THE COIN AND THE MUSHROOM– by Gerald Warfield
“Looking for the coin?”
Startled, Chadwick looked up, then rose to his knees in the midst of the undergrowth. “Oh, it’s you, my lady.” Dropping his paring knife into his basket, he turned and bowed as best he could, still on his knees. “You slipped up on me.”
The woman stood straight as the birch and elm that loomed dark above the wisps of early morning fog, her black robe and hood contrasting starkly with her pale skin. “It wasn’t hard, given the noise you were making. I thought of it when I saw you rooting about—the coin, that is. I’m told people still look for it.”
Chadwick struggled to his feet, bracing himself with a hand on one knee. “Some do, my lady, but even your late husband’s mighty arm could not have thrown it this far.” He nodded toward the castle.
She turned her head to see the ramparts barely visible above the trees. “Maybe not, but on that bright morning I thought it would sail forever.”
“You were there? We thought you abed, your son’s birth difficult and all.”
“For his christening? I wouldn’t have missed it. And when the duke took him to the parapet to show the village, they wrapped me up and brought me in a litter to the doorway just off the battlement—out of the draft. Everyone was laughing and cheering. It was like Winterfest, only better.”
“Ah, we couldn’t see you from the bottom of the wall.”
“My maids made such a fuss.” Her brow creased, and her voice turned somber. “You know, I don’t think he planned it. He was reaching into his purse for more pennies and seemed surprised when he pulled out a Sovereign.”
Chadwick laughed. “I remember him shouting down to us. ‘This one’s for long life!’ We could see it wasn’t a penny. If he’d simply tossed it into the crowd there would have been a riot.”
“Did anyone ever find it?” She asked.
“Now, there’s a mystery; perhaps someday, someone will confess. I do recall the lovely glint of gold as it arched into the trees.”
“He was a strong man, my husband. Would that he had been strong enough to turn the assassin’s blade.” She pushed back her hood. Her black hair, hanging to her shoulders, blended with her mourning attire.
“So wish we all.” Chadwick brushed the dirt from his leggings and picked up his basket. “And now his heir is all the more precious. Everyone is delighted to hear that he is better.”
“Mushrooms?” she said, ignoring his comment and nodding to the wicker basket. “I thought I might find you gathering this morning.”
He nodded and held out the basket, somewhat reluctantly, its bottom lined with mushrooms neatly trimmed and separated by type.
She leaned to look inside. “Buttons, paddy straws, and… death caps?”
“Oh,” he said a bit too loudly, as if he had forgotten they were there. “Well, I always take those.”
“As useful as a blade though not as quick,” she said, quoting an old proverb.
He straightened and raised his eyebrows. “There’s children running through these woods picking mushrooms. Don’t know the difference.”
“Fortunate that some of us do. My morning has yielded only two morels.” She held out her own basket, one hand awkwardly supporting the bottom.
“Ah, I have my paring knife. Let me trim them for you.” He reached into her basket and, holding a mushroom by its spongy top, cut the root ball from the stem. “I’m a bit surprised,” he said, reaching for the other morel. “My lady has servants to gather mushrooms and greens. You needn’t traipse about alone in the forest. It could be dangerous for one so highborn.”
The musty smell of cut morels rose from the basket. “There are no guarantees, especially for a dowager. In the year since my husband’s funeral, my dear brother-in-law has taken all my servants. And then, last month when my son fell so desperately ill, he decided that I must earn my keep and supervise the kitchen.”
Chadwick drew down the corners of his mouth. “We all knew your son was ill, but I’d thought it grief that drained the color from your cheeks. Of course, managing a kitchen is hard work under any circumstances, especially a kitchen the size of Duke Melnor’s.”
“He is not a duke.” Her nostrils flared only slightly. “He is my son’s regent.”
“Begging your pardon, my lady.” He inclined his head in a shallow bow but watched her with a sidelong glance.
“And it is not the work that robs me of color. I am tired this morning with cause. Most of last night I spent tending brother Sellers. Ague and bloody flux have done their worst. He’s not expected to last another day.” The Dowager lifted the hem of her black robe so it did not trail in the dirt and stepped carefully to a stone at the base of a tree where she sat.
“Poor brother Sellers, in the prime of his life.” Chadwick moved to sit across from her on a fallen tree trunk. “He has taken much abuse this last year from wagging tongues. Everyone thinks that… he knows the assassin’s secret.”
“Oh, he does, but at least he won’t take it to the grave.”
