Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Castles 79

79.  In Castle Inter Lucus

            “My lord, they are coming.  Caelin and Ora are with them.”  Isen spoke from the west door of the great hall.
            Thank God.  Marty exhaled and shook tension from one arm and then the other, transferring his walnut staff from right hand to left.  “Unarmed, then?”
            “I think so.  They left their horses with Eadmar.”
            “Very good.  Isen and Rothulf, come inside and shut the door.  When Os or Ealdwine knocks, open and invite our visitors in.  Mildgyd and Alf, please fetch tea service as quickly as you can.  Caelin will supervise mid-day sup preparation once he’s here.”
            Mildgyd bowed acknowledgement; she rarely spoke in Marty’s presence.  Alf ran ahead of her down the stairs, leaving Agyfen alone at a table where the boys and the nan had been sitting.  Marty stepped over to the little boy and put a reassuring hand on Agyfen’s curly hair.
            The boy tilted his head to look at Marty.  “May I sit by you, my lord?”
            “Aye.  Once the knight has been welcomed, I’ll sit right here.”
            Ealdwine’s knock sounded faint, but only because Attor Woodman’s door timbers were so thick.  A minor project, far down Marty’s to-do list: ask Elne Penrict for an iron knocker for the west door, something heavy and loud enough to be effective.  Better yet, Marty thought, maybe we could arrange something like a doorbell.
            Isen pushed the door open.  Ora stepped through first and announced loudly: “My Lord Martin, visitors to Inter Lucus, Sir Kenelm Ash from Hyacintho Flumen and his squire, Raymond Travers.”
            “Thank you, Ora.”  Marty took a step toward the visitors when they had come into the hall.  “I am Martin Paul Cedarborne.  Welcome to Inter Lucus.  He bowed his head and swept his hand toward the tables in the great hall.  “Mid-day sup will be laid on presently, and before that, we can offer tea.  Please join me at table.”
            The knight had green eyes and a misshapen nose.  “Thank you, Lord Martin.  We are happy to accept hospitality.”  The visitors moved toward the places Marty had indicated.
            “Caelin.  Mid-day sup, as soon as may be.”  Marty motioned Os, Rothulf, and Ealdwine to sit down.
            “Aye, my lord,” said Caelin.  Isen followed Caelin toward the stairs.
            “My lord.”  Ora still stood by the door.  “We saw Syg Alymar on the path.  He’s bringing barrels.”
            “Very good.  Invite him too.  Caelin, one more!”
            Caelin had begun to descend the stairs.  “Aye, my lord.”
            Alf came bearing a tray of cups, wooden spoons, and two clay honey pots.  Behind him Mildgyd brought a kettle of steaming herbal tea.  It tasted of berries and spices; when sweetened with honey, the tea was actually pretty good.  Since it involved boiled water, Marty encouraged tea drinking as a safe alternative to untreated water or the weak beer most people between the lakes usually drank.  Sir Kenelm and his squire tried it tentatively at first, but each refilled his cup before the midday repast had ended.
            Alf and Mildgyd retreated to the kitchen.  Before long, they returned along with Caelin and Isen to serve sup: small brown loaves of bread, butter, fish soup, and sliced pears.  Eventually everyone was seated at the same table: Marty, Ora, Isen, Caelin, Rothulf, Mildgyd, Alf, Agyfen, Os, Ealdwine, Syg, and the two guests, Sir Kenelm and Raymond.  By unspoken agreement, none of Marty’s people spoke unless he addressed them directly.  Even Agyfen seemed to realize this was a particularly important sup.
            The meal commenced with Agyfen bowing his head.  “God of all good gifts, we thank you.  Amen.”  Other voices repeated, “Amen.”  The guests wore puzzled expressions.
            Ash dipped bread in his soup, tasted it, and nodded appreciatively.  “I was here a year ago, Lord Martin.  On this very spot, in this hall.  Inter Lucus was a ruin, open to the sky, with grass growing on mounds of soil.  Where did you come from?  How have you healed Inter Lucus?”
            Marty chewed the tough bread, considering his answer.  “I came from a place called Lafayette.  It is far, very far from here.  The more important question is how I came here.”
            Ash paused in chewing.  “And?”
            “Ora, here, came to the castle last summer.  As you say, it was a ruin.  She touched the lord’s knob and prayed, asking the gods to send a new lord to Inter Lucus.  The castle pulled me from Lafayette and I stepped out of the interface wall, right there.”  Marty pointed.  “I laid my hands on the lord’s knob, though I did not know what it was.  Since then, the castle has obeyed my commands.”
            The knight peered at Marty quizzically, then nodded his head. “Does Inter Lucus speak to you?”
            “Aye.  When I put my hand on the lord’s knob, messages appear in the interface wall.”  Marty smiled wryly.  “I understand some of them.”
            Again Ash nodded.  “It is said that the language of the gods is hard to read.  So lords keep scribes, whose task it is to learn the ancient tongue.  It is also said that castles speak to lords in their dreams.  It is said that some lords, who know nothing of the castle language, speak with their castles by thought.  Does Inter Lucus speak in your dreams?”
            Marty pursed his lips.  “Not in my dreams, not yet.  But Inter Lucus seems to read my desires.  Very soon after Ora brought me here, when I touched the lord’s knob, the castle knew I wanted food.”
            Ash looked at Ora, as if he could determine the truth of the story in her expression.  “So the gods answered her prayers.”
            “Not exactly.  I do not believe the castle gods are gods at all.”  Marty watched the knight’s face carefully; how would he react to heresy?
            The knight pursed his lips.  “You live as lord of a castle.  You see its magic daily.  Yet you do not believe in castle gods?”  Ash wasn’t angry or upset.  He spoke as if describing an intellectual puzzle.
            Marty sipped tea.  “I should speak more precisely.  Clearly, beings of some sort built Inter Lucus and the other castles.  Those builders I call strangers.  I do not think they were gods, but creatures.  Not human beings and not dumb creatures like cows or horses, but intelligent creatures.  There is only one God who made everything that is not God, including human beings and the strangers.  So the strangers were not gods, though they demonstrated great knowledge and power in building the castles.”
            “One god!  Isn’t this the doctrine of the old god?”
            Marty nodded.  “Indeed.  I am almost sure that the old god Priest Eadmar worships is the One God to whom we prayed in Lafayette.”
