Mile after mile of fortification marred the landscape. Once verdant grasslands and farms had been reduced to mud and dust as thousands of armed and dangerous men excavated mountains of dirt and turned grazing land into ditches. Crops had been dug up so that sharpened stakes could discourage enemy forays against the earth and log walls that protected the besiegers. Foragers had brought in what cattle and food the besieged had failed to take into the walls with them. Ballistae and catapults turned attacking the besiegers’ camp from merely foolhardy to suicidal, while a large fleet with its crew of sailors and marines blockaded the port, letting nothing in or out.
The centerpiece of all this martial effort was the city of Taren, in a state of rebellion against the Empire of Sandora. Immense, thick stone gave the walls superior resistance to ram and mining. Not that that was an impediment. Siege towers were under construction, massive tools of war designed to flood the enemy defenses with hundreds of troops, preventing the sort of bitter fighting that a wall fight would provoke as the attackers literally shoved the defenders off through sheer weight of numbers.
Ardeo Nyzdar sat quietly near one of the siege towers, craning his neck to study it. It was the first completed tower, the one designated to roll across the blighted no man's land and open nearest the gates. The other five towers were almost finished, construction proceeding at a good pace. They would be finished within the week, and the day after they were complete, all six would be rolled the five hundred dangerous feet from besieger to besieged.
A pleasant breeze blew, bringing a welcome coolness to the hot day. Ten legions had been assigned to put down the uprising that had occurred at summer's start in this northeastern domain. The entire uprising could hardly have been more of a joke. The thirty or so lords who had rebelled against Imperial authority had not been generals, had been defeated in the field ignominiously time and time again. It had gotten to the point where the army had been split into five parts, each section permitted to campaign independently. Ardeo had been in command of two legions, and had done quite well for himself, burning a swath of destruction through the south.
But then Archduke Odacer Mircea of Aiman, the overall commander of this campaign, had summoned him to Taren. He had hustled his two legions, puzzled as to why he had been sent for. One look at the city defenses, and it was quite obvious that two legions could not take the city, especially since many of the defeated rebels had fled here for a last stand. So he had gotten to work, setting his men to digging and building under the watchful eye of the Dragon.
Ardeo smiled. The Dragon. It was an ancient nickname, one given only to the greatest members of House Mircea, and for good reason. The Mirceans were unique throughout the world. They did not claim descent from this minor lord or that one, but from Aneas Mircea, the only man in recorded history to have ever slain a dragon in single combat.
Not that their family history, or even the history of their domain, was quite that simple. Aneas Mircea had been an Aiman'xan, a member of the ferocious and independent people that ruled the daunting peaks of the Dragon Range. Dragons were dangerous nuisances throughout Mion. They were known to attack human settlements in search of prey. Not that they ate humans, but who could convince ignorant peasants of that? No, they hungered for cattle, sheep, goats, all the creatures men ate for their meat. But what made he Aiman'xan unique was that they had tamed the power of the dragons and made it their own.
For that reason, Aneas Mircea's act had been an unspeakable sin. He and his entire clan had been banished from the Dragon Range. Nothing daunted, they had driven out the previous inhabitants of what was now Aiman, and entered into an alliance with the Founder of Imperial Sandora. What followed was the longest-lasting alliance in history, two noble houses that had fought back to back for over two thousand years.
Not that Ardeo was a run-of-the-mill nobleman. His grandmother had been the youngest sister of Odacer's grandfather. He knew that he had inherited his military talent from House Mircea, not from House Nyzdar, but his family name had its own magic. Through his paternal name, he was descended from Andri Firesoul, the King of Swords.
The King of Swords. The legendary man who could touch the Divine Power of the Gods, something that only the female mages known as the Viantha could do. His birth inspired fear and terror, his life changed the world, his death only a brief interlude before his next rebirth. The Tarot could give some warning, but never enough. The Founder had been another incarnation of the King of Swords, though Ardeo knew full well he could not claim any bloodlinks to the Imperial family.
But that, Ardeo mused as he turned his back on the siege tower and walked toward one of the many sentry towers, was only a part of the story. He was twenty-nine years old, and had only reached his paternal home and achieved his birthright last summer. For over five hundred years, House Nyzdar had been a house of refugees, a situation that had its roots in the mists of history.
"Ardeo Vellus Nyzdar!"
Ardeo stopped in his ruminations and turned around, smiling in the direction of the impertinent youth who had called out to him. "Marcus Comodo Mircea!"
