Thursday, May 1, 2014

Castles 101

101. In the Citadel of Stonebridge

            “Fellows of the Guard, yesterday the Assembly invested me as Commander.  Beginning today things are going to change in the Citadel, in the city, and in Tarquint.  And these changes begin with you.”
            Wintry sunlight slanted overhead, bringing little warmth to the central square of the Citadel.  Milo stood in front of eighty men, almost the entire strength of the Guard. Their faces expressed varying mixtures of doubt and respect.  Milo had not changed his uniform to reflect his new status; he still dressed in a russet tunic over a linen under-tunic, with a leather jerkin and a sword sheathed in a scabbard.  A sword made of castle steel; it was far superior to the typical weapons of the Guard.  Some of the men still held him in awe; a real knight had joined the Guard.
            “Yesterday, in testimony before the Assembly, some of you—Bryce Dalston, Acwel Kent, Earm Upton, and Jarvis Day—said that you would rather die than serve under Assistant Commander Wallis if the Assembly made him commander.  I understand why you said this.  Some of you may feel the same way about me.”
            In the ranks men shook their heads in disagreement.  “Lord Commander!” a voice rose to protest.  But Milo raised a palm for silence.
            “This morning, if any man desires to leave the City Guard, he is free to go, and I will hold no grievance against him.  By leaving, such a man becomes a citizen of Stonebridge, and we of the Guard will protect his life and his property just as if he were Speaker Bardolf.
            “Consider your decision well.  All those who remain and take mid-day sup with us commit themselves to live and die at my command.  I will not permit the kind of insubordination shown toward Wallis.  You will learn to handle a sword properly.  You will march.  Some will be swordsmen, others archers, and others knights.  I swear by the gods, you will be united; you will be an army.  So as I say, consider well.  I will not permit the Stonebridge City Guard to continue as it has been: divided, weak, lazy and corrupt.  We will have honor, and courage, and victory.”
            Milo let his words sink in.  He passed his eyes over them, looking steadily at each man’s face until he nodded his allegiance.
            “I will give better than I demand.  You will have honor from me.  Courage.  Victory.  And justice.”
            Milo raised his left hand in signal.  Somewhere behind him, a door opened and a collective intake of breath came from the men.  Trymian Wallis marched as prisoner, his hands roped behind him, flanked by Aidan Fleming and Bayan Mann.  They brought Wallis alongside Milo, and Aidan saluted with a fist to his chest.  “The Assistant Commander is now present, as you ordered, my lord.”
            “Very well.  Free his hands.”
            Wallis had spent only one night as prisoner since the Assembly made Milo Commander of the Guard.  Yet somehow those few hours had shrunk him.  The heavy limbs and labored breathing were still there, but the imperiousness had disappeared.  His cheeks were red in the cold air of the courtyard.  His eyes darted to and fro, looking in vain for sympathy from the men who yesterday he had counted as his.  Once Bayan had removed the ropes, Wallis rubbed his meaty hands together, trying to warm them.  He turned to Milo and saluted.
            “Lord Commander Mortane, I am at your service.”  The once haughty voice wavered, but the words were proper.
            Milo touched his fist to his chest and inclined his head to Wallis.  “I am glad to hear it, Assistant Commander.  I have promised the men justice.  You will help me deliver it.”
            Wallis blinked several times, uncomprehending.  “As you wish.”
            Milo looked quickly to a man in the back row of the assembled Guardsmen.  “Under-sheriff Jarvis Day, present yourself.”
            “Aye, my lord commander!”  The young soldier strode through the ranks until he stood near Milo and Wallis.  The latter, now realizing what was afoot, looked this way and that, but Bayan Mann and Aidan Fleming had drawn their swords to prevent any escape.
            “Yesterday you made a serious charge against the Assistant Commander.”  Milo nodded to the gray-eyed guardsman.
            “I did.  He raped my sister, Alberta.”
            “The girl who works in the Citadel kitchen?”
            “Aye, my lord.”
            Milo held out an open hand to Wallis.  “Trymian Wallis of the Guard, what say you to this charge?”
            Even a day before, Wallis would have demanded the use of his proper title, Assistant Commander, but now he merely replied, “It is a lie, my lord.  Perhaps the girl told him this story to avoid scandal, not wanting her brother to know the truth.”
            “And the truth is?”
            Wallis shrugged.  “Who can know?  Maybe she’s taken a man.  Perhaps she carries a babe.”
            “So Alberta Day lied when she said you violated her?”
