Chapter 13
Mammon's Thrall

Lake Titania, Titan; Anno Titanos 291

"If someone wants to make you do their dirty work for them, see that they pay you well to keep their hands clean."
- Saying attributed to Rorik the Great, the Mercenary King

It was hard to believe that mere years ago the Crescent Mountains were teeming with dozens of competing bandit groups. Now there was scarcely a person to be found in all the southern half of the mountains and Randwulf and his Marauders were moving northward to claim those that remained.
While the Marauders' training did not stop for winter, Randwulf did not usually make new acquisitions until the spring. Now that spring had come, the Marauders were on the move again. They were expected to live off the land, but whenever that was not enough, Randwulf would march on one of the villages and demand a tribute. It was an extension of the raids from the Marauders' early years. Their reputation, and Randwulf's, had spread widely, even into the heart of the old kingdom. The Wolf of Cygnus and his Marauders were feared by all who knew of them, but not everyone had the sense to steer clear of them.
A small group of people crossed the Marauders' path. They claimed to represent certain interested parties that wanted to speak with Randwulf. They promised to make it worth his while, that he would be rewarded handsomely just to listen to what they had to say. Randwulf decided to meet with them. Whatever the reward was, he could make use of it.
Randwulf left most of the men behind, even though there was a modest risk of a trap. If these people were that stupid, he could deal with them himself. Still, a proper retinue could give him some leverage, so he selected two dozen men, among them Thor Magnusson--who had gone from rebel to first among the Marauders and the Conqueror's most faithful lieutenant--and the giant Ursus.
The meeting place was on the shores of Lake Titania, not far from the village of Lambda. Randwulf surveyed their camp from a distance before approaching. The company was small, supported by about fifty armed men, mercenaries by the look of them. They did not stand a chance against two dozen Marauders, but fighting was obviously not their aim.
As Randwulf and his following approached the camp, he was met by ten guards, fairly well equipped and with decent discipline. Their apparent leader was a wealthy-looking man about Randwulf's age, geared better than the guards as evidence of his rank.
"You are the one they call the Wolf of Cygnus, yes?" he asked.
"I am," Randwulf replied.
The man motioned for him to follow.
"This way."
They were led to the central tent in the camp. Six guards were posted around it and two roving patrols of four men each were closeby. They took their security seriously, Randwulf gave them that, even though they were surely aware of being outmatched. What a difference it would be if all four hundred Marauders were there.
"I would ask you to leave your men here," their guide said, "and enter alone."
Randwulf nodded to Magnusson. "This man comes with me. I will allow the others to stay."
"So be it."
Randwulf gave a hand signal that was all the instruction his men needed to stand fast while he attended to business. Following their guide. he and Magnusson entered the tent.
Inside, twelve rich men were waiting for them. They had to be well-to-do merchants, descendants of the old jarl families, or perhaps a little of both. One of them seemed more dignified than the rest. He had a certain gravity to his bearing even though he was not the oldest among them. He nodded to their guide first.
"Thank you, Diomedes," he said. "You may stay if you like."
"I would rather keep an eye on the men," Diomedes replied, "and our... guests."
The apparent leader simply nodded some more and Diomedes left the tent. He then turned his attention to Randwulf.
"So... the dreaded Wolf of Cygnus... We meet at last. Allow me to introduce myself. I am called Laertes."
"And I am Randwulf the Conqueror," Randwulf replied, "of House Wulf, heir to the Eight Stars."
"House Wulf?" Laertes asked. "I thought House Wulf resided in the lands to the south."
"Circumstances brought my family to Titan many years ago and we have not gotten out since. Perhaps you recall the Cygnus Bandits that were once the terror of these mountains."
"Ah, yes, the Cygnus Bandits. I seem to remember they were led by a man called Adwulf after the War."
"My ancestor, four generations back."
Laertes was taken aback. "For heirs of the Eight Stars to fall to banditry..."
"They got out of the business."
"And you got back in."
"My Marauders are an army. They have left their bandit past behind them."
"The villages here do not quite see it that way."
"For common folk, there is little difference between a conquering army and a bandit horde, but I would expect you gentlemen to be more... discerning."
Laertes nodded.
