Thursday, February 21, 2013

Castles 39

39. In Down’s End

            Eadmar watched Guthlaf Godcild’s face intently, but he couldn’t tell which way the bishop would decide.  Guthlaf’s hazel eyes moved from brother to brother as the priests of Down’s End made their arguments.  No bishop had faced such an important decision for generations, if ever, and all the brothers knew it.  They sat around a rough-hewn table, and the door to Prayer House had been barred against visitors, to give the city’s priests privacy.
            “The last lord of Inter Lucus died without heir when my great grandmother was a maiden,” said Phytwin.  The gray-eyed man was priest of the city’s central district and at fifty was older than any of the others except Eadmar.  “How can there be a new lord?”
            Teothic, the tall, red-bearded, young priest who served the west side of Down’s End, answered, “It doesn’t matter how; it only matters that.  No one really knows how a lord’s heir takes control of a castle.  This man Martin may be no lord’s son, but if he controls Inter Lucus, that is all we need know.  He is lord in fact, if not in law.”
            “Aye,” Eadmar said.  “But since he is not the son of a lord, he has not learned the faults of lords.  Isen says Lord Martin worships the true God!  He is not like . . .”
            Bishop Guthlaf interrupted Eadmar with a raised hand.  “I gathered the brothers at your request, Eadmar.  You have already spoken.  I want to hear the others.”
            Eadmar pressed his lips together and bowed his head.  He had never regretted voting for Guthlaf’s election as bishop when the old bishop, Aethelmod Godcild, died.  The choice had been between Guthlaf and Eadmar, and many times Eadmar had counted himself blessed not to have been made “Godcild.”  To be required to meet for hours with avaricious city councilors and guild alderman . . . Eadmar often pitied Guthlaf.  But now, he wondered whether he had merely taken the easy path when he chose to serve the poor folk who lived in the crowded Betlicéa district rather than accept election as bishop.  Perhaps the price of authority is the willingness to suffer the vices of powerful men.  Guthlaf knows firsthand the treacheries of men of high station.
            Wendelbeorht, priest of the south district, coughed several times.  He was an albino, with white hair and beard.  His pink hands spidered back and forth on the pine tabletop.  He found the bit of paper that Eadmar had shown them.  Wendelbeorht’s pale blue eyes were so nearsighted that he might as well be blind.  He held the paper two inches from his eyes so he could see the red ink cross and perfectly shaped black letters. “Castle lords serve the castle gods.  It has always been so.  And castle lords lie.  They have deceived and killed God’s priests before.  This may be yet another deception; the words of the book are neither the old language nor the common tongue.  But if it is not a deception, the new lord may have a treasure beyond treasures: God’s book in an unknown tongue.”
            Eadmar wanted to respond: And I am willing to die if need be to see that book.  He kept his words to himself.
            The last of Down’s End’s priests was a fat, brown-eyed man of thirty years.  Godbeorht served the north district, where the city was expanding along the shores of West Lake.  “Is there any evidence of this new lord other than the report of Eadmar’s young friend?  Today’s meeting is the first I’ve heard of him.” 
            Bishop Guthlaf said, “Phytwin mentioned a new lord to me a few days ago.”
            “I said that I had heard a rumor,” objected Phytwin.  Clean-shaven like Eadmar, Phytwin looked as if he tasted something sour.  “I would credit it no more than stories of the castle gods returning.”
            Wendelbeorht coughed again.  He was not an old priest, and Eadmar did not expect him to become one.  Lesions, brought by exposure to the summer sun, marred Wendelbeorht’s pale arms.  “Perhaps Phytwin gives such rumors less credence than they deserve.  If the smoke keeps returning, maybe there is fire.”
            “The castle gods have been gone five hundred years!” exclaimed Phytwin.
            “Unless the rumors are true,” said Wendelbeorht.
            Phytwin rolled his eyes, but Wendelbeorht couldn’t see it.  Teothic took advantage of the brief silence.  “Rumors of a new lord are all over the city, not just in Phytwin’s central district or Eadmar’s Betlicéa district.  Brothers, unlike stories of the castle gods returning, we can investigate this tale.  Why not let Eadmar cross the lake to find out?”
            “As brother Wendelbeorht pointed out, castle lords have a record of deceit and murder,” said Phytwin.
            Teothic shook his red beard.  “Brother Phytwin, you say there is no new lord in Inter Lucus and then you warn that the new lord might kill Eadmar.”
            Godbeorht chuckled.  “Phytwin only seems inconsistent.  Some pretender might be playing at being a lord for the very purpose of attacking God’s priests.”
            Now it was Teothic’s turn to roll his eyes.  Guthlaf raised his hand for silence.  “Brothers, I need to think.  Please pray for me while I walk the burial grounds.  Perhaps I will find wisdom amid the graves.”
