83. In Castle Hyacintho Flumen
The image grew to life size. The blond woman stood at ease, her left hand on the lord’s knob. Her scribe stood to her left. “Fair morning, Lord Mortane. It’s good to see you again.”
At Aylwin’s left, Arthur the old had his slate, ready to take notes. Aylwin had decided that if he were to dare these meetings with the Herminian bitch, he would be prepared. And he would take charge of the meeting. Don’t raise the real issue ’til later. “Fair morning, Lady. Though rightfully lady only of Pulchra Mane, you compel people to address you as queen. You must not expect me to do so.”
“Oh, but I do. Expectations point to the future, and in the future I will be your queen. For the present, though, you may call me anything you like. You could simply say Mariel. May I ask, is there news of my husband?”
“Surely General Ridere sends you reports.”
“Naturally. But ships take days and days to cross the sea. And then the messengers have to ride; Pulchra Mane is inland, as I’m sure you know. So you see, Aylwin—may I call you Aylwin? —You have an advantage over my husband. You can tell me things immediately, whereas his dispatches take so long to get here.”
“I can tell you nothing about Ridere, not having seen him or talked with him.” Aylwin’s hands on the lord’s knob were still, a definite improvement over his first Videns-Loquitur encounter with Mariel. “You might tell him to come up to Hyacintho Flumen. If he stood beside me here, you could speak with him yourself.” Aylwin noticed the slight curve of Mariel’s belly. “Perhaps you want to tell your husband that you are with child.”
Mariel laughed and brushed hair behind her ear. “Am I showing already? General Ridere knows well that he is about to be a father. I am not so eager to speak with him that I would send him to your castle.”
“If not that, you should summon him home. My scribe Arthur tells me that some of Ridere’s sieges have lasted years. Your child will have been born and learned to walk and talk without ever meeting his father.”
Mariel rested her right hand on her stomach. “Her father, perhaps. It’s true. Some lords defy good sense for months and months. You’re strong and determined, so my daughter may not see her father for a long time. But in the end they all submit. Think about that, Aylwin. They all submit, and they discover it’s not so bad. I’m not asking you to surrender Hyacintho Flumen. You will continue to rule, you will enforce my laws, and you will advise me regularly.”
Aylwin felt anger, like a kettle boiling in his chest. I am lord of Hyacintho Flumen! I answer to no one but the gods, certainly not to a woman! He fought back the urge to scream defiance. “I suppose Rocelin Toeni has discovered the delights of your rule.”
“Lord Toeni speaks with me every week, as do the other lords of Herminia.” Mariel raised an eyebrow.
“You might greet him, then, for his daughter, Edita.” Aylwin kept his face blank. By her own admission, the Herminian bitch could not yet know that Juliana had been taken; she could not know of Ridere’s offer of an exchange.
Mariel sighed. “I will tell him, indeed. And I thank you. You should tell your wife that her father misses her and thinks of her often.” She frowned. “Be careful, though. If you say too much, Edita will know it’s a lie. Well, she would know, if she has brains.”
Mariel sighed again. “The truth is, Aylwin, I don’t know Edita well. Certainly not as well as you do, as her husband. I’ve only seen her when she stood by Rocelin during our weekly talks. Occasionally, I ask a lord to bring a family member to the lord’s knob. Since Edita sends him greetings, she probably still trusts her father’s love. But, as you undoubtedly know, your willingness to marry Edita relieved Lord Toeni of a sticky problem. It’s sad, really. If not for her accident, Edita might have inherited Prati Mansum. After her fall, she became something of a liability. Unless she’s stupid, Edita must know all this. So convey her father’s greetings, but don’t overdo it.”
Aylwin felt tension in his jaw. He blew a deep breath to relax. “Ironic, isn’t it? My father-in-law probably supplied some of the soldiers besieging my castle.”
