Thursday, August 30, 2012

Castles #14

14. In Down’s End

            Isen dreamed of a glass swan.  Ripples on the sides would suggest wings folded back against the body.  The neck would be slender and tall, supporting a perfectly proportioned head.  The buyer, some rich Down’s End merchant or a lord from a castle, would listen attentively as Isen and his apprentice packed the artwork into a special box, protecting it with straw and cloths.  You must take care, Isen would warn the buyer; there is no glass like this anywhere else on Two Moons.  And the patron would merely nod, happy to obey the commands of so skilled an artisan.
            He awoke to a reality far different from the dream.  Faint morning light penetrated between the boards of the door into the tiny house.  Buildings shadowed the narrow street, so the light coming into Isen’s hovel barely illumined anything.  Enough light, though, just enough, so that Isen could see Sunniva’s face, so pretty, so perfect, and for the first time in uncounted months untroubled by pain.  She lay absolutely still in death, and Isen promised himself that he would remember her face this way.  A part of him had long suspected this moment would come.  Isen was no stranger to death; he saw death processions on the streets of Down’s End often enough, and he could remember his father’s burial.  Their mother had died soon after giving birth to Sunie, so Isen had no sure memories of her, only faint feelings of warm arms.  There must have been a burial then too, but he didn’t remember it.
            Isen moved Sunie’s body from her cot to his, which enabled him to stand hers on end, exposing the hiding place.  He dug up a rosewood box wrapped in rotting cloths; the box was finely made, their most valuable possession, and Isen hoped the wrappings would protect it from decay.  The box held a gold coin, two silvers, and a handful of base pennies.  Probably not enough for a death procession, but Isen thought it would buy a burial.  Some priest of the old god might say a prayer.
            Isen propped the door open and carried Sunie’s cot into the narrow street.  He twisted the wooden blocks that served as bed legs until they came off.  Stripped of the legs, the cot could serve as funeral pallet.  He arranged the body on the pallet and went in search of a priest.
            Prayer House stood next to a large burial field on a rise of land half a mile from the Betlicéa.  Priests of the old god had chosen the spot for a burial field centuries ago, when Down’s End was much smaller.  They chose a location higher than the river so that spring floods wouldn’t expose the bones of the dead.  As generations passed and Down’s End prospered, the city had grown to surround the burial field and its Prayer House.  Wealthy citizens had built handsome houses on properties surrounding the field, the one place in the city with a green, open space nearby.  The same families contributed money so the priests of Prayer House could employ boys to tend the grass of the burial field.
            The “new” Prayer House was actually eighty years old, a small stone structure that replaced a much older building made of rough logs.  Isen reached the place before sunrise.  He rapped on the unmarked wooden door, but no one answered.  He tried the handle and, since it was unlocked, went inside.  Prayer House was cold.  The only light came from small glassed windows high on the side walls.  Six kneeling benches, raised a few inches from the packed dirt floor so that worshipers need not soil their breeches or hose, were arranged three on each side of a center aisle.  At the front of Prayer House the sign of the old god, a white pine cross, had been affixed to the wall. 
            No one here.  Well, what do you expect?  The priests can’t live here; it’s too small.  It’s called Prayer House for a reason.  Isen knelt on one of the benches.  He was a stranger to prayer, but with no one else to hear he need not worry about using wrong words.  “O God before the gods, my sister is dead,” Isen said.  “I am only Isen Poorman; I have little to pay the priest.  But he is your servant; make him grant Sunie a burial.  And please let Sunie’s spirit rest.  Let her breathe easy in the after-world.”
            Isen couldn’t think of more to say.  He felt it would be improper to ask the god to make Kent Gausman treat him better.  Not on Sunie’s burial day.  So he simply knelt in silence for a little while.  Soon he must go seek a priest.
            A sound: the door opening.  Daylight behind the newcomer threw his face into shadow; Isen saw mostly an outline.
            “Fair morning, young man.  Ah!  I think I know you.  Isen, isn’t it?”  The man wore a black robe that reached to mid-calf, leaving his leather-sandaled feet exposed.  He threw back his hood and stepped out of the light from the door, revealing a healthy, weathered face.  The priest was clean-shaven and bald, with mere wisps of white hair fringing his head.
            “Aye.  Isen Poorman.  Apprentice to Master Kent Gausman.”  Isen was several inches taller than the priest, but felt deference to his authority.
            “The glassblower.  And head of the glassblowers’ guild, if I recall.”
            The priest pursed his lips.  “An exacting man.  My name is Eadmar.”  He extended his hand and Isen shook it.  “How long have you worked for Master Gausman?”
            “Five years.”  Something in the priest’s visage, his eyes maybe, told Isen that he would like him.
