Editor's Note: This is a work in progress and subject to change. Louis hopes to have the basic 60,000-word manuscript done by the end of the year.
With aching bodies, cracked lips and burning eyes, almost unable to breathe through the nose, they finally rode out of the backwoods farm country into Windermere. Up above on its crag was the castle of Queen Eleanora. It rose up before them in discolored white towers and heavy stone walls encrusted with moss and mildew.
The long wagons lurched along the rutted road, with riders in front and riders behind. Men with crossbows sat or stood precariously behind the driver and the gaoler on their heaving maple slab of a seat. The two wagons at the front of the train were official county prison wagons, those bringing up the rear were consignments or other privateers. Having paid a small fee for the privilege, they traveled under the aegis of the Crown for protection from outlaws and bandits. They’d come seventy-four miles in a little less than three days and everyone was hurting.
As for the horses, covered in foam and sweat, flies buzzing around their eyes, those in the traces were looking at an early retirement to the knacker’s yard, and the troopers’ mounts, although rather more loved at times, were little better off in the long run.
At first, the peasants, the idlers, the women drawing water from the fountain at the centre of the village took no real notice. This was in spite of the noise being considerable. Laden as it was with its cargo of stinking, miserable, sweating, thirsting humanity, it was a common sight. A few faces looked up when the cavalcade was right upon them and mothers pulled their wide-eyed children out of the way. There was little sympathy for the huddled forms behind those black iron bars, neither was there much rancor towards the other unfortunates, the ones destined for market. Those who rode naked and unwashed, chained to open boards, those who sat on those land-scows at the rear of the column were merely unfortunate. They were unable to pay a debt or a fine and so they had to forfeit. It was easily understood that it could happen to anyone…or almost anyone. The horses that towed them looked as if they desired death by this point in the journey. They had made a good pace, but no one had the mercy to give it to them.
More than one onlooker had prayed fervently that it didn’t happen to them.
If it wasn’t for the severest penalties, people would borrow money and run up prodigious debts and then simply abscond. Right-thinking people didn’t get into debt in the first place; not if they could help it, anyways.
The riders in their colorful jackets and plumes, those flanking the teams, rode forward as the rest of the train slowed. Seated beside the driver, Serjeant-at-Arms Garvin thought the need for vigilance would be greatest on the fringes of a large town. Human nature being what it was the men tended to let their guard down.
It was the quietest part of the day. The busiest time, early morning, was past, where anyone who could was at the market. The market was the centre of life, of gossip, of news and not incidentally foodstuffs and all sorts of other provisions.
Before too long the shadows would begin to lengthen and people would be thinking of supper, and more than anything, their beds. Early to bed, and early to rise, had made at least the more successful, healthy, wealthy, and wise. There were others, of course.
There were many fools and fools seldom prospered. Everybody knew that.
Some people, men and women, even children sometimes, were always at a tavern. They practically lived there. A lucky few would be feasting and gaming the night away at the castle. This tended to be the privileged minority in a hard-working and tightly-knit community based on hand labor and open-field farming where the individual strips were all laid out all over.
A small boy, bored and seeking almost any kind of diversion ran alongside, rattling a stick against the heavy black bars of the second wagon. Wide metal straps in a cruciform pattern, they were secured in deep sockets top and bottom, hot-riveted where they intersected, heads flattened and distorted by the blacksmith’s hammer.
A trooper scolded him but the youngster just laughed and ran away. The prisoners, intent on their own fears and hopes, took no notice of this latest indignity. They had enough on their plates as it was.
As the last few mounted figures disappeared up the winding road into the castle proper, the town became quiet again. It was the hottest part of the afternoon on what might be the last of the fine, late summer days.
Those days were getting perceptibly shorter, one by one, in their inexorable fashion. With nothing much to do except work, eat and sleep, people were enjoying the brief respite before the harvest and its inevitable strains. Then would come the rains, and then another long, cold, harsh winter.
Circling up and around the hill, the wagons finally came to the entrance proper.
Serjeant at Arms Kann held up his hand and bellowed at the gate-keepers in the barbican, despite the fact that the gates were thrown open at sunrise and only closed at the appointed hour. A couple of rather plump, heavily-bearded young men came out and stood there, hands at their sides and with pikes lazily trailing.
His own men, clean-shaven or with much more rakish facial hair, were something else. Kann saluted smartly and received a laconic greeting as he went past.
Kann almost spat at the man, but a glare would suffice.
Proper military form would be observed at all times, with one such as Serjeant Kann. The keep lay further above. Its eminence dominated the surrounding countryside, with its rolling, forested hills and intervening fingers of low, flat plains. The granges were waving in golden wheat, shimmering under the haze of dead, dry dust that the afternoon breeze always picked up. From its highest battlements one would be able to see the ocean, wine dark under moonlight and scudding grey clouds. Kann had always thought he had a poetic soul, his present occupation notwithstanding. It was a nice thought.
Thundering across the bridge, the dust of the county high-road finally settled and the last of the riders came along and bunched up at the head of the column. Cheerful remarks were made, and retorted back upon each other. It had been a long ride, and yet this day at least was ending early. They straggled across an open space of a hundred yards to the second gate. The inner wall was higher still. The inner gate was thinner and less heavily defended, and the keep within was a formidable set of fortifications in itself. This part of the castle had been built hundreds of years before the outer walls and was consequently simpler in concept, although still composed of a Cyclopean masonry. The tops of the tall walls were heavily crenellated.
Loopholes for crossbows went swirling up, following the staircase inside of every tower. The top of the wall over the gate was heavily galleried, for the pouring of hot oil and the discharge of missile weapons. Even then, they knew enough to put the towers well out, with places to shoot along the facing walls.
