Thursday, August 29, 2013

Castles 66

66. In Stonebridge

            Derian Chapman found time to visit the Citadel daily, though his main business was bargaining for wines in the hills east of Stonebridge.  It was widely acknowledged (in Stonebridge, anyway) that the best wines of Tarquint came from the south-facing hillside vineyards near Stonebridge.  Derian’s visits gave Milo opportunity to talk with the merchant, and he offered to ride as escort for Derian’s wine wagons when they set out for Down’s End.  Chapman eagerly accepted; he went to Commander Tondbert to gain approval for Milo’s absence from Stonebridge.  Milo and Derian agreed that the wagons should leave Stonebridge as soon as Derian had made his purchases.
            Milo had about a week to carry out his plan.

            A quarter mile separated Wilene Strong’s brothel from the burial field.  She had the temerity to call her house Stonebridge’s Finest, and the bar where Wilene served drinks prominently displayed four glass bottles of vintage rosé.  These bottles were never opened; patrons of Stonebridge’s Finest drank beer or hard cider.  In any case, customers didn’t tarry long in the small barroom at the front of the house.  They chose a companion from among Madame Strong’s young women (there were always four or five hanging about the bar) and took her to one of the well-appointed bedrooms that opened off the house’s long hallway.
            Milo and Felix Abrecan entered Stonebridge’s Finest at the end of their morning round.  This was not unusual; Madame Strong welcomed occasional visits from sheriffs and under-sheriffs.  She said it gave her girls a sense of security.
            Madame Strong set out two clay cups.  “Fair morning, sirs.  Beer or cider?  A free drink for those as protects the laws.”  This too was normal.
            Two of the women in the barroom had come toward the doorway as Milo and Felix entered—ready to please customers.  But now they recognized the visitors as men of the city guard; the young women reseated themselves in chairs scattered in the barroom.
            “Cider today,” Felix answered.  Milo nodded his agreement.  He sipped cautiously; too often the cider in the Finest was vinegary.  He surveyed the room.
            Milo set his cup on the bar and walked to one of the women.  Black hair and pale white skin.  “Excuse me, miss, what is your name?”
            “They call me Cyrten.”  The prostitute wiggled her shoulders to emphasize her breasts.
            “As well they should.  You’re quite pretty, Cyrten.”  The face isn’t quite the right shape, but that won’t matter.  “Stand up, girl.”
            Cyrten stood, bringing her eyes almost level with Milo’s.  Almost exactly as tall as Tilde.  Milo said, “You’re even prettier close up, Cyrten.  But, unfortunately, I’m working this morning.  Felix and I have to report back to the Citadel.”  He leaned close and touched her hip.  “After sup, I’ll come and take you for a walk.  How would that be?”
            Cyrten smirked.  “Unfortunately, after sup I’ll be working.  Madame Strong keeps us girls busy.”
            “I quite understand.  Madame Strong will be compensated for your time.”
            The woman’s black eyebrows bunched.  “A walk?”  She looked to Wilene Strong, who nodded her approval.  “All right then.”
            Milo and Felix took their leave of Stonebridge’s Finest.