            Ash considered this.  “I don’t suppose it really matters, does it?  However you came, you are here.  Inter Lucus is healing, as anyone can see, so you are in fact lord.  I’m a soldier.  I care little for doctrines about the gods, except when they change things.  You say this girl’s prayer brought you here.  Maybe it did; maybe it didn’t.  But you are here.  The question is: as lord of Inter Lucus, what will you do?”
            The question nonplussed Marty for a moment.  Then he said, “I will host a harvest festival in three weeks.  People between the lakes will trade goods in preparation for winter.  They will pay hidgield to me.  I will distribute prizes for best animals, produce, and other things.  We will have songs and games and dancing.  It’s been a good year between the lakes.  We’re going to celebrate.”
            The knight rubbed his nose with the back of his hand.  “That’s not what I meant.  You don’t know what is happening in the wider world.”  He took another loaf of bread and tore it into two pieces.  “There have been changes at Hyacintho Flumen.  Lord Hereward died last summer.  His son Aylwin is now lord of Hyacintho Flumen.  Lord Aylwin did not send me north to collect hidgield.  In fact, he did not send me between the lakes at all.”
            Marty leaned forward on his elbows.  “Does Aylwin concede sovereignty between the lakes to me?  If so, why did you come?”
            Ash held up his palms.  “Lord Aylwin knows nothing about you.  Other matters occupy his mind.  Mariel has invaded Tarquint; her army surrounds Hyacintho Flumen.”
            “One moment.”  Marty turned to Caelin.  “Who is Mariel?”
            “My lord, Mariel is queen of Herminia, a land across the sea.”
            “A queen?”
            “Aye, my lord.  She is lady of a castle in Herminia, but her father compelled the other lords of Herminia to submit to him.” 
            “Why haven’t you told me about her?  Never mind.”  Marty looked at Ash.  “This Mariel has crossed the sea to attack Hyacintho Flumen?”
            The knight shook his head.  “Mariel sits securely in Pulchra Mane, her castle.  Her army has crossed the sea.”
            Marty turned back to Caelin.  “I thought a castle could not be captured except by treachery.  How did Mariel’s father conquer the other lords of Herminia?  How many castles are there in Herminia?”
            Caelin made an open palm gesture.  He didn’t know.
            Ash answered, “In all, there are eight castles in Herminia.  Rudolf took the other seven not by treachery but by siege.  At Pulchra Mane there is a large city, and Rudolf used its wealth and people to build an army.  He sent that army to each castle, one at a time, and starved them into submission.  Rudolf is dead now, but his daughter still controls the whole land.  She requires each lord to contribute knights and soldiers to her army.  Indeed, it is said that some of the lords of Herminia willingly submit to Mariel.  They hope to gain wealth and power through her wars.  And today, an army of ten thousand surrounds Hyacintho Flumen.
            “Ten thousand men.  Wow!”
            Ash’s brow furrowed.  “Lord Martin?  Wow?”
            “It’s just an expression.”  Marty frowned.  “They submit to her?”
            “They obey her commands.”
            “This is fascinating.  Do they travel to Pulchra Mane?  Or does she send envoys to them?”
            Ash made the same open palm gesture Caelin had made.
            “Does she kill the lords if they don’t obey?  Or replace them with someone else?”
            Again Ash displayed his ignorance.  “I think the lords are still lords in their own castles.  Mariel does not go abroad from Pulchra Mane.  But they have to pledge fealty to Mariel and pay her part of their hidgield.”
            “That doesn’t sound so awful.  The people pledge fealty to the lord; why shouldn’t the lord pledge fealty to a queen?”
            Ash snorted disagreement.  “Bah!  In that case the lord has no dignity.”           
              Marty remembered something Ash had said.  “Your lord—Aylwin Mortane—he did not send you to Inter Lucus?”
            “Lord Aylwin sent me to Down’s End.  While there, I heard stories of a new lord between the lakes, so I decided to investigate.  A new lord might have knights, I thought.”
            “And what was your mission in Down’s End?”
            Ash dipped his bread in soup.  “To raise an army.  The Herminians have surrounded Hyacintho Flumen.  They cannot take the castle by assault, but Lord Aylwin has too few men to break through the army that surrounds him.  They intend to wait until he starves.  That will take months, many months.  My task is to convince Down’s End to raise an army to lift the siege before the castle falls.”
            Marty’s tea had cooled.  He took a bigger swallow.  “Are they likely to do that?  Why should a free city fight for a castle lord?”
            Ash nodded.  “Perhaps it is not likely at all.  But what other choice does Lord Aylwin have?”
            “He could submit to Mariel.  If she lets him keep Hyacintho Flumen, what does he lose?”
            “Do you really think that?”  Ash rubbed his nose with his knuckles.  “You are a lord.  Would you obey a woman from a distant castle?  Pay hidgield to her?”
            Marty looked up at the ceiling.  “I suppose there would be some commands I could not obey.  If the queen were a tyrant, I would have to disobey unjust commands.  But I don’t see why a lord should not give fealty to a queen, if he accepts fealty from his people.”   
            The knight shook his head, disbelieving.  “This Lafayette must be a strange place indeed.  You can be sure Aylwin will not submit willingly to Mariel.  As it turns out, I found chances in Down’s End.  By spring, I hope there will be an army to relieve Lord Aylwin.”
            Ash shook his head again.  “I will say no more.”  He looked around the table at Marty’s people.  “What sort of lord have you here?  He openly confesses that he would submit to a foreign queen.”
            Marty saw with some dismay that the knight’s words struck home with some.  Rothulf looked at Marty disdainfully, as if pleased that a terrible secret had been revealed.  Isen seemed embarrassed.  Os and Ealdwine were staring down at their soup bowls.  Syg Alymar’s expression was that of a man trying to comprehend something novel.  Alf, Caelin, and Mildgyd’s faces were untroubled; they were confident Lord Martin would answer the challenge.  But Ora would not wait for Marty to speak.  Her green eyes bored into Ash as she leaned across the table.  “You, Sir, do not know what you are talking about, because you are not listening.  A moment ago, Lord Martin said that he would disobey the queen if she commanded something unjust.  What have we to fear from a ruler’s just commands?” 
            Ash smirked.  Turning to Marty, he said, “We might expect such words from a peasant woman with no pride.  What is your excuse?”  He pushed his chair away from the table and stood.  “Raymond, we need to go.  The sooner we return to Down’s End, the better.”

