Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain, (Volume 1: Raise the Black Banner)--Part 15

“…scattered easily,” stated Gerard, finishing his report. He smiled at the assembled commanders. “So, on the whole, a minor and convenient victory for our cause.” To Gerard’s pleasure, several of his fellow armigers burst into applause.

The Archon regarded him stonily. “Minor,” Septimus stated with a nod. “Most definitely. But I have my doubts about the convenient.”

Sir Gilbert de Ruisseau snorted, his extraordinarily bulbous nose quivering as he did so. “Does the Archon wish to suggest that losing to a mob of farmers would not be inconvenient?”

The Archon’s eyes shut. “That is hardly what I said…” he muttered.

“Well, what did you say?” asked Sir Gautier de Fleur Rouge, eyes flashing merrily. “I find myself baffled.”

“I was merely questioning the advisability and necessity of young Sir de Breze’s actions,” said Septimus Seraphim quietly. “I have no doubt that having initiated such an attack, a victory in it is preferable to a defeat.”

There were a few snickers from the armigers at that, much to Gerard’s delight. While the Archon was of course due some respect as their commander, it was imperative that he realize as a commoner and a foreigner the armigers were naturally going to have to withhold their full respect until he earned it. Something Gerard was increasingly uncertain the Eremite was going to do.

“Sir,” he stated, offering something of an olive branch, “you asked me to scout. I did so. During my scouting I bolstered our supplies and denied future supplies to Lasliezes by attacking their partisans. I can understand how this may seem cruel to a man of the cloth such as yourself. But we are at war, and such cruelty is one of its weapons.” Gerard basked in the further nods of his fellow armigers.

“Well said, young de Breze,” commented Sir Gilbert. “Well said.” The older armiger leaned back and looked pensive. “I feel my young friend has made a valuable point. Attacks such as his will deprive the treacherous Montalbanese and their allies of sustenance even as they grant it to us. With such an advantage--why are we hesitating? Let us harry these small farmers, these petty rebels and by so doing, we shall harm the great ones! Let us wither this rebellion on the vine, before it sprouts to its full strength! Fellow armigers, are you with me?” His fellows let loose with a lusty cry.

Septimus Seraphim’s eyes shut again, his expression tired. “I see. There is… merit in such an argument, yes.” He took a deep breath. “Very well. Henceforth, such exercises shall be used to deny supplies to Montalban.” He turned to Gerard. “And Sir de Breze is to be complimented for his ingenuity and… daring.”

Gerard again bowed to the applause of his fellows, a feeling of great joy swelling in his heart. Things were going splendidly.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain, (Volume 1: Raise the Black Banner)--Part 14

Amante and Richardet were seated for breakfast when Mansemat entered. “Well, excellent news!” stated the Dark Lord.

“Yes,” said Richardet. “It’s banana bread day!”

Amante nodded in agreement. “We’ve been waiting for this since the LAST banana bread day!”

“We’re actually surprised you don’t serve it more often,” added Richardet.

Mansemat shut his eyes. “We… can’t always get enough bananas for it.” He coughed. “However, that is beside the point. I have good news for you in addition to it being banana bread day--House Cthonique is prepared to support Montalban.”

The twins stared at him for a moment. “Well, that is good news,” said Amante quietly.

“Yes,” said Richardet. “I… actually feel like a jerk for being so happy about banana bread day.” He shook his head. “My people are suffering, and I enjoy strange and exotic Nightland food. I am a disgrace to my house.”

Amante looked at her brother. “Well, then… can I get your banana bread?”

“No!” stated Richardet. “My remorse does not outweigh my desire for it.”

Mansemat coughed. “Yes… well… now that you are officially allied with House Cthonique, you may eat your breakfast in the main hall with the rest of us, where there is much banana bread. And… visit Marsilion’s Folly, if you desire! A city full of marvels and wonders! Like its famous trained seals!” The twins stared at him. Mansemat shifted awkwardly. “They do tricks. And let you feed them by hand.” The silence in the room stretched from the merely uncomfortable into the exceptionally awkward. “Well… that’s… one of the many things you could see in Marsilion’s Folly. It has other things. Which are also quite… keen.”

Amante coughed. “Well… we’ll keep that in mind. Now… about this assistance to Montalban…”

Mansemat seemed to recover his poise at that. “Ahh. Well, I have to admit you’re probably going to be somewhat disappointed. Cthonique interests cover a wide area of the Lands of Night--we can’t simply pull up everything and come to your aid at the drop of a hat. For now--we’re looking at a preliminary force of sixty thousand or so, with perhaps a smaller force coming to aid your brother as quickly as possible.”

