"Play today, my dear! Rest tonight, my dear! For tomorrow, my dear, you'll die!"
---The Bard's Wife, introduction
Gilbert was one of the first Cherry Wood Knights who came, limping, in his case, to the edge of the encampment to visit them, face all aglow with joy at knowing that his comrades had successfully managed to get back alive from their trip to Fafner.
"How's everything going, Gilbert?" inquired Hobenrûd, looking at the camp.
"Not bad, Hoben! In fact, I think we're already ready to begin marching. A local village offered us quite a bit of gold in exchange for 'enlisting' our support in eradicating all those made-up 'witches' that prowled this place. So. Ready to tackle Pulti?"
Hobenrûd smirked and said "Hollen gave us more troops than you can possibly imagine. I think it's my charm, myself;" Anita also got down from her mier and came forward, she glanced at Gilbert's bad leg, glanced at the camp, and seemed disappointed: "So this is your base of operations?"
Hobenrûd rolled his eyes. "Or maybe he just wanted to bother me. Gilbert, meet Anita. We got another girl in the team...and I don't mean it in the good way. And Anita, yes, this is our base. We didn't have money for a fancy palace. So you'll have to get used to it." Gilbert turned to face her. "Well...we don't have much time to waste, but I believe your men are tired. We were planning to have a commemoration when you came...but I think we don't have beer for so many people."
Anita grinned and said: "Oh, don't worry. I don't drink."
That evening, Marin was walking around the camp. Not thinking about becoming queen, or about her father, or about gaining Hobenrûd's trust for the first time in days. Because, at that time, her mind was busy with more immediate worries like: "It's awfully crowded in here. And it's so noisy! It's a wonder my father's army doesn't hear us and burn our camp."
Torches were lit to provide more illumination, and open kegs of beer were scattered throughout the field, so that anyone could just dip a cup in them and drink. The moon and various stars could be seen, brightly helping with the illumination themselves.
Bards were singing happily and playing merry songs in their instruments, some of the more academic sang classical works like "Ode to Faghorn" and "The yellow rabbit;" while village bards sang improvised songs with varying degrees of success. All the songs and voices and lyrics and yells combined together to form a wild cacophony of joy that could not be understood, and yet described perfectly how the people were feeling.
While walking, Marin stumbled on Jarek, somewhat drunk, carrying a lute strapped to himself. He was singing in abandon while playing strange harmonies:
"\And he shlashed the shlob's gut!\...while...yelling for him to shtay put!\ ...and his noblesh...pardnesh came\...Oh, hey Prish...shilla. Sorry 'bout tha'...I sink...I think I'm kinda drunk," he said, laughing.
Marin sipped from her cup, and told him: "Yeah. You look kinda drunk."
He laughed again at this, louder. "Oh but it'sh not a party 'till shomen...shomeone getsh drunk! ...Hmm...Nishe idea for a shong! \Tish not a party, I thunk.\ 'Till shomeone got drunk!\"
Marin decided to walk on, leaving Jarek behind, singing the song that later would be known as the "Ode to the yellow miers." She went to the central wooden pavilion, that seemed to be less crowded than the rest of the camp. Upon entering the pavilion, she noticed Anita, in a corner, speaking with some tall man.
"Hey Marin! How are you doing? This is Yuri, one of my lieutenants. He was telling me that this party idea was really good. And I concur, this way our tired soldiers can rest for the march to Pulti, and since it'll take more than a day until we actually reach there, the side-effects of the beer won't pose trouble." she said.
Marin was looking at the other corner, where Hobenrûd talked with two women about his feats in the travel. A second or two later she looked back to Anita. "Uh? Oh, yes...Gilbert knows how to handle this kind of thing. He was a strategist in the king's army, or something." She took another sip from her cup.
Hobenrûd noticed them and walked closer. "Priss! Hey! I thought you were going to just walk around the camp. Really, the best of party is here anyway. And Anita, Gilbert said it would be a good idea if we divided ourselves from the main army and went to Jyptia without Drindell, since you're a wizard and all tha..."
