Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 22

The guards came as Aethelstan and his brother were eating their stew.

"All right," snapped the hatchet-faced Erl who went by the name ‘Abgar’, as he strode into the cave, glancing around it at the dozens of Milesians therein. "We’re looking for the one of you who they call ‘the Graharz’!" He rolled his eyes, and slapped the cudgel he carried in his hands. "Whatever that means."

"The grey-haired," answered Aethelstan softly. "It is a title of respect."

If he’d had a stray hope that Abgar wouldn’t hear him, they were quickly dashed. "What was that you said, Milesian?" he said, the younger, better-dressed Erl who’d come in with him following swiftly on his heels.

"Graharz means grey-haired," said Aethelstan. "As I said, it’s a title."

Abgar snickered. "Well, we’re glad that you’ve instructed us in how to speak to your lordship…"

"Except he isn’t the Graharz," said his brother. "I am."

The other Erl glared at him. "Then why didn’t you say anything when called?" snapped the young man.

"I would have, but then my brother answered your questions, and you became quite preoccupied with him," noted the Graharz.

Abgar narrowed his eyes, and raised his cudgel. "What is it that makes you two so very clever for Milesians, hmmm? Most of your fellows keep quiet, and do as they’re told…"

"They aren’t our fellows," said Aethelstan. "We’re of the Revered Band, sworn to the Great Mother of Night." He shrugged. "As for why we talk to you when others are all but silent--we know your tongue, just as we follow your faith. Of course we answer more fully than the others. We can."

"Well, aren’t you clever," hissed the other Erl.

"He’s not really," muttered the Graharz. "Merely talkative." He rose calmly to his feet. "Now… it was my understanding that it was I you were seeking…"

"Slave Graharz," said the young Erl, "We decide what we’re seeking. Not you."

Abgar fixed his younger counterpart with a withering glance. "Actually, it is Lord Nycetus who decides what we’re seeking. And he said the Graharz." He turned to the Graharz. "So come with us then. Quickly."

The Graharz gave a deep bow. "Of course, sir. Of…" And then he tossed the dirt he’d gathered in his hands at Abgar’s face. The Erl reared back, blinded for the moment--but that was all it took. The Graharz leapt at him, and bore him to the ground. The younger Erl gave a startled cry, staring in shock for a moment, then at last gathering his nerve to rush at the Milesian warrior. The Graharz lashed out with a powerful kick that sent him toppling to the ground. Abgar, still pinned by the Milesian’s powerful arms, gave a shriek.

"My hand’s… gone cold! Gone… cold…" muttered the older Erl.

"Help! Help!" shrieked the younger one. "He’s gone mad! Mad! Help!"

Other guards rushed in, eventually, and wrested the Graharz from Abgar. "Cold… cold… can’t feel my legs…" muttered Abgar, whose neck was laying at an angle necks generally did not go in.

The pale-haired Ogre they called Isengrim glanced at the younger Erl, who was still laying on the ground. "Lady’s name, you twit, you let one man do this…?"

"He… he had help," muttered the young man nervously. "A…" He looked around, but Aethelstan was gone. "It doesn’t matter. Bring him up. He’s only dug a deeper hole for himself…"

"Isn’t that his job?" said the cross-eyed Goblin.

Abgar said something indistinguishable, and then shut his eyes, his breaths coming shallower, and ever harder, leaving all to wonder when the last would come.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 21

Cheimarrhus sat there in the mines’ barracks, wondering just how it was he’d been outfaced by that fat fool Nycetus. It was not simply that the man knew not only of the widely-rumored scandal of his carrying-ons with Princess Nebthet but the more hushed up scandal of what had happened with… the girl. The injustice of it all stung his cheeks. That fat, ill-bred sybarite, using that simple mistake against him, a noble of blood just a shade beneath the Blood Royal! And the worst part was the girl herself--highborn, of course, or else it would have been no crime at all, but still of an undistinguished family, an inconsequential little thing, of no account. Why, he did not even remember her name and was uncertain that she’d ever told him.

It’d had been that sort of party.

And now--because of that simple mistake on his part--and the whinings of Nebthet, which he was sure played a part--he was here, a pathetic exile, toiling to keep these wretched slaves in order at the whims of that pederastical shamble of a lower Magnate. Others were earning honor, glory and wealth in service to the Undying King of Kings, but not he. No, he was rusting here.

Once again, he wondered if there was a soul so wretched in all Mount Cthonique, and once again, supposed not.

“Oy,” came the harsh voice of Abgar. “Yer nibs!”

Cheimarrhus glanced up at the brutish legate, who was regarding him with a certain vicious pleasure. “Do you mean me?” he muttered.

“So you can be taught!” declared Abgar with a chuckle. “Lord Nycetus has some scum he wants detained. Plotters. Seeing as you’re so eager to crack heads, I thought you might enjoy this.”

“So he has decided to do something,” said Cheimarrhus, with a shake of his head. “Well, it is good to see that we are not simply to sit around and give these slaves treats and kisses.”

Abgar’s hard face twisted into a scowl. “Do not mock Nycetus. He’s the wiliest man ever to run these mines, and that’s why he’s done it so long. Plenty of men have lost their shirts trying to make a profit here--but not Nycetus. He’s made what he’s paid into these mines a hundredfold.” He leaned forward. “Your family may be finer, yer nibs, but Nycetus could buy and sell the whole lot of them, and not break a sweat, nor begin to pauper himself.”

Cheimarrhus stared at the man. “And yet with all that wealth, he just stays here…”

Abgar shrugged. “No reason to let go of a good thing,” he noted. “But don’t fool yourself. His Lordship has a long reach, and more interests than you realize. The day will come that those who down at him now will be begging his favors.” He chuckled. “Indeed, it’s already coming--but it will come further.”

“How glorious,” said Cheimarrhus, rising to his feet. “And what about this day so fills you with pride?”

“He rewards good service,” answered Abgar. “And I’ve given him the very best.” He regarded Cheimarrhus confidentially. “When the Holy Empire comes south--and it will come south--there will be another army there in the service of the Undying One, who will turn them back. And it will be serving under Lord Nycetus’ banner. And under my command.”

Cheimarrhus blinked. As much as he wished to dismiss this as idle boasting, it sounded… horribly plausible. “So why isn’t he sending this army out now?” he asked.

“The Northern League is finished,” answered Abgar. “Why waste his men and his coin bludgeoning it into submission when he can let other men do that, and so have his full strength for the real foe?” He shook his head. “There’s the real glory for you, nibs. And a war that will put two coins in the pocket for every coin that is spent. Why, we’ve got most of the arms right here!” He chuckled. “And you’ve gone and made him into an enemy. Foolish lad.”

Cheimarrhus scowled. “Oh, let’s go get these plotters you were talking of. I find I am truly in the mood to cause some grievous harm.”

“Well, hopefully it’ll be something you’re useful at,” noted Abgar, as they left the barracks.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 20

The soup landed cleanly into the Graharz’s cup. “There is turnip in that,” said Marduk quietly.

The Graharz gave a rueful nod. “Thank you, I suppose.”

“Better turnip then rat,” noted Marduke.

“You sure about that?” asked Aethelstan. “There’s meat on rats.”

Even Marduk’s deformed face couldn’t hide its amusement. “You really don’t know our rats very well, do you?” he said quietly.

Aethelstan sighed and offered his bowl. “Give me my turnip.” As Marduk ladled out the stew, he eyed the brownish goo suspiciously. “What’s in it besides turnips?” he asked.

Marduk considered things for a moment. “Nothing that will kill you,” he said at last.

“That’s a hideously broad range of things,” said Aethelstan.

“And that’s an apt description of the stew you’ve just produced,” said Marduk. “But your other choice is starving.” He looked the Milesian in the eye. “Pick the stew. It is the better option.”

Aethelstan sighed and began to eat. “Oy, Creeper!” cried the cross-eyed Goblin guard, passing by. “Move along, scum! You’ve a job to do.”

The Milesians watched the subtle change come over the hunchback’s features, as he turned to face the guard. “Of course, sir, of course. I will do it, sir, I will.” Marduk began to hobble along. “On it, sir, on it…”

The Goblin gave a dull, satisfied nod and then moved on. Marduk stopped, having move a miniscule distance during all this.

“How can you let them treat you like that?” asked the Graharz quietly.

“Easily,” said Marduk. “I’m a slave, and have been one all my life. A man learns to do what he must to live, when the lash is his teacher.” He gave a shrug with his deformed shoulders. “I am not a proud man. I cannot afford to be. I take care of the small scrap that is mine, and occasionally help others do the same.” He chuckled quietly. “Never let it be said that Marduk of Cthonique doesn’t know his destiny.”

“And what if you could be free?” asked the Graharz.

Marduk gestured to his clubfoot. “For how long? No, no, my life may be a poor thing, but I’ve no wish to shorten it too much. At least one other would mourn its passing beside myself. That’s enough to make it too precious to lose for an hour.”

The Graharz shook his head. “I think you underestimate the value of freedom,” he said.

“That is likely so,” answered Marduk. “Having never known it, I have nothing to compare it to.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” said the Graharz, smiling. “I think you can sense it, just a wildflower growing in a shadowed wood can sense the sun. And long for it.”

“Then, sir, you are the first man to compare me to a flower, a bit of flattery that I shall treasure for my remaining days,” said Marduk with a crude bow. “Now--I’ve tarried long enough. One bit of sharp words they forget. Two, and they start noting things.”

“What if…?” began the Graharz.

“Speak no more,” said Marduk quickly. “The mouth cannot betray what the ears do not hear.” He began to hobble away, then paused. “A word of warning,” he said. “Your… friend. Striker. He came here two years ago. Since he has come… slaves have arrived, and they have gone to the place from which they go no more. But Striker--Striker remains. Even as others who speak of freedom and ill will towards the masters go.” He turned, and hobbled off.

Aethelstan watched him go, then turned towards his brother. “Well, what do you think?”

“He’s told me nothing that you and my heart have not,” answered the Graharz, smiling. “But unlike Marduk of Cthonique, I value my freedom more than my life. Even if they kill me here, they will not say the Graharz died toiling in these mines. I will make sure of that.”

“They probably wouldn’t say it if you did,” noted Aethelstan. “I rather doubt they care.”

“I’ll do what I can to change that,” said the Graharz, with a sad smile.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 19

“So, this is how you keep order in the mines?” muttered Cheimarrhus, as he stepped into the chamber.

Lord Nycetus glanced up from the pomegranate he was slicing open. “I do not recall asking for your presence, boy.”

