Back | Next

Chapter 8

"One last thing,” Elward said. “Your clothes.”

“I know they’re dirty from my traveling,” Duncan began.

“They are that, but that’s not what I was going to say. Get some clothes that don’t shriek of the Highlands. My patrons have certain expectations.” Elward gave a sharp nod. “Now, be off with you. Lieutenant Cathor is overdue for his lesson. Don’t be late tomorrow.”

Master Josten drew Duncan outside as the arms master turned back to his neglected student.

“Well, that went well, don’t you think?”

Duncan nodded with a bit of reservation. “I suppose so. I seem to have a job and a place to stay, at any rate. Master Elward seems a bit . . . I didn’t like the remark about expectations.”

“Ah.” Josten began walking back to the riding grounds, so Duncan was forced to walk with him. “I suppose I can see that. You must understand his position, though. He is a merchant of sorts, selling knowledge and training and skill, unlike, say, myself who sells horses that you can see and feel and ride. Any merchant has to deal with the desires and expectations of his customers, particularly so in Elward’s case. Here in Nika, unfortunately, the clans are considered, ah . . .”

“Uncivilized,” Duncan almost spat.

“Well, almost. But that’s the nature of men everywhere. You go anywhere, to any town or village, and the inhabitants consider those who live a day’s travel away to be odd, and anyone who lives more than two days’ travel away from them to be strange. And the farther away you live, the stranger they consider you to be. I deal with it in every trading journey, whether I’m going south to Myddym or east to the Highlands. And don’t try to tell me that your clansmen don’t look down on me when I come to their tents to buy or trade horses.” For all that Josten’s tone was jovial, the glance he directed at Duncan was pointed.

“Umm,” Duncan hesitated for a moment. “All right, that’s fair enough. I don’t like it, but I’ll deal with it.” They turned into the gate to the grounds. “So, where can I find clothes I can afford that will be acceptable to Master Elward?”

Josten clapped a hand on Duncan’s shoulder but didn’t speak to him. Instead, he gave a shrill whistle. Within moments Mortz popped out of the stable door. “Mortz, I need a runner.” Mortz nodded and gave a multi-toned whistle of his own that was even louder than the master’s. Almost immediately a long-legged lad came loping from the exercise ring. Duncan judged he was maybe a dozen years old, perhaps a bit more. Mortz pointed him to Josten.

“Kem,” Josten said, “run to my house and tell my wife that I need to borrow Rowena for a time this morning. Walk back with her. There’s a penny for you when you’re back.”

“Yes, master.” The words were barely out of the boy’s mouth before he was out the gate at a full run.

“Rowena?” Duncan asked.

“One of my wife Merget’s maids. She’ll know where you can buy clothes, and likely will get you the best prices as well. I’ve watched her bargain; she could wring water from a stone, I believe.”

Duncan shook his head. “If you say so.”

Josten smiled. “She’ll show you. Meanwhile, I’ve got work to do in my office, so I’ll leave you to wait for her.”

Duncan headed for the stable at that point. Goblin was standing at the door to his stall but as Duncan approached he turned his head in a blatant move to ignore the man who had scared him the day before. Duncan grinned at that.

Swiftwing was standing in his stall, just chewing, with one foot cocked up. He whickered as Duncan entered, but didn’t move.

“You’re getting lazy, old son. I’ll have to get one of the stable boys to give you some exercise, unless I’m going to be working less than I think I will.” Duncan ran his hands over Swiftwing’s coat. “Hunh. Someone’s already curried you today, I see.”

“Yep,” came from behind him. Once again Mortz was leaning on the stall door bars. “I had one of the lads go over him. He didn’t seem to mind.”

Duncan smiled at that. “He wouldn’t. A glutton for the brush, he is.”

The two of them stood and talked about horses and horse lore for some little time. For all that he didn’t claim to be a clan horse holder, Duncan couldn’t help to know more than a bit about them since he was the son of one of the best of the clan horse holders. They were finally interrupted by a woman’s voice calling for Mortz.

