97. At the Siege of Hyacintho Flumen
A single stand with four candles provided all light in the room. Outside the house, heavy clouds blanked the light of the stars and moons. The Lord General shook hands with each of the three men and saluted them, speaking quietly.
“Aylwin Mortane boasts that he can command circle shields. If that is true and he throws down a shield, you must not let it touch you. You may be able to see it, like a faint shimmer in the air. I’ve had men say they could smell it, as if lightning were about to strike. If you see, hear, or smell anything unnatural, don’t move! Stay flat on the ground, in a ditch if you can find one or in the snow. Shields have passed over men without harming them. But if Aylwin senses where you are, he can destroy you.”
The raiders came from Caelestis Arcanus, armsmen of the house Beaumont. Selwin Beaumont, knight of Herminia and son of Lord Osmer Beaumont, stood beside General Ridere as he spoke to them. Bully wondered at the oddities of life and war. Ansger Duranz and the brothers Simun and Roalt Valerin could not be much older than Bully, which meant they were near the age of Aylwin Mortane and Selwin Beaumont. But while Aylwin was the lord of a castle, with magical power and scores or hundreds of armsmen to do his bidding, and Selwin Beaumont would someday become the lord of a castle with similar powers and privileges, the three soldiers faced a great likelihood of death merely because Selwin Beaumont named them as volunteers for the general’s mission. What power of fate makes one youth a lord and another an expendable armsman? Is it the same power that takes an orphan, a vagabond, from the fields of Wedmor to the side of Lord General Ridere? That puts a noble lady into his arms?
The raiders wore black clothing, and they had rubbed soot on their hands, necks and faces. They exited the farmhouse by the western door, which could not be seen from the castle hill even in daylight. An unnecessary precaution, Bully thought; the night was so dark the men disappeared as soon as they stepped from the house. The more likely danger was losing their way in blackness. The farmhouse and its barn stood just west of the ring road, where the road from Hyacintho Flumen joined it. It was the same place Bully had welcomed Edita after the exchange.
The raiders guided themselves like blind men, using thin wooden rods. Even their guide sticks were rubbed with soot so they wouldn’t reflect light. A thin layer of ice coated the snow lying on the ground. At first, Bully thought he heard the tapping of the raiders’ guide sticks on the ice, but he couldn’t be sure. The raiders intended to approach Hyacintho Flumen by means of the road, on compact snow, rather than try the fields; crunching through the ice layer on top of the snow could announce their position.
“What now?” The raiders had hardly gone before Selwin Beaumont asked.
General Ridere made a sour face. Beaumont probably thought he had won some esteem from the general by supplying soldiers for the night mission. In truth, Ridere had allowed Beaumont to accompany his soldiers to the farmhouse mostly as a courtesy.
“We wait. We pray. We hope.” Ridere stepped closer to Selwin Beaumont, bringing his face within inches of the knight’s. “Sir Selwin, it is nearly certain that you and I have sent those boys to their deaths. You will watch with me.” Ridere pulled his coat closer around his neck and led Beaumont through the eastern part of the house to the front porch that faced Hyacintho Flumen. Bully blew out the candles and followed.
From the farmhouse porch Bully could see distant watch fires both north and south. Aylwin on his castle roof can see the noose he’s in, watch fires all the way around except where the Blue River flows. Even on the river, fires line the eastern shore. He looked at Hyacintho Flumen on top of its hill. The castle glowed softly with light not from any particular door or window, but from the whole. Bully whispered to Ridere. “My Lord General, I can see the castle.”
“Aye. All castles shine with interior light, but faintly, so we don’t normally see it. Tonight the clouds hide the moons.”
“The light will help Roalt, Simun, and Ansger, don’t you think?”
Ridere sighed. “We may hope so. Their canes must guide their feet around holes and banks, but it may help to have the general direction marked out for them.”
After a minute of silence Selwin Beaumont said, “Gods, it’s cold.”
Ridere made no reply. Bully heard him breathing, but nothing else. It was cold, but Bully recalled the general’s words: “…sent those boys to their deaths.” Time to move Selwin’s attention onto something other than the temperature, lest he say something truly unfitting. Bully whispered a bit louder, so Beaumont could hear. “How far can castles throw shields, my Lord?”
“As with all magic, Bully, it depends on the lord. Some can’t manage a shield at all; such lords are vulnerable to attack by any army bigger than a band of highwaymen. You’ve probably heard the history of Edmund Giles.”
“No, my Lord. I haven’t.”
“I’m sure Sir Selwin knows the tale. Selwin?”
