ERIDA

by Aldus Baker

CHAPTER II

The rutted dirt road Erida followed grew wider and more rutted as he approached Shantown. Road dust covered him. He preferred that to walking barefoot through mud. The sun warmed the air as it climbed the sky. Erida perspired freely by the time the road changed from dirt to cobblestone. He stopped in front of the distiller’s shop at the edge of town.

He’d been to Shantown a handful of times and always marveled at the number and size of the buildings. The distiller had his own storefront in the bottom of a two story building. A long covered porch faced the street and a stout oak door led into the stone walled first story. Narrow glass windows flanked both sides of the door. An upper wooden story sat atop the stones. The structure looked as though it would still stand long after Erida’s cabin fell down around him.

On their visits to Shantown, the distiller’s had been his father’s last stop before leaving. Erida’s excitement rose at the thought his father could be there right now. But their horse was not tethered to the post outside and Erida’s excitement faded to a vague hope that someone inside would know his father’s whereabouts. Erida stepped up onto the wooden porch. He walked across the planks and pulled the iron ring on the heavy oak door. It slowly swung open to reveal an interior that looked exactly as he remembered it.

Two yards from the door stood a long wooden counter which ran the length of the room. Behind the counter, small casks were racked in slanted crosshatched shelves. To the right of the casks stood another oak door. Right of the door were shelves filled with glass bottles, most with necks dipped in red wax. A bell pull sat mounted near the right end of the counter. His father never allowed Erida to ring it. But pulling the bell cord was the first thing his father did if no on tended the counter. Erida stepped toward the bell to give it a pull, when someone bounded into the shop behind him.

“Excuse me, little man,” said the stranger as he pushed past Erida to the bell

Erida clapped his hands over his ears just as the newcomer yanked the bell cord.

Clang! Clang! Clang!

Even with his ears covered it sounded as loud as thunder. After three pulls the man stopped, but the bell rang on for a little longer. Erida moved to the side away from the bell so that anyone else coming in would not try to walk over him. He could also observe what the stranger might do next.

The man wore a gray jacket and tan pants. Erida thought him wealthy because his clothing were free of stains and patches. No blemish marred the fellow from his neatly parted straight brown hair and well-trimmed oiled beard down to the heels of his shiny black boots. He even wore a real belt around his waist instead of a piece of rope. The stranger leaned into the counter, drumming his fingers on the countertop as he stared at the closed door behind it.

The door beyond the counter swung open. The man who entered through it wore a leather apron and had his long silver black hair tied back. Erida recognized the old distiller, Vinton, from his thin face and hawkish nose. He shoved the oak door closed behind him before he spoke.

“Tristan. Now how did I know it was you?,” said Vinton.

“Because it’s the first day of the month and it’s midday?” said the well-dressed Tristan as he pushed back from the counter and stood up straight.

“No, I think it’s rather the heavy hand you have with that bell.”

“Heavy hand? Why if I rang it any quieter you’d never hear it.”

“Um, well, maybe so and then again maybe not.”

“And what do you care? You’re never in here when I ring it anyway,” said Tristan with a smile.

“Nor do I wish to be,” laughed the distiller.

“What say you? Is my order ready?”

“Of course,” said Vinton. “Would you like me to deliver it this time?”

“Perhaps if you left off the delivery charge?” said Tristan.

“Fine. Have it your way. You always do.”

Tristan gave the distiller a shallow bow. “You know me so well,” he said. “That’s why I come here. I buy the best and I make sure I get what I pay for. If it means overseeing my own men to keep them from the temptation of sampling your fine wares, that is a burden I must bear.”

“That’s you, Tristan. Always looking out for the other fellow,” said Vinton as he pitched his voice to show that he did not believe his own words. “Bring the wagon around back and we’ll get you loaded.”

Tristan slapped the counter with his right hand and said, “Already done.” Then he spun about and departed as quickly as he had entered.

Vinton watched him go. A moment later he looked at Erida and frowned. “You’d better hurry, boy,” he said.

“Pardon?” said Erida.

“He’s just left. I don’t think Tristan takes kindly to lollygagging. You’d better step lively.”

“But, I’m looking for my father,” said Erida.

“Well he’s not here,” said Vinton as he looked about the room to emphasize that no one but the two of them were there.

“Please, could you tell me if you have seen him?”

