Thursday, June 26, 2014

Castles 109

109. At Dimlic Aern

            The travelers emerged from the “front gate” onto a stone shelf carved out of the north side of a perpendicular mountain.  The shelf had no parapet, and when the ponderous door swung fully open it reached beyond the edge.  One could not step around the door without falling into the abyss. 
            “Move aside, please.”  The guard who had opened the door motioned them away from the opening.  The visitors squeezed together, dismayingly close to the brink, and their host pushed the door shut.  The door and its jambs were recessed into the mountainside; once it was closed the men were able to move away from the dizzying fall.
            The “narrow valley” indeed!  The south and north sides of the chasm paralleled each other less than a hundred yards apart.  Noonday sunlight brilliantly illuminated the snow-covered upper reaches of the opposite side high above them.  A thousand feet below the bright snow, the gate shelf enjoyed a gray half-light, and sunlight would never reach the valley floor, unless at midsummer it shone straight down.
As a teenager Marty had visited Seattle’s Space Needle and remembered how cars had looked like bugs from the observation deck.  But this is higher, much higher.  I’d guess it’s two thousand feet down to that lake.  The narrow valley extended more than a mile both east and west from the shelf where they stood, and a black line at the bottom indicated run-off water had collected there.  Marty marveled at the smoothness of the vertical rock on both sides.  It’s more like a crack in the mountain than a valley, as if a giant chopped Bradburg with a cleaver. 
            “Welcome, my brothers.  Welcome indeed.  I am Nyle.  You are the first visitors through the south gate in five weeks.”  The gate guard wore an animal skin coat over a plain brown tunic.  Wool leggings tucked into his boots.  Nyle bowed awkwardly and then bent to pick up a heavy timber at least six inches square.  Elfric and Teothic quickly moved to help the guard fit the ends of the wooden beam into grooves chiseled into the mountainside on either side of the door.  With the beam in place, the door from the cave was very effectively barred.
            Eadmar inclined his head in greeting. “Fair afternoon, brother Nyle.  I am Eadmar, from Down’s End.  I have come with these companions bearing greetings from Guthlaf Godcild of that city.  Are you a priest?”
            “God willing, my ordination will come this summer.”
            “Nineteen then, still.  I thought you looked young.”  Eadmar’s blue eyes twinkled.  “Yet you get gate duty alone?  Is there no one to help you?  What if we had been enemies?”  Eadmar looked at Elfric as he spoke, remembering the sheriff’s question about guards.
            “Basil Godcild says solitude will be good for my soul, provided that I use my days wisely.  Enemies?  I am commanded to open the door only for those who give the password.  In a thousand years no enemy of God has found either south or north gate.”
            Eadmar raised his eyebrows in a silent question to Elfric.  Elfric nodded, acknowledging the point.  But he said, “Things change, Priest Eadmar.”
            “Aye, they do.”  Eadmar rubbed his cheeks.  Cold wind was blowing from the mountaintop, and his bald pate looked red.  “Brother Nyle, I introduce brother Teothic, from Down’s End.  He is one of our story keepers.”
            “Well met, Teothic.”  Nyle inclined his head.
            “And these men,” Eadmar continued, “Are not priests.  They are not enemies either, but this one at least has a sword.”  Eadmar indicated Elfric.  “It would probably be best if you took Elfric’s weapon.”
            Nyle’s green eyes went wide.  “Not priests?  But you said the secret name in their hearing!”
            “All will be explained when I present Elfric and Martin to Bishop Basil.”  Eadmar extended a hand.  “Your sword, Elfric.”
            The sheriff sent a questioning glance to Marty, who said, “Eadmar’s right.  I’ll get no answers if they don’t trust us.”
            Elfric unbelted his scabbard and sword and handed them to Nyle.  The guard held the scabbard awkwardly, as if he didn’t know what to do with weapons.  Teothic chuckled and touched the youth’s shoulder.  “Don’t worry, brother.  Just lead us to your bishop.”
            But Nyle was thinking quickly, and he had noted Elfric looking to Marty for direction.  “And this man?”  He pointed the sword, still in its scabbard, at Marty.
            Marty met the young guard’s gaze.  “Fair afternoon to you, Nyle.  My name is Martin.  I am not a priest, but I am a worshiper of God, and I have come to Dimlic Aern to learn from the brothers here.  I carry no weapon.  Beyond that, I should not speak, until I have met Basil Godcild.”
            Nyle scowled.  “I cannot allow this.”
            Eadmar spoke gently.  “You have Elfric’s sword.  You can stay here and guard my friends while I go to the house.  After I have explained my mission, one of the other brothers will come and bring the others in.  Would that be satisfactory?”
            “You know the house?”
            “I was last here thirty years ago, when Basil and I were new priests.  I don’t suppose you’ve moved the house since then.”
            Nyle sighed.  “We are supposed to practice hospitality.  But…”
            Teothic said, “As Elfric says, things change, brother Nyle.  You are the first guard in the history of Dimlic Aern to admit a non-priest.  When this is over, your name will go into a history and the story keepers will learn it.”
            “Flattery is a temptation,” said Nyle, considering Teothic’s words.  “Still, I will accept the old priest’s plan.  I will stay here with you three.  You, Eadmar, can go on to the house.”
            Marty, Teothic and Elfric waited two hours with the young guard before Eadmar returned with another priest.  Treddian looked to be about thirty, a lean and hale man with curly black hair.  He said that Basil Godcild wished to see the newcomers and he told Nyle to come to the house as well.
The path from the front/south gate was clearly the product of human labor.  Carved into the face of the mountain, it was four feet wide or wider and very close to level.  If not for the vertigo-inducing fall on the right, it resembled a city sidewalk as much as anything else.  Across the valley, a similar path had been created, running up at an angle.  Apparently the back gate (or north gate) was higher in the mountain than the one they had entered.
            Marty wondered about the gate left without a doorman.  “If Nyle leaves his post, what if someone comes to the gate?  Without a guard to open the door, would not a visitor be trapped in the mountain?”
