Thursday, June 25, 2015

Castles 161

161. From Crossroads Inn to Inter Lucus

            An unexpected late arrival interrupted the supper conference in Crossroads Inn.  Derian Chapman, Merlin Averill, and Amicia Averill sat on two sides of a corner table, their chairs snug against two walls.  Felix Abrecan sat opposite Merlin and Amicia with his back to the center of the common room.  Lady Amicia’s personal guards, Kenelm Ash and Raymond Travers, and two Stonebridge sheriffs, Osric Green and Yffi Stonebeard (a strangely fitting name for a clean-shaven man), occupied a table nearby, keeping other Inn guests at a distance.  Before the interruption, the conferees had much to say—everything said quietly, so that no one else could hear.  
Amicia and Merlin talked first.  They described the letters sent by David Le Grant to Merlin, and they explained Lord Martin’s proposal for peace: the creation of a “parliament.”  The scheme had obvious flaws, but it intrigued Merlin, which explained his decision to visit Inter Lucus.  Kingsley Averill opposed the journey at first.  In Kingsley’s oft-repeated opinion, Stonebridge risked much by involving itself in foreign affairs.  But Merlin pointed out that the city had already opened itself to foreign entanglements by sending its army into the field.  Merlin also argued that a trip to Inter Lucus would almost certainly give him a chance to check on General Mortane and the army.  While in Stonebridge, Sir Milo had affirmed his allegiance to the Assembly—Would his submission prove genuine in the field?  Kingsley finally agreed to the mission, but he urged Merlin to take trusted bodyguards.
(Actually, Merlin said very little of all this.  Amicia spoke for both of them, with a gesture or stuttered word from her husband emphasizing certain points.)
            When their turn came, Felix and Derian recounted the march of the Stonebridge army to Crossroads, their interactions with Down’s End officials, the dismissal of Rage Hildebeorht, and the capture and interrogation of the Herminian General Ridere.  Derian told most of the tale, though Felix supplied military details.  Amicia peppered them with questions, especially about the capture of General Ridere.  When she learned that the Herminian general and two other prisoners were at that very moment being held in the Crossroads Inn corral, she wanted to see him immediately.  But Merlin signaled that they should hear the whole report, and Derian then told of the battle in the hills and Milo’s subsequent retreat and the loss of the supply wagons.  Hearing this increased Amicia’s alarm.
            “And you are here to do what?  Buy supplies for the whole army?  With what money?”
            Derian grinned ruefully.  “I made that very point to your brother, Lady Amicia.  He said that I should use threats and promises.  I will do what I can, and as quickly as I can.  Rage Hildebeorht, ex-sheriff, is even now spreading the word among the locals.  Rage thinks that by a good result tomorrow he will regain the favor of Stonebridge.  At best, I expect a few farmers will show up, looking for a quick profit.  It will be hard to reach agreements without golds to press into their hands.  Hildebeorht says I might influence their thinking by hanging one of the prisoners.”
            “Absolutely not.  I forbid it.”
            Derian raised an eyebrow.  “Lady Amicia, you are ambassador for Lord Aylwin, not Stonebridge.  You and I may not like the suggestion, but we must consider it.  I must procure supplies as quickly as possible.  Promises and threats.”
            “Merlin is son of the Speaker, and he forbids it.”  Amicia, still whispering, spoke with such vehemence that Felix, Derian and Merlin all laughed.  Taken aback, she said, “What?”
            “Does the lady speak for her husband and the Assembly?” asked Felix.
            “B-b-both.”  Merlin raised his claw arm and let it thump on the table.  The odd gesture emphasized his word, but also redirected their attention.  The interruption had arrived.  Merlin motioned with his head toward the serving board, where a thin youth, dressed as a soldier, surveyed the room.  Felix looked over his shoulder.
            “Eádulf!”  Amicia and Felix spoke in unison.  Felix sprang to his feet and escorted Milo’s squire to the corner table, where Derian readied a chair for him. 
            Eádulf eyed the remains of sup with evident desire, but he did not sit.  “Captain Chapman, I bear urgent word from General Mortane.”  Bowing his head, he added, “Fair evening Lady Amicia.  This is an unexpected pleasure.  And Master Averill.”
            “Out with it, Eádulf.  Any word Milo sends to me can be shared with his sister and her husband.”  Again Derian motioned to the chair.
            Eádulf seemed startled by the word, “husband.”  He looked behind him, and then bent forward over the table, lowering his voice.  “The army is marching for Inter Lucus.  General Mortane commands that the prisoners be brought to him as quickly as possible.”
            “But I was sent to Crossroads to procure supplies,” objected Derian.
            “The situation has changed.  Unless you sent wagons immediately—and I mean right now—the Herminians would intercept them.  I am commanded to tell Felix Abrecan that he and I are to bring the prisoners as soon as possible.  We must ride all night if necessary.  The Herminians will reach the fork to Inter Lucus in the morning.  We must leave now if we are to precede them.”
            The conferees looked at each other for a moment.  To Eádulf’s surprise, it was Amicia who took charge.  “We will all go, and we will be ready in twenty minutes.  Kenelm and Raymond are sworn as my personal bodyguards, but Osric and Yffi will join Felix’s men to help guard the prisoners.  Once we leave this place, until we reach Milo’s army, Felix is our captain.  Agreed?”
            Merlin and Derian nodded affirmatively.  Felix whispered, “Aye.”  Eádulf inclined his head.
            Amicia continued, “In that case, Eádulf, you have twenty minutes.  Eat.  Merlin and I need to change clothes.”
            Nineteen horses departed Crossroads Inn after the interrupted sup.  Amicia had a gentle palfrey; Merlin, Kenelm Ash, Raymond Travers, Osric Green and Yffi Stonebeard rode the rounceys that had brought them from Stonebridge.  Two smaller packhorses carried the lady’s clothing and camp equipment.  Eádulf, Felix Abrecan, and Derian Chapman had their army mounts, well-trained chargers.  The remaining eight beasts, bearing five swordsmen and three prisoners, were converted draft horses, better suited to pulling wagons than carrying people.
            Bee Fatman, with his mother Idonea and her lover, Rage Hildebeorht, watched them ride away in double moonlight.  Having spent four hours spreading word in the Crossroads vicinity that the Stonebridge Quartermaster would spend freely on the morrow, Hildebeorht complained bitterly at the sudden change of plans.  Derian Chapman cornered the ex-sheriff and told him, in a fierce whisper, that he ought to be glad.  Would he rather Crossroads be the meeting place of two armies? 
Before she mounted her gray palfrey, Amicia slipped five golds into Idonea Fatman’s apron pocket and thanked the innkeeper for her hospitality.  
The prisoners rode bound and gagged.  Felix and Derian had commanded their swordsmen to call them “one,” “two,” and “three.”  In spite of such precautions, Bee Fatman overheard a snatch of conversation between two of the swordsmen, so Bee knew that one of the prisoners was named Ridere.  In recent months Bee had heard enough in the Crossroads Inn common room to guess the significance of that name, but he also had enough good sense to keep this knowledge to himself.

