“Well? Have you anything to say for yourself?”
Parno McLeod met his father’s gaze levelly, almost defiantly. He was more than accustomed to the older man’s berating, and had long since lost his fear of such encounters.
Parno was the youngest of four children in the House McLeod, the ruling dynasty of the Kingdom of Soulan. His mother having died shortly after giving birth to him, Parno had, for all his life, been blamed him for the death of Queen Margolynn McLeod. The fact that Parno had no say in the matter seemed to have escaped them, over the years.
Parno had grown up to the daily hatred of his father, and his siblings. His oldest brother, Memmnon, was the Heir, followed by the twins, Therron and Sherron. A mild contempt was the best Parno had ever managed to gain from any of them.
As a result, Parno had grown up virtually alone, in a Palace surrounded by people who despised him. He had grown callous to their hatred, over the years. And to any import his actions might have on his ‘loving’ family.
Parno McLeod was infamous among the soldiers of Nasil as one of the hardest drinking, hardest fighting men in the city. It had been said on more than on occasion that Parno would fight at the drop of a hat. Or knock the hat from your head, if you were too slow in dropping it. All agreed that there was little animosity toward him, however. Parno always paid for any damages his brawls might cause, and always bought a round of drinks for all involved, win or lose.
It was such an encounter that had caused the meeting here, today.
“Nothing I say will appease you, Father, and you and I both know it. Were it not this, it would merely be something else that attracted your ire.” The retainers in the room stirred uncomfortably. Few had the courage to speak to Tammon in such a manner.
Whatever faults Parno McLeod might be cursed with, however, cowardice was not among them.
“You impertinent whelp!” Tammon snarled. “Would that you had died in birth rather than your blessed mother, that I would not be saddled with your insolence! A drunken brawl with common soldiers in the Royal City! Could you possibly have acted any worse? Somehow brought even more shame to the McLeod name?”
“Since I have been old enough to know anything, Father, I have known your desire that I had died rather than my Mother,” Parno replied evenly. “Indeed, you and my noble brothers, and sister, have made that abundantly clear to me over the span of my life. I assure you it is the one thing we have in common. Had the choice been mine to make, I would gladly have perished that the one person who loved me had lived.”
“Damn you!” Tammon screeched, his face red with rage. “How dare you speak to me in such a manner! It is you that has forced this meeting today, not I. With your drunken revelry and common brawling! Such behavior is far beneath a Prince of Soulan.
I expect better of my sons. Even you.”
“It is a blow to my heart, Father, that my behavior has caused you such difficulty.” Parno’s tone was heavy with sarcasm. In truth, he didn’t care even a tithe about his father’s difficulties. He had decided long ago that his days of playing the beaten pup were at an end. He had learned to live without fear of his father, or older siblings, soon after he entered his teen years.
“Get out!” Tammon ordered. “Leave my sight while I retain the memory of your blessed mother and her love for you! Lest I forget it and deal with you as you deserve!”
Parno bowed stiffly, and far less deeply than protocol required, turned and departed the room. Tammon sat upon his throne seething with anger.
“Father,” Memmnon McLeod said from his father’s side, “you must not let him provoke you to anger. Physician Smithe has warned you that such anger is. . . .”
“Oh be silent!” Tammon snarled, waving aside his oldest son’s complaints. “I have recovered my senses. I cannot help it if the very sight of him irk’s my blood.”
“I understand, Father,” Memmnon, who felt the same way, nodded. “Yet there is little more we can do, save banish him from the city. And such an action would not be looked upon with favor.”
“I know, curse the luck! Is there not something he can do well enough that he can be given duties? Duties which, regrettably, will require him to travel. Travel as far from here as possible, mind you.”
“What duties would you risk in the hands of Parno, Father?” the Crown Prince asked quietly.
“I’m open to almost anything that removes him from underfoot,” the King retorted. “At least then his brawling and drinking and womanizing won’t be here, right in front of us.”
“Well,” Memmnon said after a brief pause, “there is one project which I have been considering. One which would, indeed, require not only a great deal of travel, but would leave him permanently posted outside the city.”
“What?” Tammon asked, voice rising with hope.
“It has been considered for some time,” Memmnon said, “that we form a military unit from elements of the King’s Prisons. Men would serve their time in service to the King rather than in the cells of the territorial prisons. Such a unit would be ideal for breaking Norland charges when war comes again, and the men would be considered expendable at any rate.”
