Narosan 8: Changes

King Gerhart’s army had been stationed at the border of Marche Baronage for two days when Maheut asked to be let in his tent.
He opened the entrance flap himself and invited her to sit on a low tool in his company.
“What brings you here, Maheut?” he asked informally.
“Our scouts reported forces from Montfaucon Baronage crossing the Anse River directly into Marche City though the postern facing the bridge.”
“Just let them in. The more we have of them inside the city, the better. We will have some of your soldiers move to bar the access to the bridge when all their troops are in. We might even have them hurry inside! Get a platoon ready for that eventuality!”
“Will do. What else would you have us doing?”
He was about to answer when a guard poked his head inside:
“Sorry to disturb you Sire, but King Marcus of Dunlago is about to arrive!”
“Thanks, Guard! Maheut, come along!”
Marcus was already dismounting when Gerhart reached the square of naked earth arranged inside their camp.
The two men warmly embraced each other.
“Marcus, my personal thanks for joining us so quickly!”
The big Dunlago man chortled.
“As if I was going to miss the fun! Mind you, it is only a figure of speech. I can already imagine in what mood I will find Judge Marsalis! Anyway the faster we take care of that sorry business, the better! Just give us a day and a night and we will be ready!”
“Of course, let us all guide you to the baths while your tents are being erected!”
“Baths, Gerhart! You still manage to surprise me!”
“Well, don’t thank me, but our Legion and Golden Dragon Squad have prerogatives they are always ready to share with their allies!”
“I’m certainly impressed. Talking of the Legion, do you think I should keep away from them as they include former convicts of our own land?”
“Why should you? You know too well they have earned their redemption and although they are not too keen to visit their own birthplaces it might actually be a good idea for the two of us to pay them a visit of courtesy after you are rested! Marsalis, for one, has accepted them without any fuss and do meet some of them from time to time to study their retirement system for example!”
Espying two figures coming to them he added:
”Actually here is Lieutenant Birghit with one of them!”
Marcus had already had the occasion to talk with Birghit and Gardan when they had visited them in Dunlago with the dire news of the untold horror perpetrated by the Hammer of Fate members on the whole house of the late Baron of Valmoray.
Both soldiers looked as forbidding as ever, but Marcus knew it was more a cover than anything else. These were after all soldiers he had shared his destiny with at the Battle of the Wall.
Both Legionnaires hit their chest smartly with a clenched fist to salute both monarchs who returned the greeting in the same manner.
Birghit started:
“Sires, greetings! King Marcus, it is a pleasure to meet you again!”
The Dunlago sovereign chortled.
“Back to formal language, aren’t we Lieutenant? I hope that we can all share one of your good wines later in a more relaxed manner!”
Turning to Gardan:
“How fare you, Legionnaire?”
Gardan did not flinch.
“Thank you for your concern Sire, but I have still a long way before I even deserve such a greeting from my sovereign. May I be granted a question though?”
“Surely, Gardan! I’ll be more than happy to answer!”
“I mentioned the fact to Lieutenant Birghit and she gave me permission to formulate the question myself: apart of your retinue I see no soldiers or constables for that matter from Dunlago?”
Marcus looked at his scarred face intently pondering that the former convict demonstrated a remarkable mastering of language:
“We have enough Dunlago soldiers in the Legion, have we not?”
The statement was clear enough. Gardan bowed in recognition. All the former convicts from their land will understand they still had a true King of their own even if they had not wish to return back home.

The next morning witnessed the whole camp being removed in utmost speed and efficiency. What with the Tribesmen and Elves who were intrinsically nomads and helped taking care of the tents in particular and all the Dwarves, Firebrand included, participating in the refilling of the latrines and in the general cleaning of the area, leaving as little damage as possible, the apparently heteroclite force was demonstrating a grim and supreme efficiency which was bound to be reported all over the continent. Gerhart reflected this contributed a greatly positive side to this otherwise warlike expedition.

