Saturday, November 29, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 9

The slaves marched into the great common area before the Mount Cthonique mines, under the watchful eyes and ready lashes of the guards. As he saw them lining up there, Nycetus mused how so many men could be guarded by so few. But then, we have the weapons, and the soldiers to use them, he considered. And these men have seen us use both to crush them when they were in a better situation.

As soon as he was sure they were all before him, Lord Nycetus began to speak. “I will not waste words,” he declared grandly. “You are now the property of these mines, and you will work in them until you die. Serve us well, and that may cover a long run of years, spent in reasonable comfort. Serve us poorly and it will be brief and painful. Rebel against us and it will end instantly and in agony you cannot imagine.”

The slaves’ expressions were mute, with some crossing over to blank--while Nycetus was certain that in some cases this was because some of them didn’t know the Dark Tongue, in most he imagined it was a certain shock stealing over them, as they became truly aware of just in what bad straits they were in. While that was at least partially what you wanted, it couldn’t be allowed to go too far, or you’d lose half of them to suicides in a week. It was time to give them just a pinch of hope. Something to make them willing to go on.

“And yet, I would not have you imagine that life here is only pain and suffering,” he stated. “We have a time and a place for pleasure.” He clapped his hands together. “Ursula! Bring them out! Show these men what we offer in our palace of pleasure!”

The door of the little stone building that stood on the outskirts of the mines open, and Ursula emerged. He suspected that for a moment some of the men assembled below were doubtless tempted by the woman--but then they got a good look at her face. Ursula bore on her face the signs of the displeasure of her previous owner--a nose that had been cut off, and a long jagged scar that trailed down the right side of her face. While this doubtless made her of limited use as a whore, it was part of what made her an excellent bawd. Men left her alone, and she could tell when one was getting violent. That had proven to be a very useful gift indeed. He’d had to replace far fewer of the women thanks to her.

Ursula stepped to her side, and the women of the House of Pleasure walked out. They were, for the most part, a passably pretty lot, but still hardly ravishing beauties. But that didn’t matter to the men below. Starving men at a banquet don’t tend to notice if they’re eating scraps. Just that there’s food before them.

“Visits to the House of Pleasure are among the many rewards available to those who serve the mines well, and behave properly,” continued Nycetus. “That is the sort of man I am, slaves. If you treat me fairly, I will treat you fairly. Otherwise, pain and the lash.” He gave a nod. “Go down below. Food will be distributed to you shortly. Then tomorrow--you will begin to work.”

Nycetus watched as the slaves shuffled off in the direction the guards indicated, disappearing into the outer chambers of the mines. As the last of them vanished, he turned to Abgar, his legate. “See that the guards are on watch,” Lord Nycetus noted. “I suspect there will be a few acts of violence in the night. Now, a certain level of this is to be expected, but I do promise you, if more than three men are killed down below there will be consequences. I’ve not lost money on these mines for all the years I’ve run them, and I don’t plan to start now.”

Abgar bowed and left the room. Nycetus took a seat, and after some thought, ordered a pomegranate brought to him.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 8

The songs of nightingales rang out in the trees of the great pleasure gardens of the Amontides that evening, as King Sutekh and Prince Serapis walked down the flowered lane together. “We have been much troubled of late, by certain matters,” said the King quietly to the Prince, who walked six paces behind Sutekh, a rare and signal honor even for a Prince of the Blood.

“What matters are these, Dark Lord?” asked Serapis, trembling slightly. It occurred to him that the Prince Ptah Djehautides had been having such a private discussion with the King on the night that he had mysteriously vanished. Of course, Ptah’s meeting with the King was one of those things which, though everyone at court had known about it when it had happened, had never been mentioned again after he disappeared, and like most such subjects was not advisable to think on very long.

Serapis realized his nerves were not improving, and attempted to think on fluffy bunnies instead. And yet somehow one of the damn things popped into his head with a knife and then he started envisioning himself being chased by a horde of rabbits with sharp implements, which quickly overwhelmed him and hacked him into bloody pieces.

“It is a simple thing, really,” said the King softly, “involving the conquest.” Prince Serapis felt his throat clenching. “Should we add another stair to the Glorious Throne?”

Serapis stared at the Undying One for a moment. “That… does sound like it would be difficult,” he said eventually.

“Indeed,” agreed Sutekh. “Further, it would ruin the present artistic qualities to add another stair--seven is attractive, but eight is ungainly. And yet, somehow, it must show how what the Amontides’ conquered now lays under our feet.”

Serapis slowly nodded. “Yes. Yes. I see.” He fidgeted awkwardly. “Perhaps… perhaps… a rug, of some sort…”

The King’s eyes lit up in excitement. “Yes! Yes! Filled with images of the glory of the Amontides, sewn by the hands of Milesian women, out of the finest and rarest of ingredients in their lands… including the hair of its ladies of breeding!” He smiled at the Prince, and gestured forward. “You have pleased us, kinsman. You may approach two more paces.”

“I… thank you, Dark Lord.” Serapis took two nervous steps forward.

Sutekh nodded. “This is a great and signal honor, Serapis. And yet we have granted it to you, for you have been of great use to us.” He regarded the Prince intently. “The Northern League still refuses to surrender, and the threat of the Empire intervening remains. Will you not fight on for us, kinsman?”

