(This story is 3,449 words long. Reading time is approx 18 minutes)
Quinn looked around the room, took a deep breath and tried to steady his shaking hands.
He was sitting in Baron Woodley’s parlor, in one of the many oversized, lavish armchairs that lined the back wall. He rubbed his sweaty palms across the soft leather armrests. The Baron would be home any minute now.
Outside the daylight faded. Inside, the parlor was cool and eerily quiet. All around the room were signs of wealth and privilege: the bowl of fresh fruit and the decanter of brandy on the table, the paintings on the walls, the ornate centerpiece rug, the books, ink pens and parchments that covered the desk, all of it spoke of a wealth that Quinn had never known.
The faintest sound came up from the bottom floor. Quinn cocked his head like a terrier and listened as the sound of footsteps entered the house.
“Here we go,” he said quietly. He wiped his palms again, stood up and walked over to the window. Just about a half hour of daylight left. The Baron had returned home right on cue.
The footsteps were getting closer, they were just outside the door now.
Now the great wooden door pushed halfway open and Baron Woodley squeezed inside. He wore a green velvet robe, black stockings, and a black, wide brimmed hat that barely fit between the door and the jam. He carried a satchel around his shoulder and was obviously out of breath from climbing the stairs. To remove his satchel, he had to first remove his hat, and he tossed both of these things onto the large wooden table in the center of the room.
It took a second for the Baron to realize that he wasn’t alone.
“Oh!” he cried, staggering backward and nearly toppling over, “What is… who…?”
Quinn stood toward the back of the room, casually studying a painting on the wall.
“This is a fine map of Montsheldon,” said Quinn, as if nothing was amiss, “It’s been years since I’ve seen a map of this scale. Although if you ask me, the Brunswick parcel is quite misrepresented here. Based on such an obvious bias, I’d wager that the mapmaker was a Halifax man…”
Baron Woodley struggled to compose himself. He adjusted the lapels of his robe. His wide eyes narrowed into slits. “How dare you,” he said slowly, “Who are you and why are you in my home?”
Quinn turned and appeared to notice the Baron for the first time, “I’d like to have a version of this fine map for my collection. Might I ask how you came to acquire it?”
The Baron stared incredulously at the strange young man. Quinn’s hood, his tattered tunic, and his dirty stockings made him out to be a peasant, but he spoke and carried himself like one who was well educated.
“I don’t know what you’re playing at,” said the Baron, “but I’m calling the guards.”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” said Quinn.
“And why not?”
“Well… I suppose you could. But when your guards don’t respond, you’ll go downstairs to find they’ve been bound and knocked unconscious.”
“Nonsense.” said the Baron. “Two of my men just let me through the gate. I saw them less than five minutes ago.”
“And after you found your guards disabled,” Quinn went on, “you’d likely decide to summon more help, which would involve traversing the field to the guard’s quarters. But that’s where they’d intercept and kill you – on your way from the house to the guard’s quarters.”
“Who would try to kill me?”
“The group of knights that are waiting outside.”
The Baron stared at Quinn, ”And I suppose that these mystery ‘knights’ you speak of – these are your… associates?”
Quinn laughed, “Oh my no, I’m here to help you Baron Woodley, not to hurt you.”
It was the Baron’s turn to laugh. “And you expect me to believe these lies?” he said.
“Not really,” said Quinn, “That’s why you need to see it for yourself. Come have a look.” He gestured toward the window.
The Baron produced a small dagger from inside his cloak. He fumbled with the sheath, as if he had never actually opened the thing before. He pointed the dagger out ahead of him as he slowly moved to join Quinn by the window.
Quinn said, “You have made a good number of enemies since you obtained this Fiefdom from King Gregory. That should come as no surprise to you, Baron. The Serfs have always despised your rule, but now even the Lords have grown weary. They have made their appeals through the due process, of course, but you would hear none of it. Lately the Lords have been appealing to other Barons, rulers who do not share your… unfavorable reputation.”
Baron Woodley opened his mouth to defend himself, but Quinn went on, “Of course none of this is news to you. What might surprise you is that some of these Lords, many of whom are also knights in the King’s army, have made a secret pact among them. They have vowed that the time for pleading is over, that the time for action is now. Tonight they plan to kill you, and frame it to look like a dispute between you and your guards.”
