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.”
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.