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Stories from the Verse
For Better or Verse
Chapter 95: Slade 80
Table of Contents
Previous chapter: Chapter 94: Hastings 124
Slade was reminded how slowly things moved in the medieval world. War was beginning, and King Morgan, justly angered over the murder of his daughter, was acting with all deliberate speed; but with troops to gather, messages to deliver, conscripts to equip, diplomats to recall, and other preparations to make, it was a week before they were ready to leave the castle.
Although Slade had said so already, there was some surprise that he expected Shella to come with them. War was for the men, they thought, and the women were to stay home and wait for word. Quite apart from the fact that Shella wasn't about to wait for word so far from the battle, Slade insisted that she had much to contribute to their efforts. The king didn't understand this, but since Shella seemed determined to be part of it, he provided a horse for her also.
Even as they prepared to march, there was a significant amount of time lost to arranging who marched where. Slade hadn't been involved in medieval armies of this size, and hadn't realized how much their pride was at stake. The debate was between the prestige of various divisions versus the primacy of their commanders, that is, did a unit with a lesser reputation but whose commander was a higher ranking noble march before or behind another group noted for its victories but led by a lesser noble. These matters had to be decided delicately, and every soldier made to feel that he was accorded the proper amount of respect and honor in the arrangements of troops. Slade thought the entire task a waste of time, but saw there was no point arguing it. When he was informed that he would ride with the noble cavalry behind the prince, he just accepted that instruction and took his position there. They had a lot more trouble deciding where Shella should ride, as she was clearly not cavalry and yet obviously nobility.
The solution, in the end, was to allow her to ride beside him, the two of them alongside the cavalry. This fine point of order and a few others (such as whether a particular division of archers had a higher standing than a particular division of crossbowmen) being settled, they began the procession toward the domain of Prince Acquivar.
Lieutenant Simms was given his horse and King Morgan's written declaration of war, and allowed to leave as soon as the army took to the road. This, Slade mused, was not the prize the young officer had hoped to deliver to his prince; indeed, he wondered how the lieutenant would explain his situation, given that this would not be as it was had he not carried that journal with him out of the country. That was the lieutenant's problem; Slade watched him ride ahead of the army toward his homeland.
Traveling with the army would take longer than the journey in Sir Rapheus' custody had. The logistics of moving so many people, of rousting, feeding, and arraying them in the morning, settling them in the evening, chewed time off each end of the day. Movement afoot was not merely slower than their mounted travel had been, but slower than they could have walked by themselves. Sometimes the parade seemed to march forward as a giant caterpillar, as each division waited for the one before it to move, then hurried to catch up, then slowed so as not to overtake them. Thus it crawled across the country and up the mountain toward the pass over the next several days. If Acquivar had had aerial surveillance, Slade thought, he'd know they were coming by now. Even without it, there was a good chance he would receive the message before they crossed the border into his country.
At that border they stopped, camping in the field surrounding the old barn which had been Slade's entrance to this universe. It reminded him of Filp, and caused him to pause, to wonder both at his mortality and his immortality, that he was always dying but never staying dead, and to wonder what fate lay before him on the road. Phasius had suggested he and Shella were now inseparable, even by the death that drove him from world to world. It crossed his mind that Phasius couldn't know that, or rather, could only know it if the gods told him, which to Joe Kondor would have amounted to the same thing, and to Slade was at least dubious. He was pretty certain that the gods did tell people things, but not at all sure that the people always heard right.
Arrayed the next morning for march, they were again delayed as King Morgan addressed the troops. The man was a dynamic speaker.
"Men and brethren," he began, "you have all by now heard of the treachery committed against us. We march to bring justice, to avenge the daughter of our people, coldly murdered by one who feigned friendship and claimed brotherhood with us. Against him alone we present our claim. From him only do we exact justice. If he will surrender himself to us, he will spare his people the suffering we are prepared to deliver.
"However, we do not expect this. A man who would commit such treachery and then conceal it is not likely to accept his due when it comes. He will send his people, innocent of his crime, against us, to save himself. This we must remember. It is not you who bring death to these, but he and his sin. They suffer for his wrong. Whatever, whoever, stands in our way, we will not allow them to stop the tide of justice. Prince Acquivar will fall, or we will not be left a man standing."
