114. North of Castle Inter Lucus
“Two moons to light the way, ’til first moon sets, anyway—and no clouds, thank God. I can go on.”
The priest’s breath enveloped his head like a cloud. The last light of winter sun reflected on the tops of trees. Tough old bird, Marty thought. Twenty years older than me, and he won’t quit. Meanwhile, I’m spent. “Elfric, how much further?”
Elfric Ash and Teothic shared a glance before the sheriff answered. “Seven miles, my lord. We will reach the forest road very soon, around the next hill—skiing will be easier there.”
Seven miles more! “It better be. I’m about wiped out.”
The journey north to Dimlic Aern had taken eight days. The four companions had made the return trip in five, rising long before the sun and skiing into moonlight each evening. Teothic and Elfric, both in their twenties and hardened by the rigors of the priesthood and forest life respectively, still had strength for the task, though they carried the heavier packs. Marty would have happily stopped and wrapped himself in a heavy blanket in the shelter of a fir tree, except for doubt about Inter Lucus. A lord’s first duty is to his people. Marty had left seventeen souls at Inter Lucus, if Godric Measy and Rothulf Saeric were included. They had power, plenty of food, three sheriffs, and the alien walls and stout doors of the castle. And it was winter. No one knows I’ve gone. They should be okay. Nevertheless, Marty could not root out the seed of doubt planted by Basil Godcild. What enemy might come in winter?
They skied in single file, Elfric in the lead and Teothic last. In between, Marty and Eadmar slogged along, backs bent and eyes fixed on the back tips of the skis ahead. There was plenty of light, since second moon was at the quarter and first moon was almost full, yet Elfric’s skis kept slipping out of Marty’s field of vision. God, I’m so tired!
A shout from behind, from Teothic: Eadmar had fallen. Elfric doubled back and helped Teothic raise the priest. Marty turned and watched; glad to rest for even a minute. Teothic brushed frozen pellets from Eadmar’s coat. No new snow had fallen since they left Inter Lucus; in sunny places the snow’s upper crust had thawed and frozen several times, creating a layer of ice on top of the snow. Elfric and Teothic, who took turns in the lead, had been working harder than the others, crunching through ice with every stride.
With Eadmar erect, the four stood together in growing dark. A mass of trees to the west blocked out first moon as it set. Marty slipped out of his straps, resting his pack on ice-covered snow. “As much as I want to get home, I think we must stop. Sleep here, and in the morning we can have hot breakfast at Inter Lucus.”
Elfric and Teothic nodded agreement, but Eadmar raised a silent hand to point south. A red glow marked the horizon, suddenly leaping into the air.
Fire? In winter?
“Prayer House!” panted Eadmar. “Or Isen’s glassworks!”
Teothic seized Marty’s pack. “You must go, Lord Martin. Now. Elfric, you need only your sword. Give me your pack.”
Elfric unfastened his straps with a single movement and let his pack fall to the ground. “Bring Eadmar to the castle. Packs don’t matter.”
“Of course, of course. Go!”
Elfric knelt and refastened Marty’s skis. “I have to go in front. Stay close behind.”
Adrenaline heightened senses and gave a burst of energy. The forest road north of Inter Lucus had been skied by several people in recent days; on well-packed snow Elfric and Marty shot forward. Marty felt that he was racing on skis, and he began noticing familiar trees on the sides of the road. We’re almost there. A bend in the road, and they came clear of some trees: Prayer House was burning a quarter mile away. Human figures could be seen in the light of the fire. Who would set fire to Prayer House?
“Head for Inter Lucus, not Prayer House, Elfric. The path by the barn, I think. Less chance to be seen.”
“Aye, my lord. We turn here.”
Elfric left the comparative ease of the road, where others’ skis had made a path, to cross the north grounds of Inter Lucus. Their weight broke through the top layer and ice crust tore at their leggings as they forced their way forward. The shoulder of Inter Lucus’s hill now lay between them and Prayer House, so they could only see the tips of flames.
At last they reached the barn. From here a shoveled path led to the great hall’s west door. Marty fumbled with stiff fingers at his ski lashings. He couldn’t untie the frozen cords. “Damn!” Elfric drew his sword and wiggled its tip between the cords. He twisted the blade and they snapped. “Thank you!” Instinctively, Marty kept his voice low.
Elfric pointed to the castle with his sword. “I go first.”
“Right behind you.”
Sheriff and lord trotted the path toward the west door. The garage-style door to the west wing, which housed materias transmutatio, was closed, as Marty expected. The alien door answered only to the lord’s knob, which meant that it had been locked since Marty left Inter Lucus. Rounding the corner, they saw the great hall’s west door was open. Caelin was blocking the entrance and arguing with someone: Rothulf Saeric.
“Out of the way!” Saeric shouted. “There’s no time to argue!” Rothulf had a sword, which he pointed at Caelin.
