And here we are with Chapter Two of The Old Ways. Chapter One had a mixed response. I’m a little curious to see if some of the concerns are addressed with Chapter Two, or if this is, in the end, more of the same. It’s a significantly different style than most of my other writing, which might or might not be a good thing.
Anyway, remember this series goes to chapter five, and then goes to the back of my brain to ferment. In the meantime, enjoy!
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There are many names and looks you think of when I mention the name of Jessica Berwick, daughter of Sir Arlen Berwick, whose great-great-grandfather had been the Earl of Leincaster and who himself showed distinction in the War of the Succession and two forays against Drake. Certainly, she is remembered vividly. It’s still not uncommon to see a man pay for meal and drink with a sovereign that bears her likeness even today.
But cast your thoughts back with me, to the girl of seventeen that Jack Shrewsbury first saw on that wet morning on Owl’s Head, at the very beginning of the journey. Was there any sign of the woman and more she would become in that girl’s form and voice? Any outward sign?
I rather think not. The journey — the foolish quest she pushed onto the five through the willing agency of Sir Roderick — heralded many things for the world we live in today. But for those who rode from Owl’s Head that day, and the one they found along the way, it was nothing less than a kiln. A crucible, separating out the baseness of their youth.
Certainly, of course, Jack knew none of this the day he rode to the estate of Sir Roderick Owles, Lord of the Manor of Owl’s Head, who he served as groundskeeper and gamekeeper, and followed to war when needed. The night before, Jack had asked payment to go on this silly quest that took him far from his content life. Eight guineas and four packets of South Islands tobacco — rare in Fairhaven and sweet. Mellow on the breath and sweet smelling all about. More than once Jack would believe he did not get paid nearly enough.
But as Jack crossed the threshold, and hung his wet cloak and hood and hung his hat on the oak peg, as he joked lightly with Miss Diggit, who met him with tea and who — to be fair to the dead — was rather smote with Jack, or at least the idea of “Mrs. Shrewsbury,” and as he stepped into Sir Roderick’s study, he truly wouldn’t have argued the price. Indeed, in that instant, he would happily have agreed to the mad fool’s errand without obligation at all — or paid for the privilege. For in that moment, Jack Shrewsbury came face to face for the first time with Lady Jessica Berwick.
She was standing near the fire, obviously warming herself after her own journey from Badenton, where she had been keeping with Lord Dale and his wife, friends of the Berwicks going back before Queen Catherine’s accession. She wore a dress of reds and golden yellows, looking almost like the fires of autumn’s leaves as she moved her delicate, white hands before the fire back and forth. Her hair, tied behind her in elaborate braids and knots, was deep brunette close to black, reminding one of opal and obsidian. And as she turned and looked at the newcomer, her eyes were blue flecked with gold, as though the absent sun had found its way into the sky of her eyes.
“Yes?” she asked — snapped, really.
Jack almost shivered and managed, somewhat, to find his voice. “I… that is to say, milady, your… I was asked to come here by Sir Roderick, what as there’s a trip to come and he wished me along — that is to say your journey, as it were. If you are… that is–”
Lady Jessica sighed. “And you are?”
Jack flushed like a child of ten, then, and scrambled to correct his oversight with the lady. “Ah! Jack, Lady, or John would have been my Christian name but those who might want to know me would generally call me Jack. Jack Shrewsbury.”
“And a finer man I’ve rarely known,” Sir Roderick said, pressing in and wearing a deep red travel cloak. “Handy in all ways, true to a fault, and bloodied in war. A good fellow to have along and see to things, don’t you think, my dear?”
“No,” she said, turning with clear distaste. “I do not see, and I am wholly uncertain I am your dear.” Setting her face, she turned back to the fire.
Jack himself flushed again, and half-stammered “ah… if Milady should want me to go, I’ll go now and no mistake. I don’t mean to cause troubles and that’s truth–”
“No no, Jack,” Sir Roderick said, interceding. “No, stay. I won’t hear of it. Now, what’s this, Lady Jessica? Aren’t I allowed my friend on this adventure you’re so keen to take?”
“Your friend?” Lady Jessica flared, whirling on Sir Roderick with a flush and with passion. “That jack-nape who smells of cattle and looks like a tree with hair you name friend and want to bring along on so important a mission, so crucial an undertaking? I knew you were humoring me and nothing more! Go then — go with your cow-man and enjoy yourself! I will seek more pleasant company!”
And Jack flushed again, and looked down at his feet. The girl’s words stung true — he had no business with so excellent a lady, and that was as true as any truth he had heard before.
“Jessica Jessica Jessica,” Sir Roderick said soothingly, and Jack thought the manor lord had mollified the lady before, from his tone and practice. “I do name Jack friend because he is my friend, and an excellent servant. He has followed me twice to Drake and been injured in my service. He is wise to the trail and canny in the woods. And if he smells of game — for game it is, and not cattle as you have said — why that is appropriate, for he is my gamekeeper, and groundskeeper aside. So right there you should see how seriously I take our endeavor.” He slipped behind the simmering woman and laid his hands on her shoulders, rubbing to calm her like a dog whose hackles were up. “For while we are gone to the Northwestern Wall, my fields and grounds and game shall suffer his absence, and the losses I incur could be monumental. Do speak kindly of Jack, my Lady.”
