163. Toward Inter Lucus
Question: How fast can an army march on an empty stomach?
Answer: Not fast enough. Even healthy men, when deprived of sustenance, will slow down as the miles stretch out. Some of the Stonebridge soldiers were not wholly healthy; they suffered from the after-effects of smoke exposure. Without re-supply, it was physiologically impossible for Milo’s army to reach Inter Lucus before Archard Oshelm’s Herminian army caught them. They had to eat. Thanks to a farmer named Pax Hubbard, they did. Thanks to Amicia Averill, farmer Hubbard was pleased with the whole episode.
From Crossroads, Felix Abrecan’s company rode steadily through the night. The company included prisoners and swordsmen on draft horses as well as Lady Amicia, the lady’s pack horses, her guards, two Stonebridge sheriffs, Merlin Averill, Derian Chapman, and Eádulf—seventeen people in all. They rode no faster than the slowest of the draft horses, but steady plodding proved sufficient. They joined the Stonebridge army before sunrise, at the time the men should have been eating a hurried breakfast. Instead, they were forming up to march, having consumed nothing more nourishing than water.
Scouts Ford Ormod and Noel Night reported the existence of Pax Hubbard’s farm a few miles along the road toward Inter Lucus. In the ordinary course of things, Milo might have confiscated farmer Hubbard’s three cows with an empty promise to pay him for them later. Such injustices often happen in wars, unreported in the stories about battles and strategies and heroes. Amicia, riding beside her brother with the vanguard, urged and enabled him to deal fairly with the good farmer. In the end, in exchange for his three cows, Pax Hubbard received two solid draft horses and enough golds (from Amicia’s purse) to buy cows the next time he visited Senerham or Down’s End. Hubbard was delighted, and in testimony of his pleasure he helped the soldiers butcher the three cows on the spot.
Amicia, Merlin and the others who had ridden all night enjoyed a short respite while the army butchered and cooked farmer Hubbard’s cows. They lay on blankets in a corner of a pasture and slept, captors and captives alike, while the Stonebridge army made a breakfast.
With seven hundred hungry men to help, it takes little time to turn three cattle into strips of roasted or boiled meat. Before noon, each man had a solid meal in his stomach and a bit of cooked meat in his pack that he would enjoy at nightfall. Leaving Hubbard’s farm, the army would march well for eight hours.
Meanwhile, Ned Freeman and Fletcher Norris, scouting behind the army, reported that the Herminian infantry trailed them by ten miles. It seemed clear that the Stonebridgers would reach Inter Lucus safely, but only shortly before the Herminians. Before leaving Pax Hubbard’s farm, Milo wrote two letters and entrusted one to Ford Ormod and Noel Night, ordering them to hurry to Inter Lucus. The other he gave to the prisoner, Bron Kenton. Milo told Kenton he was free to do and go wherever he pleased, but that the letter was intended for Archard Oshelm. Eudes Ridere told Kenton to deliver Milo’s letter as if it had come from him.
“Milo, what did you write?”
In late afternoon, Amicia and Milo had dismounted to stretch their legs. Merlin, Eádulf, and Derian Chapman were with them. With a small company of lancers as guards, Milo had ridden ahead of the main mass of the army. Senerham and Inter Lucus were another long day’s march ahead.
“You’re gaining patience, little sister.” Milo grinned at her. “The Amicia I know would have pestered me all day to know what was in those letters. You’ve waited hours.”
Amicia tossed her head. “That was Amicia Mortane. I am Amicia Averill. The girl you knew a year ago has since served as Aylwin’s ambassador in Down’s End and Stonebridge. And she married Master Merlin Averill. I am now a lady of Stonebridge. If you don’t want to tell me, just say so.”
“Excellent. I don’t want to.” Milo turned away from Amicia, pretending to focus on the swordsmen marching toward them. He waited for her protest; the Amicia he knew would quickly press him for an answer to her question. But she didn’t. He looked back to see Amicia climbing into her saddle. Merlin was mounting too.
“I think I’ve outgrown that name.”
Amicia smiled gently, but her face seemed harder. Just sixteen, but she really has changed. Little Toadface has become a serious woman. Milo climbed onto Gray Boy, frowning. “I’ll tell you what I wrote.”
Merlin coughed. “Th-th-thank you.”