            Treddian laughed.  “The day’s light is fading already.  It would be cruel indeed to make a man spend the long night alone on the shelf.  If he were to roll over in his sleep… Oy!  And if he were to open the door and move inside, so as to sleep in safety, then visitors might come upon him with the gate open.
            “Rarely, visitors do come and find themselves barred at the gate.  Then they must choose: wait in the dark or follow the water as Aldigart did so long ago.  At least they would be warm.”
            Elfric asked, “Warm?”
            Eadmar, walking in file between Elfric and Marty, broke into the conversation.  “Before we even came to the gate, back at the water spout, Martin was explaining to me his ideas about the wide mountain.  He has seen such things before, he says.”
            Marty blew out a breath.  How much can I say?  If I talk about Earth do I mark myself as a madman or a devil? 
“This is what I think.  Aldigart came to the wide mountain in winter, and he was saved by hot water.  The region of Bradburg, the wide mountain, has many hot springs.  I imagine that the water in the cave, that is, the front gate, comes from a hot spring, or perhaps more than one.  Remember, Elfric, we walked only on the right side of the water in the cave, and the floor was level.  I do not think that is natural.  I suspect the brothers of Dimlic Aern, by long years of work, have smoothed that walk, just as they cut the path we walk on now.  Obviously, men also cut the mountainside for the door.  But when Aldigart first came, there was no door.  He had to follow the hot water all the way to the source.  I suspect the house of Dimlic Aern is very close to that source.”
“Good guesses, and close to the truth,” said Treddian.  “There are many little hot springs in both caves, the south and north gates.  But you are right that the path must be maintained by human hands.  Otherwise, we would have to crawl in the water as Aldigart and his companions did.  It is possible, still, to follow the water path all the way to Dimlic Aern, but it is a painful squeeze.  Far better to enter the narrow valley by the door and use this path.”
            At the western end of the narrow valley the towering cliffs north and south came together.  In the lee of the mountain the winter afternoon was quickly turning to dark.  Lights appeared ahead of them, yellow lights of oil lamps.  The path on the north side of the valley now joined with the southern path, and they passed under a stone roof.  On either side were openings cut into the rock, windows into rooms, rooms with beds, chairs, and tables.  A thousand years gives lots of time to haul in lumber.
            They came to a wide door recessed into the rock at the western end of the veranda.  Welcoming light shone through the open door, silhouetting a gray-haired man in a black cassock.  “You return, Eadmar.  Is the man with you?”
            “Come in, please.”  The priest ushered the newcomers into the room behind him.  There was a long table, with food set out.  Behind them, Treddian shut the door.  At a gesture from Treddian, the new arrivals laid their travelers’ packs by the north wall.  Another priest, who looked to be about Treddian’s age, about thirty, pulled heavy cloth curtains across the room’s window openings.  Dimlic Aern had no glass for its windows, and the room’s walls, floor and ceiling were stone, but it was not the cold medieval monastery that Marty had imagined.  Bright tapestries decorated the walls, and a large oval carpet lay under the table and chairs.  Oil lamps and candles provided light.  And on the western side of the room, where one might have expected a fireplace, a low brick wall enclosed a steaming pool of water.  Often, but at irregular intervals, boiling water would shoot into the pool through a crack in the mountain.  It would bubble and steam for a few minutes, and then gradually drain away.  Water condensing on the walls ran down into a channel on the floor and out of the room.  Marty thought: It’s like a combination sauna and dining room.  I’d bet the tapestries and carpets need replacing pretty often.
             “Welcome to Dimlic Aern.”  The older priest faced Marty.  His face was deeply lined, especially around his brown eyes.  “I am Basil Godcild.  You’ve met Nyle and Treddian.  The boy is Desmond.  And this is Seaver, our story keeper.”  Marty hadn’t noticed a youth standing in the shadow of a passage leading out of the room; Desmond.  Seaver was the brown-haired priest who had shut the window coverings.  “Nyle, please help Desmond bring drink for our guests.”
            Nyle and Desmond disappeared into the passage.  Basil’s attention remained on Marty.  “Tell me about yourself, Martin.”
            Marty shot a look at Eadmar, whose blank face told him nothing.  No point in hiding anything.  Eadmar will have told all.  “My name is Martin Cedarborne.  I came to Two Moons from a different world, a planet called Earth, by means of castle technology, though people here call it ‘magic.’  After I came to Two Moons, I discovered that the priests of the ‘old god’ worship the same God I worshiped on Earth.  I also discovered that I am lord of the castle Inter Lucus.  I did not intend to become a lord.  I bonded with Inter Lucus completely by accident.”
            Marty sat down on a chair and looked up at Basil’s face.  How many improbable things can a man swallow all at once?  The old priest frowned, pulled a chair close and sat on it.  The soft brown eyes searched Marty’s face.  “Go on.”
            The simple command surprised Marty.  What more do you want?  “That’s about it.  I am a lord of a castle, but I am also a worshiper of God.  I know that in the past, castle lords have sometimes imprisoned or killed people who are loyal to God.  So you may have reason to not trust me.  But what I say is true.”
            Basil pursed his lips.  “I believe you.” 
Marty opened his mouth, and shut it again.  He had expected greater skepticism.
Basil turned his attention for a moment to the others.  “Please, take seats.  Sup is prepared.  Ah!  Here come Desmond and Nyle.”
            Nyle sat at table with the priests and the visitors, making a party of eight.  Desmond, who looked to be about twelve years old, sat on a chair not far from Basil, ready to fetch more food or drink when asked.
            Basil poured white wine into plain earthenware cups and handed one to Marty.  “You still have not told all, Lord Martin.  While we dine, I expect fuller answers.  But first…”
            Basil held up his wine cup as if to make a toast.  Marty and Elfric joined with the priests in mimicking him.  Basil said, “God gives us wine, and sustenance, and love.  Praised be God forever.  Amen.”
            “Amen.  Amen.”

