Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 49

Bodies lay strewn around the field, looking to Brother Cord’s eyes as if an angry child had finished playing with its toys by angrily casting them around the room at random. It occurred to him that in a way that was most certainly what had happened, though he had to wonder who exactly the child was. One of the Seven? All of them? Douma Dalkiel? The Prince of Leonais? The Dark Lord and his Lady? The Holy Synod? Whatever their equivalent was across the river?

The Flagellant shook his masked head. Such questions were ultimately beyond a man as humble as himself. Perhaps beyond anybody. All he knew is that he and his brothers had been called to tend to the wounded. Most were not happy to see the Flagellants at first.

That usually changed when they started taking care of their injuries. One thing to be said about joining the Flagellants--you picked up an interesting skill set.

“Water…” groaned the man lying before him weakly. “Water…”

Cord nodded, and placed his dipper into the bucket he carried. “Of course, sir…” He placed the water at the man’s lips. It was filthy stuff, and if this were a man he thought would recover, he’d be giving him a shot of aqua vitae instead. But this man--this man would not survive. Not with wounds like that. Not if the Gods were kind.

And as he thought on the whole They were, he tried to mirror that kindness, at times like this.

The man guzzled the water greedily, then lay back and shut his eyes. He murmured something inaudible, which Cord took as ‘a thank you’. The Flagellant moved on to the next man.

This one was missing an arm now. And on closer examination, a good portion of what had been his stomach. He gave a weak cry for water.

As Brother Cord gave him a spoonful, it occurred to him that his profession had really given him an understanding for how long a body could live when it should be dead.

Brother Law approached him. “How’s it going? You need a rest?”

Cord shook his head. “I’m fine.”

Law nodded, glancing around. “So… some mess, huh?”

“That is putting it mildly,” answered Cord, standing to attend to the next man. This one looked like he might just make it. “The Dark Lords are terrible in their might…” Law gave a bitter laugh. “What’s so funny?” said Cord, turning to regard his friend.

“Oh… I’m sorry. You were serious.” Law shook his head. “Most of this--wasn’t the Dark Lords. It wasn’t Cthonique, it wasn’t that witch of a wife of his. It was us. Us in a panic. That’s how bad things are now.” He glanced around, then shut his eyes. “Honestly, I think the Nightfolk and the Montalbanese aren’t even going to have to do anything. Unless that second army that we’ve been promised shows up soon, this damned siege will end with us all killing each other, and them dancing together on our corpses.”

Cord shuddered. “Well--they’re probably as hungry as we are, at the moment. It’s been a while, and there are a lot of people behind those white walls…”

Law nodded grimly. “And a second army will mean more men to feed, but even so…” He blinked and gestured to the sky. “What is that?”

Cord turned, following his brother-in-arms’ finger. “I… it looks like something… flying. But… it has no wings…”

“A dragon, maybe?” suggested Law.

“The way I hear it,” said Cord, “they prefer to be farther south. No… no, this doesn’t fly like something that’s alive…”

And then it came into view, and Cord realized that it was something from the other side of the river, something he’d heard a tale about once, and discounted as too utterly impossible.

And he knew then that their siege was doomed.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 48

The Marshal of Tremisona and the Gali Khan of the White Horde sat opposite of each other on their steeds. Both kept their eyes fixed on each other, and raised their lances. Then, with two fearsome yells, they charged forward, lances lowered. With a great splintering of wood, the lances cracked on the pair’s shields. Both tottered on their horses, but kept their seats, then turned to regard each other.

Gali Khan glanced at the broken lance in his hand and nodded. “I have given a blow, and I have taken a blow--let all know, I consider my honor as the Khan of the White Horde to be kept!” He smiled slightly as the Marshal rode towards him. “And let it also be known that I respect and honor the Marshal of Tremisona as a most worthy man!”

Marfisa nodded. “Yes!” she declared. “And I also consider my duties as Marshal discharged, and I…” She came opposite to the old man and dropped the shattered lance to give him an affectionate slap on the shoulder. “I love this man!” She gulped. “Umm… in an abstract ‘crazy uncle’ kind of way…” she clarified.

“I suspected as much,” noted the old Kizak with a nod.

“Right, right,” continued Marfisa. “Just… had to make that clear.” She pointed at him. “You are one cool Kizak!”

The Gali Khan turned towards the crowd. “And now that all matters of honor have been discharged! We shall feast! And celebrate! And make merry!”

“Woohoo!” shouted Marfisa. “Gali Khan, you are quickly becoming my favorite Kizak leader! WOO!”

The pair rode together towards a box overlooking the jousting field. “Did you see that? Simultaneous lance breaking!” said Marfisa. She gave a happy squeal. “All my life I’ve wanted to do that! And now I did it! With the Gali Khan! The hereditary foe of the Marshal of Tremisona! Who is now my buddy!” She grinned blissfully. “This war is so COOL!”

