Thursday, March 28, 2013

Castles 44

44. In The Spray, Near the River Betlicéa

            When time came for sup, Inga led Avery, Milo and Eádulf down two staircases to a dining room overlooking River Betlicéa.  The staircases and the landing between them were hung with paintings: mostly relatives of Master Ody, said Inga, and a few portraits of Stonebridge’s richest men.
            They entered a long room from the west end, near an empty fireplace.  A narrow table with place settings dominated the middle of the room, and most of the north wall facing the river was glassed—pane after pane of clear glass squares secured in a wooden lattice.  Milo nodded a silent recognition of the message of the glass wall.  Ody Dans can spend a fortune on an adornment of his hall.  Guests are supposed to marvel at his wealth and the luxury it buys.  But for all his money, Ody Dans’s window-wall is a feeble replica of the magic wall in Hyacintho Flumen.  A magic wall I will never command.  Milo ground his teeth and looked about the room.
            More paintings hung on the long south wall, not portraits but landscapes: farms with livestock, a lake surrounded by snow-covered trees, and hillside vineyards.  Near the paintings two padded divans offered places to sit and look at the artwork.  The dark wood of the divans contrasted with a golden colored hardwood floor.  A second fireplace occupied the middle of the east wall.  Like the one by the west entrance it was empty, since on a summer evening the dining hall needed no fires.  A servant boy was arranging candle-stands around the room.  Each stand held eight tall tapers; the hall would still be well lighted when daylight faded.  Two other servants stood near a door at the east end of the south wall; undoubtedly, Milo thought, that way led to the kitchen.
            The window wall had already attracted Eádulf and Avery’s attention.  Milo joined them and looked at Ody Dans’s magnificent view.  Outside the windows a balcony paralleled the dining hall; a parapet guarded against the precipitous drop to River Betlicéa far below.  From Stonebridge the river ran to their left, to the northwest, and then curved north through an impassable canyon so that the river was lost from view.  High on that side, the beautiful arch of the Betlicéa Bridge spanned the river.  Travelers crossing the bridge would be able to look down on Ody Dans’s balcony.  I wonder if Master Ody resents sharing his view of the falls with passersby.  To their right, the east end of the balcony curved out, making a deck where three chairs provided comfort for Ody Dans or anyone else privileged to watch the waterfall.  Of course, Dans’s perch is closer and lower than the high bridge.  Maybe he doesn’t mind strangers looking on so long as he knows he has the best seat at the show.  And it is spectacular; the evening light plays tricks with the water.
            While the visitors were taking in the waterfall’s glory, someone suddenly appeared on the deck: Derian Chapman.  Derian rushed past the chairs as if he thought someone were about to fall from the parapet—or as if he intended to throw himself into the river.  Eádulf exclaimed: “Gods!  No!”
            Derian had not come through the dining hall; rather he reached the balcony from some room east of it.  A door to the left of the window opened onto the balcony; Milo almost started for this door, but two things stopped him.  Out on the landing, Derian slid to his knees by the parapet rather than throwing himself over it.  He clutched the railing with both hands, as if he were praying to some god of the waterfall.  And at the same time Ody Dans bustled into the room from a door beside the east fireplace, entering, no doubt, from the same room from which Derian accessed the deck.  Milo thought: And what did uncle Ody say that so upset Derian?
            “Ah!  You’re already here!”  Ody Dans exuded bland cheerfulness.  “And the others are coming too!”  People were entering the dining hall behind them, through the same door by which Milo, Avery and Eádulf had entered.  Milo touched Eádulf’s shoulder, turning him from the scene on the landing.  No reason to point everyone’s attention to Derian.