            “Why do you want a whore?”  Felix and Milo rode close enough for casual conversation.  “Getting tired of the washerwoman, Daisy?”
            Milo had no intention of telling Felix the truth.  “Daisy’s blood started yesterday.  I figure if I let her be a few days, she’ll be happier.  And this way I can get outside the Citadel for a couple hours.  Don’t you feel boxed in sometimes, spending every night in a fortress?”
            Felix thought, then shrugged.  “Mostly I’ve been glad to have a roof and hot meals.  ’cept for Tondbert almost getting a body killed, the Guard’s been an improvement in my life.  I figure if I stay close to Milo Mortane, I might even survive Tondbert’s next bit of stupidity.”
            “You flatter me, Felix.”
            “Gods no.  Most the men in the Guard envy me, ’cause I ride rounds with you.  They’re hoping that when you get back from Down’s End, you’ll choose a different partner.”
            Milo was taken aback.  “We’re supposed to be friends.  Don’t jest.”
            “I’m serious as a father-in-law, Sir.  Hrodgar Wigt and Bryce Dalston have all the men’s respect.  But they aren’t knights.  They didn’t grow up in a castle.”
            “Castle born, castle soft.”  Milo repeated the proverb.
            “People do say that, Sir.  Out of ignorance and envy, I figure.  The truth: castle knights have the best armor, the best swords, and the best training.  Sir Milo Mortane rides out into the world, where he’s not protected by magic, and he relies on his own sword and his own brains.  You’re the best man in the Guard.  We all know it.”
            Milo shook his head, pondering this.  Then he spoke the honest truth.  “You may believe what you like, Felix, but I know quite well I am not the best in the Guard.  There are braver men than me, and some who are better fighters—or would be if they had armor as good as mine.  I left Hyacintho Flumen because I had no choice; it was either that or give obeisance to my detestable brother.  Nevertheless I thank you; I would like to live up to the honor you do me.”
            Gray clouds swept in from the southwest.  Felix and Milo made their afternoon circuit of the Bene Quarter in air that felt colder by the hour.  Milo pulled the collar of his coat tight against his neck. 
            A scream sounded from the mouth of one of the Bene Quarter’s shadowy alleys just as the riders reached it.  They stopped.  Another scream.  The woman couldn’t be far off.  “Damn!”  Felix looked to Milo.  “Some Bene bitch fighting her man.  If we go to help, as like she’ll turn on us!”
            Milo swung down from the saddle.  “Hold Blackie.  I’ll see what it is.”
            “We go together.”  Felix dismounted and quickly tied both mounts’ reins to a porch post.  The partners drew their swords.
            Ten yards into the alley they heard another scream, very close, above their heads.  In the rapidly darkening alley they saw an open upstairs window in the building on their right.  Just past the window, an entrance from the alley.  Milo tried the door—locked.  Bodies slammed into the walls above them; the door handle shook in Milo’s hand.  He rammed his shoulder into the door, breaking the flimsy lock.
            Sheriff and under-sheriff entered a dirt floor room with no light except that from the broken door behind them.  A cot lined one wall.  Several boxes were stacked along another.  The ceiling shook; more sounds of fighting above them.  Sword pointed ahead, Milo squeezed along a passage to the foot of a staircase, turned, and started up.  He could see Felix’s eyes in the dark.  “Here’s your chance to stay close,” he whispered.  He charged up the stairs and threw open the door to the upstairs room with Felix right behind him.
            Dim light showed a man’s back, covered with matted black hair, thicker than Milo had ever seen or imagined.  He was completely naked, a woman lying under him, his massive hands squeezing her neck.  So intent was he on doing murder, the man knew nothing of Milo’s arrival until Milo stabbed him.  By fate or chance, the castle steel sword with its perfectly sharp tip slipped neatly between the murderer’s ribs and penetrated through him.  Milo jerked it out, slicing the man’s internal organs as he did so.  The hairy man collapsed onto his victim with a quiet “ugh.”
            Felix stepped around Milo and rolled the heavy male body off of the woman.  Blood was soaking her tunic above her right breast where Milo’s sword had cut her.  The woman’s eyes were staring fixedly at the ceiling.  Sheriff and under-sheriff knelt over her.  Felix shut the victim’s eyes.  “Look at the neck.  She was dead before your blade touched her, Sir.”  Bruises on the neck spoke of a crushed windpipe.
            “I think you are right, Felix.”  The woman’s dark hair and bloodless skin reminded Milo of Tilde.  He straightened her legs.  About the right height too.
            “I did the stabbing.  I get to pick.”  Milo sheathed his sword and hoisted the dead woman over his shoulder.  Under her tunic she was skinny and light—a good thing, since the stairs and hallway were so narrow.  “You get the brute.”
            “Impossible.  I could never carry him.”
            “Roll him out the window then.  We’ll leave him in the alley and send a cart tomorrow.”
            Staggering under his load, Milo made it around the turn at the foot of the stairs, through the dirt floor room and out the door.  Rain was starting.  The alley provided a little more space, letting him straighten up.  To Milo’s relief, Felix’s horse and Blackie were still tied where they left them.  Milo draped the woman’s body over Blackie’s saddle, wondering if he would have to go back to help Felix.  The rain was coming down hard now.  It might be impossible to maneuver the naked murderer through the window.  As if in answer to this worry, he heard a “womp” sound, as the heavy body struck the ground.  Milo was still securing the woman to Blackie when Felix arrived at a run, panting.
            “Gods!  What a load a dead man is!”
            Milo finished tying the body in place.  “You managed it?”
            “Aye.  Barely.”
            “Tell you what, Felix.  I’ve got this body to deal with.  Why don’t you go to Stonebridge’s Finest after sup?  Take my place with Cyrten.”
            “What would I do?”
            “The weather rules out a walk, so buy her sup, or take her to bed.  I don’t care.  I’ll be at the burial house.”  Milo gestured at the body.  “Somehow, after this, I don’t feel much like having a woman.”
            Felix climbed into saddle.  He was still breathing hard, blowing rain water from his face.  “I think I will.  A dry room and a warm bed would suit me.  Will you be safe?”
            Milo took Blackie’s reins, looked up and down the avenue.  Not a soul; the wind threw rain in dark waves against Stonebridge’s buildings.  “I can’t think of a safer time to walk the streets of our city.  Who wants to come out?  Besides, who would want to steal a body?”  Milo touched Felix’s horse’s mane.  “Tell Cyrten she’s a lucky woman.” 

