Chapter 6 Market and Cathedral
Sapphire and Grace skirted around to the back of the inn where they came to the market square. Against the back of the stone inn building was a low wood structure followed by some covered market stalls, beyond which was the corral beneath the last tower. The back edge of the market square seemed to be lined with apple trees, beyond which the land fell away. To the right was church, a miniature cathedral. They drank it all in as they munched the last of their pastries, held on little paper napkins.
They turned and saw an old lady with a broom, standing in the door of the low wood building. “Of course. And you are….?”
“Madam Claire – I run the market office, and I aim to keep this place clean.”
“So what can one get here at the market?”
Madam Claire shook her head. “Market day is Saturday and this here’s Wednesday, so nothin’ for three more days. That’s when the farmers bring their stuff in. Of course what you buy or they sell is none of my business. Then there’s the fishwife.” She gestured toward market stalls. “She’s here ‘bout every day, if you want to see what she’s got.”
Sapphire gave her a smile and a nod. “Thank you!”
Grace walked up to the barrel to look in, and a slimy tentacle reached out, freezing her in her tracks.
“Careful there, Squid is in there to guard my fishes, and he don’t take kindly to strangers.”
Grace backed away, eyes wide. Sapphire reached out a hand and steadied her shoulder. “So, how much for a … fish?”
The fishwife stared at them a minute. “Three silver pieces.” The two ladies looked up at her in surprise. “Two silver pieces. Spamwich can cook it up real nice for you at the inn, just tell him to lay off the spices. Nice clean broiled fish, can’t be beat. How about one silver piece?”
Sapphire laughed. “Okay, one silver piece, er…?” She raised her eyebrows as she reached out with a coin.
“Bonnie Marsh,” said the old lady, happily taking the coin. “And we thanks you.”
“So, Bonnie, you come in with fish every day? Do you live out at those fishing huts we saw along the causeway.”
“Sure do, me and my family. I’m the only one who comes in to sell though, they mostly don’t like strangers.”
Sapphire nodded, thinking about what reception Cleo and Rufus were liable to get out there. “So tell me, they say the storm run-off from the farms is making the water undrinkable. What is that going to do to the fishing?”
Bonnie waved a hand. “Why, nothin’. That there manure feeds the algae in the lake, and the fish eat the algae. The storm will help, if anythin’. Looks as though we’d better get busy doing more fishin’ though, I reckon. People gunna be hungry soon.”
Sapphire smiled. “In that case, a big thank you for the fish.”
They hurried back to the inn, gave the hobbit chef the fish, with firm instructions not to over spice it. He looked hurt, but accepted the big fish gratefully.
Returning to the market square, they crossed the field and examined the apple trees, whose fruit was developing but not quite ripe yet. Beyond them, the land fell steeply to the rushing river below. The opposite shore was low and marshy. Trees and hillocks interwoven with muddy channels led off into the distance.
The apple trees continued right behind the massive stone church, which was shaped like a traditional cross, with the head at the riverbank. That end of the church seemed to be composed of stain glass windows. The foot of the cross, out by the road, was the base of a single bell tower. Under the arm on this side was a long, low wood building.
Stone steps ran up to the massive front door, which opened a crack. A head and hand poked out and beckoned to them. “Psst! Come here!”
“They’re keeping me prisoner here. Have you come to help me escape?”
The ladies looked at each other. “Who’s keeping you prisoner?”
“Mother Theresa. She’s mean. Let me get my sun bonnet and I’m coming with you.” She turned and went inside, leaving the door open.
The ladies shrugged, and followed. Inside the vestibule, they could see the bell ropes and doors to cloak rooms on either side. Another set of doors led to the interior of the church. The old nun was hurrying down the main aisle, when suddenly a priestess robed in white appeared and took her by the arm. “Now, Sister Maude, what have you been up to.” The priestess glanced at the two visiting ladies. “Telling tales out of school again, have we? Let us get you back to bed.”
As Sapphire and Grace stood and admired the stained glass windows at the back of the sanctuary, the priestess hurried off with Sister Maude to some door in the left wing of the cathedral. A priest stood in the pulpit rustling papers, while a friar moved some flowers about on the table below. Off to the right, a younger nun was busy at a table of votive candles.
The priestess hurried back and came straight to the visitors, holding out a hand. “Welcome, I’m Mother Theresa. I am so sorry about that. Sister Maude is getting quite old and is often rather confused. I’m afraid she’s a danger to herself sometimes.”
“Can we talk with her?”
Mother Theresa shook her head. “No, I’m sorry, but she really needs her rest. Perhaps another day, when she’s feeling better. But feel free to pray or light a candle for someone. Regular services are on Sunday morning, of course.”
