Grand Duke Avidor rode slowly, his shadow flickering and dancing in the torchlight of the dozen mounted men who surround him - their armour reflecting a dull orange glow that reminded him autumn leaves. The sound of their hooves was unnaturally loud on the cobblestone roadway and the creak of saddle leather seemingly magnified a hundred times in the darkness that pressed in on the riders from every side. The small wind that stirred the red banner of Talins at least smelled reassuringly of freshly tilled earth and horse manure.
Ahead of the small party, its walls lit sporadically with torches, was Musselia, the ancient fortress city of a long fallen empire. Even the scattered light still managed to illuminate the thousands of white faces that lined the ramparts as people stared in silence, all eyes focused on the Grand Duke.
A matching party of horsemen, their own torches casting jagged shadows across hard faces and polished steel, waited to greet Avidor. Slouching in his saddle, his one good eye glaring balefully, sat Duke Buraimi of Muesslia. He was a great toad of a man and Avidor snorted in faint amusement at the size of the horse that was needed to convey his opponent.
"Grand Duke Avidor, to what do I owe the honour?" Sarcasm rolled off of Buraimi's tongue as he raised his head, five chins jiggling angrily as he did so.
"Duke Buraimi, fancy meeting you out and about at this time of night." Avidor replied with equal contempt. You disgusting pile of offal. Why couldn't you just have died of a heart attack and saved me all the trouble we are about to go through. He slowed his mount until the two parties were a horses length apart.
"I try to get my nightly air. Keeps me young and vigorous." The sweat on Buraimi's forehead glistened in the torchlight. Even the act of breathing seemed to be tiring him out.
"Yes, young enough to enjoy your dancing boys eh?" Avidor sneered. The Musselian Duke was well known to prefer young boys to even the most beautiful of girl. I'm partial to a young lady myself. Before the pox or age gets them preferably.
The pudgy eyes narrowed and Buraimi's guards bristled at the tone. "Get to the point, Avidor." Buraimi snarled, twitching his hand at a horsefly that settled on one sausage like finger.
Flies to shit eh? Avidor smiled inwardly. "Right. Surrender and I'll spare your city a proper sacking."
"That's it?" Buraimi blinked in surprise. "I kind of expected more a flair from you, maybe some intimidation, but instead you appear with a dozen armed men and demand I surrender the strongest fortress in all of Styria? That takes stones Avidor, even for you."
"Yes, or no?" Avidor snapped. His patience for, and interest in, dialogue and banter had dwindled as he aged. We both know this will end with you dead on the ground. All that matters is how many men will have to die you?
"No, of course not," Buraimi roared the words, the stench of wine carrying to Avidor. "This is my city! Mine! And you will have it when you have killed every damn person inside these walls!"
A rustle went through the crowd along the walltop and Avidor thought he detected a hint of a growl in it. For me? Or for their Duke? Not everyone wants to die for another mans ambition.
"I can arrange that!" Avidor stood in his stirrups and raised his voice so that it carried to the soldiers who crowded the gatehouse windows, to the civilians who stared out between the crenelations, and to those who had climbed flagpoles for a better look. "Yes, I can arrange that!"
He snapped his fingers at one of the torch bearers who turned his horse toward the darkness behind them and began to wave his torch back a forth, a fiery arch in the near darkness. In ones, twos, and then in thousands, more torches sprang to life, a blaze of light that raced east and west of the city gates. A mighty road accompanied the display as the Talinese army at last showed the people of Musselia their true strength.
The roar swept over Avidor like a tidal wave and brought instant silence to the crowded walltop. Buraimi's eyes seemed to bulge from his head as he tried to comprehend the sheer size of Avidors forces. He had no way of knowing that Avidor had pressed everyone he could into holding at least one, if not two, torches. Every soldier, archer, blacksmith, fletcher, groom, even the camp whores had been ordered into service. Avidor had to admit it was an impressive spectacle and served to make his army appear far larger than it actually was.
As the roar echoed down the length of the line, and then back from the city walls, Avidor signalled again and his entire party suddenly plunged their torches into the soft dirt on either of the track. His entire army followed suit so that the brilliant blaze vanished within seconds. Only a single light remained, illuminating Avidor and the torchbearer.
"You have one hour to surrender!" Avidor cried out, more for the benefit of those on the wall than for Buraimi. "One hour and then I let havoc fly!"
He turned without waiting for a reply and his torch bearer threw the torch into a puddle at the side of the road, plunging the roadway into darkness. The Talinese contingent made their way back toward the hills that ringed the city and the camp that had been carefully prepared that evening.