Marcus walked up to him and slung a companionable arm around his neck. A youth of sixteen years, his curling black hair and hawkish face made him seem an untamed rogue rather than the son of one of the most powerful men in Imperial Sandora. A handsome rake, Odacer's son had taken to war like a drunkard to wine, an embryonic master-soldier. The youth had been everywhere, leading cavalry on foraging or skirmishes, scouting, fighting in the thick of every battle. Even now, he was dressed in steel, his cuirass, gauntlets, and greaves glinting in the sunlight.
Not that Ardeo conceded anything to Marcus in either looks or military talent. He genially slung his own arm around his young kin as Marcus began to talk.
"What are you doing here by the siege tower? I'd have thought you'd be with Father, debating which legion to assign where."
Ardeo ruffled Marcus's hair. "Look who's talking about being in the wrong place! I'd have thought you would be carousing with some dazzled peasant girl."
Marcus hesitated, his grin fading away, his blue eyes serious. "The Fianna...make that a rather difficult proposition."
Ardeo felt his own smile die. "And there is the crux of our problem, isn't it?"
"Yes, that's our problem in a nutshell, cousin.” Marcus sighed, looked around, and walked a little quicker into the camp of Ardeo's legion. “Although I am not one of those who blames you."
"You'd better not blame me, Marcus! I'd throw you into the nearest cauldron of pitch if you did."
Marcus managed a weak smile, looked at his olive flesh. "I don't think I look good in a red color, cousin!"
They had been walking through the camp of Ardeo’s Iyazan legion, the first he had managed to raise and fully train. It was more veteran in composition than it was on paper, but it was a good legion, with good troops. They had built their camp in a structured manner, under the close supervision of Aimani officers who knew how everything was supposed to go. The orderly lines of tents, the communal fire pits, the latrines and wells, everything was organized for maximum efficiency. Eventually, he would have to see if he could “borrow” enough officers from his cousin to stiffen the back of his own legions.
As they walked, Ardeo headed toward the distinct red and white banner of House Nyzdar flying in the light breeze, marking out his tent. Ardeo entered his command tent before Marcus, and took everything in at a glance. Two chairs sat near his desk, a few blankets and a pillow behind that, his armor on its stand near the tent flap, a small trunk in the left corner for his clothes, and a locked chest on his desk with his paperwork. It was the total sum of what he had taken with him on campaign, along with a pair of servants who were probably doing some chores.
Everything seemed as it was when he had left. He moved the chair behind the desk and sat in it with a sigh. He looked at Marcus shrewdly. "I take it that some of the more sycophantic members of the Rigsraadet are blaming me for Flaccus' revolt and his attempt to revive Respublia?"
"How did you guess?" Marcus replied with a smile.
Ardeo simply looked grim. "Zeno's doing?"
Marcus nodded. "Yes. You are not a popular man with the Emperor, cousin. The Ceremony of Oaths was practically a disaster, with Zeno Theron and his little boy scowling at everyone who did their obeisance. And let's leave alone your little coup at year's start!"
No surprise that he was not popular with the Emperor Zeno, newly ascended to the throne and much his own age, the inferior son of a far superior father. Rich, powerful, tremendously well-born, House Theron had one asset above all others that maintained their ascendancy over Imperial Sandora: the Imperial Fianna. The Emperor's private army, they were the toughest soldiers in the Empire and commanded by the conscripted sons of the noble Houses, given to the Emperor in accordance with Imperial law. Those boys were indoctrinated at an early age to blindly obey the Emperor above all, even their one-time families. The Fianna were the Emperor's trump card, his answer to everything be it revolt or succession crises.
“I didn't have a choice, Marcus. It was either submit, or die.”
“That’s exactly right,” a new voice interjected strongly.
Ardeo and Marcus were on their feet instantly. “Cousin!”
Odacer Mircea looked what he was, a hard-bitten, fierce warlord who had few, if any, equals anywhere in the world. The strength of life in his dark-brown eyes contrasted with the gray in his beard and hair, the fine wrinkles around his eyes. Thirty-five of his fifty-five years had been spent on campaign all over the empire, always in service to the great Emperor Aurelian Neoptalmus Theron. A life of warfare had left him a trim, well-built man in prime physical condition, if perhaps a trifle weary. A new wife did not help his case.
His young son stepped aside and allowed his father to take his chair. Ardeo sat in his own chair, a trifle surprised. He had not expected his cousin to come visit him, especially not now, with the thousand and one details that the commander of a campaign would have to handle. He was clad much as his son was, his cuirass having seen almost as much action as he, and without the distinctive scarlet cape that denoted the general in charge. Even seated, Odacer was a formidable presence.
“What brings you to my tent, cousin?” Ardeo asked.
“Business, of course. We should make the dispositions for what to do about Taren now, rather than later.”
