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.
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