Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 9

Breus and Eurydice le Fidelé unfurled the golden banner before them, and gave it the necessary, symbolic three waves before attaching it to the flag post. Eurydice turned to her sisters, and gestured to it. “Behold, oh children of the Faithful! The Cthoniques fly the banner of war!”

Breus nodded. “Grave times indeed, my heir! What shall we do?”

“What can we do, oh father, but be what the Fidelé have always been!” declared Eurydice. “Ever faithful! Oh, my kin, shall you do your duty?”

Her sisters nodded. “Yes!” they cried in unison. “We shall be faithful!”

Across the ramparts, Maximilian Rho glanced at Pelleas Pescheour . “You know, watching that, I find myself getting damned impressed, before realizing that I am watching a bunch of bloody young girls.”

“Oh, I’m simply impressed,” said the King of Leonais. “I’ve watched them practice. Formidable young women the lot of them.”

Maximilian blinked and then sighed. “All these years, and I’m still never sure whether you’re bloody joking or not, Pelleas.”

Pelleas spread his hands. “Isn’t that part of my charm, Maximilian? That wonderful sense of uncertainty?”

Maximilian stared at him for a moment, then shook his head. “Well, one thing’s damned certain if we manage to win this. Half the old bastards on the Council will likely keel over in shock when they have to deal with the real you instead of the vague… notion of you.”

“If my son has left them alive,” noted Pelleas.

Maximilian nodded. “Well… my reports suggest he has yet to… duplicate the sort of massacre he unleashed at Ys.”

“And how long before he does?” muttered the king. “Or even worse, decides to surpass it?”

“He kept you a prisoner for years, when he could have killed you,” noted Maximilian.

“He got pleasure from that,” said Pelleas. “And… I got a sense of him during all that. These latest acts… suggest what happened whenever he… lost his grip.”

There was a sudden pop. “Hey, Mister Road!” said Malina with a wave. “Hey King Pelican!” She looked at them eagerly, bright red eyes full of excitement. “Are you guys planning stragemies?”

Pelleas nodded, as the Preceptor of the Sacristans scratched his head in befuddlement. “Indeed, Malina, we were doing exactly that.”

Malina clapped her hands together. “Ooooh! Can I help? Auntie Morgaine and Uncle Nissy always let me help them plan stragemies! It’s so much fun!”

“Ummm… well you see, Your… Precious Grace…” said Maximilian Rho.

“Yaaay!” declared Malina brightly. “I’ll go get the popped corn!” She vanished from sight with a loud pop.

“Did you have to do that Pelleas?” snapped Rho.

Pelleas stared at Maximilian in amusement. “I don’t see where having her around would be that much of problem, Maximilian…”

Rho turned away, slightly abashed. “The Badb warned me to… watch my language around her stepdaughter. With… vivid explanations of what she would do to me if I didn’t. She’s quite terrifying.”

“Oh, yes,” said Pelleas. “Viviane is truly a force of nature. Quite inspiring really.”

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Volume 2: Fields Running Red--Part 8

The winds screamed outside Nisrioch’s tent, though he supposed some might say it howled. But for Nisrioch it seemed quite clearly a scream, not a howl, and those who said otherwise were simply being temperamental.

Antea poked the fire in the brazier. “Does the wind always do that here?”

“Oh, it occasionally pauses,” he noted as he jotted a few things down. “The Kizaks say it’s the voices of dead warriors.”

“Or the howls of the three wolves from which we are descended,” said Enryk bin Jerzy, as he stepped inside the tent. “Or the cries of spirits from feuds who are unavenged. Or…”

Nisrioch nodded. “Understood, Balu Khan. There are a lot of stories, about the wind.”

“Too many, really,” the Kizak stated, taking a seat. “I blame it on having too much time on our hands.”

“Ahh, yes,” said Antea, placing a kettle atop the brazier. “The sisters always said that idleness is the mother of wicked invention.”

“Well, that explains Nissy then,” said Balu Khan.

Nisrioch frowned. “Enryk, in the name of our long-time friendship, I must insist that you not sully my name with my darling young daughter who I am just getting to know.” He turned to Antea. “Ignore him, dear one. He is only being his usual scapegrace self.”

“Such I assumed,” said Antea with a bow. “Mother always had to deal with similar statements, which I likewise banished from my mind.” She set out a cup. “Now what sort of tea will you be having?”

“A fragrant jasmine suits my mood,” replied Nisrioch. “And what will you be having?”

Antea blinked, and then began to fidget. “You… you want me to make myself tea?”

Nisrioch stared at her for a moment. “Yes,” he stated. “As you are making me some. It seems only fair.”

Antea’s fidgeting became rather more pronounced. “ Ahh. Yes. Well… I think the ginger seems… interesting,” she stated at length.

“And you, Balu Khan?” asked Nisrioch.

“Just a nice spot of normal tea with a drop of yak’s butter to give it the proper consistency,” said the Kizak. Nisrioch raised an eyebrow. “Listen, I have embraced the ways of my people, and will not…”

“I didn’t say anything,” said Nisrioch. “So--the Red and the White Hordes should be here soon?”

“Jerzy should be here in a few days,” said Balu Khan. “The White Horde… may take longer. They were hunting in the south when you arrived…”

Antea gave a slight gasp. “My goodness. This yak butter is… quite fragrant, isn’t it?”

