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A Bloody Crown: Chapter 04

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The Cyclops Banner: A Bloody Crown available now as an e-book.

Working cover for the novel A Bloody Crown: a castle wall in darkness

You can find chapter 3 here.

Chapter 4: The Baron

The Month of the Dog, Talaymansday the Fifth.

Kaessekros on the Red Isles in Kellalh

The last time Alec Ulvarsson had stood in Kellalh, he watched a city burn. He had sailed away as flames consumed everything behind him. He had survived Surraev’s invasion, but his home had not. His friends had not. His father had not. Behind him, he had left a family. That still haunted him.

He could not surrender, not then and not now. He would not let Surraev win. Someday, somehow, he would beat them. Back there, on the mainland, more soldiers mustered. His Talons waited for the call. They knew very little, but they knew enough. They would be ready to sail, and would not expect to ever return to the East Kingdoms. The coin they got when they sailed would likely be the last coin they saw from Taulmeer and its king. They knew the game—get the mercenaries out of the country before disbanding them. Let them be someone else’s problem. They had all seen it before. Did they all suspect what that other country would be? He had. And none of them were stupid.

Perhaps he would lose them. Perhaps he would lose his Talons and the trust he had earned with the soldiers under the Unicorn Banner. Perhaps. He did not believe it. He knew they hungered for home as much as he had. He knew most of them wanted to join a fight that mattered. The coin mattered. Coin would always matter. That was just how the world worked. To many of them, coin wasn’t enough any longer. They wanted something more. They didn’t know what that was.

This was more. Their home. It could be theirs again.

He had never been to the Red Isles. In his youth, he knew of it as a remote place of fishermen and kerns. It had no wealth. When the armies of Surraev came, it didn’t matter that the Red Isles had no wealth. The Red Isles had stubborn warriors ready to die for their leaders. It had fast ships that destroyed everything arrayed against them. The southern part of the archipelago was in the Barony of Selcost. When Surraev came, Selcost had proved inaccessible and defiance counted for more than the depth of its purse.

Clustered around the docks, few of the buildings had even a second story. Having just come from a bustling port in the Unity, Kaessekros seemed open to the sky. It had space. Two carts could easily pass on the main road, with space for people besides. The walls of most of the single-story structures were stacked stone. Alec could discern no mortaring at all. It had been a long time since he had seen a building in the traditional Islander fashion. In his time, he had seen that kind of construction in more than a few locales in the north.

“Well, this is . . . different.” Johanna offered a smile.

Of course Johanna dressed like a Taulmeeran courtier. She also looked ready for business. Her arming sword hung from a worn and pedestrian baldric. On her right hip, she had her long Kadeteran dirk. Serpentine in appearance, it curved like a sliding snake. It hung from an expensive belt probably worth more than the boat that had brought them.

“Get used to it.” Alec scratched his left cheek, just below his eyepatch. The scar that ran from the brow above the patch to Alec’s jawline tingled. Annoying, insistent, it only added to his uneasiness. That had dogged him on the sea voyage from the continent. He looked back at the galley which had brought him across the sea. Did he see the far shore just at the horizon? No. The Cemetery Bar appeared from the docks like a shoreline. It was a sand bar just a hand or less out of the water and a hazard to all shipping. The Cemetary Bar protected Kaessekros from those unfamiliar with the area, and also helped to protect the port from the sea’s often savage weather.

Four fishermen carried their two chests. A silver Taulmeeran pistole each had secured their services and sickening deference. Wealth from the mainland probably reached the merchants who trafficked with the smugglers and pirates. It didn’t seem to have reached those who fished. Still, these four had strong backs and clean clothes. They did not suffer, and he doubted their children did either. Considering the kingdom lay under the boot of a conqueror, the village of Kassekros seemed to have survived and maybe prospered. That was impressive. Did they have the Old Baron to thank for that? Or should he have instead been thanking these people?

Sod and what looked like straw covered the roofs of most buildings. A few had tiles. Smoke drifted up from the multitude of chimneys. The smoke created a discoloured vault over the village. The tallest of the structures near the docks was built of mortared and cut stones. It had a roof of tile and two chimneys. Alec guessed that would be the Fish and Fiddle, the inn recommended to him. It also the only inn in Kaessekros.

The Old Baron’s fortress sat atop a cliff that dominated the shoreline. It lorded over the village. No surprise there. An attacking force would have a hard time approaching the walls. The ones they could hit from below, a large force couldn’t access.