“Tristan’s first customer of the day. There’s been no one else to see.”

“He would have been here yesterday, or perhaps the day before.”

“And I thought you were slow to follow your master,” said Vinton. “Are you slow witted too? How would I even know who your father is?”

“Jacob. My father’s name is Jacob,” said Erida.

“Jacob?” said Vinton with his brows furrowed.

“Yes.”

“Jacob the Knave? Surely that’s not who you mean. Least ways that’s the only Jacob that comes around here.”

Erida wanted to argue and tell Vinton that his father was an honest and trustworthy man. He knew better. Yet he did not like hearing anyone else say it. If the only Jacob was a knave, then it had to be his father no matter how insulting the epithet. Erida swallowed his objection and said, “Have you seen him?”

“He was here yesterday. Bought a bottle of rye, one of the less expensive but still a good barrel. And then he left.”

“Do you know where he went?”

Vinton scowled and spoke with a bit of a growl to his voice. “I don’t keep track of the customers. I just keep ’em in drink. He left. And you need to leave too.”

Seeing the agitation on the vintner’s face, Erida would have gone had he any idea where else to look for his father. Feeling increasingly desperate for information, Erida asked one more question. “Where else might he go?”

“Oh how should I know? Try the inn,” said Vinton, his eyes glared at Erida from beneath lowered brows. “It’s another place to get a drink and that would be in keeping with Jacob the Knave. Now be off and don’t come back until you put a few more summers behind you and you’ve the coin to buy a bottle.” Vinton leaned over the counter and almost shouted his last words as he pointed at the door.

Before the angry distiller could do more than shout, Erida turned to leave. Another man entered at that moment. Erida waited for him to clear the way out.

Behind him Erida heard Vinton say, “See that boy? That’s Jacob the Knave’s son. Can you believe it?”

Erida ran out the door and into the street before being forced to hear more.

#

Erida refused to talk to anyone else as he searched for the Shantown Inn. His head ached and his mouth tasted like road dust. He crossed the street to walk in the shadows of the taller buildings and gain relief from the high sun that dominated the sky. Many Shantown residents passed him by, busy with their own concerns.

The most elegantly attired made the vintner’s customer, Tristan, look plain. The men wore velvet jackets, lace trimmed shirts, woolen broadcloth trousers and polished boots. They walked with women who covered their heads with bright scarves and wore long colorful dresses made of patterned fabrics decorated with ribbons and lace. These elevated citizens, often followed by servants carrying parcels, moved at their leisure through the crowds as others stepped aside. Being small in number and infrequent, Erida had no trouble avoiding them.

The rest of the townsfolk were another matter. Not knowing where to go or what might be around the next corner, Erida tended to stop and stare. A few people went around him as they made remarks that varied from helpful to acerbic. “Be careful, dear.” “Watch out.” “Stand aside!” The later often came with a shove that sent him stumbling into someone, or into the street where he risked being trampled by a horse or crush under a carriage wheel. He tried to keep moving, watch out for others, and study his surroundings all at that the same time.

This tactic garnered him nominal success, and ended when a particularly cruel shove left him sprawled face-down in an alley. As no one else traversed the alley, Erida managed to pick himself up and brush off some of the dirt and refuse in peace. He had been staring at one particularly ornate three-story building. The dizzying hight of the roof left Erida wondering what the town looked like from up there. He knew quite well what it looked like from on the ground.

Townsfolk hurried past the alley entrance. Erida glanced down the narrow way that ran between two stone walls and saw no foot traffic at the far end. Water trickled from the center of the passage into a small fetid pool at the edge of the street. A cool breeze carried the promise of foul putrescence further down the alley. Frustrated with navigating the crowded street, Erida chose to endure the unpleasant fragrance of the passageway. A few yards along his nose wrinkled as his foot squelched in something. He kept moving, and tried not to think about it.

By the time he reached the other end, Erida struggled to hold down the meager contents of his stomach. He could identify the many forms of filth he’d tread on with his bear feet, but he knew without a doubt why no one else traversed that loathsome lane. Emerging from the alley, Erida doubled over and took slow deep breaths to help clear his woozy head and quell the churning in his gut.

“You all right?” said a high pitched voice.

He took his time straightening up before he turned enough to see who had spoken. A young boy watched him from a few feet away.

