89. At Castle Inter Lucus
On Marty’s calendar (still provisional, as he watched days grow shorter) the Harvest Festival began on November 22. People began camping out three days before, and the crowd grew rapidly. By Elfric Ash’s count, which he made every morning during a sunrise tour of the festival grounds, at least four hundred people were present each day, and since people arrived and departed daily the total of those who attended had to be much higher.
The festival ran six cold days, with leaden skies and light winds from the northwest. To Marty’s relief, the only precipitation was a skiff of snow on the fourth day. The people between the lakes weren’t surprised; between harvest season and winter most years had two or three weeks of forstlic, when frozen ground made for relatively easy travel (compared to the mud of fall and the snow drifts of deep winter). Forstlic was the perfect time, they said, for market days. Lord Martin’s Harvest Festival constituted the grandest market anyone could remember.
Farmers and merchants traded grain, livestock, salted and smoked meats, prepared foods of many kinds, barrels, ironwork, baskets, leather goods, and clothing. Craftsmen repaired tools in temporary shops. Men cooperated together in a butchery that reduced dozens of cows and pigs to meat ready for storage in winter cold-houses. Bakery wagons sold fresh loaves every day. There was plenty of ale, wine, and cider, especially in the evenings.
Trading and manufacture occupied the mornings and early afternoons. When the sun began to get low, music and prizes announced from the “grandstand” created a party atmosphere. Bundled in coats and cloaks, people couldn’t dance much, but they sang loudly around their campfires and cheered the recipients of Marty’s prizes. After announcing prizewinners, Marty entered Inter Lucus and put on the nightly light show. He gave each night’s performance a distinctive effect by emphasizing a different color. Festival attendees quickly took to comparing the “green show” with the “red show” and so on.
During the day, Marty circulated among the tents, shops, and livestock pens with Os Oswald or Ealdwine Smithson as a kind of bodyguard. He worked hard to learn names, taking notes on castle-made paper. Many folk were intrigued and impressed; they watched intently as Marty dipped a quill into an ink bottle held by his guard and scratched words on sheets of paper clamped to a wooden slab. Marty saw a similar fascination when he stood near Caelin’s hidgield office. Assisted by Leo Dudd or Elfric Ash, Caelin sat at a table under a tent at the foot of the castle hill, only twenty feet from Prayer House. Every morning of the festival, heads of households lined up at the hidgield tent. In most cases, Caelin had a written record prepared of the hidgield the farmer or merchant had already agreed to pay. People watched in fascination as Caelin ran his finger down the list of names and found the hidgield assigned to them. Marty thought: In a mostly illiterate culture, written records are almost as magical as a castle. That thought helped catalyze a plan that had been growing in his mind.
Before sunrise on November 25, Marty found his way to a campfire where Aglefen Fairfax, a farmer from beyond Senerham, was frying bacon and eggs for himself and his eleven-year-old son, Besyrwen. Fairfax startled at seeing the castle lord appear in the dim light and laid his iron frying pan on the ground.
“Please don’t get up. Go ahead with your cooking.” Marty warmed his hands by the fire and squatted. “It smells good.”
“We would be honored to share, my lord. Besyrwen! Fetch a plate for Lord Martin.”
“Thank you, Master Fairfax. I’ve had breakfast already, but a piece of that bacon would be wonderful.”
Fairfax moved bits of meat around in his pan with a knife. When it was ready, he signaled to his son and speared some of the food onto a simple wooden plate held by the boy. Besyrwen, a short boy with close cropped black hair, brought it to Marty.
“Elfric Ash says you will quit the festival today,” Marty said. He bit off a bit of bacon.
“Aye, my lord.” Fairfax tilted eggs from his pan onto plates. “Besyrwen and me, we brought a full wagon o’ wheat three days ago. Sold some for golds, which my lord knows, as we paid hidgield. ’N we traded the rest for salt, leather, some wool cloth, and a new axe-head. ’Tis all gone, and well gone. Time to go home. Aedre, that’s me wife, be waitin’.” Besyrwen was already plowing through his breakfast, scooping up runny egg yoke with a wooden spoon. The father popped some bacon in his mouth and chewed deliberately.
“I’m glad I caught you before you left.” Marty tilted his head toward Besyrwen. “Your only child?”
“Only living, my lord. Aedre has birthed four. Three and one. Boys ’n a girl. Others died as babes. Devil’s fire took ’em.” Fairfax shuddered and stared at the ground. He looked from his son to Marty, his face tight, as if considering whether to reveal a secret. “Wise woman told me the gods was jealous ’o my rye. My father grew rye, ’n his father ’fore ’im. But after three babes… I told Aedre we’d grow only wheat. Twelve years ago, that was. ’N now Besyrwen is eleven. I honored the gods by growin’ wheat. But folk say Lord Martin don’t believe in the gods.” Fairfax’s expression pleaded with Marty for understanding, for permission to act as he had.
