Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 62

Sir Jerome Chashamallim regarded the letter before him with the sort of numbness that comes when disbelief and shock have failed to insulate the mind from what it is now dealing with, but acceptance has not yet found a place to nestle. He went over the letter again. He’d long given up any hopes that he could change what the message said, or even find another… less offensive meaning to what it said, buried in its words, and was now merely making stray observances upon it.

Whoever wrote it had exquisite handwriting. And had used high quality ink. Sir Jerome was wondering if they’d had a professional scribe write it down, when a loud throat-clearing intruded on his thoughts. He glanced up to see Squire Yacob Erelim looking at him nervously from among the small crowd of his subordinates that had gathered there. “Sir,” stated Yacob, “what are their terms?”

“Unconditional surrender,” said Sir Jerome. “We will turn over our arms, they will take us into custody, and then we will go in durance to the Palace of Repentance.”

The initial response to this was rather what Jerome had imagined it would be--a great deal of rather nervous chatter, horrified look and at least one man breaking into tears. “So… what… what will you do?” said Squire Yacob.

“What else can he do?” stated Sir Anton, stepping forward boldly. “He will lead us into battle against these impious wretches! They will see what happens, when the Poor Knights of the Faith are threatened by the apostate! We go forth into battle, clad in the armor of the Seven!”

Sir Jerome had a horrible feeling that Sir Anton was going to bust into a hymn, and so stood up. “Actually… I believe… we will have to accept these terms.” Anton turned, clearly furious, but also rather flabbergasted, and Jerome decided to press his advantage. “We are outnumbered to the point of being undermanned, and undersupplied. If we attempt to resist, we could, perhaps, hold this little citadel for a week, at the outside, at which point, we would all be slaughtered by them. This at least gives us a chance to escape with our lives.”

There was a surprisingly large amount of quiet nodding at this, which Jerome took as a rather hopeful sign. Sir Anton scowled and shook his fist at him. “Coward!” he shouted. “Traitor!” He looked at his fellow Eremites. “Will you let this man lead you into error?” Most of them flinched at that. Anton turned to Jerome. “When I inform the Prince of your treachery, it will not go well for you, wretch.”

Jerome nodded. “Well, if you feel you must. I can provide you with a fast horse, to take you out of the city. I think I can even ensure that you make it out unharmed.” He glanced at the others. “Do any of you wish to accompany Sir Anton?” Three other Eremites stepped forward, glancing at the rest with thinly-veiled contempt. Jerome waved at a squire. “I’ll have them get your horses and supplies ready.”

Sir Anton snorted. “When we return with troops, I will do everything I can to make sure your body hangs from the chapterhouse gates.”

Sir Jerome folded the letter before him, as he picked up a quill. “Well, I admit freely and without a hint of hesitation, Sir Anton, that you are the braver man.” Sir Anton strode out of the room, followed by his fellow volunteers. And also, the stupider, thought Jerome, as he tried to find the most dignified way to tell the Count and the other rebels that he accepted their terms, and indeed, threw himself and his men on their mercy.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 61

The rains were pattering at the roof of New Palace of Montalban, a building whose antiquity stretched so far back as to add irony to its name. They were heavy late autumnal rains that chilled the skin, if they hit it, and were something a promise that the winter that was to follow this autumn would be harsh one.

But they didn’t hit you in the New Palace. From there, you could sit in the warm chamber, enjoy a bit of wine, and stare at the poor bastards who were trying to kill you beyond the white walls. The poor bastards in their soggy, disintegrating camp where a sizable number of tents had collapsed into the mud.

It almost, Allard felt, made one willing to forgive the ‘trying to kill you’ part.

Almost.

“They should be here shortly,” stated Mansemat. “They’ve happened upon the Leonais relief army, and…” He shrugged. “The Mongranes believe in taking their opportunities, when they chance upon them.”

Rainald nodded to himself. “So then--it’s to be a dual rout.”

Guiscard gave a bleak chuckle. “Almost makes you wonder why we feared Leonais, doesn’t it?”

“Geography is still very much in their favor,” said Mansemat quietly. “Once this is over, Amfortas will merely have to fall back to Joyeuse, and from Joyeuse--head up north. Base himself in Almace, or Durandel, and raid us into submission.” He gave a shrug. “It has, after all, worked before.”

“Those times, the folk of the Cities looked to Leonais for protection,” stated the Duke of Montalban. “This time--they look on them as ravishers. As invaders. As--”

“As they have often looked on my folk in the past,” stated Mansemat. “Something I doubt they will all be so quick to forget as you would wish.” He sighed. “And then there is the matter of your Synod. I doubt the Flamens will discard their Protector of the Faith so quickly as the Free Cities have discarded their Lord Protector…”

Allard sighed. “You can be a very gloomy man at times, Mansemat Cthonique. I’m amazed you’ve won as many battles as they say…”

“I’ve won that many because I’ve been leading troops since I was sixteen,” noted Mansemat. “And I tend to be gloomy, because experience has taught me that those who don’t realistically evaluate their chances die young.” He shook his head. “And that is not something I intend to do. I have flowers back at home I intend to see bloom. And I will not be disappointed.”

There was a gust of wind and the Badb entered. Allard noted that the wind seemed to part around the Witch Queen, allowing her to walk through the rain and remain perfectly--or at least remarkably--dry. “Okay. Rats and vermin in the food stores are dead and gone,” she announced. “We can hold out--probably another six months. Which I think we can all agree is more than those jerks out there can.”

