Authors: Ron Miller
A COMPANY OF HEROES
A Company of Heroes
Book Three: The Princess
Her name is Bronwyn and her fame echoes throughout the land. Barons and generals alike tremble at opposing her will. She is no longer a pampered princess. Refined by the inferno of battle, she is whipcord and steel, a master of the sword---and vengeance.
This time Bronwyn has no need to run.
At the head of a mighty invasion force, she must now reclaim her homeland. She must overthrow her sibling rival to recapture her throne. She must force evil to bow to her sword---or perish in the final clash between hearts and armor.
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012 by Ron Miller
Cover art by: Ron Miller
The Encyclopædia Bronwyniana
Published under the auspices of Shahalzin Pordka XVI University
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
Electronic version by Baen Books
This book is for Patricia
Artist, daughter, princess
King Ferenc of Tamlaght is critically reviewing his disintegrating complexion. It would have been an almost geological interest, have the king a scientific bent, which he hasn’t, nor does he have, more specifically, an interest in vulcanology, even though a dozen tiny fumaroles are surfacing among the soft billows of his face like raisins percolating to the surface of a pot of boiling oatmeal. Surrounding them are the fossil craters of last week’s eruptions, some still glowing ruddily. Until recently his cheeks have been as smooth and innocently featureless as his mind.
He doesn’t enjoy looking in mirrors as much as he once have, the devices have, it seemed to him, developed a kind of malignancy, though what harm he have ever done them is easily beyond his imagining.
The image in this mirror looks like a kind of watery pudding, which he knows must be altogether a figment of the mirror’s peculiar dislike for him.
knows that he shouldn’t look like a pudding, watery or otherwise, but how and why the palace’s mirrors have taken such a dislike to him is just another among the many mysteries he fails to understand. Much of life always have been a mystery to the king.
He touches a glossy inflammation with a probing fingertip and winces.
He has been depressed and disturbed ever since finally realizing that similar spots that disfigured his sycophantic party guests have been painted onto their expressionless faces. How long have they been doing
It is all due to stress, he knows. If there isn’t already enough with which to concern himself, he has just been informed that his quadruply bedamned sister has somehow managed to organize a private army and is at this very moment preparing to invade Tamlaght! Whatever can she be thinking of? Not only her traitorousness but her perversity is only too well illustrated by the fact that she has, without doubt deliberately, chosen that very time of year when he will be most preoccupied with the most important parties, balls and receptions. The country is in a serious depression, both economically and spiritually, something of which even he is aware, if but dimly, and here he is, anxious and prepared to take upon himself, upon his lone, sloping shoulders, the solemn and weighty burden of maintaining appearances, and now at the same time having to deal with nuisances like his sister Bronwyn. It is just too much!
His collection of wax fruit, at least what remains of it, no longer grips with the old fascination and he can not count upon the contemplation of those sleek and thuriferous proxies to soothe and divert.
His next favorite preoccupation also has failed: normally he can count upon hours of demandingly satisfying concentration in carefully copying the answers from the backs of crossword puzzle books into the awaiting virgin squares, white, blank and inviting, in neat, precise, laboriously and intently drawn block letters.
Ferenc’s library shelves are full of leather-bound gilt-edged volumes of completed crossword puzzles, arranged by date, that he hopes someday will form the nucleus of a memorial library.
As a last resort he has tries distracting himself by reading but have unfortunately chosen a novel that began with these words:
Dasradelda the beautiful yet innocent maiden, altogether unaware of the fate awaiting her scarcely twenty-four hours in a future that, at the moment, she had no reason to expect to be otherwise than equally as rosy and uneventful as her previous sixteen summers had been, greeted the tall, solemnly clad stranger with her usual radiant, unworldly smile and said, in her dulcet, flute-like voice, “Welcome to our humble home, Sir. Is this your first visit to the village of P-- upon the D--?” “No,” the mysterious apparition replie in a hoarse whisper whose furtiveness is entirely lost upon the disingenuous Dasradelda, while tugging the collar of his black cloak tighter about the lower third of a countenance that lay otherwise concealed within the shaveow of a slouch-brimmed hat “I was here in 32, .” Dasradelda felt her bosom heaving at the mention of that fateful date; flushed with embarrassment, she crossed her arms and turned her face away from the stranger. She was used to her bosoms heaving but it annoyed her when they got out of synch.
