Morning had come to the Ploughman’s Inn. Hannah, Polcock’s new barmaid and all-round help, had the knack for making the most delicious hand pies Leryn had ever tasted, even better than Polcock’s, which were quite tasty. She’d just taken a large batch from the oven when he came downstairs, lured by the scent of breakfast.
She handed him one for him to eat, and then as always, gave him one wrapped in newsprint to take to the docks, to give to Noman the Beggar. “Mind you tell him he’s welcome here,” she said. “He’ll die this winter, poor old thing.”
Leryn pledged he would tell him and left for the docks, grinning. No man on earth was less of a “poor old thing” than Noman, but if it made Hannah happy he would play along with it.
Since Rosie had left him, the heart had somewhat gone out of his music. Noman swore she would be back, but wouldn’t tell him why he thought that. Just as disconcertingly, the day after Rosie left Lancelyn had suddenly vanished, returning to his wife. And Galahad had accepted it, saying only it was for the best. Noman had only grinned, saying he’d be back too.
Polcock had agreed with Noman on all counts.
Somehow, Leryn found the knights’ parting the most difficult of all to accept, but he didn’t know why. Maybe he’d thought Lance loved Galahad more than that—he didn’t know. Still, Galahad had remained in Bleakbourne, and was acting as Polcock’s stableman, although there were only two horses in the village, Leryn’s horse, Elsinore, and Galahad’s new horse, Trystan.
Leryn arrived on the docks that comprised Bleakbourne’s port on the River Heath, walking past the neatly stacked nets and fish-baskets, trying not to inhale the odors of the river, a mix of sewage and dead fish.
He passed the bargemen, who wandered toward the Ploughman’s Inn for a little rest while the dockworkers offloaded the barges under the captain’s watchful eye, carrying the goods to a warehouse. Other workers loaded a barge with barrels of dried, salted fish bound for Londown—the main product Bleakbourne had to trade, and one that was in high demand.
He turned up the narrow lane near the gutting and drying shed. Behind that terrible smelling place, a pile of crates and scrap-metal was stacked together, leaning against the back wall of the drying shed, looking no different than the rest of the rubbish that was abandoned there. The odd cavity formed beneath the pile was the home of Merlin, who was posing as Noman the Beggar.
The old man was awake, sitting in front of his shelter. Leryn handed him the pie. “Noman—you should at least take Polcock up on his offer of a place in the stable. Winter is coming. This shelter of yours won’t survive the first storm.”
Noman slowly ate his pie, considering Leryn’s words in silence.
Leryn tried again. “Hannah is fretting about you. It would make her happy. And Polcock doesn’t want his grandfather out in the weather.”
Noman finished the pie and licked his fingers. An icy gust of wind blew the cold stench of the River Heath into his shelter. “I’m not actually his grandfather, you know. There’re several more generations than that between us.”
“I do know. But they’re right. This is no place for you to spend the winter. You risk giving yourself away if you use magic to keep this pile together when November comes. Rickety as this mess of boxes and junk is, there’s no other way to do it. A real beggar would take the innkeeper up on his offer.”
“Why are you worried about November, bard?”
“I don’t know. But the dark, stormy time of the year is when the disturbing things occur. We may find ourselves facing—something bad.” Leryn didn’t know why he felt that way, but he was sure of it. “I’d like you to be there when it does.”
“I suppose you’re right. I may as well pose as Polcock’s poor relation. The traffic on the river is slowing now, so news will arrive at the Ploughman sooner than it will here. I guess…perhaps Noman will have to go back to Londown town to live with his daughter. But who should take his place while we wait for the demon to make his next move?” A crafty look crossed the old man’s weathered features. “I know! Tell Polcock that Noman saw his uncle Ambrose in town. It’s likely he’ll arrive on the Ploughman’s doorstep this evening, destitute as always.”
Walking back to the Ploughman’s Inn, Leryn wondered how the old man would fake his departure, take on his new identity, and plan his arrival in a town that knew him as old Noman.
Once he arrived home Leryn drew Polcock aside. “Noman is going back to Londown. Apparently he saw your Uncle Ambrose in town? Does that mean anything to you?”
Polcock smacked his forehead. “I liked Noman. Why couldn’t he just— No, no. No! Not Ambrose.”
Leryn said, “I don’t understand.”
“I’ve been down that road before, and it’s exactly what I don’t need. A ne’er-do-well artist selling his daubs and blotches in my tap-room and drinking my profits? Well, he’ll have to find somewhere other than my tap-room to hawk his wares!”
Leryn’s eyebrows had risen at his landlord’s outburst. Quietly he went to his corner, and began working on his manuscript as he always did during the day. Galahad dropped onto the bench opposite him. “I take it things are about to get interesting around here.” The knight’s green eyes sparkled.
