Vol.3, Ch.4, P.3
The dust was long settled. The blood, the bodies—all had been wiped and whisked away to the shadows. Only silence lingered on in the great hall. And standing amidst it: a lone Viola.
After the slaying…
It was then that Sigmund had scooped up the unmoving boy and bolted from the manor. So swift was the incident that the Östbergs were left arrantly pale and petrified, but a moment, and again were they composed. After next pondering aught and all that should happen from this mishap, they then began setting their scheme into motion.
The present found Theodor outdoors, having left his sister to steep in her thoughts.
Stamping now into the hall was Ulrik, his face full-puckered with fury. The retreat from Rolf Buckmann sore-stung him yet, a humbling pain all too obvious to his captain’s eyes.
“Ulrik. You seem sprightly,” Viola flatly remarked.
“Yea. An’ right ready besides,” the halberdier hissed back. True enough, Zaharte’s skilled surgiens had his wound soundly sealed up. Not the full recovery he had hoped for, of course, but reckoning a return to battle as the meeter remedy than the infirmary bed, he had thought at once to seek his superior and implore deployment. “That Rolf Buckmann…!” he seethed, clenching his fists white. “Just give th’word, Viola, an’ I’ll ‘ave ‘is guts all gouged an’ garnish’d fer th’dogs t’dine on, I will!”
“Thin your enthusiasm, will you?” she sighed in answer, slowly shaking her head. “Whether you face him again or no is mine to decide. And I’ve decided that you’d best be a good boy for the time being.”
The halberdier’s eyelids twitched. “Don’t ye go pissin’ on me parade, Viola! I’ve gots me an axe t’grind, I does!”
“Ulrik. Heed me.”
“Say wot ye wants, this score won’t settle itse—”
All warmth was at once vanished from Viola’s voice. And with the morning chill yet frosting the air in the hall, Ulrik could do naught but let the combined cold cut into his skin. Her reason triumphed over his rage—the Zaharte captain was most resolute to loose him upon the ungraced never again. He had proven fangless in a two-on-one; weighed down with a wound, what hope had this brute now in exacting his fool revenge alone?
Ulrik pressed his lips shut and carefully gulped. The slight sound resounded clear through the silent hall, before: “…Bah!” he spat, turning away. “Fine. More time fer maimin’ mirkskins it is, then.”
“Your butcher’s block’ll be busy, I assure you,” Viola remarked without spirit.
“Hemph. An’ wot ‘bout you, eh? ‘Ere all ‘lone?” asked Ulrik, finding none of the others present. “Where be that brother o’ yers, mm? An’ Sigmund besides?
“Theodor’s busy outside,” answered Viola just as flatly, her visage unchanging. “And as for Sigmund—he’s quit our company.”
“…Auh!?” Ulrik’s eyes widened at once, only to find Viola’s turning away swiftly without a word, as though to signal the sudden end to the topic. Espying this, the halberdier crossly curled his lips. “Peh… Good! Spare me yer squabbles—give me ‘eads to ‘atchet an’ I’m ‘appy.”
“Your cooperation is encouraging.”
No further did Ulrik dwell on the matter. From the outset had he always taken Sigmund for an untrustworthy churl: though theirs was hardly a long-standing partnership, Ulrik ever scried something… astray, deep in that swordsman. Like a tree hiding strange roots, or a room with more doors than meets the eye.
“The next battle’s a defensive one—a last stand at the concentration camp,” Viola continued. “Go seek Theodor. He’ll brief you on the rest.”
“Yea, yea,” Ulrik replied brusquely. Viola watched him with intent, pinning some hope in this yet-promising pawn of hers as he departed the great hall.
“Still here, Sis?” said Theodor, newly returned to the great hall. “The briefing’s over with. And Ulrik’s scurried off to the camp as told.”
“I see… Well-done,” Viola greyly replied.
With orders freshly handed to the few remaining Fiefguard leaders, it was high time the Östbergs headed off to the concentration camp themselves. There would they assume command of the late margrave’s men and dictate the particulars of the clash to come.
“How now, dear Sister. The margrave’s left just about all the reins to you, hasn’t he? Quite the silver lining, if there ever was one,” cheered a rather chipper Theodor.
Viola faintly smiled in return. “A fair point.”
That the Zaharte captain should be appointed as their temporal commander was something full-suspected by the Fiefguard leadership. After all, many of their late colleagues were now as feed for the worms outside Balasthea, a miscalculation that had moved the margrave to fevered scheming—even more so with last night’s breaching of Arbel’s gates. Tense discourse was had before the break of dawn, during which was made most apparent the margrave’s mind: he meant to steal away to the viscounty of Tallien, whilst leaving the city’s defenders to stall for time. Such explained the securing of a slave Nafíl for this very purpose.
Thus did they bat not an eye when Theodor revealed to them the margrave’s intent for Viola. Only, that selfsame margrave was now dead—a development the Östbergs opted to obscure, as airing the lord’s untimely death now would at once damn the defenders to admitting defeat, most certainly.
