Thursday, December 25, 2014

Belated Christmas Post: Castles 135

I wish all of you a Merry Christmas!  God bless.

135. At Winter Camp

            “Eádulf, my horse!  It’s time to move.  Where’s Derian?”
            “Sheriff Chapman is inspecting the wagons, sir.”  Eádulf brought Milo’s mount through the mud.  It was raining, and had been for two days.  The boots of armsmen and the melting of snow had long since reduced the spaces between Winter Camp’s buildings to mud pits.  Rain only compounded the mess.
            Milo’s new destrier, given to him by Assemblyman Ham Roweson shortly after Milo became Commander of the Guard, stood quietly with Eádulf patting the magnificent animal’s nose.  The unimaginative Eádulf called him “Gray Boy,” which understated the creature’s size and strength, but Milo hadn’t objected.  Gray Boy had a heavy black mane and tail that accented his silvery gray horsehair.  Milo had ridden Gray Boy weekly from Citadel to Winter Camp and back to accustom the horse to his weight and manner, but in truth Eádulf had been the creature’s most regular companion for many weeks.  In battle knight and mount needed to act as one, and Milo regretted not spending more time in the saddle.  We’ll have some days together before Down’s End, Milo thought.  An army can only move as fast as infantry and supply wagons.  There should be opportunity to take Gray Boy for a gallop or two.
            Milo stepped on a sawn block with his right foot so he could raise his left to the stirrup and then launch himself into the saddle.  Weeks before, Felix Abrecan had teased Milo about using a mounting block like a woman or an old man.  Milo had responded by laying aside his sword, stripping to an under tunic, and then leaping onto the horse.  Gray Boy had reared and nearly thrown him.  After that, Felix and Eádulf insisted Milo use the mounting block, especially when he wore armor or weapons.  Today, with the army setting out, he wore a boiled leather jerkin over his clothes and carried his sword.
            Other than the great horse, the Commander of the Guard was distinguished mainly by a pale yellow felt hat.  It was exactly the color of globum domini auctoritate the day Milo had bonded with Hyacintho Flumen, and he bought it the moment he saw it in a Stonebridge shop.  “Gods!  Why that?”  Tilde asked when she saw it.  “You look like a mushroom or a peasant, not a general.”  He replied: “It will keep the rain off.  And if an archer sees lots of ugly hats, he might shoot at others rather than me.”  Privately, Milo resolved that if he returned victorious to Stonebridge, he would have a new sigil invented for his shield and armor, and that sigil would in some way feature just this shade of yellow.
            Felix and Derian rode up before Milo could go looking for them.  Their mounts were considerably shorter than Gray Boy and flecked with mud that reached the riders’ knees; either man could have been a boy looking up at his father.
            “Do we have everything?”  Milo directed his question to Derian.
            “Of course not.”  Derian wore a misshapen leather hat that drained water to the side.  “If there is anything I’ve learned since you pressed me into fulltime service as a sheriff, it’s that officers of the Guard never have enough.  Hrodgar Wigt, Aidan Fleming, Acwel Kent, and Ifing Redhair all have insatiable desires for more men, more food, more weapons, more horses, more fodder, and on and on.  And of course there needs be more wagons to carry everything.  You may be absolutely sure that should anything go wrong your captains will complain that it would have been prevented had I provided them with more.”
            Milo tossed his head, mimicking Amicia’s habit and throwing rainwater on his pommel.  Grinning: “I take it that we are ready.”
            Derian saluted, his fist on his chest.
            “We move, then.  Spread the word, Felix.  Easy march for the first day, twelve miles.  The men will want tents and campfires at the end of the day.”

            “Easy march” proved to be anything but.  The only sustained marching the Stonebridge recruits had experienced was from the city over the ring of hills to Winter Camp.  Some companies had reversed the journey, but not nearly all.  And the practice marches had been in good weather and on firm frozen ground.  Now they marched in the rain, with full packs, in mud.  They marched not in lone squads of twenty, but in units of fifty in a long line; the groups behind had to wait for the groups ahead.  Consequently, the army moved like a caterpillar, each section impeded at some point by comrades before or behind.
            The road from Stonebridge to Down’s End was only a dirt track.  Some of the infantry abandoned the road to trample the prairie on both sides, which meant that the last third of the army either marched in mud or widened the track further.  Besides Milo and his commanders, the army included fifty mounted scouts; some rode ahead of the main body while others paralleled the infantry on either side.  The wagons came behind the swordsmen, knife fighters and archers, their draft horses plodding in the mud.  Fortunately, the first day’s terrain sloped gently down for the most part; the animals would have struggled mightily going uphill.
            After twelve miles Milo’s men were tired, thoroughly wet, and filthy to their waists.  They wanted tents and campfires, but had little practice erecting camp in the wild.  It took three hours of confusion, frustration and shouting before everything was properly set.  At last, after dark, the rain stopped, and men could dry themselves and sup.
            Derian and the captains—Hrodgar Wigt, Aidan Fleming, Acwel Kent, and Ifing Redhair—came to Milo once the scouts had come in and sentries were in place.  They sat dispirited on logs around a campfire.  Milo listened as each listed frustrations of the day.  The commanders complained about the weather, about the road, about their men, and about stupid decisions made by each other.  After half an hour, Milo finally signaled for silence.
            “I promised these men that they would be an army.  Today we discovered they are not.  I promised more than I knew.  True, I know how to fight.  I can handle sword and shield and fight on horseback or afoot.  You men, my commanders, are accomplished fighters, and we’ve trained our men as fighters.  But we have not trained them to march, and without marching they can’t be an army.  This is not their fault.  We failed.  I failed.”
            Wigt, Fleming, Kent and Redhair didn’t answer.
            “Now, we can go back to Stonebridge as failures.  That would be honest.  We could spend the summer training these men to march, and they would probably be a real army by harvest.  But that is not what we’re going to do.”
            Derian and the captains stared at him, waiting.
            “Tomorrow we will break camp at the sound of a horn.  We will march a mile—or two, or three—and then we will set camp at the sound of the horn.  I will inspect the camp.  Then we will do it all again: break camp, march, set camp.  If there is still daylight, I may order it all yet again.  We will do this every day until we are an army.  When the morning horn sounds, we must be moving in half an hour.  When the evening horn sounds, we must set camp in half an hour.”
            Milo stood and pulled on his yellow cap.
            “Where are you going?” Derian asked.
            “I’m going to visit every campfire and tell the men what I’ve told you.  I will apologize for my failure and promise them that they will yet be an army.  I would appreciate it if you five would spread out among the men and tell them to keep their fires burning until I come by.”

