Rodrik is still unpacking his belongings, lovingly putting his mortar and pestle on a place of pride, when he hears a knock on his door.
He curses inwardly. Not only have not all of his supplies been unpacked, but he decidedly doesn’t look the part to receive the master of the castle in his room.
Naturally, it’s not because he, Rodrik, has any particular designs on Lord Edward Finthorp - besides the obvious desire to gain one’s new superior’s regard, which, in his opinion, would be felt by anyone with half a brain. It is simply because he prefers to look presentable, and wearing no doublet over the shirt and out of breath definitely doesn’t fit the definition.
On the other hand, it’s not as though he has a choice. Deciding against simply shouting for the Lord of Bluegrate to come in, he opens the door – and discovers he is standing face to face with a stranger.
The young man on his doorstep has a blush in his cheeks that betokens a recent exercise in the yard as well as a thinner skin than one would usually expect of a man-at-arms – and he can scarcely be anyone else, being dressed too well to be a servant.
Rodrik isn’t sure he is disappointed or relieved.
‘How can I help you?’ He smiles a smile of practiced charm. It is no hardship, truly – the young man is fair-featured, and has hair of such a particular shade of gold that makes Rodrik wonder if it would be too unwise to try and brighten his new life in this unwelcome land with a dalliance.
‘Let us speak inside’, the man-at-arms whispers, as if someone might be watching them.
Wondering, Rodrik gestures for him to come inside, and shuts the door. What kind of complain could possibly merit such secrecy? Something of the kind one catches from fornication? If so, Rodrik cannot help but feel sorry for the man. Whatever miracles mercury promised, it was no lifelong cure.
‘Let’s’, Rodrik agrees, sitting down on the bed – the chests that might have served the function instead being thrown open – and watching his visitor follow his example. ‘Your name is?...’
‘Stephan, Master Eeling. I am a knight in His Lordship’s service’, he says, confirming Rodrik’s suspicions.
‘Your family must be very proud of you. My brother is a knight also’.
‘Lord Arthur Eeling of Frosthall?’ Stephan’s eyes grow wide. ‘He is truly your brother? I am sorry, I thought –’
‘That our surnames were merely a coincidence?’ Rodrik cannot resist asking dryly. Who can blame the man-at-arms for such a supposition? What, after all, would a son of the king’s Chancellor, the brother of the man who had been made one of the foremost men of the realm, be doing with pestle and mortar? The answer of passion, in Rodrik’s experience, has been bewildering to most. ‘Yes, he is my brother, and the star of all tourneys. What is it that bring you to me today?’ He adds, changing the subject abruptly.
‘Master Eeling, you have to promise never to tell anyone’.
‘Never divulging my patients’ details had been in the oath I’ve sworn after my final exam in the Academy. Speak away’.
Stephan swallows, leans closer to Rodrik, and says:
‘I think my eyes are... hard to describe. Burning. Inflamed’.
The drama of the confession makes Rodrik blink.
Of bloody course his eyes are inflamed. Think of all the dust flowing from beneath the hooves of his noble steed.
‘It’s a common complaint for the men of your profession’, Rodrik notes.
‘Is it?’ Stephan asks incredulously. ‘I thought...’
‘That you were the only one prone to succumb to the weakness of the flesh?’
‘I am too sickly by half as it is’, Stephan swallows. ‘His Lordship’s other men took to calling me a damsel for it. I thought, if they would learn that I can’t even keep my eyes open without pain...’
A twinge of sympathy moves in Rodrik’s heart. The world of sword and chainmail is a ruthless one, he knows. Sometimes it makes him glad that he himself ducked out of that path, and left the martial glory of Arthur.
Which is not to say that he never wanted glory for himself. Any kind of glory.
‘You won’t suffer any longer’, he says firmly. ‘I am going to prepare eye cups for you. These waters should soothe your eyes’.
It’s an easy thing to make; one of the easiest, in truth. It is one of the concoctions Rodrik had mastered during his very first year in the Edgewater Academy.
In truth, it is partly the prospective of a lifetime of making such concoctions and having his horizons hemmed in by minor complaints of this nature that pushed – no, not pushed; he can take this much responsibility – but prodded him onto the path he had taken.
‘Would they? What is in them?’ The young man asks curiously.
‘Agrimony, rosemary, sweet basil...’ Rodrik lists the ingredients for some time. He should make inroads into the nearest market town and establish contact with the local apothecaries, it occurs to him. It wouldn’t do to find himself without those things, or without mandrake and almonds for those suffering headaches, or without dill and marjoram for intestine problems.
The thought feels like a wretched betrayal of some kind, a surrender to the notion that he is indeed going to stay in this frozen backwater for a long time – perhaps, forever. But what choice does he have, rationally? Sit on his behind and wait for the supplies he brought here to run low?
‘Thank you, Master Eeling’, Stephan’s expression grows radiant, and Rodrik wonders, yet again, if the young man has a sweetheart. ‘I will never forget your kindness’.
‘This is my trade. Nothing more, nothing less’.
Nothing more, that’s for certain. Nothing more, now.
The man-at-arms gets up from the bed, and looks Rodrik up and down. There is no sensual appraisal in his eyes – only honest curiosity.
‘I would spend some money on a warm doublet, Master Eeling’, he says finally. ‘The cold is biting here, in the north’.
Rodrik waits for Lord Edward Finthorp himself to come and avail himself of his services, but the waiting is in vain. Rodrik doesn’t know whether it is because of his glowing health or because of some kind of stubborn patience. He is watching Lord Edward’s routine avidly, studying it as a personal physician should. Frankly, it is not that intricate or exhilarating a routine.
After breaking his morning fast, Lord Edward spends hours in the scriptorium with his old steward and his chaplain. Then, at the midday meal of bread, eels and herring, washed down with weak beer, he hosts seven or eight local paupers, as a charitable landowner ought to. Sometimes, the head of the Priory of the Rising Sun eats with him. Visitors never do, because there are no visitors to Bluegrate.
There is nothing but silence, and black branches swaying against the whitened sky. The castle is sleeping in the dust of the ages. It is not a simple motte-and-bailey affair that Rodrik had come to expect – if anything, Bluegrate is rather too grand for its own good. It is nearly seven hundred feet in length, and buttressed by several mighty towers of yellow sandstone. Against the gray limestone of the main keep, they look bright as a child’s toy, a child’s idea of a castle – or, rather, they would have, had they not been so weather-beaten. The domestic range of cellars and storerooms is clinging to the wall running alongside the river, and it is as great as one would have expected of a range servicing such a place. But, when Rodrik walked through it on the very first day, filled with a dogged, gloomy determination to make himself acquainted with the setting of his misery, the thing that answered his knocks most often was silence.
The glazed windows with pointed arches and the carved beasts on the doors are a ghost of prosperity. Here and now, the life of Bluegrate seems to have fled the additional stone halls, the great towers of sandstone, the once-bustling spiceries, and retreated to the dining chamber with its only fireplace and to the lord’s rooms upstairs – the rooms that Rodrik had not been invited to. It is as if time has turned back, and unraveled into the early ages when the heart of the castle had been beating in the mead-hall, where lords and ladies bedded down on pallets, and gaiety and sophistication of the present day had been undreamed-of. There is the same rugged, robust air permeating the castle and the courtyard, where the clash of steel is heard in daily sparring.
Rodrik stumbles through the next several weeks like a half-blind kitten, accustoming himself to the surroundings. He goes through all the motions of a new physician. First, he inspects the landscape to make sure that there are no workshops engaged in dyeing cloth with woad nearby, as it could damage his new patient’s health. Then, he takes note of the castle’s waste disposal system – it is, after all, responsible for ridding the inhabitants of the disease-carrying miasmas. He has to concede reluctantly that, if anything, the place’s abundance of snow and water make it much cleaner than that in many an urban mansion.
Rodrik, who used to dine with the most brilliant minds of the kingdom, finds himself clutching the paper with excitement when it turns out that the infirmarius of the Priory of the Rising Sun has written to him with an invitation, claiming to be overjoyed at finally having a fellow medic in the radius of fifty miles.