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But Warriors for the Working-Day

Aurelius's picture

((originally posted November 9, 2008))

Aurelius stepped into the throne room with a stride more arrogant than he felt. It wasn’t so much that he felt awed by the King… he remembered when he first saw him, marching in line behind the other young men from Poitain who’d gathered under his banner. He was a far-off figure astride a horse, seeming somehow larger despite riding among Poitain’s nobility dressed in their finest, glistening armor and blue-dyed horsehair-festooned helms. Later, when he stood to address the troops before battle, Aurelius could barely hear the deep baritone shouts of the Cimmerian over the din of the host around him. Men coughing, speaking in low tones to one another, armor chinking against armor… he only new to shout in agreement when the men at the front ranks started shouting.

In the last six months, of course, he’d had opportunity to meet with the King personally. Aurelius had become a mercenary commander in his own right, honored by the men who’d chosen to fight under his banner for coin. And the King had hired not only the Company but him personally more than once to assist in this or that matter that the King’s men couldn’t, or wouldn’t, handle directly. Aurelius knew that few people would ever know about the covert operation to assist that old priest of Ibis in stopping Thoth-Amon’s latest plan to subjugate the people of Aquilonia… and he had no issue with that. Aurelius was never one to demand recognition… he took satisfaction in a job well done. And, of course, the monetary rewards that came of it.

But every time he’d come into the King’s presence, he felt a little small. As if, for all his accomplishments, all the coin he’d earned, he’d never live up to the life or the wisdom the King possessed. The people of Aquilonia were free by his hand… quite literally, the hands that wrapped around the tyrant Numedides’ neck… he had instituted programs and laid down decisions that angered many in power. So much so that they had conspired with the Numedians to take the throne from him. But again, he had succeeded in winning back his throne through blood and guile. In the end, he had given the people of Aquilonia far more freedom than any monarch had before… perhaps any monarch had ever. And they rewarded him for it by fighting to return his throne to him.

Aurelius stopped and bowed his head as he reached the King. The Cimmerian stepped aside from the wine-stained map he was examining and it was only then that Aurelius recognized Count Trocero dressed in all his fineries. The Count was the leader of Poitain… the man Aurelius had followed into war in support of the King. And he hadn’t even noticed his presence.

Perhaps what he felt was awe. But only a bit.

"Captain Aurelius,” the King growled. The King almost never seemed to speak like normal men, but spoke as if it was an effort to him. As if he was far more comfortable rending men than addressing them. And yet, there was an undenial power in that voice. In hearing it, a man wanted to follow him.

“Your Majesty,” Aurelius replied, bowing his head slightly again. “Your Highness,” he said to the Count Trocero, who nodded in response. “Sturmgarde is secure, as requested. We have temporary walls in place and it is defensible. Over the next two weeks, we will continue to fortify the hill and secure your interests in the Border Kingdoms.”

The King nodded as he stepped to his throne, plopping down into it and leaning heavily on his huge fists. The Count stepped up next to him, an odd smile on his face.

“This is good news, Captain,” the King replied. “Though it comes with the bad… I understand you were at Tesso last week.”

Aurelius shifted almost unconsciously. He waited for the King to continue, but the Cimmerian only sat and stared at him with those piercing blue eyes.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Aurelius finally replied. “Umbra Imperiosis was harassing travelers along your border in the Wild Lands. Your Guard in Poitain responded and members of the Dark Alliance took the opportunity to…”

The King raised his hand. “I’ve read the reports. They say you lost.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Aurelius replied. “The Dark Alliance won that battle.”

“You give no excuses,” the King replied, more an observation than a question, but Aurelius felt compelled to respond.

“There are none to give,” Aurelius replied, his eyes narrowing a bit in defiance.

“Invicta, the Lady Challa’s men, the Grey Knights and the Ancients fought hard and with skill. The enemy just fought harder that day. But if there is discipline to be had, then it should lie on my shoulders, Your Majesty… I was the one…”

Again, the King raised his hand and Aurelius fell silent.

“Battles are lost,” the King replied. “No one can expect to win every day. What matters is the war. You and the Lady Challa haven’t lost a battle prior to that to the Dark Alliance, have you?”

“No, Your Majesty,” Aurelius replied, a bit thrown off. He had been working up a good head of froth, but now he was bewildered by where the King was going with this. The Count continued to smirk. “We have had a few skirmishes with brigands that didn’t go well, but this is the first battle we’ve lost against the Rebel Lord and his Dark Alliance.”

“I’ve more than a few reports from Commander Challa about you and your company providing assistance in this war,” the King rumbled. “Without pay. I thought you were supposed to be mercenaries?”

“We are,” Aurelius insisted. “But the Dark Alliance chose to drag us into this war. They kidnapped three of my men. We were able to secure each, but we will not suffer our independence to operate as mercenaries to suffer. The Dark Alliance needed to be made aware that we will take on what contracts we judge to be profitable, regardless of their opinion on the matter.”

“One tin, Captain?” the King replied, almost smirking.

“Yes, Your Majesty… that was the price of our support in the First Battle of Tesso.” Aurelius shifted again under his piercing gaze.

“I’ve been a mercenary, Captain,” the King said, leaning forward to rest his arms on his knees. “And I know a single tin isn’t enough to get you out of bed, much less field your troops against an army.”
Aurelius sighed. “We have… friends among your Guard, Your Majesty… I couldn’t stand by and watch them get killed.”

“You think the Guard can’t handle these rebels?”

“I think they can, Your Majesty,” Aurelius replied. “But with our involvement, the conclusion of the battle was much more certain.”

The King nodded and leaned back, watching the mercenary captain closely. The silence soon became unbearable.

