Thursday, April 24, 2014

Castles 100

100. In Stonebridge

            “Uncle!  Have you seen this?”
            “What is it?”  Ody Dans leaned on Derian Chapman’s arm as he climbed down from the carriage that had brought him from The Spray.  Derian handled his uncle a piece of paper while a crowd jostled around them, climbing the wide stone stairs at the entrance to Assembly Hall.  Derian recognized other Assemblymen in the mix, but most were onlookers, drawn by the news that the new Commander of the City Guard would be invested today.  Ody Dans stood still for a moment, then looked from the note to Derian, who said, “Wallis named himself and three others, but not Milo.”
            Dans’s expression was as bland as usual.  “And this matters because…?”  Dans shook his head.  “The Assembly may choose from the nominees put forward by the Assistant Commander.  But it has the power to elevate any member of the Guard to the Commander’s rank.  We could even select you, Derian.”  A short laugh.  “You should beseech the gods that we spare you!”
            “But who will put forward Milo’s name?”  Derian pulled open one of five tall wooden doors of Assembly Hall for his uncle.  They joined the throng moving into the Hall.
            “Patience, nephew.  Watch and listen.  Learn.”

            Milo sat with nineteen other guardsmen on two benches near the north wall of Assembly Hall, tucked away under a balcony that seated some of the crowd.  Like his fellows, he was unarmed; the twenty soldiers attended the Assembly as invited guests only.  Two dozen other guards stood duty around the hall, each with a hand on the hilt of a sheathed short sword.  Theirs was a ceremonial role for the most part; the Speaker had not had to call on the guardsmen to restore order to a meeting of the Assembly for a generation.  One guardsman, near the front of the Hall, the western end, held an enormous spear upright at his side.  Benches in the center of the hall, along the south wall, and on the balcony were lined with people who had come to watch.
            Stonebridge’s Assemblymen, forty of them, sat at the western end of the Hall on three raised curved tiers.  The arrangement brought every Assemblyman close to the Speaker’s table, which stood on the floor in the middle.  Milo spotted Ody Dans in the second tier of Assemblymen, waiting impassively with hands folded on his ample stomach, while other Assemblymen whispered around him.  Between the Assembly proper and the audience was a wooden railing and an empty space about twenty feet across.  The ceremonial spearman and three other sheriffs stood in this space facing the audience, ready to defend the Assemblymen from public interference.
            The spearman thumped the floor as the man at the center table stood.  The crowd of observers quieted, and the Assemblymen stopped whispering.  Milo recognized the Speaker, Frideric Bardolf, one of Ody Dans’s guests at the party last summer at The Spray.  Bardolf made a little speech, welcoming visitors to the Assembly meeting and cautioning them to maintain quiet so the Assemblymen could attend to the testimony they would hear that day.  Milo only half-listened to Bardolf; instead, his attention focused on four men seated at the front of the crowd.  The front benches were reserved for witnesses who would be called from their seats to stand near the railing.  Trymian Wallis sat with the three men he had designated as potential Commanders of the Guard: Bryce Dalston, Earm Upton, and Acwel Kent.  Milo pursed his lips.  Earm and Acwel were honest sheriffs, but clearly not qualified to lead the Guard.  Bryce had much more experience, was good with a sword, and was well liked by the men.  But he also spoke with a lisp and had an eyelid that drooped; his left eye constantly looked as if he were falling asleep.  It would be easy for the Assembly to underestimate him.  Wallis chooses his rivals carefully, or so he thinks.
            Frideric Bardolf sat down, and an Assemblyman rose from the end chair of the lowest tier.  By musing on Wallis’s nominations, Milo had missed the name; he turned to Hrodgar Wigt beside him with raised eyebrows.  Hrodgar mouthed, “Verge Courney.”
Three strides brought Courney to the rail.  He looked younger than most of the Assemblymen and wore a white shirt and a fur-lined gray cloak.  Milo guessed this must be the latest style for wealthy men in Stonebridge.  Courney had an irritating habit of brushing his black hair out of his eyes, because his front locks kept falling across his face.  In a loud voice, Courney also welcomed visitors to the Assembly (quite unnecessarily, since Bardolf had already done so), and explained that the Assemblymen would take testimony from four candidates put forward by Assistant Commander of the City Guard, Trymian Wallis.  The Assembly might then decide to interrogate other persons, and might call on anyone present to give testimony.  Finally, the Assembly would either select a new Commander of the Guard and invest him in his office or, if no final decision had been reached, continue the matter at the next Assembly meeting.  Courney must have brushed back his wayward hair a dozen times in this speech; it was a relief when he finally called on the first witness.
