171. In Castle Inter Lucus
“Lord Martin!” Alf rose from his chair in respect for the man he had claimed as his adopted father. Inter Lucus folk at the middle table, Stonebridgers on Alf’s right (the eastern side of the room), and Herminians to his left all copied his example. Murmuring among the Herminians and Stonebridgers rose at first, but then died away as they observed the silent honor given to Martin by the local people. Wyrtgeon Bistan, Isen Poorman, Alfwald Redwine, and Syg Alymar bore Martin’s bed the length of the hall, eventually lowering him to the floor near the lord’s knob. Alf went to his knees beside Martin, his eyes taking in the cloths that secured him to the bed. “My lord…” he began.
“No, Alf.” Martin spoke softly. “I believe you are lord now.”
“I am sorry, Lord Martin. I am no usurper.”
“Alf! Listen to me!” Martin’s voice regained its usual timbre. “You did not attack me; someone else did. You bonded with Inter Lucus to save the castle, did you not?”
“Aye, my lord.”
“You did the right thing, Lord Alf.” A wide bandage covered Martin’s forehead, but his mouth smiled. “Don’t worry. I hope to live a long time as one of your advisors. By the way, my friends on Earth called me Marty. From now on, since I am your friend, I hope you will call me Marty.”
“Aye, my lord.” A pause. “Aye, Marty. What should I do?”
“They tell me Eadmar expects Queen Mariel to call. You need to be ready to speak with her.”
The boy took in a deep breath. “Can you help me?”
Marty’s mouth smiled, though the rest of his body remained still. “I have some ideas. First, we need to rearrange the furniture. Second, I want a private word with Milo Mortane. Third, we—that’s Eadmar, you, and I—need to agree on an agenda. Fourth, we need to use our immediate advantage to push that agenda.”
Alf bunched his eyebrows. “Lord…ah, Marty. What immediate advantage do we have?”
Martin chuckled. “My guess is that’s you, Lord Alf.”
“Closer,” Marty commanded his guest. His stretcher lay on a tabletop, and Mortane stood by his feet.
“My lord,” objected Leo Dudd, who stood guard. “His man attacked you.”
“So they tell me,” Marty replied. “I don’t have much time, Leo. Eadmar expects Mariel to call, and I need to talk with Mortane. Privately. Let him come close, and keep everyone else away.”
Leo pressed his lips together. “Aye, my lord.”
“Please remember that Alf is the lord, not me. If Mortane attacks me, the important thing is to protect Alf.”
“Aye, my… Lord Martin.” Leo backed away.
Coming closer, Mortane loomed over Marty. “Maybe I should sit down,” he said.
“Actually, this is better,” Marty said. “I need to keep my neck immobile, so it’s easier to see you if I can look up at you. I don’t have to turn my head.”
Mortane surveyed Marty’s body from head to foot. “You look…uninjured. Are all these bonds necessary?”
“The knife hit my neck. A spinal cord injury is dangerous, and we must be careful not to make it worse.”
“Spinal cord…?” Mortane frowned.
“I will try to explain, if you are interested, but not now. I need to ask you some questions.”
Mortane held up a palm. “I did not tell Redhair to attack you.”
Marty blew out a long breath. “That may be true. I’m going to assume it is true. I have other questions.”
Mortane knitted his brows.
Marty said, “When you visited Inter Lucus not long ago I asked you what you intended to do. You said a man had to pursue his chances. An interesting philosophy, I think. What chance brought you to Inter Lucus a second time? What are you looking for?”
Mortane shook his head with just the hint of a smile. “You don’t expect me to answer.”
“Actually, I do. Or perhaps: I hope you will answer. Milo, you don’t have much time. Whatever your plans were, your chances did not turn the way you thought they would. You don’t have much time, and you need to think clearly. Why did you come to Inter Lucus?”
“I couldn’t go to Stonebridge. The Assembly would have blamed me for starting a war with the Herminians.”
Marty interjected, “And losing it.”
“Aye.” Mortane made a wry face. “Victory covers many faults. Few would have complained if I had broken the siege of Hyacintho Flumen.”
“Was that your intent? To save Aylwin?”
“Of course not!” Mortane laughed. “No one will believe me now, but you heard me tell Aylwin I wouldn’t give two figs for his comfort.”
“That’s right,” Marty said. “You told Aylwin you would help him if it served Stonebridge’s interests and you would ignore him if it served Stonebridge’s interests. You declared loyalty to the Assembly. So why did you come to Inter Lucus? What became of your loyalty?”
Mortane’s mouth became a line. His jaw clenched. “It would not serve Stonebridge’s interests if I quit the field in defeat. Too many Assemblymen are ready to hide in the hills like a turtle in its shell. Ody Dans was a monster, but he was also right. Stonebridge needs to assert itself. We need to make Down’s End follow our lead. Mariel must recognize Stonebridge’s preeminence in Tarquint.”
“You don’t believe any of that.” Marty carefully kept his voice quiet. “It’s a load of self-serving bullshit.”
“What?” Mortane’s voice rose, almost a shout. Marty couldn’t see them, but he guessed Leo Dudd and others took notice.
“Mariel will call soon,” Marty said, his voice even quieter. “We have no time for dissembling. Be honest with yourself, Milo. Why did you come to Inter Lucus?”
Mortane swallowed and became much quieter. “It was my last chance.”
“I don’t understand. Why should it be your last?”
Mortane whispered. “Coming here, I kept command of my army. I hoped, with your help, to make truce with Oshelm.”
“In other words, you hoped to use me.”
Standing over Marty, Mortane had been looking at him the whole time. But now Marty saw him really look. Slowly, Mortane said, “You have—Inter Lucus has few sheriffs. You lack an army. With an army…” Now his words became more confident. “The villages are small, but there is room between the lakes for many more farms. You… I thought, you could speak to lords and ladies. Down’s End might ally with us, and if not, at least some men from Down’s End would join us. I thought we might make a genuine alliance, a lord and a… and an army.”
Mortane looked over his shoulder at the great hall. Then he bent close to Marty. “It could still be,” he said fervently. “The boy has bonded, but he will depend on you for direction. He trusts you. We could establish a kingdom, with its capitol between the lakes.”
Marty delayed responding, watching Mortane’s face. The soldier finally said, “Well, what do you say? Can we be partners?”
“Look at me, Milo.” Marty licked his lips. “I think there are chances before you that you haven’t recognized yet. We may be partners, but in ways you haven’t imagined.”
Mortane frowned, knitting his brows. “Now I don’t understand.”
From across the hall, someone called out, “Lord Alf, the light! Mariel summons you!”
“Damn!” said Marty. “Listen, Milo. Trust me.”
Leo Dudd and Ealdwine Smithson came to the head and foot of Marty’s stretcher. Mortane bent closer.
“Don’t say anything until Alf calls on you. Trust me.”
Leo and Ealdwine lifted Marty and carried his pallet to a table. They directed Milo to sit with Merlin and Amicia Averill.
Copyright © 2015 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.