CHAPTER TWENTY THREE – ships and hardships

Martin Baynton.
Martin Baynton
March 17th, 2024

Jane hurried down the corridor towards Lavinia’s apartment. She had dressed quickly, pulling on anything she could find. Her patrol outfit was useless. Pepper had cut it to pieces when she’d come to dress her wounds the night before. So Jane had grabbed a pair of formal leggings made from thin calf leather and a long linen shirt. She also pulled on a colourful tunic that Jester had gifted to her at the Ceremony of the Sprites three years ago. She had never worn it until now, never truly thanking him by stepping out in it. 

‘Ah, good!’ Sir Ivon was standing guard at the door to Lavinia’s chambers. He dipped his head to Jane. ‘How are your wounds?’ 

‘Well attended to. Pepper applied her skills.’

‘Hmm, the King’s Physician should..’

‘I am content with Pepper. She uses the old crafts.’

‘Aye. If you say so.’ He gave a short grunt and stepped aside. 

‘Jane!’ the Princess leapt from her bed, raced across her room, and threw herself into Jane’s embrace. ‘My fault, Jane. All of it.’

‘No. None of it.’ Jane looked across at the king who remained seated at the bedside. ‘The fault is mine.’

‘And mine.’ The king got to his feet, his actions stiff and laboured from a long and sleepless night. ‘My daughter wishes to speak to you Jane, and to you alone.’

‘I do!’ said Lavinia.

‘Then I shall leave you together,’ he kissed Lavinia on the top of her head, then placed a hand on Jane’s shoulder, leaving it there for a brief moment as if unsure what to do next. ‘My dear Jane, please do all you can to lighten this burden my daughter carries.’

‘All I can, yes.’

‘What a blight that man has been.’ He sighed, gave his daughter another kiss, and left the room.

‘Could any day be more miserable that this?’ Lavinia released her fierce hold on Jane, stepped back, and studied her face. ‘You’ve been crying too.’

‘Yes. All night I think. I have no tears left. Nothing to shed now but a terrible anger.’

‘At me?’

‘At Gunther’s father, and at myself.’ 

‘That is EXACTLY how I feel! Not at you, at me. But nobody understands. We have to find him, Jane. We have to find Gunther and tell him to come home. This is where he belongs, despite everything. I won’t allow him to be punished. My father wants my happiness and only Gunther’s safe return and pardon will bring that.’ 

‘And what of his father?’

‘He must be torn apart in the public square for all to see. One horse at every limb.’ The Princess demonstrated by folding the fingers of her two hands together. Then she pulled them apart and made a long, wet, ripping sound through clenched teeth. A fire came into her eyes, driving out the sorrow. 

‘In truth?’

‘Yes. I have thought this over very carefully, Jane. I will ride one horse, you the second. Smithy and Sir Ivon can ride the other two.’

‘And if Jester was here? What would he advise?’

‘He’s not! And he never will be again. That is the whole point! No punishment is too great for stealing him from us!’

‘And no punishment will bring him back to us.’

‘I know,’ the sudden fire disappeared from her eyes. She took Jane’s hand and pulled her to one of the arched windows that looked our across the Royal Gardens. At the far side of the Gardens, running its full length, was the castle’s outer wall, and beyond that the ocean. From the window Jane had an unbroken view of the sea, a strip of blue stretching out to the far horizon. 

‘Gunther is out there somewhere,’ said Jane, ‘I mean to find him, and I’m told you have news you will only share with me.’ Jane didn’t look down at the Princess, and Lavinia didn’t look up. They both kept their eyes on the distant ocean. 

‘I was so foolish going to see his father. I think the best of people when I should always think the worst. I thought..’

‘Just tell me about Gunther!’ Jane paused, startled by the tone in her voice. She took a breath and continued. ‘We cannot afford the luxury of punishing ourselves right now. Our penitence must wait. Do you understand?’ 

‘Yes,’ Lavinia stuck her chin out. ‘Mother said the same thing. This is not about you, she said. This is about the future of our kingdom.’ 

‘On this we agree. So, tell me, was Gunther alive when you saw him last?’

‘Yes. That’s what I need to tell you, Jane. I think he tried to stop his father, right at the very last. They were screaming at each other when I was being taken through to the back of the house by one of the men. Then, when I was outside in the yard, the Merchant came to the door to see me into the wagon. He took my hand to kiss my ring, and blood came running down his arm and over his cuff.’

‘Gunther’s blood? Is that what you think?’

‘No!’ Lavinia almost shouted. ‘No, it wasn’t splashes.’

‘Go on.’

‘It was running down the Merchant’s arm, long threads of bright, fresh blood, and there was a big patch on his tunic!’ She slapped a hand to the side of her waist. ‘Right here! That can only come from a wound that is still pumping out blood.’

‘How do you know such things?’

‘Father let me attend the cutting of the stag after the last hunt. Cuthbert refused and father looked so saddened I took his place. It was rather grisly. I was standing close and got splashed, like Gunther, but the deer was like his father, gouts of red blood were pouring...’