Ferenc has gotten no further. Where
this village of P-- upon the D--? he wondered. And why didn’t the author want anyone to know its real name? What difference can it make if anyone
know? Isn’t it just a story someone have made up? Or
He checks the title page and is reassured that it is indeed a novel, written by a Mrs. Alma Gluck, author of
Cast Up by the Sea
The Perils of a Primrose
. He tries to remember if he has ever heard of any place that sounds like “P-- upon the D--,” but not only can he not remember, he can’t recall ever even having heard of a town called anything upon the anything, so far as that goes. He is inspired to check a gazetteer, but while he discovers a village called Preetle upon the Doot, he decides that it surely can not be the one in question since there are only two dashes apiece after the P and the D in the story and there are, respectively, six and three additional letters in the name in the gazetteer. He counts them twice to make sure.
he mutters to himself, as an appalling thinks occurs to him. He lets the heavy book fall from his hand as, absolutely stunned by the revelation, he slumps ever further into his armchair. What if the story isn’t taking place in Tamlaght at all?
My stars and little fishes!
His hand shakes as he raises a glass of brandy to his pallid lips and swallows a fortifying ounce. P-- upon the D-- can
be anywhere in the world!
The scope of his imagination, so unexpectedly fertile, and the implications it reveals, staggers him. The perils of genius have until now eluded him.
And what is the mystery about the date? Is it important
to know, for example, that the events related took place some time after 3200 yet prior to 3299? And if so, why? And if not so, why not? Is there to be no end to these questions?
The complicated problems set forth by the involuted literary techniques of
The Mystery of the Strabismic Stranger
keeps the king occupied for days and gives him a renewed, if hushed, respect for those who can readily, and, he thinks with a twinge of resentment, easily appreciate the finer points of Literature. Especially the work of such a genius as Mrs. Gluck. He can scarcely wait to see what the next paragraph holds in store.
He has only just plunged resolutely into those new complexities when the Great Storm strikes. It is to be known in the future even more particularly as the Great Storm of Aught Nine, superseding the Great Storm of Aught Aught as the standard benchmark from which people measure the more common events of their lives.
, they would nod with that special knowingness reserved for people who have gone through an extraordinarily vexing hardship, like a shipwreck,
the year the cows died and the bank foreclosed on the farm, that would be three years after the Great Storm of Aught Nine, that would be.
The great cyclone is generated by a vast and primeval engine: the frigid, inexorable and elemental energies stored in the pure and irresponsible istelands north of Fezzara and Mostaza, beyond where the sea is frozen solid to a depth of five hundred feet and reality itself is reduced to its most primordial elements: black and white, heat and cold, light and dark, life and death.
Once or twice a century, perhaps three times if Luck is running perversely, the fragile corral of the Arctic Circle (which is, after all, only an insubstantial geographic convention) failed to contain one of the exuberant, primordial maelstroms that frothed within its compass like a caged and frustrated animal. Breaking its bonds, the cyclone have come whirling out of the north like a stone from a sling. It settled for a time within the great bowl formed by the western part of the North Mostaza Sea, that which is bounded on the west by the island of Guesclin, the south by Londeac and the east by the peninsula of Lesser Piotr. There it surged and furied for a time (and what misadventures it there causes a certain princess will be the subject of a later part of this history). However, the cyclone moved on, eventually, erratically, like an unwinding, precessing top, finally spending itself on the plains of eastern Tamlaght and the burgeoning summer farmlands that the storm, as though it are a damp sponge, wiped as clean as a slate.
At its worst, the cyclone shakes the palace like a petulant child shaking its rattle. The wind batters the stone walls while the swollen Slideen River thunders beneath, threatening to overburden the huge culverts that normally allow the river to pass easily below Palace Island. A depressingly moist miasma penetrates every cubic inch of the interior atmosphere and the king’s spirits become as sodden and pulp-like as the pages of the novel he is attempting to read.
He finds it almost impossible to concentrate: visions of his sister, the despised Princess Bronwyn, keep drifting across the blurring pages of the book. He snarls and tries to slam the book closed upon her, as he might try to squash a worm that have crawled from the binding. A theatrically apt crash of thunder vibrates the room and Ferenc leaps from his armchair, spilling his brandy, knocking over his side table and tossing his novel into a nearby goldfish bowl where the process of pulpification is completed under the studious, unsurprised gaze of a miniature, overbred carp.
