Thursday, August 14, 2014

Castles 116

116. In Castle Inter Lucus

            Inter Lucus’s super-klaxon responded instantly to Marty’s summons.  Enclosed in the great hall, the sound had nowhere to go, and it hit like a hammer.  The inhabitants of Inter Lucus clapped their hands over their ears as soon as Marty reached for the lord’s knob and fell to the floor when the sound struck.  The Herminians also fell, cut down by sonic blast.
            After four or five seconds Marty silenced the noise.  Fires burned in five places, where the Herminians’ liquid fire bottles broke when the men fell on them.  But the blazes did not spread or long endure except on the Herminians’ clothing, because the floor of the hall absorbed the burning fluid, just as it removed spilled milk or wine on other occasions.  Flames did catch on two of the invaders’ clothes, but sheriffs used coats to smother them.
            Around the room the inhabitants of Inter Lucus sat or stood up and began pulling bits of doughy black bread from their ears, makeshift earplugs.  In spite of this protection, many of them would complain of ringing in their ears for much of the day.  The Herminians, who had no warning and no such protection, lay helpless on the floor.  They were dazed, in one case completely unconscious, and bleeding from their ears.
            Marty removed his hand from the lord’s knob once the fires were out.  He did not leave the knob, but pulled wadded bread from his ears and stood by the knob with his arms folded across his chest.  While the klaxon blast lasted, since he had a hand on the lord’s knob Marty had been free to cover one ear but not the other.  His temples throbbed and a roar echoed in his head, surging and receding slowly like a tide.
The sheriffs, with help from Isen, Godric, Teothic and Eadmar, tended to the visitors’ ears and helped them to their feet.  They tried to make them stand in a row before Marty, but two of the soldiers and one of the Down’s End men were so jelly-legged that they were given chairs.  Ealdwine and Leo made Rothulf Saeric stand alongside the invaders.  Marty waited for several minutes, letting the roaring in his head subside.  Tayte Graham and Went Bycwine brought cups of water to the eight prisoners.  At last Marty judged that at least their leader, Acwel Penda, had recovered sufficiently for the next scene in this little drama.
            “Sheriff Elfric, bring Captain Penda a bit closer.  I want him to see clearly what I am about to do.”  And I want him to be seen.
            It was possible, Marty realized, that Penda couldn’t hear at all.  Elfric prodded the Herminian captain with his sword, and Penda shuffled forward.  Marty gestured broadly at the interface wall and the lord’s knob.  Then he laid his right hand on the knob, and the green aura shot up between and around his fingers.  Acwel Penda stiffened his body, as if he expected execution.  Marty shook his head.  “I don’t want to harm you, sir.  But I will have answers.”  Exchanging left hand for right on the lord’s knob, Marty turned his back on the prisoner and faced the interface wall.
            A mental nudge brought the castle command list to the screen.  Marty didn’t need the list any more, but he thought it might be good for Penda and his men to witness.  He let the ten Latin phrases linger for several seconds.  Videns-Loquitur, he thought.  He brought before his mind the image of the blond queen and whispered: “Mariel of Pulchra Mane.”    
            The Latin list disappeared, replaced by a white dot that quickly grew and became a life-size picture frame.  But the picture showed no one.  Marty saw a round globe on a pedestal, surely the lord’s knob in a castle.  He looked for clues, but for all he could tell he might be looking into any castle’s great hall.  Not far from the lord’s knob Marty saw a stand-up writing desk, and that seemed promising, but the whole scene was dimly lit in tones of black and white.  Marty whispered his summons again: “Mariel Grandmesnil of Pulchra Mane!”
            An old man, gray hair clipped short, came into view.  Marty had seen him before, Aweirgan Unes, the scribe for Mariel.  Unes peered into the screen as if confused.  Then he spoke over his shoulder to someone out of the picture.  No sound—Marty might have been watching a silent movie from the 1920s.  Mariel appeared; even without colors there was no mistaking her pregnancy and long blond hair.  Her hair was wet and she was brushing it.  She was talking with her scribe, and both of them gestured at the interface.  Marty realized with a thrill: They don’t know I can see them.  Mariel uses Videns-Loquitur, but she doesn’t know all its powers.