Elaine peaked over the box and gave a tired nod. “Well, glad you’re enjoying yourself, Marfisa.” She sighed and looked at the others. “Okay, just got word from dad… there’s been… some toss-up at Montalban… Nothing major, from our point of view, but he’s hoping that we can get over there soon. The situation’s getting… unstable…”

Morgaine leaned back in her chair. “Well, the first part of our assistance should be getting there soon, and as for us… we’re at the Crossing. We’ve managed to produce one of the larger armies that the Lands of Night has ever seen. And we’ve got buddies on the other side of the river who are willing to give us some aid.” She smiled. “Man, I just realized, Dad is probably screaming in envy right now, down in Hell.”

The Gali Khan gave a nod. “And that is most assuredly as it should be.”

Nisrioch smiled. “I must thank you, Konstancy--you’ve been… surprisingly agreeable. By your standards.”

The old Kizak gave a bow from his horse. “It is my fifth time over the great river, the Murkenmere. I have… great hopes for it.”

“Ahh,” said Nisrioch. “Yes, I see that now.”

Konstancy nodded, and rode away.

Marfisa pointed after him. “You know, I have to say, I am amazed by how COOL he is. I mean, I don’t think I could say what he just said and have it turn out so amazingly awesome and poetic. I’d start, and then I’d interrupt myself halfway through--because I do that, you know. I’m really bad at public speaking if I have to do it for long stretches…” She blinked, as she realized the others were watching her. “Ummm… right. I’ll be quiet.”

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 47

“Let me do the talking,” said Sir Ambrose Chasmallim as the two Eremites made their way to the Prince.

“That was very much my plan,” replied Sir Jerome.

Ambrose nodded. “The Prince is a… great man, but he is… difficult. He must be handled with care. Care that I fortunately, am capable of.”

“You hope,” added Sir Jerome quietly. If he was expecting a response from Ambrose, he didn’t get one. His superior merely moved ahead silently, lips pursed tight. And so the pair moved on in silence.

The Prince was at breakfast when they reached him, dining on a thin slice of ham and some potatoes. “Sir Chasmallim. Sir Erelim,” he stated, not even looking up from slicing his meat. “This is unexpected. How go things in Joyeuse?”

Ambrose glanced at his partner, and then turned again to the Prince. “I… My lord, we come bearing ill tidings. Prince Pellinore is gone, sir. Kidnapped right under our noses.”

Amfortas who had skewered a piece of ham with his knife and was lifting it carefully to his face froze, and turned to look at the pair. “Indeed.” He brought the piece of ham to his mouth, tore it off with his teeth and then began to chew. After a moment, he swallowed. “That is worrying,” he declared mildly.

“I agree, sir,” said Sir Ambrose rapidly. “I--the Prince’s Men are looking for him as we speak. Serjeant Equitan feels that the Duke of Tranchera is behind it…”

Amfortas seemed to consider this, as he rose from his seat. “Eustace de Calx is a man one can believe almost anything of,” he said with a considered nod. “Sir Ambrose…” The Prince paused. “Ambrose… Amfortas… We have very similar names you know…”

“It… is my holy name, sir,” said the Eremite. “Given to me by the Church. Not my given name.”

Amfortas’ eyes remained focused on the man as he stepped in front of him. “Really. What was that?”

“Adalbert, sir,” began Sir Ambrose. “Now… I have had my men surround the Duke’s manse in Joyeuse, though it appears to be empty, and…”

“Not very alike at all then, really,” said Amfortas.

Ambrose and Jerome both blinked at that. “Sir…?” said Ambrose.

“Our names,” replied Amfortas with a smile. He gave a low sigh. “Sir Ambrose, you have failed me.”

Amborse nodded. “I know, sir, and it galls me. Still, it was for my honesty that you gave me this job, and I have dealt with you very honestly in this. Sir Jerome and I rode out many horses, all night, without any rest for ourselves, to get this news to you as quickly as possible…”

Amfortas began to nod. “Indeed.” He nodded again. “Indeed.” He began to nod with increasing speed, to such an extent that it looked like he might be beginning a seizure, though his voice was as calm as ever. “Indeed.” And then with one sudden motion and Ambrose was screaming as the Prince’s knife slashed through his eye. Jerome watched in horror as the Prince kept ramming it into the hole, and then moved the blade around within it. Ambrose screamed and then went slack, flopping upon the ground, and then going still, save for the occasional off-putting moan.

“I thank you for your honesty,” said Amfortas pleasantly, with another nod as he watched the Eremite on the ground before him. “Sir Jerome?” Jerome nodded, unable to speak. “By my authority, you are now Sir Jerome Chasmallim, commander of the Eremites in Joyeuse.” Jerome nodded again, only for the Prince to turn suddenly towards him. “You seem very quiet. Has your good fortune struck you dumb, perhaps?”

“I… yes, Your Highness,” said Sir Jerome. “That was the case precisely. How perceptive of you to note it.”