Guiscard gestured to her husband. “We probably aren’t going to find out. Your army’s coming to break the siege. And its apparently grown to become… several armies.”

Viviane nodded. “Well, that’s good. Any personal stuff from Nissy and Morgaine…”

“Apparently, they’re enjoying Monleone very much,” answered Mansemat. “And Nisrioch has already set up a lot of his portable apparatus there, so soon we may enjoy the full benefits of his Sight in the field.”

Viviane sat down next to her husband. “I have to admit, this experience is much better than my last war. Being able to sleep in actual buildings is a very, very nice touch.”

“One would hope so,” said Mansemat.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 60

“Charming girl, the Princess,” said Blancardin Valfonda, as he scooped up a spoonful of custard.

Bramimonde Gradasso eyed him skeptically. “I suppose once you get past her penchant for wearing wings, she’s all right.”

Blancardin blinked. “The… Princess Elaine doesn’t wear wings. That’s… the Marshal Mongrane.”

Bramimonde stared back him, in equal puzzlement. “What? She’s… not a princess?”

The Duke of Bellamarina considered things. “Well, in a manner of speaking, I suppose, yes, Marfisa is a princess. But she is more formally the Marshal of Tremisona. I am talking of Elaine du Lac.”

Bramimonde set her cup down, and stared at Blancardin levelly. “Which one is she?”

“The willowy young blonde,” stated Blancardin, with a sort of tired patience.

Bramimonde peered over the small crowd assembled in the Mongrane’s command tent. “What willowy young blonde?” she muttered, her voice peevish.

“That one,” said Blancardin, pointing quickly then leaving it off so as not to be seen.

“Wait--the skinny girl with the messy hair?” said Bramimonde, her eyes wide.

“I wouldn’t call her ‘skinny’,” replied Blancardin, looking offended. “More… ‘willowy’.” Bramimonde simply stared at him, a slight smirk on her face. “She has a certain… quality of grace…” he explained.

Bramimonde simply continued to stare, the slight smirk getting broader.

Blancardin turned back to his custard, and began to spoon it up swiftly. “What are you two up to?” asked a booming voice. Bramimonde turned to see Belengier Nestor standing near them, Duke Gurnemanz apparently being dragged in his wake.

“Your cousin has apparently found the next Duchess of Bellamarina,” said Bramimonde with a nod at Blancardin.

“So he finally asked you the question, did he?” declared Belengier boomingly.

Bramimonde stared at the Prince of Agrismont in puzzlement. “What?”

“She thinks I’m in love with the Princess du Lac of the Marches,” said Blancardin.

“You called her ‘willowy’,” laughed Bramimonde.

Gurnemanz shrugged. “Seems… apt to me. A little rough at the moment, yes, but… she’ll grow into it, I’d say…”

Belengier glanced over at the young Erl. “Hmmm… Fine young girl, I will agree…”

Bramimonde crossed her arms. “There’s nothing so disgusting for a woman--or at least, for me--then hearing men discuss a woman as if she were a horse they were considering buying,” she noted.

“Well, if it makes you feel better, Bram,” said Belengier, grinning at her. “I’d rather have you for my mount than her, if those were the choices.”

Blancardin stared at him, a mild frown on his face. “You know, I am suddenly convinced of the wisdom of the Countess Gradasso’s words, whatever my previous doubts…”

Belengier gave a long, loud laugh. “So, I was right! You share my opinion on the choice of mounts, don’t you, cousin? Ehhh?”

The Duke of Montfort gave a sudden cough, and tugged on Belengier’s shoulder. The Prince of Agrismont turned to see Elaine du Lac standing by his side.

“I hope you realize that everyone in this tent can hear what you just said,” she noted. Elaine leaned forward. “And I personally have been listening to this conversation… earlier than you all might imagine.”

Belengier smiled at her. “Really? Well, I’ll be damned. I always heard you Erls had great hearing, but I wasn’t sure it was true.” He chuckled. “And I always thought it had something to do with the ears, but that can’t be right, because you don’t got the odd ones. Just normal ones.”

Blancardin raised his little bowl. “Lovely custard. Give my compliments to the Mongranes. I’m considering having seconds.”

Elaine nodded. “Good. They’ll be pleased to know that.”

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 59

Gwydd Palepole stood on the hill, and shivered. As a boy he’d heard rumors of falls and winters by the Murkenmere, but he’d never believed the stories, of cold and storms that appeared out of nowhere. It sounded fantastic for a young boy from the pleasant lands of White Pine.

These winds were making understand it was all true. Oh, was it ever true. He glanced at the rather shoddy tents that lay in the valley before him, and felt a bit of sympathy for the poor men in them. It was an odd sympathy, as he’d probably be trying to kill them shortly, but still…

Well, damn it, a man shouldn’t die cold.

“Hey! Palepole!” came Faileuba’s voice. The Erl quickly came up beside him. “You’ve got to come back in! They’re breaking out this local wine…” She shut her eyes and smacked her lips. “It’s amazing. You don’t even have to sugar it…” She glanced at him. “Okay. What’s wrong? You look all pencil.”

Gwydd turned to regard her. “Pencil?”

“You know… full of thoughts!” she said. “Like a pencil is, before a writer uses it to scrawl something down.”

