Wrath of the Usurper Snippet Two

Here’s the next section of Wrath of the Usurper.  We get a glimpse of Kerrel Flamehair and where she is headed:

Commander Kerrel Flamehair

City of Longhaven, Duchy of Masov

15th of Pargan, Cycle 1000 Post Sundering

Commander Kerrel Flamehair led Nightwhisper slowly down the ramp and onto the solid stone pier. Though the war horse did so with slow, calm steps, Kerrel didn’t miss the chuff of relief from her stallion as all four of his hooves stood again on dry, stable land.

She gave a snort and patted the stallion on one broad shoulder, “You’re getting worried in your old age, Nightwhisper? Maybe I should trade you out for a younger, braver horse that’s not afraid of a little water or too feeble to swim if the ship goes down?”

The stallion turned his head and bared his teeth at her and Kerrel laughed and patted his shoulder, “Okay, maybe you’re not that old and feeble.”

“He’s not the only one to be glad to be ashore,” Baran’s gruff voice spoke from behind her. “And begging our newly promoted Commander’s pardon, but if she’d be gracious enough to move her younger backside out of the way there’s others that would like to be getting on with the gratitude of being ashore.”

Kerrel rolled her eyes at that and led Nightwhisper out of the way while her second in command led his own horse down off the transport ship. Kerrel gave him a stern expression as he came down the ramp, followed by Jonal and his horse. “It’s a good thing I’m such a calm and patient sort, Baran. If I had any kind of temper then such language might draw penalties, especially were I given to letting my new promotion go to my head.” She tossed her head and her red hair swung over her shoulder. Normally she kept it tied back, but it had come loose during the unloading.

“Yes,” Jonal said gravely. “A very detached and calm individual our fearless leader, never one to hold a grudge or get emotional.”

Kerrel leveled a green-eyed gaze on the shorter, red-haired man, “You should be glad for that temper of mine, cousin, else you might still be spending your days a prisoner to the Vendakar… or worse!”

Baran grunted, “She’s got a point, lad.”

“She might,” Jonal admitted after a moment.

“Captain, uh, that is, Commander,” a voice spoke from nearby. Kerrel recognized one of the new recruits by his accent, the Duchy of Asador burr still harsh and strong and not yet worn down from dealing with men of the other Duchies. “Sergeant Lamar asked me to take care of your horses, said that you probably need to get to see him about some of the logistics.”

Kerrel grimaced. She had enjoyed a bit of respite from Lamar while operating under Lord Hector’s Northern Army. They had an entire logistics company to deal with paperwork and the actual movement of supplies and equipment. Sergeant Lamar knew his job and knew it well… but he had a tendency to take an unholy joy in drowning her and Baran in paperwork, all of it vital, but still dreary.

“I guess I should let her Commander-ship get to her duties then,” Baran said gravely.

“Begging your respects, sir,” the new trooper said, “but Sergeant Lamar specifically said that he wanted you and young master Jonal to come as well.”

Kerrel laughed at Baran’s grimace. The old soldier hated such meetings. Which wasn’t to say he didn’t understand their importance. “Very well,” Kerrel said, laughter still light on her voice, “we will all meet with him, where has he set up?”

“He’s set up a temporary headquarters for you, Commander, at the Black Oar Inn,” the younger man said. “He said he’s warm food since you’ll have had nothing but ship food over the past few days.”

“True enough,” Baran grunted. “And old grumble-belly always finds the best food in town.”

“Thank you, trooper…” Kerrel paused and cocked her head, “are you one of Stanis’s boys?”

The younger man’s eyes went wide with surprise, “Yes, milady, uh, that is Commander. I’m Jurgan, his second son.”

“Glad to see you here, Jurgan, and mind the dark one. Nightwhisper has a wicked temper and likes to bite,” Kerrel said. She heard her horse chuff in disappointment behind her, but she ignored that. Her regular troops knew the horse’s ways, but someone like Jurgan would need the warning. She passed over the reigns and waved for Baran and Jonal to join her. A glance around the docks showed that the bustling port had taken no more notice of them. The traffic of mercenaries into the Duchy of Masov, called by the Usurper Duke’s offers of coin had become common here. Southern mercenaries took the bridge across the Ryft at the Ryftguard, but most mercenaries from Boir and Asador came in through the ports, and Longshaven was the largest port in the Duchy of Masov.

“You know the way?” Baran asked.

“I do,” Jonal said quickly. He flushed as Kerrel raised an eyebrow at him. “They, uh, have the best vintages in town.”

“Do tell,” Kerrel said.

He shrugged self-consciously, “They don’t serve any Vendakar wines, trust me.”

“Oh, I’ll trust you on that, all right,” Baran grunted. The Vendakar who had kidnapped Jonal and then framed him for the assassination attempt against Duke Hector had used drugged Vendakar wine, Kerrel remembered. That they had used his own enjoyment of fine food and drink against him had embarrassed him. That they had killed off the patrol he was supposed to ride with and then nearly killed Kerrel herself in the assassination attempt clearly still left him angry.

Not that anything of Vendakar make was in high demand anywhere in the Duchy of Masov, just now. When the full measure of their treachery had come to light, they had switched sides mid battle, it had taken five companies of heavy cavalry, led by Kerrel herself to bring back the tide of victory. If their treachery had succeeded, they and the Armen they had sided with would have wiped out the Usurper Duke’s Northern Army. The Armen raiders that Duke Hector fought would have come south and raided the rest of the Duchy and presumably the traitorous Vendakar mercenaries would have taken their own measure of loot and slaves.

