Thursday, March 5, 2015

Castles 145

145. Near Crossroads
Near Hyacintho Flumen

            Milo, Felix, and the rest of Milo’s escort rejoined the Stonebridge army three days after leaving Inter Lucus.  Men were lined up to receive mid-day sup at four meal wagons.  Milo found his captains and told them to prepare to march the next day.  Then, seated on a campstool, he took reports from four leaders of scouts.
            Noel Night and three other scouts had the easiest assignment, closely watching Down’s End.  The four men rented rooms in the city and walked the streets daily.  To no one’s surprise, the Down’s End City Council had dithered since Milo’s testimony in the Council Chamber.  No tradesman had yet been dispatched to Saltas Semitas to negotiate for steel, no diplomat had been sent to Stonebridge to discuss joint policy, no ambassador named to meet with Eudes Ridere, and no decision made to raise an army.  Captain Night reported that other people in Down’s End were less ostrich-like.  Fishing boats sometimes crossed West Lake, and there were rumors that some boats carried priests of the old god, traveling to Inter Lucus.  Milo remembered the priests’ house near the revived castle.  Lord Martin had obviously befriended the priests, and Milo wondered whether the strange ruler of Inter Lucus might not be somehow using them for his own purposes.
            Ned Freeman commanded the largest group of scouts, twenty-two riders.  They had scoured the countryside north and south of the Stonebridge road, from Crossroads to River House.  In a single week they had captured five highwaymen.  In Milo’s absence, Aidan Fleming and Derian Chapman had decided not to wait for Milo to decide the bandits’ fate. They ordered a trial for the highwaymen and posted notices at Crossroads Inn and River House.  A small, but appreciative, crowd gathered in Crossroads to witness the quick trial and execution of the bandits.  The hanging had been carried out the day before Milo rejoined the army.  Milo assured Aidan and Derian that they had done the right thing.  The Army’s commanders must have the authority to execute criminals when the general was unavailable.  It would have been different, of course, in the case of a soldier.  Milo insisted that he be consulted before any Stonebridge armsman was flogged or hanged.
            Milo sent men to bring Rage Hildebeorht.
            Ford Ormod, with fifteen other scouts, had ventured south along the road through the hills toward Hyacintho Flumen.  Theirs was perhaps the most dangerous assignment.  They made themselves conspicuous and achieved their goal, meeting up with Herminian scouts on several occasions.  In every interaction with the Herminians, Ormod’s men repeated Milo’s message: We are not here to fight you, Aylwin of Hyacintho Flumen is a usurper resented by our general, and Milo Mortane will soon send a man under white flag with a message for General Ridere.  Milo questioned Captain Ormod closely.  In his opinion, Ford said, the invaders were close-mouthed, confident soldiers.  General Ridere was an honorable man, the Herminians claimed; he would undoubtedly give safe passage to a white flag emissary.  But the general would show no patience with deception.
            Milo and Ormod also talked about likely campsites south of Crossroads.  Milo wanted some place nearer to Hyacintho Flumen and more easily defended than the open prairie; the place also ought to have a good water supply.  Ford described two spots in the hills with nearby creeks.  One was a large meadow a hundred yards uphill from the road to Hyacintho Flumen; Milo adopted this “upland meadow” as the place for the army’s next camp.
            Fletcher Norris and seven others had explored east, in the valley of the Blue River.  They had seen remnants of the old road between Inter Lucus and Hyacintho Flumen, but for the most part only local farmers used portions of the road.  Halfway between the two castles Blue River pooled behind a natural rock dam, creating a wide marshy lake.  Fletcher noted that a loop around the lake would add a day to the journey between Inter Lucus and Hyacintho Flumen; in his opinion, this didn’t explain why men had made the extra effort to find a path (later widened into a road) through the hills between Down’s End and Hyacintho Flumen.  The real reason the river road hadn’t been repaired, Fletcher said, was that Down’s End had outgrown the little villages between the lakes.  The road through the hills offered a more direct route between Hyacintho Flumen and Down’s End, and the city of the downs was a more inviting trade partner.
            Felix Abrecan brought a share of army fare from one of the meal wagons: a barley loaf and a bowl of bean soup flavored with small bits of pork.  Milo had made a point of eating the common diet of his soldiers.  He received the bowl and was about to dig in when he realized Captain Norris was still standing close.
            “Do you have more to report, Fletcher?”
            “Aye, Lord Commander.  I left the most important for last, sir.”
            “Out with it then.”
            “Sir, the men and I believe we saw Herminians on the river road.”
            “You believe?”
