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I never knew my father. Not until the end.
It was my patron who brought him home to our tribe, mortally wounded and ready to die.
All of what follows is for him, Gant, and his last wish that a record be kept of what became of the greatest mercenary crew ever to take a purse. Kailen’s Twenty.
The stories of them in their prime are few and far between all these winters later. I spent almost two years tracking down those who fought with or against them, but their downfall is, for me, the more compelling and tragic story, one I’ve been given the mandate to record by my patron, out of respect for my father and all those others who were killed by his failing them. I have put all these documents together in a way that I hope makes sense of the fate of the Twenty, and I include accounts of them in their prime, when, arguably, they saved the Old Kingdoms at Tharos Falls, when twenty men held the line and the line could not be crossed.
To tell this story I was given also the letters of the princess who waits to be returned to her throne, as well as the man whose loyalty to her was the beginning of the end for the Twenty. The man betrayed at Snakewood.
In the moments of his dying, my father asked us a simple question, and from the papers that follow, it is clear he did not ask the question of himself.
“Who ever got what they deserved?”
My name’s Gant and I’m sorry for my poor writing. I was a mercenary soldier who never took to it till Kailen taught us. It’s for him and all the boys that I wanted to put this down, a telling of what become of Kailen’s Twenty.
Seems right to begin it the day me and Shale got sold out, at the heart of the summer just gone, down in the Red Hills Confederacy.
It was the day I began dying.
It was a job with a crew to ambush a supply caravan. It went badly for us and I took an arrow, the poison from which will shortly kill me.
I woke up sodden with dew and rain like the boys, soaked all over from the trees above us, but my mouth was dusty like sand. Rivers couldn’t wet it. The compound I use to ease my bones leeches my spit. I speak soft.
I could hardly crack a whistle at the boys wrapped like a nest of slugs in their oilskins against the winds of the plains these woods were edged against. I’m old. I just kicked them up before getting my bow out of the sack I put it in to keep rain off the string. It was a beauty what I called Juletta and I had her for most of my life.
The boys were slow to get going, blowing and fussing as the freezing air got to work in that bit of dawn. They were quiet, and grim like ghosts in this light, pairing up to strap their leathers and get the swords pasted with poison.
I patted heads and squeezed shoulders and give words as I moved through the crew so they knew I was about and watching. I knew enough of their language that I could give them encouragement like I was one of them, something else Kailen give me to help me bond with a crew.
“Paste it thick,” I said as they put on the mittens and rubbed their blades with the soaked rags from the pot Remy had opened.
I looked around the boys I’d shared skins and pipes with under the moon those last few weeks. Good crew.
There was Remy, looking up at me from his mixing, face all scarred like a milky walnut and speaking lispy from razor fights and rackets he ran with before joining up for a pardon. He had a poison of his own he made, less refined than my own mix, less quick, more agony.
Yasthin was crouched next to him. He was still having to shake the cramp off his leg that took a mace a month before. Saved his money for his brother, told me he was investing it. The boys said his brother gambled it and laughed him up.
Dolly was next to Yasthin, chewing some bacon rinds. Told me how her da chased her soak of a mother through the streets, had done since she was young. Kids followed her da too, singing with him but staying clear of his knives. She joined so’s she could help her da keep her younger brother.
All of them got sorrows that led them to the likes of me and a fat purse for a crossroads job, which I mean to say is a do-or-die.
Soon enough they’re lined up and waiting for the Honour, Kailen’s Honour, the best fightbrew Kigan ever mixed, so, the best fightbrew ever mixed, even all these years later. The boys had been talking up this brew since I took command, makes you feel like you could punch holes in mountains when you’ve risen on it.
Yasthin was first in line for a measure. I had to stand on my toes to pour it in, lots of the boys taller than me. Then a kiss. The lips are the raw end of your terror and love. No steel can toughen lips, they betray more than the eyes when you’re looking for intent and the kiss is for telling them there’s always some way to die.
Little Booey was the tenth and last of the crew to get the measure. I took a slug myself and Rirgwil fixed my leathers. I waited for our teeth to chatter like aristos, then went over the plan again.
“In the trees north, beyond those fields, is Trukhar’s supply caravan,” I said. “Find it, kill who you can but burn the wagons, supplies, an’ then go for the craftsmen. Shale’s leadin’ his crew in from east an’ we got them pincered when we meet, red bands left arm so as you know. It’s a do-or-die purse, you’re there ’til the job is done or you’re dead anyway.”
It was getting real for them now I could see. A couple were starting shakes with their first full measure of the brew, despite all the prep the previous few days.
“I taught you how to focus what’s happening to you boys. This brew has won wars an’ it’ll deliver this purse if you can keep tight. Now move out.”
No more words, it was hand signs now to the forest.
*Jonah front, Yasthin, Booey and Henny with me. Remy group northeast at treeline*
We ran through the silver grass, chests shuddering with the crackle of our blood as the brew stretched our veins and filled our bones with iron and fire. The song of the earth was filling my ears.
Ahead of us was the wall of trees and within, the camp of the Blackhands. Remy’s boys split from us and moved away.
*Slow* I signed.
Juletta was warm in my hands, the arrow in my fingers humming to fly. Then, the brew fierce in my eyes, I saw it, the red glow of a pipe some seventy yards ahead at the treeline.
*Two men. On mark*
I moved forward to take the shot and stepped into a nest of eggs. The bird, a big grey weger, screeched at me and flapped madly into the air inches from my face, its cry filling the sky. One of the boys shouted out, in his prime on the brew, and the two men saw us. We were dead. My boys’ arrows followed mine, the two men were hit, only half a pip of a horn escaping for warning, but it was surely enough.
I had killed us all. We went in anyway, that was the purse, and these boys primed like this weren’t leaving without bloodshed.
As we hit the trees we spread out.
*Enemy left* signed Jonah.
Three were nearing through the trunks, draining their own brew as they come to from some half-eyed slumber. They were a clear shot so I led again, arrows hitting and a muffled crack of bones. All down.
In my brewed-up ears I could hear then the crack of bowstrings pulling at some way off, but it was all around us. The whistle of arrows proved us flanked as we dropped to the ground.
The boys opened up, moving as we practised, aiming to surprise any flanks and split them off so a group of us could move in directly to the caravan. It was shooting practice for Trukhar’s soldiers.
I never saw Henny or Jonah again, just heard some laughing and screaming and the sound of blades at work before it died off.
I stayed put, watching for the enemy’s movements. I was in the outroots of a tree, unspotted. You feel eyes on you with this brew. Then I saw two scouts moving right, following Booey and Datschke’s run.
I took a sporebag and popped it on the end of an arrow. I stood up and sent it at the ground ahead of them.
From my belt I got me some white oak sap which I took for my eyes to see safe in the spore cloud. I put on a mask covered with the same stuff for breathing.
