Statamic

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR - deception by distraction

Martin Baynton.
Martin Baynton
May 13th, 2024

‘Fur pelts?’ Sir Ivon stood with his fists planted on his hips as he watched Jane wrap herself in the Merchant’s coat. ‘The day will be hot as coals in no time!’

‘Not up there,’ Jane raised her chin to the sky as she fastened the last button at her throat. ‘You’ve been in the mountains, Sir Ivon, you know how cold it gets up there. I need to get a great deal higher than that to see where all his boats are heading.’

‘Ah! Right enough. Though that never made any sense to me. It should get hotter the closer you get to the son. Ask Icarus!’

‘That would be a conversation indeed. I will be sure and take it up with him should our paths cross.’ Jane looked back along the wharf towards the headland that marked the edge of the sheltered bay. ‘How many boats went out. Just the four?’

‘Aye, that’s all he had in harbour. We have his dock master under lock and key with all his charts and trading logs. The rest of the Merchant’s trading fleet were already off about their business, buying cargo across the narrow sea.’

‘Hmm!’ Jane wondered how quickly word would reach those boats, and what their crews might do. Seize each boat for themselves and never return to Kippernia? Unlikely, most were good folk, with families here.

‘What about the boat Haroldus came in? Could the Merchant have stolen that, too?’

‘Sir Theodore had the same concern. That ship is still at anchor in the bay at Sweetwater. I’ve sent two guards to make sure it stays there.’

‘It should be manned and ready to sail, Sir Ivon. Dragon and I will try to cripple each of the Merchant’s boats. Burn the sails perhaps. All four crews will be at the mercy of the winds and we will need to bring them home safely.’

‘All in motion, lassie. Be sure to map the new headings as best you can.’

‘Not me,’ Jane patted Dragon’s head. ‘My ride has a loadstone in his skull. He can chart the air like a messenger pigeon.’

‘Your ride is listening!’ Dragon muttered. ‘Listening, offended, bored and ready to go. Are you done with all the prittle prattle!’

‘Almost.’ She scratched the soft skin at the base of his right ear. He melted.

‘Not working.’

‘Yes it is. My apologies Sir Ivon, but these boat headings, the ones the dock master gave you, can they be trusted? Can he be trusted?’

‘Aye, as much as any folk in the Merchant’s pocket can be. The man is as aggrieved by this turn of events as most in the town. He was compliant, but confused. He swears he had no notice of the sailings.’

‘I doubt that. This was all carefully planned.’ She paused, and studied Sir Ivon’s face. The knight was frowning and one of his bushy eyebrows was arched. Jane knew the look, how many times had he used it during her five years of training. ‘Obviously you disagree with me?’

‘Aye, I do,’ his eyebrow relaxed back down. ‘But truth be told, my opinions have little merit when it comes to Magnus Breech. He has pulled the wool over my eyes enough times, always quick to help me, always hungry to ingratiate himself. So I can’t trust myself to know anything about the man.’

‘We know one thing. He plans and he plots for every possibility. He will have planned for a catastrophe like this.’

‘Possible.’ Sir Ivon scratched at his whiskers. ‘Quite possible.’

‘It’s a certainty. Sir Theodore taught us to plan for defeat. If the fight turns against us, we save our forces for the next battle by having our retreat planned well in advance. The Merchant will have done that.’

‘So you did pay attention to your studies.’

‘You know I did. No one can organise the immediate sailing of four boats. The crew, the provisions. It all takes time, unless plans were already in place. If Sir Theodore came running to us yelling, ‘cavern chambers’, we know exactly what we need to do.’

‘You may be right,’ Lassie.’

‘One more thing, Sir Ivon, Gunther is alive.’

‘He is! How do you know? There was a lot of blood in that house.’

‘His father’s blood. Gunther is alive, trust me. And he’s bent on confronting his father for a lifetime of grievances. He might try to commandeer the boat at Sweetwater Cove.’

