Friday, October 30, 2015

Fiction Friday: The Hoard and the Harrow

Cold was the wind that blew and whipped Robart's tunic against his flesh. Cold, too, the sweat upon his back and brow as he heaved against the plough. For three hours he'd strained with Aran and Feln, but the thing would not budge. The coulter was caught beneath an earthen stone, hidden beneath the skin of the pasture. "His lordship'll not like this," Aran volunteered. The bright one, Aran, who could not keep the obvious locked between his lips. Robart rolled his eyes.

He'd rather be home tending his garden and his goats than out in the lord's new assart. But Sire Gaumont was determined to turn the wasteland to farm before the spring, so here they were with winter planting. 

"Forget his lordship," grumbled Feln. "I don't like this. Lookee over yonder at that bleak rubble of a place. Don't you think its as though there are spirits looking out."

Since breaking their fast at dawn this morning, Feln had been gibbering about the old Dominion ruin. The new assart was too close to the old castle, he said. Daimoni wandered the ruins and crept from peepholes to trouble the dreams of good townsfolk, his ma' had told him. He had it on good authority that they dwelled in the darkness of the Dominion arches and would blight any upon whom they laid their ghostly eyes.

Robart let go the coulter, balled up a fist, and thumped Feln in his shoulder. The younger man cried out. "What's that for, Robart?" he shouted. His voice echoed all the way down to the water.

"For calling up spooks and spirits, and with the pagan festivals all on their way in the autumn," Robart said. "I'll have no more of your mumblings."

There was enough to worry about without Feln's ghosts and ghouls from old granny's tales. For one, the lord's plough might snap and then they'd all be in for it. For another, there were the rumored wars and raiders and Skraels and pirates everyone afeared. And they said the king was dead or captive. Every day now, a few tired looking folk came through the village with their houses on their backs or in barrows. Smoke was always rising on the horizon. The pagans had burned Seatower, they said, with the help of dwarvish engines. Robart wondered what it was like—all those ponderous stones crumbling into the sea.

He shook himself from his woolgathering. "Well, let's back the damn thing up and see if we can prize the stone out with our hands." Feln threw up his arms in consternation. "Well, then you can tell Sire Gaumont that we gave up tilling his new field for winter planting!" said Robart. That brought him round. Old stories couldn't match up with the fear you'd feel deep in your belly when you stood, eyes lowered to the stone floor, before your lord and told him you couldn't do as he asked.

Feln grunted and turned to the task, and with Aran's help they wrestled the plough away from its furrow. Old Goretusk and Aribos lowed. They loved the pulling, the turning, and were much disturbed at being brought from their task. Robart wondered that they enjoyed such hard labor so much, but then he too sometimes found the rhythm of the sewing peaceful. It spoke to an inner tranquility. Mayhaps it was the breath of Divinity.

Robart dug his fingers into the soil. The ground was cold, but the stone was colder still. It was sharp. As Robart ran his hands along it, he realized it was no unshaped river rock or fieldstone. The rocks you found in new fields were fair flat and broad, but this beneath his hands was square like a cut brick. He heaved it from the earth with a roar. The stone tumbled from his fingers and thudded down the hillside toward the water.

"Gar," Aran said. "Lookit that. Dominion foundation, or I'm a fool."

"What's it doing all the way out here, then?" Feln asked. He checked behind him, as though to make certain the old Dominion ruin had not crept from the tree line.

There was something beneath that stone: a cyst in the earth, which Robart could only faintly see. "Somethings below," he muttered, kneeling again to paw in the dirt. Yes! There was something there. Ratty cloth, slick with rot and of some rough weaving. He drew it out.

A sack. A little sack that clanked as he brought it forth. "Divinity," Aran hissed. There was no mistaking it.

"Someone buried this long ago," Feln cautioned. "Some Dominion soldier or the like. To disturb it is to invite the wrath of his spirit."

"The Dominion was Confessional," reminded Robart.

But Feln had a quick answer to that, and right he was. "Not at first." It was true. The Old Dominion had come to the isle long ago, when they still raised pagan altars. But Robart shook that fear from his shoulders and tipped up the mouth of the bag. Golden coins, heavy and gleaming, spilled beneath the autumn sun.

