82. At the Siege of Hyacintho Flumen
“There’s a campfire. We’ll stop here. Gifre, if you walk ahead of us, you can help find the path.”
The faint light from Tom and Long Bob’s lantern faded completely. Eudes and Bully led their horses cautiously to the right. Between the road and the fire tussocky ground sloped downward, dark and fog forcing them to feel their way.
“Name yourselves!” Someone at the fire had seen Gifre or, more likely, had heard the horses breathing.
“Gifre Toeni of castle Prati Mansum. I am here with General Ridere.”
The voice laughed. “Well and good—if you speak truly. Come forward to be recognized. One at a time.”
Following Gifre, Bully went ahead of Eudes. “Bully Wedmor, from Wedmor in south Herminia.”
A broad-shouldered soldier stood between Gifre, Bully, and Eudes and the fire. His face was shadowed, but they could see the glint of firelight on his drawn sword. Other soldiers clustered on the ground around the fire behind him. Eudes smelled something roasting. Eudes stepped closer and saluted with his fist on his chest, guiding his mount with his left hand. “Eudes Ridere, of castle Pulchra Mane.”
“By the gods! My Lord General! Ah, uh, welcome.” The soldier saluted and bowed. Four other men scrambled to their feet. “Lord General Ridere! Fair evening! How may we serve you?” They saluted.
“Be calm, soldiers. My squire and I missed today’s last boat across Blue River. If you don’t mind, we’ll camp tonight with you and be on our way at first light.”
A fat soldier, whom Eudes immediately identified as cook for this group, pointed to the fire. “We have beef on the spit, my Lord General, and beans with onions in the pot. And some mead for drink. But that will be all ’til tomorrow’s food wagon.”
Eudes nodded approval. “We will be honored to share your sup.”
Eudes, Bully, and Gifre ate as ordinary soldiers, sitting on large stones or an old log. Gifre complimented the fat soldier’s cooking, comparing it favorably to meals in Prati Mansum. Eudes observed that hunger improved the flavor of all food, and he thanked the soldiers sincerely. But none of their words put the men at ease; after an hour Eudes’s presence still intimidated them.
Eudes stood. “Men, we’re going to bed down a few yards east. Be careful walking your rounds; don’t step on us.”
The fog clung, making everything damp. Gifre obviously wanted Bully to talk with Eudes about whatever it was on their minds, but Eudes warned him that sound traveled in the fog. In the dark, they couldn’t tell when a watchman might be within earshot. So Bully and Gifre wrapped themselves in blankets and waited for sleep. Eudes pulled his boots off and massaged his feet. He would sleep with boots on, ready to leap into action at a moment’s notice, but aching feet had ruined many a night in the field. A few minutes kneading of his tired limbs was a secret quiet pleasure.
Sometime in the night a wind rose out of the south and blew the fog away. Eudes woke to a transformed scene. Both moons were setting in the west; they combined with a brilliant splash of stars to throw soft light on the grassy landscape. Twenty yards away the watch fire had burned low. The soldier standing watch hardly needed to walk rounds; he could survey the land a quarter mile in every direction. Eudes could smell the sea on the south wind; the shore lay only three or four miles away from the camp. Eudes reached high with his arms, willing the knots in his back to loosen.
Bully rolled over, sat up. He seemed to be attuned to Eudes’s waking and sleeping. “Fair morning, Sir.”
“Fair morning, Bully.” Eudes began rolling his blanket. “Better wake up Gifre. We’ll head for the dock, and you can explain this mysterious idea of yours.”
Bully shook Gifre, who stood up and shivered. “Cold wind this morning.”
“Aye.” Eudes stamped his feet and swung his arms around. “The men on the line won’t have much to share until the food wagon comes, so we might as well get going.”
Gifre swung skinny arms, mimicking Eudes. His breath misted away on the wind. Eudes remembered being a boy of Gifre’s age, how his feet would hurt in the cold. The boy’s coat was too light. “Bully, get the horses. Gifre will ride with me.” Eudes wrapped Gifre in a blanket and squeezed into the saddle behind him. They rode at a walk, Bully’s mount at Eudes’s left.
“It’s time for you two to tell me what this is about.” As if I don’t already know. Eudes had been thinking through the night.
Gifre and Bully shared a look. Bully cleared his throat. “It’s about Edita and Juliana, my lord.”
“Interesting. Commander Turchil and I were discussing Juliana only two days ago.”
Gifre spoke up. “Aye. And I talked with Alan yesterday. But Bully and I had already decided what to do.”
