Saturday, September 29, 2012

And the Mountain Cried 'Too High, Too High'--Part 6

Idun Bragi sat at the table and gritted her teeth. “Now then,” she said with as much calm as she could muster, “in the interest of having these talks be… constructive, I’m going to suggest a few guidelines.…” She shot a fierce glance at Manodante Vanir. “ ‘Suggest’ mind you. Not ‘order’--merely ‘suggest’.” Her gaze turned to Dolistone Aesir, who frowned and turned away nervously. “These are simple concepts that I am throwing out there so that we might can get through this little meeting and point to definite results afterwards.”

She glanced around the table again. “Suggestion one. We should perhaps avoid insulting the dead relatives of those seated here. A suggestion that I would argue goes doubly for mothers, grandmothers, and beloved aunts.” Idun took a deep breath, and let that one sink in.

Dolistone raised his hand. “A most meritorious suggestion, Skald Idun. However, if I may make an observation on your suggestion…” The Count-Palatine stood up. “It is a sad case that everyone has at least one relative of the mother, grandmother and beloved aunt persuasion who is impossible to respect, even if one does love her. For example, my aunt Vance, dear woman that she was, happened to be violently insane, and would regularly launch into lengthy, and frankly obscene rants about Goblins. Fond as I was of her, I would hardly consider any comments about her lack of sanity an insult…”

Manodante stood up as well. “Yes, an excellent point. Dolistone’s Aunt Vance was utterly mad, and no amount of pleasantness can paper that over. And she cannot hold a candle to my own aunt Gerd, whose fondness for liquor and explosive temper were notorious throughout the Fangs. Now, while she had her good points, I can hardly deny that she was a drunk and a harpy.”

Idun took a deep breath. “While there may be exceptions the general principal that I am suggesting is…”

“Now, wait, wait,” said Dolistone. “What do you mean my Aunt Vance can’t hold a candle to your Aunt Gerd? She was the maddest woman this side of the Skadh. She was thrown out of every holy order within a hundred miles. Including the Screamers. And they’ll accept anyone.”

Manodante glared at the Count-Palatine. “Funny you should mention the Screamers. Aunt Gerd once punched out their Abbot in a brawl.”

“Oh, like that’s an accomplishment!” shouted Dolistone. “Vance had such a grudge against the Morasian Brethren, she had her huntsmen take pot shots at them.”

“Gerd used to steal alms from beggars to buy brandy!” said the now furious Margrave. “She was the most objectionable woman in the Fangs!”

“Second most objectionable woman!” declared Dolistone.

Manodante shook his fist. “Oh, you impertinent nothing… my horrible aunt was a thousand times worse than your horrible aunt!”

Dolistone leaned forward, furious. “No! Vance was the epitome of awful aunts! There has not nor shall there ever be a more horrible woman! EVER!”

Idun leaned back and groaned, trying to understand how the conversation had taken this turn. When she’d begun this, the thought of setting the Aesir and Vanir on the path of peace had struck her as an appealing way to get her name in the history books. Over the last few days, she’d come to the opinion that this view as hopelessly naïve--indeed, entering into the realm of insane delusion. And Manodante and Dolistone were in many respects one of the smaller problems, even if they were two stubborn old bastards willing to argue about the color of sky. (‘Turquoise’ and ‘aquamarine’ were the pair’s respective positions.) No, the Margrave and the Count-Palatine were more bluster than actual anger. Her eyes went across the room to a tall figure who remained silent through all this. Argilius Gibeling spoke rarely at these discussions, and when he spoke he used the word ‘wergild’. Argilius claimed that a thousand Gibelings had died in disputes over the Chultwater, and he wanted payment for every damn one. With a man like that at the table, Manodante and Dolistone’s arguments over things like word pronunciation tended to come as a relief.

“Ignorant blowhard!” shouted the Margrave.

“Moronic wretch!” screamed the Count-Palatine.

Well, at least, at first, thought Idun with a sigh. “Gentlemen, may I please move on to my next suggestion?” she said, with tired resignation.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

And the Mountain Cried 'Too High, Too High'--Part 5

“In the beginning there was the Blessed Unholy Darkness of the Mother,” explained the older Erl quietly. “And all was without flaw.”

Ban Coldhand nodded dutifully. This was a piety he’d heard many times in the past from his elder, and one, truth be told, he was tired of hearing. But then Master Eliaures Venomous was not a man you ignored even when you’d gotten tired of what he was saying.

“And then this perfection was marred, for the Darksome Lady was caused to disgorge other beings upon the world, beings which lacked Her glorious oneness,” continued Eliaures. “Since then, all existence has stumbled, blindly, separated from the perfection of Our Unholy Mother of Darkness, trying endlessly to get back to Her.” The thin, pale Erl looked at his fellow. “And that is how we serve.”

Ban performed the Obeisant Gesticulation. “Bless Her Unholy Name.”

Eliaures nodded and has he performed it himself. “With great rejoicing.”

Baholt entered the chamber and glanced at his fellow student. Ban gave a nervous, slight nod of the head, the pair’s shared symbol that Eliaures was in one of his moods. Baholt began to step backwards. “Baholt Hardfist,” declared Eliaures quietly. “You took a great deal of time, in your scouting.” He stepped towards his student. “Indeed, so long that you missed my Declaration of Purpose.”

Baholt gulped. “Ahh. Yes. Well… Master Venomous, the targets remained active for far longer than I originally thought they would, so I was forced to make my observation go on longer.” He stiffened and bowed. “Indeed, sir, I hope I may be forgiven my trespass, as it came from following my duties.”

Eliaures regarded his young disciple for a moment. “It… suffices.” He stroked his chin. “Relate to me any new findings…”

“The targets are meeting with Ulf’s Skald,” began Baholt. “She is…”

“After you performed a mental review,” said Eliaures. He managed a formal bow. “I will give you some time to do so.” Ban and Baholt watched him leave the chamber.

“He knows,” said Ban, looking around the chamber in fear.

“He… suspects,” said Baholt. “And he suspects because Master Eliaures always suspects such things. That’s why he’s a Master.”

Ban began to bite his lip. “Maybe we should wait. Until after the assignment. We… we need his expertise.”