‘The guards will make short work of him.’

‘I doubt that, but we should try and save him from himself. We owe him that. The sins of his father don’t sit on his shoulders.’

‘Aye, I hear you. I’ll head round there now and see no mischief befalls him.’

‘Good!’ Dragon drummed a front claw on the ground. ‘Can we be set in motion now?’

‘Yes, go!’ Sir Ivon pointed a finger up at the sky. ‘Enough chin wagging, get after that wretched man!’

            ‘Indeed.’ Jane smiled down at him. Sir Ivon was still scrubbing at his short beard, a nervous gesture Jane knew all too well.  He was nervous for her. Terrified. Despite all his bluster, he had always been a rock when she’d needed one.

‘I shall take what care I can. I promise you.’

‘Aye, see that you do, we can’t be losing another of you today. Do what you must, but do not spare Magnus Breech if it puts you at risk. We want to make a public display of him, but not at the cost of losing you, lassie. Alive if you can, dead if needs be. Am I clear?’

‘If she’s not, I am,’ said Dragon, and he launched himself into the sky. They gained height slowly, climbing in small increments with each beat of Dragon’s wings.

‘Cavern chambers?’ asked Dragon.

‘It’s a signal. If Sir Theodore has reason to believe the King or Queen are in danger, we have a plan in place. A set of actions for every member of the guard.’

‘Hummm!’

Jane looked over her shoulder at the shoreline falling away behind them. From up here she could see half the kingdom spread out behind Dragon’s mountain. In front of them lay nothing but the Narrow Sea, a stretch of ocean that separated Kippernia from the many kingdoms that jostled tirelessly for trade and status this side of the inland waters of the Mediterranean. Beyond that lay the true centre of civilisation, Egypt.

‘One day,’ Jester had said to her. ‘One day you will go there. A warrior from the northern tribes sitting astride her giant green dragon. You must, promise me you will. Seek out Egypt and Persia. Other centres rose and fell, Greece, Rome, Germanica. But Egypt and Persia remain, powerful and dominant because they thrive on more than trade and conquest, they thrive of the gathering and sharing of knowledge. All wisdom is there: ancient building that defy the skills of our best masons; sculptures and frescoes at every turn; and magnificent libraries Jane, libraries that protect and celebrate the wealth of knowledge acquired by generations of thinkers. Everything you long to know about the history of Dragons will be there, I’m certain of it. So, one day, you must seek them out. Promise me this?’

She had. A casual promise made one summer evening as they had sat together on the battlements, the stones glowing pink from the setting sun, and this same narrow sea spread out below them.

 

Gunther read the documents again, committing as much to memory as his racing head could manage. He was finding it hard to focus. So much had happened in a single day, all ties to normality slashed. He felt adrift, untethered, a hapless bottle bouncing around on a stormy sea. Breaking into his own house and stealing the documents from their hiding place in his father’s chambers was the last act undertaken with any real clarity. For a while he had sat there behind the great oak bed, reading by moonlight for fear of attracting attention with a candle flame. He had hardly noticed the pink light of dawn creeping up the window, so lost had he been in the maelstrom of emotions that were starting to engulf him.

Now, less than an hour after that sunrise, Gunther sat hunched on a different floor, the cold flagstones of a large storage cellar carved from bedrock beneath the house, a cellar the Merchant used to keep goods that were not to be recorded on any ships’ ledgers.

Gunther rolled the papers into a single bundle and placed them inside a clay storage jar. Then he stood that jar into a much larger one, tapped the clay lid in place and set about gathering all the combustible materials he could find, heaping them into a bonfire in the centre of the floor.

‘Let it all burn,’ he muttered. He hoped the documents would survive, evidence of his true past and the family he would never know. Evidence he might recover one day should his heart find the courage to go on such a journey.

Even as he struck his flint stone, Gunther knew this next act was irrational. No fire would be hot enough to cleans this place, to erase this bitter history. Was it simply spite? It hardly mattered, he simple followed the compulsion to do it, to wipe every trace of the Merchant from the world, any reminder of this toxic past.

