The knock on the door was persistent, a rapid pounding that pierced my aching head faster than a bolt. I’d drunk my way to bed, a habit I’d started a year ago when Natallia died. I didn’t feel like standing. I mumbled “g’way,” but the knocking increased in volume.
I finally rolled over, letting my bare feet flop onto the cold wooden floor. I stumbled toward the door, pulling my kilt around my waist and shoulder, then clasped it. Thankfully, I was practiced enough that I could count steps as I pinned. I stopped an arm’s length from the door, mumbled “Who is it?” and waited.
“You bloody well know who it is. Let me in, Aonghus.”
“Devon?” I asked, as I tugged the door open.
It had been months since I’d heard from him. We’d parted in anger, but I’d been wrong, and sent a messenger to him, apologizing. The boy had returned with Devon’s response: “Forgiveness comes at a price. Someday, you will learn what my price is.”
“Aye, mate.” Devon sounded haggard. He probably looked worse, a suspicion which made me glad my sight wasn’t what it used to be: greed had cost me more than my fiancee’s life. I stepped to the side, and waved to where I remembered the chair to be.
“Still drinking, I see,” he said, chastisingly.
“Nane o’ yer bluidy business an’ I am,” I replied, perhaps a bit more shortly than I should have if I wanted to mend fences. I was still feeling guilty about propositioning his sister. That is what we’d had words over. I was so drunk that I hadn’t given thought to the fact that his sister was married, had two noisy offspring, and was so ugly that even a blind man would be ashamed to have her. He had not been so upset that I chose to suggest that she and I go to the barn together, but the manner in which I said it. I suppose it was a bit rude telling her that since the horses were unavailable, she’d do.
“You’re going to need to be sober for this. Can you put off nuzzling the bottle?” Even in my head-sore condition, I knew that was being vague. So I asked him. Big mistake, of course, but I was the master of those sorts of errors.
“Dana’s in a spot of trouble.” I frowned as he continued to speak. “She’s six months pregnant.”
“So?” My hangover wasn’t letting me think straight.
“Her husband’s been off fighting the war for seven months.”
I immediately offered what comfort I could. “I didnae do it.”
“I know.” That was a relief. For a moment, I’d been certain he was here to call me out. Which left me wondering why he was here.
I returned to my bed, sitting on the edge of it, and facing the chair. I waited for him to continue, but he didn’t say anything. The throbbing in my head increased as I tried to think of words to prompt him along. Suddenly, a gust of air brushed against my cheek, then I heard a faint rustling sound and felt a paper being placed in my hands. He was obviously so wrapped up in his problems that he’d forgotten that I was blind.
It was odd to me that all my friends seemed to forget my blindness, even though I was told that my eyes were only mildly glazed, and they retained much of the deep jade hue I was born with. It was even more unusual to me that I’d met all these friends after my “accident.” When Natallia died, I’d moved away from my homeland, leaving my shame behind with my previous friends.
I turned the paper around in my hands, and even granted a token rub over the surface, knowing full well that I’d not feel the ink. “Me nose be nae stuffed. I dinna need ae handkerchief,” I quipped, returning the paper to him.
The typical bluster followed, which I endured with grace. When I heard enough embarrassment soaking into his voice, I chuckled quietly. “I’m growin’ used tae it.”
More silence followed. I waited, knowing Devon gets touchy when pushed. He started quietly, reading the words, which gradually revealed their source: obviously an excerpt from his sister’s journal. As he read, my head throbbed again, and I reached for a bottle - then stopped myself. The words were a tale of deceit and treachery. I was a rake, there was no doubt about that, and even a thief, but one thing even I could not abide was that level of abuse to another.
“…seed planted in me, I shall be branded a wanton women, my fidelity doubted. Though I never asked for it, I would not be able to be rid of it. I would have to bear the child. And if no child be born, what of my own knowledge? How could I present myself in public, knowing that my body has been thus used? It shall be on my face, in every motion I take. Thus, I live in shame,” Devon concluded. It was a bit odd to hear such proper speech coming from Devon’s mouth. Although he was born of the upper classes, he spent enough time in the pubs “slumming” with the peasants that we almost counted him one of us. His sister obviously didn’t share his fondness for the lower classes. In the letter, she had written, “No joy shall come to me should fruit be borne of this poisoned wretch, this beast who made free with my unwilling flesh.”
My reaction was instantaneous. “The bastard! Set me in his direction!” Perhaps Devon smiled at that. I, being blind, could not tell. I stood again, and reached for my weapons harness. All my weapons were in it, and I had a feeling that they would be put to good use. Meanwhile, Devon filled me in on his suspect.
“Our man works the wharves. A few weeks back, one of our kitchen maids spent a few hours with him. She thinks nobody’s aware of it, but it was a choice piece of gossip in the dining-hall come the dinner bell that night.” His voice had quivered with a dry chuckle before he continued. “He’s handsome, Ghus. If Dana had been the sort to take a lover, I’d have thought she was willing, but he’s the type who could have had any woman. And usually did.”
I grunted in acknowledgement of that.
“You’ll have to take care, mate. He’s got a band of layabouts that have been known to spend time along the trade routes.” Which meant that they weren’t just sailors. They were highwaymen. Our man was sort of person who was born to the life of crime. Like me.
Because of this, I didn’t understand why Devon would come to me, rather than go to the guard. I didn’t mention it, however. I’d missed our friendship, and was glad he’d thought of me, even though the circumstances were less than desirable. “Where did ye last see him?” I swept my hand over the floor, found a boot, and pulled it on. I winced as it pinched my foot.