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


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Helpful Reader email

Not Enough Time on Skis

    Ron Mock read Castles 108, looked carefully at the map of Tarquint, and raised an objection: four days on skis would not give Marty, Elfric, Eadmar and Teothic enough time to reach a mountain that must be somewhere near the northeast corner of East Lake.  He's right, and I have three things to say about it.
    First, thank you to Ron.  Critical comments are very often helpful.  I will edit chapter 108 and add more days to Marty's expedition.
    Second, a reminder: Castles is a draft.  Once I've "published" the whole story on this blog, I will revise it before seeking a publisher.
    Third, an invitation to the rest of you: I'm always open to suggestions.  Send me emails ( or use the comment function on Story and Meaning.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Castles 108

108.  Near Dimlic Aern

            “There!  Among the trees on the ridge.  Do you see it?”
            Marty came to a full stop before lifting his eyes from his ski tips to the horizon.  Eight days of cross-country skiing in the forests of Two Moons had taught him repeatedly how easy it is to fall, particularly when carrying a winter pack.  Ahead of them, Teothic and Elfric Ash were already sliding down a gentle slope into yet another narrow valley.  The young priest and the sheriff carried the heavier loads, yet they seemed always to have more energy than Marty and Eadmar.  Marty had lost count of the ridges they had mounted in the rugged country between the lakes.  “I’m sorry, Eadmar.  I see only trees.  No, wait!  Is that smoke?”
            “Not the smoke of a fire,” the priest replied.  “And not the smoke of Bradburg, the wide mountain.  Further on, beyond what we can see here, the mountain itself sends up smoke, some of it poisonous to breathe.  But on this side of Bradburg, it is only water.  Ah!  The water spout!”
            Two hundred yards away a geyser erupted, shooting water almost as high as the trees surrounding it.  Teothic and Elfric stopped at the bottom of the hill to watch.  The eruption lasted about ninety seconds and died away.  In those ninety seconds, Marty surmised much about the wide mountain.
            “Are there other such water spouts in this region?”
            “On earth we call them geysers.  They are rare, but I have seen some.”
            The weathered priest looked at Marty.  “I need to remember that you come from another world.  The water spouts of the wide mountain, all this region”—Eadmar swept his hand to indicate the massive upland into which they had been climbing—“are the only ones in Tarquint.  At least, they are the only ones known among God’s priests.  Long ago, Aldigart Godcild and three brothers came to the wide mountain, fleeing from the devils of Inter Lucus and Eclipsis Lunaris, much as we have come today, in the snows of winter.  They would have starved or frozen, except God gave them shelter.”
            “A hidden place.”
            Eadmar smiled.  “Aye.  Dimlic Aern.”
            They found refuge on a volcano.  “Does the wide mountain throw out more than water and smoke?  Is there any place that emits hot rock, rock that flows like molten glass?”  As far as Marty knew, there was no word in the common speech for “lava.”
            Eadmar seemed puzzled.  “No.  Bradburg has water spouts and poisonous smokes, but no flowing rock.  Is such a thing possible?”
            The wide mountain: the Two Moons version of Yellowstone. “It is, indeed.  On Earth we call it lava.  Earth has many volcanoes, and I suspect Two Moons has them as well.  Perhaps it has been ages since Bradburg spewed out rock, but I believe it is a volcano all the same.  The lava is still there, far beneath the surface.  Water seeps down through the earth until it gathers in some underground cavern where the hot rock turns it into steam.  The steam builds up pressure until it shoots up in a geyser.”
            The priest rubbed his cheek, frowning.  Marty watched the old man struggle with new notions.  How many times can I turn his ideas inside out before he ceases to believe me? Marty pointed at Teothic and Elfric.  “They’re leaving us behind.  We should get on.”
             “Aye.”  Eadmar bent forward over his skis and strode forward; gravity soon pulled him into an easy glide.  Marty followed, and when they reached the bottom they began the laborious climb up the next ridge toward the geyser.  They walked like ducks, spreading the tips of their skis wide, and lifting the tail of each ski over the other.  Both men were breathing heavily when they joined Teothic and Elfric on the edge of a shallow pool of steamy water, no wider than a backyard swimming pool. 
The four companions stood without speech for a time, taking in the geyser pool.  The scalding water of the eruption had mostly drained away already through a narrow creek bed.  The rock of the geyser basin and the nearby channel glistened with reds and greens left by mineral deposits.  Further on, the cooling creek water disappeared under a snow bank.
            “This is Dimlic Aern?” Elfric questioned Eadmar.
            “No.  The water spout tells us we are close, but it is not the actual hiding place.”  Eadmar pointed to a cluster of firs on the opposite side of the geyser pool.  “The gate begins over there.  Be careful.  Don’t get too close to the water spout; the snow bank can crumble.”
