Thursday, September 11, 2014

Castles 120

120.  At Winter Camp

            Ifing Redhair, mounted on a warhorse, should have been a terror to all enemies.  He was practically a giant, six and a half feet tall, with broad shoulders and long braided red locks.  Seated on a destrier fit to his size and armed with a battle-axe or lance, he would have dominated a field of battle.  Should have, would have—but not in fact.  Ifing Redhair could not ride a horse.
            Born in the Bene Quarter, Ifing was a child of poverty and the city.  Until Milo made him an under-sheriff for Stonebridge, Ifing had never gone outside the city.  Naturally, he saw lots of horses in Stonebridge: draught horses for wagons, palfreys for rich ladies, coursers for the City Guard, and others.  But he never owned a horse; he had no memory of riding one.  In fact, Ifing said, he had no memories of his early boyhood at all, nothing before his sixth birthday.  At twenty-four years old, Redhair could run as fast as any man, and his proficiency with a blade in a street fight was formidable.  His men respected his courage, his brains, and his record of bloody triumphs.  But none of this translated to success in the saddle.
            Milo and Eádulf tried to instruct Redhair in private, to spare him humiliation before his comrades in the Guard.  Eádulf rode Brownie with two other mounts on a lead to a lonely field outside Stonebridge.  Milo and Ifing hiked four miles from the Citadel into the muddy countryside to the appointed place.  The three men spent six hours of cursing and tears trying to overcome an invisible and invincible foe.  They failed.
            Eádulf saddled Ifing’s horse and held him steady.  Milo mounted and dismounted the animal and stood close to boost Ifing into the saddle.  But when the Falcon chieftain approached he froze in fear.  His eyes dilated, his arms shook, and he breathed in raw gasps.  Sweat ran down his forehead and neck though spring had not yet come.  Again and again Redhair cursed himself for cowardice, but neither his curses nor Milo’s encouragement could overcome the internal block.  Redhair could not put foot to stirrup.
            The experience yielded frustration, humiliation, and bewilderment.  If Milo put the horse’s reins in Ifing’s hands, the under-sheriff could walk the beast around the field calmly.  Ifing could hold out an apple and let the animal eat.  But whenever he tried to take the saddle the terror stuck.  Eádulf suggested that Ifing tighten the horse’s saddle straps as a way to get used to the creature.  The panic hit Redhair as his hand moved toward the cinch; he could not bring himself to touch it.  The three men tried everything they could think of, but the mystery only deepened.  Ifing Redhair could not mount a horse.
            After hours of failure, Eádulf whispered, “It is a barrier from the gods.”  Milo and Ifing heard him.
            “What?” Redhair’s snarl contained as much despair as anger.
            Milo had been taught to believe in castle gods, though they rarely figured in his thinking.  “Eádulf might be right.”  Before Redhair could speak, Milo went on: “Ifing, stop!  Think!
            “There must be some reason for this.  You’re not a coward, no matter what contemptible labels you give yourself.  So why is it that you—of all men, Ifing Redhair! —should be unable to mount a horse?  Some power overcomes you when you approach the stirrup.  We are alone here; there are no enemies watching from the fence.  There is no priest of the old god to cast a spell on you.  I think Eádulf could be right.  The gods may not want you to ride.”
            Ifing spat.  “A fine hate they show me.  Every man in the Guard will laugh at horseless Redhair.”
            “That won’t happen.”  Milo shook his head.  “You are too valuable to me.  We will make you a swordsman and a captain of swordsmen.  You will march to battle as do most armsmen.”
            And so, when Derian Chapman did not require Redhair’s attendance at some negotiation with a purveyor of supplies, Ifing trained as a foot soldier at “Winter Camp.”  This was a collection of tents, built on wood tent frames, and located a couple miles northeast and down hill from Hill Corral.  A creek ran near the camp, through a forest of pine, fir, and ash; further north, the little stream faded into the prairie of the Great Downs.  The wagon road from Down’s End passed close to the place.
Marty established Winter Camp soon after the Assembly made him commander, and assigned new recruits to it.  To turn street urchins, pickpockets, and gangsters into soldiers, the City Guard first made them lumbermen and builders.  They cut down trees and built tent frames, big enough to hold twenty men, so that even in winter they could sleep on dry wood floors.  Hrodgar Wigt supervised the camp, enforcing discipline and teaching teamwork, and Earm Upton (who had worked in the forest before joining the City Guard) taught basic woodsman skills.  The recruits dug latrines, built a kitchen/refectory and a barn, fenced a paddock, and collected stones for a future blacksmith furnace.  At the time of Ody Dans’s dinner for Kingsley Averill, more than fifty armsmen-in-training were already working at Winter Camp.
            As winter faded and more recruits joined the Stonebridge Guard, Winter Camp became a quagmire.  Melting snow made mud of the paths between tents and buildings, the paddock, and the training field.  Some of the recruits had never owned real boots, wearing sandals even on Stonebridge’s winter streets.  Milo explained the situation in a letter to Ody Dans and Lunden Ware.  The bankers agreed to lend money to the Guard, to be repaid at an unspecified date, and Derian Chapman was dispatched to Down’s End with Felix Abrecan as guard.  Two weeks later Derian returned with a one-horse cart full of boots, one hundred twenty pairs of sturdy leather boots of Down’s End quality, which could not be matched in Stonebridge.  The burgeoning City Guard would soon need more, but Derian’s purchase allowed weapons training to begin in earnest.  To the sons of poverty who received them, the boots represented a new horizon of possibilities.  In the Stonebridge Guard they had food to eat, dry tents to sleep in, warm boots for their feet—and a demand for excellence.
            Milo appointed Bryce Dalston and Aidan Fleming training masters.  Bryce taught swordsmanship on the bare flagstones of the Citadel’s training yard, twenty men at a time.  Two rows of ten men would face each other and practice thrusts and parries with wooden swords.  With solid footing under them, the recruits learned to move their feet and dance rather than stand and hack.  Then, on the uneven, muddy grounds of Winter Camp, Aidan trained larger groups to work together, to fight as a unit.  Both instructors pushed their men hard, warning them repeatedly that training diligence would save their lives later.  When some soldiers observed that Dalston’s fancy footwork might be suitable on dry level ground but real battlefields would probably be more like Winter Camp’s quagmire, Aidan Fleming emphatically defended his comrade’s lessons.  “You do not know whether your battlefield will be grassland, a forest, or a city street,” he said.  “A good swordsman must be able to adjust and fight on all of them.”     
            Since training took place in both places, units of Guardsmen moved between Winter Camp and the Citadel every week, a ten-mile march from the center of Stonebridge over the encircling hills and two miles beyond Hill Corral.  Milo welcomed this necessity; disciplined marching helped shape recruits into an army. 
            Citadel blacksmiths repaired old weapons and forged new shields and swords as quickly as Derian could buy iron.  Nevertheless, it became clear that without recruiting more smiths and obtaining a great quantity of iron Milo’s army would lack sufficient swords and shields until late summer or fall.  There was no question of diverting the limited iron supply to making plate armor.  For the time being, Milo was the only properly outfitted knight in the Guard. 
Milo hit on the idea of knife-fighters.  Ifing Redhair and other gangsters already owned knives, and they had experience with stealthy attack in the dark.  Redhair handpicked forty men for this group, including former Hawks as well as Falcons, and trained them in the forest outside of Winter Camp, often at night.  Milo told the knifemen they might play an especially important role in breaking the siege of Hyacintho Flumen.  And he did not mention the company of knifemen in any of his reports to Ody Dans, Lunden Ware, the Stonebridge Assembly, or Speaker Kingsley Averill.
            Averill and his party in the Assembly viewed the rapid expansion of the Guard with suspicion, even alarm.  Nevertheless, they voted with Dans and Ware’s party to authorize the new Guard and pay for its weapons.  They could not deny the results of Commander Mortane’s new Guard: robberies and burglaries in the city had almost ceased, middling merchants no longer needed to pay extortion to Falcons or Hawks, and security guards for rich estates had easy service.  Milo’s reports also noted that the sheriffs who patrolled the city found fewer frozen bodies in the streets bordering the Bene Quarter; some in the Assembly attributed this to a milder winter, but others said poor people also benefited from a more efficient Guard.  Milo had nothing to say to the Assembly on that score, he said.  He merely reported the facts.
            The gains in public safety did not come through scores of new soldiers snooping round the city.  Most of the new recruits lived in Winter Camp, and those who trained with Bryce Dalston stayed within the Citadel walls.  Most people in Stonebridge did not see the new Guardsmen except when they marched to or from Winter Camp.  Folk did notice that under Commander Mortane the new Guard patrolled the streets more hours than in the Tondbert days; everyone put this down to better discipline or harder work in the Guard.  In reality, extra hands inside the Citadel freed patrol Guardsmen from routine work, thus permitting longer patrols.
            Beyond observable results, one other factor influenced Kingsley Averill’s grudging support for Milo’s Guard.  Merlin Averill had suddenly taken an interest in something other than viniculture.  He had made an offer of marriage to Lady Ambassador Amicia Mortane.

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

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