Thursday, May 30, 2013

Castles 53

53. At Castle Inter Lucus

            Isen: “Thank you.  The Lord Martin thanks you all for coming.  We hope you enjoyed the party.  Of course I did!  I thought you danced beautifully, but I wasn’t one of the judges.  Yes, you may keep them; Lord Martin wants everyone to have a token of the party.”
            Ora: “In the castle, naturally.  Castle lords have to sleep like everyone else!  Lord Martin will come out and greet folk later this morning, if they can stay.  No.  He won’t be offended; he knows very well that people have a long walk today, and with young children!  Fair well!”
            Tired as they were, Isen and Ora wandered among the tents and campfires of the party guests exuding cheerfulness.  The boy, Alf Saeric, accompanied Ora, carrying a cloth bag with bandaged hands.  The bag contained polished disks of walnut wood, about the size of a thumbnail but perfectly round.  Alf extended the bag to young and old alike.  Since Alf kept silent, Ora spoke for him: “Yes.  Please take one.  Lord Martin made them.  Castle magic, of course!”
            Greeters and guests alike lived in a haze of euphoria from the night before.              The food!  The beer and wine!  Neighbors and friends not seen since last fall!  Music and dancing!  The singing!  The hilarious stories told by Baldric Forrest (who would have guessed he could be so funny?), and the even sillier stories of Viradecthis Ablendan!  And that which no one could have expected: the lights!
            Ora and Caelin had some small notion of what Inter Lucus might do, unlike the others.            No, she thought, that’s like saying a cup of water is like East Lake.  Some things are beyond imagining.  A person has to see them.
            A thousand people (Caelin said more) came to Lord Martin’s party.  The crowd included Eadmar, the priest from Down’s End, who sat with his back against a tree just outside Inter Lucus property.  Lord Martin learned later, from Caadde Bycwine, that Rothulf Saeric was present too, keeping himself mostly out of sight in the woods east of the castle.  (Caadde brought three young goats to the party, wearing sturdy collars, and he tied their leads to trees.  As Caadde hoped, he sold the goats before he left in the morning.  But with so many folk nearby, Caadde had to watch the animals diligently, so he noticed Rothulf hiding.)
            People came from village Inter Lucus, from Senerham, from the forests north of the castle, and from outlying farms.  They brought tents or blankets, children, dogs, food and drink, and considerable wariness and skepticism.  Lord Martin’s kindness and generosity eased their wariness; and when the singing and dancing started they gave themselves over to enjoyment.  As to skepticism, when darkness fell Lord Martin entered Inter Lucus and proved to everyone’s satisfaction that he was indeed lord of the castle.  All the folk between the lakes who did not come would spend the rest of the summer asking their neighbors exactly what they witnessed, because even from their farms and homes they saw something.
            It started with a moonrise in the castle wall.  Not a real moon, of course, but first moonrise as it would look to an eagle: clear and swift.  Then came a sunrise; like the real sun, too bright to look at directly—mothers shielded their children’s eyes.  In an instant, the image of the sun winked out; more than one man cried out in surprise.  Bands of colored light, resembling a rainbow, appeared in the wall; and then the colors got brighter and the light projected onto the crowd, making some tents red and others green.  The rainbow colors united into a single white light that narrowed and brightened and pointed here and there.  (“Damn unnerving, it was,” said Alfwald Redwine more than once, about having the light point at him.  But since Alfwald was one of only three people who were spotlighted, he regarded it as a badge of honor.)
            The white light made a bright circle on the dense firs and pines west of the castle.  Then colored dots began chasing each other in the white circle: blue, red, yellow, green.  The white background light faded out, and the colored dots now chased each other with the forest as background on three sides of the castle.  The colored lights disappeared, and there was a minute of dark; some folk began to think the show was over.  Then five separate beams of white light sprang up into the night, like pillars of ice that melted into each other high above the tallest trees.  The white pillars shaded slowly into yellow, then blue and green.
            The viewers, seated on blankets or logs, were quiet at first.  But as one wonder followed another, they began to applaud each new marvel.  Collective “oohs” and “ahs” greeted the white pillars.  When the colored dots chased each other, folk pointed them out to their neighbors.  When they thought they could not be further surprised, the castle wall pictured an explosion of red and yellow dots—and a tremendous roar accompanied the light, such that many feared a bomb had been set off.
            The final part of the show introduced music.  It wasn’t a whole song; just four notes (or three notes, with one repeated).  With the first note, a yellow rectangle of light appeared halfway up the left side of the wall.  With the second note, a higher tone than the first, a red rectangle shone a bit to the right and higher in the wall.  The third note repeated the first, with the yellow light reappearing, at the same height as the first note but further to the right.  The fourth note was lower, and a rectangle of blue light shone near the bottom of the wall on the far right.  Yellow, red, yellow, blue: the colors repeated in sequence as the notes sounded, running from left to right, over and over.  The music went faster and slower; sometimes louder, sometimes quieter.  The last repetition was slow, majestic, and very loud.  The last long note swelled louder still, and then cut off suddenly, with the light vanishing at the same moment.  The people of Inter Lucus and Senerham stood and cheered in the dark.
            Sleep came quickly for a few, but very slowly for many.  First and second moonrise found groups of men and women talking in quiet voices around the tents.  Children sat by fathers or mothers or lay on the grass, awed into silence.  No one doubted that Martin Cedarborne was lord of Inter Lucus.  Life between the lakes would certainly change, they agreed; most were hopeful that it would change for the better.
            People rose from their blankets in morning sunlight slanting down over the trees.  For people between the lakes, this was late rising indeed.  They still felt the awe and elation of the previous night, but the work of farm, forest, kitchen, and shop required their attention.  They made quick breakfasts of leftover bread and meats, washing them down with the remaining beer.  Isen, Ora and Alf moved among the people, thanking folk for coming and making sure everyone had a “wooden nickel.”             
            (Lord Martin had discovered how to use castle magic to produce the walnut disks in the west wing of Inter Lucus.  He was immensely pleased with this new capability, and for some reason he laughed heartily when he called them “wooden nickels.”  Ora had no idea what a nickel was, and she didn’t think Caelin or Isen knew either.)
            Lord Martin came out from the castle in mid-morning.  Nine tenths of the crowd had departed, but the lord graciously greeted everyone who stayed behind.  More than one guest assured Lord Martin that he would bring hidgield at harvest time.  They wish they had brought early gifts like Alfwald and Fridiswid Redwine or Everwin and Osulf Idan, thought Ora.  Now that they have seen Martin’s power, they want to curry his favor.

