Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Great Goat Herd of the Small Abbey of Secret Wisdom--Part 4

“Wow,” said Faileuba. “A scroll! With words on it!”

Gwydd stared at her. “Wait. Are you telling me in that dry sarcastic way you have at times that you can’t read?”

“I’m the daughter of a small town butcher, Palepole,” said Faileuba. “The local Sheriff was the one person for miles who owned books, and I remain half-convinced he couldn’t really read them. So, no, Gwydd, I can’t read.” She quirked an eyebrow at him. “Did you think we had you reading things out for us because we like the melodious sound of your voice? Here’s a hint--your voice ain’t melodious!”

Meliadus nodded. “Oh, yeah. Like a bull moose, drowning to death.”

“And you can’t read either?” asked the Goblin, turning to Meliadus.

“Oh, I can read,” he answered “The Dark Tongue. Not the common tongue the Milesians brought over during the Empire.” Meliadus gave a determined nod. “And the old Dark Tongue. Not any of the new-fangled variants that sprung up after the conquest.”

“But that’s a dead language, Holdfast,” said Gwydd.

“Well, why do you think the Disciples are so fond of it?” he answered. “First up, they’re some of the only people who can read it now, especially once you throw in the fact that they use code when they do write anything down. Second, since no one else uses it anymore, you keep your followers from picking up any distressing ideas. So, they can be happy, productive killing machines.”

“And that works?” asked the Goblin.

“Well, if you haven’t noticed, there isn’t exactly a dearth of ex-Cruel Disciples walking around, is there?” noted Meliadus.

Faileuba coughed. “I kinda thought that was because they killed them if they could,” she said.

“Oh, they do,” said Meliadus. “But they also try to keep them from coming about in the first place. With some success. And that makes wiping them out when they pop up much easier.”

“How is it you’re still here?” asked Faileuba.

“Long story,” said Meliadus. “I’ll tell you some day.”

“No, you won’t,” she sighed. Faileuba turned to Gwydd. “So… what’s the job?”

“The Marshal of Tremisona is hiring soldiers and men-at-arms,” he stated. “And, seeing as we did her a favor…”

“Wait, we did her a favor?” said Faileuba.

“Yes!” snapped Gwydd. “She’s that young girl! At the wedding! With the evil fiancĂ©! Remember?”

“Vaguely,” noted Meliadus.

“Well, anyway, she should like us, especially as she will have no idea of our latest run of jobs,” said Gwydd.

Meliadus and Faileuba thought it over. “That does sound likely,” said Meliadus.

“Yes, and an employer who does not know about our latest run of jobs would be a good thing,” said Faileuba. She thought of the last few jobs and shuddered. “A very good thing.”

“Okay,” said Meliadus. “Sounds like a plan. Now--how do we get to Tremisona?”

Gwydd fidgeted nervously. “That I… haven’t quite figured out.”

“Bit of a flaw in your plan, I’d say,” noted Faileuba.

“Should we recommence the shunning?” asked Meliadus eagerly.

“No,” said Faileuba. “Like I said that was annoying me more than it was him.”

“But is that really a reason to give up such an ancient and worthy custom?” asked Meliadus.

Faileuba stared at him. “You really want to shun someone, don’t you?”

“It’s a big hollow empty hole in me,” said Meliadus.

“You do know that most of the words mean the same thing, right?” asked Faileuba.

“I’m vaguely aware of it,” he answered.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Great Goat Herd of the Small Abbey of Secret Wisdom--Part 3

“I can’t believe you betrayed us like this, Gwydd!” declared Faileuba, slamming her fist down on to the small, rather shoddy looking table in the room. “They made us get a room! A room--that we’re paying for!”

“It is the cheapest room,” said Gwydd.

“Oh, and that makes everything okay!” Faileuba glared at him, then turned to Meliadus. “Holdfast! Demonstrate our displeasure.”

The tall Erl stepped forward and wagged his finger. “We’re angry. We’re very, very angry.”

Gwydd stared at them quietly. Meliadus and Faileuba glanced at each other. “I don’t think we’re getting through to him, Holdfast.” Meliadus nodded. “I think we should shun him.”

Meliadus thought it over. “I concur,” he declared at length. He took a deep breath. “Gwydd Palepole, by the ancient laws of chivalry, we, your partners, Meliadus Holdfast and Faileuba Pepperpot--now shun you!”

Gwydd nodded to himself. “Is this an actual chivalrous warrior thing, or one of the made-up things you guys cobble together out of imagination and misunderstood words?”

“We’re pretty sure it’s the first one,” said Meliadus.

“Hush!” said Faileuba. “Commence--the shunning!” She and Meliadus turned their back on Gwydd.

Gwydd coughed. “Right. Well, I have to admit, as punishments go… it’s bad. You giving me what I’ve wanted for the last…”

“Shun, shun, shun, shun, shun,” stated Faileuba and Meliadus.

“Ahh.” Gwydd nodded to himself. “Should have expected something like this.”

