Darkness did not deter the people of Crossroads from going about their business. The town’s streets swelled with people who wandered from shop to shop. Whereas other towns in the region had emptied, Crossroads was full with folks who had come from outlying areas to sample its entertainments and middle class luxuries. They came here to avoid passing a dull winter, all while boxed inside a fine wall that protected the town from the elements.
The church that Friar Lorrence served summoned him and his assistant to minister to both temporary and permanent residents. They did so, understanding the value of this town to their order. This town would someday be the gateway to the northern and western parts of the peninsula.
Novice Wyte wandered the cobbled streets in the twilight with a dull expression on his face. To him this was no tourist mecca but merely a place with people to aide and observe. His duties were many. He called upon the old and comforted the sick. In between these visits his eyes looked at the unfamiliar faces among the crowd — the outsiders who betrayed themselves with their clipped accents and refined clothes.
Among these faces was a familiar one from one of the villages north of this town. He debated whether to follow that man, for it was none of his business what the person might be doing here alone. Just as he thought to turn down another street, the man swerved around to meet him.
Novice Wyte almost bumped into the man but caught himself before he tripped.
“I recognize you,” the man stared.
The name of this man came back to the novice. Wyte stammered, “You’re Rolf. You’re from the Winchester Hunter’s Guild, aren’t you?” His eyes drifted about meaningfully as he looked about for the man’s usual companions.
The younger man’s chin jutted out defiantly. “I suppose I am. You seem to know us better than we thought. And I’m alone because I’m supposed to meet several mates down here for an errand. Wondering if you’ve seen them.”
Wyte meekly shook his head. “I haven’t seen any familiar faces.”
The hunter shrugged. “They were supposed to head down here from a hunt but none have showed. Smythe and Jones were their names. Seen them up in Winchester?”
Wyte suddenly began to suspect that this Rolf might be lying about his true purpose. The guildmaster usually made this place off-limits to the younger men. However, the clergyman kept his expression friendly and vacant. “No, I haven’t. The father and I have been here a while. We haven’t had a chance to go back up north. If I see them, where should I tell them to find you?”
The man grinned and leered. “The Pumpkin Patch. I suppose you know where it is, cleric?”
Wyte smiled like a fool, choosing not to respond to the insolent question. The place was a well-known house of ill-repute, part pub, part whorehouse located in a generally seedy area. While it was impossible not to know where it was, he would not admit anything that could allow the man to mock him or the church further. Father Lorrence might show even this sort of depraved person some compassion, but he did not. Gravely he answered, “I shall tell them that is where you are.”
Rolf laughed meanly. “You do that, clergyman.” Suddenly he leaned in and grabbed Wyte’s arm. The passersby stared at them both, eager to see if there might be a brawl to catch. “And I better not find you following me about while I’m here. I like my life the way it is. Don’t need anyone telling me what to do.”
After the man stomped off to a nearby pub, Wyte looked about and waved off the onlookers. He smiled as best as he could, as if to suggest that the interaction had been completely normal. The novice guessed the comment had nothing to do with him but could not guess what had upset the hunter so. He would have to consult the good friar later after he assisted the church staff in distributing alms.
As he walked down the main road, a flash of red appeared in his periphery. He turned his head quickly, wondering if it was that girl from that northern town. But as he started to fall in behind the figure, he realized the woman cloaked by the red attired was far taller than the Miss Redley he had acquainted himself with.
The hooded woman did not have the same gait. She walked quickly with purpose and carried something odd at her side.
‘A King’s Man,’ he thought.
He debated whether to attempt to pursue her and talk to her but decided not to. She was slipping back into the shadows likely doing some observing of her own.
For now, he moved on.
* * *
Friar Lorrence sat in the room which doubled as both parlor and storage closet for the eccentric man known as Harriman Winters. The clergyman ignored the oddly stuffed brown bear that served as the cover to the backboard of the chair he sat upon. He felt guilty that he had let Wyte do all the rounds this morning alone while he enjoyed a rare medicinal wine with an old friend.
Harry used to be an adventurer, the kind of man who would purposefully seek out new places and people. Now quite advanced in his old age, he had become a rather disorganized merchant who had dealings with nearly everyone who passed through this town. If there was something interesting to sell or buy, Harry Winters was the man to seek first.
Merchant Winters had established his abode in Crossroads many years ago. As such he was one of the few men who could explain to the Friar the reason for the sudden influx of visitors to the town.
It was with a big smile the old man explained the town’s recent evolution. “Seems stories been circulating about the kind of things that can be seen when the eclipse comes to totality. Lots of beautiful stars to see and some strange creatures to be discovered. So you attract pleasure seekers and trophy hunters. And those who follow money.”
