A Gathering Storm

by

Nick Capo




The wind molded clouds into rolling hills and steep mountains in the sky over Port Liberty, but the clouds still were as white as a young chickenís feathers. Ahern muttered a brief prayer of thanks as he walked out of the cityís west gate. The first major storms of the summer season had lashed the city intermittently for the past week, and the rain had severely disrupted his training schedule for his new company of mercenaries.

The men did not mind. The veterans knew that they received their pay no matter what kind of weather hit them; the younger recruits were learning so much so quickly that they welcomed the periodic respites from training. Ahern still had the men do some long marches in the mud, but he halted the normal periods of sparring, wrestling, and squad drill. With terrible footing and slippery hands, the probability of serious injuries was too high.

At his side walked Ranulf, his friend and now both their employerís agent and the companyís only mage. A strong possibility for conflicting loyalties in that dual role, but that problem could wait until they were on the way north.

"Will we be ready?" Ranulf asked. His hair was flecked with gray and his skin tanned to a dark brown, but he was all lean muscle and relentless energy. Most good mages were; they needed to be to withstand the physical demands of wielding their power.

"Not really. Weíll be readier than most companies usually are, but not as ready as I wanted us to be." Ahern spit onto the ground. The dirt was drying but still almost black with moisture, and the blades of the grass near the city wall were mostly still plastered low to the ground from the force of the rain. He noticed such details, even though he was a decade off of his familyís farm and had not thought much about raising a crop during the long years spent fighting as a mercenary and hiding from enemies as a tavern keeper.

Ranulf sighed. Perhaps the manís stride lengthened slightly, but Ahern might simply have been sensing his own acceleration. He and Ranulf were used to running together; they had needed to run fast and far to escape their mutual enemies. "I wish we had more time. But maybe weíll make it into the fortress without any trouble."

Unfortunately, they needed to leave the city within the next week to keep to the schedule set by their new employer. Ahern had wanted to work out most of the simpler kinks before they set out on the long trip to the north. He had spent the coin on a ship charter to get them to a small port town about one hundred miles southeast of their final destination, so they would have only a few days to practice their open-field formations during the final few marches.

What time they had would have to be enough. Duke Aidan, their employer, was fighting a war against heavy odds, and although the Duke had promised extraordinarily generous land grants to any mercenaries that answered his call, he needed to win the war to deliver on those promises. The sooner that Ahernís company and the others that the Dukeís agent had hired arrived, the higher probability the men might actually earn enough land to enable those who wished for a more peaceful and wealthier life to achieve it.

Ahern did not share his companionís plaintive optimism. Duke Aidan still controlled a fortress city and a number of small forts and towns in the duchyís southern reaches, but according to Ranulfís news, the Emperor was funneling more troops into the duchy to tighten his siege lines and to assault some of the outlying forts. They would almost certainly run into one of the Empireís patrols or outposts as they approached Duke Aidanís beleaguered city. He expected the company to have to fight its way into the relative safety of the fortress.

If more of the men knew he thought that, they might not be so happy about the hours and days of missed training. Still, unlike many companies in this part of the world, Ahernís knew it would see hard fighting soon. The knowledge of certain combat tended to focus the mind, and when they were able to train, most of the men worked even harder than the norm for professional soldiers.

Still, the companyís roster currently listed more untested men than Ahern would have preferred. A conflict over wages with the local Mercenary Guild apparently had discouraged some of the more cautious veterans from signing papers with him. The cautious ones did not want to burn the bridges behind them; if service with Ahernís company did not work out, they would need to sign with another company. The Guild also had spread the word in the taverns that it was keeping a list of names of those who joined the company. Only young recruits crossed the Guild without careful thought.

And the veterans who had signed were generally tough, stubborn men who were fairly set in their ways. The mixture was causing interesting problems in the training, one of which coincided with his arrival at the center of the field.

