23. At Crossroad Inn
Five days from Hyacintho Flumen Milo, Eádulf and their prisoner, Cola, spied a cluster of buildings on the horizon. “Crossroad Village, I expect,” said Milo. At these words Cola, trailing Milo’s black horse at the end of a rope, jogged forward to draw even with Milo and Eádulf. It had proved impractical to keep Cola’s hands tied behind him, so they had bound his wrists, burdened him with Milo’s armor bundle, and roped him to the horse. Sometimes Milo rode the black palfrey, but other times, as now, he walked alongside Eádulf, leading the horse by the reins. For much of two days Cola had hung back as much as he could, although Milo warned him that if he stumbled he would be dragged.
“By my advice, my lord, ya’d do well to go avoid the village. I know a path that will take us round about, put us on the road to Stonebridge.”
Milo almost laughed. “Why would I want to miss the Crossroad Inn? We’ll find a comfortable bed and probably the best food until we reach Stonebridge.”
“I could not speak to the bed, since they charge so much I never slept there. But the food, now, they say they put poison in’t. Not so’s to kill ya, but so’s they can rob ya in the night.”
“And who says these things?” Milo shared a glance with Eádulf, who smirked.
“Well . . . Acca, whose hand my lord cut two days back. Mebbe my lord thinks Acca deserved wot he got. But Acca did say—many a time—that the Crossroaders were thieves themselves, wit’ their prices ’n food ’n poison.”
At this Milo did laugh. “Somehow my memory of Crossroad Village is kinder than that.”
Cola planted his feet. “My lord, I beg ya. Don’t take me there.” In response, Milo merely tugged on the black’s reins. When the rope went taut, Cola tried to resist. But the horse obeyed the reins and jerked the prisoner off his feet. After dragging Cola about fifteen yards, Milo stopped his animal, allowing Cola to regain his footing. He drew his sword from the scabbard on the horse and held its tip against Cola’s chest as the man panted.
“No doubt you have good reason to fear Crossroad Village. I suggest you pray the gods that if we meet someone there who has suffered your thieving that person will have mercy on you. That’s your best hope. I warn you: if you try to hold us back, I’ll drag you all the way in.”
Light seemed to go out of Cola’s eyes. He staggered after Milo and Eádulf, never speaking again.
Drawing near the village, they saw farmhouses on both sides of the road, set well apart from each other. Wooden fences enclosed some fields, but there were also large unfenced pastures and flocks of sheep guarded by dogs.
The Crossroad Inn was a long ramble of a building with two wings, one north-south and one east-west, meeting at the northwest corner by the crossroad. It was two stories tall in some places and one storey in others. A carved sign stood at the corner of the building by the crossroad; the sign’s curious emblem showed three curving brown lines meeting in the middle of a green field. Eádulf asked his master what it meant.
“The lines are roads, Eádulf. This is the Crossroad Inn. We’ve come from Hyacintho Flumen on the road at the bottom of the sign. If we were to take the right hand road, we would come to Down’s End. The left hand road will take us to Stonebridge. For tonight, we’ll stay here.”
Opposite the Inn a well sat between a house and the road, and next to the well a traveling blacksmith had parked his wagon. A tall oak tree provided shade for the well and the smith’s wagon. “Fair evening!” Milo called out as they approached the blacksmith.
Before responding the man poured a bucket of water on glowing charcoal in a stone ring. Steam billowed and hissed.
“Fair evening.” The smith extended a hand to Milo. “Saw ya a while back. Thought ya’d be here sooner. Then I thought: mebbe that horse’ll need shoeing. Now I sees ya got three on foot ’n only one horse. Just as well; I done enough today.” The blacksmith’s eyes took in Cola’s bonds, but he only said, “I’m Evoric Selwyn. I make the rounds from Stonebridge to the edges of the Downs, all the little places with no regular smith.”
“I’m Milo Mortane. I’ve come from the south. And this is Eádulf. We didn’t start out walking,” said Milo. “Somehow along the road we traded a horse for a prisoner. If the gods be pleased, we’ll buy a new horse before we move on. As blacksmith, you might know—are there horses for sale in Crossroads? A proper packhorse would serve well.”
Evoric Selwyn stepped close to Cola, seized the prisoner’s jaw and forced Cola to look him in the eye. “I think I know that story. Highwaymen they call themselves. Don’t know this un.” He released the robber and spat at his feet. “But I’ve had my share of troubles with others. There’s gangs of ’em in the hills. Ya go on into the Inn there and find the sheriff. He’ll do for ya.”