“Your lady. Your companion to keepers of grouse, you mean.”
“My Lady indeed, sweet Jess, and you know that’s so. Besides, I did not complain when you spoke of bringing your friend — Micah of Tosunberry–”
“Micah is needed,” the woman snapped back. “Both because he discovered the prophecies and because elvish magics are necessary to open the Black Lock. He comes because he will be of good use–”
“And so will Jack, my dearest. Great good use, and of a more practical nature than your sorcerer would be. He will drive us and factor for us, protect us and see our nights are warm and dry. Take your wizard — take two dozen Micahs if you wish. But give me my one Jack, and do not speak harshly of it.”
Lady Jessica stared into the fire, and Jack watched as her shoulders drooped slightly, as though Sir Roderick’s hands and the flames in the hearth were melting her. “Well,” she said, “I can see the wisdom of your words, dear Rick. I shall believe you when you say he is of good quality, and give him what benefit of my doubt I can.”
“There. Excellent. Jack, do step forward and let the Lady see you.”
Jack slowly stepped closer into the light, strongly aware of his worn clothing and leathers, and the smell of birds that clung to him in the dampness, and knew he likely looked like a drowned hen himself, if he were lucky.
Lady Jessica looked him over, her lips slightly pursed, and considered the man. “Well,” she said, “I suppose we could use a footman at that, and in that way I can’t help but think you’ll do, sirrah. I apologize if my reaction stung.”
“Stung?” Jack asked. “Oh, no, Lady — not in the least. Simple truth is all you said and all I heard from you, and I could certainly understand how you would feel thus, and apologize most heartily for startling you and for making you cross.”
Lady Jessica nodded slightly, turning back to Sir Roderick. “When shall we leave,” she asked.
“Whenever my lady wishes. I had Corman bring the carriage around front — assuming good Jack’s eaten, as you and I have.”
“Oh, aye. With Mark Kiln and his wife — I’ve asked him to see to the problems with coyotes while we’re away–”
“Yes yes, of course,” Lady Jessica said. “No doubt you and he have cooked up whatever you needed to cook up. I shall gather my things and prepare to leave. I trust you both will need to discuss route?”
“Of course,” Sir Roderick said, settling into a chair and nodding for Jack to take another. “We should be ready whenever you’re done.”
“Very well. Sir Roderick. Goodman.” Jack bowed slightly to Lady Jessica and the girl swirled in her skirts and took the arched doorway out, heading for the staircase.
Sir Roderick settled back in his chair — an older one, and plush, fitting in the bright receiving room. “Well, Jack — that was the Lady Jessica.”
“That… aye, she was at that,” Jack said, taking the chair proffered earlier. “I….”
“I understand, Jack, I understand. I told you there was something tremendous about her, didn’t I?”
“You did at that.” Jack stared into the fire. “I simply didn’t realize….”
Sir Roderick nodded slightly, and reached down to where he had a traveling sack, opening it. “I believe you wanted a packet of the tobacco before we left, yes?”
Jack blinked, shook his head slightly as though to clear it, and turned to Sir Roderick. “I did indeed. It might just barely see me through on such a mad errand as this.”
“It still seems mad to you then?” Sir Roderick asked, handing a leather pouch with a small wrapped brick of the weed in it. “And will you take some of my blond now, and have half a pipe before we start?”
Jack nodded, slipping the pouch of tobacco away and getting out his red wood and blackened clay pipe. It was a good one, with a silver cover to protect the smoldering ash from the wind and elements, letting the smoke out through riveted holes. Handing it to Sir Roderick, he continued to stare into the fire. “We go by way of Leincaster, then?”
“Indeed,” Sir Roderick said absently as he filled their pipes. “We collect this Micah there, and then north through Etonshire until we reach the foothills of the Wall.”
“To seek what?”
“Some keep behind some door — you’ll hear it all as we go, I’m sure. It’s all very romantic, like something Master Palintier would write a play about, or the country folk would sing about in taverns. That sort of thing.”
“But why are we going? Why is it so important to the Lady — if I might ask, and not cause offense, sir?”
Sir Roderick didn’t quite roll his eyes, as he handed the pipe back to Jack and took a wire from the fire to light his own. He drew two fast puffs, and handed the wire to Jack. “Ridiculousness, really,” he said. “This sorcerer found an old snatchet of prophecy or history or the like about the Chalice of Alderesth — you know Alderesth?”
And you might not know of Alderesth the Elf-Lord, wielder of the Sword of Light and consort of Minasata the Dark. Their stories are often skipped in these days, when the Eclipse has so freshly erased the legends of old. Alderesth, who held Ardyrillsa, the Cleaver of Night, and who with Minasata acted as the Stewards of the Elves in those days, but Jack did. Jack who had been raised on tales of the days of the Elves, and of the Six who held the Swords of Destiny’s Edge. And so he said “why yes, yes of course. But I’ve not heard of any Chalice, and I’d think I might have, perhaps, if there were much to it.”