Kadeg, his senior lieutenant, was overseeing the three squads of footmen and one of dismounted horsemen that were engaged in a mock skirmish.

"No," Kadeg roared. A big man, he now sounded like a bear too. "Stop where you are, and look -- look, damn it -- at your lines." He walked into the formations and pointed at several clusters of men. "Lydell, Hilton, explain to me why you two are standing back to back in a line formation?"

The older of the two footmen dipped his head sheepishly. "Sorry, Lieutenant," he muttered. "Old habits."

"Send those old habits straight to the garbage dump. And the two of you werenít the only ones doing it." The senior lieutenant glared at several other pairs. "Those of you who are still fighting like youíre members of a lance, get this through your head: weíre done with that. You have to trust every man to do his job. This company is going up against a professional army. If you fight in your little clusters of friends, eventually youíre going to get killed, and maybe take all of us with you."

A lance was a standard mercenary band in the south and east. Usually composed of anywhere from four to a dozen fighting men, a servant, and a page, it gave men some friends to share travels and a tent with and to watch their backs in battle. It also played havoc with unit cohesion and was really best suited for small battles and skirmishes between groups of mercenaries, not for the kind of meat-grinder war of annihilation that Ahern and Kadeg suspected they would be leading this company into.

Lydell and Hilton had been part of such a lance -- their last service was in the Seven Kingdoms, a fact that had almost caused Ahern to pass them by, given his recent unhappy history in one of those kingdoms. They and their fellows clearly had been uncomfortable when they were separated into the various squads of horsemen, footmen, and archers. They apparently needed the wages badly, though, and they were skilled with their weapons and experienced fighters. So Ahern had suppressed his concerns over the risk that they might recognize him or Ranulf and signed them into the company.

"Take a good look at the notches cut into the timber I planted in the middle of this field," Kadeg was saying to the men. "Each notch stands for a soldier I commanded who died by doing something stupid. And by the Creator, I swear that none of you men are going to earn a notch. Youíre going to fight smart -- that means you stay in formation no matter what -- or Iíll kill you myself. Is that understood?"

The chorus of affirmative responses sounded properly motivated and chastened, so Kadeg stepped back and turned toward Ahern. He saluted and asked, "Anything you want to add, Captain?"

Ahern nodded and stepped forward. "Listen to the lieutenant. I could see the weaknesses in your formation from a hundred yards away. An enemy will be closer to you and see them even sooner. You will do well and are more likely to survive to enjoy your wages and your land if you remember one simple rule: if a hole opens in your lines or if anything else needs to be done, whoever is closest to the problem must act immediately. Do not hesitate. Do not wait for orders. Act." He surveyed all of the faces staring back at him. "Weíre leaving for the north in seven days. Your lieutenant has pointed out a problem. So fix it. Fix it quickly, or you will not be marching with us. We cannot afford even one weak link in this company, not where weíre going."

Ahern motioned to the lieutenant to carry on and headed toward the area set aside for weapons training. The other two squads of horsemen were awaiting him with suitably disgruntled expressions on their face. Most of the horsemen, even including the veterans, had been surprised by how frequently he was drilling them in dismounted combat. And most were disconcerted by the realization that Ranulf would be wielding power behind them while they were fighting. They were learning their own lessons, with about the same level of uneven success as Kadegís footmen and archers.

By the time Ahern was close enough to smile into the waves of their displeasure, he doubted most of them could see his face very clearly. The sun was now high enough to clear the city wall and force them to squint against its radiance. At least five turns of the hourglass remained until they halted temporarily for a midday meal.

His smile widened. This company would be as ready as he could possibly make it during the days left to him, and the doing was so much more enjoyable than wiping sticky wine off of a tavernís bar.

####

The next week passed in a hot, hazy blur of sweat and bruised muscles and strained eyes. Each day included hours of drill and conditioning exercises, and the evenings were filled with paperwork and final negotiations for necessary supplies and equipment.

