Friday, November 13, 2015

Fiction Friday: Sorrow's Harvest

This follows the events of The Hoard and the Harrow and The Hammer of the Skraels.

Robart wandered through the streets of Oldcastel in the early morning mist. It was a cold autumn fog that came in from the sea, traveling along the rivers until it found its way into Oldcastel's squares. Highlord Marten was at service in the castle temple. Robart had been invited, but he told Elsawyn, Lady Castelar's chief domestic, that he would rather pray at one of the simpler temples in the city. There was nothing simple about Oldcastel, though. Robart was used to riverstone, unmortared, stacked one atop the other or, at most, wattle-and-daub. He'd been to Oakenport once in his life, and the city was a reeking mess of wooden halls with moss roofs, half-timbered houses, and crumbling ruin. Oldcastel was something else altogether. He felt as though he'd stumbled into some ancient myth.

The streets of Oldcastel were plumb and level, paved with flagstone rather than grass. The buildings were set back, each of carefully worked Southhold granite, and bore tile roofs instead of sod or thatch. The temple nearest the castle had three courses of mighty stone and the teacher at the gate told Robart that the lords of the province used the upper balconies on feast days.

There were few enough folk within when Robart ducked his head beneath the doorway. The earthen floor was mostly unoccupied: a few men were shooting dice in a corner, their dice clinking along the flagstones of a paved side-chapel and a pair of oxen tied to one of the piers, but mostly it was abandoned. The early morning service, he realized, was long over. The farmers had already gone to their fields. So he stood against an ornate stone pillar and waited for the second service to begin.

A few teachers swept through the temple, breaking up the dice and demanding attention to the high altar. A ragged line of canons emerged to fill the choirbox and sing the sacred strains of some temple song. Farmers and townsfolk came in to stand among the pillars, the oxen, and the choirbox. Robart was pushed forward by sour-smelling men in their torn tunics of worn roughspun or wool. He allowed the jostling to carry him forward toward the high altar and its platform of raised stone.

Murmuring filled the vaults of the temple. Robart heard the voices of men and women both, speaking on the vicissitudes of Oldcastel's life. He overheard the complaints of farmers who had not hands enough to work the fields around the city. "The more men they call up from the town, the fewer there are to bring in the corn," said one.

Robart rocked on his heels and waited for the prelates to emerge from the high door by the altar. They came in black and gold, heads lowered, and led by their high prelate to surround the gold-fringed stone of the high altar. The sound of the choir swelled to a thunderous music, haunting the archways and walks. Robart bowed his head. The others continued muttering as the service progressed.

When the ceremony ended, Robart pushed through the crowd to street. His soul was no lighter than when the service began. He sighed. Things were simpler in Hazelby, before he found the gold out in that lonesome field. But now the town had no knight, and... It dawned on him with slow and awful power that Hazelby stood in the path of the invaders. Betwixt Seatower and Oldcastel, there were half a hundred trails and a single great Dominion highway. If they strayed but a little from the shortest way they would come upon the town of Hazelby. Aran, Feln, Holman, Rolant... and Aethelwyn—they were all along the route of the Skraels. His chest was hollow. His legs were filled with water, his arms weak. A woman in a wimple pushed by him from within the temple. The force sent him spinning. He clasped the cold granite to keep from falling to the earth. Rough, it was, and chill as the grave. He closed his eyes as a sudden wracking sob rose through his frame.

"My child, are you unwell?" There was a touch upon his shoulder-blade and a warmth to that touch. He turned, wiped his eyes, and found that one of the canon clerics stood just behind. But, no—not a cleric, a woman in a canon's garb. Her corn-blond hair was cropped short like a boy's but she was clearly a woman beneath that black cassock.

Robart let out a wracking sigh that scraped his insides and ran along his ribs before he came forth from his lips. "The war," he said glumly, unable to convey the content of his distress in any words more descriptive.

"The war," she repeated, and clutched his hand. Her long fingers were warm. "Well, where do you live, goodman?"

