Saturday, November 7, 2015

Fiction Friday: The Hammer of the Skraels

This is a direct continuation of The Hoard and the Harrow. It's late this week because of a symposium on sentence reform that took up the great bulk of my Friday. There is more to come in the weeks that follow.

Oldcastel was a patchwork of ancient stone. The first course of limestone was laid in an age when the Old Dominion, still pagan under the Synod and the original Autarchs, built its first outpost in Wyranth. The first fortress was built to house the great phalanxes of the Dominion: thousands of shieldmen lived within those great drum towers and grim stonework barracks. When the Confessional Dominion returned, they expanded the fortress and encircled its town with an outwall. In the centuries following the Dominion's retreat from Wyranth, the Castelars, who claimed descent from the last imperial official appointed to govern the fortress, built crypts, towers, and halls throughout its stony bulk.

It was widely held to be impenetrable. It had never fallen before the assault of a foe, nor had it ever been starved out, mostly thanks to the numerous tunnels, side-gates, and waterways that flowed under, through, and without the ancient castle. From a distance, Oldcastel could easily be mistaken for rambling Dominion ruins. Larger, yes, than any others found in Wyranth, but the moss-covered rock had been worn by time to bear more than a passing resemblance to those castles, forts, and bridges of that were slowly being reclaimed by the earth.

The hilltop was now surrounded by colorful tents, each pitched around a flag or pennon belonging to a knight or lord from the province. This was Highlord Marten's weapontake, summoned by the royal ban from across Southhold. They came along winding trails and straight Dominion roads, through thickets and rough hill country to the camp at Oldcastel.

Oldcastel was also the center of one of the southern kingdom's largest cities. It didn't come close to Swornstone in size, but its streets were paved, its buildings almost all of stone and tile, and its heart laid out in a neat Dominion pattern. The townsfolk came out from behind its overgrown walls each morning to hold markets for the army. Highlord Marten had delayed drawing them within the walls of the castle. His lords thought him uncertain; having just returned from the north, Highlord Marten had said to no-one what he intended to do.

When Prince Edwerd, the castle gates were open. The old barracks were refurbished. Hundreds of leveemen and knights poured through the line of crypts along the Tombway. Behind them, the Highlord closed the portcullis and gate. Prince Edwerd was given the rooms in the Dominion Tower, the oldest and largest of the castle's chambers.

Robart of Hazelby came to Oldcastel as a prisoner of the Glorious Company. He was guarded by the mercenaries Askir and Yohas, a Flag-Captain and one of the Ambermen who fought under his banner. He was kept bound at the wrists and marched along with the Amber mercenaries as they went south toward Oldcastle.

The Glorious Company had come from beyond the Trade Sea, sailing in barques from the Amber Cities. They served Prince Edwerd through their Sword-Captain, Oro, a close friend of the prince. The Company had been holding Shieldcross until Prince Edwerd sent word for them to withdraw. Now, they approached Oldcastel from the Seapoint Road. Robart was forced to march between axe-bearing soldiers in chased leather cotes and tunics. "Keep moving," Yohas warned him, fixing his golden eyes upon the farmer.

Gold. It all began with gold. The gold found in Sire Gaumont's fields and taken to Shieldcross, the gold that he was murdered for, was the very same gold carried now in Captain Yohas' satchel and for which Robart was being led now to judgment at the provincial seat. Sire Hugo had killed Gaumont, but that was of no interest to Captain Yohas. Robart was the one found hovering over the gold with Gaumont's body cooling on the floor of his room in the Sign of the Shield. Robart was the one who would stand trial for it.

They passed through an arch of stone that straddled the old Dominion highway. Here the Seapoint Road became the Tombway, lined with cypress trees transplanted out of the East and given hardy life by Kharigenotic sorcerers in ages passed. The crypts of Castelari lords loomed on either side as the Glorious Company tramped forward. Ahead, the north gate of Oldcastel stood forbidding and severe, bristling with lookouts, arrow loops, and murder holes. "The Skraels will never break this place," Yohas murmured to Robart.

Askir, at his other elbow, chuckled darkly. "That's what you said about Seatower."

"This is ten times the castle Seatower was," Yohas replied. They both spoke in Cwaethan. Robart wondered if it was for his benefit. Keeping their speech in the tongue of Yewland was the one courtesy they had extended.

They were hailed at the portcullis, which was drawn up for the Glorious Company. Robart was lead through a maze of ancient stonework. They passed drilling baileys and Old Dominion barracks; they marched through archways lush with moss and creepflower. Quickwood trees grew thick and hard around the great hall where he was taken. The doors were rusted iron, the supporting beams great heartwood trunks. It was in that grim and gloomy place that Captain Yohas left him to await justice.

Robart was placed against the far wall, lost in the shadows thrown by candle, lamp, and lantern. The Highlord was nowhere to be seen, though his carved stone seat was upon the dais at hall's end. Knights and lords filled Highlord Marten's court, many wearing colors of the Southhold, and still others in the badges of the prince's allies. But Highlord Marten was not to be found.