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


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Castles 78

78. Between the Lakes

            The barrel maker Syg Alymar saw the knight first. 
            Syg had borrowed a two-wheeled handcart from Wyrtgeon Bistan to deliver barrels to Lord Martin.  The apple trees on the lord’s estate had suffered years of neglect, yielding merely three bushels of small, misshapen fruit.  Many farmers between the lakes had better apple crops.  So the lord had decided to squeeze his apples into juice, and he had asked Syg for a barrel to store it.  Syg decided to make two, since the lord might well find some other use for the second.  With a harness on his shoulders, Syg left the village for castle Inter Lucus in mid-morning, the cart bouncing behind him.  Two empty barrels made a light load and easy work.  Almost certainly, Syg knew, Lord Martin would invite him to eat mid-day at the castle, a welcome thought.  Syg liked eating, and the food at castle Inter Lucus was good.
            Syg saw the two horsemen a quarter mile away, coming toward village Inter Lucus.  A third horse trailed after the second, a pack animal.  Immediately he pegged the men as visitors, a minute later he knew they were armsmen, and not long after that he recognized one of them, the knight with the diagonal black stripe on his shield.  Syg pursed his lips, then remembered: Sir Kenelm Ash.  The last three autumns Ash had collected hidgield between the lakes for Hereward Mortane of Hyacintho Flumen.  Syg stepped out of his harness and lowered the cart handles to the ground.  He felt nervous, a flutter of fear in his stomach.  He wished one of Lord Martin’s sheriffs were present.  Syg didn’t for a moment think Leo, Elfric, Ealdwine, or Os could match Kenelm Ash in combat, but they at least should be able to speak for Lord Martin.
            Ash was a square-jawed man with a broad, flat nose.  Probably broken more than once, Syg thought.  Ash rode at ease, his sword and shield strapped over his great horse’s front shoulders.  A battle horse: tall, strong, fast, and fearless.  Of course, Syg had never seen a knight in battle, but this animal looked like the warhorses he imagined.
            “Fair morning.”  The knight reined to a stop a few paces from Syg.  The second soldier drew up beside his master.  Syg guessed his age at twenty or maybe less; squire to Ash.  Something about him struck Syg as odd, then he saw it; the young soldier had two wildly different eyes.  The right eye, black, peered steadily at Syg, but the left eye was blood red and wandered in many directions. 
            “Fair morning, Sir Ash.”  Syg inclined his head.
            “You remember me.  I’m honored.  My squire is Raymond Travers.”  Ash indicated his companion with a tilt of the head.  The squire nodded.  “But I don’t remember your name.”
            “Syg Alymar, Sir.  Barrel maker from village Inter Lucus.
            “Ah!  Now I remember.  You have a widow mother.  Is she well?”
            “Aye, Sir.  That I do.  She is as well as a woman her age might hope; she complains of aches and pains, but she cooks and sews and generally makes my life better.”
            The knight gestured at the cart.  “What’s in your barrels?”
            “Nothing, Sir.  They are new made.  I’m taking ’em up to the castle.”  Syg realized the significance of his words even as he spoke, but there was no way to take them back.  “Lord Martin wants ’em.”
            Ash rubbed his flat nose with the back of his hand.  Then he drew his sword and pointed it at Syg.  “In Down’s End rumors say there is a new lord in Inter Lucus.
            Syg suddenly felt cold, and his throat tensed.  His stomach hurt.  If he tried to run, he might live ten heartbeats before the knight ran him down.  “Aye, Sir.  Inter Lucus has been healing since last summer.”   Syg raised his eyes to meet the knight’s.  If this is my death, I might as well face it.
            “You say the lord is called Martin?”  Ash looked to his left, toward the castle hill.  “Does he have men of arms?”
            Syg couldn’t read the knight’s intentions.  Was he gathering information in order to attack Lord Martin?  Would he slaughter Syg as soon as his queries were answered?  “Aye, Sir.  His name is Lord Martin.  He has a few servants and four sheriffs.  I would not count them as real soldiers.  They could not fight a knight such as yourself.”
            Ash raised an eyebrow.  “You might be surprised.  They would be fools to fight us here, on open ground.  But if this lord Martin is a real lord, I cannot touch him or his men while they are in the castle.  They would not need to fight, but only wait until Raymond and I go away.”  Ash sheathed his sword and continued to gaze north.  Inter Lucus could be seen in the distance, but not its people.  Syg knew Lord Martin and several of the others would be building a barn on the north side of the castle property, invisible to people in the village. 
            Syg was surprised at Ash’s attitude.  Somehow he expected the knight from Hyacintho Flumen to react violently against the existence of a lord in Inter Lucus.  But Sir Ash sat thinking, chewing something in his cheek.  Meanwhile, the squire’s red eye moved constantly.  The squire’s good eye was closed; Syg thought Raymond might be napping. 
            Syg’s stomach unclenched and he breathed deeply.  “Sir Ash?  A word?”
            “Hm?”  The knight broke out of his reverie and looked at Syg.  “What it is, Master Alymar?”
            “Sir, since Lord Martin came to Inter Lucus, most of the folk in the village have pledged him hidgield.  And in Senerham too.  If the Lord Hereward takes hidgield between the lakes this year, it’ll be hard on folk.  Real hard.”
            Sir Ash frowned.  “I take your meaning, Master Alymar.  You worry that I’ve come to fight Lord Martin over hidgield, to make these people serve Hyacintho Flumen rather than Inter Lucus.”  He shook his head and smiled.  “You have nothing to fear on that score.  Go ahead and take your barrels to the castle.  Raymond and I are going that way, so you will see us there.  I need to talk with this new lord.”
            Ash snickered to his horse and prodded him into a trot.  Raymond Travers woke up instantly (if he had been truly asleep) and followed the knight.
            Syg harnessed himself, watching the soldiers ride toward Inter Lucus.  He hoped he hadn’t said anything harmful to Lord Martin.  Ash had admitted that he couldn’t attack a lord in his castle.  But what if Ash and Travers came on Lord Martin and the others outside the castle, working on the barn or Prayer House, for example?  Syg wished there were some way to warn Lord Martin of the knight’s approach, but he didn’t know how.

            Priest Eadmar saw the armsmen coming not long after they left Syg. 
            Lord Martin and his servants were finishing the roof of the barn, on the north side of the castle grounds where Eadmar couldn’t see them.  Since Eadmar had been forbidden to set foot on the lord’s land and they already had all the materials they needed to complete the barn, there was nothing left for him to contribute to that project.  Eadmar spent the morning digging shallow trenches on the site of Prayer House so that when winter rain and snow came, ground water would flow away from Prayer House rather than turning the place into a quagmire.  The sun had reached mid-day, and Eadmar anticipated Ora coming from Inter Lucus with a bit of sup.  After looking uphill toward the castle, Eadmar glanced in the other direction—a habit, perhaps.  He saw horsemen.
            Soldiers, clearly.  By the size of the horse, a knight.  A shield with a sigil: definitely a knight.
            Eadmar looked again toward Inter Lucus, hoping to see Ora, but not now for hunger’s sake.  Martin needs to be warned.  He should be in his castle.  Where is that girl?  The riders were trotting at an easy pace; they would reach Inter Lucus in minutes.
            It’s forbidden.  My bishop has commanded me.  I may not.  Eadmar walked to the very edge of castle property, where the road up the hill branched away from the forest road.  If I don’t go now, it will be too late.  He judged the distance to the horsemen.  Perhaps I could delay them.  If Ora saw horsemen on the road …she’s an intelligent girl.  She would raise the alarm.  Eadmar started walking toward the knight and his squire.  One last look over his shoulder—there she is!
            “Ora!”  Eadmar shouted and waved his arms like a crazed man.  “Ora!”
            Emerging from the shadow of the oaks, Ora stopped.  She dropped a basket and ran like a deer.  Intelligent girl, indeed.  Eadmar turned to face the intruders.