“Shun, shun, shun, shun, shun….”

“Still, your loss,” continued the Goblin. “What with my quite possibly having found us work.”

“Shun, shun, shun, shu--” The pair stopped and looked at each other.

“Should we lift the shunning?” asked Meliadus.

“Well, he might have just found us jobs,” noted Faileuba. “Plus, I don’t think we’re annoying him enough to make this worth it.” She frowned. “Actually, I think I’m getting a little hoarse…”

“But damn it, Fai, tradition!” Meliadus pounded his left hand with a fist. “The punishments of the society of chivalrous warriors should mean something!”

“I thought we just made this up,” said Faileuba.

“No, like I just told Palepole, this is a real chivalrous warrior thing,” stated Meliadus.

“Really?” Faileuba blinked. “And I thought you were just… humoring him. Huh.” She peered him at him closely. “And they really all shout ‘shun’ at people, over and over?”

“Something like that,” said Meliadus. “I really didn’t get all the details from old Brandiles when he explained it to me.”

“Why not?” asked Faileuba.

“ ‘Cause he started shunning me,” said Meliadus. The Erl scratched his chin. “There was shouting involved. I remember that quite clearly.”

Faileuba nodded. “Okay, well, how about this--we give him a… momentary reprieve, so that he can explain the new jobs, and let things develop from there?”

Meliadus thought it over. “Yeah, I think that’ll work.”

“Right.” Faileuba turned to Gwydd. “Okay, here’s the deal, we…”

“I’ve been in the room with you the entire time,” said the Goblin. “So, naturally, I heard everything.”

“Oh. Right.” Faileuba coughed awkwardly. “So… the job…”

Gwydd picked the scroll he’d acquired in the inn’s common room out of his sleeve and unfurled it dramatically. “Behold!” he declared ringingly. “Our new job!”

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Great Goat Herd of the Small Abbey of Secret Wisdom--Part 2

“So,” began Gwydd, setting the bowl before his partners, “I’ve put some thought into how one bowl of soup can be divided three ways…”

“Mine!” snapped Faileuba, plunging her spoon into the watery mixture.

“Mine!” snapped Meliadus in reply. The Goblin watched the pair devour the soup, and then with a sigh, began to dip his own spoon in.

A few minutes later, the spoons were hitting the bottom of an empty bowl. “Hmmph.” Faileuba crossed her arms and pouted. “The innkeepers ‘round here are tight bastards, aren’t they?”

Meliadus nodded. “I think that was… water with an onion in it. Which barely qualifies as soup.”

“But enough to charge us for it,” added Faileuba.

“Yep.” Holdfast slapped his hands together. “We salute you, masters of the bare minimum.”

Gwydd held his head in hands. “When I left my home, I thought I knew what hardship could do to you. But look me. I’m becoming more animal than man!”

“Well, good,” said Meliadus. “We can put you in a cart, and start exhibiting you in fairs. That ought to pay for some meals.”

“We could call him ‘manimal’!” suggested Faileuba.

Meliadus shook his head. “Nah, that just sounds cheesy.”

“I am glad my continuing degradation amuses you,” said Gwydd.

“We’ve been degraded a lot longer than you have, Palepole,” noted Faileuba. “It hasn’t killed us yet.”

“Though not for lack of trying,” added Meliadus.

“Oh, that’s a given.” Faileuba regarded the remnants of their meal. “You know, if we licked the bottom of the bowl, we might get a little more soup.”

“I’m game if you are,” said Meliadus.

The pair picked up the bowl and set it neatly between them. Gwydd stared for a moment, then stood up. “I’m leaving you two to your latest… enthusiasm,” he stated.

“Hey, fine,” said Faileuba. “Just means more for us.”

Gwydd walked away, and did his best to ignore the sounds coming from his table. It had been a pretty bad few months, even by their admittedly lackluster standards, months that had wiped out all the funds they’d made from a period of good…ish jobs. What they needed was an opportunity, something he didn’t think they’d…

There was an opportunity posted on the wall of the inn. Gwydd pulled it off, and turned to inform Holdfast and Palepole.

He immediately wished he hadn’t.

“You know,” said a waitress, “we usually force people to get a room if they engage in that here.”

“Trust me,” sighed Gwydd, “they’re just eating.”

The woman smiled. “Well, I guess that’s true in a way…”

“No, you have to trust me on this,” said the Goblin. “I have watched these two drink beer from each other’s mouths to make it last longer.”

The woman stared at him for a moment, then looked back at the pair. “Yeah, they’re going to have to get a room.”

Gwydd sighed. “That’s… probably a fair call.”

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Great Goat Herd of the Small Abbey of Secret Wisdom--Part 1

The landslide traveled down the hillside, uprooting trees and knocking down the occasional ramshackle hut as it slid on its way. A solitary cart was desperately trying to outrace the landslide, and failing. As the mud gradually surrounded and then completely engulfed the cart, a figure leapt from the cart, holding someone in its arms. A second figure followed fast behind. The two figures nimbly skipped down the mountain, occasionally tossing the third between them.

