King Stépan IV's pleasure dome at Kragoneidin, on the shores of Lake Polishov

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Duke Jiri's long road to Douma, as imagined by Prof. Halembique

Just after dawn, Duke Jiri arose with his retinue and descended the mountain.  At the edge of the trail, they met Dragan the huntsman waiting with three of the mounted crossbowmen and two horses with empty saddles, one of which limped from a wound in its flank.  “Welcome Dragan, you succeeded with the Bulgars then?” asked Jiri.  “Yes, we did my lord. There were only two of them in the end.  They were a very dangerous pair but we managed to catch both. We had a little luck with the low sun and their carelessness.  Piotr was very unlucky, however.  We buried him in the woods back near the bridge” replied Dragan. 

“Ah, no!   That was a brave risk you all took on our behalf, my thanks to you” said Jiri, with regret.  After a long pause Dragan continued “We buried the Bulgars in the woods as well and hid the carcass of one of their horses as best we could in the dark.  We saved the Bulgars’ clothes and caps as we thought that they might come in handy should we be spotted by another patrol”.  “Good thinking, though we will have to be careful not to be caught with them” said Jiri.  Dragan, will you and one of the soldiers scout ahead on the trail and wear the robes over your clothes?  Dragan donned the robe, muttering “This is bound to be bad luck”.

The group continued on their way towards Douma, winding along at a fast pace through the hills with the disguised scouts well ahead.  In the mid-morning, their track encountered a noisy little brook and snaked through its steep-walled and forested ravine.  Jiri trotted up to join the lead riders to discuss the route ahead.  He was mounted on his splendid black steed, which he had rested as much as possible the day before.  Stépan spurred on his horse as well to catch up to the leaders but not before they made a sharp turn and disappeared into the trees.

As Jiri and Dragan talked, the trail made a second sharp turn and then the woods suddenly opened up, revealing a broad open gulch with the brook and the trail running along its edge.  Jiri and the two other lead riders were stunned to suddenly see men, numbers of men, two dozen or more, there in the clearing before them.  The men were just as surprised to see horsemen suddenly appear in their midst.  Some were standing alongside the track, others were lolling about, one group was tending a small number of tethered horses, two others were unloading a cart, still others were setting up a cauldron on a tripod over a fire. 

The first to react was a man standing on the trackside who fixed his eyes on the lead riders and cried out “Bulgars!  BULGARS!!!” then unslung a crossbow and feverishly began to lever back its bowstring.  Jiri’s attention was drawn by the sight of the weapon and then spotted other men bringing out weapons after the cry of alarm.  “St. Vladimir! – Men! – Armed Men! – We have stumbled onto the rebels!  Knights, to me!”  Jiri reached for his sword as Stépan came out of the trees, alarmed by the cries.  The “Bulgars” beside Jiri drew their own swords.  Stépan began to take in the unexpected and confusing scene before him.

The crossbowman finished cocking his weapon and began to load a bolt while he snarled and shouted at Dragan.  A great ginger-haired man with a bill hook stepped up beside the crossbowman, he too was intent on Dragan and then he looked over at Duke Jiri.  As he did so his expression changed from anger to recognition and then confusion as he looked questioningly from Jiri to the “Bulgars” and back again.  As the crossbowman raised his weapon, the ginger-haired man reached over and pushed it down, speaking to his companion as he did so.  Both then concentrated on Jiri and looked anxiously towards him while backing up a few steps.  Dragan was frozen, certain that he would meet the same end as the man whose robe he was now wearing had met, ironically by Dragan’s own hand just the day before.  Fickle Fate!

Jiri at this point had his sword aloft and was turning in his saddle, crying again “TO ME!!” trying to speed his squad of young knights out of the woods.  Expecting a crossbow bolt at any moment, he made his great horse lunge forward and then he reared it back, up on its hind legs.  The horse, shrieking and frothing, kicked at the air towards the crossbowman.  The man paled in terror and dropped to the ground cowering.  

Stépan saw the strange exchange of looks between the rebels, the “Bulgars” and Dragan and Jiri.  In an instant of insight he understood that the ginger-haired man had backed off once he recognized Jiri and was now waiting for the Duke to act.  Then, hearing the hooves of the knights finally arriving behind him and noticing a squad of crossbowmen preparing their weapons across the clearing (“Its is the Duke!” someone cried), Stépan reached out to hold back Jiri’s sword arm, saying “My lord, don’t stop to fight, it is better to ride on through them.  Get out of here”.  Jiri glared back at him, furious to be restrained in the heat of the moment, only to see Stépan’s cool and intent eyes looking back at him.  “Kinsman, listen to me, everything hangs on this moment, do not stop to fight here.  They have missiles. We are outnumbered and unarmoured.  We shall be killed if we stay here.  Ride on through NOW!” urged Stépan.  Jiri looked about quickly, surveying the chaotic situation around him.  The ginger haired billman was desperately waiting and bracing himself in a defensive position.  The crossbowmen across the clearing were now formed up and were loading their weapons while their chief looked warily back at him. 

