Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 23

Elaine watched the hussars wheeling about on the field before her, the great, spectacularly useless wings on their backs waving slightly in the wind. They rode their horses with dedication and skill, so much that you wanted to just ignore the wings on their back. But you really couldn’t.

“They look like giant chickens,” said Faileuba.

Meliadus nodded. “On horseback,” he added. “Can’t forget that.”

Elaine sighed. “You know I don’t know why the Mongranes think I need bodyguards. Much less you two.”

“Well, you’re fairly important, and a princess, whose parents have lots of enemies…” began Meliadus.

“You fool!” snapped Faileuba. “She just insulted our warrior’s prowess!”

Meliadus blinked several times, then nodded. “Huh. Well, what do you know? You’re right. She did!”

Faileuba glared at Elaine, something that Elaine couldn’t help but find oddly comical, as she stood a head higher than the rather short Erl. “You should realize that we aren’t people to insult lightly! Holdfast and I have been dubbed ‘living weapons’! We can level armies! Destroy mountains! Really mess stuff up!”

Elaine nodded. “Right. So, if you two are so incredibly powerful, how is it you’re routinely broke?”

“Well, there’s more to making a living as a chivalrous warrior than being able to kill people with your little finger,” said Faileuba with a cough. “The killing people part--we’re excellent at! The rest…” She gave a slight wave of her hand. “Not so much.”

“I once bought a plot of land that I later discovered was under the sea,” said Meliadus.

“And then there was that big payoff you got that I won off you in a bet,” noted Faileuba.

Elaine blinked. “What did you do with that money?”

“Lost it all in another bet,” Faileuba answered. “So, see--we are crap with money.” She clapped her hands together. “But real good at violence.”

Elaine sighed. “You know that Goblin who hangs out with you two has a very hard life…”

Meliadus stroked his chin. “That’s weird. He says the exact same thing all the time…”

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 22

The Gali Khan of the White Horde sat before Nisrioch, guzzling the huge chalice of liquor that had been set before him. The drink dripped down his long salt-and-pepper beard, while the sound of his lapping at the drink filled the tent. When he finished it, Gali Khan tossed it away, and regarded the Dark Lord of the Screaming Waste with his vivid blue eyes.

“You brew good mead, my chief,” stated the Kizak in an old, croaking voice, made brittle with age

Nisrioch sipped his tea and nodded. “I do try, sir.” He glanced at Agri Khan, Balu Khan and Ostrorog, all of whom looked equally awkward. “Now then, oh, Gali Khan, if we could speak of the plans.”

“Plans?” Gali Khan scowled, and then spat into the corner. “Listen to me, child of nightmares, for I am Konstancy bin Lev, and my years are four-score and three, and I have been Gali Khan for three-score and seven of them. Four times have I crossed the Great Black River, the first time coming with my father, the second returning with him, the third time coming with your father, the fourth returning with him. I have raised the Standard of the White Wolf for the Cthoniques thirty-eight times, and against them five times--I have fought with my Horde in all four directions, and in all the Lands of Night. I know war from its top and to its tail, and I know this--if you have trained your men, and raised your forces, and so prepared things that they may march forth without losing over half of them to hunger, to cold and to desertion, then you have done well, and anything else you may plan is a distraction. Battles are best fought when they are fought. Otherwise, they go crosswise.”

“Ahh,” said Nisrioch. “Yes, yes that does seem… wise.”

The old man raised himself from his seat, his wiry form moving with a speed that belied his age, and then managed a stiff bow. “I thank you now, my chief, for your hospitality.” He clapped his hands together. “Ostrorog, my son! Help me back to my tent.”

Ostrorog gave the others an apologetic look as he rose to his feet. “Of course, oh, Gali Khan.” He rushed to his father’s side, and escorted him from the tent.

There was silence for a moment, after he left, and then Balu Khan glanced at the others. “You know, I thought Konstancy was going to beg out of this one due to advanced age. Let Ostrorog lead the Horde into battle.”

Agri Khan sighed. “Yes, well, that would be sensible, Enryk, wouldn’t it? And that is something Konstancy bin Lev is most assuredly not.” He sipped his tea. “Do you think he’s going to try and storm the Crossing?”

“I hope not,” answered Nisrioch with a sigh.

Balu Khan blinked. “He’s not… no one would…”

“Konstancy tried to raise the Hordes against the Cthoniques,” said Nisrioch. “After watching his father fail at that. Of course, I forgive him, because the Cthoniques were Great uncle Nerghal, and father. Oh, and great-great-grandfather Tidal, who wasn’t that awful, but could be quite unpleasant at times.” Nisrioch began to tap on the table before him. “Further, much of that feud was brought on by his father, a wild bull of a man, if I read my histories right--and I always read them right--who raised his hand against his foes in all direct…”

“Nissy, is this your way of saying ‘Konstancy would’?” asked Agri Khan.

Nisrioch nodded. “More or less, yes, yes it is.” He peered at his friend. “A bit full of digressions, I admit, but I thought they added… charm…”

Jerzy massaged his temples. “So--what do we do at the Crossing if he gets… jumpy?”

