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.


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