86. At River House
“If you don’t like the weather on the Great Downs, just wait fifteen minutes. It’ll change.” For Eádulf, this pronouncement constituted a major speech. Milo and Derian both laughed, partly from surprise. Eádulf’s proverb certainly fit their experience since leaving Down’s End. In four days on the road, the three riders had seen brilliant sunshine, wind-driven clouds, rain, sleet, an intense snowstorm that lasted only half an hour, and fog. Everywhere the road was a muddy track, in some places too slick to ride on; they avoided the worst spots by finding firmer footing in the prairie grass beside the wagon ruts. The wind rose and fell and shifted from one compass point to another, most often from the northwest. They had stayed one night at Crossroads Inn and camped out two others. Cold rain marked both nights out. Now, at the end of the fourth day, they were approaching River House, with its promise of a dry room and warm beds. As if in response to Eádulf’s words, a west wind came up, blowing fierce and cold into their faces. The riders leaned over their horses’ necks, huddling into their coats.
“Damn! How much further?” Derian shouted into the gale, though he rode only a few feet to Milo’s right. “Been more than fifteen minutes. If Eádulf’s right, we should see a change.” But rather than slackening, the wind gusted stronger, now throwing little arrowheads of sleet at them.
“There!” Milo pointed. A yellow glow in the distance, slightly downhill from them, then it disappeared; someone had shut the door against the weather. But the glimpse of shelter was enough to raise their spirits. Perhaps the horses, too, sensed the promise of food and a warm, dry place; they pushed through the wind with a will.
A mile later, at the entrance to River House, the wind had dropped by half and the sleet turned to a heavy rain. Milo and Derian yielded their mounts to Eádulf and entered the inn’s common room.
“Fair evening. That is, if you be indoors!” A gap-toothed man with sandy hair greeted Milo and Derian as they waited, dripping, just inside the door. The man and three others seated with him laughed. Four more guests occupied a second table, leaving most of the common room empty. Milo swept off his hat and inclined his head to the speaker.
“Innkeep?” Milo looked toward the kitchen.
“Ah! Welcome!” A bearded man wearing an apron bustled from the kitchen to them; Milo recognized Beornheard Green, the owner of River House. Green offered them a towel, which they used to wipe their faces and necks. “Master Chapman and Sir Mortane, if I remember aright. Two guests?”
“Three. But one room will be sufficient. Eádulf is taking our horses to your stable. He’ll come in after a bit.”
“Very good, Sir Milo. I’m sure he remembers Esa Agleca, my stable boy. Esa will help care for your animals. And here’s Glytha. Glytha, stew, bread and ales for Master Chapman and Sir Mortane. Unless either of you would prefer wine?”
Derian shook his head. “I’m tired of wine. River House ale is just what I want tonight.”
Glytha nodded, brown curls swinging around her head. “As you wish.”
“Tired of wine, Derian? Stonebridge wine? Is that possible?” Milo and Derian had a table to themselves. The other occupants of the common room were teamsters, four driving two wagons from Stonebridge to Down’s End and four going the other way. Once they learned that Milo and Derian did not share their occupation—and that they were Stonebridge sheriffs and Milo a knight—the wagon men shied away from conversation. Milo had no interest in the teamsters’ secrets and welcomed the privacy of a quiet corner.
Derian picked his teeth with a fingernail. “Seems that Eni Raegenhere and Eulard Barnet spoiled my taste for wine. Accounting for Raegenhere’s axle, our expenses in Down’s End, and warehouse charges, I sold a wagon of excellent Stonebridge wine at a pittance of a profit.”
“I thought you said the real profit would come next spring, when you take wines to the castles on the northern downs.”
“I did, and it will. Nevertheless, Barnet and Raegenhere took all the fun out of showing my wares to the worthies of Down’s End. Besides, this business with your sister changes everything; I thought I should report to Uncle Ody.”
Milo was taken aback for a moment. He leaned threateningly across the table. “Explain. What are you going to tell Ody?”
Derian held up his palms in a defensive gesture. “The same thing you will—or would, if you think about it. Amicia and Kenelm have been sent to Down’s End to raise an army to relieve Aylwin. What do you think are their chances of success?”
Milo had been considering this very question every mile of their journey. “I don’t know.”
“Maybe you don’t want to know. Maybe you don’t want to see.”
“Maybe you don’t want to know. Maybe you don’t want to see.”
“You tell me then.” Milo picked up his ale and glared at Derian over the mug.
“Kenelm is a soldier and Amicia is a girl. Neither of them really knows what they’re doing. I don’t mean to criticize, Milo, but you don’t either. The idea, of course, is to marry Amicia off to some influential Down’s End alderman and somehow by that to persuade the City Council to march to Aylwin’s relief. It won’t work.”
Derian drank, set his ale down, and wiped his mouth. “The most influential men in Down’s End are Todwin Ansquetil and Simun Baldwin. You saw that?”
“They’re both happily married, depressingly so, in my opinion. One is content with a horse-faced young wife and the other with a gray-haired ball of butter. The point is, neither will be interested in marrying Amicia, in spite of the fact that in two years she will be vastly more beautiful than their wives. By the gods! It’s as if these men actually find companionship with their women.”
Milo smiled at Derian’s feigned cynicism. “Well, I’ve heard that can happen; husbands and wives who love each other.”
