Lykourgos IV: The March of the Violets
The Twenty-First Day of the Ninth Moon, 872 AD
Aenirhen, Northern Teleytaios, Klironomea
It had taken him a full week to return from the capital. A week of laying low, avoiding roads and inns, deliberately doubling back and wading through streams even when he felt he was alone, just to make absolutely sure any trackers would be thrown off. He doubted he needed to be this cautious in the open countryside, after all, his sister was barely known even in her own lands. To her, if you weren't of High-Klironomean stock, you weren't worth speaking too. This of course, had caused a few incidents. He chortled when he recalled the time she had caused a diplomatic mix-up by ensuring all royal missives were marked with "Anariopolis" as opposed to the far more common "Anaria". Remembering little things like that kept him going through the week, especially now she would have to debase herself consorting with the Low-Klironomeans to rally support. Angels, she must be hating this more than any other.
Twice he was made to conceal himself when a company of men whose allegiance was unknown passed by. Maybe they were his supporters, but seeing as they were marching south and wearing red surcoats, he highly doubted it. When he had at last reached the Einarbrycge he was exhausted. He hadn't slept in two days, but was still greeted with a full company of Men-at-Arms, both sides of the bridge standing in full uniform with weapons drawn, standing at attention for him. He supposed it was meant to be a moment of glory or splendour, but in his mind the vision of a ragged, tired, hungry prince crossing to his realm-in-exile felt a lot more like a foreboding statement than a splendorous one. That feeling only compounded as the men on the southern side of the bridge followed him across, the last of his men in the south moving north with him.
It made sense, after all, the men were to be mustered in Aenirhen on his orders, but there was still that sense of foreboding, of finality, as he crossed the bridge to the north. No, I can't think this way. We'll be crossing the bridge in mere days, a week or two at most, depending on when they make their move. This is only the beginning. Locked in his own thoughts and only having slept for a few scant hours in the last week he didn't even notice as he began slipping from his saddle, a few of the closest Men-at-Arms moving too late to catch him as he fell. He looked up and saw blank eyes as he hit the cobbled floor.
He awoke in a comfortable bed in what he quickly surmised to be his own small keep in Aenirhen. The walls were of rough stone, the window illuminated only small patches of the floor, and the ashes of a fire smouldered in the fireplace opposite from him. Hearing the sound of breathing he turned and found Ilias sleeping in a chair next to him, dirk in hand. He raised an eyebrow. Was his cupbearer attempting to act as sentry, or merely being overly cautious? It didn't really matter, after all, the young man was attempting to protect him while he was unconscious, and that was commendable enough. Even still, Lykourgos thought as he prodded the cupbearer's arm, he may need a few lessons in alertness.
The prince turned to the door, hearing the distinctive 'thud' of a haft hitting the floor outside. There were a few seconds of unintelligible conversation, and then the door was opened to reveal Elikoidi, his old friend, with a small tray containing a teapot and two cups. He hadn't even stepped into the room before he was startled by the prince's now sitting form. Lykourgos lazily waved at him, gesturing him over. He saw relief flush Elikoidi's face, quickly smothered as a lazy grin took its place.
"You know it was quite impolite of you to collapse like that. Maybe next time you could try... I don't know, not passing out onto hard stone?"
Lykourgos smiled. Of all the things his friend could've said upon seeing him for the first time in months, just as he had woken up from passing out no less, somehow this was the most 'Elikoidi' thing he could've said. He looked at him with a fond smile.
"I'm glad to see you too."
Elikoidi looked at him, clearly annoyed, as he set down the tray on the bedside table beside Ilias.
"No, no, nonono, you do not get to make me feel sentimental and warm while I still have months' worth of quips to make about you, this is so unfair!"
He threw his hands up in mock frustration, and Lykourgos let out a hearty laugh.
"Okay, okay. How did you know I would wake up now?"
His friend cocked his head to the side, and gave him a strange look.
"But I didn't... oh, you mean the tea?"
"Yeah. I mean, there's two cups."
Elikoidi rolled his eyes.