“Ply with liquor, I imagine,” answered Nisrioch, adding a lump of sugar to his tea.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 21

“He really said all that?” asked Eustace de Calx, as he reclined on a set of luxurious velvet cushions while a pair of servants massaged his feet.

Jeronim nodded. “Every word.” He was, he felt, becoming used to dealing with the Duke of Tranchera, as strange as that seemed to him. It was a process based, he found, on learning to ignore all the lurid things that Eustace de Calx surrounded himself with, and focusing on the man himself. Admittedly, this could prove difficult--for example, this present room they were in was filled to the brim with one of the most startling collections of erotic art that the Count of Joyeuse had ever seen--but one ultimately learned to screen things out.


Eustace sipped a small cup of what Jeronim assumed was liqueur, of some sort, his eyes narrowed. “Troublesome,” he declared at last. The man and woman massaging his feet, glanced at each other worriedly, and then redoubled their efforts. “It sounds like Amfortas is… losing track of things. And that makes dangerous.” He sighed and set the cup down on a small statue in the shape of a nude nymph doing something improper. “Well, more dangerous than usual. In the manner of, say, a rabid mastiff.”

“I… suppose, you’re right,” said Jeronim, turning his eyes to the one picture in the room that wasn’t obscene. Though strangely enough, staring at the picture of a little girl petting the dog surrounded by so much depravity made him oddly uncomfortable. “So… I suppose this means we will delay the plan?”

“Oh, no,” said the Duke. “We will speed it up. Time and quick action have become very important--we have no idea now when the Prince and his allies might make our goals impossible. So we act now.”

Jeronim started. “But… we need… can we at least get some more support… Blamor de Ganis, say…”

“The Duke of Almace has been bought and paid for by Amfortas,” said Eustace. “I must say, Count Jeronim, your naiveté is a source of never-ending surprise to me. To think you have spent so many years walking the corridors of power, and learnt so little of it…” A scantily clad man entered the room holding a silver tray. “Ahh! Emile! Is it ready?”

Emile uncovered the tray, revealing a single turnip. “Your turnip has been prepared, Monsieur, exactly as you have asked.”

Eustace began to rub his hands in glee. “Oh, you darling! You precious pet! Preparing my turnip just as I asked! Come--come, let me give you a kiss.” Emile stepped forward and kissed the Duke on the lips, then set the tray before him. Eustace turned to Jeronim. “You may wish to leave. Many people seem to be discomfited by afternoon turnip.” He began to expertly cut the root before him. “Why I have no idea…”

Jeronim took him up on his offer, and darted from the room.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 20

Sir Jerome Erelim glanced at the list before him. “This cannot be right,” he stated to his former partner, now his superior. “These figures… they don’t match what I’m seeing. They don’t even match the other figures.” Sir Ambrose Chashmallim frowned, as Jerome slammed the list on the table before him. “Do you understand me, sir? Not a thing in this massive, blundering mistake of an army matches! The army we have on paper doesn’t resemble the army we actually have--in fact, the army we have on paper can’t be bothered to even make sense!”

Sir Ambrose took a deep breath before looking. “Do you have anything of value to say, or are you simply going to complain?” He shrugged. “There irregularities. Well, aren’t there always? Regulate them. That’s our job.” Ambrose stood to his feet, and shifted slightly. “The Great Army of Subjugation moves out in two weeks. It is our job to see that it is ready for its great and holy purpose.”

“Sir, unless that purpose is to starve and freeze, it will take two months to prepare it,” said Sir Jerome. “Two months of regulating all those irregularities. At least.” As Sir Ambrose walked past him, Jerome turned, and followed him out into the hall. “Ambrose I have at least three different numbers of men, none of which seem to match the actual force that’s been assembled. I have a number of purported winter cloaks which is grossly inadequate, and made worse by the fact that most of them are not in fact winter cloaks at all. I have a supply of tent pegs that doesn’t match the supply of tents. I have an extraordinary number of boots that would cheer me if I were sure of their quality, which I am not. I have a mysterious supply of something called ‘sarsaparilla’, which I must hope is adequate to our needs, as I have no idea what it is. And this is simply a sampling of my difficulties.”

Sir Ambrose paused, and regarded Sir Jerome for a moment. “Do you know what you need, Sir Erelim? Faith. Faith in the Holy Seven and Their ways. Faith that when we go forth, to do Their will, and fight Their enemies, they shall hold us in the Holy Light, protecting us, and aiding us. You must have this, if you are to be a true Knight of the Faith.” Ambrose placed a hand on Jerome’s shoulder. “This has always been your weakness, Jerome. Always. And it is a weakness that must be overcome.”

Jerome stepped back, allowing the hand to slip off him. It was at times like this that Ambrose’s recent promotion became actively irritating. “Well, thank you, Sir Chashmallim for the spiritual lesson, but it does not help me feed and clothe this army that will be fighting for the Holy Seven. Despite your good intent.”

