DAY THIRTY EIGHT
Rattling wall-stones woke him. Stones shaken by an unnatural wind. Flecks of mold stirred and set into his flesh. He wrung himself dry as he stood. Cold-sweats, and shaking. Tried to touch his toes; failed to touch his toes.
The young squire peered through a crack in the mortar, watched the man on the other side with dread. Dread, because soon that hung-over knight would call him in.
“Blargh,” grumbled the knight, scratching his neck-beard.
The boy should have been dressing himself, but malaise and self-loathing, as well as a healthy—so far as he was concerned—mistrust of his master had kept him in his bed, in stasis. Nothing could distract him from the fact that the odds of him resting his head on this straw pallet ever again were against him. Thirty-seven days, fifteen near-death experiences, five bone bruises, two twisted ankles and a broken, poorly-set nose. Persistent hunger on account of meals skipped. Better just to sleep and never wake. But the squire’s ears had pricked when he heard men shouting, the distant rumble of beasts of burden, and the unmistakable sound of bowels being emptied into woefully inadequate loincloths, the waste sloshing in suits of armor.
The enemy’ve returned, thought the squire, sagging at the neck and shoulders. That meant there would be no time for breakfast. And the last month had taught him that the knight, his master, loved killing, but preferred a full belly for company during the action.
He dragged his pants from the closet shelf and thrust in one leg. Wrong leg.
“Buxtehude,” the knight shouted, his voice hoarse. Probably from sleep and the brain-cleaner he’d quaffed the night before. “Bux—”
The boy, hopping, fell over backward into the knight’s chamber, clawing at and around his crotch, struggling to pull up his pants, horribly aware of what this must look like. “Yes, Master Vive?” said the lad from the floor.
His master scowled down at him. “You are not decent,” said Vive. “Why are you not decent?”
Bux noted that Vive was fully nude aside from the coverage provided by his impressively lustrous body-hair. Bux got to his feet, steadying himself with a hand on the nearest unlit sconce. “Ah. I, there was—no time, you see. You called, and I was getting dressed, and—battle—”
“Shut up, Buxtehude.” Vive sniffed up the snot dribbling a clear line from his nose toward the tapestry under his toes. “Breakfast.”
“Damnable boy,” grumbled Vive. “Upon my return, I will break either my fast or your clavicles.” He pinched his nose and closed his eyes. “You will have toast for me.”
“And berries of some variety. Cream, if you can claim any from whatever tight-cheeked bastard manages the larder.”
With the back of his hand, the knight nudged open the fortified door that led out to the castle ramparts. Shouts filtered in through the gap, the clamor growing as it widened. Vive did not move. Was he listening for something?
Bux’s highly trained servant-senses made him ask, “Anything else for you, sir?”
Vive looked like a wraith, gray-haloed in the white light of morning. The rain pattered against his naked chest.
Bux saluted, holding up his pants with his free hand. “Right. Yes, sir. To the stables at once with me.”
Vive held up a hand. “Wait, no—that will take too long. I’ll acquire one for myself.”
Buxtehude watched him amble off. Then, as the roar of cannon rose, Bux mounted one final attack against his leggings, thereafter assaulting his tunic. While he wrestled with his belt buckle, he heard a growl followed by a whinny. The distinct clink of spurs.
“Sir?” he said, cautiously edging toward the still open doorway. “Lord Vive?”
He poked his head outside. The rain and sleet were fierce. Buxtehude’s blonde curls immediately flattened, the coarse strands of his hair jutting into his eyeballs. Smoothing the tangles out of his eyes, he gazed out over the Lomenshire, the fallow fields surrounding the castle town of Lomendiam. Thousands of boots tramped the grasslands into muck, as fresh soldiers from Williglindil poured forth from the south and east. The Lindils, in their thousands, had made their camp on the other side of the hill-range led by a general whom all Bux’s peers had been too frightened to name. As the Lindils encircled the outer wall, crying orders in their guttural and barking tongue, some pushed battering rams, others cannons. Bux shot a glance back to his own side’s preparations, consisting mostly of some half-awake, half-shaven men stumbling about, vaguely assembling what could be loosely termed trebuchets. And men lined up atop the wall, trembling behind their shields, spear-butts clanking against the stone.