Eventually, they reached the bottom of the hill, just as the landslide started to subside. The three began rushing towards another hill, scurrying up it as quickly as possible. When they reached the top, the one who had been tossed back and forth looked back at the devastation, and took a deep breath. “So,” stated Gwydd Palepole quietly, “let’s never do that again, okay?”

Faileuba Pepperpot threw her arms up in the air and waved them fervently. “Wooo! Awesome!” She turned to Meliadus Holdfast. “Did you see me? I was all ‘not dying today, landslide!’ Jumping and leaping and not dying!”

“Sure did!” declared Meliadus brightly. “While I was being equally ‘not dying’!”

“Yeah! You were awesome at that!” said Faileuba. “Almost as awesome as I was!”

Meliadus stuck his hands forward. “Slap my hands in celebration of our mutual coolness!” he said.

“On it!” Faileuba brought her hands down on Meliadus’, then offered her own hands for a slap in return. Once that was done, the pair enjoyed a hip bump.

Gwydd coughed. “So… if you two are done… immortalizing the moment…”

“Not quite!” said Meliadus. He placed his hands on Faileuba’s shoulders, who responded in kind. The pair then knocked their heads together, while screaming loudly. “WOOOOO!”

“Is that it?” asked Gwydd.

“Unless you want to butt heads,” replied Meliadus.

“It is awesome!” said Faileuba. She turned to Meliadus. “Hey, Holdfast, let’s see if we can find a place that serves drinks! I need one to kill the pain from the head butt! You?”

“Oh, yeah,” said Meliadus. “Isn’t that the whole reason for the head butt?”

“That and the blood rush,” said Faileuba. “At least, as I always understood it.”

Gwydd stared at them. “So, you want drinks to celebrate your surviving the dismal failure of our present job that you caused. The job which we took because of the grim failure of the job preceding it. Which you also caused.”

Meliadus scratched his head. “Heh. When you put it like that, it does sound bad.”

Gwydd took a deep breath. “And how… would you put it?” He bit his lip. “Just… so that I have… a comparison. For… my mental books, so to speak.”

“The thrilling, nonstop hurly-burly that is our lives, Palepole!” announced Faileuba. “The lives of chivalrous warriors, lived on the edge, defying the odds, doing the impossible, fighting the good fight, and sometime, sometimes, killing mountains.”

Gwydd stared at her. “First, that was a hill, not a mountain. Second, you didn’t kill it. You just… maimed it.”

“Oh, look who’s getting hung up on petty details,” said Faileuba.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain, (Volume 1: Raise the Black Banner)--Part 24

The edges of Nitre’s tent were fluttering as if blown by a strong wind, even though the Archon knew it was a calm day.

But then, he also knew it was day, and yet the Stylite’s tent was dark as night. That robed figure, face hidden beneath the elaborate mask, stood before a little table, playing some strange card game that the Eremite couldn’t fathom. This annoyed Septimus Seraphim, for he’d come at the Knight of the Tower’s insistence, called by…

It occurred to Septimus that he’d been about to think ‘a messenger’, and yet he knew that had to be wrong--Nitre kept no servants. He rode no horse. Indeed, he never seemed to be among those traveling in the army by day, only appearing when the tents were set up, in his little strange tent set up on the edge of camp…

“So the Dark Lords of Plains and Marsh are here…” said Nitre suddenly, flipping a card over--one showing a young girl prying open the jaws of a lion--eyeing it with a satisfied gaze, and then flopping it on down over another card that showed a man about to walk over the edge of a cliff.

“Indeed, Nitre,” said Septimus, his voice rough. His cold seemed almost gone now, but in its place he now had a sore throat that made speaking for any length of time rather painful.

The Stylite made a sudden convulsion, that looked to the Archon’s eyes like a thing that wasn’t a human trying to impersonate a human shuddering. “Hmmmph. Irritating.” He clicked his tongue--or at least tried to--and flipped over another card. This one he liked less, and after a moment’s consideration, deposited in a pile of discards. “They will have… to be dealt with.”

“I thought that was your job!” spat out Septimus.

The manner in which Nitre’s eyes turned on him made the Archon regret that. “Many brothers of my order were on hand to deal with these Dark Lords of yours, when they assaulted Joyeuse… full brothers, with many acolytes behind them. And there it was not enough to prevent their escape. Now, you expect lonesome myself to face off against them?” And then he made that awful coughing sound, that sound Septimus had finally realized was laughter. “No. No. I will aid in subtle ways, but I will not exert myself overmuch. That would be folly. Dangerous folly.”

Septimus nodded. “I see.” He coughed slightly.

Nitre flipped another card. It showed the dead, rising from their graves. He placed it on top of card showing a knight with a coin on his shield, and gave a satisfied nod. “I am glad that we have reached this understanding. The Prince is back in Joyeuse. And other good news! The Easter King has agreed to peace, if he is allowed to keep Precieuse. So Amfortas now has a clear way before him to deal with the Great War, and all the insidious enemies that have gathered against him.”