Ambrose gave Jerome a sympathetic glance. “Doesn’t it, Sir Erelim? Doesn’t it?” Jerome considered stating that no, it did not, but decided against it. Ambrose stepped backwards, his hands behind his back. “I am attempting to keep the Prince informed of our… difficulties Sir Jerome, but you must understand--he is adamant that the army is moving out in two weeks. And quite firm in his demands that any difficulties that would prevent that be… surmounted.” Jerome felt suddenly cold. “Naturally, if you wish, I could allow you to speak with him on these matters directly. If you truly feel the matter is beyond your ability to deal with.”

Jerome stood there quietly for a long time. Eventually Ambrose nodded. “Good to see you getting some… perspective. Now… if you’ll excuse me…”

Ambrose walked quickly away. Jerome stood there, watching him go and considering his options.

After a great deal of consideration, he decided to see how many men could share a single bedroll.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 19

Lanval Equitan scratched at his arm, and swore under his breath. The damned thing had been bothering him since Tintagel, where it had taken a wound. The Prince had told him to get to checked, and he had, but perhaps not quite as well as he could have. It had healed, but not quite correctly, and since then it had been a source of constant itches and twinges. It was all somewhat distressing for the Serjeant, a disturbing reminder of the fact that he was not so young as he once was.

He shook his head. He shouldn’t let himself get distracted. Prince Amfortas had brought him here to do a job, and he would do it. Even if the job was ‘stand around, looking menacingly while Duke Blamor speaks witlessly for just under an hour before his fellow Peers’.

“…And finally, allow me to state,” said Blamor, as he was more or less allowed to do just that, “that I am honored--nay, glorified--to be allowed to serve the glorious warrior of the Holy Light of the Sacred Seven in even this humble--yea, even poor manner, of granting him the funds for his army, the right to call up more troops, and giving him this little speech, to express my overwhelming gratitude to this man, who is our salvation. I salute you, Prince Amfortas, and say you are my Prince--my sovereign--my dearest lord.” And with that, the Duke of Almace sat down to widespread applause, though whether it was because people sympathized with what he said or were simply overjoyed that he had stopped speaking was impossible to tell. Amfortas motioned for silence, and then began to speak.

“I am pleased, of course,” he stated, his voice calm and clear, “for the aid you have given me, and the love you all bear me in this mammoth struggle. The struggle that has cost me my father. And my dear young bride. The one taken from me, after many long years, the other… dying so young, when I had barely come to know her…” The Prince paused here, his face quite serene. “But--that is what this war shall require from us. The willingness to lose what is precious. Many have died already. And many more will die until we achieve our victory. Our total and complete victory.”

The Peers began to applaud at that, only for the Prince to raise his hands, and motion for silence. “I am not finished yet,” he explained. “For I must make it clear--our victory will be complete and total--and the suffering to achieve will be vast. Those of us who do not suffer in body will suffer in spirit. Men will walk about, while they inwardly lashed by scorpions, impaled by sharp stakes, have the hands of their souls smashed, and then chopped off. The horror--the suffering--it will be immense. You can barely conceive it, and once you feel it, you will never be able to forget it.” The Prince’s voice remained calm and even, his expression pleasant, as he said all this, all of which seemed to add not subtract from the increasingly obvious discomfort of his listeners.

Not that the Prince took any notice of this. “It will burn itself into your mind, this suffering, scarring you as surely as a brand. It will be thing you carry to the end of your days. But, my people, I assure you this--the victory shall be worth it. When we stand together in the pure world, the world as it ought to be, the world of perfect and unceasing light, you will agree with this. You will think the torments that you have suffered were with it You may even fall to your knees, in rapture, and proclaim your willingness to suffer it all again, if it proved necessary.” Amfortas nodded to himself. “That is a true victory. And it is to this victory, that I shall take you, under the Holy Light.”

There was silence for a moment, as the Prince finished his speech, but eventually the Peers began to nervously applaud. As they did so, Lanval scratched his arm.

The damn thing was itching yet again.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 18

The sound of fiddles reached the party on the balcony of the Grand Palace of Lasliez, as they sat enjoying the rather frugal feast laid out before them.

“No, no,” insisted Viviane. “It’s really quite easy. You Milesians really over estimate fire magic--it’s pretty simple when you get down to it. Most things want to burn, if you give them the chance.” She idly tapped the table. “Earth magic’s the tough stuff. It takes a lot to get it to move, and you have to be careful, or it will move too much.” She stroked her chin. “Well, soil’s easy, I admit. A great hiding place if you combine it with ‘Breathe as the Earthworm’…”

Allard shrugged. “I don’t care what you say--it looks impressive.” He turned to his younger brother. “Back me up on this, Guiscard.” Guiscard didn’t seem to hear, simply staring over the balcony, tapping idly on the railing. “Guiscard?”

The younger Lasliez turned. “Oh, sorry, Allard. Just listening to the Palazzos play. They are merry tonight. You wanted something?”

“A bit of support,” muttered Allard. “It really wasn’t anything important.”

