Thursday, October 24, 2013

Castles 74

74. Near Down’s End

            “Comin’ on dark.  Camp here.”
            “Oh, Gods.  It’s but ten miles more.  We can do that!”
            The second voice belonged to Derian Chapman.  His complaint had no more influence over the first speaker than a farmer’s pleadings with rain clouds.  Eni Raegenhere was not about to let Chapman tell him how far to push his beasts.  “We might, p’raps.  But I ain’t gonna break ’nother axle.”
            Raegenhere’s face was that of a veteran teamster, wrinkled, dry, and red.  There were four young sons waiting for him in Down’s End, he said, all of them sharing their father’s green eyes.  He had short hair and a bushy beard, both mixtures of gray, white, and black.  When he announced his decision to stop, he wagged his beard in a way that bespoke finality.
            On the question of stopping, Milo’s opinion mattered even less than Derian’s, but if asked he would have sided with Raegenhere.  The “road” leading into Down’s End was really only a wagon trail, a rope of interwoven ruts carved by wagon wheels into the prairie.  Once the second moon rose there would be enough light to find the best track, but until then it would be easy to drive over a rock or into a washout.  Milo also guessed that the warehouses of Down’s End would be locked up for the night.  Better to spend one more night on the ground than delay sleep until Derian had haggled a good price from some merchant’s proctor.
            Raegenhere and Chapman had been at odds most of the way from Stonebridge.  Problems started the first day out.  With the aid of Dru Gifardus’s Hill Corral horses, Chapman’s rented wagons, laden with Stonebridge wines, inched their way over the summit of the Stonebridge hill.  The first wagon, driven by Oswy Wodens, descended the first and steepest part of the outer slope safely.  But Eni Raegenhere’s wagon went too fast; either his brake didn’t work properly or the load was too great.  The wagon picked up speed and would have run away with Raegenhere’s team if Dru Gifardus hadn’t thrown the “land anchor,” a device he invented for just this purpose.  The land anchor consisted of a heavy iron chain attached to a wagon’s rear axle at one end and a great five-headed iron hook on the other.  The anchor caught in the rocky soil and the chain jerked the wagon to a stop, breaking the axle in the process.  The resulting crash broke four wine pots, though most of Derian’s cargo survived intact.
            Raegenhere blamed Chapman, claiming he had overloaded the wagon.  Chapman blamed Raegenhere, saying he should have controlled his team better.  Raegenhere objected that he had safely carried many a load between his home city of Down’s End and Stonebridge; the fault lay in an overloaded wagon!  Chapman appealed to Dru Gifardus, who had much experience with wagons on the Stonebridge summit, but the way station master refused to take a side.  The most important point in the whole affair, Gifardus said, was that the land anchor prevented a much worse crash.  But neither Chapman nor Raegenhere felt much gratitude; they were concerned with costs and delay.  In the end, Raegenhere had to pay for a new axle, and Chapman had to wait while repairs were made.  For the rest of the journey, Derian pushed the drivers to move faster.  Eni Raegenhere was content to take his time.
            Now, ten miles from Down’s End, Chapman kept most of his imprecations under his breath.  Once Raegenhere decided to stop for the night, the matter was settled.  Wodens and Raegenhere unhitched their horses, brushed them down and tethered them loosely so they could wander a bit.  Milo drew straws with Eádulf for first watch.  Milo cheated, making sure that Eádulf won the draw every night.  It was an easy way to win Eádulf’s affection, and Milo had no preference between sleeping early or late anyway.
            In the morning, Eádulf built a fire to roast some bacon while Oswy and Eni hitched their teams.  Eádulf had become unofficial cook for the wagon train, cooking mostly beans in the evening and rashers of bacon in the morning.  Milo was eagerly anticipating better meals in Down’s End.  Though they transported excellent wine, the teamsters and their guards drank watery beer from a large keg on the back of Oswy’s wagon.
            Derian had to dicker with three warehouses before getting the rental price he wanted for his cargo.  It seemed to Milo that Derian greatly enjoyed bargaining with the Down’s Enders.  By noon he had what he wanted, and he directed Wodens and Raegenhere to a building in the western part of Down’s End, away from East Lake.  “I’m going to like this location,” he predicted to Milo, when the unloading was almost complete.  “I don’t want some place on the south side near the tanneries, and the lake front gets really cold in winter.”
            Milo puzzled at this.  “I thought you planned to sell your wares quickly.  If you rent space into the winter, you’ll eat up your profits.”
            “To a degree, yes.”  Derian shrugged.  “The big profit comes in the spring when I take a wagon north to castles Saltas Semitas, Auria Prati, and Lata Altum Flumen.  While I’m here, though, I must balance the extra expenses of holding my wares against the higher prices I may get by making the Down’s Enders wait.  It’s something of a game, you see?”
            “You’re risking your own money, I suppose.”
            “Actually, it’s uncle Ody’s money.  Of course, that only means that if I lose it, the consequences are worse.”  Derian smiled broadly and chuckled.  “In Stonebridge you said you play the game of power.  I play the game of profit.  I’m pretty good at it.”
            As if sent by a god to punish Chapman’s pride, a city official met them at the door of the warehouse.  He was a short man with wavy black hair, wearing a blue tunic and black hose.  A silver chain around his neck held his badge of office, a silver disk embossed with the seal of the city.  With him were two mailed men wearing short swords.
            “I’m looking for Derian Chapman of Stonebridge,” the man announced.  “From the description given me, I suspect you’re the man I want.”  One of the armed men behind the official touched the hilt of his sword.
            Derian looked sideways at Milo, mystified.  He shrugged.  “I’m Derian Chapman.”
            “Fair afternoon, Master Chapman.  I am Talbot Theobald, clerk of Down’s End Court and Council.  You are hereby summoned to present yourself in court chambers tomorrow morning.” 
            “On what charge?”  Derian made his voice calm, dignified.
            Theobald made a pacific open palmed gesture.  “You are not charged with any crime.  The court requires your testimony on two matters.  The more recent matter involves damages suffered by one Eni Raegenhere, a wagon master of Down’s End, while he was in your employ.  He claims that you overloaded his wagon, which cost him a broken axle.  He claims recompense.”
            “What?  How?”  Outrage mixed with astonishment.  Derian spun around, looking for Raegenhere.  Only moments before the teamster had been helping unload wine.  “If Eni has claims against me, he should bring them to Stonebridge, where the damage occurred.”
            At that moment Raegenhere emerged from the warehouse.  He greeted the city clerk with a polite nod and grinned at Derian.  Milo maintained a straight face, but only barely; Derian was almost bursting to ask how the teamster’s allegations had arrived so swiftly.
            The court clerk nodded as if agreeing with Derian.  “Perhaps you will convince the court on that point.  Until the matter is settled, the city will guard your merchandise.”  Theobald motioned to the men with him.  “These sheriffs will see to it that no one disturbs your cargo.  It will stay here, all of it, until the court decides this matter.”
            Derian put a hand over his mouth, shaking with anger.  After many heartbeats he said, “I presume the expense of the guard will be borne by the city?”
            “By no means.  You will be presented with the costs after the court has ruled.”
            Derian chewed his lip.  Milo was impressed with the merchant’s restraint.  Raegenhere has completely outmaneuvered him, using city sheriffs to extort the price of a new axle.  I wonder how a teamster has such influence with the Council.
            Derian looked daggers at Raegenhere, but directed his words to Clerk Theobald, “You said this was the more recent of two matters on which I am to testify.  What is the other?”
            “One of the Aldermen, a banker named Barnet, would like to question you about a fugitive.  I believe the young man’s name is Avery Doin.”

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

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