His captors had bound Bully Wedmor’s arms securely, one wrist on back of the other, an arrangement that restricted his freedom of movement but still permitted him to hold his horse’s reins and rest one hand on the pommel.  A mile south of Crossroads, the Stonebridgers removed his gag, so Bully could ride in something like comfort, breathing normally and bumping along with eyes closed.  This condition seemed almost normal to Bully.  Except for a two-day interval at Hostage Camp, Bully had spent every day since the ambush like this, trussed up on a horse.  It seemed like he had been half-asleep forever, an interminable bad dream, with pain from his wounds mixing with memories of the carnage by Blue River.  And now the evil dream threatened to become nightmare.  Just when Bully had fallen fully and blessedly asleep, nestled in the hay barn of Crossroads Inn, the Stonebridgers had woken him and tied him back on the horse.  Bully could scarcely believe it: they were reversing course, heading back the way they had come.  Why won’t you just let me sleep?
But what could have been nightmare wasn’t.  Maybe it was the cool night air.  Maybe Bully was recovering from his wounds.  Whatever the cause, he found that for the first time in more than a week he could follow the sense of a conversation.  Someone was speaking to General Ridere.
            “I’m told that you were captured on the road to Inter Lucus.  You will be pleased to learn we are going there.  Provided, of course, that your own army doesn’t stop us.”
            Bully shook his head to clear his mind.  A woman?  The speaker, riding parallel with Ridere, turned her face toward the general.  In double moonlight, her features were unmistakable.  Indeed.  A woman.
            “If we get there safely, what will you do?”  The woman’s tone was light, almost playful.  “Felix says you wouldn’t answer Sir Milo, so you won’t tell me either, I suppose.”
            The woman waited for a reply; receiving none, she continued, breathlessly: “My guess is you wanted to talk with Lord Martin.  But why?  That’s what I want to know.  Felix says Lord Martin uses castle magic to make paper rather than steel.  Strange, don’t you think?  And Martin can hardly have raised an army.  Until last summer Inter Lucus was a ruin, and there are only a couple small villages in that region.  Felix says he hasn’t really tried.  To raise an army, I mean; I’m sure the man has worked very hard; restoring a castle can’t be easy.  Lord Martin seems really strange, don’t you think?  He must be some forgotten descendent of the Tirels, but no one seems to know where he came from.  Cippenham, or someplace further east?
“Anyway, why would the general of Mariel’s army want to go to Inter Lucus?  Do you know what I think?  I think you just got tired of that boring old siege.  That’s it.  Lord Aylwin sleeps every night in castle luxury, but you have to stay in some flea-ridden inn in Hyacintho Flumen, month after month.  So you wanted to get away for a while, visit Inter Lucus, and sleep in a grand bed.  You’ve lived in Pulchra Mane, so you know what that’s like—clean sheets and plush pillows!  Or maybe you just wanted to talk to your wife.  By the gods!  I wager that’s it!  You wanted to talk with Mariel.
“But why?  Everyone says Mariel is a real hard case.  The ‘Ice Queen,’ they say.  I suppose you know the truth of that better than anyone.  Oh!  But maybe… maybe Mariel isn’t the cold-hearted, prideful bitch they all say.  Maybe, secretly, you have tender love for each other.  What a romantic idea!  Here you are, far away in Tarquint, longing to see your wife.  And—unlike the other soldiers in the army—you can!  All you need to do is go to Inter Lucus
“But that doesn’t make sense.  You’re Eudes Ridere!  You’re famous!  You’ve maintained longer sieges than this one.  A soldier like you would never desert his post just to talk to a beautiful woman, even if she was his wife.  They do say that Mariel is beautiful, though her heart is ice.  And you would know better than anyone.  So it can’t be that you would leave Hyacintho Flumen just to talk with Mariel.  There must be some other reason…”
The woman’s lighthearted prattle achieved more in five minutes than Milo Mortane’s interrogations at Hostage Camp.  General Ridere responded.  “I cannot believe, Lady Amicia, that you are as empty-headed as you pretend.”  Bully was riding immediately behind the general and the woman.  He saw her head snap left to look at Ridere.
Ridere chuckled.  “Surprised that I recognized you?”
            “Aye.”  The woman’s voice took on a deeper, flatter tone.
            “It’s the eyes.  Not their color, though I wager yours are brown, like Sir Milo’s.  Even in moonlight, there’s something about Mortane eyes.  Hard eyes, in hard faces.  I saw your face before we left the Crossroads Inn; I said to myself, ‘That’s a Mortane.’”
            A sound came from the rider in front of the woman, an odd sound, like a sneeze choked into a cough.
            “General Ridere, my husband thinks you are lying.”  The woman’s voice regained its lilt.  “Come to think of it, my eyes don’t look anything like Milo’s.  So how is it that you know me?”
            “Your husband?”
            “Merlin Averill of Stonebridge is my husband.”  Now it was General Ridere’s turn to look quickly at the woman.  “It does not mean, as you may fear, that Stonebridge has allied itself with Hyacintho Flumen.  We are going to Inter Lucus partly so that I may tell Aylwin that I can no longer serve as his ambassador.”
            “I see,” said Ridere.  “And what other reason would you have?”
            “General!”  The lady laughed.  “If you want answers to your questions, you must first answer mine.  How did you know me?”  After many seconds of silence, she said, “If you tell how you know me, I will tell you more of our purpose.”
            Ridere sighed.  “It’s not hard, Lady.  I have an eye for faces.  I saw you a year ago in Hyacintho Flumen, across Blue River from the castle.”
            “But that was before the siege.”
            “True.  It was.  Bully and I came to Tarquint, with another, as scouts.  We saw you then.”
            “General Ridere, a spy?  This will add to your fame.” Amicia laughed again.  “Who is Bully?”
            Behind them, Bully cleared his throat.  “I am Bully Wedmor.  I have served as the general’s squire in times past.”
            The lady half-turned on her saddle.  “Well met, I’m sure, Bully.”  To Ridere she said, “And fair is fair.  You told me how you knew me.  So I will say: we are going to Inter Lucus to meet Lord Martin.  My husband believes Martin, not my brother Aylwin, is the most important castle lord in Tarquint.”
            “He does, does he?”  Ridere coughed.  “I think, Lady Amicia, that I would like to talk with your husband.  Could he ride beside me for a bit?”

