Thursday, July 25, 2013

Castles 61

61. From Down’s End to Inter Lucus

            Aefre Baecer, the wife of the dead baker, perversely insisted that her son was the progeny of another man, whom she would not name.  If she hadn’t said this, she might have lived.  Eadmar’s weren’t the only ears that heard Paega Baecer’s assault on his wife, and her bruises corroborated Eadmar’s belief that the baker was a habitually violent man.  Even the fact that she knifed him from behind could have been excused, since Paega had thrown her child from the window the moment before.
            But Aefre stated clearly and repeatedly that Paega was not little Agyfen’s father.  It was possible, of course, that she merely spoke the truth.  But Eadmar did not believe the woman condemned herself out of integrity.  Hate and spite were the operative motives, he thought.
            Given Aefre’s admission of adultery and the clear fact that she had killed Paega, no one was surprised that the city magistrate declared her guilty of murder.  The trial occurred the second day after the killing; her execution came immediately afterward.  On the day between her arrest and the trial, Eadmar took Agyfen to visit his mother; they were the only visitors she accepted.  She was in a small room in the Down’s End jail, bound by iron chains anchored in the brick walls.  The short chains made it impossible to embrace the boy as she would have liked, but she clasped him with one arm and kissed him over and over.  Her eyes were bloodshot, her voice hoarse from pleading for the gods to repay Paega for every blow he had landed, and her cheek an ugly reddish-purple.
            “Priest o’ the old god?”
            “Aye.  My name is Eadmar.  We’ve met before, Aefre.”
            “I remember.  Been gone these last weeks?”
            “Aye.  I’ve been to Inter Lucus, on the far side of West Lake.”
            She clutched Agyfen so tightly he couldn’t breathe.  The boy wiggled and she relented.  “Can you take my son there?”
            Eadmar nodded.  He had decided that much immediately after the killing.  “That is my plan, Aefre.”
            “Good.  Don’t make ’im a slave.  Foster ’im with some farm family, some good folk.  And take ’im soon.  Don’t let ’im see what they do.”
            Eadmar nodded again.  “That was my thought as well.  Bead Deepwater has agreed to take us across in the morning.”
            The wide bloodshot eyes stared into an indeterminate distance.  “That will be my last thought in this world, Agyfen going away.”
            Bead Deepwater and his sons, Osulf and Headby, transported Eadmar and the little boy across West Lake the next morning.  Eadmar, who was familiar with the swiftness of trial and punishment in Down’s End, sat on a bench in the Deepwaters’ boat, Morning Glory, with his arms wrapped around Agyfen.  Eadmar easily imagined the events transpiring in Down’s End: the prisoner being led before the magistrate, the accusation made by the sheriff, Aefre pleading self-defense, the magistrate asking a few questions, Aefre cursing Paega and refusing to name the true father of the boy, and the magistrate condemning the accused to death.  On the way to the gallows some priest of the old god (Guthlaf Godcild, most likely) would urge the condemned woman to repent of her sins and offer her absolution.  Then they would tie her hands, slip the noose around her neck, toss the rope over the gibbet, and hoist her writhing body into the air.  The crowd would watch until the body hung limply and then drift away.  Some hours later a sheriff would take Aefre’s body to an unmarked grave outside the city.
