104. In Castle Hyacintho Flumen
Aylwin reached across the bed and touched Juliana’s back. She slept naked on her side with only golden tresses adorning her form. Not that he could see color; the room was too dark. Without waking her, his finger softly traced the arch of her back. Desire aroused itself, and he laid his hand on her hip. “Mm…” Juliana turned sleepily. “Again?”
A knock sounded through the bedroom door. Instantly, the room’s lights brightened. Aylwin leapt from the bed and snatched up a cloak. “Enter! Report!”
The door slid open, revealing Dag Daegmund. “Raiders again, my lord.”
“Are you sure?” Aylwin was already running, barefoot and clothed only in the cloak.
“Too dark to be positive, my lord. It seems they choose the darkest of nights.” Dag followed at his heels as they ran the corridor to the great hall. Hyacintho Flumen’s lights sprang to full intensity before them. Aylwin sprinted to the lord’s knob, losing grip on his cloak in the process. Behind him, a woman’s voice shouted something unintelligible, and Dag responded with an impatient command. Aylwin ignored them. He bonded, and orange light glowed between the interlaced fingers of his hands.
Silently he commanded, “See!” He stared impatiently at the great window. It showed only blackness. It’s not working! Damn! No. There it is. One of the enemy’s watch fires. “Closer!” The image of the fire enlarged, and Aylwin could count the soldiers, six of them. He willed the focus to move, slowly panning right. A second watch fire, then a third came into view. Nearer the castle, the enemy’s firelight reflected dimly on the sides of Hyacintho Flumen stables and barns.
“All I see is watch fires and my own property. Do you see anything?”
Dag stood respectfully to his side. “No, my lord. But one of our men signaled us. They carry fire strikers. Sparks are easily seen in this dark.”
“What do you think? Are the Herminian bastards out there?”
Dag considered his reply. “Aye, my lord. I feel it. They are there.”
“Very well. I’m going to throw down both shields. Take thirty men and plenty of torches. If there are raiders inside the near shield I want them found and destroyed.”
“As you command, Lord Aylwin. How long will we have?”
“I can hold both shields for two hours if I have to. Sweep the grounds around the barns as quickly as you can. Then I will draw the wider shield back; if there are raiders between the shields, we’ll get them in between.”
At his side, Dag bowed. “May I suggest clothing, my lord? Diera has brought a tunic and leggings. Or, if you prefer to fight naked, I can command that people stay out of the hall.”
Aylwin laughed aloud and released the knob. “Wouldn’t that make a tale? The lord who defends his castle in the raw.” He found clothes lying neatly on the floor a few yards away and dressed quickly. “Diera!”
The serving woman stepped into the great hall. She had concealed herself in a closet. “My lord?”
“Fetch food and wine. I want a bite before I labor. Then wake up Arthur and get him here. Food and drink first.”
“Aye, my lord.” Diera fled to the kitchen.
Aylwin sat to pull on leggings and looked up at Dag. “Make sure our men are inside the smaller shield. I can’t afford to burn some fool just because he’s in the wrong place.”
“Aye, my lord. I will signal the men presently. When shall we begin?”
“As soon as I’ve eaten. The Herminian bastards like the dark; we’ll fight them in the dark.”
Dag saluted. “Very good. I will signal the scouts and prepare the swordsmen.”
Fighting a battle as lord of Hyacintho Flumen was not what Aylwin had imagined as a child. Once he had established a clear bond and thrown down the shields, there was very little for Aylwin to do. He used the castle “eye” to survey his lands to the west, sweeping back and forth from northwest to southwest. But all the while he was expending energy through the shields, so he could not make the eye focus tightly on any particular object. No doubt the bitch queen knows how hard it is to use two magics at once. So she has her husband attack in the blackest nights. Aylwin dared not take his hands from the knob. The safety of Daegmund’s men might depend on the nearer shield. He and Dag believed the enemy had sent only a few raiders, but prudence required him to be ready for a massed assault. If Aylwin relaxed his guard for even a few minutes, and if Eudes Ridere attacked with a tenth of his host, the Herminians would destroy any of Aylwin’s men outside the castle. Of course, the enemy never knew when the shields would be active. If Ridere gambled and threw a thousand into the fray, Aylwin might slaughter them all. Caution on both sides preserved the status quo.
So Aylwin waited. If only the enemy would show himself—preferably, inside the greater shield, where he would be burned to a cinder when the two shields came together. Aylwin shook his elbows and rolled his shoulders to prevent tension from building in his arms. His hands never left the knob.
Arthur the old arrived; slipper-shod feet moving noiselessly on the polished floor. For a long time Arthur said nothing. Then: “My lord, a suggestion. My old eyes are practically useless in this business. Let us summon young Odo; he might see something others would miss.”
“Fine—if he’s in Hyacintho Flumen. Odo’s been sleeping in the stables recently.”
“He came in with the scouts.” Arthur bowed and slipped away. Soon after, Aylwin heard the slap of boots on the hard floor and excited breathing of the stable boy.
“Welcome, Odo. I would greet you properly, but I am presently occupied.”
The boy stood panting a yard away. “My lord is holding the shields.”
“Aye. And I am watching for signs of the enemy. If we see them, I can move the shields to burn them. You have young eyes, Odo. Watch with me. If you see anything, tell me about it. Don’t be frightened or excited. Just tell me what you see in the great window.”
“Aye, my lord. I can see two fires.”
