118. In Castle Hyacintho Flumen
“Here you are. I’ve been looking all over.” Juliana’s voice often had a husky timbre that invited Aylwin to think of sex. He had learned with some disappointment that it didn’t always mean that to her. For once he was glad; he had other things to think about.
“You’ve found me. What now?” His tone conveyed impatience, and he didn’t try to hide it.
She touched his elbow. “Aylwin, my lord. My dear. Don’t be harsh. I just wanted to be with you. You shouldn’t be alone.”
“Why not?” He pulled his arm away and turned on her. “Don’t you see that I am almost never alone? Look around! You can see the prison I am in, a strange prison that affords no solitude.”
He pointed, and her eyes followed his gesture. The morning sun had risen halfway up the sky, and the breeze, though cool, had a hint of spring in it. From the flat roof of Hyacintho Flumen’s gods’ tower they could see for miles in every direction. Close by, at the bottom of the castle hill on the east side ran Blue River. Herminian outposts dotted the rising ground east of the river. Southeast across the river lay the houses and buildings of the town. In the distance, in the hazy south, Blue River merged with the sea. On the south and west, Herminian camps followed the rim road that marked castle property. On the northwest and north, forests covered the ridges coming down from the mountains. Nestled in those woods were more Herminian camps.
“You see? I am hemmed in. The damned catapults are there and there.” Aylwin pointed. “By day they throw filth, and at night they launch liquid fire. I can block them with the shields, but only for a few hours.”
“Arthur believes the Herminians may exhaust the supply of liquid fire before spring.” Juliana was trying to be encouraging.
He snorted displeasure. “What advantage will that bring? They can easily throw ordinary fires. A greased bundle of hay would work quite nicely. In summer, they can scorch my fields, and I won’t be able to stop them.”
“Everything? The animals too?” Juliana sounded genuinely frightened.
“No. Catapults can only throw so far. You see how the Herminian camps make a circle, with Hyacintho Flumen at the center. Imagine another circle, inside the first, perhaps a fifth of the distance closer. With enough catapults, they could burn everything between those circles. Closer than that, we are safe. The stable, the barns, your old house, and all the nearer fields, including the orchards on the north side—the Herminians must come inside the greater shield to touch them.”
Juliana nodded. “And so we must always be alert, to call you to the lord’s knob at any time.”
“You’ve been listening to Dag Daegmund.”
She smiled. “Aye. He says that often to your armsmen and the servants.”
“Aye.” Aylwin sighed. “And so I must never be alone. Not really. For the sake of my mother, my sister and brother, my people, and for the one I will soon plant here…” He put his hand on her abdomen. “I must always be ready, ready to be summoned to battle.”
They watched activity in the Herminian camps. At every moment men were moving: washing clothes, preparing foods, chopping firewood, practicing with swords or bows, patrolling, and doing many other things. Hundreds of men moving at every moment—but there were many hundreds more that could not be seen, who would soon take their turn. And Aylwin knew, because the blond bitch of Herminia had told him, that though Aylwin and his defenders could never leave Hyacintho Flumen, the besieging soldiers were constantly rotated. For a few months, they went home to farms and families and then they came back. The siege would go on indefinitely, Mariel said. Only his submission would end it. Aylwin ground his teeth.
“The worst of it is…” He whispered his thought.
“What? Dear one, what is the worst?”
Juliana’s expression asked for explanation.
“I sent Amicia and Kenelm Ash to Down’s End to enlist help. Arthur says the city has the resources to raise a real army. Can they be persuaded? Has Kenelm found a husband for Toadface? Someone influential who can raise an army? I don’t even know whether they reached Down’s End.”
Juliana commented, “The enemy aims to starve us, but he also cuts off contact with the rest of Tarquint. The castle preserves food for many months, but information spoils quickly. Without news, you are disadvantaged.”
“Aye.” Aylwin raised an eyebrow. He hadn’t expected insight from Juliana. “Up here on the gods’ roof I can watch Ridere’s men, or if I want a better view I can use the castle eye. Beyond that, I am blind. I talk with the Herminian bitch every week, but I learn almost nothing.”