Garvin quite approved. He admired its purity. The builders had clearly been thorough-going bastards and he had always admired that.
A flock of chickens browsing in the immediate vicinity of the entry-way scattered a few feathers, beating a hurried retreat before an onslaught of menacing noises and plodding dark shapes. The dim tunnel echoed with heavy iron tires on oaken rims, rough cobbles throwing the carts from side to side. The prisoners inside cursed and hung on for dear life, or took the knocks with a becoming fatalism. Upon coming out the other side into the hot glare of the yard, Kann shouted instructions, and then sat his horse, looking around and muttering quietly. The wagons halted all in a row, in the usual place in front of the Baillie’s office. This was just to the right inside of the inner gate. All hands were tired, sore and dry in the mouth after a long journey.
In the sudden quiet, their murmurs took on added significance before being lightly tossed aside by the breezes at this elevation, a full five or six hundred feet above the town. He pulled off his stinking helmet, wearing a hole in his scalp in one or two places, and held it under his arm. With no shade for the eyes, he blinked back a sudden watering. Shading his eyes, he kept looking.
Kann could not help but approve of clean pennants on whitened staves, hanging from the battlements, and fit-enough looking men in the vicinity. They were in red and black uniforms that look well-tended and bore weapons that looked competent enough for most purposes. With nothing but dull, drab routine to go on these days, there seemed to be very few of the Queen’s household troops about. To their left, for a considerable distance, lay stables, the smithy, small paddocks and stalls, and the all-important water troughs.
There was a tower with a wooden water tank, and even a windmill pulling water from below. It went gushing into a tank at the far end of the yard. A few men and boys could be seen working here and there. People came and went, ignoring them. Some stood just watching, and some were clearly from other places, as several standing teams, their drivers nowhere about, quietly attested. Two young men yanked down bags of carrots, beans and other provisions from the back of one wagon, an official checking them off a numbered list as they carried them away on their backs. The castle loomed above everything else, dominating the skyline and drawing the eye in admiration. In purely military terms, it was well placed and well built. The question of water supply had been relatively well solved, as to his knowledge there was a stream that had been diverted ages ago, which also led under the citadel. There was a strange beauty as well, he conceded.
Whoever built this knew what they wanted, and arguably, what they were doing. They weren’t far wrong, either. The place was only a few miles up from the sea and commanded all the land trade routes for a hundred miles in all directions. The Queen’s fleet held sway in this end of the Great Sea. There was relative peace at present amongst most of the adjoining states, but this capital looked strong and secure enough for most threats.
Half a dozen men stood at his stirrup, all ready for drinking up their pay. This was a natural assumption once you got to know them a little.
“All right, lads.” Sounding pleased almost, Kann finally dismounted.
Garvin was hustling around with his pouch of papers.
“All right, all right. Where is everybody?” Garvin cast a sharp eye on his own affairs.
He had a bag of coins, a list, and everybody’s time-sheets, and a record of anything they had charged or advanced against the good name of the Crown. Technically, he was in command but content to let Kann handle the boys and men.
The troopers were under strict orders not to break off and head for the nearest tavern until all of this was sorted out, but one never knew.
“Right lads. Help the man.” Kann gave a sharp nod in Garvin’s direction and the troops, young and old, big and small, shuffled over with relative cheer.
You had to keep an eye on them and keep a firm hand on the reins. Other than that, they were all right.
Kann figured you could do worse.
Upon dismounting, the County’s troopers had divided themselves up almost without bidding from the Serjeants at Arms, in command of this very detail.
“Watch your mouth, Trooper Bibbs.” Kann had glared at the offender, and the fellow turned with flaming ears to attend to his mount.
Every so often Kann picked one and made an example of him. This seemed to work well enough, and then after a time, the effect wore off again. This was especially true of the younger ones.
Taking their own reins in hand as well as those of their fellow-troopers, some of the junior men led the horses off to be watered, unsaddled, and put into stalls or turned out into the yard between the curtain walls, as suited their condition or temperament.
The more senior troopers stood close as the door to the tall cell on wheels was opened by the gaoler with his bunch of jangling keys. One by one, with much talk, barked orders, threats and promises from the soldiers, the prisoners were brought down to be confined within proper stone walls for the night. It would almost be a relief, for some of them had come a long ways. They always took the women off first, especially the ones with kids. The Crown wasn’t heartless, after all. Kann was strolling around, pretending to ignore them, but the wiser heads kept the juniors on the ball.
The job was easy, and it would be over soon enough.
An officer of the guard, distinguished by the red lining of his short grey cloak, more a mark of office and a bit of a formality as the day was still middling warm, came out of the baillie’s office.
He was helmetless, which was understandable but it had always bothered Kann to be commanded by such men. When you took the metal hat off, you were just one of the boys, he thought.
Kann patted Garvin on the shoulder after coming up on the blind side, and then made off after a gaggle of the men.
“Hallo. Who goes there?”
“It is I, Garvin of Boeth, in charge of prisoners of the Court and slaves for the auction.” He had a leather folder with a sheaf of papers attesting to just such a fact.
The other nodded, after a glance. The official folder carried its own weight, and then there was the man.
Garvin craned his neck, shaded his eyes against the glare coming off the white wall behind the fellow and looked at the tall, rather distinguished officer.
“And your name, sir?”
“Nyron. Officer of the Guard. It’s one penny a night for official prisoners. Two pence a night for slaves and private prisoners. If they have money, they can send out for their own food, assuming they can bribe one of my men to do that for them.” Nyron grinned pleasantly at this witticism. “Hopefully, we have enough space.”