            “We saw six mounted men on the river road south of the marsh.  They were a mile distant, so we couldn’t be sure, but they didn’t seem to be farmers.  They were riding at a good clip.  Of course, they could be bandits or something else.  I thought you ought to know.  They were following the road south, so I imagine they were aiming for Hyacintho Flumen.”
            “You’re probably right, Fletcher.  General Ridere would be a fool if he didn’t have scouts patrolling the countryside around the siege.  Did they see you?”
            “They may have, sir.  But they certainly didn’t turn back to talk with us.  It seemed they were eager to get on south.”
            “When was this?”
            “Two days ago, sir.”
            “Thank you, Fletcher.  Is that all?”
            “Aye, sir.”
            “Very good.  Get some sup.”
            While Fletcher was leaving, Hrodgar Wigt came with Rage Hildebeorht at sword point.  Idonea Fatman, the owner of Crossroads Inn, trailed behind them, her eyes red.
“Sheriff Hildebeorht!”  Milo strode forward, extending his hand.  Hildebeorht shook hands, but his face showed confusion.  Wigt’s sword had him expecting a colder reception.  “I congratulate you.  In a whole summer, with twenty under-sheriffs, you caught two highwaymen.  I delivered you another, so we can count three for you.  However, in one week, with twenty-two men, Sheriff Ned Freemen caught five highwaymen along the Stonebridge road.”
Milo paused for a moment, watching Rage’s face.
“Lord Commander?”  Hildebeorht was still confused.
“As I say, I congratulate you.  For almost a year you have cheated the Stonebridge treasury.  Very sly.  But no more.  You are a lazy, worthless excuse for a sheriff, a waste of fifty Stonebridge golds.  I hereby remove you from your rank as sheriff and expel you from the Stonebridge Guard.  But I have decided that since you did catch two—but we will say three—bandits, you only need to repay the city half the gold you squandered.”
Alarm registered on the man’s face.  “But my Lord Commander, the money is gone.”
“I anticipated this.”  Milo spat on the ground.  “In place of the twenty-five golds, you will now make payment with twenty-five stripes.  Captain Wigt, fetch a whip.  If you want to preserve your tunic, Hildebeorht, you should remove it now.  The city is going to get value for its money.”
Idonea Fatman cried out: “Oh, no!  Lord Commander, please!”
“This matter does not concern you, Mistress Fatman.”  Milo reached out to receive a rawhide whip from Hrodgar Wigt.  “When I’ve finished, you can tend to the prisoner.”
Idonea fell to the ground before him, clutching at Milo’s tunic.  “But he’ll die!  Lord Commander, let me pay his debt for him.”
Milo feigned shock.  “You would pay twenty-five golds to spare a failed ex-sheriff?”
Mistress Fatman’s arms hugged Milo’s knees.  “Oh, aye!  I would.”
Milo grasped her arms and pulled Idonea to her feet.  “Very well.  Hildebeorht has until evening sup to deliver twenty-five golds to Derian Chapman, who handles the Army’s accounts.  If you want to give Hildebeorht money, that’s your business.  Personally, I think your generosity could easily find more worthy targets.”
Hildebeorht and the widow Fatman bowed deeply and beat a hasty exit.  When they were gone Milo finished his bread and soup quickly, and then walked a quarter mile away from the camp.  He waved away Hrodgar Wigt and Felix Abrecan, who both made as if they would accompany him.
The spring prairie grasses were a lush green, but nature’s carpet made little impression on his mind.  He dismissed Hildebeorht from his thinking and mulled over the scouts’ reports, particularly Fletcher Norris’s.  Herminians on the river road, moving south.  Scouts heading back to Ridere, no doubt.  Had they been north of the marsh? 
            Milo’s gazed south unseeing over the prairie and the distant hills.  Somewhere in that direction Ridere’s men surrounded his brother.  Has he sent men to Inter Lucus?  Stupid question!  By the gods, Milo!  Wake up! Ridere has besieged Aylwin for more than six months.  He would have sent an emissary to Downs End right away.  No wonder they dither.  He’s given them a mixture of promises and threats expressly concocted to make them wait.  And once he heard rumors of a new lord in Inter Lucus, he would have sent someone there too.  He can’t afford to have a rogue lord coming to Aylwin’s aid.
            Of course, his emissary to Inter Lucus will have told Ridere that the new lord is weak and foolish.  Four sheriffs, no knights, no steel—and he speaks regularly with Mariel and Aylwin, trying to persuade them to come to terms.
            Milo turned to face east.  Somewhere a bit north of east lay Senerham and Inter Lucus.  He corrected himself.  Not weak.  And perhaps not a fool.  Martin can support Videns-Loquitur, apparently with ease.  What other magic might he do?  He makes it known that he is not a threat to anyone; yet all must assume he can use the shields.  Cunning, one might say.  What does Ridere think of the strange lord?
            Milo turned south again.  Ridere will find it hard to communicate with Down’s End with my army in the way.  But he still sends men to Inter Lucus on the river road.  Damn!  If we had been alert, Felix or I or the men might have seen them while they were close.  Does this mean Ridere knows I’ve been there?  It’s the only safe assumption.  We need to watch that road carefully—without being seen.
            Milo strode back to camp and spoke to Felix.  “Find Commander Redhair and bring him to me.”

