Thursday, February 27, 2014

Castles 92

92. In Stonebridge

            A scratching sound roused Milo from sleep.  It wasn’t very loud; the wind whistling under the eaves of the Citadel outside was louder, in spite of the thick stone wall.  But Milo slept lightly, and he knew what the scratching meant.  He shuffled across his cell, his feet sticking to the icy floor, and opened his door.  Tilde was wrapped in a black blanket like a shroud; in the faint light of the corridor she could have been a shade from the afterworld.  Milo bolted the door after she came in.  “Can’t sleep,” she whispered.
            “Not surprising,” said Milo.  “There’s not a spot in the Citadel that’s been genuinely warm for a month, other than the kitchen.”  He took her hand and pulled her to his cot.  The narrow bed forced them to lie close.
            “It’s not the cold.”  She turned her back to him and wiggled her butt against him.  “I can always come here and get warm.”
            “True enough, I suppose.”  His left hand slipped around her side to cup a breast.  “You certainly know how to make me warm.  So what is it?”
            “What’s keeping you awake if it’s not the cold?”
            “Tondbert.  I think he knows I’m pregnant.”
            “What of it?  It won’t be long ’til everyone knows.”  Milo let his hand trace the curve of her hip.
            “When he looks at me, you can see that he’s thinking.  And I see it when he looks at you, Milo.  He’s calculating.  He’s weighing up how to use me against you and when to do it.”
            “Possibly, even likely.  But he’s also reminding himself how useful your testimony would be against Ody Dans.  At just the right moment, when Dans threatens him, Tondbert can produce a witness Dans thought was dead.  You need not fear.  Tondbert wants to keep you safe.”
            Tilde grabbed Milo’s hand to stop its movement.  “Please take this seriously, Milo.  I fear the man.  He’s dangerous.”
            “Oh, I agree.  But he will not be dangerous much longer.”
            Tilde whirled on the cot like a summer windstorm, bringing her lips close to Milo’s.  “Why not?”
            “The Assembly has been pressuring Commander Tondbert to move against Ifing Redhair and his Falcons.  I think we will venture into the Bene Quarter again, and this time the commander will go with us.”
            “And what then?”
            “Shush.  It is impossible for you to tell what you do not know.”  He kissed her.  “But there is something I need you to do.”
            “And that is?”
            “I’ll explain after.”  He kissed her again, and she responded willingly.