“A prison company?” Tammon asked skeptically.
“Essentially, yes,” Memmnon nodded. “It would require a leavening of real soldiers to provide security, or course, and would take time to ready for combat. But it would be a job which took years. In fact would never truly be finished. Even as soldiers left the service with their time served, others would be entering the service at the same time. And such a company could never be posted in Nasil.”
“No,” Tammon agreed thoughtfully. “No that would never do, having a company of prison soldiers in the Royal City.”
“It is but a thought, Father,” Memmnon said. “I have been interested in the idea for some months, but with everything else that’s been happening, I simply haven’t took the time to get it started.”
“Assign it to Parno,” Tammon said at once. “Give him the job. Tell him that you want him to have the chance to prove he can behave in the manner of a Prince, prove to me that he is of value to the realm. Anything like that. Just make sure that he leaves.”“I will see to it, Father,” Memmnon promised with a smile. “Today.”
“Thank you for coming, Brother,” Memmnon said, smiling at Parno as the youngest prince entered the oldest’s office. “Please, take a seat. May I get you anything?”
“Let’s get to the chase, Memmnon,” Parno said, though not unpleasantly. “I know you didn’t ask me here to exchange pleasantries. And I know that you dislike my company as much as our father. I’m sure my being here is keeping you from important matters of state.” Memmnon, as Heir to the Throne, was the Kingdom of Soulan’s defacto Foreign Minister. Therron, the Heir Secondary, commanded the Soulan Army.
“Very well,” Memmnon’s smile faded. “I asked you here because I have an assignment for you. One that’s long ended, I’m afraid, and will require no small amount of travel. I wanted to stress to you that it would be good if you reel in your desire for questionable company and drinking to excess while your job carries you about the kingdom.”
“An assignment?” Parno’s brow creased in frown. “What possible assignment could there be that you would entrust to me?”
“That’s not fair, Parno,” Memmnon replied, his face showing hurt. “I admit I have never been over fond of you. I cannot help blame you for the death of our mother. I know it’s wrong of me, and I have tried to overcome it, but every time I see you I am reminded of her. Or rather of her absence.”
“I would that she had lived as well,” Parno said quietly. “Would have been better all around had I been the one to perish.”
“I’ve never said that,” Memmnon pointed out, and Parno nodded, agreeing.
“No, Memmnon, you never have, unlike Father, Therron, or Sherron. And for that small kindness, I thank you.” Parno’s voice revealed his sincerity. He did appreciate the fact that Memmnon had never spoken quite so ill of him as the rest. Small thing though it might seem.
“What is this job you would have me do?” Parno asked, changing the subject.
“It’s not a pleasant one, I’ll warn you now. But it is of some importance, especially in the long run. A new military unit is being formed from elements of prisoners from the Provincial King’s Prisons. It will be your job to select the men, and oversee their training and organization.” Memmnon handed Parno a sheaf of papers.
“You’ll find the information on the soldiers under your command in here, along with information concerning the most likely individuals to be acceptable to the program. The details of the program itself are in the folder. Familiarize yourself with them before you begin.”
“Prisoners?” Parno asked skeptically. “You want to make King’s Soldiers out of King’s Prisoners?”
“If possible, yes,” Memmnon affirmed. “We hope to ease crowding in the prisons, for one thing. And. To be honest, there are many men now in prison who have attributes useful to the crown. This is a way to get service from them while they serve their sentences. The Norland Army has far more resources than do we to draw upon, Parno,” Memmnon added quietly. “We must try and use everything at our disposal.”
“And you just naturally thought of me, I guess, to lead this effort?” Parno’s voice betrayed his sarcasm.
“No,” Memmnon answered, surprising Parno. “I didn’t. It was only this morning that I thought of using you in this position. I suggested it to Father not long after you left, in fact.” Memmnon knew he was skating around the truth, but didn’t want to tell Parno why the job was being given to him. There was no point in throwing oil onto an already burning fire.
“Get me from underfoot?” Parno asked, and smiled at the surprise on Memmnon’s face. Though the diplomat recovered quickly, the damage was done.
“That was the idea,” he sighed. “To get you and Father as far apart as possible.”
