Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Siege of the White Mountain Vol. 3: Due to the Dead--Part 28

Osric stared at the line of men advancing down the mountain path.  They were very menacing men, holding long spears with terrifying metal points that looked like they could punch through a man's armor, and then puch through the man wearing that armor.

"Perhaps," said the serjeant at his side, "we should start moving, sir."

"The Duke left us here to guard his retreat," declared Osric.  "We shall do so."

The serjeant nodded at that, and the men looked... worried, but willing to accept his rule.  In his heart, Osric found himself wishing that even one of them hard started a protest.  That would have given him an excuse to flee.  Instead, he would have to stay here, stay here as these men with sharp things closed on him.  He shuddered slightly.    "Cold out, isn't it?" said Osric with a laugh.  "I'm shivering.  It's that cold you see!"

"Not really," said the serjeant.

One of the men nodded.  "Fairly warm," he said.

"Oh, what are you talkin' about?" said another.  "I can see my breath."

"Well, I'm not saying it's a bleeding summer day!" noted the first.  "But compared to what we've been having it's fairly warm."  He gave an epic shrug.  "Why, I've half a mind to take off me cloak."  He coughed and gestured to the advancing soldiers.  "Except... you know..."

The men nodded.  The second man gave a snort.  "Oh, sure. Sure you would.  Except for those soldiers, you'd have your cloak off in a second.  You're that rugged."

"You know what?" bellowed the first.  "I'll do it anyway!"  He began to slide off his cloak.

"Please stop," said Osric quietly.

The man ignored him, and tossed off his cloak.  "There!  I'm standing here without my cloak!  And I'm FINE!"  He glared at the advancing soldiers.  "You here that you pike-holding bastards!  I'm FINE!"

"Those are partisans," said the second man.

"Oh--first, those are pikes!" snapped the first man.  "Second, IT DOESN'T MATTER!"

"Please stop," said Osric again, with a bit more force. This time, they did, but he rather got the idea it was more because they had realized that terrifying men were getting very dangerously close now.

"Perhaps now we should go," said the serjeant.

Osric started to say something, then stopped.  He wasn't brave man.  He knew that now.  He wasn't a bright man either.  He'd known that for years, but had hoped to get by.  And he was... starting to suspect he was not on the side of right and justice in this matter, in as much as such things existed. 

And that was a horrible thing to realize, even if you weren't entirely sure about it.

No, Osric was not a great man, not a man of note.  Just a man.  But... he was going to die soon.  He was sure of it, sure that he was running out of chances, that if not this time then the next, he was going to die.  And that being so, he wanted to die well.

He just... wasn't sure he could.

He heard a sweet song echoing in the trees.  Turning, he saw a brightly colored bird, chirping on a branch.  He stared at it idly.

It stared back.  And for the first time in his life, Osric felt he was being regarded by someone special, and most important of all, someone special who did not despise him.  If that bird stays, stays to watch, I'll stay here.  Stay here to die.

The bird took flight.  For a moment, Osric felt a sinking feeling in his stomach.  And then the bird flew over his head.  And towards the soldiers.  And then he knew what he had to do.

"Right," he said, drawing his sword.  "Well, the Duke asked us to guard his retreat, men.  We won't do that standing here.  At least--not well."  He spurred on his horse.

"Sir...?" said the serjeant.

"Come on men!" said Osric, his voice lifting. The words of his house, the old words, written on an old wooden shield came to him, words that had terrified him, as a boy, but now... now seemed almost cheering.  "You ride with a Ross!  And we say--to death undeserved, to glory unmarked, and to an unknown grave!" 

He rode forward towards the spears, and thought for a moment he rode alone.  But then he heard the hooves behind him, and heard the voices.  "Lord de Ross!  Lord de Ross!  Death, glory, and the grave!"  And Osric de Ross knew then for all his flaws, for all his failures, for this moment at least, he would stand with pride when he stood in the hall of his ancestors.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Siege of the White Mountain Vol. 3: Due to the Dead--Part 27

Ostrorog watched as his father adjusted his elaborate white turban, hanging the symbol of a silver wolf from its folds.  "How do I look?" said the old man quietly. 

"Like a Khan," said his son quietly.

"As I am a Khan, that is always so," replied Konstancy.  "I wish to know do I look like an impressive Khan, a Khan who men will follow into battle...?" Ostrorog nodded, and looked away.  His father gave a rumbling laugh.  "Do not be sad, my son.  This is war.  This is the one thing that I am truly good at."  The Gali Khan gave a sad shake of his head. "The fighting of them, at least. Not the winning of them.  That I was rather poor at."  He sighed. "Help me on my horse."