            By late morning, Marty had said farewell to all but one family.  Though he slept several hours, he still felt drained from the efforts of the night.  Experience in the weeks since he arrived on Two Moons had taught him that controlling Inter Lucus took energy, leaving him slightly tired.  But he had never before commanded the castle for more than ten minutes continuously.  The light show had lasted more than an hour, and when the last note ended he was exhausted.  Now, with another summer day heating up, Marty welcomed the thought of a quiet afternoon.
            The remaining guests were Attor Woodman and family.  Attor had brought Eacnung and her children to the castle along with a wagonload of thick pine planks.  Marty greeted the family with Ora at his side.
            “Fair morning, Attor.  And to you, Eacnung.”  Marty had been introduced to the woodman’s wife the afternoon before.  “Am I right to think this lumber is meant for the doors of Inter Lucus?”
            “Aye, Lord Martin.”  Attor inclined his head, as did Eacnung.  Aethulwulf, seeing his parents acknowledge Marty, also bowed.  All three looked steadily at Marty, averting their eyes from Ora.  Attor said, “It’s the best of the forest: straight-grained, cured pine with no knots, the heartwood of great trees.”
            “Very good.  Can your horse pull the wagon up to the castle?”
            Attor eyed the slope.  “We’ll see.  Might have to push.”
            Marty touched Ora’s elbow.  “I think Isen went inside.  Fetch him out here.  We may need a strong body.”
            When Ora was out of earshot, Marty addressed Attor and Eacnung.  “Attor and Eacnung, listen carefully.  You treated Ora shamefully by believing your son’s lie about her.  Perhaps you feel guilt.  If so, you should ask Ora to forgive you; I believe she would.  Perhaps you fear that I will punish you.  I will not.  Ora is my honorable servant.  You are her family.  You ought to be my friends.”
            Attor said, “Aethulwulf finally told me the truth the day you came to Penrict’s smithy.  I am sorry I did not believe Ora.”
            “You know what to do then.”

            Bley was hitched to the lumber wagon.  On the steepest part of the slope, Isen, Caelin, Attor, and Aethulwulf pushed from behind while Ora gently encouraged Bley to pull harder.  Marty offered to help with pushing, but Attor and Isen protested that it was not a fit task for a lord.  Too spent to argue, Marty acquiesced to this judgment, and the lumber wagon mounted the hill without him.  Marty followed the wagon to the castle door with Eacnung and her younger children.
            The wagon came to a stop near the west door to the great hall.  Marty had an idea. “Caelin, can you whip up a lunch for ten?”
            “Aye, my lord.  It will take but half an hour.  The fridge has leftovers.”
            “Make it so.  I want Attor and his family to join us.  Isen and Aethulwulf can unload the wagon in that much time.  Meanwhile, Alf and I will take Eacnung, Rand, and Rheda inside Inter Lucus.  Would you like to see the great hall, Rand?”
            The boy’s eyes went round.  “Aye, my lord.”
            Ora asked, “What shall I do, my lord?”
            Marty looked from Rand to his half-sister, his gefeadernes, as if this were an afterthought rather than the whole point.  “Oh, ah.  Ora.  Why don’t you take Attor outside Inter Lucus, around to the east door?  After all, this lumber is supposed to supply doors east and west.  And you can show him where the path is growing.”
            “Very well, my lord.”
            Ora did not see the look between her father and Marty, nor Attor’s slight nod.

