Thursday, April 30, 2015

Castles 153

153.  Between Hyacintho Flumen and Down’s End

            Eádulf called it Hostage Camp, because it was near the place where he and Milo had routed the bandits and taken poor Cola prisoner.  The rest of Milo’s army called it Meadow Camp at first, situated as it was on a wide grassy slope surrounded by pine and fir forests.  But then they adopted Eádulf’s suggestion, not in memory of the highwayman executed months before, but because of General Ridere of the Herminians.
            The army left Crossroads on the second day of June and, moving warily, established Hostage Camp four days later.  Milo Mortane consulted with scouts daily, and began sending messages toward Hyacintho Flumen asking for parley with the Herminian general.  On June 13, Ifing Redhair turned the situation upside down by bringing that very man captive to Hostage Camp.  Milo interviewed the prisoner the next morning.
            A bright sun in a cloudless sky promised a hot afternoon, even in the hills.  Milo held court in the shade of a tall, hale pine tree.  Pine needles layered the ground, making footsteps quiet and soft.  Ifing Redhair personally escorted Ridere to the spot, loosed the prisoner’s hands, and bade him stand between two logs that had been dragged to the place to create a kind of courtyard.  Milo sat on a campstool, with Felix Abrecan standing guard.  Captains Aidan Fleming, Bryce Dalston, and Acwel Kent sat on the logs, listening.
            “There are other prisoners?”  Milo addressed Redhair first.
            “Aye, Lord General.  Three, one near death.”
            Milo raised an eyebrow.
            “One of the Herminians took serious wounds.  We would have given him the mercy of a quick death, but General Ridere asked that we spare him.  We captured two horses, so we used one to transport him.  The boy must be tough; he’s survived both lost of blood and being packed like a sack.  If we stay in camp a few days, he might recover.”
            “Four captives, no other survivors?”
            Redhair folded his arms.  “One rider escaped into the river.  The others we killed.”
            “Into the river?  Did you look downstream for his body?”
            “No, Lord General.  I judged it more important to bring the prisoner to you.”
             Milo pursed his lips and nodded.  “Blue River in spring flood—it’s unlikely that the man survived.  And you’re right about the prisoner.”
            Redhair inclined his head and stepped back, resting a hand on the handle of his dagger.  The implication was plain: a word from Milo would end the captive’s life.  Milo sucked on his teeth for a moment, examining Ridere.
            The beaked-nose general had dark eyes and black hair cut short, with a hint of the gray in a stubbly beard.  Wrinkles had begun around the eyes, in a lean face.  Scars marked his arms and his right temple.  Of medium height, Ridere gave the impression of being taller—was it his posture or his steady, fearless gaze?  He was obviously studying Milo, waiting for the captor to speak first.
            “My men found you on the old road from Hyacintho Flumen to Inter Lucus.  I presume that’s where you were going.  Why?”  Milo leaned forward and picked up a cluster of pine needles.  He rolled the needles back and forth between thumb and forefinger, idly, as if there were no urgency to his question.  Bent forward, he looked up at Ridere, standing so erect.  “I’ve been sending men to Hyacintho Flumen, asking to parley with you.  I certainly did not expect the meeting to be like this.  What were you doing?”
Ridere merely looked at him.
Milo smiled and straightened on his stool.  “You have invaded my country with an army of thousands; you have my brother confined to his castle like last year’s grain in a barn.  But now you have foolishly let yourself fall into my hands.  Why would you leave the security of such a great army with only the protection of a handful of horsemen?”
Ridere folded his arms, but his face was a blank.  He wasn’t feigning boredom or disdain.  He just waited.
“It may interest you to learn that I also have visited Inter Lucus recently.  So I know what you must know: Lord Martin of Inter Lucus can offer neither men nor steel to aid your war against Aylwin.  By the same token, he is of no use to Aylwin.  So why were you going there?”
Milo didn’t expect an answer, so after a short pause he continued.  “You may believe me or not, but the truth is that I care nothing for my brother’s fate.  I will not raise a finger to deliver him from your siege.”
That drew a response.  “You brought an army all the way from Stonebridge to no purpose?”
“That is not what I said.”  Milo flashed a brief smile.  “I brought an army from Stonebridge for many purposes.  Among them was this: I wanted to talk with you.  Now, your army outnumbers mine eight to one, or more.  You have nothing to fear from such an inferior force, but it is still enough—at least, I hoped it would be enough—to induce you to meet with me.”
            Ridere unfolded his arms and made a palms-up gesture toward Milo.  “And now we meet.  When our talk is completed, perhaps I may go on my way.”
            Milo grinned.  “Why not?  As yet, I have no reason to hold you prisoner.  But I need to know why you were going to Inter Lucus.
