Interlude 2: The Reluctant General

“My lord, a messenger is here for you. From his grace.”

At the sound of the voice, Winston looked up from his supper of mushy pease and overcooked meat. He pushed the platter aside. “It’s war, then?” he asked.

A man-at-arms stood in the doorway to Winston’s solar. The man blinked, unsure how to answer the question. “My lord?” He was confused, that much was clear on his face. He was a young man, not yet long in his service.

Jon, isn’t it? Jon Stokely. His father was a good man. Died at the Battle of Beckford, didn’t he? Or was that his grandfather?

Winston brushed away the memory. Jon was still waiting for an answer. “Aye, send him through,” he said.

Jon saluted, and stepped out of the room. Winston picked a piece of meat from his platter and tossed it to one of the hounds dozing on the floor of the solar.

It’ll be war, he thought. Reports of a dozen Svardic raids in less than half as many weeks. Not the usual reaving season, this is something else. Some new jarl testing our mettle, I expect. When was the last time we had one of those? A decade? No, longer.

Winston was still mulling over the question when the door opened.

He didn’t recognize the messenger. A young man with short brown hair and a close-cut beard and moustache. His weak chin reminded Winston of the Rainwood men. He carried a sword, and wore a coat of mail beneath a surcoat colored in the orange and green of royal livery.

This particular surcoat was not made to Winston’s liking. Its orange was too yellow, and harsh on the eyes. It fit the young man ill, as well. Likely a cheaply made tabard, to be worn by whoever the King happened to have chosen to deliver his message and then discarded until it was needed again.

“Lord Marshal,” the messenger said, bowing. “Lord of Dincaster, Duke of the Casterfields, L—”

“I know who I am, lad,” Winston interrupted. “No need to waste time on ceremony. Come closer. What’s your name?”

The young man took a hesitant step. “Nestor, my lord. Nestor Rainwood.”

Hah! I knew it. “One of Brandon’s boys, are you? I thought he only had the one left.”

“My uncle, sir,” Nestor said. “You’re right, Lord Brandon has only one living son and heir.”

“Shame. Good man, Brandon is. When he’s not being a stubborn git.”

“My lord?” Nestor’s complexion grew a shade more pale at the blunt remark.

Winston sighed. “Come on then, Nestor. Out with it.”

Nestor took a breath, and began his recitation. “His Grace King Edric of Caedia, Second of—”

“I know the boy’s titles, Nestor, same as I know my own. Out with his message, if you please.”

Nestor swallowed. “Yes, my lord. Here,” Nestor reached into the leather satchel at his side and drew out a sealed parchment. “His Grace has requested that you call your banners, and bring your host to Arcadia. That’s the short of it, but the details will be in there.”

Winston stood up from his table and accepted the parchment. He stared at it. The orange wax bore the stamp of Edric’s signet ring. “Svards, is it?”

“His Grace said only—”

“Nestor,” Winston interrupted. He gave the youth a hard look.

His looks still had an edge to them it seemed. Nestor swallowed his words again. “Yes, my lord,” he said. “It’s Svards. Too many attacks along the northern coast, and now they’re up and down the Ironblood. His Grace has had at least one report of a huge fleet sighted off the coast, not terrible far from the King’s Bay.”

Winston scratched his beard. The hair on top of his head was still about an even split between brown and gray, but his beard had gone fully white two summers ago. You’re getting old, Winston told himself. Time was you’d be itching to drive the northmen back to their frozen lands. And congratulating yourself for seeing it coming. You were more smug that you’d correctly identified a bloody Rainwood.

He broke the seal on the letter.

My dearest Uncle Winston,

It has been too long since our paths last crossed. I know you dislike it when I call you “uncle,” but as I have—by blood—neither uncle nor father nor any other living kin, I must needs find family where I can.

And I have need of family, Winston. Or, at the least, I have need of the wisdom that only my “Uncle” Winston Marshal might provide. It’s been three years since I reached my majority and you departed Arcadia to reclaim your seat, and I like to think I’ve done well enough in that time. You trained me for rulership, after all.

But you didn’t train me for this, Winston. My people tell me that the Svards have been raiding villages from coast of the Loheim all the way to the King’s Bay, and up the Ironblood as well. Worse, a fisherman spotted a fleet of ships off the cape several days past. A fleet, Uncle! Hundreds of longships, they said.

My advisors cannot agree on the severity of the problem. Svardic raiders, some say, are only to be answered with small skirmishes. Others say we must send out our own fleet to meet them. Still more lords claim we must fortify our keeps and weather the raids until the season ends.

You taught me to listen to my own counsel first. My instincts say that these are no mere raids. I recall the story of High Jarl Jormun the Blue, and the damage he was able to inflict upon Caedia before he was met in the field. My grandfather did not take that threat seriously until it was well out of hand.

I would not repeat his mistakes. I have called my banners. Every Peer of the Realm will have received a letter much like this one. I would have you summon your vassals, garrison your keeps, and bring your host to encamp here in Arcadia.

It will come as no surprise at all that I wish you to serve as General of my armies. You are the only man with sufficient experience and respect from every corner of Caedia, northern and southern both. The Heartland lords look to you for leadership, and I know you will heed the strategic counsel of the Loheim lords and their peculiar mentor.

I know you wished to retire. You proved as much, and more, when you ceded the Regency without issue at my twentieth birthday. I hope you will not resent me for calling you back to the capital one last time.

We await your arrival.

Your dearest and most devoted student,

King Edric of Caedia, Second of His Name, Lord of Arcadia, Lord of the Loheim, the Heartland, the Wncar, the Ironblood, and by God you know all the rest Winston, you ruled it all when I was still on my nursemaid’s teat. Come soon, please.