Aylwin kept his voice calm. “I can see them as well. The damned Herminians wait by their fires all around us. We are looking for enemy soldiers who have come closer than the watch fires.”
“Aye, my lord.”
Aylwin widened the swing of the castle eye, touching all compass points from north to south on the western side. The life-sapping cold of the Blue river ran on the east side of the castle, and Hyacintho Flumen’s barns, houses, and stables dotted the west slope, so there was no point watching the east side. In any case, the circle shields guarded all sides of the castle simultaneously.
Arthur the old returned, silently as ever, and Juliana came with him. She stood close, wearing only a white tunic that clung to her breasts and hips. Aylwin glanced sideways at her for a moment, but pushed the distraction aside, riveting his attention on the window. Juliana nodded and stepped around Odo. “I will stand watch here.” Sometime later—Aylwin didn’t notice when—a servant brought a cloak, and Juliana covered herself with it.
The torches carried by Dag Daegmund’s men appeared in the great window, moving down the road toward the west. The torchlights spread around the stable like honeybees around a mysteriously black flower; then they gathered again to move further down the hill, toward the barns and henhouses. Aylwin had established the smaller shield further on, near the cottage where Juliana used to live; the large shield was about three hundred yards beyond that. Damn the Herminians! Where are they? He rotated his shoulders again. I must not tense. A light touch. Hold the shields longer that way.
Without any warning, a henhouse exploded. The complete lack of sound made the scene surreal. Little bits of flame—chickens—were scurrying all around while the henhouse itself, not a large structure, burned phosphorescently. Beside Aylwin, Arthur murmured, “Liquid fire.”
“Damn!” Aylwin whispered his imprecation, wrestling with despair. “They turn my own weapon against me.” In spite of the shock Aylwin’s hands did not move, and the shields stayed in place.
“My lord, look! We have him!” Odo pointed at the window. “The raider is dressed in black, but Dag’s men have him surrounded. There! He is down! Another one!”
Arthur the old touched Odo’s shoulder. “Are you sure? I see nothing.”
“They are chasing something. See the torches! There!”
A human figure burst into flame. A raider, fleeing Aylwin’s men, had touched the inner shield. The men of Hyacintho Flumen were now clearly visible, standing still lest they touch the shield themselves. It was ghastly, the way the man burned so brightly. Dag’s men spread out north and south, looking for more raiders, careful not to move any further from the castle.
Four of the torches were coming back to the castle. They might be carrying something, or someone. After many minutes the torches neared the castle and passed out of sight of the eye. Dag’s other men were still searching. The tension in Aylwin’s neck was building again. He rotated his shoulders.
Arthur moved close. “My lord, you’ve been holding the shields for more than two hours. If there are Herminians between the shields, it is time to crush them. I will signal Dag to bring his men in.”
Aylwin felt only faint resentment against Arthur’s advice. I will get stronger. The day will come when I can hold shields much longer. “Very well, Arthur. I will draw the outer shield back.”
He was tiring quickly now. Aylwin concentrated, trying to move the outer shield smoothly and slowly. Tension spread from his neck all the way to his lower back. He wanted so badly to see another Herminian burn. Nothing.
Aylwin lifted his hands and stepped back from the lord’s knob. He looked at Arthur. “If they attacked right now, only the castle walls would protect us.”
Arthur motioned to Juliana, who came to Aylwin’s side. Arthur said, “But they will not attack now. For all they know, you are toying with them, inviting them to their deaths. You must eat, drink, and rest. We will see what Dag has found.” Juliana helped Aylwin walk to his place at the high table. He drank red wine diluted with water, and Juliana tore a round loaf of rye bread into small pieces for him.
Half an hour of rest and food worked wonders. After the bread came cold chicken and a wedge of cheese. The tension drained away, and when Lucia came into the hall Aylwin greeted her with a smile.
“Aylwin! They say there was a raid. Why did you not wake me?”
“I was busy, Mother. And at one point I was completely naked, having neglected to dress for battle.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Ask Diera then. Come and sit down, Mother. This may be the last chicken for a very long time, unless you like blackened bird.”
Odo at least laughed at Aylwin’s joke. Before Lucia could reply, a soldier appeared at the door.
“My lord Aylwin, Captain Daegmund has something you should see.” The swordsman saluted. “I’m afraid it’s not fit to bring into the hall.”
Arthur, Juliana, Lucia and Odo accompanied Aylwin to the north door of the great hall. On the landing lay two forms; one the blackened remains of something that might have been a man, the other a young man bleeding from a sword thrust to his abdomen. Juliana looked quickly away from the burned man and doubled over. Odo and Lucia stepped back from the stench. But Arthur held his nose and leaned over the stabbed man. The raider was dressed only in black, and he had soot rubbed on his face. He breathed in short gasps.
Arthur kneeled beside the dying man. “What is this?” He pulled at a bit of cloth. An oozy substance clung to the cloth and the man’s flesh. Arthur leaned close to the raider’s face. “We need to help you, boy. What is this slime on you?”
The wounded man made no reply. A last breath slid out of his lips.
Arthur looked questioningly at Dag.
“Fat,” Dag said. “Thick grease, like you’d see on the axle of a heavy wagon. It’s all over him: back, neck, butt, legs, and stomach. Why would they do that? Rubbing on soot, that makes him dark. But why this?”
Arthur sat back on his heels and shook his head. “I’m sure I don’t know. But it explains why the other burned so bright. He was a walking candle when he touched the shield.”
Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.