A Daemon-Horn Blade Ch. 14byStultus©
With barely a full company's worth of troops currently able to stand or bear arms, Rowan ordered the brave soldiers to take their rest and enjoy the fruits of victory. The Count declared a day of celebration in the town, and a great many wine and ale casks were breached. Some of the now veteran warriors found dalliance with the grateful townsfolk, or their family and friends of the refugee camp followers. Military discipline was abandoned for several days as everyone drank and feasted and slowly began to heal their wounds. Through the frantic exertions of the Foole and his skilled apprentice Ashburn, along with the skills of the Count's experienced medicus, many of the wounded were relatively soon restored to full recovery, but for some their fighting days would be over, or best served in the reserves or aid group.
Sharing little in the entertainment and partying, Rowan alternated his time between hovering at Gwenda's sickbed and the seemingly endless counsel meetings at the Count's stately keep. They both had comfortable guest rooms next door to each other, so that the lad could wander back and forth quickly at need. Her wounds were rapidly healing, but like his still slightly gimpy leg, her especially deep spear wound to her left shoulder, the same that had been pierced with the javelin during her escape, would likely trouble her for the rest of her life. Her swift dagger hand would be weaker and perhaps a bit slower in the future.
The most dangerous wound into her side had pierced nothing vital and after careful stitching now seemed to be healing quickly. For now, he was just delighted beyond relief that she was going to make a nearly complete recovery, and he warned her that for the next month or two that she was to keep herself well out any further battles until all of her wounds had fully healed. She in turn laughed and told him that until he was ready to swear a consort-oath with her, that he could keep his orders quite to himself! Wounded or not, she was going to remain by his side, no matter what transpired.
In the counsel meetings, Rowan had already arranged for the Count to accept the delivery of all of the Silana and Elmcrygh refugees that did not have family within the regiment. The permanently disabled soldiers, about fifty in total, were also offered homes here in Ruromel, with the promise of jobs and respect from the townsmen. To his surprise, many of the Count's guardsmen had requested that they be allowed to join the regiment, but the needs of keeping this important river town protected in the weeks and months ahead had dampened his desire to agree to this. After some discussion, it was decided that thirty-seven of his men, mostly all trained veterans and most with minor wounds from the battle, could be spared. This brought the combat companies of the regiment up to an exact total of two hundred men and women, not counting the eighty-six cavalry who had suffered no deaths in their sweeping of the river. It was decided to disband the 3rd company for now, and the survivors would be merged into just two companies, each about equal with both hale and wounded troops. Even a week after the battle, the regiment was still not quite ready to take to the road once more.
The decision of which direction to go was a tricky one. Their original quest directed them to continue to travel into Broadmore, upon the southern road once more, but this would mean abandoning their regiment into the care and guidance of the Count. The Lady Ayleth was more than willing to do this, but Rowan was dead set against abandoning his loyal men... or leaving Tellismere until he was certain that this region was safe.
The great Boar-Man army had now crushed the coastal city of Klith, downriver, according to reports from boatmen sailing up river with refugees from that new disaster. It was reported that after this sack, which had been accomplished in a frighteningly short direct assault, was over in a matter of days, and that the well-feasted army had been little diminished, and was already heading on the coastal road north. Towards Crystal Lake and/or the City of Tellismere itself.
Again, there were new rumors of a terrible magic wielding boarman wizard mounted upon a monstrously large Eotenas, or creature of legend, that even the Foole could no longer completely discount or ignore. With each new rumor, borne by boatmen coming upriver, the Histrio became even more disturbed and even privately frightened. Such a thing had never occurred during the long millenniums of the Dragon War, and now, with The Seven banished, dead or otherwise lost, what new terror had been brought to this world? And how could it be fought?
Even with their cumbersome baggage train now much diminished, and the civilians resettled, Rowan didn't believe that his force could move fast enough to catch up with this massive army, said to number at the very least ten thousand strong. Not that his weakened two pitiful companies of troops could ever fight such a horde.
