The strange looking man spoke much too loudly. “The Great Lord Ahlmored requires you to stand aside so his train may pass. Then you may follow up after as you please.”
Bartholomew looked shocked for a second at the audacity. He looked at his men and laughed loud and long. “You go back and tell your Lord Al-mud the Franks stand aside for no one.”
“Eat our dust,” Margueritte whispered to Tomberlain, who snickered.
“Hush.” Brianna quietly scolded the children and turned to speak as if she was the only one to fully realize the seriousness of what was happening. “Young lord.” She spoke up, and Sir Barth and the Frankish soldiers looked to her, being accustomed to her good counsel. The stranger looked taken aback, at the sight of a woman speaking, and an unveiled one at that.
“The soil of this land is full of sand and I understand how difficult it can make traveling, but here it is near mid-day.” The lady looked up through the trees as if judging the sun. “Perhaps your lord may be willing to pause and refresh himself while we push on. Surely by the time he is done, our dust will be well settled.” It seemed a fair suggestion, only the stranger simply could not hear a woman’s words.
“If you will not move, you may be made to move, kafir!” The man growled and spun his steed to the rear and sped off.
“Form up.” Sir Barth understood the threat well enough. He pushed the wagons out front with orders to move on to the village as fast as they could. “Don’t draw sword unless I give the word,” he said. It did not take long for Margueritte to hear the sound of approaching horses before a dip in the road obscured both the sight and sound.
“Mama.” Tomberlain may have wanted to say he would be a man and take care of them all, but he clearly felt afraid.
“Hush,” Brianna said again. She listened for something the children could not hear. Margueritte guessed she was praying.
It turned out not long at all, perhaps twenty minutes, before they heard the horses again, coming up fast. Lady Brianna breathed deeply, and the children cheered when they saw Sir Barth. Old Lord Bernard rode beside him, trailed by some fifteen well-armed Franks.
“Lord Ahlmored was as loathe to draw arms as we were, but he had about two dozen men and no doubt planned to move us off the road by force of strength,” Bartholomew explained.
“Luckily, I had just caught up with his slow-moving procession.” The Baron jumped in. “It took a minute to figure out what was happening, but then we came straight on while my wagons pushed right by the fools. Jessica should be along in a minute.” He looked back for his wagons while Sir Barth finished the tale.
“I guess they decided not to try us once the numbers were more or less equal. I will say, though, he is an arrogant son of a—”
“Bartholomew!” Brianna did not want to hear the rest; especially in front of the children.
It took more than a minute for the Baron’s wagons to catch up, and Brianna had a chance to welcome Lady Jessica. Then with five good wagons and some twenty men at arms, they made quite a procession when they entered the village. A nearby field had been set aside for the servants and soldiers to set up camp. The nobles and their families went on to the inn.
Constantus, the Roman, and the first great house just south of the triangle, had already arrived with his wife, Lady Lavinia. Old acquaintances were renewed, but Margueritte sighed, because the baron’s youngest was sixteen, and Constantus’ youngest was fifteen, and they were both boys. Tomberlain would be a rare sight during their stay as he would be hanging with the boys. That left only three-year-old Elsbeth for comfort, and she was small comfort. Thus, Margueritte decided she would have to leech herself to her mother and act grown up the whole time they were there. It would be hard, but it felt better than being alone and left out of things.
Urbon, king of Amorica, had come into town the day before and already established himself with his court in the great house with the wooden towers, which was his only residence for the once-in-four-years visits. Meanwhile, the village square and another adjacent field were already set up with booths and festivities and Margueritte’s mind turned to sweet meats and toys. All they had to do was check their rooms and they could be off to the fair.
“You will love this, Elsbeth,” Margueritte told her sister. “Everything about the Fall Festival is wonderful. I know I loved it when I was your age.” Of course, in truth, she could hardly remember it when she was three, but since then, and especially in the days of anticipation before coming, it had been built up so wonderfully in her mind, Margueritte was in danger of disappointment lest the reality not live up to her imagination.
Elsbeth chose that moment to scream and Margueritte screamed with her. As they walked into the inn, a woman startled them terribly. She was the most wrinkled and ugly, half-toothless, gray haired hag of a lady Margueritte had ever seen. The woman’s eyes glared at the children as if piercing to their souls, and it seemed those eyes looked without blinking. Lady Brianna picked up her baby and Margueritte found herself in her father’s firm grasp.
“I must have frightened them.” The woman expressed a touch of glee in her voice as if she felt delighted by that prospect.
“Startled, perhaps is all,” Lord Bartholomew said, as he acknowledged the woman. “Lady Curdwallah.”
