A test of honor, p.21
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       A Test of Honor, p.21

           Justin Hebert
 
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  Chapter 21

  "In battle, the most dangerous weapons are not longswords and muskets, but confusion and uncertainty."

  - Troy Franklin, 17 Maye, 1788 AC

  Sir Gary joined the council the next day, and they explained their basic plan of defense. He had some insights that Aidan found invaluable, especially an idea that involved covering some Soldiers in green leaves and hiding them in the branches of trees.

  Their meeting was interrupted by two blasts from a perimeter horn - friends. The council left the tent and waited with others who were off duty and idle near the edge of camp in the direction the blasts had come from. A sentry escorted three riders, each dressed in clothes mostly white save for large house Crests they bore on their side-buttoned jackets. Two of them rode horses clearly chosen for their utility, but one was dressed in a blue cloth caparison that covered most of his face and legs. As they approached, Aidan recognized their livery. Gardenrose, Braxton, and Herringwood.

  The three Houses had been great friends to House Franklin, and Aidan had thought about them a month or so past, when he stumbled upon a strangely worded passage in Latisha's journal mentioning that they were coming for a visit. He had suspected they were playing rebel alongside his father, and it seemed his suspicions were correct.

  "Greetings, Lord Aidan," said the Herald whose chest was ablaze with a solid-red circle and two crossed pole-axes with a golden gauntlet beneath their intersection - the Braxton Crest. "May the gods shine on you today!"

  Aidan tilted his head a little at the comment, but remembered that House Braxton was far more concerned with religious matters than most, to the point of alienation among other more secular Houses. Still, allies were allies. "You use my title - can I assume your three Houses are prepared to officially recognize my claim?"

  "It's not fitting to discuss it here," said the second Herald, looking at the bandits around them with unhidden disgust. His finely-waxed mustache would have made him appear as though always smiling if his face didn't wear an offended scowl. On his chest was embroidered an encircled jumping fish. Herringwood. "Do you have a place we can speak to you and your ... Lieutenants?"

  "Our command tent is just over there," Marke said, clearly unamused at the Herald's snobbery. "I'm afraid you'll have to leave your horses with men less suitable than you may be accustomed, but we'll make sure they touch them as little as possible."

  The Herald sniffed at the insult, and Aidan resisted the urge to smack Marke over the head. I don't like our people suffering snobbish abuse either, but we aren't in a position to turn away help. The three dismounted without further comment, and Aidan led the entire group to the tent, talking a bit with the Herald of Gardenrose as they went.

  "My Lord wishes you to know, Lord Aidan, that he is sorry for your plight and would have lobbied tirelessly for your release had you been jailed."

  "I have no doubt," Aidan answered, filled with doubt. Questions he had never thought to ask suddenly materialized in his head, and he knew that some would need an answer.

  They entered the tent, the three visitors gathering quickly around the embers glowing red with heat near the structure's center. Layers of woolens, and still they're cold. He was sure they would want something, he just hoped it was something that wouldn't be too painful to part with. But he was under no illusions: he needed whatever they could provide.

  "My good men," Aidan addressed them as the rest of the council filed into the tent, "if we could skip the pleasantries, I would appreciate it. We know whom you speak for, so speak."

  Herringwood sniffed and spoke with a sneer painted across his face. "My Lord wishes to offer you aid in your coming struggle. He promises two hundred heavy Cavalry, and fifty each of Spearmen and Archers."

  "A good start," Aidan said, the brutal mathematics of battle beginning to balance in his mind, "but please, all of you, tell me directly what is expected in return for your support. Starting with you, Herringwood."

  "A quarter of Barrowdown's income for a period of five years."

  The audacity of the figure shocked Aidan - nearly 1,300 coronets per year at least! - but he did his best not to betray how much the figure scandalized him. Rodrig looked a little wide eyed, no doubt equally perturbed and started to speak, but Aidan shook his head just enough for him to notice. Aidan looked at Gardenrose, a fat Herald fat whose brass buttons strained so tightly to contain him that Aidan was certain they would pop from his jacket at any moment.

  "My Lord offers three hundred mounted Men-at-Arms and fears that is all he can spare." He gestured broadly with his hand as though it were the most magnanimous gift ever offered. "His lands border a fief aligned with the Deputy, and he fears punitive raids once his support be discovered."

  "'A Landowner's first duty is to protect his land and those who live upon it,'"Aidan said, pronouncing the words with the suitably deep-voiced gravitas the recital commanded. "I am familiar with the Founding Charter, Sir, and I believe my actions have demonstrated how seriously I take the oaths contained therein."

  Gardenrose bowed graciously, then continued with his price. "He asks only a tribute of 300 coronets per year, one for each Soldier."

  "Indefinitely?"

