Galahad chuckled. “That’s intentional, I’m sure.”
“Yes, but the way he’s going, Polcock is going to kill him.”
The green eyed knight nodded. “That could happen, but I think he’s trying to force his nephew to make Hannah an offer of marriage.”
Leryn said, “Well, if Polcock kills his ‘uncle’ in a jealous rage there will be hell to pay—literally. Ambrose is all that’s standing between us and the Demon Knight.”
“Well…what do you say we help Polcock out a little? Shall we get Ambrose away from the house for a while? I know the perfect tower for him to immortalize in its natural setting.”
The bard groaned. “Not Bramblestein’s tower. Haven’t we bothered him enough?”
Behind the stable, Ambrose knelt outside the privy. He’d finished emptying the chamber pots, and now rinsed them. He chuckled, overhearing Leryn and Galahad talking. “I know that tower well,” he muttered. “The dwarf was one of my better students.”
Unaware they were being overheard, Galahad said, “It’s an unusual tower—not like anyplace I’ve ever seen. Too bad the ill-tempered dwarf lives there. But it would get Ambrose out of here, and give him something to paint that won’t fidget and complain.”
“I don’t fidget. I’m just sick of being immortalized. How often do I have to endure that nonsense? I agree that the tower would be a good subject for him to paint, if only there wasn’t the problem of Bramblestein—it’s his home, after all. Although, it would make the kind of picture a merchant’s wife with more money than sense would pay a large sum to own.” Leryn shrugged. “But we don’t need Ambrose pissing off a grumpy dwarf who also happens to be a fairly decent sorcerer.”
Just then Ambrose heard the voice of the woman who’d dogged his steps since his return. “Polcock?” Widow Brown had entered the kitchen at the Ploughman’s Inn. “I was thinking I could take your uncle off your hands for a while today. It’s a fine day for October. Perhaps he’d like to paint me in my herb-garden? He likes painting mythology—so he’d have something to sell.”
“I’m sure you’d make a lovely Venus. He hasn’t painted her, yet,” answered Polcock, in a tone that could only be described as smug. “In fact, nothing would make him happier. I’ll fetch him now.”
Leaving the pots where they sat, Ambrose bolted into the stable. “Quick! Galahad, saddle the horses. Leryn, sneak into my room through the window and grab my case.” He glanced nervously toward the back door of the inn. “It’s a sunny day. I’ll paint that tower, and damn the dwarf. He’s not so bad—dwarves are a crotchety race by nature.”
“You know the dwarf?” Galahad saddled Ambrose’s recent acquisition, an ancient, swaybacked mare named Nellie.
“Here we are,” said Leryn as they entered the clearing just in front of Bramblestein’s tower. “It must be three-hundred years old.”
A new pair of doors graced the front. Ambrose dismounted from the swaybacked mare. “Four-hundred, actually. I was young and full of romantic ideas when I built it. It’s the worst example of baroque excess—clearly the work of a beginner.”
“Of course—it makes perfect sense that you built it. It belongs in a book of fairy tales, and you’re certainly the king of those.” Leryn looked around nervously. “Just paint quietly and don’t disturb the nice dwarf who lives here now.”
Leaving the two men and the horses just inside the forest where they couldn’t be seen from the tower, Ambrose set his easel where he had a perfect view. Galahad wrapped himself in his cloak and finding a good place sheltered by the trees, he stretched out to take a nap. Leryn dropped down beside him, leaning against a trunk, observing Ambrose as he worked. After a while, he too dozed off.
“So! This is where you ran off to.”
Both Leryn and Galahad were startled into wakefulness. Widow Brown had found her quarry.
Janet stood in the clearing glaring at Ambrose, both hands on her hips. She hadn’t noticed the two men, so they remained where they were. “Polcock was unhappy that you left those pots out by the privy like that. I followed you easily. Most fugitives cover their tracks better.”
“I wasn’t trying to hide my departure.” Ambrose spoke matter-of-factly. “You know I’m not a faithful sort of man. I ran off and left you three years ago. You deserve better than this. You’ve a whole life waiting for you.”
“Do I? I know what they all say about me. They talk as if I was deaf—the crazy herb-woman who probably never had a husband, but claims widowhood.” Her voice broke. “Well I did, Ambrose! Grady loved me. I’ve been a widow since I was seventeen. First the plague took my baby, then my husband. Sometimes it’s too much to bear.”
The pain in her voice was hard for Leryn to hear—he’d been one of the many to discount her.
Her voice shook. “One year of happiness and fifteen years of grieving, trying to do my work with only half the knowledge I need to do it right, and no one to teach me the rest. And in all that time you’re the only man in Bleakbourne who ever treated me like a woman instead of a joke. You were kind to me. I keep thinking that somehow we could have…if only….”
She sat on a fallen log, sobbing. “I don’t love you. But I’m lonely. They all come to me for love charms, and tarot readings to choose the right wedding day, and I’m still alone. You don’t know what it’s like.”
“I know what grief is like, and it doesn’t go away easy—I outlived my wife and lost my daughter to a murdering rapist.” Ambrose’s voice had turned hard, but gentled as he said, “You’ve let grief destroy you long enough. It’s time for you to live again.” He looked up at the tower. A window had cracked open, as if the occupant was listening. He raised his voice a little. “This tower is situated in the most romantic setting you could ask for, don’t you think?”
