"Nothing," Gerda told him. "Seven barges, this watch. Traders are gathering for the fair at Orieano."
"I know," the other agreed. "We'll have rich collections for the rest of the summer, what with fairs all down the valley. You'll be going to the Orieano Fair?"
"Got my permission yesterday. I'm to ride with the Baron. Have to give the merchants back part of their money, you know."
"Yes, I suppose so." The other grinned, then sobered. "I'll relieve you, sir."
"Very good." Gerda saluted, then turned.
"March off the old guard," he ordered.
The men started up the steps. Gerda followed the serfs with the money chest, bringing up to the rear.
Slowly, they toiled their way up the trail, halting at the halfway point for a brief rest. At last, they were at the top of the cliff. Before them, the castle gate opened. Within the tunnellike passage through the wall, two sentries grounded their pikes.
Gerda nodded to his clerk, accepted the account tablet, and followed his serfs, who still bore the money chest, into the castle.
Inside the main counting room, his bearers set the chest on a large table. The castle steward came toward them.
"And how were collections?"
"Reasonably good, sir. Seven barges came through during the night, with good cargoes." Gerda held out the tablet.
The steward looked at it, checking off the entries. "Meron, of Vandor--Yes, he would have about that. And Borowa? A thousand?" He nodded thoughtfully. "That seems about right for him." He tapped the tablet a few times, squinting at the last name on the list. "But who is this Teron? I never heard of him. Must have had a rich cargo, too."
Gerda laughed shortly. "He's a new one to me. He tried to get away with a tenth, then protested the valuation. I fined him an extra five hundred."
"Oho!" The steward smiled thinly. "What then?"
Gerda shook his head. "Oh, he was suddenly so anxious to pay the right amount, he gave me forty-eight teloa overweight. I'll know him next time I see him, I'm sure. I marked him well for receipt."
He inspected his knuckles reflectively, then took the key from his belt and opened the chest.
"You'll want to verify my count, of course?"
"Oh, yes. Yes, to be sure. Have to be certain, you know. And there's your share of the fine and overpayment to be taken care of." The steward reached into the chest, removing bags which clinked as they were dropped to the table. He stopped, to look into the chest with a puzzled expression on his face.
"And what are these?" He reached in, to withdraw three obviously empty bags. He looked curiously at the thongs which tied their mouths, then shook them and looked questioningly at Gerda.
"Why, I ... I don't know." Gerda looked incredulously at the bags. "Certainly, I had no extra money bags."
"I should think not." The steward frowned, then beckoned behind him. Two heavily armed guards approached.
"We'll have to examine into this."
As the guards came close to Gerda, the steward looked closely at the bags on the table, then picked one up, opening it.
"Borowa," he muttered after looking inside and comparing the tally chip with the count tablet. He weighed the bag in his hand. "Yes, it seems to be about right. Certainly not overweight." He picked up another, then still another. At last, he looked up.
"Of course, I shall have to count all of these carefully," he remarked grimly, "but I see no coin from this Teron you have listed." He stared coldly at Gerda. "And the tower lookout confirms that you had seven barges. That was a considerable amount. What did you do with that money?"
"Why, I counted it. It was all there." Gerda shook his head unbelievingly. "My count agreed with that of my clerk, and I dropped tallies in and closed the bags again." He looked uneasily at the two guards who flanked him. "Surely, you don't think I'd be so foolish as to tamper with the Baron's taxes? Think, man! I know the Baron's ways!"
"I'm not sure just what I think--yet." The steward shook his head. He picked up one of the empty bags, opened it, and gave it a shake. The small tally chip fell out and he picked it up, comparing it with the list on the tablet. Frowning thoughtfully, he opened the other two bags. More small blocks of wood fell out. He looked at the bags, then tossed them aside and looked coldly at the guard officer.
"It's witchcraft," cried Gerda. "I had nothing----"
"We'll see." The steward motioned at the two guards. "Search this man."
Dazedly, Gerda stood still, submitting as one of the guards went through his clothing while the other stood ready to deal with any resistance. The searcher made a thorough examination of Gerda's clothing, muttered to himself, and went over his search again. A pile of personal objects lay on the table when he had finished. At last, he looked at the prisoner, then faced his chief.
