Bian -21- Charcoal for the Hearths

End of the journey?

by Erin Halfelven


Chapter 21 - Charcoal for the Hearths
We rode the rest of the way to the gates of Lundenna in fitful morning sunlight. The rain had stopped and impossible landscapes featuring foggy castles and misty forests towered over us. A blue sky the color of forgotten lakes showed in rifts and patches.

It almost hurt to feel so alive.

Snippets of ground fog appeared and disappeared and intense local showers dampened the pavement of the ancient road now and then. The horses moved with spirit, enjoying the day as much as their riders were. We traveled at a comfortable walk through fields and woodlands that were nowhere deserted but grew increasingly busy as we approached the city. Twice we passed through sizeable towns that lacked official weghusen but had taverns and inns in plenty.

We had been through a fight together, the eight of us. People had tried to kill us and we still lived. The intensity of the experience made me dizzy. Magic roads, dream interviews with gods, a gun that reloads itself, seeing with my eyes closed, walking around in a body that wasn’t my own—there could be no explanation for everything that had happened.

I had to accept that much and go on doing what I needed to do. Would I ever be able to go back to being Gus Gallant? Or was I Alenna Docht Adelwalt now and for the rest of my life? I shook my head. If it could be done, it could be undone; I just had to find out how. I needed answers, I needed to know so much.

I had to start somewhere. “How many people live in Lundenna?” I asked Rotgar, looking up at him. He loomed over me on his tall charger because I was back on my own horse instead of the attenuated Easterling racer Valto had loaned me last night. My Honey was as much smaller than Rotgar’s Froggie as I was smaller than the nobleman from Proits himself.

Valto, riding on the other side of me answered first. “Fifty thousand, perhaps more. And about that many again in the towns and hamlets no more than a league from its walls.”

I hadn’t wanted Valto to answer. He’d been trying to boss me around since breakfast. After what we’d been through together, I loved him like the brother Gus had never had. But he was Alenna’s older brother, and I wasn’t really Alenna and this whole thing was because I was running away from Orley Adelwalt’s plans to marry the real Alenna off to Duke Awful for political advantage.

Duke Awful wasn’t his real name; he was Ondakong Yuvil (which I realized with some part of my borrowed memory was actually spelled Eovil), a sort of junior ruler of Esvelk, one of the five Bloddish kingdoms. Valto had been sent to fetch me back for the wedding, and the solidarity we had shared because of the fight in the darkness was getting in the way of me telling him where to stuff it.

“What do they all do in Lundenna?” I asked. Fifty thousand didn’t seem all that much, San Bernardino was four times that size and didn’t amount to much even just in California but here and now, Lundenna was the biggest city on this island.

“Steal,” said Zenner behind us, riding alongside alongside Lillakatye and Kilda. “They are great thieves. They steal from each other and from the Saxons and the Bloddings and Valesings and most of all from Rema.”

“Zenner is a nobleman,” said Lilla. “He doesn’t like commoners getting a cut of the plunder.” That got a laugh.

Rotgar laughed hardest. I’d found out from the others that he had the highest rank among us, son of the Keyning of Proits, an area on the continent as big as all five Bloddish kingdoms put together; younger son by the junior wife but still. Through his mother, he had a claim to one of the northern earldoms and the title of Haltine of Oberumber, one notch below Alenna’s father’s rank as Orley of Moleena.

Zenner grinned but denied being a nobleman himself. “I’m just a jumped-up yeoman, a civil servant.” That last he said in Remice because Bloddish didn’t have the words. “A thrall to the great hall,” he said, trying to find a phrase.

“A flunky,” Lillakatye put in and it took me a second to realize that, again, she had displayed her knowledge of English. Bloddish had a word, hlanger, that meant a companion of lesser rank, a sidekick, but she had definitely used English.

“They are traders, buyers and sellers,” said Valto before I could decide to react to Lilla’s anachronism. “And they make some things themselves.”

Rotgar nodded. “Books. They gather wisdom to them from everywhere and write it down. Oxford and Jorvik and Portsmuth and Bly, all send their wisest writings to Lundenna to be doubled and trebled and folded into books.” I got the gist of that but wondered at the details.

“Maps,” agreed Zenner. “Outside of Altarema and Yezbuul, the best maps are drawn in Lundenna.”

“Leather,” Kilda piped up, directly behind me. “Everyone on Blodsey eats meat when they can, but in Lundenna, they make leather from the hides.” The Bloddish word for leather sounded the same as the English one, I noted. Kilda added, “That’s why you can smell the place ten leagues away if the wind likes you not.” More laughter from everyone.

I had noticed the smell when the wind was from the south since we left our last stop, a smokey, acrid reek like burning garbage. It gave me pause to think of that—what did fifty thousand people in a medieval city do with their garbage? I bet they made tons of that, too.

“They craft a lot of leather goods, and vellum for making books. And cloth of wool and linen,” Rotgar agreed with Kilda. He frowned. “It is a rich city but it has more poor folk than you would think. People so poor, they have to make coins of iron and lead so they can buy and sell the filth they need to stay alive.” No one laughed at that.

“Speaking of metal,” said Zenner, “they have foundries for iron and brass. And they make all kinds of ship’s fittings, rope and sails and candles and casks. Everything but the masts and the ships themselves.”

“Why don’t they make ships?” I asked. “If they do a lot of shipping?”

“Look around,” said Rotgar, waving at the countryside. “There are not enough tall trees near to the city for shipbuilding.”