            Eadmar shook that image from his mind.  He concentrated on the gray water of the lake and the close-hanging clouds that looked like leaden hammers.  The north wind blew spray on them, and Eadmar tucked his thin cloak around Agyfen.  The Deepwaters, father and sons, went about the business of sailing Morning Glory with very few words.  Eadmar sensed that they didn’t like the weather; the fall could bring dangerous storms on West Lake.  He breathed a silent prayer for safe passage.
            As expected, there was no one on the woodmen’s dock to receive the Morning Glory.  The Deepwaters deftly maneuvered the fishing boat close to the dock and turned her north into the wind at the last moment, thus bringing her almost to a stop.  Osulf leapt from boat to dock, caught lines thrown by his brother, and secured the boat.  Eadmar couldn’t hoist Agyfen, because of the damage to his left shoulder, so Headby lifted the boy to his brother, and Eadmar climbed onto the dock.  A few words of farewell, Eadmar cast off the ropes, and the Deepwaters used poles to push away from the dock.  They adjusted their sail, and the boat moved away.  Eadmar waved a last goodbye.
            His shoulder was still painful, two days after being thrown to the ground, so Eadmar made Agyfen walk at first.  Where the path was narrow, he walked behind the boy; in wide spots he held Agyfen’s hand.  After an hour, the three-year-old was tiring badly.  They stopped by a fallen tree; with his good arm Eadmar helped Agyfen climb onto the log.  From atop the log, the boy was able to climb onto the priest’s shoulders.  The weight on his left shoulder made agony for Eadmar, but there was no other solution.  He held Agyfen secure with his right hand, his left dangling uselessly.
            Eadmar carried the boy for two excruciating hours, until he thought he might collapse.  Something was wrong with his eyes.  He couldn’t see anything peripherally; his field of vision had dwindled to a tiny spot of the path in front of him.  He stopped and sank to his knees.  Agyfen slid off Eadmar as the priest fell onto his side.  “Sit down.  Stay close,” Eadmar said in the firmest voice he could muster.  “We will rest here.”
            Baldric Forrest came upon the little boy sitting next to the priest of the old god, Eadmar, who was lying unconscious under a pine tree.  Baldric had been introduced to Eadmar several weeks before, but their conversations had been few, since Baldric spent most of his summer days cutting trees many miles north of Inter Lucus. 
            “What’s ya name, boy?”  When winter’s snow deepened, Baldric lived in town, so he knew most names in Inter Lucus and Senerham, though it was hard to keep up with babies.  This lad was past the age of infant deaths, yet Baldric didn’t recognize him.  “What’s ya doing with Priest Eadmar?”
            The boy said nothing.  He looked at Baldric with wide brown eyes.  He scooted closer to Eadmar and laid his hand on the priest’s open palm.
            Baldric knelt to touch Eadmar’s other wrist; he felt a heartbeat.  “How long ya been here, old man?”  He felt the priest’s skinny leg.  It was cool, with a sheen of sweat.  “Priest Eadmar!”
            “Uh.”  Eadmar’s eyes opened.  A few seconds later, they focused on Baldric’s face.  A whisper: “Fair afternoon, Master Forrest.” 
            “Are ya hurt, priest?”
            The answer came back in a stronger voice.  “Both exhausted and injured, I’m afraid.  Like a fool, I was trying to carry this boy, but my shoulder was knocked out two days ago.  The burden has done me in.  I am taking him into Inter Lucus.”
            “My comin’ along be ya good fortune, then,” Baldric said.  “If ya get the lad t’ trust me, I can carry ’im for ya.  I’m t’ see Lord Martin, meself.”
            Deo Gratias.  And thank you, Master Forrest.”