Richardet nodded. “Sixty… thousand…”

“I know,” said Mansemat with a sigh. “I wish I could do more, but that’s how it stands.”

“Well,” said Amante quietly. “We are… thankful that you’ve done what you could…”

The Dark Lord bowed. “Don’t bother. It was… what had to be done.” He turned to leave. “Now--do come down to the main hall for breakfast.”

The twins watched him leave, and sat there in silence for a while. “So…” said Amante quietly. “The Dark Lord considers… more troops than the entire allied Free Cities can muster simultaneously… a preliminary force.” She nodded. “Well… that’s interesting.”

“Let’s be glad they’re on OUR side now,” said Richardet. “Now come on… if we wait too long, they’ll probably eat all the banana bread.”

Amante’s eyes spread in quiet anger. “Oh, no they WON’T!” she declared, darting from the room.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain, (Volume 1: Raise the Black Banner)--Part 13

Simon moved back into camp, the heavy bag of grain on his shoulders making his aching back scream in agony. Another one of the armiger’s… bright ideas, it meant that after having had to… do that business, he’d had to lug a great deal weight around for a long time. Him and many of his fellows. At least, he called them his fellows. Were they really? Were any of them anything but a horde of men moving mechanically forward at the bidding of the officers, following orders, mechanical tools that did what they were told and killed…

He was tired. He needed to sleep.

“…to the stores,” said a voice that seemed to come from far away. Simon turned to see the speaker--a Flagellant, who stood there, looking at the men with his terrible masked face. Something about his gaze seemed to attract the Flagellant’s interest… the Holy Brother stepped towards him. “Sir… are you all…” Simon gulped in horror and stepped back, only to find his legs were unsteady. As he toppled, he heard the grain he was carrying strike the ground, the bag opening, and he worried that they would punish him for spilling his bag…

Simon’s mind went somewhat fuzzy, at that point--he had a vague impression of being lifted up, and carried somewhere, but it was… well, vague. When his mind cleared--at least, mostly--he was lying in his tent. “What in the Black Bitch’s name did you people do?” came a voice. Cracking his eyes open, Simon saw the Flagellant from earlier, along with another, taller one, and… the old timer.

“Heh. What do you think?” said the old timer. “Young Breezy’s a bit ambitious. In that way some armigers get. He wanted to get blooded. And he did. In that way that didn’t get him personally blooded, mind you, but that’s a technicality.”

The Flagellants nodded. “Thought so,” muttered the taller one.

“Well, at least we got food from it,” said the other Flagellant.

“Food that we’re going to have take care of,” muttered the tall Flagellant. “Because apparently the Eremites and the armigers can’t be bothered to deal with supplies.”

“Ain’t that how it always goes?” muttered the old timer. “Duties roll down from the top, and land on those below.” He offered the pair his hand. “Well, thanks for the help.”

“Ehh, don’t mention it,” said the taller Flagellant as he shook it. “Brother Cord and I needed a break from all the trouble. To which we are now returning.” The old timer nodded, as the pair walked away. As soon as they were gone, he turned to Simon and looked him over. “You up?” he asked.

Simon nodded. “I… I’m sorry about the grain.”

“Don’t be sorry about the grain,” stated the old timer flatly. “We have plenty of grain. We have more than enough grain. We are probably going to be dumping grain out to rot in the road. Now--you don’t seem to be wounded. Did any of them get you…?”

“No,” he stated dully. “How could they? They… We…”

“Don’t think about it,” said the old timer. “Not if you don’t have to. You clear it out of your mind, and you don’t think about it. That’s what you do if you want to get through this. Understand?” Simon nodded. “Good. Now get some sleep. You need it.”

Simon waited for the old timer to leave before he shut his eyes. He tried to rest, but no matter how hard he tried to follow the man’s advice, images of blood, and flames, and broken bodies would flash before him, and refuse to go away.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain, (Volume 1: Raise the Black Banner)--Part 12

“I am done prevaricating,” declared Mansemat, as he strode down the hall.

“Are you sure about that?” asked Nisrioch, rushing to his side.

The Dark Lord of the Plains froze and turned to his brother. “That is what I just said!”

“You can’t blame me for wanting to be sure,” stated Nisrioch chirpily.

Mansemat glowered at him. “Yes, I can.” He slapped his hands together. “Assemble a battalion. House Cthonique marches to relieve the siege of the White Mountain!”

“Hey! Hey, guys!” Morgaine jogged up towards them. “Wait up!” She looked at her brothers resentfully as she approached. “You guys really should remember that not everyone has your freaky long legs.”

“Sorry about that, Morgaine,” said Nisrioch. “In my defense, I regularly forget all sorts of things about the limitations of other people.”