The spores were quick to get in them and they wheezed and clutched their throats as I finished them off.
I was hoping I could have saved my boys but I needed to be in some guts and get the job done with Shale’s crew.
Horns were going up now, so the fighting was on. I saw a few coming at me from the trees ahead. I got behind a trunk but I knew I was spotted. They slowed up and the hemp creaked as they drew for shots. There were four of them, from their breathing, and I could hear their commander whispering for a flanking.
I opened up a satchel of ricepaper bags, each with quicklime and oiled feathers. I needed smoke. I doused a few bags with my flask and threw them out.
“Masks!” came the shout. As the paper soaked, the lime caught and the feathers put out a fierce smoke.
My eyes were still smeared good. I took a couple more arrowbags out, but these were agave powders for blistering the eyes and skin.
Two shots to tree trunks spread the powders in the air around their position and I moved out from the tree to them as they screeched and staggered about blind. The Honour give me the senses enough to read where they were without my eyes, better to shut them with smoke and powders in the air, and their brews weren’t the Honour’s equal. They moved like they were running through honey and were easy to pick off.
It was then I took the arrow that’ll do for me. I’d got maybe fifty yards further on when I heard the bow draw, but with the noise ahead I couldn’t place it that fraction quicker to save myself. The arrow went in at my hip, into my guts. Something’s gave in there, and the poison’s gone right in, black mustard oil for sure from the vapours burning in my nose, probably some of their venom too.
I was on my knees trying to grab the arrow when I saw them approach, two of them. The one who killed me was dropping his bow and they both closed with the hate of their own fightbrew, their eyes crimson, skin an angry red and all the noisies.
They think I’m done. They’re fucking right, to a point. In my belt was the treated guaia bark for the mix they were known to use. No time to rip out the arrow and push the bark in.
They moved in together, one in front, the other flanking. One’s a heavy in his mail coat and broadsword, a boy’s weapon in a forest, too big. Older one had leathers and a long knife. Him first. My sight was going, the world going flat like a drawing, so I had to get rid of the wiser one while I could still see him, while I still had the Honour’s edge.
Knife in hand I lunged sudden, the leap bigger than they reckoned. The older one reacted, a sidestep. The slash I made wasn’t for hitting him though. It flicked out a spray of paste from the blade and sure enough some bit of it caught him in the face. I spun about, brought my blade up and parried the boy’s desperate swing as he closed behind me, the blow forcing me down as it hit my knife, sending a smack through my guts as the arrow broke in me. He took sight of his mate holding his smoking face, scratching at his cheeks and bleeding. He glanced at the brown treacle running over my blade and legged it. He had the spunk to know he was beaten. I put the knife in the old man’s throat to quiet my noisies, the blood’s smell as sweet as fresh bread to me.
I picked up my Juletta and moved on. The trees were filling with Blackhands now. I didn’t have the time to be taking off my wamba and sorting myself out a cure for the arrow, much less tugging at it now it was into me. I cussed at myself, for this was likely where I was going to die if I didn’t get something to fix me. I was slowing up. I took a hit of the Honour to keep me fresh. It was going to make a fierce claim on the other side, but I would gladly take that if I could get some treatment.
Finally I reached the caravan; smoke from the blazing wagons and stores filled the trees ahead. The grain carts were burning so Shale, again, delivered the purse.
Then I come across Dolly, slumped against the roots of a tree. Four arrows were thrusting proud from her belly. She saw me and her eyes widened and she smiled.
“Gant, you’re not done… Oh,” she said, seeing the arrow in me. I might have been swaying, she certainly didn’t look right, faded somewhat, like she was becoming a ghost before me.
“Have you a flask, Gant, some more of the Honour?”
Her hands were full of earth, grabbing at it, having their final fling.
“I’m out, Dolly,” I said. “I’m done too. I’m sorry for how it all ended.”
She blinked, grief pinching her up.
“It can’t be over already. I’m twenty summers, Gant, this was goin’ to be the big purse.”
A moment then I couldn’t fill with any words.
“Tell my father, Gant, say…”
I was raising my bow. I did my best to clean an arrow on my leggings. She was watching me as I did it, knowing.
“Tell him I love him, Gant, tell him I got the Honour, and give him my purse and my brother a kiss.”
As I drew it she looked above me, seeing something I knew I wouldn’t see, leagues away, some answers to her questions in her eyes thrilling her. I let fly, fell to my knees and sicked up.
Where was Shale?
My mouth was too dry to speak or shout for him, but I needed him. My eyes, the lids of them, were peeling back so’s they would burn in the sun. I put my hands to my face. It was only visions, but my chest was heavy, like somebody sat on it and others were piling on. Looking through my hands as I held them up, it was like there were just bones there, flesh thin like the fins of a fish. My breathing rattled and I reached to my throat to try to open it up more.
So much blood on him. He kneeled next to me. He’s got grey eyes, no colour. Enemy to him is just so much warm meat to be put still. He don’t much smile unless he’s drunk. He mostly never drinks. He sniffed about me and at my wound, to get a reading of what was in it, then forced the arrow out with a knife and filled the hole with guaia bark while kneeling on my shoulder to keep me still. He was barking at some boys as he stuffed some rugara leaves, sap and all, into my mouth, holding my nose shut, drowning me. Fuck! My brains were buzzing sore like a hive was in them. Some frothing liquid filled up my chest and I was bucking about for breath. He poured from a flask over my hip and the skin frosted over with an agony of burning. Then he took out some jumpcrick’s legbones and held them against the hole, snap snap, a flash of blue flame and everything fell away high.
There was a choking, but it didn’t feel like me no longer. It felt like the man I was before I died.
“Let’s see it.”Achi flicked it across the table, a pebble across wood, but this stone was worked with precision, a stone coin, black and thick as a thumb. There were no markings on it, a hairline of quartz the only imperfection of the material itself. The ocean had polished it, my face made a shadow by it. It was the third I’d seen in the last few months.“The Prince, from your old crew, his throat was cut,” said Achi.Achi drained his cup, leaned back in his chair and yawned, the chair creaking, not built for such a big man still in his leathers. He was filthy and sour-smelling from the weeks sleeping out.“How are the boys?” I asked.
He opened his eyes with a start, already drifting away to sleep. I smiled at his irritation.
“Sorry, sir, all good. Danik and Stimmy are sorting out the horses, Wil went looking for a mercer, wants to get his woman something as we been away a while.”
“Stimmy’s boy is on the mend, I had word from the estate. Let him know if you see him before me.”
Achi nodded and yawned again.
I looked again at the black coin in my fingers. Such coins were given to mercenaries who betrayed their purse or their crew. But who had The Prince betrayed?
