Thursday, July 31, 2014

Castles 114

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?”
            “Where’s Eadmar?”
            “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.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Castles 113

113. In Stonebridge

            Kingsley Averill wasn’t particularly tall, but his long white hair and extremely erect posture gave him a dignified appearance.  Perhaps that’s why the Assemblyman seemed a towering figure when Milo saw him at the door to Ambassador House.  A much younger and shorter man with blond hair and rounded shoulders stood beside Averill.  Milo strode quickly along the muddy street and would have called out “Fair afternoon” to the men except the door opened.  Assemblyman Averill and his companion disappeared into the house before Milo could say anything.
            Ambassador House was Lunden Ware’s idea.  “The Ambassador from Hyacintho Flumen must have her own residence.  You can’t cage her up in the Citadel of the Guard.  She needs to be able to receive visitors on her own terms in her own space.  You want the Assembly to trust you, Sir Milo, but no matter how open you and honest you are, they won’t feel safe coming to the Citadel.
“Lady Amicia already has her own guards, Kenelm Ash and that Travers, the strange armsman with the wandering eye.  Now, I own a suitable house in town, not too big, that I’m not using.  I’ll rent it to Amicia for a token amount—one gold for a year, let’s say.  Assemblymen can call on her there.  And who knows?  It might happen that you could be present for some of those meetings.  You will gain the trust of Stonebridge’s leaders more quickly if you meet them one by one on neutral ground.  You can’t always be going to their estates or inviting them to the Bread and Brew.”
Milo wasn’t persuaded that a rented house counted as “neutral ground.”  Amicia’s guests had to know that she was sister both to Lord Aylwin Mortane of Hyacintho Flumen and the newly invested Commander of the Stonebridge guard.  But he approved of the idea anyway.  If Amicia lived in the Citadel, it would look as if she were under his thumb. 
Sloppy melted snow coated Milo’s boots with mud as he hurried along the street and then up stone steps to a wooden porch.  Amicia’s rented house was a trim, attractive building: gray paint, glassed windows set in blue window frames, a roofed porch with a white railing, and flower boxes ready to be planted when spring arrived.  The door opened before Milo could knock. 
“Sir Milo!  Welcome!  Boots over there.”  Raymond Travers pointed with his chin to two pairs of miry boots standing by the wall.  Raymond’s blind eye moved constantly, looking this way and that, a distraction to which Milo had long ago become accustomed.
Milo chuckled.  “The streets are full of mud, and Toadface wants to keep it out of her house?”
“Aye.  That is, her women do.  Lady Amicia hired a cook and a cleaning lady.”
Milo was pulling off his boots.  “With what money?  Kenelm needs to watch his budget.”
“I can’t speak to that, sir.”
            “Commander Mortane, fair afternoon.”  Kingsley Averill moved slowly, rising from his chair and inclining his head.  “I am pleased to meet you at last outside of Assembly Hall.  I introduce my son, Merlin Averill.”
            Amicia wasn’t to be seen. 
            “Fair afternoon, Master Averill.”  Milo bowed politely to the father and nodded to the younger man.  “Master Averill.  Your father attends every meeting of the Assembly, but I haven’t seen you there.”
            “N-n-never g-g-go.”  The blond man extended his right hand, and Milo reached out to shake it, realizing as he did so that the hand was deformed.  It was red and wrinkled, with only a thumb and two stubby fingers, attached to a very short forearm.  But Milo did not hesitate; he wrapped his hand around the claw-like appendage as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
            “Why not?  My friend Derian Chapman tells me there has been an Averill in the Assembly for two hundred years.  Your father won’t be able to serve forever.  You should make yourself known in the city.”
            Merlin’s face crinkled in a smile, and he laughed quietly.  His blue eyes matched his father’s.  “H-h-how interesting.”
“Indeed.”  The older Averill lifted an eyebrow and shared a glance with his son. 
At that moment, Amicia came into the room, followed by a serving woman carrying a tray of drinks.  “Please sit down, sirs,” Amicia said.  “It will make things easier for Anna.”