“I think the word you want is ‘pensive’,” said Gwydd.

Faileuba considered things. “Nah. I like ‘pencil’ better. Sounds… neater!” She peered closely at him. “So now that you’re done deflecting my earlier question--answer. What’s wrong?”

Gwydd shrugged. “I’m cold.”

“HA!” snapped Faileuba. “Head down to the southern end of the Wastes and then you’ll know cold. This is just a mild chill!”

“You’ve been to south of the Wastes?” muttered Gwydd.

Faileuba blinked at that. “No. No, I haven’t. Further, if you are ever asked, you will swear that I have never, ever been there. Nor really been anywhere near there. Ever. Understood?” Gwydd nodded. “So--real answer now. What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know, Fai,” said Gwydd. “This… this isn’t like our usual jobs. It’s war. It’s bigger than us, and that scares me.”

Faileuba waved her hand. “Trust me, Gwydd--at the end of the day, it’s just a bunch of people shaking things at each other, and then trying to stab each other. Like any other feud.”

“And you would know this how?” asked Gwydd.

“Mmmm… I wouldn’t, due to all those places that I most assuredly haven’t been, and you must painstakingly deny my ever having been there,” answered Faileuba. She spread her hands. “I’ve been around some.” She smiled at him. “Now--tell you what! I know a simple trick to get you to cheer up. Or at least to get your mind off all this scary stuff!”

Gwydd quietly stepped away from her. “I believe I’ll pass…”

“Ahh, but it’ll really help you!” Faileuba declared.

“Your phrasing doesn’t win my confidence,” said Gwydd.

“Holdfast’s let me do it to him hundreds of times!” she declared. “And it always works!”

“Yeaaaah… unlike Meliadus, I don’t believe in mixing business and…” began Gwydd.

Faileuba stared at him in shock. “What? I’m not talking about THAT! Especially not with you!” She shuddered. “Man, you Goblins have filthy minds…” She pointed at him. “I am insulted. You have insulted me.”

“And I shouldn’t be offended by what you just said?” noted Gwydd.

“Nope. You brought it on yourself.” Faileuba crossed her arms, and shut her eyes. “For that I won’t do my little trick to buoy your spirits, unless you ask me.” She let one eye peep open. “Very nicely.”

Gwydd considered letting it lie at that, but somehow he felt getting things over with might be his best bet. “Very well, Fai. I am sorry. Show me your wondrous, magical trick for restoring my spirits.”

Faileuba gave a bow. “But of course, Palepole.” She straightened herself, brought one finger to her lips, and licked it. And then, as Gwydd tried to puzzled out what she meant by all this, she darted forward, stuck it in his right ear and wiggled it.

“Ahhhh!” Gwydd pulled back. “What was that?”

“My trick!” said Faileuba gleefully. “Feeling better now!”

“If by ‘better’, you mean ‘furious’, then yes,” he growled.

“Told you it always worked!” proclaimed Faileuba.

“Hey, Fai,” said Meliadus as he approached them. “Did you tell Palepole about the wine?”

Faileuba nodded. “Yes, and then I raised his spirits through my patented method.”

“Ahh.” Meliadus glanced at Gwydd. “She did the ear thing to you, eh?”

Gwydd bit his lip. “Mmmm-hmmm.”

Meliadus nodded. “Well--look at this way--you are definitely no longer depressed, aren’t you?”

Gwydd considered this for awhile. “You two deserve each other, you know that?”

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 58

Morgaine stared at the image revealed in the bowl of blackish water before her. “So… an eye?”

“That is correct,” said Nisrioch, his hands making passes over the bowl. “A withered white eye, staring blindly. A sending of no small power.”

Morgaine regarded it for awhile. “So… what does it do?” she asked lowering her head to the bowl for a better look.

Nisrioch sighed. “That is what I am trying to see.” He chanted something low in the Dark Tongue. There was sudden flash of violet. The eye seemed to twitch and turn, but then returned to its strangely sightless-seeming state. Nisrioch growled to himself. “Still nothing. This is skilled. Simple… but skilled.”

“You know the longer I look at it, the more off it feels,” said Morgaine turning her head. “Nerghal!”

There was a sudden gust of wind as the ghost appeared in the chamber. “What is it now?” he muttered. “Do you have a pillow you wanted fluffed or…” He saw the eye, and then gave shout. “What is that? What is doing that?”

“We don’t know, exactly,” said Nisrioch. “We think it’s the Stylites.”

“Yeah, I called you to get your thoughts on it,” added Morgaine, with a nod.

Nerghal shuddered slightly. “Well, my thoughts are it’s awful. And creepy. And I’m dead. That means something from me!”

Morgaine snorted. “Oh, please. Don’t pull the ‘dead’ card with me--I invented it!” She glanced back at the eye. “But yeah--it does feel creepy. Just wanted to see if you felt it too…”

Nerghal nodded. “Well, that was your answer.” He regarded it for a moment. “Is… is it looking at us?” He turned to his grandniece. “I think it’s looking at us.”

“I’m sure it’s not looking at us,” answered Morgaine. She turned to Nisrioch, expression slightly strained. “It’s not looking at us, right?”

“It appears to be focused on Montalban,” said Nisrioch. He bit his lip. “So far as I can tell…” He gave a shrug. “Actually, I’ve made a few attempts to get its attention, but no luck…”

Morgaine blinked. “You… what?” She swatted her brother on the back. “Stop doing that! Leave the creepy dead eye alone!”

