42. In Stonebridge
Stonebridge was aptly named, in Eádulf’s opinion. No less than six bridges spanned the three rivers of the city. He thought they were magnificent. He had never seen arched structures before; in Eádulf’s experience bridges, such as the bridges back home in Hyacintho Flumen, were simple wooden spans as strong as the trees used to make them. The bridges of Stonebridge seemed to defy gravity, the way they leapt from bank to bank, or, for three of the bridges, from riverbank to a midstream island and then to the further bank. And they were made of stone, great blocks of stone hewn to the right shape and fitted into place. Oswy Wodens explained the principle of the bridges’ strength to Eádulf when the caravan of wool wagons came in sight of the city, how each stone of the arch was shaped so that it wedged against the others. “If ya build an arch right,” Oswy said, “and if the stones are sound, then putting weight on top only presses ’em closer together. Arch bridges will bear much more load than the wood bridges they have in Down’s End.”
Eádulf was awed. As a stable boy growing up near Hyacintho Flumen, he was familiar with the town between the castle and the harbor. But where Hyacintho Flumen was a town, Stonebridge was a city. In Hyacintho Flumen, a single bridge served those who wanted to cross the Blue River without employing a ferry. In Stonebridge, three bridges crossed the River Blide and two spanned River Broganéa, upstream from the place where those rivers joined to form River Betlicéa. More beautiful still was the high bridge over River Betlicéa on the northern edge of the city. Here the river plunged into a narrow twisting canyon between high rock walls, and the bridge above the gorge was a single breathtaking arch longer than any in the other five bridges. Oswy said that in the spring, when the rivers run high, the spray from the Betlicéa waterfall sometimes wet the sides of the bridge. Eádulf said he wished to see that someday.
Dreng Tredan escorted the wool wagons into Stonebridge, to a storehouse on the west side of the Broganéa, in the weavers’ district. The sun was high in the sky, a short time past mid-day. Here the guard waited—impatiently, Eádulf thought—for Derian Chapman to pay him. The merchant concerned himself first with getting his cargo safely inside the storehouse and ignored Dreng while negotiating some business with two men who emerged through a small door under a sign lettered in red. These men either owned the building or worked for the owner; Eádulf couldn’t tell which. Eádulf could only guess that the sign said something about wool or weavers; he had never learned letters. After some talk with Derian the men re-entered the storehouse. Presently the barn-like main doors rolled aside, mounted as they were on clever little wheels at the top. Eádulf had never seen doors hung in such a way. (He knew that the doors inside Hyacintho Flumen were even more marvelous, but Eádulf had never seen them himself.) Only when his wagons were actually rolling into the Stonebridge Weavers’ warehouse did Derian Chapman give Dreng Tredan his pay. The guard vanished before the weavers’ guild men had closed and locked the doors.
Eádulf and Milo trailed the wool wagons as Win Modig and Oswy Wodens walked their teams into the building. Dust motes hung thick in the air. A tall second storey rose in the middle of the storehouse, with small windows high under the eaves that admitted light into the building’s interior. The windows’ shutters were open on a dry summer’s day, but even so the wide space of the first storey was dim and stuffy. Wooden pillars spaced around the storehouse supported the roof; the wagons had to maneuver carefully. Win Modig and Oswy Wodens positioned the wagons near a wall under the watchful eyes of the guild men. Then the wagon horses were unhitched and led to stable stalls in a distant corner. Eádulf led Brownie, Blackie, and Derian Chapman’s horse to a water trough and tethered them near the draft horses after they had drunk.
When the guild men had secured the doors and departed, Derian Chapman spoke to his drivers. “The weavers’ guild has agreed to unload our cargo. The fellows who let us in have gone to recruit a crew that will make quick work of the job. Of course, since it’s noon, they’ll get no help ’til after the mid-day sup. I suggest, then, that you take the chance to get a decent meal as well.” Chapman tossed a coin to each of his drivers. “That’s not your pay, only a little ‘thank you.’ You’ll get what we agreed this afternoon, after the wool is unloaded.”