Cheimarrhus snorted as he strode forward. “Boy! You think you may insult me such, may treat such, may put lowly worms such as that Abgar over me…”

“Yes,” said Nycetus quietly, scooping out some pomegranate seeds. “It is the best part of being commanding officer here. Schooling little wretches like yourself on how to handle yourselves if you wish to be taken seriously…”

“Little wretch!” snapped Cheimarrhus. “I am of the house of Bellerophontes! Ours is an ancient and honorable house--”

“That has had the misfortune, in you, to produce a miserable little wretch,” answered Nycetus, pausing to chew some pomegranate seeds.

“Do not interrupt me,” muttered Cheimarrhus, striding towards Nycetus’ desk. “I hold the advantage here now! My family may… have their issues with me, but when I bear the tale of your incompetence, they will…”

“What incompetence?” yawned Nycetus.

“This fighting and disorder occurring in that whorehouse you keep on this mine!” shouted Cheimarrhus, slamming his fists on the table. “That is what I mean! When I tell them this…”

“They will do nothing,” said Nyectus lifting his pomegranate. “You know--I get these from my family’s farm…”

Cheimarrhus stared at him, puzzled. “What…?”

“Hush, boy,” said Nycetus. “The adult is talking, and the child is, hopefully, learning.” He regarded the pomegranate for a moment. “An amazing fruit, you know. Healthful, vital. And we know this by its juice…” He tilted the rind to his face and then crushed it, allowing the red juice to flow into his mouth. Nycetus licked his lips, and set the fruit down. “Yes, its juice, which is red as blood is red.” He regarded the clearly baffled Cheimarrhus, who stared at his face streaked with red. “Like sustains like, after all. It is simple logic.” He smiled at the young man. “Just as it is simple logic that your family, after paying me to take you on here, after your disgrace, will not care a fig about your complaints regarding a few slaves scuffling among themselves.” Nycetus gave a subtle shrug. “After all, it is not a crying young girl… of high family, yet--complaining of being most cruelly used.” He peered forward, enjoying the exquisite pleasure of watching the young man squirm. “How old was she again? The number… twelve keeps appearing to my mind…”

“She said she was older!” said Cheimarrhus with a gulp.

“Of course,” muttered Nycetus sardonically. “They always do, don’t they, when the tale’s told again…”

“She--she wanted it!” sputtered Cheimarrhus glancing desperately at the door. “She… said she…”

“Yes, yes,” noted Nycetus, nodding. “That always seems to be the case as well.” He yawned and waved Cheimarrhus towards the door. “And now that you see that I know you all to well, boy, I ask that you trust that you know me not at all, and that you not try to second-guess me. Now--go.”

Cheimarrhus bit his lip and then turned, rapidly making his way to the door. He jerked it open and saw a handsome young man standing there, with the shackles of a slave. “Who are you?” he snapped.

“Ahh, that one goes by many names,” said Nycetus. “I believe in some areas, the slaves call him ‘Striker’.” He eyed the slave approvingly. “I prefer to call him ‘Darling’, myself.”

Cheimarrhus gave a disgusted shudder and stomped away. Striker watched him leave then slid into the room. “I have many things to tell you, my master,” said the slave, walking towards Nycetus.

“And are they good things?” asked the lord. “For if they are, I shall give you kisses and other sweet things.”

The slave kneeled at Nycetus feet. “Oh, very good things,” he said softly.

Nycetus stroked the slave’s cheek. “Darling boy,” he whispered. “Sweet darling boy…”

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 18

The Graharz awoke with a throbbing head to the whinny of horses. He opened his eyes and glanced around his present location, which quickly proved to be a very dark room… with horses in it. “Hello?”

“You’re up,” said a rather deep woman’s voice.

“I told you he’d be up soon,” said a quiet man’s voice.

“Yes,” said the woman, “but I wasn’t sure if that was your knowledge of illness and injury or that damned optimism of yours.”

“A bit of both,” noted the man.

“Well, props to you, Sir Crookback,” came his brother’s voice. “I was half certain his skull was broken, and I’ve known him long enough to know that’s damn near impossible.”

The Graharz’s eyes were adjusting to the dark, in what he was increasingly certain was a stable. “Aethelstan, why am I here?” he said quietly.

His brother gave a rather awkward cough. “Ahh, yes. It turns out some of the High Hill Folk who were being transported with us had a better grasp of the Dark Tongue than I thought. Which made me less than popular with them.” Aethelstan’s cheerful face popped into view. “There was a dispute, you heard it, and… well, you were you.” He gestured away. “Sir Crookback and his fair lady brought matters to an end, and… brought us here.”

The hunchback hobbled into view. “It isn’t much, I admit, but… it is something.” He peered down at the Graharz, and then offered him one misshapen hand. “Would you like help getting up, sir?”

The Graharz made an effort to rise, then gave a nod. “I think I would.” The hunchback reached down, and the Graharz felt a wiry, astonishingly strong hand loop under his shoulder.

“And up you go,” said the hunchback, lifting the Graharz to his feet.

Aethelstan came to his side, and helped steady him. “Any chance you could help?” he said to Ursula, who was sitting quietly in the corner.

“I will send you my good will,” she said, crossing her left arm before her, then pumping her right fist behind it. “There. Did you see that? Or should I do it again and send more good will?”

“You’ve a formidable lady,” muttered Aethelstan to the hunchback.

“I would not have any other,” he replied, moving away from the brothers towards Ursula.

“Well, we thank you your assistance,” said the Graharz.

“And I thank you for ending that go game,” said Ursula. “I find breaking skulls more entertaining than watching him win.”

The hunchback patted her arm. “You’re getting better.”

“Losing in more moves is still losing,” she muttered.

“We… should be betting back to our… cave,” muttered Aethelstan.

“I will take you there,” said the hunchback. A horse gave a loud whinny, and begin to buck. The hunchback limped over to it, and began to soothingly stroke its head. “Easy, Monoceros,” he said quietly.

The Graharz blinked. “Monoceros?”

“He is blind in one eye,” said the hunchback. “His former owner thought it… an amusing name. And so that is what the poor beast answers to.”

“Ahh,” said Aethelstan.

“I know what you are thinking,” said the hunchback. “That we are the same, he and I. And perhaps, we are, somewhat. But my mother…” He bit his lip. “I suspect you have heard some small thing of her, and perhaps even formed an opinion. But for me--she is the woman who gave me life. And gave me love. And gave me a name that the masters can never take from me.” He smiled and nodded to themselves. “They may call me what they like and I will answer to it. I’m not a fool, though it helps me if they think me one. But whatever foul name they choose to cry--in my heart, there’s only one name I truly call mine. The one my mother gave me. The one she whispered to me, when I was a small babe.”

“That seems a precious gift here,” said the Graharz.

“It is,” said the hunchback. “And it is a precious name, a kingly name.” He shook his head, letting loose a small laugh. “She named me ‘Marduk’. Me, small and twisted as I was and still am, that is the name I bear.”

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 17

Aethelstan glanced around the room, and then sighed. “This is the ugliest brothel that I have ever had the misfortune to enter,” he stated quietly to his brother. “Palace of Pleasure? More like the Hovel of Drunken Numbness…”

“It will serve,” said the Graharz.

“To achieve that named state?” noted Aethelstan. “Most assuredly.”

The Graharz leaned towards his brother, as Striker approached. “You know what I mean,” he said.

“No, I don’t,” declared Aethelstan forcefully. “As I told you and your little friend, I’m not going to throw away my life on any foolishness. As bad as it is, I’ve no intention of it getting worse.” He turned away from his brother. “You enjoy your companions--I’ll enjoy mine.” He watched the handsome slave approach the Graharz, and lead him towards a table where a small group was gathered. Then, with a sigh, Aethelstan made his way to a small chair that had been placed in a corner, and sat down. He glanced around, and waved at a rather plain young girl. “Get me a drink,” he said.

The girl nodded, and darted away. As Aethestan kept his eyes on her, she made her way towards a table conveniently located in the center of the “palace”. A woman was playing a game of go with the hunchback. Aethelstan was surprised that he of all people should have access to this place, much less company, but then the woman turned around, and he recognized her as the noseless, scarred keeper of this cut-rate whorehouse. Her gimlet eyes regarded him for a moment, then nodded at the girl, and began to pour a cup.

Aethelstan watched as the girl returned to his table and set the cup down. “Your drink,” she said a hurried whisper, her eyes fixed on him as he picked it up. “Do you want me to stay with you?” she blurted out as he took his first sip.

Aethelstan swallowed his drink, and looked at her for a moment. “How old are you, child?” he asked.

“Fifteen,” she said, much too quickly.

“I’d rather you didn’t,” said the Milesian. He pushed his cup towards her. “Though I wouldn’t mind you sharing this drink.” She stared at him, clearly rather surprised. “Don’t get too good an opinion of me,” he noted. “The wine you serve here is shit.”

She picked the cup quickly and took a long swallow, Aethelstan studying her horribly lean face as she gulped it down. “Thank you, sir,” she said, putting down the cup.

“I told you not to be impressed,” said Aethelstan. “It’s bad policy to disappoint your customers in this fashion.”

The girl looked so quickly at her feet that he actually felt ashamed. “Sorry, sir. Sorry.”

He shook his head. “It was… never mind. I just want to know… why is the Crookback in here?”

“Madame Ursula’s friend?” she said, a cheerful smile on her face. “He was born here, so Lord Nycetus lets him come and go as it pleases him.” She nodded. “And he and Ursula are friends.” Another, more emphatic nod. “They play go together. All the time.”

“Ahh.” Aethelstan considered this. “Well… I’m happy for them.”

“I will te--” began the girl, only to have a large man push her out of the way.

Aethelstan glanced up at him. “Look, sir, you seem to misunderstand the point of a whorehouse, so if I may enlighten…” He blinked.

Before him were two of the Tall Hill Folk, regarding him with rather unpleasant grins. “Baaaa,” said one of them, as he raised his fist.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 16

“So… that was all the Lady could send?” asked Barrant. “A single thread of spider web?”

“Yes,” said Eliazar, as he prepped the fire. “That is all.”

“Well… isn’t it’s snapping sort of inevitable?” suggested Barrant. “It was just a thread.”

Eleazar stood up and sighed. “Consider it a magical thread. A magical, symbolic thread.”

“Well, that’s not fair, is it?” declared the Goblin. “After all, the bandit doesn’t know that, now does he? All he knows is he’s been given one chance out of Hell, and it’s a single thread that could snap at any moment.”

“But it would have held if he’d had compassion for his fellow sufferers,” explained Eleazar.

The Goblin spread his hands. “He still didn’t know that.” Barrant bit his lip. “Honestly, the Lady seems cruel in that story. Dangling hope to a man only to snatch it away in an instant. Not the Mother Night I worship, at least.”