            “Lord Martin!  Lord Martin!”
            At that moment Rothulf, Marty and Os were passing the last roof plank up to Isen and Ealdwine, who were on top of the barn.  The planks were massive: thirty feet long, fifteen inches wide, and two inches thick.  Many times Marty had wondered what the brothers at Our Lady of Guadeloupe would have said about using old growth lumber for a rustic barn.  Ora’s shouting could hardly be less timely; hoisting planks was a five-man job, three below and two above.
              “I’ve got it, my lord,” said Os.  He lifted the plank above his head, out of Marty and Rothulf’s grasp.  “Ora needs you.” 
            Marty blinked at Oswald’s arms.  You really could play tackle for Notre Dame.  Marty and Rothulf stepped around the side of the barn.  Ora pelted down the hill toward them.
            “Lord Martin!  A knight!”
            “Are you sure?”  Marty’s advisors—Caelin, Eadmar, Isen, Elne Penrict, and others—had warned him this day would come.  A knight from Hyacintho Flumen, sent to collect hidgield for Lord Hereward Mortane.  Marty wondered if there had been trouble already.  O God, let him come here first.  It would be better to settle it here than have him hurt the people.
            “Aye.  Priest Eadmar thinks so too.  He shouted at me.”  Ora was panting.
            “Up to the castle then.  Tell Caelin and Mildgyd.  We’ll be there shortly.”
            Ora sprinted away.  Marty was about to call out, but Isen, Os, Ealdwine, and Rothulf were already at his side.  “We heard,” said Ealdwine.  “The board is up.  We can nail it later.”

            Except for Elfric Ash and Leo Dudd, who were visiting farms beyond Senerham on horse, all of Marty’s people were present.  Marty quickly reminded them of their tasks.  “Ora and Caelin will meet the soldiers and invite them to come forward on foot and without weapons.  Do not hinder them in any way.  If they proceed unarmed, accompany them.  If you are not with them, we will assume they are armed and mean to fight.
            “Os and Ealdwine will be under the oaks, Rothulf and Isen at the west door where they can tell me what transpires.  Mildgyd will sit with Alf and Agyfen here in the hall.  If the soldiers come close, Isen and Mildgyd will take the children to the west wing.  If they enter the castle, Isen, you are to escape with the children and run to Eadmar.  Alf, you must do as Isen commands; he’ll carry Agyfen.  I will stand at the lords’ knob.  May God protect us.  Now go!”

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

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Castles 77

77. In Down’s End

            Milo and Derian found Eulard Barnet’s house in quickly fading light.  Storm clouds from the west darkened Down’s End as they walked along avenues of proud brick houses.  This was clearly the wealthy section of Down’s End.  But they could not tarry to admire the houses’ grand features, because rain began pelting down in dark sheets.  They leaned into the wind and hurried to the fifth house on Alderman’s Row.  Three stories tall and made of brick and wood, the banker’s house had a covered space on the right where horsemen might dismount and carriages could discharge their passengers out of the weather.  Milo and Derian scurried forward to this dry spot, where they stood dripping and shaking water off their hats.  Candles behind glassed windows threw pale yellow light into the disembarkation space.
            On their left, a door opened, flooding them with brighter light.  A woman’s voice said, “You must be Chapman and Mortane.  Please enter.”  An oil lamp immediately behind the woman’s head threw her face into shadow.  “You may hang your wet things here.”  There were pegs lining the inner wall of a narrow space inside the door; several of them already held coats and hats.
            “Fair evening.”  Derian pointed to the water dripping from his coat.  “Except that it isn’t.” 
            “Don’t worry about that.  Father had this corridor specially built to welcome guests.  You see?  A tiled floor tilted to drain the water away.”  The woman shut the door against the wind.  She had porcelain skin and striking blue eyes, features Milo could see now with light to the side rather than behind her.  She wore a blue kirtle that matched her eyes and reached to the floor.  “I am correct, am I not?  Chapman and Mortane?”
            Derian bowed.  “Derian Chapman, merchant of Stonebridge.”
            Milo held his fist across his chest.  “Milo Mortane, sheriff of Stonebridge.”
            The woman arched her eyebrow.  “Really?  Of Stonebridge?  Father said something about you being from Hyacintho Flumen, brother to Amicia Mortane.  It doesn’t matter; Hyacintho Flumen or Stonebridge, you are welcome.  Sup will commence soon, as you are the last to arrive.”
            “May we ask your name?”  Derian’s voice was playful. 
            “Ada Barnet.  You’ve heard that name before, I see.”  A smile played at the corners of the woman’s mouth.  “Please tell me Avery is safe and whole.”
            Derian’s face expressed mock surprise.  “It seemed to me at court this morning that your father would rather Avery be hanged or whipped.”
            “My father is an ass.”  Ada stopped before opening a door.  Her eyes searched Milo and Derian’s faces.  “Is he safe?”
            Derian paused, so Milo answered.  “Avery is as safe as a person can be in Ody Dans’s house.  As long as he is useful to Master Dans, no one can harm him.”
            The blue eyes were troubled by this answer.  “Is he useful to Master Dans?”
            Milo nodded.  Derian said, “Oh, aye.  Aethelred Doin has money, so Avery is quite useful.”
            “He’s a hostage.”  All humor had left Ada’s expression.
            Milo leaned over the woman and touched her cheek.  “You would prefer him free.”
            Ada took his hand; the vivid eyes held his.  “Aye, Sir Milo.  I would.  And whole.”  She opened the door and led them into the supper hall.