Copyright © 2013 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Castles 65

65. In Stonebridge

            Derian Chapman came to the Citadel on a fall morning, two days after Milo told Commander Tondbert about Ody Dans’s bizarre abuse of Tilde Gyricson.  Milo had waited a day, letting the import of Tilde’s testimony sink into Tondbert’s scheming mind.  He planned to suggest to the commander how convenient it would be to move a woman who had such damning accusations against Ody Dans within the walls of the City Guard fortress.  It would be best, of course, if Tondbert imagined that this idea was his own.
            When Milo knocked on the commander’s door, it opened to reveal Derian sitting at ease in a chair opposite Tondbert’s desk.  The commander motioned Milo to another chair and sat behind the desk, after shutting the door.
            “Fair morning, Sir Milo.”  Derian’s brown hair had been cut short and neatly brushed.  Clean-shaven, he looked healthy and confident, his blue eyes fixed on Milo.  “Commander Tondbert has been telling me about your fine service to Stonebridge these last three months.  You’ve made yourself quite indispensable.”
            Milo inclined his head in greeting and lowered himself into the chair.  “Fair morning, Derian.  May I ask, just out of curiosity, where the gods have taken you?  The last I saw you we had barely escaped with our lives from Gaudy’s Tavern.”
            “Ha ha!  Indeed.  I owe you my life, Sir, and I won’t forget it.”  Derian’s smile gave way to thoughtfulness.  “The answer is: I’ve been out of Stonebridge.  As a dutiful under-sheriff, today I report back to the commander, since I’ve come home.”
            Abroad from Stonebridge for three months?  “Details, Derian.  I don’t suppose you want to say precisely what you’ve been doing.”
            “Oh, I don’t mind at all.”  Derian grinned at Commander Tondbert.  “I made a long circuit of the great downs: castles Saltas Semitas, Auria Prati, and Lata Altum Flumen.   Finally I came round to the city by East Lake, Down’s End.  Along the way I also sighted Eclipsis Lunaris, but it is a ruin, as you know.”
            Milo was genuinely surprised.  “Gods!  A thousand miles in the saddle!  Alone?”
            “Of course not,” said Derian.  “Ingwald Freeman was my guard.”
            “Naturally.  To what end did you make this journey?”
            “More than one purpose, actually,” said Derian.  “My uncle thought it wise to get me out of Stonebridge for a while after Gaudy’s Tavern, and he needed a postboy.  He had me carry letters to the Le Grants of Saltas Semitas, the Postels of Auria Prati, and the Asselins of Lata Altum Flumen.  Don’t look so surprised.  Uncle Ody doesn’t spend all his time reviewing business contracts or torturing young brides.  He corresponds with castle lords all over the western half of Tarquint.  Unfortunately, I do not know what his letters said, but you can be sure they seek to promote the power and influence of Stonebridge.  My uncle is a farseeing man.”
            Tondbert noted Milo’s surprised expression at the words “torturing young brides.”  The commander said, “Sir Milo, you should know that Ody Dans’s crimes against Adelgar and Tilde Gyricson are not his first.  Derian has reported murders and other outrages at The Spray.  I find this information valuable.  You may ask why I do not use such testimony to move against Dans.  The answer is that I love my city.  Ody Dans, depraved sadist that he is, is quite effective in representing the interests of the city in our dealings with castle lords.  And—he supports the Citadel budget; of all the voices in the Assembly I can count on Dans.  So he is a useful criminal.”
            Milo inclined his head.
            “There was a second purpose to my tour of the downs,” said Derian.  “A commercial purpose.  I took with me three dozen bottles of Stonebridge’s best sweet white wine, which I shared with the lords and ladies I visited.  Castle lords live in luxury hard for ordinary people to imagine.  Gods!  I forget!  Sir Milo, having grown up in Hyacintho Flumen, you know well what I mean.  Lady Arbe Asselin, Simon Asselin’s wife, let me bathe in a magic tub when I visited Lata Altum Flumen—my uncle Ody has nothing to rival that!  But they eat and drink the foods grown locally.  Lots of beef and mutton and beer.  Not bad beer, by the way!  But when they tried our white wine, with a touch of apricot, they tasted paradise.”
            Milo smiled.  “And so . . .?”
            “So they must wait until spring.  I’m not going to haul a wagon of wines across the downs in autumn.  Snow comes early at Lata Altum Flumen!  But there are also thirsty throats in Down’s End, and that’s only a few days away, as the wagons roll.  Uncle Ody has lent me golds to buy and store wine, reds as well as whites.  I’ll hire out a couple wagons and take them to Down’s End.  The profit will be modest, but I explained to Uncle Ody how I’ll reserve a third of my purchase for next spring.  I should get excellent returns from the Le Grants, Postels, and Asselins.”
            “An ambitious plan,” said Milo.  “And likely well-paying.”
            “I hope so, for my sake.  My uncle expects me to turn profits.  But now, Milo, your dealings!  Tondbert says you rescued Tilde Gyricson.”
            Milo held his palms out.  “The commander speaks kindly.  Felix Abrecan and I prevented her, in a moment of despair, from throwing herself into River Broganéa.  Felix suggested a place where Tilde might stay.”
            “In Laura Camden’s house,” Tondbert added.  “You speak too modestly, under-sheriff Milo.  By the way, shouldn’t we make you sheriff soon?  You obtained my permission for Mistress Gyricson to work here in the Citadel, keeping her largely from the public eye, without telling me much about her.  Clever of you.”
            “Ah, Commander!  About that . . .”
            Tondbert interrupted with a raised palm. “You need not apologize.  You hadn’t learned to trust me then as you do now.”  Tondbert smiled indulgently.  Milo thought: You imagine that I trust you?  Surely you know better than that!
            The commander continued, “We all can agree that Tilde Gyricson ought to be protected.  If ever I have to bring charges against Master Dans, her testimony would corroborate that of others.  So I have decided to house her here, out of the public eye, in a room on the second floor of the Citadel.  The men will undoubtedly see that there is a, ah, relationship between you and the cleaning woman.  All to the good.  The men like you, and they will not trouble Mistress Gyricson, knowing that she is yours.”
            Milo smiled conspiratorially.  “If the commander suggests such a pleasant plan, who am I to object?  Will you tell the woman, or should I?”
            Tondbert grinned.  “I expect you will see her before I do.  See that she’s moved here soon.  The less the world knows of her existence the safer she will be from Ody Dans.”
            “I understand that, sir.  The woman herself is concerned that Adelgar Gyricson not discover her whereabouts.  Perhaps we should call our cleaning woman Daisy, a fitting name for a washerwoman.”
            “Fine.  Introduce her to the men as Daisy.”

