Sleigh ride?

Sleigh ride

 

The events chronicled in this story happened some time ago. Thus the people mentioned were, by definition, younger and perhaps more prone to impulsive acts. I hope you will keep this in mind. This is perhaps not the place to be too judgemental.

It appears that in Port Naain there was something of a scandal about various orphanages.  Not to put too fine a point on it, the orphanages were being run as commercial concerns with the proprietors demanding money (occasionally with menaces) from passers-by and those of a charitable disposition. This, they claimed, was to support their orphans. It was finally decided that a committee of the Council of Sinecurists should investigate. This committee concluded that at some orphanages for every ten vintenars donated, one vintenar was spent on the orphans and the remaining nine went to pay the honorarium of the person running the business.

Deciding that this was unacceptable, the Council clamped down on the industry. A new Sinecure was started, Guardian of the Orphans. This individual had to inspect the various orphanages and ensure that the orphans were adequately clothed, fed and educated. In point of fact what happened was the first Sinecurist to purchase the sinecure merely appointed Mistress Firtan as ‘Assistant Guardian’ and restricted their input to paying the lady a reasonable salary. Also during the early months when Mistress Firtan was new to the job and finding her feet, it was considered wise to lend her half a dozen burly footmen who would accompany her on her inspections. So successful was she that the guild of Orphanage Providers complained that under the new regime, it was costing them six vintenars in every ten collected merely to keep up the standards the Guardian demanded.

Still with larger establishments and economies of scale some proprietors managed to keep these overheads down at somewhere between four and five vintenars in every ten collected.
But no sooner had the situation within Port Naain been remedied, others decided to profit from the change. At one point you could buy orphans from a Port Naain orphanage that was closing down and set up your own establishment. This also became a scandal. One orphanage sold its orphans by public auction, and the entire city was scandalised at the prices these innocent children were fetching. So much so that at the second auction there were so many parents bringing their children to be sold that the crush of people blocked Ropewalk. The crowd had to be dispersed by the authorities using men-at-arms hastily hired for the purpose. For years afterwards, parents would silence recalcitrant or fractious children by ostentatiously looking in the Port Naain Intelligencer for the date of the next child auction.

But once you purchased your orphans, you could then advertise for funding within Port Naain. But of course because you were outside the city, the Guardian of the Orphans had no authority over you.

It appears that some of these out of town institutions left much to be desired. So much so that warm hearted people started sending supplies to these orphanages. They had learned their lesson, they did not send money, they sent food, bedding, second hand children’s clothes and similar.

It was at this point that Maljie enters our story. She had been shocked by some of the stories and it was decided that she and her sister Margarita would deliver some supplies to a number of orphanages in Northern Partann. Maljie found that collecting for the cause was comparatively easy. The fact that she was going to deliver the goods personally reassured donors who knew that she would not be easily fooled.
Thus and so, in the middle of winter, Maljie and Margarita set forth. With a heavily loaded dray they left Port Naain, crossing the estuary at the ferry and set off into the Bandit ridden hinterland. Apparently the weather was too cold for bandits who were all sitting snug at home, but there were still the regular toll booths. To be fair a lot of these toll collectors are virtually indistinguishable from bandits, differing mainly in that they will give you a receipt.

Maljie had taken precautions. When they arrived at one of these toll booths, she would sit, a pile of papers ready for inspection. More importantly she also had an indelible pencil and a note pad. So when the overseer of tolls made his appearance she would formally ask his name. This would be written in the note book. She would then turn to her sister Margarita and discuss the appearance of the individual. So Tobbit Toecropper would go down in the book as, ‘Of villainous appearance, average height, black hair, becoming grizzled; grey eyes, poorly shaved and grubby complexion. Scar on left cheek running from corner of mouth to ear. Missing two front teeth.’

This done, Maljie would produce her documentation. Whereas lesser individuals would have come armed with letters of introduction from society worthies, noted philanthropists and pillars of the community, Maljie had added to her collection of sponsors some of Port Naain’s leading villains. These were individuals whose record for vindictive retribution and exquisitely targeted violence had spread throughout large areas of the surrounding countryside. On having the various names pointed out to him, (Tobbit Toecropper was only marginally literate) it was discovered that there was nothing to pay.

At one point Maljie and Margarita were forced to swap the dray for a sleigh, so bad had the roads become. This also went better than they’d hoped. Everybody was most helpful and worked briskly and with a will to get the job done. Those who told me the story were unsure whether the fact that the two sisters were supervising progress with loaded and cocked crossbows influenced the situation.

Finally they reached the first orphanage that they were supposed to be supplying, the Brassat Tower Children’s Home. The first surprise was that this was a partially ruined keep. They were welcomed by an elderly man of limited intelligence who was apparently responsible for the children. He led them into a small room where six children, little more than babies, were in their cots. He had kept them warm by lighting a horrocks dung fire in the grate which gave out a little heat and a lot of smoke. The latter was because there was no chimney, the grate was set in the middle of the room with the smoke escaping through holes in the roof.
Maljie asked him, “Whose children are these?”

“Ours.”

“No, where are their parents?”