“I know. All is merrily forgiven.” She regarded her twin for a moment. “So you still set on starting the Great War now?”

“Amfortas is starting it,” snapped Mansemat. “I am simply taking up the gauntlet he has thrown. With every intent to slap his smug face with it.”

Morgaine blinked. “Damn. You are really feeling this, aren’t you? Haven’t seen you this determined in a while. Almost makes me wonder what…”

“Manny!” said Viviane, darting towards her husband. “Are you getting things ready? I really want to go kill a few bastards.”

Nisrioch and Morgaine glanced at each other. “Well,” said Morgaine, “that answers that.”

“Hmmm,” murmured Nisrioch with a slight nod. “And here I’d been ENJOYING your effect on Manny.”

“Ehh, I could do without the bad love poems,” said Morgaine.

Viviane took a deep breath. “Why is it you listen to these two, Manny? Because I’m really, really wondering right…”

“I just asked the same question,” noted Mansemat. “They provided a very illuminating answer.” He coughed. “That Viviane and I share a certain… moral clarity on this subject is hardly surprising. Our similar temperaments are part of what drew us to each other, after all.” He regarded his siblings icily. “Now, as the Cthonique of Castle Terribel, I have made my mind known on this matter. Do you consider my orders in this ignoble and improper?”

The pair looked at each other for a while. Morgaine at last let out a sigh. “I’ll go have Greedigutt gather some men,” she muttered, trudging off.

“I have a few… preparations to make myself,” said Nisrioch. He turned to leave, then stopped to regard Mansemat and Viviane for a moment. “When this is all over, I hope you both still feel certain in your… moral clarity.” Nisrioch’s eyes gleamed, their strange shifting hues brighter and stronger than usual. “I sincerely do.” And then he turned and went on his way.

Mansemat and Viviane stood there alone for a moment. “Well,” said Mansemat. “That went fairly well, all things considered.”

“What would not going well have looked like?” asked Viviane.

“Them deposing me,” answered Mansemat.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain, (Volume 1: Raise the Black Banner)--Part 11

Gerard de Breze stared at the little collection of huts in the distance. “So,” he declared, “an enemy outpost.”

“A farming village, sir,” said the old man seated next to him. Breze had quickly found traveling in the region to be… puzzling, and had nearly taken his scouting party in… well, a circle, before the old man came forward to offer his assistance. He’d been here before, under Pelleas, when Lord Shaddad invaded, he said, and Gerard had little reason to doubt that. Still, it vexed, seeing that… commoner seated on a horse beside him, as if they were equals somehow. “The region’s filled with them. The Free Cities need food, and they can’t import everything from Leonais.”

Gerard gave a brisk nod. “Ahh, vassals. I understand. So, this one swears loyalty to the Lasliazes, then?”

“They might,” said the old man. “Or they might swear loyalty to the Faith. Or the Lord Protector. Or to the commune as a whole. You see, sir, they aren’t all vassals. The cities need food. The villages supply it. Some times the cities rule over them direct--but some times they don’t. A lot of is, is it worth the Duke’s time to rule it direct?” He chuckled. “You’d be surprised how often the answer to that is no. And all the wrinkles those villagefolk can come up to make it that answer.”

“Answer me, old man, and answer me truthfully,” muttered Gerard, his frown deepening. “Are we, or are we not in Montalban territory?”

“More or less, sir,” answered the old man, with an infuriating calmness. “The city claims this territory. The other Free Cities generally agree. However, the Free Cities aren’t like Leonais. There tend to be odd little exceptions in how land gets doled out.”

“Who will these people side with in this war?” snapped Gerard.

“I don’t know,” answered the old man. “It’d depend on how they view Montalban, and that covers a lot of ground. Hell, they may not even know there’s a war going on. We’re a bit off the beaten path.”

Gerard peered ahead once more. “Well, farmers, you say? That means they’ll have food. And that means there’s an easy way to answer your question.” He turned his horse back towards his men. “We will go ask them for supplies.”

The old man swiftly rode to the armiger’s side. “That is an idea. What will you pay them with? I don’t recall the Archon handing out any funds…”

“Pay?” Gerard stared at the old man as if he were mad. “Why would I pay? We are a force in the service of their Lord Paramount in both temporal and secular matters, fighting against traitors and apostates. They owe us food.”

The old man’s face grew very pale at that. “Begging your pardon, sir, but I don’t think you understand these folk. Farming is their livelihood. A man who grabs what they grow without paying is their enemy, no matter what colors he flies, and what power they pledge loyalty to. If you do this…” He considered his words for a moment. “There will likely be bloodshed, as not.”

Gerard smiled. “Well if there is, then we found and defeated an enemy. In addition to getting food. So, really, where do we lose?” He narrowed his eyes on the old man. “Those are my orders. Do you care to contradict them?”

The old man sat there quietly, then shook his head. “No, sir. Not if that’s your final decision.”

“It is,” said Gerard confidently. As the old man nodded and rode away, the armiger felt a surge of satisfaction. He’d shown that uppity commoner his place, and made a strong, daring decision, the sort that a lowly fellow like that could never make. This is why the Kings of Leonais needed armigers, needed men bred and trained for battle, to take the chances that men with milk in their veins never would.

On the whole, this was shaping up to be an excellent little war.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain, (Volume 1: Raise the Black Banner)--Part 10

Archon Septimus Seraphim sniffled. It was proving a cold trip to Montalban in the mid-fall, and he seemed to be coming down with something. Not that he could let people realize that. He must show… no weakness. His men must believe him to be invulnerable, the chosen knight of the Seven, who stood firm against Mansemat Cthonique. He could not be seen to suffer from mortal weakness and mortal frailty.

He sneezed as he walked to the tent that stood at the outskirts of his army’s ramshackle command center, then looked around nervously. Thankfully, no one had seen. He continued on his way.

He had to confess--in his private, heart of hearts--he was less pleased with this command than might be imagined. The army he stood at the head of was several sizes too large and comprised of an unwieldy mix of Leonais levies, armiger cavalry, and his own Eremites, with the Flagellants there to keep people in line. He had never commanded an army of this size before. Back in the Concordant, the Eremites’ specialty were keeping cities secure, and swift punitive actions against revolting peasants and the like. Speedy response had been their specialty, and that took small forces of highly trained men used to working together. Now, he stood at the head of an oversized version of a traditional Leonais army, with the Eremites grafted into the Sacristans’ old position. Yes, all this gave him a bad feeling. But not as bad a feeling as the man in this tent.

“Archon,” croaked the Stylite, as he entered. “You are late.” The cloaked figure stood deep in the shadows, so far in the darkness, he seemed almost a part of it. They are a weapon against the forces of Night, Septimus reminded himself, and if they use Night’s power to become so--well, what choice do we have? The memory of Mansemat Cthonique slicing his way through his men returned unbidden to his mind. He had never had much love for the Knights of the Tower, but now--now he truly knew what those who followed the Holy Seven were facing.

“I came as quickly as I could, Nitre,” said Septimus to the Stylite, suppressing a sniffle. “Keeping this army running takes a great deal of effort on my part.”

Nitre made a strange little sound that was either a cough or a snort--the Archon wasn’t sure which. “You still must keep in contact with Joyeuse. They are eager to hear the progress you are making.”

“I have entered the outskirts of Montalban territory,” said Septimus tiredly. “I am moving towards the city. I am sending out scouts to make certain we can secure the routes. And that is all that I have to report.”

“…Which is why I have reported it for you, thus making certain that we are following their instructions on this matter” said Nitre. The Stylite folded his gloved hands before him. “Do not look on me as an enemy, Archon. I am your friend here. Prince Amfortas wishes for the Holy Orders to work together as the born allies they are in the suppression of this evil.”

Somehow, Septimus did not find a solitary word of that comforting. “A noble… goal.” He felt a sneeze building and worked to suppress it.

“Indeed,” said Nitre, with a single, almost horrifically precise nod. “They inform me that Amfortas shall soon be back in Joyeuse. It is good to know the Prince shall be directing the war effort himself shortly, is it not?” Septimus nodded several times, while looking hopefully towards the tent exit. “And there is more good news. A second army is being recruited, to go on to Montleon after us.”

The Archon blinked. “But--they’ll have to pass through the same territory we’ve just gone through. This is… this is…” And then he sneezed.

Nitre made a sound that might have been a tongue clicking. “Feeling poorly?” he asked.

“This tent must be dusty,” the Eremite replied with wounded dignity.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain, (Volume 1: Raise the Black Banner)--Part 9

Elaine sat there, scribbling notes, as Antea dusted the library’s shelves in near silence. Eventually, the young Erl coughed. “So… cousin Elaine,” asked Antea. “Will you be going to your ancestral homeland if Lord Mansemat decides to aid it?”

Elaine put down her pen. “Who actually talks like that?”

Antea’s blinked. “I… speak in this fashion. If I did not, I would not be speaking to you, would I not?”

“Yeah, I phrased that badly,” said Elaine, rubbing the bridge of her nose. “Look--the Lands of Light are not my ancestral homeland. That’s the Marsh. Home to the du Lacs since… forever. Home to fish fries. And… other ways of cooking fish. Like…” She bit her lip. “I think we roast them, sometimes.”

