The Month of the Dog, Talaymansday the Fifth.
Aubrien Port in Taulmeer
He paused and looked east. The jumble of buildings—most of them two or three stories—blocked his sight, but the smell of sea still air reached him. Over there—he could see it from the docks—was home. Over the Small Sea were the islands of his home’s west coast, protected by a jumble of rocks and shoals that made navigation dangerous for any but the most seasoned and familiar of sailors. In his youth, he had denigrated the Islanders, called them savages and barbarians. Now, he would kiss that rocky ground if he ever stood on it.
Turning back to the laneway, he scratched his stubbled chin. He knew this city well, but had never ventured so deeply into its the warrens and alleys. Here he found the desperate and the poor. Did he belong? He had long ago fought his way out of poverty, but in some ways he remained desperate. He desperately wanted to stand again in the court of his father’s home, to hunt in the forests of his youth, and to breath its free air.
People walked through the narrow street, cut off from the sky by the overhanging upper stories of the surrounding buildings. Those structures looked old and decrepit, many tilting at odd angles. The people on the streets had much in common with the structures—ill-maintained and stooped. They watched him like crows over a battlefield, their eyes on the pack slung over his shoulder. His hand didn’t leave the elaborate, basket-style hilt of his straight-bladed sabre.
Though not born with it, he now carried the name Alec Rathwig—the surname a reference to the Cunning Snake, an ancient trickster from the Northern Reaches of the West Kingdoms. He led the Free Company of the Cyclops Banner with five thousand trained, tried, and blooded soldiers at his command. He had fought for, or against, every one of the West Kingdoms and beyond. For fifteen years, he had lived with the sword, from the far north to the southern Mother Sea.
He had come to the mainland from the Fist—the peninsula that encompassed Kellalh—his home—and Surraev—the kingdom which had conquered it. He had come fifteen years ago with nothing. He had nothing except his body and his talents. He had come from a culture of personal honour and warfare, so he knew how to fight.
On the mainland, he had first learned how to fight in wars. Then, he learned how to lead soldiers in wars. Finally, he learned how to win those wars.
Leading a mercenary company under the Cyclops Banner—he had lost an eye and gained a scar before he became a captain—he had amassed a reputation and a fortune. That night, though, he wandered through the streets of Aubrien Port alone as any man, the soldiers of his company elsewhere, under contract but awaiting his orders. He would gather one thousand of his best here and they would be the tip of the spear for his next campaign. Each one of them had come to the West Kingdoms from Kellalh. Each one of them remembered their home fondly. Each one of them had proven their loyalty.
But on that day, he sought one other. He had soldiers aplenty if he needed them, but that day he sought a captain. He sought a peer. He needed an old friend who wasn’t afraid to contradict him. Someone to tell him when he was wrong. And somewhere in this maze of backstreets and alleys, Alec hoped to find her.
Johanna Gunter had offered to meet him at an inn called the Silver Dog. Alec has assumed, given Johanna’s means and character, that the Silver Dog would prove some palatial inn used by rich merchants much closer to the harbor. Alec had only visited Aubrien a few times during his decade on the continent and so had no knowledge of the various quarters and neighborhoods in the town. He had learned that day that Aubrien seemed to sweep the dregs of humanity under a rug called the Justeren Quarter through which he now wandered.
Still, a couple of Kellei sailors at the harbor knew the city and had a notion of where Alec could find the Silver Dog. Their directions were well-intentioned, but vague and Alec had all but surrendered the search. He would have quit but he didn’t really know how to get out of the Quarter, so he wandered through streets, occasionally asking random denizens, in his accented Taulmeeran, for directions to the Silver Dog or a way back to the harbor. Few offered him any answer other than curses, insults and the odd supplication.
The maze of side-streets and alleys had begun to darken and become narrower in the Quarter when Alec spotted a doorway with a shingle hanging over it bearing the picture of a silver hound—as promising as an oasis in the desert.
The interior of inn in no way belied the promise of its exterior. Dirty, dark, and smoky, it stank of damp straw, old beer, and the sweat of despair and failure. Alec almost appreciated the choking smoke in that it helped to cut through the other stench. Small tables and rickety chairs filled the common room before him. A chipped and worn bar ran along his left, while a fire burned in a pit in the center of the room, protected by a metal grill as well as a low stone wall.