"Bless me," Aran said. He made the sign of the solar wheel. Gold. Not silver, but gold, from out of the East. When was the last time golden coins were seen in Yewland? Perhaps in the coffer of a king or highlord, but here in an open field? Each coin was a sun in miniature. They glimmered like the hoard of a giant king exposed to the sky for the very first time.

Robart frowned at them. "What do we do?" he asked.

"Tell Sire Gaumont," said Aran at once.

There was coin enough there to buy off the lord five times over and make of them freemen. But he'd ask from whence they came, and Robart had no good answer to give. They could abscond with them and hie them to a city, if they chose. But serfs who fled for a city life were sometimes dragged back to their lords and tried for their flight. Still... "We needn't give him all the coins," Robart said.

"They're cursed. Look at them. A pagan shieldman did this." Feln shivered in the breeze.

Robart shook his head. "No shieldman. Look! They have suns on them. They were Faithful who buried these coins. That means the Divine himself wanted us to discover them. Doesn't it?" He was being hopeful. He wanted to convince himself. He knew that. But it could be true... what other reason would the Divinity have for hiding coins in a field? Unless it's a test...

Aran grunted. "We bring them to Sire Gaumont. He'll give us reward. He's not a cruel man, nor a fool. He'll know we could have left with 'em."

"You could have, maybe," Feln complained. "But I've my Elga and three boys to think on. I can't go haring off into the wild."

The mention of Feln's wife kindled a cold fury in Robart's chest. He held up his hands. "Enough. They go to Sire Gaumont." His own Heloise had been laid in the tombyard by the temple three years ago. He didn't want to hear about regrets and tangles. Feln was lucky Elga put up with him, coward that he was.

They abandoned their work and turned back to the village. As they passed through the fields they attracted inquiring looks. They should have been out working for watches and watches yet, but here they were wandering back to town. Feln went home at once and refused to join Aran and Robart on their way to the manor. Robart didn't blame him, though it did irk him.

Sire Gaumont's manor was a ways from the town. They walked through beechwood and pine, humming and whistling alternately. Robart took a walking stick from his doorway and tapped it lightly against the ground. "Do ye think Aethelwyn favors me?" he asked Aran.

Aethelwyn, fair Aethelwyn, had grown to adulthood just behind Robart and Heloise. She had married early and well. Before Robart had ever made designs on Heloise, Aethelwyn was already off to Seatower to live with her young husband—a goldsmith and a Manachite from the Amber Cities. Robart forgot about her when she was gone and lived a whole life without ever wondering what became of Aethelwyn the Fair.

When they were ready, he and Heloise married. They'd already tasted of the service of Avena and Robart was concerned that Heloise might be carrying a child. They were joined together beneath the lintel of the temple with all the town in attendance. That night, he carried his Heloise up to the hillside and gave her a green gown amongst the grasses. He liked to think that was when little Robart was conceived.

By his twentieth winter, Robart the Elder had a child of three, a wife, and twenty acres of land from Sire Gaumont. They wanted a second, a third, and maybe a forth to help with the labor. But the Divinity didn't grant their wishes. Everything turned to sour, bloody ash. When little Robart was three and a half winters old, he stumbled and upended a cauldron of peas porridge over the hearth. The tripod collapsed and he was near submerged in the scalding stuff. That autumn, Heloise was carried off by the Red Cough as it swept through Southhold. Within a single year, Robart's life was stripped of its meaning.

Then Aethelwyn came back.

Her husband was killed by a mob howling for Manachite blood after a child was discovered at the bottom of a well. Robart had never known a Manachite himself, but he thought it was cruel and evil that three should be beaten to death just because the folk of Seatower had an errant thought that the girl was killed instead of fell. Aethelwyn never expressed her own opinion on it, and Robart never asked. She came to live with her father, the aged Thorolen, under good Sire Gaumont.

Aran had been a close childhood friend with Aethelwyn—kept up with her from time to time when she went to live in Seatower. He was a frequent guest at Thorolen's house.

"I can't answer that for ye, Robart, and that much you know." Aran shook his head. "She doesn't keep confidences in me the way she used. Things've changed since the old days. She's different."

"Prettier, she's become," Robart said, "and sadder and stranger, too."

