Thursday, October 9, 2014

Castles 124

124. At the Siege of Hyacintho Flumen

            The idea was Bully Wedmor’s.  He explained in the conference room of the Rose Petal.
            “Edita says that a castle’s magic varies from lord to lord.  Rocelin Toeni can sustain shields for only an hour or two.  His father, Sherard Toeni, could hold shields almost all day.”
            Fugol Hengist interrupted.  “This is common knowledge.  Certainly General Ridere is aware of it.  He’s consort to the Queen!”  Knowing grins spread around the conference table: all Herminia acknowledged the power of Mariel’s magic.  The steel armor and weapons enjoyed by the hostage knights testified to it. 
            Eudes Ridere stifled the humor with a raised hand.  “I lost good men to Sherard Toeni at the siege of Prati Mansum, so I want to hear Captain Wedmor’s plan.  Go on, Bully.”
            Some of the hostage knights raised eyebrows at the word “captain,” but everyone listened.
            “We have all seen that Mortane holds the shields at some times and not others.  He blocks projectiles from Ranulf and Thorwold for a while and then he stops.  So we can see when he has lowered the shield.  We can attack then.”
            Fugol Hengist objected again.  “Mortane is no fool.  He lowers the shield, invites us in, and then slaughters our men before we reach the castle.  This is no plan.”
            Bully nodded affirmatively.  “Aye.  But our plan is not to reach the castle.  And we do not attack with hundreds.  We put only fifty archers at risk.
“Spring plowing has begun.  Every day on the south side of Hyacintho Flumen Mortane’s servants are turning the soil.  The enemy’s best grain fields are in the flat land downslope from the castle, more than a thousand yards from Hyacintho Flumen.  Our plan is this: On a day when the plowmen are working far from the castle on the south side, we have Ranulf and Thorwold fire missiles at the enemy on the north and west side.  Mortane will block them for a while, as he usually does.  When he lowers the shield, Ranulf and Thorwold will start launching fires—something that will burn brightly and make lots of smoke.  We want to draw his attention north and west.  At the sign of the smoke, fifty archers advance on the south.  They loose one or two volleys only at the plowman, then retreat.  They will be inside the circle only a short time.  If Mortane is distracted or tired, the archers escape.”
            Archard Oshelm leaned forward, elbows on the table.  “You want to kill a farmer?”  There was some disdain as well as disbelief in his tone.
            “Perhaps.  We prefer to kill draft horses.”  Bully met Oshelm’s gaze unblinking.  “The less grain they grow, the sooner Mortane must submit.”
            Fugol Hengist snorted.  “We’ll lose the archers and gain nothing.  Even if you kill one, Mortane will have another farmer plow that field.  And the second time he’ll be sure to protect the plowman with a shield.”
            Oshelm did not join in Hengist’s derision.  He turned from Bully to face Ridere.  “If it worked, it would delay spring planting by a day or two, maybe more.  More importantly, it might provoke fear in Mortane’s people.  It could be a way of harassing the enemy, my Lord General.”
            The corner of Ridere’s mouth lifted.  “I did say that we would be like bees, didn’t I?  We allow no quiet rest to Mortane and his folk.”
            Fugol Hengist made one more objection.  “My Lord General, if we lose our archers without killing horses, we may actually encourage the enemy.”
            Ridere nodded.  “There’s a risk.  Therefore, Captain Hengist, I put the overall operation in your hands.  It will need coordination between the catapult crews and the archers, and it must happen soon, when the plowmen present a close target.”
Fugol bowed his head.  “As you wish, Lord General.”
Ridere wasn’t finished.  “Captain Wedmor will lead the troop of archers.”