He stopped, and his mouth hung there as the last prisoner stepped to the door.
“Absolutely.” Garvin nodded, all of that was simple routine. “Some of them are being bound over, and a few are going out again in the morning.”
He’d been provided with enough cash for the eventuality, and he was a bit of a stickler in his own record-keeping.
“Take a good look, er, Captain Nyron.” He smiled at the older fellow, and the insignia on the shoulder of his cloak was plain enough.
The officer’s eyebrows rose in appreciation. This didn’t happen every day. Normally, it was the very dregs of humanity, mostly the criminals, the mis-fortunates and the fools that washed up here.
The barbarian prisoner had to bow his head, reluctant captive as he was, with a pair of handlers tugging on short lengths of chain attached to an iron ring around his neck. To be fair, the cell door was only about five feet high.
“Dear me. Goodness, gracious.” The man certainly had an impressive physique, all bulges and ripples and pectoral muscles and things like that.
He was very good looking, unusual in that he was clean-shaven. His long brown hair swept back in healthy waves, falling on his shoulders, giving an impression of power and masculine grace.
He wasn’t wearing much except a soiled green wool kilt around the middle, serviceable sandals and a short cloak made of some animal skin. The tawny color and white edges indicated that the skin came from a sizable feline of the puma genus.
From what little Nyron knew of barbarians, one had to earn the right to wear such a garment, and there was really only one way to do that, now, wasn’t there?
The man was trying not to let his heels slip on the short iron ladder at the front of the carriage, going down frontwards and with his hands bound in front. Nyron wouldn’t try telling these boys their business. A rough looking crew, the two of them would hopefully be enough to handle him. Four of his own troops stood idly by but close enough for any emergency. As far as he was concerned they were there as a last resort. The Crown could live without damage suits resulting from harm caused to the human merchandise, at least on his watch. The same was true in handling privately-owned animals, in a day and age when a good milk cow was said to be worth its weight in copper.
While this wasn’t strictly true, some of those little folk sayings held a kind of wisdom.
Men, women and children were being led away on halters and chains, properly segregated as much as possible. Queen Eleanora’s great-grandfather Wlodimir the Great had decreed that infants would not be separated from their mothers. In such circumstances, with Autumn Court only days away, facilities were crowded and inevitably they must compromise. Efforts were made not to break up families, even barbarian families. The professional soldier could see the sense of that—it prevented plenty of heartaches for all concerned and made handling the mob a little easier sometimes.
Nyron did a quick head count: forty three souls plus another hundred or so already in custody. He had a few empty cells, and most of the others, the really big ones, were not too outrageously overcrowded. The problem was a nice division of the sexes and ages, and just keeping trouble to a minimum. It made sense to keep the private shipments together as much as possible. This was not his favourite duty, but it had to be done. It came with the job.
“I make it forty-three prisoners in all.”
“That’s right, sir, forty-three. Yes, sir.”
He’d been a slave for five or six years himself, before buying his freedom from an indulgent master who needed money. He wanted to pick up a few extra acres for his youngest son’s death-portion. It was a common occurrence, when the better class of master began feeling their age and sensing the cold hand of their own mortality. Fairly well read, Nyron considered himself a bit of a philosopher. He was also luckier than most, he would concede. The Army had been the making of him, and now he wouldn’t trade it for anything.
It was better not to take things too personally sometimes.
He wondered if the man would risk a fight…
The big prisoner stood at ground level. After his long confinement, he gratefully stretched his spine, seemingly growing in front of their eyes, and they could almost hear it crack at hip-level. It was more a thing of the imagination. The cage wasn’t very big, only about four and half feet wide and about ten feet long. Nyron doubted if it was a full six feet high inside. With nine or ten people in there for several days, plus the honey-bucket, sleeping accommodations left much to be desired. It was a very good reason to stay out of trouble.
It was better than slogging along on foot, chained to a dozen other people, all of them of different size and gait. That’s how Nyron had always thought of it. You never really forgot. He’d been there himself a time or two. Nyron nodded at the driver, his boy standing patiently beside the team. The kid hit the nearest horse on the flank with a willow switch. The tall wagon trundled and lurched forwards in anticipation of being turned around and left outside the second gate where the big draft animals could graze and rest if they didn’t need other attention. There simply wasn’t enough space in the inner yard for all the big wagons.
“Holy.” The prisoner dwarfed his handlers, who were often not the most prepossessing of men. “Mother of Nutshepshat.”
Each according to his needs, each according to his abilities, thought Nyron. What irony—a man who should have been a general, being dragged around by the likes of them.
“Yes. Lowren, ah, that’s his name, is the really, really big one that didn’t quite get away. Our prize, and one that shall bring my master much profit.”
Nyron examined the lean, strong features and formidable physique of the prisoner. He’d had to bend double to get out of the cage. Loaded with chains and shackles, whose weight he seemed to ignore, head held high as he stretched his legs in unconscious yet urgent manner, the prisoner looked around at his new, albeit temporary home.
“Oh, he’s one of yours? How much, if I might so inquire?”
“Ah, a connoisseur. Good fellow. Well. I reckon we’ll start the bidding at---” As if not already familiar with Lowren’s statistics, he took another appreciative look. “A hundred gold pieces…”
“Yeah. Don’t forget I have to answer to the Count. Some sort of northern prince-ling, if his story is to be believed.” The barbarian’s head came around, and his eyes hardened and the gaoler’s look sobered. “He wasn’t too happy to be taken, I can tell you that much, yet his manners are good and they say he can read and such like that. He’s not like the others. His spirit hasn’t been broken, not yet anyways, and in my opinion his next owner had better take that into account.”