On the night before they left, Ahern was sitting at his desk in the Sailorís Roost, the tavern he had bought to hide in after a reluctant but necessary retreat from the mercenary life. He had just deducted the price of the last half dozen wagons from the companyís book when his doorman knocked and leaned around the doorís edge.

"I think youíll want to come downstairs," the doorman said. "Councilwoman Genevieve Morgan is here. Sheís here right now." The man sounded almost dazed.

His heart beating quickly, Ahern stood and paused to think. Councilwoman Morgan was a power in the city, and he had spent the past year trying to avoid being noticed by such people. In his experience, few people with great power could be trusted. But any number of benign reasons why she would want to see him suggested themselves, so he forced himself to take a deep, calming breath.

He followed the doorman back downstairs into the common room, and although he had never before seen the Councilwoman, she was easy to identify. She stood near the door, bracketed by two soldiers of the City Guard. Five or six decades into her life, she still radiated the force of a woman who had commanded a small fleet of ships, her portion of a widowís inheritance. The richness and practicality of her clothing -- silk shirt and linen skirt, rather than a cumbersome dress -- also marked her as an outsider to both the tavernís rougher world and the aristocracyís pampered enclaves.

After brief introductions, which still left her business with him unstated, the Councilwoman requested a private meeting.

Ahern nodded. "Would you like a cup of wine, Councilwoman, to wet your throat while we talk? I have a good red that I can offer you."

"Yes, that would be wonderful." She ran one hand through her hair, which was hanging loosely to a point well beneath her shoulders. Auburn and curly, and streaked with gray, her hair complimented a face whose weathered beauty hinted at how advantageous her physical presence must have been during her early interactions with men. In truth, even without her reputation, she still drew eyes to her. "This has been a day of too much talking, and it is not over yet."

After he secured filled cups from the bar and they returned upstairs to the relative quiet of his office, they sat across from each other at the table in his office.

"Iím curious to know what brings you to my tavern, Councilwoman. The finer people of the city rarely visit here. I draw a rough crowd."

She stared back at him with no trace of condescension or xenophobia visible on her face. As a growing trading city by day and lucrative pirate city by night, Port Liberty always welcomed new blood. Like most cities in this part of the world, almost half of its people were two and a half decades old or younger. The city always needed more laborers, more craftsmen, more soldiers, more potential wives, and more owners of small enterprises, such as tavern keepers who promptly paid their taxes, if they actually had to pay taxes. Offers of five- or ten-year tax exemptions were fairly common tactics to draw the bodies inside the city. The Councilwoman was well known as a vocal supporter of the cityís new residents. "We give them a new home, and they make the city more powerful," she was widely quoted as having said. Hearing that sentiment was one of the reasons why Ahern had chosen to stay in Port Liberty.

"Youíve been in Port Liberty for a year, Master Ahern," she said, "so you must know that my other sets of eyes watch everything that happens in the city. Lately, they have been filling my desk with reports of the astonishingly rigorous training you are putting the men in your new company through. And of your previously unknown skills with weapons and horses. And of the powerful mage who has joined you after only recently arriving in Port Liberty. So many reports, in fact, that theyíve almost driven from my desk the complaints from the Mercenary Guild, most of which recently have been calling you any number of vile names."

Ahern held himself very still. "I am sorry that my actions have wasted even a minute of your time."

The Councilwoman waved a hand as if brushing away a cloud of smoke. "Youíre forgiven." She stared levelly at him over the rim of her cup. "You know, if I had been aware of your talents, I might have offered you a position in my household, or perhaps in one of the city companies."

He shrugged. It was a time to choose each word carefully; she was intelligent and watchful. And she had survived on the Council for over fifteen years now. One false sentence could destroy any possibility of trust between them. "I thought that I was putting the fighting behind me. I planned on growing old and gray while comparing each new dayís sunrise and sunset to the previous dayís." He smiled ruefully. "But an old friend made me an offer that was too good to refuse."

