Eddie MacNess watched as the casket containing the body of his captain was lowered into the ground. Gertie Smith and Dame Bess had fixed Marien’s corpse up so well, you’d never know she’d taken a sword to the gut.
He fought the sense of foreboding that had been growing since the ambush two days before. Mad Marien McAllister had been the consummate mercenary and a good leader. With her as captain, he’d believed he’d stay a Wolf forever, but as Eddie looked around the large group gathered around the grave, he saw the same uncertainty reflected in the faces of fully half of his brothers- and sisters-in-arms.
He could feel his son, seventeen-year-old Billy, standing just behind him and knew the lad was wondering the same things he was. Eddie and Billy stood at the rear of the crowd as they were well over six and a half feet tall, the two tallest men in the Wolves, or perhaps anywhere. Eddie was known among the mercenaries as Easy Eddie, because of his genial nature, while Billy hadn’t earned a merc’s nickname other than “the beanpole” yet. He was the image of Eddie at his age, and there was no man larger than Easy Eddie MacNess.
Despite being rail thin and having the cherubic face of a boy, Billy had been a merc since the day he turned fifteen and was legally old enough to sign a contract. Eddie was fiercely proud of him. His son had good instincts and thought like a mercenary. He was captain material, showing initiative even at his young age. But, thinking as a father, Eddie didn’t want his son working under a weak captain.
Marien had been crazier any woman he’d ever known, but she’d never let her spirited nature affect business. Unfortunately, even though her blade had slowed, Marien had insisted on going out on the occasional short, safe job, and that had been the death of her. The utter stupidity of it made Eddie feel ill, even though he knew it would likely be the end of him too. It was a rare merc who stayed working long enough to collect a pension. Most left the road as soon as they made enough to start a business or a family, and the stubborn ones died in the saddle.
She’d made a will years before, as all mercs were encouraged to do, and Eddie had witnessed it. Her son, Bastard John McAllister, would inherit all her possessions and the right to lead the Wolves. Eddie couldn’t help regarding the heir to Marien’s empire from the corners of his eyes.
The Wolves had maintained a good reputation under her leadership. How things would change after the Bastard took over, Eddie didn’t know, and that was the source of his foreboding.
John reeked of ale, as usual. His mother had just died; that was true. But he always smelled of too much ale. Drunk or sober, Bastard John had a volatile temper, and it clouded his judgment. Weak captains lost good mercs to bad decisions.
During Eddie’s ruminations, the traveling friar had finished his sermon. Marien was neatly buried, and the tamped soil was sprinkled liberally with holy water to keep her soul safe from Old Grim. With the solemnity and prayers out of the way, the townspeople drifted over to the Powder Keg, followed by the Wolves.
As Eddie and Billy walked back to the inn, they saw that a crowd had gathered to pay their respects. The townsfolk now wandered about inside the public common room gossiping, or outside where a white-haired traveling bard in his colorful robes had set up in the muddy square playing his harp and telling a tale praising Marien’s bravery.
“Listen to his accent—he’s a long way from the Eynier Valley.” Billy kept his voice low. “He’s not just an entertainer. He’s one of the old, important ones. It seems a little coincidental that one so advanced in age would chance along just in time for the funeral. He’s here to see what’s going to happen with the will.”
Eddie agreed. “Likely so. Those Southern bards know more about what goes on here in the north than they admit. Nothing they do is accidental. Any change in who runs things draws their attention, even here in the North.”
Billy laughed. “Songs about the youthful indiscretions of Mad Marien and old, dead, King Hargis will be popping up all up and down the trade road.”
As they made their way through the crowd, townsfolk stopped them, praising Marien’s virtues and making free with the ale and food that the Wolves had pulled together for the wake in the large common room. Occasional snatches of muted conversations drifted to them, indicating how even the townspeople were worried about how things would change with her passing.
The townsfolk seemed pleased that Elma McClain had finally agreed to hang up her sword and marry the Bastard although, for the life of him, Eddie couldn’t understand why she would do such a thing. Still, she brewed good ale and would handle running the Powder Keg, which she had regularly done when Marien was on the road. It was a sure thing the Bastard didn’t know how to be an innkeeper, and the only thing he knew about ale was how to drink it.