Ostrorog guided the old man to the large white stallion nearby.  "I recall some famous, and successful wars you fought in..."

"Under the leadership of other men," said Konstancy.  "I have won battles.  But wars... wars are a matter for men like Mansemat Cthonique.  I have never had the head for them."  He hefted himself up on the horse with his son's help, then glanced at Ostrorog.  "Ride with me."

Ostrorog nodded, and turned to his own smaller horse.  As he easily lifted himself on it, his father gave a wistful sigh.  "To get on a horse like that," said the Gali Khan, shaking his head.  "I envy your youth at times like this."  He drew his sword, on which the piece of cloth was tied, and gave a sad sigh.  "Ahh, well.  My years have been spent, and will not come again."  He gestured ahead.  "We ride to the head of the van." 

The pair rode swiftly to the head of the assembled hordes, where the Agra Khan and Balu Khan waited for them.  The Gali Khan stood in the center and looked the men over.  "Kizaks of the White Horde!" he declared.  "Of the Black Horde!  Of the Red Horde!  In a month, some of us may be enemies again--but today we ride as one!  Before us stand valiant foes, ready to kill and to die.  Let us be ready as well!"  He looked the group over.  "And let us remember what brings us together.  Generations upon generations ago the son of Marduk came among us, fleeing the treachery of the Holy Emperor that had taken his father, and rode with us Kizaks, who all but he viewed as little more as animals.  But he was our friend, and learned our ways, and he fought, and bled and died for our behalf. And the son of this son--he did the same, and when the time came to cast down the Holy Emperors, it was he who did so--with Kizaks by his side!  Now, a man who claims the mantle of that Holy Emperor stands against the son of many sons of the line of Cthonique!  And like so many of his forbears, this is not a man who bows to the wicked.  This is who we serve!  A spirit greater than ours!  So it has been before I was born, I who am the oldest Kizak here.  And so it shall be after I am dead."  

He turned his horse, and raised his sword. "Now, we ride."  And with a howl, the three Hordes charged forth.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Siege of the White Mountain Vol. 3: Due to the Dead--Part 26

Duke Naimon Nestor glared at the mountain pass before him.  "Fall," he muttered.  "Cave in.  Bury them in snow, in ice, in rock."

These things stubbornly refused to happen.  Even after he hoped they would for several long moments.

Naimon snarled to himself, and cursed his luck.  The damned Nightfolk and their traitor allies had gotten themselves into a highly defendable position, which they had exploited to the fullest.  Several times he had tried to lure them from it, and failed--two times he had tenatively attacked and been repulsed.  It was... infuriating.

"Sir!" came a voice that was slightly less infuriating, but still infuriating.  Duke Naimon turned to regard Lord Osric.

"Yes, Lord de Ross?," muttered the old man quietly.

"Good news, sir!" he said.  "There's a small path, which if we take it, I've been told, leads AROUND the pass, allowing us to take them from behind!"

Naimon stared at the man for a moment.  "And you have verified this?"

"Oh, we were told by a local," said Lord Osric.  "And--well, you can see the path wending its way up past it..."

"Very well," said Naimon with a nod.  "You have done well, Lord de Ross, we will send some men..."

"Oh, I've also done that," explained Osric.  "A few scouts, to give us the lay of the land."  He gave a laugh.  "Why, they even spotted a pair of guards the Nightfolk left there!  I've no doubt they made quick work of them!"  He stroked his chin.  "Why, I bet we might be in time to see the fools suffer."  He turned.  "Come, sir, and enjoy a bit of righteous vengeance with me."

"Very well," said the Duke.  He did after all, have burning need for some righteous vengeance.  It was a decent stroll to the spot, where a small crowd now stood.  A young serjeant saluted the pair.

"Lord de Ross, Duke Nestor," said the man quietly.  "It is... good to see you."

Osric glanced around, clearly puzzled.  "What is all this?  I left a few men here..."

"They went down the path a while ago, sir," said the serjeant.  "To try and save the scouts."

"What?" Osric blinked.  "There... there were four men, on horseback, chasing two Nightfolk on FOOT!"

The serjeant fidgeted.  "Yes, but... well..."  He coughed.  "There were complications, sir."  He glanced away. "Those are some tough Nightfolk."

