Radenth 9, 1014
The rain had more of autumn than of summer in it. It was the kind of slow, steady rain that carried just enough chill to remind the world that summer was waning and winter gaining. From the other side of a window, with some hot wine in one hand and a poker to tend to a roaring fire on the other, the rain might have been pleasant. One needed cold times as well as hot. But from the back of a horse, having ridden for the the better part of an hour, the rain was …
Bloody miserable, thought Will.
Tonans trotted his way down the mud-drenched road, choosing to hit or avoid puddles with a capriciousness a cat could only envy. Will’s hosen were soaked; his shoes would probably squelch when he put a foot down. He wished he had thought to bring a cloak, but it hadn’t been raining this morning, and without the rain, the weather had been just warm enough to make a cloak seem more like an encumbrance than a blessing. Which showed how much Will knew.
As Will turned Tonans toward the roots of the massive tree that the Thatchers called home, he wondered if coming out here had been necessary at all. Lord Pellinore would have never done it. He would have sent for Ash Thatcher to come to him and asked his questions from the luxury of a warm, dry office. If he had considered what his request would mean to the Plantsim, he might choose to ask his questions at a neutral location — say, the palace, where Ash had to report from time to time to give an account on how the royal forests were doing. But he never would have come to Ash Thatcher’s home.
Will wondered which of them was the bigger fool.
He brought Tonans to a halt, prepared to go to the front door and knock at it like a civilized person. But then, in the garden to Will’s left, he saw a flash of tanned skin among all the green.
He’s out gardening? In this? Will lifted his eyes to the sky and nearly got an eye full of raindrops for his trouble. Surely there were better days …
Or maybe … it didn’t matter. Jessie had said that Plantsims needed three things: sunlight, water, and love. There wasn’t much sun to be had to Will’s eye, but he’d never seen a plant that seemed to mind a rainy day. Maybe Ash Thatcher didn’t even notice the rain. Maybe it sated and filled him.
Either way — he was out here, and if his wife was inside, Will wasn’t going to knock on the door, have her answer, and then send her out into the wet when he was already out in there. He dismounted and ground-tied Tonans, then tramped up the sodden path to the garden gate.
“Is that so? Ye don’t say.”
Will paused. That was definitely Goodman Thatcher’s voice. But who was he talking to?
“Well, ye never can tell with bees,” Goodman Thatcher continued. Will looked around, still trying to find his invisible interlocutor … but there was no one but him, Goodman Thatcher, and the plants.
Will hesitated, one hand on the fence. He was here because Jessie had said that Plantsims had a connection to the natural world, wasn’t he? Hadn’t she said that they could communicate with plants and perhaps animals? And if that was the case — why was he surprised if Goodman Thatcher seemed to be carrying on a conversation with his tomatoes?
He shook his head and cleared his throat. He meant to call out a greeting. But he never got the chance. He saw Goodman Thatcher’s back stiffen — then, a split second later, the Plantsim whirled and stood in the same fluid moment. “Who –” he started to say.
Then he stopped short, blinking. “Sir–Sir William?”
“Good morning, Goodman Thatcher,” Will replied with a smile. He pushed back a loose strand of hair that insisted on dripping water onto his nose every few moments. “I hope this isn’t a bad time.”
“N-n-no …” He rubbed the back of his neck and watched Will as a rabbit would watch a dog. “Come on in, m’lord, the gate’s open.” Will took his invitation. He had scarcely gotten near the Plantsim, though, before he asked, “Is — is somethin’ the matter, m’lord?”
Will hesitated. Of course there was something the matter. But that wasn’t what Goodman Thatcher was asking, was it? He was asking if he was in trouble. If something was the matter with him.
“No, not at all,” Will replied. “I … I was hoping you might be able to answer some questions for me, though.” Goodman Thatcher’s eyes widened. “I thought — since you spend so much time in the woods, you might have seen something, or heard something, that could … help me in a certain investigation.”
Goodman Thatcher’s eyes remained wide. Bloody hell. There was no way to spit this out without making the poor man think he was under suspicion, was there?
Except, of course, to just spit it out.
“My — my lady wife tells me that Plantsims can communicate with the natural world, with plants — is that true?” Will asked.
Slowly, Goodman Thatcher nodded. “It’s why the King hired me ter be his gamekeeper.”
“Then — hopefully — you won’t have any objection to telling me if the — the trees, or plants, or animals or … anything had something to say regarding Sir Lamorak’s death?” There. He’d said it.
