Shadows over Ghal // Novel // WIP
Updated: Feb 4
In one final battle, Hugbert Levett crushes the Barbarian hordes in Ghal. As the wars in Ghal finally come to an end, Hugbert is faced with both triumph and tragedy. On the heels of his victory comes news of his daughter's death. His victory rewarded with the adulation of the people, he also garners the enmity of powerful opponents and former friends.
In Tregor, Emperor Gofreid the Great must balance honour and politics as he is urged to betray his greatest general.
Countess Jeustene Dufour of the Levett tries to steer her family on the dangerous path between the growing divisions of power
Whilst in the Ghallian countryside, two unlikely allies must reclaim that which the Tregorians have lost.
Year 1204. Ghal:
Sir Grimold Deschamps
The cursed rain never stopped in this land. Grimold stood as the rain seemed to slice straight through his mail shirt. The wind blew the rain straight under his helmet stinging his eyes.
He could see the crossbowmen firing ineffectually at the barbarians on the hill. The crossbow strings were soaked robbing them of their power. He waited for the order he knew was coming. His squad was formed up with shields locked, they bantered nervously as the two sides faced off. General Hugbert had brought three regiments, nearly nine thousand men to the woods of Dachshölzer. After nine years of constant battle, the hordes would be tamed. He took a swig of watered wine from his flask. He looked back but couldn't see the command tent through the cursed rain. The knights had dismounted and were standing at the centre, the ground was a quagmire. No point even trying to operate as cavalry. Then again, whatever the weather, in the end, it always came down to the infantry. Bladders full, throats dry, shields pressed against the foe, pushing, spitting and stabbing. His prediction came true. A horn blew from behind him signalling the advance. He bellowed for the advance, his soldiers squelching forwards in perfect lockstep, defying the slippery, sucking mud. Howls of rage, bravado and mockery came from the top of the hill as the defeated Tregorian crossbowmen fell back past them and Grimold's infantry trudged past them. A few of the braver enemy lifted their tunics to bare their muddy bottoms at them. His teeth ground together and for a moment he panicked that his sword was going to slip out of his hand. He gripped his fist around his hilt until his knuckles whitened. He took deep breaths and forced himself to relax. As they marched up the hill the pace slowed as the sergeants kept adjusting the line to keep the squads moving in unison.
As they closed on the foe, a small stream of spears, axes and rocks started hurling towards them, most landing short. They advanced closer and the more experienced soldiers joined in. Grimold caught an axe on his shield, the throw had been badly timed and it banged into the wood and fell to the floor. Siegmund took a spear to the face and collapsed. From behind him, Jakob took his place, the ranks shifting before reforming into order. Grimold could make out the enemy now, he could see the perverse mix of fear and exultation on their faces. Spears jutted out towards from a solid shield wall. A series of horns blasted and he called for an all stop. The ranks stood and faced each other staring at each other through the rain. Grimold joined a chorus of sergeants. "Loose!" He shouted. The rear ranks hurled javelins over the front ranks angled to land behind the enemy shield wall. A few gaps appeared and he repeated his order a second time. More gaps appeared. Clansmen rapidly filled them, but these were the tribesmen, not chosen men. In unison, the sergeants ordered the charge and the men began the slow trot that ended in the full-on charge. A sickening crunch reverberated across the battlefield as the lines clashed. Grimold lashed out at the spearmen in front of him, his sword stabbing like a viper above the shield when he saw a face, and under the shield when he saw legs. It was close, deafening and impersonal. He could feel his blade pierce armour and flesh, he could smell tangy scent of blood, faeces and sweat but he could rarely see who he had stabbed.
After what seemed like an age two blasts of the horn sounded and he ordered his squad to fall back. As they retreated he could see the bodies of his former squadmates. Casualties had been heavy, but the enemy seemed to have taken greater losses in the great press. He saw Jakob still hacking at the enemy.
"Fall back." He shouted. "Jakob! Fall back now." Jakob was pushed back and threw himself against the enemy again roaring with fury.
Cursing, Grimold ordered his squad forward again. His soldiers bulldozed into the enemy and he grabbed Jakob's mail shirt to drag him back. Jakob spun, his saliva frothing in a berserker rage and headbutted him. Spots flickered in his vision and he sagged back. An enemy spear flickered in front of his face as he backpedalled. Two more of his squad grabbed Jakob's and dragged him back as once more Grimold sounded the retreat. Jakob was shaking his head, his eyes slowly coming into focus. Two more Imperials lay dead from the charge. They retreated back down the hill to regroup and reform. Jakob had his hands tied with leather thongs and was tossed back out of the rear of the squad where marshalls waited with oaken staves. He heard the cracking of the staves being used as he returned his attention to the hill.