They had reached the outskirts late in the afternoon and established their camp again without further ado in the location chosen by their scouts.
Their troops were far enough from the walls as to not allow arrows to reach them but near enough for the men entrenched behind the same walls to observe their discipline and method.
The whole camp had a roughly square shape entirely surrounded with sharpened stakes except for the two entrances front and back.
Covered kitchens and water barrels occupied part of the center.
Baths could be found nearby under tents, too. They consisted of large wooden tubs with a metal bottom lined with bricks under a second wooden bottom. The tubs were filled with enough water to reach the chest of humans. A special tub was arranged for the dwarves who did not need so much water.
The emplacement of the camp had been chosen near enough a water course for regular supply that soldiers had to fetch and carry all day in turns. A fire was kept burning under the middle of each tub when occupied by bathers.
Latrines had been dug as far as possible from the bath and kitchen behind high wooden panels.
If the siege lasted too long, a special enclosure would have to be built outside the camp.
But King Gerhart was not in a hurry.
He was using this opportunity for good effect with the local population.
An army had to be fed.
All soldiers of the Legion and Golden Dragon Squad already had the habit to look for and buy their food from whoever farmer they met when on campaign and were presently helping gathering food by buying it directly from the local peasants.
The representatives of the same peasants of Marche were actually conferring with King Gerhart in person upon his request. The farmers had resigned themselves to obey the summons in evident fear for their own persons and whatever land Philippe de Marche had left them.
To their unending surprise they had been gracefully ushered into the Beaulieu King’s own tent.
Only Arnaud de Betancourt was present to listen, counsel and record their meeting.
Gerhart had invited them to sit with him and after the formal introduction of Arnaud he was partaking of refreshments in their company.
Having patiently waited for them to relax and enjoy their food and drinks they were only warily indulging in, he asked:
“Gentlemen, I haven’t requested your presence to either tell you what the King wants of you or to cajole you into my good services but first to know about your grievances so that they can be addressed to as soon as possible. First of all, I heard that lay people in Marche are not allowed to bear family names. Is it true?”
An elder who went by the single name of Marcel decided to take the plunge when he had finally realized their situation could not become any worse:
“That is true, indeed, Your Majesty. Only men or women of noble blood have the privilege of a family name!”
Turning to Arnaud, Gerhart asked:
“Judge, is such a law legal in Beaulieu?”
“It certainly is not!” was the quick reply. “I must add it is punishable to force a name on anybody or to prevent to acquire one for that matter!”
Gerhart commented:
“Well, here is your answer! From now do feel free to use the family names of your liking as long as they do not rightfully belong to someone else! Now, I have heard about all kinds of taxation, tolls and exactions. Let me say that all are abolished from this very moment. They will be replaced by a fair set of laws!”
Marcel ventured into a comment:
“But Your Majesty, you are just replacing a law with the same one!”
Arnaud took on him to answer:
“Good man Marcel, King Gerhart has clearly said the word “fair”! Everyone in Beaulieu, including your sovereign and myself, pay taxes according to their earnings we have to declare in due form and due time. Moreover, farmers and people working the land pay taxes only on what they sell, not on what they produce for their own needs!”
Gerhart made a further comment:
“Know also that all the lands, properties and whatever owned by your Barons will have to undergo a thorough check by tax collectors. All such unjustly taken by the same Barons will be returned to their rightful owners! Would you be kind enough to inform everyone first thing after you leave this tent? If you can prepare all our grievances beforehand that will save us a lot of hassles, although I am sure our Judge will designate a few of you to help him in this troublesome task!”
Gerhart was already giving them a sense of duty by asking for their cooperation. He would have to go through the same kind of talks with the lay people of Montfaucon but he was confident such news would reach before he met them.
He continued:
“I am not going to retain you any further as I know lands need constant care, but that whatever we buy from you for our campaign needs will not be taxed! My good people, have a better day, but do not hesitate to consult with the Judge and my person directly as long as we are here. Once we have departed you will know who to address, I can guarantee you!”
The delegation took their leave in visible relief at the good news they would spread along on their way back to the homes rightfully returned to them by their King.
Once they had left, Gerhart turned to his venerable companion:
“Sorry, Arnaud, but I’m piling more work onto you”
The Judge ruefully nodded:
“I’m afraid it can’t be helped thanks to these two arrogant men who call themselves Barons!”
The last was said with unveiled menace.

Shang-Ti, Overlord of all Tong-Hi and his court were intently looking at the sea from behind a rounded parapet along the great stone wall completely encircling the city of Tong-Hi, capital to the island country of the same name.
Imperial ships had materialized over the horizon early that afternoon.
He could not say it was much of a surprise as he had had long warning of their coming when the whole fleet of Tong-Hi had sailed inside the inner harbor for refuge.
The Imperial ships were presently anchored in a single row, their starboard facing the walls at more than three hundred paces away with the sun about to set behind them.
The Overlord stood gazing at them from atop the big barbican guarding the wide portal opening onto the inner harbor. Behind him towered an enormous statue of his own person in full war armor and plumed helmet.
The portal had been long closed with a heavy double portcullis that no ship could break through.
“What the heck are the ships of this mere woman calling herself the Empress of Narosan trying to prove! They are too big to get any nearer and they don’t stand a chance if they thought they could get at us through land! Her so-called magic fire will never reach us! Even if it did, what kind of trouble could it do to stone walls!”
He turned to his followers:
“I can’t see why I should stay any longer looking at an impotent army wondering what could be their next step! If these idiots want to lose themselves into contemplating our might, let them! It’s grand time we joined that banquet held for all our Captains!”
He made for the stairs running behind the wall with a last comment:
“We will even drink to that wench who calls herself Empress of Narosan!”
At that very moment a loud boom was heard coming from the general direction of the Imperial Navy.
Soon a round object materialized out of nowhere flying at incredible speed high over the expanse of sea separating the ships from the walls. The eyes Tong-Hi followed it in horror crash into the statue of their Overlord decapitating it down to its chest into a shower of rubble raining on everyone.

Qusan emitted an uncharacteristic cackle when he espied the head of the Tong-Hi exploding into smithereens through his telescope.
“Let them give plenty of time to understand what is befalling them!”
Turning to the grizzled Dwarf standing next to the enormous catapult.
“Hammerhead, how about letting them wrack their brains for some time? Let’s wait until the sun has almost sunk behind us before we unleash all four catapults together against their walls?
The Dwarf devilishly grinned:
“Sounds good enough to me!”
“What do you think we should aim at next?”
“Just below the top of the walls for a start. If they are fools enough to stay on top we will end up with less of them to deal with later!”

The time had come.
A flaming sun was about to sink into the sea behind the Imperial Ships.
Hsu Yia and all the envoys from Alymndes were standing on the upper deck of her ship, third in the row of her fleet at anchor.
The latter had already witnessed the destruction of the Tong-Hi statue although they had not been formally invited to it by General Qusan. But now the whole Western Alliance was attending to the matter. Even Kaluin was present standing directly behind her Sovereign in the company of She-Who-Wanders.
The General bowed deep to his Empress:
“Empress Hsu Yia, we have received no response since our warning shot which destroyed their emblem with apparently no cost to life! May we proceed with a real bombardment?”
Hsu Yia had donned her full armor, the same she had worn through her first encounter with the Tong-Hi pirates. Her dragon eyesight discovered the crowded walls facing her in the distance. Apparently the pirates had not been cowed into submission yet. She could clearly distinguish the figure of their Overlord who had still managed to keep a rein on his followers in spite of their surprise. He was presently gesticulating in obvious defiance. The next volley from the catapults would be horrendously destructive.
She had no choice.
“Yes, you may, General!”
The order was greeted with a mute answer from all. The Alymndes denizens had already witnessed the results of such a strategy in Villefranche and the seasoned Narosan soldiers could easily guess the consequences of her order. They had cheered when they escaped from the Tong-Hi, but this time they had come to annihilate them.
The catapults were all ready.
Qusan raised a black flag high over his head. Three more soldiers on the other ships repeated the signal.
The General brusquely lowered his arm, immediately imitated on the other ships.
Four catapults were released almost simultaneously with a dumbing crash.
Four enormous round stones arched over the sea.
The top of the walls seemed to explode in four spots at the same time sending broken stones and bodies high in the air above a pall of dust.
It took some time for the air above the walls to clear.
The ramparts had been breached into four distinctive spots and the destruction was the same everywhere. No one was seen standing. Apparently all survivors had fled leaving mangled bodies Hsu Yia could see bathing in their blood over the stones or floating on the water below.
She addressed Qusan:
“General, that is enough for the moment. If no one comes out for parley before full night you can proceed with the second phase of the bombardment! But not until I have given an express order!”
She turned heels without waiting for the Qusan’s reply.