Amfortas stared at him for a moment, then smiled and placed a hand on his shoulder--a hand, the Eremite, realized, that was stained with Sir Ambrose’s blood. “Indeed. I am most perceptive,” agreed the Prince. “Tell me, Sir Jerome, did you and your predecessor really ride all night on many horses to reach me?”

Jerome gulped, then nodded. “Yes, sir.”

Amfortas turned away and walked towards his seat. “Well then, I hope you can ride back as quickly,” he noted, taking his seat. “Oh--and tell the staff that I shall need a new knife to finish my breakfast with. My old one is filthy.”

“Of course, my lord,” said Sir Jerome, trying to leave the room as quickly as possible.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 46

The Archon awoke--in as much as he slept these days--from visions of the eye which he knew now had fixed upon him--from seeing that which was always seeing him. He was cold. He was always cold now, really, but sometimes the cold was an awful, gripping thing that got into him, so that he felt his bones. Not felt it to his bones--he felt his bones, inside of him, a mass of icy knives within his flesh that stabbed him with sharp pains whenever he shifted, and tormented him with dull ones when he did not.

“Filled with knives…” he muttered to himself, and sat up slowly and looked around the tent. He was alone. Sylvester was not here. “Sylvester? Sylvester…?” he cried weakly. The Archon remembered then the duel. The duel between the Dark Lord and the Archon of the forces that had been sent to Monleone. That was why Sylvester was not here. He was at the duel.

The duel that should not be happening. The duel that would not happen if only he, Archon Septimus Seraphim, had done his duty. Septimus nodded to himself, and even managed to ignore the sudden jolt of pain that accompanied the nod. He took a deep breath, and rose, unsteadily to his feet. The pain was intense, but still he stood, and then, slowly, uncertainly, he began to move towards the entrance of the tent.

After a sizable, painful interval--the exact time of which the Archon could not be sure of--he reached the entrance, and crawled out, and saw the miracle.

There, right by the entrance, was a horse. Truly, a miracle, sent by the Seven, in Their bountiful love of him, and all like him who loyally served the Holy Light. With great effort, he pulled himself upwards, and mounted the horse. The steed waited patiently for him to do so. Then, with a tug of the reins, he sent the horse forward towards the great white walls of Montalban.

The ride was fairly easy, for the horse was patient, even though the jostling movement was painful for the Archon at times. As he rode, Septimus fixed his mind on what he would do. He would ride to the duel, and he would stop his counterpart, and he would draw his sword, and bravely face the Dark Lord as he should have, all those months ago, and his shame would be erased, and the Dark Lord would fall, and the Seven would reward him for his faithful service and he would finally be able to sleep again. Really sleep.

There was a crowd up ahead--people, gathered to watch the duel, the Archon imagined. Well, they would soon see something greater… the vanquishing of the Dark by the Light. True, they were not looking at him now, but soon--soon, all eyes would be upon him, when he screwed up his courage and…

And that was when he saw the Dark Lord. An Eremite he did not recognize was fighting him--or rather, trying to. The Dark Lord moved with an eerie grace, dodging the man’s blows as if they were made by a man standing submerged in water. The Dark Lord’s skill was so evident--so remarkable--that suddenly, Septimus Seraphim was recalling the last time he had seen it displayed, that night when Mansemat Cthonique had cut through man after man with the casual ease that a mere mortal might brush off flies with, and he was reminded of standing before the man, with his sword in hand, and he remembered throwing down his sword, and he remembered running…

“The DARK LORD!” shrieked Septimus, spurring his horse into a gallop. “The Dark Lord! Save yourselves! Save yourselves! The Dark Lord will kill you all! Flee! Flee! His sword! His bloody sword! We are all to die at the hands of the Dark Lord!”

The men were reacting now, running in bunches, some away from the fight, but others towards it. The Eremite who’d been dueling with the Dark Lord raised his hand, as if trying to get them to stand back, while keeping his eyes fixed on the Dark Lord--but still, still many of the crowd rushed forward, many with swords drawn, and then a very fair woman flew through the air towards the crowd, and she shouted “Treachery! Treachery!” in a voice so loud that Septimus’ ears ached and that made all of him ache, and then--then he saw Mansemat Cthonique turn towards him, and fix his bright green eyes on him and…

Septimus screamed wordlessly, and wheeled his horse around. He rode, rode far away, spurring his horse to run as fast as possible until suddenly the beast gave a whinny and toppled to the ground and he felt another stab of pain in his leg, the greatest stab he’d felt in a while, and then Septimus realized his cowardice, and he wept, and wept, and wept.

And he was still weeping hours later when Sylvester found him.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 45

Pierre stood there, as Sir Georges and the Dark Lord walked towards each other, and he shivered. His cloak was ragged, and too thin to boot--it could not keep the wind off his back. All he could do is pray to Uriel and Jehuel for warmth, and for perhaps Ophiel to not blow so fiercely, and so cold. Pray, and hoped the Gods listened.

Pierre shivered again, and decided to pray a bit harder.

