12th of Rain’s Hand, 4E15
County Skingrad, West Weald, Cyrodiil
Isobel Aurelia’s encampmentft. the whole crew!
The inner circle had gathered around the large wooden table that one of the carpenters had fashioned from the goods they had taken from the lumber transports. A map of the West Weald was pinned to it, an iron dagger in each corner, and carved figurines covered it, chess pieces near the end of a hard-fought match; white outnumbered black four-to-one at this point. Only Skingrad itself was still firmly under the Count’s control. Torches were set up around the meeting place and someone had cast a magelight spell that hovered serenely above the proceedings, illuminating the map and the battle-lines that had been drawn there.
Isobel had gathered those that had escaped the Imperial City Arena with her to her side, Ando and Reyna flanking the warrior-woman. Wisely, the two Orsimer were positioned on the other side of the table, as far away from Reyna as possible, who was still armed and armored from her earlier patrol and keeping her eyes on them like a hawk with her hand resting on the pommel of her sword. She was otherwise silent, knowing her role. The rest of them were dispersed in no particular order, though Robespierre Chalamer had joined them, red-clothed, golden-robed, silver-haired, a noble in full regalia, and he was stood next to Reinette, the woman who had served as liaison between him and Isobel during the earliest stages of their communication. It would have been harder to find a starker contrast between him and the man on his other side; Lucius Lex, the leader of the peasant army, all scruff and earth-tones. Akamon and Janus stepped into the circle next to each other to fill the two remaining places.
Akamon’s eyes fell on Isobel immediately and she stepped forward to speak. Her brown hair was gathered in a braid that rested on her left shoulder and she was dressed in a simple white tunic and a cloak around her shoulders against the cold, for spring was just around the corner as the chill of winter yet lingered at night. Bronze bracers on her arms and shinguards on her legs were the only armor she wore. It wasn’t her attire but her face that oozed authority, a fleeting moment of nervosity -- had Akamon seen that correctly? -- making way for certainty in her eyes and determination in the set of her jaw.
“Friends, welcome,” she said. Her voice cut through the silence that was pregnant with anticipation, a longboat through still waters, or the first peal of thunder on a humid day.
It was only then that Akamon noticed, standing behind Isobel but just out of range of the torches, the great shape of Beordan the minotaur, the Lord of the Arena. His horns and nose-ring gleamed faintly in the flickering light, high above the inner circle, but the rest of him was a mere silhouette in the dark, even larger and looming for the absence of a well-defined form. A shiver of primal respect ran down Akamon’s spine.
She continued. “The final day approaches. Tomorrow we will storm Skingrad and finally cast down Hruldan the Coin-Catcher. Months of sacrifice, blood, sweat and tears, has all come to this. Whatever happens tomorrow,” Isobel said, looking each of them in the eye in turn, a gaze of steel and love, “know that I am eternally grateful to each and every one of you. I could never have imagined that our fight for survival would have turned into this.”
Her arms were cast as wide as the smile on her face.
“Robespierre,” she indicated and the aristocrat stepped forward with a humble nod, “has graciously accepted the mantle of responsibility of governing Skingrad from tomorrow onwards. His task will be the rebuilding of trust and the fair rule of law. He was a friend to the late and beloved Janus Hassildor and will endeavour to restore his legacy. I have utmost faith in him, and I trust that you do too.”
Isobel did not wait for anyone else to speak. “The plan is simple. Because of our work in intercepting the lumber transports and other supplies that Hruldan was counting on to build his defenses with, the Skingrad city gate has not been fortified. This is still the case, yes?” she asked and looked at Janus and Akamon. The two men nodded.
“Good. Beordan will open the gate for us. Our task will be to protect him from the guards on the wall. To that end, I have asked the smiths to forge grappling hooks for us.” She looked at Bahk and smiled. “Janus, Akamon, Velyn -- you, and a few of the most agile of the citizen militia, will use these to scale the walls. Take out as many of the guards as you can. Sow chaos and confusion.”
Then she looked towards the mages, Elara in particular. “I am counting on you to create a distraction outside the gates that will allow them to do so. Think big, ladies. I want to see fireworks,” Isobel asserted with a grin and a fist.