            Daisy Freewoman took up residence on the second floor of the Citadel of the City Guard on a cold, windy, wet day in October.  As she went about her work, she typically wore a poorly mended russet kirtle, mismatched hose, and a ratty shawl.  Her hands were often red, almost raw, from long days of scrubbing.  Some of the new under-sheriffs told each other that Daisy would have been pretty if life had treated her better.  But word quickly spread that she was already taken; Sheriff Milo often visited her cell after sup.
            A crisp aroma captured Milo and Felix on a sunny afternoon.  They had finished their morning and afternoon rounds as sheriffs; this outing was for pleasure, visiting shops, mills, glassworks, forges, smiths, and the like—the productive heart of Stonebridge.  It was the smell of apples; Felix gestured to Milo, and they followed a farmer’s wagon laden with bushels of red apples.
            The wagon master guided his team into a medium sized wood building.  Surprisingly loud sounds were coming from somewhere inside the warehouse.  Milo nodded to his companion and they followed the wagon out of the bright afternoon into interior shade.  Milo blinked several times until his eyes adjusted to the dimness.  Two youths, younger than Eádulf, had begun carrying the bushels from the wagon into an adjoining room; the grinding sound was coming from there.
            “Cider pressing.”  Felix almost had to shout.  By leaning near their horses’ necks they could see into the next room without dismounting.  Milo saw a man cranking a metal flywheel while the two youths threw apples into the maw of a toothed spindle box.
            “Ah!”  Milo had never seen such a contraption before.  Below the spindle box shredded apple bits fell into a tub.
            Suddenly Milo’s attention diverted from the process of cider pressing.  He swung down from the saddle.  “Hold Blackie a bit, will you, Felix?”  Without waiting for his partner’s reply, Milo walked into the cider pressing room.  A man stood on the far side of the press, his tunic protected by a body-length leather apron.  Bits of apple pulp and drops of apple juice decorated his apron.
            “Adelgar Gyricson!”  Milo shouted over the noise of the cider press.  The man looked up, frowned for a moment, and then motioned to one of the boys feeding apples into the grinder.  He beckoned Milo with a wave through a further doorway into a small room outfitted as an office.  He shut the door, reducing the sound from the grinder room significantly.
            “Sir Milo Mortane of Hyacintho Flumen!  I remember you.  I’d offer my hand, but it’s sticky.”
            “Fair afternoon, Adelgar.”  Milo extended his hand and Gyricson took it.  “You’ve moved into industry, I take it.  No more selling lumber in Down’s End.”
            “Hah!  Not by preference, I assure you.  There is no one so pathetic as a merchant without credit.  I fear Ody Dans has attached a dark cloud to my name; none of the bankers will underwrite my proposals.”
            “I’m sorry to hear it,” said Milo.  “I myself have become a sheriff of Stonebridge.  We all have to earn our keep.”
            “Sheriff!”  Gyricson’s interest was evident.  “Could you help me find Tilde?  I’ve never seen her since that awful night.”
            Milo knew this question would come.  “Find her?  But Dans demanded only two weeks.”  He hoped his feigned ignorance convinced Gyricson.
            “She never came home.”  Gyricson looked stricken.  “I asked a sheriff for help, but he didn’t offer much hope.”
            “I fear the Guard spends most of its time keeping the Hawks and Falcons from slaughtering each other and burning the Bene Quarter,” said Milo.  “But I promise I will watch for Tilde.  Such a beautiful woman!  By the way, you should be on your guard.  Your testimony against Ody Dans could destroy him.”
            Gyricson shook his head.  “Not likely.  I spoke to Commander Tondbert.  He told me plainly that if I filed a complaint against Dans, the Guard could not guarantee my safety.”
            “I’m very sorry.  Nevertheless, I will keep my eyes and ears open.  If I discover anything about Tilde, you will be the first to know.”