Goodman Thatcher gasped. Then he’d looked around. “Maybe … maybe we’d best talk about this inside, m’lord.”
Inside? Oh, that was music to his ears. But … “I don’t want to disturb your family, Goodman Thatcher.”
“Ye won’t,” shrugged Goodman Thatcher. “The kiddies are all at school — an’ the babes, well, Dilla don’t like strange men an’ Cicely don’t like strangers — but that’s jest normal fer wee ones. Ye won’t be disturbin’ them.”
“And your wife?”
“M’lord, she’s tougher than I am, so I wouldn’t be worryin’.”
Will smiled. “Fair enough.” He followed Goodman Thatcher inside without a further word.
They went in a side door, finding Goodwife Thatcher at her loom and two brown-haired lasses playing on the floor. “Hallo, Lyndsay,” said Goodman Thatcher.
“I told ye ye shouldn’t be out there in this rain, Ash, ye’ll catch yer de–” Goodwife Thatcher stopped, staring at Will. She jumped up, the wooden seat of the loom clattering in her wake. “M’lord!”
“MAMA!” yelled the little girl in blue. She wobbled to her feet and ran to hide behind her mother’s skirts. Will wondered whether that was Cicely or Dilla.
As for the little girl in green (Will assumed she was a girl by the dress, though with her lack of hair … maybe it wasn’t good to assume), she covered her face when she saw Will — but if Will watched her from the corner of his eye, he could catch her stealing glimpses of him through her fingers.
Still, at the moment, the children’s mother was more important. “Good morning, Goodwife Thatcher. I don’t mean to disturb you …”
“Heh,” murmured Goodwife Thatcher.
There was a faint swell in the front of her dress — was she with child? All the more reason not to panic her. “But — but I just need to discuss some things with Goodman Thatcher. Crown business,” he added. That hardly seemed to calm her. “Some — some things he may have seen in the course of his duties as royal gamekeeper,” Will finished.
“Oh!” He could see the relief flooding through her. “Well, don’t let me be interruptin’ ye, then. Will ye be wantin’ me ter take the girls up?”
“Please?” asked Goodman Thatcher.
“O’ course. An’ … as it so happens, I’ve got some mendin’ upstairs I keep meanin’ ter do … I hope ye won’t mind, m’lord, Ash, if I get on with that?”
Will shook his head, and Goodman Thatcher sighed in veritable relief.
“All right then. Come on, Dilla,” Goodwife Thatcher said, bending and picking up the little girl in green with one fluid motion, “let’s go uppy. Cicely, ye follow me, lass.”
Cicely didn’t say a word, but she followed her mother. As for Dilla, she alternated between burying her head in her mother’s shoulder and straining for another good look at Will.
As soon as they were out of sight, if not quite earshot, Will murmured, “You have lovely daughters, Goodman Thatcher.”
Goodman Thatcher beamed. “Thank’ee. They –”
“Ash!” came the cry from the top of the stairs.
Goodman Thatcher jumped. “Yes, Lyndsay?”
“Don’t ferget ter offer Sir William somethin’ ter eat! Or drink!”
“Oh … right!” He winced. “I would’ve clear forgotten that …” he murmured. Will nodded. Plantsims, after all, didn’t eat. “But — can I be gettin’ ye somethin’, m’lord? We’ve got some small ale an’ cider — Lyndsay an’ me don’t keep nothin’ stronger around — an’ I’m sure there’s plenty in the larder …”
“Thank you, but I’m fine.”
“All–all right.” Goodman Thatcher glanced at the stairs, then shrugged and smiled, perhaps only to himself. “Would — would ye have a seat, m’lord?” he asked.
“Thank you.” Will sat. It did not escape his notice that Goodman Thatcher waited for his rear to hit the chair before doing likewise.
And then — there was nothing left to do but to get to business. “Well, Goodman Thatcher, since you asked me inside, I can only assume you have something to say …”
Goodman Thatcher looked away. He shifted from one side to the next, like a restless ash swaying in the breeze. “Well … m’lord … ye did axe me …”
“I did,” Will agreed.
“An’ … well …” Goodman Thatcher scratched his head, then ran his hand through his leaves. “It’s — it’s a bit hard ter be explainin’ … but …”
Will folded his hands on his lap, under the table, where Goodman Thatcher hopefully wouldn’t notice the fingers working and pulling at each other. He didn’t quite dare to crack a knuckle.
