Here we have Chapter Three. Some of the feedback’s been quite amazing, and I’m really glad to get it. I get the feeling a number of people like The Old Ways, at least in theory, but the execution is a bit off.
On the other hand, I think this chapter begins to move more towards narrative and less towards storytelling devices (though not all of the way, of course), and people might think it’s finding its place now. Or not. We’ll see. Regardless, enjoy!
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There are times of the year that are not good for travel in Fairhaven, and which few people would recommend a serious expedition. The early autumn is one of those, and this was about when Lady Jessica Berwick had decided to travel to the Northeastern Wall in pursuit of a Prophecy. To be fair to Lady Jessica, one could call mid-September a late summer as easily as an early autumn, but either way, it was well into the rainy season when they had set forth on their trip.
This might seem unwise, but ask yourself — do you delay travel or business because of the rains? Do you even fear the winter when it comes to your travels and business. It is fair to say you do not — we would never get anything done otherwise, after all. And in the days before the Three Wars of the Sundering, and the Eclipse of Progress, mankind had gone as far to conquer his environment as we have today. The carriage that the Lady and Sir Roderick rode in itself is a fine example — it was warm and dry within, well padded though not truly opulent. Opulence would be wrong for a journey such as this. They could ride and comport themselves in relative comfort even through the gales and storms.
And Jack? Jack was not distressed with rain and wind. He had his clothing, and what protection there was in his perch, as he drove the horses on. His gloves and cloak kept the wet off, as did his hat and hood. While it might not be a pleasant day to travel, it was in its own way endurable.
Part of that endurance, of course, were regular stops, and along the Willow Road there were many — inns and taverns and small villages that had cropped up specifically to draw business from the travelers that passed through. And if Lady Jessica grumbled a bit when they would stop so Jack could get some warmth into himself, she did not do so loudly. She might have found Jack somewhat crude, but she had resigned herself to Sir Roderick’s whim. Besides, Jack’s presence meant she could have her fiancee with her, keeping her company as they rode. Their conversation was gentle. At first, Lady Jessica’s words were full of the Quest, and of the Prophecy, and of excitement and the supposed restoration of her due….
Ah, but you have not yet heard the Prophecy, or know the reasons behind it. That is not much spoken of late. So sad, really. One should understand the whys behind the great stories. One should understand what began everything that came after. Well, you shall hear the prophecy in turn, as they travel. And you may see the flaw that Lady Jessica did not, but Ed the Hawk did, too late, even as Sir Roderick and Jack did not believe in and Micah did not care about the consequences.
But that is neither here nor there. The conversation ranged after a time. It is nearly impossible to be enthusiastic for very long without having to shift topics. They discussed gossip and the Court — though the Berwicks were no longer the Lords of Leincastershire, Sir Arlen was himself quite in fashion as one of Queen Catherine’s courtiers. He had acquitted himself most well in the Drakish War, and as a result he and his family were welcome in Baden. Lady Jessica herself had attended the Queen as a Lady-in-Waiting more than once. Of course, she was considered somewhat flighty in Baden, but well spoken nonetheless. And Sir Roderick himself was a rakish man and a canny courtier. Possessed of Owl’s Head and a considerable savings and salary — which you ought to have inferred by the princely sum he could pay even a friend to be footman and chauffeur, regardless of the length of time the trip would take — Sir Roderick had access to Baden through the city of Alberta which in those days was at the end of the Capital Bay on one side and the Willow Road on the other, and which even today Albertashire in Fairhaven is named. Though Sir Roderick was of good breeding, he was wise in business and fortunate in investment, which made him a rarity — an aristocrat with a merchant’s pocketbook. And, as Bets was wont to say back at Owl’s Head, made him perhaps too good a match for Lady Jessica, whose family no longer had Leincastershire four generations gone, and whose father had the Queen’s favor, but little in the way of money or land of any sort. But Sir Roderick was in love, and having beheld the woman herself, Jack could hardly have blamed him.
But while Lady Jessica’s station and savings were of no consequence to Sir Roderick, they were something the Lady herself was aware of. Oh yes, they were.
But again I am ahead of my story — rambling on the players rather than setting them in motion. Forgive me.