“It’s a parable,” muttered Eleazar. “It’s meant to tell us how to live our lives…”

“By what? Telling us to trust in magical, symbolic spider webs?” Barrant shook his head. “No. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see the point in the story.”

Eleazar considered it for a moment, and then sighed. “Never mind. It is… simply a matter of taste.”

“Oy,” came the loud voice of Abgar, as he trudged into the room. “Congratulations. The pair of you have done excellent work and thus qualify for a visit to the House of Pleasure.”

Barrant focused his eyes on his forge. “Not interested,” he said.

A rather smug grin came over Abgar’s face. “Somehow thought that would be the case.” He turned to Eleazar. “What about you?”

“Same as him,” said Eleazar, working the bellows.

“Ahh.” Abgar chuckled to himself, then nodded. “Right. Well, leave you two gentlemen to your work.” The legate walked off, his chuckle turning into a guffaw.

Barrant glanced at Eleazar. “Something tells me that’s the last offer we’re going to get to go to... that place.”

“Not something I’m sorry about,” said Eleazar. “Did you see the faces on those women?” He shook his head. “If I ever get back to the abbey, I’ll be able to paint damned souls from memory.”

“And here I’d always heard you monks were the randiest fellows under all the pious posing,” said Barrant.

“True for some, I suppose, but not all,” noted Eleazar. “Just as the snide gibes about Goblins are only true for some, for example…”

“Yes,” said Barrant, lifting a pair of tongs. “And I’m one of the ones it’s true about.”

Eleazar blinked. “Oh. Well. Understand, I hold nothing wrong with the pra…”

“Relax,” said Barrant, as he placed a bar of iron on the forge. “You’re not my type.”

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 15

Abgar threw the dice. “And… Lady’s Fingers! Damn it…” He passed them to Isengrim. “Your throw then.” The Ogre tossed the dice, which then showed a seven. Abgar snarled. “Damn your luck, Ogre.”

“Curse it all you want,” said Isengrim. “I’m still gathering the coin.” He collected the pot, and then placed his next bet. “So… I hear the old man has you watching the baby boy?”

Abgar nodded. “His nibs had one too many fits. Now I have to hold his hand to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself.”

Brunel scratched his head. “Personally, I think that would improve the little lord.” The others glanced at the cross-eyed Goblin. “Getting hurt. Preferably in some nasty way.”

“Well, he’s upper gentry, so I wouldn’t recommend it,” said Abgar.

“Well obviously, we wouldn’t hurt ourselves,” said Brunel, placing his coins in the pile. “More… he’d have something hit him in the head. All… accidental-like.”

Isengrim rolled his eyes as he threw the dice. “You worry me sometimes, Brunel.” He frowned. “Hmm… five.” He sighed and shook his head, preparing another throw.

“Brunel worries anyone with sense,” noted Abgar, his eyes riveted on Isengrim’s hand.

“Like a rock,” continued Brunel. “A really big rock.”

“Three,” muttered Isengrim, gathering the dice again.

“Think of it!” said Brunel. “A really big rock hitting him in the head! Wouldn’t that be great?”

“Depend on the size,” came out a small croaking voice. The guards turned to see the hunchback quietly cleaning in a corner.

“Oy, Creeper!” snapped Abgar. “How long you been standing there?”

The hunchback considered. “Well… I really don’t know, sirs, I really don’t.” He smiled at them. “Not long, sirs, though. No, just doing a little cleaning here, sirs. Cleaning, all quick and quiet. That’s what I was doing, sirs.”

Brunel got up quickly. “Listen you whoreson, did you hear me planning to hit Cheirmmarrhus in the head with a big rock…?”

The hunchback considered this, then shook his head. “No, good sir. Of course not.”

Brunel gave a satisfied nod. “Right. Right. Good.” He gave a menacing, cross-eyed squint. “Best be on your way then.”

The hunchback bowed, creeping towards the door out of the chamber all the while. “Of course, sir, of course, of course.”

Abgar turned to him. “And word of this better not reach Lord Nycetus.”

“Of course not, sir,” said the hunchback. “I would never dream of disturbing the great master with all of sirs various… business. Never, never.”

Abgar watched him dart out the door, then turned back to the game. “Brunel,” he declared softly, “why is your hand in the pot?”

Brunel released the coins in his hand. “I was… adding coins to it?” he suggested.

Outside, the hunchback released a deep breath, and shook his head, massaging it gently as he walked away.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 14

Aethelstan lay on the floor of the cave, coughing. He was all but certain he could feel the dust leaking out his mouth and nostrils with each cough. And as awful as that sensation was, it was still preferable to thinking about the ache in his arms. And his legs. And his back. And his neck. And…

Actually, the parts of him that weren’t aching would probably be a shorter list.

The Graharz glanced at his brother. “Would you like a drink?”

Aethelstan waited to catch his breath before turning to the Graharz. “So… I could… cough it out again?” He shook his head.

“Well, you have to get a drink eventually,” noted the Graharz.

“Yes,” muttered Aethelstan. “But I want it… when I can swallow…” He took a deep breath. “All right. I think… I think I’ve gotten… most of it out of me…” He raised a hand. “That drink?”

The Graharz pressed the small skin into his brother’s hands. “I’m wondering how you’re going to get through the next day of this.”

“A simple question,” said Aethelstan, finishing the drink. “I won’t. Just add my corpse to your load for extra weight.”

The Graharz stared at him, for a moment. “I believe they’d catch that,” he said at last.

Aethelstan managed to prop his aching, bruised body up against the cave wall, and regarded the Graharz for a long time. Then he started to laugh. “And now--now you go and remind me why it is I followed you out to all this in the first place.”

“I thought it was because you thought we’d win,” noted the Graharz.

“Solid defeats for the Northern League over nearly a decade, and you thought I saw victory around the corner,” laughed Aethelstan. “No, no, I was just being kind to you, brother. I knew we were fucked.”

The Graharz blinked. “Well, you could have told me that,” he said.

“And you’d have had the Band return home?” asked Aethelstan. His brother grimaced at that. “Thought so,” said Aethelstan. “Not that I blame you. Sutekh truly is an evil shit, who needs to be fought.”

“Lady guide our hands,” said the Graharz.

Aethelstan performed an Obeisant Gesticulation, then shut his eyes. “Especially… this latest bit of craziness. As the other option is working to death here. Something that one day’s mining has made intolerable to me.”

“Not just you,” said the Graharz smiling. “I’ve half a mind to just take up a cudgel, and lay into the guards until they cut me down.”

Aethelstan nodded. “A plan I can endorse. Why aren’t we doing it?”

“Because as you said,” replied the Graharz calmly, “King Sutekh is an evil shit who needs to be fought. Something we will have a hard time doing if we die in that manner.”

Aethelstan cracked his eyes open, and stared at his brother for awhile. “I hate it when your madness makes perfect sense on review. Did you know that?”

“I’ve guessed as much,” replied the Graharz.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 13

Nycetus yawned as Cheimarrhus entered his chambers, and put down the book he was reading. “So… did you get the smith to the smithy?”

The young Erl guard frowned. “He insisted I bring his stoker along,” he muttered. “It was quite… irritating.”

Nycetus turned to his underling, staring at him flatly. “But you did get them to the smithy, correct?”

Cheimarrhus turned around, his annoyance obvious. “Yes!” he snapped. “Your precious smith and his precious stoker are at their stations.”

“Good,” said Nycetus, returning to his book. “He is precious, you know. We’re lucky that a smith was being offered, especially one so skilled. If we’d gone any longer without one, I’d have had to hire a freeman. And that is pricey. And comes straight from the mine’s funds. So again--count your blessings.”

“It can’t be that pricey!” said Cheimarrhus, his tone sure, but his expression showing a nagging doubt emerging.

Nycetus flipped the page of his book. “Spoken like one who’s always lived off his parents’ purse,” he noted. He sighed. “Rest assured. It is.”

“But still--to give into these… scum on anything!” declared Cheirmarrhus passionately.

Nycetus folded the page of his book to keep his place, then set it down. “Giving into these scum, my dear lad, on certain small things is one thing that keeps this place running.” He smiled broadly. “The oppression of peoples is something of a science, Cheirmarrhus. Treat them too lightly, and, yes, they will take advantage of you. But press the heel too harshly, and you will make it so they will dare everything to dislodge that bothersome foot.”

“That’s when you press harder!” declared Cheirmarrhus. “Into the throat, if you have to!”

“How many throats?” asked Nycetus quietly.

Cheirmarrhus spoke without hesitation. “As many as is needed!”

Nycetus’ face remained calm. “And what if that sum is all?”

Cheirmarrhus actually did hesitate for that one. “Yes,” he said at last. “Yes… if that is the sum needed, then that is how many to kill.”

“And then who would mine, may I ask?” said Nycetus, his face expressionless.

“Well… they’re only slaves,” muttered Cheirmarrhus. “We’ll just buy more.”

Nycetus stared at him for a moment, then picked up his book. “You know, Cheirmarrhus, I have never been so happy that it is I and not you who is in charge here as I was just now.” He flipped the book open. “Not that you are wholly wrong, but you seem to fail to see that it is our job to attempt to avoid such drastic measures if possible.” His eyes returned to his book. “Which is why henceforth you are not to deal with the slaves without the assistance of Abgar. Understood?”

Cheirmarrhus scowled, bit his lip, and then gave a nod.

“Excellent,” said Nycetus. “Then leave my presence.”

Cheirmarrhus gave a rather stunted bow, and whirled around, leaving the room.

Nycetus went back to reading The Prince of Dead Leaves, and musing over the many ways of oppression.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 12

“So… the Northern League has suffered another defeat,” said Striker quietly.

Aethelstan and the Graharz looked at each other worriedly. “What would make you say…?” began Aethelstan.

“Even in the Cthonique mines we hear of the wars,” noted the handsome slave. “And… well, one can tell quite a lot about the slaves they send us. When a lot of Milesians come…” Striker shrugged. “Well… the conclusion is obvious.”

The Graharz glanced away. “It has not gone well, no. But unlike some, I do not think all is lost. The League will fight on until it is no more. And when it passes, something else will take up the fight. Sutekh cannot rule forever. No matter what he imagines.”

Striker gestured to a guard walking out of the tunnel, escorting a Goblin and an Erl. “I would be very careful saying such things here. They can… provoke reaction…”

“You there!” shouted the guard, pointing at a short young Erl. “Up! Now!” The Erl rose, revealing himself to be little more than a boy. The guard gestured with his lash. “What was that in your hands, slave? Was that a weapon?”