“The longer we delay, the more likely he’ll kill us,” said Baholt calmly.

Ban glared at his fellow student. “Do you want him to hear about this?” He looked nervously at the floor. “Plenty of apprentices survive their training. Ashar, and Repha, and…”

“…Any other fool who’ll do exactly what Venomous tells them,” said Baholt. “But not those who show any ambition. Not those who show any chance for greatness. As far as our Master is concerned, the Disciples begin and end with him. And we can not allow that to happen, can we?”

Ban took a deep breath. “Of course not. But…”

“Just follow my lead on this, Coldhand,” noted Baholt. “We will be Masters in time.”

It occurred to Ban that when Baholt said ‘we’ he meant ‘I’. Still, his other option in this matter was even more unappealing.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

And the Mountain Cried 'Too High, Too High'--Part 4

“Head to the Fangs, you said,” muttered Gwydd, as the mule he was on clopped along the path. “Why--why the hell did I listen to you? Why?”

“Our sage-like wisdom?” suggested Meliadus Holdfast.

The Goblin glared at him. “I’m pretty sure that’s not it.”

“Yeah,” agreed Faileuba. “That was a bit of a long shot.”

“Just throwing it out there,” said Meliadus with a shrug.

Gwyd dfrowned as the group traveled on. “The problem with this plan,” he announced at length, “is that traveling in the Fangs is damned expensive. Inns are few, and pricey. Roads are perilous. We’ve had to rent mules to get through them. Mules! Do you know what my father used to say about renting mules?”

“That it was like paying a man to torture you,” said Faileuba. Gwydd blinked in surprise. “You’ve said it half-a-dozen times on this trip. I know you don’t believe it, Gwydd, but Meliadus and I do listen to you.”

“We do what now?” said Meliadus absently.

“Well--occasionally,” noted Faileuba with a sigh.

“I’m still lost here,” said Meliadus.

“When were you ever found?” asked Faileuba.

“On a garbage heap near the Anguished Ending monastery,” said Meliadus. “It was the customary way of joining the Disciples. Master Oristges used to say ‘hand me a child under five, and I will make a remorseless killing machine’.” He gave a fond chuckle. “Fun guy. We all loved him dearly.” Faileuba and Gwydd stared at him. “What? We did! He was nice. And he used to tell the funniest stories.”

Faileuba shook her head. “I’ll say this for you, Meliadus--knowing you has at least given me the comfort of knowing there’s someone with a childhood even more messed up then mine.” She pointed at herself. “And remember, I was born a remorseless killing machine.”

“No, you were born a killing machine,” corrected Meliadus. “Trust me, the ‘remorseless’ part takes training.”

Faileuba nodded. “Okay. Point.”

Gwydd snarled. “Listen you two--the point I’ve been trying to make it has cost us money to TRAVEL this far. Hell, we’ve had to take on jobs on the way here--and spent every scrap we’ve made. All towards your supposed big payoff.”

“Hey--this is a big deal,” said Faileuba. “I mean--forbidden love. An Aesir and a Vanir, crossing the invisible boundaries of family rivalry, in the name of romance.” She smiled. “If a trio of chivalrous warriors can’t serve the Code in that situation--while making a fair coin--well, then they don’t deserve to be called chivalrous warriors.”

Gwydd stared at her. “It really doesn’t… penetrate, does it? You say you listen to me, but you don’t. I tell you how this entire thing has lost us money, and you smile and insist that the big payoff’s right around the corner. The way you always do!”

“Well, come on, Gwydd,” said Meliadus. “We’ve got to be right eventually.”

Gwydd gave a low shout. “No, you don’t. It doesn’t work that way. You can just… keep being wrong indefinitely! Possibly to the end of time! Do you two ninnies under…” He blinked. “Oh, no.”

Meliadus had his steed turn. “Mule stopped again?” he asked pleasantly.

Gwydd was silent for a moment. “Yes,” he said at length.

Faileuba grinned at Meliadus. “Maybe we should just leave him here this time.”

Meliadus stroked his chin. “I’m definitely considering it.”

Saturday, September 22, 2012

And the Mountain Cried, 'Too High, Too High'--Part 3

Brandomarte looked around the small chamber nervously. The Temple of Mother Night Victorious in Battle was not one of the larger temples or richer ones, for that matter. However, it had a surprisingly dedicated set of parishioners, a rather startling fact for a man who’d been hoping to meet someone in a fairly deserted location.

“Brand?” came a horribly familiar voice. “Brandomarte Vanir?”

Brandomarte gritted his teeth and turned around. “Saxo Walsing?” he stated, forcing on a smile. “Fancy meeting you here. Of all places.”

“Why I never let a Feast of Unholy Aix pass without a visit to the Temple of Mother Night Victorious in Battle,” stated the old Ettin, patting the young Erl on the shoulder. “So what brings you here laddie?” The Ogre raised one shaggy eyebrow. “Worried about the damn Aesir backstabbing us in this meet?”

Brandomarte sighed internally. The Walsings stood in relation to the Vanir as the Vanir stood to the Utgardi. Well, except that if his father had ever forgotten Saxo’s name the way Skadi Utgardi had forgotten his father, there would have been hell to pay. “More or less, Saxo. More or less…” Looking over the crowd, he finally spotted Fiordelisa in a corner. As she was looking in another direction, he continued to stare at her fixedly, hoping that she would glance his way shortly.

“Aye, laddie, aye,” said Saxo, shaking his head. “I wish I could say we could trust them not to, but damn it, it’s the Aesir. And those damned Gibelings.”

Brandomarte nodded in a manner he was fairly certain that centuries of Vanir had been doing whenever the Walsings brought up the Gibelings, and which he rather suspected was similar to the nod the Utgardi gave when the Vanir had brought up the Aesir. At which point Fiordelisa finally saw him and managed a wave. Brandomarte shrugged furtively at Saxo, only for the Ettin to turn towards the crowd curiously.

“Something out there?” he asked.

Brandomarte bit his lip in that special sort of frustration that is the result of people not being as thick as you imagine them to be. “Oh, I’m merely amazed to see such faith among the people here. Always heard they were… more cynical down here in the hills.”

