That evening the Heir of Summerfield spoke to the gathered people of the keep about their departed lord. Gathered around a great bonfire in the central courtyard, he took them on a journey of Gyles’ design. He told them of Humphrey’s fairness, his loyalty to both liege and land and eventually detailed how each of those qualities had been passed on to him, as the ward of such a man. When he finished, many heads nodded in solemn agreement and those bold enough thanked Roger for taking on lordly duties despite their burden.
The following morning, the funeral procession made its way into the bowels of the keep, where Humphrey was ensconced alongside its other lords. Father Mattias blessed the proceedings and read a short passage from the Book of Eveniss before releasing the attendees back out into the morning light. There, in the courtyard, Alistair found Gyles; a faded green smoke wafted from what appeared to be a cigarette cut from parchment.
“Gyles”, Alistair inhaled deeply and breathed out a cloud of emerald smoke, “you must speak to… Robert… Roger. I cannot conduct the investigation.”
“And why is that?”, Gyles cocked his head slightly to one side, reminiscent of Omen.
“Well, you see”, another cloud of green haze, “I’m not quite used to being murdered over breakfast. I’m not….uh…uh…objective on the subject.”
“Well, I don’t know how to conduct an investigation.”
The end of the cigarette blazed brightly, “Neither do I Gyles… I’m an engineer. I’m sure one of the guards had done that kind of thing before…. or or…take Mattias. No one will argue with the priest.”
Gyles nodded slightly, “Not a bad idea, Alistair.”
Alistair’s smirk was obscured by escaping smoke, “Besides… I’m sure the Heir would rather hear from you instead of me.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the great clanking of the portcullis and the lowering of the bridge. They watched in silence as Captain Branmore, followed by a handful of guards, rode out without fanfare.
Alistair shrugged and ground the nub of his cigarette out beneath his boot.
“I should talk to Roger.”
- * * * * *
Aedan watched Branmore’s departure from the window of his rooms, where he had just finished packing his things for the ride to Iron’s Bay. By the time he reached the stables, their dust clouds had gone as had their shapes on the horizon. He too left without fanfare, and kept sharp watch on the road for their tracks. He gave them only a little thought, knowing that Gyles had already sent Omen with the truth of what had transpired. He was unconcerned about whatever Branmore was about.
He rode east along the rode that Mattias had taken to reach the keep; in the distance he saw the ruined shapes of Edmunton. He stopped at midday, more to give his mount a break than himself, and it was not long thereafter that he passed the wagon, ruined by the creature some weeks ago. Those cares seemed ages ago.
A woman’s shriek broke his reverie. He pulled his war horse to a stop and waited until a second scream urged him into action. It had come from behind the tree line, so the knight hopped from his mount and pulled his sword from its scabbard. With one hand on his weapon, he lead his mount with the other, and they picked their way between the trees.
He emerged into a small clearing where a woman had been tied to a tree. Clothed, and seemingly unharmed, her eyes widened when she saw him arrive. But Aedan was focused on the figure standing nearby. Dunsten Branmore stood with a morningstar held loosely in one hand and a shield in the other, he wore his mail and the surcoat of the Iron Barks.
“Arondel! True to form, as always. I wondered if such a plea for help would draw you from the road and here you are.”
“True to form yourself, Branmore. Here you are disgracing both yourself and your liege lord again.”
“My time after your exile has not been kind, but with Humphrey I had position and a life. We were going to do business with the Karg; we had a good thing here…. And you’ve ruined it. I don’t think the Kargs poisoned anyone. I think you and your.. your.. companions did something to Humphrey and I intend to make you answer for it.”
“You abase yourself by taking captives, then accuse me of treason and betraying my honor? What do you think I will say?”
“You will say yes, hand over your weapons and submit to me… and this woman lives. Otherwise”, Branmore gave the morningstar a twirl and led its head thump into the nearby tree, “I will kill her, then take you into custody for her murder.”
Aedan launched himself forward as did Branmore, their shields crunching together. Aedan hopped back as the chain from the morningstar tried to wrap itself over the top of his shield. Aedan sword slashed and prodded, looking for an opening but his former friend’s shield was there at every turn. The morningstar smashed against Aedan’s shield over and over; the knight knew that even a small mistake would mean the weapon would make its way around the shield. What seemed like long hours was the space of moments as the two mailed men traded blows and circled one another. The morningstar finally succeeded in its design, snaking around the shield and landing heavily on Aedan’s shoulder. But its weight had forced Branmore to commit in his step and in that moment Aedan drove the tip of his blade up. It pierced Branmore’s coif, then disappeared into the underside of his jaw.