“I…” Serapis shut his eyes. “I am… sorry, Dark Lord, but… I am tired. I have fought the Northerners for a decade now, and I have won every battle I have fought and still… still it exhausts me. The fighting… the killing… I need to rest, Dark Lord. Rest until I am well again.”

There was silence in the garden, then, for a long moment, punctuated only by the songs of nightingales. Serapis held his breath, waiting for the King of Kings’ response. Sutekh Amontides stood there, regarding him quietly, the King’s dark eyes fixed on his. “Very well,” said Sutekh, at last. “We would not see so fine a weapon broken or dulled by careless use. Return to your chateau, kinsman, rest and replenish yourself. All we would ask that you come to our aid if we should need you.”

Serapis gave a deep bow. “Of course, Dark Lord. Of course. I am your loyal subject, and live at your service.”

Sutekh nodded. “Very well. You may leave our august presence, oh Prince of the Marches.”

Serapis remained bowed. “Thank you, Dark Lord.” And then, he politely left the garden, remaining in a kneeling position until he was out of Sutekh’s sight.

Then he stood to his feet and ran to his chambers. He was fairly certain he could get his things in order to leave by the next day over the night.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 7

“I think you’ll find that my product is most exquisite,” said Lord Eri, gesturing to the line of men standing before his carriages. “These Milesians are fighting men--sturdy, hard, able to work. Well worth the gold price, I think you’ll agree…”

Nycetus snorted. “Milesians are difficult. More brutes than proper men. Why else do they lack a finger, hmm? Like some sort of monkey, or something similar.” Many of the Milesians were looking rather quietly offended by all this, though the fact that Nycetus was surrounded by armed guards rather lessened their offense. He chuckled to himself. “I’ve actually written on this, you know…”

“And it is doubtless edifying,” muttered Eri, “but we are here to talk business. Milesians are brutes, you say? Well, this is brutish work you do here, so who better? As I’ve told you, they are sturdy, and able.”

“Perhaps, perhaps, but you aren’t going to receive the gold price for this lot,” said Nycetus. He regarded them with a critical eye. “I might be able to take them at the copper…”

“Silver,” said Eri, pudgy eyes turning to gimlets.

“Do you think me a fool?” said Nycetus. “My posting is up for renewal in a year. The Glorious Throne expects payment in hard currency. This is in addition to my quotas. The beast that is our master’s kingdom, Lord Eri, it must be fed, and it falls to me to feed it.” He turned to point at Eri. “And for you to give me the means to do so.” He turned back to the slaves and yawned. “So what of the handful not Milesians, hmm? What are their virtues?”

“Like the Milesians, these are fighting men--Northerners, for the most part!” said Eri.

Nycetus nodded. “Ah. So quarrelsome fools who will be every bit as bad as the Milesians, and possibly worse.” He rolled his eyes. “What a sorry lot you’re selling me…”

“I provide what the wars bring us,” stated Eri. “If you wish to quarrel with the selection, bring it up with that beast you say you feed.” He gestured to the solitary Goblin in the line. “This one’s a smith.”

Nycetus glanced at the Goblin. “Really? Is this true?” He gestured for him to come forward. “Speak. Speak.”

The Goblin gave a slightly resentful nod. “It is true, sir. I am a smith, and served Master Thyme of Dradarun as armorer, before my capture. Prior to that, I served Master Barleycorn of Talossa and prior to that Master Goldenrod of White Pine.”

Nycetus chuckled. “My goodness. A veritable compendium of villains! Who else do you number among your former employers? The Mongranes? The Chiaramontes? The Regnis? The Medb? The Scathach? Or perhaps, the Badb?”

“None of them, sir,” said the Goblin.

“Ahh, well, that’s a pity,” said Nycetus with a nod. “It would add to your charm. Tell me--my goodness, I just realize I don’t know your name…”

“It is Burr, sir,” answered the Goblin placidly. “Barrant Burr.”

“Well then, Burr, I must know what it is that keeps you fighting for such a lost cause?” Nycetus’ face was bland, save for his eyes, which were cruel.

Barrant remained calm. “I would say it is my sense of right, sir.”

Nycetus let loose a titter. “My, my, this one is entertaining,” he said to Eri. “That and my need for a new smith have made it far likelier that I will purchase what you’ve decided to offer me.”

“For the silver price…,” began Eri.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” answered Nycetus, moving further down the line.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 6

Lord Nycteus yawned as he sliced open his pomegranate. “Really,” he said to the young man seated opposite him, “I think you’ll find work here at Mount Cthonique is quite easy.”

“If you can live without hope of glory and renown,” snapped the young man.

Nycetus rolled his eyes as he scooped out some seeds. “I think you will find, Cheimarrhus, that one can quite easily do that, just as dying in the possession of those two items.”

Cheimarrhus glared at his superior. “At least it’s a death with honor! I will rust here, I know it!”

“Better to rust then to hang,” said Nycetus, chewing his pomegranate seeds. “That young woman you carried on with was a Princess of the Blood, after all.”

“If every boy who ‘carried on’ with Princess Nebthet got disgraced, the court would be empty,” snapped Cheimarrhus.

“True, true, very true,” said Nycetus, swallowing. “That’s why it is limited to those who get caught.” His eyes narrowed. “And even then, a special disgrace is reserved for those who displeased the lady…” Cheimarrhus glanced away, muttering angrily. “But I am misunderstood. I do not mean to cast blame, and throw aspersions around. No, I merely trying to make it clear that life here is not so unpleasant, if you are willing to… make the effort to enjoy it.”

