Thursday, January 30, 2014

Castles 88

88. In Castle Inter Lucus

            Marty had long been confident of the castle’s label for it: Centralis Arbitrium Factorem.  Inter Lucus’s marvelous technology had to be controlled by a computer, an alien computer that somehow coordinated the nanotechnology by which the castle grew and repaired itself, the water system, the power system (nuclear? solar?), interior temperature control, heating, lights, refrigeration, and so much more.  But where was it?  At first, Marty assumed the CPU would occupy a big room and consume lots of electricity.  Counting steps in the corridors of the underground floors showed there was space on both levels for an extra room.  A central core of both floors remained hidden.  Marty often passed his hands over the walls, hoping to trigger a new door.  He explained to Ora and Caelin as best he could what he expected to find, and they joined his search for the CPU.  Twice they were rewarded, in that new doors presented access into the core—but only small parts of it.  No appliances appeared in the new rooms, and Caelin used them to store vegetables; he pointed out to Marty that the doors to the new pantries appeared when the other storerooms were full.  As time passed without discovery, Marty began to have doubts.  Could Inter Lucus’s main computer be spread out—parallel processors hidden in nooks and crannies, packed into the very walls?
            Marty followed Ora, rushing down the tower stairs, into the great hall, down to the kitchen, and further down to the lowest floor.  They sprinted the length of two corridors, going first south and then west.  At the end of the passage Alf, Mildgyd, and Agyfen were standing just outside an open door.  To Marty’s surprise the new door did not open into the castle’s central core; rather, the new room lay straight ahead.  The newly discovered space extended many feet beyond the west wall of the great hall.  And when he got a look inside, Marty saw it also reached much further to the south than the interface wall.  Whatever Centralis meant, it wasn’t “in the middle of the castle.”
            Centralis Arbitrium Factorem was enormous, bigger than Marty had imagined.  As everywhere in Inter Lucus, the room’s ceiling was at least twenty feet high, and Marty estimated the distance north to south and east to west at forty feet—sixteen hundred square feet!  Yet most of the space was empty.  Scattered around the room were six-sided ceramic blocks that resembled, at first glance, the appliance blocks that had risen from the floor in the kitchen, in the west wing, and in the laundry room.  The things that marked this room as different hung from the ceiling.  Above each hexagonal block—Marty counted eleven of them—a long ceramic stalactite reached down from the ceiling.  The blocks, which Marty immediately conceived as growing out of the floor, were about five feet wide and varied in height.  Many were like the appliances that had appeared in other rooms, from two to six feet tall.  But two of the blocks were at least ten feet high.  The ceramic tubes, which Marty could not help but think of as growing down from the ceiling, were also hexagonal, but only about four inches wide.  At first glance, the tubes bespoke fragility, as if a light tap could break them.  Marty reminded himself they were the product of alien technology.  Stronger than titanium, for all I know.
            Marty walked in, Ora and Alf close behind him.  Mildgyd came in only a step, holding Agyfen’s hand; nan and child watched the exploration from the entrance.
            Each block with its corresponding stalactite tube had a distinctive color: black, ash, brown, auburn, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, and white.  Marty, Ora, and Alf approached the red block and stalactite.  The upper and lower parts did not touch.  The gap between them was bridged by a shimmering filament, about four inches long, which pulsed intermittently with light.  Marty immediately thought of fiber optics and imagined bursts of digitized data flowing through the glass strip.  The other block/stalactite pairs also had glass connectors, most of them longer than the red block’s filament.  Some were as much as a half-inch thick.
            “My lord, what are the lights?”  Ora nodded at the flashing filament.  Following Marty’s example, neither Ora nor Alf touched the machinery.
            “I am not sure, Ora.  Remember, Inter Lucus was build by strangers, by creatures very different from us.  So we can only guess.  But my guess is that Alf indeed has found the CPU.  This is where Inter Lucus thinks.  The lights are like thoughts.”
            Alf touched Marty’s elbow.  His fingers still had tough scar tissue from his encounter with the lord’s knob in the summer.  “If seepeeyou is like the castle’s head, shouldn’t it be in the east wing tower?”  The boy brushed his white-blond hair back from his face as he looked up at Marty.
            “Good question, Alf.  Aye.  If the strangers had built Inter Lucus like a person, we would expect to find the CPU in the tower.  But perhaps a castle is more like a beehive.  All the bees work to build, feed, and defend the hive, but the queen stays deep within.  Inter Lucus has many parts that accomplish work: the interface wall, the kitchen, the west wing tools, the water supply, and so on.  The CPU rules them all from deep within.  In fact, I expected we would find it in the middle of the castle.  What gave you the idea to look at the end of the corridor?”
            “Last night I dreamed it.”
            Ora and Marty responded as one.  “You dreamed it?”  According to Kenelm Ash, castles sometimes spoke to lords through dreams.
            Alf’s blue eyes made a picture of innocence.  “Aye, my lord.  I dreamed I was in the great hall, not my bedroom.  In my dream, I went down the stairs past the kitchen to the bottom floor.  I walked the hall, turned the corner and walked to the end.  Then I touched the wall and it opened.  But today, the door opened before I touched it.”
            “Have you told Rothulf about your dream, Alf?”
            “No, my lord.  I only told Mildgyd and Agyfen.”
            Ora interjected, “My lord Martin…” But Marty cut her off with a raised palm.
            Alf wore a solemn expression.  “Rothulf would say this proves I am the true lord of Inter Lucus, wouldn’t he?”
            Marty brushed his hair back.  “I’m sure he would, Alf.  So I don’t think you should tell him about the dream.  He would try to convince you to bond with Inter Lucus, and depose me as lord.”
            Alf looked at his fingers and trembled.  “My lord, I don’t want to depose you.”
            “I’m glad.  But someday, Alf, I will die.  A long time from now, I hope!  When that happens, Inter Lucus and the people between the lakes will need a new lord.  If it is true that you are descended from Thurwold Tirel, it may be that you will be that lord.  It may be.  We can’t know.  But if it happens, you must prepare now to be a good lord.”
            “Not like the lords in Caelin’s stories.”  Alf’s voice was firm.
            Marty laughed.  “Indeed.  Most of the lords in Caelin’s stories were narcissistic monsters.”
            Alf mimicked the word. “My lord, what is narcissistic?”
            “It means they care only for themselves and not for their people.  If you ever become lord of Inter Lucus, Alf, please remember that God lets you be lord in order to help people.”
            “Aye, my lord.”

