Luccini, Very late Autumn 2403
This was the second time young King Ferronso had to return to his city in shame. It seemed strange to him to suffer the ignominy twice, but such was his life recently! Nothing was going right for him.
Once again, the sky was darkening angrily as a storm brewed, and like before he knew there would be no warm welcome awaiting him, rather scowling faces and half-heard grumblings. He had expected to return a conquering hero, yet this was as far from that as could be imagined, which laced his shame with heart-wrenching disappointment.
His one consolation was that his people did not know just how deep his guilt ran. If they had known, then instead of mere, muttering sullenness there would be mockery, the hurling of insults, even rocks. His own silence and that of his guards who shared his secret shame, was all that was needed to conceal the truth. It did not, however, stop guilt wracking the king himself.
That summer, Ferronso, brimming with hopeful pride, had ridden off with Lord Alessio of Portomaggiore to join the holy war against the vampire duchess’s servants. In his absence, his city and the realm surrounding it had been invaded and overrun by Sartosan corsairs, who stripped it of everything of worth, ravaged every lady, maid and wench they could find and killed any who complained or stood in their way, even those who merely looked askance at them. Meanwhile, just before the great battle of the Valley of Norochia, doubt suddenly assailed the young king, filling him with such a fear for his realm that he abandoned the ‘holy’ cause, leaving behind just sufficient strength to save face and hurried homewards with his royal guards. Returning too late to stop the pirates, he had now failed doubly: breaking both his vow to fight the vampires as well as neglecting his kingly duty to protect his realm.
But neither of these failures were what really troubled his conscience, rather it was the fact that when he had returned the Sartosan pirates were still there, ransacking his realm, and he had dared not interfere. His guards told him it would be not only tactical folly but almost certain death. So, he had hidden in the trees and watched as his enemies plundered all they could. Worse still, he had felt comforted by his soldiers’ words, for they meant he did not have to place himself in danger.
He had watched his people suffer while feeling relief that he should not interfere!
Now, under an ominous sky, he and his companions skulked home. An observer who knew nothing of what had happened would never have thought to employ the word ‘skulk’, for the king and his guards were gloriously attired in their most fashionable and expensive armour, plumed in copious ostrich feathers, riding the finest of mounts, barded in colourfully enamelled plates. But to the king, skulking back was exactly what they were doing.
Ferronso was deep in thought as he and his company drew near the city, wondering if his name had already been tarnished for the rest of time, before he had even fought one battle. ‘Ferronso the Absent’? ‘Ferronso the Fool’? The glowering sky reflected his dark mood. The city was quiet, as one might expect from a wounded animal, curled up in anguish. Although perhaps, thought the king, there should be the sound of whimpering?
He could hear his royal standard fluttering by his side, the jangle of harnesses, the clattering of armour and the thump of hooves as the heavily burdened, heavy horses trotted along. Although he knew the outskirts of the town were now close, he could not bring himself to lift his head and look, but instead fixed his eyes on his hand clutching the reins. Strange, he thought, these are the reins I had on my pony as a child! The memory was not a happy one, for he had taken far too long learning to ride, fearful first of the pony, then of falling, then of failure, and he had known even at the time that everyone noticed his fear. Had his guards witnessed a similar fear when he watched the pirates from the trees? Would his people see his fear as he rode through the streets to his palazzo? How could anyone hope to hide so much fear?
Reluctantly, he lifted his head and glanced at a little knot of people close by, and yes, they seemed as sullen as he had expected. There were not many of them – some children, some old folk, a few women and a monk. Not the crowd a returning hero would deserve, the crowd he had imagined when he had set off months ago with Lord Alessio.
Was it terrible, he now asked himself, to wish the pirates had burned his city and butchered these wretches, so that his present shame would not be witnessed? Of course it was, he chided himself. He would never want such a thing. In truth, what he really wanted more than anything was the privacy and comfort of his palazzo, where such pitiful folk could not see him. Let them live their miserable lives, as long as they could not heap that misery on him.
To reach the street leading to his palace, he had to ride further along the city’s periphery, and as he did so more people came out to watch. Like before, he tried not to look at them, but he could not help himself. This time he saw there were men among the people, some sturdy fellows too.
