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COPYRIGHT © 2013 Joel Goulet

The palace of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V basked in the midday sun atop a hill in Granada, Spain. A half mile away, in a thick, well kept forest, the twenty four year old Emperor was chasing after a black clothed figure. Both brandished swords, and the person being chased wore a salade helmet with a bevor to protect the throat.
Charles V, halted for a moment. “Stop and face me like a man, you coward,” he demanded, expecting the person to obey the royal bidding.
The opponent, stopped running, turned, and faced the Emperor standing thirty feet away. Both of them were breathing deeply, having run the whole distance from the palace.
Watching the two would-be combatants, a dozen soldiers stood off at a distance, ready to obey the Emperor’s every command. The soldiers so badly wanted to hasten in and help, but they remained still, as had been their orders.
Charles smiled devilishly as if he had won some sort of contest. “So, you are not a coward after all. I hope, for your sake, before this is finished you realize the mistake you just made.” He raised his sword to make a challenge.
The helmeted warrior accepted the challenge, raising a sword in response.
A grin curled a corner of the Emperor’s mouth. “I shall enjoy this. Shall we, then?”
The clang of sword against sword reverberated between the trees as the two combatants charged into a duel. The blades flashed about in a deadly mating, steadfast and quick. After several minutes had passed, each combatant felt the weight of the sword in hand, felt it grow heavier, felt each stinging blow delivered and received. Their hearts beat rapidly, and as the contest grew in length the combatants grew weary.
Sweat began to soak through the emperor’s royal purple shirt. It was one of his favorite shirts, with its pearl buttons, standing collar, and ruffled front. Likewise sweat was beginning to make its mark upon the black cavalier shirt worn by the other adversary. When they had been out of the shade of the forest, the black material had absorbed the sun’s heat, and now the foe wearing the shirt was wishing for even a small sip of water.
After several minutes it was the Emperor’s blade that managed to knock the sword from his opponent’s hand. In an instant the tip of his sword came to rest against the chest of the defenseless fighter. Luckily, Charles was considered a merciful emperor.
His wicked smile returned as he held his adversary at bay, knowing full well the person’s life was now his to give, or to take. He moved the blade lightly from side to side across the fighter’s chest as if toying with him. “You put up a valiant defense, but now, to the victor, comes the reward.” He dropped his sword, reached out with both hands, and yanked the person close to him. There came no resistance. “I need you badly.” He pulled the helmet off.
A flood of brunette colored hair filled the space where the helmet had been, and Mirella shook out her long. She had thin lips, a cleft chin and dimples, with a petite frame.
“Take me, Your Majesty, for I am your prisoner,” Mirella said. “I want your love.”
“And you shall have it, my dear.”
They embraced and kissed, deeply, passionately.
“Your moans beneath me will be music to my ears,” Charles V said. “Much more so than the sound of blade striking blade.”
“Is that a royal command, Your Majesty?”
“It most definitely is.”
~ * ~
Rhone Valley, Southern France

General Johann Diesbach walked swiftly, weaving his way between small groups of men gathered around campfires, the flames of some that rose two or three feet. The constant snap and pop of burning wood contrasted against the subdued, even somber mood of the men. Men who knew they perhaps faced death at every sunrise.
Diesbach came to the French king’s tent. Flags and streamers flapped about when caught by gusts of wind. Dressed in their dark blue and red uniforms, a pair of Cent-Suisses Guards standing at the entrance snapped to attention. For a minute Diesbach stopped and looked to the night sky. Clouds were beginning to sweep away the bright stars. Just two hours before he had sat alone atop a small rise and had regarded the heavenly gems. He couldn’t recall when last he had taken the time to do such. For a brief span that night he had found peace. He sighed deeply before passing the guards and entering the tent.
Another set of guards just inside the entrance also snapped to attention. Numerous oil lamps cast light over sparse furnishings, none of which presented the slightest indication this was the shelter of royalty. Modest at best in comfort, it could have been that of a group of soldiers, except for its size. Not even so much as a rug covered the grass over which it had been pitched. It was clearly evident the tent and that within it was meant to be moved swiftly if need be.
Diesbach took up his position at a table upon which numerous maps had been spread. He noticed the eyes of several officers of various ranks, were locked in puzzled stares upon him. Realizing the need, he looked eye to eye with King Francis I. “Your Majesty, pardon my late arrival.”
“I was told you were deep in thought, sitting alone in the dark, away from the warmth of the fires.” 
“Yes, I was contemplating, Your Majesty,” Diesbach confirmed. He was somewhat surprised that his being alone had been taken note of.
“Share with us that which you were contemplating instead of attending this meeting with us.”