Alec could imagine that Surraevean lords would consider the village primitive. To him, they looked sturdier and better maintained than he expected. Maybe the rumours exaggerated the barony’s poverty. Maybe being the last free Kellei province had proved profitable.

According to sources on the mainland, Argus Trevean—Baron Selcost—had once resided in the town of Torclach. That was further inland and had a larger population. Alec had heard that Torclach remained untouched by the Surraeveans. They had tried three times in the years following the invasion. Seeing Kaessekros, but he could understand why the Old Baron might have decided it was easier to defend. It might be little more than a fishing village, but Surraev’s navy had faced defeat every time it ventured into the Red Isles. The men of Selcost had much-deserved fame for their skill with the local galleys. The ship that had brought Johanna and he over was sleek, fast and maneuverable. One of those could be a warship one day, and merchant lighters the next. Whatever the need.

Alec pointed to the building he took to be the inn. “We’ll secure our lodgings then see if the Baron is as receptive to their offer as Taulmeer claims.”

“If it were me, and a Taulmeeran courtier came to offer to win me a war, I’d never believe it.” Johanna shrugged. “Come to think of it, if a Taulmeeran general did the same, I’d feel the same.”

“It wasn’t a Taulmeeran courtier, but I take your point.” Alec raised his eyebrows. “Do I need to mention that you’re wearing Taulmeeran fashion.”

Johanna tapped the side of her nose. “I’m not the one promising to win them their war. That’s you. And you more than look the part.”

He would lose the battle, and there was no shame in withdrawing. He let Johanna have the field.  Alec started forward toward the inn. They would get their rooms and then send a runner to announce their arrival to the Old Baron. Alec was prepared to play the game. The Old Baron would make them wait. He would establish his superiority. Alec would accept it. It cost him nothing. Then, when the Old Baron finally sent for them, the game would truly begin.

Alec could play at politics. He could perform its dances. He knew that music. But he didn’t like it. He didn’t excel at it, He usually left that to Cristobel. This time, on this campaign, he wanted to be in front. The two had talked, and Cristobel had agreed. Cristobel firmly believed Taulmeer would recall him before their work was done. King Denis would bore of the campaign. He would want to be active somewhere else. He would get loans to pay for a new army.

When Cristobel left, Alec would need to prosecute the campaign. And he needed to be ready for that. He needed to be the one in front. He needed to have influence. He needed to have trust. He needed that to push the campaign through to its conclusion.

The eyes on him brought him out of his thoughts. The residents of Kaessekros watched the two with poorly concealed interest. Alec wore a split-circle token as a broach. The Kellei in exile had adopted that symbol as a mark of their shared culture. It announced him as Kellei. It did nothing more to identify him.

Alec could have been a Kellei sailor. He could have been one of the pirates that frequented the docks. All anyone knew was that he marked himself as Kellei and had hired porters with Taulmeeran silver. The chests those porters bore, suggesting both wealth and the intent for more than a short visit.  

And then there was Johanna. She walked at his side. Some might mistake her for a young man, but other than her clothes, she made no attempt to hide her femininity. If nothing else, she would get tongues wagging. She always did.

The building Alec took to be the inn did not sit far from the docks. Before he reached it, he noticed two men approaching. The villagers glanced at the strangers but did not stare. These other two men had their gaze fixed on Alec. They wore swords. Their breastplates and greaves seemed cobbled together or repurposed from other, older sets.

Johanna touched Alec’s shoulder. “I would wager our lives are about to get more interesting.”

“I can’t argue with that observation.” Almost instinctively, Alec’s hand rested on the pommel of his sword.

Neither man looked more than a few years over two decades. Both had the stubble of heads shaved irregularly. One of them had dark stubble, the other a bit lighter. Their clothing marked them as Islanders: all dark, earth tones, their cloaks reaching almost to their ankles, their boots cross-gartered and reaching up to their knees. The taller of the two, the man with lighter stubble, appeared younger, and had only the wisp of a beard. A broadsword in a fine-looking scabbard hung from a thick baldric at his waist. The shorter of the two had a solid build, with no apparent fat on him. He carried a broad, half-moon bladed axe topping a pole almost as tall as him. He had a good beard of thick, dark hair.

Neither had tattoos. If they were kerns, they had seen no action. Could they be nobles? Some nobles followed the customs of kerns—at least outwardly. Perhaps Baron Dennethain sent them to intercept Alec. Or perhaps some local with swagger wanted to show how tough they were. Could it simply be someone trying to rob them ?

It didn’t matter. If they pushed it, it would go poorly for them.