The boy shivered. “No… no, sir. It… it wasn’t anything…”

“Are you saying that I am a liar, slave?” snapped the guard. “Or perhaps that my wits are imperfect?”

“No--no, sir!” said the boy, shaking his head. “Of course not.”

The guard prodded him with the lash. “So what was in your hands?”

“I… it… it was a stick, sir,” said the boy.

The guard nodded. “A stick. That’s a far cry from nothing…”

“It was… it was just a little stick,” continued the boy.

“But not nothing,” said the guard, fiddling idly with his lash “Now… why did you have a stick?” Aethelstan glanced over at his brother, who he noted had picked up a stone.

“I… I was playing with it, sir,” said the boy.

The guard’s eyes went wide in fury. “Playing with it? Playing with it? You tell me such nonsense, and expect me to believe it? Playing with it?”

“I was bored, sir,” peeped the boy.

The Goblin coughed. “I’ve known children to do such things when…”

“You do not speak on this,” snapped the guard, glaring at the man. He turned back to the child. “And you do NOT lie to me,” he snarled, raising his lash. “I will show you what happens when you do! Oh, I will sh--”

And then the hunchback bumped into him, spilling his stew onto the man‘s uniform.

“Oh, sorry, great sir, so sorry!” babbled the hunchback. “Sorry! A thousand apologies! So sorry for my clumsiness! So sorry!” He began to nervously, try to clean the guard. “Apologies! So sorry!”

The guard sputtered for a moment, and then began to rain blows down on the hunchback. “Toad! Worm! Whoreson! You miserable… creeping… whoreson!”

“Sorry, sorry, so so sorry, great sir!” continued the hunchback, as the lash struck him again and again.

“Be more careful next time,” snapped the guard, recovering himself and returning to lead the other two slaves out of the tunnel.

Striker took a relieved breath. “And that was a fairly mild case,” he noted.

“Thank goodness,” said the Graharz, releasing the stone from his grip.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 11

Barrant Burr chewed his barley stew, swallowed, and then got to work on the crust of bread, they’d given him as a bowl. Eliazar sighed as he watched him. “Tell me,” said the Erl quietly, “did you ever hear the Hierophant Lamiel’s theory of acquired traits?”

The Goblin took a swallow of bread, and looked Eliazr in the face. “Not that I recall. I did hear Lamiel Bramblebrush’s theory of paying his debts--which ran that he’d do it in his own sweet time--but I doubt they were the same person. Unless Bramblebrush had a history in the religious orders he never told me about. Which I doubt.”

Eliazar cracked a smile. “Not unless he was over five hundred years old,” he noted.

Barrant considered it. “That I also doubt.”

“He felt that the Nightfolk often acquired traits based on their circumstances, hence our… as he put it, ‘glorious and astonishing diversity of forms’,” said Eliazar. “Watching you eat put me in mind of it. Seeing as you’ve apparently acquired a cast-iron stomach.”

“Chuckle to yourself as much as you like, Erl,” said Barrant. “Judged in comparison to my recent meals, this is a veritable feast, and one I recommend you partake of.”

Eliazar tipped his own crust of bread to his mouth. “You know, my prior used to say that when that Milesian corruption started to supplant the proper name of Alvar, it was the sign of great and terrible things befalling the Children of Night.”

Barrant stared at Eliazar with frank cynicism. “You were a monk?”

“A member of the Order of the Barefoot Walkers in the Abbey of the Divine Mother Eternally Victorious,” said Eliazar. “Before King Sutekh dissolved the order, at least.”

“Which ones are you?” asked Barrant. “The ones who didn’t hand over the books, or the ones who protested his dissolving the ones who didn’t hand over the books?”

“The ones that protested his dissolving the ones who protested,” said Eliazar. “And hid books for the ones that didn’t hand over the books. And declared that his wars were unjust.”

“I knew the name sounded familiar,” said Barrant. “You’re a Hardheel.” He gave a delighted laugh and slapped his knee. “I’m pleased to meet someone as mad as myself.”

“Oh, I’m mad even by the standards of the Barefoot Walkers,” said Eliazar. “Instead of seeking to join another holy order, I took up arms against the King of Kings.” He shrugged. “With the results being… obvious.”

“Then I salute you as comrade,” declared Barrant. “After all--I’m here as well, aren’t I?”

The pair were sharing a laugh at that when the call rang out. “Oy! Goblin!” Barrant turned to see a rather young Erl wearing an immaculate uniform and a scowl on his face walking towards him. “Are you Barrant Burr, smith and armorer?”

“I have that dubious honor,” said Barrant.

The guard nodded. “You are to come up above and quarter in the smithy. In preparation of your new duties.”

Barrant scowled. “I suppose I’ll be making chains and the like?”

“Amongst other things, yes,” said the guard.

“And I have no option to refuse?” continued the Goblin.

“As you are the property of the mines, no,” answered the guard. He considered it a moment. “Or rather--you do, and then we would operate our option to cause you hideous suffering.”

Barrant glanced at Eliazar. “Even I would take this offer,” said the former monk quietly.

The Goblin turned back to the guard. “Tell me, does the smithy have a stoker?”

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 10

“Soup, soup, delicious soup!” said the hunchback, limping into view, a large pot held underneath one over-sized misshapen arm.

Aethelstan glanced at his brother. “Do you think the slop is going to be any more appetizing than the thing carrying it?” The Graharz remained silent, merely looking over the crowd of slaves huddled in the dark corners of the tunnel. Aethelstan gave a snort. “Ahh. So that’s how it’s going to be, eh? You look all gloomy, and pensive, while I babble on?”

“Isn’t that how it’s always been?” said the Graharz, quietly.

Aethelstan seemed about to comment on that, but then just began to laugh. “Well, I’ll say this, brother--we will keep each other amused through all this.”

“However long it lasts,” replied the Graharz.

A loud cough came from their right. The two Milesians turned to see a tall, pale Erl standing there, wearing the simple clothing and chains of a slave. “Hello, friends,” he said, raising one well-muscled arm.

Aethelstan and his brother stared at the Erl with suspicion. “We were unaware that we even knew you, much less that we were friends,” said the Graharz.

A smile spread on the Erl’s handsome face, as he sat down next to them. “I like to consider all who toil with me here friends, until they prove otherwise.” He looked at them levelly. “And friends can be very, very useful here. The Cthonique mines are a dangerous place. And not all the dangers are obvious.”

“And what do you get from helping us?” asked Aethelstan.

“The satisfaction of spitting in the eye of the masters who keep me here,” said the Erl. He shrugged. “A small enough thing, but here, every little victory is worth more than one might think…”

The Graharz and Aethelstan looked at each other, and then nodded. “Very well,” said the Graharz. “We will take up your offer…”

The Erl frowned. “Those of us born into slavery are not granted names,” he said softly. “We are simply… called things. But most call me ‘Striker’, for the crime that sent me here.” The Milesians stared at him, clearly puzzled. “I was a slave on a Magnate’s farm, but I struck my master after he struck me. That’s usually death, but… my master likes to mix profit with punishment. And so he sent me here.”

“You sound regretful,” noted Athelstan.

“This is still death,” said Striker. “It is simply slower. And more painful.”

The Graharz smiled despite himself. “Death for some, perhaps.”

Striker sighed. “Be careful when you say such things. The masters have ways to hear them here.” Aethelstan gestured across the way to the hunchback, busy ladling some soup into a bit of bread and serving it to some slaves. Striker shook his head. “Oh, Crookback’s harmless, with wits as misshapen as the rest of him. The greatest thing to fear is that if you said something before him he might say it before a guard not realizing he was doing you ill. And even then, he’d have to remember it.”

“Crookback?” asked Aethelstan.

“Kinder than what the masters call him,” said Striker. “They have quite a few names, all unpleasant.”

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 9

The slaves marched into the great common area before the Mount Cthonique mines, under the watchful eyes and ready lashes of the guards. As he saw them lining up there, Nycetus mused how so many men could be guarded by so few. But then, we have the weapons, and the soldiers to use them, he considered. And these men have seen us use both to crush them when they were in a better situation.

As soon as he was sure they were all before him, Lord Nycetus began to speak. “I will not waste words,” he declared grandly. “You are now the property of these mines, and you will work in them until you die. Serve us well, and that may cover a long run of years, spent in reasonable comfort. Serve us poorly and it will be brief and painful. Rebel against us and it will end instantly and in agony you cannot imagine.”

The slaves’ expressions were mute, with some crossing over to blank--while Nycetus was certain that in some cases this was because some of them didn’t know the Dark Tongue, in most he imagined it was a certain shock stealing over them, as they became truly aware of just in what bad straits they were in. While that was at least partially what you wanted, it couldn’t be allowed to go too far, or you’d lose half of them to suicides in a week. It was time to give them just a pinch of hope. Something to make them willing to go on.

“And yet, I would not have you imagine that life here is only pain and suffering,” he stated. “We have a time and a place for pleasure.” He clapped his hands together. “Ursula! Bring them out! Show these men what we offer in our palace of pleasure!”

The door of the little stone building that stood on the outskirts of the mines open, and Ursula emerged. He suspected that for a moment some of the men assembled below were doubtless tempted by the woman--but then they got a good look at her face. Ursula bore on her face the signs of the displeasure of her previous owner--a nose that had been cut off, and a long jagged scar that trailed down the right side of her face. While this doubtless made her of limited use as a whore, it was part of what made her an excellent bawd. Men left her alone, and she could tell when one was getting violent. That had proven to be a very useful gift indeed. He’d had to replace far fewer of the women thanks to her.

Ursula stepped to her side, and the women of the House of Pleasure walked out. They were, for the most part, a passably pretty lot, but still hardly ravishing beauties. But that didn’t matter to the men below. Starving men at a banquet don’t tend to notice if they’re eating scraps. Just that there’s food before them.

“Visits to the House of Pleasure are among the many rewards available to those who serve the mines well, and behave properly,” continued Nycetus. “That is the sort of man I am, slaves. If you treat me fairly, I will treat you fairly. Otherwise, pain and the lash.” He gave a nod. “Go down below. Food will be distributed to you shortly. Then tomorrow--you will begin to work.”

Nycetus watched as the slaves shuffled off in the direction the guards indicated, disappearing into the outer chambers of the mines. As the last of them vanished, he turned to Abgar, his legate. “See that the guards are on watch,” Lord Nycetus noted. “I suspect there will be a few acts of violence in the night. Now, a certain level of this is to be expected, but I do promise you, if more than three men are killed down below there will be consequences. I’ve not lost money on these mines for all the years I’ve run them, and I don’t plan to start now.”