Not that any oath bound the Östbergs to this battle. Hardly so; they were sellswords, after all. Coin was their chief concern. Were Arbel to fall, they had only to pack up and pelt away into the sunset, unchided and unchallenged. The margrave had known as much; little wonder why his desperation was so doubled in leashing them to the fray.
Why stay, then? Simple: it was Sigmund, a Zaharte hand, that had hewn the margrave. Should such a detail come to light, doubtless the siblings would shoulder the heavy blame. Not on pain of death, perhaps, but the stigma would surely spell the end of the Zaharte Cohort.
Hence was the free company yet coiled to this conflict, with the Östbergs intent on dressing the margrave’s death as mere “collateral damage” once the battle was done with. But a silver lining loomed, just as Theodor had said. An opportunity in this pale plight, promising furtherance for one precious fancy: the siblings’ secret ambition.
“A fief, all to our own,” Theodor thought aloud wistfully. “You really think we’ve the hand for such a gamble, Sis?”
“We’ll know once all the cards are laid,” answered the other Östberg. “But this, I can say: the reward is well-worth the wager.”
Within her words could be felt the fire of determination. In recalling the courses trod to reach to this moment, the sister steeled anew her resolve.
Four daughters. Five sons. Such was the issue of their father. And such was Viola’s and Theodor’s misfortune, to be the youngest of them all, of a baron-house bereft of both land and leverage. A bubble of a family threatening to burst—most lords so ill-starred ever drown themselves in dragging their households from the gaping maws of irrelevance and ruin. The Baron Östberg was no different. Of his many children, it was his eldest sons who earned a reflection in his cold eyes, for it was from amongst them that their father resolved to one day select as the house’s next head.
Why, not even as pawns for political marriage could the two siblings have served. Above them stood no less than seven other brothers and sisters, each as capable as they were comely. And plenty besides: the baron thought it enough to pour into them all his plans and leave his last two to while their days away.
So it was that Viola and Theodor were conferred the comfort of neither parental faith nor fondness, but merely food, clothes, and shelter. Shunned they were not, no. Only, they had no purpose imparted to them, no place in the great Östberg enterprise.
Not even to the occasional manor banquet or soirée were they welcomed. Such were stages wherein House Östberg could break bread and bond with the other nobility, not some playground for urchins of ill-promise, no, no, not at all.
And so would the two pretend their own party. Whilst their elder brothers mingled with noble damsels over wine and witticisms, little Viola and Theodor instead tucked themselves away to the kitchen corner. There they mingled like mice, just the two of them, prattling on about the day’s happenings over a saucer of assorted cheeses and nuts.
A humble mockery. But for them, a happy memory.
Little Viola and little Theodor.
Childish cheeks chock-full of peanuts and pistachios.
Sister and brother, smiling and beaming in whole harmony.
Their brothers plied the sword on the daily, as well, with instructors watching closely anear. And from the corridor or behind a cracked door could oft be found the two siblings sneaking a peek, their eyes filled with wonder and willingness to learn the same craft.
Thus one day, with twigs picked from near the wood, they attempted to mimick their brothers’ mettle, and just as they had thought, it was a merry activity, indeed. From noon till eventide did they swing and swashbuckle, panting and puffing, their twigs ever twirling and their sunny smiles never setting.
Soon enough, they sought the manor-soldiery’s attention, that their playful practice might be minded. The soldiers humoured them, and when time allowed, even taught the siblings some tricks of the martial trade. Only, the grunts wielded spears, not swords. But no matter. To the little ones, lessons of the spear were no less splendid.
Days absolutely singing with smiles. So long as the two were together. So long as the two had one another.
Still, they were children, yearning no less than the next child for the love of their parents. Hence whensoever their father flickered naught but callous eyes at them, little Viola and Theodor could but quail, lonely and sorrowful.
Children, neither neglected nor loved. A tragedy, all the same.
And one that saw no alleviation, even with the passing of many seasons. Thus did they chance a change by their own hands: soon after Theodor’s fifteenth birthday and his reception at the Roun of Orisons, the siblings quit the Östberg manor and made off into the wide open world. Their destination: the mercenary guilds.
Not that the doors of the knightly Orders were shut to them. No. Such a choice they eschewed. The sellsword’s life was more their mind. To fare far away from family and father alike. To forge their own way, together and only together. This was their solemn resolve.
A resolve their father ill-repudiated. Oh, but of course. He cared not. Why, it was two fewer burdens upon his strained shoulders. Thus was silent consent given, to go wheresoever and do whatsoever they pleased.
And so from that day till this did the Östberg siblings scratch and scour their way through a world of coin and conflict. With spears of splendour and magicks of might, they swiftly became a household name. And before long, they even found themselves commanders to their very own band of mercenaries, richly regarded, known far and wide to the very fringes of Londosius.
Perhaps far enough to reach their father’s ears. Or, perhaps not. True enough, not since the day of their departure have the two heard from the baron.