“That is part of the charm,” declared Balu Khan, forcefully.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Volume 2: Fields Running Red--Part 7

“So… we’re not going to use the Paths of the Dead?” said Palamedes.

“Nope,” answered Morgaine. “Too far. Plus the Murkenmere messes with them something awful.”

The stout Erl blinked. “Really?”

“Oh, yeah.” Morgaine sighed. “You know, the River Traders worship that thing, right? Well, they aren’t that far off. It’s--I wouldn’t call it a god, or even a Demon, exactly, but there’s some powerful mojo going on there. Real--crazy stuff. I mean, you wouldn’t think it, because it’s just a bunch of water, but…”

“But it’s magic water,” said Palamedes. “Got it.”

Morgaine thought it over, than shrugged. “Ehh. Close enough. And again--it’s a big distance. That complicates things. Even without the Murkenmere’s magic water. So, we’re just going to use the Great Stone Way.” A smile touched the undead Dark Lord’s face. “I’ll say this for you Nerghal, you made kick-ass roads.”

There was a shimmer in the air as her ghostly great-uncle’s head appeared at her shoulder. “Why thank you, Morgaine. It’s good to know that you appreciate me for things besides as a handy servant.”

Morgaine pointed at him. “Hey, don’t get snippy with me. I’d have a right to be pissed with you for the whole messing with my head as a child matter. And that’s before we start the whole bit where you brutally murdered your own kin to seize power.” She crossed her arms. “You’ve got dues to pay. And it’s all your own fault.”

Nerghal gave a suitably sepulchral sigh. “Well put, grand-niece. Well put.”

Palamedes leaned forward. “You know if we aren’t using the Paths, why did you bring him along?” he whispered.

“Like he said, he’s a handy servant, and like I said, he’s got dues to pay,” answered Morgaine. “Besides, I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for the murderous old bastard.”

“I can hear you,” said Nerghal.

“Oh, like I care,” muttered Morgaine. “Again--dues to pay.”

Nerghal grumbled something, and faded from view. Palamedes looked at Morgaine. “Tell me--is the reason you requested me as an aide is that you think I’d be fun to mess with, now that Justinian’s with His Magnificence in Montalban?”

“Pretty much,” agreed Morgaine, with a nod. “But hey--look on the good side--you could be with Nisrioch, enjoying the scenic Screaming Wastes. Yes, sand and scrub grass for miles and miles and miles, with nights punctuated by howling winds, and my elder brother for company.” She looked at him pointedly. “So--glad you’re here now?”

Palamedes thought it over and gave a dull nod.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Volume 2: Fields Running Red--Part 6

Ludovico sipped his drink and wondered, briefly, how much longer beer of this quality was going to be available He suspected not very long, but then, one couldn’t give up hope. That would be a sort of death. Especially in this situation. Help would come. It would come from the other Free Cities, and from across the river, and it would cast the Leonais back to their own lands, a battered and broken shell.

He had to believe that.

“…And then he told the Senate they could join their Queen in Hell, and set the hall ablaze” declared Matteo to the crowd of onlookers that surrounded the aging barfly. He shook his head dramatically. “And that is how wicked Prince Amfortas destroyed the Holly Throne.”

Gian, a younger member of the audience, frowned skeptically. “So… how do you know what he said?”

“I have my sources,” replied Matteo, with just a dash of pride.

“Well… I’ve no doubt you do,” said Gian. “But I don’t see how they could have told you what the Prince said after he set a blaze that killed the entire Senate?”

Matteo frowned deeply, and his frown deepened when he realized he was out of beer. “Perhaps my sources heard it from the Prince, eh?” He turned towards the bar. “Filippo! Another drink!”

Filippo frowned at him. “I’ll need to know you can pay for it, Matteo.”

“Of course he can,” said Gian. “He’s got friends who are speaking terms with the Prince of Leonais.”

“I never said they were my friends,” stated Matteo. “I said they were sources. There is a difference.”

Gian chuckled to himself. “Ahh. I see. So you don’t have the money for another drink then?”

Matteo gave an awkward cough. “Well--not… at the moment, but I’m good for it if…”

Filippo stepped away. “No tabs.”

Perhaps it was Matteo’s disappointed frown--maybe it was Gian’s little smirk--but Ludovico suddenly found himself sitting up and placing two coins on the counter. “Well, Matteo does have friends as well as sources. And this one is paying for his drink.”

As expected, Filippo quietly and efficiently took his money, while Matteo gushed expansively. “Thank you! Thank you, Ludovico!” Ludovico felt a hearty, slightly flabby hand clap his shoulder. “You are truly a prince among the Palazzos.”

Ludovico nodded as the drinks approached. “Right, right. So--Amfortas killed Queen Yolande?”

“Sacrificed her to Douma Dalkial, the poor, poor girl!” stated Matteo with a sniff. “That--that is the man who we are facing! A monster!”

“With the help of the Nightfolk, who also worship Douma Dalkial,” stated Gian.

Matteo stared at the younger man with indignity. “They do not sacrifice girls to her! They praise were with incense and song, and pleasant ceremonies!” He took a long swallow of his drink, then set it down. “As I understand it, their Douma Dalkial isn’t exactly our Douma Dalkial, anyway. She’s… more complex. Not just death and darkness, but also life and light.”

