167. In Castle Inter Lucus
After Alf and Went carried bread to the great hall, Went returned to the kitchen to help Tayte bring up salads. Alf stayed in the hall, watching the Stonebridgers sample champagne. When Lord Martin invited the Herminian general to stand next to him at the lord’s knob, Alf naturally watched that too. But he only watched with one eye, as the saying goes. After all, Alf had witnessed Lord Martin speaking with castle lords and ladies, including Queen Mariel, many times. Alf was just as interested in watching the Stonebridgers’ reaction to Lord Martin’s magic. Of course, he knew that Lord Martin refused the word “magic.” Lord Martin called it “technology,” and he said the aliens had created it. But Alf still thought in the words used by his brother, Rothulf. Except for Lord Martin, Priest Eadmar, and a few of Martin’s students, everyone on Two Moons spoke of gods, not aliens, and castle magic, not technology.
Alf knew that Milo Mortane grew up in Hyacintho Flumen. Mortane was accustomed to castle magic. So Mortane’s alarm when Lord Martin invited Eudes Ridere to join him in a Videns-Loquitur session was not because of the magic. Alf thought: He’s worried that Lord Martin will upset his plans. That led to another thought: What if Queen Mariel commands Ridere to destroy the Stonebridge army rather than make truce with them? I hope Lord Martin can persuade her.
Other than General Ridere and Milo Mortane, Alf hadn’t kept all the newcomers’ names straight in his head. The man with the strange left arm might be Averill; Alf had heard that name in conversations between Lord Martin and David Le Grant. If so, the woman standing by the claw-armed man would be Averill’s wife.
A red-haired Stonebridger, who had to be every bit as tall as Os Oswald, stood behind Milo Mortane and the claw-armed man. He was obviously unfamiliar with castles, casting his eyes around the great hall as if trying to memorize every detail. Apparently the red-haired soldier did not notice Alf looking at him; he knelt, pulled up a leg of his breeches, and took a knife from a leather belt around his leg. The whole procedure was so deft and quick Alf almost didn’t believe his eyes. Again, the red-haired man glanced around the room, but everyone’s attention was focused on Lord Martin and the interface wall. Alf looked away, hoping he hadn’t been noticed. He ripped a loaf of bread in two and frantically squashed some of it into earplugs. Lord Martin doesn’t have bread in his ears. Alf looked to the west door, where Os, Ealdwine, Ora and Caelin were watching Lord Martin.
Alf shouted to Os, warning him that the Stonebridge soldier had a knife. That is, he intended to. But the red-haired man threw his knife at that moment, and Alf’s warning cry disappeared in an avalanche of voices.
The knife blade struck Lord Martin at the base of his neck. The interface wall blanked instantly, and the lord of Inter Lucus fell limply, like the victim of a hanging Alf and Rothulf once witnessed in Downs End. Whitney Ablendan, who was nearby, though Alf did not remember her entering the great hall, screamed. Other voices screamed or shouted as well, but Alf couldn’t tell whose they were. It was cacophony.
Milo Mortane wheeled around and shouted at the red-haired man, who had another knife in his hand. Alf could never swear to it, but he assumed the tall soldier produced the second knife from a holster around his other leg. It happened so quickly he didn’t see it.
Os Oswald charged the knife fighter, bellowing, with sword raised. The red-haired soldier feinted, ducked around Os’s swing, and planted his knife in the side of the sheriff’s neck. He leapt away as Os staggered two steps and collapsed. Ealdwine Smithson, coming behind Os, slashed at the knife fighter, almost hitting him, but the tall soldier dodged between the tables, knocking spoons and plates to the floor. Ealdwine assumed what he must have thought was a sword-fighter’s stance; he bent his knees like a wrestler, eyeing his adversary warily. The red-haired man seized a butter bowl and feinted throwing it at Ealdwine, who flinched.
Two more Stonebridgers, one of medium height and the other a dark-haired man with hunched shoulders, ran behind Ealdwine. Rather than attacking the sheriff as Alf expected, the men raced to the west door, pushing past Ora and Caelin. The force of the soldiers’ blows threw both cousins to the floor, but the soldiers did nothing further to harm them. Instead, they closed and barred the west door.
