Vol.3, Ch.1, P.1
Fort and fastness of Ström—though fast no more, and only faintly a fort, for now was its soldiery boiling in bedlam, whilst its commandant’s seat stood dark and unsat. North of the gates loomed a stretch of Nafílim country, hemmed in by forests, near the mouth of which newly scintillated with a sea of candles.
That is, torches beyond count.
Night was fallen, and those far-off firelights seemed to seethe all the more hotly. Only some-odd hours before had a few Fiefguardsmen emerged from those very same forests, sallowed and dispirited in their flight. Their words for the fort-men: Hensen was a failure. Absent the appalling report, any man would have taken the torches to be the Fiefguard’s own, but oh, alas.
Why, dominion over this very domain hinged on Hensen’s sacking. Such was the mind of each and every military man here. What fright they knew, then, upon learning of both the Fiefguard’s loss and the spears of reprisal now bared balefully at Balasthea’s battlements.
None could have predicted such a contingency. A madness made more mad by the unmaking of the fort’s chain of command: neither commandant nor vice-commandant were anywhere to be seen at present.
All the while, the lurking Nafílim horde seemed a more enormous enemy, and in fact, it very much was: never before had so great a hostile number rallied before the margins of Ström. A number perhaps mustered in the wake of the fighting at the fólkheimr: felling the Fiefguard looked only to have whetted the devils’ bloodlust, and now were they come to the margravate to slake it in full.
Who, then, would challenge so tremendous a foe? The fort-men certainly fancied themselves too fraught for the feat, commanderless as they were. The larger half of them fumed and flailed in confusion. The smaller all but sank in place, panicked.
But one amongst them was different.
Morten full-moiled with fury. His fingers fidgeted, all too fain to lay the blame. Much of it was reserved for the Vice-Commandant Ebbe, who, though left in charge of the fort, had frolicked off to Hensen with the now-fallen Fiefguard and his band of silvered soldiers. But the one who most annoyed this nail-biting bloke was none other than Rolf himself, for surely enough, the moment found the acting commandant off on some merry holiday.
Well, any situation less mad than this was a merry one, no doubt. Nevertheless, that gear-grating ungraced had ostensibly sped off to the forested foe-lands for some reconnaissance. Yet his return was unreported. Mayhap he was maimed? Unmade upon meeting some Nafílim force? A soothing salve upon Morten’s nerves, if so.
“That guffin’ good-fer-naught… Damn ‘im…!” was his lip-biting outburst. Though true enough, Morten made himself a civil, simpering man whensoever aface his commandant, for truer still was the fort made a fairer place thanks to Rolf’s rigours. So long as that fangless leader did the leading, Morten and his fort-mates were most content to couch under the commandant’s secure shade.
And yet Rolf was, at the end of the day, a defect, a Deiva-spurned sprout in which no growth ought be expected, for all odyl was denied from him. Thus Morten’s mind deigned not to harbour a hint of reverence for Rolf. Empty praises were all the commandant would earn from him, and that was exactly what the soldier offered.
Morten well-fancied himself a savant of diplomacy as a result, thinking Rolf ill-discerning the dagger hidden behind his back. For Rolf was an ungraced; how could his hollow pate previse Morten’s deep designs?
Indeed, concealed scorn and derision were all he had for his commandant. How pale with appalment Morten was, then, when he spotted Rolf returning at last—
—riding amidst a Nafílim envoy.
“Hmph,” scoffed Volker. “That Balasthea should break ere a bead of blood be spilt…”
Writ on his face was faint shock, an expression shared by Lise as the two walked through the corridor alongside me. Quiet, dark, and empty was the keep interior; the fort defenders had chosen surrender without resistance.
A rather wise decision on their part. The men were leaderless, after all, and faced with a foe of affrighting numbers. But to drive the nail in the coffin, counted amongst those enemy ranks was myself. The months of employ in this stronghold have imprinted in me every nook and cranny of the place, as well as every dot and detail of its operation and capabilities. Victory against so knowledgeable a foe, then, was all but a fever dream to these fort fellows.