Cheimarrhus glanced at Nycetus’ substantial gut. “Well, I can see that you’ve managed to follow your own advice…” he muttere

Nycetus gave his stomach a hearty slap. “Indeed! Why, I myself am a living exemplar of what I preach, and thus prove its validity!” He leaned forward. “And that is why you would be wise to listen to me, my lad.”

Cheirmarrhus stood up, and walked across the room. He stuck his head out the window. “Oy! Toad! Saddle my horse! I’ve a mind to ride!”

The hunchback sitting in the courtyard below looked up with his misshapen head. “Of course, great sir. Of course! I will do so--do so immediately, yes!” He rose unsteadily.

Cheirmarrhus watched him placidly. “Well?” he said at length. “Don’t simply say you’ll do it--do it! Hop to it, Toad! Hop to it!”

Toad had reached his feet, and began to walk in the shuffling manner of a man with a clubfoot. “Ha! Ha! Very clever, good sir! Very clever! ‘Hop to it’! Ha!” As the young noble watched, the slave shuffled away towards the stables.

Cheirmarrhus turned to his superior. “Is there a reason that creeping creature wasn’t exposed at birth?”

“Oh, he has his uses,” said Nycetus with a smile. “After all--who else would we have to take care of your horse if the Toad weren’t here?” He scooped out some more pomegranate seeds, a grin appearing on his broad face. “Believe me, lad, I have run this mine for many long years, and what those years have taught me is that everyone has its use.” A peal of trumpets was heard in the distance. Nycetus chuckled. “Hello! It looks like the latest shipment has come in down the road.” Nycetus crammed the seeds into his mouth, and began to noisily chew. “Do be a good lad, and meet them for me, won’t you?”

“But… my ride!” gasped Cheirmarrhus, eyes wide with disappointment.

“Will have to be put off,” said Nycetus.

“Can’t you go meet them yourself?” muttered Cheirmarrhus.

“No,” replied Nycetus calmly. “Firstly, I am eating my pomegranate. Secondly, I am your commander. Thirdly, I am your commander, who is eating a pomegranate and who wishes you to get moving right now.” Cheirmarrhus stared at him, dumbfounded. “Well? Aren’t you going to move?” Cheirmarrhus rose, swiftly from his chair and bolted to the stairs.

When he reached the courtyard, Toad was waiting for him with his horse. “Ahh, great sir,” said the hunchback, limping forward. “Young Silili, she is as eager to ride as you are, great--”

Cheirmarrhus hand darted forward, and gave the slave two slaps. “Return her to the stables, worm!”

Toad nodded. “Of course--of course, great sir. Sorry if I offended--so sorry!” As Cheirmarrhus watched, he turned and limped back to the stables, Silili following him.

Cheirmarrhus shook his head, and stormed off for the gates to look at this latest lot of slaves. As he did so, he wondered if anybody at Mount Cthonique was as unfortunate as him. Somehow, he thought not.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 5

Each step in the throne room of the Great Palace of the Amontides was incalculably valuable, a work of art made of the most precious materials, honed by the most skilled craftsmen over years. Each step had on it a scene carved from one of the lands ruled by the Amontides, from the lowest step, worked in fine ebony, which showed the Goblins of the Shadow Woods paying homage to an Amontides, emerging like some strange sort of beast from the forest to offer their goods, to the topmost step, worked in beaten gold, which showed the nobles of the South, clad in their finery and mounted on horseback likewise paying homage to an Amontides, though instead of goods, they offered their daughters. And resting on that top step was the Glorious Throne, with its jewels and its precious metals, in such profusion, and worked with such skill, that one might think that the value of this throne alone outweighed the value of anything else in the lands ruled over by its owner.

But that, thought Serapis Anhurtides, Prince of the Marches, would be wrong. As would the thought that this so-embellished chair and the steps leading up to it had seen many kings, for they had not. Only one king had walked up the Seven Steps to sit upon the Glorious Throne, the one who sat upon it even now, though he done so for quite some time. The line of the Amontides had always been blessed with long life and long rule, but King Sutekh, the twelfth of that great lineage, had outstripped them all by a wide margin--for two hundred years now, he had been King of Kings and Lord of the South, an extraordinary stretch of years even for an Amontides. People had taken to calling him ‘The Undying One’, and King Sutekh had done nothing to discourage them from saying this.

Looking upon him, handsome, strong, and almost eternally youthful, clad in jewels and fine raiment, it was hard to imagine one so splendid could perish. Some said that Sutekh had the special love of the Darksome Lady, and was thus kept from death.

Others said less pleasant things lay behind it. But they only did so in hushed whispers, and even then some said it once, and then never said anything again. Serapis shuddered to himself slightly. Whenever he arrived for a royal audience, his thoughts tended to go in unpleasant directions, no matter how he tried to keep them from them. I will give my report, and then I will go back to the Marches, to spend my time counting my cattle, and watching my daughters grow up. Serapis took a deep breath and nodded to himself. Surely the King of Kings was finished with him now…

On the floor before him, Bes Sekhmetides was finishing his petition. “…Gotten quite bad, oh Eternal and Unequaled Splendor,” the aging nobleman noted, his expression quite pained. “This is the third harvest to fail in as many years. The aqueducts and canals are… drying up, and the countryside…” He bit his lip. “Oh Astonishing Lord of All, the peasants flee, and the wild Ghouls are moving in from the Wastes, to take their place…” To Serapis’ surprise, a tear was appearing in Bes’ face. “If things continue in this fashion, the South shall be a blasted ruin within our lifetimes!”