"It's not all about you, your Princeliness. It was for Ilias and me. He's been here since you were brought here. Alertness could use some work though..."
"You know, I was thinking the same thing. How long have I been out for, exactly?"
There was a single heartbeat before Elikoidi responded.
"Not too long. some forty-eight hours." He raised his hand in a halting gesture before Lykourgos could speak. "I know exactly what you'll say, so let me save you your breath and answer your questions before you ask them." He moved to sit at the end of Lykourgos' bed, one leg crossed over the other, both hanging over the side. He raised a finger as he listed off each point.
"Yes, two days. No, neither of your siblings have made any advances on us, nor do they seem to have caught wind you knocked yourself out. Yes, there have been some minor skirmishes or somesuch thing in the south, Romanos can catch you up on them, and yes, I have been doing well, thank you for asking."
He lowered his fingers, and began checking his nails. Lykourgos sighed. At least some things hadn't changed in the last few weeks.
"So, who stands guard?"
Elikoidi smiled again.
"Dreamwulf. You've struck gold with him. He says you wish to make him a member of your retinue?"
Lykourgos nodded once.
"If I may make a suggestion?" He didn't wait for permission. "Your Personal Champion. Perhaps, once all is said and done, he may even earn the position Royal Companion. He's the one who carried you back, and he's been stood outside your door, billhook in hand, ever since."
Lykourgos looked to the door again. Impressive fortitude, though by itself nothing overly special. Elikoidi rolled his eyes, and Lykourgos flushed red. Of course, out of everyone in the keep, he was in a room with the one person who could pretty much read his mind.
"Apologies, but do go on."
"As you say, your Princeliness." The tone was teasing, though in a way that would surely have come across as antagonistic to anyone observing. After all, after spending the greater part of a decade together there was little they could say to the other without the other knowing the true meaning behind the words.
"Before that moment, I'd watched him spar with a dozen Men-at-Arms, a few Sergeants and Lieutenants amongst them. He knocked them all onto their arses, longest duel lasted a couple of minutes. He was a damn sight. Saw him with his shirt off for a few as well, when he started to get a sweat on."
Lykourgos raised an eyebrow.
"I thought you weren't into that kind of stuff."
Elikoidi daintily raised a hand to his chest, and made an undignified sound.
"Oh honey, I thought you knew better than this. Just because I don't have any interests in relationships or sex doesn't mean I can't appreciate a damn good sight. Especially when that sight has the same scars I do!"
Lykourgos laughed at the teasing tone of his friend, in some ways glad he was comfortable enough in his lack of attraction to openly admire others. On the other hand...
"I suppose you're glad he couldn't see you, save you from the shame of being caught?"
"Hah, as if I still feel shame! Anyways, after he made his martial superiority known despite his handicaps, he didn't gloat or boast, simply talked with the men he'd fought and a few others and gave them pointers and advice. Lemme tell you, he didn't pay for a single drink that night."
"Now that is quite impressive."
His friend chuckled.
"Hang on, it gets better from here. He carried on doing this for a few days, and every day his crowd grows bigger, right? So, at some point a few Knights catch wind of this. A few Hedge Knights, some in the Order of the Violet, come to see him and his crowd. Actually, at this point the crowd had just as many tavern-girls in it as soldiers, and I don't think they were looking for the sort of tips he was giving the Men-at-Arms."
"How crude of you. One would think you've become uncouth."
Elikoidi said nothing, rolling his eyes again in an attempt to appear annoyed, though this was undercut by the smile that remained on his face.
"Anyways, so this one Knight challenges him to a duel. Full on duel, first blood and all that. Dreamwulf was definitely hesitant, but once the young fool made the duel a point of honour, he agreed. So, they stand at opposite ends of a hastily formed circle, and this Knight, in full plate armour and armed with both a Kiteshield and a Greatsword, stands to fight against this blind, unarmoured, shirtless man, armed with nothing but a common billhook. You know what happens next?"
Lykourgos shook his head, admittedly quite enraptured by the story.
