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?”
“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.