The interrogation began with Earm Upton.  Verge Courney summoned Earm to the rail and bade him swear that he would speak truthfully.  After the sheriff swore his oath, Speaker Bardolf asked him a series of questions: How long have you served in the City Guard?  How much battle experience have you had?  What were former Commander Tondbert’s best and worst qualities?  What is the mission of the City Guard, as you understand it?  And finally: why are you fit to command the Guard?
Earm stood at the rail two strides from Courney and began speaking to the Assemblymen in a quiet voice.  The crowd behind him rustled its impatience, because they couldn’t hear, and the rustling made things worse.  The spear-holding guard thumped them to silence.  People collectively leaned forward and strained to listen.  Earm began again and kept his answers short: He had served five years in the Guard.  He had fought against Falcons or Hawks four times in street battles.  Commander Tondbert was brave, and Earm refused to say anything bad about the recently deceased.  The Guard was to enforce the law.  Finally, Earm believed he was fit to command because he had proven his loyalty to the city and his effectiveness as a soldier by the battles he had fought.
Bardolf nodded to Courney, who asked in a loud voice if the Assemblymen had questions for Sheriff Upton.  No one did, and Courney directed Earm to sit down.
Acwel Kent testified next.  His answers were not much more interesting than Earm’s.  He had been a Guardsman slightly longer than Earm, but his duties in the Citadel had limited him to two battles with street toughs.  (“You can’t really count knocking a few heads when you’re rousting drunks,” Acwel explained, which drew laughter from Assemblymen and observers alike.)  Acwel said Tondbert’s best quality was his friendliness with the men, but he suggested that Tondbert sometimes sent men on poorly planned operations.  The City Guard’s mission was to do whatever the Stonebridge Assembly ordered, he said.  He was well prepared to serve as commander, Acwel said, because of his familiarity with all aspects of the Citadel: the kitchen, the stable, the armory, the training ground, and most of all, the men.
Several Assemblymen wanted to question Acwel.  Speaker Bardolf recognized Kingsley Averill, an elderly man with long white hair, seated opposite Ody Dans.  Averill was very tall and thin, and when he leaned on the railing of the second tier he looked like he might tumble forward onto the Assemblymen below him.  Averill asked Acwel Kent for examples of Commander Tondbert’s poorly planned operations.  Undoubtedly Acwel had anticipated this question and he responded with a list of Tondbert’s miscalculations.  To no one’s surprise, Acwel’s list included the raid on Gaudy’s Tavern, which had decimated the Guard.  “And last, Tondbert struck a pact with Bo Leanberth and the Hawks, a mistake that cost him his life.”
Again, several Assemblymen wanted to ask more questions.  Speaker Bardolf recognized Ody Dans, who asked, “Sheriff Kent, has the treachery of the Hawks been repaid?”
“Aye, Sir.  Leanberth, Goes, and Acwellan are dead.  The Hawks have been crushed.”
Milo expected Dans to ask the obvious next question—Who is responsible for the Guard’s success in this matter?  But the bland-faced Assemblyman sat down, yielding the floor.  Next to Milo, Hrodgar squirmed in his seat and cleared his throat as if he wanted to speak.  But the moment passed.  Guardsmen knew they were to speak only if questioned.
Bryce Dalston was next.  Milo thought: Naturally, Wallis puts himself last.  He can agree with Bryce on any substantive point, so that he doesn’t look a fool.  And then he’ll remind the Assemblymen that he has had access to Tondbert’s records.  Milo looked intently at Ody Dans, again sitting serenely with hands on his belly.  What game are you playing at, Master Dans?
Bryce answered the same questions.  He had been in the City Guard nineteen years.  He had survived ten or fifteen important fights with Falcons and Hawks.  Commander Tondbert was really good at collecting secrets: “But I don’t s’pose I need to tell you all, do I?”  A few people in the audience laughed aloud, but the Assembly’s stony silence quieted them.  Tondbert’s greatest weakness?  “He was a damn fool.  He wanted to be Commander of the Guard, with no idea wot the Guard should do.”
The duties of the City Guard?  “Stonebridge needs us so ordinary folk can sleep in peace, ’n so artisans ’n merchants can go about their business without bein’ robbed.  And, I s’pose, if some damn castle lord brings an army ’gainst us, the Guard should protect the city.  Not that we could, not with the arms we got.”
Someone in the audience shouted, “Hear, hear!”  And Milo heard affirmative whispers among his fellows.  But the spear thumper thumped for quiet.