‘Only one way to truly do that,’ he muttered.

The fire was slow to take hold. Gunther had watched Smithy at his forge and knew that fresh air was the food that flames craved. He had even helped Smithy build the large wooden drum that powered the bellows to the forge, a drum operated by Smithy’s own pig who walked it around like a pet mouse in small tread-wheel.

‘Air it is,’ he murmured, and he unlocked a door set into the back wall of the cellar. Its key had been in the same hiding place as the documents. The door opened onto passageway that twisted a complex path to a cave entrance in the cliffs below. Air wheezed in, laced with salt and the pungent smell of seaweed and beached shellfish rotting on the tideline below.

The fire crackled into to life.

‘Coming ‘father’!’ Gunther spat the last word, lifted his sword, and set off down the tunnel.

 

Jane and Dragon had reached the upper limits of their flight. Any colder and Jane would start to freeze, even wrapped in the coat of furs. Not that she noticed, she was busy chasing a problem around in her head.

‘Loud thoughts,’ Jane,’ shouted Dragon, his head twisting a little, his eye rolling back as if to see her riding there on his neck. ‘Loud thoughts!’

‘I know. And don’t pretend you can see me, how many times have I said this? Your neck rolls to the side when you do that and I can hardly keep hold as it is, my fingers are turning blue.’

‘Hmm.’ Dragon grunted but complied. ‘So, your very loud thoughts, what are they about?

‘Mostly Jester.’ Jane didn’t want to talk about it, not now. There would be time enough in the days and years ahead. And yet...

‘And?’

‘I can still hear him in my head. As if he’s talking to me. We always discussed everything. He was so smart. I wish I could have talked to him today, before we set off.’

‘He’s dead.’

‘Thank you. Gentle as always.’

‘You don’t like gentle.’ Dragon paused for a wingbeat or two, then pressed on. ‘So talk to me, your still-alive friend. Something is very obviously worrying you?’

‘Everything is worrying me.’

‘Yes, but it’s something about this, about what we are doing right now. This boat-spotting, villain-catching business. Are you worried I’m going to charcoal him?’

‘No.’

‘You should be. If he tries any of his tricks. Toast.’

‘My sentiments exactly, but unless you are a great deal smarter than everyone I know, once he’s toast, you can’t untoast him, can you?’

‘I can put butter on him.’

‘As much fun as that would be, we need him alive so he can admit to his crimes in front of the whole town, and we need him alive so that Gunther can confront him.’

‘THAT’S what worries you?’ Dragon almost arched his neck as he lifted his head back in surprise. ‘Who cares about that little colt?’

‘I do.’

‘Shortlives!’ Dragon sighed. Then he sighed again, making a theatrical display of getting his reactions under control. ‘Jane, that irritant has been a thorn in your paw since the day he started his training.’

‘At first, yes.’

‘No,’ Dragon sighed again, this time it was the sigh of a long-suffering parent explaining something so obvious it should require no explanation. ‘Every day Jane. He polished his scales by making yours look dull. Every day!’

‘I know! But everything he did, he did to please his overbearing father. He was a pawn in that man’s relentless ambition.’

‘Or a willing player. Perhaps he still is. Maybe all this was planned between the two of them. So THAT is what’s worrying you. See, you don’t need Jingle Boy any more, you have me. I am all the friend you will ever need Jane.’

‘Thank you,’ Jane tried to keep her voice even, and matter of fact. Everything had moved so fast after Jester had read the pages from the Scholar King’s book, sharing all she had discovered with Dragon would have to wait. ‘And the special nature of our friendship is something we need to have a long talk about. Once all this is over. But trust me on this, you are wrong about Gunther. He stabbed the Merchant! He confronted him to stop him taking the Princess. She saw the it.’