            The skiers skirted the pool, staying well back from the snow’s edge.  They came to the trees Eadmar had indicated.  Under the ancient firs, whose branches interlocked above them, little snow reached the ground.  Eadmar untied his skis and used the bindings to lash them together.  “Follow me.”  He tucked the tips of his skis under his arms and started forward, dragging the tails through piled fir needles and bits of fallen bark.  Marty, Elfric, and Teothic mimicked the priest, though Marty wondered at first why Eadmar didn’t carry his skis on his shoulder.  A hundred feet into the fir corridor, the path turned left, sharply uphill, and the branches of the wood were suddenly not twenty feet up but immediately above their heads.  As they climbed, the men had to bend low to scramble under the branches, still pulling their skis and trying to not snag their backpacks.  Soon they were climbing on all fours, on rocks rather than soil, and the rocks were wet.  And then, without warning, there were no branches over them.  They had reached a narrow space, a rocky ledge, between the trees and a sheer rock wall.  The ledge and the rock wall were wet with water trickling down from some place above their heads.  Wind blew cold between the rock mountain and the firs, but the closest branches, long enough to brush against the wet stone, were snowless.  With tall trees crowding against the mountainside, even at mid-day the place was dim as twilight.
            Eadmar laid his bundled skis against the rock face and unstrapped his pack.  “Once I’m up, Teothic, pass all our things up to me.  We’ll store the skis in the gate and carry the packs.  Help me up, will you?”
            Marty, Teothic, and Elfric laid their skis by Eadmar’s.  Teothic and Marty each cupped their hands to make steps, and Eadmar put a booted foot in each.  The old priest wasn’t heavy; Marty and Teothic lifted him to chest height, and then Elfric stepped in to push Eadmar’s feet higher still.  And then he was gone, as if the mountain had swallowed him. 
            A minute later, a rope snaked its way down to them.  Eadmar’s head appeared against the sky above them.  “The rope is secure.  Come on up.”  Teothic handed up four pairs of skis to Eadmar before ascending.  Thick knots segmented the rope and made climbing relatively easy.  They tied Eadmar’s pack to the rope so they could pull it up last.  At the top, Eadmar’s hand helped pull them into a cave.  Water no more than half an inch deep flowed out of the entrance.  When the others had joined him, Eadmar stored the rope in a cleft chiseled into the cave wall.  He picked up his pack.  “Follow me.  We walk in the dark, but the way is easy to follow.  The wall on the right is never more than an arm’s length away, and the water runs on our left.  It’s not deep or dangerous, but if you keep to the dry stone you’re on the true path.”
            Dark indeed.  Marty guessed they walked a half-mile in the cave, and after the first fifty yards the blackness was Stygian.  Marty listened intently to Eadmar’s soft steady footfall ahead of him and reached out to the right wall often. 
            “We call this cave the ‘front gate’ or ‘south gate.’”  Eadmar’s voice, with no visible source and bouncing off unseen stone surfaces, played tricks of direction, as if someone were fiddling with the balance control on a stereo.
            Elfric, immediately behind Marty, asked, “Is there no need for guards?”
            “The brothers at Dimlic Aern are few in number, and they have few weapons.  Our safety depends on secrecy.  Aldigart and the brothers came to Bradburg more than a thousand years ago, and Dimlic Aern was built soon after.  The story keepers say that the devils and lords searched for Dimlic Aern and could not find it.  I wonder about that. Perhaps the devils and lords were not concerned with God’s people so long as they stayed far away in the wild.  Lords, at any rate, could only send sheriffs to search for Dimlic Aern, since lords do not leave their castles.  The gates are well hidden, and Dimlic Aern itself cannot be seen from the few boats that sail the northern end of East Lake.  In fact, unless one comes through one of the gates, the only way to see Dimlic Aern would be to climb through the poison air of Bradburg and look into the narrow valley from above.  As far as we know, Elfric, you are the first of your kind to pass either the front or back gate.”
            “My kind?”
            “You are a sheriff, in service to a castle lord.  Your arrival would no doubt create much consternation at Dimlic Aern on any other occasion.”
            “But not now?”
            Eadmar chuckled.  “I think Lord Martin will have the brothers’ complete attention.”
            The cave was as dark as ever when Eadmar suddenly stopped.  “Ah!  It’s been so long since I came here—thirty years!  I almost doubted my memories.  But here we are.”
            Marty listened carefully, but he heard nothing that might be a clue.  The water on their left whispered its presence—but even that might only be imagination.  “Where is ‘here,’ Eadmar?  And how do you know?  Do you hear something we don’t?”
            “Nothing so mysterious.”  Eadmar’s tone was playful.  “The right hand wall has disappeared.”  Marty, Teothic, and Elfric all reached to the right, though none saw the others’ arms waving.  Eadmar’s feet padded away, and before the others could try to follow, a knock sounded, the priest’s knuckles rapping on something wooden.  “The brother on duty may not hear me,” Eadmar said.  “Come and help.”
            Hands extended into the dark, Eadmar’s companions followed his voice.  In four strides they were touching him and the wooden thing.  “We’ve got to raise the guard.”  Eadmar began slapping the wood with the flat of his hand.  “It can only be opened from the other side.”
            Elfric and Teothic joined Eadmar, pounding on the door.  Then a single muffled “Boom” answered them.  “Stop!” commanded Eadmar.  “They’ve heard us.”
            A dot of light appeared on the stone to their left, no more than three inches across, yet almost painfully bright after an hour in blackness.  It hardly relieved the darkness of the cave, but Marty could see that the light came through a narrow hole in the wooden door.  A voice accompanied the illumination.
            Gratias agimus Deo…
            Eadmar stepped close to the hole.  “…et Patri Domini nostri Jesu Christi.
            Benedictus Deus.
            The light dot disappeared.  Whoever was on the other side had covered the hole.  Then the door, a massive thing made of pine panels five inches thick, swung ponderously away from them.  The new arrivals walked into the full light of day, blinking often as their eyes adjusted.
            “My God.”  Marty couldn’t help himself.
            “The narrow valley,” said Eadmar.