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



Thursday, June 18, 2015

Castles 160

160.  Various Locations

Crossroads Inn

            “By the gods!  It’s Merlin Averill.”
            The claw arm could not be mistaken, even from behind.  Averill turned, without haste, to face the speaker.  Derian Chapman, followed closely by Felix Abrecan, had just entered from the corral that lay between the wings of Crossroads Inn into the common room.  With raised eyebrow, Merlin said, “W-w-well met, D-D-Derian.”  Nodding to Felix, he added, “Sh-sh-sheriff Abrecan.”
            “What are you doing here?”  Derian expostulated.
            “We could ask the same.  Why are you here?”  The speaker was a brown-haired woman, descending the stairs from the second floor of Crossroads Inn.  She was dressed in a fine blue kirtle that contrasted strongly with the muddy leather breeches and riding cloak worn by Merlin Averill.  Amicia Mortane crossed from the stairs to Merlin’s side and touched his arm.  “Bee Fatman is fetching hot water for a new bath.  You can go up any time.”
            “The lady ambassador!  Gods!”  Derian’s mouth hung open for a moment, bringing smiles to Merlin and Amicia.  Then he recovered his composure.  “Master Merlin, Lady Amicia, it will be to our advantage to meet privately.  I assume you have rooms already?  Can we retire to one of them?”
            “We have a room,” answered Amicia.  “Merlin and I wed just before we left Stonebridge; it makes traveling together much less awkward.  Of course, the sheriffs—we have a guard of four—have rooms on either side of ours.  Small bedrooms—none of them would serve for a meeting.”
            “Married?”  Derian blew out his cheeks.  “Already?  What will Milo say?”
            Amicia tossed her head, shaking brown locks on her shoulders.  “If he has any sense, he will say, ‘Congratulations.  Blessings on you.’  Which is what you should say as well.  By the by, Merlin has waited very patiently for his turn at a bath.”  She nudged her husband.  “Go on.”
            Derian appeared flummoxed.  But Felix wasn’t.  “Congratulations, Lady Amicia, Master Merlin.  May the gods bless your union.”  Looking around the room, Felix said, “I suggest that we gather around the table in the corner.  The sheriffs who have come with Master Merlin and Lady Amicia can sit at the nearer table.  That will keep prying ears away.”
            Derian took thought for a moment.  “I think you’re right, Felix.  The corner table will have to do.”  To Amicia: “Congratulations on your marriage.  May the gods bless both of you.”  To Felix: “I’ll talk to Idonea Fatman about supper.  Perhaps you should instruct Jarvis and the others to take their supper in shifts.  Our guests must be kept safe.”
            “My thought exactly, Captain.”  Felix saluted and left the common room through the door leading to the corral.
            “G-g-guests?”  Merlin Averill hadn’t obeyed Amicia’s nudges yet.
            “I will explain over sup,” answered Derian.  “In private.”
            Averill frowned, but Amicia tugged on his elbow.  “The water won’t stay hot long, Beloved.”

