A Child of Hurin
The room had the good natured feel of old friends. Ned Astin, recently promoted to Sergeant of the King’s Watch sat at a small table. A mug of ale was before him, the third if he counted correctly. His head was trimmed in haze so he could not be sure. The badge of his service to the king of Entia recently sewn to is cloak, felt heavy with the responsibility that came with it; heavier for the beer that he had consumed. Allie would be angry when he got home. She did not like him to stumble through the door with hot beer on his breath. It was undignified she said. Ned shrugged off the concern. He would deal with his wife when he got home. Another mug was slid in front of him; if he made it home tonight.
“Well congratulations are in order I think.” The man sitting across from him said. Tall with darkly oiled curls, his beard was trimmed around a wide and full lipped mouth. It was Lord Verik of Northcountry Shire, on the far side of Hardale. “We will drink to your good fortune!” The man’s crest, a crow with outspread wings over a stone tower was freshly sewn to his breast. The crisp corners, wrapped in silver wire caught the dancing fire lights and glistened, untarnished by age.
They had become friends almost the moment they met. It had been at the good king’s birthday. Verik had traveled south to the new capital of Hartwich to attend upon his king. A newly made Lord he was, but one that was well appointed by all appearances. His dress was finely stitched with silver thread. He had arrived with his newly inked charter in hand, granting him lordship and a small manor by the Baron of Northcountry Shire, Sir Allan Bomes. Verik and Ned had learned early that both had come from Entia’s North Country. They knew some of the same fishing holes visited the same taverns and knew the same pastures. Verik had not always been a Lord of Entia.
They both laughed and lifted their tankards. Beer slipped through at the corners of their mouths and dribbled across the front of their doublets. Verik raised his arm and shouted for another round. The room whooped with applause and the barkeep began pouring more drinks. Here at the Graveling Boar Tavern, the City Watch and the King’s Watch mingled in good natured company. It was true that both felt the other was unnecessary, that their own guard was the most elite of Hartwich. It did not stop them from drinking together, trading stories and sharing the occasional wench.
“For Ned Astin, Sergeant of the King’s Watch!” someone yelled, “The tips of his stripes never droop!” It was a traditional hazing and Ned applauded with nearly everyone else. His eye caught Frank Banders, a fellow member of the Watch. The man sat at his cups with a sullen brow. His heavy shoulders slumped, hunching over his small table, alone. Ned knew that Frank felt that the sergeant’s stripes should have been his.
Ned rose from his seat, his knees wobbling like long fishes on hooks. He nearly fell over. Verik provided a steadying hand. “Careful there my friend, walking is not the best of ideas I am thinking.”
Both men laughed and Ned held out his own hand as if to calm his friend, “I will be back. Frank is a little down in his drops.”
“He is jealous and rightly so, the King’s Watch has promoted a great man.” Verik said.
“I wish old Frank to be happy for me. I will see if I can cheer him up.” Ned said and picked up a mug, “I will bring him drink.”
Ned could feel the words slur from his lips, dripping out like missed droits of beer. His vision blurred and righted itself even as the room tilted a little to the left. Verik’s firm hand righted him up and the room returned to a proper angle. “I will be right back.”
Frank watched as the newly appointed sergeant made his way over with a slanting gate. It disgusted him. The man was a fool and only promoted because of his new friend, the right lordly Verik of Northcountry Shire. Ned nearly fell twice; tripping over the tavern’s other patrons in his attempt to reach Frank. It was undignified and Allie would have been sorely disappointed in her husband. Frank could hardly believe that he had once called the drunken sod a friend.
“I have nothing to say to you!” Frank said even as Ned stumbled into the opposite chair. “Go back to your friend and leave me be.”
“Frank please, we are friends. We have stood watch together at the King’s table and chambers. We have marched with him into Yrdale. Our fathers fought his Grace’s wars with both Uster and Othea. Please, friends we should be.” Ned paused trying to remember why he had a mug in his hand. Was it his or Frank’s? Deciding it was Franks, he pushed it across the table, “Drink with me. Join me, please.”
Frank looked at the offered mug of ale in disgust and slapped it away, “Go away fool, I have no time for you or your pet Lord Verik!” The beer splashed over the wall, spraying another patron whose annoyed look lasted only as long as the tavern girl’s caresses would allow. “You have garnered honors that are not yours and you do not deserve!”
The room had settled into an uneasy silence. All eyes shifted to the corner table where Frank and Ned now stood, their chins nearly touching. Verik could see that the good natured Ned drunk on his cups of ale had transformed into an angry drunken guardsman. Privately, Verik was glad that there were no swords in the room. The odd dagger here and there all meant to do mean work, but no honorable weapons of war.
It was Ned who swung first, a wide blow to the side of Frank’s head. From a sober man it would have been a dreadful thing, bone crushing. Ned was deep in his cups, fighting on a shifting ground that floated on to many mugs of ale. The blow glanced away, stinging Frank’s ear. It took less than a moment for Frank to pummel young Ned to the ground. The tavern remained silent. Fights were a common thing here and none could remember the number of times that they had been sent here to break up a tussle among the customers. This was different though. The King’s Watch fighting among themselves was an ill omen. Everyone sat, uncomfortable and unsure. Frank looked around the tap room and considered his fellow patrons. King’s and City Watch alike stared at him. The patrons unaffiliated with the Watch were eager to enter into a brawl, but were unsure of the new rules. These were the men that were supposed to break it up, make sure everyone got home. Now the watchers were the brawlers, the rules had been overturned. Each man, quietly decided to hold their station, except for Frank. He straightened himself, glanced down at Ned who was breathing hard through a bloodied nose, and strode from the room. The copper braced door, emblazoned with the image of a boar standing on a mound of rocks with a mug skewered on its tusk slammed shut on Frank’s back.
Slowly the room returned to a rumble of good natured drunkenness. The barkeep slowed the drinks and began to serve the watered wine. It would be a night where no furniture was broken, despite the oddity; it was to be a good night.
The next morning proved to be a harrowing affair for Ned Astin. He was unable to recall how he returned to the small cottage where he lived with his wife Allie Astin and their daughter Bonnie. When Ned made his way to the door to report for his duties at the castle, Allie had been very cool, speaking little. His dish of oats and milk had been dropped before him at the table with a spoon. No good mornings, or pleasant days; her anger hung between them like a flaming curtain, a barely contained rage.
“I will be back tonight.” Ned said, “My watch ends before the evening’s seventh bell.”
Allie nodded her response and set to cleaning up and tending to Bonnie’s morning needs. “Off with you then. Do try to make it home without another pounding.” Ned was near the door when she continued in a softer tone, “I am still vexed with you.”
Ned turned, “I know and I am sorry.”
Allie nodded the anger slipped a little in her face, “You should go see Father Belden.”
Ned shook his head, “I have no more use for him. His lot has disappointed me enough.”
Allie turned away and continued tending Bonnie. Ned left quietly, a heavy feeling coming over him. It was neither the drink nor the apprehension of his new position. The church had failed him twice now. His brother’s death and that of his father’s both had been useless. Now Brother Belden seemed desperate to pull Ned and his family back into the fold, saying that the church could ill afford the loss of even one more parishioner.
He found Georgie standing watch at the sally portage one the east side of the castle. Georgie was tall with wisps of red hair and a ginger’s pallor. Helm and spear shone in the early morning sun and the fog curled around freshly shined boots. Ned always thought he was good man; kept is gear as fit as himself. Good family man with a wife and a daughter only a year older than Ned’s Bonnie.
Ned passed by Georgie with a pleasant greeting and Verik found him near the sally portage. He brought hot bread and warm cider to chase away the cold. Verik’s dress was neatly pressed, his newly chartered crest blazed in the morning sun. “How are you doing friend?” Verik asked offering a chunk of bread.
“My head is trying to kill me. My eyes are burning and Allie is fit tied with anger.” Ned answered. All of these were understatements. Verik seemed to understand.
“Well it was a good evening just the same, despite that blackguard Banders. He spoiled everything. Well, almost everything.” Verik said and elbowed Ned in the ribs.
“Well he was angry. I understand that, but did he have to beat me so?” Ned asked rubbing his temple were Frank had planted a firm blow, “I am not sure if it was his fist for the beer that ails me more.”
“I am sure it is the beer my friend. We will see each other tonight?” Verik asked.
Ned shook his head, “I think that Allie would frown upon that. I am in deep enough. Think I will spend the evening mending my house, if you know what I mean.”
“Yes, yes of course I do. No wife of my own you understand, not yet. Soon I hope. Queen Heather has taken a shine to me. Given me one of the estates north of the city, she has, for my use.” Verik said, “Nice enough place, out of the way and quiet. Nice view of the sea. You should come and see.”
“I would like that.” Ned replied and took another offered piece of bread. The warmth seemed to ease the pain in his stomach, which rumbled uncomfortably under his chain baldric.
Verik smiled, “Then it is settled. You will mend up things with your wife and in the days to come you and your family will come and stay with me for a day or two. It will all be great fun. Bet your good wife wouldn’t mind being served by a staff of her own for a change.”
“I am sure she would love it. Bonnie likes the sea as well.” Ned answered.
“Excellent!” Verik rejoiced, “We will work it all out soon enough.”
The newly chartered lord strode off, swinging the cider at his side and absently gnawing on the cooling bread. Ned watched him go and found that he was genuinely fond of the man. A lord that he both respected and enjoyed that was a rare thing.
For his part, Lord Verik was fond of the young sergeant and wished him well. He found it to be a pleasure to encounter a watchman who was articulate about more than women, beer and swinging a sword. They had spoken of fish and the long meadows of the Northcountry Shire, surrounded by the tall oaks and birch trees. There were tracks of wood that were open for hunting to the common man. They told tales to each other of their youthful antics in those woods.
The day seemed a little less grim as Ned realized he was one of the seven sergeants in the castle’s King’s Watch. He would not be standing near a door or asking people for their weapons before entering. Instead he reported to the lieutenant, Godmeer Ullins. Here was another good man of the Watch, fair but stern. Ned was assigned a roving patrol. It was a simple route, start at the north east tower, named Locke’s Handle (no one seemed to know why) past the Signal Gate and into the Citadel proper, out the postern gate and up the Handle’s outer casing and then repeat. The route would take thirty minutes or so. Ullins told him three times per day minimum unless something is amiss. Report it to Ullins and then follow up. On Saturdays he would assist with training any new recruits.
It was in the Citadel that he discovered that his route took him by one of the Royal Galleries. Artifacts that had been sent south from the castle in Hardale, but had not yet been placed in their final niches were stored here. Lord Galen’s sword with its stag shaped pommel leaned against one wall like a broom next to a rickety case of scrolls. When he looked, Ned found that they were all in languages he could not decipher. There were books, some gilded in gold, and others bound in the finest lamb’s skin. One set upon a dark wood lectern, its well-crafted cover and binding gilded in gold and silver. This place was a treasure trove of the archaic, a fortune in a single room that was barely attended. With each passing he lingered here, his curiosity fed like a feral cat on abandoned milk.
Georgie saw Ned three times that afternoon. The first two they spoke and Ned seemed in brighter spirits than he had in the morning. Georgie had always admired young Ned. The King’s Watch needed more men like him. Ned had earned his stripes. They had not been granted him because of wealth or birth. Each time Georgie gave Ned an approving nod as the new sergeant marched away.
It was near the evening sixth bell when Ned stumbled out of the sally portage, his face twisted in anguish. Catching himself on the stone wall near Georgie’s head, he righted himself. Tears were running down his face.
“Ned lad, what’s wrong?” Georgie tried to grasp the young Watch, but the man twisted away fiercely. “Where are you off to?”
Ned sobbed something and then, “It’s not there. The church! I must find it, by the gods it’s not there. It must be, please let it be!” The King’s Watchman sobbed and backed away, his hands flopping at his sides. Fingertips filled with grime. Ned disappeared into a throng of merchants as they made their way towards the docks. Georgie looked up and the sun was descending towards the sea, but it was not yet seven bells. He glanced back towards the road, but Ned had been swallowed by the passing crowd. It was soon after that the nightmare began. One that Georgie could barely believe.
The taproom of the Driftwood Tavern should have been as still as a lamb at rest as Vaush descended the stairs. The wood creaked under his soft soled boots. Instead of the calming silence that he looked forward to, he heard voices drifting up. Near the hearth Cut Throat Bill stood talking in a harsh whisper to another man who was obscured by Bill’s back.
“What’s this?” Vaush asked as he stepped off the last stair. Bill, whom Vaush named William half turned. He was a head taller than Vaush with thick gray hair that was pulled back and tied with a rough leather cord at the nape of his neck. The man’s shirt was bedraggled, as if he had slept in them. The tri-cornered hat of crushed velvet that William wore was on the table. Vaush now saw that sitting on the turning stool was Georgie of the King’s Watch.