Naimon began to massage his temples, while Osric stared at the man.  "So... they went down to save the scouts, and you came here to guard..."

"Oh, sir," said the serjeant.  "We came to guard here after the last group went to save the men who went to get the men who went to get the men you left to save the scouts."

"They've got 'em!" shouted one of the crowd.

The serjeant glanced at Lord Osric.  "Should we go and try to save them, sir?"

Lord Osric winced, and gave Duke Naimon an apologetic glance.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Siege of the White Mountain, Vol. 3: Due to the Dead--Part 25

Sir Sylvester Erelim watched as the line gradually got itself into order under the unmasked Flagellants' direction.  "Quite impressive," he said quietly to Sir Georges.

"Considering their previous state, yes," sighed the Acting Archon.  He glanced at the Kizaks assembling up on the hill, under the grey skies.  "But far less than what is needed for this situation."  He gave a nod.  "Still, enough to at least die well, if nothing else."

Sylvester coughed, and gestured to several of the troops.  "Sir..."

Georges rolled his eyes.  "I very much doubt these men have any illusions about what is shortly to occur here, Sir Sylvester.  And neither should you."  He shrugged.  "I met you a squire.  I leave you a knight.  And likely meet you again."

Sylvester glanced away.  "Sir, I would..."  He shook his head.  "Perhaps a song.  Those would often cheer when I was a Sa... boy."

Georges smiled at him.  "A sad boy, doubtless you meant."

"That I was," agreed Sylvester.  And it was the truth.  He was.  He'd missed home terribly, when he'd been a Sacristan.

In another life, it now seemed.

Georges nodded.  "Yes, yes, your right," he said quietly.  "A song is just what is needed."  He glanced at one of the Flagellants.  "You there!  Do you know the Hymn to Uriel in Adversity?"

The man stared at him, slightly puzzled.  "I... vaguely sir..."

"Well, if I sing it, do you think you could see along?" asked Georges, smiling.  The man nodded.  "Excellent."  The Eremite cleared his throat, and began to sing.  "When my way groweth drear, Shining Lord, linger near--when my life is almost gone!" 

Sylvester blinked.  While Sir Georges had a lovely voice, this song did not exactly seem cheerful to him.

But Sir Georges continued with it anyway.  "Hear my cry, hear my call, hold my hand, lest I fall!  Take my hand, Shining Lord--lead me home!"  And then to Sylvester's surprise, the Flagellant joined in.  "Shining Lord, take my hand!  Lead me on--help me stand!  I am tired!  I am weak!  I am worn! Through the storm--through the night--lead me on to the light!  Take my hand, Shining Lord--lead me home!"

Sir Sylvester stared as the men up and down the line began to join in.  "Shining Lord, take my hand!  Lead me on--help me stand!  I am tired!  I am weak!  I am worn!"  And then despite himself, Sylvester found himself singing along as well.  "Through the storm--through the night--lead me on TO THE LIGHT!"  And then there was a sudden gasp from the men, as the clouds parted, and Sir Georges was bathed for a moment in sunlight. 

"A miracle!" whispered one of the men.

"Seven be praised!" cried another.

Sir Georges raised his hand.  "Take my hand, Shining Lord," he sang plaintively.  "Lead me home!"  A great cheer rose from the men.

Sylvester smiled at him.  "That was..."  He shook his head, joyfully.  "Perhaps the Seven will provide another miracle."

"I think they've done enough," said Sir Georges, drawing his sword.  "The rest lies in our hands."

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Siege of the White Mountain, Vol. 3: Due to the Dead--Part 24

Marfisa Mongrane stared at the soldiers assembling before her.  "Mmm... that's odd," she noted.  "They seem better organized now than they did yesterday..."

"Fear is a strange thing, Marshal," said the Gali Khan softly.  "It can break a man, or it can make him find a courage he didn't not know was within him.."

"What about a woman?" said Marfisa with a slight smile.

The old man chuckled.  "Oh, yes, a woman as well."  The pair rode on aways--then Konstancy gave a polite cough. "If it would not shame the Marshal, I have a humble request to make to her."  He glanced away.  "Well, two, really..."

Marfisa shrugged.  "Hey, sure.  You know I think you're really, really neat as Kizak hetmans go, and..." She blinked, as she realized that the Gali Khan was looking at her with slight amusement. "Urr... right. I'll let you make your request."  She shifted nervously on her horse, and adjusted her armor's wings.