Abgar bowed and left the room. Nycetus took a seat, and after some thought, ordered a pomegranate brought to him.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 8

The songs of nightingales rang out in the trees of the great pleasure gardens of the Amontides that evening, as King Sutekh and Prince Serapis walked down the flowered lane together. “We have been much troubled of late, by certain matters,” said the King quietly to the Prince, who walked six paces behind Sutekh, a rare and signal honor even for a Prince of the Blood.

“What matters are these, Dark Lord?” asked Serapis, trembling slightly. It occurred to him that the Prince Ptah Djehautides had been having such a private discussion with the King on the night that he had mysteriously vanished. Of course, Ptah’s meeting with the King was one of those things which, though everyone at court had known about it when it had happened, had never been mentioned again after he disappeared, and like most such subjects was not advisable to think on very long.

Serapis realized his nerves were not improving, and attempted to think on fluffy bunnies instead. And yet somehow one of the damn things popped into his head with a knife and then he started envisioning himself being chased by a horde of rabbits with sharp implements, which quickly overwhelmed him and hacked him into bloody pieces.

“It is a simple thing, really,” said the King softly, “involving the conquest.” Prince Serapis felt his throat clenching. “Should we add another stair to the Glorious Throne?”

Serapis stared at the Undying One for a moment. “That… does sound like it would be difficult,” he said eventually.

“Indeed,” agreed Sutekh. “Further, it would ruin the present artistic qualities to add another stair--seven is attractive, but eight is ungainly. And yet, somehow, it must show how what the Amontides’ conquered now lays under our feet.”

Serapis slowly nodded. “Yes. Yes. I see.” He fidgeted awkwardly. “Perhaps… perhaps… a rug, of some sort…”

The King’s eyes lit up in excitement. “Yes! Yes! Filled with images of the glory of the Amontides, sewn by the hands of Milesian women, out of the finest and rarest of ingredients in their lands… including the hair of its ladies of breeding!” He smiled at the Prince, and gestured forward. “You have pleased us, kinsman. You may approach two more paces.”

“I… thank you, Dark Lord.” Serapis took two nervous steps forward.

Sutekh nodded. “This is a great and signal honor, Serapis. And yet we have granted it to you, for you have been of great use to us.” He regarded the Prince intently. “The Northern League still refuses to surrender, and the threat of the Empire intervening remains. Will you not fight on for us, kinsman?”

“I…” Serapis shut his eyes. “I am… sorry, Dark Lord, but… I am tired. I have fought the Northerners for a decade now, and I have won every battle I have fought and still… still it exhausts me. The fighting… the killing… I need to rest, Dark Lord. Rest until I am well again.”

There was silence in the garden, then, for a long moment, punctuated only by the songs of nightingales. Serapis held his breath, waiting for the King of Kings’ response. Sutekh Amontides stood there, regarding him quietly, the King’s dark eyes fixed on his. “Very well,” said Sutekh, at last. “We would not see so fine a weapon broken or dulled by careless use. Return to your chateau, kinsman, rest and replenish yourself. All we would ask that you come to our aid if we should need you.”

Serapis gave a deep bow. “Of course, Dark Lord. Of course. I am your loyal subject, and live at your service.”

Sutekh nodded. “Very well. You may leave our august presence, oh Prince of the Marches.”

Serapis remained bowed. “Thank you, Dark Lord.” And then, he politely left the garden, remaining in a kneeling position until he was out of Sutekh’s sight.

Then he stood to his feet and ran to his chambers. He was fairly certain he could get his things in order to leave by the next day over the night.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 7

“I think you’ll find that my product is most exquisite,” said Lord Eri, gesturing to the line of men standing before his carriages. “These Milesians are fighting men--sturdy, hard, able to work. Well worth the gold price, I think you’ll agree…”

Nycetus snorted. “Milesians are difficult. More brutes than proper men. Why else do they lack a finger, hmm? Like some sort of monkey, or something similar.” Many of the Milesians were looking rather quietly offended by all this, though the fact that Nycetus was surrounded by armed guards rather lessened their offense. He chuckled to himself. “I’ve actually written on this, you know…”

“And it is doubtless edifying,” muttered Eri, “but we are here to talk business. Milesians are brutes, you say? Well, this is brutish work you do here, so who better? As I’ve told you, they are sturdy, and able.”

“Perhaps, perhaps, but you aren’t going to receive the gold price for this lot,” said Nycetus. He regarded them with a critical eye. “I might be able to take them at the copper…”

“Silver,” said Eri, pudgy eyes turning to gimlets.

“Do you think me a fool?” said Nycetus. “My posting is up for renewal in a year. The Glorious Throne expects payment in hard currency. This is in addition to my quotas. The beast that is our master’s kingdom, Lord Eri, it must be fed, and it falls to me to feed it.” He turned to point at Eri. “And for you to give me the means to do so.” He turned back to the slaves and yawned. “So what of the handful not Milesians, hmm? What are their virtues?”

“Like the Milesians, these are fighting men--Northerners, for the most part!” said Eri.

Nycetus nodded. “Ah. So quarrelsome fools who will be every bit as bad as the Milesians, and possibly worse.” He rolled his eyes. “What a sorry lot you’re selling me…”

“I provide what the wars bring us,” stated Eri. “If you wish to quarrel with the selection, bring it up with that beast you say you feed.” He gestured to the solitary Goblin in the line. “This one’s a smith.”

Nycetus glanced at the Goblin. “Really? Is this true?” He gestured for him to come forward. “Speak. Speak.”

The Goblin gave a slightly resentful nod. “It is true, sir. I am a smith, and served Master Thyme of Dradarun as armorer, before my capture. Prior to that, I served Master Barleycorn of Talossa and prior to that Master Goldenrod of White Pine.”

Nycetus chuckled. “My goodness. A veritable compendium of villains! Who else do you number among your former employers? The Mongranes? The Chiaramontes? The Regnis? The Medb? The Scathach? Or perhaps, the Badb?”

“None of them, sir,” said the Goblin.

“Ahh, well, that’s a pity,” said Nycetus with a nod. “It would add to your charm. Tell me--my goodness, I just realize I don’t know your name…”

“It is Burr, sir,” answered the Goblin placidly. “Barrant Burr.”

“Well then, Burr, I must know what it is that keeps you fighting for such a lost cause?” Nycetus’ face was bland, save for his eyes, which were cruel.

Barrant remained calm. “I would say it is my sense of right, sir.”

Nycetus let loose a titter. “My, my, this one is entertaining,” he said to Eri. “That and my need for a new smith have made it far likelier that I will purchase what you’ve decided to offer me.”

“For the silver price…,” began Eri.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” answered Nycetus, moving further down the line.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 6

Lord Nycteus yawned as he sliced open his pomegranate. “Really,” he said to the young man seated opposite him, “I think you’ll find work here at Mount Cthonique is quite easy.”

“If you can live without hope of glory and renown,” snapped the young man.

Nycetus rolled his eyes as he scooped out some seeds. “I think you will find, Cheimarrhus, that one can quite easily do that, just as dying in the possession of those two items.”

Cheimarrhus glared at his superior. “At least it’s a death with honor! I will rust here, I know it!”

“Better to rust then to hang,” said Nycetus, chewing his pomegranate seeds. “That young woman you carried on with was a Princess of the Blood, after all.”

“If every boy who ‘carried on’ with Princess Nebthet got disgraced, the court would be empty,” snapped Cheimarrhus.

“True, true, very true,” said Nycetus, swallowing. “That’s why it is limited to those who get caught.” His eyes narrowed. “And even then, a special disgrace is reserved for those who displeased the lady…” Cheimarrhus glanced away, muttering angrily. “But I am misunderstood. I do not mean to cast blame, and throw aspersions around. No, I merely trying to make it clear that life here is not so unpleasant, if you are willing to… make the effort to enjoy it.”

Cheimarrhus glanced at Nycetus’ substantial gut. “Well, I can see that you’ve managed to follow your own advice…” he muttere

Nycetus gave his stomach a hearty slap. “Indeed! Why, I myself am a living exemplar of what I preach, and thus prove its validity!” He leaned forward. “And that is why you would be wise to listen to me, my lad.”

Cheirmarrhus stood up, and walked across the room. He stuck his head out the window. “Oy! Toad! Saddle my horse! I’ve a mind to ride!”

The hunchback sitting in the courtyard below looked up with his misshapen head. “Of course, great sir. Of course! I will do so--do so immediately, yes!” He rose unsteadily.

Cheirmarrhus watched him placidly. “Well?” he said at length. “Don’t simply say you’ll do it--do it! Hop to it, Toad! Hop to it!”

Toad had reached his feet, and began to walk in the shuffling manner of a man with a clubfoot. “Ha! Ha! Very clever, good sir! Very clever! ‘Hop to it’! Ha!” As the young noble watched, the slave shuffled away towards the stables.

Cheirmarrhus turned to his superior. “Is there a reason that creeping creature wasn’t exposed at birth?”

“Oh, he has his uses,” said Nycetus with a smile. “After all--who else would we have to take care of your horse if the Toad weren’t here?” He scooped out some more pomegranate seeds, a grin appearing on his broad face. “Believe me, lad, I have run this mine for many long years, and what those years have taught me is that everyone has its use.” A peal of trumpets was heard in the distance. Nycetus chuckled. “Hello! It looks like the latest shipment has come in down the road.” Nycetus crammed the seeds into his mouth, and began to noisily chew. “Do be a good lad, and meet them for me, won’t you?”

“But… my ride!” gasped Cheirmarrhus, eyes wide with disappointment.

“Will have to be put off,” said Nycetus.

“Can’t you go meet them yourself?” muttered Cheirmarrhus.

“No,” replied Nycetus calmly. “Firstly, I am eating my pomegranate. Secondly, I am your commander. Thirdly, I am your commander, who is eating a pomegranate and who wishes you to get moving right now.” Cheirmarrhus stared at him, dumbfounded. “Well? Aren’t you going to move?” Cheirmarrhus rose, swiftly from his chair and bolted to the stairs.

When he reached the courtyard, Toad was waiting for him with his horse. “Ahh, great sir,” said the hunchback, limping forward. “Young Silili, she is as eager to ride as you are, great--”

Cheirmarrhus hand darted forward, and gave the slave two slaps. “Return her to the stables, worm!”

Toad nodded. “Of course--of course, great sir. Sorry if I offended--so sorry!” As Cheirmarrhus watched, he turned and limped back to the stables, Silili following him.