Avidor spared the city a final glanced as he rode over a slight rise. Buraimi was gone but he could still see the white faces staring into the darkness after him. Good. They would fear the darkness. And if they did not surrender he would burn their city to the ground.
It was a fresh autumn day, with a strong gale comming from the ocean. A man was looking at the great harbor of Westport, a harbor that has become quite useless. The man had shoulder long black hair, a short black beard, not more than a 3 day beard, and a large scar runs down over his right cheek. He was clothed in a simple black jupon with the red crest of the new Westport, in addition to that he had a a simple unadorned longsword at his waist. He had the presence of someone who has fought countless battles and this man was standing in a small chamber high above the city. His whole appearance is that of a normal knight at best, with the presence he could be a veteran knight, however he is grand duke Lucius Maximus Varus the ruler of Westport. As he looks down to the harbor he laments in a quiet voice to nobody in particular: "A real shame we have several ships, however they can't get out of port without the danger of getting captured by the goddamn Union..."
A guardsman, with the same jupon and a plate armor blow that, entered the chamber, his sword dangling at his waist. "My lord, an envoy from Affoia has arrived." Grand duke Lucius looked at the guardsman who was saluting him. "Tell him to wait, I will be ready soon." The guardsman salutes again and walks away. Lucius let out a sigh after the guard left. "Here we go again..." He checked his attire and look a last time at the harbor, before turning and walking out of the chamber. Dozens of guardsmen were patroling and standing guard in the palace. Those guards were equiped the same as the messenger guardsman, with the exception that those, on guard and patrol duty, were additionally equiped with a shortspear and a large tower shild. Every guardsman he passed saluted him.
He walked over to the throne, as soon as he entered the throne hall. The hall was spacious with a donzen massive stone pillars at the sides. The banner of the new Westport was hanging from every single pillar. The lighting was provided by quite the number of fire in large metal panes. Grand duke Lucius was not alone in the hall, instead there were four of his commanders and three members of the craftsman guilds, as well as a guardsman in front of every pillar, present. "Our guest from the city of Affoia has arrived, let's hear what he has to say." A chorus of the seven high ranking people present answered him. "As you wish." Two messenger guards walked to the big massive wood doors and opened it. Another messenger guard walked in with the envoy. "My lords the envoy of the city state Affoia." After this introduction he bowed down and left the hall, the two other guards closed the door behind him, after which they returned to standby the door, waiting for new orders. "Welcome to Westport, I hope your journey was pleasant." Grand duke Lucius greets the envoy.
The air was cool and breezy due to the rain that fell the night before. A man dressed in a dark green ranger outfit with a red boar insignia on his left shoulder was riding his black steed briskly towards the great structure in the heart of Styria known as the High Castle of Visserine.
High Castle is the ancestral stronghold of House Knightfall for over a thousand years. Alfred “Mason” Knightfall initiated the castle’s construction a thousand three hundred years ago during the 200 years war between Visserine’s great houses. High Castle is on both sides of the mouth of river Visser. Whenever one side of the castle is under siege the other side is free to continue on its normal business. This makes sieges on the High Castle very difficult and why it has never been taken by force. By utilizing its strategic location, house Knightfall managed to control trade and movements of people on land between the east and the west of the island. This has made the city very wealthy and influential. This is especially true during recent encroachment of the Union Empire on Styria. With the Union utilizing its naval fleet to blockade a number of city ports on the island, multitudes of Stryrians have preferred to travel on land to ensure their safety. Knightfall leaders believe that this recent increase of Visserine’s economic and political influence is the real reason why Puranti attacked the city. Since Stryrians have been paying toll to Visserine for generations there was no way they would also pay Puranti, thus justifying a war that ultimately ended in status quo.
The man racing through the forest on his horse is known more colloquially as the Hunter of the Central Forests. More formally, people recognize him as Ser Arty Knightfall, the nephew of the Grand Duke of Visserine. Under his hood he has short brown hair, a full beard, and light blue eyes, which characteristically defines the men of Knightfall. Arty has a sleeker physique compared to his other kin. Throughout the years, he has trained in the central forests around Visserine to be faster, nimbler, and quieter than most. Even his mount moves swiftly around the forest barely making a noise. By this time, Arty had been riding without stopping for some time because of the importance of the message he bears. This message is for Visserine’s High Council and he knows that his words will shape the future of Visserine. As he approached the western gates of High Castle, the guards on lookout saw him from miles away and one of them shouted, “the Hunter is coming.” This message was passed on from person to person until it reached the ears of the High Council. The guards had recognized his silhouette from the many times he sped towards the gates before with critical council business. He quickly passed through the outer gates and a number of interior gates to get to the White Citadel, which is part of the Western Palace the largest structure in the western part of High Castle. Arty arrives inside the High Council chambers with all of its members waiting for him. The council is composed of the heads of the four noble houses of Visserine which are House Knightfall, House Fullerster, House Fairwards and House of Cunningbeard. There are also five additional members from House Knightfall who are tasked with key roles in the management of the city.