"Hazelby," Robart said. When the woman cocked her head he gestured north. "Away seaward. But I'm in the household of Highlord Marten, now. My sire was murdered in Shieldcross and I'm to be witness and juror against the man who did it."

"How awful," the woman said. "Come then, goodman..."

"Robart, but I can't. I must return to the service of his lordship, else I'll be missed. He wanted me to worship in the castle chapel this morning, but I... felt it were not proper. Being that I'm but a serf of Lord Seatower." The fear began to gnaw again at the edges. "Though his lordship of Seatower is... dead as well, I suppose. And Seatower fallen like a child's toy into the waters." Was nothing stable or safe?

The woman nodded, her pert lips pursed. "The World of Sorrows," she said huskily, "holds misery enough for us all. Well, goodman Robart, it was fair to meet you. I am Sister Soera and you may call on me at the temple here whenever you may." Before he could ask her, she raised her free hand to still his question. "Prioress and canoness of a hermitage just without. I'm permitted my own cell in the temple dormer, and to use their library as I will. The Archprelate values my advice." She smiled, and Robart could see it was a satisfied smile, like a fat castle cat who just found the jug of fresh cream.

"Sister Soera," he repeated. It was a strange name, with more than a flavor of Vaerasa in it. He thanked her and she, unexpectedly, embraced him. Blinking back tears, he made his way toward the castle.

To Robart, Oldcastel seemed to be a fantasy of stone. It's ruinous bulk was half-hidden by curtains of witchmoss and ivy. Quickwood trees grew up out of the pavements and the baileys were all overgrown with tall grass. Yet, for all that, the place was well kept. There were no draughts in its many buildings, no leaks in its slate-and-lead roofs, and even the stairs to the wallwalk were in good repair: no worn or sagging stone where thousands of feet had tramped in bygone age.

The whole city bore the mark of Oldcastel. There were fields of clover hidden within the walls, and liveries for the horses of merchant and nobleman alike. There were clear fields for markets, half a handful of temples, large and small, and the First Temple where he had seen service even had a library. Rare it was to hear a lord or a knight speak of books, let alone to be near at hand on a place where they were stored and made. To lose all this to the pagan threat... it made Robart's skin chill. Gooseflesh stood out on his forearms at the thought.

When he returned to the great hall at the castle's heart, Highlord Marten was already deeply engaged in discussion of strategy with his lords and knights. A sprightly lord with mouse-brown hair and a deep frown stood by the great stone chair while Marten gave him a stern harangue. Robart ducked his head and crouched to stand behind the highlord's seat even as the Lord Castelar layed into this man.

"Lord Avan," said Marten Castelar, Highlord of the Southhold, "you have kin in Woodmarch, and kin too amongst Lord Andrau's people. Yet here you are, alone, with no help from Highlord Edgewood and no excuse as to where Andrau of Longspear is, though I sent the ban to him no less than a month ago." Robart noticed that when Highlord Marten was angry he did not raise his voice. He didn't shout, as Robart's father often had. His face didn't turn red. His eyes simply lit up, and his brows climbed up his forehead. For all that, he was a terrifying man when he was angry.

The lord, whom Robart presumed must be Lord Avan of Welling, folded his hands behind his back and bowed deeply. It was strange that Marten Castelar, one of the most powerful Highlords in the kingdom, wore simple roughspun and a woolen cloak and yet was perched upon a mighty seat of stone, while his chastised lord was dressed in fine crushed velvet lined with golden thread, a silver fountain sewn upon his breast. Yet it was Lord Avan Welling who did homage and whose face had turned beet-red.

"My lord, I cannot speak for my kindred, though I know they've often spoken for me." Lord Avan chewed his lip. "I've brought with me as many men as I dared take. Others, I've lent Lord Andrau to help him protect Kingsbrook Temple."

