Lord Jasper & the Dragon of Torik
Third Instalment in the Torik Chronicle
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Lord Jasper was taller and thinner than Duke Willoughby, but his eyes were beady and shifty as. He met in the rustic sitting room, where there were wooden benches.
“What do you know of these stories about a dragon?” Braccus asked him, “They have a lot of people frightened, workers refusing to work the fields.”
“Oh, that silliness?” Lord Jasper asked, almost surprised to be asked about that topic instead of something else. “I've told my workers not to listen to such balderdash. Nobody has seen any dragon and until they do they need to be doing their jobs, or I'll replace them.”
Kester leaned forward, “You don't think it might be suspicious that your people are working while everyone one else was hiding?”
The man sighed. “It's not my problem that people are frightened of stories and tall tales. I find it hard to believe people are really scared of this nonsense like children.”
Hodkins twisted his face around. “If you didn't spread those rumors, who did? Where are the missing people?”
The man laughed. “Are you sure those people truly existed? None of my workers ever knew or met the so-called taken ones. I definitely asked them too.”
Meritor was confused. This man was no doubt linked to the troll attack, the dwarf had mentioned him and it had been very clear to Meritor's ears. If he wasn't responsible for the disappearances and the rumors of dragons, then what in the world had he been trying to hide? Something worse?
Braccus had been rubbing his bearded chin again. He looked around the room at every one of them and said, “Torik is the southeastern-most town of Archlandia, before the Baleful Mountains. So the idea of dragons being seen is not totally out of the question. If there were dragon attacks, and I have seen one of them myself, everyone would have heard and seen it. Dragons are not subtle creatures.”
“But they are quite rare, these days.” Lord Jasper told them, “As a child, I think I saw one in the distance once flying high toward the mountains. It didn't look like a bird, but it was so far how could I be sure? Other than that, I have lived a lifetime and never saw or heard one.”
Hodkins crossed his arms. “Okay then. I will grant that there was no dragon. Who benefits from the rumors and the frightened people? Isn't it you, Lord Jasper?”
The man sighed and rubbed his eyes. “It would seem so, on the surface, I suppose. I protest my innocence, though.”
Braccus leaned back. “We have no evidence against you on this matter.”
Meritor stopped leaning against the wall by the door, something had moved upstairs. “There is one other thing we need to ask you about, though.”
“I see.” Lord Jasper said, clasping his hands together. “What might that be, then?”
Braccus sat up straight. “Do you employ a dwarf, by any chance?”
Something fell over at the top of the stairs and Meritor slipped out of the room and started quietly up the stairs, hand on the hilt of the knife sheathed in the small of his back.
“Employ?” Lord Jasper asked, slightly confused. “I would not call it employed.”
Meritor reached the top of the stair where a tall vase lay on its side and the form of a small dwarf was balled up next to it, shivering. He let the knife stay in the sheath. He reached down and pulled the dwarf into a standing position, the small man did not resist.
“Please, I beg you, don't tell Lord Jasper about this.” the Dwarf pleaded in a whisper. “He can't know about it, he is terrible when he is angry.”
Downstairs Braccus was asking Lord Jasper “If he is not employed, as you say, how would you describe him?”
Lord Jasper stood up and clasped his hands behind his back. “You aren't from around here, so you wouldn't know. He, in fact, is my nephew.”
Upstairs, Meritor released his grip on the scruff of the dwarf. “I'll talk to you later, and don't try to run away from me.”
The dwarf slunk down against the wall and nodded. “I will not run away from you.”
Meritor walked back down the stairs to join his comrades.
“I see.” Braccus said, “I guess we'll be on our way. I might come to ask you different questions tomorrow but it's so late, I understand if your tired.”
“There's a spare room if you want to stay here until morning.” Lord Jasper informed them, “You are welcome to it. I'll have your horses tended to in the barn.”
The four spent the night in a room with four beds. “How come there is a room with four beds? Another coincidence?” Kaster asked. “This seemed like a simple matter a few hours ago, but I haven't any idea how this ends.”
“It will end one way, or another. No sense thinking about it too much.” Hodkins said as he laid on one of the beds. “I'll be getting some sleep at any rate.”
“So the dwarf is his nephew. I wonder if he knows what his kin has been up to?” Kaster asked idly but amused. “Is the little man a master criminal?”
“I didn't get that impression.” Meritor said, thinking about the meeting at the top of the stairs. “Although I wonder what his nephew has been up to, as well.”
When the others were asleep Meritor slid out of the bed and quietly left the room. He found himself in a dark and unfamiliar hallway. He had no idea which room might have belonged to the dwarf so he walked by them all. One of the doors at the other end of the second floor had a doorknob that was much lower than normal.
He tapped it lightly. Several moments later the door opened with a click and he entered to see Malwort's profile lit by the sole candle in the room. This room was not like the others in the house, indeed it was quite shabby.
“I am a member of a secret organization, sir. I do not wish to divulge anything about that, but I will try to explain the situation as I know it.” Malwort told him, without ever once looking in the direction of the door. “From what I know, and these are not rumors these are the word of those in position to know, is that it seems Duke Willoughby is trying to fool the King into taking action against Lord Jasper.”
