"Indeed there is one place where all men stand equal," Sir Edgar said as their streams merged in the privy.
Baron Dermot looked sideways and sighed, “Profound saying and what pray tell, am I about to do wrong?”
“I but give advice; one road may be perhaps smoother than the other; the one you take is your decision,” Edgar replied, “Now that you have settled your border dispute it is worth noting that you now have two ladies who deserve your protection.”
“And are you suggesting that I should not enjoy the prerequisites of the conqueror?” Dermot asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Far from me to do so, yet would it not be better to have a prosperous, peaceful neighbour than to have a war in two domains?” Edgar said.
“Perhaps this conversation is better continued in another chamber?” Dermot suggested aware that Edgar usually gave subtle and valuable advice.
The story leading to this was a long series of disputes initiated by Dermot’s neighbour Black Phillip, Baron De Berkeley, who was harassing Dermot’s farmers adjoining the borders. Philip being combative allowed his demesne to run to ruin and was jealous of his neighbour’s ‘luck,’ then having noticed that the boundaries were somewhat vague, he sought to balance his income by demanding a tithe of the border farmers. As these farmers had historically looked to Dermot and his forebears for protection, they appealed for his justice. Skirmishes made the farmland unviable, so Dermot resettled the tenants to a safer area then garrisoned the area to prevent annexation.
This resettlement policy escalated the incidents as Black tried to grab the now vacant land, Dermot’s troops being well trained had no trouble forestalling this until Black raised the ante and invaded in force. Edgar had established sentinels who had warned Dermot about the buildup; therefore Dermot and his men were waiting.
Baron Dermot's men had slipped around the rear of the invaders, then advanced without the enemy being aware of the danger, trapping the invaders against the walls of the outpost. Philip led a charge intending to disperse this force and escape to his lands.
“Hack and harry, men to me,” Phillip screamed as he charged into Dermot’s force which had been arrayed on the high ground holding the advantage.
“Hold, cry mercy and throw down your weapons,” Dermot bellowed, “Fair treatment for all who yield!”
“Lay on Dermot, the devil takes him who cries, Hold, enough,” Black screamed as he singled out his opponent and charged swinging his axe.
This phrase made Dermot snort, this was a blatant line from the Scottish play, so he held his breath for the challenge.
Dermot fought him to a standstill and laid him on the green leaking his life's blood upon the grass. Then Dermot called on Black’s followers to surrender on a promise of parole. With the acceptance of amnesty, Dermot's men disarmed and secured the Berkeley force. This task completed, Dermot proceeded to besiege Berkeley Castle, which, with the capture of most of the soldiers, was forced to surrender. Claiming no more than hospitality, Dermot entered and accepted a declaration of peace from Rhonda, Phillip’s lady.
“I will return your menfolk after their declaration of parole, alas I regret that your husband has met his maker,” Dermot reported, "He will be brought for interment within the castle as you wish."
Which was accepted stoically by Rhonda, who invited them in knowing that refusal was fruitless.
At the dining table, Dermot discussed the settlement arrangement, “I wish for peace and the security of my boundaries and ask for no reparations.”
“I am thankful for that, Phillip would not heed my warnings and has doomed me to charity,” Rhonda responded, "My lack of sorrow is due to the circumstance of the inevitability of his fate."
After some drinking, Dermot excused himself to attend the necessary in the company of his minister.
After which Dermot had invited Edgar to the battlements, ‘For a breath of fresh air.’ Then asked; “Now what two warring domains are we talking about, I require no land or reparations from Berkeley?”
“Your own, if your heir's mother hears a word of prerequisites and this one if the treatment of his mother fosters resentment in the heart of Berkeley’s heir,” Edgar advised, “Perhaps the King may take exception to one of his peers encroaching on a neighbour.”
“He has been strangely silent as to Berkeley’s activities,” Dermot observed.
“Perhaps the message didn’t arrive soon enough?” Edgar suggested, “No doubt news of this event will reach his ear quickly, and it is best to allay suspicion of territory ambition.”
