156. In the Hill Country North of Hyacintho Flumen
The main force of men led by Archard Oshelm marched in a long sinuous column, three abreast, on the dirt road that wound north through the hills from Hyacintho Flumen to Down’s End. Strung out in this way, the army was vulnerable to surprise attacks if an enemy concealed men in some convenient spot. Since the road wound up and down hills and passed through intermittent forests, there were plenty of dangerous places. Naturally, then, Oshelm surrounded his army with a penumbra of scouts. These men rode unarmored on nimble rounceys rather than warhorses, the better to traverse hills and valleys.
It was one of these scouts that first saw the two white flag riders coming south on the road. From high on one hillside he made signals to a fellow scout, and that man passed the signal to another. In this way Archard Oshelm had ample notice of the approaching messengers. He took Danbeney Norman as scribe and a guard of ten mounted lancers and rode ahead of the marching column to meet the couriers.
The Stonebridge horsemen trotted smartly toward Oshelm’s lancers, reining to a stop about twenty yards away. Both of them carried truce flags. One of them handed his flag to his companion and then urged his horse forward a bit. He had white-blond hair that touched his shoulders. He stood in his stirrups and rested his hands on his saddle pommel.
“Fair morning! My name is Reynald Henriet. I serve Milo Mortane, General of the Stonebridge Army. I bear greetings from the General under flag of truce to the Commander of the Herminian forces besieging Hyacintho Flumen. My companion and I demand that you let us pass, that we may deliver Sir Mortane’s messages to the Herminians.”
The unwise use of the word “demand” brought a quick response. The ten lancers who accompanied Oshelm readied their spears, preparing to charge. In a real battle, their lances would be used once in an initial charge and then abandoned, and the rest of the fight conducted with swords. But in this confrontation the initial clash would be the whole of the conflict.
Reynald Henriet raised his arms, weaponless. “We come under flag of truce!”
“Hold!” Archard Oshelm’s command was quiet, but clear. The lancers kept their horses still. Oshelm and Danbeney Norman rode forward, closing the space between them and the Stonebridge men. Reynald Henriet reseated himself on his saddle, but his expression still conveyed disdain for the Herminians.
“I notice that you say your message is for the ‘commander of the Herminian forces.’” Archard spoke conversationally, as if he were discussing some ordinary topic over a beer in a tavern. “Why is that? General Mortane has sent earlier messages to Hyacintho Flumen. Surely he knows our commander’s name.”
“You men are Herminians, then. Good! We thought so, but we weren’t sure.” Henriet smiled, ignoring Oshelm’s question. “And I presume you are the commander, since your men obey you. What is your name? It seems I should deliver Sir Mortane’s letter to you.”
“I am Archard Oshelm. You may give Mortane’s letter to Danbeney Norman.” Archard tilted his head toward his companion. “When I have heard the letter, I will reply.”
“Thank you, Commander Oshelm. If it please you, I will wait until you have prepared your answer and take it with me to General Mortane.” Polite words, but Henriet’s tone and countenance shouted insolence. “Perhaps we should dismount and make ourselves comfortable.”
“That won’t be necessary.” Archard nodded to Danbeney Norman, who prodded his mount forward. The silent courier, holding the two flags of truce, sidled his horse away to let Danbeney come close to Henriet. The Stonebridge spokesman opened a leather cylinder that had been hanging near his right leg and pulled out a roll of rough paper.
“Read it loudly, Danbeney, so the men can hear.” Archard fixed his eyes on Reynald Henriet. They glared at each other until the Stonebridge man looked away.
Danbeney Norman unrolled the paper and turned his mount to read to the lancers.
Sir Milo Mortane, General of Tarquint
To the Commander of the Herminian Forces near Hyacintho Flumen
The presence of the Herminian army in Tarquint has provoked a crisis in our country, as you no doubt are aware. Lord Aylwin Mortane of Hyacintho Flumen urges us all to unite to protect Tarquint against the invaders. As the siege of Hyacintho Flumen goes on and on, he begins to convince castle lords. Some leading men of Down’s End are also nearly persuaded.