            Marty, Ora, and Alf resumed their exploration of Centralis Arbitrium Factorem.  At first, Marty discerned no pattern in the placement of the block/stalactite pairs in the room.  They weren’t arranged in a circle or square.  Naturally, any three of them created a triangle, but Marty couldn’t see how the triangles thus described made any sense. 
            There was a rough order in the heights of the blocks; the taller ones tended to be further from the door, which was at the northeast corner of the room.  The tallest block (thus the block with the shortest stalactite hanging above it) was the white one, and it stood nearest the southwest corner.  But even this pattern was only a tendency; the block closest to the entry was only the second shortest.
            Marty passed from block to block.  Hexagonal—what does that mean?  Eleven colors; surely that means something, but what?  Ten subroutines show up on the master list, so… Maybe each block serves one subroutine, with one left over for… what?  No matter what I learn about Inter Lucus, it seems I end up with more questions. 
            “My lord!”  A new tone in Ora’s voice demanded attention.  “Look at this!”  She was pointing up at the violet block/stalactite combination.  The second tallest block in the room, it stood about ten feet from the white block and very near the south wall.  Marty immediately saw it: where there should have been a tube connecting block to stalactite there was only a space. 
            Alf said, “It’s broken, my lord!”
            “It seems so.”  Marty stepped closer and his shoe crunched on something underfoot.  “My God!”
            Ora and Alf turned their gaze from the machine to Marty.  He pointed to the floor; bits of glass were lying about.
            “The broken connection, my lord?”
            “I think so, Ora.  But it should not be here.”
            Ora’s face showed puzzlement, then understanding.  Inter Lucus cleans up water, soil, and even broken pottery.”
            “Aye.  Why has it not cleaned up this glass?”

Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Castles 87

87. Between the Lakes

            Eadmar trembled at what he was about to do. 
            The holy name was not to be bandied about like a good luck charm.  The name was not a magic prop used to awe simple minds.  In ancient times, good priests had surrendered their lives rather than speak the name in the presence of demons.  For centuries castle lords had compelled believers to worship the demons, calling them gods, and laughing at the true God.  Why would any believer speak the holy name in the presence of a lord?  Why would a priest, a sworn servant of God, make the holy name known to common people?  (Eadmar could hear Phytwin’s voice in his mind, asking these and other such questions.)  The name was to be used only as a final blessing, whispered in the ear of dying believers to strengthen their faith as they passed to the after world.  Even among themselves, priests spoke the name rarely, giving it the honor it deserved.
            The appearance of Martin Cedarborne on Two Moons challenged many of these beliefs.  He was not like other lords.  Martin knew the holy name before he met any priest.  He openly confessed his allegiance to the true God.  He had built a Prayer House next to Inter Lucus.  He had brought the book of God to Two Moons.  In Martin’s book of God, the holy name was not secret.  Martin’s book explained so many things…
            In spite of all this, Eadmar’s hands shook when he lifted the board with its loaf of bread.  He reminded himself that he really did believe that Martin’s book was genuine. “The book of God says this:
            For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you, do this in remembrance of me.’”
            Eadmar put down the bread and lifted a chalice of wine.
            “In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’  For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
            Having committed himself to his new path, Eadmar discovered calm.  His hands stopped shaking.  Lord Martin came forward first, followed by Ora, Caelin, Alf, Isen, Mildgyd, the four sheriffs, and Rothulf Saeric.  To each of them Eadmar presented a bit of the bread and said, “The body of Christ.”  Three-year-old Agyfen tagged at Mildgyd’s side; Eadmar touched the boy’s head in blessing rather than give him communion.
            Thus did priest Eadmar launch a new worship of the old God, based on the memories, instructions, and book supplied by Martin Cedarborne of Lafayette.  “May God have mercy on me,” he whispered.