Septimus Seraphim recalled vaguely that Ilarion Skarvsky had supposedly been the reason that the Prince had let his order into Leonais proper. But then, there hadn’t been Dark Lords involved then. They changed everything, Nightfolk did. Septimus remembered Mansemat Cthonique cutting through his men and winced. “Nitre… As you say these people are… terrible in their unnatural power…” He bit his lip. “I… I do not know…”

“Leave the worrying to my order, Eremite,” said Nitre. “Your concern is taking the city.” He flipped another card then gave a grunt of frustration. “A loss.” With a sort of unpleasant gasp that was apparently a sigh, he pulled a small sack onto the table, and opened it. As the Archon watched, the cards drew together into a pile, shuffled themselves until they were neat, then tucked themselves into the sack. As Nitre went to put the bag away, he glanced at the gaping Septimus. “You are still here?”

Septimus scurried from the tent.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain, (Volume 1: Raise the Black Banner)--Part 23

“Well, that seems very well-prepared,” said Mansemat Cthonique, with a firm nod. “Seventeen-hundred-twenty-three bolts. Very nice”

“We labored long, making sure that we had an accurate count, Dark Lord,” stated Allard, casting a resentful glance at Rainald.

Mansemat coughed. “Please--let us… dispense with formalities, if that is… all right with you.” He smiled nervously. Rainald regarded this… man of the Nightfolk with his pale white skin, and his dark black armor, and great black cloak, and he was puzzled. What is it about Lord Cthonique that makes him both everything I expected from a Dark Lord, and… nothing that I expected? “Just call me by my name, and I shall call you by yours.” He clenched his fist and gave it an invigorating wave. “We are allies. Fighting side by side against a common foe.”

“Who the last time there was a war was our ally against you,” stated Guiscard.

Mansemat shifted slightly at that. “Well… funny old world. Funny old world.” He thought it over. “Also--the last war for you. There were a whole bunch of wars for us after it, on the other side of the river. Fought against people who are also now our allies.” He spread his arms. “Which again demonstrates--funny old world.” The three brothers glanced at each other. “Let’s go to the battlements. I’d… like to get a look at the defenses.”

It wasn’t a long walk back to the ramparts, but it felt like one, as the crowds stared at the Dark Lord, and the brothers Lasliez. Rainald saw the nervous eyes, and he knew what was in them, or thought he did--not fear exactly, but a certain… wariness, a thing in you that asked ‘What now?’. They’d called to the Dark Lord of the Plains of Dread for aid. And he’d come. And even though, there were not signs yet they’d made a bad bargain, they had to wonder--what if all the stories were true? Or half of them?

Or even a quarter of them?

Mansemat slapped his hands on the walls when he reached them, and smiled. “Sturdy work this. And unless I miss my guess, there’s Old Magic in these stones. Powerful Old Magic.” He looked at Rainald with those strange brilliant green eyes of his, the ones that reminded you that a Nightfolk wasn’t the same as you. “These are charms that have stood for ages, strengthened by the love, the honor and the duty of those they protect. “ He let go of the wall, and turned back to regard the city. “It is a lovely place, your White Mountain. And I’m privileged to help you defend it.” He gave a rueful smile. “I am also sorry if this siege got in the way of your celebration.”

Rainald was certain that his brothers were looking at each other again, but determined that the Dark Lord’s eloquence would get a worthy answer. “We are honored to have you here, Mansemat Cthonique, whatever the past between our two houses has been. As you say--this a lovely place, and my family has kept it safe with love, honor, and duty for generations. Now it is threatened, and we found ourselves turning to you for aid. I have no doubt you have reasons you could have cited to refuse. But you did not. We called and you came. For that reason--we are honored.”

There was fluttering in the air, and then the Badb was hovering above them. She landed by her husband. “Trouble, Manny,” she said, quietly.

“What…?” he began, only for her to gesture out to the Leonais encampment with her pestle. He turned to look, hand on his sword, then recoiled with a hiss.

“What is it?” asked Guiscard.

“I told you that there was Old Magic in these walls of yours,” said Mansemat, as he rubbed his forehead. “Well, there’s a different sort of magic out there. There are paths that those who use it are not to walk down. Evil ways.” He shuddered and shook his head. “We… believe that there are among you a group of men who have trod very far on those paths. Perhaps because they did not realize what they were doing in the beginning. Perhaps because they did not care.”

He is talking of the Stylites, Rainald realized. Seven help us, the bloody Dark Lords are scared of the Stylites! What have the Knights of the Tower been doing all these years?

“That’s… that’s dangerous, I guess,” muttered Allard.