His arms went slack and he gurgled violently, gently pulling in a dying attempt to extradite himself from the blade. Aedan pushed forward, sending his opponent sliding off the blade and onto his back.
“Who are you? Where are you from? Where did he find you?”, Aedan wiped his blade clean on the dead man’s surcoat and used his knife to cut the woman free.
“My name is Gwen, m’lord. I had… I have a flock… I was outside the village when he took me.”
“And he was by himself? No others?”
“No, m’lord. Just him.”
“Come with me.”, Aedan swung up into the saddle and pulled her up behind. He followed her instructions, returning her to her now scattered flock. Afterwards, he rode into the center of Edmonton and paid a few man to bury Branmore.
“You will find him in a small clearing… not far from a ruined wagon on the road. Bury him, but there is no need mark his grave. He is a traitor.”
- * * * * *
Alistair put a hand on his desk to steady himself, intending on collapsing into the chair. Instead the hand brushed sideways, knocking one of his satchels onto the floor and sending its contents, small glass and ceramic vials, rolling every which way.
Alistair cursed, drank what was left in his cup and tossed it into the chair before making his way down onto his hands and knees. One by one, he recovered the small containers, muttering first about the tight quarters and then about being trapped. It was when his hand landed on the container of saltpeter, not but a few fingers from the powdered sulfur that he chuckled. With a little fire, that could have gone poorly.
He froze. A dozen other ingredients flitted through his mind, things that could be used to amplify such a reaction or shape it, or make it burn even hotter. He scrambled to his feet, leaving the remaining jars where they were and threw himself into the chair. He cursed again, and dug the cup out from underneath him, flinging it to the side. With clumsy fingers, he pulled out one of his journals, flipped to an empty page and started to sketch and scribble.
- * * * * *
“My lord?”, Gyles said softly into the library.
Roger Winston looked up from whatever he was writing and smiled, “Good morning. Yes, Master Gyles?”
“Ser Aedan left for Iron’s Bay this morning. I saw Captain Branmore leave as well.”
“He did?”, Roger sat back in his chair, “He’s not happy with the turn of events here.”
“Understandable, but you did the right thing, my lord. The people here are the better for it.”
“Thank you, Gyles.”
The young smuggler inclined in his head, “I always wanted to say that Master Alistair cannot conduct the investigation.”
The young lord’s eyebrows furrowed, “Why not?”
“He is… unwell, my lord. The poison, his near encounter with the Ambassador’s knife, he is in a dark place; drinking heavily.”
“I see. Well, he was your suggestion, and a good one at that, do you have another?”
“I believe I could see to it, my lord, if I were to borrow a few people. Do you have any guards that are versed in investigation?”
“I doubt it but I will ask the Sergeant.”
“I would also like to ask Father Mattias to help.”
“Another fine idea.”, Roger stood to shake Gyles’ hand, “I will send the Sergeant to you and good luck in your hunt.”
On his way through the great hall, the young smuggler ran into the priest. He relayed the turn of events and asked for Father Mattias’ help.
“Most certainly, Master Gyles. What would you have me do?”
“Search. Look in the Kargish quarters, and the halls and the kitchens. To be fair, I suppose we should search a few of the guests’ rooms as well.”
Father Mattias nodded, “May I ask… what precisely is Master Alistair’s trade?”
“He is an engineer, a maker of devices, schooled at Laewes. He once restored a family heirloom of mine, tiny intricate pieces, with simple things that he had found. He is skilled at his craft but his manner is sometimes…”, Gyles smiled wanly, “..difficult.”
“Yes, he seems a learned man but should seek to control his anger. May God bless him and relieve him of the darkness on his heart.”
Gyles smiled and nodded, “Let us meet here before supper and share our findings.”
- * * * * *
When Gyles went down into the dungeon, he took with him the largest, most unintelligent guard that he had been able to find. In case something unplanned happened, he did not want the extra burden of having to fool a smart man. The dungeons were a simple affair, three cells and an antechamber with a door and a desk, manned by a jailor. At Gyles’ instruction, they re-arranged the furniture and planned to bring out one prisoner at a time so that he could speak with them.
The Ambassador’s bodyguards came first, but their visits were short lived. Neither of them spoke the Common tongue, instead only snarling in whatever language it was that the Karg’s shared. It was not long before Rogosh was led to the chair across from the young smuggler.
“You are Rogosh?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“And you know why I am here?”