To his immense pleasure, Saxo turned away. “Maybe further down,” proclaimed the Ogre, “in the trade towns. But here, here they remember the old ways.” He shook his head. “Some of the finest folk in the world. Real salt of the earth.”

Brandomarte nodded. “I’ve no doubt.” He coughed, and began to walk away. “Well--pleasure to see you, Saxo.” Fiordelisa had caught his eye and gestured towards a small enclave.

“You too, laddie,” said Saxo. “May the Darksome Lady guide your steps.” As Brandomarte rushed to the enclave, he wondered if She was.

“What took you so long?” asked Fiordelisa Aesir.

“You saw Old Saxo,” answered Brandomarte. “I couldn’t just ignore him. He might have gotten suspicious.”

Fiordelisa gave a worried nod. “So… what’s he like? Anything like Argilius Gibeling?”

“He’s a decent old fellow,” said Brandomarte. “A bit hidebound, but he means well.”

“So, nothing like Argilius Gibeling then,” said Fiordelisa. She sighed. “Why are we doing this Brand? With so much at risk…”

Brandomarte embraced her. “Because we love each other, Delise.”

Fiordelisa took a deep breath and smiled. Both she and Brandomarte were at the age when answers like that sufficed.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

And the Mountain Cried, 'Too High, Too High'--Part 2

It is a simple fact of human society--where there are mountains, there are feuds. Part of this is another simple fact of human society (and by human, it is meant ‘Milesian, Erl, Goblin, Ogre, or Dev’)--people are quarrelsome. However, another part of it is the nature of mountains themselves. They tend to be short on resources, so that people wind up fighting over every little bit. They tend to have plenty of landmarks that can be used to provide reasonable, yet ultimately arbitrary boundaries that people can argue over. And their weather tends to produce at least one season where everyone winds up sitting around with little better to do than tell stories, many of which will naturally wind up being the stories of their various quarrels with their neighbors, which are thus kept fresh in the minds of the young.

Of course, one could say similar things about most--perhaps even all--regions--but in the mountains it all tends to be a little more extreme. And so little affairs that would last a few months elsewhere, last a few years. Affairs that would last a few years last a few decades, and those that would last a few decades last a few centuries, usually transforming along the way into complex affairs involving forms of government, alliances against foreign invaders, and occasionally which reincarnated priest-king held precedence. The end results were usually the same--two different groups spent their time beating the crap out of each other.

Thoughts like these often occurred to Baron Chult as he looked out on the small stream that he owned, largely because that stream played a major parts in the various intertwined feuds of the region. The Aesir and the Vanir both agreed it marked the terminus of their respective lands--however each felt that it lay within their property. The clans’ respective liege lords, the Regni and the Utgardi, had both been dragged into the quarrel many times, and each clan had brought their respective servitors, the Gibelings and the Walsings, into the mix. One result of that was that small, rather pleasant-looking stream had a history filled with people dying near it--and occasionally in it--often in hideous and unpleasant ways. Another was that Chult’s family, the Edir, had enjoyed the pleasure of frequently being those people, as well as being , threatened, manhandled and occasionally being arrested for treason by the Aesir and the Vanir. After all, everyone agreed the Edir owned the stream, even if after that, the details got tricky.

But now--now everyone swore to Chult that all that was going to end. The Night Lands were entering a new era, and that new era involved significantly less blood feuds. The Utgardi and the Regni were sending representatives, who were going to iron out an arrangement that would solve everything, bringing peace to this section of the Fangs.

At least, supposedly. Chult was a cynical man, something his family history had fully reinforced. The Dark Lords could sign treaties, and make grand statements all they wanted--in the end, people remained people. Blood had been shed, pride had been wounded, over a period not of years, but centuries, and in the end, that was something that could never be papered over, no matter how nice the paper was.

The baron’s steward sat Chult’s tankard by his side. Chult sipped his mead. “Choas, how goes the new well?”

Choas frowned. “We’ve hit rock again, sir.”

Chult nodded and sighed. The worse thing about that damn spring was you couldn’t drink from it. The water was bad. As he took another sip of mead, it occurred to him that there was something strangely appropriate in all that.

“Any chance of getting a proper water witch?” he asked quietly.

“At the prices they’re asking?” said Choas, shaking his head.

Chult frowned, the nibbling feeling of guilt that had dominated his life flaring up once again. “Look at this place, Choas,” he said. “We’ve lived here for centuries, and we’re still just scraping by. Why do we even bother?”

“It’s better than the alternative, sir,” answered the steward.

Chult nodded dully. On the bad days, he wondered if that were true.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

And the Mountain Cried 'Too High, Too High'--Part 1

The burly, balding Goblin sat in the dusky inn, playing on his guitar and singing. “…To feel you all around me--and to take your hand along the sand--Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind…”

The crowd stirred fitfully. “You stink!” shouted a drunken looking Jotun in the corner.

The Goblin merely continued to sing in his slightly off-key manner. “When sundown pales the sky, I want to hide awhile, behind your smile, and everywhere I look your eyes to find….”

The Jotun growled and stood up. “Damn it, let me drink in piece!”

“Hey,” said a short, surprisingly voluptuous female Erl with a bob haircut. “You leave him alone. He’s just doing his job.”

“Yeah, only--badly,” said a lanky Erl man sitting opposite her. He moved a hand through his unruly hair. “I’m with the Ogre. Allow us quiet and peace, strange, singing Goblin!”

“He’s just trying to give this place ambience,” said the woman.

The Goblin forcibly shut his eyes. “Dee-dee-dee, dee-dee-dee,” he sang, his voice growing increasingly harsh.

“He may be trying to do that, but he’s SUCCEEDING in giving me a headache!” snapped the man.

“Ooooh, how very witty of you!” laughed the woman mockingly. “Bet you’re awfully proud of coming up with that one! How dare you, sir! Just because this Goblin has a voice like saw going through metal, you dare insult him! Because he couldn’t carry a tune if given a vase to place it in, you mock him! Unfair! Unfair! UNFAIR!”

The Goblin paused in his playing. “Please stop defending me,” he stated quietly.

“You stay out of this!” declared the woman. “It doesn’t involve you.”