            After the first service in the nearly completed Prayer House, Marty and his people returned to castle Inter Lucus.  But not Eadmar.  The priest had violated a centuries old rule when he spoke the holy name in the presence of non-priests, but at least that transgression had the excuse that everyone present in Prayer House had already heard the name from Marty.  Eadmar wasn’t going to compound his offense by disobeying a direct order from Guthlaf Godcild; he would not step on the grounds of Inter Lucus.
            With Marty’s Harvest Festival four days away, the castle grounds and the field to the south had become a hive of activity.  Together with farmer volunteers, Marty’s sheriffs had built temporary stock pens on one side.  Since animal pens would stink anyway, latrines were dug close by.  A short way up the hill toward the castle they built a musicians’ stand that could serve double duty as speaker’s platform.  Marty would announce prize winners in categories that reminded him of a county fair; pastries, breads, livestock, fruits, vegetables, dances, songs, foot-races and throwing competitions would all be judged.  Once he had mastered the use of Materias Transmutatio to cut and shape wood, Marty doubled the number of top prizes.  He made eight chairs of white pine in a ladderback style, precision fitted without nails.  In addition to “castle magic” chairs, there were also a couple dozen “Certificates of Excellence” to be awarded as Marty saw fit.  The certificates were hand lettered by Caelin on the best paper Inter Lucus had yet produced, signed by Marty, and framed in oak.  In addition to making the certificates, Caelin collaborated with Isen and Rothulf to produce more paper as fast as they could press and dry the new sheets.           
            Marty visited the west wing where his eight chairs were lined up against one wall.  He congratulated himself; the chairs were functional and strong, held together by tenon joints and dowels.  They weren’t particularly beautiful, but they would serve well in any village home and be highly valued by those who received them.  An inchoate worry about the chairs had been growing in Marty, and when he saw them arranged next to each other, every one looking almost exactly like the others, the worry became articulate.  It’s like I’ve got a little factory here.  With practice, I could churn out chairs or tables—or paper!—in bulk.  Every house between the lakes could have its own writing desk, with paper made at Inter Lucus.  But if that’s true of Inter Lucus, it should be true of other castles.  Trade between the castles should dominate the economy of Two Moons, each castle manufacturing its own specialty.  I make paper, you make furniture, and somebody else makes—what? What are the limits of Materias Transmutatio?  Could a castle make steel?  Fiber optic cable?  Computer chips?  Geez!  Why are the people of Two Moons living in the Middle Ages when they’ve got alien technology at their fingertips? 
            The answer came to him as soon as he posed the question.  To them, it’s not alien technology.  It’s magic.
            Near the opposite wall of the west wing Caelin and Isen were debating which fibrous plants to include in their next experimental pulp.  Eavesdropping for a minute, Marty digested the significance of their words.  It’s not magic to Caelin and Isen; it’s a machine.  They may not know how it works, but they’re eager to learn.

            From the west wing, Marty walked to the east wing stairs.  He still made daily inspection of the growth of Inter Lucus.  Outside the castle, the paved paths grew longer, a few inches every day.  In the building itself, ceilings and roofs had completed the great hall and the west wing.  But the east wing kept growing taller.  Already its first and second stories had their absurdly high ceilings, yet the walls continued to rise.  Marty hiked up to the third floor.  He watched, fascinated as always, as tiny filaments of ceramic material extended upward, tied across, latticed, and gradually filled the spaces between.  The pace of building or growth had not been constant.  At various times in the last five months the castle had seemed to take a breather or time out.  But today Inter Lucus’s growth was so rapid that a patient observer could see it.  Marty estimated the walls would be four or five inches taller by the end of the day.  How tall would the castle grow?  A completed third story would make the tower more than sixty feel tall; a fourth would push it over eighty.  Already, situated as it was on a hill, Marty could see over some of the surrounding forest.
            As often before, Marty wondered about the purpose of the east wing tower.  The cavernous west wing housed Materias Transmutatio.  The great hall had room for two hundred to dine at one time—and it was home to the lord’s knob and the interface wall.  Downstairs they had identified the kitchen (with its walk-in refrigerator and freezer), bedrooms, bathrooms, seemingly purposeless rooms (storage?), and a room that had shelves like a library.  But what about the east wing and its tower?  Marty was pretty sure the large first floor room with its adjacent bathroom and small rooms (closets?) was supposed to be a master suite.  But he had only guesses about the upper stories of the tower.
            Since the tower was unfinished, one would expect the warm air of the castle to rush up the stairway into the November sky.  But it didn’t.  Standing on the third floor, Marty was completely exposed to the weather, but when he descended the steps he moved into warm air.  It was as if an invisible hand lay across the opening of the stairs, holding the cold air out and warm air in.  The barrier was permeable; rain and sleet could fall through it (to be absorbed by the floors and walls below) and Marty could climb through it.  More than once he had stood on a step just below the third floor, feeling warm air around his ankles and a cold autumn wind on his face.
            Movement to the south drew his attention away from the dancing filaments.  Villagers had arrived to set up tents for the Festival; the sheriffs were helping.  In the west, clouds were blowing across West Lake.  I hope we don’t get too much rain or snow.  November might be too late in the year for a Festival.  Maybe we should put a tent over the musicians’ stand. 
            Sounds from below, from inside Inter Lucus, broke into Marty’s reverie.  “My Lord Martin!  Lord Martin!”  Ora’s voice, tinged with fear or excitement.  Marty started down the steps.  She met him on the second floor, flushed from running.
            “What is it, Ora?”
            “Alf found a new room!  You must come.  It might be seepeeyou!”
Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.