We had called him The Prince because there was a time when he was in line for a throne, last of three, least loved and cleverest. His homeland chose its emperors in a way as ridiculous as any; which of the incumbents best demonstrated martial prowess. His sister won their single combat on the day their father died and was thus made queen, but his sword wasn’t what made him worthy of the Twenty.
The Prince did the politics his sister could not. War allows only two perspectives, yours and theirs, a limit his sister was not capable of seeing beyond. Nations require the management of more factions than cut diamonds have facets and I met nobody that could exploit his empire’s politic more adroitly than The Prince.
I plucked a white grape from the bowl, milky and juicy as a blind eyeball. Achi peeled eggs, head bowed. The bargirl came in and cleared away my plate. She offered a quick smile before retreating to the noise of the inn below us.
I recalled the two other black coins I’d seen recently, as perfect as this one. The Prince had shown them to me in his cabin aboard one of the Quartet’s galleys only a few months ago. The Quartet were an influential merchant guild across most of the Old Kingdoms, and it was as fine a cabin as I’d ever seen him in, satin cushions, exquisitely carved chests and lockers, some of them the work of masters I had had the good fortune to commission myself at my wife Araliah’s recommendation.
I’d travelled to see The Prince after he’d sent an escort bidding me to return with him.
“These coins were found with Harlain and Milu,” he said. “I will try and find out more.”
“How did they die?” I asked.
“Harlain returned to his homeland, Tetswana, became their leader, the Kaan of Tetswana no less. It was the gathering before the rains. Leaders and retinues of nine tribes. Seventy or so dead, the black coin in his hand only.”
Harlain would not join us at Snakewood, the last time any of the Twenty were together. He had wanted to leave us some time before the end. Paying the colour had taken from all of us, but it took his heart. It was only as we embraced for a final time and I helped him with his saddle that I realised I hadn’t heard him singing for some months. I was glad he made it home.
“Milu?” I asked.
“He became a horse-singer out in Alagar. They found him lying at the side of a singer’s pit. Someone had been with him, footprints in the sand around his body, the coin in his hand.”
“Poison?” I asked.
“Almost certainly. No way of placing it.”
Milu had also been at Snakewood, but stayed only for a drink and to buy supplies before leaving with Kheld. They had lost heart as much as Harlain had; no talk of purses or where in the world was at war; they did not discuss, as did Sho or Shale, how my name could be put to work to bolster the gold of a purse.
I never tired of watching Milu work, his grotesquely big chest and baggy jowls filling with the songs that brought the wild horses to his side, training them to hold firm in the charge. It seemed that he, like Harlain, had been able to let go of the mercenary life before the colour took everything.
“Their deaths are connected, Kailen. It must be the Twenty.”
“You’ve heard from nobody else?”
“Only that Dithnir had died. He went back home to Tarantrea; one of their envoys that negotiates with the Quartet I represent knows me well and shared the news with me. I asked about a coin but there was none. Apart from that I keep in touch with Kheld when I’m in Handar, but the rest, no word.”
I breathed deeply of the morning breeze that blew across the deck and slapped at the fringes of the awning we were beneath. Dithnir was a bowman, almost a match for Stixie, shy and inadvisedly romantic with whores, cold and implacable in the field.
“I remember Snakewood,” said The Prince.
Our eyes met briefly. “No. That was dealt with.” I’d said it more sharply than I’d intended. Why did I feel a thread of doubt?
He reached across the table, took the carafe and refilled our glasses with the wine I’d brought for him.
“Your estate is improving,” he said, holding up his glass for a toast.
“Yes, these vines were planted two winters ago; they’ll improve. I only wish for Jua’s cooler summers, perhaps an estate nearer the hills. How is the Quartet? I hear you have brokered a treaty with the Shalec to cross their waters. Not even the Post could manage it. Have you considered lending them your talents?”
“Why would I toil through its ranks to High Reeve or Fieldsman when I can be a Partner with the Quartet? The Post–The Red himself–could learn something from the Quartet regarding our softening of the Shalec, but I’m glad he hasn’t, I’m lining my pockets beautifully. Remarkable as the Post runs so much trade elsewhere. They can bid lower than us at almost every turn; we can’t match the subs, but we can work with lower margins, give Shalec a fee on the nutmeg, a pittance of course. But every investor north of the Gulf believes the Post controls the winds.”
“While the Post can sub dividends over fewer summers than anyone else, the flatbacks will flock,” I said, “but enough of trade: congratulations, Prince, I’m glad to see things are going well; being a Partner suits you. Will you get a message to me if you find Kheld? It would be good to know he’s still alive.”
The Prince had been the difference at Ahmstad, turning three prominent families under the noses of Vilmor’s king, extending the borders and fortifying them in a stroke. The mad king is still being strangled in the noose The Prince tied. His death proved that whoever of us was alive was in danger. I signed our purses. This could only be about getting at me.
Achi had fallen asleep.
I poured him some of the dreadful brandy that was the best The Riddle had to offer.
Shale and Gant were taking a purse only weeks south. If they were still anything like the soldiers of old I would have need of them. Achi’s crew would be glad to be going back to Harudan. I needed good men with my wife, Araliah. Still, there was one more thing I needed to ask of Achi himself, one person I needed to confirm was dead.
THE PRINCE AND THE AHMSTAD
An account by a Fieldsman of the Post regarding Kailen and The Prince. Fieldsmen are the most elite Agents of the Post, from the ranks of which The Red himself, the head of the Post, is often promoted.This Fieldsman was disguised as a bodyguard to the Ahmstad’s “Ladus” (chief), present at the negotiation by which Kailen and The Prince secured a bloodless victory for Ahmstad over Vilmor, nine years before Snakewood.
Destination: Candar Prime, Q4 649 OE
Eastern Sar Westmain routed
CONFIDENTIAL FOR THE RED ONLY
Report of: Fieldsman 71
You are aware of Vilmorian expansionism under their King Turis. They have been amassing an army for assaults on two fronts, the Luzhan Province and Ahmstad.
A clan leader for Ahmstad brought a mercenary known as Kailen to their war council. To say the Ladus was displeased was to put it mildly. The clan leader, Hasike, asked that the Ladus hear him out.
What follows is a transcript of the meeting as best as I can relay it. It is evident that Kailen, and his fellow that he called The Prince, displayed a formidable understanding of both sides of the potential conflict. He is a most unusual mercenary and a compelling speaker, though of course this does not come across half so well in my approximation of the meeting.
“May I ask the Ladus the size of the army he is amassing?” said Kailen.
“The clans represented here have committed to me near eighteen thousand men and women. Do I speak right?” Raised voices, eliciting approval and some banging of cups.
“And what would the Ladus say losses of such men might be, were Vilmor to bring to bear an army estimated at twenty-five thousand?”
“Where do you get such numbers, soldier?”