Johanna’s hands hung loose at her sides. Alec knew that in an instant they could be filled with her sword and dirk. “Just for clarity, if something starts, do I kill them, break them, or just leave them questioning their life choices?”

In spite of himself, Alec almost smiled. “No killing. No blood-letting if you can help it.”

The two stopped four or five strides from Alec and Johanna. Alec and Johanna also stopped. Alec could feel Johanna watching him. He remained silent. That seemed to perplex the two men. The older, shorter of them stepped forward.

“You’re from Cristobel, the mercenary?”

Alec’s eyes narrowed. He tapped the guard of his straight-bladed single-edged broadsword with a finger. “And if I am?”

 The dark-haired man looked back at the taller, sandy-haired man. That one shrugged. The older turned back to Alec. “Just answer the question.”

Johanna stepped forward, her hands still nowhere near her weapons. That meant nothing. “Is this the welcome one receives in Selcost? For shame. To whom am I speaking?”

The younger man pointed at Johanna. “You’re not a guest yet, so you’d best tell us your names and your purpose. I don’t know if you’re his bodyguard or his jester, but if you play with us, you’d best be ready to bleed.”

Johanna burst out laughing. “Oh, that is rich.”

A scowl may have slightly altered Alec’s face. He gave no other reaction. “You’re welcome to try.”

He shouldn’t have said that. He didn’t regret doing so. There was no need to goad them. This wouldn’t help them in their task. Alec should have been far beyond proving anything to anyone. But he had decided to make a point. If the Old Baron wanted to test him, let him.

The two acted in the predictable manner. The sandy-haired one reached for his sword. The dark-haired one raised his axe. Johanna had the blades of both her sword and her dirk at the younger man’s throat before their weapon had left its scabbard. Alec had the tip of his blade resting just under the dark-haired man’s chin.

The older, dark-haired man’s eyes looked down at Alec’s sword. “Night’s Blood, but you are fast,”

“You were asked your names.” Alec allowed his sword’s point to press against the dark-haired man’s flesh. “Give her an answer. Or maybe we should just see who pays for the burial.”

“Take it easy.” The dark-haired one held his axe loosely. He gently push Alec’s blade away from his throat wit his other hand. “We’re retainers of the House of Trevean. I’m Domnall Padraig.” The dark-haired man nodded to the sandy-haired one. “That over there is my brother, Cormall.”

“Couldn’t you have led with that?” Alec took his sword away from Domnall’s throat.

Johanna lowered and sheathed her blades. “The two of you won’t live long playing games like that.”

Cormall laughed and offered Johanna his hand. “Fair enough. Welcome to Selcost and the Red Isles.”

Alec was already shaking the hand of the older man—Domnall. “Don’t hear much about the Padraigs these days. Would you be any relation to Gillas Padraig in Belgdstaet?”

Domnall nodded. “If you mean Gillas Padraig in Janssins, he’s our father.”

“And we almost ruined his day.” Johanna patted Cormall’s upper arm. “That would have made me so sad.

Alec touched his chest above his heart with his left hand. “I’m honestly pleased to meet you. Your father has been kind to many of Kellei who’re having it rough. He’s offered employment to men whom many would not. I saw him last two weeks ago, and he was in fine health and better spirits.”

Cormall lunged forward and embraced Alec. “Thank you.” He released Alec and took a step back. His face shone red. He couldn’t meet Alec’s eyes. “We rarely hear of him and hear even less from him.”

“He’s tried to avoid some of the less savory elements that ply the trade with Kaesskros, which means he rarely has a chance to send a letter or greetings.” Johanna offered a tight grimace rather than a smile. “It seems the trade is almost exclusively the unsavory.”

Cormall cleared his throat, tears evident in his eyes. “I know it. Well, I know it in my head. But my heart? It still worries me when we don’t hear from him often.”

“And it’s always said the Kellei think better with their hearts than their heads.” Domnall sketched a short bow to Alec.

“True.” Alec returned the short bow. “I’m Alec Ulvarsson. I’m a captain of the Free Company of the Unicorn Banner. I represent its captain-general, Cristobel vel Lupus, Count Terenquist.”

“And I am Johanna Gunter, captain-general of the Free Company of the Red Hawks, here also as a representative of Cristobel vel Lupus.”        

“We’ve been expecting you.” Cormall gestured further up the road, as though ushering them forward. “You are invited to stay in the castle.” He pointed to the cliff and its fortress, perched above the village. He turned to Johanna. “Both of you.”

Alec gestured to the inn with his thumb. “I was ready to enjoy a meal and a drink at the inn.”