“What to do…?” Ardeo asked, confused.
Odacer snorted. “I’d have thought your little northern adventure would have illuminated you to certain facts. Taren will fall, especially with me here. However, decisions will have to be taken as to what to do with it afterward. Should we sack it, or should we leave it be? Shall we allow Flaccus to retain his holding, or reward it to someone else?”
“The Emperor has already given orders that Flaccus be brought through the Traitor’s Gate, Father,” Marcus reminded him.
A pensive frown crossed Odacer’s face before he shrugged. “True enough. And Zeno will execute him and put his head on display by the Raven’s Square, make no mistake.”
Ardeo tilted himself back in his chair, thoughtfully mulling over something he had never considered. There was more to warfare than just maneuver, combat, and clean-up. “Well, Taren should not be sacked. It’s a useful jumping off point and supply port for the legions on Ridamek.”
“And it’s a rich city. It can afford to pay an indemnity,” Marcus added.
Odacer nodded his agreement. “Yes, it would be a shame to sack it. Now, how do you propose to control the Fianna? You were the one who disgraced them.”
Ardeo winced. “It wasn’t exactly my idea!”
The older man’s laughter was rich and deep. “No, you hadn’t thought it on your own. But I know, and you know, that your blood demanded it. Honestly, Ardeo, you didn’t have a choice.”
“Especially after you kicked me out of Adiutrix.”
The look he received was mild. “I prefer to think of it as a promotion.”
“That promptly got me into deep trouble.”
“To quote someone,” Odacer replied, still mild, “it wasn’t exactly my idea.”
The three of them fell silent as they contemplated the events of winter past. The north of Imperial Sandora had not fallen under control of the Emperor until recent years. Or, more precisely, it had not been back under the Emperor’s control until recent years.
Five hundred years ago, the Empire of Sandora had ruled the all of the continent south of the Northern Wastes, excluding the Golden Bowl, the Viantha island-stronghold of Para Disio, and Sanctuary, the lush valley in the Dragon Range that was preserved as an asylum for the vanquished and the hunted. Sanctuary was guaranteed by the might of the Aiman’xan and the sworn oath of the Founder. Five hundred years ago, the Empire had violated Sanctuary. What followed was the disastrous War of the Sin. The Dragon Riders had gone to war against the Empire of Sandora, and virtually the entire continent had rebelled. Even the King of Swords alive at that time could do no better than end the war in a draw- a testament to the power of the mob when backed by great power.
Far to the north, Iyaza was the redoubt that kept the barbarian tribes of the Northern Wastes within their dreary lands. House Nyzdar had ruled this important land for nearly forty centuries when the War of the Sin broke out. Much like House Mircea, they had remained loyal to the Emperor. In the brutal twenty years of warfare that followed, Iyaza was lost to them, as they were driven from their lands, and barbarian tribes swooped in from the north to trample the newly “free” rebels.
His ancestors had fled south into Imperial territory. Odacer’s ancestors had given his sanctuary, even restored a measure of dignity by granting them a fief to be held in their name. The end of the War of the Sin saw Imperial Sandora reduced to a shadow of its former self, the continent in chaos. For five hundred years, struggle was the order of the day, as new nations were carved through blood and steel, and Imperial Sandora struggled to recover lost land.
“I’ve never really thanked you in person, have I, Odacer?”
His older kinsman looked at him curiously. “For what?”
A thankful smile appeared on Ardeo’s face. “For restoring me to my birthright, and making me of Duke of Iyaza.”
Raising his right hand, Odacer gestured, casually dismissed Ardeo’s implied apology. “Think nothing of it, cousin. I was busy putting down revolt in Ostia when you arrived at Iyaza, and you were certainly busy by the time you could consider thanking me in person.”
“‘Busy’ is such an inadequate word,” Marcus interjected cheekily. “I’d have picked ‘fighting for survival’.”
The smile changed from thankful to mischievous. “I can’t say I’d disagree.”
Odacer’s glance was wry. “Most people would chose far choicier words than ‘fighting for survival’ when facing four legions of Imperial Fianna.”
Feeling his smile become a bit weaker, Ardeo tried to recover the previous light-heartedness. “And four legions of auxiliaries. Why does everyone always forget that part?”
“Because most people don’t hear beyond the word ‘Fianna’,” Marcus replied.
When the campaigns to conquer the northern domains had been finished, Odacer had reinstated Ardeo as Duke of Iyaza, without seeking formal Imperial approval. This was something within his authority as Prince of the Sword, but he had not acted entirely on his own. He and the Emperor had discussed what to do with the dispositions in the north after Respublia was conquered, and agreed that House Nyzdar be restored to Iyaza. It had been arrived at informally, but still enjoyed Imperial approval. At the time it had not been commented on, but it set in motion utterly unexpected events.
