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.

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