“That’s impossible,” said Gian. “You can’t have opposites being the same thing. It makes no sense. Just like your tale of the Queen of Tintagel’s demise.”

Matteo slammed his drink down. “Deny it all you like, it is true! Amfortas killed her! And set the Senate’s Great Hall on fire, while the Senate was in it!” He turned to Ludovico. “You understand that I’m telling the truth, don’t you?”

Ludovico thought it over, and then nodded. “I don’t know if he sacrificed her to Douma Dalkial--but I know from what I hear that he’s an evil bastard. And really--isn’t that the important thing for us to remember?”

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Volume 2: Fields Running Red--Part 5

The Badb stared at the pieces that had been spread out on the table before her, her hand held to her chin. Rainald de Lasliez watched her, wondering what subtle strategies the Queen of Old Magic was considering at this moment. In many ways, he found her the most startling of their guests. Viviane du Lac was the most… human-looking of their Nightfolk guests. If one were to see her from a distance, one might think her simply a human, at least, until you got close enough to see her ears, and hands, as opposed to her husband, with his hair dark as soot, and his skin pale as milk. And even then, her eyes were the soft muted colors of humanity, not the strange, bright vivid colors of an Erl. But she was from an ancient house of high magic, one with a darker, more sinister reputation in the legends of the Free Cities than that of her husband’s. Who could know what such a person, who hid their mysterious nature behind a human face, was thinking?

Viviane nodded to herself, then glanced across the table at her husband. “Right, so… the little one shaped like a horse…”

“The Chariot,” said the Black Dragon.

She blinked. “It’s… a horse, though…”

“Yes,” said her husband with a nod. “But we call it the Chariot.” He gestured to another piece. “Just like we call the one that looks like a vase ‘the Vizier’. It’s simply… esches.”

“Okay,” said the Badb with a sigh. “The Chariot. How does it move again?”

“Straight line forward,” said Mansemat. “Until it hits the back row. Then it can move backwards, forwards, and side to side. And one diagonal.” He leaned forward. “We call it a ‘Grand Chariot’ then.”

Viviane gave a frustrated sigh. “Right. Simply esches.”

Mansemat coughed. “You know--I’m really not the best person for these sort of lessons,” he noted. “Nissy’s the family esches wizard.”

“First off, he’s not here,” she noted. “Secondly, I suspect I’ll find learning from you… more tolerable. I mean--my sister still holds a grudge over his magic lessons. And she’s been learning from me since then.”

“I have been meaning to ask about the screaming?” said Mansemat quietly.

“It’s frequently mutual,” said Viviane. “And an age-old tradition in House du Lac. We bond through shared terror.” She glanced over the board again. “Honestly--that’s one reason I’m bothering with this nonsense. Badbs used to be proud esches players. My grandmother used to be able to win games against Lord Abaddon, and King Orfiel. I don’t even know what the little… doggy pieces are…”

“The Lions,” stated Mansemat.

Viviane blinked, and then picked one up. “You’re kidding.”

Mansemat shook his head. “No, it’s supposed to be a lion.”

Viviane let loose a great sigh and buried her face in her arms. “I am never going to get this game. I’m going to wind up just like my mother--one of the Badbs who sucks at playing esches. And my witches will laugh at me behind my back, and say ‘well, she was good enough--but she couldn’t play esches worth a damn!’”

Mansemat blinked. “I thought you… admired your mother.”

“Oh, Elaine Blanchemaines was and remains the picture of my internal definition of ‘hardass’,” stated the Badb. “And that dates back before I even knew that ‘hardass’ was a word. But… well, she was kind of the family screwup before the whole thing with my aunts promoted her to Nemain. Tended to ignore lots of family traditions to do her own thing. I’m sort of hoping of being a more… stabilizing head of the house. Especially now that there’s more of a house for me to be head of.” Viviane sighed, and looked away from the board, only to blink. She turned to Rainald. “You’ve been here… a while, right?”

Rainald nodded. “Yes. I… was planning on asking you two to come… look at the enemy’s progress with its siege engines...”

Viviane nodded. “Right.” She raised an eyebrow. “You will say nothing of what you have heard here, understood?”

The Duke of Montalban gave a sweeping bow. “A son of the House of Lasliez’s word is his bond, Your Magnificence.”

“Good, good.” Viviane turned to Mansemat. “Why didn’t you mention this to me?”

“I thought you knew he was here,” answered Mansemat, rising from his chair.

“Well, I didn’t,” she answered. “You know how… intent on things I can be at times. I mean remember our wedding night…?”

“Not something I forget,” said Mansemat. He glanced at Rainald. “Though I would appreciate if you would. Or at least add it to the whole ‘say nothing’ matter…”

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Volume 2: Fields Running Red--Part 4

Justinian Sigma stood on the battlements of Montalban and looked as the camps down below. He knew they were filled with his enemies, the men he was fighting. And he knew these foes of his were men very much like him, that had circumstances been other than what they were, he would very likely be among that number, fighting for what he’d imagine was the cause of right.