Bully hadn’t proposed the attack to gain promotion.  That was Gifre’s doing, when he broached the idea to Ridere.  The squire had access to Ridere’s ear unmatched by any of his commanders.  Gifre, of course, proposed that he be included in the archer troop, along with Bully.  Ridere squelched that suggestion, but he agreed with Gifre that the leader of the archers ought to have rank.  So Bully Wedmor, who a year before was a landless laborer in an insignificant Herminian town, advanced to captaincy in the Herminian army.
The men of the archer troop were drawn from Beatus Valle.  Linn Wadard, hostage knight and eleven-year-old grandson of Lord Paul Wadard, came with the archers before dawn to the designated point of attack, an old barn by the rim road south of Hyacintho Flumen.  Linn’s father, List, also a knight, was absent.  Whispers among the men suggested that Sir List could probably be found in a bedroom in town, either sleeping off too many rounds of drink or lingering in the company of a certain tavern owner’s daughter.  The men whispered carefully.  They liked Linn Wadard and didn’t want to embarrass him with facts about his father.
When Bully announced the plan for the morning, all jocularity disappeared.  The archers stood in a ring around Bully, voicing objections.
“Inside the circle in broad daylight?”
Bully replied evenly: “Ranulf and Thorwold will be launching fire.  Aylwin’s attention should be on them.”
The second objector: “And what if it is?  He doesn’t need to see us, does he?  He could throw down the shield, aiming to stop fires, and kill us by accident.”
Bully acknowledged the question by nodding.  “The catapults will launch fire after he lets down the shield.  We’ll see smoke from Ranulf’s missiles hitting the ground.  So we’ll know the shield is down.”
A sandy-haired archer: “And what’s t’ stop him throwin’ it up agin?”
Bully: “The longer he holds the shield against the morning’s bombardment, the weaker he’ll be.  If he lets the fire projectiles through, it’s probably because he’s too tired to stop them.”
 A fourth objector: “Says who?  How can we know he’s tiring?”
This time Linn Wadard answered.  “General Ridere says even Mariel gets tired making magic.  He should know.”
The first objector spat on the dirt floor.  “By the gods!  We don’t know he’s tired!   They’re sending us to our death based on a guess.  Whose idea was this, anyway?” 
“Mine.”  Bully turned on his heel slowly, meeting the gaze of each man in the ring.  “I proposed the plan to Ridere.”
The archers fell silent, glaring at Bully, and in that silence Linn Wadard spoke.  “Captain Wedmor told General Ridere how to use the slough to escape to the river.  He’s also the one who captured Mortane’s strumpet and traded her for Lady Edita.  Captain Wedmor is as clever as any of Ridere’s commanders, and he is not sending you into battle; he’s leading you.”
The sandy-haired archer turned on the boy.  “Cap’ Wedmor, ya say?  And what abou’ you, ya lil’ ass?”
The second archer intervened.  “Watch your mouth, Rob.  Sir Linn is just a boy.”
Another man put a hand on Rob’s shoulder.  “And he will be Lord Wadard someday.”
Sandy-haired Rob blew out a breath.  “I mean no offence, Sir Linn.  Gods know yer here, which be more th’ can be said fer others.”
The second archer commented, “Rightly said, Rob.”  There was some shuffling of feet and nodding of heads.  “So—what now?” 
“Our target is a plowman and his horse.”  Bully had their attention.  “We attack today because he’ll be plowing close to the ring road, on the near side of the washerwoman’s house.  We will run toward the plowman until we are in range, loose two arrows each, and run back.  That’s all: run in, shoot twice, and run back.  We will not shoot until I signal.  I want a rain of arrows all at once.”
            One of the archers spoke up.  “We do all this to kill a plowman?”
            “I’d rather kill the horses and leave the man.  The man has to eat.  An unplowed field, or poorly plowed field, grows less food.  Less food for the castle means a shorter siege.  A shorter siege lets you go home.”

