OATH OF FEALTY Excerpts
Chapter One: available at Del Rey website
On the road to Duke's East, the chestnut pulled hard at first, but finally settled into a smooth canter that eased Arcolin's tension. It would be all right. He would do what the Duke wanted, even without the Duke there--he had done it before. He had the Duke's signet ring and the Duke's written permission to use his funds. Worry returned. What if the Crown didn't agree? What if they wanted to seize the Duke's property, land and money?
What if the sky and land turned upside down and he fell off the road? He taunted himself, then slowed to an easy jog as he came into the town. Small children ran alongside, waving. He looked around, seeing Duke's East with a new eye.
Heribert Fontaine, the mayor, opened the door of his house as Arcolin rode up to it, and two boys stood ready to hold his horse. "News, I'll warrant--I saw the courier go by, not even stopping for a word."
"News indeed. I'll come in, if I may." Arcolin dismounted, tossing the reins to the boys. "Walk him around; don't let him just stand in this cold."
Fontaine held the door open and Arcolin came in. "There--left--the parlor."
It faced east; sun had left the windows, but the room still held a little of its warmth. A bowl of apples on the table scented the air. Arcolin pulled off his gloves and took a seat at the mayor's wave.
"You'd better read this," he said, handing over the Duke's message. "It's all I know."
Frowning, Fontaine read, his brow furrowed. Then he looked up. "The Duke...our Duke...is a king? Of...of Lyonya?"
"It would only surprise me more if it were Pargun," Arcolin said. "All I know is that he's taken Dorrin's cohort, and headed east on the river road."
"And the paladin? Paks?"
Arcolin shook his head. "I don't know any more than this. Nor did the courier. I would suppose she is dead; that must be what the Bloodlord priests intended."
"And he's told you to do whatever you think best. Gird's right arm! I know you're senior captain, but--does he mean take over the domain?"
"I don't know that, either. I've taken a one-cohort contract with the Vonjans. I know we're squeezing supplies up here."
"So you'll take...how many away?"
"One all the way to Aarenis, if the Crown approves; the other two in the domain but not here. One cohort, under Cracolnya, to patrol the Pargunese border; one south, under Valichi, in case any ambitious lordling tries to move in. And I'll be sending supplies from Vérella for the troops."
"That will ease things," Fontaine said. "And I don't think we'll have more trouble up here for awhile. Have you told Valichi? And will you be sending out recruit teams this year? When are you leaving?"
Arcolin held up his hands. "No, I haven't told Val--he's here in town somewhere. I'd like you to send someone to him, tell him to come up to the stronghold today--we must have a captains' conference. As for recruiting--not until the domain itself is settled. As for leaving--as soon as we can. I hope as soon as day after tomorrow. And now I must leave; I need to get to Duke's West today as well."
"And you're in a hurry. Let me have m'wife fix you a stuffed roll for the ride, if you won't sit down to eat."
"I can't stay, but I'd thank you for a roll...anything..."
In a few minutes, Arcolin was mounted again; he set his horse's nose to the west breeze and eyed the rising dark cloud there with apprehension. His horse was willing now to canter quietly; Arcolin unwrapped the stuffed roll--hot fried ham, onions and chopped winter greens--and took a bite. Lucky mayor, he thought as he finished, to have such a cook in the household. A second roll nestled in his tunic, in case of need.
The ride to Duke's West took most of the afternoon as the cold breeze stiffened and the cloud rose higher, soaking up all the light. Before he arrived, he saw the glow of light through windows brighter than the day outside. A sentry called challenge; Arcolin halted his horse.
"Captain Arcolin of the stronghold to speak to the mayor," he said. He dismounted, stiffer from the cold than he'd expected. "It's gone dark early this evening."
"Storm coming, Captain. Sorry to question you--"
"No, that's right, after the mess we had before. But I need to speak to the mayor, we've had word from the Duke."
"I can take your horse, Captain. We'll find a place out of this wind. You're staying the night--"
"No, I mustn't." Now others had come out in the cold windy near-dark, some with torches, and Duke's West's mayor, Alwyn Foretson, hurried over. Younger than Mayor Fontaine, he'd lost a hand on campaign.
