Thursday, March 6, 2014

Castles 93

93. In Stonebridge

            Daisy Freewoman swept the upper Citadel corridor unhurriedly, bundled against the cold.  The corridors, staircases, and second floor cells of the stone fortress were unheated; in these portions of the Citadel she might as well have been one of the old women who swept snow from the storefronts that lined Stonebridge’s streets, except that the street sweeper women sometimes enjoyed sunlight.  Daisy paced herself, and when she needed to warm up she might take mop and bucket to the rooms belonging to the Lord Commander or Assistant Commander down on the first floor.  Tondbert and Wallis kept fires burning in their fireplaces.  At other times, Daisy would visit the kitchen or Citadel smithy; she usually had no business in either place, but the cooks and the blacksmith welcomed conversation.  Daisy was thinking of the kitchen and its warmth when the new serving girl—what was her name? —came looking for her.
            “Daisy!  There you are!”  The girl had short black hair and such white skin that her forehead looked like a silhouette, white bordered by black.  Reaching the top of the stairs she exhaled a cloud of vapor.  When the girl came close, Daisy saw blue veins like a tracery under the skin of her arms. 
            Daisy recalled her name.  “Fair morning, Alberta.  Is someone looking for me?”
            “No, but…” The girl swiped her face with the back of her hand.  Her nose was red and dripping.  Daisy set aside her broom and drew Alberta in, enveloping her with coat sleeves and mittened hands.  “Assistant Commander Wallis says I’m to report to his office.”
            “What is wrong?”
            “There was no meat at breakfast.  Wallis cursed me and said he would toss me—‘put you on the street and hire another wench before your feet get cold,’ he said.”
            “Wallis is quick to anger, but perhaps he was only voicing frustration about the food.”  Daisy brushed the girl’s hair with one hand while hugging her close.
            “He told me in particular to come to his office after muster.”
            Daisy pressed her lips together, thinking.  She had witnessed the morning muster from the half-opened door of Eádulf’s cell, which was tucked into the southeast corner of the second floor.  She hadn’t followed all that was said, but it was clear that something important was afoot.  Tondbert and three strangers had left with Milo and the best soldiers in the Guard.
            “Why don’t I come with you to the assistant commander’s office?  Maybe he’ll get over his anger if we offer to clean his window.”
            Alberta’s gray eyes filled with tears again.  “Oh, thank you!”
            Daisy led Alberta to a nearby closet, from which she took two buckets.  “We’ll fetch hot water from the kitchen.”  The women descended the stairway closest to the refectory and were about to enter when they heard running footsteps on the pavement behind them.  “Daisy!”
            Both women turned to face an out-of-breath under-sheriff, one of the newer recruits.  Seeing Alberta next to Daisy, the youth was suddenly flummoxed.  “It, it’s you,” he stammered.  The under-sheriff’s gray eyes and black hair matched Alberta’s, though his skin was ruddier, the result, perhaps, of spending time outdoors. 
            Daisy looked quickly at both of them.  She hadn’t seen them together before, but the facial similarity was obvious.  “What’s going on here?”
            Alberta addressed Daisy: “Jarvis is my brother.  He joined the City Guard five weeks ago, and he’s the one who got me the job with Cook.”  Then to Jarvis: “I don’t have anything, and Cook watches all the time.  I can’t be thieving for you.”
            The under-sheriff glanced around.  “This isn’t about food—or you.”  He turned to Daisy.  “Bayan Mann wanted me to find Daisy Freewoman.  Sheriff Milo Mortane says his bed must be cleaned.  It stinks.”
            Daisy smirked.  “No doubt.  Most beds in the Citadel stink.  You don’t hear other sheriffs demanding that their mattresses get washed in winter.  But Sheriff Mortane—he wants what he wants when he wants it.”
            Jarvis frowned.  “But I thought… Bayan said…”
            Daisy smiled broadly.  “Oh, I’ll clean it.  In fact, I’ll do so immediately.  But not for Sheriff Milo’s pleasure.  At least, not for his alone.”  Daisy watched comprehension bring a grin to the under-sheriff’s face.  “Alberta and I were about to take hot water to Assistant Commander Wallis’s office, to wash his window and do some general cleaning.  Can you escort her?  Make sure Wallis has calmed down.  Don’t leave her alone with him if he’s angry.”
            Alberta and Daisy filled their buckets from the big kettle in the kitchen, then parted ways.  Jarvis walked Alberta to Wallis’s room while Daisy carried her water upstairs.  But when she got to Milo’s cell, she left the bucket.  She took a key from under his mattress, a key that let her into Hrodgar Wigt’s cell, four doors west along the corridor.  She took a bright red ribbon from her coat pocket and, climbing on Wigt’s bed, tied it to one of the bars in his window so that it hung like a kite’s tail outside.

