Thursday, July 16, 2015

Castles 164

164. Some Miles from Inter Lucus

            Someone touched Milo’s arm.  He woke, dismissing a dream, and threw aside his blanket.  He leapt to his feet, ready to receive news and issue commands.  According to Fletcher Norris’s midnight report, the Herminian army had closed to within six miles.  But the touch was not from one of his captains.
            “I’m sorry, Milo.  I didn’t mean to startle you.”  Amicia still crouched where she had knelt beside her sleeping brother.
            Milo’s military trained senses evaluated the situation in seconds.  Dark—second moon obscured by clouds; first moon already set.  Quiet—the men of Stonebridge army were sleeping in ordered companies under the stars without tents; the night had been comfortable with no threat of rain.  The horses not currently on scout duty were loosely tethered to trees, standing or lying at ease.  Secure—Milo could see dim outlines of sentries at the boundaries of the camp; mounted scouts would be roaming beyond sight.  He let out a long breath. 
“Not your fault, Toadface.”  Milo extended a hand and pulled Amicia to her feet.  He spoke just above a whisper.  “Even when I’m asleep, I’m half-ready to fight.  I think my men are afraid to wake me sometimes.”
She searched his face, her eyes reflecting starlight.  “The general of an army has worries he shares with no one.”
“Trouble comes with the job, I think.”  Milo looked at the horizon.  The first light of the approaching dawn touched hilltops in the east.  He began rolling his field blanket; the day’s march would begin soon, so there was no point in lying down again.  “And what about you, little sister?  You rode most the day yesterday and the night before that.  Why aren’t you getting every bit of shut-eye you can?  You must be tired.”
Amicia noted his quick survey of the camp.  “Tired?  Not too bad.  I dozed on and off in the saddle yesterday, and I had some nice springy grass under my blanket last night.  And it’s important that I talk with you.”
Milo felt curiosity and doubt.  So serious she is!  How much has Averill changed my little sister?  “We talked yesterday—will today too.”
“We need to talk alone.”
Milo looked at her.  “Something you don’t want Merlin to hear?”
“No.  Well, maybe.” 
Rolled blanket over his shoulder, Milo started walking and Amicia kept pace.  “Has he… mistreated you?”
“Oh, no.  I’m a happily married woman.  It’s just that I’m not sure I want him to hear what you have to say.  Where are we going?”
“Got to stow my bedroll on Gray Boy.  If it’s not Merlin, what’s so important you need to get me up early?”
Amicia caught a boot against a tree root, invisible in the dark, and suddenly pitched against Milo.  She clutched at his arm, righting herself.  “I want to know why we’re going to Inter Lucus.
Milo led her toward the army’s horses, almost invisible in the shadow of trees.  “I already told you.  I want Martin to protect my army while I work out a truce with Archard Oshelm.”
A sentry materialized from blackness under the trees where the horses were tethered.  “Hold!  Announce yourself!”  The man’s sword reflected moonlight.
“Be at ease, soldier,” commanded Milo.  “I’m here to see to my horse and stow my roll.”
“Lord General!”  The sentry sheathed his sword and saluted, hand on chest.  “Pardon.  I did not recognize you.  If you please, sir, I will feed and water the beasts before we ride.”  He reached out to receive the blanket from Milo.  “Gray Boy is over there.”
“Very well.  See that he’s ready.”  Milo had always relied on Eádulf or someone else to care for his mount.  He and Amicia walked away from the horses.
When they were out of earshot, Amicia resumed the conversation.  “That’s not the whole truth, is it?  I believe you do want a truce, but that isn’t the whole story.  Why Inter Lucus?” 
They were on a narrow path between two grain fields; the overnight stay of the Stonebridgers had largely trampled one of the fields.  What would the owner say when he discovered his grain ruined?  Milo remembered farmer Hubbard, whose cows had fed the army the day before.  Amicia had insisted they pay Hubbard fairly—more than fairly, actually!  The man turned a handsome profit on his cows.  Will Amicia want to pay this farmer too?
Amicia interrupted his thought.  “Milo?  Why Inter Lucus?”
“To see Lord Martin, of course,” Milo said.  “Your Merlin has come all the way from Stonebridge to see him.  Why shouldn’t I?”  In the growing pre-dawn light they could see stirring in the camp, men standing and stretching stiff backs.
Amicia grabbed his arm, turning Milo to face her.  “Merlin wants to talk about Martin’s ‘parliament.’  He thinks Martin is a great lord, whose ideas might serve Stonebridge’s interests.”
Milo laughed.  “Ha!  As far as I can tell, this parliament thing would make us all subjects under Mariel.”
She tossed her head, the old Amicia again.  “Citizens, not subjects.”  She released his arm and pointed a finger at him.  “If you really think Martin’s parliament idea is faulty, why do you want to see him?  What are you about, Milo?”
“Chances, little sister.”  Milo seized her hand and held it.  “Aylwin sent you to Down’s End to be bargained off for an ally.  If I hadn’t sent for you, you might be stuck there.  But a chance came for you.  You met Merlin Averill and married him.  And now—I heard you yesterday—you intend to tell Aylwin to go to hell.  Don’t misunderstand me.  I approve!  The lord of Hyacintho Flumen hardly deserves loyalty from you.  You had chances.  Most of them were bad.  But among them, you found one to your liking and you seized it.  Good for you.  I’m going to Inter Lucus because my chances lie there.”
Amicia shook her hand free.  “I’m going to tell Aylwin I can’t be his ambassador anymore.  I am not telling him to go to hell.”