Diesbach looked blankly at the monarch. He cleared his throat as he quickly glanced at the officers, before returning his attention to the king. “I was thinking, Your Majesty, how beautiful the sky looked this night.”
A shallow chuckle rose from the officers, and was quickly brought to silence with the raising of a royal hand.
“Continue,” the king directed.
“I was thinking how peaceful the moment was. How lost that peacefulness seems when tainted by the stench of war. I was thinking how so very much I long to return home and not have to worry about the aggression served up by a brutal emperor.” Diesbach paused and glanced from officer to officer. “I was thinking how we must make every effort to defeat the villainous wrongdoing against the people of France.”
Francis I grinned. “I wonder if I shall live long enough to see an equal to you, General Diesbach, when it comes to over speaking.” 
A chorus of laughter swelled the tent as the officers joined the King in a badly needed laugh, at the general’s expense. Stunned for a moment, Diesbach dared to join in the laughter.
“And I might add, I believe it will rain by morning,” Diesbach said amidst the laughter.
Almost at once the laughter ceased.
There was absolute silence.
Again Diesbach found all eyes locked upon him.
“Rain would impede our advance somewhat,” Francis I said softly.
“That is true, Your Majesty,” Diesbach agreed. “But dare I say, that at least the Swiss mercenaries in your service will not let the rain dampen their goal of victory over the emperor’s troops.” He looked purposely at each man gathered in turn. “What I was doing tonight, by myself, in the dark, was enjoying the peacefulness of the moment. Allowing myself to come to know what such peace is like. Most of us within this tent have long forgotten such peace. I think you should all take such a moment, yet tonight, to find that peace. Experience it. Know within yourself that only when we bring an end to this conflict between empire and kingdom can such a peace be long term, lasting. When next I enter battle I will remember the peace I felt this night. I will fight to feel that peace again. True I fight for the King’s cause. But now, after finding peace tonight, I have cause of my own.” 
There was silence for a moment.
“Well spoken, General.” The king’s voice was the only thing breaking the silence. He turned his attention to the table. “Our recruitment of forces is nearly complete. Soon our army will be sufficient in strength to deliver a decisive blow to the Imperial forces in Provence. My scouts have reported that there is evidence indicating the Imperial force will withdraw. The Viceroy of Naples, General Charles Lannoy, is said to be the commander. I will force his hand and drive him out of Provence.”
“Your Majesty,” Duke Charles said quickly, “It has been Lannoy time and time again driving a dagger into the heart of France.”
The King’s face flushed crimson. Angrily he slapped a hand flat upon the table top. “I am the heart of France,” he thundered. “No one has felt his presence more than I. No one has sought to rid France of the Spanish pestilence more than I. My army will drive him back into Italy and we will finish the Lannoy plague.”
Diesbach was glad to hear the King’s words. “Then, Your Majesty, it is my understanding we shall chase him to hell if need be?”
The king looked at Diesbach and grinned. “You Swiss are known for your tenacious persistence. No doubt the mercenaries under your charge would like nothing better than to chase the Spanish dogs all the way to hell if need be.”
“Indeed, Your Majesty.”
“All will come to Lannoy in due time. There is an order of events that will transpire before your forces run off. First, we will relieve Provence. The Imperial forces will be forced to retreat to the east through the Maritime Alps. Since the terrain there is extremely harsh, nature may steal your chance of chasing Lannoy.”
“Better for him the hand of nature than the cold steel of my sword,” Diesbach said.
“And better for us if you keep your boasts to yourself,” Langemantel said. “Please, Your Majesty, continue before the breeze of the Swiss general’s boasting cools your thoughts.”
“Upon relieving Provence, we will march into Italy through the Argentiere Pass. It is reported that an Imperial force is stationed in Milan. We will drive them out and begin our defeat of the Emperor within Italy.”
“We will send the Emperor a clear message at Milan,” Diesbach said, daring once again to steal the attention away from the King. “And the Swiss mercenaries will be at the forefront of delivering that message.”
“It is a long journey we must travel,” Francis I said. “Our men will grow weary. There will be discomfort. At times the only solace the soldiers will receive will be in the words you speak to them. Constantly remind them of the cause we fight for. Constantly remind them that I, Francis I, King of France shall firstly be in their debt, and secondly be at their side in battle. Now go, speak to your men. Raise their spirits.” He glanced at Diesbach. “Each of you find your own peace tonight.”
~ * ~
In the emperor’s study within the Imperial Palace, Charles V stood behind his desk, facing two visibly nervous officers. One of the officers, General Lapenti, was a gaunt looking man, while the other, Colonel Volonte, was rather squat. Both men had long served the emperor and had earned their places on his personal staff. Charles V confided in the two men, trusted them explicitly, and knew when given an order it would be carried out to the letter.