            Earlier, after Milo, Derian, Kenelm and Amicia had departed the Down’s End courtroom, they had eaten mid-day in the common room at Freeman’s House, the inn where Kenelm, Amicia and Raymond Travers, Kenelm’s squire, were staying.  Milo gave Raymond directions to Dog of the Downs, sending a message to Eádulf that he and Derian would not return to the Dog until late.  Milo listened and approved when Kenelm warned Amicia that she needed to pay close attention while at Barnet’s sup and dance.  “You cannot speak effectively for Aylwin until you know the players,” Kenelm had said.  “Not all aldermen are equally important.  Which of them are the leaders?  Which of their wives have influence?  At least five aldermen will not be there tonight; what do those present think of those who are absent?  Which of them have marriageable sons?  Explain Aylwin’s need, yes, but listen, listen, listen.”
            Privately, Kenelm told Milo what he would have guessed anyway.  Amicia herself was part of Aylwin’s strategy, to be offered in marriage at the right time to the right family, if it would help create an alliance between Down’s End and Hyacintho Flumen.  Milo suspected that if he were in Aylwin’s position he might have done the same thing; nevertheless, in his heart he held this auction of their sister against Aylwin.  To Kenelm he said, “Find her someone gentle if you can.  She has to live with your choice the rest of her life.”
            After lunch, Amicia had gone to her room in Freeman’s House to dress for the evening.  Without her mother, Diera, or even Boemia to advise her, Amicia feared dressing improperly more than anything.  Milo told her to think what her mother Lucia might wear and to err on the side of simplicity.  “You might not believe it, Toadface,” he said, using a nickname from their childhood, “but you’re not bad to look at.  Scrub your face an hour before you go.  They will see a healthy noble woman, and that’s what they want.”
            Amicia hugged him.  “I’m glad you’re here, Milo.”
            Milo and Derian spent the afternoon tracking down Eni Raegenhere.  After following directions to a corral, to a warehouse near River Betlicéa, and to a disreputable inn called The Running Stag, they finally found him at the wine warehouse in the western part of the city.  Raegenhere said he expected Derian to look for him, so he thought to make the job easy by waiting with Chapman’s goods.  Milo paid Raegenhere fifteen golds, recompensing him for damage to his wagon at Stonebridge, and made him place his mark on a document stating that fact.  Since Raegenhere couldn’t read or write, they had to find a literate man who could witness the statement.  Thus they were the final guests to arrive at Barnet’s house.