Oswy held up a gold coin. “Downright generous of ya, Master Chapman. Thank ya much! We’ll get us a bite and be back to help with the job.” Win Modig grinned wordlessly, and he followed Oswy through the little door.
Milo smiled to himself as Derian Chapman sent off his guard, the guild men, and his drivers. As soon as the door closed behind Win Modig, Milo said, “I imagine, Derian, that you will now suggest that Eádulf and I also find a mid-day sup. But I think we would rather help you with your next task.”
“Really? And what task is that?” Chapman’s voice was neutral.
“Releasing Avery Doin from his confinement. How long has it been? Four days? Five?”
The businessman stepped closer to Milo and Eádulf, who stood in the somewhat brighter light in the middle of the warehouse. He raised an eyebrow. “How did you find out? Only Modig knows, and I’m sure he didn’t tell you.”
Milo chuckled. “You know better than that, Derian. Consider: If you really think only Modig knows what’s in his wagon, why have you been so afraid of highwaymen? You must have been worried that someone would guess your real cargo. No one really expects highwaymen to steal wool.”
Chapman asked, “Have I been that transparent? Did Dreng know?”
Milo shook his head. “Dreng only thought you were stupid. He never asked himself whether you might not have a good reason to fear for your wagons. Personally, I guessed it might be gold, but the archer at River House gave a better answer.”
“Before you killed him.” Chapman walked toward Win Modig’s wagon.
“That’s right,” Milo admitted, following the merchant. “I think we can guess he didn’t tell the boys at the corral what he was really after. I imagine the archer recruited Andsaca Scur and the other boy with the promise of valuable horses. Remember: the men of River House recognized Andsaca as a local boy but not the archer. The archer came from Down’s End and was employed by Eulard Barnet to kill Avery Doin.”
Chapman tugged on his ear, a nervous habit Milo had noticed before. “It seems I nearly botched the whole thing. Maybe I did. Maybe you plan to kill me and return Avery to Down’s End.” He grinned as he lay down on the storehouse floor by the wagon. “But I think you’re smarter than that. Believe me, Avery Doin is worth far more alive and safe in Stonebridge than betrayed to Eulard Barnet.”
Milo laughed. “Aye. We think alike sometimes.”
Derian slid under the wagon until only his boots showed. A few grunts were heard, and then: “Damn. It’s stuck.” Then a thump, and another. The wagon trembled slightly as Chapman struck it. “There! Good!” More grunts. “Sir Milo, I could use a hand with this.”
“Eádulf, see if you can help Master Chapman.” Milo touched his sword hilt. He was not prepared to trust Derian Chapman without a weapon ready.
Eádulf wiggled in next to Chapman. More sounds of labor, awkward pulling in a confined space. The merchant and the squire emerged from under the wagon. Together they pulled a limp body into the light. Chapman held his ear to the man’s face. “He lives and breathes, but he’s in a bad way.” The stowaway was a young man with filthy, matted hair. Chapman pulled a handkerchief from a pocket. “Eádulf, if you please, fetch some water.” The squire trotted to the horses’ water trough.
“Given Avery’s condition, it’s probably a good thing you uncovered my secret,” said Derian. “Uncle Ody would prefer that we conceal his presence, if possible. You can help me with that. Ah! Thank you, Eádulf.” Chapman accepted the wet handkerchief and wiped Avery Doin’s face.
“Yesterday morning, he was awake and could talk.” Derian’s ministrations to the unconscious man had all the tenderness of a farmer with a bull. He pushed the hair back and scrubbed at the man’s face vigorously.
The patient’s tongue flicked out for moisture, and he swallowed. The voice was faint and hoarse: “Thirsty.”
Eádulf hurried off and returned with a water-skin. Milo and Derian pulled Avery Doin to a sitting position and Derian dribbled water into his mouth. After several swallows Doin’s eyes opened. “Stonebridge?”
“Indeed.” Chapman squatted in front of the stowaway. “Whatever foolishness you committed in Down’s End, you are now safely in Stonebridge. Your father owes Ody Dans great gratitude for rescuing you. And, if I may say it, you owe me for saving your life. You’ll remember that when you see Uncle Ody, hm?”
Copyright © 2012 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.