            “Isen Poorman . . . hm.  And why are you in Prayer House before sunrise today?”  The man had brown eyes, smaller than Sunie’s, but they reminded Isen of her anyway.  Warmth and welcome shown in Eadmar’s eyes.
            Isen produced his tiny bag of coins.  “I must buy my sister’s burial.”  For the first time that morning, Isen wept.  Tears rolled freely, and he felt a choking sensation in his throat.  He stopped speaking, not trusting his voice.
            Priest Eadmar took the purse and looked inside it.  “Ah, Poorman.  You are aptly named.”  He took the two silvers and handed the bag back to Isen.  “Fortunately, today we are burying two unclaimed bodies in a grave bought by the weavers’ guild.  They will not object if a poor girl joins them.  Take your gold coin, Isen, and buy a white shroud from one of the women on Clothsellers’ Street.  Where is your sister’s body?”
            Isen’s tears still fell, but he answered without his voice breaking.  “The third little street from Straight, off Wide Street.”
            Eadmar nodded.  “I know the area.  Find some friends to carry the body.  I will meet you at noon, and we will make a procession.  The unnamed boys go into the ground before mid-day.  I will tell the gravedigger not to cover them until Sunniva joins them.”
            Isen was surprised.  “You knew Sunie?”
            The priest looked sad.  “I walk the streets in the Betlicéa district almost every day.  I met her a few times.  Such a pretty girl.” 
            Isen clasped both hands around the priest’s.  A burial and a procession; he had hardly dared to hope for so much.
            On Clothsellers’ Street Isen asked directions from passersby, and eventually found his way to a modest seamstress’s store, owned by two sisters accustomed to preparing shrouds on short notice.  One of the women, Helu Oswyn, asked Isen for directions to his house and bid him go wait with the body, lest some wandering fool treat it shamefully.  Four hours later Helu found Isen, bringing a fine white shroud.  Together, they dressed Sunniva in it.  She sat with the body while Isen recruited pallbearers.
            Osulf Deepwater and his brother, Headby, volunteered promptly when Isen invited them to carry Sunniva.  They were fisherman’s sons, and both of them had fallen for Sunie at one time or another.  Isen found them on the docks, cleaning the day’s catch with their father and two other men.  Fisher crews began their day in the wee hours before dawn; their fresh catch would fetch fair prices in the afternoon markets of Straight Street.  When Isen found them, they had nearly finished the job.  Their father, Bead Deepwater, readily agreed that the brothers should help Isen when he heard of Sunie’s death.  The brothers washed themselves as best they could with river water and dressed in clean tunics.
            On Wide Street Headby spotted another friend, Godric Measy, a laborer for a cloth merchant, eating his lunch on a public bench.  Godric became Sunniva’s fourth pallbearer.
            As he promised, priest Eadmar met Isen and his friends at the corner where the third little street met Wide Street.  The four young men carried Sunniva’s white-shrouded body on the simple pallet that had been her bed.  They followed Eadmar’s slow pace in the middle of Wide Street.  Horse-drawn carts and riders moved out of the way, showing deference to the dead and the old god.  Some well-to-do citizens of Down’s End shook their heads with annoyance—why should the death of some nameless waif occupy the city’s streets?  Priest Eadmar paid no attention to their disapproval, so Isen ignored them too.  As priest and pallbearers processed, people began walking behind them, joining the procession.  When they reached the burial field almost fifty people surrounded Sunie’s grave.  That she had to share a grave with two others didn’t bother Isen.  The important thing was that she had a right burial.  Eadmar prayed and said holy words that Isen couldn’t understand.  It was proper and right. 

            Isen’s comfort lasted an hour.  When all was done at the burial field, he walked to Alderman Gausman’s glass shop, arriving in the heat of late afternoon.  He rang the bell, and Hamia opened the door for him.  She made a face and pointed with her chin to the short hall that led to the workshop.  Kent Gausman was lecturing someone back there.
            Isen rapped knuckles on the wall as he entered an unusually crowded work area.  Master Gausman and three others were there, two of whom Isen knew: Cenhelm Godspear and his son Elfgar.  The third was a boy of about twelve.  Gausman took notice of Isen’s arrival.
            “Ha!  You see what I have dealt with for five years.  This boy thinks himself a journeyman, ready for the guild.  Yet he can’t read.  He can’t even use the abacus.  But he shows up when?  Ha!  You, Eric,” Gausman addressed the boy.  “You best be here every day, on time.  Work hard, and someday you’ll be a master, like Elfgar.”
            Gausman reached out to drop a silver coin in Isen’s surprised hand.  “Elfgar Godspear will join the guild as a master next week.  As he’ll be working with me and helping train Eric, I won’t be needing you.  That’s your pay.  Get yourself gone, Isen.”

Copyright © 2012 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.

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