Chapter 27
The Return Home

Dragova, Byrn; Anno Regis 1286

"Few things feel as good as the journey home after your work is through. It is only natural for a good man to feel that way after honest work is done, but I sometimes wonder if bad men who have done wicked deeds feel the same sort of eagerness when they're on the way back to hearth and home. Are they coming back with the same sort of pride in what they've done?"
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

After wiping out the last of the Dragon Guard, the main force of the Marauders reunited with General Reinhard's detachment in the ruins of Dragova. They were given a few days to rest and regroup before heading out on the long march back to Gladius. On the eve of their departure, Randwulf called his staff together to deliver a final report on the readiness of his men.
"First things first," Randwulf said, "what are our casualties? Give me the exact numbers."
Cadmus read from the written report his adjutant filed earlier. "Two hundred and eighty-four dead, Your Majesty, and one hundred thirty-seven wounded."
The King frowned. Compared to the thousands of Byrnans they killed, the Marauders' losses were minimal. It was still more than he would have liked. If he wanted to thwart the prophecy of his downfall, he would need every man he could spare.
"How many of those wounded are no longer fit for service?" he asked.
"Forty-nine, Your Majesty."
Before Randwulf could inquire any further, General Reinhard spoke up. "Your Majesty, what of the Byrnans?"
"What about them?" Cadmus countered. "They've served their purpose. Now we get rid of them. It's as simple as that."
"How many skirmishers did we lose?" Randwulf asked, apparently ignoring Cadmus' comment.
Referring back to the written report, Cadmus replied, "A hundred and nine, Your Majesty."
More than half the skirmishers they had brought from Gladius were dead and replacements would not be easy to find. The King saw no reason to throw away a handy resource.
"Keep the Byrnans on as mercenaries," he said, "without pay, of course. They have proven useful as shields and should continue to do so."
"But, Your Majesty," the quartermaster interrupted, "our provisions are low. For the past two months, the Byrnans have been burning their food stores before we could claim them. We would be better off without the extra mouths to feed."
"You have them on half rations now, correct?"
The quartermaster nodded. "Yes, Your Majesty."
"Drop them to quarter rations," Randwulf said. "And until we are back at Darkwall, ration cuts will replace the lash as the standard punishment for minor offenses. That should help stretch the provisions we have."
"I fear it may not be enough, sire." The quartermaster shook his head. "We have to feed nearly twenty-four hundred men and two hundred horses for three weeks."
"Make it work," Randwulf insisted. "Adjust the rations accordingly. Show no favoritism. All officers, knights and myself will be issued the same rations as the common soldier and share a common mess so no one can make any claims of disparity."
The King's declaration sent a wave of shock through the generals, but only Cadmus was bold enough speak up.
"But, Your Majesty--!"
Randwulf was unsympathetic. "The men will have less reason for complaint if all ranks share this burden. Now, Cadmus, select twoscore of the most trustworthy Marauders to guard the provisions. Anyone caught stealing food will be put to death, no matter their rank or station."
Cadmus knew better than to push his luck. Rather than protesting further, he simply bowed and said, "It shall be done, Your Majesty."
"Good," Randwulf said, satisfied with Cadmus' display of submission. "Assemble the men later so I can personally explain the situation to them. Surely my Marauders can bear three weeks of hardship to earn their share of the plunder."
His head still bowed, Cadmus replied, "But of course, Your Majesty."
The King had heard enough and turned away from the assembly. "If there is nothing else you wish to bring to my attention, you are dismissed. We move out at daybreak."
With nothing else to bring before the King, the men dispersed to attend to the final preparations. The next morning, the Marauders set out on the long journey home.
Riding at the head of the formation, Randwulf reflected on the past five months. The campaign had been a slow, grueling affair that felt more like a distraction from the real threat than a preemptive strike at the enemy. The fact that he would not have to watch his flank for Byrnan interference was a small comfort, but he wondered if it would truly avert the warlock's prophecy.
Out of the corner of his eye, the King noticed Cadmus looking suspiciously pleased with himself. Although the Commander of the Marauders would claim otherwise, he had not done much during the campaign to justify such an attitude.
