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.

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