“My lords and ladies I have ridden none stop and as fast as I can to tell you that the Grand Duke Avidor says to Visserine that now is the time. He has officially given Duke Buraimi the ultimatum of surrender or destruction.” Arty says to the council members sitting on the long oak table while the sweat continues runs down on the sides of his face. It is evident that he is bone-tired because of the ride.
Lady Galdine of House Cunningbeard is an older lady who is in her late sixties but looks much younger responds sharply, “It is not too late. We don’t have to answer Avidor call. Just because he fancies himself king of Styria and is willing to shed the blood of thousands doesn’t mean that Visserine needs to be embroiled in his war.” Her outfit was an intricate white dress with red laces lining it.
“Avidor is not just some Duke from the north, he is family of House Knightfall and we have an oath to keep to him and to the people of Talins.” Ser Phillip Knightfall responds. He is the Commander of the Guards and is responsible for the city’s defenses. It is from this role is where he gets his nickname the "Warden" from. Philip is also the brother of the Grand Duke of Visserine and would have been the only person in the city that could have matched him in military prowess.
Clenching her left fist Lady Galdine then slaps it on the table after Philip finishes talking. She then looks out of the window and softly responds, “It was an oath that was made by your late father, may his soul find rest, but we are technically no longer bound by it. We must now make a decision and the time for discussions is over.” It was clear that this discussion had been going on for a long time, way before Arty had arrived to deliver the news.
Then a hushed silence fell on the room and all the members looked at the head of the table to the Visserine’s Grand Duke Devarn himself. Then he spoke, “I know some of you are war weary and none more so than me. Although, aside from the oath my father made to Talins many decades ago, I believe that my decision will be what is best for the future of our beloved Visserine. We will answer Avidor’s call.” The Duke continues, “Philip prepare the men who have been chosen to lead our soldiers for this mission we ride in thirty minutes.”
Philip takes a huge drink from his goblet and rises from his chair. He clears his throat to answer, “Your Grace I have already prepared and briefed your knights who will be your commanders. They and all their men are ready to go right now.”
Devarn rises from his seat. He is a towering figure and he says with the finality of his booming voice, “Then I will ride out with them now. Philip, since we are about to go to war, I want you to ensure that we have our city’s defenses fully prepared. I also want High Castle to have enough supplies for men and horses that will last at least a year if not longer should our city come under siege.”
The Visserine army leaving the city comprised of thousands of men who started to move immediately and they were marching to position themselves to the south of Musselia. Their main goal was to cut off the city from any support that would come from the south. Dervan actively used horse riders to constantly conduct scouts of areas around his army to ensure that there would be no surprises against his men and to locate the best tactical positions. Once the army was in position he would use the river Visser as part of the path for their supply lines and to transport their heavy siege equipment. By not carrying their heavy equipment the army was able to move at a rapid speed. The Visserine boar can be seen everywhere on this army. Flags and banners of different colors donned the wild boar insignia on it. All of the knights carried colored shields with the same boar on it. The pike men, men at arms, and long bow archers all wore surcoats with the same boar represented on their chests and backs.
The number of trophies made him feel empty. No matter the story or the meaning to each it did not fill some unknowable hole in his heart. He could only feel the gesture of its pit. He had tried to fill it with many things but battle, wine, women, hunting. But nothing resolved it, nothing entirely saved him from the nagging feeling there was yet something to accomplish in the world. And he had the impression that it was nothing entirely defined by these objects.
The prince Artoia Amallo lay on the floor with his hands clasped over his chest and his legs crossed. He starred up at the mantel over the fire place where hung a notable many trophies and stories that hung there. He recounted how he got them, and what they had done. But no matter what, nothing had centered his thoughts on what it was he was doubtful about and he puzzled over that as much as he recollected the bygones of his life.
Center above the fire, reflecting the bright sunlight that came through silver-white curtain sheets thing as spider's web was the misshapen helmet of some Murissian noble, some minor character from long ago. The first to be killed when he went to battle as his father's squire – or, one of several of them – and the first man he had killed. On some hot and steaming field under the threat of rain and after the passage of an earlier storm they had waded in mud half way to their knees to reach a hill to overlook the main battle to come. Duke Adolfiano Clairmont Artoya Amallo resplendent in his polished plate steel with a cape of elk's hide slung over a shoulder and clasped with a silver buckle over his heart, his plumed helmet dancing high with a dozen long feathers over him. He was a sight to behold, with his war hammer fresh and gleaming in the stormy light clasped in his two hands. Despite all the weight that wore on the armored duke his persistance and determination to climb that damned muddy hill invigorated the youths selected as his retinue of squires; many of them were low born.