"Two requests," said the Kizak.

"Right," agreed Marfisa with a nod. "Right.  Two requests.  Right."

"My first request is that I, by the honor of my age and position, be allowed to lead the van against those men before us," said the Gali Khan, "in what promises to be one of the last great charges of the Kizaks, where all three Hordes are assembled together, to act as one."  A dreamy smile touched the old man's face.  "It is... a dream of mine.  From when I was a boy."

Marfisa nodded.  "That sounds... that sounds very reasonable."

"I thank you for saying so," declared Konstancy.  "You bring honor to my line, Marshal Mongrane, with your noble conduct, and honorable demeanor."

"Ummm, thanks," said Marfisa.  She turned her horse. "Well, I'm gonna go get ready to do the main charging thing when you guys in the van do the charging thing that opens things up for us."

The Gali Khan coughed.  "I did not say my second request, Marshal."

"Oh."  Marfisa turned back to face him.  "What is that one, Gali Khan?"

The aged Kizak glanced away.  "I... it is my understanding that your... ahh, 'warriors of chivalry'... they... when they go into battle... sometimes... that is to say... on occasion... they bear a... favor from a fair lady..."

Marfisa nodded.  "Yep.  It's a very noble, romantic thing, where..."  She blinked.  "Umm...  Oh."  She blushed.  "Right.  Ahh.  Yes."  She coughed.  "So you... you'd like... you want me to..."  She blinked.  "Urr... that is, you'd like me to give... that is I should..."  She gulped, and then pulled out a handkerchief from her side, and handed it to him.  "Right.  Here you go."

The Gali Khan took it, and with simple reverance, tied it to the handle of his sword.  "I thank you for this, Marshal of the Mongranes," he said, keeping his eyes averted.

Marfisa gave a rapid series of nods.  "I'm going to go..." She pointed over her shoulder.  "There.  Now.  Yep."

"Fair fortune follow you in the battle that lies ahead," said the Gali Khan as she rode away.

"You too," shouted Marfisa, as she retreated into the distance.

"I bear it on my sword," said the old man quietly.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Siege of the White Mountain, Vol. 3: Due to the Dead--Part 23

The men were willing about, almost at random, when Brothers Law and Cord arrived there to try and get them to form a pike line.  It was proving difficult.

"We're going to die!" screamed a man.  "We're going to die!  We're going to die!"

"Sir... Please calm yourself," muttered Brother Law.  "We are..." He started trying to say 'Not going to die' bu the lie died in his throat.

Brother Cord stopped trying to get a man who had rolled himself into a ball on the ground to get up.  "This is going badly, Law."

"I can see that," snapped the senior Flagellant.  He took a deep breath.  "Right.  I've got one last desperate trick.  If it works, excellent.  If it doesn't--well, we're all but dead men anyway, so--worth the risk.  I'll just need you to back me during it..."

"Brother Law, this sounds... rather... terrifying..." said Cord.

"And this situation isn't?" muttered Brother Law as he found a sturdy barrel to stand on.  Steadying himself on it, he turned to the crowd.  "Men of LEONAIS!"  Bit by bit, the men slowly quieted, and turned to see him.  "I will not lie to you--our situation is grim!"

Cord flinched.  "Not helping us, Justin."

"We may indeed stand before Douma Dalkiel herself," declared Brother Law.  "Well, if I'm going to see the Black Bitch, I will look her in the face before I spit in her eye."  Cord blinked as Law removed his mask. "My name as a Flagellant is 'Brother Law'.  As a man it is Justin True.  And it is as a man of Leonais that I will stand with you today!  All I ask is that you follow!"

The men stared at him in a sort of simple awe.  Cord stood there for a moment, and then took off his own mask.  "I am 'Brother Cord' as a Flagellant.  As a man, I am 'Aaron Smithson'."  He took a deep breath.  "And I will follow him."  He stepped behind his sworn brother, and crossed his arms.

The men began to follow them as they moved forward, two unremarkable men in white cloaks, and then it happened.  Three more Flagellants appeared.  "Brothers Cord and Law," said Brother Strict, as Lash and Fist looked on.  "What have you done with your masks?"

"Given the situation, Brother," said Justin quietly, "We have decided to go without them as we lead the men into battle."

Strict was silent for a moment.  Then he removed his mask.  "Very well," he said.  "I, Bartholomew Swift, shall do this as well."

Lash and Fist stared for a moment, and then took off their own masks.  "Gregory Dern," said Lash.