            “Ada!  Lovely as ever.  And the old goat!”  Ody Dans bowed to a middle-aged woman and clasped arms around her gray-haired companion.  Behind these two followed a young man, close to Milo’s age, and obviously the couple’s son; he shared the man’s thin nose and high forehead and the woman’s deep-set hazel eyes.  All three were dressed in fine clothes: blues and grays, and the woman wore a necklace of silver.  The son wore a light blue dagged-edged cape, embroidered in red, over his darker blue tunic.  Behind this family came three others: a man who appeared to be the friend of the rich couple’s son and a fresh faced couple holding hands, both black-haired and strikingly good-looking.
            In a few minutes Ody Dans had his guests sorted and seated at table.  The “old goat” was Frideric Bardolf, who had a long history of successful business in Stonebridge, often using money borrowed from Ody Dans.  Ada Bardolf, Frideric’s wife, sat on Dans’s left, between the host and her husband.  Their son, Richart, sat on Master Bardolf’s left, and his friend, Reynald Henriet, was next to him.  Reynald had long fingers and pale yellow hair, which looked almost white against his dark green tunic.  He seemed almost delicate next to the sturdier Richart.  On the other side of the table, Milo was seated at Dans’s right, with Avery Doin next, and the young couple, Adelgar and Tilde Gyricson, on Avery’s right.  During the greeting and seating, Inga had appeared and led Eádulf away to eat in the kitchen with the servants.
            The servants at the kitchen door were ready to begin, but Ody Dans sat with templed hands, elbows on the table, waiting.  An empty place setting remained at the opposite end of the table.  At last the door on the east wall opened, and Derian Chapman came in.  He walked stiffly, as if his knees were hurting from kneeling on the deck.  His eyes flitted from the glass wall to the floor, not acknowledging anyone at the table.  When he finally stood by the empty chair Derian raised his eyes to his uncle at the table’s head.  He tugged on his ear and made a hesitant gesture toward the plate and cup before him.
            “Please sit, Derian,” said Ody Dans.  “You belong here.”  The nephew acknowledged his uncle’s invitation with a slight bow before seating himself.
            Aisly passed along the table, dispensing a loaf of black bread for each pair of diners.  Inga and Eda followed, serving roast chicken and rice in a spicy sauce.  The servers started with Master Dans and worked their way toward the foot of the table.  Inga also served a yellowish wine that sparkled in crystal goblets.
            Frideric Bardolf sliced his loaf into two.  Handing half to his wife, he leaned over her lap toward Ody Dans.  “And why would Derian doubt his place at your table?”  His voice was light, but quiet, as if there were a joke to be shared only with the host.  It was the very thing Milo wanted to ask.
            Ody Dans spread butter on a bit of bread.  “I had to explain some matters of business to my nephew today.”  Dans spoke loudly enough for all to hear.  “He undertook a job for me, and he succeeded.”  The uncle nodded to his nephew at the foot of the table.  “But he foolishly endangered the whole project by not guarding his tongue—and that after I had warned him of the necessity of discretion.  In fact, I learned today that Derian’s success must be attributed, to a large degree, to Sir Milo Mortane, who sits to my right.”
            “How interesting,” said Ada Bardolf.  “And what was this project?  Or is it still secret?”
            The host was chewing bread, and he took another bite, leaving the question in the air.  Milo thought: Ody Dans is a showman.  He wants every ear and eye on him.  He doesn’t resent passersby on the bridge at all; he wants their envy.
            “I was the project,” said Avery Doin. 
            Tilde Gyricson swiveled her head to look at the young man beside her.  “I don’t understand.” 
            “It’s a bit complicated.”  Avery smiled ruefully.  “My father, Aethelred Doin, is a cloth merchant in Down’s End.  Quite successful, really.  He sells fine wools, linens, and silks to the lords and ladies of castles all over Tarquint—and to clients in the free cities, including some of Stonebridge’s richest citizens.
            “And so, as you might expect, I have the reputation of being the spoiled son of rich man, a dandy, a good-for-nothing, a mere clotheshorse.  Of course, some people might think this of me whether I deserved it or not.  Such people do not understand the importance of a clotheshorse.  My father can whisper to some fine lady—while we are visiting a castle and I have been dancing with the lady and she can remember the feel of my tunic—imagine wearing a kirtle of the same fabric.  I don’t want to be immodest, but when he says that, they can hardly keep their eyes off me.”