Jiri reined back his horse and it reared up  again while the Duke bellowed “Knights – drive on through, scatter them, do not stop!”  He then spurred his horse and sprang straight towards the crossbowman.  The man bolted for his life, dropping his crossbow on the ground as he scuttled away.  The ginger haired man backed off quickly, he grimly eyed the horse as he kept his billhook pointed vertically to gain some space for himself.  The squad of knights, already at a run, caused a stampede among the footmen who expected more horsemen to arrive at any moment.  Their flight cleared a wide path in front of the knights.  Stépan shouted at Dragan to run after the knights.  He then spurred his own horse into action, riding with his sword hand held up open in the air, looking squarely at the apparent leader of the group as he passed.  In a few moments, Jiri and his retinue had passed through the clearing and were galloping down the forest track again.  The whole standoff had taken but a handful of seconds.  Stépan, last in the line, slackened his pace and looked warily back behind him, no pursuit was given.

After a couple of minutes, Jiri halted and called for his retinue to reform about him.  Seeing that all were accounted for, Jiri looked to the disguised “”Bulgars” and said with a grim chuckle “Perhaps the disguises weren’t such a wise idea!  It would be best to throw those clothes away now.  We are approaching home territory anyway”.  Dragan, still trembling, sighed deeply  “A thousand thanks to you my lord.  You and your horse saved my life back there, that man with the crossbow was aiming straight at me.  He had no love for Bulgars, judging by the look on his face!”. 

“That was a close shave, eh Stépan?” said Jiri, ruefully shaking his head and re-sheathing his sword.  “I hate to leave those ruffians free on the road, but they will be ready for us now, we’ll be shot from our saddles if we go back and it is essential that we reach Douma.  We will continue on our way and alert the first watch post we see that these men are on the trail”  “Aye, lord, we are lucky that they were just as surprised as we were!  And that you put the fear of God into that poor fellow with your horse!” replied Stépan.   Dragan, beginning to recover himself now, merely whistled from between his crooked teeth. 

The group resumed their route, now at a brisk trot.  Jiri turned to Stépan and spoke quietly “We were indeed lucky there, we are fortunate that it was not a planned ambush”.  Stépan replied saying:  “Forgive my presumption back there, my Lord, I saw that there was still a chance to get out of there with everyone alive, but there was no time to explain”.  “Hmph.  Well, you were right in any case, Stépan, it was a wise choice to ride through.  It would have been a bad mistake to get caught in a meaningless skirmish there and it probably would have ended badly for us as you say.  But one thing, kinsman, what did you mean by “everything hangs on this moment”?  “Er… I spoke in haste, my Lord.  I merely meant that we, you in fact, are not yet at war with the rebels.  To have attacked them there would probably have committed you to a course of action.  Especially if some noble blood was spilled by them… some of the young knights, or you yourself even, St. Vladimir save us! By leaving without challenging them, you might still be able to claim that you and they are not enemies. Maybe even on the same side”. 

“Oh well… ally myself with rebels? …a dubious prospect!  You surprise me, Stépan, that is a quite lawyerly explanation for a soldier… and a fight with them is certainly likely” said Jiri.   “Well, if you ask for my opinion, lord, we would have been cut down had we fought, but we weren’t necessarily in mortal danger at the beginning.  That man with the crossbow, the one who started things off?  He thought that Dragan was a Bulgar and that we were Bordurians.  He was a rebel all right, and he was looking to kill an enemy.  But that other fellow stopped once he  recognized you.  He had no desire at all to attack you and waited for you to show what you would do.  There was also some sort of captain with that group of crossbowmen, he recognized you as well and held off firing on you.  They weren’t in any hurry to do harm to you, just our “Bulgar” friends.  I don’t think that these rebels are your enemies at all.  Not unless you make them so”. 

Jiri reflected on what Stépan said, and finally spoke.  “A curious thing, I didn’t get as good a look at those men as you did but I have the impression that there were a number of seasoned soldiers amongst them.  That wasn’t just a rabble coming straight off the farm.  And, there are precious few farms around here in any case.  These “rebels” are coming from elsewhere, outside Syldavia maybe”.  Stépan replied “That makes sense, my lord.  A few were wearing traces of what looked like a livery, red and white”.  “Red and white – that is the livery of Hum! And of lots of other places” said Jiri.  “Yes my lord… it is the livery of the Duke of Zadar as well.  Many Syldavians and some of the old exiled nobility went into his service after the conquest...” said Stépan only to be cut off suddenly by Jiri, who said : “...and now that the Venetians and those so-called crusaders have sacked Zara and the Duke of Zara is dead, these exiled Syldavians are now cast to the winds once again.  Like that fellow we met on the road a few days ago, what was his name… Gregor Mihailovic, that was it”. 

Jiri and Stépan looked at each other as they rode, both arriving at the same conclusions.  Jiri spoke “Well, Stépan, I think that we begin to understand what might really be going on with this uprising.  These rebels are experienced and desperate soldiers, and Syldavian as well.  This is going to be a tough nut to crack...”   “Tough indeed, my lord.  The Bordurians probably have no idea how tough”  replied Stépan, with a hint of a sly smile as some hope began to grow inside him. 

That evening the group spent the night at the estate of a trusted nobleman, discussing news of the uprising and of the presence of a new Bordurian force marching south from Djordjevaro.  They rose before dawn and rode through Hum’s agricultural heartland, saluted enthusiastically by the people they passed.  By late morning, Jiri was relieved to finally see the walls of Douma before him and the sparkling blue of the sea beyond.  