"Before the duel even begins, Dreamwulf turns around and makes a statement that "This will be an example of the benefits of the billhook when facing a heavily armoured opponent.", which of course annoys the young Knight, who charges at him. Dreamwulf may look quite bulky, but he's deceptively agile as well. Not necessarily fast, but definitely agile. Every sword stroke was parried or dodged; every attempted feint was turned aside. In the end he was able to get his hook around the head of the shield and ripped it from the Knights grasp, before he kicked it away. They then fought for some time, and credit where it is due, the Knight gave him a better fight than any of the Armsmen had.
Eventually Dreamwulf knocked him across the head with the same hook that tore away the shield. The Knight was on the floor, and Dreamwulf says to listen closely to the Men-at-Arms around him. He makes a point of showing the curve and point of the billhook, and demonstrates its purpose. Says that the point is perfect for wedging between the armour plates of an opponent such as this, and as this young Knight nearly pisses himself when Dreamwulf turns around. Dreamwulf gently digs beneath a gap around the knee joint and digs just enough to draw blood. Says to everyone that, obviously in a real battle you'd dig a lot harder, then drags the Knight to his feet and pats him on the back. I was genuinely quite impressed. And what's more, whenever he spoke, the men actually watched and listened. They weren't just mindlessly watching a fight; they were actually trying to learn."
"And you know this how?"
Elikoidi gave him a deadpan stare.
"Because I've made a very successful career out of reading people. A career that has saved you more than once, might I add."
This time it was Lykourgos who rolled his eyes.
"Is this about that time in Seastream? Because if it is, then I've already told you-"
"That you had it under control, yes. Remind me, what stage of your plan was 'Get captured as an intended sacrifice by a cult of the Silverian Church?'"
Lykourgos looked away sheepishly, and Elikoidi cupped a hand around his left ear.
"Sorry, what was that? I can't hear you."
"None of them... can we not talk about that? It wasn't exactly fun for me either. Let's get back on topic. From what you've said Dreamwulf seems to be quite capable. I'd be interested to test myself against him at some point, though make a note of those who listen to him and, as you say actually listen. See if we can't encourage their willingness to learn, those sorts of men make for good Sergeants."
"Well, you're not getting out of bed anytime soon, so I'll have food brought up to you for when I return. Drink some of the tea, make sure you wake Ilias for some as well. I'll bring in the other members you've spoken of taking on as well as Romanos, see if we can't get an impromptu 'Inner Council' meeting going."
"You know, I could go to the Inner Council chambers."
Elikoidi's face screwed up, the blackened patches of almost scaly skin from his bout with the Black Grave peeling back in discontent.
"Absolutely not. You are staying in bed for the rest of the day to recover. I'll bring the others to you."
Lykourgos sighed as he left.
"I heard that Lykourgos!"
A voice echoed back through the hall.
"No, don't go in yet. I'll bring the others down, then one of your new sparring partners will relieve you."
Ah, he must be speaking to Dreamwulf. If he were made Royal Companion at some point it wouldn't exactly be the first time a commoner held the position, nor even would he be the first blind man to hold it. He would, however, be the first blind commoner in so high an office. With that thought ringing through his head, he fell back to sleep.
When he next awoke Ilias was awake beside him. The tea must have gone cold some time ago, and Dreamwulf was now seated in another chair opposite his bed, slumped down and eyes drooping. His billhook was hooked through the arms of the chair, keeping him from falling forwards, his head leaning on Nasos' shoulder, providing further support. It the Presbyter had any qualms with this seating arrangement he didn't show them.
"I told you to take a retinue."
The voice of Romanos was unmistakable, as was the tone of worried anger behind it. The prince shuffled himself in his bed to face his old friend.
"I stand by my decision, flawed as it may have been. More people means more time. I hardly made it in time as it was, and any party with me as I left would have got me found as I returned."
The word 'fled' died on his lips, swiftly replaced by 'returned'. If any of his companions caught wind of his slip, none were discourteous enough to point it out. I am not fleeing. I am taking the logical course of action.
Romanos gave an exasperated sigh.
