Thursday, April 24, 2014

Castles 100

100. In Stonebridge

            “Uncle!  Have you seen this?”
            “What is it?”  Ody Dans leaned on Derian Chapman’s arm as he climbed down from the carriage that had brought him from The Spray.  Derian handled his uncle a piece of paper while a crowd jostled around them, climbing the wide stone stairs at the entrance to Assembly Hall.  Derian recognized other Assemblymen in the mix, but most were onlookers, drawn by the news that the new Commander of the City Guard would be invested today.  Ody Dans stood still for a moment, then looked from the note to Derian, who said, “Wallis named himself and three others, but not Milo.”
            Dans’s expression was as bland as usual.  “And this matters because…?”  Dans shook his head.  “The Assembly may choose from the nominees put forward by the Assistant Commander.  But it has the power to elevate any member of the Guard to the Commander’s rank.  We could even select you, Derian.”  A short laugh.  “You should beseech the gods that we spare you!”
            “But who will put forward Milo’s name?”  Derian pulled open one of five tall wooden doors of Assembly Hall for his uncle.  They joined the throng moving into the Hall.
            “Patience, nephew.  Watch and listen.  Learn.”

            Milo sat with nineteen other guardsmen on two benches near the north wall of Assembly Hall, tucked away under a balcony that seated some of the crowd.  Like his fellows, he was unarmed; the twenty soldiers attended the Assembly as invited guests only.  Two dozen other guards stood duty around the hall, each with a hand on the hilt of a sheathed short sword.  Theirs was a ceremonial role for the most part; the Speaker had not had to call on the guardsmen to restore order to a meeting of the Assembly for a generation.  One guardsman, near the front of the Hall, the western end, held an enormous spear upright at his side.  Benches in the center of the hall, along the south wall, and on the balcony were lined with people who had come to watch.
            Stonebridge’s Assemblymen, forty of them, sat at the western end of the Hall on three raised curved tiers.  The arrangement brought every Assemblyman close to the Speaker’s table, which stood on the floor in the middle.  Milo spotted Ody Dans in the second tier of Assemblymen, waiting impassively with hands folded on his ample stomach, while other Assemblymen whispered around him.  Between the Assembly proper and the audience was a wooden railing and an empty space about twenty feet across.  The ceremonial spearman and three other sheriffs stood in this space facing the audience, ready to defend the Assemblymen from public interference.
            The spearman thumped the floor as the man at the center table stood.  The crowd of observers quieted, and the Assemblymen stopped whispering.  Milo recognized the Speaker, Frideric Bardolf, one of Ody Dans’s guests at the party last summer at The Spray.  Bardolf made a little speech, welcoming visitors to the Assembly meeting and cautioning them to maintain quiet so the Assemblymen could attend to the testimony they would hear that day.  Milo only half-listened to Bardolf; instead, his attention focused on four men seated at the front of the crowd.  The front benches were reserved for witnesses who would be called from their seats to stand near the railing.  Trymian Wallis sat with the three men he had designated as potential Commanders of the Guard: Bryce Dalston, Earm Upton, and Acwel Kent.  Milo pursed his lips.  Earm and Acwel were honest sheriffs, but clearly not qualified to lead the Guard.  Bryce had much more experience, was good with a sword, and was well liked by the men.  But he also spoke with a lisp and had an eyelid that drooped; his left eye constantly looked as if he were falling asleep.  It would be easy for the Assembly to underestimate him.  Wallis chooses his rivals carefully, or so he thinks.
            Frideric Bardolf sat down, and an Assemblyman rose from the end chair of the lowest tier.  By musing on Wallis’s nominations, Milo had missed the name; he turned to Hrodgar Wigt beside him with raised eyebrows.  Hrodgar mouthed, “Verge Courney.”
Three strides brought Courney to the rail.  He looked younger than most of the Assemblymen and wore a white shirt and a fur-lined gray cloak.  Milo guessed this must be the latest style for wealthy men in Stonebridge.  Courney had an irritating habit of brushing his black hair out of his eyes, because his front locks kept falling across his face.  In a loud voice, Courney also welcomed visitors to the Assembly (quite unnecessarily, since Bardolf had already done so), and explained that the Assemblymen would take testimony from four candidates put forward by Assistant Commander of the City Guard, Trymian Wallis.  The Assembly might then decide to interrogate other persons, and might call on anyone present to give testimony.  Finally, the Assembly would either select a new Commander of the Guard and invest him in his office or, if no final decision had been reached, continue the matter at the next Assembly meeting.  Courney must have brushed back his wayward hair a dozen times in this speech; it was a relief when he finally called on the first witness.
The interrogation began with Earm Upton.  Verge Courney summoned Earm to the rail and bade him swear that he would speak truthfully.  After the sheriff swore his oath, Speaker Bardolf asked him a series of questions: How long have you served in the City Guard?  How much battle experience have you had?  What were former Commander Tondbert’s best and worst qualities?  What is the mission of the City Guard, as you understand it?  And finally: why are you fit to command the Guard?
Earm stood at the rail two strides from Courney and began speaking to the Assemblymen in a quiet voice.  The crowd behind him rustled its impatience, because they couldn’t hear, and the rustling made things worse.  The spear-holding guard thumped them to silence.  People collectively leaned forward and strained to listen.  Earm began again and kept his answers short: He had served five years in the Guard.  He had fought against Falcons or Hawks four times in street battles.  Commander Tondbert was brave, and Earm refused to say anything bad about the recently deceased.  The Guard was to enforce the law.  Finally, Earm believed he was fit to command because he had proven his loyalty to the city and his effectiveness as a soldier by the battles he had fought.