Round one was over, but he knew they'd be climbing that hill again before the day was out. Boys ran up and down the lines handing out fresh javelins, skins of water and stale, rain-soaked bread. The crossbowmen trotted past them again to keep up the pressure with another few barrages of effectual bolts. He sank to his knees exhausted.
The sun was out. It appeared that the Imperial forces had not only routed the Ghallian Kings army but had scared away the rain too. It was the morning after the battle and he was stood in a box formation with his entire regiment facing in. Several soldiers were twitching on the ropes. They had tried to run from battle but had been caught by the marshals. Four men were lashed onto wooden crosses. One of them was his man Jakob. Leather whips cracked down upon them as a drummer kept up a steady beat. Captain Quesnel stood, his supporting his ample gut with one hand. His moustache lending dignity to his otherwise bored expression. Next to him, his pet battle mage watched impassively. Eventually, the drums stopped. One of the soldiers sobbed, a man of twenty years. His back a lattice of open wounds. Jakob looked at him with disdain and his voice boomed across the parade ground.
"Well, I don't know about you lads, but I reckon I could go another. What say you?" He said. His mouth opened up to reveal a grin missing several teeth.
Captain Quesnel cracked a smile and with his mage turned around leaving the soldiers to it. With the Captain gone, the sergeants disbanded their men. Grimold approached Jakob. The regimental doctor following him to sterilise the condemned men's wounds.
"I hope you've learnt a lesson from this," Grimold said.
"Piss off, you pretentious prick. If you hadn't noticed. I don't like learning." Jakob said. His face froze as uisge was poured over his wounds and wraps were applied.
Grimold shook his head with disgust. "It's the arena for you now. But with a mouth like that, it'll end up being the rope just like those poor sods."
"You think the rope scares me? I like three things. Fighting, fucking and drinking. Death? It's a friend of mine. What do I have to fear from it?" Jakob said. He tried to spit but his mouth was too dry. Grimold offered him his flask and Jakob spat a glob of wine at him. "That was wine? Damn. I regret that. Don't suppose I could have another swig?" He looked up hopefully. Grimold sneered and turned away wiping his tabard where the wine had splashed.
He didn't have time to change into his spare. He moved to where the regiment was reforming lining the interior wall of the camp. A rampart of earth topped with wooden stakes. As he approached he could hear the soldiers were bellowing themselves hoarse. He formed up with his squad. The chained, naked form of the enemy king was being carried in a cart around the camp palisade. Leading the parade was General Hugbert and his staff. The General was wearing the defeated kings crown and was waving regally to the troops as he rode past. Occasionally he would pull an ornate armband from a sack and throw it to his men. Trophies from the deceased kings chosen men.
After the parade had finished. The regiments formed up outside of the camp in front of Hugbert's raised platform. The armies musicians played the Imperial anthem. Then Hugbert raised his hand for silence, the black glyths tattooed on his face flared for a moment in glorious amber.
The Ghallic king, still naked, held his head high and marched with pride and as much dignity as he could muster through the lines of Tregorian soldiers. Reaching the generals throne, he knelt down before him.
"The deal still stands?" He muttered in heavily accented Tregorian. Hugbert nodded. The King then lent forwards and kissed the signet ring on the generals outstretched hand. Hugbert smiled as the king was taken away. He would be sent to Tregor in chains to be sentenced in front of the people.
He stood, "Nine years." His booming voice projected across the camp. "Ten thousand, three hundred and eighty fallen heroes of true Tregorian blood." He paused. Looking into the eyes of his warriors. "Why? What is it for? Nine years ago the barbaric Ghals raided our borders, they killed our men, they stole our women and children. They feasted on the flesh of our pure born bodies. They looked at us and when they saw the pristine perfection of our glorious cities it festered in their hearts." A rumbling spread through the soldiers. "Now we have educated them as to what it means to stand against the might of Tregor." He raised his fist and a tremendous roar arose from the soldiers. "Now our borders are secure and we can return home as heroes. Now civilisation can be brought to the wilderness and the savages can be enlightened." A smaller outcry came from the soldiers. Hugbert looked over at them knowingly. "I know that at as warriors of Tregorian blood you don't need money or riches, you fight for the honour and glory of our nation." Silence fell. "But today, our gallant soldiers are manning the walls of the Ghallic capital. We march, when they open the gates you will have two days to help yourselves to whatever you rightfully deserve. The riches of the Ghallic nation will be seized by people born to greatness and liberated from the squalor of Ghal." A huge roar rocked the fields as the soldiers almost wept at the thought of two days of looting. Every soldier would return to Tregor a rich man.