"Youíre overestimating the joys of going gray, I would say." Her head tilted to the left and her finger traced a question mark on the table. "Too good to refuse? Yet youíre going north to fight in that terrible war in Ravenwood. On the side that might be losing."

Ahern paused to swallow a mouthful of wine. "The Duke is, therefore, offering extremely generous land grants. Extremely generous."

A disgruntled, or perhaps frustrated, noise escaped her lips. He suspected she let it do so intentionally, because her eyes remained upon him and showed no emotion. "I have land, too," she pointed out mildly, "and I am known to be generous to my friends. So you will have to forgive me if I am not completely convinced by that explanation." She anticipated any words from him with a raised palm. "I will accept it, however. Seemingly everyone in this city has a secret."

He smiled again, and was not surprised when she also did. "That has been my experience in the relatively short time Iíve been here. I can only assure you that my secrets, such as they are, are no threat to you and yours."

She nodded. "Perhaps I might retain you then as one of my eyes and ears in the north. A smart ruler always pays attention to what is happening in the world. Yet given the recent upheavals, I lack reliable sources in Ravenwood."

Ahern felt the cold fire of realization surge through him. "I see," he said, and he finally did. "Councilwoman, I ... have not been spying on your city or on you and your fellow council members. My word on it. And I will not act behind the back of my new employer. I promise you this, though: I will talk to the Duke about the possible benefits of an ally on Port Libertyís council. If nothing else, he will need to maintain good trading relations with you. I have some reason to believe that he will look favorably on such an approach."

Silence lingered, and then she nodded. "Iím not sure if what you offer will be less or more than I had hoped to secure. But I am content with such a deal."

It came down, as most matters did, to the necessity of trust.

####

Their small convoy of ships raised anchor and set sail from Port Libertyís harbor fully loaded and on time. A strong trade wind and favorable propelled their ship to the northeast at close to maximum speed, and listening to the rushing hiss of water alongside the ship relaxed Ahern, Ranulf, and some of the veterans. Despite the mild weather, though, many of the men spent agonizing hours bent over buckets or ship railings as they lost the contents of their stomachs.

But other than the companyís epic battle against seasickness, the journey to their unloading point passed without incident. Pirates often had good sources of news inside the major port cities, and few were stupid or desperate enough to attack ships filled with fighting men and relatively meager booty. In fact, most of the pirates in this region were based out of Port Liberty, and given Councilwoman Genevieveís tempered blessing on their expedition, Ahern suspected that they probably had been warned to stay clear of the convoy.

The resulting boredom was undoubtedly for the best. Over half of the men spent a lot of time vomiting into buckets and over the shipís railing, but all of them at least had some time for strained muscles and the other assorted aches and pains of hard training to heal.

When they arrived at their debarkation port, a raucous port town just inside the duchyís southern border, Ahern let the men have a day to get their land legs back and to get a good nightís sleep. The harsh perfume of an overcrowded town was already starting to foul the air, although the wind off of the sea helped ease the stench somewhat. Food prices were high because hundreds of refugees had flooded the town, but beer and wine were still plentiful, and all of the taverns were doing a booming business. Undoubtedly, some of the men found other forms of companionship during the night, but the sergeants had ordered them to keep their squads together, and they did so.

Early the next morning, with many men having traded the nausea of seasickness for that of drunken excess, Ahern led the company out of the city. The weather was drier here than it had been at Port Liberty, and clouds of tenaciously penetrating dust sprang up behind the feet of men and horses as they marched. A steady stream of young and old refugees trickled past them, heading south in search of food and safety.

The northwest trade road was an old Imperial road and still fairly well maintained along this stretch, so they made good time. Only the trained horsemen were mounted, so Ahern planned on halting each dayís march after fifteen miles. He wanted his infantry to arrive fairly fresh at their destination, and a three- or four-day march to the edge of the river that marked the border between the small kingdom of Baden and the duchy of Ravenwood was acceptable.

