Taken aback by the black-clad figure approaching him from across the ruined chapel, Duke Jiri finally recognized him, crying “Who?… Why? …Velimir Milutin!”. Jiri was somewhat stunned, as he had not seen Velimir in very many years. Velimir was one of Duchess Franka’s cousins, and he had been a prominent and accomplished young officer in King Wastrelmir’s army that was vanquished by Viceroy Surov. Following that battle, he had been imprisoned and the Viceroy confiscated his baronial domain of Pivow in Wladruja. Finally ransomed by his family, he left Syldavia an exile, gaining service with the Duke of Zadar. That is no coincidence, Velimir surely knows some of these would-be rebels, thought Jiri. Velimir had finally returned having taken Holy Orders as an initiate of the monastic house of St. Stanislaus, one of several socially and politically-prominent men who had became initiates in recent years. And this is no coincidence either – these are the men who the Bordurians are trying to root out of the monasteries. Jiri’s initial surprise at seeing Velimir faded rapidly as he began to calculate the implications of meeting this particular man.
Jiri called out “Should I be surprised to see you of all people here, Lord Velimir? Or should I say “Brother Velimir” these days?”
“Brother” is more than enough dignity for the like of me, a humble and landless man, my Lord”, replied Velimir with the slightest of bows. “And as for surprise, perhaps you should not be, as I have been in pursuit of you for several days now. Forgive my imposition, my lord, it is imperative that I have an audience with you. I bear the greetings of the Abbot of St. Stanislaus’ in Travunje, and have a message from him to deliver to you”.
“You wait for me in a burned-out church merely to give me the good Abbot’s respects? You have something else to speak to me about, don’t you? What is your business?” replied Jiri.
“Yes, my lord, indeed I do. My business - and that of the Abbot - is the same that brings you here to Starisveta. It concerns this uprising and the Bordurians, and your own plans in all of this” said Velimir, suddenly wondering how to sweeten what he had to say.
“Well? Go on then”
“Well, my lord, it is this. The Abbot wishes to ask if you are marching to meet the rebel force”.
“I am in my rights to do so. By their presence and their acts, they have broken the peace of the Duchy. Why is this the concern of the Abbot?” replied Jiri coolly.
“My Lord’ began Velimir, fixing Jiri’s gaze with his own as he spoke and Jiri felt himself being sized up. “I am here in the name of the Abbot to offer you this advice. With all the respect due to your highness, you are embarked on a very dangerous course and the Abbot begs you to reconsider it. First of all, I believe that you are overmatched, my Lord. I have seen these men with my own eyes, there are over 3000 men waiting for you – you marched here with nearly 2000 men I believe”? Jiri flinched at this, the calculation was almost exactly his own count made that morning. We have just arrived at Starisveta, how did Velimir come to have such an accurate count?
“Your approach was well observed my lord, and not just by me. You have mustered a considerable force overnight and that is a credit to the strength of the Duchy, but these rebels are no simple rabble. The majority of them are Syldavians returning from exile, refugees and survivors of the sack of Zadar. There are many experienced warriors and are well armed, my Lord”.
“Hmph…. A lot of crossbowmen among them, I’ll wager” muttered Jiri.
Velimir continued, “Er, yes, there are. In any case, they are also quite homeless now. They have nowhere else to go and will surely sell their lives dearly. You could win a victory here, but it will take a masterstroke worthy of Muskar or Belisarius, as they have the advantage of numbers over you and the ground they defend favours them; they are well settled in on a hilltop with thick woods on the flanks. Loose this battle and you will lose Hum to the Bordurian Governor, who would be only too pleased to pick the over your Duchy’s carcass. Any victory is likely to be bloody and your force will be greatly weakened – and how will you resist the Bordurians then? Or the Venetians? We both know that a conflict with the Bordurians is inevitable. To fight these men here will be a disaster for all of us”.
“Yes, my lord, for you, Hum and for Syldavia. It will also aggrieve the Abbot as he sympathizes with the plight and the cause of these “rebels”. As such, the Abbot wishes you to take them under your protection”.
“He asks what?”