‘Thank you! Yes. Good. So Gunther’s father was bleeding from a serious stab wound.’

 ‘Yes. Gunther stabbed him, I’m sure of it. He stood up to him for me. Gunther stabbed his own father!’

‘Stepfather. And clearly he did a poor job of it!’ Jane turned from the window and levelled her gaze at the princess. ‘One last question. Where is my sword?’

‘You’re dragonblade?’

‘That’s not its name, but yes - that sword. Did you leave it up at Dragon’s cave?’ 

‘No,’ Lavinia lowered her eyes.

‘You had it with you when you flew down to see the Merchant?’

‘Yes,’ the princess kept her eyes on the floor.

‘’They took it from you when they bundled you into the sack?’

‘I think so. Yes.’

Jane said nothing. She spun round on her heels and strode from the room.

‘Jane!’ Lavinia called after her, not because she wanted to delay her, or because she expected to see a more formal, more appropriate, exit from her presence by one of her subjects. She called out as if to a beloved older sister, one who had outgrown her childhood, one who was leaving behind the home and household that had been the sum total of her world. A beloved older sister who was leaving without so much as a backward glance.

Lavinia went back to her bed, crawled under the covers, and made a vow not to come out again till Jane and Gunther were back in the Palace Gardens below, fighting and bickering and teasing each other as they had for most of Lavinia’s blessed and happy life.  

‘I need to see for myself!’ Jane was standing with Dragon in the street outside the Merchant’s house. Sir Theodore had posted a guard at the door. A gaggle of townsfolk were shouting at the man, angry at being kept out. Their grievances all sounded much the same, the Merchant had disappeared in the dead of night leaving deals undone, bills unpaid and promises unfulfilled. Mostly they wanted an answer to the same question. Where was he?

‘See what for yourself, Jane?’ said the guard. ‘The man took off, so what’s to see?’

‘My sword! The princess had it with her when she came here.’

‘Sir Ivon would have said. He took charge of the search and we found nothing!’ 

‘And what was he looking for?’

‘Gunther of course. He was one of us Jane – a Knight of the King’s Guard. We hold ourselves to be better than this, but he’s still one of us.’ 

Jane gave up and headed round to the back of the house with Dragon. The ground floor doors and windows were all bolted shut from within, but a window on the second floor hung open, its hinges broken. Jane pointed up to it.

‘If Sir Ivon secured this building last night, he would have nailed that shut. Someone broke in after they left.’

‘Yes, and that someone might still be in there.’  

‘I have to see.’

‘No time.’

‘It might be Gunther.’

Oh.. quickly then!’ Dragon sighed, and lowered his head. Jane clambered onto his neck and was lifted up to the window. ‘Don’t dilly dally in there! We have a boat to catch.’

‘Four boats,’ Jane pulled the broken window wide open and climbed inside. I’ll be quick. When did you last eat?’

‘Too busy watching your room last night.’

‘Go to the farms down by the causeway. Eat whatever you can find. Use the King’s name as tokens and I’ll see they get paid on our return. Race there. Eat. Race back.’ Jane didn’t wait for an answer, she jumped down from the sill into a large backroom that was a mess of scattered clothes and upended furniture. 

It was a master bedroom, and well appointed. There was a view across the storage yards to the sea, a four-poster bed, heavy rugs on the polished floor and tapestries on every wall. Undoubtedly this was the Merchant’s own bedchamber. 

Jane scanned it quickly. There was blood everywhere. Had the Merchant come here to dress his stab wound? Perhaps, but he hadn’t turned over the furniture, someone else had come here searching for something. Anyone of the aggrieved townsfolk might have done it, the Merchant was notorious for stashing his nefarious goods until he could sell them. Plus he always kept gold coins to hand, wages to pay off his henchman. None of them worked out of love or respect for the man.  

There was no time to search the whole room herself. She scanned the room again. The bed wasn’t square to the wall behind it. Someone  had heaved it sideways at one corner. Jane went round to the exposed floor. One board had been prised up. She knelt down and reached into the space beneath. It was empty. Whatever the Merchant had been keeping here, was gone. 

She knew Gunther’s room was at the front of the house, a small room overlooking the street. Jane had been there once, escorted there by Sir Ivon early in Gunther’s training. She had been required to make an apology. It felt like a lifetime ago, and Jane couldn’t remember the action that had prompted it. 

The room hadn’t changed in any fundamental way. More store room than bed chamber, it hardly reflected Gunther’s personality at all. In the last few years he had chosen to spend most of his nights in the castle, sleeping in his hammock in the guard quarters.

‘I’m back!’ A loud belch announced the return of Dragon back at the broken window. ‘Time to be going! Ships to catch, people to toast.’ 