King Sutekh gave a loud yawn. A nervous uncomfortable silence filled the room, one that increased as the King fixed Bes with a rather unpleasant gaze. “We do not appreciate this… shrill tone,” stated Sutekh at last.

Bes Sekhmetides gulped nervously and fell to his knees. “I… my apologies, Eternal and Unequaled Splendor. It… the sheer horror of what is happening in the South has unnerved me. The lives of thousands…”

“…Are immaterial to our immaculate presence,” replied Sutekh levelly. He gave a laugh. “Really what do you tell us? That the crops have failed, as they have done on many occasions in the past. That there has been something of a drought, as has also happened often in the past. And that the wretched Ghouls move from the Wastes into our lands, like vultures towards carrion, as they have ever done when the opportunity presents itself. What is to be done, you ask? We shall tell you.”

The King rose from the Glorious Throne, and stepped down to the Second Step. “A good harvest will come.” His foot found the Third Step. “The rains will return.” Now, he trod on the Fourth Step. “And the Ghouls shall have their heads placed on spikes when they find themselves facing actual armies, instead of angry farmers trying to hold them off with pitchforks.” The Fifth Step. “And for these trifles, you disturb our councils, to bleat like a sheep.” The Sixth Step. “Well, have you anything to say to us?”

“Apologies, oh Dark Lord,” said Bes Sekhmetides, raising his hands to plead. “Your humble and pathetic servant realizes his error, and begs your forgiveness!”

“And it is granted,” said Sutekh, with a smile, “provided you hie from our sight and we do not see you again in this place unless we call for you.”

Bes gave a nod and began to back away quickly, then paused to give a deep bow. “I praise your wisdom and mercy, Eternal and Unequaled Splendor, to the pathetic and unworthy servant who stands…”

“Get you hence,” snapped Sutekh. Bes gulped, nodded, and then fled from the hall. Sutekh glanced over the remaining crowd. “Where is the Prince of the Marches? We have heard he has news for us…”

Serapis stepped forward. “I am here, Astounding Lord of All..”

“Very good, Prince Anhurtides.” The King beckoned him to come closer. “Leave the floor, and ascend to the Seventh Step.”

A gasp came from the assembled courtiers. Serapis ignored it, and walked calmly to the step. “I thank you for this signal honor, Dark Lord.”

Sutekh smiled at the Prince. “Rumors of your deeds against the treacherous Northerners have reached us, Prince Anhurtides. Tell us, are they true?”

“If you heard that the armies of the Northern League were routed, and that eight of its eighteen members have left to swear loyalty to the Glorious Throne, then they are,” said Serapis.

King Sutekh laughed and laid a hand on the Prince’s shoulder. “Excellent. This pleases us!” The King pulled his hand back and gave a clap. A slave girl stepped forward from the crowd, holding a pillow, a single perfect pearl on it. “Take this jewel, Prince Anhurtides, and know that its value is but a pitiful fraction of the esteem in which I hold you.”

Serapis took the pearl, and bowed. “I… thank you, Dark Lord. As always, you honor me far beyond my deserts. In truth, oh King of Kings, and Lord of All, the only reward I truly desire is to be allowed to rest in my own humble demesne, until I am needed by you again.”

“And you shall have it,” said Sutekh. “And more! Tonight, a feast in your honor!”

“Thank you, Dark Lord,” said Serapis, quietly swearing inside.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 4

The carriage bumped as it traveled over the uneven dirt road. “Well, at least we’re not walking anymore,” muttered Aethelstan.

“You know, brother,” noted the Graharz, “sarcasm never suits you.”

Aethelstan turned to the Graharz, his expression slightly exasperated. “What? I’m not being sarcastic. I’m glad not to be walking! My blisters have blisters, and those blisters are threatening to spawn a third generation! Being able to ride in a cart is an undeniable pleasure!” The carriage hit another bump. “Though not an unmitigated one, I will admit!”

“Will you two cease your prattle?” muttered an Erl sitting in the corner.

“He is prattling,” said the Graharz. “I am enduring it, same as you.”

“Well, could you endure it more quietly?” asked the Erl. “It might inspire him to follow your example.”

“You don’t know my brother as I do,” replied the Graharz. “He’s not a man who suffers in silence.”

“And neither are you, apparently,” muttered a Goblin, seated nearby.

“Oh ho!” said Aethelstan, turning towards the shorter figure. “Another speaks! We might just have enough people here to hold a genuine conversation, soon.” He shook his head. “That is something my brother and I have sorely missed since Bitterleaves.”

“I would think you could get from your fellows,” said the Goblin, nodding towards the other Milesians in the cart.

“And you would be wrong,” laughed Aethelstan. “These are all Tall Hill Folk. They only speak their own strange tongues--of which there are half a dozen--and a few phrases of Imperial. The only ones who spoke Dark Tongue would be their captains, who are all dead, the poor bastards.”

The Goblin shook his head. “I have never understood you Milesians. You make the Ogres look like a harmonious lot--and I see less difference between you all then the children of Earth, Fire and Ice.”