They are not bad men, for the most part, the former Sacristan reminded himself. Merely… mislead. We do this as much for their sakes as for the Montalbanese. So Justinian reminded himself, to keep hatred from growing in his heart. It seemed important to do that, after hearing so many horror stories of what this army had done as it made its way across the lands of the White Mountain. He shuddered slightly. We imagined evil was some far away thing, that lay across the river. And it was among us, the whole time, letting us do its work for it and call it good. Somehow, as he stood here, watching those tents, it made everything worse.

Somehow.

“Hey, Sigma,” came a familiar voice. Justinian turned to see Sacripant and Quiet standing there. The Marsh Erl raised an eyebrow. “Being all… pensive again?”

Justinian shrugged. “It’s my nature. Can’t help but think about how I used to be sworn to the banner of Leonais…”

“Well, technically, aren’t you still fighting for it?” said Sacripant, eyes turning to the army down below. “I mean--we’ve got the king on our side. Hell, Quiet and I owe him money…”

“I still say he was cheating,” whispered the Ghoul. “Nobody gets that good at foldol that quickly…”

“It’s… complicated,” said Justinian. “In theory, yes, the king is Leonais, for all intents and purposes, but in practice… well, it’s hard for one man to be a nation.” He gestured to the men outside, building their siege towers. “I don’t think those fellows would switch sides if Pelleas talked to them. Even if they believed it was him.”

Sacripant shuddered as he watched the men labor in the cold. One of them stumbled as he watched only to right himself and immediately return to work. “Damn it, they make me uncomfortable just looking at them. Do the people in charge actually plan on hitting us with an army, or just leaving a pile of corpses in front of Montalban?”

“Damned if I know,” said Justinian. “Never really went to war, remember. Still--this looks like an armiger operation at the bottom of it. As Rho used to tell it, they’re a bit… fervent.”

“Does ‘fervent’ mean ‘bloody-minded bastards’?” asked Quiet softly.

“Pretty much,” agreed Justinian. He sighed. “They’re--petty landowners. Often close to the Eastern Border. They get to bear arms in return for coming when the crown calls. They like to keep in practice.” He shrugged. “Most of them aren’t particularly high-ranking families, so they cling to what status they can. It makes… prickly. Apt to seize what prestige they can. And very, very contemptuous of those just a step below them.”

“Which in this case means working those poor guys out there to death,” said Sacripant, “so they can come in here and maybe kill us a little quicker.”

Justinian nodded. “That would be their plan, yes.” He glanced at his fellow Guards. “So… what did you two want to see me about? Before we got sidetracked by all this?”

“Iacopo’s got some bacon frying,” answered Sacripant. “Actually, it should be done by now. We were wondering if…”

Justinian bolted off in the direction of the mess.

Sacripant glanced at Quiet. “Well, that was rude.”

“What were you expecting? It’s bacon,” she answered.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Volume 2: Fields Running Red--Part 3

Jacques leaned against the bulk of the siege tower, and drank his lunch. This was not something he’d ever seen himself doing, in the long ago days before he marched off to war , but had become almost second nature over the last few weeks, as the gruel they served got thinner, and thinner, and spoons got scarcer and scarcer.

It really wasn’t as bad as it sounded--it filled you for a little while, and warmed you for an even littler while, and the flavor wasn’t that bad, or at least, it didn’t linger long enough to really offend. You gulped down your gruel, and then you got back to work, building the siege towers that were going to let them take the white walls of Montalban. Jacques turned to regard the walls. He hated them. The way that they stood there, mocking his effort offended every portion of his being.

Of course, he hated the siege towers too, in some ways even more than the walls, but at least the siege towers were something he owned, or at least, had a hand in. The walls belonged to THEM, the enemy, the people who kept hurtling things at them, the people who wouldn’t be beaten, the people who sat their behind their walls, snug, and secure, with plenty of food, and who didn’t have damned armigers lashing their hides, and making them build siege towers.

Jacques sighed. His thoughts, he realized, were quite mad, when you got down to it. He knew that in all honesty the Montalbanese had every reason to hide behind their walls, and fight against an army that had come to kill them. But he knew that he had to hate someone to survive--hate them enough to kill--and he knew that you couldn’t hate the officers. At least, not enough so that they realized it. Which was one of the reasons he was actually glad he was serving under Breezy--the man may have been a bloodthirsty idiot, but he was… well, an idiot. Not like some of the other armigers, who were vicious and cunning.

He took another drink of gruel. It drove you mad, this life. He could understand what had happened to Simon now. He really could.

“Best get back to work soon,” said the old timer, who was already starting to lug some timber.

Jacques groaned. “Can’t I finish my lunch?”

“Better make it quick,” answered the older man with a shrug. “You know how mad Breezy is about his tower…”

Jacques gulped down the rest of the gruel, and then began to help the old timer with his load. “Do you think he has any idea how… odd it sounds, the way he goes on about the damned thing?”

“Of course not,” said the old timer. “If he did, he wouldn’t be Breezy.” The old timer shook his head. “I’ve known dafter armigers, but not many. But then--that’s what happens when you’re raised from childhood believing that war is in your blood. You get a man believing foolishness from the cradle, you wind up with a fool, more often than not.”

“Well, we’re the ones who have to follow him,” said Jacques. “So… more fools us for taking the king’s coin.”

