This is a Robart of Hazelby story. Past tales from Fiction Friday (including the previous Robart of Hazelby tales), can now be found here.
Sister Soera tended to Robart as though he were a cripple. Day after day, he wasted away in the Temple Tower. Day after day, they waited for news of Highlord Marten and the forces of Oldcastel. But the Highlord did not return. The eyes of sentries were fixed upon the Tombway and the Seapoint Road. But no troupe in mail, nor brightly colored riders were seen coming from the north. Rumors of battles stole by quiet footfall into the city. Oldcastel bristled and waited. Mornings and nights Robart heard the cries of watchmen upon the mighty walls. The portcullises were shut and drawn, and all business with the castle was done through the postern gates alone.
"Who's in charge of the castle, then?" Robart asked the sister one morning.
She lifted her hands from the brazier. "Sire Orawn, for now." The cannoness went to the laver and withdrew a cotton rag to dab at Robart's brow. His fevers were going down and soon the plaster would be off his ribs. He had healed, it seemed, saved by the Divinity. Why, he wondered but did not ask, did the godhead preserve him when all that he cared for was taken away time and again? He knew the answer as surely as knew his catechism: the daimoni and the vicissitudes of the mortal realm, the World of Sorrow.
The following day he actually rose from the bed and, with Sister Soera's help, went to the window. From the Temple Tower you could make out the entire network of Oldcastel and the little city beyond. He marveled that he'd never come before, but the markets in Seapoint were visited by the wider world. There he'd met Ambermen, Caragfolk, Vaerasans, and people from out of the great desert. Oldcastel was a carbuncle frozen in time, a remnant of a grander age.
As he thought of the great Sea Market, with the finger of Seatower looming over all, it hit him that he was a man without a lord. His sire was dead. His lord was dead. His highlord may very well be dead. Who did he owe his fealty to? Why had the Divinity allowed this to happen? The world, he knew, was one of sign and portent. Nothing happened without a reason. The daimoni were moving against Yewland, and against him. His own soul was in the balance.
He said as much to Sister Soera, and she shook her head. "This, I cannot say. Certainly there is a great war moving behind the world, as a fire burns beneath a veil of smoke. But it's not for me to say who controls what sallies and attacks. Is it the doing of a daimon? Is it the doing of the Divinity?" She shrugged. "The wise put those thoughts out of mind, for they will trouble you until you perish."
But Robart could not put those thoughts out of mind. Why had his Heloise died? And his little boy, Robart? Was it to tempt him into darkness by the hand of a malignant daimon, or was it to punish him for dark deeds already, the outstretching chastisement of the Divine? He buried his head in his hands.
The plaster came off. He went down now into the courtyard of the inner bailey and did light labors during the day. Sister Soera still came to tend him at night, and he was thankful for her presence. At first he thought the idiot Clyde and his cronies had gone off with Highlord Marten and he thanked the Divine for that small favor, but soon enough he realized that the man had stayed behind to ward the castle walls. Robart did his best to avoid him.
At first, this was easy. He went to the temple and saw Sister Soera in the mornings. She checked his ribs to make sure they were healing well. The pain was much reduced, and the livid stripes of royal purple were now merely streaks of pink. In the afternoons he spent his time helping in the stables or the kitchens. There was always work to be done there, mucking out the stalls and baking the bread on alternate days. Sometimes he helped to replace rushlights or fill lamps.
Eventually, though, Clyde found him. He was tasked by one of Sire Orawn's household men to mend gambesons that needed stitching. Most of his clothes he'd made by hand, like the rest of the common folk, so mending was well within his reach. He sat with a pile of the quilted tunics out by the Great Tower, overlooking the inner moat. There, beneath the arch of the gatehouse, he was warmed by three large braziers. He listened to the men-at-arms chat idly about the city folk. In particular, they seemed fixated on Oldcastel's women and recounting their various conquests.
Robart was two-thirds of the way through the repairs when Clyde appeared from the Great Tower. He must have come down the wallwalk, for he emerged through the narrow oaken door facing the scummy water of the moat. Robart caught sight of him and slowed his work. The little iron needle between his fingers felt an inadequate weapon.
