Alymndes 17: New Order

Early the following day, Gerhart led a sizeable force chosen among the fittest and hardiest of this Knights and Walkyries and a host of warriors personally chosen by Umatar for the grim task of surveying the razed city of Montreduc. Alfred and Arnaud had been left behind to take care of the field hospital and to wait and prepare for the arrival of the rest of the Beaucastel’s army.
Just a mile off the city and beside the road leading to it they found the destroyed camp of the Royal Vanguard. The corpses of the murdered Knights and Walkyries and their mounts had been left to rot in the open. The King ordered a company to stay and begin the interment and funerals before they continued to the ill-fated town.
They discovered the gate open. Both sides of the road were littered with the dead bodies of people who had apparently tried to flee the massacre in vain. Other bodies could be seen lying under the walls and hanging across the parapets.
Before passing through, the King told everyone to cover his or her mouth and nose for fear of disease. Amrel and Umatar ignored the advice, though. They were presently locked in communication with the minds of Dargelblad, Numnir, Ekan and their Father. The latter had reached them unheralded, alerted by his senses of a grave situation. They were all looking at the horrendous scenes through the eyes of the Blue and Golden Dragons.
If they had thought they had seen the worst outside, they were in for a terrible shock when they penetrated the city. Horrors upon horrors lay in wait from them. The streets were strewn with cadavers. Most of them women but also some of young men who had obviously been dragged out of their homes to be raped and tortured on the streets, squares and public gardens. Here and there the bodies of dead children, their heads smashed or completely missing had been thrown in fountains, on trees and on the ground. Quite a few adults and youngsters were found hung, impaled or quartered. Whole buildings filled with people of all ages had been put to torch and left to burn after their doors had been barred and blocked.
No a single soul had escaped. Had it not been for Hildegard’s providential escape, it would have taken days or months to learn what had befallen the city and its inhabitants. And nobody would have been the wiser.
Geoffroy and Birghit were livid. Some soldiers could be heard excusing themselves to retch away from the scenes and come back shaking.
Hard-bitten Maheut was openly crying.
He-Who-Stands-Upright riding alongside her muttered through clenched teeth:
“I thought we had enough reasons to fight together! I shall not be appeased until the last one of those monsters disappears from the surface of the earth!”
Gerhart croaked:
“Let’s leave this place! There’s not much we can do for them now! We shall come back later! Before that…”
An appalled Marghrete cried out:
“Gerhart! How can you be so callous! Have you lost all your senses!”
The King faced his wife. He pulled down the cloth covering his face. His face was distorted with rage and pain.
Cold words came out of his mouth for all to hear:
“My Queen! We have another cleansing to do first! Once we are done with it, I promise we shall come back to this place and honor its citizens, clean it and rebuild it! Now, let’s move out of here!”
He turned his horse and, without any further word, he went back through the city gate.
Geoffroy called to the assembled riders:
“You’ve heard the King! Back and out!”
Everyone obeyed without any comment.
Amrel and Umatar came alongside a distraught Queen. Amrel put her hand on the woman’s arm.
“Marghrete, Gerhart is right. He means you and his entire people well. Now is the time to set a new order and rule. The living have to do it for the memory of the departed. We shall look after their dignity later!”
Marghrete looked at the Blue Dragon through tears:
“But why did they commit such unspeakable horrors to innocent people? Why? Tell me, Jay!”
“We shall soon know. And when we know, we will make sure that never happens again!”
But she was not convinced herself. She doubted that they would ever learn the reasons and full truth behind that sudden religious fanaticism and its dire consequences. Even if they did, they would be hard put to explain them. The best they could do was to prevent further similar occurrences by creating a new order and code of laws that would have to be respected all over Beaulieu.
Back at camp, Gerhart immediately called for a council of war.
In a large tent erected for that purpose, he had gathered the old and new members of his entourage:
His wife Marghrete, Queen of Beaulieu; Geoffroy d’Arcourt, Captain of the Royal Knights and Walkyries, Sergeant Birghit, his second-in-command, and Corporal Maheut were surrounding him. The three soldiers’ ranks respectively corresponded to Earl, Knight Bachelor and Knight in the noble hierarchy. An earl had the right to wear his own badge or coat of arms, a blue dragon on a white field in the case of Geoffroy. A Lieutenant would be a Knight Banneret and could carry a rectangular banner with the arms of his or her family, and a Knight Bachelor would be granted a triangular pennant of the same. A Knight would not be allowed to carry any special mark of his nobility status, but would be addressed as such. Walkyries could benefit from exactly the same ranks and honors as they were considered as fighters of their own, whereas women married into nobility might carry their husbands’ titles and arms, or their fathers’, if not married or divorced. Knights without a rank, and Junior Knights were called Swords in military parlance. Boys and girls could serve as pages until the age of sixteen.
Also present were Knight Banneret Gilles d’Estrees and Knight Bachelors Bertrand and Rigobert d’Estrees, his younger brothers. The King had invited Nepomucene de Beauvoir, too, as he needed the political support of the young nobles who had joined his party. If some good sense could be thrust inside the insolent courtier’s head on top of the present experience acquired during this campaign, he was convinced he could count on the young man and his peers back home in Beaucastel. The noble was at the moment sitting by Alfred de Vigny in a very subdued mood. Arnaud de Betancourt sat in the company of Amrel and Umatar while He-Who-Stands-Upright was found beside Maheut who had elected to stand behind her elders.
Marghrete’s two warrior guards were posted in front of the entrance.
That made fourteen of them and the Queen’s two protectors.
Gerhart reflected that his entourage was growing by the day. Where not so long ago he had found himself surrounded by a host of useless sycophants bent on feasting and drinking, he now possessed a real court formed of individuals that could either counsel him or lend him personal clout in affairs of state. His days of indolence and idleness seemed so far in the past.
Now he had a mission to accomplish.
His eyes rested on Amrel. Well, he had been chosen for a mission, he corrected himself.
He addressed Geoffroy:
“Captain, would you be kind enough to make a report on our present forces?”
“Yes, Your Majesty!”
He had better be formal in front of the new arrivals.
“We have three thousand mounted Knights, Walkyries, nobles and their retainers, including Junior Knights. One thousand mounted men-at-arms have been rounded up by Gilles d’Estrees and his fellow nobles. We also have four hundred healthy pikemen. I was told by Gilles d’Estrees here, that two hundred archers as well as a sizable number of miners and engineers would reach us by the morrow. Surgeons, equipment, food, fodder and water are coming, too!”
The King turned to the Knight Banneret.
“Gilles d’Estrees, son of Earl Charles d’Estrees, once again you have our thanks for all the good work and the unqualified support you graced us with in that moment of dire need!”
The young noble bowed in his chair.
“Your Majesty, I’m honored to serve you!” Waving a hand in denial, “But I’m afraid we have reached an overkill situation. As far as I know, Simon de Montjoie’s army has been all but eradicated. Do we really need to bring all our troops to their city?”
Arnaud de Betancourt asked for permission to speak:
“If you would allow me, I would say that, on the contrary, a show of force would provide our army with a sense of common purpose. As unfortunately we shall have to go on more campaigns in the future, the mere reputation of a true Royal Army will prove enough to deter petty conflicts. I do not mean to increase the size of our military might in the future, as this should prove politically and economically dangerous. But if you can rely on a strong army able to move quickly to the right place at the right time, it will save you a lot of trouble. Therefore, you had better start right now! Sorry for the long-winded explanations!”
Gilles d’Estrees waved a deprecatory hand:
“I am the one who apologizes, Judge. I stand corrected.”
Turning to the King:
“What do you propose, Your Majesty?”
Gerhart looked at Geoffroy in mute questioning. The captain readily answered:
“Divide all the pikemen into equal numbers and post them at every entrance of the city backed by archers and Tribesmen. Provide each group with a few miners and engineers in case we need to fence them in. Horses will prove unwieldy in street fighting. Only the people in charge should be mounted. Have everybody else operate on foot. We had better form platoons composed of Knights, Walkyries, nobles and men-at-arms, let’s say in groups of fifty, each led by one mounted officer to be designated beforehand, to cover every quarter of the city. Start from the outskirts and progress towards the central square. There should be enough space to move the whole population in while we clean every building and house. Whatever forces we have left should be posted in front of the main entrance of the city for relief and support if and when needed.
“What do you all think?” asked Gerhart to the assembly.
Everybody nodded in agreement. The plan was sound and simple enough, but left plenty for improvisation.
“Alright! Captain, you organize the platoons. Confer with Birghit and Gilles d’Estrees to nominate each officer. I shall lead the vanguard through the main gate as soon as we have opened it. I will remain, let’s say, fifty paces inside and station there while you, Birghit, Gilles d’Estrees, his brothers, and Maheut fan out with the main corps of our army. Nepomucene de Beauvoir, you stay by my right side. You shall be my aide-de-camp during the whole affair!”
Turning around to his wife in a no-nonsense voice:
“Marghrete, you shall stay outside with She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons, Arnaud, Jay and Alfred until we have hemmed the entire population in the center of their city. Only then, will you come in and join me when I shall have to declare the fate of Montjoie. The town will be crowded enough with all that soldiery around. When everything is ready, I shall send for you and we shall make our appearance as one single unit to show everyone who is in charge now! All right! Ladies and Gentlemen, we have work to do. Let’s move!”
Two days later, just before noon, Beaucastel’s army was standing in front of Montjoie. The main gate was closed. A twenty-foot high rampart and a moat surrounded the whole city. The wall was interspersed with watchtowers guarding each entrance. As the fortified town was sheltering over twenty thousand souls in time of peace, many openings had to be made in those walls to allow free movement of the populace and army. All gates were closed and bridges drawn up at the present time. But as the entire army of Montjoie had been exterminated, Gerhart doubted there would be enough defenders to man the whole perimeter which must have measured at least three or four miles with a score of minor gates in addition to the main portal and its square tower. But before investing the place, he had first made sure that no one could come out by immediately dispatching platoons at each exit as planned two days before.
Now, how could that place be breached with the minimum of casualties?
He turned to Geoffroy:
“Captain, what do you know of the castle gate?”
Geoffroy had become familiar with the place from regular reports, although these had stopped a while ago.
“Behind the drawbridge, you will find a portcullis, probably down at the moment. Behind it, openings make it a killing field if you allow defenders to shoot their arrows through them. But I know no simple parade to that. Even if we manage to lower the bridge, the portcullis will be a problem, as it is managed with chains and pulleys from above. A roof protects the top platform of the gate tower, so it will be difficult to storm. The only feasible way to invest the place is to bypass the castle gate, fill the moat at different spots along the wall to roll siege towers against the rampart. But the engineers will need at least two days to build them. We do not have large enough ballistae to break the wall. We certainly cannot afford a long siege to starve them.”