“Are you sick?” said the boy. He wore a blue tunic over patched wool pants. Below his confusion of matted brown hair, the child’s eyes were round with worry and his lips curved down in a slight frown.

“No, I’m…” Erida dry swallowed and tried not to grimace. “I’m fine,” he managed to say.

“Why do you smell so bad? What’s your name? Are you lost?” The three questions came with no pause for an answer and ended with, “I’m Kaden.”

“I’m Erida. Do you know where the Shantown Inn is?”

The boy nodded.

Erida waited a moment longer, but when the child remained silent he asked, “Where?”

“Kaden!” called a woman from across the street. She wore a simple blue dress, long and belted at the waist. A market basket filled with bread and other items hung from her arm. Two more children, a boy and girl – both older than Kaden – carried similar baskets and followed behind her.

Kaden spun to face the woman. “Yes, Mother?” he said.

“Get over here right now. And stop wandering off.”

“Yes, Mother,” said Kaden as he hurried away from Erida and across the cobblestones toward his mother.

“But!” Erida sputtered. “Which way is the inn?”

The woman gave Erida a deep frown.

Kaden pointed and said, “That way!”

His mother grabbed his pointing hand and pulled him close. She bent down and spoke to Kaden in a stern whisper before straightening and saying loud enough for Erida to hear, “Now come along.”

The four of them moved off in the opposite direction of the one Kaden had indicated. If Kaden was accurate, the inn had to be on this street. Otherwise, Erida needed to cut back over to the crowded one he abandoned when he walked down the noisome alley.

“You there! There’s no begging here. Be off before I call the watch,” said a dark haired man who poked his head out of an open shop door.

Erida considered asking the shopkeeper for directions, but the memory of his encounter with the vintner made silence and leaving more appealing. He remembered his father commenting on the Shantown watch. He did not recall what his father said, but he did remember the warning to stay away from them.

#

Even with Kaden’s vague direction to follow, the number of buildings and people overwhelmed Erida. Structures sat cheek to jowl and towered two and three stories above him. Some even had upper floors that leaned out over the street to join with another building leaning in from the other side. Erida moved quickly when he passed under these connections. They looked ready to fall at any moment no matter how many other people passed beneath without giving them a second look.

Skinny alleys separated some buildings. They were tighter than the alley he had braved earlier. A glance down each showed bends or perhaps dead ends. Erida’s skin crawled at the possibility of what might be down one of those blind cuts and he held to Kaden’s direction as best as he could. The structures he passed had no markings, shingles or signs indicating them to be an inn.

There were weavers, seamstress and tailor shops pressed tight between residences that pushed upward two or three stories rather than spread sideways. Hawkers cries announced their services as they pushed carts along the street. A tinker offered to mend pots and sharpen knives. Two men wrestled a long table out of a wagon bed. Young children darted about squealing as they played a chasing. The chaser stretched out and touched a girl fleeing from him. The girl stopped in place and cried out for another of their companions to free her.

“You’re bound. You can’t talk!” protested the boy who had touched her.

“You didn’t say silence,” retorted the girl.

Erida watched until he noticed a woman eying him with a furrowed brow and a deep frown. He wanted to find somewhere out of the way to sit and observe the game, give his sore feet a chance to rest. Instead he let the pressure of the woman’s disapproval push him along. The inn must be close he told himself. He stepped gingerly and cursed the thief that stole his boots.

When he came to a true intersection of cobbled streets he turned back toward the road he had followed into Shantown. He walked by a large grand building, the first free standing residence he had seen. Open ground surrounded the home. A hedge with waxy dark-green leaves and needle sharp spike formed a perimeter around it all. From a second story window, a man yelled something at Erida.

He paused to see what the man wanted. The fellow yelled, “Now get out of here or I’ll set the dogs on you!”

Erida tensed with apprehension. The man disappeared from the window. Erida pushed his tired legs into a jog. He listened, but heard no barking. His presence appeared to be an affront to many. He slowed to a less painful walk after a short distance. His head hurt, his feet ached and his stomach felt twice as empty as his welcome in Shantown. With one eye over his shoulder, Erida arrived at the next wide cobbled street.

