The sound of a good punch is strange. It’s meaty, like someone took a stick and slammed it into a side of beef. But it’s also sharp, and loud, a sound that rings clearly over the din of almost any venue. In a bar, a good punch can be the gong to ring in another drunken brawl. In the streets, the sound is a warning of violence to anyone who might think to interfere, a promise of pain. In the ring, that sound signals the end of the night’s entertainment, the accompaniment to the sway and fall of the defeated fighter. In all these places, the sound of a punch punctuates a beginning or an end, sending a message not to be soon forgotten.
In the dark of that room, in the silence that consumed my mind, I kept time through those messages, taking careful note of every nuance and meaning conveyed through their blows.
This one’s lost his family. Rage, deep and sonorous.
This one views it as nothing more than a job. Greed, hollow and drawn-out.
This one truly enjoys it. Passion, high and ringing.
And so on, each message leaving an impact, each impact a memory, each memory ringing like a bell. And so it was that through the endless dark I spent in that room, the silence of my mind was filled with the bells of those memories. Their ringing echoed endlessly, rolling and tolling like a melodic heartbeat that grew stronger and louder with every pulse.
And when I left that room, my mind was no longer silent. While my eyes were blinded by light from a sun I hadn’t seen in time unknown, my mind was nearly torn asunder by the ringing cacophony that each step brought. But in time I learned, and now my mind is filled with music only I can hear, composed and performed by the bells planted in my head in that dark room.
How am I, you ask? Quite mad, thank you, but no worries. I am completely and totally stable.
The tankard met the drunkard’s head in a rhythm that a professional drummer would be hard-pressed to match, hammering the poor sod to his knees and then to the straw-strewn floor in a cacophony that rang over the tumultuous barroom. Jeering, the crowd surrounding the fallen drunkard and his foe seized the downed man by his legs and hauled him off to some corner along with all the other defeated detritus, leaving the victor to stand alone and chug the freshly filled tankard he had been handed. As he finished his drink, another victim stumbled into the ring- Whether too drunk to know his chances, or too drunk to withstand the shove from his buddies in the crowd, I cannot say. I turned away from the ring as the crowds roar began to rise in pitch again, pushing my way through the packed bodies to reach the large table where we had set up shop for the night.
Set in one corner of the long barroom, the circular table was mostly populated by our band of miscreants and nobodies, though some seats sat empty, with their occupants off soliciting the services of the less-reputable women nearby. (Or in one case, fighting in a series of increasingly drunken brawls.) Around the edge set deepest into the corner sat the Captain, the Lieutenant and a suspiciously hooded figure, who I assumed would be sporting a fabulous goatee and mustache if I could see his face.
Farther along the table into the room sat the rest of the senior company membership, most of whom pretended to be deep in their cups or focused on the women in their laps while actually keeping a dedicated ear on the Captain’s discussion. Passing by the other empty seats, I settled into the empty seat next to the Lieutenant and took a long quaff from the watered wine in my waterskin, studiously eyeing up the nearest barmaid while I turned my own ears to the discussion occurring next to me.
“… they’ll be expecting Something to occur while the main forces are away, but the scale will be beyond anything they could have anticipated. We have already contracted other companies to secure the gates and armories, as well as to surround the guardhouses and noble districts.”
That would be the hooded man. He spoke like a merchant despite his lowered voice, a cultured tone and false friendliness wafting from under his hood.
“Alright. So let’s say it goes mostly according to plan. You get the gates, the guardhouses and most the armories. So now what? You control the city proper, but the remainder of the royals will still have significant protection, and regardless of the main army’s absence the castle will still have a garrison that’ll be more than capable of holding it until the main army returns. I can guess at what you intend for us, so I’m going to straight out say that we have no way to take a fully-garrisoned fortress with a single company.”
There was our Captain, always well-spoken, and always straight to the heart of a matter. A true soldier, through and through.
“Please, do not worry yourself on that count. Even the Burnished Knight needed numbers more than twice your own to seize a castle such as the one ruled by the Von Shelsburg Family. No, what I intend for you to do is simpler, and far less costly. I wish for you to encircle the castle to prevent the flight of the remaining Von Shelsburgs and their loyalists. You will need to hold the cordon from the beginning of the… Unrest… until the city garrison and the noble’s private forces have been subdued, which shouldn’t take longer than a full day at most. Once the city is under control, that castle will become nothing more than a gilded cage, while you and your men will be significantly richer than before.”
“Even if you say that, we’re still only a few hundred men. A full encirclement will be impossible to maintain, especially if the castle’s garrison sallies to break through and escape.”
At this, the hooded man lowered his head slightly, and his voice gave the undeniable impression of being issued through a smirk.
“Ah, but you will not need to fully encircle the castle, you see. Rather, you will only need to hold the road that leads up to the main gates, and a few areas that contain the exits for the secret passages that run beneath the castle. In total, you will need to hold only three or four locations- A feat you and your veterans are more than capable of pulling off, I am sure.”
The captain sucked in a breath, and I knew his mind was turning with the possible uses for the funds we were being offered. Before, he had been prepared to dismiss the hood’s offer when it had seemed an impossible job. After all, our number may actually be less than the numbers of potential defenders within the Von Shelsburg castle, and a full encirclement would have spread our forces so thin that even a smaller group might have been able to shatter our formation. But holding the narrow, winding road that cut up the steep hill the castle sat upon was a far easier prospect, even with a few groups diverted to holding the hidden escape routes. As I took another drink, I could practically hear the Captain’s mind crunch the numbers into an answer, and in the distance a church-bell tolled the witching hour’s arrival as he spoke.