Two hours later she resurfaced on the upper deck followed by her two companions who actually shared her quarters below deck.
General Qusan and the whole Western Alliance were again in attendance with all the envoys from Alymndes.
The Dwarves had pulled back the spoon of the enormous catapult and were attending a covered fire placed on a stone bed to avoid any contact with the ship wood. No one, even the General, was allowed near the contraption. Large buckets full of water were at the ready to douse the fires as soon as the spoon of the catapult would have been filled to avoid any danger of spillage caused by the machine’s vibrations. The spoon was deep enough to make certain the projectiles would fly only in the planned direction.
The Empress addressed the General in a loud enough voice for all to hear:
“General Qusan, I surmise that the Tong-Hi have not come to parley yet?”
“No, indeed, Your Highness!”
“Then proceed, General!”
Qusan raised the same black flag high over his head. Once again three more soldiers on the other ships repeated the signal.
As the General once again brusquely lowered his arm, he was immediately imitated on the other ships.
The boom of the catapults being released was heard again.
The Narosan soldiers and the Alymndes envoys watched in mute horror a multitude of red hot stones fly in the night sky to the doomed city of Tong-Hi.
The deadly projectiles disappeared behind the city walls.
For a few heartbeats nothing seemed to happen.
Suddenly the sky above the walls erupted into incandescence.
The City of Tong-Hi was burning.
Qusan tersely commented: “About time to go to sleep. The morning promises to be momentous!”
The two Barons were once again agitated to the point of losing control in front of Norbert they had called again inside the main room of Marche Castle.
Philippe was brandishing a parchment to his face:
“Norbert, a herald has come to our gate and has delivered that!”
The former Royal guard calmly took the parchment, unrolled it and made a show of reading carefully.
He finally commented:
“It seems that King Gerhart has decided to join his invading army in spite of his failing health. He is asking both you to come out and face him to answer allegations.”
He turned his gaze toward the two renegades:
“What does Your Lordship intends to do?”
Philippe almost screamed:
“What shall we do? Do you think I’m fool enough to face him in person?”
Norbert equably answered:
“My Lord, I’m afraid we have a situation here, but there is still hope. We are in for a long siege if you choose to ignore King Gerhart’s orders. I have just checked our back portal to the Anse River. I’m afraid to say that our enemies have crossed the river and camped on the opposite bank. That will limit our access to the river and its water and bar any provisions to reach us. So a siege is not an option. While you can I would suggest that you come out with all forces at your back and face our enemies!”
“But that is exactly what they want us to do!”
“Yes, but you still have one more recourse!”
An uncomprehending Philippe just kept staring at him.
Norbert patiently explained:
“My Lord, the other day I mentioned you can invoke a judgment of arms. Now is the best time to do so. If you come out with your entire forces all will become witnesses to your request and Gerhart will not be able to refuse it according to the Code of the Royal Guards of which he is himself a member, that is, unless he wants the whole land to despise him for ignoring it! I can assure you that all his men, and women for that matter, will leave him on the spot if he does not comply!”
But Norbert had consciously refrained from explaining the whole Code to his interlocutors.
Philippe who had found himself grabbing at straws seemed to get his little courage back.
“In any case there is nothing he can accuse me of! Proofs he has not!”
He addressed Beaumont who had kept to a nervous silence all he time:
“Come Beaumont! That silly King will only make a fool of himself! After all, what can he incriminate us for? None of our delegation came back from that crazy banquet where everyone was killing each other! Actually he has to be accounted for the fact that all our good men, envoys and soldiers included, were assassinated in his own so-called capital!”
He turned back to Norbert:
“We will meet him forthwith! You Norbert, stay inside and prepare for our return!”
“Yes, My Lord, you can count on me! I will at this instant organize the guards and secure our city!”
“Good man! Just wait for our return!”
This was becoming too easy, the former Royal Guard pondered. Why are bullies always the first to lose faith and rely on sycophants at the first hint of trouble?
He could not complain, sick as he was of all that dirty business they were at last on the brink of dealing with once for all.