Grimold remained stoic, he raised his fist in salute as honour demanded but he had lost his love of sacking towns. He ordered his soldiers to advance. The city in front of them opened it's gates and he could already hear the cries of the civilians inside as they realised what was coming. He adjusted his helmet. The first squads began to break order as the soldiers ran to be the first into the city. Marshals lashed out with rods and sergeants bellowed to maintain order. Grimold received sullen glances from his men but they remained in good order. He knew that wouldn't last. In formation, they were able to bull through the soldiers in front of them, Grimold led them down the main road pushing through the press of Tregorian soldiers in front of them. As the soldiers dispersed through the city they began to make better time. When he made it into the market square he bellowed. "Squad dismissed" and a giant cry of triumph erupted from his squad as they scattered to pillage the surrounding taverns and stores. Grimold walked into the closest tavern, found himself three bottles of wine in the storeroom and a horn tankard and began to drink. In front of him, the innkeeper was dead, his wife was screaming in the corner and his daughter was being used by two soldiers Grimold didn't recognise. He poured a hornful and tried to ignore it. Then rose and threw the first soldier to one side and headbutted his comrade. Pulling his short sword out he pointed it at the first soldier.
"Reconsider," Grimold said. The soldier looked enraged and then shrugged, plenty of other women to find in the city. As he left the soldier spitefully stabbed the mother in the throat, she collapsed to the floor gurgling. The second soldier was insensible. The girl sat quietly next to him shaking. He pulled up her dress to cover her body and passed her a bottle. The girl looked surprised but grateful, her almond eyes watering as she finished the bottle in short order. He tapped his chest. "Grimold" he said.
She tapped hers and said "Viviana".
Sobs began to wrack her body interrupting his drinking. He cuffed the back of her head and shook his head. She silently sat and he passed her another bottle.
For two days the city burned until eventually the blood-soaked, hungover soldiers of Tregor were forced by rod and eventually blade to return to the army encampment outside. It took the hanging of twelve soldiers in the main square to shake the soldiers free of their mania. Slave traders entered the encampment, the glut in the market meant that human lives were trading for less than the price of a pig. Grimold's stomach roiled as the sour Ghallic wine rebelled in his stomach. The girl he had saved from rape called out to him forlornly as he sold her to a slave trader but he didn't speak Ghallic. He took the coins and hoped that she would find a kind owner. He walked back towards his squads' section passing a shouting Jakob who was still imprisoned in a wooden cage. He turned to approach Jakob who was weeping in fury.
"Two days. TWO days and I was stuck in here." Jakob lamented.
"Perhaps now you understand the consequences," Grimold said.
"You did this! You did this to me! Now everyone is rich and lust sated whilst I'm caged like an animal". Jakob said. He spat on the floor and hammered the bars with his fists. "I piss on your consequences!"
Grimold looked at him with pity and disdain and tossed him a full bottle of wine. Jakob grasped it like it was a talent of gold. "There is a lesson here Jakob."
Jakob drank deep and then looked up, his eyes clear. "I told you... Sir. I don't like learning."
Grimold turned and didn't look back. He returned to his tent and began to clean his arms and armour. No matter how much he scrubbed the blood didn't seem to come free.
Year 1204. Tregor:
Emperor Gofreid the Great
The Emperor sat on his gilded throne drinking wine. His stomach hurt from several days of carousing and his gout was flaring up. A thousand thoughts fluttered through his addled mind. He dislodged and hurled a troublesome pillow and flopped back. Once his hard chiselled chest had been the envy of the greatest athletes. Now he was a mound of flesh sagging under the memory of past glories. The pacification of Xandar, the desert kingdom to the south. Once it was Tregor's greatest foe. Now, after his campaign, it was the breadbasket of the Empire. It was there that he won the epithet of 'the Great' and later when he crushed the slave rebellions of '84 and '91 that the army had marched on the capital where he was crowned Emperor. The previous Emperor being cast from his palace walls by own bodyguards. Now, only a decade later he had gone from being on everyone's lips to a gout ridden invalid in the palace. Instead, the masses chanted the praise of Hugbert. Everywhere an influx of cheap slaves was improving the lives of citizens, whilst riches from the spoils of his illegal war in North were scattered to the poor. Serfs became wealthy overnight.