The Prince speaks then. “We served with Vilmor, as you no doubt already know. They have seventy-six fiefs, variously providing twenty to two hundred men and women.”
“With these numbers, in open battle, the losses would be?” This was Kailen.
“Far higher on their side.” More cups were banged at this point.
“Ladus,” said Hasike, somewhat frustrated, “who bears the brunt of their aggression? My clan. We are your border with Vilmor.”
“As we border the Wilds,” said another, “but we do not cry to the Ladus over it.”
“The Wilds do not bring in twenty thousand men in front of a fortified supply line,” said Kailen. “Bang your cups and brag if it pleases you, but you stand over a map that shows clearly where Vilmor will push, through Hasike’s land and to the heart of Ahmstad.”
The Ladus raised his arms to quieten the shouts.
“My council waits with bated breath for the wisdom of a Harudanian mercenary on its own affairs. You have disappointed me, Hasike, bringing to our gathering men paid to chop up soldiers when what we need is to outwit Turis’s generals.”
“You ought to consider Hasike wise, Ladus. I will gladly demonstrate why.” Remarkably, the mercenary sounded angry. I had expected him to be run through at that point, for the Ladus enjoyed nothing more than disembowelling everyone from servants to his own family for sleights of honour or even dark looks.
“You have not begun to muster from your war communes, the sheriffs and quarters are still securing your supplies: wood, cattle, grain. The men at this table await their levies, and the last time I fought Ahmstad I would not hold such hope for the weak and ill-equipped majority that are enrolled. Hasike’s lands will be pillaged and burned, some fifth of your tithe in buffalo, a seventh of all your guira and ska crops.” He had the room now, though the Ladus’s fist was white as it gripped the handle of his axe.
Kailen swept the arranged blocks from the map and reset them. He laid out the routes the Vilmorian army would take, the challenge for the Ahmstad forces, and every way that he laid out their options they were to expect heavy losses, even in victory.
The room was silent, for each anticipated deployment and stratagem had been devised and its consequences presented soundly.
“I have a question,” said the Ladus: “if we are likely to lose, why have you sold Hasike your services? Do you and your friend of some dubious royal lineage plan to defeat Turis with your own hands?”
“No. For one hundred and fifty gold pieces my friend of dubious royal lineage will explain why you need not raise a sword to defeat the forces of Vilmor, gain yourselves land and new allies and weaken Turis significantly.”
The Ladus erupted with laughter. “If I’d wanted a fool I would have left my first consort alive. I suppose you wish to be paid before you share your grand plan with us as well?”
“Listen to him, for my people’s sake,” said Hasike.
The Ladus was always a big and intimidating man, easily a foot taller than anyone else in a room, and I’d seen him press and win, time and again, from Hasike more cattle for the northern Ahmstad clans he favoured. Hasike was desperate. The Ladus took a deep breath.
“Fifty gold pieces. If I like what I hear you’ll get your hundred more, if not you’ll swallow them and I’ll cut them out of your belly.” He turned his head slightly towards where I stood with his treasurer, and a nod commanded the treasurer to count out the coins. Kailen took the proffered pouch as calmly as a man receiving payment for food, suggesting that, uniquely in my experience, his purses were of a not dissimilar amount.
Kailen’s man, The Prince, was, I learned shortly afterwards, called so because he was an heir to the throne of Old Ceirad. He had the Old Kingdoms aristocracy in every bone, an educated, persuasive speaker. He also used Ladus’s map and his blocks to explain his argument.
“Vilmor, as I have said, is comprised of seventy-six fiefs. Your lands border eleven of those fiefs. Of those eleven there are three that matter. These three share a common ancestry with Hasike’s clan. You will have noted how peaceful the border is there, compared to the Wilds and Razhani borders. Only Lagrad is more peaceful, and precisely because of your longstanding treaty.
“These three fiefs, comprising two clans, do not, shall we say, dine at the top table with Turis and the bigger fiefs. Indeed, he has seen fit to put to a vote the redrawing of the fiefdoms in favour of a cousin whose land lies behind theirs. His mistake, as I see it, has been to give his cousin the oversight and control of levies, in the name of Turis, to see to the construction of the forts that now press against your borders, in those three lands.
“As many of you in the room will testify, if the Ladus here designated Hasike or anyone else to command your own men to build forts in the Ladus’s name, irrespective of the cost to your lands and your harvests, you would be displeased.” This earned a few grunts of approval.
“Two castles have been built, at great cost to those fiefs, along with seven other wooden forts and the construction of bridges through some of the marshlands that edge your borders, giving Vilmor the advantage of which we speak.
“I would suggest that the hundred gold pieces not be paid now, as I summarise our plan, but upon its execution. Will you bind to that, Ladus?”
You now understand how interesting these two mercenaries are. The Ladus is a great warrior, but a vain and ridiculous man. They understood this, as they must have understood Hasike’s position as well as the intelligence they had gathered on the border before they approached Hasike and the Ladus. I was struck at that moment by the thought that one hundred and fifty gold pieces was not as preposterous as it initially seemed. Nor did Kailen’s demeanour shift for a moment at this change in the agreement, as though it too had been rehearsed.
The Ladus looked about the room, and I noted Kailen’s satisfaction. He had concluded much as I did that this gesture indicated Ladus did not have the initiative or command here. He sought the faces of his clan leaders for their view on this offer, though it would have been madness to refuse.
“Explain your plan,” he said.
The Prince continued. “Enfeoff the three clans, give them freehold land, at the cost of one quarter of Hasike’s own lands and four of his herds. Make also a gift to each clan of five hundred gold pieces, along with two hundred jars each of cocklebur seeds and the recipes for them. Commit also to fund a war commune there and give them a place on the council. In return…”
There were cries of “Disgrace” and others much more colourful, but The Prince continued over them.
“In return you have extended your borders, united four clans that Hasike will soon get control of, gained two castles and a number of forts, and weakened Turis considerably on this front.”
Though the hubbub continued a moment, the Ladus raised his hand for silence.
“Hasike?” he said.
“I believe with some suitable marriages, the war commune in what remains of my territory and my family’s lineage in respect of these clans, I and my sons after me will take overall control of these lands, though I expect, as The Prince has said, that they will accede to our offer willingly. I can commit from my own men enough, with Kailen’s help, to secure the castles while we secure the lands.”
The Ladus nodded. Hasike had improved his standing immensely. He took some time, looking over the map, lost in thought.
“Return with the agreements and I will have the payments ready, both for those clans and these two mercenaries.”
The territory was duly won, Kailen and The Prince were proved right.
I understand from some of the soldiers that I’d questioned regarding them that Kailen commands only a crew of twenty, and they have been making a name for themselves wherever they’ve signed. They have not yet signed a purse for a general that lost a battle.
I recommend an introduction, we may learn much from this remarkable man.