Bangkok Girl in paperback

    Buying the Bangkok Girl has been out as an ebook for a year.  I checked today at Amazon, and you can buy the ebook version for $4.88.  But some of you are like Karen and me; though we have owned an e-reader for three years, we still like "real" books, with pages to turn.  So!  If you go to Amazon you can buy Bangkok Girl for less than $12.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Castles 86

86. At River House

            “If you don’t like the weather on the Great Downs, just wait fifteen minutes.  It’ll change.”  For Eádulf, this pronouncement constituted a major speech.  Milo and Derian both laughed, partly from surprise. Eádulf’s proverb certainly fit their experience since leaving Down’s End.  In four days on the road, the three riders had seen brilliant sunshine, wind-driven clouds, rain, sleet, an intense snowstorm that lasted only half an hour, and fog.  Everywhere the road was a muddy track, in some places too slick to ride on; they avoided the worst spots by finding firmer footing in the prairie grass beside the wagon ruts.  The wind rose and fell and shifted from one compass point to another, most often from the northwest.  They had stayed one night at Crossroads Inn and camped out two others.  Cold rain marked both nights out.  Now, at the end of the fourth day, they were approaching River House, with its promise of a dry room and warm beds.  As if in response to Eádulf’s words, a west wind came up, blowing fierce and cold into their faces.  The riders leaned over their horses’ necks, huddling into their coats.
            “Damn!  How much further?”  Derian shouted into the gale, though he rode only a few feet to Milo’s right.  “Been more than fifteen minutes.  If Eádulf’s right, we should see a change.”  But rather than slackening, the wind gusted stronger, now throwing little arrowheads of sleet at them.
            “There!”  Milo pointed.  A yellow glow in the distance, slightly downhill from them, then it disappeared; someone had shut the door against the weather.  But the glimpse of shelter was enough to raise their spirits.  Perhaps the horses, too, sensed the promise of food and a warm, dry place; they pushed through the wind with a will.
            A mile later, at the entrance to River House, the wind had dropped by half and the sleet turned to a heavy rain.  Milo and Derian yielded their mounts to Eádulf and entered the inn’s common room.
            “Fair evening.  That is, if you be indoors!”  A gap-toothed man with sandy hair greeted Milo and Derian as they waited, dripping, just inside the door.  The man and three others seated with him laughed.  Four more guests occupied a second table, leaving most of the common room empty.  Milo swept off his hat and inclined his head to the speaker.
            “Innkeep?”  Milo looked toward the kitchen.
            “Ah!  Welcome!”  A bearded man wearing an apron bustled from the kitchen to them; Milo recognized Beornheard Green, the owner of River House.  Green offered them a towel, which they used to wipe their faces and necks.  “Master Chapman and Sir Mortane, if I remember aright.  Two guests?”
            “Three.  But one room will be sufficient. Eádulf is taking our horses to your stable.  He’ll come in after a bit.”
            “Very good, Sir Milo.  I’m sure he remembers Esa Agleca, my stable boy.  Esa will help care for your animals.  And here’s Glytha.  Glytha, stew, bread and ales for Master Chapman and Sir Mortane.  Unless either of you would prefer wine?”
            Derian shook his head.  “I’m tired of wine.  River House ale is just what I want tonight.”
            Glytha nodded, brown curls swinging around her head.  “As you wish.”