“You should.  He sent you away to be married to a fat banker on the hope that he would gain him allies in Down’s End.  A stupid policy, with no chance of success—but, of course, no cost to Aylwin, since he doesn’t care about you.”
A sudden intake of breath.  “Aylwin loves himself more than anything or anyone; that much is true.  But we’re not here to talk about Aylwin.  I want to talk about you.”
“All right.  Talk.”  He folded his arms across his chest.
“Are you going to Inter Lucus to kill Martin?”
“How could I?  He has a castle!  By all accounts, he is a powerful lord.  As you pointed out yesterday, my whole army will be vulnerable to him between his shields.  I’m depending on his good will not to destroy us.  How could I possibly hope to kill him?”
Amicia touched his folded arms.  “I don’t know.  But I don’t like what you said to Ifing.  ‘We Mortanes do what we must,’ you said.  Felix told me what you did to the Hawks.  You and Ifing together, you betrayed them and slaughtered them.  Then, later, you used me to trap Ody Dans at Ambassador House.”
“Ody Dans” interjected Milo, “is a blight on humanity.  He is a murderer who takes delight in humiliating helpless people.  My only regret is that I will not be in Stonebridge when he hangs.  I saw the thrill he got when he crushed Tilde’s trust in Adelgar.”
“Tilde told me about it,” Amicia said.  “And about the bed and the mouse and everything.  I agree: Dans is a monster.  That doesn’t change the fact that you used me to trap him.  ‘We Mortanes do what we must’ you said to Ifing.  Now, I’m asking you—not Sir Milo the Commander of the Citadel or the General of the Stonebridge army, but Milo Mortane, my brother—what are these ‘chances’ you are pursuing at Inter Lucus?”
Milo unfolded his arms and brushed her cheek.  “All right.  What would you say if your brother became King of Tarquint?”
She was stunned.  “What?”
“When I was a boy, I wanted to be lord of Hyacintho Flumen more than anything.  So did Aylwin.  Funny thing is—I was always better at riding, hunting, and fighting; more fit to be a knight than a lord, because a lord has to stay in his castle.  Aylwin learned writing and figures quicker than me, and he spent hours watching father at the lord’s knob.  He will manage the castle estate better than I would have.”
Amicia shook her head.  “What are you talking about?”
“I’m telling you why I’m going to Inter Lucus.  If Aylwin hadn’t stolen Hyacintho Flumen I would have been a lord, confined to one castle the rest of my life.  Think, little sister, how did Rudolf become King of Herminia?  Not by castle magic.  He sent an army, under Eudes Ridere, to besiege the castles.  One by one, he made his neighbors submit to him.  It was his army, not his magic, which made him king.  Now I have an army.  Who is stronger, Aylwin or me?”
She objected, “It’s Stonebridge’s army, not yours.”
Milo answered, “In the field, it’s my army.  Stonebridge has supplied the men, weapons, and supplies.  And I’m grateful.  But the Assembly doesn’t really know what it wants.  Some say: Clear out the highwaymen.  Others say: Make Down’s End acknowledge our position as first city.  Others say: Warn off the Herminians.  I’m going to do all those things.”
Amicia was dismayed.  “But you have no right…”
Milo cut off her objection.  “Why should Mariel rule this country?  Why should we not have a king of our own in Tarquint?  And why shouldn’t that king be Milo Mortane?”
“You swore obedience to the Stonebridge Assembly.”
He smiled, his eyes shining.  “I did.  And when I return to Stonebridge I will report success on every task they gave me.  Stonebridge and Down’s End will be free cities under my rule.  But my capitol will be Inter Lucus.”
Again she seized his arm.  “Milo, this is madness.”
“I don’t think so,” he said.  “It’s a chance.  I will have to make the cities see that it is too their advantage to support the throne and the security my army will provide.  A king will protect them from Herminian invaders, from castle lords, and from the anarchy of highwaymen. 
“You see, then, that I do not want to harm Martin.  He is perfectly harmless—and useful.  As his guest, the king of Tarquint could speak to any lord or lady in this country, much as Mariel speaks to the rulers of Herminia.  Since my army will control the region between the lakes, I think Martin will cooperate with me.  He wants no harm to come to Senerham or Inter Lucus, and by helping me he will promote peace.”
“So now you are going to use Martin!”  Amicia’s grip on his arm tightened.  “It’s as if he is Rudolf and you’re Eudes Ridere, except that the general is the king and the castle lord is his minister.”
“Well said, Toadface!”  Milo grinned.  “I hadn’t thought in those terms, but that’s exactly right.  There is no good reason a king must be a castle lord.  Lords and ladies should serve the king.”
Amicia looked at him, a mixture of disbelief and wonder.  “You’ve got this all figured out.”
“Hardly.”  Milo smiled.  “It is a chance only.  I invited Archard Oshelm to join me, and his response was to swear to kill me.  Pretty obviously, I blundered.  Now, I have to hope that Martin can win me a truce with Oshelm.  It’s like the dice game you see on the street corners in Stonebridge.  They call it Liar Lives.  When a player has all six lives, he often calls ‘liar’ lightly; but when he is down to his last life, he is much more careful.  I don’t have many ‘lives’ left, so I have to be careful.”
Daylight had grown during their walk.  Milo pointed.  “We ought to go.”  Soldiers were quickly taking down the tent where Amicia and Merlin had slept, the only tent in the camp.  Merlin had spotted them and was waving.  
Amicia said, “I’ve seen them play Liar Lives in Stonebridge.  When a player loses his last life, they take his money.  What happens if you lose the game you are playing, Milo?”
“The truth?  I don’t know.”
Copyright © 2015 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.


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