Hazelby Court was lost amongst the hazel shrubs that gave it its name and the spreading elm branches and hornbeam leaves. Its was reared from ancient granite but built in a modern style; huge oaken double doors, a low outwall, and even a fine glass window cut and made in Seatower before its fall. Glass was another of the Manachite secrets, to which only their dusky people possessed the key. Robart wondered if that was why they were so often strung up, beaten, or burned. Manachites were, after all, only a hair's breadth from the Confession.

Sire Gaumont's sign was carved above the door: a shield bearing three hazel wands. It was awarded him when he was a lad, before he was knighted by Highlord Marten, for bravery in fighting the Skathi. Robart was proud of his sire, even if he was not technically a lord—for Sire Gaumont was, in truth, a knight-bailiff in the service of the Lord of Seatower, who himself served both the king (Queen, now, Robart reminded himself, Queen Sophea) and Highlord Marten Castellar.

Robart thumped upon the double door. It was answered by a page who took their names and promised to inform Sire Gaumont of what they were after. While they waited, a chill rain began. Before they were thoroughly soaked, the page returned and let them in to the sire's forechamber.

They hung up their cloaks on the pegs and dried off their tunics. The pageboy lit the warming brazier while they waited. Aran nudged Robart as soon as the boy was gone. "Let me see them again," he muttered. "Before we give them away."

Robart sighed and let a few of the coins slither into his calloused palm. Seeing them again, even in the dim and smoky light, sent a thrill through his soul. A grimacing face, some Eastern Autarch, was sketched out on one side and a burst of sunlight upon the other. He could feel Aran sidle up and stare over his shoulder.

"Glorious, they are," he whispered. "Could've come straight from a dragon's claws."

"Haven't been dragons in a thousand thousand years," Robart said.

"Still," said Aran.

When the page returned, Robart nearly jumped out of his skin. He clutched the coins tight in his fist. "Sire Gaumont is ready for you," the page murmured.

The rain was, by now, pounding upon the heavy stone walls and the Manachite window. The hall was lit by intermittent tallow candles and silver lamps. Smoke curled amongst the heavy beams overhead. A trestle table had been laid for lunch, where Sire Gaumont sat with his wife. The lady of the house wore her husband's keys upon her belt.

The knight-bailiff was a bald, and his head shone in the shadows. The hair that he had left was iron gray and swept back from his temples. He was a regal looking man, a man that Robart thought he could have followed as king. Neither Robart or Aran had ever seen the real king, King Carliman. He had heard, through many links in a chain long removed, that Carliman had been a stout man with broad shoulders and brooding eyes. Sire Gaumont was nothing like that. He was straight as a ramrod, clear of gaze, and royal in bearing.

He invited Aran and Robart to sit at his table and take their fill of ale and bread. "I recognize you two," he remarked. "You're the ones I sent to his lordship's new field, are you not?" Robart was surprised and thrilled to hear that the knight-bailiff remembered who he was.

"We are," Robart said, ducking his head.

Sire Gaumont frowned. "And you're not there now."

"Show him," whispered Aran, so Robart did.

He placed the old satchel of coins on the table. "We found this while we were ploughing, sire. We thought you'd want to see it."

"Where's your third?" Sire Gaumont asked. He reached forward and sorted through the coins with the tip of his finger.

Robart, head still bowed, said, "Goodman Feln went home, sire. His wife needed him." Robart heard Gaumont's own lady-wife scoff. "But we thought it best to bring you these coins at once in case you wanted to give them to his lordship."

When Robart peeked up to see the look on Sire Gaumont's face he was confronted with something of a shock. Gaumont was frowning deeply. He stroked his chin and stared with a fixed look upon the table. "It's well that you came at once. It's not well known yet around Hazelby or any of the other towns, but his lordship died when Seatower fell to the invaders. Sire Saimon barely escaped." Gaumont looked up now, locking eyes with Robart. "I planned to ride to meet Highlord Marten's muster this very afternoon. Now you bring coin for the effort."

"The Divinity must've sent them," Robart said.

Sire Gaumont nodded. "Aye. He must have. And I don't think it wise to look askance at a gift, lest it be withdrawn. My true question then: will you come with me to deliver this gold? I'd not force you, Goodman Robart, but I know you've no family here. And there are honors to be won in the shieldwall. You as well, Goodman Aran."

