The Tyrant of Kepala
Sir Wallace Tilian (or "The Drunken Cavalier")
Sir Wallace watched over the cavalry as they ran down row after row of straw dummies. Fighting scarecrows is all well and good, but how are these fancymen going to ride when the scarecrows are hitting back? he thought. As the men reached the end of the row, toppling all but a few of the enemy effigies, they circled their horses and started loudly congratulating themselves, patting one another on the back and hooting with courageous laughter. Wallace shook his head and dismounted his own horse.
He marched purposefully across the field and addressed the closest soldier, a young man with golden hair and a smoothly shaved face. “What is your name, Stick?” Wallace growled at him.
The boy regarded him with a proud and casual look. “I am Cavalier Wexell Ferrous, Sir Wallace.”
“Stick Wexell Ferrous, you will not call yourself ‘Cavalier’ until I say you are a cavalier. Do you understand, Stick?”
Ferrous laughed nervously and looked to his compatriots for reinforcement, but step by step, they cautiously backed away from the commander on foot before them. Only Ferrous stood his ground, defiantly taking exception to the trainee title, so named for the wooden swords they used for practice. “Sir Wallace, I have a horse. I have armor. I have spurs, and soon I’ll have a true steel saber. Does that not a cavalryman make me?”
Wallace fixed him with a hard stare for a long moment. “You want a real saber? Here,” Wallace said as he drew his own cavalry saber and handed it, pommel first, to the young rider. “Ride to the far end of the field, Stick.”
“As you say, sir,” said Ferrous, taken aback by this sudden gift of the veteran’s sword. He held the saber high and swatted it at the air a few times as though brandishing a trophy. He kicked his steed forward and rode in a quick canter to the opposite side of the practice field, a hundred yards away.
Wallace stepped ten paces away from the other initiate horsemen and planted his feet. “Run me down, Stick!” he bellowed.
“…Sir?” said Ferrous from the far side of the field, barely audible.
“Run me down, you impudent toadprick! Now!”
For a moment, the boy at the far end of the field nervously pranced his horse left and right, but then he began a trot forward, and then urged his horse into a full gallop. The ground began to shake as the war horse thundered toward Sir Wallace.
Sir Wallace stood there in the charging horses path, empty-handed and casting a hard stare downrange. Wexell Ferrous let out a high, warbling cry as he neared, raising Sir Wallace’s own saber above his head, poised to strike. He slashed down toward Sir Wallace as the horse beared down on him, and in a subtle but quick move, Wallace caught the wrist of his attacker and jerked backwards, opposite the motion of Ferrous’ mount. The would-be cavalier was jerked from his horse and landed in the mud at Sir Wallace’s feet with a wet thud.
Wexell whined in pain as he sat up, his arm dangling uselessly from his dislocated shoulder. Wallace picked up his own sword from the mud beside the trainee and wiped the blade clean of dirt on Wexell’s uniform. “That’s why you’re a stick, boy. Now get out of my face. You’re out of this regiment,” Wallace shot, turning his back and walking away.
“They’re not ready. And I fear they’re not going to be,” Wallace grumbled over a cup of beer. The village of Harn’s End did not boast much in the way of being a thriving metropolitan crossroads, but their pub, The Blackeyed Bully, did have some of the finest beer he’d ever tasted. Lately he’d been tasting it a lot.
“I think you underestimate your own abilities,” Saragossa Springheel said, reassuringly. “You’ve only been at it a fortnight and anyone can see the progress you’ve made with them!”
It was mid-afternoon and Saragossa was tuning his balatier at the table he shared with Sir Wallace. They were the only two in the tavern, save the barkeep and a bored-looking serving girl in the far corner. Wallace picked at the board of cheese and cured meats provided him by the house, courtesy of his patron, Duke Narcis Vask.
“These boys have never known a harder fight than maybe the odd scrap with a street roughneck. They’ve never fought for their lives before. And most of ‘em have spent their whole lives getting puffed up by their families to think they’re invincible. Then Duke Vask goes and buys them all a bunch of fancy uniforms, and like that they think they’re a cavalry. They’re not a cavalry. Not yet. And I fear they won’t be in time. What’s worse is that we won’t know it till it’s too late,” Wallace mused into his cup.
“Narcis hired me, too, you know!” Saragossa interjected.
“He hired you… for what?” Wallace asked incredulously.
“The duke wanted me to chronicle his raising of the finest cavalry that Kepala has ever seen, and to commemorate the greatest victory the people of the land have yet seen in song. Rumor has it he’s hired a playwright as well.”
“Unbelievable,” Sir Wallace said, downing the rest of his drink in a single gulp. He waved his mug in the direction of the serving girl. “I’ll have another, Miss Brena!”
The girl hopped to her feet and adopted a pleasant smile. “Surely, Sir Wallace. Nice of you to remember my name after all!”
