Now here is the next chapter in my ongoing tale of Shepperton, if anyone is keeping up. This is Chapter Ten of book four, tentatively titled Heir of Drachma.
Alexandra looked about her in amazement. Never had she seen anything like this place. She missed her mother, but she knew that her mother was home, and that she understood where her daughter was. Where Alex found herself was inside the castle, in rooms set apart for royalty, with enormous feather beds, and tall windows that looked down at the doings of the market. It was turning dark outside, but there were torches about which lit up the streets. Inside, though, it was bright, with the many torches and lamps. She began exploring the rooms, looking in all those hidden places, which she knew instinctively were where the children of the palace played. But what really captured her attention was the marble bust of some nobleman, in the middle of the room, whose expression was of distaste. She went up to the bust, and, with her little hand, felt the man’s facial expression, felt his brow, and his rigid lips.
“Alexandra, do you know who that man is?” Craycroft’s voice echoed softly across the room.
“Nay, sir, I know not. But look, he’s not too pleased wi’ somethin’.”
“Craycroft chuckled. “Nay, m’lass, I would agree with you there. He does not appear too pleased. Now, this bust is of none other than William, who was the first Earl of Shepperton. He was a man who was never jolly, never. And if I might be so bold, I would say that he was not well-liked either.”
“Well, sir, then what is he doin’ here?”
Craycroft found her question amusing, and smiled down at the lass. “If you must know, it is his castle.”
“His castle? Where is he then?”
“Oh, he is not here. He died many years ago. But it was he who had this castle built, and it was his son, and his grandson who have since been lords of Shepperton.”
“But, you are lord of Shepperton. Are you not?”
“Aye, that I be. But let me tell you something of how I got to where I am.” He took her little hand, and led her to one of the stuffed chairs, where he sat, and Alex sat in his lap. He began telling her, “Now, many years ago, I was once a child of the village, much like you are now. It was through what some would call good luck, though to me it would appear to have been the hand of God that brought me to the castle. It was here that I first became a page to the ruling house. And it was as a young page that I became fascinated with one named Cartho, who was a most extraordinary man, a healer as we have never seen on Shepperton, and a most wonderful teacher as well. It was my privilege to become his apprentice. I learned the arts of healing from that great man, and after he died, I became physician to the earl and his court. And that is where I was, when fate struck me yet again, and I became lord of this castle, and of Shepperton.
“Now, I must tell you of something most special. Your own father, Simeon, who works in my service, as a forest guard, is but a grandson to Master Cartho. Now I know not if your mother or father have talked to you about their own kin…”
“Nay, Papa never talked of his own, but me Mama has told me somethin’ of her own kin. Said she was orphaned, and that she growed up in Champour, and she and Aunt Clarice, and Aunt Sheila learned to cook and sew… and they caught their men (all but Clarice) in the nets what they sewed!”
Craycroft laughed at this, a deep, rumbling laugh that came from deep in his belly. How this young lass, who looked so small and fragile, could think such things, and could know such things!
“Let me tell you, my dear child,” he continued, “Someday, you shall have to let me tell you the story of Maggie ‘o’ Killiburn. For I do believe that you are kin to her, indeed.
“But for now, know that you are precious to me, as one descended from the great Master Cartho. And that some day, you shall become as great and wise as he. And, when you may, I shall arrange for you to get your own education here, within the castle.”
Alex looked up at the face of Craycroft, noticed the smell of him, the feel of him. It was as if here was the grandfather that she had been missing, without knowing it. She took one of her little girl hands, and she placed it on his chest, where she could feel his heartbeat. Its slow, regular rhythm was calling her to somewhere warm, where the breezes off the sea gently shook the leaves above her head.
“And now,” she said suddenly, “we must go to my man from the sea. Make sure he is comf’table. Fo’ I know that upon the morning light we must go.”
She took Craycroft’s hand, and the two of them walked down the hall. Craycroft realizing once again that the call of fate was at his side, and that he had just found the most magical gift. If either of them had looked back, they might have seen that furrowed brow and those dour lips on William’s bust seem to relax just a little.
The man crept carefully toward the eastern side, by the servants’ entrance, so as not to be seen. What he saw through the windows told him that the old mansion again appeared to have some life. He recognized the people from the village of Armaugh, near Castle Kearney. And he knew the man and his wife as the keepers of the inn from the village, which had burned down last winter. And the girl, he assumed was their daughter. As he stared in the window, he could see that they had started the process of cleaning up the place. He knew the new owner, and knew him to be a man not to be trifled with.
“Well enough, then,” he said quietly, as if speaking to someone, “I shall have to see if ye’ll have success, then. Or if, like the last time, ye’ll but have t’ leave this isle. My wager would be the latter, as he has young and sturdy friends now t’ guard him.”
Pleased with what he saw, Gilbert then stepped back from the window, and he carefully headed back to the path, and out toward the village. His thoughts came back to his encounter in Champour, with the children of Simeon. And now, it seems that they were planning an excursion on the morrow, with the young girl and the mysterious sailor – thinking that would be safer than staying in the castle. Little did they know that it was into a trap that they would be walking, one that he himself would be instrumental in springing. Pleased with himself, he wandered on down the road, and turned away from the castle, and towards the village.