‘Perhaps,’ Dragon paused. ‘Or perhaps it was all a piece of theatre played out with a hidden pouch of pig’s blood.’

‘No. Sir Theodore is too a good judge of character, he saw Gunther’s true nature before any of us. It was buried deep under layers of sour behaviour. And yet, like the rust from a bright sword, Sir Theodore has steadfastly peeled it away, layer by layer.’

‘So what is he, a sword or an onion? If you explain something in pictures, Jane, keep it to one picture! It's hard enough understanding the endless prattling of shortlives without mixing onions and swords.’

They flew on in silence for while, Dragon scanning the far horizon and Jane scanning the vast, and seemingly empty, ocean right below them. She was hugging tightly to his neck, her arms wrapped around as far as she could reach, pressing them to the warmth of his skin. She had her cheek pressed down on one side of his neck so she could only sea that side of the ocean.

‘So what IS worrying you,’ Dragon broke the silence. ‘What? If it’s not Gunther.’

‘No, I think you’re right, it is about him. Not betrayal or deception but something in the long chain of events isn’t right. I can just feel it, like an itch that has to be scratched.’

‘I can scratch him. He will stay very scratched, A token to remember this day.’

‘I think there will be rather too much to remember by day’s end.’ She paused, then decided to do exactly as Dragon had suggested, to talk to him as if he was indeed, Jester. ‘We know that Gunther left a note for me pinned to his door, a note beseeching me not to follow after the Merchant. He wants to confront him himself.’

‘Do I comment or just listen quietly like Jingle boy? And he wasn’t listening by the way, he was staring at you with big cow eyes and composing sonnets of lovey, love love.’

‘If you’re trying to be cruel, it’s working.’ She slapped the side of his neck. ‘No more talking, just listen. If Gunther was intent on confronting his father he would have raced directly to the wharf and smuggled himself onto one of the boats. Instead he waited behind, broke into the house, stole papers from his father’s chambers, and left me a warning me to stay clear. He means to bring him to justice himself. Alone! How? Can he really steal a boat for that. Is he capable? What am I missing. What is Gunther seeing that I’m not?’

‘Can I speak now?’

‘No.’ Jane paused. ‘Unless you’ve spotted the ships.’

‘One right over there!’ Dragon stretched out a front paw, one claw pointing like a finger to a dot of white sailcloth in the distance.

‘Yes! Fly us down.’

‘One bonfire coming up!’ Dragon pulled his wings back and began to dive.

‘No. We identify the boat,’ Jane held tight to Dragon’s horns and dug her knees in to his neck. She needed to bend forward and shout in his ear as the wind of speed grew around them, dragging her words into their wake. ‘They might be traders from the Brittany coast. First we identify it, and if the boat really is part of the Merchant’s fleet..’

‘Bonfire time!’

‘No. There are three more boats to find and if you consume all your gas making fire, you will be too heavy to make it back to land. You know this! One boat is not enough, we have to cripple all four, leave them to drift. Then we can go back to land, you can eat as much of anything you like, restock your stomach gas, and then we go back and harass the crews till they give the Merchant up to us.

‘Boring!’

‘The truth is often boring!’

Dragon pulled out of his dive and made his approach to the boat, skimming the water with the tip of his tail. ‘I ate a lot of very unsavoury vegetables while you were wasting time scrabbling about in that house.’

‘Even so, no bonfire. Just burn the sails, then we go after the other three.’

Dragon didn’t reply, he was busy gulping air, swallowing it deep into his stomach. Jane felt the familiar rumble reverberate around his belly as the air mixed with the gasses of fermentation that Dragon produced. Long ago, Smithy had given her a demonstration when she was intent on making sense of Dragon’s fire skills. They gone to a nearby farms to watch a cow being butchered. Jane had seen the extra stomachs cattle need for breaking down the grass they ate. The odour that came from one of those butchered stomachs smelt exactly like the belches of air Dragon could ignite with the fire stones that grew in his throat. 

