The Champion's Companion Ch. 10byBlknMild611©
Late summer in the Menthino was a busy time. Kaarthen found herself in the gigantic palace map room. The entire floor was a moving image in real-time of Menthino, ladders on rollers and map tables on wheels were along the walls. Marcos was dressed almost casually in a dark green silk shirt and black Safi pants.
The Queen and two princesses, Saliss the oldest and Ruegin, were with her listening to the annual plans of migration from the vast flood plains to Cardin. Three Hjordis in black Safi with their hair up in tight buns stood along the wall with Kaarthen. Marcos had also introduced an older gentleman named General Creighton. The general had an unnamed officer with him who took studious notes.
Prince Carthin, the sickly strange boy, was the only one sitting. He actually looked quite bored. He was still wearing his boots and riding pants and wore a striped tabard of black, purple, white, and gold. Kaarthen recognized it from the squires who worked around the Citadels wall.
She didn't think he could even see the area Marcos had been speaking about for the last hour sitting in the back of the room. No one bothered to correct him, since the decision of who, or if he would marry was still undecided. After another hour, he decided to add his opinions much to Marcos' irritation.
"Why do we evacuate before winter? The flood comes in spring." He pointed out quite suddenly as Marcos explained shifted patrol routes for after harvest.
Marcos stopped and twitched a few times as the room's attention turned to the sickly adolescent.
"The winter is fairly harsh, the ground freezes quick. If any groups have trouble along the journey, they will be in a much harsher environment. In addition, as they travel to Cardin or our other cities, they bring in their harvest to be paid for their writ. They do not have to bring packed meals, or hunt along the way so they usually travel faster." The general answered for Marcos. It was a sound and correct textbook answer. Kaarthen had been taught the same during her time with Marcos in the library.
Prince Carthin considered this. The two princesses turned and started whispering unflattering comments among themselves. Marcos resumed talking and rounded to the annual spring offensive.
He was able to move the map up to look at the northeastern area of the border. Like a giant cross, the Ort came in from the west then arced north gently before turning and exiting south. The Moxle came north to south, and collected half a dozen small streams and rivers that flowed east before joining the Ort. A narrow minor river, which some called 'the lazy', flowed west from Alcanton, and joined the Ort's flow south. The view stretched from their beach gap to middle of Alcanton in the east, and from the middle of Astrokos down into the northern floodplains of Menthino.
"I want to cross early this year with a fast group of cavalry. Boats will cross the gap in the Ort and we'll move north and then directly east. This year they were slow setting in the fortified patrol bases. If they are slow, or not, we'll cut east when they get themselves sorted, leave the horses, and ride the Moxle south to the Ort. It will be extremely important to at the very least, reach a stream with an east flow to the Moxle. In fact we'll likely move along the first one we find destroying the bridges and charging a toll." Marcos chuckled, the general ad his officer smirked with him, and Kaarthen sighed rolling her eyes.
"What's so funny?" The prince asked. "How much would you charge?"
"The balance between life and death." Marcos said cryptically. Kaarthen didn't know what it meant, but she assumed it meant something to do with sex.
"That's not funny. What does that mean?" The prince asked getting irritated.
"Perhaps we should break from this and take tea. It seems near lunch." The Queen offered diplomatically. Everyone was inclined to agree with her.
They came out to a large adjoining meeting room with engraved wood paneled walls accented in gold. They were served tea while they waited for a cold lunch to be served.
The prince dictated the conversation with his soft-boiled politics.
"In Sellis, we watch Menthino and Astrokos closely. We understand that unlike the great wars of the past your country is locked in a constant war of attrition. How can you hope to win?" He asked as servants moved around them with tea and coffee.
Marcos answered in a forced diplomatic tone. "Astrokos has a history that we all share from their days as a true Empire. Their covenant the emperor swears to on his coronation promises a return to glory and demands expansion. Menthino is the largest block to that goal." He shrugged. "They could attempt to take other lands first. Sellis or Munklin are across the mountains to the west but they can't afford anything less than a smooth campaign. They could cross the mountains to the east of the Moxle and lay claim to the City-states on the east shore. Again, they would have to be successful or their army would starve. They need both sides of the fertile Ort to fund and feed an army." Marcos explained.
