Pietro felt the muscles in his chest aching as he dismounted his horse. The discomfort reminded him of his mistake, and of Mistress Valady’s punishment.
The camp was orderly and guarded, a reminder of times past, he thought to himself. Being all to familiar with the typical arrangement of such a camp he made directly for the center tent. The camp contained about forty or so tents all neatly arranged in rows. Every so often someone challenged his presence in the camp, and he would simply pull back the hood of his cloak to reveal his face; if anyone decided to take more aggressive action, Pietro had other things concealed under his cloak with which he could address the matter.
Not many would have noticed the slight quickening of their pulse, but Pietro was not one of the many. The combination of judicious caution and the heightened awareness that came from being near combat was intoxicating. Though always possible, conflict was unlikely so, reminding himself of his purpose, Pietro regained control of his physical state, and aligned it with his mental one. Allowing his left hand to find the subtle stiffness of his cloak where the letter from his mistress hid under the folds of his cloak, he recalled his simple instructions. Deliver the letter and confirm obedience from its recipient.
“Yechnor, are you there?” he said standing a cautious three paces from the opening of the command tent.
“I know that soft little voice.”
Pietro almost smiled. To Yechnor, everyone had a soft little voice, for his boomed even when he whispered. “And I recognize that horrid smell,” he retorted.
A laugh that sounded like a charging bear came from inside the tent just before the tent flap was thrown open and the largest man Pietro had ever had the pleasure of seeing stepped out. Yechnor was as tall as any castle door and was often forced to stoop upon entering, and if his height did not intimidate, the breadth of his shoulders surely would. Weighing as much as two average men, he was as imposing as he was a shrewd and battle-hardened leader of men.
Pietro pulled back his hood and returned the large man’s smile. There was no friendship between them, but always a mutual respect. They were both very good at what they did, and since they had always served the same masters, their relationship was cordial…for the most part.
“So, why have you come all this way? I cannot say that I am pleased to see you as, if memory serves, your visits mean that I have more work to do.”
“And that is exactly the case today,” said Pietro pulling the letter from under his cloak.
“Then I warrant we had better go inside.”
The inside of Yechnor’s tent was sparsely furnished; his cot was in the center, a large desk strewn with maps of the all the realms was by the entranceway, and a massive wooden chest was at the far end. Weapons were his décor of choice, but not for display. Aside from the sword he wore on his belt there was one in a scabbard that had been cleverly attached to the desk; a mace hung from one of the posts of his cot, and an axe lay across the chest. Various pikes and a halberd sat in racks on both the east and west corners of the tent rounding out the armory, and it was clear that all weaponry had been carefully arranged so that Yechnor could get to a weapon in two strides no matter where he was in the tent.
“Sit,” said Yechnor pulling the chair out from his desk before making his way to sit on his cot.
“Did you want to read the letter?”
“I would prefer you just tell me what is in it. I am a plain-spoken man Pietro, and I would rather be spoken to plainly.”
“So be it,” said Pietro setting the letter on the desk among the maps then taking his seat. “Our mutual benefactor---”
“I asked you to speak plainly Pietro.”
“That you did,” Pietro smirked, “old habits. Leaving a sufficient garrison here, you are to send two expeditionary forces, one to Capsilas, one to Ranees to---”
“And why in the name of blood and guts would I---”
“If you will allow me to speak plainly, I will tell you.”
Now it was Yechnor’s turn to smirk. “Go on please,” he said finally.
“They are to harass the native people, act as criminals, rob them, bully them, turn their ale houses into rough houses. But, and this is important, they must do all they can to appear as Naargasians in dress, manner, and language.”
“Naargasians? You mean to have my men disguise themselves and---”
“Not only disguise themselves, they must do their ruffian best to act only against the Capsilian and Raneesian people. Leaving the refugee Naargasians unharmed.” Pietro pulled out a bag the size of a man’s skull that jingled of coin when he dropped in on the desk next to the letter.
“That does not look like enough to pay my men.”
“It is not for your men.” Pietro leveled his eyes, letting them go hard. “Have they not done well enough pillaging the abandoned towns, plundering the caravans of poor souls escaping from the dragon fire?”
“My men have been scouring these wretched lands stealing, or destroying dragon eggs, wounding the older dragons, or the smaller ones, driving them out and for what?”
“And now you want me to send them across the whole of Duris to act like brigands?”
“That is your task.”
“These are not soldier’s tasks!”
“And you are not a soldier anymore are you?! Soldiers win wars!”
Both men stared at one another. Neither blinked or moved, only watched for the other to take the next step. Finally, and without moving or taking his eyes off of Pietro, Yechnor laughed.
“You know,” said Yechnor, “it is times like these when I remember that night. You fought like ten men.”
“And you bested twenty at least.”
“Watching you that night I remember thinking ‘I will make him a general if we live though the night’”
“I am no leader of men. I do not rally them to causes, to wage war. That is for men like you. Great men who others see and wish to emulate. I do not inspire men.”
“No…You instill fear in them,” said Yechnor leaning back slightly. “Even after the passing of so many years, I hear the stories being told around the night fires. Stories of the one who casts no shadow, the one who whispers death.”
“That reputation was hard won.”
“Now that I think of it. I am happy to see you.”
“Why the change?”
“It is when men do not see you that they should worry.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“Perhaps, but on that night, when the rebellion had reached the very gates of Valady Castle, you and I stood face to face, the bodies of our country men---”
“Our fellow soldiers of the Valadian Empire… their bodies littering the ground and the bridge where we made our stand. The rebels had retreated to regroup for their next assault and you… You reached for your weapon.”
“You reached for yours.”
“I had given you an order.”
“I was not under your command.”
“True, but it was what you should have done.”
“Your oath, Yechnor, was to protect the castle. Mine was to protect the girl.”
“Yes, it was.”
“The castle was all but lost and I could not leave her unprotected.”
“We might have held it together.”
“Perhaps, but I could not risk her life.”
“I know it was not cowardice that made you abandon me. But the question has always dogged me since that night.”
“Then ask it.”
“Did you want to draw your weapon against me?”
“Why did you not?”
“At the time, it was inconvenient.”
“Do you still wish to draw?”
“When I take time to think of it, yes.”
“Then again I ask, why?”
“Call it… Professional curiosity.”
About the author
The voices speak, all we need do is listen.
The written word became very important to me at an early age. I have been trying to place them in the right order ever since. Dark and Urban Fantasy is where I currently play. Want to join me?