This produced a blank look. “Them’s orphans.”

Slowly and carefully Maljie said, “Yes, but where did they come from. They might have families or people who could look after them.”

“Ah.” He pulled a piece of grubby paper out of his pocket. “Here.”

Maljie examined the document. It was the invoice for the purchase of six babies from an orphanage in Port Naain that had since closed down. Judging by the prices paid, these were the lots sold at the end of a poor sale and people were just letting them go rather than have to take them back home.

Still trying to find out what was going on, Maljie asked, “Where do you live?”

“Here.” With that he gestured proudly at the pile of dried horrocks dung at one side of the room. There was a ragged blanket lying on it. “My bed.”

He gestured to the pot hanging over the fire. “I cooks here.”

Leaving Margarita lounging against the sledge, ostentatiously fondling a crossbow, Maljie decided to look round the rest of the village. There were perhaps half a dozen hovels. Some of them had once been outbuildings of the keep. They had been bodged back into use with roofs repaired with thatch or by nailing bits of board across gaps where the slates had gone. Others were of ‘lean-to’ construction. Reused stone and second hand timber huts utilising one wall of the keep. The interiors were universally squalid, the inhabitants malnourished and shivering in the cold. One positive feature was that there was no sign of vermin, but one lady commented regretfully that they’d eaten what they could catch and the others had migrated looking for better prospects. Apparently this year had produced the second bad harvest in succession.

Maljie returned to the sledge and they contemplated the situation. It was decided that Margarita would hand out the supplies to everybody whilst a fuming Maljie went to deal with the Lord of the Keep. When Margarita tentatively asked what Maljie intended to do, her sister merely muttered something about using her feminine wiles.

I cannot swear to what Maljie’s intention was. It must be remembered that amongst the lordlings of Partann, death by competitive assassination is normally listed as ‘natural causes.’ Whilst Maljie has all the qualities necessary to be a really successful Partannese warlord, I don’t think she particularly wanted the job. Perhaps she thought that if she removed the current incumbent then whoever stepped in to fill the position had to be better.

As she made her silent way through the Keep she was surprised by how deserted it was. Even the rooms that were weather tight were empty, stripped of all furniture. There appeared to be only one room occupied, on the first floor. Apparently she used the long bladed carving knife she happened to have with her to lift the latch and peered into the room. There, sitting by a fire fuelled with burning furniture was a young boy in a wheelchair. Cooking porridge over the fire was a man who might have been in middle years but looked older. With one glance Maljie took in the entire scene, the fact that the room’s furnishings consisted of a single bed, just long enough for the boy, the chair the boy was sitting in, and a sack of coarse flour. The sack was barely a third full, and the wheelchair had a least one broken wheel and was propped up on bricks. She shut the door, and it was a thoughtful Maljie who made her way back to the sledge.

They loaded the six babies into the now empty sledge, and sped off into the afternoon. Maljie consulted her list. At the next orphanage they borrowed, at crossbow point, two long men’s coats and fur hats. Plus another four babies. As night fell they liberated two more but now the sledge was full. With Margarita at the reins the sledge sped off into the night. Next morning found them still speeding across the snow, they had been pursued by wolves, a posse comitatus raised to track down child kidnappers, and an aggrieved bandit who had decided to ‘go straight’ and become a collector of tolls. His toll booth had been flattened by a sledge in the middle of the night.

Back in Port Naain, Maljie was strangely unforthcoming about her expedition. She managed to find her orphans homes with various temples of Aea. These will take children but expect the person ‘delivering’ the child to them to act as a sponsor. This sponsorship can take the form of funds if the person can afford it, or merely visiting and spending time with the child if they cannot. This is rumoured to be how Maljie first got ensnared by the Shrine of Aea in Her Aspect as the Personification of Tempered Enthusiasm. It is difficult to have a brisk meeting when a toddler climbs up onto your lap, snuggles down and goes to sleep.

Obviously, from time to time Maljie was asked about the lordling of Brassat Tower. She was dismissive. She merely commented that she’d heard he’d come to a bad end.

What I do know is that the day after Maljie and Margarita arrived back in Port Naain, a priestess of Aea in her Aspect as the Personification of Healing had taken the sledge, now reloaded with food, clothing and coal, back to Brassat Tower. Maljie claims to know nothing, but amongst the supplies were two wheels suitable for a wheelchair.

♥♥♥♥

It may be that you have not yet ventured into Port Naain. If so, let Tallis Steelyard be your guide.

 

When he is asked to oversee the performance of the celebrated ‘Ten Speeches’, Tallis Steelyard realises that his unique gifts as a poet have finally been recognised. He may now truly call himself the leading poet of his generation.
Then the past comes back to haunt him, and his immediate future involves too much time in the saddle, being asked to die in a blue silk dress, blackmail and the abuse of unregulated intoxicants. All this is set in delightful countryside as he is booked to be poet in residence at a lichen festival.

As a reviewer commented, “What’s a poet to do when one of his lady patrons is being blackmailed and his own life may be at risk due to his actions in defending another from attack some time in the past.
How are both these events connected?
Well – read this tale and find out – trust me, it’ll be time well spent.”


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