What he needed was a military victory, a nice war to show Hugbert what a real general was capable of. Betrayed by his body, he knew he wasn't fit to go campaigning. So instead he stayed and drank. One of his slave's held up a sliver of jellied chicken and he plucked it off her. His steward whispered in his ear. Even as Emperor he wasn't his own man. He stumbled to his feet and used an ivory tipped cane to hobble to were a rose-scented bath awaited him. He paused, then gestured for the slave to follow him.
The hall sparkled as guests danced under the light of glass chandeliers cut to resemble diamonds. Over a hundred nobles with masks moved with a regimented grace like a shimmering shoal of fish. Gofreid grunted as his mask rubbed as his face, sat on his throne it wasn't like anybody could fail to recognise him. One by one various nobles approached him, it was usual for nobles to offer him gifts but with the death of his Empress, the nobles were now accompanied by ambitious daughters. He smiled as Randolf Werder, 6th Duke of Gerber, an old friend and occasional political opponent approached him with his daughter Wolfhilde.
"Your majesty." he bowed deeply. "I am sorry to hear of your loss. The Empress was a woman of grace and stature and the Empire has lost a great treasure. Though, I congratulate you on your son. May he grow to be as powerful and masterful as his father."
"Prettily said Randolf" Gofreid said. Randolf bowed in gratitude. "Though I'd lose a thousand more wives if it brought me another heir." He looked up and down at Wolfhilde. "You bring me your daughter?"
Randolf nodded and Wolfhilde curtseyed. "If it may please you, I offer an alliance between our families. I command the loyalty of a great many ministers. I also am responsible for a small standing army myself. My men could make all the difference when Hugbert returns. Our forces together would allow us to arrest the rogue for treason." He said.
"Treason? He's made no play for the throne. He has resisted his orders to return to the capital whilst he wages his war but as Warden of the North he has limited autonomy to wage war on his neighbours." He said. "No, besides I hear from Eckhard that his regiments have their own problems." He smiled. "No, I won't be afeared of a man who can't even keep his own camp in order." He flicked his hand at Wolfhilde. "As for Wolfhilde, I will bear it in mind." He made eye contact with her for the first time. "I greet you Wolfhilde, it has been a pleasure." They smiled as they recognised his polite dismissal.
Gofreid mused, he had fought alongside Hugbert to win the throne, he had made him Warden of the North as a reward. Why did he now ignore his commands to return to Tregor? Did he lust after the throne? He professed to thirst only for constant war against those who would do harm to Tregor. Yet, wasn't that what he had said to his Emperor? He looked around for food. The tray of herb-crusted dab next to him was getting cold. He waved for a servant to replace it. A dish of roast crane in a plum sauce arrived on a silver platter. He fluttered his hand over it as the Countess Jeustene approached. She was his deceased wife's aunt. He cocked an eyebrow. He was aware that she was single but found her far too assertive for his tastes. She fluttered her eyelashes at him and pouted. Here we go, he thought.
"Gofreid! My dear. I was so horrified to hear about my dear niece. Of course, it is a loss, but more than that to leave a man like yourself bereft of a strong woman is nothing more than cruel." She purred. He bit his lip. "Great Emperor, the union of the Levett and Holt houses have kept the Empire safe for over a decade." He flinched back as she approached closer. "I must ask that you come and visit us for dinner. We would love to entertain a man of your imposing stature and I would so love to introduce you to my daughter." He started and then listened closer. His eyes growing interested. Now she had his attention, Jeustene waved for wine from Gofreid's servant. He looked askance at the Emperor and received it with a curt nod. "She is a bit raw but looks ever so fertile, we are a very fertile family. I myself had two children in the very short time I was married. My husband barely had time to finish before my womb blossomed."
"Isn't she married?" Gofreid asked.
"Not for long, she was married to an up and coming captain in my dear cousin's army. But she yearns for a real man. He is far too young for her and lacks ambition. I have sent a message to my brother informing him of their divorce." She said. "Rosalin is gasping to meet you. I would have brought her tonight but this wonderful ball is so deeply impersonal for family matters."
Gofreid considered the matter and looked down at the line of daughters waiting to see him and shrugged. "I would be delighted Jeustene. It is a rare honour to be blessed with your beauty." And half the rouge in Tregor if I'm not mistaken he thought.
He nodded to the overly ambitious mother and sent her on her way before the next girl approached him. He stuffed a slice of crane into his mouth, plum juice ran down his jowls as he eyed up the next proposed Empress in front of him.
