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.


No comments:

Post a Comment