Thursday, November 13, 2014

Castles 129

129. In Stonebridge

            Merlin Averill and Adelgar Gyricson rode unhurriedly through the streets of Stonebridge.  “I promise you, it will be worth your while,” Merlin had said, inviting his old friend Adelgar to ride with him to an undisclosed location.
            “Old friend” overstated the case.  Merlin was the scion of one of Stonebridge’s most prominent families.  From birth he was destined for the Assembly or even the Speakership, but for his deformity and persistent stutter.  Adelgar’s father was a moderately successful vintner who bought grapes from the Averill estate, fruit the Averills judged not quite up to their own standards.  In lean years, Averill wine graced the tables of as few as twenty rich homes in Stonebridge; family tradition forbade using anything but perfect grapes for Averill wine.  In contrast, Gyricson’s winery filled many bottles for ordinary wine houses.  Merlin and Adelgar played together when they were very young, and as they grew up they renewed their acquaintance every harvest.
            Adelgar inherited modestly from his father and sold the winery to enter trade.  He prospered and married a stunningly beautiful woman.  Table talk on the Averill estate marked young Gyricson as one of the rising names in the city.  Merlin’s uncles said Gyricson might reach the Assembly.  Perhaps the childhood friendship between Merlin and Adelgar would prove politically useful.
            Gyricson’s precipitous downfall was something of a mystery.  Tilde suddenly disappeared last summer, and Adelgar simultaneously lost all his money.  Ody Dans and Lunden Ware refused to lend to him, and on their warning the minor lenders in Stonebridge quite naturally turned him a deaf ear.
            Adelgar’s absence during grape harvest spurred Merlin to look for him, and he found him working as a laborer in a cider press.  Without offering details, Adelgar said he had lost the winery, that Tilde had died, and that he had no backing to re-enter trade.  Merlin knew nothing more of the affair until he met Tilde alive in the Citadel.
            “Where are you taking me?”  Gyricson’s tone wavered between complaint and curiosity.  Merlin had brought the horses to Gyricson’s house in the southwest quadrant of the city—not the fine residence Adelgar bought for Tilde, but smaller and shabbier—and they had crossed rivers Blide and Broganéa.  Now they rode east, angling toward hills northeast of the city.  “I’m not interested in seeing the Guard’s Winter Camp, if that’s your intention.”
            “N-n-no.  We’ll n-n-not go over the high ridge.  The foothill road.”
            “Toward the Gunnara estate?”
            “Aye.  B-b-but I have questions for you.”
             “In a moment.”  Adelgar pointed to their left.  They were at a meeting of streets, and a man riding in the middle of the street was waving at them.  “What do you suppose he wants?”
            A shrug.  They reined their mounts to stop and wait.  The rider cantered close.  He had red hair that fell to his shoulders.
            “Fair afternoon, sirs.  Your livery marks you as men who should know the city.  I am looking for the home of a visiting lady, Amicia Mortane from Hyacintho Flumen.
            Dressed in blacks, browns, and grays and spattered with plenty of mud, the questioner had the marks of long riding.  Merlin and Adelgar shared a quick look; from established habit Merlin let his companion speak.
            “The Lady Ambassador has been in Stonebridge many weeks now.  She lives in what they call Ambassador House.”  Adelgar pointed west.  “That way.  My friend here could undoubtedly guide you, but we are going this way.”  He gestured east.
            “Ambassador House?”
            “On the west bank of River Blide, a little south.”
            “I am grateful.”  The rider inclined his head and lifted reins.  Merlin grunted an interruption.  The man looked at Merlin.
            The obvious question spurred Adelgar’s wits.  “I apologize, sir.  I forget my manners.  May we learn your name?  I am Adelgar Gyricson and my friend is Merlin Averill.”
            The rider looked with great surprise at Merlin, a glance of sudden intense interest.  Merlin thought:  He’s never seen an arm like mine before.  They kill deformed newborns in some places.
            “Ro Norton,” said the rider.  “A fit name for a man with hair like mine.  My mother also had hair of fire.”
