Thursday, May 29, 2014

Castles 105

105. At the Siege of Hyacintho Flumen

            “My Lord General!”  Alan Turchil spoke in haste as he entered the Rose Petal conference room.  He slapped his fist to his chest in salute and hurried to an open chair left of Eudes Ridere.  “I’m sorry I’m late.” 
            Bully, standing to the side by the wall, looked from Captain Turchil to General Ridere.  As the general’s squire it was out of place for Bully to speak unless Ridere or one of his captains addressed him, so it was a relief when Galan Hengist spoke the thought of many.  “Never mind late, Alan!  Did they make it?  Report!”
            Ridere’s captains met for council most mornings.  Usually, two or three would be absent, keeping watch with the soldiers on the siege lines.  But today all were present, and most of the hostage knights as well; everyone wanted news of the latest raid.  Turchil milked their attention, passing his gaze around the captains and then turning to Ridere.  The general gave the slightest nod.
            Turchil said, “Three of the five reached the river.  They are safe and making use of hot baths.”
            “Two lost, then?  Who lived?”
            “We lost Kipp Storm and Toland Maxwell.  Shelny Holt, Hugh Norman, and Trace Wynchell made it to the river.”
            List Wadard, heir to Paul Wadard of Beatus Valle and father of Linn Wadard, another hostage knight, spoke from the foot of the table.  “They crossed Blue River in winter?”
            Turchil shook his head.  “No.  The river is too wide, too cold, too swift.  Once they were in the water, they swam with the current downstream.  After they passed the bridge, they fumbled to the shore.  They were pretty cold, I’ll admit.  But it worked.  Men from Rubrum Vulpes helped pull them out.”
            Deman Mowbray, the fourteen-year-old “knight” from Rubrum Vulpes, sat up straighter.  “Those men are due to rotate home soon.  They’ve been on siege duty from the beginning.”
            Turchil nodded acknowledgment to Mowbray.  “At the time it was still dark enough that our raiders might have been missed easily.  At least one of the Rubrum Vulpes men saw what needed to be seen.”
            General Ridere raised a finger.  “Sir Deman, you and I will visit your men this afternoon.  We will congratulate them and thank them for their service.  Requisition a food cart and make sure it is stocked with good beer.”
            Young Mowbray beamed.  “It will be done, my Lord General.”
            Archard Oshelm leaned forward on his elbows, turning his head to face Turchil.  “The liquid fire worked?”
            “Not as we hoped.”  Turchil directed his answer to Ridere as much as Oshelm.  “Each man could only carry what he could conceal, an earthenware jar sealed tight.  Two of the survivors say they placed their jars next to a barn, but the liquid failed to ignite when they broke them.  Another dropped his before they reached their targets; it spilled on the ground and they were afraid to retrieve it.  Mortane’s men captured Maxwell—he was struck down, but not killed, says Hugh Norman—so the enemy may have taken his jar.  Only Kipp Storm actually ignited the fire—on a chicken coop.”
            Oshelm splayed his hands on the tabletop.  “And those are our results?  We burned some chickens?”
            Turchil looked embarrassed, and quiet chuckling spread around the table.  He was too much a soldier to misrepresent the facts.  “Shelny Holt claimed they destroyed scores of birds, but I suspect the number was much less.”
            The laughter increased until Ridere interrupted with another raised finger.  “In a siege, food is food; losing a few chickens may hurt Mortane as much losing as a cow.  In any case, I want him worrying.  Not just him; I want everyone inside Hyacintho Flumen to dread moonless nights.
            “The important lessons of last night’s raid are these.  First, the liquid fire we captured still works, and not just as an experiment far from battle.  Second, men can hide in the slough and make their way to the river.  Third, they can survive the river if they are properly prepared. This gives us the means to harass and intimidate our enemy.  All of you”—Ridere paused and looked round the table—“should be thinking of new ways to harry the castle’s defenders.  It is too much to hope that Mortane would come out for open battle; we would defeat him easily.  He will stay safe inside his walls.  But he must not be allowed to rest.  We will harass him like a swarm of bees stinging a bear.  We will raid again on the next moonless night.  Until then, let us invent other ways to harass him.”
            “My Lord General.”  Aldin Thoncelin, the hostage knight from Ventus in Montes, was a heavy boy with thick white hair and a squeaky voice.  Bully could not remember Thoncelin ever speaking in council unless directly addressed by an officer.  “Please excuse me, but I do not understand.  How did the raiders survive the river?  I once saw a woman pulled from River Loud.  Back home, not far from Ventus in Montes.  It was winter, and the woman died, though she had no injuries and was in the water only a little while.”
            Turchil answered.  “Sir Aldin, have you ever seen a walrus?  No?  I have.  I sailed as cabin boy aboard the Ice Queen when I was your age.  We voyaged to the frozen north shores of Tarquint, where great cakes of ice cover most of the sea and we had to constantly guard the ship lest she be crushed between them.  We saw walruses lying on the shore, as if they were sunning themselves.  The sailors killed one, and I watched them cut it up.  It was a great, round beast, with long white tusks, and under its skin they had to cut through fat thicker than a man’s fist.  I won’t forget it.  Now the water of the northern sea is colder than River Loud in winter, colder than Blue River.  But the walrus swims happily in that sea because of his fat.  It shields him from the cold.