Winston allowed himself a thin smile. Edric might be King, but beneath it all he’s still little Eddy. The lad’s too kindhearted by half for the kingship. So many thought I’d keep the Regency for power. I wonder if anyone has ever realized my greatest temptation was simply to keep Eddy away from that damnable throne, and all the corruption it brings?

He looked up from the parchment. The young Rainwood knight was waiting patiently for Winston’s response.

“Thank you, Sir Nestor,” Winston said. “Have you got to be on the road? Any other messages to deliver to the southern lords?”

“No, my lord,” Nestor said. “Dincaster was my last stop. He indicated I am to await your pleasure, and return to Arcadia if you have no more need of me.”

Winston looked the young Rainwood man up and down. He stands up straight, anyway. And he was willing to skip the bullshit, when I pressed him.

“Has Edric taken you into his service?” He asked. Unusual, if so. A landless knight, heir to the wrong branch of the Rainwood family tree.

“No, my lord. Not presently. I’ve been serving at Arcadia’s court, and in the Guard.”

“Good,” Winston said. “You’d look fine enough in black and silver, I expect. Everyone does.”

Nestor’s eyes widened, and his mouth fell agape. “My lord?” He snapped his mouth shut.

“Your decision, of course. If you’d rather go back to cooling your heels in the capital, by all means.” Winston shrugged. “But I could use a new man.”

“I—Lord Marshal, you don’t know me. Do you? You wish to take me into your service?”

“My grandson will be needed to command the garrison here at Dincaster,” Winston said. “I’ve precious few kin still in residence. And I’ve taken no new knights as sworn men in some years. I’ll be needing someone, if it’s to be war.”

Nestor cocked his head, clearly still confused. “Even so, my lord… why me? Have we met?”

Winston shrugged. “The Rainwoods are good folk. You cut through the nonsense when I asked. You can read and write, can’t you?”

“Yes, Lord Marshal, but you’ve never seen me in a melee, have you? I haven’t—”

“I’ll need an aide-in-camp more than anything,” Winston said, cutting short Nestor listing his own defects. “Edric’s to put me in command of his blasted army, not at the van. I don’t much care how well you handle your sword, in truth. I need a man to take reports from dozens or scores of lords, and turn them into a single report for me to read over supper. I need a man to handle mercenaries without flinching. A man to dispatch my orders with haste. In short: I need a man with a good head on his shoulders. Have you got that?”

Nestor pursed his lips in pensive consideration. He was silent for a long moment, clearly doing his best to truly consider the question. Which is answer enough, really. He’ll be fine.

“Yes, Lord Marshal,” the young knight finally said. “I suppose I do.”

Winston nodded. “Good,” he said. “Head down to see Matthias, my steward. Leave the messenger’s surcoat with my household men and see to getting a tabard in Marshal colors fitted to you. When that’s done, I’ll have your oath, and we’ll ride for Arcadia.”

“So soon?” Nestor’s eyes widened. “What about your vassals, my lord? You’re to call your banners… shouldn’t we wait for your armies to answer the call?”

Winston snorted a laugh. “My men will be ready, Nestor. They’ll trail behind us no more than a day or two,” he said. The young Rainwood knight looked utterly lost. Winston took pity on him. “The Svards have been testing us for a month and more, lad. I called my banners a fortnight ago, and have waited at the King’s pleasure.”

Nestor stared at Winston in openmouthed shock. “You knew this was coming, my lord?” he asked after a long moment of silence.

Winston shrugged. “Knew? No. There’s no knowing, not with matters of state. I suspected, is all. Enough to take precautions.”

“If you’ve called your banners, my lord, that’s a bit more than a precaution,” Nestor said. Winston arched an eyebrow at him, and he snapped his mouth shut. “Pardon, my lord. I spoke out of turn.”

“Not at all,” Winston said. “If you’re to serve as my aide, I’ll need you to speak freely with me. Perhaps you’re right. When you get as old as I am, you’re prone to prudence. My idea of caution might be more cautious than yours.”

“I suppose that makes sense, my lord. I’ve no vassals nor banners to call, either. I haven’t much experience at this.”

Winston shrugged. “You’ll learn. And, Nestor, a word. My lord is fine in high company, for the sake of decorum. But the name is Winston Marshal. When it’s the two of us, I’ll answer to Winston, or to Marshal. No need for an honorific. Understood?”

“Yes, my lo—” Nestor caught himself, and grinned. “Yes, Marshal,” he said.

Winston nodded, smiling back. “Good lad. I may not be a typical noble, but if you pay close attention I expect you’ll pick up a few things about lordship.”

“Of course, my—Marshal,” Nestor said.

My Marshal, Winston thought with a wry smile. That’s a new one.

“I don’t think I need lessons in lordship, though,” Nestor said. “My father’s estate is smaller than a great many merchant’s manors. I’ll never be a lord.”

“Never say never, as they say,” Winston cautioned. He raised a hand, wagging his finger at Nestor. “War’s a funny thing that way.”

“My lord?”

“If men-at-arms can be upjumped to lordship, don’t you imagine it could happen to a knight? ‘Course it could. Men—good men, bad men, and in between—will die. Others will disgrace themselves. And more still will distinguish themselves, to be rewarded for it.”

“Oh,” Nestor said. “I suppose so.”

Winston buckled his swordbelt on and made for the door. He knew Nestor would follow. “No supposing about it, lad. There’s a reason all types flock to a war,” he said. “It can bring the highest men low, and raise low men to great heights.”

And sometimes both at the same time, and for the same reason. Winston thought bitterly. Sometimes you can lose your best friend in a single moment of blinding failure, and be handed the keys to the entire kingdom as a consequence.

He stepped out of his solar, and heard Nestor’s footsteps behind him. There was no time now for wallowing in memories.

There was a new war to fight.