|Isle of Thorns
Author: Cygnia PM
A 7th Sea story. Sent to investigate a mysterious artifact, three Explorers instead find themselves caught up in murder on a lonely Eisen isle with no escape in sight. A prequel of sorts to "Homecoming".Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Mystery - Chapters: 13 - Words: 38,814 - Reviews: 4 - Favs: 3 - Follows: 2 - Updated: 03-04-13 - Published: 11-09-09 - id: 5500737
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
"It's amazing, Grace. Absolutely amazing," Fortunato nodded, obviously impressed. "We've been here for nearly four hours and Ulf hasn't strangled the Vendel yet! Perhaps there's hope for diplomacy after all."
Grace looked up from her work. Already she had filled several parchments with notations and rough sketches of the relic. She glanced towards the door of the library where the large Vesten had planted himself on the other side as guard duty.
"I guess Sigurd lost interest once he saw the relic couldn't be melted down for gold," Fortunato continued, a playful smirk now on his face. "Typical Vendel. If it's not shiny, it's not worth anything to him. I suppose he's gone back to arguing with Tedmund about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin and whether they'll be dancing the waltz or the jig at Doomsday."
"Mmm...well, so long as they keep their noise to a dull roar out there an' away from me. I don't need any distractin' right now..." Grace turned back to the artifact.
"Like Avalon doctors?" Fortunato asked innocently.
Grace's head snapped right back up to see the Vodacce now grinning from ear to ear. The Highlander's cheeks suddenly flushed bright red. "Theus, is it that obvious?" she managed to croak.
"Yes," deadpanned Fortunato. At Grace's look of mortification, the Vodacce chuckled sympathetically. "Grace, we're your friends, not your chaperones. Though I'm sure Ulf would be willing to tear the man's arms off if he gets out of line. That is, if you haven't killed him yourself first."
"I--!" An indignant Grace tried to stammer out a protest.
"Grace, easy! I kid...honest!" Fortunato raised a hand. "If it helps any, I do believe the doctor might show a similar interest in you as well. Of course, you are the only woman on this isle, so it can't be that har--OW!" Fortunato pulled back his arm from Grace's smack. "Honestly, Grace, I'm half-surprised you didn't invite Foreman in here to examine the artifact with us!"
"I'd like the chance to get to know David a little bit better, yes," While the bright blush had faded, Grace's cheeks were still a touch pink. She smiled weakly, straightening herself up. "But he's not an Explorer. I've got a responsibility to make sure that relic is safe an' harmless before I start lettin' anyone else poke at it. Mannheim got lucky bringin' this inside. I need to be absolutely sure that this thing is, if not safe, then at least inert for now!"
"Agreed. And I'm relieved to hear you say that, Grace," The Vodacce nodded. "I still don't like those spikes. If this did once hold something, you don't think that's what actually set the boar off instead, do you? It cracked it open while wounded and--" Fortunato suddenly grimaced. "Theus, if that's the case, I hope no one ate it!"
"Och, what a thought," Grace looked up, listening for a few moments as the storm poured down. Her eyes narrowed grimly. "Theus only knows how much evidence the rain's already washed away since this was unearthed. Between them an' the boars..." She shook her head. "I hope it lightens up enough soon."
"Do you have an idea what this is then, Grace?"
"Well, I can tell you what it's not . It's not Setine. It's not Domae." Grace carefully tapped the smooth inside of one of the hard shells, then jotted down another note. "Not Tesseran. Drachen maybe?" She looked up, checking her thumb. "Dammit, I still can't tell if there's any magic lingerin' in it! But there's definitely something on this isle...."
"I've got it...it's petrified Drachenscheisse !" Fortunato grinned. "There's the topic of your next lecture, Grace: ' Drachenscheisse, Doorknobs and Other Syrneth Duds' !"
"You're incorrigible, you Vodacce bastard," Grace bit back a chuckle. She paused, her grey eyes now touched with uncertainty. "About David -- Doctor Foreman -- do you really think he might be...?"
"We Vodacce have a certain sense about amore ," Fortunato smiled reassuringly. "But I'll tell you what. I'll make sure Ulf is distracted by something shiny in the meantime so you can carry on such investigations in private. Do you think Father Sigurd's head will be shiny enough?"
"She seems quite taken with him...," Fortunato said idly, pausing to pop a piece of ham into his mouth. A much-needed dinner break had come around and the Vodacce wanted to take full advantage of the time to get away from the library and refill his stomach.