            Baldric Forrest had two hard black loaves left in his sup-bag, having eaten the rest before finding Eadmar.  He gave one to the priest, who gnawed on it as they walked side by side, having reached the wagon road leading to Inter Lucus.  Feeling stronger, Eadmar concluded that his body needed the strength of the bread.  He told himself he needed to be more careful to eat properly.  When he finished the loaf he asked Baldric for the second, which the woodsman promptly gave him.
            They neared village Inter Lucus, the parting of the ways where Eadmar would go right toward Heline Entwine’s farm and Baldric would turn left to go to the castle.  They stopped when they saw four men approaching on the road from the village.  Syg Alymar, Everwin Idan, and the red-haired butcher, Hors Cnud, were marching a prisoner in front of them.  The man’s hands were tied behind his back, and Syg Alymar held a rope tied around his neck.  The prisoner was Rothulf Saeric.
            Eadmar greeted them while Baldric stood near, the boy on his shoulders.  “Fair afternoon, Syg, Everwin, Hors.  Trouble?”
            Hors Cnud spat on the ground.  “Trouble again!  For the last time!”
            Syg Alymar looked at Eadmar.  “Fair afternoon, Priest Eadmar.  Lord Martin will be pleased at your return.  He has come to the village the last three days looking for you.”
            “My business in Down’s End took longer than I expected,” said Eadmar.  “May I ask what has happened?  What has Rothulf done this time?” 
            “The usual,” said Everwin Idan.  “More thievery.”
            “Nay!” exclaimed Hors Cnud.  “Erna came on him in the salt house.  Told him to run off.  Threatened her, he did!”
            Eadmar knew Rothulf Saeric to be a thief, but he had never known him to fight.  Perhaps his worst deed had been to command his half-brother, Alf, to try to bond with castle Inter Lucus, a bit of foolishness that might have cost Alf his life.
            “I only said she was pretty!” the prisoner protested.
            Eadmar scratched his head.  “Let’s not conclude too quickly.  What do you say, Syg?”
            Syg Alymar puffed out his cheeks.  “Erna Cnud did say that he touched her in a private kind of way.”
            “If I hadn’t come in, he’d a raped my wife!” interrupted Hors.
            Eadmar didn’t believe it.  The salt house was a room adjoining the Cnuds’ house; loud sounds there would have been heard in the house.  Besides, Erna was a sturdily built woman, easily as strong as Rothulf Saeric.  Eadmar felt pity for Rothulf’s repeated stupidities.  “I gather you are taking your prisoner to Lord Martin?”
            Syg said, “Aye.  Some among us wanted to hang him immediately; save Lord Martin some trouble.  But Everwin says we can’t usurp the lord’s authority.”
            “Oh, I agree.  If you don’t mind, since Baldric was already heading to the castle, I’ll come along.”
            Syg expressed surprise.  “You will come to the castle?”
            “No.  I am forbidden to enter Inter Lucus or walk on the grounds.  But I would like to talk with the lord before he passes judgment.”

