Friday, June 20, 2014

Keepers of the List, Chapter 7

Leclerc wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead as he dumped a piled of rotted planks into the pile. He looked up at the sky; from the courtyard, he could see the sun, no longer at its highest, begin to disappear behind the leaning tower on the front side of the manor. That pile of planks was the last of the shelves in what was once the larder- it would be some time before the mansion was truly inhabitable, but they needed somewhere to keep their foot in the meantime.

It had been several hours since Cadmus, Mel, and Alastor had left. As Leclerc walked through the shadowy and musty halls of the abandoned home, he found himself glancing out of every window, looking for a sign of the adventurers’ return. He knew they wouldn’t be back for some time- in fact, if they returned too soon he had half a mind to refuse payment. They had been hired to exterminate the goblins in the surrounding hills. If they strolled back in before the sun had begun to set, then clearly they wouldn’t have been very thorough.

Not that he didn’t trust them… He did, didn’t he? One doesn’t travel to a remote location and put your life in the hands of someone you don’t trust. Of course he trusted Cadmus. Of all of the people that passed them by on that day in Archdale, not to mention during their troubles on the road for days before, Cadmus was the only one who offered to help. Leclerc had always heard bad things about trystborn- everyone had heard the stories- but like his mother and father taught him as a child, and as the church of Deluz held as its highest tenet, one must respect and care for all men, regardless of race, upbringing, or creed, as all are given the blessing of the Sun Father, whether they choose to use it or not.

And Mel, though shrewd, certainly hadn’t given him any reason to suspect anything worthy of distrust. Leclerc certainly wondered what kind of “business partners” she had back in Serasham- having spent half of his life there serving the church, he knew what kind of shady business was conducted in the back alleys- but he had to give her the benefit of a doubt. After all, the same logic could be applied to him, or to Esprit.

Then… there was Alastor. Leclerc certainly felt more suspicious of him, since he wasn’t given the chance to size him up before they departed on this quest. His behavior since then had been strange, to say the least. Earlier that morning, when it was time to wake everyone up after their first night in the manor, Leclerc approached the corner where the spellcaster had set up his bedroll. Not only did it seem needlessly far from the rest of the group, but Alastor had positioned bookshelves and debris around his bedroll so that Leclerc had to noisily climb over and move the obstacles before he could even see where the wizard slept. And by the time Leclerc got to him, Alastor was already awake, sitting up, looking more composed and alert than ever. Had he been awake all night? Was he trying to hide something from the rest of the group?

Leclerc sighed, making his way one more time through the halls. Whatever the case, Esprit had closed on the deal and now it was just time to wait until the adventurers returned. There honestly wasn’t much to do in the meantime- the group had searched the manor for signs of any goblins or wild animals living in the vacant building, and having found none, the next step would be to go back to town and hire laborers to fix up what could be fixed, and build anew what was ruined. After that, Esprit planned on hiring furnishers to come in and design custom furniture for each of the rooms- her hope was to eventually restore the manor and surrounding grounds to its former glory, as it was in the time of her parents or grandparents or whoever lived in it last. She had told Leclerc that he was welcome to live with her, as long as he wished, as thanks for taking care of her for so long and helping her sort out her affairs.

And so, for the time being, there wasn’t anything urgent to attend to. They couldn’t travel back to town yet, in case the adventurers returned. And since they had no idea in what state the home would be, they only brought food and supplies for a short while, so as not to encumber themselves or their wagon needlessly. Esprit had taken the opportunity to finally rest easily for once, laying out her bedroll on the remains of what used to be a four-poster canopied bed in the room she had chosen to be her master suite, laying upon it and trying to relax. Leclerc had no issue with her decision to do so, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do the same; he couldn’t do much on his own, but he had never been one to relax when there was work to be done. So he spent the morning, and now the afternoon, gathering up broken and rotting remains of furniture and artwork and throwing them into a pile on the overgrown grass of one of the two courtyards. Eventually, once the adventurers returned perhaps, they could set the pile ablaze, and then he could relax. But for the time being, he just went from room to room, grabbed what he could, and added it to the pile.

It truly was a shame. It seemed that literally everything of value had been removed or destroyed. He wondered just who did it all- was it a group of brigands passing through during the years the property was abandoned? Or was it whoever lived in the home last, taking what they could when they bid the building farewell?

Much of the building’s past was shrouded in mystery. Leclerc knew very little- as did Esprit, unless she purposely hid details from him- about Esprit’s parents, or their death, or their home. He had assumed that they lived here, at Stalvan Manor, as had she before their death, but when they finally found someone who knew the area well, Leclerc and Esprit were informed that the building looked to have endured decades of disrepair. And, here they were, in a building that looked like nobody had set foot in it for over a lifetime.

They had, of course, hoped to find something in the home- documents, paintings, anything- to suggest its ownership or anything about Esprit or her family. But, as Leclerc learned through his walks around the property, anything that could identify the owner, or even the architects or artists that built this building, were damaged beyond recognition. This, coupled with the fact that every detail of the building’s craftsmanship looked like so many different styles combined, made it difficult to piece together. Leclerc had searched every room he could find- from the cellar, filled almost to the brim with broken pieces of the floor above, to the tops of each tower- except for the leaning one, which looked ready to collapse at the slightest breeze, and so far had found nothing noteworthy. Esprit would finally have a home, but Leclerc could feel that she was still yearning for something.

