Vol.3, Ch.3, P.1
Ten were gathered in the stateroom at the Margrave Ström’s mansion. Astride the long meeting table they sat, with the lord himself at the head.
On one side was seated the visiting envoy of the Zaharte Battalion, comprising its most central members. Nearest to the margrave were Viola and Theodor Östberg. Elder sister and younger brother they were, and as well, the free company’s respective captain and vice-captain. Ulrik and Sigmund were the other two, brutish men who both chafed about in their chairs. Four figures total, all looking in the second decade of their lives. But for however young they were, theirs was a mettle of mighty measure, pillars upon which was held the housetop of Zaharte’s name.
Across from them sat the other five guests: the Fiefguard commanders and—furthest from the margrave—Felicia herself.
“…Such be our present plight,” so concluded a commander’s briefing. He then leant forth, clasping his hands together. “Any questions, Captain?”
Meeting his gaze was Viola Östberg, upright of posture and crowned with tufts of rich russet hair trimmed to a short, boyish length. Fair was her face, but bejewelled with sagacious eyes most beseeming a leader of so esteemed a band of mercenaries.
“Withal I sense much cause for concern in this ‘acting commandant’. His treachery intrigues,” spoke Viola with flowing eloquence, who then turned slightly to her side. “What think you, Theodor?”
“Why, very much the same, good Sister,” assented the vice-captain. Like his elder sibling, Theodor’s tresses were of an earthen hue, but longer by a degree. Tall was his stature, straight and somewhat slender, whilst his own face seemed gentle as it breathed a benign air. “What’s his name again? Rolf? Rolf Buckmann, is it?” he wondered aloud.
“It is,” answered a Fiefguard leader. “He’s fallen in with the Nafílim, if our reports ring true enough.”
“And by our eyes, a figure alike to his was found fighting in the prior battle,” the margrave added, before looking to Felicia. “Brigadier, if you will.”
For a little while, she sat paused. “…’Twas when the fore of the Fiefguard’s file had nigh-gained the gates of Balasthea,” Felicia began hesitantly. “There I gleaned a far figure sallying forth to engage the vanguard… with a mien seeming to match Rolf Buckmann’s.”
“And how certain was your sight?” Viola asked her.
“Certain enough, Captain,” the margrave answered in Felicia’s place, “for she is none other than Buckmann’s own blood-sister.”
“Sister?” Viola almost gasped. “Dear me…”
For a moment, mercy mingled in with the sharpness of the Zaharte captain’s gaze. Unbreakable was the bond and trust she shared with her own brother, thus it astounded Viola to behold a like bond, but of an unlike strength: lesser, and languishing in languor.
Felicia fidgeted with unease. “N-nay, that man—that figure: it looked to me to have felled many a Fiefguardsman… single-handedly.”
Her words elicited widened eyes from the Fiefguard commanders, who then turned glances to one another.
That her brother counted amongst the Nafílim blades so bared against Arbel was a bitter reality to Felicia, one she dearly disbelieved. And so did she cling to clouded uncertainty, wishing for that fighting “figure” to remain naught but an anonymous anomaly. For though that battlefield had been a far and chaotic canvas, shuddering with no surety, Felicia’s eyes saw one fact true enough: that figure, with sword in hand, was hewing through Fiefguard flesh.
Such ferocity could not possibly be found in so frail a man as Rolf Buckmann.
“Oi, quit beatin’ ‘round the bush, yea? Ain’t got time for puzzles an’ prattle!” barked Sigmund: Zaharte hatchet-man and a boorish blade of a youth. Yawning next to him was Ulrik, legs crossed and eyes long loitering elsewhere.
“Tame your tongue before His Excellency, you…!” came another bark from across the table.
“Let it alone,” the margrave soothed his incensed commander. “These sellswords sit as honoured guests.”