Domnall looked away, the smile drained from his face. “I don’t want to impose on someone who has offered us a kindness, but we were told to bring you to the castle directly.”

“The Baron is known as a direct man.” He inhaled through his nose, deeply. He projected it so the two would hear it. They would hear him thinking. They would hear him deciding. “I should’ve known I wouldn’t wait long.” Alec gestured along the road. “Let’s go.”

Neither of the two commented on Alec’s characterization of the Old Baron. They set off, Cormall gesturing to the porters to follow.

Domnall and Cormall stayed a few strides ahead of Alec and Johanna. They conferred quietly. Cormall often looked back. Alec could have interrupted them. He thought better of it. Why create friction when he need not? He wouldn’t be negotiating with these two. Let them have their gossip. Johanna glanced at him sidelong. Alec offered nothing by twisting his hands to show his open palms.

I don’t know. Let’s see what transpires.

Alec considered the fortress as they approached. Atop a sheer cliff, it offered only one access on the landward side. The closer one came, the narrower the trail. One could not call it a road, though it had wheel ruts suggesting regular traffic.

The fortress had a large gatehouse and stout towers at each corner. Its fortifications stretched to the very edge of the incline. Even if one climbed the cliff face, you’d be faced with a wall. Its height protected it further. No point within arrow or cannon shot overlooked the fortress.

Men patrolled the walls. Four men armed with swords and spears stood just inside the gatehouse. They wore a mixture of hardened leather and metal plate as armour. They saluted the approaching group.

At a signal from Domnall, the porters deposited the chests. With muttered thanks, and quick glances at Alec, the porters left. They scurried back to the village in a whispering huddle. The gate opened. Domnall and Cormall ushered Alec and Johanna in.

“They’ll take your chests to the room . . . well, rooms prepared for you.” Domnall gestured to the tall tower that overshadowed the rest of the fortress. “But you’re expected in the great hall.”

Alec counted almost as many buildings inside the walls of the castle as in the village. These were of better quality. The two brothers led them toward a tall tower on the seaward wall. It seemed a castle in its own right. It would be the keep, the centre for the castle. Stables, smithies, barracks, and warehouses nestled around the keep. It had everything needed to survive through a siege. But Alec wondered what they would do for water. At this height, atop solid rock, they couldn’t have a well. Could they? Stored water wouldn’t suffice in a real siege and one couldn’t count on rain.

Soldiers and regular townspeople mingled within the walls of the castle. While many carried weapons and wore armor, many others carried tools.

As they entered the keep, Alec noted a recess in which the portcullis rested. The great, wood door, banded and studded with iron, sat open. A single soldier stood within it. He nodded to Domnall with a faint smile. That vanished as he considered Alec and Johanna.

They quickly reached a set of double doors which Domnall opened. The room beyond had a stairs leading down to the floor. A ledge, wide enough to walk along, bordered the room. A large oak table dominated the centre of the room. Chairs surrounded it. Fires burned in hearths along the wall flanking the large table. Tapestries covered the walls. Alec didn’t recognize the scenes. He guessed these would be the heroes of the House of Trevean. Trevean had led a revolt against a king over a hundred ago. Alec wondered if scenes of that were on the tapestries.

A woman sat at the great chair at the head of the table. She had her auburn hair pulled back from her face. She had emerald, penetrating eyes. They bore into him. A sword on a baldric hung from the chair. Alec assumed it was hers. She wore utilitarian clothing. Alec couldn’t tell if she had a skirt or pants. He would bet pants.

He had heard of Rhona Trevean back on the mainland. She had never wed. Stories spoke of her beating suitors senseless. He couldn’t see her arms. The sleeves of her tunic were fashionably long. Still, she had broad shoulders. He doubted her scarred hands would do a good turn at embroidery.

A man at least a decade her junior stood to her right. He had a spare frame with a flat nose, deep set eyes, and all but bloodless lips. He matched Baron Dennethain’s description of Raendulf, the factor. The Baron Dennethain had said the factor ruled in the place of the sick master. An idiot. The factor remained a factor. Alec would be dealing with Trevean’s blood.

Behind the great chair stood a man composed entirely of corded muscle. He didn’t have heft, but Alec wouldn’t want to face him in a fight. Shaved bald, his plaited, full beard was shot through with gray. His bare arms showed many blue tattoos. This was a kern of long service and probably the chief retainer. He wore utilitarian clothes. Those were clean and of obvious quality.

All this and his easy posture made Alec think he was a trusted advisor.