Georgie stood and Vaush saw that he was still dressed in his watch uniform. The chain baldric shined in the hearth’s light. The sword was still at his hip, but the helmet had been carefully placed on the ground next to the stool. Nothing had been recently polished and the evening’s grime still soiled the armor.
“Georgie has come with a tale Master Vaush.” William turned and sighed, “You might as well tell him yourself.”
“I need your help.” Georgie said, “Please.”
Vaush’s eyes flashed, scanning the man. William had seen this before and new that the lad was collecting information, seeing things that others would not unless it was pointed out. William smiled; maybe the lad’s funk would be broken now.
“What would a member of the King’s Watch need with the likes of me?” Vaush asked.
Georgie fidgeted with his fingers. Vaush’s eyes brightened. “Tell me.”
The watchman sat again and started his tale. It was the same one that he had previously told to William, but now with a new audience and a second telling it seemed more coherent. Even William caught things that had been missed in the first telling.
“Ned was a good man I tell you, one of the best. They found him in the Witch’s Wood, north of the castle. Hanging from a tree he was.” Georgie said, “They are calling it a suicide, but that can’t be right! It just can’t. He wouldn’t, I tell you; he would not kill himself. He has a wife and a daughter. He loves… loved them both. He was just promoted. A sergeant he was now. It all just does not make sense.”
William had to admit that Georgie was convincing but said, “Georgie, I know you and Ned got along right well you did. But, he was a common man made good. A sergeant you say, well that is no mean feat. Is it not more likely there is something you did not know about Ned? Maybe something that had galled him for years? Come on Georgie, you have to admit? Murder of a King’s Watch that is just not good sense.”
Georgie nodded, “That’s why they would make it look like a suicide.”
He was desperate and Vaush could taste it. “Georgie, why me? Why not take it to your Lord Commander; have it properly investigated?”
“I tried and was told that the decision had been made. A priest had named it suicide.” Georgie sobbed, “Allie and Bonnie won’t receive a penny of his pension. Six years of full pay they would be owed if it weren’t suicide.”
Vaush leaned back and carefully watched Georgie. There had been many times that Georgie had assisted Vaush and William and often at great personal risk. He and William had always compensated Georgie, but the watchman’s assistance always came without resistance. “Alright Georgie, I will look into it.”
Georgie’s eyes perked but Vaush held up a finger in warning. Despite his mere seventeen years, Vaush commanded attention. His sharp features and slender frame filled the room when necessary, “I only promise you the truth that I can find. If he committed suicide, then so be it. Now tell me what you saw.”
Georgie started his tale again, telling of Ned’s sudden departure and his anguished look. Vaush went back again and again. What did he say? Exactly? According to Georgie, there had been nothing bothering the new sergeant. There had been a tussle at the tavern the night before. Ned had taken a pounding at the hands of another watchman. Georgie tried to remember the combatant’s name, but failed. It was nothing, he was sure of it. Bar fights happened, even at the Gravel Boar, where the Watches took their leisure.
“You say he was acquainted with a lord of the realm? Which one?” Vaush asked.
Georgie shook his head, “Lord Verik I think his name was. I can’t be sure. I saw them a few times. I know that he was at the tavern that night. The night of the fight.”
William nodded, “I have heard of this Lord Verik, but not much of him. A newly made man I suppose. It happens.”
Vaush nodded and asked, “You said a priest named Ned’s death a suicide. Which one?”
“Father Belden, a man of Huren’s Child.” Georgie said, “Poor Allie, poor Bonnie. I don’t know what they will do.”
The thought that Ned’s widow and child could be turned from their home did not occur to Vaush. The matter of Ned’s death had seeped into his mind and had begun to turn about as if the idea were on a gyro, spinning in all directions. Vaush turned it over, examined it from each side, wondering what could have happened. It was possible that Ned Astin had committed suicide. There was no way to know without looking deeper. If it was not suicide, then the matter could become quite grave. Vaush was not a man of the law, but was aware of the King’s Watch. Killing a member of such an august fraternity could turn the streets of Hartwich into a river of men, each one looking in places it would be better if they had not.
“Where is Ned now?” Vaush asked.
Georgie gulped, “At his home. He is laid out in the manner of his family. They were originally from the north I think, above the Hardmoor. Father Belden was with Allie and Bonnie last I heard.”
“I know the place.” William said, “I suspect you will want to go see him.”
“First where young Ned died.” Vaush said. He donned the long pilgrim’s coat and strode for the door. William and Georgie pulled their things together and quickly followed him out into the morning. The sun was just cresting the mountain tops. Fog still clung to the cobbled road as they made their way past the castle and out the Umbrage Road towards the Witch’s Wood. They passed the rambling shack that belonged to the weirding woman, Nariha and followed the coast deeper into the shaded wood. The air was still and cool. Moss and lichen climbed the smooth bark of the trees. Clumps of ground cover grasped at their feet as they made their way along the narrow deer paths. The shingle roofs of the midland cottages came into view. Here Georgie turned east and walked deeper into the wood, following a path that had seen much traffic. Booted feet and horses shod in steel had recently passed. Twin trenches marked the comings and goings of a two wheeled cart. The body hitch Vaush surmised.
“This is it.” Georgie said.
The tree was a large birch with thick branches that spread into a wide canopy. Several smaller branches had been broken. Vaush took a turn around the tree. There was a sword gash in the trunk, three feet from the ground. Vaush ran his fingers along the fresh wound, thick sticky sap drooled from the slashed trunk.
“Who found the body?” Vaush asked.
“Father Belden.” Georgie said, “He was told that Ned had come here, but said he was not sure why. Found him hanging by the neck, right there.” Georgie pointed up to a thick branch. Vaush turned around, the tails of his coat fluttering out around him. He kicked aside the carpet of leaves and twigs.
“What are you looking for?” William asked.
“The rope.” Vaush said and found one end of a dirty thick twine. It was a rope that was common on the docks, a large rough twine in a simple enough braid. It was damp with the morning’s dew. Vaush ran his fingers along the entirety of its length. A green stain, fresh with tree sap covered the last twenty feet or so. One end of the rope had been cut with a single slash of a sword, while the other had the large hangman’s noose with its round knot. William watched as Vaush took a moment to pick at the hemp threads and then smell and touch his finger tips to his tongue.
Vaush mumbled something and then looked up. The branch that Georgie had indicated was large and reached out as if the tree were pointing to the castle beyond the forest’s verge. Without notice the young man vaulted up the tree, springing from one hidden handhold to the next. Before Georgie and William realized, he was sitting on the branch that had supported Ned as he swung. Vaush’s flat dark eyes examined the branch, running his fingers along the length.
“There is a groove here.” He said.
William placed one hand on the tree’s trunk and lifted a foot. He looked about for one of the places that Vaush had used in his ascent. “Bullocks.” The old pirate said and gave up.
“Imagine where you want to be and pick your path.” Vaush said, “It is more about momentum then actual climbing.”
“Well I am comfortable with me two feet here on the ground. This is your rigging anyway. I am just along for the ride.” William said, “No offence Georgie, I know that young Ned was your friend. I just don’t see murder here.”
“Oh he was murdered William, there is no doubt about that.” Vaush said and leapt gracefully the ground. He began walking back towards the town proper and a swift pace. “Come on, hurry up. I want to meet Mrs. Ned Astin.”
“How, how was it murder?” Georgie called after him. He and William struggled to catch up.
The wife of the late Ned Astin lived in a small cottage with a thatched roof near the outskirts of the Triton, a quiet suburb of Hartwich. Blue smoke curled out of a red brick chimney. Thyme and rosemary grew in bunches near the front door. Dried herbs hung from the outreaching rafters of the porch. Allie Astin was a thin woman with long blond hair, braided down the center of her back. Wisps of escaped locks framing her face. William thought she looked tired. Grasping the woman’s skirts was a smaller version. Young Bonnie did not like the look of the strangers that now stood at the yard’s gate.
“Are you friends of Ned?” Allie asked. Her accent placed her east of Hartwich. The blond hair said that her parentage was mixed. Father was from the eastern Highlands and her mother was from the north, perhaps as far as Uster, Vaush guessed. The daughter, Bonnie was an image of her mother, though the child’s hair had more curls.
“I am ma’am.” Georgie offered, “We stood at the King’s Watch together.”
It seemed to be enough for the widow who beckoned them in with a wave, “Well then, might as well come in.”
Ned was on what Vaush guessed had served as the kitchen table at one time. It had been moved into the living area. Allie took up station on the far side of the body. Ned had been cleaned and coins placed on the eyes. The priest had draped a thin veil of clean white linen over the dead man’s face.
Georgie was the first to step forward to offer his prayers to the dead. “I am sorry for your loss Allie. Ned was a good man.”
Allie nodded her thanks. The pain of her husband’s death was clearly etched on her face, traced in the lines that bracketed her eyes and mouth. Little Bonnie sat in the corner, with a red headed doll. Her own sorrow displayed in the lethargic and lackluster play. “I thank you Georgie. Ned always spoke well of you. Said you were a good man.”
“These men want to pay their respects to Ned. They did not know him as well as I, but …” Georgie could not finish it.
“There is more to Ned’s death then what has thus far been said.” Vaush said. His voice was a little too loud, a little too vigorous for the mourning of Ned’s passing.
Allie looked at him. This one has a cruel face she thought. Sharp featured with a narrow nose and high forehead. He was not of Entian stock she knew; from the south, the Empire perhaps. “What do you mean, more then what has been said?”
Georgie answered quickly, “Master Vaush here, he thinks that Ned may have been…” again his voice failed him. How did he tell lovely Allie that her dear Ned had been murdered?
“Murdered.” Vaush offered.
“My Ned did not commit suicide. He had no reason.” Her voice faltered. “We were happy. He had made sergeant. Bonnie. He had friends and powerful ones now that is what he said. It was that Father Belden that said suicide. The City Watch just agreed.”
“Did Father Belden say why he thought Ned’s death was suicide?” Vaush asked.
Allie backed away from her husband’s body, as if the conversation would taint his death beyond his suicide. “A crisis of faith. Ned had stepped away from the church after his father’s death, his brother’s death. Father Belden wanted to bring him back for the sake of his soul. Said it was the only explanation.”
“May I?” Vaush asked pointing at Ned. Allie glanced at Georgie who nodded his encouragement. Behind them William kept silent. He had known Ned Astin, member of the King’s Watch. From the point of view of the Watch he had been a good man; not of much use to William though. Ned wanted nothing more than to be a right and honorable man. He worked hard and stayed honest, a fact that rarely worked out for him. William suddenly felt an emotional pang and looked at Vaush who now stepped forward. The odd lad had come to life in the last few hours. The morose brooding was gone and he was now the hunt. You find them, solve this lad, for good man Ned, William thought. The good guys have to win sometimes don’t they?
Vaush started at Ned’s feet. He pried apart the toes and looked at the man’s heels. Running his hands up, he lingered over his stomach, lifting he light colored shirt and finally the throat. The livid bruise was raised and darkening to black. Angled from chin to ear, Vaush traced its path, Ned’s death road. Hands and fingers were next. Vaush smelled the dead man’s fingers and picked at the nails. Knuckles were bruised. The tavern fight Vaush thought.
Allie gripped Georgie’s arm, “I can’t watch.” She whispered. She took Bonnie and left the room. Soon they could hear her playing with the child near the rosemary bushes.
“There is a wound at the back of the head.” Vaush said, pulling his hands away.
“The rope knot.” William said, “It is common enough. When they drop the knot gives them a good smack. Most times it breaks their neck.”
“Perhaps.” Vaush muttered and stepped away from the body. “Give Mrs. Astin regards and let us be on our way.”
It was late afternoon when the small group made their way back to the Driftwood Tavern. The first of the evening’s patrons had arrived and Qune was already working the bar. Smoke from the central cooking pit already curled around the dark rafters. “Go home Georgie. See the wife. I have to think.” Vaush said.
Georgie nodded and gave his thanks to William for the help. William nodded and was quietly thankful that the watchman had left. It took no time for him to slip into the hum of the tavern’s taproom. Vaush, all the while sat in the corner, his feet on the table staring at some invisible point in space. William knew better than to try to strike up a conversation. Vaush would be gruff and without humor, if he responded at all. The lad was somewhere else, roaming some distant place within his own head. He was still there when William climbed the stairs and the taproom had poured its last mug.
The next morning William found the lad, Vaush well rested and finishing a plate of sausage and biscuits, washed down with watered wine and a glass of goat’s milk. William frowned disapproving of such a breakfast. He nodded at the Selma, who was serving the early risers for his usual ration of bacon and mug of thick dark ale.
“We go to the castle today.” Vaush said, “It is time to speak with the Lord Commander of the King’s Watch and perhaps this Lord Verik, if he exists.”