Copyright © 2013 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Castles 64

64. In Castle Hyacintho Flumen

            “So much for stopping the invader at sea!  Damn cowards!  Only one man willing to actually fight.” 
            Aylwin Mortane folded his arms, glaring at his three councilors, Arthur the old, his mother Lucia, and his wife Edita.  They sat round a small table in the lord’s bedroom, the room where Lucia had given him birth, the room where Hereward Mortane had died ten weeks before, and the room where Edita cried every night.  Morning sunshine fell through a window on the remains of breakfast, Aylwin’s portion mostly uneaten.  Crisp rye bread with pungent white cheese, his favorite—yet he couldn’t enjoy it.  Aylwin stood three paces behind his chair, chewing his lip.  His councilors’ expressions invited him to sit, but his stomach was too tense.  He began pacing.
            “You can’t really blame them, can you?”  Lucia spoke evenly.  “Liquid fire has a nasty reputation.  Especially now that they’ve seen what happened to Giffard.”
            Aylwin ground his teeth.  “The kayak men fled at the approach of the longships, before they ever saw the fire.  Giffard was the only one with courage.”
            Arthur the old sighed.  “My lord, our attempt to use the liquid fire was disappointing, I’m sure.  But we knew from the outset that our chances of success were small.  The Herminians sent more than ten thousand men.  At best our fire casks would have reduced their number by a fraction.”
            “The Horatians have destroyed whole navies with liquid fire!”  Aylwin continued to pace.
            “On one occasion, celebrated in Horatian lore, one fleet was trapped in a harbor and ravaged by liquid fire,” said Arthur.  “Other times, the fire has enabled smaller fleets to defeat larger ones.  It is a powerful weapon, but I advised you plainly that it would not likely work as well in the open sea.”
            Aylwin’s stomach hurt.  Anger or fear?  He changed topics.  “The sheriffs also surrendered without a fight.”
            Lucia motioned to the empty chair.  “What would you have had them do?  Emulate Druce Bowden?  He fought bravely enough, but now he is dead along with a great many of his men, and his ships are sunk or captured.  Hyacintho Flumen is whole.  A battle for the town would have killed scores and left hundreds homeless.”
            “My enemy rules my people, and I am supposed to be glad?”
            Lucia’s eyes flashed with anger.  “Of course not!  But if you are to ever rule your people again, they must be alive.  The Herminians will not stay forever.  When they leave, what will be left?  It will be better to rule a prosperous town than a heap of ashes.”
            “That’s just it, isn’t it Mother?  The Herminians do intend to stay forever, according to Edita.  Tell them!”
            Edita’s eyes fell immediately when Aylwin turned his glare at her.  The pity or compassion Aylwin had felt when he first met Edita had long disappeared.  By the gods!  A crippled, weeping dishrag of a woman.  If it weren’t for Juliana . . .
            Edita spoke as if talking to her lifeless left hand.  “King Rudolf conquered all the lords of Herminia one by one, besieging them until they submitted.  Eudes Ridere, the king’s general, commanded the army while Rudolf stayed in Pulchra Mane.  Ridere made them stand every week at the lord’s knob so that Rudolf could question them and command them.”
            Arthur the old raised a finger.  “My Lady Edita, only a strong lord, bonded well with his castle, can see and speak with other lords.”
            Edita made a half smile.  “That may be.  My father never explained the mysteries of the lord’s knob to me.  I do know that every week my father stood at his knob and talked with the king, though he never spoke to others.  Perhaps the king’s bond with Pulchra Mane was strong enough to support the others.
              “In any case, King Rudolf recognized free cities, answerable only to the king’s law.  He required each lord to account for hidgield and pay one twentieth to the crown.  When he died, Queen Mariel maintained all her father’s policies.  She even took Eudes Ridere as her consort.  My father and the lords and lady of Herminia submit to Mariel every week.”
            Lucia started to speak, but Aylwin interrupted.  “Damn it, Mother.  Don’t say it.”
            “What, Aylwin?”
            “You’re going to say it wouldn’t be so bad.  All I need do is humiliate myself once a week and the Herminian bitch will let me keep my castle.  All my decisions subject to her veto.  Arthur’s records open for her to read.  I won’t have it!”
            Aylwin rounded the chair and sat, leaning forward on his elbows.  “You know the price I pay to be lord of Hyacintho Flumen, Mother.  I am trapped here as surely as a fly in a spider web.  I’d rather be exiled like Milo than be locked here and subject to Mariel.
            “I have been practicing with Parva Arcum Praesidiis and Magna Arcum Praesidiis.”  Aylwin smirked at Arthur; his old teacher probably didn’t know Aylwin could pronounce castle words.  Arthur certainly didn’t know how well Aylwin had bonded with Hyacintho Flumen.  “I can make circle shields.  What I need to know is how to use them to defeat this enemy.”
