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A Bloody Crown: Chapter 01

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The following is the first chapter in the novel The Cyclops Banner: A Bloody Crown. New chapters will be posted every second week. An ebook of the novel will be available in the near future.

Chapter 1: The Month of the Sparrow, Moransday the Eleventh.

Aneros in the Kingdom of Taulmeer

Deshan Caerral could not say what he should have expected when he opened that door, but the man before him was not it. Tall, his voluminous cloak—a bluish-green trimmed in gold and with gold embroidery of frolicking unicorns in a forest on its high collar—all but hid his fashionable doublet—this a lighter shade of blue, also high-collared, topped with a necklace from which hung a gold unicorn pendant with a ruby horn. From what Deshan could see of his gray-blue pants, they were unfashionably loose but almost certainly silk instead of linen and with gold piping. He had heard of this man and had expected someone heavily armed and perhaps even in armour, and while the man certainly could have hidden multiple weapons on his person, who would have the hubris to bear weapons into the royal offices and into the office of the Marshal of Taulmeer himself?

And as the question had come to his mind, so to did the answer—Cristobel vel Lupus, Count Terenquist, the man standing before him. He might have the hubris to bear weapons into the royal offices. That man might even bear weapons in the presence of the king himself.

More than just a count, Cristobel vel Lupus was the Captain-General of the Free Company of the Unicorn Banner with five thousand trained, tried, and blooded soldiers at his command. He had fought for or against every one of the East Kingdoms and beyond. He was the reason the King of Surraev had accepted a treaty of peace and amicable relations with the King of Taulmeer, and had abandoned a collection of market towns near the coast in doing so. The Captain-General of the Unicorn Banner might be the one to push Surraev off the mainland and out of Taulmeer forever.

But not at that exact moment. At that moment, Cristobel stood in the office of the Marshal of Taulmeer and considered Deshan with what might be disdain. Deshan felt his blood heat as he looked into those eyes, eyes that offered no deference or even respect. Not that Deshan had never felt that before. For fifteen years he had been part of a court-in-exile. The King of Taulmeer had been an excellent host, but Deshan and the others in the Kellei court remained foreigners, guests but guests without a home to which to return. Deshan had known disdain for most of those fifteen years. He was a man who prided himself on his ability to ignore emotion, to endure, but in those moments when he could not overbear it, the frustration and anger would bubble over, and he had to release it. He yelled, he stormed, he threw items and broke furniture.

Horrible. A failure. A show of weakness.

With Cristobel’s eyes on him, he did not feel ready to explode. He just wanted to disappear. He understood the fascination the young King Denis had with this mercenary, and why he had ennobled him. His accomplishments spoke for themselves, and his bearing made plain those accomplishments were his.

Many of those Taulmeeran courtiers jealous of Cristobel’s relationship with their king spoke of sorcery and enchantments. No. Standing there, face-to-face with the man, not having even yet spoken, Deshan knew he faced a person of consequence. This man could make kings and champions shudder. This man led others, not due to birth or social station, but because he was a leader. This was a man you wanted at your side.

Deshan cleared his throat and extended his hand. “Good Count Terenquist, I am Deshan Caerral of House Cennerid, Baron of Dennethain.”

Cristobel took the hand in a firm grip and held it. “I doubt you are.”

Deshan’s brow furrowed. “I assure you I am.”

Cristobel released Deshan’s hand. “The Baron of Dennethain is a Surraevean. This has been true for fifteen years. I know very little about you at this moment, but I do know you are no Surraevean.”

“Ah, yes.” Deshan didn’t want to, but he had to clear his throat again as his words got caught in his throat. It showed he was nervous. It made him vulnerable. This was not how to begin a negotiation. “Then let us say I am the rightful Baron of Dennethain.”

“What does that mean?” Cristobel turned away and started to examine the spines of the many books in the office. That collection displayed unparalleled wealth. Ostentation was common in Taulemeer, and Deshan liked it, but it was alien to the traditions of Kellalh, the place he referred to as his home.

“The title and powers are rightfully mine.” Deshan answered the literal question, but when Cristobel turned slightly and considered him out of the corner of his eye, Deshan knew he should not have.

