The guest wing of Welspeare Castle had been the scene of bustling activity for most of the previous sennight. Each room had been diligently cleaned and prepared for the coming visitors. One suite had received extra care in an effort to save the chief roomskeeper’s pride. The small shield beside the door of that suite — a red oval, surrounded by a gold disk, within a brown diamond, on a white field — marked who was assigned to those rooms as well as the futility of the roomskeeper’s efforts: the disposition of the baron identified by that blazon was well known.
The receiving room of the suite was neatly arranged and elegantly appointed. The whitewashed stone of the walls gleamed above the well-polished wainscotting. The three deep-set windows on the wall opposite the main door were open, letting in a refreshing summer breeze. The space to the right of the door was divided into two areas: one for relaxing, one for eating. The former was centered around the fireplace in the far corner and consisted of high-backed benches set between low tables for setting drinks. The latter, in the other corner, contained a table covered by a highly-embroidered cloth, surrounded by chairs. A silver bowl in the center of the table contained artfully arranged flowers, while plates and tableware were stacked neatly along the edge by the wall.
The other side of the room made up the reception area. This was an open area marked by dark-colored rugs on the floor. The ornate, stately chair in the corner was worthy to be the throne of a duke; here it would serve the needs of a lesser rank.
The roomskeeper’s staff had done a thorough job cleaning and arranging the room. The wood of the furniture had been polished to a high shine, and the rugs had been vigorously beaten in the courtyard only that morning. The silver candlesticks on the mantel and tables were mirror-like in their finish, and the gilded frames of the hunting-scene paintings on the walls likewise gleamed. The knobs on the doors leading to the other rooms of the suite glowed with the mellow luster of polished brass. The cleaning staff had left so recently that none of the dust that had escaped their diligent rags had had time to settle again. Even the wood in the bin next to the fireplace seemed to have been groomed: cleaned of every stray scrap, and stacked as neatly as a pile of lumber.
The waiting silence was shattered as the main door slammed open with a loud crash. Baron Chak Bindrmon strode through it and stopped a few paces within the room to scowl at his temporary accommodations. The baron was of average height but built thickly, with a barrel chest and well-muscled arms beneath his tunic. His hair was starkly white and unbound, flowing down past his shoulders and over the cape that still swirled around him.
Half-a-score of servants boiled through the door behind him and scattered throughout the room bearing cleaning implements borrowed from the castle’s staff. They set about industriously cleaning the spotless room. There was no chatter, and not a single smile showed among all eleven newcomers.
Baron Bindrmon watched his people sweeping nonexistent dirt from the rugs and brushing away nonexistent dust. The frown that pinched his narrow features didn’t lighten at all as his eyes roved over the elegant room. His search didn’t find anything out of place or obviously in need of fixing, but he didn’t halt his people’s work either. Instead, he just shook his head and gave an exasperated sigh.
A thin young man with blond hair and a scar on his cheek appeared in the doorway. He seemed somewhat out of breath, and he paused for a moment to collect himself before saying, “Your Excellency?”
Bindrmon turned and the young retainer continued, “He’s been caught, my lord. He’s being taken to the place you suggested.”
Chak nodded and said, “Good. Let’s go, Talss, and get this over with.” He strode out of the room. Talss stepped aside to let his baron through, then turned and followed him down the hall.
In the room, none of Baron Bindrmon’s servants looked up to watch him go. They all continued to work and still, not one uttered a sound.
The stables of Welspeare Castle were vast and well organized. Duchess Welspeare hosted all of her barons every third year for the tax-taking, and there was room enough and more in her stables for the horses and pack animals of every one of them and their retinues.
The duchess’ stablemaster ran his stables with an admirable efficiency and a huge staff. The stalls and aisles were clean and neat, and the food troughs were kept filled with fresh oats and grain. The tack shed was scrupulously organized, and abundantly supplied with materials and tools for any repairs that might be necessary.
Baron Bindrmon and Talss strode into the stables and headed right for the section reserved for the Bindrmon stock. As in the guest suite, the baron’s servants were busily forking out the clean, new hay from each stall that had been assigned to them and replacing it with equally clean and new hay. Every food trough was emptied, cleaned, and refilled with new food. The baron’s horses were being systematically stripped of their tack and given stalls. That gear was not being taken to the tack room. Instead, it was being set out on makeshift tables the way that Bindrmon’s own stablemaster favored. The baron’s luggage had been placed neatly to one side, ready to be carried to the suite when there were hands free for the task.