He then made the turn toward the blacksmith’s shop, and as he came up to the shop, he saw Jeremy and Rowan leaving the shop. His heart skipped a beat. But now it was too late for evasion, so he just nonchalantly strode on past the door.
“Evenin’, Master Gilbert,” said Rowan cheerfully.
“Good evening, Rowan,” answered Gilbert, his voice crackling. But he kept walking past, and then turned into another alley, where he hid. After several minutes of letting his heartbeat slow down, he very quietly looked out into the street, and in the gloom of night, was reassured that no one was the wiser, and he turned back toward the smithy.
But the darkness had also covered the actions of the two youths, who looked out from their own hiding place, and noticed the man, who slipped into the blacksmith’s shop, believing that he was unnoticed.
Without a word, they turned back toward the castle, and said nothing until they turned into the castle gates.
“D’ye feel it, too?” asked Jeremy. “Somethin’ tells me we have to hurry, and tell Kerlin what we’ve seen.”
“Oh, Aye. Now, we know Gilbert. And you and I know that scoundrel is up to somethin’ – somethin’ truly bad. And Kerlin’s the one we should tell, or Cayman at least.”
They arrived at the constabulary, and Rowan asked breathlessly if they could speak to either Kerlin or Cayman. As it happened, they were both in, and had been discussing the plan to move Robert, and the new people on the morrow. Seeing the eager look on the faces of the two youths, Kerlin asked them in.
“Well, lads, I truly did not expect you two back so soon. Come in, have a seat, and pray, tell what it is you’ve seen.”
And so, they sat down, and began telling Kerlin and Cayman of their day’s adventures. How they had gone to the blacksmith’s shop early in the day, and inquired of the man, LeGace. They were told that such a man had come to the smithy the prior evening. And he had asked, or rather, had insisted on the production of some knives. Not just the usual hunting knives, but ones designed to be concealed within a man’s cloak. And he insisted that they be made by today, and that they would be picked up this evening by his man. And he had paid handsomely for the knives, which the blacksmith then showed Jeremy and Rowan, with scarcely contained pride.
“And we think that we know who that man of his is,” said Jeremy. “It would appear to be Master Gilbert.”
“Gilbert, eh,” said Kerlin. His face darkened, as he closed his eyes. After a moment’s silence, he continued, “Now, that man is one that I could envision being involved with our Master LeGace. It would seem that his conscience, if he has one, is severely crippled by his ill-spent youth.”
“Maybe, this time he has finally declared his intentions,” added Cayman.
“Oh, aye, Cayman. You have been keeping an eye open to his doings for some years now.”
“Aye, that I have. Now, when was this encounter which you witnessed?”
“Oh, we just now came back from seeing him enter the blacksmith’s,” put in Rowan.
“Then we must send a man to try to tail him,” Kerlin said, then he turned toward the door. “Ho, Dowdell, can you come here a moment?”
“Aye, sir?” the faithful guardsman appeared at the door.
“Now, do we have a pair of guardsmen who can do swift work?”
“Oh, most certainly, sir. I’ll just call in Stoneheft and Martin. I shall be back anon.”
“Ah, aye, they’ll do just fine.”
“But what about us?” asked Jeremy. “We’ll do anything fer ye.”
“Exactly, m’lad,” said Kerlin. “But I’ve got something very special for you two to do for us all. Now, Cayman here has some plans for you lads, do you not?”
“Absolutely. Now, if ye’ll just pay attention…”
Back in the keep, in one of the upper rooms, sat Diego, with Alex at his side, on the bed. Craycroft had been studying the man, trying to decide if the man’s muteness had anything to do with his traumatic arrival on the isle. He, too, noticed the very subtle weakness with which he moved his right arm. And his face looked not quite right.
“My good sir,” he asked, “can you but tell me your name?”
At his question, the man’s face suddenly seemed to register a look of understanding.
“D… Dieg…Dieg…” he said, though the words had trouble forming, and did not come out of his mouth with ease.
“Diego?” queried Craycroft.
The man nodded.
“Diego!” cried Alex, and next she hugged him.
He smiled crookedly at her.
“Diego Monteverde?” asked Craycroft. “My friend, the Earl of Derrymoor has spoken of you. Are you truly he?”
Diego nodded again.
“Then we must take the most excellent care of you. For it seems that we here on Shepperton Isle have much we can learn from you…”
“She… Shep… Shepper…ton?” Diego stumbled over the word. But it was clear that the name meant something to the sailor.
Craycroft’s eyes were closed for a moment, then he spoke. “Now, I must tell Eustace, who is the Earl of Derrymoor’s true son. He will be with you on your journey on the morrow. He must know of your importance. But, for now, Alexandra shall stay with you.”
This made Alex smile. Diego could sense the eager caring in her. But of the words that Craycroft spoke, he could discern only the word ‘Derrymoor’. The rest were just babbling, and meaningless syllables. He shook his head. What had happened to him? Why were things so fuzzy? And his right arm still felt unreal, as if belonging to someone else. As Craycroft got up to leave, he just let himself be soothed again by the ministrations of this little angel who sat next to him, and who again began singing in that little girl voice, as if she alone could truly understand him.