“Since neither force nor patience will serve us, we shall have to use stealth to attain our purpose as quickly as possible!”
“Sire, I’m afraid stealth is not the Royal Knights or Walkyries’ forte!”
Gerhart emitted a grim laugh:
“I know that too well, Captain! No, I had somebody else in mind. We shall have to call on She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons’ warriors again!”
He turned to Umatar who stood on her horse only a few paces back:
“She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons! Once again, we shall have to ask for your good services! I was planning to ask your Tribesmen to penetrate that city’s defenses under cover at night. If we make a show of concentrating our forces in front of the castle gate and leave only a token guard at each entrance, do you think your warriors would have a chance to enter at one, or even better, at many points simultaneously?”
“If you wait until night, it should not prove too difficult. Pretend to mass your forces in front of the castle gate as you said. Tell everyone to make much noise as well. That should draw their defenders’ attention enough. Then under cover of dark, instruct your platoons to steal back in front of each entrance. When our soldiers have secured these, they shall open each portal to let our forces inside. Next, upon an arranged signal, all our forces can start moving toward the center of the city, taking our enemies piecemeal.
“Good plan! But how will your warriors penetrate the walls?
“With lassoes, of course!”
Umatar smiled at Gerhart, as if she was facing a puzzled pupil.
“Alright. Let me explain: throwing hooks at the end of ropes over the walls could be a solution. But there is the risk of noise. On the other hand, lassoes will not be heard when they catch a crenellation inside the din you will make. Climbing the walls will be child’s play!”
“What about the moat?”
“Just swim across it, of course!”
“Dirty work! I wouldn’t fancy swimming or even wading into that murk!”
“Warriors have been through worse! If I know them well, they will probably enjoy the challenge!”
Gerhart smiled back at the Golden Dragon.
“I think we will have to find an appropriate name for your Tribesmen’s army! They are too far specialized for us!”
“I’m sure they will come up with something grand and pompous to saddle you with, believe me!”
The King laughed at her remark. Then, suddenly becoming serious:
“She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons, could you make sure that your warriors know they have to dispose of any defender wearing the hammer Arms insignia at once, but to capture others with as little harm as can be managed!”
A grim Umatar replied:
“Count on me to instruct them on that fine point! The Free tribes of the Desert have taken all that senseless and horrendous killing back in Montreduc as a personal insult. No man wearing the Hammer will live in that city tomorrow!”
Nothing else needed to be said for the moment.
Gerhart ordered their camp to be made on the meadows facing the castle gate. While soldiers and Tribesmen went at work, he assembled his war council again to explain the plan proposed by Umatar. Everybody readily agreed this was the best they could think of, and acted accordingly. Only token squads were left at each portal, but each platoon leader was instructed to steal back to their position after dark as quickly as possible, after having changed to suitable garb to melt unseen into the night. A password was agreed upon to prevent any confusion among themselves, or an escape attempt by any inhabitant who might try to steal through a side entrance after the initial assault.
All the rest of the army was asked to pretend revelry and insouciance, although indulging in beer or wine was strictly forbidden.
Soon, figures could be seen gathering behind the crenellations on top of the main gate.
Gerhart’s army ignored them and continued shamming a noisy binge until night fell and many more hours later.
All the while, the King and his entourage kept a discreet eye for hidden vantage points, behind tents planted in the midst of the army.
The defenders seemed to have come to the conclusion that their foes were not keen on assaulting their city until at least the next day. Fewer guards and sentinels appeared behind the parapets, obviously taking turns to sleep instead of staying on full alert.
Past midnight, while the rest of the army continued their deception, going through the motions of degenerating parties, the platoons were sent back to their positions at each gate.
The Tribesmen first opted for two opposite locations between the castle gate and the middle of the perimeter wall. There defenders would feel more secure, being nearer to the main defense than to the back of the city, where a natural sense of insecurity would make them more cautious and attentive to danger. The sentinels would have to be necessarily fewer in some places because of the complete loss of their army.
A couple hours before dawn, when men would be at their most sluggish for lack of sufficient sleep, the warriors threw their lassoes around the crenellations near a portal carefully chosen left of the castle gate. Each fell into place and pulled taut. After waiting for a while to ascertain they had not been heard or noticed, the warriors silently swam across the moat until they reached the bottom of the walls where they grasped the dangling ropes. Once more they waited to make sure no one had heard them. They then started climbing. On the ground archers had their arrows knocked in and bows pulled back, ready to shoot any sentinel who had the misfortune to show up. When the warriors reached the crenellations, they halted again to wait for the signal indicating all was clear. Their kin soon hooted the cry of an owl to signify they should proceed. Agile shadows were seen jumping over the parapet to disappear behind the battlement.
The warriors on the ground communicated the success of the operation around the city past the castle gate to the next portal where Tribesmen repeated the strategy without a hitch. Indeed, there must have been very few soldiers left by Simon de Montjoie before he departed to meet his demise.
Maheut and He-Who-Stands –Upright led the first platoon as soon as the bridge at the left portal was lowered. They had agreed beforehand that the larger part of their group would proceed along the battlement parapet in the direction of the castle gate to overwhelm it while a token number would secure the portal and bar the way to any would-be escapees. He-Who-Stands-Upright had made them change their sturdy boots for light moccasins to move as silently as possible. Maheut and the other Royal Guards had felt embarrassed at their incongruous attire. She had almost screamed in protest when the Tribesman asked the Corporal and her soldiers to smear ash on their faces, armor and weapons, as well as get rid of any colorful artifacts before moving in wait for the assault signals. For her part, Maheut had braided her own hair and tucked it inside the high collar of her jerkin. As she was pretty certain that all the platoons had been similarly advised, she did not worry about the comments and jokes they would have had to put up with, once day broke.
The warriors had done their job well.
They found a couple of sentinels bound and gagged inside the portal tower. They also met with the sight of a soldier in full armor bearing the Hammer tabard sprawled on the flagstones. His throat had mercilessly been cut from ear to ear, preventing any sound to come out of his mouth as he quickly died. Maheut nevertheless stooped to check the corpse, but as her lover did not even spare a glance for the defunct fanatic, she hurried after him. She came to reflect they had made terribly efficient allies of the denizens of the Steppes.
They reached the castle gate without meeting anyone. Either the city was severely undermanned, or its defenders had lost all their notions of warfare.
The square tower communicated with the parapet through a side door. A faint light peered through the narrow opening left by the slightly opened entrance. He-Who-Stands-Upright cautiously stole a look inside. He gestured there were a dozen soldiers inside, that is, in the guardroom at the parapet level. They already knew there were more enemies under the roof of the upper platform of the tower, and more in the rooms at ground level on both sides of the porch formed by the main entrance with embrasures to allow defenders to shoot assailants rushing through it.
The warrior signaled all the soldiers were asleep or resting. They probably used the first floor room as a dormitory while sentinels stayed upstairs to observe the outside from a higher vantage. Any enemies posted at ground level should be easy to isolate from upstairs, but the guards on the top platform might prove a thorny problem.
Maheut made the sign of a hammer hitting her palm.
Her lover showed three fingers.
She replied by raising her forefinger across her throat, to signal they would have to be taken care of in priority in no uncertain manner.
She made to move towards the door when He-Who-Stands-Upright put a restraining hand on her chest. She looked askance at him. She also hoped no Royal Guard had seen the familiar gesture towards her person. She would have to impress on her lover that this kind of intimacy in public could not be acceptable even if she did not make any secret of her relations. The warrior sensed her embarrassment and winked at her, but nevertheless asked her to keep quiet with a finger on his lips.
His hand went inside his jerkin and came out with a small device made of a piece of wood with a tiny metal tongue. He placed his thumb on the metal tongue and started to press release it in quick succession. The sound produced was reminiscent of a cricket noise at night.
Soon enough, a similar sound could be heard from the other side of the castle gate. In spite of the tower mass separating them from the other platform, the chirping could travel clearly through the night. For a while, messages were apparently exchanged in that manner.
At last, it ended, and He-Who-Stands-Upright turned to Maheut. Motioning her forward, he brought his face to her ear, and shielding his mouth with his hand, he started:
“Maheut, the other platoon is at the door on the other side. It is also open. So, we are to rush into the room at the same time at our signal. The Tribesmen go in first and will take care of the soldiers with the Hammer. You and your friends over there must grab and silence the other soldiers. We have to be as quick as possible, and finish our work with as little noise as possible! Tell everybody else!”
This sounded good enough to Maheut in the present circumstances. She communicated her orders, leaving the way ahead to the other Tribesmen. They all stood ready to rush inside at the signal of He-Who-Stands-Upright who had lifted a hand to forestall any untimely haste from the other members of their group.
A night owl’s hooting was heard.
“Now!” hissed the chieftain, already storming inside with other fellow Tribesmen.
The Walkyrie and her chosen Royal Guards followed hard on their heels.
As she entered, she saw like in a dream the three Hammer soldiers fall back with knives in throats and heads before they could sit up or raise a sword. The nine remaining soldiers were opening their sleepy eyes, more out of instinct than anything else, as all their foes moved on them fast and silently, putting merciless hands over their mouths and swords across their exposed necks.
“Not a sound, or that’s the end of you!” Maheut hissed to the one that she was helping to immobilize. She signed all their other victims to be gagged and tied down.
When that was done, she addressed her prisoner in a very low voice:
“We are going to let you talk. But do it as quickly as possible, or you shall suffer from it!” she brought up the tip of her sword under the man’s chin to emphasize her words.
“How many upstairs?”
The soldier, obviously not willing to risk his life, raised a trembling open hand to indicate five.
“Do they carry the hammer?”
The man’s head bobbed affirmatively.
Maheut ordered under her breath:
“Gag him! We have to talk!”
She rose on her feet and called He-Who-Stands-Upright with a wave of her hand to join her in a far corner of the room, gesturing everyone to keep quiet. They had little time to confer. Somebody could come down at any time, although they would heed him well in advance.
She murmured to the warrior chief:
“There are five Hammer men upstairs. We could easily isolate them, but they control the bridge and portcullis. The stairs going up to the platform are too narrow to lead a successful attack. We might lose half of our people before one had a chance to break through. Moreover, they could simply close the access too easily. We have to lure them down. Do you have any idea?”
He-Who-Stands-Upright thought for a while.