            A tiny smile; Ridere again crossed his arms, resuming his silent pose.  Milo waited a while, bending down to pick up more pine needles.  A step behind the prisoner, Ifing Redhair expressed impatience.  “My lord general, the prisoner defies you.”  He drew his dagger.
            Milo waved off Redhair’s threat.  “No, Ifing.  We are playing a game.  General Ridere fears no one, except perhaps his wife, the Ice Queen.  He does not know how much I already know, and he does not trust my assurance that we have not come here to aid Aylwin.  He is an honorable man.  For the sake of honor and loyalty, he will not say anything that might weaken Queen Mariel’s position.  Bit by bit, I will tell the general what I know.  He will come to see that he can trust me.  Perhaps he also will see how we can work together. 
“Have a seat, Ifing.”  Milo gestured toward the logs where his captains were sitting.  Redhair clenched his jaw, but sat down next to Acwel Kent.
Milo returned his attention to Ridere.  “It may help if I told you why I went to Inter Lucus.  I knew already that Lord Martin has few sheriffs and no steel.  I went to Inter Lucus to talk with my mother.  Of course, it meant speaking to Aylwin as well, but that couldn’t be helped.
“Martin enjoys a strong bond with Inter Lucus, such that he can support Videns-Loquitur with ease.  So I went to his castle, stood at his side when he summoned Aylwin, and in the course of the conversation I greeted my mother.  I assured her that I was well and that her daughter, my sister Amicia, is also well.  I told Aylwin he could go to hell.
“So—that is why I visited Inter Lucus.  I am guessing that your reason is similar.  With Martin’s aid, you could speak to any lord or lady you wished.  You could talk with Aylwin, just as I did.  As a matter of fact, you could communicate more directly with Aylwin from Inter Lucus than from your army’s headquarters outside Hyacintho Flumen.  No need for flags of truce, emissaries, written notes, or any of that.”
Milo paused, watching for some reaction.  Ridere kept a blank face.  Pursing his lips, Milo reached down for another cluster of pine needles.  He tore the needles apart, dropping them one by one.
“But you didn’t want to talk to Aylwin.  After all, you could send him a message any day.  Why take four or five days just to see him in a magic wall?  No, I think you needed to speak with someone else.  The Ice Queen, your beloved wife—she wanted some immediate report, didn’t she?”
General Ridere grimaced and looked at the ground.  Milo raised an eyebrow.  He continued, “Rumors about the siege of Hyacintho Flumen are easy to find.  Down’s End is full of them.  They say that Mariel ordered the execution of one of her hostage knights.  Not surprising, if true.  Is there someone else she needs killed?  You plan to hang some hostage knight, but need her permission?  Or is it something else?  Something has happened, something that even you, her husband and general, cannot decide alone.  She must decide, and you cannot wait for weeks, for letters to and fro, so you seek to speak with her directly.”
Ridere opened and closed his mouth.  Then he clenched his jaw, folded his arms, and stared at Milo.  A minute passed before Milo turned to Ifing Redhair, who jumped to his feet.
“Give the prisoners food and drink.  Keep them separate; don’t let them speak to each other.  I want no escapes.  And I want them kept safe.”
“Aye, Lord General.”  Ifing prodded Ridere with his dagger.  Captive and captor left the shade of the pine and were soon beyond earshot.  Milo stood up to watch Redhair take the Herminian into a tent.  Captains Fleming, Dalston and Kent also rose.
Fleming: “General Mortane?”
“What is it, Aidan?”
“Shouldn’t you have questioned the prisoner more closely?  It seems you were on the right track.  It might help us greatly to know what it is that Ridere wants to ask Mariel.”
Bryce Dalston snorted.  “The man would die rather than tell.  If we’re not careful and we push too hard, he’ll kill himself.”
Milo laughed aloud, and the captains looked at him questioningly.  “I did say I wanted him kept safe, but not because I fear suicide.
“Ridere plays a game with us, but either badly or very, very well.  He made a point of stoic silence until I suggested that his object in visiting Inter Lucus was speaking to Mariel.  Then he put on a show of dismay.  So I am supposed to think he does want to seek Mariel’s guidance.  But his dismay was too obviously an act.  If he wanted me to think I had hit upon his true purpose, he tried too hard.  Therefore, I should think his purpose was something else.  He wants to speak with some other lord; or maybe his purpose is something else entirely, having nothing to do with Videns-Loquitur.  But perhaps he is clever.  If at one moment he pretends one thing and at the next moment something else, I cannot be sure of what he is really hiding.”
The captains’ faces showed varying degrees of confusion.  “What will you do?” asked Fleming.
“I’m not sure yet.”  Milo pushed his hand through his hair.  “I will not try to outwit Eudes Ridere in one short meeting.  For the present we will stay here.  We will be proper hosts to our prisoners.  We will watch them and listen.  Perhaps I will learn something to decide our path.  There are chances before me; I must consider them.”