William nodded, “I think I will be begging off of this trip. The Lord Commander and I are at odds, if you be knowing what I am aiming at. Besides I am not up to prettying myself up this morning. You can give your ma a wag for me. One day of playing constable is enough for me.”
Vaush looked at William and shrugged, “So be it. Then I will see you later this afternoon. This is sure to be very entertaining.” Inwardly William groaned. Vaush’s idea of entertaining occasionally led to violence.
“Can you be holding off for a moment?” William asked, “I will be going with you just the same. Just how proper are you aiming to be?”
Vaush grinned, “Not very proper at all.” William grunted and went to change into a fresher shirt, one that did not smell of the docks, stale beer and pork.
The castle was a great rock that sat, large and lump like atop a promontory of rock. In truth it was an ancient fortress from the Second Age surrounded by the might of a greater castle that had been completed in the reign of the current King. His Grace, King Henri had moved his capital south in the years after the civil war that had divided Onterthi into two separate kingdoms, Othea and Entia. William and Vaush found Georgie standing watch near the sally portage as he usually did. He stood ramrod straight with his helm and armor freshly polished.
“Morning Georgie.” William said, “We are here to see the na-Baron.”
The King’s Watchman nodded and performed a stiff turn and pounded his mailed fist on the stout iron bound door. Three times, before there came the sound of locks and bolts being undone. No matter how they barred the way, this was a weak point in the wall so it was well defended. If an attacking force managed to reach this point in the castle’s defenses, it was lost in all likelihood. It was man of the Royal Army that pushed the door open. A grisly soldier that smelled of weapon’s oil and stale sweat for being too long encased in steel.
“They have come for the na-Baron. Master Vaush has been given leave by his Grace to come and leave at his whim.”
William looked at his younger companion with an arched eyebrow. “Really, have ya now?”
Vaush shrugged a mischievous smirk crossed his face and quickly vanished. The soldier stepped back and allowed Vaush and William to enter without further word. As he passed, William patted Georgie’s shoulder and whispered something. Georgie nodded and allowed a lopsided grin to mar his professional demeanor for just a moment. After that, the heavy door slid shut, the locks and bolts reset and another guard escorted them from the inner wall to the central citadel where the Baronial House of Locke resided.
It was near the back of the castle, nestled in a crook in the seaward wall that the Royal Bastion was set. The building looked oddly out of place among the fortifications. The front was lined with pillars of white marble and tall windows. It was more manse than fortress. Hartwich loved its baron and it was thought that to displace him would have been poor reward for such good service to the king. Therefore good King Henri ruled the nation and the Baron Locke the county of Hartwich.
They were deposited to wait for the na-Baron in a small room, neatly furnished with overstuffed chairs and second story view of the castle’s north baily. Beyond the curtain wall was the sea that relentlessly crashed against Hartwich’s rocky shore. William sat in one of the chairs, his left leg casually flung over the arm. He had found the liquor and was tasting the exquisite selection from a delicate glass that had been finely etched with the Baronial crest. Vaush stood near the window and watched the men below, who scurried about their duties like ants in the fortified hive.
That was how Sarah Chord and Simon Locke found them. Vaush had his hands shoved into the deep pockets of his pilgrim’s coat, hair uncombed and his stare intense. Simon frowned at William’s assumption of welcome but said nothing.
Sarah whispered to Simon, “He has found something. Something to sink his teeth into.”
“His canines you mean.” Simon answered. William heard the exchange and righted his posture, but failing to stand. Simon knew of the man, but had never met William formally. “Comfortable?”
“Enough so and the liquors are well stocked, though I prefer the southern red to the ambers your father seems to fancy.” William answered. Simon did not reply.
Sarah stepped up behind the lean form silhouetted in the window, “Vaush?”
The response was sudden. Vaush twirled around like a midsummer’s dancer, “Sarah. What a delight, so glad to see you!” With both hands he gingerly took her face and kissed her forehead. Laughing at the brightness in his eyes, she counted three shades of gray. “Simon, my friend I was hoping for a favor. Is that possible?”
The Vaush that had returned from the Far East a few months before was still taking some getting used to. The brooding only happened when he was bored, which in this calm before the expected great storm was often. When he was engaged he was full of life, he laughed and joked and almost seemed normal. Simon knew all of this for the mask that it was, but still he enjoyed his friend’s company and his efforts to fit in.
“That depends upon the favor.” Simon said, “What did you have in mind?”
Vaush looked at Sarah, “You didn’t tell him?”
“Tell him? I have only just arrived a fortnight ago from Covenhale.” Sarah answered. Vaush seemed frantic, full of energy.
“Really, I must have been mistaken, I was sure that we had talked.” Vaush said and turned to the na-Baron, “I have a need to speak with the Lord Commander of the King’s Watch. He has a problem.”
Simon glanced at Sarah who shrugged, “I don’t understand, what problem could he have?”
“Ned Astin, recently deceased sergeant.” William supplied and took a long pull from a recently filled glass. It was not his habit to drink so early, but it was not often he had the opportunity to drink from the Baron’s stores instead of his own.
“Sergeant Astin?” Simon asked again glancing towards Sarah who had arrived in Hartwich as part of Covenhale delegation. “He is the one that committed suicide in the Witch Wood? I don’t understand.”
“No of course you don’t. Please, I must speak with the Lord Commander.” Vaush continued.
“Vaush, I am going to need more than your desire. Please.” Simon said.
“Ned Astin was murdered.” Vaush said.
Simon went pale for a moment and asked, “You didn’t have anything to do with it… did you?”
Sarah chuckled, “No I doubt that. Why are you interested Vaush? Solving a murder is not your typical entertainment. Hartwich has a constabulary, report what you know and let them handle it.”
“Yes they do, but they are all idiots; the lot of them. Besides, killing a King’s Watch, is bad for business.” Vaush said.
“The idiot comment aside, he might be right.” Simon said, “The King’s Watch is a brotherhood. If one was murdered and there is a general inquiry, well they would tear Hartwich apart looking for who murdered one of their own.”
William arched an eyebrow and said to Vaush, “He is not nearly as dim as you said he was.”
Simon Locke cast a baleful glare at the pirate who had nearly drained a bottle of the Karsish Amber without any seeming effect. “I will get you in to see the Lord Commander, but I have to advise my father.”
“Who will undoubtedly run and tell the King, yes, yes… can we just get this moving along?” Vaush said impatiently. Simon scowled again and turned on his heels.
Sarah nodded a greeting to William, who tipped an imaginary hat towards her, and asked, “Vaush, why are you involved? Solving a murder, really? What is going on here?”
Vaush looked at her, his eyes bright, “Oh Sarah, this is not just a murder. A member of the King’s Watch? No, no, this one is clever. Almost got away with it. If someone is willing to risk killing Ned Astin, and in such a clever way?”
“You can’t abide the idea that someone may be as clever as you are.” Sarah said.
“Generally I assume that if you are not in the room, I am the smartest one there.” Vaush answered.
“Hold on here, just a minute.” William said, standing up. His feet felt a little untrustworthy and he sat back down.
Vaush shrugged, “Thus far, I have not been wrong.”
Angus, chamberlain to the Baron Locke arrived a few moments later and escorted all of them, sometimes providing assistance to the wavering William, to the Baron’s private hall. Vaush caught up with the na-Baron, falling into step with him.
“Do you know a Lord Verik?” Vaush asked.
Simon shook his head, “I know him by name, but that is all. He was granted a charter only recently, though I do know that he is favored in the Queen’s court. By reputation is charming in a rustic sort of way, though not so rough as the eastern highlanders.”
“Interesting.” Vaush muttered, “Is he in residence?”
Again Simon shook his head, “I am not sure. If he is, he stands in the Queen’s court. My father and the King have not yet found him of use.”
They entered the baron’s hall. The room had vaulted ceilings. Vaush had visited here many times in his youth. Through the far door and down a short corridor was the music room and he and Simon had practiced in years before. The Lady Veronica was there as was the King of Entia. Veronica was in the corner with the baron, her husband speaking in low tones, soothing. Soon after their arrival came the Lord Commander of the King’s Watch with his compatriot the High Constable of Hartwich. Both men were in a foul mood.
“Your Grace, I must object to this!” the High Constable said, “There has already been an inquiry into this matter and with the assistance of a local priest, it was deemed a suicide. I see no need to reopen the matter.”
Geoff Cormak, Lord High Commander of the King’s Watch nodded gruffly and added, “The man took his own life; there is no question in my mind.”
King Henri raised his hand and silenced them both. He looked at the Baron and asked, “You have reason to bring this matter before us?”
The baron, looking a little uncomfortable said, “Angus has brought my son’s concern to me. My son has said that there is new information brought here by the Master Vaush. In recent years I have learned that my son’s council is sound and I trust him.” Nodding towards Sarah he continued, “The Lady Cord, who attends upon us, is also most trust worthy. Her skills and wisdom have served us all well.”
Lord Cormak was barely containing himself. His neck had turned red and his pursed lips were ready to burst, but he had been silenced by the King and he dare not voice his objections. Not yet, not until he was given leave to do so.
“Master Vaush, this matter has been put to rest by wise men. Why do you believe anything other than the conclusions that they have laid forth?” the King asked.
Vaush’s eyebrows went up, “They are idiots. I mean, it really isn’t their fault, most people are.” He felt Sarah’s calming hand on his and continued, “They are wrong and the evidence bears that out.”
Geoff Cormak could not take any more and said with spittle flying from his thick white beard, “I say, how dare you. I will have you slung and whipped for such lies!”
Sarah gripped Vaush who turned. So much could be told by the young man’s eyes. William seemed to sober immediately and even Simon’s hand dropped to the small blade at his hip, “Shut up.” Vaush said, the eyes that Sarah gaged him by had gone flat and dark, reptilian, “You look and listen but you see and hear nothing. You are trapped within the narrow confines of a little mind, surrounded by the pomp and circumstance of your station. You are unable to look past what you want to believe.”
“Enough!” the King roared, “I would have you present your evidence lad. Do so quickly. Your relation to the Lady Veronica will protect you only so far.”
Vaush scoffed, “That is hardly necessary. Very well.” He began to pace the room, weaving among the chairs. Sarah thought, you had better make this good. “Ned Astin was murdered, there is no doubt of that. He was hit on the back of the head, a noose placed around his neck and he was pulled up into the tree.”
“Ridiculous!” the Constable said, “I have seen the report. Mr. Astin’s death was a suicide.”
“That is what you were meant to think. There was green stain on the rope. It was from where it was dragged over the branch with weight on it, the weight of Ned Astin’s body. The rope dug into the branch leaving a deep groove. It is a groove deeper than would be caused if Ned simply lept from the branch and swung there. The wound on the back of Ned’s head was from being struck, not from the when the rope snapped tight, because the rope never snapped taut.”
The constable sputtered, “How could you possibly know that?”
Vaush rolled his eyes, “How do you perform your duties? Did you even look at Ned’s body? The neck. The bruising was angled as it should be. The man was hung. The rope was pulled up behind his ear. If it had snapped taut as you propose, there would be abrasions, rope burns along the side of the neck were it scrapped the skin. There were none.”
The Lord High Commander of the King’s Watch let out a long breath. His bluster was taken away, “Go on lad. You have peeked me.”
“Good Sir, I protest!” said the High Constable.
“Shut up Murrey and listen to the lad.” Geoff said, “Do you have anything else?”
Vaush shrugged, “Look at Ned. He was recently promoted, he had a wife that by all accounts he adored and a child, a snot rag in my opinion, but I am not the best to ask. By all accounts his star was on the rise.”
Trying to contain his rage the constable said, “Father Belden said that Ned was in the middle of a crisis of faith. That was what pushed him to take his own life. I still maintain it was suicide.”
“Why?” Vaush asked, “In the face of everything you still cling to the belief of suicide only because to do otherwise would be an affront to your honor. I would tell you to not take it so. Whom ever did this, oh they are quite clever.”
“Meaning what?” Simon asked.
Vaush pointed at the constable, “He isn’t.”
Sarah stepped forward quickly, and said, even as the High Constable sputtered in his frustrated rage, “My Lord, Your Grace, if my council has ever meant anything, I would urge you to listen. I have known Master Vaush most of my life and have found him to be perceptive and of remarkable intelligence, even if his excitement sometimes gains mastery of his manners. He has brought to light several questions that I think need exploration.”
Veronica, the Lady Baroness smiled her approval. The High Constable finally managed, “Your Grace, I beg you, please. This is pure folly.”
“It is folly not to follow through your Grace.” Geoff Cormak disagreed, “If this is murder and it got out that we knew but winked at it for another’s honor, the damage could be irreparable.”
Simon said, “Sir, even beyond that. This is murder, if that is what we now believe, the honorable thing is to discover the culprit, no matter where it leads.”
“My Lords!” the High Constable pleaded, “This man, Ned Astin, he committed suicide. A priest, swore to this. He was a common man, at the tip of his station, and in the throes of a crisis.”