“Ye — ye see,” Goodman Thatcher waved a hand like a cantor conducting the singing of a choir. “Ye say I can talk ter trees an’ whatnot — an’ that’s true — but they don’t … they don’t see the world the way we do. They don’t understand it the way we do. Things — things we do move awful quick for them. What … what happened ter poor Sir Lamorak, it would’ve happened too fast fer even the trees right there ter see.”
“It’s cause they live so long, ye see. Some trees can grow fer hundreds o’ years if no one chops ’em down. ‘Cause they live so long, that’s how come they can talk an’ sort o’ … guard things in the forest. The bushes, the little plants — they’re here an’ gone in a season, so they don’t know. But the trees do.”
Goodman Thatcher looked down at the table and began to tap his fingers on it. “An’ they can … sense things. They can sense when somethin’ ain’t right. They know — often before we do — when somethin’s off in the woods. Like — like the hunters have been gettin’ too much o’ this animal or that one, an’ the balance is off. That’s how I can figure out, real quick, when things are goin’ wrong,” he swallowed, “an’ hopefully set ’em right. An’ … if ye tell the trees ter keep an’ eye out fer certain people … if they know what those people feel like, ye see, an’ how they … are … they can do that. But just bein’ able ter explain what they saw on a regular day — they can’t do that.”
“But,” Will interrupted, “they must have seen, or sensed, or understood something — or else you wouldn’t have asked me to come inside. Would you have, Goodman Thatcher?”
Goodman Thatcher squirmed. “I don’t want ter seem like I’m — talkin’ out o’ turn, m’lord. Fer — fer a man like me — that could be … bad.”
Will hesitated. What could he say? Promise to protect Goodman Thatcher? Was that a promise he could keep — in a way that would be tolerable to the man and his family? Promise that doing the right thing would be its own reward? Promise to keep what he said secret?
Or perhaps, could he simply promise not to take offense at anything Goodman Thatcher said?
“Goodman Thatcher …” Will swallowed. “If — if what you are about to say proves to be … of value to the investigation into Sir Lamorak’s death,” he finally settled on, “I cannot promise to protect you from anyone who might be angered by it. I would certainly try to the best of my ability,” Will hurried, “but — that is hardly a guarantee. I wish I could do better.”
Goodman Thatcher bit his lip.
“But at the same time … if I can possibly keep what you said confidential, and still allow justice to be served, I will. And furthermore — no matter what you say, no matter who you may implicate, I can promise you I will not be offended.” Will took a deep breath. “Goodman Thatcher — I think — I hope — I have already proven to you that when it comes to matters of right, of wrong, that a person’s social standing is not nearly as important to me as seeing that justice is done.”
Goodman Thatcher nodded. “Ye — ye’ve always done good by me an’ me family.”
“I’ve only ever done what was right,” Will shrugged.
“No — no, m’lord, fergive me fer sayin’ this — but that ain’t it. Or if that is it, it ain’t all o’ it. ‘Cause … ’cause, well, plenty o’ folks would look at me — at me sister — an’ say we ain’t ever in the right. At least, not if that means puttin’ someone like Lady Morgause — or Brother Tuck — inter the wrong. Ye know?”
Will nodded. Unfortunately he did know that. It was part of the reason why he had known that putting Brother Tuck on trial would have never worked. Lady Morgause had been enough of a long shot, and probably the only reason it had come off was that Thorn had not been a Plantsim and had thus been able to win enough of the jury’s sympathy to have them believe him. Putting Marigold and little Daisy against Brother Tuck — especially in Camford, as the King had insisted — would have never worked.
“But … but all that bein’ said …” Goodman Thatcher paused. “The trees can sense evil. If — if evil magic is bein’ used around them — they know it.”
“Evil,” Will repeated. “Dark magic?”
“I …” Goodman Thatcher rubbed his perfectly smooth chin. “It’s not jest dark, I don’t think. I don’t know much about magic — but it’s gotta be evil. It’s gotta be — somethin’ wrong. Twisted. Somethin’ what throws off the balance.”
Will turned his head to one side. “Like … murder?”
Goodman Thatcher bit his lip. “I … I don’t know. They didn’t know what was happenin’ ter Thorn — but Thorn … well … didn’t die. But I think — I don’t know how helpful this is gonna be ter ye, m’lord …”
“Go on,” Will automatically replied.