            The City Guard trotted in double-file, Milo in the lead and the Hawk chieftain, Leanberth, on his left.  Felix Abrecan and Commander Tondbert followed immediately behind them.  The second and third platoons, led by Hrodgar Wigt and Aidan Fleming, jogged after Milo’s men.  Tondbert matched the pace of the younger soldiers, but the effort left him no breath for talking.  Leanberth, contrariwise, produced an intermittent stream of comments as he ran.
            “Shroud maker’s shop, not yet open for business.  That witch Camden will be busy after today!”
            The Guardsmen jogged by a variety of shops.  People moved out of their way, some nodding as they passed.  Small groups watched, pointed and began talking.  The show of force by the City Guard would stir the whole city.
            “’Cross the way there, see the cripple girl?  She’s one of Ifing’s brats.  He gives ’er a silver ev’ry now ’n then, ’n she plays lookout for ’is men.  Redhair thinks I don’t know, the fool!  She sees us, but it won’t help Ifing.  See my lad?”
            A man wrapped in a black cloak leaned against a building not far from the girl Leanberth had mentioned.  He wore a misshapen leather hat pulled low; Milo couldn’t see his eyes.  The man touched the brim of his hat in what might have been a salute.  Leanberth made a sound halfway between a laugh and a grunt.
            Back along the line, one of the Guards slipped on a frozen patch, fell, and forced the men behind him to stop.  Milo’s group kept moving, and the stragglers hustled to make up the ground.  Leanberth resumed talking.
            “Comin’ up, there’s the wheelwright shed, ’n down that alley lives a pretty little thing, Ifing’s latest lay.  She’ll be lonely after today.  Mebbe I’ll stop by ’n comfort ’er.  Ha!
            “Falcons’ll expect us to turn at the next corner, by the alehouse.  The building back o’ the alehouse—my boys say it’s a proper depot; Falcons got bows, arrows, swords, shields, ’n coins ’n food, but the place’s got stout walls ’n a locked cellar.  Twenty men guard it ’n the only way in is a single-file alley.  We’d be fools to attack.”
            Milo said, “Redhair isn’t there?”
            Leanberth spat as he ran.  “Aye.  A fool, he is.  Gonna catch ’im with only a couple lads at the house.”
            The three platoons passed the alehouse, and more than one man looked left, watching for the Falcon stronghold.  Milo quickened the pace, and Leanberth matched him, still talking.
            “Ifing’s too good for the Bene, he thinks.  Wants a grand house with a wall ’n servants ’n a carriage to ride in.  Live like a god’s ass, like Ody dog-shit Dans.  Move that sweet lay into the house and give her babies.  Gods!
            “He could have it, for all I care—the house, servants, even a seat on the damn Assembly—’cept he still wants the Bene.  You see, Ifing ’n me, we know the Bene Quarter.  We make money ’n keep our lads happy.  His boys fight my boys ev’ry now ’n then, but mostly we get along.  Ifing don’t know what to do outside the Bene, not really.  He tries squeezin’ the smithies, the mills, the stonemasons, ’n the big warehouses, but the owners fight back.  They hire more guards.  They push the Lord Commander to attack Falcons and Hawks.  My boys get hurt. Ifing gets scared.  What’s he do?  Tightens the screws on the Bene!  Damn ’im!  He wants to live in a palace like an Assemblyman, but he wants his boys to run the Bene too.  Can’t have that.  The Lord Commander ’n me, we say: After today we have peace.  Hawks’ll keep the Bene quiet.  Guard’ll keep the city quiet.  A better day comin’.”
            They ran without speech for a couple minutes.  Tondbert’s breath was labored now.  Leanberth slowed down.
            “We’re coming up on it.  Right on Marble Street ’n straight on to the hill.  Green house with red tile roof.  The first group should take this little street here, Agate.  Get round behind the house so they don’t ’scape.  Others should go up Marble and take the front.”
            Milo brought the Guards to a stop with a raised sword.  Including Tondbert and the three Hawk chieftains, there were 43 men together, emitting steamy breath like a herd of wild horses.  He tapped his own head with his sword hand and pointed the direction his men would go.  Then he held up two fingers on his left hand and gestured toward Marble Street.  Back in the pack, Aidan Fleming and Hrodgar Wigt waved acknowledgement with their swords.
            “Let’s move.”  Milo led his men, trotting quickly away from the other platoons, on Agate Street.  A hundred yards along, they came to an intersection.  To their left, forty yards away, was the green house with red roof.  Milo sped up, running as fast as he could on the frozen, uneven surface of the street.  Milo’s men ran with him, and Leanberth as well, leaving Tondbert behind.  Two men tripped, but they scrambled up and rejoined the platoon, like a pack of wolves on the hunt.
            A door on the rear, western, side of the house jerked open, revealing an armed man in the doorway.  Just as quickly the door slammed shut, as Milo’s men vaulted over a low wall separating a garden space from the street.  “Hah!”  Leanberth exulted.  “No gettin’ away this time!”