Sure enough, nestled in his princely diction and demeanour was disdain for these freelances and their foul lot, a fact not unfound to the Östbergs. The Zaharte Battalion boasted regard high enough to count nobles amongst their frequent clientèle, and being ever the duo to deal with such silver-spooned patrons, Viola and Theodor had, by now, grown keen to their muted, malignant mannerisms. Subtleties the two were careful never to take open offence to; this, too, was a lesson learnt from many a year of selling their swords.
“Your good will gladdens, Excellency,” Viola bowed slightly.
“Ours be a line of business more begging skill than civility,” Theodor chimed in. “So we are as we are: a band of brutes, not least these two fine fellows of ours. But bid us battle and boons be upon you, good Lord.”
Following their superiors’ words, Ulrik curled his lips up in a smirk, whilst Sigmund sang in scornful laughter. Felicia could but knit her brows at such a scene. In the Östbergs was refinement enough, but for the two grisly grunts, not one dam could stay her displeasure.
No matter. The margrave had made the point himself. Sellswords are truly an off-shot strain of Men; there is no helping such hawkish souls.
“…Then I’ll not mince words,” Felicia began again, having quelled her discontent. “My brother, Rolf Buckmann—he has not in him an iota of odyl. Even with sword in hand, he is of small succour in battle. The figure I saw, then, cannot be him.”
“Not an iota, you say?” Viola asked, cocking her head in confusion. Answers were offered by the Fiefguard commanders.
“Not one. This Rolf Buckmann was given no grace of odyl from our Deiva. Hence is he unfit for the fray.”
“Only a portion of our personnel is bedecked with silver, for certain. Still, a slight against reason it is to think an ungraced should gain aught against any of our men, let alone cut them down.”
A snicker then scratched at the stifled air.
“No odyl doled t’this dastard, is it!?” Ulrik echoed, before blasting laughter out from his throat. “I right guff’d t’that, I did! Hahah!”
Amidst the noise, the Östberg siblings looked to each other, wheeling their many cogs of careful thought. At length, Theodor turned to the rest and proposed the next step.
“The fled soldiers of the fort nevertheless attest to the acting commandant’s turncoating, no? That best serves a base lode to all our plans here on, I say.”
“My brother speaks aright,” Viola followed. “Nevermind the ungracedness of this ‘Rolf Buckmann’, nor his apparent presence in the prior battle. What now presses us most is amidst the Nafílim, there breathes a treacher with troves of knowledge—as to the lay of this fief-burgh and its Fiefguard defenders. We ought train all caution to this account.”
The Zaharte captain’s point was as precise as it was painful, not least to the Fiefguard commanders, who all sat still and sombre.
Hitherto were the Nafílim empty of intelligence on Arbel. But with Rolf in their ranks, such no longer held true, for sure enough, after having assumed charge of Balasthea did he hunger for information pertaining to the plight of this march of Ström. And oh, what a feast he fed upon.
The layout of Arbel was but an appetiser; the main course was the particulars on the Fiefguard itself. Its make-up, its manoeuvres, its tactics, its tendencies—tastes all savoured and likely remembered to a tittle.
The silence hung for a moment more before its breaking by the youngest amongst the Fiefguard leaders.
“What of parley? Of discourse?” he timidly broached. “Might speech sooner avail us than spears…?”
“Parley?” cried a senior commander. “With that ungraced!?”
“Your speech be madness, you mite-wit!” remonstrated another.
Such was the speed of their displeasure that the young leader shrank back. Still, he went on.
“…Yet surely our shoulders were loved by levity only after this man took to the post. And now that it is vacant—now that Rolf Buckmann sets his gaze against us—are we burdened more than ever… that we might buckle to our ruin. Challenge him, and we well-chisel our own headstones, do we not?”
To words weakly spoken and wrung with much strength of shame, the fellow Fiefguard commanders could do naught but bend their brows bitterly in silence. Pained expressions, as though the truth were stabbing them with sore certainty.
Further on did the young commander murmur ruesomely. “Best we offer him the regular commandant’s seat… and promise him his peace. Recommend to him an easy return to our ranks, why don’t we?”