“Shame sir!” King Henri said, “To be schooled in honor by a lad a third your age.” The king nodded his approval to Simon and turned to Sarah and continued, “You trust this young man?”
Sarah Cord, apprentice to the Witch of the Wood and dignitary of Covenhale said, “With my life your Grace.”
“Your Grace, may I a moment?” the Lord High Commander asked. The king nodded.
“Speak your mind Lord Cormak, your council is often wise.” The king said.
“This must be handled quietly. If the men of the King’s Watch learn that one of their own has been victim of murder, no orders or commands will prevent them from finding those responsible. It could be havoc throughout the county.”
“What do you suggest?” the king asked.
The High Constable had sulked to a corner and refused to partake in the conversation. He watched as the great men of the kingdom dismantled his honor. The City Watch would forever bear the brand of being unable to hold the peace of Hartwich.
“Let the lad keep looking. It cannot do any further harm.” Cormak looked at Vaush with an appraising eye and continued, “He seems to have a knack for murder.”
The king pondered Geoff’s statement for several moments. The room was silent. Even William managed to remain quiet. Then the king turned to the assembled company and said, “I have made my decision. Master Vaush will continue his inquiry. Lord Cormak will provide what assistance he can. Master Vaush you are charged to find this culprit and bring him to justice. You have the full support of the crown but I urge to discretion as I will not have my city torn asunder by the misplaced wants of a Watch looking for justice.”
Vaush held himself and decided not to mention that nothing he had said would indicate that the murder was a man and he had every intention of continuing no matter what this lot said. “Your Grace.”
“Where will you take your inquiry next?” Cormak asked, “It seems you have reached a cold trail.”
“Not at all.” Vaush said and turned to leave. Simon caught his arm and gestured with his chin towards the King. Vaush turned and gave the monarch a deep bow and then left in a flourish, the tails of his pilgrim’s coat fluttering at his ankles. Sarah watched him leave and gave William a polite nod as he passed.
“Not to worry lass, I will be keeping an eye on him.” The old pirate said. Sarah graced him with a smile and turned to follow the King and Baron, who had made their exit through a rear door.
“Okay where to now?” William asked.
“Somewhere around this lump of rock is Lord Verik. I am interested in speaking with him.” Vaush said.
“What about the young man that Ned fought with?” William asked as they made their way back along the corridors that they originally followed. They slipped from view and William was sure that even now, Angus was searching the corridors for them, stalking them like bloodhound let loose from its slip.
Vaush shook his head, “He does bear examination, but thus far we do not know the man’s name. For now we will be better served speaking with Lord Verik that is if we can find him.”
As it turned out, Verik was easily enough located. As a member of the Queen’s Court the new lord wait patiently in the ante-room before the Queen’s chambers with a dozen others. Most were ladies of wealth and power. Vaush picked out the Baroness Lyssa Stoner among them. The few men that were members of the Queen’s court huddled near one of the long windows filled with stained glass. Blues and greens tinted the room’s light.
“I think maybe you should be handling this one Master Vaush. My kind are frowned upon at best and hung at the worst of it.” William said, the salty dialect returning to his voice.
“Interesting choice of words considering Ned Astin.” Vaush said as he entered the room. The rough pilgrim’s coat and worn boots drew attention amongst the fashionably elite. Verik was easily enough to spot. He stood nervously among his peers. Most were knights that had found favor with the Queen by being charming and in possession of a reasonable amount of wit. Verik was no different.
Standing next to the new lord was a squire or servant. The young man, of thirteen awkward years wore a fine green doublet under a gray woolen cloak. The hood rested over his shoulders. His face still fat with well-fed youth, his cheeks were plagued with the scars of the acne.
“May I have a moment Lord Verik?” Vaush asked as he approached. The women closer to the door cast sidelong glances. This would be a subject for gossip.
“I am attending upon the Queen.” Verik said. He looked offended that someone such as Vaush would approach him unbidden in such a setting. Vaush pressed on.
“It will be but a moment my Lord and the Queen is not ready to accept attendance.”
Verik stepped away from the other knights and lords, begging their pardon. Each man gave Vaush a look and nodded and smiled. The gossip was going to be scathing and Vaush smiled inwardly.
“What is it?”
“I was hoping you could tell me about Ned Astin, of the King’s Watch? He was found in the
“I heard. It was suicide or so the inquiry has stated.” Verik said. His right hand rested casually on his sword. Vaush thought, he not so accustomed to wearing a blade, that his hand continuously falls to it. The pommel was of polished silver and oblong, like a stretched egg. The cross piece, serving as the guard was straight and without decorations. A simple sword, though expensive enough. It was as much a war blade as one for dress. It would grow heavy as the long evenings at court dragged on. Vaush suspected that when the funds were available, another lighter blade would be purchased.
“Yes, so it is said, however you knew him?” Vaush asked.
Verik thought for a moment and replied, “I knew him, though I would not call us friends. We came from the same county. He seemed an affable young man.”
Vaush the man’s face flush as he spoke. He could be distancing himself from Ned’s suicide. The stigma could linger about him like a rotten stink. Vaush nodded and asked, “Were you at the tavern, when the fight broke out.”
Verik paused and nodded, “I was. It was not anything of any real note. Men to deep in their cups. Emotions ran high and a small scuffle erupted. Nothing more.”
“Do you know the other combatant?” Vaush asked, “His name I mean.”
The lord brought his hand to his chin as if in thought. It was an affectation Vaush thought. “Yes, he was another member of the King’s Watch. Banders I believe his name was. Frank, I think.”
“I thank you sir. I wish you the best of days.” Vaush said but as he was turning to leave he asked, “Why were you there? The tavern I mean.”
“I was thirsty sir. I would know what your interest in all of this is.” Verik said.
“Good enough, thank you sir.” Vaush said and left Verik staring at his back. He found William near the door, leaning against the wall. He was chewing on a piece of soft bread that had been soaked in butter and honey.
“The serving wenches are terribly kind about this place.” He said, “Did you learn anything of use.”
“Lord Verik is a twitchy man. Nervous even.” Vaush said.
“You think he did in the watchmen?
“Possible I suppose. He gave us the name of the other watchmen, the one that Ned fought with that night. Frank Banders.”
William shrugged, “Banders; gave up a good bit of information in his time. I would bet he was pretty bent that he did not get the sergeant’s stripes. There could be another Banders I suppose, we don’t have a full roster of the King’s Watch yet. Georgie is a little uptight about giving us that.”
“Press him. It is something we should have.” Vaush said.
William popped that last bit of bread into his mouth and said around the dripping butter, “Where to now?”
“Let us find Georgie. I am wondering where Banders is today.” Vaush said.
“We could just ask Lord Cormak, he is the High Commander of the King’s Watch after all.” William said, “Though I am thinking you want to keep this much quieter.”
Vaush and William came upon Georgie at his post near the Sally portage. He looked tired, his eyes heavy beneath his lids. “I have no idea where Frank is. He never arrived at post. The lieutenant is a rage. You don’t think that Frank had anything to do with Ned’s death do you?”
“Why would you be saying that?” William asked, his eyes narrowing at the watchman.
“The rumors are already out and about Master Vaush, you have been commissioned to make inquiry into Ned’s death, though murder has not yet been mentioned. It is only a matter of time.” Georgie reported.
Vaush hissed. “He never reported for duty?”
“Nay, old Porter is taking up Frank’s watch now. If he don’t show by sundown, well then it be desertion and the hangman’s rope if that be the Lord Commander’s wish.” Georgie said.
“Thank you Georgie.” Vaush said and spun on his heels.
“Well that is right suspicious.” William said, “He now be a good candidate for murder.”
“Well a drink is sounding right fine now, don’t yah think?” William said.
“Ned’s anguished dialog with Georgie. I am curious.” Vaush answered. He stopped at the baily gates and looked out across the spreading city of Hartwich. In the far distance was the wide manse of the Rush Estates. Midway between the castle and the estates rose the single tower of the Father Belden’s church. The steeple pointed with its natural authority towards the sky. “We go to the church.”
“I was favoring an ale and a truncheon of soup, but alright.” William said and made to follow his younger companion.
The stone was cold and gray, still damp from the previous evening rain. Vaush reached out and pushed against the church’s wall. It was solid enough. “It is not gone.” He said, “Despite Ned’s claim.”
“I agree, the church is still here.” William said. The fog of the morning’s bout of baronial liquor seemed to have faded. “So what does that mean?”
Vaush grinned, “I am disappointed in you William. Really thinking that the church was missing, gone even. It is three stories tall and occupies the better part of a square block. Where would it go?”
William mouthed an obscenity and followed Vaush up the wide steps to the church’s great doors. It was midmorning and the main entrance was open. One of the young acolytes was passing bits of bread and cheese to a group of gathered poor. William dropped a copper coin into the donation box as they entered. It clattered among other coins at the bottom.
“You can’t be too careful lad.” William said.
Once in the dimly lit Alter Room, they found that Father Belden had company. Half way down the long row of pews, he was speaking with a woman. She seemed happy and they grinned about something that was shared between them. Her long skirts were dusted with a fine white powder. A young girl, a few years older than Ned’s Bonnie clung to her skirts, smiling. Father Belden noticed Vaush and William waiting patiently.
“We will go Father Belden.” The young woman said, “Come now, Emma, say your good byes like a good girl.”
The girl, with cherub cheeks and her fingers sticky with a fruit sweet treat said, “Bye bye Father, see you soon.”
“Fairwell little Emma, sweet child, I look forward to it.” Father Belden said and waved as the two guests made their way past Vaush and William, giving the later as wide a passing as she could manage.
Father Belden met them in the east apse and away from the central altar. A few woman had gathered around the kneeling child god of the faith, praying. William pressed his flattened palm against his chest, paying a passing respect to the house’s divinity.
“What can I do for you?” Father Belden asked. He was a robust man only a few years past his prime. His dark hair had started to gray and he walked with an oaken cane that he leaned heavily upon as he walked. The priest limped closer and extended his hand to William assuming that he was the reason for the visit. “Welcome to Hurin’s House.”
“I thank you Father, but it be the lad that is having the questions.” William said. He grasped the priests hand and they shook in greeting.
Father Belden turned to Vaush with a raised brow and said, “We don’t have many youth inquiring about Hurin’s church. What is it that I can do for you?”
“What can you tell me of Ned Astin?” Vaush asked. William groaned, couldn’t the lad soften it up a bit. The man was dead, murdered by his accounting, and now they were talking to a priest of the Child god.
The priest nodded, “He was a good man. A member of the King’s Watch. Why do you ask?”
“Curious, why Ned came here in such an anguished state.” Vaush said, “Soon after he was found dead, by you, in the Witch’s Wood.”
“Who are you, if you don’t mind me asking?” Father Belden asked, “The constabulary have already been about.”
“Here?” William asked.
“No, in the wood. To where I summoned them. Who are you?”
“This here is Master Vaush and me name is William. We are nosing about the man’s demise, if you take my meaning.” William said.
“No, I rightly don’t. The poor man took his life and in the hereafter will tend to that. What do you mean stirring this up?” Father Belden asked. The man’s grip tightened around the head of the heavy cane.
“Why suicide?” William asked.
“I cannot be speaking to you of Ned’s affairs. That was between the church and Ned. I told the constable my thoughts. Poor Ned took his life. That is all there is as sorry as that makes me.”
“Ned was murdered.” Vaush stated flatly. The silence that followed was daunting. Father Belden stared at Vaush and then shifted his gaze to William. Disbelief chased the frustration and anger from Belden’s face.
“Murdered?” he asked, “I don’t understand.”
“Yes.” Vaush said, “People seem to say that a lot. He was murdered. Can you explain this crisis of faith that you sold to the Lord High Commander and the others?”
Father Belden took a step back and slowly lowered himself into one of the sinner’s chairs. The apse was used by his parishioners to meditate upon their sins. The chairs were uncomfortable with knobs in the back. One should not sleep while praying for the Child to forgive them. “It was his father and brother. Both men died. Donner was killed a few years back. He was Ned’s brother. Fishing off the south bend near Camerly Point. He drowned when his boat ran aground on some shallow rocks. Old Ben was a member of the City Watch. Took a hit to the head. Surprised someone coming out of a brothel. Guess it was someone who ought not to have been there.”
“I remember that.” William said, “Never found the man who did it. Caused a right loudly row it did. City Watch all up and down the streets for nights on end, asking questions and pushing folk about. Took six months to pass on.”
Vaush could only imagine what it would be like if the King’s Watch were placed in a similar position. He did not doubt that there would be violence. “So why did this cause Ned to fall away from your church?”
“He and Allie prayed after Donner’s death. Every morning and night they were here. The tragedy had hit the family hard. I did my best to comfort them, but when Old Ben perished it was more than Ned could stand. The church held nothing for him then.” Father Belden said, “He just stopped coming, wouldn’t speak to me on the street or at market. His faith withered.”