The man coughed. “Actually, it kind of does.”

The woman bit her lip. “Well--okay, yes, but only tangentially,” she muttered. “What I mean to say is, my defense of you has nothing to do with your feelings in the matter. Only mine.”

The man scratched his chin. “Hmm. By your standards, that is a pretty reasonable argument.”

“Why thank you,” said the woman brightly.

“Would you both shut up!” said the Jotun, striding forward. “I don’t believe it, but you’re more annoying than that damn Goblin.”

The man whirled and glared at the hulking Ogre. “Hey, I don’t like that kind of attitude,” he declared, flexing one lanky arm. “Especially from guys as ugly as you.”

“You bas…” said the Jotun, pulling back his fist.

“Hey, boss,” said a scruffy looking Mountain Erl, entering the inn’s common flanked by three more Mountain Erls that looked as if they were his brothers. “The passes have cleared. We can go on to Dagomir…”

The Jotun nodded. “Right. Right. Just after I teach this asshole a les…”

At which point that individual struck him cleanly in the nose, followed that up with a kick to the stomach and had followed that up by grabbing the Jotun by the shoulders and tossing him to the floor. The Jotun’s employees were about to respond to this when the female Erl darted across the room in a blink of an eye, and laid three of them down by striking each precisely in the chest. The fourth, suddenly realizing that the odds might be more against him here than he had initially thought, had turned to flee, only to be struck down by the Goblin, who had wandered over to the door, and somehow gotten his hands on a very large staff.

Faileuba Pepperpot slapped her hands together in a supremely satisfied manner. “Heh. Not a bad job, if I say so myself. Skirnir Frostbones, AND the Ashberry brothers, all captured, neat as you please.”

“I know,” said Meliadus Holdfast, shaking his head. “When those four strolled in, I knew we hit the jackpot.” He shrugged. “Plus, the passes have cleared, so that means we can travel to Dagomir AND have money. Some days it all just comes together.”

Gwydd Palepole glared at the pair resentfully as he pulled the rope out of his pocket. “Yeah, well, you didn’t have to mock my singing that way.”

The pair looked at him levelly. “Yes, we did, Gwydd,” noted Meliadus. “It was dire.” Faileuba nodded. “I mean--I’ve heard dying goats sound better,” he added. Faileuba nodded again.

Gwydd glanced away. “Right, right, right…”

Faileuba spread her hands. “Anyway, let’s leave all that depressing talk about Gwydd’s singing behind us. The Mighty Three have done it again!”

Meliadus turned to look at her. “I thought we’d agreed on the Tremendous Trio.”

“No, we hadn’t,” said Faileuba. “Because that name is stupid.”

“And the Mighty Three is good?” said Meliadus. The pair glared at each other for a moment.

“There’s only one way to solve this,” said Faileuba at length, balling her right hand into a fist. Meliadus nodded, and did likewise.

“ODDS!” shouted the two Chivalrous Warriors as they threw their hands out simultaneously. The pair blinked, clenched their fists again, and repeated the motion. “EVENS!” they declared. The pair frowned at each other. “WOULD YOU STOP THAT?” they yelled at each other.

Gwydd wondered if they’d noticed that they’d thrown evens the first time, and odds the second. He decided to avoid mentioning that. “I’m getting too old for this crap,” he muttered to himself.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Play of Light and Shadow--Part 51

Jeronim de Oriflamme looked around the Grand Chamber of the Copper Hall in alarm. While he’d been in here many times, this was the first time he’d been dragged here in the middle of the night by a pair of Eremites. Also, as a result of the means of his arrival, it was the first time he’d attended it wearing a nightgown, with a great cloak draped over said nightgown in a desperate effort to salvage some dignity.

He was fairly certain it was not working. Still, there was a certain bitter comfort in the fact that none of the other Peers of Leonais looked any more comfortable in their bedraggled sleepwear. Most were standing around the Chamber looking miserable and confused, and trying their hardest to avoid seeing each other. The only exception to this was---to Jeronim’s surpise--Eustace de Calx. The normally inert Duke of Tranchera was waving his fist in the air, angrily insisting that this was an indignity. This surprising sight might have carried more weight had the aged Duke been wearing more than a leather collar with an attached chain and a rather terrifying looking codpiece. Instead, most of the assembled Lords were putting even more effort into not looking at the man then they were most of their fellow Peers.

It was then the Prince entered, looking (as Count Jeronim had known he would in his heart) bright-eyed and immaculate, and flanked, as always by a small group of Prince’s Men. “Peers of Leonais, it is good to see you,” he declared grandly, as if he truly he saw these weary men in their sleepwear as the finest and noblest men in Leonais. Amfortas gave a deep and mournful sigh. “In truth, you are a much needed comfort in these dark times.”

“I say! I say!” declared Duke Eustace, striding forward. “What is the meaning of this? This is an indignity! An indignity, sir! An utter and unseemly indignity!” Most of the Peers pointedly looked away at this, especially as the Duke had a manner of thrusting his hips with each ‘indignity’ that made his terrifying codpiece jut forward in an even more terrifying manner.

“I am sorry for this, Duke de Calx, and apologize for your terrible inconvenience,” declared the Prince pleasantly. “I understand that you were hosting a small party when you were found, and I am sorry that my men interrupted it. If it is any comfort, I can assure you that Elsie, Maisie, Deidre, Peggy, Stefan, and Wilmer have all arrived safely back at their homes.” Eustace glared at the Prince and stepped back quietly.

Jeronim coughed slightly. “Duke Eustace has a point, Your Highness,” stated Jeronim. “This is all very irregular. Even for these trying times.”

Amfortas nodded. “Yes… well… I bear… horrible news. My father, Good King Pelleas… is no longer with us.” The room filled with an assortment of gasps. “The Dark Lords… Mansemat Cthonique…” The Prince raised a hand to his face. “I… I cannot speak of this… now…”

Blamor de Ganis stepped forward, unctuous even wearing only a crooked silk robe covered in pomegranate designs. “We understand, Your Highness. And we share your great grief…”

“But that still does not mean that this… impromptu Grand Council is proper,” stated Count Jeronim. He was about to add, ‘or even legal’, but Prince Amfortas was gazing at him in a rather calm, fixed manner that made Jeronim wish to crawl away and hide in a dark corner.