“Don’t pretend you won’t be happy to see me go as well, Brother,” Parno said, and Memmnon’s face clouded.
“Not because I hate you, Parno,” Memmnon said quietly. “It is just that I have never been able to look at you, not once, without thinking of the death of my mother. It is painful, even now. I cannot help that.”
“How do you know, Memmnon?” Parno asked, his voice not quite hard. “I’ve never seen you, any of you, make the effort. I was offered no choice as whether to come into the world or not. You might bear that in mind once in a while. You all hate me,” the words grated passed tightly clenched teeth, “for something I had no say in. Now, as Heir to the King’s Justice, does that strike you as fair?”
“Life isn’t always fair, Parno,” Memmnon said quietly. “If it were, Mother would still be here, where she belongs.”
“And I would be dead,” Parno finished. Memmnon did not meet his eyes.
“Yes, you would.”
“Well, at least you’re honest,” Parno said with a sigh. “I suppose I should be grateful for that.” He reviewed the papers in his hands.
“Cove?” he asked, seeing the home of his new ‘unit’. “My headquarters will be in Cove? That’s not too close to Nasil, you think? I can ride that in two days, or three.”
“It was the sight of the unit before you entered into it,” Memmnon said. “I saw no reason to change it.”
“Right,” Parno snorted. “Okay, Memmnon, I’ll take the ‘job’, but I have a few conditions.”
“Conditions?” Memmnon said, his features betraying a hint of anger. “Your King gives you instructions and you set conditions?”
“You can put away that dung,” Parno shot back. “This isn’t the act of a King and a Subject. It’s the act of a father who hates his son. So yes, the son will set some conditions.”
“Name them,” Memmnon said, his voice noncommital.
“I want the original order extended to cover those hunted by King’s Warrant,” Parno said. Memmnon thought for a moment, then nodded.
“I will agree to that. The basic idea is the same. What else?”
“I want my ‘unit’ fully funded. Soldiers paid, descent quarters, good food. I want a King’s Writ to make sure I can get what I need.” A King’s Writ was basically a command from the King to offer any and all assistance requested by the bearer, with expenses paid by the Crown. King’s Writs were not that common. Memmnon studied his brother closely.
“I will see to it myself,” Memmnon said finally, “provided that you provide receipts for your expenditures. I will not pay for your boozing and brawling from the Royal Treasury.”
“No,” Parno agreed, “you won’t. I’ll pay for that, from the General’s pay you’ll be giving me, and the allowances that go along with it.”
“Forget it,” Memmnon said at once. “I haven’t the authority to make you a General, and Therron would see you in Hell first.”
“I didn’t say anything about making me a General,” Parno smiled. “I said I’d be paid like one, including all allowances.”
Memmnon considered that. Generals in the Soulan army were well paid by anyone’s standards. Their allowances were almost as good. A building that served as quarters and office, valet, cook, secretary, physician and escort. All on the King’s crown.
Parno had never been interested in the trappings of power. Even as a child he had been fiercely independent, relying on no one other than himself unless there was no possible alternative. His request for such things, now, surprised the Crown Prince.
“I will agree, except to the escort,” Memmnon said at last. “You already have a company of veteran soldiers at your command. That should be sufficient to get you out of any fights you find yourself in.”
“I do my own fighting, Memmnon,” Parno replied with a smile. “You remember that, don’t you?” The older brother flushed at that, remembering.
Memmnon had set his retainer, a veteran soldier, upon his brother one day in a fit of rage. Parno, fourteen at the time, had nearly killed the soldier, and then administered a severe beating to Memmnon as well. Only the intervention of Parno’s own retainer had saved Memmnon from being crippled, or perhaps killed, at the hands of his enraged younger brother. Memmnon still bore scars from the encounter.
“Your other conditions?” Memmnon snapped.
“Darvo Nidiad is to be made Colonel, and placed in command,” Parno said. Nidiad was Parno’s faithful retainer, and the young Prince’s one true friend.
“That I can do,” Memmnon agreed. “Nadiad should have been Colonel long before now, anyway. Would have been, had he not chosen. . . .”
“Not chosen to remain at my side,” Parno finished the unspoken part of his brother’s sentence. “I’m aware of the reason he has been passed over. I am loyal to those who deserve my loyalty.” Memmnon chose not to respond to that barb. It had hit too close to home for comfort.