Mariel tossed aside the hairbrush and straightened her shoulders.  Unes took his place at the writing desk, and Mariel placed her hand on her knob.  Colors immediately flooded the scene.  Violet light encircled the knob and Mariel’s hand.  Her dress shimmered cornflower blue with amethyst buttons.  Aweirgan Unes wore an ash gray tunic and a sash of cardinal red.
            For a short while, a heartbeat or two—Mariel looked at Marty without recognition.  She doesn’t see me clearly yet.  I’m still coming into focus.  Then she said, “Ah!  Lord Martin of Inter Lucus.  Fair morning.  I’m glad to speak with you.  You haven’t answered my summons for at least two weeks.”
            “Fair morning, Lady Mariel.  I’ve been busy.”
            Queen Mariel, you should say.  Surely whatever you were doing could have been interrupted long enough to converse with your queen.  I will be your queen, Martin.”
            No wonder she has to subdue lords by force.   She rubs their faces in it.  She wants them to grovel.  Marty felt a tremendous urge to say something defiant but rejected it.  She expects resistance and pride.  Give her something else.  “I hope that will be true, Queen Mariel.  I look forward to a day when I and the people of Inter Lucus can rely on the queen’s justice.  But you see, that is just the problem.  I must protest that you have not treated us in a queenly fashion.”
            “How so?”
            Marty gestured vaguely toward Acwel Penda, and Elfric pushed him closer to the lord’s knob.  “This man calls himself Acwel Penda.  Perhaps you recognize him.  Penda says he is a captain in your army, serving under your husband.  He and his men, six of them, came to my castle carrying firebombs.  They schemed with a local troublemaker to burn down our Prayer House, which they did, yesterday.  And today Captain Penda threatened to burn Inter Lucus.  This is not the way a proper queen treats loyal subjects.”
            Mariel pressed her lips together.  Marty couldn’t tell if she were angry or amused.  Finally she said,  “Who are you to tell me how a queen should act?  Are you a loyal subject?”
            “I would very much like to be.”  Marty spoke without guile.  “It seems to me that a confederation of castle lords, coordinated under the rule of a queen, would serve the people of Two Moons far better than dividing the planet into dozens of fiefdoms.  So: Aye!  I would like to be your loyal subject.  But how can I serve a queen who sends marauders to burn and loot my holdings?” 
            The blond queen pursed her lips.  “You must be mistaken, Lord Martin.  I do not interfere with Prayer Houses or the worship of the old god in the free cities of Herminia.  If you wish to worship the old god or build a Prayer House, you may.  And I assure you, if General Ridere intended to assault your castle, he would have sent more than seven men.  Your story does not make sense.”
            “I only wish I were mistaken.”  Marty inclined his head.  “But our Prayer House has been destroyed.  The fire that burned it was not extinguished by water or snow.  Captain Penda called it ‘liquid fire.’  And he brought bottles of the same liquid fire into Inter Lucus.
            “How did he gain entrance to your castle?”
            “We invited him, naturally.”
Mariel was puzzled.  “You invited him in?  After he burned your Prayer House?”
Marty held out an open palm.  “I did not know at that time that Penda and his men had burned Prayer House, though I suspected it.  I wanted to ask him whether they had any role in it.  When he and his men agreed to lay aside their swords, I thought perhaps the arson was the work of a local man only, a man who has caused trouble before.  But once inside my castle, Captain Penda openly confessed to aiding the attack on Prayer House and he threatened to burn Inter Lucus with liquid fire unless my sheriffs surrendered their weapons.”  
A pause for effect.  “In short, Lady Mariel, Captain Penda’s behavior is precisely the kind of thing I would expect from a brigand or highwayman: unprovoked attacks, concealed weapons, and threats.  This is not the way a true queen wins the trust of her people.”
“You dare lecture me?”
“Above all else, a ruler must have honesty from her people.  I am merely trying to speak the truth.”
