Way of the Mercenary

The Way of the Sellsword

“Back to the company. Back to business. Back to the parade of years. Back to the annals. Back to fear.”

– Glen Cook, The Black Company (1984)

Mercenaries and mercenary stories are probably the most basic fantasy tales in a world with lots of rain and morally dubious characters. Sellswords are mercenaries – soldiers for hire. The way of the sellsword – a life of war on the road – is a hard one, but offer a high reward for those who survive.

While high fantasy feature adventurers, or even heroes, dark fantasy deal with mercenaries. If your characters are willing to fight for mere gold, you can throw anything at them, and it will work.

Way of the Hiresword

The Sellsword


The contract is the heart of the sellsword profession. The contract should include terms of payment and post-mortem payments, length of the contract, provided and required equipment, looting rights, and conditions of cancellation.


Anyone can be a sellsword, or at least die in the attempt. Thus a recruit is paid similarly to a farmhand or manual laborer.

A potential recruit should examine the provided and required equipment section of the contract carefully. A contract with suspiciously high pay, combined with inadequate equipment, could be a sign-up form for an early grave.

Recruits who survive the length of their first contract may choose to sign a veteran contract. Others retire to safer professions, such as quiet guard position somewhere, or sign up with a regular army. Others return to civilian life.


Veteran sellswords are highly trained, well equipped and are dangerous people. A skilled veteran usually expects to be paid at least five times the income of a civilian commoner or enlisted regular soldier.

The veteran is expected to provide their gear, but the contract should specify terms for consumable or expendable gear, such as healing potions and explosives.


A surviving sellsword company relies on some specialists and their fees will vary in their skills. Genuinely skilled personnel may be beyond the sellsword captain’s budget and will seek employment elsewhere.

Specialist contracts include:

  • Assassins to deal with critical enemy personnel and troublesome contractors.
  • Alchemists to provide healing potions and explosives.
  • Battle Mages for all sorts of things, like fiery death, raising or leveling walls, or surveillance.
  • Priest to provide healing and spiritual guidance.
  • Spies within enemy and contractor’s ranks.
  • Sappers to deal with enemy fortifications. Sometimes teamed up with alchemists.

The Sellsword Captain

The sellsword captain is the leader of the company – sometimes general, license holder, negotiator, owner and champion all rolled into one person, depending on the legal framework of the setting.

An advanced society may require legal licensees to work as a sellsword, and breach of contract may lead to legal protection from higher authorities. A less sophisticated society may merely depend on who has the sharpest swords and the longest reach. The sellsword captain is well adviced to scrutinize all options before taking any contract.


Serving as a sellsword has many benefits and offer unexpected benefits following a successful career.

A Loyal Squad

Soldiers have a special bond, and mercenaries more so as their work is both more dangerous and often morally dubious. Sometimes this leads to a loyal squad who will stick together beyond the terms of the contract, and look the veteran as their leader.

Having a band of skilled and dangerous individuals at your disposal can only lead to good things.

A Brand New Company

On rare occasions, the deeds of a sellsword give access to the whole company. Perhaps the current caption needs to be replaced? Maybe morale is low, and many seek new employment under an exceptionally skilled captain?


Life on the road in times of turmoil leads to all sorts of people, many with specialized skills and deep purses. Maybe they need your unique talents? Perhaps they need a favor? Friendship may be useless, but mutually beneficial work relations is pure gold to a sellsword. A successful sellsword treasures a list of reliable contacts, knowing that life will depend on it.

The Contractor

The sellsword may serve a single employer, or pick up contracts as it suits them. Being a sellsword is all about the contractor and the contractor’s needs. Finding the right employer is tricky. The sellswords need a master that respect them, but not too much. A fearful master is more likely to betray the sellswords or, worse, not hire them at all.

  • Merchant company.
  • Nobles or wealthy merchants.
  • A wealthy church or pilgrims.
  • A secret cabal.
  • A merchant caravan.
  • The local rulers.

Why is there a need for more soldiers?

  • Secure territory and safe passage.
  • Guard the population against brigands and monsters.
  • Proactive defense into enemy territory may be required

What is the real reason for the need for more soldiers?

  • The neighboring domain is wealthy. That wealth needs to be put to better use by the contractor and force is required. For the benefit of the general population, of course.
  • The contractor is preparing a coup or assassination to save the realm from a tyrant.
  • Retribution from secret enemies is imminent, and the contractor needs expendable guards.
  • The regular army threatens the contractor, and a coup is imminent. The conflict will escalate unless the sellswords deal with the aspiring coup leaders.

The Mission

The contract is signed, and the sellswords begin their mission. It is time for some heroics.

