Flies buzzed in the hot summer air as Edward tugged on the short tether and clucked his tongue to encourage the old ox. "Come on, Clyde. Pull." The ox-cart moved too slowly to raise much dust, yet the snail's pace exposed Edward to the unrelenting sun and left his throat as dry as wind-blown sand. Their slow progress bored him, and were it not for the loud screech from each turn of the left wheel, he might nod off.
Old Clyde leaned dutifully into the yoke. The cart started up the deeply rutted track toward the Duke's castle on the hill. The creaking wheel grated on Edward's brain and made it hard to think straight. Maybe he could beg some grease from the castle cook and silence the axle. Riding back in relative peace would make the trip to the castle worthwhile.
I hate going into the castle grounds, past those squires with their holier-than-thou attitudes, he thought.
The squires--knights in training--practiced with wooden swords and shields, with blunted lances, with wooden knives and wooden "maces" wrapped in twine and without spikes. They rode barrels attached atop a short axle between two wagon wheels. The contraption was pushed by two other squires, who by manipulating the push-pole up and down, could simulate the up and down movement of a horse. The squire who rode the barrel urged his companions to greater speed and cursed them to keep him steady. Two such contrivances were used to hold tourneys in which well-padded squires tried to knock an opponent off a second barrel-horse. It had some of the excitement of a real joust and often drew nearly as many yelling spectators.
None were much older than Edward's own twenty years, but acted as superior as spurred knights. He braced himself against taunts about being dull and stupid. It would take all his control to keep from charging into them.
They would be furious if they knew Edward's father had taught him to read and write. Or that he and two other village boys practiced almost daily with quarterstaffs and various work implements they could use as weapons.
His friend, Claude, was quite good with the husking flails--two sticks about the length of a man's forearm, connected by a few inches of stout cord. Theo, on the other hand, could spin his bullock pole so fast it whistled. Edward's own favorite was a short, almost blunt, two-inch knife he used to poke grain sacks and send the seeds spilling under the millstone. He'd become very adept at throwing it. They all practiced daily with their own and each other's tools, turning each practice into a mini-tournament. Any one of them could show the squires a thing or two about fighting.
Edward would like to throw his knife just once to within a finger's length of a squire standing next to a tree trunk. What would the squire do when the knife plunged up to its haft with a loud "thunk"? Probably pee his pants, Edward thought with a smile. A pleasant thought, that.
The old man-at-arms at the main gate nodded to Edward and let him wheel the heavily loaded cart over the drawbridge and into the cobbled court. Keeping his head down, he directed old Clyde towards the kitchen steps, walking on the side away from the practice yard at the far end of the court. It did him no good.
One of the boys had noticed him and called out, "Hey, look, it's the miller's boy. Why not come over here and let us teach you to be a man?"
"Forget it," the one named Eustace bellowed. "He wouldn't be able to memorize the attack sequence." As the general's son, Eustace was the acknowledged leader of the squires.
Another wit called, "Hey, stupid. Come on over and be our practice dummy."
"Are you related to that ox?" asked a high-pitched voice.
"Careful, you insult his mother," Eustace answered. Raucous laughter followed this clever jab.
Another cried, "Unk, unk, unk," implying that Edward could only understand grunts.
Edward felt the heat rise up into his face as he jumped up on the cart and hoisted a sack of flour onto his shoulder. The swollen sacks each weighed half as much as a grown man. I would like to see those idiots try hefting these flour sacks, he thought. He climbed the steps towards the kitchen, staggering only slightly under the weight. His pretense at not noticing the taunts earned him a last, "Stupid!" as he approached the door.
He recognized his desire to bash in a skull or two was wasted energy. Besides being unable to challenge anyone above his station, near-peasant-get was prevented by law from ever using a weapon. Disregard of that law was a capital offense--and not something a village boy would do lightly. That particular law, his father had told him, grew out of the nobles' fear of revolution. Edward had no desire to overthrow anyone--unless it be the red-haired Eustace.
Netta, the cook's pretty helper opened the heavy wooden kitchen door and stepped out. She glanced over at the squires and made a sour face, then tugged him inside. "Don't let them bother you, Edward."
