A King's Decision
By Gerry Torbert
The door of the guest house barely closed when Thora peeled off her coat and slammed it to the floor. "What gives him the right to talk to us that way? We're not someone's slaves! That's what he's wanting to make out of us! I've never been so degraded! How could you let him talk to us like that! I. . ." She stopped in mid sentence, looking for the right words.
"Now, Thora, what's said is said. He has us by the throats, and he's not a very good man." He looked to Buriz and added, "Not every King is a good man, son. He let you speak your peace, but only to use you."
Buriz looked down, replying, "Perhaps I shouldn't have toasted him. . ."
"No, what you said had to be said. Actually, if we had more mead, it would have been worse. Every little motion, every expression, every inflection he made was meant for a reason. He's a good trader."
Thora began again. "You sound like you're praising him, Benkt. He's a demon, a nasty man."
Benkt sighed. "Yes, he is self-serving. I'm not praising him, just showing what we're up against, what to look out for."
Fredrick finally spoke. "Do you hold much hope that he'll send troops, Sire?"
"No, not at all. If he thinks he can defeat them himself, he'll let us go on our own. Why risk his own people for nothing of his own interest? That's why he called his generals and didn't have them there at the beginning. He wants to know if they can win themselves. He's very tricky. He will push us toward rejoining them in Rennok."
Thora drew a deep breath. "You're not thinking of coming here as thralls, leaving our homes behind, everything we worked for, are you?"
"Of course not! But by the same token, we have to be very well prepared. The beasts are relentless fighters, and we have to be better than they are."
"So is tomorrow just a formality?" asked Fredrick.
"No, we meet with him in the morning. Perhaps how he tells us may be as important as what he tells us. And there may be another possibility we all missed that may help, I don't know. But either way, we should get some rest now."
The four separated and took separate benches, wrapping themselves in the furs they took from the walls. But Benkt slept little. He stared at the flickering fire for most of the night.
A single knock at the door was enough for the servant to open the longhouse entrance. The building looked a lot more impressive in the daylight. The sleet and snow had stopped temporarily, and the sunlight pushing the clouds aside revealed sturdy horizontal beams strongly locked together. There were emblems of a cave bear over each door, and symbols of ursa Forntolis adorned much of the interior motif.
Anders looked up from his throne seat, interrupting a discussion of some importance with an official of the city. He waved him off in an imperious manner, and the man bowed slightly and left. Handmaidens scurried about, some readying a table and benches, one bringing a pot of tea to the table and placing mugs around it.
"Come in, my friends. I trust you slept well. The mead dulled our senses somewhat, I fear, and I can still feel it pounding my temples from the inside. Sit down, we'll have tea."
They sat down, Thora first, around the table. A maid began pouring tea and passing the steaming mugs. Forgoing a toast, Anders sat down and was joined by Knut.
"I discussed your situation with my generals last night. I tried to convince them of the urgency of your plight, but I'm afraid I was unsuccessful. It seems that they don't understand why they would have to go so far from our supply lines and our homes to defend people they have fought themselves. Try as I might, they are steadfast in their resolve."
Knut started drinking the tea but put down his cup and stared unbelievingly at Anders. He seemed more shocked at his decision, apparently made on the moment, than the guests.
Benkt smiled slightly. He knew that Anders could easily order the actions of his army. He expected to hear what he was hearing, and quickly cut through Anders' deceptions.
"Of course, my initial offer still stands. Come here and we will bring you into Rennok, subject to my provisions."
Benkt shook his head slowly. "No, King. While I appreciate the kind offer, I don't think we could leave six hundred years of life and memories to the ravages of these animals. Should the tables be reversed, would you?"
Anders smiled, but didn't miss a step. "But they aren't reversed, nor will they be. It was a generous offer, one that we are willing to extend, along with the sacrifices we would be incurring. If you decide not to come, that will be your decision. I'm afraid I can do no more. I will, however, lend several horses for the return trip."
Thora fumed quietly. Benkt nodded, understanding Anders' ultimatum. "Very well, King Anders. I believe we will take our leave now; we have much to decide, or much to do." He arose from the table.
Knut looked to Anders, then to Benkt. "Fredrick will stay with me for a day or so, good King. We still have much to discuss concerning the use of our powers to aid in any battle that must arise."
