Chapter One: A Matter of Honor
The Really Foolish Things Honor Gets You to Do.
World of the Whispering Forests: Town of Rolling Hills.
Winter-Tears Hector, often called the Jarl of Tears or the Snow Leopard, entered the Underhill Inn and Tavern. He paused inside the door to rack his lance, shield, hand-lance, battle-stone pouches and short-sword under the watchful eyes of the door-warden. House Andromeda, the owners of Underhill, had a business to maintain. Fights with the full array of Viking weaponry tended to destroy furniture. The door-warden scanned Hector for weapons, verifying that he was only carrying his knife and the small fan hanging on his left wrist. He grunted in satisfaction at the scanner’s result and waved Hector through into the bustle of noise and wave of heat.
Inside the main dining hall, Hector scanned the room for threats and noted escape routes as he removed his helmet and tucked it under his arm. The dining hall was a large, circular room. Giant wooden beams holding up the hill above were blackened by years of smoke from the six fire-pits. House Andromeda had opened the Tavern fifty years ago when Clan Aries had first settled the worlds of this star. The fires had been burning ever since, drying the Underhill’s damp air and warming the great hall. It was filled with Vikings of all shapes, sizes and colors, eating, drinking, and talking. Here and there in the crowd were armored warriors, marked by their vests of hexagons. A few of the richer ones had armored vests forged from the hulls of Troll ships. Most of the Vikings were dressed like Hector in short-sleeve tunics, long flowing vests, trousers and light shoes. Many wore decorated bracers on their forearms marking their status and their feats of glory. None were heavily armed. Only knives, small darters and the fan-shields were in evidence. They had come to trade and feast not fight, although they often did that too. The Underhill Tavern was the best market place in all eleven worlds of this star. More business was done here than at the space docks up the mountain or in the Sentinel castle under the mountain.
A waiter greeted Hector with a bow and guided him to a table by the back fire-pit. He followed, receiving polite nods from other guests who saw his Sentinel Order necklace and the armbands marking him as a Jarl. Hector politely returned their nods as he passed. As a member of a Warrior Order charged with defending the border hunting-ranges, Hector was the closest thing to a neutral there was in the Invitus Clans. The Seven Warrior Orders’ oaths to fight only foreign enemies of the Invitus Realm was highly honored among the Clans.
Still, it never hurt to be careful. On reaching his low table, Hector chose the cushion with his back to the fire-pit and carefully sat so the knife tucked into his sash was free for use. The table-waiter came to take Hector’s order.
“Greetings Lee.” The plump table-waiter smiled at Hector from behind wise old eyes. His white beard and ruby cheeks from the heat of the kitchen made him look like Father Winter.
“Greetings Jarl Hector, it has been awhile since we have seen you.”
Hector smiled slightly, “The Grandmaster gave me a month’s worth of leave after my last voyage.”
“Ah, I wish my boss would be as kind. What will you have? Why am I asking? You will have the best of whatever is new.”
Hector nodded and added, “Your choice of drink.”
Lee grinned happy. “Well it is that you place yourself in my hands. I’ll have the chef make his new kebab platter and draw your honey mead myself.”
“Three,” Hector interjected, “I will have guests.”
“Excellent, excellent,” Lee noted the order in his book, “I will return with a pitcher for three.” And off he scurried to the kitchens. Hector relaxed, watching the Vikings filling the tavern.
People were so interesting to watch. They told so many stories with just a look or a move. That lad across the room was flirting with the waitress, but she was not interested. The tavern’s wardens had noticed the lad’s interest and two of them were waiting for an excuse. Hector decided to stay away from that area. A fight with tavern wardens usually resulted in everyone involved, except the wardens, being ejected head first into the street. And there was a fight brewing between the lad and somebody if he did not take the hint to leave off.
Hector continued watching and listening to the crowd. “…well I think he is soft.” Hector’s sharp ears caught the end of a hushed sentence. Hector turned his head until he could see the source from the corner of his eye. It was the low table to his right. An old man and two young men dressed in the dark red colors of a company unknown to Hector were seated at it. They resembled each other enough that Hector guessed the young ones were brothers. The old one looked like an uncle or family friend come to show his charges the lines on their first patrol.