            Everyone laughed.  Ada Bardolf said, “But you haven’t yet said what Ody’s project was or what role you played in it.”
            Avery inclined his head and held up a finger.  “I was coming to that.  There is a certain banker in Down’s End, who remains nameless in this account.”
            “To hell with that,” said Ody Dans cheerfully.  “His name is Eulard Barnet.”
            Again Avery dipped his head.  “As you wish.  I had something of a disagreement with the daughter of Master Eulard.  This daughter—I do not wish to offend, Lady Ada, but she actually shares your name—Ada Barnet is perhaps a year or two older than me.  One night, when we had been drinking a bit more than we should, Ada declared to me that she owned a gown of finer quality than any tunic in my closet.  I disagreed.  We made a wager to be decided in the following way: we went home, dressed in our favorite clothes, and met at the home of a friend of ours, who is famous for parties that last all night.  Many of our friends were there, dancing and playing charades.  We demanded of the people at the party that they judge between Ada’s gown and my tunic.  Naturally, my tunic won the vote easily.  And then, in accord with our wager, Ada removed her gown, much to the delight of the men present, and gave it to me.
            “Unfortunately, there was one young man present that night who did not appreciate seeing Ada lose her dress.  Hue Barnet, her brother, immediately challenged me to a duel.  He was drunk.  I pushed him away; some say I struck him.  He fell and hit his head on a chair.  He died two days later.”
            Around the table, smiles turned to dismay.  “How terrible!” said Tilde Gyricson.
            Avery shrugged.  “One less fool in the world.  Hue Barnet really was a ne’er do well.  His sister despised him.  But his father, Eulard, wanted my head in a noose.  And there were some at the party who would say I struck Hue after I had used some unpleasant words to describe his father and mother.  I don’t remember saying such things, but as testimony in a trial, such words are dangerous.
            “To bring this long story to its end: my father, who has done business with Master Ody Dans before, contacted him and asked for help.  Six days ago, I was tucked very neatly into a secret compartment of a wool wagon.  Only Derian and the driver knew about me.  And now I’m here.”
            “Welcome to Stonebridge, then,” said Frideric Bardolf.  He held up a wine glass.  “May your sojourn in our city be pleasant.”  Others joined in the salute; Milo carefully took only a sip.
            “Please explain the part played by Milo Mortane,” said Lady Bardolf.
            Avery did not answer this request.  Instead his gaze turned first to Derian Chapman at the foot of the table, then to Ody Dans at the head.  Dans did not speak, but raised his white eyebrows and stared at his nephew.
            Derian took a deep breath.  “As Uncle Ody said, I was not as careful about Avery’s situation as I should have been.  I said nothing, of course, about the escapee in Win Modig’s wagon.  But I spoke too freely of my concerns about highwaymen.  I asked Sheriff Rage Hildebeorht for an escort, but he said my guard—I had hired a Stonebridge man named Dreng Tredan—would be sufficient to protect a load of wool.  Well . . . I was concerned for my passenger, not the wool, but I couldn’t tell anyone.  Unfortunately, clever people correctly interpreted my over-concern for my wool as marking a secret. Fortunately for Avery and me, Milo Mortane was one of them.
            “Trouble caught up with us on the road.  As soon as Avery went missing, Eulard Barnet sent men searching for him, and he may have guessed our method of escape.  One of these men hired local boys to attack us at River House.  The boys went after our horses, while Eulard Barnet’s man shot fire arrows at the wagons.  Things might have gone ill indeed, but Milo rode the archer down and killed him in the night.”
            Reynald Henriet clapped his hands.  “Well done, Sir Milo!”
            “Indeed,” said Ody Dans.  He held up his wine glass.  “We owe you thanks.  Perhaps this sup will be a start of repayment.”

Copyright © 2013 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.

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