"Oh, no," Aran balked, "I'll not, sire."

The world had lost all semblance of meaning. His lordship of Seatower, dead? Sire Saimon, the elder son, vanished in flight? Robart knew, dimly, that the pagan armies had toppled the impregnable tower. He knew, too, that they were advancing inexorably into Southhold. Armies streamed south to Oldcastel to pin the Highlord before he could move. Raiders plied the great waterways, burning Yewlish ships and sneaking into ports to cause chaos and death.

But to discover that his lordship was dead? That was the keystone in the already crumbling arch. His lordship of Seatower had been a solid fixture in Robart's mind since he was a child. There had always been a Lord of Seatower, and he had always been austere and distant. Now, he was probably crushed under the fallen masonry.

Robart stared blankly at Sire Gaumont for a time. "Might I have until the morning, sire? I'll go with you then." He could hardly believe his own gall in asking for time.

"I'd rather we not delay," Sire Gaumont said. He caught himself though, perhaps because of the downcast look that took up residence upon Robart's face. The knight-bailiff smoothed his fine linen tunic and pursed his lips. "But, circumstances require it. Besides, I will have to arrange for enough food to come with us for the extra mouth. Yes, go, do whatever it is you need to do in the village. Leave the gold here and we will set out at first light."

Robart and Aran bowed before the knight and made their leave. The walk back to town was longer with the rain beating the earth. The fury of the wind shook loose many of those leaves that were still clinging to the bare branches of trees. By the time they reached Hazelby proper, the lanes were thick were the fallen, which clustered like men of the shieldwall in great wet clumps.

Aran went to his own toft and Robart bade him good afternoon. Robart had other things to do. He took to the dark bower of his own cottage and sat beneath its dripping thatch roof for a watch or two as he mounted the courage to go and do the thing that troubled his soul. After a while he lit a little fire and stared into its crackling heart. He would go see Aethelwyn before he left. Twenty-seven and already prepared for the grave. He chuckled at his own morbidity. Perhaps he should have done as the dark moods bid him those many years ago and hung himself from the rafters. Then he could join Heloise and little Robart in the tombyard.

His tears sizzled in the hearth.

Thorolen Atwell's house was larger than most of the other's in Hazelby. It didn't come close to the majesty o Hazelby Court, but it certainly outmatched the simple stone tofts of the village. A hall of mortared stone, a loft and byre, and an upper floor of timber, wattle, and daub—it was as near to a sire's residence as one could get. There was good reason: Thorolen had been reeve of the whole demesne in years past. His children and cotters worked the most land out of any serf in the demesne. It was only through good years of rye and barley that he'd been able to afford to give Aethelwyn the life of a freewoman and a dowry as well.

The rain fell mercilessly on Thorolen's roof. The thatch eaves dripped rivers. Robart ducked beneath them and hammered at the door. "Goodman Thorolen!" he called. "Goodman Thorolen, are you there?" Robart had hoped to be safe from the storm in the lee of the house, but the wind lashed him with spray and spume.

Eventually, one of Thorolen's many sons answered the door and led him within. The house was poorly lit by clay table lamp. Greasy oil smoke gathered in pockets and pools amongst the rafters. Thorolen was not one to spend more buying candle-fat, oil, or any other luxury than he must. The old man himself was nowhere to be seen, but his wife Emma was seated at the trestle table in the hall. The many sons were perched upon a wooden stair just left of the door, leading up to the former reeve's private chambers.

Emma examined Robart icily from her seat. Her eyes had some touch of fire behind them, perhaps stolen from the lamps. Her wimple gave her the look of an angry abbess. "Young Robart," she creaked. Young. How long had it been since Robart felt young? "What brings you here?"

He approached the matron and gave her a shallow bow. She wore Thorolen's keys, as was a wife's custom. She was sharper than her husband, and kept his accounts. Robart had, even as a child, wondered how Emma Atwell was so clever with numbers. She could hold the tallies in her head like a sorcerer, the townsfolk said. But as the years wore on she took to keeping a stick with her. Whether her memory was failing or she had always done in secret, now Robart knew that she marked the various stores upon her cane with a little knife, making hatches when the barrels were full or empty. Even now, Emma's fingers rubbed the cuts below the handle of her cane.