Bardolf nodded to Courney, who asked in a loud voice if the Assemblymen had questions for Sheriff Upton.  No one did, and Courney directed Earm to sit down.
Acwel Kent testified next.  His answers were not much more interesting than Earm’s.  He had been a Guardsman slightly longer than Earm, but his duties in the Citadel had limited him to two battles with street toughs.  (“You can’t really count knocking a few heads when you’re rousting drunks,” Acwel explained, which drew laughter from Assemblymen and observers alike.)  Acwel said Tondbert’s best quality was his friendliness with the men, but he suggested that Tondbert sometimes sent men on poorly planned operations.  The City Guard’s mission was to do whatever the Stonebridge Assembly ordered, he said.  He was well prepared to serve as commander, Acwel said, because of his familiarity with all aspects of the Citadel: the kitchen, the stable, the armory, the training ground, and most of all, the men.
Several Assemblymen wanted to question Acwel.  Speaker Bardolf recognized Kingsley Averill, an elderly man with long white hair, seated opposite Ody Dans.  Averill was very tall and thin, and when he leaned on the railing of the second tier he looked like he might tumble forward onto the Assemblymen below him.  Averill asked Acwel Kent for examples of Commander Tondbert’s poorly planned operations.  Undoubtedly Acwel had anticipated this question and he responded with a list of Tondbert’s miscalculations.  To no one’s surprise, Acwel’s list included the raid on Gaudy’s Tavern, which had decimated the Guard.  “And last, Tondbert struck a pact with Bo Leanberth and the Hawks, a mistake that cost him his life.”
Again, several Assemblymen wanted to ask more questions.  Speaker Bardolf recognized Ody Dans, who asked, “Sheriff Kent, has the treachery of the Hawks been repaid?”
“Aye, Sir.  Leanberth, Goes, and Acwellan are dead.  The Hawks have been crushed.”
Milo expected Dans to ask the obvious next question—Who is responsible for the Guard’s success in this matter?  But the bland-faced Assemblyman sat down, yielding the floor.  Next to Milo, Hrodgar squirmed in his seat and cleared his throat as if he wanted to speak.  But the moment passed.  Guardsmen knew they were to speak only if questioned.
Bryce Dalston was next.  Milo thought: Naturally, Wallis puts himself last.  He can agree with Bryce on any substantive point, so that he doesn’t look a fool.  And then he’ll remind the Assemblymen that he has had access to Tondbert’s records.  Milo looked intently at Ody Dans, again sitting serenely with hands on his belly.  What game are you playing at, Master Dans?
Bryce answered the same questions.  He had been in the City Guard nineteen years.  He had survived ten or fifteen important fights with Falcons and Hawks.  Commander Tondbert was really good at collecting secrets: “But I don’t s’pose I need to tell you all, do I?”  A few people in the audience laughed aloud, but the Assembly’s stony silence quieted them.  Tondbert’s greatest weakness?  “He was a damn fool.  He wanted to be Commander of the Guard, with no idea wot the Guard should do.”
The duties of the City Guard?  “Stonebridge needs us so ordinary folk can sleep in peace, ’n so artisans ’n merchants can go about their business without bein’ robbed.  And, I s’pose, if some damn castle lord brings an army ’gainst us, the Guard should protect the city.  Not that we could, not with the arms we got.”
Someone in the audience shouted, “Hear, hear!”  And Milo heard affirmative whispers among his fellows.  But the spear thumper thumped for quiet.
Bryce’s answer to the final question was most surprising of all.  “I been with the Guard nineteen years, learned a few things.  Fit to command?  Nah!”
At least ten Assemblymen leaped to their feet, but Speaker Bardolf immediately asked, “You say you are not fit to command, Sheriff Dalston?  Why not?”
“Not good enough, that’s why.  Old as I am, I can still swing a blade.  But the boys know I got no head for strategy.  They’d be fools to depend on any plan I made.”
Bardolf motioned with both arms to silence the Assemblymen behind him; for a moment he looked like an eagle flapping its wings as she settles on her nest.  On the tiers surrounding him the Assemblymen reseated themselves.  “Sheriff Dalston.  Acwel Kent and Earm Upton have told us why they should serve as Commander of the Guard.  In your opinion, are they qualified?”
Bryce Dalston half turned to look at his comrades.  “Nah.  Meaning no offense, boys.”
“What about Assistant Commander Wallis?”
Bryce faced the Speaker.  “Nah.”
Bardolf: “In your opinion the Assistant Commander is not qualified to lead the City Guard?”
“He is not.”
Bardolf waited for more, but Dalston merely frowned back at him.  Trymian Wallis jumped to his feet to seize Bryce’s arm.  “What are you saying, man?  Ungrateful fool!”  But Bryce shook him off and kept his attention on Speaker Bardolf.
The Speaker pointed to Courney, who intoned: “Are there any questions for Sheriff Dalston?”  Half the Assemblymen leaped to their feet.  Bardolf glanced over his shoulder and pointed.  “Assemblyman Ware.” 
Milo had heard the name from Derian Chapman.  Lunden Ware and Ody Dans were the two most prominent moneylenders in Stonebridge, which made them rivals in business and allies in city politics.  Derian said they both wanted the city to expand its influence, and together they had convinced the Assembly to mint only high quality coins in limited numbers.  But in eight months in Stonebridge, Milo had never seen Ware.
The banker was a short, thin man with brown hair, seated next to Verge Courney and dressed much like him.  Ware gripped the handrail of the first tier and waited for the other Assemblymen to sit.  Trymian Wallis was still standing next to Bryce, who continued to ignore him.
“Sheriff Dalston!  You have just testified that the Assistant Commander is not qualified to lead the Guard.  Please tell us why.”
Wallis was apoplectic.  “Wait!  You must let me speak!”
Scores of people were talking all over the Hall.  The spearman thumped his spear repeatedly until the commotion calmed down.  Verge Courney waved his hand for silence and shouted.  “Please!  Everybody!  Commander Wallis will answer questions in a moment.  For now, we must let Sheriff Dalston speak.  Sheriff, please, answer Assemblyman Ware’s question.  Tell us, in your opinion, why is the Assistant Commander not qualified to command the Guard?”