Mansemat sipped his drink. “I keep hearing that term, in all sorts of odd usages, and yet I don’t know what it means.” He frowned. “Except, possibly ‘palace’, and that can’t be right…”

“Oh, it is right, after a fashion,” said Duke Rainald. “It refers to the Old Palace…” He gestured to a large, rather decrepit building that lay on the other side of the city. “Our family used to live there before the Grand Palace was made. Afterwards, my great-great-grandfather had it used as a shelter for the indigent. Five generations later, and the indigent there have become their own little community, with their own little rules.” He shrugged. “Most of them came from downriver, and the ones that didn’t soon picked up the dialect. Many of them work as street entertainers. Or similar mean professions. And by food from the grain dole.”

Mansemat nodded. “Ahh, yes, Marsilion’s Folly used to have one of those. But my father ended it. Said that if men wanted cheap food they could earn it, and impressed them to repair the Great Stone Way. And when the Guild of Cartwrights, Architects and Draftsmen complained, he had them dissolved.” He shuddered. “Some of the members literally.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. “You know,” said Allard, “with all due respect, everything you tells me makes me so glad that Lord Shaddad lost the last Battle of Montalban.”

“Oh, you’re not alone in that,” muttered Mansemat. “My father never saw a problem that couldn’t be ended with an execution. The fact that this seemed to continuously call for MORE executions was only a bonus. And so he found himself surrounded by enemies after he came limping across the Murkenmere, after that battle. And I will add, losing troops due to shoddy road construction.” A slight smile touched the Dark Lord’s face. “Evil is… often a self-defeating thing, I find. Thank goodness.”

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 17

Ludovico listened to the fiddles play, their cheerful music echoing throughout the Old Palace, as the Palazzos celebrated the Badb’s burning the Leonais’ siege engines. It was good to hear. Like most of them, Ludovico had been trying to convince himself that they would win this battle against the Prince, and now--now, suddenly, it seemed possible--even probable.

And that was a glorious thing.

He leaned back in his nook and tried to shut his eyes, but a particularly loud bit of foot-stamping destroyed his efforts at rest. It was of course, the downside of being a Palazzo--if your fellows were in particularly uproarious mood, you weren’t going to sleep that night.

Well, unless you were like Arturo, and could sleep through anything. Though on reflection, Ludovico was certain that the old man was among those celebrating on this night.

“There he is!” said a familiar voice. Ludovico turned to see Ippolita and her sister Rosa standing over him. “Ludovico! Ludovico, you must come and sing for the company! They are playing, but they want to hear a man with a real voice!”

Rosa clapped her hands. “Oh, do, Ludovico! You know no one else has your voice!”

“Of course they do not,” answered Ludovico groggily. “Voices do not change possession. I and I alone own mine--this is the typical way of things, and one which I have no objection to.”

“You know that isn’t what she meant,” muttered Ippolita.

“I may have some vague inkling in that direction,” said Ludovico, as the sisters pulled him upwards. “Still, I’d prefer to rest it. It’s not only my voice, after all, it’s my livelihood.”

“Well then, if you’ll sing now, we’ll pay you oodles of coins,” said Rosa. “Which we most definitely have.”

Ippolita nodded. “The victory has put men into… a celebratory mood.” The expression that stole over her face was not a smile, or a frown, but managed to partake of both. “Celebratory… and generous.”

“Ahh,” said Ludovico. “Indeed.”

Rosa looked at him pleadingly. “Please? It’d make us happy.”

Ludovico gave a bow to the sisters as the small group entered the Old Courtyard, filled to the brim with merry throngs of Palazzos. “Very well then. You know it is my rule--anything to make a lady happy.”

“And we’re close enough to count, eh?” said Ippolita, as they escorted him to the center of the Old Courtyard.

“Oy, oy!” shouted Rosa. “Ludovico’s here! Ludovico! The street-singer! He going to sing for us! Sing us a song to celebrate the Badb burning those Leonais bastards all to hell!” She clapped her hands as she and her sister headed back among the crowd. Ludovico looked at all the eager faces, of those listening for a tune to enjoy, of the musicians waiting for a him to give them a tune to play, trying to think of the song that fit…

And then it came to him. He cleared his throat, and began. “Oh, Douma Dalkiel’s a very fine lass,” he began, smiling as the fiddlers began to play the old standard. “With a pretty face and a shapely… leg,” he sang, performing that amusing little wiggle with his leg that always made people laugh. “And by your door, she’ll come to pass, but she will never beg.” Ludovico clapped his hands together. “And it being so, when with her I go, I’ll be in good cheer. For we all go, to the dark below, and so, why should we fear?”

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 16

Gerard de Breze wheeled his horse around, and screamed at the men. “You cowards! You filthy cowards! Put out these fires! Put them out I say!”

The men stared at him and the flames but refused to move. “Sir,” said one, “sir, there isn’t enough water…”

“Not enough water?” the armiger shouted. “Then use your hands, your bodies, anything to smother the flames! You are replaceable--but those towers--if we lose them, then it’s weeks of effort wasted…” At that moment a loud crash was heard. Gerard turned to see the tower he had worked on for so long, that tall and proud thing come crashing to the ground.