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Professor Halembique’s dream pt 4

Following the directions given by Dragan, the huntsman, Duke Jiri lead his troop of knights down the track and up the mountainside to the shepherd's hut, arriving as the evening light began to truly fade.  With a torch hastily light, a quick inspection showed the place to be a very cozy and well-built stone hut with one simple room and a stone-paved floor.  It was a rather elaborate affair for a simple shepherd and it was apparently in regular use. With only the barest of gruff orders from Stépan, the young knights were soon putting their hands to good if inexpert use, unaccustomed to menial work as they were.  Horse were unsaddled and brushed down, the hut was swept out, a fire set in the hearth, and a saddle blanket covered the hut’s small window in order to shut out the chill air and prevent the light of the fire from showing their presence.  Soon the group were resting in the very crowed room and nibbling on their modest rations. 

Jiri stepped outside to take the first watch and to collect his thoughts after their long day.  Although he was tired, he nevertheless felt invigorated by the day’s success.  He looked down the slope beyond the hut and saw the dark valley below disappearing into fog, barely illuminated by a half moon.  No lights shone there.  Where are Dragan and the soldiers now?  It is dark now to be trying to follow the track, they must have made camp somewhere down there, if all went well…

Walking to the other side of the hut, Jiri saw that it backed into a gully with a grassy meadow and a pond.  The tired horses nibbled the good grass beside the pond.  Moonlight shimmered on the pond’s surface, the quiet broken only by the murmuring of the knights in the hut, complaining of their saddle-sore bottoms and the bracing night air, and by ducks alighting and carousing in the pond.   

Jiri's reflection was interrupted by the sound of footsteps. "Ah, it is you Stépan.  My compliments, your group of young knights seem disciplined and well trained.  They rode very hard and kept the pace all day".  "Thank you my lord, but I fear that they are still as green as can be.  There is much work to do before they can stand against the enemy".  

“I have no fear that they will soon be a credit to their families and to you as well.  But be careful Stépan, now is not the time to speak so openly of enemies. We have none, at least offically.  We walk along a knife’s edge these days, but it has always been like that, more or less, since the Bordurians arrived.  It won’t help to turn these lads into hotheads." 

Somewhat abashed, Stépan replied "I understand my lord.  Um… but if I may, what do you plan to do once we get back to Douma?  Do you really plan to march on these rebels? 

“Hmm, that has been the question for the Almazouts since the days of my grandfather and the answer is still the same, we wait and see, Stépan.  We don’t yet know who these rebels are or what they want.  I am in no hurry to make war on our own countrymen, but there is more here than meets the eye.  This uprising didn’t break out simply because of the arrests in the monastery, it was already in the works.  The Viceroy or that beast in Djordjevaro will insist that the revolt must be put down immediately so it is a direct challenge to me one way or the other.  I cannot let it fester.  If it comes to that, it is better that we crush the rebels than see a Bordurian army come”.

Stépan murmured assent, but was clearly uneasy. “Do you think that the Bordurians are strong enough to send such an army now, with all that is going on”?  he asked. 

“They still have more men under arms in Hum than I do, and they could bring reinforcements”.  Looking sidelong at Stépan, Jiri continued “We haven’t the numbers to take them on, and certainly not them and the rebels as well.  At least, by putting down the revolt, we would permit the Bordurians to turn their attentions elsewhere.  While they spend their strength we can gain time and a little bit of freedom.  You are troubled, Stépan.  I know this isn’t much but this is how we have survived since the invasion”.

Stépan hesitated as he tried to choose his words carefully.  “Yes, I understand, my lord.  It is like we are gutter dogs, used to being beaten.  We have learned to grab scraps when we can and how to dodge blows before they fall…”

Hah!  But we are noble mongrels nonetheless kinsman!  Jiri laughed, a little bitterly, clapping Stépan on the back. 
Stépan continued  “Forgive me my lord, but we are sulking about in our our lands and now we are laying ambushes for our overlords’ agents just so we can return to our homes.  Uprising or not, aren’t we already at war?  It has imposed itself on us.”  

The two fell into silence and watched the ducks squabble in the pond for the rest of the watch.  After finishing his turn, Jiri returned to the hut to find a space let open for him in front of the hearth.  Lying down, Jiri continued to ruminate.   We have escaped detection so far, it is still possible to arrive early in Douma and take control of the situation before the Governor does.  Everything hinges on that and then, once the uprising is taken care of, we can gauge the strength of the Bordurians...  Finally beginning to drifting off, Jiri thought about Stépan’s pointed words and about quickly his entourage had begun to speak openly of the Bordurians as enemies.  Their secretive flight that day had hardened the attitudes of everyone, down to Dragan, the loyal huntsman.  Stépan was right, for all intents and purposes, they were already at war, but how to win was another story. 

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Prof. Halembique’s second dream pt 3

A revolt in Hum? Jiri’s head was frozen in confusion at the news. How? There had been no clue that this was in the wind, things had been calm just a few days ago. While Jiri struggled to collect his thoughts, the messenger, a cavalryman based in Douma, continued: “…and as well, my lord, Bordurian soldiers forced their way into the monastery of St. Narcissus and arrested several monks. The rebellion broke out almost right away. Lord Drogo, the castellan at Douma, sent me as soon as our scouts could confirm what was going on”.