"Matthew Miller," stated Fist, plainly.  He looked at the crowd.  "Brothers... it is an honor to die with you."

And so the Flagellants prepared for battle.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Siege of the White Mountain, Vol. 3: Due to the Dead--Part 22

Elaine glanced down the mountain pass.  Truth be told, for a woman who'd seen the Fangs recently, it wasn't that impressive a mountain pass, or indeed, that impressive a mountain range.  But it was most assuredly a mountain range--the mountain range that gave all the Free Cities in this region names like 'Montfort', and 'Monteriano', and of course 'Montalban'.   And as she understood it, it was a wealthy mountain range--filled with silver and gold that had made the local dukes such rich, powerful men.

Men who could hire things like the army that was on the other side of the pass, assembled under the banner of the scarlet vulture.  The arms of Agrismont, she'd been told, by Belengier, whose father was out there, leading the troops, under that banner. 

The young noble seemed eerily at peace with that fact.  It made her envy him, in a way.

"Hey, Princess!" came the cheery voice of an individual Elaine did not envy at all. 

"Hello, Faileuba," muttered Elaine, idly wondering why it was her fist seemed to be... reflexively clenching.

"So what you looking at?"  She glanced out at the army.  "Oh.  The guys here to kill us."  She chuckled and shook her head.  "Man, you are as pencil as Palepole.  Possibly even more so!"

Elaine considered asking what that meant, but decided against, figuring that the forthcoming explanation would likely only increase the building headache she was feeling.

Her bodyguard gave a lengthy yawn that somehow managed to involve her entire body.  "Right, so, the other talky fighty people want you, to do more of the talky stuff."

Elaine glanced at her.  "How is it you ever find work as a mercenary?"

"Good at killing things," answered Faileuba. "Really, really good at it."

"Right," said Elaine with a sigh.  "Well, let's go."  Faileuba did a quick pivot and start rushing away, to the point where Elaine had to break into a jog to keep up with her.  By the time she reached the tent, she was out of breath.

"Hello, Elaine," said Bramimonde Gradasso as she rushed in.  The young countess eyed here in bafflement.  "Why are you...?"

Elaine gestured to Faileuba who was now trying to snatch a bottle of wine out of Meliadus' hand.  "No fair! No fair!" shouted the female bodyguard.  "I was doing my chivalrous duty, and you take away my drink!"

"My drink now," said Meliadus, raising the bottle over his head.

"Right," said Bramimonde.

"Princess," said Duke Brunello.  "We need your help.  It's about our location..."

Elaine blinked.  "What about it?  It seems fine to me..."

The dark-haired Duke gave a nod. "Oh, and it is quite secure... save for a small side path in the mountains that needs to be guarded.  It wouldn't need much--just a couple of skilled guards to stay there and make sure enemy soldiers don't sneak through..."

Elaine considered that for a moment, then glanced at Failebua and Meliadus, who were now tussling on the ground.  "Give it up! Give it up!" shouted Faileuba.  "Give me my drinky!"

"They'd love to do it," she declared quietly.

"Excellent," said the Duke.  He gave the pair a bow.  "Chivalorous warriors of the Nightfolk--we of the Free Cities salute you for your courage."

Meliadus and Faileuba stopped wrestling over the wine. "Holdfast, why is everyone looking at us?" asked Faileuba.

"No idea, Fai," said Meliadus.  "Our mutual awesomeness, maybe?"

Faileuba glanced around the tent. "Yeah, I don't think so."  She blinked, and then snapped her fingers.  "Oh, nuts, we've just been volunteered for a near-certain death mission."

Meliadus gave a groan.  "Not another one!"  He shook his head.  "Why does this always happen to us?"

Faileuba gave a shrug.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Siege of the White Mountain, Vol. 3: Due to the Dead--Part 21

Sylvester awoke to a crick in his neck, and the bayings of wolves.

The crick in his neck, he realized was because he was presently lying at a very strange angle on a sack of rotting grain, which explained why he'd been having a dream he was back at his father's brewery, listening to the old man complain about taxes and the Prince.  The baying of wolves was more mysterious, but solved when a bunch of his fellows scrambled by, screaming about Nightfolk.  Somehow, Sylvester felt certain that his help would be needed.  And so he rose from his position, even as his joints creaked and ached, and went to see Sir Georges.