“Nobles and kings talk about rights, talk about them as though they mean something.” Cristobel stopped his examination of the books and tapped one in particular. Deshan could not read what was written on its spine. “I don’t believe in rights unless you can exercise them. It is like the Norelaw. The King of Taulmeer speaks of his rights to the three cities still held by Surraev. He says they are Taulmeeran and are on the ancient lands of Taulmeer. The second of those statements is correct, but since the taxes are paid to Surraev’s crown and since the towns are garrisoned by Surraev’s soldiers, I would say they are Surraevean.” Cristobel turned to Deshan. “But I am no lawyer, and although I carry a noble title, I am no courtier. Perhaps this is all just beyond my comprehension.” He crossed his arms before his chest, revealing slashed sleeves—very fashionable but few would wear them as the trend originated with the soldiers of the Eidgenosse Confederacy. “But that is not the reason I am here. I am here for the money that is owed to the Free Companies of the Unicorn Banner and the Red Hawk Banner. Are you here with that payment?”

Deshan wanted to appear surprised, wanted to display some level of shock, but his pride hurt so much already that he could not do so. He opened his mouth to speak, but realized he once again had to clear his throat. This was not going as he had planned. As he had hoped. “Payment? No, I am not. I am here to hire you. You and your company, of course.” He had always thought he had a talent for lying . . . no, for persuading others to accept the truth of his statements. At that moment, though, he realized he had persuaded this man of nothing.

A wry smile formed in one corner of Cristobel’s mouth. “Hire me? I am owed money on my last contract, my dear rightful baron. Once my company is paid, I will discuss another contract. And my patience it not limitless.”

“I am sorry, I truly am, but the king had not mentioned your previous contract, so there is little I can say regarding your payment.” Deshan needed to regain his composure and put Cristobel off-balance. As he spoke, he moved to the marshal’s desk and took the chair behind it. He prayed that the two were not interrupted. He had not earned this level of familiarity, and it would likely end poorly for him if the wrong person saw him.

Cristobel uncrossed his arms and pulled at his sleeves, straightening them. “Then there is nothing I can say regarding your contract. If payment is not forthcoming, I will need to communicate this to my company. I am afraid my control over them is already tenuous due to the tardiness of their pay. I have no doubt they will mutiny and find themselves a new captain. That new captain will probably seek to extract what he can from the nobles and the wealthy. It will not be an enjoyable process for anybody. Did I mention my company was bivouacked not two days ride from Aneros, this very city?”

Deshan raised his hand. “Wait, do you not wish to hear my proposal? My terms?”

Cristobel gestured to the chair in which Deshan sat. “You seem comfortable sitting in the chair of the marshal, so don’t pretend you don’t know about our last contract. If the marshal will not pay my company, why would I think you would?”

“What if I told you this contract could lead you to a crown, to a throne, if not as a king, then as a kingmaker?” Deshan leaned forward, hands on the desk before him. “What if I told you this contract would open up the wealth of any entire kingdom to you and to your people?”

“I would laugh and suggest you are either delusional or deceitful, and I’m not sure which is worst.” Cristobel leaned on the back of one of the chairs before the marshal’s desk.

“I have heard that many in your company are exiles from Kellalh.” Deshan forced himself to sit back in the chair, to relax, to appear as though he were dominant in the conversation, and that he had a reward Cristobel desired. “Would they not be motivated if the contract were in Kellalh? Would the chance to return home and free it from the Surraev not motivate them?”

Cristobel straightened and shrugged. “A contract is a contract. I couldn’t say if a contract in Kellalh would motivate some of my soldiers, but it will not motivate me. A contract in Kellalh suggests difficulty—difficulty in transport and difficulty in supply. And that is even before we meet with the enemy. A push against Surraev which has held the kingdom for fifteen years? My company would stand alone against a superior force. Not some place I’d willingly put myself or my soldiers.”

Deshan frowned. “What of their love for their homeland? What will your soldiers think when they learn you could have freed their homeland and did not. Will they not think that you care more about money than you care about them? Than you care about justice for their families?”

Cristobel let out a short bark of laughter. “Justice? Homeland?” Cristobel lowered himself into one of the chairs facing the desk. “You say that you are the Baron of Dennethain? Then let me ask you this: are you going to tax your tenants? Are you going to force them to labour on your lands as part of their rent? Or are you going to release your serfs? Sell your family’s goods to help feed the destitute? Would you trade me your title if I took this contract?” Cristobel laughed again, his cold eyes never leaving Deshan’s. “It’s always about money.”

Deshan sat back, his brow furrowing, his lips pursed.

Cristobel released a slow breath through his nose, looking down it at Deshan. “You go and tell your patrons that if they want my troops to take any more contracts, they pay for the first one. Or perhaps I will tell them.” Cristobel rose out of the seat. “I will not trouble King Denis or the Marshal. It is clear in sending you that they do not respect me as I thought they did.” He turned and walked towards the door. “Perhaps you can hire my troops after they have finished razing every tower and estate they can find, after they have gorged themselves on the fat of the nobility. I will be in Terenquist, but when you speak to your patrons, tell them that I cannot control my people unless I can offer them that which was promised. My soldiers are not stupid. When they riot, they will not be targeting the farmers and the peasants. They know who has the wealth.”

