Friday, October 11, 2013

Castles 72

72. Near Hyacintho Flumen

            “Bully, I’m tired, so I’m going to try my bed again.  Be sure to wake me when Fugol Hengist returns.”
            “Aye, my lord.”  A thought.  “My Lord Ridere, a word?”
            “What is it?”
            “Might I accompany Commander Hengist to the castle?  Naturally, I would return with him and be present to serve you.”
            Ridere covered a yawn with his hand, rubbed his forehead.  “You’re hoping to see the woman, aren’t you?  What good would that do, Bully?  She’s the wife of Lord Aylwin Mortane; her fate is tied to his.  I know you are concerned for her, but of all the souls in Hyacintho Flumen she will be last to suffer the pains of a siege.”
            “Aye, my lord.  But it might be useful to have a second set of eyes in the castle while Commander Hengist conveys your words to Lord Mortane.”
            The general raised an eyebrow.  “And that’s why they won’t let you in.  They’ll make you and the rest of Fugol’s escort stand outside.  However, even that could be useful.  You may accompany Hengist.  Keep alert; see what you can see from the doorstep of Hyacintho Flumen.  It will be long time before we enjoy that view again.”
            Fugol Hengist’s escort consisted of just two men: Danbeney Norman, who carried the flag of truce, and Frasor Rain, an armored swordsman.  Fugol resisted the notion of adding another man to the embassy, but Bully informed him that Ridere had approved.  “So be it,” Fugol said.  “Strap on some armor so you can look the part.  Once we’re across the bridge, Danbeney will announce the embassy.  At the castle, I do all the talking.  Get yourself ready; we ride promptly.”
            Bully hustled to a warehouse that the Herminians had converted into an arms depot and explained his need to a sergeant there.  The man recognized Bully as squire to General Ridere and was quick to cooperate.  He outfitted Bully with a mail shirt, breastplate, and a better sword than the dagger Bully usually wore.  When Fugol saw Bully’s attire he nodded approvingly.
            They crossed the bridge on horse two by two; the road widened west of the bridge and they rode four abreast, Fugol and Danbeney in the middle and the swordsmen, Frasor and Bully, on the outside.  At the nearest point, castle Hyacintho Flumen stood on a hill only a quarter mile from Blue River with steep, almost sheer, faces to the south and east.   The road from the bridge ran between the river and the castle hill, circling all the way around to the northwest corner of the castle grounds, where the slope moderated.  Thus, on the east side, between castle and river, they were completely exposed to the scrutiny and power of Hyacintho Flumen.  Bully grasped why Archard Oshelm had moved most of his men across the river by boats further upstream; cover of darkness would not hide an army this close to the enemy.  Between the guard at the west end of the bridge and the Pulchra Mane soldiers stationed north of the castle, Fugol’s embassy traversed an empty and defenseless mile.  Bully felt the hairs on his neck prickling.  In the summer, he had ridden this road with Archard Oshelm and Boyden Black without any sense of danger, but that was before.  Now—the flag of truce was almost always respected—but what do we really know about Mortane?  Castle magic could destroy us at any moment.
            “An embassy of truce for Her Majesty, Queen Mariel!”  Danbeney shouted their mission every hundred yards.  No one came to meet them. 
            The road passed wide to the north of the castle.  On their right, Bully spied Herminian soldiers in fields, barns, and sheds, preparing their camps for the siege ahead.  Several of them waved or saluted the embassy, but Bully followed Fugol’s example and did not acknowledge the salutes.
            “An embassy of truce for Her Majesty, Queen Mariel!”  The riders had reached the northwest approach to Hyacintho Flumen.  The slope here was still steep, but not nearly as severe as the south and east sides.  Bully and Frasor bunched closer to Fugol and Danbeney as the road narrowed.  They passed some servant cottages, a barn, a stable, and a garden on the west slope of the castle.  At last, as they rode under the very shadow of the castle, a man came out to meet them.  He held up a palm and they stopped.
            “Name yourselves!”
            Fugol spurred his horse one step ahead.  “Commander Fugol Hengist.  I speak for Eudes Ridere, Consort of the Queen and General of the Army of Herminia.”
            “Hear me!  You have come without invitation onto the lands of Lord Aylwin Mortane.  You and your master must depart these lands immediately; else wise, the Lord Aylwin will consider you at war with him and his house.”
            Fugol said nothing.
            “Have you no reply?”
            Fugol moved his horse forward another step.  “Observe!  The army of Herminia is not departing these lands, neither immediately nor in any other fashion. If Lord Aylwin considers this war, so be it.  He should then consider terms of peace before he is destroyed.  It is for that reason I have been sent.  Will Lord Aylwin receive me and hear Lord Ridere’s words?”
            “He will.”  The man pointed at Fugol.  “You alone.  These men,” he gestured at Bully, Frasor, and Danbeney, “will dismount and stay here.  Odo will care for your horses.”
            The man pointed with his chin.  A gangly boy, perhaps twelve years old, was jogging up the hill.  The riders swung down from the saddle.  Wide-eyed and solemn, the boy received the leads to their horses.  Danbeney kept his flag of truce.  Bully almost offered to help the stable boy, but he remembered he was not to speak.  Odo snickered to the animals and led them gently away.
            “This way.”  The man bowed Fugol into Hyacintho Flumen and shut the door.