The young knight coughed. “Aye, my Lord General. Edmund Giles was grandsire of the current lord of Calles Vinum, Godfrey Giles. Edmund confessed to his castle scribe that he could no longer command a shield. The scribe conspired with Edmund’s wife to smother him in his sleep, allowing his brother Eustace to bond with the castle. Lady Vera promptly married Eustace, and Eustace adopted Edmund Giles’s son as his own. Neither the scribe, nor Lady Vera, nor Lord Eustace bore any hatred toward Edmund, but they would not abide a lord unable to defend them.”
Bully blew out an audible breath, but made no comment. General Ridere resumed his answer. “But of course most lords can command shields. Sherard Toeni, the grandfather of your friend Gifre could destroy a platoon of two score men a mile away from Prati Mansum. He threw down two shields, one before and one behind. Then he brought them together, killing all the men I had foolishly exposed.” Bitterness tinged Ridere’s voice.
Selwin Beaumont spoke respectfully. “But you forced Lord Sherard to submit anyway.”
“Aye. I pulled the line back and intensified the siege. King Rudolf paid for ships from Tutum Partum to make sure supplies did not come in by sea. After two years, Sherard had to yield. You will notice that we take care to prevent any riverboats reaching Hyacintho Flumen.”
“And now, Bully, it’s been long enough. Tell the men in the barn that they can build their watch fire now.”
“Aye, my Lord.” Bully descended the four steps in front of the house, and then paused. “My Lord General, did Sherard Toeni ever touch your ships with a circle shield?”
“No. Nor did he contest our blockade with ships of his own.”
An hour later Bully warmed himself by a fire in a ring of stones between house and barn. The armsmen assigned to this portion of the siege line had waited in the barn while General Ridere did whatever he was doing in the house. Naturally, they were curious. On any other night they would have been liable to punishment for leaving their section of the siege unpatrolled and their watch fire unlit. But no one gainsaid an order from the general’s own lips! They had entered the barn at sundown and came out only when Bully released them.
Eventually General Ridere gave Selwin Beaumont leave to join Bully with the armsmen at the watch fire. Every few minutes one of the patrollers would come in from the road, and a man at the fire would take his turn walking the siege line.
“What’s this all about? Sir Selwin?” The soldier who asked looked young, with a smooth unshaven face, red with cold.
Neither Selwin nor Bully replied. Ridere wanted the raiders and their mission kept secret.
“Gods!” The young man swore impatiently and might have said more, but an older soldier raised his hand. “Let it go, boy. The Lord General will have his reasons, and he need not tell us.”
Time passed with only the crackle of fire and the quiet report of each returning patroller: “All quiet. Naught to see.” Bully watched for any movement between the castle, which seemed to float in the distant air, and the fire near at hand. But there was only blackness. He looked toward the farmhouse, where he knew Ridere still watched from the porch; again, nothing. Bully wished the general would come down and warm himself. Eventually he leaned close and whispered to Selwin. “I think we should go back to the general.”
Mounting the farmhouse steps Bully realized he could see Ridere. The light of the castle or some tiny hint of morning outlined the general’s figure. “Should be soon,” the general whispered.
Ridere’s words were hardly spoken when a sound came from the east. Bully and Selwin turned to listen. Lowing: a cow was lowing in the dark. More than one cow; two, no, at least three cows; and they were coming swiftly closer—on the road, Bully reasoned, since the creatures would have been mired by snow and ice in the fields.
Selwin and Bully both saw it, like a silver string falling to the ground. It stretched north and south, curving away east. It touched the snow and disappeared, but above the place where it fell, Bully thought he could see a shimmer, as if the dark itself were rippling in a wind.
Did he imagine it? Afterward, Bully thought he saw the cow just before it ran headlong into the shield. The beast exploded into flame only sixty yards away. Seconds later the other cows also ignited. The poor creatures burned like torches, lighting the space between them and the farmhouse. Beyond the cows, Bully saw three figures throwing themselves into the snow beside the road.
The ripple in the air began retreating. It had to be, because the burning cows became crystal clear; the shield was beyond them.
“Get down. Get down.” General Ridere spoke quietly, oblivious of Bully and Selwin.
A column of fire suddenly erupted where one of the raiders had hidden himself. By its light Bully saw one of the other men spring up and run, trying to save himself from the shield. A few seconds later, he too burst into flame. Bully imagined he saw the ripple moving further away. Several seconds passed.
Ridere bowed his head. “Three cows less food for Hyacintho Flumen. Two men dead. Damn.”
Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.