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


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Castles 52

52. In Stonebridge

            The disastrous result of the Bene raid shook the political status quo in Stonebridge, but not in the way Milo would have expected.  27 sheriffs and under-sheriffs were killed at Gaudy’s Tavern.  Milo, Hrodgar, and Derian escaped through a tunnel that led from the cellar to the bank of the River Blide.  Of the others, only two fought their way through the horde of thugs surrounding the tavern.  The loss reduced the city’s armed force by more than a third.  Though it was clear that the catastrophe was attributable to Osred Tondbert’s incompetence, the Stonebridge Assembly made no move against him.  In spite of the calamity, no thrill of fear touched the great houses of Stonebridge; like Ody Dans, the truly rich relied on their own armsmen and their stonewalls for security. 
            But lesser powers in the city were alarmed.  The middle merchants and artisans, men and women who lived in apartments above their shops and who could not afford private guards—weavers, smiths, candle makers, cobblers, dyers, carpenters, butchers, and many others like them—these folk looked to sheriffs for safety.  The middle people had little influence in the Assembly, but they needed an effective City Guard.
            If the full truth were known, most of the residents of the Bene Quarter were also dismayed by the triumph of the Falcons.  (No one could say how, but within a day the whole Bene knew, and a day later the whole city knew, that the Falcon chief Ifing Redhair had masterminded the slaughter of the sheriffs.  The Hawks had nothing to do with it.)  Men like Ody Dans might believe that the Bene Quarter housed none but thieves, pickpockets, and murderers; but in reality most of the city’s poor were peaceful folk who lived in terror of Falcons and Hawks.  Such people might fear the City Guard, but they feared its destruction more.
            To an even greater extent than the middle merchants and the poor people, the surviving residents of the Citadel despaired over Tondbert.  Sheriffs and under-sheriffs could only imagine what foolish command Tondbert would give next.  But they could not openly defy their commander for fear of punishment, and they had no legal power to remove him.  One or two considered deserting the Guard, but that meant leaving Stonebridge for an uncertain life in the countryside.  For poor men, the City Guard still provided a reasonable living—unless Tondbert’s stupidity should get them killed.
            Milo Mortane knew almost nothing of the hurricane of debate raging behind closed doors in Stonebridge.  The person one would expect to inform him, Derian Chapman, had disappeared.  After Milo, Derian and Hrodgar had crawled through the tunnel to the riverside, they eluded the Falcon men by following the river, and then ran a mile to the safety of the Citadel. But when morning came, Derian had gone, and Milo did not find him at The Spray.
            Milo and Eádulf stayed five more nights at Ody Dans’s estate.  Milo saw postboys arrive at The Spray, wait a while outside Dans’s office, and then hurry away, bearing Dans’s replies to the messages he had received.  Milo remembered what Derian had said about Tondbert holding damning information about members of the Assembly, and he wondered whether the Commander of the Guard had access to the letters flying between the great houses.
            During these days Milo never saw Tilde Gyricson.  He knew she was somewhere in The Spray, paying her husband’s debt with two weeks of service to Ody Dans.  But Dans said nothing about her, and the servants behaved as if nothing had changed.  Avery Doin often shared meals with Milo and Eádulf, but he hadn’t seen Tilde since the dinner party.  Milo wanted to ask Derian Chapman about Tilde, but neither Ingwald Freeman nor any of Ody Dans’s other armsmen would say where Derian had gone.
            In a private moment, Avery told Milo that he felt frightened by The Spray.  The stone house was practically a palace, but it might also have been a prison.  Dans’s armsmen politely but firmly refused to let Avery leave.  Since the dinner party, Avery had no more contact with Master Dans than Milo: an occasional glimpse or nod.  Master Dans spent hour after hour in his office.  Milo wondered what the man did there when he wasn’t writing missives to be delivered by postboys.
            Avery was imprisoned, but not Milo.  He walked to the Citadel of the Guard each day, taking a different route each time so he could learn Stonebridge’s streets.  None of the remaining sheriffs or under-sheriffs could say where Derian Chapman had gone.  They had no interest in Chapman anyway; he was just another stay-at-home under-sheriff.  The residents of the Citadel had only one matter—Tondbert—on their minds, but this was a matter they could not safely discuss.  The Commander had informers in the ranks, and one could not be sure who they were.  Milo read fear and uncertainty on every face.  If distrust were a weapon, this “Citadel” would be the greatest fortress in the world; since it isn’t, these men might as well be ghosts.
            On the sixth day after Ody Dans’s dinner party, Inga gave Milo a written note.

Sir Milo Mortane,

            It has been a pleasure to have you as guest at The Spray these past days. And I am aware that you have been recovering from a rather harrowing experience in your service to Stonebridge.  Nevertheless, for reasons I am not at liberty to disclose, I must ask you to vacate my house forthwith.  As an under-sheriff of the city, you will undoubtedly find welcome in the Citadel of the Guard.

Ody Dans

            Eádulf was delighted to take leave of the stone mansion and quickly packed their few possessions (mostly Milo’s armor) on their horses.  “Begging your pardon, sir,” he said, “I don’t think it’s healthy for the beasts to be cooped up here.  Brownie and Blackie need exercise.  Can we take them out o’ the city, give ’em a decent run?”
            “I’m sure we will, Eádulf.  Some day.  For the present, though, I must seek my fortune in Stonebridge.  I’m an under-sheriff of the city, which means I get a room and some meals.  Beyond that, I don’t know.”
            Eádulf’s face seemed sad, which irritated Milo.  By the gods, Eádulf! What’s wrong with you? Surely even you can see there are more important things than horses.
            The rules of the City Guard did not allow an under-sheriff to have a squire.  “But,” said Commander Tondbert, winking to Eádulf, “the Citadel has a stable with plenty of room for more horses.  And the stable master could use an assistant.  I can offer you no pay, but as a servant to the City Guard you would be entitled to a room and meals in the Citadel.  And it’s possible”—winking again—“with so many rooms available, you might find one next to Sir Milo’s.”
            Given the reason for the many empty rooms, Milo despised Tondbert for his attempt at humor.  But he managed to hide his displeasure behind a smile, and he and Eádulf moved into adjoining rooms.           

