30. On the Stonebridge Road
Milo and Eádulf camped the first night out from Crossroads. They tethered their horses in a pinewood a hundred yards to the south of the road. They found a muddy pool of water for the horses to drink, but Eádulf didn’t want to cook beans with it, so they made supper with dry bread, cheese and a skin of wine. Since it was warm, they built no fire. Just as well, Milo thought. Unfriendly eyes might be drawn to firelight.
West of Crossroads Village, the road to Stonebridge angled a little north of due west, tracking the edge of the great downs and skirting the hills of southwest Tarquint. The River Betlicéa, winding its long course through the downs, came near the road at one point, a convenient place for an inn, called River House. Milo hoped to reach River House the second day after leaving Crossroads, though that meant a long day in the saddle. Knight and squire set out in gray light two hours before sunrise.
After five hours of slow trotting, the sun had risen and the day was hot. Eádulf broke a long silence. “Sir Milo, Brownie and Blackie been workin’ hard. Think we should give ’em a blow?”
“I suppose you’re right,” Milo said, slowing his mount to a walk. “We’ve still got seven or eight hours of riding ahead of us, I’d guess. Maybe more.” But before he swung down from the saddle, Milo saw a speck on the horizon. “Eádulf, wait! What do you see there?”
“The light sorta makes waves in the heat, sir. That’s prob’ly where the road lies. Might be riders, coming this way.”
“I think so too. Let’s ride on a while. They may be able to tell us how far it is to River House.” Blackie the palfrey resisted a bit when Milo urged her back into a trot; she had expected a real rest.
The speck slowly resolved itself into a wagon pulled by a pair of draft horses. At times a rider could be seen first on one side and then the other of the wagon, keeping pace on the uneven grass on the sides of the road. Wagon and escort moved slowly; it took half an hour for Milo and Eádulf to close the gap to the approaching party. A guard sat next to the teamster on the wagon, and he held a bow to one side, its arrow notched.
“Fair morning,” Milo called, raising first one weaponless hand and then the other. The guard nodded, but he kept the bow ready to hand. The wagon driver halted his team. Milo and Eádulf reined up and nudged their horses to the side of the road. “We’re not brigands, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
The teamster smiled. “And would you be saying any different if you were? Fair morning to you. My name’s Ro Becere. And this here,” he indicated the guard seated next to him, “is Aldfrith Ramm.”
“We saw a horseman too,” said Milo. As if in reply, the pony rider appeared from behind the wagon.
Ro Becere said, “Aye. And he’s Dougal Ramm, Aldfrith’s son. An extra hand is often helpful on the road.” The resemblance between father and son was obvious; Dougal had inherited a long narrow face from his father. Milo pegged him at close to Eádulf’s age.
“I’m Milo Mortane. The boy is Eádulf, my squire.”
Ro Becere and Aldfrith Ramm shared a quick glance and something else—skepticism? By naming Eádulf a squire, Milo implied he was a knight. They are both over thirty years old; they probably think I’m a foolish youth.
“You’ve met no trouble on the road, I hope,” said Milo. “There’s a sheriff in Crossroads village. He says he’s been charged with maintaining peace on the roads.”
“Rage Hildebeorht?” asked the guard, Aldfrith Ramm.
Milo touched his side where the pouch carried the sheriff’s letter. “The very man. As it happens, Eádulf and I had taken prisoner a highwayman in the hills south of Crossroads. I believe Hildebeorht hung him yesterday morning, but we didn’t stay to watch.”
The teamster and guard considered these words. Aldfrith lowered his bow, nodding. “Some men must needs hang, but it is heart-sickening to see it.”
Dougal Ramm, on the pony, disagreed. “Don’t they say that a hanging body serves to warn other brigands?”
His father replied, “People do say such things. Don’t believe everything you hear.”
The boy might have said something in response, but Milo spoke first. “You’ve come from River House, I expect. How far is it?”
Eádulf realized that the conversation might go on, so he climbed down from Brownie and began brushing the horse’s neck. Milo dismounted and let Eádulf tend to Blackie as well. While Milo and the strangers talked, Eádulf brushed the horses, letting them breathe and rest.
“It’s days that count, not only miles,” said Ro Becere. “We left River House yesterday morning with the wagon, but two horsemen like yourselves could get there today if you press on. You’ll probably meet Derian Chapman, heading for Stonebridge. He aimed to reach River House today.”
Becere wrinkled his nose and said, “He’s a merchant with a couple wagons. Moving slow like us. Skittish as a kitten, that one. Worried that some highwayman would take his wool. Gods! What would a gang o’ thieves do with two wagons of wool? But there it is; I suppose a merchant knows more about business than me. I just drive the wagon ’n deliver the goods. It’s Aldfrith here who scares off the baddies.”
“And what goods are you carrying? Perhaps you’re not allowed to say.” Ro Becere’s cargo was hidden under canvas covers, well secured with ropes.
“It’s no secret,” answered the teamster. “Fifty barrels of the best wine in Tarquint, from the Broganea valley in the Stonebridge hills.”
“Ah!” said Milo. “I’ve had that pleasure before. It would seem to me your wagon is a fitter target for thieves than any load of wool.”
“Aye,” said Ro Becere. “But try to tell that to Master Chapman when you see him! I’d a thought the man had his whole fortune wrapped up in that wool, the way he worried.”
Eádulf split an apple and fed half to Blackie, half to Brownie. The squire gave no outward indication whether he was following the conversation.
Milo raised his eyebrow. “Fortune? Is he rich?”
“Got to be. His uncle is Ody Dans, one of the five Councilors in Stonebridge and just maybe the richest man in Tarquint. Ody Dans might be as rich as that queen they have in Herminia.”
“Well now!” said Milo. “Perhaps the rich uncle is letting nephew play merchant, and the nephew has to prove himself.”
Ro Becere considered this. “Could be, could be. But that thought brings to mind another, Milo Mortane. I’ve heard the name Mortane before—the lord of Hyacintho Flumen is Mortane. Are you . . .?”
Milo inclined his head. “Of the house Mortane? Aye. My father is the Lord Hereward.”
“And you are abroad in your father’s service, as you think Derian Chapman is in his uncle’s?”
“I would not put it so,” answered Milo. “I ride abroad on my own account.”
“Ah! Still you are the son of a lord and a knight! We are pleased to meet you, Sir Mortane.” The teamster gave a little salute and his guard inclined his head to Milo. Dougal Ramm, still seated on his pony, did the same.
After a few more pleasantries, Ro Becere flicked the reins of his horses. Milo and Eádulf watched the wagon roll away.
Eádulf had said nothing during Milo’s conversation with the teamster and guard. “What now, sir? Will we press on to River House today?”
“Most certainly, Eádulf. Further, if need be. I very much want to catch Derian Chapman before he reaches the safety of Stonebridge.”
Eádulf mounted, but his face showed confusion. “Sir Milo! Do you plan to rob him? That would be . . .”
Milo laughed. “Oh, Eádulf. Don’t worry! I’m not going to turn you into a highwayman. Derian Chapman is far too valuable to rob!”
Milo swung into the saddle and spurred Blackie into a trot.
Copyright © 2012 by Philip D. Smith.
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