One man or thousands (Part 1)

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"No," said Tancred, slamming his open palm against the table. "Absolutely not. This is a distraction that Valdon has come up with because he knows that if I assault Traumwald I will win."

"At a heavy price," said Rainhart.

"You stay out of this," said Tancred, pointing, "and don't think for a moment I am going to let you throw yourself into the ring against whatever thug Valdon finds to fight for him."

Rainhart bit his lip. 

"Your majesty, we need to calmly assess our options." Cassius pulled a chair back with his foot and sat down. He gestured to the others to do likewise. "Were you not the one a few days ago who was determined to win this war with as little bloodshed as possible?"

Tancred frowned at him, sighed, and sat down. "You're right, Lord Cassius. So, calmly, then."

"What are the old laws of the clan kingdoms Valdon invoked?"

"The usual, I suppose," said Tancred, looking around him.

"When it comes to matters of honour, it is my experience that every folk is different," Cassius said dryly. He smiled quickly at Philomena. "Sit, niece, I beg you. And you too, Prince Rainhart."

As Philomena sat beside Cassius, Rainhart sat beside her, casting his eyes around the familiar faces at the table. Philomena, Tancred, Konrad, Lord Cassius, Cervin. The representatives of the Teuta baronies. This was a decision that concerned them all.

Tancred nodded. "You're right. Caldegard, you are the most learned among us. What are the rules of combat?"

Caldegard was a woman in her fifties. Rainhart could not remember what her house was.

"In its purest form, the rite condenses warfare from a matter for thousands to a matter between the two claimants. The matter is decided decisively: one dies or cries mercy, and the other claims the spoils. The prize and the forfeit are decided before the match. When the outcome is realised, all armies are disbanded. There is no looting, retribution or further bloodshed unless this was agreed as part of the prize."

"So if you win, your majesty, Valdon hands you the keys to Traumwald." Cervin stood, as usual, near the door.

"I do not so much chance gaining Traumwald by this endeavour as risk losing it," said Tancred, frowning, "and a lot more besides."

Caldegard nodded. "Valdon is within his rights to ask as forfeit that you renounce your claim to the throne and own the murder of King Godfrey. He could demand your death. Any further attempts by you or House Reuz to reclaim the throne by war would be done without honour."

"Blessed few," said Cassius, shaking his head.

"But if I--if you won.." said Rainhart, leaning forward.

"Then we could impose the same demands on Valdon," said Tancred. "As Caldegard said, the prize and the forfeit are agreed beforehand. Valdon risks all on a small hope: he will accept a cruel forfeit because he knows the only way he survives the day is for the single combat to go ahead, and for him to win. The keys to Traumwald are the least we could ask for."

"Don't you think it bears consideration?" said Rainhart. He could hear his heart thudding in his chest.

"Valdon mentioned champions," said Cassius. "You said there is only one you could choose to fight in your place."

"There are several," said Tancred. "My father and brother--who are guarding Reuz. My uncle, who is... well..."

"I believe Prince Aldric is in Veribias, your majesty," said one of the barons.

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