“Only because you’re untrained,” said Aethelstan. “We can spot the differences easily. And we deal with these people on a regular basis. The Tall Hills aren’t as nice as the Low Hills, and their women not as beautiful as ours. So they regularly come charging down to try and get both.” He stroked his chin. “Though sometimes, they grab our livestock by mistake when they’re trying for the second. I’m not sure whether it’s an inability to recognize a woman based on the extraordinary ugliness of theirs, or simply a force of habit.” One of the other Milesians spat at this.

The Erl who’d spoken previously had been staring intently at Aethelstan. “You said you were at Bitterleaves. Are… are the rumors I’ve heard true…?”

“If you heard that it was a rout, then yes,” replied the Milesian.

“Aethelstan,” snapped the Graharz.

Aethelstan rolled his eyes. “Well, brother, it’s not as if they won’t be able to guess by the fact that we’re here with this merry company, instead of back home in Caer Dyfed.”

“Caer Dyfed,” muttered the Erl dimly. “Then… you are members of the Revered Band?”

“He is the Graharz,” said Aethelstan, gesturing to his brother.

The Erl turned towards the other in shock. “I… This… Is he telling…?”

The Graharz nodded brusquely. “I am who he says I am.”

“Then all is lost,” moaned the Erl, shutting his eyes. “Sutekh has buried us all.”

“Not yet. The Northern League fights still, last I heard,” said the Graharz. “And I am not dead yet.”

“You will be soon,” said the Goblin. “You know where we’re going.”

“Everyone keeps saying ‘Mount Cthonique’,” said Aethelstan. “As if it means something to us.”

The Erl shook his head. “It will, Milesian. It most certainly will.”

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 3

The little convoy reached a great caravan on the fifth day of the month of fog, and Lord Amadan haggled with Lord Eri over the prisoners. “You want twenty gold marks for this sorry lot?” chuckled Eri. “I’ll say this Amadan--you’re still the half-mad bastard you were when we were young.”

Amadan gave a snort. “No, sir, I am not. I am older, and meaner, and less inclined to take your shit.” He crossed his arms. “Twenty gold marks. This may not be a large haul, but these Milesians are warriors to a man. Their backs are broad, their legs are sturdy. They will last for some time in the mines, and the overseers will know that.” The tall Erl warlord gave his head a shake. “You’ll not lose money on this, I promise you.”

Eri chuckled. “Truth be told, a man would be a fool to lose money trading on the Cthonique Road--but I still want to make as much as I can.” He glanced over the enslaved men and laughed. “‘Warriors to a man’? That hillfolk and riverfolk scum the Northern League hires to do its mercenary work is more like it…”

“That ‘scum’ has a reputation feared on both sides of the river…” noted Amadan.

“Which is why they now lie in chains before us,” said Eri with a shake of his head. “The fact that these fools are willing to pit their arms against the Empire AND the Great Kings of Night isn’t proof their courage, it’s proof of their folly.” He glanced at the men. “Ten gold marks, for the lot.”

“Seventeen, and I consider it a waste of the talents of my band in acquiring these men, in the first place,” said Amadan.

“Twelve, and I’m surprised that you didn’t think the entire Battle of Bitterleaves was that,” said Eri. “Are the stories I heard true? Sons in their early teens, fighting alongside their grandfathers?”

Amadan glanced away, a strange nervousness in his face. “The Northern League grows desperate.”

“The Northern League is a worm-ridden corpse, that tore itself from the rotting belly of the League of Prosperity and was conceived after she gave a mercyfuck to the White Pine Confederation as he lay dying,” stated Eri, a certain sardonic glee evident on the slightly corpulent Erl’s face as he said all this. “Which is to say, the damned stupid cunt was always desperate.” He chuckled to himself. “You know what? I’ll throw in a little more coin as payment for the expression on your face. A hungry man deserves some charity. Fourteen gold marks.”

“Fifteen,” said Amadan.

“Fourteen, and provisions for your men,” said Eri. “Including a pot of ale.” Amadan gave a quiet snarl and then nodded his assent. Eri signaled his man to fetch the coins, and then gave his old compatriot a sympathetic glance. “Don’t be so sad, Amadan. There’s more battle coming--and more profitable battle too. I hear Joyeuse is calling in the Empire. That should give King Sutekh’s phalanxes a pause…”

“They will be ground beneath the Undying One’s feet, same as all others,” snapped Amadan. “What does the Empire fight, save hordes of savages and brutes? They lord over vermin, and think it makes them great kings. Sutekh shall show them their vanity.” Amadan bowed his head. “May he rule forever.”

Eri nodded quietly. “He is certainly making the attempt…”

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 2

Aethelstan glanced ahead in the line to the Graharz. “An easy battle, you said,” he noted. “A few hours, then we’d be on our way home.”

The Graharz glanced back at his kinsman. “Well, I was right about it lasting a few hours,” he stated.

“No talking,” muttered the Ogre who was escorting the line. “Prisoners should walk in silence…”

The Graharz glanced at the towering figure. “You know, I think I have a coin in my boot…” he began.

The Ogre gave a deep, booming laugh at that. “Do you think I am a fool? If you did have anything in your boot, the men who captured you have it now.” The tall figure leaned forward. “Listen well, Milesians--you are in the shadow of Great King Sutekh, whose reach extends from the South to both sides of the Murkenmere!”

“Well, parts of both sides,” said Aethelsan.