"So you say, my Prince. I understand that it may have been the best course of action, I only wish that there were better courses to take."
"As do I. Still, there is nothing more to say on this subject, save this."
He pointed at Dreamwulf.
"I name you my Personal Champion."
The Oblate snapped awake, jolting upright and immediately winding himself on his own billhook haft that lay across him. Nasos and Ilias both gave good natured, half hidden chuckles, whilst Elikoidi chortled openly, snorting and laughing until Dreamwulf composed himself.
"My Prince, I-, well I... I am 'onoured beyond belief. Are you abs'lutely sure? I don't mean no disrespect, nor to second guess you, but I'm... you know..."
"Blind? Yes, I have noticed. Elikoidi has informed me at some length of your prowess with that billhook, amongst other things."
He looked at Elikoidi, expecting him to have the decency to look embarrassed. Alas, it was an effort in futility. All he got in return was a cocked smile and a raised eyebrow.
"But that is enough for now. We will speak no more on the matter. Ser Romanos, see that he is given his mark of status. We have a war to plan."
Nasos spoke up.
"Your Grace, if I may, you should be resting. I mean no disrespect, but you came here half-dead, and there was more than one bone I had to set. There is no shame in taking a few days to rest."
He shook his head.
"Impossible. The realm will not wait for me. The first rule of a siege is that any party that remains idle from the onset of the siege has already lost. So too it is with claimants and succession crises. If I fail to act in the first few days, perhaps weeks at the most, I will have already lost the support of any still declared for me in the south."
Nasos made to respond, but Lykourgos cut him off. He wants me and the others to be safe, that's all. Lykourgos ignored the voice in his head. He didn't want to cut off the young Presbyter and apparent healer, but he couldn't afford to bandy words on a non-issue. The Kingdom would not wait for him. The war would not wait for him.
"Elikoidi has made me aware of a few skirmishes in the south. Would you care to elaborate on them?"
There was a noise at the door. Three knocks, then a pause. Four more.
"That'll be for me. Won't be too long, I know you couldn't bear to be without my presence any longer than necessary darlings. Don't stop on my account."
Romanos grit his teeth at the catch-all nickname the prince's other friend liked to give everyone around him. He sighed and unclenched his jaw.
"The skirmishes. There haven't been any 'true' skirmishes yet, only a few riots between opposing groups of lowborns and the occasional duels between rival Knights within their Chapter-Keeps. The major exception are the holds of Carthos and Ousdaal. The local Chaptermasters penned a joint plan and sent it north to us, instead of sending men. They said that by the time they would receive a response they would have already set their plan in motion."
Dreamwulf nodded slowly, a grimace on his tired face. It seemed as though he may have had some light shed on this already, though Ilias and Nasos clearly had not had any light shed on this issue at all. Romanos took a deep breath; whatever he was about to say clearly did not sit well with him or Dreamwulf.
"They say that they have prepared their holds for a siege. There aren't many men in either of them, since they're only small, local keeps, but enough that the enemy would be forced to divert forces south. The youngest of their numbers want to sally forth with all of their combined strength, but the elder Knights know that they will serve you more effectively holed up, drawing away the enemy. So, the two parties compromised. They struck a few Rose patrols, burned their banners and rode back almost unscathed, save an unlucky few. Now, even as we speak, they are barring themselves in, preparing to give everything to help us win."
Lykourgos licked his lips, finding his mouth to be far too dry. Nasos handed him a cup of nettle-tea, still hot.
"Here. The old pot was cold so I brought some more."
The Prince nodded his thanks, and drank greedily from the cup. There was a moment of silence that stretched longer than he was comfortable with as the others watched him drink. Well, most of them watched him anyway. He finished with a gulp and wiped his mouth into a provided handkerchief.
"Thank you. I see now why you looked unhappy, Ser. How many men are preparing to lay down their lives to draw my sister's gaze away?"
"Five-hundred, a mix of Knights, Squires and other menials who will no doubt be being trained in rudimentary swordplay in the coming days. Some three-hundred and fifty at Ousdaal, and a smaller group of one-fifty in Carthos."
