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A Bloody Crown Chapter 07

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

You can find chapter 6 here.

The cover for the novel A Bloody Crown, first in the series The Cyclops Banner. It shows a castle in darkness with some mist.

Chapter 7: The Count of Aedeltor

The Month of the Archer, Moransday the Fourth.

Bereburh, Kellalh Borders, occupied by Surraev

Count Caris Langleth of Aedeltor sat astride his warhorse, the great beast Hilde, who Caris had won on campaign in Taulmeer. He wore his parade armour—he had wealth enough to afford such—and held the position as head of the honour guard. Off in the distance, he could see the clouds of dust lifted by the approaching army. The new governor of Kellalh came that day, and as the Master of Horse—the military commander for Kellalh—Caris had the duty to greet him.

His two most trusted lieutenants flanked him—for the moment out of their proper position at his back. He had served with both Sir Herres of Terumsare and Sir Adred of Penhalm most recently in Taulmeer. Neither had lands or independent wealth. They owned the armor on their backs, the swords at their sides, their mounts, and tack and harness, but little else. The wars of the former king had enriched those landless knights willing to sell their swords to the crown, but it had not gained them property or titles. The adventures in Taulmeer had created a large force of these men-at-arms, and two of the finest stood with Caris.

A man of medium height, Herres of Terumsare had begun to lose his soldier’s fit appearance. Herres’s tendency to lead his troops from the front during the campaigns in Taulmeer had allowed him to maintain a powerful, compact build. He had lived with his soldiers, like a soldier. Since returning to Surraev, though, he had added to the flesh he carried. A face that Caris had considered sharp, almost hawkish, now looked rather full. Herres had his naturally fair and thin hair shorn so close it disappeared against his scalp, making him appear bald. His eyes shone with the intent intelligence Caris had noted at their first meeting.

Adred of Penhalm had the vanity and youth Herres had discarded. More fashionable than most courtiers, Adred regularly dressed as though he attended a formal function. He wore his long dark hair in a single braid at his back that almost reached his waist. The lids of his languid, bright green eyes always appeared half-closed. His skin seemed untouched by the sun, and he often wore make-up to accentuate his pale complexion. Adred had led his first company at twenty-one, and could claim the rank of captain in six campaigns. Few men three times his age could say the same.

Adred fidgeted with the belt from which his sword hung. “There’s rumours King Erdred sent a spy to Bereburh.”

Caris considered Adred, then his eyes drifted to Herres. “A spy?”

Herres offered an exaggerated shrug, shifting his armour enough to be noticed. “Well, if the king is spying on us, he should be happy with what he hears.”

Caris released a long, low sigh. “Yes. His coffers are filling fast enough.”

“From the Kellei Borders, yes, but not from the south,” Adred said. “Not from the Islands. Would that be what worries him?”

Caris gently rubbed his brow right above his eyes with one hand. “Seven months with no taxes from the Islands and most of the south, yet the accounts for Kellalh look fuller than ever before. It just proves that trying to collect outside of the areas over which we have undisputed control was more costly than profitable.”

“It’s not profit that motivates the king.” Herres crossed his arms. “It’s about control.”

“Control is fine, and I’ll give him his control, but not through taxation.” Caris watched that approaching cloud, thinking of the governor who approached with it. “There’s only one real problem in Kellalh, and it’s centred in the Red Isles. Strangling every other province and fief doesn’t help with that.”

Adred let out a sharp bark of a laugh. “I thought the Baron posed no threat. Isn’t that what they told old King Eldwin?”

Caris scoffed. “And he believed them. All’s the more surprising. Eldwin was a soldier as well as a king. He should have recognized that a revolt against the Crown’s authority that goes on for fifteen years is a threat as great as any army from Taulmeer.”

“Well, it seems our new king has decided as much.” Herres gestured to the cloud that marked the approaching army. “I hadn’t expected he would.”