“I’ll need details on where these escape routes are…”
To whomever may read this, allow me to impart some ever-lasting words of wisdom: A deal too good to be true, often is.
It was all a trap, and myself and my company got caught up in it splendidly, though we were not the targets. No, the prey that fell into the trap and dragged us in along with it was the group of merchants and low-nobles who had been plotting for years to overthrow the ruling dynasty and install their own puppet regime. When night fell two days after our Captain’s meeting and subsequent hiring, mercenary companies around the city simultaneously rose up in service to “Das Rose Gericht,” or “The Rose Court,” and attacked armories, guardhouses, loyalist noble estates and the castle itself. While the majority of my company was occupied in sealing the castle, a number of smaller units were dispatched throughout the city to secure the exits of the hidden escape routes that led from the castle. Naturally, since these units had to be both small and capable, they were formed from veterans of the company’s many battles- The Bloody Bulwark, a force comprised mostly of heavily armored troops and the Lieutenant’s personal command, would head to the noble district and secure the largest of the known escape routes. The Devil’s Dogs would head to the city graveyard and deal with any escapees there, under the command of Jules Verstain, the only female fighter in our ranks. And I would make for the commons district, where a loyalist servant’s house supposedly hid the final, and smallest, escape passage. Of course, I could not do this alone, and so I was accompanied by my own elite command- The Nine Nails, a group of nine soldiers that had long ago learned my quirks and forgiven them.
After all, they had quite a few quirks of their own.
Now, where was I? Oh yes, now I remember. So, the whole thing was a trap. Not the plan, the plan was going fine. The city was mostly subjugated by dawn, and the castle held secure by my company’s four forces. No, the trap was the city itself.
Two things occurred that night that gave me some warning of the coming disaster. One was the simple fact that no one tried to escape the castle. My force captured the loyalist and his family without trouble or fuss, secured the house and settled in for the the planned ambush as I waited for word from the Captain telling me of the battle’s progress.
Except, no such battle occurred.
No forces sallied out to challenge the company, no archers fired from high walls, and runners from the other detached forces told a similar story of weak resistance and no action by castle forces. As I listened to the runner sent by the Captain, I felt a deep sense of unease in my chest and stepped out from the shadow of the loyalist’s house to face the sky to the west.
“… and the Captain wants you and your men to- Sir?”
I ignored the runner for the moment, eyes still fixated on the sky as the sense of unease grew in my chest, coiling and heavy like chains. The runner came to stand by my side, also looking to the west.
“Is it dawn already? I thought it hours off still, but I must have lost track of time. Sir, I’ll need a response for the Captain on the status of you and your troops.”
“Our status is as follows: ‘Corporal Willhemet and The Nine Nails will prepare to weather the coming storm, and wish all the best to our brothers-in-arms. We pray for the company’s survival, and failing that, for God’s mercy.’ Now run along, you have panic to spread.”
The runner’s eyes snapped to me in surprise, and he opened his mouth to no doubt question my purpose, or perhaps my sanity. He would have been justified to question either, but I had no time for explanations. I cut him off.
“That is the west, and that glow is not the dawn sun. Go, tell the Captain to prepare for the worst.”
He went, eyes wide and face pale, and I wondered if he would actually carry my message back, or if he would simply flee. Well, it no longer mattered to me or mine. I turned to face the home my men still hid in, and called for my troops to gather in the front.
“Behind me, the sky’s alight. It does not glow with the warm light of the sun though, I fear to say. No, what lights the sky is the very fires of hell and all its demons! The royal army is returning, and we have no hope of challenging them in a battle when we haven’t even secured the city. No, the battle is lost before it is begun, and all that remains is the rout. But for us, there is no recourse, no path to freedom that does not require cutting out through the steel armor of the Bradenian knights, and we are but a paring knife.”
My men visibly shrunk as I spoke, their eyes growing dark at the picture I painted- A pointless fight or a pointless flight, and a painful death at either end do not make for endearing options to men who put survival second only to coin.
“However! I, your ever-thoughtful leader, have found a way to survive that does not require throwing down your blades and casting yourselves upon the tender mercies of those we have struck against. We may be but a paring blade against a knight, but behind you-”
Here I pointed to the castle on the hill behind the home-
“Lies the heart of the knight, armored though it may be. And here-”
I pointed to the home itself-
“Sits a weakness of that armor, a passage straight into the castle of the royal family, and a path straight to the remaining royals- Wonderful, soft bargaining chips to use for our survival. We are but ten mercenaries! They will not hesitate to trade our freedom for the lives, or even a single life, of the royal family! Our path is clear, and our cause is known- To the castle, for survival!”
I dropped them into the dark depths of despair, then picked them up and lifted them up to the blinding light of hope- Nothing fights harder than a man who has everything to gain, and nothing to lose. I twisted their emotions, dousing them in fear and then bolstering them with a desperate hunger for survival. Not one had the clarity of mind to question me, or my sanity. Not one thought to wonder at their chances for survival when attacking a castle on high alert, nor questioned how we would find the royals, let alone reach them. And certainly, not one of them thought to tear off the company’s sigil and disappear into the city around us, into the many thousands of lives that no noble would ever care to search- After all, we were only ten worthless mercenaries.
Just as I wanted, if I’m being completely honest.