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Journeys of the Warden of Sollet Castle
There was one of the little coastal ships that plied from Beng to Rotl, and back again, which people called the Mouse, and its captain they called the Woman Without a God, because she had once incautiously answered "None" when somebody asked her which god she looked to for protection. She had an old black dog with a gray muzzle, that had been with her as long as most people remembered, and so some would laugh and say the dog was her god, or what she had instead of one. But she made a fair living with her Mouse, carrying passengers and light cargo along the Coast, and there were more than a few people, in Beng or Rotl or on the waters of the Soll, who were neither afraid nor ashamed to call her friend.
One of these was the Warden of Sollet Castle, who every year rode down the Sollet in one of the river ships to Beng, disembarking with considerable pomp, and after his business there always sought the Mouse to carry him to Rotl. The two of them would sit on deck, or in the little crowded cabin, with the black dog asleep between their feet, and talk over the year's happenings and what they thought of them; and the Warden would bring out all the news of upriver (which indeed she had heard many times over from the shippers) and the Captain would give him all the news of the Coast (which indeed he had been hearing for two weeks past in Beng). And they would laugh and drink a little ale and speak of growing older, but each of them would find that the other seemed no older at all. And after three weeks in Rotl (for he had family there) the Warden would retrace his journey to Beng; but this timethere would be less, and less sociable, talk on board the Mouse -- there being less news for them to hash over, and the Warden having his mind bent forward on the tedious journey upriver by canal and road, and the Captain's eyes always occupied with the business of her vessel.
It was on the talkative leg of one of these shuttle voyages that the Warden brought out the news of his prisoner. This was a rare plum of a happening, and the Captain had been waiting with interest for him to mention it. "Now, Repnomar," (this was the Captain's name) "you'll never guess what's come to me from upstream," the Warden said proudly, and paused for her guesses.
"Bad weather, I suppose, but that wouldn't make you grin like a beaver," said the Captain.
"Bad weather on the Sollet is no news," said the Warden, grinning wider. "Though there was that flood that brought us down the raft-load of White People--"
"Shut up and have some more ale and out with it," said Repnomar, a little illogically but with no loss of meaning.
"It's not so different from that time. Let's see, five years ago was that?"
"More like six or seven. What did you get this time, a raft of pink people?"
"Just one, just one," said the Warden with relish. He had a deep, chuckling laugh that did the heart good.
Here the Captain excused herself to swear at some of her sailors concerning a matter of leeway, and the black dog (whose name was Broz) joined in with a dutiful growl; though indeed, in good weather, this coasting voyage was so routine a business that all hands could have done their share of it blindfold, curses and growls included. "Now, Lethgro," said the Captain, leaning back again (for the Mouse was so small that she had not even left her seat by the taffrail to deliver her cursing), "now, Lethgro, get it out and get it over. What kind of savage have the waters washed down to Sollet Castle?"
And Lethgro the Warden -- with a little more urging, to bring out the full savor -- told her how the Sollet shippers had delivered to him a man unlike any ever known to have been seen between the Mountains and the Soll. It was clear that he had been driven out from his own place, wherever that was; and his own name, though he tried hard to teach it to them, was so uncouth in sound, and required such uncomfortable and unseemly twistings of the mouth to pronounce, that the Warden and his people soon gave it up and called him simply the Exile. He seemed well enough satisfied with that.
Indeed he was a pert little person, cheerful and uncomplaining so far as his own affairs went, but full of question and suggestion for all else. It was hard, what with his size and his clumsy speech (for he knew little or nothing of any familiar language, and talked in scraps and guesses) and the utter innocence and ignorance of some of his questions -- it was hard not to think of him as a child. He asked, for instance, why ships always went downstream (as if a ship could float against the current), and why the light never moved across the sky (to which the Warden had replied, "For the same reason, I suppose, that Sollet Castle doesn't get up and walk to Beng and back again," having his journey on his mind).
All things seemed strange to the Exile: the packtrains of sheep moving slowly up the road with their loads of basketry and grain, the great lografts sweeping down-Sollet between the lumber ships, unpainted wood stark white against the dull pink of the muddy river, the hunters with their dogs. He delighted to watch the half-grown pups scrambling up trees with excited yips and jumping clumsily down again, and the river birds dipping and skimming over the waves. The Warden fancied sometimes that the strangeness of the Exile's view (in which the commonest things, it seemed, looked wondrous) was somehow due to the strangeness of his eyes. These were small and pale, but with great pupils that were as round as crow's eggs and had the unsettling property of changing size.