“But how will I learn anything about it if I don’t poke it a little?” asked Nisrioch.

“I’m sure you’ll manage!” snapped Morgaine. She glanced at Nerghal. “You’ve gone quiet.”

Nerghal waved his hand. “Oh, just something you said. ‘The dead eye’. That describes it… rather well.” He nodded to himself. “And I think that answers the question. It’s looking at… death, somehow.”

Nisrioch quirked a white eyebrow at the spirit. “Father always said you had a genius for the intuitive.”

“Did he now?” muttered Nerghal.

“Oh, yes,” replied Nisrioch, turning his attention back to the eye. “In many ways you were the one opponent he respected. You helped make him what he was, after all…”

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 57

The wind was blowing, making the tent shift uncomfortably, and the flames in the braziers flicker. Sylvester wrapped his cloak around himself, and glanced at the Archon. Septimus muttered something unintelligible, and gave a weak moan. And then came something close to understandable.

“Oh, bar not the way, Lady of the Moon. Bar not the way for your poor servant!” he said. And then came a long coughing fit.

The young man shook his head. He’d found the Archon after the battle--a leg and both arms broken, incoherent and delirious. Sylvester had taken him back here and begun…

Begun the vigil. Because that’s what this was. Waiting for a sick, dying man to pass on. On occasion over the last few days, Sylvester had briefly begun to hope otherwise, but each apparent rally had been followed by the Archon’s health taking a sudden turn for the worse. He was left wondering how long the man could keep going like this.

“The lily, oh, the lily,” began to sing Septimus in an off-key croak. “Fair and white it grows…”

Sylvester applied the hot compress to the man’s forehead. Not long, he was thinking. Not long at all. “Oh, Seven, let not Your servant fall into the Darkness…” he began.

There was a strong gust of wind, and then, with a mild yelp, Sir Georges entered the tent, his teeth chattering. “Will this weather ever improve?”

“In a few months, I’d say,” replied Sylvester. “But it will get worse before then.”

Sir Georges gave a bitter chuckle at that, then looked at the Archon. “Has he said anything sensible?”

“Not really,” answered Sylvester. “It’s all bits of old prayers, and hymns. Once… he called for someone named Elsa. I think it was his elder sister. Or perhaps an aunt.”

Georges nodded to himself. “Is it wrong of me to hope he goes quickly?”

“I am a young man, new to your order, and thus the wrong man to ask such questions,” said Sylvester.

Georges smiled at the former Sacristan. “That seems like a polite way of saying yes.” He sighed. “The problem is… we’re low on food. As it is, we’re shoveling supplies to a mouth that’ll make it all useless shortly.”

“Not very much in that way,” answered Sylvester. “He… seems mostly to subsist on broth and water. I don’t dare feed anything more substantial, or he’ll choke on it.” Sylvester stared at the withering face, and then shut his eyes. “Will they be here soon? The reinforcements?”

“They should be,” said Sir Georges. “They have to be. Otherwise…”

The tent was silent for a long moment, save for the sound of the wind. After a while, the Archon began to sing again.

“The cuckoo is a pretty bird. She sings as she flies…” he began, and then he trailed off wordless moaning.

Sir Georges glanced at Sylvester, and then lowered his head.  “Oh, Seven, let not Your servant fall into the Darkness…  Let his way be free, and his burden light…”  

Sylvester joined in the prayer.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 56

The crowd gathered to meet the emissaries sent by the opposing army was large, and chaotic, a roiling, muttering mass--and somehow, Elaine was very glad of that. The tiny handful of men sent to see them--consisting of a rather confused looking young man with light brown hair, wearing armor and a light yellow cape, and handful of rather sullen-looking guards in what she realized were Amfortas’ livery--were visibly overawed by the crowd confronting them. Every advantage they had, was one denied to the Leonais, she felt these days.

As she watched the young man fidget about on his horse, Elaine almost felt a bit of sympathy. But then he spoke, and killed that very quickly. “Gentlemen…” he began in tones that suggested that words aside, he considered his general position to be that of a man talking to a bunch of rather willful children.

The Countess Gradasso cupped a hand to her mouth. “Have we all become gentlemen while we weren’t looking, Osric de Ross?”

Osric flinched at that. “Gentlemen and ladies,” he continued. “I have been instructed by my master, the Prince Astolfo to inform you that those of you of the Free Cities who choose to surrender now, may be assured of mercy. This will not be granted to those captured after the battle, when…”

Count Morgante de Serricana blinked. “Pardon--did you just ask us to surrender?”

“Yes,” stated Osric with a nod. “You will be treated with mercy, and forbearance.”

A steady rise of titters came from the assembled crowd. “And what of the Nightfolk?” asked Duke Agrivain. “Will they enjoy the same treatment?”

Osric glanced around nervously, noticing as if for the first time the rather significant crowd of Erls, Ogres and even Goblins among the group. “Ahh… well… they are… the enemy…”

“We are your enemy,” said Marfisa, looking rather impressive in her winged armor to Elaine’s surprise.

“As are we all,” said Duke Brunello. He regarded Lord de Ross calmly. “Now, you flea of a flea, crawl back to your master, the Prince Rabicano, and tell him that we regard his master as the enemy of all righteous folk, and that we have deemed siding with the Children of Night as a lesser evil than siding with him.”