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


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Castles 152

152.  At the Siege of Hyacintho Flumen

            “Are we heading for Rose Petal?”
            Gifre Toeni shivered, and the words came out haltingly.  Gifre knew he was sick, a violent chill caught while exposed to Blue River two nights before.  The intervening days had been sunny, even hot, but Gifre felt he might never be warm again.
            “Not straight-away.”  Darel Hain sat behind Gifre, sharing the saddle of Hain’s warhorse.  “I sent Allard Ing on ahead.  He’ll find General Oshelm and tell him you are coming.”  Hain’s arms on either side of Gifre kept him from falling.  Riding on a tall destrier, the ground seemed an awfully long way down.  Gifre rode with his eyes closed a good portion of the time.
            General Oshelm?”
            “Aye.  Since General Ridere rode north and left him in command.”
            Gifre remembered dimly the sounds of the battle on the forest road.  Bully had saved Gifre’s life so that he could warn Archard Oshelm.  But what should he tell him?  Gifre didn’t know whether Ridere or any of his men still lived.
            For a moment Gifre thought of his little horse, really no more than a pony.  The little palfrey had survived the plunge into Blue River, swum with Gifre across the lake, and carried him south for a day and a half along the Blue River road until he met with Darel Hain’s company of scouts.  The faithful creature was undoubtedly resting, warm and dry in a barn somewhere.  Gifre shivered again and envied his horse.
            The events since the Inter Lucus postman and General Ridere’s company of mounted guards departed Hyacintho Flumen were running together in Gifre’s memory.  Was the ambush really just two nights ago?  Another long spring day was fading into night.  Had he lost count?
            A voice in the dark.  “Stay!  Give your names!  State your business!”
            Hain reined his destrier to a stop.  “Captain Darel Hain of Pulchra Mane.  I bear Gifre Toeni, a knight in the Queen’s army.  He has information for General Oshelm.”
            Someone uncovered a lantern, revealing the source of the voice.  “Right.  Cavalryman Ing came through a while back.”  The soldier saluted with the hand not holding the lantern, and then gestured toward the dark behind him.  “Take care.  The road has holes and broken places.”
            Hain and Gifre left the sentry behind.  Gifre gave up even pretending to look ahead.  He rode in a half-dream, eyes closed, trusting Hain to deliver him safely.
            Voices.  Falling.  No—not falling.  Strong arms lowered him gently to the ground.  Gifre’s legs failed him, so soldiers on either side helped him toward a watch fire.  They tried seating him on a campstool, but Gifre tumbled off.  So they laid him on a blanket near the fire and covered him with coats.
            “Sir Toeni!  Gifre!  Wake up!”  Archard Oshelm’s breath, hot and sour, prickled Gifre’s nose.  Oshelm breathed like an athlete in a contest; he had been riding dangerously fast in the dark.  Sweat dripped from the hard-bitten soldier’s crooked nose onto Gifre’s face.  Opening his eyes, Gifre struggled to focus on Oshelm’s features, but the face was too close.  In the firelight it looked goblin-like, distorted and grotesque.
            “Ah!”  Oshelm grunted and drew back.  The goblin face disappeared from Gifre’s field of vision.  “Dying maybe, but not dead yet.”
            “General Oshelm.” Gifre’s words were barely audible.  “Gods protect you.  Congratulations on your promotion.”
            The angular face came back into view.  “Tell me what happened, Gifre.”
            “Ambush.  North of the lake.  Two days ago.”
            Oshelm leaned closer.  Gifre blinked repeatedly.  Somehow he couldn’t keep Oshelm’s face in focus.
            “Men of Down’s End?  Stonebridge?”
            “Could be.  Don’t know.”  Gifre licked his lips.  Oshelm’s face retreated.
            “Here’s water.”  Wetness splashed on Gifre’s face cheeks and lips.  It tasted wonderful.  Oshelm tipped a water skin, and Gifre drank eagerly.
            “Enough.”  Oshelm face came close again.  “Report, Gifre.  What happened to General Ridere?”
            Gifre coughed twice and swallowed.  “Alive, last I saw.  They trapped us.  Well-planned ambush.  Killed most.  No way out.  Bully pushed me to the river—advantage of the smallest horse.”
            “Other survivors?”
            “Don’t know, sir.”
            Oshelm’s face retreated into obscurity, and Gifre closed his eyes.