“The wharves, three weeks ago.” I was grunting by then, as I pulled the boot off my left foot, and yanked it onto the right foot, where it belonged. Devon was polite, for once. He said nothing about my error. That was unlike him. My curiosity got the better of me.
“Why me?” I blurted.
“Because you owe me. And because...a cell isn’t the punishment the man deserves.”
“I’m no’ an assassin.” I waved an unseen hand in front of my face. “I cannae even see.”
I listened to Devon’s breathing for a few moments. He mumbled something. I couldn’t make out the words, so I asked him to repeat himself.
“You’re the only one who I can trust, Ghus.”
“Ye trust me?” I was surprised. Flattered. Honored. The thought of what he wanted me to do temporarily fled my mind. I nodded once, then whispered my response. “I will look intae it.”
“Thank you, Aonghus.”
“I’m no’ promisin’ tae do aught.”
His voice had regained its old cockiness. “I know, but I’m sure you’ll...” He paused. “...see...” He waited, as I groaned at the jibe, “...it my way.”
After my conversation with Devon, I shuffled him out the door. When his last thumping footstep faded from my ears, I began to prepare myself in earnest. I instinctively wanted to reach for my crossbow, having once been a crack shot, but I’d never be able to hit a target I couldn’t see. I was going about this all wrong. I was thinking as if I could still see, as if I could still sneak in quietly to watch and listen from the shadows and fight my battles in daylight. I could hardly go barging forward, waving my sword about and screaming at the top of my lungs. Not only would I look the fool, but I would most likely hurt myself. At the very least, I would surely walk into a wall or two. When drunk, that’s an understandable thing, but as Devon had said, I was going to have to be sober for this.
“But no’ yet,” I murmured to myself, as I plopped down on my bed and pulled out the flask of whiskey. Three long pulls later, it occurred to me that I shouldn’t try to hide at all.
I get a happy, tingling feeling of pride, even better than from whiskey, when I come up with a good idea. Usually, that’s because they come so infrequently, but when they do arrive, they make themselves well-known for their sheer style. This idea was a winner.
Beggars were common in the poorer sections of town, and that’s where I needed to start my search. I wasn’t going to be able to imitate the town guard and bully answers out of suspects and witnesses. When I talked to people, I wouldn’t see their facial expressions. But I did have ears and a nose. I could listen. And I could do it in full view, and pick up a coin or two in the process. I had a legitimate reason to be begging, too. The situation seemed promising, now that I’d had the few sips to think over.
A few sips more, and I found myself fingering my kilts until I found the one with the tears in it. I poured a touch of my whiskey on it, and splashed some on my face. I tried not to wince at the waste. Then I tucked the flask into my sporran, and proceeded to hide my stiletto and dagger in the folds of my kilt and in my boot. I slid my hands over my body, checking if any bare hint of metal chilled my fingertips. I couldn’t tell if I looked ragged enough, but I was sure I smelled it. I grabbed a walking stick, used it to tap the ground in front of me, setting up a rhythm. My feet echoing the tapping, I moved towards the door of my room, and stepped outside.
On the streets, I felt a woman pass me and gasp, heard a man’s voice murmur, “Filthy trash!” The man had spoken as if he thought I couldn’t hear, as if I were deaf as well as blind. Good. Maybe others would draw the same conclusion and be less careful with their words. I hid the smug smile by lowering my head and mumbling nonsense to myself.
I’d reached the end of the street when I realized I’d forgotten to bring a bowl. I stood for a few moments, digging through my sporran, before I remembered I’d left all my money in a nice hidey-hole back in my room, so that I’d not have anything for the bullies to steal. Blind beggars were fair game in the lower sections of town. As I pondered whether to retrace my steps home to get a bowl, my nose caught the spicy scent of a pie which was probably cooling in someone’s window.
My growling stomach made my feet move before I could think better of it. Soon I found myself sitting in a wind-blown alley four streets away, polishing off the last of the sticky blueberry pastry. It was then I laughed aloud, realizing, simultaneously, that for the first time in over a year, I’d stolen something...and that I now had my bowl.
I turned the corner, scrubbing my face as if I had a rash, brushing the evidence of my gastronomical crime away. Each step brought me closer to my goal, and soon my nose told me where I was. The harbor was noisy at this time of day, mostly with the sailors working. I could hear the thud of the boxes as the dockhands tossed them onto the ships, and smiled as I recalled how the whores would be trying to distract the men, or at least gain a promise for work that evening. The cheap perfume that attacked my sense of smell almost lured me away from my own goal. I tapped my way through the crowd until my fingers brushed the stone wall of what must have been the local inn, because I smelled the scent of cooked fish from within. I lowered myself against the wall, placed the bowl between my feet, and rested my walking stick across my legs. I was silent. Making noise might distract me from hearing it, and my first goal wasn’t to be a successful beggar. I spoke once, when I heard footsteps coming towards me: “Spare ae copper for ae poor blindie?”
I wasn’t too disappointed when all I got was a “Harumph” and a kick to my shin which made me yelp. Thankfully, the uncharitable pig wasn’t out to hurt me. He’d passed by and entered the inn, releasing a whiff of fish, followed by a thud as the door closed behind him. I waited, marking the tread of passing feet, the snatches of conversation which added nothing to my quest.
I always say, don’t let people fool you. Life isn’t a storyteller’s tale, with everything weaving neatly together into a happy ending. It’s a series of pitfalls with the occasional cherry thrown in for flavor. I didn’t hear any juicy tidbits that day, or for the next three days. I was discouraged, but at least I’d picked up a handful of coins to go along with the bruises up and down my legs. People were starting to refer to me as “Blind Bernie.” I’d dragged that old alias out of retirement, figuring it was safer not to use my real name.
