A novel set in the Culture universe created by Iain M. Banks

Traveller's Rest

The meandering bulk of the old Monastery of the Brothers Thewall rose up in front of the traveller. He stood in the deepening gloom of a late autumn afternoon, made even darker by the persistent drizzle which had by now soaked him to the skin, and studied the place where an itinerant person such as himself might find a degree of hospitality.

The tall mullioned windows of the offertory nave and the high chancel were warmly lit by a great many candles as the monks within conducted their evening service; the sounds of the chants and canticles rumbled about his ears, clearly audible despite the heavy stonework. The tiny slits which opened onto the cells occupied by individual monks during at least part of the night were dark, of course; every brother not at death's door would be gathered in the chapel at this hour.

Common courtesy demanded that he wait until the service of vespers was completed. Then, he might approach the postern gate and ring the pauper's bell; with luck, one of the brothers would admit him. The monks were known to welcome poor but pious travellers, or at least travellers who were prepared to appear pious to gain the advantage of a warm dinner and a bed for the night.

Much later, the traveller found himself sitting on the hard bed in the cell allocated for his use, his belly pleasingly full and his ears still ringing with the prayers he had followed with the appropriate degree of fervour. The cell was lit by a solitary candle, this being the sole concession to luxury the monks would extend to. He was quite naked and wrapped in the single rather coarse and heavy blanket which was his allotment, doing his best to get his boots and clothing at least tolerably dry before the morning.

Shivering only slightly, the traveller lay back on the bed and reviewed both the route and the destination of his most recent journey. His destination - one he confidently expected to reach on the morrow - was the undistinguished walled market town of Brunanburh. It was just one of dozens, perhaps hundreds of minor fortified settlements in this part of the country. It had a reputation best characterised as "moderately boring"; it was run - on behalf of the King, of course - firmly but fairly by the old Constable, who was reputed to know the faces of every drunkard, ne’er-do-well and thief for twenty leagues in every direction, and arranged to have anybody he recognised immediately arrested and imprisoned or ejected with no notice whatsoever.

The old Monastery stood no more than a bowshot from the town's River Gate; he could be in the market square within an hour of taking his leave of the monks. But that would never do: it would make all too apparent the direction from which he had come, should anybody with an inquisitive eye mark his arrival. As a matter of principle, he preferred to remain unremarked in his peregrinations, wherever they happened to take him. No, he would do better to double back the way he had come, skirt around the south-west wall, bide his time until noon and then enter by Finsley's Gate, giving the impression he had travelled up the new road from the south.

In fact, the traveller had approached the town by the old road from the east, now the less-frequented route; the passage through the ancient woodlands had been difficult to traverse in some places, and even tricky to find in a few others. Most now chose the lower road, taking advantage of the new bridge over the Brun, a trail marked clearly by the passage of many wagons and many feet; the road he had avoided since it was so very well-travelled and where his passage would certainly not have gone unremarked.

This would be, he knew, his last journey this year; very soon, the winter snows would set in and the roads would be all but impassable; only a lunatic - which he was quite definitely not - would attempt a journey of many days when a blizzard might strike without warning. Only the very desperate would surely attempt such a thing; he was not - at least, not yet - quite that desperate.

He had to expect to spend the winter here, in this quiet little township; he would need to find employment, even though he had more than enough silver – indeed, a huge amount more - to live out the season quite comfortably. But that would mark him as a wealthy man; make him a target for cutpurses and riffraff; still worse, it might bring him to the attentions of the Constable's men. It was not the season for work as a field hand - the harvests would have been long taken in, and the beasts would even now be moving to their winter accommodations. So, he would need to display a skill, a trade of some kind; perhaps as a blacksmith and farrier. He had both skills and experience in this particular business, as well as the strength needed to wield a hammer and wrangle the beasts, despite his lean and wiry frame. Perhaps there would be some aging tradesman would value a younger man's strong arms and back, and be prepared to advance a few coins for his services? Tomorrow, the traveller concluded, he would find out.

The following morning, dressed in his only slightly damp clothes, the traveller accepted a light breakfast of thin gruel and the honour of joining the monks for matins - tackling both with forbearance - before taking his leave from the brothers at the monastery. He thanked the monks guiding him to the exit profusely, deposited slightly more copper than the minimum expected in the poor box by the door, then turned his back on the place and retraced his steps at a steady pace, leaning lightly on the heavy staff he habitually held in his left hand.