“If I could get you your payment for this last contract, would you accept mine?” Deshan asked.

Cristobel paused. “If you could? I will not play this game. Tell, me, if you can.”

Deshan let out a breath that hissed through his teeth. “I don’t know. I can try. The king has . . . plans, and I think I can persuade him that his paying you would help him achieve his goals.”

“Then he is indeed marching on the Norelaw?” Cristobel seemed to focus on the knob of the door before him. “So soon after signing the treaty. That is foolish. He does not have the soldiers and cannot hire more . . . unless . . .” Cristobel grunted then returned to his seat. “This will be interesting.”

Deshan held up both hands, palms facing Cristobel. “I never made any mention of the Norelaw.”

“Did you need to?” Cristobel lowered himself once again into the chair he had earlier vacated. “You said the contract is for Kellalh, and we’ll be fighting Surraeveans. You said the king in Aneros has plans and that our travel to Kellalh will help them. Obviously, our fight in Kellalh will lead Surraev’s new, young king to focus his army there. The Norelaw and other Surraevean holdings on the mainland will be left vulnerable, and they certainly won’t be reinforced quickly if they are attacked. Taulmeer might have a peace treaty right now, but it’s been seeking to drive Surraev from those lands for a century.” Cristobel tapped the side of his nose. “It’s pretty clear.”

“But I told you nothing.” The Marshal had expressed reservations with Deshan’s plan, but had agreed and spoke to Deshan in confidence. What might Deshan expect if the Marshal believed he had betrayed that confidence?

“Who do you think will ask?” Cristobel waved off the response Deshan started. “It doesn’t matter. So, now that you have my attention, tell me: how many companies are you enlisting?”

Deshan squinted. His nostrils flared. “Your company. You do have five thousand under arms, do you not?”

Cristobel let out a long, slow breath as he closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. He opened his eyes as he spoke. “Surraev has that number and more in the garrisons in Kellalh and could muster another seven thousand from their borders in a handful of months.”

At this, Deshan scoffed. “I understand that. We will be raising levies in Kellalh. Your company will be the vanguard but not the entire army.”

“Blood of the Consorts protect me.” Cristobel shook his head. “Have you thought of your war with Surraev fifteen years ago? Were you there? Know somebody who was?” Cristobel held up his hand before Deshan could reply. “I will save you the trouble. You don’t know or you would understand the flaws in your strategy.”

“I’m not a fool, captain. The army of Kellalh was outnumbered.”

“Yes, Kellalh was outnumbered.” The glare Cristobel leveled at Deshan made him feel like a worthless apprentice before a disapproving master. It made him feel small, and that made him angry. He held his tongue, tried to hold his voice. “But one must also ask why was it outnumbered. And the answer is that it was outnumbered because it relied on levies. Too few of those levies came because the Church did not answer when the king called. Because many nobles made agreements with Surraev and so likewise ignored their duties.” Cristobel swiftly changed; the glare gone. He scratched at the back of his neck and spoke informally, casually. “But that is not what is most important. Even if all the levies demanded by the king had arrived, the forces of Kellalh would have lost. The Kellei king matched unenthusiastic amateurs against experienced soldiers. If only numbers mattered, it would be difficult to explain victories over armies that outnumber one’s forces. Three months ago, the Company of the Unicorn Banner led in a battle in which Taulmeer’s army defeated an army of Surraev that had three for every Taulmeeran two. Numbers are important, but they were not the main reason Kellalh lost. Kellalh lost because it faced an experienced force of professionals.”

Deshan shook his head. “They were not mercenaries. They were vassals of the king.”

“Yes, they were, and they were also paid professionals.” Cristobel pointed to Deshan using his whole hand, and Deshan, though his anger and impatience still simmered under the surface, appreciated that the count had avoided the insult of a single finger. “You came to me and told me the contract was in Kellalh. That’s not because of riches. Kellalh has never been rich. You believe that the many Kellei soldiers under my command would be motivated to fight for their homeland. You probably believe my troops, or at least those of them who are from Kellalh, would fight better since they would be fighting for their homeland. You wouldn’t be wrong. One can be a loyal vassal and still be a professional soldier, paid for by the state.”

“So Kellalh fell to Surraev because it didn’t have mercenaries?” Deshan chuckled. He wanted Cristobel to be wrong. He needed Cristobel to be wrong. Mercenaries were indeed an important factor in any battle—a useful resource. But it was the loyal vassals of a crown that led in battles, that provided a crown with its strength.