Anders seemed completely taken by this. "Uh, Knut, I did not say anyth. . ."
"He will be staying for a while, Sire." Knut flashed his bright blue eyes deeply into those of the King with a stern look of admonishment that surprised everyone. "It will be the least we can do."
Anders stammered. Ah. . . ah yes, I forgot what I suggested last night. It will be a good idea to do this."
The three royal Northmen left the gates of the city with heavy hearts and a deeper understanding of the nature of one facet of royalty, an understanding they didn't really want.
They approached Nozukal by the waning rays of the late afternoon sun. The town seemed to be busy with the hustle and bustle of everyday life, and even more busily readying itself for the unknown. Alfrim the Builder trotted over to meet his leaders when he recognized them.
Alfrim A'Mount was a well-respected builder of homes and other structures, and he was often employed to design additions to the security features of the town. He was considered a loose cannon by some, however, as he often went about on projects of his own design with little approval. But he had good ideas and was a self-starter, which Benkt appreciated.
"Hello, Sire, Milady, Buriz. I hope your trip went well."
"Hello, and not at all, Alfrim," said Benkt as he slipped down from the steed and handed the reins to a stable boy nearby. "Something may come of it, though. Should I ask. . .?"
Alfrim, ever the absent-minded, looked at the king for an instant with a blank stare, then grasped his unspoken question. "Uh. . . Oh! I'm sorry, sire. I thought I would be able to increase the height of the parapets by making the outer slope steeper by increasing the packing of the dirt at the base of. . ."
Benkt held a hand up to the befuddled engineer. "Never mind, Alfrim. I've known you long enough to know your ends are always better than your beginnings, and not to ask for details. Just keep it a little quiet. I don't want to alarm our people."
"Oh, certainly, Sire. But I must tell you, there isn't a one of us that doesn't know the threat."
Benkt nodded. "Keep up the good work, engineer. If everyone knows of the dangers, then remind them all to collect bags and tubs of water to fight fires. The beasts fight that way."
"Ah. . . ah! Yes! Fire. . . water. . . good. It will be done, Sire." With that, he ran off to direct workers.
Thora dismounted and walked to Benkt. "He's such a strange man, dear. Is your trust in his abilities founded?"
Benkt laughed. "Like anyone else, he has his days, then he has his nights. The job of a king is to know what time of day it is." He said the last sentence to Buriz, who smiled and nodded.
They walked the pathway to the main long house. As they entered, maids scurried to greet them and take their coats, placing Hilken clay plates of rolls, goat cheese, smoked herring, and a pitcher of yak milk on the table. They sat together and began to sort out their thoughts.
"What did you learn in Rennok, Buriz?" Benkt and Thora both looked at the strapping youngster, full of life and soon to be full of the weight of rule.
"Several things, Father. First, hospitality can be as shallow as the reflection of your face on a lake. Second, everything you say should be said carefully. Third, everything you say can be taken many ways. Fourth, a good king has a good mage by his side, and. . . ", he looked at Thora and smiled, ". . . a good wife. Fifth, mead and talk don't always mix. And last, I have much to learn."
Benkt and Thora looked at each other, stunned. "It seems you may make a good leader, after all, son," said Thora, proudly hugging her child.
Benkt grabbed a roll and slab of cheese and motioned to a maid. "Please get me generals Johan, Ragnar and Walrum, and have them met me here in an hour. She bowed and ran off. "I'll have to begin preparations, I fear. Thora, what do you make of Knut's personal discussions with Fredrick?"
She reached for a piece of fish. "I think Knut is on our side, as much as he can be. I got the feeling from him, by his actions and expressions, that he didn't agree with Anders and grabbed an opportunity to do what he could to help. A sorcerer's power can be frightful, I'm told."
"But Fredrick is a magician, not a powerful sorcerer, Mother."
"Yes," continued Thora, "but he can become somewhat of a sorcerer under stress of great events and under great guidance. That is how they all grow in their abilities."
Benkt arose, stashing a handful of food in his pockets, to Thora's frown and sigh. He seldom finished a dinner when he had things on his mind, or at least he took it with him. "I have an hour to review Alfrim's changes, and then begin plans with the army. Buriz, I want you to sit in on the planning. Thora, we'll be late for home."