"I've come, Goodwife Emma, to speak with your daughter."

Emma's eyes sparked. "I knew as much," she said. The shutters rattled in their frames as the storm vented its fury. "You'll not find her tonight. She's busy mending tunics."

"Goodwife," Robart said slowly. Emma was balanced on the knife's edge of anger. Any misstep could tip her over and ruin his chances. And if he did not speak with Aethelwyn tonight, he'd have no chance at all until whatever journey was over. "I'm leaving tomorrow with Sire Gaumont to deliver a message to the Highlord. Lord Seatower is dead, and the sire wishes... to deliver something into Highlord Castellar's hands. I don't know when I'll return."

The goodwife's face softened. "Pfaugh," said she, "Only you'll be supervised and spend not overlong. If you'll have those terms, they're yours. Else, ye can go and see the Highlord first and, if you win a knight's belt thereafter, you can return."

Robart smiled faintly. Emma chuckled. They both knew there was no chance of Robart of Hazelby ever winning the honors of a knight.

Aethelwyn was up in her father's chambers. Thorolen lay half-asleep in his bed. Robart had no such luxury himself: a cot upon the cold earth was his resting place. Goodwife Emma sent Harald to watch over them and make certain Robart didn't do anything foolish. Aethelwyn was surprised when he stepped into the light, still dripping rain from the storm. She held a needle in her hand, and a torn tunic upon her lap. Her hair was done up beneath her wimple in the simple and modest dress of a widow.

He knelt before her. "Aethelwyn," he said.

"Robart?" Her eyes belied confusion. Her fair and pale face was marked by the tides of sorrow that had visited it. Still, she was beautiful. Robart saw in her not the callow girl to whom he'd payed no attention when he was courting Heloise, but a woman learned in the secrets of the unkind world. "There's a storm," she said.

He nodded. "Aye, Aethelwyn. But I'm leaving on the morrow and I wanted to see how you fared."

"Me?" she asked, still confused. "You wanted to see how I fared? Whyfor?"

Robart frowned and tugged at his beard. "Well, I was never... I mean, there was always Heloise for me."

"And Haras for me," she said, twisting the Manachite ring on her finger. He probably made that for her himself, Robart thought with a shock. "But Heloise and Haras are both gone."

"That doesn't mean we cannot find comfort in this world," Robart said. Harald coughed behind him, loudly clearing his throat. "I mean, that we could be friends."

"Friends, yes. As Aran and I are friends, Robart. But it is unseemly to call upon me this way in my father's house."

"Your brother is here," Robart said, "so no one can say anything improper occurred. And your father as well." He gestured at the bed with his chin.

There was a long silence. "Why is it you came, Robart?"

Robart swallowed his fear and it sat in his belly like a stone. "To see if e're you thought of me, Aethelwyn. That's all." He paused, then forestalled her answer by going on. "I leave on the morrow's dawn, you see, with Sire Gaumont. I don't know when I'll return."

Aethelnwyn reached out and touched Robart's hand. Her own was cold and dry. "Well, when you return, we shall be friends then," she said.

Robart could not sleep that night. He was troubled by Aethelwyn's answer, and more troubled by what the future held. The gold preyed upon his thoughts like an anchor. His fear of the future surrounded him. How long before Hazelby was burning like Seatower? If such a mighty fortress could fall, how long before Oldcastel yielded? Lord Seatower was dead. Sire Saimon was gone. The darkness threatened on every side, and shielded by its cloak there lay fangs, and fire, and biting steel.

*   *   *

The last dregs of the storm drained away before dawn. Hazelby Court was lit by the rays of the new-risen sun as Robart approached it. Sire Gaumont had drawn up four men from the four villages serving Hazelby, yeomen farmers all, and they were dressed before its gates in leather tunics. Each man carried a spear, and several had axes at their belts. Sire Gaumont nodded when Robart appeared through the brush.

"You'll tell the Highlord where you found the gold," he said, "and how."

"Aye, sire," Robart agreed.

The morning was cold for early Urem. Many of the trees had been stripped bare by the storm overnight, though a few still clutched their particolor robes and cloaks about them.

