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The Twelve

- James K Burk

Valtierra, a city-state, is governed by archetypes. Every two years they choose twelve men and women to wear the masks and to become the Wise Old Man, the Fool, the Mother, the Harlot, the Warrior, and the rest of the council. But now Valtierra faces hunger, decay, and an enemy on their border and, when the need for leadership is greatest, one mask is worn by a foreigner and one mask hides a traitor.

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ANTON

 

 

Anton groaned as he dropped into his chair. The sides of his tent had been raised to admit the cooling breeze and he helped himself to a cup of water flavored with lemon. Despite his momentary contentment, he still had doubts and misgivings. Although he could appreciate the pleasure of accomplishment, the battle three days ago had left a foul taste in his mouth. Battle? It had been more a slaughter. The Valtierrans they’d maneuvered into a hopeless position had been inept at everything but dying. Their leader, a man in a mask or helmet of some sort had been gulled into fighting on ground of Anton’s choosing, where he had been able to bring only part of his army into the action. At least the man had died well. A pity he could not have led well.

Anton’s own army was a mob with only a trace of the discipline they needed. He’d been in more danger from his own men for putting a stop to the butchery than he’d ever been from the Valtierrans. And as soon as they’d won what they were pleased to call a battle, they’d begun to pillage and plunder the local farmers. He’d had to kill one man himself and order two more hanged and half a score flogged before they’d learned their commander gave his orders seriously and expected them to be obeyed.

Tatros, the prince who’d bought Anton and his services, had only been interested in using part of the skills Anton had brought from the south.

Anton could almost forgive the prince’s indecision. Almost. He hadn’t allowed Anton time to make this mob into an army but had dithered so long before deciding to attack the harvest had been gathered and most of it sent away to Valtierra before it could be seized. Now Anton had to contend with hungry soldiers whose supplies had to be hauled from Shicassa, and the locals would probably be robbed into starvation.

At least he’d put the men to work, putting up a wall between most of the mouth of the valley and Valtierra. They’d still have enough energy to carouse at night, but it kept them out of trouble during the day.

He’d just become comfortable when Khaimon, his First Captain, entered the tent. “There’s an envoy from Valtierra to see you. He’s carrying a small chest. He said it’s for you.”

“Let him come in. And stay. I am not sure how well I can speak their language.” Khaimon left the tent, then returned ushering a middle-aged man with a dark wooden chest bound with black iron.

The stranger tilted the case and opened it, exposing a mask. The mask portrayed a stern face, the head a helmet with a red horsehair crest ending in a long black tail. “The Council asks you to accept this.” The man spoke a dialect of the same language Khaimon spoke, but with a lilting accent.

Anton looked at Khaimon, an eyebrow raised.

“He’s--they’re asking you to join their Council of Twelve.” His expression was bemused.

Anton thought a moment before he said, “I am deeply honored. I hope you will not be offended if I consider my answer carefully. I will see you again in the morning and will have an answer for you then.” Turning to Khaimon, he said, “Have a tent set up next to mine for our guest.”

The man closed the chest and followed Khaimon outside. Anton drained his cup, appreciating the tart flavor that slaked thirst better than water alone.

He poured another cup of the water and sipped at it, then put it aside to reach for flint and steel as the sides of his tent were hauled down and pegged. Striking a spark into tinder, he held a candle to the flame until it flared, then he waited.

Khaimon returned. “I thought you might need the privacy more than the breeze. I’ve given orders for the guards to be stationed twenty paces away and to allow no one to approach any closer than that.”

Anton gestured at the other chair. “So, what is the significance of the mask?”

Khaimon helped himself to a cup of water. “Valtierra is governed by a Council of Twelve. Every two years the city holds a festival and, at the end of the celebration, they choose the Council. They select a Wise Old Man, a Crone, a Fool, a Harlot, a Rash Youth, and so on. I gather that the ones chosen spend the next two years in near-seclusion, and they can only appear in public wearing their masks.” He drained his cup in a single drink. “You could do worse than accept the offer.”

“Do these people know I am the one who led this army against the city?”

“I’m sure they do. It’s a measure of their respect that they’re inviting you to be the Warrior.”

Khaimon leaned forward and lowered his voice. “And it’s a measure of my respect and affection that I’m advising you to accept the offer. Or, at least, to get away.”

Anton frowned. “Why should I do that? I have won the battle I was sent to win, and I have not been paid yet, except for that,” he gestured at the elaborate suit of armor, stained dark blue with silver-inlaid patterns. “Your prince believes strongly in incentives. I was shown the heads of the commanders who had failed.”