“That would be Rowena,” Mortz remarked. “Come along and meet her.”

Duncan followed Mortz down the passage, chuckling a little as he passed Goblin’s stall where he was once again strongly ignored. Mortz looked back to catch the scene. “I believe you made an impression on Goblin.”

“If I didn’t, it wasn’t because I didn’t try.” Both men chuckled at that.

They exited the stable side by side, to face Master Josten approaching them with a woman at his side. Duncan decided as they drew closer that she was a young woman, not much more than a girl; short, with a solid build. She was dressed in clothes of various shades of brown and tan—blouse, long vest and ankle length skirt. Plain shoes were on her feet and a shapeless white cap of some sort sat on her head, from under which dark eyes peered out at him and tendrils of dark hair seemed almost to seep out at various places.

“Duncan corNial, this is Rowena.” Josten made the introductions. “Rowena, Duncan.”

She placed her hands on her hips and looked up at him with a grin. “You are a tall one, aren’t you?”

Duncan felt an answering grin on his own face. “Only compared to the men of the lowlands. I’m of a proper height for a clansman—a bit shorter than a lot of them, if the truth be told.”

“You’re tall enough.” Rowena shook her head. “I’ll have a crick in my neck before the day’s out just from looking up your length, see if I don’t.” She turned back to Master Josten. “Tell me again what I’m to do, master.”

“Simple,” Josten replied. “Take Duncan and find him some clothes that are reasonably presentable but affordable that—how did Master Elward put it, Duncan?”

“That don’t shriek of the Highlands,” Duncan finished sourly.

“That was it.” Josten flashed a brief smile. He twisted a signet ring from a finger on his left hand and passed it to Rowena. “Use this if you need to.” She accepted it and slid it on a finger with the relief turned to the palm side of her hand. Josten nodded to them both, then headed back to his office.

Mortz and Kem had already left, so Duncan and Rowena were left standing together in the open yard. “What was that about?” Duncan asked, nodding at her hand.

“Oh, he gave me his signet so that I could tell the sellers who they could come to for their money.”

“I’m buying,” Duncan growled as a feeling of cold seeped into his mind. He pulled his father’s pouch of coins from inside his jerkin. “I have money.”

Rowena grabbed him by the wrist and towed him over to a bench set by the side of the stable.

“Okay, you have money. Show me.”

Duncan untied the pouch and poured the contents onto the bench between them. Roughly half of the coins were copper. The rest were silver, but much of the silver was actually broken coins, where whole coins had been cut into pieces. Rowena began sorting the coins, muttering under her breath.

“All right, you have something approaching thirty silver crowns’ worth here,” she said at length. “It’s good that so much of it is small pieces or broken coins. That way we won’t have to go see a money changer.”

“If I was on my own in Nika,” Duncan asked, “how long would that last me?”

“You mean for food and a place to sleep?” Duncan nodded. Rowena shook her head. “If you got a room that was solid, kept the weather out and wasn’t crawling with fleas or bed bugs, plus if you ate ’til you were full once a day on something worth eating, maybe a month or a bit more.” Duncan’s eyes widened. “If you took the cheapest room in Lichgate and ate bread that was more husks than barley, maybe two months, three if you starved yourself.”

Duncan swallowed. It seemed that it was his very good fortune to have found a job his second day in the city, for his father’s money wouldn’t have supported him for long.

Rowena took the money pouch out of his hand and placed most of the whole silver coins back into it. “Here, tuck this away out of sight. And remind me that you need another purse, one that you can wear on your belt to keep a few coins in. You’ll want to keep that one with most of your money out of people’s sight.”

“Why?” Duncan asked.

Rowena just stared at him. “So it won’t get stolen.” She didn’t say anything else, but he could tell she thought it had been a very silly question.

She pulled a kerchief from her sleeve and swept the rest of the coins into it, tying it into a knot and placing it back in her sleeve. “We have about twelve crowns worth here, and I think we can probably find clothes for you with that. Since you insist, we won’t use the master’s credit.”

