Thursday, 4 April 2013

[Short Story] Black Crown

The King sat, reclined in a hide-covered chair as he idly thumbed through the pieces of increasingly tattered parchment sitting in a pile upon the wooden table in front of him. His eyes, weary from long hours reading by what little light the candles dotted around his tent, scanned each entry on the lengthy list; checking for any irregularities which needed to be addressed. Finding none, he yawned and placed the casualty list to one side; cursing the stubborn Lords sitting on the other side of that river.

Feeling lethargic, he stood up and stretched; his many royal adornments jingling softly as he moved, the only small sounds of an otherwise silent night. His back clicked a little; though he was a young man, King Valerius Milvian's reign had been marked by war more completely than any of his predecessors. But, he thought, it had not been for naught; though this damnable battle had been persisting for the better part of three days now, if he could make the final push all of his dreams would be realised. He had already won four of his fellow Kings to his cause; leaving only two to fight for their foolish national pride. If they could not be made to see sense, they would be made to comply. This was the only way to finally have peace.

"My Lord?"

King Valerius peered over his shoulder to the man standing at the entrance to his tent, tentatively poking his head through the folds of the thick velvet. He did not recognise the soldier, though judging by his leather armour and the colours upon his tabard he was one of the camp sentries.

"What news, soldier? Are they mounting an attack?" King Valerius said, beckoning the young fellow inside.

"No milord, nothing so dire. Rather, a small party of barbarians has approached the west gate. They say they wish you well in tomorrow's battle, and have a tribute to pay should you speak to their leader."

"Really?" King Valerius smiled slightly, though he was wary of becoming too immediately excited. The barbarians of the far north were a fickle, strange people whose ways were as illogical as they were exotic. He considered for a moment, before nodding. "Have their tribute brought; I shall speak to their envoy."

"Yes milord." the young soldier nodded, exiting the tent and rushing away; King Valerius listening to his pacy footsteps as he ran.

The King looked back to his chair somewhat longingly, for his patience with the day was becoming increasingly strained as it dragged on and he wished to sit down once more. But it would not do to sit while the northern envoy was present; the barbarians needed a consistent display of strength to keep them at bay, and any sign of weakness would be exploited, he was sure. He stretched for a few more moments, his tunic perhaps a little tighter that it had been at the beginning of this grand campaign; though whether that was due to fat or muscle, he was not sure. He had barely been a man when he took the throne, but now he was thirty-four years of age he had  indulged in both tremendous excess and tremendous hardship. The King was roused from his reflection by the loud clanking sound of an old chest being unceremoniously dropped to the floor. Looking up, he saw a woman.

The woman was short for a barbarian, which is to say the King's eyes were roughly level with her mouth. She was however clearly of the northern blood; her skin was pale, near-white in tone, and she bore a number of tribal markings under her left eye. Her lips were full and unusually red, her eyes lined in coal-black; if his wife was to believed, this was an effect achieved with dyes made from cow's blood and ash respectively. She was clad in thick brown bear furs, as well as a pair of thick leather trousers and boots. The King looked at her somewhat disdainfully; sending a woman was a cowardly act.

"I've already said I will meet with your envoy." the King said simply, waving his hand at her to leave. The woman frowned, looking the King in the eye sternly and refusing to move.

"You are meeting with the envoy." she said plainly. "And you would do well, my liege, to respect me as such."

The sarcasm with which she laced her words was concerning, to say the least. King Valerius quickly re-thought his position and decided that it would be best not to irritate her any further.

"Of course. Forgive me, I was simply not expecting..."

"Your ways are not ours. This is something our peoples are aware of; and a minor indiscretion ought not to change matters." the envoy said, again quite bluntly - her manner was far from any of the demure noble ladies King Valerius was used to dealing with. "I have come to give you a message and a tribute. The former must precede the latter."

"Very well; I bid you speak quickly, I have matters to which I must attend."

"Of course. Dear King, it is clear to the northern tribes that your victory in this war will be coming shortly. You have superior numbers and superior resources; any prolonged resistance is bound to fail. So in the effort to bring good relations between our two peoples, we send you this trinket."

The envoy bowed slightly, just enough for their eyes to be level for a moment, before she turned and unlocked the chest behind her. She carefully pulled out what King Valerius at first thought to be some sort of ugly statue - but which he realised moments later was a type of circlet. It was black, crudely forged and rather plain - made from rugged iron, not even as refined as the buckles upon the envoy's own clothing. He frowned at it for a few seconds, before taking it in hand. He supposed it did not matter what the thing looked like, so long as its intentions were worthwhile.

"Thank you, this is most kind. A beautiful thing, fit for my..." King Valerius began, but he was quickly cut across by a coarse laugh from the barbarian envoy.