Ulf only grunted in response, his stony gaze never leaving the far side of the parlor. There, Lady Grace and Doctor Foreman stood, fully engaged in animated conversation. The Avalon leaned towards Grace, both smiling warmly. Whatever anecdote he was regaling her with elicited a merry laugh from the Highlander.
"Ulf," A sly look crossed Fortunato's face. "You're not jealous of Foreman by any chance, are you?"
"I do not trust him," the Vesten grunted again.
"Really," said Fortunato dryly. "Between the Eisen who I swear has aspirations of becoming an Inquisitor, the self-righteous Vendel and me, it's the Avalon doctor you end up disliking!"
"You are not listening, Vodacce," Ulf shot Fortunato a dark look. "The Vendel and the Eisen? Them, I do not like. And you? You are merely annoying--"
"Thank you for thinking so highly of me."
"--but the Avalon, I do not trust . He is trying too hard to be dull."
"Scheming. Intrigue. Suspicion," Fortunato grinned and slapped Ulf on the back. "My friend, we'll have you thinking like a Vodacce yet!"
The Vesten rolled his eyes. "Please do not insult me like that."
"Ulf, in our line of work, I can appreciate a healthy level of suspicion as well as anyone," Fortunato sighed, shaking his head a little. "But not everyone is a bloodthirsty pirate or a meglomaniac looking to take over the world. Sometimes, they're just ordinary, dull people. Skinny, nervous beanpoles who just happen to like looking at Highlander women and don't know how to be subtle about it."
"Hmmph," Ulf grunted, the third time in as many minutes.
"Just think of Foreman as a ferret looking at something shiny. Our visit has given him some much needed shininess and excitement in his boring life. We're performing him a favor here if you really think about it!"
"Ferrets are hunters, Vodacce."
Fortunato opened his mouth to offer a rebuttal, then stopped. Out of the corner of his eye, he could still see Grace, now talking with Baron Adelbert and Mannheim. Tedmund and Sigurd were in the middle of yet another heated debate, oblivious to the rest of the room.
But Foreman was no longer in the parlor.
"On second thought," The Vodacce's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "perhaps we should get to know the good doctor a little bit better. Shall we go find him?"
Ulf just grinned evilly and cracked his knuckles.
Ulf and Fortunato carefully approached the ajar door of the library. From their position, they could see the Avalon standing by the table where the relic laid. With his hand wrapped in cloth, Foreman gingerly reached out towards one of the spikes. The Vodacce shot a look towards the doctor, then back to the Vesten. Both men nodded curtly, then Ulf pushed open the door wider and they took a step inside.
"Is everything all right, Doctor Foreman?" Fortunato's voice rang out clearly, a smile of innocence plastered wide across his face. Behind him, Ulf stood glaring silently, his arms folded across his chest. The Avalon immediately took a step back, pulling his hand away.
"I'm sorry," The doctor stammered, clearly chagrined. "I was just hoping for a closer look. I didn't mean to disturb anything!"
"I was always taught that you should look with your eyes and not your hands, Doctor." Fortunato strided further into the library, eying the man up and down. He flashed a small grin. "You really shouldn't touch that."
"Again, I apologize. I saw the door was open and curiosity overcame me...," Foreman crouched down, now eye level with the table. His gaze was focused back on the relic and not on Ulf and Fortunato. "Is it dangerous then? Has Lady Grace figured out anything about it yet?"
The Vodacce stiffened slightly, grin fading at the doctor's implication that Grace was the only one with ideas. " We have a few theories, yes. But nothing that can be revealed at this time. I'm sure you understand, of course...," Fortunato paused, frowning thoughtfully. "So, what brings you wandering past the hall then, Doctor Foreman?"
"Well, Grace -- her Ladyship -- and I were discussing my research. She had asked to see some of the samples I had acquired, so I was on my way to my room to fetch them," Foreman pulled himself up, looking over the Vodacce carefully before turning to meet the Vesten's eyes, his even stare unflinching in the face of Ulf's dark scowl. "I certainly didn't mean to cause any trouble here."
"Mmm, yes," Fortunato said quickly as he spied Ulf suddenly tensing a little. "Your research. Ulf was telling me a little bit about it. Something about thorns, yes?" He didn't wait for the doctor to respond. "Eisen's a big country...why here of all places?"
"As you say, Signore Valeri, Eisen is a big country -- and unfortunately, there are parts of it that are still unstable. Unsafe. You never know when one petty duke or town constable is just as bad or worse than the bandits and kobolds plaguing the wilderness. Baron Von Gunther's diplomatic efforts and openness towards scientific endeavours gave me an opportunity to pursue my research in relative peace here. At least, that's what I had hoped...," Foreman's voice trailed off as his expression grew solemn.