The person just inside the door barred Alec and Johanna from moving into the room. His shaved head, scarred visage, and tattooed arms made Alec think he was a kern. His clothes and his sword spoke of some wealth. Could he be another senior retainer?

“I am Glamorgall, Thane of Lanshiel, sworn to House Trevean.” That was it. A lesser noble. “You are welcome in this hall.” The man spoke with a rough lilt Alec didn’t recognize. He had never really known the Red Isles well. “I don’t know of your birth, but you’ll be civil or you’ll answer to me.”

“I’m called Alec Ulvarsson.” He held Glamorgall’s gaze in his own. You don’t intimidate me.  â€œI’m here to negotiate. I’ll do my best to honour your lord’s hall.” Alec noted the man glance to the woman in the great chair when he mentioned ‘your lord.’

Glamorgall nodded. “And your retainer?”

“I am Johanna Gunter, captain-general of the Free Company of the Red Hawks.” Johanna sketched a bow that would have put Taulmeeran royalty to shame.

Glamorgall grunted. “Captain, eh?”

Johanna offered him a sweet smile that did nothing to hide its promise of steel. “As much a captain as your lady.”

Glamorgall’s eyes grew wide and his face opened. For a heartbeat, he hid nothing. That heartbeat passed. His face and eyes grew hard again. Nodding, he turned to lead Alec and Johanna into the hall. Alec glanced at Johanna who put her hand to her throat. Someone was dead. The Old Baron?

Just as they reached the table, they halted. Glamorgall held out his arm to stop Alec’s advance. “Far enough.” He turned to Rhona Trevean. “My lord of Selcost: I present Alec Ulvarsson, late of Taulmeer and here at their bidding. With him is Johanna Gunter, captain-general of the Company of the Red Hawks.”

Alec offered a quick bow. “Lord, I thank you for seeing me.”

Rhona Trevean rose. She did indeed wear pants. She walked toward the group, holding out her hand. “And I have heard much about the exploits of your company.” Alec took her hand. Good grip. “I did not expect that a count of Taulmeer would have a kern retainer. I must admit to curiosity.”

“I was a kern in the service of Kellei lord during the invasion.” He released her hand. He tried to soften his face. He knew he scowled. He didn’t like this. “I don’t deserve that title any more.” Alec looked to Glamorgall and then to the unnamed kern retainer who still stood behind the great chair. “I did not give my life for my lord. He proved unworthy of it. I didn’t grieve when he fell. He and his lost Kellalh. They left a lot of us without a life.”

The steel in Rhona’s eyes dimmed for a moment. Alec thought he could see real tenderness in them. Could she understand? She looked back at her own retainer for a moment. Her gaze returned to Alec. She offered him a wan smile. “We carry loss as a load that can make us stronger.” She opened her mouth, perhaps to say more, but then closed it again. After releasing Alec’s hand, she turned to Johanna. “A captain? Truly?”

“I am, milady . . . my lord.” Johanna offered another of her exceptional bows before grasping hands with Rhona. “My company is small, but we will soon have a reputation to rival that of the Unicorn Banner.”

“Then I am in illustrious company.” Rhona gestured to the table as she moved to retake her seat.

“I would say the same.” Alec did not take a seat. “I am honoured to have met you, but it’s your father I’m here to see. The Taulmeeran envoy told me he was ill. I would at least like to pay my respects.”

That moment revealed the difference between the factor and the daughter. Doing business required deception. Even without dishonesty, you’d hide your true thoughts. The factor remained impassive. The daughter didn’t have his skill. For a moment, only a moment, those eyes went from cold and intent to surprised. Maybe even anxious? But that was only a moment. Her eyes moved from hawk to prey and then back. At his side Johanna cleared her throat.

The Old Baron.

“But I won’t be able to, will I.” He nodded to Glamorgall. “Does he know? Do any of them?”

The daughter tilted her head down. She glared at him over her nose. It didn’t suit her. Alec imagined she had seen someone—her father?—use that for intimidation. “Goodman Alec . . .”

“I’m a captain. I’m a soldier” He crossed his arms as he watched her. “I’m not a good man. I’m a competent man. Maybe a capable man. Call me captain or call me Alec, I don’t care. Call me Alasdair if that suits you. It’s the name of my birth. I’ll be honest with you and I ask for honesty in return. If we start off with falsehoods, we’ll never trust each other.”

Alec knew people. To lead, you needed to understand the people you led. As a mercenary, you needed to understand your paymaster. You needed to know when they were about to betray you. To survive, a mercenary needed to read the lie in the paymaster’s eyes and face.

