An Exchange of Prisoners
What days the past two have been! Now I am free and Inclito is in command again, which is a great relief to me. In addition we have more than three hundred fresh mercenaries, whom I have pledged to pay. Tomorrow I am going back to Blanko to try to raise the money. In a moment I will write about everything; but first I should say that we are a formidable force now. A hundred and five of the troopers we left in Blanko joined us while I was talking with the mercenaries-my mercenaries, I should call them-and yet another group, I would think almost two hundred, arrived this morning. I was on the point of leaving then, and if an exact count was made I have not heard the total.
What happened after I wrote last was that the mercenaries sent Gorak, Chaku, and two others to talk to me a little after sunrise. Their own officers were meeting to decide what was to be done, they said, and they had disarmed their commander and put him under guard. I was invited to come and address their meeting-invited so urgently, in fact, that for a moment or two I thought they might carry me off bodily.
I told them that although I was presently in charge of the horde of Blanko, it would be better if two of its leading men treated with them as well as I, so that I could not be accused of overstepping my authority. (I should explain that I first summoned the two I had in mind, and they were in hearty agreement.)
Nothing had been said about that in their camp, so they returned to speak with their officers again.
They came back about midmorning, this time with a mercenary officer, one Captain Kupus. He is short and stout and looks, in fact, like anything but a military man; but he is a shrewd thinker from what I have seen of him. His men, whose respect he plainly has, say he is as brave as a hus.
He had brought a counterproposal, pointing out that our General Inclito was their prisoner and a leading citizen of Blanko. They would permit him, and his daughter as well, to attend the meeting. Surely, he said, I would agree that was fair.
Naturally I replied that I had no say in the matter, and asked the leading men I had chosen (their names are Bello and Vivo) for their opinions. They replied as I had hoped they would, that Inclito might be under duress-we had no way of knowing what threats had been made to him. They would be happy to have him present, and Mora, too. But they themselves would have to be present also. After an hour or so of generally circular arguments, this was agreed to provided that all three of us came unarmed and agreed to be searched.
To speed matters up, I loaned Captain Kupus, Gorak and the rest horses, which seemed to impress them. While these were being saddled and so forth, I was able to conceal my azoth – for obvious reasons I will not specify the place.
The meeting took place in the open amid softly falling snow, a circle of stones serving Kupus and the other four mercenary officers, Bello, Vivo, and me for seats. Neither Inclito nor Mora were present, so we asked at once that they be brought in.
It led to the first great surprise of that day, for the girl who was marched out with Inclito was not Mora but Fava. I tried to maintain my composure, and I hope managed my face better than Bello and Vivo did. We insisted that seats be provided Inclito and Fava – calling her Mora-as well, and this was done. The other mercenaries crowded around, and the meeting proper came to order.
We began by acquainting Inclito (and, of course, all the listeners around us, although we pretended to speak to Inclito alone) with the present situation. I went to Blanko on the morning that he left home, I told him, in accordance with his orders. I had expected, I said, to find the horde of Blanko assembled and preparing to march.
What I had found instead was fewer than a hundred men, more than half of them mercenaries. My second in command and I spent a good two hours conferring with various people, but our efforts added only forty-two more. We assembled the leading men of the town then, forcing some who were reluctant to attend to do so. I outlined the danger of defeat in detail, the grave danger that small groups of troopers, widely separated, might be decimated, one after another, by an enemy small when compared to their total, but large in comparison to each group.
I had warned them that we would march at once with what troops we had, challenge the Duko's forces-however great-and resist their invasion to the best of our ability. If we were overwhelmed (and I admitted frankly that it was what I expected) I counseled them to throw themselves upon the mercy of Duko Rigoglio, who might conceivably permit some of them to retain their houses, shops, and farms.
After which we had formed up, twenty cavalry and ninety-six infantry, and marched.
Frowning, Inclito shook his head. "You were taking a terrible risk."
It was very gracious of him to say so, I told him, but he knew as well as I that it is the business of troopers to undergo terrible risks in fulfillment of their duty. (This went over well with my hearers, I felt.)
Fava asked whether we had not gone slowly so that those behind could join us.
I shook my head. "We marched as fast as we could, with our horsemen riding ahead to scout, and to pick up whatever recruits they could persuade to join us at the farms we passed. By our fast march we nearly reached the last plowlands before we camped."
