Rosie and Leryn had returned to the Ploughman’s Inn from their wedding night in Polcock’s barley field, only to find Lancelyn pacing in the tap room, and Morgause, the cat, trying to sooth him. Now they stood in the quiet stable, watching Rosie’s mare, Brunhilde.
Galahad had been with the horse all morning, keeping her company.
Patting Lance’s arm, Rosie said, “You’re right. She’s in labor. It will happen tonight, I think. Morgause doesn’t seem unduly disturbed, so I’m not going to worry until I have to.”
Leryn understood Lance’s fears but didn’t know what he could do about it. After thinking for a moment, he said, “Why don’t you come down to the docks with me, today. I’m curious if any news has come downriver with the barges. If we go now, we’ll catch them before the wind rises and they head back to Londown.”
The port at Bleakbourne was a busy place. Fishing boats navigated the channel at the mouth of the River Heath, coming in from the sea to drop off their catch. Barges floated down the Heath from as far away as Maldon, bringing goods and news to Bleakbourne and returning to their home ports with fish. While the fishing vessels could navigate the North Sea, the flat-bottomed barges turned around at Bleakbourne and, raising their sails, let the prevailing wind take them back to their home ports.
Even in June, the weather in Bleakbourne could be bleak—hence the name. The docks were swathed in their usual pong. Because he was usually down there every morning, Leryn had become used to the reek of sewage and dead fish held in place by a thick bank of sea mist.
Unfortunately, it was noon, and the sun had burned away the morning mist. The river was enveloped in a sweltering stench. Leryn reflected that, while the mist stank as much as anything else, at least it was cool.
The two men stopped at each barge, Leryn greeting friends and introducing Lance to those he didn’t already know, and chatting. The barge men and women congratulated him on his marriage. “Polcock himself delivered our pies this morning. He said you’d gotten married, and the bonfire dance was the best in years.”
Normally Leryn delivered the hot hand-pies although Polcock would have gladly done it himself. He collected a copper penny for each pie, which was Polcock’s most reliable source of income. The bard’s reason for acting as Polcock’s delivery boy was simple—he collected news with each pie he delivered.
Leryn was adept at poking about in such a way that the barge folk enjoyed a good gossip each morning. They offered every scrap of rumor heard in each port along the River Heath, as well as their opinions, which were often just as valuable as the rumors. Daily he reported it back to Merlin.
The wizard felt the opinions of the traveling bargemen and women were as important as the news they imparted. Being the last navigable port on the river before it entered the North Sea, Bleakbourne was a week’s travel by road from Londown. Broadsheets were a week old by the time they arrived in Bleakbourne, which meant they should have been the last to hear anything that happened in the capital.
However, barges made the trip downriver in two days, and the return journey in three. While the men and women who made their living on the river were notoriously closed mouthed to people they perceived as townies, by virtue of his friendly demeanor and his delivering their food every day, Leryn had become one of them.
A late arrival at the small pier was Geordie Stout, a bargeman from Gravesend who had been a friend of Merlin’s in his guise as Noman. The wizened little man congratulated Leryn on his wedding and looked askance at Lancelyn, with whom he was acquainted. “What’re you doin’ hangin’ about with Townies, Bard? This one looks like trouble.”
Lance laughed. “I suspect I am that, sir.”
Leryn agreed. “It takes all my skill to keep his tail out of the fire, but I’ve grown fond of him.”
Geordie grinned, a merry smile despite the lack of teeth. “He reminds me of a man I once heard of, braver than anyone should have a right to be, but thick as a board. As I said, trouble.”
“Oh, he can be trouble, no doubt. Some of the things he’s done without thinking them through first would curl your toes.” Leryn smirked at the knight.
Lance looked wounded. “I’m trying to become less thick. You have to admit, I’m getting better.”
A wave of affection for the knight swept through Leryn. “Yes, you are.” He turned back to Geordie. “How are things in Battersby?”
“Oh, nothing much to talk about. The old earl, Wulvedon, died. No son of his own, so it went to a nephew no one’s ever heard of. Seems a decent fellow, hasn’t changed things up, so we like him well enough.”
They talked a while longer and then, having heard nothing else new, the two men wandered back toward the inn.
Lancelyn walked hunched over, the impending birth of the foal weighing on his mind. “What are we going to do if the foal has to be put down?”
Leryn glared at him. “I thought we had settled this. Galahad was under a spell and was a horse at the time, and the foal will be too. Why are we still fretting about this?”
Lancelyn looked away. “It’s Morgause.”
“What about her? She looks fine to me.”
“I suspect she was… unfaithful… to Galahad and me. With William Smith’s tomcat.”
Leryn stopped walking, staring at the knight. “You mean…?”
Lancelyn hurried to explain. “I don’t hold that against her. She’s a cat now, and cats have certain… drives, and besides, she must get lonely when we’re away. But I think she’s… with kitten. If it turns out the foal is a centaur, then Morgause is carrying a half… She’s only a small cat. It could kill her.”
At the Ploughman’s inn, the two men walked around behind, approaching the barn, both feeling some trepidation. Leryn was unsure what to make of Lancelyn’s revelation, as Morgause looked fine to him, as normal as any cat. He found himself looking closely at her when she jumped onto Lance’s shoulder.
All fears vanished at the sight of a green-eyed, spindly-legged white foal. “He’s a fine young colt who’ll be a great, strong stallion,” Rosie said proudly.
“What do you think, Lance?” Galahad’s expression alternated between pride and sheepish embarassment. “Our fears were for naught.”
“Thank God.” Lance’s knees gave way, and he staggered, supported by Leryn, who rolled his eyes.
Once the knight had his feet back under him, the bard let go of his arm. “I told you there was nothing to worry about. Morgause knows about these things.”
Rosie looked at Galahad. “What shall we name him?”
He thought for a moment. “Well, his mother is Brunhilde, so how about Siegfried? We’ve always loved the heroic tales, and no man was ever braver than mythical Siegfried.”
Everyone laughed. Leryn said, “A heroic name for special, one-of-a-kind little stallion.”
Later that evening, just as Polcock was sending the last patrons home, Merlin’s form filled the doorway. Ignoring the landlord’s glare, the wizard crossed to Leryn. “What did you hear on the docks today?”
The bard dutifully repeated the scant information, all dealing with deaths and births, and wedding or two.
“Wulvedon is dead?” Merlin’s eyes narrowed, and he fell silent. Then, “I’ll need to get a message to Bramblestein.” He met Leryn’s curious gaze. “Wulvedon was hale and healthy when I saw him last month, and he was quite clear that as he had no children and no siblings, he had no heirs. He was quite resigned to the fact that the title should die with him.”
The wizard stalked to the door, closing it firmly behind him.
“Bleakbourne on Heath” © 2015 – 2017 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved
To Read Previous Episodes of “Bleakbourne on Heath” click here:
Connie J. Jasperson is an author and blogger, and a regular contributing member of the Edgewise Words Inn staff.