A thin smile lit his grimy face.
“Take all the prisoners out quietly and arrange the dead Hammer bastards to look as if the guard had decided to kill them and run the hell out of the place. Then we run out of the room with much noise and leave the doors open. We wait for them outside. They won’t see us before they get used to the dark of the night. That’s when we strike!”
A conniving smile appeared on Maheut’s face, too.
She gestured their comrades to take the prisoners out in silence immediately while she waited at the bottom of the stairs. They managed to clear the place without raising their enemies’ suspicion. The latter must have been quite sleepy. Now was the time to wake them up as rudely as possible!
She grasped a low stool and threw it crashing against the wall with a bang and signed the remaining soldiers and Tribesmen to run out of the place. They made sure to slam the doors with enough force to have the men upstairs believe their former comrades in arms had decided to leave in a hurry.
They waited just outside the doors concealed inside the shadow of the parapet wall.
Soon enough, a commotion was heard from inside. Somebody shouted in alarm and called for others. Then they heard people scurrying downstairs with angry screams and curses.
A voice, probably that of the officer in command, shrieked over the din:
“You two, take the left door and chase them! I want them alive! We shall make an example of that scum! You two, come with me!”
Upon hearing this, Maheut raised three fingers to confirm how many were coming on their side and gestured every one to crouch against the wall, while she posted herself beside the door.
She had just hid herself when the three hammer soldiers ran outside onto the parapet.
As soon as the last one had passed the entrance, she grabbed the door and slammed it shut, blocking the way back and shouted:
“No quarters!”
There was not much of a fight. The hammer soldiers, momentarily caught in complete darkness, did not stand a chance against their lurking foes.
A tribesman’s axe fell across the face of the first one with a sickening thud, two swords pierced through the exposed flank of the second one, and a vicious swipe of Maheut’s sword sent the head of the third one flying over the wall.
“Back into the castle gate tower!” she screamed.
Their friends on the other side proved they had quickly dispatched the two remaining guards as they almost simultaneously entered the room. The Corporal ordered the three corpses left inside to be taken out, while she cautiously climbed the stairs followed by He-Who-Stands-Upright.
They found the roofed platform empty. There must have been little love lost between the Hammer soldiers and the rest of the population for another guard to betray them so easily.
She slid her sword back into its scabbard while the warrior lowered the knife he had been holding high above her in case he had to back her up.
Now came the second part of the general plan.
She grabbed He-Who-Stands-Upright’s jerkin to draw him to her and planted a kiss on his lips. The Tribesman’s eyebrows mocked in question.
A smile came on Maheut’s ash-stained face:
“That’s for touching my breast in public! All right, we shall have plenty of time to joke later! Can you check with your Tribesmen that the whole perimeter of the city has been secured!”
“Aye, aye, Corporal! Right away, Corporal!” he laughed, running downstairs.
Maheut shouted for the prisoners to be brought inside the castle gate while she went to the crenellated opening. She cared little to be heard by any remaining enemies on the ground level or inside the city nearby. They would be dead meat if they ever thought of venturing to retaliate.
Before putting her head through, she brought her fingers to her mouth and whistled three times. She then leaned out of the fortification and signaled to the soldiers coming below that the castle gate had been taken.
She went back downstairs, instructed four soldiers to move above to man the bridge and portcullis later.
She ordered two Tribesmen to guard the prisoners and told everyone else to rest until the final operations would start at the break of dawn.
He-Who-Stands –Upright came back some time later to inform her that his messages had all been answered affirmatively.
“Alright! Now we wait until first light and the King’s orders to proceed with the last phase of our mission.
The King and the Queen were not asleep.
Actually, none of his retinue was. They were all staying under a large tent with food and drinks waiting for news from inside the city of Montjoie. Nevertheless, cots had been made ready for tired people. Marghrete had slept a few hours on Amrel’s urgent advice. Arnaud had also decided to lie down, too. But a messenger had just asked permission to enter the Royal tent.
“Please, let him in!” told the King.
A young Royal Blue Knight Guard entered and smartly saluted Gerhart and his court.
“Permission to speak, Sire!”
“At ease, Royal Guard! Please deliver your message!”
“Our troops, that is, the Royal Guards, the Walkyies, the Tribesmen and our allies have secured the castle gate and the whole city perimeter. They shall proceed to the second phase of their mission at the break of dawn, and shall lower the bridge and raise the portcullis once the whole population has been gathered on the main square for your Majesty’s address!”
“My personal thanks, Royal Guard! Before you go back to your duties, would you be kind enough as to tell the cooks to start serving the morning meal they have been asked to prepare?”
“Yes, Sire! At once, Sire!”
Gerhart returned the Guard’s salute before turning to Nepomucene de Beauvoir.
“Aide-de-camp! Please attend to me! We have a couple of hours to write down the announcements you are to make on my behalf!”
At the break of dawn, the inhabitants of Montjoie were rudely wakened from their beds and literally thrown outside with the bare minimum of decency by grim soldiers who herded them towards the main square.
Only a very few fights broke out, depleted as the defenses were once all sentinels had been taken care of.
Only here and there, Hammer soldiers were discovered guarding access to the main buildings. They were eliminated without mercy. Ghastly discoveries had been made in the dungeons of the inner castle.
In all, a few hours had been enough to gather all the populace in the designated place.
At noon precisely, the bridge was lowered and the portcullis rose to let in the King and his followers who had assembled on horseback in front of the main castle gate.
Gerhart spurred his horse forward through the entrance with Marghrete riding at his left, his aide-de-camp following close behind, preceding his Court, all on their steeds.
The face of the monarch and those of his whole retinue were grim. When they reached the main square, they came to face a crowd, which had been divided into four distinct groups:
On the far left stood the greater including all the lay citizens of Montjoie.
On the right apart of them, three groups were kept separate by lines of Guards and soldiers. The first comprised of boys and girls, the second one of adult women and the third one of adult men.
All belonged to the House of Montjoie and allied noble families or what was left of them.
Very few adult noble men remained indeed. Not a single Hammer tabard could be seen among them.
Maheut, who was nominally in charge of the Beaulieu troops inside the city, shouted:
“The King!”
All Guards and soldiers saluted in their fashion, the Tribesmen simply standing erect in respect.
Gerhart saluted.
“Corporal, come to report!”
Maheut came forward to stand in front of the King’s horse.
“Sire, the whole population of the city has been gathered here for Your Majesty’s attention. No one wearing the hammer is alive. We have searched all the buildings, the inner castle and the dungeons and gathered all evidence for your inspection!”
There she stopped, having some difficulty to control herself.
Gerhart knew what was coming.
-“Yes, Corporal?”
Maheut took a rolled parchment out of her jerkin and handed it directly to the King.
“Sire,” she started with a voice quivering with pent rage, ”here is the list of the men and women we found murdered inside the dungeons!”
Gerhart took the proffered roll and opened it slowly to read its contents.
His face went from grim to livid, his knuckles grew white, and only a supreme effort prevented his body from shaking.
On the scroll were written all the names of the Royal Guards, Blue Knights and Walkyries who were kept posted in Montjoie and Montreduc. He also found all the envoys that he had kept sending over the last couple of years, as well as a few nobles and their whole families who did not belong to the House of Montjoie or their allies.
He slowly rolled the parchment back and handed it to Nepomucene de Beauvoir who had come to his right.
Turning back to Maheut:
“Have you found Etienne de Vasserel?”
“Yes, indeed. We discovered him and his two messengers impaled on stakes inside the Duke’s gardens. These monsters were not beyond killing their own apparently!”
Alfred banged his fist on the pommel of the saddle. He had wanted so much to face and kill the bastard himself. Moreover, evidence had been snuffed out of his grasp. Many questions would be left unanswered. Had it been a sick habit of Simon de Montjoie to kill all his informers? Had the mad fanatic become unable to distinguish between allies and foes? Or had it been a concerted policy? They would probably never know.
Although Maheut’s last comment evidently constituted a breach of discipline, Gerhart thanked her and turned to Nepomucene:
“Aide-de-camp! Read the judgment of the Realm of Beaulieu!”
Gerhart had been careful not to have his name or title mentioned in what he had ordered Nepomucene to write. Real politics were starting now. He needed the full recognition of the nation at this particular moment. All his entourage has perused the document and accepted it in spite of some drastic measures and decisions, which would greatly affect the future of their country.
Gerhart had chosen well when he had picked Nepomucene as his right hand. The man had been keen to prove himself worthy of the honor and had worked himself to the point of exhaustion since that fateful day when they had left the Royal camp to go to war.
The aide-de-camp opened another roll of parchment and began:
“All present, nobles and lay people, hear the judgment of the Realm of Beaulieu: from this day, the Duchy of Montjoie is no more! All men belonging to the former House of Montjoie and to the Houses of their allies are condemned until the end of their days to serve in the work gangs as punishment for their crimes!”
Nepomucene paused as guards clamped irons on the unfortunate men and took them away out of the city. They were directly marched to the Pass. Once they had passed through the gate, the aide-de-camp resumed to a very silent audience:
“Women belonging to the House of Montjoie and those of their allies are to be branded and shall serve until the end of their lives as servants of the Realm. Their first task will be to help clean the cities of Montreduc and Montjoie. Once that has been completed, they shall help clean any city, village or countryside as the Realm sees fit!”
He paused again as guards roughly escorted the screaming and wailing women to quarters chosen for them. Later in the day, they would be marked with a tattoo on their foreheads, have their hair cut short, and would be given the same dress and shoes to wear. From that day on, they would expiate for the horrendous deeds they had allowed or abetted their kin to commit.
Turning to the young, he read on:
“As for children, boys and girls, under fourteen years of age, since they may not be held responsible for their elders’ crimes, they shall depart from Montjoie today to be taken in the care of the Realm in Beaucastel, where they shall receive tuition and counseling!”
Hopefully, they would not be tempted to go back to the town of their birth. Amrel had insisted on that particular point as the condition of her full acceptance of the edict presently announced for all to hear.
Sincerely speaking, Gerhart was washing his hands off the Montjoie’s brood he had no love for. Let Jay take responsibility for that. If she succeeded in making them truly good citizens of Beaulieu, he would be the first to publicly thank her.
Now came the turn of the other inhabitants of the city.
“People of Montjoie, the Realm has decreed that you shall all, except children, older citizens, the sick and lame, begin today the cleansing and rebuilding of the city of Montreduc under the supervision of the Royal officers to atone for the unspeakable acts you have allowed your rulers to commit! Only when Montreduc is ready to shelter humans again, will you be allowed to resume your normal life in Montjoie!”
