Thursday, January 31, 2013

Castles 36

36.  In Castle Inter Lucus

            Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town.  Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  As you go, make this proclamation: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
            Marty’s practice of reading a gospel passage each day gave rise to new questions as he lingered over the words.  Why did Jesus forbid his disciples to preach to pagans?  Other parts of the New Testament emphatically endorsed missionary preaching.  Was this a temporary prohibition?  Father Stephen, who had seminary training in theology and scripture study, could probably explain the matter quickly—but Father Stephen was very definitely not available for consultation.  Frighteningly, the possibility loomed in Marty’s mind that he might be the closest thing to a Christian scholar on the planet. 
            Of all the astonishments since Marty’s appearance on Two Moons, Isen Poorman’s identification of “the sign of the old god”—the gold cross embossed on the cover of Marty’s New Testament—was in some ways the most troubling.  Marty had accepted the idea that somehow he had been transported to another planet, a science fiction movie come true.  He had only wild guesses about how a machine could reach across interstellar distances to kidnap someone from Earth to Two Moons.  The fact of Inter Lucus helped; pretty clearly the aliens, or whoever had built the castle, had technology beyond the reach of early twenty-first century humans, and light-years beyond the understanding of the people of Two Moons.  And if a castle could reach out and snatch one human, maybe it could take others.  Marty had believed from the start that the inhabitants of Two Moons were human.  (Only now did he realize that he could not say explicitly why.)  And it would not be surprising if the kidnapped humans accepted the aliens as “gods,” especially if they came from a time before the rise of science.  But now it turned out that some of the humans did not worship the castle gods; instead, their god, the god of the cross, might well be Marty’s God.
            Marty had questioned Isen—and Ora and Caelin, but they knew much less—about the old god for hours, long into the summer night, after Isen pointed to the cross on the New Testament.  Isen often admitted ignorance and said it would be best to question Priest Eadmar.  Nevertheless, a few things seemed clear.  The old god had been worshiped before the castle gods.  But the people of Two Moons were expected to worship castle gods.  (Expected by whom?  By the gods, and then, after the gods left, by the lords.)  But a few people had always asserted their devotion to the old god, even before the castle gods departed.  In Down’s End, an important free city, the priests of the old god maintained a Prayer House and burial ground.
            Isen said that Priest Eadmar had said holy words at Sunniva’s burial, but he couldn’t remember them.  Marty gently encouraged him to try.  Isen looked up at the night sky above Inter Lucus, pursing his lips.  Finally he said, “Nomin Pater Fee Lee.”  He smiled.  “Yes.  I remember.  Nomin Pater Fee Lee.
            Marty said, “In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.
            Isen frowned.  “Too many words.  I think Nomin Pater Fee Lee is right.”
            Marty asked whether priests of the old god ever visited Senerham or Inter Lucus.  Caelin and Ora agreed that they had never seen a priest, nor had they heard of one coming to the region between the lakes, not even after the castle had fallen asleep.
            “How many priests are there in Down’s End?”
            Isen replied, “Three, that I have seen.  More.  Maybe two or three more.”
            Marty asked, “Would Priest Eadmar or one of the others come to Inter Lucus to talk with me?  I have learned from Caelin that lords never go far from their castles, and I am beginning to understand why they do not.  I desire greatly to learn from a priest.”
            Isen pondered this question, delaying his answer a long time.  Caelin tried to explain: “A priest invited to a castle would suspect treachery.  There are many tales of priests hiding from the castle gods or being killed by castle lords.  They would be afraid to come.”
            Ora objected, “But Lord Martin’s book has the sign of the old god.  If he invites a priest to come, the priest should come.”
            Marty smiled ruefully.  “They might think the sign of the cross is a trick.  It sounds like the priests have hundreds of years of reasons not to trust lords.  Isen, what if you took a page from this book and showed it to a priest?  Would he come then?”
            “It could be.  Does the lord Martin wish me to do this thing—to ask Priest Eadmar to come to Inter Lucus?”
            “Let’s sleep on it,” Marty answered.  In response to their confused faces he said, “We will sleep now, and in the morning decide whether Isen should go to Down’s End.”

