Thursday, January 2, 2014

Castles 84

84. In Castle Hyacintho Flumen

            The door swished open.  It was a temporary bedroom, for one night only, the last night Edita would spend in Hyacintho Flumen.  Lucia Mortane stood in the opening.  “Gifre has left with the decree.  Gods!  What have you done?”
            Edita turned a grim face to the woman who had been her mother-in-law.  “One hand haircut.”  She held up the scissors.  “Not very pretty, I’m afraid.”
            Auburn hair and spatters of blood covered the floor around Edita’s chair.  Diera and Boemia would have stopped her, so Edita had had to do it alone.  The mirror showed the result; Edita’s head looked like a collision between a stubborn goat and an untrained shearer.  Tufts of hair two or three inches long stood upright in some places, separated by bloody cuts.
            Lucia turned on the spot.  “Boemia!  I need you!  Now!” 
            In seconds, the nan bustled into the room.  “Oh, gods!”
            Lucia snatched the scissors from Edita and handed them to Boemia.  “Do what you can.  Cut it as evenly as possible, and salve the wounds.  I’ll tell Diera to find a cap.”
            “Diera has a coif that will do,” said Boemia.  “We’ll tie it down snug, with a kerchief to blot the cuts.”
            “Very well.  Be quick about it.  Aylwin wants her ready to go promptly.”  Lucia walked into the corridor.  “Diera!”
            Boemia brusquely pushed Edita’s head from side to side, examining the damage.  “What were you thinking, woman?  Trying to kill yourself?”
            The rough treatment fired the pain of the cuts, but Edita had felt worse distress many times.  “If I wanted to kill myself, I’d have done so.  Since our lord Aylwin has decided to humiliate me, I thought I should look the part.”
            The nan wielded the scissors quickly and expertly, all the while shaking her head.  “Lady Edita—no, you are no longer a lady, and you best get used to it.  Humiliations are the least of your troubles.  You are a cripple.  You can’t do work.  The lord says you’re barren; he can’t know that so soon, but he might well be right.  You best hope your little brother survives this war and that he takes you home.  If he doesn’t, you’ll have to beg.  You’ll not marry again, and you have no attraction as a whore.”
            Edita locked eyes with Boemia in the mirror.  “I’m sure you’re right, Boemia, and I thank you for making my future so clear to me.  Perhaps I should have killed myself after all.  But just think how uncomfortable that would be for Aylwin, if the enemy were to deliver Juliana and receive only my body in exchange.  No, I think as a last gift to my former husband I will leave Hyacintho Flumen alive.  Discarded like a dead mercenary, but alive.”
            Diera came into the room with dyed cloths and a clay jar.  “Salve first,” said Boemia, setting aside the scissors.  She dabbed the mixture of egg white, wine, and grease on Edita’s wounds.  “Gods be pleased, this ought to keep the infection out.”  Then she folded a white kerchief and placed it like a bandage, making sure all the cuts were covered.  Last came a blue coif.  Boemia pulled it down, one hand on each side of Edita’s face, while looking in the mirror to keep it even.  “I think that’s as good as we can do.  Now turn around.”  Edita did so, dragging her left leg as always.  Boemia checked her handiwork, nodded, and tied the strings of the coif under Edita’s chin.  “Diera, help her out to the great hall.  I’ll bring the bag.”