Sir Georges slashed forward at the Dark Lord, only for the Erl to swiftly duck out of the way. Georges gave a snarl, and chopped with his blade. Again the Dark Lord weaved gracefully out of his way.

“You look a bit cold,” noted a voice at his shoulder. Pierre turned to see the old-timer, standing there.

Pierre turned back to watch the fight. He’d developed a strong suspicion that the old-timer was, his claims to the contrary, a rather questionable individual, and thus tried to avoid talking to him when possible. “The Seven will keep me warm,” he stated icily.

“Well, if They need some help, I’ve got a spare blanket,” noted the old-timer.

“That is blasphemy,” spat out Pierre. “You are saying blasphemy.”

“Right,” said the old-timer. “By suggesting that a blanket might keep you better than appealing to the Seven Lords of Creation to take time out of Their busy schedules to warm up your sorry behind. What a mad blasphemer am I.” He regarded the fight. “Well--this is a joke…”

Pierre gave a fervent nod. “The cowardly Dark Lord has yet to draw his blade.”

“Exactly,” said the old-timer. “Sir Georges is completely out of his depth. Cthonique’s toying with him--showing how little he fears the man.” He shook his head. “Something tells me when the Black Dragon draws his sword, this will be finished.”

Pierre turned on the old man. “And now you add sedition to your blasphemy!”

The old-timer rolled his eyes. “Of course.” He leaned forward. “Listen to me--I can understand if your nervous, and perhaps a little guilty, but you have to trust me on this. If you want to survive, you have to take care of yourself, especially as the armigers and the Eremites have made it clear that they aren’t going to do it themselves. This siege has been sheer butchery of men…”

“More lies and treachery,” muttered Pierre, turning back to the fight. Sir Georges’ stabs were coming quickly now, and the Dark Lord continued to nimbly dodge them. “I close my ears to you, sir.”

The old-timer nodded. “Your choice.” He moved away then, humming that strange little song of his.

Pierre kept his eyes fixed on the fight.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 44

Ludovico had managed to get a place at the city gate through the time-honored Palazzo tradition of bumbling around until you got where you wanted to go, then looking like you belonged there, a technique which worked with a rather startling regularity.

This, he felt, had most certainly been one of the times it had, as he looked down below from his comfortable seat, and took a swallow of wine. A handful of Eremites had finished setting up a dueling field there, and now their… captain, perhaps?--Ludovico had no clear notion of Eremite ranks--was standing there in his plain brown cloak, his hand on his sword, glancing from side to side. A banner hung over his head, with a picture of a house with seven keys hanging on the door.

Ludovico suspected that meant something that had to do with the Eremites, but then, he’d never been much for learning holy symbols, or attending church as a child. Nor was he much better as an adult.

A pair of figures in black cloaks were at his shoulder. “Oh, man!” said the taller one. “I thought we’d have this place to ourselves!” Ludovico turned to see a tall, grey-skinned Erl, and a shorter, veiled figure with… blue skin--a Ghoul, he believed--standing there.

“Plenty of room,” he said, with a grand gesture to the field. He raised his bottle. “And drink to share for a pair of stalwart gentlemen like yourselves!”

The two Nightfolk shared an amused glance. “First time either of us has been mistaken for a gentleman, eh Quiet?” said the Erl, taking the bottle. Nodded in what appeared to be a great deal of amusement.

Ludovico watched him take a long swallow and then hand the bottle to the Ghoul. “So you here for the duel?”

“No, I’m here to watch that jerk out there get pummeled by His Magnificence,” answered the Erl. “You’ve never see the Black Dragon in a fight.” He shook his head. “It defies belief. He’s that good.”

Ludovico decided to follow a momentary impulse, and offered him his hand. “Well, that cheers my heart. Ludovico, of the Palazzo, at your service.”

“Sacripant Fenswater,” answered the Erl, giving Ludovico’s hand a shake. He nodded at the Ghoul. “And my companion here generally goes by ‘Quiet’.”

“An apt name,” noted Ludovico, his eyes returning to the field. Behind him, his newfound companions shared a snicker.

In the field below, the Eremite seemed to shift, as if putting in a great deal of effort not to pace. Eventually, he “I am here, Dark Lord!” shouted the Eremite. “Now, where are you?”

And suddenly, there was a great gust of wind, and Mansemat Cthonique appeared over their heads, his huge black cloak billowing. Ludovico turned to the two Nightfolk. “The Dark Lord can fly?” he gasped.

“When he wants to show off,” said Quiet, the Ghoul’s voice revealing to Ludovico’s surprise that she was a woman. Still, even that discovery was overshadowed by Mansemat Cthonique landing gracefully on the ground before the Eremite.

“I am also here, Eremite,” said Mansemat, with a small smile. “And now--now we begin.”

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 43

Sir Sylvester’s hands flipped idly through the dispatches from around the camp. “Let us see… an armiger was murdered last night…”

Sir Georges snorted as his squires helped him into his armor. “Only one? I find that simultaneously comforting and disappointing. If only the men would kill a dozen or so of them. It would be the greatest victory for our side that we’ve had in this entire war so far.” He gave an elaborate yawn. “So which one was it, and how did he die?”

