Marshend: An Unexpected Visitor
There was a gasp from inside, and the unmistakable sound of someone moving to the side of the door on the inside.
"Yes, there is," the voice from the cloaked man said. "A better question, though, is what manner of man or creature is without?"
Catriona let out a low, throaty laugh. "Last I checked I was no man nor creature, but a woman. A very damp, chilled woman with sore feet from travelling, at that, who would prefer a warm fire to this dank fog."
The Septon looked up from his vigil beside the dying man, and shot a questioning glance at Gabriel. He seemed content to leave the decision on whether to answer the door and admit the woman in his hands.
The door opened. Up close, the man was hardly more remarkable than he was from afar. Middling height, dark hair, and sharp features that were easily forgettable. His eyes were dark.
He looked Catriona up and down. "Weary traveler, maybe, but this isn't a good place to rest your tired feet. There's a death watch in here."
Catriona's face peaked out from beneath her hood, a loose wisp of red hair dangling over her forehead. "My apologies for intruding on the dying, sers. Perhaps you could direct me to a place where I might be less intrusive?"
Before they could answer, there was a groan from the man on the bed - clearly he was regaining consciousness, possibly for the last time.
"Gabriel," said the Septon. It was a warning - and an instruction for Gabriel to come closer.
But the voice of the dying man was loud enough to be heard even by the woman standing at the door.
"The blade," he said. "The sword ... Wolfsbane."
And then he groaned.
The cloaked woman stayed at the doorstep, testing the winds to see whether she should enter or leave.
Catriona could see Gabriel's face blanch a little, and his expression definitely sharpened. He looked from her, to the bed, then her, then the bed, then spun abruptly on his heel. He crossed the room in quick strides, and moved close to the bed.
As Gabriel moved towards the man’s bed, Catriona crossed the threshold, closing the door behind her to seal out the chill of the night.
"I'm here," he said. "What did you say?"
"Wolfsbane," repeated the old man. "After ... the battle. Brought to the marshes - hidden. Hidden deep. But I saw. I watched!"
His eyes seemed to be burning with fever. He raised a palsied hand. For a moment he seemed to be pointing at Gabriel ... and then Gabriel realised the old man was pointing beyond him, at the wall, where a tattered piece of parchment was hanging, held up with string. It seemed to show (although it was very faded), a young and buxom woman dancing at a Fair, and lifting her heels enough to reveal more than her ankles.
Then he smiled at Gabriel and sank back, panting.
Gabriel turned with surprising speed to snatch the scrap of parchment off the string. He glanced at it, frowning, then at Catriona, then back at the supine man.
Catriona kept close to the door, shifting her position slightly to benefit from the fire’s warmth.
"You knew of this... all this time?" he said. "And now you tell me of it?" His eyes narrowed. "What do you want in return?"
The old man shook his head, still smiling faintly.
"Gabriel," said the Septon with faint reproach, "He is dying!"
"Not dying," corrected the old man. "Dead."
And then, with a last sighing breath, he was.
The Septon began to murmur the prayers for the departed.
Catriona knelt, and bowed her head respectfully towards the dead man. When she arose, she looked to the Septon, then to Gabriel. “Death comes to us all in time. When dawn breaks I can hunt game for this man’s funeral feast, if you wish. Or I will depart.”
Gabriel gave her a peculiar, weighing stare. It not only included her eyes and expression, but her clothes and her stance, as well. It was not a lewd stare, more like an appraisal.
"I thought I heard something outside," he said. "You're damned quiet. What's your name?"
"Catriona," she replied, holding his gaze. "And you are...?"
"Call me Gabriel," he replied. "You must be new, if you don't know who I am. I own the Song and Sheep here in Marshend." He looked her up and down again. "And I don't remember ever seeing you before. Where are you from?"
"You're right, this is my first time passing through Marshend," Catriona said. As she lowered her hood, the wisps of red hair gave way to a braid that trailed past her shoulders. "I hail from the Wolfswood near Deepwood Motte, although my hunts have ranged across the North. I travel where the game lead me."
Her green eyes narrowed slightly as she nodded in the direction of the dead man and the praying Septon. "Perhaps it would be more respectful to the dead if we left the Septon to his duties. Does this Song and Sheep of yours have a warm pallet that I can rent for the night? Or even a stool by the fire would be welcome."
Gabriel's gaze followed her every movement. His hand closed reflexively on the parchment. He had the look of a man who had made a decision, for good or ill.
"You'll have a room, bed and board," he said. "On me. The cage was left open and the ravens have fled, as they say in the North. If you'll accept my hospitality, I'll make you an even better offer."
"I will accept gratefully," Catriona said with a slight bow towards Gabriel. "That is quite a gracious offer, ser, and much more than I deserve for my unwitting intrustion."
He turned, reached for his belt, and produced a handful of silver coins which he counted out on a nearby table. It was three to four times the cost of a burial.
"I'll pay his expenses," he said to the Septon. "Make sure he has a proper send-off, Greymuss. The rest... is for your silence. Or a donation to the gods. However you want to look at it."
The Septon nodded and pocketed the money.
"I'll say a prayer for you too, Gabriel, to the Father." He didn't add that Gabriel was in need of such prayers - but the implication was plain.
The he turned his attention to preparing the man for the grave.
Meanwhile, Gabriel turned his attention to the parchment and what secrets it contained...
It was just a simple picture of the buxom lady dancing at a fair - much faded. But the parchment seemed to be oddly thick - and then Gabriel realised that there were two sheets of parchment stuck closely together. Perhaps they might be eased apart - but it would be a job requiring care and precision.
As Gabriel settled matters with the Septon, Catriona's left eyebrow arched slightly at the large sum placed on the table. It crept a little higher at the subsequent verbal exchange between the two.
She quickly smoothed her countenance as she remembered the boy who had accompanied the man into this cottage. She glanced over towards him, wondering just how much of the night's events the young man understood. "What's your name, lad?" she inquired gently.
"Adon," he said. "I'm the Septon's boy, ma'am, an't please you." He looked at her with shy admiration. "Do you hunt out in the woods?"
Catriona grinned. "Aye, that I do." She motioned towards her bow and quiver. "My kin taught me how to track and shoot when I was a wee lass, barely tall enough to reach your shoulder. I've been hunting ever since."
"Perhaps I can make use of those skills, if you're interested." Gabriel moved closer to them to join the conversation. He glanced at the body on the bed. "But there's a better place to talk of that. Are you ready?"
"Aye. Lead on,Gabriel," Catriona replied. As she pulled up her hood to shield against the mists, she extended her hand to the boy. "Take care, Adon." She glanced at the Septon. "And you, too, ser."
(Continued in Marshend: An Unexpected Visitor: The Song and Sheep)