Bully hadn’t foreseen the hardest part of his plan.  After the archers selected two arrows each, they had nothing to do but wait.  From the vantage of the barn they could see nothing on the north side of Hyacintho Flumen, so all their cues came from Ranulf, on the west side of the castle.  At first, several men lined the barn’s wall, looking out through knotholes and cracks in boards.  Time dragged with nothing remarkable happening, so the men wandered around the interior of the barn, worrying.  Bully had to appoint men to keep watch in turn. 
Weeks of practice had made the Ranulf crew efficient in bombardment; a rock or some other projectile flew from the catapult every five minutes with great regularity.  But only the sharp-eyed among the archers could be sure of the missiles at this distance.  Unfired clay pots were the easiest to spot; they broke into many pieces when they struck the invisible circle shield and rolled down like pebbles on a hillside.
The day’s plowing had begun shortly after sunrise.  Two teams of horses worked separate fields, one just south of the castle close to Blue River and the other where Bully predicted, between the washerwoman’s cottage and the rim road.  The archers tried to encourage each other: “We’ll only have to run a little way to get a shot,” they said.  In spite of hopeful predictions, tension grew.  At some point or another every man thought: Let’s just get on with it.
“Shield’s down!”  Men raced to cracks and knotholes at the word.  Five minutes later Ranulf’s next missile smashed into the shield high in the air.  The response from the lookout’s friends was immediate.
“Damn you, Albin!  Gods damn you to hell.”
“Be sure before you say anything!” 
“Do that again and I’ll put an arrow up your butt, you idiot.”
Perhaps because of the angry words, Bully thought the tension in the barn lessened a little. 
Linn Wadard piped up from the other side of the barn.  “Any of you know how to play Fox and Hens?”  He drew a circle on the ground with a stick.  “I don’t have any money, but we could play for arrows.”  He pointed to bundles of extra arrows the men had laid aside.
“Oh, hell.  Why not?” Someone said.  Within minutes five men were playing the children’s game, and ten others were watching.
The man named Albin said, “It really is down.  Ranulf is throwing fire.”
“Lower your breeches, Albin.  I’m getting my gear.” 
But this time when men crowded the wall, they could see smoke rising west of the castle.  They made room at a knothole for Bully to look.  He waited until the next launch from Ranulf: more smoke.  “The shield is definitely down.”  Bully turned from the wall and made fists with both hands.  “We’ll let Ranulf shoot once more before we leave the barn.  Spread out just a bit on the road.  No shouting, for gods’ sake!  At Ranulf’s next shot after we leave the barn I’ll say go.  Run straight for the plowman.  Don’t shoot ’til I say shoot.  Take your second shot as you like, then get out.  That’s all: in, shoot twice, out.  Got it?  Get your gear, then.”
Bully watched through a crack while the men grabbed bows and arrows.  The next missile from Ranulf hit the ground and made a cloud of white smoke.  Wet hay, Bully thought, irrelevantly.  “Let’s go.”
The archers exited the barn at a quick trot, following Bully.  They spread out about a hundred yards along the rim road.  Someone crouched down, as if this might hide him from Aylwin’s magic, and soon all were doing it.
Another missile from Ranulf; this time it produced black smoke.  Oiled hay, I bet.  Bully waved his arm forward.  There was no need to shout a command; the archers charged as one.  A quarter-mile away, the plowman saw them immediately.  Bully heard the man’s shout, but it was faint.  Surely it would be inaudible in Hyacintho Flumen. 
Two hundred yards of uneven ground, and some men ran faster than others.  One man tripped, dislocated his shoulder, and sat on the ground in disbelief.  In spite of all, most of the men reached firing distance in less than a minute.  “Hold here!” Bully said.  The archers quickly formed a firing row.
All around him men notched arrows.  Bully looked from side to side.  “Ready.  Ready.  Loose!”
Arrows shot away.  “Shoot again!  Then run!”
The plowman deserted his team and started running when he saw the archers preparing.  His horses, hitched to a plow, had nowhere to go.  Naturally, most of the arrows missed the beasts, but one cannot stay completely dry in the middle of a storm.
“Back, back, back!”  The archers goaded each other as they ran.  The man with the dislocated shoulder got up and staggered after the others.  Ten minutes after they left the barn, the archers were all back inside.  Not one had dropped or thrown aside his bow.
“By the gods!  We did it!”  Men panted, laughed, and shook hands.  “We got ’em,” said someone, and they all looked.  The plow horses were hard to see, because they had fallen to the ground. 
“No plowin’ t’day!” exulted sandy-haired Rob.  His comrades laughed at his enthusiasm, the laughter of shared relief.

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

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