            Milo learned that the Stonebridge Guard counted 48 surviving sheriffs and under-sheriffs, including himself, after the raid in the Bene Quarter.  Nineteen of these were wealthy stay-at-home men, resented and mistrusted by the Citadel men.  Commander Tondbert sent letters to the stay-at-homes, urgently asking that they report daily for duty.  A few of them did.  Since Commander Tondbert, Assistant Commander Trymian Wallis, the cook, and the stable master spent most of their time in the Citadel, the day-to-day work of patrolling Stonebridge’s streets fell to the remaining 24 Guardsmen.
            Since Milo had a horse, he was paired with a mounted sheriff, Felix Abrecan; their typical morning ride led them through the weavers’ district.  Milo recognized the warehouse where Derian Chapman had brought his wagons of wool, but he saw no sign of Win Modig or Oswy Wodens.  In the afternoon, they joined with two other mounted sheriffs to ride through the Bene Quarter, but only on the main avenues; they avoided the crowded warren of wooden buildings in between.  A knight on horse would be too easy a target in the alleys.
            Besides gaining a working knowledge of Stonebridge’s streets, merchants, and residences, Milo met all the sheriffs and under-sheriffs living in the Citadel.  They regarded him with suspicion, he knew; he had joined them the day of the slaughter at Gaudy’s Tavern.  Milo placed no trust in them either, and he ordered Eádulf to say as little as possible about their past.  “Listen all the time, Eádulf,” he said.  “Find out where a man came from and why he joined the Guard.  Who does he trust, if anyone?  Is there any among them I can trust?  Listen; don’t talk.”
            Posters went up in Stonebridge, inviting men to join the City Guard.  A few desperate persons responded.  One early morning, while saddling their horses, Milo and Felix Abrecan watched Trymian Wallis training three recruits in the central courtyard of the Citadel.  One by one, he had the new men practice sword fighting with wooden staves against Bryce Dalston, a veteran under-sheriff.  Two young recruits struggled.  They weren’t strong, and they weren’t quick enough to compensate for their lack of strength.  Bryce feinted, brushed aside their staves, and hit them on their padded training jerkins.  Bryce’s blows carried sting; the youngsters were reduced to cowering beneath their wooden swords to protect their heads.  Meanwhile, Trymian Wallis berated the recruits and ordered Bryce to hit them harder.
            “Doesn’t look good, does it?” whispered Felix Abrecan.  “I wouldn’t worry.  Once they’ve had solid food for a while, they’ll get stronger.”
            The third recruit was worse.  He was an older man, about thirty.  Gangly, thin, and slow; he rarely moved his stave before Bryce hit him.  Milo had seen this before, at home at Hyacintho Flumen.  A farmer’s son had asked Hereward Mortane to make him a soldier, but when Lord Mortane threw apples to the boy he couldn’t catch them.  The man can’t see properly.  He must be desperate indeed to attempt to join the Guard.
            After three times knocking the man’s stave from his hand and tapping him lightly with his own, Bryce Dalston turned toward Trymian Wallis.  “Some men can’t be soldiers,” he said.
            “By the gods, this one can.”  Wallis grabbed Dalston’s stave and waddled toward the recruit.  “What’s your name, coward?”
            “Geoffrey Bar, sir.”  The recruit had picked up his stave.
            “Defend yourself, Bar!”  Trymian Wallis swung wildly, a sweeping roundhouse blow.  A reasonably trained soldier would have stepped inside the stroke and spitted the attacker.  But Geoffrey Bar hardly moved.  The stave clouted him on the ear with Wallis’s considerable weight behind it.  The recruit fell like a sack of grain dropped from a wagon.
            Milo and Felix rushed to the fallen man.  Bryce Dalston seized Wallis’s arm and spun him around.  “Damn you!  His eyes were bad!  Some men can’t fight!”
            The two younger recruits were staring round-eyed at the fallen man.  After a moment’s inspection, Felix looked up.  “He’s dead.”
            Wallis shook his arm free of Dalston’s grip.  “If he had bad eyes, he shouldn’t have applied to the Guard.”  He pointed at the other recruits.  “You there!  Pay attention to what you see.  We’re not playing at being soldiers here.  Tomorrow you’ll train with sheriff Dalston again, and I want to see improvement.”  Wallis turned to Felix and Milo, still kneeling by the dead man.  “Pack him up on one of your horses; take him to the cemetery.  Go through his clothes.  If you find anything of value, it’s yours.”
            Wallis threw Dalston’s stave to the ground and walked away, his breath rasping from the effort expended in killing a defenseless man.  Milo read impotent rage in Felix’s eyes as they lifted Bar’s body onto Felix’s horse.  To Milo’s surprise, Felix patted the pockets of Bar’s clothes.  “What are you doing?” Milo asked.
            Felix’s face was hard.  “The grave diggers will take anything they find.  I might as well beat them to it.”  A minute later: “Nothing.  Grave diggers can have his clothes if they want them.”
            With a body to dispose of, Milo and Felix rode to an unfamiliar part of Stonebridge.  The pauper’s burial field lay close to the place where River Blide and River Broganéa joined to make the Betlicéa.  They unloaded Geoffrey Bar’s body in a small stone building.  A gap-toothed woman had them lay him on a sturdy wooden table.  He would be in the ground before the end of the day, she said.  And without any embarrassment or hesitation she began pulling off his boots.