Gerard gave a scream, and then rode over to the towers, only for the heat to make his horse shy. “Onwards! Onwards, you brute!” he shouted, digging his spurs into the animal’s flanks. “It’s only fire!” The horse whinnied, struggling at his commands, inching forward, and then shying back. Frustrated, Gerard raised his fist towards Montalban’s walls. “You--cowards! Cowards! Fighting us with this unearthly magic! It is unnatural! Unnatural and--” Gerard gave a cry as he felt a sharp pain in his stomach. As his hold on the reins slackened, the horse gave a neigh, and bolted, running as far from the flames as it could.

Gerard tried desperately to regain control, as the horse moved in blind panic, but he felt light-headed, and the pain in his stomach was growing worse. Putting his hand to it, he felt something wet--looking down, he saw that some… red liquid was now covering it.

At which point, his horse reared, and Gerard was thrown from his seat.

He landed in a soft, stinking heap that seemed halfway between solid and liquid, which he eventually realized was the midden. Gerard gave a cry, but no one seemed to hear him. Indeed, no one seemed to be near him at all. He gave another cry and tried to rise, but his legs didn’t seem to quite work, and so he wound up squirming desperately in that stinking heap, unable to get out of it.

The indignity struck the armiger like a blow. This can’t happen! Not to me! I have a destiny! I can’t die like this! Like some… pathetic… fool without a drop of armiger blood in his veins!

It was his last coherent thought. But not his last thought, which was a vague and wavering memory of watching his father ride through the fields, and his father letting him give the horse an apple afterwards.

And then there was nothing.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Siege of the White ;Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 15

“Ahh,” said Nitre, painting the small figurine before him with gloved hands. “So that is how it stands.”

Sylvester looked around the tent in bafflement. “Umm… yes. The… Archon wishes you to relay any news you have for him through me.”

“You said that already,” noted the Stylite, placing the figure before him with a satisfied nod.

“Oh, yes.” Sylvester gulped and looked longingly towards the entryway of the tent. It was strange--outside of Nitre’s tent it was cold, but inside it was stultifyingly hot, a sort of strange wet heat that got inside you and made you miserable. “Yes, I suppose I did.” He looked at the figurine. “What… what is…?”

“A hobby of mine,” answered Nitre, placing the doll down. “To pass the time. The long, long, wearying hours that I face.” He propped the figure up so that Sylvester could get a good look at it. It was, he saw, a doll in the shape of a small boy, clad in simple blue clothing, the face nothing more than three dots and a line to denote eyes, nose and mouth. “I make them. I clothe them. I give them names.” Nitre began to affectionately stroke the doll’s head. “This one is Threnody.”

“I… see…” said Sylvester.

“Wave to the young Eremite, Threnody,” said the Stylite.

The doll raised its arm, and waved to Sylvester.

“Ahh.” Sylvester began to back away. “How… charming.” His hand felt what he prayed to Anael was the tent flap. “I must go now.”

“But Threnody wishes to speak to you!” stated Nitre. “He finds you as charming as you find him! Don’t you Threnody?”

The doll turned its head and nodded at Nitre.

Sylvester took a step backwards. “Yes, yes, but… I really must be going… now… The Archon…”

“Oh, do stay,” said the Stylite. “The Archon can wait. The siege can wait. The war can wait. But little Threnody--he wishes to talk to you.” The doll clambered awkwardly off the table. “Don’t you wish to hear what he has to say? Hmmm?” Now it was crawling towards Sylvester on the floor.

Sylvester leapt back, no longer caring if he was going out the door or not. As he left the tent, he saw the doll staring at him, its eyes strangely luminous. But then, then he suddenly blacked out.

When he came to, it was in the camp, as two armigers shook him conscious. The Stylite’s tent was nowhere to be seen, and if the two men could be believed, the siege towers were burning.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 14

Viviane chuckled to herself, as she watched the siege towers burn.

“Sometimes you worry me, nightshade petals,” said her husband, sitting quietly by her side, Murgleys lying on his lap.

“Just remember to stay on my good side,” she answered.

Mansemat turned to regard the immense pyres, and nodded. “Oh, I need little reminder to try and do that,” he said. “But this would be a major one.” His eyes narrowed. “The Stylite doesn’t seem to be doing much, is he?”

Viviane peered into the distance, her nose wrinkling in disgust. “Nope. I can feel him… lurking in the distance, but that’s it.” Her frown deepened. “That… doesn’t make any sense. He’s their damned magician--they created the entire order to deal with the threat of the Nightfolk--and all he does… is…” She shook her head. “Something. I’m not sure what. There’s some nasty magic at work out there… but I can’t get slightest idea of what its supposed to do…”

“And we know isn’t protecting key assets of the army--because you just destroyed a sizable chunk of them.” Mansemat shook his head. “I wish I could understand these people. I really do. Right now it feels like I’m fighting someone I cannot see. Either because they’ve reached a place so dark it lies beyond even the power of the Mother of Night to reveal, or because they’ve a light so bright in their hands it blinds me when I am before it.”

“Any real difference between those?” asked Viviane, smiling slightly. “When you get down to it, I mean?”

Mansemat sighed. “No, not really. In the end, all that matters is, this is an evil that lies beyond my sight…”

“Nisrioch…” she began.