"Indeed, and that is why we have called you here."
"The reward. Up front."
"Of course."
Laertes motioned to a couple servants, who hoisted up a chest and presented it to Randwulf, opening it up to display the contents.
"Coins mean little since the kingdom fell," Laertes said, "but that is ten pounds of gold and twenty pounds of silver."
"It will be enough to open my ears,: Randwulf said. "What have you got to say?"
"This was once a great nation. Then came the War. The Nordmen called it Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods, the end of the world. Only it did not play out as their stories said. The so-called gods and monsters perished, but by and large, we survived, though it was only for a time.
"The kingdom was shaken and never recovered. It slipped out of the hands of the incompetents who sat on the throne, and now for twenty years we have struggled in chaos."
"I need no history lesson," Randwulf said. "I know it all too well. Before I started gathering my Marauders, I traveled throughout the land fighting lawless men. Chaos ruled because the supposed leaders of this land failed. You failed."
"It is true that the jarls fought amongst themselves after King Polonius was driven from the throne," Laertes admitted, "that their squabbling destroyed the only hope to maintain law and order. They and their fighting men died, leaving no one to lead, and so brigands and bandits came in to fill the void.
"We are different, though. We seek to restore Titan to its former glory, but we cannot do it alone. Stories of the Wolf of Cygnus and his Marauders have traveled to ever corner of this land. You have tamed the mountains, this hive for wild bandits, and forged an army.
"You have great power, Randwulf the Conqueror, and we would like to have that power to further our cause. For Titan."
Randwulf said nothing, only crossing his arms.
"You and your men will be well compensated for your service, of course," Laertes said hastily. "Why, you yourself could be made a jarl, captain of the new Hird, commander of the army."
Laertes gaped silently for a moment, not believing what he had just heard.
"What? But you--"
"What would I want with a dead, broken kingdom? Even if I took the throne for myself, what would I have to show for it? This miserable land, where I have to turn to bandits to make my army. No, I can do better."
"Wait! Please listen. We--"
Randwulf turned and walked out of the tent. The man from before, Diomedes, was standing there, flanked by several guards. He glared mightily at the Conqueror.
"You would do well to listen," he said bitterly.
"Move," Randwulf said.
The man did not move. Did he seriously think he could stand in the way of Randwulf the Conqueror?
"I do not repeat myself," Randwulf said.
"Neither do I," Diomedes replied.
Randwulf rested his hand on the hilt of his sword. If he had to kill everyone in the camp to prove the Randwulf the Conqueror moves for no man, he would. The only question was whether this Diomedes was sensible enough to stand down or not. A lot of lives hung in the balance as the two men faced off. Those lives were spared when a voice intervened.
"For God's sake, Diomedes, stand aside! He has made his decision."
It was Laertes, who might have left the tent to make a last-ditch plea for Randwulf's services. Grudgingly, Diomedes and his men cleared the way for Randwulf and Magnusson. Did he realize how close he was to getting all his comrades killed? If he did, he was bolder and more foolish than Randwulf would have imagined.
The Conqueror motioned to his waiting entourage and they headed back to the mountains. He did not pay the camp another glance. They were not worth his time or attention.
"Are you sure about this, sir?" Magnusson asked. "We could've taken this whole land and you would rule it as king."
"I have no desire for this dead land," Randwulf said. Drawing his sword, he pointed to the horizon beyond the mountains. "My destiny lies there, in the East. That is where my Marauders will go."
"Not yet. The time is not ripe. There are not enough men. First we go north and harvest what we can from the last of the mountain bandits. Once that is done and all are properly trained and equipped, we make our move."
"That could take years."
"Then it will take years. It takes time to raise dogs to men, men to Marauders. It has been nearly eight years already. What are a few years more?"
Randwulf would love nothing more to get on with the main event, but the Marauders were not yet ready. He knew that. Also, he recalled the trial on Mount Lang. He had since come to the conclusion that the same forces that gave him the prophecy of his rise to power had tested him and surely they would come again. In the meantime, he had to prepare. If it took years, it took years. He would have the destiny promised to him at any cost and would not accept anything less.