The Tally Master, Chapter 3 (scene 13)

Striding through the dark, short passage connecting the smithies to the Regenen Stair, Keir settled the strap of her portfolio more firmly on her left shoulder and the portfolio itself more comfortably against her right hip. She’d discovered nothing she didn’t already know.

The blade smith was meticulous, and his notarius followed his lead. The grinding smith was methodical. The annealing smith, detail-oriented. The smelterer, practical and down-to-earth. The armorer, thorough and responsible.

The only denizen of the forges with an unreliable character was Martell, the privy smith. And he would not be a thief.

But the questions had to be asked, the missing tin tracked and found, the guilty party identified. The secretarius must regain control of Belzetarn’s—Carbraes’—metals.

Keir stepped under the archway at the passage-end into a patch of brightness in the Regenen Stair.

A torch flared in the bracket there, and the aroma of roasting meats, fragrant with herbs, drifted on the air. The Castellanum’s kitchens—all three of them—would be well into the work of creating the evening feast that would feed all quartered in the citadel: the three cohorts currently rotated home from the field, the full staff of the tower, and every artisan supplying the warriors and staff; nearly two thousand trolls, all told.

A sweet thread of scent—glazed parsnips—prompted Keir to lift her nose and draw in a deep breath. She loved the mild flavor of this root vegetable that had never grown at home. She’d not expected to find anything she loved in a troll stronghold.

But she had. Parsnips. And other things.

Keir bit her lip and started up toward the tally room. Gael wouldn’t be there yet—she’d heard his even tones mingled with the excited verbiage of Martell in the privy smithy—but he’d want her report immediately he arrived.

As she climbed, her shadow stretched up the treads ahead of her, cast by the torch at her back. Her thighs protested slightly with each riser. Would her muscles be sore, come sleep time, with all the extra trips she’d made up and down and up again today?

A loud metallic crashing echoed suddenly, followed by immediate loud shouting.

Had someone dropped one of the massive copper cauldrons in the Regenen’s Kitchen? What a commotion!

Keir suppressed a smile. The four main stairwells in the tower conducted sound so capriciously. One moment one heard the roaring of the smithy forges; the next, the shouts of warriors drilling in one of the three places of arms; and then the clatter of knives quartering potatoes against a chopping block. Always there were footsteps.

Keir paused as the next torch came into sight. Had she heard something less usual? Something from the depths, just before the clash of copper against stone? Something . . . not quite right?

Frowning, Keir swung abruptly round and started back down.

The shouting from above faded.

A murmur from below grew. Voices?

“I’ll strip your bedding and leave your pallet bare!” came a young, jeering yell.

I’ll strip it bare and make it up again with dirty linens from the hospital!” boasted another, higher voice.

Keir hastened her pace, from a swift lollop to a more headlong descent.

The murmur of voices beneath the jeers intensified as she passed the smithy level and then the castellanum’s kitchen, a mere half twist below it.

I know where to find spiders—poisonous ones—that’ll nibble your toes when you sleep!” said a mischief maker with more glee than menace.

“I won’t!” shrilled a cry of desperation. The victim? “I’ll leave the tower! Forever!”

Keir surged around the newel post and jerked to a halt above a half-circle landing full of jostling boys. Gathered en masse as they were, their troll-diseased features smote her almost physically. The deformed noses and enlarged ears seemed monstrous, and her stomach felt sick with hatred. They were trolls. They were monsters, monsters like the ones who’d lamed her pater. Like she was.

She swallowed, hard, and her perception shifted to her more usual viewpoint.

She’d been surrounded by trolls for two years now, and she’d grown accustomed to their anomalous faces and bodies. The trolls on this landing were boys, and their troll-disease not nearly so advanced as that of their elders. Just like unafflicted boys—human boys—their struggles within their hierarchy sometimes went too far. Thank Sias she was stationed in Belzetarn proper, not one of the outlying camps where few boys were present.

At the far wall of the stairwell, under the torch bracket, two of the larger boys shoved a very small one against the stones.

“Get it tonight!” growled one bully.

“Or else!” snarled the other.

“I can leave!” sobbed the small bullied one. Good grief, he looked only nine or ten years old.

Keir, standing two steps above the landing, pitched her voice to carry. “I suspect Lord Theron will not be pleased to learn that his scullions prefer fisticuffs to performing their duties in the maintenance of Lord Carbraes’ citadel.”

The two bullies turned, horror on their faces. A boy at the back edge of the crowd attempted to slip away past Keir.

Keir thrust out her arm to stay him.

“No.” She kept her voice crisp. “Each one of you will give me your name. Right. Now.”