"You seem to be in an unusually good mood today, Cadmus," Randwulf commented, though he was not particularly interested to hear the reason why.
"I am simply pleased at the success of the campaign, Your Majesty," Cadmus said, all puffed up in his unwarranted pride. "After two hundred years, Gladius has finally avenged the humiliation of the Forty Years' War. Our victory not only purges a stain on the kingdom's honor, but also fully restores the honor of my own family."
"Is that so?" the King asked, not bothering to hide his disinterest.
"Yes, Your Majesty. My ancestor was a member of the ruling triumvirate when the war began. Even after jealous rivals made him into a scapegoat for their own gain, he continued to fight for the glory of Gladius. The incompetence of those rivals cost us the war and cost my ancestor his life.
"We Cadmi got half of our revenge a long time ago when we oversaw the ruin of our enemies in Gladius. Now it has been brought to completion with the ruin of Byrn. If only Gladius had Your Majesty two hundred years ago, the Byrnans' vulgar peasant hero would never have found a place in the history books."
The cheap flattery of a petty courtier did not suit such a coarse man. As much as Cadmus exalted his patrician ancestry, he was still little better than the common bandits Randwulf cobbled together to form the Marauders all those years ago. Dealing with the old patrician class never did sit well with him. Their plots were far slippier than the simple ambitions of his original followers. He regretted the fact that he did not uproot them as he had just done to the boyars of Byrn. Such was the liberty one could enjoy when the only aim is destruction. Holding on to a kingdom required a measure of compromise with the status quo. Randwulf wondered if that compromise would prove to be a greater threat to his reign than the son of Luther.
As if his dwelling on the patricians and their intrigues was some sort of cue, Cadmus brought forth his latest attempt at a power play.
"When this rebel problem has been dealt with," he said, "I hope Your Majesty will consider a certain recompense for your most deserving subjects."
"And what would that be?" Randwulf asked, indulging his vassal to see how far the suggestion would go.
Cadmus made a sweeping gesture to the open fields before them. "It is such a waste to leave this land wild and unclaimed like this. Imagine how many profitable fiefdoms could be carved from it. Imagine the wealth it could bring to you, Your Majesty, and to Gladius."
To test Cadmus' tenacity on the subject, Randwulf countered, "Longer borders to defend, more neighbors to contend with, and a population spread too thin. That is what I see, Cadmus."
Undaunted, Cadmus replied, "Populations can always be increased, Your Majesty. If the people do not rise to meet the opportunities laid before them, they can be encouraged with the proper incentives. From there we have a greater pool to draw workers and fighting men. Conscripts and slave labor are also a part of the answer, both easily acquired. After the example you made of Byrn, who would dare to challenge Randwulf the Conqueror and his Marauders?"
Randwulf could only imagine how far Cadmus' aspirations would lead. Perhaps he expected to be granted stewardship of all of Byrn as a viceroy and make the conquered land his own private kingdom. Perhaps he thought he could then turn the loyalties of the lesser fief holders against the King to stake his own claim to the throne. It was completely plausible, but Randwulf's spy network had already uncovered dozens of similar plots throughout the kingdom. Cadmus' ambition and his ease with treachery had long been known to him. This latest move was just another thread in a vast web of conspiracy.
Randwulf had long feigned an obliviousness to the countless plots surrounding him and this would be no different. Cadmus could become inclined to use more direct methods if subtler options were cut off too decisively. Better to string him along with false hope, buy time to tangle the threads of intrigue and cross the paths of competing conspirators.
"We will discuss the issue later," Randwulf said, "after the rebel problem has been dealt with."
Cadmus bowed his head in a display of grateful obedience. "Thank you, Your Majesty."
There would come a time when Randwulf the Conqueror would rise above the plots of mere mortals, but for the time being, he had to play the game. Soon the son of Luther would stand before him and the next great step in his journey would be achieved. Then he could afford to weed out a few snakes in the grass like Cadmus Martial. More than ever, he looked forward to that day.