Ambassador House was furnished with comfortable padded chairs.  Even seated, with a glass of red wine in hand, Kingsley Averill held himself erect, as if his backbone had been affixed to a pole.
With his quite ordinary left hand, Merlin Averill raised his wine to his lips and immediately placed his glass on a side table.  “Gunnara’s north hill.  Two years old.”  The corners of his mouth turned down.  “Ugh.”
Milo noticed that Merlin’s stutter disappeared when he talked about wine.
“Excuse me?” Amicia blinked several times.
Kingsley Averill sniffed his glass.  “Lady Amicia, my son has never learned to combine social niceties with wine.  He invariably gives his honest opinion when it comes to the fruit of the vine.  This particular wine was produced on the Gunnara vineyard west of Stonebridge two years ago.  That was a poor crop, even for the Gunnaras, who have no pride in their product.  Who bought this for you?”
“Well, Anna.  Or Kenelm Ash.  I don’t know.”
“Dear lady, some tasks cannot be entrusted to servants.”  The elder Averill set his glass aside and smiled indulgently.  “Don’t serve this to anyone.  Pour it out.  Tomorrow, Merlin will bring you as many bottles as you may need of a good wine, from our own cellar.  If you want to represent your brother well, you ought to serve guests something drinkable.”
Amicia laughed aloud.  “I am in your debt, Master Averill.  But if I had picked the wine I’m sure I wouldn’t have done any better.  I like the pear wine they sell at Freeman’s House in Down’s End.”
Merlin Averill looked aghast.  “Y-y-you can’t.”
“I like what I like, Master Averill.”  Amicia tossed her head, swaying her brown locks on her shoulders.
Merlin scratched his temple with his claw hand and grinned.  He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest.  “L-l-lady Amicia.”
Milo and Amicia waited for several seconds.  Merlin sat with a smile, saying nothing.
“Commander Mortane, I have read your report and examined the materials you submitted to the Assembly.”  Kingsley Averill looked at Amicia and Merlin.  “Is there some place where you and I might speak privately?”
Milo deferred to Amicia. 
“Of course.”  Amicia didn’t hesitate.  “This room will do.  Raymond, please stand guard outside the door, and admit no one.  Merlin, if you come with me to the kitchen, you can explain to Anna and me why Gunnara wine is objectionable.”
Merlin Averill stood and inclined his head.  “As the l-l-lady w-w-wishes.”
Kingsley Averill also stood.  Milo mimicked him, not knowing why.  Averill bowed to Amicia.  “Thank you, Lady.  This should not take long.”  Milo thought: I must remember to treat Toadface like a lady, like an Ambassador.
            As soon as they were alone, Milo and Averill reseated themselves.  The older man eyed Milo appreciatively. 
According to Derian Chapman, Kingsley Averill had long been one of Ody Dans’ chief rivals in Stonebridge politics.  “I’m not really sure why,” Derian had said.  “The Averills are not nearly as rich as the Danses, Wares, Bardolfs, or half a dozen other leading families.  Kingsley Averill doesn’t seem to have much ambition when it comes to commerce.  They’re certainly an old family.  There’s been an Averill on the Stonebridge Assembly for two hundred years; an Averill led the fight against the sheriffs of Saltas Semitas, when the city refused to pay hidgield to the Le Grants.
            “Averill almost never has any business dealings with Uncle Ody.  He owns vineyards and grain fields southwest of the city, quite extensive holdings.  But he never borrows money, nor lends it, and he hides his profits in a cellar—or so they say.  I’ve not seen the inside of his house.  I don’t think he trusts bankers, certainly not Uncle Ody.  They say he pays his laborers more than other landholders, so it’s possible he doesn’t have much profit to hide.”
            Milo was still considering Derian’s words when Averill spoke.  “Hm.  Sir Milo Mortane.  You’ve turned the city upside down in eight months.”
            “You overstate, Master Averill.”
            “It’s a figure of speech, Commander, and accurate.  As I understand things, you came to Stonebridge last summer with your squire.”
            “And two horses—and my armor.”
            The Assemblyman smiled.  “Ah.  Two horses and armor.  In eight months you have become Commander of the City Guard.  You have eliminated Bo Leanberth and his lieutenants.  The Falcons, rather than using the demise of their enemies to terrorize the Bene Quarter, are cooperating with sheriffs of the Guard.  Thievery and robbery have almost disappeared in Stonebridge.”
