House of Thar did not appreciate what you and the House you serve did to folks under their protection. They’ve been conducting raids on towns all around you, so that the peasants will not shelter you. One village even outright attacked you.
But that is not why I write to you today. Today I’m here to tell you that you can ride a horse. Did you have any idea you could do that? I didn’t!
Not only that, but you made a new discovery yesterday: the men most likely to consider themselves the strongest man on the battlefield have scarcely been weaned off their mother’s tits. They’ve usually seen around twenty years.
It is well and good that you have no idea how many years you’ve seen.
There were reports of longboats with King Borym of House of Thar’s banners on the coastline between the city you conquered and another one you’d never heard of. You, Khalee, Albarran and Crom-cil-Orm set out to investigate this.
The cliffs were thick with the last vestiges of autumn. The sun was shining and you were overlooking the sea. You wondered if this wasn’t where you took your first tumble (you hadn’t read your own account, had you? You smelled salt in the air and felt a faint spray even from your height on the cliff. The air seemed to grow colder and wetter the closer you came.
You did not remember if there were morning mists then. You thought it was a bright and sunny day, but it seemed as though three ships were there as if appearing from some sort of fog. They glided seamlessly along the waves, oars churning up foam.
“What do you think, your Grace?” Albarran asked. “King Borym’s men?”
“Look at the prow,” Khalee said. When she pointed, you noticed his fingernails had turned blue from the cold. You huddled yourself in your cloak. “Wrought in the shape of a griffin–even the sides of their boats are shaped like wings.”
“Could it be any other House?” Crom-cil-Orm bellowed. “Oh, but we’ll show them a good fight. Har!”
“Mayhaps they’re traders,” you suggested. “Merchant men?”
“You’re an idiot, Carth,” Khalee called to you. “King Borym’s men cover their prows when they go to trade.”
“How do you know this?” King Crom-cil-Orm asked.
“My House has traded with them for years, your Grace. They never have their war banners on their prows.” Under his breath, he added, “Speaking of which, those wings on the sides are as useful as nipples on a breastplate.”
“Albarran!” Crom-cil-Orm barked. “Go back to the banners. Call them forth. Have my bow brought to me.” You wondered how the giant would like with a bow. You imagined something like if he tried to play a small violin. “Khalee, Carth, with me.”
Albarran turned to parallel to the shore so that his mount’s mane tossed like the wind-blown spray whose echoes you felt on your cheeks. One of the ships turned to follow Albarran.
“Should I–” Khalee began, but the King waved the matter aside. “Stay here. My men can take care of themselves. King Borym’s forces fights like krakens. They’re slippery and destructive if they catch you at sea, but they flounder on land.”
You could hear a rhythmic beating coming from the ships. Men covered in ringmail and dinted halfhelms had long circular shields with iron bosses plated like bowls in the center, and rimmed with the same material. They struck axes and swords against their shields, again and again, and again. They stomped and clashed and made a fury. The noise only grew louder as they came closer.
“Why don’t we continue, if they have no use on land?” you asked.
“Because they skirmish well. Even a floundering kraken can cause casualties as it flails. We’ve enough to worry about without being chased by raiders.”
As the ships came closer, King Crom-cil-Orm, Khalee and you all watched as a man with long black hair, all scaled in ringmail came upon the head of the ship, and stood upon the griffin’s scalp as it coasted. You hoped he would fall. But he didn’t. He took out his cock and pissed into the water.
You did not expect to see Crom-cil-Orm grinning at this. But he did, displaying teeth as big as slinging-stones. “Kids,” he muttered. “You’re of an age with that one, Carth. I hope you know better.” You weren’t sure if you knew better. But you decided not to voice that. You noticed Crom-cil-Orm was scanning the ground for rocks.
“No fear of drowning, that one,” said Khalee.
The spears on shields was a chorus but the time Crom-cil-Orm found a stone as big as your head and tossed it in the air, testing the weight of it. The men under King Borym were still laughing.
Crom-cil-Orm tossed the stone side-armed, looking lazy, and it sailed through the air and struck the man atop the prow. The stone dented his helmet, and blood leaked down the side of his face in a sheet of red.
He still had his cock out as he tumbled beneath the waves.
Oars shot to work, slowing their progress and hurling themselves back, out of reach of the giant. Crom-cil-Orm was grinning, but Khalee spoke first. “They don’t seem so brave when you can hit them.”
“Indeed, they don’t. Har!”
The reavers changed their direction after King Crom-cil-Orm’s little trick. You were charged with following them as Crom-cil-Orm and Khalee started back to meet with Albarran and the other Housemen.
I’ll not profess to know why he sent you out. Mayhaps he wanted you captured or killed. I’ll not deny that you are a nuisance. It is mayhaps best not to dwell on such matters.