“As you have been correct in the past, I have to agree this is one of those times where a smooth road is the best.” Dermot agreed then decided, “Well having had the celebratory dinner, I will return home in the morning after spending a lonely night, you shall remain and guide Berkeley towards a stable economy.”
“Thank you, my Lord; it will be as you say,” Edgar acknowledged responding to his trust.
Adjourning to the main hall, Dermot addressed Rhonda, “I will be returning to my castle; I will leave my minister, please avail yourself of his administrative ability.”
This agreement with no reparations surprised Rhonda as she had steeled herself for more personal payment.
In the early morning, Baron Dermot had assembled his troops and departed leaving Sir Edgar to organise Berkeley Castle. Remaining with him were a few dependable soldiers for protection from opportunist marauders.
"Good morning my lady," Edgar greeted his new employer as she entered the dining hall seeking breakfast.
"Certainly a strange one, minister." Lady Rhonda returned.
"What would you have me do to place your land safely in your hands?" Edgar asked.
"If you would follow me to the document room after breakfast, I will lay out the parchments that determine the extent of Berkeley," Rhonda invited.
These documents were laid out, and Rhonda started to detail what she would like remedied, "Philip diverted manpower to the army instead of the farms. The burden on the tenants was increased instead of relieved."
"The parolees should be arriving soon, and those required on the farms will be released to husband them," Edgar suggested.
"We are of a like mind; while I shouldn't speak ill of the dead, Philip was not a good administrator and had a stone ear for advice," Rhonda agreed.
"Then my stay will be short, and I can return to my duty at home." Edgar laughed.
"Perhaps a few days to confirm that a new day has arrived, to settle a couple of objectors," She responded.
"Many of those?" he asked.
"Just a few who may feel that they were on a great deal," She suggested. "They show little respect for me or the other ladies."
"I have a couple of stout lads who can give a lesson in manners if required," Edgar promised. "Your bondsmen should be here shortly, and then we will separate the sheep from the goats." After a fruitful morning assessing the paperwork, the pageboy announced that the castles' soldiers had arrived and were assembling in the forecourt.
"Shall we go forward and you can advise them of the new order of command," Edgar suggested then added at her surprised look. "As you are the lady in charge it is your duty to do so."
"People of Berkeley, from today we are a peaceful land, those who farm the land shall return there, those who defend the land to be trained to be keepers of the peace, and lastly those who may find this onerous will be free to seek a new lord," Rhonda announced. There were a few protests soon quieted as Dermot's deputies stepped forward into view; specially selected as to size and armour. "Sir Edgar will be speaking in my name assigning those to the best employment for the county," Rhonda announced. "This may take some time but be assured no one who works for the common good will suffer."
The rest of the day was taken up separating the goats from the sheep and assigning them where they belonged. The farmers were happy to return to their allotments taking with them tools and food which the garrison had seised, to the relief of their families. Those men at arms who could be trusted were equipped and returned to barracks the number now consistent with the garrison and policing duties. Which left the last cronies singled out by Rhonda, leaving only the four who had made life unpleasant for the populace.
"Now what is your decision, stay and work for your living or to seek your fortune elsewhere?" Edgar asked.
"We have served the Baron faithfully, why should we be singled out?" Asked one surly fellow, apparently the spokesman.
"Tell me what useful talents you have and which the Lady needs," Edgar urbanely suggested.
"We are trained as fighters, not pushing any damn plough," He snarled.
"Think about it, as the alternative is exile far beyond Lady Rhonda's borders," Edgar stated. "Each to the four winds if you cannot suggest a trade in the morning."
"For tonight, you may sleep in the cells well-fed and clothed." Edgar decided. "Take them away." The last towards Dermot's Deputies, who pointed to where they would spend the evening.
"Why scatter them? It would take a lot of resources." Rhonda asked as they returned to the hall.
"If we just pushed them out of the gate as a group, we could have outlaws preying on your people, that is all they know," Edgar advised. "A couple may have second thoughts in the morning and find a memory of something useful. I believe a search of their previous quarters would be in order."
