boy snorted, but it seemed the tough talk had helped him swallow back his tears, so she didn’t argue.
She eyed the tattered stranger uncertainly. Poor thing. He could’ve been a handsome lad if he weren’t so gaunt. He had high cheekbones and a fine nose, though it was smudged with dirt.
“Anything broken?” she ventured.
“Hardly.” He looked sideways at her. “They’re not so tough.”
“Oh, really? Most around here would beg to differ.”
“Well, I ain’t most.” His head still down, then turned his attention to her dog.
Teddy had been sniffing him. The boy lifted his hand and let Teddy smell his palm. Suddenly, Teddy pounced onto his lap and licked his face, giving instant approval.
The boy chuckled ruefully.
Dani was proud of her dog for cheering him up.
Well, she thought, if Teddy liked him, he must be all right, never mind his wild threats about setting people on fire.
“What’s your name?” she asked
“What’s yours?” he shot back in defiance, a scarecrow with a bad attitude.
She just shrugged. “Dani O’Dell.”
“Danny?” The urchin scoffed like a rudesby. “That’s a boy’s name.”
“It’s short for Daniela!” she informed him. “I’m named after my grandfather. He’s dead.”
“Oh. Sorry.” He scratched Teddy under the chin. “Is this your dog?”
“Aye, that’s Teddy. And you are?”
“Jake,” he reluctantly admitted. “Jake Reed.”
Dani assessed him with a stare. “You’re not from around here, are you?” she said.
He smirked. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
She chuckled. “It was.”
Jake offered a first, cautious hint of a smile. “I like to go exploring, that’s all. I ended up here.”
She arched both eyebrows. Who would want to come exploring here? No doubt he was in a hurry to leave. “Do you know how to get out?”
He shrugged. “I always find my way eventually.”
“All right then.” She nodded, then felt the weariness of the day catching up to her, now that she saw the boy was all right. “Well, I have to go.” Hesitating, she reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a penny. “Here. You might as well take this.”
He bristled at once. “I’ll not take your charity!”
“It’s not charity! My brothers beat you up for no reason. Here, take it. You deserve it.”
He scowled at her. “Absolutely not.”
Dani squinted, trying to figure him out. “Did you really try to steal me brother’s pocket watch?”
“Try? Nah.” He sent a sneaky glance over his shoulder, then reached up the sleeve of his short jacket, and pulled out a shiny brass fob watch. “I succeeded.”
Dani gasped as a roguish grin spread across Jake’s grimy face.
“Hold on—!” Suddenly grasping his bony wrist, she inspected the watch more closely. “That isn’t Luke’s watch.” Her eyes widened in horror. “It’s Patrick’s!”
“Aye,” Jake said with a wink and a snicker.
Dani stared at the scoundrel in awe and utter confusion. Then dread for him filled her.
“What have you done?” she exclaimed.
“Just makin’ a livin,’ Dani O’Dell.”
“You’re a lunatic!” Perhaps he’d taken a thrashing, but she saw now he was far from beaten. He wasn’t even scared. “But, they all thought you went after Luke’s watch!”
“It’s called a distraction, my dear,” he said grandly. “First lesson in thieving. And your brothers, well, they’re not very bright.”
Dani stared at him in open-mouthed astonishment. Her head began to shake back and forth with a will of its own. “I can’t believe you did that and lived!”
She put her hand out at once. “Give it back. I’ll put it in his room so he won’t even know.”
Jake chuckled and jumped to his feet. “Ah, that’ll never do, Dani O’Dell.”
She looked up at him in dismay. “You don’t understand what you’ve done!”
“Nonsense. I always know what I’m doing. More or less. And I’ll be fencin’ this shiny bauble, so you can keep your pennies. But, thanks, lass. You’re a good sort.” He tossed the brass fob watch in his hand and caught it again like a ball, showing off, before he dropped it into the breast pocket of his jacket. “See you around, Dani O’Dell.”
“Jake!” She pushed to her feet, still dazed by his audacity. “If you won’t let me return it, you must never come back here again.”
He furrowed his brow at her words. “Nobody tells me what I must or mustn’t do.” Tucking his thumbs into his trouser pockets, he stood with just as much bravado as Patrick himself. “I do as I please, savvy? But, to be honest, I wasn’t plannin’ on coming back to this place. I mean, it’s nice and all…”
He glanced around wryly, his blue eyes dancing with mischief when he looked at her again. “I meant that I would see you around Covent Garden Market.”
His observation took her aback.
“I’ve seen you there before,” he said. “You’re the red-haired girl with the wheelbarrow.”
“Aye! I am.” Dani marveled that anyone should have remembered her. But then, this young sharper was clearly the sort who missed little.
“Well, cheerio, Dani O’Dell.” He sketched a bow to her dog. “Cheerio, Master Teddy.”
