16. In the Foothills, Northwest of Hyacintho Flumen
“Sir Milo? Will we make camp in the wild? It’s near too late to go home before dark.”
Milo had been expecting Eádulf’s question for an hour, since it was already mid-afternoon. He urged his black horse around a fir tree to an open place on the spine of the ridge they had been climbing. He paused there, looking across similar ridges southeast of this one. Somewhere over there, in the second valley, lay castle Hyacintho Flumen, invisible from this place. Milo waited for Eádulf’s mount, a gray packhorse, to climb up beside him.
“Aye, Eádulf. We will camp in the wild tonight, and many nights after.” Milo noted surprise and alarm in the stable boy’s eyes. Eádulf was fourteen, three years younger than Milo. For a moment Milo wondered whether he had treated the boy fairly, stealing him away from Hyacintho Flumen, quite likely never to return. But that was an uncomfortable thought, so he pushed it away.
“You may as well know the truth, Eádulf. My father has named Aylwin his heir. I will not be permitted to touch the lord’s knob after Hereward’s spirit departs. Therefore, since I have been cheated of my rights, I have decided to leave Hyacintho Flumen and never to return.”
The stable boy’s blue eyes went wide. Eádulf had a freckled face and auburn hair. His expression of astonishment made Milo laugh.
“Don’t look so upset, Eádulf,” chuckled Milo. “I’m the one who has lost a lordship and a castle, not you. In fact, you’ve become a squire to a free knight. Quite a step up from stable boy, don’t you think? Remember the old story of Thurfirth. He was a squire who took up his master’s sword after Rothulf fell in battle and he defended Rothulf’s body against all comers. Afterward, the lord of Argentum Cadit made Thurfirth a knight in his own name, sir Thurfirth Berengar the loyal.”
Eádulf swallowed several times. His neck was so skinny and his Adam’s apple so large that he looked like a pelican downing its catch. Milo laughed again. However unlikely the thought that Eádulf would stand his ground in battle, the boy’s face was more ludicrous.
But now he was crying. “Ah, sir. My Ma. Ma’ll miss me.”
Milo spat on the ground. “Don’t flatter yourself, Eádulf. Your ma has three other brats to feed, and your brother Odo can take your place in the stable. Your family will have just as much income and one less mouth. You’ll not be wanted any more than I.”
Eádulf kept crying, which disgusted Milo. He edged his mount closer and snatched the reins from the boy’s hands. “By the gods, have it your way.” He gestured toward the southeast. “Hyacintho Flumen lies in the second valley. A couple days’ walk and you’ll be home, hungry maybe, but no worse for wear. But I’m keeping the old gray to carry my armor. Go on. Get on down.”
Eádulf gulped, wiping tears away with the back of his forearm. “Ah, sir. I am sorry, sir. Please don’t send me back. It’s not that I’d get lost; I can find my way. It’s just . . . it’s hard, sir. Never see Ma again . . .”
“Well, go back then.”
The wide eyes looked Milo full in the face. “Ah, sir, no. Please. Don’t make me see Lady Lucia’s face.”
“You seem to be under the mistaken impression that my mother gives a noble damn about me. I assure you, she does not. She’s as fully part of Aylwin’s scheme as Arthur.”
Eádulf plainly did not understand Milo’s situation. His peasant face was full of pity. That Eádulf might pity his master irritated Milo.
Milo swore under his breath. “Well, then. Come on. We’ll make camp in this next valley. There’s a creek there, and tomorrow we’ll follow it down to the Stonebridge road.”
“Aye, sir. But sir, if we are riding for Stonebridge, why did we climb the hills? We’d a made better time if we’d taken the road since morning.”