            Riding toward the weavers’ district, Felix and Milo tried to stick to the shade of the buildings they passed; the day was already hot.  A heat haze obscured the hills surrounding Stonebridge while directly overhead the summer sky was a cloudless blue dome.  The city had numerous water-troughs for horses, fed by canals that brought water from the River Blide upstream.  Milo and Felix stopped at one of these to let their animals drink, and they splashed the backs of their necks. 
            Many times, merchants and artisans of all sorts had greeted them with friendly waves.  Milo remarked about this to Felix: was the City Guard really that popular?
            Felix dipped a cloth in the water and rubbed the sweat from his face.  “Hard to say.  Most days, folk keep their minds on their own business.  They want a sheriff only when somethin’ bad happens.  Sometimes they fear us.  But now they’re thinkin’: The Falcons might kill the whole Guard.  Nobody wants to live with Falcons or Hawks runnin’ things.”
         After watering the horses, their route took them across River Broganéa.  On the arched bridge over the Broganéa they had to dismount and crowd against the bridge’s stone parapet to let a heavily loaded wagon pass; its wheels were enclosed by iron bands that squeaked on the timbered roadbed of the bridge.  As the wagon crept past them, Milo looked briefly to the other side of the bridge.  A black-haired woman was trying to pull herself up the parapet.  Milo could only see the woman’s back, but her height and hair color looked familiar—leaving Blackie, he dashed across the roadway to her side.
            The woman wore a black kirtle that interfered with her climb onto the stone railing.  Milo caught her arm, and the head turned.  It was Tilde Gyricson: the milky skin had paled from too little sun, but the perfectly shaped face was the same.
            He knew instantly what she intended.  The Broganéa in early summer ran swiftly enough to carry all but the strongest swimmers downstream to the falls of the Betlicéa. “Please don’t,” he said.
            “Milo Mortane!  Why shouldn’t I?  I’ve paid Gar’s debt, so he’s a free man.  Don’t ask me to go back to him.”
            Milo pulled Tilde away from the parapet.  “I understand.  But there are other options.”
            Tilde laughed bitterly.  “Can you think of one?  Other than Madame Strong’s house?  I won’t go there either.”
            Felix Abrecan had come to their side, holding reins to the horses.  Passersby were pushing around them.  Voices said, “Get out of the way!  Don’t block the bridge!’
              Felix ignored the voices, keeping a firm grip on the reins.  “Who is this, Sir Milo?”
            “An old friend of mine,” Milo said.  “Tilde Freewoman.  Tilde, this is Felix Abrecan, a sheriff of Stonebridge.  You may not know it, Tilde, but I am an under-sheriff myself.”
            “Fair morning, Sheriff Felix.”  Tilde’s voice was blank.
            “Freewoman?”  Felix raised an eyebrow.
            “Aye,” said Milo.  “We were just discussing where a newcomer to Stonebridge, a woman, might find safe lodging.  The truth is, my friend, Tilde had almost despaired of finding a place in Stonebridge.  What do you think?  Surely, we should help her if we can.”
            Tilde met Felix’s gaze with a tremulous smile.  “I would appreciate help.  But I cannot pay for it—in any way.”
            Felix inclined his head.  “I think I know a place.”

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

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Castles 51

51. In Stonebridge

            The morning after the dinner party, Ody Dans summoned Milo to his office.  He told him to raise his right hand and swear by all gods that he would defend the laws of Stonebridge.  “That makes you an under-sheriff while you are in the city and a Captain of the Guard if and when Stonebridge raises an army.”  Dans treated the matter as unimportant; he never took his eyes from a contract on his desk.  Not sure what to do next, Milo waited.  After several seconds, Dans looked up.  “What?”
            “You have made me an officer of Stonebridge,” said Milo.  “But I don’t know what that entails.  What are my duties, and where do I perform them?”
             Dans stroked his white beard.  “I’m sure the sheriffs are doing whatever they need to do to protect the laws of Stonebridge.  From what I’ve heard, I’d wager that means yet another pass through the Bene Quarter.  In my opinion, they should burn the whole place.  Too many people, too much filth, and too much laziness: that’s the Bene for you.  Instead, the sheriffs will sweep through, catch a few thieves and a murderer or two, and congratulate themselves.”  Ody Dans shook his head.  “Almost pointless, really.”
            Milo inclined his head.  “Aye.  But what am I to do?”
            “Oh!” When Dans smiled, his face seemed cherubically innocent.  “I don’t know.  Ask Derian.  Technically, he is also an under-sheriff.  He can tell you where to find Commander Tondbert.”  Dans returned his attention to the parchment on his desk.  He waved Milo out of his office.