            Alderman Barnet’s sup was a large room, not as grand as the great hall at Hyacintho Flumen or Ody Dans’s dining room overlooking River Betlicéa, but still a single room bigger than many peasant cottages.  At one end, near a door leading to the kitchen, stood a serving table laden with several steaming dishes.  The sup table was narrow (servants brought each dish from the board), so that the guests on opposites sides of the table could easily converse back and forth.  Oil lamps in sconces on the long walls filled the room with light.  A fireplace at the end opposite the kitchen provided warmth.
            Eleven guests joined Eulard Barnet and his daughter for sup, making a party of thirteen.  Someone made a joke about an unlucky number, suggesting that Barnet should have invited one more.  Barnet said there was a young man that he wished he could invite, but mostly so Sheriff Egnenulf could arrest him.  Ada frowned down her father’s attempted humor and hastened to make introductions.
            Milo had already met Eulard Barnet, Ada Barnet, and Simun Baldwin, the mayor.  He knew Amicia, Kenelm, and Derian well.  For him, the new people were the mayor’s wife Adele Baldwin, Sheriff Wies Egnenulf, Alderman Kent Gausman of the glassblower’s guild and his wife Hamia, and Alderman Todwin Ansquetil of the weaver’s guild with his wife Esile.  Adele Baldwin was middle-aged, medium height, fat and round, with thinning gray hair.  She exuded cheerfulness and kindness; Milo quickly decided she counted for nothing.  Sheriff Egnenulf, dressed in a dark blue tunic, was young, handsome, very fit, and somewhat dim-witted.  Milo got the impression Egnenulf had been invited mostly to be a dancing partner for Ada.  Kent Gausman had very full lips in a clean-shaven face; Milo wondered if years of blowing glass affected a person’s lips.  Hamia, the glassblower’s wife, was short, round, and considerably younger than Adele Baldwin; her thick black hair could have been a girl’s.  Todwin Ansquetil was an energetic man of modest height, about forty-five years old.  He had the thickest, hairiest arms Milo had ever seen, the arms of a blacksmith.  Esile, his wife, had to be at least twenty years his junior, and she was several inches taller than her husband.  With a prominent nose in a skinny face, she might be compared to a horse, but never called beautiful.
            As the evening progressed through seven courses of food into dancing, Milo evaluated the aldermen, their wives, and the mayor.  Eulard Barnet had outlived his wife and son; the pain of that second loss cut deeply.  The banker had great wealth, and apparently he thought it improper that Ada would inherit it.  Milo came to understand that the glassblower’s guild had little weight in city politics, corresponding to the glassblowers’ numbers and possessions.  In any case, Kent Gausman paid almost no attention to Amicia or the situation in the south; he attended Barnet’s party to eat and drink and hobnob with other aldermen.  In contrast, Alderman Ansquetil’s weavers’ guild had more members and influence than any other in Down’s End.  And his horse-faced young wife clearly had consequence in his thinking.  Before and after sup Esile would stand behind her husband and bend over his shoulder to whisper to him, often drawing laughter from Ansquetil.  The morning in the Down’s End courtroom had already convinced Milo that Mayor Baldwin was a crucial figure.  The mayor could make Eulard Barnet do pretty much what he pleased.  Simun Baldwin, Todwin Ansquetil, and—of all people—Esile Ansquetil; those are the players.  I hope Amicia sees it.

