Thursday, March 27, 2014

Castles 96

96. In the Town Hyacintho Flumen

            A knock on her door.  “Fair morning, Lady Edita.  I have a breakfast prepared.  Will you eat here or at the Petal?”
            Edita pulled herself to a sitting position with her right arm, pushing her lifeless left leg off the bed to the floor.  “I’m sorry Mistress Cooper.  I’m just getting up.  I’ll come out as soon as I can.”
            The plump face of the barrel maker’s wife leaned in around the door.  “You need not apologize, my lady.  It’s a wonder you can rise at all so early in the morning.”  Godiva Cooper opened the door wide and come to Edita’s side.  “You should tell that young squire that a lady needs sleep—and he should tell the general.”  Godiva shook her head, but her disapproval was feigned.  In reality, she was proud and excited to have such an important person as Edita rooming in her apartment.  That Edita often took meals with General Eudes Ridere and his commanders in the Rose Petal and sometimes did not return home until the wee hours of the morning were marks of distinction—at least, to Godiva Cooper.  Privately, some of Godiva’s friends expressed other opinions, calling her guest a Herminian bitch or the whore who betrayed Lord Aylwin.
            Edita stood up, her weight on her right leg.  She tugged at her heavy woolen nightdress to cover her linen under tunic.  It was cold in the apartment, so she slept in both. Her workspace would not warm until the air of the kitchen drifted in through the open door. 
            “Don’t bother dressing.  It’s just me today.  Wigmund had a bite and has gone to buy supplies for the shop.  Let me help.”  Mrs. Cooper tucked herself under Edita’s left arm and supported her to the door.  “Will Master Wedmor come to see you this morning?”
            “Who can tell?  I’m not the prettiest of girls.  He might change his mind any day.”  Edita kept a close watch on her speech around Godiva and other local people.  More than once she had heard General Ridere remind his commanders that Aylwin might have planted spies among the townsfolk.  The siege could keep food out of the castle, but it would be impossible to stop a spy’s signals.
            “Isn’t that the truth?  Men are fickle.  They proclaim undying love—until they see some young thing that looks better.  Then: woo!  Out the door and never come back!”
            Godiva coughed, realizing she had wandered onto a painful subject.  “Course, I don’t mean all men.  Take my Wiggy.  Some ’o us girls get lucky.  And I would say your Master Wedmor is more like Wiggy than … well, than other men.”
            “I think that’s true, Mistress Cooper.”  Edita smiled at hearing Mrs. Cooper call Bully “Master Wedmor.”  She had first met Bully Poorman in the harbor at Prati Mansum, when he kept her from tumbling as she boarded Little Moon.  Poorman was a name often taken by vagabonds and criminals, her mother reminded her; the boy was a mere lackey to the cloth merchant, Boyden Black.  But Bully had been kind to Edita, and conversations with him made the voyage to Tarquint endurable.  Her heart broke when Little Moon arrived in Hyacintho Flumen; Boyden Black took his servant into town and Mortane servants took Edita into the castle.  Except for a brief glimpse from horseback when Aylwin paraded her before his people, she hadn’t seen Bully again.
            Just as well, her mother Erline told her.  It would be cruel to encourage the boy.  He was obviously smitten by Edita, infatuated with dreams of nobility.  Erline had chuckled at Bully’s innocence.  Edita had responsibilities to her family, Erline declared, and she would fulfill them by marrying one of the sons of Hereward Mortane.  On their arrival in Hyacintho Flumen, they discovered that before his death Lord Mortane had left the castle to his second son, Aylwin, and the older had run away rather than serve his brother.  Two days later Erline excitedly told her daughter that the Mortanes had agreed that Edita would marry Lord Aylwin.  She need not wait for Eddricus to grow up.  In a mere fortnight, Edita would be the lady of Hyacintho Flumen!  Erline never mentioned what she surely knew, that Juliana Ingdaughter’s presence helped buy the young lord’s consent.
            Her marriage lasted 159 days.  Edita had counted them and written the number—CLIX—in her prized possession, a little book with blank pages given to her by her father before she left Prati Mansum.  She wrote the number on the bitter morning when she hacked off her hair with a scissors. Only two pages remained in the diary, making it the history of her marriage and humiliation.  She had preserved a few strands of her hair between the book’s pages, a fitting reminder of the fiasco she had made of life.
            Her own brother Gifre brought the terms of the exchange, which Aylwin had willingly accepted.  The alliance between house Mortane and house Toeni was irrevocably canceled.  Edita rode out from Hyacintho Flumen repudiated and dishonored.   But then, on the ride from castle to the besieging army, she discovered freedom, the freedom of complete and final failure. She owed nothing more to her husband or father.  Whatever would come next, it would be entirely her life.
            And then, at the end of the slow descent from the castle, Bully.  No longer Bully Poorman, but Bully Wedmor.  Not a raw youth, but a soldier in Queen Mariel’s service.  Not a cloth merchant’s assistant, but a squire to a lord.  And not just any lord; Boyden Black was Eudes Ridere!  Throughout her childhood, Edita had heard the general’s name spoken with resentment and grudging respect.  Eudes Ridere had compelled her grandfather Lord Sherard Toeni to submit to King Rudolf.  Growing up, she had imagined Ridere as an old man, white-haired like her grandfather.  Instead, he was an iron-hard, straight-backed, beaked-nose man, no older than her father.  She realized now that Ridere had been young, a knight in his twenties, when he besieged Lord Sherard.
            Bully was supposed to take her to Ridere that first day, but delivery took too long.  They ate lightly, a soldier’s mid-day sup, in a farmhouse at the western edge of the siege circle.  Then they bundled her into a two-wheeled cart.  Bully and Gifre rode horses alongside her as they slowly circled the western and southern lines of the siege.  They stopped frequently, since the cart that carried Edita also transported an iron kettle holding gallons of hot stew.  At each stop soldiers greeted Edita politely enough, but their real interest lay in the stewpot.  Edita was grateful for the warmth of the kettle beside her, but as the afternoon wore on the kettle cooled and the stew ran out.  She was shivering when they reached Blue River.