It was barely a couple of hours later that Barons Philippe de la Marche and Beaumont de Montfaucon made their way out followed by most of their forces.
King Gerhart waited for him at the head of his army with King Marcus mounted at his side.
They all stayed still in front of their fortified camp while the Barons’ cohort advanced to meet them.
The Barons halted a hundred paces away.
What could be barely called a herald prodded his horse ahead of the latter.
The man-at arms did not even wear either of the Barons’ Arms on his doublet.
He halted half-distance and started on a high-pitched voice which had a hard time to conceal his edginess at the sight of the small but grim army in front of him:
“On behalf of my good lords, Baron Philippe de la Marche et Beaumont de Montfaucon, we ask why this army has entered our lands without reason or proper warning? Moreover, the same lands are part of the Beaulieu Realm. Why are foreigners among your retinue?”
Gerhart prodded his mount forward to halt in front of the messenger.
“I do not answer to heralds who do not deign wear the arms of his lord! As such, if you value for your life, move out of my view!” He shouted for all to hear putting his hand on the pommel of his sword.
The herald did not need any more encouragement and turned his horse back in the direction of illusory safety among the Barons’ forces.
“Now, Barons Philippe de la Marche and Beaumont de Montfaucon, come forward and as your King and my liege I will answer your questions in person!” he shouted again.
It took some time for both Barons that if they did not move forward the stalemate could last long and that the situation had little chance to improve in their favor if they did not show some mettle for once in their sorry lives.
After sharing a long last look they were about to reluctantly prod their mounds forward when they heard a fracas behind them.
They turned round to find out the source of the disturbance.
Their spirits were momentarily lifted when they discovered Norbert de Chalon riding ahead of a long column through their troops giving way.
But their relief became confusion when they espied Sylvana edging forward by the side of the former Royal Guard Sergeant on her own mount. She had nothing of the wench she had played all along. She sat straight on her horse as good as any male rider with a cold haughty air that was made the more forbidding by the gear of a soldier she wore. The Barons’ discomfiture turned to total dismay at discovering the cortege following the two riders.
Led by the Norbert’s servants also in full battle gear five light chariots were drawn ahead on both sides by an unknown small army of men and women who kept the Barons’ sham of an army away with swords drawn and lances lowered.
On each open chariot a corpse lay in full view. Each corpse belonged to one of the five races of Alymndes.
A menacing murmur from the army at the back Gerhart.
A grim King of Beaulieu first raised his arm for appeasement.
Once satisfied that the discipline would hold for still some time he turned back and signed to Maheut and Birghit with a curt nod of the head. The two fearsome women did not say a word but heeled their horses forward closely followed by their forces who moved swiftly along both sides of the Barons’ men to quickly encircle them with only the way open back to the gate of fortified March city, but even that issue seemed to have been closed to anyone when more unknown soldiers were discovered barring it. Norbert had done his job well in the little time he had to organize his troops which seemed far more numerous than they really were because of their swiftness and hard discipline. What were former members of the populace of Marche and Montfaucon showed their true face for the first time. Some of the Barons’ men were already seen dismounting and throwing their weapons. Not many were eager to fight a hopeless battle in the open, the more considering that there was none of the mercenaries seen in the City not so long ago among them.
Marghrete, King Marcus, Aerdhel and He-Who-Stands Upright for once not accompanied by Maheut had moved their horses close behind Gerhart while the tall frame of Gratien de Salles Lavauguyon arrived on foot by their side in the company of a fully armored Dwarf. Only the bright red hair coming loose from under the back of her helmet revealed the identity of Firebrand who was carrying an evil-looking mace. The two Judges had chosen to stay behind for the moment being in the company of Alfred de Vigny and Nepomucene de Valmoray.
Gerhart shouted:
“Sergeant Norbert de Chalon and Dame Sylvana de Montaigue! Come to report to your King!”
The two Barons desperately looked at the two individualities called by the King, one obviously with a title they had little reason to suspect.
The two King’s lieges rode past the Barons without a look for them and rode to halt a few feet away from their Sovereign they bowed to in salute.
Norbert took on him to answer:
“Sire, we have brought the bodies of the Alymndes Currency Delegation. All were found inside a barred cell without food or water where they had been thrown to die without any hope of help or escape! We do have another lengthy account to submit to all the sovereigns of Alymndes but we would ask them to wait until more urgent affairs are taken care of!”
This was bordering on indiscipline from a Royal Guard but the grizzled soldier had saved Gerhart from a long speech by clearly stating this was an issue affecting all.
A grim King saluted in recognition. His two faithful servants replied in the same manner before turning back their mounts in the direction of their own forces again without a look on the two unfortunate Barons.
Gerhart addressed in a loud voice for all to hear:
“Philippe de La Marche, Beaumont de Montfaucon!” he started markedly omitting their titles. “What do you have to say about this despicable murder of unarmed representatives of the five races of Alymndes?”
Philippe finally realizing against all hopes that their lives hung by a thread screamed:
“What shall I say? I haven’t met any of them in person! They had been caught by our guards trying to enter our lands without permission! I have more important things to do than check on all the miscreants or contraband-bent ruffians from Beaulieu trying to steal their way into my Baronage!”
King Gerhart knew the more the Baron would be let to talk, the more it would not only look silly to all, but the more his authority would suffer. He quickly came to a decision made all the easier for one little trap designed with the connivance of Norbert de Chalon:
“I have little time for the like of your sorry persons. Throw your weapons down. You are forthwith apprehended to be judged for all to witness!”
Philippe succumbed to the bait.
“Is that the kind of justice delivered by a King! Since I see no other way to prove my innocence I invoke in front of all a Judgment of Arms!” he almost screamed in triumph, thinking he would have to face a King still suffering from poisoning as was the official knowledge.
Gerhart would have been truly glad to face both of them immediately but he intended to demean the ignorant curs even further.
He solemnly replied:
“Barons Philippe de La Marche, Baron Beaumont de Montfaucon! This is indeed your right to invoke such a Judgment between citizens of Beaulieu Kingdom, but you also know that the same code we follow allow for champions’ request to be granted, too!”
He let the notion sink in.
It was Beaumont who replied next:
“What do you mean by champions’ request?”
Ignoring the breach of manners for not calling him by his title the King coldly answered:
“The only two survivors, excluding your Queen and my person, of your attempt to poison and kill everyone inside the Royal Palace Beaucastel have requested to face you in my place! If they lose to you, you will be publicly pardoned with my apologies. If they win, there will be little left to do or say! That is all I will condescend to say until this sorry issue is over and done with!”
Raising his hands, he called:
“Gaspard d’Entrecasteaux! He-She-Walks-Alone, the Kingdom of Beaulieu is granting your request to fight for its good name! Everyone, make room for the duel!”
Legionaries and Royal Guards had already swiftly moved behind the Barons to push the Barons’ men away from the fight with little resistance.
Philippe and Beaumont looked at the two mounted figures approaching them.
Both were garbed as members of the Dragon Squad in more leather than metal except for a small round shield held by Gaspard.
Philippe lowering his voice to a murmur:
“Beaumont! What does that idiot of king mean by facing us with a boy and a wench? That is too easy!”
His companion dubiously replied:
“He must have a good reason to have them fight against us, though!”
“Have a good look at them! They are not even armored!”
Beaumont, never a man of great courage, was not convinced.
“And how long has passed since we participated in a fight or tournament?”
“Well for one, I don’t care if that King wants us to face kids for I don’t know what kind of proof! He must have been more weakened than he wants to reveal. He just wants to make a show of it for his own popularity. Well, it will be a pleasure to prove him wrong! C’mon!”
Both drew their sword and saluted for the sake of tradition. They let the two young soldiers approach until they were about fifty steps away when they finally prodded their horses in a sudden charge.