“Gautier de Fleur Rouge,” began Sylvester.

Georges slapped his hands together in satisfaction. “Excellent!” he declared brightly. “Why that’s almost as good as killing a dozen or so at a go! I’m half-inclined to bring the man who did it to this very tent for a handshake, and possibly a medal, before his hanging.”

Sylvester gave a rueful sigh. “Well, there would be some difficulties in that. We cannot find him. Sir Gautier was found stabbed to death in his tent.”

Georges blinked. “My--that is a daring one.” He motioned for his squires to step back. “Let me think on this…” He turned towards Sylvester. “How was he stabbed?”

“Multiple times, in the back and front,” said Sylvester. “We suspect it was several people, who sneaked into his tent after he had spent the night drinking and…”

“Oh, made a proper little party of it, did they?” laughed Georges. He shook his head. “You are looking for one man, Sylvester. One daring, clever man. Mark me on this.” Georges took a deep breath. “I will have to hold you to that, in the last extremity.”

Sylvester frowned at his superior. “You are going through with this…”

“The men need to be shown that their commander is not a poltroon,” answered Georges. A smile touched his pale, drawn face. “And after the last few months, I need to hit something with a sword.” He gave a shrug. “Or try to, at least.”

“You’re only acting commander…” began Sylvester.

“I’m as close to actual commander as they’ll get, with the Archon being in his--condition,” said Georges.

“And that’s why we can’t afford to lose you,” spat out Sylvester. “By the Seven, sir, in the week you’ve been here, I’ve been watching as you brought… order to this damned monstrosity of a siege…”

Georges motioned for his squires to leave--the two young men exited quietly. “You’re a former Sacristan, as I understand it, Sir Sylvester.” The younger man nodded. “We knights of the Hermitage are… different from the knights of the Sacristy, Sylvester. We do not serve a kingdom, but the whole of the Faith. And we do so in humility.” He gestured to his garb. “Our armor is unmarked, our weapons simple, our very names held in common with our brothers of the Order. We live or die as needed, for we are the humble hermits of the Seven, our lives in Their hands, our deaths in Their grace.” Georges placed a hand on Sylvester’s shoulder. “In their service, I will show no fear. And I ask you to do the same.”

Sylvester shut his eyes, and took a deep breath. “And what if we die? And even worse… fail?”

“Then we did so as They willed,” replied Georges, with a shrug. “And that being so, I will not go to the Seven a coward, filled with doubt, but a triumphant warrior, like the saint I serve, and the saint for whom I am named.” He smiled. “Trust me in this much, young Sylvester--live or die, I know that this day will not see the triumph of evil.”

Sylvester nodded. “I am sorry for… doubting, sir. I… I am sure you are right, it is just--” He looked up, his face desperate. “So much death…”

“That is the world we live in, Sir Sylvester,” answered Sir Georges. “Do not demand it act as the world that is to come. Simply--be brave.” He smiled at the younger man, and walked out of his tent.

Sylvester found himself hoping that he would see that smile again.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 42

Sir Gautier sipped his drink. “I have to say, the new commander is a bold man. Much better than the last.”

“Indeed.” Sir Gilbert de Ruisseau nodded, and sagely sipped his own drink. “With Georges, I at last feel we are fighting a war.”

Gautier chuckled in agreement. Truth be told, this had been a disappointing beginning to the Great War. Little glory and less trophies. The handful of battles he’d been in had involved poor farmers, and indeed barely qualified. And then this damned siege, which was dragging on and on…

He gave a sigh. At least his army was made of city-men, and thus wouldn’t be insisting on heading home soon to get the harvest. He’d had some very promising feuds end in that matter--the forces assembled all went home after a few desultory battles, and then the clan head’s had a chat and declared a peace.

Not that there was any chance of that with the Nightfolk, or the traitors who’d sided with them. But even here, he worried that the Prince might shift the war to mercenaries, as had happened in the past. His father, Pelleas had been quite fond of that--have most of the armigers “guarding the borders” while his mercenary forces did the actual fighting. Gautier could recall his father ranting about that, when he was a lad. For a warrior king, Pelleas had shown remarkable little interest in fighting wars the way they should be fought.

Gautier frowned to himself. That brought other problems to mind. “Do you think we could just… storm the walls?” he asked Gilbert.

“If we want to die in large numbers,” answered Gilbert, his rather large nose giving a wobble.

“We’re already doing that,” noted Gautier.

Gilbert gave a snort. “Yes, but this would be even larger,” he said. “And faster.”

“I don’t think I’d necessarily mind that,” said Gautier. “It’d be better than starving. Or the flux. Or the cough.”

“Perhaps,” answered Gilbert, with a shrug. “Perhaps not. What’s certain is--we wouldn’t take Montalban. Those white walls were built to stand such efforts. And with the witch guarding them…”

Gautier sighed as he rose from his seat. “This will be a long war.”