            He woke to the smell of bacon cooking, which made him gag.  His stomach revolted, and he might have drowned on his vomit if it had been more than a pitiful ounce of spittle.  Someone wiped his mouth with a clean cloth.  Gifre opened his eyes.
            The cold ground, the campfire, and the night were gone.  He was in bed, in a well-lit room, open windows admitting sunshine and warm air.  He recognized clothes tossed in a corner of the room as his; his body felt naked under a pile of blankets.  And—Gods be thanked!—he wasn’t shivering.
            Gifre’s eyes moved from the open windows to the clothes in the corner to the foot of the bed, then to the ceiling.  A smooth ceiling, made of polished wood, the work of considerable skill.  He craned his neck slightly to look toward the head of the bed.  A familiar face, framed in auburn hair, looked at him through eyes of love and fear.
            “Mistress Cooper!”  Edita called out.  “Your aid, please.”
            Godiva Cooper, a round woman with plain features, bustled into the room.  “He’s awake, then?”  The question evidently expected no answer; Mistress Cooper came directly to Gifre and peered into his face.  She felt his forehead.  “Ah!  That’s better.  Could you eat something, boy?”
            On another occasion Gifre might protest being called “boy,” but not now.  “Aye.  And water.  Please.  But no bacon.”
            Mistress Cooper’s eyebrows bunched briefly.  “Bowels unsteady?  Sour stomach?”
            Gifre grimaced.  “Maybe.  I’m thirsty.  I do feel hungry, but that bacon smell…” He shut his eyes, frowning.
            “Very well.  Water—and a bit of toast and egg.  I think so.  It will help if you sit up.”  Without waiting for his response, Mistress Cooper hooked her arms under Gifre’s shoulders and lifted.  She was surprisingly strong and, with very little cooperation from the patient, pulled Gifre into a sitting position.  Gifre felt lightheaded; the room went out of focus.  He gasped for breath several times.  Flailing about, his hand latched onto Godiva’s arm and he steadied himself.  Gradually, objects became clear again.  Godiva Cooper freed her arm and stuffed an extra pillow behind his back.  She smiled, seemingly pleased.  “And after the water, something hot to drink.  Mistress Wedmor, if you will assist me.”
            In truth, Edita provided little assistance.  In a matter of minutes, Godiva Cooper had arranged a table at Gifre’s bedside, and had set out toast, a poached egg, a pitcher of cold water, and a pot of tea.  Edita carried a plate.  Mistress Cooper arranged Edita’s chair close by.  “Well, then,” she said, eyeing them.  “I’ll leave you two to talk.”  She pulled the door closed when she left.
            Gifre sipped water first.  Then he chewed a bite of toast hesitantly, partly for his stomach’s sake but mostly so he could look carefully at Edita.  Her eyes were red-rimmed; she was obviously trying not to cry while he watched.  Her useless left hand lay cradled by her right.
            “We were ambushed.”  Gifre decided a full factual account was the best solace he could offer.  “I don’t know who they were.  Men from Down’s End, perhaps.  Or Stonebridge.  They took us by surprise at the end of a long day, in a place where the horses couldn’t run.  They attacked with daggers, cutting the horses’ legs and killing the men when their mounts fell.
            “Bully saved my life.”  At these words, Edita’s tears began streaming.  She nodded that he should continue.
            “My horse was smallest, the only one that could get between the trees to the river.  Bully told me to warn Archard Oshelm.  I never saw him or any of the others after that.”
            “He was alive when you last saw him?”  Only her mouth moved; the rest of her face could have been stone.
            “Aye.  He was alive.  Ridere too, I think.  And maybe a few others.”
            “And then?”
            “My little horse and I rode Blue River for a mile or more ’til we reached a lake and climbed out.  Gods, Edita, that water was cold—and fast.  The gods protected my horse and me, else we’d have hit a log or rock and died.  After we dried out a bit, we swam the lake.  No rushing current there, but it was just as cold.  I caught a chill.  After that, I just followed the road south.  I met Herminian scouts the second day.”
            Gifre pushed a portion of egg onto toast and ate.  Again he chewed slowly, observing his sister.  Eventually she nodded, as if signaling that she had absorbed the import of his words.  He swallowed and said, “I should get up and report to Rose Petal.  Oshelm needs to move.”
            “He already has.”  Something like a tiny smile touched Edita’s mouth.  “You’ve been in this bed a night, a day, and then another night.  Oshelm mustered two thousand men and marched north yesterday.”
            “Gods!”  Gifre paused in the process of pushing egg onto toast.  “Is there anything left of the siege?”
            “You’ll have to ask Galan Hengist.  Or Eadred Unes.  Oshelm left Commander Hengist in command; Eadred records all that is decided.”

            After eating, Gifre insisted on getting dressed.  Godiva Cooper advised him to rest in bed, but he ignored her.  Edita didn’t bother to say she agreed with Mistress Cooper; she knew Gifre wouldn’t listen anyway.
            Outdoors, Gifre counted on bright sunshine and spring air to rejuvenate him.  But he couldn’t detect much help from the elements.  He wobbled hesitantly toward Rose Petal, watching for soldiers exiting.  He walked at the very edge of the street, leaning against buildings when he could.  The sun was riding high in the sky, and the daily conference would be over.  Then Gifre realized that with Ridere and most of his commanders gone from Hyacintho Flumen, Galan Hengist might not convene a daily conference.
            Four figures emerged from Rose Petal as he approached.
            “Gifre!  You live!”  Linn Wadard, the youngest of the hostage knights, hopped from the Rose Petal porch to the dusty street where Gifre stood.  He thrust out a hand.  “Well met!”  Linn grasped Gifre’s hand, pulled him close, and made a strange face; Gifre had the impression Linn had more to say, but couldn’t.
            Linn Wadard’s companions also stepped forward, three more hostage knights: Deman Mowbray, Selwin Beaumont, and Odell Giles.  Giles was the oldest, at 23, but Selwin Beaumont, three years younger, took charge.  “A welcome meeting, but not in the best meeting place.”  Beaumont cast glances quickly up and down the street.  “It would not do for the five of us to be seen together.”
            “I know a place.”  Deman Mowbray started walking.  “I had a birthday party a week ago when I turned fifteen.  This way.”
            Gifre started to shake his head; he wanted to speak privately with Linn Wadard.  It was very unlike Linn to accompany Giles or Beaumont.  But Odell Giles wrapped an arm around him.  Giles was a strong man, though he had managed to avoid much fighting during his service in Tarquint.  He practically carried Gifre, hastening to follow Mowbray around a corner, down a narrow side street, and around another corner.  Beaumont had Linn Wadard right behind them.  Deman Mowbray knocked on a dilapidated door, the entry to an old warehouse.  The building had small windows, high under the eaves.
            A bolt was drawn and the door opened.  “Oh!  It’s the young prince.  Sir Mowbray.  And Sir Giles.  And friends!  It’s awfully early in the day, isn’t it?”
            The speaker was a frightfully thin, tall woman dressed in a flimsy white tunic.  She pushed stringy brown hair behind her head and deftly tied it with some kind of cloth ring.  She tilted her head to one side and leered at them.  “I’ll have to wake up some of the others.  Oh my.”  She leaned over Linn Wadard.  “Are you sure this one’s old enough?”  Grinning and winking: “Half price for him.  Do it myself.”
            “Not today, Ginny,” said Deman Mowbray.  Meanwhile, Selwin Beaumont pushed past the woman into her establishment.  Odell Giles brought Gifre in, pushing Linn Wadard ahead of them.  It was a small room, but dim, lit by windows high on the west wall.
Ginny shut the door, making the space dimmer still.  “What then?”
Selwin Beaumont surveyed the room, nodded.  “We’ll have something to drink.”  He hand Ginny a coin.  “And we want privacy.  If you give us those two things, we’ll pay more.  Without them, we’ll be very unhappy.”
Ginny took the coin and inclined her head.  “Very good, sirs.  I’ll get some ale and be sure no one knows.”
The woman quickly lit two candles on a table, and then disappeared through a door.  The five knights drew up chairs to the table, a rough piece of furniture made of bare wood.  Released from Giles’s grip, Gifre slumped on the chair, supporting himself with elbows on the table.  He felt shaky.  Why did I leave the Coopers’ house?  Gods, I’m a fool.
“Gifre.  What happened to Ridere?”  Selwin Beaumont wasted no time.
“I don’t know.”  Gifre held his head in his hands.  “We were ambushed.”
Deman Mowbray jumped in.  “Come on!  Either he escaped, or they killed him, or they took him captive.”
“Thanks for the obvious, Deman,” sneered Giles.  He looked at Gifre.  “But who were they?  The men of Lord Aylwin’s brother?  Doesn’t he have an army now?”
Gifre thought he might start shivering again.  “I don’t know.”
Giles snorted.  “Loads of insights you have Toeni.  Tell me why Ridere likes you so much.  Because your sister married his stupid squire?”
Gifre was too tired to be angry.  Odell Giles’s petty cruelties were the least of his problems.
“Stuff it, Odell.”  Selwin Beaumont ordered the bigger man calmly, in a quiet voice.  “It doesn’t matter who ambushed Ridere.  And it doesn’t matter whether he’s dead or captured or hiding out in some Tarquintian cave or forest.  The point is, he’s gone.  And Oshelm’s gone chasing after him.  Meanwhile, Galan Hengist is loading men onto ships bound for Herminia as fast as he can send them.  Alan Turchil is gone, and so is Fugol Hengist.  In a week we’ll have less than four thousand men here.
“This army is falling apart.  And I think I know why.”
A door squeaked.  Ginny brought a tray with five clay mugs and tankard of ale.  Beaumont handed her a second coin.  “Privacy.”
“Oh, aye, my lord.”  Ginny bowed and departed.  Mowbray dispensed ale into the cups.  Everyone drank, Gifre more eagerly than the others. 
Beaumont resumed, his voice hardly more than a whisper.  “Ridere tried to hush it up, but I’ve heard that our dear queen almost died giving birth.  Isn’t that right, Gifre?”
“Aye.”  Gifre met Beaumont’s gaze, keeping his face blank.  But Linn Wadard blanched.  The young knight’s shocked expression practically shouted: Don’t tell them anything!  But Gifre thought: Little point in denying what they already know.  The ale warmed his throat.
Beaumont smiled, nodding.  “Mariel can’t defend Pulchra Mane.  So Ridere is sending men home to save the Ice Queen, because he thinks someone might attack her.  Let’s think.  Who might that be?  Odell, would your dear father rebel against Mariel?”
The big man guffawed.  “In a heartbeat.”
“As would my father,” said Beaumont.  “What about your grandsire, Deman?”
“Of course.”
The youngest of the hostage knights had won General Ridere’s praise, even though his father, List, had been executed.  He was just a boy, and he hesitated to answer.  Gifre wondered again about Linn’s presence with the others.  He’s not here by free choice.
“The truth is, Linn,” Beaumont spoke gently, “your grandsire hates Mariel more than anyone, especially after Sir List’s death.  He will lead the rebellion.  You know this.”
Linn hung his head.
“And the Toenis.”  Beaumont addressed Gifre.  “Have you turned your back on your family, Gifre?  Since you came to Tarquint, you’ve acted the part of the Queen’s man.  I think, perhaps, it is an act.  You Toenis are clever.  Unlike Deman or Odell, you worm your way into Ridere’s confidence.  He even takes you as squire.  But then, somehow, at the right moment, you escape.  Very lucky, if luck it is.  And now you are ready to join us.  Is that the way of it?”
“Join you?”  Gifre kept his tone neutral.
“The siege of Hyacintho Flumen is collapsing.  Oshelm took mostly Pulchra Mane men north with him  If we appeal to our men, the armsmen of Calles Vinum, Caelestis Arcanus, Rubrum Vulpes, Beatus Valle, and Prati Mansum, we will have most of the army that remains.  Why should we fight some Tarquintian lord?  After we take the army, we parley with Lord Aylwin.  We use his Videns-Loquitur to communicate with our fathers and grandfathers.  Mariel is finished.”
Gifre swallowed.  The wise course was obvious.  He needed to play for time, to convince the conspirators that he was with them, and then to tell everything to Galan Hengist.  But it grated on him to lie, and he remembered Bully Wedmor at the river.  He recalled Edita’s tears for her husband.  And he had downed two cups of ale.
“You need take care, sirs.”  Gifre looked Beaumont in the face.  “For all I know, General Ridere is dead, Bully Wedmor is dead, and Queen Mariel is dead.  Your rebellion may succeed.  On the other hand, the General, Bully, and the Queen may still be alive.  You risk everything in this conspiracy.  I risk everything if I join you, and I risk my life if I don’t.  I suppose you will kill me, but I refuse your offer.”
Selwin Beaumont’s mouth twisted.  “You are a fool.  Odell.”
Odell Giles grabbed Gifre’s arm.
“Don’t do that.”  Eleven-year-old Linn Wadard spoke in the voice of a castle lord.  Beaumont, Giles and Mowbray looked at him in surprise.
“There are men at the door.  You should let them in before you do anything to Gifre.”  Linn smiled.  “Now.  Who is the fool, Sir Selwin?”
The others were frozen.  Linn went to the door and opened it.  Six swordsmen, led by Danbeney Norman, entered with drawn swords.