However it was, the little man was a source of much interest in Sollet Castle. He wanted to know all its ins and outs and turnings, which was natural enough in a prisoner looking for escape, but in him seemed so guileless that the Warden was hard put not to tell him more than was proper. Then, too, misshapen though he was, it was a deformity more to raise kindly laughter than disgust, at any rate after the first blink. Hunched and scrunched, and limping on his bandy legs, he was like a great good-natured toad who had recently learned wisdom and decided to be a man.
So he paced limpingly up and down his cell, bright-eyed and patient, and gazed hourlong from its window, his thick chin on the sill, and most often dined with the Warden and entertained him with his questions. Once it had been made clear to him that he must be kept there till the Warden could consult in Beng and in Rotl, he raised no further objections and showed no sign of resentment; only asking, from time to time, questions that showed a keen interest in what the results of that consultation might be. These the Warden did not like to answer, since the chances were that (unless far more information should be forthcoming than seemed likely) the Exile would be imprisoned in Sollet Castle till he died, or perhaps be done away with at once, to save the upkeep. "For after all, Repnomar," said the Warden, "the only thing clear is that there's a nation of crippled dwarves somewhere up the Sollet; and if he's not here as a spy, he'll be looking for help to make his way back to the place he was chased out of; and either way leads to war and troubles." For Warden Lethgro was a peaceful man.
"There you have it again," said Repnomar earnestly, with the solid joy of one confirmed in an old argument. "Doesn't this prove to you, Lethgro, that there are nations far upstream, and even beyond the Mountains?"
"Far upstream, I don't argue with you," answered the Warden, chuckling. "I've seen too much come down the Sollet. Beyond the Mountains, how could that be? As well say beyond the clouds. And you know as sure as I do that water runs downhill. The whole Sollet and all its streams flow from the Mountains. How could there be any river beyond them? And how could there be a nation without a river?"
"I'm glad to hear you admit that water runs downhill," said the Captain, veering to a tack still more congenial to her than the Mountain one. "You grant, then, that the Current across the Soll must lead to some outlet?"
"Maybe to a leak in the bottom, like the current in a leaky ale-can," said the Warden unpropidously. "If there is a bottom. Or maybe it goes round and round, like the rings of a whirlpool."
"And slopes you down to drowning in the middle?" Repnomar cried. "You're a cheerful friend to have on board a boat!" She rose and stretched herself, and old Broz thumped his tail, tipped with white hairs like a dipped paintbrush. "Your stories make me restless, Lethgro. One of these days I'm going to try it."
"It's the length of your legs that makes you restless," said the Warden, grumping a tittle into his ale. "You worry me with your nonsense, Rep. I like to feel I'm sailing with a prudent captain, not a harebrained daredevil."
"Well, stay on land, if you're afraid of ever getting your feet wet," said Repnomar rudely. "There's a road from Beng to Rotl, and from Rotl to Beng."
The Warden groaned, for the prospect of the journey upriver from Beng to Sollet Castle always weighed on him, and he preferred not to contemplate another on the top of it. He did not much enjoy plodding through the hills of the Middle Sollet country, breathing the dust raised by the laden packsheep; but still worse, in his opinion, was to sit idle on the deck of a canal boat, slowly hauled through the dead level of the Lower Sollet, where as far as eye could see there was nothing but the rich purple of ripening grain brushed and dimpled by the wind.
By now they had moved almost out of sight of land, only a gleam of cliffs showing on the horizon; for the winds of the year had risen early (as everyone agreed), and already there was such an offshore breeze along the Coast that the little Mouse was carried far out, and would have to tack patiently back to Rotl. This was nothing, of course, to what she would feel at the height of the season; and that was nothing -- so the Warden would tell the Captain -- to the great winds that boomed down the Sollet, lifting trees like straws and roofs like handkerchiefs; but the Captain would always reply with some scorn that there was a world of difference between a river and the open Soll, regardless of the speed of the wind.