“Speak for yourself,” said the old timer. “I served with Pelleas. Damned proud of it, too. He knew how to keep the armigers in line. And do it so they wouldn’t notice. Not like this… abomination of a force.” He shook his head. “Not that I mentioned any of this to you. Understand?” Jacques nodded, as they put down the log. “Well, once you take the coin, you’re one of the first men they pull until you’re older and greyer than I am now. Which is saying something.” The familiar whistle of a rock being launched from the walls came to their ears. The old-timer watched it slam into another camp, frowning all the while. “Damn it, I wish they would aim those at the towers.”

“Wouldn’t that… make our work tougher?” asked Jacques.

“Well, that would depend,” said the old-timer. “See, one of the fundamental rules of siegecraft is if you’re the besieged, you don’t let besieger finish up his engines if you can help it. They can help it--but they don’t seem to care.” The old man shook his head. “That worries me.”

“Maybe… maybe they don’t know that,” suggested Jacques hopefully.

The old man gave him a knowing, skeptical glance. “You want to bet on that, Jacques?”

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Volume 2: Fields Running Red--Part 2

Archon Septimus Seraphim lay in his cot, his blanket tight across his shoulders, and regarded the young man before him. “So… you are all they can spare?”

Squire Sylvester Khi--Erelim, he was now Sylvester Erelim, an Eremite in good standing now, and the Archon would have to remember it--shrugged. “We’re spread thin, sir. I… I fear few us realized how your health had declined until we were told.”

Septimus nodded, and then started to say something, only to begin coughing. The Archon had coughed before in his life, but the cough he had developed in these last few weeks was exceptionally painful, one that made his throat raw and his sides ache. He had hoped it would fade quickly, at first, but as the second week of it began, he realized that he was truly--perhaps fatally--ill.

Another man might have wondered what he had done to deserve this, but the Archon had always prided himself for his ability to discern the will of the Seven. He knew. Indeed, he couldn’t help but know, and had half-expected something of this nature to happen.

As the coughing fit ended, Septimus felt something warm on his shirt, and began to wonder, in idle, abstract way, if he had coughed up blood. But then he realized that young Sylvester was applying a hot compress to his chest. He nodded thankfully, and motioned for him to stop. “I… how is the camp?”

Sylvester looked away awkwardly. “I… don’t have much experience in these things, sir, but… it seems to me be…”

“It is that…” Septimus began to cough again, though this fit was mercifully brief. “That bad,” he finished.

“It’s the cold snap,” said Sylvester. “We weren’t prepared for this We thought we had a few more weeks of good campaign weather. Enough time to…”

“I can imagine,” muttered Septimus. He stared ahead grimly. “I… we must trust to the Seven. They will not let us fail in this task. They cannot.” He took a deep breath, and immediately wished he had not. “Men may fail. I may fail. But this--this siege will be victorious. This war will be victorious. Light will be all. And all will be light.”

Sylvester gave a nod. “Of course. Of course, sir. You should see the siege towers the armigers are building. They’re making excellent progress.”

Septimus smiled softly. “Well… that is good. I--I have had my doubts about them, but… they cannot be faulted for their enthusiasm in this war. And perhaps--perhaps that is exactly what we will need to win it.” The Archon shut his eyes. “Have… have you been to see the Stylite?”

“The… Stylite, sir?” asked Sylvester.

Septimus pulled his blankets around him tighter. “No then. Well… you must. He calls me to him… but I cannot come. My feet are lead. You must speak to him. You must tell him that all things are going well. Do so, and he will stop calling me. He will stop fixing me with his great and terrible eye. And then--then perhaps I will be able to rest.” He squirmed uncomfortably in his cot. “I must rest. Rest and make myself hale and whole.”

Sylvester prepared to leave, but suddenly Septimus sat up. His eyes snapped open and he regarded Sylvester fixedly. “Understand, squire… I hate the weakness of my flesh that has brought me to this. I wish I could offer the Seven a perfect service. But I am mortal.” With that, he fell back into his cot. “I am mortal, and they have chosen to remind me of that fact. As--as I deserve to be… reminded. This is my scourging and I accept it, for it comes from the hands of my masters. That… is what it means to serve the Holy Light.” Septimus felt a comforting warmth engulf him. “Now… now… go to the Stylite, if he lets you find him. And explain things. So I may rest.” Septimus heard the young squire leave his tent and hoped that Nitre would leave him alone.

A few minutes later, just as he was starting to rest, the Stylite fixed him with his great and terrible eye.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Volume 2: Fields Running Red--Part 1

Sir Gerard de Breze smiled to himself as he watched his tower grow.

It was one of six siege towers that were being built to pierce the proud white walls of Montalban, which boasted of having never fallen to a siege, and Sir Gerard liked to think it was the tallest of them all. In another few days, it would be ready for the attack, and those walls that had never been pierced would fall to him and his fellows.

Gerard patted the head of his stallion. He planned to ride it up the tower, and lead the charge that would claim this city that had never been claimed. He shut his eyes and imagined himself, his horse leaping over the walls, and a smile came unbidden to his face…

His musings were interrupted by a whistling sound as the Montalbanese forces once again sent a boulder hurtling towards the Leonais encampment. It struck the ground with thud, and sent men scurrying. Gerard noted with displeasure that his men had stopped working on their tower, and were instead desperately dashing around.