“Is as baffled as we are,” said Mansemat. “And frankly, rather irritated by it. He always hates it when things escape his Sight. Which is understandable, as its usually a bad sign…”

“Well come on,” noted Viviane. “He can’t See everything--he should know that. And some things--well, come on, it’s like the line of Ahrimanes and that freaky gift they’ve got for avoiding divination. I mean--Nisrioch couldn’t even spot his own daughter thanks to that. And honestly, I find these people a lot scarier than Belberith. Or Falerina, for that matter.”

“What about Alcina?” asked Mansemat.

“Technically, she’s on our side,” replied Viviane. “But if she wasn’t…” The Badb shuddered slightly, then grumbled slightly, shaking her head. “You know--I love you, Manny, but you can be a real jerk sometimes. Here I was enjoying a victory, and now you have me thinking about the creepy Ashuranas, and the creepier Stylites, and all this cosmic… creepiness.” She gave him a reproachful look. “It’s not fun.”

“Sorry,” said the Dark Lord of the Plains sheepishly.

“You’re making sure I get a very nice dessert tonight,” she added.

“Of course, nightshade petals,” he agreed.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 13

Jacques took a deep breath. The tower looked like it would almost be done. After days--weeks, really--of effort, they’d be finished. They’d be finished, and he could rest.

“Lovely weather,” said a voice at his side. Jacques turned to see Pierre, sitting by his side. Jacques fidgeted uneasily. He and Pierre no longer spent much time together--things had changed between them after Simon’s death, with Pierre seeming to grow ever louder and more desperate in his proclaimed loyalty to the Seven and Leonais. It had made a man who Jacques had found to be poor company previously utterly intolerable. And somehow, the connection to Simon just made that worse, made Jacques feel soiled and worthless when he dealt with Pierre.

“Yes, yes it is,” said Jacques. And it was. It was sunny, and reasonably warm, especially considering the time of year.

“We should be done with the tower soon,” said Pierre. He smiled broadly. “Seven be praised!”

Jacques nodded. “It will be nice to be done with the damned thing.”

“The HOLY thing,” said Pierre. “It’s holy! Blessed by the Seven.” He nodded emphatically. “We need it to defeat the apostates and their allies.”

“Right.” Jaques coughed quietly. “Well, I’m just glad we’ll be done with it soon. It’s been a long, hard bit of work.

“I‘d be pleased,” said the old-timer, taking a seat next to them, “except for what they’ll have us do once it gets done.” He shook his head. “Ever storm a city? It’s not pleasant.”

Jacques blinked. He hadn’t considered that bit. “How… unpleasant?”

“Oh,” said the old-timer, stretching, “about as unpleasant as you’d imagine rushing up a wall as men shoot things at you. And drop things on you. And try to stab you.” He shrugged. “And then there’s the bit where you try to stab them” The old man gave a sigh. “Really, not very pleasant.”

“Well, I will cheerily give my all against the Nightfolk and their allies!” declared Pierre. “And if I perish fighting them--well, I’ll die proudly.” He nodded, took a deep breath, then nodded again. “Proudly,” he muttered.

Jacques sat there trying to consider all that, when Pierre gave a shout. “It’s the Badb! On the walls! Look!” Jacques followed Pierre’s finger, to see the faint shape of a woman, standing on the gates of Montalban. Her fair reddish-blonde hair fluttered in the breeze, as she spread her hands wide. It seemed to Jacques that he almost heard a woman’s voice, faint and low, muttering the words of some strange, forgotten tongue--but that might have been his imagination.

What wasn’t was the way the siege towers all simultaneously burst into flame. As Pierre screamed in horror, and he watched in dull amazement, the thing they’d worked so long on began to collapse, still ablaze. And then the old-timer began to chuckle. Jacques turned to him. The old-timer shrugged. “Really, sometimes, you just have to laugh,” he noted.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 12

“It is so good to know you are with us again, Your Highness,” said Sir Alexandros Chashmallim to the Prince.

Amfortas nodded serenely from his chair. “And it is good to be back home again,” he said, smiling. “The world holds many fascinations, but in the end, Leonais is where I begin, and where I end. Indeed, even when I leave it, I am still here. Sometimes, I even go to sleep somewhere else, and wake up here, with no idea how I arrived.”

Sir Jerome watched his commander nod to the Prince-Regent’s comment, while doing his best not to seem puzzled by it. “Ahh… yes. Yes, I know what you mean,” proclaimed Sir Alexandros, his face doing its best not to display its owner discomfort. “I myself often find myself missing the Concordat here. We are all of us bound to the lands of our birth, Your Highness.”

It was, Sir Jerome felt, a sterling effort. Sadly, the Prince’s only response to it was to stare intently at the aging Eremite, with a strangely bland expression. The young Eremite glanced at his partner, Sir Ambrose, who was shifting uncomfortably where he stood. To be fair, Jerome felt about as uneasy. It wasn’t simply the Prince--standing in the old chambers of the Sacristans was proving steadily nerve-wracking, Jerome found. It had been months, and to his mind not a single Eremite had quite adjusted to the change. They may have been proven to be traitors--but the Sacristans had still been brothers of the Faith. Their suppression was… discomfiting, and somehow, getting their former possessions didn’t make it any better.