Jiri began to regain his composure as the messenger spoke. He finally placed the young man as intelligent soldier by the name of Matija, the son of a respectable burger family. That the Bordurians are arresting monks would surely be enough of a provocation for an uprising. Trouble is going to break out everywhere if these arrests are widespread. The cloister of St. Narcissus is in Starisveta, that is about five leagues or so northwest from Douma, near the coast.  It wouldn't take long for news to get that far. “So, Matija, the rebellion broke out once news of the arrests reached Douma? “Er, my lord, the trouble seems to be further to the west, near the border. Our scouts reported that the rabble seized a frontier post and a tax-collector’s storehouse and that men were gathering a day’s march west of Starisveta. Starisveta was teetering on the edge of an uprising when I left and the mood in Douma was very poor but the town was under control” replied Matija.

“This uprising broke out right after the Bordurian insult in Starisveta, but not in the town itself…?” asked Jiri. That makes no sense. If it was simply the arrests themselves that set this off, the uprising wouldn’t be at the frontier but in the town. It seems as if these rebels were already planning to act when the Bordurians brought things to a head.

“How long have you been on the road? Jiri queried. “Two days, my lord. I rode hard and would have arrived earlier but Lord Drogo ordered me to avoid Bordurian patrols and to go around Djordjevaro as well. I had to find a place to swim across the river. Then, I had to stay out of sight of some Bulgar scouts on the road north of Djordjevaro. I think they were following me here”. Matija, now clearly exhausted, relaxed a little and began to look at the remains of the hunters’ feast with glassy eyes.

Jiri steered the messenger to a bench in front of the roast boar and put a wineglass in his hand. “You did well to get this news to me, Matija. You have my thanks. Eat your fill then rest”. Then, he turned to speak to the hunting party, still standing attentively and uneasily in front of their tables. “My friends, our time is short indeed,  We cannot afford to be trapped here, far from Douma. Prepare yourselves to leave. Arrange your saddlery and your weapons and then get some sleep while you can. We will rise and depart before dawn ”. Suddenly left nearly alone, the Italian cook looked disconsolately at the the floor. His pièce de resistance, a spectacular pheasant tart with live birds under the crust, was a cold ruin. The birds had long since nibbled their way out of the crust and were sporting amongst the rafters of the emptying hall. Soon only Matija remained, tucking greedily into a plate piled high.

Jiri napped fretfully that night, thinking about the day to come. He arose two hours before dawn to find many of his men already awake and saddling their horses. Soon all the men were up. Jiri assembled them in the hall to give them their orders. “We are probably under watch by those Bulgars that Matija saw yesterday. So, we will head west through the forest and try to gain some time that way. It is still too dark in the forest for the horses so we will lead them on foot until there is a hint of light in the sky. I’ll travel to Douma with Stépan and a small group of other horsemen so that we can better hide from sight. Muzzle the dogs to keep them quiet, they will come with us for the first few miles. Then you, Joris, you will take the dogs and the men at arms north towards the mountain. Make sure the dogs make a lot of noise up there. I will continue west up the valley, then turn south and go wide around Djordjevaro. The accursed Governor is waiting for us there, so let us avoid him”.

Jiri paused and then continued “The men at arms and members of the household will have to stay here for now and keep up the semblance of a hunt. I will need a volunteer to command them”.

An awkward silence answered Jiri. The Chevalier de Canço stepped forward. He was a short and solid man but who was full of energy and easy motion. The younger knights of Hum looked stiff and straight as boards standing next to him. “You have been a noble host to me, lord. May I offer to repay your kindness by volunteering to stay with your men?”.

Jiri was surprised by the offer “You are very generous, Chevalier, but this is not really your responsibility, I would regret to see you become entangled in Syldavia’s problems”.

The Chevalier replied “If I may be so bold, my lord, I have a little experience of command and with being an emissary. Your young knights include some of your own kinsmen and the sons of Hum’s grand families. They are all liable to be held as captives if taken by the Governor, for ransom or to gain an advantage over you. I am but a pilgrim passing through Syldavia and am of no account here. My voyage to Antioch was required of me by the Archbishop of Toulouse, a Cardinal. It would create a diplomatic incident to detain me, even in Orthodox lands”. Raymond de Canço recalled quickly the events that lead him to this enforced pilgrimage: a couple of ill-judged sarcastic poems written about a powerful man back in Toulouse, the death of a patron, the emnity of the Archbishop and his own precipitous fall from grace. Oh well, c’est la vie. At least I missed that ill-conceived crusade the Archbishop threatened to send me on. And, here I am, in the middle of interesting times here in Syldavia. Things could be worse!

“We are fortunate to have your among us, Chevalier. I accept you proposition. I ask you only to remain here three days, you may then return to Douma when you see fit. From there you may continue your voyage. My men at arms shall be your bodyguards en route, though I will take some crossbowmen with me, the four men with the fastest horses. They should change out of their livery and find some common clothes before we go.

The huntsman spoke up “My lord, my family hails from the hills southwest of Djordjevaro. I know tracks through the hills that can lead you back to the main road south of Rivajow, places where none but shepherds pass”.

“Excellent, that is perfect. We’ll need to keep our eyes open for these groups of rebels as well!” replied Jiri, then turning to address the cook, he said “Leave the table set and keep a fire in grate and meat on the spit, as if we are coming back”. The cook merely rolled his eyes. “Now, let us start out”.

Setting out, the group found that their departure was covered by a thick fog as well as the dark. Later, a couple of miles into the forest, Jiri turned to his party saying "This is where we part. My lord  de Canço, Joris, take your men and the dogs up the mountain, you can now remove the dogs’ muzzles. Stay out all day, return to the lodge with the setting sun. Farewell and good luck to you!”