Lord Osric glanced around desperately. “I… you will all… there will be no mercy… None! When the Sev--Seven give us victory we…”

The Gali Khan crossed his arms. “You are outnumbered, your men are green as grass, and you face the hussars of Tremisona, the Kizaks of all three Hordes, and the valiant men and women both have spent their existences fighting.” The old man shook his head. “There is no future for you, boy, save the a blade plunging in your bowels and your life oozing out the hole. And you dare threaten us?” He cackled. “Boy, I say you should hope your Seven are as powerful as you all say--and that they hold you in high regard indeed.”

Osric listened to that, then gave one last look around the group before turning around. “Very well! You have made your choice! You have chosen who you stand with! He gestured at Marfisa and Gali Khan. “Your doom! On your head!” He rode off then, followed by his smallish retinue.

They watched him leave for awhile, and then Marfisa clapped her hands together and smiled broadly. “That was AWESOME! We were so cool and honorable, and intimidating! It all worked! That guy was terrified throughout the whole thing! And he tried not to show it! And he failed!”

“Osric de Ross,” said Duke Brunello, “was born scared of his own shadow.”

“Well, we scared him MORE than that,” Marfisa declared. “So good for us!”

Elaine felt a hand nudging her shoulder. She turned and saw the man she’d been introduced to as Duke Valfonda. “Ahh… Lady du Lac,” he asked, in a soft voice, “is the Marshal… always like this?”

Elaine nodded. “It’s part of her charm.”

Valfonda considered that. “Ah. I see.” He nodded a few times, then coughed politely.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 55

Duke Naimon regarded the map with a smile. “Excellent.” He raised his eyes to the Prince. “Your Highness--our prospects are excellent.”

Amfortas gave a pleasant nod. “That is good news.” He regarded the map. “I am… rather curious how it is you can tell all this by staring at a rather old map…”

Naimon tapped the map cheerfully. “Thankfully my lord, the territories on this map have not changed all that much, save for a few minor adjustments that are immaterial to this war.” He put a finger on Montalban. “Here is the city of the White Mountain.” His finger traveled a fair line. “And here is the city of the Mount of the Lion. Between them the lands of Monteriano, Montfort, Carrarra, and Sericana. These are the rebels, my lord. Two isolated, desperate cities.”

Amfortas brought his hand down heavily on the map’s depiction of the other side of the Murkenmere. “And their masters, the Lands of Night.”

Naimon’s finger darted to a solitary narrow spot. “Who must cross here, if they wish to do so in force.” He chuckled. “And this is not the days of old, when the Hordes of the Wolves could burst through whatever weak fortress we placed there to plunder at will. Montfort holds the Crossing, and its keeps are strong. And loyal.” He gave a shrug. “Should the Nightfolk try to cross in any significant numbers, Duke Graharz shall hold them back--at least long enough for help from us to arrive.”

Amfortas nodded. “Yes, I see,” he stated with a yawn. “Very… very good.”

“Not good, Your Highness,” stated Naimon. “Excellent. Our foes are split, and weak. While we--we are strong, united. Even ignoring those cities that have chosen to remain quiet in their loyalty--why, Monteriano and Agrismont form a solid wedge, backed by Joyeuse to the east, Tranchera to the north, and the Concordat to the northwest. We may defeat them piecemeal, as they try to come to each other’s aid, and then--occupy their lands.” He gave Amfortas a studiedly neutral glance. “Has my Lord considered what he’s going to do with them afterwards?”

“I’ve had the occasional odd notion,” said Amfortas. “But nothing definite.”

“Montalban and Monleone will need rulers, my Prince,” said Naimon. “Men who know the customs of the Cities, and can make a claim to their loyalties.” He smiled gently. “Fortune has both blessed me, and cursed me with a surfeit of sons, Your Highness. Blessed because they are my pride and joy. Cursed, because I worry about how they all will support themselves after I pass…”

Amfortas blinked. “You want your sons to be the new Dukes of Montalban and Monleone,” he said quietly.

“They have claims by blood,” noted Naimon, “they are your own kin, and their loyalty is unimpeachable. Such a decision lays well within your power as Lord Protector…”

Amfortas nodded quickly. “I will consider it. I will consider it.” He brought a hand to his chin and took on a pensive expression. “It is simpler than my plan to raze the cities to the ground, and to raise two mountains of skulls with the motto ‘Thus to those who defy me’ before them.”

Naimon stared at the Prince for a moment, then laughed. “Your Highness has a… dark and biting wit at times.”

Amfortas considered that, and then nodded. “I suppose I do, Duke Nestor. I suppose I do.”

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 54

Sir Jerome Ere--Chashmallim now, he would have to remember that--had returned back to Joyeuse after a hard day’s travel, and after saying… something to the people in the Chapterhouse, he had gotten into his bedroom, and slumped down for a rest, still clothed.

Which, as he was wearing chain mail, meant that he awoke with shoulders screaming in agony. There was a pounding in his head, which after a moment, he realized was caused by someone knocking on the door. “Wha… what?” he said groggily, wincing as he rose. He unfastened his mail and let it fall to the floor, giving himself a mental kick for not doing this when he got back, while his sore muscles thanked him briefly before going back to howling in agony.

“Sir,” came the voice on the other side of the door, “You--you said to call you if something happened?”

Jerome gave his arms a stretch. “I did?”