Alf stuffed his ears with bread. He started walking around the tables toward Lord Martin. No one paid him attention.
The red-haired knife fighter threw his butter bowl at Ealdwine, hitting him squarely in the chest. It had little effect, and Ealdwine began circling the table to get at the knife fighter. But this meant that the soldiers at the door had a clear path to Os’s body. The shorter, hunch-shouldered man ran to the fallen man and took his sword. Os’s sword was far too long and heavy for the knife fighter to wield with skill; nevertheless, he waved it, two-handed, at Ealdwine. Seeing a new threat, Ealdwine abandoned his pursuit of the red-haired man. He backed away toward the north part of the hall.
Went Bycwine and Tayte Graham appeared at the top of the stairs from the kitchen, right behind Ealdwine. The black-haired soldier feinted at Ealdwine, who retreated another couple steps—and bumped into Went and tripped. The Stonebridge soldier leapt forward to slash at Ealdwine, but instead his awkward swing hit Went. Tayte screamed as Went’s blood spurted into her eyes.
Milo Mortane was still screaming at the red-haired soldier. For the first time in the melee, Alf discerned a particular word. Mortane was crying, “No! No!” It had no effect. General Ridere tackled Mortane, throwing him to the floor and grappling with him. Mortane, much the younger man, flipped the general onto his back and freed an arm, ready to strike. Rather than smashing Ridere’s face, he screamed again: “No!”
The cousins, Ora and Caelin, regained their feet. Like Mortane, they shouted, “No! No!” They ran to Lord Martin’s body where it had fallen by the lord’s knob. They were only a few paces from Alf, but paid him no mind. Ora ripped Martin’s gray shirt away from the wound and pulled out the knife. The wound bled less than Alf would have expected, but when Caelin turned Lord Martin on his back Ora wailed despairingly. Martin’s face was flushed and still.
Fists were pounding on the west door—and they were heard, because for a brief time the shouting stopped. The red-haired man ran to Mortane and pulled him off Ridere. “Here’s your chance, Milo!” the knife thrower shouted. General Ridere tried to get up, but the red-haired soldier kicked his head. “Now, Mortane! You will be lord, and I will be Sheriff Commander.”
Mortane pushed the red-haired man away. “You damned fool!” But then Mortane looked at the lord’s knob, and Alf saw a strange hunger in his face. He wants to be a lord, thought Alf. If he can’t be lord of Hyacintho Flumen, maybe he can be lord of Inter Lucus. That’s what he’s thinking. But he’s too late.
With three quick steps Alf reached the lord’s knob. For the first time, Mortane and the red-haired soldier paid attention to him. They opened their mouths, but no one heard what they said, because Inter Lucus responded instantly when Alf bonded.
Outside the west door, Eadmar heard the castle klaxon with relief, though it was alarmingly loud even on the opposite side of a heavy wooden door. Elfric Ash and Leo Dudd stopped pounding on the door. Eadmar thought, Martin has stopped them. Whatever mischief Mortane brought to Inter Lucus, Martin has mastered it.
The Herminians standing outside the castle with Eadmar and the two sheriffs covered their ears. After many heartbeats, Archard Oshelm shouted, “What is it?”
Eadmar shouted back, “Lord Martin is defending… his castle.” The klaxon stopped abruptly in the middle of Eadmar’s sentence, making the last two words unnerving. Far down the hill, beyond the line of debris that marked the lesser shield, Herminian soldiers were standing in nervous groups, watching the castle. They had heard the klaxon and wondered at its meaning—both the sound and the silence following.
Elfric put his ear to the door for several seconds and looked at Leo and Eadmar. “I hear nothing.”
“They’ll unbar the door,” Eadmar said. “Won’t they?”
Elfric was plainly worried. “I don’t know. Leo, go get an axe.”
“Wait!” Eadmar commanded. He tilted his head toward the south. “There are several hundred Stonebridge soldiers at the bottom of the hill. If they see us trying to break in, they might decide it’s safe to charge.”
