Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Chapter 15: The Servant

     Rikard could tell something was amiss. Someone had trampled through the shrubbery and been to the cellar door. He was uncertain as to whether they'd been inside, but knowing the nosy crowd that the old lady had invited to the estate, he wouldn't be surprised. That stupid hunter with his pointless questions – he'd be just the sort to go about putting his nose where it didn't belong.
     He wasn't worried about the Dreamer: most likely he'd just be moping about in the library all day. The big fellow was more brawn that brains: if he'd been inside, there probably wouldn't even be a door here any longer. Now, that redhead that the bruiser followed around - she was a bit of a mystery. Rikard wouldn't have minded a chance to talk with her alone. I could probably make her talk, he laughed to himself. I doubt I could get her away from that big ape, though.
     Rikard examined the door closely. There were no signs of forced entry. That could be a good sign, or it could be an even worse one than finding something. If someone found what he was hiding, and then tried to hide the fact ... well, that would spell real trouble. Why did I ever let Grigsby talk me into this, anyway? He needed the coin, sure, but what good was money if you ended on a Witch's Pyre? He'd have to get rid of these people, and soon. Maybe I overplayed my hand, sending her that note? It was too late to do anything about that now.
     He used the key to open the cellar door and went inside, closing it behind him. He reached into his pouch for his tinderbox, and lit the lamp that hung on a peg nearby. Carrying the lamp, he examined the floor. There was very little dust. Someone must have swept the area clean. Whoever it was could have been anywhere – and gotten into anything. There was no reason for anyone to hide that they had been here except to hide what they found. Rikard went straight to the stack of crates near the back wall. He picked up several of the lighter crates that were stacked on top of the one that concerned him. He examined that one closely by the light of his lamp. It was obvious someone had opened it and then tried to close it back again in the hopes that he wouldn't discover the fact. Now, which of them would have done it? And how long ago had it been? he knew he had to get a message to Grigsby right away. These damned crystals had to be moved as soon as was possible.

     Owerst Nandliss had wandered the wood, watching the workmen about their business, and noting the tracks left by the various fauna that were native to the area. It made him sad to see this ancient forest destroyed, but he knew there was nothing to be done about it. As much as he enjoyed wandering about outdoors, he knew he'd eventually have to get back to the manor grounds and do what he could to assuage the countess's fears.
     Nandliss was unsure of whether the countess's dream was merely that, or whether it may have truly been a vision, as she believed. He'd encountered many strange things in his travels, but he was loath to trust in the hopes and fears of an old woman, no matter how highly born. Still, she was paying him to find what he could, and he would do his duty. Besides, the possibility of discovering some strange new thing made the whole enterprise worthwhile.
     He left the edge of the wood from a point somewhat east of the manor house, and advanced toward it. There were still a few trees scattered here and there on the grounds, and the gardens to the west were still quite lovely at this distance, considering the time of year. The foliage was just beginning to change color, and a few errant leaves had already fallen to the ground.
     Nandliss spied a large white willow near a thicket at the back of the house. Odd, he thought. I should think, considering the nature of her dream, that the countess would have had that tree removed first. Perhaps she hadn't been out on the grounds in so long that she'd simply forgotten it was there. He approached the tree and examined the thicket. It was really more of a large shrubbery that grew right up against the house. He spied a pair of tracks that led out of the shrubbery and headed east, around the corner of the house. Curious, he followed them back to see whence they had come. It appeared that there had been a large, heavy person and a much lighter and smaller one traveling together. Probably the young Ms. Froske and her large friend, Mr. Insel. He came through to the little clearing and saw the coppiced ash and the cellar door. The tracks here were much more difficult to follow: the ground here was hard, willow roots reached thirstily about, and the ground covering was springier. Nandliss, however, with his expert eye could form a story of what had happened here. The two sets of tracks he had first encountered must have belonged to a pair who was following a third set. They appeared to have followed them to the door and then out and left the way he had come. The set they had been following led in and out, and now a fresher set led in. Whoever the last person to come through here was, he was still in the cellar. He decided to wait to see who it was.

     Rikard opened the cellar door and stopped halfway through. There was the Owerst, examining the ground. After a brief moment of thought, he opened the door loudly and called out, "Master Nandliss, sir! I think I may have discovered something. You should come in and have a look."
     Nandliss turned and approached the servant. "Of course, good man. Is something wrong?"
     "I'm not sure, sir. I've discovered something ... unusual ... in the cellar here. I put everything back as it was, for fear that whoever hid these things would do me some harm if they found out I'd discovered them."
     "Discovered what, Rikard?"
     "Come, have a look for yourself." He motioned the Owerst inside.
     Nandliss walked past Rikard, who held the door open for him. The servant pointed towards the back of the cellar.
     "Back there, some of those crates seem to be empty, but the one on the bottom is the one that concerns us." He followed behind Nandliss and began moving crates aside. He grabbed the crowbar and pried open the crate. "There are these strange sort of crystals …" he trailed off.
     Nandliss reached into the crate and, pushing aside the straw, he pulled out one of the wrapped bundles. Unwrapping it, he revealed a glowing blue crystal.
     "I'm not sure what those are, but I'm sure it's nothing the Countess knows about. They have a look of wrongness about them, sir, wouldn't you agree?"
     Nandliss looked aghast. "These … these are very dangerous things to have about. How did you come to find them?"
     "Well, sir, I was out walking the grounds and I noticed that it looked like someone had come through the hedge up there, so I just sort of started looking around, you know. I knew of this cellar, of course – in fact I have the key – but it hasn't been used for anything in years. So when I saw that it looked like someone had been inside, I decided to have a look around myself."
     "Have you any idea who had been in here before?"
     "No sir, except …" He hesitated, perhaps too dramatically.
     "Go on, man!"
     "Well, I assumed it was one of you guests, sir – on the countess's orders, of course. But I didn't know who it would be."
     "Well, it certainly wasn't me: I've only just come from out in the wood. Where are the other guests?"
     "Hm? Oh, I believe the Dreamer is with the countess, though I think he's spent most of the day in the library."
     "And Ms. Froske and Mr. Insel?"
     "Haven't seen them all day, sir," replied Rikard. "Have you?"
     "The last I saw of them was at breakfast. They did say they were going to have a look about the house. Perhaps they found the same thing you did?"
     "Could be. But … no. Never mind."
     "Come now, Rikard. If we're to get to the bottom of this, you'll have to share everything you know."
     "Well, it's not something I know, sir, it's just that a thought occurred to me: what if it was Insel or Ms. Froske who put these here?"
     "Highly unlikely."
     "Oh, well, if you say so, sir. I suppose you know them much better than I do."
     The Owerst paused for a moment. Come to think of it, he'd never met either of them before. Surely Ms. Froske would be incapable of involvement in something like this. The big man, though: he had a look of untrustworthiness about him. Nandliss wasn't sure why the two of them seemed so odd together. Was it possible that Insel was using some sort of Dark Magicks to control the young woman?
     "Listen to me, Rikard. I think we'd best pack these crystals back up the way you found them. Say nothing of them to anyone, understand?"
     "As you say, sir." Rikard nodded and set about re-packing the crystals.
     "If one of the countess's guests is involved in this, it's best that we don't let on that we know anything about it. They'll be on their guard and we'll likely never discover them. However, if we keep a close eye on this place and the goings on about the manor, we may yet find out who put these here."
     "Yes, sir." Rikard knew noblemen well enough to know that when one of them said we in the context of some chore, it was likely what they really meant was you servants. So all he had to do was make sure he was the one on watch when Grigsby's men came. In the meantime, he'd just have to make sure they came soon – tonight, if possible.