            Every table in the Citadel refectory had at least two men breakfasting.  Milo and Felix sat near a wall, allowing Milo opportunity to survey the room while he and his patrol partner sipped hot cider, spiced with cloves.  They had already eaten and were waiting for morning muster.  The ranks of under-sheriffs had been gradually filling for six months; numerically, at least, the guard was back to what some called full strength.  In reality, Milo thought, half the new recruits would be useless in a serious fight.  Not that they’re cowards; they just haven’t trained enough.
            Milo also knew that “full strength” was a matter of contention in the Stonebridge Assembly.  Osred Tondbert continually entreated the Assembly for more men.  The City Guard could barely patrol the streets, the commander argued, much less defend the city.  Ody Dans and a few other assemblymen would sometimes make speeches in favor of Tondbert’s proposals, but somehow no major expansion of the Guard won approval.  The rich families of Stonebridge feared that if the Guard were too strong, Tondbert might move against them.  They needed the City Guard to suppress the Falcons and Hawks, at least to the degree necessary for industry and commerce.  But Tondbert they regarded as little better than Ifing Redhair or Bo Leanberth, the chieftains of the gangs they used him to restrain.  All the great families employed their own armsmen to provide safety for their villas and walled estates.  In fact, Milo had learned, Ody Dans’s private security at The Spray was fewer in number than many rich houses.
            “Today, do you think?”  Felix spoke sotto voce, his gaze fixed on men on the other side of the room.
            Milo had shared his belief, based on bits of information gained from Derian Chapman, that the Assembly was pressing Commander Tondbert for forceful action against the Falcons.  “Perhaps,” said Milo.  Like Felix, Milo kept his attention on other tables.  He waved at Hrodgar Wigt, who saluted Milo’s greeting with a bit of bread.  Milo continued, “He needs to move soon.  The Falcons have not been content to extort the poor folk of the Bene Quarter.  Someone told the Assembly, in their meeting yesterday, that Redhair’s men have started collecting fuel dues from some of the smiths in the jewelry district.  I don’t think it’s true, but it shows how rumors spread and grow.  Tondbert, naturally, wants to wait until the new under-sheriffs are better trained.”
            “For once, I agree with him.”
            “As would any sensible man.”  Milo inclined his head toward Trymian Wallis, the fat assistant to Tondbert who had lost his position as trainer of recruits partly because Milo suggested Tondbert replace Wallis with Aidan Fleming.  Wallis was late to breakfast, not his normal behavior.  And what’s he been up to? Milo wondered.  Wallis waddled past Milo and Felix to the kitchen counter, where the morning’s meal of bread and hot mash awaited.
            “No bacon?  No meat?”  Wallis complained.  “Gods!”  He slapped his hand on the counter.  “At least let’s have some honey to dress this horse fodder.”
            The kitchen maid cowered behind the counter.  “I’m sorry, my lord, but there is none.”
            “Don’t lie to me!  I’m the assistant commander, you worthless whore!  We can put you on the street and hire another wench before your feet get cold.  Get me some honey.”
            The girl had a pale face at any time, but under Wallis’s beleaguerment she took on the color and immobility of white marble.  Her eyes bulged with fear.  Wallis screamed at her.  “Damn it, girl!  Move!” 
            Milo reached Wallis with quick strides.  The assistant commander spun around at the touch of a hand on his shoulder.  “What?”  Wallis’s teeth were bared and his face flushed.
            Milo inclined his head.  “My lord commander, none of the men had meat this morning.  And there really is no honey for the mash.”
            “Damn you…” Before Wallis finished his sentence, his eyes flashed across the men gathered in the refectory.  Without looking behind him, Milo knew every sheriff was watching the confrontation.  He also knew their eyes would be hard, harboring no sympathy for the assistant commander.  Wallis swallowed, and his fist unclenched.  He forced a laugh.  “Horse food it is, then.”  To the refectory girl he said, “I’ll talk to you after muster—in my office.”  He took his bowl and bread to a table.
            Milo returned to his cup, aware of much silent approval from the other men.  Wallis sat alone.

