Thursday, February 19, 2015

Castles 143

143.  In Castle Inter Lucus
            After the Videns-Loquitur session with Aylwin, Marty’s sense of urgency returned stronger than before; he needed information from Avice Montfort.  But what to do with Milo Mortane? A good host—the lord of a castle—ought to show hospitality to guests.  And the general of the Stonebridge army was no ordinary guest.  For a minute, Marty pretended to read over Whitney’s record of the conversation with Aylwin.  In reality he was considering the possibility of somehow excluding Mortane from Inter Lucus just long enough to contact Lady Montfort.  He frowned.  Even if I get some news from Montfort, how do we sneak Penda and Godric past the Stonebridge armsmen?
            Mortane solved the problem for him.  After a whispered conversation with his bodyguard, Felix Abrecan, Milo said, “Lord Martin.”
            “Hm?”  Marty turned from Whitney’s report.
Milo stepped away from Abrecan toward Marty.  At Marty’s side, Elfric put his hand on his sword hilt—a slight motion, but not unnoticed by Mortane.  “I am unarmed.”  He grinned at Elfric and held out open palms.  “I must thank you, Lord Martin, for inviting me to Inter Lucus and for creating this meeting with Aylwin and Mother.  I am tempted, of course, to stay and beg you to make possible another such conversation tomorrow.  You are clearly a powerful lord; perhaps you can support Videns-Loquitur on consecutive days.  But it cannot be, even if you were willing.  I must return to the army; in fact, we must depart immediately.  Felix says if we ride hard for three hours today, and let the horses rest overnight, we can take a day off the return to Crossroads.”
            Marty rubbed his nose, concealing his relief.  “How quickly can you rejoin the army?”
            “Three days, perhaps two if we ride the horses into exhaustion.”  Mortane cast his gaze around the great hall.  “If fortune permits, I would like to return to Inter Lucus.  I have never been to a castle other than Hyacintho Flumen.  The differences are subtle, but worth exploring.”
            “Really?  I’ve never been in another castle either.  I’d be interested in what you conclude.  In any case, you will be welcome.”  Marty motioned to Elfric, who escorted Mortane’s bodyguard, Felix Abrecan, through the west door.  Marty and the general followed.  Outside, Ealdwine Smithson, Leo Dudd, and Ora awaited them in the shade of the oaks along with other Stonebridge soldiers.  Caelin and Went Bycwine had already come from the barn, leading Stonebridge horses.
            “General Mortane.”  In spite of his eagerness to return to the lord’s knob and the interface wall, Marty suddenly realized an important opportunity might disappear when the general departed.  “Might I have a word?  Privately?”
            Milo shrugged.  “If you wish.  Briefly.”  He waved at Felix Abrecan and the other Stonebridge armsmen.  “Take Gray Boy and the other horses down to the priests’ building.  I’ll be along presently.”
            Elfric raised his eyebrows when Marty motioned him to accompany the Stonebridge men.  “My lord?  You should not be defenseless.”  He touched his sword hilt.
            “The general has no weapon.”  Marty sighed.  “Very well.  Give it here.”  Receiving Elfric’s sword, Marty said to Milo, “My sheriffs are trying to train me to protect myself.”
            “As well they should.  Outside his castle, a lord is vulnerable.”
            The Stonebridge soldiers and Marty’s people were walking down the hill, armsmen as well as Inter Lucus folk casting backward looks at Milo and Marty.  “Your men are as nervous about your safety as Elfric is for mine.  I suppose a general without his guards is as vulnerable as a lord outside his castle.”
            “Not in this case.”  Milo pointed with his chin to the sword in Marty’s hand.  “How many times have you fought with a sword?  Not many, I wager.”