Antea nodded. “Ahh. Mother would occasionally enjoy poached sea fish, if the season permitted. She would frequently let me sample it, if she was certain that Grandfather didn’t have any spies around.”

“Belberith spies on Alcina?” said Elaine.

“Oh, yes,” said Antea. “And she spies on him. It’s a time-honored tradition in House Ashurana.” She shut her eyes. “I always enjoyed the fish, when I ate it. It was light and almost seemed to melt on the tongue. Did your fish do that?”

“Not… exactly,” said Elaine, whose most memorable fish-eating experience was discovering as a very young girl that the “black” in “blackened fish” was a great deal of spice that could leave you gasping if you ate it too quickly.

“Oh.” Antea gave a slight nod. “Well, was it enjoyable, the fish you ate?”

“Ye… How did we even get on to this subject?” asked Elaine. “I was sitting here, happily writing notes on how Olous the Lesser is actually the result of Ede of White Pine mistaking three other writers for Olous the Greater and everyone sort of repeating his mistake but not quite, and you started asking me about my ancestral homeland. And somehow fish got involved.”

“Well, I merely wished to know if you planned to see the place that half your lineage came from,” said Antea with a shrug. “I for example, am enjoying Castle Terribel immensely.” She looked around the library. “It is so less oppressive than Mount Qaf. Why, I am almost certain there is no one hidden in the walls.”

Elaine glanced around the room. “Yeah… my stepfamily are nice about things like that.” She coughed. “Anyway--I’ve been to the Lands of Light. To Joyeuse, actually, which is pretty much the actual ancestral homeland of my… other family.” She shook her head. “Not planning on making a return trip.  Not a fun place. At all.” She went back to her writing. “Anyway, doesn’t matter. I doubt Dad would take me to the Free Cities. If he’s going, which I wouldn’t bet on.”

“Oh, he will go,” said Antea. “The War begins. The first stroke must be struck. The first blood must be shed. The first dead sent to their graves.”

Elaine regarded her cousin, whose eyes she realized were… glowing in a rather unsettling way as she said that, then set her pen down. “You know what? Let’s go back to talking about fish again. It’s less creepy. Now--what sort of fish was it that your mother likes to eat?”

“I believe it is cod,” said Antea, after a moment’s thought.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain, (Volume 1: Raise the Black Banner)--Part 8

Mansemat idly poked the fire. “Well, really,” he said at length, “if we do march into the Free Cities, what could anyone do?”

Nisiroch blinked. “Manny, who should I begin with? Asterot? Belberith? The Mongranes?”

“Don’t forget the mother of your child, Nissy!” stated Morgaine suddenly, setting down the cup of cocoa before her.

Nisrioch sighed and nodded. “Albracca’s reaction is another thing to consider…”

“Well, let’s consider it,” said Mansemat, “What can they do to us? Immediately, I mean. The Cthonique holdings are one of the largest in the Lands of Night--and now we are officially tied and allied with the Marsh. That is a power bloc not even the Shadow Woods can equal.”

“By itself, no,” said Nisrioch. “But the Ebony Throne and Mount Qaf together…”

“Still wouldn’t be enough,” answered Mansemat, stepping towards his brother. “And that’s ignoring the fact that the Shadow Woods is barely staying together as things stand, and the Ashuranas have always had the problem of too few Devs ruling too much territory. They couldn’t afford to move against us. Not immediately.”

Nisrioch sighed. “Not immediately, no,” he agreed. “But eventually, and when they were ready we would be at war with Leonais.”

“And also chilly, because, winter!” added Morgaine. She shivered slightly. “Which reminds me, I’ve got to get my furs out of storage.”

Mansemat glanced at his sister. “You are acting unusually… odd today. Even by your standards.”

“Ehh, I have to pick up slack for this guy,” she stated, gesturing towards her elder brother. “Part of the agreement--when Nissy gets all serious, unless it’s absolutely necessary for both of us to be all gloomy, I lighten up things. And vice versa.”

“Uh… huh.” Mansemat turned to Nisrioch. “So you two actually went and made a genuine arrangement of this nature?”

“And put it in writing,” said Nisrioch.

“It made things easier,” piped in Morgaine. “We even put a clause about the proper distribution of scones at breakfast.” She glared at her brother. “Which he has flagrantly abused!”

Nisrioch turned to her, clearly offended. “Morgaine, I keep telling you, if you’re going to keep interpreting ‘half a scone’ as ‘most of a scone with a little chunk cut off to give to my brother’, I’m just going to get an extra one. It’s simpler for both of us.”