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


Thursday, June 12, 2014

Castles 107

107. In the Bread and Brew

            Ody Dans and Lunden Ware stood to acknowledge Amicia, bowing formally.  There followed some shuffling of chairs, ordering of drinks, and seating of the newcomers.  Amicia and Derian took seats on either side of Milo in the booth, with the bankers facing them across teacups, mugs of hot cider, and glasses of beer.  Amicia had honey wafers and tea.  Felix Abrecan positioned himself on a chair several feet away to prevent strangers from wandering close to the conference.
            Dans lifted a fresh cup of tea, but set it down without sipping.  The watery blue eyes lingered on Amicia.  Milo followed the gaze and realized how quickly Amicia was becoming a woman.
            Don’t worry, little Toadface.  You don’t know the danger of this man, but he will never touch you.  Milo said, “Tea too hot, Master Dans?” 
            “Aye.”  Dans looked at Milo.  “As it cools, though, there will come a moment when it is perfect—aroma, flavor, and temperature all just as they should be.  As I wait for that pleasure, I can fill my time with another: gazing on your sister’s beauty.”
            Lunden Ware almost choked.  “Hm!  Beauty is a fine thing, but Commander Mortane introduced the lady as an ambassador for Hyacintho Flumen.  Is that true, Lady Amicia?”
            “It is.”  Amicia met Ware’s scrutiny steadily.  “I represent my brother, Lord Aylwin.  You undoubtedly know that a Herminian army, ten thousand strong, besieges my brother’s castle.  I visited Down’s End, and now I come to Stonebridge, to seek allies in our war against the invader.”
            “Allies?” Skepticism tinged Ware’s voice.  “Not vassals?”
            Amicia had practiced her response to this issue.  “We must speak realistically, Master Ware.  Long ago, castle lords, including my distant ancestors, claimed sovereignty over wide areas of Tarquint.  But for many generations Stonebridge, Cippenham, and Down’s End have been free cities in every sense of the word.  My brother seeks friendship with the cities, not dominion.”
            Amicia paused to nibble a honey wafer and sip tea.  Milo admired her aplomb.  Toadface has become a lady.
            Amicia continued, “No one believes that Mariel will be content to conquer Hyacintho Flumen only.  Quite likely, she started with us because of our convenient harbor, sheltered and free of ice all year.  Even in winter Herminian ships arrive almost daily, bringing armsmen, weapons, and supplies.  After Hyacintho Flumen, the invader will march north to Down’s End; after that, east to Cippenham or west to Stonebridge.”
            “You seem to know much of what goes on in Mariel’s mind,” Ware objected.
            “Do I?”  Amicia picked up another honey wafer, but instead of eating she pointed it first at Ware and then at Dans.  “You know better than I do how Mariel’s father subdued the lords of Herminia.  Now her army is in Tarquint, besieging Hyacintho Flumen.  That much is undeniable.  Perhaps Mariel intends only to conquer Hyacintho Flumen.  Possible—but do you really think so?  As assemblymen of Stonebridge, dare you assume the enemy won’t come here?  Prudence must direct you to prepare to fight the invader.  You may, of course, wait to see if Aylwin can repel ten thousand men by himself.  The Herminians won’t march on Stonebridge with Aylwin unconquered, and that may take a year or two.  And it seems likely that Down’s End would be their next objective.  Who knows?  It may be years before they come to Stonebridge.”  Amicia paused, set aside her wafer and sipped tea.  “So—you might choose to wait and wait and wait.  Will you?”
Ody Dans coughed politely.  “Lady Amicia, you present the situation very clearly, at least as you see it.  I understand that you have made similar appeals in Down’s End.  May I ask how your entreaties were received?”
The banker’s bland face masked his intense attention to Amicia’s reaction.  Milo wondered how much Dans had guessed about Amicia’s mission.  He has ways of gathering information.  He probably knows about Eulard Barnet.
Amicia surprised Dans.  “Not well.”  She tossed her hair impatiently.  “One of the aldermen promised to propose raising an army—but only if I would marry him!  What impudence!  As if I didn’t know that a proposal to raise an army could be easily rejected by the Down’s End Council!  It’s not my ambition to birth an heir to some moneylender or an ancient member of the weaver’s guild while Hyacintho Flumen is starved to submission.
