Thursday, September 5, 2013

Castles 67

67. In Stonebridge

            Four days later, Derian Chapman told Milo his purchases were complete.  Two wagons of carefully packed wine bottles would be ready to leave the following day.
            Milo and Derian shared a table in Citadel refectory, where Derian had found Milo to deliver his news.  “I can be ready as early tomorrow as you like,” Milo said.  “Today there’s some business I need to attend to.  Unless you need to supervise the loading, I would welcome your help.”
            “Oswy Wodens knows all about packing a load.  He doesn’t need me.”  Derian drank the last of his mug; weak beer was a morning staple in the Citadel.  “What is your business, and what assistance can I offer?”
            “I’ll explain on the way.  Ah!  Just the man.  Felix!” 
            Felix Abrecan stopped just inside the entry to the refectory.  “Sir Milo?”
            “Master Chapman and I leave for Down’s End tomorrow.  Can you take Aidan Fleming round this morning?”
            Felix tilted his head.  “Aye, Sir.  Should we fetch the man?”  He looked as if he were ready to bolt out the door.
            Milo laughed.  “Get yourself some food, man.  No rush.  If you get him there an hour before noon, that will be fine.”
            “Thank you, Sir.”
            “Fetch the man?” Derian asked.  “Who?”
            “Patience.  You’ll see.”

            Once they were in the street, Derian said, “You’ve got to be more careful, Milo.”
            Milo glanced questioningly.
            “Your partner, Felix, defers to you too readily.  He’s not the only one.  Somehow you’ve turned sheriffs and under-sheriffs of the Stonebridge City Guard into Milo Mortane devotees.  Tondbert will notice.  The Commander of the Guard is a jealous and dangerous man.”
            Milo considered Derian’s advice.  “Not much I can do about it now, since I’ll be gone three weeks starting tomorrow.  But I’ll warn Felix when I get back.”
            Milo turned at an intersection toward the northwest part of Stonebridge.  Ody Dans’s estate, The Spray, could be seen on a hill ahead of them.  Derian slowed for a moment, then jogged to catch up to Milo.  “Where are you taking me?  What is this all about?”
            “I need to see your uncle.  If you are present, it will help me get past Ingwald.”
            “Damn, Milo!  What’s this about?  You can’t just barge in on Uncle Ody.”
            Milo kept marching.  “I think he’ll welcome what I have to say.  In fact, I think he will want to confirm what I say by a personal inspection.”
            “Personal inspection!  Of what?”
            “The body of Tilde Gyricson.”
            “What are you talking about?”  Derian was puffing to keep up with Milo.  “Has something happened?  Just yesterday I saw . . .”
            “Daisy Freewoman.  Just yesterday you saw Daisy Freewoman.  Every sheriff and under-sheriff in the Citadel knows Daisy.  There’s not a one of them who ever saw Tilde Gyricson.  Now you and I—we saw Tilde at an exquisite sup at The Spray.  Do you remember what she looked like, Derian?”
            “What game are you playing, Milo?”
            Slowing his pace a little, Milo looked Derian in the eye.  “This is only a move in the game.  I’m playing defense right now, to create some space for maneuver.  The game is the only one worth playing in Stonebridge.  It’s called Power.  Your uncle is very good at it, so we have to be careful.”
            Chapman didn’t speak for several minutes.  They had almost reached The Spray when he said, “Milo, if you make Uncle Ody your enemy, I’ll be in a damned difficult position between you and him.”
            “Don’t worry, Derian.  I want Ody Dans as an ally.  If today’s business goes as I hope, our alliance will be strengthened.  In any case, you owe me your life.  If you ever have to choose, I advise you to side with me.”

