The Chronicles of the Free Company - Book VII: Closure
May 15, 1450: Ancona – Just Before Noon
Prior to the decision that allowed the Chin to return to their homeland with volunteers from the Free Company, John Brandon, Captain of the Company, and his mother Constance, had painstakingly coordinated a series of events that would coincide with the planned date of departure. Letters were drawn and messengers dispatched to the various cities and towns in Europe and beyond.
The response was overwhelming.
For days, rumours had swirled over ale and games of dice that something big was about to happen. And as morning lengthened to noon, the Company sergeants ordered the assembled men to report to the Cathedral of San Ciriaco, Ancona’s premiere church.
The rumours became excited murmurs when Frederik Hviid appeared at the church leading a small entourage of retired Company men. They flared with the appearance of Stroph Héberté, the crippled veteran who had lost two sons in past campaigns. He was immediately surrounded and embraced by old friends and comrades at arms.
Héberté was closely followed by Henry Jameson, Roger Du Pont, Nykodem Prazsky, Valentin Luhtanen, Frederik Pohlmann, his brother Otto and his venerable sidekick Spiro. Frederik’s son Dieter embraced his father tightly with much backslapping and wiping of tears.
And still they came. Gaius Severus, Armin Schauenburg, Robert O'Glaigh and more.
All aged veterans, many had witnessed the birth of the Free Company, had fought with Jean sans Peur, Henry the Warrior King, Francesco Sforza, and more. They had sacked Orleans, defeated the French at Janville, crushed the Berbers on the African coast, humbled Venice, and held the Turks at Belgrade.
Above all, they had become legends at the Siege of Constantinople.
By now Ancona was abuzz with word that something important was happening. Shops closed as merchants joined peasants and traders, nobles both minor and major, all gathered excitedly in the massive forum that faced the Cathedral of San Ciriaco, waiting expectedly under the late morning sun.
Movement from the docks caused the growing crowd to spread, allowing passage to a smartly marching escort. At their head strode a woman of average height. Her once dark curly hair, now flecked with grey, was worn up and bound with a simple circlet of gold. Distinctly Mediterranean in complexion, she was still attractive, drawing gasps of admiration from the men in the crowd.
Maria Alonzo Carlotta de Medici ignored the looks and suppressed a smile. A flash of her hand brought the escort to a halt. Without breaking stride, she walked the massive steps of the Cathedral to enter a small door, passing from sight.
By now the men of the Company had taken position in disciplined ranks before the structure. Behind them the citizens of Ancona milled, waiting with barely contained anticipation.
And when the wide gold-inlaid oaken doors of the Cathedral swung ponderously open, their excited chatter turned to silence.
Captain was the first to emerge, striding purposefully along the portico. He was dressed in a simple grey shirt, grey trousers and leather boots. His blackened leather breastplate displayed a white skull clutching a red rose in its bony mouth. The mercenaries gave up a rousing cheer, growing in crescendo until John raised his hands for silence.
Casting his eyes about the throng, he began in a clear, strong voice, “Men of the Free Company, today is a momentous period in our existence. For today we honour our Eastern brethren in their time of need. 800 men and women will undertake the arduous journey to the land of the Chin. Know that I admire and envy each and every one of you, and pray to God for your safe and victorious return. To mark this occasion, the Honourable Chen Hui is hereby awarded the rank of Captain for the duration of the campaign. You shall honour his command as you have honoured mine.”
John Brandon paused as the men gave up cheers to a clearly humbled Chen. As the cheering subsided, he continued. “And while we applaud that noble undertaking, it is not the sole reason we gather here today. Though Ancona has been our home for many years, it is now our decision to move on. We have unfinished business elsewhere, and it is past time The Free Company had closure.”
The crowd mumbled, unsure what to make of that announcement. Many of the men and women of the Company had family in Ancona.
Once again Captain raised his hands for silence. “While our move is necessary, it will not be permanent, I promise you.” His voice trailed off, and the Captain of the Free Company stepped back. Moments later his sister Kathleen exited the Cathedral to join him. They hugged briefly before standing side by side.
Time passed and the crowd murmured; a sound that grew with anticipation.
And then she appeared.
Thin and noble she was, dressed in a simple gown drawn at the waist by a silk belt. Gracefully she stepped along the portico to the edge of the upper step. Her long black hair, streaked grey with age, cascaded past her shoulders. Her deep brown eyes, peaceful and serene, swept the men and women crowding the plaza, her thin lips drawn into a humble smile.
A woman in the crowd cried, “God bless you My Lady!”