As the sun reached further across the sky, Leclerc, satisfied with how much he had cleared out so far, carried the casks of grain and fresh water they had brought into the empty larder. He walked to the room he had designated as his own and grabbed a loaf of bread and some cheese from his pack, which sat next to his polished breastplate and hammer, and knocked on the door to Esprit’s room.

“Come in,” she called from inside, with little emotion in her voice.

He opened the wooden door, which was bowed slightly inward, and stepped into the room, his boots tapping on the strong floor. Esprit was laying on her bedroll, her head hanging off the far side of the broken bed, staring upside-down out the broken window.

“I was taking a break to have something to eat,” he began. “I thought you might wish to join me. If I’m not… disturbing you, that is.”

She pulled herself to a sitting position rather quickly, and for a moment her face was slightly red from being held upside down. She blinked, then gave her head a shake.

“Absolutely,” she said, snapping out of a daze. “Any word from the others?”

Leclerc walked over, pulling up a chair that was missing all but the metal frame of the seat. He sat down on it uncomfortably, feeling the metal strain under his weight.

“Not yet. I trust they won’t have much trouble- they certainly seemed to be experienced.” He tore off a piece of bread and put it in his mouth, holding it against one cheek as he broke off some cheese. Chewing them together, he handed the bread and cheese to Esprit, who began to do the same.

“I’ve looked around the building pretty thoroughly,” he spoke, after a few moments of silence. “I’m afraid I didn’t find anything… recognizable. No books, no documents.”

Esprit, her mouth full, took a deep breath, sighing through her nose. She nodded, not saying anything in return.

“It’s possible…” said the paladin, sensing a barely-noticeable sadness from her expression. “I mean… there could always be a… hidden room, or secret passage, that might hold something that was missed by whoever ransacked the building. Of course it’s nothing to count on, but who knows- some day you might stumble across something you never expected.”

She swallowed glumly, and began to tear off another piece of bread. “I suppose so. I don’t know what I expected, but… I thought coming here would make me happy. I felt like once we got here, I would never be lonely again.”

Leclerc reached over and caressed her shoulder, brushing her long red hair out of her sad face. “And I intend to help make that as true as I can. Once we get workmen to come in and get rid of all of the rubble, and this place starts feeling like a true home, you’ll be wishing you had some peace and quiet,” he said with a smile. “Trust me.”

She mustered a smile, and shoved some bread in her mouth. Leclerc could see her brush away the faintest of tears as she did so. “I guess you’re right,” she said with her mouth full. “I just hope that someday I can find someone who knew my parents. It would be nice to know if I have any other family or friends out there, you know?”

Leclerc nodded. He felt guilty- although he didn’t have a large family, he corresponded with his mother, father, and sister quite often, and he knew how much Esprit envied him for that. But he knew that the Sun Father Deluz had a plan for all of them, and some day it would all make sense.

“So,” he said, swallowing some more bread and cheese. “I put all of the broken boards in a big pile in the courtyard. I was thinking once the others returned, we could have a big bonfire to celebrate.”

Esprit smiled, and it looked like a real, happy smile. “I think I’d really like that,” she said.

Once they had finished eating, Leclerc stood up- glad to no longer be depending on that chair frame- and gathered the remaining food. As he began to walk towards the door, Esprit called his name.

“Leclerc,” she said. “I think I’m going to talk a walk around the building. Stretch my legs. Maybe check on the horses.”

He nodded back towards her. “That sounds like a good idea. Give them some sugar for me. I’m going to see if there are any rooms I missed- maybe start clearing out the basement, if I can.”

She smiled, and Leclerc returned to cleaning.
It was nearing sunset, and Leclerc wasn’t having much luck moving the rubble in the basement. There was so much debris, he couldn’t even quite tell how large the basement was going to be, or whether there was anything beyond the wreckage. He had worked up quite a sweat trying to move what he could, but so much of it was wedged against other pieces that it was hard to find purchase. Having decided to take a break, he made his way back towards Esprit’s room.

He passed a window, and once again he felt the urge to look out, looking for signs of the adventurers. He paused and stared outside for a moment; just as he began to turn to continue down the hall, there was a great rumble, and the ground under his feet lurched to one side. He felt the entire building shake for a moment, and the rumble, far off in the mountains, subsided. A moment passed, and he felt his heart racing, wondering what that was, when he heard another noise, much closer: a cracking noise, coming from the front of the building.

His eyes opened wide. He knew what was about to happen the instant before it did- he let out a yell, and barreled down the hall towards the manor’s entrance.

Before he could get very far, however, he was knocked to his feet by a thunderous crash outside. He scrambled up again, running as fast as his feet would take him, until he smashed his way through the set of double doors in front of Stalvan Manor.

As he took in what was lying before him, he felt himself scream for his friend.

“ESPRIT,” he shouted, “ESPRIT!

The crooked tower, leaning so precariously upon their arrival, had fallen and crashed onto the stable house.

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