"What's wrong, Captain? Attack?"
"No, not that. Word from the Duke. If we could go to your house--"
"Of course." Foretson led the way. Duke's West, newer than Duke's East, was a little smaller, but the mayor's house was just as comfortable. Rich cooking smells permeated the front rooms. "You'll eat with us," the Foretson said, as if there were no doubt.
"Gladly," Arcolin said. "Do we have time to get the business over with?"
"Yes. I told Melyin to hold the dumplings when I left the house and that's another half-glass."
"Good. You should read this--it came from the Duke by courier this morning and I know nothing more."
Foretson raised an eyebrow, took the message and went into the passage, coming back with a four-stick candleholder. "She put the dumplings in and she's keeping the children in the kitchen. Let's see now--" His brows went up his forehead as he read. Arcolin walked about, stretching after the ride. The room had a fireplace, but no fire had been laid; a blanket covered the opening. He grimaced; the stronghold had asked the villages for more wood only the week before. Foretson looked up at last. "King?"
"So it says," Arcolin said.
"I served under the man fifteen years until I lost my hand. I didn't know he was royal bred." Foretson sounded as if that were a personal insult.
"Nor I," said Arcolin, who had been with the Duke longer, as they both knew.
"Well-bred, certainly," Foretson went on. "But a king?"
Arcolin said nothing. The mayor's wife came to the door, looked in, shrugged, and went back to the kitchen.
"This is going to cause...problems."
"I think so," Arcolin said. "But I have no answers. I do have one-cohort contract with Vonja, and as the Duke requested, I'm moving Cracolnya's cohort and the recruits to the east and south."
"Think the Crown will accept that?"
"I'll find out," Arcolin said, trying to sound cheerful. "I don't know who the Crown will transfer the domain to--"
"Oh, gods! I didn't think of that one. We could end up belonging to Verrakai or someone like that--" He gave Arcolin a searching glance. "They should give it to you."
"They won't," Arcolin said. "I'm not a native; I have no family behind me--'
Foretson cocked his head. "Do you want it?"
Did he? Arcolin thought for a long moment; the mayor said nothing. "I don't know," he said finally. "I never considered it...I never thought beyond..."
"Well, you'd best think now. There's lords enough will want it, want it enough to squabble over it. Verrakai and Marrakai both, I shouldn't wonder, and woe to us if Verrakai gets it. Marrakai wouldn't be so bad, except his own land's so far west. No overlap. We'd do better with you, Captain, though without an heir--"
"Aye. And no one's offered it yet, and I have a cohort to take south. And I must eat and go, I'm afraid."
"Is this to be kept secret? And if so, until when?"
"It can't be," Arcolin said. "People must know; they deserve to know. But they need to know even more: what's coming next, and that I can't tell them. I should learn more in Vérella, and when I do I'll send word."
"I hope he's safe in Lyonya," Foretson said. Then, shaking his head. "Royal-bred and half-elf, and I never saw it...what a fool I must be."
"If you, then all of us," Arcolin said. "Including himself, for that matter. He had more chance to figure it out than any of us."
Foretson laughed. "I suppose...but I'm not calling the Fox a fool, even with him this far away and not coming back."
Not coming back. Arcolin shivered, but supper was hot and tasty, and he mounted again determined to do his best for Phelan's land and people, whatever that might turn out to be.
He refused the mayor's offer of an escort back to the stronghold, and rode away in an icy drizzle that stung his face. It would be sleet or snow by morning; he hoped it would blow over before they marched away in it.
Halfway back to the stronghold, he met a squad with torches; Cracolnya had sent them. Soon enough he was safely inside, cold and wet but in a seat by the fire, upstairs in the Duke's study. Valichi was there, with his personal pack; he had even brought his armor. Stammel, waiting for Arcolin by the inner gate, had followed him in and up the stairs. Arcolin waved him to a seat as well.
"Fontaine told me," Valichi said. "Though I find it hard to believe."
"So do we all," Arcolin said, pulling off his wet boots. Servants had put dry clothes to warm by the fire; he stripped off his wet ones and dressed as they talked.