“Perhaps,” said the Prince. “Perhaps. But what is propriety to a grieving son? Aye, and a grieving cousin. For my dear kinsman Count Sesyll is dead--dead with most of his family.” He shook his head. “Thankfully, my men have managed to save young Pellinore, who has been brought to… a secure location. The Cthoniques may have tried to end the House of Pescheour, but we remain.” The Prince shifted, revealing a hilted sword by his side. “Tonight, the Blade of Day and the Blade of Night have crossed blades…” Amfortas drew his blade. “And the Light has overcome it!” The sword sprang forth, giving forth a mild golden light. As Jeronim watched Ilinot de Balsarda immediately fell to his knees, followed by Blamor de Ganis. One by one the Peers began to kneel. As they did so, Jeronim realized, with a sinking feeling, that August Gwynedd, and Lucien de Cortana were not here. Somehow, that fact made his kneeling seem more… proper. Even if Eustace de Calx glared at the back of his head.

“Yes, Lords, we shall triumph in this war,” said Amfortas. “For it is a war--the Great War, come at last. Now is the time for us all to stand together, and say, no--we will not go into the Douma Dalkiel’s dark night! We will stand, and we will triumph.” Amfortas’ smile broadened in a manner Count Jeronim found… unnerving. “We will slay the dark. All shall be light. And light shall be all.”

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Play of Light and Shadow--Part 50

Nisrioch poured the tea into the cup. “The bergamot is what makes it so flavorful,” he explained, as Pelleas lifted it up.

The King of Leonais swiftly gulped it down. “You, sir, are a master in your field, a verifiable god of tea.” He gave a fond shake of his head. “This is delicious. Frankly my grandest hope after several years of downing Doctor Praetorius’ vile concoctions was to simply discover I still had a sense of taste. Breaking the fast on this divine mixture is a gift greater than I imagined in my long years of incarceration.”

“Why thank you!” said Nisrioch, lifting up his own mug. “I didn’t realize that there were any tea connoisseurs on your side of the river.”

“Well, I did some traveling in Tintagel when I was younger. They love the stuff,” answered Pelleas quietly. “They’ve set aside whole islands to grow it.”

“How admirable,” declared Nisrioch.

“I suppose,” the king of Leonais noted distractedly. “Save that they’ve regularly repositioned quite a few of the poor bastards who used to live on the islands to do that.”

“I was referring to your interest in the ways of others, Your Highness,” said Nisrioch. “I’m aware of the Throne of Holly’s tea islands, and what goes into building them.”

Pelleas nodded. “Ahh. Of course you would be. Educated fellow like you. Sorry for imagining otherwise Your…” His fingers tapped the table before him absently. “I’m afraid I don’t know the proper form of address…”

“It’s ‘Your Excellency’,” said Morgaine, perking up from her position in the corner. “He’s ‘His Excellency’, I’m ‘Her Excellency’ and we’re both ‘Your Excellency’ to our faces. And now that we’ve got that out of the way--what the hell is going with your little wizard society? I just sent something old and nasty that never should have been in this world back to where it belonged--something old and nasty and called by death.”

“Wish I knew,” said Pelleas. “Truth is, the Knights of the Tower are an odd bunch. The Synod lets them do what they feel they must. You’ve seen the results.” He shook his head. “Never trusted them myself. But my son is a different matter.”

Morgaine bit her lip. “How… connected to them do you suppose he is?”

“You assume I know anything about my son’s doings,” said Pelleas, setting his cup down for Nisrioch to pour him another drink. “The truth is, I only have the roughest ideas of what his plans are. He had me locked away, dying by inches. He’d occasionally enjoy the odd gloat, throw me an idle mention of his latest triumph, in that infuriatingly smirking way he had. But that was all.”

“I’m just wondering who’s working for who,” said Morgaine glancing away.

“I wonder if they’re asking the same thing,” said Nisiroch.

“Does it matter?” asked Pelleas. “If my son is involved in something--grander than his apparent designs--which are grandiose enough--you may rest assured it’s an unwholesome thing.” The old man’s eyes narrowed with a strange mixture of grief and rage. “Twenty-five years ago, my kennels were afflicted with a horrible disease. The dogs in them fell ill, and died, one after the other. And during it all, my dear son was so overcome with grief, he went there, day after day to visit the poor afflicted creatures.” Pelleas stared ahead blankly. “In time, he had to make a visit to his mother’s relatives. Shortly thereafter, the disease stopped.”

“Never to return,” said Nisrioch idly.

“Never in the same virulence,” said Pelleas. “Though every now and then some poor hound of mine would come down with it, and die in agony. I’ve thought of those dogs of mine quite a bit over the last ten years. And I suspect I will think of them quite a bit more in the days to come.” He took a deep breath. “It is not an easy thing for a man to live with the fact he’s fathered a horror. You look back on incidents like that, and wonder how you could have been so blind.” Pelleas frowned. “It is not that my son is especially… clever. Cunning perhaps. But he knows a simple, simple fact--very few people in Leonais wants to admit how bad it is unless they have to.”

Nisrioch and Morgaine glanced at each other, nervously. Finally, Morgaine managed a little cough. “Well… you’re free now,” said Morgaine, forcing on a small smile.

“I am free,” said Pelleas with a bitter laugh. “But poor beleaguered Leonais is not. Seven help them all.”

Nisrioch looked at him for a moment. “Would you like a bit of lemon juice in your tea?”

The King raised his cup. “Yes, please.”

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Play of Light and Shadow--Part 49

Mansemat was looking at the stars when Viviane found him.

“So…” she began. “What are you thinking about now?”

“Oh, the play of light and shadow,” said Mansemat quietly.

Viviane stared at her husband in silence for a moment, then scowled. “Damn it, I hate it when you get profound on me. Especially at times like this.”

Mansemat smiled. “My apologies. I will try to be… not profound.”

“The word you’re looking for is ‘superficial’,” said Viviane.

Mansemat’s eyebrows went up in surprise. “Really?”

Viviane nodded. “Yep.”