Lowren was an exceedingly healthy looking specimen, Nyron thought. He might not understand a word of it, but he knows what a gaoler is. He met the eyes for a moment, strangely uncomfortable with it. He doesn’t like me very much, does he?
“Yes, but a hundred pieces?” That was outrageous, the average farm hand not worth a tenth of that.
Not even a twentieth.
Barbarians, tall and strong as they might be, weren’t good for much else. They had no trades, no skills to speak of except war and plunder—they were pretty good at drinking and fighting and carousing in general of course, and once that was taken care of, that really only left subsistence farming and grazing the herds.
“Really. He is a king, you know. That’s the last of them.”
The second wagon had finally moved off and the slavers were pulling their people into line with the occasional kicks, slaps for the younger or weaker ones, and a good measure of cursing as well.
“A bloody king. Hah.” Well, serve him right then!
Looks good on you.
Nyron nodded sourly. Too rich for his blood, and it probably wouldn’t be worth it anyways. Keeping a certain type of man or woman docile and subservient was extremely difficult. They were expensive to feed, clothe and house. He’d heard some real horror stories, not the least of which was how they would sicken and die for no real reason sometimes, and just when the owners were growing quite fond of them.
A thought struck him.
“How, in the names of the gods, did you ever take him?” There had to be a good story behind it.
Barbarian kings didn’t travel or camp without followers and hordes of armed men with naked swords and those horrid little re-curved bows. Bags and bags of arrows, as it was said, and the women were almost worse. In a defeat, barbarians had been turned back upon the enemy by their wives and mothers more than once. It was no legend—it was truth.
“Ah. Trade secret—I wasn’t actually there, you understand. But there may have been a female companion involved—and maybe a little ale as well.” Garvin cracked a grin, grabbing Nyron’s upper arm in familiarity.
“It’s possible she, ah, might have slipped him the old knock-out drops, eh? Heh-heh-heh.”
He let go, and turned to look again.
The prisoner’s startling blue eyes impaled Garvin and the smile disappeared. Garvin, cold in the face now, made an overhand motion with his free hand. The prisoner looked away, feigning indifference. Apparently the prisoner had been bonked on the head when he was in his cups…those eyes were definitely forbidding, thought Nyron as his own grin faded.
Nyron chewed on a lip as the group moved indoors for registration and cell assignment. There were times when you could just sense trouble.
Better if this one goes to some big farm, a long ways from town where they can quickly work him to death in the traces, pulling a plough around all day and sleeping on the ground in an animal shed at night, and hopefully, with a little luck, you can stay the hell away from my town.
“Well. Good luck to you, and especially with that one.”
The Officer of the Day took the gaoler back into the office. They went over the documents and determined the number of private and public prisoners. With only minor haggling, they settled on a price for food, water, straw and blankets for them. For the record, this would be under the manor’s roof as custom called-for, as well as provision at stipulated rates of water, oats and fodder for the animals.
Nyron, with six years under his belt in this position, had never met Garvin before, a fact easily explained by Garvin being new to the job. His best wife was a second cousin to the Reeve up Bothmoor way. Otherwise he’d still be running a few scraggly sheep out on the common, as he explained.
Nyron’s piles were killing him. A thick, embroidered silk cushion did nothing to alleviate that. It was a known occupational hazard of scribes everywhere. Garvin nodded in sympathy, saddle weary as he was. His own bench was quite hard, although worn smooth with beaten-in terrain features attesting to a thousand sets of buttocks before him. With a bit of a sigh, Nyron inked his quill and in the appropriate book took down all relevant details as to prisoners, and properties, the names of the owners, person-or-official-having-charge, origin and destination. He verified that all tax and postal seals were proper and in place on the documents supplied by the County’s gaoler.
“Very good.” Garvin read the manifest and bill of exchange and carefully made his seal, the hot wax always stinging a knuckle on your ring finger if you touched it accidentally, and then he looked up at Nyron.
“Time for a drink, my good sir. And a meal, and a buxom wench or two besides—although I have been bidden not to interfere with the merchandise.” There were one or two fairly attractive females in the shipment, although Nyron’s taste was for something a little more nubile.
So far, he hadn’t noticed any really beautiful boys or anything like that. A bit of a wash might help, he thought.
“I couldn’t agree more—about the drink, anyways.”
They had been bound over and only a fool messed with those in the care and custody of the Crown.
“And of course you’re welcome to have your own men check in, even guard them, and use our, ah, guardroom facilities. Just behave yourselves and stay out of prohibited areas.” Basically, anything that was locked, guarded or behind closed doors in private or state quarters, was out of bounds to visitors.
“Ah, yes, sire.”
“Off you go then, there’s a good pub just around the corner. The Dead Boar. A bit of a pun, really, ah…it’s not that bad. Half of your men are probably there already. On behalf of Queen Eleanora and all of our assorted merchant guilds, we bid you welcome, and, we sure hope that enjoy your stay in this our fair city.”
They shook hands and then Garvin was cut loose to make what he could of the rest of the day.
Kann had gone off to see to the men, most of whom were already straggling along on foot, back towards the town below, and he wouldn’t mind finding his own quarters before too long. In the county uniform of grey kilt and blue jerkin, they blended right in and no one took any real notice of them.
Garvin headed for the stables. One of the personal string of animals had lost a shoe and it was his first thought. Their animals were distinguished by not having the royal crown branded on the left flank, but private animals changed hands fairly often and it was more a matter of having a good description and a bill of sale.
This one in particular he would be sad to part with, a nice piebald gelding, black and white with all the vigor of a young stallion and none of the bad temper.