Gofreid was drunk before long and weary of the self-serving toadies pawing at him. He looked up bored. A plate of stuffed mushrooms in beef broth steamed to his left. He picked at one with a silver fork. A cough caught his attention. Oldred, his chancellor was standing in front of him, his youthful skin belying his fifty-three years of age. Rumour had it that he was part lizard.
"My liege, a word if I may," Oldred said.
"You can have more than one if you are quick," Gofreid said.
"Very witty, I was thinking about the Hugbert situation. It occurs to me that a few extra soldiers in the capital would be a rather useful thing." Oldred said.
"I'm am not scared of one successful warden. He may have more troops than any singular warden or even myself, but one word from me and regiments will sprout across the realm like fields of wheat. " Gofreid said. He smiled. He was still supreme commander of the Tregorian army. His legend would ensure the loyalty of even Hugbert's soldiers. "If need be, the other wardens will rally to my cause because they fear Hugbert. Even without recalling the reservists, we outnumber him over two to one."
"Never the less, a tournament would inspire the other wardens to join you in the capital along with a fair amount of their knights and retinue. Enough to deter any aggressive thoughts that might linger in a rogue wardens mind." Oldred said, his eyes earnest.
Gofreid mused. "Your words have merit. I shall dwell on them."
Year 1204. Tregor:
Countess Jeustene Dufour
The sunlight glinted through the marble columns and flowed over the countesses body. She curled her toes in the warmth as she basked. A glass goblet of watered wine in her hand she watched as her daughter approach.
"Darling! I have the most wonderful news!" Jeustene said.
Her daughter looked up at her suspiciously. "Yes?" She said.
"You are getting a divorce!" Jeustene said, clapping with giddy joy.
Rosalin stood frozen in shock for a moment and then aghast cried out "Over my dead body!"
Jeustene cocked an eyebrow. "If necessary dear, after all, men are rarely all that interested in a dynamic woman. Chances are the Emperor won't even notice."
"The Emperor? What? How?" Rosalin asked.
Jeustene giggled. "Dearest brother Hugbert wants to keep a link between him and the throne. Now his daughter has died he has asked me to find a suitable replacement." She said. Jeustene eyed her daughter up and down. "You should do I suppose. It's a shame that your breasts haven't fully grown yet. Still, they are big enough that he should be able to tell which side of your body is which." Jeustene beamed. Her logic irrefutable in her own mind. "It's settled."
"It is not settled!" Rosalin growled. I am a married woman and I love my husband.
"Don't be such a child. Your husband has been with the army for three years now. You have spent less than a year with him and he didn't even get you with child. Believe me, he is quite replaceable even if the Emperor wasn't looking." Jeustene cut off Rosalin before she could protest. "You will do your family duty. He comes to dine tomorrow and we will have you ready. You will be charming and laugh at all of his jokes. He will leave absolutely smitten. You'll be an Empress. I scarcely see how that could be a burden. You'll thank me in the end." She said.
"Thank you? I will not sign it. I hate you! Gosbert will never agree." Rosalin said.
"He already has. He obeyed his commanding officer just as you will obey your mother." Jeustene lied.
Soft moans filled the bedroom as Jeustene stretched out on the bearskin rug. A short, tubby man with a waxed goatee and a curled moustache had mounted her and was thrusting ardently.
"Conquer me, my stallion, fill me with your seed" she cried out. It didn't take long until he grunted and then rolled to her side. Panting, Waldin turned to face her with a look of flushed pride. It killed the mood somewhat when he saw her cold, calculating eyes. She ran her nails down his chest hair and pouted. "Well, that was, of course, lovely Waldin but I really would like to discuss business."
Waldin sighed. "Oh, of course, you didn't invite me here because you want me."
Jeustene smiled, the warm radiance from her lips not quite reaching her eyes. "Oh, don't be petulant. I actually climaxed today, who'd have thought a dumpy, low born man with a ridiculous toupee could be such a lover. I mean, the moment I realised you had scented your goatee I wrote the evening off." She watched as his eyes fell downcast. "But you actually charmed me. Someday I might even ask you to return for a personal visit." She tapped his nose with her finger. "If I kiss you enough times in the right places, you might even turn into a prince." He grimaced.
"So what do you want from me?" He asked.
Jeustene giggled. "A little bird, well, a sizable one if we are being entirely honest but I digress, told me that the great Hugbert has taken control of a province containing several gold mines. I would so love to buy shares in them. At cost obviously."
"Obviously," Waldin said. "How did you--" He shook his head. "Nobody except me-- wait. Oh." He looked up at his looming bodyguards who were staring intently at a fixed spot on the wall.