“Yes,” answered the voice. “When you told us you were now in charge…”

Jerome nodded dully. Apparently he’d been more out of his senses than even going to bed in chain mail indicated. “Ahh…” He adjusted his cloak. “So… something happened?”

The nervous silence from the other side of the door was less than reassuring. “Yes… Yes… Sir E… Chashmallim. Something… is happening.”

Jerome adjusted his robe, and then stepped out. A short young blond Eremite with a rather square face stood there, looking quite nervous. “Ahh. And what is happening…?” He looked at the young man inquisitively.

“Squire Yacob Erelim,” said the Eremite, standing as tall as he could during the salute. “Sworn to the service of the Ho--”

Jerome nodded, and immediately regretted doing that. “Right. Right. Now… what is happening?”

“It… it…” Yacob turned and beckoned Jerome to follow him. He lead Jerome to a window, and gestured outside.

Jerome looked to see dozens of soldiers clad in the livery of the Oriflamme marching through the streets.

“They came at morning,” said Yacob. “We think… we think some snuck in as merchants, some came with the Count as his guard, and the rest… the rest were let in by the ones who got in.” He gulped. “They… they claim to be working in the name of… Prince Pellinore and the Regents.”

Jerome nodded. “How many are there?”

“Hundreds! Hundreds!” squeaked Yacob. “They--they’re marching everywhere, and the people are letting them, and cheering, and…”

“Understood.” Jerome turned around and started to return to his chamber.

Yacob watched his new commander, clearly baffled. “Sir?”

“There are, you say, hundreds of these men,” said Jerome, “While we are patrolling this city with dozens of us. That being so…” He gave a shrug, then winced. “I am going to try and get some more sleep.”

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 53

Eustace de Calx was sitting in what he’d dubbed ‘the Green Room’, enjoying both the ambience he’d created by gathering so many different variations and shades of green into one location, and the clavichord performance he’d ordered for his latest soiree. It was a youthful composition of his, that’s greatest charm that it was a rare piece that could be played in perfect tune, each note sounding exactly as it ought to--the player a young virtuoso who’d been gathering a lot of notice in the more rarified circles that the Duke traveled in when he felt the need to edify his more subtle senses.

It’d been an extremely pleasant performance up until the moment when the Prince’s Men burst in, disrupting everything with the sound of heavy feet tromping on his fine marble floors.

He was certain they were scuffing them up. Absolutely certain.

Two of them burst in as he sat there, rather spoiling the impression of all those various shades of green causing the Duke of Tranchera to arch one eyebrow in annoyance. The Prince’s Serjeant strode forward, his two men parting before him to flank him. “Why, Lanval,” drawled Eustace quietly, “I was unaware that you wanted to attend one of my parties. Such a shame! If you’d just told me, I’d have invited you, and then we’d have avoided all this unseemly noise and disruption.”

Lanval Equitan regarded with the aging Duke with an expression that mixed exhaustion with a certain measure of disgust. “Eustace de Calx,” declared the Serjeant, “you stand accursed of treason and kidnapping the heir to the throne, Prince Pellinore. Have you any plea to make?”

“I would never plead to a man such as yourself, Equitan,” answered Eustace, rising slowly from his chair. “It’d be in bad taste, and no man has ever declared I have bad taste.”

“No, you just like things with one,” said the Serjeant with a smile. He shook his head. “Never did understand you buggerers…”

“I’ve no doubt you can say that about many people,” noted the Duke with a smile.

“Less than you’d think” replied Lanval as he escorted the Duke from the room. “Remember I was a priest.”

Eustace gave a snort. “An Almacian priest,” he noted. “I’m familiar with the sort. With your stern looks and memorized sermons for the Holy days, and your concubines, your liquor and your blood-stained swords for the rest of your life.” As they reached the main hall, the Duke turned to Lanval. “May I say a few words to my guests? I simply wish the to be calm?”

Equitan gave a short nod. Eustace de Calx smiled, and stepped forward, surveying the crowd. The small group of party guests and staff were herded together at the walls and edges of the room, by a handful of surly Prince’s Men, while his hired clavichordist sat terrified at his instrument. Eustace took a deep breath, and began. “Ladies. Gentlemen. Do not be alarmed. What is happening here is a mere momentary disturbance to our little festivities. You see, these officials of Prince Amfortas are here to arrest me, in the belief that I have played a part in the liberation of young Prince Pellinore from the clutches of his cousin.” A worried murmur came from the crowd. “I believe their hope is that I will give up his whereabouts once they take me from here, and subject me to torture.” The murmurs became louder, and Lanval began to stride towards the Duke. “People--did I not tell you not to be alarmed? For they are mistaken. They will not take me anywhere.”

And then the Prince’s Men began to scream out as members of Eustace’s staff produced their knives and buried them in their backs. Lanval stared in shock, and then glanced to his side. The two Prince’s Men who had been flanking him suddenly pitched forward. With a growl, he drew his mace. “I can finish you off, you old degenerate,” he muttered. Eustace stood there, watching him calmly as he approached.

The blots buried themselves in the Serjeant’s arm, and his back. With a dull cry, Lanval Equitan dropped his weapon and fell to the ground. “How… how…?” he muttered.

Eustace de Calx gave a shrug. “I know interesting people, Serjeant Equitan. Many of whom are very precise shots.” He smiled and shook his head. “You do realize this was all a trap now, don’t you? This party? Me? Bait, my dear boy. Bait to draw you in, and dispatch you.”

