Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Chapter 18: The Hunter

     Owerst Aerik Nandliss was a patient man. He had waited out countless enemies, both men and beasts. He could track the passage of anything that walked. He could go without sleep for long periods. Some said he was the finest hunter in all of Palonias, others said in all the world.
     So it was with some measure of frustration that he'd spent the night in a pear tree watching the cellar door. No one had come anywhere near the place. He suspected Rikard had known about the crystals, for his were the only prints that seemed to have gone into the copse multiple times. The tracks he suspected of belonging to Ms. Froske and Mr. Insel entered only once and left. He'd gone back to check this hypothesis after Rikard had accompanied him back to the house. Rikard must believe that his secret had already been uncovered, or he would not have brought attention the way he had when he'd invited Nandliss into the cellar. Rikard had also been far too quick to throw suspicion on the others. Nandliss had nearly been taken in, but after some reflection he'd decided to re-examine the scene on his own. He'd expected some sort of ruse, but his tracking skills had confirmed his suspicions.
     If Rikard was involved in hiding the crystals here, surely he would move them or arrange to have them removed quickly. It was on this belief that Nandliss had decided to watch the cellar. So he sat in the tree, two loaded crossbows at the ready, while nothing continued to happen. But he was a patient man. He would wait.

     Merrik Trammer spent the evening with Countess Amelia LaDuce. He'd asked her further about her dreams, but she either had no more details to share, or had decided to hold something back. He'd asked her to breathe on a mirror and had examined the pattern of her breath, but he saw nothing of any use, with or without the divining powder. He even told her of his own dream of the fool on the rock, but nothing in it had any meaning for her.
     After supper he suggested that he be allowed to sleep near her that evening. At first she was scandalized but when he explained to her that he would be on a couch or bedroll on the floor and not actually in the bed with her, and that she could have a small partition between them she accepted the arrangements. He explained that he may actually be able to share a dream with her and even revisit her earlier dreams – for dreams left an impression on the mind that lingered for a long time. The impressions of particularly important dreams might even last a lifetime. So he spent the night in her chambers, hoping for some clue, but all he'd received was a repeat of the vision he'd had earlier in the day.