I was laid on a straw mat in a tent where men were either sleeping or yelling and babbling with whatever the drudha had forced down them or up them. My ass was stinging, I needed a shit. Bones were creaking from the brew as I paid for the measures I took with the usual spasms and headaches and sores. All these years on brews meant the down was harder and longer each time.
I didn’t know how Shale got us back. I needed to eat and get my compounds on. I just managed to crawl on a bucket thick with flies and get out a few squirts when he come in, a shirt and breeches on him stinking enough to have been what he wore on the raid. He kept his head shaved so the grey coming through wasn’t too obvious, but his skin was so weathered and dark from paying the colour it didn’t help, for when you drink fightbrews they change your blood and how your skin is, turning it different colours according to how much you have or where it’s from or its quality. You tell a soldier by his colour.
“You fuckin’ woman. Blackhand sauce an’ you din’t put your guaia to it?” he said, helping me up from the bucket and giving me a wipe with the stick.
“I were killing or dead anyway,” I said. “I killed me boys, lost us the ambush. Stepped in a fucking birds’ nest.”
He put his hand on my shoulder, sat me down and kneeled next to me. He stared at me, looking for something in my face, it seemed. He shook his head a little, disagreeing with something. He set firm then, he was holding something back in his way.
“Did what I could wi’ that wound, but it was a mess. Not sure you can, you know, be made up. We need some plant, good plant, but…” He took a deep sigh. He was trying to deal with what it meant. “It in’t good, Gant. It…” His words wouldn’t come out. He swallowed and bowed his head and I let him be.
I looked down at my side, wrapped up and cotton gummed to it. With your life all about killing, it was still something that hit like a mace; my guts felt the drop like I was on a ship at sea. He was straight up, though. I had weeks maybe.
“I’m going north then,” I said, “see me sister if I can. I want to go back in the world at Lagrad. Near me da.”
He had recovered somewhat. “In’t a drudha goin’ straight north from here to Upper Lagrad worth a shit, Gant. You won’t make it home. Harudan High Commune, unless we can find some plant on the Hiscan Road an’ a cooker whose kit we can use. We can get there in a few weeks, fix you up tight an’ give you a chance to get up there. Good plant will slow the poison down a good bit. Fer now we get some decent brandy an’ cheer usselves up.” He kissed my head and stood straight.
“Harudan’s over southwest, it’s more than a few weeks. We go through Hisca,” I said.
“A few weeks that way’ll buy more ’n a few for goin’ north.”
“We won then?” I said, referring to the effect of our sortie on the Blackhands.
“Three o’ the Red Hills hasts moved in from east an’ pushed Trukhar’s lot back north. Reckon they’re cut off, but the confeds say we sit here an’ fort. Wi’ the caravan took out, we secured the border again.”
The tent was getting into my nose. Who’s going to empty the buckets unless they’re shouted at?
“Need some air, Shale,” I said.
He hauled me up off the mat I was on and got hold of a pike for me to lean on.
A middling breeze picked up as we moved away from the tents and workshops and up some slopes to a view across Mandrik’s Hast, our current purse. It was mostly bald dry bluffs and some scrub, hard living in summer for those about.
Shale got me some bread and cheese and unstoppered us a flask when we reached somewhere to sit. We took a few kannab pipes and settled back.
“I’ll head up north wi’ you,” he said, “I in’t gettin’ younger. They had boys there pushin’ me a bit. Seems more an’ more it’s tactics an’ plant not muscle an’ steel that gets me over the crossin’.”
A boy come up the hill towards us. I see it now as clear as I did then, a moment polished up in my head. The start of it all.
He was a recruit, from seeing the scabbard bash about his legs and his skin still pale with the lack of fightbrews.
“Excuse. Captain Forthwald, he wants to see you. Says it’s important.”
Shale nodded and stared the boy away down the hill.
“What’s he want?” he said.
“I in’t in a fit state to be digging foundations.”
“In’t payin’ us fer that either. Pack us another pipe, Gant, bit more o’ the Rosie in this one before I got to help you back.”
Like many captains, Forthwald was too good at the job with the boys to move up out of harm’s way. He kept the hast-lords at bay and got the boys their due. There’s a way only a few have that can talk crews down off brews or talk them up from a loss of a leg or their seeing. Kailen had it too.
Evening was setting a deep pink that smoothed everything out when we were stood at the Purse’s tent with him. He had a few boys with him what helped keep an eye out while he was counting purses and scribbling out the inventories and that.
“With you in a second, boys.” He had a table full of tally foils in piles. There was sweat on his head made me think he had been going through the weapon forms with the kids what had been sent by levy from the hasts.
He looked up then.
“Good work on the caravan, the pincer was sound. Shale told me what happened, Gant, but even when it went ass over, it drew the guard away from the main ’van. We’ll be able to push their army back into the Wilds or their homeland. Some brandy?”
We nods, glad not to be hitting our own flasks so far from any decent refill.
“Dolly made me promise her purse goes to her da. See it does, Captain,” I said.
“Of course, Gant, of course.”
One of the boys in the tent then nods at him as he stood and moved over to a chest of drawers on which were a couple of bottles and some wooden cups. He splashes us out a good measure each as well as for himself.
“How long, Gant?” he said.
I nearly said it was a matter of weeks, my breath shortening with a thump as I faced what it meant again. Then I saw what he was referring to, how long before I could be back at it, earning the purse.
“About a week, Shale did some good work on me, guaia and rugara cleaned me out,” I said, though it wasn’t true enough. He nodded, and his eyes flicked from mine to over my shoulder, back out of the tent. They come back in a moment and he smiled.
“Good. Your purse sadly doesn’t let you see out this awful heat guarding the fort. There’ll be sorties in a few days and…”
“Got somethin’ else to say, Forthwald?” said Shale, draining his cup. “Only there’s a stream o’ shit leavin’ yer mouth much the same as what Gant passed into the drudha’s bucket this afternoon.”
Forthwald made to look shocked, but Shale wasn’t a man that other men found easy to be near, or be clever with.
“It got a bit quiet a bit quickly outside the tent, Forth,” said Shale, “and yer man here’s sweatin’ as bad as you are.”
Forthwald nodded, nursing the cup in both hands. The two men with us put their hands to their hilts.
“Fuck,” said Shale, “you boys are thicker than the wood o’ that table. You’d be dead if it weren’t for whoever our Captain has outside.”
“I’m sorry for this, boys. What can I say? There’s a bounty on your head so big that our Lord Olgin himself gave the order. An hour or two earlier and you might not have been on that ambush this morning. You’re good men. You’ve been good for this company as well in your time with us, got the respect of the lads. Only sorry I never got to see you and the Twenty in your prime. Come, let’s get this shitty business underway.”
