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"Who are you?" Javo asked.

"I am the counsel of wisdom," replied the robed one.

Javo resisted the urge to sidestep General Tral and tug the person's hood back, if for no other reason than to determine if it was man or woman.

"Albumor is my advisor," Tral said, patiently.

"You are Cemarite," Albumor said. "Does Cemar and its surrounding farmlands not boast more traders, merchants and great thinkers than any other nation? Surely negotiation is not alien to you."

Javo sighed. He had accepted this contract, and he supposed diplomatic assignments did not violate it. "What are the terms of the truce?"

"They are free to leave in peace, with twenty gold doubloons for each man," Tral said. "Or they can join my army for double the normal rate of mercenary pay."

"And should they recite any of their platitudes about loyalty, destiny or death," Albumor added, "challenge them to choose a champion and meet you in single combat."

Wearing full battle harness, Javo rode his charger along the pass to the funnel, under a flag of truce.

At the narrowest point of the pass, a wall of dead bodies blocked further progress. On the other side stood a giant of Bruk, dented and scarred armor hanging from his massive frame, a shield spiked with Dijol arrows as if wrapped with the hide of some gargantuan porcupine, and a bell-skirted helmet with white horns embossed thereupon. Other Bruk warriors stood from their fitful slumber on either side of him. Most of their helmets were hornless.

Javo made a quick assessment of their armor. There were many gaps to be exploited by a quick-thrusting blade, including below the armpit; into the neck above the armored collar--which would require a well-timed leap or an attack from elevation; and, most inviting given the size differential, an upward belly strike below the scaled hauberk.

"You wear a ceremonial helm to battle?" Javo asked, removing his own helmet.

The giant's feral eyes bored into Javo from both sides of the battered as bottomless pits. Between the eyes and the horns, Javo had the impression some great, wild bull was taking his measure.

"It protects me from evil magic," growled the giant, with a harsh, guttural accent.

"I should think it would prove a hindrance, snagging on every tree limb and so forth," Javo said, conversationally.

The giant appeared confused...or perhaps amused. "You arrive under a flag of truce to talk of helmets?"

"I suppose it would be worse if the horns were longer, like some I've seen," Javo went on. “My parade armor includes a plumed helm--I don't like what it does to my balance at all..."

"You are Cemarite," the giant said. "And yet you bear the heraldry of a Black Lancer. I fathom not how both things can be."

"I am Cemarite," Javo said. "And a Lancer."

The other Brukites murmured among themselves.

"Few are the laws from Cemar that citizens are compelled to obey," Javo said. "There is no prohibition against joining knightly orders."

"But there are no knightly orders in Cemar," the giant said.

Javo shrugged, removing one gauntlet to rub his eyes. "Is everyone so well-educated in the islands of Bruk?"

The giant chuckled. "Because of our size, we are assumed to be simple dolts. Well, so be it. Who are you?"

"I am Javo."

"And I am Krag, the Wrecker. What are the terms being offered?"

"Your lives, plus twenty gold doubloons for each of you, if you let the army pass. Or join General Tral for double the normal mercenary wages."

Krag flashed a wry grin, dropped the enormous head of his double-bladed axe to the ground, and leaned on the haft. "The integrity of the Black Lancers is legendary. Tell me: do you consider this a fair bargain?"

Javo was surprised at the frankness of the inquiry, Lancer reputation or no. He sighed. "Not nearly. I warrant he would pay four times that to have you open the pass with no further delay."

The Bruk Islanders exchanged glances and murmured among themselves in their own language.

Flag of Truce image number 2
The Bloodstained Defile series cover
Flag of Truce episode cover
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The Bloodstained Defile

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Henry Brown
During the bloody wars of an alien world's dark ages, loyalty, integrity and friendship are rare commodities. Why would anyone guess they could be found in the hearts of mercenaries? Sir Javo left his native Cemar to join the Order of the Black Lancers, and has built a reputation as a champion in single combat. He has never met his match; but that is about to change. Krag the Wrecker has been promised treasure, a horse, and a lady-in-waiting if his suicide mission succeeds. "Victory or death" are acceptable terms, for a giant barbarian raised to worship Death. Turgar was once a troop chief in the nomadic armies of Gabom, until framed for a capital crime. Now he hires out his bow to the highest bidder. This job may convince him to re-think his pragmatism. A great storm, an epic battle, and three dangerous warriors...all on a collision course for a narrow mountain pass that is already a bloodstained defile.
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