As they marched, some of the veterans among the footmen started to sing. Hilton, one of the men from the Seven Kingdoms who had ruined so many formation drills during the training, led a small choir into the first verse of a war song supposedly composed by a trooper in the famed 1st Khartras Brigade:

Prepare for the march,

on this bright, beautiful morning.

We will advance;

we will fight.

This battleground

soon will be ours.

The song was no musical masterpiece, but Ahern was glad to hear it. The menís morale was good, and they were bonding as a company.

They would need all of this newfound cohesion soon enough, he suspected. Late on the first day, he rode alongside Ranulf for a time. The humidity in the air and the thick dust made both breathing and talking into unpleasant chores, so they mostly rode without conversation. But a niggling anxiety eventually forced Ahern to break the silence.

"Youíre sure that weíll still find an open route into the city?"

"As sure as I can be," Ranulf answered. "The Empire barely had enough troops to man the blocking forts near the cityís gates and to send out patrols and foraging parties around the rest of the perimeter. One reason why the Duke wanted us there quickly was beating any additional reinforcements -- he was expecting the Emperor to send more light cavalry and foot regiments down from the north. The Duke promised that we would be met by his guides and that the guides would have several ways to get us into the city."

Trust again. Each step forward was a blind step on ground that someone else promised was solid. To trust was to risk. After hours of thought that night and during the following day, Ahern decided that he now understood his own past more clearly. When King Demetrius had decided to try to have him and Ranulf assassinated merely for overhearing something that the king did not want the entire army, or the entire world, to know, he was revealing that he lacked trust in the soldiers in his army. He and Ranulf had merely reciprocated that lack of trust more effectively.

And the fierce anger and desire for revenge against Ahern and Ranulf felt by some of Demetriusís family and former generals was kept burning hotly by the same fuel. Kingdoms and command were impossible dreams in a world without the rational bonds and restraints of trust.

Late on the third day, they reached the river marking the border. On the other side of the river, the trade road vanished into a dense forest. Encamped by the bridge was a small detachment of cavalry and scouts. Most wore Duke Aidanís colors; others, the red and white of Rose, the kingdom that controlled most of the major settlements to their immediate west.

After the introductions, the four captains of the mercenary companies and their senior officers met with Duke Aidanís officers and the leader of the scouts, Gillian Whiterose.

That revelation rocked all of the mercenary captains. Gillian Whiterose was a name known to all fighting men across the world. He had won battles against the Jahari nomads and the southern duchies, and he was widely sung of as one of the worldís greatest living swordmasters. He occasionally taught at Roseís Academy of War, and had therefore taught many of the heirs and younger sons of the rulers of the worldís various kingdoms, duchies, and major cities. He was a Duke and the First General of Roseís armies, and here he was on a mission that might normally be assigned to a captain.

His presence was a message, one directly aimed at the mercenaries. Duke Aidan had powerful allies, it appeared, and some of these allies were not penned within the besieged city. That was important knowledge. Freely shared.

"Youíre going to have to leave your horses with us," Gillian Whiterose told the assembled captains. He was older even than Ranulf, and taller, but he still carried muscle on his frame and stepped lightly, so perhaps he was not as old as he looked. "The Emperorís reinforcements arrived two days ago, so fighting into the city through the South Gate is too risky. Weíll approach through the forest from the south, and use one of the tunnels to get into the city."

Only Ahern accepted that news with equanimity. The commanders of the other three companies were displeased and shared their displeasure loudly. All three insisted on leaving a squad of men with the horses to keep eyes on their property.

"You as well?" Gillian Whiterose asked, after the other three captains spoke their minds.

Ahern shook his head. "My company stays together." Remembering his thoughts of the past two days, he smiled and added, "I will trust you."