     Elinge and Mr. Insel had excused themselves from the estates. They said they wanted to have a look at Lunelton. They returned late, having eaten at the Black Horse, and retired to their chambers. The next morning they awoke early and began to examine the interior of the house together. Most of the rooms of the house were now empty and hadn't even been dusted for months. It was an enormous house, and with only two permanent servants, proper upkeep was impossible. They took care to keep an eye on Rikard whenever possible, for it was his room they most wanted to examine.
     First, however, they spoke with the maid. Nansi was a kindly-faced woman who was devoted to her duty. She had dark hair with more than a few streaks of white beginning to show. Her hair was down this morning, though she normally wore it in a bun during the day.
     "We're sorry to disturb you so early, Nansi," began Elinge, "but we wanted to have a word with you before your daily duties took up all of your time."
     "That's quite all right, mistress. Do come in." She opened the door wide for their entrance. "You'll see my quarters are quite a bit larger than is typical for a servant, but there's the advantage in working in such a big empty place as this. The Countess allows us any rooms we wish, excepting for the guest chambers she keeps in her private wing. Them she likes to have empty. As if we ever had any guests here. Not for near on a decade, we haven't."
     "I see." Elinge & Mr. Insel entered and looked around the spacious room. "Yes, quite lovely and roomy."
     "Do sit down." Nansi motioned to a small couch against the wall between two large windows. "I expected one or the other of you lot would come calling before long."
     "You did?"
     "Of course. You're here about the countess's dream, I expect. And the note."
     "Yes, we are."
     "Well, I expect you have questions, and I'll be happy to answer any you might have."
     "Thank you, Nansi. That makes our job much easier." Elinge smiled at the maid. "That being said, then, I suppose I'll come right to it and save you some time."
     "As it please you, mistress."
     "Please, call me Elinge. Your mistress claims not to stand on ceremony here, and so neither shall we."
     "Thank you, Ellinge."
     "You came to work here when you were sixteen, yes?"
     "Yes. That was in 769. I've been here eighteen years as of this year."
     "So you worked with Livinia for what? Five years?"
     "Between four and five, yes."
     "What can you tell us about her."
     "You do get right to the point, don't you?"
     Elinge merely tilted her head to the right and arched an eyebrow.
     "I mean, it's clear you think there's something the countess didn't tell you, but we've all suspected. And yes, I believe Rikard is the bastard of Count Viktor."
     "But you're not sure?"
     "Can anyone ever be right sure? I know Livinia talked of a man she'd met in Lunelton – this was before she got with child – and how he was so wonderful and rich and handsome and how he was to some day take her away from all this." She made a sweeping gesture around her. "Wasn't long after that we noticed that her trips into town matched up, often as not, to the times when the count was out hunting, or away on estate business or some such. Tongues began to wag among the servants, as they are wont to do."
     "Then when she showed her bump, there was fighting between the count and countess. They tried to keep quiet, but we all suspected."
     "So, just guesses, then?"
     "Now you haven't let me finish, Elinge. No, it's more than guesses. One night in the time when Livinia was with child she got herself drunk in the cellar. At first we thought maybe she'd just run off, but I was the one that found her. The wine had loosened her tongue, and she told me all about how men are liars and how the count was the biggest liar of them all. She said she'd soon have his baby and how all his promises were empty. Her curses all ran together, and she changed the target of them quickly, as them that are deep in drink often do. She had more than a few choice words for the countess, as well."
     "Yet she stayed on here for years afterward, even after the count's Passing."
     "That was the countess's doing. I don't think she wanted anyone to see the resemblance between the count and the boy. She also feared what Livinia might do or say if she was turned away. She wanted her honor kept, or at least the guise of it. And since Livinia Passed into the Dream, she's built up stories around the count. To hear her tell it now, he was the perfect man: the most devoted husband and kindest of fathers."
     "But that's far from the truth?"
     "Oh, I don't suppose so – at least not after the fighting ended. No, I don't believe he ever strayed after that. Whether that was because of the leverage the countess's family had over him, or because of his own daughter being born the next year, or for some other reason, I don't know. He definitely loved his girl. And he never acknowledged Rikard."
     "So what does Rikard know of all this?"
     "I expect he knows a lot, though I've never discussed it with him."
     "Really? In all these years, you've never let on to Rikard that his father was the count?"
     "I value my job here. I only tell you all this now because I expect my time here is nearly over. This estate has seen better days, and the countess is in poor health. I don't know what will become of the place when she Passes, but I don't expect there will be much call for servants after that. Besides ... I expect you're the type to find answers. I've no doubt you'd have discovered all this one way or another without my help."
     Elinge smiled. "You're a very perceptive woman, Nansi."
     "It pays for a servant to be so."
     "I think you may be holding back a little something, anyway, but that's quite all right. You've been most helpful."
     "Oh, I've never been good at keeping secrets, Elinge." Nansi chuckled softly.
     "As you say, Nansi." Elinge and Mr. Insel rose from the sofa. "Thank you for your help. I won't keep you any longer." Nansi opened the door for them, and they exited. Just before the door was closed behind them, Elinge turned back to Nansi.
     "I have one final question, if you don't mind?"
     "Which room is Rikard's?"
     "Down the hall here and to the left." She pointed them in the right direction. "Last room on the right, just before the stairs."
     "And where is Rikard this morning?"
     "I expect he's out at the garden house. He goes there first thing, since the workmen came."
     "Thank you."

     Rikard approached the thicket and looked around. He failed to think of looking up, or would likely have spotted Nandliss in his perch. Seeing no one, however, he pulled out his key and entered the cellar. Once inside, he began moving crates until he got to the one containing the crystals. He lifted it with some difficulty, and  moved it closer to the door. There he sat and waited. Grigsby had better send someone soon, he thought. I'm through taking risks for those fools, no matter what they pay. He knew that extricating himself from Grigsby's bunch would be difficult at best. People like that didn't generally let you walk away once they had their hooks in you.