            Gifre and Bully transferred her to a ferry after dark.  Across the river, on the town dock, they loaded her into another cart for a short ride to the Rose Petal.  She arrived cold, stiff, and exhausted.  Rather than present her to the general, Bully and Gifre covered her with blankets in one of the Rose Petal’s beds.  In the morning, after the luxury of a hot bath, she was interviewed by Ridere.  She sat opposite the general at a table in a small room; Bully and a grim-faced swordsman stood by the door.
            The general had asked many questions, and Edita tried to use her knowledge of Hyacintho Flumen to prove her value to him.  Boemia was probably right, she thought: as the discarded wife of a lord, Edita was an ordinary crippled woman in a world with no use for unproductive mouths.  She answered Ridere’s questions as honestly as she could, which unfortunately meant that many times she admitted ignorance: “I don’t know, my lord.”
            Some things she did know.  Aylwin boasted that he could control circle shields, though Edita had never watched him do it.  Actually, she said, she had rarely seen him touch the lord’s knob, because she usually avoided the great hall.  She spent much of her time at windows on the second floor in the castle tower; she liked watching the autumn harvest in the fields, vineyards, and orchards around Hyacintho Flumen.  It reminded her of home.
            Hyacintho Flumen had fifteen servants, Edita reported, from Arthur the old down to the stable boy Odo.  Additionally, there were three score and seven armsmen in the castle.  Aylwin had gathered these men to him as quickly as possible in the days before the siege.  The general asked if she were sure of these numbers.  Aye, she said.  She had written them in her little book only three days before.
            She told Ridere that Aylwin had spoken with Queen Mariel via Videns-Loquitur.  At least, Aylwin said he had; again, Edita hadn’t seen him do it.
            Edita presumed the storage rooms downstairs in Hyacintho Flumen were as large as those in Prati Mansum, and they had to be nearly full, since Aylwin accepted hidgield in kind rather than coin from most of his people.  The barns on castle property were likewise overflowing with grain, hay, and animal fodder.  Ridere questioned her closely on these points.  Remember, he said, his army had arrived while crops were still being harvested.  Had she visited the barns?  Had Aylwin’s men slaughtered any pigs?  Had they prepared salted pork? 
            More questions.  How many cattle and horses were there?  How many storerooms were there?  Ridere had personal knowledge of eight different castles, and the capacity of their magical storage rooms varied greatly—had the lady actually seen Hyacintho Flumen’s storerooms?  Edita admitted that though she had the impression of a bountiful harvest, she could not say how much food Aylwin had stored.
            The interview lasted more than an hour.  Finally Ridere fell silent, his eyes fixed on the tabletop.  Edita thought he must have been considering how her information bore on some matter of war.  Or thinking how unsatisfactory her answers had been.  Perhaps her usefulness to the general was already ended.
            When Ridere looked up from the table, he spoke to Bully.  “I expect better of you, Bully.  You didn’t tell me the woman could write or figure.  It’s clear that she can.  Find her a room and introduce her to Eadred Unes.  He’s been pestering me for an assistant.  Why should I take an armsman off the line if this woman will do?”
            So Edita Freewoman had entered the service of the Army of Herminia.  Aylwin Mortane had divorced her, so she rejected his name.  She refused the name Toeni as well, explaining to Gifre that she would no longer be subject to her father’s wishes.  Gifre made no objection and wished her happiness as a commoner, asking only that she count him as her brother.
            Bully found a single room apartment for her a short walk from the Rose Petal.  It had been added to the back of a barrel maker’s shop some years before, but the cooper’s family no longer needed it.  A bed, a small closet, and a table with two chairs: it had everything Edita needed, she said.  This wasn’t strictly true, but both she and Bully were careful not to overspend funds supplied by the Army of Herminia.  Edita took meals with the cooper and his wife, except when she ate with General Ridere’s officers in the Rose Petal, something the general insisted she do frequently.
            Mostly, her work consisted of copying reports and letters written by Eadred Unes, the son of the castle scribe at Pulchra Mane.  Eadred had come to Tarquint armed with boxes of paper, made by Wymar Thoncelin at Ventus in Montes.  He had many hundreds of sheets of it, and fifty bottles of ink.  Eadred had large eyes set close together that made him look like an owl.  He almost never said anything in meetings at the Rose Petal; instead, he filled pages of poor quality paper with notes.  After the meetings he wrote out Ridere’s decisions, annotated with digests of the various commanders’ reports, on better stock.
            They gave her paper and ink, and Bully brought her work almost every day.  On the days Ridere took his squire to inspect the siege lines, Eadred would dispatch some other soldier with her copying for the day.  For three hours every morning and afternoon, she copied Eadred’s reports and ledgers.  Eadred insisted that at the end of each day his original writing and Edita’s copy, even if it were not finished, be returned to Eadred’s rooms in the Rose Petal.  Bully remarked to Edita that of all Ridere’s commanders and aides, Eadred Unes was the only one the general never denied.  The quartermaster general believed in organization and the power of accurate record keeping.
            Edita eased into a chair at Godiva Cooper’s kitchen table.  She ate her eggs and bacon carefully, as always.  She thought of Bully Wedmor, the soldier and commoner.  And she smiled—there was no one but Godiva to see the left side of her mouth droop. 
            Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.

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