“There’s a sheriff here?” This would be news to Hereward Mortane; for as long as Milo could remember, his father had wanted to assert authority over the road north and the region between the lakes. As lord, Hereward had to stay in Hyacintho Flumen, so he had trained Milo and Aylwin as knights in arms partly to serve as his captains.
“Aye. The Stonebridge Council finally got grieved over losses on the road to Down’s End. Appointed a sheriff, who’s got coin to pay under-sheriffs. He’ll be happy to see you’s done some o’ his work.”
Milo left Eádulf in charge of horse and prisoner, charging him to cut Cola painfully if he should try to escape. Cola stared at the ground, unresponsive. Inside Crossroad Inn Milo quickly found the proprietor, a bony woman incongruously named Idonea Fatman. The widow explained that her late husband, Bryn, had well earned the name Fatman; she and her children merely retained it. When Milo asked about a sheriff, Idonea sent her son Beowulf scurrying to a room at the far end of the Inn’s east-west arm. Idonea took Milo’s payment and gave him directions to a room near the sheriff’s. Meanwhile, her daughter, Erna, served out pots of stew and trenchers of bread to a dozen travelers who had gathered for supper in the common room.
On the southeast side, between its two wings, Crossroad Inn had its own well and a fenced-in courtyard and stable. Milo and Eádulf were leading the black palfrey, Cola still roped to the saddle, through a covered passage from the road into the courtyard when a broad-shouldered, sandy-haired man slammed his way out of the common room door to catch up with them. Young Beowulf Fatman trailed behind.
“Fair evening!” The florid man had a wide nose and thick lips. “Bee here says you brought in a robber?”
“That we did.” Milo extended his hand. “Milo Mortane.”
“Sheriff Rage Hildebeorht.” Red eyebrows arched. “Mortane of Hyacintho Flumen?”
“The lord Hereward is my father, aye. But we have had something of a disagreement. I am not, shall we say, currently in his service.”
A shrug. “If that’s so, I don’t suppose you will try to insist that I be in yours.”
Milo nodded. “My father would imagine himself lord of the hills, the forest between the lakes, Down’s End, and Stonebridge. In fact he is lord of Hyacintho Flumen, and little else. I am happy to recognize your authority as sheriff in this region. The blacksmith, Evoric Selwyn, told me the Stonebridge Council had appointed you sheriff. Is that it?”
“Aye. I’m charged with making the road from Stonebridge to Down’s End safe again.”
“A worthy goal, and I’ve aided it. Eádulf and I were set upon by three men two days ago, just north of a bridge over a narrow gorge.”
“I know the place. Three men?”
“Two of them are dead. You might find their bodies.”
“Wolves can take ’em, for all I care,” said the sheriff, wiping a hand across his nose. “But I need to take custody of the third.”
Milo pursed his lips. “The man’s actually been of some use, carrying a portion of the load of a horse that he shot. Do you suppose, as sheriff, you could help me find a horse at a reasonable price?”
“Of course. Give me the man, and I’ll secure him. Your boy can stable this horse, and we’ll find someone in the common room to sell you another.”
So the deal was struck. Sheriff Hildebeorht trussed Cola, wrists and ankles, to a hitching post. In the common room of Crossroad Inn he called for attention and explained that a traveling knight, Milo, with his squire had reduced the pestilence of highwaymen by three, but had lost a good horse in the doing of it. Did anyone present have a sturdy beast for such a man at a fair price?
In the morning, Milo took possession of a mid-sized brown horse; the seller called it a rouncey, useful for riding, as a packhorse, and with training it might even serve in battle. Eádulf sensibly named the new horse Brownie and began calling Milo’s palfrey Blackie. After breakfast, Eádulf loaded the horses with their things and he and Milo led them through the passage from the courtyard to the road. Milo patted his side; under his tunic, in a purse with his coins, he had a letter of introduction from Sheriff Hildebeorht.
At the meeting of the roads outside Crossroads Inn the blacksmith’s wagon had been backed under the great oak tree. Cola stood on the board of the wagon, his hands tied behind his back; the noose around his neck was tied to a limb of the tree. Milo rode close by the condemned man. Cola’s eyes never focused on the riders, and he said nothing; it was as if he were already dead. Milo had felt a surge of pleasure in Cola’s fear when they captured him, but this empty despair was dispiriting. He urged Eádulf to keep up and rode away without looking back.
Copyright © 2012 by Philip D. Smith.
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