            “You are certainly right about that.”  Marty wondered what gave him away.  “But surely, even an inexperienced man could kill with a blade like this.”  He pointed the sword away from Milo.
            “Blacksmith forged.  A useful weapon, in the right hand.”  Milo nodded.  “My own sword is castle steel, lighter, sharper and stronger.  But the quality of the sword matters less than the arm that wields it.  There are many ways to take advantage of an untrained fighter.  Fortunately for you, I have no designs against you.”  The two men resumed their walk downhill.  Milo asked, “Now, why did you want to speak privately?”
            “I wanted to speak with you about what you just mentioned—your designs or plans.  You have no designs against me, you say.  You told Aylwin that you serve the Stonebridge Assembly.  If that is true, your plans are determined by the Assembly’s will.  What does Stonebridge intend?”
            Milo stopped.  He seemed to be weighing his reply.  “They don’t know what they intend, not clearly, not yet.”
            “But they sent you with an army into the field.  Surely they gave you some instruction.”
            “Aye.  I am to destroy highwaymen.  I am to reconnoiter the Herminian invader and advise the Assembly about its strength.”
            Marty asked, “Why send an army?  Fifty horsemen should be enough to rout bandits and size up the Herminians.”
            “Aye.”  Mortane began walking again.  “But they also—at least some of them—want Down’s End to acknowledge Stonebridge as first among the free cities.  Some day there will be an alliance between the free cities, and Stonebridge must be first among them.  The Herminian invasion brings that day close.  That is the mind of some Assemblymen.  As I say, the Assembly as a whole is not entirely clear about its aims.”
            They came to Elfric, standing thirty yards apart from the Stonebridge soldiers, none of whom had yet mounted their horses.  “My sheriff will insist that I stop here,” Marty said, handing Elfric his sword.  “And I want to rephrase my question.  What are your designs, General Mortane?  The report you make to the Assembly will greatly influence their policy.  What will you tell them?”
            Milo kicked at some grass at the edge of the paved castle road. “General Ridere is a dangerous man.  For the moment, he has the upper hand.  A battle between us would mean the destruction of my army.  But Ridere’s advantage will not last.  His supply lines are too long.  There are great chances before us.”
            Marty replied, “Aye.  There are chances, opportunities, before us.  It seems to me that we ought to use them to persuade Aylwin and Mariel to stop their war.  I have said this to both of them, so far without success.  You, General, are in a position to aid the cause of peace.  Aylwin might not take your advice, but Stonebridge will.  The Stonebridge Assembly already sees that the free cities must cooperate, and I agree.  We all—Stonebridge, Down’s End, Inter Lucus, and Mariel and Aylwin—would be better off in peace than war.”
            Milo grinned.  “How is that possible?  I am Stonebridge’s general.  I will be better off if I win battles.  What use is a general if there are no battles?”
            Marty felt dismay.  “Will you, then, push Stonebridge toward war?”
            The general’s lip curled into a harsh smile.  “As I said, there are great chances before me.  The gods have given me chances greater than Aylwin’s.  Who would have guessed it?  If a man is alert, he seizes his chances.”  He walked to Felix Abrecan, who held the reins to his horse, stepped up on a box placed beside the animal, and mounted.  Once in the saddle, he saluted Marty.  “Farewell, Lord Martin.  I will come again, if I can.”