“Good luck to you on your voyage, my lord. We hope to be back with you soon”.
Joris, the veteran sergeant of the men at arms, stuck his spear on the ground and exclaimed quietly “Hurrah, the Duke!” The men at arms, spontaneously joined in “Long live Duke Jiri!

Back on his hunting horse and moving quickly along the forest trail in early morning gloom with his big black horse trailing behind him, Duke Jiri felt his confidence rising. They were still well hidden by the fog and the gloom and the heavy air stifled even the baying of the hounds, who were falling fast behind them. Even without the light, Jiri knew this terrain well, having wandered it since he was a youth. Pressing on westwards into the valley, he followed a deer path above the banks of the Vepur Kavak stream, whose course ran through a shallow canyon. Jiri suddenly struck off the path and wound down the steep ravine to a ford over the stream. Without hesitating, he spurred his horse into and across the stream. The others hastened to keep pace with him, several less agile riders found themselves quite thoroughly doused.

The group picked up another trail leading into the hills west of Djordjevaro and continued on their way. The huntsman now took the lead, scanning constantly the trail ahead and the hilltops around them. They pounded on long into the day, through forests and bare hills and past shepherds tending their flocks, finally arriving at a large and prosperous farm, the estate of a retired knight and gentleman farmer. Here, Jiri and his entourage took refreshments from the solicitous landowner and requisitioned extra horses. They returned to the trail until the sun began to drop, silhouetting the hill-tops. The huntsman slowed up to draw beside Duke Jiri. “My lord, don’t look now but we are being followed by two horsemen, they are on the ridge to the west and are matching our pace.  They are over-bold, my lord, to have let the sun reveal them so". The huntsman's voice contained a hint of scorn for the horsemen's sloppy pursuit.

“We won’t be able to catch them here in the open, they will just run away if we turn. We will have to try to lose them in the night” said Jiri.

“Aye, lord. That ridge they are on will end in a cliff in a mile or two. We will have to cross a small bridge beneath the cliff and they will have to come down and cross there as well. We’ll be back in the cover of the forest by then. Let me take the crossbowmen and lay in wait for them while the rest of you go on, we can at least force them to walk”.

“All right. Be sharp though. They cannot escape to give a report. Understood?” said Jiri.

“Understood, my lord!” said the huntsman. A grim and crooked grimace cracked his face, which was whiskered and weathered nut-brown by a life spent outdoors. He dreaded a confrontation with soldiers but was clearly excited by the pursuit and the day’s urgency. “Look ahead, my lord. You see that big hill-top a few miles ahead, the one with two rounded peaks and a gully in the middle? Yes? Well, it will be getting dark by the time you arrive in front of it. A little brook flows down from that gully, this track goes right through it. Follow the brook up the hill-side and you will find a little stone hut where you can pass the night in shelter. It will be safer than sleeping by the side of the trail, you'll be able see anyone coming from afar and you can always sneak out the other side of the gully if need be”. We will meet you on the road again in the morning but if all goes awry, follow this track to a river, less than an hour south of the hut. Ford the river and continue south into the lowlands, you will soon find yourself amidst the farmland north of Douma. I’d stay away from the main road as long as possible”.

The two rode on silently with the rest of the troop in a file behind until they crossed the little wooden bridge and were once again enclosed by the shade of the forest. Once well into the wood, the group came to a halt. The huntsman and the crossbowmen dismounted and disappeared into the woods where they tethered their horses in a thicket and then circled back toward the bridge. Dressed in neutral brown, they soon disappeared from view as they took up hiding places near the bridge. Jiri and the rest of his depleted band spurred their horses once again and clattered off down the trail.

The two pursuing horsemen trotted along the ridge top, stopping once they could see the cliff edge. They then turned back in search of a safe route down the slope. Barely two minutes later they arrived at the bridge, one venturing ahead, the other hanging back. Both looked cautiously at the bridge and into the woods beyond, acting for all the world like wolves. They wore loose-fitting belted robes, each with a cap tipped with a feather and carried recurved bows in their hands as they rode. The trailing rider gestured upriver, making a swimming motion with his arms. The lead rider peered into the stream, which seemed deep and fast and the very irregular bedrock slabs of its shoreline suggested that its bottom might be dangerous for a horse’s legs. He looked down the trail into the shaded woods once again and then back to the trailing rider, gesturing to the descending sun which was left unobscured by gaps between the hills and which was now very much in their eyes. The hind rider gestured once again upstream but the lead shook his head and approached the bridge. The hind rider cursed audibly and then approached the bridge as well, watching as the first crossed and then stepping up to cross it  himself.