            Adelgar chuckled.  “Aye.  A proper name, indeed: Ro the red.  You mentioned our livery.  Yours marks you as a man of standing, and I would guess you’ve come a long way—a stranger to Stonebridge who did not know the Lady Ambassador arrived weeks ago.  Where are you from?  Do you bring her messages from her brother in Hyacintho Flumen?”
            “No.”  Ro Norton answered Adelgar, but he looked steadily at Merlin.  “That would be impossible, since the Herminians besiege it.  I serve Lord David Le Grant of Saltas Semitas.
            Merlin read the stranger’s expression differently now.  It’s my name, not my claw, which interests him.  A question leapt to his mind.  Lords speak to lords by castle magic, so why would Le Grant send a messenger to Amicia?  If you can talk to Mortane, why contact Mortane’s ambassador?  Just as quickly, a possible answer suggested itself, accompanied by a worry.  Aylwin sends instructions to Amicia through Le Grant’s servant.  Amicia will undoubtedly want to respond, and she may ask Aylwin to bless our marriage.  Will he approve?  As he often did, Merlin kept his thoughts unspoken.
            Adelgar noted Norton’s focus on Merlin.  “Ah!  I guess the lord of Saltas Semitas remembers the name Averill with little fondness.  Would you agree?”
            “I cannot say.  My task is to find Lady Amicia Mortane.”  Norton tried to blank his face, but Merlin felt sure Adelgar’s guess was right: the Le Grants probably cursed ‘Averills’ frequently in their prayers.
            Again, a chuckle from Adelgar, and he pointed.  “That way.  Cross the River Blide, then go south.  It’s a handsome house in blue and white.”              
            Ro Norton rode away.  When the emissary was out of earshot Adelgar said, “I did not say anything about you and Lady Amicia.  Do you approve?”
            “Q-q-quite.  T-t-talk to Amicia later.”  Merlin pointed east with his claw, and they reined their mounts into motion.
            “You said you had questions for me, Merlin.  What’s this all about?”
            Merlin took a long time before responding.  “L-l-last summer…”
            “I don’t want to talk about last year, Merlin.  I lost my wife.  I lost everything I inherited from my father.  I lost my standing with lenders, so I am shut out from trade.  At harvest, I had to work as a common laborer making cider; no vintner in Stonebridge would employ me.  And winter was worse.  I chopped firewood for old women, who paid me with meager food.”
            “I’m not naked, as you can see.  I sold my house, bought smaller, and carefully conserved the difference.  I can still dress like a merchant, even if I can’t trade.  Perhaps I will sell the little house and quit Stonebridge altogether.  I could go to Down’s End, but Dans’s censure would follow me there.  Maybe I could manage lands for a castle lord—David Le Grant, for example.  I could go to Saltas Semitas with Ro Norton.”
            “C-c-could you make w-w-wine?”
            Adelgar bunched his eyebrows.  “You forget.  I sold my father’s winery to finance trade.  That too is gone.”
            “B-b-but you know the b-b-business.  Everything from planting vines to s-s-selling b-b-bottles and b-b-barrels.”
            “Aye.  I know the business.”  Conjecture broke over Adelgar’s face.  “Why are we riding to Gunnara’s estate?  Has the old witch fired another manager?  Are you thinking she might employ me?  And that I would consent?”
            They had emerged from the city onto a country road.  Adelgar looked east and north; the Gunnara hills were two miles away.  “Don’t misunderstand me, Merlin.  I would be eager to work for Gunnara; I’m that desperate.  But it couldn’t last.  She changes managers yearly; either that or they get tired of her shrewish tongue and leave.  It’s a bad show all around.  Half the land is poorly suited for vines, they have too few laborers, the winery is old, and old Gunnara herself is mostly blind.  And now, if she takes me on, she’ll get no credit in Stonebridge.  Dans and Ware and all that crowd are determined to break me.”  
            Inwardly, Merlin was pleased.  Adelgar’s analysis of the Gunnara vineyard and winery matched his own.  Far better that he take on the task knowing the challenge.  He said, “Z-z-zoe Gunnara will not employ you.  Of that I am sure.”
            Again Adelgar’s eyebrows bunched.  “Then why are we riding this way?”