“Why were you in the wood?” Vaush asked, “You told the watch that you had been called there.”
Belden shook his head, “Not strictly speaking. I found Ned here. He was in the west apse sobbing. He was muttering something about being betrayed. I could barely understand him. When I approached him, Ned made to leave excusing himself on the grounds that he had to return to the castle.”
William asked, “If he was so distraught, did you think then that he may take his own life?”
Belden said, “No, it never occurred to me at the time. As much as it pains me, Ned is not the first to lose faith in the church or its child god. That rarely means suicide though. The man was shaken to be sure, but at the time, I did not think of suicide.”
“What can you tell me about Ned Astin?” Vaush asked in a conversational tone. It seemed to put the priest at ease.
“Well, I know that he is a good man, member of the King’s Watch. He has… had a lovely wife and daughter. I have done what I can for them. Bonnie is a good lass. Ned worked hard. He earned those stripes, no matter what that fellow said in the tavern.”
“You know about the fight?” William asked.
Belden nodded, “Most do. The King’s Watch are a tight band and most of the Watches come here to pray. It is said that the Child of Huren favors the protectors of Man. The watch, they watch out for each other, though like any family, they fight amongst themselves upon occasion. No, Ned earned his rank. He did it honestly. No matter the rumors.”
“Rumors?” Vaush asked. Now we get to a crux of it. “What rumors?”
Belden took a deep breath and favored his leg for a moment with a rub from the palm of his hand, “Ned was friendly with a Lord, recently come to Hartwich. I don’t know much about him. Newly minted I think. I only met him once. Verik I think his name is. Pleasant in a rustic kind of way. Comes from the Northcountry he does. Same shire as Ned’s family. Rumor has it that this Lord Verik spoke with the powers of the Watch and put Ned’s name forward.”
“A newly minted lord rarely has that kind of pull.” William said.
“It would be a little thing to whisper in the right ear. The Baron or the Queen even, not an outright recommendation. No, it would be more subtle than that. A few offhanded remarks about how talented Ned is, that kind of thing.”
“Exactly Master Vaush.” Said Father Belden, “I don’t believe it myself. Ned did his job and more. I just wish I could have done more for him.”
“Do you know the name of the man that Ned fought with in the tavern?” Vaush asked.
“No, I do not.” Father Belden said, “Though I wish that I did.”
William jutted his chin across the church and asked, “What is in the far apse?”
“I will show you.” Belden rose from the chair and limped with Vaush and William in tow. The east apse was the mirror of the west except, instead of the sinner’s shrine, there were three lecterns. Each one had a large tome.
“To the right is a gilded copy of the Book of Hurin, sanctioned by the apostles in Keld. To the left is our Book of Days. The church records each birth and death within our parish. The center book is a copy of the King’s Sanguinem Exemplaria, the patterns of blood.”
Every nation had one, a great tome that traced the blood lines of the nobility. When a line was formed, how it flourished and perished. It detailed the lands that it held, the riches, the patriarchs, matriarchs and its heirs.
“The King’s father, during the civil wars, ordered that the Church of Hurin keep the same records as the royal house.” Father Belden shrugged, “If, the child forbid, the house fell and the Exemplaria was destroyed, the records were safe.”
William nodded, “That makes sense.”
Vaush stepped forward and looked at the books. The pages were stained by a thousand fingers that turned through them. The tome of Hurin was the most worn. Each day, Father Belden took the tome to the pulpit and read to those in attendance. The Book of Days reminded Vaush of a clerk’s ledger; a list of names and dates. There were a few notes in the margins citing small facts about the person. Arlis Gruner had been born with a hair lip. Liza Tullins died on the same day as her birth, eighty-seven years later. At the time she was the oldest living parishioner. A few of the pages of the Book of Days had darker stains. Vaush saw that the day of Neddry Astin’s birth was marked down on one such page. His father’s scrawl was in the margin proudly declaring the first born. There were similar dark stains on pages marked with dates several years later.
The Exemplaria was much the same. The oil of thousands of fingers had marred the edges. It was a tome in use, a living document. Each page detailed a House of the Nobility. The details had been set to vellum, surrounded by the colorful illuminations that the church was noted for. Similar dark stains were on several of the books pages. Vaush touched them, feeling the oil and smelled his fingers. He turned back to the priest.
“Why the cane?” Vaush asked. Father Belden shifted his stance and raised the cane for them to view. It was made of ash wood and capped with a heavy silver handle for the priest to grasp as he walked.
“I was wounded years ago in the old king’s service. I was not always a priest. A soldier a long time ago and an Othean arrow did wicked work on my hip.”
Vaush nodded and said, “Thank you for your time father. We won’t bother you any more today.”
“No please. If what you say of Ned’s death is true, then I pray to Hurin’s grace that you discover the truth.” He raised his hand in blessing and said, “Go in grace and uncover the truth son.”
Just before turning away from the tomes in the apse, Vaush asked, “Why were you in the wood that day? I mean it seems a little odd for someone with your infirmity to be wandering through the wood.”
“Ned was in such a state that I was concerned.” He shook his head “Not that he would suicide, but even Ned may have hurt himself; perhaps not on purpose, but he was in a rage. I did my best to keep up with him. The wound though. A cane on cobblestone is hard enough, but keeping pace with a young man like Ned, well it was impossible. Maybe if I had been a little faster I could have stopped whatever happened in that wood.”
Vaush nodded his thanks and made his way out of the church without comment. William followed.
Outside William said, “That man has a heavy cane, good for a wallop as any stick I can imagine. Could have easily done in Ned with that. Hip or no, it would have been little effort for him to string him up.”
“The priest may have killed Ned, I don’t know. I would not discount him for it just on his infirmity. He was soldier as you said, and a man of some intelligence. There is something else though. The priest was nervous about it.” Vaush said and made his way through the street’s shifting throng of people.
“Now you are just being vague lad.” William said, “But the man was a solider before and just like priests they lie as any man does. I am liking the priest for the death of Ned Astin.”
“Why? What would the father gain of Ned’s death?” Vaush asked.
“Motive you are asking about now. Well aren’t you just the junior constable?” William said, “I haven’t an idea as to why Beldon did in Ned Astin, but mark my words, that man has killed. If he fought in the civil war, well then he is accustomed to killing and knows his way around a weapon.”
“I will not deny the possibility.” Vaush said. He had his own reasons for not trusting the priest. He and the clergy had a history of mistrust, from Tymora to the Eastern ordained. William was right, a priest was no less likely to express falsehood than a fish monger. He thought, the fisherman I have known were more honest men.
“Tell me what you know of Old Ben’s death.” Vaush said as they walked the narrow byways of Hartwich. It was Vaush’s custom to avoid the crowded avenues if possible.
“Oh that was some five, no six years ago.” William said, “That was a bad bit. Old Ben was a member of the City Watch. His patrol was not far from here, you know before the King’s coming. Molly’s Bindle it was called. A good brothel. It had fair pricing and the ladies were cancerous or anything. Some were even pretty as I recall. Now Old Ben, he was not a stickler or anything, but bars and brothels close their doors at morning’s third bell. Have to stay closed for three hours they do. Don’t have to kick anyone to the street mind you, just can’t let anyone in. Well as I remember it Old Ben came along finding Molly’s still well-lit and making all the services available. Well that isn’t right so he goes to let them know. Gotta shut down for the raven hours. That is what they are called you know.”
Vaush nodded and bid him continue.
“Well now he was about to leave and someone done bonked him on the back of the head. Hard like, crushed his skull in.” William said, “Lived for a day, but never woke up. Died in the night. Ned was there as was Allie like. Bad winds there.”
They turned past the central market, now only a short way to the Driftwood and Vaush asked, “William have you ever been pirating? I mean you know your away around a ship, I know that and you know every smuggler from here to Aranath, but have you ever actually been pirating?”
William gave the younger man a sly grin, “I have. Did it once and hated every minute of it. Spent the voyage tossing me lunch over the railing. Hated it I did. The whole Cut Throat Bill thing, well that was Sir Robert’s idea, with Hartwich being a sailing town and all.”
Vaush grinned, the man was a constant source of surprise, “What happened to Molly’s Bindle? It is not around.”
William nodded, “It closed while you were away, the pox. Some said that the Black Hand did it, but I doubt it, not their style. Anyway the Bindle shut down a few months after Old Ben’s death.”
“And Molly?” Vaush asked, “What happened to her and the girls?”
“Last I heard Molly made good for herself, got married and such. Think the man was a baker or a tailor. Something of that sort. Anyway, most of the girls, those that had not come down with the pox found other houses. A few died and a few others moved on. South or north. Ursla, a fine wench that one, moved to Lynndia.”
They returned to the Driftwood for a tankard and something for the midday meal. Sarah was waiting for them. She sat at a center table drinking watered wine and absently chewing on warm bread. Standing when they entered she said, “You should come to the castle.”
“I am hungry.” William said, “All this walking has given me a powerful thirst.”
“The High Constable has made an arrest and declared the culprit caught. He is seeking an audience with the King and Baron even now.”
Vaush asked, “Who?”
“Frank Banders, a member of the King’s Watch.” Sarah answered.
“Blimey, all I am wanting is a drink. Wonder if it is the same Banders?” William said.
“This the man that Ned fought with the night before he died?” Vaush asked, seeking confirmation.
Sarah nodded, “That is what Murray, the High Constable is saying.”
Vaush turned on his heels and made for the door. William was struck, “I am hungry.”
“Get something on the way.” Vaush said, “I want to talk with Frank Banders. If he is Ned’s killer than I am a gutter snipe.”
Sarah smiled and winked at William in his frustration. Both made to follow Vaush as the lean young man allowed the tavern door to close behind him.
“He is like a dog with a bone that one.” Williams said, “He has been frantic since Georgie arrived with this little conundrum.”
“Vaush needs to stay occupied.” Sarah said, “He has always been like that.”
William’s gruff exterior amused Sarah as they walked side by side through the crowds of the central market. They kept track of Vaush’s progress occasionally catching glimpses of the long pilgrim’s coat. Less than an hour later the castle gates loomed before them. The dark iron portcullis rose as the great chains were pulled up through the gatehouse. William looked about and marked the soldiers, each one well-armed and armored. He had never passed into Hartwich Castle through the front. It seemed a bit unnatural to him, deciding that in the future it would be sally portage with Georgie. That was for him.
Murray, the High Constable of Hartwich stood at something near attention before his grace the King of Entia. Next to the monarch was the Baron Locke and his son the na-Baron Simon. Lord Cormak was to one side, looking doubtful scratching at his rough whiskers. Several other lords milled about the edges. It appeared that Murray had managed his meeting with the king, but only in presence of those that he least wanted to see. The High Constable felt sure that the others, especially that over bluffed Lord Geoffrey Cormak were set on destroying his reputation. Murray thought to himself, behind his stiff features, that it was going to be something more than a whelp of less than twenty years to break him down.
“You say you have captured the murderer?” the Baron said as Sarah, Vaush and William slid into the hall. A great table was before the king, spread with papers. The royal seal had been set aside and now casually lay on its side. The brass handle and copper fittings glimmered in the lamp light. The high windows of the hall let in the afternoon sun through glass stained into the images of Tymora and the child god Hurin.
“I say that I have your Grace. The evidence is clear.” Murray said. His voice, though strong betrayed the doubt the man felt to Vaush. “He quarreled with the victim the night before Ned’s death. Beat the man senseless he did.”
“A tavern brawl is your motive?” Geoff Cormak asked, still incredulous about these accusations. Frank Banders was a hot head, with a quick temper and a faster fist, but a murderer? Cormak could not see it. He and Ned had known each other their entire lives. They had fought and claimed each other as brothers. This made no sense.
Murray smiled. It was time to play his own trump. Gossip was one of the currencies that he plied as the High Constable of Hartwich. Secrets with in the city were his stock and trade was his thought. “He was jealous of Ned Astin my Lord, on every level. It was his opinion that Ned did not deserve the sergeant’s stripes that had been awarded and then there was Allie my lord?” There it was hanging out there. No bringing it back now.
Vaush’s ear peeked at the mention of Ned’s widow. Murray’s suggestion that there was a deeper connection between Ned, Allie and Frank Banders was an intriguing prospect. “How did this buffoon discover the name of the person that Ned fought with at the tavern?”
Sarah leaned over and whispered, “It seems that Georgie remembered the name. He told his commander. What else was he supposed to do?”
“Tell me, damn it. All this flatfoot is doing is mucking up the picture. He sees precisely what he wants to and nothing else.” Vaush said, exasperated.
“Allie? You mean the good widow of Ned Astin?” The king said. His weariness could be heard in the timber of his voice. “What of her?”
Lord Ian Stoner and the rest of the King’s court were now looking on, their eyes fixed upon the drama that was unfolding. There were those that supported the High Constable, either through influence sought, or because of some connection, either blood or currency.