Following his plan, which allowed him to take his ease for an hour or more in a sheltered glen fitfully warmed by what might be the last of the autumn sunshine, the traveller arrived at Finsley's Gate a few minutes before noon. He passed through the entrance without challenge or even acknowledgement from the guards, who seemed more interested in gossiping with their cronies than actively preventing anybody from entering the town.

The traveller had studied several hand-drawn maps on the town, all of which were dated several decades before the current year. Still, he found the basic layout essentially unchanged, and he was able to make his way along the winding thoroughfares without looking like a stranger, which might have led to unwanted attention from thieves and cutthroats. Not that he was particularly afraid of such ne'er-do-wells, but using even a fraction of his unarmed-combat skills in public might raise eyebrows in quarters he would rather leave undisturbed. Besides, he hated violence of any kind; he would habitually avoid confrontations wherever possible and preferred places where fights were rare and generally frowned upon.

To his right, he could look up at the shambling pile of ancient masonry perched on Castle Mound which served as the local seat of government, garrison, court, gaol and, most importantly, the offices of the King's tax-collectors. It was a place for him to avoid, if at all possible, at the present moment; better to spend his time the company of the poor and tolerably honest, where he might pass unnoticed for a season or two.

The traveller edged by shouting hawkers with barrows and stalls offering a motley selection of unlikely wares, stood back from heavily-loaded wagons rumbling towards the market marked by shouts and warnings from the waggoners, and dodged the occasional mounted rider on what had to be official business of some kind, judging by the way they expected everybody to stand aside at a moment's notice.

The market square - actually more an elongated triangle which was bisected by the road between River Gate and Bank Gate - was a riot of bustling activity. The cobbles were scarcely visible beneath the tents and tables of the vendors, barely leaving space to pass by. Counters and trays overflowed with produce of all kinds: root vegetables and dense greens which would keep well during the long winter months and trays of the last of the summer fruits which too would last to the turn of the year at the very least. Other vendors offered pickles and preserves of every description, or smoked and cured meats and fish and sausages, or provisions preserved in salt, or honey, or vinegar. Yet others proffered barrels of ale and beer, and flasks of wine and mead.

A man with much coin in his pocket and a wife with skills in the kitchen could stock his cellars and store-cupboards with victuals enough for him and his family to live very comfortably through the long winter months; those lacking money, on the other hand, might be in danger of starvation in the coldest periods. The traveller had, for the moment, neither wife nor kitchen and, for the time being, he had no pressing need, no urgent requirement to do anything in particular. He strolled amongst the stalls, keeping an eye out of anything or anybody which might be unusual, strange, anachronistic, even alien; to his relief, he saw nothing which caused him even the slightest concern.

The traveller's lunch was a hot pie from a street vendor whose wares seemed to be more popular that some of the others; a good sign of quality, it was said. The pie was good, filling his belly rather more successfully than the watery porridge the monks had served. This left him in need of a drink, so he sought out the kind of hostelry where coachmen, and ostlers, and those involved with the care and feeding of animals might congregate. Men of this type, in the traveller's very considerable experience, tended to enjoy a large drink and were not noticeably reticent about offering their opinion on any topic which might be mentioned.

After a certain amount of apparently aimless wandering, the traveller finally elected to enter the Swan Inn, a large and only slightly unruly tavern at one end of the market. It was already busy, even in this early afternoon. He effortlessly exhibited a kind of artlessly affable persona in the public tap room, while ordering a large flagon of the kind of weak beer favoured by those who work very hard in warm environments - stables, forges and so on - which very indirectly and even more casually attracted the attention of others already enjoying their refreshments.

A half-hour of carefully casual conversation with his newly-acquired acquaintances, very much aided by the deployment of the smallest of his silver coin and the serving of quite a large number of beers, gave the traveller several promising leads on potential employment opportunities. None were yet certain, of course, but there were a reassuringly large number of opportunities, many of which might prove to be entirely satisfactory from the perspective of a man whose principal long-term objective was to avoid the attentions of those who might - quite possibly inadvertently - expose the secrets of his past. Or, still worse, bring those buried secrets to light in front of those who, he would be forced to admit, were his peers.

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