The Ogre gave a snort. “Do not mock the Great Son of Night, little man. You are in his power, and soon, you will work for his glory, as do we all.” He shook his massive head and gave a shrug. “If you had been wise, you would have fought for him. But you were not, so you will go down in the darkness deep, of the Cthonique Mountain, and find him gold and silver by breaking rocks, until you die.”

The Graharz frowned. “You make it sound so appealing,” he noted.

“No, it is horrible, and it will kill you, kill you very dead, very slow,” said the Ogre blandly. “But that is how you’ve chosen to serve King Sutekh. And I will not argue with your choice.”

“Ferrex,” came a hard voice, “what are the instructions about talking to the prisoners?”

The Ogre turned to regard an Erl, who have seemed quite tall, had he not been standing next to the Ogre. “I was telling them to be quiet, and they tried to bribe me.” Ferrex smiled. “So I told them what’s in store for them, Lord Amadan.”

Amadan chuckled. “Well, that sounds permissible.” He regarded the Milesians. “Attempted bribery, eh? That’s worth a lashing…”

“But that would likely kill them before they get to Mount Cthonique,” said Ferrex. “No real point.”

Amadan nodded. “Very true.” He regarded the pair. “You are fortunate to have such reasonable captors, and I hope you thank the Lady for that.”

“We will,” muttered the Graharz, as Amadan and Ferrex moved further down the line.

“I’m starting to envy the rest of the band for dying at Bitterleaves,” said Aethelstan quietly.

“Just starting?” said the Graharz quietly.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 1

“This is fascinating architecture,” noted Nisrioch, glancing at the arching ceiling of Old Montfort Palace.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” agreed Morgaine.

Nisrioch frowned at his sister. “You didn’t even look,” he chided.

Morgaine sighed. “It’s… walls, Nissy. Every time you talk about architecture, you’re talking about walls, and windows, and occasionally buttresses…” She paused to snicker to herself, and then gave a slight cough. “Anyway--they aren’t interesting. Not even the buttresses, once you get past the highly amusing name.” She shrugged. “I mean, sure… occasionally, you see some funny bit of naked sculpture, but mostly it’s just… walls…”

Nisrioch frowned slightly. “This is a ceiling,” he noted.

“Oh, a ceiling’s just a wall at a funny angle to keep the rain out!” snapped Morgaine.

“Can’t argue with that,” said Nisrioch after a brief consideration. “Or rather, I can, but I doubt it would be worth it…” He looked at his sibling rather desperately. “But… listen there’s something very interesting about this particular ceiling?”

Morgaine yawned. “Is it… secretly made of gold?”

“Oh, no,” said Nisrioch, with a laugh. “That would be very bad. Gold, you see, is quite heavy, and thus requires a lot of support…”

Morgaine rolled her eyes. “Well, I’m already bored, and you’re making more bored, so your promise of “very interesting” things are not coming true.” She glanced up. “Right. I don’t see any amusing naughty drawings… so… there aren’t amusing naughty drawings under the paint, are there?”

“There are not,” said Nisricoh. He gestured upwards. “However, if you’ll note the dome in the center of the ceiling, you’ll see it is identical to that used in many abbeys to Mother Night in the Lands of Night.”

“So they built this place the same way they built an abbey for the Darksome Lady,” muttered Morgaine. “Big deal.”

“It is a big deal,” declared Nisrioch, gesturing heavenwards. “Those abbeys were built by a handful of holy orders, who kept their house secrets… well… secret. And yet here this same style of building built on the other side of the river, at around the same time as many of the older abbeys.”

Morgaine blinked. “I think you’re getting to a point, but I can’t see it.”

Nisrioch gave a depressed sigh. “Oh, very well. If you insist on my spelling it all out. This building shows various signs of having been built originally as an Abbey to Mother Night. But it’s on the wrong side of the river.”

“Ahh.” Morgaine regarded him blankly for a moment. “If you throw in a ‘or is it?’, I will hurl something at you. With my mind!” She wagged a finger at him. “And you know I can do that.”

Nisrioch glanced at his feet, his disappointment obvious. “Well… you must admit it’s an interesting theory.”

“No, I don’t,” said Morgaine. “Not the least because it is a crazy theo…” The vague sound of singing reached the pair’s ears. “What is that?”

Nisrioch turned around. “It sounds like local folkways!” he announced, rushing off in the direction of the singing.

Morgaine rushed off after him. “Hey! Remember, my little legs don’t let me run as fast as you, beanstalk!” The pair’s path took them through the winding paths of Montfort, through the crazy winding streets, past the former (and now thoroughly vandalized) residence of the Eremites--most of whom were presently imprisoned in the city dungeon--into what had been pointed out to the pair as ‘Montfort Square’, which was less a square, and more of a strange off-kilter diamond. In the center of the square, young Prince Gandin sat on a pillar, with flowery chains wrapped around him.

“Creopan break the chains, Creopan break the chains, Creopan break the chains,” sang the assembled folk of Montfort. A few played along on simple instruments--flutes, and rattles and simple drums.

Morgaine glanced around, noting quietly to herself that for the first time since their arrival, neither she nor her brother were attracting notice from the crowd. Then again, it wasn’t exactly a mystery why…

“Oh, there you two are,” said a familiar voice. The Lady Belecane made her way through the crowd, smiling at the two Cthoniques. “I was wondering where you two had gone off to.” She gestured to the festivities. “It seemed bad manners to not let you two see this…”

Morgaine nodded. “Yes, well, we’re seeing it now…”

“I was showing Morgaine some interesting architecture in the palace,” explained Nisrioch.