Jane ignored him and scanned the room. There were no signs of a struggle here. No last minute scramble to gather clothes. Jane sighed and turned to leave, disappointed but not surprised. If Lavinia had remembered the evening correctly, Gunther would have run off after stabbing his father. Unless he had been grabbed by the henchmen and bundled off to one of the ships. Neither scenario included a visit back to this room. So what instinct had urged her to come and check? Was it a desperate hope for some sign that he was still alive? 

Then she saw it - a sheet of parchment pinned to the back of the door like a patrol report. She pulled it free, flipped it over and read the short, scribbled message.

He has your blade Jane. He will not hesitate to kill Dragon if you approach him. Leave him to me. I found his papers, all of them. What he did to my true father. To my poor mother. I will avenge them. Leave him to me.

Jane rolled the sheet, tucked it into her sleeve, and hurried to the broken window. Dragon was rapping his front claws with impatience.

‘Have you eaten?’

‘Yes! Too much, too quickly.’ Dragon extended his neck so that Jane could climb out. ‘There will be consequences.’

‘It is a day for consequences, Dragon.’ She began climbing up on the sill, paused, and jumped back into the room.

‘Is it my breath?’ Dragon cupped a hand to his nose. ‘There were onions. A great many onions.’

‘No,’ Jane rifled through the scattered clothes. ‘We only know the heading for each boat when he set off. He will have changed them.’ 

‘No doubt.’

‘So we need to fly as high as you can, to see as far as you can.’

‘Ah!’ Dragon drummed the nails of his front paws on his teeth. ‘Bad idea. The last time we tried that you turned a very ugly colour.’

‘Which is why I need…THIS!’ Jane held up one of the Merchant’s winter robes, a long sleeved tunic made entirely of rabbit pelts. She took it over to the window, leaned out and shook it like a saddle blanket across Dragon’s neck.

‘Dignity has a price, Jane!’

‘Not today.’ She clambered out, grabbed Dragon’s horns, and swung herself into position, wriggling from side to side to settle the fur tunic between his plates. ‘Oh this IS comfortable, we should have done this a long time ago.’

‘I will keep my cutting response for another time.’ Dragon took to the air.

‘You mean.. for when you can think of one.’ They cleared the yard and the fishing shacks that lined the cliff top like old teeth. The ocean lay spread out in front of them. ‘Now let’s go and find that ship.’ 

‘No,’ Dragon started to dive. ‘First the fishing jetty.’

‘What for?’

‘Supplies. Not my idea - his.’ Dragon pointed to the jetty below them. Sir Ivon was down there with a few helpers. The group stepped back to make space for Dragon to land. 

‘So, what’s this all about?’ Jane climbed down and looked at the group's labours. Eight olive barrels stood in a row. They were strung together by lines of rope, each barrel standing a full two strides from the next. The effect was like a giant wooden necklace.

‘Now, lassie,’ Sir Ivon put his hands on his hips. ‘Before you go all high and mighty on me, there is a good reason for this. Dragon agreed to it, as did Sir Theodore.’

‘I see it,’ Jane put a hand on Sir Ivon’s shoulder. ‘Neither Dragon nor I can swim. There is a lot of ocean to search and Dragon might need to rest up.’ 

‘Aye!’ Sir Ivon stepped over to one of the barrels and banged his fist down on the top. ‘And for good measure, the barrels will float even if they spring a leak. I sequestered all the corking from our good fisher folk. They have stripped the floats from their nets and filled every last barrel for you.’ He bent and lifted one barrel. ‘Light as a feather, so they won’t be an added burden to you, Dragon.’

‘Yes,’ Dragon glanced at Jane. ‘One is enough.’ He grabbed the necklace of barrels, reached back, and draped it across his shoulders. ‘Time to go, people to toast.’ 

‘Aye, about that,’ Sir Ivon did his best to look in charge of the situation. He put his hands back on his hips and levelled his gaze, first at Jane, then at Dragon. ‘We want the man back safe and sound, back to face the king’s justice.’ He gestured to the fishing shacks, the town, and the castle walls beyond. ‘That wretched Sassenach has sown enough grievances here to fill a lifetime. It’s not just justice for the King we need to reap, Jane. Every grievance must be accounted for, and in public for all to see.’

‘For everyone then,’ Jane climbed up onto Dragon’s neck. She didn’t add Jester’s name. She didn’t need to. Everyone from the herring packers to Sir Ivon himself were carrying that same grief.  


  • Eileen:

    What happened to Robert being in the story?

    Jul 18, 01:07 Reply
  • Eileen:

    What happened to Robert being in the story?

    Jul 18, 01:07 Reply
  • Reina:

    After chapter 21 it’s difficult to see the next chapters, maybe its because I’m on mobile. The barrel idea for Dragon is really cute.

    Jun 05, 07:06 Reply
  • Rake-and-Pepper-Fan:

    Gunther may be many arrogant and annoying, but he is loyal to his king and his fellow knights.

    Apr 24, 03:04 Reply
  • John:

    Awesome! Keep it going. Following the story closely!

    Apr 09, 01:04 Reply

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