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

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Castles 60

60. In Stonebridge

            “I need to get you some boots,” Milo said, watching Tilde strap on leather sandals. She retrieved them from a small closet near the main doors of the Citadel where she left them in the morning.  During the day, she walked barefoot on the fortress’s worn stone floors, saving her shoes for Stonebridge’s rugged streets.  They exited the Citadel and began the short walk to Lora Camden’s shop.
            “I own boots,” Tilde said bitterly.  “And good sandals for everyday use.  Unlike many of the clothes I used to wear, they were mine before I married.  Unfortunately they reside in Master Adelgar Gyricson’s house, where I will never go.  I have only these fashionable leather shoes.  They must last me a long time.”
            Milo admired Tilde’s pride, at least in regard to Adelgar Gyricson.  “If I fetched your boots, would you wear them?”
            She looked at him suddenly.  “Don’t!  You must not give him reason to think I am alive or that you know where I am.”
            “Oh, I agree.”  Milo inclined his head.  “But if Master Gyricson were detained in one part of the city—being interviewed by a sheriff, for instance—burglars might enter his house and take a number of things.  He might not miss a pair of boots amid other losses.”
            “You’re sworn to defend the laws of Stonebridge, not break them.  Besides, he has servants in the house.”
            Milo chuckled.  “You are extremely noble, Tilde.  I defend the laws of Stonebridge for very little pay.  But I see your point.”
            Tilde touched Milo’s elbow, something she rarely did in public.  “Why did you tell Tondbert about Ody Dans?” 
            He looked at her and smiled reassuringly.  She’s worth having.  “Because Tondbert uses secrets.  Derian Chapman told me that Tondbert has proof of nasty secrets regarding many members of the Stonebridge Assembly.  That’s why they don’t remove him, even when his incompetence endangers the peace of the city.”
            They were nearing the shroud maker’s shop, squeezed between a cobbler and a candle maker.  “That makes no sense, Milo.  If Tondbert is as bad a commander as you say, why do you strengthen his hand?”
            “Lots of reasons.  First of all, Master Dans is the richest man in Stonebridge.  He’s ruthless, as you know, and dangerous.  Tondbert will undoubtedly find a way to inform Ody Dans that he knows about the Gyricson affair, and that may keep Dans from asserting too much influence.  Also, Tondbert may remember that I can sometimes give useful information.  It’s not that he would be actually grateful, but he might value my continued existence.”
            “So . . . you’re more afraid of Dans than Tondbert?”  Tilde’s question hung in the air, unanswered, as Lora Camden admitted them into her shroud maker’s workshop.  Bolts of white linen lay in a bin by the wall; a half-finished shroud, sized for a child, lay on the counter.
            “You’re a bit later than usual, Tilde,” Lora said.  She was a heavy woman with a plain round face.  “Fair evening, Sir Milo.  Will you sup with us?”  It wasn’t a purely friendly invitation; Lora expected payment for meals.
            “Not tonight, Mistress Camden.  I’ll have a word with Tilde privately, but I’ll sup in the Citadel.”
            “A word.”  Lora grinned broadly, showing misshapen yellowing teeth.  “Enjoy your talk, then.”
            Tilde’s room was upstairs, at the back of the building.  On the second floor, a narrow hall skirted the stairwell, leading from Tilde’s room to Lora Camden’s bedroom at the front, over her shop.  On the ground floor beneath Tilde’s room was a small space with a table and fire grate; this served the two women as kitchen and dining room.  As soon as Milo shut the door to her room, Tilde began unfastening her tunic.
            Milo stopped her undressing with a hand on her shoulder.  “Not tonight.  You need to understand.
            “I fear Dans and Tondbert in different ways.  Tondbert can get me killed by accident, through stupidity.  Dans might have me killed quite deliberately.  Obviously, I can’t trust either man.  But you and I live and work under Tondbert’s beak; he’s the immediate problem.  So it’s useful for him to think of you as a weapon against Dans.  He would protect you if he knew how.  More importantly, he will keep you secret; he’s good at secrets.
            “Mistress Camden undoubtedly told my Lord Commander about you and me weeks ago.  He didn’t think much of it then.  But now that he knows Adelgar is looking for you, he thinks he has a secret to use against me.  If I were ever to challenge him, Tondbert would threaten to tell your husband about me.  Strictly speaking, adultery is a crime in Stonebridge.
            “You see, then.  Tondbert values you very much, mostly as evidence against Dans, but partly as a yoke around my neck.  For a while, at least, you will be welcomed and protected in the Citadel.  In fact, in a day or two, I will suggest to Tondbert that there are yet empty rooms in the Citadel.  He might see fit to move you inside, away from possible discovery.”
            Tilde smiled.  “In that case, I might not need boots.”