            The practice regimen worked.  In the next three days, the Stonebridge army advanced only fifteen miles total, striking and setting camp seven times.  Efficiency improved with repetition, and the spirit of the men improved with it.  They could see for themselves how much more quickly tasks were accomplished, and they acknowledged the way efficiency reduced the discomforts of campaigning.  Shared experiences of improvement generated feelings of competence.
            On the fourth day, the fifth from Winter Camp, Milo rode Gray Boy up and down the marching column announcing the end of practice.  Today we march like a real army!  By nightfall they had covered sixteen miles, and they set camp without complaint in the rain in half an hour.  In the evening, the captains congratulated Milo that his army had a sense of pride.  He replied that they had overcome a preliminary hurdle only; an army’s real worth had to be proved in battle.

            Six more days brought the army to Crossroads.  They camped on the prairie north of the Crossroads Inn for two nights, and the intervening day permitted rest for footsore armsmen.  It also afforded a bonanza to Idonea Fatman, owner of the inn.  She rented no rooms to the Stonebridge men, but she sold gallons of ale and as much meat as her kitchen could cook.  
            At Crossroads, Milo and Derian interviewed Rage Hildebeorht, the sheriff appointed by the Stonebridge Assembly to rid the country of highwaymen.  Hildebeorht had a regular room in the inn since he stayed there much of the time.  He remembered Derian and Milo’s faces from their appearances in Crossroads the previous year, but he was taken aback that Milo Mortane, refugee from Hyacintho Flumen, was now Commander of the City Guard.
            Derian corrected Hildebeorht, “We are not in Stonebridge.  Here, Milo is General Mortane, general of the Stonebridge army.  This should not be a surprise to you; surely you’ve received news from Stonebridge of the Assembly’s doings.”
             “Not like you’d think.”  Hildebeorht signaled to Erna Fatman, Idonea’s daughter, to bring more drink to their table.  “I sent reports to Frideric Bardolf twice a month last summer, either sending them with some trusty teamster or taking them myself.  But in winter wagons get scarce on the road, and Speaker Bardolf stopped sending messengers—and Ibertus Tibb stopped sending my pay, I should add.  The truth is, I’d about decided to quit sheriffing and marry widow Fatman.  Now you’ve turned up; if I get paid, I just might continue.”
            “Last summer I delivered you a highwayman and you hanged him,” said Milo.  “What have you done since?  Have you earned your pay?”
            Hildebeorht crossed his arms, scowling.  “Bardolf and Dans gave me fifty golds to hire under-sheriffs.  I sent Bardolf and Tondbert a report, detailing how I used it.”
            Milo accepted a mug of ale from Erna.  “I don’t need the whole report.  Give me the short version.”
            “I hired twenty under-sheriffs for three months each.  We hanged three thieves, including the one you brought in.”
            “With twenty men you caught two bandits?  In three months?”  Derian was incredulous.
            Hildebeorht was fifty years old, not ready to be intimidated by men as young as Derian and Milo.  “That’s right.  Traders like you, Master Chapman, see highwaymen behind every tree, and you complain to the Down’s End Council or the Stonebridge Assembly that the road isn’t safe.  Teamsters, too, howl all the time.  I don’t really blame them or you.  But the truth is, the road is not that dangerous.  We hanged three and put the fear of the gods in others.  I earned my pay until it stopped.”
            Milo leaned sideways to unsheathe his sword.  He laid the weapon on the table between him and Hildebeorht, where its castle steel reflected the inn’s candles, lit already, though sup was an hour away.  He leaned forward and saw Hildebeorht swallow.  “Things have changed in Stonebridge.  Speaker Bardolf stopped sending you pay because he has been accused of defrauding the city.  He is in a cell in the Citadel, as is Ody Dans.  Tondbert is dead.  Kingsley Averill is now the Speaker, and I am the Commander of the Guard—your commander, Sheriff Hildebeorht.  I find your service barely acceptable, and I am of a mind to replace you.”
            Hildebeorht looked long at the sword.  He swallowed again.
            “However,” Milo continued, “I think you may yet repay the trust Stonebridge placed in you.”
            “How can I do that, Lord Commander?”
            “You will sup with me and my captains tonight.  And Idonea’s son Beowulf, he will sup with us.  You are not stupid, Sheriff, only lazy.  You and Bee will tell us every scrap of rumor you have heard from Down’s End and about the siege of Hyacintho Flumen.”
            Derian raised an eyebrow.  “Rumors, Milo?”
            “It’s up to us to sort out truth from fiction,” Milo said.  “Bee Fatman is an intelligent youth.  I promise you we’ll know more in the morning than we do now.”

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


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