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


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Castles 76

76. In Down’s End Court

            The bulldog-faced man with the gold medallion stood to greet the newcomers.  “Fair morning and welcome.  I am Simun Baldwin, mayor of Down’s End.  To my left is Alderman Barnet.  Please approach the bar, state your name, and explain why you have requested a hearing with the Council.”
            Kenelm Ash and Amicia were halfway to the railing before Amicia noticed the presence of others in the courtroom.  When she recognized Milo, Amicia’s jaw dropped in bewilderment and (Milo hoped) happiness.  She stopped and half turned toward him, at the same time seizing Kenelm’s arm with her left hand.  Kenelm’s face also registered surprise, but he kept his composure.  Kenelm tugged on Amicia’s arm, she shut her mouth, and they turned their attention to the mayor of Down’s End.  Baldwin took his seat, waving them closer to the bar.
            Kenelm stood ramrod straight a step behind Amicia, who bowed to the mayor, then placed both hands on the rail.  “Fair morning, my Lord Mayor.  My name is Amicia Mortane.  I represent my brother, Lord Aylwin Mortane of Hyacintho Flumen.  Sir Kenelm Ash, my guard, is a trusted knight sworn to my lord brother’s service.  We seek audience with the Down’s End Council to bring kind greetings from my lord brother.  More importantly, we bring great and evil tidings from the south.”  Amicia bowed again, indicating the close of her speech.
            “Great and evil tidings?  Hm.”  Mayor Baldwin leaned forward on his elbows.  The bushy white eyebrows seemed even more prominent.  “The Council’s next meeting is four days hence, but for great and evil tidings perhaps I should call an emergency session.  Alderman Barnet, give the young lady attention.  I will need your advice presently.  Lady Mortane, please tell us what transpires in the south.”
            Amicia stiffened her back.  “The army of Herminia, borne on sixty ships, ten thousand men of arms, has invaded Tarquint.  They have surrounded Hyacintho Flumen.  My lord brother acceded to his castle only last summer, so the Herminians may believe he cannot yet protect Hyacintho Flumen by magic.  It is more likely, however, that they intend to besiege us and force submission through starvation. 
            “Lord Aylwin sends me to Down’s End to ask for aid in breaking the siege and to warn of the coming of the invader.  Make no mistake: the Herminians will not be content to take Hyacintho Flumen.  The Ice Queen intends to make slaves of us all.  The time and place to defeat the invader is now, in the south, before her armies reach Down’s End.”           
            Milo felt a swirl of emotions: pride in Amicia’s performance as ambassador in a foreign city, consternation that the enemy should choose Hyacintho Flumen as the place to attack, and gratification that disaster had come upon Aylwin so quickly.  At the same time, he had a premonition that this turn of events presented him with a vast opportunity, though for the moment he couldn’t tell how he should use it.
            Mayor Baldwin tilted his head.  His gaze kept moving from Amicia to Milo and back.  Still leaning on his elbows, he turned toward Barnet.  “What do you think, Alderman?  Are these great and evil tidings sufficient reason to summon the Council?”
            Barnet made an open palm gesture.  “My Lord Mayor, I think not.  If the Herminians besiege Hyacintho Flumen, it will take months or a whole year or longer to subdue the castle.  Suppose the Council chose to intervene on behalf of Lord Mortane.  The best time to do so would be in the spring.  We would have all winter to consider our course and raise an army.  Personally, I am not convinced a threat to Aylwin Mortane is a threat to Down’s End.  Other aldermen will be equally skeptical, I’m sure.”
            “I agree.  Lady Mortane, I invite you to the regular Council meeting Monday morning in the Down’s End Council Chamber.  That’s the big room at the end of the corridor.”  Mayor Baldwin waved vaguely with his right hand.  “I warn you that you will find it hard to persuade councilors to fight for a castle lord.  It was only in my grandfather’s day that the lords of Hyacintho Flumen abandoned their attempts to collect hidgield on the South Downs.  Memories of lordly conceit still linger in Down’s End.”