            Lora Camden came out of the kitchen as Milo tramped down the stairs.  “Sir Milo!  That was a quick word indeed.”
            Milo bowed low.  “Sometimes a word really is just a word, Mistress Camden.”
            “Too bad.  Perhaps you will stay longer next time.”
            “Maybe I will.”  Something caught Milo’s eye, hanging on a peg on the wall.  Milo couldn’t remember seeing it before.  “What’s that, Mistress Camden?  Have you decided to start making hats?”  Milo stepped close to examine the object.  It appeared to be made of shroud linen, but on closer examination it couldn’t be a hat; it was conical and tall.  It would look ridiculous perched on someone’s head.
            Lora Camden cackled.  “No, Sir Milo.  Not a hat.  That’s a face shroud.  Have you never seen one?”
            “I have not.  In fact, I’ve never heard of such a thing.  It is made to cover a dead man’s face?”
            “Aye.  Sometimes a body is found and the face is, shall we say, unattractive—beyond the skill of embalmers.  As a sheriff, Sir Milo, you should know about these things.”
            Milo did.  “Like the man they brought out of the Bene Quarter two days ago.  Someone knifed him and left him face down in a sewer, and nobody touched him for four days.  Finally someone told a sheriff.  Tondbert sent two of the newest recruits to pack him off to the pauper’s field on a cart.  Afterward the boys said they had never seen anything like it.  Rats, they said.”
            “Just so,” said Camden, nodding.  “Now, I don’t suppose anyone bought a shroud for that one.  Wander naked in the after world, I suppose.”
            “Hah!  Do you really think wearing a shroud or not wearing one makes a whit of difference in the after world?”
            Lora Camden’s smile showed her teeth.  “What I think don’t matter, now, does it?  People like shrouds, and it’s a good thing.  Keeps an old woman in business, don’t it?”
            Milo inclined his head, acknowledging Camden’s practicality.
            She continued: “Sometimes folk do buy shrouds for bodies that ha’ been, shall we say, waiting too long.  They don’t want the kiddies to see, so they buy a face shroud.  Been a couple times when I was asked to make body shrouds extra long, for similar reasons, to cover feet or arms.  But the face—well, I make a half dozen face shrouds every year.”
            Milo exited to the street.  If he didn’t hurry, he would miss sup in the Citadel refectory.  Suddenly he stopped and hurried back to Lora Camden’s shop.  She came to the door when he pounded on it.
            “Sir Milo!  What is it?”
            “Mistress Camden, is the face shroud intended for anyone in particular?”
            “The one on the peg?  No.  I like to keep one on hand; never know when a customer will want it.”
            “Very sensible of you,” Milo said.  “Make another.  I’ll buy one, and you’ll still have one in stock.”
            A puzzled expression—but she said, “As you wish.”