Caris craned his neck to consider Herres. “He didn’t decide as much. You can thank some of the royal councillors for this. Seems they expect war with Taulmeer again, and soon. Perhaps even the Holy League of the Hanrioch. And there are plenty in the royal court who understand that Taulmeer could land troops along much of the Kellei coast and we’d be none the wiser. Such an army might start an insurrection a damn sight more impressive than this Kellei Baron.”

Adred picked something from his breastplate and considered it with annoyance. “War with Taulmeer, again? And we’ll be stuck here?”

“Not for long. ” Caris held up his hand to stall the retorts he could feel brewing. “We will be marching soon, and we should be able to remove the baron within a single campaigning season. We’ll probably need another to properly subdue the Islands, but that’s to be seen. There will always be another war with Taulmeer.”

“Well, before we can start making plans for that, we have to implement our plans here,” Adred said. “I don’t like what I’ve heard about Tresham of Sheleburn. He sounds like an arrogant courtier.”

“He will have authority over the rest of the province,” Caris said, “But I still have command of the campaign. I have it under the king’s seal. Old or new king, that doesn’t matter.”

Herres put his hands on his chest, then on his face, mimicking prayer. “I have asked the Blessed Ones often to explain how Earl Yaimes of Sheleburn got a military governorship.” With a smile, he looked at Caris. “As yet, no answer.”

“Ability or arrogance aside, he should be arriving soon.” Caris looked up at the sun. “Before midday likely. We need to show him due deference. Perhaps we can lull him into a sense of security with some food and also feed him our plans at the same time. If we can win him over to our side so that he leaves us to prosecute our campaign, he can do what he likes and I will not care.”

Adred tapped on his chin with a finger. “And what if he doesn’t like our plans? I mean, he’s not a military man, but he may have ideas of his own. Or the king may have shared some thoughts with him.”

Caris’ eyes again moved to the approaching dust cloud, inexorable as it was slow. “The expenditures for this campaign will be less than most military governors spend on their wine. I’ve already contracted for the supplies and I’ve gathered the ships to bring them to us. I’ve assembled my men here. All this from the king’s wardrobe accounts and under the royal seal. It won’t take money from the governor’s revenues and doesn’t need to be approved by the Assembly.”

Herres’ eye lost focus as he looked to the Porter’s Gate, the main gate into Bereburh, now lined with an honour guard. “You know that some of the money to house the troops and drive the campaign forward comes from his accounts. It’s a trifling amount, but I’ve seen families go to war over less.”

“I’ve used that money out of necessity,” Caris said. “I will be plain with him. We can treat it as a loan. If you have not heard already, my commission included a monopoly on the Bereburh customs for five years on successful prosecution of the campaign.”

“And with Kellalh pacified, the value of that will increase.” Herre’s eyebrows rose. “Well played.”

“Not a play,” Caris said. “It was the old king. He always sought to provide an incentive.”

“Let us hope the new king does as well.” Adred polished a spot on his armour with a monogramed, lace-edged handkerchief. “He’s said to have a short memory, so our previous service in Taulmeer is likely all but forgotten. To receive good commissions in the next war, we will need to succeed in Kellalh—spectacularly.”

“As long as Tresham is interested in properly securing Kellalh, we’ll all be fine.” Caris wondered at his own words. Would they really all be fine? “If he wants an easy assignment, hosting games and masquerades, he can step aside and let us do what must be done. He can have all the credit, as long as we get our commissions in Taulmeer.”

That made Herres shake his head. “You forget what these courtiers can be like. Too many of them think of us in the profession of arms as ignorant thugs. It’s easy for them to disregard any advice we offer. He can rightly argue that he has military authority in the province, and he may seek his own campaign. Other than your personal retinue, he can commandeer the assembled army. Who can say what he plans?”

Caris opened his mouth to speak, but the bells of the Porters’ Gate interrupted him. He rose slightly in his saddle to look down the road. Coming into view, well ahead of the cloud that tracked the army, came a slow-moving group of horse and foot, bearing many flags and banners.

Adred let out a grunt of surprise. “He’s early.”