The party stopped three times that Wednesday they set forth: the first after they reached the Willow Road from the roads and paths they had followed from Owl’s Head — three hours and the most bumpy of the day. They stopped at the West Wind Tavern and refreshed themselves. Lady Jessica was somewhat impatient, but Sir Roderick went in with Jack and bought him mulled wine to help warm him. They took enough time to visit with the locals and smoke a pipe or so, while Lady Jessica concentrated mostly on taking a small glass of wine herself — it was too soon since breakfast for her to consider a luncheon just yet. But she did get Sir Roderick to purchase a small packet of dried apples for the journey.
The second stop they made at the Albert’s Tip Inn — a stop of necessity as it was quite past lunch and towards dinner at that point. The storm had been rather vicious that day, as well, and while Jack was quite secure in his wraps, water had begun to creep in. First up his arms as the wind blew, dampening his shirt and the underside of the oiled leathers and then back down in drops as he set his hands down on the bench or reached for his flask or his food. And then along the insides of his legs in his trousers and into his boots. Not a wet that would freeze him to the bone or even chill him during the day, but enough of a wet that he would begin to dream of dryness, like it were a place one could go. Thirteen miles to dryness, he would think to himself. Now ten, now five….
He tied off at the Albert’s Tip, and tossed a threepence piece to the boy set to watch the post, and then opened the door of the carriage for Lady Jessica and Sir Roderick.
Lady Jessica stepped out first, accepting Jack’s hand and looking him up and down as she descended. “You look an utter fright,” she said, frowning slightly. “Is there nothing you can do against that?”
“Nothing in this wind and rain, Ma’am,” Jack replied, not offended by her words. They were true enough, he reasoned, but at the same time no source of shame.
“Perhaps not, but still — get yourself in and try to comport yourself. This will simply not do.”
“Come, Jess,” Sir Roderick said, exciting behind the Lady, “do be charitable. Jack’s seen us here in good time. Why, we’re practically in Leincastershire, and it’s early, yet. We might perhaps see Tosunberry by midday on the morrow, not evening as we’d thought.”
Lady Jessica’s mouth opened, and then she nodded curtly. “That’s so,” she said, “and I do not mean to be cross with you, Jack. I know you’ve the brunt of the journey. Still though, let us get you inside and somewhere closer to clean and dry — you smell all the more like a drowned dog than even before, and that I did not think possible.”
Jack nodded, and walked the pair, parasol in hand, to the door of the inn, then returned to button up the carriage.
“She’s quite the one, eh,” the stable boy said. “Expecting you to be in hose and garters after a ride on the Willow in a storm, eh?”
Jack looked at the boy coldly. “The Lady expects those about her to comport themselves accordingly, I’d say, and who am I or you to deny that, eh? I’ll tell you once to keep your tongue civil, and not a second time.” He pulled the meal bag and the long cover that held the wheellock down and headed for the door.
“I’ve seen Ladies afore,” the boy muttered, setting to the task of attending to the horses. “But they knew the difference between the clouds and the rain, at the least.”
Jack did not answer. In a way, Jack could not hear. Nothing the boy could have said would have penetrated his oiled clothing to his ears. Far more than his clothes, the sight of the Lady, seared in from that first moment in Owl’s Head, remained in mind and on eye, like the spotty scar a candle flame leaves on your eye when you stare at it too long. Perhaps that image would fade, but for that moment his vision was fully obscured with her.
The Lady herself sat within, near the fire. Sir Roderick was arranging for food and hot drink over by the bar, so for that moment, though fine enough to attract a certain attention of the passers-by, Lady Jessica was alone. She watched as Jack walked in, and unwrapped his cloak and set it on a peg. He removed his wet hat, and threw his head from side to side, almost like a large, shag covered dog fresh from a lake, with water spiraling in the firelight to either side, and began almost a curious dance of clothing, as he shook the water off himself and pulled off outer layers, revealing the damp man beneath them.
Lady Jessica stared, transfixed almost in horror, as she watched the process of Jack’s drying. It was as though a savage from the Midsouth Seacoast had taken the place of her driver, and was letting his wild ways infect the room of the tavern around him. And she turned away, shuddering.
“A chill, my love?” Sir Roderick asked, sitting next to her. “That carriage has a draft, I swear it. I’ll have Jack look at it, after he’s had a chance to eat and warm himself.”
“I would he were not so course,” she said, turning to Sir Roderick. “It’s unseemly.”
“Unseemly? He is no more course than half the farmers or artisans in this room. Come, my dear — you must truly leave off of Jack. He has served us well, has he not?”