The cry was taken up, and the citizens of Ancona doffed their hats and bent knees in reverence. Many mercenaries suddenly complained of dust, and dabbed at their eyes unashamedly.
The cry sounded again and grew in volume. “God bless you Countess! God bless!”
Constance Brandon, the former Countess d’Abbeville, mother to John and Kathleen, and wife to the legendary Robert of Brandon, founder of the Free Company, inclined her head in acknowledgment. Eyes moist with gratitude, she quietly joined her children.
As if responding to some unspoken signal, the sergeants sprang to action, arranging the men into two lines, forming a corridor from Cathedral to docks. They waited at attention.
A figure stepped from the church doors, his appearance drawing collective gasps. His arrival had been a complete surprise, his entry into the city a perfectly kept secret.
Pope Nicholas V of Rome strode along the wide portico accompanied by an entourage of high ranking Archbishops and Bishops. With great ceremony he blessed the crowd, turned and blessed the Brandon family, and then faced the Cathedral entrance.
It was noon. The bells tolled; a deep, clear reverberation that echoed into the countryside--a sound that was repeated throughout Christendom.
Artur de Bloomfield marched slowly from the building, the legendary black on black banner of the Free Company held proudly in his firm grip. The fierce skull, over a set of crossed swords, its mouth clutching a blood-red rose, the words Death Rides With Us emblazoned beneath--words that had struck fear in the hearts of enemies for over thirty years.
The crowd sensed something monumental coming.
Five men and one woman entered the portico at a slow cadence bearing a simple casket, three on a side. Draped on the burnished wood lay a replica of the Free Company banner. At their head were Father Falkenberg and Father Holmes.
To the initiated the pallbearers were no ordinary people. They were among the greatest heroes of Christendom: Jacque LeClerc, Amric Al'Aeshir, Maria Alonzo Carlotta de Medici, Frederik Hviid, Erik Jaeger and the near-mythical Lochlan.
”It's him,” came the whispers, spreading swiftly through the crowd in an excited buzz. Heads bowed in respect, many mumbled prayers and kissed crosses. The mercenaries raised their weapons in salute.
The procession followed the passageway from Cathedral to docks and halted before Maria’s flagship, the Athene. With the ship rocking gently against the stone wharf, Pope Nicholas V performed mass, pronouncing his blessing for the upcoming journey.
John Brandon and his mother carefully removed the flag from the coffin and folded it. With a nod from John, the pallbearers took the casket aboard.
John and Constance approached Chen and his gathered officers. He noted Kate standing with them and asked, “You still going, sis?”
Kathleen nodded solemnly. “I understand their tongue. It could prove useful. Besides, someone has to chronicle these adventures.”
Constance took her daughter’s hands. “Even as I wish you would reconsider and join us, I understand and approve your decision.”
Kate looked at the ground. “Thank you, Mother. I really want this. I’ll return, I promise.” She glanced at Artur de Bloomfield. “Anyway, someone has to look after this buffoon.”
De Bloomfield had the good grace to remain silent.
John Brandon nodded. He turned and motioned to Glendower. The small Welshman approached smartly. John asked, “Are they ready?”
The Welshman grinned. “Aye. My men are champing at the bit.”
“Very good. Captain Chen?”
Chen Hui started, unused to the honorific. “Captain?”
“Would you accept the services of Lieutenant Glendower and 200 Welsh longbowmen?”
Chen and his men talked excitedly in their language. Li Tie stood perplexed.
Kathleen volunteered, “I don’t think Li Tie understands the reputation of the Welsh.”
Captain laughed. “Then I assume he’ll find out.”
Constance coughed gently. All conversation stopped as eyes turned to her. They were not put off by the interruption. The mercenaries held the Lady in awe. Where Captain had been the soul of the Free Company, Constance was its heart.
And now she stepped out to Chen and held forth the replica banner. “As this adorned my husband’s casket, let it adorn your standard and bring you success. And never forget its motto.”
Chen’s eyes watered as he whispered, “Death Rides With Us.” He took the banner, passed it reverently to Amric. Facing Constance, he bowed deeply. “You do us great honour, my lady.”
“As you have done us. May God go with you and keep you safe.”
“My Lady, it has been my privilege.” He looked at the Athene, his forehead creasing with puzzlement. “If I may, where do you go?”
“Maria takes us to St. Malo.” Constance looked at John, and for a moment she saw so much of Robert in his features. She took her son's hand and squeezed it tightly.
Turning back to Chen, she smiled. “My husband and I are going home.”