Knowing when to be quiet was also one of the king's gifts. With this statement, he wheeled his horse and spurred it across the border into the territory of the enemy. Prince Ruard and his company of cousins of the crown followed, then the noblemen of the cavalry, including Slade and Shella, followed by infantry, archery, and artillery, all funneling through the narrow pass. It was a pity for Acquivar, Slade thought, that he was unable to know to field his army sooner. That pass was perhaps the only natural truly defensible position between Morgan and Acquivar, the only defense Acquivar had between here and the walls of the city itself. Once they were through it, they could be fairly confident that they would not be engaged until they attained the foothills.
Slade doubted whether Acquivar would be able to meet them even there. Simms had a long ride to the capital, although he was surely there several days by now. Acquivar might save a day or two mobilizing if his dispatches ordered his armies to assemble on the plain this side of Charton, but even so there could not be more than token resistance so soon.
Two days later, as the land leveled around them on the road to Charton, they came upon such a token force. The company of mounted knights and infantry who opposed them was not much greater than that number that had pursued Slade. Against such an army as Morgan wielded they would not last long. Acquivar had to know this. Slade puzzled over what sense there might be in throwing away good men on an impossible assault. Morgan apparently recognized the incongruity as well, as he slowed the army to a halt. A herald rode out from Acquivar's troops.
"Your majesty; mighty nobles; brave warriors. Prince Acquivar greets you. He understands your mourning and mourns with you for your loss which is also his loss. The death of your daughter his wife was a great tragedy. However, we do not understand why you come to us thus, in force and armed. We fear that the lies of the man known as Phasius and his accomplices may have wrongly turned you against us. We have no quarrel with you, and wish only that our long alliance, sealed by our mutual love for your daughter, would continue."
Obviously Simms hadn't mentioned the book. Acquivar could not have been so bold as to deny the murder entirely if he knew Morgan had the proof. Yet how could Acquivar not know of the book? Even assuming the lieutenant hadn't mentioned it, there were others of his company who knew he had found something, a book of some kind, and one of them must have mentioned it. Slade had not killed all the cavalry; he had merely unhorsed most. Some of the infantry also escaped. Some word of the book must have reached Acquivar before this. Then perhaps Acquivar had not realized what book it was, and failed to recognize its significance. Still, he couldn't think Morgan so unstable as to raise an army on less than solid evidence. That put the problem back at to the first point: why such a small force? Did he believe he could convince Morgan to relent? Had he not taken the declaration seriously, thinking perhaps that Morgan's forces would be so small that a scant hundred men would stop them? These ideas did not make sense.
One idea did make sense. Slade rode forward. "Majesty," he called, and the king turned toward him. "A word, your majesty."
"Sir Robert. This is not entirely the best time."
"I am aware of this, majesty; yet it is the only time." Slade rode closer, lowering his voice. "This is a ruse, majesty. Acquivar is quite aware that you are not going to be appeased by this offer, and that these men cannot stop you. He is stalling you, sending out a token force to delay us to give himself time to organize his armies closer to the capital. This herald and his squad can cost us a day, a day which might double or triple the strength of the armies ahead. Don't fall for it. As a fighting force, they are nothing."
King Morgan considered Slade's words. "Again you bring wisdom. Thank you, Sir Robert." As Slade returned to his place by Shella, Morgan spoke to the herald.
"We thank Acquivar for his concern and sympathy, although we have reason to doubt its sincerity. We will ride to meet him, and so hear his claims from his own mouth. You may take that answer to him; but do not be in our way, for we will ride over you if you hold the road against us."
Morgan did not wait for a reply, but pressed forward. The knights of his household moved forward to form around him, and the cavalry pressed behind them. On the road ahead, Acquivar's men quailed and broke. They had not been sent to die, but to talk. Morgan was not in the mood to talk.
It would still be several days to the capital; they wouldn't make Charton today. Still, the tone was set, the battle imminent, and the men restless and eager. Acquivar didn't strike Slade as the surrendering type. Battle would come soon enough.
There is a behind-the-writings look at the thoughts, influences, and ideas of this chapter, along with ten other sequential chapters of this novel, in mark Joseph "young" web log entry #198: Verser Trials. Given a moment, this link should take you directly to the section relevant to this chapter. It may contain spoilers of upcoming chapters.
As to the old stories that have long been here: