For Love of Hearth and Home

Prequel to the Fight at Sersale

City of Alcente, Spring 2404

Most folk in the city considered Captain Hector Perdigon’s soldiers to be scum, the worst kind of mercenaries. They were presumably unwanted in whichever army they originally served, either because they had refused to obey, or to fight, or had simply run away. Nor had they formed a company of their own, with a condottiere to command them, becoming renowned for their service. Several spoke with a Pavonan accent, presumably having left to seek service that paid, but their accents revealed that they hailed from every corner of the Old World, not just Tilea, and some had accents of a kind entirely unknown to most Tileans. Some came from the darkest corners of the Border Princes, others had fled defeat in some Empire civil war, and a good number were Estalians who had flitted from contract to contract in Tilea. It was said, based on nothing more than rumour, that a good half or more had been exiled from their own lands.

Reluctantly, the citizens could not claim the mercenaries did not know their business, or that they were ill-equipped to go about it effectively. They had been employed by the VMC, whose clerks were experts at getting their money’s worth. Had they been in rags bearing rusty blades, then they would have been bought cheap, with particular economy in mind, but these men were clad in plate armour from head to heel with a healthy vigour about them. The company must surely have paid dearly for them, and to equip them. Nor would they go to the expense of the latter if the mercenaries were not worthy of such expense. This should have given the lie to the common opinion of these men. The VMC’s officers did not throw gold at a bad investment. The truth of their origins was known to the VMC’s clerks and to the men themselves, neither of whom felt any compulsion to explain it.

The citizens consoled themselves by thinking of the alternatives. General Valckenburgh could have left Ogbut and his brutes as a garrison force! Or no force at all. Either way would have been more dangerous for the people of Alcente.

The main army of ‘The VMC in Tilea’ was composed almost entirely of mercenaries, as even those recruited in Marienburg (the trading company’s home) were not pressed to serve a local lord, nor had they volunteered in their city’s militia. They had been hired to serve a mercantile company as part of a joint stock enterprise. They had been purchased, just like the ships and supplies. A good number of the soldiers had been recruited in Tilea, and as such they had every reason to serve willingly in an army fighting first against Lord Khurnag’s Waagh and now the vampires of the north, defending their homelands from such evil foes. Even they had to admit, however, that they were not serving nobles or even Tileans, but businessmen. Indeed, the Tilean lawyers who drew up the contracts under which they would serve had utilised a combination of Condottiere contracts and the bonds signed by caravan and warehouse guards. They might have hearth, home and a noble cause in mind, but they knew merchant adventurers who commanded them only really had profit in mind.

Perdigon’s garrison regiment was not part of the main army, having been raised to bolster the standing militia force of Alcente while General Valckenburgh marched to the far north of the peninsula. So far, Perdigon’s men had done their job well – if simply remaining at full strength and ready while nothing much happened counted for anything. The citizens had learned that as long as they stayed out of their way, the mercenaries kept themselves to themselves. Several inns had become theirs, whether or not they were officially lodged there, and in truth the citizens, even the city’s Tilean militia guard, were glad they were there, considering the proximity of an army of Sartosan pirates ravaging the realm’s smaller settlements to the west.

This morning, however, something had changed. Perdigon’s men were frantically busy preparing to march, while the captain himself was striding through the streets with several of his lads, as if on a mission. People watched from the windows or pressed themselves back in the doorways while he passed, and everyone knew that his activity did not bode well. The city’s bells were quiet, however, which made some think it could not be a real emergency. Captain Perdigon knew the truth, however. The bells were being kept deliberately quiet, to maintain a necessary surprise! The Sartosan pirate army was nearby, and alarm bells might encourage them to hurry!

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The captain knew where he was going, and before long he found exactly who he had been looking for – the militia’s watch patrol, with their current commander. A mere handful of crossbowmen and halberdiers doing the rounds as the militia had done for many a year.

“Ho! Sergeant Ivo,” barked the captain. “Gather up your lads, you’re marching out with us at noon.”

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“What?” answered the sergeant. “Look you, captain, maybe you’re marching out, but our job is to stay here and defend the city. So we ain’t going anywhere.”

“You’ll be defending the city when you march out. Now, make haste.”

Sergeant Ivo snorted as if he found what Perdigon had said very funny. He looked around at his men, rolling his eyes as if to say ‘Get this fellow’ then fixed his eyes on Perdigon.