This took longer than he thought it would, because people were running about, and panicking, even as the Flagellants did their best to try and keep order.  He finally found his superior on horseback, staring at the forces that were gathering.  "Sir Sylvester," noted Sir Georges with a nod.  "Good to see you."  He shook his head.  "Probably the only good thing I've seen all day."

Sylvester nodded and glanced at the banners waving before them--three wolf's heads of different colors, and a grey eagle.  "Who are they, Sir?"

"If I'm remembering the tales correctly, these are the Kizak hordes and the Mongranes," muttered Sir Georges.  He spat.  "Curses.  They've sent their cavalry wing to bring a speedy end to the siege.  Seven alone know what sort of free hand they have."

Sylvester stared at the row upon row of horses, some of whom were clad in elaborate turbans and light armor, others who wore heavy plate with what appeared to be wings on the back.  It all looked very strange to him, and quite terrifying.  "So, what do we do, sir?"

"As I said earlier, our duty," muttered Sir Georges.  "I've sent for the armigers.  We've finally got something they can be useful at here.  It may not be much, but if they help us flank these men, we MIGHT be able to..."

Another Eremite approached the pair, rushing up the hill.  He took several deep breaths, staring at them unhappily.  "Sir Georges, Sir Georges, it's..."  He shook his head, and grabbed his knees as he tried to get his breathing under control.

"Is there some trouble with the armigers?" asked Sylvester quietly, with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. 

His brother Eremite gave a bitter laugh.  "I'll say.  They've fled, sir.  Every man of them.  Ran with their horses and everything they could carry."  He frowned. "As I hear it, they  said something about 'scouting a retreat', the bas..."

"That's enough, Sir Aurelian," stated Sir Georges quietly, turning back to the Nightfolk assembling before them.

"So what now, sir?" asked Sylvester quietly.

"As I said, Sir Sylvester, we do our duty," answered the Acting Archon.  "We do our duty and die."

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Siege of the White Mountain, Vol. 3: Due to the Dead--Part 20

Duke Blancardin Valfonda glanced at the forces assembled on the shoddy walls before him.  If he was not mistaken, many were armed with farm utensils, others with large sticks, and at least one was now wearing a pot for a helmet. 

This would have been underwhelming enough.  When added to the fact that the wall was about the size of his garden wall back home, and had several large gaps knocked in it, it became downright sad.  All these weeks, we've been hearing that he'd holed up in Goldenrush, thought Blancardin.  We never thought to ask what sort of state Goldenrush was in.

It struck Blancardin that he was very much the wrong man for this--the peaceful duke of a peaceful city, famed for its docks, its ships and its guitar-playing, not for war.

But then, he'd been the man who'd been available, and the one to find Astolfo's forces.

Such as they were.

As he waited for his emissary to arrive, he recalled the last time he'd done this.  That time, he'd been a part of a large group, ready to strike the glorious blow for liberty, as they listened to Osric de Ross tell them they were doomed.

Well, the blow had been struck.  And then afterwards... it had become all much less glorious. Somehow, Blancardin had thought the Prince's forces would prove a terrible army of evil, instead of what they quickly proving--a swiftly disintegrating group of doomed and desperate men, under the thumb of a cruel lunatic who didn't seem to care if they lived or died, and indeed, only seemed to have a vague interest in whether he won or lost. 

And that somehow didn't seem grand. It seemed sad.

Astolfo came himself this time, surrounded by several ragged Eremites, on the back of a starving horse.  "You!" he snapped as he saw Blancardin.  "Valfonda!  They sent... you to deal with me?  YOU?"

"Me, Astolfo," said Blancardin quietly.

"The insult," seethed Astolfo.  "The insult!  This is all they've sent to deal with my army!"  He gestured back to the walls, as if trying to will them to strength.  "You!  Blancardin Valfonda."

"That's right," agreed Blancardin.

"I thought that... Belengier would be here," muttered Astolfo quietly. 

"He's not," said Blancardin.  "He is elsewhere.  I am who you are dealing with."  He regarded the young noble quietly.  "Will you surrender?"

"I... a Rabicano never goes down without a fight," said Astolfo very quickly.

"You already fought, Astolfo," said Blancardin levelly.  "And lost.  Handily.  Do you want to lose again?  By a larger margin?"  The Prince of Monteriano bowed his head.  "I'll send the men in to secure your people's... weapons."

"You should bring some food," muttered Astolfo.  "They're hungry."

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Siege of the White Mountain, Vol. 3: Due to the Dead--Part 19

"Jernis..." muttered Razalic,panting heavily.  "Jernis.  I'm cold."