Clyde sneered at him as he approached. The man-at-arms wore a quilted gambeson like the ones Robart was mending. Tucked into his belt, he carried a truncheon and a horn for sounding the warning. There was a long-hafted axe on his hip. "Well, if it isn't Robart Crackrib."
"Goodman Clyde," Robart muttered. He had no desire to fight again. Who knew how many of Clyde's friends and allies were lurking just out of reach? Besides, the piebald watchman was armed. Like as not, Robart would wind up in the chill water rather than laying Clyde out. Still... yeomen sometimes underestimated serfs. Robart was strong, if unskilled in battle.
But Clyde didn't seem to be after a fight. He gave Robart a guileless smile. "Goodman. Goodman Robart Crackrib. I admire your balls, my friend." Robart raised his eyebrows. "To rise and stand at attention for Lady Sorrel? I mean, I knew you were haughty, but that's a high opinion of yourself." He laughed.
"I have no designs on the Lady Sorrel—nor could I," Robart replied. He felt a wave of anger trouble his spirit, washing from the first prickling of his forehead all the way to the soles of his feet. "There's no need for us to get in each other's way, Goodman Clyde—" he began.
"OH, but there is, friend Robart!" Clyde said gleefully. "For your prick hardens at the Lady Sorrel and Sister Soera. You're a naughty lad, aren't you? A lady and a nun? By the Divinity, that's bold. Why not the Queen, Hazelby?"
"Enough," Robart said. He cast his eyes down to his mending. He felt Clyde's presence for the next few moments. The man did not move, merely watched him with folded arms and lecherous grin. Eventually, though, Clyde let out a short bark of a laugh and walked on about his business. Robart exhaled a breath he hadn't known he was holding.
Of course, that night he wondered, as sleep failed to take him, if Clyde Piebald wasn't right. Had he been lusting after women beyond his station, the chosen of the Divine and the Lady Sorrel both? He walked backwards through the days and weeks in his mind, wondering at his expressions of friendliness. Were they motivated by a baser desire? He was, after all, alone. Heloise was dead now many years, and there was a certain darkness that might infest a man's soul. Everyone knew that women were the baser creature, that it was they would first give in to lust... but had not Robart done the same? When dreams took him that night, they were uneasy indeed.
He saw Clyde again in the following days when Ahmura ended and Urem began. It was the day of the Harvest Feast, still celebrated in Oldcastel even though the war had torn Southhold apart. The city was bedecked with garlands of autumn leaves. The prelates sang in choir and chapel, their voices mingling with those of the child oblates and young men striving to become canons. And of course, the harvest had already been brought in the months prior, throughout Eskam and Ahmura.
Even Robart's own harvest wasn't completely lost—though bad weather had pushed much of the Eskam harvest to the middle of Ahmura... he shuddered to think of how much waste there was, how many fields were now untended at Hazelby. But Sire Gaumont wouldn't care, nor would Lord Seatower. Both were dead.
The Harvest Feast began early that morning, before Robart was even risen. Bonfires were lit throughout Oldcastel. Each of the great crossroads was a surging pillar of flame. Tabors beat through the city, and pipe music made haunting melody. Robart woke to the music of the serpent pipe and the lizard, echoing up through the Temple Tower. They were soon drowned out by the chanting of the castle prelate and his teachers, reverberating up through the temple below and into the chambers were Robart slept.
The yards of the castle burned just as brightly as the roads of the city: great bonfires had been stacked in the night and now they blazed forth. Trestle tables beneath the steel-gray sky were laden with food for the asking. Robart, still half asleep, stumbled through the festivities as through a daze. He'd never missed the Harvest Festival in Hazelby. Even now, he could see Aethelwyn emerging from her father's house, hair modestly covered, laughing with her brothers as they raced to the manor for Sire Gaumont's celebration.
He wondered if Hazelby was celebrating today, or if the bonfires were thatched roofs and turf huts.
He staggered into the court priest, Haelig, a vibrant man with a wild eye. The prelate was dressed in fine red and orange satin this day in honor of the autumn. "Pagan holiday, you know," Haelig muttered to Robart. The priest somehow took Robart's position in the highlord's chamber, above the temple, to mean that he and Robart were comrades-in-arms. Robart didn't know how the thing had begun, but he was not one to shun friendship, particularly with a man as well placed as the prelate.