“Oh, sure, pretend you aren’t violating are sworn agreement!” declared Morgaine, waving her hand in apparent fury.

“Remind me why I go to you two for advice?” muttered Mansemat.

“We’re odd, but we’re clever,” replied Nisrioch.

“And we wouldn’t leave you alone if you didn’t,” added Morgaine. Nisrioch nodded in agreement.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain, (Volume 1: Raise the Black Banner)--Part 7

The Flagellants came to the men as they were eating their breakfast. It was a thin, flavorless gruel, and to Simon’s mind it wasn’t a meal you enjoyed so much as it was a meal you endured.

Still, it kept you from collapsing from exhaustion, so there was something to be said for it.

He was shoveling another spoonful in his mouth when the Flagellants entered the mess. He almost didn’t notice at first, but as everyone around him froze up, he realized what was happening. He turned to see the pair, standing at the entrance in their featureless masks, eyes hidden in the shadows. That was what really made the Flagellants unnerving, even more than their duties--you couldn’t see their faces. So you had no idea what they were thinking when they punished a man.

The tent was silent, as it frequently was when the Flagellants came. Every sat, and stared, and hoped that the Lashers didn’t call out your name and ask you to come with them.

“The Archon’s called for a scouting mission,” said the taller Flagellant. “Just wanted to give you boys a heads up, before Breezy starts issuing orders and wanting them done yesterday.”

The mess remained silent. The shorter Flagellant glanced around nervously. “How’s the gruel?” he asked. The mess remained silent. “You know, we got some cheese from Monteriano a little while back. I’ll see if I can…”

The taller Flagellant grabbed him by the shoulder. “Time to go, Brother Law.” The other seemed about to protest, then turned and followed his fellow out.

Jacques shook his head. “The Lashers make my skin crawl.”

Pierre focused on his bowl of gruel as if there were a gold coin at the bottom of it that he had to extract. “They are good righteous men who serve the Faith.”

“By whipping people,” muttered Jacques.

Simon considered adding something to that, but realized that it would be pointless. Instead, he merely chuckled to himself, and shook his head. Someone rose nearby him. Turning, he saw it was the old-timer. “Where are you going?”

“To get ready,” answered the old-timer. “When a Flagellant gives you a bit of advice like that, it’s best to act on it, and fast.” He glanced at Pierre. “I agree with your friend on them--more or less. It’s a hard, unpleasant service, but you’ll find most Brothers of the order are just men doing their jobs. I judge ‘em the same way I judge an armiger, or any other commander. You figure out which one’s are on your side--and you figure out which one’s aren’t.” He smiled and shrugged. “Now, Breze--he most definitely is NOT.”

Simon watched the old-timer walk out of the tent, and then went back to his meal.

Two hours later, when de Breze called for a muster, and he found himself scrambling to pack while the old-timer was already prepared, it occurred to him that this might have been a bad choice.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain, (Volume 1: Raise the Black Banner)--Part 6

“So that’s how it stands, Your Monumentness,” finished up Amante. “Prince Amfortas isn’t going to let defiance like our brother’s stand.”

“He’d rather it’d sit,” stated Richardet quietly.

Amante glared at him. “Well, sit down in HELL, maybe,” she muttered. She turned back to Mansemat. “He’ll kill them. If he can.”

“She’s right about that,” said Richardet. “Them, and a whole lot of other people. Quite a few people have noticed that Amfortas likes killing people.”

“He killed our father!” Amante shouted.

Richardet looked away. “He probably had it done.”

Amante glared at her brother, eyes wide with hatred. “It was him! We all know it! It doesn’t matter if he only ordered it--IT WAS HIM! He had those awful people he has working for him overtake him on the road to Montalban one night!” she sobbed. “And they tore him to pieces, and when we had his funeral, we had to keep the casket closed, and then he said it was the Nightfolk, and everyone knew it was him--they knew it!--but they all nodded, and pretended it wasn’t…”

Richardet winced. “I know. I know, Amante.”

“And now--he’s going to kill our brothers if he can,” she said softly. “Our brothers, and everyone in Montalban, and then he’ll go on to wipe out Monleone, and Duke Agrivain, and his lady…” She looked at the Dark Lord. “She’s one of you, you know. And he’ll kill her.”

Mansemat regarded the young woman. “Amfortas has killed many of my people. And he will doubtless go on to kill many more. He has done wrongs to my land, to my house, and to people close to me that you cannot begin to imagine. So do not think I need anymore reason to hate the Prince of Leonais, my lady.” He rose and walked to a small window in the chamber.

Richardet and Amante looked at each other worriedly. “I… I hope we did not offend you, Dark Lord,” said Richardet quietly.