No answer came from the downcast populace. Some women and children could be heard sobbing in the eerie silence.
Gerhart’s cold voice resonated through the square:
“Does anyone have anything to say?”
For a moment nobody stirred. But finally somebody broke through the ranks of men, women and children. He was a proud old man, soberly dressed and holding a staff for support.
His voice was firm and unafraid when he spoke.
“Sire, in all honesty, how can you hold us all responsible for the atrocities committed by our former lords and nobles since we lay people have never been allowed to bear arms? Do you have any inkling of what kind of society we had been forced to live in?”
Gerhart’s face turned white. Angry murmurs could be heard behind his back.
Marghrete put her right hand on her husband’s.
She addressed the senior citizen in a calm voice:
“Good man, what is your name?”
“Eudes, of the Guild of Craftsmen, Your Majesty!”
The old man had recognized whom he was facing although the Royal Couple did not wear any crown or obvious device of their function, except for the Arms on Gerhart’s tabard.
“Good man Eudes, I do think that my husband has shown great fairness and leniency towards your people. In times not so long ago you could all have been passed through the sword. But that is not our way. You shall understand that a new rule is come onto our nation. Wait until you see Montreduc because you are all going there right away as has been ordered. We said that older people and children were exempt, but you shall represent them and look with your own eyes what savagery and total disregard for humanity have been brought upon its innocent citizens! I have witnessed hard-bitten soldiers cry and swoon at the sight. In turn, I shall have a single question for you: why is that you did not even try to send a messenger outside telling what was occurring in your midst?”
The man did not answer.
Marghrete did it for him:
“At least, I see you have the decency to ponder on what I have just told you and thank you for that. Proceed immediately to Montreduc with your fellow men and women and open your eyes. Your first task will be to give a decent burial to the people of Montreduc. Come and report to us tomorrow morning. We will prove to you furthermore that Montreduc and Montjoie still hold a future for decent citizens of the Realm!”
The old man looked at Marghrete for a while unmoving, but finally bowed deep in profound respect, and started for the main gate, not waiting to be led by guards or soldiers. The Guildsman must have been a respected figure among his society as adult men and women began to follow him. But whereas he walked tall and proud in spite of his staff, his fellow citizens resignedly shuffled along, heads bent and eyes downcast. Guards escorted them, but kept at a distance from them, as if unwilling to share their charges’ coming purgatory.
Gerhart spoke out of the corner of his mouth:
“Thanks, Marghrete! At least, we shall know who to address when that mess is cleaned once for all!”
His wife did not answer. Looking at her, he saw concern and sadness on her beautiful face.
“Let’s go back to camp, shall we?” The Queen belatedly uttered, turning her horse around.
Gerhart followed her example without a word; soon to be followed by the whole mounted force that had come after them inside the ill-fated city.
Geoffroy, Birghit and Alfred stayed behind to organize the cleaning of Montjoie. They also had to put the fallen women of Montjoie to work.
Early the following morning, Gerhart and Marghrete were going through the last preparations inside the council tent with their court before coming out to make some important announcements to their army and forces assembled outside, when a messenger asked for permission to enter.
“Yes?” inquired Gerhart to the guard.
“Eudes, the Guildsman of Montjoie has come as Your Majesties have ordered to do yesterday, Sire!”
“Thanks, guard! Let him in, and be kind enough to wait outside!”
The guard opened the flap of the entrance to the tent and made Eudes come in before he exited.
The man stood at the entrance, waiting for the King’s goodwill.
His mien was pale, his eyes red and the hand holding the staff was shaking in spite of all his efforts to control himself.
The King and his court sat staring at him.
The man must have gone through a harrowing experience the day before, but they were not yet ready to pity him. Only the close confidants and friends of the Royal Couple were present inside the canvas shelter. The soldiers, Geoffroy, Birghit, Maheut and He-Who-Stands-Upright considered the old man with a feeling bordering on cold hatred. Alf and Arnaud were lost in thought. Amrel and Umatar kept a neutral attitude. Marghrete’s bodyguards had retreated to the back and made a point to ignore the whole scene before their eyes.
“Well, Eudes Guildsman of Montjoie, did you sleep well last night?” a mordant Gerhart coldly asked.
The scorn in the King’s voice seemed to slam hard into the lone standing figure of his interlocutor whose shoulders sagged under the weight of the pent anger inside the voice of the Beaulieu sovereign.
The man gritted his teeth, and gripping his staff harder, he slowly replied:
“No, Your Majesty, I did not sleep well and I shall not for a long time to go. What we saw yesterday, no one could have imagined. Great evil has been done, and I agree with His Majesty that we all in Montjoie share the responsibility. We men at least shall spend all our waking hours trying to mend for our former rulers’ crimes for as long as you deem fit!”
The man paused. He had something else to say. All sensed it would bear a great importance on the future of the two cities and the Realm.
He went down on his knees, lay his hands on the beaten earth and head bowed in supplication, he beseeched his King:
“But for the sake of our children and our future generations, I beg His Majesty to reconsider the fate of our women. Too many yesterday swooned and went mad when they discovered what the Montjoie’s army did to Montreduc’s folk! Very few will stay sane today and even less in the days to come if they are forced to return to Montreduc!”
The kneeling man had wanted to say more, but he also knew that he had already uttered enough. He and his people’s destiny rested in his King’s hands.
Gerhart fixed his eyes on the imploring Guildsman for a long time. Everybody else kept silent. This was not their moment. Amrel and Umatar’s minds consciously kept apart of the King’s. It was his decision to make. Even Marghrete had accepted the fact and kept her attention onto the kneeling old man.
After a seemingly unending pause, the King slowly rose on his feet at last.
But instead of addressing the begging citizen of Montjoie, he slowly walked to the entrance of the tent and passed outside. The people inside him heard talking to the guard he had previously told to stay nearby. They heard the guard walk away.
Gerhart came back inside and went to stand in front of the prone man.
“Eudes, Guildsman of Montjoie, stand up and face your King!” he ordered.
He waited until the man had fully stood up and brought his eyes up.
He continued:
“Your people do not deserve you, and I shall despise them for a very long time still! I have ordered your women to be brought back to the city, but they shall work in the company of the Montjoie’s befallen noble women. The only difference is that they shall be allowed enough time to look after their children, homes and men when they come back every night. Moreover, essential food, water, and medicine will be granted to all until the cleansing of both cities has been achieved to my liking. Only when I am fully satisfied that life can resume to its normality, shall I release you from your doom! Even so, the Montjoie’s family will depart to work for the Realm somewhere else, and the governing of your city shall fall under the direct control of the Royal House. Is that clearly understood?”
The Guildsman bowed low.
“My most profound thanks, Your Majesty. All will be done as His Majesty orders!”
Gerhart felt ill at ease with the man’ submission. He still had to come to grips with people referring to him as a King.
“Now, get out of here, but stay outside! I have not finished with you yet!”
The old man bowed low again and walked out.
Gerhart sat back into his chair. He passed a hand over his face. He felt so tired and the day had only just begun.
Marghrete turned to her husband:
“Gerhart, you showed great kindness, but I wonder if they really deserve it!”
“I doubt it,” cut in Amrel before the King could reply. “But this is good politics. Gerhart is learning fast and you all ought to emulate him! There is a time for war, but there is also a time for building the future, and you certainly cannot achieve that by killing everybody for the sake of retribution!”
He-Who-Stands-Upright snorted.
Umatar addressed him:
”That applies to you too, He-Who-Stands-Upright! You had better learn fast, too! I shall not be by your side all the time!”
Gerhart interrupted them:
“Could you bicker about the fine points of politics later? We still have a lot of work to do. Shall we get on with it?”
Without waiting for their agreement, he promptly went out of the tent. They all followed him in a hurry.
Nepomucene de Beauvoir, the aide-de-camp, was waiting for them in the company of Eudes and a few Royal Guards. The whole Beaucastel army, its allies and the Free Tribesmen of the Steppes were assembled in neat rows on the large meadows facing the City of Montjoie.
On the left were the pikemen of Beaucastel. Next to them stood the whole army assembled by Gilles d’Estrees mounted or on foot, followed in the center by the Royal Guards, the Walkyries, the nobles of Beaucastel and their retainers. At the extreme right the Tribesmen sat proudly on their smaller horses. Interestingly enough though, Maheut’s platoon had chosen to the last man and woman to stay among them. Battle created unbreakable bonds and Maheut’s Royal Guards were stating a point by making a deliberate show of it. Maheut and He-Who-Stands–Upright hurried to join them and sat at their fore on their steeds that had been brought by their comrades in arms. Geoffroy and Birghit soon followed their example.
Time had come to reward loyalties as well as consolidate them.
Umatar, Amrel, Alfred and Arnaud stood behind the King and Queen. Marghrete’s guards stood at the back in the company of other Royal Guards with Eudes in their midst.
Gerhart turned to Nepomucene who stood at his right:
“Aide-de-camp, please proceed!”
The young noble unrolled a parchment that had been written the previous evening. As he started reading the document, the audience fell silent, eager not to miss a single word of the announcements that would certainly bring about great and definite changes in the Realm of Beaulieu’s order and hierarchy, notwithstanding noticeable alterations in their everyday life.
“Knight Banneret Gilles d’Estrees and Knight Bachelor Bertrand d’Estrees, sons of Earl Richard d’Estrees, come forward!”
The two nobles dismounted from their horses and walked forward to stop at a respectful distance from their King.
Nepomucene resumed:
“The cities of Montjoie and Montreduc have come under the direct tutelage of the Crown of Beaulieu as the family of Montjoie has forfeited all their possessions and rights for their murderous treachery! Knight Banneret Gilles d’Estrees is offered the Earldom of Montjoie, and Knight Bachelor Bertrand d’Estrees the Earldom of Montreduc!”
A murmur went through the assembled army. The importance of the King’s decision to grant such titles to his followers made it clear once for all who was in charge of Beaulieu’s destiny, as well as the shape of things to come. By making Gilles d’Estrees Earl of Montjoie, he thus helped vacate the succession of Earl Charles d’Estrees in favor of his youngest son Rigobert, since his second son Bertrand was also awarded a similar title, whereas the two younger siblings would have had little hope to achieve such elevated status in spite of joining their elder brother a few days ago to their King’s help. This would bring not only significant political power to the whole family, but also personal wealth once the two cities had been rebuilt. Their followers and retainers would be far more eager to follow and serve. Other allies had received solid proof that their loyalty or political acumen would be rewarded. On the other hand, some nobles back home were in for some nasty surprises.