For a time, Robart considered his options for escape. None of the Glorious Company knew him. If he could get beyond the girdling walls of the castle, he was certain he could walk unmolested home. Of course, that was taking the largest obstacle for granted: there was no way he would ever make it out of Highlord Marten's great hall, let alone through lock and gate, bolt and drawbridge. The ancient bands of Oldcastel had him tight in their grip.

Eventually, the Highlord appeared from somewhere outside. Robart had never seen Highlord Marten before and had he not been flanked by knights in heavy mail shirts and boiled leather tunics, he would not have known him. The highlord was a small man, unassuming. He wore his mouse-brown hair to his ears, and was so short he was nearly lost in the sea of knights and lords attendant in his hall. But the crowd made way as he approached the seat. "His lordship, Highlord Marten Castelar," called a paige lurking by the dais.

Upon the stone chair, Highlord Marten looked wan and tired. His brown eyes were sunken, his face limned with beads of sweat. His words were muttered and muted: "I understand there is judicial business before all else," he said. Robart eyed him cautiously. The Highlord of Southhold was dressed in a simple tunic with a simple mantle. He wore the badge of a golden castle as his pin, but otherwise was unadorned. He wore not even the chain of the Lord Cofferer of the Realm, which he was.

Captain Yohas appeared from the crowd. "Highlord, I don't know the way you do justice here, but we have a man—"

"A felony," Highlord Marten said faintly, "Or so I'm told. Bring him forward if he has broken the peace of the king."

Robart didn't wait for the mercenaries to find him. He stepped forward on his own. Captain Yohas eyed him strangely. "I'm the one what stands accused," Robart said, "Though I am not the man." He had been to many hallmoots and more than a few hundred courts in his day. Unlike the foreigners, he knew justice. Yohas bowed his head.

"I have been told the circumstance, but I will hear it again." The Highlord rubbed his forehead. Robart gave his piece, and told the lord what occurred—the treachery of Sire Hugo, the murder, the gold, even of his hope to wed Aethelwyn. He left nothing out. Captain Yohas related how Robart was found, the coins near at hand and the body fast cooling.

Marten shook his head. "I will not order trial. Where is Sire Hugo?"

"We have our soldiers out looking for him, lord." Yohas' Cwaethan had a sing-song quality to it when he spoke. To Robart it was a hellish music, and it drove his blood to boil that this foreign mercenary stood accusing him of murder. "We'd hoped to find him before we came, but he's vanished into the countryside."

"I know Sire Hugo," said the highlord, and he sighed deeply. "Never has he been a trustworthy man. Robart, you said your name was?"

Robart bowed. "Aye, lord."

"Then, Robart, you will travel with me until Sire Hugo is found. No objection to working as a servant to the highlord until you can be brought to swear an oath against the true murderer, is there?" He eyed Robart keenly, for the first time a twinkle of life coming into his eye. Robart shook his head. No objection to serving so honorable a personage. "Good," said Marten with a nod. "Then let us hear how the mission to the Skraels went. Sire Truelan, where is your man?"

A knight stood forward from the gathered folk of the hall. He wore a blue tunic down to his ankles, and the golden belt of his station. "Highlord," said he, and he was a lean man with a hungry look in his grey eyes, "the Skraels sent back the silver and my herald together."

Marten nodded. "They didn't take it. They won't retreat."

"Worse, Highlord," Truelan clarified. "I... my man came back only a head stuffed in the chest, and a message with his paige that the Sarkus Wolfsblood would take the silver not from our outstretched hand, but from the very vaults of Oldcastel." The knight pressed the tips of his fingers against his eyelids.

Highlord Marten stood and drew back his cloak. "They can come," he said with sudden fury. "They can come and surround us, but they will not break this place. Send word to Sorrel and tell her to don her armor. She will strike them as they come south. Lyle, Huron—you ride west to Woodmarch and rouse Highlord Edgewood to battle. Why he's not yet answered the king's ban, I can't say, but I'll be damned if he doesn't answer mine." The short highlord folded his arms across his chest. "We will hammer the Skraels where they sit or where they come. By winter, they'll have nowhere left to turn. Divinity, but they will not winter on this isle!"

Robart stayed at the highlord's side and watched the remainder of the council, but he didn't understand much. Reports of grain laid by, and wine in the Castelar cellars; knights and lords pronouncing numbers of men beneath their banners; the state of the roads and the walls and the townsfolk of Oldcastel; all this and more there was, but Robart heard none of it. His head was swimming with anger and relief. Anger, at Sire Hugo, and relief that he was not to be held accountable for Gaumont's death... and sadness, too, at the loss of his sire.

The Oldcastel servants showed him Highlord Marten's chambers come sundown. An arched room of stone with braziers for warmth and a high canopy bed was where the highlord made his repose. Private chambers being rare, the girl who showed him whispered that it was built by a pagan commander in the island's youth. "You may sleep upon the floor in the rushes. There are some blankets in the trunk there, below the window."

He had never slept in the rooms of a lord before. The highlord's wife came and went without a word. Candles were lit. When Marten arrived, he ignored Robart and went to sit at the sloping desk with the single candle that stood beneath the sole tapestry. Robart struggled to keep awake, to speak with the highlord, but sleep stole over him where he sat. The last thing he saw before he fell into a deep slumber was the little figure of Marten Castelar hunched over a scribe's desk, scratching parchment with a prickly quill.

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