            Obediently, the five priests who served under Guthlaf rose from the meeting table near the door of Prayer House and knelt on prayer benches facing the pine cross on the front wall.  Bishop Guthlaf quietly removed the bar on the door and let himself out.
            Eadmar knelt beside Phytwin.  That they disagreed about the decision facing Guthlaf did not change their station as brothers, and Phytwin had been a priest almost as long as Eadmar.  Eadmar made the sign of the cross and bowed his head.
            Holy and wise God, hear the prayer of your priest.  I greatly desire to meet this Lord Martin and read your book.  Therefore, I fear that my desire has swept away my reason, and I thank you for Phytwin and his skepticism.  Please guide our brother and bishop Guthlaf this day.  May your will be done on Two Moons—and the old world, if it still is.  May all that we do bring glory to the true lord, Jesus.  Amen.
            For the ten-thousandth time, Eadmar wondered what “amen” might mean.  It was not a word in the common tongue, nor was it (as far as he knew) a word in the holy language.  But it was the word all priests repeated at the end of prayers.  As was his habit, Eadmar remained kneeling long after he had prayed.  He treasured such quiet moments after prayer, when he could simply observe the cross.
            Soft steps at his shoulder—Guthlaf had returned.  The brothers all rose from the prayer benches.  The bishop sighed.  “I am truly sorry, Eadmar, for you may be going to your death.  I charge you: go to Inter Lucus as soon as may be.  Be on your guard against deceptions.  Send us word so we may know whether great danger or great openings await us.”
            Isen waited under the porch roof of the Running Stag, not far from river Betlicéa.  Officially, the Running Stag was an “inn,” but Matilda Starlight, the owner, rarely served more than beer in her tiny common room.  The girls who worked for Matilda prepared and ate their meals in the kitchen or—in the heat of summer—on the back porch.  Right now, in late afternoon, they would be refreshing themselves in the water of the Betlicéa or in West Lake.  When the cool of evening came, the girls plied their trade in the upstairs bedrooms of the Stag.
            Priest Eadmar had told Isen he would meet him here.  Not that Eadmar approved of brothels, but Isen could wait undisturbed in the shade of Matilda’s roof and she would not chase him away.  Not until evening, anyway.  And the Running Stag had a clear view along River Street of the Betlicéa docks.  Isen would be more likely to see the Deepwaters when Morning Glory arrived with the day’s catch.
            A door opened and the Stag’s proprietress joined Isen on the simple wood bench by the wall.  “Thought maybe I’d come out ’n see if there’s a bit o’ wind,” said Matilda.  Mistress Starlight wore a loose green kirtle and cloth slippers.  The kirtle was fastened below her rather large breasts, giving plenty of opportunity for the curious to observe the space between them.  “Can hardly breathe inside.”
            Isen shrugged.  “A little breeze is all.  I suppose it’s cooler here than in the Stag, and it’s far better than Kent Gausman’s furnace, that’s certain.”
            Matilda Starlight frowned.  “Everybody knows what the alderman did to you, Isen.  Not fair, not fair at all.  The man’s a snake.  By the gods, Sunie was a good girl, ’n you took care o’ her to the end.  Damned unfair.”
            Isen shrugged again.  “Do you believe in justice, Mistress Starlight?”
            “Not in this world.”  A quick laugh.  “O’ course they say there’s justice in the after-world, but I’m not so sure I want that.  That priest Eadmar, he says the old god doesn’t like my business.”  She laughed again, and pushed a lock of her black hair behind her ear.
            “Priest Eadmar told me to wait here for him.”
            Matilda smiled.  “He did?  Not surprised.  He’s spent a few afternoons sittin’ where you are, waitin’ for the boys to come off the boats.  He’s not a bad sort, that Eadmar.  Helps people when he can.  But he just won’t see that for some girls, whorin’ is their only way.  Why’s he want to meet you?”
            “Ah . . . I’ve been talking with him about a bit of business.  The truth is, I’m not supposed to tell anyone.  Please don’t think I’m being rude.”
            “Business?”  Matilda poked Isen’s side.  “You’re not lettin’ him make you into a priest, are you, boy?”
            Isen smiled.  “No!  That much I can say.”
            “Glad to hear it.  Ho, now.  The man himself.”  Matilda pointed with her chin.  Priest Eadmar had come around the corner from Wide Street, walking quickly for an old man, given the heat.  Isen waved a greeting.  Matilda said, “Maybe I’ll be goin’ back in, since you want to talk privately.”  The innkeeper touched Isen’s shoulder.  “You be good, Isen.”

            Matilda Starlight watched the priest and the young artisan through a glassed window.  Isen had hurried to meet Eadmar in the middle of River Street.  The two men set off toward the docks, talking animatedly.  She shook her head.  What’s going on there? What “business” brings an old priest and an out-of-work glassblower together?  But she didn’t think long about it.  The day was too hot.

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


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