The aide-de-camp continued:
“Earl Gilles de Montjoie of the Royal House of Beaulieu and Earl Bertrand de Montreduc of the Royal House of Beaulieu, step forward and state your allegiance to the Realm!”
The two nobles stepped forward and made to kneel in front of their suzerain, but Gerhart gestured not to, and instead embraced them in turn in full view of all.
A great shout of approval and rejoice erupted from the d’Estrees army and retainers.
After the two young knights had resumed their place in front of their retinue, He-Who-Stands-Upright was asked to come forward and come to the King.
The Tribesman, somewhat surprised by the request, looked askance at Maheut.
The Walkyrie muttered between her teeth:
“What are you waiting for? Do I have to kick your horse forward?”
With a fatalistic shrug of his shoulders, the warrior kicked his steed.
The people from the big cities had some unfathomable traditions, he thought. Whereas a well-earned name was plenty for the Free Tribes of the Steppes, why did those overdressed men and women on big unwieldy chargers have to go through those long and meaningless talks, when a good story around a fire should be enough?
Taking the cue from his predecessors, he halted his horse at a respectful distance before alighting and walking to the King of Beaulieu.
A smile on Umatar’s face behind Gerhart encouraged him to put up a stolid face and gracefully accept the chore.
The King addressed the warrior in person:
“He-Who-Stands-Upright! In the name of the Realm of Beaulieu, it is my great honor to offer through your person our deepest thanks and eternal gratefulness for the valor and friendship of the Free Tribes of the Steppes. Let it be known to everybody that their leader, She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons shall expect and receive the honors due to a Queen and that her chieftains will rank equal to our highest Lords and ladies! I have spoken!”
He-Who-Speaks-Fair, as Gerhart was already known among the Tribesmen, held his arm forward for the warrior who took the King’s forearm in his hand in the fashion of true friendship in the vast land of his.
The short speech and hearty exchanges were greeted with the Tribesmen’s ululations and their Beaucastel friends’ spontaneous sword beating on their shields. This certainly was not according to the ethics of Royal Knights who should have smartly saluted instead, but nobody on this day would have thought or dared to rebuke them for their lapse of decorum.
The fact was that these Knights and Walkyries who had fought alongside the Tribesmen would be changed forever. Gerhart was already thinking of putting that peculiar relation to good use.
He-Who-Stands-Upright was welcomed back by Maheut:
“See? Nothing to be afraid of!”
“Well, I didn’t have to say anything!”
“ For which we should thank our fate!”
“Do you mind?” retorted her lover, aping one of her favorite repartees.
“I do in fact. And by the way, we have another private meeting with our King and your leader and who else after that ceremony!”
The Tribesman exhaled an uncharacteristic sigh of lassitude.
Truly enough, they were all back inside the Royal tent late in the afternoon.
Gerhart immediately proceeded to the day’s business:
“Alright, Ladies and Gentlemen! As I am planning to leave at once for Beaucastel tomorrow, I want to make sure we agree on some important details first. If I’m going too fast or if you don’t agree, you had better stop me, as it will be too late when the sun rises again!”
As nobody ventured any comment, he carried on:
“Gilles and Bertrand, I’m afraid you shall have to reside here as it is paramount you exert your authority in this time of reconstruction. Rigobert, could you make ready and go back to your father’s estates to tell him the news and arrange for your brothers’ belongings to be brought to Montjoie where they shall both stay until Bertrand can move to Montreduc? Gilles and Bertrand, you two had better choose momentary abodes inside the city, even if you do not plan to sleep there. As soon as Beaucastel’s rebuilding is completed, I shall ask the Dwarves engineers to move over here to overlook the repairs and re-planning of both towns and accompany whatever work gangs we can spare. Alfred here will stay with you to help you devise and establish a local court and government. I would have asked Arnaud to give you a hand but I need him right now in our capital for state reasons. Are the four of you up to the task?”
Things were happening a bit too fast for the concerned individuals. But they all accepted without any reservation. After all, their adventures were only beginning and their instincts told them they were on the right path.
Gerhart turned to his Royal officers:
Geoffroy, although you are still Captain of the Royal Guards, your rank is the equivalent of Earl of the Royal House. Birghit, you are promoted to Lieutenant, that is, you are to be considered as Knight Banneret from now on. Maheut, you are also promoted, as your soldiers shall call you Sergeant, and nobles had better know that you are a Knight Bachelor, although the term seems inappropriate in view of your gender! Arnaud, may I impress on you the need to convince our Council to agree on a proper raise in wages for our new officers?”
Arnaud smiled at the assembly:
“I can venture as far as to say this shall be done in due time!”
“And do not forget Gilles, Bertrand and Alfred, either!” the King shot back.
He had no need to mention to Rigobert that his own role in state affairs would grow, as he had become heir apparent to his father.
Lowering his voice, he beckoned his friends to come closer.
Marghrete’s personal guards were standing at the entrance, attentive to any noise or movement outside.
“What I’m going to tell you next stays and will stay within this circle. Even Earl Charles d’Estrees will have to be kept out. You have seen what kind of mess our late Superintendent had almost thrown us into. I’m certainly not going to allow any kind of so-called secret investigation service we have not full control of. Entrusting that kind of responsibility to a single person is out of question. Therefore, we are all part of it and shall depend on one another’s investigative work. I’m not going to insult you by asking you to swear oaths of loyalty or else. The past days have proven enough that we are all of one mind. Just know that it does not concern only the Free Tribes of the Steppes and the Realm of Beaulieu, but also Dunlago, the Dwarves and the denizens of the Forest of the Elves. Montreduc and Montjoie were only a small part of a much vaster danger threatening the whole of Alymndes. If we can include in our group trusted citizens of the three other nations, so much the better! Hence the urgent need for an Embassy in Beaucastel as we are nearest to the Pass where our main concern is. But I’d rather let better-qualified people explain the situation. Jay, please?”
Amrel started:
”Ladies and Gentlemen, I suppose I owe you some explanations, and they shall come in due time. Talking of time; that is something of which I’m afraid we have not much right now, and I ask you to trust and believe me. During my travels before reaching Beaucastel, I went through Dunlago and even the Forest of the Elves where I have good friends. They had quite a few things to tell me, too. Dunlago has been beset with attacks and kidnappings by slaver boats along their shores. We know for a fact they do not reside inside Alymndes, but come from another land south of the Fire Mountains, as their ships are not built for voyages far away from land. In the Forest of the Elves, one Lord had already been taken over by an alien power like Simon de Montjoie had been before he had to be killed. Moreover, an invasion is feared from the Western shores. She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons will corroborate my information. Actually, the Elves and the Free Tribes have agreed to patrol the land and coast and make sure that anybody sneaking from the South does not escape alive. Finally, the Elves have reinforced their surveillance of the whole Fire Mountains range bordering their Forest. But our main fear is that any attack or invasion from both shores will only prove as a diversion from the main assault, which can only come through the Pass. The building of a fortified wall has already begun there as well as some reconnoitering. The reason we have to be particularly vigilant now is because we do not want any infiltration of any kind in our lands, that is, behind our lines before the final assault hits us at the Pass. Forces darker than we might have imagined are most probably at work! Remember that sudden outbreak of the plague shortly after my arrival in Beaucastel and the later destruction of Tribespeople’s land by a hurricane out of nowhere!”
Arnaud interrupted:
“You said “we thought”. What do you mean by “we”? I seem to miss something very important here, if you do not mind my saying!”
An embarrassed silence settled on the assembly at these words.
Umatar’s voice resonated inside Amrel’s head:
“Shall we tell them?”
“Not yet! Our world is still poised on too fragile a line. We could fall anytime if we do not consolidate its new foundations. We shall have to wait until our brothers join us before we reveal ourselves!”
The Blue Dragon faced the venerable man squarely:
“Difficult to fool a wise man like you, is it not, my dear Judge? You might have already deduced that not only me, but also She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons are more than we might appear. After all, we suddenly landed in your midst without any forewarning and started to suggest or force some changes into your everyday life. Will you be satisfied for the time being if I tell you we are the agents of an entity which has committed itself to the defense of your wellbeing as opposed to an evil force bent on the enslavement or destruction of the whole of Alymndes and its races?”
The Judge looked at Amrel with his sharp eyes.
“We know five races in Alymndes, if we include the Dwarves who have suddenly come out of oblivion. Might I surmise they’re three more of you?”
“Indeed! You have heard or maybe met Ironfoot, the Dwarf, have you not? She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons’ Tribesmen have encountered Wilfred the Elf. The fifth one of us lives in Dunlago, but you should hear of him soon or later. His name is Jonas and he is fast becoming a man of importance among the Races of the Desert and the Sea. The slavers suffered from his hands, I can assure you!”
“And I suppose that is as far you shall reveal yourselves?”
Gazing significantly at the Royal Couple, he added:
“All things in good time… I must admit you have proven more than your worth and I will not discuss the issue any longer. But one day, you shall have to put all your cards on the table, if you understand my meaning!”
Umatar put her hand on the Judge’s arm:
“He-Who-Speaks-The-Law, your King did not ask for personal allegiance from any of us, but would you accept my solemn oath, He-Who-Walks-Upright be my witness, that our lives and existence are for the sole benefit of Alymndes and all its people, whatever their race?”
Arnaud’s eyes went slowly from the Golden Dragon’s face to her tribesman. Something in the eyes of the latter seemed to convince him.
“I shall be honored.” He replied with a bow to Umatar.
Arnaud’s recognition contributed to lift the momentary veil of uncertainty over the meeting.
“Now that you have reached agreement,” Gerhart briskly cut in, “I would like to describe the order of the day for tomorrow: Geoffroy and Birghit, tell the Royal Guards that we are breaking camp at dawn and shall proceed at once to Beaucastel. Send fast messengers ahead to warn all the nobles left there that they will convene to a general meeting at the Royal Palace. No explanation needed. We shall see who bothers to come, and as for those who decide to, let them marinate in their own juices until we arrive. Maheut and He-Who-Stands-Upright, stay as a group of your own and go back to help the Tribespeople with their devastated land. Once you are convinced that our friends can fend for themselves, I would like the two of you to come to Beaucastel. I have a project for both of you. I shall talk of it to She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons first!” he added cryptically before continuing:
“Alfred, as I have already mentioned, you will stay to help with the administration of Montjoie and Montreduc. But Arnaud will come with us. We need his presence and clout to bring some people to heel! I think I have covered everything. Do you have anything to add?”