They traveled south for five days, following the winding trails out of Hazelby until they joined with the ancient Dominion road. They picked up considerable speed upon the rutted flags, tramping ever southward. Robart made little conversation. He sat off to the side and thought on Aethelwyn, on Heloise, and on the farm left behind. From time to time Sire Gaumont would sit close at hand and speak with him. Robart appreciated the knight-bailiff's efforts; there was a certain pride to journeying with such an esteemed servant of the late Lord Seatower, and more in being recognized by him as important.

On the fifth day they crossed into Oldcastel. Robart knew they'd left Seapoint behind when they came to the town of Shieldcross. It was larger than Hazelby. Each other summer since he was a boy, Robart made the journey to Shieldcross for their great three-day market. Two weeks every second year, all told, but there were travelers from far lands there. Vaerasans, and Tradesmen, and Ambermen too, and most of all there were journeying companies of actors, dancers, chantuers. Every so often a relic would be carried down from Kingsbrook Temple or some other holy site for the Southholders to venerate. Yes, Shieldcross was well known to Robart as a place of joy.

Strange, then, it was, to come upon it and see the folk downcast. Tents and pennants of armed bands could be seen ringing the town. Dark Ambermen in gold-chased leathers lounged about polishing wicked looking weapons. Sire Gaumont said, "Those are Prince Edwerd's men. Mercenaries." Robart wondered if they still fought for Edwerd or if he, too, was dead and they now fought simply for their own amusement. The thought chilled him.

There was an inn built in the shell of an Old Dominion wayhouse at the center of town. The namesake Sign of the Shield, it was called, with a real kite shield pegged over the doorway. Inside, there were more Ambermen from the Prince's company. They were all dressed in fine armor and they carried swords—weapons reserved for noblemen of Yewland. There were a few knights with them as well, laughing fellows in shirts of mail. As Sire Gaumont led them into the great stone building, Robart heard one of the knights explaining,

"We can take what we need from the farms. These folk know it's their duty to support their lord in wartime."

A dark-faced Amberman grinned, all flashing teeth and irises of liquid gold. "If you tried to do that were we come from, you'd wake up with your throat cut. Ha! Take supplies from some poor fellow. Wouldn't you, Askir?"

One of the others, presumably the one called Askir, burped his reply. The two Ambermen were lounging on long benches by the fire burning in the hooded hearth. Servants rushed to and fro to bring hot food from the kitchen: fried eels, leek soup, and hot ale. The big bearded knight nodded at Sire Gaumont as the dirty troupe of Hazelby men filed in.

"Gaumont, you old bastard!" The knight who greeted them was heavier than Robart's Sire, and wore a thick beard. Sire Gaumont inclined his head in return.

"Sire Hugo. Where's your lord?"

"Not here, friend," the burly Hugo replied. "But as you can see, Prince Edwerd's friend Captain Oro has provided us with plenty of black Ambermen to fight the Skraels, should they come along this road."

The Amberman who'd been arguing with Hugo smiled again. "Yes. Though he is properly called Sword-Captain Oro. I am Flag-Captain Yosah. My men are at the service of the town. Unlike your friend Sire Hugo here, we do not rape, steal, or kill while we wait."

"Rare discipline in  soldiers," Sire Gaumont said. Robart felt the hairs on the back of his next stand up at this talk of rape and killing.

Flag-Captain Yosah nodded. "Rare soldiers, we. In the Amber Cities it is always thus. Soldiers who cannot obey those rules are tried and executed by the City Masters."

"Are you a Manachite?" Robart asked. Rude, it was, but the question pushed its way out before he could stop it. Yosah laughed.

"Perceptive, too. Do you know many Manachem, goodman?" He spoke Cweathan with a strange lilting accent, almost singing the words.

Robart shook his head. "No. I knew someone married to one. Long ago."

Sire Gaumont nodded. "Our goodwife Aethelwyn was married to a whitesmith named Haras. He lived in Seatower."

Yohas' face fell. "We heard of that tragedy. Not the woman, but the smith Haras and his companions. The lecter Thoma, and the advocate Khreska." His voice faded and he said no more. Robart was ashamed for speaking of such evil. Three Manachites, murdered. By his own countrymen, no less. Seatower was not more than a week's journey from Hazelby. By the Divine, Robart had been there, spoken with those people who threw the stones. He turned away.