Nyron was just going off shift. As was his habit, after signing the book below the day’s entries he turned it over to his relief. Serjeant Torak had the night shift. Captain Nyron headed for the kitchen complex. This lay at the rear of what had been renovated into a proper palace, built on the foundations of the original keep or so it was said. It was said the dungeons were the only remaining vestiges of the old place. With the renovations had come new buildings, at ground level, backing up the inner curtain wall to some extent with the holding cells. Actual Court was held in smaller rooms off the Great Hall.
The smell of bread, and ale, and cheese, and fish, and more than anything what smelled like duck-and-chicken pies; was overpowering to a hungry soldier after twelve hours on duty. Much of that had been spent on his feet. The rest had been spent on his butt. As to which was worse, that was sometimes difficult to say.
The chamberlain, Taez was there, talking to Margg, and Nyron had a thought. While the reward might be interesting, it wouldn’t be much in monetary terms. There would inevitably be too many middle-men, and one was often enough to seriously complicate matters. His personal status was simply too low to pull it off. Then there was the question of the price. The barbarian had had a certain rugged sex appeal, to the extent that Nyron, not the most ambivalent or ambidextrous of men, had even noted it himself. He grinned slightly at his internal word-play.
Queen Eleanora had a certain reputation, not that he cared one way or the other.
The question was how to bring the subject up, in a socially-palatable form. Margg was getting a quiet and extremely polite dressing-down, but it was a dressing-down nevertheless. All the signs were there. She looked extremely upset. Nyron had appeared during a brief lull in the conversation and she looked at him in something akin to gratitude.
That shaven head gleamed in the overhead light falling from a hundred tallow candles. Tattoos wreathed the shiny hairless forearms, arms like a stevedore Taez had. Each and every one of them seemed to have a past, thought Nyron. The kitchen was very hot, and a kind of unofficial sanctuary for the more junior officers. This was true on summer nights and most especially in winter. Taez turned to regard his colleague. They served civilian and military functions respectively, their duties didn’t overlap and Nyron had always deferred to Taez in household matters. For that and other reasons, they had a pretty good relationship.
They might even be friends, insofar as it was possible to do so, thought Nyron.
“Oh, hello, Nyron. How was the day?”
“It was all right. The usual, as usual. Perhaps even a little boring. This is usually a pretty good thing, at least to my way of thinking.”
Taez nodded, half-grinning, and his eyes naturally gravitated back to the head cook, a stout woman and a bit of a terror in her own right. She stood wringing her hands and looking unhappy.
“We’ll talk of this later.”
“Yes, Master Taez.”
She nodded, bobbed her head, and bolted.
“What’s up with Margg?”
Taez shook his head.
Then he grinned again, as Nyron helped himself to a poultry-pie and a tall mug of milk.
“Nothing, really. She just takes everything a little too personally.”
Margg’s greatest fear was that she would be replaced, thought Nyron. There must have been something wrong with the fish, or the mutton, or the pudding was a bit cold last night, and she was desperately trying to lay the blame squarely where it belonged…somewhere else, no doubt.
He nodded pleasantly. The pie steamed and the smell was wondrous. He put it down and beckoned at a boy, who came over and gave him a thick pair of potholders.
“Yes, sir.” The lad scuttled off to get him one.
The kitchen boys would catch it today, if he knew Margg. The pair moved to Taez’s cubicle where he kept the books and there were locking cupboards for anything expensive that might walk away.
The kid was back again.
Nyron nodded and the boy stuck it in the pie.
“Off you go, then.” Nyron looked around at the bustling activity.
They fed hundreds of hungry mouths on a daily basis and they had the staff to prove it, with people cooking, stirring, brewing, cheese-making, setting out platters, carving, and washing up the inevitable pots and pans.
The main kitchen area was a hundred feet long and then there was a series of storerooms along the back wall. The hearth was a marvel, fully thirty feet tall and with multiple iron doors, ranges, and warming surfaces in addition to a pair of open fires with spits big enough to roast an ox.
Theft and pilfering would always be a problem with stores and beverages littering the place at all times.
Things walked away from the kitchen with depressing frequency around there. Nyron seated himself on the bench just inside the door. How many kitchen boys had sweated it out on that bench, waiting for Taez to dispense justice in his own inimitable fashion over the years? All of them, probably.
“So. Taez.” Nyron took a long breath and just spat it out. “We have a very special prisoner today. Came in just now, along with the usual lot of sorry slobs.”
“Oh, really?” Taez, busy with the accounts and the constant re-provisioning of a household that numbered anything up to three hundred warm bodies on any given day, and that was when there was nothing really special going on, enjoyed Nyron’s company well enough.
Nyron wasn’t one to hang about all day, and that was better than some would-be acquaintances.
The Army had their own mess, their own quarter-master and their own kitchen. Taez imagined things weren’t much better over there. It was just another side of the fence. Nyron was welcome enough to the pie, if it came right down to it.
Taez was also a busy man, subject to supervision and the occasional audit from above, just like anybody else.
“They say he’s the king of some barbaric northern tribe.” Nyron held his hand up, palm down, indicating that the height of the prisoner was a good eight or ten inches greater than his own. “I mean, this one is really something.”
“Uh, huh. They say they’re asking a hundred gold pieces for him.”
Taez’s head lifted from his account books. His door was always open, and his crowded little cubby was in the noisy kitchen area with its hordes of bodies, all hands all keeping busy just to keep up with the demand.
Nyron got up with a little grunt and thoughtfully shut the heavy oaken door, not latching it but leaving a crack open to indicate that people could enter on actual business.
They could hear each other a little better now.