            Ingwald Freeman met them at the entrance to The Spray.  “Master Dans is not expecting guests.”
            “Fair morning, Ingwald.”  Milo noted the guard’s short sword, sheathed on a belt.  Milo kept his hand from straying to his sword hilt; he had no need to emphasize the fact that he too was armed.  “Actually, this morning I am not a guest.  I come as a sheriff, on business for the City Guard.”
            Ingwald raised a brow.  “And Master Derian?”
            “Damn it, Ingwald.  I’m an under-sheriff.  We’re here on important business.  I came along when Sheriff Mortane told me about it.”  Chapman let his voice express just enough irritation.
            Ingwald Freeman let them into the room at the top of the house.  On an autumn day the thick stone walls were winter cold.  “Wait here.”  The soldier disappeared down a corridor.
            Derian sniffed.  “Wait here.  As if I don’t know my way around The Spray.”
            “Patience, my friend.”  Milo touched the wall.  The stone was wet with condensation; moisture ascended on air from lower, warmer floors of The Spray.
            Inga came trotting.  “Master Dans will see you in his office.  You may follow me.”  When they reached the door to Ody Dans’s place of business, Inga bowed and hurried away.  Derian knocked.
            Derian pushed the door open and motioned Milo to go ahead.  Ody Dans’s pink head was bowed over a parchment with words and symbols arranged in columns.  Dans looked up.  “Fair morning, Sheriff Mortane.”
            “Fair morning, Master Dans.”  Milo stopped only inches from Dans’s desk, towering over the round-faced man. 
            The bland face ignored Milo’s provocation.  “And my nephew as well.”
            “Fair morning, uncle.”
            Ody Dans folded his hands and leaned back to better look up at Milo.  “Ingwald says you come on important business of the Guard.  Most of what Tondbert thinks is important really isn’t, so I hope you’re not wasting my time.  I have work to do.”
            Milo inclined his head.  “Commander Tondbert does not know I have come.  I would not presume to claim your time for trivial matters.”
            Dans’s frown looked almost like pouting.  “What is it, then?”
            “A woman’s body.  She will go into the pauper’s burial field today, unless—it is the body of Tilde Gyricson, if I am correct.  The last time I saw this woman, she was alive and standing by you, Master Dans. I got the impression on the night of your party that she would rather die than go back to her husband.”
            Dans rubbed the white beard that edged his jaw.  “Am I being accused?”
            “Not at all.”  Milo raised palms to signal his pacific intentions.  “But we are not absolutely sure the body is that of Mistress Gyricson.  I ask for your help in identifying it.”
            “Speak to her husband.”  Dans waved his hand, as if shooing an insect.
            “Mistress Gyricson never returned home.  You have seen her, in the days after your dinner party, more recently than Adelgar.  I believe her agreement was to stay with you for two weeks?”
            Dans’s lips formed a tight line.  “She agreed to pay her husband’s debt by staying as my guest.  I know it may sound strange, to offer free lodging in exchange for a debt, but I was feeling generous that night.  The woman stayed two weeks, and when she left my house she was well and completely unharmed.”
            Milo nodded.  “Of course.  I remind you that you are not accused of any wrongdoing.  But since you are the last—that we know of—to see her alive, I thought you could help us in identifying the body.”
            Dans frown-pouted again.  “Why should it be hard to identify?”
            “I’m afraid this body was dead for some days before sheriffs took custody of it.  To tell the truth, it was found in the Bene Quarter.  It’s possible that Tilde Gyricson took up residence in the Bene after her stay in The Spray.  According to her husband, she never returned home.  We will, of course, also ask Master Gyricson to look at the body.  But identification may depend on the woman’s clothing and other items as much as physical appearance.  May I ask, Master Dans, if you noticed any personal items missing from your house after Mistress Gyricson left?”
            Dans’s expression remained as bland as ever, but he paused before replying.  “I’m sure Inga or Aisly would have told me if they missed anything.” 
            Milo thought he heard a bit of doubt in Dans’s tone.  Set the hook and haul him in.  “Perhaps I was mistaken then.  It’s been months since Mistress Gyricson was your guest.  Most likely, if she had taken anything of value, she would have sold it already.”  Milo made a little bow and turned as if to leave.
            “Oh, hell.  Now you’ve got me curious.”  Ody Dans pushed back from the desk.  “I’ll get a coat and come with you.  Some exercise would do me good anyway.”  He pulled open a wide drawer and carefully positioned the parchment in it.  Milo leaned close as if to look at the document.  “Excuse me!” said Dans.  Milo stepped back quickly, bumping into a bookcase.  Dans slowly slid the drawer shut.  Neither Dans nor Derian noticed Milo steadying himself with his hand on the bookshelf.