Leryn laughed. “Polcock doesn’t really like ‘interesting,’ you know. He prefers ‘calm.’”
The tap-room was crowded. Hannah was everywhere, serving folks with cheerful efficiency. Polcock had been in a bad mood all day after hearing the news, and every time the door opened he scowled until he saw who entered. Sometime around six, just as supper was being served, the door opened and a tall, thin man of about forty-five, with dark auburn hair curling around his shoulders, and a dark, neatly trimmed moustache entered. Heads turned, and the room fell silent.
His scarlet cloak and black, broad-brimmed hat with a large white feather marked him as a dandy, and the glint in his eye was that of a born rascal. He carried a large valise and a large, flat, leather case. He was immediately recognized. Gasps went around the room. Widow Brown stood up, taking two steps toward him.
No one had ever met the late Mr. Brown and it was assumed he’d never existed. Janet Brown was the daughter of the late local herb-woman whom everyone had trusted. But she didn’t have the gift her mother had, and was given to enabling her second-sight with assistance of mushrooms to enable her visions, which she believed as the gospel truth. She was tolerated, considered part of what made Bleakbourne the strange place it was, but her wild hair, colorful garb, and confused ramblings made most people avoid her unless they absolutely had to seek help from her.
“Ambrose Polcock.” Widow Brown spoke his name as if the words soiled her tongue. “And what brings you back to Bleakbourne, three years too late to make things right? Down on your luck again? Nowhere else to turn?”
Satisfied at having had the effect he wanted, Ambrose held his hands up. “Peace, Janet—I’ve been in Londown. I’ve had several lucrative commissions, don’t you know…I’ve come home to share the bounty with my nephew—who’ll welcome me home to our family hearth, I’m sure.”
Polcock stood with crossed arms, glowering at him. “What bounty? When did you ever hang on to bounty long enough to bring it home?”
Ambrose’s tone was placating. “I have what I owe you, Nephew. I did promise to repay you, and I have it with me now.”
Looking down her long nose at him, Janet said, “I knew you’d be back. You’re like a clipped coin, love—you’re shiny and nice to look at, but worthless.” She raised her tankard to him and took a sip, daring him to comment.
Ambrose set his gear down, the valise with a thud, and the case more gently. “Janet! How can you say such a thing? I had no idea you were—that you could have been—I’d have stayed if you’d said anything.”
“I wasn’t with child after all, so you didn’t really have to scarper all that fast.”
Leryn nearly dropped his harp. Nervous titters could be heard as folks looked from Ambrose to Widow Brown.
“I wasn’t scarpering lass—”
“Oh, tell that to someone who doesn’t know your ways. There’s not a woman in this town will give you the time of day. You’re known here. Pay your nephew what you owe him, if you really have it. Put your coins where your talk is.”
Ambrose bowed to her, sweeping his hat off in a grand gesture. “I shall do just that, dear lady. Observe!” With a flourish he reached into his cloak and removed a small purse, which he dropped into Polcock’s outstretched hand.
Polcock’s smile was brittle. “Thank you Uncle. I assume that, since you have come into a large sum of money, you will be purchasing a home nearby?”
Ambrose’s smile slipped a bit. “Well, ah…I had hoped…I’ve just repaid a great many debts and I’m a bit short at the moment.”
Polcock spoke through gritted teeth. “You get the room off the cellar. You’ll keep the floors clean here every night and you’ll empty the chamber pots every morning, or you are out on your ear. If you’re still painting that awful rubbish you were last time you were here, you can hawk your wares elsewhere. I won’t have it in my tap-room.”
Ambrose waved his hand. “Relax, Nephew. I’ve gone back to painting landscapes and portraits. That’s where the money is in this business—no one appreciates true art.” He turned to Hannah and bowed. “And who is this lovely flower?” His winning smile could have charmed the birds from the trees.
Hannah actually giggled.
Polcock grabbed his uncle by the arm, dragging him to the kitchen and the steps to the cellar. “Galahad. Bring his things.”
When he returned, Galahad’s emerald eyes shone with mirth. He sat next to Leryn and said, “Things really are about to get interesting around here.”
Leryn replied, “But how does he do it? Ambrose looks nothing like Noman. Noman is old! Ambrose isn’t much older than Polcock.”
“I rather suspect Ambrose is the face of the real man, but Noman is who he is under the skin.”
After thinking about it, Leryn agreed. “I’ll miss the old man. I don’t have much faith in Ambrose—not like I did in Noman.”
“That’s the point, I suspect. They have to be perceived as different people, and folks have to underestimate him.” Galahad chuckled. “The real trick now will be to keep Ambrose under control long enough for us to get Polcock married off to Hannah. Then we can all go back to being a happy family.”
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Bleakbourne on Heath © 2015 – 2017 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved
Connie J. Jasperson is an author and blogger, and a regular contributing member of the Edgewise Words Inn staff