"You know there's no vessel I'd rather sail on than the Mouse," the Warden began soothingly, and paused as the Captain, who had been about to sit down again, straightened herself and squinted high into the wind. "What is it?" he asked somewhat anxiously; for in his judgement what came on the wind was usually trouble.
"Crow," Repnomar replied in brief; and she waved her long right arm in a slow arc overhead, and stood there, squinting and waving, while Warden Lethgro peered here and there in the blank sky and chanced at last on a sailing fleck of black. Presently the crow came coasting in, landed in a ruffle of feathers on the rigging, preened itself while Repnomar swore, and then flapped and hopped downward by stages and came pacing across the narrow deck with the dignity of a town councilor, while all the crew gave it room and the Captain waited, for shipcrows are spirited and touchy birds and must have their due.
"What's the news?" Lethgro asked the Captain, as she stooped and lifted the bird and undid the rolled message from its leg. The bad news, was the thought in his mind, but he schooled his tongue to turn away the omen.
"Whatever it is, it's for you," the Captain answered, and handed it to him. It was well known that Warden Lethgro always traveled on the Mouse, and thus natural that any word for him that reached the message station at Beng harbor would be entrusted to one of Captain Repnomar's crows.
Now the Warden groaned aloud as he read, and Repnomar blinked her eyes in sympathy, for in fact she had taken the gist of the message before she passed it to him. "Well," he said resignedly, handing it back to her to read with more leisure, "they'll have had the news in Rotl too. I must make my report and take my disgrace. And then there's work to do."
"Where will you search for him?" the Captain asked, for the news was nothing less than the escape of the Exile from Sollet Castle, not long after the Warden began his journey downriver; and the Warden answered gloomily, "Well, if he can fly, I suppose we must search everywhere the wind goes."
Now, it was true in a way that the Exile had flown from his high window in Sollet Castle, as a buzzard flies with tilting wings that seem to do no work at all; but this did not prove -- so the Warden was to argue patiently and long in Rotl, and again with less patience in Beng -- this did not prove that he stood high in the favor of some outlandish god, still less that he was such a god himself, but only that he was a small, light man and that the Sollet winds were strong. "Which till now," the Warden added with exasperation, "no one has ever doubted."
"The question, Warden Lethgro," said one of the councilors severely, "is why, if you knew these things, you gave him an unbarred window and cloth enough to make his wing, or his sail, or his kite, as you choose to call it from one moment to the next."
"There are no bars," said Lethgro, "on Sollet Castle windows, and no prisoner has ever escaped before."
"Which would seem to be a miracle," observed another councilor drily.
"Under that window," went on Lethgro, when he had champed his jaws together hard and relaxed them again with some difficulty, "runs a parapet always patrolled by my best guards."
"Whom you stationed there, it seems, to gaze at this devil while he flew over their heads and down the Sollet," remarked one councilor, while another murmured to her neighbor, "Those are his best guards, mind you."
"They shot at him," said Lethgro, "and it's certain that arrows pierced his kite-sail--"
"Or wing-kite," interrupted a gray-bearded councilor who had sat silent till now, and laughed mightily.
"--And possible that one at least struck him. He may be wounded. Indeed, he may be dead."
"And the cloth, Warden Lethgro," pursued the first councilor; "why did he have so much cloth?"
"It was coverings from his bed," answered Lethgro. "He was always cold, and needed more bedclothes than an ordinary man."
"And he complained so pitifully that you had mercy on him and gave him more than a prisoner's just due?"
"He complained not at all, but I saw that he was cold," said Lethgro, and cursed himself at once for a fool and an honest man; for the councilor who had mocked at his guards said again to her neighbor, "A very helpful Warden to his prisoners."
But the upshot of all the talking was that Lethgro was perhaps not to be degraded of his post if he could bring back the Exile, or at any rate his head, and if no war with unknown nations, or visitation of unknown gods, resulted. "And that 'perhaps,' " said Lethgro morosely, when he sat again with Repnomar by the Mouse's rail, "is the worst word in a bad lot."
" 'Perhaps not' is better than 'certainly,' " said Repnomar, to whom chance was like weather, a thing to be used, and impossible to escape or do without.
The Warden sighed deeply. "And then too," he said, "it was no easy thing he did. First manhandling that wing, or kite--"
"Sail, I would call it," said Repnomar, who had heard much of it by this time.