All he had learned of Baron Trevean made him want to like the man before meeting him. The little he had seen of his daughter made him hope that the apple did not fall far from the tree. She would appreciate honesty. He thought she would reward it with the same. Audacity had been one of his tools as captain of the Talons. He decided to deploy it again.

Gesturing for Johanna to remain where she stood, Alec took a step forward. Glamorgall did not try to stop him. “I’m going to give you more truth: I came here as a soldier. If I came here as a mercenary, I’d be trying to figure out how long before you betrayed me. I’d spend more time on that than on figuring out how to win your war. But I’m here as a soldier so I only need to worry about the war. Maybe you don’t care. Maybe you don’t see the difference. It’s there and it’s important.”

Alec moved slowly to stand behind a chair at the table. He put his hands on it. “Taulmeeran coin could bring a lot of men here, yes. They’ve agreed to send over two entire companies. They’ve promised to pay for seven thousand. If that’s what you want, I will make it happen. That’s not what I’m here to offer. Right now, I’m here to offer you a thousand soldiers. They come with their arms. Johanna can offer you a thousand more. That’s what we offer: two thousand.

He saw she was seeing it. She was calculating. She understood his point. He leaned forward. “You can have your seven thousand, but can you pay them? “He pointed to the west, across the Small Sea. “Taulmeer will stop their pay the moment they are out of Taulmeer. It’d then be your problem. You’d send messages to the king in Aneros asking about the money. At first, they’d send excuses. Then, when you get really desperate, they’d just ignore you. And then it really would be a problem. All those under the Unicorn Banner are competent. They are some of the best mercenaries in the East Kingdoms. Right now, no one can beat them. That’s a lot of good mercenaries. There’s only a few good soldiers. A lot of the good soldiers come from this land. They’ve got Kellei blood. They want to see their homes again. I don’t want the mercenaries. I want the good soldiers who love Kellalh.”

His eyes moved from Rhona, to the factor, to the retainer then back to Rhona. “Let me leave the mercenaries for Taulmeer to think about. That’s what I’m asking you to do today.”

Trevean took a deep breath. She didn’t look to her factor. She didn’t look to her captains. She gestured to the seat to her right. “Please, captain, let’s talk about this.”

Alec slid off his own baldric and hung it from the chair. Johanna took the seat beside him. Rhona introduced them to Raendulf—whose identity Alec had guessed. The chief retainer was named Mordwech. They all sat. With a bow to Rhona, Glamorgall left. He studiously ignoring Alec and Johanna.

Rhona spoke first, balling up her fists. “As you guessed, my father has died.”

“My condolences. I didn’t know him. “Alec searched for the right words. Be direct. Be honest. “I believe he was a good man. All Kellei will miss him, here and on the mainland. He gave them hope.”

She turned back to him. The grin on her face was obviously forced. He didn’t feel it. “Now we must.”

“That’s why I’m here,” Alec said.

“But your contract is not with us.” Raendulf rested his chin on his hand, his elbow on the table. “The contract, I have learned, is with the head of the court in exile, one who fashions himself the King of Kellalh, backed by Taulmeer’s wealth. Where does that leave us?”

“Yeah, the contracts are with the so-called king.” Alec sat rigid, his gaze moving between the three others opposite him at the table. He wanted to include them all in the conversation. “I am Cristobel’s man while he fights in Kellalh against Surraev. Cristobel sees his contract as being with Taulmeer. Taulmeer’s coin won’t last. A year, maybe. After that, King Denis will call Cristobel home. Cristobel wrote the contract knowing the king. Maybe just knowing kings. Those kings won’t honour it. And then it will be us. It will be me and my soldiers. They’ll be coming for the chance to fight for Kellalh,”

Alec paused. Silence. He decided to push forward, to drive the sword home. “Everything I’ve heard from people made me think your father was a leader I could support. I came here for him. I am here before Cristobel to see if we could win this war together. Could we win it on our own terms. I’m not here as a mercenary. This is no land for a mercenary. There’s no profit here. I’m here as a son of Kellalh. I’m here as a soldier. Maybe I’m here as a kern. I’m not here for pay. None of those I lead will come for pay. They’ll come for something else. They’ll come for Kellalh, yeah. But maybe we can offer something more.”

Rhona melted back into her chair. Disappointment hovering on the edge of her words. He could see her jaw tighten. “Any promise of land would be hollow. If you want a title, you can have a title, but it will be meaningless. Let the pretender give you whatever he wants to give you. Surraev will make a mockery of any claim. The two thousand men that you offer won’t be able to stand against the ten thousand Surraev can bring north.”