Archard Oshelm snorted. “They are fools if they do. If Lord Martin is alive, his shield will stop them. If Martin is not alive, my men will slaughter them. Either way, they should stay where they are. My army stands ready near the village.”
Eadmar responded, “I don’t want to see Stonebridgers massacred. And if Martin is not alive, your army might not get here in time to save you.”
Oshelm raised an eyebrow. “Good point. The situation seems delicately balanced. But I warn you: if General Ridere has been killed, blood will flow.”
Leo looked anxious. “We need to get in,” he said. “The east door may not be barred.” His eyes asked Eadmar for direction.
Eadmar passed his hand over his sunburnt head. “Right. Go ’round the north side so the Stonebridgers don’t see you.”
Leo ran away, following the path toward the barn and then the orchard. He disappeared from view just as Elfric said, “I hear something.” Something thumped just inside the entrance; Eadmar guessed it was the heavy beam used to secure the door. Moments later, the guess was confirmed. The door swung open a few inches until blocked by the beam.
“Can you help us? Please?” asked a woman’s voice.
Elfric and two of Oshelm’s guards shoved against the door, pushing the wooden beam—and the unconscious body of a man—ahead of it. Mildgyd Meadowdaughter sidled away as the door opened. She looked terrified. “Oh, Elfric! It’s you! Thank God! And Priest Eadmar! Thank God.”
Eadmar expected to see people disabled by the Inter Lucus klaxon. He did not expect carnage. Bodies lay contorted in various places in the hall. Went Bycwine, a gangly boy of fourteen, lay dead near the stairs to the kitchen. Next to his body sat Tayte Graham, alive, dazed and covered with Went’s blood. Ealdwine Smithson lay crumpled on the floor beside them, bleeding from the ears. A Stonebridge soldier, Garwig Gray, was flat on his back, staring fixedly at the ceiling. Os Oswald was dead. Near his body were Derian Chapman, Milo Mortane, Ifing Redhair, and Eudes Ridere, all unconscious and bleeding from ears or mouth. Felix Abrecan lay sprawled on the floor beside the door beam; he looked like he had taken a blow to the head. Amicia Mortane and her husband Merlin had fallen together; blood trickled from their ears as well.
Eadmar’s eyes went to the lord’s knob, where Alf was standing beside three more bodies. Lord Martin! Eadmar and Elfric rushed to the bodies, going to their knees by the fallen. Caelin and Ora resembled most of the people in the hall, stunned or unconscious, bleeding from ears or mouth. Martin, by contrast, showed little damage from the sound, but a smear of blood near his shoulder led Eadmar to the wound at the back of his neck.
Kneeling, Elfric looked up at Alf for a moment. “What happened, Alf? How did they attack Lord Martin? Why didn’t the sound stop them?” Beside the sheriff, Eadmar bent closely over Martin’s face and felt the arteries in his neck. “Alf?” said Elfric.
Eadmar was puzzled. He looked from Martin’s body to Alf. The boy had brown mushroom-like fixtures on his ears—bread plugs. “Alf?” Elfric questioned again. As if distracted, the boy shifted his gaze from the bodies strewn around the room to the sheriff and Eadmar. Alf held up his palms, which showed bright blisters between strips of white scar tissue, reminders of the boy’s attempt to bond with Inter Lucus months before.
“It didn’t hurt much,” he said. Alf pointed with his chin at the Herminians who had followed Elfric and Eadmar into the hall. They had gathered around Eudes Ridere. “Tell them not to come near, or I will do it again.”
The truth dawned. Elfric said, “They attacked Martin before he could summon the sound. It was Alf who summoned the klaxon. Alf is lord of Inter Lucus.”
“But, but…” Eadmar hesitated. His hand rested lightly on Martin’s neck. “Martin’s heart still beats. How can Alf be lord if Martin lives?”
“God only knows,” answered Elfric. “Or her.” He pointed at the interface wall. A light was blinking.
Copyright © 2015 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.