“Not many, if that makes you feel better. Most of Toeni’s men serve in the ships. Their role is crucial, of course. We constantly re-supply the army. Please notice, Aylwin, that I hide nothing. I am speaking soberly and plainly. The army around your castle is always being renewed. I am not going to quit. Rocelin Toeni cannot and will not do anything to save his daughter. In reality, he doesn’t want to save her. You care for Edita, so you must come to your senses. There is only one possible outcome of this situation, and once you accept that fact, things will be much easier.”
Aylwin couldn’t help himself; his jaw clenched painfully. But he had learned what he needed to know. “I will consider what you have said, Mariel.”
The queen tilted her head, looked at him quizzically. “I hope you do. Remember, I will be here to talk every week. And you should try to reach some of the others. They will be impressed that you can command Videns-Loquitur. And they will reassure you. I really am not a monster.”
“Good-bye, Mariel.” Aylwin released the lord’s knob. He staggered a few steps, went to his knees, and held his throbbing forehead. Arthur was at his side immediately, but he brushed away the scribe’s hand. “I need a moment’s rest. Tell Diera to bring mid-day sup to my room. And get me Dag and Mother.”
Arthur bowed obedience.
Edita rose when Aylwin entered the bedroom. He waved her back into her seat in the breakfast corner. “Diera’s bringing sup. We need to talk.”
Edita inclined her head. “Aye, my lord.”
Aylwin slid into the chair next to Edita. “I don’t want to embarrass you before the others. You’re on your blood again, aren’t you?”
“Two days, my lord. Perhaps next month …”
Aylwin raised a palm, silencing her. The door swished open, admitting Lucia. Arthur followed, with Dag Daegmund. With Kenelm Ash gone to Down’s End, Daegmund served as Aylwin’s chief armsman.
Finally Diera came in, pushing a wheeled cart. “Chicken, bread, cheese, and sliced peaches,” Diera said. She began to divide the food onto wooden trays.
“That’s fine, Diera. Leave the cart; we’ll serve ourselves.” Aylwin motioned Arthur to sit and held the last chair for Lucia. “Mother.”
“Thank you, Aylwin.”
Dag stood, since there were only four chairs. Aylwin tossed him one of the round loaves. “Gods be thanked. Eat, everyone.” Aylwin tore his bread, spread it with soft cheese, and bit into it. The others began serving themselves.
Lucia cut a small bite of chicken off a thigh, speared it with the tip of her knife, and popped it daintily into her mouth. “What is this about, Aylwin?”
Aylwin swallowed bread and cheese. “I talked this morning with Mariel Grandmesnil by means of Videns-Loquitur.”
A knife clattered to the floor from Edita’s hand. She had speared three peach slices to her tray, but she hadn’t eaten yet. Dag bent quickly to retrieve the knife and returned it to the serving cart. Edita stared unmoving at the pieces of peach.
A moment’s silence was enough to emphasize his wife’s clumsiness. Aylwin continued, “Among other things, the lady of Pulchra Mane says that I am to offer Edita greetings from her father. That’s right, isn’t it, Arthur?”
“Aye, my lord.” The scribe bit into a chicken leg.
“She also said I must not overstate Lord Toeni’s affection for his daughter, since Edita probably knows that he doesn’t really care. Still accurate, Arthur?”
“Mm, mm.” Arthur was chewing. Edita’s eyes were now focused on her husband. Tears slid down her cheeks.
“Three days ago, as you all know, the Herminians sent their second messenger under flag of truce. The messenger said nothing, but delivered a piece of paper. Here it is.” Aylwin unfolded the missive and held it out to Arthur. “Read.”
The scribe wiped his hands on a cloth before accepting the paper. “To Aylwin Mortane, Lord of Hyacintho Flumen. I will exchange Juliana for Edita. Respond within seven days under flag of truce. Signed, Eudes Ridere.”
Aylwin focused on Edita first. “We used to hope that an alliance with the Toenis would be a bulwark against Mariel. But that’s an illusion, isn’t it? Mariel has your father under her thumb. Your father can do nothing, will do nothing, to save you. Isn’t that right?”
Edita swallowed twice. “Aye, my lord.”