“I’ve seen him beat new recruits to frighten them.  I’ve seen him kill an innocent man.  I’ve been told he collects secrets, like Tondbert.  And, well, you should ask them.”  Bryce pointed to the north wall, where Milo sat with the other guardsmen.
“This is outrageous!”  Wallis looked red as a beet.  “I demand to speak!  I have served the City Guard for fifteen years.  I know how to defend this city, better than anyone else.”
Assembly Hall quieted, listening to Wallis.  Milo and the other guardsmen were standing to get a better view.  Acwel Kent and Earm Upton also rose, and they pushed Bryce Dalston to one side so they could stand between him and the Assistant Commander.
“Yes!  There have been recruits who died from wounds suffered during training.  Under my watch, yes!  And I would do it again!  The City Guard must have hard men, men who can fight.  Bryce Dalston should know better than lose heart over some failed recruit.  If he has such a soft heart, we can move him to kitchen duty.”
Wallis leaned on the rail, jabbing a finger at the Assemblymen.  “And yes!  I know lots of secrets in this city.  How could it be otherwise, if the Guard is to do its duty?  I know when the silver is delivered from Ham Roweson’s mines.  It is the business of the Guard to know this.  I know when shipments of wine or lumber go by Hill Corral on their way to Down’s End.  I know which of you have borrowed money from Master Dans and Master Ware.  I know when meat and grain comes in from the Downs.  I know when castle lords send so-called ‘friendly messages’ to important men in our city.  I’m supposed to know these things—and lots more!”
As Wallis shouted his way through his speech, one of the guardsmen left his mates and began walking toward the four sheriffs at the bar.  An armed duty guard blocked his way for a moment, but when the sheriff raised empty hands, the duty guard let him pass.  Wallis, intent on the thinly veiled threats he had been hurling at the Assemblymen, only noticed the young man when he came close.
“How dare you come here!  You have duty in the Citadel!”  If possible, Wallis became even redder.  “Get him out of here!”  Wallis rushed at the spear thumper and tried to pull the ceremonial weapon from his hand.  But Acwel Kent and Earm Upton grabbed Wallis’s arms and pulled him back.
Shouts and curses filled the air.  Several duty guards ran to join their fellows between the audience and the Assembly proper.  The spear thumper hammered the floor, and Speaker Bardolf held his hands aloft.  The noise subsided.
Bardolf motioned for quiet.  “Citizens of Stonebridge!  I will order the Hall cleared if there is another outburst.  The Assembly has important business to do, and we will do it in secret if need be.”  He pointed at Wallis and Dalston.  “You men.  Sit.”  Bryce Dalston retreated promptly to the front bench; Wallis obeyed much less willingly.  Then Bardolf turned to the young guardsman.  “What is your name, son?  Are you a sheriff?”
“Master Speaker, my name is Jarvis Day.  I have been under-sheriff for eight weeks.”
Bardolf again motioned for silence.  “I imagine you will be disciplined for interrupting the Assembly’s meeting, Under-sheriff Day.  You should know this.  Why, then, have you approached the bar?”
“Begging your pardon, Master Speaker, I swore to protect the laws of the city.  I had no choice but to come forward, Sir.”
The elderly Speaker smiled indulgently.  “Speak, then.”
The under-sheriff pointed.  “He raped my sister.”
Wallis was on his feet instantly.  “That’s a lie!”
Jarvis continued pointing.  “In his office.  In the Citadel.  Four times.”
The duty guards drew their swords, and somehow the audience restrained itself.
Speaker Bardolf: “Can you prove this accusation, Under-Sheriff Day?”
“No.  My sister says one thing.  The Assistant Commander will say another.  But it seems to me that the Assembly should know that I will not serve under Wallis.”
“If the City orders you, you…”
“I will die before I serve under Wallis.”
Bardolf bristled.  “You may not defy the Assembly.”
“I do not defy you.  I am not armed.  You may order my arrest at any time.  But I will not serve under Wallis.”
“Master Speaker!”  The interruption came from Ody Dans.  Bardolf turned and motioned to Dans.  “Master Speaker, it seems to me the under-sheriff’s testimony is actually quite helpful, as it points to an important question.  Are there other guardsmen whom we would lose if the Assistant Commander were promoted?
“You there, Kent and Upton!  We already know what Sheriff Dalston thinks of Assistant Commander Wallis.  Would you serve under Wallis?”
Upton answered unequivocally.  “To serve under Wallis would be a death sentence in any case.  I’d rather die now.”
Kent stared at the floor for a moment.  “Earm speaks the truth.  Wallis will be the death of us all, either deliberately or through stupidity.”
Wallis screamed.  “Conspiracy!  Treason!”  Two duty guards pulled their swords and stepped between Wallis and the sheriffs.  Wallis spun around, as if looking for help from somewhere, anywhere.  He shook his hand at Jarvis Day and addressed the Assemblymen.  “These accusations are lies.  This conspiracy will be broken, I assure you.  I will make the men obey, and I will make them like it!”
“Master Speaker!”  This time it was Lunden Ware; Bardolf waved permission to speak.  “If there is a conspiracy, Assistant Commander, it seems you have created it yourself.
“We have not asked the most obvious question.  Sheriff Dalston, who would you have as your Commander?”
Bryce Dalston rose but did not speak.  He faced the north wall of Assembly Hall and pointed.  Without a word the under-sheriff, Jarvis Day, extended his hand in the same direction.  Assemblymen and audience turned their eyes to the guardsmen standing under the balcony.  Hrodgar Wigt and others pushed Milo forward.  As Milo walked into the well of the chamber, the guardsmen began to chant.  “Mortane.  Mortane.  Mortane.”
The spearman thumped his spear, but not to procure silence.  Rather, the pounding reinforced the chant: “Mor-tane.  Mor-tane.  Mor-tane.”  The audience, and even Assemblymen joined in, until it was a roar.  “Mor-tane.  Mor-tane.  Mor-tane.”
His comrades pushed Wallis to one side.  Milo knelt at the bar, his head bowed, for a long time.  Eventually the tumult died down and, with very little debate, the Stonebridge Assembly appointed him Commander of the City Guard.