“The rest of you will be by my side. We are to be the first in through the gate, followed by Lucius and the brave men and women of Skingrad.” Isobel deferred to him for a moment, and Lucius pressed a clenched fist to his chest, battle-ready and earnest in a way that Akamon found moving.
Isobel cleared her throat and spoke up again. “Hruldan is cornered. His lieutenants are dead and his men are few. But he is still dangerous, and his forces well-paid and well-armed. Do not be complacent. There will be blood in the streets tomorrow. Make sure it isn’t ours.”
Then she took a step back and opened her arms, inviting others to speak. “Now is the time for questions, concerns, or words of encouragement, if you have them.” Her gaze lingered on Guifort for a moment and Akamon had to hide his smirk. Had the priest ever blessed soldiers on the eve-afore-battle?
Bahk had felt several pairs of eyes fall on him at the mention of the grappling hooks. Some seemingly lingered for a moment too long as a flicker of anger rumbled in his chest. He had made sure every man and mer who stood with them held a weapon of some sort. They had watched him build a handcrafted forge from nothing but straw, clay and rock. Their spears were sharp and their quivers full, yet there were still those who doubted him.
“The err..” The Orsimer paused to clear the frog from his throat, now acutely aware of the limelight. “The hooks will hold even the heaviest of us,” Bahk's eyes flickered towards Janus. “I have tested them all, personally.”
“Aye, I can vouch for the Orc. '' Quintus rumbled, hands gripped on the edge, red and sore from hours helping Bahk mould steel at the makeshift smithies they’d set up in the camp and preparing everyone’s appetites for the statement they were making at West Weald tomorrow. “All this work ‘etter have been worth it.” Ctephesius was lounging on the Nord’s mountainous shoulders, tail drooping from the back, whilst looking cooly at Reinette, Elara and the rest of the Bretons in the circle. He scratched his thick beard, eyes pensive.
“Got a ‘nquiry though. S’pose Arkay smiles on us and the rest of the lads tomorrow,'' there was a brief glance from him towards Guifort. “And I know I may be putting the boat ‘fore the sails here but what do we do if we end up capturing that Coin catcher bastard? We don’t know ‘ether he’s going to tuck tail like a barn mouse or stand his ground. Best to plan for these sorts of things ‘fore we do things rashly“ Plinian’s chopped head flashed briefly in his mind.“
Robespierre spoke up to answer that question. “We hope to capture Hruldan alive so that he may face Imperial justice. It will send a more powerful message that way. But if he elects to fight to the death, well…”
“So be it,” Isobel finished.
“ ‘ell, that’s a load off my mind.” Quintus gave a smile of relief before sighing and thumbing his back over to the camp outside. “Folks outside won’t be too pleased ‘bout the alive part, though. Many of them want to see that milk-drinker on the gallows or kill him themselves. Not enough to make them mutiny, though. You can be sure of that.”
Robespierre smiled at that. “He’ll hang, trust me. But in due time, and with due process. We have to be better than him.”
Enshadowed by the night, and lit obscurely by the magelight, Reinette had taken her silent place. Straight backed, and arms folded across her chest. She was dressed in her usual garb of a form fitting dark tunic, a leather belt cinched at the waist, and her hair hung half-up, held with a series of ornate pins. The rest of it was loose in a trademark silver wave that had been kissed with partial gold in the arcane luminescence.
Around her neck was a long chain of silver, a key hanging right in the centre that she held between thumb and forefinger - fidgeting with it in gloved, delicate hands as her cold stare glowered down at the chess pieces. The Breton’s jaw clenched at the mention of Count Hruldan. She’d sooner see him hanging, or slit at the throat, she thought to herself, but it would not do to share such wishes in what was to be an inspiring final meeting. She kept her eyes on the pieces, feeling the presence of the intended successor at her side. “He will come alive.” she spoke confidently, letting the key drop so she could place a hand on her hip. “Hruldan shall stare into the jaws of justice one way or another,” her gaze turned from the board to meet Isobel. “There are ways to make this so.”