If Alec had believed in omens, he would have worried at this one.
Alec turned at the sound of a voice, greeting him in thickly accented Taulmeeran. The speaker stood maybe a hand taller than Alec. She had a stark and angular face, out from which bright eyes shone, topped with very short, dark hair. She wore a tunic and surcoat which Alec guessed would be worth more than the entire tavern. Her black boots reached her knees, and a thin-bladed arming sword hung from her shoulder belt. A great, dark and high-collared cloak hung about her shoulders.
“Good even to you, Johanna,” Alec held out his hand. “We couldn’t have done this somewhere closer to the docks? It wasn’t easy finding this place.”
Johanna Gunter smiled and embraced Alec. “Whatever hardships you overcame I’m sure will pale in comparison to what you’re about to introduce me to, no?” She released Alec, stepped back, and then gestured to a large group dominating a corner of the common room. “I’ve taken the liberty of assembling some of my lieutenants who are busy now reminiscing over bad whiskey.” Johanna put her arm around Alec and led him along the bar. At a set of stairs, and Johanna paused and gestured up them. “I’ve got us a room that we can sit and talk in. What of food or drink?”
“I haven’t eaten since morning,” Alec said. “And I wouldn’t refuse some wine.”
Johanna winked. “You never could.” She turned to the host and ordered meals and wine to be sent to the room, then ushered Alec up the stairs. “They know me here, and it’s safer than any fortress I’ve seen. There are more rat holes to escape out of then there are tables to sit at. I am guessing their regular clientele might not be entirely respectable.”
The two reached the top of the stairs and Johanna entered through the first door to their right. A long table dominated the centre of the room with sturdy, utilitarian chairs set around it. Two cushioned chairs—one with a cabinet just behind it—flanked the shuttered window. Against the left wall, with a closed door beside it, was a long, thin table topped with tin cups and a pitcher.
Johanna sat in one of the cushioned chairs and peered through the slats of the shutters. Alec’s eyes narrowed. Johnna offered a half-smile. “I have a bad feeling the Church is starting to catch up to me. If they find me in Taulmeer, I’ll likely end my days in flames.”
“I think you overestimate your worth to the Church.” Alec tipped up a slat in turn. The window looked out onto a courtyard behind the inn. Other than a small bush, devoid of even a single leaf, Alec saw nothing. “They have plenty of heretics and midwives to burn before they need to search for you.”
Johanna chuckled. “There, you’ve calmed all my fears.” A knock came from the door, and Johanna called for the person to enter. An older woman, her mess of hair gray and brittle, came in with a tray of food and bottles. She set it down on the long side table and retired, without once saying a word. “Like I said, they know me here, and they respect me.”
“Respect or fear?’ Alec asked. “They aren’t the same thing.”
Johanna thrust her thumb toward the door. “That old hag fears me. She’s one of those people who confesses three or four times a week. Her son, the one who runs this place, he knows who I am and what I’ve done. He respects me and he respects the fact I always pay him well.”
“Then your funds haven’t dried up?” Alec sank back into the chair. “I heard rumors in the Republics.”
“There are always rumors.” Johanna rose and went to the side table. “That’s about the most innocuous one I’ve heard. Are you sure you aren’t skipping over the stories of human sacrifice and demon worship? Sometimes fables can be useful.”
Alec accepted a plate of bread, meats and cheese from Johanna. “Those rumors circulate among a different crowd. I was working for the Assembly in the Republics, not the Church.”
Johanna pulled a pipe out from under her surcoat. “As though the Church would ever hire any of us. They still drop coin for those Kadeteran peacocks.”
“Better for us. We always beat them and then can loot the Church’s property.”
“Ah, you find the silver at the bottom of every well.” Johanna filled her pipe. “But I doubt you’ve come here to discuss my reputation.”
“To put it simply, I’ve come to ask for your help.”