"I'm not a wizard." she interrupted. Hobenrûd rolled his eyes, and told her "Yeah, a wizardress or whatever."
This time it was Anita that rolled her eyes. "No, I mean that I am not a witch. I am a sorceress."
"Oh, then I'll pretend I understand everything now." said Hobenrûd impatiently, looking at the two girls he left behind.
"A wizard is a mage that knows how to use everyday materials and rituals to make magic. A sorcerer is a mage that knows how to craft and use magical artifacts, there is an enormous difference. The Jyptians don't accept sorcerers there, they only allow wizards. Something about the ancient laws of the earth."
"Oh that's just great. I'll get around to tell that to Gilbert somehow. And Priss, lookin' good tonight, huh? Or maybe it's just the lack of dirt." he said, leaving. Anita looked back to Marin, and told her "I can't understand that man. And I specially can't understand how you stand him, Priscilla. He's rude, arrogant, crude and...well, he's not the sharpest knife in the drawer."
Marin glanced at him again and answered: "That's not really him. He just acts like that to look heroic or something. He really cares about what he's doing, and about those around him... he just doesn't want to get really connected to those people," she took another sip of her cup.
"I know what you mean. Arrogance is but a shield, a wise man once said. But since I first met him, I have never seen him act any different. So... are you sure that isn't just what you want to believe in?" Anita asked worriedly.
Marin remembered the night before they departed from Fafner and said, "Yeah...I'm pretty sure." Anita simply shrugged and told her "Well, then loosen up a little bit. This is a party!" Anita started to drag Marin away, as the princess gulped what remained of the beer and threw the cup on the ground.
Chapter 15 Edit
"Might never won a battle more effectively than Mischief ever did."
---Theory of War, chapter fourteenth.
The next two days were spent making final preparations for battle, and every few hours new supplies would come in. Princess Marin took part in a few practice engagements, just to be sure that she was up to par, and Gilbert pronounced her swordswomanship "not bad," even though after day one few people risked losing their honor in getting defeated by her wooden sword. Then, the evening before it was time to march, Gilbert procured a brand new long sword, with her name inscribed into it, for her to use.
Battle practice was held alongside one-on-one matches, and in these sessions Anita would frequently intervene with her whirlwinds. By the second day most of the soldiers had become accustomed to it, her regiments from Fafner especially. The Cherry Wood Knights soon came to see her as a major asset, rather than a dishonor to them all.
In-between battle training, Anita also managed to study the rod that Marin had shown her and discovered no further magic beside the electrical discharges. She decided to keep the rod for herself, nonetheless, since she would probably have more use for it than Marin.
Yuri helped provide various maps of Pulti and its surroundings, and fed in reports from the various scouts of the situations of the siege. Meanwhile, Ishmael worked alongside Gilbert in making strategic contingencies in preparation for the relieving of the siege. Everything worked smoothly--and then on the morning of the fourth day, the entire camp seemed to disappear to the outside observer. Everyone in the rebel group had gone with the Freedom Army, except for the civilians, and they progressed rapidly on the five-day trail to the besieged fortress.
A little after they left, Marin asked Gilbert why they were undoing the camp. "We won't go back. After we rescue Drindell, our headquarters will be in Pulti. It's less secluded, but more easily defended, and they have more supplies there. Luckily, ours isn't the only revolt the king has to worry about, so he'll probably not send his entire army on to us."
"And that would be bad." Marin pointed out. "Very bad. Even with more than four thousand men we have no chance against the better trained and equipped Sardinians...or the holy order. And that discounting the gigantic Ruivocan army. If he sent all his forces at the same time...our chances would be grim."
Hobenrûd closed in and entered the conversation "But if we manage to get reinforcements from Jyptia, then we'll have a chance. Jyptia doesn't have many soldiers, but they have lots of dragons and magic. Not even the Sardinians' can defend against that."
"Of course, all that assumes we manage to break the siege. Which may not happen...and...I don't actually have a back-up plan, so it's all or nothing this time." said Gilbert, depressingly. "But let's not tell the men this, shall we? Rule number one in strategy books is: 'A man that believes in victory can easily defeat a better equipped and trained foe'."