Bello added that we had marched until midnight to do it, and had risen the next morning with the Short Sun.
Vivo said, "My men and I left Blanko about three that afternoon. That's how we were able to catch up with Incanto when he stopped here. The rest wanted to wait and start in the morning, and I guess they did."
"We halted where we're camped now on the second night," I explained to Inclito. "Some herdsmen had warned us that the enemy was close, and we sent patrols ahead to find out where they were."
Kupus cleared his throat, looking at his fellow officers and then at us. "Last night you told some of these men that you intended to crush us. I wasn't there, but that's what I've heard. How many men did you have then?"
"Roughly two hundred and fifty," I said; it was true, although I had not known it when I talked of crushing.
"You thought you could do it with that many?"
"Or with half that many," I declared.
I shook my head. "I've pledged myself not to fight against you, Captain, but you haven't pledged yourselves not to fight against me."
One of the listening men protested – Chaku, I suppose. Hearing him I added, "Except for a few friends among you. Certainly Captain Kupus has given no such pledge."
Fava said loudly, "You think that the men he's been talking about are his whole force. That's very foolish of you. Haven't I told you that my father and I were staying with you because Incanto didn't want us to go? He could have freed us last night easily, if he'd wanted to." Inclito gave her a severe look as if to silence her.
"Less than three hundred last night." Kupus returned us to the matter at hand. "How many now? I saw some back there who seemed to be just catching up with you."
Bello said, "About seven hundred infantry." I doubt that it was true.
I raised my staff, with Oreb flapping on it. "It doesn't matter. In the first place, you're perfectly safe-from us at least, though I can't speak for the Duko – as long as I am in command. I've pledged that we wouldn't attack you, and we won't.
"In the second, you would be in as much danger from the hundred and sixteen with which I left Blanko as from the seven hundred we have now-or from sixteen hundred, or five thousand. If we do fight you, you will be destroyed. That is what all five of us are hoping to avoid."
Kupus lifted an eyebrow. "But we'd be safe in your service?"
"Of course not. We're going to fight the Duko and sack his city-though the plunder will have to be shared with Olmo and Novella Citta, or so I imagine. Some of us, and perhaps many of us, will be killed. Some of you will be killed as well. If I were half the prophet people think me, I could tell you how many, perhaps. I can't."
One of the other officers (Karabin is his name) asked, "Can't you say whether we'll take your silver?"
"I prefer not to get into that."
Kupus repeated, "Can you?"
"If you're asking about your personal decision, Captain, I can't tell you. If you intend this company of yours…" I spread my hands. "I am here."
Referring to the Duko's officer, another lieutenant said, "I think we ought to bring out Sfido, too."
I told him I agreed.
The captive Soldese officer was led out, and when I saw that they had not troubled to untie his hands, and that no one brought him a stone to sit on, I knew that my decision had been correct.
"This is Captain Sfido, the commander the Duko set over us," Kupus told us. "Technically, I'm his second in command."
Some of the listening men chuckled.
"Captain, these three men are from Blanko. The one in the black robe is Inclito's sorcerer."
His eyes conveyed his query, and I nodded.
"When I first met him, he was Rajan of Gaon. They call him Incanto here, but in Gaon they say that his real name is Silk."
As I shook my head, Oreb croaked loudly, "Good Silk!" I ordered him to be quiet.
"These two are Colonel Vivo and Colonel Bello. They're probably shopkeepers with needlers, or farmers like General Inclito here. I don't know."
"You're trying to suborn these troopers from their duty," Sfido said to me; as soon as I heard his voice, I knew he was an antagonist to be reckoned with.
"Not at all," I declared. "I'm simply trying to persuade them that they should repay whatever they may have received from your Duko and take service with Blanko. Captain Kupus would notify you of the change, and we would let you go back to your Duko to tell him about it. We'd even give you a horse for that purpose."
"They've gotten no money from Duko Rigoglio yet," Sfido said. "Many have been with him for almost a month, however. If they do as you suggest, they'll forfeit a great deal of pay, money that they've earned and that they deserve."
Bello inquired, "Are you prepared to pay them now?"
"No." Sfido displayed his bound wrists. "Are you?"
Bello did not reply. I asked Sfido, "Are you saying you have the money here, hidden in your tent?"
He shook his head. "It will be sent from Soldo on the tenth of the month."
There was a stir among the listeners.