Eudes laughed. “Somehow I thought that was my job.”
“Aye, my lord.” Bully coughed. “We mean only that we have a suggestion.”
Bully hesitated, then plunged in. “We thought you might send another truce flag to Hyacintho Flumen. You could offer to trade Juliana for Edita.”
“Let’s see. Gifre, you want Edita out of Hyacintho Flumen because you want to see your sister, and you don’t want her to suffer in the siege. Bully, you want her out because you think you’re in love with her. Have I got that right? Gifre ought to consider that the lady of a castle will be the last to feel hunger in a siege. Also, Edita is another man’s wife, not to mention that she is of noble blood. Bully’s desire for her is out of place.”
Eudes couldn’t be sure in the dark, but Bully might be blushing. The squire appeared cowed by Eudes’s reasoning, but Gifre was young and the presumptive heir of Prati Mansum. Already, at eleven years old, he asserted himself like a lord. “General Ridere, you forget to mention a very important fact. Aylwin doesn’t love my sister. He took Juliana as his mistress from the day he married Edita.”
Eudes coughed, but he didn’t contradict.
“You know it’s true. Alan Turchil says so. And last summer you told Bully that Juliana came as part of the marriage agreement with the Mortanes.”
Eudes looked sideways at Bully. “Perhaps I should not have said that. Your father and mother tried to do the best they could for your sister.”
Gifre didn’t hesitate. “I don’t blame them, General. That’s what I’m doing: what’s best for my sister.”
Gifre shot a look at Bully, who answered. “My lord, if we offer Aylwin a trade, he can say no or yes. If he says no, that means he chooses Edita over Juliana. He may not love her, but at least he chooses her. On the other hand, if he says yes, that means he rejects Edita. You could require that he sign a divorce. As a divorced and dishonored woman, Edita could marry anyone, even a commoner. We think Aylwin might actually hate Edita. If we don’t offer a trade, he might see that she starves before others. He might punish her because we have Juliana.”
Eudes reined his horse to a stop. They had reached the little hill that ran down to the dock. Gray light of morning was lifting the veil of night even as the moons set behind them. The riverboat that had delivered Gifre was tied at the dock, but Tom and Long Bob had not yet made their appearance.
“Let us say you have convinced me as to the why. I must also consider the how. Gifre, do you know what a circle shield is?”
“Aye. Felix Fairhair, Father’s scribe, described the circle shields to me. Once, he says, Father was able to command one, and my grandfather could command them at will.”
“Your grandfather was a mighty lord, a worthy opponent.”
“But you compelled him to submit to King Rudolf anyway.”
“Indeed. That was my first siege. And we will force Aylwin to submit, even if he commands circle shields as well as Sherard Toeni did. But here is my point: how do we trade Juliana for Edita if Aylwin can command the shields? If we send Juliana to the castle, he could keep both women and not release Edita. If we merely bring Juliana close to Hyacintho Flumen, to make the exchange in the open country, he might clap the shield down. Again, he takes both. If we insist the exchange happen at a great distance, the tables are reversed. Aylwin will refuse. He will not trust us to deliver Juliana once we have Edita.”
Gifre’s head bobbed up and down against Eudes’s chest. “We thought about that, didn’t we, Bully?”
The squire said, “Lord General, if Aylwin agrees to the exchange, he should sign the divorce decree first. I will carry the divorce decree to Hyacintho Flumen. There is a risk that Aylwin will simply take me hostage, but then he abandons any hope of regaining Juliana. Once he signs the decree, I will bring it out to you. Then we deliver Juliana. Since he will have then publicly have rejected Edita, he won’t want her anymore. She won’t have much value as a hostage, since it’s pretty obvious her parents don’t want her, a point I could stress to him while I’m in the castle. He will let her go.”
“That’s not what we agreed, Bully!” Gifre twisted in the saddle to look at both Eudes and Bully. “I should be the messenger. I’m the only Toeni who cares a fig for Edita. I can convince Aylwin that she is of no use as a hostage.”
“But you are a perfect hostage,” Eudes objected. “Mortane would simply take you.”
“If he did, he would not get Juliana.”
Eudes thought. For all the boys’ confidence, Eudes could see ways their scheme might easily fail. On the other hand, the plan might offer advantages Bully and Gifre hadn’t imagined.
“You’re a brave lad, Gifre. And noble, willing to risk yourself for your sister. I will consider your advice carefully.”
Copyright © 2013 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.