            Shouts and curses sounded from the eastern side of the house.  Wigt and Fleming’s men had reached the front.  Milo stopped for only a moment on the narrow porch.  Tondbert had only reached the wall, but the others of the platoon were ready.  Milo nodded to Leanberth, who leaped and kicked the door with both his boots.  The Hawk chieftain fell to the porch, but the door broke.  Milo extended an arm to Leanberth, pulling him to his feet           and out of the way.  Felix Abrecan and the rest of the Guardsmen charged into the house.  Somewhere in the house somebody crashed into a wall; the whole building shook.  From the front of the house came sounds of steel clashing on steel.  It sounded like a real battle—Ifing Redhair had more men present than Leanberth had boasted.
            Tondbert reached the porch thoroughly winded.  The last of Milo’s men disappeared into the house.  Tondbert bent with hands on his knees, panting.  He nodded to Milo and Leanberth.  “We got him today!”
            “Maybe,” said Milo.  “Maybe.”  He pulled his sword and drove it into Leanberth’s neck.  The unarmed chieftain died instantly, his face frozen in stunned incredulity.  The body fell with Milo’s sword stuck in its throat.
            Tondbert’s eyes bulged.  “What?  Why?”
            Milo let go his sword and swung a backhanded elbow while lunging at Tondbert.  The blow hit the commander like a hammer to the nose.  Tondbert fell to his knees, his eyes still wide in surprise.  He choked and gurgled blood from his broken nose.
            “Leanberth betrayed you and attacked you,” Milo said.  “I killed him, but it was too late.”  Milo leaned back and kicked Tondbert’s head with the heel of his boot, breaking the neck with an audible crack.  He stood over Tondbert’s body for a few seconds.  Seeing no movement, he wrenched his sword from Leanberth’s throat and entered the house.
            Inside, Milo stepped around two bodies, a member of the Guard and a Falcon.  He hurried from one room to the next in a fighter’s crouch.  But he met no one.  The battle had apparently moved outside, on the eastern side of the house.  He stopped just outside the front door.
            Ifing Redhair—who else could it be, with those locks? —was a giant of a man, six and a half feet tall.  He and eight other men fought together in a ring, surrounded by about thirty Guardsmen.  Bodies were strewn about, helter-skelter between the house and the brick wall that surrounded the property.
            “Hold!”  Milo shouted, wishing he had Tondbert’s bass voice.  “Hold! Hold!”  One or two of the Guardsmen turned questioning faces toward Milo.  “Hold!”
            Ifing Redhair roared louder than Milo.  “Hold!”
            Aidan Fleming raised his sword and stepped back from the encircled Falcons.  The other Guardsmen followed suit when they saw that the Falcons were also standing down.
            Milo strode across the frozen yard, his sword at the ready.  Guardsmen stepped aside, giving him access to the small space between the opposing forces.  Milo ceremoniously sheathed his sword and turned, surveying his men.  “Men of the City Guard, we have been betrayed.  Where are Acwellan and Goes?”
            Men shuffled their feet, and Leanberth’s Hawk lieutenants were pushed toward Milo.  Acwellan and Goes both held swords, picked up during the battle, no doubt.  But Milo seized on this fact.  “How come you by swords, you traitors!”  Milo swept out his weapon and slashed at Acwellan.  The Hawk leader parried, but it did him no good; a Guardsman cut him down from behind.  Bewildered, Grindan Goes looked from his fallen comrade to Milo.  He dropped his sword and fell to his knees.  “Mercy, Sir!”  In response, Milo thrust his sword into Goes’s chest.
            Meanwhile, the Falcons stood motionless.
            Milo pulled his sword from Goes and ignored his dying gasps.  “Hawks betrayed us!  Bo Leanberth attacked our Lord Commander, killed him before my sword could stop him.  The bodies are at the back of the house.
            “Redhair!  Leanberth, Acwellan, and Goes are dead.  Likewise, some of your men have fallen, and without need!  If you will put down your swords, not a man will fall.  And I will sit with you—to talk!  Hawks have made themselves as much my enemy as yours.  You and I can bring peace to Stonebridge, beginning today.  What say you?”
            Ifing Redhair looked ’round the circle of his remaining men.  Slowly he lowered his sword tip to the ground.  “We will talk, on one condition only.”  Redhair addressed his men.  “Lads, this should not a happened.  How did Tondbert know to attack us here?  I think—damn it, I know—someone’s been talking.  We’ve been betrayed as much as the Guard.”
            Redhair stepped toward Milo, his sword tip still touching the ground.  “This is my condition.  You must tell me which of my lads has played me false.”  Only Milo could see the slight tip of Redhair’s head and the way his eyes flicked to the right.
            Milo sheathed his sword.  “I can’t tell you who betrayed you.”  He pointed to bodies.  “Maybe this man; maybe that one.  Leanberth told us we would find you in this house.  I don’t know who told him.
            “But I do know this.  Leanberth said we should spare one.  Black hair, no beard, and a long red scar on his chin.”
            Every eye, Falcon and Guardsman alike, turned to the man standing at Redhair’s right hand.  Ifing wheeled on the man.  “Sammy, you?”
            “It’s a lie!”  But Sammy’s protest died as he did, with a Falcon sword thrust through his back.

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

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