The search was carried out by Dermot's deputies and trusted clerks, who found far more money and equipment than they should have especially in 'Surly's' room. A list was compiled and presented to Rhonda, who compared it to his pay list and purchase receipts, there being a considerable discrepancy.
"Well if he leaves it will be a lot lighter; I believe that if I now ask, we may have a little revelation as to the source," Rhonda suggested. "Perhaps it may turn out that his morning journey is short and may grace his current domicile a little longer."
All was going smoothly with no complaints until the evening meal where Rhonda now sat in the baronial seat, and the guest seat replaced the Consort's, now occupied by Edgar. The steward's nose was put out of joint by this and snubbed Edgar by passing the appetiser platter first to Rhonda then all others leaving Edgar with an empty plate.
Rising smoothly from his seat drawing his belt knife, acquiring a slice of bread and another of roast meat with two casual flicks of his wrist then resuming his chair. Then nonchalantly cleaning the blade and allowing the light to gleam on the two hand long, finely honed Damascus blade, which he returned it to the scabbard. The smug smiles that had greeted the slight, now turned a little green as they contemplated the integrity of their hams.
"Pardon me, my lady, for the lack of courtesy, would you care for some roast?" Edgar inquired, allowing his audience time for the implications to sink in of the casual display.
"Perhaps you have made the point, I believe that the steward should do the honours, thank you," Rhonda said aware that the display was not for her benefit. The rest of the meal proceeded smoothly with a very nervous staff serving Edgar second after Rhonda as the guest.
As the meal was ending a commotion arose from the rear as two of the recalcitrant soldiers pushed their way in armed with swords. "Hold," Edgar ordered, there was general grabbing of their swords, "Place your weapons down. Comply, and you will have a safe passage with a warrant of skills when you leave; resist, and you will be harried forth with a declaration of Outlaw."
"This is my castle by entitlement, I am the son of the rightful ruler," He declared.
"Indeed, perhaps you have a letters patent attesting to that?" Edgar asked smoothly.
"I am not answerable to an upstart clerk, Baron Philip intended to do that shortly," 'Surly' declared.
Edgar smoothly hurdled the table drawing his sword from the sling as he went, transferring it to his right hand and drawing his dagger in one motion. Testing his footing, he waited for a move. "My father acknowledged and signed the letters patent when I was born, allowing the education and training to acquire my spurs," Edgar advised, "I am Sir Edgar Shrewsbury, and you would be?"
"Harold Berkeley, stand aside twerp," Harold said.
"Perhaps you should inquire as to who is Baron Dermot's sword-master first?" Edgar asked in a rhetorical tone as he didn't look anything else but a short dumpy man though his opponent should have noticed the agility that Edgar displayed to move from seat then across the table to floor.
"Have at you," Harold yelled as he charged.
Edgar smoothly caught Harold's blade with his dagger then whacked the side of his opponent with the flat of his sword, winding him, then when he swung around again kicked him in the leg making him stumble.
"Time enough now to lay your weapon down," Edgar advised.
"Damn you, fight fair," Harold demanded.
"Fair would be to run you through on the first pass," Sir Edgar commented reasonably.
Another exchange of blade swings ending with Harold lying on the floor nursing a sore head from when the flat of Edgar's sword connected the side of his head; the point was now resting on his throat. "Call mercy, outlaw or meet your maker," Edgar said, signalling the other to be restrained by his deputies.
Harold collapsed and pushed his sword away. "I yield."
"Sensible choice," Edgar accepted then ordered, "Bind them, then bring the fool that let them out."
The deputies brought a scared soldier and stood him before Rhonda; she asked, "Why did let him out?"
"He announced that he was the real Baron and swore retribution on those who opposed him, my assistants stood back and wouldn't help me," The soldier said.
"You and your assistants will share his quarters this night, in the morning we will dispense justice," Rhonda decided.
