Thursday, May 9, 2013

Castles 50

50. Near Down’s End

            Boyden Black rode an unremarkable gray gelding, purchased, as Archard Oshelm reminded him, for a very reasonable price in the town Hyacintho Flumen.  Black recalled this fact whenever he was tempted to compare his new mount with the proud destrier he usually rode in Herminia.  Big Black was a knight’s horse, and for the time being, I’m no knight.  He shot a glance at the pack strapped behind Bully on the youth’s equally uninspiring steed; Eudes Ridere’s sword (not Rudolf Grandmesnil’s huge battle sword) was there, nearby but of no immediate use.
            More than one voice in Hyacintho Flumen had warned Boyden Black about highwaymen on the road.  A rich man like Black (for he made no secret of his desire to buy lots of Tarquint wool) probably should have two or three guards as escort—and I know just the men you need, the voice would suggest in a confidential tone.  Black thanked the voices for their concern and said that he would consider their advice carefully. 
            In private, Black explained to Bully that Archard Oshelm was worth five hireling guards in a real fight.  And he had no desire for men of Tarquint to accompany him; some of them would be intelligent enough to guess his real business.  Instead, Black used a portion of the golds he would have spent on escorts to buy lodging in travelers’ inns along the way.  He always asked for the cheapest room, and to Bully’s surprise Black and Oshelm slept on the floor, leaving the bed to Bully.  It took the boy three nights to realize that lumpy, itchy beds were actually worse than a blanket on a solid floor.  This arrangement also let Archard sleep with his feet against the door, so they less likely to be surprised by stealth at night.
            The road north from Hyacintho Flumen crossed several minor streams that flowed from the hills in the west to the Blue River.  This meant the travelers were regularly climbing up and down the ridges between the creeks.  Bully wondered at this—why hadn’t the Tarquintians built their road in the Blue River valley?  After all, the river ran from West Lake to join the sea at Hyacintho Flumen.  Wouldn’t a roadway in the valley be smoother than laboring over the hills?  Boyden explained: Once there had been a road along Blue River linking Inter Lucus and Hyacintho Flumen.  Eighty years ago, an earthquake toppled a stone cliff near the river and buried the road beneath an enormous rockslide.  Rather than try to restore the earlier road, the Tarquintians had found a route through the hills. 
            Bully asked Boyden how he knew so much about Tarquint and its history.  “I’ve been paying attention,” Boyden said.  “You need to listen carefully to the talk after sup in common room.”  Seeing Bully’s frown, Boyden went on: “And it helps that I traveled these roads twenty years ago.  King Rudolf had ambitions as great as Mariel’s; even then he was sizing up Tarquint for conquest.  But it took us longer than Rudolf anticipated to subdue Herminia.  Tarquint remains for Mariel to conquer.”
            Bully observed that General Ridere would lead Herminia’s army when it invaded Tarquint.  Wouldn’t the general be the conqueror? 
            Boyden Black shook his head.  “Generals fight battles.  But it’s the king—or in this case, the queen—who conquers.  Make no mistake.  Queen Mariel is far more powerful than Eudes Ridere.”