            In the summer Edita had arrived at Hyacintho Flumen with eight boxes and chests of clothing, shoes, parchments, combs, jewelry, and assorted mementos from her childhood.  When she departed the north door of the great hall, leaning on Diera’s arm, she had a cloth bag containing an extra kirtle, two linen tunics, and some hose.  It was mid-morning, so the castle’s height threw the north door into shade.  A raw autumn wind blew from the west.  Edita shivered.
            Aylwin, Lucia, Eddricus, and Rose were there, as was Dag Daegmund and some other soldiers.  Aylwin faced west, watching the road that mounted the hill to Hyacintho Flumen on that side.  He never looked at Edita, but spoke over his shoulder.  “Put her on the horse.  Odo, take care she doesn’t fall.”
            A soldier lifted her by the waist and placed her in the saddle.  The stable boy Odo secured her feet in stirrups and tied her bag in place behind her.  The soldier put a cloak around her shoulders, tucking the ends under Edita’s legs.  Odo knew his business; he had chosen a placid horse and cinched the saddle tightly.
            “Go!”  Aylwin still did not look at her.
            Odo snickered to the horse; they moved forward.  Edita took a last glance at the Mortanes as she passed them.  Little Rose looked up at her with wide eyes, but the others cared only for what they saw coming up the hill.
            Groom, horse, and rider passed from the shadow of Hyacintho Flumen; sunlight warmed Edita’s left cheek.  Down the hill she saw the castle’s stable and barns; further on, cottages for servants.  Who will move into Juliana’s house now?  And there she was, Juliana, riding a chestnut horse beside a mounted soldier.  The golden hair couldn’t be mistaken.  Edita squinted and remembered the swordsman’s name: Warren Vere.
            Juliana and her escort ascended faster than Odo led Edita down, drawing even with Edita and Odo as they passed the stable.  “Keep going.  Don’t stop.”  Edita spoke quietly so only Odo would hear.  He nodded acknowledgement without turning his head.  Juliana’s eyes met Edita’s for a moment, and the former attendant favored Edita with a smile she couldn’t decipher.  Pity?  Condescension? Disdain?
            Edita couldn’t look back had she desired it.  Oddly, she found she didn’t.  It was as if something fell from her heart when the women and their escorts passed each other.  Her father had set her a task—to be the seal of an alliance between Prati Mansum and Hyacintho Flumen—and she had failed in that task.  With failure came freedom.
             Father had to have known it was an impossible chore.  He had no choice but to obey Mariel, so when the queen moved to conquer Tarquint the alliance with the Mortanes would be ended.  Did Father imagine Aylwin would submit to Mariel out of love for me?  Not likely.  From the beginning, the arrangement with the Mortanes was a convenient way to get rid of me.  But there was a discordant fact.  The Herminians had proposed an exchange.  Why?  This General Ridere thinks he gains something by trading Juliana for me.  What does he want? 
            Failure brought freedom.  Edita no longer owed duty to father or husband; each had cast her away.  Except for Gifre, she was on her own; according to Boemia, she faced the life of a beggar.  Ridere wants something from me.  Whatever it is, I must obtain some living in exchange for it.
            In her youth, before the accident, Edita would have galloped her favorite gelding down the gentle slope to the Herminians in minutes.  It would have been breathless, exciting, and fun.  Now, she had to sit and clutch the pommel with her good hand while the stable boy led her in a slow, lonely walk.  The Herminian army would not venture out to meet her.  They feared circle shields if they came too close to Hyacintho Flumen.  Edita remembered at least that part of the previous night’s confrontation.
            Aylwin had not allowed brother and sister to talk privately.  Instead, he bade Gifre rehearse three times the mechanics of the exchange: Aylwin would sign the divorce decree, Gifre would deliver the decree at sunrise, Juliana and escort would ride to Hyacintho Flumen, and then Edita and escort would depart the castle.  To demonstrate his “trustworthiness,” Aylwin said, Edita would be sent forth as soon as Juliana could be observed moving toward the castle.  Sometime in this discussion, someone (Gifre?  Arthur?) mentioned the circle shields.  The Herminians did not know whether Aylwin could command the shields, but they had to assume he could. 
            Edita suddenly tightened her grip on the pommel.  Aylwin can command the shields.  He bragged about it to Arthur.  Ridere has to assume, but I know.  And that’s what Ridere wants.  He wants to know what I know about Aylwin.
            For the rest of the slow ride to the Herminian line, Edita tried to remember all she could about her former husband—feeling neither humiliation, regret, anger, nor desire for revenge.  Rather, she searched her memory for useful information, something with which she could build a new life.

            The castle road passed by fields planted with winter wheat and a cherry orchard, its trees bereft of leaves.  Beyond the orchard it joined another road, which circled the castle, running south toward the seashore and northeast toward the Blue River.  This road marked the Herminian siege line.  Edita saw tents clustered right and left and soldiers standing guard.  Near the intersection of the roads stood a farmhouse with a knee-high stone fence marking its yard.  Odo stopped her horse at the intersection of roads.
            Soldiers emerged from behind the house.  “Lady,” said one, inclining his head.  The second soldier freed one foot from its stirrup while Odo untied the other.  The first soldier lifted her off the horse.
            “Edita!”  Gifre was hugging her as soon as she reached the ground.  Her brother had grown in four months; he was taller than she.  He squeezed her and kissed her forehead.  The formal messenger of the previous night had been supplanted by the brother she remembered.  “Got you safe at last!  There’s someone I want you to meet.”
            “General Ridere?”
            “Him too, but that comes later.”  Gifre wrapped Edita’s lifeless left arm around his shoulders so she could lean on him.  “We’ve got a little sup inside the house.”
            Gifre helped her up two steps to the porch, then through the door.  A bony young soldier took her left arm as Gifre stepped away.  “Lady Edita,” the soldier said.
            She remembered that voice and looked at his face, a face with pale blue eyes, marked by gentleness.  Her jaw dropped in puzzlement.  “Bully?”

Copyright © 2013 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.

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