Derian grinned. “Depressing, as I said. So, who among the leaders of Down’s End is available as a possible target? I’ll tell you. Eulard Barnet.”
Milo puffed out his cheeks. “Gods!”
“Don’t tell me you didn’t see that! The man’s wife is dead, his son is dead, and he certainly doesn’t want Ada to inherit his fortune. In two years he could have a son by Amicia—not an unpleasant prospect in itself—and appoint a steward to manage his heir’s affairs until the boy comes of age; that is, if Barnet’s health begins to fail. Who knows? Barnet might live to see a son grow up. He could enjoy Amicia and an heir.”
“Barnet offered to host Kenelm, Amicia, and Raymond as his guests.” Milo rubbed his forehead. “I declined for my sister, only thinking we shouldn’t be too indebted to one benefactor too soon. Kenelm has golds enough to keep them a year if he’s careful. I didn’t consider Barnet as a suitor.”
Derian looked puzzled. “Why not? It’s obvious, isn’t it? Barnet is rich and old, he’s an alderman, and he wants a male heir. Just the sort of man Kenelm and Amicia should target. Except it won’t work. Even if Barnet were to marry Amicia and push for an army to relieve Hyacintho Flumen, he doesn’t have enough influence on the Council. If you had Ansquetil or Baldwin on your side, then adding Barnet might win the day. But without the mayor or the weavers’ guild, you’ll not persuade Down’s End to fight.”
“Gods! It makes sense when you say it.” Milo kept rubbing his forehead. “I just didn’t want to imagine Barnet with Amicia. You know what I mean—my little sister.”
“Maybe you need to imagine it. That’s why Aylwin sent her to Down’s End, so some rich old man can take her into his bed. Barnet’s older than some, but there are fatter and crueler possibilities. She could do worse.” Derian swallowed some ale. “And here’s the point, Milo. I don’t think she could do better. Barnet’s the best target in Down’s End, but he couldn’t deliver the army Aylwin needs, even if he tried hard.”
Milo finished the thought for Derian. “And Barnet wouldn’t try hard.”
“Exactly. Barnet would bed Amicia, make a few speeches about opposing the invader, and wait for his heir. Down’s End is not the answer.”
“And you think your uncle Ody is?”
“Maybe. Think about it, Milo. Uncle Ody may be cruel, vindictive, calculating, and lots of other nasty things. But Ody Dans loves Stonebridge, or at least his private vision of Stonebridge. He wants the city to be great: beautiful and rich and powerful. He encourages my little attempts at trade with Down’s End not just to make money but also to assert influence. Whenever I return to Stonebridge, he interrogates me about the places I’ve been. He approved my idea of shipping wine to Lata Alta Flumen, Saltas Semitas, and Aurea Prati partly because he could get a report on lords Asselin, Le Grant, and Postel. Surely you’ve seen that some of his interest in you is sparked by the fact that you’re a Mortane; you know Hyacintho Flumen.
“Now, I don’t know exactly what Uncle Ody wants. Does he want Stonebridge to rule over the rest of Tarquint? Maybe he wants Cippenham and Down’s End to join Stonebridge as equals in a league of cities. Does he regard castle lords as allies or threats? I tell you, I don’t know. But I am sure of two things. His ambitions for Stonebridge are great, and he would forever oppose the rule of a foreign queen.”
Derian fell silent. Milo knew the merchant was watching him, but he sat for a minute without answering. The teamsters at one table laughed at some joke, then the other table joined in the humor. No one was paying attention to Derian and Milo.
“Where’s Eádulf? He should be done with the horses by now.” Milo pushed back from the table. “I better check on him.”
“Wait, please.” Derian patted the table. “Tell me what you’re thinking.”
Milo shut his eyes and sighed. “I think you’re right about Eulard Barnet. Kenelm won’t find Amicia a better match in Down’s End, but it won’t help Aylwin. I listened to Baldwin and Ansquetil. They are persuaded that the free cities in Herminia have prospered under Rudolf and Mariel; they anticipate similar treatment for free cities in Tarquint. They don’t see why Down’s End should fight to help a castle lord. So Amicia will give up her future for nothing. And that vexes me.
“The truth is, Derian, I don’t give two figs for Aylwin. The castle should have been mine, not his. Father chose him to inherit Hyacintho Flumen even though I am the older. If Mariel makes him bend the knee, it’s nothing less that what he deserves. But I would not like to see Amicia’s life bargained away for nothing.
“Now you hint that Ody Dans will be interested in this business. He won’t care any more for Aylwin than I do, but he might see an opportunity for Stonebridge, you say. Interesting. But the Herminians have ten thousand men. The Stonebridge City Guard would have to be multiplied ten times—fifty times—to become a force that could break the siege of Hyacintho Flumen. Would even Master Dans’s considerable influence be sufficient to persuade the Assembly to build such an army? And what about Osred Tondbert, the great hoarder of secrets? Who would want to give him an army?”
Derian nodded and tapped the tabletop excitedly. “Remember, Milo, what I said. I don’t know what my uncle will do or even what he really wants. But he will listen to me, and once he knows about Mariel’s invasion, he’ll listen to you. Why shouldn’t you and I benefit from this whole business? Who knows? You might find a way to save Amicia from Eulard Barnet.”
Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.