“Cowards! Filthy cowards!” he declared, raising his riding crop. “Are you as cowardly as those wretches behind those walls? You, proper Leonais? Things that scurry beneath their shells, like little snails?” He stared at them contemptuously. “Perhaps you’d rather join them, eh? Them that are hiding like cowards behind their walls?”

The men didn’t seem to know what to think about that, but stared at him, quietly and sullenly. It wasn’t quite the response Gerard had hoped for, though he noticed that several seemed to hold their hammers and spikes with a new sense of purpose. “Of course, we don’t, sir,” said the old man, stepping out of the crowd. “Of course, we don’t.” He clapped his hands together. “It’s just that when those Night-loving cowards in Montalban throw down those stones, well, some of us get startled, and the rest of us scramble to make sure that the tower don’t take a hit.”

Gerard frowned to himself. The old man’s words were good, on the surface, but it didn’t take a cunning man to see that the men seemed to be lowering their gear as he spoke. Probably the old fellow was serving as a distraction to give the slackers time to catch up. It seemed the sort of thing the man would do.

The old man had been an irritant all the way to Montalban. He had no idea how he’d had once again wound up a major part of the siege working crew, but once again, the fellow had done it. Still--once again, he was too useful to get rid of. The man made some mention of a few obscure battles during the war against Lord Shaddad where he’d picked up the trade--and Gerard was willing to grant there was some truth in his tales. He was, at the very least, proving most useful--one of the many reasons Gerard’s tower was taller than all the rest, albeit a minor one.

“Very well,” said Gerard, thrusting out his chest, as he tucked his riding crop on his saddle. “But get to work. I will not let those men assigned to me slacken in their efforts. We will pierce the white walls of Montalban, so that they run red with blood!” He drew his sword dramatically, and gestured to them. “And I swear--I will be the first one there! The first--but not the last!” Then, sheathing his blade, he rode off.

Sir Gautier de Fleur Rouge was waiting for him in the armiger’s tent when he arrived, sipping a bit of wine. “Down to the towers again?” he said to Gerard. “You know, that is commoner work. Leave them to it. It’ll be done whether you are there thrice a day, or twice a week, so why you choose the first option is a mystery to me.”

Gerard sat down and poured himself a cup. “I burn to see the Holy cause done, Sir Gautier. And I think knowing I burn makes the men burn as well.” He sipped his drink. “By the way, the Montalbanese sent another rock at us. I think it may have killed a man or two.”

Gautier clicked his tongue. “Those bastards. Do they realize how inconvenient that is for us?”

“You’d think so, but apparently not,” said Gerard with a sigh.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Great Goat Herd of the Small Abbey of Secret Wisdom--Part 21

Klingsor lay upon his stone bed, eyes shut. He did not sleep, because he could not sleep--had forsworn the luxury of sleep and rest, as had all the predecessors to his exalted rank. To be the Lord of Old Stones was to cast off certain human weaknesses, even if those weaknesses also gave one… a certain comfort. Instead he used his mind to search his hill, to make sure it was secure. It was painstaking work, but that is what it meant to be the Lord of Old Stones.

He had a crick in his back. A niggling awful crick that got worse when he tried to ignore it. It occurred to Klingsor he was getting old--very old indeed--and that the time might have come to pass the title on to another of the kin. Still, he wasn’t sure he could--the family was getting spread very thin these days, its numbers fewer and fewer, forgetting their old covenants. He cursed the Medbs, those meddling Witch Queens of the old days, and then consoled himself with the thought that though Witches of Rock and Stone had vanished from the earth, the Lords of Old Stones remained, even if it was in a severely reduced capacity.

A pebble bounced off his forehead. Klingsor’s eyes began to open drearily, only to see a crack of light that should not be appearing in his ceiling…

His thoughts on the matter were left unfinished as a short woman came crashing in from above, followed by a tall, lanky man. “Hi,” she said, waving.

“You… you vermin!” snapped Klingsor, sitting up quickly and regretting it immediately. “How did you get past…?”

“Your little weakass wards?” said the woman. “I’m a Thanatos, he’s a Cruel Disciple--and you are a shitty hedge wizard with pretensions.” She gave a shrug. “We may not be big shakes, but we’re good enough to break through your crappy charms without much trouble.”

Klingsor snarled. “You fools don’t realize who it is you’re dealing wi--!”

The man yawned. “Lord of Old Stones. One of the Petty Dark Lords. Oh--and the Prince of Dead Leaves says hello. And that he still hates you.”

“He… he isn’t dead?” said Klingsor with a blink.

“Nope, not the last time we checked,” said the woman, leaning forward. “Actually, he’s really got a knack for surviving. And not pissing off people who could kill him.” She cracked her knuckles. “I’d suggest you go to him for pointers, but aside from the whole ‘hating you’ thing, you’re really not going to be in any shape to do that when we’re done with you.”

Klingsor glanced around desperately, cursing that he’d let himself become unprepared for this happening over the long years. “How’d you find me…?”

“Hrol told us about you,” said the woman. “Of course, the sort of tricks you were pulling on him and Bayezit may have impressed a couple of stupid crazy hicks, but Holdfast and I are people of the world. You ‘met’ with the delightful nutter brothers at that tower over there by casting a sending into it. Which let you do all those neat little effects that amazed them so.”


