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The Crown of the Conqueror cob-2


  The Crown of the Conqueror

  ( Crown of Blood - 2 )

  Gav Thorpe

  Gav Thorpe

  The Crown of the Conqueror

  Askh

  Spring, 210th year of Askh

  I

  The Crown lay in the pool of blood, glaring at Ullsaard like a golden eye. The new king wiped the sweat from his face and sat back on his haunches, casting about the throne room for another source of the voice.

  He was alone.

  He nervously looked at the Crown again. The gold glimmered in the last rays of dusk streaming through the window. Ullsaard noticed the smears, left by his fingers with the blood of Lutaar.

  In the stillness he could hear the noises of the city beyond the palace. The coming night brought with it a last effort of looting from his legions before they would return to their camps. Even after three days it seemed that there were still doors left to be broken in, women to scream and defiant citizens to shout their protests.

  The distant commotion served only to highlight the unreality of the throne room. A chill gripped Ullsaard as he stood. He backed away from the Crown, keeping one eye on it as if it were a serpent ready to strike. Trailing bloody footprints, Ullsaard crossed back to the throne and the slumped corpse of his predecessor. Lutaar's body had not moved, yet Ullsaard inspected it closely, fearful of some trick.

  There was no mistake, Lutaar was most definitely dead. Most of his blood was on the floor, for a start.

  With a growl, Ullsaard pulled the former king from the throne and pushed the body to the floor. Kneading his temples, Ullsaard sat down. He was tired, that was the obvious explanation for the voice he thought he had heard. Tired, not just from these past few days, but more than a year of fighting; such worry would take its toll on the hardiest constitution. Now that he was king, he could rest for a while to gather his spent strength.

  The argument failed to convince Ullsaard. It was not a nagging inner voice that he had heard, not a vocalisation of his own thoughts. It had been as clear as another person in the room speaking to him, though not through his ears.

  Ullsaard returned to his first thought: he was imagining things. While not a desirable development at this moment, it was more palatable than any other explanations; explanations that were halfformed in Ullsaard's mind and thankfully so. The voice had claimed to be Askhos, the first king, founder of the Askhan Empire, but that was impossible. That had been two hundred years ago.

  It was far better to contemplate madness than the notion that somehow Askhos lived on two centuries after his death. And so Ullsaard's thoughts came full circle and he resolved to get some sorely needed sleep. The palace was deserted; he would return to his camp and tomorrow enter the city again as its rightful ruler.

  "Just a piece of metal," Ullsaard muttered.

  He pushed himself up, stalked a few paces from the throne to snatch up the Crown. He looked at it, turning it over and over in his hands. It was quite plain, the type of crown that could be fitted over a helmet. Ullsaard could tell by the weight that it was not even solid gold; more likely it was mostly made of bronze; iron had been even rarer two hundred years ago. It was nothing special. Ullsaard owned parade helms that were worth more in raw material. There was not even a gem or other decoration.

  The value of the Crown is not in gold or jewels, Ullsaard.

  He flung the crown away as if stung. Ullsaard staggered back, but this time there had been no pain. The king whirled around, convinced that there was another person with him, but the throne room was empty.

  I am in the Crown and I am in you.

  The voice was softly spoken, calm and assured.

  "You are a trick of my mind," said Ullsaard. He strode to a window and took a deep lungful of evening air to calm himself. The smoke of cooking fires carried on the breeze, tinged with the reek of abadas from the legion camps beyond the walls.

  I am real. I am Askhos.

  Ullsaard shook his head and said nothing. He was not going to indulge this fantasy by speaking to it.

  Ignoring me will not make me go away.

  "Get out of my thoughts," said Ullsaard, eyes roving the city around the palace, seeking something real to latch on to.

  He saw a group of soldiers pulling a heavily laden handcart across the Maarmes bloodfields. At first he thought it was piled with loot, but as they approached he saw more clearly that the cart was heaped with corpses, stripped of everything. There was a captain with them and as they reached the road circling the palace, the soldiers turned towards the street leading to the main gate of the city.