“Thank you.” The ladies barely glanced at each other, then beat a hasty retreat.
Outside, the yellow road ran just to the edge of the church garden, where a massive iron gate stood open at the near end of a stone bridge. The river had clearly wrapped around the cathedral and now formed the southern border of the town.
They stood there a moment, surveying the grand old mansion whose roof rose above the trees across the river. Beyond it, the forest rose even higher. The road took a sharp right after crossing the bridge, and followed the river to the west. To the left, they could see many gravestones surrounded by a low iron fence.
“You’re not thinking of going out this late are you?” The ladies turned and saw the fellow who had been working the garden, now leaning on his shovel and looking at them. “Thing is, I lock up that gate at dark, and you don’t really want to be on the wrong side of it when I do.”
Sapphire took a step forward. “No, now that you mention it, it’s getting quite late. But what can you tell us about what we’re seeing across there?”
“That’s the graveyard, and I’m both the Sexton here at the church, and the Undertaker. I hope you won’t be needing my services anytime soon.” He laughed sourly.
Sapphire tossed her head towards the roofline. “And that building there?”
The Sexton pursed his lips. “That’s the old Withers mansion. Best you not being going up there.”
“But who lives there?”
The Sexton broke out laughing. “Who lives there, you ask. Nobody who walks in that place can be said to be living there. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!” He then turned his back and went on digging in the garden.
The ladies exchanged glances and turned their attention to the buildings running up the opposite sided of the street. The first had a sign out front reading “Captain’s Tannery and Craft Boutique.” They went inside and startled a chubby fellow who had been arranging a display of soaps and candles.
The man pushed his feathered cap back on his head and straightened his cloak. He then took a few steps out from behind the display, making a loud clunk with alternate steps. His left foot had been replaced by a peg. “And how can I help you beautiful young ladies?” He stroked his yellow beard and smiled.
Sapphire moved off to look around. Grace nodded and smiled at the man. “Are you the Captain?”
The man nodded. “Yep, that’s me. Leastwise it was until I lost this.” He lifted his peg leg and waved it in a little circle.
“My, my, that’s terrible. How did it happen?”
“Well, I was sailing up the lake on the Narwhal when a freak wind blew up and shoved us right up on a sand bar. Well, as Captain it was my job to lead the party that went into the water to free us up, and was the last man to climb back into the boat. Just at the last minute, it struck. Right up out of the mud it popped, and grabbed me foot.”
“Heavens, what was it?”
The Captain gave a little mock shiver. “It was one of the Crab men, sure as I’m standing here on one foot. And he’s still got me other one, I’d wager. I had to retire after that – had a problem keeping me footing on deck, you see. Haw, haw.”
Sapphire stepped up and waved her arm in a big circle. “Your shop is very impressive, very clean and neat. So did you retire then, to set up this shop?”
The Captain nodded. “Aye. Delft was running the tannery and did the leatherworking and cobbling. I invested and expanded the shop into what you see now. I handle the other fine goods.”
“So how’s business?”
The Captain frowned. “Well, not so great, now that Delft’s run off. I’ve had to let that side of the business slack off. But if you need to do any leather work, we’ve all the tools right there.” The Captain looked a little sad. “Nobody’s using them now.”
“So why did Delft … has run off you say?”
The Captain pouted. “Was run off. But here, we don’t want to talk about that. Perhaps you ladies would like to smell some of these fine soaps I’ve made. I have the essential oils imported all the way from the far east. Or perhaps a scented candle?”
As they left the ‘Boutique’, scented soap in hand, Grace turned to Sapphire. “Shall we head back to the inn? I think I see Flummox and D-Stract are hitting the last shop up the road there.”
Sapphire frowned. “Well, what I really want to do is have a private word with Sister Maude. Shall we see what we can manage?”
They crossed the road and reentered the foyer of the church. Looking deeper into the cloakrooms, they found stairs leading up to balconies that ran the length of the base of the cross-like architecture. They took seats where they could watch what was going on below. The nun and friar busied themselves with various chores and prayers. The Mother Superior and Priest were having quiet words behind the altar. Soon they headed into the left arm of the church but headed down some steps that went towards the river, and through a door at the bottom.
Quickly the ladies hurried through the church, nodding and waving at the smiling nun and friar. Going into the left arm, they again turned left and passed through a door into the low wooden structure that ran along the side of the church. A dogleg to the left and they were facing a long corridor with a dozen doors on each side. It wasn’t hard finding Sister Maude’s room, as she was singing to herself. It wasn’t hard unlocking her door either, as the key had been left in the lock.
Sapphire carefully shut the door behind her as Grace stepped forward. “Not yet. Sapphire so much enjoyed talking with you that she wanted to spend a bit more time with you. Is that okay?”