Mansemat shook his head. “No. No. You did not.” He peered out the window. “Hmmm. You can see my garden from here.”

“Well… that’s good,” said Amante. “It’s just… I really… really hate Amfortas.”

“That’s understandable. I don’t like him very much either,” replied Mansemat. “In fact, I’ve vowed to kill him, when next we meet.” He glanced at her. “Have you ever seen my gardens?” Amante shook her head. “You really should. I think they’re one of the most relaxing places in the Castle. Very… good for the soul.” He turned back out the window. “I suggest you visit them after this. If you’d like.”

Amante nodded. “I… will, sir, if…”

Richardet frowned. “You know something you aren’t telling us.” Mansemat continued to peer out the window. “I… I’ve heard that the Folk of Night know magical arts that allow them to view events that occur from a great distance while they happen. Is there… any truth to that?”

“Some truth,” said Mansemat with a nod. “It is difficult to do it very long, and to see a great deal of detail… but some things… some things show up very clearly.” He took a deep breath. “A great army has departed from Joyeuse and makes it way to Montalban, even as we speak.”

“And what are you going to do?” asked Amante.

“By the Darksome Lady, I do not know,” said Mansemat.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain, (Volume 1: Raise the Black Banner)--Part 5

It occurred to Gerard, as he watched the troops under his command march forward, that he was a fortunate young man, to be given the chance that all armigers dreamed of. War was the great proving ground of men, and he was going to be proved in it. For some of his class, the chance had never come--but for him, it had. And what a chance--a grand battle for the Faith against apostates and the hordes of Night. Spurring his horse on, Gerard de Breze was convinced he’d be magnificent in it.

“That’s it! Move on lazybones!” he shouted at the troops, as he rode by. Footmen of the levy were, his father had carefully instructed him, very much like cattle, and had to be constantly prodded to be kept in motion. In some ways, Gerard was almost offended to have serve with them, but as they would almost certainly have to besiege those of the Free Cities that had rebelled, the levies were a sad necessity. Sieges needed men--many men--to shut off the fortresses they besieged, and to storm them once the walls were cracked. And that meant scraping the gutters for men who would march for a tiny cut of the King’s coin.

Gerard scowled and spat. If only Duke Renaud would take to the field and face the armies of Leonais like an honest man! That would be the sort of battle that an armiger could take a true pride in.

But still--this service would be enough. Battle against the apostate and the damned. There would be glory in it. True glory.

A pair of Eremites approached him on horseback, clad in their typical dusty brown robes. It almost seemed a sin that horses as fine as the ones they rode should bear men who looked so shabby--but that was the way of the Eremites. One gave a respectful nod to the armiger. “The Archon wishes to see you,” he stated.

Gerard nodded, and spurred his horse on ahead. That was another thing that almost struck him as a sin--the greatest military undertaking that Leonais had seen since Lord Shaddad’s invasion, and Prince Amfortas had placed the Eremites in charge of it, with armigers serving as their staff. Some of his fellows viewed it as an insult, and Gerard himself wasn’t so happy about it. Still, the Prince doubtless needed to keep the good favor of the Faith. The Free Cities weren’t the only source of treachery in the Lands of Light--there were dark whispers of cliques gathering against the Prince in the Concordat, in Tintagel and even in Leonais. Amfortas stood at the head of the greatest gathering of the forces of Light the world had seen since the Empire fell--keeping it together took skill and finesse.

Gerard understood that.

The Archon Septimus Seraphim was riding alone when the armiger found him, his expression quiet and thoughtful. Indeed, he didn’t even seem to notice Gerard for a time. “Sir,” stated the armiger, after a lengthy wait, “you called for me?”

Septimus turned to regard him, eyes peering at the young man like a hawk’s. “You are Sir de Breze?”

“I am, sir,” answered Gerard.

Septimus nodded to himself, several times. The pair rode on in silence. “We will be coming to the territory of Montalban soon,” said the Archon at length, “and leaving the territory of our allies.” Here came another lengthy pause. “It will be dangerous. These men are treacherous. Those who desert the ways of the Seven for the wickedness of Douma Dalkiel are capable of anything. And those creatures of Night…” And he paused again, his face growing quiet and grim. “I have seen the Dark Lord of the Plains, the Black Dragon. I have crossed swords with him. He is great. Great and terrible. He cut down my men like they were wheat.”

“But you survived, sir,” declared Gerard. “The Seven protected you, and under Their care, you faced the Black Dragon and lived.”

Septimus was silent for a long time after that. “Yes. Yes. I suppose I did.”

