The Cyclops Banner: A Bloody Crown available now as an e-book.
You can find chapter 2 here.
Chapter 3: The Wolfâ€™s Son and his Talons
The Month of the Sparrow, Wegeresday the Twenty-seventh.
Aubrien Port in the Belgdstaet Unity
He wanted to stay in Taulmeer, at the companyâ€™s camp. That was his home. The company was his home. But when Cristobel returned from Aneros, he had told Alec to reach out to their contacts in Aubrien and find out what kind of transport was available. The contract wasnâ€™t certain. Cristobel needed seals on it and he needed the coin from the last contract. He didnâ€™t believe it would happen, but the company needed to be ready. And it needed trustworthy ships to get them across the Small Sea.
That made Alec wonder. Travel to most parts of the East Kingdoms would be on the roads. The only possible destinationâ€”outside the Fistâ€”would be the Empire. The Empire was always at war, but mostly with itself. Could they be heading to the Empire? That didnâ€™t make sense. Taulmeer had accepted peace with Surraev because it didnâ€™t have the money to keep fighting. Would the king take further loans to campaign in the Empire?
Of course, he would. The king would get more loans and start more wars. The Unicorn Banner would get fed.
But what if it werenâ€™t the Empire? What if it were somewhere else?
Alec Ulvarsson sat in a corner of an inn and tavern known as the Silver Dog. He sat at a table separate from most of the other patrons, surrounded by his top lieutenants. They talked of many things, but never of war. Not while in their cups. They talked of battles, yes. They talked of memories of battles, of what happened and how that had affected them and their lives, but never wars. Never strategies. That was talk for the camp. This was not the camp.
But they remained the Talons. The Order of Talons: so pretentious, but it had started as a joke. Then it wasnâ€™t. It mimicked noble orders as a way to insult the nobles. But it got a reputation. It became what it skewered. Being a Talon meant something. It got you respect, even among nobles and knights. The Talons became the elite of the Free Company of the Unicorn Banner.
At that table sat the leadershipâ€”the coreâ€”of Order. The brilliant colours of their slashed sleeves and the feathers in their caps might draw eyes. Everything else about them was mutedâ€”dull colours and utilitarian fashions. Who would guess that this mess of bravos were the finest soldiers in the East Kingdoms? At least Alec thought they were. Silent when needed, flexible when needed, solid when needed, they didnâ€™t break. The Talons were Cristobel vel Lupusâ€™ weapon. Every one of them ready to die. Every one of them ready to kill. Every one of them a Kellei.
And every one of them with the shaved head, beard, and tattoos of a Kellei kern. They were more than just warriors or even soldiers. A kernâ€™s oath continued after the death of their master. If a kern could not die to save their master, they would avenge that death. They would trade their own life to do it.
Not every retainer of a Kellei lord was a kern. Not every kern held to the old waysâ€”that much the Surraevean invasion had taught him. The Talons, though, lived by old codeâ€”duty, valour, death. They were loyal to each other. They were loyal to the mission. They were loyal to the Unicorn Banner. And they would be loyal onto death.
Looking out at the rest of the patrons of the inn, he wondered what they thought when they looked at the Talons. Like the others, Alec had a shaved head and a generousâ€”though trimmedâ€”beard. He had blue tattoos marking his victories and his deeds on his arms, some even on the side of his head and his neck. Would that all create fear and wonder? If it didnâ€™t, he knew what wouldâ€”the scar that ran from just above his left brow to his jaw and the patch that covered his ruined eye.
He knew what his appearance did. Sometimes that annoyed him. Sometimes he appreciated it. Like so many other parts of life, he never could control it.
Alec had come to the East Kingdoms from Kellalh, the first tattoos of a kern already earned. He pledged his loyalty to Cristobel, and Cristobel had repaid that loyalty. Alec had apprenticed under Cristobel. He had risen with him. He had become Cristobelâ€™s right hand andâ€”very oftenâ€”his sword and shield. And Cristobel had given Alec the opportunity to use his talents to enrich himself.
Alecâ€™s father had been a kern, and had decided the eldest sonâ€”Alecâ€™s brotherâ€”would follow him. For Alec? That didnâ€™t matter. Blacksmith? Monk? Their father never really thought about it. Living in a culture that prized personal honour and warfare, Alec knew how to fight. He wanted to fight. His father never recognized that. Cristobel did.