            With Ody Dans setting the pace, the three men walked downhill from The Spray much slower than Milo and Derian had walked up.  Ody Dans and Derian Chapman reviewed the nephew’s plans for his trip to Down’s End.  The uncle was pleased to hear that Milo Mortane would ride along as guard for Derian and his wagons.  They reached the stone building next to the pauper’s field in the late morning.  Felix Abrecan and Aidan Fleming had not yet arrived.  The gap-toothed crone who prepared bodies for burial met them outside the door.  She had forced a brush through her gray hair and tied it behind her head, making herself look somewhat less witch-like.
            “Fair morning, my lords.”  The woman bowed them into the preparation house.  “Got ’er in ’ere.”
            The body lay white-shrouded on a sturdy wood table.  A strong smell of lye masked other odors.  Ody Dans stepped close.  “How are we supposed to identify a body that has been masked and shrouded?”  He picked up an arm.  “By her hands?  Did she wear a ring?”
            “She did, my lord,” announced the burial woman.  “Look close at ’er finger.  Course it’s gone now.”
            Dans frowned.  One of the body’s fingers showed where a ring had been worn.  “Take off the head shroud.”
            “My lord?”
            “I want to see the face.”
            The burial woman rolled up the head shroud beginning at the neck, moving slowly.  Milo wondered at the special gentleness displayed to a dead person, then realized that if the shroud were pulled back too brusquely, it would take rotting flesh with it.  While the woman worked with the shroud, the door opened.  Adelgar Gyricson entered, Felix behind him.  Felix nodded to Milo and nudged Adelgar forward.  Gyricson had washed but hadn’t had time to change his clothes.  He smelled of apples, an odd juxtaposition with the odor of lye.
            “Oh gods.”  Gyricson’s words were less an imprecation than a sigh.
            The body had black hair and black eyebrows that could have been Tilde’s.  But the rest of the face was a mixture of decaying flesh and exposed bone.  For three days after he took possession of the body, Milo had kept it hidden in a cellar with the torso wrapped so that rodents could only access the face and feet.  He judged that the body’s hands resembled Tilde’s close enough to pass, so he had protected them.  The result was a body that looked like Tilde Gyricson in all the parts still whole.
            “Cover it up.”  Ody Dans turned to Milo.  “You were right about identifying the face, Sheriff Milo.  This could be any woman.  Of course, Master Gyricson would be familiar with the body.  Perhaps he would like to examine that.”
            Gyricson was weeping.  He shook his head.
            Dans continued: “In that case this body could be any woman found in the Bene.  She goes into the pauper’s field.”
            Milo knelt to a box at the end of the table.  “There were a couple items found with this woman.”  He laid a pair of fine lady’s shoes on the shrouded form, made of red leather.  Against the white shroud the red was almost garish.  “You may think you recognize these; I remember Mistress Gyricson wearing something like them at Master Dans’s house.  But we should be careful; they may not be the same shoes.”
            Gyricson cleared his throat.  “Inside the left shoe, two letters: T and G.”
            “I didn’t know that.”  Milo kept his face plain.  He looked at the left shoe, then handed it to Ody Dans who passed it to Gyricson.  The young husband wept again.  “Oh gods.  Tilde.  Oh gods.”
            Milo had knelt to the box while Dans and Gyricson looked at the shoes.  “There was only one other thing.  This was found inside the woman’s tunic.  As a sheriff I’ve learned that women often have a secret pocket.”  He laid a thin, leather-covered object on the white shroud.  Dans snatched it up.
            “It’s mine!”  Dans unfolded the leather cover, revealing a few pages of dry paper.  He quickly satisfied himself that no pages were missing.  “Where did you get this?”
            Internally Milo exulted.  Apparently I lucked onto something he values.  “As I said, Master Dans, it was found on this body.”
            For once Dans’s round face was a study in anxiety, followed by relief.  He swallowed.  “It’s mine.  As you guessed, Mistress Gyricson must have taken it while she was my guest.  That makes her a thief.”  The bland face returned.  “But we need not speak ill of the dead.  I have my papers back, and whole.  Tilde Gyricson need not go into the pauper’s field, if her husband can pay for a proper burial.”
            Gyricson merely stared at the shrouded body, weeping.
            “Hah!  In that case . . . here.”  Ody Dans put some coins into the burial preparation woman’s hand.  “See that she goes into her own hole, in the west cemetery.”

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

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