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain, (Volume 1: Raise the Black Banner)--Part 4

The Dark Lord entered the Chamber of Anguish and said “Hello.” Then he shifted about awkwardly, and glanced around the room, almost as if trying to avoid looking at the guests seated before him. “I do hope you’re enjoying yourselves.”

Richardet and Amante stared at the Dark Lord for a moment. In a very real sense, Mansemat Cthonique was what you thought of when you thought of a Dark Lord--a tall, dark-haired, eerily pale Erl clad in black. True, he was handsome in a way, but it was a way you could see the Nightfolk being handsome. And yet--you didn’t see that black clothing being… well, fairly casual stuff--a shift, and drawers. And you didn’t see the man wearing it acting like a rather shy and awkward host.

“We’re fine,” said Richardet. “We’ve been enjoying your hospitality.”

“And by that, he means, your cocoa,” said Amante.

Her twin frowned at her. “Untrue,” he stated. “I also meant the promptness and delightful manners with which the cocoa is served.”

“Well, good, good,” said Mansemat. “Very good. I am… sorry about the delay. We have been busy here…”

“We’ve been told,” said Amante.

“By Palamedes!” added Richardet.

“Oh, good, I knew Woodash was a likely lad for this sort of thing,” said the Dark Lord, smiling.

“So, Your… Dark Lordness,” began Amante.

“Your Magnificence,” said Richardet.

His sister turned to him. “What?”

“The correct form of address is ‘Your Magnificence’.” Richardet scratched his chin. “Or… just ‘Dark Lord’.”

Amante stared at her brother in disbelief. “How do you know this?”

“I asked,” said Richardet. Amante’s disbelief did not abate. “What? Did you assume the only thing I did this entire time was drink cocoa.”

“Yeah, pretty much,” replied Amante.

“You two are… around the same age, aren’t you?” stated Mansemat.

“We’re twins,” answered Richardet.

“I’m the older one,” said Amante quickly

“By an hour!” stated Richardet.

“Still counts!” declared Amante, slamming her hand down on her chair’s armrest.

Mansemat nodded. “Oh, this brings back memories.”

“You… have a twin?” asked Richardet.

“My sister. Morgaine,” answered Mansemat. He smiled. “She’s also the older one.”

“Oh.” Richardet coughed. “Well… I don’t suppose you can tell me if…”

“Yes, you’ll still be arguing over silly little things twenty years from now,” said Mansemat. “And yes, she will hold that measly hour over you for the rest of your life.”

Richardet nodded. “Yes, that’s about what I expected.”

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain (Volume 1: Raise the Black Banner)--Part 3

The two Flagellants walked beside the troops, their faces hidden by their masks.

“This is one of the worst jobs you get in the order,” muttered Brother Law.

“Worse than branding folks?” asked Brother Cord.

“I said ‘one of the worst’,” noted Brother Law. “Not THE worst. So don’t try catching me up on specifics.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Cord nodded to himself. “I hate it too.” He shuddered to himself. “The way they glare at you…”

“They glare back in Joyeuse too,” said Law.

“They aren’t all armed there,” muttered Cord. “Oh, sure, every now and then, you hear of a Brother getting knifed in a back alley, but that’s the exception.”

“It’s still the exception here.” Law looked over the line of men marching wearily down the road. “If it wasn’t, you’d see every damn force that had ever been assembled go rogue, with the men killing the officers. But you don’t. They take their pay, and they march to where they’re told to march, and they kill who they’re told to kill. Or get killed by them.”

“Well, it doesn’t feel that way,” said Cord. “It feels like they could kill you at any given moment.”

“I know,” said Law. “One of the reasons this is one of the worse duties a Flagellant can draw. The marching, and the cold, and the weather, and the feeling that one of these men is going to go at you with a sword.”

Cord’s eyes seem to grow grimmer. “At least the pay is good.” He coughed. “I can finally get Elizabeth that kitchen she wanted. She has the men looking over the place right now.”

“Well, that’s good,” said Law. “And how are the kids?”

“Growing like weeds,” said Cord. “No complaints on that score.”

“Well, that’s nice. I’m happy for you two,” said Law. “I’ve been meaning to come over the last few months, but in between all the extra duty and Melissa’s…”

“I know,” said Cord. “I know. Same with us, really. We keep meaning to stop by, but in between all this bustle and our household--never can find the time.” He turned towards Brother Law for a moment. “How… how is she…?”

“The same,” answered Law.

“Ahh.” Cord coughed. “Well… at least she hasn’t gotten worse.”

“True, true,” said Law. The pair marched on in silence for a while. “Who knows? With this damned war she might outli--”

“Don’t say that, Justin,” said Cord. “Just… don’t.”