“Well--then… I shall aim for superficiality,” he stated. “If it pleases the lady.”

Viviane turned away. “Look--Manny--Elaine told me about what happened with Amfortas.” She took a deep breath. “While I can appreciate wanting the bastard to suffer--I’d rather have him dead.”

“So would I really,” said Mansemat. He shook his head. “That revenge talk was me--giving him something he’d understand, I suppose. But… well, you know what I said, about… second thoughts. I had one when I looked into his eyes, during our fight.”

“What?” said Viviane incredulously. “Are you going to tell me you looked into his soul while you were fighting and you saw the scared little boy within and you couldn’t go through with killing him? Because if so, I will scream bullshit.”

“And you would be right to, as this would assume that Amfortas HAS a soul,” noted Mansemat. “No, this something far stranger…” He was quite for a moment. “I’ve fought many men, Viviane, and killed my fair share of them. And until now, I’d thought there was one great universal truth--people desire to cling to life. Oh, they will resign themselves to death, but even then, you will see it in their eyes, that wish not to die. Anyone, no matter how wretched, no matter how vile, puts some value on their life.” Mansemat frowned. “Or so, I thought. Amfortas is the exception. That man truly does not care whether he lives or dies, Viv. It’s all the same to him. As long as he knows people will suffer by what he does he’s--well, happy isn’t the right word. ‘Satisfied’ I suppose.”

Viviane gave a little snort. “So, what are you saying? That this was all some sort of suicide attempt on his part?”

“I don’t know if I’d go that far, but…” Mansemat shrugged. “It’s been five or so centuries since Lord Enkidu faced the Holy Emperor Aurelius. Aurelius was so bad that Enkidu actually managed to get most of the other Dark Lords to side with him--grandson of the ‘upstart’ Marduk--and when the Emperor died, most of his supposedly loyal followers on the other side of the river started killing his lieutenants for us.” Mansemat shook his head. “Now, all these years later, and the man’s a holy martyr in the Lands of Light. That’s what Amfortas wants. To unleash blood and horror in the Lands of Light and Night, and afterwards, to have them sing songs on the tragedy of his death.” His face grew grim. “Well, I am going to do all I can to see that he never gets that satisfaction. When they write of Prince Amfortas, both sides of the river will agree he was a beast who had to put down. And if that means allowing him to continue for awhile…” He sighed. “Well, that’s the price I’ll pay. Because it’s clear to me that we can’t keep doing this. If the Lands of Night and Light keep tearing into each other like this, then one day there won’t be anything left.”

Viviane stared at him for a moment, then looked down at the Murkenmere. “Well--at least this particular bit of horror is over.”

Mansemat nodded. “I suppose.”

Viviane rolled her eyes again. “Are you being profound again?”

Mansemat gave a little shrug. “It’s a habit.”

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Play of Light and Shadow--Part 48

Elaine was lying on the bed, staring at the ceiling. It was amazing how much she’d missed being able to do this. You didn’t even realize that you missed little things like this, until you got back from some sort of hell and were able to do them again. Just sit in a bed, look at the ceiling and relax, not thinking of anything at all. Yep, anything at all. Any… damn it, now things were crowding in. Elaine shut her eyes.

“Are you all right, dear?” came her mother’s voice. She felt Viviane’s cool hand on her forehead.

“I’m fine,” said Elaine, her eyes opening. Her mother looked down on her, smiling gently. Elaine watched her nervously for a moment. “Mom--does it ever get better?” She looked away. “You… know what I mean…”

Viviane was quiet. “Yes and no,” she said eventually. “You move on with your life. You realize that you’re not dead, and you go one day at a time. You learn to smile again. You learn to laugh. It recedes from your mind. And then, some days, all at once, it all comes back, the horror. And when that happens, you just grit your teeth and try to pull through.” Viviane shrugged. “That’s all you can do.”

Elaine bit her lip. “Why… why did you… keep me?”

“I won’t lie to you, Elaine,” said the Badb, her voice quiet. “During the Lord Shaddad’s War, I went through seven kinds of Hell, and every time I thought I hit bottom, the universe proceeded to show me that I didn’t know what the bottom was. I lost my whole family--then I lost a bunch of people I’d started to view as a family, and then Amfortas…” Viviane shuddered. “Anyway--after that, I just--broke down. If I had been anybody else, I probably would have died. But I was the Badb, and the Old Magic keeps its own. If I wasn’t going to be bothered to keep myself alive, it would do the job for me…” Viviane shut her eyes. For the first time in her life, Elaine realized how young her mother was. “That time’s a dark blur for me,” Viviane said. “I really only remember the very end of it very well. Waking up one night in… well, I think it was an old rabbit warren, with a little baby by my side. One look at you, and I knew what had happened. And, I’ll confess, my first reaction was horror. How could Mother Night be so cruel, I asked myself.” She took a deep breath. “But in the end, you were mine, and I didn’t have very much left. And that was how I decided it was going to be.” She stroked her daughter’s face. “You are mine. And I love you.”

Elaine shut her eyes. “I love you too, Mom. Am I still grounded?”

“Yes,” said Viviane. “Now--someone else wants a word.” She turned towards the door. “She’s ready.” Jean Crow entered, looking around abashedly.

“Hey, Jean,” said Elaine tiredly.

Jean gave an abstract wave. “Hey.”

Elaine smiled at her. “Glad to see you got out okay.”

“You too,” said Jean, biting her lip. “Look… this is kind of awkward, but… apparently, I’m your aunt.”

Elaine stared at her for a moment, then smiled. “Well… that’s good to know.”

Jean leaned forward hopefully. “And you’re not mad about all this, right?”

Elaine shook her head. “No. Frankly, after all I’ve just gone through, I’m not going to let a happy thing bug me. Besides I’ve got a cool glowing magic sword now. So everything is going fine.”

“Yeah, I heard about that,” said Jean. “Can I see it?”

“Maybe later,” said Elaine, closing her eyes again.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Play of Light and Shadow--Part 47

Doctor Aemilius Praetorious stared at Prince Amfortas. The Prince of Leonais sat in his chair, smiling faintly.