            Arthur wrinkled his nose.  “Can you move the shields?”  He made a pressing motion with his hands, as if squeezing some invisible object between them.
            “I’m sure of it.”
            “Then you know the answer.  When the enemy attacks, establish the shields, dividing the attacker into three groups.  Crush the middle group between the shields.  Destroy the inner group, which must be few in number, with soldiers housed in the castle.  The enemy remaining outside Magna Arcum Praesidiis will be hesitant to attack a second time.  Send an emissary to offer peace.”
            Aylwin balled his fists.  “As you say, I know all this.  But my dear wife tells me it will not be enough.”  Aylwin hadn’t let Lucia or Arthur see his disdain for Edita so clearly before.  “The lords of Herminia knew how to make circle shields.  Rudolf conquered them anyway.  How do I defeat a siege?”
            “Allies,” said Arthur.  You must send emissaries to the free cities while you still have time, before the Herminians surround you.”
            “The free cities?  Not to Mare Sidere?  Or Flores et Fructus?  Wouldn’t other lords make common cause with me?”
             Arthur grimaced.  “They might.  But if they did, what help could they send?  A half dozen knights?  Five hundred men?  That is the most you could hope for, from even the richest lord.  Lords stay in their castles, and they keep their men close at hand.”
            “So you say.  Rudolf sent his army to besiege every castle in Herminia.  Mariel sends her army here.”
              Arthur acknowledged Aylwin’s objection with a bow of his head.  “Two Moons has never seen the likes of House Grandmesnil before.  Still, I believe Cippenham, Stonebridge or Down’s End could send an army as big as Mariel’s.  The free cities have far more men than any lord.”
            Aylwin considered this advice.  “How do I persuade free cities to fight for me?  Such men don’t acknowledge castle lords.  Many of them won’t even worship castle gods.”
            To Aylwin’s surprise, it was Edita who answered.  “Don’t ask them to fight for you.  Ask them to fight with you.  They will defend themselves; you must make them believe that your war is their war.  It doesn’t matter if they worship the old god or castle gods.  They don’t have to love you or acknowledge your rule.  They only have to believe that Mariel would oppress them and that by fighting with you they avoid her boot.”
            Aylwin tilted his head sideways, looking at Edita with pursed lips.  “My dear wife speaks the truth, I believe.  We will send emissaries to Down’s End and Stonebridge.”
            Edita bowed her head.  “Perhaps my lord husband would send me on this mission.”
            Aylwin laughed aloud.  “I think not, dear wife.  You would not survive the journey.  Besides, you need to stay here until I get a baby in you.  Dag Daegmund can represent me.  He can take a few men as escort.”
            Arthur the old pressed his fingertips together.  “My lord, there may be wisdom in Lady Edita’s suggestion.”
            “Send my wife as ambassador?”
            “No, my lord.  Lady Edita is, as you point out, unfit for such a journey.  But a member of House Mortane might impress the men of Down’s End more than an armsman.  Lady Lucia could go.  Or Amicia.”
            Lucia objected forcefully: “Amicia is a child!  She can’t negotiate for us.”
            Aylwin looked slowly from his mother to Arthur.  “A child who will soon be a woman,” he said.  “I have thought to join her to a lord of a castle.  But perhaps a mayor or city minister would see an advantage in marrying a Mortane.”
            Lucia blanched.  “You would barter my daughter to a merchant?”
            “Of course I would.  Mother, you were bartered to Hereward, and Edita was bartered to me.  Would it be so much worse to be wife to a Down’s End banker?  Rich houses have no castle magic, but there are servants to make life tolerable.”
            Lucia inclined her head.  “Consider well, my son.  I am ready to speak for you.  Amicia is young.”
            “I will consider carefully, Mother.  Perhaps you will both go.”
            Arthur said, “My lord, we must also consider well our preparations within the castle.  We must have constant watch.  When an attack comes, you must be ready to command Parva Arcum Praesidiis and Magna Arcum Praesidiis within minutes.  We must reserve, here in Hyacintho Flumen, enough men to repel any attackers inside Parva Arcum Praesidiis.  But you must not house too many, for every defender must be fed.  We must gather supplies, especially food, for every mouth, growing as much as possible within the circle shield.  The longer we withstand the siege, the greater the difficulties of the besiegers.”
            Aylwin nodded.  “I will consult Kenelm Ash today about how many men.  And I will consider the matter of ambassadors.”
            A knock sounded on the lord’s bedroom door.  Lady Lucia, still accustomed to the role of mistress of Hyacintho Flumen, spoke loudly: “Who is it?  Come!”
            The door disappeared, sliding into the wall.  Dag Daegmund was there.  “What is it?” asked Aylwin.
            “My lord, the Herminians have sent an envoy.”