“Knew that when it started,” replied Gilbert, pouring himself another drink. He gave his younger fellow a wave as Gautier left the tent. Gautier walked on, tightening his cloak as the cold rain started to fell. He swore quietly to himself. Of course it would start now. That was the sort of luck he’d been having of late.

His boots stuck in the mud of the trampled “roads” the camp had developed. Something he wouldn’t miss when he left this place. To be honest, there was almost nothing he’d miss here, save the respect of the men. One saluted as he went past--the only other soul out in this weather that he could see--and Gautier gave a nod. He’d grown quite used to this sort of gesture. The men had learnt the hard way that he wasn’t to be trifled with and--

Gautier’s thoughts were abruptly ended by a stabbing pain in his back. He screamed as he toppled to the ground, his face burying in the mud. “Sir!” came a familiar voice. He felt a hand on his back, working to flip him over.

It did not do this gently. Gautier landed on his back and felt another wave of pain washing over. “Sir, are you all right?” said the man. Gautier recognized him--that old fellow whose name he couldn’t recall. His voice was friendly, but his face was not. And the bloodied knife in his hand was not friendly at all.

Gautier tried to form a word, but only produced a moan. This became a louder moan when the old man’s knife plunged into his stomach. “A bit worse for wear from drink” said the man calmly. “Well, let’s get you up and back to your tent!” Gautier felt the man pulling him up, and then things went black.

And they stayed that way.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 41

Eustace de Calx stood before the great clock tower in the center of the small square, staring at it quietly. After a moment, he glanced at the Count of Joyeuse. “I stood right here, you know, forty years ago, when I wished to know if my beloved had gotten the letter I’d sent, and would be mine.”

Jeronim de Oriflamme nodded. “That… sounds pleasant.”

“Oh it was,” said Eustace with a smile. “I waited for hours, to see if he would come. And before the clock struck midnight--he did.”

“Ahh.” Jeronim looked away, uncomfortable. “Well, it is… good to know that things ended happily for you then.” He shifted around nervously. “I don’t see what it has to do with our present circumstances…”

“Oh, only that once again I stand here awaiting the arrival of a young man upon which the fate of the world depends, from my point of view,” replied Eustace, chuckling. “Dear me, it makes me feel a boy again.” He smiled at the Count. “Relax. The University is a safe place. That is why I chose it. By the time the Prince’s Men even think to consider this place as a stopping point, we will be gone.” He gestured to a nearby wall. “You know, I used to bounce a ball against, when I was a student. Quite amusing, really. I could keep it up for hours.”

A carriage rolled into the university’s gates. Jeronim gave a relieved sigh when he saw it bore the arms of the Duke of Balsarda. “Ahh,” said the Duke of Tranchera. “Here we are.” The carriage rolled up before them and then opened. A pair of women wearing dark clothing exited, and bowed to the elderly duke. “Mathilde. Rachel. How did it go?”

One of the ladies, an attractive, if somewhat muscular blonde in late middle-age, smiled. “See for yourself, monsieur,” she said in a surprisingly deep contralto. She turned. “Come out little one. The Duke doesn’t bite.” She grinned at Eustace. “At least not little boys.”

A young boy with pale blue eyes and straw-colored hair exited nervously, and looked around himself in surprise. Eustace de Calx gave a simple bow. “Prince Pellinore. This is an honor.”

Pellinore stared at Eustace, with a trembling lip. “Are you… are you the Duke of Tranchera? Father and grandfather always said you were a very bad man.”

“And they were most certainly right, a reason for you to respect and honor your elders,” replied Eustace. “However, there are worse men than me in this world, and I have played a small part in rescuing you from some of them.” He gestured at Jeronim. “The Count of Joyeuse, my Prince. He and I will accompany on the next wing of your trip, and then part with you as you are taken to someplace safe.”

Jeronim bowed low to young Pellinore and then took his hand. “It will be all right, Your Highness. You are safe now.” The pair began to walk away towards the carriage bearing Eustace’s arms that was parked in a small road off the square.

Eustace watched them go for awhile then turned to the blonde. “The moment we are gone, make yourself scarce, Mathilde.”

Mathilde gave a laugh. “I do not need to be told that, monsieur.”

Eustace nodded. “I know. But I said it anyway.” He leaned forward, and placed a kiss on her brow. “Seven keep you safe, my darling.”

The second woman, a younger one with dark brown hair smiled at that. “The Seven can help, but that’s what she has me for.”

Eustace nodded as he turned away. “Oh, I know Rachel. But I do like everyone to have fallbacks.” He paused, blew the pair a kiss, and then went to join Pellinore and Jeronim in his carriage.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 40

“And is your father well?” asked Amfortas, serenely slicing a small portion of the suckling pig off for himself.

Astolfo de Rabicano nodded, as he slathered his own serving in fried apples. “Indeed. He sends his regards, Your Highness.”