The members of the Gold Dragon Squad immediately spurred their hoses apparently to meet them head on but they swerved away at the last moment to let their opponents gallop away between them. They swiftly turned around and halted their mounts to wait for the Barons who had to make a complete about turn with angry shouts and curses before prodding their chargers forward again.
Once again the two young soldiers spurred their mounts forward to meet their opponents but once again they swerved away at the last moment letting the flummoxed Barons run between them.
By then the two men had lost the small self-control they had before the first charge and heeled their horses without taking care of their coordination, a fatal mistake in such a duel.
This time Gaspard resolutely barged shield high into Philippe, easily blocking his sword and simultaneously pushing him out of his saddle to let him crash on the ground into a noisy heap.
On the other hand She-Who-Walks-Alone had feinted another swerve before unleashing her lasso at the very last moment which took Beaumont’s right arm who got unhorsed when she pulled the rope tight.
The young soldiers unhurriedly halted their mounts and alighted.
The two barons were still lying on the ground groggy and disoriented when they reached them.
Gaspard placed the flat of his sword across Philippe’s throat while his companion rested the blade of her throwing axe across Beaumont’s nape. The audience had been struck silent by the speed and grim efficiency of the two young warriors. Everyone waited for the coup de grace.
It never came.
The two young soldiers looked at Gerhart.
The King did not move an inch nor spoke a word.
Gaspard sheathed his sword while the woman from the Steppes stuck the handle of her axe back under her belt. The two warriors left the Barons untouched. They would not sully their hands with their blood. They remounted their horses and left the scene to join their comrades.
Gerhart shouted:
“Bind these two and take them away until their judgment! Disarm all their men at arms and let them go back into their city on foot! Soldiers, some of you help Sergeant Norbert de Chalon and Dame Sylvana de Montague with the proper care of the bodies of the murdered citizens of Alymndes! The rest of you invest immediately the Cities of La Marche and Montfaucon which are under martial law until next orders! Justice will be dispensed on the morrow for all to witness!”
His orders were swiftly executed.
Turning to his followers he tersely added:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a task at hand! Shall we move to our camp and discuss it?”
He did not wait for answers and grimly moved his horse back toward his quarters.

Later back inside the Royal pavilion King Gerhart was holding a grim meeting with all the representatives of the five Races of Alymndes, the Judges of Beaulieu and Dunlago and his close aides.
They were all, Kings, nobles, soldiers and commoners, sitting on the same practical stools regardless of rank around a few low tables set with drinks and light refreshments, but no one had deigned yet to partake of them.
After a long silence Gerhart finally addressed the audience when he realized no one was keen on taking the responsibility to initiate a discussion they all abhorred.
“Ladies and Gentlemen I’m afraid we will have to decide together the fate of the former barons of La Marche and Montfaucon and also that of their followers to which we will have to add Jehan Desmesne. The Gold Dragon Squad has already shown, in spite of their justified wish for justice, that they will not stain their hands with the murderers’ blood. I would not surmise about the Legionnaires’ opinion, but we seem to be stuck with a problem, namely are we going to hold an execution, and if so, in which manner?”
No one made to answer in spite of the palpable anger. Even Firebrand kept to herself.
These were the very heroes of the Wall who ended smeared with the blood of their enemies but who would not care spilling that of their own most despised criminals.
Times of a swift revenge seem gone from the ethics of all the Races of Alymndes, a sure sign of a true call for peace and prosperity but a thorny issue when retribution was sorely needed.
The general silence was about to disintegrate when Marsalis after a quick glance to his colleague in justice started:
“It seems that times of swift execution are gone and past, and I would be the last to revert to them. Moreover a death penalty is poor deterrence to crime. Why don’t we apply the same system, with some variations if needed, that Alymndes and Dunlago adopted with their own criminals? Put them to use in such a manner that no one would dare think of emulating them!”
Gerhart addressed Norbert and Sylvana:
“You two know the situation best. What would be your counsel?”
He had asked them directly ahead of higher heads of state for many reasons, one of them being that the responsibility for the fate of the people of La Marche and Montfaucon would fall onto them for a very long time to see.
Sylvana readily replied in a stolid tone:
“We have to clean these hovels, a task I do not dare to imagine how long it will take. Not all the citizens of these Baronages are bad, and if so in various degrees. But those particular three I would have them do the most demeaning and dirty chores until the end of their sorry years! I would also make sure that everyone sees them at their punishment in full view in everyday life!”
The suggestion smacked of misplaced pity to Gerhart, but he had asked and would have to accept it if everyone does.
“I have the impression they are still leniently treated,” he started, “but if everyone agrees, I would go by Sylvana’s advice! Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your thoughts?
He waited for his audience to answer.
Finally realizing that for all the grim faces no one looked like objecting, he continued:
“My heartfelt thanks to you all. I will never be grateful enough for your understanding and help in these hard times. Let’s just hope that this disaster will be the last for a very long time!”
Turning to Norbert and his companion:
“I understand that the proper burial of our murdered citizens cannot wait, but what shall we do about the rest of the population in these two Baronages?”
Norbert readily took on him to answer:
“Sire, Sylvana, our agents who will form the new administration for the time being and I have already prepared a list and suggestions for all to approve!”
He took a thick waft of parchments from under his tunic and handed it to the King.
“Good of you to have taken care of that particular chore! Actually, we will have to talk about your new role and positions as well!”
He meeting lasted long into the late hours of the night…