As before, not one of the baron’s ten people spoke or smiled as they worked. The sounds of other baronial contingents elsewhere in the stables, as well as the duchess’ own staff, echoed around the large, airy space, but the only noise in the Bindrmon section was the scrape of rakes and the rustle of currycombs.
Talss had stopped briefly in the stables upon returning from his hunting errand. He had informed Chak’s stablemaster that the baron would be riding out again, before proceeding to deliver his message to Bindrmon. Though Thunder, the baron’s horse, had been unsaddled and seen to first, he was ready once again by the time the Chak arrived.
As the baron was handed the reins to the big black stallion, a young man stepped out of one of the stalls, his rake held nervously between his hands, and said, “Please, s-sir?”
Bindrmon turned and focused on the youth, but didn’t say anything. The expression on his face was the same as it had been in the guest suite, the same as it always was: unreadable.
The young man looked down, suddenly terrified. He was barely old enough to be called a man: twelve or thirteen summers, almost squiring age. He still had the rounded face of a child, though his shoulders were beginning to gain the breadth of an adult. He had a reserve of courage, too, for he looked up again, and said, “Y-your excellency, is he found? Is he coming back?”
Baron Bindrmon stared at the youth for several long moments. Did the baron’s frown lighten slightly? Did the downward curve of his mouth straighten up a tiny bit? Something seemed slightly different about Chak’s face as he said, “No. No, Jurvin, he hasn’t been found. You should not count on his coming back. Now, get to work, straight?”
Jurvin turned and dashed back into the stall, but no rake-scrape could be heard. Chak looked toward the stall for another moment, then turned and stepped up onto Thunder. With a glance at Talss, who had mounted in the meantime and was ready to go, the baron flicked the reins and set off.
The clearing was about a bell’s ride from the outskirts of Fremlow City, the location of Welspeare Castle. It had once hosted an inn, but the only indication of that was a paved space that had once been the inn’s courtyard. The well at one edge of the plaza meant that the clearing was still used frequently by travelers despite its proximity to Fremlow City.
The five people occupying the clearing weren’t thinking of camping there, though. Four of them were dressed in drab tunics and trousers, and wore the badge of Baron Bindrmon on their sleeves. The fifth was wearing the same kind of clothing that was tattered and torn by rough handling which had also marked his face and body. His sleeve was little more than strips of cloth after the badge marking his allegiance had been ripped away. He had been tied to a tree at the edge of the clearing. His head hung down against his chest, and his breathing was ragged as he waited for the inevitable.
Baron Bindrmon rode into the clearing atop Thunder with Talss close behind. One of the waiting men took the reins of both horses as the newcomers dismounted. Chak strode directly to the restrained man as the horses were picketed with the rest of the mounts.
The raggedly-garbed man looked up and met his baron’s eyes. There was no hope at all on his face as he stared into Chak’s frown. His head dipped slightly as he responded to the baron’s presence in the usual way. Then he shook his head, straightened his spine, and resumed his stare.
“Why did you do it, Flitchin?” asked Baron Bindrmon in his deep, resonant voice.
“It was an accident, my lord,” replied Flitchin, purposefully misunderstanding the question. Talss had joined the others, those who had helped him hunt down their fellow stablehand, and they now stood in a half-circle behind Chak. Flitchin looked from to face of his friends. Aside from a flinch or two as eye met eye, all were as stony-faced as the baron.
“You know what I mean, Flitchin,” intoned Chak. “The cinch-strap coming loose may or may not have been an accident. The broken chest that resulted was an inconvenience that caused us to be late arriving at Welspeare Castle. It was your responsibility to see that the pack-mule’s burden was secure, so it was your responsibility to take the punishment.
“I ask again, why did you run from your responsibility, Flitchin?”
“I …” Flitchin swallowed convulsively and started again. “I, I suppose …” The bound man had begun to hunch over again, his eyes drifting to his baron’s boots as usual. Suddenly, he straightened again, his eyes a little wild in his hopeless face. “I was tired of it, Baron Chak. Tired of the ‘discipline’, tired of the whip, tired of the short rations, tired of being treated like a slave! So, I ran. I saw my chance and I took it. Better the life of a beggar, eking out a living from the scraps of others, should it come to that, than another beating. Does that help you, Baron Bindrmon?”
Chak was silent for a moment, staring into the eyes of his escaped servant. Then he said, “Discipline must be maintained. Leniency only leads to even more slovenly behavior. This method worked for my father and his father before him, and it has always worked for me.