            With directions from Inga, Milo found Derian Chapman sitting on his bed and suffering from the after effects of too much wine.  He told Derian that Ody Dans had made him an under-sheriff.
            “Congratulations.”  Derian stood, shakily, and pressed fingers against his temples.  He belched.
            “Who is Commander Tondbert?  Where do I find him?”
            Derian shielded his eyes against daylight and motioned toward the window.  Milo stepped across the room to pull a curtain closed.  Derian held his face in his hands, rubbing his eyes.  “Thanks.  Gods, my head hurts.”
            “You shouldn’t drink so much.  Commander Tondbert?”
            Derian shed his nightclothes and began searching a closet for a clean tunic. “Osred Tondbert is Commander General of the Stonebridge Guard.  He constantly warns the Assembly that the Guard is too small.  He’s right.  But Tondbert is both cruel and incompetent, two good reasons for the Assembly to refuse his pleas for more men.”
            Milo frowned.  “The Assembly should remove him from office.”
             Derian pulled a linen tunic over his head and grimaced at the touch of cloth on his face.  “Perhaps they should.  But they can’t.  Tondbert has enough evidence, both witnesses and documents, to hang half the men of the Assembly.  Including my dear uncle.”
            Milo raised an eyebrow.  Derian rubbed his eyes again.  “You don’t suppose it is actually legal in Stonebridge to throw your debtors into the Betlicéa, do you?  Or to force their wives to work off debts on a whore’s bed?  Uncle Ody is a very rich and powerful man, and he does whatever he likes in his own house, yet even he dares not speak publicly against Osred Tondbert.”
            Milo thought: The next challenge, then.  Keep on your guard, Milo.  “I suppose I must go meet Commander Tondbert.”
            “Aye.”  Derian tightened a belt around his outer tunic.  “And I will accompany you.  We under-sheriffs are free to leave the city on private business, but we must report in when we return.  But I need a bath and some breakfast first.”

            To Milo’s surprise, the Stonebridge Guard did not permit an under-sheriff the service of a squire inside the city.  (When the Guard marched outside the city, this rule did not apply.)  Milo told Eádulf to stay on the grounds of Ody Dans’s estate while he and Derian met with the Commander of the Guard. Eádulf assented willingly when told he might spend the day in the stables, attending to Brownie and Blackie and assisting Dans’s stable boy.
            The Stonebridge Guard Citadel was a squat brick building, distinguished from most of the other large buildings in Stonebridge mostly by its drabness.  The bricks were brown, but not uniformly so; the Citadel looked dirty no matter how frequently it was washed or how fiercely it might rain.  Two stories tall, it looked shorter because it was so wide and long.  The upper floor had windows, but they were all small and barred.  Visitors climbed three very broad stone steps from the boulevard to two massive wood doors.  A guard admitted them after Derian introduced Milo as a newly made under-sheriff.
            They passed through an arched corridor to a courtyard in the center of the Citadel, paved with flagstones and open to the sky.  Stone columns supported a roofed walk on three sides of the courtyard; the Citadel stable and armory opened off the fourth side.  Milo and Derian found sixty sheriffs and under-sheriffs assembled; a red-faced fat man with huge earlobes berated them for arriving late and told them to form up.  “Assistant Commander Trymian Wallis,” said Derian, quietly, so that only Milo could hear.  Milo and Derian quickly lined up with the other men.  Milo could hardly imagine a less military-looking man than the Assistant Commander; Wallis was reduced to panting by the slight exercise of walking around the sheriffs and under-sheriffs while shouting insults.
            Presently, a very ordinary looking man—medium height, sandy hair, and a receding chin—emerged from a Citadel door and came into the courtyard.  “Tondbert,” whispered Derian.  Assistant Commander Wallis ceased shouting; his wheezing breath could still be heard.
            “Fair morning, men!”  The commander’s booming bass voice seemed incongruous, almost funny, coming from such an unimposing figure.  He wore an oiled leather jerkin over his tunic.  “We’ve good intelligence today, four different reports of a murder last night in the Bene.  I want you all back here tonight, before dusk.  We move in pairs after nightfall.”  The Commander’s posture suggested that he, at least, was more a soldier than Wallis.  He stood straight-backed with his feet slightly apart and his hands on his hips.
            Someone from Milo’s left spoke up.  “Excuse me, sir.  Shouldn’t we try to catch the killer while it is day?”
            “Oh, no,” said Commander Tondbert, almost laughing.  He walked—strutted—back and forth while he talked.  “This was a revenge killing.  It’s more of the ‘Falcons’ and the ‘Hawks.’  In my opinion, the more they kill each other the better.  But we’ve heard a pretty clear word that Ifing, that’s the Falcons’ chief, and Leanberth, the chief of the Hawks, will meet tonight.  They want a truce, apparently.  With any luck, we’ll take them both.”
            Another voice asked, “Do we know the place?”
            Tondbert spat.  I do.  I’m sure you understand why I don’t tell you.  Hm?  We don’t want the birds to get an early word, now do we?  Report at dusk.  Dismissed!”