Naimon Nestor smiled. “Well it is good to hear my cousin the Duke of Monteriano is all right. Especially in these perilous times.” He turned to the Prince. “May I state that you are like a pillar to us here in the loyal lands. A pillar when so much has turned to treacherous swamp.”

“Has there been a flood, which turned ground swampy? I should have been notified. I do not wish to drown, after all,” murmured Amfortas. The response to this was a baffled silence. “I am joking,” he explained. “I understand that Duke Naimon is speaking metaphorically.”

“I may have been, but there is much sense in what you said,” noted Naimon. “A flood--a metaphorical flood--has turned the ground of these lands swampy. A flood of treason and treachery! And the swamp--it is a swamp that threatens to swallow up the loyal and true! But, Seven willing, sir, you, as our Lord Protector, as our great sword and shield, will help us set things aright.”

“Oh, they will be willing,” answered Amfortas.

“Here, here!” proclaimed Astolfo, striking his fist against the tabletop.

Naimon and his sons dutifully replicated the gesture.

“You have a very handsome family, Duke Naimon,” said Amfortas.

“I thank you, my Prince,” said Naimon.

“Yes,” noted Amfortas, glancing around the room, “you have done the line of Nestor proud.” He paused, frowning slightly. “Is that tapestry new?”

Naimon followed the Prince’s gaze. “Yes, I believe it is.”

“Remove it immediately,” Amfortas stated. “It does not suit the hall.”

“Of course, my Prince,” said Naimon, signaling a servant to fulfill Amfortas’ request.

“And have it burned,” continued Amfortas, his voice flat.

“It will be done,” answered Naimon promptly.

Amfortas smiled slightly and looked around the room again. “A very handsome family,” he noted. “Astolfo I will need you to lead the force to cut off the Monleonese heading out to relieve Montalban.”

The young nobleman gave a slight bow. “Sir, it is an honor and a privilege to so be of use to you.”

“I know,” answered Amfortas. He raised a hand in blessing. “Victory go with you, young Astolfo. May you rout the treacherous scum, and kill Duke Agrivain.”

“I will bring you his head, sir,” declared Astolfo warmly.

Amfortas chuckled. “That would be a worthy gift.” He turned to Naimon. “Perhaps I could give to you to hang in your hall to take the place of that awful tapestry.”

Naimon blinked, then smiled broadly. “That would be… most thoughtful, your Highness.”

“Of course, you would need to figure out a way to hang it, but I could help with that,” said Amfortas. “I’m very good at that sort of thing.”

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 39

“This is madness!” muttered the Archon from his cot. “Sheer madness! Sheer contrary-minded madness!”

Sylvester regarded the frail form of his superior with a mixture of concern and wonder, as he worked on making some more tea for the man. Concern that Septimus would do himself an injury, the man’s health still being astonishingly poor, and wonder that the mention of a duel with Mansemat Cthonique could clarify the man’s mind so.

“How could Archimedes even consider this?” asked Septimus, shivering in his blankets. “He is hardly a great swordsman, or even a noteworthy one.”

Well, to a certain level of clarity, it had to be admitted.

“It is Sir Georges who is going to fight the duel, Archon,” explained Sylvester.

Septimus blinked several times. “Who?”

“Sir Georges Kerabim,” said Sylvester. “Commander of the Montleone contingent.”

“No, no,” muttered Septimus. “That is Archon Archimedes.” He looked deeply puzzled. “I do not know what Sir Georges is.”

“A mistake on my part,” said Sylvester tiredly. “Now, drink your tea.”

The Archon grabbed the cup and sucked it down eagerly. “He ought not to have done that, though,” he said, after finishing his long swallow. “He has not seen the Dark Lord fight. I have. Lord Cthonique’s skill with the blade is extraordinary--a cursed gift from Douma Dalkiel herself. I have seen him, you see. Seen him cut down men like wheat.” The Archon stopped at that, and stared ahead bleakly.

Sylvester felt an urge to say something. “Still, you crossed swords with him, sir,” he noted. “Crossed swords with him and lived.”

The Archon continued to stare ahead bleakly. “Tell me, young Sylvester, what lives in a man when honor is dead? Honor, and courage, and all… dignity. Take those away, leave only their bare shadows, and ask yourself, ‘is that life’?”

Sylvester blinked. “Sir?”

“I… I am a failure,” muttered Septimus. “I should have killed Mansemat Cthonique. Or died trying. That is what a knight of the Hermitage should have done. Not… survived and gone on in this… living death. I should have faced the Dark Lord, armed with my faith and either triumphed or died a martyr.”

“Sir, the Porphryiad itself notes we should not pretend to know the full will of the Seven,” said Sylvester. “We cannot dictate to them what should happen, and what should have happened. We can only accept what they have allowed to happen, and live our lives by their precepts in the world that results.” Sylvester noted that Septimus’ face seemed to brighten at that. “Besides, sir, I would say that the important part is not whether you slew the Dark Lord, or was slain by him, but the mere fact that you tried. That unlike many of my former brothers who have been seduced by the words of Douma Dalkiel, you remained resolute and true to your duties.”

