Vol.2, Ch.4, P.5
It was the untarnished truth that Ebbe, vice-commandant of Balasthea Stronghold, harboured a smouldering hatred for his newly installed superior, the Acting Commandant Rolf Buckmann.
Ah, yes. Rolf Buckmann, a pus-blister carbuncle of a man! An ungainly ungraced, untempered of blade and untested in battle, Buckmann! His is a company undeserving of aught warmer than wintry scorn!
To say nothing of his wits, dumb as they are to the dullness of his fangs. Yet with finical and fiery tongue does he tattle out his orders to Ebbe and them—truly a spectacle of fierce and flagrant foolery!
That was the thundering thought of Ebbe, and why he so rejoiced when Rolf Buckmann bumbled off on some break out-of-the-blue. This was the moment, then. The fresh and fruiting opportunity. A meanwhile where Ebbe would be in charge of the fort. Indeed, in the absence of that absurd addle-pate did the vice-commandant intend to accomplish much and more. Already were the cogs of his contriving wiles wound and ready to wheel.
Fast in these fancies, a froggy chuckle escaped his bony throat. But the daydream lasted not long, for at the fort was come a most unexpected visitor. It was past noontide on the same day of Rolf’s respite, when Ebbe, sat smugly in the commandant’s seat, received this guest.
“A pleasure—er…” he began, knowing not what to make of the occasion. “…Brigadier, lady, eh—”
“Of the Sorcery Brigade,” the ruby-eyed visitor confirmed, before presenting some proof. “Here. My hatchment.”
A squint at the filigree crest. “Ah… From the 5th, are we…”
Ebbe’s brows bent from flabbergastment.
The 5th Order—what else but the very nest whence the wingless Rolf Buckmann was flung.
Balasthea’s prior commandant was put out to pasture for the time being, on account of a chronic malady. So it was that a replacement was needed. Ebbe had well-thought himself to be up to the task. He was, after all, the vice-commandant, the second-in-command, the right hand of the fort’s frontman all this time.
But alas. Upon the commandant’s seat was sat instead some transfer from the 5th. The bloke’s title? Acting commandant. And “transfer” was a sweet kindness: the man was but an exiled good-for-naught. Balasthea was, at the time, a fort much fraught, dealing with death on the daily. Yet on the whim of silver-spoon bureaucrats were its dire defences left to the direction of this toothless and silver-tongued tumbleweed.
Oh, the despair. The indignance. Ebbe was lost, livid.
He chalked it up to some scheme or squabble amongst the aristocracy, as was wont to happen in lordly Londosius. That’s not to say that Ebbe himself was rebellious of the nobles. No, he was very much a beneficiary, for the good graces of Margrave Ström were well-trained upon the vice-commandant. As such, he savoured quite sweetly the favours of the nobility, but when the taste turned any bitterly, Ebbe was a babe quick to curse his benefactors behind their backs.
In any case, the bony man nurtured no good impression of the Order that so graced him with the ungraced fool. An irony of the fates, then, that he would entertain on this day a dame from the selfsame knightly lot…
…one with a name swiftly grating at his good mood.
“Felicia Buckmann,” she bowed slightly. “Dame Brigadier to the Sorcerers of the 5th Chivalric Order.”
“Curious,” Ebbe remarked. “Tell me, miss, what’s the commandant t’you, eh?”
The fleer upon his face. “…Ah. A doting sister, t’have come t’the keen edge o’ the kingdom for her beloved brother.”
Venomous was the vice-commandant’s viper-eyes upon the young woman. The very fact she had aught to do with the rat-bastard Rolf Buckmann was reason enough to earn her no welcome in Ebbe’s company.
“I wish to speak with him. Is he present?” this “Felicia” asked firmly.
Once in the past was her life saved by her brother, from what but the horns of a harrowing beast, bedevilling denizen of some death-marked minery. It was then that she thought to think differently of him, to cast upon his profile the long-lost light of their warmer years.
How coldly the mistrals came in its stead.
Argent arms and armour were soon bedecked upon the entirety of the Order’s ranks, a development that denied her brother any chance of victory in his spars. All he knew from then on was defeat after defeat, and wet scorn spat upon his prostrate person.
A prodigy, her brother once was. And so she knew his wits to be well-whetted. Enough to devise some way to swim against the many tides turned against him, to make due even as he lacked the magicked luxury otherwise accorded to all kin of Man.
But he hadn’t. Instead, he merely swung his sword about, set upon his ways against all prudence, only to be pounded into the ground by his peers. A sight seen by Felicia’s eyes, time and again. What foolishness, insanity even, to repeat futility and expect aught more than failure.
And of course, there was the hearing of months past, convened to deliberate his exile. There did he reveal to her what a pig-pated and pouting child he had become, so obstinate in refusing both his faults and the saying of his sorries. The performance earned naught but annoyance from his sister, by then long-dry of all adoration for him.
Still, Rolf was her brother.
And she, his little sister.
Never could she be soured so, that she would dare abandon him.
Hence her voyage of no few days: she had come to this fort to ask of him of the cold shoulder he had turned to Emilie’s call, and to discern whether he was so withered of wit to be unwise to the mareschal’s favour for him.
“Your dear brother’s on break, love,” Ebbe shrugged. “A gadabout o’ an ungraced, off on vacation. Hoh! The ballocks o’ that bloke!”
Fain was the vice-commandant to unveil his enmity. Insulting Felicia’s brother was too enticing upon his tongue to pass up, even if it meant earning the much-vaunted brigadier’s own enmity.
To his surprise, none of the sort was espied from his guest.
“On break?” Felicia said. “A whole fort in his charge, and yet freely does he set aside duty for dalliance. ‘Twould seem he’s still not risen to his office as a soldier, I see.”
“Oh? That’s quite the slighting tongue for a sister, my dear miss,” Ebbe half-giggled. “But who could blame you? A brigadier sister; a banish’d brother. Hah! O, Yoná! Mercy!”
“Mercy for my nerves, if only,” she sighed. “He’s dulled into a coistril of a cadet, that brother of mine. ‘Twas my hope he would hone his blunted blade here, if even a little.”
A knock upon the door. In then came a footman.
“Vice-Commandant,” he saluted. “The margrave’s arrived.”
Felicia blinked. “The Lord Ström is come? Here, at the fort?”
“That he is,” Ebbe beamed bonily. “Follow, fairest Felicia. If you mean t’meet him, I’ll show you the way.”
Balasthea’s embattled ramparts stood auburn against the sunset. And outside its gates agape at the plains of Nafílim dominion, there was congregated a great army. Ranks upon bristling ranks of soldiers, assembled and set for battle. Billowing in the wind over them: the Fiefguard flag.
The Margrave Ström strolled afront his filed fighters before stopping beside Felicia.
“Well. A Brigadier of the Order, here in my humble homeland,” he began. “And of the 5th, no less. Fair lady, you are high-born, I take it?”
“I am. From House Buckmann I hail.”
The margrave stared on. “Buckmann?”
“M’liege,” Ebbe spoke from anear. “Our young miss shares blood with the ungraced—they be siblings.”
Lordly laughter boomed. “How now! What strength of arms this dainty damsel hides! To have toiled in leashing her hound brother all these years!”
But for such toils, and her own talents, the young brigadier brimmed with pride. True, though, that it was scarcely seldom for Felicia to suffer the grating guffaws of others. She was sister to an ungraced, after all: her brother’s stigma was too large a stain, for Felicia, too, came to share in some of the unholy shame. The sneers and jeers reserved for Rolf, then, would often overflow in his sister’s direction.
But the margrave’s slight was not to be silenced. And so did Felicia clench her teeth and ask him thusly.
“Your Excellency, you gather many men. To what purpose, if I may ask?”
“Hm! Need it be said? They shall do what military men all do: march, and make battle.”
From here would the Fiefguard foray, was the margrave’s implication. Fair enough; though Balasthea was not more than a minute’s walk away, they all well-stood upon Nafílim soil. They: the militants of Man. And therein lies the rub.
Not lightly should the military breath ever blow upon Nafílim fields. For such a dear undertaking, prudence was paramount, to say nothing of planning and preparation. Whether or not the myriad men were assembled after such considerations sparked much doubt from Felicia, for missing from the scene was a key and keen mind for command.
“Yet I’m told Balasthea’s acting commandant is absent,” she observed. “Has he spoke aught on this matter?”
“I should sooner lend ear to pigs’ slaughter than the slithering words of that ungraced,” the margrave brushed off. “This matter demands little heedance from him and his men. They busy themselves with defence; my men mean to attack.”
“Worry’d, fair Brigadier?” enquired Ebbe. “Come, rest easy! Valiant Ebbe joins the margrave’s men with his own! Lo! the vaunted guardsmen o’ the Vice-Commandant, yours truly!”
Felicia swept her eyes to where Ebbe pointed. Formed a ways off were files of silvered soldiers, thirty and more in number, mounted high on their horses. The youngest amongst them returned a look of his own, lustful in its leer.
Paying him no mind, Felicia pressed on.
“Your Excellency. The vice-commandant and his unit are themselves counted amongst Balasthea’s bulwark-men, are they not? Their duty is defence, by your words; how are they made to march without their commandant’s consent?”
“I give consent.”
Sharpness from the margrave.
To have amassed such multitudes of men, with many reams of gear and supplies in tow—the scale of this expedition certainly spoke of deals and decisions made well in advance. Ebbe, too, was surely privy to the margrave’s designs, ones that called for the participation of the vice-commandant himself, along with his herd of elite grunts. What gave it away was the easy eagerness in the bony man’s gait as he stood amidst the mighty enterprise.
Doubt clouded Felicia’s heart ever more. Could it be that these men, prince and pawns alike, mean to move without a single word to her brother, commandant as he is of the very fort from which they would sally?
“But, Lord Ström…”
“My dear Brigadier. Is it more than blood you share with that ungraced? He well-gainsays the slaying of innocents—even should they be of Nafílim stock,” the margrave revealed, then emboldening his stare upon Felicia. “Are his words yours as well?”
“That man has aired such ill…?” Felicia thought aloud. “Nay, my Lord. He and I are same of blood, but not of mind. ‘Twas simply that I couldn’t espy why so many men should sally from his fort, on what occasion but his own absence.”
“Of minds, I pay none, to whether he curses us with his company or no,” the margrave remarked. “But ‘tis certain he should raise a reeking stink were he here now. So I say, all is well and good that our noses are spared of his stench.”
A grin then grew upon the lord’s lips, one caked with confidence and piety for his self-proclaimed justice.
“By the grace and godly name of Yoná shall my men at last march to Hensen, and there smite the unholy Nafílim hell-nest that it is. And bring back to us much boon and bounty besides—slave-captives, and coffers each filled with coin and exotica,” the margrave announced at length. “Be not worried, Brigadier. Such riches shall enlarge the larders of Londosius. This, I assure you.”
“…As you will, my Lord.”
None of the margrave’s words inflamed Felicia’s ears. Right and just were his ambitions, a bedrock of surety for the longevity of Londosius. Why, she even measured him to be rather proper to an extent: not often does a lord leave the comforts of his manor to personally see off his military men to their march.
It was but a spark of surprise that shook her from the moment. Surprise for the deployment of Ebbe’s unit, fort-defenders though they were, as well as the endeavouring of an entire foray into Nafílim lands, on what day but the very day of Rolf’s absence.
Ah yes. Rolf. For her brother, Felicia knew only despair and disappointment, deeper now with his secret exclusion from this expedition. A fine time to take leisure, whilst the world is on the move. Despair, indeed.
“Right then, love. We be off now,” Ebbe bowed passingly. “A mite shame your brother has t’sit out this crusade. Be a dear an’ console ‘im for us, will you?”
“…Of course,” returned Felicia, ill-able to rebuke Ebbe’s rabblerousing.
Writ boldly now upon her agenda was this very matter, of which she meant to take up fully with her brother. But such was only a footnote to the crux of her coming to this province of Ström: to press Rolf on why he let slip Emilie’s gracious hand.
This was the brigadier’s resolve. To set herself upon her brother as he couches in his cowardice, and teach him of what path he ought take. It was late, but not overly so. Thus was Felicia resolute on returning to Arbel, all to pay a visit to Rolf’s residence.
Off to her side was the margrave, speaking anew with one of his commanders.
“It is time. Hie now, and bring word of Hensen’s fall! Yoná be with you!”
Saluting, the commander turned to the arrayed army, and raised high both sword and voice.
“Heed, men! We go north past the woods! And from there, turn to pierce Hensen whence rises the sun! Hold fast your blades and steel well your souls! For in this battle shall we strike the devils full-sore! Back to the pits of hell whence they hail! March! March now! Onward! Onward!”
“Holy Grace be our Guide!”
The host of Men swelled with sound, thundering into the unblemished skies. Then, under the watch of their margrave, they slowly commenced their march. Thousands of earth-thudding steps, paving a path to Hensen, from the denizens of which these kin of Man would hew dominion over this land.