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


Thursday, July 11, 2013

Castles 59

59. In Castle Inter Lucus

            Paper comes from wood.  In the beginning, Marty didn’t know much more than that.  He remembered something about “rag paper,” which was of higher quality than cheaper kinds of paper, so it must be possible to mix fiber from other sources with wood fibers.    He assumed that on Earth modern paper making involved chemicals and complicated manufacturing processes that yielded predictable results: quality control over many varieties of paper product.  Marty’s own goal was modest; he would be content if he could make something he could write on.
            The first step toward the solution had come many weeks before, in the days leading up to the mid-summer party.  Marty had been contemplating Inter Lucus’s recovering subsystems:
I. Materias Transmutatio: operativa
II. Parva Arcum Praesidiis: parte operativa, aedificaverunt initiati
III. Magna Arcum Praesidiis: non operativa, aedificaverunt initiati
IV. Cibum Preparatio Homines: operativa
V. Inter-Castrum Videns-Loquitur: non operativa, aedificaverunt initiati
VI. Extra Arcem Micro-Aedificator: operativa
VII. Potentia Fontes: operativa
VIII. Aquarum: operativa
IX. Intra Arcem Micro-Aedificator: operativa
X. Centralis Arbitrium Factorem: operativa
            Materias Transmutatio had moved from non-operativa to operativa soon after the lights came on in the castle’s west wing.  Marty speculated that what appeared to be a cavernous empty space was really the alien equivalent of a home garage workshop.  By analogy with the “kitchen” (which Marty surmised was actually Cibum Preparatio Homines), he expected ceramic blocks to grow out of the floor.  But would he know how to use them?  With his hands on the lords’ knob, Marty had shut his eyes and pictured in his mind a ceramic block workbench with a shovel handle lying on top of it.  He released the lord’s knob, walked the length of the great hall, passed two anterooms at the north end of the great hall, and entered the west wing.  Lights came on when he entered, but the boxy room was as empty as ever.
            In the three days before the party, Marty spent much time practicing motifs for his light show, making colored dots chase one another on the interior of the interface wall.  In between trial runs for the light show, he tried several times to communicate his intentions for the new room.  No results.  He began to think he had guessed wrong about the west wing.  The breakthrough came by accident, when he absentmindedly left his walnut staff in the workspace.  On his next inspection, he found the staff clamped to the top of a ceramic block with chocolate colored wood shavings on the floor.  His sturdy walking stick had been lathed into a long thin pole less than an inch in diameter.  Passing his hands over the top and sides of the workbench, he located control sensors; trial and error taught him how to use the workbench to cut, smooth, plane, lathe, and polish wood.  From his original staff and some fallen limbs of cherry trees Marty made hundreds of thumbnail sized “nickels.”
            After the party, Marty filled weeks with much more trial and error.  Caelin found a fallen walnut branch; Marty used the workbench to fashion a staff to replace his first one.  More work-blocks rose from the floor, which led to further experimenting.  Marty planed and polished Attor Woodman’s planks and cut them precisely to fit the east and west doors of the great hall.  Elne Penrict supplied nails and hinges, and the castle doors were hung five weeks after the party.
            As he experimented, Marty conserved wood chips, shavings, and sawdust.  One of the workshop blocks resembled a top-loading washing machine, except that its central “agitator” was a ceramic arm with dozens of sharp projections; Marty thought of it as an industrial size blender.  He filled the machine’s bowl with wood chips and sawdust, added water, and sealed the top by passing his hand over one of the sensors.  Then he pureed the whole mass into wood fiber soup.
            How do you press out excess water?  Marty envisioned wide rollers squeezing the mash between them, but he could not seem to communicate this idea to Materias Transmutatio.  He dipped out pails of watery pulp and spread it on parts of the paved path that had been slowly extending itself from the castle.  The fibrous mash dried in the sun, and it had the feel of paper, but when he tried to peel it off the pavement it crumbled.  For three weeks Marty’s ambitions were stymied at this stage, pulp but no paper.
            Fridiswid Redwine provided the answer.  One day in late summer Marty took Ora with him on one of his visits to Priest Eadmar.  At Ora’s suggestion, she and Marty turned aside to call on Fridiswid before returning to Inter Lucus.  They found Mistress Redwine outdoors, attending to very shallow square boxes; to Marty they looked like jewelry drawers without the jeweler’s chest.  Three boxes lay on top of a table, propped at an angle to receive the afternoon sun.
            Ora called out a greeting as they approached; Fridiswid turned on her bowed legs, waddled close, and hugged the girl.  “Fair afternoon, Lord Martin,” she said, inclining her head.
            “Fair afternoon, Mistress Redwine.”  Marty gestured toward the odd boxes.  “What’s this?”
            Ora peeled away from Fridiswid’s arms.  “Berry leather!  Fridiswid makes the best!”  Ora leaned over one of the boxes and touched its contents gingerly.  “Not quite done, is it?”
            “No.  More’s the pity.”  Fridiswid shook her head.  “I’ll have to carry these into the house, finish them tomorrow.”
            “I don’t understand,” said Marty.  He looked closely; each box contained an inky looking substance smeared into a thin layer.  Under each box was a drying puddle of purple.  Suddenly he understood.  He picked up a box and looked at the bottom; it was made of cloth.
            “My Lord Martin!  Be careful!”  Ora snatched the box from Marty, replaced it on the table.  Marty looked at his fingers; they were purple.  He ignored Ora and turned to Fridiswid.
            “Berry leather?”
            “Aye, my lord.  Blackberries and raspberries.  Sweet and good when picked, but they rot in a few days.  But mashed and well-dried, berry leather can be eaten in winter, or crumbled and cooked in a tea.”
            “Mashed and well-dried.  Fridiswid, you are a genius.  You’re a gift from God.”  Marty bent over the woman and kissed her cheek.  Deo Gratias!
            Fridiswid stammered a little, embarrassed.  “My L-lord M-martin.  I did not invent berry leather.  I l-learned it from my Ma.”
            “No matter, no matter,” Marty said.  “Do you have more cloth like this on bottom of your berry leather box?”
            “A little.  Leola Alymar, the widow, she has more.”
            “Syg Alymar’s mother?”
            “Aye, my lord.”
            “Excellent!  Ora, I think it’ll work!  This will work!”
            Ora was puzzled.  “My lord?”