Hobenrûd, Marin and Anita nodded. And, besides some villages, (where the Freedom Army managed to obtain more supplies and recruits) the march went on unhindered. In the third day of march, the Freedom Army stopped in hamlet of Gunstrer, a mere day travel from Pulti, where the last preparations would be made.
The two leaders of the freedom army and their lieutenants reunited in the local lord's manor to discuss last minute strategy. Inside a spacious room, richly furnished. In the center of it, there was a hand-carved wooden long table, on which a map of the Pulti hills was spread, and the speculated positions of Sardinian troops marked. Ishmael was intently looking at the map.
Gilbert stood up from his chair and told him: "I told you already. I've already looked at that map a gazillion times. The only route is a frontal assault. Any alternative route can be easily seen from their positions, so it won't be exactly a surprise."
Hobenrûd ignored him and kept looking that the map. Gilbert sat back again. After some time, Hobenrûd looked back at him. "Well. If they can see us coming from that position, then we lure them down with half of our forces. This way, the rest will be able to attack their flanks from the higher ground."
Gilbert quickly got up, groaned in pain, and limped around the table until he was beside Hobenrûd. The two whispered between themselves, and seemed to reach a consent. Gilbert grinned.
Ishmael then entered the room, and noticing them chat, asked, "so what's happened?"
"Our plan for the attack. We settled on drawing them out by setting a decoy here--" and Gilbert pointed at a point on the map. "...And then we gain ground here--" and he pointed again at another spot on the map, "before we finally attack this way," and he concluded, swiftly moving his finger across the map in a single sweep.
Ishmael was not too satisfied. "Seems like half of our men will die in this battle," he noted, not too eager. "We have to cut the casualties down to no more than a fifth of our troops! Otherwise, morale will be down, and our chances for success will be greatly diminished."
"Well, if everything goes according to the plan, we won't lose even half of our troops. And the enemy has a better position, is better equipped, and has more men. I'm afraid that's nearly impossible." Hobenrûd quickly declared.
"Nearly," emphasized Ishmael. "But there's ways to take down the siege losing only a few people. I had thought it all out already." The other commanders made way for him to get closer to the map, but he simply swiped the paper off the table. "Don't even bother with the map."
Then Ishmael proceeded to tell the others about his plans, at the end of which they all declared that it was brilliant, and went off to sleep for the final night before the battle. And so, the scene was set for battling the very next day.
"There is nothing more glorious than the piercing scream of your mangled enemies as you thrust your blade through their hearts."
---King Ük, the red
Early the next morning Ishmael donned a very decorative blue coat of arms of Ruivoca, and, taking a dangling bag full of somethings, headed over across the no-man's land to the encamped siege on his mier. As he went up the steep slopes, the guards looked at him, took notice, and intercepted him. "What's the password?"
Ishmael took to bluffing, and taking out a stamp of office, displayed it to the guards. "I'm not at all familiar with this place, mind you, but I've come to deliver medals of honor to the commander for having successfully cast siege on Pulti, with the wizard as the prize." He then attempted to get past them.
"Wait!" one of the guards declared. "You still haven't told us the password!"
"Durn it, don't you two have any sense?" He was shouting at them. "I'm your superior, hello!" And he brandished his stamp of office in front of their astonished eyes. "So get out of my way, maybe? ... Or even better, I'm not even so sure that you're not sneaks!" Ishmael appeared infuriated. "You have this one chance to give me the right password, which I'll check with the commanders, or I'll have you both executed for treason!"
The stunned guards could not take effective action against him, and merely stated, "the password is 'doughnut'."
"What kind of crap is that?" Ishmael shouted, nearly at the top of his voice.
"But that really is the password, we don't get to choose." the guard protested.
"All right then, I'll be checking with the commanders, so you two had better be god-damned sure," he announced, before trotting his mier past the two guards. "And stick to your posts!" he hollered behind them, making them stiffen up.