Copyright © 2013 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Castles 63

63. Near the Mouth of the Blue River

            Eudes Ridere knew nothing of warfare at sea, so he didn’t pretend to advise Gilles Guyot, captain of the Fair Wind, when the enemy sailed to meet them.  All he could do was watch and hope.
            The Fair Wind was one of twenty longships sailing as vanguard for the Herminian armada.  The longships used sails when crossing the ocean, but in battle they relied on banks of oarsmen.  With steel prows for ramming, archers, and swordsmen ready to fight ship to ship, the longships provided formidable protection for the forty fat cogs that made up the rest of the fleet.  The cogs relied on sails for propulsion, no oarsmen, so they were slower and less maneuverable, but they were able to transport an army.  Twenty of them carried five hundred men each: knights, squires, archers, pikemen, and swordsmen.  The other twenty brought the paraphernalia of war: horses, food, weapons, tents, extra clothing, and many other things.
            The success of the invasion depended not just on the size of Herminia’s army but also on its ability to sustain a siege over months, perhaps years.  As Rudolf Grandmesnil’s “quartermaster general,” Eudes had perfected the art of the protracted siege, the only way to subdue a lord in his castle.  Unfortunately, invading Tarquint greatly complicated the art of the siege, because the army had to be constantly re-supplied by ships.  If the Tarquintians could defeat Herminia’s armada, Eudes’s invasion would fail before it started.  But the greater worry was the sea-lane.  Eudes was confident that once his army was ashore, he could occupy the town named Hyacintho Flumen and besiege the castle from which it took its name.  Would the Tarquintians recognize his weakness, the long sea-borne supply line?  Could the longships protect the Herminia’s supply ships over the long term? 
            Those questions must wait.  At present Fair Wind was perhaps five miles from their goal.  The forty cogs were spread out over three miles of water behind the longships.  It was not yet noon, and Eudes hoped to put most of his army ashore before nightfall.
            “Is good, yes?”  Gilles Guyot pointed toward the harbor where the Blue River emptied into the sea.  Several ships were moving toward the Fair Wind and the other longships.  “They come out to us, and we crush them now!”
            Eudes wasn’t so sure of this point.  He had hoped that he might catch the Tarquintian ships docked at Hyacintho Flumen.  His swordsmen and archers would make short work of sailors in an engagement on land.  With no experience in battles between ships, Eudes couldn’t tell whether Guyot’s confidence was bluster or well founded.
            “I am in your hands, Gilles.  Bring my men safely to land.  If you don’t, be sure I will cut your throat personally, if I have to swim the sea to do it.”
            Guyot laughed loudly.  “Do not fear, my general!  Hoy, there!  Vere, signal the captains!  Battle formation!”
            “Aye, Captain!”  Vere De Fry was the first officer under Guyot on Fair Wind.  He motioned to a sailor nearby and the two of them began waving red and black flags, signals that were acknowledged by flags on other longships.
            Eudes counted only six ships sailing toward them.  We vastly outnumber them.  Do they really intend to fight?  “Gilles!  Do you think, perhaps, they want to talk rather than fight?”
            “Is possible.”  Guyot stroked his neatly trimmed beard; a few years before it had been black, but now it was streaked with gray.  “But if they want to parley, why six ships?  One would be enough.  On the other hand, six is no match for twenty longships.”  Suddenly he wheeled around and ran to Fair Wind’s stern.  “By the gods!  Clever bastards, they are!”
            Eudes did not see at first the cause of Guyot’s imprecations.  The captain was already shouting new commands to Vere De Fry.  King Rudolf, Storm Cloud, Herminia, Gods’ Breath, Vengeance, Iron Bones, Queen Mariel, Victorious, Sea Booty, and Winter Wind were directed to attack the ships lying between the fleet and the harbor.  The other longships, including Fair Wind, began peeling back, turning toward the nearer Tarquintian shore.
            What is the matter?  Eudes scanned the shore; he saw nothing.  Then he noticed what looked like a wine cask floating on the ocean, then another, and then many of them, all gathered around the mouth of a tiny river that emptied into the sea six miles west of Inter Lucus.  Moving quickly among the casks were little boats, like nothing Eudes had ever seen.  “What are they?”  Eudes shouted over the sound of oarsmen grunting in unison and the archers calling out to each other.
            “Sea kayaks,” Gilles Guyot shouted back.  “Little boats, low in the water, damned hard to see.  One-man boats.  But the danger is the barrels.  You see?  Is liquid fire, or I’m a fish!”
            Eudes had heard stories about liquid fire, supposedly a weapon invented in Horatia, a landmass east and south of Tarquint.  Eudes found it hard to believe all the claims made about liquid fire, that it could destroy whole ships in minutes, that it stuck to a man’s skin and could not be extinguished, that it could float on water and still burn, and that the secret for making it was a closely guarded secret.  In fact, rumors said, in Horatia two sects of alchemists concocted the ingredients for the fire, and neither knew the proportions by which a third group mixed the fire.  But if the stories were even half true, and if Tarquintians could make it, the implications were terrible.