“Hrol…?” Klingsor blinked. “You--this is about… the goat herd.” He looked around. “Did the Abbé send you?”

“No, but it is about the goat herd,” said the man. “Well--that and your paying a couple of crazy killers to steal goats for you. And specifically sending them after the monks so that they could kill them. We don’t like that.” He spread his hands. “And I don’t even like monks that much.”

The woman stared at him. “Yeah--I was wondering--what did these guys ever do to you…?”

“Stole my land!” snapped the Lord of Old Stones. “My land and many great and secret things! Centuries ago…”

“And stop right there,” said the woman. “So, you don’t mean ‘your’ land you mean the land that belonged to your predecessors. And you don’t mean ‘them’, you mean the guys who used to belong to the same order.”

“Wait a minute--” said Holdfast. “This happened during the Ecclesiastical Disputes, didn’t it?” The woman shot him a puzzled look. “A big battle between the Dark Lords and the Faith. Well--more like a whole lot of little ones. About land donations to the Faith, made without permission of the heads of houses. It was decided they were valid based on…” He scratched his head. “Ehh, some legal principle. And people dying. Lots of that last one.”

The woman rolled her eyes. “So, it’s not just ancient shit that people shouldn’t care about anymore--it’s ancient bullshit that people shouldn’t have cared about in the first place.” She shook her head. “Yeah, this is going to be a pleasure…”

Klingsor gulped. “Beating up a helpless old man…”

“No,” said the woman, stepping forward. “Beating up a murderer by proxy who pursues utterly useless vendettas while squatting in his cave. That’s the fun one…”

“I… I am one of a great lineage!” declared Klingsor weakly. “There will be another who will follow me! Another who will seek vengeance!”

“Then we’ll beat him up too,” said Holdfast stepping forward. “We’re simple folks, Your Lordship. We tend to try and solve our problems with our fists.”

“It’s surprisingly effective,” noted the woman.

Klingsor shut his eyes and whimpered.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Great Goat Herd of the Small Abbey of Secret Wisdom--Part 20

Elaine sipped her tea, and glanced at Marfisa Mongrane. “I… have to admit--this is a… surprise…”

“What?” declared the Marshal of Tremisona grandly. “That my family has decided to put aside petty outdated feuds and serve the all the folk of Night in the upcoming struggle?”

“Uhhh, well, not that part,” said Elaine, shifting nervously. “It’s the… ‘supplying an additional army’ part.” She coughed. “Really didn’t see that coming.” Elaine bit her lip. “In fact--isn’t that sort of… illegal?”

Marfisa smiled. “It’s feudal law, Elaine. The whole thing is so tangled and complicated that we have plenty of wiggle room.” She gestured towards herself. “I mean--I am legally a man in certain capabilities while I’m wearing this. That’s how complicated it is!”

Rodomonte entered the chamber. “Three more applicants, meerkat. They wish to see you--their… loudest member says you will remember them.”

Marfisa turned to the hulking Ogre. “Do they seem dangerous?”

Rodomonte thought it over. “More… irritating,” he said. “But--I could be wrong.”

Marfisa leaned back in her chair, thinking it over. “Well, send them in,” she declared after a moment. “I’ll take my chances.” Rodomonte gave a sweeping bow, and exited the room.

Elaine glanced at her friend. “Are you sure about this?”

“Well, I figure between you, me and Roddy, we have enough toughness to take care of just about anyone,” said Marfisa.

“Hmm. You have a point,” agreed Elaine, glancing back at the door as it opened.

“--and after last night, I get to choose the name!” declared a somewhat familiar, rather short Erl woman as she marched in with a tall Erl man and a Goblin following her. “Marshal of Tremisona, we, the Tre--”

“You three guys!” said Marfisa, leaping gleefully to her feet. She turned to Elaine and pointed. “Look! Look! It’s these three guys! From the wedding in White Pine! Remember?”

Elaine gave a weary nod. “Yep. Okay, let me see… Gwydd… Meliadus… and Faileuba… right?” she stated, pointing to each in turn. “Sorry if I can’t think of your last names right now…”

Faileuba appeared slightly uneasy. “Umm… that’s… fine. You’re… the Black Dragon’s stepdaughter, right? Melanie?”

“Elaine,” said the young woman with the slightest roll of her eyes. “You might be thinking of my stepsister. Malina. The Dev.”

Meliadus scratched his head. “Huh. That might be why I was wondering where your horns went.”

Elaine stared at the pair, then glanced at Gwydd. “Do they take a lot of blows to the head?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe,” muttered the Goblin.

“Hey,” declared Faileuba huffily, “lots of them are self-inflicted.” She and Meliadus shared a significant nod. “So… what have you been up to since White Pine?” she asked Elaine.

Elaine raised an eyebrow. “Oh… not much. Just helped kick off the Great War. Got a nifty magical sword.” She raised the Blade of Light, and gave it a slight shake. “Among other things. You?”

Faileuba gulped. “Yeah. We’ve… really been out of the loop lately. Operating out in the hinterlands.”

“Our last job was basically us stopping a couple of murderous lunatics who were working for some old bastard following his own crazy feud,” said Meliadus.

“You know--we do that a lot actually,” said Faileuba.