            “It’s been cold.  Even burglars want to stay inside and keep warm.”
            “Modesty doesn’t befit you.”  Averill paused.  “And now you give the Assembly a damning report about various city leaders.  Murderers, tax cheats, kidnappers, adulterers, and men who accept bribes—it seems our Assemblymen and other important citizens are no better than Hawks or Falcons.  Do you intend to arrest us all?”
            “A coup against the Assembly?  Obviously not.”  Milo spoke frankly.  “There is not the faintest hint in my report of misdeeds by you or many other Assemblymen.  Additionally, Tondbert’s ‘evidence’ in some cases amounts to very little.  You should read the report carefully.  Over and over, Tondbert’s materials say that one man said something about another man, or one person said that he overheard what someone else said to a third person.  Rumors, fortified by supposition, and amplified by envy.  Rather than danger of arrest, most of those who read the report should feel relief.  Suppose I were foolish enough to arrest the citizens implicated in Tondbert’s secrets.  With fair trials, most of them would not be proved guilty.  It hardly seems wise to accuse prominent citizens of crimes they haven’t committed.”
            Averill wrinkled his nose.  “But city leaders have already been accused, in the report.”
            “By Tondbert, not me.  I have exposed his so-called secrets to the light of day.  Sunlight will neutralize their poison, at least in most cases.”
            “But in a few cases…”
            Milo nodded.  “I believe that murder has been done by powerful men in this city.  Men have died in Euman Black’s silver mine.  At least two guests have ‘fallen’ into River Betlicéa while at Ody Dans’ estate, The Spray.  On at least two occasions logs have inexplicably rolled off wagons owned by Ham Roweson while carrying them to his mill, and twice men were crushed to death.  Too often the powerful men of Stonebridge benefit from such ‘accidents.’”
            Averill’s white eyebrows shot up.  “Those were not the cases I had in mind.  How can one prove an accident was not an accident?”
            “I agree,” Milo said.  “In all these cases, witnesses will come forward to affirm the useful deaths were truly accidental.  My belief that murder has been done does not imply that arrests will follow.  Which cases were you thinking of?”
            “It seems incontrovertible that certain men, including Speaker Bardolf, conspired to cheat the city of tax receipts.”
            Again Milo nodded.  “Aye.  There is good proof that Bardolf procured Ibertus Tibb his position as Clerk for Stonebridge.  As City Clerk, Tibb kept false records that overstated Bardolf’s payments to the city.  When the vintner Roalt Gervais discovered the affair, Tibb welcomed him into the conspiracy and falsified Gervais’s tax record.”
            “Will you arrest and accuse them?”
            “It seems I must.  But it’s possible that Tibb will then name others.  How many more Roalt Gervaises might there be?  And if Tibb, the City Clerk, accuses someone of cheating, how can the accusation be refuted?  How many of Stonebridge’s leaders can prove they paid all the taxes they owe?  The situation could easily get out of control.”
            Averill rose slowly from his chair and put his hands behind his back.  “Commander, you have said publicly in testimony to the Assembly, and again in your written report, that you will strictly fulfill your oath to uphold Stonebridge’s laws.  Therefore, you must arrest Tibb, Gervais, and Frideric Bardolf.”
            Milo looked up at the Assemblyman.  “If I do, the Assembly will need a new Speaker.”
“That is not your affair.  The Assembly will choose a new Speaker as it sees fit.  As you say, the situation might get out of control.  But that also is not your affair.  If the Assembly is wise, it will act to keep the situation under control.  The Assembly, not the Commander of the Guard, must decide what the city will do.  Your task is to carry out the policies set by the Assembly.”
Milo pursed his lips.  “In other words, I must trust the Assembly and whoever the Assembly chooses as its Speaker.”
“Precisely.”  Averill paused, raising a white eyebrow.  “Notice, Commander, that we also must trust you.  The stronger the City Guard is, the greater must be the trust we place in its commander.”
Milo rose and extended his hand.  “You will find that I am worthy of trust, Master Averill.”
Averill shook Milo’s hand.  “I’m glad we had this talk, Commander.”