Before the invasion of Kellalh, Alec became a retainer, part of a thaneâ€™s warband. Even before his brother, he had earned a reputation. Before becoming a retainer, Alec knew the spear, the broadsword, and the shield. He had skills in poaching and in smuggling. One did what one needed to survive, and Alec had survived. He was master of none of these skills. He did not need to be the best, only better than most.
He had come to the East Kingdoms fifteen years ago with nothing except his body and his talents. Cristobel had taught him how to fight as a soldier. He had taught him how to fight in wars. Then, Alec had learned how to lead soldiers in wars. Finally, he learned how to win those wars.
Around him, Alec had gathered many other Kellei. Plenty had left Kellalh in the years following the Surraevean conquest. Some were like him, having lived as a kern or as a retainer. Others just fled and needed work to fill their belly. Many died quickly. Those that didnâ€™t had a home under the Unicorn Banner if they wanted it. Those who proved exceptional joined Alecâ€™s band, and they became the Talons.
As the others chattered, yelled, and laughed around him, Alec remembered. And they left him to it. They knew that some days the drink would make Alec loud and chatty. Other days it would make him quiet and sullen. Alec saw that in himself. When he had strong memories of home, he became sullen. When he was able to forget his past, he felt liberated.
That day, he should have been happy. Money had already reached themâ€”money from their last contract. With it had come a message to expect Johanna.
Johanna Gunter had been one of the few Talons not born in Kellalh. She remained the only Talon who hadnâ€™t been a manâ€”or at least who hadnâ€™t appeared as a man. There would always be women in armies, no matter the culture of the day. All of the other women Alec had known as soldiers had dressed as men. They had acted as men. They had been accepted as men. Johanna was a woman, lived as a woman, and was accepted as a woman.
Truth was that she had first come to the Unicorn Banner hidden in menâ€™s clothes. She had impressed many with her prowess and her cunning. She hadnâ€™t fooled Alec, though. One drunken night when she admitted her subterfugeâ€”the guilt at lying to her comrades overwhelming herâ€”Alec had admitted to knowing. From that night forward, Joanna no longer tried to hide. It also freed her to shine. She had feared too much light for what it might reveal. Once the mask dropped, she no longer sought the shadows.
She showed her true worth then. Once Alecâ€™s apprentice, she became his commander as her capabilities led to her quick promotion. She eventually became Cristobelâ€™s secondâ€”his legate. Alec didnâ€™t mind. He saw her quality and he agreed with Cristobelâ€™s choice to promote. Not all the officers did, but the Unicorn Banner did not fly over a democracy.
Five years ago, Taulmeer contracted with Cristobel as it had so many other times before and since. Cristobel brought with him a core who never left the Unicorn Banner. He recruited to fill the companyâ€™s ranks. And he contracted with a new company in Taulmeerâ€™s name. He contracted with Johanna, who had become a captain-general in her own right, with the Free Company of the Red Hawks. She had learned her trade from Cristobel. In that campaign, she deferred to him, but she had her own company. She had her own reputation and her own honours.
And she remained Alecâ€™s friend. She remained the one person with whom Alec could be completely honest. She, in turn, offered him complete honesty.
So, when Alec had received word that she was coming to meet him, he had some thoughts. He was there to secure transport, wasnâ€™t he? What was so important that she needed to be the one to relay it to him? Numbers. That was one thing. Numbers more than he had expected. But what if . . .
By now, fifteen years after its fall, he should have abandoned his home and those he left behind. All of that was gone. But every time a contract came, a thrill went through him. Could it be Kellalh? Could it be Surraev?
The kingâ€™s treaty meant nothing. Taulmeer accepted it because it was overextended. Like a fool, the king had let his coffers run dry. And then his leviesâ€”those who owed service, whose service was for a given timeâ€”dispersed. The king had used up his time. It wouldnâ€™t matter what he said, his vassals couldnâ€™t keep their forces in the field.
But that was the past. Once King Denis received new loansâ€”and he always ended up getting new loansâ€”he would have an army once again. He had maintained the Unicorn Banner under contract, and now it looked like he intended to employ them, but not in the Norelaw. They could march to the Norelaw. Was it the Empire? Maybe he wanted to capture some rich prize there, something he could either milk for taxes or sell back at a profit? Or was he creating a diversion to open up the Norelaw? Something to give him a chance to re-capture one or two of the occupied ports?
The Empire wouldnâ€™t be a good diversion. Kellalh would.