One of the young men, a little older than Hector, had downed too much of the strong drink. He was belligerent, and he was looking right at Hector. Once he noticed that Hector had seen him he continued his rude speech. “I will bet he is a young weakling with rich parents. I will bet his parents bought his Jarl rank.” Hector pointedly ignored the young man’s remarks, although the people at the surrounding tables stirred. Hopefully, the young man’s friends would quiet him before he said something foolish that Hector would be honor-bound to notice. The old man laid a restraining hand on the young man’s shoulder only to have it shaken off.
“Looks like the painted arm-bands of a pretender.” The young man said loudly. The area round the two tables quieted. The fool is going to force this, Hector thought as he turned.
“Are you addressing me, Sir?”
“Yes, I am addressing you.” The young man’s tone was angry and mocking. “I think you are wearing false armbands.”
Hector calmly evaluated him and his two friends. “They are gifts from Grandmaster Randolph of the Sentinel Order after the Battle of Ten Thousand Sorrows.” He replied coldly before turning back to his drink.
The old man tried to quiet his young companion again. Hector was younger looking than either of his charges. Yet, anyone who had survived that great battle was strong, deadly, or very lucky. Either way Hector was too dangerous an opponent for his nephew to antagonize. The boy ignored him.
Smiling maliciously, the young man stood. “My name is Achilles-Heel Francis of the Sentinels and I think you are a weaver of wild stories who wears false honors.” Francis sneered in a disbelieving tone. The old man groaned. Such a challenge could not go unanswered. His sister would be furious if her son died in a brawl and he would have to face her when he got home. Hector straightened his back and eyed the young fool calmly. His options were limited. The fool had just made it an affair of honor. The only path left to avoid a loss of face was a duel. This Francis dared to claim the honor of belonging to the same order as Hector. A Sentinel would not force a duel without good cause on someone of his own order.
“My name is Winters-Tears Hector of the Sentinels. I say that your manners flow from your drinking cup.” Hector coldly replied. “You should leave polite society until you recover.” Instantly, the Vikings surrounding the two tables drew back. Everyone in sight carefully placed their hands in full view, signing that they would not interfere. It also allowed them to place bets on the coming fight with finger signals. Hector noted that the flashing fingers indicated the odds were favoring him. His reputation was quite impressive in this part of the star-dance.
The young man sprung forward, drawing his single-edged knife and spreading his fan. Energy flowed through the fan, reinforcing the bond between the molecules. The strengthened fabric of the half-circle locked itself into a small shield. Hector simply stood waiting, he did not even bother to draw his knife or spread his own fan-shield. Once the young man was almost within reach, Hector drew and struck with his knife in one smooth movement. The blade stabbed into the young man’s shoulder. Francis staggered and dropped his blade. Calmly Hector stepped forward, grasping his knife’s hilt and slammed his shoulder into Francis’ chest. Francis staggered back into his table, where his friends caught him as he fell. Quickly, Hector plucked up the lad’s fallen knife and spun the blade through the fingers of his left hand. The lad started to get up and Hector hurled the fool’s knife into his fan-shield. It punched through the cloth and pinned the fan-shield to the table. The fan’s wrist strap trapped Francis’ hand with it.
Hector faced the lad’s friends at the table.
“He is beaten.” He announced. “Do either of you wish to invoke an honor-claim?”
The brother started up with his hand on his knife. “My name is Achilles-Heel Charlemagne and I say there is need for a...” The old man reached out and shoved him back down.
“My name is Ironshod-Heel Everett. These are my nephews.” The old man’s voice was tense, but under control, and he was careful to keep his hands away from his knife. “I ask forgiveness that their rudeness has disturbed your dinner.”
“No uncle.” Charlemagne surged to his feet again. “Let me fight him.”
Uncle Everett shoved him back into his cushion. “I promised your mom to show you round. And you promised to keep out of trouble. I am not letting you die in a tavern duel.” He turned back to Hector. “I ask forgiveness again. My nephews are still young. Fortunately, the wound is minor and easily healed. I see no need for an honor-claim.”