I speak as Commander of the Stonebridge Guard and representative of our city. If a Tarquintian alliance forms to oppose you, Stonebridge will take the lead, and I will command the forces arrayed against you.
I say now, as I have said before, that Stonebridge does NOT yet stand with Aylwin. You undoubtedly know that Lord Aylwin is my brother. I regard him as a usurper and a fool. I love him not. Nevertheless, if a Tarquintian alliance forms, the Stonebridge Assembly may decide to join it. In obedience to the Assembly, it would then be my duty to defeat those who besiege Aylwin.
Therefore, I plead with you to act now. Make alliance with me, before the Assembly joins any Tarquintian alliance, so that together we may create order and security in Tarquint. Let us together quell any movement toward rebellion in Down’s End; that will leave your army free to subdue my wayward brother, no matter how long a siege is required.
It may interest you to learn that my men have captured a beak-nosed armsman who claims to be “Eudes Ridere.” He says he was going to Inter Lucus, but of course he can give no reason for doing so. I suspect he is actually the leader of a gang of highwaymen, accustomed to preying on travelers on the old road south of Inter Lucus. They gave us battle in the Blue River valley, and we destroyed most of them. I would hang the man as a common criminal, but we discovered among the ruffians’ baggage several items bearing marks of the Herminian army. As one of my captains pointed out, the man and his gang have probably been raiding some of your outposts. Therefore, as a gesture of cooperation, I offer to deliver this imposter to you for punishment. Or, if you like, I will execute “Eudes Ridere” for you.
An acquaintance of mine recently asked me what I planned to do, given the situation in Tarquint. I replied that a man must seize the chances that come to him. It seems to me that you, Commander, have great chances before you—here, now, in Tarquint. I urge you to ally with me, the better to seize your chance.
Begging that you give my words careful scrutiny,
Danbeney Norman asked, “Shall I read it again, General?”
Oshelm shook his head. “To what end? I believe our first letter is the proper reply.”
“Aye, General.” Norman’s saddle had a leather tube attached to it, much like Reynald Henriet’s. From this cylindrical sheath Danbeney pulled out two papers, one rolled inside the other. He separated the two pieces and gave one to the Stonebridge courier.
“Written beforehand? General Mortane asked that you give his words careful scrutiny.” Henriet’s tone mocked.
Archard Oshelm leaned sideways to spit on the ground. “The quicker you deliver my letter to Mortane, the more he will thank you. Go now. Ride quickly. My men won’t harm you.”
Henriet glanced at the paper and slid it into his letter pouch. His silent companion tossed aside the flags of truce, and the two Stonebridgers spurred their horses to a gallop.
Danbeney Norman had written the letter, so he knew its contents. “Are you sure, Archard?” He spoke after the lancers had been dismissed to rejoin their unit; general and captain could converse frankly.
“No doubt at all. Mortane admits that he has General Ridere, and he invites me to collude in the general’s murder. It is plain, Danbeney, what Mortane wants. He wants me to treat Mariel’s army as my private estate, to be joined to his. He dangles visions of empire before my eyes. But the empire would be his; tyrants don’t share power. His advices are those of a snake. No, Danbeney. Our duty is clear.”
Norman chuckled. “No turning back now, in any case.”
Archard Oshelm, General
To Sir Milo Mortane
Many times you have stated your desire to treat with us. We now discover that all such affirmations were lies. Therefore, the Army of Herminia will soon engage your forces. We intend to destroy you completely.
You might promise to spare General Ridere if we delay our attack. But we have learned that your words are lies. We expect that you will murder him in any case.
If you wish any other outcome, you must give us General Ridere alive and unhurt. If you do this, the General will resume command of our army; perhaps he knows some way to come to terms with you. But since you are a fool, you will ignore that possibility.
With joy I will dance on your grave.
Copyright © 2015 by Philip D. Smith.
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