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

Friday, April 18, 2014

Castles: the editing begins (Chapter 6)

    From the start, I've admitted that Castles as it appears on this blog is a draft.  I will continue pushing to finish the story, but when possible I will start the rewriting process.  In this case, the changes, though small, are important to the plot.  So here's the new chapter 6.

6. In Castle Inter Lucus

            Ora leapt to her feet and fell backward on the grass when her prayer was answered.  The man appeared, life-size, in the shiny black wall in front of her.  For an instant, Ora thought it was a likeness only, but then the man raised his knee to step up onto the earth mounded against the wall.  He stepped out of the magic wall, as if an exact reflection of a man in perfectly still water could step out of the world of reflections into reality.
            The man said something Ora couldn’t understand; it sounded like an oath or a question.  He noticed her sprawled on the ground.  Again he spoke in a foreign tongue—the language of the gods? —and offered her his hand.  She let him pull her to her feet.  He looked very definitely like a man; she decided he was not a god.  I asked for a lord, and that’s what they’ve sent.  They sent a new lord to Inter Lucus.  What will he think of his castle all broken down?  I hope he’s not angry.
            Ora had never seen a lord before.  Every year the lord of Hyacintho Flumen sent a taxman, backed by a knight and a small company of soldiers, to Down’s End and the region between the lakes.  But the lord himself would never come so far.  So Ora wondered if all lords dressed as this one; she thought it unlikely.  The man was tall, much taller than Ora.  With a thin nose and narrow jaw, his face could have been a hawk’s.  His hair was mostly black, with some gray.  He had no cloak, no sword, and no cleverly woven insignia in his clothes.  He wore a belt with a metal buckle and soft shoes made of brightly colored fabrics.  Perhaps the greatest mark of nobility in his appearance was the creases in his tunic, a short tunic tucked into breeches that reached all the way to the funny shoes.  How could cloth be trained to hold such straight folds?
            Ora curtsied, or tried to.  She had never been taught how.  “I thank the gods for sending you to me, my lord.  Your servant is sorely distressed and in need of protection.”  She bowed her head and wondered whether she ought to kneel again.
             The man spoke again, a string of mostly unintelligible sounds, though a few might be real words: in, world, god.  He was asking questions; that much was clear.  Ora decided she should remain standing, but her only answer to his questions was a face of bewilderment.
            The man covered his face with his hands, took a huge breath and exhaled.  Dropping his hands, he turned very slowly a full circle, obviously trying to take stock of his situation.  He looked at Ora and placed his hand on his chest.  “Martin.”
            “Ora.”  She curtsied again.  “I am Ora.”
            “Ic Béo?”  The man mimicked her.  Then he altered it slightly: “I be Martin.  You be Ora.”  Martin pronounced “ôu” strangely, but she smiled approval.  “Aye!”

            Marty quickly surmised that “gése” meant, “yes.”  Whenever he used the right word for a thing, the girl with the green eyes said, “Gése.”  Marty didn’t know much about languages, having forgotten most of his high school German and having learned only a smattering of theological Latin since he came to Our Lady of Guadeloupe.  He felt sure, though, that the girl’s language was European.  She spoke with some accent he had never heard, but many of the words sounded close to German, English, or even Latin: ic might be a German “Ich”; blóstm could be an English “blossom”; and domne could be a Latin “domini.”
            Min Domne Martin.”            The girl stood about five feet tall; she was thin and lithe with brown hair tied in a knot behind her head.  She addressed him often enough with this phrase that Marty had little doubt as to its meaning.  He tried to correct her, but he didn’t know the words he needed.  And the girl was obviously convinced that úpgodu had brought him to this place to be domne.  Nothing could shake her belief.
            Marty had read his share of science fiction in college.  Not as much as his computer science major friend, Rob, who had rows and rows of paperback space adventures on his bookshelves, but he had read some.  The more Marty talked with the girl, the more he imagined himself as the cover illustration of one of those books: a twenty-first century man falls into a wormhole and finds himself in medieval England.  Beyond the fallen walls of the building around them, the countryside looked much like Oregon, but it might just as well be Northhamptonshire in England, where his grandmother grew up.  The thought made him laugh.  The girl raised her eyebrows questioningly.  “I don’t suppose you’ve heard of Mark Twain,” he said.  A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court?”  The girl frowned slightly, and Marty refocused on the task of learning words.
            According to Ora, the place was a castle (castel), though it hardly looked like one.  It was certainly a ruin, but more like the remains of an English manor house than anything built for warfare.  The floor plan was a T, a main hall lying north-south with east and west wings at the northern end.  Marty and Ora walked the length of the main hall, stopping to look into an open pit where the floor under the grass had caved in.  Underground corridors led away from the pit in two directions, and it looked as if a third had been blocked by the cave-in.  How big was this place?  There’s at least one level below the main floor, and the height of the north wall would indicate an upper storey, maybe two.
            Outside the castle, vegetation grew profusely.  Knee-high grass, oak trees, flowering vines, old apple trees, and overgrown shrubbery—again, the impression was of a deserted manor.  Grandma Edith would point out how it’s not like England, but it looks like an old house to me.  It must have been beautiful in its day.
            Judging by the sun, it was noon.  Marty motioned by touching his stomach.  “Do you have any food?”
            Fodder?”  Ora shook her head.  Óu hyngre.  Ic hyngre.”  A thought came to her and she beckoned Marty to follow.  On the east side of the castle grounds were rows of untended, overgrown blueberry bushes.  Birds had eaten most of the fruit, but Marty and Ora found some berries in the dense interiors of the bushes.
            Cume.”  Ora had found a path that led into a wood east of the castle.  Though overgrown, the path was easy to follow; it might have been paved at one time.  Fifteen minutes of hiking brought them to the top of a small ridge.  Behind them, between fir branches and over the tops of alder trees, Marty could see parts of the manor grounds.
            Cume.” Ora wanted him to follow.
            “Okay, Okay.”  Turning, Marty came around a particularly broad tree and the view opened to the east.  The slope of the ridge ran down to the shore of a vast lake; the north, south, and east shores were too distant to see.
            East mere,” said Ora.
            “My God,” said Marty.  “It could be Lake Michigan.”  Except that Lake Michigan would likely have snow on the shore in November; the forest here felt like summer.  Then he saw something else.  Hanging above the eastern horizon, faint in the light of day but clearly discernable, he saw two moons.  “But I’m pretty sure it’s not.”          
            Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Castles 99