The sun still in his eyes until the last moment, the first rider disappeared into the shadows cast by the trees and found himself momentarily more or less blind, but he let his horse walk on nonetheless. The second rider had already crossed by this time but he hesitated at the edge of the forest’s shadow to watch his partner ride ahead. At that moment, the lead horse suddenly shrieked and reared back, then fell heavily, throwing his rider. The horse rolled onto its back and convulsed, showing the end of a bolt buried deep in its chest, just beside its heart.  In an instant it went still. The rider too lay still, his head cocked at an unnatural angle as he lay face down in the trail. A second bolt ripped through the air before the nose of the rear horse, passing where the horse would have been had the rider not stopped. The rider stared for just an instant into the dark woods and with a quick and fluid  motion loosed an arrow into the trees. A crossbowman collapsed, gasping and surprised, with an arrow in his chest. Then, cursing again, the rider reigned his horse back savagely, turned on the spot and sprang for the bridge. A crossbowman fired but his bolt but missed as the horse turned with such rapidity. A forth bolt embedded itself in a tree as the last crossbowman, ham-handed, fumbled his weapon at the last moment. Out from the bushes at the track edge jumped the huntsman who nocked an arrow and drew back his bow. Although the rider had dropped down to hang hidden by the side of his horse, both the horse and the huntsman were in the middle of the track, which ran in a straight line. For the huntsman, a very experienced man with a bow, it was not a difficult shot. The huntsman aimed and loosed the arrow, hitting the horse in the flank. The horse reared and turned, forcing the rider to sit up in the saddle to regain control of his mount. The huntsman  knocked and loosed a second arrow, this one hitting the rider in the waist as the horse arrived at the bridge.  The rider twisted, then slumped and finally slid from his saddle and into the stream. The huntsman grimaced once again, shook and looked down at his hands, which trembled madly as they never did while hunting game.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Prof. Halembique’s second dream pt 2

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.  

Friday, March 12, 2010

Project progress and a small change in direction...

...Or is it two directions at once?

When I started my Syldavia project, I hadn’t paid much attention to my world of little lead men for quite some time.  Back in the day, when I lived close to an active gaming group, I had been quite active in Napoleonic wargaming and I built up some substantial armies in 15mm, along with the trimmings (terrain, including a number of scratch-built buildings).  I packed all that great weight with me during a few moves and I remain happy that I did so as I liked peeking at them and putting them through drills from time to time, even if I didn’t get around to playing much.  Solo wargaming is prone to periods of drought, at least in my case.  After my long-slumbering urge to paint and play returned again, I looked for something new to try out.  This turned out to be the SYW and my own Imagi-Nation project, having been inspired by stumbling onto EvE and a few related websites.  I can clearly recall the very fun hour during which I surfed onto both Der Alte’s Fritz’s site AND Phil Olley’s Warchest - wow!  I thought I was dreaming!

I searched around for figures I liked and ended up with some 18mm Eureka figures and samples of 28mm RSM 95 figures.  I choose the Eureka figures in the end because I had already painted a lot of figures in that scale and I liked the « massed » look of having several bigger battalions in that scale, easier to achieve in 15/18mm than in 25/28mm, at least in terms of simple numbers of castings.  I also had that inventory of terrain pieces that were perfectly appropriate for the SYW, and I liked the idea of limiting cost, storage and playing space.  I have made some inroads into the Syldavian lead mountain with my own (slow) work and with some hirelings.  Just below is a picture of some of these figures, you can see some others here.  

IR 5 Dbrnouk and IR 3 Istow Musketeers, Eureka 18mm

I like the Eureka figures for the completeness and diversity of their line and the balanced animation of the sculpting,  The very positive interactions I had with Nic Robson helps quite a bit as well.  I wish these figures existed when I my interest in my Napoleonics first started to wane.  Some are a bit on the chunky side of ideal for my taste but the poses are generally sober and appropriate for the square-rigged SYW.   My little lead sergeant majors are fond of giving a bit of the cane to overly excited prancing recruits : “You there – dress ranks! Were you painted just yesterday? Look smart and act like you have been in front of the enemy before!”  I am pleased by how my first Syldavian battalions have turned out.  I have even ventured into trying some modest conversions, something I really don’t like doing in 18mm normally. 

While I have certainly painted my share of 15mm figures and used to turn them out quickly and painlessly, I have to admit that I find it more difficult now.  I suspect that the problem is that I haven’t been painting nearly enough to really get my chops back, nor am I likely to get the chance to put many consecutive hours in for some time yet.  No doubt vision has something to do with it as well (as much as one would like to deny the effects of time…).  In any case, painting the 18s is a tougher job now than I remember it being in the past.  I have been feeling somewhat daunted in fact.  So, out of curiosity, I decided to paint one of the RSM 95 sample figures this week.  It was their marching Austrian fusilier, which is a casting that many of you must know very well.  Here is the fellow, finished and dressed in the uniform of IR 2 Klow Musketeers. 

Musketeer IR 2 Klow Musketeers  RSM95

It is the first 25/28mm figure I have painted in a very long time.  There are a number of things to improve in this trial (notably, simplifying to reduce painting time and black lining) but I have to say that I really had fun painting it and it seemed easier work than my recent 18’s.  The RSM95s really do paint up nicely and I admire their sculpting.  In fact, I liked the result so much that I promptly ordered some more RSM 95s and some Minden figures as well.  I am looking forward to seeing all of them painted up and on parade. 
A view of IR 2 Klow that the Bordurians shall surely never see!

So, where does this experiment leave my project plans?  I think my plans just become more complicated!  I am certainly going to keep on with my 18mm army, I’ll use them for larger battles, Syldavia-Borduria and for that other SYW.  I ordered enough RSM95 and Minden figures to build a small army on the lines of that sketched out in Charge!, so I think that this second project will be my chance to give the Old School a try for myself.   Sounds like fun to me.