Lanval gave a whimper. “I… I can’t die like this…”

Eustace yawned. “At my age, my boy, you learn that anyone can die in virtually any manner.”

“But… but… I was going to… see…” gasped Lanval. “See… how it all turned out…”

“I could tell you that,” replied Eustace. “Badly. That’s how things of the sort that Prince Amfortas does always turn out.”

“It’s… not… fair…” groaned Lanval, apparently not listening to the Duke.

“And now, you’ve gone downright maudlin,” muttered Eustace. “The problem with you, Serjeant Equitan, is the problem that you share with so many other Almacians. And quite possibly the Prince, if half of what I hear is true. You think that because you are cruel, you are hard. But you are not. You are soft and brittle at the center of you. That is why you are so obsessed with strength.” Lanval gave only a weak groan to this. Eustace de Calx turned to the crowd. “My apologies to you all if my surprise for this party has proven shocking and coarse. It is my intended gift to all of you to let you be the ones to witness the first blows struck for the restoration of our ancient freedoms!” He clapped his hands together, and a young man rushed forward with a glass. “For Leonais!” he declared, raising the glass.

“For Leonais!” said many in the crowd.

Eustace smiled and glanced at the clavichordist. “Well, come on, lad! I’ve hired you to play for my party! Play! Play!” With a sudden nod, the young man began again. It took him a moment, but eventually the virtuoso regained his calm and his fingers regained his skill. Eustace de Calx shut his eyes, and let the dulcet sounds of a clavichord played perfectly in tune soothe his ears.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 52

The first replies to the messages Astolfo had sent out had come in, and they were quite promising. The Ancients of Talossa, the Twelve Worthies of Cornigla, the Venerable Masters of Cazlona--all three bodies promised support in the near future. Which from those old, and rather stodgy Republics was an exceedingly good sign.

Of course in the end, the Ancients and the Worthies and the Masters were nothing but merchants with pretensions. The true mark of success was the good wishes of his fellow peers, and this he had in abundance. From Serricana, from Orgagna, from Montfort, from battered Carrarra, even from swaying Bellamarina and dubious Druantuna the letters came--oaths of support and loyalty, promises of spears, and men. The Duke of Monleone had been adroitly isolated, and would be destroyed, following which the traitorous House of Lasliaz would be destroyed at Montalban.

“Sir,” came the wheedling voice of the Prince’s spy, that little creature Jernis as he loped into the tent. “Message from the pickets you sent out, sir.” Astolfo glanced up at the revolting little fellow, waiting for his big, blotchy companion to appear. And sure enough, he did--Razalic, all brute strength where his fellow was slyness and bestial cunning. A fox and a wolf, thought Astolfo to himself. What interesting pets the Prince keeps. Thoughts like that came easier when you weren’t around the Prince, but far from him, with your own men about you.

“Then tell it to me, if you know it,” said Astolfo bluntly, rising from his desk. Words like that also came easier, when the Prince was not around.

“He wouldn’t tell none but you, sir,” said Jernis smiling broadly, revealing those awful teeth of his. “Said it was for the commander’s ears only.”

Astolfo frowned and nodded. “Very well then. Take me to him.” The pair turned and sidled off, while Astolfo followed. He wondered, briefly if Razalic had offered to bring the commander’s ears to the picket himself in a bag this time. Having to constantly tell his men not to kill the Prince’s Men was proving quite irritating.

I will have to talk to the Nestors, after this campaign. He smiled slightly to himself. Perhaps get in touch with the Leonais… Prince Amfortas was a great man, but he was becoming… distracted. Mislead by those around him. Which meant he needed men around him of a better sort. And who better than the Peers of the Free Cities?

At least--the loyal ones.

The picket stood there by his horse, visibly sweating as Astolfo approached. While it might have been from exertion, Astolfo rather doubted that. It was after all very cold out. No, this was fear. “You have news for me?” Astolfo declared briskly.

The young man nodded swiftly. “Your Grace… I… You wanted me to keep an eye out for Duke Agrivain’s army…” He gulped. “Well… it’s… here, sir. It’s… here.” He gestured to the southeast.

Astolfo nodded and glanced at his grooms. “Saddle some horses. I wish to look at this army myself.” The men quickly got to work, and soon produced four steeds. It seemed to Astolfo that his was rather bony as he mounted--but then what could be expected when you fought in autumn. And when the army that proceeded you stripped the ground bare.  Astolfo shook his head, and glanced at Jernis and Razalic clumsily getting on their own horses. Oh, yes, the Prince was definitely going to be encouraged to keep a better sort around himself.

They passed quickly through devastated, brown fields of trampled grass and ravaged wheat, until they reached the vantage point the picket had held. Sure enough, the army of Agrivain was there, the silver lion of Monleone in the air. But that was not the only banner.

Some were banners that Astolfo’s father had told him of, some from Uton’s memory, others from dim legend. The Cthoniques’ strange and terrible banner, the prisoner snapping his chains. The Wolf’s head banners of their horrible savage servants from the Waste. The grey eagle of the Mongrane--that one was a surprise. But not as surprising as the other banners he saw there.

The white ship of Bellamarina. The green serpent of Druantuna. The winged horse of Carrarra. The antlion of Orgagna. The seahorse of Serricana. The scales of Cazlona. The keys of Cornigla. The bells of Talossa. And even the great tower of Montfort.