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



Saturday, July 19, 2014

NW Book Festival July 26

6th Annual NW Book Festival
Pioneer Courthouse Square, Portland
July 26, 11 am to 5 pm

    I will be there, sharing a booth (#10) with John Knox.  I'll have copies of Buying the Bangkok Girl, Why Faith is a Virtue, and The Heart of the Sea (ebook only).  There will be 63 booths in all--fiction and non-fiction authors, publishers, children's books--a cornucopia of reading delight.
    If you've been reading Castles, be sure to come our booth and say hi.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Castles 112

112. In the Town Hyacintho Flumen

            Bully stole into the kitchen two hours before the winter dawn.  Second moon hadn’t set, so enough light came through the glassed window of the barrel maker’s house to let him move around without bumping into things.  As always, Godiva Cooper had tamped down the fire in her stove the night before so that it would smolder slowly.  The barrel maker’s wife might come to her kitchen at any moment to build the fire and start her day, so Bully moved quickly.  A stoppered clay wine bottle held only a half inch of liquid at the bottom, almost undrinkable because of its dregs.  Nevertheless, Bully poured a mouthful into a cup and swished it around in his mouth before spitting it into Mistress Cooper’s kitchen refuse bucket.  After cleansing his mouth with alcohol, Bully lifted the lid from the honey pot and took a spoonful.  He smeared the honey across his teeth with his tongue before swallowing it.  Leaving the kitchen, he shut the door that divided kitchen from bedroom quietly and bolted it.
            Edita was awake when he came back to bed.  Bully kissed her forehead, her chin, and then her mouth.  She giggled.  “Mm.  You taste good.”  Another kiss.  “Even in the morning.”
            After making love, Bully helped Edita with some of the intimate business of getting dressed.  It had taken him three days after their marriage to convince Edita to let him lift her under-tunic over her head or fasten buttons.  But she had to admit his assistance speeded the process, and his kisses punctuated the business with delight.  When the young couple finally unbolted the door to the kitchen, Godiva Cooper had bacon and eggs frying on the stove.
            “Fair morning, Master Wedmor.”
            Bully couldn’t be sure, but Mistress Cooper’s smile gave him the impression she knew about his early morning visit to the kitchen and the reason for it.  “Fair morning, Mistress Cooper.”
            “Will you sup with us at mid-day?”  Godiva asked every morning since Bully moved into the extra bedroom where Edita lived, and it was a fair question.  Many days, Bully’s new role allowed him to stay in Hyacintho Flumen, which meant he could eat at mid-day with his wife.
            “I may, but I may not.  Duty may call me elsewhere.”  Bully always gave a noncommittal answer.  Most days he knew quite well where he would be at mid-day, but he would not compromise the secrecy of General Ridere’s plans, not even to answer innocent questions from Godiva Cooper.
            Bully and Edita ate their breakfast and then lingered over cups of honeyed tea.  They passed idle words with Wigmund Cooper when he came for his eggs and bacon.  A knock on the door: Gifre Toeni had arrived, bearing Edita’s copying assignment for the day. 
General Ridere had required that Bully find him a new squire before he and Edita could marry.  When he learned this, Gifre insisted that Bully name him.  And so, though he was supposedly a knight, and though Rocelin Toeni would be displeased that his son would serve Ridere so willingly, Gifre had become the general’s squire.  Gifre kissed his sister’s cheek, relayed Eadred Unes’s instructions for the copying, and asked Bully if he was ready to go.
            In point of fact, Bully knew he would not return for mid-day sup that day.  He would spend the day high in a tree on the north side of the siege circle and not come back to town until long after sunset.  Tasked by General Ridere to find a way to harry the defenders of castle Hyacintho Flumen during the day, Archard Oshelm had proposed a solution.  Bully and Gifre would play important roles in his scheme. 
The Herminian army had no weapon capable of actually touching Hyacintho Flumen unless Ridere sent men within the reach Magna Arcum Praesidiis, the greater shield.  Nevertheless, Oshelm had directed the construction of two catapults, also known as “wild asses,” because of the way the machines would “kick” when their arms struck their crossbars.  At first, Oshelm proposed making three or four catapults, but the Herminians’ production of the weapons had been limited by a surprising lack: hair.
The secret of a “wild ass’s” power lay in the torsion supplied by special ropes, which were twisted around the catapult’s arm and tied to the catapult frame.  The best rope material for this purpose was human hair.  Ordinary ropes could be used to tie the wooden frame together, lest the catapult shake itself to pieces when it kicked.  But the thick torsion ropes had to be strong enough to hold, even when twisted by levers and ratchets beyond the capacity of sinew or animal hide.  Only hair rope would do.  In consequence, General Ridere had ordered haircuts.  Starting with the general himself, thousands of Herminian soldiers had their heads shaved to contribute to Oshelm’s project.  In spite of the great number of contributors, the hair collected sufficed for about twenty-five feet of four-inch thick rope, enough for two catapults.  On the siege line, good winter hats had become prized possessions.
With slings fixed to the ends of their arms, the “wild asses” might fling projectiles eight hundred feet, in some cases as much as a thousand feet.  Yet at its closest, the siege line was more than five thousand feet from Hyacintho Flumen, so there was no thought of bombarding the castle itself.  Oshelm’s object was to sow doubt in the enemy’s mind.  “We can’t touch him, and he knows it,” Oshelm had explained to Ridere’s council in the Rose Petal.  “But we can touch his fields.  Let him imagine fire in his fields next summer.”