At the sound of her voice, a wave of refreshing coolness swept over him. Netta was half a head shorter than he, and trim. Sight of her raven tresses, tied up for kitchen work, but forever escaping their captive pins, never failed to quicken his pulse. Underneath the caked flour and kitchen grime, there abided a prettiness to equal any high-born maiden's.
As usual, he didn't know quite what to say to her. "Hi."
"Most of those squires were worthless lay-abouts before entering training," she said. "Only an accident of birth separates you from them."
"Pretty big accident, if you ask me," he said.
She looked into his eyes for a moment as if to argue the point, then abruptly turned her head.
But he wasn't through with the subject. "Doesn't God control births and deaths? If so, it must not be a total accident that I was born low."
Netta's blue eyes returned to regard him steadily. The smooth skin around her eyes softened. "You're every bit as good as they are. I know, because I've served them at table the three years I've been here." She looked down. "I'd as soon slop hogs."
Edward laughed, partly to snap Netta out of her mood. She looked up, startled.
"That's not true. You wouldn't like fouling your shoes."
She glanced down at her feet, then up quickly. "Well," she grinned, "keeping my shoes clean is about the only reason I can think of for serving them."
Talking to Netta made the sacks of flour feel lighter, the day not so bleak. Since morning he'd looked forward to sharing these few minutes of conversation with her.
The wide-girthed cook, Crouser, made a big show of counting the twelve sacks of flour. He always made an elaborate ceremony out of signing his name to the receipt. Perhaps he wouldn't make such an issue of it were he to suspect Edward could sign his own name much better. But Edward was under strict promise not to tell him, or anyone. Not only would such confession be his undoing, his father, too, would be punished for those illegal lessons he'd taught Edward.
"There you go, boy," Crouser said, officiously. "Give that paper to the keeper of the keys, and he'll exchange it for gold coins."
Edward watched the cook's lips as though barely understanding. "Um, could I have some lard for my cart?" His pretense of being slow of wit helped keep Crouser in good humor. When he felt superior, Crouser was at his most agreeable.
Crouser pointed negligently to the lard-pot on the counter, then turned back to his stove.
Edward scooped up a handful of grease, then went out to the cart and swiped his hand across the edge of the cart. He wiped his hands and worked out the axle peg, then lifted the edge of the cart and levered off the wheel. He took a couple fingers of grease and laved it around the axle, then around the inside of the wheel hub. He replaced the wheel and jammed in the peg to hold it on. Walking around the cart, he likewise greased the other wheel. He kept his body between the squires and his work, so they wouldn't see the ease with which he lifted the cart.
Netta had been watching and called out from the kitchen door. "You'd kill them," she said softly.
Edward knew immediately what she meant. He smiled. "Thanks." She'd always been kind to him, going out of her way to be nice. She wasn't at all like the other serving girls, who kept their heads down and acted like they weren't supposed to talk to him. Maybe they weren't. That didn't stop Netta.
He wished there was some way for people like Netta or himself--those born of "low station"--to climb higher. The wish carried with it a taste of bitterness--if not for himself, then for Netta. As a young boy, Edward had often day-dreamed of performing heroic deeds for the old Duke, who, in his gratitude, would knight him. But the space between dream and reality easily matched the distance between the old Duke's castle and his father's humble mill.
Edward strode back into the kitchen, brushing past Netta and managing to touch her arm. At the contact he received delicious little tingles for his trouble. He pretended nonchalance and trudged up the short serving stairs separating the kitchen and the entry to the main hall. At the top, he looked back and caught Netta's smile.
Keeper Pawler sat at a large desk just inside the main hall, looking supremely important. As usual, he pored over a paper flattened out before him, all the while pretending not to see Edward approaching. From across the table Edward could see a single column of figures on the sheet. From Pawler's grave study, it might have been a letter from the Duke.
Edward cleared his throat and laid down the paper Crouser had signed. "This is for twelve sacks of flour, sir." Although not rating the "sir", Pawler usually thawed a smidgen at its use--a trick Edward's father had taught him.
Pawler studied the invoice. "This says you delivered eleven sacks of flour."