On the fourth day, I began mentally debating other options. I considered moving to another portion of the harbor, or of the town, maybe trying the marketplace. Weighing the alternatives, I almost missed the conversation right in front of me.
“Shit, Meg. He’s not fakin’ it.” A man’s voice, scratchy and rough.
“Toldja so. Look at his eyes...glazed.” A woman’s voice, followed by a shrill cackle.
“Could be the whiskey...how drunk ya think he is?”
A hint of fear began to chill my spine. My heart urged me to run, but I was surrounded by blackness. All I could do is leap to my feet, pressing my bowl to my chest to hide the coins. Forgetting the stiletto and dirk, I grabbed the cane and held it like a lance before me. I opened my mouth to protest.
“I’m no’ gan...” I got no more out of that sentence, before I heard a distant snippet of conversation snagged my attention.
“Rape? Who’d wanna tup that ugly mutt, anyhow? Ya wouldn’t know she and Devon came from the same kennel, wouldja?”
Raucous laughter resounded right in my face, but I was too caught by elation at the “clue” and the hopes that I’d hear more to listen to Meg and her man. I strained my ears and edged close to the faint voice, but found myself pushed back.
“Where ya think you’re goin’, blindie?” Meg said, the sneer of mockery in her voice. “We ain’t done with ya.”
I felt her hand go to my throat, and I gasped with fear. I swung the cane, and I must have landed a solid blow on her companion, because he gasped “Bastard!” and threw a punch. My lip throbbed and I felt blood trickle down my chin. I lost all thought save “Live. Survive. Get out of here.” I kicked, hard. I was kicked, harder.
I slammed up with the bowl. The satisfying thwunk of it connecting with flesh, combined with her grunt, told me that I’d connected with Meg. That didn’t help, however, as these two were no longer playing. I’d angered them by fighting back, and they meant to punish me. And punish me they did. Before I knew it, I was on the ground, the bowl flat beneath me, face slammed in the mud. It was then I remembered my knives, but it was too late. A strong man’s arm pushed my face into the dirt, and I strained to breathe. It was evidence of how much I’d let myself go to rot. My left arm ached, twisted up behind my back, and the cane had rolled from my grasp into the black unknown of “elsewhere.” I think I whimpered.
As I whispered to Natallia’s spirit that I was on my way to join her, I heard a hard, deep tenor voice commanding: “Back away, vermin, before I tear your throats out with my bare hands.” The hands holding me into the dirt vanished. I lay there, feeling the beginning of tears in the corner of my eyes. I heard scuffling and the voice of the guard ordering “Tie them and lock them up.” I felt a light touch on my shoulder, letting me know that I could get up. I rolled over, still clutching my bowl to my chest, and whispered, “Lass, me cane.”
There was a brief pause, then the words “Aye, Ghus...” I froze. This hard-voiced woman knew me. “Your cane. Then you and I are going to have a talk.”
‘S’nae wha’ ye think.”
“That’s what they all say.”
I groaned inwardly at the harsh tone in her voice. This was not going to be easy.
It wasn’t until much later that I finally stepped outside of the guardhouse. The conversation we’d had was a strained but pleasant reunion at first. I’d known Adriana as a young girl. Then, she was a little on the chubby side, but no doubt, those extra rolls had firmed up, along with the rest of her. The harshest tightening was of her voice, though. What once had been crystal bells sounded like iron.
“No, you can’t touch my face!” What did she expect me to do? Look at her? I asked her why not. She didn’t respond. Instead, she asked me about Natallia, then expressed her deepest sympathies. I didn’t respond to that one. She asked me why I left my homeland high in the mountains up north. I merely repeated the fact that my fiancee had died. I turned the question back on her, and she told me that she’d left for two reasons. The first was that she missed her native lands. She waited until I was about to leave before she told me the second reason, which was also why she had called me into the office. Even then, it took her some time to build to the question.
“Do you believe in magic, Aonghus?” She hesitated slightly in the asking, which made me curious. “That some people have special abilities?”
“’tis possible,” I replied, not having the slightest clue why she was asking me. In the silence that followed, I could almost hear the scuffle of her toes as she paced. I knew she was treading a groove in the floor. She had always done that when she didn’t want to confess that she was frightened or had to ask a favor of someone.
“There are some,” she finally said. “Who do have abilities.”
I could not get her to elaborate, and the near-silent shuffling resumed. I put my hand out again to feel for the door. Again she stopped me.
“I’ve become a man to the world’s eyes, Ghus.” There was no hint in her voice that she regretted her choice. I turned around and leaned against the wall, placing my hand on the doorknob.
“Why?” My lips could barely form the word, and my throat felt tight.
“Because there is no such thing as a good man for me,” she said. “And I’m not going to be branded an old maid or forced to marry against my will.”
“So, what hae this tae do with me?” I asked. Silence followed, which gave me the eerie reminder of my initial conversation with Devon.
“I need you to keep the secret, Ghus. And I need you to be my ears and e...” she stopped herself, then shifted her statement around. “My ears in the streets.”
“I’m nae a stoolie.”
“Ghus.” Amusement filled her voice, and for a moment, I thought I was with the Adriana of old. Her next word dispelled that mental image. “Putting aside the fact that I’d owe you, I could bring up the fact that public drunkenness is cause for sitting in the dungeon for up to a week.”
“When do I start?”