Castle Hyacintho Flumen

            Arthur the old, Dag Daegmund, and Aylwin Mortane stood on the god’s tower of Hyacintho Flumen.  The flat roof had no parapet, so Arthur used a thin stick, much like a blind man’s cane, to warn himself from stepping too close.  Decades before, Arthur used to stand right on the edge, but he no longer trusted his balance.
            “There.  There.  And there.”  Captain Daegmund indicated various points in the ring of Herminian camps surrounding the castle.  “They disguise what they’ve done.  The number of men on patrol stays the same, and the catapults throw fire or refuse as often as ever.  But the camps themselves are thinner.  Ridere has sent some of his men away; I’m sure of it.  They’re going by ship, some of them.  Others, I think, have marched north.”
            “Herminian armsmen have been leaving and returning from the beginning,” said Arthur.  “It’s part of Ridere’s plan, to maintain a siege for years.”
            “Aye.  But look at the camps.”  Again Daegmund pointed.  “No man comes or goes from many of the tents.  They keep them only to deceive us.  Count the food wagons; they are far fewer than before.”
            “Martin of Inter Lucus hinted at something like this.”  Aylwin watched one of the catapults launch a clay jar.  Rather than disintegrating on Magna Arcum Praesidiis, the jar—no doubt full of human or animal excrement—simply crashed to the ground.  Cleaning up after bombardments had become a regular routine among Hyacintho Flumen’s farm servants.  “Damn!  I will have to go down and hold the shield for a while, remind the Herminians I’m here.”
            Descending the stairs to the great hall, Aylwin found himself wishing Martin would contact him via Videns-Loquitur.  Aylwin continued to try to connect with other lords on his own, but without success.  Martin hadn’t called for four days.  Aylwin held the fool in contempt, which made it all the more irritating to have to rely on him.  And the silence of the bitch queen had lasted more than three weeks.  For all Aylwin knew, she might never call again.

Castle Pulchra Mane

            Mariel woke up, yet again, in sheets soaked in sweat and urine.  Despair threatened to overwhelm her.  She was twenty-three years old, but her body behaved as if it were ninety-three.  How had this happened to her?  She knew the answer, in general terms: she had given birth to a boy, whom they had named Eudes; but something had gone wrong, something about blood; and she had been unconscious.  How long?  Some days at least, but she couldn’t ask, and she didn’t recall anyone saying.
Blythe or Claennis would strip the bed, and castle machines would soon render the bedding clean, dry and fresh smelling.  The women would bathe Mariel as well, but what then?  What about tomorrow morning, and the days after that?  Doctor Ucede had said something about stroke.  What did that mean?  Why could she not control her bladder?  Why did her body sweat like a wrestler every night?  Most importantly: how long would this go on?  Would she be forever imprisoned, incapable of speech?
Unable to ask questions, Mariel had listened closely when Aweirgan explained the situation to Lord Martin.  She wanted to scream her frustration.  Aweirgan Unes and Merlin Torr had assumed rule over the city of Pulchra Mane in her incapacitation.  She couldn’t fault that.  But now they could see she was awake; they should consult her.  Martin and Avice, at least, could see that she was ready to help.
But was she?  Mariel had been long accustomed to the warmth and power of Pulchra Mane’s magic when her hand lay on her knob.  Yesterday, though, when Ucede laid her hand on globum domini auctoritate, she had felt only the slightest twinge.  She wanted to believe that the connection was as strong as ever, that her weakened senses simply didn’t register it.  But her eyes were working properly, and the light that filtered between her fingers from her knob had been a faint purple, not the vivid violet of old.  Does the faint light from the knob indicate a weakened bond?  Black fear rose in her mind: It may have been Martin who raised my shield.  And then a worse fear: This may never end.

