Mourning has ended, and Halwende must provide justice, low and (perhaps) high.
“I am not my father,” Halwende repeated for the fifth time at least. What of the late duke’s clothes could be re-made to fit, or used for other things, Halwende had already ordered sent to Mistress Kai for washing and then to be re-made to fit him. The others. . . The embroidery and colors didn’t suit him, and he wasn’t born to Marsdaam, so those certainly should go into storage or have the stitching undone and the fine threads put to other uses, or saved. Many of the ornate furnishings had also been removed from both the ducal chambers and the receiving rooms. Sturdier but still excellent tables, chairs, and lamp-stands, as well as banners, now resided in Halwende’s official spaces.
“No, your grace, you are not, but this,” Odo waved his hand at Halwende’s current clothing, “is not suitable for a duke’s court.” The material alone in the green-dyed leather jerkin and woolen trews, creamy shirt of finest schaef wool, and tan-embroidered dark brown boots cost the price of two very good ovsta ewes in lamb. The embroidery on shirt and jerkin added another un-bred ovsta to the bill. And they had been remade from Halwende’s older clothes, as well as from things found in storage. The servant wrung his hands. “You must show your strength and wealth, your grace!”
“To whom?” His voice sounded as sour as verjuice in his ears. “My court, my ways. I am not greeting or entertaining his majesty today, Odo.” Halwende slung the light brown, tooled leather belt around his waist. He settled the hilt of his long knife so that it would not stab his ribs when he sat, and stalked out of the ducal bed chamber. He hadn’t carried it when he led worship, but he needed it now. He also needed to pension off Odo and find someone who knew clothes but would not be such a sore-under-the-yoke. I am not Duke Hal.
For one thing, Duke Hal had been married when he came to the ducal honors. Halwende needed to do that, and sire an heir, as soon as possible. He and Malita of Kamsicht had exchanged letters and tokens of betrothal, but she lacked a year and three-quarters to being of marriage age. As he strode up the corridor, two passing maidservants stopped and curtsied as he passed. He waved an acknowledgement and continued on. There’s nothing stopping you from taking a leman a little voice in his head reminded him. The excessive amount of the taller maid’s charms revealed by her bodice had something to do with that idea.
Nothing stopped him except the problem of bastards, and the mess of servants competing to warm his bed, then acting superior and trying to order around the other women. He’d heard stories. No. Duke Hal had a point about finding a professional if I want that sort of company. Which was not what he needed to be thinking about right now! Now he had reports to read, news from the north and west to hear, and a property dispute to settle. Marsdaam’s Son settled trade disputes and confirmed that weights and measures met proper standards, but that didn’t help when the wool was still on the schaef.
The chamberlain met him at the door of the office. “Your Grace, the petitioners are here,” he said. He looked tired already. Halwende raised his eyebrows. “They are most enthusiastic in their desire for a solution.”
“Ah. Then I will see them first.” They were about to knife each other, or at the least get into a fight and cause further trouble, and Scaz wanted them out of the way before they got blood on his floors and walls. Or something similar. Halwende undid the peace-strap on his knife and went into the receiving chamber.
He sat in an older, plainer chair than Duke Hal had used. Unlike his father’s ornate seat, this one fit Halwende’s smaller frame. The darker wood with inlaid white-bark valke flying up the sides matched his personality as well. A scribe already waited in a corner, out of the way, pens and ink at the ready. The door opened and three men, escorted by as many men-at-arms, boiled into the room. The commotion flowed toward him and showed little sign of ceasing. He stood. “Enough!”
The roar, and the butt-ends of the arms-men’s spears, muted the argument. Halwende sat once more. He pointed to the sturdy, square faced man in a schaef-man’s smock and boots, and faded brown flat hat. “What is the dispute? You first, and only one at a time or I will claim the schaef and toss all of you out.”
All three glared at him, but quiet accompanied their glares. The schaef-man scuffed the floor with one boot, then said, “M’lor’, Henk claims three yearlin’ schaef what are mine. Says t’ ewe had triplets. I bargained for his ram t’ tupp t’ ewe, one lamb fer each of us.”
Halwende let his eyes close a little. The schaef-man had contracted for the ram to service his ewe, the price being one lamb of the two. The ram’s owner wanted three lambs, because the ewe had delivered three lambs? That made no sense. He opened his eyes. “And you, Henk, what say you?”
The skinny, thin-shanked man scowled from under a nose that couldn’t decide which direction it wished to go. “M’lor, we contracted for m’ ram t’ do his ewe. One lamb a piece, aye. But his man abused m’ram, an’ it could nae serve for three eight-days after. Th’ ewe had three, and I claim mine, plus two for th’ ram bein’ hurt.”
