Thursday, October 3, 2013

Castles 71

71. On the Banks of the Blue River

            Eudes Ridere warmed himself by a watch fire near the bridge over the Blue River.  He had risen in the dark, sleep ruined by mental images of casks of liquid fire floating among Herminia’s supply ships.  Bully was awake and ready with Eudes’s clothes when the general called for him.  The boy reads my feelings well.  He knows.  Bully offered to fetch breakfast, but Eudes wanted to join men in the field.  Eudes wore a sword and leather jerkin, throwing a cloak on top because of the chill.  General and squire rode in darkness from the inn in Hyacintho Flumen to the guard post at the eastern end of the bridge.
            The soldiers on duty, six men from Rubrum Vulpes, were startled to find Herminia’s general at their fire.  “My lord Ridere!  Sir!  General!  Your Majesty!”  They fumbled to express themselves properly.
            “Calm yourselves, soldiers.”  Eudes and Bully dismounted and tied their horses to a nearby fence.  “What do you have there in the pot?”
            “Hot barley tea, with a bit o’ honey.”  One of the men hastened to dip out some for Eudes and his squire.
            “Thank you.”  Eudes wrapped his fingers around the clay cup, sipped the beverage and spat.  “Gods!  We’ll have to get you men something better than this.”
            Chuckles around the fire.  “Mead and water would be a sight better, Sir.  The best one can say for this stuff is it’s warm.”
            “Tell me what you’ve seen through the night.”
            A thin, sinewy man who seemed to be the leader of the guards said, “Naught from the other side, Sir.  Some Pulchra Mane men went over about midnight.  Didn’t say a word, an’ they ain’t come back.  My lord must know what that’s about.”
            “How many?”
            “Hoo, ah.  Maybe a hunnerd.”
            Eudes frowned in the dark.  Archard Oshelm was supposed to position four hundred men north of castle Hyacintho Flumen, taking control of the road northward, before sunrise.  If the first hundred crossed the bridge five hours ago, where are the rest?
            As if in answer to Eudes’s worry, horses approached the bridge from the north, on the east side of the river.  The guards drew their swords, and the thin sergeant called out.  “Name yourselves!”
            The horses stopped just at the edge of the firelight.  “Commander Oshelm of Pulchra Mane.”  It wasn’t Archard’s voice, but Eudes thought it sounded like Darel Hain, who served under him.
            “Come forward to be recognized.  One at a time.”  With the General of the Army standing a few feet away, the sergeant was careful to follow correct procedure.  One of the horsemen rode closer; it was Hain.
            “I’m Sergeant Hain.”  The rider saluted with a fist across his chest. 
            The sergeant of the guard returned the salute.  “Allard Ing.  I serve Lord Denis Mowbray of Rubrum Vulpes.  Welcome.  Next man!  Come forward.”
            There were two other riders with Hain, then Archard Oshelm.  Eudes stood cloaked in the shadows as Allard Ing made the newcomers present themselves one by one.  One of the riders said, “Don’t overdo it, Ing.  It’s our second day in Tarquint, and there’ll be a thousand more.  Don’t be so tight-assed.”
            Eudes stepped close to the fire as Archard was dismounting.  “Actually, I prefer it when men follow proper procedure.”  He extended his hand to Oshelm.  “Fair morning, Archard.”
            “Fair morning, General!”  Archard clasped hands vigorously.  He grinned at the embarrassed soldier standing next to him.  “The general has a remarkable capacity for showing up when you least expect it, Ranulf.  General Ridere, I present Ranulf Travers, swordsman of Herminia.”
            “Fair morning, soldier Travers.”  Eudes saluted the speechless man.  “Do not forget that discipline will be key to the success of this whole venture.  My army follows procedures because they work.  They keep men alive.  Don’t get lazy, Travers.  And you, Ing, can be as tight-assed as you like, if it means obeying orders.” 
            “Aye, Sir!”  Ing and Travers both laid fists across their chests.
            Eudes took Archard aside to hear his report.  One hundred men had crossed the bridge in the darkest hours to take up a position on the west end, securing the bridge for later use.  Three hundred had crossed the river upstream on boats.
            “They must control the road.”
            “They do already, Sir.  Of course, we will need to reinforce them.  And we will need a great many more to prevent riders escaping through our ring.”
            Eudes snorted playfully.  “I don’t expect magic, Archard.  A siege clamps down gradually.  Aylwin Mortane will undoubtedly send a few of his most trusted men to ask for help from the free cities.  We can’t stop him.  Our net around Hyacintho Flumen can’t possibly catch such small fish yet.  I’m not particularly concerned about soldiers moving into the castle.  The more mouths he must feed, the better.  What we must do is prevent any food getting in.  The road must be ours; all the boats on the river must be ours.”
            “My lord, you ordered that we were not to commandeer the produce of Tarquint.”