            Derian’s hangover had been much relieved by bath and breakfast.  He was almost cheerful as Assistant Commander Wallis entered Milo’s name to the roster of under-sheriffs.  With this formality out of the way, they headed back to Ody Dans’s estate.  As they walked, Derian noticed Milo’s unease.  “Something’s bothering you, Sir Milo.”
            “Aye.  Commander Tondbert disdains his men.  He as much as announces that he can’t trust them to keep a secret, but then he lets them disperse across the city.  These brigands—Ifing and Leanberth—already know where and when they plan to meet.  What they don’t know is that the sheriffs plan to take them at a certain time.  But by releasing his men, Tondbert allows any one of them to spread that knowledge.  It makes no sense.”
            “Damn!  I told you he was incompetent, but I didn’t realize how right I was.”  Derian wiped his brow.  “I think this will be a good night not to report for duty.  Morning raids in the Bene are better anyway; most of the sots are still asleep.”
            Milo seized Derian’s arm and thrust him against the wall of a building.  He kneed him hard between the legs, and Derian gasped.  Passersby on the street stopped to stare at the confrontation.  Milo leaned in close, his muscled body forcing Derian back, the hilt of his short sword pressing against Derian’s stomach.  He whispered in the young businessman’s ear.  “You are an under-sheriff of Stonebridge.  You will not embarrass your uncle or endanger me through cowardice.  Since I left home I’ve killed three men and sent another to the gallows.  Believe me, Derian, you want to be my friend.”
            Milo released his hold and stepped back.  Derian staggered but did not fall.  His face had drained of blood.
            Two women in fine clothes stood only a few feet away, their eyes wide in shock.  One of them spoke in a squeak.  “Master Chapman, are you all right?”
            Damn my luck.  They recognize him.
            Derian coughed and took a deep breath.  “Everything is fine, Lady Gunnara.  I introduce Milo Mortane.  He is a knight, and my friend.”
            “Fair morning, Sir Mortane,” said the lady.  She looked hastily away when Milo looked at her.  She’s afraid of me.
            “Fair morning, Lady Gunnara.”  Something caught in Milo’s throat, and his words rasped like sandpaper.  Gunnara’s companion tugged at her arm, and the women hurried away.
            Milo and Derian resumed their progress toward The Spray, albeit somewhat more slowly.  Derian coughed again.  “I have no real experience at fighting, Sir Milo.  I fear that with me at your side, you will indeed be in danger.  The Falcons and Hawks inflict most of their murders on each other, but they won’t hesitate to kill sheriffs if an opportunity arises.”
            “You’re coming with me tonight, Derian.  Don’t try to get out of it.”  Milo’s tone left no room for dissent.
            “Oh, aye.  I’m only saying that I hope you are not disappointed.”