“But … I think they knew when — when Lord Accolon were … killed, an’ brought back.”
Will frowned. Jessie had said that creating a zombie was the darkest of all the dark magics. If that was the case, it made sense that the trees might have sensed that. But … Lamorak was not a zombie.
“Goodman Thatcher — when did the trees sense this evil?”
“‘Round about the time Sir Lamorak died.”
“You say around the time — when his death was announced to the kingdom? After the funeral? Before?”
“Before, m’lord — before any o’ that. That’s when the trees sensed the evil. It — it were like — like a storm-wind blowin’ through. They all jest shivered — an’ I knew somethin’ was real wrong.”
“You didn’t attempt to investigate? Or alert anyone?”
Goodman Thatcher blinked. “M’lord — I got a wife an’ kids ter be carin’ fer. When … when I felt that …” He shuddered.
Will could not help but nod. If he had somehow known of a great evil — where would his thoughts have first gone? To finding the source and stamping it out? Or finding his family and making certain they were all right?
“An’ — an’ as fer tellin’ anyone … who’d believe me, m’lord?” Goodman Thatcher shrugged.
Will hoped he would have. But all the same, it was too late to point that out now. At least … it was too late for Lamorak. “If you ever feel anything like that again — please, once you make certain your family is safe, please alert Master Tower. I’ll tell him to listen to you and take you seriously. Maybe …” Will looked away, shaking his head. “Maybe, if there is a next time — heaven forbid — we can respond more quickly, and deal with those responsible.”
“M’lord, with all due respect — ye ain’t gonna be wantin’ ter deal quickly with whatever it is. Ye’ll be wantin’ ter make sure when ye go in, ye win.”
Will cast a quick sidelong glance at Goodman Thatcher — but the Plantsim’s expression was set, his teeth gritted, vein at his temple throbbing. Then again, who, other than Goodman Thatcher, was likely to know more about evil — through observation and being on the receiving end, though not the dealing end?
“I … see. That is true.” Will hesitated. “Can — can you tell me when you felt this evil?”
“It … lemme see … it were three days before I heard about Sir Lamorak, m’lord.”
“So the twenty-second of Jaban?” asked Will.
“That–that sounds about right, m’lord.”
“And at what hour?” Will asked.
Goodman Thatcher blinked. “I … er …” He scratched his head. “I want ter say — maybe about … midway between afternoon an’ evenin’?”
Midway between afternoon and evening. Sir Lamorak had last been seen in the late morning, when he left Tower 5 on the Albion-Camford border. If Will assumed that the sense of evil had come only at Sir Lamorak’s death …
“And — forgive me — how long do you think it would have taken a message like that to spread through the trees?”
“In these thick woods?” asked Goodman Thatcher. “Not long. Not long at all. The roots — they’re all connected, all touchin’ each other. The news would spread from one tree ter the next kinda like lightnin’.”
“So the time would be best measured in — minutes?”
Goodman Thatcher pondered that. Then he nodded. “Aye. Minutes. At the longest.”
So Will had a time of death, accurate within minutes. It complicated matters, in terms of determining how Sir Lamorak had spent his final day — and it opened up a possibility that Will had hoped he wouldn’t have to contemplate, namely, all that might have been done to Sir Lamorak between the first blow and the death-blow.
But now Will knew. And knowing was always better than not knowing. This knowledge, even if he couldn’t bring it into court, might lead to knowledge that he could bring into court. Every little breadcrumb could help.
“And — is that all you know, Goodman Thatcher? Do you know who caused this evil?”
“I don’t … know, m’lord …”
“Ah.” Will stood up; Goodman Thatcher scrambled to his feet. Will extended a hand. “Thank you, then, Goodman Thatcher, for this. I won’t take up any more of your time. Though …”
They shook. “I would advise you to be … cautious. And if you have any reason to suspect danger for yourself and your family — alert Master Tower, and we’ll protect you.”
Goodman Thatcher gulped. “Thank … ye …”
“It’s the least we can do,” replied Will. “I mean that. And — thank you, for all your help.”
“I don’t see how I were much help, m’lord — but ye’re welcome. Are ye sure ye’re wantin’ ter leave? It’s still rainin’ out there. Ye can stay here until it clears up if ye like.”
“Thank you, Goodman Thatcher, but no. I must really be getting back.”
And with that, Will took his leave, still thinking over everything Goodman Thatcher had told him. Because what Will had said was true: he did have to get back.
He had work to do.