Ishmael rapidly went from one platoon to another around the great besieging army, giving out the password 'doughnut' whenever asked, and handing two medals of honor to every platoon. He could tell that his plan was working. At every turn the soldiers in each platoon were jealous of both the platoon leader (who had one of them) and the leader's favorite (who got the other). He effectively stirred up anti-leadership hatred and a willingness to turn against one's own superiors. By noon his work was complete, and he was heading back to the Freedom Army.
Battle was joined at mid-day, with Hobenrûd, Anita, and Marin at the front lines with the infantry, taking all the brunt of the attack. While archers rained down arrows on the enemy that charged down the hills. And the cavalry circling around to the rear to launch surprise initiatives. At the center of the battlefield, the Freedom Army held its position perfectly, while driving the opposition into confusion. Anita's mere presence projected an aura of encouragement that boosted the morale of her subordinates, driving them to fight to the utmost; Hobenrûd inspired hope and fearlessness in the Cherry Wood Knights.
There was no way the defending Ruivocan army could have won. Rumors had spread of witches from the Cherry Woods, with their glowing orbs and ethereal whisting instruments, coming to do battle with them (mere humans, after all); some of the Freedom Army soldiers carried such objects, much to the sudden dismay of the Ruivocan troops. Anita preceded the battle with the summoning of a trio of twisters, which whirled around the battlefield, throwing chaos into the enemy forces and tossing them far away to their deaths, and continuing on with Marin's lightning rod in close combat. Marin, with her feints, and her very gender threatening to disprove masculine superiority of the troops, dismayed their spirits; while Hobenrûd, the legendary invincible warrior, beat back every enemy offensive and cut down their finest troops and devastating their already weakened morale.
The Ruivocan army, which was nearly twice as large, quickly crumbled into fragmented pockets of weakened resistance, many of their troops too cowed to engage the Freedom Army and their sorcerers and alleged witches. The commanders could not even direct their men to where the battle required them, as the footmen constantly mutinied in an attempt to obtain the medals of honor for themselves. Before long, the Ruivocan leadership had collapsed, all slain by privates in the army, who then set about fighting each other for the medals. And then, the cavalry, that had gone around the enemy troops, charged down the hill, trampling all in their paths, while the spearmen were in the front lines.
Within half an hour, the Freedom Army had plowed through the center and both flanks of the Ruivocan army, breaking their siege into pieces and sending their men fleeing with stories of the horrors of the battle and the superior powers of the Freedom Army. Even when the Sardinians finally arrived at the battle front, descending from their posts near the top of the hills, they became uneasy as they heard the rapid recounts of whole regiments being wiped out rapidly, they cursed the ineptness of the foreigners and retreated from the fight, leaving the members of the Inquisitor Guard to fight on their own.
Then came Hobenrûd's master stroke: he challenged the leader of the Inquisitor Guard to one-on-one, hands-only combat. For whoever would win this most primitive of engagements must also be the righteous one. Hobenrûd quickly won, cutting the rivals' head. And the results of the duel were clearly visible to all the Sardinians, who began to question their own leadership. Hobenrûd then challenged the second leader of the Inquisitor Guard, who, cowed by the swiftness of Hobenrûd's victory, conceded defeat and ordered his forces into retreat.
It was with a light heart that the Freedom Army entered and liberated the city of Pulti, whose maidens came out in their virgin-white dresses carrying a victory feast for both the liberators and the stalwart defenders. The Freedom Army had lost roughly four hundred of their brave warriors; this was out of nearly six thousand soldiers who entered the fray. Later, it would be counted, that the besieging armies had taken over seven thousand casualties (over three thousand dead, and the other four thousand too weak to flee the battlefield and rapidly taken captive or slaughtered) of a total force of nine thousand.
Pulti, however, was devastated. Their initial garrison - Drindell told them soon enough - had been roughly three thousand; now, they had been reduced to a mere eight hundred men after weeks of siege. Many civilians had died as well. All the way into the night, funerals continued, while the unscrupulous members of the victorious armies went about the battlefield, scouring for any items of value, chopping off the hands of the dead to get at their bracelets, and their necks to get at their necklaces, without even so much as a worry as to the corpses' humanity. Yet amidst the festive celebration, the leaders reasoned that it would be improper to intrude on what the victors had done. It was, after all, just another way of obtaining revenge against the usurper-king.