The next day the whole populace of La Marche had been kept for the better part of the morning waiting on the main square of the city in front of the Palace after having been marched out of their homes a task that the Royal Guards, the Gold Dragon Squad and the Legionaries had made one of their most efficient skills after the dire events in Montreduc, Montjoie and Valmoray.
Early in the morning King Marcus, Aerdhel, a few Dwarves and Warriors of the Steppes had decided to take an early leave to give their murdered citizens a decent burial in their homelands.
In fact all the delegations from other lands had officially left, but for Firebrand, Arnaud and Marsalis. The fiery woman Dwarf, for all her resentment at the callous murder of the denizen of the Realm Under The Mountain had requested to stay to help King Gerhart with the changes to occur in the Baronages. As for the Dunlago Judge he was not yet ready to take his leave from his friend with whom he still had much work to share what with a common Code of Laws they were establishing among others for a more efficient cooperation between their respective Kingdoms.
The Royal Guards had installed a long and low dais on which many large chairs had been aligned.
King Gerhart and his retinue including Firebrand and the Judges had conferred inside the palace the whole morning.
At noon they finally emerged on foot out the Palace entrance.
Gerhart helped Marghrete, who actually did not need the assistance, sit beside him on the chairs in the middle. Arnaud and Marsalis climbed the low dais after them to take the two seats on the King’s right while Norbert and Sylvana took the last seats on the Queen’s left.
Norbert had put on the garb of a soldier of the Royal Guards devoid of the more usual trappings of his order but on the other hand harbored his own heraldic arms on his doublet for the first time in his long soldier’s life, three gold rings on an azure field. Sylvana for her part also wore her arms on the front of a long robe closed by a belt around the waist. They were almost as simple as Norbert’s, a three-peeked sliver mountain on a green field. Gerhart had strongly requested his two faithful servants to wear them in spite of their misgivings. Their sovereign had explained that the somewhat ostentatious show would help impress the changes to come in the lives of local citizens.
He-Who-Stands-Upright, Maheut, Birghit, Alfred, Nepomucene, Alfred, Firebrand, Gratien stood in a line in front of them.
Gaspard and She-Who-Walks-Alone stood among the soldiers blocking the front row of the assembly to open a large space in front of the Royal dais.
The same assembly were accorded little time to settle as Nepomucene stepped forward as soon as he was satisfied the King and his followers were sitting comfortably.
He lifted the thick rolled parchment he had carried with him all the time in front of his eyes and started in a loud voice that echoed through the square:
“On Gerhart de Beaucastel Elected King of Beaulieu’s orders bring forward Philippe de La Marche, Beaumont de Montfaucon and Jehan Desmesne for judgment!”
Legionaries pushed three shackled figures ahead to stand in front of the dais.
All three were dressed in a single rough cloth smock and shod with leather sandals. Their hair and beard had been shorn short. Their heads were bowed in shame and fright. No one had bothered of even taunting them with comments on their coming fate. Apart of terse orders no one had talked to them while they were changed garments and shorn before being left inside the very cell where the Currency Delegation had been left to die. But they had been provided with water and a chamber pot for the night.
Nepomucene began to read the parchment:
“The three of you are being held guilty of abetting the murder of delegates from five nations, forging money to cheat your fellow citizens, enslaving the men, women and children of the land among other crimes. You have forthwith been deemed unworthy of your name and will be henceforth called by numbers sown on your frocks. All your rights as citizens have been forfeited. You will be used as cleaners as seen fit by your betters for the rest of your life eight hours a day in full view of all. The Kingdom will provide you with three meals a day solely to keep you alive and healthy enough for your chores. The rest of the time will be spent in your cells that will be inspected every day to ascertain they are clean. You will moreover be provided with one pallet, one blanket and a regular change of frock and sandals. You are not allowed to proffer a word from now on. Just follow orders as we have no need to hear you. There is no parole for you either. Before you are taken away know that Sylvana de Montaigue has pleaded for your former spouses who have been judged as completely innocent of your crimes and are to be officially divorced from you. They will be free to enter in possession of what is deemed to be theirs and allowed to live a normal citizen’s life in the manner of their own choice! Take them away!”
Legionaries grasped them roughly oblivious to their screams and cries and swiftly took them away.
The reactions, although silent, were mixed on the faces of the citizens facing the law of a true King for the first time in their lives. Some rejoiced at a new justice which was not only fair but humane. Others belatedly realized a new order was already in place and that they had better go along with it or else.
They listened to Nepomucene’s next words in expectation or worry:
“The Court of Justice here represented with the accord of all nations by Judges Marsalis of Dunlago and Arnaud de Betancourt, Sylvana de Montaigue caretaker of La Marche, Norbert de Chalon, caretaker of Montfaucon, Queen Marghrete of Pontaven and King Gerhart of Beaucastel will have the list of other citizens judged for their crimes and sentences published for all to see in the next day to come. A Royal edict is also being prepared by the caretaking government of both lands to introduce our citizens to the laws already in place in the rest of the Kingdom. The said edict is being copied for all to pick and make acquaintance with!”
More than a few disconsolate citizen discovered to his or her unending chagrin that he or she had better become literate as soon as possible or be left on the fringes of new region bound for better days.
Gerhart’s counsellors had suggested to leave the title of Baron vacant until they were satisfied no direct Royal intervention would be needed, by which time they could either revive them either through a vote by the citizens of both lands or through a meeting of all the elected courts back in Beaucastel. The same citizens would also find out early enough that the so-called caretaking government was exclusively made of individuals who possessed an uncomfortable amount of knowledge on their persons.
“Good citizens, the Royal announcement is hence brought to an end. All citizens with grievances or questions can have them heard inside the Palace by the appointed officer in his counselling room at published times of the day where you will be directed after proper screening.!”
King Gerhart and his followers did not wait any longer and briskly left the place back inside the palace whose doors were nonetheless left wide open in an evident sign of easy welcome.
The former agents of the Realm would be saddled with quite a load of bureaucracy for quite some time but the task could be made easier with a sufficient garrison more than capable of restoring order but also of helping with the citizens’ everyday needs.
What had been left unsaid is that both former baronages will benefit of unheard help to raise their condition on a level par with the rest of Kingdom. Citizens would soon discover the benefits of a new hygiene and general care for the citizens. Firebrand and a few Dwarves would have enough work for many years to come! Gratien for his part had been unanimously given the task to organize the order to lighten Norbert and Sylvana’s burden in their roles of de facto governors.
Work was already starting and the last meetings held before Gerhart left Norbert, Sylvana and the feared couple left on their own. Alfred would go back with the Judges to Baucastel while Nepomucene would resume his responsibilities in Valmoray. On the other hand most of the Gold Dragon Squad and the Legion would stay to help for as long as needed.
