The question of Master Ferdinand and his place in the grand scheme of things was one I was at least able to address directly with Guillaume soon after we left the inn. Trudging up the main street in the village it rapidly became apparent that the Captain and his two cohorts were not over-zealous in their work and, provided we made no attempt to stray beyond the boundaries of their custody, they paid us little heed and made no attempts to stifle conversation. So, having first tested the waters with a few innocuous remarks, I took the opportunity to grill Guillaume about what might await us at the end of our journey.
“Master Ferdinand is the steward of the Chateau de Sangallo,” Guillaume replied in response to my question. “He is responsible for the running of the entire household.”
“So why is he so desperate to see you all of a sudden?” asked Michael.
Guillaume shrugged lightly. “I can only suppose some query has arisen concerning my recent stay at the Chateau but I can’t think what. My business with Le Comte was concluded to the satisfaction of all parties.”
“What business was that then?” I pressed.
“Oh, the general kind of business that members of our brotherhood regularly engage upon,” replied Guillaume casually, persisting in his determination to mistake us for kindred souls. “Le Comte is a nobleman of the keenest intellect and I was able to offer him instruction in some of the more arcane arts.”
“It seems you may have left one or two questions unanswered,” suggested Michael.
“Impossible,” retorted Guillaume. “Everything was settled perfectly.” The remark though was made in a more doubtful tone than the words would suggest and Guillaume lapsed into a thoughtful silence, brushing off further queries.
Our route took us over the bridge at the top of the village, after which we turned right, passing through a dense copse of trees and ascending a short hill. It was from the top of this hill that we were granted our first glimpse of the Chateau de Sangallo. It was a rather squat, ugly building sitting in the middle of a wide, flat valley. Four broad, whitewashed towers guarded the corners and the green waters of the moat encircling the chateau glinted brightly in the chill autumn sunshine.
Unseen hands drew up an iron portcullis in the imposing gatehouse as we marched across the wooden drawbridge and we passed beneath without pause. The Captain led us across a broad, open courtyard. Our passage elicited a few glances of mild curiosity from those gathered within but a sharp scowl from the Captain soon sent them scurrying back to their various tasks. We entered the Chateau through a low doorway in the far corner of the courtyard and wound our way up a circular stone staircase and along a dim corridor before finally coming to a halt in front of a narrow wooden door.
The Captain thumped heavily on the door. A brusque command of “Enter!” was issued from within and the Captain promptly opened the door.
The other two guards remained outside in the hall whilst the Captain ushered us inside, which was probably just as well given the small size of the room beyond the door. It was stark and grey, containing only a narrow table piled high with papers. Behind this table sat the man who had presumably bade us enter. From his wiry grey hair and lightly wrinkled forehead I judged him to be in his early fifties, with keen dark eyes and a thin determined mouth. From the manner in which the Captain patiently waited for him to finish examining the piece of paper currently in his possession it was evident that he commanded a great deal of respect within the Chateau.
“I bring Guillaume of Tours to see you Master Ferdinand,” announced the Captain when he finally deigned to look up, “just as you requested.”
Master Ferdinand took in the full array of personages lined up before him in one long steady glance. “I did indeed ask to see Guillaume of Tours,” he remarked coldly to the Captain in response, “but I don’t recollect saying anything about also dragging in the first strangely dressed couple you happen upon along the way.”
“These two were at the inn with Guillaume,” said the Captain hastily. “It seems they are in some kind of business together.”
“I’m afraid there seems to have been some kind of misunderstanding,” Michael hurriedly explained. “Whatever it is that’s going on here, it really has nothing to do with us.”
“Then what were you doing at the inn?” asked Master Ferdinand.
“We were just looking for a room,” I replied.
“You would be better off trying at the sign of the White Hart,” remarked Master Ferdinand.
“I’m beginning to see that,” I muttered.
“Master Ferdinand, I really must protest,” Guillaume broke in. “There was I, sitting at the inn, quietly engaged upon my own business, when suddenly I was pounced upon by these… (there was a pause whilst he searched for the right term, a swift glance at the Captain apparently dissuading him from using the epithet that first sprang to mind) …men and hauled off in a most threatening and degrading manner.”
Master Ferdinand regarded Guillaume with a hint of amusement. “I apologise if your honour has been offended,” he said.
“I thank you for your consideration,” replied Guillaume graciously, apparently failing to register the mocking note in Master Ferdinand’s tone. “As you know it is ever my wish to serve the house of Sangallo in any way I can, but as my business here is concluded…”
“Your business here is far from concluded,” interrupted Master Ferdinand sharply. The hint of amusement had vanished in a trice.
“But I have delivered all that Le Comte expected of me,” said Guillaume uncertainly. “I cannot see how I can do more. Particularly as I now have other obligations to attend to,” he added with a knowing nod in our direction which made me want to give him another swift kick.
“It seems you delivered rather more than Le Comte expected of you,” said Master Ferdinand. “And the extras are far from welcome.”
Guillaume swallowed nervously. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“You’d better see for yourself,” said Master Ferdinand, rising from his chair. As the Captain moved to open the door for him Master Ferdinand cast his steely gaze once more over Michael and I. “I think perhaps you two had better come along as well,” he concluded after a brief moment of consideration. “Whether or not you really are in league with this clown may still be a matter of dispute but I have a feeling that if we’re going to clean up this mess we may just need all the help we can get.”
A short walk back along the corridor brought us to another, much wider, door which Master Ferdinand flung open with a certain sense of theatricality and beckoned us inside. Our new surroundings were certainly larger and more inviting than the room we had just left. The grey stone walls were hung with tapestries and lined with shelves packed with antiquated books and scrolls. Two long narrow tables running down the centre of the room were joined at the head by another of shorter length to form a horseshoe. Along the full length of all these tables lay a jumble of primitive scientific equipment; jars, tubes and phials which were connected up with an extensive framework of siphons and bellows. I was so intrigued by this elaborate and archaic chemist’s set that it was a moment or two before I noticed the solitary figure behind it.