They had at first quaked with confusion when I confronted them, and then with veiny fury. It lasted but a little while, however, for it soon set in for them that resistance would sooner wreak their bloody reckoning. I then compelled their quick decision on guarantee of sparing their lives, and realising their lot was to otherwise end in vain sacrifice, the soldiers at once saw the appeal of capitulation.
And so was precipitated the fall of Balasthea, without so much as a single swing of a sword to sting the scene.
But here on hid the main hurdle.
In spite of the broken chain of command, word was likely making swiftly to the fief-burgh. Indeed, the margrave would be apprised apace were his precious fort to ever fall. And now that it did, we must do our part and prepare to oppose his war-like answer with all alacrity.
For that reason, I had set aside a moment to meet with a certain man.
“Time for a talk,” I said as the three of us stopped along the corridor, afront the appointed room. “Wait here a while.”
“Fair wi—ah, fair words find you, Rolf!” cheered Lise in a spirited whisper. Expectation, or perhaps even enjoyment, jubilated in her voice as I turned the doorknob. Entering, I found the room cast in grainy gloom, illumed only by a lonely lamp. Next to it was one of Balasthea’s bulwark-men: Morten.
“Rather long since last we met,” I greeted him, closing the door behind me. “Nay; ‘long’ be too long, thinking on it.”
Morten: the very man who ushered me out of Balasthea as I departed with Mia to her village. Though but a scant three days and a half had passed since then, it felt to me an age ago.
“C-Commandant, sir…” he said, sat at a small table, his hands in view as they vexedly fidgeted, “…wot be th’meanin’ o’ all this?”
And his voice was just as vexed, quivering confusedly. My actions seemed to him an impenetrable puzzle.
“Can’t believe your eyes?” I began. “I’ve turned on the kingdom, Morten.”
“T… turn…!” he wheezed. “Ye lost yer marbles, man…!?”
“Nay, I’m afraid not.”
Amidst the mirk of the room, I leant back upon the door and folded my arms, staring intently upon the appalled man. Glinting against the lamplight was sweat beading on both his brows.
“In Hensen, were it? When th’Fief-men fell,” he said unsteadily, pointing a finger at me. “Ye ‘ad a gander o’ their bodies, bloodied an’ all—that’s when yer ‘eart flip’d, when ye abandon’d th’banner, is it?”
I shook my head. “Wrong, Morten. All wrong. In fact, the Fiefguard hasn’t fallen.”
“W… wot…?” The face of a fool was then upon him… and perhaps upon me, as well, for I had little confidence in faking a look. Much gratitude, then, to the eigengrau veiling the air between us.
“The men’ve smote the fólkheimr’s defences, my friend,” continued my lie. “The Fiefguard holds Hensen as we speak.”
“B-bu… but that sorts opposite wit’ wot th’return’d Fief-men said!” Morten began disputing. “Wot ‘bout that ‘orde wot’s loomin’ at th’wood-edge, ey? Wot explains ‘em?
“Those ‘returned” Fiefguardsmen be turncoats themselves, Morten. The Nafílim paid them with fattened purses on promise of spewing lies to their fellow liegemen,” I explained. “That horde you see is but half a host, lighting twice-fold torches to pretend a meaner number. A ruse, Morten. A Nafílim ruse. And a common one, at that, well-recounted in our war chronicles. Don’t tell me you’ve little taste for literature, my good fellow?”
The soldier then flapped his lips like a fish out of water. It seemed his wits were too whelmed by my wiley words. And so I went on.
“The Fiefguard fought with perfection. Their numbers, their tactics all proved the tailwind to take Hensen. But to have fallen, instead? Balderdash, Morten. This, you know as well as I. Don’t you?”
“I-I does, sir. I should,” Morten relented, wrinkling his brows. “…But wot then, Commandant? Wot’s this ‘bout turnin’ on th’kingdom, ey?”
“Not to worry,” I assured him, before resuming in a sharp whisper. “I’m only knifing along with the Nafílim for a while. They be desperate to spite the Fiefguard for their defeat at home, you see. Thus they give me aid, and I their prize.”
“Indeed—this very fort.”
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