Her laugh did nothing to comfort me then, nor did it help me as I strolled across the narrow street, feeling the cold stone piercing the worn soles of my wrapped-rag footgear. I clutched my cane to my chest, not bothering to tap the street before me. I figured my act would no longer be needed. Nobody from the wharf would be sober enough to recognize me, nobody from the upper-crust would be foolish enough to be out and about as late as it was, and it would be wiser to walk as if I had a purpose. That was the only way other thieves knew I was one of their kind. There was an unwritten code, after all, amongst us.
I’d reached the footbridge that spanned the river. The crashing of the water against the rocks echoed the crashing of my heart against my chest. I was afraid. I was tired. I was deeply in need of a drink. As if in answer to my thoughts, my feet took on a will of their own. My toe dug into a knot on the wood and sent me sprawling. I felt the air whoosh before me, each touch of it too rapid, too fierce and bitter. I then realized I wasn’t hitting the planks of the bridge. I was still falling.
My mouth opened in a silent scream. I tasted blood in my mouth and remembered the injury I’d received earlier in the day. I felt the impact of the water. My arms flailed and the cane slipped from my grasp. I didn’t bother to try to find it. I was more concerned with staying afloat. Thankfully, I’d sailed on a ship before I lost my vision, and some skills weren’t forgotten. I kicked and let the motion carry me upwards, then struggled to reach fresh air. Once I was treading water, I began to tackle the next challenge. I propelled myself at a diagonal to the current, heading slightly into it. I felt my fingers brush across a soft object, then I exhaled in relief and leaned against it.
Then found myself leaning too far. The object wasn’t the shore I thought I’d found. It had soft strands about it, which I took for wet vegetation. I grabbed hold of the object, flattened myself to a horizontal position behind it, and kicked. It proved an adequate floatation device, but not the best. It kept trying to sink. I was just about to give up and let it go, when a little voice in my mind told me that I needed to know what I was holding onto. I kept kicking against the water, moving forward. I was too afraid to scream. I also was far too determined to live to worry too much what the object was.
Determination won out until I reached the shore.
I assured myself that what I’d found was solid and fixed in place, then lifted myself onto it. One hand remained behind, tugging the temporary flotation device onto shore with me. It was heavy, enough to have naturally been able to float, especially with the current of the river pushing it down.
My fingers brushed down the length of the strands, feeling how fine they were. Fine, and yet gnarled. There were soft things that brushed off into my fingers. I guessed they might have been what was vegetation. Then there was a portion that gave a little, until it hit something harder. I poked again, then blinked. It felt like skin on bones. Flesh. I put both hands to the task of verifying my fear. This time, there was a sound paired with my scream. I don’t know why I did it, but I kept feeling the body. I had to find out more. I have always been too curious for my own sanity. Perhaps that’s why I began picking locks. I wanted to know what was inside.
I dragged my fingers down what I had determined to be the face. The cheekbone was well-padded, and the extra pounds made it difficult for me to tell the gender. My fingers brushed against an almost imperceptible bump behind the left ear, but I passed that off as a mole. I then moved my hands downwards, and discovered the body was female. I blushed at that.
She had been overweight. Far too overweight, but there was a firmness to the pudge. My throat tightened. The body... the woman...
She had been pregnant. I could tell. There was that certainty in the core of my gut that told me. Another certainty told me that I knew who this poor woman was. I knew her, and I didn’t want to admit it. My mind kept telling me I was wrong. This bloated corpse could not possibly be Dana.
“What are ya doing there, Ghus?”
“Was walkin’. Needed ae drink.” I said. My voice sounded hoarse and afraid to my own ears, even as I winced and tried to compose myself.
“Some drink, eh?” Beneath her biting humor, I could hear Constable Adrian Smith’s weariness. That didn’t stop me from blurting the accusation out, half in frustration, half in relief.
“Ye followed me!” I was still upset that she’d insisted I pretend she was male, and itched to call her Adriana, as I had when we’d last met.
“I didn’t. I was heading home. Heard your scream.” Her voice seemed almost in my ear, now. I gathered she was on her knees, inspecting the body. I didn’t want to be close. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want any part of it. Figuring she didn’t need me hanging near her, I pulled myself to my feet and lifted my arm, ready to tap the ground with my cane...
...to remember that I’d lost it in my unintentional bath. I cursed, softly, then put my hands in front of me, silently praying to God that I’d not trip and find myself taking yet another swim. I was already beginning to feel the tickle of a cold in the back of my throat. Fortune favored me that time, and I managed to feel my way to a large stone. In older times, I’d have run. Only fools stayed for the guard when they were distracted, after all, and I was no fool. In this last moment, my whole philosophy on that had been shattered. If I ran, she’d think me guilty. If I ran, she knew where I lived. If I ran, the barkeeps wouldn’t remember me, so I’d have to pay for my drinks and they’d not keep pouring when I’d had one too many.
It was better to wait for her. I closed my eyes. Yes, blind men do that, sometimes. I don’t know why, but the act of shutting my eyes makes me feel more normal, calmer. I worked on relaxing myself. I silently repeated the same mantra I’d used many times in the past. “You will get out of this alive. They will not catch you.”
I’d been just on the brink of success when I heard the words, “You’ll have to inform him, and word will have to be sent to the army...to her husband.”
“What will be done with the children?” The male voice, I guessed it was Adriana’s partner, was deep and gravelly. I tried to envision him, but found I could no longer remember what certain things, like hair, looked like.
“Devon can care for them.”