            And now it was morning.  After reading a portion of gospel, Marty walked the inside perimeter of Inter Lucus, his morning routine.  The walls of the castle’s east and west wings, the arms of the T, had filled in and grown taller.  Overhead, the filaments of the ceiling had become a thick mesh over most of the great hall.  Marty half expected a new staircase, reaching up to the second floor, to appear any day.  How can a building grow?  Could it really be organic?  A life form?  But the interface list suggests a supercomputer with subsystems.  What kind of technology grows walls and ceilings?  Why do blocks rise out of the floor for chairs, and kitchen appliances?  But no tables and no exterior doors?
            As was so often the case, Marty had to live without answers.  But just maybe . . . a priest of the old god might explain some things.  Isen seems to have had a limited exposure to old god worship.  Maybe he remembers the priest’s words perfectly, but more likely he remembers only a few sounds.  Not really words, since Isen doesn’t know Latin.  “Nomin Pater Fee Lee.” Do the priests know Latin?  Do they have books?  If they don’t, and if their community is very small, would they still understand Latin?  Maybe they just pass on sacred words without their sense.  Maybe the priests of the old god don’t understand the words they say any better than Isen.   
            Hash browns and fried onions for breakfast.  Marty had learned that he could “program” or “teach” the Cibum subroutine new ways to prepare the foods in their larder.  While bonding with the lord’s knob, he pictured in his mind as clearly as he could the shredding and frying of the potatoes and onions.  Caelin and Ora would deposit a few vegetables in the “pans” of the “cook-top,” and Inter Lucus did the rest.  But there were only so many ways to prepare fish, potatoes, carrots and onions.  For variety’s sake, Marty thought he would modify his prohibition on gield payments.  It would be wonderful to have some grain, fruits, or meat.
            Caelin served the breakfast to Marty and Isen in the great hall.  It was Ora’s turn to watch for visitors this morning.  When she joined them, Caelin fetched a plate of breakfast for her.
            “How many today?”  Marty spoke to Ora while handing his empty plate to Caelin.
            Ora was already digging in.  “Ee, or.”  She swallowed.  “Three so far.  More later, I think.”
            “All right.  We’ll see them in the usual way, beneath the oaks.  I think I will tell some that they can pay part of their gield now, if they bring grain, fruit, or clothes.  What do you think?”
            “Yes.  We have plenty of storage near the kitchen.  Poorer people will find it easier to bring food as it ripens.”
            Caelin returned from the kitchen with a pitcher of water.  So far, the castle had formed or grown four water outlets, all underground.  Why no faucets in the great hall?
            When asked, Caelin agreed that accepting grain or fruit would improve their diet, but again he warned that Marty ought not to let between the lakes people underpay their gield.
            “Here’s the big question of the day.”  Marty rubbed his stubbly beard.  “I want Isen to invite priest Eadmar to Inter Lucus.  How long will it take Isen to get there?  We have no money to give him, so how do we help him on his way?”
            “It will take five days walking to reach Down’s End,” said Caelin.  “There are inns along the way, but without coin . . .”
            Marty grimaced.  “Once again, a reminder of our need for money.  Is there anyone in Senerham or Inter Lucus village who has coin?  Someone who could lend?”
            Caelin frowned.  “If a lord must borrow, some would say he is no lord.”
            “That’s stupid!  Lord Martin controls a castle!” 
            Ora was about to say more, but Marty motioned her off.  “Perhaps so, Ora.  But if our neighbors believe a real lord never has need to borrow, we must take that into account.  I would much prefer not to borrow money.  Is there another way?  What would happen to a traveler who did not stay in roadhouses, who camped out in the wild?”
            “Bandits and poor people do this,” said Caelin.  “Desperate people fleeing danger.  It is risky.”
            “My Lord Martin.”  Isen took up Ora’s pattern of speech.  “There is a faster way.  Boats from Down’s End can cross West Lake twice in a day.  If we could meet a boat on the near shore, I might ride to Down’s End with them.”
            “But I suppose we would need money to pay them.”
            “Most of them, yes.  But Master Deepwater would give me passage for the privilege of meeting Lord Martin.  And he would think—that is, I think he would think—there would be what he calls ‘chances’ in such a meeting.” 
            Marty thought he could guess, but he asked.  “‘Chances’?”
            “When he advised me to come to Inter Lucus, Master Bead said if there were a lord in the castle there would be good chances for a glassmaker.”
            Marty grinned.  “I think I would like to meet Bead Deepwater.  There should indeed be ‘chances’ in it.  But how can we summon a fisherman from across the lake?”
            “By lights,” said Ora, as if this were a simple matter.  “When the foresters and woodmen want the boats to come, they hold polished bronze to the sun and signal them.”
            Marty was surprised, but then realized it made perfect sense.  Attor Woodman and his fellows between the lakes would need some way to advertise their product to the market.  “That’s wonderful,” he said.  We will signal the boats of Down’s End.  When a boat comes, we’ll ask that they take Isen across.  If they won’t do it, we’ll ask that they send a message to Bead Deepwater.”
            “My lord,” said Caelin.  “Does this mean you have taken Isen Poorman into your service?”
            “If he is willing, yes.”
            Marty, Ora and Caelin looked at Isen.  “I will be Lord Martin’s messenger—and glassmaker, when the time comes,” he said.
            “Very good,” Marty replied.  “Isen is part of Inter Lucus now, just as we all are.”           

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

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Castles 35

35. From River House to Stonebridge

            Beornheard Green, the owner-innkeeper of River House, recognized the injured horse thief.  “That’s Andsaca Scur, one o’ the many sons of Russell Scur,” he said.  “Should be no surprise.  Bad seed shows.  Wouldna be surprised if the other, the one wot got away, be one o’ the brothers.”
            Beornheard made his opinion known the morning after the attack on Derian Chapman’s wagons.  He and Glytha Samdaughter, she of the pert nose and blue eyes, were hustling to supply the breakfast needs of a surprisingly large crowd.  Eádulf was amazed.  River House stood all alone on the prairie by the river; when he tended to Brownie and Blackie in the corral before breakfast he saw not a single house or barn west, north or east, just rolling downs.  Yet somehow the news of the excitement at River House had reached interested ears in just hours.  Eádulf wished he could talk with Glytha, but it was impossible.  She was constantly coming and going to the kitchen with plates and cups.  Master Green worked at a slightly less feverish pace, and added his opinions to the common room conversation when he could.
            “Russell Scur is the sorriest sheep man in the west part o’ the downs,” Beornheard said.  “Always pickin’ scrapes with neighbors, saying they’ve stolen lambs, broken fences, or some such.  More likely, it’s he and his sons doin’ it.”
            “And how many sons does he have?” asked Dreng Tredan.
            “Six or seven.  Maybe eight, now.  Hard to keep track,” said Green.
            Meanwhile, the object of this conversation was slumped in a corner, a large bloodstained bandage wrapped around his upper right arm.  Eádulf, guarding the corral gate as commanded by Sir Milo, had been near enough to hear when Oswy Wodens and the others found Andsaca.  Some thought him dead, but Oswy pulled a cloth tight around Andsaca’s arm to stem the flow of blood, and saved his life.  Temporarily.  More than one man in the common room had suggested ways to hang the horse thief, despite the lack of a suitable tree nearby.  Looking at him, Eádulf thought Andsaca was probably about his own age.  He felt sorry for him.
            In contrast to the horse thief, no one recognized the archer, whom Sir Milo had killed.  “Not from around here,” more than one man said.  Naturally, the locals asked Milo about his confrontation with the stranger, but Milo only said, “Not much to tell.  The fool tried to fight me, even after I cut his shoulder.  Never said a word; just came at me.”
            Someone asked Derian Chapman if he wanted to take Andsaca Scur as prisoner to Stonebridge.  “Why would I want that?” he responded.  “You men know what to do with thieves.  My drivers and Dreng and I don’t need an extra mouth on the road.  Speaking of—it’s time we got started.”  Chapman motioned to Oswy Wodens and Win Modig and the teamsters rose from the table.
            “If you please,” said Sir Milo to Chapman.  “Eádulf and I would like to ride along.”
            Chapman’s relief was obvious.  “I hoped you would say that.”

            On the road to Stonebridge, Milo was careful to inspect Derian Chapman’s wagons casually, so that no one would notice.  Most of the time he kept Blackie even with the front of Oswy Wodens’ lead wagon, which let him talk with Derian and the wiry driver.  Occasionally, he jogged ahead to ride with Dreng Tredan and Eádulf a few yards in front.  He had the impression Dreng Tredan was trying to limit conversation with Chapman; from the guard’s point of view, the sooner they reached Stonebridge and finished their business, the better.  Milo had granted Eádulf’s request to ride in front of the wagons rather than in the dustier air behind them.  After a few desultory words with Tredan or Eádulf, Milo would pull to one side and let both wagons pass him.  “Every once in a while, it’s good to look behind as well as ahead,” he explained to Derian as the first wagon rolled by.
            Chapman gave a little salute.  “Already you’re doing Dreng’s job for him.”
            It was then, riding for a while behind Win Modig’s wagon and while jogging up to retake his place next to Derian, that Milo studied the wagons.  They seemed identical at first, but Milo noticed that the axles of Modig’s wagon groaned less than those on Oswy Wodens’.  Could be it’s merely a better built wagon, but Modig’s could be carrying less weight. 
            “Your Win Modig must be the shyest person I’ve ever met.”  It was late morning.  Milo had “looked behind” for the third time and was merely making conversation.  “I don’t believe he’s said anything all day.”
            Derian Chapman laughed quietly.  “Shy?  I don’t know about that.  He’s certainly the quietest of all men.  He can’t talk.”
            Milo’s tone registered his surprise.  “But he’s not deaf.  I’ve seen him respond to you and Oswy.”           
            Chapman nodded.  “Oh, he hears well enough.  And he can make signs to let you know what he wants or what needs to be done.  He just can’t talk.”
            “Why?  There must be a story behind it.”
            “I’m sure there must.  I’ve never heard it.  Oswy?”
            The wiry little driver shook his head.  “I been drivin’ wagons ’tween Stonebridge, Down’s End and the castles up north—that’s Auria Prati and Lata Altum Flumen—for fifteen years now.  Win’s been drivin’ longer than that.  I never heard nobody who knows why Win don’t talk.  I asked him once, just once.  Poor man got mad as hell, almost hit me, and then cried for an hour.  Ya can ask him if ya want, but I won’t.”
            Milo looked back over his shoulder.  The driver of the second wagon was hidden behind the tall load on the first.  “Far be it from me to second guess your wisdom, Oswy.”  Milo caught Derian’s eye.  “Some things are better left unasked and unsaid.”
            Derian raised an eyebrow.  “Perhaps that’s true, Sir Milo.  But the audience makes a big difference, don’t you think?  For instance, some things should not be said in the presence of one’s business rivals.  But between friends and partners, there should be few secrets.”
            Milo responded immediately.  “I agree completely.  The difficulty is finding a true friend or partner.”