“Enough!” Baron Woodley yelled as he pointed his dagger at Quinn’s chest. “Enough of your treasonous speech. I don’t need any help disposing of you – you lowly braggart – no, I’ll finish you myself.”
“Very well,” said Quinn, “But please, before you do, have a look out the window.”
Baron Woodley, perhaps compelled by the young man’s calm demeanor, moved closer to the wide window that looked out across his land.
“There,” said Quinn, “Between the stable and the gate, do you see the two hooded figures? They are fully armed of course, but they are clothed in black peasants’ tunics.”
Baron Woodley said nothing at first, but his breath grew shallow.
“And over there by the carriage,” said Quinn, “another one. Also four men crouched at the edge of the Apple Grove. And that’s just what we can see from this vantage point. I’m certain there are more.”
Baron Woodley slowly lowered the dagger. His hand was trembling now.
“Of course you could kill me,” Quinn went on, “but you’d be no match for more than a dozen armed knights. Even if you tried yelling and raising an alarm to the guards’ quarters, you’d be dead before they even realized what was happening.”
“You filthy swine,” said the Baron between his teeth, “call those men away this instant. In the name of the King.”
“They aren’t my men,” said Quinn, “They don’t know I’m here, just like you didn’t know five minutes ago. As I said, I’m here to help you. So you can go on insulting me or you can listen to what I have to say. The choice is yours, sir.”
“And what is it that you want,” said the Baron, “gold I suppose?”
“I have a paper here,” said Quinn, “it’s a copy of the treaty provisions that were brought before you earlier this week, the ones you denied. The land tax has been lowered by 5%, and the provisions tax by 10%. In addition, this treaty approves the formation of a manor council of which you are a part, which will meet monthly to discuss the fair distribution of the fiefdom. The agreement states that your personal decisions may, in certain cases, by overruled by a majority vote from the Lords.”
Baron Woodley scoffed. His air of authority returned to him in the presence of diplomatic matters. “This is absolutely insane!” he said. “A vote?! Why, these Knights have no idea what it takes to rule a Manor. Who do they think they are?”
“So… you decline the offer?” said Quinn.
“And what of you?” said the Baron, “Are you just going to walk out of here and strike a bargain with these assassins? How did you come by this treaty in the first place? How did you catch wind of these plans?”
“A peasant hears many rumors,” said Quinn. “Field work is dull and people talk to pass the time. Sometimes people say more than they should. All I do is keep my ears open. But as for how I’ll deal with the ‘assassins’ – well, with the help of this signed treaty, I should at least be able to appease them. I can speak on your behalf.”
“And what’s in it for you?”
“Just a small purse of coin for my troubles. I’ll go on my way, and you’ll live to see tomorrow.”
“So you’re some kind of clever thief, is that it? You leech off the hard work of others instead of making your own living? It’s despicable.”
“I consider myself an opportunist,” said Quinn, “a businessman not quite unlike yourself, Mr. Woodley.”
“You’re scum.” The Baron hissed. “If you’re lucky enough to live through this night, I’ll have you tracked down and murdered within the week. My reach is limitless. No matter where you hide, no matter which corner of the kingdom, I swear I’ll have you burned. You and any miserable family you have with you.”
For the first time, a hint of anger flashed across Quinn’s eyes, disrupting his calm demeanor. He slammed the treaty on the table and hissed, “So we do we have a deal, or not?”
The Baron scoffed. Slowly he bent to examine the paper, muttering to himself as he read over the terms. He grabbed a pen from the desk and signed the paper. Once finished, he looked up to see that Quinn had returned to the painting of the map that hung on the far wall. The Baron eyed the boy suspiciously. He wanted to remember his exact appearance, in order to report it to his guards. The unusual young man was wearing a regular peasant’s attire, a nondescript, tattered tunic, complete with hood… but he was taller than most. And his green eyes were brighter than most. “He is barely a man,” thought the Baron, “too well spoken to be a peasant or a thief…”
“What’s your name, boy?” said the Baron.