99. In Down’s End

            The Dog of the Downs charged considerably less for rooms than Freeman’s House.  Amicia understood perfectly well why Kenelm Ash had relocated her to the Dog after Milo went to Stonebridge.  They had to make their money last.  More precisely: Amicia had to be married—in a union that would gain an ally for Aylwin, no less—before the golds were spent.  She was in a vice, and she could feel the pressure growing.
            Two days before, Eulard Barnet had taken her to a carpentry shop.  Neither Ash nor Barnet had asked her opinion.  She was to spend the afternoon with Alderman Barnet, ostensibly to learn something of his business.  She had to feign interest in carpentry, though the real purpose of the excursion was to put her on display.  Amicia had protested.  “By the gods, Kenelm!  What’s the point?  I need to marry an alderman, not some weaver or carpenter!”
            Ash had slapped her, hard.  The blow threw her to the floor.  “Damn you, girl!  Don’t you think I know that?  This was Barnet’s idea.”
            Amicia tried to quell her tears.  “I thought he was interested.”
            Ash extended a hand to help her up.  His green eyes showed tenderness out of keeping with his anger.  “He is, damn it.  But Barnet wants all the men he does business with to tell him how lucky he is to marry a noblewoman.”
            “Would they say that?”
            “No, but he will read it in their eyes.  This is important, Amicia.  You must impress these men.”
            And so—in the carpentry shop Amicia made herself express interest in the way a skilled craftsman could bond woods of contrasting colors into a single block.  The carpenter smoothed a gluey paste between boards of walnut and oak, and then squeezed the boards with clamps until the excess glue beaded out.  He explained that when the glue had dried the boards would be inseparable, as if they were a single piece of wood—like a man and his wife.  Eulard Barnet had laughed and touched Amicia’s shoulder.  Amicia felt her heart dying within her, but she had laughed prettily.
            Examining her reflection in a mirror—a very poor mirror compared with those in Hyacintho Flumen—Amicia asked the girl who looked back at her, “What will you look like in a year or two, after you’ve been clamped to a man?”  Her face had changed since Kenelm Ash brought her to Down’s End.  The shoulder length brown hair was the same, but the black eyes had seemed to retreat into their sockets.  She felt a pinch of pain in her abdomen.  In the last year she had come to recognize this as a sign her flow would start in a day or two.  She smiled bitterly.  Most likely, in two years I’ll look like a mother, whatever that looks like.  But Kenelm has yet to decide who the father will be.

            Amicia dressed carefully for sup.  She and Kenelm were to be guests yet again at Eulard Barnet’s house.  But this time, instead of riding horseback to Alderman’s Row, Barnet was sending a carriage to fetch her from the Dog of the Downs—a special occasion.  Amicia wore a green kirtle with elbow length sleeves, pale green hose, and a prized possession: a pair of white gloves.  A long winter coat would provide warmth until she reached Barnet’s house.
            The gloves made Amicia’s hands look elegant, thin and precise.  They reminded her of her mother, who had worn similar gloves on important occasions, such as when Erline Toeni brought Edita to Hyacintho Flumen to negotiate Edita’s marriage to one of Amicia’s brothers.  Lucia Mortane had welcomed the visitors at the high table, sitting in Lord Hereward’s place.  Lady Lucia wore gloves throughout the sup, and to Amicia’s mind, the gloves symbolized the elegance Lucia showed in speech and behavior.  Aylwin had been present, but Lucia negotiated the terms of the marriage.
Amicia wondered what Lucia Le Grant (her mother’s name before she married Hereward Mortane) thought when she first arrived at Hyacintho Flumen.  Lucia had never met Lord Mortane before that day, though they had been introduced via castle magic, she standing at her father’s side in Saltas Semitas, the home of the Le Grants.  Saltas Semitas was far to the north, lost in the vast expanses of the Great Downs.  Hyacintho Flumen had the river, the sea harbor, hills and valleys, and a bustling town; it must have seemed very different to Lucia.
 Amicia’s mind drifted to her sister-in-law, Edita.  In contrast to Hereward and Lucia, Aylwin and Edita hadn’t even seen each other before the Toeni women came to Hyacintho Flumen, since Amicia’s ailing father could not command Videns-Loquitur. 
            Remembering Edita brought a frown.  At one time, Amicia had wondered: Why did Mother make Aylwin marry a cripple?  And why did he agree to it?  It hadn’t taken long for her to see the role Juliana Ingdaughter played in the alliance between house Toeni and house Mortane.  Amicia felt a surge of sympathy for Edita.  Like her mother and like Amicia herself, Edita had been a marriage pawn.  But at least Edita and Mother live as nobles in a castle.  I will be the wife of a fat old banker or weaver.  Or worse: a tanner oozing with the smell of sheep dung.