“Down’s End will undoubtedly send scouts to reconnoiter the siege, and the scouts will undoubtedly report that the Herminian host is vast and strong.  The Down’s End Council will then debate and dither.  They will send emissaries to Eudes Ridere—he’s the Herminian general, and consort of Queen Mariel.  Ridere will promise them lies, and they will debate and dither some more.”
Milo witnessed his sister’s performance with pride.  He and she had rehearsed for the conference with Dans and Ware for three days, from the time she arrived in Stonebridge.  Still, she was carrying it off better than he expected.  Milo savored mouthfuls of cider while she continued.
Amicia had set aside the honey wafer.  She leaned forward, her hands on her knees under the table.  “In short, the aldermen of Down’s End are fools.  They refuse to see the truth because it is painful.  Eudes Ridere commands an army greater than any Tarquint has ever seen.  One by one, he will subdue every castle in the land.  Do not think the free cities will escape; one by one they too will fall.  Only by joining forces can Tarquint stop the invaders.”
“How interesting.”  Ody Dans drank tea and sighed.  “Ah!  Just right.”  He replaced his cup and addressed Milo.  “I had thought, Sir Milo, that you harbored some resentment against Lord Aylwin.  Yet you bring Lady Amicia here to plead his case.  It appears that your ambitious plans to build up the City Guard, to make it into a real army, are nothing more than an attempt by house Mortane to use Stonebridge to save Hyacintho Flumen.”
Milo saw no clue in Dans’ demeanor as to his real meaning.   Is he only offering objections that others will make in the Assembly?  Or does he really think I am in Aylwin’s pocket? 
“My brother cheated me of my rightful place, Master Dans.  My mother helped him, and my father approved.  You might guess what I think of my family.  I left Hyacintho Flumen early last summer with nothing but my armor, my horse, and my squire.  I arrived in Stonebridge soon after.  Months later, Mariel’s army invaded Tarquint.  We Mortanes would have needed remarkable foresight to arrange the plot that you imagine.  And what an intricate scheme!  Exile one son months ahead of time so he can raise an army to rescue the usurping brother’s castle when a foreign army materializes over the sea!”
Milo put elbows on the table and lowered his voice.  “Aylwin can go to hell for all I care.  I love Amicia; it’s true.  I would protect her from danger if I could.  You see how it is, don’t you?  He sent her to Down’s End as a bargaining chip, to marry her off to some alderman in exchange for alliance.  He backstabbed me, and then he sold her.”  Milo turned to Amicia.  “Sorry, little sister.  It’s the truth.”
Amicia dabbed at her eyes, very convincingly. 
Milo addressed Ware as much as Dans.  “The army that Derian and I are going to build will be Stonebridge’s army.  We will use it to enhance the security, power, and wealth of this city.  If that means rescuing Aylwin Mortane, then we rescue him.  If it serves our purposes to let the Herminians take Hyacintho Flumen, so much the worse for him.  However, I do agree with Lady Amicia on this point: the coming of the Herminians presents a point of decision for Stonebridge.  Will we dither like the Council of Down’s End?  I say no.  We should prepare to meet the Herminians at the place and time of our choosing.  For the present, they are locked into their siege of Hyacintho Flumen.  We have the freedom to raise an army and reconnoiter their position.  We need not commit ourselves to immediate war, but we must prepare—prepare now.”
Dans and Ware regarded Milo judiciously, Ware chewing his lip.  Beside Milo, Derian, who had drained a glass of beer, cleared his throat.  “A word, Commander?  I notice you say, ‘the army that Derian and I will build.’  May I ask what you mean?”
Lunden Ware laughed aloud.  “You don’t know what Sir Milo plans for you?”
“Well, I, ah…” Derian pursed his lips and thought for a moment.  “Building an army means procuring supplies.  Is that it?”
Derian expected the answer from Milo, but Ody Dans answered.  “You’ll be living in the Citadel, nephew.  Who would have guessed it?  Derian Chapman, a genuine sheriff of the Stonebridge Guard!  I do hope, though, that you will visit The Spray occasionally.”  Dans made eye contact with Milo.  “It would be useful for all concerned to have reports on the progress of the Guard.”
Milo nodded.  “Of course.  The Commander of the Guard makes monthly reports to the Assembly, but in addition, I think it would be wise to send you and Master Ware more frequent news.  You may expect regular visits from Sheriff Abrecan.” 
Following the tilt of Milo’s head, the bankers looked at Felix, regarding them silently from his watch.  He lifted a cider mug to his mouth, but gave no other indication that he was listening.
“I think that will do,” said Dans, and Lunden Ware nodded agreement.