"Why?" The prince asked interested as the room groaned.
The general interjected allowing Marcos to be served. "They live in frozen dry lands and on either side they have the mountains and glaciers of the chaos lands or the Moxle and the great eastern mountains. They don't get much snow or rain trapped where they are and the dry air freezes everything. The fertile Ort gives them the food needed to survive up there. The people around the capital live underground. Only on the rivers and streams going to the Moxle to the east will anybody be above ground. They can also farm a little in that area, but not enough to feed an extra army. That is also where their Ort farmers live during the flood season."
"So why fight?" He asked. Most of the room drank tea and listened to the byplay.
Marcos turned to him. "Don't they know this in Sellis? Population control." Marcos said dryly.
"What's that?" The prince asked.
Marcs set his tea down and folded his hands. "The frozen lands don't support much population. Few people can farm the land permanently. It is difficult to get people to not make babies." The princesses' chairs creaked as they shifted. "So, they need a system, or several systems, to control population so not everyone starves." Marcos stopped hoping he said enough.
The prince clarified the obvious, "So they send people to die?"
"Yes, they have too. Don't forget they have the underlying goal of world domination. They can relieve population pressure and perhaps make a lucky shot." Marcos said leaning back.
Servants brought a light lunch and moved about serving the table. Kaarthen saw it was a portion of bluefish with red gravy atop a salad. She marveled at the presentation of the elegant dish.
"It seems harsh." The prince said trying to get in a last word.
Marcos smiled thinly. "Life is harsh. People always dream of peace. The dream is shared by everyone. However, the 'how' is what gets people killed. The result is just as harsh as normal life. Usually not everyone feels peace is favorable for their situation. More likely, they feel that this or that person is an obstacle to the 'ideal' peace they could have. The result is always the death of the person who won't fight over the illusion."
"Fighting to kill like that is not honorable." The prince stated as a matter of fact.
The Queen spoke up defending her policy. "Perhaps, but Menthino must protect itself. It is a huge disruption to have enemies running around when people need to plant or harvest. Famines start that way."
The prince remained un convinced. "You could sell your food to Astrokos, and then you could have peace. The disruption for them sounds unfair, more people will die." He claimed loudly. He seemed to think raising his voice would get the point across.
"Prince Carthin, we have considered your proposal. Too many negatives are on the balance. Menthino hasn't found reason for trade. Astrokos does not make anything worth trading in Menthino. I believe Sellis can't do any major trading with Astrokos either. The basis of this dispute is over strategic territory." Marcos said diplomatically, "Secondly, if they feel the war is burdensome they are welcome to negotiation." He said tapping the table. "Before you ask, we will not simply give them food. Their population will rise and they will then need more food in the future. Many countries and City-states have come to rely on our grains, wine, clothes, meats, oils, medicines, and vegetables. We also make a profitable trade for the magnificent horses Sellis is known for with our excess, among other things." He finished thoughtfully.
"And yet those people starve? They could give up if you gave them something." The prince pleaded.
"They could, but would they? They haven't before and nothing is stopping them now." Marcos paused. "Prince Carthin it seems you know much about Menthino from the outside. I think taking time with the Princess Ruegin and Nossin's tutor will help you understand the thoughts we have when making our decisions." Marcos said trying to wrap up.
"The young prince already has started studying with his peers the ways of this region. In a few more months he'll understand the political dilemma more." The Queen said with easy diplomatic grace.
"I think that there are many great ideas from Sellis that should be tried here." The prince said finally changing the conversation.
"Menthino is in a completely different region and set of circumstance then your city. I'm sure we're both doing the best we can." Marcos said with mild exasperation.
