160. Various Locations
“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.