Something in Marty’s memory clicked, a random fact from a novel or Trivial Pursuit: ergotism, a fungal infection in grains, most often rye. “It is true, Master Fairfax, that I do not believe in castle gods. But your wise woman might be partly right. The devil’s fire can grow in rye, especially if it gets wet. By growing wheat, you may have kept the disease from spreading.”
The farmer considered this. “You say the gods don’t mind me plantin’ rye?”
“Rye is not the problem. The danger is not the gods or the grain, but the disease. The disease can grow in rye. If you plant rye, grow only a little. Harvest it dry and keep it dry. Grind it into flour and use all the flour in baking. If it gets wet in the field or in the barn, burn it.”
Fairfax’s eyes widened at these strictures, but he nodded. “Perhaps I’ll plant rye in the far corner, away from the slough. Mostly wheat, a little rye.”
“I suppose you have already planted winter wheat.”
“Aye, my lord.” Fairfax started eating his eggs.
“And you will plant summer wheat in spring.”
“Aye. And maybe some rye, too.”
“Very well. Will you need Besyrwen before then?”
The farmer’s eyebrows bunched in surprise. “I don’t understand, my lord.”
“I suppose you have a milk cow or two, or a goat. Some chickens. A plow horse. On a farm there is always work to do. But the heavy work comes in spring, doesn’t it? That’s when you need Besyrwen to help.”
Fairfax looked more confused.
“I propose, Master Fairfax, that Besyrwen live in Inter Lucus for the winter.”
“In the castle?” Fairfax was incredulous.
“In the village. But he would come to the castle every day.”
“By the gods!” Fairfax checked himself. “In God’s name, why?”
“I would like to teach him how to read, write, and keep figures. I watched you and the boy when you met with Caelin. I could see you thinking how useful it would be for a boy to read and write. And I agree. I think it’s very useful when people can read and write and figure. It’s good for the people, and it’s good for their lord. I wish I could teach many children, but I have to start with only a few. I think Besyrwen is a bright boy; I think he can learn quickly.”
Fairfax’s lips made a little “o” as he chewed on Marty’s words, but Besyrwen responded quickly. “I’d like that, I would! Da, can I do it? Can I stay?”
Marty answered, giving the farmer time to think. “You must go home first, Besyrwen. Your father and mother will need to talk about this. If they say yes, then you must be ready to work hard. You won’t learn all I have to teach you in four months. If you work hard and make progress, I’ll want you back in school next winter, and the winter after that. I won’t tolerate disobedience or laziness.”
“I promise, my lord! I’ll work hard. O Da, can I?”
Fairfax spoke to Marty instead of his son. “He stays in the village? Where?”
“I’ve spoken with Alfwald and Fridiswid Redwine. They have extra rooms in their house. You will need to pay Alfwald and Fridiswid, but the students who live there will do chores for some of the cost. Also, I will have work for students in the castle, after lessons, so I will help pay the Redwines.”
“O Da, can I?”
“If Lord Martin invites you to school, boy, to school you’ll go. But first, like ’e says, we go home. You’ll say farewell to your Ma.”
The boy placed his plate on the ground, stood, and threw his shoulders back. For a moment, Marty thought he would shout for joy. Instead, he bowed solemnly. “I am most pleased, my lord, to accept your invitation.”
Besyrwen was the first. No—Ora, Caelin, Isen, and Alf were already taking lessons. The sheriffs too—Ealdwine, Leo, Os, and Elfric wanted to learn. So Besyrwen was the first of the new students. By the end of Harvest Festival, Marty added five others: Went Bycwine, Caelin’s brother; Ernulf Penrict, son of the Senerham blacksmith; Dodric Night, son of a basket maker who lived in village Inter Lucus; a girl from Senerham, Tayte Graham; and Whitney Ablendan, the girl who had discovered Isen in her father’s barn. Besyrwen, Ernulf, and Tayte would board at the Redwine house; they could walk to the castle together, along with Dodric. Since the Bycwine and Ablendan farms were some miles from Inter Lucus, Marty decided that Went Bycwine and Whitney Ablendan would live in the castle. In all, Collegium Inter Lucus had 14 students, from 25-year-old Elfric Ash to the eleven-year-olds, Besyrwen Fairfax and Tayte Graham. A week after the Harvest Festival, the “college” began classes.
Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.