An annoyance this proved to the pair. But just an annoyance. Though more so for Viola. Suppose they had wanted to surprise their father; tease out some regret from that mirthless man. Even then, they would have confessed the fancy to be but faint and half-humoured. Why, if surprise was to be had, it was on the part of the siblings themselves. Here they were, already decorated and accomplished, and still not a single word from the baron? How busied he must be. How buried in bolstering the Östberg tree. How oblivious to aught beyond the bounds of his corner of the world. Of this, the siblings were reminded anew.
Suppose this, then. Viola and Theodor, masters to a new fief, founders to a new and ennobled family. What sayest thou, oh cold father? Art thine uncherished children now worth thy warmth?
A jest, of course. One exchanged many a time between the two siblings. A jest and a dream, never to fruit beyond a fantasy. But now was that fruit afore their very eyes, real and ready to ripen, as if nurtured by the heavenly hand of Yoná Herself.
The Margrave Aaron Ström left behind nary a child of his own. This past year saw the last breath of his beloved, and not since has he thought to welcome in a new wife. Why, he was himself the sole scion of his line, brotherless and sisterless. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, always had he felt it his duty to dam the flood of Nafílim, and sure enough, to this very purpose had he spent all his days, as though his very pride were pennoned upon the spears of his men.
“The margrave’ll be snug in his coffin soon enough, but with not one bloodkin alive, his will be a lonely funeral,” Viola explained. Her voice was low, her conviction clear. “This land of his, however… it’ll all be fair game.”
“Fair game, sure, but will we have a seat at the contest? We’re but witnesses to the crime, after all. Who’s to say Central’s hawks won’t swoop in and hand off this land to some other silver-spoon? Or snatch the reins themselves, for that matter?”
Theodor’s doubts were most warranted. But his sister had a ready answer.
“Haven’t you heard? The Mareschal Emilie Valenius—she herself was given a fief, one once ruled by a viscount, perverted and now punished. A land lost of its lord; a lord whose son the mareschal was once set to wed,” she said at length, still low of volume. “That was reason enough for Central to tie the bow on her boon… curious, given that she’s met the villain viscount not once.”
Theodor’s brows bent up. “G… ‘given’, you say? A whole fief?”
Ah, yes—Emilie Valenius. The Lady of the Levinblade, a Londosian hero-dame next only to Estelle Tiselius herself. Famed for being first amongst all in history to serve as both mareschal to an Order and mistress to her own house. But that such history hid behind the brilliance came as news to the Zaharte vice-captain’s ears.
“Theodor. Central’s talons grow bloodier by the day. The lions of Londosius hunt more hungrily than ever before. This kingdom craves for heroes; ones mighty enough to man its chariots. Heroes like Emilie Valenius—like us,” Viola expounded. A clear-cut explanation for her brother… and for herself, an affirmation of her dearest ambition. “We’re not wanting of feats and fame, are we?” she continued. “The Östberg siblings, twin spearheads of the Zaharte Cohort, renowned in all the realm. A princely précis, wouldn’t you say?”
“I would… sure,” Theodor nodded.
“What’s more, the Mareschal Valenius is cut from the same cloth as we,” added Viola. “A child of a troveless, landless baron, of a family with no future.”
“An endling, just as we are…” her brother thought aloud, rubbing his chin. “…Quite the compelling case, I’ll admit. And a gamble truly worth our wager, as you’ve said.”
Thus were sibling minds as one again. To assay the summit with sword and steeled ambition—such was the only constant in this cauldron of conflict. Thus should this truly be a treasure chest of a chance, then they had but to reach and wrest it for themselves.
“I suppose that’s why you’ve skipped on the margrave’s hostage scheme?” Theodor asked, to which Viola nodded.
Ström—a margravate now without a margrave. A land now listing to its own doom. And the ones to inherit the late lord’s will? The heroes to hew the foreign harriers? A sellsword sister and her brother, endlings to an ennobled line. Truly the stuff of legends, given no small substance by their preceding repute.
But one key was missing: a vaunted victory.
A victory of arms, a victory of virtue. Not by succumbing to vices, by claiming triumph through treating with the enemy on threat of disthroating helpless hostages, would Central have fancied the siblings worthy of a fief. And so did the siblings need this battle, and they needed it won—cleanly, and without question.
“We’ll quit the manor and muster straightway at the camp,” said Viola. “No doubt the rush’ll rouse the enemy’s ears, but all the better: we’ll welcome them into our den… and there rip them to pieces.”
All told, the Zaharte captain saw much worth yet in the margrave’s former plans. The concentration camp certainly was defensible, thick-walled as it was. And an irresistible lure besides, rife with the stench of Nafílim captives too tempting to the enemy’s noses. They would come, sooner or later. And if later, then all the better. Viola meant to use every afforded minute in perfecting her trap.
“Our most prized prey will be the ungraced himself,” the Zaharte captain concluded. “His is the keenest nose of them all—and the one most temptable. Once in our midst, Östberg spears shall drink deep of Rolf Buckmann’s blood.”
And be as pikes to present his traitorous head. Such was the vision seen in Viola’s eyes as her brother looked intently back. He then nodded fully, now on deck with his sister’s determination. Nay, their determination.
Till there, within earshot—a third voice, murmuring.
Standing at the doorway was the sister to that very name.
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