Amrel answered, addressing Alfred:
“Ah, Alfred! Do not forget to keep Hildegard by your side at all times. I doubt we want her back among the Royal guards for a while yet.”
The former spy rolled his eyes.
“What am I going to do with that mountain of a woman? Shall I have to keep her on a leash?”
“Do you mind? As far as I understand, she knows her letters. So why don’t you make use of her as a clerk or personal assistant? She might even become useful as a personal guard!”
A disgusted Alfred chose to clap up and ignore the last taunt. He knew he had no chance to escape the chore.
Gerhart, not wishing to venture on a slippery terrain, hastily concluded:
“Fine! We seem to be done! See you all at dawn. Until then, good night!”
The atmosphere stank of suppressed anger and rebellion inside the Great Hall of the Royal Palace of Beaucastel.
Gerhart, his court and his Royal Guards had arrived the previous afternoon after almost three days of hard ride. The King and his retinue had pointedly ignored any signs of welcome on their way to their headquarters. Now that the Palace offered them the luxury of an unheard of sanitary system as well as baths thanks to the Dwarves’ hard work, they certainly did not feel inclined to linger around. The whole city was not yet fully blessed with the new facilities and amenities, but the enterprise had come very near its completion. While some citizens had already moved back in, the rest of the population was impatiently cooling their heels. The latter included quite a few nobles who had felt their station deserved a better service.
These made the greater part of the audience convened by their King through his messengers. Not all had chosen to attend, but the majority of the courtesans and hangers-on usually seen fawning on their suzerain and his followers when not gate-crashing parties and meals altogether, had come in the hope of a special reception for the return of their victorious King.
Their surprise had been palpable when they had entered a hall emptied of all its tables and seats. No refreshment of whatever kind had been offered. Some had unashamedly exited the palace in search of more pleasurable occupations. Others had nonetheless decided to stay and had been sharing impressions and comments for the past two hours.
“Marinating in their own juices” was no longer a figure of speech for the overdressed courtiers, but a fact that was becoming increasingly uncomfortable.
The situation threatened to come to a boil when the booming voice of a herald silenced the audience:
“The King! Ladies and Lords! The King!”
Instead of the King entering first, two columns of Royal Guards and Walkyries in full battle regalia penetrated the Hall to wedge a way inside the crowd between the door and the Throne to then face the audience and bar any of its members from the path of their ruler.
Gerhart entered with Marghrete at his side immediately followed by the Judge and Rockcleaver, a dour-looking Dwarf who was the leader of the denizens of the Kingdom Under The Mountain presently living in the capital. Behind the four of them came Amrel and Umatar. The latter’s arrival drew exclamations of surprise and wonder. Geoffroy and Birghit closed the procession in the company of the Queen’s personal guards from the Steppes. If Umatar had caught the onlookers unaware, the two Tribesmen quickly became the source of an unfathomable mystery for the city-bound courtiers. On an elevated dais four chairs had been installed on both sides of the Royal Throne.
Gerhart waited until Marghrete, Amrel and Arnaud on his right side, and Umatar and Rockcleaver on his left had sat on their respective chairs before taking his own place on the Throne. Geoffroy and Birghit came to stand in front of Gerhart at the feet of the dais. The two officers were carrying swords and held their belts in both hands. Marghrete’s guards stood behind the Queen in full view of the audience.
Gerhart waited until absolute silence had come over the audience.
The cold looks on the faces of the Royal Guards and the sullen appearance of their ruler and court had finally driven out the notion of a coming revel from everybody’s head.
Gerhart rose from his chair and stood facing the assembly.
He was dressed in clean campaign gear with his Arms embroidered on his padded doublet. Only a thin golden circlet holding his hair denoted his status of Ruler of Beaulieu. He was bearing no weapons, but certainly did not need any.
All his companions had discarded court dress and ceremonial clothing for more practical garments of modest colors. Umatar and the Tribesmen wore no feathers or beads but uniformly brown skin jackets or jerkins on top of tight-fitting pantaloons partly hidden by light suede boots. Arnaud wore his Judge robes, whereas one could not say whether Rockcleaver sported a smith apron or leather-made armor. He kept his enormous arms crossed on his chest and beard, his eyes fixed on the courtiers.
His hands holding the buckles of his belt, Gerhart addressed the crowd:
“Citizens of Beaulieu and Beaucastel!”
He was omitting any title on purpose, putting everybody on the same footing.
“The Royal Guards and army of Beaucastel have successfully eradicated the land of a dire peril in the former Duchy of Montjoie! But there is little joy to be gotten out of this feat. The Duke of Montjoie and his whole army are dead. The city of Montreduc had been raped and burnt with all its inhabitants. The whole nobility of Montjoie has been stripped of all their rights and severely punished. Etienne de Vassarel has been found traitor to the Realm and died at his own accomplices’ hands, thus escaping from just retribution. But had it not been for the providential help of the Free Tribes of the Steppes and some faithful friends, the Estrees Family in particular, you would have welcomed an army of raving fanatics in our stead and horribly suffered from it! What happened to Montreduc would have been your lot at this very moment! We succeeded because some citizens answered our call for help. They have been duly rewarded for their friendship and bravery. Gilles d’Estrees was granted the Earldom of Montjoie and his brother Bertrand that of Montreduc, although they are facing an overwhelming task to rebuild the two cities. Other rewards will come soon to all who came to our rescue!”
Gerhart paused for a while to let the news sink in.
Expressions on the faces of many members of the assembly started to show a real worry. The more intelligent realized they were in for a very disagreeable moment.
The King’s voice was grim when he resumed:
“You have noticed that all people present in this assembly did not make the journey to Montjoie. Some of you are obviously to be excused, as their work and station did not preclude to war service. They have been called for the main purpose of informing them of some reforms and decisions to be taken. But others could and should have come to our help, but decided against it. I care little for their reasons. As for the ones who have opted not to be present at this meeting, they shall be dealt with shortly. To all nobles who had the ability to help us but chose not to, I shall only say this: I am not going to ask for or take any military retaliation against them, or even punish them in any manner. On the other hand, they shall be asked to leave this court where they shall not be fed and entertained for free any more. You have seen with your own eyes how the Dwarves have helped us make this city a better place to live in. Well, I’m afraid your cities and abodes are not on our list of recommendations any more, at least until you have proven your worth!”
Turning to the Dwarf:
“Master Rockcleaver, may I ask you to repeat to everybody in this assembly what you have told me before entering this Hall?”
“Sure I will, Sire, although I shall make myself short this time!” the unmoving denizen of the Mountain grunted. “Loyalty to King and friends is the only quality that Dwarves cherish! True and loyal people ought to be rewarded, the rest to be ignored! I have spoken!”
This was bad news indeed for all the nobles assembled.
How were they going to explain to their own people, servants and who else back in their lands that they were not going to benefit from the improved life enjoyed in the Capital? The more conceited among them would have to say good-bye to their Arms made of stained glass like those of their King. The more practical understood that even the teaching of new techniques such as glazed pipes would not be granted to their craftsmen who will be sorely tempted to leave their cities or lands to move to Beaucastel. How long would it take them to recover their King’s trust?
Others were entertaining darker thoughts when they heard Gerhart resuming his speech.
“As for reforms, I shall leave Arnaud de Betancourt, our Judge and Doyen of the Council, spell for your ears what they shall be!”
Arnaud duly rose up while a sullen King sat back to leave him the stage.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, the changes in law I am going to explain for your benefit are still under the shape of proposals for the next Council meeting, but I am confident they shall be passed very shortly.”
If the Judge said so, everybody knew there was little reason to argue or disagree. The venerable man was held in too high esteem by the Council to hope for any opposition from their part. If he submitted a new law to their voting, it would be adopted by a vast majority, and what is more, in the most democratic fashion that could have been devised.
“First, from our King’s own suggestion, our rulers, from now on, shall be elected by the Council and given a mandate of three years until the next election unless they depart this world or step down. Our monarchy shall become a parliamentary one. All the King’s or Queen’s decisions concerning the security and development of the Realm shall be submitted to the Council’s approval. On the other hand, The King or Queen shall have the right to veto any new law promulgated by the Council for a maximum of three years, by which time such a law shall be adopted if submitted again. The Council shall write a Code of Laws at their earliest opportunity to be enforced at all times for the benefit of all citizens of Beaulieu, whatever their birth, gender or status. The Realm shall be divided into judiciaries covering areas according to population size as an assurance of equity and social justice. Each judiciary shall be endowed with a Court of Justice, a Tax Collection Office, at least one Royal School and one Royal Hospital where education and care shall be dispensed to all for free.”
That left little to protest about for the nobles as they were both forced into submission by democratic laws but at the same time coddled with a generous promise of services. The citizens would get an unheard-of amount of self-governing in a country nevertheless already quite enlightened in spite of its quaint traditions.
But all also knew such largesse would not come without a price.
Arnaud did not disappoint them:
“As you have already probably deduced, such services have to be provided for. The Council’s next task will be to conceive a fair taxation system according to personal wealth with consequent laws to prevent abuse or fraud. Every citizen, even the King and Queen, shall pay revenues on their income and properties to the Realm. Such collected money will be then distributed according to a budget agreed every year by the Council. As for the Council, it shall comprise twenty-one members, seven for the nobility, seven for the craftsmen and traders, and seven for working citizens and farmers of both genders aged over sixteen. The next Council shall be elected by the three aforementioned sections of our society at a later date before the end of this year to give all our citizens ample advance warning to allow them prepare for their civic duties. That is all for the moment, Ladies and Gentlemen. Thank you for your attention!”
That was it, and the assembly would have to do with it as the Doyen resumed his seat while Gerhart stood up again to address the audience for a last time:
“All citizens will be informed in due time of the results of the next Council meeting. Until then, the Realm would be extremely grateful for the people of Beaucastel to go back to their own and tell them of what has been discussed today. As for you nobles, I pray you all to pack your things and go back to your estates at once. You shall also be duly apprised of the same. I shall visit you all personally very soon, so make yourselves ready! And next time you are called to help the nation you had better hurry! Nevertheless, if any of you finds himself or herself in dire need, I shall do my utmost to help you in turn! I will not have anybody accuse me of unfairness! Ladies and Gentlemen, have a good day!”
Upon which, he took Marghrete’s hand to help her stand and step down from the dais. They left the Hall without any further ado, followed by their retinue, except for Geoffroy and Birghit.
The Captain waited for all of them to pass the door before addressing the crowd:
”Ladies and Gentlemen, you have heard the King! Please be kind as to leave the Hall immediately and quietly! The Royal Guards will see you off!”