            “Either that, or the brother lied.  I have not touched her.”
            Milo raised a hand to cut off whispering among the men.  “At this point, Sheriff Wallis, I would ordinarily invite other men of the Guard who have knowledge of this matter to testify.  Should I call for their testimony?”
            Wallis regained some of his swagger.  “I’m sure the girl’s lover would be happy to lie for her.  And Day’s friends will lie for him.”
            Milo paused to frown.  “You advise me, then, not to trust the testimony of my men?”
            “You should not trust them in this case, my lord.  They are prejudiced against me.”  Wallis had stopped rubbing his hands; he gestured at the ranks, resuming his attitude of disdain.
            Milo frowned again.  “I believe you are right, Sheriff.  The men are united against you.  For as long as you live, you should ponder how that came to be.  You leave me no choice.”
            Milo raised his voice.  “This man”—Milo pointed at Jarvis Day—“accuses this man”—a gesture toward Wallis—“of a serious crime, and he denies it.  They are both men of the Guard.  In deference to the advice of the Assistant Commander, I will not take further testimony on the matter.  It is simply one witness against another.  Nevertheless, we will have justice, trial by combat.  Form a combat ring.”   
            In seconds, the ranks of Guardsmen had become a circle surrounding Milo, Wallis, Jarvis Day, and Bayan and Aidan.  Wallis was suddenly suppliant: “My Lord Commander, I am not prepared.”
            Milo ignored the plea.  “Under-sheriff Day, you must make good your charge with steel.  Draw your sword.”
            Jarvis took a fighter’s stance, a short Citadel sword in hand.
            “But I am unarmed!” shouted Wallis.  “This is no justice!”  He tried to back away from Jarvis, but Aidan Fleming pushed him forward.  “I am unarmed!”
            Milo moved to Wallis’s side, holding up a hand.  Jarvis retreated a couple steps, but stayed in his fighter’s crouch.
            “You need a sword, Sheriff Wallis.  Which of your men will lend you a sword?  I told you to ponder why it is that your men unite against you.  But you need not fear.  I will lend you my sword.”  Milo pulled his weapon from its scabbard and handed it to Wallis.  The castle-hardened steel gleamed in the wintry light.  Wallis swallowed twice and swished the blade through the air, testing its feel.  It was lighter, longer, and thinner, yet much stronger than Jarvis’s Citadel sword. 
            Milo stepped away from Wallis.  “Swords only.  No shields, no armor.  Jarvis, remove your jerkin.  I know it’s only leather, but Sheriff Wallis is without one.”
            The young under-sheriff laid his sword on the pavement and quickly shed his leather jerkin.  He tossed it to someone and snatched up his sword.
            Milo raised his voice.  “As the charge is serious, the combat will be to death.  Begin!”
            In Jarvis Day’s few weeks in the Guard, he had made only modest progress in sword fighting.  He hardly knew how to parry a blow, and his balance was bad, so there were moments when he could offer no defense against a skilled attack.  His weapon was heavy and unwieldy compared to the sword in Wallis’s hand.  Experience had shown that in a sustained fight, Citadel blades would sometimes break.  But none of this made any difference.  Jarvis immediately realized where his advantage lay.  He feigned a rush at Wallis and quickly jumped to the side.  Wallis flicked his weapon at Jarvis, but the younger man was already out of range.  Jarvis danced around Wallis, harrying him first from one side and then the other.  The fat man backed away, step after step, but Jarvis retreated several strides and the ring of guardsmen pushed Wallis back into the center.  Jarvis renewed his attack.
            It didn’t take long.  Though Jarvis expended much more effort, Wallis was soon panting.  Jarvis darted in and hacked at his enemy; without a shield, the blow fell on Wallis’s left arm.  Blood spurted.  A bone was exposed.  Jarvis danced out of the range of Wallis’s swings.  The Assistant Commander’s breath came now in rasps.  He fell to his knees.  Jarvis circled to Wallis’s left and swung his sword with both hands.  The dull blade did not decapitate Wallis, cutting only halfway through the neck.
            Jarvis retrieved Milo’s sword from the dead man’s hand.  He proffered it to Milo, bowing.  “Lord Commander Mortane, your sword.”
            “Thank you, under-sheriff.  The result of the combat establishes the truth of your words.  This matter is concluded.  The company is dismissed.”

            Guardsmen were still congregated around Jarvis, praising his victory and congratulating him, when an under-sheriff came running.  He saluted and bowed simultaneously.  “My Lord Commander Mortane, Sheriff Abrecan has returned.  He is at the stable gate with a girl.”

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

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