“NAE!” I screamed, leaping to my feet. Then I felt foolish. I’d really had no reason to interfere, and I had no idea why I suddenly felt cold at the very notion of trusting Devon with the children. I had no reason to object, I didn’t even have a love for any children, let alone Dana’s. I despise them, to be honest.
“Aonghus?” The Constable’s voice brought me back to my senses. “If we don’t let him care for them until her husband’s return, what should we do with them? Will you take ‘em?” There was amusement in her voice. She knew how I felt about children.
“Nae...mebbe a servant?” My voice was shaky. I really didn’t want to find myself gulled into playing housewife to a few squalling brats who would make me wish I were deaf, as well as blind.
“Didn’t think so. And all the servants are Devon’s, as you know, Ghus. She was living under his protection.” Her tone was enough to let me know that she’d closed the topic of my objection, and it made sense. Any servant who took care of the children would be under Devon’s thumb. I didn’t tune them out, this time. Relaxation was well beyond my grip, and I wanted to know why my gut didn’t want the children in Devon’s hands. The back of my neck was tingling in a way I’d never felt before, and I didn’t like the feeling. It wasn’t just Devon’s slumming. There was something quite serious that was telling me I should object, and I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.
Futility never being one of my favorite things to deal with, I turned my attention to the conversation. Adriana and her partner were debating what to do with the information they had gained from the corpse. “Probably tripped, like the drunk, there.” That was the man’s voice. I didn’t object to the slur.
Adriana did. “He’s going through hard times.”
“Aren’t they all?” I was beginning to hate that man.
“That’s not the point. He tripped because he’s blind.” She didn’t let him protest that I was probably faking my blindness. “She’s not. In fact, I’d be willing to say she was pushed.”
“Give me time,” she said. Her solemn response sent a chill through me. Somehow, I knew that this was going to prove painful to me.
I crawled into bed when I got home and tried to beat back the waves of guilt that surrounded me. I’d spent time trying to find the rapist and gotten no more than a passing snatch of conversation and a corpse on my hands. I blamed myself for Dana’s death. I’d not been there to protect her...and the murderer was not caught. I had been taking too long to find him.
This sobering thought sent me seeking a remedy. I raised myself out of bed, the blankets falling from me to let the cool air brush my back. I came to the cabinet where I keep the booze, and let my fingers walk me to the nearest bottle. It was light. I opened it, lifted it to my lips, and found the disappointing lack of a swish, lack of liquid. The bottle was returned to the cabinet, foolish of me I know, but the second bottle proved fruitful.
I sat down on the edge of my bed, cradling the bottle in my arm like a newborn. I had to figure out my next step. The beggar routine had given me a small scrap of information, but how long could I afford to wait? If the man Devon had described was after power or money, seeking it from Devon’s family, Devon might be the next target. I didn’t want to lose him, now that it seemed there might be some forgiveness coming my way.
Were I sighted, I could have played guard on him. Eventually the murderer would come for him, I’d leap from the shadows, plunge my knife into his gut, and save the day. All would be well, and all would love Aonghus, the hero.
I was no knight in shining armor. I was just a derelict. What was I supposed to do? The information I’d managed to grab wasn’t truly enough to form a lead, but I was sure I’d not discover more from hanging around the wharves. I could clean up a bit. I could chat with my old buddies, and see if any of them had any juicy pieces of rumor. If I really got cleaned up, I might even be able to weasel an invite to one of the society parties. I’d have to pass myself off as one of them, and that challenge would be more than just looking rich. Most of their people aren’t disabled, as I am.
I put the “dress-up” idea to the back of my mind, and opted for the safer venue of reaching the rich-man’s scuttlebutt. I’d hang around the servant’s quarters and listen to their conversations. I’d pose as a traveler, and beg the boon of hospitality. It wasn’t my beloved homeland, so I couldn’t expect the year and a day, but most servants in this portion of the lands wouldn’t turn a hungry and weary man out, especially if they had a story or scrap of news to share.
The idea of recruiting Adriana...no, it was Adrian, now...was immediately discarded, because I knew that she’d have to be official about it. She owed me, for keeping her secret, but I wasn’t about to call the chips in on a favor for someone else. It’s always good to have a member of the law owe you a favor, when you’re a crook.
I lay back upon my bed, feeling the itch of the straw scratching my back. The bottle proved some minor comfort, but for some reason, I’d not pulled the cork. I just lay there holding the smooth surface against my cheek, and reviewed the past weeks.
Devon came to me with a description of a man. He’d given me a name. The passage in Dana’s diary had no name in it. He had come to me, a blind thief who was a known drunk. He wanted to avoid taking it to the law. Adriana had seemed to believe Dana’s death wasn’t an accident. I was inclined to believe her. Why did I believe her? The question became my new focus. Dana was a noblewoman. She was proud of her stature. She had several maids and ladies waiting on her at all times. She did needlework, and she supervised the servants. She took walks through the gardens of the manor. She did not walk through the low end of town, between the wharves and the guard. Why was she found in the river there? What of the witnesses? Was there a servant who was with her who failed to save her? How many ladies would she be walking with? If it were an accident, certainly there would have been one. If it was not, how did the murderer get her to the river in the first place?
I was getting more confused, not less. In an attempt to silence the thoughts enough to let me sleep, I rolled onto my stomach, and placed both arms on top of my head. It didn’t work, and all I was left with were sore arms. I slipped out of the bed once more, resigning myself to a sleepless night.
Sometimes my feet take me places before my mind decides that I want to be there. I pulled a new kilt on and wrapped the cloth over my shoulders to shield me from the chill of night. The path back to the bridge over the river where I found Dana’s body was an easy walk from my home. As I walked, I heard the sounds of crickets chirping nearby. I’d learned, when I was still wandering from city to city, that those wee beasties tended to sing just before morning, so I had a small sense of the time.