Wiping the sleep from his eyes, he asked, "What mean you, divine?"
"I mean what I say!" Haelig replied with jolly solemnity. "The Harvest Festival used to be a pagan feast day, before the Faith came. Look at 'em roasting John Corn there by the fire." He pointed to a trio of young boys who were reverently taking coffin-shaped buns from the girls of the bakery and placing them in the hot ash of the great bonfire. "You think our Prophet ever heard of that? Boys and girls were roasting John Corn and playing apple-skins before the Dominion ever came here."
Robart remembered the apple-skin game: peeling the fruit, and saying a prayer over it so it might tell you the name of your betrothed. As far as he was concerned, it was a way for a lad to get a girl to give him a kiss. He'd never thought of it as pagan before.
"Ha! Don't look so stricken man, there's no harm in it!" Haelig gave Robart a clap on the back and sent him on to get some spiced ale or ypocras from the oak barrels stacked outside the great hall. Robart took the priests advice, grabbed a leather jack, and started to drink. He watched the castle children play John Corn, and the girls pair off with the boys one by one to clamber up the walls, leap over little fires, and do the myriad other little rituals of the Harvest Festival.
They seemed hollow to him. He could almost feel the deadly presence of the Skraels just north of the city. A short journey of but a few days would transport him from the peace of Oldcastel into the hell of Seapoint, where the Highlord desperately strove against the madman Sarkus Wolfsblood and his daimon-possessed berserkers.
The day slipped hazily by as Robart sank deeper and deeper into drink. The wine was unwatered and especially potent. It tasted of misrule and chaos, of the darkness lurking at the edges of the World of Sorrow and threatening to pour in. It was in this half-drunken state that he bumped into Clyde Piebald.
A shadow descended over Robart's vision. Oldcastel was a place of haunted ruin. The jesting laughter and drunken games seemed less a celebration than a pale imitation of life. Robart saw hollow faces all around him, split wide by rictus grins, as even now in these moments of false joy the Skraels swept south and west, burning the provinces of mighty Southold and putting her warriors to shame. How many knights lay dying on the field? How many yeomen? Leveemen? Farmers like Robart? While these ghosts danced amongst the shattered stones of old Dominion glory?
Robart swilled more wine. He could barely see for the black mire swamping his spirit. He hove away from the celebrations and found himself staggering down the stair to the kitchen-yard. The stones were slick, the walls closed in, and his foot missed a step. Down he went, an ungainly pile of limbs. As he fell he had time to lament the burden he'd be to Sister Soera in the morning. Just nursed back to health to go and break his arms and legs in a fool's fall.
Instead of landing in a broken heap at the base of the kitchen stair, he found Clyde Piebald. The man-at-arms was clad in a quilted tunic which was half-unlaced. His hands were all about a castle cook, kneading her flesh everywhere. Into this amorous embrace tumbled Robart of Hazelby. He struck them bodily, sending everyone sprawling. The cook was up first, stuffing herself back into her dress. By the time Clyde had hauled Robart from the ground and gotten a good look at him, she had vanished into the kitchens.
Clyde shook him so hard, Robart's teeth clacked together. "You!" he hissed. His tunic was still unlaced, flapping in the breeze. Robart groaned. Before he could stop himself, he was vomiting up the last day's meals. Clyde yelped and threw him back. "Divinity!" he hissed. "You're looking for someone to do you hurt, aren't you, Hazelby?"
"My... 'pologies, m'lord," Robart mumbled. He knew, vaguely, somewhere, that this was the very man who'd nearly killed him weeks before. It mattered little. He wasn't in control of himself any longer. His body moved on its own, as though a daimon possessed him. He struggled away from Clyde and slumped across the grassy yard. Over at the far end, by the Low Stables, there were squires playing dice and horse-shoes.
The man-at-arms grabbed him and spun him about with surprising force. Robart could smell the stink of his own mess. "Not your lord, goodman," Clyde said. "And I can tell you aren't sorry for what we gave you. Learn your place, villein." He shoved Robart, who, unable to control his feet, went plunging back to the ground.
"This is the Harvest Feast, not All Fool's Day, you great lout. Did you think you were King of the Fools?" Clyde advanced on him. Robart, on his back now, edged away. His sight swam sickeningly, the vision of Clyde Piebald lurching unevenly left and right as though the parched brown grass were the deck of a trader's cog. "Divinity above, if I had been set for hanging and given reprieve, I'd be wary and careful as a hunting hound who's shat in the lord's bed. But no! Here you are, bold as brass dressed up for gold. Burn me!" He shook his head, laughed unkindly, and leveled a finger. "Mark me, Serf of Hazelby, you've made a bad enemy in Clyde o' the Wall."
Thus was Robart left lying in the grass amidst the creeping gromwell that crept along the cistern gate there in the kitchen-yard. So he lay, closed his eyes, and let his nightmares swallow him.
Robart woke again some time in the late afternoon. The festival was in full swing now, the red glow of the sun suffusing the sky as it sank toward the horizon. He shivered: the ghosts were closing in around the ancient keep.
When he checked himself, he found that he wasn't badly hurt. There were spatters of vomit on his clothes and his lips, but those he scrubbed off with handfuls of grass pulled from the yard. He wandered through the laughter of the rambling castle grounds, aware that he was drawing looks. He wanted to climb up to the highlord's chambers in the Temple Tower and hide there, but he forced himself to remain at large amongst the yards and baileys.
He was finally stopped at the Dominion Gate. It was the easternmost of the castle's four gates, and the oldest. It rose like a giant from the hummocked earth, all frowning heavy stone and squat wide-set archways. It was part of the ancient Old Dominion structure, and its glowering frame looked out in the direction of the landings used in ages past by phalanxes eager to secure the strange wild lands of Wyranth.
Three men in mail shirts approached him. They were led by Sire Orawn himself, lordly in a fine brocaded tunic and golden belt, a heavy woolen cloak thrown over his shoulders. He was a blunt-faced man. He wore a sandy beard and short-cropped hair that bobbed beneath his ears. Robart's mind was full of fuzz and spiderwebs, and it took him a long time to grapple with the meaning of what he saw.
Clyde Piebald was there, as were his friends, just behind the knight. "Robart of Hazelby," Sire Orawn intoned. "You are charged with murder. The highlord may have let you wait for the supposed appearance of Sire Hugo, but I have no such intention. Not knowing what I know now. Saran, Alren, lay him under arrest. And thank you," said he, turning to Clyde, "and your wallwatchers for raising the cry. Best you let us handle this from here."
Robart was struck dumb. The knights grabbed him by the crooks of his arms and dragged him toward the great hall. He didn't resist. The cellar was their destination. Like many halls in Wyranth, the central building of Oldcastel had a ground floor cellar, with its second story given over to his lordship. The low vault of the cellar was stacked with barrels of butter, apples, and grain. Now, it was stocked with Robart of Hazelby as well.
Sire Orawn growled at him. "You'll wait your trial here, villein," he said. "And pray there is no further crime charged against you." They left him there with the door barred, the light of the Harvest Feast's bonfires painting a single line beneath the frame of the door. Robart abandoned himself to sorrow and illusion.
His mind took strange flights. He thought of Sister Soera. He thought, too, of Aethelwyn, and of Lady Sorrel. "All the world is sorrow," said he to himself through cracked lips.
Haelig brought him food and drink each day that he spent imprisoned. His beard grew long and shaggy. His clothes took on a sour reek. He wasn't permitted to leave, but at least he was given a chamberpot that some poor lad had to empty twice a day. Thus, he was left to think on the fate of Hazelby and with not even the meanest of chores to draw his mind away from it.
Prester Haelig told him, "Sister Soera and the prelate of the temple in the city both work tirelessly for your release. They say you're innocent of any charge, and will stand with you on it as your oath-swearers. It makes Sire Orawn uneasy. To think both that there are churchfolk who are with you, and that the highlord released you... it makes his judgment shaky."
It wasn't the prayers of the Temple that got him out. It was the coming of plague.