Thursday, June 28, 2012

Castles #5

5. In Castle Pulchra Mane

            Eudes Ridere finished dressing by fastening a leather scabbard over his shoulder.  It housed the great longsword once used by his dead father-in-law, Rudolf Grandmesnil.  The two-handed handle of the sword extended above his left shoulder where he could pull it with his right hand.  Eudes himself would never use the monstrosity in battle; one man in a thousand might be strong enough to wield Rudolf’s weapon of choice.  Rudolf, who had fashioned a kingdom with the sword, was reputed to have been the largest man in the history of Herminia, probably in the whole of Two Moons. 
            Eudes was an accomplished knight, but no giant.  He wore Rudolf’s sword for ceremonial purposes only.  He dressed in a bright blue tunic, loose gray breeches with a drawstring, and black hose pulled over the legs of the breeches.  Comfortable clothes, since his role would require him to stand silently for a long while.
            Mariel brushed her hair, dressed in soft white under garments, sitting before a huge mirror of gods make.  What magic enabled the gods to create such perfect glass?  Eudes was used to life in camp, not living amongst the wonders of Pulchra Mane.  He had visited Rudolf’s castle many times over the years, so castle features like the ridiculously high ceilings in gods’ rooms were familiar to him, but only since his unexpected marriage had the soldier come to appreciate the great variety of magical things in Pulchra Mane.  Not least among them was the golden-haired woman seated before the mirror.
            King Rudolf had died seventeen months ago.  The fractious lords of Herminia might have rebelled immediately, except some of them hoped to join one of their sons in marriage to the king’s daughter and thus rule in Grandmesnil’s place.  It came as an unpleasant shock to them when Mariel bonded with Pulchra Mane the day after Rudolf’s funeral.  Then the city councils of Herminia’s four largest free cities all announced their allegiance to the new queen.
            If they could not supplant Mariel, perhaps they could at least influence her.  The lords Mowbray, Beaumont, Thoncelin and Wadard offered sons or nephews as consorts for the queen.  Mariel delayed, hinting first one way and then another.  She instituted weekly Council meetings, using castle magic, and invited the lords and lady of Herminia to participate.  Whether eagerly or reluctantly, all seven accepted.
            One year to the day after she became queen, Mariel announced her choice of consort, surprising no one more than Eudes.  He was twenty years her senior, a veteran of her father’s wars, a hard man with a scarred face.  In private, in their castles, the lords and lady of Herminia probably said Mariel’s choice was a political one—without favoring any noble house over another she had found a way to cement her own power.
            In public, Mariel Grandmesnil and her consort addressed each other formally and never displayed affection.  Eudes assiduously projected an image of battle-hardened sternness.  In the presence of others, Mariel treated him as a mere servant.  Already they had heard rumors of a new nickname: the Ice Queen.
            In private, things were different.  The old soldier laid his hand on Mariel’s shoulder, slid it forward.  She smiled as he found her breast.  “It’s hard to brush my hair with your arm in the way.”
             “I was thinking perhaps I should try to do my duty as an husband.  The gods require that you produce an heir.”
            “As I recall, you’ve been actively fulfilling your duty most nights.”
            “Aye, my queen.  I’m just eager to serve.  But you must remember, I’m an old man.  I would be ashamed to die without accomplishing my purpose.”
            She lifted his hand to her lips.  “Not just now, dear thing.  We have a Council to attend.”  Her eyes met his in the mirror.  “But after we’ve done our duty in the great hall, I would happily have you do yours.  I’m ready for my dress; why don’t you send in Blythe?”
            “As you wish.”  Eudes inclined his head.  Approaching the door, he drained the affection from his face before opening it.  Mariel insisted that they maintain their pretense of coldness even with the castle servants.  Blythe, one of Mariel’s attendants, was waiting on a bench in the hall.  When she looked up at Eudes his jaw was clenched and his lips pressed firmly together.  Blythe drew in a breath and stood up.
            “Your queen desires your help to prepare for Council.”  Eudes spoke formally, quietly.
            “Yes, my lord.”  Blythe curtsied and darted into the bedroom.

            Aweirgan Unes, counselor to Mariel’s father and chief among Pulchra Mane’s servants, met them as Mariel and Eudes entered the great hall.  “Fair morning, my Queen. My lord Eudes.”  Aweirgan inclined his bald head.
            “Fair morning, Aweirgan,” said Mariel.  “Shall we take our places?”
            The queen stood before the globum domini auctoritate, facing the blank blackness of the viewing wall.  Aweirgan Unes sat slightly behind Mariel and to her left, on a finely carved wooden chair.  He held a slate and piece of chalk with which to record abbreviated notes.  Eudes stood behind the queen to the right.  Eudes pulled the great sword from its scabbard and stood it like a warning sentinel, his hands resting on the pommel.
            Aweirgan said, “We are ready.”  Mariel placed her left hand atop the lord’s knob.  The globe flushed immediately with a violet glow and lights began to flicker in the viewing wall.  Eudes had seen this magic many times now—gods be pleased, he had participated in Council every week since his marriage—and still he marveled. 
            Seven points of flickering light became steady; the others disappeared.  The seven lights grew and became tiny pictures, and the pictures grew larger until they looked like windows, and in each window there was a face.  Godfrey Giles, Wymar Thoncelin, Denis Mowbray, Rocelin Toeni, Lady Avice Montfort, Osmer Beaumont, and Paul Wadard—the lords and lady of Herminia, all of them subject to Mariel; these, with Eudes and Aweirgan, comprised Mariel’s Council.  Each one controlled his or her own castle, and most of them resented Mariel’s sovereignty.  But they presented themselves every week, by means of ancient magic, to report news, voice their complaints, offer advice, debate one another, and hear her decisions. 
            And they would obey; yes, they would.  First, they had sworn solemn oaths to Rudolf.  Second, they feared what the great sword symbolized, Rudolf’s army.  The king was dead, but Eudes, his general, still lived.  Pulchra Mane, the city around the castle, and the free cities pledged to Mariel were rich enough to support an army far larger than theirs.  In Rudolf’s time that army, under Eudes’ command, had besieged lords Mowbray, Toeni, and Giles, each in turn, eventually forcing surrender.  Even against the magic of a castle, a patient army could compel its lord to yield. Third, at least some of the lords of Herminia had grudgingly come to acknowledge the benefits of a united island.  In Rudolf’s last years roads had improved, highwaymen had been hunted down, trade had increased and no lord had attacked another.
            Mariel succeeded her father seventeen months ago.  So far she had proven abundantly able to hold his kingdom together.  She played the seven against each other, alternatively threatening or rewarding, praising and cajoling, reminding them of the benefits of peace.
            Soon, perhaps today, Mariel would go further.  Eudes contemplated their faces, wondering how they would respond.
Copyright © 2012 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.

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