“Never mind the banter, just give me the booze. And one for the string plucker, as well,” Wallace said, dismissing her. In fact, Wallace never forgot a name, a face, or much of anything for that matter. His list of grudges was as long as the low road to Sira Zelaad.
“Much obliged, m’lord,” said Saragossa with a flourish.
“Don’t thank me, it’s Narcis that’s paying. I just didn’t want to be getting pissed all on my own. Not today, anyway.”
“You really think with all the money and love the duke is throwing at them that the cavaliers won’t be ready?” Saragossa asked, twisting a tuning peg.
“There aren’t enough golden crowns under the sun to put the fear of Thratch’s horde into them. Best I can do is hope I can put the fear of me into them, and give them a reason to trust each other. I need to lead them. When the charge comes and everything turns to panic and blood, it’s not gonna be a love for King Jory or the money of Duke Vask that keeps them together. They have to be willing to split skulls to protect the men to their right and left. And they have to lose their fear of death to do it,” Wallace said. “And I can’t do that while they think they’re invincible in their shiny uniforms that they didn’t even earn.”
“So you’re going to break them down so you can remake them in your own cast?”
Wallace chuckled, “Well, not my very own cast. I wouldn’t wish this face on anyone.”
The two men shared a laugh, then Saragossa said, “Oh, I wouldn’t be too hasty with hating yourself. I think Miss Brena has taken a liking to you.”
“Hmph,” grunted Wallace. He then curiously turned his head in the direction of the serving girl, who was approaching the table to deposit two fresh mugs of the Blackeyed Bully’s finest. She did indeed seem to be flushed of cheek and fidgeting from foot to foot. “Very well, Miss Brena, grab a flagon for yourself and join us. No sense in us boys drinking alone. The duke is likely to think I’ve taken a shine to this fop if I keep drinking alone with him.”
Brena Batilda returned to the table a moment later with a fresh mug for herself and cozied up to Sir Wallace. Wallace raised his tankard, “To our victory. May we ride well.”
They all touched cups and drank.
The next morning at rally, Sir Wallace made his men turn in their uniforms and put them in lockers he had the stewards bring up from the headquarters. One by one, they walked in line and deposited their boots, tunics, and riding cloaks into the lockers.
“Your uniforms, Sticks, were given to you in error.” Wallace barked at the men before him. “You must earn these colors if you are to be a cavalry. You will earn them together, as one, or you will not have them at all. Then I will have the extreme displeasure of going before Duke Vask and explain to him that his fighting boys are not fit to wield real steel, wear his colors, or ride his mounts. You will do as I order you or you are out of here. Do I make myself understood?”
A few of the men, now dressed in mismatched provincial clothes, murmured a faint agreement.
“THAT is not the sound of a cavalry before me. Now sound off like your balls aren’t the size of pebbles, you pissworms!”
“YES, SIR WALLACE!” most of them said as one.
That day, they drilled up and down the field from morning till sundown. A few of them dropped out. Most of them had saddle sores. But by the end of that day, they had begun to act not as a bunch of undisciplined boys, but as a single unit.
The next day, they drilled again. And the next day, and the next. By degrees, they drew together as a cavalry that was stern and unified. Wallace grew proud of them. The boys were becoming men before his eyes. They were ready to follow Sir Wallace Tilian into hellfire if he led them there.
After a week, Duke Narcis came down from his holdfast to inspect Wallace’s progress. The cavalry commander approached Duke Narcis and saluted.
“How are my men?” the duke asked flatly.
“They’re becoming a fine cadre of life-takers and heart-breakers, if I do say so, sir,” Wallace grinned. “When do you think you shall be able to begin to train with the regiment to properly lead them?”
The duke snorted, with surprised-sounding indignation. “Oh, I shan’t be training with these men, Sir Wallace. After all, what did I hire you for? No, I’m afraid you’ll have to earn your pay by working for it, young man.”
Wallace took a cautious tact, “My lord, if you want to lead these men, you’ll need to gain their trust in the field. They need to see you leading them. They need…”
“Gods below, Tilian! Would you have me dining with them and holding their hands whilst they shit? No, Sir Wallace, I shall keep my own station here and lead when the time is right,” scoffed Duke Narcis as he turned to take his leave. “Carry on, Cavalryman.”
The duke rode back up the hill and joined his son, Quinneth, also mounted on a prized war horse and sporting a flawless uniform. Next to them sat Saragossa on his own horse, looking ridiculous in his own uniform, which was a strange hybrid of a bard’s cloaks and the uniform Duke Vask had commissioned for his cavalry. Saragossa shared a look from afar with Wallace and shrugged.
“They’re not going to follow him. Not ever. He thinks he’s above the men, and they’ll never trust him to lead them in a chow line, never mind a charge,” Wallace said with a heavy head. He was into his fourth tankard of beer, and Miss Brena Batilda had taken up her usual station by his side during his early afternoon and late night binges.