“And… I’ve no wish to live under the yoke of Stygian rulership,” Aurelius finally admitted. “Your Majesty affords me and my men the right to work. I’ve a Company to run. Mercenaries aren’t exactly welcome in Stygian lands. And, despite his protestations otherwise, Lord Amunsol is a Stygian. His alliance with the Brotherhood of Serpents shows to me that he is interested not in ideals, but power. For himself. And folks who want power for themselves don’t take to fighting men not under their control.”

The King chuckled a bit and nodded.

“Trocero,” he finally said as the Count turned to him. “I understand the Baron of Ravonne passed last month?”

The Count nodded. “Yes, Your Majesty. His lands were to be divided between his three sons, but the third son was killed by Zingaran bandits while travelling to his father’s funeral.”

“I understand the two other sons are fighting over the third son’s lands?”

The Count nodded again. “Yes, Your Majesty. Both claim rights to a small territory known as Baiona, along the Bitaxa River.”

Aurelius shifted. The conversation was moving on to other things and he wasn’t quite certain if he’d been dismissed or not.

“Does either have a stronger legal claim, by the traditions of Poitain?” the King asked.

“No, Your Majesty,” the Count replied. “The Baron’s testament was clear. His title would go to his eldest, but his lands would be divided among each of his sons equally. And the third son was young… he had no heirs.”

Aurelius finally made up his mind and turned to leave.

“Any fortifications of any note in Baiona, Trocero?” the King rumbled.

Aurelius froze.

“Just one, Your Majesty,” the Count replied. He was starting to sound like an actor reading from memory.

Aurelius turned slowly. Both the King and Count were smiling now and gazing at Aurelius, the King more like a panther who had caught his prey.

“Fort Invicta,” the Count replied, his grin wide.

“Do you have a plan to resolve the dispute, Trocero?” the King asked, his eyes still locked on Aurelius.

“I do, Your Majesty,” the Count replied.

“Then do it.”

The Count stepped down from the throne, drawing his blade and holding it high.

“Kneel, Aurelius of the Maxtenti,” the Count commanded.

Aurelius hesitated. His eyes darted as his mind whirled. There was some noble blood in the Maxtentius line, but none of them had possessed title of any sort in some ten generations. They had been farmers… perhaps wealthier than most, but farming is what the Maxtenti had done for generations. If it hadn’t been for the attack on the Maxtenti estate by slavers, Aurelius would still be a farmer. Certainly, he thought, they weren’t serious… that this was some form of Cimmerian humor. That the Count was just…

“Kneel,” the King commanded, rising to his full height, his blue eyes flickering dangerously.

Aurelius fell to one knee. For the first time, he knelt before a mortal man.

The Count placed the tip of the blade to Aurelius’ shoulder. “Aurelius of the Maxtenti, will you to your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgements?”

“I…” Aurelius stammered, looking up. The Count looked down at him, his smile gone. The King was visible over his shoulder, his thick arms crossed across his chest.

“I do solemnly swear,” Aurelius uttered, his head bowing again.

The Count touched his other shoulder with the blade. “Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the Peoples of Baiona in the name of the Count of Poitain, according to their King’s Laws and customs of the land?”

“I do solemnly swear,” Aurelius replied, his voice firmer.

The Count placed the tip of the blade on Aurelius’ head. “Will you defend the territory of Sturmgarde and its environs, in the name of the King, according to the King’s Laws and customs of the land?

“I do solemnly swear,” Aurelius replied.

Trocero moved the tip of the blade to Aurelius’ chin. “Will you enforce the King’s Law, defend the freedom of the Peoples of Aquilonia, and serve Aquilonia to your dying day?”

“I swear it…” Aurelius replied, kissing the tip of the blade. “With all my heart, my blood, my spirit… I swear it.”

“Then rise, Aurelius of the Maxtenti, Baron of Baiona and Sturmgarde!”

Aurelius stumbled to his feet as Count Trocero produced a thin metal circlet and placed it on the former mercenary Captain’s head. Somewhere deep inside, Aurelius was amused by the fact that it didn’t quite fit properly.

“You’ve a lot of work to do, Lord Aurelius,” the King intoned. “I suggest you get to it.”

Aurelius blinked a bit, still reeling, but stood his ground.

“Your Majesty… Your Highness…” he began, both turning to him curiously. “My men… each of our victories come through their work, their blood, their sacrifice… they deserve reward for it.”

Conan nodded as he sat heavily on the Lion Throne.

“You are a Lord of the Kingdom of Aquilonia,” the Count replied, smiling proudly. “You have the power and the right to reward them for their sacrifice in the King’s name. I suggest you do so.”

“With my personal thanks to each of them,” the King rumbled.

“By your command, Your Majesty,” Aurelius replied, bowing deeply.

“Now go,” the King commanded. “Get this war with the Dark Alliance won. I’ve enough to deal with from the Nemedians, Thoth-Amon and even my own damned countrymen. Show these upstarts what it means to threaten the free people of Aquilonia with subjugation.”

“By your command,” Aurelius replied. He bowed again before turning and stepping brisky from the throne room, his mind churning.

“Are you certain of this, Your Majesty?” the Count murmured as the two men watched Aurelius depart. “He is Poitainian and I am proud of that… but he is a mercenary.”

The king nodded. “I am certain, Trocero. I’ve known mercenaries. I’ve been one. But I know that even a mercenary is lead by his heart. And that man’s heart is Aquilonian.”

“Poitainian,” the Count hazarded to correct.

The King chuckled deeply as he stepped to the table near his map and poured wine into his goblet. “Poitainian,” he replied with a grin.

“He is a mercenary,” the King replied. “But now he is Aquilonia’s mercenary. He had bled for me before, Trocero.”

“And he will bleed for me again.”

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