Thursday, January 9, 2014

Castles 85

85. In Down’s End

            “What are they doing?”  Amicia pushed close to Milo.  Pedestrians and riders alike were moving to the sides of the street.  Porches in front of businesses, including Freeman’s House, were becoming crowded. 
            An albino man with angry red splotches on his arms was walking in the middle of the street, one of the main avenues of Down’s End.  He wore a simple brown tunic, tied with a rope belt.  His feet and lower legs were filthy, clad in leather sandals with no hose.  Cold rain the last three nights had made mud of many streets in Down’s End; the man’s legs were spattered with it.  The albino’s snow-white hair lay like a glacier on his shoulders.  Behind him walked twelve men carrying three bodies on pallets, four pallbearers to each.  A crowd of mourners—Milo guessed five hundred people—filled the street behind the dead.
            “It’s a priest of the old god.  Name’s Wendelbeorht.”  The explanation came from behind Amicia and Milo.  Milo squeezed even closer to Amicia to let Ada Barnet move next to him.  “Wendelbeorht is priest of the south district.  They’ve probably been carrying these bodies for an hour or two, winding through the streets of Down’s End.  The procession gets bigger as they move along.”
            Amicia had never seen such a thing.  “Where are they taking them?”
            “Burial field.”  Ada pointed.  “There.  Someone would have dug the hole this morning.  Hoist her up, Milo, so she can see.”
            Milo took his sister by the waist and lifted.  Amicia was only beginning to take on the body contours of a woman, and as a girl she had always been light and wiry; if she had been wearing breeches rather than a kirtle, he could have set her on his shoulders.  He held her above the crowd.
            “Oh!  You’re right, Ada.  There’s just one hole.  Will they bury all three in it?”
            “Aye.  The burial field is running out of space.  The priests have already claimed a new field west of the city, but for now they conserve burial plots by stacking poor folk in shared graves.”
            The pallbearers had moved beyond their position on the porch of Freeman’s House; mourners shuffled by ten abreast, filling the street.  Milo put his sister down.  She asked, “Do rich folk also bury their dead here?”
            Ada motioned with her head.  “Let’s go inside.  Unless you want to fight through the crowd and listen to the priest.”
            “No, no.  Let’s go in.”  Amicia followed Ada into Freeman’s House, with Milo on her heels.  Once the door shut behind them, quiet enveloped them.  The crowd in the street wasn’t riotous or angry, but jostling and whispering.  Indoors, it was warm and spacious and clean, qualities paid for by the high rates Freeman’s House charged its lodgers.
            Ada pointed to an alcove where three cloth-covered chairs were arranged around a small table.  A round woven rug made the space seem almost like a private room.  “The priests give preference to worshipers of the old god, which is why the burial field has so many paupers.  But rich folk lie there too; you’d be surprised how many successful weavers and dyers pay for spaces in the burial field.  You can find dozens of headstones of prominent citizens on the west end of the field.”
            A young man wearing a blue tunic tucked into russet breeches came near their chairs and bowed; Freeman’s House employed men as well as women as servers.  “Ladies, Sir.  Shall I bring something to drink?”
            Ada smiled at Amicia.  “It’s your last chance, Amicia.  After this, you have to drink whatever Father has in his cellar.”
            Amicia looked at Milo.  “Can I have pear wine?”
            The pear wine served at Freeman’s House was sticky sweet, almost unbearable.  Amicia loved it.  Milo looked at Ada, but she merely held an open palm to him; it was his decision.   Milo spoke to the waiter.  “A bottle of pear wine.  And three glasses, please.”