That was all the Prince did. He didn’t laugh, or look around, or do anything that suggested he was… interacting with the world. He simply sat there, smiling, as he had ever since arriving in his chambers and burning a small packet of papers he kept in a small, locked drawer. The worst part of it was that Aemilius felt no desire to try and talk to the man, not even the slightest inkling. It wasn’t even dread, exactly--it was a simple recognition that Amfortas wouldn’t respond if he did. The Prince had no need to talk now, and he simply wouldn’t.

Aemilius felt his eyes starting to droop shut. He quickly gave himself a slap.

The Prince did not react to that. But then, he hadn’t reacted the last five times Aemilius had done it either. It was strange, the doctor thought. He’d often wished to know what was behind the Prince’s too-pleasant mask, and now he knew. Nothing. When Amfortas stopped pretending to be a cheerful man, he simply--stopped.

He wasn’t sure exactly how distressing all that was. Just to a surprisingly large amount. One always imagined that kings were distressing when they cackled madly and ranted about their enemies, but Amfortas never quite did either of those things and somehow, it was worse. It was times like this that Aemilius wondered just what he’d gotten himself into. He was not a man made for these sort of grand intrigues. No, he was just a humble poisoner who wished to live off the comfortable fortune he’d made by killing his wives and relatives. These sort of kingdom-shaking matters were distressing, and carried a significant chance of making a person dead, something Doctor Aemilius Praetorious had done his best to avoid in his life.

His eyes began to droop again. He gave himself another quick slap. He wasn’t quite sure if it was working, when to his relief, there was a sharp knock at the door.

Amfortas immediately… started, turning to the door. “Is that you, Lanval?” he asked, his voice mellow and pleasant, as always.

“It is, sir,” came the Serjeant-at-arms’ voice. “May I enter?”

“Please do,” declared the Prince. Aemilius watched the door creak open, and the grey-haired Serjeant walk into the room. The man seemed slightly tired, though curiously at ease. Amfortas regarded him for a moment. “So--has everything been taken care of?”

“Well, we couldn’t find your father…” said Lanval quietly, looking at the Doctor chidingly.

“Praetorius has already explained that matter,” noted Amfortas. “And really, his immediate whereabouts matter very little at the moment.” He gave a casual shrug. “In the future it might matter. But not now.” He stared at his Serjeant for a moment. “So--disappointed that you’re not going to be Lord Protector?”

“Not particularly,” answered Lanval. “I don’t enjoy protocol. Or fancy titles.”

“And that is what would have made you so suited for the job,” said Amfortas. “Your being a humble, simple man who simply does his duties.”

Somehow this conversation was giving Aemilius a sinking feeling in his stomach--a feeling that did not get better when the room grew suddenly cold. A strange flickering blue light appeared in the center of the room. “Princeling,” came a high-pitched whine of a voice. “Strange happenings come now to my Sight from afar. You have lost the Sword, yes?”

If Amfortas found this the least bit surprising, he didn’t show it. “Indeed, Grandmaster Radiant. Your visions are as absolutely correct as always.”

‘Radiant’ gave a hiss. “Warned, warned, you were warned,” he said. “Did we not tell you of this risk?”

Amfortas shrugged. “You also mentioned that you were uncertain of Clarent. If it was destined to betray us, now might be a better time than later,” he noted.

“You bandy words, Princeling!” said Radiant.

“Perhaps,” said Amfortas. “Still--I believe you mentioned a substitute…”

The light dimmed for a moment, then flared up again. “Very well. As was first promised to you. But know that the Tower is not pleased.” And then it vanished.

Lanval turned to the Prince. “I think you’ve annoyed him.”

“Grandmaster Radiant is always annoyed,” said Amfortas, with a slight yawn. “It makes him such a bore.” He lay back. “Serjeant, if you would be so kind as to escort Doctor Praetorious to his chambers, I’d appreciate it. I seem to be more tired than I realized.”

Lanval Equitan nodded, and glanced at Aemilius. “Doctor?” Aemilius rose unsteadily, and walked to his side. The Serjeant bowed to the Prince, and then escorted Doctor Praetorious out.

They walked in silence for awhile, though Lanval would actually glance at Aemillius when he slapped himself. Finally, he spoke. “You know, it is advisable that you forget what you witnessed in there…”

“Already have,” said Aemillius quietly. Truth be told, he found the comments on King Pelleas--rather interesting. They made him wonder if the King’s escape hadn’t wound up saving his own life. At least, assuming he managed to survive his dosing. He gave himself another slap. “I’ve been poisoned,” he explained. Lanval nodded. Aemillius coughed. “Tell me--Serjeant. I have to know… why are you here? Working for the Prince?”

Lanval chuckled to himself. “That’s an interesting question. Well, to start, he gave me a pardon… but I admit that isn’t enough to keep me around. So why am I here?” He shrugged. “I just want to see how all this ends.”

Aemillius nodded. Really, it was exactly the sort of answer he was expecting. Which was not a good thing.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Play of Light and Shadow--Part 46

Lights were bursting in the sky above them as they moved across the Murkenmere.

“Fireworks?” said Elaine, puzzled.

“Rockets,” said Mansemat. He coughed. “They are what happens when fireworks become weapons.”

“Is this all some… strange Nightfolk magic you’re talking about?” asked Edward Delta quietly.

“No,” said Elaine.

“Yes,” said Mansemat sheepishly.

“Oh, come on!” said Elaine. “Petty Alchemy isn’t magic!” She pointed at her stepfather. “You might as well say that printing is magic, if you head down that road!”

“Well, isn’t it?” said Mansemat. “I mean, spreading ideas all over the Lands of Night… making books affordable for even the poorest citizen…”

“If you use a fake definition of magic, then, yes it is,” muttered Elaine rolling her eyes.

“I’ve seen a printing press!” declared Edward. “Large things. Almost a shame to smash it up.” He coughed. “Religious necessity, mind you.”

Elaine nodded. “Right. Can you tell me where that is in that Porphryiad of yours?”

“Actually, it’s based on something from the Cyropaedia,” explained Edward. “Though it took a bull from the Synod to make it Holy Law…” The Sacristan’s eyes went wide as he heard the sound of boots on the dock behind them. “Oh, no. I know that sound…”

Elaine turned and saw them--a crowd of cloaked men, gathering there. “Stylites,” she muttered. She looked at Edward. “Are they as bad as Amfortas used to say?”