            “Precisely.  Herminia will supply us by means of the sea.  We are not here as thieves.  The farmers of the region may sell their goods as they have before in the town Hyacintho Flumen.  Our men may buy things, but if they do they must pay fair prices.  But no food goes into the castle.  Ah! Speaking of food!”
            Out of the growing predawn light came a food wagon.  Of all Eudes’s innovations, this was the one most appreciated by ordinary soldiers and the one he was most proud of.  Food wagons were light, two-wheeled carts, pulled by ponies or small horses.  A supply soldier walked beside the draft animal when the cart was full; empty, the soldier rode back in the food wagon.  The army had two hundred of them, swarming like ants from supply kitchens to the men who maintained the front lines of the siege.  They brought bread, fresh vegetables (when available), meat (most days), something to drink (watery beer—safer than water scooped from a puddle) and always a pot of something hot (often beans with salted pork).  As quartermaster general, Eudes understood that his success depended on the health and morale of ordinary soldiers.
            Archard, his three escorts, the six men of the bridge guard, and Eudes and Bully partook from the food wagon.  Archard already knew his next assignment: to take two thousand men across the river near its mouth to relieve Aewel Penda and the swordsmen who had been put ashore from longboats to collect and guard the enemy’s barrels of liquid fire.  Eudes reviewed the plan with Archard privately and sent him back to town.  “Tell the others I’ll be there presently.”
            Two more food wagons came by.  Eudes ordered two men of the bridge guard to accompany the wagons across the bridge and to come back with a report after delivering rations to the guard on the west end.  He waited impatiently; daylight was growing stronger, and he was needed in town.  “Bully, mount up.  Sergeant Ing, I can’t wait here longer.  When your men come back send one to report at my headquarters.”
            “Aye, Sir.  But Sir!  Here they come.” 
            Sunlight broke through the morning overcast and met the two men approaching over the bridge.  They walked at their leisure, which told Eudes much of what he needed to know about the guards at the west end.  “Sergeant Ing, tell your men that soldiers march.  They never loiter.”
            The sergeant shouted something foul.  The soldiers sprinted the last twenty yards across the bridge.  They reported that the men of Pulchra Mane had occupied some barns and warehouses on the west bank of the river.  They were concealed from the view of castle Hyacintho Flumen but in full control of traffic across the bridge.  Eudes accepted their report and warned them that the men of Rubrum Vulpes would not always have today’s easy duty on the safe end of the bridge.  “Fare well.  Do your duty.”  The men saluted, and Eudes and Bully rode away.
            General and squire arrived at the inn called Rose Petal, Eudes’s headquarters in the middle of town Hyacintho Flumen.  Archard Oshelm, Gilles Guyot, and a dozen other commanders were present in chairs seated around a long table.  Captain Guyot stood up when Eudes entered.
            “Late, yes, the general is.  To his own meeting, he is.”  Guyot’s words were playful rather than sarcastic.  He bowed.  “Fair morning, my Lord General.”
            “Fair morning, Captain.  Didn’t sleep very well, I’m afraid.  Visions of liquid fire dancing in my head—not really a comfortable picture.”
            “Ah!  Indeed no.”  Guyot made a sour face.
            Eudes seated himself at one end of the table.  Bully and other squires ringed the room like human furniture while the general and his commanders talked.  The commanders reported succinctly.  Herminians controlled all the ships in the harbor.  They had unloaded the whole army and most of its provisions; six cogs and three longships would be ready to sail for Herminia on the morrow.  They controlled the sole bridge over the Blue River.  They had captured eleven riverboats, all that could be found within three miles of Hyacintho Flumen.  The riverboats would serve nicely to put Archard’s men across to the west side so they could march to relieve Aewel Penda.  The crossing would be carried out that very day.
            Eudes summarized.  “We have achieved every goal for the first stage.  I had thought it would take as much as a week to do this.  You—we—should all be pleased.  My first report will go with the ships that sail tomorrow; the Queen and your lords will enjoy it, I’m sure.  But I remind you this is the first stage only.  We will move as quickly as possible toward our next goals.  Does any of you see a reason we should not send our emissary today?”
            Eudes’s commanders looked at each other, then at Fugol Hengist, seated two chairs to Eudes’s right.
            “Very well, then.”  The general turned to Fugol.  “Commander Hengist, you are commissioned to speak to Aylwin Mortane, offering him terms of peace if he submits to our Queen.  Tell him clearly that no other choice is acceptable.”
            Fugol rose and laid his fist on his chest.  “It will be done, my Lord General.”

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


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