“You were a good worker, Flitchin. I am sorry, but you forced me into this position. I would have been inclined to be lenient with the punishment you earned through your carelessness, in view of your past service. But by running you have given me no alternative but to deal with you as severely as I can. Flight is not permitted; you know that, and the rest of my staff must be reminded of it. Good bye, Flitchin.”
Baron Bindrmon turned and walked away from the captive, who had slumped against his bonds as if his knees had turned to water. The half-circle audience broke up, and one went over to fetch the Baron’s horse. As Chak mounted, he said to his servants, “You know what to do. Be quick, but not too merciful, and bury the body back in the woods. I expect you to return by nightfall.”
With a final look at the now weeping prisoner, he rode away.
The outer gate of Welspeare Castle was not a defensible position, and it had never been intended as one. The gate itself was made of fancifully wrought iron, and the wall that the gate was set in was no higher than a tall man could reach. The trees planted within and without the wall overhung it in both directions, and in places climbing vines obscured the stonework completely.
The plaza outside this ceremonial gate often attracted merchants eager for noble patronage, something that the guards at the real gate piercing the real wall half-a-league within would never permit. Though the plaza was well-sized, fitting into a half-circle indentation in the outer wall, only a limited number of merchants could effectively display their wares within it. It was not a normal market after all, which meant that the only useful positions were along the direct route to the gates themselves.
The influx of the duchy’s barons for the triennial tax-taking was a perfect opportunity for eager sellers to display their wares for new eyes. So prestigious was the occasion that only those merchants with top-quality wares normally bothered to vie for the limited space available. Which did not in any way explain the gypsy in the corner.
Baron Bindrmon rode back into the plaza before the outer gate contemplating a swift return to his own keep. Despite his demeanor, he was angry about Flitchin. He knew that he drove his servants hard, but he also provided well for them. They had the best food and the best quarters he could supply, and they each received a bonus of a Round every Melrin. All he wanted in return was unswerving loyalty, and a dedication to their duties. Unfortunately, that had been too much for Flitchin to give.
Chak seldom spent much time making decisions. He resolved to set his people to packing up again as soon as he reached the stables, and he would present his taxes to the duchess’ representative in the meantime. It was late in the day to set out, but the roads in the north of Welspeare were well maintained, and there was an inn only four bells to the south. They could reach it safely even traveling in the dark.
The baron rode through the shouting merchants in the plaza without really hearing any of them; his mind was not on making purchases. The flash of color in the corner drew his eye, however, and as his path took him naturally closer and closer to that corner, he looked the gypsy over.
The man was dressed in the motley colors of one of the Rhydd Pobl, the wandering gypsies that could be found almost anywhere in Baranur. His clothes were not, however, made of rags and scraps. Instead, they had been intentionally cut from diverse types and colors of cloth, in the manner of a habit of necessity turning into a statement of fashion. The fine cut and trim fit of the gypsy’s clothes almost suited him to the company of the other jeweled and tailored merchants lining the plaza.
He stood next to the wall, a bright spot of color against the drab stone. He had a board in front of him that hung from his neck on a strap and seemed to be balanced against his midriff. On the cloth-covered board were a collection of carved wooden statuettes, two fine-looking daggers shining in the low sun, and a strange piece of broken, sculpted stone. The latter drew Chak’s attention from the colorful clothes of the gypsy and entranced his gaze with the strange interlacing bands on its surface, and the raised carvings of two birds and cat along the outer, half-circle edge.
Thunder carried Baron Bindrmon through the gate automatically, breaking Chak’s eye contact with the fragment of sculpture. Shaking his head briefly, he blinked a few times, the afterimage of the carving fading from behind his eyes as the memory of the gypsy faded from his mind.
The baron rode into the stables and dismounted, handing the reins to the stablemaster. All of his stock had been taken care of and were now lodged in their stalls, and the stacked luggage had been cleared away as well.
Chak said, “When the others return, Ricce, send them up to the suite. I have some further business for them.”
“As you wish, sir,” replied the stablemaster without the slightest hint of curiosity in his voice.
The baron stalked out of the stables, all thoughts of leaving as soon as possible having been banished by the glimpse of the strange carving. He now had plans to set in motion, and they had to come to completion in the next few days. He knew he could trust his servants to carry them out.