  Legionnaires never change. There was a laugh in the voice. Three days to loot the city and they spend the last night tidying up. You have led them well.

  Ullsaard could ignore the voice no longer; it clearly wasn't going to leave any time soon. Perhaps it was better to confront the voice, show it to be the madness it was.

  "You cannot be Askhos," said Ullsaard, turning from the window. "Askhos died a long time ago."

  My body died, but my spirit lives on. A body is nothing, just a collec tion of bones and fat, organs and muscle, nerves and veins. What makes a man is more than just flesh.

  "How can that be?" said Ullsaard. "How can a spirit live on without the flesh to sustain it?"

  It cannot. The Crown has been my temporary refuge, but I have lived again in each king that has worn it.

  Ullsaard shook his head. The voice made no sense. He reverted to his earlier tactic of denial.

  "You are just a trick of my mind, nothing more."

  Could a trick of your mind tell you about the founding of this city? For instance, this hall took three years to build. The stone for the walls came from a quarry seventy miles to coldwards. The overseer was a short, fat man called Heraales. The marble of the floor came from even further away, in the mountains between Askhor and Maasra. A caravan of seven hundred abadas was needed to bring it to this place. Seventeen masons fashioned the dome above you. Three of them died during the construction, falling when the scaffolding collapsed. I can tell you their names as well, if you like.

  "Stop it!" Ullsaard surprised himself, his shout ringing back from the walls. "This is nonsense. This cannot be."

  Yes it can, and it is. Listen to me carefully, because you have done a very foolish thing and it is important that you believe me. I am Askhos. I am the spirit of the founding king, given immortal life through the bodies of my offspring. As each body died, I returned to the Crown, ready to take over the body of the next.

  "The eldest heir of every generation. That is why Lutaar was adamant that Aalun could not become king."

  Not Lutaar. Me. The Crown and the Blood are linked; are as one. The Blood holds the key to my immortality, and that bond is strongest in the eldest living son.

  "I still cannot understand how such a thing is possible."

  And you never will, Ullsaard. Think of it as sorcery, or perhaps the gift of the spirits the Salphors insist on worshipping. It is an alignment of many different things that enabled me to separate my being from the con fines of a single mortal shell. It is not the only way that immortality can be attained, my brother took another, but it suited my purposes the best.

  "Purposes? What purposes? And why would you keep such a thing secret?"

  My purpose was to build this empire. Everything in the Book of Askhos is true. It is my grand plan, and it must be fulfilled. I could not risk the faltering of this great project, and so I took steps and made bar gains to ensure that I would remain to guide it to completion. You have put that plan at risk and we must act to set things right.

  Ullsaard picked up on something the voice — Askhos, if it was to be believed — had said.

&nb
sp; "You said you made bargains. Bargains with whom?"

  It does not matter, Ullsaard. It is ancient history, more ancient even than the two hundred years of this empire. I suppose I should thank you for one thing.

  "What is that?"

  Until now I did not know what would happen if another took the Crown. It seems that the Blood is strong enough in you to sustain me, yet not strong enough for me to take control.

  "Is that what you did? You took control of your sons, ruled them from within?"

  They were never really aware of it, simply shadows of themselves lurking at the back of my mind. I became them and they were simply put to one side.

  Ullsaard dashed across the throne room and picked up the Crown. He pulled it down onto his head, congealed blood spreading, sticking to his forehead.

  "Get out!" he snarled. "Go back to your Crown!"

  Askhos laughed, touched with bitterness.

  You have split me, Ullsaard. Part of me is still in the Crown, which I suspect is why I have not been able to push you aside. It is not like picking a tent to sleep in. I am here and in the Crown. This is as much uncharted territory for me as it is for you. There is only one who can unravel this tangle for us, but he is far away.

  "Perhaps if I destroy the Crown? Then I will be free."

  Askhos laughed again.