Bryce’s answer to the final question was most surprising of all.  “I been with the Guard nineteen years, learned a few things.  Fit to command?  Nah!”
At least ten Assemblymen leaped to their feet, but Speaker Bardolf immediately asked, “You say you are not fit to command, Sheriff Dalston?  Why not?”
“Not good enough, that’s why.  Old as I am, I can still swing a blade.  But the boys know I got no head for strategy.  They’d be fools to depend on any plan I made.”
Bardolf motioned with both arms to silence the Assemblymen behind him; for a moment he looked like an eagle flapping its wings as she settles on her nest.  On the tiers surrounding him the Assemblymen reseated themselves.  “Sheriff Dalston.  Acwel Kent and Earm Upton have told us why they should serve as Commander of the Guard.  In your opinion, are they qualified?”
Bryce Dalston half turned to look at his comrades.  “Nah.  Meaning no offense, boys.”
“What about Assistant Commander Wallis?”
Bryce faced the Speaker.  “Nah.”
Bardolf: “In your opinion the Assistant Commander is not qualified to lead the City Guard?”
“He is not.”
Bardolf waited for more, but Dalston merely frowned back at him.  Trymian Wallis jumped to his feet to seize Bryce’s arm.  “What are you saying, man?  Ungrateful fool!”  But Bryce shook him off and kept his attention on Speaker Bardolf.
The Speaker pointed to Courney, who intoned: “Are there any questions for Sheriff Dalston?”  Half the Assemblymen leaped to their feet.  Bardolf glanced over his shoulder and pointed.  “Assemblyman Ware.” 
Milo had heard the name from Derian Chapman.  Lunden Ware and Ody Dans were the two most prominent moneylenders in Stonebridge, which made them rivals in business and allies in city politics.  Derian said they both wanted the city to expand its influence, and together they had convinced the Assembly to mint only high quality coins in limited numbers.  But in eight months in Stonebridge, Milo had never seen Ware.
The banker was a short, thin man with brown hair, seated next to Verge Courney and dressed much like him.  Ware gripped the handrail of the first tier and waited for the other Assemblymen to sit.  Trymian Wallis was still standing next to Bryce, who continued to ignore him.
“Sheriff Dalston!  You have just testified that the Assistant Commander is not qualified to lead the Guard.  Please tell us why.”
Wallis was apoplectic.  “Wait!  You must let me speak!”
Scores of people were talking all over the Hall.  The spearman thumped his spear repeatedly until the commotion calmed down.  Verge Courney waved his hand for silence and shouted.  “Please!  Everybody!  Commander Wallis will answer questions in a moment.  For now, we must let Sheriff Dalston speak.  Sheriff, please, answer Assemblyman Ware’s question.  Tell us, in your opinion, why is the Assistant Commander not qualified to command the Guard?”
“I’ve seen him beat new recruits to frighten them.  I’ve seen him kill an innocent man.  I’ve been told he collects secrets, like Tondbert.  And, well, you should ask them.”  Bryce pointed to the north wall, where Milo sat with the other guardsmen.
“This is outrageous!”  Wallis looked red as a beet.  “I demand to speak!  I have served the City Guard for fifteen years.  I know how to defend this city, better than anyone else.”
Assembly Hall quieted, listening to Wallis.  Milo and the other guardsmen were standing to get a better view.  Acwel Kent and Earm Upton also rose, and they pushed Bryce Dalston to one side so they could stand between him and the Assistant Commander.
“Yes!  There have been recruits who died from wounds suffered during training.  Under my watch, yes!  And I would do it again!  The City Guard must have hard men, men who can fight.  Bryce Dalston should know better than lose heart over some failed recruit.  If he has such a soft heart, we can move him to kitchen duty.”
Wallis leaned on the rail, jabbing a finger at the Assemblymen.  “And yes!  I know lots of secrets in this city.  How could it be otherwise, if the Guard is to do its duty?  I know when the silver is delivered from Ham Roweson’s mines.  It is the business of the Guard to know this.  I know when shipments of wine or lumber go by Hill Corral on their way to Down’s End.  I know which of you have borrowed money from Master Dans and Master Ware.  I know when meat and grain comes in from the Downs.  I know when castle lords send so-called ‘friendly messages’ to important men in our city.  I’m supposed to know these things—and lots more!”