After taking a good look at Lowren the night before, on Nyron’s suggestion he was in attendance at the auction first thing next morning.
Taez didn’t think much of it at first. The place was certainly crowded this morning, a wooden bull-ring with high rafters holding up an octagonal dome roof, also in wood. There were tiers of seats, with a raised platform for distinguished guests, such as himself. There were barricades in the wall, a walkway around behind the short barriers, and stalls in under the seating for animals penned and waiting for sale.
Looking around, he saw one or two people he knew. The noise was horrendous, even compared to the kitchen. He watched a few desultory sales, and bought one or two lots, but Taez wasn’t here for beef or mutton today. He wasn’t even sure he was going to do it. It was just curiosity more than anything. At least that’s what he told himself.
It was best not to get one’s hopes up. The auctioneer held up a wooden hammer and the spectators lining the ring fell silent.
“Lot number seventeen. He is a barbarian prince, age about thirty. Weight, well over two hundred, height, six-foot and a half, ah, more or less. Experience leading men in battle and governing a small but proud nomadic people…pure in spirit and simple of mind…”
Hoots and catcalls, ribald laughter echoed round the chamber as Lowren was led out.
They had a couple of much bigger men on him this time, saw Nyron. While the prince or king of the Lemni was hardly placid and could probably fling them around like dogs, he was in control of himself and still maintaining his dignity.
“So what do you think?” Nyron had to get to his duties, and he was a few minutes late already.
“Magnificent!” Taez closed his mouth firmly.
He gave Nyron a look.
“All right, then. I must be off! Once more unto the breach, dear friends—although I seem to be more book-keeper than soldier these days.”
“Ten gold pieces.”
Taez’s mouth opened and he leaned forward, trying to locate the bidder. Wordlessly, Nyron turned and made his way through the crowd, all mouths open and all eyes on the spectacle before them.
More laughs went through the hall as the auctioneer flushed.
“Reserve bid is set at one hundred gold pieces.”
They all knew that already, gossip being what it was in a small community. The troops had been around to half the taverns in town last night, and there was only so much to talk about. Even so, a long groan went through the assembly. Unless the reserve bid was pulled, there weren’t that many folks around there who stood even the slightest chance of getting Lowren. As to how desirable a prize he was, that would soon be revealed.
The auctioneer raised his hammer.
“Bidding begins at one hundred—”
Without bothering to look, Taez raised his own paddle, stained purple and gold to represent the Crown in all of its glory.
There was a big numeral, ‘one,’ painted on it in white. Registered bidders received a numbered paddle, on a first-come-first-serve basis. In heated sales contests, all the rules and all the protocols went out the window, fairly quickly at times. The Queen’s numbered paddle was always reserved for her or her representative, a tradition going back as far as anyone could remember.
“One-ten.” The buzz of talk in the building went on unabated and the buyers had to shout loudly and clearly.
A murmur of interest went through the mob. The noise swelled as the press of humanity recalled to mind the rumors and the reputation of their Queen, for surely the Queen’s Chamberlain was a familiar figure.
Anybody that didn’t know him or hadn’t seen him on his official business about the town and surrounding countryside would quickly have any blanks in their knowledge filled-in by their neighbors.
Every eye in the house was upon Taez, but this was no time to think about that. Surely this one deserved a better fate than walking around in endless circles, turning a water-screw or whatever a more regular fate held in store. As for whether or even how he might be controlled in his new duties, that wasn’t his department. He was sure it could be done of course.
Taez heard a call, one he didn’t quite catch, but the roar that accompanied it told him all he needed to know.
“One-thirty.” He sounded cool, confident, and very determined.
This time he heard it properly. Knowing better even as he did it, he leaned forward, looking to his left, and tried to locate the gentleman. It was hard enough in this crowd. All eyes were on someone over there somewhere. He caught a glimpse of the tip of a paddle.
A non-descript individual leaned out, met his eye, politely tugged on the brim of his low cap and then turned back to the auctioneer.
Taez met those eyes. The auctioneer could only hold off so long.
Shit, that was a lot of money—it wasn’t his either, but Taez had his instincts. And those instincts were telling him to buy.
The hammer was about to fall on Lowren.
There was absolute silence, until the gentleman over there took one last look at the item on display, shrugged his shoulders and turned away. He melted back into the crowd, apparently uninterested in the more usual household or agricultural servants.
The auctioneer grinned and nodded.
Taez sagged a little on hearing it. The crowd rumbled and this was no time for second thoughts.
“Sold, for one-seventy-five!” The voice rang out, clear and jubilant.
Knowing Taez well enough, he went through the contract and disclaimers in a quick breath and then it was on to Lot Eighteen, a matching pair of fairly healthy-looking, not exactly young women with experience in textiles and dye-works. They both still had a lot of their teeth, had no dependent children to be sold alongside of them, and who might be suitable for domestic servants, agricultural specialists, or work in the hospitality industry.
While he was there, Taez also bought one or two new staff members for the household. He had a certain leeway in his budget and the people were needed here and there. Making his way to the holding area, he made arrangements for them to be brought up to the castle. Arrangements for Lowren took some thought, but they did have all those dungeons after all…
The smiles and giggles from those all around him could be borne, and he was sort of wondering, kind of late as it was, but hopefully Queen Eleanora would be pleased with her latest acquisition.
If nothing else, they could always put Lowren in the ring and let him fight it out with other condemned prisoners. He had a sneaking suspicion that other bidder might have been a fight promoter or something like that.
The possibility that he was a shill, merely there to drive up the bidding, had also crossed Taez’s mind.