            On the evening of the following day, Godric Measy delivered Lord Martin’s letter to Eudes Ridere.  During the journey from Inter Lucus, Bron Kenton had spied horsemen across the marshy lake.  Acwel Penda didn’t see them, but he trusted Bron’s eyesight.  He had to assume they were Stonebridge scouts.  Acwel and his men pushed their horses relentlessly after that, almost to the point of ruining the poor animals.
            The general read the letter at table in the Rose Petal, swallowed a large draught of ale, and read it again.  He invited Measy and Penda into a private room, where he questioned them about their visit to Inter Lucus.  The postman and captain testified they knew nothing of the contents of the letter, except that Lord Martin told them it was vitally important to deliver it quickly and safely to Ridere.  They also reported seeing the Stonebridge scouts in the Blue River valley.
Eudes folded the letter into quarters and slipped it into a pocket.  “Martin was certainly right.  This letter demands a quick response.  I will write something tonight, and you must leave in the morning.”
“My Lord General,” said Godric.  “Our horses are past spent.  They will hardly be worth riding without a good rest.”
“I don’t doubt it.”  Eudes rubbed a scar on his cheek.  “See Galan Hengist; tell him you need new mounts ready at daybreak.”
Acwel and Godric inclined their heads wordlessly and departed the Rose Petal, Eudes following them as far as the conference room.  Bully Wedmor and Eudes’s squire, Gifre Toeni, were there. 
“My Lord General,” said Gifre.  “Trouble is afoot, as plain as the nose on your face.”
Eudes lifted the corner of his mouth for only a moment.  “If you want to succeed as a squire, Gifre, you need to learn the discretion of silence.  You don’t need to always say the first thing that comes into your head.”
“I’m sure that’s true, my Lord General.  Unfortunately, I have the disadvantage of being heir to Prati Mansum.  Father and Mother have spoiled me for years, especially after Edita’s injury.  Unlike Bully, I have never learned the virtues of silence or discretion.”
At this, Eudes laughed out loud.  “You can practice now.  Walk with me, both of you, but say nothing.  I must think.”
Dusk had come, the slow waning of light on a long spring day.  The air was warm, with scents of flowering trees.  Eudes walked through the streets of Hyacintho Flumen without any particular destination.  His son had been born—his son!  I’m forty-four years old, and I have a son.  I should feel joy.  But this birth brings disaster for mother, child, and father.
Martin Cedarborne had written: “You know the lords of Herminia and can predict what they may do.  You also know how well Pulchra Mane can defend herself without Mariel’s hand on Globum Domini Auctoritate.”  
Indeed, Lord Martin, indeed.  Giles and Mowbray would take special delight in killing my son, repaying me for my service to Rudolf.  Toeni would as well, unless Gifre’s letters home have changed his mind.  And Paul Wadard will be worst.  He’s closest to Pulchra Mane.  He’ll have armsmen on the road as fast as he can give the orders.
            Eudes imagined Mariel lying in a bed, with servant girls and physicians leaning over her.  And he thought of the boy at the breast of some peasant woman.  I can’t make this about my wife or my son.  The whole kingdom, everything Rudolf and I put together, hangs in the balance.  Avice Montfort wants me back.  So does Aweirgan Unes.  “As soon as possible in sufficient force”—but it’s not possible.  I would need four thousand at least to defeat Giles, Mowbray and Wadard if they combined forces.  I cannot possibly get there in time.
            Eudes kept walking, trailed by Gifre and Bully, for a long hour.  They came to the city docks in the dark, where Eudes stood for a long while, watching the reflection of first moon on the water.  I cannot possibly get there in time.  That was the key.  The quartermaster general began making a plan.

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


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