“But what if you just led them, love?” asked Brena, with genuine inquisitiveness.
“The buxom one has a fair point, sir,” offered Saragossa. “What if you just lead them? Nothing to say you can’t stay at the head of the formation and let the duke run willy-nilly up and down the field to his heart’s desire.”
“I could, I suppose,” Wallace said. “At least you’ll have the good sense to stay at the rear of the column, yes?”
“In the rear with the gear, as I would have it, good sir!” Saragossa said with an affected bow. “I fear that I would be as effective at intimidating one of the hobgoblin horde as a fart in a tempest.”
“See, love? People know their place around you,” said Miss Brena, curling a hand around his thigh. “You certainly like to show me mine.”
“Hrmph. If only the duke was as fond of obeying me as you are, m’dear,” Wallace said.
“You have a commanding presence, Sir Wallace Tilian,” Brena said, affecting a parody of military candor, and throwing a mock salute.
Wallace’s face was stone, and he stared deep into her eyes with a coldness. “If these men aren’t led, and led right, they’ll be chewed up and spit out by that gang of monsters. I need to be there. I need to lead them, and I need the duke to stay out of my way. He must respect my ability to bring the men to heel and give him the victory that he wants so badly. He must know what this means in the grand scheme.”
Saragossa strummed his balatier once in a hopeful major chord. “Oh, I’ve no doubt that he wants this to be the first step to reclaiming the family territory. The king let him hang onto the title of duke as a courtesy, I’m sure, but he knows he still bears the shame of a dispossessed house. So what man casts the most danger, eh? One with nothing to lose, or one with something to prove?”
“Probably it’s the man with the weight of a ghost on his shoulders, if you ask me,” said Wallace. “People do strange and reckless things when they think they’re being frowned on from The Beyond. I can’t think about this anymore tonight. Brena, fill our cups. Let’s all drink and forget.”
“Way ahead of you, Commander,” said Brena as she drew three fresh cups into view, overflowing with the Blackeye’s best. She raised her own cup high, her ample chest thrusting out in an imitation of military attention. “Let us drink to our patron, Duke Narcis the Brave!”
“To Narcis the Brave,” Wallace and Saragossa said in unison, rolling their eyes. The three burst into a hearty chuckle.
The cavalry rode to war, and Sir Wallace rode at the head of the formation. He was now confident that his men could be spurred on to victory so long as they stayed focused on his lead. As the battle plan went, their strategy was simple. Envelop the enemy, decapitate their leadership, and grind the beasts to pieces against the anvil of King Jory’s column. And while his column of refined cavalry was certainly swift and refined, they were no less important than “The Anvil” of the king’s column, or the right column of Wodan Veld’s howlers. Each thing in its place, each part with a function.
Wallace closed his eyes and concentrated on gathering his strength as the column approached the field of battle. He cleared his mind of worry, attachment, and concern. There was only this moment. There was only the task at hand, and it was his to win. To do his job and do it well. There weren’t any of the echoes of his life as a brigand to haunt him. There was no yearning for his next round of drinks. There was no pleasing touch of Brena Batilda on his lips. There was no King Jory, shouting his challenge to the hobgoblin commander in the distance to the jeers of his foes. There was only the horde of bloodthirsty hobgoblins before him and his cavalry behind him. And it was over them that he would ride, as he had trained his men to do until this moment. He breathed a sigh and let everything else go.
Duke Narcis Vask appeared at his side atop his own horse. “Thank you, Sir Wallace, but you may fall back. I shall be leading us today,” he said with all the confidence of someone who had no grasp at all of the seriousness of the fight they faced.
Wallace blanched inwardly and he felt his skin crawl with pins and needles. Oh, no, he thought. Not now, he cannot do this now…
“But my lord, you haven’t drilled with the men the way I have. They haven’t learned to heed your command yet, sir,” Wallace said, cautiously. He knew that the fate of his men and all his work with them balanced on the edge of a knife.
Narcis Vask removed a glove and struck Sir Wallace across the face with it. “There, good sir,” spat Narcis. “Now they will know who is in charge.”
Sir Wallace Tilian’s heart sank as the truth of this day sank in. With that slap, Narcis had murdered every last one of the the five hundred men in his cavalry. He had robbed them of their leadership and replaced it with the overconfident buffoonery of a man who thought he could buy his way to glory. How could he not have seen it until now? This was never a mission to free the Zelaadi, secure his country’s borders, or even to win glory for the young fighting men of Kepala. This was a mission to redeem poor Duke Narcis’ ruined name in the eyes of his own long-dead fathers. This was an unwinnable fight that was going to claim the lives of all the boys he had worked so hard to train.