The Prince had finally broken his silence--not by saying anything, but by rising from his chair. He strode over to Sir Alexandros. “So, Sir Alexandros, how stands my city? How has Joyeuse been since I have left it?”

“Excellent, Your Highness,” said Sir Alexandros. “We Eremites have kept your peace, with skill and dedication.”

Amfortas nodded, and turned from the Eremite. “Ahh. Yes. I see. Security is important to me, Sir Alexandros. Very important, since the death of my wife. You see?”

“Why, yes, yes, I do,” said Alexandros cheerily, “and rest assured--” And then the Eremite stopped speaking, producing an awful squawk as Amfortas rammed his hand through the man’s exposed throat. As Jerome and Ambrose watched, Amfortas pulled his bloodied hand away, while Sir Alexandros sputtered and contorted where he sat. The Prince watched the man fall from his seat and convulse on the ground as he died, then turned to the two young Eremites.

“Do you know why I just killed your commander?” said Amfortas calmly.

Jerome tried to say something but found his mouth wouldn’t work. Sir Ambrose it seemed was able to get something out. “No--no, sir,” he stated. “I… I am--certain you have a good reason, of course. You--you are the Prince. And--and we are not…”

Amfortas seemed to consider that, then nodded. “I killed him because he was a liar,” he explained serenely. “I know about the riots. About the murders. About the smugglers. You can not hide this from me. The Eremites have not been keeping the peace of my city with skill and dedication. And they should not pretend that they have.”

“We haven’t had the numbers since you sent the Archon…” began Sir Jerome.

He stopped when Amfortas turned to him, and fixed him with an icy blue eye. The Prince shook his head. “I do not like to be lied to, Eremite. I am a servant of the Light--lies create Darkness. Do you see?”

Ambrose and Jerome both nodded. Amfortas smiled at them. “Good. Good. Remember what you have been told. And live by it.” The Prince turned to leave, then pausing, as if he remembered something, turned to regard Sir Ambrose. “You.” He gestured for Ambrose to speak.

“I am… Sir Ambrose Erelim, Your Highness,” stated his partner uneasily.

“No. Now you are Sir Ambrose Chasmallim,” said Amfortas. “By my authority as Defender of the Faith, you are now the commander of the Eremites in this city.” He brightly clapped his hands together. “Now--go muse on your promotion.”

The pair swiftly left the chamber. “So… what do we tell the others?” muttered Sir Ambrose to Jerome.

“That you’re the commander now,” said Jerome. “Really--what else can we tell them?”

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Volume 2: Fields Running Red--Part 11

Ilinot de Balsarda sipped his wine uncomfortably, as the young woman before him smiled at him cheerfully. “How does it taste?” she asked. “Monsieur swears that the wines of the Tranchera region have the most astonishing bouquet! That they simply float upon the tongue!” She peered at him eagerly. “Do they float on your tongue, count?”

“I really haven’t been noting the flavor,” said Ilinot stuffily. Like most of his uncle’s servants, the lady was rather scantily clad in such a way as to flaunt what Eustace de Calx liked to refer to as ‘charms’.

“Then why are you drinking it?” came his uncle’s voice. The Duke of Tranchera strode into view, still wearing his ridiculous bird mask, with the Count of Joyeuse tagging along at his side. “If you do not wish to enjoy what I am serving, I have provided water, and simpler fare to satisfy instead of to delight.”

“Yes, uncle,” muttered Ilinot. “My apologies.”

“Ha!” snarled Eustace de Calx. He turned to the Count of Joyeuse. “Do you see what sort of nephew I have? A little sneak, who humors me, and imagines that I won’t notice!” The Duke gave an imperious wave of his hand. “You may be my most likely heir, Ilinot, but you’re far from the only one! Why I have a small horde of bastards, everyone of whom would be thrilled to be the next Duke of Tranchera.” He brought a hand to his mask, and stroked the bird’s beak. “Of course, that would require some dealings with the faith, but, I’m owed a few favors in the Synod…” The Count of Joyeuse’s eyes widened. “Merely a few loans. Well, that and solving a certain matter for the Flamen Pomonalis.” He turned to the woman. “That reminds, Maisie--Lord Viege was seen heading to the menagerie. Now, much as I enjoy his company, I would rather not have to see a repeat of what occurred last time, so if you would kindly head him off…?”

Maisie gave a slight bow. “On it, Monsieur. I am certain I can… figure something out.”

“You saucy minx!” said Eustace with a laugh. He gave her a swift slap on the bottom as she passed by. “Off with you! And have someone send me a cup of punch! My ingrate nephew may not be enjoying this repast, but I shall!”

“Oh, Monsieur!” tittered Maise merrily, as she walked away.

“Is all that really necessary?” muttered Ilinot.