              In spite of his eagerness to call Avice Montfort, Marty waited until the Stonebridge riders were out of sight, and then a few minutes more.  He felt queasy, as if he had eaten contaminated food.  Milo Mortane’s words hung in his mind: “There are great chances before me.” 
Marty felt instinctively the danger of doing anything to betray the presence of Ridere’s soldiers in Inter Lucus.  He half expected General Mortane or one of his men to come galloping back to Prayer House under the pretext of delivering one last word.  Finally he said,  “Okay.  We’ve got work to do.”
            Marty marched double-time back to Inter Lucus, issuing orders.  “Caelin, it’s your turn to take notes.  Come with me to the interface. 
“Ealdwine, Went and Ora.  I’m going to call Avice Montfort, and I hope for news that I will share with Captain Penda.  But I prefer that he not witness the conversation.  Go find Penda and his men and take them to the kitchen.  Give them something to eat and drink.  You can tell them plainly that they are not to come to the great hall.  I will send for them when I’m ready.
“Elfric, make sure the Herminians’ horses are saddled and ready.  They may need to leave Inter Lucus tonight.”
            When Marty established the Videns-Loquitur connection to Tutum Partum, Lady Montfort stood between two men.  She introduced the older man, who sat on her right in a rather plain wooden chair, as her long-time scribe, Renweard.  Renweard’s fingers could no longer hold a pen for more than a minute or two, Lady Montfort said, though she still treasured his advice.  A younger man, Gentian, sat in the ornate scribe’s chair with paper and ink spread on a small table.  Marty introduced Caelin as his recorder for the day.
            Formalities accomplished, Marty delayed no further.  “Lady Avice, I grow more concerned about Queen Mariel with every day that passes.  Have you received any news from Pulchra Mane?”
            “We have.”  Montfort, standing with her hands on her knob, nodded her head toward the old scribe.  Renweard read from a sheet of paper.
            “My Dear Lady Montfort.  I announce to you the birth of a prince, blessed of the gods, who will one day rule Herminia.  Her majesty Queen Mariel gave birth to a healthy son on the twenty-fifth day of May.  The prince will be known as Eudes Grandmesnil until such time as his father or mother decides on another name.  The boy is healthy, and we have procured an able wet nurse for him.”
            The old man hesitated to read further.  Lady Montfort said, “Go on, Renweard.  Eudes Ridere needs to know.”
            Renweard cleared his voice and obeyed.  “I will write to the lords of Herminia to tell them that Mariel lives and will resume Videns-Loquitur meetings with them as soon as her strength returns.  She is under the care of physicians.  However, General Ridere must be told that the Queen bled much after the birth of her son, and she is gravely ill.  Her true condition cannot be longed concealed from Herminia’s lords.  The general must do as he deems best, but I advise him to return to Pulchra Mane as expeditiously as possible.
            “Only to you, Lady Montfort, of all the Queen’s counselors, do I write this full report.  I beg you to send this news to General Ridere without delay by the fastest means.  I write in full confidence that wisdom will guide your actions.  May the gods protect the realm created by King Rudolf and ruled so well by Queen Mariel.  Signed, Aweirgan Unes, scribe for her majesty Mariel Grandmesnil, Lady of Pulchra Mane and Queen of Herminia.”  
            The old scribe looked up from the paper and set his jaw as if his lady had crossed a Rubicon.  Avice Montfort waited for Marty to speak, her hazel eyes watching his face.
            “Does Aweirgan know that you can speak with me?” Marty asked.
            “I don’t know.”  The gray light around Montfort’s hands wavered a little.
            “He knows that I can contact Aylwin.”  Marty pushed his hair from his eyes.  “I said as much to Mariel, many times.  Aweirgan may be hoping that you would send news to General Ridere through me, much as Mariel has before.”
            Lady Montfort said, “Perhaps.  More likely, he knows that he can trust me.  My fastest ship is his best hope.”
            Marty smiled.  “Well then, we have already surpassed his best hope.  Captain Penda and his men are here in Inter Lucus today.  They will ride with my letter to General Ridere as soon as may be.”
            Avice Montfort smiled weakly and briefly.  “Good.”
            “You are still troubled, Lady Montfort.”
            “We must all die, Lord Martin.  But it is a deep sadness when the young die.  And I fear it will be a sadness beyond words if this young queen dies.  If your letter spurs Ridere to return home immediately, his army will not reach Pulchra Mane in real force for two months.  In that much time a rebel lord might sack the castle.  Prince Eudes could become the target of assassins.  The kingdom could be rent by civil war.  Furthermore, how much of Ridere’s army will be loyal to him once they know Mariel is gone?  All that Rudolf put together could fall apart.”
            At first, a Herminian withdrawal from Tarquint had struck Marty as good news: the unnecessary slaughter of young men on both sides would be avoided.  But now Montfort’s analysis predicted an even greater disaster would befall Herminia, a civil war between multiple lords.  International politics: a desperate voyage between Scylla and Charybdis.  War on one hand and worse war on the other.  Meanwhile, Milo Mortane has an army and the wealth of Stonebridge to feed it.  What happens in Tarquint if Ridere withdraws to Herminia?
            “Lady Montfort, Mariel is not dead yet.  Aweirgan’s letter did say she was under physicians’ care.  Surely the Queen will have the best doctors available.  Perhaps she will recover.”
            “Perhaps.”  Montfort’s face contorted, and tears rolled freely.  “They will do what they can, I’m sure.  Perhaps by bleeding her, they can dissipate the poisonous humors.”
            Marty was shocked.  “Bleeding her?  What is Mariel’s disease?  Didn’t Aweirgan’s letter say she lost blood in childbirth?  What in God’s name are they doing?”
            Avice Montfort shook her head.  “Aweirgan’s letter does not say what her physicians are doing.  I am sure they are doing their best.” 
            Breathing deeply to calm himself, Marty said, “Lady Montfort, I now beg you to listen to what I have to say.”

Copyright © 2015 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.

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