So, stay tuned for progress.  Is that the postman at the door?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Prof. Halembique’s second dream

Prof. Halembique stirred in his chair, let out a long exhalation, and then settled back into his chair and his dream. (Please note that this story precedes that related in the post of Feb. 10).

Jiri Almazout, the Duke of Hum, departed from his home in Douma to go hunting on a family estate at the northern frontier of the Duchy.  For a self-respecting Duke (that is to say, a man who goes to bed at night thinking it possible that he will be king by morning), Jiri was travelling as lightly as he could.  He had with him only his favourite horse, a very imposing, well-muscled and nervous animal with a gleaming back coat, his hunting steed and a small party consisting of a guest (a visiting French knight on pilgrimage to Jerusalem), a handful of apple-cheeked and enthusiastic youthful noble companions, a more sober kinsman who was a long-time member of his personal retinue, his falcon-holder, a huntsman, an equerry, an Italian cook, a small troop of mounted men at arms and crossbowmen (one can’t trust the roads with all the outlaws about these days) and two well-laden carts each pulled by four fit horses to keep the pace.  Jiri hadn’t made the substantial effort needed to go to his hunting estate in over a year, so he thought it wise to bring some creature comforts as the pantry and the wine cellar there were bound to be in sorry shape.

After one day on the road, the party encountered a man dressed in dusty clothes tending a donkey cart with a broken axel.  Sitting nearby in the shade of tree was an aged man resting on a bed of hay, while a large and healthy horse patiently munched grass by the roadside.  Even though he was working alone, the man had managed to jack up the cart with rocks and had evidently used the horse, tied to the cart, to help him lift it.  Jiri hailed the man, who bowed somewhat nervously before the Duke.  He replied “Good day my lords, please forgive us for blocking your path, we have cracked the axel on a rock”.  One of the younger nobles snickered impatiently at the man’s predicament but Jiri felt an instinctive sympathy for him.  He dismounted and asked the man his business while inspecting his horse approvingly.  The man with the cart replied quickly “M’lord, my name is Gregor Mihailovic.  I am heading to Travunia with my aged father.  He is unwell and wishes to see his old home again and to pray at his father’s church before he dies”.  Jiri approached the old man to pay his respects; propped up against the shade tree, the old man bowed his head and gestured a little awkwardly in return.  “M’lord, he murmured.  Jiri saw that despite his fraility, the old man had a large frame, big strong hands and a rock-cut jaw, he was undoubtedly a strong and impressive man in his day.  He had multiple linear scars across his face, as if he had been slashed at with a sword long ago. 

Jiri removed his riding gauntlets and stepped forward to take one side of the wheel that Gregor Mihailovic was trying to remove.  “Come on, lets get you back on your way.  My men and I can try to repair your cart”.  The young knights of the hunting party, taken by surprise by their Duke, scrambled to dismount and to take a hand with the cart.  Before long, they had lifted out the broken axel while Jiri’s huntsman, a handy fellow, began to trim a stout pine trunk to fit the wheels.  After an hour of work, the huntsman and Gregor Mihailovic succeeded in putting the cart back together again. 

“Well”, said Jiri, “I think that you should be able to get to the next village with that, if not all the way to Travunia.  Your father is an old soldier I take it?”  Gregor Mihailovic replied “Yes, M’lord, many years ago in the service of King Danilo”.  “Ah, you have been living abroad then, for forty years or so, I suppose?” asked Duke Jiri.  Gregor Mihailovic answered “Er… yes M’lord, there wasn’t much left for my father in Travunia after… um…the battle so he went abroad. We have made our living working the soil for some years now”.  Jiri reflected quickly on the wave of immigration of the adherents of the house of Muskar that had followed the Bordurian conquest and felt some pity for the pair before him.  Both he and his uncle, the old duke, had sheltered others in similar circumstances.  “Well, I bid you a safe journey though I can’t say that you will find your home when you reach your destination”.  Jiri paused a moment before remounting and pulled a small sack of coins from a pouch on his belt.  “Here, take this Gregor Mihailovic.  Your road is likely to be long and your father deserves comfort and prayers along the way.  Should your journey come to naught, present yourselves to my court at Douma.  We always have need of… good farmers in Hum”.  Jiri left the purse in the hands of the dumfounded Gregor Mihailovic who stammered his gratitude. 

The Duke spurred his horse onto the road and his entourage followed.  After a few minutes he turned to his lieutenant and asked “There is more to that man and his father than this story about simple farmers.  Tell me, Stépan, your family fled Travunia after the fall of Wastrelmir, do you know of a knight named Mihailovic who survived the last battle and went into exile?  Stépan, the dour officer, thought a moment and finally replied “My lord, Mihailovic is a common name, but there was a knight, Lazlo Mihailovic, in the retinue of Count Konstantin, the king’s cousin and one of the deposed lords of Travunia.  I believe that he survived and went into exile.  He found service in the retinue of the Duke of Zadar, I think.  Why do you believe that he was a knight my lord?”  “That mare was not bred for pulling ploughs, Stépan.  She had a curious brand on her flank, did you see it?  Like a trident or a fork I think”.  “Oh, like a claw perhaps, My lord?” replied Stépan, holding up his hand with his fingers displayed into a crooked imitation of a claw.  “Yes, that is it” replied Jiri.  “That would make some sense my lord. That is the claw of the Falcon of Travunia” said Stépan, referring to Travunia’s coat of arms.  “It was often used by the knights who held fiefdoms allotted by the Duke of Travunia, as my father did".  Jiri turned in his saddle to look again at the cart and its curious passengers but it was already out of sight. 