Earl Yaimes Tresham of Sheleburn and his group presented quite a procession as they rode along the road that led from Newtown in Surraev, to Bereburh in what had been Kellalh. A herald carried the Earl’s banner at the head of a twenty-man bodyguard. In the center of the bodyguard, the earl sat on what appeared to be a throne atop a drey. Caris couldn’t imagine soldiers would carry a drey. Who would the earl have bearing him? Prisoners of war or debtors, perhaps? They could not have carried him all the way from Newtown, could they have? The earl wore highly stylized, artistic armor, and held a white baton in his right hand.

Herres coughed to the side, hiding laughter. “Looks like a damned statue to some pagan war-god.”

“Well, we can guess that he considers himself quite the military man,” Caris said. “Let’s not insult him. With the proper treatment, we might be able to win him over.”

“Well, I won’t put coin on that.” Adred stowed the handkerchief he had used to polish his armour. “I will use my finest manners, but that outfit . . .”

     Caris raised his hand only hip high, but it was enough, and Adred feel silent. Then Adred and Herres backed their horses into their proper positions, and waited. Caris could hear the murmur from the honour guard. They were his men, soldiers who had been with him through the Taulmeeran campaigns, who he had adopted into his household retinue. He turned in his saddle to survey them. They fell silent, faces impassive, eyes forward, backs straight.

As the procession approached, Caris became very aware of his heart’s beating. It pounded in his chest as he sought to calm it through focused breathing. How many battlefields had he stood on? How many times had he faced the real possibility of death? Why was it that encounters like this continued to terrify him?

Breath Caris, he told himself. Breath. Focus. This is momentary. Get through it.

The herald passed, not a moment of interest in the three. The bodyguard passed, exhibiting the same lack of interest. Finally, Tresham on his drey was abreast and the procession halted. The bearers—there were eight of them, but they looked far too spindly to be carrying a man in armour—slowly lowered the drey, and Tresham stood up. As he did, Caris rose in his stirrups and offered a bow. As he couldn’t see them, he had to assume Adred and Herres did the same. He prayed they did.

“Welcome to Bereburh, Earl Tresham.” Caris attempted to inject deference into his voice, but found that a difficult task.

Tresham stepped off the drey. He had a thin face and thin lips. His cheeks looked sunken and his hair unnaturally light. He had dark eyes that drilled into Caris. “You do not deign to offer me proper greeting but remain on your horses?”

Caris’ heart began beating faster. “It is a traditional greeting for a military governor—”

Tresham waved off the response. “It’s a slight and we both know it. You don’t think of me as a military leader. You think of me as a courtier, a perfumed noble who flatters and preens. Is that not so?”

Caris dismounted and offered Tresham a deeper bow. “No slight was intended. You have come as the military governor. We sought to provide you respect as such in the manner military governors traditionally receive it.”

“So you say.” Tresham’s eyes wandered over the three then moved on to the honour guard. “I am told you have eight hundred horse, and five thousand foot including a thousand archers, and five good field pieces. Is that true?”

“It is, milord.” Caris did not like where this was going.

Tresham gestured to the fifty-man honour guard flanking the road leading to Porter’s Gate. “But this is what I am greeted with. The slight is obvious.”

Caris had absolutely no idea how to salvage the meeting, if it could be salvaged. “Milord, these are my finest soldiers. I personally selected them in tribute to you.”

“This number? What, maybe fifty?” Tresham sniffed. “Is it traditional to offer such a sparse honour to a military governor?”

“I have always considered quality to be more important than quantity, milord.” Caris knew he was sinking, but he could not seek advice or even support. He had no choice but try to swim.

“And there it is.” Tresham jabbed a finger at Caris. “You impugn my quality.”

Caris’ mind went blank for a moment. He knew his mouth hung open, his eyes wide, but he could not understand what had happened. How had he offended? “That was not my—”

“Don’t bandy words with me, count.” Tresham filled Caris’ noble title with venom and condescension. “I know your type. You soldiers are all alike—arrogant and spiteful. You may be a count, but that is a commission from the king. Your blood is as common as these ruffians you employ.”