They had topped that hill to have only a second of piece before a retinue of light horseman charged on them from their flank. Artoia saw his first man die when a lance pierced through the right shoulder of the lightly armored young man ahead of him and dashed him across the mud as the point ran through to the underside of his arm and breaking the spear from the rider's hands. The next moment Artoia was dodging horses as his father the duke took a swing with his hammer, unbroken as a spear broke off his heavy armor and cracked a horse's legs out from under it with a meaty snap of its bones, spilling it and the rider head over end into the sodden earth.
By the end of the engagement several of their companions were dead, and Adolfiano was unphased. Artoia stood beside his father as more men raced to meet them and as the fellow knights down below the hill raced to relieve their foolish lord. Moments before they would arrive Artoia fought the charge's commander in solo combat, and rested his sword in the left eye of the gray clad commander's face.
It was his first finest moment. And bringing the man's head to camp he was celebrated by the knights and they shared with him his first drink of mead as the stripped away the helmet and carried away the skull. Last he had heard it was prepared to make some man's wine cup, perhaps his someday; but he never saw it and he since privately wondered if the head somehow found its way back. That was nearly a generation ago, he had grown thirty since, married a baron's daughter, and had children.
Looking at the misshapen and rusting helmet he began to wonder at just how tiny it seemed compared to all things. Especially in the light of his other trophies. He had taken many things – in fact, many parts of people even – as trophies in various battles and skirmishes over the years that the act of battle itself began to seem a mundane thing, and he started to ponder if that was part of the problem. But if it was mundane: then in what way had it become mundane? What was so trivial about it? Could all encounters be trivial, such as they become?
Maybe? His eyes wandered to another trophy. A set of inconspicuous looking objects, hinges; but not just any hinges. These hinges came from a gate house. Fastened to the wall by heavy iron stakes alongside his family coat of arms that hung high over the fire place two enormous wrought-iron hinges the length of a forearm hung collecting dust. These came from some mountain fortress he lead an assault on one night with the war against the Union to break the line for the coalition assault into the heartland of the Union's foothold in Styria. It was not the first time he commanded, but felt at the time his grandest achievement in his young career. For several days they had laid the valley fort to frequent slow battering by trebuchet before under cover of night creeping to the walls as they set the field ablaze with wet pine to create a heavy smoke that darkened the already dark night. He had gone in first, as all good sons of the city do and forced open the gates and set fire to much of the fort as a blind and confused force of Union soldiers scattered and barricaded themselves in the keep. Once inside, they locked them in and simply let them starve for months; opening once the stench became too strong and then burning the place.
But, there seemed to be something wrong about that. A sense of an abuse of cruelty. But was this not war? Was that not how he came to understand the act of war itself? An armed tactical execution of cruelty? And besides: what was cruel? Could something be defined as cruel of the act itself was good, to win against the enemy and in finding resolute victory perhaps lessen the over all human cost of war by ending it swiftly? But then, that would make history seem silly, or the history of his land and his family and that puzzled him deeply. It left behind the odd intangible gulf deep in his soul.
It all seemed... small. But, why?
Outside the sounds of seabirds echoed in the air. The sea smelled sweet with the smell of salt and meat. Leaving the question now would only hold off on finding the answer that nagged at him. It would be a reprieve from the terror of meditation and stay the fear. But so long as he was still, he would only return to it. Even as he lay on the floor with his head resting on the carpet and his blonde hair fanning out from under his head he could see a distant future possibility where no part of his day was without the nagging question and it froze him. He: as the duke's prince and eldest heir to the throne, with more wealth than most of the land could even dream of having, and having so much: why did he feel he yet had so little? Where was his failing, how was he not like his father, brave to an insane fault, even reckless.
There was a rap on his door and the prince turned his head. “Come in.” he said in a soft rasping voice.
It opened, standing there in his livery was a castle servant. His face was as dour and formal as it could be. His mustache and beard waxed to an impressive gleam and holding strong like iron. “The mid-day meal is ready. Would you like to eat in your chambers or in the hall.”
“I'll eat in the hall. I'll go soon.”
The servant nodded, and bowed as he walked from the door, leaving it open. Artoia's stomach growled. Another day perhaps.