I heard the rush of the water and almost cringed from it, remembering my experience from the night before. Flailing my hand before me, I made my way to the edge of the water, and knelt down in the mud. I didn’t know why I was searching, or what I could find, but something had led me there before anywhere else. The crickets stopped their song and a warmth spread against my cheek. The sun had risen, and I was still digging in the dirt like a crofter’s son. I began to scold myself. I heard laughter nearby. Some young girl stopped and giggled. Her words rung in my ears, but I tried to ignore them.
“Mister? Why you digging?” She sounded very young, and I surmised that there was an adult nearby.
“Katherine, leave the man alone.”
“But nanna! He might need help!” A small quiver twitched my lips, then I forced myself to restrain it. I focused my energies on looking forlorn, then glanced upwards, where I hoped they would be. I spoke before the older woman could.
“Aye, lass...” I’d learned long ago how to fake a blush, and I employed the skill then. “’tis missing me cane I am.”
The governess spoke next, her voice laced with a quivering tone that I took to be a mixture between fear and concern. “Oh, heavens, sir. If it is just a cane, could you not...”
“Nae,” I said, hastily cutting her off. I wanted her pity as I was hoping to enlist their aid in the search. “I canna see, and dinna earn very much coin with the tales I tell. That cane were me only way t’ find meself around in these lands.” I figured I had her attention there, but decided to add a little flattery to the mixture. “I’d ask ye and yer wee one to help me find it, but it’s hardly something that ae grand Lady such as yersel’ should be doing, playing in th’ dirt and all.”
“Posh.” I hid the grin. The marks always bit when I fluffed their feathers. She continued speaking. “We shall aid you. What did it look like?”
I merely waited, not knowing how to respond to that one. She waited as well. With both of us saying nothing, we weren’t accomplishing very much. I decided to break the stand-still.
“I would suppose long and thin.”
“Oh, gracious,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
I left them to their search as I continued. By the time the governess found the cane, I had located two tin flasks and a broken piece of clay which might once have been a pipe.
The girl found the most interesting discovery. It felt like a stiletto. When I held it close to my nose, I smelled more than mud upon it. There was the scent of blood. The blade was as thin as fine knitting needle. I wondered how it hadn’t broken. I sat in the mud, rolling it between my fingers. The hair-raising feeling again danced across my neck, letting me know this was significant, but I knew there was more to be learned. I decided that I would have to try to get to Dana’s body before it was buried, try to match the point to the bump.
I’d just reached the point of the blade when the governess broke my train of thought.
“The cane was caught in the...goodness! What are you to do with that, sir? A horrid thing!” She sounded afraid. I tucked the blade into my boot, then stood, brushing myself off. I needed to calm her, fast.
“’tis naught, good Lady. I shall bring it to the guard, and let them deal with it. Perhaps they will send more guards t’ pay heed to the bridge.” I’d softened the tone of my voice, and walked towards where I thought she was. I’d surmised she might be afraid. I figured she needed the comfort. I found myself halted with a stern word and audible huff. The bounty from our search was in a pile close enough for me to reach, so I lost nothing when she hustled her charge off.
I made token protest at her leaving, apologizing, but inside, I was overjoyed. I had a clue. I wasn’t ready to bring it to the guard, so I quickly rinsed myself off in the river then gathered the treasures we had found. By no means was the knife enough. I had to find more to prove Dana was murdered. I slipped across the bridge, again using the cane to tap my way forward.
The knife was foremost in my mind, and I wanted to find out if it had any relevance. It had been found fairly close to the bridge, which surprised me. With the current of the river, it should have been long gone, but then...so should the corpse, the cane, and every other little treasure we could have found. I was confused how it would come to land so close to the bridge, so close to where I’d fallen the night before. That triggered the realization that she would not have been pushed from the bridge where I found her. I stopped in my tracks. I decided it was important that I find a bridge further upstream from which she might have been tossed.
I’d not gotten far from the river, so I turned and made my way back. When the rush of sound was loud enough for me to wince, and I felt the spray of water darting up to brush against my legs, I got on my hands and knees, tucking the cane into my belt. It was awkward, but I figured I wouldn’t lose it that way. Crawling carefully, I managed to reach the edge of the water, and pressed myself onto my belly. The spray splashed up and got caught in my beard, which made me smile, as I remembered how Natallia used to love to swim. It only took a few moments before the pang of loss brought me back to reality, and I darted my hand into the water, feeling for the direction of the current.
Once that was established, I crawled back a few paces, scraping my knee on a pebble. The curse came to my lips but I managed not to voice it. I stood carefully, freed my cane from its resting place, and took a deep breath of the air. I faced the direction the current came from, placed the cane in my right hand, and began to trail it along, following the river’s edge. When the wood sunk too much, I corrected the path, so I didn’t get too close to the danger zone. The last thing I needed was to take another swim.
“Aren’t you a touch old to be playing at the river, friend?” The voice startled me out of my task, and made my heart skip not one, but several beats. I inhaled and forced a smile to my lips. The voice had come from a man. I’d presumed him to be young, for he still had a musical cant to his voice that many of the elders lost when reality bit them. The air still smelled of the river, but there was a touch of a rose-oil scent as well. I pinned him as a fop, the sort of man I’d once have made into easy prey.
“It be me elixir of youth,” I said, smiling in the direction the voice had come from. “I do this e’ery week, to remind meself I am alive.”