During their third day on the road, the Duke’s party found themselves before the town of Djordjevaro, where the Wladir River passes through a shallow gorge across which one of the river’s few bridges was built.  The bridge, originally constructed the Romans, gave Djordejvaro great strategic importance and accordingly the town had long been fortified.  Gatehouses were situated on both ends of the bridge and a keep, built of stone stained black by time and weather, loomed forebodingly over the town and the river.

Control of the town and of the bridge had originally been one of the cornerstones of the power of the Almazout family, although their official duchal seat was in the coastal town of Douma.  The Bordurian Viceroy Surov, had also noted the strategic importance of the town and appropriated it as a vice-regal domain, using it as the central military barracks and administrative centre for the province of Hum.  Jiri’s uncle, who was Duke at the time of the Bordurian invasion, did not have the power to resist this appropriation and counted himself lucky to have avoided being deposed and dispossessed as had been his neighbour Dukes.  Nevertheless, the expansion of the governor’s powers at the expense of his own grated at Jiri; the governor was now the chief magistrate of Hum, the chief recipient of its taxes and in control of the largest military forces there.  Jiri’s control effectively was limited to the coastal region and the northernmost edge of Hum, the destination of his present journey. To add insult to injury, the Governor was in fact technically his inferior.  He was the son of Baron Petar Nikolic , who as Baron of Djordjevaro and liege of the old Duke, had independently plotted with the Bordurians and ingratiated himself with the Viceroy to the extent he was made Count and then Governor of Hum at the Duke’s expense. Jiri recalled the old Count as a treacherous, ambitious and insolent man; he was believed by many to have been the person responsible for the ambush and disappearance of Prince Branislaw on the eve of the fall of the Muskar’s dynasty.  His son, the present Count and Governor, was an even more insufferable upstart and schemer.

Crossing the bridge, Jiri cast his eye on the fortification walls and the teams of masons and labourers who toiled on the walls amidst a dubious spider-web of scaffolding.  Jiri had received reports that fortifications were being improved but the scale of the work nevertheless surprised him.  Carts of stone were being unloaded and their contents piled at the foot of the walls.  Other carts brought quantities of lime, sawyers worked on great tree trunks, stonecutters trimmed blocks into shape.  Men wearing livery of the viceroy’s army worked as labourers under direction of masons and at deepening the dry ditch. Viewed from the south, from the river, the fortifications were high and substantial and new archery galleries on top of the gatehouse turrets gave sweeping fields of fire over the bridge.  Jiri calculated that with the improvements it would take siege works and engines to take the gatehouse; a direct assault across the bridge, previously merely extremely difficult, would now entail catastrophic losses.

Jiri and his party were challenged at the gatehouse by a swaggering Bordurian sergeant who demanded their business.  Jiri swallowed back his sudden anger at the impertinence of the soldier.  His lieutenant Stépan stepped forward replying in terms as icy as possible  “Are ye blind, man, do ye not see the standard?  Make haste to open the gate, for the Duke awaits!”.  The sentry stiffened a little when he ventured to look up and saw the duchal pennon on an upright lance, but dug in his heels.  “Pray wait a moment, my master the Castellan will wish to speak to my lords”.  He called out to a second soldier to man his post and scurried off. 

Duke Jiri passed a few more uncomfortable minutes awaiting the Castellan, during which he watched the Bordurian soldiers at their work.  They were not so very skilled labour after all, it seemed.  Jiri chuckled and then suppressed his laughter as he heard a crash of falling stones followed by a shout and a mason ripping into a clumsy soldier with a very choice selection of Syldavian curses.  The mason railed on about the uselessness of the workers and of the job itself, declaring that the old wall should be pulled down before it was built higher.  He reflected that his own uncle the previous Duke was more than somewhat dilatory in the maintenance of his fortifications.  Jiri looked more closely at the walls of the gatehouse, and now noted gaps in the mortar and long cracks running through the masonry.  Indeed, thought Jiri, the walls may be getting higher but they are not getting any stronger. 

Finally the Castellan arrived and a few more uncomfortable minutes were passed in a thorny dance of superficial courtesy and obstinate insisting on rules and rights, the Duke’s party passed through the gate and through the town.  The Duke despised travelling through Djordjevaro because the Governor made an administrative necessity of making clear the extent of Bordurian power within his duchy.  The Castellan, appointed by the Governor, was an old Bordurian soldier, smug in his office, massively solid and squat like a old tree stump, just as intransigent and rotten on the inside.  It could have been worse however, if the Governor had been there.  Finally clearing the gate on the other side of the town, Jiri swore the air grew fresher.  He looked backed at the black-stained tower of the keep and noted that on this side of town, the walls were being left untouched, as they had been for years. 

A hour beyond Djordjevaro, the party turned west off the main road and crested a high hill, suddenly gaining a sweeping view of the long range of mountains which stretched rampart-like several kilometres off to the west, marking the northern frontier of the duchy.  The valley bottom and mountain slopes were forested, with isolated fields clustered about dispersed villages the only obvious signs of habitation.  Jiri could see however the clearing where his hunting lodge was built and even a plume of smoke which showed the place had been prepared to receive him.  Jiri began to long for a meal and a chance to think about the things he had seen on his long trip.