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Call To Arms
Unholy War: Book One
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ISBN-10: 1-77115-214-1
ISBN-13: 
Genre: Medieval/Fantasy/SF
eBook Length: 290 Pages
Published: January 2015

From inside the flap

When the funeral for the Kingdom of Myrridia’s beloved queen is interrupted by an envoy of the papal triumvirate, the attendees are stunned at the announcement of a holy war to be fought against the Mohammedans in the Holy Lands. The endeavor has the blessings of the three popes and will be led by the Holy Latin Emperor, Clytus Aurelius.

Myrridia’s king, Robert Claybourne, is angered to hear that his participation is mandatory, as Myrridia is not part of the empire. He acquiesces to the ultimatum, only because his refusal will result in the kingdom being placed under Interdict and his subjects excommunicated.

In neighboring Wyckendom, Queen Katharine Severinson is given an entirely different proposal: the offer of an imperial marriage. The drawback is that the nuptials will need to take place at Yule, in the imperial capital city of Lativium. The journey to Lativium will require passage through Myrridia, the kingdom of her sworn enemy. Katharine’s vassals, eager to be rid of a woman ruler, shamelessly encourage the match.

Frederich DiStephane of Esterlyn, Myrridia’s other neighbor, receives the news from an ingratiating cardinal and falls under the cleric’s Magical control, readily agreeing to participate in the crusade and issuing a decree ordering all of his vassals to join the endeavor. Reactions are mixed, with many lacking enthusiasm. Frederich remains unmoved by their arguments.

Robert and his loyal vassals feel surrounded on all sides by enemies looking to acquire the kingdom when an unlikely opportunity for alliance arises: marriage to Katharine, suggested by one of Robert’s vassals. It’s a small gesture of defiance for the two kingdoms, but a huge insult to the empire. Katharine agrees to it as she has reason to suspect that the imperial marriage will result in her death.

Clytus and the three popes continue to forward the imperial agenda, which includes annexation of the remaining free kingdoms on the outskirts of Western Christendom as well as wresting control of the Holy Lands from the Mohammedans, to turn that part of the world into another Christian kingdom, loyal to the empire.

Against a backdrop of betrayal and murder, old alliances are torn asunder and new loyalties form. Robert and his allies become increasingly skeptical as to the reasons given for the crusade, especially in regard to the effort’s timing. As Easter approaches, fighting men begin to gather outside the imperial capital, to begin the journey to the Holy Lands after the holiday. Will Robert learn the true reason why the popes and emperor are adamant that he abandon his kingdom, before he is too far from home to be able to protect his subjects?

Call To Arms (Excerpt)


PROLOGUE

Winter, 1027

Lativium, Holy Latin Empire

Desmond de Rhone, until recently the Archbishop of Lynxhall and Primate of the Kingdom of Esterlyn, reined in his mount as he crested a snow-covered hill and pushed back the fur-lined hood of his cloak. In the valley before him sat the city of Lativium, the papal see as well as the capital of the Holy Latin Empire. Lativium served as ecclesiastical and secular center for the vast domain which controlled much of western Christendom. Here he hoped to find allies amongst the leading men of his church and possibly regain his position.

Stifling a sigh, he urged his mule to move forward again. The animal complied, sensing a warm respite from the elements and the likelihood of a meal. Desmond wasn't surprised when he was stopped at the city gate, to provide his identity and purpose. Straightening in the saddle, he assumed his haughtiest expression and spoke in Latin.

"I am Archbishop Desmond de Rhone of Esterlyn, a provincial kingdom many leagues to the west. I wish to seek audience with the three Holy Fathers, to discuss a dire religious matter." He looked behind him, to give the guards the idea he was being pursued. He'd lost anyone who might have been tracking him some weeks before, when the snows began.

The guards waved him through the gate and gave him directions to the papal residence. "Someone there will aid you, Excellency," one of the men said, "though you may need to settle for speaking with a cardinal. The Holy Fathers see few supplicants, even high-ranking ecclesiastical ones." The guards duly crossed themselves.

Desmond nodded, though he hoped that once he told part of his story to a cardinal he would be granted a papal audience. He gave the men his episcopal blessing and set off once more along the city's street.

Despite the icy wind and imminent threat of more frozen precipitation, there were a good many people on Lativium's main street. Shops were open, with storekeepers calling out their wares. Inns and taverns did a brisk business, with the promise of savory, meat-filled stews and pastries, and ale with which to wash the food down.

Desmond attracted no undue attention as he rode along the street. He was dressed in a heavy, nondescript black wool cloak, fastened with a simple silver clasp, worn over a priest's cassock. He saw plenty of clerics: priests, monks, friars and the occasional cardinal, the last easily recognized in deep red attire.