Between the Lakes

            The lord of Inter Lucus might be fixated on the affairs of castles and great cities, communing daily with lords and ladies and weighing news that came by messenger, but ordinary affairs also needed managing.  The castle estate was in full flower: berries, orchards, vegetable gardens, wheat field and hay field, livestock (two cows, four horses)—all needed tending.  Caelin Bycwine kept careful records of the castle’s stores and the work of estate laborers, he and the sheriffs Ealdwine Smithson and Os Oswald being chief among them.  Combined, the three of them had experience with most aspects of farming.
Isen Poorman’s glassworks, with Ernulf Penrict as apprentice, produced a steady stream of plate windows and glass jars, vases, and cups.  Isen built a little shop beside the glassworks to display products.  When duty did not demand her presence in the castle, Ora Wooddaughter worked in this shop, selling her fiancé’s goods to people from Inter Lucus and Senerham.  To supply the glassworks, Isen and Ernulf regularly procured sand, ash, and firewood.
            The farmers of Senerham, Inter Lucus, and the surrounding country were experiencing a banner year, which meant the candle makers, butchers, coopers, blacksmiths, and other artisans of the two towns also prospered.  Elne Penrict had had to take on a new apprentice in his Senerham smithy, and he told anyone who would listen that he half-regretted letting Ernulf enter Isen’s employ.  Of course, anyone who knew Elne well could tell he spoke facetiously.  That Ernulf lived and worked so close to Inter Lucus was a point of great pride to Elne.
            Rumors, encouraged by Ora, spread throughout the region between the lakes that Lord Martin would hold another mid-summer party.  Official announcements would come soon.
            Daily, folk appeared at Prayer House, on the edge of the castle estate, asking to see the lord.  Ora and Priest Eadmar organized Marty’s schedule so that he hosted visitors only three days a week.  Five hours, three times a week: Marty thanked Ora repeatedly for keeping public audiences from overwhelming him.
            Elfric Ash and Leo Dudd recruited new sheriffs.  Inter Lucus would need more sheriffs come autumn, when harvest hidgield had to be calculated and collected.  Out of two score volunteers, Elfric and Leo selected eight as the strongest candidates.  Marty agreed to interview the eight and appoint four of them, but he hadn’t done it yet.  He spent most of his time standing at the interface wall or reviewing Whitney Ablendan’s notes of his Videns-Loquitur conversations.

The road north of Damned Creek

            “I don’t understand—sir.  Another message to Oshelm?”
            Milo again noted Ifing Redhair’s nearly sarcastic use of “sir.”  He rejected the temptation to nudge Gray Boy into a faster walk.  Redhair could not ride a horse, so he often walked beside Milo.  A bit faster pace and Redhair would soon be out of breath.  Don’t be childish, Milo thought.  You’re going to need Ifing before this is over.
            “Aye.  Another message to General Oshelm.  He needs to know that Ridere is still alive.  Oshelm says he means to destroy us; I want him to consider other possibilities.”
            Redhair snorted.  “Such as?”
            “Reaching an agreement, of course. I will give him Ridere, alive and well, at the right time, provided we have peace between us.”
            “Oshelm’s letter said we cannot be trusted.  Why should he believe Ridere is alive?”
            Milo glanced back over his army.  Marching four abreast, the column stretched back over a quarter-mile of narrow road.  Their food would run out with evening sup, so there had been no question of making a stand at Damned Creek.  If Derian hadn’t acquired re-supply, it would be a very hungry march to Inter Lucus.  A rider carrying Milo’s latest communiqué to Archard Oshelm passed the last row of men, heading south.
            Milo explained, “If the prisoner we left at Hostage Camp survived the fire, Oshelm will believe him.  If things go well, we’ll meet up with Derian and send another of the prisoners to Oshelm.”
            “If you plan to use prisoners as messengers, it was damn foolish to pack them off with Chapman.  Sir.”
            “You may be right, Ifing.  That’s why I had to send Reynald.”  Milo pointed at the disappearing rider.  Then he turned his gaze forward.  They had summited a hill; in the distance he could see farm buildings.  Hrodgar Wigt and the vanguard were a hundred yards ahead.  Judging by the out buildings, Crossroads might be two or three hours ride away, longer than that for infantry.  “I may have mistimed things.  It might have been better to keep the prisoners with us.”
            Milo stood in his stirrups to call out.  “Wigt!  Captain Wigt!  Eádulf, quickly!  Ride down to Wigt and tell him to go right at the bottom of the hill.  We head to Inter Lucus, not Crossroads.”
            “Aye, Sir.”  Eádulf’s horse trotted away.
            “What?  Are you insane?”  Redhair’s voice could be heard by the men marching behind them.  “We need victuals.  Isn’t that why you sent Chapman to Crossroads?”
            “Indeed.”  Milo spoke calmly, but loud enough for his soldiers to hear.  “I hoped for—I still hope for—some resupply from Crossroads.  At present, though, there is no sign of it.”  Milo pointed to the empty road running northward.
            “Then we should march to Crossroads to meet Chapman!”
            “Captain Redhair!  I command this army.  We march to Inter Lucus.  Derian and our resupply will catch up to us eventually.”
            “General—sir!  The Herminians are after us.  They’ll intercept Chapman if we don’t go to him.”
            “That’s possible.”  Milo kept his voice smooth.  “In that case, we will resupply between the lakes, at Senerham and Inter Lucus.  I may have misjudged the time Derian’s mission would take, but we still must go see Lord Martin, victuals or no.”
            “By the gods!  Why?”
            Eádulf was trotting back toward them.  Milo smiled at Redhair.  “You’re going to have to trust me on that, Ifing.”  Then he spurred Gray Boy forward.