Whiterose returned the smile and a deep nod. "Good." He stepped back. "Rest your men, captains. We leave well before dawn. Tell your men to be ready for a fight. We may well run into one of the Empireís patrols in the forest. The Emperorís generals know weíre infiltrating men and supplies into the city from the south, and theyíre trying to stop us."

####



Gillianís Whiteroseís words were prophetic. They encountered resistance -- according to Whiteroseís scouts, a company of the Empireís light infantry -- about three miles from the fortress, and a vicious running battle developed between the column of reinforcements and the Empireís soldiers. The scouts skirmished with the light infantry, trying to slow them with arrows while the rest of the force closed up.

At first, Ahern was surprised when the light infantry did not try to break off contact, but calculating the odds was difficult in the forest and perhaps the Empireís generals had ordered their captains to engage at all costs. If so, the enemy leader would have sent runners with a request for reinforcements. Time mattered.

Death appeared suddenly and without warning in the confused melee. It came in the form of an arrow flickering in from among the trees to pierce an unsuspecting throat. It came in surprise confrontations in thick underbrush, from which only those with the quickest reflexes walked away.

And still the light infantry companyís forward elements advanced ... until they slammed into the wall of the assembled companies that Ahern and his peers had assembled to meet them.

The battle was brutal but relatively short. The combined mass of the mercenary companies outnumbered the Empireís force by almost three hundred men. And at least half of the mercenaries were well armed and in familiar circumstances.

Ahernís company went toe to toe with several dozens of infantry, and he found himself fighting among one of the squads that had had so much trouble holding its formation during training. They were doing better now, which was fortunate because it took almost half an hour of close sword work to drive away the Empireís troops.

After a few minutes to catch their breath and swallow some water, the men began to glance in Ahernís direction. "Go ahead," he said. "But stay close and be quick about it."

The squads dispersed slightly for some quick plunder, searching the nearby bodies for hidden coins and some of the less well-equipped men upgrading their weapon or armor by taking what they needed from their dead enemies.

Ahern surveyed what he could see, which was not much, and listened. The sounds of fighting had mostly died down. He was about to start calling for his lieutenants when he realized that one of his footmen had stayed near him. He looked at the man with no little surprise; mercenaries rarely passed on a chance for plunder.

"I thought I recognized you," the footman said softly. "I remember your sword work. Youíre the one who broke the Royal Guard in Raonda. After King Demetrius died and you disappeared, the story was that you killed him."

Ahern was tired, and perhaps the shock of the words explained why he made the mistake. Before his thoughts caught up with his actions, his hand had started to lift his sword, which was still streaked with blood. Then he caught himself and stopped.

"Holy Mother! Itís true." The soldier stepped back, keeping his hand away from his sword and holding the palm out in front of him. "Sir, you donít have to worry. I didnít like the king anyway, and I can keep my mouth shut."

"Which one are you -- Lydell or Hilton?"

"Lydell, sir."

There was a silence that linked the two of them as their thoughts raced along their own private pathways. This was always the problem when you mixed men and matters of life and death. Control was an illusion. Trust was fragile but necessary. Without it, nothing worked and nothing got done. And the world quickly became a feeding trough of every man for himself. It was precisely why Ahern had agreed to come to the north with Ranulf. He was tired of trusting nobody and living in isolation even while surrounded by the people of Port Liberty. And perhaps now of his company.

Ahern cursed and rammed his own sword back into its sheath. "You have nothing to worry about from me either, soldier. Have you heard what they say about how hard it is to keep a secret?"

Footman Lydell nodded warily.

"Youíre living proof of it. But this is ridiculous: I figured that the secret would last for more than a month. This is why I donít gamble." He shook his head and repeated, "You have nothing to worry about. Youíre a man in my company now. Iíll take your word that you wonít tell stories at the campfires."

"You have my word, sir."

"Good." Ahern saw Ranulf enter heading in his direction and stepped away from the footman.

He and Ranulf clasped hands in acknowledgement of each otherís survival, and then Ranulf reported on what he had seen at the other end of the line.