Milo hesitated. “Because no one from Hyacintho Flumen would look for us here. You don’t yet understand the deceit of my mother, Eádulf. As soon as our absence was noted, Lucia will have sent out Dag Daegmund and Kenelm Ash to look for us, bearing a message that I should return to Hyacintho Flumen. Lucia would remind me of her love, and my sisters’ love—and my brothers’ love, though in truth Aylwin hates me! And here is the depth of the deceit: Mother would actually believe all this nonsense. Not wanting to listen to such lies, I directed our path over the hills.”
Milo did not add his fear: If I heard Mother’s plea, if only through Dag, I might yield and go home. To what end? Obey Aylwin’s bidding? Never. He nudged his horse into motion, beginning the descent into the next valley.
They camped in the shadow of trees and mountain by a narrow creek running fast with cold water. Eádulf tethered the horses and brushed them down while Milo gathered firewood. Some bread, a quarter of a cheese, two apples and water made their supper, very much like their earlier lunch. Milo had enough food for maybe three days; after that they had to forage or buy. We’ll buy. From the beginning Milo planned to return to the road; there were way-houses on the road to Stonebridge. A bag under his outer tunic contained forty gold coins of Stonebridge make, enough to go a long way.
Knight and squire made no fire in the morning. Saddling and packing the horses, they set out long before the sun rose over the eastern ridge. At some places the trees and underbrush were so thick they had to dismount and lead the horses round about. Eventually the summer sun came over the hills, warming the sticky air, and they were glad of forest shade. The valley broadened out as the creek drew near a river—not the Blue River itself, but a tributary. Tended fields began appearing between dense clusters of pines and firs, some with wooden fences. Milo and Eádulf rode easily now, following a wide path that wound from field to field.
“Hoi! Hoi!” A farm boy, perhaps a year or two younger than Eádulf, came running toward the riders across a pasture. Three stolid cows raised their heads at the sound for a moment before returning to grazing.
“Sir?” Eádulf pointed with his chin to the boy.
Milo reined up. “We ought to listen to him, I suppose . . . What’s the trouble, boy?”
The shape of the black-haired lad’s nose recorded a violent history; it had been broken more than once. The boy saw Milo’s sword—or his boots or gloves, or the quality of his saddle—and his eyebrows registered surprise.
“My lord! Sir.” The boy made an awkward attempt at bowing. “It’s Osgar, Sir! The pigs got out.”
Milo grinned at Eádulf before returning his attention to the boy. “If the pigs have escaped, I advise that you recapture them. Is Osgar one of them?”
“Oh no, Sir. But yes, Sir. I mean, Sir. The pigs is back already; we caught ’em. But Oscar’s leg’s broke. ’e’s yonder.” The boy waved at the other side of the pasture.
“How did this happen?”
“Osgar, Wyot and me chased ’em ’bout an hour, and just as we was runnin’ ’em into the pen Osgar stuck ’is foot in a hole. Broke ’is leg awful. Wyot took off to get ’elp. Osgar’s Da got only one horse and ’e’s down at the lower shed. Gods, that’s eight mile gone. Osgar’s doin’ bad. Can you help us?”
“You want me to transport this injured boy?”
“Oh, Sir! If you would! The house’s two mile gone.” The boy pointed down the valley.
We’re going that way in any case. “Very well. Lead us to Osgar. If we can get him onto the gray, my squire Eádulf can walk him to the house. Are there people there to care for Osgar?”
“Aye. ’is ma. She’ll be grateful, sure ’nough.”
In the end, Milo decided, he made the right decision. By the time Osgar had been secured on Eádulf’s mount and safely transported to his family farm, a compound consisting of a three-room house, two barns, a well, and dozens of chickens, cats and other animals, half the afternoon had been wasted. But the boy’s mother thanked Milo repeatedly and gave substance to her thanks by rewarding knight and squire with a skin of wine and a large bag of brown beans, which she said Eádulf could cook over a campfire and make a tasty dish, using a blend of spices she presented in a small clay jar. Eádulf estimated it would feed them four or five times. It’ll make the gold last longer. Enough recompense, I suppose, for delay and labor.
Copyright © 2012 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.