Alec had barely drank. He wasnâ€™t quiet because of drunken melancholy. He was quiet because of a pain in the pit of his stomach. He was quiet because of a flutter around his heart when he thought of going back. Of seeing home. He had stood on a jetty early in the morning, staring out over the Small Sea. He had imagined he could see the islands of his homeâ€™s west coast.
But he couldnâ€™t see it, except in his mind. He couldnâ€™t see the jumble of rocks and shoals that protected it, that made it dangerous for any but the most seasoned and familiar of sailors. He couldnâ€™t see it, but he could imagine it. He couldnâ€™t see it, but he could dream of it. In his youth, he had insulted the Islanders. He had called them savages and barbarians. Now, he would kiss that rocky ground if he ever stood on it.
His musings ended and a smile came to his face. Johanna entered the inn. He knew better than any other that stark and angular face, topped with very short, very dark hair. He knew those bright eyes better than his own. Of course, she wore a tunic and doublet 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. Ready for work. A great, dark and high-collared cloak hung about her shoulders.
Her expression almost made Alec laugh. He could imagine her reaction to seeing the innâ€™s interior. Dirty, dark, and smoky, it stank of damp straw, old beer, and the sweat of despair and failure. Small tables and rickety chairs filled the common room. A chipped and worn bar ran along the left as one entered. A fire burned in a pit in the center of the room. A metal grill and low stone wall encircled it.
He rose. As soon as he did, she saw him. The smile spread across her entire face and lit up those bright eyes. The Talons fell silent for only a moment. That was a reaction to Alec rising. They searched for the cause. When they saw Johanna, they all shouted out her name and called for her to join them. Alec ignored them all. He approached her.
“Good even to you, Johanna,” Alec held out his hand. “Iâ€™m glad youâ€™ve come. Couldnâ€™t have been easy finding this place.”
Johanna Gunter smiled and embraced Alec. Releasing him, she stepped back. She gestured to the Talons. “I see youâ€™ve kept them close at hand. Let me guess: reminiscing over good victories while drinking bad whiskey.” Johanna put her arm around Alec and leaned close to speak only to him. â€œDo you have a place we can talk? Maybe some food? I haven’t eaten since morning.â€
Alec signalled to the Talons to get back to their carousing. He shouted out some orders to the young man behind the bar. He pointed up the stairs behind it. The landlord nodded. Alec led Johanna toward the stairs.
“I like this place.â€ Alec took the stairs carefully, knowing their condition. â€œNot the sturdiest or prettiest, but thereâ€™s plenty of rat holes to escape out. Iâ€™m guessing their regulars might not be entirely respectable.â€
The two reached the top of the stairs. Alec led Johanna 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 chairsâ€”one with a cabinet just behind itâ€”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.
Alec gestured and Johanna sat in one of the cushioned chairs. She peered through the slats of the shutters. Alecâ€™s eyes narrowed. Johnna offered a half-smile. “Whenever I travel alone, I worry that it might be the day the Church finally catches me. If they find me out in the open, I’ll likely end my days in flames.”
“Do they care that much? ” Alec tipped up a slat in turn. The window looked out onto a courtyard behind the inn. â€œReally?â€ Other than a small bush, devoid of even a single leaf, Alec saw nothing. “Donâ€™t they have enough heretics and midwives to burn before they come for you? They still want to hire Cristobel. Hells, theyâ€™d even hire you.”
â€œI wish that made me feel better, but it does not.â€ Johanna sank back in her chair. â€œIâ€™m safer in Belgdstaet than I am in Taulmeer, but Iâ€™m not safe anywhere when Iâ€™m not with my company.â€
â€œThe Talonsâ€™re here, and thereâ€™re more nearby.â€ Alec took the seat across from Johannaâ€™s, beside the window. â€œYouâ€™re family. Nobodyâ€™s harming you here, not while any of us breath.â€
â€œI know that.â€ Johanna had a soft smile and she reached out and patted Alecâ€™s forearm. â€œAnd I love you all for it, but Iâ€™d rather we all keep breathing and I donâ€™t burn.â€
â€œHope for the best . . .â€ Alec shrugged.
â€œ. . . plan for the worst.â€ Johanna tapped the side of her nose. â€œYou have the right of it.â€
A knock came from the door, and Alec 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, all the time talking about what she had brought, what they needed to eat first before it got cold, and what the drinks were. She pointed to the tea as something to help with digestion, then she turned to go. Alec rose, thanked her, and slipped her a minted silver gilder. That got her speaking faster and with more gusto. By the time Alec had her out the door, Johanna was already half-way through her plate of food.