            “Tired of wine, Derian?  Stonebridge wine?  Is that possible?”  Milo and Derian had a table to themselves.  The other occupants of the common room were teamsters, four driving two wagons from Stonebridge to Down’s End and four going the other way.  Once they learned that Milo and Derian did not share their occupation—and that they were Stonebridge sheriffs and Milo a knight—the wagon men shied away from conversation.  Milo had no interest in the teamsters’ secrets and welcomed the privacy of a quiet corner.
             Derian picked his teeth with a fingernail.  “Seems that Eni Raegenhere and Eulard Barnet spoiled my taste for wine.  Accounting for Raegenhere’s axle, our expenses in Down’s End, and warehouse charges, I sold a wagon of excellent Stonebridge wine at a pittance of a profit.”
            “I thought you said the real profit would come next spring, when you take wines to the castles on the northern downs.”
            “I did, and it will.  Nevertheless, Barnet and Raegenhere took all the fun out of showing my wares to the worthies of Down’s End.  Besides, this business with your sister changes everything; I thought I should report to Uncle Ody.”
            Milo was taken aback for a moment.  He leaned threateningly across the table.  “Explain.  What are you going to tell Ody?”
            Derian held up his palms in a defensive gesture.  “The same thing you will—or would, if you think about it.  Amicia and Kenelm have been sent to Down’s End to raise an army to relieve Aylwin.  What do you think are their chances of success?”
            Milo had been considering this very question every mile of their journey.  “I don’t know.”
            “Maybe you don’t want to know.  Maybe you don’t want to see.”
            “You tell me then.”  Milo picked up his ale and glared at Derian over the mug.
            “Kenelm is a soldier and Amicia is a girl.  Neither of them really knows what they’re doing.  I don’t mean to criticize, Milo, but you don’t either.  The idea, of course, is to marry Amicia off to some influential Down’s End alderman and somehow by that to persuade the City Council to march to Aylwin’s relief.  It won’t work.”
            Derian drank, set his ale down, and wiped his mouth.  “The most influential men in Down’s End are Todwin Ansquetil and Simun Baldwin.  You saw that?”
            “They’re both happily married, depressingly so, in my opinion.  One is content with a horse-faced young wife and the other with a gray-haired ball of butter.  The point is, neither will be interested in marrying Amicia, in spite of the fact that in two years she will be vastly more beautiful than their wives.  By the gods!  It’s as if these men actually find companionship with their women.”
            Milo smiled at Derian’s feigned cynicism.  “Well, I’ve heard that can happen; husbands and wives who love each other.”
            Derian grinned.  “Depressing, as I said.  So, who among the leaders of Down’s End is available as a possible target?  I’ll tell you.  Eulard Barnet.”
            Milo puffed out his cheeks.  “Gods!”
            “Don’t tell me you didn’t see that!  The man’s wife is dead, his son is dead, and he certainly doesn’t want Ada to inherit his fortune.  In two years he could have a son by Amicia—not an unpleasant prospect in itself—and appoint a steward to manage his heir’s affairs until the boy comes of age; that is, if Barnet’s health begins to fail.  Who knows?  Barnet might live to see a son grow up.  He could enjoy Amicia and an heir.”
            “Barnet offered to host Kenelm, Amicia, and Raymond as his guests.”  Milo rubbed his forehead.  “I declined for my sister, only thinking we shouldn’t be too indebted to one benefactor too soon.  Kenelm has golds enough to keep them a year if he’s careful.  I didn’t consider Barnet as a suitor.”
            Derian looked puzzled.  “Why not?  It’s obvious, isn’t it?  Barnet is rich and old, he’s an alderman, and he wants a male heir.  Just the sort of man Kenelm and Amicia should target.  Except it won’t work.  Even if Barnet were to marry Amicia and push for an army to relieve Hyacintho Flumen, he doesn’t have enough influence on the Council.  If you had Ansquetil or Baldwin on your side, then adding Barnet might win the day.  But without the mayor or the weavers’ guild, you’ll not persuade Down’s End to fight.”
