Lord Hector the Usurper Duke
Castle Ember, Duchy of Masov
14th of Ravin, Cycle 1000 Post Sundering
Lord Hector considered the map for a long while before he slowly removed the last yellow peg from the hole near Lower Debber and replaced it with a red one. With the loss of Lower Debber to Lady Katarina’s forces, he had no garrisons remaining in the south. Not that I believed I could keep it, he admitted to himself, but I hoped it would at least occupy some of Katarina’s forces over the winter.
The town’s militia had some loyalty to him, seeing as his father, the late and unlamented Lord Mikhel, had called the town home. Moreover, he’d exempted them from much of the wartime taxes elsewhere in the Duchy, mostly because they had provided their taxes in quality steel that his smiths turned into weapons and armor. Now that steel would go to Katarina’s forces. The garrison had fallen to a mix of sabotage and diplomacy, from the little he had heard.
That left him with just handful of notionally loyal mercenary bands in the south, most of them little more than bandits at this point. Covle Darkbit’s force was the largest, yet Hector felt little trust for the man. The rumors passed along by his informants made it clear that while Darkbit hurt Katarina’s forces, they had utterly alienated the general populace.
I wish I had listened to Kerrel and executed him, Hector thought, at least then there would be less blood on my hands. The weight of his mercenary’s actions had grown upon him. It was one thing to sack an Armen raid camp… it was quite another to hear the reports of this or that village burned to the ground, its people turned out into the coming winter.
And not all of them at Covle Darkbit’s hand, Hector thought with resignation. There were red pegs in other locations than the south. Most, if not all, were isolated by his own forces, but some would hold out the winter and he knew that his forces would be too dispersed to defeat them all and still guard the south against the army that Katarina would field in the spring.
This had all spiraled out of control and Hector knew exactly whose fault that was. At least he had savaged the Armen enough that they shouldn’t be able to come south in force. If nothing else, they would have to overcome his forces on the Lonely Isle first, who would have the entire winter to fortify and ready themselves.
While the Armen could bypass the island, their raiding sloops would be low on supplies and their fighting men would need days or even weeks to regain their feet after such a long ocean journey on their light vessels. Odds were, whatever Armen were desperate enough for such a journey wouldn’t be in any condition to be a real threat.
Still, he thought musingly, some will probably try it. His last messages from his spies in the north had reported the winter infighting to be particularly brutal. It sounded as if Tarjak Rusk had begun an attempt to unify the Semat Armen, much as Marka Pall had unified the Solak. If that were the case, Hector could expect a number of raiding parties from those forced out, made up of the desperate survivors. In a cycle or two, Tarjak Rusk would probably come south in force, backed by a larger, more cohesive army. I can only hope that bastard Tarjak comes within reach of my blade, Hector thought. He would have to plan for that… assuming he could survive the civil war in his own lands, of course.
Hector turned to face the woman who had stood silent as he pondered the map. “No words of wisdom? No criticism of my tactics?” He saw her lips go flat in disapproval and he restrained a sigh. The barbed comment had been out of line. Despite Commander Kerrel Flamehair’s stated disapproval of his tactics, she had backed him in every way that mattered. Furthermore, she’d nearly been killed by Grel the Hound, who had proven to be an agent, witting or otherwise, of a sorcerer.
At least I can thank Katarina’s forces for dealing with that particular monster, Hector thought with some minor relief. The mercenary had been his tool for dealing with the least pleasant of tasks. He had become a monster somewhere along the way and Hector had simply used him as a blunt instrument, to smash his foes and create fear.
“I’m sorry,” Hector said to Kerrel. “That was out of line.” He sighed as he stared at the map of the Duchy… and considered the areas where he didn’t know enough to put a peg. “What do you think about Countess Darkriver?” Hector asked.
Kerrel sighed, “I would say that holding two companies of hers as hostage to her good behavior would be enough, but I’m not certain anymore.” She shrugged, “She has no way to contact them, not since you locked down on passage to and from the Lonely Isle, but she’s a hard one to read.”
Hector nodded, “And she’s capable enough of risking her people. If she thinks signing on with Katarina will swing this civil war to a close before I can have her people killed in response… or that I would hesitate to do so, then she might do it.”
“Would you kill them?” Kerrel asked
Hector sighed, “To set an example? I wouldn’t hesitate. I know you trained with them, I know you served with them. Andoral’s black balls, I know they saved my ass when the Vendakar mercenaries betrayed me… but if they turn to Katarina’s side I will have their officers executed and their enlisted men hung.” Hector shrugged, “I cannot allow any of my men to think that I will tolerate rebellion… or that I won’t punish disloyalty.”
“And Covle Darkbit?” Kerrel asked in an echo of Hector’s earlier thoughts.