Taez, conscious of the speed with which the average secret evaporated in any small community, which was just what any properly-constituted household was, presented the Barbarian Prince Lowren as he was billing him just after the main course at dinner.
This would be a long, drawn-out affair. If things went his way, it would be the highlight of the night. No one around Taez shared his tension and the time dragged until the desserts had been served.
Taez turned and found the eye of his assistant, hovering in the entryway. He gave a wave and the man nodded, turning behind him to give the signal.
When the prisoner was led out, it took a minute or two before people caught sight of him being led forwards and to catch on to what it might mean.
A hush fell over the assembly as Taez stood to address the Queen and the handlers pulled Lowren out front and centre.
Flanked as she was by guests of honor, interrupted in the act of sending choice tid-bits, the first slice of something to Loshon, Ambassador of the Heloi, her mouth opened even as the light smattering of applause died away and the people waited for her reaction. The foreigners, at least, looked pleased and a small smattering of applause broke out. Unfortunately for Taez, their opinion, while possibly helpful, wasn’t the one that really mattered.
At first, it did not seem good, and Taez’s heart sank, as did that of his friend Nyron, attending all official state functions as per standing orders in his role as an officer and a gentleman. His table was on the far side, at the kitchen end of the Great Hall, but there were half-empty tables as well and he saw it without heads and bodies in the way.
A small gasp had escaped Eleanora, and her hand flew up to her mouth. The hand came down, ever so slowly.
“Majesty. We have a surprise guest attending this evening’s celebration. I give you—literally, in this case, Lowren, King of the Lemni.”
The handlers gave the chains a shake to emphasize the point and Lowren glowered left and right.
There was a hush and Taez thought he was going to die of the suspense.
She smiled, ever so sweetly, that pale oval face turning from Lowren, looking angry and resentful and no doubt wondering what they were saying about him and what his fate might ultimately be.
“What? For me?” Her eyes slid back to the tall stranger, shackled, chained and collared like any common criminal.
It really was a most extraordinary sight.
Her ladies-in-waiting, the most prominent seated not far along the head table, gave a collective gasp as if of one mind. All eyes turned to Taez, and more than one heart fluttered in sympathetic tremors. He’d taken a fearful risk, and some of them could see that.
His heart sank further still, and Taez wondered if this was the blunder that would send him to he stocks—or the frontier, or maybe even the gallows. The chopping block, he thought.
“No, really, Taez—you shouldn’t have.”
“Yes, my Queen—” How his knees knocked when he spoke those words. “It’s just that as soon as I saw him—and thought, what if some other noble citizen should take him before you even had a chance…to see him?”
He stopped right there.
The Queen regarded Taez, eyes narrowed. The Queen was a beautiful woman in profane terms. She was, within a heartbeat, at her most forbidding, and yet that countenance could also hide her true feelings.
“I cannot think. Majesty, of any other sovereign, anywhere in the known world, who has anything remotely comparable in their own collection.” His only safety lay in buttering it on as thickly as he dared.
She swung around to look at the big barbarian again.
“He’s going to look wonderful standing guard beside your throne, and providing his neck as a footstool when you mount, or a bench, possibly…one for your favorite dwarf to sit upon…”
Titters and giggles broke out all around and the man under scrutiny darkened, ears burning at the humiliating sound of their laughter. His chin came down and he watched her closely. The handlers braced themselves.
Lowren stood very still, staring into her eyes. She found herself torn.
A barbarian king. Here. Now.
A strange toxin of emotion went through her. It could happen to any one of us, she thought.
Eleanora was aware of the man, very much so.
He was like a cobra, coiled to spring at anything that moved, and yet he had a brain, he knew what would become of him if he made the least threat.
She stared into those eyes for a long moment.
“Perhaps one of our more deserving—or perhaps any one of our most honorable ladies-in-waiting will require a husband. Your Majesty could simply have him sent back to his own people as the best possible gift of state: the restitution of their beloved king.”
There were precedents for that last option, and he had to think of her dignity in front of all these people.
The Queen took a long, hard look at Taez. Foreign policy was not his arena and he’d best tread lightly there, but displaced barbarian kings had it notoriously tough. Most were executed on the battlefield. Some lived their lives in exile, captive in another sovereign’s court, hidden in castles or dungeons and never seeing the light of day. At the first sign of trouble, they were quickly put to death on any mere suspicion. To escape was almost worse. Their brothers, sons or nephews, having succeeded to the throne, were rarely so eager to give it up—and yet the people (and all of the world was people) saw it as a peace offering, a gift of what was thought irreplaceable. It was good foreign relations and even better foreign policy. That’s not to say Taez had any ambitions in that regard, because he didn’t—it was just an opportunity he could not overlook to please Eleanora. It was what he had been retained to do, after all.
“Well. Thank you for this, Taez.”
The talk was that Lowren’s people had been quite fond of him, he explained, voice lower now but still strong and clearly heard in all corners of the great room. His audience listened with rapt attention. This prize, whatever she did with it, would reflect great glory on her crown and her kingdom.
Eleanora surprised him, which she had done once or twice in the past.
“Good. Excellent.” Those expressionless eyes stared right through Taez, and he trembled for his head in that moment. “Send him up to my bedchamber immediately after dinner.”
The roar of laughter that rang forth upon this remark was both gratifying and terrifying to Taez.
He had taken a terrible risk, and the results were so uncertain—so nebulous, that he wondered at his own, sheer, unmitigated gall.
Quite frankly, he wondered just how stupid a man could be. He had taken an insane risk, when he thought about it.