“Oh yes, and I would lie to say otherwise. I would not dream of dismissing your Jack,” she said. “But it is simple truth that he is base, and we are on a mission that will exalt us, are we not?”
“As you say, my dear, I shall swear to it. But Jack–”
“I am not quite finished. It would be seemly for Jack to be exalted as well, would it not?”
“Jack? What do you mean?”
“Well, come Rod. Surely you would not deny your friend is of good quality — though I have not yet seen it, you are the one who told me of his quality and I did believe you. A most excellent quality, as you said.”
“Of course — and he is, and more. But will you remake him? Cast him in the light of a squire from your stories and books?”
Lady Jessica laughed. “No no, do be reasonable, Rod. Jack would no more make a Knight than I would make a nightingale. But he can be a truly fine man nonetheless. Let me take and mold him, remake him in the light of our Quest. Let me teach him gentility. Do let me recast him, as you say, and make the metal gleam, not lie black from the cooking fire.”
And Sir Roderick laughed. “You make it sound so simple, my dear. Do as you will — I think he will not argue.”
“Perhaps he will not at that. You got us food?”
“It will come. Jack will no doubt bring it to us.”
And Jack himself would certainly agree. He had by now made his way to the barkeep, and put a penny down on its old pine wood. “Something a bit hot,” he said. “It’s the Ragman’s rain out there and no doubt.”
“Aye,” the barkeep said. “And keep your bit — the gentleman saw to your need. To where do you ride on a day such as this? Leincaster?”
“Hah — you might be the first I’ve ever heard gone up there, and no lie that.”
“Aye.” Jack picked up the steaming cider mug even as it was set down, and drank deep. “I hadn’t thought the apples right for hard cider. Not yet.”
“First of the Applejack. Mmm — Tosunberry’s yet a day and a half or more. You’ll be wanting to leave the Willow Road come Haldane’s Corners, I think.”
“That soon? I thought perhaps to come to the outlie of Leincaster, then divert?”
“Eh? No no, not that way — the road off that way’s horrid — just a span where tree’sve been cleared. No, go up the Haldane’s Corners route. Faster, too, and the ruts are deep enough you barely need to drive.”
“As though that were a point. Wish the Willow Road came closer to Tosunberry?”
“Aye? Well, I wish the rain would cause my well to overflow with gold, but it hasn’t happened yet.”
“That’s so. Did Sir Roderick order food?”
“Eh? He did — there, on the end of the bar. Wilma must have left it there while we debated roads.”
“Ah — well enough, well enough. Mmm — stay the night at Haldane’s Corners, then. Get up fresh and we’ll be ready for the trip. Thank you and kindly, sir.”
And so Jack lifted the food and carried it over to Sir Roderick and Lady Jessica. The Lady was half-asleep by the time he had arrived — the peculiar fatigue of travel taking her. Sir Roderick nodded amiably, drawing another puff on his pipe — a fine pipe it was. Its clay bowl was broad, with a plate of silver not unlike Jack’s to protect the ash, and a long curved stem of jet with gold inlay. A good amount of money, that pipe represented. Sir Roderick had owned it as long as Jack could remember.
“Well met, sir. I’m going to get some food in me and perhaps doze as the Lady seems to be.”
“Excellent plan. You’ve had a day of it, for certain. How fare the horses?”
“Well enough. They’re strong, and I expect after a rest they’ll be ready for another bout. I’ve spoken to the innkeep, and he suggests we divert for Tosunberry in Haldane’s Corners. If we go somewhat into the evening, we might make Haldane’s Corners tonight, and make a good run for Tosunberry on the morrow, then.”
“Mm — well, I expect he knows the roads better than we. I certainly have never gone to Tosunberry. I wasn’t aware anyone actually lived there. It was just a mark on the map, required by the Queen’s Census and attested to by Leincastershire’s Sheriff in the name of his budget.”
Jack chuckled and took out his red ash pipe. He opened the packet of tobacco given him by Sir Roderick as partial payment for the journey, and filled. He noticed Lady Jessica’s eyes were open, watching his hands as he prepared the pipe, and then reached down carefully for the fire with his wire, to light the pipe.
“Aye, m’lady?” he asked her, and closed the silver stack, drawing the sweet, mellow smoke. A pleasant aroma began to surround him like a halo as he puffed.