"The men did well here too," Ahern said, "Bad news, though. There is at least one man who knows our secret already. Weíre going to have to accept that risk."

Suddenly, Ranulf flinched, and turned to face the east. But he was not reacting to Ahernís words. "We have to move away from here now," he hissed. "Right now."

"What is it?"

"Iím not sure," Ranulf answered. "Perhaps a mage. But if so, he, or it, is stronger than I am." He straightened, as if gathering himself for a terrible test. "Stronger than any mage Iíve ever met."

From their left, Gillian Whiterose and a small circle of his scouts flashed into view, slicing quickly and quietly through the forest. They were headed to the east and passed close enough that Gillian could speak and be heard without shouting.

"Gather your men and follow the rest of the Dukeís men to the tunnel," the Whiterose said.

"What is out there?"

"Something that we will handle. Continue to trust me, captain. You donít want to meet this enemy in the open field. Run for the fortress. Quickly."

So Ahern and his men ran, along with the men from the other companies and their escort. The energy from the battle was still fueling their muscles, but breath whistled through tired lungs and legs grew heavier. A few men slowed, but none stopped.

The sudden rolling booms of what sounded like a monstrously strong thunderstorm coming from the east provided all of the motivation Ahern and the other mercenaries needed to endure the pain of the long run. One look at the clear sky and the ongoing sight of the awed, even fearful, glances that Ranulf kept casting toward the east were clear warnings that a dangerous enemy was trying to catch them.

They reached the tunnelís entrance, which was concealed among a jumble of rocks near a stream that was showing the effects of a dry season. At other times, the rock that plugged the tunnelís entrance might even be underwater. The men filed into the tunnel as quickly as possible, and the Dukeís cavalry detachment and the remnant of the scouts remained behind to hide or distort the traces of their passage.

Off to the east, Ahern could still hear the sounds of the other kind of battle, although now they seemed to be drawing away to the northeast. He would be curious to learn about the truth of that encounter. Ranulf, he knew, undoubtedly would start asking questions as soon as he could get a hand on someone who might know something.

Inside the fortressís outer courtyard, they had time to talk to all of the sergeants and take stock of the companyís condition. Ahern waited for his senior sergeant to make his rounds and then met with his lieutenants and the sergeant.

"How many did we lose?" Ahern asked.

"Three killed. Eight wounded, only two severely," the senior sergeant said. "Not bad for a first fight in these conditions, and weíre blooded now. The other companies took heavier losses than we did."

"Good. Still, I would rather have made it here without a fight. Loses so soon will be bad for morale."

The same thought apparently occurred to Duke Aidan. Once all of the companies were inside the townís walls, less than an hour passed before the Duke was moving through the somber chaos as the companies settled into the buildings set aside for them.

Duke Aidan was a young man, perhaps five or more years younger than Ahern, and the Duke still looked his age, with short-cropped black hair, fierce green eyes, and a tanned, unlined face. His eyes, though, radiated the same intense intelligence and fierce discipline that Ahern had noticed in those of Gillian Whiterose and Councilwoman Morgan and the few other powerful leaders he had encountered in his life.

"Your men did extremely well, captain." The Dukeís voice was strong and carried to the ears of the nearby men. "Iím authorizing you to make good your losses from the remaining laborers and young men in the town. I canít go to that well too often, and usually I reserve it for my own companies, but some new recruits will keep your company strong. And I want that. I also have a handful of gold marks that Iíd like you to give to the men who performed extremely well in the skirmish."

"Thank you, your Grace. You have my and my companyís gratitude." Word choices can be revealing. With no hint of irony, the Duke had referred to a three-hour running battle as a minor skirmish, and Ahern truly believed that the Duke saw it as such. The man was battletested.

The Duke grinned. "Iím young, captain, but Iíve had good teachers and ten thousand reasons to learn quickly. Together, they have served me well. Danger focuses the mind."

"I know just what you mean," Ahern murmured.