            “Gods!  It makes sense when you say it.”  Milo kept rubbing his forehead.  “I just didn’t want to imagine Barnet with Amicia.  You know what I mean—my little sister.”
            “Maybe you need to imagine it.  That’s why Aylwin sent her to Down’s End, so some rich old man can take her into his bed.  Barnet’s older than some, but there are fatter and crueler possibilities.  She could do worse.”  Derian swallowed some ale.  “And here’s the point, Milo.  I don’t think she could do better.  Barnet’s the best target in Down’s End, but he couldn’t deliver the army Aylwin needs, even if he tried hard.”
            Milo finished the thought for Derian.  “And Barnet wouldn’t try hard.”
            “Exactly.  Barnet would bed Amicia, make a few speeches about opposing the invader, and wait for his heir.  Down’s End is not the answer.”
            “And you think your uncle Ody is?”
            “Maybe.  Think about it, Milo.  Uncle Ody may be cruel, vindictive, calculating, and lots of other nasty things.  But Ody Dans loves Stonebridge, or at least his private vision of Stonebridge.  He wants the city to be great: beautiful and rich and powerful.  He encourages my little attempts at trade with Down’s End not just to make money but also to assert influence.  Whenever I return to Stonebridge, he interrogates me about the places I’ve been.  He approved my idea of shipping wine to Lata Alta Flumen, Saltas Semitas, and Aurea Prati partly because he could get a report on lords Asselin, Le Grant, and Postel.  Surely you’ve seen that some of his interest in you is sparked by the fact that you’re a Mortane; you know Hyacintho Flumen. 
            “Now, I don’t know exactly what Uncle Ody wants.  Does he want Stonebridge to rule over the rest of Tarquint?  Maybe he wants Cippenham and Down’s End to join Stonebridge as equals in a league of cities.  Does he regard castle lords as allies or threats?  I tell you, I don’t know.  But I am sure of two things.  His ambitions for Stonebridge are great, and he would forever oppose the rule of a foreign queen.”
            Derian fell silent.  Milo knew the merchant was watching him, but he sat for a minute without answering.  The teamsters at one table laughed at some joke, then the other table joined in the humor.  No one was paying attention to Derian and Milo.
            “Where’s Eádulf?  He should be done with the horses by now.”  Milo pushed back from the table.  “I better check on him.”
            “Wait, please.”  Derian patted the table.  “Tell me what you’re thinking.”
            Milo shut his eyes and sighed.  “I think you’re right about Eulard Barnet.  Kenelm won’t find Amicia a better match in Down’s End, but it won’t help Aylwin.  I listened to Baldwin and Ansquetil.  They are persuaded that the free cities in Herminia have prospered under Rudolf and Mariel; they anticipate similar treatment for free cities in Tarquint.  They don’t see why Down’s End should fight to help a castle lord.  So Amicia will give up her future for nothing.  And that vexes me.
            “The truth is, Derian, I don’t give two figs for Aylwin.  The castle should have been mine, not his.  Father chose him to inherit Hyacintho Flumen even though I am the older.  If Mariel makes him bend the knee, it’s nothing less that what he deserves.  But I would not like to see Amicia’s life bargained away for nothing.
            “Now you hint that Ody Dans will be interested in this business.  He won’t care any more for Aylwin than I do, but he might see an opportunity for Stonebridge, you say.  Interesting.  But the Herminians have ten thousand men.  The Stonebridge City Guard would have to be multiplied ten times—fifty times—to become a force that could break the siege of Hyacintho Flumen.  Would even Master Dans’s considerable influence be sufficient to persuade the Assembly to build such an army?  And what about Osred Tondbert, the great hoarder of secrets?  Who would want to give him an army?”
            Derian nodded and tapped the tabletop excitedly.  “Remember, Milo, what I said.  I don’t know what my uncle will do or even what he really wants.  But he will listen to me, and once he knows about Mariel’s invasion, he’ll listen to you.  Why shouldn’t you and I benefit from this whole business?  Who knows?  You might find a way to save Amicia from Eulard Barnet.”

Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.


Thursday, January 9, 2014

Castles 85

85. In Down’s End

            “What are they doing?”  Amicia pushed close to Milo.  Pedestrians and riders alike were moving to the sides of the street.  Porches in front of businesses, including Freeman’s House, were becoming crowded. 
            An albino man with angry red splotches on his arms was walking in the middle of the street, one of the main avenues of Down’s End.  He wore a simple brown tunic, tied with a rope belt.  His feet and lower legs were filthy, clad in leather sandals with no hose.  Cold rain the last three nights had made mud of many streets in Down’s End; the man’s legs were spattered with it.  The albino’s snow-white hair lay like a glacier on his shoulders.  Behind him walked twelve men carrying three bodies on pallets, four pallbearers to each.  A crowd of mourners—Milo guessed five hundred people—filled the street behind the dead.
            “It’s a priest of the old god.  Name’s Wendelbeorht.”  The explanation came from behind Amicia and Milo.  Milo squeezed even closer to Amicia to let Ada Barnet move next to him.  “Wendelbeorht is priest of the south district.  They’ve probably been carrying these bodies for an hour or two, winding through the streets of Down’s End.  The procession gets bigger as they move along.”
            Amicia had never seen such a thing.  “Where are they taking them?”
            “Burial field.”  Ada pointed.  “There.  Someone would have dug the hole this morning.  Hoist her up, Milo, so she can see.”
            Milo took his sister by the waist and lifted.  Amicia was only beginning to take on the body contours of a woman, and as a girl she had always been light and wiry; if she had been wearing breeches rather than a kirtle, he could have set her on his shoulders.  He held her above the crowd.
            “Oh!  You’re right, Ada.  There’s just one hole.  Will they bury all three in it?”
            “Aye.  The burial field is running out of space.  The priests have already claimed a new field west of the city, but for now they conserve burial plots by stacking poor folk in shared graves.”
            The pallbearers had moved beyond their position on the porch of Freeman’s House; mourners shuffled by ten abreast, filling the street.  Milo put his sister down.  She asked, “Do rich folk also bury their dead here?”
            Ada motioned with her head.  “Let’s go inside.  Unless you want to fight through the crowd and listen to the priest.”
            “No, no.  Let’s go in.”  Amicia followed Ada into Freeman’s House, with Milo on her heels.  Once the door shut behind them, quiet enveloped them.  The crowd in the street wasn’t riotous or angry, but jostling and whispering.  Indoors, it was warm and spacious and clean, qualities paid for by the high rates Freeman’s House charged its lodgers.
            Ada pointed to an alcove where three cloth-covered chairs were arranged around a small table.  A round woven rug made the space seem almost like a private room.  “The priests give preference to worshipers of the old god, which is why the burial field has so many paupers.  But rich folk lie there too; you’d be surprised how many successful weavers and dyers pay for spaces in the burial field.  You can find dozens of headstones of prominent citizens on the west end of the field.”
            A young man wearing a blue tunic tucked into russet breeches came near their chairs and bowed; Freeman’s House employed men as well as women as servers.  “Ladies, Sir.  Shall I bring something to drink?”
            Ada smiled at Amicia.  “It’s your last chance, Amicia.  After this, you have to drink whatever Father has in his cellar.”
            Amicia looked at Milo.  “Can I have pear wine?”
            The pear wine served at Freeman’s House was sticky sweet, almost unbearable.  Amicia loved it.  Milo looked at Ada, but she merely held an open palm to him; it was his decision.   Milo spoke to the waiter.  “A bottle of pear wine.  And three glasses, please.”
            A bow.  “As you wish.”
            Milo looked around the common room.  Only two other people were there; the breakfast guests had dispersed and mid-day sup would not be available for another hour.  Tucked away in the alcove, there was no one to hear them.  “We’re deeply grateful, Ada, that you and your father are willing to help us out this way.”
            Ada’s blue eyes fixed him.  “Oh? Really?  I have never known Father to offer help without expecting something in return.  Has he told you what he wants?”
            “No.  He heard me tell Simun Baldwin and Todwin Ansquetil that I need to leave Down’s End and that Kenelm Ash hasn’t returned; he immediately suggested inviting Amicia to guest at No. 5 Alderman’s Row until Kenelm and Raymond turn up.  I expect them soon, possibly today.  Amicia should not be your visitor for long.”
            A smile flickered across Ada’s face, to be replaced by a frown.  “Surely you didn’t think this offer sprang from pure generosity.” 
            Milo pursed his lips.  “Perhaps not.  But as I say, the visit should be short.  And I hope that your presence in the house will protect Amicia’s reputation.”
            The waiter came, placed wine and glasses on the table, and bowed.  “Will there be anything else?”
            “No,” said Milo.  Milo handed the waiter a silver coin.  When he didn’t move, Milo gave him two more coins.  The waiter retreated and turned away.
            Milo defended himself against Ada’s accusing expression.  “Derian always pays when we come here.”           
            Chuckling, Ada filled the wine glasses.  “I take it Chapman created your difficulty?”
            A sip of pear wine was enough; Milo put his glass down.  “Derian thought it would take weeks in Down’s End to sell his wines.  When we left, I assumed I’d stay a week or two and head back to Stonebridge.  But after this business with Raegenhere—and, I should say, the confrontation with your father—Derian looked for a quick resolution of his wine business.  Two days ago he struck a bargain with a local merchant.  He sold the lot.  Says he wants to get back to Stonebridge promptly.  So I’m in a bind.  The fact is, without Derian to pay the bills, I can’t afford to stay in Down’s End.  Eádulf and I must get back to the Citadel.”
            “But Kenelm gave you money.”  Amicia licked sweet wine from her lips.  “A bag of golds.  At least it looked that way to me.” 
            Milo met her grin.  “You weren’t supposed to see that, Toadface.  That money is for you, which is the only reason I spent a bit of it on pear wine just now.  I can’t go wasting it on lodging and board for Eádulf and me; it’s got to last until you finish your business in Down’s End.  That is why …” Milo turned a serious face to Ada, “… I am especially grateful to you.  You can help keep Amicia and her money safe until Kenelm returns.”
            “Oh?  Really?  Milo, you are a trusting soul.  First my father and then me.”
            Milo picked up his wine glass and put it down without drinking.  “I’m confident you are worthy of my trust, Ada.  As soon as Derian and I get home, we’re going to visit Ody Dans.”
            Ada inclined her head.  “I see.”
            “I don’t.”  Amicia put her empty glass by the wine bottle, motioning for more.  “Who is Ody Dans?”
            Milo poured Amicia half a glass.  “That’s enough for now, Toadface.  You can have more tonight at Alderman Barnet’s house.  Ody Dans is Derian’s uncle; he’s rich and quite influential in Stonebridge.”
            “Good for him.  What does that have to do with Ada?”  Amicia tossed her hair as she did so often as a girl.  Milo couldn’t help but smile.
            Ada laid her hand on Amicia’s forearm.  “That’s something I think I should explain later.  Let’s go get your clothes.”
            “Right.”  Milo stood up, stoppered the wine bottle.  “Before we go, I need to leave word with the innkeeper.  When Kenelm comes looking here, they need to tell him Amicia is a guest of Alderman Barnet.”