"He has nothing on him, sir, not even a teloa."
"So I see." The steward frowned, then looked at Gerda.
"You may reclaim your possessions now, captain. Is there any chance that your clerk might have opened the money chest?"
Gerda shook his head. "I don't see how he could, sir, unless he had a duplicate key, and that's hardly possible. I kept the chest locked at all times, and the key never left my person."
"And there is no chance that any of your men could have hidden anything on the way here?"
Again, Gerda shook his head. "None," he said positively. "I was behind them all the way, and would have seen if any had made any unusual motion."
"Very well." The steward clapped his hands sharply.
There was a clatter of arms, followed by the scuffle of feet. Across the room, a door opened and a detachment of the castle guard filed in. Their leader stepped forward, saluting the steward.
"There is a river watch outside," he was told. "Disarm them, take them to a cell, and search them thoroughly. A considerable amount of coin has been stolen. Report to me when you have finished."
"Yes, sir." The group filed out.
The steward turned to Gerda again.
"This matter must be examined carefully," he declared. "You may have been the victim of witchcraft, of course, though I doubt it, never having witnessed such a thing. Or one of your men may have worked out a cunning method of theft, an occurrence which I have witnessed many times. Or, there's the other possibility." He stroked his chin. "After all, you were the rearmost man, and the one none other would observe."
Gerda looked at him fearfully.
"This may become a matter for the Baron's personal attention," continued the steward. He looked sharply at Gerda. "How long have you been in the Baron's service?"
"Why, you know that, sir. Ten years, ever since I----"
"Yes, yes, I remember. And you know how hopeless it is to try to deceive the Baron?"
"Yes, sir." Gerda swallowed painfully.
"But you still insist you had nothing to do with the disappearance of this money?"
Gerda spread his hands. "I can't understand it, sir. But I had nothing to do with it myself. As I told you, we collected it, listed it, counted it, and I put it in the chest and locked it up." He shook his head again. "It's witchcraft, sir."
The steward leaned back, a slight smile playing about his lips.
"Witchcraft is good enough for serfs," he said smoothly, "but you and I are intelligent men. We have had collection money disappear before, many times. Almost always, there has been the cry, 'It's witchcraft!' And always there has been a more simple, worldly explanation." He snapped his lingers and a page hurried forward.
"A cup of wine," ordered the steward. "This questioning is thirsty work." He faced back to Gerda.
"Always," he repeated, "some explanation has been forthcoming. Usually, I have discovered the errant one--with the help of my guards, of course. And the criminal has been duly punished. But there have been some few occasions when the malefactor was so clever as to force the Baron's intervention." He paused, leaning forward a little.
"And do you know what happened then?"
Gerda's throat was becoming dry. His mouth opened, but he closed it again.
The page returned, bearing a large cup and a flagon of wine. Carefully, he filled the cup, then set it before the steward, who lifted it to his lips, drank, and set it down with a satisfied sigh.
"Thank you, boy. Here is one thing we can produce well in these mountains." He wiped his lips and turned his gaze to Gerda again. He shook his head slowly.
"The Baron can detect guilt or innocence in a moment. For a short time, he questioned the persons brought before him. He soon determined the guilty ones, and wrung confessions from their wretched lips. We then took them away, and turned them over to the torturers." He raised the cup again.
"You know," he added, "I'm told that some of them lasted as long as ten full days." He shook his head. "I could never understand how the executioners can put up with such noise for so long. But then, I suppose one gets used to most anything."
He looked toward the door. "Strange," he murmured, "I wonder what's keeping Maro so long." He clapped his hands sharply once more, and waited.
The page dashed to a door and disappeared within. At last, he came back, holding the door for the leader of the castle guard detachment, who came forward to salute his superior.
"Have you found anything yet?"
"Nothing, sir. We have stripped them, but they have no unusual things about them. And we have questioned them. None will admit to seeing or doing anything other than normal duties."
The steward sighed. "Very well. Secure them, then. I'll call for them later." He stood.
"Come, Nal Gerda," he ordered, "unless you have something further to tell me of this, we must have an audience with the Baron."
Florel, Baron Bel Menstal, sat at his ease. Before him was a dish of good cakes, beside him, a cup and flagon of good wine. He looked contentedly around the apartment.