He led us out of the tent, his two fearful guards behind us. There were a few pockets of men about, looking over at us, muttering, smoking and half naked in the evening. Between us and them was a circle of men positioned around the tent. Agents of the Post. They had the silver-grey leathers, a burgundy leather patch of the Post’s sign, the outline of a Coldbay Tern, stitched into the larger shoulderpad on their defensive arms. Each had two fieldbelts, double slung on the shoulders, and they were already masked, bubbling with a half-brew suitable for this work. We both could hear their breathing, faster than ours, their bodies humming like kingfishers over a stream.
One of them stepped forward, short and heavy, old as we were from the look of him, his colour similar, a paler red to it, years of good mixes.
“You can drop your fieldbelts and swords and strip, or we can do it. One ends up with lots of bleeding.”
I nods to Shale and we did it. Agents of the Post weren’t like your regular Reds, they had some fierce training and access to the best mixes the Post could buy, which was saying a lot. Whoever hired these boys to bring us in was a wealthy man.
“Who’s lookin’ fer us?” said Shale.
“You’ll find out. We’re just to look after you, take you north a bit and wait for the lady. Usual procedure, I’m surprised you asked.”
“Not that familiar with your ‘procedure’,” said Shale, “Post could never afford us, not for anythin’ ordinary anyway.”
I smiled, as did this little bear of a man.
“It’s our procedure for moving people around, usually from their hiding place to those that paid us to find them. Men that have paid colour we strip; no belts, no leathers, no tricks. We could give you a sheet if it rained I suppose.” He got a laugh for that, this being high summer in the Red Hills.
He picked up our swords, took mine out of its sheath.
“What do you call her?” he asked.
“Like I’m goin’ to tell you.”
“Patterning looks like Redwall steel, the finest. Might keep this one. What do you think, boys?”
“I’ll have the other,” said the one called Jador.
He picked up my belt then. He wore gloves of course, for we all pastes our belts and swords with a poison we’ve become immune to, stopping any casual thieves. He flipped open the pouches and pockets on it.
“White oak, rugara, raw betony. Think we’ll get us some fair coin for that.”
“What happened to yer Creed for yer conduct? Yer worse than wildmen,” said Shale.
“The Farlsgrad Creed? Might matter to our masters, but we ain’t paid enough.”
One of the others picks up our necklaces then what we’d put with our shirts. “Gilgul,” he says, addressing this cock what was winding us up, “they got Flowers.”
“Well fuck me, Flower of Fates, and two of them! All sealed up.” The caps on the tins were waxed and glued, needed snapping to open, the whole thing the size of a little finger. On them was etched the skull and two leaves.
“You seen ’em used?” he said.
I nodded. “Aye, we were defending Hevendor from Wildmen. They get organised from time to time, come in their thousands and had been pillaging at the borders and taking towns for themselves…”
“Fuck, I don’t want an old nana’s tale.” This made his crew laugh.
“Well, I saw ten men use ’em. No more Wildmen come to Hevendor ever since, far as I knows.”
He shrugged before putting the necklaces with the tins on them in his pocket.
There were eight Agents about us, and with us paying the colour right now, it was too much for us to try something as they approached to tie us. We would have to see what opportunities presented once we’d evened out a bit.
We were marched north that night, stopping only the following morning because I was bleeding badly from my wound.
“You’ve got to let me dress it,” Shale said to them, “or he’s going to be dead before you get wherever it is you’re going. It’s Blackhand poison in there.”
“How did he not get his bark in it?” said Gilgul. He come up close to me, bending down to take a look at the cotton that was soaked to my skin. He tore it off and I had to let out a yelp, though I expected he’d do something stupid. A few of his boys laughed. I fell to my knees, the pain was something else.
He pulled the collar of his wamba down and I saw the bark in his neck, the sort that ended up being part of the skin, not the sort that broke up.
“Guaia’s what you old timers swear by, but for that hole you’d want birch bark and balsam. You look a bit Lagrad, or Vilmorian, but there isn’t a drudha up there worth shit is there, or it would be in your belt and saving your life, seeing as you’ve got so many of those trees up there. Though who knows why an old man like you’s in the front line taking arrows anyway. Greedy I’m guessing.” He started pressing the wound then, poking it to get a reaction, which he got I’m sorry to say. He was looking at Shale of course, trying to get him going. Shale was quiet, not looking over.
“Jador, best help keep this man’s guts from spilling out, or the lady won’t be happy. She’s paying for that pleasure for herself.”
They ate some rations, give us some durra sticks and water and after I was bound up we were led along again, hands and feet shackled and the sun a fucker for the next week or more as we crossed the stony ravines of the Red Hills. They were long, hard days on our feet and we burned a bit even with our colour. Purse seemed important enough they bound up the wound so’s I could bear the miles we did.
Evening come along then one night, and they chose a bit of grassland that grew around the few crumbling walls of what must have been a fort once.
“Tie them to those posts,” said Gilgul, “bit more water for our two guests, Jador. Well, we’ve arrived. How are you boys doing? I hope you got over your disappointment with losing a fat purse, well, your fieldbelts, swords, gold, horses and your fat purse. We just wait here for the lady now.”
We didn’t say anything, knowing it was the best way to get under the skin of those what are looking to wind you up.
“You know,” he went on, “the boys are finding it hard to believe you two were in Kailen’s Twenty and did something like Tharos Falls, fussing and shaking and scratching at yourselves as you have been this last week. A nice story though, eh? Suppose if I told enough people I had two cocks they might believe it too. What’s the truth when a big purse is at stake?” There was a moment’s silence then, but for the crack of an axe hitting a tree nearby as they were getting some wood for the fire.
“Nothing to say for yourselves, boys, your honour, such as it is?”
I had stabbing pains to fill my thoughts more than his rambling, needed my compounds and it’s been a while since I didn’t have them, forgot how bad my body gets without the plant it needs. He started barking at the others to hurry up the camp, perhaps reading their silence as a sort of challenge about what was next now we weren’t taking the bait and giving him banter.
I glanced over at Shale, and he give the barest flicker with his eyes that he was enjoying himself.
The long walk and a bit of bilt and some nuts settled me enough to sleep through the pain the poison was giving me, a few hours perhaps before a sharp whisper woke me.
It was night, and more Agents were in the camp, stood over us.
One of them spoke to Gilgul.
“You brought their horses?” he asked.
“We’ll be reporting this to the lady when we get there, and no, we left the horses, we were going to make these fuckers walk,” said Gilgul.
“What’s going on?” said Shale.
“Seems like the Post has a more pressing interest in you than the lady who hired the Post to bring you in,” said Gilgul.
“It’s wrong,” said Ranad, who was one of Gilgul’s crew, “Post don’t take a purse then turn it over. You sure those papers is right and proper?”