“Tell me, nephew, do you know why Count Seisyll, Duke Gwynedd, and young Cortana are all dead?” asked Eustace. “It is not simply because they planned things--oh, no--it is because they obviously planned things, while being obvious threats. Now, I in contrast, appear to be planning nothing, and am a harmless old degenerate who Amfortas feels he can deal with easily if it should ever prove necessary. Which he rather doubts it will. Which is why I rather doubt he knows where I am at the moment, and rather doubt he cares, even though I am making NO effort to hide my whereabouts. While I know for a fact that he is at Joyeuse at the moment, even though he is trying to keep that a secret.”

Ilinot and the Count of Joyeuse both stared at the old man in shock. “But… but I heard for a fact that he is still in Hauteclaire…”

“Yes, well, you heard incorrectly,” answered Eustace. “The Prince lies about his whereabouts with some regularity. He seems to feel it is infinitely clever. That is why he seems to move about so amazingly quickly at times.” The Duke spread his hands wide. “Now--does that, perhaps, calm any doubts you might feel about siding with me?”

“Your punch, Monsieur,” said a scantily-clad young man, approaching the group with a goblet.

“You are a miracle-worker, Stefan,” said Eustace, taking the cup, and then rubbing his servant’s bare chest with an affectionate hand.

“I live to serve, Monsieur,” said Stefan with a bow.

“Oh, I know that, darling boy.” Eustace gave him a light familiar slap on the bottom. “Now off with you! I have great matters to discuss, and you distract me.”

“Oh, Monsieur,” tittered Stefan as he walked away. Ilinot and the Count of Joyeuse glanced at each other, as if to confirm that there was someone else here as uncomfortable as they were.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 10

Jeronim de Oriflamme fidgeted in his seat, as the music echoed in the halls of Chateau Calx. He felt nervous and out of place here. Some of this was because he--he who had boasted of his loyalty for decades--was involving himself in Eustace de Calx’s plot against the Prince, something that went against every instinct he possessed.

And some of it was because the Duke of Tranchera’s parties were the sort of affairs that you heard about in whispered rumors, and wondered if anyone could possibly be so perverted. The answer, he saw now, was ‘yes’. Indeed, de Calx seemed to outstrip his reputation by a significant margin. Jeronim glanced to his left and found himself immediately looking away, as Eustace had a large painting of a woman doing things with a large duck that the Count of Joyeuse did not associate with poultry.

“Ahh, there you are,” came the Duke’s voice. Jeronim turned to see the old man in the doorway, clad in a large red cloak, and a large mask of a bird. “Some of the other guests were wondering where you’d gone to…” noted de Calx, striding forward.

“I was… enjoying the artwork,” muttered Jeronim.

“Ahh, yes, ‘The Ravishing of the Lady of Calx by Ramiel in the Form of a Duck’ as depicted by Michel l,” stated Eustace, the admiration obvious in his voice. “She’s supposedly my ancestor. As is Ramiel, for that matter.”

“I suppose that explains the outfit,” muttered Jeronim.

“Indeed, it does,” said the Duke, sidling up familiarly to the Count. “Truth be told, I’ve always been rather fond of this painting. A treasure of my house. My father kept it hidden in a darkened chamber, but I--I show it proudly, for what does this painting and the tale behind it show that I can make a boast few can--a boast of divine blood!”

Jeronim blinked. “You… you actually believe that story…?”

“Oh, no, no,” said Eustace. “It’s utter nonsense. Gets all sorts of dates wrong. Has the poor woman getting imprisoned in a palace that didn’t even exist then.” The Duke gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “Complete poppycock. But that’s immaterial. The fact remains--I can make the boast. You cannot--and you are the Count of Joyeuse.”

“Well, neither can the Kings of Leonais,” muttered Jeronim.

If Jeronim hoped this would quiet, or at least discomfort the Duke he was gravely disappointed. Instead Eustace only chuckled fondly while giving a few sage-like nods. “Quite, quite,” he said. “And yet the Pescheours rule over us, and not we over them. They--who were nothing more than pirate chieftains centuries ago, when the House of Calx ruled a kingdom! A bandit throng, set over a line older than the Alcides!” He sighed. “Truly, the twists of fate are outrageous, are they not?”

As those twists had lead to him sitting in the Duke’s hall having this conversation, Jeronim decided that agreement was not only desired but absolutely correct. “One wonders how your ancestors could have been content to stay under the rule of the Holy Emperors?” he muttered, as he gave a dull nod.

“Oh, they weren’t,” said Eustace. “They schemed and plotted endlessly, and gave the Alcides ever so many headaches! So in truth, I consider our present business to be my following a grand old family tradition. And in time where such action is greatly needed.” Turning to the picture he saluted it. “Indeed, I hope my ancestors can look down on my actions with approval!”

Jeronim winced. “Must you talk so openly of this matter?”

“Relax, Count de Oriflamme,” said the Duke soothingly. “I am the master within these walls--nothing that occurs here is known without my willing it!”

“But… everyone knows what you do here, Duke,” said Jeronim. “Or at least… a good portion of it.”

“Well, yes, because I want them to,” replied Eustace grandly. “Think of it, man! My reputation for decadence and libertinism is the labor of a long and fruitful life! If I did not allow rumors to spread it would wither and die! Are you saying I should seek that? That would be… outrageous! And absurd!”