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


Thursday, April 16, 2015

Castles 151

151.  In Castles Inter Lucus and Pulchra Mane

            Therefore, dearly loved sisters and brothers, stand firm!  Don’t be dislodged by anything.  Always devote yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.  

            Alone on the gods’ roof of Inter Lucus, seated on a simple wooden bench, Marty watched the first rays of sunlight, slanting from the northeast on this late spring morning.  His watch read 5:32.  Not much change from yesterday.  It’ll be equinox soon—a few days more.  A year ago, more or less, a Trappist novice stepped through a wormhole into a world as strange in its own way as Wonderland was for Alice.
            He looked down again at the Book of God lying on his lap.  A copy of 1 Corinthians—made by Whitney Ablendan, he felt sure; her firm, clear handwriting was as good as a signature—lay open in his hands.  “Therefore…” He wondered how the apostle’s encouragement for ancient Christians might apply to him.  Father Stephen, he was sure, would say that the “work of the Lord” included all sorts of activities, including works of mercy and justice.  God willing, that’s what I’m trying to do.
            Marty unfolded another piece of writing and laid it on top of the Book of God.  It was a list of Latin words and phrases copied during the alien video.  He had not succeeded in summoning the alien message a second time; after many attempts he felt certain that Isen’s makeshift fiber optic repair had failed permanently.  Students checked the violet hexagon every day, and none of them reported seeing any pulses of light between the upper and lower blocks.  Until a new repair should succeed, the notes taken by Whitney, Caelin, and Elfric were the best clues he would have about the video.

nostro iure est simplex
Infans mortuus
Nostri autem perdiderit millions obsido
inritus exit genus retrorsum
intercedendo development naturae
nos dignitatem modeste secum omni tempore
conabamur adiuvaret
Humans sint stupidi, non potest docere