            Besides Kenelm and Amicia, the Barnets (father and daughter) welcomed Todwin and Esile Ansquetil to their house, along with sheriff Wies Egnenulf and two other couples, friends of Ada Barnet.  It was a decidedly youthful party.  Eulard Barnet and Todwin Ansquetil were in their forties, but no one else was older than 25 (the horse-faced Esile Ansquetil being twenty years younger than her husband).  After sup came dancing to the music of a lute.  Ada led the way, dancing with first with her father and then every other man except Todwin Ansquetil, who politely declined.  Amicia danced rounds with Ada’s friends Herve Hain and Njal Rainer and once with Kenelm, but after that she retreated to a chair by the wall.  Eulard Barnet brought her a glass of wine and sat next to her.  Amicia sipped her wine very sparingly; it was almost bitter, not at all like the pear wine in Freeman’s House.  Ada Barnet danced on and on.
The banker rested his hand on Amicia’s left forearm, almost absentmindedly, as if reassuring himself she was there.  The lute player had started yet another song when Todwin and Esile Ansquetil walked over to Eulard and Amicia.  The banker stood up and Amicia did as well.  “I’m done in,” said Ansquetil.  He made a little bow to Amicia.  “Time for home.”
            Esile Ansquetil leaned close to kiss Amicia’s cheek.  “Next party will be at our house,” she whispered.  “We’ll get a chance to talk.”
            Still the dancing went on, even after the Ansquetils departed.  Barnet sat next to Amicia for two more songs.  He squeezed her arm, and Amicia turned to hear what he wanted to say.  But instead of speaking Barnet winked at her, stood up, and circled the room to sit by Kenelm Ash.  The lute player and the dancers obscured Amicia’s view of the two men, but she had little doubt as to the object of their whispering.  Amicia decided the bitter wine fit the occasion precisely; she should always remember this night by this taste.
At last Ada took pity on the lute player, whose fingers must have felt raw, and paid him for his work.  Herve Hain and Njal Rainer held the door for their dancing partners, Claire Bruce and Gunnara Durand, and they exited to the covered drive, where they climbed into Barnet’s carriage for a ride home.  When the carriage returned, it would bear Amicia and Kenelm back to the Dog of the Downs. 
Wies Engenulf took his leave with a dramatic bow to Alderman Barnet.  Ada let him kiss her goodnight at the door, but once he had departed Ada crossed the room to her father wearing a broad smile and shaking her head.
“Finally had enough?” Eulard asked his daughter.
Ada laughed and sighed.  “Aye.  Wies dances so beautifully.  If he had half the brains of Sir Kenelm here, I’d marry him on the spot.”  Ada inclined her head to Kenelm Ash.  “As it is, I must stop encouraging him.”  Ada swayed on her feet.  “I’m tired, and I believe I’ve had too much to drink.”
“To bed with you then.”
“Aye, Father.  But first!  Have you finally come to terms?”  She smiled broadly at Amicia.  “Surely she’s pretty enough!”
Amicia felt her face turn red.  She looked at the floor for what seemed like an embarrassingly long time.
Barnet touched Amicia’s chin, pulling her gaze to him.  “She’s more than pretty.  But whether we have come to terms is not for me to say.”

In Barnet’s carriage Amicia asked silent questions with her eyes, but Kenelm refused to answer.  Instead, he insisted on asking her stupid questions, comparing the dancing abilities of Herve Hain, Wies Engenulf, Njal Rainer, and Alderman Barnet.  Amicia brushed the questions aside, feeling a volcano of frustration growing in her.  But before the volcano could erupt, Kenelm pointed his finger at her and then slowly raised it until it pointed behind his ear to the front of the carriage.  Amicia realized that she could hear the carriage driver’s commands to his horses.  And if she could hear the driver…  Amicia let out a long sigh and began answering Kenelm’s questions.

Behind shut doors in The Dog of the Downs, Kenelm explained Barnet’s terms.  He and Amicia would marry in early spring.  Before then, Alderman Barnet would ask the Council of Down’s End to formally consider an alliance with Lord Aylwin Mortane.  Alderman Barnet would speak in favor of the alliance.  Barnet promised to support the proposal at every appropriate opportunity.  Amicia could keep as her own the golds Kenelm still held from Aylwin, and Barnet would supply her with a yearly allowance for her own expenses.  If and when Amicia bore Barnet a son, and if Barnet were to suffer ill health, Amicia and not Ada would be regent of Barnet’s estate until the heir came of age.
“He makes a few speeches—that’s all?”
            “Almost.  Raymond and I will return to Hyacintho Flumen.  Barnet is confident the Council will send Down’s End men with me.  The Down’s End Council must evaluate the siege for itself.  If we are to help your brother, you must spur Barnet to keep pressing the Council for action, and I and their men must bring back an encouraging report.”  Kenelm chewed his lip.  “It’s not good, but I fear it’s the best we can do.  In the morning you must give me your decision and I will tell Barnet.”
            As usual, Kenelm and Raymond Travers occupied the room adjacent to Amicia’s.  She knew that the knight and squire took turns standing guard outside her door through the night.  This night, after she folded away her clothes and the white gloves that reminded her of Lucia, Amicia lay in bed without sleep for two hours.  The vise was too tight.  She could feel it physically, a band of pressure on her chest.  Opposing the vise was an internal fire that burned hotter and hotter, but the fire did not diminish the pressure.  Finally she rose, opened the door, and stepped into the dark hallway.  Raymond Travers was at her side immediately.
            “My lady?”
            Amicia’s knees gave way.  She sank to a sitting position, with her back against the wall.  The squire sat beside her and put an arm around her shoulders.  She wanted to say something, but the words she wanted to say became great racking sobs.  The sound soon brought Kenelm from his room.  The soldiers helped her back into her room and shut the door.  She sat on the floor with her escorts on either side of her and wept for the life she had lost.  Amicia did not remember them putting her to bed. 
In the morning she felt cold, even under her blankets.  In despair she was ready to give Kenelm the only possible answer.  She poured cold water into a basin, wet a cloth, and washed her face.  She wrapped a cloak around her and opened the door.  To her surprise, there were three men in the corridor, waiting for her.
The newcomer bowed before Kenelm could introduce him.  He was medium height, with curly black hair and black eyes in a round face.  “My lady Amicia, my name is Felix Abrecan.  I bring you greetings from your brother, the Lord Commander Milo Mortane of the Stonebridge Guard.  Commander Mortane greatly desires that you come with me to Stonebridge to see him.”

