The Feast (3)
10/05/2015 § Leave a comment
The Doux sipped from his cup and closed his eyes, and remained so for a long moment, as if savouring the wine. Then he stood up from his seat.
“It was the third year of our campaign,” he began. “We had just won two successive battles, first on the plains of Ardein and then by the river Silfe, which is outside the city of Tanais, which is the seat of power in the Sassoin lands. The latter of our two victories was a comprehensive one, as my companions have already described in great detail.”
He paused and gave a small nod toward his generals and the scribe.
“Thiemar’s army was all but vanquished in that battle. The remaining enemy forces were scattered, and in full flight eastward. They hid themselves in the marshland in the foothills of Elde, which is one of the mountains of Athlasica we have not yet named.
“The Ninth did not pursue them into the marshes, for we did not know the terrain, and winter was nigh. Both and Patros and Dioclas urged me to continue and exterminate the remainders of our enemy before winter came. But I deemed it an unnecessary risk at the time, for Thiemar himself was believed to have been killed in that battle by the Silfe. Instead, I commanded the Ninth toward securing the areas surrounding Tanais, while Emmeric, our ally, sent out his troops to subdue settlements still loyal to his uncle.
“All of this you have already heard and know, and you have my gratitude for bearing with my repetition. Much of what followed, however, through that winter and the spring, my companions have chosen to generalize greatly—out of concern for my reputation, I think. I am indeed fortunate to have such companions.”
He smiled and looked to his companions, each of whom met his gaze with utmost seriousness.
“The report of Thiemar’s demise had been a false one. We learned this the hard way when his men raided the guard post we had set up by the marshes. Alas, our men there, sixty-seven noble souls, were slain to the last. Their corpses were found on the road close to a nearby village, limbs hacked off and arrayed to spell out a message: ‘The rightful king of the Sassoins lives on.’”
He paused, taking another sip of wine.
“The deaths of our men, while tragic and undignified, were not a great loss to the Legion. Yet Thiemar’s act, his message, proved deeply problematic for us. For the loyalty of the Sassion people, as was already discussed, was well and truly split between Thiemar and Emmeric. Well and truly split, that is, before we were brought into this conflict. The underlining difficulty in our Sassoin campaign, then, had always been the… unease, to put it mildly, our involvement inspired in even the most staunch supporters of Emmeric. He had brought us, outsiders, into a civil war; that was something that could be construed as a sign of weakness, and indeed his enemies made a meal of it. A puppet king, they called him, a sycophant to the Ilmarens. This was the very reason Thiemar had been able to sustain the war for three years, though he never once won a serious victory against us: he had no difficulty at all finding men to replenish his ranks.
“But the victory at Silfe, as I have said before, was comprehensive. It was the end of the war—or it should have been. We had just crushed the usurper’s army and scattered what remained of it to the wilds; the words of our victory and Thiemar’s death were spreading, and cities and towns once loyal to the usurper were swearing allegiance to Emmeric as the true and rightful king of the Sassoins. I, along with everyone, believed that the war had ended. The Ninth was to remain in the Sassion lands only until spring, to help maintain order while Emmeric established his rule.
“Yet the massacre of our men at the guard post had changed all that. Though we tried to contain it, the gruesome message of Thiemar’s survival spread throughout the lands quicker than anyone could have anticipated. The rightful king of the Sassoins is still fighting for his people against the Ilmaren oppressors! He has built a mighty fort in the marshes below Elde, and has need of strong and true Sassoin arms! By winter’s end, young Sassion men were flocking to the marshes in droves, like locusts. We erected more guard posts along the marsh border and had Emmeric’s troops patrol the roads, but it was of no use. Once again, Thiemar had an army at his disposal.”
He sighed, slowly shaking his head.
“Would that I had listened to my generals! Instead, the Ninth now faced an enemy who would not engage us in open battle. Night raids, sabotage, assassinations and skirmishes along the borders… It seemed Thiemar had learned his lesson; he was waging a different kind of war now. We, the Ninth, began to suffer. Not the agony of a mortal blow or some ghastly disease—but that of a man dying slowly from a multitude of small cuts, a pool of blood drop by drop gathering at his feet. Morale was low, low enough for deserters to become a matter of concern.
“By then it had become abundantly clear: this war could not end until Thiemar was well and truly dead. Yet the usurper remained in his marsh fortress, whose location proved most elusive. I called on our Sassion allies to help take the fight to Thiemar in the marshes, but the young king was fully occupied with keeping his people in check, and would not leave his capital or divert troops from it for fear of revolt. He wrote to inform me that the Ninth had to contend by itself—and that time, evidently, was not on our side.”