Tension was starting to fill the room and only the Queen looked untouched. The general seemed most wary and watched Marcos closely. The Hjordis had stepped closer to stand a pace behind their charges. Their movement drew more attention to the prince who had no bodyguard. The Hjordis stood relaxed with their hands behind their back. Kaarthen had seen Remy do the same for a quick draw.
The princesses looked at the boy-prince as if he was some kind of unpleasant talking bug. Princess Saliss who didn't have the worry of possibly being made to marry him seemed to smile in half amusement. Princess Ruegin looked on with nauseated annoyance.
Nobody thought this boy-prince with no home would push Marcos unnecessarily. He would have nothing to gain but embarrassment. But then, the boy didn't so far show any traits to back that up.
"Tell you what," Marcos started, his accent starting to slip. "I know you feel like sharing your thoughts. You must be home sick. However, I've been to Sellis, and I know things about it. Believe it or not, at one time I had to do what you're talking about. I had to figure out what we could do to make Menthino more competitive. We used to sit around and borrow ideas from other countries around us and from the past. You're young enough not to see the evolutions in policy countries go through. I can tell you honestly, there is not much that could be favorably changed in Menthino."
The prince pounded the table and leaned in. "Still, if I was born in Menthino I wouldn't be king because I can't fight. That is silly because I can help in other ways. War is silly, I'm smart, and I could find peace." Prince Carthin exclaimed. The entire room of chairs and clothes rustled.
Kaarthen wasn't raised near nobles but understood the idea of the language of movements and tightly controlled self-presentation. Even sisters among themselves watched for extraneous movements or facial twitches that spoke louder than words
The Queen spoke up first. "There are things a king must do that require hardships. Only in this country is the burden so neatly arranged. Most kings don't die in battle, but by the endless stress erodes the mind. Despite that, history shows that without the risk being felt by those in power dangerous careless decisions are usually made. That's why our country requires the King to at the very least camp with the army. They don't have to risk the front line but seeing the dead around them keeps the scales balanced. Death is not whimsical for us mortals. Seeing the face of those who may not come back keeps a good leader from sending them. Good generals are those who make every death of their soldiers expensive for the enemy." Her tone was harder and held the attention of everyone. "You spoke of fighting and peace, I want you to fight and feel fear." She rose.
The room followed her out through the palace to the Citadel's wall. They stood on the opposite side of the gate facing south towards the Citadel. Under the shadow of the wall, the several square pits with metal barred doors were in a line along the wall. One had one man in a clean shirt and pants alone in shackles. Another had four dirty men who seemed to have been in the hole a while. The other pits were empty. A few yards to their left in the corner a gallows stood. The area to the right was clear and grassy; Kaarthen could see the tower easily in the corner to the right. She realized that the walkway with its magic was the barrier locking these poor souls in. Kaarthen could see a better spot along the interior of the wall for watching executions. Everybody seemed curious what was happening as well.
"A city guard was caught selling royal property. He was to be executed, but let's see if he'll educate. Young prince, that man is going to fight for his life. Like you, he has no country only his life he must defend." She turned and waved over to the single man in shackles.
"Those four down their have been there since spring. There used to be five, but life was harsh for one of them. For you, they are the other peoples of the world, because truthfully young prince we aren't alone." She said waving to the four men who started to notice them.
She turned back and looked at her Hjordis "Draw," the Hjordis drew her cutlass cleanly.
She blushed and seemed very self-conscious to have so much attention on her. She held the sword with her right hand and kept the point down across her body. Her left hand was up to protect the blade. Remy carried the same type. Straight double-edged rapier with a cutlass hilt, the blade was an inch and a half thick with a groove for weight. Kaarthen had learned they were mostly defensive weapons, and were built to be very sturdy.
"Perhaps this will teach you about fighting. Young prince, if that man dies, you will lose your life. He is your might, what keeps you free and alive, and his life is your army." The Hjordis' blade snapped to his neck. He twisted to stare at it and paled. The Queen winked at the Hjordis while he was distracted.
"I'm not well." He said inching back.
"Of course no one feels good at the prospect of their death. Despite what the stories say fear and discomfort is normal." The Queen said almost absently looking for an officer below.