            “… is nineteen and pretty.”
            Comprehension dawned.  “I grant you that.  She’s also not terribly bright.” On the hill, Gunnara’s house and outbuildings could be seen.  “There are worse things, I suppose.”
            “Ev-ev-evelina w-w-wants a husband.  Zoe fears a bad match, and she knows she will not live much longer.  If you p-p-persuade the g-g-grandmother, you can have the g-g-granddaughter.”
            “And the estate.”
            “Aye.  C-c-can you make it succeed?”
            Adelgar Gyricson had the good sense not to answer quickly.  “I would need to survey the whole.  Some of the land should be given over to goats or sheep.  There are some good slopes, some good vines.  It could be done.  But without credit, it will take years.  Evelina would have to live like a pauper.”
            “There are w-w-worse things.  D-d-don’t try to hide the t-t-truth from Zoe.  The old w-w-witch can s-s-smell a lie.”

            Zoe Gunnara’s eyesight wasn’t as bad as she pretended.  She couldn’t recognize the riders, but she saw them coming a hundred yards away.  The post boy had delivered Averill’s letter two days before and she was ready.  Zoe rose from her chair on the porch and limped into the receiving room.  The hip was worse than usual today.
            She liked the receiving room.  Evelina and the servant girl Bliss kept it tidy.  Too many rooms in the great old house looked like warehouses, with extra furniture, boxes stacked in corners, and misplaced family treasures lying under shawls and coats.  Of course, the “treasures” weren’t valuable to anybody but Zoe, but it pained her when she remembered one and couldn’t find it.
            Zoe eased herself into her favorite padded armchair, lessening hip pain for a while.  If she sat too long it would return redoubled, but that didn’t matter.  Today’s business did.
            “Lady Zoe, there are two men to see you.  One of them is that Merlin Averill, cursed of the gods.”  Bliss was far too free with her opinions.
            “Cursed, you say?  Don’t be foolish, girl.  Tell the men to come in, and go get Evelina.”
            “Aye, Ma’am.”
            Evelina might have been standing about in the hall; she came into the receiving room before the visitors.  Zoe silently blessed the girl’s appearance: white skin healthy enough to hide most veins, graceful brows above warm brown eyes, a slightly upturned nose, and fine hair.  A pretty face that would still be attractive in later years.  Her figure would please some men too, though Zoe predicted the prominent breasts would sag after the first baby.  No matter; if today’s business went well, Evelina could buy garments to support and conceal.
            “I’m too tired to stand, Evy.  Greet our visitors for me.”
            “Aye, Ma’am.”
            The men came in, first Merlin and then the other.
            “F-f-fair afternoon, Lady Zoe.  Lady Evelina.”  Merlin stammered less than Zoe expected.  “My friend, A-a-adelgar Gyricson.”
            “Fair afternoon, Master Averill.”  Evelina curtsied.  “Master Gyricson.”  Was the smile offered to Gyricson a bit brighter than to Averill?  Good.  Her natural instincts are on my side for once.  He’s a handsome man; it’s a shame Evy can’t see more than that.
            Evelina said, “Gentlemen, please sit.  Grandmother is much more comfortable in her chair.  And I think it’s easier for her to see you if your faces are on her level.”
            “Aye,” said Zoe.  “And scoot up closer, if you will.  Ah!  There you are, young Averill.  Can’t miss you, the crab-man of Stonebridge.”  She cackled.  Merlin’s letter had said she should maintain her reputation, the witch Gunnara.  “And you.  You must be Leland Gyricson’s boy.  A vintner.  He makes wine, Evelina, or at least his father did.”
            “You remember my father?”  Adelgar expressed surprise.
            “I would not.”  Zoe cackled again.  “Except your great beak of a nose reminded me of him.  By the gods, you might as well be a vulture.  A whole family of vultures.  Leland used to buy our surplus for his winery.  But he had a sharp eye, did that one.  He could tell a good bushel from a bad.”
            Evelina blanched.  “Grandmother, I think you should speak more accurately.  Master Gyricson looks nothing like a vulture.”  She smiled at Adelgar.  “I think you look quite fine, sir.  Do you make wine, like your father?”