When Aurelian Neoptalmus had died past autumn, Zeno had been in Ostia, not in the Imperial Capital. While governing the twice-subdued city, he had made the acquaintance of Mihal Borischev Bakun, the previous master of Iyaza whom Odacer had kicked out. For whatever reason, Zeno had taken to Bakun, raised him to the level of confidant and friend.
After his father’s death, Zeno had moved against House Nyzdar. He had set Bakun to bring a case into a Rigsraadet session packed with his minions and sycophants, and obtained a dispensation to eject Ardeo from Iyaza in favor of Bakun. Eight legions had been sent out to remove Ardeo by force. By the time the rest of the noble houses had found out, it had been too late to stop the army.
“How did you win against eight legions, anyway, Ardeo?” Marcus asked. “Last I knew of, you only had access to a legion of Dragon Guard Father lent you, and two legions of militia.”
Ardeo smiled grimly at his younger kin. “Yes, that was all I had. A whole nine thousand men against twenty-four thousand of the Emperor’s finest. I didn’t have much time to raise levies amongst the Iyazans, and I wouldn’t have used them, anyway. It takes one hundred days to turn a raw recruit into a soldier, and there’s nothing worse on a battlefield than having untested, untrained men pretend to be professional soldiers.”
“So you raised a legion of mercenaries?” Odacer asked.
“Yes, I managed that. Promised them an outrageous sum of money, and lied through my teeth reassuring them they weren’t facing Imperial Fianna.” Ardeo scowled. “Mercenaries are ridiculous! I don’t know whether it’s the greed or the selfishness, but I refuse to use such troops ever again! When they’re not demanding a fortune in wages, they’re boasting, drinking, carousing and more. I used the Dragon Guard as often against them as I did for anything else during that campaign.”
“Did you manage to impose proper discipline?” Marcus asked.
“Oh, yes. They were mostly former Respublian troopers, so it didn’t take too long to put them back on the straight and narrow, even if it took a few public and very messy executions. So I had twelve thousand disparate and desperate troops against twenty-four thousand veteran Imperial soldiers.”
“Where did you lure them into battle?”
“On Firesoul’s Plain.”
Odacer blinked in surprise. “How did you manage to beat them on Firesoul’s Plain? I’d have thought that terrain perfect for horse troopers like the Fianna.”
“I had the goddess of fortune on my side. Firesoul’s Plain is poor terrain, pockmarked with holes, dips, and gaps. It grows long grass, and little else. The height of the grass and the heavy snows of winter concealed my advantages. I mounted two cohorts of Dragon Guard, and the three others I put on each tip and in the center. I armed everyone with a heavy shield and spear. For whatever reason, the Fianna traveled ahead of their auxiliaries. They charged me on a front that was four legions wide, which I had anticipated by thinning my own lines to a similar length. I won that first battle as much by killing their mounts as I did killing them. I locked them all up in one of your abandoned redoubts, left a full legion of militia to keep an eye on them. After the Fianna, the auxiliaries were easy.”
“Which brings us to our present pass,” Odacer noted clinically.
“As I keep saying to ears stopped up by Imperial indignation, it was not my idea.”
“No, it was not your idea, but you were certainly the pretext for it. Your victory on your ancestor’s plain swayed the Assembled Houses to your side, especially since they did not wish to set a precedent that future Emperors might use to increase the Imperial House’s already formidable power.”
“I was actually there for it, Cousin,” Marcus said. “It was…impressive, to say the least. The first thing they did was revoke Bakun’s original dispensation, which leaves him rather high and dry. They confirmed you in your holdings, and issued a formal demand against the Emperor to make peace with you, under threat of withholding tribute and open war.”
“That’s just it,” Ardeo protested. “I never knew any of this! I was too busy recruiting fresh troops in case the Emperor decided to try again, so how could any of this have been my idea?”
Odacer looked amused. “Your lack of access to a Viantha certainly supports that, doesn’t it?”
“If anyone can be blamed for this, it’s the witches,” Ardeo muttered.
The Sisterhood of Viantha was a powerful force in the scheme of things. Besides their ability to tap into the Divine Power, they had money, clout, and agents scattered throughout Mion. They were fair arbiters, ambassadors, and negotiators, with the added caveat of being an almost instantaneous communication source. One of their abilities was the ability to communicate telepathically with a fellow Viantha so long as there was sunlight.