Where had they been when his city needed defending?
Why should he shoulder all the blame?
Then he realised the men were armed! This was something the Sartosans would never have allowed while they occupied the city, which meant these fellows must surely have fled, returning only after the pirates had departed. What base cowards could do such a thing? Or perhaps these men hid their weapons during the brief and brutal occupation, cowering before the pirates and begging for mercy? What annoyed most was such men were able to stand amongst the people without any apparent malice directed towards them, while he himself had to suffer every sharp, accusative stare!
Something was niggling at him, more than his shame, more than his disgust that the men did not look ashamed too. There was something wrong about them. He could see a long-barrelled musket, a bearded fellow clutching two axes, a blunderbuss in the hands of a … dwarf!
A horrible thought struck him. Had some pirates stayed here in his city? Were his subjects so bruised and bewildered that they had feebly allowed these men to remain amongst them?
It made no sense. Unless … was this treachery? Had Barone Vettorio lied when he said the Sartosans had gone? Did his own courtiers and guards despise him so much that they were willing to hand him over to his enemies? Was he to be given as a hostage until the pirates had whatever else they wanted?
All these thoughts were surely madness. His burning guilt must be broiling his brains and addling his mind. It was the barone who had advised him against challenging the pirates with a force entirely insufficient to defeat them. If any should be blamed for inaction and made a hostage, it should be the barone!
Or did that make no sense? He shook his head in confusion, unable to straighten his thoughts, nor order them sensibly. Who had done what to whom with whose help? And why, oh why had they done it?
There were more people gathered further along. Once again, he stared at his horse’s reins to busy his mind with the act of riding and so avoid looking upon his subjects. The reins were not those of his old pony as he had first thought. Of course not. They could not possibly be – his horse was far too big for them. What had he been thinking?
Then something caught his eye – another gun! More than one! And more vicious looking men. And … unbelievable! The gurning, green face of a goblin, armed with a monstrous handgun decked with a barrel-load of barrels! Worse than that – two goblins [i]and[/i] an orc!
They were there right in front of him, standing among his subjects, who paid them no heed. This was impossible. Was everyone blind?
“Look, look there,” he ordered Sir Ormanno, the royal standard bearer at his side.
Ormanno did not seem to hear him, or perhaps did not want to hear him. Indeed, Ferronso spied a flash of disdain in Ormanno’s face, as if he found the very sound of the king’s voice annoying.
Ferronso felt no anger at this, however, for he was so nonplussed at the presence of greenskins in his city that there was little space left in his thoughts for other concerns.
“How?“ he began. “Why?“ His words faltered. He did not know what to ask, nor who to ask it of. Words failed him entirely.
There was a sudden noise from somewhere within the city. A thunderclap. Yet the sky, though dark, was surely not quite heavy enough for a storm. The came another boom, like the last.
Was it cannon-fire?
His horse seemed oblivious to the sound; his guards ignorant of it. Why could only he hear it? More than this, there were other sounds too that made no sense. He could hear wind and lashing rain, despite there being no such things. And though the people, including the greenskins, stood silent, he could hear shouting too.
I’m not going into the city, he decided, and pulled on the reins. But the reins were rotten and snapped, leaving him clutching their ragged remnants. His company of guards, despite his unvoiced wish to flee, were turning to go into the city; his horse, unyielding to any command and now reinless, was drawn along with them. Before them stood more people, almost a crowd. This time they were pirates all, plain as day, including goblins, brutish orcs and sea dogs clutching every kind of gun.
Why couldn’t his guards see?
Why had Vettorio allowed him to come here? Where was the barone? Everything was wrong. It was obviously not safe to return to the city.
Another boom sounded, startling him. And someone was shouting.
“Wake up sire! Please, hurry!”
There was a man before him, sharply silhouetted by the bright light flashing through the window behind.
“The Sartosans came back, sire. Wake up!”
It was Vettorio’s voice. A peal of thunder followed the flash, the same as the sound in his dream. As soon as Ferronso sat up in his bed, Vettorio took his hands and began hauling him out.
“The storm must have forced them back,” said the barone. “The streets are swarming with them! Hurry, please sire, we must leave. We must get you to safety!”