            “Not at present.  I did learn winemaking from my father, but when he died I decided to enter trade.  Stonebridge’s forests produce excellent lumber, which is as much desired in Down’s End as good wine.  I had some success moving lumber to the downs.”
            “Some success?”  Zoe’s tone communicated skepticism.  Merlin vouched for the man, and the gods knew Zoe had need, but she would not tolerate deception.
            “Not enough success, I fear.”  The man looked Zoe in the eye, which didn’t mean anything.  The worst deceivers practiced looking sincere.  “I borrowed from Ody Dans, and I did not fully repay.  As a result, no lender in Stonebridge will do business with me.  I am shut out of trade.”
            “And shut of your wife, if what I hear is true.”  Zoe peered at him intently, hoping he would think her gaze beady.
            “You were married?” Evelina exclaimed innocently.
            Gyricson turned to Evelina.  “I was.  Tilde and I were very happy.  But when I lost my money, I think she became despondent.  She left me.  They found her body in River Broganéa.”
            “She left you just because you lost your money?”  Evelina’s indignation was as real as it was naïve.  Zoe prayed: Please, gods protect this girl from herself.
            “No.  Tilde loved me.  I believe she loved me very much.  But the shock of my failure overthrew her mind.  I think she threw herself in the river to escape humiliation.”
            Zoe tilted her head.  What are you leaving out, boy?  Don’t lie to me.  “Are you certain she is dead?”
            “Aye. Aye. Aye.”  But that was not what he meant.  Gyricson stammered, almost like Merlin.  “I-I-I…” He looked at the floor and then at Zoe.  “No, Ma’am.  I saw a body that had been in the river some days.  I think it was Tilde, but only the gods can be certain.  I looked widely in the city for her and did not find her.  I believe she is dead.”
            Evelina was solemn.  “How horrible!  I’m very sorry for you.”
            Zoe didn’t want to miss an opportunity.  “You see, Evy?  A wife needs more than a pretty face.  Bad times will come.  Always do.  That’s when you must be strong, strong in your heart.”  She fixed Adelgar Gyricson with her eye.  “And you must treat your partner honorably.”
            Gyricson looked stricken, as if Zoe knew his deepest secrets.  She didn’t.  Merlin’s letter said explicitly that he would not tell certain things, but asked that Zoe trust his judgment.  Zoe had burned the letter after reading it.
            “I’m not as simple as you think, Grandmother.”  Evelina folded her hands on her lap.  “I know our vineyards are poor.  We have but one housemaid, Bliss, and no cook.  Three servants for the vines.  One of them, the manager, is Paul Freeman.  Who knows what crimes he fled to come here?”
            Evelina looked whiter than usual, and she trembled, not looking at the visitors.  Zoe had never been prouder of her granddaughter.  There’s hope for you yet, girl.  Zoe rocked back and forth.  Her hip was crying out, but she made herself smile and cackle.  “You think you see?  Hm, Evy?  Good!  Very good!  But will you be strong in the hard times?  Tell me that.”
            Evelina did not answer.  She stared at the floor, until the silence distressed the visitors.
            Adelgar Gyricson said, “Sometimes, Lady Gunnara, when facing a trial, it is wisdom to hold one’s tongue.  Impetuous persons promise greatly, and when they fail the test, they are crushed.  I speak as one who has promised and failed.  Sometimes, I think, it would be best to promise only that one will try.  Lady Evelina, will you try your best when hard times come?”
            “Aye.”  Evelina looked at her grandmother first, then Gyricson.  “I will be strong in my heart.”
            Zoe pounded the arm of her chair.  “Gods, my hip hurts!  Help me up, girl.”  Merlin Averill jumped up, and with his left arm he helped.  With Evelina and Merlin on either side, Zoe rose.  Hunched over, she beckoned Gyricson with a finger.  The man came close so she could whisper.
            “I like you.  You may call on Evy if you like.  But first, if you cannot prove Tilde Gyricson is dead, you must divorce her.  My Evelina will be no man’s concubine.  And if you do call, make up your mind soon.  These bones will be in the ground by year’s end.”

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

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