“Recommend” rather than “request”—this seemed the limit of his shame. But his choice of words only echoed how cornered the commanders all felt, as on and on they sustained their silence. Acknowledging their plight and peril was the only path forward, but it was pride that jealously stayed their first step.
Till today were they sat comfortably upon Rolf’s shoulders, mocking and mealing him even as he toiled to turn Balasthea’s fortunes around. Yet certainly enough, it was the great height of his achievements that afforded them a safe perch for the very act. Indeed, though the commanders did not scorn the battlefield, they well-scorned the man that availed them much advantage upon its fiery spans.
But from today onward was he their foe, much to their aching woe. The pain was an epiphany: that the man they so disdained was now dealing them the very cards upon which their lives were wagered. And his was no deck of mercy.
“But will this ‘Rolf Buckmann’ see the appeal of the parley?” Viola enquired the quieted commanders.
Beyond all doubt did Rolf Buckmann seem a man loathing a loving return to the realm of his breeding—not after baring this many blades against its sons. A parley, too, would prove a poor purse for buying time. Such was Viola’s thought.
“For my part, I see none, to begin with,” the margrave answered bluntly.
“If I may!” Felicia raised her voice. “Allow me to sway him! Or at leas—”
“Brigadier!” growled the margrave. “Do not take my words for some hollow wind.”
Another proposal butchered with all speed. It was a forgone conclusion to the margrave, absent even his private misgivings for the ungraced man: Rolf was not to be negotiated with. The sin of high treason hung heavy on that head of his; to extend to him the expiating hand would sully the holy lustre of Londosius. And with clemency certainly not in Central’s interests, parleying, then, was a path shut tight.
Felicia’s gaze fell. “…As you will, Excellency.”
“Let us touch upon tactics, shall we?” Viola broached anew. Battle was her main concern, one she wished to quickly confirm the particulars of. “I propose our company reinforce the Fiefguard’s frailest ranks, whilst a select few of our finest shall sally forth and strike when and where at need. Might this please Your Excellency’s ears?”
“It does,” the margrave nodded. “But intelligence must be shared between our forces—unbrokenly, and to all detail. This, I demand.”
“But of course,” bowed Viola. “Much gratitude for your heedance, Excellency.”
Arbel was blessed with many a grand gate along its walls; which of them the Nafílim horde would assault was a worry to the margrave. And so long as he and all the others knew not the answer, a force speedy in the response was most appreciated.
Truth be told, the margrave was very much warm to the idea of reining in the Zaharte grunts under his Fiefguard’s command, though little abated was his coldness for having to play along with the sellswords’ tactics. Still, Arbel and more were on the line, and clear even to his eyes was the superior worth of Viola’s plan.
A rush of air.
And following it, a chair groaning against the granite floor.
Eyes turned, finding Felicia asudden on her feet.
“Your Excellency,” she said sternly, “pray allow me to join the battle.”
“…I’ve allowed you once,” the margrave began answering, “but twice I’ll not brook, for your position be perilous, Brigadier.”
“My Lord, I beg of you!”
The spark of desperation was in her ruby regard. And deeper in it, a sisterly concern that was not so… simple. Not to the margrave, no. For his own eyes saw in her a sibling bond nigh-bordering on obsession.
An aberration she was, then. The thought grew on the lord as he looked upon Felicia. Indeed, an aberration of untold trouble, uncertain and ill-leashed in. That she shared blood with this new foe was reason enough to restrain her from the battlefield. But now he did he see more reason to restrict this wild card from all further involvement.
“Mind your meddling, Felicia Buckmann!” the margrave shouted. “The course of this king-given fief hinges on the fortunes of this battle! ‘Tis not some venue for your family feud!”
Felicia winced, hushed by the lordly anger.
Near might be her brother.
Near, and bearing the Nafílim banner, though she wished it not.
But if so, then she must meet him. Only, she could not.
Amidst the friction of many feelings, Felicia stood with fists white and stiff.
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