            The list was Caelin’s.  Elfric and Whitney’s pages added other bits of the video’s Latin captioning.  Marty felt confident about some of the words: infans mortuus had to refer to the dead baby in the video; accusatio reinforced his belief that he had seen some kind of trial or legal hearing; but most of his guesses were tentative.  Humans sint stupidi—humans are stupid?  Marty’s ignorance of Latin vocabulary was only part of the problem; isolated words or phrases needed context, and unless he could view the video again to match up phrases with the action on the screen the copied words lacked context.
His morning’s musings were interrupted.  A head popped through the invisible rain barrier at the top of the stairs and saw him.  In seconds, Tayte Graham and Alf Saeric stood before him.
            Even now, at this hour, on this perfectly peaceful morning, an interruption.  For a moment, Marty resented the intrusion.  Can’t it wait?  Alf’s blue eyes were wide, his expression solemn.  Reading the boy’s face, Marty’s irritation evaporated. 
Tayte Graham brushed away tears.  “Lord Martin.  Something has happened to the CPU.”
“Alf said not to touch it, and we didn’t.”  Tayte looked sideways at the boy and then met Marty’s eyes.  “We didn’t.”  She clasped her arms across her stomach, and her tears streamed.  Her breath came in gasps.  “We didn’t touch it.”
Still seated, Marty folded Tayte into his arms.  She buried her face in his shoulder.  Behind the girl, seeing Marty comfort the girl, Alf’s face registered a kind of longing, a distant yearning for a parent long lost.  Marty freed his left arm and beckoned him.  Alf stepped into Marty’s embrace.  For some seconds Marty held the children close, without words.
Gently: “Tayte, I know you didn’t touch it.  Now tell me.  What has happened?”
Tayte sniffed and rubbed her nose on Marty’s shirt.  Alf replied.  “I saw the CPU in a dream, the violet block, the one Isen repaired.  So I told Tayte to come with me to see.”
“Tell me about the dream first.”
The boy slipped back a step to look Marty in the face.  “In my dream it glowed brightly—very brightly, like a noon sun.  I thought it might be working again.  I wanted to show it to you, but I thought I should see it first, to see if it really happened.  Then I thought it would be good if someone else saw it, before we bothered you.”
“Alf, when you dream about Inter Lucus, you should always tell me.  Always—as soon as you can.  Okay?  So, the two of you went to the CPU.  Did you see this bright light?”
“No.  We saw no light at all.  The fiber optic cable is broken.”  Now, Alf’s eyes brimmed with tears.  Marty quickly pulled the boy back into his arms.
Marty squeezed both children.  “It’s going to be okay.  Let’s go look.”

Other Inter Lucus residents noticed Marty, Tayte, and Alf on the way downstairs.  By the time Marty reached the CPU room he was leading a troop of ten, including Caelin Bycwine, Isen Poorman and Ora Wooddaughter.  They circled around the hexagon blocks nearest the door, heading for the violet block near the south wall.  Light pulsed intermittently between the lower and upper portions of the various hexagons, which made the condition of the violet block all the more striking.
“There’s a piece of it all the way over here.”  Caelin pointed to a fragment of glass near the base of another hexagon.  “It must have exploded.”
“Or melted.”  Isen stood close to the violet hexagon, careful not to touch it.  “There’s a bit of the linen still hanging here, and the glass has fused with it.  It must have been very hot.”
Marty walked around the violet block, examining the broken connection from every angle.  “You’re probably both right.  The glass strings are melted together and the linen outer covering, what’s left of it anyway, is coated with glass.  But very little remains.  I expect the rest is spread around the room, thrown by an explosion.  Let’s look carefully and find the pieces.”
Students began inspecting the area close to the violet hexagon and soon went to hands and knees to search more carefully.  They brought tiny blobs of glass and linen, more than thirty of them, to Marty.  Many of the fragments were hardly more than flecks.  On Earth, Marty would have dismissed the bits as extraneous dust, but in Inter Lucus dust disappeared.  Nanotechnology removed it within minutes.  Only in the CPU had he ever seen debris that lasted, and that had been the broken pieces of what he believed was the original alien fiber optic connection for the violet blocks.
In a few minutes Marty’s palm held the remains of Isen’s fiber optic cable, except for the bit that still hung from the upper hexagon.  He gestured at the remaining cable.  “I think, Isen, that we shouldn’t try to break that off.  We’ll bring a hot tool to cut it off smoothly.”
“Aye, my lord.  Then we try again?”
“That’s my thought.  Aye.  Your first cable worked, at least to a degree.  Perhaps your second will be better.”  Marty handed the broken bits to Ora, who stood close to Isen.  “I greatly appreciate what you accomplished with this.  I want you to know that.”