            It took a few more days and more trial and error, but it did work.  Spreading wood mash in a thin layer on a linen screen allowed excess water to drip away and air to reach top and bottom of the pulp.  The paper could be peeled off the screen when mostly dry and then completely dried in the sun.            It wasn’t very good paper—lumpy, easily torn, and of uneven color.  But it was paper.
            Isen and Caelin devoted themselves to improving the product.  They experimented with wood chips and sawdust from different species of tree, especially with different kinds of tree bark.  They made pulp with more water and less water.  They tried mixing straw into the pulp.  At Marty’s suggestion, they tested wool fiber in the mix.  They learned to press the still damp paper between polished wood boards, squeezing out the last of the moisture and giving the paper a smoother surface.
            Villagers knew how to make charcoal ink, and when it became known that Lord Martin of Inter Lucus wanted quality inks, a farmer named Wurt Raedwald walked from Senerham to tell the lord how to make gall ink by finding gall wasp balls in oak trees, crushing them and soaking them in rainwater.  Ten days later, when Marty was able to try the gall ink, he was so pleased that he recorded Wurt Raedwald’s hidgield as paid for the year.
            Written record keeping had begun at Inter Lucus.  It was time for harvest and taxes.

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


Saturday, July 6, 2013

Castles 58

58. In Stonebridge

            “I don’t know how you do it, Milo.”  In public, Felix Abrecan was always careful to address him as “Sir Mortane,” or “Sir Milo,” but in private they were more familiar.  Felix was the closest thing to a friend Milo had ever known. 
            Autumn sunlight peaked over the hills west of Stonebridge as they began their daily patrol through the weavers’ district.  “Do what?”
            “How you stay in Tondbert’s favor.  He approves all your ideas.”
            “Hah!”  Milo’s laugh sounded like a bark.  “I seem to remember suggesting more mounts for the sheriffs and dropping our current blacksmith for a competent one.  What happened to those ideas?”
            Felix grinned.  “Point taken.  But Tondbert approves some of your ideas.  He promoted Bryce Dalston to training master and made Trymian Wallis into a glorified scribe.  He let us employ Tilde Freewoman as maid.  With your Eádulf in the Citadel to help Bayen, the stables look a world better, and the horses are healthier.  Tondbert actually listens to you.  Of all the City Guard, you’re his pet.”
            “By the gods, don’t say that.  It’s bad enough that Wallis hates me. You’ll have all the men against me.”
            “Not so!  Bryce and Hrodgar and the others all know that you’re on Tondbert’s good side, and they admire you for it.  Naturally Wallis hates you, but that’s another reason the men like you.  Yesterday Aidan Fleming said something about you being toady to Tondbert and Bryce shut him up quick; he said we were damned lucky that Tondbert listened to somebody other than Wallis, somebody who actually knows what the Guard needs.” 
            Milo waved a greeting to an armsman standing guard at a warehouse.  The man blinked against the sunrise and saluted lazily.  It was a friendly thing, a daily occurrence.
            “Do I know what the Guard needs?  Consider Tom there, the night guard for a warehouse full of wool.  First of all, why should the weavers need to hire guards?  Who would steal great bolts of undyed wool thread?  He’s really there to keep paupers out, runaway boys from the Bene who would like a dry and quiet place to sleep.  Maybe if the city had enough proper sheriffs, the weavers wouldn’t need to hire Tom.  But, but . . . maybe it’s cheaper for the weavers to hire their own guards.  A second thing: Tom sees us ride through every morning, regular as moonrise.  He waves or says, ‘Fair morning.’  If some burglar or robber was paying attention, he could strike an hour before we make our rounds, or an hour later.  I’m sure it’s a good thing for the people to see sheriffs ride through everyday; it reassures them.  But on the other hand, it might be better if we varied our time and route; we might catch more thieves.  Who knows what the Guard really needs?”
            Felix snorted.  “That’s part of it.  Your humble act.”
            They turned a corner and were hit by a morning breeze.  A smell of possible rain came with it.  Milo huddled his shoulders.  “Weather’s changing.  Need to start wearing a coat.  What do you mean, ‘part of it’?  What is ‘it’?”
            “How you keep Tondbert’s favor.  You put on your humble act.  ‘It might be this way, Commander, but I’m not sure.  I’m sure you know the ways of the city better than I, Commander, but might this work?’  You never say: ‘Do this, you incompetent fool!’”
            “But it’s often true.  I am not sure.”
            Felix snorted again, guiding his horse around some pungent slop thrown from an upstairs apartment the night before.  “Granted.  But your tentative suggestions are better than Tondbert’s certainties!  When you put on the humble act it’s easy for our commander to take credit for your best ideas.”
            “Well then, you’ve answered your question.  How do I stay on the commander’s good side?  By my ‘humble act,’ according to you.”
            “You’re right about the wind.”  Felix shivered.  “I’ll wear a coat tomorrow.”  He nodded a greeting to a woman sweeping the patch of street in front of a dyer’s shop with a straw broom.  A little further on, a man used a shovel to push refuse into the ditch between storefront and road.  “There’s got to be more to it.  By the gods!  Think of Bayen Mann, our stable master.  He really is humble, no act there!  Much like Eádulf.  But Tondbert wouldn’t listen to either of them!  Maybe he fears you, being a knight and all.”
            Milo laughed.  “Hah!  I assure you, Commander Tondbert does not fear me.”  To himself, Milo thought: The Commander thinks he has me under his thumb as securely as Ody Dans.  He takes credit for my ideas because I dare not complain.  And I won’t—ever.