“It went about as well as you could imagine,” muttered Morgaine. She glanced out at the crowd. “So… what is this?”

“It is the feast day of Saint Creopan the Chained,” answered Belecane. “Gandin is playing the Saint because he’s the oldest Graharz here. He’ll break his chains at the end of the song.” She smiled. “It’s all very lovely and symbolic.”

Nisrioch leaned down to his sister. “Remind you of anything?” he asked quietly.

“I’m sure it’s a coincidence,” she noted.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 66

Ostrorog bin Konstancy sat in the impromptu hall, sipping his tea. The boisterous conversation went on all around him, the sounds of cups clinking and jests being exchanged filling the air. He wondered what was in those cups they were clinking. He suspected it wasn’t tea.

Not for the most part, anyway.

Moments like this made Ostrorog feel acutely alone. He was a Kizak, a son of the White Wolf, but the years he’d spent in Castle Terribel had changed him as they had the other Kizak “Princes”. But in his case, the matter was perhaps more pronounced because his father was Konstancy bin Lev, a living legend, a near perfect embodiment of what it was to be a Kizak.

The tea felt cold on Ostrorog’s tongue. He supposed he should have drunk it quicker. He was considering asking for some more hot water when he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. “Ostrorog, my son,” came his father’s old voice. “I am tired. Please help me back to my tent.”

Ostrorog rose from his chair and turned towards his father. “Of course, Gali Khan,” he declared, with a bow. The pair left the feast together, and walked into the cold night together, in silence. Ostrorog found himself looking at his father’s craggy face, and wondering. What was he thinking, Konstancy bin Lev, the man who had fought perhaps a thousand battles, who had crossed swords with perhaps a hundred thousand foes?

A sudden breeze made him shiver. “A chilly night,” said Ostrorog.

“I’ve known chillier,” answered the Gali Khan. He wrapped his cloak around himself a tad tighter. “Still--I’m not as young as I once was. And I feel the cold… more.” He turned to look at his son. “The Marshal Mongrane is a fascinating young woman, no?”

Ostrorog nodded. “I suppose.”

His father gave a a deep booming laugh. “If I were a younger man…” And then Konstancy sighed. “But I’m not. Five times I’ve crossed the Murkenmere, son. Five times.”

“I know father,” said Ostrorog. “It’s a great accomplishment.”

Konstancy snorted. “It is piss and spittle. The boast of a man who has seen two foolish, pointless waste of lives, and the retreats they made necessary. I’d rather say I only had to cross it once.  And that after I had, things stayed as I settled them.” He laughed, and shook his silvery head. “Ahh, that would be a worthy boast!”

Ostrorog nodded. “So… what do you imagine will happen tomorrow, oh Gali Khan?”

“What usually happens when two forces meet in battle,” replied the old Kizak. “Death, and terror, and fields running red. That is battle.” He shrugged. “That is war.” He turned to Ostrorog and smiled. “But you know that, my son. You have seen it before, and you will not shame yourself here. You are a good and brave young man, and you will prove a good and brave Gali Khan.”

Ostrorog blinked. “Father… I…”

“Sometimes think you will never live up to me, and that the Horde will not accept you,” said Konstancy. “I know this. I felt it too, in my day. But it passed. As has my time, in truth.” He looked out over the tents. “It is a new age, my son. And the White Horde will need a new Gali Khan to lead them into it. A Gali Khan who understands more than war and raiding, and death.” He looked at his son, fondly. “Five times, I’ve crossed the Murkenmere. Five times.” He shook his head. “There will not be a sixth.”

As Ostrorog stood there, his father turned, and made his way quietly to his tent.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 65

Brother Law regarded the armiger before him with weary eyes, while cursing the fact that his mask was now damp enough to make his face physically uncomfortable. “A goose, you say?” he asked quietly.

“Five gooses!” declared Sir Archimbaud angrily.

“Geese,” corrected the Flagellant. The expression on Sir Archimbaud’s face was enough to make Law happy he was wearing his mask, rain or not. “The word is ‘geese’.”

“Listen, you piddling little lasher,” snapped the armiger, “I have used ‘gooses’ for my entire life, as did my father, and my father before him, so if I say that five gooses have been stoled, five gooses have been stoled!”

“St--” began Law, and then shut his eyes. “Understood, sir. I’ll get right on it.”

Archimbaud gave his pudgy face a nod, and backed way. “Good. We’ve got to maintain discipline, you know. Order. That’s what an army needs.” He nodded again, and then stomped away, leaving Law to wonder how the man rode a horse. And then, with feet sinking into the mud, the Flagellant walked back to the great tent of his Order.

Strict and Cord were there, as well as Brothers Knot, Fist, Rule, and Cardinal, all enjoying a meal. Law took off his mask, and dabbed his face dry with his sleeve. “If I never see an armiger after this damned siege, it will still be too short a time,” he muttered.

There was a cheery laugh from his fellows. “Which one was it this time?” asked Rule. “Sir Gilbert?”

“Archimbaud,” answered Law, as he took his seat. “Asking about geese.” He shook his head. “No--no. Asking about ‘gooses’.”

There was more laughter at this. “One thing I never expected to learn,” noted Knot, “is that there were nobles in the world worse educated than myself.” He shook his head. “What do these buffoons do with their time?”