Through that ability, they had managed to hammer out an agreement between Zeno and the Assembled Houses. Zeno had agreed to give his sister to Ardeo in marriage and elevate Ardeo the rank of Archduke. In exchange, the Rigsraadet agreed to continue paying tribute and to defray the costs of divorcing Valena Orguja Theron from her current husband and marrying her to Ardeo.
Unsurprisingly, this led into another problem. Valena’s husband happened to be Iudaces Starbo Flaccus, a powerful nobleman of old Respublia whom Aurelian Neoptalmus had thought it prudent to tame with a marriage alliance. Zeno had sent one of his favorites to Flaccus’s capital of Taren, and he had informed him that he was to divorce his wife and turn her over to the Duke of Iyaza, soon to be Archduke. The mortally offended Flaccus had had the hapless messenger beheaded, and sent the head to Zeno.
Flaccus had raised the standards of dead Respublia, and begun to rally men to his banner. He managed to do this surprisingly quickly and quietly. The first Zeno had known of the revolt was when the head had arrived.
“Just how angry was the Emperor when his ambassador’s head arrived?” Ardeo asked Marcus.
The youth hesitated. “I don’t think my vocabulary is quite that descriptive. He was already pretty furious when he found out that you beat his Fianna on Firesoul’s Plain, but I can’t think of any word strong enough to match how he was when he got Thasa’s head.”
“I think the Ceremony of Oaths gives the best example of just how angry he was,” Odacer commented. “He managed to get it done in two and a half hours instead of the usual four. The moment I took my oath, he closed the ceremony, marched off his throne, told me to take two legions from Tabon, summon two of my own, take the legions you disgraced at Iyaza, and to grind Flaccus into dust.”
“How convenient of you to remember that I still had one of your legions up north with me,” Ardeo noted dryly.
Ignoring the jibe, Odacer resumed talking. “As you well know, I hustled myself up north to take personal command. The Fianna obey me as Prince of the Sword, but you? They’d tear you apart. Marcus I sent to Aiman to pick up one of mine, and the two from Tabon I sent along the along the road to meet us at a halfway point.”
“Where I found myself engaged to the Emperor’s sister, and soon to be promoted to Archduke, with several restive legions of Fianna and several raw legions of my own.”
“Quite so. I must say, your first Iyazan legion did quite well. And I’m sure you were just as happy to blood them on these easy pickings before you had to blood them on barbarian tribes.”
“Just as well this campaign is almost done,” Ardeo replied grimly. “I’ve had a letter from Iyaza. The barbarians have already begun raiding, never mind the troops we left manning the border forts.”
Marcus sighed. “The problem is, you couldn’t leave enough troops on the border. The four legions of Fianna were more needed up there than down here.”
“Perhaps,” Odacer replied. “However, they were not likely to take orders from Ardeo, especially in the absence of their dead general. However, I’ve already sent orders. These four legions will be sent to Ridamek as soon as the region is pacified, and four of the seven on Ridamek will be brought here. You’ll be taking those home with you, Ardeo.”
“Ah, Odacer, don’t you think that’s a bit…foolhardy? I can hardly be popular with the Fianna right now.”
The look his elder kinsman gave him made Ardeo feel like a little boy again. Fighting to keep his inclination to bow his head and apologize at bay, he returned the look with steady detachment. At least, that was the effect he was aiming for.
“No, it is not foolhardy,” Odacer finally replied, a bit tartly. “As soon as we enter the city, I’ll show Valena her brother’s edict annulling the marriage, and his letter ordering her to marry you. When you leave Taren with those legions, you’ll be brother-in-law of the Emperor himself. That makes you an Imperial Kinsman, and sacrosanct.”
“All he has to do is live that long,” Marcus observed, not altogether lightly.
“Thank you, Marcus,” Ardeo articulated each syllable through grit teeth. “As if I didn’t have enough troubles on my mind.”
“I make a valid point, cousin. You’re a prime target for assassination until you’re safely married off. You should keep your person and your tent under heavy guard at all times.”
Ardeo glared at Marcus, who had grinned impudently the moment he had said ‘married off’. He shifted his look to Odacer. “Do you remember Ossia?”
Odacer blinked. “The ugly daughter of that rich but vulgar merchant of merchants?”
“The same. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to gain control of that massive fortune?”
Odacer smiled slightly. “And she is near Marcus’ age…”
Marcus’s eyes were wide with horror. “I would sooner fall on my sword than marry that ugly bovine! Do you hear me, Father?”
The two older men shared a good laugh at the younger’s expense, but when the laughter ended, Odacer looked as serious as a judge on his tribunal. “I do suggest you raise a bodyguard, Ardeo, for your own safety, and only until the siege is over. Better safe than sorry.”