He was seated at the head of the table beneath a large window. I say ‘he’ though the body was so disfigured and misshapen that it took a little while to determine the gender. He looked like a waxwork figure, but one that was so poorly constructed that it was suspended at an awkward moment when the sculptor must decide whether to press on and make the best of a bad job or give up and start again. The figure was shrunken in places, badly bloated in others and the skin, where it showed through beneath scorched clothing, was discoloured and covered in blotches and boils. The face had contorted into a twisted mask, the swollen tongue protruding between blackened teeth and two bulbous eyes goggling forth as though locked in an eternal battle to break free from their sockets.
“Mon Dieu!” exclaimed Guillaume, turning away in disgust from the unpleasant apparition. “Is that…?”
“It is,” replied Master Ferdinand. “Now perhaps you will understand my request for your return. You see, I should very much like to know what exactly it is you have done to our librarian.”
“Me?” spluttered Guillaume. “What, pray, have I to do with this?”
“You spent most of yesterday secluded in this very room with the good librarian,” said Master Ferdinand simply.
“And left him very much alive and well,” retorted Guillaume. “In robust health in fact. There must be any number of people who saw him after I left who can testify to that fact.”
“The pageboy, I’ll grant you, looked in later that evening to see if the candles needed dressing,” conceded Master Ferdinand. “Antonio told him that he planned to continue working late into the night and did not wish to be disturbed.”
“Well, there you are then…”
“However when the pageboy looked in this morning to see if Antonio required any breakfast he was confronted with… this.” Master Ferdinand waved a disdainful hand to indicate the disfigured corpse.
“I still fail to see how I could possibly be held responsible,” protested Guillaume.
“He was working to your instructions, wasn’t he?” snapped Master Ferdinand. “Do you deny that he got these papers from you?” He leaned forward, snatched up a handful of yellowing papers from in front of the decayed librarian and thrust them at Guillaume.
Guillaume looked down at the papers in dismay. “Well, no but…”
“La Comtesse was right,” declared Master Ferdinand. “She said from the start you were to be trusted no further than you could be thrown. Do you see what your potions and your promises have brought us?”
The Captain, who had remained silently watchful by the door, offered up a supportive snort of distaste.
“But I don’t understand,” murmured Guillaume. His eyes flicked helplessly from the papers in his hand to the remains of the librarian in search of answers. “There must be some mistake.”
“Clearly,” responded Master Ferdinand in an icy tone. “And you had better put it right before Le Comte and La Comtesse return from their day’s hunting.”
Guillaume looked in bewilderment at Master Ferdinand. “Surely you don’t believe I could…?”
“Bring our poor departed librarian back to life? No, of course not,” snapped Master Ferdinand. “I would not expect even your much vaunted skills to stretch that far. In fact, I very much doubt whether you possess any skills at all beyond those required for cheating and swindling.”
“Master Ferdinand, I must protest!” exclaimed Guillaume. “Le Comte has seen fit to place his trust in me and he is a man of great understanding. “Why, he…”
“Le Comte is a gullible fool,” interrupted Master Ferdinand impatiently. “But even he will have something to say if he receives nothing more in return for his silver than one dead librarian.”
At the mention of silver Guillaume instinctively laid a protective hand on the leather bag that hung over his shoulder.
“No, what I expect from you is a satisfactory explanation that I can give to Le Comte and La Comtesse for exactly what went wrong here,” continued Master Ferdinand. “And reliable assurances that there remains no danger to anyone else in the household. You and your friends had better clear away all this mess while you’re at it,” he added, indicating the vast array of jars and equipment with a broad sweep of his hand.
“Actually, we’re not really friends,” I piped up, jumping at the first opportunity since we’d entered the library to try and disentangle ourselves from this confusion. “We’ve barely met.”
“And I’m afraid we really have no expertise in these matters whatsoever,” added Michael apologetically. “So it’s probably best if we just get out of your way. After all, I can’t see how we’re going to be any help to you.”
“Perhaps not,” said Master Ferdinand, fixing his stern gaze in our direction. “But as long as you are under the hospitality of Le Comte you had better try.”
“I don’t see how you can call it hospitality when we were dragged here under armed guard,” I protested.
“Oh, Le Comte’s hospitality extends far beyond the walls of this Chateau,” responded Master Ferdinand with an icy smile. “In fact, he is lord of every acre of ground between St-Vincent-le-Mer and Poitiers. And if you want safe passage across his lands then you are honour bound to do him any service he may ask of you.”
“Well that’s hardly fair,” I muttered.
Master Ferdinand waited expectantly for a moment, daring any further challenge to his authority to rear its head. On finding none forthcoming he turned towards the door with a satisfied air of business concluded. “Capitaine, you will post a guard outside this door,” he ordered as he swept back along the length of the tables. “No-one is to enter or leave without my permission.”
The Captain nodded smartly and held the door open for his superior. Master Ferdinand paused on the threshold for one last look at the library. “I shall return regularly to check on your progress,” he announced. His dark eyes drifted across the room until they alighted on Guillaume, who was staring glumly at the jumble of bottles and jars in front of him. “La Comtesse may be indulgent of her husband’s intellectual whims up to a point,” Master Ferdinand remarked pointedly, “but give her cause to put her foot down and you will soon find out just exactly who calls the shots in the Chateau de Sangallo. So I suggest you find a way to put right this mess pretty damn quickly or you may find it is not only your bag of silver that you stand to lose.”
To be continued…