The Baron broke in. “Once again, m’lady, let me express our deepest condolences on the loss of your husband and children, though it was now so many years ago. We have not forgotten him, or you, and we continue to remember you in our prayers.”
“Faugh!” Curdwallah said. “Thank you, but it would be better if you stopped bringing it up every time we met. It is done. That is that,” she said, and walked out toward the village square and the king’s house.
“A hard woman,” Bartholomew breathed after her.
“Indeed,” the baron said as he directed them to a table. Margueritte got carried along with them. They got drinks, though Margueritte found her portion of cider watered to almost nothing. She looked at it, but only for a moment. Traveling was thirsty business, and then she did want to hear what they were saying about the hag.
“I, too, have written to the king.” Baron Bernard was speaking. “And concerning myself as much as Lady Curdwallah.”
“No.” Bartholomew protested, but Bernard simply moaned and rolled his arthritic shoulder in response.
“Indeed,” the baron continued after a sharp, strong drink. “The king and the mayor do not appear overly concerned with the Amorican Mark. Too many years of peace, plus he is older now as I am, and the political wrangling has stepped into the power gap. I have seen the same thing happen before elsewhere, in type. Some say the Roman Cicerus is to be watched, but my money is on Ragenfrid.” He took another drink and added an afterthought. “I can’t say as I like the man, personally, though.”
“What about that young Charles fellow?” Bartholomew wondered.
“I don’t think we can count him out, being of the mayor’s issue, but at this point he is terribly young, I would guess around seventeen.” Bernard agreed. “He is a fine young man and has a good military mind. If the peace is broken with the Saxons or Burgundians, or for that matter, with Amorica or Aquitaine, however unlikely that may be, and something should happen to Pepin, I would not be surprised to see him elevated all the way to Mayor of the Palace in his father’s place, next in line to the king himself.”
There came a break in the conversation as a commotion outside drew them all to the door. Margueritte watched from the feet of the two men who ignored her completely. Ahlmored, the ambassador from Africa had finally arrived with his twenty-four soldiers and his servants and terribly slow-moving baggage train. The people crowded around to see this strange sight while Lord Ahlmored seemed both attracted by the attention and waved grandly like a conquering emperor might wave to the admiring masses and repulsed by the thought that one of these unbelievers might actually touch his person.
The baron picked up where he left off in his thoughts about war. “Then again, these arrogant Africans may be looking to extend their empire and infernal religion into the heart of Europe. Who knows? This Ambassador may be the first salvo in a war we cannot yet imagine. Those basted Moors, or whatever they are called, have marched with little resistance right across North Africa. In any case, I suspect this Ahlmored fellow will be more of a spy than anything else.”
“I’ll warrant,” Sir Barth agreed before they turned back into the inn. Margueritte stayed outside and watched for a minute more before her mother came and snatched her up.
“I swear,” Brianna said. “Your father would lose his sword if I wasn’t there to point to his side.” Margueritte got placed with Elsbeth in the capable hands of Lady Jessica while Sir Barth and Lady Brianna made a trip to some of the poorer places with gifts of hope. Maven and Marta fixed the rooms as well as they could, checked on the arrangements for supper, and helped the grateful innkeeper as much as possible. The rest of the troop had time off, except for the command to stay ready in case they were called
Lady Jessica bought the girls some sweets and each a toy. They spent a lot of time fingering various bolts of colored cloth, but it had already gotten late in the day, and much of the festival started to close for the evening. Thoughts turned to suppertime, and the sun would soon set. When they returned to the inn, the Franks sat all around a big table and the Lady Jessica was nobly welcomed. Margueritte and Elsbeth got to sit at the children’s table.
Margueritte knew they would have all the next day for fun and games before they came home to be kept by Marta and Maven. Mother and Father would eat with the king of Amorica that night, and then all the fires would be extinguished except the king’s fire from which all the fires in the world would be relit, or so they said. Then the day of Samhain would come, and it would be more fun and games before an evening to relax and an early start home in the morning.
Margueritte nodded and thought about how traveling could be a tiring business, and she might have fallen asleep at the supper table if Tomberlain had not chosen that moment to stagger in.
“Son?” Lord Bartholomew looked up. “Have you supped?”
“Yes shir,” Tomberlain said. “Me and Michael and Sebalus…us.”
“And had a bit to drink I would guess.” Bartholomew looked stern. Brianna looked mortified. Tomberlain opted not to speak. He simply shook his head up and down. He shouldn’t have done that. He ran toward the fire and promptly emptied his stomach. No one laughed.
“I think I’ll have a talk with that son of mine,” Constantus said.
“Indeed,” the baron added. “And my Michael.”
Margueritte and Elsbeth got promptly carried to bed.