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


Thursday, June 5, 2014

Castles 106

106. In Stonebridge

            “I want to be clear about this.”  Milo drew an imaginary line across the table.  The bankers opposite him attended carefully.  “Derian will live in the Citadel from now on.”  Milo’s finger tapped the table on his side of the invisible line.  “He will no longer spend time on assignments from Master Dans.  He won’t be delivering your messages to lords in castles on the Downs, unless the Guard sends him there on some errand.  He’ll work every day on Guard business, either in Wallis’s old office or negotiating with suppliers.”
            “You’re making Derian Chapman the Assistant Commander?”  The speaker was Lunden Ware, the short, brown-haired moneylender who had sat in the first row of the Assembly, next to Verge Courney.  Ware raised a round glass of warm brown beer, the specialty of the house, to his lips.  Ody Dans was drinking tea from a delicate white cup.  Milo’s empty beer glass had been pushed to the side.
            Milo and the bankers occupied a corner booth of the Bread and Brew, an unpretentious alehouse on the east side of River Blide.  His back to the wall, Milo could watch the other people in the tavern.  In mid-morning on a winter day, most of the house’s tables were empty.  A good thing.  Assemblymen Ody Dans and Lunden Ware were well known in Stonebridge, and Milo himself was the talk of the town.  Milo didn’t want eavesdroppers.
            “Not at all.  Derian knows little of fighting and nothing about commanding armsmen.  To date, his chief service as an undersheriff was to tag along with me on the disastrous Gaudy’s Tavern raid.  He owes me his life, by the way.”
            Ware might have spoken, but Ody Dans cleared his throat.  “Go on, Commander.”
            “What Derian does know is commerce.  He’s spent some years learning from his uncle.  He can keep accurate records.  He knows which merchants in Stonebridge can be trusted.  He knows where to buy food, wagons, horses, and equipment.  In short, I want Derian as my quartermaster.
“Now, if Lunden Ware or Ody Dans or someone equally experienced would take the oath, join the Guard, and live in the Citadel under my command—well, then I would choose him.  But given the sheriffs and under-sheriffs I have to choose from, I choose Derian.”
The older men both smiled at the thought of becoming sheriffs.  Milo continued, “He’ll work in Wallis’s old office because he’ll need space to store contracts and records, that sort of thing.”
Dans’s face glistened, as if it had been oiled.  Even so, it projected bland contentment.  “I imagine that Wallis’s desk and boxes contained many things.  Like Commander Tondbert, Wallis was a gatherer of secrets.”
“If so, his secrets are lost.”  Milo didn’t care if they believed him.  “With Wallis dead, I ordered his office emptied.  The kitchen girls, including Alberta Day—that’s the girl Wallis raped—made a fire in the Citadel courtyard with Wallis’s papers and parchments.  They took particular care to build their fire on the exact spot where Jarvis Day spilled Wallis’s blood.”
Ware’s face showed his skepticism.  “You did not think to go through Wallis’s records?”
Milo shrugged.  “I thought about it and rejected it.  I have been sifting Commander Tondbert’s documents carefully, as you might expect.  I will make a report to the Assembly and put into their possession a number of papers and parchments.  I’m sure they will find my report extremely interesting.  Tondbert’s secrets are the ones that matter.”  This speech was mostly a lie, but it contained a germ of truth.  Daisy Freewoman, the erstwhile Tilde Gyricson, had selected which of Wallis’s papers should be burned by the serving girls.  Milo himself hadn’t participated.
Ody Dans sipped tea, then set his cup very precisely on a white saucer.  “You can’t be sure that Wallis’s records are useless if you don’t read them.”
The washerwoman will let me know.  “True enough.  But what’s done is done.  It was a pleasure for the girls to burn Wallis’s things.  They needed that.  And as I say, Tondbert’s secrets are enough for my purposes.”
Milo steepled his hands under his chin and looked into Dans’s expressionless face.  The watery blue eyes returned Milo’s gaze for several seconds.  Finally, Dans lifted his teacup.  “As you say, what’s done is done.  The important thing now is to make sure the City Guard gets proper support from the Assembly.”
Dans sipped slowly.  “You say you will make a report to the Assembly.  I presume you will use what you have learned in Tondbert’s office to help the Assemblymen see the importance of the City Guard.  How?”
Milo traced a pattern on the tabletop with his finger, choosing his words carefully.  “From the beginning, I intend to fully expose all that Tondbert knew.  If I hold something back—some nasty evidence against Ody Dans, for example—Ody Dans might then fear exposure, but he would also know that the new commander holds secrets.  He would wonder what other secrets I have.  But if Master Dans knows that I have told the whole truth about his deeds, he will more readily believe that I tell the truth about someone else, Lunden Ware, for example.
“Tondbert fell into a trap.  He used secrets to manipulate and threaten, and this gained him a little of what he wanted.  But it turned Stonebridge’s leaders against him.  They feared him, but they did not trust him.  Every Assemblyman needs to know that I will report fully and openly all that I know.”