            A bow.  “As you wish.”
            Milo looked around the common room.  Only two other people were there; the breakfast guests had dispersed and mid-day sup would not be available for another hour.  Tucked away in the alcove, there was no one to hear them.  “We’re deeply grateful, Ada, that you and your father are willing to help us out this way.”
            Ada’s blue eyes fixed him.  “Oh? Really?  I have never known Father to offer help without expecting something in return.  Has he told you what he wants?”
            “No.  He heard me tell Simun Baldwin and Todwin Ansquetil that I need to leave Down’s End and that Kenelm Ash hasn’t returned; he immediately suggested inviting Amicia to guest at No. 5 Alderman’s Row until Kenelm and Raymond turn up.  I expect them soon, possibly today.  Amicia should not be your visitor for long.”
            A smile flickered across Ada’s face, to be replaced by a frown.  “Surely you didn’t think this offer sprang from pure generosity.” 
            Milo pursed his lips.  “Perhaps not.  But as I say, the visit should be short.  And I hope that your presence in the house will protect Amicia’s reputation.”
            The waiter came, placed wine and glasses on the table, and bowed.  “Will there be anything else?”
            “No,” said Milo.  Milo handed the waiter a silver coin.  When he didn’t move, Milo gave him two more coins.  The waiter retreated and turned away.
            Milo defended himself against Ada’s accusing expression.  “Derian always pays when we come here.”           
            Chuckling, Ada filled the wine glasses.  “I take it Chapman created your difficulty?”
            A sip of pear wine was enough; Milo put his glass down.  “Derian thought it would take weeks in Down’s End to sell his wines.  When we left, I assumed I’d stay a week or two and head back to Stonebridge.  But after this business with Raegenhere—and, I should say, the confrontation with your father—Derian looked for a quick resolution of his wine business.  Two days ago he struck a bargain with a local merchant.  He sold the lot.  Says he wants to get back to Stonebridge promptly.  So I’m in a bind.  The fact is, without Derian to pay the bills, I can’t afford to stay in Down’s End.  Eádulf and I must get back to the Citadel.”
            “But Kenelm gave you money.”  Amicia licked sweet wine from her lips.  “A bag of golds.  At least it looked that way to me.” 
            Milo met her grin.  “You weren’t supposed to see that, Toadface.  That money is for you, which is the only reason I spent a bit of it on pear wine just now.  I can’t go wasting it on lodging and board for Eádulf and me; it’s got to last until you finish your business in Down’s End.  That is why …” Milo turned a serious face to Ada, “… I am especially grateful to you.  You can help keep Amicia and her money safe until Kenelm returns.”
            “Oh?  Really?  Milo, you are a trusting soul.  First my father and then me.”
            Milo picked up his wine glass and put it down without drinking.  “I’m confident you are worthy of my trust, Ada.  As soon as Derian and I get home, we’re going to visit Ody Dans.”
            Ada inclined her head.  “I see.”
            “I don’t.”  Amicia put her empty glass by the wine bottle, motioning for more.  “Who is Ody Dans?”
            Milo poured Amicia half a glass.  “That’s enough for now, Toadface.  You can have more tonight at Alderman Barnet’s house.  Ody Dans is Derian’s uncle; he’s rich and quite influential in Stonebridge.”
            “Good for him.  What does that have to do with Ada?”  Amicia tossed her hair as she did so often as a girl.  Milo couldn’t help but smile.
            Ada laid her hand on Amicia’s forearm.  “That’s something I think I should explain later.  Let’s go get your clothes.”
            “Right.”  Milo stood up, stoppered the wine bottle.  “Before we go, I need to leave word with the innkeeper.  When Kenelm comes looking here, they need to tell him Amicia is a guest of Alderman Barnet.”

            By chance, Milo’s message for Kenelm proved unneeded.  Kenelm and Raymond Travers arrived in Down’s End in late afternoon, hurrying toward Freeman’s House because sleet was flying in a north wind.  Miserable weather, cold and wet, and almost dark; the streets were practically empty.  With coats pulled around people’s faces, one could hardly recognize friend or foe.  Kenelm miscounted streets and turned into a side street that dead-ended in a farrier’s shop.  The farrier was finishing his last work of the day, replacing a shoe for a horse whose owner, according to the owner’s servant, must be ready to ride the next morning.  The servant was Eádulf.
            Sir Kenelm and Raymond huddled close to the embers of the farrier’s fire while the workman tacked the shoe to Blackie’s foot.  Eádulf explained to them how Milo’s plans had changed, and that Milo, Eádulf, and Derian Chapman would leave for Stonebridge in the morning.  Rather than rent a room in Freeman’s House, Kenelm decided to accompany Eádulf to No. 5 Alderman’s Row.  As Kenelm hoped, when they reached Barnet’s house, the alderman insisted that knight and squire be his guests for the night.  Kenelm could share a room with Milo, and Raymond and Eádulf could spend the night comfortably in the hayloft of Barnet’s stable.  Derian Chapman had a room of his own.
            Kenelm thus joined Milo, Amicia, and Derian as guests at sup with Alderman Barnet and Ada.  A table of six contrasted sharply with the sumptuous party Barnet had hosted two weeks before.  Host and guests were seated around the end of the long table nearest the fireplace, Amicia seated as honored guest at Barnet’s right.  Two serving girls brought mutton stew in bread trenchers, followed by grilled fish fillets.  The fish was fresh, Barnet said, bought from the morning’s catch in West Lake.  Fresh fish, Barnet opined, was one of the truly fine features of life in Down’s End, available almost all year.
            Milo had no interest in discussing the gustatory advantages of Down’s End, so he was relieved when Ada blithely redirected the conversation.  “Sir Kenelm, what did you find between the lakes?  There have been rumors for weeks about a new ‘lord.’  Some are saying that the folk in the villages have pledged fealty to him.  They probably want to avoid paying hidgield.  Will they get away with it?”
            Kenelm took a fishbone from his lips, laying it politely aside.  He answered Ada’s question, but his eyes were on Milo.  “The rumors are substantially true.”
            “Say on.”  Milo leaned forward on one elbow.
            “A man named Martin Cedarborne has established himself as lord of Inter Lucus.”  Kenelm spoke with plain sincerity, which slowly transformed Ada’s disbelieving smile into an expression of wonder.  “I have viewed the castle before, in past years when I collected hidgield for Lord Hereward.  It was a ruin.  In little more than four months Lord Martin has greatly healed the castle.  The villagers of Senerham and Inter Lucus are convinced that he is a genuine lord and that he can protect them.  I think they’re right.  I decided immediately, given Lord Aylwin’s current distress, to abandon any claim Hyacintho Flumen might have made between the lakes.”  Kenelm shifted his gaze to Amicia.  “I had hoped, Lady Amicia, to collect at least some coin between the lakes to supplement our resources.  In this I failed.”
            Amicia’s eyebrows knit together; the girl was obviously trying to deduce the implications of Kenelm’s speech, but she had to guard her tongue before Eulard Barnet.  “Please continue, Sir Kenelm.”
            “Lord Martin has imported a priest of the old god from Down’s End.  He intends to build a Prayer House on property adjacent to the grounds of castle Inter Lucus.  He claims that he came to Inter Lucus from a distant town called Lafayette and that in Lafayette he worshiped the old god.  He says, in fact, that there is only one god, and that the castle gods are not gods at all.”
            Eulard Barnet laughed.  “The man is insane.  He controls a castle but denies the castle gods?”
            Kenelm’s expression prohibited levity.  “He seemed sane to me.  He simply does not believe in castle gods.  At the same time he clearly and effectively commands Inter Lucus.  And he has not a shred of dignity.  He would submit to Mariel in a moment and think it right to do so.”
            Milo’s thoughts flew to Aylwin, for a moment without hate.  Kenelm’s mention of the bizarre mindset of the new lord brought a picture of Aylwin to Milo.  To be lord of Hyacintho Flumen, yet surrounded by the army of the Herminians and foreseeing humiliation in the end—Milo almost felt pity for Aylwin.  Almost.

             Raymond Travers and Eádulf ate in the kitchen with Barnet’s servants.  Raymond also told stories of what he had seen between the lakes.  The youngest of the serving girls was a worshiper of the old god.  Too shy to speak up, she listened in wonder to news of Lord Martin of Inter Lucus.           

Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.

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