“In part, yes.” Cristobel held up a single finger. “It didn’t have a trained army with a unity of command. It had a patchwork of lances and kessels, but not an actual army that worked as a single body.” He held up a second finger. “It ignored Surraev’s vulnerabilities—” he held up a third finger “—and its own weaknesses. Surraev has excellent cavalry and archers. Kellalh will never match them in that. But cavalry cannot break massed infantry with spears or polearms, and their archers are poorly armed for close fighting.”

“Yes, this is why I want to hire you,” Deshan said. “You know how to beat the Surraeveans.”

Cristobel frowned. “That is only useful if I have command and if you listen to me. And I will tell you this without any pay at all: you can’t beat Surraev with levies. If you can raise levies—and I question whether you can—you might get some heavy cavalry, but very few in numbers and lacking a single leader or the ability to operate in unison. You army would be filled with untrained peasants with minimal if any armour and more farm implements than real weapons. The pittance of a leaderless cavalry you could field. would never beat Surraev’s and your peasant infantry would break in the face of a heavy cavalry charge or the first barrage of arrows. If you think your levies have any roll at all in a war in Kellalh, you are seeking partners in another debacle, and I will not risk my soldiers for that.”

He wanted to argue, wanted to disparage Cristobel’s assertions, but he could not. This was not the first time he had heard that same point. And though he tried to ignore it, Deshan had a suspicion that if he returned to Dennethain and raised the standard of House Cennerid, none would flock to it. Deshan rested his chin on his hands, his elbows on the desk. “How many do I need?”

“You’ll need a second company.” Cristobel’s voice remained even, and he offered no outward sign of triumph, but Deshan knew that beneath that façade, the count must be gloating. “The Red Hawks. They have the light cavalry and mounted crossbowmen. It will give us the edge we need against Surraevean archers, and outside of my own company, the Red Hawks are the best you’ll find. Many of their soldiers are also from Kellalh. Their captain-general is the smart and flexible. Pay off the existing contract, double your offer, give me command, and we’ll have a deal.”

Deshan’s head dropped, facing the floor. “I can’t.” He looked up again. His hope had all drained from him. The Marshal had not lied when he said Cristobel was the only commander who could do this. Here was the answer to all Deshan’s hopes, and he could not meet his demands. “I can’t raise that kind of money.”

Cristobel watched Deshan for a heartbeat, and then nodded and rose. “There are other mercenaries who will take your contract. They will do whatever you ask of them, until they realize they are doomed. Once they see there is no hope, they will take whatever offer Surraev makes, and then they will turn on you. Good luck.” Cristobel once again made for the door.

“The king desires this.” It was Deshan’s last card. He had heard that King Denis had approved this, but did he desire it? And what if Cristobel spoke with the king? Desperation made men stupid, and it was only after the words had left his mouth that Deshan considered the possible consequences.

“The king will tell me if it is indeed something he desires.” Cristobel held the door’s handle. “I am sorry to say this, to possibly insult you, but you must understand that it was men like you who lost the kingdom fifteen years ago. If you march now, with levies or without sufficient resources, you will lose it again. People will die. Perhaps not you, but since this is your campaign, all its blood will be on you. I know the king. I would not say well, but I know him. He does not like failure. If you lead and you fail, you will never have another chance in your lifetime.” Cristobel opened the door. “Good luck to you. I honestly hope you the best, but I expect that you will soon be dead and that Kellalh will burn for years because of your ambition.”

Though it wasn’t said, Deshan heard in his heart and your stupidity. “Wait.” Deshan all but choked out the word. “I can’t afford ten thousand soldiers. Half of the Red Hawks. Two thousand of the cavalry and crossbowmen. The coin will be delivered to you in Kellalh.”

Cristobel looked back. “The Red Hawks left behind will be housed at Terenquist under the king’s seal. They will receive the king’s coin, but only if this war succeeds. I will need specific officers with me in Kellalh, and I will not sail without them. Half of the money the crown already owes my company in wages will be paid to them. I will accept the other half owed before we leave. I will accept half the payment for the new contract in Kellalh, but will expect the final half on our return. This will all be in a contract I will provide which the kings will sign without alteration.”

Deshan’s eyebrows rose. “Kings?”

“The King of Taulmeer and whoever you are putting forward as King of Kellalh.” The door creaked slightly as Cristobel opened it wide. “I will expect the contract and the first half of the crown’s payment in the week. I will be retiring to my camp and my company to await the payment and to plan our next steps.”

“I will do what I can,” Deshan said.

The door began to close but Cristobel’s words reached Deshan all the same. “All that I have asked, or none that I have promised.”

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