“It won’t work, and you’ll just burn Alf’s hands.” Caelin was pulling at the door, trying to close it, but Rothulf had a booted foot wedged in the way.
“Maybe. Give ’im a chance!”
“Stop! Stop!” Marty and Elfric shouted one after the other. Caelin’s attention was diverted by their call. Rothulf threw Caelin to the ground and pushed past him into the great hall.
“It’s Lord Martin!” Alf Saeric appeared out of the shadows, his wiry body dodging around the wide door. He raced to Marty, ducking under Elfric’s arm, white-blond hair streaming behind him. “Lord Martin, we need you!” Alf’s skinny arms locked around Marty’s waist. “Prayer House is burning. We can’t put it out. Rothulf says only Inter Lucus can do it.”
Caelin and Rothulf emerged from the great hall, Rothulf now without a sword. “Lord Martin!” They spoke as one, but their faces told very different tales, one the shock of relief and the other the shock of dismay.
Marty disentangled himself from Alf’s arms and looked him in the eye. “What do you mean, you can’t put it out? Throw water on it—or snow.”
Rothulf came forward. “We have, my lord. Isen and the others are passing buckets even now. But the fire does not die. It is some kind of magic. Since you were not here, I thought… I told Alf… But that does not matter. Now you can save Prayer House.”
“I don’t think so.” Marty pointed. As Rothulf was speaking, the roof and walls of Prayer House collapsed, shooting sparks in every direction. Marty turned to Caelin. “Were people in Prayer House? Has anyone been hurt?”
“No. We were all inside Inter Lucus, except Leo and Besyrwen, who had the watch. Leo saw the fire first, and he and Isen led the firefighters. Os, Ealdwine, Went, Ernulf, Went, Whitney, Ora, Tayte, and the visitor—Godric Measy—they’ve been passing buckets from Isen’s glassworks for an hour at least. Leo told Dodric, Ernulf, and me to stay in the castle with Mildgyd and the little ones.”
Marty thought quickly. “All right. Prayer House is lost, and I don’t want someone hurt trying to save it now. Caelin, go tell Leo and the others to come away from the fire. Two or three should stand guard at the glassworks, and the rest come to the castle.”
“Aye, my lord.”
“I’ll go too,” said Rothulf.
“Not a chance.” Marty gestured to the door. “You and Alf and Elfric and I are going to talk.” Elfric’s sword ushered Rothulf into the great hall.
Marty was wrong. His interrogation of Rothulf Saeric had to wait. Inside the great hall little Agyfen Baecer screamed in delight and raced to embrace him. Dodric Night and Ernulf Penrict welcomed Marty and Elfric by clasping their hands. They expected him to bond with the lord’s knob immediately. “Can you stop the fire? What magic is it? Did you find Dimlic Aern? Where are Eadmar and the other priest?”
Mildgyd Meadowdaughter was bowing and wiping away tears. “Lord Martin! God be thanked!”
Elfric pushed Rothulf and Alf toward chairs at one of the trestle tables, but Marty could not get free of Dodric and Ernulf to join them. Within minutes Caelin and ten others pelted into the hall, most of them shouting.
“Lord Martin is really here?”
“We threw water right on it! The flames just moved. Water didn’t stop the fire at all.”
“Prayer House is gone! Rothulf will have to sleep here. Eadmar too. Where is Eadmar?
“Isen and Godric Measy are guarding the glassworks.”
“Oh, Lord Martin! Can you stop the fire?”
“Well met, Elfric, and well done! You got him home!”
In the midst of the excitement Marty received hugs and handshakes, amid tears and cries of relief. Ora threw her arms around him and kissed his cheek. And then Eadmar and Teothic came in, adding fuel to the fire of shouts and questions. But for Marty, the voices blurred. His adrenaline rush was over, and he felt he might collapse. He sat down and beckoned Ora and Caelin. “I’m going to bed. Have Leo put Rothulf in a room alone, and don’t let him talk to anyone, especially Alf. I want to question them both in the morning. Post a watch, but don’t rouse me unless there’s another fire.”
“Yes, my lord.” Caelin spotted Leo and ran off.
“Lord Martin.” Ora had tears on her cheeks.
“What is it, Ora?”
“Lean on me.” She took his arm around her shoulders and helped him stand.
He dreamed of Dimlic Aern, of fires that wouldn’t go out, and Alyssa Stout Cedarborne and the baby who was never named. And then he dreamed of the interface wall: he stood before it and summoned Videns-Loquitur. He expected to see the blond queen, Mariel, but instead an old woman appeared, his own grandmother, Edith Leicester. He wanted to ask a question, but something interrupted.
Insistent knocking, pounding actually, on his door: “Lord Martin!”
Marty sprang up. “Enter! What is it?”
Caelin stepped in, Ora right behind. “The Herminian army has come to Inter Lucus.”
Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.