She slapped his arm playfully. "Oh don't be mean with them, darling. They resisted for several minutes. I was so very impressed." He grunted in disgust. She raised her body on elbows exposing her cleavage to him. "I am of course going to need an answer immediately dear. I do feel that patience is for those of lesser stock."
He looked her in the eyes. Her lips tightened. He sighed. "I suppose you have a mine in mind."
She flashed her eyes and grinned. "I do indeed! I was thinking that lovely little find in the Darshoult Valley."
"How." He gasped. "Even my guards weren't at that meeting." He muttered and growled. "Shares are going at seventy seven units each. Gold."
"Well, they certainly are you when you add commission, but and I never was great with numbers but didn't you get them at fifty eight units a share. Cost." Jeustene looked intently at him a wry smile crossing her lips.
"Damn you to hell!" He shouted, rising from the bed and pulling on his woollen hose.
"We are such good friends Waldin." She said to his hirsute back.
"Fine." He said.
Jeustene leapt up and kissed him on the lips. "My savage hero, my bestial warrior. I know you'd make me happy. But, one last thing."
"What." He snapped.
"The sword you were going to gift Gofreid. Give it to me as part of the deal and I'll buy three shares." Jeustene purred. Waldin gave her a cold stare. "You do know how I enjoy playing with your weapons and this one is quite sizable. Tomorrow afternoon then?"
"Fine." He snarled. Pulling on his boots he stormed out of the room.
She smiled radiantly until he left the room and then her face fell to a neutral expression. "Tell the Master of Coin I'll need a two hundred units of gold here by tomorrow morning. Send enough bodies to ensure its safety. I'll also need a spread prepared by the kitchen. I don't want Waldin changing his mind. He can be a prissy thing at times." She looked down. "Get this rug cleaned and draw me a bath. Rose oil. Ask Gerlach to join me for wine in an hour." Slaves scurried to obey.
Jeustene climbed down into the steaming water which filled her marble bath. Swimming to the far side she revelled in the scent of the luxurious oils as her handmaiden uncoiled her hair and washed it in a silver pail whilst she reclined. She hummed tunelessly as her thoughts wandered. Her business dealings continued to grow, with her brother Hugbert expanding the empire opportunities blossomed for an ambitious woman. She smiled. Her family had never lacked ambition and she was no exception.
Rising from the bath she was dried and powdered. Sitting in a wooden chair she waited as her hair was dried, and styled and fresh rouge was applied to her face.
She waved away the wine. Waldin was a lush, she had drunk quite enough whilst entertaining him, so opted for lemon water instead. The tart citrus flavour refreshed her and she could feel the tendrils of alcoholic stupid recoil from her brain.
Walking into her lounge she found herself a couch and awaited her son Gerlach. He was typically prompt, sitting opposite her formally. He was quite the most serious child she had ever known. She smiled. His golden curls and freckles seemed incongruous with his cold eyes. She tossed a grape at him, it bounced off his forehead and rolled onto the floor. "Lighten up dear Gerlach." She smiled radiantly at his outrage. "You are thirteen, not sixty."
Her efforts were in vain and he looked at her with disdain. "I take it I'm here because your business dealings were successful."
She pouted. "Of course they were, Waldin is quite the little darling. He makes me very happy." She stopped smiling and her face grew solemn. "Now, I wish to discuss my cousin. He has become rather powerful you know."
"He is the Warden of the North, that's always been a powerful role. He runs a quarter of the kingdom." His eyes lit up. Gerlach had always idolised his cousin.
"More than a quarter now. Closer to half now he has annexed the Ghallic lands for the Tregorian Empire. We need to ensure that we are best placed to benefit from his victories." She said. "Dear Waldin has a rather lovely blade his armoury has been working on for a while and he was delighted to offer it to me. Ruby in the hilt the size of a hens egg, positively delightful. The hilt is gilded in gold of course" She said. Clapping to herself in triumph.
"I'm sure he was," Gerlach said dryly.
"Yes, well, I want you to take it to him. The sight of you charging into his camp, sun blazing off your blade. Hair flowing in the wind. Oh, it'll burn into his retinas and he'll never forget us." She said.
"Ghal? You want me to go to Ghal? Barbarian lands? Not a chance." He said aghast. "Ghal." His eyes wide, he stared at the floor in disgust.
"Pfft. You'll be quite safe my dear, you'll have an escort. Mummy won't let anything happen to her little darling." She said. He looked up to protest again. "That's settled then, you'll do your family proud and will not disappoint me." Jeustene waved indicating that the conversation was over. Gerlach rose and strutted off visibly fuming.