"Yes, I believe you do." The Duke stepped closer and lowered his voice. "Thatís why I have another offer for you to consider."

"Your Grace?"

"Mercenaries fight for money, usually to pay for their pleasures or to feed their families. Perhaps some fight because they love the adventure. That is respectable." The Duke locked eyes with Ahern, who felt the force of the manís will behind the stare. "But thatís not what Iím about. This Emperor killed my father, so Iím going to stick a knife in his belly and keep twisting it until he dies or until he kills me. Iíll pay well because I need good fighting men. But if I win, I will shower the rewards of victory on those who stood with me."

Ahern cleared his throat to break the silence. He thought he saw where the Duke was leading the conversation and had to admit his surprise. There was a quickness, a willingness to trust, embedded within the Dukeís words that was breathtaking in its audacity. Or innocence. "Are you asking for our oaths?"

Duke Aidan nodded. "Understand, captain, that I intend to win more than just this battle. Yes, I need men like yours behind me to hold this fortress, but I also will need them afterwards. Join me. Become a part of my regular army."

Ahern had accepted Ranulfís initial offer to form a mercenary company and contract with Duke Aidan because he was looking for a fresh start. He was tired of running and of hiding from his past. And now he had, against all odds and expectations, found a leader who might truly be worthy of devotion. For his part, he was willing to take the risk of service again. So he wanted to accept the Dukeís offer, every fiber of his muscles and every hope in his mind were urging him to say the necessary words.

Yet another impulse also was driving him, and it was the reckless surging honesty of that impulse that drove his next words from him. "If I take your oath, your Grace, there is something you should know." Even with the energy of commitment propelling him, he still hesitated. "Two things, actually. I was ... one of the men who killed King Demetrius of Raonda. And at least one of my men has already recognized me. The truth might come out while Iím in your service."

"I see." The Duke did not speak for a while. "And the second?"

"Councilwoman Genevieve Morgan of Port Liberty wants to know more about whatís going on up here. She asked me to report to her. I told her that Iíd tell you this: I think she might be an ally for you if you share some news with her."

The Duke stared calmly at Ahern. "Why did you kill Demetrius?"

"Two of us heard something that the king didnít want others to know. We had reason to believe that he had ordered our deaths, so we ... acted."

Duke Aidan sighed, and rubbed his chin. "I hope -- pray -- that Iím never as paranoid or as ungrateful as Demetrius apparently was. I donít plan on boxing anyone in my service into such a corner, so Iím willing to let your past stay in the past. I know what itís like to have powerful enemies."

Ahern exhaled the breath he hadnít realized he was holding. "For my part then, I will say Ďyes,í and try to bring my company into your service. But I will need to put it to my men."

"Fair enough." Duke Aidan looked around the yard at the armed and trained men circled around their fires or sitting near the barracks doorways. "Have you noticed, captain, that the only good thing about war is that it requires a man to practice trust."

Ahern felt a shimmering echo of recognition. "Yes, I have noticed that, your Grace."

Neither of them said anything else before they parted. Ahern returned to his inspection of his men. He felt both lighter and solid as he walked over the grounds of the Dukeís fortress.

The setting sun was low enough now to allow the walls to cast shadows into the fortress yard, but the warning of nightís approach did not dampen the lightness of his spirits. Ahern had a leader he trusted and men who trusted him, and that was enough for a new beginning.

THE END



© 2005 by Nick Capo

Bio: Mr. Capo tells us "I live in Jacksonville, Illinois, with my wife, Beth, and dog, Clio. Readers interested in learning more about my work can visit my website, Nick Capo - A Writer's Website, or take a look at my Guardians of the Dawn short story collection (available in print and ebook formats through Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com). The collection includes a revised version of A Daughter's Choice, which first appeared in Aphelion's June 2005 issue, as well as a story introducing the characters Ahern and Ranulf and their first meeting."

E-mail: Nick Capo

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