But there was nothing he could do. They were all dead men. Sir Wallace gave the duke a stony look and nodded, then turned to ride to the rear of the column. He avoided the gaze of all the young men he had trained. His heart grew heavier with each one he saw. Finally, at the rear, he came upon Saragossa Springheel. He was strumming a tune and priming the troops for battle when he came face-to-face with Wallace.
“Giving the boys one last inspection, then?” Saragossa said, his eyes all hope and light. Beside him, the duke’s son Quinneth Vask rode, smiling wanly at the amusement he was gleaning from the bard’s music.
Wallace drew Saragossa close. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll turn your horse around and not stop till you get to Harn’s End. Narcis has taken the lead. You’re all dead men.”
“I think you mean they’re all dead men, eh?” said young Quinneth. “I knew this moment would come. Come, Saragossa, let’s get to the fore to see the action up good and close!”
Quinneth rode forward, but the two compatriots remained close. “If your job is to keep that boy whole, then do it by keeping him away from the incompetence of his father. And may Arkon favor you, because his blade can be fickle,” Wallace hissed into his face. “I hope this isn’t the last I see of you, my friend.”
Saragossa shrugged with a worried look, and kicked his horse after Quinneth. Wallace turned and continued to ride past the rear of the column. The charge was sounded and five hundred heavy horses surged forward into the mouth of destiny. Wallace only hung his head and continued back the way he came.
Wallace was five miles back down the road to the west when he heard the horse behind him approaching. He turned to see Saragossa, his uniform bloody and tattered. He was struggling to keep his horse calm.
“You’re alive,” said Wallace, matter-of-factly.
“No thanks to the duke,” Saragossa gasped. “Me and his soft fancy boy pulled him out of a tangle of those fighting beasties. Face down in the mud, he was. He drove them straight all into the ground – your boys, that is. It was like they’d had not a single day of your training.”
Wallace said nothing, and simply collapsed into a stoic silence. They rode together back to Harn’s End, neither of them uttering a word.
He strode confidently into the Blackeyed Bully. “It’s over already?” asked the barkeep, sounding surprised.
“As you say,” Wallace nodded curtly and stepped to the back of the room.
There, Brena Batilda awaited him with all the welcoming warmth he’d come to love about her. “There’s my victorious hero,” she said, wrapping her arms around him.
He drew her close and held a finger to her lips. “Brena, listen carefully. I need you to go upstairs and quietly pack my things. I’m leaving here as soon as I’m able. The army won the battle, but the duke… “ he whispered in her face.
“Did the beasties take him?” Brena asked, her eyes widening.
“Worse, he lived,” Wallace sighed. “But he managed to kill everyone else in his charge. Now he’ll be wanting to pin this failure on someone, and you can bet your sweet arse it’ll be me.”
“But what about…” Brena asked, but Wallace silenced her with a finger to his lips.
“There’s no time. I have to be in the wind by the time the remnant of the column returns.”
She nodded and hastily took off up the stairs. Wallace returned outside and saw Saragossa sitting wearily atop his horse. He carried a look of utter defeat, and several of the strings on his balatier were sprung, hanging listlessly off the bridge. “What now?” he asked.
Wallace squared his shoulders. He held up his chin and said, “What now is we move on. We survive.”
He looked to the left of the Blackeyed Bully and saw a coachwhip sitting atop a covered carriage. He had a thought.
“Coachwhip, how much for the rig? Horses and all, how much?”
“You’re joking,” said the young working man. “The war got you all loopy, then?”
Wallace reached into the coin purse at his belt that contained the retainer fee Vask had paid for his services. At least the bastard can pay for my way to escape him. he thought.
“How’s a hundred of the King’s sound?”
The coachwhip sat there with his mouth agape for a long moment. Wallace approached and pressed the coins into his hand. “Here you go, kid. Take the hundred. It’s more than you’ll earn in two years. Now be a good lad and bugger off. I’ve got a place to be that’s anywhere but here.”
The coachwhip hopped from the seat and ran straight into the Bully.
“Well that was easy,” said Saragossa.
“Never easy to retreat,” quipped Wallace. “You reign in my horse, we’ll sell them when we get to the next town.”
“Wait!” came a voice from the inn. Brena came leaping after them with Wallace’s pack – and her own. “You didn’t think you’d get away from me so easy, did you? Besides, you’re the only one who can keep Narcis from taking it out on me now.”
Saragossa cracked the first smile he’d had since the siege. “Sometimes you do win a few, eh, Commander?”
Brena climbed into the coachwhip’s seat beside Wallace, and he snapped the reins. The three made their way out of town on the main road.
“Don’t you think they’ll miss their best bar girl at the Blackeye?” Wallace mused, his heart lightening for the first time in what seemed like forever.
Brena kissed him on the cheek and smiled at him. “Never mind that, Commander. I’m in the mood for adventure. Show me the world.”