“Is that so?” I heard a sneer in his voice, and bit back an angry retort. “Fancy I should never have seen you here before.”
“Aye?” I decided to go for the ridiculous, try to beg a laugh off of the man. “Mebbe ye are losing yer eyesight?” I was getting annoyed, as the man was delaying me from my task. While I waited for the conversation to end, I found myself rolling the cane in my hand, and even had begun bouncing it from palm to palm while the point remained in the mud.
The man’s voice went suddenly hard and stopped my fidgeting as if a sword had chopped off my hands. “Oh, I don’t think so. What are you doing on my property?”
“Just walking.” I kept reminding myself to keep it simple. Men who got too complicated in their lies often lost track of them, and I couldn’t afford to lose track of mine, I told so many. The idea clicked in my head to try to gain information from the smooth landowner. “And I’ve been wantin’ to cross the river. There ae bridge up ahead?”
A chill brushed me. I didn’t move, didn’t turn around as if I could see. The next sound I heard was a loud crunching sound, but whatever he was chewing on gave off no scent. When he finished chomping, he replied “Aye. Not far. Don’t you see it?”
I felt my jaw clench and forced it to loosen before I replied to him. “Nae. I canna. Thank ye, sir...”
“Nigel. Nigel Thornsby.” The tone of aristocracy assured me that I had good reason to freeze in my tracks. Nigel was a companion of Devon’s, though not a friend. Devon and he had gone to school together, and Devon had often laughed about the pranks he and his friends had graced Nigel’s life with. The stories had come coupled with free drinks, so I’d never hesitated to ignore them. Nigel also had the honor of having been Dana’s first love, who she was forbidden to marry, for it would not have been beneficial to her family. There would be no love lost from him towards Devon, and he might even hold resentment for Dana. I suddenly found myself torn between fleeing and trying to pry information from this man, though he was not the suspect Devon had keyed me onto.
“You are blind?” Nigel’s voice shocked me out of my reverie. It wasn’t spoken kindly, though that was hardly a surprise. Nor did it sound like a question.
“Aye,” I said, although voicing it wasn’t required. “I was just...”
“Tresspassing,” Nigel said. “Walking along the river, blind, without using that cane you dart between your hands. You lie. You’re not blind.” My jaw clenched, and fury rose in my gut.
“Try me.” The words came out as a low growl, far more dangerous than was wise. “Ye think blindness is a jest? Sommat I should be faking for the fun of it? Why do I want tae be tresspassing on yer lands anyhow? What have you got to hide?” I was angry, and speaking far more boldly to the gentleman than I should have. I realized that a bit too late, though. I felt myself grabbed by the front of my tunic, and I gasped. I decided to gamble. “If ye kill me, ye admit I’m right. And me friends know I’m here.”
“And? Why would anyone listen to beggars?” He sounded smug.
“One o’ them is the guardsman, Adrian.”
I was soon on my feet again, but I had no idea which way I was facing. It annoyed me that I’d forgotten that noblemen train in combat as a hobby. I was getting old, I was out of shape, and I’d been sloppy. Hands pushed me in a direction, and I moved in it, keeping an ear out for the river. I didn’t dare turn around for fear the noble Nigel was close behind me. I continued until I reached the bridge, then turned to cross it. I figured, if I couldn’t walk the river on one side, I should try the other. I’d learned long ago that a thief who gives up after one try lives a long and hungry life.
I could tell it was almost noon by the time I reached the bridge because of my rumbling stomach and the heat upon my face. I faced a dilemma. If I tried to search the area in broad daylight, someone might wonder and grow suspicious. On the other hand, if I delayed, some important piece of information might be washed away.
I was painfully aware how foolish it would be for me to turn around after spending so long getting here and walk away, having done nothing. My ego wouldn’t permit it, so I felt my way to the edge of the water, and began prodding around with my cane.
My patience was not tested, but the effort was rewarded when the end got caught upon something. I pushed back upon the handle of my cane, using it to lift the item from the water. My other hand worked its way down the length until it closed upon a soggy pile of something limp. I found my way to the edge of the bridge and sat down to examine it.
My fingertips caught at the many holes within it, each of them so tiny as to fit my pinky, but no more. My guess from the feel of it was that it was lace, a large portion of it, enough material for a shawl or a very wide scarf. As I continued to fondle it I came upon a long gash. Hooked into one edge of the gash was a small twig. I slipped the material into the back-folds of my shoulder, and stood up.
Elation with my discovery was balanced by bitterness and regret. My gut told me I was missing something at that bridge, but I was equally certain that I needed my vision to find it. I scowled, and murmured “Blast!”
The sound of that word triggered something within me. I laughed out loud. I didn’t care who saw or heard me, I just let it all flow. The laughter continued as I turned on my heel, used the cane to verify I was heading back downstream, and began to strut forward.
Adriana planned to use me as her ears in the streets. I was amused because I realized that I could use her as my eyes. I tried to imagine her reaction to me barging into the guardhouse and demanding she come with me and grope around on the ground looking for something that might not be there. The laughter renewed itself.
I found myself rehearsing the conversation as I walked. “Guardsman, you will come with me to the bridge.”
“Why?” I did my best to keep her answers brief.
“To make mudpies and feed ‘em to the birdies.” A snigger escaped my lips as I remembered the first time she and I had done that. “And t’see if we can find ourselves sommat interesting under the bridge?”
“Aonghus MacGregor,” I imagined her chastising me. “I am NOT that kind of man.”
“I ken, sir. I ken.”