"No, Sir. That's a good joke sir, but Crouser made a point of counting out loud to twelve a number of times." Keeper Pawler often tried to cheat him, and had tried a number of times, but Edward had seen through each attempt and found himself able to easily outwit the old cheat. He walked a careful line with Pawler--somewhere between smart and stupid.
Pawler studied him suspiciously. For a moment Edward was afraid he'd been too clever this time, but the old skinflint slid across two gold sovereigns, the standard price for twelve sacks of flour.
Edward bowed courteously. "Thank you, Keeper Pawler, Sir. Good'ay."
Leaving the Keeper, Edward headed down the kitchen steps and was disappointed when Netta didn't show herself. He went on out and climbed onto the empty cart. When one last look around didn't reveal Netta, he clucked old Clyde into motion, feeling a bit deflated.
* * *
Edward gave old Clyde his head and let him travel at his own pace on the way home. The two sovereigns in his pocket would provide for him and his father during the upcoming winter. The two of them were never in danger of going hungry, since his father's mill ground the grain for most of the small farmers. They always had plenty of wheat, oats, rice, or other grains to make boiled cereal. A cow provided milk and a small garden kept them in vegetables. Edward hunted for rabbit and ground birds. He would have liked to go after wild boar or an occasional deer, but bigger game was off limits, being reserved for either the Duke's table or the King's.
Edward could easily have poached better meat from time to time, but Quint, his father, wouldn't allow it.
"Give the Duke his due and don't cheat him. He's been fair enough to us. We can live without killing his game."
Put that way, Edward could hardly argue.
The gold coins would be used to buy flint and steel, harness leather for old Clyde, and clothing for them both. Sitting with his legs dangling over the front edge of the cart, Edward wondered if there would be enough money left over to buy a scroll or two. The long winter evenings ahead would surely pass more quickly if he had something new to read.
Edward felt the temperature drop as old Clyde entered a copse of trees. They were about a mile from the castle. From up ahead came the singing of a brook--where he always stopped to shuck his sandals and wade for a bit. He laughed at the way his thoughts were running, as if he would stop Clyde and make him wait while he bathed his feet. Truth to tell, Clyde couldn't be prodded out the other side of the brook until he'd drunk his fill.
As usual, Clyde stopped in the middle of the brook, snorted as if to clear his nostrils of road dust, and lowered his head to drink noisily.
Two squires stepped into sight. Only minutes before they'd been up in the castle yard practicing on each other. In fact, each still carried his practice quarterstaff. One was Eustace, the red-haired son of the general. The other, he recalled, was called Fredrick. They were still wearing practice padding over their gold and black squires uniforms. From back in the trees came the sound of a horse nickering, telling Edward how the squires had gotten here so quickly.
"Well, well. What have we here?" asked Eustace in his loud, bullying voice. His red eyebrows puckered in mock astonishment.
"A lowly miller's 'prentice," Fredrick said with a sneer. He was shorter and darker, but swaggered more than Eustace.
Old Clyde continued drinking, oblivious to squire-taunts or threats.
"Quint is my father," Edward said quietly. "Are you 'prentice to your father?"
The squires ignored his comment, being obviously more intent on other business.
"Hark, what's that I hear?" Eustace made a show of cupping a hand to his ear. "Would that...could that, pray...be the jingle of coins in yon lad's pocket?" Since Edward hadn't moved, there couldn't have any noise made by the coins. Someone, probably Pawler, had told them of the two sovereigns.
Edward urged Clyde to move. The ox ignored him and continued drinking.
"Hold!" cried Eustace, stepping into the stream and pressing his stave against Edward's chest. "You must pay a tribute for passing through here."
"Oh?" Edward said, unable to hold his tongue. "Shall we go back and ask the Duke about that?"
"Oh, oh. Doesn't that sound like a peasant being disrespectful to his betters?" Fredrick asked.
Eustace stepped back on dry land. "Indeed, Fredrick. It's our duty to teach him a new respect, wouldn't you say?"
"These peasants are a brutish lot. Manners can only be beat into them."
Eustace nodded in agreement. "I have heard as much."
They looked at each other and grinned. Their eyes shifted to Edward as they began twirling their quarterstaffs.