            In the afternoon the road began to climb, a long ascent up a hillside, to a kind of saddle between much taller hills.  The road grew steeper and steeper toward the top.  The riders’ horses could manage well enough, but the draft horses strained harder and harder.  Finally, Oswy cried, “That’s good!”  He hardly needed to rein up; the horses simply stopped.
            The hilltop was perhaps three hundred yards away, the steepest part of the whole climb.  Oswy called out to Eádulf, “Come help, boy!”  Eádulf dismounted when he saw what Oswy wanted and received two wood wedges that looked like ordinary firewood.  “Block the back wheels,” said Oswy.  “And then help Win with his wagon.”
            “Aye, sir.”  Eádulf hustled to obey.  Wodens climbed down from his seat and blocked the front wheels.
            Milo puzzled over the situation.  “I’m sure it’s a good idea to keep the wagons from rolling back, but how can we get them over the top?”
            Oswy Wodens leaned against his wagon, stretching out stiff legs.  “We can’t,” he said matter-of-factly.  “Not unless Master Derian wants to unload half his wool, which, I’m sure, he don’t want to do.”
            “So . . .?”
            Oswy reached his arms over his head and swung them from side to side.  “So we let the horses rest a bit, ’n wait for help.”  He pointed up the hill.  Unnoticed by Milo, Dreng Tredan had ridden on when the wagons halted.  Milo saw him disappearing over the crest of the hill.
            Derian Chapman explained.  “On the other side of this rise is the last way-station on the road to Stonebridge, or the first way-station leaving Stonebridge if you want to think of it that way.  The owner calls it, as you might guess, the Hill Corral.  He keeps teams of draft horses for the express purpose of helping heavy loads over the top.  It’s good business for him and a sensible solution for Stonebridge merchants.  The only other way from Stonebridge to the downs would be to follow the Betlicéa through an impassible canyon.” 
            “Still goin’ to be a tough pull,” said Oswy.  “Best if we all help.”
            “Absolutely,” said Derian, climbing down from the wagon.  “We are all at your command, Oswy.  Sir Milo, if you would tether your horse to the back of the wagon, you’ll be available to help too.”
            Within half an hour, Dreng returned, accompanied by a weather-beaten man with a shaggy black beard.  The man, who introduced himself as Dru Gifardus, led a pair of magnificent draft horses.  Gifardus and Oswy Wodens conferred for a while and decided that each wagon was a “six horse pull.”  Oswy and Win Modig unhitched Win’s team from the rear wagon and carefully walked them around Oswy’s wagon.  Then they hitched up the three pair of draft horses to the front wagon.  Nobody rode.  Dru Gifardus walked beside his horses in the lead, Win beside the middle team, and Oswy with his horses.  Milo, Eádulf, and Derian took up places alongside the wagon where they could add human effort to horsepower. At Dru’s command, “Get up!” the six horses strained, the men pushed, and the wagon began moving.  At the very top of the hill, the road widened to a broad flat place, where they parked Oswy’s wagon to one side.  They unhitched the six horse team and the teamsters helped Dru Gifardus line them up with the second wagon.
            The whole procedure was professionally managed by the teamsters and Dru Gifardus.  It would have been unremarkable, except that when both wagons were safely on top of the hill, when Win was re-hitching his team to the second wagon, the wagon lurched, as if it were about to roll backwards down the hill.  Derian Chapman cried out in what sound to Milo like genuine terror.
            Milo took this as confirmation of his suspicions.  Win Modig’s wagon, the second one.  The man’s name is Avery Doin.