Meliadus thought it over. “Hmmm… you’re right. I wonder if it’s an ‘us’ thing or an ‘old bastard’ thing…”

“Can’t it be both?” muttered Gwydd. He turned to Marfisa. “So are we hired?”

“Oh, yes!” said Marfisa with a laugh. “Yes! You three are great chivalrous warriors, just like me, and Elaine, and Rodomonte and Lord Mansemat, so--this must be the Lady’s will! All of us, working together--in the Great War!”

“You sure this is it?” asked Meliadus.

“Hey--it better be!” said Faileuba. “I can actually afford a good outfit for it right now!” She turned to the Marshal. “Do you need us around immediately, or… do we have some wiggle room here? Because we have a bit of unfinished business…”

“Oh, don’t worry!” said Marfisa. “We won’t be moving for a couple weeks.” She glanced at Elaine. “Won’t this be neat?”

“It’ll definitely be interesting,” muttered Elaine.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Great Goat Herd of the Small Abbey of Secret Wisdom--Part 19

“And another five pieces for your exemplary service,” declared the Abbé , handing the coins to Gwydd.

The Goblin stared at his payment in obvious ill ease. “This is a lot more than I expected,” he muttered.

“Again, your service was exemplary,” noted Rondel.

Gwydd fidgeted. “Yeah, but… when you throw in what we’re getting from Hrol… Well, damn it, you said we couldn’t expect much…”

“And fortune smiled upon you,” answered the Abbé . “Accept its blessing.”

“I suppose I could…,” muttered Gwydd. “But… this whole affair… Meliadus is sure you knew exactly what would happen.”

Rondel smiled at him. “Tell him of course I did not. Monk or no, I am only mortal.”

“Well, he was thinking more for a certain… value of ‘know’,” said Gwydd.

“Hmmm. Tell him, ‘perhaps’,” said Rondel. “Perhaps I had some idea of what was waiting for my brothers on that road. And perhaps I had some idea of the mettle of those I had hired to take care of it.” The monk gave a shrug. “If that is what is he needs to hear.”

Gwydd leaned forward, slightly desperate. “But… look--you were at exactly the place to meet us… you offered us exactly the job we needed, you…”

Rondel chuckled to himself. “Mister Palepole, I believe you are starting to enquire just what exactly is the secret wisdom that we boast of in the Small Abbey of the Secret Wisdom. And the answer to that is ‘a secret’.” He gave a simple pleasant shake of his head. “Many of the younger members of this very abbey do not know our inner mysteries. Young Macsen most assuredly never learned them--and now, never shall. I cannot divulge them to an outsider.”

“So… you did do something to…” began Gwydd.

“I said no such thing, Gwydd,” answered the Abbé . “But if I did or not, it is a matter for those who partake of the Secret Wisdom.” The monk turned. “I told you when we met--ours is the older abbey, with the better claim to the name. And I will add now, it has the truer claim to the possession of a secret wisdom. But as to what that secret wisdom is, I may not say. It is our secret.” He placed a hand on the Goblin’s shoulder. “Accept what is unknowable. Be thankful for your good fortune. And perhaps burn some incense in gratitude to Mother Night.” The Abbé moved away, and gave a deep bow. “Now--go in peace.”

And with that, Gwydd knew the conversation was over.

Meliadus and Faileuba were enjoying the local cuisine--goat on skewers, apparently--when he found them. “You know,” said Fai, chewing happily, “I didn’t think I’d enjoy this, but DAMN! This is pretty good.”

“Ain’t it?” asked Meliadus. “It’s the spices that do it, I say.”

“Whatever does it, Lady bless it, and let it keep doing it,” said Faileuba licking her lips.

Gwydd gave a polite cough. “So… Rondel has… paid us off…”

Meliadus nodded. “How much?”

“Thirty-six silver denari,” said Gwydd. “We got extra for exemplary service.”

Faileuba smiled. “Good haul.”

Meliadus gave a resentful nod. “He mention what they’re going to do about Macsen?”

“I get the impression he’s just being… forced out of the abbey,” muttered the Goblin.

“And… did you bring up the matter I mentioned?” asked Meliadus.

“I did,” said Gwydd. “His answers were… vague and strange.”

“And you expected… what?” said Faileuba. “It’s the Abbey of Secret Wisdom. If that isn’t a call for runarounds and weird cant, I don’t know what is. Hell--the Great Abbey was like that to, though in that case, I’m pretty damn sure it was all nonsense. This one…” She gave a slight wave of her hand.

Meliadus frowned. “Personally, I wonder if we’ll ever fully understand what we were playing part of here.”

Faileuba rolled her eyes. “Come on, Holdfast. If these guys were the secret masters of the universe you think they are, their principal means of funds wouldn’t be transporting dates for lonely mountainfolk.” She gave a loud laugh and slapped her thigh. “Still got it!”

Gwydd rubbed his forehead. “Yeah. I suppose you do. So… I’m paying up on that bet, aren’t I?” Faileuba gave a very deep nod. “Well--that’s one reason for me to go to the Marshal for a job…”

“Hey, we’re all going,” said Faileuba. “We’re starting a new lucky streak! Gotta keep it going!”

Meliadus glanced at it. “Isn’t that what you said after the whole thing with the Vanir and the Aesir?”

“Hey--I was right then too,” said Faileuba. “I just didn’t get the kind of luck right.  And that is an important distinction.”