Cheirmarrhus shook his head, and stormed off for the gates to look at this latest lot of slaves. As he did so, he wondered if anybody at Mount Cthonique was as unfortunate as him. Somehow, he thought not.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 5

Each step in the throne room of the Great Palace of the Amontides was incalculably valuable, a work of art made of the most precious materials, honed by the most skilled craftsmen over years. Each step had on it a scene carved from one of the lands ruled by the Amontides, from the lowest step, worked in fine ebony, which showed the Goblins of the Shadow Woods paying homage to an Amontides, emerging like some strange sort of beast from the forest to offer their goods, to the topmost step, worked in beaten gold, which showed the nobles of the South, clad in their finery and mounted on horseback likewise paying homage to an Amontides, though instead of goods, they offered their daughters. And resting on that top step was the Glorious Throne, with its jewels and its precious metals, in such profusion, and worked with such skill, that one might think that the value of this throne alone outweighed the value of anything else in the lands ruled over by its owner.

But that, thought Serapis Anhurtides, Prince of the Marches, would be wrong. As would the thought that this so-embellished chair and the steps leading up to it had seen many kings, for they had not. Only one king had walked up the Seven Steps to sit upon the Glorious Throne, the one who sat upon it even now, though he done so for quite some time. The line of the Amontides had always been blessed with long life and long rule, but King Sutekh, the twelfth of that great lineage, had outstripped them all by a wide margin--for two hundred years now, he had been King of Kings and Lord of the South, an extraordinary stretch of years even for an Amontides. People had taken to calling him ‘The Undying One’, and King Sutekh had done nothing to discourage them from saying this.

Looking upon him, handsome, strong, and almost eternally youthful, clad in jewels and fine raiment, it was hard to imagine one so splendid could perish. Some said that Sutekh had the special love of the Darksome Lady, and was thus kept from death.

Others said less pleasant things lay behind it. But they only did so in hushed whispers, and even then some said it once, and then never said anything again. Serapis shuddered to himself slightly. Whenever he arrived for a royal audience, his thoughts tended to go in unpleasant directions, no matter how he tried to keep them from them. I will give my report, and then I will go back to the Marches, to spend my time counting my cattle, and watching my daughters grow up. Serapis took a deep breath and nodded to himself. Surely the King of Kings was finished with him now…

On the floor before him, Bes Sekhmetides was finishing his petition. “…Gotten quite bad, oh Eternal and Unequaled Splendor,” the aging nobleman noted, his expression quite pained. “This is the third harvest to fail in as many years. The aqueducts and canals are… drying up, and the countryside…” He bit his lip. “Oh Astonishing Lord of All, the peasants flee, and the wild Ghouls are moving in from the Wastes, to take their place…” To Serapis’ surprise, a tear was appearing in Bes’ face. “If things continue in this fashion, the South shall be a blasted ruin within our lifetimes!”

King Sutekh gave a loud yawn. A nervous uncomfortable silence filled the room, one that increased as the King fixed Bes with a rather unpleasant gaze. “We do not appreciate this… shrill tone,” stated Sutekh at last.

Bes Sekhmetides gulped nervously and fell to his knees. “I… my apologies, Eternal and Unequaled Splendor. It… the sheer horror of what is happening in the South has unnerved me. The lives of thousands…”

“…Are immaterial to our immaculate presence,” replied Sutekh levelly. He gave a laugh. “Really what do you tell us? That the crops have failed, as they have done on many occasions in the past. That there has been something of a drought, as has also happened often in the past. And that the wretched Ghouls move from the Wastes into our lands, like vultures towards carrion, as they have ever done when the opportunity presents itself. What is to be done, you ask? We shall tell you.”

The King rose from the Glorious Throne, and stepped down to the Second Step. “A good harvest will come.” His foot found the Third Step. “The rains will return.” Now, he trod on the Fourth Step. “And the Ghouls shall have their heads placed on spikes when they find themselves facing actual armies, instead of angry farmers trying to hold them off with pitchforks.” The Fifth Step. “And for these trifles, you disturb our councils, to bleat like a sheep.” The Sixth Step. “Well, have you anything to say to us?”

“Apologies, oh Dark Lord,” said Bes Sekhmetides, raising his hands to plead. “Your humble and pathetic servant realizes his error, and begs your forgiveness!”

“And it is granted,” said Sutekh, with a smile, “provided you hie from our sight and we do not see you again in this place unless we call for you.”

Bes gave a nod and began to back away quickly, then paused to give a deep bow. “I praise your wisdom and mercy, Eternal and Unequaled Splendor, to the pathetic and unworthy servant who stands…”

“Get you hence,” snapped Sutekh. Bes gulped, nodded, and then fled from the hall. Sutekh glanced over the remaining crowd. “Where is the Prince of the Marches? We have heard he has news for us…”

Serapis stepped forward. “I am here, Astounding Lord of All..”

“Very good, Prince Anhurtides.” The King beckoned him to come closer. “Leave the floor, and ascend to the Seventh Step.”

A gasp came from the assembled courtiers. Serapis ignored it, and walked calmly to the step. “I thank you for this signal honor, Dark Lord.”

Sutekh smiled at the Prince. “Rumors of your deeds against the treacherous Northerners have reached us, Prince Anhurtides. Tell us, are they true?”

“If you heard that the armies of the Northern League were routed, and that eight of its eighteen members have left to swear loyalty to the Glorious Throne, then they are,” said Serapis.

King Sutekh laughed and laid a hand on the Prince’s shoulder. “Excellent. This pleases us!” The King pulled his hand back and gave a clap. A slave girl stepped forward from the crowd, holding a pillow, a single perfect pearl on it. “Take this jewel, Prince Anhurtides, and know that its value is but a pitiful fraction of the esteem in which I hold you.”

Serapis took the pearl, and bowed. “I… thank you, Dark Lord. As always, you honor me far beyond my deserts. In truth, oh King of Kings, and Lord of All, the only reward I truly desire is to be allowed to rest in my own humble demesne, until I am needed by you again.”

“And you shall have it,” said Sutekh. “And more! Tonight, a feast in your honor!”

“Thank you, Dark Lord,” said Serapis, quietly swearing inside.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 4

The carriage bumped as it traveled over the uneven dirt road. “Well, at least we’re not walking anymore,” muttered Aethelstan.

“You know, brother,” noted the Graharz, “sarcasm never suits you.”

Aethelstan turned to the Graharz, his expression slightly exasperated. “What? I’m not being sarcastic. I’m glad not to be walking! My blisters have blisters, and those blisters are threatening to spawn a third generation! Being able to ride in a cart is an undeniable pleasure!” The carriage hit another bump. “Though not an unmitigated one, I will admit!”

“Will you two cease your prattle?” muttered an Erl sitting in the corner.

“He is prattling,” said the Graharz. “I am enduring it, same as you.”

“Well, could you endure it more quietly?” asked the Erl. “It might inspire him to follow your example.”

“You don’t know my brother as I do,” replied the Graharz. “He’s not a man who suffers in silence.”

“And neither are you, apparently,” muttered a Goblin, seated nearby.

“Oh ho!” said Aethelstan, turning towards the shorter figure. “Another speaks! We might just have enough people here to hold a genuine conversation, soon.” He shook his head. “That is something my brother and I have sorely missed since Bitterleaves.”

“I would think you could get from your fellows,” said the Goblin, nodding towards the other Milesians in the cart.

“And you would be wrong,” laughed Aethelstan. “These are all Tall Hill Folk. They only speak their own strange tongues--of which there are half a dozen--and a few phrases of Imperial. The only ones who spoke Dark Tongue would be their captains, who are all dead, the poor bastards.”

The Goblin shook his head. “I have never understood you Milesians. You make the Ogres look like a harmonious lot--and I see less difference between you all then the children of Earth, Fire and Ice.”

“Only because you’re untrained,” said Aethelstan. “We can spot the differences easily. And we deal with these people on a regular basis. The Tall Hills aren’t as nice as the Low Hills, and their women not as beautiful as ours. So they regularly come charging down to try and get both.” He stroked his chin. “Though sometimes, they grab our livestock by mistake when they’re trying for the second. I’m not sure whether it’s an inability to recognize a woman based on the extraordinary ugliness of theirs, or simply a force of habit.” One of the other Milesians spat at this.

The Erl who’d spoken previously had been staring intently at Aethelstan. “You said you were at Bitterleaves. Are… are the rumors I’ve heard true…?”

“If you heard that it was a rout, then yes,” replied the Milesian.

“Aethelstan,” snapped the Graharz.

Aethelstan rolled his eyes. “Well, brother, it’s not as if they won’t be able to guess by the fact that we’re here with this merry company, instead of back home in Caer Dyfed.”

“Caer Dyfed,” muttered the Erl dimly. “Then… you are members of the Revered Band?”

“He is the Graharz,” said Aethelstan, gesturing to his brother.

The Erl turned towards the other in shock. “I… This… Is he telling…?”

The Graharz nodded brusquely. “I am who he says I am.”

“Then all is lost,” moaned the Erl, shutting his eyes. “Sutekh has buried us all.”

“Not yet. The Northern League fights still, last I heard,” said the Graharz. “And I am not dead yet.”

“You will be soon,” said the Goblin. “You know where we’re going.”

“Everyone keeps saying ‘Mount Cthonique’,” said Aethelstan. “As if it means something to us.”

The Erl shook his head. “It will, Milesian. It most certainly will.”

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 3

The little convoy reached a great caravan on the fifth day of the month of fog, and Lord Amadan haggled with Lord Eri over the prisoners. “You want twenty gold marks for this sorry lot?” chuckled Eri. “I’ll say this Amadan--you’re still the half-mad bastard you were when we were young.”

Amadan gave a snort. “No, sir, I am not. I am older, and meaner, and less inclined to take your shit.” He crossed his arms. “Twenty gold marks. This may not be a large haul, but these Milesians are warriors to a man. Their backs are broad, their legs are sturdy. They will last for some time in the mines, and the overseers will know that.” The tall Erl warlord gave his head a shake. “You’ll not lose money on this, I promise you.”

Eri chuckled. “Truth be told, a man would be a fool to lose money trading on the Cthonique Road--but I still want to make as much as I can.” He glanced over the enslaved men and laughed. “‘Warriors to a man’? That hillfolk and riverfolk scum the Northern League hires to do its mercenary work is more like it…”

“That ‘scum’ has a reputation feared on both sides of the river…” noted Amadan.

“Which is why they now lie in chains before us,” said Eri with a shake of his head. “The fact that these fools are willing to pit their arms against the Empire AND the Great Kings of Night isn’t proof their courage, it’s proof of their folly.” He glanced at the men. “Ten gold marks, for the lot.”

“Seventeen, and I consider it a waste of the talents of my band in acquiring these men, in the first place,” said Amadan.

