Dusty from a few days on the road, Duke Jiri and his party arrived at his hunting lodge and set about making themselves comfortable, well-fed and merry. The next day, the group set out in eager pursuit of an elusive stag who had shown himself near the lodge. Jiri hung back with his huntsman who, while scanning the woods and then, nocked an arrow and nodded into the trees, whispering “My lord, there is a stranger standing in the trees just over there”. Jiri followed the huntsman’s eyes, “Ah yes, so there he is, and right on time. It is safe, but keep your finger on your bowstring and your eyes open for anyone else, I must not be disturbed”.
As Duke Jiri walked forward, out from the trees stepped a man with a long sparse beard dressed in a weather-stained brown cloak. He lead a non-descript nag whose bridle he tied to a branch, then he bowed to Jiri saying in reedy voice “My lord”. “So, what news do you have to tell me?” said Jiri, closing his own cloak about him. Jiri disliked meeting spies but he found this man, one of his most useful agents, particularly creepy. The man stroked his stringy beard and replied “Lord, Bordurian soldiers are on the move everywhere. They have been moving infantry to Djordjevaro, many of them are coming straight from the garrison of Klow”. “Ah, I saw some of those soldiers on my way here” replied Jiri. “Yes my lord, but there are more on their way as we speak, they should arrive at Djordjevaro in three days or so. I have been as far east as Moltuja, a second force is marching to the guard the St. Mihailo pass to watch the road to Travunia. There are a lot of mercenary Bulgar cavalrymen with them, quite a nasty lot. They are moving extra horses and provisions to their garrisons, they look to be preparing for a war”. Jiri shifted uneasily on his feet War? Now? Who is there left to fight? They are the masters here now… Are they planning to take over the rest of my Duchy? Oh, come on now, Jiri, are you scared of your own shadow?
The spy continued “There is more, my Lord. The Bulgars have a launched a new campaign in Dekamonia and are moving troops to fight the Byzantines there. The Bordurians are obliged to provide troops immediately for their masters so their garrisons in Zympathia and Polishov have been stripped down and the levy has been called up. Those troops are already departed under the command of the Viceroy’s sons”. “I see… have you anything else?” asked Jiri. “Well, yes, my lord. Just five days ago the Viceroy sent troops into the monastery of St. Vladimir in Klow and arrested a handful of monks on charges of treason. They were new initiates, members of some old noble families, but they seem to have missed most of the people they were looking for. The monastery is closed and under guard and the Viceroy’s agents are now looking for others elsewhere. As well, there are a few curious things that I can’t explain, my lord. There is more traffic on the roads than normal, small groups of men, Syldavians by their accents. Some appear to be merchants though they haven’t much to sell, others look like landless labourers. Some are on on their way east, others are travelling to Wlaruja, others toward Douma. Also, I have twice stumbled upon different groups of Venetians. Quite obviously they are agents. They were sniffing around Wladruja and Djordejvaro, looking to talk to old veterans about those old stories about Prince Branilsaw”. “Indeed? Venetians? This was a very productive mission, you have well earned your reward” said Jiri, passing the man a pouch of coins. “Keep your eye on the goings on in Klow and report to me at Douma. It is probably best for you to avoid Djordjevaro if you can”.
It was indeed a rich report, the spy had far more to report than ever before. Jiri was having trouble to digest all of this news and he found himself worried to learn that so much was going on around him. The news that the King of the Bulgars had jumped into the Venetian’s war against the Byzantines, pulling the Bordurians in with them, was unexpected, although it was a clever plan in hindsight. No doubt there would soon be a widespread levy in Syldavia. There would surely be resistance to that. Perhaps the heavier garrison in Djordjevaro was simply a preparation against possible unrest… The crackdown on the monasteries would make sense as an attempt to forestall any organised rebellion. But it would surely bring resentments to a point. Jiri reflected on his recent surreptitious communications with the monks of St. Stanislaus’ in Tranvunje; those brothers were certainly working to mount a challenge to the Viceroy. Things in Syldavia are rapidly coming to a head now, and here I am at the far end of the Duchy, as far from Douma as I can be. Not very good timing on my part…
That evening, the hunting group feasted well on pheasants, smoked eels, wild boar and Syldavian wine. Full of fine food and drink, they made merry and were treated to an evening of song courtesy of the Chevalier Raymond de Canço, the French knight on pilgrimage who proved to be a troubadour, one of the first to have passed through Syldavia. The companions were at turns amused and entranced by the songs of courtly love and the deeds of knights. Duke Jiri spent the evening distracted and worried mood however, pondering his spy’s news and how Borduria’s activities figured to affect his duchy. Jiri finally turned to his lieutenant and murmured “Stépan, we won’t be staying here long. Trouble is breaking out everywhere. The Bordurians are going to war with the Bulgars and now they have started rounding up the monks of St. Vladimir's. “Hah!” chortled Stépan. “They might as well have taken a stick to a hive of wasps!” “Yes, that is exactly what I expect they have done” replied Jiri with a grim chuckle. "However, they are sending troops to Djordjevaro and Moltuja as well. They are moving to control the major roads to and from the highlands. I believe they are preparing for a rebellion in the lowlands. Things were calm enough at home when we left but we need to be back before news of this trouble spreads. The Bordurians will surely demand that I be their policeman once again, but with a strong force already in Djordjevaro, that pig of a governor might take the chance to move in on his own. And that might as well be the end of the Almazouts, Dukes of Hum”, said Jiri, spreading his hands on the table, feeling more than a little anxious.
“My lord, the governor knows that you are here and that he is between you and Douma…!” replied Stépan.
Jiri took a quick and deep draught of wine and stood up, bringing the party to attention with a rap on the table. “My companions, eat your fill this evening but ready yourselves to leave at the break of dawn. Trouble has come to Hum and we must return home at once”. We…” Jiri was cut off in mid-sentence as the hall’s door suddenly burst open and an exhausted, travel-stained man rushed in, a cringing house servant in tow. “My Lord Duke!”, he shouted in a cracking voice. Nearly all the stunned group in the hall reached for their swords and then breathed with relief when, as the man stepped fully into the light of the hall, they saw that that he wore the Duke’s livery.
The man took a breath and started again “My lord Duke, I have come with a message from the Castellan at Douma. He begs you to return immediately. There is an uprising in Hum! Armed men are coming out of the mountains and off the farms, they are massing in the hills west of Douma!" A grim scowl froze on Jiri’s face as dread gave way to alarm in his mind.