“I insist.”

“Come on, then. We’ve got work to do and the sun is moving.”

Rowena started toward the gate.

“Do I need my sword?” Duncan asked.

“No. Come on.” She led Duncan out the gate at a brisk walk.

“So where do we find clothes?” Duncan asked.

“At the cloth market.”

“Market?” Duncan wasn’t familiar with the word, and Rowena’s explanation left him somewhat confused. As best he could tell, a market was something like the Highlands clan fair, only it happened all the time in a settled place in the city. People would bring things to sell any time. And there were different markets in different places in the city; vegetables in one place, animals in another, wood and metal crafts in yet others.

“So Master Josten sells his horses at the animal market?”

“Sometimes,” Rowena replied. “But he’s built enough of a reputation that many times people come to him directly—the nobles, and such like. They’ll ask him to look for a horse with a particular coloring, or size, or disposition. Why, the crown prince came to him last year looking for a riding horse for his wife. These days, Mortz mostly handles the market.”

So Josten was even more well-to-do than his father had known, Duncan mused. Nonetheless, the man was well disposed to him, and he had cause to be thankful for it.

Duncan looked around, and realized that Rowena had led him around so many corners and up and down enough twisty streets that he was thoroughly lost. “Uh, you will take me back to Master Josten’s, won’t you?”

Rowena flashed him a wicked grin. “Depends on how nice you are to me.”

The grin and smart retort reminded Duncan of Melinora. That thought was followed by a surge of grief. The burst of cold anger that followed was almost welcome, for it displaced the grief. He stopped in the street for a moment, sudden enough in doing it that someone bumped into him with a curse before stepping around him. Rowena went a step or two further before she noticed he wasn’t with her.

“What’s wrong?”

Rowena stepped back to face Duncan. His eyes were focused beyond her, jaw muscles clenched, hands in fists at his sides as he forced the anger down. At length he took a deep breath.

“Nothing you can do anything about.”

His companion studied his face for a moment longer. “As you will. Come.”

There was no more conversation until they reached a place where the street they were following opened into a square. Push carts and booths crammed the center of the square, with shops in permanent buildings around the outside, leaving narrow lanes between them.

Rowena stopped. “Stay close to me. If we get separated, it will be difficult for you to find me in the crowd.”


She stepped off into the crowd, almost like a boat pushing out into a rapidly flowing river, and was swept along by the throng. Duncan followed on her heels, feeling very closed in amidst all the people. Even at the clan fairs, he’d never experienced so many people in one place at once. The hairs on his neck stood up from the sheer tension he was feeling.

Rowena angled through the crowd almost like a fish swimming upstream, stopping in front of one cart heaped with piles of clothing. “Hey, Agnes.”

“Rowena. I’ve not seen you in some time.” The woman tending the cart was short and squatty, with flyaway gray hair and a squinting eye. Her own clothing was no recommendation of her wares, as there were more patches to them than whole cloth, with colors from every shade of the rainbow.

“Ah, the mistress has been keeping me busy.”

“Well, that’s why she be the mistress and you be the maid.” Agnes hawked and spat.

“True enough.” Rowena hooked a thumb over her shoulder at Duncan. “I need clothes for this ’un. What have you got?”

Agnes cocked her head and measured Duncan up and down with her glance. “Might have summat, might not.” She started digging through the piles of clothes on her cart. “He be long in the legs and arms, but might be this’ll fit.”

The old woman pulled out a pair of pants and a shirt, both in shades of brown not much different from what Rowena herself was wearing. Rowena held the shirt up toward Duncan.

“Hold still so I can measure this.” She checked the breadth of the shoulders and the length of the arms. “This will do. Now for the pants.” She held them up against his waist and measured the fall of the legs. “Good.” The maid’s sharp eyes inspected seams and drawstrings, checking for loose stitches and frayed spots.

“Now, missy Rowena, you know I always carry good stock. No need to be looking so hard at them.”

“You’re not the one who’ll be wearing them, Agnes, so just you let me see to it they’re sound.”

