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.”
“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.