“All magic is dangerous,” said Mansemat. “All magic can be used for ill. All magic can harm. But the evil ways are inevitably so. They are evil in use, evil in intent, and they twist the user as he twists them to do his bidding.” He sighed. “And yet there are always fools convinced that they’re the exception. On our side of the river as well.” He turned back to the Leonais, though seemed warier--more guarded, as he gazed. “There is one of the men I mentioned out there. He’s not trying to hide his presence. Don’t know if he could… That amount of corruption… It’s like a stench of rotting meat…”

Rainald felt a hand on his shoulder, and turned to see the Badb smiling at him. “Don’t get too worried. Evil magic isn’t stronger… just viler.” She frowned slightly. “We… just weren’t expecting one of them to be here.”

Rainald looked out at the field and wondered what lay ahead.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain, (Volume 1: Raise the Black Banner)--Part 22

The great white walls of Montalban came into view that morning. Gerard had heard that the stone had been quarried from the mountain from the city had gotten its name--but he’d also heard that the city had originally had another name, and had become known as the White Mountain because of the those walls.

In the end, he felt it didn’t matter. He would be smashing through those walls soon enough. He stroked the neck of his horse, as he imagined taking it up the tower, and then riding it through the city’s streets, raining out death and judgment. It would be grand. But for now, he would have to wait, as they went through the long, dull monotony of a siege.

Perhaps they’ll break before we even have to do that, he thought. After all, how well have the Free Cities ever done, without the Leonais to back them up?

“Feeling excited?” said Gilbert de Ruisseau, smiling on his younger fellow.

“Of course n…” began Gerard, then sighed. “Yes.”

“No shame in that,” said the older armiger. “I’m still feeling the blood rise and I’ve been a lot more wars then you, lad.” He shook his head. “For this one especially. Not just a simple battle against a bunch of bandits, or a territorial dispute with the Easterners. This is the real one. The Great War, come again. Light against Darkness.”

Gerard nodded, and considered what to say when a noise intruded, at first rather faintly. But then it grew very loud, and Gerard had to cover his ears to keep it out. It sounded like the flapping of great wings, with an additional sound, that of peals of thunder. “Up above!” shouted Gilbert. Gerard looked up and saw it--a group of evil-looking winged beasts, with riders on them and another, even stranger sight--a woman, flying a mortar though the air, her reddish-gold hair streaming wildly behind her.

“The Dark Lords!” shouted Gerard. “The Dark Lords have come.” As he watched, the group flew ahead, and landed on the walls of Montalban. One of the winged beasts gave out a loud cry, and then they vanished from sight, retreating into the city.

Gerard stared after them, still trying to process what he’d just said. Gilbert laughed. “See! Like I said, the Great War! The Great War at last!”

Gerard nodded.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain, (Volume 1: Raise the Black Banner)--Part 21

The men trudged wearily ahead as they rejoined the main army. Jacques’ legs ached, his back were sore, and he once again asked himself what the damned point of it was. He had been with the armigers had they put a dozen or so little villages to the torch, all so the armigers could waltz off with a few more sacks of grain, and the occasional bit of seed. About the only thing that differed is that every time they did it, the village they attacked was better prepared. This time, the men hadn’t all stood around and looked at them as they approached--no, they’d scurried back, taken shelter here and there, and then turned their tools into weapons. A few of their own men had died, burning this one--Sir Gerard had nearly lost his horse when a woman with a pitchfork had charged right at him.

Jacques frowned, and glared at the armiger, already riding up ahead and talking to Sir Gilbert. Somehow Jacques suspected that woman had become a stout young lad in Breze’s telling. Jacques said a quiet prayer to the Seven for her soul, and then wished with all his heart that she had succeeded.

A man in their little collection of soldiers suddenly pitched to the side and fell to the ground. Jacques almost ignored it--it wasn’t the first time something like this had happened--when Pierre broke formation and began to shake the man. “Simon!” shouted Pierre. “Simon!” He turned to look at Jacques. “It’s--it’s Simon.” He bit his lip. “He’s--he’s not moving.”

Jacques almost couldn’t believe it--he joined Pierre and looked at the fallen body of his comrade. It didn‘t take very long for Jacques to confirm what he suspected. “He’s dead, Pierre.”

“But… but nothing happened to him,” said Pierre. “He was moving along just fine, and then… then he stopped, and…”

“Look at that,” said Jacques, gesturing to the big bloodstain that lay over Simon’s gut. “That’s what happened to him. That’s what killed him.” He looked away. “He probably took back there.”

“But he was moving!” muttered Pierre. “How can a man move with a wound like that?”

“It can happen,” came a familiar voice. The pair turned to see the old timer, standing there. He looked at Simon’s corpse. “They call it lots of things. The breaking--the soul sickness--the Black Bitch’s kiss. A man goes to battle--and something in him that you can’t see dies… or stops working. “ The old man shook his head. “Some of ‘em stop right there. Just lie down, and give up the fight. Others… others seem all right at first--just a little tired, maybe--but then, they start to… fade inside. They stop paying attention to things. Stop caring.” He gave a tired, sad little shrug. “Sometimes--sometimes, they go to sleep one night and they don’t wake up the next morning. Sometimes, they start drinking, until only the drink is left. Other times--other times, this happens. They get in a fight. Take a wound--a serious one. Only they don’t notice, and if they do, they don’t care. And they just go on, dying, and not letting on that they are.”