  1. Assist a spy inbound from enemy territory. The company must create a diversion and take out anyone closing in on the spy.
  2. Move into enemy territory and release prisoners from a labor camp, keep or prison.
  3. Launch a surprise attack behind enemy lines and assassinate an enemy leader.
  4. Establish an outpost or support point between bases. Protect the workers and expect enemy raids.
  5. Move into enemy territory and reinforce friendly troops.
  6. Sneak beyond enemy lines and sabotage enemy positions or disrupt supply lines.
  7. Move into enemy territory and retrieve an object of interest. The object can be anything, such as the Sword of the King, a lost letter, the Crown of the Ancients or simply the enemy’s battle plans.
  8. Large quantities of smuggler goods are transported into enemy territories. Is someone at the local outpost turned to the enemy? The sellswords must deal with the traitors.
  9. Our spymaster has detected a spy within our ranks and needed someone to neutralize the threat. The spymaster could be lying, but that is hardly the sellsword’s concern.
  10. A platoon of soldiers is lost in the wilds, and the authorities want news, lost gear and mementos recovered. Survivors would also be nice.

The Hitch

There are always complications.

  1. The contractor switches sides in the conflict. Without telling the sellswords.
  2. A counterattack is imminent and is discovered halfway through the mission. The sellswords may have to prioritize the mission or alerting allies.
  3. The enemy expects interference and targets the sellsword captain for assassination.
  4. The information is inaccurate. Identities are mistaken, or locations are mixed up. The company is sent blindly into unknown territory.
  5. Others move on the same objective, possibly with different priorities, and friendly fire is possible.
  6. The contractor betrays the sellswords ahead of schedule. The enemy knows they are coming.

Spoils of War

Some sellsword contracts include looting right. Not that it matters, a successful sellsword loots regardless of the contract. Sometimes the loot consists of particular items or opportunities.

  1. The fallen duke’s signet ring.
  2. Treaties of particular interest, such a land grants, debt bonds, or mercantile agreements or licenses.
  3. Indiscreet letters.
  4. The Sword of Kings, or a similar piece of regalia.
  5. Captives of special importance, such as a hated enemy or the enemy’s beloved family.
  6. The key to the vault, or perhaps a map.

The Betrayal

All sellswords eventually become a liability, even if they fulfill the contract without a hitch. That is the nature of the game, and both the sellswords and the contractor know it. Perhaps the local lord does not want units of unemployed soldiers on in the domain? Maybe a scapegoat is needed, and the band of proven mercenaries is a convenient target? It is time for the betrayal.

The Contractor’s Betrayal

The sellsword is getting restless, dealing with the threat is long overdue, and it is better to strike first.

  1. The contractor invites the sellsword captains to a private celebration or to discuss new opportunities. The contractor does not show up, unless it is to gloat, but rather a gang of thugs and assassins to kill and sellswords.
  2. An assassination contract, possibly a forgery, has found it’s way to an enemy lord’s hands. The contract shows that the sellsword captain has agreed to kill someone of importance – a lord or high priest, or possibly someone in the royal family – and the authorities want the sellsword captain for questioning.
  3. The sellsword company is more brutal than anticipated, and the public opinion deteriorate. The sellswords will make excellent scapegoats.

The Sellsword’s Betrayal

The contractor is getting nervous, dealing with the threat is long overdue, and it is better to strike first.

  1. The inevitable happens. The enemy has made an offer the sellsword captain cannot refuse. The cleanest way out of the contract is to dispose of the contractor and walk away.
  2. The contractor sees the sellswords as expendable, and cheaper to send to their deaths than paying. This development is unacceptable and will be dealt with most permanently.
  3. All sellsword veteran have some regrets, but the new contractor is a tad dark, even with the company’s record. Canceling the contracts is not an option unless the company wants to be the next target. Things will turn worse before the company can move on.

Related Posts

The Reading List

Mercenaries in fantasy have a long and proud tradition. This is the stuff of legends.

R.E. Howard’s Conan was a mercenary, likewise Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. (I can believe I spelled Fafhrd right on the first attempt!). Later you have Glen Cook’s The Black Company (1984) and Steven Ericsson and Ian Cameron Esslemont’s Malazan stories. Cook set the gold standard for fantasy mercenaries and is a must-read.

Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksennarrion series (1988) may also be worth checking out. Paksennarrion is a runaway sheep farmer’s daughter turned soldier. Moon is a soldier and should know a thing or two about soldiering.

Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold (2009) is a tale of a mercenary general who survived the betrayal and her journey for revenge.

Captain Marcus Wester from Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin series (2011) is an excellent example of a busy retirement for a grizzled sellsword captain. The series is an excellent read and worth checking out.


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