49. On the Grounds of Inter Lucus
“People can set up tents by the blueberries and down by the roses,” said Ora. “But we ought to keep the middle open for dancing.”
Marty grinned. Ora could have been a wedding planner—on another world. He had explained his notion of a mid-summer party at the second Council meeting; Ora had seized the idea and run with it. Invite people to bring tents, she said, so they could stay the night and return home in the morning. And they should bring musical instruments; the Lord Martin would present prizes to the best player, singer, and dancer. The castle kitchen could prepare masses of fried potatoes and onions, but the announcements should ask villagers to bring sweets and meat pies. Marty had started with a mental image of something like a Fourth of July Fireworks; he was confident the Inter Lucus wall could project a light spectacle worthy of Disneyland. Ora’s plan turned the light show into the centerpiece of an enormous block party.
It was early Friday, with another Council meeting on tap. Ora and Marty were walking the bounds of Inter Lucus in the cool of the morning, waiting for the councilors to arrive. Ora obviously enjoyed describing her plans for the party, and she basked in Marty’s approval.
“Dancing? I wonder.” Marty looked at the weeds and tall grasses that covered the slope on the south side of Inter Lucus. “Who will cut down all the weeds and clear a space?”
“Castle magic can do it.” Ora continued to have greater confidence in Marty’s powers than he did.
“The castle is healing, Ora, but it is not complete. And most of the healing so far has been inside the castle, not on the grounds. I think it will be a long time before the magic reaches the trees, the berries, or the grass.”
Four days before—by coincidence, the day that Priest Eadmar had first come to Inter Lucus—the control panel had listed the Extra Arcem Micro-Aedificator as operativa. Since then Marty had begun noticing, as he expected, changes outside the castle. Beginning at the east and west doors a paved path had begun appearing in a manner similar to the growth of the castle walls. If an observer watched very patiently, he could actually see the paths lengthening. Each morning the pavement reached three or four inches further than the day before. Marty realized that the path to East Lake, overgrown by a hundred years of neglect, was almost certainly a leftover product of Inter Lucus technology.
Extra Arcem Marty took to mean “outside of the castle.” And Micro-Aedificator had to mean something like “tiny repairer.” From the beginning Intra Arcem Micro-Aedificator had been working, which explained why improvements inside Inter Lucus had begun as soon as Marty bonded with the castle. Marty speculated that Micro-Aedificator was some kind of nano-technology. On Earth, he once read, bio-engineers were trying to grow bacteria that would eat oil spills. Probably the aliens (or “strangers” as he always called them when he talked with Eadmar) had more advanced nanobots.
Ora brushed a beetle off her arm. “If many come, they will quickly cut or trample the grass to make a dancing space.” Her green eyes seemed to twinkle. “But it would be better if the guests found it already prepared by Lord Martin.”
Marty laughed aloud. “What will satisfy you, Ora? Should Inter Lucus make music as well?”
“Aye! That would be fine!” Ora bounced up to kiss Marty’s cheek. But then she turned serious. “If the villagers come—and they will come—the party must succeed. They will go home with the knowledge that you rule Inter Lucus. That is what truly matters.”
“Fair morning, Isen. Where is Lord Martin? And Ora?” Caelin carried a cup of cold tea to Isen, who was standing watch under the oaks. “I have breakfast ready. Everyone can come into the hall.”
Isen pointed. The lord of Inter Lucus and the girl who had called him to Two Moons were standing near the rose bushes, two hundred yards away. “They are planning the party, I think.”
Caelin shouted: “Ora, Lord Martin! Breakfast!” Lord Martin acknowledged the call with a wave, and he and Ora began walking toward the oaks.
“Who is that?” Isen touched Caelin’s elbow, directing his attention southwest, to the road from the village. A lone walker turned from the road onto the castle path. “It can’t be Eadmar. He stays beyond Inter Lucus’s bounds.”
Caelin shielded his eyes. “I’ve seen him before. What was his name? A week ago, the day of the Council, he came with a boy, remember?”
“How could I? A week ago I was in Down’s End.”
Caelin thumped his temple with the back of his fingers, a gesture Isen had come to recognize. It was Caelin’s way of admitting an error without saying anything. “Ah! I remember. Rothulf Saeric—that’s his name. And the boy was Alf Saeric. I think they were brothers; Rothulf is too young to be Alf’s father.”
“The boy is not with him now. Do they live in village Inter Lucus?” While Isen watched, the man noticed Lord Martin and Ora approaching and he must have recognized one of them. Rothulf Saeric waved vigorously to Ora and her master.
“Not before last Friday,” Caelin replied. “They lived in the valley of the Blue River half way to Hyacintho Flumen. The bloody flux struck their family three years ago and again last year. The brothers, the only ones left of the family, abandoned their farm. They were living as beggars in Down’s End when they heard rumor of a new lord between the lakes. They came to look for work or to beg Lord Martin’s charity.”
Lord Martin and Ora reached the oaks when the visitor did. As always, the lord greeted a guest hospitably. “Fair morning.” Lord Martin extended his hand. “Rothulf Saeric, isn’t it?”
“Aye, my lord.” Though young, the skinny man was balding and had red marks on his arms. He looked none too healthy, but in Downs’ End Isen had seen worse.