What would take an animal down for three eight-days but not kill it outright? Leg bruises from hitting the ram instead of using a leg-crook? He didn’t know much about schaef, but even he knew that a man used a crook to catch, not beat. He studied the man standing behind the other two. Something about him . . . Halwende caught the eye of the closest arms-man and moved the fingers of his left hand. The guard nodded and shifted a little closer to the shabby gent.
“And you, in the brown smock. What is your part in this?”
The other men stepped to the sides, both turning and glaring at the stoop-shouldered figure in the worn and patched brown smock and patched trews. The man gulped, glancing side to side, eyes never still. “Ah, m’lord, I help Mak w’ his schaef. I witnessed th’ bargain an th’ servicin’.”
Something in the witness’ voice caught Halwende’s attention. Something shifted, something that should not be here. He stayed relaxed, but drew a little magic from inside himself, battle magic. “What was the bargain?”
“A lamb for th’ service, m’lord.”
“And if the ram’s efforts failed?”
The witness gulped again. “Ah, m’lord, I don’t recall.” His voice wavered a little as he spoke. “May not have been part of th’ contract m’lord.”
He’s lying. That’s always part of the contract. I’ve seen it. He didn’t press. Instead he said, “What happened with the ram and the ewe?”
The witness shifted his feet, eyes on the floor, and wiped his palms on his smock. He looked up and Halwende caught his eyes. The man said, “M’lord, ah, nowt happened. Th’ ram serviced th’ ewe and went his way.”
Halwende didn’t look away. “The ram did his duty and left. Did he try to cover any other ewes?”
The man started to shake, eyes still locked on Halwende’s own. “Nae! Yoorst my witness, th’ ram left, went home on his own.”
Faint green settled over the scene like a thin veil. “A ram walked to his owner’s farm without guard or guide?” Halwende heard his voice, yet not his voice, asking.
All three men stared at him, then went to one knee. The witness dropped to both knees, then onto his belly. “Mercy, please, mercy! Th’ ram, while Master Henk was distracted, th’ ram snuffed at another ewe. I tried to help, chased th’ ram to th’ second ewe, tapped him wi’ my stick to speed him. Not so hard’s to hurt, I promise!”
“You have sworn falsely once,” Halwende said, vision now clear. “Why should I trust your word now?”
“He made me,” the witness yelped, pointing to Mak. “Wanted more than th’ bargain. I couldn’ disobey.”
Before Halwende could ask another question, Mak drew something from a pouch on his belt and tossed it toward Halwende. Halwende dodged and threw magic at it, smashed it to the floor, shattered the thing. A charred spot the size of his hand appeared on the reddish-brown wood. He sat again.
Pain spiked from temple to temple. Red filled his vision. The guards grabbed Mak and hauled him back, away from the others. Halwende rested his hands on the arms of the chair and breathed, calming himself and willing away the exhaustion and pain. They faded with his anger. “Who sold you the magic?” he demanded.
Mak babbled, almost soiled himself with fear. The guards shook him. “Man from Wilteer land, gave to me, said t’would bring justice, came from temple on Wilteer land. Gave me t’other charm to have ewes give triple.”
Red replaced green, and Halwende fought himself for control. “And did the ewes have triplets?”
“Two did. T’other one died in the borning, delivered a curse beast. Th’ priestess of Yoorst blessed all th’ beasts, just in case, said something seemed off.”
“Henk, take three lambs, and have the priestesses of Yoorst and the Scavenger both bless the animals. You,” Halwende pointed to the cowering witness. “Find a better master, and pay Yoorst’s temple the forfeit for swearing false oaths, in restitution for hurting one of His beasts.”
“Mak.” Halwende stood, now that he could do so without falling over. “Your flock is forfeit, as are half your land. Guards, take him to the courtyard and do as the law commands. Then you have four days to leave Valke lands. After that you are out-law. Your family may remain and farm on what remains of your property.”
The men dragged Mak away before he could protest. The others slunk out of the chamber. Halwende sat once more, then leaned forward, head in hands. He breathed through his nose and out through his mouth until the urge to be sick passed. Then he stood. The world remained steady, so he walked with slow steps to the scribe’s table. She gulped and offered him a pen. He dipped it in ink, signed the judgement, then waited as she dripped a bit of wax onto the page. He sealed it. “There will be no further cases today,” he told her.
“Ye-, ye-, yes, your grace. Thank you, your grace.” She snuffed the taper and lifted the page, tilting it a little to see if the ink had fully dried. He left her to her work.
He made it to the ducal chamber, then fell onto the bed, rolled onto his back, and covered his eyes with one arm. “I ha—” He caught himself. “I fail to see why anyone desired to have battle magic,” he whispered.
(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved