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.


No comments:

Post a Comment