“I was watching you prepare your pipe,” she said, and glanced at Sir Roderick. “You have a delicate hand with delicate tasks, I believe.”
“Do I then? I thank m’lady full well. I was taught to use the right hand for the right task.”
Lady Jessica nodded, ever so slightly. In approval or agreement, Jack couldn’t swear. “That shows great wisdom, Jack. Too many learn only one path, and trod it in any weather. A wise man knows there are many routes available.” She looked at Sir Roderick. “You could learn from your Gameskeeper,” she said. “You have only your gentility — a route that limits you, perhaps. But Jack seems to have more than one route he could take, and that could make all the difference, yes?”
“Oh, of course,” Sir Roderick said, knowing where she was leading with her comments. “Jack is versatile, certainly.”
Lady Jessica began eating her stew, watching Jack smoke and drink. “Jack,” she said, finally, “it occurs to me that a man such as you could learn a great deal — and would be open… well, perhaps to trying new things.”
“Ma’am?” Jack asked. It seemed going on this ludicrous mission — whose purpose Jack still had no clear vision of — was proof enough of his willingness to try new things. He sipped his hot ale and listened.
“Well,” Lady Jessica said, spooning up a bit more stew delicately, “You recall my first impression of you, of course. And that it perhaps did not do you justice. Certainly Rod feels that is so, and I can see you are a man of great dedication and service. And I feel that is most commendable of you.”
“I… thank you, Lady,” Jack said, wondering at the compliments from so fine a woman.
“And this is of great concern to me,” she continued.
“My dedication?” Jack asked, mystified.
Lady Jessica laughed, as though she were talking to a boy of eight, and not a veteran of war. “No no no. The first impression I got of you. After all, I do consider myself more than uncommonly perceptive, and therefore if I could look at you and think you a clod and menial, it stands to reason this is what many people would see you as. We simply cannot have that, Jack. It is not fair to you, after all.”
“I… can see what you say,” Jack said, frowning slightly. “Do I truly seem so course and plain? Not that I should ever wish to doubt the word of one such as you, but it does seem frightening to consider, and I have never encountered such reactions afore.”
“It does indeed,” Lady Jessica said. “And I simply will not have it. After all, it is so dreadfully unfair to you. And I have no doubt but most people have kept their tongues around you — after all, does one stop to every beggar on the side of Edding’s Street in Baden and mention their beggarliness? Does one pause to tell the fool that he is a fool, or simply regard him a fool and stay silent, avoiding him after? No, it is certain that you are neither fool nor beggar, nor anything bad. But if one must pull away the rustic caul to find this of you, why, most shall not — they shall see the caul, the very crust of it, and call it the substance, not the surface.”
“Then… what shall we do?” For Jack was sorely concerned now — he had always regarded himself as being pleasant company, and had never considered his baseness or deformity of character before this. Indeed, he had always sought solitude when so many around him would have crowded closer.
But he believed what he heard, from this bright woman. What was the opinion of Miss Diggit compared to the daughter of Sir Arlen Berwick? And more than this, Lady Jessica could have called him a Drakish woman of the night and Jack would have accepted her word over his own experience.
“Do? Well, if you are truly concerned, and I can see that you are, then I would be happy to help, of course. To teach you a new route, of gentility of character and the impression of worth. And the art of conveying that impression. Impression is so important, is it not, Sir Roderick?”
Sir Roderick roused himself from where he had half-slumbered over his stew. “I would never think to debate you, dear Jess,” he said.
“So then,” Lady Jessica said with a bright smile of triumph that left Jack giddy, “it is settled. I shall be your teacher, Jack. And I shall be a stern Headmistress, I warn you.”
“I… I am warned,” Jack said in wonder. “And I thank you, Lady. Thank you full well and total. I — excuse me a moment, I must spend tuppance.” He made his way up and out back towards the rear of the building.
Lady Jessica looked as pleased as if she had been given a danby pup. “Thank you, Rod,” she said. “This is truly kind of you. I do believe I shall enjoy the molding of our Jack.”
“And if you enjoy it, then I shall enjoy it as well,” Sir Roderick said. “Now come, you must eat — we are to reach Haldane’s Corners tonight.”
“Of course, of course.” And Lady Jessica ate and drank, her mind diverted from her Purpose by the prospect of the exalting of Jack. Their journey, but a few hours old, looked already to be truly excellent. Surely, that augured well for the recovery of the Chalice of Alderesth. Surely it must.