"How'd the village mayors take it?" Cracolnya asked.
"Stunned. Confused. Glad we're taking hungry mouths away, but worried about the future. Who the Crown will give the land to."
"It could be you," Valichi said. "You were here from the beginning."
"I don't think so." But he could not help imagining it, seeing familiar things, familiar people, in a new way. He pushed that aside. "And anyway, I've got that contract to fulfill. I can't start off by breaking one."
"You need the Crown's consent, remember--if you don't get it, the merchants will understand."
"That doesn't produce gold or grain," Arcolin said. He yawned. "Believe me, I will argue hard if they refuse; I will not toss away what Kieri worked so many years to build. How's the preparation going, Sergeant?"
"On target, sir. All the farriery finished today. The smiths say they'll have the last of the weapons and repairs done by supper tomorrow. We'll be ready to march day after tomorrow, as far as the fighting troop's concerned. And Sef says the road's no worse than usual, this time of year."
"We split the recruits already," Cracolnya said. "Your cohort's up to the usual start-of-season strength. I didn't know what staff you'd want to take along for just one cohort--you'll want a smith, I'm sure, but will you want a quartermaster? Clerk? Teamsters and wagons?"
"Teamsters and wagons, yes," Arcolin said. "Most will come back here with replacement supplies. Kolya's still in Vérella; she can supervise that. A smith for certain, and one of the surgeons. Stammel, who in the cohort might make a quartermaster?"
"Devlin, sir, if he weren't my junior sergeant. Don't see how he could do both."
"Agreed," Arcolin said. "Others?"
Stammel shook his head. "No, sir."
"We need someone," Arcolin said. "One of the quartermaster's assistants, then; we need him here. Stammel, talk to the quartermaster--I'm inclined to think Maia, but leave it to him." Arcolin yawned, then stretched. "It's time we went to bed, captains. Tomorrow will be a full day."
They rose; Arcolin gathered up his wet things and carried them to the kitchen, to be dried by the cooking hearth. Back upstairs, he went into Kieri's office and looked around.
Kieri had asked for nothing from this office, from the stronghold. Things he had bought in Aarenis or Vérella: the striped rug Tammarion had chosen, a carved box with a running fox on its lid, a favorite whetstone always placed on the left of the great desk, a candleholder of translucent pink stone that glowed with light when the candle was lit, the chest in which--as Arcolin knew--Kieri's dead wife's armor and the children's daggers were wrapped in Tammarion's troth-dress. Kieri had asked for none of these.
Not ever to return. Arcolin forced himself to take a deep breath and consider what records he might need, for either a contract or...that which he did not want to consider.
Tired as he was, he sat up late, making notes, packing away those records he would not take in the chest where they belonged, packing the ones he would need into waterproof bags. The room seemed emptier than it should, emptier than it ever had.
"I'm trying," he muttered to himself, then shook his head and went to bed.
Arcolin woke to the memory of yesterday's surprises, and the realization that he needed to parade the whole Company. They had given their oaths to Kieri, who had now left them. They must now give their oaths to him. That ceremony could not be omitted.
Outside, the previous evening's storm continued, alternating brief snow flurries with rattling sleet and icy rain. Perhaps it would stop by noon; Arcolin went down to breakfast and found Valichi staring thoughtfully at the weapons on the dining room wall.
A kitchen servant arrived with steaming bowls of porridge and loaves of hot bread. Valichi sat down and started eating. Arcolin poured a little honey, thick with cold, into his porridge and tried a spoonful as Cracolnya came in from outside.
"Nasty," Cracolnya said.
"Think it will clear away at all today?" Arcolin asked. "I need to take to parade the Company and take their oaths."
The two captains stared at him, then at each other. "I had forgotten," Cracolnya said. "If he's not coming back--if he's the one to break it--then we all--" His voice trailed away.
"We all swore to him, personally," Arcolin said. "He's not our duke anymore, so whether the Crown confirms me or not, for the time being we need a single oath to bind us. And--" he shrugged. "That's to me." As he said it, he realized he would also have to travel to the villages again, taking their charters, getting the oaths of mayors and councils, making a copy for the Crown. That would take an entire day.
