27. In Castle Prati Mansum
Six riders stopped on a narrow rocky shoal between a steep wooded slope and the sea. They had rounded enough of the headland to see the castle Prati Mansum at the eastern end of a curving bay. The castle and a couple dozen buildings clustered near it were three miles away across open water; the shoreline road was considerably longer.
“The tide will come in soon,” Eudes observed. “If you three come any further, you’ll have to wait for the next low tide or climb over the ridge on your return. Best you take leave of us here.”
Fugol Hengist spoke for the others. “A few more hours in the saddle, my lord, what is that to us? It seems unbecoming to escort you to within sight of an enemy’s stronghold and then desert you.”
Eudes caught the soldier’s eye and smiled. “Enemy’s castle? Do you doubt the loyalty of Lord Toeni?”
Fugol spat into the surf. “I have no doubt at all. Rocelin Toeni hated Rudolf, he hates Mariel, and he hates you most of all. He would hang you in an instant if he thought he could get away with it.”
Fugol’s brother, Galan, carried the thought further. “Toeni might think that without you, my lord, Mariel would have no one to besiege him. He might think he can get away with it.”
Eudes shifted in his saddle and rubbed a scar on his chin, scratchy beneath his new growth of beard. He eyed the castle across the bay. “Fortunately, though he may be disloyal, Lord Toeni is not stupid. He knows Mariel could find another general—who knows, maybe you, Galan—who could organize a siege. Her army would outnumber his thirty-to-one. With Mariel’s wealth and those numbers, any one of you could besiege him so tightly that the castle would eventually fall. And what would happen then, Galan, if Prati Mansum fell into your hands?”
“I would throw it into the sea, one broken bit at a time. The whole brood of Toenis would hang.”
Eudes laughed. “You should add: ‘unless my queen forbade me.’ Mariel would not look kindly on the destruction of a castle in Herminia. But the point is this. Rocelin Toeni knows that he dare not rebel. For that reason, I will be quite safe in Prati Mansum for the time being, and I won’t be there long.”
The men looked at Eudes, hoping he might say more. The whole journey he had said nothing about his true destination, only that they were to escort him to Prati Mansum. At Wedmor he had added the boy Bully to their party and announced that Archard Oshelm and the youth would go further with him, but he hadn’t said where. Eudes sidled his horse next to Galan and clapped him on the shoulder. “You want to know more, but I may not tell you. Now be gone.”
Fugol, Galan and Aewel Penda turned their mounts. “Farewell, then,” said Aewel. “Bully, you take care of these men, especially the old one. If you don’t, you’ll answer to the queen and to us.”
Eudes, Archard and Bully rode eastward and the promontory soon cut off sight and sounds of the other three. Beyond the point, they found a trail in the woods on their left, allowing them to avoid riding on the beach, which turned into loose sand in the shelter of the bay. Eudes reined up in the sanctuary of a particularly dense copse of firs. Dismounting, he opened a saddlebag and pulled out a clean tunic and breeches.
“At Prati Mansum we are going to board a ship, the Little Moon.” Eudes pulled off his boots and changed clothes while he spoke. “The lady Erline and her daughter, Edita, will also be aboard, sailing to Tarquint. Edita has been promised to one of the sons of Hereward Mortane of Hyacintho Flumen; Lady Erline is supposed to conclude an agreement as to which Mortane her daughter will marry.”
Eudes laced his boots and bundled his old clothes into the saddlebag. He perched a felt hat, dyed bright yellow, on his head. “I am not Eudes Ridere. You will call me Boyden Black from now on. Lord Toeni and Lady Erline know who I am, but they have been instructed to play along with our game.”
Archard asked, “Why is a marriage of this lord’s daughter important to the queen?”
“Actually, it doesn’t really concern us, except that we may hope that when we arrive in Tarquint the Mortanes will be preoccupied with their noble visitors and pay us little attention. Our business is something else entirely. Who am I, Bully?”
“Boyden Black, sir. May I ask, sir, what is Sir Black’s business? Folk in Prati Mansum will be sure to ask. And in Tarquint.”