"It'll make a man of you one day." Jeustene mused quietly. Then she waved to her handmaiden. "Play something." The handmaiden reached for her harp. "And bring me wine. I'm getting a headache. It is the cold it disagrees with me."
Jeustene woke the next day. Despite her enthusiasm yesterday she couldn't help but worry about her son, so before Waldin's arrival, she hastened to the cathedral of the sacred flame her handmaiden in tow carrying an embroidered sack of loaves. The cathedral was busy even at this early hour, along with the devout beggers waited outside and pleaded for mercy. Putting on her best smile, she waved her handmaiden over to the needy whilst holding a posy to her nose. Cries of gratitude reached her for the milling crowd as loaves were tossed into them followed by copper coins from her handmaiden's purse. When the niceties had been observed and she had received an appropriate level of gratitude she walked up the marble steps to the huge granite cathedral. The huge doorway seemed to shrink as she strode through it, worshippers instinctively getting out of her way.
Sunlight streamed in through the stained glass windows, glinting off golden, silver and precious gems. The scent of freshly oiled wood and aromatic herbs cast into huge flaming braziers assailed her. Slaves scrubbed the flagstones, scuttling to one side as she ploughed through them to find the bishop. Paying three copper coins to an altar boy she was directed to a chamber at the rear of the cathedral. Knocking on the ornately carved wooden door she heard the bishop swear and shout for her to enter.
She opened the door into a trove of gold and silver. Truly the devout were rewarded for their faith she thought. "Your excellency, I come to beg for the church's prayers and best wishes for my firstborn son." She said.
The portly priest huffed, his cheeks blossomed at the thought of gold. "How many prayers were you thinking?"
"A full sermon, a dedication and say... Two hymns?" She said.
"And, you mentioned a donation?" He said hastily.
"Twenty thousand gold for the church, five thousand extra for you if you write on the public lists that I paid fifty thousand gold." She smiled as his eyes widened.
He looked around then sighed. "I don't think it would be appropriate for a man of the cloth to accept such an agreement."
Jeustene tilted her head. "Oh silly, it isn't a bribe. Of course not. Such a staunch soldier of the sacred flame is beyond reproach. No, no, the church as powerful as it is has such ghastly bureaucracy. I'm sure a big man like you can think of so many causes that you could support better directly." She rubbed his fleshy arms and flashed her best smile.
His piggy eyes seemed to mist with gratitude. "Yes, yes. I could certainly do that." He accepted her offer enthusiastically, his jowls wobbling.
His sweaty palm pumped her hand whilst Jeustene tried to politely withdraw. "I'll have the money brought here tomorrow. I assume I'll have front row seats?" She asked.
"Oh course my dear. The church always rewards its most loyal followers." He bowed as she turned to leave his chambers.
"Thank you, your excellency." She could feel his tiny eyes peering at the back of her even though she was dressed conservatively. She peeked at the confessional booth but calculated that she just didn't have the time.
Year 1204. Ghal:
Hugbert Levett, 3rd Duke of Dosca
Rich furs and tapestries adorned his command tent. Another victory, more spoils. The crown of Ghal sat adorning a bronze bust of Hugbert. He smiled as he sat on his throne looking at it. He sipped at a silver goblet with watered Tregorian wine. With Ghal brought under the rule of Tregor the nation was once more reminding the world of its greatness. There was no nation in existence that could rival its power, no General that could rival his triumphs. The Emperor himself, crowned after his triumphs in the south couldn't equal his victories. Baskets of treasure had been sent back to Tregor to be given to the poor, entire convoys of slaves were to be sold in the city at rock bottom prices. His name would be on the lips of everyone. He smiled. Glory to Tregor indeed. He heard the guards outside his tent challenging a guest and smiled as he recognised Ehrhart's voice. The poor noble had travelled far from the capital to be here. His smile dropped when Ehrhart entered, a sombre look to his face. Ehrhart dropped to one knee.
"My lord, I am sorry to arrive as the bearer of bad news." He said.
"Rise, Ehrhart. I would not have a treasured friend like you on his knees." Hugbert said, gesturing for Ehrhart to rise. Ehrhart handed over a scroll sealed by the Emperor himself. Hugbert turned and broke the seal, he scanned the page once, then read it again slowly. He gestured to his servant "Unwatered wine for my guest and I" then closed his eyes. His daughter the Empress was dead, she had died giving birth to a prince. An heir to the Tregorian Empire. As his goblet was returned to him he drank deep. "Well, it appears the Emperor will need a new wife. I will send an instruction for a candidate to be presented to him immediately."