“I beg you to heed me, my lord. You cannot win by fighting here, regardless of the outcome on the field. You can only weaken the Duchy and aid the Bordurians to strengthen their hold on power. The only victory you can achieve is to not fight these men at all. Instead, you should parley with them and hear their case for yourself. They are no threat to you and they have no desire to attack Hum, they are here to overthrow the Bordurian yoke and to regain their lost lands and titles. With your protection, they become your allies and together you will be strong enough to gain the upper hand on the Bordurians”.
“Hmph – if I do so much as leave these men untouched, I make myself a wanted man immediately. It is quite a choice the good Abbot offers me”. replied Jiri.
Velimir answered in a stern voice “Better a man wanted by the Bordurians than one unwanted by his countrymen. You will alienate the Abbot if you attack these men, and the Bordurians will eventually brush you aside if you are weakened by a battle”. Seeing Jiri draw himself up in offended pride at this lecture, Velimir gave a slight rueful smile, saying “It is the days we live in, my Lord. However there is a moment of opportunity open to us, right NOW”. Velimir pounded a gloved fist into his palm to add emphasis. “The Bordurians are weak and distracted for the moment. There are revolts everywhere and they are spreading, not just here but in Klow and in Zympathia and in Travunia. The word has not yet spread here, but just six days ago, the Bordurians tried to break into the St. Stanislaus’ itself, under the Abbot’s nose, and sieze a number of the Brothers, myself among them. We were forewarned and we turned the tables on the Bordurians; we fought them off and the townspeople chased them back into the castle of Travunje. We have them trapped there, both the Governor of Travunia and the major Bordurian force in the province, and they are under siege. The fight against the Bordurians has already begun, my Lord, and the Abbot asks…begs you to join us. Will you bring your men to Travunia and bring the siege to an end?”
Pausing for breath and drawing a step closer to Jiri, Velimir continued determinedly “These men from Zara are a gift from God, with them you have the numbers to tip the balance, clear the Bordurians out of Hum and Travunia and from there…”.
“Velimir, Hum hasn't the treasury to pay all these men” interjected Jiri.
“They do not ask for pay my lord, they want only their lands and titles restored, and to be led to battle against the Bordurians. They only need a leader, my Lord, now in the field and later, to restore the old order”.
“It will be difficult restore what is dead and gone; Muskar’s family is no more, Prince Branislaw is but a rumour”.
“You, my lord, are the one who can lead us”.
“Me? Indeed?” Jiri’s head began to swim at with this unexpected proposition.
“My lord, my crux of the message from the Abbot is this, he will support you in leading the fight against the Bordurians and, with Syldavia reconquered, he will recognize you as King!
“King! What? You offer me the crown? Do you happen to have it in your saddle bag?”
“No, my lord, but I carry this token of the Abbot’s solemn pledge to support you in this war and to pronounce you King once you have won”. Velimir removed a glove and opened his hand to reveal a jewelled gold ring which he place din Jiri’s hand. “It is the Abbot’s ring, he swore upon it and upon the altar of St. Stanislaus to name you king. Syldavia needs a king, and who better than you? Yours is the most powerful and senior of the noble houses remaining from Muskar’s kingdom. And you are related to Muskar though marriage, if I understand correctly…”.
“Well, I’m not sure that will hold up – there was an illegitimate child by a concubine… many Syldavians could claim Muskar as ancestor by the same reckoning…” replied Jiri dismissively but his mind was elsewhere. The leader of a victorious army would in effect be King with or without the Abbot, but this promise would put the Almazouts on the throne officially, with Konstantin King after me, not just a warlord! And it would give me the means to keep Hum secure. Quite a solution – to save Hum, simply become King of Syldavia! Or guarantee the extinction of the family if you fail…”.
Having played all of his cards, Velimir watched Duke Jiri ruminate and then said “What do you say, my Lord? Will you parley with the Rebels?”.
Velimir’s question brought Jiri quickly back to attention. Looking Velimir square in the eye, he replied “Tell your friends to expect my army in battle line before their position this afternoon. I will parley with them there”. Jiri turned, looking for his son, who had withdrawn to the door to let his father speak in private. “Konstantin, my son, a solution presents itself to us. We have much to talk about, you and I. Right away!”
A few minutes later, Jiri saw the distant figure of Velimir speeding away to the west on his horse. Up the hill at the army’s camp, Ritter Pawel Vitros, ever watchful of where Jiri went, saw the dark-clad rider heading away as well.