Instead, it was ever to the east, and the Count's maps of the vast Lloan Valley that Rowan became increasingly concerned with. This eastern horde was allegedly much smaller and broken apart into many dispersed war-bands. His reduced regiment could handle a few of these relatively safely, he thought, once their wounded were restored and his young veterans yet better trained. Boyle too supported this, as did the Foole also, who seemed now to show no interest or regard whatsoever for his original quest to Corælyn, and changed the subject every time he was asked about the need to go there, or at least right away.
"In fact, if we could get a few boats to take us upriver, west," Oddtus earnestly stated to the counsel, "we would hardly lose any travel time at all. There is a very good road from Kenniford, in the heart of the valley that could take us all the way to Orshold, and then either to Everdun, or south through eastern Broadmore to Dragontooth, a great city always worth visiting. With passage to either eastern or southern coast where we could then take ship to Corælyn. Kenniford is also a well-protected city with good walls that can resist the assault of a few odd assorted war-bands, especially if their great miracle-working boarman commander is away with the western army. There we could gather some much needed intelligence that the Duke will need to know. Kenniford is nominally claimed by both Duchies, but it is equally important to both and it must be protected."
The Lady grumbled but couldn't entirely ignore this logic. Just exactly how important Kenniford was to both Dukes became very clear when at last the forces of Kelvin U'Roth, the young Duke of Broadmore, arrived the next morning to inspect the burned ruins of his town Brydara across the river. As there was not much left of the ruins to inspect or even curse over, the Duke promptly sailed on over on the repaired ferry boat to consult with Count Renfield, carefully requesting permission first from the Count before his boots set foot onto the dock, and the territory of Tellismere. The niceties of old established custom are sometimes rather useful in a frighteningly uncertain world, and the last thing any Duke wanted to do was lay himself open to a claim of invasion.
Duke Kelvin was a lanky dark-haired and reasonably young man of average height, not quite yet in his thirties. Good looking but not a model for handsomeness. His ears did seem a bit large for his head and already he was beginning to develop a bit of a stomach. His eyes were hard, but not malevolent, and he was said to have a ferocious temper. He had already been Duke of Broadmore for nearly a decade, after his father had gone down with his flagship into the deep waters of the Great Western Sea, the last time Broadmore and Drakland had indulged themselves in one of their all-too frequent border wars. By all accounts he was a competent Duke, but not especially well-loved one. Also like the other Southern Duchies, except for Everdun, his land needed to make its wealth via trade, as they had little mineral wealth, and he had at least as many military responsibilities as Tellismere, and with but barely any more monies available to fund them.
Despite having no land border with Drakland, those proud sea-folk did have more than a fair technical claim to the Duchy, if truth be told. The Southern Dukes had always tended to intermarry, and sometimes due to vagaries of inheritance, a Duke might find himself technically the rightful heir and ruler to another dukedom. This misfortune has occurred twice in the last hundred years, with the Duke of Drakland having nominal, and apparently a reasonably lawful claim to Broadmore itself, each time. The Roth family had always been one of Broadmore's strongest noble families, and had been more than competent Earls at the time of the original inheritance dispute, and had led the largely successful armies of Broadmore ever since.
In reality, just two things had kept the Duchy of Broadmore independent. First, their armies were large and more than competently led, while Drakland's noble families tended to send it's more clever sons into the more esteemed navy instead, leaving the incompetent and mediocre to officer their army. Drakland might rule the seas, but any armies they landed upon Broadmore's shores tended to meet a swift and decisive, and invariably ignoble defeat.
Secondly, no one in the Southern Duchies really wanted for there to be a king, even a lawful one. Any Duke that could indeed control two or more of the lands would be indeed just that, a King. Once this precedence was allowed or accepted it would only be a matter of time before the other Duchies were coaxed or forced into what would end up being a large unified southern kingdom, virtually a rival in size and power, if not in wealth, to either the Aldarian Blessed Sapphire Empire or Caestor. This would eventually mean a real war... a great huge utterly terrible and unprofitable war that not even the Duke of Drakland really wanted. Or, at best a trade war that would cripple the entire south. By far, the status quo was better for everyone, but the Drakland Dukes were a rather stubborn sort, and they had long memories. They didn't really want the crown either, but it was the 'principle of the thing' that stirred their blood.