"If we are able to win quickly we might be able to save them, though the risk of them simply storming the walls makes that admittedly unlikely. Tell me of our own forces, discounting those five-hundred."
Romanos nodded, and Ilias handed the prince a paper scroll with the information laid out. He read it whilst Romanos recited the figures out loud.
"As you wish. Currently marshalled are some two-thousand Knights, mostly of the Order of the Violet, some five-thousand Armsmen, a thousand of which are trained in the operation of siege equipment and field-artillery pieces, and another five-thousand levies, mostly volunteers looking for pay, though a great many joined out of a personal motivation to see you on the throne. They remember how you helped them in the past, and have not forgotten to aid you now."
Lykourgos swallowed hard, the memory of those people he had left behind in Anaria seeping back to the surface of his mind. He sighed to clear his head, and turned to look back at Romanos.
"And my sister?"
"I believe I am better equipped to answer that question, if it please you."
Elikoidi posed dramatically against the doorway, and the prince rolled his eyes.
"Your sister, as our gallant friend has informed me, has swayed some fifteen-hundred equally gallant Knights to her side, as well as two-thousand odd Armsmen and fourteen-thousand levies. Oh, and she's hired a few Sellsword Bands as well; both the Band of the Wren and Symon's Starlings signed contracts with her a little over a week ago, while you were still in the capital I believe. Rather brazen of her, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't respect that particular brand of courage somewhat. That would add another four-thousand to her side, battle-hardened men as well."
The Prince watched as Ilias made to speak, but was cut off by both Romanos and Dreamwulf.
"Those cutthroats are no match for Knightly steel!"
"The boys'll make ribbons of 'em, you watch!"
Romanos' face went wide for a moment, then he turned to a smirking Elikoidi.
"Hold on, that makes up the entire remaining military might of Teleytaios. Are you telling me that Prince Rhema has gathered no supporters?"
The smirk on Elikoidi's face turned into a grin, as he was want to do when he knew something Romanos didn't.
"I was wondering when you'd catch on to that, dearest Knight. I think you'll be surprised to know that your siblings-" he turned to Lykourgos, a finger pointed forwards, "Have put aside their differences. Princess Roma has relinquished her own claim to the throne in this conflict, and has personally crowned your brother King."
The room fell silent, the political gravity of the moment not lost even on the lowborns in the room.
"You have my sympathies, my friend."
Ser Romanos leaned forwards, and laid a hand on the prince's shoulder.
"I know you have always cared for your brother, but he is mad. There was never any knowing what he would do."
Lykourgos sighed, the lump in his throat slowly being replaced by a strange sense of apathy.
"It doesn't matter. He was always the wildcard in the race for the throne."
Suddenly he heard the chirping of a bird, and his vision flashed white. He saw the briefest, tiniest glimpse of a winged stag, with a robin atop its shoulder. Even as the vision flashed before his mind, he heard his brother's voice ring clear in his head.
"The next time we meet, it may not seem like I want you to help me."
He lurched forwards in bed, stopped by the much smaller Ilias, as Nasos sprang up and righted him, pressing another cup into his hands. Lykourgos drank, and willed the room to stop spinning. He held up a single finger in the universal sign for "Wait.", then turned to Elikoidi.
"Actually, I think in this matter I may know something you don't."
His friend's eyes narrowed, thin eyebrows furrowing in annoyance. Seeing Elikoidi's reaction brought a smile to the prince's face.
"Well? Don't keep me waiting."
There was a demanding edge to his voice, and Lykourgos could hear the tapping of his foot against the floor.
"You really are one of the best Masters of Silver the realm could have asked for, you know that? Whenever you don't know something you're desperate to find it out. However, in this matter I'm afraid I need to keep my lips sealed. I mean no disrespect towards your ability to do your job, nor to any of the rest of you for insinuating disloyalty, but I have reason to believe there are other machinations being executed in our favour as we speak, and I do not wish to see any potential actions thwarted by my own indiscretion. I suggest we turn back to the matter we were discussing prior to this. Ilias, I believe you wanted to say something?"
