Javo opened his tent flap at dawn and surveyed the landscape. Rain had slowed to a drizzle.
The army had only two choices as he saw it: Retreat, regroup, and choose another invasion route; or use this slackening in the weather to press the attack at any cost, before sickness began spreading in the waterlogged ranks.
But Javo had no say in the matter. He marched with the Army of Dijol for only one contingency, and that one might never be implemented on this campaign.
When General Tral's runner visited his tent, he knew implementation was forthcoming after all.
Leaving his armor in the care of the Dijolian squire assigned him, Javo dressed in a hide tunic and trousers and wrapped himself in a cape to fend off the drizzle. Javo stood a head taller than most men. His jet-black shock of hair, bronze complexion and hawk-like features were typical of Cemarites, though mercenary employment was not.
That Javo enjoyed full membership in an order as prestigious and renowned as the Black Lancers would garner few accolades in Cemar, where caste and hierarchy and regimentation were traditionally scorned.
The runner escorted him to General Tral's tent, where he was ushered in immediately. Most generals, Tral included, customarily kept men waiting outside, even during inclement weather, as a reminder of who outranked whom. But no general tried this with a Black Lancer.
The command tent was crowded inside. Tral's legion commanders sat facing him, on chairs lower than his. But a robed figure stood behind Tral, still as a pillar, features hidden in the shadow of the hood.
A parchment map lay spread on the table at the center of the tent. At either side of Tral's chair were thick wooden poles thrust in the ground. From one pole hung the banner of Dijol, from the other, the army guidon with Tral's family crest.
The map told the story of Dijol's war with Fawlik: Much larger and boasting a far more powerful army, Dijol nevertheless faced formidable terrain in the conquest of her neighbor. The most appealing invasion route was also the most obvious--along the Tyrn Valley where they would be attacking downhill. But a Dijolian army had met catastrophe there a generation ago when the Fawlikites dammed the river, flooding the valley and masking the patchwork of pitfalls they'd dug. Dijol's heavy cavalry bogged down in the muddy quagmire, while Fawlik's archers emerged from the forest to pour arrows in from the flanks. Artillery batteries brought up catapults to hammer at the following infantry. When the invaders finally made it past the dam, disorganized and weakened, fresh Fawlikite infantry and cavalry swooped upon them and, though still outnumbered, fought them to a standstill. It was the costliest setback in Dijol's history.
This time, Dijol invaded along the same valley, while General Tral simultaneously attempted to sneak his larger force through this narrow mountain pass to take Fawlik's king by surprise and force a swift, almost bloodless surrender. Unable to spare even a phalanx from their main force in the Tyrn Valley, Fawlik evidently hired a small band of Bruk mercenaries for a delaying action in case someone did send a force through the pass.
"Sir Javo," greeted Tral, "welcome."
Tral didn't stand, but Javo saluted him perfunctorily anyway.
Tral was a thick, bald man of the age to have many grandchildren. His eyes were cold gray orbs, always measuring, counting or otherwise calculating.
"You know why you were summoned." This was not a question but a simple statement, assuming shared knowledge.
"The Brukites have agreed to single combat?" Javo asked.
The hooded figure behind Tral shifted slightly, though its exact posture was still difficult to discern through the loose folds of the burgundy robe.
"Perhaps," Tral said, smiling with his mouth but not his eyes. "But first, we need you to negotiate with them."
Javo inclined his head, eyebrows arching.
"You heard what happened yesterday," Tral said. "The dead and wounded are heaped three-deep along the bottom of the chasm for a furlong. Others have deserted. My commanders are still trying to account for their troops. We are a day behind schedule, have lost the element of surprise, and the rain will likely grow heavy again by mid morning."
Javo had noticed the dark clouds upwind, too. Even if the numbers were exaggerated by pessimism...not a characteristic Dijolian trait...how could a score of men, even men of Bruk, have slain so many?
"We need a truce with these Brukites," Tral said.
"I'm a knight," Javo said. "A Lancer. Skilled in combat, not diplomacy."
The robed figure spoke in a soft, effeminate voice, gesturing with smooth, circular motions of its delicate hands. "The Bruk Islanders are warriors, young knight. They are a nation of sailors, explorers, and adventurers. They trust no diplomats, envoys or anyone of a profession they consider less...robust."
"This camp is full of soldiers," Javo said. "This tent is full of high-ranking ones, who, no doubt, are as deft with tongues as with swords."
Tral's officers muttered and grunted. Nothing intelligible.
"None of them bear the mark of the Black Lancers."
On the back of Javo's neck was the famous brand, burned into his flesh on the day he was knighted. Few were the occasions he needed to show it, but there were places all over the world it served as a passport, a badge of immunity, and a license for free food, drink, women, lodging or medical treatment. Once accepted into the Order of the Black Lancers, a knight was a Lancer for life, even after he aged beyond the ability to ride and fight with the elite.
The reputation of the Lancers was better than a merchant's gold to most folk. The Order transcended nationality, but only accepted squires with honor above reproach, and only the best of those squires survived the Crucible and were awarded the black lance and armor. Their oath to honor is what dissuaded many from committing to the Order. It bound them to fair and forthright behavior, no matter the circumstance, even during war.