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.