My sister has become a serious woman—and she is married to the Assembly Speaker’s son. Milo said, “The letter to Oshelm starts with the obvious. Eudes Ridere is still alive. Oshelm may send a man to see and speak with Ridere if he likes. I am willing to surrender Ridere alive, but only if Oshelm’s army ceases its pursuit.”
Merlin made an odd sound, which Amicia interpreted. “Manifestly sensible. But what about Lord Martin? What did you say to him?”
Milo twitched Gray Boy’s reins to start him ambling toward the oncoming soldiers. “First, I told Martin that though I am coming with an army, he should not be alarmed. The Stonebridge army intends no harm to him or the people between the lakes. Second, I told him that Merlin Averill of Stonebridge was coming with us.”
“G-g-good.” With only an occasional word or sound, Merlin was as much a part of the conversation as Milo or Amicia.
“Third,” Milo continued, “I said that Archard Oshelm and a portion of the Herminian army are pursuing us, bent on our destruction. We need time to parley with Oshelm and prevent a battle. Lord Martin, I have observed, is strongly opposed to battles. I suggested that Martin could help us greatly—that is, help us negotiate with Oshelm—if he were to allow us to camp inside his greater shield. With a barrier between us, we might reach agreement with Oshelm.”
Amicia objected, “Inside his shield? Would any lord agree to that?”
“Inside the greater shield. Martin would still have Parva Arcum Praesidiis to protect his castle.”
Merlin cleared his throat. “S-s-same time?”
For once, her husband’s meaning escaped Amicia. “Darling?”
“B-b-both sh-sh-shields? Same time?”
By this point, their slow amble had brought them to the army’s vanguard, where Ifing Redhair strode long-limbed in front of knife fighters. Milo turned Gray Boy and the riders matched their speed to Redhair’s. The knife fighter captain wore a sleeveless leather jerkin; his shoulder-length hair looked like a bright flame rising from the garment. He strode along between Milo and Amicia’s mounts.
Milo explained: “Merlin is right. It is harder to command two castle shields at the same time. But most lords learn to do it, because that is the most effective tactic against an attacker. The castle ruler catches the enemy’s forces between the shields and then brings the shields together, destroying them. In Down’s End we heard rumors that Aylwin did this to some of Eudes Ridere’s men. We should ask Ridere if that’s true. Whether or not Aylwin can do it, I expect Lord Martin is able to command both shields at once. Parva Arcum Praesidiis will keep us away from the castle and Magna Arcum Praesidiis will keep Oshelm away from us.”
Amicia objected, “That would put us between the shields. Lord Martin could kill us all.”
“True,” said Milo. “But I’ve talked with him. Lord Martin will not betray a promise. If he gives us shelter, we’ll be safe enough.”
“Ridere?” This time Merlin didn’t stutter.
Milo looked past Amicia to Merlin. “What about him?”
“Oh! Did I tell Martin that I have Ridere with me?” Milo grinned at Amicia and her husband. “No. I think it’s good to have some surprises to spring when we get there.”
“Surprised or not, Martin will be glad to see him,” said Amicia.
Milo’s grin faded a little. “Why should Martin want to see Ridere?”
Amicia looked from Milo to her husband. Merlin made a little circle motion with his claw arm. Amicia said, “Your men intercepted Ridere on his way to Inter Lucus, but he never told you why he was going there. Last night he told Merlin and me.”
Milo interrupted. “He wanted use of Videns-Loquitur to talk with Mariel. I already guessed that much.”
“No. Of course, he would have talked with her if possible, but he didn’t expect it. He actually planned to talk with Lady Avice Montfort, of Tutum Partum.”
“I don’t understand.”
Merlin snorted. Amicia said, “Indeed.” She didn’t elaborate with words, but paused expressively. Then: “Ridere went to Inter Lucus to talk with Lady Montfort, because he already had word that Queen Mariel nearly died in giving birth to a son. He knew that Mariel was bedridden and unable to bond with Pulchra Mane.”
“By the gods.” Milo swore quietly.
“This news came to Ridere round-about: A messenger from Pulchra Mane to Tutum Partum, Lady Montfort speaking to Lord Martin, and then Martin’s messenger from Inter Lucus to General Ridere. So Martin knows that Ridere faced a crisis. He will be eager to speak with him.
“Meanwhile, the lords of Herminia would suspect something amiss with Mariel as soon as the Queen did not convene her normal Council meeting. So Ridere had no time to lose. He began sending men home to defend Pulchra Mane. And he set out for Inter Lucus in order to confer directly with Lady Montfort.”