“In times past, it is known that Mr. Bander fancied Allie Harris as she was known by.” Murray stood up straight, “She spurned him, she did and married what Banders felt was a lesser man. These two incidents put Banders in a rage and murder he committed.”
“This was not an act of rage.” Vaush interjected, “If Ned had been stabbed or thrown from a cliff I would agree that Banders was suspect. Ned Astin was hung by the neck; the crime cleverly concealed. That is desperation at best, but not rage. Rope was brought to the tree, a noose was tied and Ned was strung up. Desperate perhaps, but not rage.”
The king looked unfavorably on Vaush’s interruption. A man of protocol King Henri was, with a head for what was proper. Though the natural son of the Lady Veronica Locke, Vaush was not of noble birth himself. “Very well Master Vaush, what do you propose?”
“I would like to examine Mr. Frank Banders.” Vaush said.
“If it comes to him being truly guilty?” the King asked, “What then?”
Vaush shrugged, “Then I will congratulate the constable and be on my way without further incident.”
The king looked to his right and the Baron nodded. Simon breathed a sigh of relief.
“My Lord, the blackguard, Frank Banders is in the city jail, not here at the castle. I placed in our custody for his safety. I was concerned about the riotous actions of the King’s Watch if it was found he was being held for the murder of Sergeant Ned Astin.”
William shrugged, “I am acquainted with the place. Know it well. It is but a short jaunt from the castle.”
Vaush smiled, thin lipped. King Henri was silent for several moments, contemplating what had been said. He was well aware of the growing tension between the King’s Watch and the city’s constabulary. “Master Vaush, you will examine Mr. Banders.” He then turned and strode from the room. When porters closed the door behind their king there was a collective sigh.
“Well Master Vaush, I certainly hope you know what you are looking for.” The baron said, and followed the king from the room. The Lady Veronica gave a small nod to her son as she passed, her arm hooked about her husband’s.
“I don’t understand your insistence Master Vaush.” Said Murray, “Banders murdered Ned Astin. He deserted his post and tried to flee.”
“Of course you don’t understand.” Vaush said and turned to Sarah, “I am saying that all too often lately.” Sarah smiled and squeezed his arm.
“Be careful Vaush. These are powerful men and foolish ones. That makes them dangerous.” She whispered, “You have your chance, play out whatever you are seeking, but look to your back. William is good, but not much brighter than these men that wield the power of this nation.”
“What do you know of Lord Verik?” Vaush asked as they walked down halls hung with fine tapestries. Sarah shrugged her shoulders.
Sarah offered, “I have seen him, spoken with him a few times. He is popular in the Queen’s court, charming in an unsophisticated sort of way, but not so crude.”
“How well did he know Ned Astin?” Vaush asked.
“I am not sure. If Ned Astin is the man I believe him to be, I saw them together a few times. They seemed chummy enough, laughing. When I saw them they were laughing about trout.” Sarah answered, “I believe that he is still about. The Queen gave him and a few others in her favor leave to reside in the Midland Cottages, north of the castle.” Vaush nodded, gleaning some meaning from this that was lost on William, who would have been content with a flagon of beer and a nice meat pie.
The jail was a wide stout building with a flat roof. City watchmen stood sentry at the corners, looking for all purposes as soldiers with tall spears, conical helmets. Instead of swords they wore long, blunt cudgels that were wrapped in iron. Even to Vaush’s critical eye they seemed professional in their demeanor with cold and steely eyes. The main entrance to the jail was gated before a heavy door that was ribbed and knotted with cold forged iron. The story went that old King Charles, the third of his name had brought it back from Yrdale the year that the witches of Covenhale had rebelled. Vaush doubted it. The wood was darkly stained, but it was the narrow grained oak that grew locally.
A figure, dressed in grays darted about the far corner as they approached. William glanced and Vaush and nodded as he realized that his younger companion had seen it as well. Neither had managed a good look, but both agreed it was a man, tall with a barrel chest. Vaush could see in his friend’s face that Father Belden came to William’s mind. There had been something at his right side. It could have been a cane.
Inside the Master of the Watch greeted them gruffly and escorted them through the cells at his Lord’s command. On the ground floor there were sixteen cells. The first six had men that were being held from public brawling. Each one was battered about with knots and bruises. Two had bloodied knuckles and Vaush suspected these were the true culprits of whatever incident had transpired. There were to prisoners that were held at the far end in cells independent of the others.
“You have two?” William asked.
“One is the traitor, Frank Banders. The other is a forger from Yrdale. Been wanted in these parts for some time.” The Master of the Watch said. His name was Joshua and had served longer than the High Constable and under two kings. “He will be hanged without doubt, once he has had his day before the good King Henri.”
Joshua stopped before the nearer of the two cells, “This here is Banders, accused traitor to the crown.”
Vaush cursed himself. He had considered the king’s interest in this matter overstated from the beginning. Murders happen with regularity in a city the size of Hartwich. Most are handled at the constabulary level and decisions rendered by the magistrate. This man stood accused of the murder of a member of the King’s Watch and was viewed under that King’s law as an attack upon the royal household. A crime that was punishable by death. If convicted, Frank Banders would die a commoner’s death by swinging from a sturdy gibbet in the Justice Square outside the castle’s gates.
“Banders, stand too. You have visitors.” Joshua said. The prisoner looked up from where he was perched on the edge of his straw lined bed like death’s very own vulture. He stood and approached the cell’s secured doors.
“Who are you?” Franked asked, sounding tired. His eyes looked watery and bloodshot, his hair was matted.
“They’ll be asking the questions.” Joshua said and then turned to Vaush and the others, “I will be leaving you now.”
The High Constable stepped back, “Ask your questions Master Vaush, but you will find that we have the proper man. Ned Astin may not have done himself in, but this one did it for him.” He spoke with the conviction of belief.
“How did you know Ned Astin?” Vaush asked, stepping near the one inch thick bars.
Frank took stock of the young man before him and shrugged. What did it matter, “I knew Ned since he arrived in Hartwich. We were not much more than lads; seen fifteen summers perhaps. I joined the City Watch the year before he did. We were both from beyond the city walls, he from the north. I am from Lyndia, across the channel. When the King came, we petitioned for the King’s Watch. No real hope there, but we tried. Both Ned and I were surprised as all hells that we were allowed to join. We had no hope of advancement, but it was the King’s Watch by Huren’s Child so we took it on, together we did.”
“You fought with Ned, what about?” Vaush asked.
“It was nothing. Ned was pie faced on beer and royal favors. I was not in the mood to be friendly. I said things I shouldn’t have. He swung and I hit back. By morning it was over.” Frank said.
“The next morning you did not came to Watch and Ned swung from a tree. Does not sound equitable.” Vaush answered.
“I don’t know what that means, but I had nothing to do with Ned’s death. They are saying I had him hung in the Witch’s Wood. I know nothing about that. I went home with sore feelings, but I went home and slept it off. I slept hard that night. I drank too much ale that night. When I awoke it was past my duty time. Figure the punishment is the same if I am a bell late or five as long as I report before the sun’s setting. I crawled back in bed, felt lousy.” Frank said, “I live alone, no family.”
“None to witness your comings and goings.” Vaush provided, “The truth is you could have gone home and fume of fussed over your wounded pride. Ned had everything you wanted, the stripes and the girl that you fancied. Ned out of the way, fair chance it all could have been yours.”
“What?” Frank asked, “You don’t know the truth of it, I swear. Yes, I fancied Allie and I would have married her, made a good husband as well, but she went off with Ned. Ned was a fool, but a good man he was. Made Allie happy and that was what mattered. I’d not of killed him sir, he was my brother of the King’s Watch, fool or no.”
Vaush looked at the man meticulously and Frank begin to fidget with the young man’s lingering examination, “If not you, than who?”
Frank shook his head, the frustration revealing itself in the frantic movements, “I don’t know. I wish I did, but as I know it, everyone liked Ned. The man had no enemies, least wise none that I know of.”
Vaush turned from the cell and asked the High Constable, “When is this man to appear before the King on charges of high treason?”
“Not high treason. He did not attack the King’s person, but simple treason, not that it matters he swings the same either way. Banders here will appear before his Grace before the end of the week. Three days. Why?”
“Curious.” Vaush said and turned to Frank, “Not to worry sir. It is my understanding that the King’s hangman is very good. It will be over quick, like the snuffing of a candle.”
Vaush left. This time, when the jail’s gate opened he scanned the street, looking for the gray clandestine man, but he did not appear. William asked, “Where to now then?”
“Back to the Driftwood. I have to think and I believe that you are still hungry.” Vaush said,
“I am.” William answered and they began making their way back.
“I could hear your stomach throughout the entire examination.” Vaush said.
The first of the Driftwood’s customers had already arrived when William and Vaush stepped through the door. The taproom was not full, but a few customers sat at the tables closest to the cooking pit. The fire’s orange light cast long shadows that competed with the dull yellow glow of the room’s oil lamps. Vaush took his table in the common room’s far corner, a pitcher of peppered wine and some warm bread before him.
The next morning William was in the taproom of the Driftwood when Vaush came down the stairs. The faux sailor was at a plate of bacon and hash, a half drained tankard at his elbow. In the patron’s common room through the small, low mantled door to the south snoring could be heard. It was the rough and ragged sort that told of too much ale.
“Well there you are.” William said to Vaush, “Have you finished your ruminations?”
“I have.” Vaush picked absently at William’s plate. “I need to speak with the Lord Verik today.”
“Thought you might, so I found out where his. On this very day, he has an audience with the Queen. Should be easy enough to find him.”
“I will go to the castle. I need you to go back to the church. Look into both the Exemplaria and the church’s Book of Days.”
William nodded, “Very well. What would I be looking for?”
“I am looking for certain pages in the books. Check the Book of Days, the months after Old Ben’s death. See if Molly had a child.” Vaush said, ignoring William’s confused look. “Then look at the Exemplaria, check on Verik’s lineage, see what you can find.”
It was Sarah who eventually provided the Lord Verik’s location. The recently entrusted lord was in the ante-room awaiting his audience with her Grace the Queen of Entia. There were several guards, each a member of the Queen’s Watch. Their silver and gold livery were finely made. Vaush entered the room as Lord Verik stood nervously near the room’s center.
“Lord Verik, a moment?” Vaush said. The lord turned to see the lean young man dressed in a pilgrim’s coat. There was nothing shabby about the young man, but it remained that there also nothing aristocratic about him other than his bearing which held all of the arrogance that Lord Verik had become accustomed to. Lord Verik turned to fully face Vaush and gave a shallow bow, unsure of his purpose or rank.
“I am waiting upon her Grace the Queen. If I may be of service in that time, I will be glad to.” Lord Verik said, “This is our second meeting.”
Vaush smiled his appreciation and closed the space between them with long strides. “I was curious about your accommodations. You are in the Midland Cottages, north of the castle?”
“I am. Her grace the Queen has been gracious enough to provide them to me in my attendance upon her. Why?” Verik said. His mouth was pursed and his eyes had become very intent, his curiosity had been stirred now.
“I am continuing my inquiry into the death of Ned Astin.” Vaush supplied, “It seems that he was murdered.”
“Murdered?” Verik asked. He seemed surprised. Creases formed over his brow and he stepped back. “I do not understand. It was my understanding that Astin took his own life. That was what I heard, I am sure of it.”
“Yes, as many have. There is already a man in custody. Frank Banders by name. Do you know him?”
“I have heard of him, perhaps met him once or twice. I would not say that we were well acquainted. What is your part in this?”
“As I said, there is a man in custody for Ned’s murder, but I am filling in the small spots, if you take my meaning.” Vaush said. He kept his tone conversational. The thin lipped smile friendly.
“I do not. If a man is in custody, what is my part in this?” Verik inquired.
“Well, you were counted among the deceased man’s friends were you not?” Vaush asked.
“Friends? As I said before, I would not say so. We were acquainted. We both came from Northcountry Shire, knew some of the same fishing spots, but that was all.” Verik said.
“Interesting. It was reported by several that you were witness to the young man’s promotion. You celebrated with him and were witness to the altercation he had with Frank Banders.” Vaush said.
“I was and I did. He was a fellow shireman, but I would not say a friend.” Verik answered.
Vaush gave the man a wider grin and said, “Well then, I thank you for your time. This was much easier than I thought.”
“Good enough.” Verik said, “I am glad that the man who murdered Ned was captured.”
Vaush turned to leave but asked, “You are residing in the cottages on the coast are you not? I mean if any further questions come up.”
Verik nodded, “You said that already man, I am in residence by the Queen’s grace.”
“Excellent. Then I wish a good day.” Vaush left grinning.
Simon Locke was in the castle’s east wing. His right hand behind his back as he spoke in quiet tones with the na-Baron of Mardeen, Timothy Stoner. The two were a pair, both broad shouldered with ham like hands made for grasping broadswords and steading lances on the field. Vaush was acquainted with Stoner and found him to have a good natured humor. To his credit he also did not seem to be caught up in his station or that of others.
