Chapter 22
The Eve of Conquest

Titan-Gladius Border; Anno Titanos 297

"The eve of a conquest is the day the kindling is lit."
- A proverb attributed to Wulf the Conqueror

From the summit of an unnamed mountain on the border, Randwulf could get a clear view of the small valley below, walled off by the easternmost peaks of the Crescent Mountains. In that valley was a castle on a ridge overlooking what appeared to be a quarry. The only way to reach the castle was by going through the quarry and scaling the narrow, winding trail up the ridge. The position was easy to defend. Taking it would not be easy.
It was tempting to pass over what appeared to be nothing more than a marchland estate, but surely there was a garrison there and Randwulf had no intention of keeping one eye over his shoulder as he pushed deeper into enemy territory. Fortunately, traitors in the enemy's ranks were due to arrive with intelligence that would make his task considerably easier.
"Is it wise, sir," Magnusson asked, "to trust that trollmann?"
"Trust has nothing to do with it," Randwulf replied. "That warlock is not the sort to waste his time and energies. He wants this to happen. These men he has tempted to betray their homeland, they believe there is something to gain from our victory. So long as all our interests meet, we can dance this little dance."
Magnusson shook his head. "There's more steel in your nerves than mine, sir."
"That is why I am in command."
A small company of men appeared in the distance.
"Here they come," Magnusson noted.
So these were the traitors. There were about twenty of them. They wore the colors of their original loyalties, but they flew a black banner to identify themselves to the Marauders. Their apparent leader walked in the front of the formation. He was a big man, nearly as tall as Magnusson and as thickly built as Grimmson. He did not look very old, but he was already bald, though the long scar along his scalp may have been the reason for it.
When he got close enough to Randwulf, the man asked, "Are you the one they call Randwulf the Conqueror, the Wolf of Cygnus?"
"I am," Randwulf replied. "And who might you be?"
"I am called Cadmus Martial. Count Cadmus Martial, Lieutenant, Cavalry Regiment."
A nobleman and an officer. It explained his proud bearing. Perhaps a little too proud for his own good. This was no doubt one of the reasons for his betrayal, but Randwulf wanted to hear it from Cadmus' own mouth.
"What drives a man of your rank to betray his native land?"
"My talents weren't recognized as they deserved to be," Cadmus said. "I expect you to be a man of greater vision."
Without warning, Randwulf drew his sword and charged at the traitorous Count. Cadmus was lucky to have sharp enough reflexes to draw his own blade to block. Randwulf would not have stopped. Having taken Cadmus by surprise, Randwulf had an overwhelming advantage and did not let up, quickly disarming him and forcing him to the ground.
The other Gladians rushed to the Count's aid. There were just twenty of them. Randwulf could have easily taken them himself, but Magnusson joined in to speed things along. He knew from how Randwulf dispatched the Count that his intention was not to kill them, only to teach them a lesson. In no time at all, the entire group of them was soundly beaten.
Stepping on Cadmus' chest, Randwulf steadied the point of his blade between his eyes.
"Know your place," he growled.
Cadmus glared at the Conqueror, but did not make any move against him. That would be enough for the time being.
Stepping off Cadmus, Randwulf said, "You have some skill behind all that bluster. We will see it measured better on the battlefield. Now get up and tell me what you know."
Cadmus stood up and dusted himself off. One of his men handed him his sword, which he promptly sheathed.
"Where do you want to start?" he asked.
"Tell me of that outpost down there in the valley."
Cadmus looked at him incredulously. "Outpost? That's Castle Greystone, the palace of King Edgar himself and home to the greater part of the Royal Gladian Army."
It was Randwulf's turn to be incredulous.
"Here on the border?" he asked. "In the mountains, away from civilization?"
"It was the hideout of that brigand Everard when he overran the kingdom all those years ago. It's why the men of his line call themselves the Mountain Kings."
Randwulf wondered if Cadmus justly called this Everard a brigand. If so, this clash would be all the more ironic. Now was not the time for such musings, though.
"What is their strength?" he asked.
"They can field two thousand men with another six hundred in reserve and a few hundred men-at-arms belonging to the King's vassals."
"Did you bring a map? Show me the lay of the land."
Cadmus nodded to one of his men, who brought a map and spread it out before them. It was curiously drawn, with the west at the top instead of north, apparently to put the castle above everything else. Cadmus started his explanation by pointing to the castle.
"Here is the castle, the quarry and the miners' camp."
Looking at the map, Randwulf was surprised at its bareness.
"So there are seven cities in this kingdom?"
"Only six," Cadmus said. "The port was razed last year. And the two in the south can hardly be called cities."
This Gladius was truly a small country, regardless of how much land was encompassed by its borders. This, of course, made the Conqueror's work all the easier.
"What of the garrisons there?" Randwulf asked.
Cadmus gave him a critical look. "Shouldn't you be focusing on Greystone?"
Randwulf had neither the time nor the patience for this short-sighted fool.
"You cannot go far if your vision stops at the end of your nose," he said. "Tell me what I want to know."
Cadmus hesitated a little before answering. "The garrisons are insignificant. The nobles' men-at-arms keep the peace."
"And what do they number?"
"They aren't recorded on rolls like the army, so I can't tell an exact figure, but it's nothing too substantial. Of the four cities that matter, Corinth will side with you if all goes well, Cruz will not put up much resistance, and the best fighting men from Eagle are already here."
"What of the fourth?"
"There are many in Stormtree loyal to the current King, but it's manageable. Throughout the kingdom, I have turned hundreds to our side. Thousands more wait to see how the wind blows. Victory here will ensure your conquest of the entire kingdom."
It would certainly be convenient if events played out as Cadmus said, but Randwulf did not trust him or his judgment. Nevertheless, regardless of how easy or difficult the conquest of this land would prove to be, everything would begin with the taking of the castle.
"Are there any other ways to approach the castle?" Randwulf asked.
"No," Cadmus replied. "You will have to meet them in the quarry."
"Will they not hide within the safety of the walls?"
"The son of a brigand's line he may be, but King Edgar would never suffer to hide when faced with a challenge. The army will come to you."
Magnusson leaned forward and said in a low voice, "Even if we're on equal footing, we're sorely outnumbered, sir."
At that moment, the warlock appeared suddenly, not in a puff of smoke or a burst of flame but he was simply there.
"My pets will tip the scales in your favor," he said in his rasping voice.
Chanting in some long-forgotten tongue, two forms rose up out of the ground and began to take shape. One was the great red monster Randwulf had faced before. The other was much smaller, about the size of a dog with hindlegs like a frog and forelimbs like sickles.
The warlock gestured to the red monster, then to the green one, saying, "This, the Red Demon, and this, the Thresher. They will glut themselves on the flesh of your enemies, scatter their ranks, and break their power. Tell your men not to fear them nor interfere with them, and they will speed your victory."
Cadmus saw an opportunity and added, "I have about three hundred men throughout the army. When the battle begins, we will attack and throw them into chaos."
Randwulf looked at Cadmus and then to the warlock. He wondered what the warlock offered to the greedy Count. Whatever help he might prove to be, it could very well be the Conqueror's undoing. It was a dangerous game and the stakes could not possibly be higher. Still, the only way was forward.
"So be it," Randwulf said finally.
His path was set.