            They came to a village called Crossroads and stayed a night in the inn.  Beowulf Fatman, son of the woman who owned Crossroads Inn, showed them to their room on the northern wing the of the inn.  Bee (as folk called him) asked Bully if he had seen any bodies along the road.  Less than a fortnight before, Bee said, a knight had come up the road who reported killing two highwaymen in the hills and leaving their bodies.  Somehow the honest question of the stable boy brought home to Bully the dangers of the wild more than all the whispered warnings in Hyacintho Flumen.  On the two day ride from Crossroads to Downs’ End Bully often scanned the horizon in all directions.  He reasoned that his main hope of survival in case of an attack by bandits lay in giving early warning to Archard and Master Black.  As a boy Bully had dreamed of being a great warrior, but as a young man he had enough sense to admit he probably wasn’t.
            In the afternoon of the second day out from Crossroads, Master Black led Archard and Bully up a grassy hillside east of the road.  They rode slowly up the lee side of a wide treeless mound; Master Black said they were entering the Great Downs.  The green hill was surprisingly tall.  When they reached the top they could see the road below them, curving around the west side of the hill.  The horizon on that side, to the north and west, showed limitless prairie undulating over gentle rises—the downs reached beyond the limits of sight.  And there was a river, the Betlicéa, flowing across their field of vision from west to east, where it emptied into West Lake. The road, once it rounded the hill, ran northeast, straight as an arrow.  Where the river and road came together, on the shore of West Lake, clustered hundreds—or thousands—of buildings: the city of Downs’ End.  It was an inspiring view. 
            And then a breeze whipped up, blowing at them from the lake below.
            “By the gods!  What is that?” exclaimed Bully.  His eyes suddenly burned with tears; for a moment he thought he would vomit.  He instinctively turned his horse away from the stench.  It was the smell of a cesspit mixed with the odor of rotting animal carcasses.
            Master Black pinched his nose, so he sounded like a man with a bad cold.  “The tanning sheds of Downs’ End,” he said, pointing.  “Much of the wealth of the Great Downs flows through Downs’ End, and thousands of sheepskins and cattle hides are rendered into sheepskin clothes, hides, leather goods of all kinds, and even parchment.  Tanneries need lots of water, so they put them by the lake.  And since tanneries smell of dead bodies and animal shit, they put them south of the city.  In Downs’ End the wind blows most often from the west or north.”
            Bully pinched his nose shut (though it didn’t seem to help much) with one hand and with the other he guided his horse closer to Master Black’s.  Perched on the brink of the hill, the travelers could see boats in West Lake by the mouth of the river.  The city’s buildings were jumbled together with no apparent order.  South of the city, cesspools, like little brown lakes, dotted the near shore of West Lake.
            The wind shifted round to the west.  The three men breathed deeply, suddenly freed of the miasmic air.
            “Downs’ End is much bigger than Hyacintho Flumen.”  Since they were alone on the hill, Bully thought it safe to speak freely.  “Will that affect your plans, Master Black?”
            Black took off his yellow hat and shielded his gaze.  “Perhaps.  It is a free city, larger than any city in Herminia.  Stonebridge is even larger, and Cippenham is a great city as well.  Such cities have the money and men to field large armies.  I know how to besiege a castle and starve its lord into submission.  But if the free cities ally themselves with the castle lords, our task becomes much, much harder.”
            Archard cleared his throat.  “My Lord Ridere—we are in private, sire, so I speak properly—would it not be impossible?  How could we maintain a siege if such great cities help the castles?
            Master Black smiled.  “You do not know Queen Mariel as I do, Archard.  She is a determined and skillful woman.  She has not been idle while we have been scouting Tarquint.  Pulchra Mane has begun shipping tons of new steel to smithies all over Herminia.  By autumn, Herminia will have an army prepared as you have never seen.
            “Nevertheless, I agree, things will be much easier if the cities do not aid the castles.  So let us go talk to the citizens of Downs’ End.”  With that, Black replaced his hat and led them back down the lee side of the hill.

