28. In Castle Prati Mansum
Bully tried to watch the young woman sitting next to Erline Toeni without blatantly staring. Edita might be nineteen or twenty, he thought, certainly old enough to be married. He didn’t see why Gifre would call her ugly, unless he referred to Edita’s hair. The color was pleasant enough, reddish brown, but the shoulder length hair had been trussed into two rows on the top of her head; Bully thought the rows resembled ram’s horns more than anything else. But noble ladies may not adorn themselves like the girls of Wedmor. Edita’s hair might be the latest fashion for all I know.
The young woman wore a pale green gown with sleeves to the elbow. A necklace with a stone of much darker green lay between her breasts, accentuating the dress. During supper Edita rarely spoke, but to Bully this seemed due to the fact that Rocelin Toeni talked almost constantly. Toeni knows that “Boyden Black” is really Lord Eudes. He probably wants to influence Queen Mariel in some way. I wonder how much he knows of Master Black’s mission.
“Have you seen it?” Gifre Toeni had allowed Bully a few minutes observation.
“I haven’t noticed anything unusual . . . oh, wait.” Someone at the high table made a joke. Everyone laughed, including Boyden Black. But when Edita laughed, her face changed from a rather ordinary heart shape to an unbalanced hillside. The right side of her mouth lifted in a smile, but the left side drooped. A bit of spit escaped onto her chin and she hastily wiped it away with a small towel that she kept on her lap.
“You see?” Gifre said. “Mother says most girls are beautiful when they smile, but Edita tries to not smile. When she’s sitting and not smiling, Edita looks almost normal.”
“Wait. You’ll see.”
When supper ended, Lady Erline, Edita, and Edita’s attendant rose from table, leaving Lord Toeni, Captain Cyneric, and Boyden Black to sip wine and talk amongst themselves. The attending girl walked close on Edita’s left side, her arm tucked around Edita’s.
Bully observed, “She walks with a limp.”
“Aye. And that’s with Juliana at her side. Without help, Edita can walk a step or two, but she would never make it from the great hall to her bedroom.”
“Was she born a cripple?”
“No. That’s the sad part.” Gifre bit a honey wafer. “Her horse threw her five years ago. By the gods, I love honey wafers. You ought to have one.”
Bully obligingly accepted the treat.
“She struck her head on a fence post when she fell. I was five, and I remember Mother and Father visiting Edita’s room and praying at the gods’ knob, day after day. Everyone thought she would die. Instead, only half of her died, the left half. Her right arm, right leg, and the right side of her face—all fine. But her left side is useless. She drags her foot with her hips, so she can walk, in a manner of speaking, but it’s more like stumbling than walking. She can’t move her fingers at all.”
Bully brushed crumbs from his fingers. “Please excuse my ignorance. Where is the gods’ knob?”
“Right there.” Gifre pointed with another honey wafer. “The black ball on the tall post. The lord’s knob is the little one next to it. It’s there that Father controls Prati Mansum.”
“Oh! It looks unguarded. What’s to stop someone from using it against Lord Toeni?”
“Only one lord can bond with a castle at any time. I thought everyone knew that.”
Bully refused to take offense. “I didn’t. What would happen if someone besides the lord tried to bond with the castle?”
Gifre grinned. “Hurts like hell. And nothing happens, except—I don’t know how this works—the castle tells the lord who touched the lord’s knob.”
“Uh-oh. Let me guess . . .”
“You got it. Father made sure my butt hurt for a week.”
The next morning Archard, Bully and their master went aboard Little Moon before sunrise. Directed by a sailor, Bully stowed their belongings in the forward part of the ship in a small space where the deck met the ship’s hull. He stuffed the long roll containing Eudes Ridere’s sword at the back, behind the other bundles. Then he and Boyden Black went on deck to wait for Erline, Edita and their escorts. Besides Edita’s attendant, a narrow-faced woman named Juliana, a soldier accompanied them as a guard. Edita rode the length of the pier on a docile pony, guided by the guard, who helped her dismount near the ship. With the soldier holding her healthy right arm, and Juliana on her left side, Edita came to the edge of the pier. Little Moon rose and fell slightly on gentle waves, but even this small motion presented a problem. The gap between pier and gunwale necessitated a two-foot gangplank. At the crucial moment, the crippled woman would have to leave the security of her helpers and step to a sailor on board ship waiting to catch her. Bully watched, fascinated, and without a conscious decision he began walking closer.
Edita said nothing. Her lips made a thin line as she concentrated on the task. She took a small step with her healthy right leg, threw her weight forward and dragged the left leg with her. Her right arm shot out to the waiting sailor, who grasped her hand. Either the sailor didn’t realize the extent of Edita’s handicap, or perhaps he was intimidated by the presence of a noble lady. Whatever the reason, he failed to step forward to catch her.
Everything happened in a rush. Edita fell awkwardly, her right hand pulling on the sailor’s so that she would at least tumble into the ship. Bully leapt forward and caught her around the waist as she toppled over the gunwale. He staggered backward but did not fall. Edita slid down within his arms so that he gripped her around the chest. Regaining his balance, Bully stood the woman on her feet.
“Got ya!” Bully spoke without thinking.
“Thank you!” the lady whispered. After a moment, she said, “I think I can stand now, if you let me go.”
“Oh! Aye.” Bully became suddenly aware of the intimacy of their embrace. He eased his hold on Edita’s body and supported her by holding her right arm. Juliana and Lady Erline hurried up, and Juliana took Edita’s left arm.
Lady Erline looked from Bully to Boyden Black, a few feet away. “Thank you for your help, boy. Juliana will take care of Edita now. If you would, Drefan could use help bringing our things aboard.”
Bully released Edita’s elbow, looking to Master Black for guidance.
The fake merchant said, “That’s a fine idea, Bully. Help Drefan with the luggage.” He winked at Bully when Lady Erline couldn’t see.
Drefan, the guard, was moving bags and boxes from a wagon on the pier to the ship. Little Moon’s crew made quietly snide comments about rich ladies’ clothes. They were none too eager to help Drefan, who welcomed Bully’s aid when offered since the ladies’ baggage included a chest too heavy for one man to carry. As soon as the bags and boxes were on deck, the crew cast off.
The ladies of Prati Mansum were given Captain Cyneric’s cabin on Little Moon, at the stern of the ship. Cyneric himself shared a space immediately forward of the ladies’ cabin with Boyden Black and Drefan. Bully helped Drefan move the ladies’ baggage from the deck to this cabin, carefully stowing boxes and bags according to Erline’s directions in half of the space so that the women would have use of the other half. Edita sat by an open window, the shutters drawn in and latched, watching the harbor and Prati Mansum recede from view. Twice Bully stored boxes nearby, taking care that the shutters could swing shut unimpeded. The second time, Edita touched his arm and they made eye contact, but she said nothing. And she didn’t smile.
Copyright © 2012 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.