Marten's anger abated as quickly as it came. "Wise," said he. "And it may yet prove wisdom that Lord Andrau has not come. Kingsbrook is wealthier than all the rest of the Southhold, and there are no castles on the road from Seatower to the High Prelate's seat." He stroked his chin and noticed Robart in the same gesture. "You needn't be here for this, Robart of Hazelby," he said. "Go and take order from my wife, if you will."

Robart bowed at the waist. "I am yours to command, highlord."

This was the way of it for near on a week. Robart stayed near at hand to the Lady Halia and Lord Marten. He slept in the Temple Tower, in the highlord's very own chambers. He swept the floors, lit rushlights, refilled the long-wicked silver lamps with oil, beat the dust from the lord's sheets, fed the castle cats, and carried messages for the Highlord. This was the life of a servant: helping out in the boiling heat of the kitchen, hauling water for the baths. So this, then, was what it was to live in a lord's household. Better than toiling in the fields... but there was something strange about being so cheek-to-jowl with the gentry. Robart always felt uncomfortable when the Highlord spoke to him—and it was often. He balked and shivered when Marten gave him orders, though he learned not to look shocked or surprised. These were folk of a different world, and one he'd had no thought to interact with nor no desire, either.

One afternoon, while walking across the great bailey, Robart stumbled and dropped the wooden tray of hot bread he was carrying. The bread scattered amongst the flagstones. Dirt and moss stuck to the crisp crust. He grunted and got to his feet. Bolsom, the castle's baker, was certain to give him an earful when he came back for more. Worse, Highlord Marten and his knights would be late in getting their repast.

Robart bent to pick the bread from the ground. He pulled the hem of his tunic and made a pouch, placing each piece into it. It was then that he heard the laughter. It came from a lounging gaggle of men at arms who were sprawled upon the steps of the inner wallwalk. They were all dressed in leather tunics with leggings of the same, and they were spread upon the stone like cats lounging in the sunlight.

He ignored them. Often, it was, that in the market at Shieldcross he'd been forced to bear his silence while a knight or lord's man made some saucy joke at the expense of a farmer's daughter. Who was there to chastise them? A prelate, perhaps, if one was near to hand, but that was rare enough. A monk was even better, or a nun: Sister Soera might do. But there was no call for Robart of Hazelby to scold a man of the highlord; he never had, and like as not he never would. So he was silent as he crossed the yard. He ducked his head, so they might see his submission.

Trust them to take it as an invitation. No submission was enough for some men, and it was certainly not enough for these. As he made his way toward the baking ovens, an apple caught him on the side of the head. He went sprawling, the bread spilling from his tunic. His hands skidded against the cold flagstones, bouncing and scraping on the rough sandstone. Pain shot through his palms and knees. "Damnation," he muttered. He reached for the fallen loaves, gathering them up before he regained his feet.

"What was that, goodman?" a snide voice asked him. He turned to see it's source—one of the men-at-arms who was now standing. He held a peeled onion in his left hand, a bite taken from it. His eyes were piggy and narrow, his face covered by a patchy brown beard. "I heard you damn me to the hells."

Robart shook his head. "No offense meant, goodman soldier," he said. It galled him to back down, but not as much as a hiding or flogging would. This man was no nobleman, but he was in the employ of the highlord. It would be a fool's errand to cross him.

"No, villein, I reckoned not." The man smiled an unpleasant smile that did not quite reach his too-close eyes. Robart ducked his head and turned to go.

He heard them laughing again as he reached the narrow stair to the ovens. It lead through a crevice in the inner wall, down around a sharp bend in the hill, and to a courtyard all its own, complete with a barracks, a blacksmith, the kitchens, and the big brick ovens where the castle baking was done. Before he reached the third step, he heard the jingle of mail behind.

A woman's voice came to him. "Did you just throw that at one of the highlord's house servants, Clyde Piebald?" it asked. He paused. Who was this, now?