Inclito said, "We ought to take it, if we can, Incanto. That shouldn't be too hard for you."
Sfido smiled-he had a good, warm smile. "Next you'll say you'll pay them for the time they spent in our Duko's service. If there's anyone here stupid enough to believe it, you'll probably win him over."
"No," I said, "I won't."
An officer whose name I had not yet learned, a burly man with a fair mustache, announced, "I think this has gone far enough. If we stay with Soldo, we'll get the wages the Duko promised. If we sign with Blanko, we'll be starting over for less money. We've all seen the Duko's horde. Most of us haven't seen Blanko's. I haven't myself, but from what I heard just now, I think the Duko's going to win it."
Lieutenant Karabin said, "You weren't in Gaon."
"I would say the same if I had been."
The wrangling went on for some time. It would take every sheet I have to give it all, nor do I remember it well enough to set it all down; often there were two or even three persons talking at once.
At last I stood upon my stone seat and was able to quiet them. "You're about to fight among yourselves," I told them.
The two mercenary officers loudly denied it.
"Listen to me! If you decide to remain in Duko Rigoglio's service, the Gaonese among you, and a few others who were in Gaon, will fight the rest. If you come over to Blanko, nearly half of you will fight to remain with the Duko. There's not a man among you who doesn't know in his heart that what I've just said is true."
I waited for someone to object. No one did, and Oreb crowed, "Silk talk!"
"I said earlier that with a hundred troopers I could have crushed you. Now you see how easily I could have done it. What need did I have for troopers, when I could so very readily have set you to fighting among yourselves?"
They were silent and shamefaced.
"But I don't want to see you crushed. Far too many of you fought beside me when we beat the Hannese. Let me make the case for my side again; I promise to do it quickly, and to be as quiet as you like afterward.
"First, Blanko will pay you. Whatever Captain Sfido here may honestly believe, I know that Soldo won't-they don't have enough.
"Second, Blanko will win. A few minutes ago I spoke of sharing the loot of Soldo with Olmo and Novella Citta. Did you hear anyone ask about that? Or object? I didn't. The Duko's allies are our allies now."
Fava said, "I told everyone about their changing sides."
"There is the case for Blanko in a nutshell," I continued, "and I believe that any of you who look at it squarely will see that it is a very compelling one."
The burly officer snorted. "Not compelling enough for me."
"Hear Silk!" Oreb insisted, and I told him to be quiet.
"Many of these men will side with you, Lieutenant, I feel sure. I would like to speak for a moment to those who would side with me."
He stood and drew his needier.
So did Captain Kupus. Kupus said, "I don't think we'll allow that."
"You have no reason not to," I told him. "All that I want to say to them is that they must not fight their comrades-who are also mine. It would be best if you fought for Blanko and justice. But it would be better for you to fight against Blanko than for you to fight among yourselves."
I spoke to Kupus again. "Captain, I would like to make you an offer, one that will keep friend from killing friend. Colonel Bello, Colonel Vivo, and I came here with you, unarmed and under a flag of truce. I'm sure you won't deny that; you know it's true."
"Very well. I want to exchange myself for General Inclito and his daughter. If-"
The burly officer with the blond mustache interrupted me. "When you were listing your reasons for thinking your town might win, you didn't say anything about your magic."
"It is not my town," I told him, "and I have no magic to threaten you with."
That set off a buzz of talk.
Fava shouted to make herself heard. "My grandmother's an old, old woman. She was nearly fifty when she came here to Blue, and she knows a lot about stregos. She says Incanto's the greatest strego she's ever seen." More loudly still, she shrieked, "Don't say you weren't warned!"
Kupus stepped near enough that he could speak almost normally. "You'll exchange for Inclito?"
I nodded. "And his daughter. I want to be with you to keep you from killing one another."
"Not the daughter." Holstering his needier, he took a slug gun from one of the bystanders and fired it into the air for silence. "She came on her own to try and get her father out, and we're keeping her."
That was how our meeting ended. Before Inclito left, he tried to have a word with me in private but was prevented by Kupus and the guards. He told Kupus, "Take a tip from someone who knows, Captain. It's over. You and your men will be part of Blanko's horde before long. You may not think so, but you don't know Incanto like I do." He kissed Fava before he rode off with Bello and Vivo.
Our hands were free until nightfall; then Sfido ordered us bound. Our guards took my staff, and chased Oreb away.