The Herminians paid potters in town Hyacintho Flumen to make scores of very small thin-walled clay pots.  Filled with liquid fire and stoppered with cloth, the bombs were not actually very dangerous, because they held so little fuel.  Soldiers practiced throwing them in the safety of a farmer’s field several miles west of the castle, in a valley unobservable from the castle.  The frail clay pots almost always broke when they struck the ground or an obstacle like a tree, and the liquid fire ignited reliably.  But the resulting fires burned for only a minute or two, unless the fire spread to some other fuel.  Still, Ridere agreed with Oshelm that the catapult project should go ahead.  “When summer comes, even a small fire might become a serious problem for Mortane.  At the least, it will give him something to worry about.”
Gifre and Bully rode horses from the Coopers’ house to the Rose Petal, where they met General Ridere and Fugol Hengist emerging from the general’s morning conference.  The four rode quickly north from the town on the road east of Blue River.  Across the river the white tower of Hyacintho Flumen on its hill reflected the morning sunlight like a beacon.  They passed many small groups of soldiers gathered around campfires.  Some would be eating breakfast and others attending to various chores, but at least two men at each point of the siege were standing watch.  Many armsmen saluted the general when he passed.
            At a point considerably north of the castle the general’s party dismounted and led their horses onto a flat barge.  Blue River was swift enough in winter to push riverboats perilously close to the castle, so the barge had two iron hoops on its upstream side and a very long rope, fastened to trees on both sides of the river, passed through the hoops.  Once the passengers’ horses were tethered, three boatmen poled the barge across.  They handed Bully and Fugol Hengist two pike poles and gave them the task of watching for ice and fending off the bits of it that still floated in the river.  Bully and Fugol positioned themselves on the upstream side of the barge and held their pike poles at the ready.  Earlier in winter, the boatmen said, there had been some days when ice blocked passage of Blue River altogether.  Now, they said, with winter beginning to fade, it was child’s play to push away the few ice chunks that might threaten the boat.  In spite of the boatmen’s confidence, Bully felt relief when they reached the dock on the western shore.
            The general’s party shared mid-day sup with men from Calles Vinum on the north side of the siege circle.  Odell Giles, the 23-year-old son of Calles Vinum Lord Godfrey Giles, was already present, having departed the Rose Petal before morning council.  Of all the hostage knights, Sir Giles was the most accomplished in combat and, with the exception of Gifre Toeni, the most accepting of Mariel Grandmesnil’s authority.  He had been fascinated by Archard Oshelm’s catapult proposal, and he had eagerly cooperated in the construction and positioning of the catapult named Thorwold. 
The idea of naming the catapults came from the young hostage knights Linn Wadard and Deman Mowbray.  Archard Oshelm thought it silly, but the names caught on.  Even in Ridere’s council meetings the Herminians called them Thorwold (“Thor’s Power”) and Ranulf (“House Wolf”).
            Giles’s men had cleared snow from a wide patch of soft ground.  On this they had built a platform of thick pine boards, and then wheeled Thorwold onto it.  Archard Oshelm explained that the mud under Thorwold would absorb some of the violent shaking when the wild ass kicked.  Ranulf was positioned on a similar patch of muddy ground on the western edge of the siege.  Oshelm had proposed they throw fire from widely separated launch sites, the better to impress Inter Lucus’s defenders. 
            Bully and Gifre climbed a rope ladder to a wooden structure built on branches thirty feet up in a hardy walnut tree, leafless in winter.  The lookout nest consisted of a floor and a sturdy railing to keep its occupants from falling.  From this position, Bully and Gifre would use two large signal flags, one red and one black, to communicate with the signalmen for catapult Ranulf, who were in a similar lookout nest two miles away.
            Odell Giles was eager to let fly, to see what Thorwold could do.  “Ready?”
            Gifre called down.  “Not yet.  No signal from Ranulf.” 
            Bully waved the black flag overhead and then rested the flagstaff on the lookout rail so the flag, hanging down, could be better seen.  He and Gifre fixed their eyes on the distant oak tree where the Ranulf signalmen were supposed to be.
            “There!” Gifre could point, having no flag to manage.  “Black flag.  They’re ready to go.”  He called down to the men below.  “Ranulf is ready.”
            Archard Oshelm shared glances with Odell Giles and General Ridere.  “Let Ranulf go first.  Signal red.”
            Bully rolled up the black flag and waved the red.  Now he and Gifre watched intently for Ranulf’s projectile.  Nothing. 
            “You see anything?” Bully spoke quietly.
            “No.”  Gifre shook his head.  “At this distance, we won’t see much unless it burns, and Oshelm said to use stones at first.”
            After a while, the Ranulf signal changed to red.  Gifre pointed and Bully nodded confirmation.  Bully changed flags, signaling black.  Gifre called down, “We have a red.”
            “Release!”  Odell Giles gave the command, and an armsman struck the greased retaining pin with a hammer.  The metal pin flew away, freeing the catapult arm, and the stored energy of the torsion ropes threw the arm against the crossbar.  Though the crossbar was well padded, the force of the blow lifted the catapult’s back end several inches from the firing platform.  At the moment of impact, the sling at the end of the arm opened.  Thorwold’s first projectile, a smooth three-pound stone, flew in a high arc, very high.  It landed only about three hundred feet away.
            Odell Giles swore in displeasure, but Archard Oshelm said, “That’s why we practice, Sir Giles.  Did you see the way the wild ass kicked?  Have your men elevate the back corners six inches.”  He called up to Bully.  “Signal black.  We want to make adjustments.”
            Gifre responded: “Ranulf signals black as well.”
            “Very good.”

            Fighting with catapults turned out to be a laborious business.  Each time Thorwold fired, the catapult had to be squared on its platform, the arm ratcheted back, and a new projectile loaded into the sling.  Oshelm ordered several changes in the angle of the release by raising or lowering the front or the rear of the catapult.  Several times, the Thorwold crew had to wait for a red signal from Ranulf.  “They’re learning too, no doubt,” said Oshelm.  He rebuffed Giles’ suggestion that Thorwold fire as often as the crew could manage.  “Patience, Giles.  It’s all practice.”
            While it was light, Thorwold and Ranulf threw stones, some as big as pumpkins and some as small as a fist.  A few times they flung small burlap bags full of small rocks, horse droppings or chicken bones.  As Oshelm said repeatedly, it was practice.  At both locations large groups of off-duty armsmen gathered to watch.  They cheered and pointed and laughed—especially when Thorwold threw a rotten squash five hundred feet.  The Ranulf men said (later) that their machine threw a huge dead rat even further.
            When the winter sun set the experiment turned more serious.  Liquid fire.  No one needed to point out that an accident now could be disastrous.  But the Thorwold crew had learned its routine.  Position the machine.  Ratchet the arm.  Place the pin.  Ready the sling.  Recheck position.  Place the projectile.  Clear away.  Wait for the command.  Hammer the pin!
            As darkness came on, the catapult crews worked in the light of campfires and torches.  Almost every bottle of liquid fire ignited when it struck the ground, and the gathered soldiers cheered the flames.  Some men climbed onto the roof of a barn to better estimate the distance of each throw and to see the fires thrown by Ranulf.
            Thorwold’s crew had only six bottles of liquid fire remaining when something dramatic happened.  The torsion arm snapped up and the bottle arced into the darkness.  Men’s eyes looked south to see where it might land and ignite.  Instead, the bottle exploded high in the air about three hundred feet away.  Liquid fire drizzled down the edge of the invisible wall like gravy overflowing a bowl.  Herminian soldiers shouted in surprise and consternation. 
“The castle’s shield!”
“By the gods!  Look how high it is!”
“The fire bottles can’t get through it or over it.”
“By the gods!  We gave up our hair for nothing.”
            A minute later, fire appeared on the horizon to the southwest.  Ranulf’s bottle had exploded in the air much like Thorwold’s.
            Oshelm turned to Ridere.  “Should we continue, Lord General?”
            “By all means!”  Eudes Ridere wore a grim smile.  “Fire every bottle we have.”
            The combination of castle shield and liquid fire made for a spectacular show: fire dripping down the side of an invisible barrier.  When it was over, Bully and Gifre climbed down from the lookout nest and joined the general, Odell Giles, Archard Oshelm, and a few other men near a campfire.  As usual, Gifre did not hesitate to speak.  “My Lord General, many of the men are alarmed, but you look pleased.”
            Ridere rubbed his beaked nose with the back of his hand.  “I suppose I am.  Our enemy is a greater fool than I thought.”
Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.