“I should have strung him up,” Hector shrugged. “But now he’s the only commander left south of here. Which means when the spring comes, I’ll have to move my forces north.”
“You’re abandoning Castle Ember?” Kerrel asked in surprise.
Hector sighed, “Not entirely. I’ll leave a small garrison, enough to hold it against anything but a full out attack and possibly even then since the rebels will have little experience in siege craft.” Castle Ember was the Ducal Seat. The stone walls around them had seen thousands of cycles of history and legends said that the first Starborn to arrive in the Duchy had helped to design the fortress. It was the cultural and symbolic center of the Duchy as well as one of the strongest fortifications in the known world. Yet so was the Ryftguard, Hector thought, and Katarina took it away from me.
Hector stared down at the floor beneath his feet. In truth, it pained him to abandon the place. It went beyond its symbolic value. This was the place he had been raised… and it was where he had risen to power, over the cooling body of his aunt and uncle. To abandon it now felt as if he had them killed for no reason, that his rise to power had already been undone.
Kerrel didn’t seem to have an answer to that. Hector waited though, and soon enough she asked the question that he knew was on her mind. “Have you considered another attempt at peace?”
“I think that between them, Grel and Darkbit thoroughly destroyed all chances of that,” Hector responded. During the talks at the Ryftguard, the two had attempted to seize the gates and someone, presumably Grel, had stabbed Kerrel. In the process, they had destroyed any credibility that Hector might have. Worse, they had then attacked the rebellious city of Zielona Gora which backfired in the destruction of most of Covle Darkbit’s forces and Grel’s death.
“I’ve met Katarina,” Kerrel said. “She doesn’t want a civil war any more than you do. Maybe if you send me…”
Hector shook his head, “At this point, winter has closed most of the roads. You’d have to travel in strength, carry all your supplies in… you’d need an army to pack everything in and you would look like an invading army. No, if we do something like that, it will have to wait for spring.”
Kerrel nodded, though he could tell from her expression she didn’t like to leave it for so long. Still, she hadn’t read some of his reports. Even now in late fall, there were rumors of heavy snows and bitter cold. Those storms had driven normal people down out of the mountains… but it also sounded as if the Norics had been driven down out of the peaks… along with some of the sorcerous spawn from around Black Mountain. Even assuming the rebels didn’t attack her, she still might have a serious fight on her journey, and Hector wasn’t about to put her to pointless risk as the only field commander he trusted in the south. Especially not since I nearly lost her already, he thought.
The long seasons of Eoriel were both blessing and curse. While he had accomplished so much in the long spring and summer, with how the weather had come in so suddenly in the southern highlands, he had lost four months of the fall and would lose all six months of the winter. Even assuming that spring broke early, he would lose ten months, ten long months in which Lady Katarina’s people would have to plan and prepare for a spring campaign. And though winter had closed down the roads to large forces, the southerners knew how to handle those heavy snowfalls better. Their towns were designed with interconnected homes and steep roofs to shed snow. Their people knew how to travel with snowshoes, pack-sleds, and skis, while many of his mercenaries and recruits from the lowlands had less experience with such heavy snow.
Hector had two companies from the fallen Duchy of Taral, but he didn’t want to feed them into the borderlands that had become such a charnel house.
Besides, he had some doubts over their loyalty in fighting the southerners. While it was true that most of the mercenary companies from Taral had few ties, it wasn’t inconceivable that they might feel some sympathy or even camaraderie with the southerners, being high country folk themselves. Even if they didn’t change sides, they might well desert if given a free route through the Ryftguard and back to their homeland.
“If you’re withdrawing, when do you plan to march?” Kerrel asked, even as she moved up to look at the map. Once again, her odd mix of strength and beauty struck Hector. Her bright red hair matched her fierce temper, the powerful muscles and her lean frame told of her toughness, yet still held more than enough feminine curves to make his blood stir.
“In the next couple weeks,” Hector said. “My quartermasters are still reviewing their plans. I’ll need to crush a couple of the rebel outbreaks here in the south to cow any chances at a general uprising. His gaze went to a red peg at Castle Redcoast. He had not expected the jolly Baron of Redcoast to rebel. The man had seemed far too comfortable in the enjoyment of good food and his barony’s fine table wines. Yet rebel he had… and as the only lands to do so, he was a marked threat. If the rebels somehow linked up with him, or worse, he somehow forged an alliance with the Grand Duchy of Boir, Hector would find his forces flanked and any defense almost impossible. “We’ll march as soon as the logistics is sorted out.”
She nodded, “Well, then, my Lord, I’ll go and check on my command’s preparations.”
He winced at her chill tone, but he nodded to her in dismissal.
As she stepped out of his conference room, his gaze went again to the red pegs on his map. It would be a long winter.