Guifort bemusedly looked at the wooden figurines representing the different aspects of the forces. He had placed his hands on the table, and lowered his head to allow his eye line to be at their level. It was all about perspective. Moving from that he quickly scratched notes of the plan into his journal, occasionally making sketches of the grim determination that shaped the curves of the Inner Circle’s faces.
It was then Isobel welcomed them to speak, and he caught the look that was gifted to him. Guifort fanned the page he’d been sketching with fresh ink. He laid the journal down on the table, carefully avoiding the figurines to the best of his ability.
He quirked a dark brow at Quintis’s mention of Arkay. There was a rumble about what to do with Count Hruldan tomorrow. Death. It was always death. Before the mood turned too dour—he cleared his throat.
“We can hardly say what fate holds in store for Count Hruldan, as death rarely abides by our wishes. That being said, and not to lessen the torment that he has put the people of Skingrad through, we should find a brilliant solace of this moment. Around me, I see people from every walk of life across Tamriel. From our proud and powerful Redguard adviser, to our brilliant and fast Dunmer sentinel, to our sturdy and relentless Orismer brethren, to our strong and stalwart Nord cousins, and finally to our amazing-without-fault Bretons.” Guifort chuckled. “I jest. But we are all here to support a noble Imperial cause. Can you say that you’d ever be at such a gathering? Surrounded by these fine folk? Men and women at arms that would fight beside you and possibly die for this cause. While Arkay is the god of life and death, he also believes in the experiences learned from both aspects. We live so we can die, and we die so we can return to this existence anew. So, remember that, no matter your fate. You march tomorrow to make this world a better place for lives that are here, and lives that have yet to be born whether they will be yours or the person next to you. By Arkay’s will and divine grace—you’re blessed by his light.” His fingers curled around his amulet. It wasn’t the best speech, but he’d never blessed the final leg of a rebellion before.
A huff of hot air caught the back of Bahk’s throat as the Orsimer exhaled through his nose. He had managed to stifle a roll of the eyes but was unable to stop the folding of his arms. “This one wasn’t born anywhere near the walls of Orsinium.”
He mused, pining for a time far gone where there were less words and more action.
“Well spoken, my friend,” Akamon declared, beaming with pride. It was a fine speech, he thought, especially given that he could see that Guifort had stepped out of his comfort zone to deliver it. The Redguard made a mental note to discuss the contrast between Arkay’s intended reincarnation for mortal souls with Tu’whacca’s intended journey to the Far Shores with Guifort after the meeting was over.
Isobel inclined her head in grace and gratitude. “You humble us with your words, priest of Arkay. We endeavour to be worthy of the light of the Lord of the Wheel of Life.”
“ Aye, a fine speech, indeed. ”Quintus nodded towards Guifort gratefully. His expression then darkened as his gaze wandered at the map, where he could almost imagine the countless bodies of every man and woman who he’d grown to know and serve food to lie still. He shuddered at the thought of the battle to come and then, forced it down with a roguish smile. “ I plan on being alive ‘morrow.” His fingers began scratching Ctephesius’s chin who purred in contentment.” Otherwise, no one would be around to take care of this fleabag.”
Reyna coughed a bit and cleared her throat at the tail end of his speech, nor hiding the look on her face that spoke of awkwardness and discomfort, as if she couldn’t remember what to do at the end of a prayer before dinner. It was not a practice she partook in on the Eve of battle, and her thoughts and dreams on death were a private matter, and hearing them spoken aloud was an alien thing to her—the self’s mortality, that is, rather than the end of her enemy’s. She looked between Guifort and Isobel for a moment and ruminated upon the fate of the Count. Too much energy. Too much energy was spent on deciding what to do with him. Why did it matter how he does?
“With some luck,” she started, her voice a quiet and rare thing to behold of coarse timbre and swung like a blunt object, and it was not likely to be heard again for the rest of the meeting, “he will kill himself and save us the trouble of deciding for him.”
Durzum stepped forward, stealing a glance at the young Breton and clearing his throat. Already his heart raced and he was picking at a nick on the breastplate of this armor. "If I may," he croaked, locking his gaze on Robespierre. Durzum's mind was racing. Bruk was better at this.