Maude looked at Grace, then Sapphire, and smiled, nodding happily. Her pale skin had a definite greenish tint, except where something wet was drooling down her chin.
Sapphire took a seat in the only chair, which was by a writing desk. “Oh yes, Maude. We wanted to know everything about what has been happening to you.”
Maude pouted. “They won’t let me go out any more. They say I’m sick. I don’t feel sick. I just feel tired. Old and tired. They ought to let me go out when I feel like it.”
Sapphire nodded. “Yes, that’s not very nice of them. When did you start feeling so tired?”
Maude sighed. “I guess it all started with the Hobo. Caboose was his name. He said he liked to travel by hitching a ride on the back of caravans and such. We met in the church, and he really was a nice young man. We fed him of course.” Maude seemed to drift off in a dream.
Sapphire cleared her throat. “So Maude, when was this?”
Maude looked started. “Oh, what’s the date? June already, isn’t it? This was the beginning of March I guess. I was in the garden, doing some early planting. The sun was much more of a warming presence back then. It burns so now.” She shook her head as the ladies exchanged significant looks.
Maude shrugged and went on. “Anyway, Caboose came back to me that evening. Said that he had been out by the Withers mansion and seen something remarkable. Can you guess? Of course not, you’re not from around here. It was the two Rouge girls, Gloss and Rose. They had disappeared with Mr. and Mrs. Autumn right after New Years, coming back from a party, I think. There was a lot of blood and such, and everyone assumed foul play. Chief Grief investigated for weeks, then got into a fight somewhere in the forest, and said that all four had all been killed by bandits or ghouls or something, but that he’d run all the baddies off and they were swallowed up by the forest creatures by now. Nothing more was heard from any of them until Caboose…. Well, there they were, he said, two little girls sitting in the weed-ridden gardens at the Withers mansion, eating snails out of the dirt, of all things! Of course he didn’t know their names but he described them, and what they were wearing. The poor girls were wearing the same clothes as when they went missing months before, but now they were all tatters and dirt. Now, if the girls had run off to live with the Withers, that’s one thing and none of my business. But, the deplorable state they were in, that’s quite another. Those girls needed taken better care of!” Maude paused and drifted off again.
Sapphire reached out and put a hand on her sleeve. “That’s terrible. What did you do?”
Maude sat up and looked indignant. “Well, I took Caboose with me to go have a word with the Withers, of course! It was pretty dark by then, so we took lanterns, and had to get Doug the Sexton to open the south bridge gate for us. We marched up to the estate but never got inside. Instead we were met by – I don’t know. As we crossed the grounds, they surrounded us in the dark. I saw some unholy visages under their hoods, before they banged the lanterns out of our hands. Caboose screamed as they jumped all over us, and tried to hold us down. I was able to break free and run, but I don’t think Caboose got away. It was horrible. I ran and ran, right back over the bridge. I don’t even know who bandaged my arm, I was in such a state.” She stopped and stroked her own arm sadly. “It’s stopped hurting now, but it isn’t healing well. I have a big old nasty scar. They made me take all sorts of medicines. The Visitor came and tried to take me to the Castle, but Mother Theresa insisted on keeping me here.”
Sapphire sat up perkily with a fake smile. “So! You’ve spent the last 3 months cooped up here, out of the sun. What have you been doing with your time? Do you have any hobbies?”
Maude lit up. “Yes! I’ve been sorting out my rock collection!”
Sapphire raised her eyebrows. “Rocks?”
Maude nodded. “Oh yes, pretty stones and crystals that visitors sometimes leave if they don’t have any coins to donate. The good gems, worth any money, go to running the church of course, but they let me have the rest. You’ve been such a good visitor, let me give you one to remember me by.”
She stood up and rummaged through a chest of drawers. “Here you go, a nice quartz point. For you.” She looked over at Grace. “Sorry, I can only spare one just now. They’re all I have, anymore.” She looked downcast, and slumped on the bed.
“Can I offer you a bit of candy?”
Maude shook her head. “I don’t feel like eating anymore.”
Sapphire smiled softly. “I don’t suppose you know anything about the wolves, do you?”
Maude looked puzzled. “Are there wolves about?”
Grace broke in. “I just heard two doors, open then close. I think we’d better be going.”
Sapphire patted Maude’s good arm. “No dear, no wolves to worry about. But, we have to be going.”
“Come back some time. If I wasn’t so tired, I’d go with you.”
“I’m sure we will. Bye, bye.”
The ladies hurried quietly the rest of the way down the corridor and exited the wood door at the end, right onto the main road. The door locked automatically behind them. It was starting to get dark, and they headed back to the inn.