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.