All the amusing conversation that I’d had with myself on the walk to grab her didn’t prepare me for her reaction, though. I was almost disappointed when she responded “Of course,” without missing a beat.
I was even more disappointed when she told me that she didn’t need me at the bridge with her as she poked around. I was about to leave the guardhouse and return to sulk at my room when I remembered the two pieces of evidence I still had with me. I decided to keep the knife so I could try to match the point to Dana’s wound, but I had no clue what to do with the lace. I decided to offer Adriana a deal.
“Adrian? Can I talk with ye privately?” I let my voice quiver a little, to give a semblance of frailty. “Aye, Ghus. Come in here.” I felt my arm grasped firmly, but not painfully as I was ushered into a different room. It was only after the door slammed shut that she spoke again.
I figured it would be wisest to let a few of my cards fall face-up and honest. “Lass, I be wantin’ tae deal with ye. I’ve got information about Lady Dana that ye might find interesting, but I want tae be at least half o’ the reason this mess gets solved. ‘tis a promise I made to her brother.”
“Why, Ghus! It sounds like you have a conscience after all!” Her voice was teasing, as I remembered it from long ago, but it hardened suddenly. “We have no desire to have you involved.”
“Yer lying.” My own eyes went wide when I said that, and I clasped my hands over my mouth, berating myself for saying it. There was a long pause, and then I felt Adrian’s hand on my arm again. I was so stunned with having said that comment that I offered little resistance as I was half-dragged from the room and down some gravelly path that crunched under my feet.
It was only after we’d gone quite a bit and I heard no sound of breathing save hers and mine, and no voices anywhere near that she spoke again. “How did you know that?” Her tone was half-accusing, but there was an urgency that scared me.
“I dinna ken!” I was shaking at that point. For the first time in a long time I was being completely honest, and I knew she wouldn’t believe me. She didn’t. She shook me hard, then stopped. I heard her mumble an apology for being so rough on me, but I was privately grateful that she was. It meant she wouldn’t treat me like I was blind.
“Ghus.” Her tone was that of a torturer who had lost his temper, and now strove to start fresh. “Tell me when you think I’m lying.” This was followed with a series of statements that I responded to.
“Ghus, you can see.” Her voice was deadpan, and I winced that she’d begun with that question.
“Liar.” I scowled.
“I am really a woman,” she continued without pause.
“Lass, ye ken ye aire, and I dinna find this amusing.” My fingers were itching, and I felt weak at the knees.
“Devon’s sister is dead.” I heard a quiver in her voice, then shook myself. The tingling was missing, so I knew she spoke true.
“My partner has a mole the size of a child’s fist on his left cheek” Having never been able to see her partner, I was taken by surprise when I called her on the lie.
The next falsehood she spoke nearly choked me. My whole body wracked with pain from the sudden buzzing around me. “Your fiancee is alive.”
There was no telling if the tears that flew to my eyes were because it was a lie...or because I wished it were not. I must have looked like a ghost, because Adriana apologized, and continued with less personal fibs and truths.
“Ghus, you have a magic talent.” And I knew it was true. Likewise, I knew it was true when she told me that she did as well.
I felt cold, suddenly. The quivering began in the pit of my stomach and spread out, like the building of a storm at sea. I hadn’t been aware that I had sat, but I had. I couldn’t speak, though I tried. I felt Adriana’s hands grab mine as she tried to help me steady myself. She was talking, but I couldn’t understand a word. I felt like I was swimming through a pond of molasses.
Me as a magician seemed ridiculous. What’s more, it was dangerous. While most people accepted that there was the unknown, and held to their superstitions, witches were still burned and scorned, and warlocks? My hands went to my chest, and I breathed out, as if the rocks were already pressing against my ribs.
“How...” I began to speak, then stopped, shaking my head. I rolled to my hands and knees. The cane was under one of my palms, so I lifted it as I lifted myself. My jaw set as I lifted my chin. “Turn aroond, lass.”
“Because I hae a pebble up me arse. Unless ye want to pull it out for me?” My voice was still shaky, and I kept breathing deeply, trying to calm myself. I had no idea if she had turned around, but I decided she’d had enough time, so I reached back and dislodged the offending object. “How long have ye known ye had...had...”
“Magic?” Her voice was in my ear. The cursed woman had not turned around, but at least she’d had the grace not to laugh. “Since I ran from home. I’d disguised myself as a boy, and was so afraid people would see through it and send me home...but nobody did. It worked so well the first few times, that I tried not binding myself...”
“Binding yerself?” I was curious, and the grin skidded across my face. I was calmer by then, and her talk was helping me accept my own ability.
“Ghus, you know what I mean, and you can stop grinning like a madman. It’s bad enough you’re all muddy. What have you been doing? Rolling with the pigs?”
“Searchin’ the bridge upstream o’ where the body was found.” My smile was quickly banished. “So, ye tried not binding yerself. And?”
“Nobody noticed I wasn’t a boy. Eventually, I tried going out with only a boy’s pants, and nothing on top...” I felt her hand smack my arm as I laughed. “Big mistake. That’s not enough for the illusion. Why were you searching?” She thought I wouldn’t catch her slipping in the query. I let her believe that, and answered her question.
“Because I promised her brother. I’ve got t’meet up with the man he said raped her, find out what he’s like, but I’m sure I missed sommat at the bridge.”
“I’ll go there. Well, Ghus...if you can handle this, your talent could prove very useful. Do you think you’re all right?”
I answered her truthfully. “Nae.” I smacked my hands together, and rubbed them together, as if trying to keep warm. “Meet me tonight, in front o’ the guardhouse, and we’ll share notes.”