Prologue: The Plan (Present)
He’d done it. He’d bloody well done it. Over a century of failure, and now he, Kantal, the fifth son of a blacksmith, had cracked the nut. He reclined in the luxurious chair, hands clasped behind his head, and smiled. He’d bloody well done it.
“Have you done it?”
The footsteps behind him were whisperingly subtle, but once he recognised them, he went rigid. He turned and came face to face with his king.
“I would never be so bold, your Majesty.”
“Yes you would. You’re an arrogant sod beneath the façade. And don’t call me Majesty. I know you don’t mean it.” It was a good thing that he and the King were on good terms. Very good terms.
“Then yes, I believe I have a way.”
The regal man came and sat in a recliner to his left. Somehow, the King eased into that furniture whilst also maintaining a frustrating sense of authority. As a result, he couldn’t relax, and the ache of his upright position quickly caught him.
“Come on then. Tell me. What is it that you’ve uncovered that any number of military experts have failed to understand in the past?”
“You sound dubious.”
“Does that surprise you? I have grown into my reign with an ever-deepening sense that Ahan, our spiritual home, will always be outside our grasp. Our home was stolen from us, and yet for a hundred and fifty years we have failed to retake it. That is a lot of military genius which has failed to pick that particular lock, and now you – a street-rat – claim to have the answer. Am I not entitled to a little dubiousness?”
He gulped. When the King put it like that…
“Your Majesty, are we not—”
“This is no time for games, Kantal! Just give me the damn story.” The King stared at him, eyes like pointed daggers.
“Well, my king; what do you know of Ahan?” He wasn’t sure if the condescending approach was a good idea, but he needed the King to see the merits for himself. It was a gamble, but it was a gamble he had earned. Probably.
The King glared. “Is this really the time?”
“Please, your Majesty. Humour me.” The ruler of Delfinia didn’t look humoured. “It is important.”
“Fine. Then I know Ahan is a fortress.”
That it was. Ahan was a country within the embrace of two sets of bordering mountains, and access was all but impossible from the north, south and west. And from the east there were only defended waters, so that was no option at all. She really was a fortress – his king had that absolutely right. But armour always has its weak points, or it did in his experience. He pushed on.
“And if you were to prise open the defences, how would you do it?”
“I would attack the Gates.” The frustration in his king was bubbling, but he didn’t explode. Yet. His king was playing along for the time being. He needed the man’s trust, so this was important. The King needed to see the merit.
And the King had it right; the Gates of Ahan were the best places to attack. Always. But that had been done many times before, and always it failed, so they needed another way.
“And we will attack the Gates. We will attack all three simultaneously. That is how we will do this thing.”
His king rose, anger burning his face. “That is not a new option, Kantal! Keep talking or prepare to be cast down from whence you came.” That was a long way down.
They were in the Royal Gallery, a place he had coveted in his past. When he had been low. Now he owned the place, setting up almost permanent camp amongst the scrolls and tomes. He read voraciously, seeking the wisdom of history. After all, the least he could do was avoid making the same mistakes that others had.
And his king was right. This had been done before. But this time, they were doing it his way. There was more.
He placed a hand on a volume to his right, knowing what lay within. It was a hundred years old, and the detailed records of the battle suggested that the tipping point of victory had been very nearly reached. That near-victory would be his inspiration.
“Your Majesty; we must reforge the Triliance. We must unite once more with our Gorfinian and Mikaetan cousins. Once we were a single united front, and we were greater back then. By the Uncle, we were all part of the same empire once, and yet now we bicker. But bickering makes us weak, and we need to be strong. With enough weight behind the three gates, the invaders of Ahan will be forced to pack their defences in anticipation of the onslaught. They will be drawn to the Gates like moths to a candle.” He smiled.
“And you believe the Gates will crack? Just like that. Have you been cursed by the Stranger, man?”
“Of course not.” He put his other hand on the desk and stroked the contract that he’d had written up. This was truly the key. “While the three-speared attack draws the invaders to their precious Gates, we will sail through the fourth gate, and strike at their heart. They will suspect nothing, and we will stab them where it will do irrevocable damage. We will strike their capital; Altunia.”
His king eased back into his chair, eyes narrowed. “Forgive my ignorance, Kantal, but what fourth gate?”
The King’s face was knotted, which was a sign he was considering something. And that meant the King was taking him seriously, which was good. That was how he had planned it. He stroked the pommel of his great-sword.
“There is a rebellious faction amongst the invaders, and they are willing to sell out. For the right price, they will let us through the nautical defences in the east. We can sail right up to Altunia, out of sight of sentries. We can sail secretly to their very vulnerability, and strike while the iron is hot.”
He stroked the contract and smiled, but also gulped. There was one last snag – well actually two, but the second did not need to be raised just yet. There was plenty of time for that. But his king prised out the first issue with administrative flair.
“What is the price?”
He took his hand off the contract. He didn’t really have a proper concept of money, given his history, but he didn’t need one here. The demand was rude, very rude, but was that really the point? He had found a way in, but if it cost the world then so be it. He was a soldier and finding funds was not his job.
His king still stared, and he licked his lips. “It is a lot.”
The King stroked the goatee beard on his chin. He wasn’t pressing for a figure, but he wasn’t balking either. That was positive. And yet the King was one step ahead. He always seemed to be one step ahead. That was probably what made him a king.
“Is it this Enabler who has brokered the deal with these rebels?” His king disliked the Enabler almost as much as he did.
“And you trust this Enabler?” Ouch. Trust was such a strong word. He hated the man certainly, but he also recognised the man’s value. The Enabler had ways of making things happen.
“I believe he will deliver what he is selling us, yes.”
Another stroke of the chin. “And you believe that Altunia will be frail enough to yield?”
“With the Gates heavily assaulted on all fronts, yes, I believe Altunia will be breakable.”
There was of course the second snag, but they could sort that out later. That would double the cost, and the King had already had enough bad news for one day.
The King stood and looked down at him. “Your plans will be reviewed by every general in my army, and my chief treasurer. If they nod, then we form your alliance. I want this done before the season is out.” The King marched from the room with a purposeful step. He strode towards the exit, then halted abruptly, but didn’t turn.
“And well done, General Kantal.”
Damn. He was promoted. The fifth son of a blacksmith makes general, and what a journey that had been. “Thank you, your Majesty.”
Now his king turned. “You would do well to reflect on where you have come from, Kantal. Sometimes, seeing the path that we’ve trodden gives us a new perspective on what lays ahead. Think on it.”
He nodded, and his king left. The past had always been an enemy of his, but perhaps it was time to reacquaint himself. After all, who was he to disregard the advice of a king?