"--Onto the window ledge, with the guards always passing just below; and then diving into the air, not knowing surely if the thing would carry him past the parapet, or let him crash on the road below, and likeliest anyway to fall into the Sollet, or be riddled with arrows, or at best be caught in the branches of some tree."
"Either he knew well what he could do with his sail," said the Captain, "or he wanted his freedom very badly." And added after a moment's thought, "Likely both."
The Warden sighed and said nothing. The truth was that he felt betrayed by the Exile, toward whom he had had no feelings but friendly ones; and yet deprived of the satisfaction of blaming him, for a prisoner who sees a way out has surely no obligation to stay imprisoned. Also, though Lethgro had defended his guards to the councils of Beng and Rotl, he felt in his heart that they could have done better, and this weighed upon him sadly. He felt, too, that every hour spent in talk would be held against him as an hour wasted, and yet there was nothing more profitable to be done, unless there was profit in rushing up and down the Sollet, which he doubted. He had already set every man and woman he could muster or borrow to combing the woods and shorelines for any trace of the Exile, squads of searchers working down both banks from Sollet Castle to meet others working up from Beng. Rewards had been offered in Beng and Rotl, as upriver at Castle Wharf, and inspectors waited at every landing to greet every river ship, so that the Warden told himself he had a right to sit for an hour in Beng harbor, while the Mouse waited for new cargo, and talk to Repnomar, who for all her arguing did not reproach him for things not much his fault.
They were alone on board, and indeed alone at the pier; for it was a festival time (which put the Warden into a still gloomier frame of mind), so that there would be no loading for some hours, and Repnomar (having no taste for this particular festival) had chosen to stay on guard while all her crew joined the celebration, and the captains of the two other small vessels moored at this pier, trusting her to keep good watch (for the Mouse lay between them) had likewise gone off with their whole crews. All the waterfront was quiet, so far as human sounds went, with only the peaceful noises of wind and water, birds going about their business, and the occasional yap of a dog; but from inland, deep in the city, they could hear the cries and music of festival.
"It's a good time," said Repnomar, seeing that the Warden had no wish to speak further of the Exile at present, "for pilferers and sneak thieves."
Just then Broz set up the furious barking he reserved for those he took to be pirates, more urgent and threatening than his sneak-thief bark. The Captain sprang up to investigate, and the Warden followed, glad enough to have other troubles than his own to look to. It was not on board the Mouse that this trouble lay, but on the vessel moored at her landward side, a taller, lengthier ship, with a prayer against pirates painted along its bulwarks in green. Someone was in the act of climbing over these bulwarks, prayer and all, and in spite of Broz's objections. Repnomar hailed this intruder with a bellow that seemed to transfix him like an arrowshaft, for he jerked hard and hung quivering for a moment; but instead of falling back into the water, he heaved himself up and onto the deck with one last effort.
By that time the Captain was already on the pier, and Broz, considering his duty nearly done, had subsided into a low growling; but Warden Lethgro had not moved from the Mouse's rail, which he clenched with a violent hand. His face was dark with anger and his back stiff with dignity, and when a tuft of the intruder's hair appeared above the gunwale, he uttered a bellow that put Repnomar's to shame. "Come here!" was what he shouted in his wrath.
Repnomar paused for a scant moment, with her foot on her neighbor's gangplank. At first sight she had taken the intruder for some thieving or frolicking child of the town; but neither Broz nor the Warden would have raised such an outcry for such a cause. So she went on assured in mind, and as soon as she caught sight of the dodging figure among the ropes and barrels she shouted out, "The Warden is your only friend!" and the Warden chimed in with another "Come here!" (not so loud this time but no less firm) and Broz with a throatier growl.
He came out then from his cover and stood before her, most forlorn to look at, bedraggled as he was, and ugly, and limping. But he nodded his head and essayed a smile, though his strange face under his tangled hair showed pinched and wild. The Captain gripped him by the arm and led him back to her ship, where she had to shout Broz into silence, and stood him like a naughty child before the Warden. When she let go his arm, he reeled, and sank wet and senseless to the deck, and "Poor Exile," said the Warden; "there's blood on his shirt."
Copyright © 1988 by M.J. Engh