Ignaz Surov, the viceroy of Borduria, was a warlike, wily and ambitious ruler who was constantly searching for ways to increase the size of his domain and to augment his power and independence. With his suzerains, the Bulgars, on his eastern borders, Surov was forced to look in other directions to independently increase the size of his domain. Syldavia was a natural first target for Surov and, having conquered that country, the troops and taxes Surov raised there enabled him to bolster his army and treasury to the point where he could dare to take on his larger neighbours. Surov began a series of campaigns against Borduria’s neighbours to the south and to the north A campaign against the Byzantine borderlands was a failure. The Empire was still too strong and well organized an adversary and the new Syldavian troops had little stomach for fighting against their former allies. The King of the Bulgars finally imposed a diplomatic “solution” on Surov along with a tidy price for his mediation. Chastened, Surov invaded the petty states to the north. Real gains were made at the outset of this campaign. However, the King of Hungary intervened to see that his client statelets did not meet the same fate as Syldavia. Surov’s ambitions were thus thwarted.
Within Syldavia, Surov attempted to assure the stability of his regime by putting in place a number of his own regional governors over the heads of the nobles. These governors had ultimate responsibility for tax collection, garrisons, policing, and judicial judgments. Many of these affairs had previously been in whole or in part the responsibility of the old noble class, so the Bordurian regime represents a phase of modernisation of the feudal order and of deliberate curbing of baronial power and autonomy. In order to limit the chance of revolt, Surov also stripped many of the old nobles of their positions and lands. Most of these came from the old dynasty’s power base in Travunia, Wladruja and Moltuja provinces. The nobles of more acquiescent regions and those who joined the plot against the previous Syldavian king were largely retained as a reward for compliance.
The Syldavian population in general began to chafe under Bordurian rule, reacting especially to the excessive levies of taxes and military drafts that came with it (the Bordurian war effort was largely financed by Syldavia), the number of good men lost in futile campaigns and the imposition of unfamiliar laws by foreigners. Quite naturally, the disenfranchised nobles and knights were particularly unhappy. Many of them had to accustom themselves to more modest lives as farmers. Those that couldn’t abide such honest work as farming found alternative careers as mercenaries in exile abroad or as merchants in Dbrnouk. Still others joined monasteries or formed dispersed bands of outlaws living in the wild places on the fringes of the kingdom.
With the passage of time expressions of popular dissent became more concrete. Isolated, small-scale rebellions occurred in response to local events, to which the Bordurian authorities responded with the inevitable round of burning, confiscation and executions. The survivors of the altercations hid themselves and eventually fell in with the outlaw bands headed by landless nobles or those of much less than noble temperament. Elements of the Church was subtly and covertly involved as well, as the monastic orders attached to the abbeys built under the Syldavian kings became nests of organised resistance. In particular, the monks of St. Vladimir’s in Klow opened a new abbey in an abandoned cloister in Travunje where they monks could live and work out of the sight of the Viceroy’s staff. Among the senior monks who set up the new abbey was the former royal biographer Brother Demetrios. After the fall of the old dynasty, Brother Demetrios had organised the surreptitious recovery of as many of the skeletal remains of King Muskar as possible; these had been dispersed by Bordurian soldiers as a gesture of desecration. As the new cloister was surely watched, Brother Demetrios re-interred the remains in an unmarked tomb in an obscure chapel in the hills of Travunia that was guarded by the monks. This anonymous shrine was kept a secret, waiting the day when it might help rally the Syldavian cause.
The new abbey was dedicated to St. Stanislaus, the Polish dissident martyr whose dismembered body reputedly re-assembled itself after he was slain at the behest of his tyrannical king. The metaphor was not lost on the monks or on the members of defunct noble houses who quietly drifted in to join the cloister. The real status of these men as true monks is to be open to question as the families of several seemed to have followed them to Travunje and to surrounding villages. As well, many of the new monks do not seem to have replicated the introverted and ascetic way life typical of their more professional brethren. The Abbey owned huge flocks of sheep far in excess of its own needs which they justified as a resource needed to alleviate the hardship of the poor of Travunia. Some of these new monks seem to have been employed as humble shepherds who, working in pairs, lead small flocks to graze far into the hills and highlands. They surely acted as spies and messengers while doing so. It is clear that the Syldavian abbeys had taken on an explicit political function at this time.
Borduria’s hold on power in Syldavia began to slip in 1202 with the arrival of the armies of the 4th Crusade. The Venetian Republic skilfully and cynically used the crusade as a vehicle to speed its own imperialist agenda in the Adriatic. The Venetians and the Crusader generals placed great pressure on the Bordurians to grant the unruly Crusader army free passage through the coastal territory of Syldavia and to pay tribute to the Venetians. The prior brutal sacking of the Dalmatian city of Zadar by the same forces convinced the Bordurians to capitulate. The tribute demanded by Venice was raised through additional and extremely unpopular taxation in Syldavia. The privation caused by these taxes was made worse by the depredations incurred by the not-so-holy-crusaders on helpless Syldavian towns and villages. Despite the fact that the tribute was duly paid, Venice nevertheless exploited its overwhelming force by seizing the prosperous port of Dbrnouk and annexing some surrounding territory (formerly the coastline of Travunia, henceforward termed Ragusia). The Crusader army finally marched on into Byzantium, whereupon the Venetians used it to attack and finally take Constantinople. The infamous pillage and wrecking of that city was a destabilizing shock to the entire region, it blackened Venice’s reputation and was a cause for profound enmity towards the Venetians for centuries afterwards. The malodorous Fourth Crusade thereafter dissolved in chaos without seeing its objectives in the Holy Land. Because of the circumstances of its arrival in Syldavia, it gained very few recruits there. The priests of Syldavia held services of thanksgiving at its departure followed by funereal masses when the news of the catastrophe of Constantinople arrived.
The loss of Dbrnouk and the unwelcome presence of the Crusaders and Venetians all fed the rebellious mood spreading amongst Syldavians. So did rumours of the impending return of the departed Prince Branislaw at the head of a delivering army. Branislaw had become a cult hero; there were in fact several purported Prince Branislaws or heirs thereof hiding out here and there in the forests and mountains and a multitude of small acts of rebellion were attributed to him. The political mood was rapidly coming to a breaking point, with the increasingly strained Bordurians attempting to suppress dissent with ever more force and the people themselves waiting for some new provocation to inspire action.
The awaited crisis came in 1204, when the Viceroy’s spies made clear to him the threat posed by the monasteries. He sent his soldiers into the all of the abbeys, St. Stanislaus’ included, to arrest ex-noble monks and to search for the relics of St. Vladimir, the missing dynastic symbols which he realised were symbols of legitimacy for any future Syldavian ruler. Forewarned by the first arrests in Klow, most of these monks escaped and sought refuge with the outlaw bands, which were often lead by their own cousins. This trespass inflamed the people and popular uprisings broke out in Hum and Travunia. The outlaw bands came out of hiding, disguised as Crusaders to better move in the open and to perplex the Bordurians, and began to marshal themselves near Douma. As well, a second uprising, in Zeta province, was lead by one of the pretenders to the name of Branislaw.
To be continued very soon in Chapter 4...