Johanna waved off the comment. “Once the Unicorn Banner is planted on Kellalh, Surraev will bring more than ten thousand, I assure you.”

“More than ten thousand?” Mordwech rubbed his eyes. “The Halo’d One’s cold hands.”

“I wouldn’t come here if I didn’t intend to win this war.” Alec held Rhona’s eyes in his own, willing her to listen. Demanding her belief. ” I come here to push out Surraev. I know what we face. The two thousand soldiers we bring will not be our army. The thousand from the Unicorn Banner will come to train our army. And they’ll lead it in the field. It will be enough. Surraev can put no more than twenty-five thousand men into the field by next summer.

“If they march now, from their castles in Newtown and Caerthual, they can put together maybe six thousand,” Johanna said. “Seven thousand at the most. But that would leave those castles vulnerable.”

Alec followed on immediately. “We can have an army that can beat them. Our army will be smaller, but that doesn’t matter. We’ve beat armies of Surraev when they have outnumbered us. I know how they fight. I know their strengths and their weaknesses. I know what our strengths will be. I know our weaknesses. We’ll build ourselves an army to beat Surraev. We do that, and we’ll get even more into the field. By the following summer, we’ll double our numbers. And we’ll have a core of blooded veterans.”

Mordwech’s eyes narrowed. “You’re deluded. Where would you find even five hundred soldiers in Kellalh?”

Alex shook his head. “We won’t find five hundred soldiers. We will train fifteen thousand. Fifteen thousand young men ready to fight Surraev? That won’t be a problem. I’m bringing over a thousand Kellei who marched in an army that has beaten Surraev. I’m bringing over a thousand professional soldiers, ready to train more. We have a bunch of young people here who want to push the Surraeveans out. We put those two together and we’ll have our army.”

“Where would this happen?” Mordwech opened his arms in an expansive gesture. “We haven’t the food or the roofs in Selcost for so many.”

“Do you think that because we’ve been in the East Kingdoms all these years we forget our homes?” Alex jabbed the table with this finger for emphasis. “We haven’t. Let me bring over my thousand. They’ll travel to their homes. They’ll do it quietly, each on their own. They have some coins in their pockets. They have war stories to share. They have a fire in them that will spread. They’ll find some young people ready to fight Surraev. Some of them will want glory. Some of them will want wealth. It doesn’t matter. They’ll find people who want to fight.”

Raendulf held up his hand. “But the Taulmeeran coin will end once your mercenaries . . .” He dipped his head before correcting himself. “Your soldiers. Pardon. Once your soldiers have left Taulmeer, the coin will stop.”

“Yes, once the Unicorn Banner has transported all its army into Kellalh, the pay will probably stop.” Alec held his fists together, his arms flat on the table before him, tense. “But the mercenaries are not coming to Kellalh. I’m not saying bring seven thousand. I’m saying bring two thousand. Only the soldiers. They’ll take what coin they can and come. We’ll leave the others in Taulmeer. They’ll be Taulmeer’s problem.”

Mordwech rubbed his chin, tilting back his head. “And when the Taulmeeran crown complains?”

“They’ll send messages to which we’ll reply with excuses.” Rhona straightened in her chair, a smile touching her lips. “When they get desperate, we’ll ignore them.”

Alec touched his nose then pointed to her.

She rose and gestured to the empty table. “Would you like a drink?”

“I would kill for one.” Alec grimaced. “Given my occupation, that’s a pretty honest statement.”

Raendulf touched Rhona’s shoulder and glanced at her chair. She nodded and sat. Alec caught the calculating look Raendulf cast at him before he turned to call for food and drink.

“It still won’t gain us much time,” Alec said. “The plan is for Cristobel to come. He’s the leader. He’s my leader. He knows the plan. That means he’ll need to be careful with King Denis. Everyone will see that thousands of the two companies are still in Taulmeer. I don’t think King Denis wants to lose Cristobel. He wants to end his contract with the Unicorn Banner and the Red Hawks, but that’s all. He wants to keep Cristobel close. That will give us time. Cristobel has factors and advocates. They’ll deal with the Taulmeeran court while Cristobel is here. It won’t be easy. At some point, Cristobel will need to abandon Kellalh. He has lands and title in Taulmeer. He needs to stay in King Denis’ good graces. That won’t matter. We’ll have built our army.”