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


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Castles 34

34. At River House

            Derian Chapman’s wagons of wool, safeguarded by Milo and Eádulf in addition to Chapman’s hired man, Dreng Tredan, arrived at last shortly after sundown at River House, a solitary building where a bend of the river Betlicéa came within forty yards of the Stonebridge road.  A fenced corral between the inn and the Betlicéa gave room for horses to wander to the river’s edge to drink.  Oswy Wodens and Win Modig parked the wagons in the dusty space in front of River House, unhitched their draft horses and led them around to the corral.  Chapman ordered Tredan, Wodens and Modig to take turns watching the wagons through the night.  Out of earshot of Chapman, at the gate to the corral, Oswy Wodens muttered to Milo and Eádulf that robbers would more likely steal the horses than the wool.  A team of strong horses could be useful on a farm, but what cottage weaver could use a whole wagon of wool, much less two?  Win Modig merely nodded; Eádulf hadn’t heard Modig speak all day. 
            Eádulf stayed behind with Brownie and Blackie when the horses had been introduced to the corral.  A stable boy named Esa Agleca helped Eádulf remove their saddles and baggage, including Milo’s armor.  Eádulf brushed the animals thoroughly before carrying their things to Milo’s room.  Then he headed to the common room for supper.  It was dark outside except for moonlight, and the common room was darker still, a half dozen candles along one wall providing the light.  The six men of Derian Chapman’s party (counting Eádulf and his master) were the only River House guests still present in the common room.  Milo, Derian Chapman and Dreng Tredan were already halfway through their supper; Oswy, Win and Eádulf, having cared for the animals, came last to the table.
            A pretty serving girl, Glytha, supplied them with cups of beer, bread trenchers, and a thick mutton stew with onions and barley.  This late in the evening, the kitchen fire had been doused, so the stew was lukewarm, but the teamsters and Eádulf dug in eagerly.   After emptying his trencher twice, Eádulf ate it, washing down the soppy bread with his third and fourth cups of beer.  It was a weak, cheap beer—Eádulf would have to drink twice as much to get drunk—but it was enough to help him sleep as soon as he stretched out in bed.
            Milo slept much less soundly than his squire.  He churned in his mind Derian Chapman’s obsessive concern about highwaymen.  He can’t really be that worried about unwoven wool.  So—the wool is hiding something.  Gold?  Something else?  But that can’t be the whole story.  Only someone who knew Chapman’s cargo is not what it appears would take the trouble to steal it.  Maybe Chapman thinks someone else knows what his wagons really carry.  Well, it’s certain that someone knows; Derian didn’t load his wagons by himself.  Whoever strapped on the wool knows what’s under it.  He’s worried, not about ordinary brigands, but about brigands with friends in Down’s End, friends who know what was loaded on his wagons.
            But, but . . . If it’s gold or something greatly valuable, why didn’t he hire more guards?. . . Because he had to make it look like an innocent cargo of wool; two many guards would tell all.  Then why not dispense with the ruse?  Hire a single wagon, protect it with a dozen men, and don’t bother with wool.  There’s something here I don’t understand.
            Milo snapped to wakefulness in darkness.  It wasn’t just a voice in his dream; someone was shouting in the road outside River House. 
            “Fire!  Help!  Fire!”  Milo couldn’t identify the voice.  Other voices, from within the inn, clamored after it.
            “Eádulf!”  Milo fumbled for only a moment before strapping on his sword.  He heard Eádulf pulling on boots.
            “Get your sword.”  Footsteps pounded past their door; men’s voices shouted in the dark.  Eádulf rummaged in their baggage.
            “Aye, sir.  I’ve got it.”
            “Good.  Stay close to me.  The commotion is out front, but we’re heading for the corral.”
            “Aye, sir.”
            Milo and Eádulf joined the tumult outside their room.  Cries of “Fire!” and “The wagons!” pulled the guests of River House to the road like a mountain river rushing to the sea.  Knight and squire followed the others down the stairs, but from the common room they turned left through a short hall to a door on the river side of the inn.  Milo pulled his sword and sprinted for the corral gate, Eádulf close behind him.
            The gate was open.  Too late?  No.  The horses had been lying on the grass or standing in the shallow water inside the water fence; there were men among the animals, trying to separate the draft horses from the others.
            “Eádulf, I need Blackie.  And we need to shut this gate.”
            Eádulf dropped his sword, put fingers to his mouth, and whistled sharply, twice.  From the darkness a horse came galloping—Blackie; Brownie had the good sense to follow her.  The thieves had been focused on the draft horses, and were unprepared to stop Blackie and Brownie’s escape.
            Eádulf recovered his sword and rushed to shut the gate.  Blackie recognized Milo in the starlight and came to him.  Milo touched her neck and nose, letting Blackie smell him.  “Good girl.  No time for a saddle.”  He sheathed his sword and, with his arms around Blackie’s neck, Milo threw his right leg over her.  Without the advantage of stirrups, the leap was a close thing.
            Growing up at Hyacintho Flumen, Milo had ridden bareback many times, but not at night, and never with sword in hand, which he drew from his scabbard.  He clamped his knees to Blackie’s sides and leaned low over her neck.  The horse responded adroitly to his left hand in her mane.
            “Stay at the gate!” Milo shouted to Eádulf.  “Keep the horses inside!”  Then he and Blackie charged the intruders.  Milo couldn’t see the thieves; warned by Eádulf’s whistle and the commotion when Blackie and Brownie bolted, they were hiding among the other horses.  Milo swung Blackie to the right, toward the corral fence.  He shouted and banged his sword on the wooden rail.  He galloped by one of the big draft horses and slapped its butt with the flat of his sword.  He pulled Blackie into a tight circle, nearly falling off in the process, and shouted again.  The horses began moving as a group, running first toward the river and then toward River House.  One of the thieves tripped when he tried to run with the animals; the other made a dash for the fence.  Milo rode upon the fallen man just as he regained his footing.  In the dark, Milo couldn’t tell where his sword hit the thief, but the man went down again.  The other vaulted the fence and disappeared into the night.
            Milo trotted toward Eádulf.  “Open the gate!”  The squire pushed the gate and Blackie squeezed through.  “Guard the horses.  Don’t let them get out.”
            Milo rode around the west end of River House, pausing to take in a very different scene.  As many as two dozen men stood chattering around Derian Chapman’s wagons, some holding torches and some buckets.  The fire that had first roused the alarm had been extinguished, and the wagons seemed unharmed.  The men were all looking south, across the road, as if expecting an enemy to appear from the dark.
            “Over there!” a voice shouted above the others.  A red light flashed into the sky, arcing toward the inn.  The crowd scattered as a flaming arrow landed harmlessly a few feet from the wool wagons.
              Derian Chapman, in a short tunic and no breeches, stood close to his cargo, a short sword in his hand.  Pretty clearly, he didn’t know how to use it, other than to wave it toward the unseen archer.  Dreng Tredan was with him, his sword sheathed, arms folded.  “We’ve got to do something!” Chapman said.  Tredan didn’t answer, but even in the dark Milo sensed the guard’s scorn.
            “Something has already been done,” said Milo.  Chapman, Tredan, and several others turned their attention to the knight.  “The thieves weren’t after wool; they wanted your horses.”
            Several voices cried out, and some of the men started to run around the inn.  Milo shouted, “It’s all right!  I drove off one thief and the other is wounded or dead.  You’ll find him in the corral.”
            “Here comes another!”  Again a fiery arrow flew toward Chapman’s wagons, but the men avoided it easily.  The arrow skidded in the dirt, still burning until someone splashed it with water.
            Oswy Wodens and a few others said they were going to check on the horses and look for the thief Sir Milo spoke of.  Win Modig stayed by his wagon, silent as ever.  Derian Chapman’s concern was still the archer in the dark.  “We’ve got to do something!” he said.
            Milo realized the archer must have a fire from which he lit his arrows, but looking to the south there was no sign of flame.  The man had to be hiding in some little hollow; given the generally flat character of the land near River House, the archer’s covert might be the only one available.  “Just keep the fire from the wagons,” Milo said.  Then he turned Blackie and jogged west, away from the lights of the inn.
             After two hundred yards, Milo began circling south, and then eased Blackie to a stop.  A minute of waiting—and there it was, another arrow.  He rode quietly another twenty yards, and the archer’s fire became visible.  Blackie seemed to recognize the need for stealth; her breathing was no louder than a summer breeze.  Horse and rider crept closer.
            The archer lit yet another arrow, and when he rose to his knees to shoot, he was silhouetted by his little fire.  Milo kicked Blackie into a gallop.  The archer loosed his arrow and ran.  But he forgot to kick his fire, and its light betrayed him.  Milo rode directly at him.  The archer threw himself to the ground when Blackie rushed by and thus avoided Milo’s sword.
            Milo hugged Blackie’s neck and wheeled around.  His quarry might have escaped had he stayed on the ground, but he jumped up to run.  Horse and rider saw him in the firelight and caught him again.  This time Milo’s sword hit the man’s shoulder.
            Milo pulled Blackie to a halt and jumped down.  The fallen archer lay panting in the prairie grass when Milo came upon him.  “A question, my friend,” said Milo.  “An honest answer may save your life.”
            In the dark, the man’s blood looked like a black stain.  His shoulder was a mess.
Between gasps of pain, he answered, “The truth, I’ll swear.”
            “Who paid you to stop Chapman’s wagons from reaching Stonebridge?”
            “The banker, Eulard Barnet, from Down’s End.”
            “I should have known,” said Milo.  “And what has Chapman stolen from the good banker?”
            The man panted and groaned.  “Only the murderer of his son.  Avery Doin hides in that wagon.”
            “Ah.  That explains it,” said Milo.  “Why should you care if Avery Doin escapes?”
            The archer struggled to his feet.  “I don’t.  I’m just earning my pay.”
            “We all have to earn our pay,” said Milo.  “That’s what I’m doing.”  Then, with a great backhanded sweep of his sword, he hacked at the man.  The archer flinched, but not in time; the blow aimed at his neck but hit him in the head.  Milo pulled his sword free of the half-split skull and wiped it on the prairie.           