“The Red hisself wouldn’t doubt ’em. You saw the seal, they’re from Candar itself.” He turned back to the Agent what had come to claim us, stocky-looking man, not Gilgul’s size though, but a richer, proper colour on him.
“But I take my orders from Marschal Laun,” said Gilgul. “She’s with the purse. She should approve this, not me.”
“The seal and papers are all the approval you need. You’ve seen the High Reeve’s signature and your own roll confirms it. You’re to go to Guildmaster Filston’s estate and await his return.”
Gilgul looked him up and down. He smelled something was wrong, me and Shale did too, but whatever it was passed for their authority overcome it, the colour and the leathers were as proper as would be near impossible to fake.
“Get these men their clothes, weapons and belts, Gilgul. They’ll be coming with us.”
“Fuck that. Jador, get their things.” He turned to look at me. “Hope to see you again. The lady will not be put off and I’d hate for that sauce to kill you before I did.”
“Best give us those Flowers too, eh,” said Shale. Gilgul give a look to Achi and he took out the necklaces and threw them at us.
Other than that we kept quiet of course, doing nothing what would stop us from getting those fieldbelts back. If they weren’t emptied then we had a chance, though this new Agent wouldn’t risk us with belts if he weren’t speaking true.
It was a small crew that come to claim us, four in all. They took over the camp, got a pot on the fire that Gilgul’s boys had going from before while his lot packed up and left.
One of the crew cut us free and Shale come over as I was sorting through my shirt and wamba. He dressed my wound, put a salve on it and some leaf in it and got it tight, then he helped me into my leathers and a cloak to warm me up.
The Agent helped him to get me over to the fire, where they had some cups of stew for us, oily, probably neck broth. It was plain to see they’d been drilled well, and their belts, leathers and masks were well used. They moved like us, in control of the plant. Each was quiet, looking to the man what had spoken to Gilgul. There was no grey in him, but his eyes had seen a bit too much, a stillness about him what good commanders and leaders have.
“I’m Achi,” he said, “and for me and the boys it’s an honour to meet you. This is Hau, this is Danik. Danik, fetch their clothes and belts. The big man here is Stimmy.” Stimmy looked like he’d been breaking and lifting rocks all his life.
“We’re most grateful to you,” said Shale, “but we don’t know you an’ we got no powerful friends to speak of.”
“No? Kailen sent us. But he’s in trouble, you all are, the Twenty.”
It was a shock to hear his name, all these years on, and for this Achi to speak of us all, the Twenty, though we were all these winters on from when we broke up.
“Kailen? We in’t seen him in a long time. What trouble is he in?” I asked.
It was a blessing to be free of the bindings, and Stimmy helped me and Shale with the cuts from them now my wound was sorted out.
“He’s at the Crag. We don’t know much more and I think that’s his purpose,” said Achi. “He found out a few of the Twenty had been killed recently, black coin. He’d learned you were in the Red Hills, and you can guess he was on terms with Olgin, head of the Starun Hast, or some of his quartermasters. Must’ve been him that confirmed you were taking a purse here.”
“It were Olgin sold us out to these Agents,” said Shale. “Forthwald told us there were a big purse on our heads. Don’t get why. We in’t done any more than our job fer many winters wi’ no complaint from our paymasters or betraying our purses.”
Achi nodded. “I couldn’t disagree, but something is wrong, Kailen is convinced of it, convinced enough for us to seek you out, to do this. He was keen we find you and get you to head to the Crag to see him.”
“You in’t the Post then,” I said. “Those leathers and whatever you showed that Gilgul looked real, but he din’t trust you all the same.”
“We aren’t the Post, but you boys should know a bit about subterfuge and in particular what Kailen is capable of.”
“He got a new crew now then? You and these boys?” I asked.
Achi smiled. “He drills us like we’re a crew, but he retired, we work on his estate down in Harudan, we run his ’vans now, preserves, wines and the like. He’s paid out.”
Paid out was a way of saying that you had left the soldiering life, settled your account as it were with the fightbrews, and what they took from you, and you had moved on.
“So yer takin’ us to the Crag?” asked Shale.
He shook his head. “He’s asked my crew and I go back to Harudan. He’s worried whoever is giving the Twenty a black coin might learn where he’s living and he wants his wife and estate safe.”
Good for him he got out of this shit.
“We headin’ for the Crag in the mornin’ then,” said Shale.
“We’ll come with you for a day or so, to be sure this Gilgul’s convinced of us, then we’re off south, well, my boys are, Kailen’s got me going north.”
“He called up anyone else from the Twenty?” said Shale.
“He has. You’re the only ones that are able to go it seems, of those he found still alive.”
“In’t right,” said Shale, “in’t right at all, what we owe him.”
“Where in the Crag is he?” I asked. “Been there only a few times over the years, not familiar with it.”
“Slums. Don’t know if you know the gangers there but he’s with the Indra Quarter Crew. Find them and you find him.”
It was weeks since we were marched out of camp and I was still angry that we had been forced to leave our horses there. Been with mine for two years and she was one of the best I’d had. The horses that Achi had brought along were good enough for the journey we’d need to make, however. Shale’s seemed skittish with him but he soon got him under control. We both knew a bit of the horse singing and had mouthpieces for it. Some cured bacon and cold tea, oils and rubs and we rode with them northwest towards Hevendor.
A few days later we saw off Achi and his boys. Not much to tell of the journey to the Crag. We pushed northwest out of the Red Hill Confederacy and then west more directly into Hevendor. We saw nobody save some nomads we got some bread and wine from.
I did some thinking. We didn’t speak much at all that week. He wasn’t sleeping though. It’d been a long time since we give much thought to the old crew. I was thinking about my sister Emelt too, though. I sent her coin for years for the hast. She’d pass it on to the council and all, see that they could keep trading for iron and salt and what plant they needed if they didn’t get the crops or livestock to trade. She had a boy too, Goran.
She been bidding me come back for years, no more the shame to my da now he was gone and Amila that I had loved now with that boy who must be on the council after all this time. I heard from Emelt the new council was practical, it needed swords. Trouble is, all around Upper Lagrad where I was born and raised there were chiefs and hast-lords needed steel and brutal doings, not least for the borders to the Wilds unmapped. My little sister got a viper’s tongue for getting the council to listen to the herders and keep some peace in our lands. I missed her. There was often a stab of longing to get back to those fierce hills and cold forests. Now my guts set me for it.
But I did wonder about Kailen too. Kailen’s Twenty must have split up near fifteen years ago. We were guarding the royals of Citadel Argir, the king and his two children. He was on his way out, the king, paid us off, and by then of course we were fighting each other, sodden with the brews, snuffs and drink. Kailen saw it–we were embarrassing, not tight with each other like we were before–so he called it.