“Likely worse,” said Edward. “Edmund…” He shook his head. “I’ve spoken with the ones who talk. I don’t know what precisely they do at Saint Simon’s Tower, but… I think it’s unwholesome.”

The Stylites began to chant. Mansemat’s eyes went wide. “That…” He turned. “Start running. They’re trying to destroy the bridge. In a very… very crude way.”

“Is it… dark magic?” asked Edward quietly.

“No. Dark magic and light magic are simply two sides of the same coin,” said Mansemat. “This is… evil magic. Now--again--RUN.” And then the Dark Lord took his own advice.

Edward and Elaine started after him, even as the Stylites’ chanting got louder and louder. It occurred to Elaine that she thought she understood some of the words--bits about ‘blood’ and ‘suffering’. And then a strange--splashing noise started. Curious, she turned to catch a glimpse of the Holy Knights and their casting. She quickly wished she hadn’t.

The Stylites had moved into a semicircle, with six members posed in a line by the docks. Those members were kneeling, and to Elaine’s shock--and disgust--appeared to be vomiting. Whatever was coming out of the Stylites was a strange reddish-black color. It gathered before them in a large mass--and then it suddenly made a roaring noise.

“Elaine!” came Mansemat’s voice. “MOVE!”

The young Erl gulped, and then began to run as quickly as she could. She heard the… thing coming at her, and rushed forward, the bridge rocking under her footsteps.

At least that’s what she thought, until she looked down and saw the reddish-black tendrils wrapping around it, cracking it apart. Elaine suppressed an urge to scream, and gripped Caladbolg by the hilt. She had not survived all this to die now. She took a deep breath, and made a leap. As the ice bridge collapsed underneath her, she sailed through the air, watching the ship come closer, closer…. And then she realized that she’d miscalculated and was going to fall after all…

Elaine blinked as a chubby hand caught her own. “There you go, Your Estimable Grace,” said the fat Cthonique Guardsman, as he pulled her onto the ship.

“Ummm… thanks… Rol--Vol--Es…” she said, glancing away. “Look, I know this sounds stupid, but I don’t know your name.”

“Palamedes Woodash,” he said, with a bow. “A Yeoman of the Cthonique Guard, at your service, miss.”

Elaine smiled despite herself. “Palamedes. Thanks. I’ll try to remember that.”

“Oh, don’t both…” began Palamedes, only to stop as the Stylites’ casting began to crawl onto the ship. “Behind me, miss!” he declared, stepping in front of her.

“Hey, I can handle this, now that I’m on solid ground,” said Elaine, preparing to draw the Sword of Light. “Well, kind of, anyway…”

Suddenly, the thing jerked back, as if struck. “Trust me, kid, this is my department” said Morgaine, striding towards the casting as well as she was able to. “Casting of unrighteous wills! Obscenity called by wicked minds! I am the path and the seeker--I am the key and the gate--and I bar your way!” She raised her hand, and then brought it down. “Crawl back in the realm of death, evil sending! CRAWL!” And the thing began to retreat, shriveling the entire way.

Morgaine gave a satisfied nod. “Your auntie’s still got it, eh?”

Elaine managed a dull nod. “There you are!” came a familiar, longed-for voice. Elaine turned to see her mother, standing there. She gulped and tried to form words, only to be engulfed in her mother’s embrace.

“It’s all right now, Elaine,” said Viviane. “It’s over. It’s over.”

Elaine took a deep breath, and looked her mother in the face. “I… I’m grounded, aren’t I?”

Viviane smiled and nodded. “For the rest of your natural life.”

Elaine shut her eyes, and rested her head on Viviane’s shoulder. “It’s a fair call.”

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Play of Light and Shadow--Part 45

“It was nice of you, giving up that horse,” said Elaine.

Edward Delta sighed. “Well, as you said, we’re going on a boat. Anyway, they seemed like nice people. People who you really didn’t want to get stuck here…” He shrugged. “And they did promise to feed her an apple every week. So that should go well.” She stared at him for a moment. Finally, the squire sighed. “What?”

“Do they pick you Sacristans for naiveté?” asked Elaine “Because if you and Justinian are a fair representation of your order, you really are all pretty wet behind the ears.”

“I see you’ve never met Constans Mu,” said Edward. “Or… well, the Preceptor. But mostly Constans Mu.”

“Is the Preceptor the old guy?” asked Elaine. “With the scruffy grey mustache? And the weird scowly face?”

Edward frowned, and bit his lip. “Yes, but never tell him I agreed with that description, or he would kill me.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said Elaine. “I have seen him. Briefly. He did seem like a dangerous guy.”

“He is,” said Edward. “A few words with him, and I wound up leaving the city I lived in most of my life to follow a Dark Lord. People don’t get more dangerous than that.”

“All right, you two, stop chattering,” came Mansemat’s deep voice. “It’s time for us to move.”

The pair stepped forward to join the Dark Lord on the small dock. “So…” began Elaine nervously, “I’m guessing that my idea that a skiff was going to come join us was a naïve dream?”

Mansemat nodded. “That is correct.”

“Not even a gryphon?” Elaine suggested hopefully.

Mansemat had drawn Murgleys from its sheath, and was twirling it idly over his head. “That is likewise correct.”

Elaine shut her eyes. “So what are we doing?”

“We are walking there,” answered Mansemat.

“How…?” began Edward, only to watch as a bridge of ice emerged from the water. He stared at it for a moment, then glanced at Mansemat. “Are you sure this is safe?”

The Dark Lord smiled, as he stepped onto the bridge. “I can throw you to the boat, if you’re nervous.”

Edward shuddered. “You Erls have very odd ideas on how to comfort people,” he noted, falling behind Mansemat.

“You’ll want to move quickly,” said Mansemat. “I didn’t ensorcel this to last long.”

Elaine glared at him as she balanced precariously on the icy construct. “You mention this now. Now.”

“If I’d mentioned it earlier, would you have gotten on?” asked Mansemat.

“Considering my options, yes” snapped his stepdaughter.