"Assuming we're successful, you'll hold a blood-soaked diamond in your hands- a chance to prove that you don't just play
at war, but end
Durzum's gaze turned to the map.
"Regardless of what happens, I say we end the Count's life ourselves. Or at least make people believe
it was us. Detail exactly what happens to him," he looked at Guifort for just a moment.
"Better to cut off the head of a pestering rat and let all watch it writhe than to rely on the morals of snakes."
Durzum's stomach was in his throat. "Or the retaliation will be swift and brutal. But it will end it all the same."
He thought to himself, stepping back.
“Oh, it’ll happen.” Janus said while inspecting his nails while the rest of them were patting each other on the back for doing a great job so far at this whole war
thing. It was a change of mood Janus had when discussing killing. His smirk was still there. Like always, “I’m of a mind with this mer, quick and decisive. The farmers want blood. This isn’t Imperial justice we’re trusting in.”
He looked at Isobel, and Reyna, and Beordan, “This is Thules’ justice. And I’m sure some of us know what Thules’ justice is.” Janus said, looking around at the rest of them, eyes resting squarely on Robespierre’s. He knew what happened when fat nobles stuck themselves in the peoples’ causes, “Don’t have much faith in that shit. No, Hruldan meets Skingrad justice. Colovian justice.”
Guifort tried not to beam at the affirmations that his words were held in esteemed measure. He usually wasn’t one to gloat about a story well told. Of course, he didn’t have long to consider his message as it dove right back into death and politics. Death and politics. They sat on either side of the scales and weighed just the same.
He narrowed his eyes at the Orismer Durzum’s implications, but Janus was already on a tear before Guifort could get his words out. So, he just grumbled. “Blessings and funerary rites are what I pen. I don’t take to sonnets written about torture.” He grabbed his journal from the table, wetting the nib of his quill and returning to his notes. “There are not enough words that rhyme with teeth
, and there’s quite a bit of teeth
in torture.” With that, Guifort took a step back and let the angry men and women espouse their angry words of retribution. Couldn’t they not get drunk?
A low stream of pained laughter came from the back of the assembled group. There, sat cross legged atop a wooden barrel, spear cradled in his arms, was Velyn. His head was hung, loose dark hair covered much of his face, swaying slightly as his shoulders shook. He had been sitting quietly so far through their discussion, it was only now that he made to speak in his soft husky tone, seemingly to no one in particular.
“We reach to make bargains with the Black Hands of Mephala, but there is no honourable writ of execution, and no Tong to enact it. Only us.” He looked up and passed his blood red gaze over the group, there was a wild look in his eyes, a tremble to his voice. “But you cannot crush that which is not in your hand.”
Bahk felt his knuckles strain as his fists began to ball and tighten. The riddles of the Dunmer had gone right over his head. Instead his heart swelled as his mind wandered back, like a child headed towards a hot stove, ignoring the warnings of a parent. All this talk had reminded him of the tale of Gortwog and Lord Bowen, a once crowning achievement that now stabbed at his very core. His father would’ve known what to do, with precision Khadba would’ve struck the right chords and had them all chorusing together in the matter of moments.
The Orsimer’s shoulders dropped, mimicking the deflating of a balloon. Were it not for the respect of the enigmatic commander, he would’ve left the tent right there and then.
“You all speak as if the Count kneels before you.” He muttered, loud enough for only a few to hear but also hoping to avoid being thrust into the spotlight. “Like we have already won. Kill him now, kill him later, we still have to reach him.”
“Figure we’re too deep into this to be anything but optimistic.” Janus spoke quietly, having gone back to making like his nails were mighty interesting.
Reyna’s skin crawled at the tusky slurring of words that came from the heavy baritone chamber of the orc’s chest. Perhaps she had been with them for too long that even this reprehensible creature could speak her mind for her so easily, with words she had not yet tamed. She took a breath to tame what she could however; her nerves, even as prone to flight as they were, like sand through her fingers, she managed to hold fast onto them this time and she looked to Isobel, hating to agree with that which just spoke but forced to absorb all of that which was said by the collective.
