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.