"I understand." Cracolnya dug into his porridge, eating fast for five or six mouthfuls. "I'll do it, of course. It's what he'd want." He paused for a moment then shook his head. "No, my pardon. It's what I want."
"Val?" Arcolin asked.
"Yess..." Valichi's answer came slower; he was frowning. He was older than Arcolin, and had spent more time in the north, as Kieri's recruit captain. Perhaps he had hoped to be chosen, if Kieri ever left. "But I can't say as I'm willing to stay on as the only captain of a cohort, not longer than it takes to find another."
"We all need co-captains," Arcolin said. "I'll be hiring captains, either in Vérella or Valdaire; I'll send them north." He leaned on his elbows. "You two take your cohorts away tomorrow, if the weather mends at all. Cracolnya, you take the other surgeon and smith; Val will be near enough Burningmeed for a Marshal to help with healing and they have a smith. I can't leave for another day at least: I need to find the village charters and take them to Duke's East and West, for all to take oaths on and sign. Val, let the merchants travel with you, if they want an escort, or they can go ahead."
They looked startled, but nodded.
By midafternoon, the storm had passed, though furrowed clouds still covered the sky. Arcolin had the Company paraded in the main court, cohort by cohort, to take their oaths. He gave the same speech to the recruits the Duke had given to every year's recruit intake. The veterans, who had already been told as much as he knew, gave their oaths willingly, as near as he could tell.
The Vonja agents chose to ride with Val's cohort to Burningmeed and travel on to Vérella by themselves. Arcolin spent the evening with one of the Company clerks, collecting the documents he would need the next day, making copies of those he would need in Vérella, re-checking his lists.
Next morning, the storm had blown past, leaving a thin skim of high cloud. After breakfast, the other two cohorts left, Valichi's down the road to Duke's East, and Cracolnya's straight across country toward the rising sun.
Stammel had Arcolin's cohort busy at once, cleaning barracks Arcolin was sure the others had left spotless, but it kept the troops busy. Arcolin gathered the bundle of charters and other documents he needed, and rode for Duke's West first.
"Can you hold a Duke's Court before you go?" Foretson asked, as he signed the charter under Arcolin's name.
"I'm not the duke," Arcolin said. "Authorization for a Ducal Court would have to come from Vérella. All I can do is hold petty-court, same as usual."
"That would help--if you can stay a glass, I'll have Donag and Arv come in--they're wanting a ruling on a field boundary."
Once court began, others came in with problems; it was after midday when he rode for Duke's East, to do it all over again. This time he set up in the Red Fox common room. Duke's East had fewer cases for petty-court than Duke's West, and he made it back to the stronghold before dark. There he found everything ready for next morning's departure.
Another clear morning--Arcolin looked around the inner court, imagining it as his--if the Crown permitted--and strode out the gate to the main court, where Stammel had the cohort ready, in marching order. Arbad held the roan ambler. Arcolin mounted and looked back at his cohort--the young faces still unblooded, the veterans with their weathered skin, their scars, their eyes full of experience. Stammel gave him a crisp nod.
Was he really doing this, really taking a mercenary cohort to Aarenis by himself? As commander? He put his hand in his tunic, feeling Kieri's signet ring. No more time to doubt. If he could not do it, after all those years of serving with the best commander he'd ever known, north or south, he was a fool--and Kieri would not have trusted him with the Company. He lifted the reins and nudged his horse into motion.
As always, the villagers in Duke's East came out to wave as the cohorts passed. Arcolin smiled at them, called out greetings to the mayor, to the innkeeper, to the village council members.
The world had changed. The sunlight, despite a clear sky, felt thinner, muted. The trees looked different, the little river beneath the bridge, the road he had ridden so many times, so many years, looked new, untrodden, unknown.
He scolded himself, told himself it was the same: the road, the trees, the sun, the world itself. One man could not make that much difference.
He knew he lied.
At the border of the Duke's territory, the post Valichi had set up saluted them as they marched past on the road to Vérella. The marches were no longer than usual, but they seemed both longer and shorter as his mood shifted again and again.