Eudes gave the youth an encouraging grin. “Very good, Bully. I am a merchant. I will be particularly interested in finding supplies of wool to import to Herminia. You are my assistant, and you may properly call me master or sir. Archard is a mercenary guard from some tiny farming village in Herminia, someplace no one has ever heard of.”
Archard cleared his throat. “I think it is called Bitterwater, my lord.”
“Careful, Archard. I’m just a merchant.”
“Ah! Aye. Master Black earns my loyalty just so long as he pays well. And may I say, Master Black, that your yellow hat makes you look a fool.”
Eudes chuckled. “That’s more like it. When we get to Prati Mansum, Archard, you and Bully will need to arrange passage for our horses on Little Moon; if that isn’t practical, sell them and we’ll buy new ones in Tarquint. And there’s this.”
Eudes detached his scabbard from his saddle and handed it to Bully. “Somehow, you’ll have to hide this in our luggage. In Tarquint, if need arises I want it available, but Boyden Black can’t go about dressed like a soldier.”
“Aye.” Bully accepted sword and scabbard and hung them on his own saddle. “Master Black, may I ask: in addition to wool, will you be looking for anything else in Tarquint?”
“Indeed, I will. It is something you cannot buy. Anyone can have it for the looking, if he knows where to look. But I trust no one to look for me; I must see for myself.”
Eudes’s impromptu riddle produced confusion in Bully’s face, but only for a few moments. Then his expression changed. “Oh! Maybe the thing you seek can only be seen with the eyes of a general, not a merchant.”
“Just so, Bully. Just so.”
In the village of Prati Mansum Bully and Archard learned Little Moon had no space for horses. She was a small ship already loaded and ready to embark. Durwin Cyneric, her captain, had been eager to sail for two days, but the ship had waited while Lady Erline, her daughter, and her guard made last minute preparations. Archard had to sell their horses for a poor price. The castle town had never grown very large, partly because the bay, though pleasant to look at, was too shallow for big ships. Even Little Moon had to dock at the end of a long pier built out over mud flats to reach deeper water.
Rocelin Toeni and his wife Erline welcomed the visiting merchant, Boyden Black, to supper in Prati Mansum, and word went out from the castle that the lady and her daughter would depart on the morning tide. Lord Toeni also extended hospitality to Archard Oshelm and Master Black’s servant, Bully.
With Erline and Edita’s departure imminent, supper was a small affair. At the high table sat Lord Toeni and Lady Erline, their oldest daughter, Edita, Edita’s lady attendant, and the two guests, Boyden Black and ship’s captain Durwin Cyneric. Three other Toeni children, the castle scribe, Archard and Bully shared a second table. Castle servants brought supper in courses: bread and butter, roast pheasant, a fish stew, hot vegetables, and finally honey-glazed wafers. A wine master kept cups refreshed.
Bully observed everything eagerly. Across the table from him, Gifre Toeni guessed the reason. “Never been in a castle before, have you?”
It would be silly to feel embarrassed, Bully decided. “Am I so obvious?”
The boy, who looked about ten, sopped up some pheasant drippings with bread and popped it in his mouth. “Aye. Your eyes are racing around, trying to make sure you don’t miss anything. It’s normal. Ordinary people aren’t used to castles.”
“But you are used to it. So you are not an ordinary person?”
“What do you think? Someday, when Father dies, I will be lord of Prati Mansum. Who knows? Perhaps I will bond better than Father and control more magic.” The boy looked at Bully unblinking.
Bully sliced a bit of pheasant, speared it with his knife. “I see your point.”
Gifre Toeni nodded toward the high table. “My sister Edita is not an ordinary person either. Tomorrow she boards a ship for Tarquint, where she will marry some lord’s son, gods willing, and I will never see her again.”
The boy answered matter-of-factly. “A lord must stay close to his castle, to be ready to defend it at any time. Edita might explore the world—that is, she could if she weren’t crippled and ugly—but I may never venture more than a day’s ride from Prati Mansum.”
“Edita is ugly?”
“She is practiced at hiding it. Look closely.”
Copyright © 2012 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.