Teddy yipped a farewell, then the mysterious lad scampered off into the shadows, leaving Dani in a daze.
“Goodbye, Jake,” she mumbled belatedly. She could just make out the slim shape of him as he leaped onto one of the fire escape ladders and began nimbly climbing it.
She furrowed her brow, tilting her head back to watch him ascend. Where on earth did he think he was going?
Moments later, she saw his wiry silhouette vault up onto the rooftop of building five across the street.
He paused at the edge of the roof, swept off his hat, and waved it to her with the flourish of a showman, then vanished into the night.
Teddy whined for his supper, and Dani looked down at her dog, still feeling a bit discombobulated. “What a strange person,” she said to herself. Then she tilted her head back again.
Why did he go up on the roof? What was up there?
In all of her seven years of life, trudging back and forth along the bottom of the canyons between these dark towers, it had never occurred to Dani to go up one of those ladders.
Now she found herself intensely curious all of a sudden. Did this scrappy stranger know something she didn’t?
Returning to her wheelbarrow, she pushed it to the side of her building and parked it there. No one would take it. They’d know whose it was because she’d carved her name into one of the wooden handles, and, unlike Jake, when the rookery folk saw the name O’Dell, they’d know it was not theirs to steal.
Besides, Teddy would guard it for her. She tied his leash around the handle and pointed at him. “Sit.”
“Stay. Good boy. I’ll be back in two minutes.” She glanced over her shoulder at the fire escape. “I want to go and see what’s up there.”
Teddy gave a small yowl, like he did not think this was a good idea.
He was probably right. It was very high, and if Ma were alive, Dani knew she’d get a wigging for this. But if that boy could do it, then she could do it, too.
She went over to the bottom of the ladder and seized hold of the rungs. Then she began to climb. The metal bars were cold in her reddened fingers, and the rungs felt a little slippery under her black lace-up boots. The brick wall of Block Three stretched out on all sides of her, with grimy windows at regular intervals.
At the second story, she paused to glance down at the ground and gulped. Better not do that again, or she’d lose her nerve. Her dog looked tiny down there, as did her barrow.
She kept going, climbing up past the third floor, then the fourth. As she neared the fifth, she could see her brothers standing around with their friends down at the next intersection.
Some of the boys were kicking a ball around; others were smoking. She shook her head in disapproval, but at least they weren’t beating anybody up.
Then she noticed how high she was. A void of black nothingness yawned between herself and all of them. A surge of unexpected loneliness filled her, and all of a sudden, she missed her mother terribly.
Steeling herself, she forged on. The higher she climbed, the bitterer turned the wind. Around the sixth floor, she began to wonder how she was going to get down again. Going up was one thing; coming down might prove a bit dicier.
When she reached the seventh story—the top floor of the building—she passed a window where a lone candle seemed to strive with all its might to keep shining, though it flickered in a draft.
Dani pressed on, determined. The roof was just above her. She was running out of ladder and beginning to regret that she had ever thought of following that mad boy up here.
With the ground seeming miles beneath her, it felt ever so precarious lurching herself up off the ladder onto the edge of the building.
It turned out that a low wall ran around the brim of the roof, rather like the battlements of a castle.
When the moment came for her to let go of the ladder and climb over it, she experienced a moment of sheer terror. Her heart thumped so loud, Da might’ve heard down at the pub and thought some street musician was beating a bodhran.
Dani clung to the rough, cold bricks with a death grip, feeling her way up the wall with one foot, and then forcing her weight over the ledge like the world’s clumsiest horseback rider, insisting to herself all the while that if that boy could do it, so could she. With a small cry, she flopped awkwardly onto the roof of the tenement building—but she was safe.
Chest heaving, she just sat there for a moment in shaky relief. Gathering herself, she rose slowly to her feet. Then she looked around at London, and laughed in astonishment at the view.
She walked a few paces across the broad open space of the roof, amazed at the beauty in the distance everywhere.
To the south, she could see the shining face of Big Ben, and all manner of boats on the Thames. They looked like toys.
To the east rose the great, noble dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and its splendor lifted her heart.
Grateful, she searched the rooftop in a glance, but Jake had vanished. There was nobody up here but herself and a clutch of roosting pigeons, cooing softly to themselves.
And then, slowly, Dani lifted her head and discovered diamonds. She drew in her breath, wonder-struck as she beheld the night sky.
Up here, above the clouds of coal dust and workaday drear, sparkling on a field of indigo, countless stars glittered like handfuls of fairy dust.
Utter enchantment stole over her, and it was all down to that young thief. Dani wondered if she would ever see him again.
Thank you, Jake, she thought. Whoever you are…
If you liked this post, leave a comment below and tell us which secondary or side characters from The Gryphon Chronicles YOU think we should try writing a short story about in the future!