“Vaush!” Stoner greeted, “Welcome.” Simon turned to see his friend approaching and smiled waving him over.
“What brings you here?” Stoner asked and grasped Vaush’s hand in a firm grip of welcome.
“Murder actually.” Vaush said.
“Not mine I hope.” Stoner said in mock horror.
“A member of the King’s Watch was murdered, though the High Constable feels that he has the proper man in custody. Vaush disagrees.” Simon provided.
Stoner nodded, “You don’t believe it?”
“The man is an idiot.” Vaush stated with a slight shrug, “There is nothing else for it.”
The na-Baron Stoner’s open face with its easy smile and wide forehead grinned. He felt that Vaush could be depended upon to be honest, sometimes to a fault. While he had no reason to doubt the High Constable, Stoner also trusted Vaush’s observations, which he been victim to. “I never knew that you took an interest in crime Master Vaush, perhaps you should join the barristers of High Street.”
Vaush gave Stoner a withering glare, “I do not believe that to be a good idea.”
Simon expressed his agreement and asked, “What is it that you are looking for? Mother is in her chambers and I believe that Sarah is meeting with my father.”
“Actually I was hoping that I could view the Exemplaria that is held here at the castle.” Vaush said, “I think it may be able to clear the air on Frank Bander’s guilt.”
“You have another suspect?” Stoner asked, his fists on his hips and smiling, “This could be fun.”
Simon shrugged. It would not be difficult. If her remembered correctly the tome which Vaush was inquiring about rested in a small storage room with several other royal artifacts that had yet to find a home within the citadel. “I guess, sure why not?”
“Excellent.” Stoner exclaimed and plucked up his light cloak, “Let us be off then. I have never seen the thing to be honest, though my father’s steward says that the Stoner’s possess nearly three full pages in the historic tome.”
Vaush quietly thanked the na-Baron for his enthusiasm. It prevented the need for Vaush to pressure Simon Locke to view the Exemplaria immediately. He did not want to reveal how pressing it was.
Simon Locke nodded, “Angus has been known to go on about the same thing. When I was young my father showed me copies made by Huren’s priests of the pages illustrating the Locke line. I must admit that the illuminations were beautiful.”
The conversation continued as the trio made their way through the long corridors of the growing castle. Beyond the extended curtain wall the masons carved and chiseled the stone into blocks. It would be another year before the thick wall would begin to curve back to meet the citadel’s western ramparts.
Simon glanced at Vaush and asked, “Have you heard the King’s decree of late?”
“The King, despite his slovenly approach to security, is not in the habit of whispering his decrees in my ear.” Vaush said. It was waspish he knew, but the question was ridiculous. Any decree made this late in the day would not be known until the morning criers.
“Is he always like this?” Stoner asked.
Simon grinned, enjoying the fact that there were small pieces of information that he knew before Vaush, even if it only occurred occasionally. Only when he has a bone and is unlikely to share.” Simon answered and continued to Vaush, “Covenhale is to be represented in the King’s Council with an Ambassador in Residence. It has never happened before, it is historic. King Henri is to request Sarah.”
“At mother’s suggestion, I have no doubt.” Vaush said and whipped around a narrow corner. He had to admit he was surprised. Superstitions ran deep in Entia and many concerned the witches of Covenhale. Vaush hated superstition; all too often it clouded the truth.
The door to the artifact room was unattended and locked, but Vaush made quick work of it. Slipping the needle like picks from the lock the door slid open on well-oiled hinges. At first glance, the room was piled with junk. More had been added since Ned’s first discovery of the room and its treasures. A rolled tapestry now lay on the floor next to a carpet of eastern design that legend said came from Lord Galen’s trip east to Vol-Sarhaleen.
The tome rested on a lectern, much like the Huren copy did on the other side of town. This copy held its age, embracing the antiquity in its binding. It had seen the earliest days of the kingdom; wrapped within the pages were the linages of every great house, from King Henri, the usurped brother, cousins and nephews. Vaush casually flipped past Stoner’s three pages. The velum pages were gilded in gold leaf. The heavy pigments of the illuminations sometimes caused pages to stick together. The blue, red and gold pigments were brilliant against the dusty gray of the pages themselves. Many of the pages had sheets of sheer linen sewn over them. These were the houses that had sided with Othea during the civil war and were no longer part of the Entian nobility. Like the Huren copy, the pages were worn and darker with the oil of a thousand perusing fingers.
A few of the pages had darker marks, which Vaush rubbed between his fingers. He put his fingers to his nose and then tasted them. He nodded and knew that Ned Astin had been here. Stoner grimaced at Vaush and looked at his friend Locke.
Vaush turned from the book and asked, “Does the castle keep a copy of Huren’s Book of Days?”
Simon said, “No, if we kept one church’s we would have to store them all. Do you have any idea how many churches there in Hartwich now?”
“One hundred and eighteen, but that is only the recognized ones. There are another hundred or so temples that cater to small ethnic communities. Most of those are along the docks, but are not sanctioned by the crown.” Vaush said absently and stepped past his friend.
Stoner was grinning, “How does he know this stuff?”
“Vaush keeps a tremendous amount of what I would call useless stuff mucking about in that noggin of his.” Simon said, “I have no idea where he gets it all from.”
Stoner asked, “Why do you need to see Huren’s Book of Days?”
“My Lord Stoner,” Vaush said with mock seriousness, “The priesthood is never to be trusted. They are far too interested in the divinity of man and too often fail to see what makes us Human.”
Vaush’s distrust of Hartwich’s clergy was well known amongst those that he called friends. Stoner and Connor were the most recent additions to this small and very select list. Simon thought that this was simply another of Vaush’s masks. Stoner and Connor Mills were often useful. There were six people that Vaush said he would burn the world for and Simon doubted that it was so easy to be penned in. No, Vaush’s list had not changed in Simon’s mind and he doubted it ever would.
William was waiting for them near the King’s Council chambers. He leaned against the cold stone wall, crushing the fabric of an ancient tapestry. His arms were folded across his chest and he was grinning like a cat that had been at the cream.
“No father listed and the birth was spot on, just like you thought. Nine months later it was.” William said, “In the other book, the one that I can’t pronounce, the smudges you mentioned were there and they smelled of weapon’s oil, just like you asked. As to the final matter, well no trace. Nothing, not even a footnote.”
Vaush smiled, thin lipped and without humor, “This is going to be fun. I must speak with the King, he is about to hang the wrong man.”
“They are all in there right now.” William said, jerking his thumb at the heavy oak door. The iron bands and hinges were well polished and oiled.
“Who?” Vaush asked.
“All those pretty people, lords and ladies; it is a gathering of arrogance and self-importance.” William said. His tone betrayed his true thoughts. This place made him uncomfortable, he would rather see it all from the side, without being noticed by the nation’s great men.
Stoner stepped forward, his voice falling to a serious timber. “That is the King’s Council Master Vaush. It would be unwise, no matter your intentions to interrupt.”
Vaush nodded his agreement, “This is not the main entrance.”
“No.” Simon siad, “It is the Steward’s door.”
“That means that Locke’s crusty fellow will be standing on the far side.” Stoner said. William grinned and tipped his tri-cornered hat to Mardeen’s na-Baron.
Simon motioned them to follow and said, “Come, we can meet them at the main doors. Vaush can request an audience when the meeting has concluded. The council usually stays about.”
“The Lords like to chat it up I suppose.” William said, “Bantering about their riches and lands I suppose.”
“No, actually they usually talk about women and soldiering.” Stoner said, “At least that is the case if you ask my father.”
“Sarah is there.” William said, “I saw her go in with her mother and a few of those blue sashed fellows. They were all very processional and full of circumstance.”
“It is the formal announcement then. By some means, Covenhale has given their answer to Sarah’s enrollment here on the King’s Council. It appears that Entia will have an Ambassador in Residence from Covenhale. That will be new.” Stoner said.
The main entrance to the King’s Great Hall was guarded by three men of the King’s Watch. There was one on each side of the door with polished halberds. The third stood in the center of the ante-chamber and was dressed much like Angus was for official occasions. His blue and gold doublet had rich piping and a ceremonial sword hung from his left hip. The man, whose face was frozen in a stern expression held a seven foot staff, topped with the King’s crest.
“He looks constipated.” William observed. He hated waiting. “How is it that the two na-Barons are not attending the King in Council?”
Simon snapped, “We are of late from training if you must know.”
“I don’t give a fiddley twat, it was just curiosity.” William said, showing his frustration.
Stoner said, “You sir are a peach, a down right salty one I say. This matter of state did not require us to be in attendance. Simon argued, but was over ruled by his father the Baron. Simon wanted to see Sarah’s ascension.”
“I did.” Simon said, “Our fathers, both thought that this was of minor importance and our time would be better served.”
“Doing what?” William asked.
“Their letters.” Vaush provided.
“Master Vaush I say that you are a sorcerer. How did you know this?” Stoner asked.
Simon growled, “He is showing off.” It was clear that he resented being sent away for his education while one of his dearest friends was in attendance with the King. He should have been there to support Sarah. He was proud of her, the first Ambassador in Residence. So many of his fellow countrymen were mired in the superstation of evil crafters. Simon had learned much from Sarah Cord, a witch of Covenhale.
Both William and Vaush smiled, “I am. Neither of you are sweating and are well groomed. You had no time to change and groom, if you had there would be time for you to attend the Council. So, not sword and shield, and you do not smell of horse.” Vaush shrugged, “No lance then. There is ink on your fingers. Simon there is a spot near your lip where you chew at the quill. Tim has a worn spot on his sleeve from where he drags his arm across the writing desk. Both of you occasionally clasp your fingers together because of the cramping; means letters or numbers, I guessed. It was a good guess though.”
“Bravo!” said Stoner.
“Shove off.” Simon grinned, “You know how annoying that is?”
“Yes.” Vaush answered and closed his eyes, enjoying the quiet echoes of the hall. From beyond the door the murmurings of Entia’s great men could be barely heard, like a low buzz that had no articulation.
When the doors did open an army of clerks, scribes and priests file out as their betters lingered behind, standing and steeping in informal conversation. The fathers of the two na-Barons laughed at a small and private joke between them. The King and Sarah spoke while the Lady Veronica and Queen stood nearby. There was no sign of her grace, the Princess Fiona. Among the gathered, Vaush saw the priests. The Tymorian priest, a dour man with a broad face had a scar that started behind his ear and cut a ragged path down to disappear into the high folded collar of his white and blue robe. Standing apart was Father Belden, within the chambers as a representative of the Church of Huren’s Child, one of the favored gods to the Royal House. He leaned heavily on the stout cane. It was obvious that the man’s hip was soar. Belden’s face was twisted in a grimace as he made his way to the King to beg his pardon.
There was a separation among the attendees; two distinct groups. Nearest the great table were those members of the King’s court that remained. Lingering at near the Steward’s door were the members of the Queen’s court, who all seemed slightly uncomfortable to be included. Vaush would wager that despite this, not a one of them would have denied being thrilled at attending the King’s council. Standing behind the Queen and to the left, Vaush spotted the Lord Verik, dressed in a fine doublet of simple design. His boots were polished to a high sheen and reflected the glare of the lamp light.
The na-Barons Locke and Stoner stepped past Vaush and entered the King’s council chambers together. They strode towards their respective fathers with a confidence that surprised Vaush. The movement caught Sarah’s eye. At a glance she took in the scene and suspected what was about to happen. Standing patiently at the entrance was William and Vaush. Simon and Timothy approached their fathers and spoke quickly. Both barons straightened and then went directly to the King.
“Your Grace, it seems that Master Vaush has brought news of the King’s Watch matter.” The Baron Locke said, “If it pleases you, they crave an audience.”
King Henri suddenly looked tired as he considered. “Your Grace, it is a matter of pressing nature. It would be best if this was resolved quickly.” Sarah said.
“Your council is wise good lady.” Said King Henri, “My lords, please have the High Commander and the High Constable summoned to these chambers. Quietly if it pleases. They may bring but one attendant each. I am not ready for this to be a matter of general knowledge. Lips are going to wag enough even now.”
The Lord Baron Ian Stoner bowed deeply, “As you command Your Grace.”
“Your Eminence, Lady Cord, I would entreat you to stay if this matter is not to disturbing for you. I have found your advice sound and full of wisdom.” The king said. He spotted his wife and the Lady Veronica watching the exchange with great interest. Subtly the king held up a hand to tell them that all was well but they should remain where they were. Both ladies nodded their understanding and did their best to entertain the members of the Queen’s court. It would be a small time before the King would grant them leave to exit the chambers.
The Baron Locke said, “Son, please have your friends approach. Remind them that they address the King of us. This is the chambers of the King’s Council and due respect is owed.”