“Your plan?” She asked, her voice low. Her hand tightened the grip of her sword, made audible by the squealing of leather. All Isobel need do is to point Reyna to him and she would sniff him out if need be and end him where he cowered; like a weapon to be aimed. “How do we find him?”
Isobel looked to Janus and Akamon, the two men she’d tasked the past few nights with going out and checking on Llevurlan in his hideout each morning and night. Janus looked from Isobel to Akamon, then back, sensing it was his turn to speak, “Suspect he’d be in the keep. Deepest part of the castle, holed up with his wife and sons.” Janus spoke, then shrugged, continuing, “‘Less he makes a run for it. Last time Llevurlan let me use his eyeglass, Hruldan had put more men on the battlements and lengthened their shifts. Llevurlan and I went sneaking about a couple nights ago.”
Janus shook his head, “No secret passages, no escape tunnels we could find. Should be easy enough.” He smirked, “‘Less he’s on the walls with his men. In that case, twenty septims says I get to him first.”
Janus’ smile widened a hair, “Thirty says I get to him first if he’s not.”
“I’ll hold you to that, old man,” Akamon chuckled.
Then, for the first time since the meeting had begun, the subsonic rumble of the great minotaur’s voice rippled through the air, loud enough to be felt in one’s chest. “The Coin-Catcher will not run,” Beordan said.
He took one step closer to the circle, cloven-hooved feet heavy on the forest floor, and the shining brass head of his warhammer fell into the palm of his open hand with a meaty slap. Now, illuminated by the light, the muscular physique of the minotaur dwarfed even the thickset Orsimer among them, and the horned head of the man-bull shook from from left to right. “He is too proud. He believes the stone belongs to him. This I know.”
Isobel nodded. “It looks like he will make his last stand in the castle. He is cruel and vindictive, but he is not a coward. And when we capture him, rest assured, he will hang. In due time.”
Robespierre cleared his throat, managing to find his voice again, though still eyeing Beordan warily. “And after due process. That is instrumental when it comes to legitimizing this… ah… transfer of power.”
"The boundless passion and unflinching zeal of the present company is as always a source of great warmth and inspiration," Elara said. The mage's voice was soft, measured even, as it rose in a rolling lilt. Thoughtful eyes moved over the gathered circle and settled on the old noble. “I would only remind my most esteemed friends of one important fact. Hruldan has already been tried.”
Pacing with an excited energy, she gestured broadly, “The trial of the tyrant is the insurrection. Hruldan has already been found guilty. The verdict of the tyrant is the collapse of his power. His sentence is whatever is required to safeguard the liberty of the people of Skingrad. The people have taken arms against their oppressor, so how can they now be made to adopt a punishment that would pose a new danger to them?
“However, as our honorable friends have said, there remains much to be done, and I look forward with great joy to resolving this matter when the Hruldan is safely in our hands.
"You will have your distraction, of course," she added with a smile and respectful nod to Isobel. The cruel glint of a freshly bloodied dagger danced in her eyes. "The gates of Skingard will shudder. The guards on the walls will despair. I will summon a storm. I will invite the denizens of Levinace to aid us."
Isobel regarded the mage thoughtfully, clearly doing her best to listen to and make sense of Elara’s spirited contributions. In the end, she settled for responding only to the last few sentences of what the Breton had said. “Thank you, Elara. Your aid will be invaluable.”
She turned back to the rest of the group. “If there are no further questions,” Isobel said, “we can wrap this up and everyone can get the rest they need. Or a drink or two, but don’t overdo it.” Her eyes, twinkling with amusement, rested on Janus for a second. “I need everyone to be sharp tomorrow morning. So, speak now or forever hold your peace.”
“Whatever - uh - she said, I agree with it.” Quintus scratched the back of his head, a little yawn escaping his throat. The evening was beginning to wear on him and as much as he dreaded waking up tomorrow, his body ached for bed and a bowl of stew. “It’s been a long night and I’m dyin’ fer a cup of mead.”
“Fair enough,” their leader smiled. “Then go, and be well and be merry. Dismissed.”