Jacques nodded to himself. That sounded like Simon all right. His old friend had been getting… very odd over the last few days, acting as if what happened to him--didn’t. Looking at his body, Jacques realized how sad, and tired, and small Simon seemed. “We should bury him,” he said.

“We should,” agreed the old timer, rejoining the others, “but we won’t.” He began to whistle that strange little song of his.

Jacques held back a tear, and followed him back. Behind him, Pierre began to recite a prayer for the dead. Jacques joined him, and wondered how many more he’d have to say.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain, (Volume 1: Raise the Black Banner)--Part 20

“How many bolts?” asked Rainald.

“Roughly seventeen-hundred,” said Guiscard.

Rainald frowned and turned to his younger brother. “Roughly? How many is that? A bit more than seventeen-hundred, or a bit less?”

Guiscard rolled his eyes. “Does it matter, Rainald?” They’d been going over their weapons’ inventory for some time now, and Rainald had been getting increasingly shrill.

“Well, if turns out we need seventeen-hundred bolts, and it’s a bit less, than yes, yes, it will matter,” said the Duke.

Allard scratched his chin. “Don’t they have a great deal more than seventeen-hundred men? Making the entire matter… rather moot?”

“Well, to be fair, in a siege it’s not like we’re supposed to kill them all with the bolts,” said Guiscard. “You hit a few important men, a few stragglers, hit them hard if they try to storm us--that sort of thing. And then you let the rotting bodies finish them off.”

Allard blinked. “That is disgusting. In a way I wasn’t expecting war to be disgusting.”

Rainald gave a dark smile at that. “You best get used to it, Allard. Father always told me in a siege, nine times out of ten, the losers wind up shitting themselves to death.”

“Please stop you two,” said Allard, burying his face in his hands.

Suddenly, a swirling vortex of mists appeared in the middle of the room, the sound of booming laughter emanating from them. “SALUTATIONS, MILESIANS! I COME BEARING A MESSAGE!”

The three brothers stared at it in surprise. “Who… who are you?” asked Guiscard.

“A WORTHY QUESTION!” said the mists. “I HAVE MANY NAMES! I AM CALLED THE SON OF FEAR! THE MASTER OF THE THREE TIMES! DARK LORD OF THE HOWLING AND/OR SCREAMING WASTES!” The mists shifted slightly at that. “THAT ONE IS A MATTER OF ONE’S PREFERRED TRANSLATION! PERSONALLY, I PREFER 'SCREAMING', BUT THERE ARE THOSE THAT PREFER 'HOWLING'!”

Allard glanced at Rainald, who merely shrugged. This was going… oddly, it had to be admitted. Which considering how it started, was saying something.

“I AM NISRIOCH CTHONIQUE! SON OF SHADDAD AND ZAMIAL! BROTHER OF MANSEMAT AND MORGAINE! FATHER OF ANTHEA! SEE PRECIOUS? FATHER LOVES YOU VERY MUCH AND IS SO VERY PROUD OF YOU!” The mists made a noise that sounded very much like a cough magnified to an enormous extent. “PARDON ME. ANTHEA’S HELPING WITH THE PANAUDIOTHON AT THE MOMENT. AND DOING A MAGNIFICENT JOB AT IT! NOW THEN, LORDS OF THE WHITE MOUNTAIN--THE CTHONIQUE OF CASTLE TERRIBEL HAS HEARD YOUR PLEA AND COMES TO YOUR AID! LOOK TO THE SKIES, SONS OF LASLIEZ! SALVATION SHALL COME--FROM THE SKIES!”

After a long silence, Allard spoke. “So… the Cthoniques are coming after all. That’s… good. Right?”

Rainald and Guiscard simply looked at him.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain, (Volume 1: Raise the Black Banner)--Part 19

Simon chewed his food slowly and mechanically. It seemed coarser on his tongue, and he idly wondered if it was being soaked in as much water. But not for long. In the end food was food, wasn’t it, and things like flavor and texture were pointless to worry about. All one could do is go along and eat it, and wait for the next meal.

“…me?” came a voice. Simon realized someone was waving a hand in front of his face, and that the person doing this was the one talking. To him, actually. He turned and saw that his questioner was Jacques who seemed to stare at him strangely, for some incomprehensible reason.

“Jacques,” said Simon.

Jacques bit his lip. “Are you… all right Simon? I’ve been talking to you for the last few minutes, but you didn’t seem to be…”

“I’m fine,” answered Simon. He finished his food. “There’s another scouting mission, right?”

Jacques nodded. Simon rose from his seat. He’d known there was another mission while he was eating, of course. There was always another mission. Sometimes it seemed as if his whole life had been this long march punctuated by attacking these little villages, and everything before then was only a vague, dimly remembered dream. The missions were all alike, when you got down to it--the armigers in charge, and the faces of the villagers seemed to change, a little, but even that wasn’t something he was sure about, was a strange and vague dream, like the time before he was marching.