            Felix and Milo finished their circuit of the weavers’ district in time to eat at mid-day in the Citadel.  They didn’t hurry, stopping often to greet folk in the street, listen to complaints from merchants, and note arrivals of wagons from farms in the countryside around Stonebridge.  Spinners, dyers, weavers, and tailors all had their shops jumbled together in a hive of activity.  To some extent, Milo knew, folk of the district regarded him and Felix as “their” sheriffs.
            After mid-day, Milo and Felix joined with two other mounted sheriffs, Acwel Kent and Aidan Fleming, to ride the perimeter of the Bene Quarter.  They dared not ride in the twisting alleys of the Bene.  Once a week since the catastrophe of the summer raid the City Guard invaded the Bene in force on foot, but only in daylight.  It seemed that the Falcons and Hawks tolerated their presence; these raids resulted in few arrests and no confrontations with the gangs.  Perhaps even Ifing Redhair knew the people of the Bene needed some respite from lawlessness.
            On these afternoon rides, Milo felt like he was a physician applying a tourniquet to an infected limb.  Inside its boundary, the Bene Quarter was full of rot and pus, and the City Guard could do nothing but contain it.  But tourniquets don’t stop infections.  The rot has to be cleaned away or the limb cut off.
            In late afternoon the mounted sheriffs brought their horses to the Citadel stable.  Milo and Felix hung their saddles on wall pegs while Bayen Mann and Eádulf brushed the animals and tended to their hooves.  The stable master and Eádulf would feed and water their charges and put each in a paddock for the night.  At Milo’s suggestion, Commander Tondbert had ordered that at least four horses be kept in reserve in case of emergency; each day Eádulf exercised the reserves by walking them in the Citadel courtyard.  Eádulf also washed saddle blankets so the mounts would begin the day free of bugs.
            Leaving Blackie in Bayen and Eádulf ’s care, Milo climbed stone stairs to his room on the second floor of the citadel.  A woman was in the corridor, carrying buckets of steaming water.  She handed one bucket to Acwel Kent, who had left the stable before Milo.  Acwel nodded his thanks, stepped into his cell, and shut his door.  The woman turned and saw Milo.  Dressed in drab brown, with her plaited black hair tied in an artless mass behind her neck, Tilde contrasted starkly with the beauty Milo remembered from Ody Dans’s dinner party.  The cheekbones and chin were still perfect, but the lines around the eyes were those of a much older woman.
            “Sir Mortane,” Tilde said.  She pushed open the door to his cell and nodded him in.  She came in, shut the door, and put the bucket on the floor.
            “That’s your last of the day?”
            “Aye.  Shall I stay?”  She took a wet cloth out of the bucket, offered it to Milo.
            Milo laid his sword and scabbard on the narrow bed underneath the room’s barred window.  He accepted the cloth and wiped his face and neck.  “Not today.  Tondbert was talking with Wallis, watching for me.  He’ll be at my door soon.”
            The slightest smile touched her lips.  “He can’t see through doors.  I don’t think he would care what happened in this room.  I’m sure Lora Camden has told him that you visit me at her house.”
            Milo stepped close, putting his hand on her breast.  He pinched the nipple through the rough cloth.  “He knows.  But the testimony of one woman isn’t enough for my Lord Commander.”
            Tilde raised an eyebrow.
            “I’ll explain later.  For now, we should go.”  Milo quickly changed from his riding tunic and breeches to clean hose and a longer tunic.  He considered a cloak, but left it.  “Weather is changing.  Won’t be long ’til we need coats in the evening.”  He belted on one of the Citadel short swords.
            Tilde followed him out of his cell.  When they started down the stairs, Commander Tondbert was ascending.  The man had a receding chin anyway; when he looked up at Milo from below, he looked to have no chin at all, as if there were nothing beneath the nose. 
            “Sir Milo!”  The bass voice expressed surprise.
            Disappointed, you snake?  Milo answered cheerfully: “Fair afternoon, Commander.”
            “Fair afternoon.  I see you have found the cleaning woman.”  Tondbert waited as Milo and Tilde descended toward him, and then went down the stairs ahead of them.  “Please, would you step into my office?  Both of you?”
            Commander Tondbert unlocked a thick wood door and bowed them in.  Shutting the door, he sat behind a dark-stained table.  “Please sit.”  He motioned to two chairs.
            The commander propped his elbows on the table.  “Tilde Freewoman.”
            Tilde looked at the floor.  “Aye, my Lord Commander.”
            “Perhaps I should say: Tilde Gyricson.”
            Suddenly her black eyes were alive with fear, looking from Tondbert to Milo.  For a moment, Milo felt a thrill of satisfaction.  But he couldn’t let himself enjoy it.  “Tilde, we have to keep you safe.  So I told Commander Tondbert about Ody Dans.”
            “How does that keep me safe?”
            Tondbert laughed softly.  “If Master Dans took you by force to pay your husband’s debt, he committed a serious crime.”
            “The man never touched me.”
            “What?”  Tondbert slapped the table.  “Mortane!  You said …”
            Milo lifted a finger.  “Lord Commander, I beg you hear the whole story.”
            Tondbert pressed his lips together.  Finally, in a bass rumble: “Go on.”
            Tilde looked at Milo and tears ran down her face.  “You said I could trust you.”
            “You can, and you must.  This is the only way.”
            “That’s what Gar said.”  Her tears fell into the rough brown cloth of her tunic.  Her hands lay in her lap, no longer the soft manicured hands Milo remembered from the party but red and scabbed.
            Tondbert sighed impatiently.  “Let’s have the truth.  Did Ody Dans rape you or not?”
             She turned steely eyes on the commander.  “He couldn’t do it.  He tied me to a bed, pulled off my clothes.  He looked at me and looked at me.  But he was limp as a wet rag.  He never touched me.”
            Milo said, “You should have seen Dans at the party, Commander.  He enjoyed that moment, the moment when Tilde knew her husband had betrayed her, more than normal men enjoy women.  Afterward, the two weeks in his house, that meant little.”
            Tondbert’s lips parted slightly, showing his teeth.  He nodded.  “He did nothing else?”
            Tondbert looked puzzled.  “What?”
            “Dans couldn’t do it.  But he has a pet mouse.  He let the mouse run on me.  At first I was terrified.  What if he bit me?  But it’s a tame mouse.  After a while, Dans put it back in its box.  He untied me, left the room, and I never saw him again.”
            Tondbert snorted a laugh.  “A mouse!”  Then he laughed again, heartily, in his deep voice.  “A MOUSE!”  He waved Milo and Tilde out of his office.
Copyright © 2013 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.