And yet it was true, too—far better to buy the slave, return him to his people, and let him sow discontent and confusion among his own loyal followers---Taez had a hundred thoughts on that score, if only he had a brief moment to explain. It’s not like he didn’t have a story to cover his backside. The thing was to get a chance to explain, sometimes.
With a wave of her wrist, she had the prisoner taken away, and with a look at Taez, he had been admonished, chastened, and promised some sort of great reward, all in one and the same moment. If she was pleased, that was—and as for all of that sort of thing, they would not know before the morrow.
Eleanora, two husbands and a half a dozen lovers later, was said to be notoriously fickle, and yet Taez was pretty sure he wasn’t the only one who had discerned the fine hand of policy in there somewhere. People would and did talk, after all. There was pressure to marry, produce heirs, her life was complicated enough as Taez was discovering.
With his own face and neck burning from the unaccustomed risk and its companion, cold, naked fear, Taez settled back into his own place and prayed that she would not look this way again.
And yet if she did, he had better be able to meet those eyes with the proper grace and poise.
With foreign dignitaries in attendance, Eleanora had little choice but to attend at dinner. To eat too often in one’s private quarters invited speculation as to your health and your lack of love for your subjects. It did not pay to be seen as cold and indifferent, or even just unfriendly. To be a sovereign and a private citizen was a contradiction in terms. Surrounded by courtiers and her ladies, it could be amusing enough at times, and a dead bore at others. A person had to eat after all, but heavy was the head that wore the crown.
Surrounded by her ladies, and with all of the tables cleared, after a time she signaled the Maire d’Palais that the serious entertainment could begin, and the hogsheads were rolled in to general acclaim. Pleading fatigue, she took her leave of the ambassadors, legates and attentive nobles.
One last look was enough to convince her.
Dancers skipped in, launched themselves into the air, and tumbled in time to the music coming from a corner where the royal band was ensconced. The guests would quickly forget they were in her house, which was a fine thing.
It was the essence of hospitality.
Eleanora took a moment to herself as she always did at this time, and paid a short visit to her private chapel, with only the Priest Dervent and her cousin Theodelinda in attendance. After a short prayer to Neptune, God of the Seas, she retired to her private toilet chamber, where she made her private ablutions. As Queen, one made use of finger-bowl and face towel as appropriate, but cleanliness was next to Godliness some said. If nothing else it was a private act and a private moment where none could make demands upon her limited time.
It was a habit and one she found some small comfort in. It was a very human thing. It was humbling. A sovereign needed reminding that all men were flesh and blood and had much more in common besides that. Taez and the barbarian prince preyed on her mind. His analysis of policy was good, but she had never thought of him in terms of ministerial status. He ran his department well enough and hadn’t exhibited any real signs of great ambition previously. To read too much into it might be unwise.
He saw a chance to please me, and he took it. Surely he was aware of the risks and had confidence in his sovereign. Either that, or Taez takes me for an awful fool. There was a third possibility, that Taez was a fool.
There was always that.
What the people thought of their king or queen was vital. Public opinion could be a real killer.
A glance in the mirror revealed that Eleanora was alone. This didn’t happen often enough in her peculiar little world. Everyone was always so eager to please, and hanging on her every word, constantly flattering her, and earnestly trying to analyze every little nuance of her language and her posture, and any little shift in her expression was enough to send a shock wave through any assembly.
Gods, how she was so terribly tired of it all. The one thing she could never do was to escape.
Such thoughts merely endangered her and all of her kingdom.
She lifted the bolt and stepped into the short, arched hallway that led to her outer bedchamber.
If it was suspiciously quiet in there, in spite of two dozen or more young and high-spirited maidens and all of their natural buoyancy, at first she just plain missed it.
Her head was just so far away these days.
The first thing that caught her attention was Theodelinda, up on tiptoes on the other side of a sea of heads, and waving madly, and then Eleanora remembered.
The chattering bodies parted and she was confronted by the towering barbarian, facing away from her and restrained by his handlers. It went very quiet, with stifled coughs and giggles.
The handlers bowed their heads.
“Oh, yes. Lowren, the King of the Lemni.”
Shining eyes and glowing faces surrounded them as Eleanora stepped coolly inwards and came around for a closer look.
He seemed so calm. She could not help but look into those eyes, where she saw the most extraordinary thing.
Humor beckoned in there, and something else too—mischief.
He smiled at Eleanora, which came as something of a shock to the system.
“Good evening, Majesty. I bring you greetings from the people of Lemnia.”
Bobbing their heads in feasance as best they could, the two handlers quickly removed his collar and chains.
Eleanora’s jaw dropped and more than one of the girls shrieked in either mock or real surprise.
A loud knock came at the door.
Lowren rubbed his wrists where the shackles had been removed and looked around at the main door to the regal apartments.
A man stuck his head in.
Eleanora stood, stunned beyond belief to see a stranger enter her chambers unbidden. He locked gaze with Lowren.
“All secure, Sire.” He glanced rather longingly at the ladies and then quietly closed the door.
He left a rather confusing tableaux behind, as all the ladies began talking at once and Lowren and Eleanora took their first real good look at each other.
“Silence!” Eleanora didn’t know whether to laugh, or to cry, or to simply let the furies of hell loose—upon this hairy, half-naked man who stood in a ladies bed-chamber with the most insouciant air.
Lowren struck a pose, engaged the tittering ladies with a friendly grin and then, as if the evening hadn’t been upsetting enough already, he took a long breath and began to speak in a sonorous tone.
“Be still, the beating wings of my heart, dry up, the windows of my soul, do not weep for that which could never be…”
The first claps were awkward, lonely things, but the swell of applause grew and grew and even Queen Eleanora had to accept that the man was here, after all.
End of Excerpt.