Milo made deductions. “Some of Mariel’s lords are ready to rebel.”
“And by capturing Ridere, I have somehow undermined the defense of Pulchra Mane. How so? Even if Ridere had reached Inter Lucus he would only have been able to talk with this Lady Montfort. How could a Videns-Loquitur conversation save Mariel?”
Amicia explained, “Ridere had already dispatched men to defend Tutum Partum. He wanted Montfort to send her own sheriffs to Pulchra Mane. The point is that Montfort’s men could reach Pulchra Mane far sooner than soldiers from Tarquint. Ridere thought that quick reinforcements from Tutum Partum could get to Pulchra Mane before a rebel army.”
“Clever plan.” Milo thought about Amicia’s report. “Why did Ridere tell you all this? Why did he not tell me?”
“He told Merlin because he thinks it is too late now and thus makes no difference. He did not tell you because he thought you were in league with Aylwin. Whether you intended it or not, by preventing his conference with Montfort, you have given the rebel lords a window of time. As we speak, Pulchra Mane may well be lost and the Grandmesnil kingdom destroyed. And that, of course, is what our brother Aylwin prays for every night. Ridere believes that you and I have convinced Stonebridge to ally itself with Hyacintho Flumen.”
Milo objected, “I care nothing for Aylwin. I sent Ridere messages to tell him so.”
Amicia snorted. “Why should he believe that? In the field he sees a Stonebridge army headed by a Mortane. And yesterday he learned that I, another Mortane, have married an Averill. Stonebridge and the Mortanes together—you see? Even now, he is convinced that this army is moving on Inter Lucus in order to capture it, to use it as a base of operation against his army.”
“But he can’t think that Lord Martin would allow that. Martin made it very clear to me that he would not take sides for or against Aylwin. Surely he made that plain to Ridere as well.”
“Of course he has,” said Amicia. “Ridere is confident that Martin will not ally with you.”
“But… Now I’m confused.” Milo gently tugged Gray Boy’s reins, pulling him away from Ifing Redhair. “If Ridere knows that Martin won’t help me…”
“Martin will not help you willingly,” said Amicia. “It’s possible that you might outwit and manipulate him, though that is not what Ridere fears.”
“Ridere spent a good bit of time in Tarquint as a spy, before Mariel’s army invaded. He learned much, including much of our family history. He knows about uncle Wimund.”
Ifing Redhair’s head swiveled back and forth between Milo and Amicia. “Who is Wimund? What did he do?”
Milo didn’t answer; his thoughts were elsewhere.
Amicia explained, “Our father Hereward had a younger brother, Wimund. Wimund and Hereward were both grandsons of Aerlene Tirel, daughter of Thurwold Tirel, the last lord of Inter Lucus. After Thurwold’s death, with no lord for Inter Lucus, the castle fell into ruin, and our family claimed authority over the territory between the lakes, though they had only spotty success collecting hidgield. Since he was descended from a Tirel, Uncle Wimund thought he might establish himself as a castle lord. He rode north and tried to bond with Inter Lucus. If he had succeeded, he would have become a sort of rival to Father; he would have been lord between the lakes. But he failed. All he got for his effort were blistered hands.”
Milo laughed harshly. “He got more than that. Father decided he couldn’t trust Wimund, so he ordered him strangled.” He looked down at Redhair. “You see, Ifing? I come from a calculating family. We Mortanes do what we must, much as you and I did when the Hawks made trouble in Stonebridge.”
“Aye. I understand better now,” said Redhair. He turned toward Amicia, whose face, because of a shorter horse, was only slightly above his. “You are saying that Ridere fears Sir Milo will take Martin’s castle for himself.”
Amicia smiled sadly. “I tried to explain how foolish that would be. A castle will not accept a new lord while the old lord lives. Ridere knows that as well as anyone. Furthermore, Merlin is convinced, based on letters from Lord David Le Grant, that Martin is a particularly strong lord. Martin has completely revived Inter Lucus in only one year.”
Merlin cleared his throat. “M-m-more im-im-important…”
“Aye,” said Amicia. “Merlin thinks Lord Martin’s ideas are more important than his magic, as great as that is.”
Amicia might have said more, but their conference on horseback was interrupted by shouts from behind. Fletcher Norris was galloping toward them.
Copyright © 2015 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.