Castle Aurea Prati

            “You have talked with Queen Mariel?”  Gentle blue light suffused Jean Postel’s hands.  Her husband and daughter, Artus and Sidney, stood close by.  All three Postel faces shone with hope.
            “Not exactly.”  In the viewing screen, Avice Montfort chewed her lip.  “Lord Martin and I both believe she wants to speak, but she hasn’t yet.  She is alive and her health improving.  We hope she will talk with us soon.”
            “But you said…” Sidney could not restrain her impatience.
            Lord Martin, in the other frame, interrupted with a raised hand.  “We said that Pulchra Mane’s shield convinced the rebel army to hold back.”
            Jean Postel struggled to understand.  “Mariel can raise her shield, but she cannot speak?”
            “We are not sure,” Montfort replied.  “At the crucial moment, Lord Martin and I also bent our wills to raise the Pulchra Mane shield.  We presume that Queen Mariel did so as well.  What we know is that the shield went up for a few minutes.  We don’t know whether Mariel, or Martin, or I, or some combination of us did the work.”
            “Amazing.”  Jean shook her head.  What new magic will Martin try next?
            Artus clarified, “A few minutes, you say?”
            Montfort smiled.  “Just long enough to give a convincing demonstration to the rebel army.”
            Lord Martin explained, “We feared wearing out Mariel.”
            Jean Postel chuckled.  “You assume she did the work, Martin.  I do not.  Will you be ready to defend Pulchra Mane if the rebels attack?”
            Martin frowned as if he hadn’t considered the possibility, which made Jean Postel laugh aloud.  “Lord Martin, you never cease to surprise me.  But you and Lady Avice did not call me today merely to deliver news.  What is it you want?”
            “An intervention.”  Lord Martin had to see Jean’s confusion, but he didn’t stop to explain the new word.  “As soon as Mariel can speak, I will arrange a group meeting via Videns-Loquitur.  We want many lords and ladies to join in.  We will ask together, and each one of us will ask individually, that Mariel consult with us to establish Parliament.  We will pledge our loyalty to her, on condition that she consult with us.”
            Artus Postel touched his wife’s shoulder before she could answer, and then spoke for her.  “Lady Avice, if you do this, the Queen may call it treason.”
            Montfort’s gray visage didn’t flinch.  “She may.  But Mariel knows I am loyal, and just yesterday we saved her castle.  And I will be one of many.”
            Jean Postel said, “Many?”
            Martin began ticking off lords and castles.  “Ames Hewett of Faenum Agri, David Le Grant of Saltas Semitas, Isabel Baro of Argentum Cadit, Simon Asselin of Lata Alto Flumen, and Marin Dufour of Altum Canyon.  Lady Postel recognized them all as castles in Tarquint.
            “And Wymer Thoncelin of Ventus in Montes,” added Lady Avice.  “Mariel trusts Wymer as much as me.  And then there is Rocelin Toeni of Prati Mansum, another castle in Herminia.  Lord Martin is very persistent, very persuasive.”
            Jean Postel glanced at Sidney.  Aurea Prati would be hers in a few years.  Her daughter understood the unspoken question and nodded affirmatively. 
“What did you call this thing, Lord Martin?  Intervention?  I will take part.  I will be ready when you call.”

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


Thursday, June 11, 2015

Castles 159

159. In Flight from Hostage Camp

            From Hostage Camp, the Stonebridge army saw plumes of smoke to the south.  Suddenly the fires blew up, burning so fiercely that Milo and his men could see flames from their location three miles distant.  No one needed to say what everyone guessed: Something has gone terribly wrong.  It wasn’t long before runner-scouts confirmed their fears.  Dalston and Fleming’s companies were routed.  The enemy had come through the gap in force.  The Herminians were two miles away and marching.
            With joy I will dance on your grave.
            In the moment of crisis, Milo felt an inexplicable calm.  He had a sense of being outside himself, as if he were watching someone else take charge of the situation and give commands.  He was gratified and impressed with the way the Stonebridge general organized a retreat—all the while equally surprised that he was that general.
            He spoke first to Hrodgar Wigt, telling him to quick march the Red and Blue companies, which comprised most of their remaining army, north to a creek they had named “Damned Creek.”  (Days before, when moving south, two wagon wheels had broken while fording the creek; hence the name.)  Each man was to march with the food already in his pack; there was not enough time to distribute supplies from the wagons.  Red and Blue companies could rest north of Damned Creek.  The high water of the creek would hinder the enemy’s pursuit, since they would have to cross at the ford.
            “Will we stand there, sir?”  Hrodgar asked.  “Make our defense at the ford?”
            “Perhaps.  You and I will assess our situation once I arrive.  You need to get there before nightfall, guard the ford, and give the men rest.  Right now our task is to slow down the enemy and keep our army together.  If we scatter, we lose everything.”
            Milo commanded Felix Abrecan to form a small mounted company.  “We’ll need the scout ponies for the main army.  So you get the draft horses from the wagons.  Take three prisoners and Derian Chapman.  Leave the wagons here.  Don’t stop.  Ride all night if you must, and tomorrow.”
            Felix frowned, confused.  “Only three prisoners?”
“Aye.  Take General Ridere, the wounded man, and one of the others.  Bring the fourth to me before you ride.”
Felix had another question.  “We will reach Damned Creek well ahead of Captain Wigt.  Should we not stop there?”
            “No.  Ride to Crossroads Inn.  We will need resupply.  Idonea Fatman knows the farmers in that region.  Sheriff Chapman will negotiate for food, wagons, and horses.  Your job is to keep our prisoners safe.”
            Derian Chapman overheard Milo’s instructions to Felix.  “How am I to negotiate for our needs?  Does the army have bags of gold that I am unaware of?”
            “Captain Chapman!  Use your imagination.  This is the Stonebridge army.  Of course we have gold; it just isn’t with us right now.  You will have our prisoners as exhibits.  Surely you know how to threaten and promise!  What would your uncle do?  Get what you can as quickly as possible.  Then…”
            “And then?” Derian raised an eyebrow.  Will you bring the army to Crossroads?”
            “I’ll send word.”
            Chapman was not satisfied.  “And if I don’t hear from you?  Should Felix and I take the prisoners to Stonebridge?”
            “No!”  Milo spoke emphatically.  “Our chances don’t lie there.  Not yet.  We will either defeat the enemy in the field or move toward Inter Lucus.”
            Inter Lucus!”  Chapman’s words were both exclamation and question.  But Milo had neither time nor inclination to explain.  Felix took Derian’s elbow, and Milo waved them away.
            “Redhair!”  Milo summoned the captain of the knife fighters.  With Bryce Dalston and Aidan Fleming lost, Ifing Redhair, Hrodgar Wigt, and Derian Chapman were Milo’s remaining captains.  The red-haired giant had been standing close, arms crossed, listening to Milo’s instructions to the others.  “I have a crucial job for the knife fighters.”
            “No doubt.”  Redhair did not mask his sarcasm.  “I suppose we are to make a grand stand, blocking the road, sacrificing ourselves to slow the enemy.”
            “Ifing!  You underestimate me.”  Milo grinned.  “If the road is to be defended, I will do it—with Eádulf, of course.  We will need every man we have, so I certainly don’t want the knife fighters to sacrifice themselves.  When second moon rises, I want the whole army, including the knife fighters, on the north side of Damned Creek.”
            Redhair unfolded his arms.  “What, then?”
            “The Herminians have shown us what we must do.”  Milo pointed south.  “I want knife fighters to spread out, in teams of three or four, east and west of the road.  Set fires everywhere there is good fuel.  Then move north.  Eádulf and I will guard the road and set fire to trees near it.”
            For a moment, Redhair’s gaze lingered on the southern horizon.  He nodded, approvingly.  “It may work.  Falcons will fire the forest.”  He glanced at Milo.  “But one of my teams should be with you.  You and Eádulf can fight, and Falcons can start fires.”
            “Good idea.”  Milo noted Redhair’s use of ‘Falcons,’ and the way he agreed to Milo’s order as if it were a mere suggestion.  But this was not the time to insist on a proper acknowledgement of his authority.  “Let’s move!”
            When Herminian swordsmen reached the place, Hostage Camp had become a blackened field, with pine trees burning on the edges.  The Stonebridge army had obviously left in haste.  Charred bits of firewood, camp gear, and wagons littered the meadow and road.  Tall trees burning very near the road forced the Herminians out of their way around them; and a quarter-mile after regaining the road their progress was blocked by more fires.  In every direction smoke transformed the blue spring sky into swirling clouds of white, gray, and black.  The west wind blew the smoke eastward, but it also fanned the flames.
            Along with the detritus of the enemy camp, they found Wylie Durwin, one of the men who had ridden with General Ridere and taken prisoner by the Stonebridgers.  He was bound hand and foot, lying facedown in the dirt of the road with a wet cloth over his head.  The fires that destroyed the camp and the surrounding vegetation had not touched him, but heat and smoke-poisoned air almost killed him.  Wylie coughed incessantly and lost his balance whenever he tried to stand.  They freed Wylie from his bonds and put him on a scout’s horse; the scout took him in search of General Oshelm.
            Riding with Danbeney Norman near the middle of the advancing column, Archard Oshelm tried to piece together information coming from scouts.  They reported fires everywhere.       
“Mortane has turned our weapon against us,” Norman commented.  For the moment, he and the general were stopped, waiting for two scouts.  One was picking his way carefully across blackened rugged country.  The other approached equally slowly on the road’s edge.  He walked his horse, which was bearing a slumped rider.
Norman rested his hands on his saddle pommel, surveying the horizon to the north.  “Not as effectively as we used it, of course.  We routed the archers on the hills and killed most of them.  He merely uses it to retard our advance.”
            General Oshelm pointed to a bit of unburned grass a few yards from the road.  He nudged his horse into motion, and Norman followed him.  “Mortane’s use of fire is just as effective as ours, Danbeney, in its own way.  He cannot defeat me, so he flees.  Fire gains him time.”
            “He is a coward.”  They reached the grassy spot, a good place to receive the scouts.
            “Nonsense, Danbeney.  If you were in Mortane’s place, you would flee as well.  He keeps his army alive today so that it may fight tomorrow.  Not only does he protect lives, he preserves an army.  I wager they are not racing pell-mell to the north; no, they are marching in ordered companies, and they will turn to face us at some good defensive spot.”
            Norman looked thoughtful.  “Mortane grew up in Hyacintho Flumen, son of the lord.  The Mortanes claimed sovereignty over all this land in times past, all the way to Down’s End.  He is torching lands that might have been his.”
            “Might have been,” said Oshelm.  “They are his brother’s lands now.  But even if these forests were his, he would burn them to save his army.  And he would be right to do it.”
            The two scouts reached Oshelm and Norman at the same time, one climbing a steep slope and the other plodding down from the road’s verge.  Ten yards away, Herminian soldiers continued padding their way northward.  The column’s advance had slowed greatly, and many of the swordsmen cast wondering eyes at Oshelm.
            “General Oshelm.”  The scout leading the horse glanced at the other, hesitating.  The body on his horse had been tied in place, a rope passing from boot to boot under the beast like a girth.
            Oshelm looked at the passenger’s face.  “By the gods!  It’s Wylie Durwin.”
            The rescued soldier turned toward Oshelm’s voice.  “General.  I…” A spasm of coughing interrupted whatever Durwin intended to say.  The violence of the cough shook Durwin’s body, and the scout who attended him reached up to steady him. 
Oshelm sidled his horse closer.  “Wylie, how came you here?”
Durwin coughed again and held up a palm.  “Ridere lives.”  More coughing.  “I am to say: Ridere lives.”
“Mortane left you behind to tell me this.”  Oshelm looked closely at Durwin.  Black sputum dribbled from the soldier’s mouth, and his eyes wandered, unable to focus steadily.
Coughing: “Aye.”
Danbeney Norman asked, “Is it true, Wylie?  Mortane has kept the general alive?”
More coughing.  Durwin nodded, a clear affirmative.  Oshelm looked at him for a time, and then turned to the other scout.  “Report.”
The mounted scout saluted.  “We have lost men to secret attacks.”
            Secret attacks?  Explain.”
            “Men say that knives seem to come out of nowhere.”
            “Aye, Lord General.  The Stonebridgers throw knives.”
            Oshelm couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  “And after?  If a man throws his weapon, is he not defenseless?  Do we not cut him down?”
“They throw and run, my lord.  They escape into the smoke and hide again.  Rarely do our men catch them.  I did see two knife throwers dead, but they generally get away.  We have lost only one man killed, but more than two score have been injured.”
Oshelm considered this odd development.  The scout added, “There is worse, sir.  A knight attacked our vanguard, and several men were lost.”
A knight?  A single attacker?”  Oshelm drew the back of his hand across his forehead.  “Tell me!”
“He had a squire.  But it was the knight that hit us, a true knight: great gray horse, castle steel armor, and lightning sword.  He splits helms like eggshells.  Before our men recover from the first charge, knight and squire gallop off.”
“It has to be Mortane.”  Oshelm looked at Danbeney Norman.  “The steel for our weapons is made at Pulchra Mane by the queen herself.  But it is fashioned into shields and swords by ordinary smiths.  Milo Mortane’s personal armor and sword would have been made for him by his father, Hereward, at the full height of his magic.”
“But Mortane is only one man,” said Norman.  “He can be defeated.”
“Of course.  He took a great risk in attacking our van.  If one of the men had struck his horse’s leg, Mortane might be dead now.”  Oshelm shook his head.  “I wonder, should we judge him brave or foolish?”