Rowena finished checking the shirt and pants and folded them into a pile on top of the counter hanging from the side of the cart. “How much?” She squawked at the price Agnes named. “Your mind has gone soft, Agnes. I could buy new cloth and sew it up for that much money.”

And the bargaining began in earnest. Duncan watched as offers went back and forth, along with aspersions on character and slurs on ancestry. He decided that Josten was right about the maid; she could bargain with the best he’d ever seen. He wished she’d been at his side when he’d been bargaining with Connor the blacksmith.

They finally came to an agreement. Rowena pulled the kerchief out of her sleeve and counted out the copper coins and silver bits that matched the price. The kerchief with the remaining coins went back into her sleeve and she stuffed the clothes into a net bag she’d brought with her. They bade farewell to Agnes, who was placing her new coins in her own purse, and moved on.

Rowena stopped at a booth and another cart before they were done, coming away with two more shirts and another pair of pants, these in faded shades of medium blue. There were still quite a few coins in the kerchief when they finished, and she stood with eyes narrowed and finger tapping against her pursed lips. “You need a coat,” she decided. “Come on.” She marched through the crowd, Duncan on her heels wondering where she was going this time. This time she opened the door to a shop and led the way in.

“May I help you today?”

Duncan looked around and spotted an elderly man whose clothes were as gray as his hair shuffling forward from the back of the shop.

“Good morning, Odgar,” Rowena said.

“Ah, Rowena, it’s good to see you. What can I do for you?”

“I need a coat to fit Duncan here,” Rowena said, gesturing back to Duncan.

“Hmm.” Odgar tilted his head. “Tall one, isn’t he? Clansman, no doubt.”

“Yes.” Duncan managed to say that much without sounding angry or exasperated.

“I might have something that will do.” Odgar turned and began looking through piles of clothes on a table.

Duncan bent down to put his mouth on a level with Rowena’s ear. “I’m beginning to get a bit tired of being referred to as tall by one and all, I am.”

She grinned up at him. “Get used to it. You’re a clansman, and you yourself said that you were taller than we normal folk of the lowlands.”

“Normal!” Duncan snorted. “ ’Tis we Highlanders who are normal and yourselves who are stunted.”

Rowena just giggled, which put a bit of a smile on Duncan’s face.

“Ah, here we are.” Odgar pulled a bundle out of a stack on a table at the rear of the shop. He shook the coat out, and it took shape.

Duncan had seen coats before—the merchants who came to the Highlands would sometimes wear them. He’d never seen much use for them; his thought was that a cloak would serve just as well to keep him warm. However, Rowena had taken the coat and was nodding her head.

“If it fits, it will do.” She held it out to Duncan. “Here, put it on.”

Well, Duncan had seen them worn before, so he had some idea of how to put it on. It took four tries to get his left arm into its sleeve, but he finally managed it and turned to face Rowena. She put the net bag down and reached up to pull the shoulders into place and twitch the collars into position.

“Well,” Rowena said, left hand holding her right elbow and right hand holding her chin, “that dark green color is very nice. Let’s see how it fits when it’s buttoned. Do them up.”

Duncan fumbled with the wooden buttons, but couldn’t seem to make them go where he wanted them to. Rowena brushed his hands aside and did the buttons in but a moment. Duncan felt his cheeks heat up a bit at that.

Rowena stepped back again. “Yes, that looks good.” She looked over at Odgar. “How much?”

“That will have to be six crowns.”

“Odgar, Odgar.” Rowena shook her head. “Have you been talking to Agnes? This is Rowena you’re talking to. We’re not going to pay new-cloth-cut-and-sew prices for something that like as not was taken off the back of a dead man.”

Duncan flinched. Dead man? He started wrestling with the buttons, but Rowena reached up and pulled his hands down.

“Now, Rowena, I’ll have you know that was brought to me by old Minward, the pawnbroker. It’s clean cloth, it is, nigh as good as new.”

Duncan relaxed as the latest round of bargaining commenced. For all that Odgar seemed to be a gentle old soul, his words were every bit as spirited as Agnes’ had been, though they were more polite. The final score was four crowns and some pence. Rowena seemed satisfied as she turned to Duncan.

“Open your purse,” she said quietly.

Duncan had been keeping count of the spending. “I think you have enough.”

“I know I do, but I don’t want to spend all of your small coin. Give me four crowns.”

So he pulled the small bag out from his jerkin and untied it, holding it between them so Odgar would not see it. Rowena’s fingers dipped into it and came out with four crowns. Duncan retied the bag and stowed it back in his jerkin.

Odgar held his hand out and Rowena counted the four crowns into it, plus a bit of a broken crown and two copper pennies. “Good fortune to you, young Duncan, and enjoy the coat when the weather gets colder.”

Duncan nodded to the old man. “I expect I will, sir.”

Rowena undid the buttons and had the coat off of Duncan before he knew what was happening. She folded it and rolled it up and stuffed it in her net bag with the other purchases. He followed her out of Odgar’s shop as she waved farewell to the old man.

Their next stop was a blanket spread on the ground where leather goods were spread out. Rowena took barely a moment to buy a small pouch strung with purse strings, which she handed to Duncan. He tucked it into his jerkin.

“Now what?” Duncan asked.

Rowena peered up at the sun. “Now we find some bread and ale. This way.”

Duncan once again was forced to follow her through the crowd, keeping sight of her white cap as she made her way between the bodies; much like fish in the spring runs upstream. Rowena stopped in between two booths, and Duncan joined her there. He watched as she bought two barley rolls from the booth on the left, chattering with the woman behind the counter as she did so.

“Here.” Rowena handed him a roll, then stepped to the booth on the right. “Two of the light ale, Ralf.”

The grizzled old man pulled two wooden mugs of ale from a keg behind him, then set them on the board that served as a counter. “Two pennies,” he said in a gruff voice that was offset by the smile he gave her. Rowena counted them out of her own purse, then handed a mug to Duncan.

Distracted by the light chain that ran from the mug’s handle to a metal bar that was mounted below the booth’s counter, Duncan raised the mug and his eyebrows at the same time. Rowena giggled around her mouthful of bread. The ale server chuckled, and said, “ ’At’s to keep the mugs from walking off. They’d be gone in a day if t’weren’t for the chains.”

Duncan took a swallow of ale while he thought about that. He’d heard members of the clans often talk about the city of Nika as if it were nothing but a nesting place for thieves. Now, twice in one day, residents of the city talked as if thievery was to be expected. He mused on that thought as he finished his bread.


“Hmm?” she responded as she lowered her mug.

He pointed at her bag. “Dead men’s clothes?”

“Possibly,” she said. Duncan grimaced, and she grinned in response. “There are only a few reasons why clothes and coats end up in the pawn or second hand shops. Some rich person doesn’t like something they’ve worn before, it doesn’t fit anyone in the family, someone’s dead broke and selling everything he has to buy food or medicine, or someone died and his clothes were sold to pay the funeral expenses.”

Duncan shuddered a bit at the thought of wearing dead men’s clothes.

“Have some sense.” Rowena’s expression sobered. “Cloth is expensive, and tailoring just adds to the cost. Part of my pay is a new set of clothes every year: skirt, blouse, vest, smalls. And I work hard for it, I do.” She gestured with her head to the crowd passing them by. “Most folks in the city can’t afford new clothes. Dead folks don’t care about what happens to their clothes . . . leastwise, not that I ever heard. Don’t you have something passed on to you from someone that’s died?”

He thought of his mail, inherited from his uncle, and nodded with reluctance.

“Well, then, there you go.”

“But that’s different,” Duncan exclaimed.

“Why? Dead is dead.” She looked at him with a quizzical expression.

“It just is,” he muttered.

“You’ll get over it,” Rowena declared. “Now come on, I’ve got to get you back to Master Josten’s place so I can get back to work. He told the mistress he’d only need me for part of the day.”

Back | Next