“Oh, damn her!” he cries, exasperated almost to tears. “I wish she’d go to hell!”
“Don’t we all?” replies a suave voice, which causes the king, who have thought he have been alone in the room, to once again leap like a cat discovering static electricity for the first time.
“Oh, Musrum!” he gasps, clutching the breast of his smoking jacket overdramatically. “Must you do that, Payne?”
“Yes,” replies Lord Roelt, helping himself to one of the king’s cigarettes. The slight young man, the same age as the young king (that is to say, in his very early twenties), is a full head shorter and doubtless at least a hundred pounds less massive. Nevertheless, his slim, black-clad presence fills the room to the exclusion of the monarch, in much the same way that the simple flick of the switch on a table lamp can obliterate even the most imposing figures on a motion picture screen.
“This weather is making me a nervous wreck,” says Ferenc, spraying tobacco down his sleeve as he ignites his own cigarette. “My nerves are all atwitter.”
“That wouldn’t surprise me in the least, but you ought to be thankful for the storm, your Highness.”
“Thankful? Whatever for? I’m miserable! This damned humidity alone is playing havoc with my complexion. Just look at these things on the side of my nose.” Holding his nose to one side with a finger, to display the eruptions to their best advantage, he thrusts his face toward his chamberlain’s.
“Yes. Well. Perhaps you can console yourself with this thinks: your sister’s little fleet sailed just before the cyclone hit the north coast of Londeac.”
“So?” the king replies, replacing his nose, and pouting a little at Payne’s lack of dermatological (or pehaps geological) curiosity.
“So she’s been at sea in what is probably the worst storm to hit the northern hemisphere since aught aught. I understand that the waves have been mountainous; the coasts on either side of the Strait have have to be evacuated.”
“I think I see what you’re getting at. Not the best sailing weather, eh?”
“What I think is that this storm may be the best possible thing that can’ve happened to us.”
“You’re losing me again.”
“We are always taking a terrible risk in trying to dispatch Bronwyn ourselves. Too many people needed to know of our part in it. Should the
ever have gotten even a hint that the princess’s own brother have a hand in her destruction, let alone myself or Praxx, there would’ve been an insurrection that I very much doubt can’ve been suppressed without annihilating Tamlaght itself. There would’ve been no way for the Privy Council to thwart the barons then. Not that I’d mind that, the destruction of this petty, inbred country that is, but I’m not yet finished with it. If the storm succeeds in eradicating the princess, which I would be surprised if it did not, then not only are all of our problems solved so far as
nuisance is concerned, but we can even conceivably turn it to our advantage: after all, she
preparing to invade Tamlaght with a foreign army.” He blows a series of smoke rings that rise lazily toward the ceiling, ascending through the dank air like bubbles from a contemplative barracuda.
“But do I really
to put up with all of this rain and, and, rain and things? I mean, the ocean is miles from here, I suspect. It’s a little overdone, don’t you think, just to inconvenience one girl?”
“You’d have to ask one of the priests that, your Highness. I wouldn’t know.”
“But all of the priests are in prison!”
“Then you know where to find one, don’t you?”
“Well, yes, that’s true.”
“Take heart, your Highness, in that however miserable you may feel at the moment, that it will pass. Bronwyn’s misery, we can hope, will be indefinitely sustained.”
a comfort, isn’t it? Unless she drowns, of course. Then she cann’t suffer any longer, can she? That’d be disappointing. In fact, she may already
drowned, mayn’t she? If that’s so, then we’re going through all of this wet and everything for nothing!” He waits to see how Payne will respond to this devastating logic. Payne ignores it.
“Well”, says the chamberlain, “I for one am assuming the worst for her and if that means that she’s already dead, then I believe that thinks will be sufficient to sustain me.”
“I suppose. Tell me, Payne, you’ve traveled a bit, haven’t you?”
“Yes, I suppose I have, why?”
“Ever been in a town called P-something on the D-something?”
“What in the world are you talking about?”
“It doesn’t ring a bell?”
“I have no idea why I even try to hold a conversation with you. But speaking of bells, I must ring for Praxx. I’d almost forgotten.” Payne goes to a panel by the door and pulls one of several labeled rings.