Johanna paused while replacing her tobacco pouch. Her eyes narrowed as she considered Alec. “You’ve come to ask my help?” She put away her tobacco. “Not my service? This doesn’t sound like a contract. I’ve collected these men expecting work. I’ve promised them work.”
“There will be work for those men, if they want it.” Alec leaned forward, resting his plate on his thighs. “Are any of them Kellei?”
One of Johanna’s eyebrows rose. “A few. That seems an odd question.”
“I need Kellei for the campaign, Kellei who miss their home.” Alec leaned forward. “Kellei you can trust, even when the money stops flowing.”
“You’ve completely confused me.” Johanna scratched her chin with the tip of her pipe. “If the money stops flowing, isn’t the contract over? Is this about more than a contract, then? ” Johanna rose and went to one of the candles on the main table. “I know you. I know you well. And I know what drives you. This all leads me to a very troubling conclusion. What can you tell me about this contract? “
“I can tell you that we will be fighting Surraev. I can tell you that we will be without support. I expect the contract will last only long enough to get my company out of Taulmeer.”
“And then the money stop flowing, and we are left without a national banner to fly above our own, and suddenly our war is illegal.” Johanna lit her pipe with a candle. “But at that point, it’s no longer Taulmeer’s problem. Whose problem is it?”
Alec released a low chuckle. “Well, Surraev really.”
“Okay, so this is about your evident vendetta against the Surraev for what they did in Kellalh.” Johanna puffed on her pipe, bringing it to life. “So where will we be left when the money stop flowing?”
Alec paused. He stared hard into Johanna’s eyes. “Are you with me.”
Johanna regarded him thoughtfully. “You act like you think I might say no.”
“You have generally erred on the side of reason.”
“A fig to that! What’s the deal?”
“We’re going to start a war, Johanna,” Alec said. “We’re going to start a war that Taulmeer will have no part of. We’ll be abandoned facing a numerically superior opponent that will have every other advantage over us except drive and determination.”
Johanna pointed at Alec with her pipe. “Save that for your soldiers. I’m asking where.”
“Hells, Alec.” Johanna shook her head and fell back into her chair. “Starting a war in Kellalh—” Johanna waved off the sentence. “Horn of Haloed One, you do remember what happened the last time? I mean, you were there, weren’t you?”
“I was there,” Alec said. “I don’t plan on making the same mistakes.”
Johanna closed her eyes and stretched her neck. “Listen, no one plans to make mistakes, but from where I’m sitting, even starting that fight is a mistake.”
“Maybe, but I’ll do it in any case,” Alec said. “And I won’t be alone. There’s been a rebellion in the north since the invasion.”
Johanna sniffed with derision. “Ha! A rebellion? Killing tax collectors in the high moors and islands isn’t exactly a rebellion.”
Alec smiled. “You’ve seen Kellei at work. The land breeds violence. You know what they can do without training. Imagine what they could do with the right training and the right leader.”
“Oh, I’ve seen what your Hillmen and Islanders can do in a fight, and I’ve seen what they do after. . .” Hervoice trailed off.“Honestly, I’d imagine Kellalh would be happier as a Surraev province.”
“That’s because you’re not Kellei.” Alec put his tin plate on the window ledge.
“And when the money stops, what will you do?” Johanna inspected her pipe as she spoke. ” Will you pay for this war out of your own pocket?”
Alec went to the side-table and filled a cup with wine. “By that time, I hope to be leading soldiers instead of mercenaries.”
“And there’s a difference?”
Alec turned, fixing Johanna with a glare softened by the grin that threatened his lips. “You know there is. Mercenaries fight for money and for their comrades. Soldiers fight for something else.”
Johanna slid her pipe into her mouth as she watched Alec. She puffed while Alec returned to his chair. “Okay, I would agree with that. But do you think your five thousand and my two thousand will meekly accept the lack of pay? My men are loyal and they are disciplined, but they are not soldiers, they are mercenaries. Both companies are and always have been. “
“I am only taking across one thousand of my most trusted.” Alec emptied his cup and placed it on the ground beside his chair. “I’m taking across the Kellei who I trust—those who want to go home and those who just want to kill Surraevians.”