He corrected himself. We’ve always been doomed. But today especially.
The garrison of Shiron soldiers had fought hard and met each assault with renewed desperation. Pot-bellied knights, bedraggled middle-aged farmer conscripts and wide-eyed fishermen’s sons had shoved off siege ladders and knocked in heads with the best of them. But two score knights, three hundred men-at-arms and five hundred peasants could not eternally withstand the uncounted thousands they faced. Wee King Vilbert wouldn’t be sending any relief, but even the Barons were turning a blind eye. It was all politics, of course, and Bux didn’t understand a lick of it. He was observant, though, and noted that Vive was the only person who never seemed worried. Probably because Vive was sick in the head and longed for death, but Bux didn’t have any hard evidence of that as of yet.
There came that all-too-familiar prickling in his inner ear. Sure enough, when he looked on ahead, he beheld Vive atop a black stallion which reared in a fury. The knight, naked but for his riding boots, had since acquired a jousting lance, pink and green and ornamented with silver bells. He roared a challenge to the enemy spilling over the hills, to the open air and to anybody unfortunate enough to hear. Bux didn’t care to repeat Vive’s battle cry. For one thing, he wasn’t sure pigs could even do that.
Like any good squire, Bux ran out from his safe quarters, hauling Vive’s standard, sword, shield and other required battle paraphernalia. So dedicated to the strictures of good squire conduct was Bux, in fact, that he bristled like some unearthly porcupine, his spines being Vive’s collected miscellaneous daggers, javelins, et cetera. By the time he arrived, however, hauling all the appropriate accoutrements, Vive had spurred his mount. Man and horse careened toward the edge of the wall which, only seconds before, had been blown apart by cannon fire. He was headed for the hole in the rampart.
The archers posted along the wall dodged, variably crying out in shock or cursing, as the avenger rode to certain suicide. Men-at-arms, swords dull in the gray light, slid down the inner stairs, or ducked quickly under the hooves of the black horse. All cursed the name Vive that morning.
Bux had just enough time to see the knight yank back on the reins and change course as the arrows began to fall. Clattering against stone, mingling with the clack of hooves. Bux crouched in the middle of a cluster of men who had tucked their helmed heads behind the raised wall. They clung to one another, shields up, the rank breath of each man mingling to form a heady fog.
“The Lindils come in force this morning,” shouted one, attempting joviality.
“Let them come,” answered his comrade, his bravado undercut by the smell of his shit wafting into Buxtehude’s tender nostrils.
The onslaught abated. Young and nimble pages, some as young as seven years old, scurried about, darting between the hunched forms of soldiers, collecting salvageable arrows.
Some minutes passed. Silence.
“The cannons’ve ceased,” Bux said. “Listen.”
Still nothing. Then the rumble of great wooden wheels. They peeked over the edge. Siege towers, each carrying by the score heavily armed and armored men.
“Let them come,” said the soldier again, but now he wept openly.
“Move aside, whoresons.” That was Vive’s voice.
Bux raised his head and looked off along the wall. The closest of the towers lumbered like Vive when he’d taken too much drink (meaning, his nightly self-allotment). And there he charged, along the top of the castle-wall, back the way he’d come a few minutes prior. Bux always thought Vive didn’t so much ride as endure a series of controlled rears and falls. How he ever got anywhere mounted was one of life’s unsolvable mysteries.
He shouted some more soldiers out of the way. “Clear the way. Move.” Thereafter, he whipped round and rode to Bux’s side. Vive stared down at him, his face shadowed against the solid gray mat of sky, arrow shafts sailing overhead. None spoke. The young squire prepared for a dangerous run through the hells of the battlefield for some vital resource, or, worse, to receive a scolding from his master. Instead, the knight turned his mount again and—amid the exponential crescendo of enemy war cries—charged straight for another crumbling gap in the wall. Straight for the siege tower.
Bux threw up his arms and shrieked, “He’s going to jump it.”