But Quinn was busy looking again at the large painting of the Montsheldon Kingdom. After a moment of silence, he suddenly reached up and, with an enormous heave, ripped the frame from it’s brackets on the wall. He carried it to the middle of the room and slammed it to the floor. The Baron leaped backwards as the glass and wooden frame splintered to a hundred pieces. Quinn retrieved the painting from out of the debris and carefully rolled it up; he then removed his belt and used it to cinch down the parchment.
“I’ll believe I’ll take this to add to my collection. You don’t mind do you?” said Quinn. He was calm and agreeable again.
The Baron stood, open-mouthed and disbelieving.
Quinn snatched the treaty from the Baron’s hand and said, “I’ve already helped myself to a small coin purse that I found in the parlor. I’ll take this treaty and show it to the knights outside. Hopefully they’ll listen to what I have to say. But if I were you, I’d keep the doors locked just in case.”
Before Baron Woodley could respond, Quinn threw open the large wooden door and disappeared down the hall.
Quinn walked quickly down the stairs and into the main quarters. His heart beat wildly inside of his chest. He passed by the two guards in the hallway, their hands bound and heads covered. One of the guards groaned pitifully as he passed.
He exited through the main gate and into the courtyard. It was nearly dark now and a cold wind blew through the nearby trees. He headed straight up the road without hesitating.
Soon enough, two men materialized out of the dusk. Each pointed a long blade at Quinn’s chest, effectively halting his progress in the road. More men closed in on all sides, but he kept his eyes on the two directly in front of him.
“Who are you and what is your business here?” said one of the knights.
“Please,” said Quinn, “I am only a messenger, I bring news. Here I have a proposition for you, straight from the Baron,” said Quinn.
“Where is Baron Woodley?” said the knight.
Quinn looked down the length of the blades pointed at his chest. He was nervous despite himself. He lowered his voice and said, “He’s most likely watching from the upstairs window. He won’t be able to hear us, but we need to keep up the act, just to be safe.”
The knight who had spoken first answered in a hushed voice, “Did you persuade him to agree to the terms?”
“Yes, I have the treaty here,” said Quinn. “Take it from me and look it over.”
The knight snatched the treaty from Quinn’s hand and examined it in the fading light.
Another knight addressed Quinn, “You have done a great service to the people of this land. And you’ve put yourself in serious danger. The Baron is a vengeful man, and he won’t rest until he finds you.”
“That’s what he told me,” said Quinn, “hopefully we embarrassed him well enough that he won’t go public with any of this. At least not for a while. He’ll pretend that the treaty was his idea just to save face.”
“Yes, and we’ll pray that’s enough protection for all of us.”
Another knight remarked on the rolled up map and the purse of coins that Quinn was carrying, “A few parting gifts from the Baron I presume?”
Quinn only nodded.
“Well son, we’ll pay you 10 times the amount of that purse for your help. We couldn’t have done this peacefully without you. You can lay low now, in a way that none of us can. And we can hide in plain sight since we never had to show our faces to the Baron.”
“Thank you,” said Quinn. It did’t feel half bad, he admitted to himself, being acknowledged by these men who were far superior in both age and hierarchy. “I’ll send a friend to pick up the money – maybe in a month or so. I’ve got more than enough to last me for now.”
“Very well, have your friend visit the Apothecary and ask for Albin Martyn. Albin will know what to do.”
“Is that all, then?” said Quinn.
“Yes. We’ll be going now. Good luck to you Mr. Rowntree.”
“And you,” said Quinn.
And with that the knights withdrew. They walked quickly along the road, and soon they were swallowed by the darkness.
Quinn stood still for a moment. He could almost feel the burning gaze of the Baron on his back. His adrenaline was beginning to wear off and the shaking in his hands was coming back. He couldn’t help smiling to himself in the dark. But instead of jumping, shouting, and celebrating like he wanted to, he walked calmly off the road and into the trees without looking back.
It was going to be a long, lonely walk home.
At 6 o’clock the next morning, Quinn sat across from his grandmother at a long, wooden dining table. Men and women and even a few children filled the nearby seats, talking loudly and carrying about their morning. In the far corner a few women prepared and served the morning meal: porridge and freshly baked bread. The community hall had a high ceiling, which absorbed the peoples’ voices into the rafters, along with the fresh smells from the oven.