A tall white building rose catty-corner across from him. Two wings jutted out to either side. The structure made him think of a huge bird about to raise its outstretched wings and take flight. The idea tickled him and he laughed. People near him frowned. A few gave him stern looks. When he spotted a signpost sporting the symbol of a wheel and tankard, Erida juked his way across the road. He refused to be an easy target for the horses, wagons and carts. One driver, infected with the general malicious intent others had demonstrated, chuckled as he flicked his whip.

Erida, winded and wincing from the sting of the whip, arrived at the edge of the broad cedar porch that fronted the central section of the inn. The porch had a roof supported by carved cedar pillars. The weathered gray wood almost blended with the color of the cut stone steps that lead up onto the porch. Large double doors with polished brass fittings stood closed across the inn’s main entrance. A tall archway to Erida’s right formed a wide passage big enough for wagons or three riders abreast to pass through. There were no horses tethered in front of the inn. He kept moving and strode into the archway attempting to look as though he belonged there.

A lane ran through the arched opening, creating a breezeway between the central portion of the inn and the east wing. It led to an open space. The passage ended after several yards when it reached the back corner of the east wing. The lane spilled into a stable yard with a fenced corral on Erida’s right. A shorter, narrower, covered porch protruded from the side of the central building to his left. Like its big brother in front, this porch was cedar and weathered to a similar shade of gray.

The area between the porch and the corral gate gave ample space for several wagons. Although there were none there now, the wheel tracks and hard-parked barren ground showed signs of having seen many. The lane reappeared on the far side and curved left around the back of the inn’s main building. A balding man with a fringe of stringy thin hair sat on a stool to the right of the door on the porch. He wore a gray jacket stretched over his heavyset frame, a large loose pair of tan pants and worn black boots. His head and back leaned against the side of the inn as if he might be trying to nap.

Six horses stood in the corral. Three others looked out of their stalls. Except for the occasional ear flick or tail swish, they could all have been trying to nap too. One of the horses looked familiar. Erida walked closer to the corral gate for a better look.

“Hey you ragamuffin! Get away from there!”

Erida turned toward the sound of the shouting.

The man on the stool swept his right hand in a sideways gesture as if he could reach across the 30 feet between them and swat Erida away from the gate. “Go on, boy!”

“That’s my father’s horse,” said Erida as he pointed at the roan mare.

“Yes, of course it is. And that’s my charger in the last stall,” said the man as he stood up from his perch on the stool. “Now get out of here before I come over and box your ears.”

“But, I’m looking for my father and that is our horse,” insisted Erida.

The man stared at Erida, but gave no sign of coming closer. “What’s your father’s name then, boy?”

“Jacob.”

“And were does this Jacob come from?”

“We have a farm. West of town.”

The balding man frowned and said, “And when did you last see him?”

“He left for town four days ago.”

“Four days,” repeated the man as if that mattered more than anything else Erida had said. The man pointed a large pudgy finger at him. “Wait right there. And don’t you move an inch toward that corral. You hear me?”

“I hear you,” said Erida.

The man turned toward the inn door as if moving cost him more effort than he wished to expend and lumbered into the inn. Erida stayed in place not because he feared for his ears, the large porchman moved too slowly to make good on his threat, but because the man acted as if he knew something about Erida’s father. Maybe the man had even gone to get him.

#

It was afternoon and a long time since Erida ate his breakfast of lard. He looked at his father’s horse and weighed his chances of getting the animal out of the corral before anyone could stop him. Where would he go if he did and what would his father say if he left without him? Erida sighed and waited.

The heavyset balding man returned followed by Tristan, the customer Erida had seen at the distillers. The heavyset man took up his perch on the stool again as Tristan stepped off the porch and walked toward Erida.

“I’ve seen you before. You were in Vinton’s shop earlier,” said Tristan. He wore an easy relaxed expression and gave Erida a smile as well-oiled as his beard.

“I am looking for my father, Jacob,” said Erida.

“Yes, so Gramble tells me,” said Tristan as his demeanor changed from relaxed to more subdued and he stopped a few paces away from Erida. “I have some bad news and there is no good way to say it. I’m afraid that it’s going to be difficult for you to hear.”

“What has my father done?”

“Your father? Well, it’s… That is you see… It’s not so much what he has done as what was done to him,” said Tristan.

Tristan sounded worried. Erida started to worry too. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said.

“I am terribly sorry to have to tell you this, but your father was killed last night.”