“Thank you.” Hector replied. “Forgiveness is asked and given. This matter is at an end.” Hector bowed respectfully to him and the old man bowed in response. Then he quickly gathered both young men, paid the tab and left, dragging both his nephews with him. At other tables, the Vikings paid and received coins from their bets on the fight and turned their attention back to food and drink. In a minute, the fight and fighters were forgotten until tomorrow’s gossip. Hector returned to his table, cleaning his knife and sliding it edge upwards back on the sheath at his belt. Sitting at his formerly empty table two people had appeared. Grandmaster
Randolph and Master Hjorralf were calmly pouring honey-mead from Hector’s pitcher into their drinking mugs.
“An impressive display,” Hjorralf growled, “I see you are still favoring surprise.” Hector raised an eyebrow. “Surprise works,” he replied.
Hjorralf ignored this remark, “Someday, your opponent will not be surprised, and you will be hurt.”
Hector lifted his left hand. A small jackknife dropped out of his sleeve in a reversed grip. “I assumed he might not be.” Hector calmly replied as he tucked the knife away again. He smiled just to irritate his old weapons-master.
“Interesting as this debate is,” Grandmaster Randolph interrupted before Master Hjorralf could scold Hector more for taking unnecessary chances and poor form. “We did call our former student from his promised leave for a reason.” The Grandmaster handed Hector a note.
“From your friend Atlas,” he said as the note was accepted, and Hector’s knife vanished. The note was short.
The Grandmaster has a mission for me. I am taking it. Please take care of Fang and my ax. I left them in care of Gunnar.
Hector tapped the note against the table, considering it. “Who did you send my shield-brother to spy on?” He asked the Grandmaster. “And how is this connected to the Trolls’ attacks.” Grandmaster Randolph raised an eyebrow, “How did you know they were connected?” Hector matched Randolph’s raised eyebrow with one of his own.
“The trail is easy to see.” Hector tapped the note again. “It cannot be patrolling, trading, or raiding. Atlas would never leave his ax behind. That ax is... notable. He is on a mission for you. This leaves spying. The Trolls’ attacks over the last two months would warrant such action. Am I correct?”
Grandmaster Randolph nodded, “Correct. Atlas has signed on with the crew of a hauler-class longship. This merchant ship happens to visit every port and leave exactly one day before the
Trolls attack. A week ago, Atlas sent back an encrypted report via courier.” Randolph produced a letter and read.
Found Troll Contact. Closing on Location for Troll Base. Will Send All Data Later, When I Have the Chance. Need Retrieval or Support.
“We have heard nothing since.” Grandmaster Randolph said grimly. “The data never arrived, and Atlas has made no further reports.” He signaled Master Hjorralf, who passed Hector two scrolls as Randolph continued the tale. “Here is all the data we have on the attacks and your orders. You leave at dawn in three days. Follow the hauler, retrieve Atlas, locate the Troll
Base and destroy it.” Hector’s eyebrow rose even higher at this.
“A large order,” he noted dryly, “what resources will I have?’
Randolph answered carefully, listing resources available to Hector. “Craftmaster Freya is outfitting a Raider-class longship with the best night-skin and mirror-armor as we speak. We have spoken to your First Sergeant Gunnar. A troop from your Grey Company has not yet gone on leave. They volunteered immediately, on the condition that you would be leading them.
Their loyalty to you is impressive.” Hector bowed to acknowledge the compliment and Hjorralf took over.
“We also found an old ship to serve as a courier.” He handed Hector the ship papers. “It is a fairly fast longboat that will allow you to call for reinforcements. It is light armed but can fight if necessary.”
Hector nodded. “That is two troops short for crew.” He noted pointedly.
Randolph and Hjorralf shifted uncomfortably. “Actually, we have another troop.”
“Why does this sound like bad news?” Hector said as they squirmed in embarrassment.
“Because it is.” Randolph said flatly. “The troop is the Red Company of Hartfell. It’s new.
You just stabbed one of its members in the shoulder. Banded together under Sigmund of House Paris.”
“As in related to Senator Juliette of House Paris?” Hector asked warily.
