Garstang Shearwater was a freelance. By this I mean that whilst he was a man-at-arms, he wasn’t under contract to any of the great condottieri. He owned his own horse and arms, and signed his own contract with an employer.
To be honest there aren’t many genuine freelances. A lot are actually jobbing brigands who do some soldiering when there is a demand for their services. But Garstang was, not to put too fine a point on it, respectable. His father had been a freelance before him, but when he got married, he settled down in Port Naain and took up the trade of an armourer. Admittedly he wasn’t too proud to produce a set of wrought iron gates when trade was slack, and all through the year he’d shoe horses. Then as autumn drew on, the soldiers would drift back from Partann, and the old man would spend his winter in the forge, repairing armour or making captured pieces fit their new owner. He’d even make new pieces as a speculative venture. Thus Garstang learned the trade as a boy, and when old enough, Lord Cartin was happy to take him on as a squire to learn the soldier’s trade.
But when he was knighted, he paid off all his debts, courteously bid farewell to Lord Cartin’s service and rode south on his own. There he took service with the minor municipality of Praedil and acted as constable as well as training the score of men who made up the village militia. The following year he was hired by Prae Ducis, the year after that, Lord Cartin was putting together a larger force than usual so Garstang hired on with him. Each winter he would ride back to Port Naain, and would spend the winter with his parents, spending much of his time helping his father in the forge.
But whilst a freelance, he was still a man-at-arms and had social obligations. Because he wasn’t part of any particular following, all the Condottieri captains reckoned it worth their while to keep in touch with him, so he was invited to everything.
At one of the balls thrown by Cavalier Qualan, one of the greater captains; he was introduced to, a young lady called Marthia Bloon. If I were of romantic bent I would insist that ‘they danced all night.’ Certainly they danced together more than was absolutely necessary.
Now Garstang didn’t really stand out. He was young, single, self-reliant and competent. Given that at least three-quarters of the men present were young men-at-arms, these were not qualities guaranteed to make him stand out from the crowd. He was presentable rather than handsome, tactful rather than glib, and was a good listener. Marthia was a beauty and Garstang was smitten.
During that winter he courted her, and with the coming of spring he proposed. She turned him down. She pointed out that whilst she liked him well enough, she couldn’t see him ever amounting to anything. Still she didn’t turn him down flat, she intimated that if, at some point in the future, he was something other than a man-at-arms, then she might be willing to reconsider his proposal.
That spring he signed on with Prae Ducis again and stayed with them for the next five campaigning seasons. During these years he was appointed captain of their men-at-arms. Each winter he would ride north to Port Naain, and each spring he would approach Marthia Bloon. Each spring he would propose, each spring she would ask him whether he was still a man-at-arms. On receiving an affirmative answer, she would turn him down.
The next year Garstang led a patrol through the hinterland of Prae Ducis. Whilst I call it a patrol, it consisted of him, another Man-at-arms, and five militia crossbowmen who were really labourers but work was scarce. He arrived at the Upper Dreg Bridge just after a group of bandits had fled across it, barely a mile ahead of a group of Lord Cartin’s men who were in hot pursuit.
Garstang rode his horse onto the bridge and waited, his visor up, and his lance ready. When the pursuers arrived, Garstang courteously asked them what they wanted.
The young Cornet of Horse rode forward, “We are pursuing felons.”
Garstang stretched out a hand. “If you give me a list of names, Prae Ducis will arrest and try them.”
The problem is that when the law goes in hot pursuit, it’s surprising how often the wrong person gets killed. Or sometimes somebody gets knocked about ‘because they wouldn’t answer questions’ or livestock can be run off ‘to cover legitimate out of pocket expenses.’
The Cornet looked at Garstang. Obviously it would be easy enough to move him. One crossbowman could kill him and be awarded the horse. The rest of the infantry would roll the body off the bridge and out of the way after looting it. But this was Garstang.
A couple of the crossbowmen had already dismounted and were spanning their weapons, waiting for the inevitable order. I’m not a martial man, but I long ago learned that whilst the gentry will agonise about the rights and wrongs of a situation, the infantry just get on with making the best of a bad job. After all, Garstang was riding a good horse. It was worth a year’s wages for the man who claimed it.
The Cornet glanced down at them and shook his head slightly. He turned to Garstang. “I’m sorry, we don’t have names, but we have a witness who will recognise them.” With that the Cornet gestured and a young woman sitting nervously on a borrowed horse was led forward.
Garstang bowed to her. “Then I suggest she, plus one of your men as an escort, should accompany me, and I will deal with the matter.”
At this point I suspect the Cornet just shrugged. He wasn’t paid enough to deal with this sort of thing. He sent his men back under his second in command and he and the young woman rode to join Garstang.
Garstang and his militia rode back to Prae Ducis. Once in the town, it took an hour for him to arrest the six men who were wanted, as they boasted about their exploits in various bars. It took the judiciary the rest of the afternoon to deal with them.
That autumn, when Garstang was about to ride north, various leading councillors approached him and asked if he would accept the contract to be commander of the city guard and militia. This was a permanent position, and the contract was open ended. Garstang accepted on the understanding that he would be allowed to spend a month in Port Naain every winter, due to family commitments.
So every year he’d visit his parents, and every year he’d propose to Marthia Bloon. She would turn him down because ‘he will never amount to anything, he’s still just a man-at-arms.’
As his parents grew older, they moved down to Prae Ducis to live with him. It also gave them a chance to get to know Garstang’s wife and spend time with their grandchildren. Garstang had invested his money wisely in land, and he’d put together a pleasant estate with half a dozen decent farms. He had tenants on five of them and he and his family lived on the sixth in a rather agreeable house. But still he came north every winter. I caught up with him during one of his visits. Marthia Bloon had just refused him again. I asked Garstang why, when he already had a wife and (by that time) five children, he still kept proposing.
“My wife insists.”
I must have looked somewhat surprised because he continued, “She pointed out that whilst she has me, the children and a pleasant home, Marthia is just a bitter old woman who has nothing but her money. Refusing to marry me is probably the only satisfaction she’ll get during the year.”
Should you wish to know more about life in Partann
As a reviewer commented, “Benor the cartographer is offered a job away from home with unusually generous pay. It all has to be done on the quiet, too. Something’s up. Benor has a murder to solve. I thought he had, but there’s more to come. This story is a murder mystery and a comedy of manners, set in a world of fantasy. If you like a genre mashup, this is brilliant. The characters and their relationships and banter would make it worth reading even if it didn’t have a plot – but it does. Another winner for me.”