After an uneventful night, escorts brought the men before the judgement seat where Lady Rhonda, Sir Edgar and Father Michaels sat to determine their fate.
The party for judgement was escorted in, first to be dealt with was the gaoler, "How do you plead for failing in your duty?" Michaels asked.
"Guilty My Lady," He answered.
"Reduced one rank, one week working in the fields," Rhonda decreed.
Next, the soldiers who had stood back, "How do you plead for failing in your duty?" Fr Michaels asked.
"Guilty My lady," Each answered in turn.
"Assigned to the harvest until you acknowledge your duty," Rhonda decreed.
Then the two soldiers who had been given the option of dismissal or other employment, "How do wish your future to be?"
"I was a journeyman farrier My lady; I would swear allegiance to you and your heirs and return to that trade," The first said.
"I was a Carter, My Lady; I would swear allegiance to you and your heirs and return to that trade," Number two responded.
"Return to your trades on a years parole," Rhonda decreed.
"Those with decisions dismiss and assume your duties, bring forward the mutineers," Edgar announced.
Harold and his offsider were then brought forward in chains, "Simon on the charge of mutiny how do you plead?" Fr Michaels asked.
"Guilty My lady and throw myself on your mercy," Simon answered.
"I will show mercy; you are to be removed from the castle and released at the boundary to seek employment elsewhere." Rhonda decreed.
"Simon lately of Berkeley be unchained, depart in peace," Edgar announced.
"Harold bar-sinister Berkeley, how do you plead to the charge of mutiny, going armed before your liege Lady and affray?" Fr Michaels asked.
"Huh, these weren't the charges I was to face, not guilty," Harold answered.
"I find you guilty of all three charges, all were witnessed before the hall, so how would you refute them?" Rhonda asked.
"I am the rightful heir of Berkeley," he stated.
"I asked last night, do you have Letters Patent, attesting to that fact?" Edgar asked. "Until you produce such evidence to that fact, the charges stand. The royal court would acknowledge that Lady Rhonda is the Dowager Baroness till Baron Samuel is of age. Holding such Letters would not place you in line for inheritance except in the absence of legitimate offspring. I advise you that my younger brother is the Baronet Shrewsbury, not I."
"The penalty for mutiny is death if you were to appeal to His Majesty and were unsuccessful. Do you wish to hear my doom on your fate?" Rhonda decreed.
"I accept your mercy, My Lady," Harold said in resignation.
"Escorted to the boundaries of Berkeley and declared Outlaw within the province after which all men's hand will be raised against you, my advice is to use your time to seek employment in a foreign land," Rhonda decreed.
"Supply a weeks provision, such monies to allow you to depart the province and be gone holding your peace," Edgar announced, "Such mercy will not be repeated if found nearby again. escort him to the boundary."
After Harold departed, "I hope there is no comeback on that mercy; none should complain of unfair treatment," Edgar commented.
"Indeed, I have never heard of such lenient judgement, it was certainly true that if he were to stand before any other court, his fate would be ultimately mortal," Father Michael concurred.
"I certainly hope this so, I don't wish to be biassed, but a sharp solution would have saved a lot of grief in the future," Rhonda said.
"As would most in your position having been threatened in your hall," Edgar noted, "However as we discussed last evening, such would be unbecoming of the Dowager. I believe that my presence will be needed a little longer than first anticipated, I would ask for leave to bring my lady to your court for this stay?" This request being Edgar's way of announcing his marital status.
"Of course, I would love to have gentle company to sooth my time as Dowager," Rhonda agreed.
So Edgar sent word to his family to join him with a contingent of armed men for protection. While he was still nervous about the arrangement, despite Harold headed the opposite direction under guard.
However any worries were unfounded, and the convoy arrived safely.
"My Lady Rhonda would you so kind as to greet my Lady Wendy, our children Steven, Alfred, and Sonia." Sir Edgar introduced his family.
"You are most welcome to my home; my steward will see you settled in comfort." Lady Rhonda said.