“What? What do you mean?” The man’s words made no sense.

“I said your father was killed. Someone attacked and robbed him. He died from his wounds.”

“No,” said Erida. That could not be right. His father had gone to town. “His horse is right there,” said Erida as he pointed at the roan in the corral.

“Yes, I am aware of that. But it is my horse now. I’m keeping it as partial payment on the debt your father owed me.”

Erida threw up his hands palms out toward Tristan. “Wait! Wait.” His thoughts raced around his head as if afraid to settle down and understand Tristan’s words. “But, the mare is our horse. You can’t take it. That’s stealing. My father will be angry,” said Erida.

“I am sorry, but your father had an obligation to me. Now that he can never repay it, I have taken the horse to help offset the debt. I realize this is a shock to you, but you need to understand. Your father is dead. The horse is no longer his.”

Erida felt dizzy. His father could not be dead. They were going to go home. He and his father would ride home together. “But, where is my father? I want… I want to see him.”

Tristan looked sad. He spoke patiently. He said, “I am so sorry, but your father’s body has already been buried. No one knew of any relatives that would come to claim him and it had to be disposed of, I mean, attended to.”

Erida’s thoughts stopped circling and seized upon one question. “What happened?”

“We don’t really know. No one saw anything. Your father had been sharing a bottle with a few others. He left suddenly after telling his companions he was late for an appointment. Later, the watch arrived with news of his death. They investigated, asked their questions, but nothing came of it.”

“But how? How could no one see anything?” Erida could not take a step in any direction without bumping into someone in Shantown. “Someone had to see him or hear something. There are people everywhere. That’s nonsense!”

Tristan’s expression darkened. “I understand you are distraught, but you should maintain a civil tongue.”

Erida felt a chill in the pit of his stomach. He had implied Tristan was a liar or at least a fool. Men killed each other over insults like that. He knew how his father would have reacted. “I apologize, Master Tristan. I…,” I don’t know what to say. “I’m so tired. I’ve walked all day looking for my father,” he said, eyes downcast and voice sounding small.

“I had no idea Jabob the Knave had a son. He doesn’t have any other children does he?”

“No,” said Erida, aware that he had once more heard his own father called a knave. An insult that even his father must have been powerless to challenge. He felt the heat rise to his face. Even in death his father found a way to disappoint him.

If Tristan noticed Erida’s shame, he ignored it and carried on the conversation as if no insults had been exchanged and Erida had not gotten the worst of it. “That is a pity. Perhaps if you had an older brother or sister they might have been able to help repay your father’s debt.” Tristan’s own disappointment was evident in his words. “Instead, as his sole living heir, I’m afraid the remaining obligation passes to you.”

“But I don’t have anything. My father took all our crops to sell. He had our money.”

“He had nothing when the watch found him.”

“Nothing? But where is our wagon. He was going to buy supplies. I can’t go home without food.”

“Home? You mean that bit of land out west?”

Erida wanted to say nothing, to forestall another piece of bad news that a twisting in his gut assured him was coming. He nodded.

“Ah, well, about that. You see, by law, I own all the property that belonged to your father. That little farm is no longer his either. Which means that you do not live there anymore. Not that I mean to leave you without a home.”

Erida started to shake. The weight of fatigue, worry and loss pushed him to the ground where he sat with a spike of pain in his head. His parched throat begged for water. His tired legs and aching feet demanded rest. He hugged his knees to him and bowed his head to rest his pounding forehead gently upon them. He thought he had been close to finding his father when he saw their horse in the corral. His father would have money. They would buy provisions and return home.

Guilt hammered at him. He thought of how it could have been different if he had been there. If he had been of some use to his father. Maybe he could have stopped it. Maybe his father would still be alive. Maybe he would not feel a sense of secret relief that, no matter how he wanted to deny it or bury it, told him the drinking, the rage, and the beatings were over. That maybe his father had gotten what he deserved.

His eyes stung as he squeezed them shut and tried to hold back the tears. The wind peppered him with grit from the stable yard. His stomach cramped. He felt empty. Not just famished, but hollow. Lost.

“You wait here and Saff will come for you. I think you’ll like working for him. I’m certain you’ll make a fine stable boy.”

Erida rubbed his nose with his sleeve. He no longer cared about anything Tristan said. He wanted his father and he wanted to go home.