            Nowhere to go, nothing to say, and nothing to do but wait—except Ridere had said to keep his eyes open.  Bully stood with his hands behind his back and surveyed the land west and north of the castle.  Pastures and grape vines occupied the lower slopes of the hill; further away were gardens, fields, and farmhouses, then forests.  Ridge after ridge of wild lands filled the horizon.  Looking north, Bully knew the road to Down’s End found its way somewhere over those ridges, but he couldn’t make out where it lay.  In the distant west was a blue smudge of mountains.
            Frasor and Danbeney used their time as Bully did, observing and memorizing the lay of the land around Hyacintho Flumen.  The more he looked, Bully discovered, the more there was to see.  He began counting farmhouses and barns on the west side of the castle, trying to fix in his mind how the fields fit together in a puzzle.  There were people working in one of the fields, digging something—potatoes? —and loading baskets on a wagon.  Near one of the farm cottages, a woman was putting out wet clothes to dry in the sun, hanging them on wooden frames.  She went about her work languidly, stopping often to stare up at the castle as if she were looking for something.
            Something about that woman... She lifted a garment to drape it over the drying frame and the motion clicked in Bully’s memory.  A tall woman, with blond hair curling about the shoulders, and strong, graceful arms.  Turn around.  Let me see your face.  The woman did turn, but the distance was too great.  Bully couldn’t be sure.  But if it is her…  Bully couldn’t chance being recognized.  He stepped back into the shade of the castle.
            Bully continued his survey of the farms and fields west of Hyacintho Flumen, but he kept returning to the washerwoman.  Even with her desultory pace, she finished hanging her clothes and went inside the cottage.  It was a trim little thing, with a thatched roof, a rail fence, and a detached root cellar.  Bully compared it to the other peasant houses he could see and smiled to himself.  The washerwoman’s cottage was clearly the best, he thought.  It would be, wouldn’t it?                
            Sounds behind Bully interrupted his thoughts.  Fugol Hengist marched out of Hyacintho Flumen with the soldier servant who had greeted them right behind.  “You may walk to your horses.  Odo will have them there, at the stable.”  The servant pointed.  “You have but an hour to depart the lord’s lands.  He will not honor the truce any longer than that.”
            Bully thought: I guess that answers the first question about the parley.  Fugol will give a complete report to General Ridere.
            The four soldiers of Herminia quickstepped down the hill.  At the stable, Odo met them with an expression of fear and wonder.  Fugol clasped him on the shoulder.  “Don’t worry, boy.  We’re not here to hurt the folk of Tarquint.  The fool up there”—Fugol indicated the castle—“that’s a different matter.”
            Odo, wide-eyed, did not reply.  He held Danbeney’s flag while the men took their mounts.  He was still staring after them when they turned away.
            Now Bully rode on the left side, which gave him one last chance to observe the washerwoman’s cottage, this time much closer up.  The walls had been painted a pale blue, the window shutters in white.  The finest peasant house on Two Moons.  As if on cue, the washerwoman came out of the cottage to look round the corner of her house, again as if she expected to see someone at the castle.  Now Bully had no doubt at all.
            He pulled his horse left and kicked his sides.  The horse easily leapt a ditch at the roadside and galloped toward the woman’s house.  Behind Bully his companions were cursing him excitedly.  The woman turned at the commotion and screamed to see a rider bearing down on her.
            Bully reined up and slid off his horse in one motion.  He chased the woman to and through the entrance of the house, catching her arm before she could shut the door.  She hit him in the face; he staggered for a moment.  He pulled his sword and swung it wildly.  Seeing the bright steel, she cowered back.  “Out!”  Bully stepped aside and the woman obeyed his command.  He followed her into the sunshine, the point of his sword at her back.
            Fugol, Danbeney, and Frasor were reining up on the patch of grass outside the woman’s cottage.  “By the gods!  You damn fool!”
            Bully ignored them.  “On the horse!”  He poked at his prisoner.  The woman hitched up her kirtle and climbed into the saddle.  She might have fled, but Bully had taken a firm grip on the reins.
            Fugol bellowed.  “You idiot!  Mortane has castle magic!  We’re dead men!”
            Bully pulled the horse’s reins, walking horse and prisoner from behind the house into full view of anyone watching from Hyacintho Flumen.  He waved his sword, reflecting sunlight like a beacon.  “I think not!”
            Bully sheathed his sword and threw himself into the saddle, thrusting his prisoner against the saddle’s horns.  He bent close to her ear.  “I intend to return you, whole, to Mortane.  But I’ll cut you if I must.  So do as I say.”
            Fugol, Danbeney, and Frasor were stunned into momentary silence.
            Bully held his horse’s reins with his arms firmly around the woman.  “Sirs!  I introduce Juliana Ingdaughter, the servant of Edita Toeni, who is now Lady Edita Mortane.  We will take Juliana to General Ridere.”
            “Madness.”  Fugol spoke while Danbeney and Frasor were slack jawed.  “What value is a serving maid as prisoner?”
            “Enough to keep us alive.”  Bully nudged his mount into a trot.  The others followed.

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

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