The Feast (4)

10/06/2015 § Leave a comment

“Ah, I can see that you’re beginning to appreciate the essence of the problem I faced: the situation compelled me to hunt down Thiemar, yet I could hardly order an army into the marshland without knowing the location of his fort. And I could not learn the location of his fort, for every scouting party I sent out to look for it went missing or turned up dead.

“It was, in short, a bad situation. We had to draw the fox out its hole, as it were. But how? I began to think, insofar as it was possible of me, like my enemy. I wanted to understand his motives. What did this man desire? A kinslayer, oathbreaker, usurper—what had spurred him to these deeds? Above all else, what leaping horse led the chariot of his soul?”

He looked around the room, as if waiting for an answer.

“Ambition,” someone spoke from one of the low tables, a woolmaker, in a hushed voice.

“Indeed,” the Doux nodded at the man, who turned his face downward in awe. “He wanted to rule over his people, though he hardly knew the meaning of kingship, judging from the atrocities he committed to gain it. He hated us, the Ilmarens, the Ninth, because we had spoiled his ambition by joining the war. And yet, it was fighting against us that gave him support among the Sassoins now, wherein lay his final hope.

“So, I asked myself: if I were such a man as Thiemar, for what prize would I risk leaving the safety of my secret fortress? It would have to be a grand prize, would it not? Something that would help me recapture the throne which rightfully belonged to me, and see my enemies utterly vanquished. Perhaps, ah, a chance to slay my chiefest foe? Felling the Ilmaren Doux would certainly rally all the Sassoins to my cause, yes, and see that my weakling nephew has his head cut off.”

The Doux paused and held out his cup, which was refilled promptly with wine. As he mixed it with water and took a sip, an uncomfortable silence settled in the room. Many shifted in their seats.

“I organized a force of two hundred cavalrymen, all of them volunteers, to hunt down Thiemar’s warbands raiding our supply caravans near the marsh. I led them personally, of course. I had to be seen, and known. That was crucial to the plan. I left Patros and Dioclas in charge of our main forces, which were split into two camps near our forts. If Thiemar came for me, I would dispatch a rider to the closest camp for reinforcement, while the other mobilized to cut off Thiemar’s passage back into the marshes.

“Yes, it was a folly, a measure born out of both frustration and desperation. There was no guarantee that Thiemar himself would show; and if he did show, a force of two hundred would then have to hold against a determined and ready foe, likely outnumbering us greatly, until Patros or Dioclas arrived with reinforcement.”

He looked at his generals and smiled a taut smile.

“They vehemently opposed the plan, of course. As did Genon. And once again, I proved myself deaf to the wisdom of their experience. Truth be told, I saw no other course of action at the time. It seemed worth trying, at least.

“So, after three weeks of riding and chasing small warbands in the ravaged countryside, Thiemar finally came. He, as it turned out, had been just as desperate and frustrated, and eager to end the war, as I. We later saw that his “fort” had been little more than a pigsty filled with starving and diseased men. But I digress.

“We met and chased a warband from north to south, much as we had done before, and then saw six hundred men lying in wait in a ruined barley field. Most of them were on foot, of course, but they had come prepared with hooks and scythes to maim our horses.

“A wall of spears marched toward us from the center, with hooks, scythes, and axes folding upon us from the flanks. We charged their left flank again and again, doing serious damage but losing men and horses each time. Soon we found ourselves surrounded with no room left to maneuver as a formation. We were forced to engage them in melee. The battle turned truly bloody, then.

“You must understand that all the soldiers at my side that day were volunteers—they had understood my plan and accepted the risks inherent in it, even the folly of it. These were loyal men, brave men, true sons of the Empire. They fought like lions.”

Saying this, the Doux looked at Markos and nodded, who met his gaze with an expression at once sad and proud.

“But defeat loomed over us. It seemed inevitable. The battle had begun at high noon under clear blue sky, and now it was almost evening, and still there was no sign of reinforcement on the horizon—we learned later that Diolcas had been delayed, by a small warband that Thiemar had left behind just for that purpose.

“Most of our men were fighting on foot by then, as was I. I had been fighting with my guards, who had formed a ring around me, but it was breached, and at some point I became separated. In every direction I looked, there was only chaos and carnage. I fought and slew a foe who came at me with an axe—a boy, barely of age. He collapsed on me as he fell, and though he was small, his weight on me was like a mountain. I was so exhausted I could not move, though I saw more of our enemies head my way.

“So there lying, on a barley field in Sassion lands, listening to the dying gurgles of a young peasant boy, I prepared my soul for death. I prayed to God. I prayed for the souls of my men. I prayed for my uncle the Emperor.”

“But even as I reached for Peace-in-Death, someone leapt in front of me and defended me against Thiemar’s soldiers, who soon lay around me as corpses. Then I saw who it was that had rescued me, now lifting me up from under the dead: a bloody figure, soaked in crimson from head to toe—a frightful sight. His features were unrecognizable, and I thought him a demon at first, till I saw the rosary around his neck. He stood me up to my feet and took my cloak and helm, and donning them himself, said to me, “Forgive me, my lord. But you will not perish this day.””

He turned and nodded to Damaion. “That was your son, magistrate. Young Markos led me through a sea of enemies back to my guards, rallying our men as we went, shouting my name, and felling any foe who dare stood in our way. And so, in no small part due to your son’s valour, we held against Theimar’s onslaught till Dioclas arrived with his men at last. There were less than fifty of us left standing, when our enemies fled from the field.”

So ending his tale, the Doux stood up and raised his cup. “To brave Markos,” he said, and drank deeply. Others raised their cups and followed suit. When they were done, the Doux raised his cup again, and said, this time tipping the cup and pouring the wine onto the floor: “To the fallen, everlasting peace.”

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