     A few minutes after Rikard entered the cellar, Nandliss spotted a Dvergar. He looked like one of the fellows that had been working at the logging camp. He, too, looked around before knocking sharply on the cellar door, and like Rikard, he failed to think of looking up at the trees. The door opened to reveal Rikard.
     "About time you got here," he said.
     "Keep yer britches on," replied the Dwarf. "Grigsby sends word you need a package moved."
     "Yes. It's these nosy guests of he countess's."
     "They spotted 'em yet?"
     "At least one that I know of for sure has. Two of the others seem likely. The fourth one I'd guess no."
     "Want we should take 'em out?"
     "What, you mean kill them? Are you mad? That would just draw more attention you fool!"
     "Not if we make it look like an accident."
     "An accident that kills three healthy adults, one of whom is well-known all around the kingdom?"
     "Or maybe they just disappears."
     "I don't think we're quite that desperate just yet."
     "Nay? I thought you said they seen 'em."
     "Yes, but I made it look like I was surprised to see them myself. I can play it off as though someone else put them here. I can also get the guests suspecting each other."
     "I dunno. I'm thinkin' –"
     "Just tell Grigsby," Rikard cut the Dvergar off, "I can handle this end, all right?"
     "Whatever you say."
     "Also, tell him it's best if we don't send anything through here for a while."
     "Oh, he's not gonna like that, nay – not one bit."
     "I don't care if he likes it. It's too dangerous right now. If we get caught, we'll all end up on an Examiner's Table, and then likely on a Witch's Pyre. You tell him that if we try to move anything else through here that's the likely outcome."
     "As you say." The Dvergar heaved the crate over his shoulder. "I'll get this on the cart. It'll be in Ayrst by tomorrow night."
     The Dvergar stepped out of the cellar and began to climb the stairway. Rikard followed and locked the door behind them.
     "That quickly?"
     "Yea. We got a man standin' by near Lunelton."
     "Good. The sooner they're away from here, the better."
     "Have no worries. We'll take care of everythin'."
     It was then that Nandliss heard some rustling sounds from below and behind him. He turned his head to look. There was a man with a horse and cart coming up next to the house. The Dvergar made his way over to the cart as Rikard  headed in the opposite direction, towards the garden terrace. As the Dwarf began loading the crate into the back of the cart, the man said something to him. Suddenly they were both looking straight up at Nandliss.
     The Dvergar dropped the crate and reached for a long dagger strapped to his thigh. The man in the cart pulled a bow from behind his seat and nocked an arrow.
     Nandliss reacted in a split second, He knew he couldn't let the cart driver get away, so he launched his crossbow at the driver. Even at this distance and from this angle Owerst Nandliss was as sure a shot as had ever raised a crossbow. His quarrel took the man right through the throat.
     The Dvergar charged at the tree and screamed something in his guttural native tongue, while Nandliss dropped his crossbow and reached for the other. The Dwarf moved quickly for his short stature and was halfway to the pear tree before Nandliss had taken aim. Just as he loosed his second shot the tree shook with violent force, and the bolt went astray. Nandliss dropped from the tree in an attempt to tackle the Dwarf, when his leg was caught from behind and he fell forward to the ground. His vision was filled with the white light of pain as his face struck the turf. He rolled over quickly, just as the Dvergar landed a blow with his long dagger. He missed Nandliss and struck the point into the ground, instead.
     Something still held the hunter's leg. He looked up, but all he could see was a shadow. He felt himself being pulled away, and then the Dvergar was on top of him. Whoever held his leg let it drop to the ground.
     "Thought you'd spy on us, did you? " Nandliss felt the point of the dagger against his throat. His vision began to clear. He looked past the Dvergar's shoulder to see Rikard standing over them. He must have come back when he heard the Dwarf shout, thought Nandliss.
     "I was merely investigat-," began Nandliss, but he was cut off.
     "We know what yer doin'," replied the Dvergar. "What we wanna know is how much you heard."
     "That hardly matters." His mind raced. I have to think quickly.
     "You think not?" The point of the dagger pressed against his throat. He could also feel blood flowing from his nose.
     "No. You see my companions know all about your little operation here. I was just here to observe."
     The Dwarf turned to Rikard. "See? I told you we'd have to deal with 'em. No choice now."
     "Wait!" Rikard exclaimed. "We'll need to-"
     Those were the last words Nandliss heard as the Dvergar decided to ignore Rikard's pleas and drove his dagger into Nandliss's throat. His world went black, his hearing faded, and he drifted into The Dream.