  Destroy it? Melt it in a fire? Please do. And when you have, explain to the people of Askhor why you have done so. Some will believe you to be mad and have you slain; others will believe you tell the truth and will insist that I be allowed to rule. And there is no guarantee that break ing the Crown will remove me from your head.

  Ullsaard groaned and pulled off the Crown, tempted for a moment to toss it out of a window. He stopped himself, knowing the truth of Askhos's words. To admit that something was amiss with the Crown, with himself, would be to invite doubt about his rightful rule.

  Your civil war has brought the empire to the brink of ruin, Ullsaard. With my help, you must rebuild it. Firstly, you must lift your ban on the Brotherhood.

  "Not a chance," said Ullsaard. "The Brotherhood were loyal to Lutaar. They will do everything they can to undermine me and restore Kalmud to the throne. Your oldest surviving heir still lives, and while he does there is the chance that you can trick him out of his body as you did your other sons. Don't take me for a fool."

  From the moment Aalun brought you to my attention I never thought you a fool, Ullsaard. I should have recognised the Blood in you, but I thought it impossible. For two hundred years the succession, the inter marriages, the traditions served to keep me in power. All of that undone because Cosuas fell in love and allowed your mother to bear you. Still, I do not dwell on the past. The Brotherhood is the core of Greater Askhor. Without them there is no empire.

  "We will do fine…" Ullsaard trailed off as he heard footsteps in the hallway beyond the throne chamber doors. He hurried across to the throne and sat down, holding the Crown in his lap.

  The double doors opened a crack and a head poked round, a red crest hanging from the man's helm. Ullsaard recognised him immediately: it was Rondin, First Captain of the Fifth. The legion commander took a tentative step into the throne room, banged a fist to his breastplate and stood to attention.

  "You told us to gather here at the start of Duskwatch, general," said Rondin. The other first captains — Donar, Anasind, Jutiil and Luamid — filed in behind him and offered their salutes.

  "King," said Ullsaard. "I am not your general anymore, I am your king."

  "Of course, king," said Rondin, nodding in apology. "Old habit."

  Ullsaard smiled and waved them to approach.

  "Time to develop a new habit," he said. He twisted and hung the Crown on the back of the throne, trying to appear dismissive. "At midnight the licence for the Legions to sack the city ends. Have your best companies on the streets to enforce the cessation of looting. We must send a strong signal to Askh and the rest of the empire that the turmoil has finished. From tomorrow, the labour continues under me as it did under Lutaar.

  "Jutiil, I need you to search the city for any counsellors, treasurers, nobles and advisors from Lutaar's court. Bring them to the palace. Nicely, if you can; forcefully, if you have to. With the Brotherhood disbanded, we have to set up a new administration."

  You cannot replace the Brotherhood.

  Ullsaard stopped at the interruption. He caught himself just about to reply and abruptly shut his mouth, earning himself odd looks from his First Captains. He waited for a moment to see if Askhos had anything else to say. The dead king stayed silent.

  "The division, the anarchy of the past year is over. I am king and Greater Askhor will continue. Not only continue, it will grow, stronger than ever." He looked at his commanders and smiled. "We have fought hard for this day. We have earned it. Tomorrow will bring the rewards."

  Dismissed by a nod from their new king, the First Captains saluted and filed out of the chamber, leaving Ullsaard alone with his thoughts.

  Not alone, he remembered. Not alone at all.

  II

  The bloodfields, circuit and wrestling circles of Maarmes were filled with people. The babble of thousands died away as Ullsaard ascended the steps to the stage overlooking the crowd. On the stepped rows of benches behind him sat the noble families, the merchants rich enough to bribe their way onto the seats and the leaders of many other civic organisations, including lawyers, academics and master craftsmen.

  All watched Ullsaard with wary eyes.

  Glancing over the high society of Askh, he caught the eye of Etor Astaan, father to Ullsaard's friend Noran. The king had sought Noran's family that morning, to deliver the news that their son had almost died saving Ullsaard's life and was now in a coma, being tended to by the king's family in Magilnada. Etor had taken the news placidly, and though he did not say as such his few comments implied he thought Noran an idiot for getting involved with Ullsaard's coup. Noran's mother had been equally stoic and displayed greater sorrow at the news of the death of her daughter-in-law and stillborn grandson.

  Ullsaard had fled the awkward situation as soon as was polite, and the Astaans had been happy to see him leave. Now they looked at him with apathetic gazes. They were not alone. There were many on the benches of the nobles that had only attended this announcement through subtle and not-so-subtle coercion by Ullsaard's First Captains.

  Regardless of how they had been brought here, every family was represented. It was important to conjure this display of support before the masses of Askh. Though they did not yet know it, it would also be important for the nobles; Ullsaard was about to make them all an offer they would find hard to refuse.

  Several hundred legionnaires stood as a cordon around the outthrust of the stage. At a shout from their captains, they turned to face the king and lifted their spears in salute. This nicety attended to, they turned back to keep a watch on the restless crowd.

  "This last year and more has been a trying time for all people of Greater Askhor," declared Ullsaard. From a life of parade grounds and battle orders he was able to pitch his voice to the furthest members of the crowd without much effort.

  Thousands of pairs of eyes, men and women, children and elders, gazed up at him. There were some smiles, but not many. He could feel the fear of some in the crowd, worried what this change in rule meant for them. Most of all he saw anxiety, desperation. The people were eager for stability, for a return to their normal lives.

  "I am your king now. Most of you will have heard of me. For those of you who have not, you can see for yourselves the manner of man that now rules this empire. I am of the Blood, a son of King Lutaar. I fought as a legionnaire, commanded a company, led a legion and became the most successful general of this generation. What I set my mind to, I achieve. Standing here before you is testament to that fact."

  He approached the front of the stage and stretched out a hand, encompassing the crowd in its sweep.

  "None of that matters. Greater Askhor is not the artifice of one
man, though it was founded as such. All of us make this empire. You, the proud people of Askh; the noble and wealthy that sit behind me; and me. I have shown that no king rules without the consent of his people. I ask for your loyalty and your service. In return, I will give you safety and prosperity."

  Ullsaard paused, allowing this to sink in. He hesitated, knowing the next part of his speech to be a lie. He readied himself for a complaint from Askhos, determined that he would not be distracted.

  "The empire has not changed because another now wears the Crown of the Blood. Kings are born and kings die, just like any other men." He waited, expecting some comment from Askhos. The dead king said nothing. "The empire is all of us, and still bigger than all of us. And it is my intent that it will grow larger still."

  Pulling out his sword, Ullsaard turned to duskwards and pointed the blade.

  "Salphoria. Many of you will know of this place, beyond our borders. It was Askhos's will that the empire stretch from sea to sea. This summer, the legions of Askh will march on a great conquest, and bring the wilderness of Salphoria into civilisation. My soldiers cannot do this alone. They will need the spears forged in your smithies. They will need the kilts tanned in your workshops. They will need the grain grown on your farms.

  "And when Salphoria kneels before me, the rewards will be many. Gold and grain, jewels and livestock, bronze and stone, timber and iron. Salphoria is rich in all of these things. Prized farmlands await those with the knowledge to sow and till it properly. Vineyards and quarries, for those that can manage such concerns. These will become Askhan. These will become yours."

  Now the moment had arrived. Ullsaard took a breath, full of pride. He turned to face the nobles, sheathing his sword.

  "In the first days of the empire, Askhos bid his allies to form armies and conquer the world. He promised the spoils of victory to those that could take them. As your new king, I renew this pledge. The ancient rights of conquest are restored. Let the man with the strength and wealth, the courage and the ferocity, raise up a legion to claim what is rightfully his. Salphoria awaits us, and its many rewards. Stand by me, help me take this land, and it is yours."

 
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