“Ride horses to death,” said Strict with a chuckle. He turned to Law. “So what exactly was he asking about ‘gooses’.”

“Five of them went missing from the armigers’ supplies,” stated Law.

The good cheer dissipated. Law watched as every Flagellant seated there shared a momentary bit of hatred for those stupid armigers who stuffed their faces, and yelled at everyone and insisted that they were always right even when it was clear they weren’t. “We’ll have to look into it,” said Strict at last.

Cord nodded. “But carefully. Taking our time. Making very certain we have the right man.”

“Naturally,” said Strict, enjoying another spoonful of broth.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 64

Belengier slammed his mug onto the table. “And for our next toast--a great victory against that little shit Astolfo on the morrow.”

“Hear, hear!” declared Bramimonde, raising her glass. “May he perish, screaming and whining like a little baby!”

Elaine glanced at Blancardin. “They were betrothed once. Briefly.”

Very briefly,” said Bramimonde, with a shudder. “Astolfo Rabicano is not a man who improves much on further acquaintance.”

Belengier gave a harsh laugh. “Oh, I don’t know. Something tells my fist would very much like to get to know him better.”

“On a battlefield, I fear that may never happen,” noted Blancardin quietly. “So I fear your fist is going to be quite disappointed on this matter.”

“Besides, wasn’t there another incident, years ago?” noted Bramimonde.

“Supposedly, but I was exceedingly drunk at the time, and thus, can swear to nothing,” noted Belengier.

“If half the details I hear are true, I can understand wanting to stick by that story,” muttered Gurnemanz. “Especially the bits about the donkey.” He glanced at Elaine and coughed. “My apologies, miss, if I…”

Elaine chuckled quietly. “I’ve probably read worse,” she noted gently.

“That does not comfort me,” muttered Gurnemanz. “I try very hard to be a godly man.” He gave a shake of his head. “Even if I fail more often than I should.”

An uncomfortable silence spread over the table. “Where do you put working with us?” said Elaine. “If I may ask.”

The Duke of Montfort was silent for a long while. “I do not know, my lady,” he said at last. “All I know is that Amfortas and his troops, who I have regarded as friends and allies, have acted to burn the world. And that you and yours have not, as yet.” He shut his eyes. “Also, that looking on you, you seem at heart, people like any other. And so I will take this chance, and hope that I am doing my duty to my land, and to my Gods.”

“I’m a little more optimistic than you on this, Graharz,” said Belengier. “I see it like this--Amfortas asked us to turn on our kin when they tried to do their duty, and then used the most treacherous means he could come up with to hurt that kin.” The young nobleman shook his head. “Well--I don’t care for that. And I’m not going to do it.”

“Your father does not agree with you,” noted Gurnemanz. “Neither do your brothers. What say you to that?”

Belengier took a long swallow of his drink. “Well, I’ll just hope that they come to their senses before it gets to unpleasant. Because I will burn in hell before I serve Amfortas.”

There was silence for a moment, then Blancardin raised his glass. “Here, here,” he declared quietly. The other Peers nodded, and then raised their own, and clinked together in a toast.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Siege of the White Mountain; Vol. 2: Fields Running Red--Part 63

The wind blew outside the door, and the rain made a dull rat-a-tat-tat on the roof. Ludovico glanced outside, shivered, then turned to the fire, and warmed his hands. It was nights like this that made you happy to be a Palazzo, and thus certain of at least a roof over your head if you couldn’t find an inn willing to take you. Indeed, siege or no, this was a good time for the Palazzos. Fine food and drink from across the river, folk from across the land needing to be entertained--and the Nightfolk themselves, who were quite happy to pay for a bit of music. And even better didn’t know all the old songs by heart.

Ludovico shook his head. He’d never have imagined it, but he was starting to think this war had turned out to be precisely what Montalban needed.

Aside from all the death, of course. That bit was unpleasant.

A head peaked in from the doorway. “Hola!” shouted Rosa, as she slid into the room. “Hogging a good fire as usual, Ludovico?”

“Go on, make yourself at home,” stated Ludovico as Rosa plopped down in front of the fire opposite him.

“Much obliged,” she stated stretching cheerfully.

“Where’s Ippolita?” he asked casually.

“Ahh, she’s with her new love,” muttered Rosa. “Leaving me to pine by my lonesome self in the wind, and the cold, and the rain...”

“Yes, yes, you are sad and woebegone,” muttered Ludovico with an irritated shiver.

“Sad, and woebegone, and bearing many fine, fat pigeons,” she stated, pulling the birds out from beneath her cloak.

“And yet even in this state, it gladdens my heart to see you,” noted Ludovico. “Now--hand me a pigeon.” Rosa tossed him one, which he immediately took to plucking.

“We probably won’t be seeing many of these much longer,” said Rosa. “Winter’s on its way…”

Ludovico nodded. “Still, I’m making a pretty penny off the Nightfolk…”

“You aren’t the only one,” said Rosa, chuckling, as she got to work on her own pigeon.

“Well--that’ll pay for a lot of firewood and good food this winter,” he noted casually. “If the war doesn’t drive prices up too much.”

“Ippolita is thinking of crossing over the river, when this is done,” said Rosa quietly. “She suggested I could go with her.” She glanced at Ludovico. “What do you think?”

Ludovico paused for a moment. “I think it’s a changing world,” he said, at long last.

Rosa nodded to herself, and then went back to plucking her pigeon.