The hallways of the guest wing of Welspeare Castle were as elegant as the suites to which they gave access. Regularly spaced, arched niches contained statuary or decorative pottery. Oil lanterns were placed on either side of these displays. The walls were whitewashed, and hung with tapestries every ten strides on alternating sides of the hall. A gray carpet patterned like flagstones lined the center of the floor, with smaller, brightly colored rugs placed before each niche.
Two bells after Baron Bindrmon’s return, Talss and the four other stablehands who had apprehended Flitchin walked nervously through these hallways to their baron’s suite. The door was open, and they tentatively entered. The baron was seated at the large table with the floral centerpiece, picking at a plate of cold meats and cheeses while he stared at an unrolled parchment next to him.
Chak looked up at the five men ranged on the other side of the table from him. No one else was in the room. He set down the sausage he had been chewing on and said, “Baron Durening has arranged a marriage for his only daughter, Millicet. The talk is all over the castle. I want it stopped.”
Talss spoke the confusion of all five of them with, “Your Excellency?”
“His name is Brerk. He’s the second son of Baron Peil Shaddir. They made the match over some kind of trade agreement. I want the betrothal broken.”
“Your Excellency?” Talss repeated. “Why?” His confusion had only deepened.
“Because, Talss, my son Aldan needs a wife too. Durening borders Bindrmon on the east; I think that I can make a much better deal with Groon Durening than Peil did. Millicet’s dowry will benefit Bindrmon greatly. I want it, and you lot are going to facilitate getting it for me.”
“Do you mean … ah … well, like Flitchin?” Dread filled Talss’ face.
“No, no, no. Killing a noble, even a second son, wouldn’t be right. So, just scare him. Make him back down. Do whatever you have to short of killing him. Just make sure that you are not seen. And I don’t know you if you are caught.”
The five just stood there, uncertain. At first, the baron’s frown deepened, then it lightened after a moment. “I know that this isn’t the kind of thing I normally ask of you, men. But it will benefit your barony. Do this for Bindrmon, if not for me.” He paused, then continued, “There’s a Round in it for each of you. If you perform very well, it might be two.”
The five stablehands looked at each other and, after a moment, nodded. Talss said, “We will convince Brerk Shaddir to break off his engagement, your excellency. Consider it done.”
They each bowed in turn and left. Baron Bindrmon turned his attention back to the scroll before the second one was out the door.
Four days later, Chak Bindrmon and Groon Durening were walking toward the outer gate of Welspeare Castle shortly after fifth bell. The mid-day sun was being intermittently hidden by large, white clouds, and the addition of a pleasant breeze made excellent walking weather.
The official tax-taking ceremony had taken place two days previously, and about a third of Welspeare’s sixteen barons had already departed. Baron Shaddir had left the previous day, after making a public announcement breaking the betrothal of his second son to Durening’s only daughter. Brerk hadn’t been present, but his father had communicated his regrets for him. Millicet, of course, was heartbroken.
Chak patted Groon consolingly on the shoulder and said, “I’m sorry to hear about how your plans were disrupted. What do you think you’ll do now?”
“Oh, thank you, Chak. Yes, it was quite a surprise. I thought that everything was arranged, and then …” Groon shrugged resignedly, and continued, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it anyway. Do now? Look for another husband for Millicet, I suppose. It is so difficult, though.” He paused, then went on in a softer voice, sharing his confidences. “I should have insisted she marry ten years ago, but she kept persuading me to wait. But it’s past time. She needs a husband.”
They passed through the outer gate and between the lines of merchants on the plaza. Some had departed, feeling that the prime selling opportunities had passed now that the baronial delegations were leaving, but the colorful gypsy still stood against the wall. Chak ignored him as if he wasn’t there; Groon was drawn by the half-circle sculpture on the man’s selling board to stand in front of him. Durening reached out as if to touch the metal and glass bands woven across its top, but pulled his hand back at the last moment. With a distracted frown, he turned away and caught up quickly with his friend, Chak.
“I was thinking,” began Chak, but Durening interrupted as if he hadn’t even heard Bindrmon’s overture. “You have a son, right, Chak? Adin, or something? Isn’t he of marriageable age?”
Chak blinked in surprise and said, “Aldan, yes. Very marriageable. Very available.” When Groon didn’t respond, Chak ventured, “Why?” just as if he didn’t know.
“Oh, well … That is, what would you think about a marriage between Millicet and Aldan? I know that Millicet is a little old but, well, I’m sure that we can come to some sort of arrangement of mutual benefit.”
Baron Chak Bindrmon’s perpetual frown almost disappeared as he said, “Yes, I think that we can. Let’s talk about it, shall we?”