Bullying it was, but a lot of work was waiting for his Royal Guards and he had little liking for all those idle courtesans, although he was sorry to include lay men and women among them. Well, that could not be helped. The least he could say was that everybody would comprehend where authority stood from now on. He would have to look for those nobles who had chosen to stay out as his next task. He had been ordered to arrest them, lock them for a couple of days and then send them packing with a proper lecturing on their duties.
Alfred de Vigny was busy at his desk in his office, which he had created inside the private apartment of a former Montjoie family member. He had refused to make his abode inside the Ducal Palace. Even Gilles and Bertrand d’Estrees had been reluctant to move inside that symbol of recent horror and devastation.
The three of them had quickly decided that the Palace, once cleaned and refurbished, would better serve as a public building for future government offices, a hospital and a school. They had chosen houses opening onto the main square, thus affording themselves with direct contact with their new citizens.
He heard a knock on his door.
“Yes, come in!”
Hildegard entered.
The young Walkyrie wore a lady’s dress, which, in spite of her braided hair and the bright colors of the fabric, could not hide the fact of how strongly built she was. Alf had asked her on the very first day to discard her uniform and armor, as it did not suit her new role as the aide to the Realm’s Delegate, as he was now officially called. He had also showered her with as much as clerical work as he could put his hands on to keep her mind off her past harrowing experiences and incite to look forward to a new life. Her military training and discipline would help her someday to accept her losses. Until then, he had to take care of her. But he certainly was not ready to go as far as consoling her. They did not share the same bedroom, although they worked and took their meals together.
”Delegate, dinner is served!”
Luckily enough, they had been assigned a household staff to look after their private needs. He doubted Hildegard would ever become the equivalent of a housewife or start cooking and cleaning for him.
Until now, they had taken their meals with Gilles and Bertrand in a common canteen for all officers to stay in close contact, but he had asked for his dinner to be brought at his apartment this evening.
“Thank you, Hildegard. I’m actually starving. Shall we go, then?”
“Yes, Delegate!”
They moved to a large dining room, which they had used for private meetings recently. It was the first time they shared dinner alone. As soon as the staff had served the meal and wine, he dismissed them. They could always clean the place the following morning.
They started in silence. At least, the Walkyrie had a good appetite, Alfred noticed. As long as the woman ate, there should be plenty of hope left for her to recover from past ordeals.
He looked at her:
“Yes, Delegate?”
“We’ve been immersed in paper work for the past week now. I plan to leave the city at dawn the day after tomorrow to start a field survey of the Montjoie domains and possessions for Gilles d’Estrees. Since you are better qualified than I on that particular matter, would you mind organizing a field trip for let’s say a squad of twelve mounted men-at-arms, a campaign kitchen and cook, a drawn cart for all the necessary gear for a whole week, yourself and myself. As we shall not stop at any inn, house or farmstead, consider that we are on a purely military mission with all what it precludes. Everything has been agreed with Gilles, as I’m doing this survey both for him and the Crown. We shall probably leave on those missions every two weeks as I do not plan to thicken the skin of my arse on a chair all the time!”
The last comment drew a small smile on the Walkyrie’s face.
She certainly welcomes the change, doesn’t she? He mused.
“By the way, on any field trip, you are not only back into full battle gear, but also bear the rank of Corporal. You receive and accept orders only from Gilles, Bertrand and I, even when Geoffroy and Birghit are around. You are my personal guard. I leave you all freedom to choose your men, or women for that matter. Pick them up among Gilles and Bertrand’s regulars, as they shall be the same for any other trips if possible. So make it a solid team. I shall not interfere with any discipline matters. They are your sole responsibility. Back in Montjoie, you shall be my personal secretary from now on, and shall be addressed as such when not wearing battle gear. I shall find another staff as soon as I have finished with the present paper work. Your responsibility shall be to filter that paper work to me in order of importance as well as control visitors who will be bound to increase with time. What do you say?”
The Walkyrie kept staring at her plate for a while before raising her head.
“My thanks, Delegate.”
“Good. A couple of more things: in public you are Corporal or Secretary and I am Delegate, but in private would you mind calling me Alf? Also, when back in town, would you be as kind as to make an effort and act like a lady? Whatever you might think, you are both a soldier and a woman. Do not forget that both have their qualities!”
Watching her defiant face, he resolved himself to take a risk.
He would think about the consequences later. Hildegard would certainly serve better as an aide than as a charge.
“Hildegard, I take a chance in making that confidence. The reason is because I need your trust and help. Are you aware of my exact position?”
A slightly surprised Walkyrie asked:
“You have been designated as the Royal Delegate in Montjoie and Montreduc because you are a trusted member of the King’s Court, haven’t you?”
“Not entirely. I actually serve more as a personal agent of the Crown, wherever I am posted, than a mere bureaucrat. My job is to keep my eyes and ears open. I was a secret spy for Etienne de Vasserel before Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur persuaded me that my loyalties stood with the King and the Realm. Since I have trusted you with special information, will you feel up to the task?”
Hildegard thought for a while.
Good, she is not jumping into anything without a second thought. He had been right to listen to his instincts instead of his better judgment.
“I know for a fact that Geraldine has ordered you to look after me,” the woman warrior started, “so is this part of the deal with that fey lady?”
Alf chortled:
“She is not to be dealt with lightly, is she? No, there was no deal whatsoever, believe me. What is more, I had refused the order at first!”
“So what makes you suddenly so charitable toward my person?” she replied with some asperity.
“Premonition. And premonitions have had the knack to serve me well, Hildegard. I have always lived dangerously, wondering who or what was lurking behind my back. I need a solid wall to secure that back of mine. I certainly can make use of your qualities!”
“As a soldier, I suppose?”
“Why not? And how would you serve me as a woman, apart of being my secretary?”
“Don’t be rude, Alf!”
He flaunted his insolent smile at her:
“You called me Alf, didn’t you?”
Two weeks had passed since Gerhart had come back to Beaucastel.
Citizens were slowly moving back to their homes and getting used to a more comfortable life. Geoffroy had been granted personal quarters, actually a whole apartment, which had been vacated by a noble who had been judged not reliable enough to stay in the Capital of Beaulieu. Since his rank of Captain after all amounted to no less than that of an Earl, his King had felt it was about time he was rewarded according to his position of importance in the affairs of the Realm. He did not have to worry any more about cleaning or cooking. He was sleeping on a real bed, a luxury he had never experienced in his long soldier life. Sometimes he got worried that he might go soft, but he certainly was enjoying his prerogatives, as he knew too well he could be called on a mission again at any time.
Amrel had chosen a bright young boy of ten, named Mathieu as his page. She had taken a personal liking to the waif she had found among orphans being herded out of the city before the Dwarf engineers moved in. As a school had not been erected for them yet, she had placed all the children in families with the express order to raise and look after them as their own children.
Her Dragon senses had come useful indeed when choosing the most appropriate families according to the characters of the different youngsters. She had thought of an orphanage but she could cope with placing them in new households for the moment. Maybe giving these orphans all the love and care they had missed for so long than having them enter a boarding school to be devised later could prove a better idea as long as there were enough foster parents on hand.
But she realized that, one day, she would have to think of other destitute children in the Realm and create an institution for all of them.
She and Geoffroy had spent the previous night together in his bedchamber and had thoroughly enjoyed it, although she had found the Captain surprisingly prissy and stiff at times. Her Dragon’s nature had taken over when they were making love. She then cared about pleasure only and shocked her lover no end. It seemed that despite his mature age, he would have to be taught those particular delights almost from the beginning.
She was resting her head on his shoulder when he asked her:
“Jay, will you ride on my left one day?”
“I shall fly actually.”
“Fly? Are you jesting?”
“Geoffroy, dear Geoffroy! What can fly and battle at the same time?”
“Lady Geraldine, you have me confused. Could you be kind enough to enlighten this dumb servant of yours?”
“One day, I shall have to knock out this notion of servitude out of you. You are not and will never be my servant. Like it or not, however strong our love shall grow to be, we will never become each other’s possession. Anyway, all your life you and your family have borne a creature on their tabards and Arms. Do you think it to be a coincidence?”
“Do you mean that blue dragon?”
“Yes, you dumb lump of a man!”
“But, …”
He stared at her in disbelief.
“That cannot be! Your name Blanchefleur does exist. Where do you come from?”
“Did I ever say that the family bearing my name still exists? Why would I adopt a name or title you could immediately trace back to a living parent? That wouldn’t be very intelligent of me, would it?”
“Are you inferring you are not human?”
“I’m not. I’m a woman of your kind when I want to be. I can become whatever I feel like, but I don’t think I shall adopt another form before a very, very long time! I enjoy living in a human body too much to waste time and efforts on other whims and fantasies!”
Something clicked inside Geoffroy’s head:
“No wonder Gerhart and Marghrete are so willing to follow your lead! I can surmise that only a… a dragon, am I right, could have successfully ordered those two to make up and behave like a true Royal Couple? The Realm should be thankful to you for having brought some kind of order and respect at long last. What about Alfred or Arnaud? Have you revealed your true identity to them?”
“No, but they might have guessed I’m not a normal human at the very least, although I don’t intend to enlighten them for yet a long time. I can afford to do so only when absolutely necessary. Mind you, in your case, I’m obviously making an exception! Let’s hope it will be for the best!”
Geoffroy kept silent for a while, enjoying the rare intimacy. Looking at the incredible perfection of his lover’s body, he wondered what he had done to deserve her attention. How would they, or he for that matter, behave in public? Well, as long as he stayed away from her person whenever possible in daytime, he should be able to manage, and he very much doubted anybody would make a remark on their relation without Jay knowing about it and taking the appropriate action. He could count on the discretion of his own Guards who had a strong sense of properties and fiercely protected their private life. But what of others?
Amrel kissed his ear:
“Don’t worry, lover.”
“Are you reading my thoughts now?”
“No, but you are so obvious!”
Geoffroy dismissed the notion. His campaigner’s mind suddenly took over:
“Jay, I gather this is only the beginning of a long list of troubles and fighting about to fall around our necks. How long shall we have to wait before the next conflict or all out war?”
“Frankly, I do not know. It could come any time, or next year, or even later. I’m not anxious to find out. But we should all take advantage of any respite to prepare ourselves. Which reminded me that I have wanted to talk about your army in general and its organization in particular!”
“You are not satisfied with it?”
“Don’t get upset. I’m just thinking of its efficiency.”
“Do you mean my Knights and Walkyries are not up to their duty?”
“No, I mean equipment. You shall have to rethink that armor of yours as well as your battle gear. All those shiny plates and grand plumes are fine for parades, but they shall contribute to your quick demise in battle!”