‘Be good. Please!’ Jane shouted. ‘One short burst to the sailcloth.’

Dragon said nothing, he stretched out his neck and accelerated towards the boat, his belly skimming the tips of each wave. Then, at the last minute, he rose up, clearing the tops of the masts by the length of his own tail, and belched. A fireball of intense flame shot out from his mouth, and struck the sailcloth.

‘Yes!’ Jane gave a whoop, then looked back over her shoulder as Dragon lifted his head and climbed. The sails erupted in flames, flames that suddenly raced down the two masts like scurrying fire rats. In the next instant the deck was a blaze.

‘Maggots! Turn back!’ Jane held tight as Dragon wheeled around. They stared down as the pool of flames spilled out across the boat, igniting everything it touched.

‘Not me!’ yelled Dragon. ‘I don’t know what happened.’

‘I do! A plague on that wretched man! I should have realised. Get as close as you can without burning us. I need to drop the barrels for the fool who drew this short straw for the Merchant.’

Dragon slowed down, pulled alongside the flaming boat, and hovered there. They scanned the deck and watched as one man came running to the side rail, screaming and waving his fist. Jane untied the necklace of rope that held the barrels, and watched it fall into the water just clear of the shreds of sail cloth and rigging that lay like a moat of smoking tar around the boat.

‘I can’t swim!’ screamed the man.

‘Learn or burn,’ Dragon yelled back. The man swore, aimed for a space amid the charred debris, and jumped. Jane watched, waiting for him to surface. He didn’t.

‘Well we tried.’ Jane closed her eyes, a sudden dreadful weariness overtaking her.

‘Where are the others?’ Dragon started to circle the boat, hovering every few wing beats to scan the growing furnace on the deck.

‘There are no others. This was all planned, Dragon. The boats are all decoys, one crew member only, to keep the heading. Fire boats, all of them.’

‘Back to the castle?’

‘Like the wind.’ Jane tore the coat from her shoulders and tossed it into the sea. How could she have been so easily played! Life was a battle and the Merchant had long ago planned this exit from the field. Four boats, all lost at sea, his body never found. The man would be a ghost, a bad memory, left alone to gather his wits and scattered hoards. Left alone to reinvent his history. Again.          ‘Fire boats!’ Jane punched her own thigh in anger. What did that take? Rigging and tillers would have been tied in place. One man to set a flame to the pitch that must had been brushed on every timber. A longboat and a bag of gold for that same man who would have been told where and when to set the boat alight. A man who hadn’t counted on Dragon showing up. Another lie from the Merchant’s script. He would explained how the wretched girl knight would be too lost in grief over the death of her pet jester. Which meant the dragon would ever come. No one told that creature what to do, except the girl knight! A lie that had cost this crew member dearly.

‘Is the castle safe?’ Dragon spoke Jane’s silent fear.

‘It depends how brazen the Merchant will be, and how many of his wretched henchman have chosen to stick with him.’

‘And Gunther’s role in all this. What of that?’

‘Yes.’ Jane the knot in her stomach tighten. ‘What, indeed.’

Comments

  • banana:

    "Well, we tried," says Jane, after not really trying at all.

    May 17, 02:05 Reply
  • banana:

    "Well, we tried," says Jane, after not really trying at all.

    May 17, 01:05 Reply
  • banana:

    "Well, we tried," says Jane, after not really trying at all.

    May 17, 01:05 Reply
  • banana:

    "Well, we tried," says Jane, after not really trying at all.

    May 17, 01:05 Reply
  • Tessa:

    Wow, what a chapter! The merchant... Wow, I did not see that coming, but Magnus did. He is evil! I hope Gunther can stand up to him at some point. I do wonder what the documents say that he hopes will survive the burning? Very interesting story!

    May 14, 06:05 Reply
  • Rake-and-Pepper-Fan:

    Well played, foul Merchant. Well played. 👏 You'll burn for this. 🐲

    May 13, 01:05 Reply

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