“No, I think that will cover it,” Parno said amiably. “Please make sure that the King’s Writ includes orders to the Prison Wardens. I assume that I’ll be able to hire or appropriate some suitable instructors for my new soldiers?”
“Yes, the Writ will cover that,” Memmnon assured him. “Submit your payroll each month. Nidiad can decide appropriate ranks for the instructors, but no one over the rank of Captain, mind. Higher rank will require Therron’s approval.”
“Which I will never receive,” Parno nodded in agreement as he stood. “Very well, Prince Memmnon. I will endeavor to fulfill my duty to the best of my ability. Tell me true, though, Brother. It will not affect my decision. Is this a true and actual duty, or did you invent it to get rid of me?”
“The idea was presented to me over four months ago,” Memmnon told him. “I had not acted upon it yet, in truth haven’t had the time. But I was convinced the idea was worth exploring. Had you not received the project, someone else would have.”
“Fair enough,” Parno nodded. “Where do I find my soldiers?”
“King’s Barracks,” Memmnon answered. “Right here in the grounds. Captain Willard is in command.”
“Enri Willard?” Parno asked. “The sword champion?” Enri Willard was the holder of the coveted King’s Sword, acknowledged as the finest swordsman in Soulan. He was also Captain of the Palace Guard.
“No. His younger brother, Karls.” Memmnon corrected. “Not quite as good as Enri, but very good nonetheless. And his men are fine soldiers.”
“I will leave tomorrow, or the day after, then. Does that meet with the Crown’s approval?” There was only a slight tinge of sarcasm in Parno’s voice.
“Parno, you needn’t voice your disdain of the King to me. I assure you, I know all too well your feelings for Father.”
“I doubt that very much, Memmnon,” Parno said quietly. “I doubt it very much indeed.” With that Parno turned and departed, leaving his brother to look at his departing back.
“You’re daft, lad!”
Darvo Nidiad had never minced words, even with the Prince he had served so faithfully for nineteen years. He saw no reason to start now.
“Darvo, it’s not as bad as all that,” Parno objected. “And it makes your Colonelcy, something you wouldn’t have gotten any other way, so long as you remained with me.”
“I care not for that,” Nidiad replied. “I am near to retiring at any rate, lad. I’m too old to start trying to make soldiers out of thieves and killers.”
“Then consider this retirement with pay and benefits,” Parno offered. “Look at it! A King’s Writ, our own garrison, and little in the way of expectations! Select a few trainers, oversee the organization of the unit, and sit back and watch the fun. You know as well as I do that no one will ever interfere with us. They’ll likely never think of us so long as I am out of Nasil, which is the true objective after all. We’ll live out our lives in relative comfort on the King’s Crown, far from the cares of the great city of Nasil and the scrutiny of King Tammon the Terrible.”
“Don’t be treasonous,” Nidiad chided. Parno scoffed.
“Don’t be a hypocrite,” he shot back. “Come on Darvo! I can’t do this without you.”
“You can’t do it period,” Nidiad replied. “Make soldiers from the dregs of the King’s Prison? They couldn’t stay out of prison, lad. They aren’t likely to be paragons of virtue, you know. Thieves, killers, brawlers and the like. Men who would cheat their own mothers out of their life savings, then kill the poor woman to keep her from calling the constable. Forget it lad,” the old soldier said kindly. “‘Tis folly to even consider such a notion workable.”
“Fine,” Parno said, disgusted. “Stay here, then, and enjoy your retirement. But I don’t have much of a choice. I will never be allowed another opportunity to get away from here and keep at least some dignity. My family hates me, wishes me dead. There’s nothing here for me, Darvo. Nothing to keep me here. This is a chance for me to get away from here, and do it without living from a saddlebag the rest of my life. I can’t afford to turn it down.”
“But that’s exactly what you should have done,” Nidiad told his young charge. “Turned it down. It’s a fool’s errand they’ve sent you on. Your ‘company’ will be the laughing stock of the army!”
“Not if you’re in command,” Parno persisted, sensing the old man weakening despite his objections. “And we have a full company of veteran soldiers assigned to us as well.”
“Led by who?” Nidiad asked scornfully. “A wet-behind-the-ears ass kisser? Looking to get ahead by doing a Royal ‘favor’?”
“Karls Willard,” Parno said smugly. “Enri’s younger brother.