“…all right?” Simon turned. It was Jacques again, for some reason. People seemed to have been stopping him a lot, over the last few… recently. He wasn’t sure why. But he knew how to make them go away.

“I’m fine,” said Simon.

“You don’t look fine,” said Pierre, who Simon realized was standing behind him. He stepped forward, and placed a hand on Simon’s shoulder. “You know… when I’m lost or in doubt, I like to offer a prayer to Aniel, to let her lantern pierce the darkness of my soul, and to Uriel, so that he may be the glorious dawn that ends the night that surrounds me.” Simon stared at him. Pierre seemed lost for words initially. But only initially. “Would… would you like to pray with me?”

“I’m fine,” said Simon, walking away.

“It would only take a minute,” shouted Pierre to him.

“I’m fine,” said Simon.

“Glorious Uriel,” recited Pierre, in a loud voice. “Oh, Uriel, Brightly Shining Sun. Be the light to me, in this moment. Remind me that darkness ends, and evil ceases. Be the dawn to my night! The light to my darkness! Let your radiance surround me--let your heat warm me--let your glory lift up me who is in disgrace! For I am one who loves the light…”

Pierre’s voice faded into the distance as Jacques walked on to get his things. There’d be a mission. And then another. And then another. And then another. And then another. And then another. And then another. And then another.

Always, always, always another.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain, (Volume 1: Raise the Black Banner)--Part 18

“…wind up freezing to death miles from home, bitten by snakes, and about to be devoured by bears,” finished up Palamedes. He glanced up at Sacripant. “But I mean other than that--no worries.”

Sacripant stared at his friend. “I just asked what you thought about heading across the river,” he said softly.

“Yes, and I told you,” said Palamedes with an exasperated shake of his head.

Sacripant nodded. “Well, I suppose you did. So… you’ll be staying here, then?”

“And disobey an order?” said Palamedes. “No, I’m a Cthonique Guard. I shall bravely follow my orders to my snake-bitten, torn apart by wild beast ends.” He paused. “With a smile. A SMILE!”

Sacripant watched as the chubby Guardsman forced an unnatural rictus onto his face. “Well, that’s… a spirit for it, I guess.”

“Yeah, and hey, you’ll be with me,” noted Palamedes. “So it won’t be so bad.”

“Sure. Sure,” noted Sacripant with a nod. “Why I bet it’ll be fun.”

“Wouldn’t go that far, but it will still be…” Palamedes blinked. “You’re going in with His Magnificence, aren’t you?”

Sacripant fidgeted. “What makes you say…?” he began.

There was a loud clap. “Remember, the Dark Lord wants us ready in three hours,” declared Quiet, appearing at Sacripant’s side. “And wear your good cloak! I want you looking dashing!” She leaned up and kissed him on the cheek.

As Quiet moved away, the Marsh Erl turned to regard Palamedes, who was tapping his toe ruefully. “How do you guess these things?”

“I operate on the assumption that the universe doesn’t like me,” answered Palamedes. “So… it’ll be just me. By myself.”

“Hey, the Serjeant will be there as well!” pointed out Sacripant.

“Yep, just me by myself,” noted Palamedes emphatically. “Hope you and Quiet remember me when you’re out there gallivanting with the Dark Lords.”

“Technically, we’ll more be aiding the Dark Lords in helping maintain a siege,” muttered Sacripant.

“Oh, please, you’ll be sitting in one of the damned Free Cities while I’ll be trudging the Great Stone Way.” Palamedes glanced up. “In late fall, mind you! The cold, wet part of the year.”

“Yeah, yeah, well--gryphon flight,” said Sacripant.

Palamedes considered it. “How long a gryphon flight?”

Sacripant winced. “His Magnificence is talking… multiple hours.”

“Okay,” agreed Palamedes. “That might be about as miserable as the long march to the river. Unless you’re a freak who likes gryphon rides.”

“Like His Magnificence?” suggested Sacripant.

Palamedes gave the Marsh Erl a confidential look. “I didn’t say it.”

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain, (Volume 1: Raise the Black Banner)--Part 17

Rainald de Lasliez stared at the quivering folk before him. “So… they bore the standards of Leonais?” he asked.

The older man among the crowd nodded. “I served yer father when he rode against the Dark Lord Shaddad.” Here he paused to spit. “I know the Leaves an’ Lion when I see it. I saw it often enough in those days, leadin’ us into battle.” He scowled. “I never thought I’d see it born by… bandits and reavers, Yer Honor, drawin’ steel against honest folk to despoil ‘em jus’ so you can.”

Rainald took a deep breath, and tried to quell the feelings of shame growing in his breast. He’d known this would come, this or something like it, when he’d begun his rebellion, but it still struck him like a blow. We had no choice. It was either the honest battle we now face or let all we hold dear be bled to death by the Eremites.