            They rented two rooms in an inn called Freeman’s House.  This three-storey structure was one of two dozen prominent buildings surrounding the only large green space in Downs’ End, a burial field maintained by devotees of the old god.  Boyden willingly paid the expensive rent, not for the comfort of the beds (though they were much nicer than those in the roadhouses) but for the reputation of wealth Freeman’s House helped him advertise.
            Bully accompanied Boyden through three long days of spying in Downs’ End.  As in Hyacintho Flumen, they started with weavers and wool merchants, establishing Boyden Black’s role as purchasing agent.  But their researches continued at table with other businessmen in the Freeman’s House common room, in guildhalls, and in the home of a moneylender named Eulard Barnet.  Boyden’s conversations always began with inquiries about prices, but he also elicited merchants’ feelings about taxes, political maneuvering in the city, the prospects of a prosperous year on the downs, or (conversely) the chances that foot-rot would plague herds the way it had three years before.  Boyden appeared to let his conversation partners talk as they wanted, he being merely a willing listener, but with well timed questions and encouraging nods or smiles he managed to learn many interesting things.
            Meanwhile, Archard moved among the laborers of Downs’ End.  He talked with fishermen, vegetable grocers, candle makers, cobblers, barrel makers, weavers, bakers, prostitutes, an albino priest, and others.  After sup in the common room, all three lingered to listen until most guests retired.  Only then would they retreat to their rooms, where Bully stood guard by the door while Boyden and Archard discussed their findings in quiet voices. 
            If necessary, Boyden Black was willing to stay a week in Downs’ End.  But three days’ investigation satisfied him.  He explained to Archard and Bully when they rode south.
            “The aldermen of Downs’ End argue over everything.  The city needs more sheriffs.  Who should pay?  They don’t have enough sewers, and refuse runs in the streets, but the weavers’ guild says it’s unfair that they should pay to dig sewers when it’s the bakers and butchers who make most of the mess.  In Downs’ End, the weavers’ guild is a very important voice; so the debate over sewers drags on.  The glassmakers and metalworkers both want prime land by the river, but the fishermen say their docks were there first.  Nobody trusts the bankers, the rich despise the poor, and the poor are jealous of the rich.  Everyone hates the lawyers.  Really, it’s all quite natural and wonderful.  These people need a queen; they just don’t know it yet.  More importantly, not a man in a hundred would lift a finger to help the son of Hereward Mortane.”
            Archard cleared his throat.  “Then we attack in the south?”
            Boyden adjusted his yellow hat, pushing it back on his head.  “Aye.  Lord Hereward had not yet died when we left Hyacintho Flumen.  When he does, young Aylwin must establish control of his castle.  He’ll marry Edita the cripple, which may keep his attention for a while.  And he has to decide where to keep his mistress; we may hope it will be some distance from the castle.”
            Bully interrupted.  “What do you mean, his ‘mistress’?”
            “Bully, you didn’t notice?”  Boyden chuckled.  “It’s clear that the beautiful Juliana came along as part of the marriage bargain.  The Toenis couldn’t afford to pay a big enough dowry, so they sweetened the compact with a second body.  If Edita produces an heir, well and good.  Many consorts of many lords have managed to ignore their husbands’ infidelities, so long as the mistresses keep some distance from the castle.  I’m sure Edita knows how to keep silence.  But what if Edita, being crippled, should die in childbirth?  Juliana Ingdaughter is the great grandchild of Rocelin Toeni’s grandfather.  I suppose that makes her Rocelin’s grandniece or some such relation.  The point is, Juliana is of noble blood.  The Toenis will not object if Juliana ends up in Edita’s place.”
            Boyden happened to look sideways at Bully.  The boy was crying.  This so surprised him that Boyden kept silence for a long while. 

             The travelers rode at an easy pace in the heat of the day, stopping occasionally for the horses’ sake.  They wouldn’t reach Crossroad Inn until the afternoon of the second day, so they planned to camp out the first night.  As evening came on, riding became more comfortable for man and beast, so they pushed on until the midsummer light had almost completely faded.  They lit no fire, but dismounted and led their horses around a copse of pines on the east side of the road.  Shielded by the trees from anyone who might pass on the way from Crossroads to Downs’ End, they tethered the horses and rolled out bedding on grasses.  The warm air brought the smells of wild growing things and the chirps of night insects.  Bully stared up at the stars, weeping again over the unfairness of life.
            “Gods protect us!  What is that?”  Archard had sat up on his blanket.  He pointed to the east.  A light shone on the horizon.
            Master Black spoke through a wide yawn without looking.  “First moonrise.  We rode a long time; it’s late.”
            Bully sat up too.  “Begging your pardon, Master Black.  It’s not moonrise, first or second.  They’ll come up over there.”  He waved his hand in the right direction.  “And look.  It’s gone now.  Moon light doesn’t disappear.”
            Master Black yawned again, but he sat up as well.  All three were looking in the right direction when the light appeared again, brighter than before.  It was clearly coming from the ground, not the sky.
            “Gods!” exclaimed Archard.  “Look at that!  That’s got to be on the other side of the lake.  Is there any town over there?”
            Boyden whistled between his teeth.  “It would take a fiendish fire to make a light that bright.  But the only thing between the lakes is a dead castle and two small villages.”
            The mysterious light appeared and vanished several times over the next hour.  At last it did not return, and first moonrise came.

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


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