            Amicia bowed her head, unsurprised.  “Thank you, Lord Mayor, for this invitation.  My lord brother warned me that our plea might fall on initially unreceptive ears.  The people of Down’s End will not be quickly convinced that my brother’s war is your war.  Nevertheless, it is true; when we fight, we defend you.  Therefore I am willing to speak to anyone, high or low, to explain how it is wise for Down’s End to resist the invader.  I gratefully accept your invitation to address the Council on Monday.” 
            Amicia took a half-step back, as if she expected to be dismissed.  Baldwin beckoned her back to the rail with a slight gesture.  “Lady Mortane, if I am not mistaken, you are acquainted with the men on your right.”  He tilted his head toward Milo and Derian.
            Amicia turned and made eye contact with Milo.  He answered her tremulous smile with a wide grin.  After a moment, grin begot grin.  “My Lord Mayor, I know one of these men quite well, but the other is a stranger to me.  The taller man, with the dark hair, is my brother, Milo Mortane.”
            “I thought as much.”  Baldwin shifted in his chair and summoned Milo with a wave.  “Sir Milo Mortane.  Earlier you introduced yourself as a sheriff of Stonebridge.  But Lady Mortane of Hyacintho Flumen claims you as her brother.  Can you explain this?”
            Milo approached the railing and inclined his head, acknowledging the mayor.  “Easily, Lord Mayor.  It is a story as old as inheritances and brothers.  My father, Hereward, chose Aylwin to succeed him as lord of Hyacintho Flumen rather than me, though I am older.  Sadly, it is true that some lords cannot feel secure whilst their siblings live.  Therefore I deemed it best to leave Hyacintho Flumen before my brother should fall prey to jealousy or suspicion.  This happened at the beginning of summer.
            “My squire and I happened to meet with a merchant of Stonebridge on the road, none other than Derian Chapman.  We became friends and, as Derian said, I helped to protect his wagons from attack.  Derian felt some gratitude toward me, I think, so in Stonebridge he introduced me to his uncle, Ody Dans.  Master Dans inducted me into the city guard.  I am, in fact, a sheriff of Stonebridge, sworn to protect her laws.”
            The mayor nodded.  “I take it, then, as you have been abroad from Hyacintho Flumen, that the invasion of the Herminians was unknown to you?”
            “Aye, my Lord Mayor.  Amicia’s words are the first I have heard of this matter.”
            “Nevertheless, you are familiar with the strength of Hyacintho Flumen and its defenses?”
            “My Lord Mayor, I was familiar with the castle until the day I left.  Since then, my brother has acceded to the lordship; his bond may be stronger or weaker than my father’s.  If he had warning of the invader, he may have enlarged the garrison.  Sir Kenelm would know about these things.”           
            “I see.”  Baldwin pursed his lips, then stood.  “Eulard, a word in private.”  The alderman rose and followed the mayor through the side door.
            Milo quickly stepped to Amicia and threw his arms around her.  Then he clasped hands with Kenelm.  “Fair morning, and well met, Sir,” Kenelm said.
            “Well met, indeed, Kenelm.”  Milo turned to the clerk, Godfried.  “Are we expected to stay?”
            The clerk’s Adam’s apple bobbed.  “I think Mayor Baldwin intends to return presently.  It would be best to stay.”
            Godfried was still speaking when the door opened again.  But it was Barnet, not the mayor.  “Sir Milo and Lady Amicia.  It happens that I am hosting a few friends, including Aldermen Gausman and Ansquetil and their wives, for sup and dancing at my house tonight.  I invite you to join us.  The mayor suggests, Lady Amicia, that informal talk around the table might give you opportunity to explain your brother’s case more persuasively.”
            Amicia looked at Milo, then Kenelm, seeking direction.  Barnet continued, “Naturally, Lady Amicia, your guard will also be welcome.  And we must not forget Sir Milo’s friend, Master Chapman.  You are all invited.  In fact, Master Chapman, in a friendlier setting we might have a more productive conversation about certain things.”
            Milo spoke for all four.  “Thank you, indeed, Alderman.  Please tell us how to find your house and we will endeavor to attend.”

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