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

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Castles 98

98. In the Town Hyacintho Flumen

            “Help me weight down the corners, would you, Bully?  Use the stones by the wall there.  One on each corner.”
            “I don’t understand.  It’s the best vellum; it will lie flat enough, and it has already been stretched and cut square.”
            “All the more reason to hold it still while I’m working.  Eadred Unes paid two golds for this bit of calfskin.  He won’t want his one-handed copyist to smear the ink.  And I want to keep my columns straight.”
            “As you wish, my lady.”  Bully inclined his head deferentially, but Edita heard the playfulness in his voice.  She stuck out her tongue at him.  Before he could react, she dipped her quill into the inkpot, which disallowed interference; the parchment was too valuable an object to risk smudging.
            Bully weighted the parchment corners as requested.  Edita leaned forward, tucking her lifeless left arm between her torso and the table, careful to avoid actual contact with the vellum.  Her right arm wielded the quill in careful, unhurried strokes.  The parchment already bore a heading in large letters inscribed by Eadred:  

Honoratus Dominus Mortane:
 Haec historia hidgield est vera et accurata in Hyacintho Flumen colligitur.

            Below the heading, Edita copied words onto the calfskin in much smaller letters.  She referred repeatedly to a sheet of paper lying nearby, one of several such papers, each one covered with Eadred Unes’s handwriting.  She arranged the words in vertical columns.
            As a boy, Bully had learned the marks one used to write numbers: V, L, C, D, M, and I.  He knew the shapes were also letters, but the sounds of letters were mysteries to him; greater still was the mystery of joining letters into words, so the clusters of ink marks in Edita’s columns meant little to him.  But then he saw that some of Edita’s “words” looked familiar.  He pointed without touching the parchment.  “These are numbers, aren’t they?”  But his unspoken question was, What does it say?
            Edita looked past Bully’s shoulder.  “Shut the door.” 
            He nodded, acknowledging the import of her words.  Eadred Unes and General Ridere insisted that none of Edita’s copying should be left overnight in her apartment; they clearly wanted army documents kept secret.  But to read a manuscript aloud would be practically an invitation to unwelcome ears.  Bully stepped through the door, saw Godiva Cooper alone in her kitchen kneading bread, and then closed the door.  He came to Edita’s side.
            “The words here are in the language of the gods.”  She whispered, pointing at the large letters.  “Arthur the old will read them and translate for Aylwin.  In the common tongue they say: ‘Honorable Lord Mortane, this is a true and precise account of hidgield collected in Hyacintho Flumen.’”
            Edita touched her quill to one of Eadred Unes’s notes.  “The coming of the Herminian army stopped hidgield payments to Aylwin.  Eadred made records of all hidgield collected since the siege began.  I am putting all the information onto one parchment.  In this column I write names: Ucede Night and his wife, Godgyth Night; the brothers, Forthere Mare and Gyric Mare; and so on.  Here I copy whatever Eadred wrote about the man or woman’s occupation: farmer, merchant, tanner, silversmith—though in some cases Eadred’s note does not say.  And here I write the amount of hidgield paid and whether it was coin or in kind.”
            “You must teach me to read.”  Bully’s eyes roved the parchment.  “This is why Ridere ordered Danbeney Norman to prepare another white flag.”
            Edita laid down the quill and flexed her hand to relieve a cramp.  “It seems so.  The general will show Aylwin how much he loses by refusing Queen Mariel.  All the goods he might have had are in Herminian hands.”
            “All the goods?  In that case the parchment needs to be much bigger.”
            She looked at the stack of papers.  “I think not.  Eadred measured the vellum carefully.”
            “That’s not what I meant.”  Bully caught her right hand and pulled her up from her chair.  “Lord Aylwin is a fool. He doesn’t recognize the greatest good he has lost to Herminian hands, and he would not understand if we sent him a hundred parchments.”  He lifted her chin and kissed her.
            The creation of a fine parchment was a laborious business, much slower than Edita’s usual work.  When copying Eadred Unes’s ordinary records, legibility was all that mattered.  General Ridere merely wanted a readable duplicate of all the communications he sent to Herminia, so it did not matter if Edita made an occasional error.  She could simply draw a line through the mistake and resume the document.  Contrariwise, the parchment prepared for Aylwin had to be perfect.
            Ordinarily, Bully would take documents to Edita in the morning for copying and then go about his normal business of serving Eudes Ridere.  At the end of the day he or some other soldier would carry Edita’s work back to the Rose Petal.  But today he had been commanded to stand guard for the writing of the parchment.  It was hard duty to merely watch.
            Edita would write a name or two, an occupation, or a hidgield amount, then straighten up and take a deep breath.  She wanted the ink of one line to dry before she entered another beneath it.  Bully realized there was no use hurrying the process, and he dared not interrupt her concentration.  He defeated monotony with repeated visits to Wigmund Cooper’s workshop.  The barrel maker even allowed Bully to use a hand plane on some of his wood.  Master Cooper explained that this particular oak was inferior stock, so from it he intended to make a dry-goods barrel.  Bully’s lack of experience with a plane wouldn’t harm the finished product.  “Your stroke must be a good bit smoother before I let you work the staves for a beer barrel!”