But Elma should know better than to tie herself to the Bastard. She knew what he was like, better than anyone, seeing as how she had a seven-year-old daughter by him.
The Wolves had gathered in their private parlor, where they had nearly finished the last of the formalities required by the Mercenary Code. All that was left was the reading of Marien’s will and getting John’s signature on a few documents.
Because of Marien’s relationship with the late King Hargis and her position as the leader of the Wolves, the man who was to take care of the legalities was old Eustace De Portiers, the Lord Dogwalker. He was known familiarly as Old Squash and was the man who served as the king’s secretary. He and his knights had arrived from Castleton just as the Wolves were closing up Marien’s grave, bringing Lady Marien McAllister’s will, along with several other documents transferring Marien’s authority to act as a magistrate for Somber Flats to her son and legal heir.
Eddie watched as the Bastard signed all the paperwork with his customary flair:
That was only right—after all, he was the king’s illegitimate half-uncle, and proud of it. Old Squash had brought a letter of condolence from young King Henri to his uncle, of which the boy king’s mother, and currently regent, was likely unaware.
Eddie was in a quandary. The Bastard was now officially the captain of the Wolves, and that meant dealing with his erratic behavior and bastardly disposition.
“At least Elma can cook.” Chicken Mickey spoke from near Eddie’s elbow. Mick had taken her death hard and was already well into the ale barrel, something Eddie had rarely seen. “God knows that will be a positive change.” Smaller than most women, the bandy-legged old man had been the provisioner for the Wolves since the day Marien had received the patent to form her mercenary company as a gift from old King Hargis.
The Bastard would never be the kind of leader his mother had been, but he was a sharp negotiator and understood how the mercenary business worked. With Dave Watts, his cousin, acting as his lieutenant and smoothing things over, the Wolves should do well enough under his leadership.
The trouble was, John had an uncanny knack for making friends with highwaymen and ne’er-do-wells. There was no telling who he would hire—and Eddie didn’t want to deal with that as well as his drunken misbehavior. At last, he came to the conclusion he should have come to long ago.
He could leave and start a company of his own. He’d inherited an old house when his mother passed on, so he could operate out of there. It was nothing much, just a rambling lodge built forty years before by his grandfather who had held a high office under a long-dead king, a place for an avid fisherman to escape the stress of Castleton and royal commitments.
Eddie had grown up there. The family fortunes had faltered, and his distinctly un-noble, hardworking father had managed to turn it into a self-supporting farm despite the wood-wraiths and firesprites that infested the deep woods.
The house was a good two hours ride from the nearest village, a quarry town called Dervy. In its favor, the lodge was situated on the big bend of the River Limpwater halfway between Somber Flats and the capital city, Castleton. It was only a five-hour ride north from the Powder Keg, so Eddie had made the journey every two or three weeks, whenever he had a few days free, to see his parents, and after their deaths, to check on his home.
Another thing the house had going for it–if he wanted to start a business there, the muddy track listed on maps as the King’s Highway went right past it. The main trade road south from the capital city of Castleton, the rutted trail ran the length of the country all the way down to the southern port of Ludwellyn. Long caravans of merchants and their heavily laden wagons would be passing his gate regularly, two or three times a month.
He could tap into that business if he gave it a bit of thought. Times were hard all over. Highwaymen and beasts borne of majik waited at every blind corner and narrow place along the trade road, hoping for easy pickings. That meant there was more than enough guard-work for everyone. And lately, the stonemasons of Dervy had been complaining that no one was ever available to guard them when they needed to travel, putting them in considerable danger.
He was hesitant, only because he wasn’t sure if anyone other than his son would want to go with him. He didn’t even know if Gertie Smith, the lady merc he was in love with would leave with him. He hoped she might, but Gertie had a mind of her own.
He’d found her working at her father’s smithy in Bekenberg. When he collected his armor and paid the master smith for it, Gertie had walked away from her father’s forge, taking up her sword and leaving Bekenberg with him. Then she convinced Eddie to take his son off his aging mother’s hands.