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


Thursday, January 10, 2013

Castles 33

33. Near River House

            At Milo’s insistence, he and Eádulf kept the horses trotting all day, stopping for brief rests when they happened upon the few creeks, easily forded, that crossed the road to Stonebridge.  To their right, the seemingly limitless green of the great downs stretched to the northern horizon.  On the left, forested hills rolled up and down; Eádulf tried imagining the blue and purple mountains that Sir Milo said lay further southwest, but they were too distant to see.  The road itself hardly seemed to vary at all: mile after mile of parallel wagon tracks cut in the prairie.  After Ro Becere and his escort, they met no one.
            The heat of summer wore on their mounts; Eádulf worried for them.  But Sir Milo had made plain his intention, and Eádulf realized it would do no good to criticize their pace.  So he kept his tongue, even when Brownie and Blackie began to tire noticeably.  Several times Eádulf hoped that Milo was about to call a halt and a real rest, but every time the knight seemed ready to give up the pursuit Milo spurred Blackie back to a trot.
            “There they are.  What do you see, Eádulf?”
            Eádulf squinted.  “Can’t really tell, Sir.  Didn’t Master Becere say they had two wagons?” 
            “So you were listening, after all.  The way you fussed with the horses, one would have thought you paid no attention to Ro Becere.”
            “Ah, Sir.  I wouldna call it ‘fussing.’  Blackie and Brownie need care.  With good care, beasts can do great things for men.”
            “I’m sure that’s true, Eádulf.  That’s one reason I’m glad to have you as squire.  You love the horses, and for that they’ll serve me well.”
            Eádulf didn’t know what to say to that. 

            The sun was three-quarters down the sky when Milo and Eádulf drew close to the wagons.  As Ro Becere had said, there were two, each piled high with bales of wool and pulled by a pair of strong draft horses. 
            A rider appeared to the left of the wagons, circling back to meet Milo and his squire.  Milo thought, No surprise here.  If they were alert, they would have seen us gaining on them the last hour.  The rider placed himself on the road facing the pursuers.  He sat at ease, his hand toying with the hilt of a sword.  Sunlight glistened on chain mail.
            Milo slowed Blackie to a walk and stopped about five yards from the soldier.  He raised his hands one at a time, as he had for Ro Becere in the morning.  “Fair evening!” he said.  “It seems damned hot to be wearing mail.”
            “Aye,” said the rider.  “But there’s worse things—like not wearing it and getting spitted.”
            For the soldier’s benefit, Milo laughed at the joke.  “My name is Milo Mortane.  Eádulf and I mean you no harm.”
            “You won’t mind, then,” said the rider, “if my master asks that you circle ’round ’n keep a good distance from the wagons.”  He motioned with his arm, indicating the wide course he wanted Milo to take.
            Milo wanted to make the acquaintance of Darien Chapman; so keeping distant from the wagons was precisely not his desire.  “Actually, I prefer a shorter path.  We’ve been pushing our horses hard, because we want to reach River House before dark if possible.  So how about this: I present my sword to you, and you let us pass?  You can ride with us and return it when we are on the road ahead of you.”
            The soldier/guard responded warily.  “All right.  Just you.  The boy stays back.”
            Milo nodded to Eádulf, who dismounted and led Brownie back several steps.  Milo urged Blackie forward, keeping both hands visibly on the reins.  “My sword is right here, in the scabbard,” he said.  He pointed with his chin.  “May I ask your name?”
            “Dreng Tredan.”  The guard touched the sword hilt, watching Milo’s face.  He drew it out and quickly moved his horse away.  He glanced appreciatively at the steel.  “What’s to keep me from taking your head with your own sword?”
            Milo shrugged.  “Nothing.  Except Dreng Tredan is an honest man and not a murderer.”
            The guard eyed Milo suspiciously.  He had a spotty black beard and a hooked nose.  “How would you know if I’m a murderer?”
            Milo shrugged.  “I suppose I can’t be sure.  But I imagine the pay for armed escorts isn’t terribly high.  Men-in-arms who do such honest work most likely aren’t thieves or murderers.”
            “Well, you’re right about the pay,” said Dreng Tredan.  “So maybe I am an honest man.  Or I haven’t yet found the right gang to join up with.  Or maybe the fear of hanging keeps me on the right side of the law.  In any case, I prefer to use my own sword.  Hoi, there, boy!  Come and take your master’s sword.”
            Eádulf led Brownie forward and, at a gesture from Tredan, climbed into the saddle.  The soldier handed Milo’s sword to Eádulf.  Eádulf secured the weapon by slipping it through a leather saddlebag strap.  “Now you ride on around the wagons,” said Tredan.  “Take care you don’t alarm the drivers.  Your master and I will follow.”
            The wagons had rolled ahead a little way, but Eádulf overtook them quickly.  He angled onto the grass to the right and trotted past, the sword awkwardly banging against his boot.  Dreng Tredan motioned for Milo to ride after Eádulf.  “You may be an honest man too, Milo Mortane.  But in case you’re not, remember I have a sword right behind you.”
            A stout man in a coarse tunic and leather boots was driving the rear wagon.  As Milo passed by, Tredan said from behind: “Win Modig’s the driver.  Good man, but doesn’t say much.”  As if in confirmation of these words, Modig silently waved and smiled.
            “Fair evening!” said Milo.  Win Modig merely waved again.
            Milo passed the lead wagon.  The driver here was a small man, lean and weathered.  He wore a misshapen leather hat, a brown tunic and black leather boots.  Beside the driver sat a taller man in much finer clothes—a blue tunic of linen with sleeves that reached to the elbow tucked into gray breeches.  His boots were just as dusty as the teamster’s, but to Milo’s eye they looked more expensive, red leather decorated with intricate designs.  This has to be Derian Chapman.
            “Fair evening!” said Milo, giving what he hoped was a friendly wave.
            “Meet Oswy Wodens,” said Dreng Tredan.  “And Master Derian Chapman.  It’s his wool we’re cartin’.”  To his companions he said, “This here’s Milo Mortane.  I made his boy carry his sword so he wouldna be a threat.”
            Derian Chapman leaned forward to look around his driver and fix blue eyes on Milo.  “Mortane?  Hereward Mortane is lord of castle Hyacintho Flumen.”  Chapman had light brown hair, neatly tucked behind his ears, and only a shadow of beard.  He finds time to shave even on the road.
            “Lord Hereward is my father.”
            “You will be lord after him?”
            “No.  Though I am the older, my lord father has decreed that my brother Aylwin succeed him.  Thus, I am free to seek my fortune in the wide world.”  Milo gestured broadly, but he couldn’t keep an edge of bitterness from his words.
            Chapman raised an eyebrow.  “And how are you seeking your fortune?”
            “It occurred to me that a knight might find employment in Stonebridge.”
            “Really?  Why there?”
            “On the way north from Hyacintho Flumen, Eádulf and I encountered three bandits.  I killed two and delivered the third to a sheriff named Rage Hildebeorht.  We learned that the Stonebridge Council is troubled enough by highwaymen that they’ve appointed sheriffs.  You yourself have hired Dreng Tredan as guard for two wagons of wool.  So yes.  With a proper introduction, I expect a knight could be of use in Stonebridge.”
            Derian Chapman laughed loudly.  “And you think I might give you one.  Someone told you Ody Dans is my uncle.  Ha, ha!
            “I’ll tell you that the name Mortane might cause you some trouble in Stonebridge.  Leading merchants and City Councilors resent castle lords who try to assert authority over free cities.  We’ve heard stories from Down’s End that Hereward Mortane sticks his nose in where it doesn’t belong.”
            Milo shrugged.  “You may have heard stories, but the truth is that we have not collected land tax in Down’s End since my grandfather’s day.  My father might wish that he was lord of the downs, but wishes don’t make armsmen.  He has made no claim on Down’s End these thirty years.  Castle Inter Lucus, on the other hand, has no lord, so my lord father does claim authority between the lakes.”
            “Fairly answered,” said Chapman.  “But now you say you have left your father’s service?”
            “It would be more accurate to say I will not enter my brother’s service.  My lord father is dying.  My mother and brother have conspired to cheat me of Hyacintho Flumen.  I am, as I said, free to seek my fortune.”
            Derian Chapman considered Milo’s words for some seconds.  “The son of a lord, trained to be a knight, could be a useful person.  You will need to persuade the masters of Stonebridge that you can be trusted.  If you do, you may indeed find a good future there.”
            Milo said, “I’d like to hear more.  Perhaps you could give me advice at River House.  Eádulf and I are hoping to eat a hot meal and sleep in a bed tonight.”
            “As am I,” said Chapman.  “Oswy Wodens, who is familiar with the road, says we should reach River House in another hour or two.  You will be safe in bed by the time we arrive.”
            Milo made a pretense of deliberation.  “We’ve ridden hard today, and Eádulf worries about our horses.  Would you object if we accompany you?  So long as we’re sure to arrive today, we needn’t push the beasts any harder.  That way, we can share the hot supper, and you can advise me about Stonebridge.”
            “I have no objection,” said the merchant.  “Ride with us, if you can endure a snail’s pace.  And you may as well retrieve your sword from your squire.  What’s the good of traveling with a knight if he can’t defend me?”
            “Surely you won’t need my help.”  Milo gestured at the horizon.  “It’s an empty prairie and Dreng Tredan is a capable man.”
            Derian Chapman chewed his lip.  “This land does seem empty, but that just means there’s no honest folk nearby if trouble should come.  Wagons roll slowly.  Grassland brigands could catch us with ease.”
            Milo smiled reassuringly.  “Very well.  I’ll fetch my sword.”  He urged Brownie forward and drew the weapon from Eádulf’s saddlebag strap.  He made eye contact with Dreng Tredan, who frowned as if to say, I’m still watching you.  Milo returned the sword to its scabbard and rode without comment.  The guard needn’t trust him so long as Derian Chapman did.
            Considering Chapman, Milo thought, Becere was right.  The man worries too much about wool.  There’s more here than meets the eye.

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