Castle Pulchra Mane

Claennis the Nan paused outside Elfgiva Red’s room.  Yesterday she had forgotten to announce herself and had interrupted Elfgiva and Bayan, busily trying to make another baby.  Claennis smiled at memory of Bayan’s embarrassment.  Naturally, the young man was eager to return to lovemaking after baby Glytha’s arrival.  But how many young couples had ever been in Bayan and Elfgiva’s situation?  Invited—no, commanded—to move from their tiny house on Sestia Street into the luxury of a room in Pulchra Mane.  If that weren’t enough, their room held not one, but two little beds, and in one of them slept a future king.
Claennis knocked, and then called out.  “Giva!  Bayan!  May I enter?”
The door swished open immediately.  Bayan was already dressed.  Elfgiva was sitting up in bed, a baby at each breast.
“Fair morning, Mistress Claennis.”  Bayan made a welcoming bow.  “As you can see, the babies are well, and Giva is busy.  I also ought to be about my work.”  Bayan stepped around Claennis and headed for the stairs up to the great hall.
When he was gone, Claennis raised an eyebrow at Elfgiva.  “Will he forgive me for yesterday?”  Both women laughed.  “Any problems in the night?”
“No.  But it’s a good thing Glytha’s so little.”  Elfgiva wiggled her back against pillows.  “Prince Eudes is two weeks younger, but he eats more than his share.  And he’s very demanding.  I make him wait until Glytha is hungry too.”
Claennis nodded.  “Sensible girl.  With two babes, if you feed them whenever they want, you’ll get no rest at all.”  She leaned close to examine Elfgiva’s face and color.  “And it’s important that you rest, that you stay well.  For your sake, for Glytha, and for all of us.”  She touched the boy’s head.
A tremulous smile.  “Is Queen Mariel no better?”
“She is no worse.  But even if she were to wake today, I think we would discover it is too late for Mariel to feed our young prince.  Breasts dry if they are not used, even royal ones.  The task you have taken on will last until … until the boy is weaned.”
Claennis’s hesitation caught Elfgiva’s attention.  “What is the trouble?”  Elfgiva began transferring Glytha from nipple to a burping cloth.
“I can do that.”  Claennis took the baby girl, held her against her shoulder and began rubbing small circles in her back. 
Elfgiva pursued her question.  “I heard trouble in your voice, Claennis.  What is wrong?”
The older woman lowered her voice, though the walls of Pulchra Mane made it impossible that anyone would hear them.  “Merlin Torr reports to Aweirgan every day.  He has all the sheriffs going about in small companies and carrying swords.  And they are drafting strong young men—boys, really—to be new sheriffs.  Aweirgan fears the lords of Calles Vinum, Rubrum Vulpes, and Beatus Valle.
Elfgiva looked confused.  “Would Mariel’s lords rebel against her?  Are they not loyal?”
Such naiveté!  But Claennis did not roll her eyes.  Elfgiva was unfamiliar with castles, nobles, and politics.  Truth be told, Claennis herself didn’t pay much attention to such things, but it was hard to ignore the rumors flying around the castle.
“Ah, aye, girl.  There are powerful men who would like nothing more than to put a knife into our Prince Eudes.  After killing Mariel, of course.”
The young mother’s eyes went wide.  Her arms trembled, and Eudes lost the nipple.  He whimpered.  Elfgiva quickly adjusted.  “They would attack Pulchra Mane?”  She looked at the door.  “They would come here?”
“Merlin Torr commands hundreds of sheriffs.”  Claennis spoke calmly, exaggerating the number.  “They will defend the city, the castle, and more than anything else, that boy.”
“What about Queen Mariel?”
“If she recovers, of course, all is well.  She would command the castle defenses and destroy any attackers.”
“And if she doesn’t recover?”
“Well, as long as you hold the prince, you will be the most protected woman in Pulchra Mane.”
Elfgiva looked down at Eudes, who had quit sucking.  His blue eyes seemed to be watching her face.
“Ah!” said Claennis.  “Now we trade.”  She gave Glytha to her mother and received Eudes.  “I will take the little prince to the Queen.  The midwife says having the baby close by might help Mariel wake.”

Aweirgan Unes saw Claennis in the great hall as she came up the stairs.  “Taking the boy to his mother,” she said.  The scribe nodded and returned his attention to something he was writing.
Bestauden Winter sat guard outside the Queen’s room.  He stood to greet Claennis.  “Fair morning.  How is little Eudes?”
“Full of milk.”  Claennis stopped and sniffed.  “And shit.”
Bestauden laughed and tilted his head toward the door.  “Blythe is inside with the Queen.”
“So?  You think I’ve forgotten how to change a baby cloth?  I won’t need Blythe to do my work.”  Claennis stepped to the door and it swished open.
Inside the bedroom, on the far side of Mariel’s bed, Blythe wore a startled expression.
“It’s just me,” said Claennis.  “And a young prince who needs a bath.”  Claennis headed for the adjacent bathroom, with its tub and hot water.  The serving girl gave no indication of hearing her.
“Blythe?  Is something wrong?”
Blythe might have been a statue, or a creature in a children’s tale, turned to stone by some magic word.
Then Claennis saw Mariel’s face.  Blue eyes were open—and watching, looking at the boy in Claennis’s arms.

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