Gertie had been better than good to Billy, raising him until he came of age as if he was her son, despite the closeness of their ages. But she had refused to marry Eddie, and wouldn’t give up the sword for him. In Eddie’s mind, this meant if he struck out on his own, she might not leave the Wolves .
“Eddie MacNess?” The Lord Dogwalker’s quavering voice got his attention. “If you’re witnessing, I need your signature here and here on these and then you can all get on with enjoying the wake.” Feeling guilty for even thinking about leaving, Eddie did as requested, putting his signature as witness to all the paperwork, as did Dirty Dave Watts and Cob John McNally. Once the Bastard and Old Squash had finished all the required signings and witnessings, the elderly knight began rolling his copies into his case, preparing to leave.
Eddie looked up, seeing Walter Besom, known as Iron-fist, gesturing with slight jerks of his head toward the door. Once outside, Walter drew him off even further. His slightly more pronounced Lanque accent indicated he also had been drinking more heavily than usual. “I ain’t signing on with the Bastard. I have my boy, Willie, to think about. Who knows what sort of degenerates the Bastard will sign on here? But I don’t want to drag my son all the way down to Bekenberg to the Ravens or up in the mountains to Wister and the Badgers. We need to do something on our own, maybe out of Galwye. You should be leading us.”
A wave of relief swept through him, and the stress seemed to leave Eddie’s shoulders. “I’ve been thinking that way too. But how about we do this out of my dad’s old place? It’s plenty big enough to hold a small company if we set it up the way the Badgers did their lodge up in Wister.”
Walter’s face broke into a smile, and he clasped Eddie’s shoulder. “I like that. We’ll get our customers from Dervy, and a fair amount from Castleton, so we won’t cut into the Bastard’s business at all. But you’d better grab the Lord Dogwalker while he’s here, and have him get the paperwork started.”
Gertie Smith stepped out of the shadows, stopping in front of them. “I’m going with you. Cob John can handle all the smithing that needs to be done here in Somber Flats. I’m not giving up the sword for you, but I go wherever you do. As long you don’t tie me down.”
“You know I’d never do that.” Eddie’s arms went around her, and he felt dizzy with relief. Gertie was the best part of his life, outside of his son, but he couldn’t have forced her to come with him. “I’ve enough saved to buy you a small anvil. I can set you up with a little forge behind the house so you can pound hot metal all you want.”
“I’d like that. Someday I’ll leave the road and take up my hammer for real, but not yet.” She kissed him soundly.
The three walked back toward the front door. Walter said, “The Bastard’s offering contracts all next week, now that the funeral is over and the paperwork is done. It might get a bit difficult when we don’t sign on with him.”
“He’ll get over it,” Gertie said. “He’ll whine, but he’ll be fine once he sees how he can benefit from it.”
Eddie cornered Old Squash just as he and his knights were mounting up to head back to Castleton. When Eddie explained that he wanted to break away and form his own mercenary company, the old man nodded. “That’s a good idea. The area around Dervy needs a band of mercenaries, and it would give my lads and me a dry spot to sleep when we’re on missions like this one. We’ll have to camp out tonight, which, at my age, I don’t enjoy.”
He sighed heavily, the weight of his myriad duties clearly written on his somber features. “The road through there is so dangerous that even highwaymen avoid it. If you clean out the nuisance-beasts, I’ll make sure you get your patent from the queen regent. She’s not that fond of the Wolves, what with the Bastard being a royal bastard and all, so she’ll agree with no argument.”
Eddie agreed, on one condition. “We don’t have bespelled shields, so we can’t fight firedrakes or dragons. Those sorts of beasts are for your lads to take care of. But we’ll eliminate anything else.”
“I haven’t heard of anything like that along there. It’s too rural, with no livestock to attract the big beasts, so it’s mostly the usual. You know, wood-wraiths, bears, wildcats, or the occasional nest of firesprites suddenly popping up in the middle of the trail, delaying the caravans.” Old Squash shrugged. “The merchants don’t like that, so the queen regent’s guards get sent out looking for things of that nature. But the road is long, and they can’t be everywhere.”
They shook hands, and the Lord Dogwalker and his men departed.
To be continued
Part 2 will post on Friday, July 29, 2016
“The Bolthole, in two parts” © 2016 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved