Wednesday, November 23, 2016

For the Widow's Son!

Sir Skoluh'r Dehpudzy, the marshal of the barony, emerged with his mounted knights and men-at-arms from the castle gate. The column extended itself to match the emperor's equal number of Imperial Knights. They straddled the road a bowshot away. When the marshal had trotted his horse until they were a hundred paces apart, he halted his men and waited.

The emperor Randahl's purple banner came out from the battle, surrounded by a hundred Imperial Knights at a walk. Their burnished plate armor on man and horse gave back sharp glints of sunlight. The erect lances, long and thick and tapering to needle points of steel, waved together in the air over the plumes of red and white, each lance shaft colored in the same hues that spiraled from vamplate to tip.

As the emperor and his guard approached the middle ground, the marshal of the baroness did likewise with an equal number of his men, each knight bearing his own colors and device on shield and caparison. They were outfitted the best that each man could, but the exigencies of the long siege had taken their toll on man and horse. This parley was necessary, or else starvation would begin in earnest.

Both squadrons met in the exact center of the middle ground between the two battles of cavalry. A long moment of silent scrutiny elapsed before the emperor spoke for himself in clipped tones. It was clear that his patience was at an end.

"Have you decided to accept my terms of surrender?"

"I speak for the widow of our lord and not for myself," the marshal replied. "She has instructed me to affirm her son's right to the throne. As long as you continue to usurp the heir of your elder brother the late emperor, her son comes before you. Younger brothers and their children cannot come before the heirs of an elder brother."

"You are mistaken. Time alters all things, even laws," said the emperor. And then he rehearsed his rights, his voice loud and demanding as he spoke the precisely formed words of a man no longer willing to suffer disagreement:

"The Imperial Councilors were unanimous that the laws of succession had been legally altered to allow direct succession, eldest to youngest sibling. Children of the first generation, eldest to youngest, all come before their own children. Should it ever please God to remove all of the emperor's children, their heirs inherit the crown, eldest of the eldest, down to eldest of the youngest, in order of age, and so on. That invalidates your mistress's claim."

"According to you," said the marshal.

"No. According to the laws as now established by the Imperial Council."

"There are those of us who disagree, that it was done according to law. Instead, we see you and your manipulators, your creatures, to put it bluntly if impolitely, as opportunists. We all know how you went up to obtain the High Priest's blessing and confirmation of your right to rule. Had he agreed with you, we would not be sitting here arguing the point. But he did not agree that right was on your side. And so what did you and your brothers do? You came back down, held counsel with your newly organized Imperial Council, after having removed your father's men who you knew would not follow your commands or hearken to your threats. And now the affairs of the land have changed. You tell us by your usurpation that the ages of high priests were superfluous."

"You dare impute that I am a godless man?"

"Take it how you will. You are sitting here as no emperor, because you have not received the second crowning."

"Still stubborn to the last, I see," the emperor grated through clenched teeth. "So be it. Prepare for battle."

Both parties turned about and trotted to their waiting men. As Dehpudzy neared his knights and men-at-arms, he gave a prearranged signal with his pennoned lance by circling it over his helmet.

Abruptly, from the opened gate issued a double column of more cavalry, pouring out and moving off to the left and right to form a continuous long line many ranks deep. From hundreds of throats came their war cry, taken up by the marshal and his already deployed troops: "For the Widow's son!"

The emperor, seeing this prodigy of broken agreements (for the parley had been specifically laid down to include only those equal numbers that had participated, all others were to remain inside the castle until the parleying parties had withdrawn), turned his horse about and began to hasten his Knights back toward where his army waited a league away.

Behind the withdrawing Imperial Knights came the defiant garrison of his nephew's widow, the baroness. The "rebels" were taunting him with their war-cries and other forms of calumny. The choler of the emperor got the better of him. "About! About!" he cried. And following his lead, his troops whirled, each man and horse, into a column, and then again into a line now facing the oncoming marshal and his whole army: which now included a large body of yeomen in a second line, carrying their longbows and sharpened stakes for driving into the earth to repel cavalry. The opened castle gate now stood empty. The baroness's banner hung slack above the battlements. And the emperor fancied that he could see the young woman amidst her household, watching from the walls as the final cast of the dice decided her fate and that of her infant son.

As the emperor lowered his lance for the charge, the recent history of his life and that of his house swiftly replayed through his fevered mind. Everything had come down to this seemingly inevitable tragedy. Just as the high priest, his other nephew, the son of the late emperor, had foretold: "You are casting aside our laws, which clearly state my right to the throne. This will be your undoing and lead to wars, from which this realm will not recover. You are sealing the doom of our people."

"Well then!" He shouted above the tumult of pounding hooves and creaking harness. "Give the devil's mouthpiece the lie! For God and Country!" He spurred his warhorse into full career and picked out his opponent from the marshal's men directly opposite his lance tip and pennon. To his right his banner bearer held aloft the imperial standard of purple and gold.

"For Randahl!" shouted every Imperial Knight. And the two lines came together in a rending crash.

On both flanks, the greater numbers of the perfidious rebels (or defenders of law and order, depending on your point of view) swept by and pulled up, wheeled inward and prepared to surround the emperor's greatly outnumbered battle. Far to the rear of this vanguard, the rest of the imperial army, under the command of Randahl's younger twin brothers, Ghorkil and Rahkard, started forward to his aid. But they would be a long time arriving!

The battle was swiftly determined by the tactical situation. Most of Randahl's men on the flanks were quickly overcome and the marshal's men began to make attacks upon the rear ranks. Seeing the rapid demise of his hubris, Randahl signaled the withdrawal. Very few of his men could extricate themselves, and these were quickly caught up and surrounded.

Only the emperor's immediate squadron had won free. He kept going, casting vengeful glances over the armored rump of his purple caparisoned warhorse. His brothers were moving closer with their cavalry ahead of the infantry. But they seemed to be arriving later than Randahl expected.

He looked back at his doomed Knights. The enemy sergeants in mail on lighter horses had gone out and around the left flank of the melee and were bearing down on his vastly outnumbered squadron. It was going to be very close!

But he saw that, just barely, the right end of his brothers' battle would reach him before the enemy did.

Ghorkil and Rahkard and their mostly mercenary force wheeled to the right, lowered lances and charged.

Lances were lowered directly at the emperor himself! "What in hell's name?!" Randahl screamed. Before he could collect himself, twice their number slammed into his Knights and bore them backward, piercing shields with keen lances, throwing riders down and forcing horses onto their haunches. Randahl himself was unhorsed and struck the ground violently. His men did their best to surround him and he regained his feet. But the press was too great and he could not get into the saddle. He barely managed to draw his bastard sword and defend himself with stout two-handed sweeps of the blade. His men dropped rapidly around him, horses and men going down against mounting odds.

The rest of Ghorkil's and Rahkard's battle had continued forward into the stalled enemy cavalry, where they began to make an immense slaughter even as the last of their brother's Imperial Knights, completely surrounded, were done to death.

The marshal's sergeants saw the treachery enacted before their very eyes and marveled. This unlooked for event, plus the now nearness of masses of infantry mercenaries serving the emperor from the Masterless Quarter, altered their original intentions to catch the emperor up. Wheeling left now, the sergeants advanced in a line toward a dense body of thugs who were armed with javelins. The mutual hail of missiles entirely favored the cavalry. Hundreds of ill-clad scum went down transfixed. Few sergeants felt the piercing steel of javelins. Their shields bristled with spent enemy missiles and they rode over their fallen and writhing bodies. Behind the thugs came Warriors with armor and stout crossbows. As the sergeants spurred into a charge the crossbowmen and main mass of the thugs either met them or did their best to get out of the way. Several scores of sergeants plunged through the gap in the line of thugs and were met behind by a hasty and brutal volley of crossbow bolts. These unfortunate horsemen were annihilated. The crossbowmen turned toward the main battle.

Seeing that they would be engulfed by superior numbers, the bulk of sergeants withdrew and was soon met by the marshal and a squadron of his men who had managed to avoid the countercharge of the twin brothers.

With this combined force, Sir Skoluh'r turned back toward the main melee. It was a lost fight that he saw. His men there were in rout before the twins and their victorious battle. The marshal rallied such of his troops that he met in their rout as he could. And by the time he had arrived where the yeomen had driven in their stakes and advanced a few paces before them, the battle was over.

Ghorkil and Rahkard had pulled up the pursuit and withdrawn out of effective bowshot. The two brothers had gone even further to see how their men had fared in dispatching their hated brother. The source of their jealousy would enter with varying details into the chronicles. But suffice to say that it was murderous enough to create direct and irrefutable fratricide.

The emperor Randahl was down to his last handful of now dismounted men of his household. As Ghorkil arrived first with his squadron of knights, his older brother was getting to his feet again, having been wounded many times. His plate armor leaked blood. Ghorkil struck him with his lance. Randahl screamed in fury. "Miscreant spawn of the Turtuk!" "Betrayer of the empire!" shouted Ghorkil. His twin brother Rahkard arrived with another squadron. The tiny knot of Imperial Knights resisted for a brief while longer.

"Dogpile!" shouted Rahkard with unholy glee, recollecting a childhood battle cry of younger brothers as they ganged up on an older brother. This brother. Through his streaming blood, Randahl grinned and screamed something incoherent as Rahkard dealt him one last fatal blow. It is not written, even in the more honest and suppressed accounts, which brother stuck off his head.

Aftermath:

The history does say this much. As the emperor charged into his foes, his brothers turned on him in righteous anger with their knights and he was slain. His severed head was taken to Lyn Seprhl, where it was put on a spike over the main gate, thus allaying any possible rumor that the emperor might have yet lived.

Ghorkil proclaimed that he and his brother Rahkard would now rule as co-regents. And Ghorkil married their nephew's widow, establishing the regency in her infant son's name.

But not many months after this legal arrangement, the baby died of "an illness". And soon after that his mother also perished by the same malady, combined with the effects of sustained grief. There was a plague sweeping through the City at the time. So the imperial physicians' stated cause of death was believable. But it was also believed by many that mother and child had been murdered.

And when, shortly thereafter, Ghorkil and Rahkard had it proclaimed that they would fill the vacancy as co-emperors, their two younger brothers, Ebrohs and Gerath, cried foul and demanded that their nephew, the high priest's claim should be honored. This was not allowed as valid, insisted the twins, since Randahl had "legally" altered the affairs of the realm vis-à-vis how successions would henceforth be conducted.

So "the brothers war" began. Ebrohs and Gerath mustered to the north. Ghorkil and Rahkard held the bulk of the land, supported by Antania the chaos lord of the Masterless Quarter, who continued to supply the twins with many mercenaries. From the outset, the war was one-sided. All of the supporters of the younger brothers south of the Esgroth mountains were targeted by the minions of the twins. Raiding columns swept over their lands laying open towns and villages in ruins. Throngs of refugees sought safety north of the passes, or in the Masterless Quarter, or the "holy city" of Kylburakh. In the weeks that followed the proclamation of the twins, all of their enemies were driven north of the Esgroth mountains or were put to the sword if they did not surrender. City after city capitulated. Finally, the only two bastions of doomed resistance were the cities of Etrykh and Klyph. A handful of feudal castles had been missed in the sweeping campaign of the twins.

(Kylburakh was, of course, also not reclaimed. Envoys sent  by the twins found Numah the High Priest as "intransigent" as ever. He said that he would not be supporting the cause of any of his uncles. He had already told them in the beginning when Randahl and all of his brothers had come up for the religious confirmation -- which he had refused to grant -- that Khayil-Baruk would stay out of all wars henceforth. He had prophesied doom upon all in the lands beneath the holy mountain. So until they had subdued their two younger brothers' "rebellion", Ghorkil and Rahkard had decided to simply ignore their nephew, Numah. Once the realm was theirs, his prophecies would be shown to be discredited. At that point, his followers would lose faith and his cause would fail.)