Anita, now sickened of the battle, went to the city hospitals to look after her wounded. Marin was pressed into coming along, even though she detested the idea of "wasting" hours treating others' wounds. "But one needs to care for one's own troops, Priscilla! Especially since they have helped win this fight, not to mention those who died, or those who have lost friends, in the battle. As leaders, we must tend to their needs. That's the surest step toward building up a strong, loyal, and committed fighting force. That's one of the few things that distinguish us from those brutes that we've been fighting."
So Marin consented, and followed the general as she went to each hospital in turn, telling tales to the eager soldiers (who still found reason to delight and to bask in their glory), epic stories of the battles of the past in which righteousness had prevailed against indomitable odds and had succeeded through the very intervention of the Gods (Or so she said). The wounded soldiers were fascinated by her story-telling abilities, as well of all the tales that she knew; obviously, some of them she had never before told the soldiers.
Anita also helped prepare medications for her soldiers whenever possible, blessing them with whatever divine authority they supposed that she commanded within her. Marin admired how her alms seemed to be much more welcomed and cherished than those given by the local doctors--the loyalty of these soldiers for their general was hard to place in words. But they all trusted in her for a fact, and believed that, with the herbal remedies that Anita had made, they would not die from their battle wounds. "The men view you as a prophet of life," Marin remarked to her at one point, truly astonished by their reception. And at the end of each visit to a hospital room, the men would cheer for her.
Gradually, Marin felt bits of pity for the soldiers, and began to understand the pivotal role of Anita's care for her soldiers that had allowed them to win the day. She realized, also, that in order for her to possibly obtain the support she would need in order to become queen, she would also, like Anita, have to show care for her troops. She began to become willing to help Anita on certain tasks, and stopped herself from appearing to do so only grudgingly.
Chapter 17 Edit
"When it's all over, the only thing left to do is to enjoy life. For that was why it all had been done--to make life enjoyable."
---Oath of the Retired
One day had passed since the successful liberation of Pulti. The wounded were being nursed to health, and the dead, both friend and foe, were being buried in mass-graves out of the city. Marin was in Drindell's house, looking over the city through a window. There was a dead man on the street. Drindell was sitting behind her, in a red sofa, smoking Hewl.
He finally finished thinking, took the pipe from his mouth, and stated: "It seems to be a good idea." Hobenrûd darted up from the sofa, telling him that "But it's unnecessary. You saw how easy it was to defeat our enemies here. I thought it would be harder. We don't need help from Jyptia. Specially not now that we have your magic tricks."
"Fool! The army you defeated here was one of the most inexperienced of the king's army, the Inquisitors still have hundreds of well-trained soldiers and you were lucky the Sardinians retreated before the fight. And, besides, even the most powerful magic has its limits," said Drindell, before repositioning the pipe in his mouth.
Hobenrûd sat back down, with less enthusiasm. "So you can't help us?" he asked. Drindell stood, slowly, took the pipe again and laid it on the center table. "Yes, I can help. I can most surely help you reach Jyptia, since I've already been there, researching magical ingredients. I can most surely be of use in a fight, or to burn a building, since this is child's play, for anyone with any basic knowledge of the arcane. But you cannot expect me to aid you in a suicide mission against all odds," he paused for a second, to see if his speech had any effect.
"So patience, lads. The king will still be here when we return," he added, finished for the time. Anita sighed. "Then our best bet is going to East Gormenor. They'll surely have a ship to transp..."
Gilbert interrupted her, stating that "That's not a good idea. Transport ships are full of royal troops these days, and they may be looking for us already. Some of them escaped our attack, remember?"