            By sundown Edita had finished the parchment.  Quality vellum could be rolled or folded without damage, but Eadred had told his copyist to take no chances.  When the ink had dried, Bully slipped the parchment into a square leather sheath large enough that the vellum could lie flat.  The papers bearing Eadred’s hidgield notes went into a smaller leather pouch which had a long strap that went over Bully’s shoulder.  With the parchment sheath under his left arm, Bully could offer his right arm to Edita as they walked to the Rose Petal.  With Bully on her bad side and a sturdy cane in her right hand, Edita could walk securely and with reasonable speed.
            In Rose Petal Edita ate at General Ridere’s long table, usually next to one or more of the young knights—in reality, hostages kept to help guarantee their fathers’ loyalty—at the foot of the table.  Her brother Gifre was one of these, with the result that often Edita was able to talk with him.  As a squire, Bully sat near the wall behind the general when he wasn’t fetching things Ridere might request.  When sup ended, the knights and commanders began dressing in winter coats, saluting the general before taking their leave.  Some would spend the night in rented rooms in the town; others would sleep on the ground near watch fires.  Edita waited.  Ridere usually signaled Bully when he was free to escort her to the Coopers’ house.  But tonight the general seemed to forget.  Bowls and breadboards had been cleared away and most of the company had left when Ridere motioned to Edita.  “Come sit by me, Lady Edita, if you would.”
             Edita rose, and Gifre hastened to assist her.  “My Lord General, it would be better if I were addressed as Edita Freewoman.  The ending of my marriage has released me from noble status.”  She eased into a chair next to Ridere, and Gifre stood at her side.
            The thin mouth under Ridere’s beaked nose broke into a smile.  “Bully reminds me of this almost daily.  It’s almost as if he has a plan.”  Ridere crooked a finger at his squire.  “Let me see the parchment.”
            Bully retrieved the vellum document from its sheath and spread it on the table before the general.  Alan Turchil, the soldier from Tutum Partum who had become one of Ridere’s trusted commanders, stood beside Ridere.  The general leaned forward.  “Eadred!”
            “My Lord General?”  The scribe had disappeared from the room a few minutes earlier; he emerged from the corridor to Rose Petal bedrooms, one of which served as his copy room, with another sheathed document. 
            Ridere gestured.  “This is Lady… Here is the freewoman’s result.  What do you think?”
            Unes bent forward with a hand on the table, not touching the vellum.  His owl eyes blinked.  “It’s excellent work, my Lord.  You are to be congratulated, Lady Edita.”
            Edita inclined her head.  “Master Unes, please…”
            Unes raised a hand to interrupt.  “Very well.  Edita Freewoman, then.  Clean lines, consistent shapes; it is well lettered indeed.  Did you copy all the notes?”
            “Aye.  Some of the names had no occupation, so I left space in the second column blank.”
            Unes nodded.  “Very good.  My Lord General, it is ready.”
            Ridere tapped the table lightly.  “We’ll send it to Aylwin, then, under flag of truce.  Now, Eadred, let’s see what you’ve made.”
            Bully returned the hidgield document to its sheath, and then Unes spread another calfskin on the table.  It was a map of the territory around Hyacintho Flumen.
            Small, yet remarkably accurate drawings of buildings dotted the map.  In the center stood the castle.  To the west were the stable, the castle barns, and the washerwoman’s cottage.  Farmhouses and barns hugged the rim road, which ran around the castle property on the north, west and south sides.  The Blue River sliced through the map just east of the castle hill.  The map showed the bridge over the Blue River and tiny words marked the uses of castle land: orchards, grain fields, a vineyard, pastures, gardens, and a potato field.  Little swords representing Herminian checkpoints indicated the presence of the besiegers east of the river and along the rim road.
            Ridere studied the map a long while.  Then he turned to Edita.  “What do you think, Edita Freewoman?  You have seen this whole country many times from the windows of Hyacintho Flumen.  Is it accurate?  Is it complete?”
            Edita leaned over the map in much the way she had when writing the hidgield document.  “Not quite complete.  There are roses by the washerwoman’s house, here.  And though the snow covers it in winter, there is a shallow slough that runs through these fields.”  She indicated the land south of the castle.  “In the spring, water may run a foot deep, but in late summer it is dry and they plant vegetables.  One day shortly after I arrived in Hyacintho Flumen, Aylwin found me standing at a window and told me about it.  I suppose he was trying to make me feel at home.” 
            “My Lord General, that’s it!”  Bully was suddenly excited.
            Black eyebrows arched.  “What?”
            “Here’s the house where the raiders started.”  Bully pointed at features of Unes’s map as he talked.  “They drove the cows from this barn along the road to about here.  Ansger, Simun and the cows burned here.”
            Ridere nodded.  “Very clear.  It’s an excellent map.”
            “Roalt Valerin escaped the shield by lying still in some depression.  Somehow the shield passed over him.”
            “It has happened before.  That’s why I told the raiders not to move.”
            “He must have been sheltered in the slough.”
            “It’s possible.” 
            “And the slough leads to the river.  A man could escape that way.  He could swim under the shield.”  Ridere did not look at Bully.  Instead he watched Turchil and Unes react to the squire’s idea.  Bully responded to the skepticism on Eadred Unes’s face.  “Well, that is, if the shield doesn’t reach into the water.”
            Unes said, “That’s not the problem.  We might try your idea in summer, Bully, but not in winter.  The river would kill a man in minutes.  No one can survive water that cold.”
            To Bully’s surprise, Commander Turchil disagreed with Unes.  “That’s not true.  My Lord General, Bully’s plan could work.”
Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.