"With Tedmund and Sigurd shouting around, I can see why you'd rather spend more time with the mud and boars," Shrugging, a small smirk popped up on Fortunato's face. "Not my idea of a healthy pursuit, but to each his own."
"You do not fear the boars?" Ulf finally spoke up. "What do you have to protect yourself?"
"I have a sword, though I don't like to carry it if I can help it," The doctor seemed to weigh his words deliberately, as if uncomfortable about what to reveal. "I prefer to see signs of boars and then go in the opposite direction. That is, if there's an actual threat around."
"A man is dead by those boars," The Vesten looked at him in disbelief. "You think looking at plants is really that important to take such a chance with your life?"
"Mister Pedersen, no one saw Hans' body apart from Mannheim and another servant. The Baron accepted Mannheim's story without question.. And our illustrious churchmen couldn't be bothered to stop their arguing for a while even for prayers," The doctor said with some bitterness. He shook his head, continuing. "I offered my services to tend to the body, but I was declined."
"You have reason to doubt Herr Mannheim's account?" Fortunato asked, his brow creasing with uneasiness.
"All I'm saying," said Foreman quietly. "is I can't be asked to be afraid when I don't have any evidence of what it is I'm supposed to be frightened of in the first place." The Avalon's gaze drifted back towards the artifact. "I mean--"
"David? Is everything allri--?" All three men turned to face Lady Grace, now standing in the doorframe of the library. She did a double-take, looking over at the doctor, then over to Ulf and Fortunato. "Just what do you think you're doin'?" Grace shot an accusing glare at Fortunato.
"My fault, Lady Grace," Foreman began before the Vodacce could speak. "I got curious and your colleagues here were rightfully admonishing me that I was somewhere I wasn't supposed to be." He flashed Grace a sheepish grin and the harsh look in her eyes softened. "I hope you're not cross with me. Or with them."
"Well, I can see how temptin' it can be to sneak a peek into someone's else's business...," The Highlander hesitated, her eyes briefly narrowing again towards the Vodacce and Vesten before turning back to Foreman. The corners of her mouth twitched into a soft smile. "...but I'm sure no harm was meant. I'll forgive you. That is, providin' tomorrow mornin' you get around to showin' me your samples at breakfast, Doctor Foreman."
"Done!" The Avalon's grin broadened with enthusiasm. Ulf rolled his eyes and Fortunato squirmed. If Grace took any notice of them, she made no sign.
"I should probably put that back in the chest," Grace went over to the relic on the table and put on the gloves again. "Can't be too careful. Theus knows I'm probably not goin' to get any more work done on it this night. Baron Adelbert offered to tell me more about his family's history on the isle. Maybe there's a lead there. Would you care to join me, Doctor?"
Foreman said not a word, instead following dutifully after Lady Grace back to the parlor with a smile still on his face. Fortunato waited for a few moments, then peeked into the hall to make sure they were out of earshot. "Oh, he's slick, that one. 'My fault! But your colleagues were just doing their job! Don't be mad!' And then come the puppy dog eyes..." Fortunato muttered. "The man's smoother than a Montaigne's ass."
"I do not want to know how you know so much about Montaigne asses, Vodacce," Ulf frowned. "What do you make of the doctor's story?"
"About the dead servant? I don't know. It's certainly odd, if it's true. Or maybe Mannheim just didn't want him treating a man's death as another sample to harvest," The Vodacce shook his head, then looked pointedly at Ulf. "But I do know this. Before we left for dinner the door to this library was closed ."
Eventually, both guests and staff retired for the night, the storm still showing no sign of letting up. Up in his room, Father Sigurd opened up a hollowed-out Book of the Prophets and lovingly caressed a small silver flask.
In his room, finally finished with his meditations, Brother Tedmund rose from a kneeling position and went over to the wardrobe. He opened it a crack, just enough to see the glint of crimson in the candlelight. He smiled coldly before shutting the wardrobe tight, then blew out his candle.
Sitting on his bed, Doctor Foreman stared at a leather-bound journal, brown eyes deep in contemplation and concern. After some time, he sighed, opening the journal and pushing aside the wine-dark swatch of oddly-stiffened red ribbon used as a bookmark. He settled on a blank page, took up his quill and began to write: Y PEA SJETU ESEYV ERHUJ EFF HGYP HYDU...
And at midnight the Baron went down to the library. He smiled at the chest where the relic was held, then went over to the snifter to pour himself a glass of brandy. Taking a sip, he went over to the shelf to fetch a book on the history of Carleman for some light reading.
Two minutes later, Baron Adelbert Von Gunther was dead.