As he stood from his throne, Rainald truly hoped he was absolutely correct on that. “Let no man who hears this doubt it any longer,” he declared, “Prince Amfortas has forfeited his title of Lord Protector, and stands to the Free Cities as the Dark Lord Shaddad before him! Or indeed, like the Dark Lord Agrican before him, or the Dark Lord Abbad before him, or the Easter King Yuri Bloodyhand before him!” He looked over the people gathered there. “And yet let us remember--those tyrants have all perished, but the White Mountain still stands! And I say it will stand through these present evils, until the day that Amfortas Pescheour is nothing but a rotted pile of bones lying in some unmarked grave!” A great cheer came from the court. Rainald turned to that small group of farmers. “In the meantime, until this present evil passes, I give you the protection of Montalban. And let me assure you, those homes that they have put to the torch shall be rebuilt, and those lands they have despoiled shall grow green again! The House of Lasliez does not forget the welfare of its vassals! For now, it can truly be said that war is upon us! Let Montalban raise the black banner, and let it do so with pride, and honor!”

The applause and cheers grew louder at this, as the audience ended, and the Duke of Montalban left the Great Chamber with a swelling heart. Guiscard and Allard quickly fell in beside their brother. “That was most stirring,” said Allard.

“Yes, especially the part where you offered them the protection of Montalban,” said Guiscard. “Why now we can enjoy the pleasure of more mouths to feed as the Leonais plunder our lands, and then put us under siege.”

“A few dozen mouths will not spell our ruination,” muttered Rainald.

“That few dozen was the first trickle,” noted Guiscard. “It’ll soon turn into a stream, then a flood.”

“And what am I supposed to do,” asked the Duke,  “Turn them away?”

“They’re farmers,” added Allard. “Many of them will bring food.”

Guiscard nodded. “I’ve no doubt some will, and in the long run, I suspect this will makes things difficult for the Leonais. But they are out there, and can bring food in. When we shut the gates and the siege begins, we will have no such option.”

“We have stores,” said Rainald. “And I will not fail my folk. If Amfortas wants to make the Free Cities his slaves, then he’ll have to fight.”

“And I stand with you in this,” snapped Guiscard. “But brother--war is hard. You will not always have the luxury of making the choice that eases your conscience. Some day--some day the hard choice will be before you and you will have to choose between two different rights, each married to a different wrong.”

“I called the bloody Dark Lord over, didn’t I?” snapped Rainald. “The son of the man my own father fought to keep on the other side of the river!” He took a deep breath. “Yes, the Sacristans say he is a different man than Shaddad, as fine a man as any in the Lands of Light--but are they to be trusted in this? Aniel’s Lantern, have I gambled only to change one wicked master for another?” He took a deep breath. “So do not talk to me of hard choices. I’ve made one. I’ll make others. When the time comes.”

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain, (Volume 1: Raise the Black Banner)--Part 16

Elaine was hard at practice when Mansemat found her. “YAAH!” she yelled as she slashed forward.

Her stepfather gave a little cough. “I see you are practicing the Yell of the Angered Tiger.”

“Yeah,” she answered with a nod. “It’s really great for getting rid of tension.” She noticed Mansemat was standing there, in that awkward silent way he had when he wished to say something, but couldn’t think of how to move the conversation forward. “So… you have something not… practice related to discuss?”

“Yes,” said Mansemat with a nod. “You may have heard that your mother and I will soon be headed off towards Montalban…”

“Given that the news is all over Castle Terribel, yes, I might have,” replied Elaine.

Mansemat shifted awkwardly. “Yes. Well… you see… I know this is a great deal to ask… But… I wouldn’t ask it if I wasn’t certain you were the best person for the job… and…”

“Do you want me to come with you to Montalban?” Elaine asked, just a touch of nervousness visible on her face.

“Oh, no,” said Mansemat. “I’d like you to go to Tremisona. And talk to the Mongranes. About letting our army use the Crossing.”

Elaine raised an eyebrow. “Wouldn’t Asterot Maganza be the one to speak to that about?”

“Well, it’s a murky area,” began Mansemat. “There are numerous issues at stake here--old laws of territory, ancient agreements, rights of land…”

“The fact he’d say no,” noted Elaine.

“That’s the clincher, yes,” agreed Mansemat. He sighed. “Listen, there aren’t many places where one can swiftly get an army across the Murkenmere. The Mongranes hold one of the best. If we’re going to help the Free Cities, their agreeing to this will be… invaluable.” He placed a hand on Elaine’s shoulder. “You are their friend, and I think you know how to talk them.”

Elaine shut her eyes. “Okay, I’ll do it.”

“Thank you,” said Mansemat. “You have… taken a load off my mind.”

“Oh, don’t go swelling my head,” said Elaine. “I wasn’t the only option. You could have always asked Mom.”

Mansemat stared at her for a moment. Then the pair burst into laughter. “It is good that we can share little jokes like this,” said Mansemat. “Now, let’s agree never to mention this to your mother.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said Elaine, with a slight shudder.