â€œYou found a way to her heart.â€ Johanna spoke through a mouthful of food.
â€œTheyâ€™re good people.â€ Alec filled a cup from a pitcher of small beer. â€œI heard a lot about their charity, at least with their neighbours. More than a few young Kellei have found a day or twoâ€™s work here and a bench to sleep on when they arrive in port. I want to make sure the place is here for the next arrival.â€
Johanna stopped chewing and swallowed. â€œYou?â€
Alec shook off the question. â€œNo, I had employment as soon as my foot touched the dock. Plenty of wars then, even more than now. Anyone who came with weapons and the mark of a kern had a job if they wanted it.â€
Johanna had cleaned off her plate and deposited it on the floor beside her. â€œPlenty of wars now, yes.â€ She pulled a pipe out from under her doublet. “And thereâ€™s soon to be one more.”
â€œKellalh.â€ Alec made it a statement.
â€œKellalh.â€ Johanna packed her pipe, her eyes on Alec. â€œThe contract is signed. We begin movement in a few days. Do we have the ships?â€
â€œWe have some.â€ Alec squeezed his hands, holding them tight together. â€œWhere in Kellalh? Red Isles? Camlarde? The Oxback?â€
â€œA place called Kaessekros.â€ Johanna rose and went to the table. â€œI think thatâ€™s the Red Isles.â€
â€œIt is, and itâ€™s tricky.â€ Alec looked up at the ceiling, sorting out ships, captains, and pilots. â€œWe wonâ€™t have enough. Not nearly enough. Pilots, not ships. Weâ€™ll need the right pilots to get us through. A lot of places we could probably make due, but youâ€™ve got to know the coast if youâ€™re going to try to land at Kaessekros. Thereâ€™re a few here and in a couple of other ports in Belgdstaet and Taulmeer, but not nearly enough.â€
â€œWe have all summer to get three thousand soldiers across before autumn.â€ Johanna lit her pipe from one of the candles on the table. â€œWe can do that, surely.â€
â€œThat number, in that time? Sure.â€ Alec pulled at his beard, taking in the new information, filtering it through what he knew of Cristobel and what he knew of Johanna. â€œAnd we can do it very, very quietly. Plenty of smugglers happy to take some ballast across on their runs.â€
Puffing on her pipe, Johanna returned to her chair. â€œYouâ€™ve figured out the plan.â€
â€œI think so.â€ Alec leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. â€œAnd I go across first. Just me. I want to meet the Old Baron at Kaessekros. I want to lay the groundwork.â€
â€œBut not for the Unicorn Banner.â€ Johanna watched him over her pipe. She knewâ€”better than anyoneâ€”what Alec had left behind. â€œLay the groundwork for you.â€
â€œFor what I need to do.â€ Alec frowned. â€œWhen King Denis betrays us, and he will, you and Cristobel can return here. Youâ€™ve a home of sorts in the East Kingdoms. Youâ€™ve got lives here. Once my feet touch that soil, Iâ€™m not coming back. Iâ€™m there. Breathing or buried, Iâ€™m there.â€
Johanna nodded, slowly. â€œAnd the Talons?â€
â€œYou know them.â€ Alec chuckled but it had no warmth, no humour. â€œWeâ€™ve done our time here. Weâ€™ve done all thatâ€™s been asked of us. Three hundred, now, Johanna. Three hundred experienced, blooded kerns, ready to kill and die for an idea instead of a person. No lord, no master, just a home they dearly want.â€
â€œI almost wish the Consorts blessing on the Surraeveans.â€ Johanna held up a finger. â€œAlmost.â€ She smiled, looking in to the glowing bowl of her pipe. â€œYouâ€™ll come across with me in a couple of days, once weâ€™ve seen the sealed contract.â€ She looked up at Alec. â€œYou and I, okay?â€
â€œYou and I.â€ Alec thought he might actually feel joy, real hope.
â€œAnd I know you will have . . . interests that must be addressed.â€ Leaning forward, she clutched his left forearm. â€œYou do what you need to do. You know I will watch your back. You know I am there for you. While you are there and breathing, I am there. Iâ€™m not leaving if you arenâ€™t leaving. Bury it all, but itâ€™s you and I.â€
And Alec knew she meant it. She always had. â€œThe heavens will shake.â€
Johanna winked. â€œWell, Kellalh will at least.â€
The Cyclops Banner: A Bloody Crown Chapter 4 available here.