“I just hope no one gets hurt,” the Friar shook his head. “You and I both know the backwoods aren’t a place for amateurs. I’m surprised they’re not scared off by stories of bogeymen and wolves and bears.”
“We weren’t.” The portly old man grinned at the friar, and they both chuckled. “So, speaking of scaredy cats how is the novice working out for you?”
The novice had failed to make a good impression on Harriman but the Friar was determined to change the merchant’s mind. “He’s mellowed quite a bit. He’s not all that good with people, but he’s good with books and his sermons have been well received. He is handy with food and doesn’t complain about my bit of port after dinner.”
Harry shook his head. “You and your supposed vice. As if you ought to be apologizing for it! You know you could have had an easier life.”
“Oh I know,” Lorrence sighed. “But I don’t regret it at all. I don’t mind being poor or being cold and hungry half the time. My conscience allows me to sleep well at night.”
The merchant snorted. “And speaking of do-gooders, how is that woman Adele? Been hearing a bit down here about that mayor. Her husband would be rolling over in his grave at the way she continues to carry about. He’d be annoyed at her for ruining her health.”
Harriman was not afraid to speak roughly of an otherwise untouchable figure in the region. His intimate acquaintance with the former Mr. Winchester gave him an insight into the family that few had.
The clergyman kindly tried to placate the merchant. “She has her granddaughter with her now, so I suppose things will improve. The girl turned out to be some kind of apprentice healer. A bit of a surprise I think to the townsfolk. They seem to talk about her quite a bit.”
“Is the boy still helping Adele?” Harriman struggled for a moment, his white bushy eyebrows twitching as he tried to recall the name that had been given to the young boy by the former mayor. “Edmund was it?”
The friar nodded. “He is for the moment but I’m not sure for how long. It seems that Alistair’s plan worked. The boy fell in love with his granddaughter and it’s not all that clear that she returns his feelings.”
“Ah, that cunning old bastard.” Harriman shook his head. “Alistair loved him too much to NOT meddle in his life. I had a feeling he was grooming him to take over as the man of the house and possibly more. But the era of self-governance is about to end, I’m sure. Our mayor is sick of the administrative drivel and has been threatening retirement for several years. He hasn’t said anything yet because that’d upset our stability. But our new young king has sent messengers ahead you know. I bet they’re streaming out across the land surveying what they want to take and how to do it. I’m glad I’ll not be alive long enough to see it.”
“There, there,” the Father shook his head. “You know that’s just rumors.”
“Bah,” Harriman sat back in his chair and stared up at the bear head that adorned the top of it. “You and you clergy always keeping your mouth shut. Afraid the king might turn you all out of his domains. But if you won’t talk, then I won’t have anyone to talk politics with. Are you trying to doom me to gossiping about the boy instead?”
The Friar rubbed his forehead sheepishly, wondering if he was too transparent to others. He had wanted to talk about Edmund further. “I slipped up a bit and gave him your name. Didn’t quite tell him exactly where to find you, but I think he might at some point. I said you had seen things that I hadn’t.”
Winters blanched. He took a sip of wine before speaking again. “I don’t know about that. I just thought I saw things. It might be wrong”
The friar knew his friend was lying. “By the way, I gave him back that odd metal charm. The one that Alistair found sewn inside his things.”
The old man looked down at his cup. “I’ll not be scolding or praising you for that, dear friar. I’d be curious to know if the boy likes that charm. Have him write me first if you can.”
Lorrence gave his friend a keen look. Harriman was the well-traveled one, the one who had always understood things that he couldn’t. The Mayor was like that as well, always seeing a different picture than others. He suspected the man knew more than he admitted. “He’s not in danger is he?”
The merchant sighed. “I don’t know, Lorrence. You know it better than I do. I’ve seen it but once while you’ve carried it a long time with you. I know it’s not valuable. It was junk. But did you feel it was odd?”
“No,” the friar paused. “But why would I?”
“No, why would you?” Harriman sat back in his chair and stroked the bear-covered arm of his chair. “It probably is nothing more than a memento of some sort. Something his ma and pa inherited. You never know with those folks up north. They had some strange beliefs.”
The Friar looked glum. “That’s not all that reassuring. I wish you would let me send a message and tell him to find you. I feel odd about just giving it to him like that and then say nothing further.”
“Not now,” the man warned. “You best leave it alone for a bit. This isn’t a time for traveling you know. We hear stories here about foolish folk venturing out and not coming back. Even if it’s drunken rumors, the boy has waited twenty years to find things out. For his sake, he can wait a few months more.”
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