She looked around, and nodded, sniffing a little. “I guess.”
“A person could believe in fairy tales here. But what this picture needs is a beautiful woman—a nymph, to show how magical this place is.” He looked at her out the corners of his eyes. “Do you think…perhaps would you…you know. Pose? Just for old times’ sake. Like the one we did of Persephone and Hades?”
“Without my clothes? Out here? What if someone sees us—I’m already a pariah in Bleakbourne. That would seal it for me.”
“We’re completely alone. Think of it. You’re the muse for the pictures that have made my name as an artist. Remember The Taking of Persephone? That painting is now hanging in Cardinal Anthon’s personal collection. He fell in love with your perfection. That’s why I was able to pay my debts last month.”
Ambrose’s voice took on a wheedling tone. “Your earthy beauty has been immortalized in all the greatest tales, so why not…ah…as Flora, Goddess of Nature. Can’t you see Flora posed by this wonderfully gnarled tree…waiting for…for…Bacchus. Yes, she’s waiting for Bacchus to happen by.”
“Bacchus? The God of Debauchery? I’m not sure—it’s not really warm enough for outdoor sin.” Janet clutched her cloak around her.
“Even Bacchus has a sober side. Besides, this will represent a higher moral allegory. Flora isn’t engaging in debauchery. She’s tempting him to a life of sobriety, marriage, and children. This is the one painting I will be remembered for—it will ensure your place in history as my muse.” He looked at the blue of the autumn sky. “And this could be the last fine day we’ll have until spring.”
“If you swear on your hope of heaven we won’t be seen. All right. I’ll pose for one last picture, for the sake of your art.”
Wide eyed, Leryn and Galahad shrank further back into the trees. “I really don’t want to be a part of this,” whispered Leryn. “Why is he using her so? This is abuse, even if she does agree.”
“Shh…he’s up to something, and it’s not enticing her into a quick roll in the shrubbery. Turn your back, like a gentleman.” Galahad had turned a bright red. Silently, they withdrew deeper into to the woods, turning to where they could no longer see anything.
They heard the sounds of Janet disrobing, and Ambrose posing her by the ancient, twisted tree. “We’ll place your scarf like so, to give Flora some modesty.”
Soon they could tell from the sounds of his brush against the canvas that he was back at his easel. Ambrose asked Janet, “Do you know the story of this tower?”
“No,” she replied. “A wizard of some sort lives here. But few people ever see him—I never have.”
“Bramblestein is a dwarf from the mountains up north. He’s a sorcerer and an alchemist, quite well-known as a scholar of history and spends most of his time in Londown.”
Janet perked up. “Do you have any idea how rare a man with a good mind is in Bleakbourne?”
“Don’t move. You look absolutely fetching like that. Yes, intelligence is rare here. But more importantly, Bramblestein was a student of Merlin’s. And he sometimes takes apprentices, if they have certain talents.”
“Really! Would he consider…but no. No one would teach an old fortuneteller who has no second-sight.”
Ambrose snorted. “Old! You’re only thirty-two. And you look better with your clothes off than women half your age—better than any woman has a right to.”
Curiosity got the better of Leryn, who turned to see, but Galahad stopped him with a shake of his head. Sighing, he turned back.
The two men stiffened, as they heard the creak of hinges, signifying the opening of a door.
“Perfect!” shouted Ambrose. “Don’t move a muscle, sir—you’re exactly what this picture needs! When I’m finished, I shall give it to you, to grace your hall.”
A gruff voice, with a humorous tone spoke. “I’m but a caretaker here, as you well know, Ambrose.”
The slight stress on the words told Leryn the sorcerer knew exactly who Ambrose really was, but was playing along. With a shock, he realized Ambrose still owned the tower.
Janet’s voice sounded strangled. “Is someone there? But Ambrose—I’m—”
“Glorious!” cried Bramblestein. “You’re absolutely glorious! This itinerant dauber of paint has no idea what he has in you. I sense talent—a gift that must be trained.”
“Don’t move, either of you! I’m nearly finished!” Leryn and Galahad heard the sounds of Ambrose’s brush as he painted furiously.
“I must be allowed to train you.” Bramblestein remained posed in the doorway, apparently the perfect image of Bacchus, assuming the God of Debauchery was a dwarf wearing a yellow hat and red kilt.
Janet sounded uncertain. “But I’m no good as a fortuneteller without resorting to mushroom-tea. I’m not talented.”
Bramblestein said, “Your talent lies in a different area—I sense a knack for alchemy, my dear. That’s why your little love charms and potions work so well. But you could do much more, if you’re willing to work at it. Once the old man finishes our portrait, you must come inside, and we’ll talk at length.”
“Quiet—both of you. You can continue this later. I need you both to hold still while the light is perfect!” Ambrose’s voice cracked through the clearing like a whip. “This will be my greatest masterpiece!”
Leryn grinned widely. Galahad whispered, “See? I was fairly sure he had a plan.”
Bleakbourne on Heath © Connie J. Jasperson 2015 – 2017 All Rights Reserved
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Connie J. Jasperson is an author and blogger, and a regular contributing member of the Edgewise Words Inn staff.