"Can't you conjure a ship or something?" asked Hobenrûd, downhearted. Drindell rolled his eyes, and angrily said: "Of course I can conjure a ship you idiot. But then, I would need six leaves from Gartoja trees, of the northen forests, sap from rare red-leafed trees called Biokas and mud from the northwestern wastes. And I don't see any of these things here, now do I? How am I supposed to aid you?"
Marin stopped looking at the littered streets of Pulti and faced the others again. "Why don't we ask for a ride?" she said.
Yuri chuckled, telling her: "Didn't you hear? Soldiers in every transpo..." "Yes, I heard that, but they don't have soldiers in merchant ships, or even fishing ships, do they? If we find someone that the king pissed off somehow, and that shouldn't be so hard, he may be willing to take us across the sea."
Hobenrûd smiled, and stated: "You surprise me more each passing day, Priscilla...She's right. It'll be easy to find someone discontent with the king. And it'll be even easier to get into their ship and reach Sumdo. Then we enter Jyptia, just as easily. So...who's staying behind to take care of the troops?"
Gilbert was the first to answer. "Now that we have a decent mier...I suppose I won't be a burden if I accompany you. I know a little bit of Sumdo, since I was there for three years in the intercontinental wars. And I think I'm not entirely useless in a fight."
Ishamel stood up, before stating that "I'd prefer to stay. With some good, old Lukavian training, these troops might be useful for something one day." And Yuri nodded, before adding: "And he'll need my help. So I'm staying too."
Hobenrûd stood again and clapped his hands. "So, I suppose it's me, Priss, Anita, Gilbert and Drindell?" The four of them nodded. "East Gormenor is less than a day on mier from here, we should reach there by night."
They packed supplies, their weapons and magical ingredients for Drindell, and departed through the gates, cheered by the population of Pulti. After five hours of travel, spent nearly in complete silence, Marin was bored. "How do you stand travelling so much?" she asked Hobenrûd.
"Well, sometimes I converse," he answered. She told him she was tired of conversing. He groaned and told her: "Then look at the landscape." "Tree, tree, grass, rock, clouds, sky. Done," she said, bored.
He couldn't help but smile. "Well, since you are so demanding in your ways of passing time...when I was in the army we had marching songs."
"Oh no! Anything but the marching songs. Tell them not to Priscilla," Gilbert suggested. "It's not that bad. It helped me many times when I was low on morale. Here, I'll just sing the first part..."
Gilbert groaned. "Well, don't say I didn't warn you."
Hobenrûd cleared his throat and let one hand go from steering the mier. He started making flowing movements in the air, in the rhythm of the song.
"We are soldiers from Ruivoca!
The greatest kingdom there is!
The greatest that ever was!
The greatest that will be!
Our enemies run like chickens
Our friends hide behind us
And all the girls in our villages...
Well, they really like our visages!
We are soldiers from Ruivoca!
The greatest kingdom there is!
The greatest that ever was!
The greatest that will be!
And it goes on like this," he said, triumphantly.
"Right... And do you want me to blow you away with my fan again?" asked Anita, blushing at this indirect attack on Lukavia.
"Yeah, and I thought we were rebels against Ruivoca," added in Marin.
"Hey guys, but see this is what we sang a long time ago, now we don't sing that anymore." Hobenrûd replied, a bit upset. "Why don't you try making a song then?"
"Fine, I will," replied Anita:
"Have you ever thought,
Whether war is fun or not?
If your answer's not true,
Let me sing a thing or two:
War undoes society,
It's all weary and dreary,
And besides all the parry,
It's neither fair nor airy.
War is not what boys play,
It rends souls apart day by day,
War is not what boys say,
Pleasant as they think it may.
Decay is everywhere,
And not a puff of fresh air;
Staying outside none will dare,
And the soil untilled is bare.
War undoes society,
It's all weary and dreary,
And besides all the parry,
It's neither fair nor airy.
Your families bought and sold,
And to horrors yet untold,
Except for morbid ghouls,
Warfare is grief and woe.
Your land is in blood smears,
Your men in a vale of tears.
Recall your knights and fyrd,
Make the peace we hold so dear.
To this end you must do,
And I'll give myself to you;
If to this world you're true,
It repays support to you."