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.”
“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.