Anger flushed the queen’s face, but she bit back a rejoinder.  Finally: “Lord Martin, you are right.  As your queen I need you to speak truthfully.  If it is true that Captain Penda and his men attacked Inter Lucus without cause, they will be punished.  Now, Penda has served my husband for some years; I know him well and I see him standing there.  Will you allow me to question him?”
Marty bowed his head.  “Of course.”
“Captain Penda!  Captain Penda!  Acwel!”
A worry: He might be completely deaf.  The Herminian soldier did not respond at first to Mariel’s voice.  But he could see her eyes on him and her lips moving.  Penda stepped beside Marty, Elfric’s sword still prodding his back.
Penda glanced sideways at Marty, but made no threatening move.  Marty gestured toward Mariel’s image in the interface wall.  The soldier took yet another stride forward.
“Your majesty, my lady.”  Penda bowed formally.  “I am sorry, but…” He touched his ear.  “I can’t hear you well.”
“What’s wrong with him?”  Mariel addressed the question to Marty.
“I used sound to defend Inter Lucus.  It may have damaged their ears.”
Mariel said something to Aweirgan Unes, and the scribe replied, but either they were whispering or Mariel had somehow muted Videns-Loquitur.  Marty couldn’t hear what they said.
The queen focused on Acwel Penda.  “Captain Penda!  Can you hear me?”  Her voice was much louder now.
She knows how to manipulate the volume on Videns-Loquitur.  Be careful, old man.  You’ve still got lots to learn.  I wonder—Could I project the klaxon noise into another castle?
“My queen.  Aye.  But it hurts.”  Penda covered his ear.
Marty thought he saw tenderness in Mariel’s expression.  “Report,” she said.
Penda looked from Marty to Mariel.  By their faces, both captor and queen pushed the soldier to tell his story.  Penda nodded and began.
“General Ridere sent me with four scouts to reconnoiter the castle Inter Lucus.  The castle had long been a ruin, but the general said a new lord had revived it.  He sent me to bring greetings to Lord Martin.  Riding north in winter, we saw few travelers, but we did come upon two men traveling from Down’s End to Inter Lucus, Able Darcy and Ewert Green.  I then made terrible blunders.
“Darcy and Green had a friend at Inter Lucus.  Lord Martin had left Inter Lucus, they said, and they were going to join their friend.  They intended to capture the castle in the lord’s absence.  Obvious foolishness.  But I thought I should meet this friend of theirs and perhaps deliver all three as prisoners to Lord Martin.  So we let Darcy and Green ride with us.  This was my first mistake.  Yesterday morning we met Rothulf Saeric, their friend.
“We came to the village yesterday noon and found it was true: Lord Martin had left his castle many days before.  Villagers said he would return, but they could not say when.  Rothulf Saeric explained his plan to us, that Darcy and Green would set fire to a Prayer House near the castle and while it burned he would induce his half-brother—a descendant of both the Tirels and the Mortanes, he said—to bond with Inter Lucus.  A ridiculous scheme, I thought.  But I played along with it, another blunder.  My men and I stayed the night in a house where the villagers could attest to our presence.  Thus I could blame the attack on Prayer House solely on Saeric and his friends.
“We gave Darcy and Green a few bottles of liquid fire, to embolden their foolish plot.  When all was over, I thought, and the attack had failed, we could say they stole the fire.  But I also thought that Saeric just might succeed.  Another blunder.
“We came to Inter Lucus today.  Prayer House had been destroyed, as Saeric planned.  At the castle, we were told that a ‘new lord’ would welcome us.  We entered the hall, and a boy who answered Saeric’s description of his half-brother stood at the lord’s knob.  Instantly I thought: I can deliver this castle to Queen Mariel.  My last and greatest blunder.  Lord Martin’s magic quickly exposed my stupidity.  He was here, not far away as we were told.  Now we are his prisoners.
“Our lives are forfeit, my Queen.  I only hope Lord Martin will blame me and not General Ridere or your Majesty.”
Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.

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