There were ructions of course. Kailen got us all rich, got the victories, read the wars and leaders and picked us right for gold and glory. The crew went their separate ways, alone or a few together. Me and Shale banded up because we were tight from early when Kailen picked us up. Some stayed a while with Kailen but the stories from the Post and caravans dried up as our legend faded.
Seems like he went back to Harudan as I’d thought; he wouldn’t have kept looking for a purse with shittier men when he had his gold and family connections at home with the aristos. He had nothing to prove; hand to hand he was unbeaten, though we were all unsure he would’ve beaten Shale. First time they fight, Shale landed awkward and Kailen waited for his foot to heal before they went at it again, which they did with nobody watching. He wasn’t telling how it come out though, and Shale was the only other man I ever saw unbeaten with a sword, duel or otherwise.
Shale had been wondering about whatever was the cause of all this, our being taken by the Post and Kailen being in trouble, and spoke of it one night a few days out of the Hills as he prepped a rabbit.
“Don’t know who could still be havin’ a problem with the Twenty all these years on. How many of us are still warrin’, Gant, takin’ purses? You see the lifers fallin’ down, only the gold we made could get us the prep an’ strains from the best recipe books. Harudanian an’ Juan drudharchs been preppin’ all our mixes fer years. Most o’ the brews out there just breaks soldiers up, sends ’em mad. Ibsey were mixin’ up some fierce stuff fer us to rise on. Stixie Four, Digs, Sword Sho, Ibsey an’ all, none could run the forms for the shakes an’ drink. Fuck it, Gant, any one o’ those kids we hit back on that ambush could have dropped more’n a few of us at the end, never mind now.”
Said well. I couldn’t even keep Kailen’s weapon forms right these days; my knees were going, my back can only straighten out with a compound of black sugar oil or salmon oil and copper salts. I look in a bowl of water and I see only bits of hair between all the scars and burns and my skin’s greening over my usual mash of colour, because of the compound. I look like I’m covered in mould. Pair of us got our ritual for the oils for each other. He’s less fucked than me, but he needs the iridus oils dropping in his eyes and his shoulder needs treating when it flares up.
He did his best with the wound each day, cleaning and dressing it up. We got some maggots for it but all in all I could feel it creeping into me, sore like I been punched through.
We got to Hevendor and down through it peaceful. The Crag was a big riverport for the East-West passage, part of the network what made up the Hiscan Road. Old Kingdoms shinies, plant, wines and stuff went east; slaves, skins, metals and other plant come back. Not much went south with the river as it cut through the Ten Clan lands. They’ve been good purses on and off these last few years, mind.
We followed a caravan in, wagons of slaves looking at us with the light out of their eyes, only enough sense left in them to eat. They were on the Droop. Most had the shakes and were whining for it. None needs shackling when they’re on the Droop.
It was only as we headed for the Slums to find some gangers that we saw the streets and alleys were full of militia, all over the roofs and all, with a thick pall of smoke over everything. A lot of buildings there had fallen down and burned, rioting had got widespread it seemed and I never saw so many soldiers except when a town or city was besieged. There was wreckage everywhere, stalls turned, bodies piled up or strewn about; the deadcarts and their hooded crews were overworked. A lot of Post were about as well, so we found an inn to put the horses with so we could go in on foot, quick and quiet. Whoever was after Kailen had called for a scorching, and if a scorching had happened we could see we’d missed it. Weren’t good odds for him if he had militia and Reds against him and a few gangers, but he’d made it through worse, and I was looking forward to seeing him.
Destination: Candar Prime, Q2 670 OE
Eastern Sar Main routed
CONFIDENTIAL FOR THE RED ONLY
Report of: Fieldsman 84
Debriefing of: Marschal Laun. Guildmaster Alon Filston of Filston-Blackmore Guild.
Marschal Laun, assigned to Galathia, has reported a further mercenary killed, in the Virates, a place called Povey’s Valley. It is another of the long disbanded mercenary crew Kailen’s Twenty. His name was Sho. As previously reported, Digs and Connas’q of that same crew have been pursued and killed through the purse of Galathia’s husband, Alon Filston.
Marschal Laun’s report refers to an unknown individual present at Sho’s execution, that the Marschal suspects was there also to kill Sho. Marschal Laun escaped with Galathia and the rest of her crew, at the loss of an Agent Kolm and four Reds, as per her duty to protect Galathia. This would-be assassin has not surfaced since.
I reprimanded Marschal Laun and Alon Filston for indulging Galathia, as per your instruction. Both were reminded of their instruction to ensure Galathia’s safety while we lay the groundwork for her reinstatement to the throne of Argir. Marschal Laun was reminded again that Galathia’s pursuit of mercenaries once of the crew Kailen’s Twenty was explicitly forbidden.
She is clearly frustrated by our concern that Galathia is not being kept safely enough. She requests recognition that judgement of risk remains hers and she requests recognition that the pursuit of targets of no political value accords with our overall goal, while also asking that we recognise these targets are so important to Galathia she believes it would be impossible to persuade her, short of physical restraint, from pursuing them. She also requests recognition through the accompanying field reports that her targets were isolated and incapacitated before Galathia was exposed to them. I made clear it was our view that the state of the Ten Clan and Red Hills in high summer, particularly a summer our Post Houses report is the worst they’ve witnessed, was a great deal more risk than she should have been exposed to irrespective of the threat her targets posed as experienced mercenaries engaging in their own field operations.
Alon Filston was instructed to coordinate with his allied guilds, the Darrun-Luke Family of the Citadel Eural and our Reeves regarding signatures for a new ruling council and re-investiture of his wife Galathia and her royal line in Argir.
However, Galathia’s pursuit of the Twenty continues. Gant and Shale of the Twenty have been captured by Agent Gilgul’s crew, who were recruited by Filston via Marschal Laun. The arrest was made without incident in the northern Red Hills Confederacy (their purse was to counter a border incursion by the Blackhands). Kailen himself has also been identified at the Crag, Hevendor. Galathia’s intention is to apprehend and kill them all, utilising Laun and a further complement of Reds, the additional fees covered also by Filston.
As instructed, I forbade the pursuit and apprehension of Kailen as a highly dangerous target. I have instructed Filston to broach the subject of her return to the throne and I have suggested how this may be done. I have instructed the Private Cleark to begin drafting a speech for such an occasion, as well as instructed him to engage Juan and Mount Hope metal workers to fashion gifts and prepare a banquet for the nobles she will be returning to.
Expecting, regarding Kailen, that my order may not be enforced, I have informed the High Reeve of Hevendor and Crag officials to give help where required. In all respects except for controlling Galathia’s wilfulness, Marschal Laun has won her confidence and friendship and will be a close ally in steering her opinion in our favour.
Instructions to the High Reeve regarding Kailen, with a briefing of the Indra Quarter, have been provided.
For the audio listeners among you, check out the audio recording of the first chapter, read by Joe Jameson.