He ignored her tears and turned to Lucia. “I want an heir. What I have is a broken, barren half-wife of no value. If I’m wrong, Mother, say so.”
Lucia’s face was rigid and pale. She said nothing.
“Dag, you will take my response under flag of truce to the Herminians.”
“As you will, my lord.”
“Arthur, prepare to write what I say.”
Aylwin paced in the great hall, back and forth between north and south wall, never far from the lord’s knob. At any shout of warning, he could raise circle shields in seconds. Daegmund had been gone three hours. Arthur sat at the far end of one of the tables, the only other soul in the hall.
Somewhere else in Hyacintho Flumen Diera and Boemia were preparing Edita for departure: helping her wash, packing a few clothes, clearing the rest of her things from Aylwin’s bedroom. Aylwin promised himself that after today he would never look on the cripple again. We still have to figure out the actual exchange. They would be fools to send Juliana up here, I can’t surrender Edita until I’m sure I’ll get Juliana, and I certainly can’t go out to them myself. He laughed to himself. I hope Ridere thought this through.
The autumn sun would touch the mountains in less than two hours. What’s taking them so long? Maybe they don’t have a plan. Aylwin glanced idly at the god’s knob. Strange. It’s there all the time, yet we never think about it. What could I do if I bonded with that? Aylwin knew the stories of fools who touched the god’s knob and died—or worse, lost their minds and forfeited their castles to siblings. He kept pacing. A new thought came: The proposed prisoner exchange is a ruse. Ridere wants something else. What? He can’t really mean to violate truce. Damn! What’s taking so long?
Aylwin’s hands were trembling. Not again! What if they attacked and I couldn’t bond?
One of the castle’s swordsmen, Warren Vere, stepped into the great hall. “My lord, Daegmund returns. A boy is with him.”
Aylwin scratched his temple. “A boy?” He spoke to Arthur. “Why would they send a boy? I don’t understand.”
Arthur shrugged. “Whatever the reason, we must receive him. Warren, please fetch Lady Lucia to the hall.”
“Aye.” The soldier trotted away.
Lucia brought Eddricus and Rose with her—and Edita. Aylwin wanted to reprimand her, but he realized Edita’s presence might be necessary. He had never negotiated a prisoner exchange before.
At last! Someone pounded on the north door of the great hall, and Warren opened for Dag and the Herminian messenger. Dag stepped into the hall and announced, “My lord, I present Sir Gifre Toeni, of castle Prati Mansum.”
Gifre Toeni? Edita’s brother? Aylwin overcame his shock and strode forward. “Welcome to Hyacintho Flumen, Sir Gifre. I presume you have come with some message from General Ridere.”
“I have.” The boy simply stared at him, waiting.
Aylwin coughed. Remember the niceties. “I introduce my mother, the Lady Lucia; My brother and sister, Eddricus and Rose Mortane; and of course my wife, Lady Edita. I believe you know her.” Aylwin swept his hand toward his family.
“Thank you.” Gifre bowed formally to Lucia. He looked long at Edita, but his face might have been made of stone. Aylwin thought he saw despair in her expression. His appearing is a shock to her too.
The boy turned to face Aylwin. “General Ridere suggests the following procedure. You will sign a formal divorce, which I have on my person, renouncing all responsibilities to Edita Mortane and all claims to the fruit of her body. Since the day is late and this is a momentous decision, General Ridere suggests you consider it carefully. He allows you one night. In the morning I will take your decision back to the general. At that time, if you have signed the divorce, Juliana Ingdaughter will be allowed to accompany one of your men to the castle. When Juliana arrives, we will trust you to release Edita. She should be brought down to us on a horse.”
Aylwin squinted at the boy. “The general trusts me to release Edita?”
Gifre looked at him steadily. “After you sign the divorce, why would you want to keep her? I know she doesn’t eat much, but in a siege they say every little bit counts.”
“Why is Ridere willing to give me Juliana?”
“Believe me, I know Juliana. She eats like a horse.”
Copyright © 2013 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.