One of the men-at-arms beside him had been watching too. “No sane man would do that.”
“Exactly right,” said the squire.
Vive’s horse screamed in protest but it was too late. Seconds later it was in the air, flying. And Vive was standing, then leaping. The horse fell from view. Vive still flew. And his arms reached, and he landed on top of the slanted, animal-hide padded roof of the siege tower. He scrabbled up and along it. Somehow, he still clasped the heavy green and pink lance in his hands. A sword stabbed out at him through the thick, water-soaked hide, a glint passing over the steel point. Vive, howling, thrust his jousting lance downward and twisted it to and fro, ripping the hide apart. He slid down into the fresh hole. Even from far off, Bux could hear each distinct scream of alarm. A man exploded from the side of the tower, bursting through the splintered wood. He yowled all the way to the ground. Half a dozen more followed him (quite unwillingly).
Bux ducked down, counting, just like mother taught him to do when he was having one of his little moments of existential despair. Counting to one hundred and seventy-three. Thereafter he peered over the ramparts again, his nose squished atop the outcropping of weather-worn stone.
There was a brief pause. The world catching its breath. Then the top of the siege tower caught fire. Plumes of flame, painfully bright against the dull light. Bux didn’t need to speak their language to know the Lindils cursed gods and men. The walls of the tower, which had been protected against fire by water-soaked animal hides only on the outside, collapsed inward. Wood beams and metal rivets groaned amid a hail of screams.
The stack of wooden rubble wheezed a stream of smoke. Already the Lindils, easily identified from afar by their pointy bronzed helms, surrounded the wreckage. And from the debris emerged the naked and unarmed Sir Vive. The ring of Lindils tightened. Vive raised his fists. One of his foes swung a zweihander in a lateral arc. It was hard for Bux to tell with complete certainty, but he thought the knight pounced in and caught the Lindil by the wrist and elbow, kneeing him in the gut and promptly disarming him. The Lindils closed the distance. Bux looked away, counted again. When he checked back, Vive stood in the center of a bloody patch of mud, littered with loose limbs and entrails. He rested against the hilt of the zweihander as the flames behind him burnt out.
He screamed something, amid the dying fire, the swirling ash, the discombobulated twittering and the dance of men who’d lost their sanity, their limbs, or great chunks of flesh consumed in fire (or all three).
“What’s he shouting?” asked a soldier at the squire’s side.
Vive, naked but for mud, muck and blood-spatter, pointed up at Buxtehude from way down at the base of the wreckage of wall and tower as if to say, “Mark me, boy.” Bux cupped his ear. Straining—squinting even, because the mind always somehow believes that this will ease the effort of hearing—he heard, “Bacon, too, you little bastard. I want a heap of bacon.”
“Hark! The Lindils have sounded the retreat,” someone hooted. “They’ve given up.”
“For now,” said the squire.
Bux wondered, as he often did, if they should risk allowing Vive back inside the walls. From the battlements he looked down on the knight’s soot-scarred form. No distance from him could be called “safe”; if he had to, that man would scale the keep using only his two front teeth. So much steam rose from his shoulders that Bux assumed even the rain chose death by evaporation rather than touch him. But Vive was useful: the Lindils were off licking their wounds. Useful, no doubt, so long as the strongest hand held the leash. But who was strong enough for such a dog?
The men did raise the portcullis. Sir Vive would return and eat. And that night, exhausted, as always, young Buxtehude Perdurable would pen his mother a long letter, adding it to the top of the undeliverable stack in his drafty cubby hole. She’d never get to read any of the parcels until the siege was broken—and that would be a miracle worthy of the Saint Sisters—but he couldn’t help himself from playing the dutiful son. Would the words he’d written survive the enduring onslaught of the black-dotted green mold which, each day, seemed to claim another paragraph or two? Would he even live long enough to hand his mum the moldering heap of parchment?
Returning to the present by a shake of his head, he dashed off to fetch a feast for his lord and master, knowing full well that Vive would substitute Bux’s own flesh should he fail to procure any breakfast bacon.
Thus began the thirty-eighth day of the Williglindilian siege of Lomendiam.