And that was too much. Caris leaned forward, his hand balled into fists at his side, his face no more than hand’s width from the Earl. He no longer cared whose ear the annoying popinjay had. “I don’t give a fig for your nobility or your blood. I have earned the right to lead troops in fifteen campaigns.”

“You are as much a mercenary as any of these criminals you call troops. Perhaps I shall have to replace you. I have brought many able men with me.”

At that, Caris grimaced. He nodded. “Let’s be frank. I know that you now command Kellalh. You know that the king, in council, commissioned me to undertake this campaign. My orders are specific. Allow me to carry them out, and we shall have no reason to quarrel.”

“I intend to see that your orders are carried out, Count Caris Langleth of Aedeltor.” Tresham reached back with an open hand. Caris noted he had no gauntlets, but wore velvet gloves. A young man dressed like a scholar from a university—a fur-collared robe over his tunic and breeches, and a burgher’s cap on his head—handed Tresham a parchment. Without considering it, Tresham thrust it at Caris, who took it. “I am here to quell the rebellion in Kellalh. I have brought some troops and supplies to supplement those you have assembled here. I am sure your talents will not be taxed ensuring the security of Bereburh. You will not interfere with my hunt. Those are your orders now.”

Caris broke the Royal Seal and read his new commission. He still had military control, but under the guidance of the governor, Earl Yaimes Tresham of Sheleburn. He had lost the war before he even came to grips with the enemy. “Have you been fully briefed on the threat from the rebels?”

Tresham considered his gloves, not bothering to look at Caris. “I have spoken with the last governor at length. I am quite aware of the situation and the necessity to remedy it. I have come prepared to do that.”

“Milord, whatever your thoughts of me, please listen.” Caris knew the battle was lost, but he was not one to leave the field when his men remained at risk. “It is not Kellalh that is the problem. It is the Islands and the Barony of Selcost. The last governor exacerbated an already volatile situation by removing Kellei from fiefs in the Borders and into the High Moors, he created resistance where none had existed before. The insurrection was very localized, and if we—”

Tresham laughed, slowly peeling off his gloves. “You thought him an idiot? You thought him incapable? And what have you accomplished? In the nine months that you have held this post, the rebels have run free. You have collected no taxes in the—what do you call it . . . the High Moors? No taxes in the last seven months. You have apparently granted amnesty to the enemies of the Crown.”

“There have been close to no taxes tithed from the High Moors and the Islands in almost ten years.” Caris spoke with deliberate calm. His enemy had baited him, and in anger he had taken the field unprepared. He had put his force at risk with his folly. He needed to regroup, reassess, and if at all possible, withdraw. “The loss in manpower did not justify the minuscule amount of tax money we were acquiring.”

“That was not for you to judge.” Tresham fanned himself with his gloves, almost striking Caris as he did so. “In the absence of a governor, you should have continued along the course already plotted. You should have continued to appropriate taxes in the south, and you should have used as many men as was necessary to accomplish that.”

“And is that what you are intending to do?” Caris asked.

“That is precisely what I shall do,” Tresham lightly slapped Caris with his gloves, accentuating his words. “You will remain in the city, and guard the port. I will need to impress a fair percentage of your troops, and I will need the services of Sir Adred as well.”

Caris shook his head. “Many of the troops in Bereburh are not in the Crown’s pay, but are men raised from my lands, or from my retinue. As such, I am not obliged to release them to you.”

Tresham seemed honestly surprised by this. “I am the governor of Kellalh and I deem them necessary. You will transfer them to me.”

     “We are not in Kellalh, milord.” Caris showed his teeth, more in a snarl than a smile. “Royal charter transferred the town to Surraev more than a decade ago, milord. And the Charter of Lances explicitly states—”

Tresham turned and walked away, back to his drey. “Fine, keep your beggarly ruffians, but Sir Adred is in the Crown’s pay. I will take him and the troops raised for the crown.”

Caris opened his mouth to object, but he realized he could not. He gave Adred a sympathetic look, and Adred shrugged.

“This will not end well,” Herres mumbled.