The young cupbearer seemed to shrink under the attention being given to him, save for Elikoidi who shot the prince his signature "We're talking about this later" glare. The cupbearer started perking up somewhat when the Squire Eros smiled and nodded at him.
Ah, he must have been the sentry whilst Dreamwulf was in here. Strange, I never noticed him enter the room. He must have come in when Elikoidi received his news.
"Whilst I mean not to question our position, I am slightly worried by the disparity between our army- begging my pardon, your army, and your sister's army. If we have some twelve-thousand men, and her Highness has over twenty-thousand, can we win this?"
Romanos nodded, answering for the prince.
"Yes. Whilst it is true that the forces of Princess Roma outnumber us by some margin, the majority of our forces consist of trained, professional career soldiers. By contrast, though she has many more men, only some three and a half-thousand are professionals. I refuse to count Sellsword rabble among the professional soldiery, as even if they are more competent than peasant levies, it is not by a wide margin. Aside from that they lack men skilled in the building and use of siege equipment and large field artillery. Even if they did, their musters began several days after our own, and they currently control twice the territory we do, and as such it will take them far longer to organise. They also need to divert forces south to the sieges of Ousdaal and Carthos, at least one and a half-thousand in total if they hold to conventional wisdom, and far more if they intend to storm the walls." Romanos smiled kindly at the young Cupbearer. "When you begin stacking the odds like that it doesn't sound so bad, does it?"
Ilias nodded in response, a somewhat weak, though still genuine, smile appearing on his own face.
"No, I suppose not."
All things considered Lykourgos was glad to have awoken when he did, for only a few hours later, with much of the topics of conversation concluded, another messenger came for Elikoidi. When he walked back in the room, he had a grim smile on his face that reminded the prince uncomfortably of his brother, the dead skin pulling taut as he did so; the everlasting gift that the black grave had given him. He didn't wait for anyone to ask about the news.
"Four-thousand levies have been spotted marching towards the Einarbrycge, by all accounts they've set their eyes on a spot some twenty miles from the bridge to set up camp. Symon's Starlings march with them in full strength, making for around six-thousand men in total. According to the aide-de-camp of one Marshal Harran, who leads them north, they have orders to fortify the southern end of the bridge and await reinforcements. They will camp for a day or two to gather supplies and scout ahead, then complete their mission."
Lykourgos gulped as all eyes went to him. He was no green-boy, after all, it was him who defeated the last remnants of the old nobility at Haestinghen, but this decision seemed to have so much more weight behind it. Back then he was fighting for his father, but now these men would be dying for him. He let out a breath he didn't know he had been holding in.
"Ready the men and get me ready to move out. We'll steal a night's march on them and take them by surprise come the dawn."
"A night march? Are you sure it's a good idea?"
"Normally no, after all, there's no better way to lose half your army than to have a few companies blunder into each other in the dark and begin fighting. However, if this camp truly is only twenty miles from the Einarbrycge, I see little danger in so short a march. Fifteen miles south tonight, then a few hours rest till the morning. Before the sun comes up, we attack. If Marshal Harran is as incompetent as his brazen camp positioning would suggest, this should even our numbers out somewhat."
Romanos nodded grimly, swallowing hard as well. Lykourgos looked at him in expectance, waiting for him to speak.
"My Prince, I ask only that you think a moment if this is truly what you wish. If you swear your sword to your brother now, you will live on, potentially keeping your previous position as Lord-Protector of the Northern Lands, but once we cross that river there is no going back. I do not tell you to give in, only to pause and think on the risks involved."
He closed his eyes and let out a deep sigh. Romanos was right, in a way. If he went back now, tail tucked beneath his legs, he would likely be allowed to live. But for how long? He slowly shook his head. Here was his first challenge, and he would not falter here. Here he would triumph or here he would die.
"We march south immediately. If they want the crown that badly, the least they can do is fight me for it."
Romanos let out another sigh of his own, and slapped his fist into his breastplate.
"So it shall be. I will ready the men."