“Indeed?” Darvo’s interest seemed to perk up a bit at that.
“Indeed,” Parno nodded emphatically. “So there’s at least one indication that the idea, despite my involvement, is being taken seriously. For all his faults, and his dislike of me, Memmnon isn’t a liar. He told me plainly that he had intended to pursue the idea even before he suggested my involvement.”
Nidiad did not respond right away. His eyes gave away the fact that he was calculating. Parno decided to sweeten the pot.
“You can move, lock stock and barrel, Darvo. Dahlia can be placed on the books as the cook, and . . . .”
“My daughter will not play servant to a bunch o’ crooks and killers, Parno McLeod!” Darvo roared.
“My cook, you irritable old fart,” Parno sighed in exasperation. “The only people she’ll be cooking for is yourself, and perhaps the physician and secretary. Not the soldiery.”
“Leaving out yourself, o’ course,” Nidiad pointed out.
“I’ll be eating with the troops,” Parno said quietly. Darvo’s eyes rose at that.
“A Prince of Soulan? Scion of the House McLeod? Messing with common soldiers? A scandal for sure.”
“So be it,” Parno shrugged. “Look, Darvo. This is the only opportunity I’m ever likely to have to make a name for myself as something besides the son Tammon McLeod loves to hate. The men we choose will have to be loyal to me if this is going to work. Who are they likely to respect more? A Prince who lives in a big house and eats privately? Or a man who shares the same food and discomforts they themselves endure?”
Nidiad looked fondly at the young man he had served as surrogate father for so long. Parno had always applied himself whole-heartedly to everything he’d set his mind to. The boy had been a sponge, soaking up knowledge like a rag soaked water. In truth, Parno was something of a military tactician himself, though his father, nor especially his brother Therron, would never give him credit for it, even if they knew.
Nidiad knew for a fact they didn’t know. Just as they were unaware of the younger McLeod’s horsemanship, or swordsmanship. Had the law not forbid his competing, Nidiad had no doubt that Parno could have defeated even Enri Willard in the annual King’s Sword competition.
For the first time since the conversation began, Darvo Nidiad gave serious thought to the idea of making soldiers out of prisoners. True, there were likely to be some stalwart lads found in the King’s Prisons. Men with savvy, and spirit. Many of them would be skilled in at least some of the attributes needed by a good soldier.
“Just what kind of unit were you planning on forming, anyway?” Darvo asked.
“Cavalry,” Parno replied at once. “A mixed bag of mounted men. Lancers, swordsmen, and archers. Every man trained expert on one weapon, proficient with at least one other.” Nidiad smiled to himself as he recognized his own influence on Parno’s thinking.
“And where, pray, do you intend to get the horses and saddlery for such a unit? For that matter, the swords, lances and bows?”
“King’s Writ,” Parno replied smugly. “I can get anything I want, remember? As to the swords, and the lances, I hope to find an able blacksmith and sword-maker who can provide us with quality weapons without depending on the King’s Armory. As to the bows, I thought to venture into the Apples and seek out a bow-master. It might be that we can find a man who can teach us to make our own.”
“If not, then we’ll find the best we can, and purchase them with King’s Crown.”
“Thought of everything, have you?” Nidiad smiled.
“No,” Parno replied. “But I’ve tried to. I’ve been turning the problem over in my head, trying to see what problems I might encounter, and then working on a solution. Of course,” he smiled, “no plan survives contact with the enemy.”
“Indeed, lad,” Nidiad laughed, slapping his leg as Parno used another of his own teachings against the old soldier. “Very well, Parno, me lad, I’m in. But,” he said, a thick and calloused finger raised in point, “my daughter will not accompany us. She can make the trip after we have set the place to order, and I’m satisfied it’s safe.”
“Fine,” Parno agreed. Darvo’s own wife had died in childbirth, just as Parno’s mother had. Parno had always wondered if that had influenced the older man’s decision to remain in his post as retainer, despite the fact that he could not rise above the rank of Major in doing so. His daughter, Dahlia, was his pride and joy.
“Very well, then,” Darvo rose. “Let’s be over to the Barracks, and meet Captain Willard. I’m sure he’s as thrilled as I am to be on this mission.”
“Have to get your uniform fixed, first,” Darvo said. “You’re a Colonel, now.”