  "For your lifetime, if it please you, my Lord."

  Aidan turned this over and continued weighing the balance, trying to work out how much profit Barrowdown could stand to lose and still function as a proper estate. Tributary taxation had bankrupted more than a few Houses in recent memory and was considered by some thinkers to be a devious tactic, subjugating one's allies without the bother of testing them by combat. He disliked the lifetime term, but perhaps Lord Gardenrose would relent with sufficient petitions not only from himself, but from the people of Barrowdown itself. The burden would fall on them, after all.

  "And you, Braxton?"

  "My Lord offers the use of three hundred light horses, Musketeers and crossbow Archers mostly. They are ready to receive your orders whenever you wish."

  As the man spoke, Aidan considered the whole of the offer. Five hundred heavy horses, three hundred ranged, and a hundred foot troops. If used properly, they could turn the battle. The Herald of Braxton paused, clearly expecting Aidan to speak.

  "What does your Lord require in return for his considerable support in battle?"

  "He asks, my Lord Franklin, only that you reward him in a way that seems fitting." This one was older than the other Heralds, and his eyes had grown sunken with age, his skin was beginning to sag, and his lip had developed a tiny, persistent flutter. "He is troubled, truth be told, that it was House Deumar," he nodded to Marke and Ygretta, who gave a small nod of acknowledgement, "who came to your aid and risked their fortunes for loyalty. My Lord is without a direct heir, and more advanced in years than myself, but he still believes in the old ways. He still honors his allies."

  The other two Heralds gave sour glances, the part about honoring allies no doubt meant as a barb for their side, but they held their peace. Aidan bowed deeply to the Steward of House Braxton, resisting the urge to hug him as though he were familiar. "I shall reward his loyalty. Something suitable will be decided after the battle."

  Aidan was honored by the open-ended deal until a warning from his father crept into his mind. A worthy reward for some is an insult to others. What appears valuable in your eyes may be rubbish to your neighbor. Still, the Herald seemed sincere. Braxton's estate was smaller than the rest, yet he had made an offering of Soldiers similar to the others, which Aidan suspected he had dipped considerably into his own coffers to afford.

  First, he told Herringwood that the foot Soldiers would not be needed. The bandits lacked a decent-sized Cavalry, and adding more Archers or Spearmen would only multiply confusion. Plus, it would slow down the Cavalry and expose all of them as they traveled. The Steward nodded, and although Aidan was tempted, he didn't dare mention reducing the price of his support.

  "I am the Marshal of the main army," Aidan pointed to their Kahess pieces arranged on the map, showing their i
ntended field of engagement, "but your combined forces ought to travel together, taking a southern route and cutting through Graydon here."

  "Before we continue, my Lord Franklin," Gardenrose spoke up, his voice a little shaky as though about to deliver bad news, "you should know that our three masters have indeed coordinated among each other. They already have plans for a staging area and supply line. What they require from you is a volunteer."

  "Volunteer?"

  "While our men will be liveried in our House Crests," Herringwood explained, crossing his arms and speaking as though stating the obvious, "our masters will not have the honor of joining them in glorious combat. As a sign of good faith from you, and to assure secrecy of your battle plan, we would like one of your Lieutenants to accompany us when we return tomorrow."

  The Herald of Braxton looked around at the council members as though searching for someone in particular. His eyes narrowed on Marke Deumar. "Our masters agree without condition that whoever is chosen to lead their troops ought to be of Noble birth."

  "Sounds great," Ygretta chimed in her most pretentious tone, "when do we leave?"

  The Heralds went wide eyed with shock at the idea that a woman would lead their Horsemen in battle. The prolonged moment of stunned silence gave Aidan an opening before their prejudice and Ygretta's obstinance wrecked their entire coalition.

  "Sir Marke of Wishon shall accompany you," Aidan said, hoping to settle the matter without further strife. True to his suspicions, Ygretta objected.

  "Is it because of my sex that you deny me the Noble right of Command?" she asked, giving Aidan a glare cold enough to turn him to ice and sharp enough to break it apart again.

  "It is not your sex that concerns me," he said, glad that the Heralds still hadn't recovered themselves, "but your duties. Our troops are not yet ready for battle. They are your primary concern."

  The Herald of Gardenrose looked as though about to add a comment, but Aidan shot him a warning look that kept him silent. Marke was looking at him with a curious raised eyebrow, and Aidan nodded to reassure him that this was the right course of action. Marke was more than capable of leading a Cavalry charge, Aidan had witnessed his horsemanship firsthand when they fought the posse not a month and a half ago. He would have sent Rodrig, hell he might have sent them Charlene if they had asked. We can win without Cavalry. But with them, we'll lose fewer Soldiers. He did his best to convince himself that he acted in their best interest because he cared for them, and not out of the pure brutal calculus of warfare.