Quinn and his grandmother sat a little ways apart from anyone else, toward the end of the long row of tables. They weren’t disliked by the community, but they did keep more distance than most. Pride and privacy were Rowntree family traditions, for better or for worse.
Quinn’s grandmother was busy complaining about the food, “I can’t eat another bite of this pitiful barley porridge”, she said, “somehow it’s more bland than yesterday!”
Quinn laughed, “Ah, it’s not so bad. You’re just picky. Besides you need to eat more.”
“I am quite capable of taking care of myself,” she said, “it’s you I’m worried about. How late were you out last night?”
“I was working late,” he answered bluntly.
“Ah,” she sighed, “things were so much better when your father was young.”
“Oh, here we go again,” said Quinn.
“Back then, we ate wheat bread every morning, and fish to go along with it. We had salt and exotic spices as well. I’d usually take a glass of wine with my breakfast, as did most of the men of the family. Your father – “
“Can we talk about something else?” Quinn Interrupted.
She raised her eyes at her grandson. “Well I can still dream can’t I? It’s more fun than working and living in this dreary place day after day.”
“I know what’ll cheer you up,” Quinn said, “I’m gonna buy you one of those necklaces from the market that you’re always talking about.”
“Oh Quinn,” she said, “you know we can’t afford something like that.”
“If you go to the market today, make sure you look at ‘em again,” he said, “tell me which one you like okay?”
“Well…” she conceded, “I was planning to go to the market today. But… it’s so busy with everything going on, I haven’t bothered to go since last week.”
“What’s going on,” asked Quinn, “festival or something?”
“Oh no, nothing like that. It’s this contest that’s got everybody in an uproar.”
“You haven’t heard? Where have you been boy? The King has made a very strange announcement. Rumor has it that one of the ancient halls has been discovered beneath the Gregory Castle.”
Quinn looked up from his food, wide-eyed now.
“Oh don’t get any crazy ideas,” she said, “it’s all propaganda if you ask me. I don’t know what the King is up to. I just remember that my father, and his father, always spoke of such things as mere fairy tales.”
“Why would the King say they discovered the ancient hall if they didn’t?” Quinn asked.
“Supposedly they did,” she went on, “but they haven’t got inside yet. The King claims that some sort of ancient riddle is guarding entry to the Hall. Apparently the royal family has been going crazy trying to solve it. The King’s advisors haven’t succeeded, and the King is going wild with greed and impatience – you know how irrational he is to begin with. He believes that if he can be the one to discover this hall – with stores of treasure and the buried kings of the past, as the legends go – well then he’ll go down in history as the King who restored the greatness of the Montsheldon nation.”
A group of young men sat down next to them. They weren’t much younger than Quinn. They each had a bowl of porridge full to the brim, are the largest chunk of bread that they could manage to grab. They had a long day of field work ahead of them and they ate without holding back.
Quinn’s grandmother lowered her voice. It did not become her to speak openly of such questionable matters. “Anyway,” she said, “the King posted a message a few days ago in the market square. He’s hosting some sort of… competition, where all wise men, wizards, puzzle solvers, and even thieves are going to have a chance to compete for a crack at the riddle.”
“When is the competition?” Quinn asked, barely able to contain himself now. How had he not heard about this earlier?
“Oh I think it’s next week. Can you believe it? King Gregory calling on the help of thieves and common people – well it’s just bad form! If the King were as old as I am, he’d know the so-called ‘wizards’ these days are phonier than scarecrows!”
Quinn was not listening anymore. He was wondering to himself how long it would take for Baron Woodley to put out a warrant for his arrest. Surely he could chance one quick visit to the market? It would be dangerous, but…
He pushed his bench back so quickly that the boys eating nearby looked up in surprise. “Well it’s getting late,” he said, “I’d better be off to the fields.”
“But it’s hardly 6:30!” his grandmother called after him. Quinn rushed across the hall, pushing his way through the crowds. He dumped his bowl into the wash bin without bothering to rinse it first; one of the workers noticed and called after him, “hey you there!” But he was already out the door.