            He grabbed Guyot’s arm.  “Liquid fire?  Here?”  If the Tarquintians could attack his supply line with liquid fire, how could he sustain a siege?
            “Aye.  Clever, they are.  Six ships sail from Hyacintho Flumen; we see them; longships destroy them.  Meanwhile the fire burns Mariel’s army.”
            “And the sea kayaks will set them burning?  How?”
            Guyot shrugged his arm free from Eudes’s grip.  “How it works, I know not.  Some say water sets the fire alight; break barrel—fire!  Lit by kayak men, maybe so.  Fire spreads on ocean, lights other barrels.”
            The rowing drum beat a fast rhythm and Fair Wind raced toward the barrels, but another longship, the Lady Avice, ran ahead of her.  Most of the sea kayaks began retreating to the shallow water along the shore.  On Eudes’s right, the Ice Queen turned into the surf, pursing the kayak men.  When Ice Queen crunched into the gravelly beach, swordsmen leaped into water that reached their thighs, rushing ashore to chase the kayak men. 
            Directly ahead, the last kayak delayed its flight; the kayak warrior threw some projectile at the nearest barrel but missed.  Lady Avice bore down on him, archers preparing to shoot.  Still the kayak warrior would not flee.  He used his oddly shaped double paddle to drive his tiny craft toward the barrel; coming alongside, he hit the barrel with something, maybe a hatchet.
            The barrel exploded, throwing phosphorescent fire into the mid-day air.  The warrior who ignited it was tossed across the surface of the sea, his tiny boat blazing.  Eudes had seen thousands killed in battle, but not many by self-immolation.  What did he hope to achieve?  Glory?  Rewards in the afterworld?
            Liquid fire shot out from the barrel in every direction, but it fell short of the other barrels.  Some of the devilish brew struck the side of Lady Avice, and it clung to her, burning and threatening to light the ship.  Men threw water on the fire to no effect; panic began to spread.  But then two quick thinking men brought out an extra sail—dry canvas—and blanketed the flames, lowering the sail like a patch on the side of the ship.  Other men immediately joined the effort, helping to hold the canvas in place and beating the flames with oars.
            Lady Avice altered course, bearing away from the barrels of liquid fire.  Gilles Guyot ordered Fair Wind’s oarsmen to slow their speed.  Floating islands of liquid fire dotted the surface of the sea, burning brightly, some of them dangerously close to other barrels.  Shouting a stream of commands to the helmsman, Guyot maneuvered Fair Wind between the fire and the closest barrel.  Experienced men, sailors and soldiers alike, tightened frightened grips on ropes and swords.
            “Touch it not!”  Guyot shouted.  Eudes thought this was the most unnecessary command ever uttered.  Grown men held their breath as the deadly canister passed within three yards of Fair Wind’s side.  “Our wake will push it away!”
            Fair Wind passed on.  Looking back, Eudes saw Guyot was right.  The ripples of their wake widened the gap between the barrel and the fire.  Fair Wind came about.  The islands of liquid fire were burning themselves out; the fleet had escaped one threat. 
            Signals flew from ship to ship, confirming what the captains had already concluded, that they should steer clear of the barrels floating on the tide.  The wind from the south was steady in the fall, said Gilles Guyot; it would drive the barrels onto the shore. 
            To surround castle Hyacintho Flumen, Eudes had planned from the beginning to occupy land west and south of the castle.  He had thought to take the town first and march from there.  In any case, the bulk of his army had to go that way since the cogs needed proper docks.  But he could not let opportunity slip through his fingers.  Through signals to the other ships he commanded swordsmen from Lady Avice, Superior and Fair Wind to join those from Ice Queen who had already gone ashore, a force of about 160 men.  He put Aewel Penda in command.  “Make camp; set sentries; hold the mouth of that little river,” he ordered Aewel.  “I don’t want any more kayaks launching from there.  And collect as many barrels of liquid fire as you can.”
            “My lord general?  You wish us to keep them?”
            “By the gods, I do!  You don’t have to sleep with them, but I want them protected!  Archard will relieve you in two days or less.  I promise.”
            Aewel saluted.  “It will be done.”

            From Eudes’s point of view, the other half of the battle was anti-climactic.  By the time Fair Wind had deposited Aewel and his swordsmen on shore, all of whom had to wade through thigh deep ocean water, the battle in the harbor was over. King Rudolf, Storm Cloud, Herminia, Gods’ Breath, Vengeance, Iron Bones, Queen Mariel, Victorious, Sea Booty, and Winter Wind overwhelmed the six Tarquintian ships.  Three were rammed and sunk.  Three were boarded and captured.  The cogs sailed unhindered into the harbor and tied up at docks already controlled by swordsmen from the longships.  The town’s garrison surrendered as soon as the swordsmen leapt from longship to pier. 
            All told, the Herminians suffered 28 deaths.  Herminia’s captains didn’t bother to count the losses of the Tarquintians, neither at sea or on land, which angered Eudes.  The quartermaster general valued such information.  One day’s triumph, he reminded his officers, did not end the war.  Certainly not if the enemy could make liquid fire.
            Eudes Ridere had use of the best bed in The Rose Petal, a fine inn.  But he didn’t sleep well.

Copyright © 2013 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.