“We are about to have our breakfast,” said Lord Martin. “Please join us. I don’t believe you had the chance to come inside when you last visited.
Saeric bowed his head, seemingly awed by the invitation. “My lord need not bring us into the castle. Me and me brother is more than content to have a bit o’ food. We be glad to work for’t.”
“Where is your brother this morning?”
“In a field by the village. We been sleeping out, warm nights ’n all. Nice, really. If your cook could bring us out some food, we be glad o’ it.”
Lord Martin chuckled. “I’m afraid no one is in the kitchen right now. But Caelin can fetch you something.”
Saeric’s jaw dropped. “Naw. You four be all that lives in the castle?”
Ora interrupted. “You know that already, Master Saeric. I told you a week ago.”
“Naw.” Saeric drew out the syllable in disbelief.
“But I did. I told you that only three of us had entered Lord Martin’s service.”
The man’s black eyes moved from face to face. Something in the eyes tugged at Isen’s memory, but before he could place it the castle erupted in sound, a shriek like a ghost from the afterworld. It was a piercing high note that ran quickly higher, stopped, and repeated again and again.
Caelin, Ora and Lord Martin immediately ran for the west door of Inter Lucus. Isen took two steps after them and stopped. Rothulf Saeric was running the other way, pell-mell down the path toward the road to the village. Black eyes like a mole’s—Isen remembered then and sprinted after Saeric. At first he gained on his quarry, but Isen’s body was not built for endurance; he was too thick in the chest and shoulders. When Saeric reached the road he sped up, leaving Isen behind. The thin man looked back at Isen for a moment and raised his hand as if to wave goodbye. Thus, Saeric didn’t see the priest, who dashed from forest shade beyond to tackle him.
Ora reached the west door before Caelin and Lord Martin. Light pulsated from magic wall at the south end of the Great Hall, a dazzling display of greens, reds, and yellows exploding in concentric half-circles from a point near the floor. The painfully bright light moved in parallel with the mechanical screams of the siren. Ora shielded her eyes and saw the intruder; a boy huddled on the floor, covering his head with his arms.
Lord Martin pushed around Ora and ran to the lord’s knob. Sudden silence answered the lord’s touch on the knob. The magic wall blanked. Ora almost fell down; the instantaneous end of such overwhelming sound and light hit like a blow. After a moment or two she recovered and chased the boy. Except he didn’t run. His head was tucked under his arms and his whole body—arms, back, and head—shook like a victim of ague.
Lord Martin, Ora, and Caelin surrounded the boy. With the castle quiet, Ora heard him moaning. No words, just a terrified whimper. Lord Martin knelt by the intruder and rolled him over. Ora knelt too. She and the lord each took gentle hold an arm and pulled them away from the boy’s face. His palms were streaked red and black, the skin already pulling away from the flesh of his hands. The hands left bloody marks on the intruder’s face.
Caelin squatted by the boy’s head. “He laid his hands on the lord’s knob. When a lord has bonded with his castle, he need not fear a usurper. The castle will fight the outsider’s attempt to take control.”
Lord Martin wore a look of pity rather than anger. “This one seems to have paid a high price. Let’s get him up. Caelin, fetch some wet cloths.”
Ora and the lord supported the boy under his arms and lifted him to his feet. He had pale blond hair, almost white, and his eyes, when they fluttered open, were blue. Ora recognized him. “This is Alf Saeric, my lord. Brother of the man you greeted under the oaks.”
The boy shuffled along, supported by his captors, who seated him on one of the castle blocks where he could lean on the trestle table. Lord Martin said, “I suppose this means the brothers acted together. Rothulf took the coward’s part, engaging us outside Inter Lucus while his brother invaded the castle.”
“Where’s Isen?” Ora noticed the glass blower’s absence.
“Ran after Rothulf, I believe.”
Caelin came with wet towels. Speechless, Alf Saeric watched as Ora gently blotted his burned hands. Careful though she was, pieces of skin tore away, adhering to the cloth. “By the gods,” Ora said quietly, “how long did you touch it?”
The boy only stared at her.
Ora was gently wrapping Alf’s hands with clean cloths when Isen came through the west entrance, roughly pushing a prisoner before him. Rothulf Saeric looked even worse than he had earlier; he had been in a fight that he clearly lost. Saeric’s arms were tied behind his back. The grim satisfaction on Isen’s face told who the victor was.
Marty acknowledge Isen’s arrival. “You caught him, then.”
“No, my lord. He was faster than I. Eadmar caught him.”
“Aye, my lord. The priest had come to talk with you again. He had business to do in the forest and was just coming back to the road when the thief came by. Eadmar grabbed him. Things would have gone ill but I caught up.”
Marty grinned. “I think I can imagine what happened after that.”
Isen’s grin matched Marty’s. “I think he has more experience thieving than fighting, my lord.”
“Do we know he has experience as a thief?”
“Aye. Priest Eadmar says so. He has met Rothulf many times in Downs’ End.”
Marty swung his attention to the prisoner. “I don’t think Priest Eadmar would lie, Rothulf. Have you anything to say for yourself? Did you send your brother into my castle?”
Rothulf Saeric stood stoically in Isen’s control to this point. He looked Marty in the eye. “I did. And I would do it again. That boy be the rightful heir of Inter Lucus, as sure as Hereward Mortane raped my mother.”
Copyright © 2013 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.