Jernis glanced behind him, perched uneasily on a tree stump, and saw the large man was leaning against a tree, sweat oozing from his pores.  Jernis frowned. The woods were proving tough going, with the recent snowstorm, and Razalic had...  well, something had happened in the battle.  He'd taken a wound, or his nerve had broken, or both at once and now... now the man who'd he'd seen twist a man's head off with his bare hands was acting like a scared boy.  It would have made him bad company in most cases.

In this, it made him downright lethal.

They were alone, miles from any support, with the troops of the Cthoniques and their allies all around them.  They'd only just escaped capture half-a-dozen times, and each time it was getting closer.  And even worse, Jernis was increasingly certain he had no idea where they were...

The sound of hoofs reached Jernis' ears.  He ducked down low, and thanked the Seven for the instincts learned during his years as a highwayman that had not left him.  If he could just keep quiet, he'd survive...

"Jernis!  Jernis!  My feet hurt!" moaned Razalic.

Except for the fact he was lugging around a huge moron who didn't understand the concept of stealth.  "Get down!" Jernis hissed.

Razalic attempted to do just that, giving a low moan.  "My feet hurt, Jernis," he groaned. "My legs hurt.  I hurt Jernis!"

The sound of hooves was getting closer.  Jernis took a deep breath, and rose to his feet.  It was time... to take care of things.  "Right.  Right."  He walked towards Razalic. "I'll help you with that."

Razalic gave a happy nod.  "Thank you.  Thank you, Jernis.  You are a good friend..."  Jernis got behind Razalic, and readied his knife.  "You..."  And then Jernis slit his throat. Razalic gave a brief squeal, while he still could, one of his arms jerking up and knocking Jernis in the face. Jernis swore to himself as he was knocked off his feet--the big man still packed a wallop, even in his diminished state--and then, as he fell, watched his dying partner make a sprawling effort to rise, only to at last fall to the ground.

Jernis watched him, the dull ache in his face gradually sharpening to an exquisite agony as he realized that his jaw was broken.  He gave a loud screech, that sounded terrible even to his ears--and then he remembered the horse.  The clattering hoofs came closer. Jernis rose unsteadily, wobbling on his feet, readying his knife, as he turned to see the rider.

He saw a ruddy-faced man, clearly a farmer, dismounting.  "Oy, sir, are you in...?" began the man.

Jernis made sure he never finished the sentence.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Siege of the White Mountain, Vol. 3: Due to the Dead--Part 18

Jean stared at the dead bodies before her.  "So... they tried to set the city on fire?" she stated.

"No," said Arcadius, shaking his head.  "They succeeded in setting large portions of the city on fire."  He sighed.  "You should see it.  They tell me it's heartbreaking when you actually remember how the place used to look."

"Right."  Jean nodded, as she looked over the bodies.  "Well, I'm going to avoid it then.  My... adopted father and me had some fun times in Cazlona."

Arcadius coughed.  "Oh.  Right.  Sorry."  He glanced away.  "I think I've been hanging around Constans for too long.  Getting too used to feet getting put in mouths..."

"I thought that was just a Sacristan thing," said Jean.

"Why would you?" began Arcadius.

"Well, I was dealing with Justinian for a long time," she replied.

Arcadius blinked.  "Ahh, yes." He considered things for a moment.  "You might just be right there."

She glanced back at the bodies.  "So that's it, eh?  You're forcing them further, and further back into the hills?"

"Yep," he stated.  "We think they're headed for the Concordat.  Of course, what happens when they get there is anybody's guess.  Maybe the Synod will accept them all with open arms. Maybe they'll kick them over to northern Leonais..."

"Why northern Leo...?" began Jean.

"You haven't heard?" said Arcadius.  "The Council has seized control of Joyeuse and the south.  They've announced that Amfortas has been deposed."

Jean blinked.  "It is all falling apart for him, isn't it?"

"He's still got the north.  And the Concordat.  And Tintagel," replied Arcadius.  "And we still don't know what the Easter King will do."  He nodded slightly.  "But it certainly seems that way, doesn't it?"

"You know, once on the river," said Jean quietly, "my father and I saw a massive log, floating by.  It looked huge and solid.  But my father gave it one solid blow with his oar, and the whole thing just... crumbled apart."

Arcadius nodded silently.  "Right.  I'm stealing that, when I describe these events in the future, all right?"