            The band of sheriffs and under-sheriffs that gathered in the Citadel at dusk was noticeably smaller than the morning muster.  Listening to the men, Milo surmised that the Stonebridge Guard consisted of two sorts of soldiers: dilettante sons of powerful men who lived at home, supplied their own weapons, and who saw no gain in exposing themselves to the dangers of a night raid in the Bene quarter; and men from poor backgrounds for whom the Guard provided a small income and a way out of desperate straits.  This latter group supplied the real strength of the Guard.  They weren’t paid much, but they had free rooms in the Citadel, two meals a day, and serviceable weapons.  Milo noted the raised eyebrows and sideways looks with which these men regarded Derian.  They hadn’t expected any of the stay-at-home guards to turn out for the raid, certainly not Derian Chapman. 
            A sheriff with a long face introduced himself to Milo.  “Hrodgar Wigt,” he said.  “Someone said you’re a knight.”
            Milo couldn’t read the man’s blank expression.  “Pleased to meet you, I’m sure, Hrodgar.  I’m Milo Mortane.  A knight?  Maybe.  If you take away a knight’s horse and squire, what’s left?  Just another under-sheriff in the Stonebridge Guard.”
            Hrodgar Wigt pursed his lips.  “Perhaps.  I bet your sword’s higher quality than the blades we use.”  His gray eyes flicked to Milo’s sword hilt.  “And I’m told you know how to use it.”
            “Who told you that?”
            A bare hint of a smile.  “Someone.  Perhaps it was only a rumor?”
            Milo shrugged.  “I’ve had the training of a knight, and I’ve used my sword a few times.  But tonight I’m in a strange city, in the dark.  The Falcons and Hawks have me at a disadvantage.”
            Hrodgar nodded. “Maybe so.  Still, I would not bet against you.  Good luck.”
            Osred Tondbert sent 16 pairs of Guardsmen into the Bene Quarter.  Each man wore a black cloak over his sword and shield.  Of the 32 men, only Derian Chapman and the newest under-sheriff, Milo Mortane, carried their own swords; the others were residents of the Citadel, using standard short swords issued by the Guard.  Tondbert told them the location of the expected meeting between Ifing and Leanberth only at the last moment, just before they set out.  The commander seemed pleased with himself; apparently he thought that by keeping secret the target of the raid he had guaranteed its success.  “As soon as you enter the Bene, take different streets,” the commander said.  “We’ll come at them from three sides.”
            “A cellar under Gaudy’s Tavern?  Where’s Gaudy’s Tavern?”  Milo whispered to Derian as they exited the Citadel.
            “Backside of the Bene Quarter, hard against River Blide.”  Derian shook his head while the pack of Guardsmen began jogging south from the Citadel.  “Tondbert thinks he’s battling an enemy army rather than raiding a conference of cutthroats.”
            Milo snorted.  “It’s an idiot’s plan either way.  Stay close to me.”
            The Guardsmen trotted as a group for half a mile on a wide paved boulevard.  At the edge of the Bene Quarter, Hrodgar Wigt raised a hand, bringing the pack to a brief halt.  Wordlessly, he sent pairs of men to the right and left, indicating with gestures how far they ought to go before turning from the boulevard into the streets of the Bene.  Milo and Derian came last.  Wig pointed to a tiny opening between buildings only twenty yards away, whispering, “Follow Earm and me.”
            The street was a narrow unpaved alley, winding between wooden buildings, most of them two or three stories tall.  Little pools of mud and filth dotted the way.  Hrodgar Wigt and the sheriff named Earm paid no attention to the pools or their smells, except to step quickly around them.  Milo followed on their heels, his eyes struggling to see anything in the dark; rarely did the light from the first moon reach between the buildings to the ground.
            They passed connecting streets, most of them just as dark as theirs.  Hrodgar Wigt turned right at one junction and then left at another, moving quickly.  Without Hrodgar, Milo would have quickly lost his way in the wandering streets of the Bene Quarter.  After thirty minutes in the maze of alleys, they emerged onto a broader avenue where the moonlight revealed brick buildings across the way.  Milo caught scent of water.  The River Blide?  We must be close to Gaudy’s Tavern.  He looked up and down the avenue, but he didn’t see any other sheriffs.
            Hrodgar pointed at one of the brick buildings.  It had a wide porch that faced the avenue and wrapped around the ends of the building.  Milo and Derian followed Hrodgar and Earm, hurrying quietly across the moonlit avenue to the deep darkness of the porch.  There they crouched, virtually invisible in their black cloaks.  At a signal from Hrodgar, Earm beetled his way toward the north end of the porch; he disappeared into blackness.  Hrodgar motioned for Milo to stay put, and then he scuttled to the south end of the building.  For a minute Milo and Derian were alone, long enough for fears to arise—They’ve deserted us!  They’re in league with the thieves!  But then Earm and Hrodgar reappeared; they signaled that there were sheriffs on the north and south ends of the building.
            Earm stood up to knock, loudly, on the tavern door.  Hrodgar motioned to Milo and Derian to keep quiet and stay low.  Earm pounded on the door.  “Open up!  I need a drink!”
            A candle appeared.  Milo saw that the tavern had windows, high under the eaves; he hadn’t noticed them until the candlelight reflected through them.  “We’re closed!” said a voice, an old woman’s voice.
            “I need a drink!”  Earm slurred his voice, giving an impression of one who has drunk too much already.
            The door swung open, revealing a stooped woman with very long hair.  “Well, come in, then . . .”
            Earm leaped at the woman, knocking the candle from her hand and throwing her to the floor.  Hrodgar, Milo and Derian rushed into the tavern, followed by other sheriffs and under-sheriffs who came rushing from the north and south ends of the building.  Confusion reigned for some minutes, with men blundering in the dark and looking for the stairs to the cellar.  Lamps were lit. 
            The old woman found her way to a chair by the wall and watched sheriffs ransack her public house.  Milo quit the search for the cellar to watch the woman.  She’s far too calm; she knew we were coming.           
            Finally someone called: “Over here!”           
            A dozen men thundered down to the cellar.  They found it stocked with beer barrels and little else.  The searchers came rushing back.  An angry under-sheriff hauled the old woman to her feet.  “Where are they?”
            “I don’t know what you mean.”  Milo saw a smile on her face.
            The under-sheriff pulled back his hand to strike her, but noises from outside the tavern interrupted: shouts, curses, and objects thudding against the walls.  The old woman was thrown aside.  A flaming torch smashed through a window, spreading burning oil where it landed.  Two men smothered the flames with cloaks, but more torches came flying through other windows.
            They knew we were coming.  Guardsmen crowded out the door only to be met by arrows.  It was a trap from the beginning.  Milo seized Derian, who was hurrying after some guardsmen trying to escape through the back door.  “Not that way!  Follow me!” 
            Derian followed him down to the cellar.  In the confusion, Milo had kept his eyes on the old woman when she fled.  The cellar was dark, but he heard a sound from beneath the stairs.  At the foot of the steps Milo dropped to hands and knees and squeezed between barrels.  He felt air rushing by him.  It would fan the flames above, but this had to be the way out.
            Derian coughed.  “I can’t see.”  He was still on the stairs.
            “Down here!  I’m not going to wait!  Come on!”
            Within seconds, Derian was behind him.  And someone else: Hrodgar Wigt.  “I hope you’ve found the way out,” he said.
            They crawled in the dark.

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