"Do not pretend it is not a foul-looking thing, dear King. Its value lies in its meaning... it is a black crown. Among the tribes of the north, it signifies authority and loyalty. Whoever wears a black crown shows that they are strong enough to serve, and humble enough to do so willingly. They are blessed by the Holy Flame; it will bring you fortune."

So, that was it - a religious bit of shoddy metalwork. He supposed it would do; the barbarians of the north had long been a thorn in the side of the seven kingdoms, and if he could end their raiding it would at least make the transition to his rule easier.

"I thank you. I shall wear it with honour." King Valerius nodded. The envoy peered at him for a moment, as if testing his sincerity, before she nodded and exited his tent. The king waited for a soldier to tell him the barbarians had left, before he cast the ugly crown to his bed and let it sit there - attending to his papers for a while longer before finally conceding that he ought to sleep.


King Valerius muttered something foul as one of his attendants nicked him on the chin with the heavy iron plate he was attempting to strap to the King's shoulder. He had to grin and bear it though; better to receive a few small cuts getting into his armour rather than lose something important on the field. It only took a few minutes until he was armoured and ready to go - the King checking to see that his joints moved smoothly. Satisfied, he dismissed his attendants. As they left, his eyes fell once more onto the ugly black crown. He had placed it on the desk when he'd retired for the night, but many times he'd awoken only to find himself staring at the thing. He didn't like it, it gave him an uneasy feeling; as if he was being watched by a creature far greater than himself. It struck him that he had never bothered to try it for size.

He picked it up carefully, feeling its weight in his hand - it was a little lighter than he had expected, but then again on closer inspection it was also a little thinner than he had initially thought. He raised it above his head and placed it gently over the iron ringmail hood he was wearing; pleasantly surprised to find that it fit rather snugly and kept the ringmail from slipping down. He shrugged, figuring that another layer of iron between ones skull and the enemy was never a bad thing, and so exited his tent.

The camp was large, though smaller than it had been in previous days - many tents had been taken down as their occupants began to pile up in a heap outside the perimeter. It was full of movement and life, men rushing to make final preparations before the day's battle. He looked to the sky; it was probably the second hour from dawn, and his enemies were unlikely to move before the third. King Valerius then turned his attention to the camp on the other side of the wide river in front of them. It was also very large, though by his estimation had around a third of the forces he did. It sat around a hundred yards or so from the river bank, as did King Valerius' own camp. The two armies separated by a vast river and a large stone bridge in front of them.

"Fools." he muttered grimly as one of his subordinate Lords came and stood beside him. "Surely they know their plight is hopeless. They lose more men each day, yet they refuse to surrender or run - doing battle with them is less like conquest and more like butchery."

"They don't intend to win, milord." the Lord smiled weakly, peering at the thin wisps of smoke coming from the camp's fire. "They're hoping to soften us up, so that when we inevitably make them martyrs the people will be able to continue things from there."

"How depressing." King Valerius sighed. "They die for nothing."

"I wouldn't underestimate them, milord. Besides - it will all be over soon. The men plan to march within the hour."

"We're not waiting for them to attack?"

"We've waited for them to attack three days in a row now. They're weak, they're tired; if we keep them that way, we ought to have victory today."

"Excellent, excellent." King Valerius said, his grim frown turning to a sly smile. He patted his loyal servant on the shoulder boisterously, motioning with his other hand to the sky. "Grab your armour and sound the men, Grant - today is a glorious day for fighting!"

The Lord nodded, turned and left; barking orders as he walked, the soldiers quickly grabbing whatever they needed from their belongings and lining up in formation. It was a matter of minutes before the well-drilled army, around four-thousand strong, had assembled themselves and were ready to act upon any order given them. King Valerius looked to his impressive ranks of archers, raising his hand.

The archers knocked their arrows, waiting for his signal. As King Valerius dropped his hand, the archers lifted their bows to the sky and began to rythmically fill the air with the thousand-strong sound of wood whistling through the air as it flew towards the camp on the other side of the river. They began to hear shouts and screams as their enemies scrambled to deal with this unexpected attack; a few arrows being returned, but few finding their mark. It was clear they had not been prepared, and were simply trying to find whatever they could to defend themselves.

A few seconds later, a flood of soldiers came from the fortified entrance to the enemy camp; charging over the grassy space and desperately attempting to heed the panicked orders of their generals. King Valerius whistled for the attention of his own soldiers, before ordering them on; the immense army rushing from their own gates to meet their foes on the bridge. There was a mounting roar as the two bodies charged towards one another, which fell to deathly silence the split-second before they clashed. King Valerius drew his own blade and grabbed a large wooden shield from nearby, beginning to run towards the mass of flailing iron gathering on the bridge.