“Well, there are stories about it, but only around Leincastershire. It’s a local legend. Supposedly the Elf’s Host rode through a thousand years before. The local king — or chief or what have you — supposedly saved the life of one of the party’s handmaids, so they gave him a child by that handmaid, and anointed his head with oil from Alderesth’s drinking cup, naming him the Ruler of those environs evermore. The cup was apparently left there, and used in ceremonies of accession and the like. Apparently, Jessica’s forebears were anointed with oil from that cup when they were the Earls of Leincastershire.”
“Oh I see, I see… and so this is something of a family relic for her — ages of glory and all of that? I suppose I can understand wanting to find it and all, but still sir, it seems like rather a lot of trouble for a cup, even a legend’s cup.”
“Well, apparently there’s more to it than that. But… well, I expect you’ll hear about it.” Sir Roderick took another contemplative puff.
“I… rather expect so, yes sir. Well then. Leincaster is about two days ride, along the Willow Road, and from there… it’s not a short trip. Three… four weeks, perhaps, and that would merely get us to those foothills. From there who can tell how long we’ll be?”
“Oh, I am aware of it. Still — while I’m not as dizzy as my dear Lady Jessica about such things… it is exciting in a way, isn’t it? Riding off for lost treasure, in the name of a hopeless cause… the sort of thing a gentleman can write a sonnet or four about. That is worth it in and of itself, don’t you imagine?”
“Well sir, I can’t see making a trip that long for verse, but then I don’t claim to know these things.”
Sir Roderick laughed. “You spend all your time claiming not to know things, Jack — do you know that? Come one — let’s see if the Lady’s ready.”
“As you wish, sir.” Jack stood. “Still — funny, those elves, eh? I mean, letting that King sire a baby with one of them for that, and I suppose leaving the baby with him, I mean, that’s what it sounds like, doesn’t it?”
“It does indeed — but the Elves sired or begot children with mortals all the time. Ask any sorcerer.” Sir Roderick smiled, knowing that only those with Elvish blood could summon and control Elf Magic. “What always startles me is the locals make more of the gift of the chalice, and less of the gift of the child. But then there is little of mystery in children. They’re all around us and sometimes I swear they’re all half-boggart anyhow.”
“As you say sir.” At that, Jack grew silent, for they were walking into the hall, and Lady Jessica, wrapped in a deep blue travel cloak with hood, was descending the stair. She walked with grace and care, her movements careful and controlled. She nodded to Miss Diggit as she reached the landing, and turned to Sir Roderick. “My things are being put onto the carriage, Sir Roderick — I believe I am ready.”
“Right. Let’s us be off then. Get your wraps on, Jack — we should like to reach Leincaster by tomorrow evening if we can.”
“Yes sir, of course, of course.” Jack made his way to the door, where Miss Diggit had his things ready, and helped him to put them on. “I’ll be ready in moments, sir.”
“Good enough,” Sir Roderick said. “Come, let us board, my dear Jess.”
Lady Jessica nodded, smiling and bouncing impatiently. “It’s so exciting, isn’t it? Getting going — starting our adventure?”
“Indeed it is, indeed it is.” Sir Roderick offered his arm to Lady Jessica, and the two walked out together, Corman meeting them with a parasol to keep the wet off them.
“Now you listen, you,” Miss Diggit said to Jack as he put his cloak about himself again, and set his hat on his head. “You keep yourself dry and warm up on that carriage. I’ll not have you catching your death in the name of swift travel, do you hear me?”
“I do and so does half the house, you’re shouting it so loud, Miss Diggit. I’ve kept the wet off before.”
“Well, I suppose that’s true enough. Here. A sack of food that should keep, and two flasks of Kierish red whiskey — if that doesn’t keep you warm I really don’t know what could.”
Jack nodded. “It should — and thank you. Have they been provided for or shall I expect to feed them out of this?”
“Oh — they’ve been provided for — though no doubt you’ll have to heat it, you mark my words.”
“That’s why I’m going, it seems. It will be well, honestly.”
“Well then. Just keep yourself.”
Jack nodded, and made his way out to the carriage. The rain was harder now, almost driving. He tightened his hat and made sure the cloak’s hood was in place, and climbed up into place on the carriage.
I think often of Miss Diggit myself. I think Old Jack did as well. He certainly would talk about her late into the evening, when he’d had a bit too much bitters. A sweet girl — heavy and content with her lot in life. I think perhaps Jack would have been happy if he’d married her and lived with her in the Keeper’s cottage on Owl’s Head, raising children and arguments for the rest of their lives. I think perhaps that might have been worth more to him than eight guineas and four packets of tobacco.
But whether or not he would have been happier with Miss Diggit and Owl’s Head, he took the reins up in his gloved hands. He crouched under the overcrop as best he could to keep the rain off, and with a pull the carriage began to pull forward along the roundabout, turning towards the trail to the Willow Road. Inside the carriage, he could hear the two of them laughing about something, and he held that laughter, from those sweet lips. Laughter like the sound of doves in the morning. He held that close, and considered himself a lucky man.