Meritor lifted an eyebrow. “You think Willoughby is possibly sabotaging his own business, to remove his main competitor?”
Malwort put up one finger. “I do not think anything, I know. I have many contacts in this region.”
Meritor wanted to play devil's advocate. “He is your uncle, I can see how that might bias you in his favor.”
A grin passed over the face of the dwarf, he could see it even in the darkened room. “My uncle is a devious and cruel man. A lout really. I would have no trouble telling you about his misdeeds. There are many, but there is nothing like what the Duke is doing.”
Meritor believed Malwort. “Tell me what you know.”
“I know that his hands have been working at night in the field. I know who was paid to spread the dragon rumors. I know he plans to use the king's guard to eliminate Lord Jasper and seize his fields as compensation.” The dwarf said. “On many levels the Duke is a better man than my uncle, but he is a greedy accountant at heart. Lord Jasper and Duke Willoughby have butted heads for decades on many issues, especially trying to control the flow of pepper in the kingdom.”
Meritor asked, “Roget Willoughby doesn't look the type. I doubt he ever worked hard in his life.”
The dwarf shook his head, “When he was but a boy, Roget was a bit more active. He actually wrested control of the estate from his older brother. His brother has never been heard from again, not even a letter for more than three decades now.”
“Are you suggesting...?”
“No.” The small man said, “I wouldn't suggest what I do not know.”
“What about the trolls?” Meritor asked, “What kind of person sends people to a trap and forces them to face trolls? What if my comrades hadn't known the best ways to defeat them? Who sent you to do that?”
“My source says Willoughby was having assassins sent to kill Lord Jasper. My intelligence in the matter was erroneous, for once, and I couldn't let you kill my uncle under the wrong pretenses. Not that I would really mind it otherwise.” The dwarf said, “I thought you were hired killers. When the trolls were dispatched with ease, I was certain of it. Fortunately, you aren't assassins after all.”
Meritor told him, “I'll have to think about changing careers, though.”
“If you are not assassins, then you work for the King to scout out the situation. Please tell them not to send the soldiers after my uncle. He is not guilty of this thing. If you have no other questions, please let me get some sleep. I have a kitchen to scrub before dawn.”
Meritor had a hard time believing that the bad guy here was Willoughby instead of Jasper as he laid back down on the fourth bed. He believed that Malwort was telling the truth, though. He would demand some evidence of this before they would report back to Prince Harald.
The dwarf said he had sources. The noise he had heard at Willoughby's might not have come from the next room, but from within the wall. The dwarf could have been listening to their conversation the whole time! Some source.
Meritor slept fitfully and woke before dawn. He wondered through the house and found himself in the kitchen and, sure enough, the dwarf was scrubbing the floor.
“Malwort!” he said, “Have you scuttled inside of walls lately?”
The dwarf threw down the scrub brush and removed the rag from his head. “Forget that. My sources tell me that you and those larger men are in grave danger.”
“Why? What from? How can you possibly know?” Meritor asked.
“The secret organization is not just me, idiot. Did you really think it was? No time to talk about that, right now. Deep in the night the Duke sent some of his top men with a wagon, pigs tied to it, to the distant foothills. One of my inside sources was forced to go along. There was a cave and there they fed it the pigs.”
“A real dragon. In chains.” Malwort told him, “They spread those rumors so no one would suspect anything when a real dragon shows up. The Duke's top hand explained that you four will be the first target.”
Meritor was impressed but shrugged. “Hodkins can handle the dragon, so he says. But how do I know that this was all the Duke and not Jasper? Or you?”
The dwarf closed his eyes and covered his face. “I'm sitting on the floor, scrubbing the kitchen and you think I run a conspiracy?”
None of this was evidence. If there was a real dragon somewhere, that did not necessarily implicate Willoughby. All of this was second or third hand information, filtered by Malwort. Meritor thought about this as he walked back through the house and back upstairs.
Braccus opened one eye as Meritor entered.
Meritor nodded. “Says the Duke is about to send a dragon after us.”
“Wake those two lumps. We best be watching our backs.” Braccus said, sitting up and stretching. Meritor walked over and kicked the beds and two men finally started waking up. Both of them wanted to know what was happening.
“Looks like trouble is finally coming.” Braccus told them.
“Finally.” Kaster said, “I've been bored.”
“Play time, eh?” Hodkins said with a smile, “It's about time. Is it trolls again?”
“Better.” Meritor told him, “A dragon.”
Hodkins face fell just a bit, he might have even gone a bit pale. “Is that so? Then, uh, nothing we can't handle. I suppose.”
Just then one whole wall exploded inward and an ear-piercing shriek gouged into the quiet of the night as the four of them retreated against the walls. Except where Hodkins and Kaster had gone, there was no door. Both had some scratches from the flying wood and rock.
The claws and the face of a dragon was peering into the room from the dark, the head was as large as one of the beds. It shrieked again and Meritor fell to the floor and wondered if he should bother even looking for his bow.
“I would say this is a real dragon.” Braccus said in a low voice.
Torik Chronicle: Final
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