"NNnnoo... I I I ca...can't" He stuttered. He tried to turn and look at the Queen. "I can't do this I have a condition" Kaarthen was surprised how demanding that sounded. The Queen ignored him.
Behind her, the princesses dithered on whether to come to the rail for the spectacle, or show proper ladylike reserve.
The Queen waved over a servant and cast him out to have the prisoners armed and released. A few moments later, an officer came up to hear her intent and take a signature as they were released.
"Now to make it fair, let's discuss treaties." She said turning to him. She wasn't smiling evilly like Marcos. "Who will be your ally?"
Below, guards were placing ladders down the holes. The officer was yelling instructions to the prisoners. After he finished, he tossed in what must have been the keys to both holes. Another guard scattered swords sticking up out of the ground. Several others closed and locked doors around the wall.
The Queen prodded him. "You better hurry, you only get one. Despite the surprise attack, your military is relatively well trained and had a peaceful nights rest."
"I...Ahhh." The prince froze as everything happened.
The longest part of the fight was everyone getting up the three-meter ladders and getting a sword. They delayed the inevitable knowing they had to risk themselves to save their lives.
The Queen mused as they watched the men close and stare at each other. "There are a lot of pacifists on the battlefield in every war. No one wants to get hurt. But, once the killing starts, the only pleas are when death is unmasked. If some had swords and some didn't, the results would be similar. Though, some would say less fair. They will start equal but you can't maintain equality among men."
One of the four was the first to strike. He was a dirty hunched man with a beard and torn brown rags. He stood behind one man wearing a grey sac tied with rope and another man on the left who was wearing black rags that left a shoulder exposed. The ones in grey and black were squared up to the former guard.
The man in brown who leapt forward didn't connect his wild slash but it started the frenzy. The guard dodged right and made his own slash. A cry came out as the man in black caught the blade across his arm. He shrank back as the man in brown and the other in grey came charging. Behind those two, and moving with the fight, was a topless tanned man in dirty striped pants.
The postures were the same among all three. Both hands up in fists, as they crept forward. They crouched slightly and had the sword in their right hand. The lone man crouched very low, his sword was kept to his right hip. His left foot and arm were up to protect his face. He tried to back up and wheel around his attackers.
The group closed in cautiously now. They had tunnel vision and were standing more and more upright as they fixated. The guard jumped in with a quick thrust to their side and the three fell back all over themselves. The brown and the man in grey tangled as they tried to move back. The man in pants jumped forward and caught the guard's leg with a shallow cut as he extended forward. The man in grey cleared after his stumble, took a swing at the former guard, and sliced his chest.
The one in black who was cut first made his dash into the fray. He came streaking in on the guard's right. He made a deep slice up the former guard's right side and in turn caught the wild slash across the gut. The one in pants flew in next with another thrust.
The guard stumbled back handily avoiding the thrust. He lashed out again at the man in black, who then fell clutching himself. The man in pants took a pause seeing this and waited for his two buddies to get into the fight.
The prison officer who was backed up against the wall now wore chest armor and shouted something. The reaction was a fight between the men in brown and grey. They tussled into each other swords forgotten. The former guard and the man in pants looked at each other. They struck out at each other at the same time.
They crossed swords and the former guard traded slices along the arm and shoulder as they broke apart. The man in pants seemed keen to avoid that trade again. He danced and feinted around. Finally, they both jumped together and the man in pants stabbed him deeply. They clung together and it was for a moment hard to see how much damage they inflicted on each other.
The prince sighed noisily and started to grow restless.
"You can't do this please." He tried to back up further and the Hjordis stepped in behind him. She stood side ways with her hip to his back pushing him against the rail making him bend over it slightly.
The two men had parted and the prince gasped when he saw his man impaled. It wasn't an immediately lethal wound. They sword went in on his right just above his hip. The thick muscles there kept the blade stuck and the man in pants had let go backing away. The prince started crying now thinking the fight was over.