Lady Wendy and her family were escorted to the visitor's wing to settle their luggage and belongings. In the morning, the children would be attending the school which was run by Father Michael, this was rarely done but was something that Sir Edgar with the support of his lady had established. Philip would not have supported any such, considering it as money wasted.
Still, it ultimately returned to the land far more than it cost for all children attending the reading and writing classes. At Edgar's estate, several youths had gone on to higher education and found rewarding careers.
Time passed uneventfully, until one day a travelling monk sought an audience with Sir Edgar.
"Welcome good friar," Edgar greeted him, "What news do you bring?"
"Grim news my lord," Friar Donald said, "There are stories that a band of outlaws infest the woods between the castle and Cambridge Township. They stop all travellers and demand a toll."
"Do the stories describe the felons?" Edgar asked.
"Masked, but the statue of the leader is consistent with the pretender Harold," Donald said, "Five others are with him."
"I would be unsurprised if that were the case," Edgar said with a grimace, "Thank you for the information. I will institute convoys with guards to reduce the interference with trade."
Edgar then asked, "Do the stories suggest how they are armed and if they are mounted?"
"Bows and swords," Donald said, "On foot."
"Again I thank you for your assistance may your travels be easy," Edgar said.
"Ever our duty to disseminate news, fare thee well," Donald acknowledged.
Edgar called in his men-at-arms to brief them on the problem and the tactics that would be needed to counter the threat.
"Men, it seems we have some light-fingered gentry interfering with traffic through the woods," Edgar commenced the orders, referring to the map laid out on the table. "Set up a barricade at this point, allow several travellers to gather, then send them off with a troop of soldiers to guide them through to the other side."
"I have sent a messenger to Baron Dermot asking him to do the same at the other end," Edgar informed them, "When you meet in the middle, bring the South-bound group back this way. Thomas, you will know Gerald so if he isn't in the other troop, don't exchange your charges."
"As you wish, sir," Thomas accepted the task, "Come along men we better get started."
Once they had left Edgar turned to his remaining men and asked, "Have you posted sentinels ?"
"Yes, Sir, as you ordered," Brian the serjeant replied,"If they see suspicious behaviour, each has a runner who will come to you directly."
"Excellent, have the horses prepared for quick departure," Edgar said, "I will be waiting in my chambers."
Having organised the troops, Edgar did as he said and moved to his office to wait. After filing his current reports, Edgar settled into the wait hoping that something would happen to resolve the resources required to maintain the convoys. The downside of preventing the outlaws from profiting from their 'tolls' is all they may shift their focus to another site and undo the hard work.
"My best hope is that the leader isn't as sensible as myself," Edgar said to himself, "If I were running the gang I would have randomised my activity before now, so that is a good sign." Having a quick look around in case he was found talking to himself, he laughed and settled into waiting.
Shortly after he heard the first detail depart to arrange the convoy, there was a clatter of feet approaching his room.
When a knock came to the door, Edgar called, "Enter."
"My Lord, Ralph the farrier has left the castle on a horse towards the woods," The boy reported.
"Excellent, now run and inform Serjeant Brian that I am on my way," Edgar ordered as he leapt to his feet, grabbed his weapons, and followed.
Arriving at the forecourt, he found the troop mounted and ready. Leaping into the saddle, he said, "Let's away." The gate swung open, and the troop thundered out on a vector to the spy's likely path.
Edgar was confident that the observers he had arranged would give the prearranged signal to mark the spy's entry point. Dermot loaned some of his Rangers experienced in covert surveillance.
As the troop made their way towards the staging point where they could observe the signals which would indicate the route the suspected spy was taking.
The signal wasn't long in showing a scout cried, "Smoke at Burke's farm left-side of the house."
"Let's go," Edgar said pointing at the rally point at one of the entrances to the woods.
As they reached the spot where the suspect had disappeared, they pulled to a halt, and the ranger dismounted and started directing the horsemen along the track that the Farrier had taken.
"Remain silent as possible, the surprise is essential if we are to capture them before they disperse into the bracken," Edgar advised.