  Connel gathered a few others to erect a medium-sized visitor's tent for the Heralds, who gathered there and kept one another company and then joined the council as they planned for Cavalry as quickly as they could. They centered on a southern approach to the battle since most of the enemy reinforcements would arrive from the north. They toyed with the idea of an ambush, but Rodrig was quick to point out that there had been only three known successful Cavalry ambushes in history. Men could more easily hide themselves than their horses, so it seemed.

  Aidan assured Marke of his confidence. They planned long into the night, as much to spend a few final hours with Marke as to ensure that each person understood their role in the coming conflict. The next morning came all too soon.

  "The next time I see you," Marke addressed the entire camp the next morning, who had all gathered in a huddled mass to witness his departure, "I'll be leading a division of Cavalry, gutting the enemy side by side with you!"

  A few cheers rose, but Aidan could sense the uncertainty in his army. The Nobles have always been their enemies. He refused to worry about it; they would see at the battle just how effective heavy horse could be against unsuspecting enemies. Three weeks was a long time, and they'd soon forget any brief hesitation they experienced today.

  "Marke, my friend, thank you for your service," Aidan said, looking confidently into the faces of the uncertain bandits around them, "and when we meet again, we shall be dressed and ready for battle. And then we'll settle our grudge against the Deputy for the lives he took from us on that frosty morn."

  More than a few eyes teared up remembering the blood and fire that surrounded them that terrible, fateful day. And yet they held their heads high at the remembrance of victory against what had always seemed like impossible odds before. Soldiers are most effective when they believe they can accomplish the impossible. Those were Troy's words, which he had read late last night before a deep dreamless sleep. Even his brother's usually diplomatic mind was turning to war toward the end.

  As Marke and the Heralds departed, the bandits dispersed and went about their duties, some assembling and beginning their morning exercises before Ygretta called for them. They are gaining discipline, good. Aidan was glad he had thought of a legitimate reason to keep Ygretta close and avoid the risk of offending his only allies. He pursed his lips thinking of how childish she'd been, volunteering like that. He had female commanders in the War in the Heavens, but this was Caledonia. Women may fight in combat when needed, but they did not lead divisions, and they did not seek out military life as a profession.

  "I've never been close with Sir Marke," Charlene's voice chimed form behind him, a phenomenon he had long since grown to expect, "but I will miss him. It is brave of you to let him go."

  "Why do you say brave?" Aidan hadn't thought of the gesture as brave. It was simply necessary.

  "You might never see him again."

  "We'll see him at the battle, and then there will be a feast when we win."

  "Don't do that," Charlene's voice had a ragged edge that Aidan had learned to walk carefully around. "Don't treat me like one of them."

  She pointed to the group training with Ygretta, striking with wooden waster swords as she barked commands. "What do you mean?"

  "They don't know what we face; I do. Don't try and con me into believing that victory is assured when we both full well know that it is far from certain. Even with our new allies, if they can be trusted."

  Aidan shook his head at her cynicism, but remembered that she had grown up around the kind of Nobles who did nothing but tarnish the title. "I trust them."

  "I don't, and it shocks me that you do."

  "They are longtime friends of my father, and they were conspiring with him against the Crown." As Aidan spoke the words, he felt a great heaviness lift from his heart, the weight of a terrible secret now born into the world. He sighed with relief, and then continued as Charlene stood open mouthed. "They are reliving old days, trying to finish a great enterprise they once began."

  "Suppose the King knows about their part in your father's schemes? Suppose his price for their pardons is to give you false assurance of Cavalry that will never come?"

  Aidan had experienced almost nothing but betrayal from his fellow Nobles since arriving, yet suddenly here was a group who wanted nothing more than to help him enforce what most would say was an illegitimate claim. Marke and Ygretta had sacrificed their courtly life for the sake of standing with him, but could that be part of it? Could they be having second thoughts, imagining their own father rotting in a Meadows Dungeon?

  He shook his head. I have to believe. "We just have to trust them until they prove unworthy."

  She spun and embraced him, and suddenly kissed him deeply. She pulled her head back and looked him in the eyes and said sadly, "That trust may come at the cost of our lives, my love."

  "Nothing of worth comes without cost," Aidan said, desperate for even the smallest flicker of hope in her eyes. "My father used to say that."

  "Then for what it's worth," she said, laying her head on his chest as if she meant to sleep, "I believe in you."

  I hope your belief proves correct. Aidan's dreams that night were filled with terrifying images of bloodshed and betrayal, of Marke himself riding him down on an armored heavy horse so heavily plated it was practically a machine itself. In the morning, he read once again the passages of his family's journals relating to the three conspirators, hoping to find some assurance that their offe
r of help wasn't part of some elaborate trap. He found none.

 
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