Any trace of brightness had vanished from the Archon’s face. “I… yes… I tried. Yes, that is what is important.” Septimus fell back into his cot. “I… I am tired, Sylvester. Very tired. I must rest. Rest for a long time. Rest and think.” He pulled the blankets around himself. “Tell… tell everyone that I will not be seeing them. Not for a long while.”

Sylvester nodded, and left the tent. The sad part was that the Archon wasn’t getting visitors anyway. Not anymore.

They’d just… stopped coming.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 38

“Oh, you had to accept the challenge, didn’t you?” said Viviane, pointing at her husband. “He started badmouthing your honor, and so naturally, you turned into Mr. Chivalrous Warrior!”

“It’s more complicated than that,” said Mansemat, going through his sword dance.

Viviane raised an eyebrow. “How much more? Are we talking a Recital of the Unnamed Names, or just the Five Stones That Must Never Be Insulted here?”

Mansemat paused. “How is that last one complicated?”

“You’d be surprised,” said Viviane, with a wag of her finger. “These are very old stones, and they have a very long list of things that set them off.” She frowned. “Actually, I’ve pretty much been leaving them to Mother Meg. Who is trying to train some of the other members of the Coven to do it, because the Badb has other matters to deal with.”

“You are hard on your underlings,” noted Mansemat.

“It’s tradition,” she replied. “I’m supposed to stand over them like this big, looming… standing over them… thing. It inspires them to new heights of… umm…” She bit her lip. “Bowing before my will?” she suggested.

Mansemat regarded her for a moment. “I forget how relatively new you are to leadership.”

“Hey, I headed the Marsh resistance during the early years of your father’s rule,” she said. “We may have been completely ineffectual, but we tried. Very hard.”

“Viviane, let me make something clear--I am not doing this for my honor,” said Manesmat simply. “I am doing this, because the Montalbanese need to see we are winning this siege.”

Viviane blinked. “But… I’m burning all the siege engines. In big fiery fires! Some of which I let burn in funny patterns! Doesn’t that count?”

“Some but less than you might think,” answered Mansemat. “Remember, Viviane, many people are… hungry, and that puts them on edge. Makes them start thinking they might be losing. The longer any siege goes, the more it becomes a war of nerves. And nerves call for more and more things to soothe them. Which is why I went out to heap abuse on Amfortas’ name, and then accepted the Eremite’s challenge. To show them the sort of man they’re following, and the sort of man they’re fighting.”

Viviane stared at him for a moment. “You know, when you say that, it all makes sense.” Mansemat smiled and resumed his sword dance. “And I did like all the insulting of Amfortas.”

“Oh, so did I,” agreed Mansemat.

“‘Prince of Piss and Shit’,” she noted with a nod. “I liked that. It was catchy.”

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 37

“Where is he, Leonais?” called out Mansemat Cthonique in his deepest, most earth-rumbling voice, a voice that made a man’s knees shake slightly when he heard. “Where is the Prince of Piss and Shit? Where is the Lord of Refuse, the Master of Scum? Where is Amfortas? I look for him here, and yet I never see him!”

Justinian smiled to himself slightly. As pleasant as he could be most of the time, there were times when Mansemat reminded you that, yes, he was a Dark Lord. Which was oddly comforting when you were on his side, in a situation like this.

“I did not know the Black Dragon traded in petty insults,” came a voice from below. Justinian glanced down and saw a pale Eremite with a salt-and-pepper beard walking forward, a younger Eremite at his side.

“I would not call these ‘insults’, sir,” answered Mansemat. “Merely an accurate statement as to the Prince’s character. Now who would you be? You are not the Archon Septimus, I know this.”

“I am Sir Georges Kerabim,” said the Eremite, “and for the moment, I speak for the Archon and the Prince, Nightscum. Will you still take liberties with the man’s name now that he has a champion?”

Mansemat crossed his arms. “That sounds close to a challenge, Sir Georges?”

The Eremite gave a defiant. “I fear no thing spawned in night, Dark Lord.” The young man next to Sir Georges glanced at him in worry. Justinian realized he recognized the man--his old friend Sylvester Khi. Perhaps it was simply the distance, distorting the sight, making him look small, but Sylvester looked miserable--hungry, cold, and wet. A part of Justinian wanted to wave to him, but then he realized that he and Sylvester were enemies now.

That saddened him, he realized.

“Very well,” said Mansemat. “I accept your challenge. Do you wish to cross swords with me, Eremite?”

Sir Georges drew his blade and gave a nod. “If you promise to abide by the laws of honor, Nightthing, then yes, I do wish to.”

“Then let us meet tomorrow at dawn,” said Mansemat grandly. “I shall fight you before the gates of the White Walls, Sir Georges Kerabim.”

“May the Seven choose the victor,” muttered Sir Georges, turning away.

“If you wish,” answered Mansemat with a smile.