Regardless, I can tell you that you rode through a dark wood during your pursuit of the elusive reavers along the shoreline. Branches reaches out at you like ghosts clamoring for your attention, snapped and contorted like the twisted limbs of dead men.
You could hear crickets by the time you dismounted The tree limbs grew denser–too dense to be breached–until there was a wooden wall of sorts, in front of you You had to crawl on your belly over the cool rocks, out toward the sunset,
You checked between the branches and found House of Thar–King Borym’s Housemen filing through the valley below. They were vaulting off their longships–more than just three; a whole fleet of them. They swarmed in like a river of steel. They coiled down by a stream and choked the passage of a low stone bridge.
You counted the banners–jotted down sigils and symbols and names you overheard. I’ve put them in your index, Carth. You could not fully remember the size of Crom-cil-Orm’s army, but your fragmented memories led you to an estimate that King Borym’s forces rivaled Crom-cil-Orms. The fleet of wooden griffins resting in the shallows should have been evidence enough of that.
You saw a man with a crown atop his head, silver banded in scrollwork that emulated seaweed. He had to be the King, you realized. And for reasons you did not yet fully comprehend, you wished that he would follow you. There were men in purple cloaks with silver brooches. Generals, you assumed.
You wished for them to follow you, though you could not understand why. It was some base instinct that had done it. And it hurtled you stomach to think of it.
Then a Ser spied you. A mail fist pointed in your direction, then Housemen in armor were clambering up toward the wooden wall of branches.
You dashed back to your horse, leaving behind only a note for them, as instructed. You could not remember what the note said, only that Crom-cil-Orm had instructed you to leave it for them.
You remembered a second set of instructions then, and, fearing your memory, you pricked your finger on a thorn bush and scrawled a reminder onto your arm: RETURN TO THE CITY. You could not even remember that there were plans to go to any city. But you mounted your horse and booted it in the ribs as you sped off to your unknown destination.
You could hardly remember where the city you had conquered was. You trusted that your mount knew the way. What would it say about you to know you’re dumber than a horse? You could hear men breaking through the foliage behind you. First the King, and then his generals. Those horses had red eyes and tramped down into the soft earth, kicking up dust as you cleared the forest.
An entire army was following you, and your heart was beating like a wardrum. You prayed to the Nailed God and other gods without names that you weren’t even sure belonged to any man’s religion but your own–prayed that you had been in this sort of situation before.
If you were, mayhaps your memory of such situations would inform what you did on instinct.
Your mount vaulted into the air, and the smell of brine washed over you. King Borym and his generals were not far behind you, drumming across grass and root.
Shafts of things you didn’t want to think about fluttered past your ears. You could feel the wind on the missiles passing you.
A man reared his horse beside you. He, too, wore a circlet of gold. “Yield!” he shrieked, “In the name of Prince Gildas of the House of Thar!”
“Prince Thar,” you muttered. “I must write that down.” He lurched toward you, leaping out of his saddle. His legs slithered around your horse, who kicked and brayed as the two of you punched and slapped and bit until your horse bowed and both of you tumbled forward down its neck and slid off of its nose. The ground hit you hard, driving the breath from you. You went to seize the Prince’s hair, but your hand came loose holding his crown. His mouth was gaping wide, so you filled it with the golden circlet and his hands leapt up to wrench your hand free. His teeth were cracked and blood was weeping between his fingers.
You realized in a frenzy that King Borym’s riders had not trampled you, and understood that King Crom-cil-Orm’s men had attacked them from the side. There were missiles–spears and arrows–aimed at King Borym’s men, and Housemen on horseback were charging for the King and his generals. Their horses were rearing in a panic. You could hear something–someone, perhaps, thundering into view from beyond the horizon. His step was in canter with the horses as he came for the Housemen swarming you.
Horses reared up before him and he swatted some aside.
Albarran would later tell you how you left a note for King Borym that Crom-cil-Orm wished to meet under a truce, and that Crom-cil-Orm had woven a small spell into you that would draw the horses toward you in an attempt to lure King Borym’s men out. He had not expected King Borym himself.
A man who served Crom-cil-Orm had pulled the rival King off his horse, and had his dagger at the ready, when the giant boomed, “Hold!”
The thunder in his voice froze every man among you.
“I yield,” said King Borym. “I yield, my Lord.”
Crom-cil-Orm offered his rival a hand as wide as your chest. The wind whipped their cloaks. You thought it a wonderful sight. Some brilliant sight a painter might make use of centuries from now. “I offer a temporary truce. I will give you a fortnight to assemble your men. Meet beyond a bowshot from the city’s northern walls.”
The King nodded. “As you say, Lord Crom-cil-Orm.”
“Good fortune to you, Lord Thar.”
In that moment, you realized, there were no Kings on the field. Only men.