“Twelve, and I’m surprised that you didn’t think the entire Battle of Bitterleaves was that,” said Eri. “Are the stories I heard true? Sons in their early teens, fighting alongside their grandfathers?”

Amadan glanced away, a strange nervousness in his face. “The Northern League grows desperate.”

“The Northern League is a worm-ridden corpse, that tore itself from the rotting belly of the League of Prosperity and was conceived after she gave a mercyfuck to the White Pine Confederation as he lay dying,” stated Eri, a certain sardonic glee evident on the slightly corpulent Erl’s face as he said all this. “Which is to say, the damned stupid cunt was always desperate.” He chuckled to himself. “You know what? I’ll throw in a little more coin as payment for the expression on your face. A hungry man deserves some charity. Fourteen gold marks.”

“Fifteen,” said Amadan.

“Fourteen, and provisions for your men,” said Eri. “Including a pot of ale.” Amadan gave a quiet snarl and then nodded his assent. Eri signaled his man to fetch the coins, and then gave his old compatriot a sympathetic glance. “Don’t be so sad, Amadan. There’s more battle coming--and more profitable battle too. I hear Joyeuse is calling in the Empire. That should give King Sutekh’s phalanxes a pause…”

“They will be ground beneath the Undying One’s feet, same as all others,” snapped Amadan. “What does the Empire fight, save hordes of savages and brutes? They lord over vermin, and think it makes them great kings. Sutekh shall show them their vanity.” Amadan bowed his head. “May he rule forever.”

Eri nodded quietly. “He is certainly making the attempt…”

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 2

Aethelstan glanced ahead in the line to the Graharz. “An easy battle, you said,” he noted. “A few hours, then we’d be on our way home.”

The Graharz glanced back at his kinsman. “Well, I was right about it lasting a few hours,” he stated.

“No talking,” muttered the Ogre who was escorting the line. “Prisoners should walk in silence…”

The Graharz glanced at the towering figure. “You know, I think I have a coin in my boot…” he began.

The Ogre gave a deep, booming laugh at that. “Do you think I am a fool? If you did have anything in your boot, the men who captured you have it now.” The tall figure leaned forward. “Listen well, Milesians--you are in the shadow of Great King Sutekh, whose reach extends from the South to both sides of the Murkenmere!”

“Well, parts of both sides,” said Aethelsan.

The Ogre gave a snort. “Do not mock the Great Son of Night, little man. You are in his power, and soon, you will work for his glory, as do we all.” He shook his massive head and gave a shrug. “If you had been wise, you would have fought for him. But you were not, so you will go down in the darkness deep, of the Cthonique Mountain, and find him gold and silver by breaking rocks, until you die.”

The Graharz frowned. “You make it sound so appealing,” he noted.

“No, it is horrible, and it will kill you, kill you very dead, very slow,” said the Ogre blandly. “But that is how you’ve chosen to serve King Sutekh. And I will not argue with your choice.”

“Ferrex,” came a hard voice, “what are the instructions about talking to the prisoners?”

The Ogre turned to regard an Erl, who have seemed quite tall, had he not been standing next to the Ogre. “I was telling them to be quiet, and they tried to bribe me.” Ferrex smiled. “So I told them what’s in store for them, Lord Amadan.”

Amadan chuckled. “Well, that sounds permissible.” He regarded the Milesians. “Attempted bribery, eh? That’s worth a lashing…”

“But that would likely kill them before they get to Mount Cthonique,” said Ferrex. “No real point.”

Amadan nodded. “Very true.” He regarded the pair. “You are fortunate to have such reasonable captors, and I hope you thank the Lady for that.”

“We will,” muttered the Graharz, as Amadan and Ferrex moved further down the line.

“I’m starting to envy the rest of the band for dying at Bitterleaves,” said Aethelstan quietly.

“Just starting?” said the Graharz quietly.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 1

“This is fascinating architecture,” noted Nisrioch, glancing at the arching ceiling of Old Montfort Palace.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” agreed Morgaine.

Nisrioch frowned at his sister. “You didn’t even look,” he chided.

Morgaine sighed. “It’s… walls, Nissy. Every time you talk about architecture, you’re talking about walls, and windows, and occasionally buttresses…” She paused to snicker to herself, and then gave a slight cough. “Anyway--they aren’t interesting. Not even the buttresses, once you get past the highly amusing name.” She shrugged. “I mean, sure… occasionally, you see some funny bit of naked sculpture, but mostly it’s just… walls…”

Nisrioch frowned slightly. “This is a ceiling,” he noted.

“Oh, a ceiling’s just a wall at a funny angle to keep the rain out!” snapped Morgaine.

“Can’t argue with that,” said Nisrioch after a brief consideration. “Or rather, I can, but I doubt it would be worth it…” He looked at his sibling rather desperately. “But… listen there’s something very interesting about this particular ceiling?”

Morgaine yawned. “Is it… secretly made of gold?”

“Oh, no,” said Nisrioch, with a laugh. “That would be very bad. Gold, you see, is quite heavy, and thus requires a lot of support…”

Morgaine rolled her eyes. “Well, I’m already bored, and you’re making more bored, so your promise of “very interesting” things are not coming true.” She glanced up. “Right. I don’t see any amusing naughty drawings… so… there aren’t amusing naughty drawings under the paint, are there?”

“There are not,” said Nisricoh. He gestured upwards. “However, if you’ll note the dome in the center of the ceiling, you’ll see it is identical to that used in many abbeys to Mother Night in the Lands of Night.”

“So they built this place the same way they built an abbey for the Darksome Lady,” muttered Morgaine. “Big deal.”

“It is a big deal,” declared Nisrioch, gesturing heavenwards. “Those abbeys were built by a handful of holy orders, who kept their house secrets… well… secret. And yet here this same style of building built on the other side of the river, at around the same time as many of the older abbeys.”

Morgaine blinked. “I think you’re getting to a point, but I can’t see it.”

Nisrioch gave a depressed sigh. “Oh, very well. If you insist on my spelling it all out. This building shows various signs of having been built originally as an Abbey to Mother Night. But it’s on the wrong side of the river.”

“Ahh.” Morgaine regarded him blankly for a moment. “If you throw in a ‘or is it?’, I will hurl something at you. With my mind!” She wagged a finger at him. “And you know I can do that.”

Nisrioch glanced at his feet, his disappointment obvious. “Well… you must admit it’s an interesting theory.”

“No, I don’t,” said Morgaine. “Not the least because it is a crazy theo…” The vague sound of singing reached the pair’s ears. “What is that?”

Nisrioch turned around. “It sounds like local folkways!” he announced, rushing off in the direction of the singing.

Morgaine rushed off after him. “Hey! Remember, my little legs don’t let me run as fast as you, beanstalk!” The pair’s path took them through the winding paths of Montfort, through the crazy winding streets, past the former (and now thoroughly vandalized) residence of the Eremites--most of whom were presently imprisoned in the city dungeon--into what had been pointed out to the pair as ‘Montfort Square’, which was less a square, and more of a strange off-kilter diamond. In the center of the square, young Prince Gandin sat on a pillar, with flowery chains wrapped around him.

“Creopan break the chains, Creopan break the chains, Creopan break the chains,” sang the assembled folk of Montfort. A few played along on simple instruments--flutes, and rattles and simple drums.

Morgaine glanced around, noting quietly to herself that for the first time since their arrival, neither she nor her brother were attracting notice from the crowd. Then again, it wasn’t exactly a mystery why…

“Oh, there you two are,” said a familiar voice. The Lady Belecane made her way through the crowd, smiling at the two Cthoniques. “I was wondering where you two had gone off to.” She gestured to the festivities. “It seemed bad manners to not let you two see this…”

Morgaine nodded. “Yes, well, we’re seeing it now…”

“I was showing Morgaine some interesting architecture in the palace,” explained Nisrioch.

“It went about as well as you could imagine,” muttered Morgaine. She glanced out at the crowd. “So… what is this?”

“It is the feast day of Saint Creopan the Chained,” answered Belecane. “Gandin is playing the Saint because he’s the oldest Graharz here. He’ll break his chains at the end of the song.” She smiled. “It’s all very lovely and symbolic.”

Nisrioch leaned down to his sister. “Remind you of anything?” he asked quietly.

“I’m sure it’s a coincidence,” she noted.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 66

Ostrorog bin Konstancy sat in the impromptu hall, sipping his tea. The boisterous conversation went on all around him, the sounds of cups clinking and jests being exchanged filling the air. He wondered what was in those cups they were clinking. He suspected it wasn’t tea.

Not for the most part, anyway.

Moments like this made Ostrorog feel acutely alone. He was a Kizak, a son of the White Wolf, but the years he’d spent in Castle Terribel had changed him as they had the other Kizak “Princes”. But in his case, the matter was perhaps more pronounced because his father was Konstancy bin Lev, a living legend, a near perfect embodiment of what it was to be a Kizak.

The tea felt cold on Ostrorog’s tongue. He supposed he should have drunk it quicker. He was considering asking for some more hot water when he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. “Ostrorog, my son,” came his father’s old voice. “I am tired. Please help me back to my tent.”

Ostrorog rose from his chair and turned towards his father. “Of course, Gali Khan,” he declared, with a bow. The pair left the feast together, and walked into the cold night together, in silence. Ostrorog found himself looking at his father’s craggy face, and wondering. What was he thinking, Konstancy bin Lev, the man who had fought perhaps a thousand battles, who had crossed swords with perhaps a hundred thousand foes?

A sudden breeze made him shiver. “A chilly night,” said Ostrorog.

“I’ve known chillier,” answered the Gali Khan. He wrapped his cloak around himself a tad tighter. “Still--I’m not as young as I once was. And I feel the cold… more.” He turned to look at his son. “The Marshal Mongrane is a fascinating young woman, no?”

Ostrorog nodded. “I suppose.”

His father gave a a deep booming laugh. “If I were a younger man…” And then Konstancy sighed. “But I’m not. Five times I’ve crossed the Murkenmere, son. Five times.”

“I know father,” said Ostrorog. “It’s a great accomplishment.”

Konstancy snorted. “It is piss and spittle. The boast of a man who has seen two foolish, pointless waste of lives, and the retreats they made necessary. I’d rather say I only had to cross it once.  And that after I had, things stayed as I settled them.” He laughed, and shook his silvery head. “Ahh, that would be a worthy boast!”

Ostrorog nodded. “So… what do you imagine will happen tomorrow, oh Gali Khan?”

“What usually happens when two forces meet in battle,” replied the old Kizak. “Death, and terror, and fields running red. That is battle.” He shrugged. “That is war.” He turned to Ostrorog and smiled. “But you know that, my son. You have seen it before, and you will not shame yourself here. You are a good and brave young man, and you will prove a good and brave Gali Khan.”

Ostrorog blinked. “Father… I…”

“Sometimes think you will never live up to me, and that the Horde will not accept you,” said Konstancy. “I know this. I felt it too, in my day. But it passed. As has my time, in truth.” He looked out over the tents. “It is a new age, my son. And the White Horde will need a new Gali Khan to lead them into it. A Gali Khan who understands more than war and raiding, and death.” He looked at his son, fondly. “Five times, I’ve crossed the Murkenmere. Five times.” He shook his head. “There will not be a sixth.”

As Ostrorog stood there, his father turned, and made his way quietly to his tent.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 65

Brother Law regarded the armiger before him with weary eyes, while cursing the fact that his mask was now damp enough to make his face physically uncomfortable. “A goose, you say?” he asked quietly.

“Five gooses!” declared Sir Archimbaud angrily.

“Geese,” corrected the Flagellant. The expression on Sir Archimbaud’s face was enough to make Law happy he was wearing his mask, rain or not. “The word is ‘geese’.”

“Listen, you piddling little lasher,” snapped the armiger, “I have used ‘gooses’ for my entire life, as did my father, and my father before him, so if I say that five gooses have been stoled, five gooses have been stoled!”

“St--” began Law, and then shut his eyes. “Understood, sir. I’ll get right on it.”

Archimbaud gave his pudgy face a nod, and backed way. “Good. We’ve got to maintain discipline, you know. Order. That’s what an army needs.” He nodded again, and then stomped away, leaving Law to wonder how the man rode a horse. And then, with feet sinking into the mud, the Flagellant walked back to the great tent of his Order.

Strict and Cord were there, as well as Brothers Knot, Fist, Rule, and Cardinal, all enjoying a meal. Law took off his mask, and dabbed his face dry with his sleeve. “If I never see an armiger after this damned siege, it will still be too short a time,” he muttered.

There was a cheery laugh from his fellows. “Which one was it this time?” asked Rule. “Sir Gilbert?”

“Archimbaud,” answered Law, as he took his seat. “Asking about geese.” He shook his head. “No--no. Asking about ‘gooses’.”

There was more laughter at this. “One thing I never expected to learn,” noted Knot, “is that there were nobles in the world worse educated than myself.” He shook his head. “What do these buffoons do with their time?”

“Ride horses to death,” said Strict with a chuckle. He turned to Law. “So what exactly was he asking about ‘gooses’.”

“Five of them went missing from the armigers’ supplies,” stated Law.

The good cheer dissipated. Law watched as every Flagellant seated there shared a momentary bit of hatred for those stupid armigers who stuffed their faces, and yelled at everyone and insisted that they were always right even when it was clear they weren’t. “We’ll have to look into it,” said Strict at last.

Cord nodded. “But carefully. Taking our time. Making very certain we have the right man.”

“Naturally,” said Strict, enjoying another spoonful of broth.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 64

Belengier slammed his mug onto the table. “And for our next toast--a great victory against that little shit Astolfo on the morrow.”

“Hear, hear!” declared Bramimonde, raising her glass. “May he perish, screaming and whining like a little baby!”

Elaine glanced at Blancardin. “They were betrothed once. Briefly.”

Very briefly,” said Bramimonde, with a shudder. “Astolfo Rabicano is not a man who improves much on further acquaintance.”

Belengier gave a harsh laugh. “Oh, I don’t know. Something tells my fist would very much like to get to know him better.”

“On a battlefield, I fear that may never happen,” noted Blancardin quietly. “So I fear your fist is going to be quite disappointed on this matter.”

“Besides, wasn’t there another incident, years ago?” noted Bramimonde.

“Supposedly, but I was exceedingly drunk at the time, and thus, can swear to nothing,” noted Belengier.

“If half the details I hear are true, I can understand wanting to stick by that story,” muttered Gurnemanz. “Especially the bits about the donkey.” He glanced at Elaine and coughed. “My apologies, miss, if I…”

Elaine chuckled quietly. “I’ve probably read worse,” she noted gently.

“That does not comfort me,” muttered Gurnemanz. “I try very hard to be a godly man.” He gave a shake of his head. “Even if I fail more often than I should.”

An uncomfortable silence spread over the table. “Where do you put working with us?” said Elaine. “If I may ask.”

The Duke of Montfort was silent for a long while. “I do not know, my lady,” he said at last. “All I know is that Amfortas and his troops, who I have regarded as friends and allies, have acted to burn the world. And that you and yours have not, as yet.” He shut his eyes. “Also, that looking on you, you seem at heart, people like any other. And so I will take this chance, and hope that I am doing my duty to my land, and to my Gods.”

“I’m a little more optimistic than you on this, Graharz,” said Belengier. “I see it like this--Amfortas asked us to turn on our kin when they tried to do their duty, and then used the most treacherous means he could come up with to hurt that kin.” The young nobleman shook his head. “Well--I don’t care for that. And I’m not going to do it.”

“Your father does not agree with you,” noted Gurnemanz. “Neither do your brothers. What say you to that?”

Belengier took a long swallow of his drink. “Well, I’ll just hope that they come to their senses before it gets to unpleasant. Because I will burn in hell before I serve Amfortas.”

There was silence for a moment, then Blancardin raised his glass. “Here, here,” he declared quietly. The other Peers nodded, and then raised their own, and clinked together in a toast.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 63

The wind blew outside the door, and the rain made a dull rat-a-tat-tat on the roof. Ludovico glanced outside, shivered, then turned to the fire, and warmed his hands. It was nights like this that made you happy to be a Palazzo, and thus certain of at least a roof over your head if you couldn’t find an inn willing to take you. Indeed, siege or no, this was a good time for the Palazzos. Fine food and drink from across the river, folk from across the land needing to be entertained--and the Nightfolk themselves, who were quite happy to pay for a bit of music. And even better didn’t know all the old songs by heart.

Ludovico shook his head. He’d never have imagined it, but he was starting to think this war had turned out to be precisely what Montalban needed.

Aside from all the death, of course. That bit was unpleasant.

A head peaked in from the doorway. “Hola!” shouted Rosa, as she slid into the room. “Hogging a good fire as usual, Ludovico?”

“Go on, make yourself at home,” stated Ludovico as Rosa plopped down in front of the fire opposite him.

“Much obliged,” she stated stretching cheerfully.

“Where’s Ippolita?” he asked casually.

“Ahh, she’s with her new love,” muttered Rosa. “Leaving me to pine by my lonesome self in the wind, and the cold, and the rain...”

“Yes, yes, you are sad and woebegone,” muttered Ludovico with an irritated shiver.

“Sad, and woebegone, and bearing many fine, fat pigeons,” she stated, pulling the birds out from beneath her cloak.

“And yet even in this state, it gladdens my heart to see you,” noted Ludovico. “Now--hand me a pigeon.” Rosa tossed him one, which he immediately took to plucking.

“We probably won’t be seeing many of these much longer,” said Rosa. “Winter’s on its way…”

Ludovico nodded. “Still, I’m making a pretty penny off the Nightfolk…”

“You aren’t the only one,” said Rosa, chuckling, as she got to work on her own pigeon.

“Well--that’ll pay for a lot of firewood and good food this winter,” he noted casually. “If the war doesn’t drive prices up too much.”

“Ippolita is thinking of crossing over the river, when this is done,” said Rosa quietly. “She suggested I could go with her.” She glanced at Ludovico. “What do you think?”

Ludovico paused for a moment. “I think it’s a changing world,” he said, at long last.

Rosa nodded to herself, and then went back to plucking her pigeon.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 62

Sir Jerome Chashamallim regarded the letter before him with the sort of numbness that comes when disbelief and shock have failed to insulate the mind from what it is now dealing with, but acceptance has not yet found a place to nestle. He went over the letter again. He’d long given up any hopes that he could change what the message said, or even find another… less offensive meaning to what it said, buried in its words, and was now merely making stray observances upon it.

Whoever wrote it had exquisite handwriting. And had used high quality ink. Sir Jerome was wondering if they’d had a professional scribe write it down, when a loud throat-clearing intruded on his thoughts. He glanced up to see Squire Yacob Erelim looking at him nervously from among the small crowd of his subordinates that had gathered there. “Sir,” stated Yacob, “what are their terms?”

“Unconditional surrender,” said Sir Jerome. “We will turn over our arms, they will take us into custody, and then we will go in durance to the Palace of Repentance.”

The initial response to this was rather what Jerome had imagined it would be--a great deal of rather nervous chatter, horrified look and at least one man breaking into tears. “So… what… what will you do?” said Squire Yacob.

“What else can he do?” stated Sir Anton, stepping forward boldly. “He will lead us into battle against these impious wretches! They will see what happens, when the Poor Knights of the Faith are threatened by the apostate! We go forth into battle, clad in the armor of the Seven!”

Sir Jerome had a horrible feeling that Sir Anton was going to bust into a hymn, and so stood up. “Actually… I believe… we will have to accept these terms.” Anton turned, clearly furious, but also rather flabbergasted, and Jerome decided to press his advantage. “We are outnumbered to the point of being undermanned, and undersupplied. If we attempt to resist, we could, perhaps, hold this little citadel for a week, at the outside, at which point, we would all be slaughtered by them. This at least gives us a chance to escape with our lives.”

There was a surprisingly large amount of quiet nodding at this, which Jerome took as a rather hopeful sign. Sir Anton scowled and shook his fist at him. “Coward!” he shouted. “Traitor!” He looked at his fellow Eremites. “Will you let this man lead you into error?” Most of them flinched at that. Anton turned to Jerome. “When I inform the Prince of your treachery, it will not go well for you, wretch.”

Jerome nodded. “Well, if you feel you must. I can provide you with a fast horse, to take you out of the city. I think I can even ensure that you make it out unharmed.” He glanced at the others. “Do any of you wish to accompany Sir Anton?” Three other Eremites stepped forward, glancing at the rest with thinly-veiled contempt. Jerome waved at a squire. “I’ll have them get your horses and supplies ready.”

Sir Anton snorted. “When we return with troops, I will do everything I can to make sure your body hangs from the chapterhouse gates.”

Sir Jerome folded the letter before him, as he picked up a quill. “Well, I admit freely and without a hint of hesitation, Sir Anton, that you are the braver man.” Sir Anton strode out of the room, followed by his fellow volunteers. And also, the stupider, thought Jerome, as he tried to find the most dignified way to tell the Count and the other rebels that he accepted their terms, and indeed, threw himself and his men on their mercy.