“Seven help us,” he whispered. “We’re betrayed. Only Agrismont and Monteriano remain loyal. The rest of the Free Cities… have leagued with the Lands of Night.”

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 51

Pierre's sleep was interrupted by the sound of music coming from over the white walls.

They had been playing for hours for now, without stopping. Sometimes, they sang, and occasionally he could make out the words. One song had included the phrase ‘Bugger Prince Amfortas’.

Pierre had found himself waiting for the Seven to strike the Montalbanese down for their evil, but it hadn’t happened. It still hadn’t happened. The disloyal stayed safe behind their walls, feasting and making merry with food the vile children of Douma Dalkiel brought them while he starved here in the cold.

His stomach growled. He was hungry. He was so very hungry. And cold. Very cold. His clothes were not warm enough, and there wasn’t enough food, and he had to bring a sword down on a man’s head when the panicking started after the duel, and he didn’t know if the man was alive or dead.

He wondered if he’d killed him. A fellow child of the Holy Light. A comrade-in-arms! But the man had rushed at him, with a spear, screaming, and yelling, and waving it threateningly at him…

He was cold. And hungry. So very hungry. He heard rumors some men had been caught trying to eat the dead. He wondered how hungry he would be before such an idea didn’t disgust him. He wondered if he would find out.

A man walked by, humming to himself. He paused before Pierre. “Hungry, lad?” came a familiar voice. Jacques glanced up and saw the old-timer standing above him. Pierre shivered to himself. As usual the old man looked… surprisingly well. His clothes seemed well-tended, and he looked… well, like he’d been eating.

Pierre knew he should tell the man to pass on by--to take his impiety, and his mockery off to the hells--but he couldn’t. Instead he just nodded, and when the old-timer brought out a biscuit and tossed it at him, he grabbed it eagerly, and began to scarf it down.

“Easy, easy, lad,” said the old-timer. “If you’re as empty as I think you are, you don’t want to bolt your food like that. Take some time, and let it settle.”

Pierre nodded quietly, and began to slowly chew what remained of the biscuit, which was quickly proving to be the most delicious and wonderful biscuit he had ever eaten.

The old-timer nodded to himself, then glanced over at Montalban. “You know, the last time I heard music like that… well, it was here. In Montalban. We’d just forced Shaddad’s army back over the river, and there was celebration and song throughout the Free Cities.” He shut his eyes and shook his head. “They played like that for the father’s defeat. And now they play the same music for the son’s victory. Funny old world. Funny, sad, old world.”

Pierre swallowed his last bit of biscuit and then took a moment to feel it go down. “Thanks… thank you…”

The old-timer gave a casual dismissive wave. “Don’t mention it. Have to look out for you young folk…” He walked away, humming and whistling that strange song of his the entire time. As he faded from sight, Pierre thought he caught the phrase “Gone to graveyards everyone”.

But he might have been imagining things.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 50

Rainald stared at the rather short… man before him, who stood there with surprising confidence, fiddling with the strange little metal object he held as if he had all the time in the world on his hands.

“You may rest assured, Your Honor, that the Emporium is more than happy to provide assistance to such a worthy cause as yours,” noted Ulrich Inkstone. The Goblin smiled at the Duke benevolently. “That said, of course, we are a business. This food and its transport are not free--goodness, the expenses WE have taken in doing this are considerable. Despite what people might imagine, airships do not fly on hopes and dreams.”

Rainald nodded. “I suppose they fly on money,” he stated quietly.

The Goblin quirked an eyebrow. “Not as such,” he declared. It seemed to Rainald that the Meister was looking at him… rather suspiciously. “But they are expensive to run. Requiring much expertise that is… impossible to do cheaply.”

Rainald thought he got the hint. “Of course. I am… deeply marveled at your organization’s accomplishment.” And he really was, actually. Oh, he’d heard RUMORS of great ships that sailed through the air in the Nightlands, but he’d always thought them a myth, a mad rumor that people repeated over their cups, like the tales of the castles in the clouds, or the island where the king strangled his wives if they didn’t give him a son.

But no. They were real. The Goblins--the strangest and ugliest of the Nightfolk--had mastered the skies. It was a profound marvel, but then, as the Duke of Montalban was starting to realize, he lived in an age of marvels.

Rainald took a deep breath. “And naturally,” he continued, “you will be paid for this act, which has saved…”

Inkstone laughed. “You misunderstand me, Duke! I do not ask payment for this shipment! That has been done in full by the Cthoniques! No--no--I am merely attempting to explain that further shipments will require… greater assurances. This is expensive. That stated--this is a side matter. The greater matter for us is not shipping you food--it is shipping you the luxuries that the Merchant Emporium can supply.” He dangled the strange metal object before Rainald.

Rainald nodded. “Yes, well, perhaps some time when my people are not facing starvation and death, Meister Inkstone.”

The Goblin bowed, and clicked his heels. “Of course, sir! Take your time! I will be here… oh, all week. At the very least.”

As Inkstone walked out of the room, his little bootheels clicking, Allard slipped to his elder brother’s side. “For a man who’s found himself in a war zone, that fellow looks like he’s landed in cream.”

Rainald shrugged. “I’d say it’s obvious he has… to a degree.” It occurred to him that he and his brother were having very little trouble calling the Goblin a man.

Truly, an age of marvels.