Ware raised his eyebrows and shot a glance at Dans.  “You think you can make the Assembly trust you?”  The banker clearly scorned the idea.
“Not at first, perhaps.  But deeds speak.  People in Stonebridge will soon discover that the Guard will enforce the law with an even hand.  The men of the Assembly no less than farmhands in the country, the laborers in the mills, and the independent artisans will learn that they can trust me to do what I say.”
Ody Dans set aside his tea and spread his pink hands on the table.  “You don’t want men to fear you?”
“Anyone who breaks the laws of Stonebridge should fear me.  Elsewise they will suffer the fate of the Hawks, whom I have broken.”
Ware protested, “With the help of Ifing Redhair!”
Milo acknowledged the objection with the slightest nod.  “And the Falcons I will control.”
Ware sat back into his chair.  “How?”
“By making them soldiers.  They’re no more than bullies and thieves right now, following Redhair’s commands for lack of anything better.  They don’t know what they might be.  We will train them, make them into archers, swordsmen, and pike men.  One or two might even become knights.”
Ware was incredulous.  “You expect to turn Falcon criminals into soldiers, and you expect the Assembly to pay for it?  An army of thieves roaming the streets of Stonebridge?  That’s madness!”
“Not quite.”  Milo grinned.  “My army of thieves will not roam the streets of Stonebridge.  The Citadel’s not large enough to house them, for starters.  We will make an army of the Falcons—and others—but they will live in a camp outside the city, over the hill on the road to Down’s End.  Someday a fortress will replace the camp, but for now a camp will have to suffice.  When spring comes, Stonebridge will have an army ready to do its bidding.  And inside the city, you will find a City Guard that can be trusted.  Warehouses and fine estates will not need small armies of private guards.”
Ware looked questioningly at Ody Dans.  The pink-faced banker drained his cup.  “It’s what we’ve always wanted, Lunden.  Admit it.  Stonebridge needs an army to assert herself.  We need to end the plague of thieves in the city and highwaymen in the countryside.  We can build real roads to Down’s End and the castles of the Downs, not just wagon trails.  An army can patrol the roads and free landholders from the lords.  Castles have magic, but you and I know that is no reason that their lords should divide Tarquint into a dozen little fiefdoms.  Castle lords pretend to authority far and wide, but they have too few sheriffs to make good their claims.  The free cities hold the future of Tarquint, and Stonebridge ought to be first among the cities.”
The brown-haired banker considered Dans’s words.  “Rudolf brought all of Herminia under his will.”
Dans nodded.  “Indeed.  But not by castle magic.  The city that surrounds Pulchra Mane is the true source of Grandmesnil power.  Rudolf, and Mariel after him, raised a great army because they had a great city to support it.  And now, we are told, Mariel’s army incorporates men from every city in Herminia.  She makes every lord contribute men and arms.”
As Dans talked, he leaned forward and his speech became more vigorous.  Milo had never seen him so engaged except the night when the banker forced Adelgar Gyricson to beg his wife to prostitute herself.  That was pleasure and this is politics, the two gods of Master Ody Dans.
Dans continued, “Hyacintho Flumen is the largest of all the castle towns in Tarquint.  But how many men could Lord Mortane put in the field?”  Dans’s pale blue eyes peered at Milo.  “Let me guess.  Five score?  Less?”
Milo ignored the fact that his brother was now lord of Hyacintho Flumen.  “My father had one hundred soldiers exactly, if the count included Lord Hereward, myself, and both of my brothers.  Eddricus is a boy, five years old.”
Dans nodded.  Almost five score, then.  You see?  Rudolf’s army was many times as large.  He united Herminia with an army, not a castle.  The great cities of Tarquint are Cippenham, Down’s End and Stonebridge.  One of those cities will raise an army one day and compel the castles to submit.  Tarquint will be united; why shouldn’t it be Stonebridge that does it?”
            Lunden Ware rubbed his chin.  “And you think Commander Mortane is the man to create our army?”
            Dans frowned for a moment.  “I don’t know.  But he is a genuine knight, by the gods.  The men of the Guard like him.  And he relieved us of that worm Tondbert.  What do you think, Milo?  Can you really build an army out of the Falcons and assorted wanderers?”
            Milo kept his expression as bland as Dan’s.  “I will surprise you.  By spring we will be ready to march.”
            Both bankers expressed surprise.  “By spring?”
            “March?  March where?”
            “I can better explain when…ah!  Here they are.”  Behind the assemblymen the Bread and Brew door opened.  Milo motioned to Felix Abrecan and Derian Chapman, who entered the alehouse in the company of a young woman.  The sheriffs and the dark-haired woman crossed the room as Dans and Ware twisted in their seats to see them.  The new arrivals bowed politely to the assemblymen.
            Milo said, “Master Dans and Master Ware, you already know Sheriff Abrecan and Sheriff Chapman.  I introduce Lady Amicia Mortane.  She comes as ambassador from my brother Aylwin, the lord of Hyacintho Flumen.”

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