Greeting the Lady Ayleth, he looked at her a few times in confusion, particularly at her prominent facial scars, and then he burst into a bit of laughter.
"So, the mighty and haughty daughter of Emdyn de Mosena, the penny-pinching Duke of Tellismere, has had her legendarily famed beauty somehow marred and diminished! Oh such a fate for such a proud and headstrong lass, who was much too great of a prize for any mere Duke to aspire to her hand! I keep your locket portrait still in my vest as a reminder for me to keep to my own lower station in life! The story of the way you refused the audience of my troth-party, sent to bargain the terms of our consorting is still told by the gléaman of my castle to the delights of my court. I had the countenance of a 'homely long-eared donkey' you uttered to them, 'best suited to becoming the consort to the daughter of a fishmonger'. Rare praise indeed from a lady of your acknowledged beauty. Did you lose a catfight with one of your lady attendants, for I've heard well of what sort of private nighttime entertainments you normally prefer."
Lady Ayleth's jaw dropped with shock and horror at this dressing down, and she nearly considered a response of near equal venomous spite before she calmed herself to reply more carefully. She had wanted a new powerful protector that could return her to her home, and this Duke proved to be her best opportunity to obtain her escape. Besides, even if his ears were a bit too big, he was the most powerful lord available to her at the moment. Her father could smugly cancel the wedding after she was returned safely home.
"My dear Duke... Kelvin. I must apologize for my innocent mistake! Your portrait that I had received, I can see now was ill-rendered indeed, for you are a much more handsome and distinguished man than I had ever expected you to be. And your acclaimed prowess in battle, good sir, is unequaled. Now that my foolish misconceptions have been so readily corrected, and aptly so, my lord, I would be a frivolous fool of a young girl if I did not see indeed that you are in fact a most suitable marriage partner."
"So," the Duke said, with more than a gleam of mischief in his eyes, "if I were to bend to my knees this very moment in supplication, my hand offered willingly and freely to yours, you would indeed accept at once and without reservation?"
"Indeed Sir, I would!"
"This would not trouble you, that I becoming your husband and lord, would in near time inherit as well your father's Duchy, to add to my own, thus I would become your very King?"
"No my lord, this would indeed cause me no dismay, for our lives would be together, as one!"
"Ah, by this of course, you mean that you quite intend to rule by my side, as co-equals. No my Lady, I'm afraid this shall never be!"
"Please my Lord! Take pity upon me! I shall make whatever oaths you like, to vow to submit to your authority and will on all matters. It shall be you and you alone that shall rule!"
"Tempting... so very tempting, but I'm afraid I must decline your tenderly given offer of matrimony. You are as irksome and irresolute as the sea; your word, or even your oaths are but leaves in the wind, forever free to wander without restrain. No! Despite your eager willingness to whore yourself out to the greatest bidder, or most temporarily convenient suitor, I would have naught to do with you! I see your scheming eyes and your will to do whatever it would take to have yourself taken away from here and removed to safety, but it shall not be my hands!"
"Duke Kelvin, please!" She begged. "I am a noblewoman of the highest family, here far away from my home and family, please have pity on me! At least promise to take me alone with you, even as your prisoner, that I might be rid of these upstart peasants and fools, who so greatly impinge upon my will and freedom!"
"I see. Is the Lady Ayleth then your prisoner?" He asked of the Count.