They dismounted and fitted the mufflers to their horse's hooves before leading them after the ranger. Eventually, the ranger signalled the halt and waved Edgar forward.
"They have gathered ahead, My Lord," The Ranger said.
"Good work, stay here and secure the horses," Edgar said, "Withdraw if the bandits run this way. I will sound the horn when I need you to bring them forward."
"I will do as you say, my lord," The Ranger responded as he led the horses away to safety.
Signalling to his men, Edgar moved forward and crept up on their target, Ralph was trying to pass his message over to the leader and was having difficulty in expressing the danger.
Edgar's party was now close enough to listen.
"Piffle he is too fat and dumb to organise that, the next pigeon will be along any minute," Harold snorted.
"They are sending through groups with an escort of foot soldiers," Ralph said, "In case I am missed I had better get back to the castle."
"You do that," Harold said, "Here is the scout."
As Ralph mounted and trotted off, a bandit ran up to tell them that traders were approaching. Harold waved his men to cover to wait in ambush. Edgar responded by setting his men to cut off the gang's escape.
The convoy rounded the corner with the escort prominent in front and following. Harold stood to urge his men forward, and the guards responded by forming a rank before the civilians with shields and swords and the next row limbering their bows ready for the gang's charge.
"Damn, too many let's get out of here," Harold bellowed and spun around only to find Edgar's men also arrayed to cut their escape route.
"Your run is too late, I believe that you were advised to leave the country for your health," Edgar said as Harold was stunned into immobility.
Gathering himself, he charged Edgar hoping to make him jump out of the way. Edgar did so just enough to trip the rogue onto his face.
"Do you surrender?" Edgar asked.
Harold scrambled to his feet, roared his refusal and started swinging his sword trying to strike Edgar.
While his men settled the others with most ending their career on the point of a sword, Edgar parried Harold's sword swing and smote him on the arm making Harold drop the dagger then catching the next sword swing on his dagger.
This exchange went on for another few minutes before Harold fell bleeding still cursing Edgar before burbling into silence.
Checking him, Edgar ascertained that Harold had met his maker and would not be a menace in the future. "Was I fighting fair enough, this time, Harold?"
Calling the leaders of the escort and ambush parties over; Edgar instructed, "Thomas, complete your escort in case that there is more than one band of bandits, Brian, have these tidied up, the dead taken to the churchyard for burial and the captives to the castle for judgement."
"Yes, sir," The two serjeants responded then shouted to their men to carry out their orders, Brian ordering the recall horn for the horses.
"I will ride back to the castle to relay the news to Baroness Rhonda," Edgar said as his horse arrived and he mounted.
Edgar mounted his horse and trotted off towards the castle, having a better horse he caught sight of Ralph ahead so broke into a gallop to overhaul him. Drawing alongside he commented, "Nice day for a ride?"
"Ah, yes Sir," Ralph stammered as they came to a halt.
"Now if I were you, I would probably dismount, hand over the reins and start walking the opposite way," Edgar suggested.
"Why Sir?" Ralph asked.
"There is a choice; you could return to the Castle to join your friends who are returning in chains," Edgar advised.
"Oh, in that case, goodbye Sir," Ralph said as he slid down and started walking back the other way.
Edgar resumed his ride to the castle leading the other horse. He wondered to himself why he was so generous as the farrier probably wouldn't learn any better.
Cantering into the forecourt, Edgar dismounted and handed over the horses to a groom; then seeing Baroness Rhonda, he saluted and informed her of the skirmish.
"Good evening My Lady, Your men have cleared the roads of outlaws and rendered the road safe again," Edgar reported, "I also regret that Harold has broken his parole though he will not be a problem in the future."
"Good news indeed, Sir Edgar," Rhonda said, "And what has happened to our Harold?"
"I played fair this time, but he still didn't appreciate the honour," Edgar replied, "The serjeants are bringing a couple of outlaws to hear your mercy and a few more for the Father to render the Lord's final judgement."