“Son.” Hjorralf said disgustedly. “Mom bought his way into the Sentinels and his company.” “They are still very good.” Randolph put in. “His lieutenant is Song-Heror Bellona, the archer Orion’s daughter. She is as skilled with the bow and lance as her father. During the combat tests, she split eight arrows out of nine on a blade at one seventy-five meters. And she burned a perfect ninety with the lance.” Hector raised an eyebrow in astonishment.
“Methinks that the skill of the company is due to her training.” Randolph added. “They are almost as good.” He slipped a small rolled scroll into Hector’s hand containing combat test results. Hector studied Randolph and Hjorralf as he weighed the scroll. Politically powerful parent, rich son, and no available assignments to dump him in.
“I don’t have a choice, do I?” He said.
“No.” Randolph said. “Sigmund is going to be your lieutenant. One way or another.”
“I want a marauder longship.” Hector replied. “New. Fully armed. At cost plus a tenth. And I want it sitting in dock waiting on my return.”
Randolph and Hjorralf relaxed. “Done!” Randolph said.
“Also,” Hector raised a hand, ticking off what he wanted. “I negotiate with Sigmund myself, pay, position, everything. And you sell the raider I sail in to me and I find the final troop myself.” Randolph winced and Hjorralf laughed. “Insuring you the owner’s share and a majority in the loyalty of the crew!” He elbowed Randolph. “You taught this one well.”
“This is becoming expensive.” Randolph signed.
“My skills are worth it.” Hector put in.
“Then you will accept on those conditions?” Randolph said hopefully.
Of course.” Hector said calmly. “It is a matter of honor to rescue my shield-brother.” “Good.” Randolph replied. “In a week and a half, Jarl Musashi’s war-band is expected back and I will have a second war-band ready. They will be under sail an hour after you send the location. You shall have the raider’s deed as soon as the purser has the coins. I still do not like you having to find a troop at such short notice.”
“You worry too much.” Hector gave him a small smile on seeing Lee approaching the table with his order. “Besides, I know how to find another troop.”
Lee laid the food on the table and Hector paid him the twelve silvers for the meal. Lee swept them into the taverns’ cointray on his hip. Before Lee could leave, Hector laid another silver coin on the table.
“I need warriors, Most Honorable Host, a full troop. I would like Sentinels or Guardians, although
Freelancers would also suit.” Lee’s eyes twinkled, and the silver coin vanished into his sash. “Then you shall have them.” Lee beamed happily, “In a week, I will have the best this star system can offer.”
Hector added another silver coin. “Lee, I need them in two days.” The table-waiter’s expression was much chagrined.
“Per Portas Nimbosum! You ask much, my friend. Still I will see if any of my helpers know of any unsworn companies or troops.” The coins vanished, and Lee disappeared back into the
kitchens while Hector and his two guests fell to eating and drinking.
“Are you sure he can find you a troop’s worth of warriors?’ Hjorralf growled. Hector finished his mouthful and took a swig of mead before answering.
“This inn is the clearing house for all sailors docked on this world and Lee has ears like a lynx. If there are any unsworn warriors within a light-year, he will know by the end of our meal.” Grandmaster Randolph tapped his drinking-horn thoughtfully with a finger. “Would he be willing to inform the Sentinel Order of any interesting tidbits of information?” He asked.
Hector shrugged, “Only if you are polite, eat here, and tip well.”
Randolph nodded. “I will see that the Castle Captain knows this.”
Hjorralf rumbled contentedly over his plate. “Methinks, he will be eating here quite often.” He said, biting down on another chunk. “The food is good, and the drink is excellent.” Further talk was impossible as the three Sentinels applied themselves to the food. Hector was right about Lee’s knowledge. When Lee returned to clear the table, he had news.
“One of my helpers knew several unsworn bands of warriors.” Lee said as he worked.
“Ensign Kern of Orange Company with ten. Corporal Valentine from Green Company with four.
Their Companies came in from raiding last month and the crews disbanded to spend their plunder.
A scattering from the other companies are also free. I will send them over.”
After a little consideration, Hector nodded in agreement. “When you see them, please give them my offer. Standard pay and plunder.”
Lee raised an eyebrow. “They will want more.”