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.