The boys shrank from her. She recognized them now. They were not the kitchen scullions as she’d thought. Or, rather, only one of them—the young boy—hailed from the kitchens. The rest were the cleaning crew. That explained the threats regarding the kitchen boy’s bedding. The scullions who swept, scrubbed, and collected rubbish tended to forget that the kitchen boys were essential to the meals everyone ate. Why didn’t the kitchen folk clean up after their ownselves? That was their attitude.

“You!” Keir pointed. “Speak your name.”

The scullion—one in the middle of the bunch—scuffed his shoe and looked at the floor. “Dunnchad,” he mumbled.

Hells! That was a name of Fiors! Keir worked to keep her face cold and still. She hadn’t thought any from home, besides herself, had ever come to Belzetarn.

“You!” She pointed at a different lad with a crop of freckles on his cheeks.

“Adarn.” This one looked her in the face and added her honorific, “Notarius.”

The mood in the stairwell was changing, no longer shocked belligerence, not even the sheepish shame that had come instantly after, but relief. These were good boys, despite their lapse from the standards demanded of them. No doubt her authority felt good, reminding them that it was authority that kept them safe. Her authority controlled this moment. The castellanum’s authority governed their day-to-day tasks. And Regenen Carbraes’ authority ultimately secured the citadel.

Keir herself felt secure within this hierarchy of authority, although she did not like to admit it.

One by one, the boys spoke their names, the two oldest looking remorseful. As well they should! Just as the more powerful preserved them, so they owed a duty to protect those weakest in the citadel.

She indicated the kitchen scullion last.

He still fought tears, but managed to speak despite it. “Weit.”

“Good.” Keir nodded firmly and then recited the names back to them, slowly, looking at the individual who belonged to each name as she spoke it. They would not doubt that she could bring punishment home to them, if necessary.

“Now, what was this about? What were you demanding of Weit?”

The ease spreading through them vanished. They all looked at the floor. Keir almost chuckled.

“I will know.” She shook her head at Weit. Tears glassed the boy’s eyes, but he gulped valiantly, trying to answer her. “Not you, Weit. Your tormenters shall tell.” She surveyed them and fastened on the freckled boy. “You. Adarn. What did you want from Weit?”

Adarn met her gaze with effort, gripped his lower lip in his teeth, and swallowed. The boy had moral courage, and his facial features were almost human. “We wanted him to steal some of the dried lingonberries from the fruitery for a treat for us. Notarius.”

“That is your opteon’s prerogative, is it not?” she said coolly. “To reward you or not, as he deems you deserve the reward.”

Adarn winced. “Yes, Notarius.”

She took a moment to look each of the others in the eye. A ripple of ducked heads passed through them.

“Now, you will tell me what will come to pass after this attempted theft and battery.”

The boys looked puzzled.

“Notarius?” quavered Adarn.

“I shall consult your opteon, if need be, and he shall determine your punishment. But I will not tell your opteon, if you mete out an appropriate consequence to yourselves for this attempted deed of yours.”

One of the big boys next to Weit straightened and spoke up. “We shall watch out for Weit and protect him from other bullies from now on. We’ll make his bed with the best of the dortoire linens. We’ll invite him to join us when we swim in the lake.”

Thoughtful silence followed his suggestion, then hopeful glances and a few nods.

“Is that agreed amongst you all?” asked Keir.

More nods.

Freckled Adarn raised his hand. “I’ll make over the next treat my opteon grants me to him.”

Now Keir did smile. “I don’t think that’s necessary, Adarn. Protection and inclusion is sufficient in my tally.”

Adarn smiled back. “But I want to, Notarius. May I?”

“Yes, then.” Keir let her smile fade, growing stern. “I shall know if you fail of your promise. Make it good.” She paused. “Or else!”

The boys nodded more vigorously.

“Be about your tasks,” she dismissed them.

Adarn, the freckled boy, lingered, as the last save Weit trailed away up the stairs. “You were going down, weren’t you?” he queried.

Weit nodded. “Opteon sent me to get vinegar to make a lingonberry infusion.”

“I’ll come with. May I?” Adarn asked.

Weit smiled. “Sure!”

“Were you really going to leave Belzetarn?” asked Adarn. “How could you?”

“I’d have managed,” muttered Weit.

Keir realized he must be older than she’d thought. Fourteen, maybe, but small for his age. “Are you sorted?” she asked.

Weit flashed her a bright look. “Yes, Notarius! Thank you!”

He scampered for the steps down to the cellars, Adarn at his heels. As the boys disappeared below around the newel post, Gael came into sight above. He checked and slowed.

“Ah. Keir. You’ve handled it,” he stated.

The matter had been simple enough, but Keir wondered. Had she handled it? Or was there more to it than boys being boys? The missing bronze and tin gave an edge of uncertainty to even ordinary things.

* * *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 3 (scene 14)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 3 (scene 12)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)