On the same morning that the people of La Marche in the land of Alymndes were assembled for King Gerhart’s announcement of a new rule, soldiers on the deck of the Imperial Ship espied a boat floating through the gate of Tong-Hi with a pirate holding a white flag at the prow.
Hsu Yia and her followers had plenty of time to assemble in the middle of the deck before the small vessel reached the imperial Ship.
A ladder was thrown over starboard to allow the Tong Hi parley delegation to climb aboard.
Sullen pirates soon appeared in front of the Empress. They bore no weapons or armor and their chests and head were bared of any coverings. They knelt one by one their foreheads on the floor of the deck until the last one, a man apparently of rank, walked through them to kneel down in turn and deposit a lacquered box in front of him. He took the lid off before bringing his forehead to the floor in total submission.
The General signed for a mariner to bring the box to him.
He looked inside although he could guess what was inside. After a few heartbeats he took the box proffered to him in his own hands to bring it to the Empress.
Although she had known all the time what was in store for them she could not dissimulate her disgust when she saw the severed head of the late Overlord of Tong Hi inside.
“Give it back!” she tersely ordered a grim General.
When he had done so, she coldly addressed the prone pirates:
“I do not condone murders even when our enemies kill each other to escape their fate! Have this head rejoined to its body for a proper funeral! Talking of funerals have you conducted proper services for your men killed on the wall?”
No reply came.
Her icy voice made everyone, friends and foes, cringe:
“Have everyone serviced according to your traditions. You are given two days. Make sure your city is cleaned when I enter it to pronounce your doom!”
She signed Qusan to make them go before turning around and marching to her quarters.
The next two days were occupied with the preparation of the coming of the Empress into the pirates’ lair. Qusan had observed the city from the upper deck with his telescope. The inhabitants were in fact cleaning the walls of all corpses but did not make any effort to repair the fortifications.
He still had reservations. The pirates might have been beaten for the second time with horrible carnage but were they definitely cowed? His experience in constantly fighting them did not allow him to be overoptimistic.
He had made a point to ask Hsu Yia to let him lead an expedition to first ascertain there would be no more treachery from their sworn enemy. The victories had been too swift for his own liking.
The Empress had literally growled:
“I very much doubt my person is in danger! Even so, I wouldn’t let anyone as move a finger against my people or my person for that matter!”
Not wishing to further tempt her anger the weathered soldier had stolidly accepted his fate.
The morning finally came when many barges were lowered down from all four ships.
When they had been boarded by their full contingents of soldiery the Imperial boat was finally lowered down. The Empress soon climbed down a ladder to it followed by the faithful Lords of the Western Alliance and all the members of the Alymndes delegation.
She had insisted that all her guests boarded her ship explaining they had a role to play in the coming confrontation although the Alymndes people were hard put to imagine how they could be useful in affairs beyond their competence.
The flotilla passed through the gate under the barbican without any hindrance. Not a single pirate could be seen atop the ramparts or barbican.
But the city and its fortifications seemed to have been decently cleaned and no corpse was seen anywhere. As for the city half of it had been burned to the ground. Only stone houses were left standing.
The Imperial boats moored at a wide flight of stone stairs that ran down to the bottom of the inner harbor. Only a few pirates were at hand to help tie the ropes around bollards. They were unarmed, wore no armor and their chests and heads bare. Once the boats had been secured they stepped aside and kneeled down with their foreheads on the ground. The whole Imperial contingent with Hsu Yia and Qusan at their head climbed and walked past them without a single look.
The General knew from information painfully gathered over the years where the main square of the city was located. He also knew it was large enough for the whole population to gather there during the many feasts held by the pirates on their return from expeditions all around the continent.
This time though there was no sign of revel. Only a very thick crowd of silent people of all ages, gender and condition were found standing waiting for their arrival on a square completely filled with humanity till right under the arcades surrounding it on three sides.
As soon as they entered the square the whole crowd, men, women, adults, children, the aged and the lame fell on their knees in silence and bowed to the ground with their foreheads lying in the dirt.
The whole Imperial Army and its guests climbed a very large elevated stone platform completely empty obviously used by the Tong I of a higher status during their celebrations or else.
General Qusan came forward to stand alone ahead of Hsu Yia flanked with her two women companions. To the dismay of her followers she, Kaluin and She-Who-Wanders wore no armor nor carried any weapons. The Alymndes guests stood among the Lords of the Western Alliance in no preordained order.
Taking a grip on himself he started in a loud voice which echoed all around the crowded square:
“Men and women of Tong-Hi, hear your doom as delivered by Hsu Yia, Empress of Narosan!”
After a short pause, he continued satsified he had everybody’s attention:
“The Tong-Hi’s days of pirating and pillaging are over! All your weapons will be either destroyed or melted to fashion tools. Any adult citizen is allowed to bear a knife provided it is locked in a sheath in full view. Anyone found with a naked knife on his person will immediately be apprehended and sent forthwith to community labor. All the walls will be pulled down. Their stones may be used only to build piers, wharves, lighthouses or warehouses. From now on you will have to learn to till their land, produce and fabricate for your own needs. Your ships may be used only for trade. All titles and privileges are abolished. None of you will be allowed to bear arms or become soldiers ever! The Imperial Army and Navy take immediate control of your government until it is deemed you may govern yourselves! You will forthwith become citizens of Narosan and learn to live and prosper in peace. For that purpose Empress Hsu Yia has invited friends many of you call alien monsters to help you develop and fructify your resources! You will have to become a model of peace and prosperity to all lands in the Empire! Empress Hsu Yia hereby offers you one and only chance to redeem yourselves! Take it for your own good or leave it for terrible retribution!”
Hsu Yia had long thought and tarried on this edict. She could have obliterated the whole land and no one would have dared or wished to comment on her decision, so vile the crimes of the Tong-Hi pirates had been. But she also knew deep in her heart that different notions had to be instilled in her subjects’ hearts for a future and lasting peace that had to be quickly initiated in her Empire before facing even worse threats in the guise of a fallen dragon and his minions.
There was no need for her to tarry any longer.
She had a last look at the Tong-Hi citizens with their heads still bowed to the ground but she did not deign to address them any longer. They would have to stay there though for at least another moon to allow the Imperial Army and Navy organize authorities. She could use the time to roam the island in the company of her guests who she knew would come with new ideas for mutual trade in particular, but not on that day or night. She needed to retire immediately to her Ship to distance herself from the horrors of war even for a short while lest her Dragon’s senses took over.