When he reached the entrance to the papal residence and San Pietro's Cathedral, he stopped and drank in their splendor for several moments. The stone of both buildings had been whitewashed, and the domed top in the center of the cathedral was immense. Desmond was more used to Lynxhall Cathedral's spires, but he found this sight both awe-inspiring and pleasing.

He dismounted and approached a harried-looking priest, who appeared bent on an errand. "Pardon me, Father," he said. The man scowled but stopped and gave Desmond his attention. "I am a penitent seeking aid. Where may I have my animal stabled and which entrance should I use?"

The priest appeared to debate how, or whether, to answer. He shook his head, muttered something that sounded like "never mind," and led Desmond to the stables. "Your entrance is over there," he said, pointing to their left. "Someone will take your name and your complaint, and then direct you to the dormitory. You might as well plan to be here a while. There is an impressive backlog."

Desmond nodded and left his mule in the hands of a capable groom. As he approached the indicated doorway, he allowed himself to relax for the first time in months. He'd been taken into custody the previous fall, to be tried by the bishops of Esterlyn, for supporting the claim of, to his mind, the more legitimate heir to the throne. He'd made his escape after a fortnight of captivity, before all of the bishops could come together, and he'd headed east, to throw himself upon the mercy of the popes.

He came to a line of people and took his place at the end of it. He leaned against the wall, letting his eyes wander. He couldn't be sure, but there might have been as many as fifty people ahead of him. He tried to still his anticipation. Now that he'd arrived in Lativium unscathed, it would only be a matter of time before he could explain to someone what had happened.

He still hoped to meet with the popes themselves. He'd always admired the three men who led the church, regardless of who they actually were, and appreciated the numerical symbolism of the Trinity they presented to the world. He was also vaguely aware of their triple nature as a reminder of the former Latin Republic, from centuries before, when a triumvirate of men acted as secular leaders. It had been felt at the time of the church's founding that having three men rule it would keep it in greater balance and prevent power-hungry men from having complete sway over it.

Early in the evening, a monastic novice approached him, carrying a torch. "This way, sir," he said, gesturing for Desmond to follow him.

"No one has taken my name," Desmond said.

"Aye, sir. But the priests are done with seeing folks today. You are seventh in line tomorrow. I will take you to the dormitory and show you to the refectory, where the evening meal will be served anon."

Desmond rose at first light the next morning, having slept soundly for the first time in several weeks. He made his way back to the line, rather than worrying about breakfast. Food could wait. As it happened, two of yesterday's penitents hadn't returned, and he was called into a small chamber much sooner than he expected. A weary-looking priest sat at a desk, a piece of parchment before him. His fingers were stained black with ink.

"Name?" His tone was bored.

"Desmond de Rhone, Archbishop of Lynxhall."

The priest was startled by the response and made eye contact with Desmond. "Archbishop of Lynxhall? From Esterlyn?" he repeated.

Now it was Desmond's turn to be surprised, as he hadn't expected the priest to have heard of the provincial kingdom. "Aye."

"A moment, Excellency. I will return shortly."

Desmond crossed his arms and waited, unsure if the priest's reaction boded well for him or not. It was possible that Esterlyn's conclave of bishops had contacted the papal see and accused him of criminal behavior.

Within a quarter hour the priest returned, accompanied by a cardinal, who inclined his head to Desmond. "Excellency, please accept my most humble apology that you were not seen yesterday," he said. "We had no idea who you were. I am Cardinal Roderigo Purri. Please come with me."

Desmond relaxed slightly. The cardinal's demeanor was friendly, not accusatory. "A trifling matter, Eminence," he said as he followed the cardinal. "Surely we are not going straight to the Holy Fathers?"

"Nay. Pope Celestine is indisposed, and Popes Benedict and Pius have full schedules today," Roderigo said. "Possibly tomorrow or the next day, I can work you in with Pope Benedict. Will that suffice?"

"That will do much more than 'suffice,' Eminence," Desmond said.

He was pleased with the accommodations to which the cardinal had led him. He suspected the richly appointed room was typical for ranking ecclesiastical or noble guests. The oaken bed frame was solid, the hay-stuffed mattress possibly vermin-free, and the linens freshly laundered. Roderigo made sure a hot meal was ordered before departing and leaving Desmond alone.

Desmond was surprised when the papal summons came around midnight the next night. He didn't question the timing, however, but donned his cassock and cloak as quickly as he could and followed Roderigo to the appointed chamber.

A tall, ascetic-looking man was alone in the small room, seated on an ornately-carved wooden chair. Desmond stepped in and jumped when Roderigo closed the door firmly behind him. As the latch clicked, a silver-white circle glowed around the room's perimeter. Apparently the door closing was the Magical trigger for the circle to appear. Desmond wondered momentarily if it were to keep the conversation private or protect the persons within it from intruders. He sensed immense power radiating from the man before him.