“I don’t have many of those.” Johanna let out a slow breath through her nose. “By the Blooded Altar, I don’t know if I have any. We have not been together long. They follow me for the pay and for the reputation.”
Alec raised his shoulders and offered his open hands. “I need you. I don’t need your company. I can incorporate them into my own, that will keep them paid for a time. But at some point, Taulmeer will need to remove them.”
“This will be end of my short if glorious career.” Johanna puffed on her pipe, her eyes unfocused. “At least I have my reputation. I was good at this.”
Alec’s features went slack, the tension he wore liked a mask drained—if only for a moment. “If we win, your name will bring ten thousand to your banner.”
Johanna removed her pipe and used it to point at Alec. “We won’t win. We can’t win. One thousand? Against Surraev? They can field some of the finest heavy cavalry in the West Kingdoms. And they can field a lot of them. Then you have their archers, who might not be the best, but they have a lot of them.”
“They are in debt,” Alec said. “Taulmeer believes heavily in debt. They are running out of sources of money. No one wants to loan to them any longer. They have a new king who by all accounts was chosen due to his weakness. They have bled themselves dry holding their duchies on the Taulmeeran coast. If there is a time that we might be able to win in Kellalh, it is now.
Alec’s back had straightened as he spoke. His face became animated again. The fire returned to his one good eye. “And we will start with one thousand, but each of those one thousand is a leader, a motivated leader who will find ten or twenty or one hundred more. By next season, we will have an army that can face Surraev on the field, and army as good as anything I’ve led on the mainland.”
Johanna considered her pipe, holding it in two hands, no longer smoking it. “You hope.”
Alec reached out to put his hand on Johanna’s knee. “It’s a good plan. It can work.”
Johanna rose and went to fetch a cup of wine of her own, her eyes became introspective. “You’ve always been smart, especially for a mercenary. You read and you write and you study those Gods-awful ancient military texts. I don’t know . . . in all the years I have know you, I never expected such a stupid idea to actually pass your lips. But I supposed I shouldn’t be surprised.” She held her cup and did not turn to face Alec. “What is it? Is it that they killed your family? Did they do something to you? Help me understand this. If I’m going to throw away my career and probably my life, I want to know why.”
Alec’s nostrils grew wide and his mouth hung open a fraction. He stared at Johanna’s back for heartbeat and then another. “You know, when it started, it was just anger. I was just angry all the time. I blamed them. Yes, I blamed the Surraev for taking my family and my home. I blamed them for taking what I thought was my due. But that anger faded, and then all I saw was a bully. I saw a king who used whatever pretext he could to punch anyone he could.” Alec pinched the bridge of his nose. “Now, though . . . now I just want to go home. I’ve lived too long away. I’ve lived too long in places where my mother tongue is foreign. I’ve lived to long in places that aren’t my own.”
Johanna still didn’t turn. “We all die so you can go home?”
“Some of us will die, yes, but this will work.” Alec frowned. “I know the Kellei. Not the nobles, but the kerns, hells even the herders and farmers. They will fight. They want to fight. If you don’t believe that with an army of ten thousand, I can’t beat Surraev in a place where I can cut off their supplies, where I can choose the time and place for battle, then you shouldn’t come. If you are worried that I can’t raise that army, stay here. Stay and lead our combined companies. When I have my army, come across and help me lead it.”
Johanna finally turned, a wry smirk on her face. “You’re asking me to tag along once the party has started? To lend moral support?”
“You know you’re the finest captain I’ve ever worked with. You’re a tactical genius, as you are fond of reminding me, and a fair hand at logistics. There is plenty to keep you occupied, if you’re in.”
“So, I could just say no and leave it at that?”
Alec gestured with an open hand. “We would leave it at that.”
“No reminders about how often you’ve saved my life, no discussion of how much I owe you?”
Alec watched Johanna silently.
“Damn it, of course I’m in.” Johanna shook her head. “I can’t wait until you tell the Old Man about this.”
“I’ve already spoken to Cristobel.”
“He’s in as well.” Alec offered a tranquil grin. “Who do you think connected me to the Taulmeeran crown?”
“Horn and Halo, are we all insane?” Johanna drained her cup then filled it once again. “So, when do we set sail?”