Later in the evening Kaluin and She-Who-Wanders who were sharing her quarters on the Imperial Ship had tried their best to ignore her mute figure seemingly intent of distancing herself from the rest of the world. Hsu Yia had silently sat for hours on the same spot in the middle of her couch when her two companions were suddenly alarmed by tears running down her perfect visage. Although her face or lips were not showing any signs of inner turmoil her half closed eyelids left them in no doubt that their vaunted sovereign was suffering from the pains of a human being.
Hsu Yia at long last seemed to notice the presence of her faithful followers.
A sad smile parted her lips.
She looked at them intently.
A silent understanding that only women could fathom was silently shared.
Her two friends tentatively moved towards her couch.
Ekan attempted to reach his lover through mindspeech that night, his dragon’s senses telling him of the sufferings she was going through but he found her mind closed even to him.
He did not insist.

The next morning when the rising sun was filtering through the window of her cabin Hsu Yia woke up from a rare and deep slumber that for once her dragon’s body had allowed to fully enjoy.
She was lying naked under a sheer sheet of silk she had brought back from Dunlago where she had acquired it from an Elf tradesman.
She fondly looked at her two new lovers still asleep their heads lying in the crook of her shoulders.
Kaluin’s face had lost all her usual seriousness while She-Who-Wanders’ visage was hidden under her untied hair. She reflected that even in her human body her Dragon’s powers soothed them into absolute repose as only infants could experience. She pondered on the irony of the situation when she had been the one in need of solace.
She gently nudged both.
They just nestled deeper against her body. She couldn’t help a chortle which finally woke them up. Both sat up lazily smiling at each other. Although Hsu Yia intimately felt their delight in their new discovery she also knew that they would one day find a man of their own choosing. Her two companions had given themselves freely and completely to her in their efforts to take her pain away.
She suddenly felt the urge to reward them as only a Dragon could.
“Kaluin, She-Who-wanders, we will fly tonight!”
They looked at her in disbelief.
She laughed.
“Don’t make such a face! You will not be the first humans to do so!”
She would have to be careful though. Umatar might be able to fly with her lover and adopted son in all impunity over the vast expanses of the Steppes, but the three of them lived in a crowded land except for the mountains. Talking of mountains it might be a good idea to introduce them to the newly freed wyverns for a start.
Kotor was fuming.
More aptly said, he had been fuming for quite some time.
Since the very moment his dreams of grandeur had been snuffed out by the damned Red faces.
To think he had the perfect present to ingratiate himself with King Kalrong to the point of making him the most valued servant of His Eminence!
Knowing his ruler’s depraved habits he had spent untold amounts of gold to nurture a sex slave that no one could come to even equaling. The most exotic woman you could imagine from that unknown land north of Thalamus! The milk-white skin, the flame of her hair, and a virgin to top it all!
And now he was left with half of his personal guards dead and apparently his slave stolen from him since they could not find her body among the wreckage left by those bandits!

“Come on, Varagen! Is that all you can show me?”
The object of Beatrix’ s sarcasm did not appreciate her taunts the least, even though he had taught her that egging an opponent into mistakes was part and parcel of a real fighter’s arsenal.
He also reflected that the already towering girl was growing too strong and fast for his own comfort. He just could not start imagining what she would eventually become considering that Saramin told them she was only a young apprentice compared to some of the Walkyries he had the chance to meet in that strange land north of the Fire Mountains. For all his prowess and experience he had been given more blows than he could administer of late. And to think she ahd moreover practically the art of horse riding within a few days! He was ruminating on his abilities to teach more to the flame-haired girl while parrying a vicious side swing from her wooden sword when Saramin appeared in the company of his faithful lieutenant Casilgar at the fence surrounding their fight practice ring.
The two spent some time watching them practice without a comment until Varagen finally called for a break. Saramin, although he made sure to not show any feelings, was truly impressed and the notion he had entertained for a while made more and more sense. He signed the two fighters to come to him.
“The two of you call it a day! I want to talk with you as soon as you are refreshed. Come to my quarters!”
Varagen just nodded, used as he was to his Chief’s ways. But Beatrix wondered why she was included in the request.
She was about to know soon enough.
The four of them found themselves sitting on cushions sipping cocoa, a drink that everyone in the South was indulging at any time of the day and night.


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