Khaimon lowered his voice even more. “I haven’t seen the heads of the successful commanders, but I assure you they’re just as dead. Tatros fears one thing more than failure, and that is a successful leader who might turn the army against him or become too popular with the people.”

Anton felt as though the ground had just swallowed him. Everything on which he’d based plans and hopes had been suddenly snatched away, and the feeling that remained was anger. “Why do you serve such a scavenger hound?”

“I have family. Tatros knows I’d rather die than be the cause of their deaths. Fear is a greater incentive than profit.”

 “So...?”

“So don’t go on any long walks with the petty-captains, and don’t return to Shicassa with the army. One more word of warning--if you take the offer, be aware Tatros has spies in Valtierra, perhaps even on the Council. I’d make sure you always have a weapon to hand.”

After a gesture for silence, Anton considered his options. With no time to plan, he had to improvise. He didn’t doubt a thing Khaimon had told him, and his years as a soldier and leader had at least prepared him to react quickly. One question occurred to him. “Why are you warning me?”

Khaimon stared into his eyes. “Because of that respect and affection I mentioned. You’re a good commander and, more importantly, a good man. You care about the men under you and you even care about the enemy. And I want to keep my self-delusion that I’m also a good man.” He refilled his cup and drank half of it. “And think of it this way--I’m a prisoner, but I can help the condemned man escape.”

After another moment’s thought, Anton nodded. “Tell the envoy from Valtierra I will meet him where we signed the truce. Tell him to leave immediately. Order the petty-captains to prepare their men to return to Shicassa tomorrow. And have my horse saddled and ready.”

After finishing his water, Khaimon nodded. “Good luck. And don’t forget the weapons.” He rose and strode out of the tent.

It wouldn’t do to leave before full darkness. Anton glanced at his weapons and chose his war hammer, which was devastating against an armored opponent, more so than a sword. Setting the weapon beside his chair, he looked over the map spread on his table.

Valtierra lay a day’s ride to the southwest, Shicassa a day and a half’s ride due north.

The warning was a gift and a curse. It had probably saved his life, but it left him starting at shadows. Out of habit, he’d kept a day’s trail rations and a skin of water by his kit. While they might not be as palatable as the meal soon to be delivered to his tent, they were probably safer.

He damned the famine that struck the south and his former leader who had sold him to the northern prince, causing him to leave the honest warfare in the south for what had seemed a golden opportunity. The northern city-states held themselves more cultured, but it seemed their sophistication bred only more devious treachery and a taste for unnecessary violence.

“Your dinner, commander,” said a voice from outside the tent.

Anton reached the chair in a single step and slipped the haft of the war hammer up his sleeve, holding the head so it was mostly masked by his hand. “Enter.”

Two men, helmeted and in half-armor, stepped into the tent, one of them bearing a steaming bowl of stew. The man set the bowl on the table and stood waiting. While Anton couldn’t recall the names he recognized the men as a petty-captain and his lieutenant.

“I seem to have lost my appetite. Eat it for me.” He watched them eye each other and prepared to move.

“You’d better regain your appetite soon,” the petty-captain said. “We have orders to escort you to Shicassa, and it’s a long ride.” As the man spoke, his hand crept toward his dagger.

Anton stepped forward, letting the hammer drop until he clutched the haft and swung the hammer up and into the man’s face. Before the man could fall, Anton swung an overhand blow at the lieutenant, burying the spike end of the hammer in the man’s helmet and skull.

He left the hammer in the skull and quickly drew on and buckled in place the rich armor. Take what payment one could was a tenet of the mercenaries’ creed.

Hands long-practiced made quick work of donning the armor. He stopped to tie to his belt a pleasantly-heavy pouch of coins and finally removed the hammer from the dead lieutenant. The heart had been stopped long enough blood welled out of the wound instead of gushing. He cleaned the head of his hammer as best he could on a blanket, then snatched up the pouch of rations and the waterskin.

As he stepped outside the tent, he noticed the guards who had stood outside had apparently been dismissed.

Most of the men were gathered around a great fire, eating, drinking, and laughing. With their night vision gone, they’d have trouble seeing him if he walked among them, but he stayed in the shadows until he reached the horses.

His horse had been harnessed and saddled and left tethered at the near end of the pasture. A tug freed the reins and he was in the saddle in an instant.

The animal was reluctant to move at night but he urged it into a walk around the camp, and by the time the moon was full-risen he was on his way to the place of the treaty.