He crept on soft feet back up to the head of the stair and peered through the narrow archway. There in the yard stood a slender woman in a shirt of mail. Her legs were clad in leather-and-mail chausses, and she wore a golden knight's belt complete with sword about her hips. On either side of her there stood men in peaked caps, one with a nose-guard the other with a broken nose, both in quilted cotton.

The man-at-arms stood up straight as a spear and dropped the half-eaten onion. The woman gently toed the apple, in the yard's heart, that had struck Robart. "It was just a lark, lady."

"My lady," corrected the man with the broken nose. "She's the highlord's niece. Surely you knew that, patchbeard."

Clyde, the man-at-arms, bowed from the waist. "MY lady," he corrected, "It were only a lark. I didn't mean no harm."

"Well, you're lucky the man you struck has departed, else I would—"

Robart stepped forward. "He meant no harm, ladyship, I'm sure of't." He was intrigued; who was this woman knight?

When she turned to look at him, brows raised, he saw she could be no more than sixteen. "Truly? Well, then, no harm done. You can leave that," she pointed to the bread in his lap, "on the ground here. Clyde will go for you. Won't you Clyde?"

The man-at-arms swallowed slowly. "Yes, m'lady," he offered. When the woman turned away, Clyde gave Robart an evil glare.

"Good," said she. "You, goodman," and she gestured at Robart, "will accompany me to see my uncle. I assume he is in the hall?"

"Aye, ladyship, seeing to his council of war and planning his attack." Robart kept his eyes down, though the sight of a woman in armor begged them to rise. As they walked toward the great hall of Oldcastel, Robart murmured, "May I ask you, ladyship, who you are?"

"Lady Sorrel Oldcastel," the girl replied.

The Lady Sorrel had come with twelve knights of her own, and fifty leveemen. Highlord Marten was overjoyed to see his niece. That night, Prince Edwerd came to join the highlord at dinner. The highlord gave Robart pride of place and named him cupbearer to Lady Sorrel for the eve. This meant hours of helping prepare the food, shuttling goose and pork to the great hall, setting up the trestle tables on the open floor and the lord's table upon the dais, and doing the thousand other things reserved for domestics.

The prince of Yewland was a tall, dark-haired man with a sense of humor. Robart found himself laughing at the prince's jests even as he rushed back and forth to fill Lady Sorrel's wine. Sword-Captain Oro was at the high table as well, and Robart spent a few moments hovering around the Amerbman, hoping to hear of the mercenaries' search for Sire Hugo. Robart couldn't go home until Sire Hugo was brought to justice. But there was no talk of the missing knight—Prince Edwerd turned the conversation toward the war as the night went on.

"We must drive the Skraels off before the winter snows. My people are getting anxious, and I'm sure yours are as well, Marten."

Lady Sorrel gulped her wine. "They must return to their lands, soon," she said. "The harvest is coming. If the farmers are kept from their work, we'll none of us have anything to eat this winter. Skrael or Yewl."

"That's why we should strike now," Edwerd agreed. He was a handsome man, Robart supposed, and when he turned in profile he could almost see the king's face as it was stamped upon silver coins. The prince smiled at Lady Sorrel and they both turned to see Highlord Marten's response.

The highlord sighed and hung his head. "I was hoping for some better strategy than this," he complained. "But if we must attack Seatower... we must."

Lady Sorrel raised her empty cup and waved it in Robart's direction. "Goodman Robart!" she cried, "I am dry!"

"Well," Edwerd mused, "say that not in the earshot of a minstrel. Sounds a challenge, to me."

The girl shoved the prince bodily from her chair, laughing. Robart bowed and hurried off with his ewer to refill it at the buttery. As he passed through the candle-strewn chaos of the lower tables, someone struck him in the shin. He stumbled. The silver pitcher rolled beneath a bench. "Ohhhh," a slurred voice, faintly familiar, groaned. "My apologies goodman Robart... how clumsy."

Clyde Piebald, the patchbeard. It was he who struck out at Robart's shin. Robart stopped, his heart hammering in his chest. There was something iron in him that refused to bend. He turned to look at the patchbeard eye to eye. The man was seated, swaying in place, a cup of wine in his hand. His friends and the other men-at-arms were near, but they payed him no mind. They were laughing and telling tales to one another.

Robart imagined running this Clyde through. He had his knife, the man was drunk... but no. This was a free man. He was a serf of the highlord. To assault a free man in the highlord's service? It would be madness. So instead he bowed and said, "Thank you, goodman. I shall give your greetings to the Lady Sorrel."

"Aye! I see you serve the uptight bitch! What she needs is a good ramming, m'lad. Then she'd lay down that sword and serve as she ought."

The words fell like a bell's peals. Robart glanced at the platform where the young Lady Sorrel was eating with gusto and laughing with the prince. "Who d'ye think you are," he asked the drunken Clyde, "to say such things about a high and noble lady?"

"High and noble! And what're ye, her knight? Come now, goodman, go and bring her my greetings! Tell her I'm the man to storm her castle, and my cat-and-ram's as good as that black-haired princeling. At least I'd not have sat idle by why the Eastern whore took the crown. Eh?"

Black words against the Queen and Lady Sorrel both in one breath. Robart shook his head. He was by nature a peaceable man. But this beggared belief. "Goodman Clyde," he said, and his blood was racing fire as he put word to word and knew he invited trouble, "your cat-and-ram ain't got the hardwood needed for the task. Nor, do I think, the Queen or Lady Sorrel would enjoy the tickle of your child's beard."

Clyde's face flushed, then turned red. "Ye bastard villein, I shall teach ye humbleness. Why, because a lady saved ye this 'noon ye think ye've some right to be treated a man? Yer a worm, villein! A worm!"

The man-at-arms rose, shouting. His companions fell silent and turned to watch. The candlelit faces of half the hall were watching them now. Clyde balled his fist and swung. Robart took a step back. Clyde stumbled forward. Before wisdom could take hold, while his blood still beat like bellows-pumped fire, Roger made a fist of his own. He cuffed Clyde upon the brow, and the man went down like a felled tree.

"Think twice afore you insult a high-born lady, or a farmer," he said. The hall watched. Before the highlord forbade them, Clyde's friends jumped from their bench. One shoved Robart to the ground, another delivered a swift kick in the ribs. Robart groaned, covered himself, tried to roll away, but they were all around him. Blows fell like autumn rain. He fought back, struggling, but they had ironshod boots, and someone struck him with a truncheon.

"Enough!" Marten called. "Cease, or yield to the penalty!" There was a pause in the violence. Robart felt, rather than saw, the men draw back. Much of the damage was already done. Robart's body throbbed with pain.

He was escorted from the hall by Lady Sorrel's men and taken to the Temple Tower. A makeshift bed was given him, and a prelate to tend his wounds. He slept fitfully and woke all through the night. Sometimes when he opened his eyes the braziers were lit, other times the candles, and still others it was merely a starlit darkness. He was alternately hot and freezing.

When he woke, he saw it was Sister Soera tending him. She smiled sadly. "Harvestide is upon us," she told him, mopping the sweat from his brow. "You've broken a few bones. If the Divine is kind, they'll mend well." He grunted or gurgled—unable to make any other sound. His throat was parched.

"Harvest," he muttered. "Urem's over?"

"Long over," said Soera. "Did you lose track of time while you mended?"

He sat up. "It's not tomorrow?"

Sister Soera laughed. "It is, but it seems your yesterday is not the same as all else's. If you mean the day you were struck... it was a week or more ago."

Robart rubbed his head. "How...? The farm, sister. I must get back to the farm."

"As for how," the canonness said, "balm of meadowsweet mixed with nectars and milk of the Eastern flower. And as far for going back to your farm..." She shook her head. A lock of hair escaped from beneath her wimple. It snaked across her face, falling to rest on the bridge of her nose. "The Highlord moved against the Skraels, Robart. There's no road to Hazelby not littered with the dead."

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