            By chance, Milo’s message for Kenelm proved unneeded.  Kenelm and Raymond Travers arrived in Down’s End in late afternoon, hurrying toward Freeman’s House because sleet was flying in a north wind.  Miserable weather, cold and wet, and almost dark; the streets were practically empty.  With coats pulled around people’s faces, one could hardly recognize friend or foe.  Kenelm miscounted streets and turned into a side street that dead-ended in a farrier’s shop.  The farrier was finishing his last work of the day, replacing a shoe for a horse whose owner, according to the owner’s servant, must be ready to ride the next morning.  The servant was Eádulf.
            Sir Kenelm and Raymond huddled close to the embers of the farrier’s fire while the workman tacked the shoe to Blackie’s foot.  Eádulf explained to them how Milo’s plans had changed, and that Milo, Eádulf, and Derian Chapman would leave for Stonebridge in the morning.  Rather than rent a room in Freeman’s House, Kenelm decided to accompany Eádulf to No. 5 Alderman’s Row.  As Kenelm hoped, when they reached Barnet’s house, the alderman insisted that knight and squire be his guests for the night.  Kenelm could share a room with Milo, and Raymond and Eádulf could spend the night comfortably in the hayloft of Barnet’s stable.  Derian Chapman had a room of his own.
            Kenelm thus joined Milo, Amicia, and Derian as guests at sup with Alderman Barnet and Ada.  A table of six contrasted sharply with the sumptuous party Barnet had hosted two weeks before.  Host and guests were seated around the end of the long table nearest the fireplace, Amicia seated as honored guest at Barnet’s right.  Two serving girls brought mutton stew in bread trenchers, followed by grilled fish fillets.  The fish was fresh, Barnet said, bought from the morning’s catch in West Lake.  Fresh fish, Barnet opined, was one of the truly fine features of life in Down’s End, available almost all year.
            Milo had no interest in discussing the gustatory advantages of Down’s End, so he was relieved when Ada blithely redirected the conversation.  “Sir Kenelm, what did you find between the lakes?  There have been rumors for weeks about a new ‘lord.’  Some are saying that the folk in the villages have pledged fealty to him.  They probably want to avoid paying hidgield.  Will they get away with it?”
            Kenelm took a fishbone from his lips, laying it politely aside.  He answered Ada’s question, but his eyes were on Milo.  “The rumors are substantially true.”
            “Say on.”  Milo leaned forward on one elbow.
            “A man named Martin Cedarborne has established himself as lord of Inter Lucus.”  Kenelm spoke with plain sincerity, which slowly transformed Ada’s disbelieving smile into an expression of wonder.  “I have viewed the castle before, in past years when I collected hidgield for Lord Hereward.  It was a ruin.  In little more than four months Lord Martin has greatly healed the castle.  The villagers of Senerham and Inter Lucus are convinced that he is a genuine lord and that he can protect them.  I think they’re right.  I decided immediately, given Lord Aylwin’s current distress, to abandon any claim Hyacintho Flumen might have made between the lakes.”  Kenelm shifted his gaze to Amicia.  “I had hoped, Lady Amicia, to collect at least some coin between the lakes to supplement our resources.  In this I failed.”
            Amicia’s eyebrows knit together; the girl was obviously trying to deduce the implications of Kenelm’s speech, but she had to guard her tongue before Eulard Barnet.  “Please continue, Sir Kenelm.”
            “Lord Martin has imported a priest of the old god from Down’s End.  He intends to build a Prayer House on property adjacent to the grounds of castle Inter Lucus.  He claims that he came to Inter Lucus from a distant town called Lafayette and that in Lafayette he worshiped the old god.  He says, in fact, that there is only one god, and that the castle gods are not gods at all.”
            Eulard Barnet laughed.  “The man is insane.  He controls a castle but denies the castle gods?”
            Kenelm’s expression prohibited levity.  “He seemed sane to me.  He simply does not believe in castle gods.  At the same time he clearly and effectively commands Inter Lucus.  And he has not a shred of dignity.  He would submit to Mariel in a moment and think it right to do so.”
            Milo’s thoughts flew to Aylwin, for a moment without hate.  Kenelm’s mention of the bizarre mindset of the new lord brought a picture of Aylwin to Milo.  To be lord of Hyacintho Flumen, yet surrounded by the army of the Herminians and foreseeing humiliation in the end—Milo almost felt pity for Aylwin.  Almost.

             Raymond Travers and Eádulf ate in the kitchen with Barnet’s servants.  Raymond also told stories of what he had seen between the lakes.  The youngest of the serving girls was a worshiper of the old god.  Too shy to speak up, she listened in wonder to news of Lord Martin of Inter Lucus.           

Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.