It was not long before the casualties began to pile up; cleaved bodies being thrown over the side of the bridge by their own allies lest they fall to the floor and cause someone to trip. King Valerius' archers did not cease their iron rain either, forcing more and more soldiers from the camp before they were ready; giving King Valerius' troops precious extra seconds before their enemies were able to fight. Slowly but surely, and at great cost, the King's troops pushed the enemy back from the bridge onto the grassy plain just behind it; allowing the men far more room to manoeuvre, and therefore far less chance of being struck down unexpectedly by one's allies in the dense mêlée. King Valerius moved in closer, blood from his blade splashing across his face as he whirled it around.

All was going well, until the King found himself knocked to the ground by a massive weight crashing into his right side. He rolled on the floor, scrambling away from the spot where he'd been knocked only moments before an axe thudded into the ground. His assailant pulled his weapon from the ground, rounding on King Valerius once more; managing to grab hold of his armour for just long enough to puncture the King's shoulder-plate. Thankfully, King Valerius was only nicked by the blow and managed to struggle free before he was hurt any further. He managed to get to his feet and catch his bearings; seeing a familiar face standing in front of him.

The bright blue eyes looking back at him furiously were ones he recognised, belonging in fact to King Marion of Versa Minor; one of the only Kings left to resist Valerius' grand conquest. Valerius readied his shield just in time for Marion's axe to thud into it firmly, giving him a moment to catch his breath as Marion struggled to remove it from the wood.

"I never picked you for a soldier, Valerius! I always thought you were more content to sit back and let others do your dirty work for you!" Marion exclaimed, ducking out of the way of Valerius' fierce counter-blow. "It seems you've grown a backbone since I last saw you, boy!"

"You could have kept your land, old man, if only you would have listened to some sense; the old days are over. This will be the last battle I fight, mark my words; it is a shame that you will not be there to enjoy the new age."

"And what of the barbarians? You assume that they will simply leave you be, now that you have created your glorious new age? You are a bigger threat to them than ever before."

Valerius thrust his blade forwards, the iron finding its mark on Marion's breastplate but skipping off to one side due to the curvature of the plate. It made little more than a scratch on the elder man's torso, Valerius' precarious position allowing Marion to plant his boot firmly on Valerius' own chest. Valerius lost his balance once more, toppling down to the riverbank and dropping his shield to one side. Marion ran over, quickly and repeatedly swinging his axe at Valerius' head; Valerius just about managing to avoid each blow by turning one way and the other. He brought his blade in front of him to block another fierce stroke, the two metal pieces locking together momentarily.

"You deprive the people of their hope and their identity, Valerius; if they do not have their homeland, what do they have? Are you so caught up in noble politics that you take away a peasant's only consolation?"

"They have their spirits, they have their state; of what import is the name of the place or who rules it to them?" Valerius shouted, his sword nearly being tugged from his hands as Marion pulled at it with the hook-like backside of his axehead. He tightened his grip, managing to bring his blade around and strike at Marion's side; the iron not managing to cut the thick armour he wore, but still weighty enough to wind him momentarily.

Marion seemed relatively un-phased by this however, recovering quickly and not permitting Valerius to stand; bringing his axe around for another strike. This one was on target, Valerius not reacting quick enough to avoid it; the iron falling down about his forehead. Valerius' vision was blurred as he attempted to recover from the heavy blow. He was not sure if he had been cut; injuries were often obscured by the adrenaline of the moment. He did notice his window however, and so thrust his blade upwards; finding its mark in the thinner armour around Marion's right armpit. Marion reeled backwards, dropping his axe and clutching his arm; hot blood pouring from the fresh wound.

Valerius' head still pounding, he stood up and bore Marion to the ground; taking once last look at the man's grizzled face before he thrust his blade down once more.


King Valerius sat on the side of the bridge, a medic tending to his wounds; bodies littered around him and wounded soldiers being carefully put on stretchers and carried back to the camp by their healthy comrades. He flinched slightly as the physician applied some unpleasant-smelling ointment to his head and shoulder, but he did not move his eyes in the slightest; keeping them fixated on the object in his hands.

The black crown was severed at its crest, a thin cut marking the place where King Marion's axehead had split the metal. It had saved his life, he was now realising; provided just enough extra covering to prevent the axe from penetrating his head. As it stood, he has received a nasty cut; but his ringmail hood and the crown had stopped the blow from reaching anything vital. Provided the wound was cleaned, he was told he would recover swiftly.

The medic finally finishing his work, Marion was permitted to stand once more. He did so, waving his servant away and looking over the battlefield; men lying dead on the field in droves, as well as on the bridge he found himself on. It was a hot afternoon and flies had begun to gather, but King Valerius didn't mind. It was finally over; both Kings had been reported dead, and beyond the suppression of their immediate allies and family there was naught stopping him from creating his new state.

King Valerius smiled, placing the black crown back on his head. This year was the first of a new era; the Milvian age, he would call it, in honour of his family name. He would rule a single, unified kingdom. A kingdom marked not by war, but by peace. This was his dream, and he could make it his reality.

Little did he know which course history would take.

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