            “I remembered the fat of the walrus, and I asked myself whether we might not shield a man that way.  Each of our raiders wore a thick layer of cow and pig fat between an inner tunic and an outer wrap of black cloth.  It did not work perfectly, but it did work.  They swam in Blue River for half a mile and came out alive.”
            Aldin Thoncelin acknowledged this explanation with repeated dips of his head but did not venture to reply.
            Ridere waited a while, pursing his lips.  “Any other questions?  I remind all of you how important it is that what we say here is kept secret.  Mortane may well have spies in town Hyacintho Flumen.  There are a thousand ways someone in town could signal the castle if he knew our plans.  Be very careful with what you say outside this room.  Dismissed.”
            The captains and knights departed the conference in twos and threes, talking among themselves.  Eadred Unes was scratching away with a quill on paper; otherwise, Ridere was the last to rise from the table, after sitting wordlessly for some time.
            For weeks, Bully had been waiting for the right moment.  As the room emptied, he thought: Maybe now.
            Bully stepped from the wall when Ridere stood up.  Before he could speak, the hall door opened.  Archard Oshelm entered, tightening his belt.  The Rose Petal’s jakes were at the end of the hall.  “Will they listen?”
            “What’s that?”  Ridere seemed distracted; he watched Eadred’s quill.  “Will who listen?”
            “The knights.”  Oshelm gestured at the outer door, closing behind the last of the hostage knights.  “Captains too, but mostly I mean the knights.  You can warn and threaten, but secrets will out.”
Bully spoke up.  “Linn Wadard is eleven, and not terribly bright.  Does he really understand how an unguarded word in town could ruin our next raid?”
             Ridere turned his beaked nose toward Bully and fixed him with his black eyes.  “Good question, Bully.  What do you think?”
            “Sir, it would be awfully easy to say something, without meaning any harm, that would betray some plan.”
            “That’s true.  Go on.”
            Bully frowned, thinking.  “And some of the knights—at least, their fathers—have little loyalty to Queen Mariel.  They might relish the victory of a castle lord over the queen’s army and see in it hope for their own freedom.”
            Archard had crossed to the outer door, where he took a cloak from a peg on the wall.  “My Lord General, your squire has a good deal of sense.  I’m glad we found him that day in Wedmor.” 
            Ridere nodded.  “Indeed.  Bully, answer the question.  Given the officers and knights who gathered here this morning, will our secrets stay safe?”
            “No.”  Bully sucked his teeth.  “Whether by accident or deliberate betrayal, things said in this room will find their way to the town.  And as you say, there are many ways to for townspeople to signal Hyacintho Flumen.  In any case, Lord Mortane will expect a raid of some kind the next moonless night.”
            Ridere looked at Archard Oshelm.  “We need other options, Archard.  Mortane expects night raids now.  What can we do in daylight?”
            Wrapped in his cloak, Archard saluted.  “My lord, you may be asking something impossible.  How can we harass him in daylight?  Even moonlight is enough for Mortane to see and kill.  Nevertheless, I will consider the problem.”  Archard exited.
            Ridere turned to Eadred Unes, who was pushing a stopper into an inkbottle.  “Finished, Eadred?”
            “Aye, my lord.”  Eadred slipped two sheets of paper into a leather pouch.  “These are ready for copying by Edita Freewoman.”  He offered the pouch and Bully reached for it.  Ridere surprised both of them by intercepting it.
            “Good.  It happens that I want a word with Mistress Freewoman, and a bit of a walk would do me good.”
            Bully was taken aback.  “Shall I come too, my lord?”
            Ridere grinned at him.  “You’re my squire, Bully.  What do you think?  By the gods, boy, sometimes you’re cleverer than any of my captains, but sometimes you’re an idiot.”
            “I’m sure that’s true, my lord.”
            Once Bully and Ridere were outside the Rose Petal, the general said, “Would it surprise you, Bully, to learn that Archard was once my squire?”
            “Aye!  I thought…”
            “I’ve been general for twenty years, Bully.  Surely you don’t think you’re my first squire.”
            “No, my lord.  But I wouldn’t have guessed that I knew any of them.”
            The snow crunched under their feet.  Ridere said, “So who will be next?”
            “My lord?  I don’t understand.”
            “Who should be my next squire?  I don’t suppose you’ll want to be sleeping outside my door from now on.  Married men typically want more comfortable beds.  It’s time to make you into a swordsman, or put you on horse as a scout.  You ride well enough.  Maybe a scout.”
            Bully’s mind boggled at the word.  “Married, my lord?”
            They arrived at the rear door to the Cooper’s house.  Ridere laid his hand on the latch.  “That’s what you want, isn’t it?  Truth be told, that’s why I want to see Mistress Freewoman, to ask her if she’ll have you.  But remember, before I give permission, you need to find me a squire.”

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


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