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.”
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.