Chadwick sat erect. “But he must. He is bound by God to keep fast the sins of the penitent.”
“If my husband’s stiletto had been faster, the assassin would not have lived long enough to make a confession. But he did—and perhaps it was for the best.”
The bell from the chapel tolled in the distance, a somber punctuation to their conversation.
“Ah, there, Brother Sellers’ spirit has departed.” She rose from her seat and made the sign of the cross.
Chadwick leaned forward, picked up his basket and also came to his feet. “May he rest in peace,” he said, crossing himself.
“I’m afraid he had little peace in his final hours.”
“He suffered much?”
The dowager smiled a thin smile. “Yes. He even wept that he had still so much of the Lord’s work to do. He could not understand why he was taken so young.”
“The will of God is not always clear.”
“But the will of the one how sent him the poisoned stew was clear, or did she know?”
“It was your granddaughter, I believe.”
“But she couldn’t have…”
“No, she probably didn’t know. But I made sure that Brother Sellers knew. In fact, I pressed him rather overmuch. I’ve grown hard in the months since my husband’s death, fearing as I do the assassin’s blade for my son before he comes into his majority.”
“Vigilance is always a virtue.”
“Especially when the one who hired the assassin remains unknown. But Brother Sellers saw reason before he lapsed into unconsciousness. He told me who it was.” She raised her eyebrows and inclined her head toward the castle.
Chadwick’s eyes grew wide. “We have all heard that rumor, my lady, his brother having profited so as regent.”
“He also told me there was a second assassin, which I always suspected. My husband was too good with a blade to be overcome by a single cutthroat.”
“Surely, you wouldn’t believe an assassin’s lies. He was a common criminal. Would have been hung if he’d lived.”
“Show me, Chadwick. Raise your sleeve.” She nodded at his left arm.
“My sleeve? Whatever for?”
“The wound, where my husband’s stiletto laid it open. Has it healed? I hope not.”
“Rumors. Only rumors.”
She raised her chin. “I demand you show me.”
Chadwick reached for his paring knife and then threw the basket aside. “One would think my lady would have better sense than challenge a man alone in the woods.” He squinted and stepped closer.
“So, your obsequious tongue conceals a viper after all, and a coward, to take an unarmed woman with a knife. Surely yours was the wound in my husband’s back.” She held up her basket as a shield, one hand on the bottom.
“If it’s sport you want, then I’ll take you without my blade.” He tossed his knife to the ground and stepped toward her. “The death caps were for your son, my lady, since he had the ill grace to survive his sickness. I avowed to the duke that stabbing was quicker, but he feared what people would say, two stabbings in a row.”
“And he was right. Tongues would wag.”
“But this will be a stabbing, too—of sorts.” His grin revealed his missing teeth, and with brutal quickness he grasped her arm.
She moved her other hand from beneath the basket. It held a stiletto. With a tight cry, she lunged, thrusting her arm forward and up, burying the knife in his stomach.
Chadwick stiffened, eyes wide, his mouth open in surprise, and grabbed her other arm.
Despite his grip she twisted the knife, causing him to cry out, and then jerked back the blade, breaking his hold.
Chadwick staggered, clutching his stomach.
“It’s my husband’s knife,” she said, breathing heavily and then stepping back out of his reach. “It thirsted for a second taste of your blood.”
Chadwick groaned and fell to his knees, blood seeping between his fingers. He coughed, and then catching himself with one hand on the ground, looked up at her. “I was the one who found the coin. And I spent it on whores and ale.” He laughed, spitting up blood, and collapsed onto his side.
She stooped and reached into the wicker basket where he had tossed it. “The coin, it seems, did not bring long life, at least to you. And your mushrooms will not shorten my son’s.” She transferred the death caps to her own basket. “But they will do for another.”
She turned and strode away as Chadwick’s legs began to twitch, causing a rustle in the dry leaves.
Gerald Warfield’s short stories have appeared in many online venues and print anthologies including Perihelion, NewMyths, Bewildering Stories, Every Day Fiction, and an upcoming edition of Metaphorosis. “The Poly Islands,” won second prize in the first quarter of the 2011 Writers of the Future contest. The same year, his humorous story “The Origin of Third Person in Paleolithic Epic Poetry” took first place in the Grammar Girl short story contest. Gerald published music textbooks and how-to books in investing before turning to fiction. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writers Workshop (2010), Taos Toolbox, and a member of SFWA.