            Osred Tondbert made his appearance in the training yard, where Wallis had called the guardsmen to attention.  The commander beckoned three sheriffs with a wave and whispered to each privately.  The men trotted off to disparate parts of the Citadel.  Tondbert waited for about a minute, bouncing on the balls of his feet.  Milo had the impression that the man was fighting to contain a smile.  “You may bring them now,” Tondbert said to Wallis.  The assistant commander nodded and walked away as quickly as his bulging legs permitted.
            Still Tondbert did not address the men, content for them to attend to his silence.  He folded his arms in front of his chest.  By the gods!  Tondbert thinks he’s the cat that swallowed the canary, the hero who solved the dragon’s riddle.
            A wave of whispers swept through the assembled soldiers. All eyes were on three men who followed Trymian Wallis into the courtyard.  Tondbert’s deep voice barked, “Men of the Guard!”  They snapped back to attention.  “As you can see, we have visitors today.” Even Tondbert glanced over his shoulder.
            “Some of you will recognize Bo Leanberth,” Tondbert intoned.  “For others, he is only a name.”  The outlaw leader was a magnificent specimen of muscle and pride; both his beard and hair were long, black, and braided, bouncing fore and aft on a leather jerkin.  Under the jerkin Leanberth wore only a light tunic, and yet he seemed comfortable in the winter air.  The skin of his arms and neck shimmered with oil.  He wore a leather scabbard; the bleached white hilt of a short sword was at his hand.  For all Milo could see, the sword hilt was real bone.
            Tondbert continued.  “Leanberth has brought two of his men today, Grindan Goes and Upton Acwellan.  You’ve all heard the names before—leaders of the Hawks.  If the truth were known, all three of them would deserve to hang.”  Tondbert paused to lock eyes for a moment with Leanberth.  The gang leader smiled and made an exaggerated bow.  His beard brushed his knees.  A rustle of laughter rose from the guardsmen.
            Tondbert smiled too, and his receding chin gave him the appearance of a crow.  “But they will not hang today.  Instead, they will earn pardons for all their previous misdeeds.  Leanberth and I have decided we need not like each other to work together, and the Hawks hate Ifing Redhair as much as I do.  Today, this very morning, we will destroy the Falcons.  We will not repeat the error of last summer.  The Citadel’s exits are guarded.  No word of our mission today will escape our walls either before or after we march.
            “I have learned the true location of Redhair’s nest.  Not where you would expect!  We will approach the house from three directions; there will be no escaping us.  Each party of sheriffs will be accompanied by one of the Hawks.  Hrodgar Wigt, Aidan Fleming, and Milo Mortane, step forward please!  You men will lead the three groups.”
            Hrodgar, Aidan, and Milo approached the commander.  Tondbert lowered his voice so that only the captains could hear.  “I presume you will warn me that the new under-sheriffs are not ready for battle.”   
            Aidan Fleming dipped his head.  “Aye, my lord commander.”
            Milo backed the training master.  “I would feel safer, my lord, if we left the newest recruits behind.  They are as likely to harm us as our enemies.”
            Tondbert grinned, showing yellow teeth.  “Fortunately, this is a raid, not a battle.  We take only a few men, and we move fast.”
            Hrodgar scratched his chin.  “My lord, can we trust Leanberth?”
            Tondbert glanced sideways at the Wallis and the three Hawk leaders and spoke even more quietly.  “No; obviously not.  Each of you will pick only a dozen of our best men.  The rest will stay here in the Citadel under Wallis.  Even raw recruits can hold the fortress against a gang.  You see?  I have considered the possibility of an attack on the Citadel while our men are in the field.  We will skirt the Bene Quarter at quick march, feigning a raid there.  Everyone knows there are Falcon strongholds in the Bene, and it will seem that we are striking there.  Beyond the Bene, the three groups divide.  If your guide plays you false, kill him and return to the Citadel.  We’re not going to repeat Gaudy’s Tavern.  Either we take down Redhair or we eliminate Leanberth, Goes, and Acwellan.” 
            “We?”  Hrodgar’s face expressed surprise.  “Will you go with us then, Commander?”
            “Indeed.  I will accompany Milo’s group along with Leanberth.  My sword will never be more than a quick stroke from his neck.  Milo’s group will move fastest, since we will circle the house and come at them from behind.”
            “Very good, Lord Commander.”  Hrodgar inclined his head.
            “Choose your men quickly,” Tondbert rumbled.  “We move fast.  Milo, your men must be especially quick on their feet.  No time for a double-cross today.”
            In five minutes Milo, Hrodgar, and Aidan had chosen their men.  Tondbert assigned Grindan Goes to Hrodgar’s group and Upton Acwellan to Aidan’s.  “All ready?”  Commander Tondbert spoke loudly for the benefit of the gathered men.  “Assistant Commander Wallis!”
            “My lord?” 
            “Disarm the prisoners.  You will keep their weapons here until we return, as guaranty for their good behavior.”
            Apparently, Upton Acwellan hadn’t known this was part of the plan.  The gang lieutenant cried out in surprise and turned to Leanberth, his hand resting on his sword hilt. The Hawk chieftain spread his hands in a pacific gesture, quelling Acwellan’s protest.  Trymian Wallis lumbered from Goes to Acwellan and Leanberth, collecting their swords.  They allowed their swords to be taken, but the disdain the gangsters directed at the assistant commander was as cold as a winter freeze.  Wallis’s fat throat swallowed repeatedly.
            “Let’s move!”  Tondbert ignored his assistant’s discomfort.
            Signaled by Tondbert, Milo led his troop toward the stable door, one of the three entrances to the Citadel.  Bo Leanberth followed at his heels, with Tondbert and twelve sheriffs behind him.  At the stable door they came on one of the guardsmen Tondbert had spoken to earlier, a young under-sheriff named Bayan Mann.  The commander growled at the man: “No one gone out since muster?”
            “Aye, Lord Commander.  Neither in or out this morning.”
            “Good.  Shut the doors and see that no one leaves until we return.”
            “Aye, Sir.”
            Milo leaned close to the guardsman.  “Don’t leave your post for anything, Bayan.  But if you get a chance, can you send a word to the washerwoman for me?”
            “Daisy Freewoman?”
            Milo nodded.
            “What word, Sir Milo?”
            “She should pay attention to my bedding.  It stinks.”
            Bayan grinned.  “Aye, Sir.  Your bed stinks.”
Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.

No comments:

Post a Comment