Chapter 7

Mount Spens, Titan; Anno Titanos 284

"You have to spill a lot of blood to get to the top. You have to spill even more to stay there."
- Saying attributed to Adwulf the Conqueror

Conquest was by no means an easy task. The road was long and hard and Randwulf had only taken the first few tiny steps. His Marauders were progressing nicely, but he had to take things slowly. It took months to train the first group up to his strict standards and any new group he overcame needed just as much time to reach the necessary level of skill. He refused to sacrifice quality for speed, though, and exhibited a level of patience that would drive most men insane.
It was getting easier, though, for a cadre had started to take shape that relieved him of much of the burden of the day-to-day training. That did not mean Randwulf stopped training the men himself, but he did not do it all the time. Sometimes he stood aside and simply observed. Other times he went off on his own to train himself.
He did not allow any patterns. Not for the men, not for himself. Nothing that gave an opening for complacency to set in. He had to keep them guessing. He had to keep his edge. There was still so much that needed to be done.
Today he was taking an active role in the training. He had been told one of the newer recruits was causing problems for the cadre. He had skill, enough to best the cadre who tried to put him in his place. He needed to be shown his limits.
To that end, Randwulf staged a mock tournament. The winner would fight him. Either the troublemaker would be put down by another Marauder or Randwulf would deal with him personally. Either way the problem would be resolved.
Randwulf watched the troublemaker's progress with great interest. The reports of his skill were not exaggerated. His fighting style was crude yet brutally efficient. He did not hesitate. He had no compunction against wounding his opponents. He had promise. He could be a model for what the Marauders aspire to become, but he had to learn that there was no challenging Randwulf's orders.
Unsurprisingly, the troublemaker defeated all the other challengers, leaving none but Randwulf himself. The Conqueror wondered how he could have overlooked this person until now. He was not a prominent member of his gang, so either he had not had the chance to distinguish himself or he had deliberately hidden his true ability.
Randwulf pondered these things as the Marauders formed a ring around him and his opponent. They brandished their weapons and raised an awful racket. They were really getting into it. All the more reason for Randwulf to make his point clearly and quickly.
The Conqueror sized up his opponent. He was a little older than Randwulf, taller and more muscular. Still, his frame was not overly bulky, which gave him a fair measure of agility. He knew he was good, and that made him arrogant, too arrogant for his own good, as Randwulf would soon demonstrate. But first, formalities had to be attended to.
"Tell me your name," Randwulf said.
"I'm Thor Magnusson," the troublemaker replied. He gave a slight, insincere bow. "What an honor to be facing the big man himself."
Randwulf frowned and turned his back to the man.
"Come at me."
"I'll come when you face me!" Magnusson snapped.
Randwulf did not move.
"Face me!" Magnusson shouted. "You trying to make a fool of me!?"
"I said, 'Come at me.'"
Magnusson took the bait and charged at him. Randwulf unhooked his sword, still in its scabbard, and without looking back, thrust it behind him. As expected, it jabbed Magnusson in the stomach. While he was still doubled over, Randwulf quickly stepped back and used the sheathed sword as a bar to force his challenger to the ground. To the cheers of the Marauders, he took another step back as he hooked the scabbard back on his swordbelt.
Magnusson was quick to get back up and swung at Randwulf as he rose. The Conqueror stepped out of the way, unhooking his scabbard once more. This time he struck Magnusson in the face with the pommel and then swept out his leg. Magnusson was on the ground again and the Marauders were cheering more wildly than ever.
Magnusson scrambled to his feet again, but did not attack right off.
"Draw your sword, damn you!" he howled.
That arrogance of his was fueling anger and that anger would make him sloppy. It would not be much longer now.
"Draw your sword!"
Randwulf did not answer. The troublemaker did not deserve an answer. He needed to know that he did not deserve an answer, that for whatever skill he possessed, he was nothing before Randwulf the Conqueror.
Magnusson then did something Randwulf was not expecting. He raised his sword high. It was some sort of signal, because Randwulf saw a number of Marauders turn their weapons on their comrades. Two dozen. Three. Maybe more.
Though still seething with anger, Magnusson seemed to rein it in somewhat, thinking he had gained some sort of advantage.
"Draw your sword," he demanded. "This is no game. I'm challenging you. We've had it with way you run things. I'm taking over."
So that was what this was all about. He was hoping for something like this, a chance to stage his little rebellion. Actually, Randwulf was a little surprised that he was the first to try it, or at least the first to do so with any semblance of success. Now to end it.
Randwulf did not address Magnusson. After all, he was nothing. Instead he called out to the men circled around him.
"Show me how Marauders live!"
His Marauders rewarded him by falling upon the traitors in their midst, without regard for the hostages held at sword- and knifepoint or any injury to themselves. Many of those hostages took hold of the blades of the men who threatened them, taking their own lives to give the others a clear shot at the traitors.
In no time the traitors were all dead, along with a good score of loyal men. It was brief, bloody and beautiful. Indeed, Randwulf was not sure that he had instilled so much loyalty so soon. It was a good thing, too, for their sake as well as his own. Had they not done exactly as they had done, he would have killed them all and started over from the beginning.
All that remained was Thor Magnusson. Surely he had been planning this little uprising for some time and in an instant it was over. He just stood there for a moment in stunned silence, trying to comprehend what had just happened. When his situation became all too clear, he realized there was no hope for victory and turned his blade on himself.
He did not get the chance to take his own life, though. The moment he raised his blade to slash open his neck, Randwulf rushed forward, disarming Magnusson on the draw of his sword.
The Conqueror glared at the failed usurper and told him, "Your life is mine now. I won't have you taking what's mine. Now pick up your sword and come with me."
Stunned, Magnusson could barely muster the wits to ask him, "Why?"
"Training," Randwulf replied. "You're now my squire." He then turned to his cadre and said, "I'll be back in a month. Continue the training. For the men who died loyal to me, see that they are buried with honor."
"And the traitors, sir?" one of the cadre asked.
"Leave them for the crows."
Randwulf walked off and Magnusson followed. Now he would take on a new challenge. The quickest, easiest answer was to eliminate any and all threats to his authority, but what if he could turn even the most stubborn foe? It would be worth finding out. It might come in handy one day.