As Wallis shouted his way through his speech, one of the guardsmen left his mates and began walking toward the four sheriffs at the bar.  An armed duty guard blocked his way for a moment, but when the sheriff raised empty hands, the duty guard let him pass.  Wallis, intent on the thinly veiled threats he had been hurling at the Assemblymen, only noticed the young man when he came close.
“How dare you come here!  You have duty in the Citadel!”  If possible, Wallis became even redder.  “Get him out of here!”  Wallis rushed at the spear thumper and tried to pull the ceremonial weapon from his hand.  But Acwel Kent and Earm Upton grabbed Wallis’s arms and pulled him back.
Shouts and curses filled the air.  Several duty guards ran to join their fellows between the audience and the Assembly proper.  The spear thumper hammered the floor, and Speaker Bardolf held his hands aloft.  The noise subsided.
Bardolf motioned for quiet.  “Citizens of Stonebridge!  I will order the Hall cleared if there is another outburst.  The Assembly has important business to do, and we will do it in secret if need be.”  He pointed at Wallis and Dalston.  “You men.  Sit.”  Bryce Dalston retreated promptly to the front bench; Wallis obeyed much less willingly.  Then Bardolf turned to the young guardsman.  “What is your name, son?  Are you a sheriff?”
“Master Speaker, my name is Jarvis Day.  I have been under-sheriff for eight weeks.”
Bardolf again motioned for silence.  “I imagine you will be disciplined for interrupting the Assembly’s meeting, Under-sheriff Day.  You should know this.  Why, then, have you approached the bar?”
“Begging your pardon, Master Speaker, I swore to protect the laws of the city.  I had no choice but to come forward, Sir.”
The elderly Speaker smiled indulgently.  “Speak, then.”
The under-sheriff pointed.  “He raped my sister.”
Wallis was on his feet instantly.  “That’s a lie!”
Jarvis continued pointing.  “In his office.  In the Citadel.  Four times.”
The duty guards drew their swords, and somehow the audience restrained itself.
Speaker Bardolf: “Can you prove this accusation, Under-Sheriff Day?”
“No.  My sister says one thing.  The Assistant Commander will say another.  But it seems to me that the Assembly should know that I will not serve under Wallis.”
“If the City orders you, you…”
“I will die before I serve under Wallis.”
Bardolf bristled.  “You may not defy the Assembly.”
“I do not defy you.  I am not armed.  You may order my arrest at any time.  But I will not serve under Wallis.”
“Master Speaker!”  The interruption came from Ody Dans.  Bardolf turned and motioned to Dans.  “Master Speaker, it seems to me the under-sheriff’s testimony is actually quite helpful, as it points to an important question.  Are there other guardsmen whom we would lose if the Assistant Commander were promoted?
“You there, Kent and Upton!  We already know what Sheriff Dalston thinks of Assistant Commander Wallis.  Would you serve under Wallis?”
Upton answered unequivocally.  “To serve under Wallis would be a death sentence in any case.  I’d rather die now.”
Kent stared at the floor for a moment.  “Earm speaks the truth.  Wallis will be the death of us all, either deliberately or through stupidity.”
Wallis screamed.  “Conspiracy!  Treason!”  Two duty guards pulled their swords and stepped between Wallis and the sheriffs.  Wallis spun around, as if looking for help from somewhere, anywhere.  He shook his hand at Jarvis Day and addressed the Assemblymen.  “These accusations are lies.  This conspiracy will be broken, I assure you.  I will make the men obey, and I will make them like it!”
“Master Speaker!”  This time it was Lunden Ware; Bardolf waved permission to speak.  “If there is a conspiracy, Assistant Commander, it seems you have created it yourself.
“We have not asked the most obvious question.  Sheriff Dalston, who would you have as your Commander?”
Bryce Dalston rose but did not speak.  He faced the north wall of Assembly Hall and pointed.  Without a word the under-sheriff, Jarvis Day, extended his hand in the same direction.  Assemblymen and audience turned their eyes to the guardsmen standing under the balcony.  Hrodgar Wigt and others pushed Milo forward.  As Milo walked into the well of the chamber, the guardsmen began to chant.  “Mortane.  Mortane.  Mortane.”
The spearman thumped his spear, but not to procure silence.  Rather, the pounding reinforced the chant: “Mor-tane.  Mor-tane.  Mor-tane.”  The audience, and even Assemblymen joined in, until it was a roar.  “Mor-tane.  Mor-tane.  Mor-tane.”
His comrades pushed Wallis to one side.  Milo knelt at the bar, his head bowed, for a long time.  Eventually the tumult died down and, with very little debate, the Stonebridge Assembly appointed him Commander of the City Guard.

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

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