"Be my guest," answered Jean.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Siege of the White Mountain, Vol. 3: Due to the Dead--Part 17

"I say," declared Osric brightly, to Duke Naimon as they rode together at the head of the army, "It is sure nice to leave that dreary atmosphere at the Chateau behind us isn't it?"

The Duke glanced at him, muttered something, and rode on.  Osric nodded to himself, and followed.  "I say--the Prince--he is surely dedicated to the cause of light, is he not?"  The Duke remained silent.  "I mean--such dedication.  Such... fury."  Osric bit his lip.  "It is almost terrifying, is it not?"

The Duke continued to ride on in silence.

Osric spurred his horse on.  "Obviously," he noted, in a low voice,"when I say it is almost terrifying, I do not mean it is actually terrifying.  Heavens no!"  He gave a laugh, then winced as his bruised face felt the strain.  The Duke continued to say nothing.  "It is merely--a feeling very much like terror.  For his... awesome purity.  And ability.  And... his puissance.  Do you understand me, sir?"

The Duke remained silent.  Osric fidgeted slightly, and felt his horse buck beneath him.  He tried to steady it for a moment, and then saw that the Duke was riding quite far ahead of him.  He rushed after him.  "It is just... it is just..." he continued, panting frantically, "a man... a man starts getting the idea he might not survive this..."

"You might not," said the Duke quietly.

Osric blinked.  "What...?"

"We are going to war, you imbecile," said Duke Naimon.  "There is an excellent chance you will die.  Which is probably why the Prince sent you.  You've given him bad news, and the Prince finds such individuals more and more vexing these days."

"Are... are you saying that the Prince is actively hoping that I get ki...?" began Osric.

Naimon rolled his eyes. "Yes, Lord de Ross, that is what I am saying.  He is hoping you die--he may be hoping that I die as well. He is hoping that everyone who displeases him dies.  That is something of a habit of princes and kings.  Hoping that people they do not like die."  He glared at the younger man.  "It is one I frequently understand."

Osric nodded. "Ah... Indeed.  So...?"

The Duke took a deep breath.  "Lord de Ross, if you do not keep silent, I fear your death will change from merely being likely to being inevitable."

Osric gulped, and shut his mouth.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Siege of the White Mountain, Vol. 3: Due to the Dead--Part 16

The wind blew in the camp.  "Four more dead last night," said Brother Cord.

Brother Law nodded, unsure of what to say to that.  He'd heard quite a bit like this over the last few nights.  The worst part was that this was, in a way, good news.  Last night, they'd lost ten--the night before sixteen.  The fact that they'd lost so few... it could be seen as a victory over the Black Bitch.

Of course, there is the fact there are fewer people to die now, thought the Flagellant.  He shuddered, as comfort fled, and pulled his cloak around his shoulders tighter.  He and Brother Cord walked in silence for a while.  And finally Brother Law took a deep breath.  "So... what do you think this has been about?"

Brother Cord blinked.  "What... do you mean by that?"

"What I said," answered Brother Law.  "What have we done all this for?

Cord fidgeted awkwardly.  "It's... what we do..."

"No, no, not us," said Law.  He paused and scratched idly.  "Well--okay, yes us... but... all of us.  What are we doing here?  What has the point been?"

"The Great War..." began Cord.

"Is going to get lost damned soon if we're fighitng it like this," snapped Law.  "So far as we can tell, the Prince's entire plan has been to throw men at Montalban, and then throw more men at them, and then... a few more men.  And so as we sit here dying, the plan to help us is to send more men, who will eat what supplies we have left."

Cord nodded.  "Oh, yes.  It's pretty bad."  He sighed.  "But we took the coin."

Brother Law frowned grimly.  "That we did."  He put his fist to his chest.  "Loyal unto death."

"Loyal unto death," declared Brother Cord back.

There was a dry laugh.  The pair turned to see an older soldier standing there.  "Sorry," he said quietly.  "That... wasn't a scornful laugh.  Rather... surprised."  He gave a nod.  "It is good to see men such as you among us.  Men who remember the power of oaths."  He walked away.  "That's what keeps us all going, you see.  What we swear."

"Thank you, sir!" said Brother Cord, cheerfully.

"You know, he's heading... out of camp," said Brother Law quietly.

Brother Cord blinked. "Damn.  You're right.  Should we do something?"

Law considered it, then shook his head.  "Nah."

"Yeah," agreed Cord.  "I was leaning that way myself."