As unpopular as the Usurper Duke might be, particularly in the south, no one had any complaints about his victory. Indeed, when word had gone out that it was open season on Vendakar merchants and mercenaries tied to the Houses who had plotted that betrayal, the popular reaction had been extremely violent. Since the Vendakar slavers had something of a reputation and there wasn’t a single Vendakar merchant who didn’t deal in slaves on the side… well, there were a lot of dead Vendakar within a few weeks of Duke Hector’s proclamation.

And anyone who had dealings with them is keeping low, she thought, even going as far as to destroy any of their goods they have rather than try to sell them. Which would probably lead to some economic issues as the trade dried up, she knew. The only people who did more trade than the Vendakar were the people of Boir, but relations with the Grand Duchy of Boir were tense. That tends to happen when you take power by killing off your uncle and his entire family, Kerrel thought sourly. She had seen much of Hector’s ruthlessness, but it still shocked her to think of just how willing he was to kill if he saw it as the best course of action. She knew the murder of his relatives weighed upon him, but he seemed to view it as his only course of action. Just as he views sending me south to make peace as his only option, she thought.

“I still don’t know why the hole company is headed south,” Baran grumbled. “Be a right pain to move us all, especially with all the new people, and still get them trained and properly integrated. Waste of good troops, too.”

Jonal looked over his shoulder, “I don’t expect much fighting to be had up north, not until the raiders return next spring. I mean, we destroyed the entire Armen army there on the Lonely Isle, there shouldn’t be anyone else to fight, right?”

“Might seem that way,” Kerrel said softly, “but that’s only looking at our battle in isolation.”

Baran grunted and spat to the side, “Damned Armen raided the Grand Duchy of Boir, sacked Port Riss, besieged Boirton, and, if the rumors are true, killed their Grand Duke and half their nobility. The raiders who went south will need to return home and the Lonely Isle has long been their staging area. They’ll be coming through by the thousands.”

Kerrel nodded, “Plus there were enough surviving Armen to defend their raid camps. Lord Hector will have to attack each of them, one by one, in order to burn them out. Meanwhile, the raiders coming home will be rich with loot and slaves and eager to protect it all and prove what great warriors they are.”

“Lots of skirmishing and fighting,” Baran nodded. “Lots of bastards need killing.”

Jonal led the way in silence for a bit. His voice was thoughtful when he spoke, “So then, why are we headed south? Lord Hector can’t have unlimited pocketbooks, he’s already leveraging heavy taxes on Masov, and he’s paying for our company to grow… shouldn’t he need us up North?”

Kerrel nodded in approval, though more for the thought he put into it and the economic implications he saw than in agreement of his final outcome. “Those taxes of his… and the way he took power, those caused him some issues in the South.” She sighed. Really, talking this over in the street was hardly the ideal location. While most people in Longhaven had their heads on business rather than listening in, it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that there were spies abroad. She was certain there would be some who would pay to hear what Lord Hector’s recently promoted Commander of Cavalry and Ducal Investigator had to say about it all…and what she did have to say could be damaging.

Yet at the same time, what she had to say was no more than what most people already knew. “The southern nobility are angry over his treatment of them, they don’t like how he’s appointed men like Covle Darkbit to watch them.” Not that I blame them for that, she thought darkly, Darkbit is a bastard of the worst sort, “They also don’t like how Hector has taken away a lot of their autonomy.”

“Commoners are worse, though,” Baran grunted.

“Yes,” Kerrel nodded. “He’s hitting them the hardest with his new taxes, then setting men like Darkbit and Grel to collect those taxes. The taxes fund his campaign against the Armen raiders, but they are turning the general population against Hector in the process.”

Jonal pondered that and Kerrel hoped he would see the lesson and learn from it. The single-minded determination of Duke Hector the Usurper was admirable, in some ways. He certainly had spared his lands from the savage violence that had descended upon Boir, but he had brought a different kind of savagery to Masov, one where the people no longer trusted in their protectors, one where families on the ragged edge had to start thinking about survival come the long winter ahead. And if anyone understands how brutal winter can be, it’s the Duchy of Masov, she thought. The coastal Duchy often had the heaviest snowfall of all the Five Duchies during the long months of winter, with the southern highlands receiving forty or more feet of snow. Some places, she had heard, had up to eight months of snow-fall.

They came at last to the Black Oar Inn. The cheery sound of laughter and the warm glow of light from its windows “So what can we do?” Jonal asked, his voice uncertain.

“What we must, to keep the peace,” Kerrel said softly. She thought, suddenly of Lord Hector’s private discussion with her, before her departure. He asked me to be his assassin, she thought, knowing full well what it would cost me. She wasn’t sure she could do that, but she knew full well the stakes. Civil war loomed, with the dead Duke’s daughter backed by the southern nobility and the commoners and Hector backed by the northern merchants and tradesmen. That kind of war would leave the Duchy of Masov shattered, much like her own home of Asador. Could she kill an innocent woman to preven that? Even if I do kill Hector’s cousin Katarina, Kerrel wondered, would it do any good?

***

Wrath of the Usurper will be available on 30 May 2015

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