Three times Milo charged marching Herminian swordsmen on the road.  Madness?  His father’s calculating voice echoed in his head, lessons driven home in ten years of training.  Keep the initiative.  Surprise is worth five swords in a melee.  Once they start running, you’ve won.  If they don’t start running, get away!  Each time they attacked, Milo and Eádulf chose a bend in the road or a copse of trees, hiding until the last moment before the charge.
The Herminians didn’t exactly run, but neither did they stand effectively.  Gray Boy was a true destrier, a thousand pounds of bone and muscle, clad with armor and yet able to charge and maneuver at speed.  Milo’s superb sword, impelled by Gray Boy’s momentum, threw aside the weak blows of the Herminians and smashed their light helms like vegetable crates.  While the enemy still reeled from the first assault, Milo wheeled Gray Boy in a tight circle and escaped.  Milo had no intention of entering a melee.  He wanted only to bloody the Herminian nose, and then get away.  After each encounter, knight and squire rode swiftly northward, and the three knife fighters who accompanied them would set another blaze.

By late afternoon, the Herminian army halted.  Oshelm’s men spread out along an unnamed and much muddied brook.  They formed into units and established a rough camp.  The captains counted their men.  On the whole day, including the initial battle with the archers in the gap, the Herminians had ninety-five men killed, and twice as many wounded or badly harmed by smoke.  Of course, almost every man suffered from smoke inhalation to some degree, but at least eighty were badly sickened.  Summing up, Captain Allard Ing told Oshelm and the other captains that fires and smoke had hurt or killed more Herminians than the enemy’s weapons.  Ing estimated that the Stonebridgers had lost two hundred or more at the battle of the gap.  And, he said, the enemy left behind most of their baggage in their haste to flee; the burned wagons proved as much.  “We’ve got them on the run,” he concluded.
“Aye.  But as many as three hundred of our men will be unable to march in the morning,” replied Darel Hain, another captain.  “The wounded and smoke-injured must rest.  There is water here, but we must not leave them unprotected.”
“A small guard only.  We must not let Mortane get away!” Ing protested.
Oshelm let captains Ing, Hain, and Norman debate for a while whether they should pursue the Stonebridgers on the morrow.  Then he gestured for silence.  “Captain Hain will take two hundred men to guard the wounded.  Start for Hyacintho Flumen, Darel.  Every man who can walk must.  We can spare only three wagons for the badly hurt.
“That leaves fourteen hundred, more or less.  We will pursue the enemy tomorrow.”  Oshelm ground his teeth.  “Mortane will not escape me.”

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