“But this is tradition!”
“Do your enemies give a damn about your traditions? Will you be fighting your own kin? Even so, what about the next time you meet fanatics of the kind we have just faced?”
“I was the first Blue Knight to go to battle without a Walkyrie. Don’t you think that should be enough, as far as breaking tradition is concerned?”
“Well, you could always start a new one by saying that a battle leader should ride alone because he has been chosen and protected by the Blue Dragon!”
Although she had said the last in jest, Amrel saw she had struck Geoffroy’s vain chord when she noticed him pausing and thinking hard, a foolish grin appearing on his craggy face.
Let’s strike the iron while it’s hot, she thought.
“Now about that armor of yours, here is what you should do …”
“Wait! Wait! I have to record this first!”
He jumped from his bed and hastily got dressed, signing Amrel to do the same. Once she had assumed a more proper appearance, he turned to the door and roared:
“Yes, Sir!” came the voice of a frightened young boy from outside. The door soon opened to let Mathieu in, slightly disheveled and puffing more out of anxiety to the sudden noise of the Captain’s commanding voice than out of actual exertion.
“Mathieu, bring me ink, quills and parchment, and make it quick!”
“Yes, Sir!”
The still frightened but already well-trained page was back within minutes, bringing the required items onto the table in front of his lord.
“Thank you Page! Take a rest until lunch! I shall be too busy to need your services until then!”
“Thank you, Sir!” The elated boy decamped as fast as could be acceptable and closed the door behind him.
The captain sat at the table and took a quill.
“Alright, Jay! I am at your orders! You tell, I’ll write and execute!”
Amrel could not help exhaling a sigh. Why did those Knights do nothing but extremes? Completely obtruse one minute, unashamedly servile the next one. Lots of teaching to do there, she moaned to herself, once again remembering her own father’s dilemmas …
“First, have you noticed what the warriors of the Steppes wore under their jerkins?”
“Now that you remind me, I did see a kind of shirt made of something similar to silk!”
“It is silk indeed and bartered for the soft skins the Elves are so fond of. Now, why would these seemingly rough people wear silk shirts?”
Geoffroy scratched at his head.
“To prevent their jerkins from chafing at their skin?”
“Good try, but totally off the mark. It is a piece of armor, actually.”
Geoffroy sat back in his chair.
“Are we going to be serious about it, Jay?”
“Why don’t you keep your eyes open, observe friends and enemies instead of sticking to outdated traditions? You know that an arrow can pierce almost anything, even your guards’ armor. Layers of hard leather are actually far more effective than a single metal plate. When an arrow goes through their jerkins, the silk wraps itself around its head inside the wound limiting damage and allowing for an easy extraction of the dart with minimal additional injury. You should know how messy an arrow leaves a wound!”
The captain looked at her in awe:
“Well, well, who of us would have known that?”
He furiously scribbled on his parchment.
Amrel continued:
“While we are at it, stress that leather is far more useful in many instances. For example, instead of an unwieldy shield, attach large leather sides to your belt to cover your hips, legs and feet. Plates will not prevent hooks or swords to catch or cut you there. On the other hand, leather will deflect anything but a full sideways attack, which almost never occurs in a melee. It would be a good idea to equip your chargers with a full leather skirt instead of those heavy and ungainly plates and mail. Thus protected, a small round shield should be enough. Now, as for your pikemen, some extreme modifications to their weapons are needed. A pike by itself is not much use once the enemy has breached their lines. I’m quite certain the Dwarves will be able to manufacture pikes with a hook and a blade. The first will help your soldiers bring horsemen down while the second will slash at their legs and body. Even with a broken shaft, they could be wielded as axes.”
“Jay, I can’t believe that a woman like you always bent on hygiene and medical care, can think of such twisted and cruel tactics!
“Geoffroy, I’m protecting my people! I want to make any enemy think twice before they attack us!” Fiercely retorted the Blue Dragon. “Unless you want me to revert to my true nature!”
“Spare me the thought!” cried an appalled Captain.
“That’s better! Finally, you had better train your Knights and Walkyries at all weapons, especially the longbow and javelin throwing. You have already seen that good management of those weapons will save us a lot of lives while inflicting untold damage on our foes!”
“You’re right. In any case, I’m afraid that the present lull will make them soft. Regular exercise will do them all good!”
Five weeks had passed since the battle of Montjoie and days were long and hot when two solitary figures appeared at the gate of Beaucastel just as it was opened. They were let through without any questions, regardless of the incongruous pair they were making. Orders had been given pertaining to their arrival. They left their horses under the care of junior knights who had been waiting for that particular purpose while a Royal Guard ushered them to the Palace. Some early risers wondered what a towering Walkyrie in strange garb was doing in the company of an even more outlandish warrior of the Steppes. The man, tall for his own kind, was just about the same height of his companion and notably thinner in many places, but few would have dared challenge the Tribesman, bristling with weapons as he was. The Walkyrie was not wearing her usual armor and helmet. Her garb was very similar to that of the man ambling beside her, although the boots were of very thick hard leather and her belt and sword in its scabbard were most definitely the ones of a Royal guard. But what struck onlookers most was the unusual fashion of her hair. She had it braided on the temples, secured with thin leather bands of various colors and small beads, while the rest of it was let free with only a leather thong fastened around her brow. Maheut and He-Who-Stands-Upright haughtily ignored the curious stares and penetrated the Palace. Another Royal Guard took over and guided them through the building until they reached an impressive door on which he knocked.
“Your Majesty! Sergeant Maheut and Chief He-Who-Stands-Upright have arrived!”
The door was opened by Birghit who smiled a welcome to the new arrivals and thanked the Royal Guard before asking him to stand at the door outside.
Gerhart, Marghrete, Amrel, Umatar, Geoffroy, Arnaud were already waiting inside while the Queen’s guards stood on both sides of the entrance.
The King welcomed them:
“Maheut and He-Who-Stands-Upright, a good morning to you both! Please sit down and join us for breakfast. I am sure you must be starving!”
After some warm greetings, the two informally sat themselves at the table where their hosts were already partaking of a solid meal. Everybody ate in silence for a while.
Umatar was the first to lift her head from her plate.
Though she knew the answer, she nevertheless asked the question:
“He-Who-Stands-Upright, I assume our people are doing well enough to look after themselves as you have left them?”
“Yes, She-Who-Speaks-To-Dragons. Thanks to the help of He-Who-Speaks-Fair and his citizens, we have resumed our normal life. Most of the King’s men and women shall soon depart to go back to Beaucastel with our thanks and eternal gratitude!”
“Good, good! Then we can discuss right away the role Gerhart and I have talked so much about! Gerhart?”
“Maheut, He-Who-Stands-Upright,” the King started, “we have agreed that through the two of you, our two nations are blessed with a rare opportunity to form a common force for a common goal. We would like you to create a very special team made of your men and women only. The two of you will have to decide whether you keep them all, or reject those you do not think good enough for the Golden Dragon Squad. This is how you are going to be called from now on. You receive direct orders solely from She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons and myself. Only the people inside this room, as well as Alfred, Gilles and Bertrand d’Estrees will be cognizant of its true purpose. Make other soldiers and warriors think you are only a figment of our imagination as a symbol of the friendship between our two nations. Once you have selected your men and women, make them swear a solemn oath for complete secrecy and allegiance to the safety of our two people. Only then, will you explain that your role is in fact of a secret investigative strike force. Never stay in the same place. Move around. Divide into small groups if necessary. Keep your eyes and ears open and report anything untoward, whatever its cause. Hit hard and fast wherever you deem it vital. All messages are to be oral, nothing in writing. Designate runners for that purpose. You shall all be given a pin to be placed on your collar when you want to meet us. Otherwise keep it concealed. We shall spread the fancy story that those runners are special couriers to help communications between our two nations. Devise your own code of passwords, signs and messages. You have unlimited credit for equipment and weapons. When in full view of other citizens, make a show of your friendship, visit taverns and engage other guests into conversation. Make them drink and boast. When operating, act swiftly, discreetly and efficiently!”
Maheut raised her hand to ask a question. Gerhart nodded agreement.
“What areas do you have in mind in particular?”
“The whole coast, its harbors and points of access, all the cities along the Fire Mountains and any places propitious for concealment.”
“And what people should we concentrate on?”
“Nobody in particular. We don’t want any segment of the population to feel harassed or discriminated against. You might find nothing for months, or fall onto a major threat any time. Let’s hope you shall have as few reasons as possible to alert us!”
“I see. It might be a good idea to divide our forces in small squads right from the beginning with maybe six members at the most. We might be able to form a score of them. You had better make citizens believe they have been devised as such to show the harmony of our relations to as many people as possible!”
“Good thought! In any case, you have full freedom as far as planning is concerned. Make sure we get regular reports. I admit this will prove most of the time boring, but also very dirty work on some occasions. What do you say?”
Maheut looked at her companion. He-Who-Stands-Upright answered with a grin. The newly promoted Sergeant turned back to the King and the Golden Dragon:
“Count on us!”
The smile on Umatar’s face convinced Gerhart they had made the right choice. Those two, for all their apparent differences, did not need words to agree. They might prove a fearful combination in fact. With all his friends in charge of investigation and this squad to help preserve the peace and safety, he should be able to concentrate on vaster concerns.
Umatar and Amrel were taking the opportunity of a cool summer night to fly and have a look at the sea Ekan was so fond of, when a voice came inside their heads:
“ Umatar, Amrel! Are you with me?”
“Dargelblad!” answered the Golden Dragon first. “What brings you? We thought we had you lost to that Elf Queen of yours!” she taunted him.
“Never mind! Ships have been spotted off the Western Coast. Come at once!”
The respite could not have lasted longer, the two other Dragons resented.
Umatar first reacted:
“Amrel, give my regards to Gerhart and Marghrete and all our friends! Have everybody else think I left during the night because of an urgent message from the Free Tribes of the Steppes in Fair Trade City! But tell the truth to whoever should know! Don’t forget to keep our brothers and Father informed, too!”
She spirited away.
Amrel immediately teleported to the Palace. She had until morning to prepare herself and tell the news.


One Response to “Alymndes 17: New Order”

  1. Elizabeth Says:

    Uh-oh, perhaps things are not well in the Forest of the Elves. Speaking of that, did the help that Dargelblad ask for the Tribesmen and women ever get there? Maybe it did, I just missed it, but we’re moving on.

    Chapter 18 awaits, and I wish you happy writing, Robert.

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