Edward felt sick to his stomach. By law he couldn't resist. A miller's son could be hanged for lifting a hand against the nobly born. Yet he couldn't just let them take the gold he and his father had worked months to earn. Once they took the gold, he had no chance to get it back by accusing them of their deed. It would be the word of a 'prentice miller against two "gentlemen".
Edward jumped down off the cart and stood facing them. "I don't want any trouble."
"That sounds like a threat," Eustace said, grinning even more broadly. The bully in him was about to be let loose.
"I agree." Fredrick examined the unmoving Edward. "You need a lesson, boy." He stepped in close and swung horizontally at Edward's head. Edward ducked, then leaped forward and grabbed the staff close to where Fredrick held it.
The startled boy grimaced and tried to jerk it away from Edward, but couldn't. His feeble yanking had little effect against muscles developed by years of lifting sacks of grain.
"Let go, peasant!" Fredrick shouted. "You're not allowed to touch a weapon."
Edward thought fast and forced a laugh. "A weapon? I see no weapon. All I see is a staff used by weary travelers who walk the road." He tore it from Fredrick's grip. He held it up with both hands. "See, it is just a stick, much like the pole I use to push grain under the millstone." He twirled it above his head. "Yes, it feels quite the same."
Fredrick stepped back from the spinning stave. He looked at Eustace. "Do something."
A line of sweat had formed on Eustace's upper lip. His face had taken on a pink tinge. "Put down the weapon or suffer the consequences."
"Weapon?" Edward looked around, then seemed to notice the staff. "Oh, this?" He extended the staff out straight toward Eustace. Since the staff was nearly as thick as a man's wrist and taller than Edward, the strength required to extend it forward and hold it off the ground was considerable. Edward kept his face relaxed as he did so.
Neither squire seemed to know what to do.
Edward pulled back the staff and, taking it in both hands, brought it down sharply against an upraised knee. The staff snapped like rotten kindling.
"See? It wasn't even a very strong stick."
Seeing that Edward's staff was now useless, Eustace charged with an overhead swing, a move intended to split an opponent's skull.
Edward, holding the half-staves in each hand, brought them up quickly in an "X," catching Eustace's staff in the crotch of the X.
Eustace's shocked expression turned beet-red. "No stupid 'prentice can stand up to me." His face reddened and a vein pulsed visibly on his left temple. His features twisted suddenly, warning Edward. Eustace grunted and spun the staff low to the ground--a foot-sweep designed to up-end Edward.
Edward jabbed the half-staff in his left hand into the ground, blocking the swing. The loud crack of contact sent shock waves up Edward's arm. He swung the other half-staff sideways against Eustace's weapon. The long staff flew out of Eustace's grip, leaving him nursing his hands.
Walking over, Edward stood over the fallen staff. His lungs screamed for more air, but he wasn't about to let them see him winded. He faked easy breaths, as though such exertion were beneath his notice.
The two squires backed away. "What in hell do you think you're doing?" Eustace demanded, while he continued to rub his hands together.
Edward's hands also hurt from the shock of the clashing staffs. Nevertheless, he raised his eyebrows innocently and smiled in his friendliest manner. "Playing 'sticks' with you two boys, I guess. Sorry yours broke," he said to Fredrick. "And too bad you dropped yours."
Fredrick's eyes brimmed with a suspicious abundance of moisture. "Not true! You took them away from us."
"I'm sorry, sirs. Mayhaps I should explain to your training master how it happened?"
Eustace turned crimson. "No," he choked getting the words out. "It was just a game."
"But..." Fredrick began.
Eustace popped him rather sharply on the shoulder. "Do you want to explain how this lout bested us?"
Reason dawned in Fredrick's dark eyes. He turned to glare at Edward.
Eustace spoke again. "We'll meet again, miller-boy." His tone foretold of a next meeting when the squires would carry more than staffs.
The pair turned on their heels and scurried into the trees.
Edward heard the squelch of harness leather. His "playmates" had mounted. He listened for a few more minutes to make sure they were gone before allowing himself to gasp for the air his lungs demanded. He entered the water and dipped his hands in the brook, letting the cool moisture wash away the sting. He rinsed his face, splashed water on his hair. When he breathed normally again, he drank his fill, then looked at the ox.
"You've had enough water," he said. "Let's go home."