Charles slapped his hands flat upon the desk top. If it was said he was upset, it would have been an understatement. “Where is Mirella?” he fumed.
The two officers glanced at each other, each hoping the other would speak first.
“Where is she?” the emperor bellowed. He had no patience for anyone who did not answer him immediately.
“We have searched everywhere, Your Majesty,” Lapenti said stiffly.
Charles V looked coldly at the man. “If you searched everywhere, then you would have found her.”
“Your Majesty, it was reported that she left the palace in the company of her maidservant, Amalia,” Volonti quickly said, drawing instant attention.
“Why would she leave me?” Charles V questioned. “Have I not treated her well?”
“I suggest that her mind was poisoned by the maidservant, Your Majesty,” Lapenti said.
“Get her back here. A thousand coins to the one who brings her to me. And put the maidservant in chains.”
~ * ~
Provence, Southern France

On a hilltop, Imperial General Charles Lannoy stood alone looking down into a lengthy valley. From his vantage point, he could see the faint orange glow of campfires within the French encampment. The sight of his enemy so near brought his hands to form into fists and his teeth to grind. Words could not describe the hatred he felt for the French. If only, he wished, there was a canon that could reach the encampment; he would bombard his enemy to hell.
Silently General Montague approached. So concentrated was Lannoy he never heard the general until a misplaced step snapped a fallen twig. Almost instinctively Lannoy’s hand went to his sword hilt.
“What is it?” Lannoy asked, not taking his focus from his enemy.
“Forgive me, Your Grace, I was wondering if there were any orders?” He had asked the same question on countless nights before going to sleep.
“No,” Lannoy replied.
“Very well, Your Grace.” Montague bowed slightly, turned, and took a few steps.
“Stand up here with me, General. Look upon the French encampment.”
Montague turned and went to his commander, honored to stand next to Lannoy. He looked at the orange glow that marked the French encampment. “They are no more than a day’s march from our positions.”
“The French king will force march his army. By evening tomorrow their cannons will be close enough to bombard our positions.”
“Our fortifications are strong.”
“They are only as strong as the nerves of the men manning them. Continuous bombardment can shatter a man’s nerves. Without nerve a man cannot fight. He is defeated before he even begins.”
“Your army will stand their ground.”
Lannoy faced Montague and pointed to the encampment. “General, that is the camp of Francis I, King of France, who has been warring with our Emperor for many years. He is a determined king, and not likely to allow an invading army to bring about an end to hostilities. Least of all, not upon French soil.” Lannoy paused for a moment. “I have never met him, yet I hate him, I loathe him, I despise him. Why? Because the emperor said I must. Because Francis I is the emperor’s enemy. Perhaps one day I will meet him, when we are no longer enemies.” He turned away from Montague. “And you, General, French born yourself, yet Francis I is your enemy. I have never asked, and you have never told me why that is. And even without knowing your reasons, I have never questioned your loyalty.”
“As you know, Your Grace, I served in the King’s army. It is because of what happened to my family, at the hands of drunken French soldiers, that my allegiance turned. I lost my wife and children.”
“Was the King responsible?”
“No. He did not know what happened, perhaps still does not know. But I could no longer serve in the same army that would have, within their ranks, the likes of those men. Before I left the King’s service, I vented my vengeance on the men responsible.”
“I did not know this.”
“My bitterness has kept me silent, Your Grace.”
There was silence between them.
“When we rode about the territory, and you saw the ancient Roman ruins, did you not wonder about the magnificence of that empire?” Lannoy questioned
“I did, Your Grace.”
“Did you not compare it with the empire you serve?”
“How so, Your Grace?”
“If the emperor’s empire is ever to be great, it cannot come to pass by granting the French the pleasure of victory. The French army is far superior to our army in numbers. They could defeat us easily, thus handing Francis I a victory. I will deny that victory. We will retreat in the morning. East through the Maritime Alps.”
“Your Grace, I must question your plan. This time of year the passage through the Alps could be harsh.”
“Indeed, General. But I fear a direct confrontation with the French army would fare even worse. My decision does not come easy. I have lost a great deal of sleep considering this decision. To be certain I forget when last I slept a full night. My thoughts are heavy.”
“I am here any time you wish to share your thoughts, Your Grace.”
Lannoy smiled and placed a hand upon the general’s shoulder. “You are my general, and my friend. In all the years we have fought together, have you ever known me to back down from a fight?”
“No, Your Grace.”
“It is not easy to back down now, but being in the position I am, I must balance what is right for my men against the wishes of the emperor.” Lannoy drew in a deep breath and sighed. “In this case I do what I feel is best for both. There will come another meeting between armies.”