"My lord, I offer my strongest condolences." Ehrhart bowed his head.
"She died as every daughter of Tregor hopes to die. Giving birth to a son. She will be remembered as a hero." Hugbert said. "I will have a statue of her made for the Temple of Gaia. The people will like that." Hugbert mused. "Now let us think of happier times and drink to the fallen heroes. Come, we shall go to my personal tent and revel in comfort."
Hugbert woke to the alarm horn being sounded. His hand snaked out to grasp his sword by his bed. His guards ran in to secure his personage. "Report" he ordered as Altmar Kustermann, the captain of his personal guards entered.
"Painted men sir." Altmar said.
"Painted men? They know better than to attack Imperials. How were they not recognised?" Hugbert said. His hand instinctively went to his glyphs. Tregorians didn't engage in the barbarian act of tattooing through choice.
"They had a druid with them, that's how they infiltrated the camp. Tried to burn down your command tent and killed seven of our men. Most of them escaped, but we have a captive and four corpses." Altmar said. "He is being brought to you now."
"Seven Imperials dead to four savages? That is not good enough Altmar. They are barbarians in a hostile camp. You are telling me that my elite guards were humbled by drugged savages?" Hugbert said. Altmar was stoic in the face of his rage. "Get me, Konrad. And bring Samocenus to me." His servant was rapidly armouring him.
Ehrhart came stumbling into the tent. "What's happening?" He said. He had an iron sword in his hand.
"Put that down before you hurt yourself, Ehrhart. You aren't going to scare anyone." Hugbert said. "Painted men raided the camp."
"Painted men? From Elbia?" Ehrhart asked. He sheathed his sword.
"Supposed to be. Something has drawn them out." Hugbert said.
Konrad arrived his fat, face flustered. His cheeks glowing through a nest of black curls and a thick beard. "What is happening?" He asked.
"That is all everyone is asking," Hugbert growled. "You are the mage, you tell me."
"It doesn't work like that and you know it," Konrad said. He reached for the wine.
"Where is that damned King?" Hugbert said.
They all looked up as a guard entered. "Sir, Samocenus is dead."
"What?" Hugbert roared. "How?"
"We don't know Sir. He on the ground dead. No marks on his body except for a tattoo on his forehead which I don't think was there before."
"It wasn't. Nobody is giving me answers. We just conquered the greatest threat to Tregor in decades and now you expect me to accept that our one link to the attackers has just dropped dead and had his corpse violated? Unacceptable." Hugbert said smashing his fist down on the table. He looked over at the guard suspiciously. "What aren't you telling me?"
The guard shifted uncomfortably. "The crown of Ghal is missing sir."
The tent went deathly silent. Hugbert's face went pale. "How many people know?" He asked quietly, his rage subsided into calculation. "Wait. Just get everyone who knows into this tent and I want nobody, absolutely nobody talking." He watched as the guard fled. "Konrad, I want to know what the tattoo means, if it is glyph and what it does. Then tell me how he died. Altmar, get me, Captain Quesnel." Hugbert sat down deep in concentration. He knew he couldn't contain this for long. Gossip flies in the army faster than the surest arrow. He had been embarrassed, his reputation tarnished and now more than ever he couldn't have that.
Captain Quesnel entered the tent, his moustache twitched as he saw Hugberts face. "General?"
"Captain, we have a situation. I want you to send a squad to find something for me. They are not to return until the mission is complete. I'll write down the orders for them. When Konrad comes back from his investigation he'll join them. It is about time he did something other than drinking my wine and whoring with my slaves." Captain Quesnel waited patiently whilst Hugbert penned a note onto a scroll and then sealed it. The Captain coughed delicately. "What?" Hugbert asked.
"Would it not be pertinent to provide them with funds? For bribes, information and such. I would suggest five hundred gold should grease the wheels and get the natives talking." Captain Quesnel said.
"Fine. But they'll have two hundred gold and no more." Hugbert dismissed him with a wave.
Hugbert sat musing. The odds of finding the crown were low. His plan to enter the streets of Tregor with the crown on his head and a victorious army at his back was falling to pieces. Why the painted men? They were a reclusive people who rarely left their island. What need did they have for the crown? No, this could only be to humiliate him, which means it was one of his enemies. Either enemies in Tregor or resistance in Ghal. A general with his reputation had no shortage of enemies. With his bond by marriage to the Emperor sundered by his daughters' death, he was politically vulnerable than ever.