Benkt met Buriz at the door of the long house, in the howling, sleet-filled winds. The door was opened for them, revealing three men standing around the food table. They all bowed slightly, but crisply, in true military fashion.
To the left stood Johan. His six-foot-six frame was stuffed into a leather jerkin that begged for a few less dinners. His girth was slightly more than what he wanted, but age will fill empty spaces. His thick leather vest found it difficult to contain the masses of grayish hair, but he was a strict disciplinarian and trainer of renown.
In the center was Ragnar. Shorter and leaner, the younger man lacked a little of Johan's age but made up for it with his intensity. A longsword hung at his side, despite Benkt's request to leave weapons along the wall at the entrance. This was more for practicality than anything else - soldiers can be clumsy in a peaceful setting.
Walrum leaned his backside against the table. His reddish beard reached nearly to his waist, across his thin shirt. Scars of the berserker crossed his chin and forearms, belying others hidden from public view. He didn't train his men in the cult following of the semi-suicidal warriors but didn't discourage them either. His manpower turnover was greater than Benkt would have liked, but the effect of a maddened Northman with self-inflicted cuts and slices, screaming and ranting as he charges unarmored, often struck primal fear into adversaries.
"Gentlemen," Benkt stated as he returned the bow. "I assume you have met Buriz?" They bowed slightly, much to the thrill of the younger man. "We return with little to offer. King Anders has rebuffed our request, other than to offer us sanctuary in his city."
"Damn that devil!" Ragnar pounded his fist on the table. "Big city life has addled his brain and hardened his heart!" He looked at Buriz's surprised face. "Many pardons, young man, for my outburst."
Buriz walked to the general, much to the surprise of his father. He slammed his fist down on the table in the same place, a determined look on his face. "I was there as well, General. He drinks from the trough with donkeys!"
Benkt crossed his arms, his free hand covering his face as he nodded. The three generals laughed heartily. Benkt was proud but made a mental reminder to speak to the boy at a later date. "Keep in mind, gentlemen, that he is a Northman, and a king with great responsibilities. So let us not speak of him anymore. We have other things to talk about."
The five men circled the table and sat. Buriz chose to sit between Johan and Ragnor, an action Benkt found interesting, even promising.
For hours they discussed plans for defending the city. They spoke of troop deployments and arrangement of the different types of weaponry. They planned methods of covering all points of ingress and egress. They used blocks of wood and stones to indicate troop placement on a charcoal-drawn map of the city, on the table top. Buriz watched with fascination as they moved the items around to match varying enemy movements.
Then, almost as quickly as they began the discussions, they stopped. Buriz was a few ideas, a few sentences, behind and didn't realize they had finished. They stood and the generals began to walk away. But Ragnor stopped and turned toward Benkt. "Sire," he said, "it seems as the young man has an interest in learning, and a great capacity for it. I'd be happy to train him in some of the arts of war, with your permission."
Buriz's heart leapt. He looked at his father and didn't understand why he said what he next said. He would later appreciate it much better. "Treat him like every other soldier, Ragnor. He has a lot of good ideas. Bring me back a young man full of reality." He smiled at his son. "I'll send your clothes and tell your mother. It's time."
"Hurry along, boy! You have five hours to find the barracks, sleep and get up again! Moooove!" Ragnor began his training.
The clang of the iron pan resounded throughout the royal residence. The table would henceforth have quite a divot.
"YOU DID WHAT?!"
"Thora, be quiet! You'll wake the others!"
"Yes, and I'd do it again! He needs this training! He shows great interest in the military and in leading men. He'll be back on leave in a week. And, it's a King's decision. It is time. . . "
"But you could have. . . " She shuddered in anger, or in frustration; they looked the same with Thora. "Alright, I don't have to like it, but it is your decision. It is time, I suppose." She smiled a little. "He has made us proud as of late."
Fredrick arrived at the walls of Nozukal a day later. He was surprised to see the "castle" walls being fortified and widened, with much work and movement throughout the town. He was further surprised when he rode past the marching soldiers on a training mission. He could make out the face of Buriz A'Sky, marching in step. Things are changing here, and quickly, he thought to himself.
Upon arriving at the main long house, he saw even more activity. As he entered, Benkt looked up from discussions with an officer. He quickly finished the discussion and dismissed the leader, walking over to Fredrick.