Before the last weghus, we had passed lots of woods and even gone through patches of real forest but the nearer we got to Lundenna, the fewer trees we saw and what few there were grew in the regular plantings of orchards. And more and more, I saw what looked like clay mounds topped with stubby chimneys from which wisps of smoke trailed to the sky. Having seen sundance on the pavement in a desert summer, I recognized the wavy pattern in the air above these mounds as heat. And near every one of the clay covered structures, scraggly patches of brush grew barely more than head high, ten or twelve feet at the most.

“What are those things?” I asked, pointing at a mound a few hundred yards off the road.

“Collyards,” said Valto. “They heat the wood they cut from the coppices to turn into coal for the city. It burns cleaner and hotter than wood itself.” Charcoal I realized he meant. Coppices I guessed were the patches of brush allowed to grow tall enough to make fuel.

I watched boys and old men tear one of the mounds apart. It must have cooled considerably because they didn’t get burned doing that. Some of them loaded bundles of the charcoal on their backs and headed off toward the city, others stacked loads into carts pulled by goats or dogs. We had already passed several such travelers and the fresh coal had a not completely unpleasant smell but what a hard, filthy and probably sometimes dangerous way to make a living.

I looked around at our little party again. Even Cordle and Lang, our hireswords, were dressed in finery compared to most of the people we had passed on the road. Myself, I wore a lynx fur over a woolen gown and had a linen gown under that. Riches almost beyond imagining for the dirty-faced boys who fed the city’s need for fuel. And every one of the horses we rode were probably worth as much as these people made in a lifetime, let alone the fabulous Easterling racers, The Black and The Gray, that had cost Valto a total of four hundred gold marks.

Kilda, my servant, dressed almost as fine as myself, earned eight marks a year for her wages. I had asked. That was probably ten times as much as the coal-boys were paid who mostly had to provide their own food, clothing and shelter. Kilda ate what I ate and slept in my room, and besides her wages got two suits of clothes a year and boots, and every other year a new coat. The boys who were not barefoot wore rags on their feet in the early spring cold.

What pleasure I had taken in the day faded more than a little and we all rode in silence for a time.

The hamlets and towns around Lundenna grew closer together the nearer we got to the city walls and the old Imperial road we were using served as the main street for most of these communities, something that was discouraged further out along its length. About a mile or more from the gates, in the midst of a town, another high road came in from the west and joined the one we were traveling. The road got about 50% wider but the traffic more than doubled.

We also saw more mounted and armored men, some wearing the livery of Medley, the Bloddish kingdom that included Moleena and the area north and west of Lundenna. Their badge was five blue stars on a white field with the middle one set off by red bars and their coats all had red sleeves with white and blue trim. I looked at them warily but they couldn’t know I was a fugitive, we had traveled faster than any news could have reached here.

Other armored men wore the Lundenna symbols: a red sword, point up, crossed by a sheaf of wheat. Men wearing a patch with a blue field, a gold star and a white ship represented Sudaryk, the south Bloddish kingdom.

No one got in our way, no one stopped or hindered us and we proceeded to the gates of the City where there was, naturally, a line waiting to get in. There were actually four gates, two for getting in and two for getting out. When the two inbound gates were both open, the entrance was about thirty feet wide. Armored men in Lundenna markings lounged around the gate, carrying axes mounted on long poles.

A man sat on a platform collecting fees for entering. If you were a local or a tradesman with regular business in the city, you just showed him the badge you paid for by the month and went on inside. Otherwise, it was like entering the weghus but more expensive and probably especially so since we were obviously a party of nobles. A groat for each horse and rider and two pence apiece for each extra horse. Four times what we had paid at the weghus.

But cheap enough. Once inside, the only laws that would apply to us were city laws. No one, not Alenna’s father, mother or fiance; not Zenner’s boss, the Duke of Shanghai, or the boss further up that ladder, the Remice Emperor or any other mundane force could demand that the city arrest me and hand me over. I would have a safe place to stop and think things over and find things out about my situation. Maybe find a way back to my own world.

Rotgar paid at the gate, Valto ignored several outrageously cheap offers for his two racing horses, Lillakatye and Kilda pressed close to me on either side and we went thru the gate into a wide courtyard, kind of like the central plaza at Disneyland but without the statues of Walt and Mickey.

I noted that the transaction had been conducted in Bloddish, more or less, but a different accent than I had heard so far. Despite being reckoned a Saxon city, the language of the conquerors prevailed in Lundenna.

“What do we do now?” I asked.

Rotgar spoke first. “Find an inn and something to drink.”

Zenner put in, “We all have contacts in the City, lady. We get in touch with our people and make plans.”

I looked at him with a bit of suspicion dawning. “You’re free of the oath to me now.” I glanced at Valto. “You, too.”

They both nodded but appeared ready to take no other action.

Valto spoke first. “I’ll be staying with you, swester. If for no other reason than to watch him.” He indicated Zenner with a wave of his hand and a sly grin.

The Remice factotum grinned back. “And my purposes would not be served if your brother were to snatch you, so I’ll be watching him.”

Lillakatye snorted and Rotgar laughed out loud.

I shook my head, not displeased but still a bit worried.

While we were negotiating the gates, the fitful sun had come out again and the light had that clear golden quality of morning. I wanted to get a better look, so I pushed the hood of my coat back and shook out my hair, of which I had an oversupply. I was just beginning to feel a new optimism when I noticed several people in the street staring at me.

Someone pointed. Someone else shouted, “Baldur’s licht! Den heo!” in the peculiar accented Bloddish that was the Lundenna common speech. “Baldur’s light! It’s her!”

Her who? Me?

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