Lancelyn’s wagon inched past the crown of yet another fallen tree. Leryn and Galahad had dragged it out of the way as well as they could. In the areas near towns, local wood cutters were gradually clearing the roads, but with so many trees blown down by the storm, they had many months of work ahead of them before the trail through the wilderness was freely passable once more.
At Maldon, they had joined up with the Kings Highway, which under normal circumstances, was fairly decent to travel on. However, the storm that had wrought so much death and destruction had become a boon to highwaymen and thieves. Twice more, they had been set upon by men intent on murder, but Galahad and Leryn had dealt with them.
The first encounter with thieves after leaving the chapel had occurred just outside the village of Malden at the headwaters of the River Heath. They remained unmolested after that for several days and managed to get all the way through Londown, stopping for the night in Bramblestein’s rooms there.
That had been a mistake, as the dwarf was beside himself with worry over all the work he had left undone there and was ready to drop everything to clean it up. Only the fact he had to be at the tower to create the orb kept him from staying and sending for Janet to come to him there.
The final attack happened after they left the east end of Londown, and were starting the final leg of their journey down the River Heath, toward Bleakbourne. Once again, Leryn and Galahad made short work of the would-be thieves.
Having stripped the dead of their paltry valuables and dragged the bodies away from the road, they left them. That was the way such things were done, mostly as a deterrent to others who might take up a life of robbery and murder. Leryn finished wiping his blade and sheathed it. “I suppose they’d have done the same for us, had they prevailed, but still…it’s unsightly and makes a ghastly stench.”
From his perch on the wagon, Lancelyn said, “In a few days there’ll be nothing but bones to show for this day’s work. Besides, this gets us back on the road with less delay.”
Galahad nodded, making the sign of the moon. “May they find a warm welcome in Hell.”
Several days passed after leaving Londown, and now, more than two months after they had departed, they were nearing their goal. The effort of clearing the road as they made their journey had taken a toll on Leryn’s body and he’d begun to feel as if they would never arrive home. He dreaded seeing Bleakbourne again but longed for the Ploughman’s Inn in a way he’d never longed for his childhood home.
Leryn tried not to feel his many aches and pains. Every muscle cried out in agony, and the slice he’d received during the last melee had begun to throb again. Bramblestein had cleaned and bandaged it, but it was an unpleasant reminder of why people never traveled far from home unless they had to.
They passed the last outlying village before Bleakbourne, and Leryn could see that old Scutter and the other woodcutters had done good work, clearing the road outside of Bleakbourne. Seeing the familiar landscape filled Leryn with happiness and made him forget his misery.
He wanted to sing for joy, but he knew full well how badly a bit of unrestrained singing or whistling on his part could go, so he restrained himself. He couldn’t stop himself from humming under his breath, though. At least he hummed until Galahad mentioned the number of butterflies he was attracting. Quailing beneath Merlin’s glare, he kept his gladness to himself.
Still, his eyes took it all in, and he breathed in deeply, feeling almost as if he’d gone without air until that moment. Around them, daffodils made a carpet of yellow and everywhere he looked the plum and apple trees displayed their white and pink blossoms, reminding him of high-born ladies showing their splendor. Many old trees were gone, allowing the sun to shine on stretches of the trail where shadows had long prevailed. Already, small saplings took advantage of the light, and one day their boughs would shade the road.
They turned off the road before they reached Bleakbourne, taking the lane to Bramblestein’s tower. Or was it Merlin’s? It didn’t matter. Apparently, Bramblestein and Janet were heading to Londown as soon as the orb was completed, and would return the wizard’s home to him. “I’ve languished here long enough, babysitting this ornate pile of rubble for you. Now you’ve decided to be yourself, I won’t have to travel back and forth all the time.”
Merlin just grunted his acknowledgement. He’d been noticeably quiet since they’d left the Chapel of the Moon, which suited Leryn. Usually, if the wizard had anything to say it was some disparaging comment about Leryn’s mental acuity. The bard did wonder what was bothering Merlin, ultimately deciding he was better off not knowing.
Having left the sand and wood at the tower, and Bramblestein in the arms of his delighted wife, they turned Lancelyn’s wagon toward the village. Leryn both dreaded his homecoming and yearned for it with all his heart, not look forward to seeing Rosie again, but wanting nothing more.
Brunhilde was not in her stall, which meant Rosie was either out for the day or gone again. Leryn feared the answer and put off entering the inn as long as he could. Sending Galahad and Lancelyn off to play with their overwrought cat, he fussed around with all the horses, getting them curried and fed before he finally picked his possessions up and went inside.
When Leryn finally did go inside, the room was empty except for the family. He had to smile at the sight of Morgause. The cat was so thrilled to see her men that she couldn’t decide who she wanted to sit with more, and kept stepping from Lance’s shoulder to Galahad’s and back, purring loudly and rubbing her face against each man’s cheek. She did pause to come over to receive a head scratch from Leryn, but immediately went back to her men.
Hannah embraced him. “Since Ambrose supposedly went back to Londown, and Bramblestein isn’t around much anyway, we told folks you had gone with Lancelyn and Galahad to Tyrwyddn.” She looked searchingly into his eyes, as if trying to see how he was handling things, so Leryn assumed Merlin had told Hannah and Polcock about his new gift of magic. “Rosie’s not here, love. She’ll be back in a few days. She had some business to settle up, but she promised to return by Saturday. She swears she’s coming back to stay.”
Polcock just looked at him sympathetically, and said nothing, shaking his head. Everyone looked up as the door opened, and Bramblestein entered, followed by Janet. “Janet wants to check Merlin out, just to make sure he’s not dying,” said the dwarf. “She’s right. He should be better than he is.”
Merlin clutched his cloak around him more firmly. “I’m fine. I’d be healed now if we had stayed at the chapel, but we couldn’t. I just didn’t rest as well as I could have, since we were traveling.”
Janet glared at him. “Shut up, you old fool. Let me listen to your chest.”
Nonplussed, Merlin complied, baring his torso.
Janet pressed her ear to his chest. “Breathe in deeply and let it out slowly.” He did so, obviously uncomfortable. “Do it again.” He did, and she straightened up, drawing his garments around her patient again. She quite clearly didn’t like what she’d heard. “My husband is right. You need to stay in bed for at least a week. You can’t do anything with your magic, or it will kill you. The orb will have to wait until you’re healed.” She cut off Merlin’s demurral. “Don’t argue. You’ll either stay here in your bed, and we will come by and tend to you each day, or you’ll come to the tower with us. Either way you’re doing as I tell you. Understood?”
Unable to meet her gaze, Merlin said, “I’ll stay here, thank you.”
Hannah said, “And he’ll do as you say, or he’ll deal with me.” Gripping him by the arm, she dragged her unwilling patient off to his room.
Leryn took that opportunity to get resettled in his old room, and have a quick wash in the wonderfully hot water Polcock brought up for him. Standing in the doorway and chatting while the bard stood in front of his mirror and shaved properly, Polcock admitted there had been no customers from out of town over the winter. “We’ve been empty most nights, except for the bargemen and the regulars, like Tom and Scutter, who have no family.”
Leryn nodded. “I hope someone will come tonight. I haven’t earned any coins on this venture.”
“Oh, they’ll come tonight, once it gets out you’re back.” Polcock grinned. “Several of them were downright put out you’d left. But I told them you were chasing down an epic tale in Tyrwyddn, and promised you’d tell it when you returned.”
Leryn thought for a moment. “I guess I can do that. Certainly I’ve a few new tales to tell.”
Leryn’s room was just as he’d left it, increasing his sense of imbalance. For a long while after Polcock went back downstairs, the bard sat gazing out the window, feeling a strange disorientation at being home. On one hand, he was more than glad to just be home, but on the other, he felt somehow let down. He had no idea what he was expecting, but whatever it was, it hadn’t happened. Now he didn’t know what to do with himself.
At last, he decided to get out and do something to bring back his sense of normalcy. It occurred to him that Merlin was probably itching for whatever news of the town there might be no matter how inconsequential, so he went down to the kitchen, and the room just off it.
Ensconced in the room he’d had in his guise as Ambrose, Merlin lay in his bed, fidgeting and unable to rest despite Hannah’s admonitions. Leryn knew him too well and knew he wouldn’t be a good or quiet patient unless his questions were answered, so he intended to help his teacher out as much as he could. “Look, I know you think I’m an idiot and don’t trust me to lace up my own shirtsleeves, but you need me to ferret out what’s been happening around here in your absence. Right?”
The wizard immediately relaxed. “Yes. Finally—that’s exactly what I need. You’re smart, so you know how to get the information without making yourself obvious.”
“They’re used to me asking questions,” said Leryn. “After all, I originally came to Bleakbourne on Heath looking for old songs and tales, so they like to gossip with me.” He glanced at the window. “Getting back to work will keep my mind off things.”
“Start down at the docks. That’s where the freshest gossip will be.” Merlin lay back and closed his eyes. “I don’t think you’re an idiot and I’m sorry I’ve made you think I do. I’m worried about you, that’s all. Your gift is as strong as mine now, and you’re still mostly untutored. That’s a problem, and I don’t know if we’ll be given enough time to resolve it. But I do think you can handle it if you’re willing to listen to me.”
A wave of affection for the wizard swept through Leryn, threatening to make him teary-eyed. “I’m trying. I swear I won’t let you down.” Before he could get maudlin, he patted Merlin’s shoulder. “I’ll be back in an hour or so.” He went out the back door, heading straight to the docks. Once outside, he walked through the town, answering greetings, and finally ended at the docks.
He discovered that, other than the terrible storm killing several of their number, little out of the ordinary had occurred among the bargemen and fishermen. He could see nothing worrisome in their news but having noted everything down to the smallest detail, he would let Merlin be the judge of that.
And while he was out, he’d thought of the new tale that would entertain the patrons at the Ploughman’s Inn that night. He would tell them of the shipwreck, but he would change it up a bit, make it a bit more glamorous and noble…the two knights had rescued a beautiful, high-born lady who was promised to an Eyrish king…it was very dramatic and brave….
“Bleakbourne on Heath” © 2016 – 2017 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved
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