For fourteen years now, he had been lord of this castle. And for fourteen years, he had busied himself building his forces and increasing his power and influence in the duchy. He had made himself feared and respected.
During the past several years, his word had been of great weight in the Duke's councils. He was now one of the great barons of the realm. He smiled to himself.
As he had risen in importance, Orieano, the soft holder of the rich fields to the west, had fallen. The man was getting old--even older than the Duke himself, and he was tired. And his daughter was the sole heir to that barony.
Again, Menstal smiled to himself as he thought of the daughter of Orieano. Next month, at the fair, he would press suit for the hand of the heiress, and a few months after that he would have control of the rich farm lands and the trading city.
The girl would probably protest, but that would do her little good. He knew what fear could do. And he could rouse such fear as to render even strong men but helpless masses of flesh. The beauteous damsel of Orieano would be a simple task. None other would dare dispute his claim, and the Duke would come to support him.
And the Duke himself? Ah, well, perhaps it would be as well to allow him to finish his life in peaceful possession of his broad fields. But certainly, the son of Dwerostel would have no word in the control of the duchy. An accident could be easily arranged, and Flor, one-time woods beater and scullery boy of Budorn, would become the great Duke he had long planned to be. No, it wouldn't take too many more years.
He filled himself a cup, and looked complacently into its clear depths. The tap on the door broke his reverie, and he looked up, annoyed.
He stared impatiently at his castle steward as the man entered and made obeisance.
"What now, Weron?" He set the cup down. "Must I be bothered with all your petty problems?"
"This, Excellency, is an unusual problem. A sizable tribute payment has disappeared without trace. The empty bags were left, and the culprit has----"
"Enough!" The Baron waved a hand impatiently, then adjusted his golden coronet to a more comfortable angle. For an instant, his fingers played with the ornamental bosses.
"Yes, yes, I see," he snapped. "You can spare me your mumbled details. This man is the officer of the guard?"
"Yes, Excellency." The steward motioned Gerda forward.
Bel Menstal looked sternly at his officer. "Where did you hide your loot?" he demanded.
Gerda looked incredulously at his master. He had stolen nothing. As far as he knew, he had done nothing wrong. But he seemed to be condemned in advance. Something was insistently pressing on his brain, demanding a confession. He had nothing to confess, but the demanding pressure remained. He struggled against it, and it grew.
Admit it. How did you do it? Where is the money?
The pressure became a tearing force. Gerda swayed weakly.
"I don't know what happened," he insisted. "I told----"
The words stopped as the force became almost unbearably intense. A sudden, sharp pain tore at Gerda's throat, and blinding light seemed to strike back of his eyes. Through the glare, he dimly saw the Baron raise a hand threateningly.
"You claim to have no idea at all how the money was taken, or which of your men may have been the thief? This is not a sensible attitude."
You know something. You must know something. Tell it!
Gerda shook his head miserably, entirely unable to speak. Somehow, nothing was clear. He remembered that something had gone wrong. Somehow, he had failed his duty. But how? The room was hazy. Snatches of his last tour of duty rose to his consciousness, then were abruptly blotted out--gone. The faces of his clerk and of the men-at-arms came out of the haze for an instant. Then, they, too, were gone.
The room seemed to spin and an irresistible force bore him to the floor. As he slowly was pressed downward, he wondered who he was--why he was here--what had happened. Then, the floor came at him with blinding speed and he ceased to wonder. The haze about him scintillated and became impenetrable darkness.
The Baron looked down at the crumpled form.
"Take this man away, Weron," he ordered. "He knew nothing." He stroked his hair. "When he recovers, assign him to some unimportant duty in the castle. Something, of course, that will demand little thought or spirit."
"And the others, Excellency?"
"Oh, bring them in, one at a time. One of them managed to make a complete fool of his officer, of course. But I'll find him."
Bel Menstal waved his hand in dismissal, then leaned back in his chair, watching as his steward directed a pair of men-at-arms. They carried the limp form from the room.
"There. That'll pick up any power radiation from the castle." Konar straightened, looking at the small panel.
"Good enough." Meinora leaned over, checking the dials. "See you've set it for average power."