"Well, our lost magician! Tell me a little about your stay."
Fredrick stood a staff against the wall, handed his longcoat to a maid, then walked to the fireplace to greet the king, holding his hands out to the conflagration to warm them. "It was as I thought it would be, sire. He showed me many new powers and in the short time, opened my eyes to a lot of possible aid I can give the army." He pointed to a cup of tea on a tray held by a maid, levitating it across the room to his hand, much to her surprise. "Tea?"
Benkt stared in disbelief. "You couldn't do that before, could you?"
"No. As a matter of fact, I wasn't even close to this little trick."
"Not bad, if the Dark Forces want refreshment" quipped Benkt.
Fredrick smiled. "Oh, believe me, it's much more than this. Say, was that Buriz that I saw marching?"
"Yes. It was time. What did you think of Knut?"
"Very interesting, very knowledgeable. He is on our side, make no mistake about it."
Benkt looked to the doorway. "Is that a new staff?"
Fredrick pointed to it. It "danced" its way across the floor to his hand, causing a stir among the help. It was similar to that of Knut, but smaller. "It has the ability to see things afar, as well as to concentrate my power. I think it may come in handy."
Benkt nodded. "Things are happening here. Alfrim has been building better fortifications, and we now have plans for our defense."
"Good, Sire. But pardon my impatience, I have to begin studying some things that Knut showed me, and it requires concentration. May I take my leave?"
"Certainly. Anything that can help." Fredrick smiled and grabbed a hunk of cheese as he headed toward the rear room of the building. "Also, Fredrick - can that ball on your staff watch the movements or advances of the beasts?"
"I'll let you know, Sire," he said over his shoulder.
Meanwhile, something was stirring in the encampment of the Dark Folk. An imposing figure stormed toward a shoddy tent. Hai Azock then entered it, bending only slightly so as not to catch his helm on the canvas. With a scowl, he bared his tusks, then his teeth as he approached the war table. The rest of the attendees stopped talking and looked up, all but Squiller, the captain of the Kobolds. He continued to pore over the map, talking to his second, who tried to nudge him. When he finally did look up, all he saw was an iron glove streaking toward his head. He bounced once, rolled twice and got up, ready to fight. Then he saw the owner of the glove. "I-I-I sorry, Hai Azock. . . busy talking war. . . " Then came a boot.
The fearsome Dark Folk military leader had no time for excuses, no room for anyone but the most attentive, groveling underlings. He had no need to explain himself, either. He usually made an example of those under him, at least once per week. Squiller was lucky today - he got to nurse his bruises himself.
He slammed his fist down on the table, less as a deterrent to those who didn't move at his speed than as a punctuation mark. "Damn lousy training today! Ain't one soldier was carried off the field! I want blood! Every day we don't taste human babies I wanna see some of our own bleed! Sit now!"
A mad scramble ensued, leaving several looking for chairs, much as in the simple musical chair game, but with more dire consequences. His growl and spittle gave purpose to the simple task of finding a seat.
"We got a week - one rotten week - to prepare! Ya filthy dogs showed me nuthin' today! Golot! I wanna report now!"
The hobgoblin captain, brawny and at least as tall as Azock, lacked the drive and personality of his master. But he never flinched as his name was called. Typical of the hobgoblins, he was smart and able to think on his feet but was hesitant to show up his less intelligent but fiercer leader.
"Got a new idea, Hai. A new way ta git kobolds into the town easy. They grab ahold of the ladders, and we fling 'em in, like pole vaultin'!"
Squiller looked up from rubbing his head. This was the first time he had heard of such a thing. "Now, wait a minute, here. . . " One look from Azock stilled his protestations.
"Sounds promisin', hobgoblin. How far ya think we can throw 'em? Keep in mind, dey ain't much good to me if they fall twenty feet and they're dead!"
"'Bout fifteen feet, best I can figure, Hai. At least we can fling 'em to da top of da walls; that would be good if dey has archers."
Azock drew a slow breath. "Now dat's what I like: thinkin' fast. Creative. Maybe dey can guard da ladders 'till orcs can climb up behind 'em. We got a way ta test it?"
Squiller began to grow more pale as the details were made clearer. Such went the rest of the night's meeting, as the wind howled outside the tent and plans of strange tactics were discussed.