A touch of a smile. “Her boasts and threats sometimes say more than she realizes. If I listen between the words I learn things. For example, we saw the Herminians shaving their heads, and Arthur suggested they had a scalp disease spreading in the camp. Not so. I learned they used human hair for the catapults. And there’s this: my former wife now copies documents for the Herminian general.” Aylwin chuckled. “They found an actual use for her. Amazing.”
Juliana laughed too. “I wonder: Has her hair grown back? She hacked it off the day of the exchange. Perhaps she is shaved like the armsmen.”
“Hah! Very good!” Aylwin laughed heartily. “Edita Toeni—the crippled bald copyist!” He embraced Juliana and pulled her close, enjoying the curve of her back and butt with his hand.
Between kisses: “I propose we go downstairs, my lord. Our bedroom is not far.” She led him by the hand to the stair.
Sometime later, Aylwin rose first, and Juliana watched him dress. “You speak with Mariel every week?”
“Aye. On Fridays.” He tucked an indigo tunic into pale blue breeches.
She sat up, covering her breasts with a linen sheet. “Then…could you not speak with other lords on other days? Some other lord might not send armsmen, but it would cost him nothing to give you news.”
“You suppose I haven’t thought of this?” Aylwin was working an oiled leather belt into the loops of his breeches. “It requires a close bond for a lord to use Videns-Loquitur. According to Arthur, my father never mastered the art and rarely spoke with other lords. In only eight months I have a better bond with Hyacintho Flumen than Hereward ever had. And I am getting stronger. I can hold shields for three hours now. So I hope, soon, to do precisely what you suggest, to contact other lords.”
“But you can talk with Mariel.”
His face flashed anger. “Because she supports the contact. By the gods, woman! Do I have to explain every detail? The Bitch of Herminia has thousands of men on my land and she has castle powers I cannot match—yet. She can contact any lord she desires, it seems, and she can also produce steel, castle quality steel for weapons. Not like my father did—enough for a few swords every year. She makes tons of it. Every knight and commander in Ridere’s army has armor as good as my own.”
Aylwin’s hands were shaking so badly he fumbled at fastening the belt. Juliana swept out of the bed and came to him. “Let me.” Her nimble hands made quick work of the buckle. “There you go.” For once, Juliana’s nakedness meant nothing. She held Aylwin’s hands in her own until the trembling stopped.
A tear slid down Aylwin’s face. “I’m afraid, Juliana. And I can’t tell anyone.”
“You can tell me, my love. We will defy Mariel together. You have been lord for seven months. In another seven, as you grow stronger, who knows what you will be able to do?”
After Aylwin left, Juliana decided on a bath and lingered in the hot water. She dressed without the aid of a serving girl and was still fastening buttons on a peach colored tunic when someone knocked on her door. “Enter!”
Diera spoke breathlessly. “My lady! Lord Aylwin bids you come to the hall. You are a prophet, he says, and he wants you to see!”
Juliana hurried barefoot after Diera. In the great hall Arthur the old intercepted her halfway to Aylwin, who had his hand on the lord’s knob. “Lord Aylwin wishes you to witness his success, but it might serve us well if we were not seen.”
Juliana kept her voice low, mimicking Arthur. “Seen by whom?”
In answer, Arthur beckoned her to follow him. They stuck close to the wall, drawing near to the castle’s magic window, but at an angle so that they would not appear in the picture Videns-Loquitur showed to the other lord. And it was another lord, a man, not Mariel. Since Juliana saw the image from the side, the lord displayed there might have been distorted. Perhaps that explained why his face looked extremely thin. Unlike the orange-red aura of Aylwin’s knob, the other lord’s glowed with green light.
The narrow-faced lord was speaking. “…third I’ve reached. It’s not long ago I learned how to command Videns-Loquitur. I’ve talked with Mariel several times. She seems to be an old hand at V-L, has regular meetings with the lords of Herminia. Maybe that’s why I met her, because she uses V-L so often. Yesterday I spoke with Lady Jean Postel, lady of Aurea Prati. And now you. The truth is I don’t know where Aurea Prati is, but I’ve heard lots about Hyacintho Flumen. I’m very pleased to meet you, Lord Aylwin.”
Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
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