“I think so, my lord. You have been sent about the deaths of my master and yours.”
“That is right. We have these mysterious deaths both here and at the mines. We know these twins, the Norns as you call them, have powers as does your cellmate back there. Help me understand why their powers could not have caused these deaths. Dispel my fears that it was their sorcery.”
“My lord, the Norns would not act on their own and my master did not order them to kill anyone, let alone with poison. This is a lie and I do not know why it has happened except to stop the bargain at the mines.”
“And what about your cellmate.”
“The Moirai? He will not speak to you, he does not speak.”
“Think of him as a child, my lord. He speaks as such, just to say that he is hungry or thirsty, no more. His mind is… not like ours. He cannot hurt you. I will take care of him, he will not trouble you.”
“Because he speaks his words through magic?”
The Kargish man’s lips became a taut line.
Gyles changed his approach, “What can I tell the Heir to prove your innocence?”
“You must find the real killer, my lord.”
“What if the real killer were Kargs from another clan?”
Rogosh’s features crumpled in confusion, “There were only Kord here. No others. The guards, the Moirai, we have all served my Lord Yoreck for years.”
“What if the Norns from another clan did something from afar?”, Gyles raised his eyebrows.
A look of panic flashed across Rogosh’s face, “Yardros would have known.”
“Even if they were more powerful than Yardros?”
“You would have to ask them, my lord.”
“You think your Norns would receive me?”
“Most certainly.”, Rogosh licked his lips nervously, “I am sure they are eager to resolve the situation.”
They returned the man to his cell and the furniture to its place. Gyles was making his way through the courtyard when Father Mattias nearly ran headlong into him. He was clutching a ceramic pot, decorated with Kargish swirls and a book to his chest.
“Master Gyles! I found these in the Ambassador’s rooms! This is… this is the poison, I believe. I have done some simple tests and I think this is what was used to slay Lord Humphrey. And this book, I found it behind one of their dressers. It is written in their tongue but since it was hidden, it gave me pause.”
The two men went directly to the Heir of Summerfield. This time, they found him reading in a small receiving room near his quarters. When they shared their discovery of the poison, he exploded in a rage.
“Get rid of that foul work! I cannot believe they would do this. Poison? Murder a man that did not give them what they wanted. We will make sure Roderick hears of this when he comes.”
When they had finished, Gyles took the book and the priest went to dispose of the poison.
- * * * *
Alistair answered the knock on his door, “What Gyles?!”
Gyles entered to find his companion in much the same place he had seen him before. A half-empty satchel lay on the floor, its contents still laying where they spilled. His desk was covered with sheets of parchment torn from his book, all in various states of destruction. Many were crumpled balls, others with lines drawn through the original writings. Even now, Alistair scribbled maniacally on a sheet before him. But, to Gyles’ astonishment, not a single letter or sign was legible on any of the sheets; all of them reflective of his friend’s drunken state.
Gyles’ stepped forward, his boot sending one of the container rolling across the floor, “Alistair, what is all this? None of the writing is legible. You can’t read any of it.”
Alistair looked up, his bloodshot eyes a mix of confusion and annoyance, “They’re numbers, Gyles. You don’t… don’t read numbers.”
“And that’s.. that’s…”, he stabbed a misshapen circle with his finger, “a..sffffeeearr.”
“A sphere isn’t a letter.”
“I know that! It’s a shape! Don’t be a fool, Gyles! You can’t read shapes!”
“Alistair, no one could read any of this. You’re too drunk to write clearly.”
“Pfshah.”, Alistair waved an ink-stained hand and whispered loudly, “_I’m close, Gyles. I’m close.”_
“To what? Close to what? You need to get yourself together, Alistair.”
“No, I need to get out of this keep.”, Alistair hissed and slapped his half-full wine goblet from the desk, “I need to get out of here!”
“Roderick will bring his men, kill all the Kargs and we’ll be on our way. But in the meantime, look at this.”
Gyles produced the book and held it arm’s length from the Alchemist, flipping through it’s pages one by one.
Alistair licked his lips, his eyes trying to adjust to the foreign language scrawled on the pages, “Wait, wait! That’s a drawing! Isssa… it’s a wizard’s pipe. One of the them has one in his belt.”
Gyles looked down at the page and its depiction of some kind of wand, then slammed the book shut, “You can look at it as soon as I can be sure you won’t vomit on it or stain its pages with wine.”
The drunken man growled as Gyles made his way to the door.
“Alistair, listen to me – the wheel turns, we need your help. Clean yourself up.”