"Indeed not!" He indignantly replied. "By the sworn oaths I have heard, before the sudden invasion of the Eorfleode onto our lands, the two lads and the Foole here were indeed quite ordered by her father to bear her to Corælyn, where it is hoped that a cure for her disfigurement can be found. Faced with the peril of protecting the Lady, and the needs of helping to defend the Duchy in its time of peril, this lad Rowan, who is the Lady's own acknowledged champion, had indeed done more than a lion's share in protecting a great number of the refugees from the slaughter further north, and he even formed a small army of his own with which to defy the Boar-Men of their conquest of this land. It is by his hand, and not this Lady's, that I owe the preservation of my own lands and people. It is also by his doing that the war-bands that destroyed your town of Brydara were enticed back across the river, where his regiment, largely on its own, annihilated their total forces in this region. Most highly do I praise this man, her champion, and he is altogether worthy of it, along with his friends and associates. Not a word of ill shall I speak of them from my mouth nor hear falsely murmured from the lips of others, whose deeds are far less and of little honor."
"So, her present companions are indeed quite suitable and appropriate for the care and protection of her Ladyship?" The Duke asked of the Count.
"They are of the very best! Although they are admittedly low-born, they have within my very sight performed noble deeds better associated with heroic knights of legend. If I had such a daughter, I would have no qualms about giving her unto their care, for her protection, guidance, and not a considerable amount of reeducation!"
The Duke once again roared into laughter.
"My Lady Ayleth, I never heard such high praise for any man, as I have heard now spoken from this honest and loyal Count! I would that I could steal him from your father, to better serve me instead and protect my own subjects! I will listen no more to your harpy cries of ill-content, nor your pleas for rescue... even at any cost to what precious little remains of your honor and dignity. I now rejoice at the day that my suit to you was rejected for you are indeed among the very most depraved of women, and I now account myself to be lucky to escape the snare of your grasp. Even to bear the crown of a Kingdom upon my brow would be far too great of a price to pay for even the slightest additional companionship with you. Begone with you, O dishonest and petty woman, and never again would I willing have the dishonor of speaking or having our paths cross again! Instead, now, I would much like the honor of having some words with this most valiant young man, who deeds I would enjoy the hearing of in much greater detail, and in pleasanter company!"
Over a rather exceptional dinner that evening, Rowan attempted to regale the Duke with his rather understated and modest account of their recent undertakings, beginning with the attack of the Daemon, and the forging of the Daemon-Horn blade. After innumerable interruptions by Boyle and the Foole to correct or augment the tale, he gave up at length and let the gléaman tell the entire rest of the story his way. His narrative was much more interesting and engaging, even if it did slightly exaggerate some of their deeds.
Gwenda was recovered enough from her wounds to join them at the feasting table and she remained mostly quiet all during dinner, and kept her right hand held in Rowan's left under the table for most of the evening. The Lady Ayleth pleaded a headache and stayed in her room, and frankly was missed by no one.
"Hero's make the worst storytellers!" The Foole laughed as he finished his long tale and arose from the table to raise his wine goblet in a toast to Rowan and Boyle. "They're too busy being heroic while being scared half out of their own minds with fear at the same time. They see the danger only from a view of a few feet and don't get the proper perspective that a good storyteller or skald has, from the rim of the battle, seeing everything happening at once. Besides, if a young hero could weave-words the way that they weave their sword strokes, it would be famine and poverty for us faithful gléamen, and more misguided fools would then take up mimery instead... and that is a terrible fate that must be avoided at all costs, that alone is worthy of a toast!"
"To Rowan, and to Boyle and the brave Gwenda! And to fewer mimes prowling the world, may the Eorfleode take and devour them all with pleasure, to their severe intestinal discomfort!" The feasters toasted with a loud shout and their cups raised high. Now that the telling of the story was done, the Duke found that he had much that he wished to discuss with Rowan, but nearly from the start they found that they could find little common ground.
"Lad," the Duke said, sadly shaking his head, "I know all about that massive southern army of Boar-Men, and I believe it's heading now right straight back up north to the heart of your Duchy, but you must believe me when I say that at this time I can do nearly nothing to lend a hand. While I am not fond of the Duke of Tellismere, I do not bear him or his people any particular ill-will. If I did not face the very real fear of more coastal landings from that scoundrel, the Duke of Drakland, I would indeed gather up my armies and send them north in aid in your Duchy's defense, for certainly otherwise they would later turn again south to face my nearly unguarded northern borders once more."