“The problem that comes to my mind, captain, is that I can’t see any way in which we can defend the city if we are not in the city to defend it.”

Perdigon narrowed his eyes, which was all the sergeant could see what with the captain’s sallet and bevor covering the rest of his face. “You think that you and your militia can hold these walls against an army?”

“Not if we are not on the walls, no,” said the sergeant, with a mocking lilt.

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Perdigon chose to ignore the tone. “You would not last an hour,” he said. “The stone is strong, but with only your petty militia to hold it is no defence, only an inconvenience.”

“Look you,” said the sergeant quickly, and in a more serious manner. “We live here. Our families are here. If we leave then there will be none but boys and old men to guard the walls. We serve the city. That’s what all of us agreed to, and that’s all we agreed to.”

From behind he heard Adelchi shout, “Aye!”

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The sergeant glanced back at the lad, thankful, and warmed somewhat to his theme. “We’re not soldiers, to be marched off to war. We are citizens in arms, ready and willing to defend our homes. We will obey any order to that end, but we cannot leave the city. And we will not leave the city.”

The sergeant glanced back again, but the lad was quiet this time. Perhaps Adelchi did not like the fact he had been the only one to shout before?

“You’ve sworn an oath to defend the city!” said the captain. “And now you must do so by marching out! The Sartosan filth have burned Mintopua and razed Motolla. Now they march on Sersale. If they burn that then your proud city will be surrounded by wasteland on all sides.”

“Ah, but … but our city will stand!” said the sergeant, thinking quick. “And … crops can be resown.”

Someone behind him muttered something about the vines won’t come back in a hurry.

“Think, fool,” said the captain. “The Sartosans will not stop there. You think they’ll complain at how heavy their loot has become and decide enough’s enough? Their greed only grows with the taking, and they know there’s much more to be had from the city itself. And now they think you Alcentians are weak. With good reason! They won’t fear assaulting the walls if they know you all to be cowards.”

“You … you take care what you say, Perdigon,” said the sergeant, his voice strained by equal measure of panic and hurt pride.

A dark cloud drifted over head as hands clutched a little tighter to hilts. The crossbowmen suddenly regretted not having spanned their crossbows.

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From behind Adelchi spoke again, and the sergeant wondered if he was the only one present who felt any sort of confidence.

“Maybe it’s you who’s afraid?” declared the youngster. “You’ve been ordered from the city I bet, and you don’t want to go alone.”

“I’m not afraid of Sartosans,” laughed the captain. “I’ve faced far worse than them – enemies that would loose your bowels on sight, boy. The truth is I like drinking wine here in Alcente and sleeping on soft beds. In fact, I’d like to do that some more. If we do not take on the Sartosans right now then all that will be lost. Such a shame.” Then, like an afterthought, he added, “Oh, and o’course, your sisters will be raped, your homes burnt, and you will be chained in a galley for the rest o’your days.”

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“Well,” said the sergeant, shaking his finger at the captain, “I say if you want to keep what you have, then you should stay and help us hold the walls.” He swung his arm to point toward the nearest city gate. “They outnumber us, yes? Well, see … I say the walls will even the odds. And General Valckenburgh could be back any day – just the sight of his army would send the Sartosans running. If we go out there now, we could end up fighting unnecessary.”

“Dying unnecessary,” someone muttered from behind.

“The general is hundreds of leagues away. Chances are he doesn’t even know what’s happening here. Look, we have orders and you have orders. This is my last offer of advice, and then there’ll be no more talking. The militiamen of Sersale have mustered and called for the city’s help. They intend to make a stand and will die to a man if we do not help them. Now, I don’t care much for them as I don’t know them. But they’re your cousins and countrymen. Do you want them to die?

“No … but see …” stuttered the sergeant uncertainly.

“And the road wardens are riding in force from Pavezzano, while we have Captain Hidink’s pistoliers here in the city. You think their skills in battle are best put to use on the walls?

“Well, no,” admitted Sergeant Ivo.

“This is your one and only chance to save the city. Do you understand? Wait any longer and that chance is gone. Right now we can muster us, you, the men of Sersale and all the horse left in the realm, and bring all to bear as one. The general isn’t coming in time, and if left to their own devices, the men of Sersale and the road wardens will all die. Altogether though, we can put on a show of force that should make the sea dogs think twice about fighting.”

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“Well, when you put it like that … “

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