Rhona relaxed in her chair, a leg tucked against one of the armrests. “So, unlike you, the captain-general of the Unicorn Banner is indeed a tool of Taulmeer?”

Alec rose slightly from his chair to take a cup passed to him by Raendulf. “Cristobel is no tool. Not for anyone. But he has King Denis’ favour. Cristobel has wealth in Taulmeer. Maybe he’s found a home. He’ll do this out of loyalty to me and Johanna. But that only goes so far. For him, this is a contract.”

Mordwech had the pitcher of strong Kellei ale and poured himself a cup. “And he’s ready to betray us when his king tells him to?”

“He’s not going to betray us.” Alec held out his cup as Mordwech poured. “I’m not going to ask him to abandon what he’s built for himself. I’m loyal to him. He’s my friend. And this is not his home. He might speak perfect Kellei, but he’s not from here.  And don’t ask me where he’s from. It doesn’t matter.”

Johanna held up her cup. That drew attention to her. “He’ll sometimes say he’s from the Belgdstaet Unity. Another time I heard him claim he was from Kadetra.” She winked to Rhona. “When you see him, ask him. I’d be interested to hear what he’ll tell you.”

“All that matters is that he’s the best commander in the East Kingdoms.” Alec strained forward. “He’s as good at politics as he is at strategy. Maybe King Denis understands that. Maybe he doesn’t. I don’t know. I do know that the king really like Cristobel. I think maybe he admires him. We hope that will work in our favour. It might give us more time.”

“And when his king tells him to return to Taulmeer.” Rhona did not need to voice the implication.

Johanna shook her head. “It’s not like that. Cristobel is more loyal to his people that to his paymaster. He knows Alec’s plan. He knows my intention. He will give us everything he can, prepare us as best he can for victory, and he will leave us with what he can before he departs. He won’t betray us, and he knows we won’t betray him. Like Alec said: this is not his war except as a matter of business.”

“And you?” Raendulf watched Johanna as Mordwech filled his cup. “You are not Kellei.”

“I’ve made my decision for my reasons.” Johanna smiled and leaned back in her chair, her volley delivered. “I’m here to see this through.”

Raendulf had a full cup in his hand but he had not drank. “If we accept your two thousand, how soon can they come? Will the Surraeveans not learn of it? Will they not react?”

Alec shrugged. “Perhaps. If they do, we may face an early fight. We will do what we can. A fight before we can really prepare is a risk. If we have to take the field early, we need to get Johanna’s Red Hawks over. We will need their crossbows. If we aren’t forced, they would come last.

“Listen, most of the Hawks we bring over aren’t Kellei, and they won’t be as motivated or forgiving of payment difficulties as Alec’s crew.” Johanna crossed her arms and her eyes moved among the participants. “I’ve carefully selected the troops we’ll bring over. While I’m here with them, they’ll hold. They might complain, but they’ll stick with me. And I’m not leaving until Alec tells me to.”

Raendulf touched his cup—held in his right hand—to his chest. “Then on that, at least, my mind is at ease. But what of the king?”

Alec took a deep breath before charging in. “The king of Taulmeer has accepted Dunstan Destansson as King of Kellalh. We can thank the “court in exile” for that. I’m not saying you have to accept him. If you don’t, that court of vultures will do everything they can to start a civil war. That might happen before we ever fight Surraev. They won’t win a fight, not against us. King Denis has spent all he’s willing to spend. If the court can’t get more money, they won’t be able to field much of an army. That won’t matter. It’s a distraction, but it’ll cost us time. It’ll probably cost us recruits. Whoever wins will have less in the field when Surraev comes north again. That’ll hurt us.”

Rhona released a long breath through her nose. “I honestly don’t care who wants to be king. There is not a one of them that I would trust.”

“Accepting Dunstan will make this easier.” Alec frowned slightly. He took out a parchment, tightly rolled. He handed it to Rhona. “This is Cristobel’s contract with the Taulmeeran king. I’m giving it to you now because I’m ready to fight with you and for you. But there is one reward the king offered—unhappy though it made him—that you will also need to accept.”

Rhona took the parchment, loosened the tie, and began to unroll it.

“Kellalh will have a king, and we have agreed it will be Dunstan Destansson, but the nation needs something more.” Now he focused on Rhona. He needed to see her reaction clearly. He needed to read her soul. “I’m here because there are no serfs in Selcost. I’m here because House Trevean fought the crown to free its people. I like that. I want to do that for Kellalh. I want to make our home better. I think your father could have helped with that. Can you?”

The Cyclops Banner: A Bloody Crown Chapter 5 available here.