Sire Gaumont paid for the common folk to sleep in the greatroom. They ate apart from the mercenaries and their knightly guides, out on the inn's back steps, by the stable. There was frost in the air.

The yeomen and Robart ate together. He exchanged a few words with them, chiefly with a fellow called Orijen, who hailed from the nearby ville of Mossbrook. They spoke on cattle and sheep, and on the proper way to grow barley. When night fell and the yeomen retired, Robart went out among the tents and stared up at the stars.

He returned when all else were sleeping. Flag-Captain Yosah was sprawled across a table, his fine silken cloak covering his recumbent chest. In the fading light of dying fire, Robart shuffled toward the common room. It was cold out there, attached as it was to the side of the building, a sort of stone porch with a roof of slate. But on his way to his simple cot, Robart heard thumping upstairs.

He paused. There were dangers enough on the road, but to think of them here, in Shieldcross, was unimaginable. And still... there was gold, a great pile of eastern gold, hidden in Sire Gaumont's traveling bag. The thought came to him that one of the Ambermen might be up there, wrestling even now with Sire Gaumont for the prize. In fact, where was that Askir? Not in the taproom or the commons with his fellows! By the Divinity...!

Robart thundered up the stairs. He burst into Sire Gaumont's room, flinging wide the half-open door. A fire burned upon the stone floor where an oil lamp had been smashed. The ruddy light gave lurid hellish hue to Sire Gaumont, locked in deathly grips not with a dusky Manachite but with Sire Hugo. The bearded knight's knife flashed; Sire Gaumont's fingers drew back, bloody flesh curling from the stroke.

Sire Hugo snarled as he advanced. "Too late now," he huffed. Sire Gaumont was clad only in his linen undertunic. His legs were bare. His feet tapped against the hard floor. Rushes scattered beneath them, some catching fire on the spreading oil. Sire Hugo was dressed in the same fine leather tunic he wore earlier. In his right hand he held an eating knife, now splattered with blood.

Robart charged forward, bellowing. He'd not see his sire murdered before his very eyes! Sire Hugo let out a great breath of air and tumbled backwards. Together they fell upon the fire. It was all but snuffed out by the force of their fall. "You fool," the bearded knight grunted at Robart, "Don't you see? Highlord Marten will die!" Robart held him by the collar and stared into his crazed eyes. "He'll die! The Skraels will kill us all! Your master has—!" Robart clacked Sire Hugo's head against the stones. "—has more than enough gold to give us a new life to start!"

But Robart did not let go. He banged Hugo onto the flags again. This time, the knight did not try to bargain; he stabbed Robart in the ribs and rolled the peasant off of him.

Robart saw no more until he rolled to his feet. The fire was nearly out, the room was lit only by the cold and frowning horns of the moon. Sire Gaumont had unsheathed his blade from the base of the bed, his knight's sword flickering through the shadows like a serpent. "You are done, Sire Hugo. You will be hanged before the highlord, and buried in a grave unmarked and unlooked-for."

The bigger knight said no more. He merely came at Sire Gaumont full-strength, ignoring the sword and bulling up to the man. He took a sword-stroke to the back, but the cut was blunted by the awkward angle. He hugged Gaumont with both arms and plunged the knife into him. Again and again he cut his way through linen and flesh, forcing the tip downward and through. Sire Gaumont let out a soft sigh.

Robart was up again, though his side was burning. He took hold of a chair and hefted it sideways. It swung, heavily and out of control, until he heaved it at Sire Hugo. The knight was staggered by the blow. Robart fell still, wiping away the sweat from his eyes. Sire Hugo snarled at him, but rather than stay to fight he drunkenly lurched through the door.

Robart was alone with the gold. Sooner or late, the people downstairs would awaken. The coins were there, scattered across the floor by the sill of the window. The moonlight fell upon them like sin. Sire Hugo might be right—this might be the end of the world as they knew it. Southhold might fall. Then again, it might not. Robart stared at those coins. He blinked as the chill of the Urem night took him to its bosom. His sweat became pinpricks of ice.

The coins lay there on the floor. Near at hand was Sire Gaumont, breathing his last. Robart sat down heavily on the bed to think.

Continued in The Hammer of the Skraels.

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