"You may speak freely here, Archbishop de Rhone," Pope Benedict V said. "We have heard rumors of ecclesiastical unrest in Esterlyn and very much wish to learn the truth of the matter. Come, sit. You are most welcome here."

Desmond let out a breath. This was a warmer welcome than he'd dreamt possible. He settled on a stool near Benedict and inclined his head momentarily.

"Your Holiness, I bring grievous tidings indeed. More evil than I can possibly share during a short audience."

"Then take as long as you need," Benedict said, waving his arm magnanimously. "Begin with how you lost your position, because that news has come to us, though I suspect the details we have been given are false."

Desmond took a breath and gathered his thoughts. "I was removed from the primacy of Esterlyn for the 'crime' of supporting Prince Rudolphe DiStephane's claim to the throne. The prince was a fine, God-fearing mature man, who carried imperial blood in his veins. The other heir," Desmond made a dismissive gesture, "was a boy, the younger son of the weakest king Esterlyn has known. Prince Frederich had been abducted, and should have been slain, but no, his friends rescued him somehow and then both the King and Archbishop of Myrridia stormed into my cathedral and insisted, by force of arms, that Frederich be crowned king."

"And Frederich remains king," Benedict said. "That official news has reached us here. Who anointed him? One of your bishops?"

Desmond shook his head. "Not unless they gave him a second coronation. 'Twas Archbishop Edward Fitzroy of Myrridia who crowned him, a ranking cleric with no Magic. At least, he had none that day."

"Interesting," was Benedict's comment, though the pope was well aware of Fitzroy's lack of Magic. That story had also reached the imperial capital. "So, a foreign king travels through sovereign land with an armed force. I am surprised that the King of Myrridia did not put forth his own claim. They are a war-mongering clan and he is married to an Esterlyn princess."

Desmond snorted. "King Robert Claybourne of Myrridia has not the guts. He is no warrior, Holiness. How he managed to thwart an invasion of Myrridia by his other neighbor, Wyckendom, nearly three years ago is beyond me. There was one battle, which Wyckendom won decisively. Rumors abound that Robert's sister, Princess Allyson Claybourne, used blasphemous pagan Magic to defeat the mad sorceress Cecelia Falkes. The official record is that Claybourne slew the King of Wyckendom in single combat." He shook his head, still unable to credit the event.

"Ah, yes, Myrridia," Benedict said. "A thorn in the empire's side." Desmond gave him a baffled look. Why would a provincial kingdom such as Myrridia be of interest to the empire?

Benedict sensed the direction of Desmond's thoughts and smiled slyly. "All will be revealed, Excellency, in good time." He stared straight at his companion. "Would you care to meet the emperor? 'Tis a matter of course when new cardinals are invested." His smile widened.

It took several moments for Benedict's words to fully penetrate.

"What! You are elevating me to - cardinal?" Desmond couldn't believe it. Such a promotion had never entered even his wildest dreams.

Benedict rose and gestured for Desmond to do likewise. When they were both on their feet, he put a friendly arm around Desmond's shoulders. "Of course," he said, in a voice that almost purred. "I think you and I will agree on a lot of matters, just starting with the idea that Prince Rudolphe DiStephane was the legitimate heir to Esterlyn's throne. But how would you like to see all three of these provincial kingdoms bow to the might of the empire?"

"I should like that very much, Your Holiness," Desmond said, now smiling himself.

"Are you a patient man?"

"I can be, if needs must."

Holy Latin Emperor Clytus Aurelius approached Desmond after his investiture as cardinal a few days later. "Welcome Cardinal de Rhone. You may be your kingdom's first cardinal since this empire's inception two centuries ago." He frowned. "Typically, churchmen from lands outside the empire are ineligible. Of course, I hope that Esterlyn becomes part of the empire at some point in the near future." He'd been emperor for less than two years, and he desired nothing less than imperial rule over all of Christendom. Currently, about a dozen small kingdoms were outliers.

"A pity that Esterlyn could not join upon the death of King Wilhelm, Your Imperial Majesty," Desmond said. "Had Prince Rudolphe become king, as he should have, 'twould have been guaranteed."

"Aye," Clytus said. "It will be remembered for quite some time that a prince of imperial blood was executed for treason, when he should have been crowned king. But Esterlyn will eventually join the empire, and then 'twill only be a matter of time before Myrridia is also annexed." He rubbed his hands in anticipation.

"What is so special about Myrridia?" Desmond asked, wondering if he'd get an answer from the emperor.

Clytus clapped him on the back and let out a raucous laugh. "You will learn the answer to that question, Cardinal, when you become pope." He glanced at Benedict, who stood nearby and inclined his head, a predatory smile on his lips. "I have it on excellent authority that you are on a very short list."

Benedict joined them, adding, "For now, we wait. But know this, Cardinal - our time will come."