“Yes father, it shall be so.” Simon said and quietly prayed that Vaush would heed such advice, though he doubted it. He glanced at his friend, the na-Baron Stoner grinned and nodded. They would both fetch the guests.
Standing before the king, they were asked, “You have information concerning the death of the member of my King’s Watch?” The room was silent. There were no more gentle murmurings about the ill clad strangers. The two courts had joined and now formed a semi-circle about the royal family. The barons, Locke and Stoner stood to the King’s right. Princess Fiona, looking wide eyed and fascinated at the thought of a murder, stood close to Simon at his left. The silver bracer, half hiding the dark lined tattoo on Simon’s forearm looked heavy in the room’s yellow light. Sarah stood to the King’s left, and back a step.
The Lord High Commander of the King’s Watch was away to the right, near the main entrance, standing next to the frumpy High Constable, who looked uncomfortable in these vaulted surroundings.
“I have your Grace.” Vaush said. He strode forward aware of etiquette, but ignoring it.
The king squared his shoulders and elected to let Vaush’s transgression of approaching the king without permission go. “Then I would have you speak. The death of Ned Astin weighs heavily here.”
Vaush could hear Sarah whispering in his mind, careful now my friend she would say. You stand before Entia’s king and his lawful court. Now is not the time for clever antics. She would urge caution here but Vaush was not in the mood. Something about this place annoyed him. The arrogance and the misplaced entitlement rankled at him, setting his nerves on edge. He looked at William who gave him an encouraging nod.
“Your Grace there is a murderer here, even now in your midst.” Vaush said, “Frank Banders, though troubled by Ned Astin’s success and good fortune did not, in fact, murder him. The truth is, Lord Verik of Northcountry Shire murdered Ned Astin in the Witch’s Wood, north of this very castle.”
There was the expected collective gasp. Queen Heather flushed and stepped back as if unsteady in her silken slippers. It was only by Lady Veronica’s steadying hand did the Queen not tip over. The King’s stare hardened first at Vaush and then turned slowly to meet the shocked expression of his wife. Lord Verik looked dumb founded in the crowd’s middle, as if someone had mentioned him, but he did not understand the context of it.
“Your Grace, this is preposterous! I protest!” Lord Verik exclaimed, “I in no way did harm to any member of your King’s Watch! I am a loyal subject, this I swear!”
Vaush interrupted, “As loyal as you can be after the murder of a member of the King’s Watch and the fact that you are no lord, nor have you ever been.”
“What are you speaking of lad?” the King said. In his voice held an edge of inpatients, “No riddles Master Vaush.”
Verik refused to step out from the Queen’s court, as if he was hiding behind the Queen’s skirts. Being at court, he did not have a sword. On the room’s far wall, the men of the King’s court had gathered into a semi-circle, all with stern faces. Lord Ian Stoner stepped close to the King and whispered something. The king nodded and with a gesture summoned the queen to his side. With her departure, the Queen’s court splintered. Verik found himself standing alone.
Angus had taken up station at the Steward’s door. William watched as the members of the King’s Watch filed into the room. Someone had called the guard and the room was rapidly sealed. No one was leaving without the King’s leave.
“Master Vaush, what is the basis of this. You stand and accuse a member of the Queen’s Court. This is no small thing.” The King said.
Vaush smiled and looked about, “A suspicion that is not without notice I see.” The room was effectively sealed now. Vaush started to move about the room, in long frantic strides. His arms became animated, “Verik traveled south from Northcountry Shire, recently made a lord, or so he claimed. With him he brought with him a charter, giving him land and title.”
“This is the truth.” Verik stated, “I did and by the grace of her highness, have become a member of the Queen’s court.”
“It is the habit that these charters are entered into the Exemplaria of the kingdom by the clerks of the King. Your linage would be lineated and the page would be illuminated. However this never happened. It was a recent arrest that caused you panic I think.” Vaush said, “You never submitted your charter for the Exemplaria did you. It was never entered and it was never copied into the Huren’s copy.”
“But, I have not had a chance, things have been so busy.” Verik said. His voice was tinged with desperation and panic.
“Master Vaush I would have you tell us how this relates to the death of Ned Astin?” the King said. His patients was wearing.
“Easy enough, but it will require some explanation. In no small part it begins with Ned’s assignment. He was given a duty that required him to see to several stations. One of these was near a particular room within the castle. Within the room are artifacts awaiting placement within the castle. One of these is the Exemplaria. Ned, a man of modest intelligence, was eventually overcome with curiosity and he examined this tome. It was not what he found in the book, but rather what he did not. You see, by all accounts and despite Verik’s claims, quite close to this newly minted lordling. In fact, he found Verik’s success heartening. You see he saw you as a kindred spirit, a common man made good so to speak. But, your crest and lordship was not documented in the Exemplaria was it. Ned discovered its lacking in the Exemplaria. What Georgie saw was Ned’s distress. He was not referring to the church missing, that is ridiculous, but rather Verik’s crest. He was going to Huren’s church. The church’s copy is what he was going to see, hoping that the crest had been entered there. He had no way of knowing that the church copy is only updated once the King’s clerks have entered the charter in the castle’s.”
Verik was stunned, his jaw opened and closed, “You have no way of knowing this. How can you possibly know what was Ned’s thought.” Verik glanced at Sarah Cord and said, “He is a warlock, it is the only explanation that he would have this knowledge.”
The king said, “How can you know this? You claim to know that Ned perused a book without ever speaking to the man or to anyone that can verify this.”
Here Vaush smiled, “The pages are worn with all the fingers, but typically it is only priests or clerks that turn the pages.”
Angus said, “You speak truth in that.”
“On several of the pages there was weapon’s oil, something that no clerk would have reason to make use of. Astin was meticulous in the keeping of his gear. Fresh weapons oil stained the pages. It has a particular odor.” Vaush said.
Verik’s desperation became more apparent. Sweat began roll off his brow and gathered at his collar, darkening the rich fabric. In a voice that sounded pitched with fear, “I am not an evil man. Ned hung himself. It was suicide. Ned took his own life.”
Vaush shook his head, “No, you murdered him. After Ned went to the church and saw that your crest was not there either, he left. You spoke with others at the castle, you knew what his intent was. He was heading to your Midland Cottage, possibly to confront you.”
Verik shook his head and his fight was leaving him. “No, he hung himself.”
“You met him on the Umbrage Road. You gathered him up into the wood, tried to convince him that all would be well, but you couldn’t. Then you struck him with the pommel of your sword.”
Verik was shaking his head again and kept repeating, “No.”
“You had been at court and seen the King’s Watch and even you knew that their brotherhood would not allow such a murderous crime to go unanswered. So you attempted to hide the crime by masking it as a suicide. The rope was nearby. The young often play in the wood. I suspect the rope was a tidy answer. You noosed Astin’s neck and hauled him up into the tree where Father Belden found him soon after.”
“I did not mean to kill him.” Verik said in a croaking whisper, “He would not listen, I offered him all that I could, money, influence, all of it. Ned was to honest.”
“His reward was that you murdered him.” Queen Heather hissed, “You have dishonored this court!”
“I am so sorry.” Verik said. The fight was out of him. There was nothing left. Several of the King’s Watch stepped forward. The king motioned for the man to be taken into custody.
“It has been a trying day.” The King said, “We will adjourn for the remainder.”
The courts began to shuffle from the room. The gossip was rising like a tide. Most were whispering, while a few were casting open accusations towards Verik of other wrong doing. The Baron Ian Stoner passed by Vaush and gave the young man an appreciative nod.
“That was an impressive piece of work.” He said and clasped Vaush’s shoulder nodding as he passed.
The na-Baron Stoner came up next to Vaush and said, “That is great praise from my father.”
“Excuse me a moment.” Vaush said. He pressed his hand against the priest of Huren’s Child. “A moment Father Belden.”
“Yes good son.” Belden said, “What service may I do for you?”
“Before this is finished you should pay for what you have done.” Vaush said. Stoner looked quizzically at Vaush before motioning for his cousin Locke to approach. Simon came over and asked what was wrong. Stoner gestured towards Vaush and the Father Belden. The lord Baron Locke saw the exchange and brought it to the notice of the King who was standing near his Queen.
“What happens here?” the King asked.
“Father Belden should answer for his crime.” Vaush said.
“Crime? What crime?” Belden asked.
The king said, “Vaush you needs to answer for this. What crime do you accuse of Belden?”
“Six years ago Father Belden exited Molly’s Bindle and was seen by Ben Astin, the member of the City’s Watch. He could not bear the thought of being exposed, he struck the watchman in the back of the head and Ned’s father perished.”
“What… how do you see this?” Father Belden asked.
William said, “I can answer this.”
The king glared at the old pirate, “I would hear this from Master Vaush for he has made the accusation.”
“Alright then.” William said.
“When we saw you at the church, you were speaking with a woman and her young child. She had a white dusting about her dress. After the Bindle’s closing Molly married a baker. The young girl bid you farewell. When she bid you father she was referring to your relationship, not your position. The Book of Days lists Molly and her child but no father is listed. You would be the only one that could approve such a thing. The child was born within nine months of Ben’s death. You were having relations with Molly and a child, as the often do, resulted. When Ned was in the apse with the book and fled in a state you were concerned that he had discovered the same that William and I had. You went after him for much the same reason that Verik sought to intercept him.”
Father Belden’s pride deflated, “I found him hanging there and could only think of how the family had already suffered so. In truth I did believe it to be suicide.”
“His death was convenient for you.” William said.
Father Belden looked at the old pirate and began to cry. The King looked at the priest and asked, “Is this the truth?”
Father Belden nodded, “It is. I have done my best to care for the family both Molly’s and Ned’s. I have been wracked with guilt for these years.”
“This is a sad day.” The King said.
The na-Baron Stoner chuckled at something that Sarah said. Simon stoked the hearth fire which had burned low in the hours after Vaush’s revelations concerning Sergeant Astin’s murder. The castle’s gossip vine bloomed after the council meeting. Lord Verik had been taken into custody immediately and was quickly followed by Father Belden. Rumors of illicit relations, heresy and treason abounded. The Baron Locke had made no effort to quell these.
William had found the last bottle of Southern Red and had poured glasses for himself and Stoner. In recent hours they had formed a bond that neared friendship. A third glass had been poured as an afterthought and presented to Simon.
“What do you think is happening?” Stoner asked, “Vaush was hauled off in council with the King in a hurry.”
“I suspect that they are investigating what avenues should be taken concerning the errant lord Verick.” Sarah answered.
Simon straightened. The fire had grown. “I doubt Vaush much cares.”
“I agree.” Sarah said, “But when someone makes such a show others tend to continue to seek council.”
“It was an impressive display.” Stoner said, “Vaush is very talented with these things.”
“He was showing off.” Simon said, “But he saved a man’s life to be sure.”
“I never would have thought a civilian steward would have such acumen in such things.” Stoner said.
Simon gave Sarah a significant look. William remained silent and took a deep pull, draining the wine glass. Sarah spooled her thoughts considering a response. Underestimating Vaush was a dangerous proposition and one, that for a moment, Sarah considered sparing Stoner. Sarah was unsure of the na-Baron, but he had thus far shown himself to be one of Simon’s staunchest allies.
“You must be careful Stoner.” Sarah began. Her voice carried a tone that commanded attention. Stoner turned from his own glass and looked at her. “There is more to Vaush than you imagine. On many levels, I am without doubt, he is the most dangerous young man that you have ever met.”
Stoner was silent for a moment. His face lacks in thought. “What do you mean?”
“I will say no more, but never consider Vaush a simple custodian. To think that you know Vaush is both arrogant and foolish.” Sarah replied.
William nodded and poured himself another glass.
The salon’s door opened and Vaush stepped in. He was already dressed for travel. His pilgrim’s coat donned and the floppy brimmed hat was folded and in his left hand. Sarah saw that he was annoyed.
“We making to travel?” William asked, slipping into his Cut Throat Bill personae.
Vaush answered, “Yes. Leaving would be a good idea. I have had quite enough of the foolery here.”
“What happened?” Sarah asked. Stoner examined Vaush with a new eye, searching for some sign of the danger that Sarah warned of.
“Verick is to be hung.” Vaush said, “The Constable’s gaggle have let the forger disappear into the night.”
Simon asked, “What? How did that happen?”
“I have no inclination to discover how it happened. I can only catch the culprits, it is not my responsibility keep track of them.” Vaush’s annoyance was apparent. He was impatient to leave.
“Well, off we go then.” William said.
William and Vaush stepped out of the castle, leaving the others to continue their conversation and speculations. The sky had gathered deepening clouds. The air smelled of rain. Vaush turned up the collar of the pilgrim’s coat. William chuckled pulled a pilfered bottle of brandy from his own coat’s pocket. They stepped into the street, making their way back to the Driftwood as the first drops of rain fell.